Hollis grinned, despite the fact his cheek stung. He touched the burning skin and wondered if Vanessa’d left a handprint. He’d given her some on her ass before, but she’d always begged for it. She liked to top from the bottom, and he didn’t mind so much when it came to her.
But not like this. She just embarrassed herself and him acting like that. Who had time for jealousy on a night like this?
She stood at the bar’s door, tottering on her four-inch glitter platforms, trying to look bigger and badder than her five-foot frame and teased, frosted hair allowed. Behind her, the New Year’s Eve crowd on Bourbon Street left no room for escape. She stood there, her knuckles white as she clutched at her small bag covered in glitter just like her shoes.
“That’s it, Hollis,” she said. She glanced over his shoulder, waved like a maniac, and then met his gaze again. Her best friend, Trish, shoved past Hollis and grasped Vanessa’s arm.
“What did he do?” Trish asked. Vanessa didn’t even have to tell her, Hollis knew. They shared some kind of magic, twin-like psychic ability, even though Trish stood almost six feet tall, was black, and was from Chicago. “Let’s go.”
Trish dragged Vanessa out into the throng like a teacher taking charge of a bad child. She didn’t need to do that. Vanessa could take care of herself. Any woman who worked in professional sports could, and she was one of the best front-office staff the Saints had.
Beads showered down like hail from second-story balconies, and the street smelled like beer and puke. From the door of the bar, Hollis watched the two women go; they pushed along the pavement like salmon swimming upriver, until Trish’s piled-up hair—clearly visible over the crowd—disappeared down Toulouse Street.
From somewhere, the rapid pop-pop-pop
of firecrackers—or maybe gunfire—sounded. Hollis took out his cell phone and checked the time. Ten o’clock. Not even close to midnight yet. He turned to head back to the bar and order another drink. Hell, he still had two hours to find someone to kiss when the bells tolled. He felt pretty certain he could do it.
Women swam in and out of his vision as he drank and drank. He recalled trying a line on a few of them, but most turned to boyfriends or bevies of girls, laughing, and then dissolved into the crowd. His heart wasn’t really in it for some reason. Most nights he had no trouble lining up a date. The faces grew into one fluid stream, and after what seemed like hours and hours, Hollis settled his tab and headed for the street, a bit less sure on his feet than he’d felt earlier.
He shrugged on his peacoat and stopped at the door. If anything, the crowd seemed even thicker now. Music—a mix of top-forty covers, raucous jazz, and New Orleans’s own bounce—formed a wall blocking Hollis’s exit. He put his hands over his ears, cast his eyes down to the sidewalk, and scrambled away from it, turning blindly up the first cross street he came to, trying to get as far from the noise, the people, and the heartbreak that was Bourbon Street on New Year’s Eve as possible.
As he walked, he attempted to remember the last time he’d been this drunk. He couldn’t. He was always so in control, so solid. In his business, those without control didn’t last long. They drank themselves into early graves because the booze flowed so very freely.
It’s New Year’s Eve. I can let myself go a bit.
Particularly since the potential of finding a woman had vanished.
After a while he looked up. The street ahead of him lay deserted. Behind him, the melee of Bourbon throbbed like a dull headache.
A single neon sign—flickering, its buzzing just audible—marked a windowless corner bar. Locked to a lamppost outside was a bicycle rickshaw. A garish advertisement for a strip club was plastered across its side, just visible in the bar’s neon glare and the light from the waning moon.
A ride. I need a ride
. As Hollis stumbled toward the bar and the pedicab, someone exited the bar. The hinges of the old door screamed in protest, and a brief strain of Hank Williams drifted out.
Hollis stopped. Only the thin, dark strip of the one-way street separated them, but he couldn’t bring himself to cross it. He’d lost all forward momentum, his feet glued to the banquette beneath him.
He played the field. He admitted that freely. He’d intended for Vanessa to be a hot interlude tonight; he would have loved her and left her. A hookup for the holiday. He’d already had a few nights with her; she knew what she liked and had no problem telling him, and that was nice. Why the jealousy? That’s not like her. Unless…
God forbid she’d started to like him, to develop some sort of attachment.
He’d had a different fling for the office Christmas party, a third casual lay he’d taken out for Thanksgiving dinner. Halloween, Friday nights… Hell, all he did was casual.
And the women he did it with wanted it that way. They all had structured lives, worked in fields that demanded 100 percent of their control 100 percent of the time.
Except in the bedroom. There, they gave up everything to Hollis, and he showed them what joy true surrender could bring.
But none of that led to anything serious. Just…letting off steam.
And here was another girl, leaving a bar, unlocking her rickshaw, who he could fuck. Maybe she’d like her wrists tied to the bed frame, a little spanking…
He left himself for a moment, a vicious voice in his head—a very dominant voice, his sober voice—snapping at him, telling him to get it together. How could you do this to yourself? To all those women? What are you thinking?
Hollis shook his head, trying to silence the criticism. No one ever got hurt. Everyone got what he or she wanted, right? He tried to focus on his buzz and to silence the harsh, internal criticism that always seemed worse when he was intoxicated.
He watched, still unable to move, as the woman pushed the pedicab down onto the asphalt and reached up to brush her hair out of her eyes—white-blonde hair, shaggy and spiky in turns like she’d cut it herself. A tight, long-sleeved T-shirt with the pedicab company’s logo stretched across her breasts. She pushed the sleeves up, and the skin of her arms was nearly as white as the shirt.
She must be cold. The temperature had fallen into the upper forties, and a pervasive damp hung in the air. She wore faded blue jeans with a studded, black leather belt. She had a nose piercing, a single silver hoop through her septum, but no other visible tats or body modifications.
Taller than Vanessa, but thinner, she resembled a heroine from a fantasy role-playing game, something that sparked Hollis’s interest. He’d played plenty of those when younger, and even indulged in the occasional online battle these days when he couldn’t sleep. He envisioned this girl decked out in a white fur bikini, hefting a sword as long as she was tall. Maybe riding a white tiger or a polar bear or something.
Hollis’s cock twitched in his pants.
“I need a ride!” Hollis forced out.
The girl glanced across the street. Her critical gaze bored into him, and he flinched at it.
“Please,” he said. “If you could just take me…” He sat down heavily on the curb. Tears stung his eyes. Where had those come from? Great, another reason for self-loathing tonight.
He pulled his sleeve across his eyes. When was the last time I even cried?
Hollis did not make a habit of crying; he had no reason to.
He glanced up, and like a ghost she’d appeared at his feet, one slender leg extended to the pavement, the opposite one perched on the pedal of her bike. At least she wore shoes appropriate to the cold: oversize black leather combat boots, the tops tucked under the cuffs of her jeans.
“Where to?” she asked, her voice sounding like the shush of wind through palm fronds.
“That will cost you,” she said.
Hollis nodded, stood, and climbed in.
* * * *
“You’re anywhere,” the ghost girl said.
Hollis opened his eyes and took in the dirty, tagged plaster walls rising up in front of them. “Where are we?”
“St. Louis Number One,” she said. “I needed to make a delivery, and you didn’t seem particular.”
A cemetery? Hollis straightened in his seat, pulled out his phone, and checked the time: 11:45. Still not even midnight. How had the evening progressed so quickly and to such… What kind of results were these? Sitting outside a boneyard minutes away from a new year, a mystery ice maiden responsible for him? This night had put him so out of his element he didn’t feel like himself anymore.
Around them, seemingly from all sides, the pop and whiz of fireworks sounded. The big ones over the river wouldn’t start until the gumbo pot dropped on top of the Jax Brewery Building at midnight, but that didn’t keep the people in Treme from starting the celebration early. That was part of the reason he liked living there, the joie de vivre everyone possessed.
“What’s your name?” Hollis asked.
The rickshaw driver jumped off her seat and headed to the back of the bike. She opened a compartment under the seat and took out a large, insulated hamper. “Why?”
Hollis couldn’t answer that. “I’m Hollis.”
“And I’m your driver for the night. You can wait here. Don’t talk to strangers.”
She took the hamper and set it on top of the cemetery wall. Then she scaled the wall like someone in a Luc Besson film. Hollis couldn’t keep his gaze off her tight ass as she did it. He blinked. “Wait!” he said.
She perched at the top, looking down at him, appearing even more ethereal than she had earlier, like some kind of cat person. A light breeze ruffled her hair.
He climbed out of the rickshaw and went to the locked metal gate. He clambered over it, knowing he couldn’t even approach the grace the driver had. She watched him as he dropped to the other side, then alighted near him, her feet barely making a sound as she landed.
“Come on,” she said after she took the hamper down off the wall and started into the gloom of the cemetery.
Hollis followed her through the labyrinth of old, aboveground crypts and minor memorials. “What are we doing?”
“Hush,” she said.
They rounded a corner to see three people sitting in a small circle, a large flashlight in the middle like a campfire.
“What’s going on?”
The people glanced up as the driver and Hollis approached.
“I brought y’all a midnight snack,” the driver said.
“Thanks, Brun,” one of the three said.
“Your name’s Brun?”
“Short for Brunhilda, but don’t call her that,” someone else in the circle supplied.
“My grandmother named me,” Brun said, and then reached up to brush her hair out of her eyes.
“Who’s this guy?” the final speaker asked.
“Hollis, he says,” Brun told him. “A fare.”
They all nodded.
“I’m Silas. That’s Merrill and Kirby.”
Silas sat a little apart from the other two. Hollis could tell Merrill and Kirby were a couple.
To Hollis, the three resembled those typical wayfarer New Orleanians who came from Portland, Oregon, or sometimes Minneapolis. Silas wore a brown felt hat with a long feather in it, and Merrill wore clothes that looked as if they came from a Stevie Nicks yard sale. Kirby appeared normal in jeans and a thick Tulane University hoodie, but that was just as typical.
The three made room in the circle for Hollis and Brun, and Brun opened her hamper. She took out a few plastic containers of snacks and a Thermos. These were passed from person to person, each taking what he or she wanted. Hollis received the Thermos and took a big swig. He coughed. “Irish coffee?”
“Strong like I like,” Brun said and snatched the Thermos from him. She took a long gulp, the burn of the whiskey not seeming to affect her. The others didn’t appear too affected either. When the Thermos came around again, Hollis decided on a small sip instead. He didn’t know for certain how the booze would mix in his gut with everything else he’d had to drink that night, none of which had been whiskey until now.
“Any trouble yet?” Brun asked.
Silas shook his head. “Not so far. We’ve been fortunate.”
Hollis remembered the bizarre situation into which he’d inserted himself. “What are y’all doing here?”
“We belong to a preservation group,” Merrill told him. “On holidays—ones where people get drunk and do stupid things—we keep watch over her.” She tilted her chin toward a tomb lying deep in shadow a few yards down the walkway.
Hollis stood and wandered over to it. Of course.
He knew the tomb—had seen it in artwork, on the covers of books. Over and over XXX marked its pitted marble and plaster surface. Cigarette butts, burned votive candles, and empty glass hip flasks lay at its feet along with trampled and browned flowers.
The tomb of Marie Laveau, one of the most famous landmarks in all of New Orleans, and people often did stupid stuff to it.
Legend had it, if one marked the tomb with three Xs, did some silly little dance, knocked on the tomb, or called out for Marie, then left a gift, a wish would be granted.
Hollis had never believed in that type of thing, but right now, with the promise of the new year hanging in the air, the eerie girl he’d just met, and the other mistakes of the night piled up on his conscience, he felt like he needed to change something.
It was illegal to mark the tomb, but some people still did. The kind the friends he’d just made were here to ward off.
Footsteps approached on the gravel path behind him. Hollis sucked on the end of his finger and then marked his three Xs in saliva on the marble. No real damage from that, right? Besides, the ritual depended more on the faith of the practitioner than any voodoo spirit who still lingered.
“What are you doing?” Brun asked.
Hollis turned to look at her. He’d never felt this kind of attraction to a woman before. For him, attraction meant sex, and sex only. Either his cock responded or it didn’t. If it responded, he’d fuck, teach his lover a few things about herself, and move on.
But right now he couldn’t think of anything else he wanted more in the world than to have this girl, at least for tonight.
No. Not just a night.
He reached into the pocket of his peacoat. What could he leave in offering? He took out a handful of change, dropped it onto the path at his feet, and then stepped forward to meet Brun.
The heavy, deep-bass boom
of the fireworks from the river reverberated off the tombs around them.
“Happy New Year,” he said and wrapped his arms around her. He looked down into her eyes. Marie Laveau, he thought, give me this one thing.
He kissed Brun, and she tasted of coffee and whiskey. He held her cold body to his, wanting her to feel his warmth, to protect her, to make her understand. The kiss pulsed through him, lighting him up from the inside and pushing heat out to the very tips of his extremities. Winter halted then, and summer bloomed in the space around them.
Hollis had never reacted to a kiss this way. At least, not since his first insecure smooches as a teenager, when the newness of the experience had been enough to excite him.
He didn’t want to, but he finally broke the kiss and pulled away, searching her eyes for some glimmer of affection, of promise. She stepped back, her eyes wide.
Whiskey. Oh boy.
Then Hollis’s head spun, and he pitched backward as he passed out.