Someone was pinching my toe and saying "Wake up! Wake up!" I roared back to consciousness in a terrified rush, my eyes opening on the unfamiliar room streaming with sunshine. A woman I didn't know was standing at the foot of the bed.
"Who the hell are you?" I was irritated, but not scared. She didn't look dangerous. She was about my age, and she was very tan. Her chestnut hair was short, her eyes a bright blue, and she was wearing khaki shorts and a white shirt that hung open over a coral tank top. She was rushing the season a little.
"I'm Amelia Broadway. I own the building."
"Why are you in here waking me up?"
"I heard Cataliades in the courtyard last night, and I figured he'd brought you back to clean out Hadley's apartment. I wanted to talk to you."
"And you couldn't wait until I woke up? And you used a key to get in, instead of ringing the doorbell? What's wrong with you?"
She was definitely startled. For the first time, Amelia Broadway looked as if she realized she could have handled the situation better. "Well, see, I've been worried," she said in a subdued way.
"Yeah? Me, too," I said. "Join the club. I'm plenty worried right now. Now get out of here and wait for me in the living room, okay?"
"Sure," she said. "I can do that."
I let my heart rate get back to normal before I slid out of bed. Then I made the bed quickly and pulled some clothes out of my bag. I shuffled into the bathroom, catching a quick glimpse of my uninvited guest as I went from bedroom to bath. She was dusting the living room with a cloth that looked suspiciously like a man's flannel shirt. O-kay.
I showered as quickly as I could, slapped on a little makeup, and came out barefoot but clad in jeans and a blue T-shirt.
Amelia Broadway stopped her housecleaning and stared at me. "You don't look a thing like Hadley," she said, and I couldn't decide by her tone if she thought that was a good thing or a bad thing.
"I'm not at all like Hadley, all the way through," I said flatly.
"Well, that's good. Hadley was pretty awful," Amelia said unexpectedly. "Whoops. Sorry, I'm not tactful."
"Really?" I tried to keep my voice level, but a trace of sarcasm may have leaked through. "So if you know where the coffee is, can you point me in that direction?" I was looking at the kitchen area for the first time in the daylight. It had exposed brick and copper, a stainless steel food preparation area and a matching refrigerator, and a sink with a faucet that cost more than my clothes. Small, but fancy, like the rest of the place.
All this, for a vampire who didn't really need a kitchen in the first place.
"Hadley's coffeepot is right there," Amelia said, and I spotted it. It was black and it kind of blended in. Hadley had always been a coffee freak, so I'd figured that even as a vampire she'd kept a supply of her favorite beverage. I opened the cabinet above the pot, and behold - two cans of Community Coffee and some filters. The silvery seal was intact on the first one I opened, but the second can was open and half full. I inhaled the wonderful coffee smell with quiet pleasure. It seemed amazingly fresh.
After I fixed the pot and punched a button to set it perking, I found two mugs and set them beside it. The sugar bowl was right by the pot, but when I opened it, I found only a hardened residue. I pitched the contents into the trash can, which was lined but empty. It had been cleaned out after Hadley's death. Maybe Hadley had had some powdered creamer in the refrigerator? In the South, people who don't use it constantly often keep it there.
But when I opened the gleaming stainless steel refrigerator, I found nothing but five bottles of TrueBlood.
Nothing had brought home to me so strongly the fact that my cousin Hadley had died a vamp. I'd never known anyone before and after. It was a shock. I had so many memories of Hadley, some of them happy and some of them unpleasant - but in all of those memories, my cousin was breathing and her heart was beating. I stood with my lips compressed, staring at the red bottles, until I'd recovered enough to shut the door very gently.
After a vain search in the cabinets for Cremora, I told Amelia I hoped she took her coffee black.
"Yes, that'll be fine," Amelia said primly. She was obviously trying to be on her better behavior, and I could only be grateful for that. Hadley's landlady was perched on one of Hadley's spindle-legged armchairs. The upholstery was really pretty, a yellow silky material printed with dark red and blue flowers, but I disliked the fragile style of the furniture. I like chairs that look as though they could hold big people, heavy people, without a creak or a groan. I like furniture that looks as though it won't be ruined if you spill a Coke on it, or if your dog hops up on it to take a nap. I tried to settle myself on the loveseat opposite the landlady's. Pretty, yes. Comfortable, no. Suspicion confirmed.
"So what are you, Amelia?"
"What are you?"
"Oh, a witch."
"Figured." I hadn't caught the sense of the supernatural that I get from creatures whose very cells have been changed by the nature of their being. Amelia had acquired her "otherness." "Did you do the spells to seal off the apartment?"
"Yes," she said rather proudly. She gave me a look of sheer evaluation. I had known the apartment was warded with spells; I had known she was a member of the other world, the hidden world. I might be a regular human, but I was in the know. I read all these thoughts as easily as if Amelia had spoken them to me. She was an exceptional broadcaster, as clear and clean as her complexion. "The night Hadley died, the queen's lawyer phoned me. Of course, I was asleep. He told me to shut this sucker up, that Hadley wouldn't be coming back, but the queen wanted her place kept intact for her heir. I came up and began cleaning early the next morning." She'd worn rubber gloves, too; I could see that in her mental picture of herself the morning after Hadley had died.
"You emptied the trash and made the bed?"
She looked embarrassed. "Yes, I did. I didn't realize 'intact' meant 'untouched.' Cataliades got here and let me have it. But I'm glad I got the trash out of here, anyway. It's strange, because someone went through the garbage bin that night, before I could put it out for pickup."
"I don't guess you know if they took anything?"
She cast me an incredulous look. "It's not like I inventory the trash," she said. She added, reluctantly, "It had been treated with a spell, but I don't know what the spell was for."
Okay, that wasn't good news. Amelia wasn't even admitting it to herself; she didn't want to think about the house being the target for supernatural assault. Amelia was proud because her wards had held, but she hadn't thought to ward the garbage bin.
"Oh, I got all her potted plants out and moved them down to my place for easier care, too. So if you want to take 'em back to Hole-in-the-Road with you, you're welcome."
"Bon Temps," I corrected. Amelia snorted. She had the born city dweller's contempt for small towns. "So you own this building, and you rented the upstairs to Hadley when?"
"About a year ago. She was a vamp already," Amelia said. "And she was the queen's girlfriend, had been for quite a while. So I figured it was good insurance, you know? No one's going to attack the queen's honeybun, right? And no one's going to break into her place, either."
I wanted to ask how come Amelia could afford such a nice place herself, but that was just too rude to get past my lips. "So the witch business supports you?" I asked instead, trying to sound only mildly interested.
She shrugged, but looked pleased I'd asked. Though her mother had left her a lot of money, Amelia was delighted to be self-supporting. I heard it as clearly as if she'd spoken it out loud. "Yeah, I make a living," she said, aiming for a modest tone and just missing. She'd worked hard to become a witch. She was proud of her power.
This was just like reading a book.
"If things get slow, I help out a friend who has a magic shop right off Jackson Square. I read fortunes there," she admitted. "And sometimes I do a magic tour of New Orleans for the tourists. That can be fun, and if I scare 'em enough, I get big tips. So between one thing and another, I do okay."
"You perform serious magic," I said, and she nodded happily. "For who?" I asked. "Since the regular world doesn't admit it's possible."
"The supes pay real well," she said, surprised I had to ask. I didn't really need to, but it was easier to direct her thoughts to the right information if I asked her out loud. "Vamps and Weres, especially. I mean, they don't like witches, but vamps especially want every little advantage they can gain. The rest aren't as organized." With a wave of her hand she dismissed the weaker ones of the supernatural world, the werebats and the shape-shifters and so on. She discounted the power of the other supes, which was a mistake.
"What about fairies?" I asked curiously.
"They have enough of their own magic," she said, shrugging. "They don't need me. I know someone like you might have a hard time accepting that there's a talent that's invisible and natural, one that challenges everything you were taught by your family."
I stifled a snort of disbelief. She sure didn't know anything about me. I didn't know what she and Hadley had talked about, but it hadn't been Hadley's family, for sure. When that idea crossed my mind, a bell rang in the back of my head, one that said that avenue of thought should be explored. But I put it aside to think of later. Right now, I needed to deal with Amelia Broadway.
"So you would say you have a strong supernatural ability?" I said.
I could feel her stifle the rush of pride. "I have some ability," she said modestly. "For example, I laid a stasis spell on this apartment when I couldn't finish cleaning it. And though it's been shut up for months, you don't smell anything, do you?"
That explained the lack of odor wafting from the stained towels. "And you do witchcraft for supernaturals, you read fortunes off Jackson Square, and you lead tour groups sometimes. Not exactly regular office jobs," I said.
"Right." She nodded, happy and proud.
"So you make up your own schedule," I said. I could hear the relief bouncing through Amelia's mind, relief that she didn't have to go into an office any more, though she'd done a stint at the post office for three years until she'd become a full-fledged witch.
"So will you help me clean out Hadley's apartment? I'll be glad to pay you."
"Well, sure I'll help. The sooner all her stuff is out, the sooner I can rent the place. As for your paying me, why don't we wait to see how much time I can give it? Sometimes I get, like, emergency calls." Amelia smiled at me, a smile suitable for a toothpaste ad.
"Hasn't the queen been paying the rent since Hadley passed?"
"Yeah, she has. But it's given me the creeps, thinking of Hadley's stuff up here. And there've been a couple of break-in attempts. The last one was only a couple of days ago." I gave up any pretense of smiling.
"I thought at first," Amelia burbled on, "that it might be like when someone dies and their death notice is in the paper, you get break-ins during the funeral. Course, they don't print obituaries for vampires, I guess because they're already dead or because the other vampires just don't send one to the paper... that would be interesting, to see how they handled it. Why don't you try sending in a few lines about Hadley? But you know how vamps gossip, so I guess a few people heard she was definitely dead, dead for the second time. Especially after Waldo vanished from the court. Everyone knows he didn't care for Hadley. And then, too, vamps don't have funerals. So I guess the break-in wasn't related. New Orleans does have a pretty high crime rate."
"Oh, you knew Waldo," I said, to interrupt the flow. Waldo, once the queen's favorite - not in bed, but as a lackey, I thought - had resented being supplanted by my cousin Hadley. When Hadley remained in favor with the queen for an unprecedented length of time, Waldo lured her to St. Louis Cemetery Number One with the ruse of pretending they were going to raise the spirit of Marie Laveau, the notorious voodoo queen of New Orleans. Instead, he'd killed Hadley and blamed it on the Fellowship of the Sun. Mr. Cataliades had nudged me in the right direction until I'd figured out Waldo's guilt, and the queen had given me the opportunity to execute Waldo myself - that was the queen's idea of a big favor. I'd taken a pass on that. But he was finally, definitely dead, now, just like Hadley. I shuddered.
"Well, I know him better than I want to," she said, with the frankness that seemed to be Amelia Broadway's defining characteristic. "I hear you using the past tense, though. Dare I hope that Waldo has gone to his final destination?" "You can," I said. "Dare, that is." "Oo-wee," she said happily. "My, my, my." At least I'd brightened someone's day. I could see in Amelia's thoughts how much she'd disliked the older vampire, and I didn't blame her. He'd been loathsome. Amelia was a single-minded kind of woman, which must make her a formidable witch. But right now she should have been thinking about other possibilities involving me, and she wasn't. There's a downside to being focused on a goal.
"So you want to clear out Hadley's apartment because you think your building won't be targeted any more? By these thieves who've learned that Hadley's dead?"
"Right," she said, taking a final gulp of her coffee. "I kind of like knowing someone else is here, too. Having the apartment empty just gives me the creeps. At least vampires can't leave ghosts behind."
"I didn't know that," I said. And I'd never thought about it, either.
"No vamp ghosts," Amelia said blithely. "Nary a one. Got to be human to leave a ghost behind. Hey, you want me to do a reading on you? I know, I know, it's kind of scary, but I promise, I'm good at it!" She was thinking that it would be fun to give me a touristy-type thrill, since I wouldn't be in New Orleans long; she also believed that the nicer she was to me, the quicker I'd clean out Hadley's place so she could have the use of it back.
"Sure," I said slowly. "You can do a reading, right now, if you want." This might be a good measure of how gifted a witch Amelia really was. She sure didn't bear any resemblance to the witch stereotype. Amelia looked scrubbed and glowing and healthy, like a happy suburban housewife with a Ford Explorer and an Irish setter. But quick as a wink, Amelia extricated a Tarot pack from a pocket of her cargo shorts and leaned over the coffee table to deal them out. She did this in a quick and professional way that didn't make a bit of sense to me.
After poring over the pictures for a minute, her gaze stopped roaming over the cards and fixed on the table. Her face reddened, and she closed her eyes as if she were feeling mortified. Of course, she was.
"Okay," she said at last, her voice calm and flat. "What are you?"
"I'm always making assumptions! Why don't I learn!"
"No one thinks of me as scary," I said, trying to sound gentle, and she winced.
"Well, I won't make that mistake again," she said. "You did seem more knowledgeable about supes than the ordinary person."
"And learning more every day." Even to myself, my voice sounded grim.
"Now I'll have to tell my advisor that I blew it," my landlady said. She looked as gloomy as it was possible for her to look. Not very.
"You have a... mentor?"
"Yeah, an older witch who kind of monitors our progress the first three years of being a professional."
"How do you know when you're a professional?"
"Oh, you have to pass the exam," Amelia explained, getting to her feet and going over to the sink. In a New York minute, she had washed the coffeepot and the filter apparatus, put them neatly in the drainer, and wiped out the sink.
"So we'll start packing up stuff tomorrow?" I said.
"What's wrong with right now?"
"I'd like to go through Hadley's things by myself, first," I said, trying not to sound irritated.
"Oh. Well, sure you would." She tried to look as if she'd thought of that already. "And I guess you have to go over to the queen's tonight, huh?"
"I don't know."
"Oh, I'll bet they're expecting you. Was there a tall, dark, and handsome vamp out there with you last night? He sure looked familiar."
"Bill Compton," I said. "Yes, he's lived in Louisiana for years and he's done some work for the queen."
She looked at me, her clear blue eyes surprised. "Oh, I thought he knew your cousin."
"No," I said. "Thanks for getting me up so I could start work, and thanks for being willing to help me."
She was pleased that she was leaving, because I hadn't been what she'd expected, and she wanted to think about me some and make some phone calls to sisters in the craft in the Bon Temps area. "Holly Cleary," I said. "She's the one I know best."
Amelia gasped and said a shaky good-bye. She left as unexpectedly as she'd arrived.
I felt old all of a sudden. I'd just been showing off, and I'd reduced a confident, happy young witch to an anxious woman in the space of an hour.
But as I got out a pad and pencil - right where they should be, in the drawer closest to the telephone - to figure out my plan of action, I consoled myself with the thought that Amelia had needed the mental slap in the face pretty badly. If it hadn't come from me, it might have come from someone who actually meant her harm.