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Chapter One

The beaded curtains clicked and rattled like finger bones as I brushed them aside. Hesitating on the threshold, I waited for my eyes to adjust to the dimness beyond. The first impulse is always to slip into the infrared band but augmented perception of heat sources rarely comes in handy unless you're hunting prey. I was here hunting information.

Candles provided most of the illumination, although a lava lamp glimmered in one corner and the crystal ball at the center of the table seemed to shed a soft luminescence all its own. Tiny red eyes of burning incense glared through the dimness. Oriental rugs and tapestries vied with hand-woven god's-eyes for supremacy in the general decor. A couple of human skulls counterbalanced the effect of plaster saints and dangling rosary beads.

I stepped across the threshold. Technically, I didn't require an invitation, yet, but the appointment set by telephone would have served at any rate. I looked around, my eyes still working in the range of normal, human vision. Now that I was inside, the rest was less impressive: a step below a Jaycee's tour-the-haunted- mansion-and-your-donation-will-help-charity shtick.

"Nice," I said. "I'll bet the rubes just eat this stuff up."

"Atmosphere," said Mama Samm, "is very important in opening de gates of belief. Please," she indicated a chair, "sit down."

I sat. The chair was surprisingly comfortable. I sank down into its cushiony depths and discovered, belatedly, that it might be difficult to extricate myself in a hurry. Not that I should have to worry about busting out of a faux fortuneteller's parlor but if I had learned one thing during the past year or so of my "afterlife," it was the value of charting all potential escape routes when walking into unfamiliar territory.

And my on-the-job motto was: "Never relax."

"Relax," Mama Samm said.

She was immense. Her caftaned body seemed to fill a third of the room like a giant, glimmering white mushroom and her white turban floated above her dark features like a disembodied ghost.

"You have questions," she said. She wasn't asking.

I nodded. Opened my mouth.

"You are here on behalf of anot'er," she continued.


"A client. Someone wishes to know if I am legitimate. De real ting." She still wasn't asking.

"You've checked me out," I said, deciding to drop sixty per cent of the bluff.

She nodded.


She smiled. Her teeth were all white and even so that ruled out one ever-present concern. "You made your appointment under de name of Jon Harker. Your driver's license, social security card, in fact all of de right pieces of paper, plastic, and computer files say your name is Samuel Haim."

"Yes," I answered, interjecting just the right tone of "you've found me out."

"Even though 'Samhaim' is de ancient Celtic festival of de dead, its proper pronunciation is 'Sow-en.' So you see, Mister . . ." she paused, arching an eyebrow, " . . . Haim . . . it is not a very good pun for all de trouble dat you or someone else has gone to in leaving de proper paper trail."

I tried to say "I don't know what you're talking about" but my mouth wouldn't engage. Anyway, she was on a roll: "You come to Louziana six month ago—supposedly to open a blood bank here in Monroe. Ot'er people run it for you. You do not keep office hours and you have money.

"You live on de west bank of de Ouachita River. Big house, tree stories, lots of property, fenced and rigged with expensive security systems. You value your privacy. No record of any family. In fact, no record of any ting prior to your appearance here.

"You suffer from insomnia, rarely go out in de day, and have no personal physician. In fact, you have no life or healt' insurance. You do, however, have an interesting hobby: last mont' you opened a separate office wit' 'After Dark Investigations' stenciled on de door. Now you are here."

I shrugged. "Not much nightlife in Northeast Louisiana."

"So why come here? Nawlins has all de nightlife someone like you could want."

"New Orleans already has blood banks."

"Nawlins also has vampires," she said mildly.

I blinked. "Excuse me?"

"Owner of a blood bank, pale skin, an affectation for sunglasses, nocturnal lifestyle—some people might tink that you were a vampire, yourself."

I blinked again. "I have a medical condition that makes me allergic to sunlight. I'm highly susceptible to skin cancer."

"Of course. If you really were a vampire, you would hardly be able to roam about in de daylight. And you have been seen to roam about in de daylight on several occasions."

It didn't seem necessary to point out that this was one of them. "You have an interesting sense of humor," I said.

She dimpled without actually smiling. "Don' I? It is odd, however, dat with such a medical condition, you have not found a personal physician or done business with any pharmacy since you have moved here."

"You really have checked me out, haven't you?"

She smiled again. "I have clients, too, Mr. Haim. Your presence, here, has raised certain questions."

I felt a chill creeping up my spine. "I came here," I said, trying to keep my voice disarmingly pleasant, "thinking that I was going to be the one asking the questions."

Her smile grew more pronounced and she reached across the table. "You have a client who is wanting to know if I really am a true psychic with prescient abilities. Let me see if I can answer such questions with a personal reading of your own. Give me your hand."

Essentially I had three choices: refuse and still try to get the answers I was hired to get, get up and walk out now, or go along and risk that "Mama Samm" D'Arbonne was everything she was purported to be. The first course of action was unlikely and the second would mean that I might as well give up my newly chosen avocation and take up some less risky nocturnal pursuit.

Maybe needlepoint.

I put out my hand, the skeptic in me murmuring that a bona fide medium was about as likely as—what? An actual vampire? A real-life werewolf? Too late: Mama Samm clasped my right hand in her left. Engulfed, actually. The index finger of her right hand moved across my palm like a doodlebug on acid. "My, but you have de most interesting lifeline, Mr. Haim."

"I'll bet you say that to all the marks."

She shook her head and the white turban did a ghostly hootchy-cootchy. "No, chère, I not be funnin' wit you. According to dese lines, you already died."

"Really." My mouth loosened into a smile.

"Truly. More dan once, in fact."

"Is that so?"

She sighed. "You are about to tell me dat you have no idea as to what I am talking about. Dat you do not believe in fortune-telling."

My smile grew, showing teeth. "Maybe you really are psychic."

She closed her right hand over her left, trapping mine in-between. She squeezed. I felt a tingle, like a low voltage electric shock, and Mama Samm's head snapped back. The turban wobbled but held.

She moaned and her eyes rolled back in her head. The electric tingle intensified, crawled up my arm.

"What are you doing?" I asked. Her only response was another moan as the tingle crawled across my shoulder and up into my head. I tried to pull my hand back but it was enclosed in a grip of velvet-sheathed iron.

The current slammed home in my brain, knocking me out of the room and down a dark corridor, a tunnel not unlike the one I had traversed when I had nearly died the year before. Memories fragmented and unfolded, waltzing across my eyelids like an acid-edged kaleidoscope.

The Barn . . .    

Vlad Drakul Bassarab . . .   

The transfusion . . .    

The crash . . .    

The morgue . . .   

I cried out at the memory of two mangled bodies on the stainless-steel tables, and wrenched my hand free.

"My apologies, Mr. Cséjthe . . ."

It felt as though the temperature in the room had dropped a full ten degrees: She not only knew my real name, she had nailed the Hungarian pronunciation, "Chey-tay."

" . . . I did not know you were oungan for the Gédé." Her voice sounded strange, distant.


"Tonight you will meet Je Rouge. It will hunt you for the Ogou Bhathalah. The shadow of Ogou is long here. . . ." Her eyes had rolled back in her head, showing a disturbing amount of white. "You must seek the grail, she will be the key. The Witch of Cachtice has helped them open the fifth seal."

"What?" I gripped her two hands with my left as the fine hairs suddenly lifted on my neck and arms. "Who did you say?"

"Unless it is closed," she continued, oblivious to my question, "the sun will turn black and the moon to blood." A shudder went through her. "Stars will fall like rain and the end will come before the Appointed Time!"

"You said the Witch of Cachtice!" I stammered. "Tell me what you mean!"

"Find the Grail before the Ogou sows the wind. Find Marinette Bois-Chèche and unmask the whore of Babylon before she puts her red dress on!" She moaned and her eyes fluttered.

I stared at her, waging an internal war over which was more upsetting: revisiting the deaths of my wife and daughter or a chance reference to a monstrous ancestor nearly four hundred years in her grave. "Save the gibberish for the gullible," I said, my voice harsh with the rawness of fresh memory.

Her eyes snapped open. Refocused. Her brow furrowed. "You are angry, Mr. Haim. What did I say?"

I snorted, feeling some control of the situation pass back to me. "Some fortune teller; you want me to do your divination for you."

She stared at me for a long moment. Then: "Why don' you ask your wife to join us?"

Now I was angry. "My wife is dead."

"She must be tired of waiting in de car."

Like a flash fire, the anger was suddenly gone but a taste of ashes remained in my mouth. "I don't believe in ghosts."

"Or vampires? Or werewolves? Or legitimate psychics?" She smiled, white teeth erupting into a gleaming crescent in her dark face.

"Who are you?" I asked, rising shakily to my feet.

"Mama Samm D'Arbonne. Siddown, chère; I'm not gonna hurt you."

"What do you want?"

"De trut', Mr. Haim. De trut' is always important."

"And what do you do with the truth?"

"Depend on who it help and who it hurt. Keep it secret, mostly."


"We all have our reasons, chère. De Prince of Wallachia had his when he let you live—gave you a set of new identities and de money to lead a new existence down here in Louziana."

"And what are yours?"

"As I told you before, I have certain clients who are curious."


"About you. Who you are. What you are. Why you've come here. What you intend to do."

"And now you can tell them, right?" I moved back so that my chair was added to the furniture between us.

" 'Can tell' is not the same as 'will tell.' As I said, I keep secrets, mos'ly."


A cat jumped up on the cushioned arm of her chair unacknowledged as she nodded and repeated: "Mos'ly." The cat should have been a Chocolate-point Siamese except for one thing. . . .

"Your cat has two tails."

Mama Samm turned to consider the Siamese and it jumped into her arms. "Ah, my Taishi is usually too shy to enter dis room while a stranger is on the premises. You must have an unusual affinity for cats, Mr. Haim. It's not every day dat Shötoku Taishi presents himself so boldly." She stroked its head as it regarded me with pale blue eyes that lent intensity to its cool appraisal.

"It's not every day that one sees a cat with two tails," I said, taking another, shaky step backward.

"An interesting mutation," Mama Samm agreed. "It is extremely rare. Did you know dat de ancient legends of Japan held dat deir vampires could assume de form of a cat? De one distinguishing difference between such unnatural felines and normal cats was de Japanese vampires always had two tails."

"No kidding," I said, fumbling for the doorknob behind me.

"Mr. Cséjthe. . . ." There was something in her voice, the way she said my name, that locked my legs on the threshold. " . . . Your name is hers. . . ."

It wasn't just a chill: an entire army was conducting close order drill on top of my grave.

" . . . But de Loa say that her blood . . . is not yours."

"Who?" I could hardly get the question out again. Maybe because I didn't want to ask it in the first place.

"You know who, Mr. Cséjthe. The legacy you bestow is life. Hers is death. Marinette Bois-Chèche will haunt your dreams until you unmask her. Before she devours you."

"That's not her real name," I said stubbornly. "And if we're talking about who I think we're talking about, she died in 1614."

"You do not know her real name, you only think you do. Do not forget that she is a liar. She has always been a liar. Her true power is in those she deceives. Do not give her your power, as well."

"Your accent is slipping," I said.

"The Loa say one more thing. . . ."

"Chatty folk, these luau."

"They say this is very important. They say you must save the child twice and bury the dead three times!"

What do you say to that?

There was nothing to say to that.

I forced my feet to carry me away from the fearful quality of her voice. I was careful not to slam the door. And I tried to exhibit dignity and decorum as I walked back to my car.

Mostly I tried to not break into a panic-stricken run.

The 1950 Mercury Club Coupé crouched in Mama Samm's rutted driveway like a prehistoric panther. The chopped roofline, narrow tinted windows, and minimal chrome chasing were swallowed up in the darker than black paint job that would render it practically invisible after sunset—a state I wanted to achieve soonest. Sliding behind the wheel, I counted to seven before turning the key in the ignition and pressing the starter button.

"So what did you think?" Jenny asked as the engine growled to life.

"You know what I think," I growled in turn as I backed the car up the long, hedged drive toward the main road. "You were right there inside my head through the whole visit."

She sighed but remained invisible, sitting in the passenger's seat. "Eventually, you're going to have to break down and admit that I am not just a virus-induced hallucination. Look . . ." The passenger window rolled itself down. "How could I do that if I'm not real?"

I leaned my head against the wheel and reminded myself that I was doing nothing more than conducting an internal conversation . . . externally. "Some of the by-products of my altered brain chemistry are certain telekinetic abilities," I announced to the empty seat. "If I can transport my body along the dreampaths, I can certainly fiddle with a car window without tweaking any of my conscious brain cells."

"Car," she said as I started to back onto the main road. As I hit the brakes, a gold Dodge Stratus popped into view from around the curve.

"Doesn't prove anything," I muttered as I got turned around and headed back toward town.

"Check the answering machine when we get home, Darling. You've got a couple of calls that sound promising. They were both long distance so I think your web page is starting to pay off."

"What do you mean 'promising'?"

"The first was an invitation to investigate a purported haunting in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The second was from Kansas City, Missouri. Something about a missing mummy."

"Missing mummy?"

"Uh huh. Couple named Satterfield. Said they had a mummy that was stolen out of their house. Since owning a dead body is not exactly legal, they couldn't exactly report the crime to the authorities."

"I see," I said. "And when did this unreported crime take place?"

"About six months ago. They said they had loaned an authentic copy of the Scroll of Thoth to an acquaintance the day before their mummy disappeared. Really, Chris; you need to do a much better job of cleaning up after yourself in the future!"

"Hey, I had no idea that the scroll would even work, much less have any long-distance peripheral side-effects."

"Ignorance is no excuse," she argued. "You still have an obligation to a former client to tidy up."

I cleared my throat. "Sounds like a pretty detailed answering machine message."

"I picked up during the call," she said. "I told them I was your secretary."

"You can't do that," I said.

"Why? Because I'm only a subconscious manifestation of your deteriorating psyche?"

"Something like that. How come you're still invisible? No one can see you but me."

"I didn't want to distract you while you're driving."

"Distract me?"

"I'm not wearing any underwear."

"How could I tell?"

"I'm not wearing anything else either."

I thought about that. "You're not real."

"You certainly didn't act that way last night."

I glanced at my watch at the next intersection and decided I had time for my evening run before heading back to the office. Glancing to the right, I noticed odd bits of anatomy starting to materialize in the passenger area.

"Darling, did you know that the French term for orgasm literally means 'the little death'?"

"You're not real, Jen."

"We should be home in another twenty minutes. Then you'll have another opportunity to prove your silly little theory."

I shook my head. "You're not real," I repeated. "And I have stuff to do."

"Stuff . . ." I heard her say.

"Can't miss my workout. Sun's going down and I've got to drop some tape off at the office and review my caseload. If I don't stick to my schedule, I'll start blowing off the exercise at every little opportunity."

"Just remember that you were the one who used the phrase 'little opportunity.' "

I switched on my turn signal and began humming"Strangers in the Night."


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