Marceau smiled as his finger caressed the cursed hourglass. It looked like nothing more than a novelty Halloween decoration with two skeletal hands and yellowed, fraying rope to hold the glass bulbs in place. But he wasn’t fooled. Max wouldn’t have sent them to steal the rustic timepiece unless it was priceless.
Breaking into Thibodeaux’s stately Garden District mansion had been the easy part, despite the modern security system. Vespa was taking care of the final guards while Marceau took the greater risk.
This particular hex was a tricky one, and flickers of fiery crimson upon its cords warned Marceau a wrong move could be fatal. He knew one this complex must have cost Thibodeaux a pretty penny.
The voodoo priestess was crafty when she’d woven the hex into the threads of time itself. The very nature of the hourglass allowed for an unusual bond. Now, that he had identified the source of the curse’s strength, it was only a matter of time before he discovered its weakness. Then he could begin his favorite part, unwinding her careful construction.
Thud! The distinctive sound of a body hitting the floor preceded the creaking of the study door behind him. High heels clicked against the hardwood floor.
Marceau exhaled, then said, “I cannot concentrate with all the racket you’re making, Vespa. Find another guard to play with or better yet, sit down and be quiet.”
Vespa wore her usual black working attire, a tight black cat suit and a thigh-high pair of leather stiletto boots that fit like a second skin.
“I’m fresh out of guards, lover. I bought some time, but you’d better break this one fast. The next scanning spell is due in less than five minutes.”
Lover indeed. The thought made his flesh crawl.
Smudged lipstick framed her dangerous mouth. How many souls had she fed on tonight? Her forked tongue slid along her lower lip. Marceau often lost sleep after Vespa glutted herself during one of their jobs as if he then bore some responsibility for the twisted fate of her victims. Maximilian, his benefactor, and her boss, prized her little gift and used her macabre ability to his advantage.
Marceau said, “All the more reason for you to stop rubbing my arm. Go sit down.”
Vespa sauntered to a chair facing him, sat, and kicked, sending expensive tchotchkes clattering to the floor before propping her boots on a table.
“Oops. You think it was a real Fabergé egg?”
Marceau gave her a look. “You call that quiet?”
Vespa raised a shoulder.
“I’ll just enjoy the view, then,” she purred, looking him up and down. “Oh, do stop rolling those baby blues of yours. What type of curse have we tonight?”
Marceau placed his hands back against the grim hourglass. His eyes closed in concentration as he searched through the hex’s vibrations for a weakness.
“The hex is woven to kill anyone, besides Thibodeaux, who removes the hourglass from the curio with selfish intent.” Marceau froze as he felt a loose thread, a tiny opening into the inner workings of the curse. “Ah, here it is.”
“This part can’t be rushed, Vespa. I’m close.”
Marceau tilted his head and pushed more power into his palms.
“Got it! There’s a loophole. You can remove the particular item for a very short time as long as your intention is not to use it.”
Marceau lifted his hands from the hourglass and scanned the room. Not seeing what he needed, he turned to Vespa. “Where’s the nearest bedroom?”
Vespa’s eyes lit up. “Really, lover? I thought you’d never ask, but we are almost down to three minutes.” One eyebrow rose as her eyes trailed lower. “Better make them count.”
Working with her could be a real pain in the ass.
“Vespa. Focus. I need an item to replace the hourglass in the cabinet. Where is the nearest bedroom?”
“Just when things were getting interesting.” She slumped back in her chair. “Second door on the left. The guard in there won’t be a bother.”
Marceau rushed to the bedroom. The sentry would certainly not be a bother. His corpse lay on the floor. What remained of his flesh was little more than a dry husk covering bones. Marceau stepped over the skeleton, grabbed what he needed from the bedside table, and refused to look at the withered remains on his way out.
Back in the office, Marceau raised his hand to grab the hourglass… and hesitated.
“Two minutes until the next security spell, lover. Do pull the trigger and get us out of here,” Vespa urged.
Marceau took a deep breath. A miscalculation would be more than unpleasant because the priestess was renowned throughout the French Quarter for her savagery.
Grabbing the hourglass, he lifted it a few inches off the shelf. Power from the curse surged up his arm, contracting muscles and sending electric pulses into his chest in warning. Yet he did not release the precious item as the hex demanded; instead, Marceau removed it from the curio and willed the priestess’ hex to take hold. He fought his reflex to drop it and repeated, “I will put you back in the curio. I will put you back…”
A long night of cat burglary and hex breaking had certainly taken a toll, but last night’s challenges were child’s play compared to the danger posed by Maximilian… who as luck would have it, was due to arrive any moment.
At ridiculous o’clock in the morning, only one thing could improve Marceau’s mood. Closing his eyes, he inhaled: bold chicory coffee, powdered sugar, and fresh beignets. Perfection.
Sitting at a tiny round corner table, he scanned the green and white canopied patio again. He’d positioned his back to the wall and allowed the best angle for surveying the crowded café. In Marceau’s line of work, safety was paramount. Besides, Vespa, Max’s favorite serpentine pet, threatened to track him down and finish the seduction she’d tried last night.
Daybreak had only been a few hours earlier, but Café Du Monde was already bustling with activity. Tourists were easy to spot in their “I heart NOLA” souvenir T-shirts and colorful plastic beads. Business people hurried in and out, their attention focused on various electronics as much as their rushed breakfasts. A collection of aging regulars read newspapers and debated current affairs.
One motley group sat at a nearby table—a broad, muscled man with a handlebar mustache—a palm reader wearing the expected heavy layers of eyeliner and scarves—a street performer painted silver from head to toe. When an alluring, older woman joined them, she propped a weathered saxophone, with care, on the green chair beside her.
In any other city, a group like that would have attracted interest. In the French Quarter, their eccentricities were par for the course. They were probably heading to Jackson Square to entertain and swindle the tourists.
Max referred to the park attracting such diverse performers as Place d’Armes. Always old-fashioned, always formal, and certainly always punctual… that was Maximilian.
Another sip of coffee. This time, he let the rich, thick liquid swirl on his tongue before swallowing. Max had demanded a meeting, so Marceau insisted it be at the café, knowing Max was sure to ruin his morning. At least, he’d get breakfast out of the deal. In the meantime, Marceau endeavored to enjoy the small things. Watching normal people, humans with no ties to the supernatural, fascinated him. What would it be like to work a normal job, spend free time with friends and family, to not bear the weight of Maximilian’s cruel demands?
At a nearby table, a couple seemed unaware of the growing audience. Their coffees and beignets sat cold and untouched. They stared at each other as if entranced.
How much entertainment could that possibly provide? The girl laughed, and the boy’s eyes widened. He cupped his hand against her cheek. She leaned in.
Marceau tried to ignore them, but his eyes betrayed him again and again. One of the old men across the room had abandoned his newspaper to observe the couple, as well. He could not imagine loving someone, trusting with his heart. The vulnerability, the surrendering of one’s self to another person with no guarantees they wouldn’t turn power against you? It was absurd.
Girls seemed to like his dark hair, olive skin, and Mediterranean features. Max’s money also probably didn’t hurt the situation. His off-campus apartment and sports car were much nicer than those of his classmates. A sense of not belonging in his own life kept Marceau from making friends easily.
“Gah,” Marceau said when a high-pitched shriek jolted him from his thoughts. Everyone in the café turned and watched as two laughing boys with powdered sugar mustaches darted between the small, crowded tables as a pretty girl chased them.
Marceau looked down and quickly closed his hand to hide the blue glow radiating in his palm. A rapid scan of those nearest him provided assurance no one else had noticed. He was still on edge from last night or summoning a hex wouldn’t have been his first reaction.
Pull it together. Max was incoming. Calm, measured, control.
Taking a deep breath to center himself, Marceau visualized the immobilization hex trickling back up his arm, across his shoulder, and into his chest where his power over curses originated.
The babysitter grabbed one of the boy’s arms just as he knocked into Marceau’s table. She gaped at him a moment and her lips parted in a shy smile as she tucked a strand of hair behind her ear and said, “Sorry about that.”
The blonde’s shorts revealed tanned, nicely muscled legs. She appeared to be about twenty. Marceau was only a couple years older, yet his upbringing was such that they might as well be worlds apart.
“No worries. You’ll be busy until the sugar rush wears off those two,” Marceau responded with a wink. He reached for a napkin to wipe up the cream that had spilled across the table.
A blush flamed across the girl’s cheeks as she tugged on the hyper boy’s hand. Marceau paused to check out her assets while she walked away.
All movement in the crowded café halted, and the boy clutching the blonde’s hand froze mid-leap. A momentary hush was Marceau’s only warning before…
“Ever an observer of the mundane Master L’Argent?” asked a familiar voice.
Years of practice kicked in and without flinching, Marceau turned and raised a dark eyebrow. “Don’t you ever bore of your tired entrances?”
“I must find merriment where I can these days,” answered Maximilian, now seated at the table. He smoothed an impeccable gray pinstripe suit and twisted, attempting to settle into the café’s uncomfortable green chair.
“You could drink your coffee at a fine establishment, one befitting a young man of your wealth, Marceau, though you’d have to wear more appropriate attire.”
Marceau glanced at his jeans, sneakers, and college T-shirt, then shrugged. He’d looked out of place when he started at Tulane. Now, almost finished with a dual master’s degree, he’d learned to dress like everyone else on campus. Anything to avoid standing out in the crowd.
Max continued, “I’d certainly prefer the comfort of a leather high back chair and a good cigar at the club.”
“You know I have coffee here every morning. This café has history and the best people-watching in the city when they are allowed movement.”
Marceau gave him a pointed look. A light breeze blew through the patio, sending thin paper napkins fluttering to the ground. None of the patrons were sentient to catch them.
Maximilian shrugged. “You’ve seen how these fragile humans react to my presence if I do not halt them. These people are attuned to me from the moment they are born into this realm.”
A single nod was the only concession Marceau was willing to offer. If Maximilian did not mask himself, every human in the café would turn toward him in an almost magnetic, involuntary response. Certainly, a survival instinct buried within their subconscious would recognize him, even if they did not.
Max’s penetrating hazel eyes, square jaw, and straight, Roman nose were worthy of an old movie star, but what lay beneath was anything but attractive. He often kept his sun-streaked, dark hair long in a ponytail, a contrast to the stiff formality of his suits worthy of a 1920s Gatsby party. He looked to be in his late twenties; appearances were quite deceiving when it came to Maximilian.
Marceau broke the temporary silence. “Can we forgo the usual banter and get to the point of this meeting?” He took another drink of his cooling coffee.
“A bit testy this morning? Feeling the effects of last night’s acquisition, are we? Vespa came home pouting too. You make an excellent team. I assume you know she desires you.” Max’s face showed no emotion when he laid an ornate wooden cane across the small table.
“Vespa’s desires are irrelevant.” Marceau dared a quick glance at the cane. It was a sign of trust in Marceau that it had left Max’s palm. Today, the cane’s silver handle had morphed into a frightening mimicry of a feline face, complete with stones resembling tiger’s eyes. The grotesque figure’s lip peeled back in a snarl, revealing two long fangs.
Perhaps Max was stressed and territorial today?
Marceau’s assessment took only a second or two. He looked away and feigned disinterest, hoping Max hadn’t noticed.
With a simple twist of the handle, an eight-inch knife would spring forth from the cane’s tip, but the sharpness of the blade was not the true danger. The rare venom coating the edge made the weapon deadly to all creatures, human or otherwise.
“You already know I procured the hourglass or we wouldn’t be having this discussion.” Marceau leaned back in his chair. “You did fail to mention the trinket came attached with a rather nasty death curse.”
“True, but ‘rather nasty death curses’ are your specialty, are they not? Or did I waste a small fortune on your private tutoring? Besides, if the hourglass was not a priceless, occult instrument, Monsieur Thibodeaux would not have paid the Mambo to hex it, now would he?”
A conspiratorial smile did nothing to soften Max’s severe expression.
“Tell me, Marceau, what clever trick did you derive to break it? I’m always entertained by your ingenuity. And I am confident this curse was masterful. I heard rumors it was a six-figure job for the Voodoo priestess.”
Maximilian leaned in a little too far; his tone was also too sharp. He did not often agree to join Marceau in such a mundane location. Today, it served his purpose because he wanted answers.
“The Mambo wove the hex to kill anyone, besides Thibodeaux, who removed items from the curio for a selfish purpose.”
Marceau swigged the last of his tepid drink. He preferred to enjoy coffee in solitude. Cold coffee was uncivilized.
“And the weakness you found?” inquired Maximilian.
“A crafty little loophole, as one could remove the hourglass without perishing if the intent was to not use the power of the hourglass, only to replace it quickly.” Marceau pretended something across the café had caught his attention.
Max leaned in closer, and Marceau hid a smile while withholding further
explanation. As a boy, toying with Marceau’s emotions had been Max’s regular routine, a hobby even. More often than not, Max had left him stinging with the frustration of unanswered questions and unsatisfying exchanges. Theirs had been far from a nurturing relationship, but a slight shift had occurred as the years went by; Max taught him much, perhaps more than he’d intended. Marceau reveled when he had dominion over his benefactor, however temporary it might be.
“I thought we were foregoing our usual banter,” quipped Maximilian. He pushed his hips back in the chair as if realizing his body language had betrayed his anticipation.
With a deep breath, Marceau’s hand raised from the table in a gesture of peace. “We are, Max. My apologies.”
Proper, uptight Maximilian hated nicknames.
Marceau finally explained, “The hex utilized a delay. An option only because the object being protected was a timepiece. This allowed the curse to stay dormant long enough for a maid or unaware admirer to not drop dead, provided it was their intent to put the hexed object back in the curio expeditiously.” Leaning in, he smiled at Max. “One would hate to replace the cleaning staff each time the room needed dusting, after all.”
“Indubitably, and your solution?” Max appeared as attentive as Marceau had ever seen him.
A blue glimmer of power danced in Marceau’s eyes as he recalled the strength of the priestess’ curse. The way she wove the hex with time itself was ingenious, a technique he’d have to practice. Deriving the means to break curses was not only his specialty, but he also relished the challenge.
“The solution was a simple matter really. I obtained a clock from a spare bedroom. As I removed the hourglass, I focused on my intent to promptly return the cursed object to the cabinet. I pulled the hex from the hourglass and released it down my other arm into the cheap, wind-up alarm clock I held.”
Max’s face split into a devilish smile. “Then, you only had to place the newly hexed clock into the cabinet and close the door?” He let out a bark of unrestrained laughter. “Well done, Marceau, quite well done indeed. Can you imagine Thibodeaux’s face when he discovers a common alarm clock in place of his precious, cursed treasure?”
Max slapped his hand on Marceau’s back. He tensed, unaccustomed to being touched by his benefactor. Maximilian simply did not give quick praise. Pleased, despite himself, Marceau said, “You will find the hourglass within your vault, sir.”
Pulling a silver pocket watch from his gray tailored vest, opening it, and sighing, Max said, “Speaking of time, I must take my leave. The Nashville auction is Friday. Is your itinerary set?”
“Yes, I fly out Thursday morning. I’m booked at The Hermitage Hotel as you suggested.”
Maximilian’s eyes darkened as he clenched his gloved fist. The figure on the cane’s handle licked its lips in hunger. Longing? Max said, “Oh, and the adjacent Oak Bar prepares an exceptional martini, should you desire to imbibe in a celebratory cocktail.”
Nodding, Marceau swallowed on reflex at the unspoken threat. Win the auction at all costs. He tensed while imagining the punishment Max would serve if he had even an inkling of how important winning the book was to Marceau, or why.
The silver figure on the cane turned to Marceau and inhaled. Control the emotion. Marceau was too close to losing this chance now. Pull it together. He adjusted his collar as a diversion and forced his shoulders to relax.
Max said, “I expect you at the manor this evening. A couple of new recruits are in need of your special skill set, and I caught Lynette eying my cane again at dinner last night. I believe an attitude adjustment may be in order.”
A chill ran down Marceau’s spine. More recruits? He’d just recovered from dealing with seven new corpses last week. “If I am to be at full strength for the trip, wouldn’t it be better to lay the new cadavers to rest, Maximilian? I don’t want to risk another backlash like the one I had after your experiment with the young actress.”
“Yes, shame her spirit would not take direction. Ironic too, given her chosen field.” Max smiled and shook his head.
“I need to pack and prepare for the trip. The risk…”
“I decide what to risk, Marceau, or do you need a reminder?”
Max’s cane growled. Marceau could not help but glance. The tiger’s lip curled in a vicious snarl, a forked serpent’s tongue flicked between the fangs.
Marceau willed his gaze back to his empty cup and traced his finger around its brim.
“You can adjust your plans. I’m sure she’ll understand, whoever she is.” Max glanced at the spilled cream on the table and smiled before tossing a napkin to Marceau. “No use crying over spilled milk is the saying, is it not?”
“Yes, of course, I’ll come to the manor.” Marceau stiffened at a faint tickle on the back of his hand. He fought the urge to look. Was that foul thing licking him? He pulled his hands into his lap with as much composure as possible, but Max’s satisfied smile made him wish he’d stayed still.
“You’ll have plenty of time to recover by Friday. My needs are manageable, a couple additions to my fold and a pinch of fear-induced cooperation from my dear Lynette.”
Marceau’s shoulders relaxed as the edges of Max’s form wavered and then drifted away into a haze of smoke. Within seconds, Marceau sat alone, surrounded by a lingering odor of sulfur.
The boy clutching his babysitter’s hand slowly landed on his feet as if the air was thick. People in the café began talking and moving as normal, unaware of their previous state, or of the dangerous being who sat among them only moments before. Their sudden noise grated on Marceau’s nerves.
“Always with the grand exits, Max.”
Marceau laid a generous tip on the table. He exited and turned toward his apartment. With no way out of visiting the manor tonight, he would need all day to prepare since it was a safe bet he’d be incapacitated later.
If everything on this trip went as planned, Marceau realized today might be his last day in his beloved New Orleans. The thrill of freedom would surely cure the ache that thought caused.
What did one pack for a trip to the self-proclaimed Music City? Nashville was home to the Grand Ole Opry, legendary Honky Tonks, and countless broken dreams. And here he was without a proper cowboy hat or boots. Yeah right.
Well, that's it! I hope you've enjoyed meeting a few of the characters in Much of Madness. In Chapter 2, you get to know Seraphina and her POV in the book.