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Dead Ever After

Charlaine Harris



  The New Orleans businessman, whose gray hair put him in his fifties, was accompanied by his much younger and taller bodyguard/chauffeur on the night he met the devil in the French Quarter. The meeting was by prearrangement.

  "This is really the Devil we're going to see?" asked the bodyguard. He was tense - but then, that wasn't too surprising.

  "Not the Devil, but a devil. " The businessman was cool and collected on the outside, but maybe not so much on the inside. "Since he came up to me at the Chamber of Commerce banquet, I've learned a lot of things I didn't know before. " He looked around him, trying to spot the creature he'd agreed to meet. He told his bodyguard, "He convinced me that he was what he said he was. I always thought my daughter was simply deluded. I thought she imagined she had power because she wanted to have something . . . of her own. Now I'm willing to admit she has a certain talent, though nowhere near what she thinks. "

  It was cold and damp in the January night, even in New Orleans. The businessman shifted from foot to foot to keep warm. He told the bodyguard, "Evidently, meeting at a crossroads is traditional. " The street was not as busy as it would be in the summer, but there were still drinkers and tourists and natives going about their night's entertainment. He wasn't afraid, he told himself. "Ah, here he comes," the businessman said.

  The devil was a well-dressed man, much like the businessman. His tie was by Hermes. His suit was Italian. His shoes were custom-made. His eyes were abnormally clear, the whites gleaming, the irises a purplish brown; they looked almost red from certain angles.

  "What have you got for me?" the devil asked, in a voice that indicated he was only faintly interested.

  "Two souls," said the businessman. "Tyrese has agreed to go in with me. "

  The devil shifted his gaze to the bodyguard. After a moment, the bodyguard nodded. He was a big man, a light-skinned African American with bright hazel eyes.

  "Your own free will?" the devil asked neutrally. "Both of you?"

  "My own free will," said the businessman.

  "My own free will," affirmed the bodyguard.

  The devil said, "Then let's get down to business. "

  "Business" was a word that made the older man comfortable. He smiled. "Wonderful. I've got the documents right here, and they're signed. " Tyrese opened a thin leather folder and withdrew two pieces of paper: not parchment or human skin, nothing that dramatic or exotic - computer paper that the businessman's office secretary had bought at OfficeMax. Tyrese offered the papers to the devil, who gave them a quick glance.

  "You have to sign them again," the devil said. "For this signature, ink is not satisfactory. "

  "I thought you were joking about that. " The businessman frowned.

  "I never joke," the devil said. "I do have a sense of humor, oh, believe me, I do. But not about contracts. "

  "We actually have to . . . ?"

  "Sign in blood? Yes, absolutely. It's traditional. And you'll do it now. " He read the businessman's sideways glance correctly. "I promise you no one will see what you are doing," he said. As the devil spoke, a sudden hush enveloped the three men, and a thick film fell between them and the rest of the street scene.

  The businessman sighed elaborately, to show how melodramatic he thought this tradition was. "Tyrese, your knife?" he said, looking up to the chauffeur.

  Tyrese's knife appeared with shocking suddenness, probably from his coat sleeve; the blade was obviously sharp, and it gleamed in the streetlight. The businessman shucked off his coat and handed it to his companion. He unbuttoned his cuff and rolled up his sleeve. Perhaps to let the devil know how tough he was, he jabbed himself in the left arm with the knife. A sluggish trickle of blood rewarded his effort, and he looked the devil directly in the face as he accepted the quill that the devil had somehow supplied . . . even more smoothly than Tyrese had produced the knife. Dipping the quill into the trail of blood, the businessman signed his name to the top document, which the chauffeur held pressed against the leather folder.

  After he'd signed, the businessman returned the knife to the chauffeur and donned his coat. The chauffeur followed the same procedure as his employer. When he'd signed his own contract, he blew on it to dry the blood as if he'd signed with a Sharpie and the ink might smear.

  The devil smiled when the signatures were complete. The moment he did, he didn't look quite so much like a prosperous man of affairs.

  He looked too damn happy.

  "You get a signing bonus," he told the businessman. "Since you brought me another soul. By the way, how do you feel?"

  "Just like I always did," said the businessman. He buttoned up his coat. "Maybe a little angry. " He smiled suddenly, his teeth looking as sharp and gleaming as the knife had. "How are you, Tyrese?" he asked his employee.

  "A little antsy," Tyrese admitted. "But I'll be okay. "

  "You were both bad people to begin with," the devil said, without any judgment in his voice. "The souls of the innocent are sweeter. But I delight in having you. I suppose you're sticking with the usual wish list? Prosperity? The defeat of your enemies?"

  "Yes, I want those things," the businessman said with passionate sincerity. "And I have a few more requests, since I get a signing bonus. Or could I take that in cash?"

  "Oh," the devil said, smiling gently, "I don't deal in cash. I deal in favors. "

  "Can I get back to you on that?" the businessman asked after some thought. "Take a rain check?"

  The devil looked faintly interested. "You don't want an Alfa Romeo or a night with Nicole Kidman or the biggest house in the French Quarter?"

  The businessman shook his head decisively. "I'm sure something will come up that I do want, and then I'd like to have a very good chance of getting it. I was a successful man until Katrina. And after Katrina I thought I would be rich, because I own a lumber business. Everyone needed lumber. " He took a deep breath. He kept on telling his story, despite the fact that the devil looked bored. "But getting a supply line reestablished was hard. So many people didn't have money to spend because they were ruined, and there was the wait for the insurance money, for the rest. I made some mistakes, believing the fly-by-night builders would pay me on time. . . . It all ended up with my business too extended, everyone owing me, my credit stretched as thin as a condom on an elephant. Knowledge of this is getting around. " He looked down. "I'm losing the influence I had in this city. "

  Possibly the devil had known all those things, and that was why he'd approached the businessman. Clearly he was not interested in the businessman's litany of woes. "Prosperity it is, then," he said briskly. "And I look forward to your special request. Tyrese, what do you want? I have your soul, too. "

  "I don't believe in souls," Tyrese said flatly. "I don't think my boss does, either. We don't mind giving you what we don't believe we have. " He grinned at the devil, man-to-man, which was a mistake. The devil was no man.

  The devil smiled back. Tyrese's grin vanished at the sight. "What do you want?" the devil repeated. "I won't ask again. "

  "I want Gypsy Kidd. Her real name is Katy Sherboni, if you need that. She work at Bourbon Street Babes. I want her to love me the way I love her. "

  The businessman looked disappointed in his employee. "Tyrese, I wish you'd asked for something more lasting. Sex is everywhere you look in New Orleans, and girls like Gypsy are a dime a dozen. "

  "You wrong," Tyrese said. "I don't think I have a soul, but I know love is once in a lifetime. I love Gypsy. If she loves me back, I'll be a happy man. And
if you make money, boss, I'll make money. I'll have enough. I'm not greedy. "

  "I'm all about the greed," said the devil, almost gently. "You may end up wishing you'd asked for some government bonds, Tyrese. "

  The chauffeur shook his head. "I'm happy with my bargain. You give me Gypsy, the rest will be all right. I know it. "

  The devil looked at him with what seemed very much like pity, if that emotion was possible for a devil.

  "Enjoy yourselves, you hear?" he said to both of the newly soulless men. They could not tell if he was mocking them or if he was sincere. "Tyrese, you will not see me again until our final meeting. " He faced the businessman. "Sir, you and I will meet at some date in the future. Just give me a call when you're ready for your signing bonus. Here's my card. "

  The businessman took the plain white card. The only writing on it was a phone number. It was not the same number he'd called to set up the first rendezvous. "But what if it's years from now?" he said.

  "It won't be," said the devil, but his voice was farther away. The businessman looked up to see that the devil was half a block away. After seven more steps he seemed to melt into the dirty sidewalk, leaving only an impression in the cold damp air.

  The businessman and the chauffeur turned and walked hastily in the opposite direction. The chauffeur never saw this version of the devil again. The businessman didn't see him until June.


  Far away - thousands of miles away - a tall, thin man lay on a beach in Baja. He was not in one of the tourist spots where he might encounter lots of other gringos, who might recognize him. He was patronizing a dilapidated bar, really more of a hut. For a small cash payment, the proprietor would rent patrons a large towel and a beach umbrella, and send his son out to refresh your drink from time to time. As long as you kept drinking.

  Though the tall man was only sipping Coca-Cola, he was paying through the nose for it - though he didn't seem to realize that, or perhaps he didn't care. He sat on the towel, crouched in the umbrella's shade, wearing a hat and sunglasses and swim trunks. Close to him was an ancient backpack, and his flip-flops were set on the sand beside it, casting off a faint smell of hot rubber. The tall man was listening to an iPod, and his smile indicated he was very pleased with what he heard. He lifted his hat to run his fingers through his hair. It was golden blond, but there was a bit of root showing that hinted his natural color was nearly gray. Judging by his body, he was in his forties. He had a small head in relation to his broad shoulders, and he did not look like a man who was used to manual labor. He didn't look rich, either; his entire ensemble, the flip-flops and the swim trunks, the hat and the cast-aside shirt, had come from a Wal-Mart or some even cheaper dollar store.

  It didn't pay to look affluent in Baja, not with the way things were these days. It wasn't safe, gringos weren't exempt from the violence, and most tourists stayed in the established resorts, flying in and out without driving through the countryside. There were a few other expats around, mostly unattached men with an air of desperation . . . or secrecy. Their reasons for choosing such a hazardous place to live were better not discovered. Asking questions could be unhealthy.

  One of these expats, a recent arrival, came to sit close to the tall man, too close for such proximity to be an accident on a thinly populated beach. The tall man gave the unwelcome newcomer a sideways look from behind his dark glasses, which were obviously prescription. The newcomer was a man in his thirties, not tall or short, not handsome or ugly, not reedy or muscular. He was medium in all aspects, physically. This medium man had been watching the tall man for a few days, and the tall man had been sure he'd approach him sooner or later.

  The medium man had carefully selected the optimum moment. The two were sitting in a place on the beach where no one else could hear them or approach them unseen, and even with satellites in the atmosphere it was probable that no one could see them without being spotted, either. The taller man was mostly hidden under the beach umbrella. He noticed that his visitor was sitting in its shadow.

  "What are you listening to?" asked the medium man, pointing to the earbuds inserted in the tall man's ears.

  He had a faint accent; maybe a German one? From one of those European countries, anyway, thought the tall man, who was not well traveled. And the newcomer also had a remarkably unpleasant smile. It looked okay, with the upturned lips and the bared teeth, but somehow the effect was more as if an animal were exposing its teeth preparatory to biting you.

  "You a homo? I'm not interested," the tall man said. "In fact, you'll be judged with hellfire. "

  The medium man said, "I like women. Very much. Sometimes more than they want. " His smile became quite feral. And he asked again, "What are you listening to?"

  The tall man debated, staring angrily at his companion. But it had been days since he'd talked to anyone. At last, he opted for the truth. "I'm listening to a sermon," he said.

  The medium man exhibited only mild surprise. "Really? A sermon? I wouldn't have pegged you for a man of the cloth. " But his smile said otherwise. The tall man began to feel uneasy. He began to think of the gun in his backpack, less than an arm's length away. At least he'd opened the buckles when he'd put it down.

  "You're wrong, but God won't punish you for it," the tall man said calmly, his own smile genial. "I'm listening to one of my own old sermons. I spoke God's truth to the multitudes. "

  "Did no one believe you?" The medium man cocked his head curiously.

  "Many believed me. Many. I was attracting quite a following. But a girl named . . . A girl brought about my downfall. And put my wife in jail, too, in a way. "

  "Would that girl's name have been Sookie Stackhouse?" asked the medium man, removing his sunglasses to reveal remarkably pale eyes.