Chapter 8: Vengeful Spirits

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Chapter 8

The beautiful old Vieux Carré home rose up and kissed the sky, the horizon awash with the warm watercolor of the setting sun. Its pleasing features calmed my fevered nerves, and I admired the cool gray exterior, the sharp black shutters, the wrought-iron terrace so typical of the region, and the arching white windows that added the final touch of elegance. A smile tugged at the corners of my mouth, but it evaporated the moment I turned to pay the cab driver, and found him crossing himself feverishly, his eyes fixed upon the building before us, as nervous and superstitious as Stoker's Johann on Walpurgisnacht.

I, unlike the stubborn, idiotic Mr. Harker, would heed the carriage driver's warnings. Munching my lip, mimicking my father's habit, I crossed the cobblestone street and climbed the wide white steps to the French doors and rang the bell, my hand unconsciously squeezing my purse and the contraband within.

A young Creole maid answered, and her appearance shocked me -- I had never seen a domestic look so overworked, exhausted, and wan. She might have been pretty of her dark eyes were not ringed with puffy circles and her cheeks so gaunt. "Miss Austerlitz?" she questioned, hesitant.

"Yes," I confirmed.

She cast her eyes to the heavens in thanks and emitted a small sigh. "Here," she whispered, and pressed a furtive metal object into my palm before admitting me into the lavish foyer. It was a key. I slipped it into my handbag without a word as she led me to the parlor where my hosts waited.

Mrs. Delacroix was a slim woman a few years older than I, with dark hair and eyes and the inborn elegance of the old French and Spanish families of Bon Orleans. Her husband was her senior, with ashen hair, gray mixing with black. I was immediately stricken with their appearance -- both seemed as haggard and tired as their poor maid, though they lounged on beautiful antique furniture, surrounded by expensive paintings and baubles, all done in the French style.

They rose when I entered, and Mrs. Delacroix kissed my cheeks in the European fashion. "Miss Austerlitz!" she attempted to force her voice into a chipper utterance of bright welcome, but it didn't quite fit the mold. "Welcome, welcome. We were so pleased to receive your card. Your father is a great friend of my husband's."

"How is old Simon, my dear?" Mr. Delacroix asked, settling back down into his chair as his wife and I smoothed our skirts over the sofa's rich purple cushions. He reached over to a small end table and picked up his glass of bourbon. It was no doubt the finest money could buy. My mouth moistened at the thought.

"He is... well," I sprinkled a pinch of lies over my truth. "We are all still in some... difficulty."

"Oh yes, we heard about your lovely sister's unfortunate passing," Mrs. Delacroix murmured, patting my hand over my black glove. "So tragic. I'm sure her betrothed Mr. Howard was absolutely crushed."

Anger made my nostrils flare for a moment before I checked myself. The thought that Gordon of all people would be crushed or damaged by Elma's death incensed me. He'd known her a few months. We'd suckled at the same breast. I swallowed my rancor like bitter medicine. To help my sister, I was charged with a mission, and I needed the Delacroix family to play along with the scheme. If I did not deliver on my promise, Gabriel L'Ombre would never travel to Grande Louis to investigate Austerlitz House. The gravity of this struck me and set my hands to shaking.

"We'll get by somehow," I said, hoping they would blame grief for my trembling digits and tight, unflattering voice.

"I suppose a trip to our beautiful city is just the thing to ease one's mind, at least for a time. Let me provide refreshment. Isabel!" A few uncomfortable moments passed as the door to the parlor did not move. Mrs. Delacroix sat up on the couch, arching her back and neck and pressing her hands into a small white bundle. "ISABEL!"

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