Within minutes—maybe even seconds, I really lost track of time—a rush of heavy treads hurrying up the steps met my ears, and thankfully, it was more than one set of feet moving. “Hurry up!” I hollered.
Then everything happened at once. Preacher burst into the room; Chaz ran in barking his head off; Seth woke up; Nyx screamed. And in one fluid motion—so fast I didn’t even see him move—my brother shoved me off of him with brutal strength, I flew hard across the room and landed against the wall, and Seth disappeared out of the already open window. The moment my body landed, I pushed up and ran toward the window. “Seth!” I called out frantically, and searched the area of cobbles below his window. Vacant. Chaz jumped up, his paws on the sill and still barking like a mad dog, and I searched up and down River Street in the waning light. “Seth!” I called again. It was no use. He was gone. And I was in sickening shock. I didn’t think beyond that; I pushed off the sill and ran for the door, screaming my brother’s name. “Seth!” No way could he have made that fall and just . . . run off. Unless he was using. Dammit! I made it ten feet before Preacher grabbed me around my waist and pulled me to a halt. “Let me go!” I said, unthinking, and pulled hard against him. He held fast, and I went nowhere. Overcome with distress, I sagged against him. My brain couldn’t make sense of anything. “What’s going on, Preacher?”
“Girl,” Preacher said gently. “Shush now.” Somewhere behind me, Nyx wept softly. He touched my chin, and I turned and searched his dark eyes. He asked me nothing, just commanded me with gentle urgency. Obviously, he knew something, since none of this seemed to be freaking him out. “You come wit me now,” he said, and headed out of the door. Nothing I looked at was the same as before. Nothing and no one. I don’t know why I felt that so fast, but I did; all from just five words spoken from the mouth of a wise Gullah root doctor. Sensations of fear, panic, anxiety, rushed me. That, and the fact that my levitating, drug-using brother had flown out of a two-story building and disappeared.
Knowing what her answer would be, I glanced at Nyx. “Will you close up for me and wait here, in case he comes back?” I asked.
“He ain’t comin’ back tonight,” Preacher said from the hall, and my stomach dropped. “It’s time now. Come,” he commanded. I drew in a deep breath and numbly followed Preacher out, trailing behind him into the afterlight.
I had absolutely no idea where we were going, but I followed Preacher with blind faith and silence, out into Savannah’s humid dusk. I almost felt like I was out of my body, invisible to everyone around me. All I could think about was my brother; all I really wanted to hear was that Seth would be okay. I doubted seriously I’d hear it right now. Preacher moved wordlessly, and he’d speak when he was damn well ready. Meanwhile, I was dying inside: I fought tears and panic. I felt like screaming at the top of my lungs. I kept my mouth closed, but my silence burned in my throat.
As we hurried along, I knew it wouldn’t do me a bit of good to ask the old conjurer where we were headed; he’d either ignore me or tell me to hush and wait till we git dere, so I simply kept up. A fair number of people were out and about as we crossed Bay Street; we hurried past a walking ghost tour heading toward the Kehoe House. People were sitting on park benches or strolling through the squares—none of them privy to the fact that something very unnatural had just occurred.
The threat of rain hung heavy in the air, and I could taste it and the ever-present brine on my tongue; no sooner had that thought crossed my mind than distant thunder rolled overhead. Shadows stretched long over the squares as lamplight fell over monuments and benches, making everything seem distorted, aberrant. Even the towering oaks seemed menacing, with long, outstretched arms reaching toward me as I passed beneath, and moss looking more like stringy witch’s hair than one of Savannah’s icons. The world around me sounded indistinct and displaced, like I was holding a seashell up to my ear. I shook off the weirdness as best as I could, and hurried along with Preacher.
We walked, nonstop and silent, all the way to Taylor Street, where the old Gullah turned right. When we hit Monterey Square, he crossed the street and stopped at the large white-brick historic three-story building on the corner. Black wrought-iron balconies on the second and third stories faced the square; the house was canopied by mammoth, moss-draped oaks—typical of the district. On the front gate hung a brass plate that read HOUSE OF DUPRÉ, 1851. Sure—the Dupré House. I’d seen it a hundred times growing up; I never knew anything about it or its inhabitants, and I couldn’t understand why or how they’d be able to help my brother, unless they were some rich, radical interventionists. Preacher, though, he had connections, and I trusted anything—and I mean anything—he deemed necessary. Maybe the Duprés were into some of the same dark African magic? I hoped to hell so.
As if Preacher had heard my thoughts, he stopped at the front step and turned to me. It was dark enough out now that I could see only the whites of his eyes, his silver hair against his ebony skin, but I knew he studied me hard. He always did. “You drink your tea dis mornin’, right?” he asked.
The odd question stunned me, but I answered. “Yes, sir.”
“You didn’t skip any mornin’s since I been gone, right?”
I knew better than to question right now. When Preacher was dead serious about something, he didn’t play around, and right now he was serious—no matter how bizarre the question was. “No, sir, I didn’t skip any mornings. I never do.” Inside, though, I was screaming What the freak do you need to know that for? I wisely kept the comment to myself.
“I know you, girl,” Preacher said softly, “and it’s killin’ you to keep dat purty mouth shut. You wanna know what it is we’re doin’ here, and how dese folk can help your brodder—I know dat much. You wanna know why your brodder was floatin’, and how he jumped and ran off. But I tell you now—don’t shoot dat mouth off in dere, even if you want to. You keep dem lips sealed tight shut, and don’t make much movement, and for God’s sake don’t hit nobody if dey put dere hands on you. What you’re gonna see and hear in dere? It won’t settle in your brain or in your heart right away, and I’m askin’ you to just accept it.” He placed a hand on my shoulder, and it was strong, warm. “Promise me dat, Riley Poe.”
If I wasn’t shaken before, I was now. I don’t think I’d ever heard my surrogate grandfather say so many words at one time in my entire life. But Preacher man would do anything for me and Seth, and that was what all this was about—Seth. “Yes, sir,” I answered quietly. Just the fact that Preacher warned me against someone putting their hands on me put my guard instantly up. He knew I had a thing about people—strangers—touching me. I had reflexes I couldn’t help. Besides. Why would anyone in the Dupré House touch me? I drew a deep breath and let it out slowly. “I promise,” I said, and hoped like hell I could keep it.
Preacher gave a single nod, then turned to the door; he didn’t have to knock or ring a bell. The moment I stepped into the porch light beside him, the double-hung slabs of solid oak and brass opened, and an older man in a pristine tailored gray suit stood in the entranceway. Tall and wiry, with close-clipped gray hair, he gave me a double take, then addressed Preacher.
“They’re waiting for you in the study, monsieur,” the man said with a vague French accent. He didn’t verbally acknowledge me, but he checked out my dragons, angel wing, and attire: a gauzy flower-print skirt that came just above my knees, a ripped white tee, black leather ankle boots, and a wide black velvet choker. “This way,” he said, and inclined his head. He started up the foyer, back ramrod straight, and turned into a room off the main floor, near the back. We followed, my heels clicking sharply against the parquet flooring, breaking a deafening silence. Antique vases, ancient oil portraits, and pristine turn-of-the-century furniture adorned what small portion of the house I could see. The moment I stepped into the room, I stiffened. No fewer than fifteen people were gathered, and all sets of eyes rested on me as we entered. Only six weren’t Gullah. A young girl, who seemed to be around the same age as Seth, stood beside an elegant, petite older woman and an older man. Immediately, my gaze scanned the room; I noticed two younger guys, around my age I guessed, and then I saw the hot guy who’d stared at me through Inksomnia’s storefront window. He stood near the back, the farthest away from me, and four big Gullah guys—I knew them all—stood around him, almost . . . shielding him. Seemingly un-bothered by it, he was propped casually against the wall, arms crossed over his chest, brown hair sideswept and falling over eyes that, even from this distance, I could tell studied me with expressionless intensity. Low-slung faded jeans with a ragged hole in the thigh, a leather belt, and a snug white tee covered a lean, well-defined body. Then I noticed his jaw, his profile, and familiarity surged through me. I stared back, slightly unhinged as another profile, in shadows as I was held against a wall, rushed over me. It was him. What the freak? But before I could demand what the hell was going on, a man’s voice pulled my attention away, effortlessly, as if I had zero control. It was smooth, French, and mesmerizing.
“Bonsoir, ma chère,” the elderly man said as he slowly rose from a wine-colored upholstered wingback chair near the hearth. His gaze locked directly onto mine as he drew closer, and I found it difficult to think of anyone or anything else except him and his voice. He moved so gracefully, it almost seemed as though he glided across the massive room. Stopping just a few feet from me, he gave a small, sophisticated bow and a warm smile. “Accueillir à la maison de Duprè.”
I stared blankly at the man, and just as I was about to tell him I had no idea what the hell he was saying, I felt Preacher’s hand move to the small of my back. I took that as a sign to keep my mouth shut.
“Oh, Gilles,” said the petite woman, also with a French accent, “in English, love.” She gave me a glance.