It’s been six years since Katrina destroyed most of New Orleans—and with it, the life Jude Dubuisson once knew.
Making ends meet as a street magician, Jude possesses actual magic that gives him the ability to find lost things—something he inherited from his father. But since the storm, which wreaked havoc on his powers, he’s been hiding from his abilities.
But the past always has a way of catching up, and in this case…so does Jude’s debt. When he receives a cryptic message from the fortune god of New Orleans, Dodge Renaud, he knows it’s time to pay. But a game of cards soon turns deadly, and puts more than just the players' lives on the line.
Set in a world full of gods and monsters of every kind, The City of Lost Fortunes will draw you into a fantastical mystery as Jude races against time to reveal a plot that threatens the soul of the city he calls home.
The City of Lost Fortunes is the first book in the Crescent City series, which also includes the newly-released Gather the Fortunes. Read on for an excerpt from The City of Lost Fortunes, and then download the series!
The envelope held exactly the sort of simple, cryptic message Jude had always gotten from the fortune god: a sketched map of the edge of the Garden District closest to the Quarter, specifically the nine streets named after the Muses of Greek myth. Instead of names, though, the streets on the map were labeled with the symbols of each Muse’s domain—a scroll, a frowning mask, a smiling one, a flute—with a bright red X halfway down the block between Clio and Calliope. That told him the place, and a Polaroid of the clock on the central spire of St. Louis Cathedral told him the time: midnight.
As for Jude’s other questions—the who, what, and why—he’d have to show up to find out for sure. That was Dodge’s way.
The mention of his debt, though, first sent Jude back to his apartment — once he had endured a few barrages of Regal’s vulgarity-strewn interrogation and made a strategic retreat, leaving her at St. Joe’s—so he could collect the satchel Dodge had given him long ago. Whirls and angles of protective charms were cut into the faded brown leather, and the dozens of pockets inside bulged with magics both potent and petty: amulets and grisgris pouches, vials of milky liquid and stones etched with ancient writing, and only a god knew what else, since it had already been full when Jude got it from Dodge. Back then, he’d thought that the satchel’s contents had been worth owing a god a favor. He’d craved the control over his own fate he’d believed it promised. Now, his only real hope was that Dodge would take the bag back—along with the odds and ends Jude had added to it while it was his — and call it square.
As plans went, it was a pretty shitty one. Power always had a cost, and the fine print never included a generous return policy. But it was all he had.
Twenty minutes or so of wandering around the Garden District while he consulted the crudely drawn map led Jude to a spot where no one else would stop: a cracked stretch of sidewalk and a fence overgrown with thick, clinging vines. On the other side of the fence, accumulated junk rose in a mound of mattress springs and broken chairs, half burying the sharp fins and graceful curves of an old car frame. The detritus and the overhanging foliage nearly hid the decrepit building lurking there. It was a shotgun house like most of the old homes in this part of the city, only one room wide but stretching four rooms back, the porch leading to the living room to the bedroom to the kitchen and then out again. This one was more ruin than structure.
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After giving Jude only a brief glimpse into the yard, the streetlight overhead buzzed like a huge hornet and went out, plunging everything into darkness. Jude stepped toward the fence, and a crawling sensation along his skin told him that he’d just crossed over the threshold of a magical ward. There was a shimmer in the air, and where a moment before there had been only unbroken chain-link fence, he now saw a rusted gate swinging open. Jude couldn’t help but appreciate the craftsmanship of the spell. It was similar to the shroud he’d pulled over his own apartment, but where Jude’s magic merely kept the building out of public notice, this actively pushed people away. Any random passerby would cross the street to avoid this place, without noticing that they’d done so. Even with an invitation, it had been hard to find.
As Jude entered the yard, a shape moved in the shadows, quick and low to the ground, bursting forward in a blur of wet fangs and fierce barking.
Jude spoke a single word in a language whose name he didn’t know, and the dog’s mouth snapped shut. It slumped to the ground, lowering its muzzle to the dirt. The dog whined once, let out a deep sigh, then lay still. It was large and shaggy, with the high, pointed ears of a German shepherd. Jude grinned and shook his head. Anyone or anything powerful enough to see through Dodge’s magic would be able to handle the dog—if it was only a dog—as easily as Jude had. Which meant it was really only there to jump out and scare guests as they arrived.
Because on top of everything else, Dodge was kind of a dick.
Jude dropped to one knee and scratched the beast between its ears, hoping there were no hard feelings. Even through the gloves he could sense a deep, aching loss from the creature, so he pulled away before he could feel anything more distinct. Definitely not just a dog, then.
Jude rose to his feet and stepped onto the rot-wood porch, hesitating for only a moment before reaching for the knob. The handle turned, but the door, swollen into its frame, refused to budge. Jude put his shoulder into it and went sprawling into a dark, cramped space filled with cobwebs and the musty, nose-tickling stink of mold. Inside, entropy had long been at work, leaving behind crumbling Sheetrock and exposed brick, years of grime and dust. Jude stood in a long hallway, barely able to make out the outline of a door at the far end. When he reached it, doing his best to ignore the scuttling shapes amid the debris on the floor, he saw that it had been painted, recently, with bright red paint. He pulled it open, his pulse thundering in his ears. Light spilled out into the hallway, and Jude heard the snap and rustle of cards being shuffled, the clink of ice against glass. He smelled tobacco smoke tinged with a faint hint of cinnamon.
Inside, floral wallpaper covered the walls, faded and curling at the seams. The air in the windowless room sat thick and heavy, saturated with a haze of cigar smoke. On the wall, a clock in the shape of a cat kept time, its bulging eyes and curled tail moving in sync, a motion made somehow eerie by its wide, toothy leer.
In the center of the room, a single light bulb dangled over the green felt of a poker table. Dodge sat at the far side, fat and bald and ever smiling, his spray-tanned white face flushed with too much drink. He looked every inch a New Orleans god of fortune, his twinkling eyes the crisp green of fresh-printed hundred-dollar bills, his grin fluorescent bright.
Against his better judgment, Jude stepped inside. The door closed behind him without anyone touching it. He studied the players as Dodge dealt the next hand: a fat man with long, gaunt fingers and skin the purple bruised color of a corpse; an angel, wings soft and white as powdered sugar, eyes as blank and cold as frozen milk; a middle-aged black woman wearing a straw hat tipped at a jaunty angle, a pipe clamped between her teeth; and a brownskinned man with the head of a bird, his beak curved and cruel as the blade of a scythe.
All this, and yet what inspired the most fear in Jude were the cards left face-down on the table. The empty seat at the game.
Waiting, it seemed, for him.
Jude dropped into the empty chair, leaving his cards face-down in front of him. It wasn’t like he didn’t have a choice. He could run. He could beg. He could demand to know what was happening. But none of those choices felt worth a damn. One god he could handle. Well, maybe — and probably not even then — but if it had only been Dodge, he could at least lie to himself that he had a chance. But a room full of gods?
“Fucked” didn’t begin to describe it.
Whatever Dodge had planned was going to play out the way the fortune god wanted it to play out, yet Jude felt oddly, impossibly, calm. There was peace, he realized, in surrender.
He looked around the table, at the inhuman, immortal eyes watching him. Waiting. Expectant. Anticipating his reaction like five cats with a new mouse. Would he cower? Murmur some polite obsequy? Prostrate himself in prayer?
“Who you gotta worship around here to get a drink?” Jude asked.
Laughter came from all around the table: a thumping bass drum from the fortune god; a throaty chuckle from the woman with the pipe; a dry rasp from the bird-headed god; and from the corpseskinned god, a high, tittering squeal like a car engine on its last gasp. The angel’s silence was equally unnerving.
Dodge pulled a flask from nowhere and poured some of its contents into his own cupped palm, then made a “there you go” gesture in Jude’s direction. Jude took a sip from the glass that appeared in his hand. Rum and Coke and a hint of lime, just what he’d have chosen if he’d been asked. The other gods, Jude saw, already had their various libations to hand. How long have they been waiting on me, he wondered.
“Anybody else got a last request?” Dodge asked, his voice deep and booming, excessively cheerful. He looked from face to face, his eyes sharp and shrewd. “Splendid,” he said, when no one answered. “Let’s begin.”
He set the deck down and swept up his own hand, fanning the five cards out and rearranging them as he spoke. “The game tonight is Fortunes. Nothin’s wild, everything’s open. Prosperity trumps calamity. Side bets are binding, so tally ’em up before the next hand. Last one standing takes home the big prize. Big and little blinds vary every hand, dealer’s choice.” He nodded to the god to his left, the one with the corpse’s skin. “Scarpelli, first bet’s to you.”
Scarpelli inclined his head, baring his teeth in an approximation of a smile. His yellowed incisors stretched long and sharp. Jude took another sip of his drink, to try to wash the sudden taste of blood out of his mouth. Vampire. This gets better and better. Emaciated fingers scooped bits of what looked to Jude like chips of broken china from the pile in front of him, tossed them onto the center of the table. Each had a single, stylized image carved into it. They clacked against one another like dice until they came to rest. They were teeth, Jude saw. Human teeth.
Then it was his turn.
The regard of the room full of deities fell on Jude, as implacable and severe as the Mississippi’s current. He had a pile of coins in front of him, big and colorful and stamped with a variety of images: Mardi Gras doubloons.
Jude did the only thing he could; he slid his cards forward, understanding enough of what Dodge had said to know that he didn’t know nearly enough about the game to play. “Fold,” he said. With all those godly eyes on him, the word came out strained, like the last breath squeezed from the lungs of a dying man. After what felt like hours, their heavy stares fell away from him.
“You got balls, little one,” Dodge said, chuckling and puffing on his cigar. “You ain’t even gonna look at your cards?”
Jude shrugged, tried to look like he had any damn idea what he was doing. He took another drink of his Cuba libre, a long swallow that slid down sweet and hot, a burning blossom in his stomach. They were playing some kind of poker, which meant Jude only had two hands to learn what was going on before he had to put some skin in the game. He regretted that phrase as soon as it occurred to him. In this game, it might be far too literal.
Dodge cleared his throat. “You’re up, Wings,” he said, that bright, sharp grin splitting his wide face. “You’re always up, though, ain’tcha?” The angel frowned and the vampire laughed, and the sound was like dirty nails scraping across Jude’s skin. The angel somehow managed to make pushing cards half an inch across a table look haughty.
“Wings folded!” Scarpelli said, his voice high and tremulous. He chuckled at his own joke.
“Why can’t you ever play nice?” the woman next to the angel asked. She had a heavy Caribbean accent, stretching “can’t” out so that it sounded like “haunt.”
“What’s it to you?” Scarpelli’s voice stayed soft, but there was no hiding the menace in his tone. “You think those pure hands would ever get dirty for you, Pops?”
Jude looked at the woman next to the angel and, instead of a human woman sitting before him, saw the god who rode within her: a slim, wizened old man, with furrows of smile lines crinkling his ochre skin. Pops, he thought. As in, Papa Legba, loa of the crossroads? Has to be. Wouldn’t be a party without a little voodoo.
“It seems to me all our hands are a little dirty, no?” Legba said, grinning around the pipe clenched in his teeth. Jude blinked and saw the woman once more. She traded two of her cards, seemed to like what she saw, and placed a small leather pouch among Scarpelli’s wagered teeth.
The last god Jude recognized, as any New Orleanian would have, from the Mardi Gras parade that used his name and image: Thoth, the ancient Egyptian god of scribes. He wore a Jazz Fest T-shirt, its open collar showing where his thin, feathered ibis neck tapered to human skin at the shoulders. He held his cards cupped in thick, meaty hands, his bird’s eyes moving in quick twitches behind a pair of round spectacles. He folded, as well.
Dodge flicked his own cards to the table as soon as Thoth laid down his. “Always deal myself rags,” Dodge said, chuckling.
As the gods showed their hands, Jude raised his glass to his lips, surprised to find himself holding it, his glass refilled, his face hot and numb. How much had he had already? Clever trick, that.
He stretched and set the drink down an arm’s length away, so he couldn’t pick it up without meaning to. This game would be hard enough to survive with his wits intact. He studied the cards flipped over on the table, only vaguely understanding the rules of the game. They used a tarot deck: swords and wands instead of spades and clubs, coins and cups instead of diamonds and hearts. The shapes, he had learned from listening to the card readers in the Quarter, were meant to be male and female, each suit one of the four elements. The rest of it lost him, though. He’d never paid enough attention to know what the other cards meant, what combinations would constitute a good fate or a bad one.
Legba won the first hand, the vampire won the second, and Jude kept folding, kept finding his drink in his hand. The cards were dealt a third time, and once again the gods turned their eyes to Jude, their attention like six feet of earth pressing down on him.
Jude spread the doubloons out in a fan in front of him, certain that they represented more than just money. The gods played for the highest stakes. Each one he touched sent a shock along his fingertips despite his gloves, like the snap of static electricity. He still had no idea what the cards meant, didn’t even know what he’d be wagering. Fuck it, he thought. Dodge is probably stacking the deck anyway.
He chose the coin stamped with a stylized heart and tossed it to the center of the table.
“I’m in,” he said. Then the gods were laughing, all of them, laughing. At him.
Shame and the trembling suspicion that he wasn’t as sober as he’d thought burned like ice water in his veins. Dodge rolled his cigar between his fingertips, staring at the smoldering tip, the only god not laughing.
“You made too small a wager, sweetmeats,” Scarpelli said, sadistic glee in his voice. “A heart. What would we want with a broken little thing like that?” His bloodshot gaze went from Jude to Dodge, and after a moment, he clicked his tongue. “If you don’t tell him, I’ll be delighted to.”
Dodge spoke without looking up from the contemplation of his cigar. “Too small a wager means you forfeit the choice. That’s the rule.”
The vampire tittered, something dark and violent in the sound. He splayed his gaunt fingers across the skin of his dark, blotchy face, a haunting parody of reflection. “I want your blood, of course. Every last drop.” A doubloon stamped with a raindrop of crimson rose up onto its side and rolled next to the one Jude had thrown forward.
Dodge said something that sounded like “hey,” but shorter, a mere huff of breath, and the angel’s eyes closed in contemplation. When the angel’s lips moved, the words sounded to Jude like his own voice, a shout echoing back through an empty cathedral. “The Lord demands his faith,” the angel said. Another coin made its wobbling journey across the table to join the first two.
Jude glanced down at the cards he’d left face-down on the table. Part of him wanted to laugh. The whole thing was too surreal. Everything riding on a hand of poker that didn’t make a damn bit of sense. It had to be a joke. He just couldn’t figure out whether he was the audience or the punch line.
“I’ll have his speech,” Legba said. Jude saw the loa again and not the woman he rode, his kind smile twisted and hungry. Another coin.
Thoth turned one glassy bird’s eye toward Jude, a cawing gull’s screech coming from his beak. It didn’t seem to matter that Jude didn’t know what Thoth demanded, because the table did. Jude’s final coin rolled away from him.
Dodge toyed with his cards, considering, his gaze distant. The moment drew out, and Jude no longer felt like laughing. His limbs were numb, leaden; his lungs refused to fill, like he drew breath through a straw. Sweat squeezed from every pore. He couldn’t stand to look at the gods anymore, their teeth and eyes too bright, something dark and nasty slithering in the shadows, or maybe it was the shadows themselves, shifting and pregnant with something he was unable to face.
“The first wager was enough for me,” Dodge said at last. One by one the gods put their markers on the pile of coins, covering it with a burial mound of their own wagers, teeth and feathers and scraps of paper and serpent’s scales. It felt like a hole opened in Jude’s stomach. Of course they wanted to play. He had skin in the game now, and everyone wanted a taste.
Legba laid his cards down, a nonsense poker hand of jumbled suits and tarot symbols. The other gods followed, amid appreciative murmurs or sighs of disappointment. Some of the images seemed familiar, the faces of people Jude had seen before — the cashier at the place where he made groceries, a former pro athlete who sold used cars now, the local weather guy who’d lost his shit after the storm. Dodge turned his cards over one at a time: THE QUEEN OF COINS, THE QUEEN OF SWORDS, THE HIGH PRIESTESS, THE QUEEN OF WANDS, and THE QUEEN OF CUPS— each of them wearing Regal Sloan’s face.
The vampire made a noise of disgust and flicked his own cards to the center of the table without turning them over. Between that and the fortune god’s smug grin, Jude guessed that whatever Regal’s fate was, it was a winning hand for Dodge.
Jude ran his thumb along the edge of one of his cards. He still hadn’t looked at them. What did they matter? All that mattered was what was going to happen to him next. He doubted it would be as simple as debt. Whatever these cards showed, they would decide his fate. The gods had demanded pieces of him. If they split the pot, they’d tear him apart. The best-case scenario was that one of these deities was about to own him, asshole to appetite.
Jude leaned forward, reached over his cards, and picked up his drink. “Like the song says,” he muttered, “‘drink a little poison ’fore you die.’” He drained the glass in one raw, burning swallow, let out a ragged sigh of mingled pleasure and pain, and — with a wink in Dodge’s direction — showed his hand. For a moment, he thought his vision had failed him.
They were blank.
The angel hissed like a cornered cat; Legba cursed in a language Jude didn’t know; the vampire laughed and laughed and laughed. Jude had no idea what empty cards meant, but whatever it was, it was a dead man’s hand.
He stood, staggering, fear and liquor robbing him of balance. He yanked up his satchel off the back of his chair, knocking it over onto its side, nearly followed it to the floor. The gods only watched him, waiting. He backed away, reaching for the door. They still hadn’t moved. His hand found the doorknob and twisted, felt it opening behind him, and finally he did fall, the bottom dropping out of the world.
He fell and fell into a shifting, profound darkness, a shadow that swallowed him whole.
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