Street magician and demi-god, Jude Dubuisson, might have an innate ability to find lost things, but he’s doing his best to remain lost himself. Languishing on the streets of a down-but-not-out, post-Katrina New Orleans, Jude is hiding from a world of magic, monsters and gods, from his own parentage, and from a debt owed to the Fortune God of New Orleans. But when that god is murdered, Jude is drawn into a vast web of conspiracy, and towards a Poker game of biblical importance.
Such is the setup for Bryan Camp’s magical-realism mystery, The City of Lost Fortunes, which as you can tell from the excerpt below, is kind of like American Gods meets Casino Royale. Apparently, Camp began writing this novel in the back seat of his parents’ car as they were evacuating from Hurricane Katrina, and that first hand experience is reflected in its true-to-life depiction of a soggy, but not defeated New Orleans. Check it out.
In the beginning, there was the Word, and the Void, and Ice in the North and Fire in the South, and the Great Waters. A universe created in a day and a night, or billions of years, or seven days, or a cycle of creations and destructions. The waters were made to recede to reveal the land, or the land was formed from the coils of a serpent, or half of a slain ocean goddess, or the flesh and bones and skull of a giant, or a broken egg. Or an island of curdled salt appeared when the sea was churned by a spear. Or the land was carried up to the surface of the waters by a water beetle, or a muskrat, or a turtle, or two water loons. However the world was made, it teemed with life; populated by beings who evolved from a single cell, or who were molded from clay or carved out of wood or found trapped in a clam shell. They wandered up from their underworld of seven caves, or fell through a hole in the sky, or they crawled out of the insect world that lies below. All of these stories, these beginnings, are true, and yet none of them are the absolute truth; they are simultaneous in spite of paradox. The world is a house built from contradictory blueprints, less a story than it is a conversation. But it is not a world without complications. Not without conflicts. Not without seams.
One of those complications was a man named Jude Dubuisson, flesh and blood and divine all at once, who stared out at Jackson Square, at the broad white expanse of St. Louis Cathedral, at the plump, fluttering mass of pigeons, at the tidal ebb and flow of tourists on the cobblestones, and saw none of it. He was likewise deaf to his surroundings: the constant mutter of the crowd, the hooves clopping on pavement, and the hooting echo of the steamboat’s calliope coming from the river. His attention was fixed inward, on thoughts of the old life he’d done his best to forget. All those years of standing between the worlds of gods and men, of the living and the dead.
For his entire adult life, he’d straddled the seam between two worlds and brought trouble to both: a walking, breathing conflict with a fuck-you grin. That had been before the storm, though. Those memories belonged to a different man. In the six years since those fateful days in 2005, he’d tried to put it all behind him. Tried to ignore all the impossible things he knew. But the last few days, the past was like a storm cloud on the horizon, a rumble of thunder that refused to stay silent, a gloom that refused to disperse.
The past just refused to stay dead.
Jude was what the more liberal-minded in the city these days — those for whom the term “mixed race” sounded somehow offensive — would call “Creole,” and what older black folks referred to as “red-boned,” some indeterminate mix of white and African heritages along with whatever else had made it into the gumbo. All Jude knew was that he had light brown skin, a white mother, and a father he’d never met. The rest of the world always seemed more concerned about his ethnicity than he was.
He kept his hair shaved close to his scalp and a scruff of beard that was more stubble than style. He wore jeans and a long-sleeved dress shirt despite the cloying wet shroud that clung to New Orleans in the summer, the heat that made any act an effort, even breathing. The damp shirt pressed tight against his skin, the sweat tickling down the small of his back. Jude reached up, absently, to wipe off his face with the handkerchief his mother had taught him a gentleman always carries, but stopped himself, pulled from his introspection by the self-conscious awareness of the leather gloves he had on. He tucked his hand back into his lap, out of sight.
Not that anyone paid him any attention. He’d been out on the corner right across from Muriel’s since early that morning, had set up folding chairs and his rickety-ass table, laid out a chalkboard sign, a cash box, and a battered paperback atlas the same as he did most days, but in all the hours he’d been in the Square, only a few people had bothered to ask what the sign meant. None sat down. His services, unlike the tarot card readers and the brass bands and the art dealers, weren’t part of the cliché of the Quarter, and thus flew under the average tourist’s radar.
But today the lack of clients suited his mood. He’d have found it hard to feign interest in anyone’s problems with the way his thoughts had been circling nonstop. Pacing back and forth, as tense and feckless as an expectant father. Or a criminal awaiting execution.
A young street performer — Timmy? Tommy? Jude could never remember — stopped in front of Jude’s table, casting a long shadow. Jude frowned at the intrusion into his thoughts, even as he appreciated the shade. The white kid’s face, streaked with the sweaty remnants of clown paint, was split by an unguarded grin. He wore a golf cap and a tweed vest with no shirt on underneath. Less than ten years separated the two men, maybe as little as five, but to Jude’s eyes he was just a boy.
Grown more used to silence than speech, Jude had to search for his voice before he could speak. “You need something?” he asked, the words scratchy.
“About to ask you the same thing,” the boy said, pulling off the cap and swiping sweat from his forehead. “Headed to the grocery ’round the corner.” He gestured with the limp hat in the store’s direction before slipping it back onto his head.
Jude shook his head. “Thanks anyway.”
“Ain’t nothin’,” he said. He turned to go, then looked back. “You coming tomorrow night?” Jude shrugged and raised his eyebrows. The boy threw his hands into the air. “I only told you, like, twelve times already. My band finally got that gig? At the Circle Bar?”
“Oh, right,” Jude said. He imagined being crammed into a tight space with a crowd of strangers and lied to the kid. “Yeah, I’ll try to make it.”
The boy’s grin widened into a smile that took another five years off his age and made Jude feel like an older, more cynical version of himself. Tommy moved on to the next table, the sole of one of his shoes flapping, pitiful, on the street.
Jude sighed, inhaling the rich odor of the Quarter: stale beer and musky humanity and the moist, dark scent of the river. It was hard to live as he did, hidden in the seams between the life he had known and this new life he wore like a mask, but — because of those things he tried not to think about — Jude belonged there.
Or so he believed.
A short while later, Jude got his first and only customers of the day, a couple of out-of-towners. College kids, judging by the Greek letters on their T-shirts and the bright green plastic drink cups in their hands. She was a white girl who had spent hours in the sun darkening her skin, and he was vaguely West Asian, but spoke with a tap-water American accent. Lovers, Jude guessed, from the way the boy rested his hand on her shoulder, and the way the girl introduced the both of them — Mandy and Dave — like the conjunction made them a single unit. The girl seemed by far the more eager of the two. When she asked Jude what his sign meant, Dave looked toward the other side of the Square, as if searching for an escape.
“It means what it says,” Jude said. “If you’ve lost something, I can tell you where it is.”
“Like, anything?” Mandy asked, glancing at Dave to see if he was listening.
“Yeah,” Jude said, “like, anything.” She seemed not to notice the droll mockery in his voice, but Dave turned and frowned at her.
“It’s a scam,” Dave said. “First try is free if you’re not satisfied,” Jude said. “Ten bucks if you are.”
Dave’s frown deepened, but Mandy lowered herself into one of the aluminum chairs across from Jude. “Come on, sweetie, let me at least try it. Mom’ll kill me if she finds out —” She turned a sly glance in Jude’s direction. “If she finds out I lost what I lost.” Dave made an incredulous sound in the back of his throat and checked the time on his phone, doing everything but tapping his foot to signal his impatience. His every gesture told Jude he’d been hustled before.
But Jude was no hustler, at least not today. He’d always had an affinity for lost things. Even as a child, he could point out that a friend had left a toy beneath a sofa cushion, could lead a neighbor to where her cat had stranded itself too high in a tree.
This magic was the one true gift Jude had ever gotten from the father he’d never known. As he aged, or with practice — Jude wasn’t sure which — this affinity strengthened, grew more nuanced. A brush of his fingertips against a hair left on a pillow and he knew the lost child’s name, knew that she was hungry and cold and alone, knew that she was locked in a basement in Ohio, even though she’d only vanished from her room a few days before.
The more complex the loss, though, the more cryptic his gift became. Sometimes deciphering the sensations and visions was impossible. Some things wanted to stay lost. But far more often than not, his magic worked. This power had lived at the core of him, became the foundation he’d built his life upon. He’d always been the man who could find things.
Then came the hurricane, and a rip at the seams.
The seam split between a government and its citizens when the levees that were built to protect . . . didn’t. It split between the people of New Orleans and their lives, the lucky ones cast out like dandelion seeds thrown by a fierce wind. The stitches that held together communities and families and homes strained in that wind. Some frayed, some tore. In the flood of lost things that followed, the space inside of Jude where his magic lived ripped open wide.
In the aftermath, Jude found his power had become a raw, unhealing wound. Something fundamental about his gift had changed, had turned on him. Before, he’d had to focus, to reach for the knowledge his magic could give him. After, he could barely hold it at bay. Like many after the storm, he’d done what he could to numb his senses to all the loss around him. Booze, sex, any number of bad decisions. It worked, but only for a while. His power was too much a part of him to be denied. Eventually, he’d figured out that if he didn’t touch anything or anyone — hence the gloves — and if he released a trickle of his magic every few days, he could manage, just barely, to stay sane. For six years he’d survived, though he couldn’t really call it living, not going back to his old life, unable to move on to anything new, each day nearly identical to the one before. He’d tucked himself quietly away in the seams, like a coin lost beneath the sofa cushions. Being nowhere and nothing, he’d decided, was better than feeling all that loss.
Jude slipped off his glove beneath the table and a rush of sensation flickered along his naked skin, like the pins and needles of returning circulation. He reached out and took the girl’s slender hand in his own, focusing on the single item she sought. If he had merely touched her, he would have seen and felt everything she’d lost in her young life. Even a seemingly happy and pampered girl like her would have lost enough to exhaust him.
“Your mother’s earrings are in your hotel room,” Jude said.
Dave let out a sharp, bitter laugh. “Good guess, Sherlock,” he said. “Real big leap to see that we’re tourists. Do people really fall for this?”
Jude’s first instinct was to tell Dave just how far up his patronizing ass he could put his attitude, but he held his tongue for Mandy’s sake. She was a good kid. That wasn’t just a first impression; Jude knew she was, could feel it through her skin. “Not where you’re staying in New Orleans,” Jude said. He flipped through the atlas with his free hand, opening it to the Louisiana section, flipping to the map of Baton Rouge, and dropping his finger onto a street intersection without looking. “Were you here at any point in the last few days?” Mandy gasped and pulled her hand away. Jude fought the urge to smile. He’d phrased the last part as a question, but he’d known he was right. He knew more, the name of the hotel, the room number, that the two of them had snuck away from a church youth group–sponsored protest at the Capitol Building for a day of sin in the Crescent City, but he’d learned that if he got too specific, people went from intrigued to scared. Dave took a ten out of his wallet and sat down.
“The next one is twenty,” Jude said.
Fifteen minutes and fifty dollars later, Jude said something dubious and vague enough that Dave’s cynicism returned, and they left. Jude could have kept them there all night, parceling out the answers to the little mysteries of their little lives until their cash ran out, but the money meant nothing to him. This petty game with the tourists was all about the release valve for his gift.
He’d been so much more than this, once.
Later, as he started to pack up his belongings, he saw that Mandy had left her phone behind. It looked more like a child’s toy than a piece of technology: a pink flip phone covered in rhinestones. If only she knew someone who could find lost things, he thought, smiling for what felt like the first time in days. As soon as he picked it up, as if bidden by his touch, the phone jumped and buzzed. Jude snatched it open, startled. An incoming text from an unknown number.
Meet me for a drink in an hour, the message said. The usual place, very important. Have something for you. Then, as he read, the phone twitched with another message. It read, This is Regal.
Jude started to type a reply, but sighed and snapped it closed instead. Regal wouldn’t take no for an answer.
An hour to make it Uptown. He could get there easily if he had a car — or a driver’s license, for that matter — but he didn’t. He dismissed the idea of a cab, as well. If the streetcar didn’t get him there in time, Regal could wait. Or she wouldn’t, and that would be fine, too. It wasn’t like he actually wanted to see her.
On his way out of the Quarter, he dropped the fifty dollars he’d skimmed from Mandy and Dave into the upturned hat of three kids tap-dancing on the corner. He could tell himself that meeting Regal was only professional curiosity, that he was only going to find out what magic she’d used to find him through a stranger’s phone, but he knew the truth. What gnawed at him was the more basic question of her reaching out to him at all. What could be so important that she’d track him down? What could she have for him that she wouldn’t have given him years ago? Was this why the past had been churning around in his mind lately? Of all the things that had been lost in this city, why had she bothered to find him?
Walking into St. Joe’s bar was like descending into a cave and discovering a chapel. The shock of the colder air made Jude’s skin prickle and every hair stand on end. Dozens of crosses hung from the ceiling, not one of them resembling the next, one simple and carved out of wood, another an ornate twisting of wrought iron. The dusty scent of years of cigarette smoke and the sweet, green odor of fresh-cut mint leaves filled the tight space, coating the worn church pews and the high bar and the mirrors on the walls, dull in the dim light. Across the pool table in the back of the room, a dark hallway led past an ancient, churning ice machine and the toilets and out to a small patio. Speakers in high corners played a Rebirth song, sharp bursts of brass instruments at a frantic, exuberant beat. The whole front of the bar had been a plate-glass window once, but plywood covered it now. Boarded up since the storm.
Jude squinted against the sudden darkness, saw that he’d gotten there before Regal. The bar had only three other customers this early in the afternoon, a Vietnamese man playing a touchscreen game on the bar and a young, blond white woman talking to the scruffy Latino guy behind the counter. The bartender’s hands were busy chopping mint for the mojitos St. Joe’s was known for, but his eyes remained fixed on the girl, a slight smile on his thin lips. She stretched, her shirt pulling up and revealing the dimple of flesh where her lower back met the curve of her buttocks. Jude pushed down a sudden surge of lust. He looked away and leaned against the bar, trying to keep his distance from all of them.
The man playing the video game was middle-aged but prematurely toughened by years of smoking and hard drinking. He stared, vacant, tapping the screen and feeding it dollar bills and taking long drags off his cigarette without ever changing his expression. Jude’s fingertips tingled. Right beneath his sternum something sharp and insistent, like a fishhook piercing the core of him, yanked taut and yearned toward the man, toward his sense of loss. The man called himself Lee — the latter half of “Willy,” not Bruce — even though his parents had named him William, after his father. Lee hated William Sr. and wanted no connection to him. But he’d always felt like he’d lost something, in not having a father he could admire.
Jude cursed silently and clenched his hands into fists. Sometimes things leaked in even with the gloves, especially around strangers. This was a mistake. He shouldn’t have come here. To hell with Regal and whatever she had for him. Just as Jude decided to leave, the bartender noticed his presence and slouched over, with a curt nod and a “Whatcha need?” Jude ordered an Abita and eased onto the stool, keeping his gloved hands out of sight below the counter.
Regal’s got until I finish this beer, he told himself, and then, like she’d timed it that way, the door opened and there she was, framed by the fading sunlight.
She’d cut her hair. What he remembered as an auburn silky drape down to her shoulders was now clipped short and spiky. The rest of her hadn’t changed, though. Her deep-set eyes remained that clear, molten brown, like honey. The grin that slanted across her full lips still straddled the line between amused and mocking. She was a small white woman, both short and petite, who moved across the room with the confident glide of someone twice her size and the grace of a woman who knew how to handle herself.
“Dubuisson,” she said. “It’s been too long.” Despite everything — the sleepless nights, his unease at being out in the world, this life colliding once again with his own, the tendrils of loss twisting and curling into the cracks in his resolve, despite it all — the sound of her voice made him smile. Regal Sloan. His partner and closest friend in a life he’d left behind. Or tried to.
“Hey, Queens,” he said, the old nickname slipping unexpectedly out of his mouth. She smirked and started to speak, but the bartender interrupted with Jude’s beer. Regal ordered one for herself, and they said nothing while they waited. When the bartender returned, Regal, still standing behind him, reached over Jude’s shoulder, close enough that he could feel the warmth of her, the brush of her breath against his neck. Jude forced himself not to flinch away from her invasion of his personal space, knowing it wasn’t true flirtation so much as an attempt to make him uncomfortable, to keep him off his game. She folded a napkin in half and traced a two and a zero across it with her fingertip. Regal pushed the napkin to the bartender, who scooped it up as payment without questioning it.
“Keep the change, boo,” she said.
Jude took a sip of his Abita, savoring the crisp sharpness on his tongue. Same old Regal, he thought. He didn’t realize he’d said it out loud until she laughed.
“Way I remember it,” she said, “you taught me that particular trick.”
“Taught you all the tricks you know, rook.”
“Memory slipping in your old age?” She picked up both glasses. “Let’s talk in back.”
Jude dug a twenty out of his pocket and dropped it on the other side of the counter between a couple of bottles where the bartender would find it later, and then followed her, discomfort roiling in his gut like water about to boil. As he slid past the blonde at the other end of the bar, whose thumbs were now dancing across her cell phone, the bitter taste of blood filled his mouth. Great, he thought. Just great.
The next room seemed like a different bar, with patio tables spread across the bare concrete floor and bright paper lanterns strung above. The lanterns rustled in the breeze from the large box fan rattling in the corner, stirring the soupy air around more than providing any relief from the heat. Regal set Jude’s beer in front of him, slurping the foam off the top of her own. He wondered if she had seen his gloves yet and if the glass was safe to touch without them. He thought about taking one off under the table, unsure if he could do it without her noticing.
“So,” Regal said, after licking her lips, “you got your shit together, or you still hiding from the storm?”
Some would call Regal blunt or tactless. Some had harsher names for it. Once, a middle-aged hausfrau had called her “a gashmouthed cunt” in front of her two young daughters. Jude knew, though, how carefully Regal chose those barbs of hers. It was how she kept people back on their heels. That same housewife had been selling the virginal menstrual blood of her eldest to a voodoo woman.
Still, it hurt that she’d jabbed at Jude’s weak spot like that, like he was just another prick in the way of her doing the job. Made him a little angry, too. But mostly it proved that she had more on her mind than a drink with an old friend.
“That guy’s gonna catch hell when his till comes up twenty bucks short,” he said. “I only ever used that trick to fuck with the kind of assholes who have it coming. Broke-ass bartenders trying to make rent money don’t exactly qualify.” He worked at keeping his voice level. It wouldn’t help anything to lose control here. His temper was something else — or so Jude’s mother had always said — that he’d gotten from his absent father.
She cocked that same grin at him, only this time it seemed insulting. “You’re a real ray of sunshine, you know that?”
“First,” Jude said, raising a finger as he counted, “I know the blonde out front will be dead sooner than not, sucked dry by the vampire that’s got her enthralled. Second, you’ve got a bit of magic hidden on you, a weapon by the feel of it, something sharp and nasty. Third? There’s a change coming, something that’s got even the boss man rattled. And fourth, you’re stalling. That’s what I know.”
She turned her head back the way they had come, squinting as if she could see through the wall that separated them. “Does it bother you?”
“What, the girl? Of course it does.”
She shook her head. “Actually, I was asking if it bothered you to be such a know-it-all prick all the time, but let’s talk about the girl. Bet you wanna go rescue her, don’t you? Gonna swoop in and save the day?” She made a disgusted noise in the back of her throat. “Not every woman is lost without her big, strong man, you know. That hero complex of yours is gonna get you in deep shit one day, bucko.”
“Thanks for the advice,” he said, taking a swallow of his beer. “Timing could be better, though.” This wasn’t the way he’d hoped this conversation was going to go. Regal seemed tense. Unsure, even. She mocked him for wanting to save the girl, but she hadn’t stopped staring in her direction, either.
“How did you know all of that?” she asked. “Because whoever dear old dad was, I’m my father’s son,” he said. “Some things I just know.” Which was bullshit, of course. The taste-of-blood vampire warning was just a residual thing, an unintended side effect from a protection spell he’d done years ago. Everything else he’d said had been presumptions and educated guesswork, his tongue moving faster than his brain and hoping to get lucky. Regal knew a little about his father, though, so convincing her he knew a bunch of stuff he didn’t know — couldn’t know — wasn’t much of a gamble.
Tell someone you’re the bastard child of a god, and they’ll believe you’re capable of just about anything.
“So, quit with the foreplay,” Jude said. He leaned forward, the chair creaking under his weight. “Mourning sent you to talk me into coming back, didn’t he?”
Jude raised an eyebrow. “So you just thought you’d look your old buddy Jude up after six years and knock back a few?”
“Okay, yes, Mourning sent me.” She bit her lip, uncertain. “But it’s not what you think.”
“Fuck Mourning.” Jude felt his control slipping, anger and magic threatening to wriggle free, to take shape as fire and storm. He shouldn’t have come. This was the last thing he needed.
“It’s not what you think,” she repeated. Regal stuck two fingers into her back pocket and took out an envelope sealed with red wax. The paper looked thick and old, like parchment. She glanced up, then her eyes darted away, unable to meet his. “You’re pissed, I get it. I didn’t want to get involved, but you know how it is. Mourning wants something, he doesn’t exactly ask, you know? But this message isn’t from Mourning. We were just hired to find you and deliver it.”
Jude wanted to say that he didn’t care. That he didn’t want any part in any of this, just wanted to go home and drink until he forgot all the impossible things he knew. Things that had been a part of that other life, like magicians who called things up out of the darkness to do their bidding, or hoodoo women who cast curses for a fee and then charged double for the cure, or monsters that walked the daylight pretending to be human and hunted in the night. Things that were only partly human, or not human at all. Things that even the gods had abandoned.
Instead of saying any of that, though, his curiosity won out. “That envelope isn’t ticking, is it?”
She laughed, but it was an unconvincing, desperate sound. She said nothing else, just held the message out to him, shaking it a little when he didn’t take it.
“Who sent it?” he asked.
“No idea. All I know is I’m supposed to give you this,” she said, sliding the parchment across the table, “and tell you that the favor’s being called in.”
Jude cursed under his breath. He owed a lot of debts, to more people than he’d ever be able to pay back. But only one of them would refer to his debt as a favor: Dodge Renaud, the fortune god of New Orleans. Sure enough, when he picked it up, the envelope was sealed with red wax impressed with an ornate R.
Fucking perfect, Jude thought. He started to take a sip of his beer and instead tilted it up, gulping, draining the glass, no longer concerned with whether she saw his gloves or not. He found, to his surprise, that his hands didn’t shake.
Six years. That was a decent span of time for normal human problems, hangovers and avoiding exes and pretending you were happy with your shitty pay at your shitty job. Six long years away from dancing to the whim of gods and all the nasty bullshit that came with it. For six years he’d stayed low, stayed quiet, tucked down in a seam of a life so boring, he’d convinced himself that he’d vanished entirely, that petty problems would be all he’d have to deal with for the rest of his life. He should have known better.
Six years went like the blink of an eye if you lived forever.
The City of Lost Fortunes is on sale now.