Tuesday, January 9, 2018


PHOEBE'S BROTHER'S expression didn't change. Z.J. carefully began to reach for one of his concealed stiletto blades.
   "My sister is going to be strong. He's going to change her."
   Z.J. realized what Theo meant. "Are you out of your goddamn mind?"
   Theo rose, smiling and inhuman. "Phoebe and I are descended from a Greek hero. We'll be a king and a queen--"
   "You know"--Z.J. had hold of the stiletto sheathed at his back--"I always thought Greek heroes were kind of assholes."
   Theo grinned and flung the glass ball away. It vanished over a corrugate wall.
   Z.J. lunged at Theo, intent on hamstringing him enough so that he wouldn't be a problem. But Theo was gone in a whisper of movement. "I'll leave you to the minotaur, taltu."
   Shaking, Z.J. pushed to his feet, his back against the wall.
   The Jack hadn't found the fishing line. Z.J. breathed out and squinted in the dark. His eyes would eventually adjust to the gloom. He could see an emerald light beneath the corrugate wall. He just needed to get to the other side and get the light back.
   The minotaur won't change Phoebe. He'll eat her.
   His heartbeat became louder than his breathing as he forged through the maze. He couldn't seem to find the light ball and realized he'd have to leave it--he could see in the gloom well enough.
   When he heard something snuffling on the other side of he corrugate wall, his guts heaved.
   --he remembered lying on the cement floor, and all the blood. He hadn't been able to save her.
   He'd been fourteen.
   He heard a girl cry out and ferocity swept through him. He ran toward the cry, zigzagging through the maze of metal. He scarcely felt the cuts and bruises he received whenever he struck something.
   He burst into a room with a cement floor patterned with stains that seemed black in the moonlight pearling through a broken skylight.
   Phoebe stood in the middle of the room, her head down. She was drenched in blood.
   Adrenaline shot through him, along with terror. "Phoebe."
   She didn't move. He couldn't hear anything, not even her breathing. It had been like this with Ivy, who had been propped there by the minotaur, blood-soaked, dead.
   The minotaur struck him hard. Z.J. flew back against the wall. It came at him, quick, still in its mortal guise of a young man with white hair and a blood-streaked grin. It grabbed Z.J. by the throat.   
   Z.J. drove a stiletto into the minotaur's right eye.
   He was dropped. The minotaur reeled back, then raised its face, half of which had cracked to reveal a horror beneath . The shadow of one bull horn spiraled from the brow. One malignant eye glinted like a pool of toxic green.
   It came at him, too swift. Z.J. avoided a slash of one hook-nailed hand.
   "The mistletoe!" Z.J. yelled. "Where--"
   "I smashed it." The minotaur circled Z.J., careful of the knives in Z.J.'s hands. "You came without a proper weapon, taltu."
   He slammed Z.J. against the wall. Z.J. plunged two stilettos into the minotaur's chest. It laughed, then began pressing a clawed hand over his heart.  "Haven't you learned anything? You need the heart of a queen, boy, to kill me."
   Z.J., fighting for air, spoke as a shadow rose over the minotaur, "Then have a heart, you fucker."
   The minotaur froze.
   Phoebe slammed the wooden heart pendant with its sharp point into the back of the minotaur's skull. The minotaur's mouth opened, and continued to open, grotesquely, until its face was a black hole. Its body cracked like dry earth. Darkness spilled out in glittering ribbons.
   Then there was only its clothing and a broken bull skull and a scattering of human teeth.
   Phoebe sank to her haunches and gazed at Z.J. through a mask of blood. He sat up. He said hoarsely, "Is that your blood?"
  She shook her head. "Other . . . victims." Her voice broke. "He saved their blood in wine bottles. I'm going to puke--"
   "Don't. Breathe. Just breathe. That's it. Keep getting in air." He hunkered beside her and patted her on the back as she did as he instructed.
   "My brother . . ." There was no grief in her voice, only rage. "You were right."
   "I'm sorry. It was just...I had a feeling."
   She looked at him. "You are bashed up something fierce."
   "It wasn't after you. It was after me. Your brother made a deal with it. He's not himself anymore, Phoebe."
   "I know I've lost him." Her voice was ragged. "I have to let him go and it hurts."
   "I know." He lifted the wooden heart. Acacia wood, he recognized it. One of the rarest and most powerful woods in the world. And she, Clementine, had placed her heart inside of it. He traced it with his fingers. "Letting go does hurt. Where did you get this from?"
   "It was my brother's."
Clementine sat in her chair in the courtyard and watched as Z.J. and Phoebe--cleaned up but battered--walked toward her. Phoebe held up the acacia heart. "You gave this to my brother. Your heart."
   Clementine accepted it. "I thank you, Phoebe."
   Phoebe stepped back. "I still don't trust you."
   "But you will. And that will be a greater gift than what you have returned to me today. You will stay?"
   Phoebe glanced at Z.J. "I'll stay. Z.J." She reached out. "I'll see you."
   "Are you sure?" he asked, low-voiced.
   "Yes. Don't worry."
   Z.J. glanced warningly at Clementine, then said, "Good luck," and strode away.
   Clementine was waiting for hi at the gates leading onto the street. He halted and grimaced. Clementine, her arms folded, regarded him with a stern look that was unsettling on her young face. She said, "You're not going to see her again." It wasn't a demand--it was a guess.
   "Well, since I might have to kill her crazy, homicidal Jack of a brother..." He shrugged, but his chest was tight with regret. He didn't plan on seeing Phoebe anymore.
   The Queen of the Beautiful House walked toward him. "I can take it all away, all of those memories. The Black Scissors will respect your choice. You can be ordinary and happy. Or a hero and...well...are heroes ever happy?"
   He narrowed his eyes. "You people think you made me what I am, playing at being gods like you do? You didn't. and, you're right, I don't need to be like this. I'll see Phoebe, even if I have to deal with you lot and hunt a Jack..."
   Clementine vanished in a sweeping, gauzy darkness.
   Z.J. sighed. Even though he'd won, he still felt as if he'd been swindled somehow. But not in a bad way.
   He found himself smiling as he pushed the gates open and strolled down the street, away from The Beautiful House.
                                                                       The End

Friday, December 29, 2017


NICO, who had slept all day and seemed barely awake, met them at seven o'clock and drove them to The Beautiful House.
   "This is where she lives?" Nico peered doubtfully at the hotel shrouded in Spanish moss and dying light. "The loa queen?"
   "I want you two to wait here," Z.J. told them as they entered the lobby. He'd timed it right--the sun was just beginning to set. He was a knot of nerves and tension, felt like a razor blade.
   When Bruce walked into the lobby, Nico whispered loudly, "He looks just like a human."
   "I beg your pardon?" Bruce narrowed his eyes. He spoke to Z.J. "Did you bring a civilian into this?"
   Z.J. gestured to Nico and Phoebe. "One of your outcasts has gone after her."
   "Phoebe Marrs." Bruce bowed to her and she took a step back. "Clementine welcomes you." He turned to Z.J. "What 'outcast?'"
   "Minotaur," was all Z.J. said, and Bruce looked as if he'd just said 'The Devil.' Z.J. continued, "I want to speak to Clementine alone."
   Bruce led him to the private courtyard, where Clementine stood, elegant in a black evening gown. Her feet were bare. Z.J. didn't wait for her to speak as her silver gaze fell upon him. He said, "Why didn't you tell me you made Phoebe's brother into a Jack?"
   She sat on a low wall, hunched forward. "He was dying."
   "He was using heroine. When he was seventeen, he overdosed. I could not let him go."
   The Black Scissors had once told Z.J. the Fatas were not immortal as much as eternal. Immortal meant even though one's body remained young, the mind changed, became weary. The world transformed a person, a soul. Being eternal meant existing always, unchanged, remaining the same, like an insect in amber. Eternally youthful. No senility. No life lessons learned. Wisdom, perhaps, but only the kind that came with age.
   Clementine looked like an eighteen-year-old girl. She pretended to think like one. As many years as passed in the world, she would never grow or change. Z.J. said, teeth gritted, "So you yanked out his insides and filled him with magic."
   Clementine tilted her head. "No. That is the Dark Court's way. My magic flourished within him. I gave him my heart."
   "So he's not human anymore." Z.J. watched her. Her face remained expressionless. He told her, wanting her to feel his dread and knowing she wouldn't: "A minotaur is following Phoebe."
   A scream tore through the night. Clementine, rising, whispered furiously, "And you brought her here?"
   Z.J. was already racing toward the lobby.
   He burst through the doors and found Nico sprawled on the floor and the elderly desk clerk hurrying toward him.
   "I'm good." Nico shakily pointed to the open doors. "He dragged Phoebe out."
   "The minotaur--"
   "Not the minotaur. Some guy."
   "What did he look like?" Clementine glided into the lobby Nico stared at her as if she were the second coming. Then he said, "Dark hair. Very white. Dressed like The Crow."
   "Theo," Clementine said with a grim look. "Phoebe's brother."
Clementine wouldn't go with Z.J., but she gave him a tiny glass ball filled with emerald light and told him it would lead him to Theo if Theo was nearby.
   When Nico volunteered to come with him, Z.J. told him to stay put. Phoebe had carried the mistletoe weapon. All that Z.J. had now were the misericorde, an amulet, and several small daggers.
   Clementine walked Z.J. to the gate in front of the hotel. "If the minotaur is seeking them..."
   "What kills a minotaur?" He turned to Clementine, who looked like just a girl in an elegant gown after a party.
   Softly, she said, "You lost someone to one of us."
   "Are you going to answer my question? If the minotaur is stalking Phoebe and it finds them--"
   "I cannot tell you how to kill one of my kind. Your Black Scissors doesn't know?"
   He turned his back on her and, holding the ball up in one hand, headed in the direction in which it seemed to glow the strongest.
   After a while, the ball lit up like a tiny sun as he rounded a corner and found himself in front of a warehouse splashed with gorgeous graffiti. The last time he'd entered a place like this, he'd also been alone, clueless, without any weapons, without any guidance.
   He felt something in his pocket and frowned. He reached in and pulled out a spool of red fishing line, stared at it. He began to suspect something and it made him stronger. He stepped into the darkness.
   The glass ball lit his way as he moved down a corridor of corrugate steel--someone had built a maze. Above were pipes and shattered light fixtures. Things echoed; metal groaning; scrabbling sounds.
   A voice.
   Z.J. dulled the sphere's light by wrapping it in a piece of fabric torn from his T-shirt. Then he unwound the fishing line and hooked one end to the handle on the door. He prowled toward the voice. He turned a bend in the makeshift corridor and winced when he saw a huge, horned head spray-painted black on the wall.
    The next voice sounded like a girl yelling. Z.J. ran toward it.
   A sleek shadow swung down from above and kicked him in the chest. Z.J. went down, scrabbling for the glass ball.
   A black-nailed hand snatched it up and raised it to the face of a boy his age, his hair a tangle, black triangles painted beneath his eyes. He was all in dark leather.
   Z.J. slid warily back.The boy cocked his head. "Who are you?"
   "I'm Z.J., Theo. Where's your sister?"

Wednesday, December 13, 2017


Z.J.'s mom's shop was still closed, so he and Phoebe went up the fire escape in the back and through the kitchen terrace doors. His mom was at church, so Z.J. attempted to make Phoebe breakfast while she wandered around the kitchen, gazing at the little paintings of fairy tale figures on the wall near the living room.
   "I have to open up the shop," he told her after they'd finished a pot of coffee. "We can talk down there."
   His first customer, five minutes after he turned the sign to OPEN and unlocked the door, was Anna from Fair Hollow. She and Phoebe regarded each other warily. Z.J. said, "She knows."
   Anna set the umbrella she'd been carrying on the counter. "I brought it for you."
   "It's very pretty." He doubtfully regarded the umbrella of bleached wood with its illustrations of Alice, the White Rabbit, and the Mad Hatter.
   "What, you think I'm simple?" Anna tapped the umbrella. "It's made of mistletoe wood."
   Z.J. took hold of the umbrella and ran his fingers across the puzzled-together pieces of wood. He touched the point at the top. "I can keep this?"
   "It's yours."
   He thought of stripping the umbrella of its frivolous bits and driving it through the minotaur's heart. But they don't have hearts.
   "Anna." He raised his eyes to the other girl. "Who gave this to you?"
   Her mouth curved. She turned and walked toward the door. Her voice trailed softly back, "A fool who is a king."She opened the door and vanished in the hazy sunlight.
   Phoebe walked over and looked at the umbrella. "How do you kill them?"
   "You were going to try and kill Clementine without knowing how?"
   She shrugged and cast her gaze down. "I thought blessed silver did it?"
   "Sometimes. Not if they're old. And I think Clementine is as old as the goddamn bible."
   Phoebe looked tired and drawn out. "And the minotaur?"
   "Minotaurs are ancient. But mistletoe . . ." Z.J. ripped the pretty Alice in Wonderland fabric away from the umbrella handle. "Mistletoe is deadly to them. I need you to leave New Orleans. Do you have anyplace to go?"
   She shook her head.
   "If I take you to Clementine, will you refrain from killing her?"
   "Will she tell me where my brother is?'
   That's when his mother returned. Z.J. introduced Phoebe as a friend. His mother asked Phoebe if she'd like her cards read and Z.J. said "No" and pulled Phoebe out the door.
   As they walked along the street, Phoebe told him how her twin brother had vanished when they were fifteen, that he'd sent her a letter telling her not to worry, he'd found someone in New Orleans who would take care of them, a young woman named Clementine. He'd promised to send for Phoebe.
   He'd never sent for her. She'd never heard from him again.
   "When did the minotaur begin haunting you?"
   "A while ago. I ran away, here, to find Theo."
   "What aren't you telling me, Phoebe?" He turned to her.
   She looked stubborn. Then she shoved her hands in the back pockets of her jeans. He demanded, "What else did your brother say in the letter?"
   "He said there's a hidden world and he found a way into it. That he wasn't afraid of anything anymore."
   Z.J. felt as if his stomach had plunged into his boots. He didn't let it show on his face.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017


AS IF NICO had seen them coming, the door opened and he stood there, barefoot and sleepy-eyed. "Hey."
   "Nico, Phoebe. Phoebe, Nico." Z.J. slid past Nico with Phoebe and, as Nico bemusedly shut the door, Z.J. glimpsed the horned shadow standing across the street.
   "Hey, Phoebe." Nico smiled suavely.
   "Your gran home, Nico?" Z.J. backed toward the china cabinet.
   "No. she's playing bocci ball with her friends at Crew's Bar--what are you doing?"
   "This is real silver, right?"
   "Uh . . . I'm supposing."
    Phoebe snatched a butter knife from Z.J. and checked it. "It's real silver."
   Something struck the door. Nico whirled. "What--"
   "Nico." Z.J. dumped two drawers of silverware on the table. "I need you to take some forks and knives and just hold onto them."
   Nico turned and stared at him. "Z.J. . . what's going on? Are you messing with me?"
   "This is real." Phoebe grabbed a handful of forks and glanced at Z.J. "Does silver really work?"
   "Put it at every window and door--"
   Something shattered in the kitchen. Nico swore.
   Z.J. and Phoebe turned to stare into the kitchen.
   "They can't get in unless they're invited, right?" Phoebe whispered.
   "Hey." Nico's voice was weak. "Are you guys being chased by, like, a werewolf?"
   The front door flew open, slamming against the wall behind it.
   The man who stood in the doorway was young despite the white hair pouring over his shoulders. He was also a giant. He wore jeans and a T-shirt. A belt of what looked like teeth draped his hips. His eyes flashed silver as his gaze drifted from Nico, to Z.J., to Phoebe. He pointed at Phoebe with one sharp silver fingernail. "I want her."
   Nico panicked and flung a handful of silver spoons at the intruder.
   The intruder stumbled back from the threshold. Z.J. saw a crevice open up across his face and the shadow of a horn twist from the white hair.
   Z.J. lunged with a silver fork in each hand and slammed them into the Fata's chest. The white-haired man shoved him back and Z.J. fell back into the house. He saw the Fata gripping the forks in his chest and yanking them out. Z.J. kicked the door shut.
   There were eight windows and two entrances to the house. The three of them scrambled to set handfuls of silver at each.
   When they were done, they slouched on the sofa together, staring blankly at the wide screen TV which was set to HGTV.
   "Was that the Devil?" Nico asked.
   Z.J. exchanged a look with Phoebe, who sat between them. She said, "Why isn't he trying to get back in?"
   "Probably licking his wounds." Z.J. had peered out the windows and seen no sign of the Fata.
   "You asshole." Nico took a deep breath and twisted to glare at Z.J. "How long you've known about things like that monster?"
   "Since I was sixteen." Z.J. was surprised it didn't hut anymore, that memory of the dark, and the terror, and the blood . . .  Anger surged though him. He stood and faced Phoebe. "Why is it chasing you?"
   "I don't know. I thought she sent him."
   "No." Z.J. rubbed his head. "No."
   "How do you know/' Phoebe demanded. "How long have you known her, this Clementine? She's one of their queens--"
   "She doesn't have the vibe." Z.J. narrowed his eyes at Phoebe. "She asked me to find you, to help you."
   With Nico open-mouthed and Phoebe sitting up straight, Z.J. told them about the Black Scissors, who was a witch doctor, Shaman, and spiritualist, and cursed with immortality by a Fata queen. He told them how the Black Scissors had come to him one night, after Z.J. had encountered a bad Fata.
   He didn't tell them about the hospital, about the terrible scars on his back that Nico thought were from a car accident, about what he'd lost that night, two years ago. He told them what the Fats were, the children of Night and Nothing and all the tribal names given them around the world.
   Nico called his grandmother and asked her to stay overnight at a friend's. Z.J. could hear her demanding to know why.
   "Just do me a favor and stay at Mimi's, okay? No. No. I don't have a girl here." He sighed. "Okay, I had a party and I've got to clean up."
   Nico set down his cell and gazed resignedly at Z.J. "So what's out there? What kind of demon or fairy spirit or whatever?"
   "It's the minotaur," Phoebe spoke up at the same time that Z.J. said, "It's a minotaur."
   The minotaur didn't attack again. They huddled on the sofa, taking turns sleeping, until daylight cast the darkness away.

Monday, November 13, 2017


Z.J. DIDN'T invite Nico to the Fata party at The Beautiful House, the lure Clementine had set up for the girl foolishly hunting her.
   He didn't have much in the way of fine clothing and he couldn't afford to buy any. He selected a long-sleeved gray crew shirt from the back of his closet, his newest jeans, and his best boots. He didn't see the point of going armed, but he put one of the silver misericorde daggers in his left boot.
   As he approached The Beautiful House, he studied the guests handing their invitations to Bruce. They were all young. Most were mortal. A few moved with unnatural grace and their eyes flashed silver. As he handed Bruce the invite, he asked, "Did you send one to the girl you want me to catch?"
   Bruce looked at him sternly. "Of course not. She'll find a way in. Clementine says she's resourceful."
   Z.J. sauntered into the enormous lobby while Blues music swept over the people mingling and conversing in evening finery with an antique flair. The doors to the public courtyard were flung wide and more people drifted in and out.
   Clementine had given him a picture of the girl. She looked so ordinary, no older than he was, a girl who should be enjoying her final year of high school. He was worried for her. Very worried. If she did something--
   --and he saw her, suddenly, standing awkwardly in a white dress that reminded him of something Alice in Wonderland might wear, with a rhinestone headband in her short russet hair.
   She didn't know, then, that the Fatas knew.
   Z.J. moved toward her, from the side, so she wouldn't see him coming.
   But she was wary as a deer. Her gaze flicked over the crowd and met his. He attempted a smile.
   She bolted.
   He swore and slid after her, into the lobby, where the moody light flared silver in some eyes. He never got used to that, and a shiver ran through him.
   He saw Phoebe heading for Clementine. He saw a glint in the girl's hand--
   He shoved aside a girl in white velvet and nearly knocked down a young man with red curls. He lunged and caught hold of the girl intent on murder. She whirled on him, wide-eyed.
   "No," he told her.
   She grimaced and tried to jerk away. He whispered, "Way to draw more attention to yourself."
   She gave up. Aware of the Fata queen's eyes upon him, he led her away from Clementine and into the public courtyard. When they had moved into a spot where they wouldn't be overheard, he said softly, "Phoebe. I'm Z.J.--"
   "You're one of theirs." She spoke through clenched teeth.
   "I'm not. But you were about to attack one of their queens and I'm here to stop that mistake."
   "My brother disappeared because of her. He's missing."
   "And how will killing her bring him back? She doesn't know where he is. He left her."
   "So she says." Phoebe was trembling. He realized that what she'd been holding, now tucked into her hair--a silver needle. She asked, "What are you?"
   What was he? Border patrol? An ambassador? A shaman? He spoke the truth, "Taltu."
   She clearly had never heard of them. She narrowed her eyes. "You are one of theirs. A traitor."
   "Your brother went to Clementine willingly."
   Her eyes widened as she focused on something behind him. Glancing over his shoulder, he saw several of the queen's young elegants heading their way.
   He grabbed Phoebe's hand and they ran.
   They went over the wall. Z.J. heaved her up. She grabbed the branch of an oak and swung over. He followed. They raced up the street.
   "Car?" She looked back at him.
   "No," he told her. "I took the bus."
   She stopped running and cast him a look. He pointed at her. "Don't be judgy with me. Where are you staying?"
   She looked lost. "Nowhere."
   "Where are you keeping your things?"
   "In a backpack behind a school--" She broke off and went pale.
   At first, he smelled it, a rank odor like dirty, blood-stained ice. But there was, beneath the reek, a flowery fragrance, even more disturbing. His Greek grandmother had once had a tree in her yard, a fig, and this is what he smelled when it blossomed.
   "It's here," Phoebe whispered.
   Z.J. bent and drew the misericorde from his boot. "What's here?"
   "The monster."
   He didn't ask her why she called it a monster. He turned his head.
   Following a block behind was an inhumanly tall shadow, its fingers too long and too sharp. Its head was strangely shaped, a 'V' forming two points. He knew what it was. He had seen its kind before.
   He and Phoebe ran.
   When they turned a corner and Z.J. saw Nico's grandmother's shotgun house, he caught Phoebe's hand. "There."
   They ran toward it.

Monday, November 6, 2017


PHOEBE had seen her.
   The busy French Quarter was the one place Phoebe felt safe at night from the thing that was hunting her. She was shyly sliding past a flock of honey-haired girls in little dresses and platform sandals when she saw the regal girl moving through the crowds like a queen of the Nile. How could anyone not notice the silver shine of her eyes, the inhuman grace with which she and her four companions moved, as if they'd walked the earth for centuries, immortal monsters in human-like skins?
   One of the young men swept his silver gaze across the crowd. A diamond glinted in the side of his nose and his skin glimmered. Phoebe looked quickly away and tried to hide herself in the mass of people.
   The queen and her shadows moved onward and Phoebe followed.
Z.J. worked in his mother's shop on weekends. He liked to organize the various tourist trap junk, as well as the authentic voodoo/hoodoo/Wiccan/New Age items. The shop sold candles, spooky dolls, books, Tarot cards, and chintzy souvenirs. He'd convinced her to carry other items, which made her eye him warily sometimes, as if she worried he'd joined some sort of cult.
   After last night's weirdness, he needed normalcy.
   The girl who entered the shop before sunset looked fifteen, her dark blonde hair in two braids. She glanced at him, nodded once. He nodded back. She began to wander around the shop, hands in the back pockets of her jeans. She selected a deck of the most expensive cards and he moved behind the counter as she walked to him. She set the cards down and shrugged off her plaid backpack. "How much are these?"
   "Thirty bucks." He squinted at her face. "Do I know you?"
   "I'm visiting from New York."
   "Where in New York?" He rang up the cards.
   "Fair Hollow."
   He froze. He met her gaze. He supposed she looked alarmed because he did.
   Fair Hollow. Where a Fata version of a very dark A Midsummer Night's Dream had played out.
   "I was there," he ventured. "Two years ago."
   "Were you? I'm Anna." She held out her hand.
   "Z.J." He had a feeling she knew. He tapped the Tarot cards. "Can you really use these?"
   "They're for a friend." He realized her gaze was fastened on the black scissors tattoo he and the other taltu wore to let the Fatas know they'd best behave.
   She leaned forward and whispered, "Are they here, too?"
   "Silver eyes? Shadowy? Love/hate relationship with poetry? Yeah, Anna, they're here."
   She solemnly accepted the Tarot cards and receipt. "I don't see them anymore."
   She shrugged. "I can sense them, but only if they want me to."
   "The ones I met here"--He thought of elegant and lovely Clementine--"seem okay."
   She nodded. "Someone told me once that the one who rules here came from Ethiopia. That she's one of the good ones."
   "Who told you--"
   She shook her head and looked wistful. "I had friends, once, among them. Things changed. Good bye, Z.J."
   He watched as she left.

Sunday, October 29, 2017


THE hotel was called La Chateau Beau, The Beautiful House. It stood in one of the oldest and sketchiest neighborhoods, shrouded by oaks draped with Spanish moss. It resembled a Victorian house gone mad, with its frivolous towers and gables, all painted black. It had been built around a courtyard of exotic plants and a huge pool that mimicked a grotto. Tiny lights twinkled in the palm trees.
   Z.J. knew, as he and Nico moved out of the grand dame lobby and into the empty courtyard, that the hotel was a Fata haunt. The lobby had had two inhabitants; a pretty girl in a green satin flapper's dress, reading a book; and an elderly man who resembled Ian McKellan behind the desk. The man hadn't said anything to the two boys as they crossed the lobby.
   Z.J., observing the dark pool glimmering with reflected light, imagined that an Afanc could live in that. "We should leave."
   "What? We just got past Gandalf without a problem. I almost expected him to say"--Nico's voice deepened even further than his usual baritone--"'Thou shalt not pass.' And no one's here." He shucked his T-shirt and jeans. His swim trunks were patterned with pink sharks. Again, Z.J. did not judge.
   As Nico dove into the water, Z.J. looked around. He saw, beyond the tangle of vegetation, a Tiki bar glowing with lights and bottles. Old-timey music drifted languidly through the air.
   He thought he saw someone standing beside the bar, a shadow in a suit and top hat, and he went for the silver blade he kept in his denim jacket. He squinted.
   But it wasn't a figure, only a dark space between the trees.
   After an hour of enjoying the pool, Z.J. saw a few guests drift from the wild garden of the hotel. They appeared to be normal. Z.J. began to relax. He lay back in one of the deck chairs with a non-alcoholic sweet tea. Nico had gotten the drinks at the bar where a pretty brown-skinned girl in a halter top and jeans made an art of juggling bottles and mixer flasks. Nico had drifted back to talk to her. Her eyes were brown and didn't flash silver when they caught the light.
   Z.J. listened to the rustling of palm fronds and the music which sounded as if it were being played on a phonograph.
   Then he sensed a shadow blocking out the twinkling lights.
   "Mr. Jenkins."
   His eyes flew open.
   The deep voice belonged to an African-American man in an expensive suit. The light gleamed on his bald head. His eyes were dark, human. He was the same man Z.J. had seen earlier that day in the convenience store. The man smiled, swift and polite. "Boss would like  word with you."
   Z.J. didn't dare look over at Nico He reached for his clothing.
   "Ah-ah. Not that." The man, still smiling, held one hand out for the denim jacket with the silver dagger in it.
   Z.J. handed it over and pulled on his jeans and T-shirt. As he followed the man, he asked, "So who is your boss?"
   "You may call her Clementine."
   Only a first name. That was a bad sign. Z.J. didn't want to, but he asked, casual-like, "What's her real name?"
   The man said something in French, then added, gently, "The Mistress of the Beautiful House."
    "And what are you? Her Renfield?"
   "That's vampires. I am a man. My name is Bruce."
   "A man over eighteen who can see them."
   "I was a medium when she found me and asked me to work for her."
   "Is she one of the good ones or one of the bad ones?"
   "Now what would be the point of me telling you that when you don't know me?"
    "Good point. Is she a queen?"
   "What else would the Mistress of the Beautiful House mean?"
   Z.J. liked this man. He was sardonic, a word Z.J.'s mom often used to describe Z.J., along with 'smart-ass.' He braced himself as they crossed the lobby, glad his swim trunks had dried while he was lazing in the deck chair and his jeans weren't wet. It would have been difficult to be menacing with the seat of his pants damp.
   As a pair of red doors opened before them, he wished he hadn't let his guard down.
   They stepped into a private garden, where a figure in a black silk dress and spike-heeled shoes sat, her face shadowed by a sweeping hat with a short veil of black netting. She sat in a wicker chair beneath an arbor of grapevines. A few bees buzzed quietly around her. She sipped from the tea cup she held and raised her head, revealing a face that was meant to break hearts. Her brown skin glimmered as if with diamond dust. She said with a small curve to her lips, "You're a taltu."
   Z.J. was aware of Bruce deserting him. He was alone in the silent, bee-buzzing garden with a Fata queen. He was just as wisely afraid as he would have been facing down a Fata that had taken a monstrous form. "And you're a Fata queen."
   She set down her tea and uncrossed her legs and faced him and shadows grew from behind her in a swirling show that reminded Z.J. of the spines of some poisonous creature.
   "I need your help, Mr. Jenkins." She removed her hat, revealing rippling black hair curving from her face. Her silver eyes and semblance of humanity were unnerving. But Z.J. stood his ground, because he'd met an immortal witch doctor and fought a minotaur. The Fata queen said, "A girl has come to my city to kill me."
   "What did you do do her?"
   Clementine's eyes flashed. Then she sighed like any mortal girl and rubbed her brow. "I took her brother."
   Z.J. leaned against one of the columns, arms folded. He didn't speak.
   "He came willingly. He was sixteen, lovely and fierce."
   She looked eighteen and wasn't. Z.J. knew the Fatas were all cradle robbers. "So where is he?"
   "He became eighteen and left us. Left with knowledge."
   Z.J. asked, "What did you do to him?"
   Clementine lifted her chin and her face was cold. "What I had to do. I took the memory of us away from him."
   "So where is he?"
   "I don't know."
   "This girl who's coming for you--what's her name?"
   "Phoebe Thorne. I don't want her hurt. I want you to keep an eye out for her and convince her not to kill me. Then introduce her to your Black Scissors, since she already seems headed down that path."
   Z.J., as much as he hated to trust one of the children of night and nothing, suspected Clementine was one of the good ones. He said, "I'll help you."