Home > Tale of the Thunderbolt (Vampire Earth #3)

Tale of the Thunderbolt (Vampire Earth #3)
Author: E.E. Knight

Chapter One

New Orleans, January, the forty-eighth year of the Kurian Order: Formerly glorious in its decay, under the New Order the city transformed from an aging beauty into a waterlogged corpse. Much of the Big Easy rots under a meter of Mississippi River water-save for the old city's heart, now protected by two layers of dikes. The rococo facades of the French Quarter, once browning into a fine patina, fall to pieces in quiet, unmounted. The stately homes of the two great antebellum periods, pre-1861 and pre-2022, have vanished under a carpet of lush kudzu or riverside saw grass. As if the flooding and years of neglect were not enough punishment, New Orleans suffered a major hurricane in 2028: a titanic storm that rose from the Gulf like a city-smashing monster in a Japanese movie. No FEMA, no insurance companies showed up afterwards to clean and repair the storm-battered city. What was destroyed stayed destroyed; the inhabitants found it easier to shift to still-standing buildings than to rebuild.

But the mouth of the Mississippi is too important, even to the reduced traffic of the Kurian Order, to be given up entirely to nature. The metropolis, both the section behind the dike and the Venice-like portions of the flooded districts, still support a melange of denizens from all across the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean. Counting those living among the lakes, bayous, and in the Mississippi estuary, New Orleans boasts a population of over two million-a total that few other cities known to the Old World can match. The rich harvests of seafood, fish and game of the swamps, and mile after mile of rice plantations feed the masses concentrated at the sodden bend in the river.

The Kurian Order encourages fecund populations. A Kurian lord must breed his polls to supply him with enough vital aura, for only in feeding on the energy created by the death throes of a sentient being can he revitalize his immortal lich. The Masters of New Orleans have no regrets about its silenced music, its smothered culture, its reduced cuisine, or its broken history. Healthy, mating herds of humans, kept from escape and from the clutches of rapacious competing Kur, are the only form of wealth that matters.

For the human race, living to see another year is now the paramount pursuit in a city once known for its sensual diversions.

Though the Easy Street was only a waterfront dive, it was his waterfront dive, so Martin Clive took pride in every squeaky stool and chipped mug of his saloon. From grid shielded-electric lights to sawdust-covered floor, he loved every brick of it.

His customers, on the other hand, he could take or leave.

Not that he didn't need them. Clive's herd of cash-bearing cows, properly milked, provided for him. Clive surveyed the noisy, smelly Thursday-night crowd as the winter rains poured down outside. Safe behind the badge sewn to the money vest he seldom took off--even to sleep-and in the ownership of the biggest bar on the dockyard district of the dike-hugging waterfront, he passed his time and occupied his mind in sizing up the men as they talked, smoked, and drank. The few women in his bar were there on business, not for pleasure.

Clive perfected a three-step practice of evaluating customers over the years, now so ingrained that he did it unconsciously. Separating the "payers" from the "bums" came first. Knowing who had the cash for a night's drink and who didn't had been second nature to Clive since before he acquired the establishment. Distinguishing "gents" from "trouble" was yet another specialty. As he aged, and passed the responsibility of serving out drinks and rousting the "bums" and "trouble" to younger, stronger men, he took up a third valuation: that of predicting the remaining life span of his customers.

Clive looked at a bent longshoreman, hook over his shoulder and a pewter mug of cheap beer at his lips. The man had drunk, smoked, and wheezed out a few hours in the Easy Street six nights a week for the past ten years. Clive had watched him age under grueling physical labor, rotgut alcohol, and bad diet. If the longshoreman could stay in the good books of his crew chief, meaning handing over kickbacks out of his wages, he could probably spin out as many as ten more years if he stayed out of the hold. Sitting two seats down from him, a merchant sailor drank plain coffee, sixty if he was a day, dye rubbed into his hair to darken it in an effort to look younger. Soon no captain would hire him on, no matter how sober and upstanding a character he might be. He was due for the last dance within a year or two. On the next stool, a boy kept an affectionate eye on the aged sailor, perhaps a relative, perhaps just a shipmate. The boy did not drink either, and with hard work and a clean nose could expect to live another fifty years as long as he kept indoors after nightfall.

Over at a warm corner table, a young officer drank with three of his men. The officer was a welcome combination of "payer" and "gent," to the point where Clive bothered to name him. The officer was "the Major" to Clive, and the Major always ordered a good bottle and never complained about the cheap whiskey substituted inside. That made him a fine payer. The Major and his men rarely caused trouble; therefore, they qualified for genthood. They wore the mottled green uniform of the Carbineers, one of the horsed troops of paramilitary Cossacks who kept civil order and patrolled the streets of New Orleans.

Maybe in other city establishments the Major threw his weight around, took food and drink without paying, and had his uniform silence objections. But not in the Easy Street. Clive had friends at the top of the city's food chain.

Clive learned in his youth that if you were in good with Kur, you could thumb your nose at the Port Authority, the Transport Office, even the police and militia. With Kurian patronage, he bid for ownership of the moribund Easy Street. A whiff of anything going on in the bar that Kur wouldn't like, and he picked up the phone. Clive wore his third ten-year badge on his chest, not due to expire for six more years, and he was certain of acquiring another. The badge put him off-limits to the Kurians' aura-hungry Hoods- well, mostly-and brought him peace of mind that muzzled any protest from his conscience.

The inner door of the entry vestibule opened, and Clive heard the wind and splatter of the rain pouring down outside in the moment before his doorman swung the outer portal shut. Clive liked the rain. It drove customers indoors and flushed the filth from the city's gutters.

A stranger stood silhouetted in the door.

The man didn't remove his raincoat. Clive took a closer look. A coat could conceal any number of unpleasant accoutrements. The Easy Street's owner relaxed when he caught a glimpse of uniform under the coat's heavy lapels. The flash of navy blue and brass buttons revealed the stranger as a Coastal Marine. From the fit of the coat and the good though mud-splattered boots Clive judged the man a payer. But something about his face made Clive reserve judgment on whether this man would be trouble or not.

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