Zoe Norris writes travel guides for the undead. And she's good at it too her new-found ability to talk to cities seems to help. After the success of The Sbambling Guide to New York City, Zoe and her team are sent to New Orleans to write the sequel.
Work isn't all that brings Zoe to the Big Easy. The only person who can save her boyfriend from zombism is rumored to live in the city's swamps, but Zoe's out of her element in the wilderness. With her supernatural colleagues waiting to see her fail, and rumors of a new threat hunting city talkers, can Zoe stay alive long enough to finish her next book?
Related collections and offers
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Ghost Train to New Orleans
By Mur Lafferty
OrbitCopyright © 2014 Mur Lafferty
All rights reserved.
Zoë Norris would have rather had a root canal than conduct this interview for a new writer. Her stomach rolled forward at a slow, constant pace, nearly pulling her along toward her fate: an interview with an angry Norse goddess.
Zoë reminded herself that it was her turf, her job to give out, and that she was only doing this interview as a favor for Gwen, her head writer, who had recommended the Norse goddess. Zoë could easily tell this woman no, she couldn't have the travel writing job.
The problem was, she needed to fill the position, and fast.
The offices of Underground Publishing were in a condemned off-Broadway theater, mainly to accommodate the vampires who worked with Zoë in publishing travel guides for nonhumans. Being human, Zoë wished her office at least had a window, but was simply grateful she had a door that locked.
She conducted her interviews on the stage, where the office kept its break room. In fact, the break room looked an awful lot like a set—it held a refrigerator, a counter with a microwave, a bookshelf filled with travel guides, easy chairs, and a lunch table.
The audience was full of dusty red velvet seats that had seen better days many decades before. Zoë was fairly good by now at ignoring the expanse of emptiness beyond the break room, and she no longer felt that getting a cup of coffee was paired with handling stage fright, but right now all she wanted to do was flee into the audience.
The goddess, Eir, sat at one end of the lunch table, her spine ramrod-straight, her hair in one thick golden braid across her shoulder that brushed her hip. She wore a gray Yankees sweatshirt that did nothing to hide her very obvious divine nature. The woman practically glowed. Gwen had once told Zoë that Eir was a relatively minor goddess, a Valkyrie, but even a minor goddess was more divine than Zoë, and Eir knew it.
It didn't help that Zoë had interviewed Eir once before, and that had ended with Zoë's completely offending her.
But that was a while ago, Zoë firmly reminded herself. Since then she had become much more comfortable with the world in which she worked: a world where vampires, zombies, and the occasional demon or deity were tourists just like humans and, therefore, needed travel guides. She had successfully edited one book about New York, and was building a writing team for a travel guide to New Orleans.
Zoë weighed the subtle power dynamics of the situation: the goddess had already taken the head of the table, which was the interviewer's seat, but she decided that she would let Eir have this one. Zoë was the one with the real power here, despite Eir's impressive ability to intimidate.
And heal, apparently. Morgen would have laughed at her being afraid of a healing goddess. But Morgen wasn't here; the water sprite had been missing for over a month (since the rather destructive events last December), and no one was around to make Zoë laugh at herself. Everyone was so damn serious here.
Eir was much taller than Zoë, even seated her height was impressive, and her stony features depicted a perfect picture of a pissed-off Norse goddess. If, as a child, Zoë had been instructed to draw a pissed-off Norse goddess, she would have drawn Eir. Long golden braid, crossed arms, furrowed brow.
She probably would have put wings on her, too, because Zoë as a child thought everything was made better with angel wings, even bugs, which already had wings. Also, she wouldn't have included the Yankees sweatshirt. But besides that, Eir still impressed Zoë with her palpable divine presence.
Zoë fought the urge to cringe, but instead smiled at Eir and sat down at the table.
Before she could speak, Eir asked, "Why have you called me back here?" Her voice boomed, echoing through the auditorium. She had great stage presence, Zoë thought, wondering if she should encourage the goddess to go into acting instead of publishing.
"It's good to see you, Eir," Zoë said, ignoring the imperative question. "All right, so our first encounter was handled poorly, and the fault was entirely mine." (And your crazy temper's, she didn't add.) "We've had an opening in the writing team, and I've had a chance to look over your résumé again, so I wanted to see if you were still interested in a job at Underground Publishing."
Eir's face softened, but she just segued into a skeptical frown instead of a look of relaxed ease. "Why me?"
Because Gwen made me, Zoë didn't say. Instead she said, "Gwen tells me you have spent some time in New Orleans, yes?"
Eir eased her huge form back into the chair, relaxing at last. "Yes. A couple of decades selling music. It is a beautiful city."
Zoë smiled. "That's why we need you. My team is talented but having someone we know who knows the city is quite useful. Gwen, ah, mentioned you still didn't have a steady job?"
Eir nodded her regal head, her braid bobbing. "Employers respond poorly to my passion. They make me angry too often."
"Here you would be working with coterie, and I'm sure they can handle your ... passion," Zoë said carefully.
"What about you? Are you not a human?"
"I am," she conceded. "But I think I've had enough experience now to not be surprised by the actions of one of your kind. Or if I am surprised, I can at least keep my head. When you met me, I was new to this whole world. I've had some experience since then." She stopped, realizing she sounded as if she were interviewing for the job, not Eir. She bit her tongue inside her mouth.
Eir smiled, a touch of malice on her broad face. "Oh? And where were you on December eighth? Hiding in your apartment from the scary coterie?"
Zoë's smile froze on her face. On December 8 she had been fighting a crazy woman who was raising golems to attack the city of New York. Many had died, and the authorities had explained it away as an earthquake. Zoë had been injured in the battle, and had lost friends. She didn't like talking about December 8.
"Someday we'll have a drink together and Gwen and I can tell you what happened the night of December eighth." She looked down at the table and shuffled Eir's résumé papers around, surprised at the tears that sprang to her eyes when she thought of that night, and her friends Morgen and Granny Good Mae, both of whom were gone. "But no," she finished. "I didn't hide."
She took a deep breath to steady herself. "Your employment has been interesting through the centuries," she said, looking at the résumé. "What can you tell me about your service to, um, sorry, I can't pronounce it. Menglod?"
Eir nodded. "Menglöð, or Freyja, was my mistress, and I served her as a Valkyrie, choosing who lived and who died in war. After the wars died down, she had no more need of my service, so I spent time as a mead-server to heroes in Valhalla."
"From Valkyrie to food service, got it," Zoë said, making a note. She would give Eir the job—Zoë had no other choice—but she had to go through the motions. "It seems you had a spot of unemployment here, some twelve centuries of it?"
"Times were tough all over," Eir said.
"And you applied to med school in 1975 but left because you didn't need medical training since you already had divine healing power at your hand. I'm trying to find your New Orleans experience ... ah, here!" She found the line she wanted on the résumé. "The store Mama Peat's Records in New Orleans, you were assistant manager for ten years. Did you stay in the city long after that?"
"Some. I mostly traveled around, visited a war here and there, but choosing the living and dying has lost its sparkle for me. I haven't found my true calling yet."
"And do you think writing travel books is your calling?" Zoë asked.
"It could be. I will not know until I answer the call, will I?" Eir's stony face had begun to flush, and Zoë broke eye contact, hoping not to rile her further.
She sighed and turned over the paper. "I will be honest with you, Eir. We need a writer now, and you know the city we're working on, and Gwen has vouched for you." Zoë's eyes flicked backstage, where she knew her head writer was eavesdropping. "But I'm not crazy about your temper. If you took this job, I would need you to respect the word of the head writer and the editor."
Eir sat, impassive. She said nothing.
"That would be Gwen and myself, respectively," Zoë said. "The death goddess and the human will be your bosses. And the vampire above them," she added, since Phil was the publisher and boss of them all. "If I can trust you to rein in your temper, I can offer you the job."
"I will take your job," Eir announced, as if she were doing Zoë a favor. "I will start tomorrow. Where is my desk?"
Her abrupt acceptance shocked Zoë. Did Eir accept the conditions? She shrugged mentally and continued. "Actually, we aren't going to assign you a desk yet; we are heading out of town tonight to go to New Orleans, and we need you to come help us with our research. We're going on the new high-speed train that runs the East Coast."
Eir showed real interest for the first time. "Really? The ghost train? I have been wanting to ride that!"
"So have we all. It's good to have you on board," Zoë said, and shook the goddess's hand. She was testing Eir, putting a lot of faith in the hope the goddess wouldn't crush her hand, but then she remembered that Eir was a healing goddess, and her grip was firm and warm.
Zoë gave Eir the information she needed to meet them at Grand Central and told her to go meet Phil and Aneris, Phil's new office assistant and acting coterie resources (the monster equivalent of human resources) representative, for the welcome-to-the-company speech.
"Phil and Aneris will discuss salary and benefits with you," she said. "After that, you'll need to go pack and then meet us tonight at midnight."
The goddess nodded imperially and walked off the stage. Zoë flopped back into her chair and forced her shoulders to relax.
She stared at the acoustic tile on the ceiling and then called into the wings, "I know you're there, can you come chat?"
Gwen, Underground Publishing's head writer, peeked out from behind the curtain. "How did it go?" Her black eyes—completely black, with hints of stars within—were shining.
Zoë closed her eyes and rubbed her forehead. "You know how it went because you eavesdropped on us."
"I did, I admit it," she said. Zoë opened her eyes and mock-glared at her friend.
Gwen came onto the stage, a flowing image of 1985-era goth—night-black skin, black gown, long black hair. Zoë had no idea how she passed for human—her skin would place her as African in origin, but her hair was thin and straight, and her eyes were just plain freaky.
"If you had wanted privacy you should have gone into your office," she said primly, and sat across from Zoë at the table.
Gwen was a Welsh psychopomp death goddess, once responsible for chaperoning the dead to the underworld, but with Christianity having taken over the British Isles, she didn't have much to do anymore. She looked up with her glittering black eyes in her inky black face, and smiled slightly. "Thank you for giving her a chance."
Zoë liked Gwen. The death goddess and Morgen the water sprite had been Zoë's first friends in the office. But the death goddess was the polar opposite of the bubbly water sprite. Talking to Gwen was often, well, grave. It also wasn't comforting that Gwen could sense at any time how close Zoë's death was, and sometimes seemed comfortable telling Zoë when her odds of dying changed. This made conversation tense.
"You're welcome. If she screws up, you're responsible," Zoë said. Gwen nodded. Zoë began gathering her papers back into her interview folder. "How are you doing? Trip prep going all right?"
"It takes very little for me to prepare for a trip," Gwen said.
"Well, sure, you're always wearing the same flowy dress that apparently doesn't need dry cleaning," Zoë said, "but don't forget you'll need to back up your laptop before you pack it up. And remember to pack power cords and all that."
Gwen frowned, then said, "Wait one moment, please." Zoë snickered and got up to get some coffee as Gwen headed offstage to, Zoë assumed, go ask the IT staff—two tiny gremlins—for help, as she always did when dealing with her computer.
She came back a moment later. "I'm not entirely sure what you said to me, but I repeated your words verbatim to Cassandra and she assured me she would take care of it. Now I am ready," she said, and sat back down.
"So how did you meet Eir, anyway?" Zoë asked.
Gwen looked at her hands, which were calmly folded. "We'd seen each other on various battlefields through the centuries and became friends. Last night I was at the hospital and encountered her there, volunteering. We had a cup of coffee together."
Zoë knew this meant that Eir had drunk coffee while Gwen fed silently on the desperate sense of fear of the dying, but she didn't pick nits. She tried to imagine Eir's bedside manner in a hospital, and shuddered.
"We talked about work, and it seemed she was still looking for a job. She tried faith healing, but that has largely gone out of style in favor of people who claim to talk to the dead."
"That's more your style," Zoë said, and looked at Eir's résumé again, having missed the hospital volunteer job at the end. "You know, we should talk to Phil about a book on business planning for coterie, including a chapter on how to write a résumé."
"It has only come up as a necessity in the past few decades. Acquiring new knowledge requires overcoming centuries of habits for most of us," Gwen said mildly. "But a book is a good idea."
Zoë took a sip of her coffee and smiled. "That's why they pay me the big bucks."
Gwen stood. "Thank you for giving her another chance, Zoë. You will not regret this." She swept from the stage.
"I regret nearly every decision I make around here," Zoë muttered. Her phone beeped and she checked it—it was nearly time for her meeting with Phil. She put Eir's information back into her file and got that and her coffee and left the stage. She stopped by her office to grab her notebook and look mournfully at the still-untouched croissant she'd grabbed for breakfast, and headed to the big dressing room turned office to meet her boss.
Phil had never looked threatening to Zoë. He was white, thirtyish-looking, and comfortably plump, with glasses. When she was getting to know him, she had known that her coworkers were scared of him for some reason but she could never quite figure it out. But during that night in December, she'd seen him attack her former lover in a rage, and then kill a powerful zoëtist. His pleasant face transformed into monstrous rage was something Zoë wouldn't forget.
You didn't fuck with Phil.
After the incident, Zoë had taken some time off work to "heal," ostensibly, working from home. She'd also needed to get her confidence back. Before, Phil was a nerdy puppy. Now he reminded her of a fat, dozing cat that could awaken and draw blood anytime if he needed to. A fat cat could still pounce, could still eviscerate.
"Morning, Phil. We need to make it quick, I still need to do a million and one things before the train leaves tonight."
The fat cat smiled. He hadn't done much to change his office from the dressing room it had been; he worked in front of a mirror that did not reflect him, which always disoriented her.
She took her customary seat on the couch and he swiveled his chair away from the computer to face her.
"Right. I spoke to your new writer, I was surprised you went with the Valkyrie."
Zoë nodded. "Yeah, so am I, frankly. But she was the best of everyone we talked to, is familiar with the city, and Gwen wants me to give her a chance. Really, I only hesitated because she's got a wicked temper."
Phil laughed. "Like half the people in the office."
Undaunted, Zoë said, "And that's why I was hesitant about adding yet another volatile personality. We need more people like Morgen to diffuse the tension, not angsty people like Kevin to ratchet it up."
Kevin was a young vampire, a writer who chafed at having a human for a boss. Zoë wasn't happy about having to take him with her, but the fact was he was a damn good writer. When he wasn't smelling her like a creepy guy in an elevator.
Excerpted from Ghost Train to New Orleans by Mur Lafferty. Copyright © 2014 Mur Lafferty. Excerpted by permission of Orbit.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.