It had not been
an auspicious beginning to a journey that rapidly got worse. In addition
to the threat of bandits--which had not, in four days of travel, so far
manifested itself--there was the more clearly present threat of the inns
themselves, ancient, filthy structures of adobe-brick, primitive beyond
belief and inhabited by nests of scorpions and centipedes as well as the
more usual fauna of chickens, pigs, and village dogs. There was the food--mostly
greasy tamales, inadequately cooked beans, and the national staple of
tortillas, unleavened corncakes cooked on an open grill. Born in the slave-quarters
of a cane plantation upriver from New Orleans, January had eaten worse,
but not recently.
Most deadly of all, there was the Yankee coachman's driving, as he lashed
his team of four skittery little mustangs at crazy speed over the high
yellow passes of the Sierra Madre Orientale, causing the diligencia to
sway and jolt and causing January to wonder if he shouldn't have damned
his friend Hannibal to whatever penalty the government of New Spain--Pardon
me, he corrected himself, MEXICO--thought fit to dole out, and stayed
at home to enjoy the wonderful state of having actually, finally, against
all odds, married Rose Vitrac.
A particularly savage rut hurled the coach nearly sideways and precipitated
his new bride nearly into his lap. Covered with yellow dust, sweating
in the crystalline heat of these parched gray peaks, her soft snuff-colored
curls skinned back tight into unflattering braids for travel . . . it
took everything in him not to seize her in his arms and cover her with
That would really give Mr. Dillard something to complain about, he thought.
And it would shock the other passengers--two German merchants, their doddering
Swiss valet, and a young priest--speechless. Instead, he remarked, "At
least, at this rate, we'll get there soon, and learn what actually happened."
He gestured with Hannibal's letter and tucked it back into his pocket.
Rose removed her spectacles, sought vainly for some portion of her clothing
not thick with dust in order to clean the dusty lenses, then sighed and
resignedly replaced them on her nose. "You don't think Hannibal actually
did it, do you?"
This was a question they'd asked each other for three weeks now, when
not occupied with the logistics of honeymoon copulation in a stateroom
bunk barely the size of a particularly stingy coffin. (The Belle Marquise,
out of New Orleans to Vera Cruz, transported pineapples, tobacco, and
the insect life that invariably accompanied them, and the floor was not
an option.) Mostly they wondered if their friend--of average height and
skeletally thin from the ravages of consumption--could have physically
And the answer, of course, was yes. Even were "young Fernando" as tall
as January and, like January, built upon what English novelists liked
to call Herculean lines, there was always poison, there were firearms,
there was the possibility of a stiletto in the back in a darkened room.
January and Rose had whiled away many hours evolving such hypothetical
scenarios ("What if Fernando habitually wore a steel breastplate to bed?"
"One can mix
sulfate of mercury with candle-wax and make a poisoned candle that when
burned will kill the person in the room. . . .") as they strolled the
decks of the Belle Marquise, waiting for a northern wind to fill the sails
for those last few maddening miles into Vera Cruz; and, latterly, as they'd
had the marrow pounded out of their bones by the frantic pace of the diligencia
over rutted mountain roads.
In the absence of the slightest information about the victim, the circumstances,
or any conceivable motivation for the murder, it was as good a way as
any to pass the time.
But that wasn't what Rose meant now, and January knew it.
His mind returned to the reeking heat and darkness of the waterfront at
New Orleans, the tail-end of summer, 1832. Even at that hour of the night--and
he'd heard the Cathedral clock strike three as he'd left the garaonniare
above his mother's kitchen--there was activity along the levee, stevedores
unloading bales from the big, ugly flat-sided steamboats, filthy ruffians
in coarse calico shirts and heavy Conestoga boots driving pigs from the
flatboats by the light of torches, whores in tawdry dresses plying their
trade in the shadows. Music jingled from the saloons along Rue du Levee,
where men gambled through the night, somewhere a slave gang hauling wood
onto a boat wailed a primitive holler. Roaches the size of mice crept
on the sides of the warehouses, or flew with roaring wings around the
flaming cressets; the warm air breathed and blew with the storm that flickered
far out over the Gulf.
New Orleans. The home January had fled sixteen years before, seeking education
and freedom in France.
He'd made his way along the levee, away from the docks where the steamboats
waited three-deep and toward the taller masts of the ocean-going ships.
The Duchesse Ivrogne, on which he'd come from France only two days before,
would not even yet have left port. When he'd risen, sleepless, dressed
and gone out, he'd told himself it was to see if the Duchesse was still
in port, and to learn what her captain would ask to take him back to France
again, though what the man would have been doing up at three in the morning
January hadn't considered--perhaps in his heart he'd known that wasn't
his intent at all. Around the ships the dark was thicker, and there was
little activity beyond the scurryings of rats. Between the wet hulks,
the river gleamed with the reflection of the distant torches, the occasional
January found an empty wharf and walked out along it, the stink of the
river pungent in his nose with a thousand memories. Hereabouts, where
the river bent, the current was ferocious.
He didn't think it would take him long to drown.
He could barely see the wharf's end when he reached it. Occasional heat-lightning
outlined the sable clouds of trees on the opposite river-bank, but illuminated
nothing nearer. He'd advanced feeling his way with his feet--an absurd
precaution, he thought, with the part of his mind still aware of the world
of the living: wasn't the point of his coming here tonight to walk off
the end of the wharf in the dark?
But when he reached the end he only stood there, looking out into the
blackness, with the electric whisper of far-off storm-winds passing like
silk ribbons over his face.
Whether he would have jumped he still didn't know. He knew--even three
years later--that he'd been close to it.
But behind him he heard music, the light sweet embroideries of a single
violin, playing a Mozart air in the dark.
And he turned back.
A white man was sitting on a bollard about halfway between the wharf's
end and the levee behind them, a thin man of medium height whose long
dark hair hung straggling over his shoulders like a disheveled mermaid's.
He played like an angel, dismissed from the Heavenly Choir, for drunkenness,
perhaps, because a squat black bottle of gin sat on the wharf-planks at
his feet. He didn't look up as January came back toward him out of the
night, only embellished the little dance-tune till it sparkled, calling
secret rhythm and resonance from it until it seemed to speak of all joy,
all light, all life.
He hadn't been there when January had walked out onto the wharf. He must
have followed him, and sat down to play.
Then he looked up at January with the darkest eyes January had ever seen,
and said: "You look like a man who needs a drink."
He was the first white man since January's return to his home city who
had addressed him as a man, and not some lower form of life. When January
had departed in 1817 the town had been mostly French, and the Creole French
had long ago come to accommodation with their half-African libre cousins
who made up most of the town's free-colored community. To Americans, who
seemed to have taken over the town in their thousands, all blacks were
January said, "I do."
The fiddler nudged the bottle at his feet with the toe of one battered
boot. "Try this. They lie, who say drafts from the River Styx bring oblivion.
Who knows what dreams may come, when we have shuffled off this mortal
coil. . . ."
"Aye, there's the rub," January had agreed, and bent to pick up the bottle.
He answered in the English in which the fiddler had addressed him, the
white man's voice not the twangy rasp of all those Americans who had told
him all those things that a nigger couldn't do these days, and had asked
him for his free papers, to prove he had the right to walk around by himself:
rather, it had the slight lilt of the educated Anglo-Irish, overlaid with
the whispery hoarseness of consumption.
"Or do you think you'll find someone that you've lost in those waters?"
With cholera walking the dark streets of every city in the world that
year, it was a reasonable question. January saw again what was, at that
time, his last clear recollection before the long haze of grief and agony
in which he'd taken ship for New Orleans from Paris--his wife Ayasha's
body, stretched across their bed in their grilling-hot room in Paris,
her long black hair trailing down into the drying pools of vomit on the
floor. The disease had spared her nothing. She had suffered and died alone.
"Not think," he'd replied, the whole conversation with this slight fantastic
figure feeling to him like something from a dream. As the past two months,
since finding Ayasha's body, had all felt like a dream. "Hope."
"Hope is something the living do." The fiddler coughed, switching the
bow into his other hand so that he could press his hand to his
side. ". . . to hope til Hope creates / from its own wreck the thing it
contemplates. . . . It's too silly an occupation for the dead."
January took a sip of the gin--which was cheap and unspeakably bad--and
said, "You may be right about that."
The diligencia jolted, bringing him back to the present. To the knowledge
of money in his pocket, and Rose--whom he had not known existed on that
hot storm-whispering night three years ago--at his side.
Slowly he said, "Hannibal has been my friend for three years. Drunk or
sober, I don't think you could find a more peaceable soul in creation--or
a more hapless one." He spoke French--across from him the two German merchants
muttered together in their native tongue and glanced worriedly out at
the gray and yellow landscape of stone, distant pines, and dust. The entire
journey had been a series of translations and recapitulations, and even
in the close confines of the swaying coach January and Rose had a curious
sense of privacy, as if everyone else were trapped within their own linguistic
"But it is also true," he went on, "that I have no idea what Hannibal
did, or even what his name was, before the night I met him." The morning
after that encounter on the waterfront January had gotten his first music
pupil in New Orleans, and two nights after that had been hired for his
first job playing at a quadroon ball. Hannibal had been playing as well,
as usual the only white among musicians who ranged from musterfinos--men
who were considered to be "of color" on the grounds of one African great-grandparent--down
to January's nearly-pure African blackness. For this reason alone the
fiddler was considered rather degenerate by the whites in the town.
Excerpted from Days of the Dead by Barbara Hambly
Copyrightę 2003 by Barbara Hambly. Excerpted by permission of Bantam,
a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this
excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from
in the autumn of 1835 is a lawless place, teeming with bandits and beggars.
But an urgent letter from a desperate friend draws Benjamin January and
his new bride Rose from New Orleans to this newly free province. Here
they pray theyll find Hannibal Sefton alive--and not hanging from
the end of a rope.Sefton stands accused of murdering the only son of prominent
landowner Don Prospero de Castellon. But when Benjamin and Rose arrive
at Hacienda Mictlán, they encounter a murky tangle of family relations,
and more than one suspect in young Fernandos murder.
evidence against Hannibal is damning, Benjamin is certain that his consumptive,
peace-loving fellow musician isnt capable of murder. Their only
allies are the dead boys half sister, who happens to be Hannibals
latest inamorata, and the mentally unstable Castellon himself, who awaits
Mexicos holy Days of the Dead, when he believes his slain son will
himself reveal the identity of his killer.The search for the truth will
lead Benjamin and Rose down a path that winds from the mazes of the capitals
back streets and barrios to the legendary pyramids of Mictlán and,
finally, to a place where spirits walk and the dead cry out for justice.
But before they can lay to rest the ghosts of the past, Benjamin and Rose
will have to stop a flesh-and-blood murderer whos determined to
escape the day of reckoning and add Benjamin and Rose to the swelling
ranks of the dead.
Hambly was born in San Diego, California in 1951, she grew up in Southern
California, with the exception of one high-school semester spent in New
South Wales, Australia. She attended the University of California, Riverside
and spent a year at the University of Bordeaux, France, specializing in
in medieval history and eventually obtaining a master's degree in the
subject. She has worked as both a teacher, a technical editor and and
a karate instructor (she holds a Black Belt in Shotokan karate and has
competed in several national-level tournaments), but her first love has
always been history. Ranging from fantasy to historical fiction, Barbara
Hambly has a masterfulway of spinning a story. Her interest in fantasy
began with reading The Wizard of OZ at an early age and it has
continued ever since. She was the president of Science Fiction Writers
of America from 1994 to 1996. She married George Alec Effinger in 1998
and now lives in Los Angeles, California.