It was early on a Friday morning in late January, and the sun was shining warmly and brightly in Los Angeles. Jerrica, Kimber, Aja, Shana, and Raya had just finished taking their brunch on the patio of Starlight Mansion and were lazily discussing their plans for the day during cleanup. Shana had some sketching to do; Kimber, writing. Aja thought she might do an hour of yoga and then call their friend, Danse, to see if she'd like to do some cardio in the Holograms' dance studio. Jerrica was hopelessly addicted to a telenovela—a Spanish soap opera—and planned to binge watch until the foster girls got home from school in the afternoon. Raya wasn't sure yet how she would spend her day, but decided to simply start by checking the mail.
It was so sunny outside in Southern California, Raya didn't need to wear a jacket even as she followed the quarter-mile cobblestone pathway that led from the mansion to the front gates. She wore a yellow tank top and white capris, smiling as the sun kissed her dark shoulders and bare calves. The fronds of the palm trees were swaying in a pleasant breeze that swept over the front yard and danced through her cherry blossom-pink curls. It was a beautiful day. It was a shame no one was interested in going out to enjoy it.
There hadn't been a lot of mail lately, not since Jerrica had decided Jem and the Holograms were due a break and put the band on hiatus. All of the mansion's bills went directly to Jerrica and Kimber Benton's music company, Starlight Music, so unless one of the foster girls was expecting a letter from a pen pal or Shana had requested fabric samples for her fashion designing hobby, not much had been appearing in the mailbox outside of the odd sales paper.
But today was different.
Today there was a single item in the mailbox: an envelope, a large, gold envelope lettered in purple and shining with green glitter. Raya smiled as she held it between her hands, shifting it gently back and forth just to watch it sparkle in the sunlight. Eventually, as she wandered slowly back toward the mansion, she read the names and addresses of the sender and recipient. The envelope was intended for Jem and the Holograms; it had been sent by Le Krewe de Melodicus of New Orleans.
Raya had no idea what the envelope might contain, but she felt a burst of excitement fluttering in her chest and began to walk faster just the same. She had to show this to Jerrica and the other girls. Jem and the Holograms had been idle for weeks, and though she felt truly blessed and would never think to complain, she secretly felt restless and was anxious for some activity. This might be just the thing she'd been hoping for.
"Absolutely not," Jerrica firmly declined.
Raya felt her heart sinking. But her friends weren't so quick to give up.
"Why not?!" Kimber practically screamed. They had all been so eager when Raya had gathered them together around the kitchen table to open the colorful envelope; after finding five free tickets for a riverboat cruise along the Mississippi, why was Jerrica so adamantly against them accepting the gift?
Jerrica could count the reasons. "We don't know who sent these tickets, or why. The invitation doesn't mention anything about hotel accommodations. We've never even been to the state of Louisiana."
"So?" Aja interjected. "All the more reason to visit."
Kimber's brows rose. Help from old stick-in-the-mud Aja? She didn't know why the guitarist was on her side of an argument for a change, but she couldn't deny she was glad. "Yeah!" the perky redhead quickly agreed, "All the more reason."
Jerrica lifted the letter beside the empty envelope on the table and read a portion out loud for a second time, her tone ominous. "The Krewe of Melodicus invites you to join us for a two-hour sunset cruise along the Mississippi River on a 100–year old river steamboat that will take you from Baton Rouge to New Orleans, where you will be contacted by one of our representatives who will reveal the true purpose for your summons." She lowered the letter back to the table and gave Kimber a wide-eyed look. "You can't seriously want to take up an offer as shady as this one."
"What's so shady about free tickets for a cruise?" Kimber demanded huffily, waving the five passes wildly in the air.
Aja caught Jerrica's stare and rolled her eyes, but she was grinning. Sometimes Kimber's naiveté was endearing.
"It's so mysterious!" Raya breathed, not verbally casting her vote one way or the other.
Shana shrugged. "It's not like we have anything else going on," she pointed out. "And besides, aren't there a lot of jazz festivals and things like that in the South?"
"Ooh! That sounds like fun," Aja mused.
Jerrica looked around the table at each girl in turn. "Is that really how you all feel?" she asked.
Kimber nodded emphatically. Raya bit her bottom lip hopefully.
The blond sighed. "I can't fight you all, can I?"
Aja arched an azure brow. "Does that mean…?"
Jerrica sighed again, conceding defeat. "I guess that means we're going to New Orleans."
The other girls erupted in excited cheers and giddy rambling, but Jerrica frowned down at the strange letter on the table. She couldn't help feeling as if the beautiful envelope had contained something dangerous, and that opening it had released some threat from Pandora's box.
Oh, well, she thought. I guess we'll find out soon enough.
Roxy was half-watching the television while she sat with her long legs draped over the arm of a zebra-striped lounge chair at the Gabor mansion, tuning the guitar splayed across her lap. She had come over this afternoon to hang out with her friend and band leader, but the green-haired singer of the Misfits had her feet propped up on the coffee table from her seat on the couch, her eyes glued to her laptop while she typed something and smirked.
Roxy wasn't sitting close enough to see what the other girl was doing, but it wouldn't have mattered much even if she could have viewed the computer screen; she couldn't type at all, and she couldn't read much better. But she was dying to know what had the rock star grinning like a Cheshire. Pizzazz was so obviously pleased with herself that Roxy couldn't resist getting in on it.
"Whatcha up to, Pizzazz?" Roxy asked, trying to sound casual and look comfortable so she wouldn't be invited to see for herself—or expected to be able to read whatever Pizzazz was typing.
"You know that guy I've been chatting with online for a while?" Pizzazz purred, her jade-green eyes never leaving the screen. "He wants to meet in person. And I'm thinking about actually doing it."
Roxy snapped a guitar string. "Ouch!" she hissed, shaking her hand to soothe her stinging fingers. She quickly set the instrument aside, letting it lean against the lounge chair as she sat up rigidly. "You've got to be joking," she said incredulously. "You're planning to meet up with some dude you've only talked to on the Internet?" Her lips twisted to display her horror. "What if he's, you know, a psycho-stalker-serial killer-rapist?"
Now Pizzazz did look up, with an expression that was clearly asking if Roxy had lost her mind.
"I'm sure he's none of that, let alone all of it," she muttered, shaking her head as her gaze lowered back to the screen.
"Oh, yeah? Well, what if he's worse, then? A regular Joe. Just some plain schmuck with bad hair."
Pizzazz clicked something on her laptop, then turned it toward Roxy and sneered.
As she leaned closer to Pizzazz's sofa seat to get a better look, Roxy's dark amber eyes widened with surprise. Of all things, she had not expected to see a photo of a man in white Halloween makeup and painted-on skeletal features sporting a shredded black T-shirt. But, she had to admit as she admired his long, auburn tresses, "Okay, so he's got great hair."
Pizzazz squealed. "I know, right?"
Roxy scowled. She crossed her arms over her chest and sank sullenly back into her own chair. "He still looks like a complete freak."
"I know," Pizzazz said again. "I can't wait to meet him."
Sometimes Roxy wanted to strangle Pizzazz. "If you're dead-set on meeting the creep, then I'm comin' along," she declared.
"Sure. The whole gang can come along," Pizzazz said, surprisingly agreeable for a change. "Necko's got a band, too. They're called the 'Zomboys'," she said with amusement, as if she thought the idea of dressing like a corpse was cute.
"So they're cosplaying Walking Dead fanboys," Roxy assumed. "How original." She relaxed in her seat, now that she knew she had permission to watch Pizzazz's back, and reached for her guitar again. "Are they any good?" she asked doubtfully.
"The band?" Pizzazz scoffed. "Who cares? Necko's hot. That's all I know."
Roxy tried not to roll her eyes.