Blood Red Chapter 5



Looking for Stephan's hideout was like looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack, Mark thought. He might have chosen a basement in a deserted housing complex almost anywhere. Or an old warehouse. Or abandoned industrial park.

Somehow, he had to get a better sense of where his nemesis was making his home base.

His next self-imposed task didn't seem to be any easier.

Mark wasn't at all sure how he was going to gain access to the morgue, and it wouldn't help him in the least if the attendants brought out Polaroids of the deceased or digital images, as was so often the case these days.

He was pretty good at mesmerizing people, and on someone trusting, like innkeeper Lilly Martin, he could almost guarantee success. But at the morgue, there were clerks, assistants, attendants, gurney pushers...all kinds of people to get past.

Luckily, he started out with a young woman in her mid-twenties, a picture of her husband and baby on her desk.

The entire business world knew that confident, direct eye contact brought about the best results. And she was easy to engage. Without telling too many lies, he convinced her that he had an official reason to be there and got her to agree to let him in to see the body that had been pulled from the Mississippi.

As it happened, the remains were in one of the autopsy rooms. Bad luck. But he was able to get into the back, and put on scrubs and a mask. With a clipboard in hand, he moved down the hallway, knowing exactly where he was going.

To his surprise, there was a roadblock. A human roadblock.

Most of the time that would have meant little, but this roadblock was different. It was the cop. Sean Canady.

Canady looked up, saw him and, despite the mask and the scrubs, recognized him instantly.

Hell. Now, there was a chance he would be arrested. Not good.

But Canady only strode down the hallway to greet him.

No sense playing games. ’’Hello, Lieutenant.’’

’’Musician and writer, huh?’’

’’I swear. You should hear me play.’’

Canady studied him for a long moment, looking into his eyes.

To Mark's amazement, the cop shrugged. ’’You feel you need to see the body? Let's go.’’

One of the assistant's brought Canady some gloves. He thanked the assistant, then asked, ’’Who's on?’’

’’Doc Mordock.’’

’’Great.’’

The autopsy room was like every other one of its kind. Sterile. Tile and paint in soft powder blue. Same smell of death, antiseptics and preservatives. Water running to keep the stainless steel tables as clean and germ-free as possible, and to enable the doctors and technicians to work on human bodies, with all their messy fluids and tissues.

Only one of the gurneys in the room held a form beneath a sheet. A man in scrubs and a mask was standing behind it.

’’Sean, hey,’’ he said.

’’Doc Mordock, hi,’’ Sean replied.

Mordock looked at Mark, a question in his eyes. ’’Mark Davidson,’’ Sean said in introduction. ’’He's seen victims found in a similar situation. He may be able to tell us if we're looking at a killer who has struck elsewhere,’’ he went on to explain briefly.

’’Hey, he's with you. That's good enough for me,’’ Mordock said as he pulled back the sheet.

There was always something sad and eerie about a naked corpse on a stainless steel gurney. When the head was missing, the effect was intensified.

Mark knew there were things that Mordock could determine from the damage inflicted by the water, and the fish and crustaceans that made the Mississippi their home. He should be able to determine a time and date of death, what she had eaten for her last meal, and much, much more.

None of that mattered to Mark, though he did listen to the conversation between Mordock and Sean Canady.

’’You got an ID yet?’’ Mordock asked.

Canady nodded. ’’Eloise Dryer. A few petty thefts, soliciting. She's known in a few of the local clubs, but her address is listed as a Houston hole-in-the-wall.’’

’’So she was a prostitute?’’ Mark said.

’’Most of the time,’’ Canady told him.

Mark was inspecting the corpse's neck.

’’Decapitated with an ax,’’ Mordock told him. ’’Postmortem. But it was one clean swipe. I'm willing to bet many a man executed on the block would have given a lot to be killed with such a clean stroke.’’

’’But she was deceased first?’’ Mark said.

Mordock swept indicated the cut. ’’Bloodless,’’ he said.

There, Mark noted. A puncture mark. Not such a perfect way to hide the evidence after all. ’’Bloodless,’’ he repeated, and looked at Canady.

The cop was silent. His face gave away nothing.

’’She might have been killed as part of some ritual,’’ Doc Mordock said. ’’God knows, there are enough kooks out there.’’ He stared at Mark. ’’And I don't mean just in New Orleans. Hell, I was called out to work a case in the back woods of the Midwest, the heart of America, and what those fellows were up to made hardened cops puke. But, yeah, I've seen the mark. Right on the jugular. She was drained like a slaughtered hog.’’

’’That won't be in the press releases,’’ Canady said and looked warningly at Mark.

Mark shrugged. ’’I don't write press releases.’’

’’But you do write.’’

’’I won't be writing about this.’’

Apparently that satisfied Canady. ’’Thanks, Mordock. Put anything else you can think of in your report and give it to me as soon as you can. You still don't know where she went into the river?’’

’’Tech forensics are working on it, ebb and flow, all that,’’ Mordock told him. ’’But she hasn't been dead that long. With the current and the river life, well, a body goes to hell pretty quickly when it's in the water. But here's something interesting-whoever tossed her didn't really care whether or not she was found. She wasn't weighted down. She was just dumped in the water.’’

Canady thanked the ME again and turned to exit the autopsy room. Mark followed him.

In the hallway, Canady stripped off his gloves, staring at Mark. ’’Did you get what you were after?’’

’’Yes. Did you?’’ Mark, too, stripped off his autopsy-room paraphernalia.

Canady studied him. ’’Not just one vampire but lots of them, eh?’’

Mark said cleared his throat. ’’She was used for some kind of a blood rite.’’

When Sean didn't respond, Mark went on.

’’Every cult has some kind of leader, a grand priest, whatever,’’ Mark said, studying Canady. ’’I get the impression you've dealt with cults before. That you know what I'm talking about.’’

’’Come in tomorrow. You can have a sketch artist draw up a likeness of this man Stephan for me.’’

’’Thanks,’’ Mark said, then hesitated. Canady seemed to be a decent guy treating him with such apparent respect. But he was afraid for the man, as well. ’’The thing is...okay, these guys really think they are vampires. They go down if they're hit with holy water, and they back away from crosses, and...unless they're planning to make a victim rise from the dead, they cut off the head to keep the population from getting out of control. I'm just worried that your people...’’

Canady grinned. ’’My cops won't know they need to stake the guy, is that it?’’

He didn't know if Canady was mocking him or not.

’’Yeah, something like that,’’ he said.

’’I'll take care of it. Come by the station tomorrow, Mr. Davidson.’’

’’Thank you. Um, Lieutenant?’’

’’Yeah?’’

’’They may not all be men.’’

’’Pardon?’’

’’Vampires. They come in both se*es.’’

’’Gotcha,’’ Canady said. ’’Tomorrow.’’

Mark hesitated. ’’Like I said before, he's hiding out somewhere. He can move about by day, but it's a better time for him to rest.’’

’’I've warned local law enforcement to be on the lookout,’’ Sean told him. ’’And not just in this parish.’’

’’Oh? Great. Just so long as they understand that they could really be in danger.’’

’’I know my business,’’ Canady told him.

’’Right. Well, thanks.’’

As soon as Mark left the morgue, he hurried back to the bed and breakfast. As he pulled into the lot, he saw that Deanna and Lauren, wearing bathing suits and carrying bags that he assumed held lotions and magazines, were just going into their cottage.

Lock it, he thought as the door closed behind them. Lock it! And don't let anyone in....

He decided they were safe enough for the time being and headed back to his car.

Just when the world seemed all nice and normal...

When Deanna and Lauren went into their cottage they found Heidi out of the shower, dressed and on her cell phone. She flashed them a smile and mouthed the word, ’’Barry.’’

They both nodded;then Deanna headed into the shower, and Lauren plopped down on the sofa, turned on the television and found the news.

There was a police officer, a big handsome guy, talking to a sea of reporters, who were all struggling to get their mikes closer to the cop.

’’The most important thing for anyone, but especially women, to remember is to use good judgment and common sense,’’ the cop was saying.

’’But the victim was a known prostitute,’’ one of the reporters called out.

’’The victim was a woman,’’ the policeman said firmly. ’’And we don't know yet where she was killed. It might have been anywhere along the Mississippi. Folks, this is a great city. We've had our share of trouble, but we always rise back up. Right now, let's assume we're having a problem, so let's handle it intelligently. Go out, have fun. Go to dinner-gamble, if that's your passion, enjoy everything this city has to offer. Stay in groups. Don't go down dark streets on your own. Don't assume that you're safe just because the last victim was a woman or a prostitute, but don't spend your lives hiding, either. There's nothing new about predators. And there's nothing new to guard against them. Being smart is always the best defense.’’

The reporters all started shouting questions, speaking over top of each other. The detective lifted a hand. ’’There's nothing else I can say at the moment, except maybe to add this warning: Don't open your door to strangers.’’

’’Even tall, good-looking ones, Lieutenant?’’ one of the female reporters asked with a grin.

’’Strangers of any kind, Amy,’’ the cop said, staring hard at her, his expression grim. He'd been talking about murder and clearly hadn't appreciated her levity.

And that was that. They kept shouting, but he had turned and was walking away, and that was that.

The television went off with a soft ping. Lauren looked up. Heidi had flicked it off with the remote control. ’’We need to listen to that man,’’ she said firmly.

’’Of course. Smart man,’’ Lauren said.

Heidi sat down next to her. ’’You're getting that look that means you're taking all this too much to heart. We are going out.’’

’’Yeah, and we're doing what the officer said.’’

’’What's that?’’ Heidi asked, frowning.

’’We're sticking together.’’

Heidi waved a hand in the air. ’’Of course. That will be easy.’’

Deanna popped out of the bathroom, followed by a cloud of steam. She was in a robe, her make-up bag in her hand. ’’It's all yours, Lauren.’’

’’Great. Thanks.’’ Lauren rose and walked in to take her shower. She was grateful to discover that despite Heidi and Deanna having gone before her, she still had hot water.

Be smart, the cop had said.

Smart would be getting on a plane and getting the hell away from here.

Heidi and Deanna would never do it.

But Deanna was acting even stranger than she was herself, she thought. Just what was going on? Deanna wasn't given to flights of fancy or weirdness. There were just too many tall, dark-haired men hanging around lately. Mark Davidson, almost devastatingly attractive but scary as hell. Jonas, Deanna's guy.

And then....

It wasn't human, Deanna had said.

Back up, she told herself. There were often moments when you felt you were being watched. Creepy little moments. There were times when she had been home in L.A. and felt her heart accelerate when she looked out at the darkness and the bushes rustling near her door. Fear was a natural human emotion, or, if not flat out fear, at least unease.

They would go out tonight. They would check out the bars, and they would most definitely stay together.

But the newscast kept replaying in her mind. Don't open your door to strangers.

He hadn't been out on the road in eons. He hadn't driven this way since he'd returned to New Orleans, and he wasn't even sure right now why the temptation to do so had become so strong.

He knew he was in the right place, though.

But the house was long gone, and nothing had been built in its stead. There was only a tangle of growth covering the property.

He wondered idly who owned it now. Easy enough to find out, he imagined.

He stared at the property for a while, then walked along the sweeping drive. Some of the oaks and magnolias remained, as did the foundation. If he closed his eyes, he could almost imagine what it had been. Hear laughter.

It had been a great house, long ago.

He turned and headed back to his car. The past couldn't be changed, but the future loomed ahead, and he damn well meant to change it.

’’A hurricane, please,’’ Deanna told their server. He was tall, ebony, and had a smile that could light up the world. He was also outrageously flirtatious, and they were being flirtatious in return.

’’Hurricane,’’ he murmured.

Deanna hesitated, afraid she had done something that was now incorrect. ’’People still order hurricanes, right?’’ she asked weakly.

The waiter offered them his killer grin again. ’’Yes. Hey, it's just a drink, you know? We had one bar that never closed during the whole storm. When they ran out of beer, the owners went over and picked some up at the A&P, and left an I.O.U. Anyway, it wasn't really the hurricane that did us in, it was the flood waters. You go right ahead and order whatever you want.’’

’’Thanks,’’ Deanna said. ’’What a face,’’ she murmured, watching the waiter leave to get their drinks.

’’Not bad buns, either,’’ Heidi said, laughing.

They could actually hear each other speak, Lauren noticed. Maybe a lot of people had stayed inside after all. But not them. They'd overeaten at K-Paul's, then chosen a place offering smooth jazz. In fact, Lauren thought she recognized one of the musicians, a huge African-American man. He was playing a saxophone, while she could have sworn that earlier in the day he had been playing a trombone.

’’Hey, you're engaged,’’ Deanna reminded her.

’’I know that. I'm still on the look-out for the two of you.’’

’’Heidi, please,’’ Lauren groaned.

’’That's right. She's already earmarked for tall, dark and handsome cottage six,’’ Heidi teased.

Lauren refused to rise to the bait and instead listened to the smooth tones of the music, her gaze directed toward the band again. The big man she had seen earlier nodded, as if he recognized her, as well.

She lifted her beer to him.

He grinned, then started playing his sax again.

The bar was busy, but fairly large, and the acoustics were good. ’’Irene's-great place for dinner,’’ she heard, as someone next to her recommended it to someone else at. It is, she thought.

For a moment, it felt good just to be there.

’’Deanna, he's gorgeous,’’ Heidi said, startling Lauren from her thoughts. She looked back to her two companions. Heidi was tilting her head dramatically, indicating the waiter. ’’You have to make a play for him.’’

’’Deanna is waiting for Jonas,’’ Lauren heard herself say, then wondered why.

Deanna flushed, obvious even in the dim light, and Lauren caught her breath.

Her friend was waiting for Jonas.

Heidi sighed dramatically. ’’What a waste of hot masculinity.’’

’’You go ahead and flirt with him, then,’’ Deanna said.

’’Heidi, you have to let us choose who we want to flirt with,’’ Lauren insisted.

’’I just want everyone to be as happy as I am. I want it for the whole world. Can you imagine? No mistrust, no war, because everyone would always be really happy, even the people running all the countries.’’

Lauren stared across the table, and Deanna tilted her beer bottle and grinned. ’’I think she's had a few.’’

’’Think about it,’’ Heidi said stubbornly. ’’Laugh if you want gto. But let's face it, we have some world leaders out there who would definitely benefit from a better se* life.’’

Lauren smiled, relaxed and ready to go with the flow after three beers.

’’Here, here,’’ Deanna said dryly as the waiter swooped in with her hurricane. She managed a thank-you, but she wasn't even really looking at him. Her gaze was riveted on the bar.

Lauren quickly turned, trying to see what had captured Deanna's attention, and she saw him at last. Deanna's stranger.

She tensed immediately.

He was attractive. Tall, six-one or so, and lean. Just under or about thirty, with thick, dark, slightly wavy hair, one strand falling and forming a C on his forehead. He pushed it back, accepting a drink, thanking the bartender. Then he turned and saw Deanna.

He smiled. Nice smile.

Deanna stood. Hurricane in hand, she started toward the bar.

’’What?’’ Heidi demanded.

Lauren, too, was on her feet. ’’It's him,’’ she explained.

’’Him, who?’’

’’Deanna's...crush,’’ Lauren supplied. ’’Jonas.’’

She followed Deanna with her eyes, but before her friend could reach Jonas, someone came between them. Like a brick wall, he was very definitely trying to prevent Jonas from rendezvousing with Deanna.

Had Mark been there all along, watching them?

Apparently so.

As she watched, Jonas reacted to whatever Mark was saying. A flicker of something like fear flashed in his eyes, and he shook his head. It looked like he was saying, ’’You don't understand,’’ but she couldn't be sure.

Mark set a hand on the other man's chest, and a touch of anger, then defiance, showed on Jonas's face. She decided the time had come to intervene and hurried over to her friend.

’’What the hell is Mark doing?’’ Deanna demanded when Lauren reached her.

’’Picking a fight, it looks like,’’ Lauren said. She looked back toward the table. Heidi had taken her own advice and was oblivious to on the tension on their side of the room;she was talking to their waiter, laughing, showing him her engagement ring.

To be fair to Heidi, very few of the patrons seemed to notice that anything was going on. The music had stopped, and the lead singer was talking about the history of jazz in New Orleans, and most people's focus was on him. She looked at the big man she'd seen twice today.

He had noticed what was going on and was closely watching the two men.

And speaking softly to someone on his cell phone.

She returned her gaze to the action right in front of her. Mark had a hand on Jonas's arm now, and his expression was tense as he used his other hand to indicate a hallway that led to the back.

’’They're going to go outside and fight!’’ Deanna said, incredulous.

Could Deanna be right? Lauren wondered. She had noticed a narrow alley out back.

Jonas started in that direction. Mark followed. Deanna stared.

Lauren pushed past her, aggravated that Mark's protective attitude was getting out of hand.

She made her way to the hallway, past the restrooms and a delivery of beer, and out the back to a small courtyard with scattered tables, which was only half filled with people. The wrought iron gate from the courtyard to the alley was ajar.

Lauren raced forward, pushing through it and catching up to the two men.

’’You don't know anything,’’ Jonas insisted to Mark, who had pushed the younger man up against a wall. ’’You don't know anything.’’

’’I intend to.’’

’’I'm not your enemy.’’

’’You're one of them.’’

’’Mark!’’ She ran up and put a hand on his shoulder. He stiffened, teeth grating, face taut with fury and tension as he turned to her.

’’Get out of here, Lauren. Now.’’

’’I am not going to let you beat this man to a pulp,’’ she said.

’’Excuse me,’’ Jonas interjected. ’’I'm not exactly a weakling,’’ he said with a touch of indignation.

Mark turned back to him, and Jonas started to take a swing at him, but Mark was too fast. He blocked the blow coming his way, then counter jabbed. Jonas took his fist in the jaw and sagged.

’’Stop it!’’ Lauren shouted.

’’He's asked for it,’’ Jonas insisted. Something in his eyes-in his entire demeanor-seemed to change.

He let out a hissing sound and flew toward Mark.

Lauren heard movement behind her. She swung around, expecting Deanna to go rushing past her into the fray.

But it wasn't Deanna.

It was the sax player.

’’I've called the cops,’’ he snapped. ’’So take your beef out of here-now!’’

He had a beer in his hand and threw it at the men. It looked to Lauren as if a haze appeared between her and the men, like a mist, or a fog, rising in the shadows. She heard a hiss of fury but couldn't tell where-or who-it came from.

She could hear sirens wailing. Bourbon was closed off to normal traffic at night, but the next thing she knew, cop cars were pulling up on the cross street, and two mounted officers rode into the alley, as well.

’’Fight over there,’’ the sax player said, pointing.

’’Where?’’ one of the mounted officers asked.

’’Right there!’’ Lauren said impatiently, facing him fully, then turning back toward the spot where the two men had been.

But no one was there. Somehow, in the dimly lit alley, with nowhere for them to go, Mark and Jonas had managed to disappear.

She heard a car door open and close. Aplainclothes police officer, tall, graying at the temples, but with steel blue eyes and an attitude as powerful as his size, was striding into the alley.

’’Hey, Lieutenant,’’ the big musician said.

’’Big Jim, what's going on?’’

’’A fight-the kind that looked like it could have turned bloody,’’ Big Jim supplied.

’’Between...?’’ the lieutenant asked.

’’They were right there. This-Big Jim told them to stop and threw beer at them, and then they both...took off, I guess,’’ Lauren said.

The steel blue eyes settled on her. ’’And you are?’’

’’My name is Lauren Crow,’’ she said.

He looked around. ’’And you were egging on one of the participants?’’ he inquired.

’’Of course not! I came out to tell Mark to leave the other guy alone.’’

’’And Mark is...your boyfriend?’’ the lieutenant asked.

’’No! He's just someone we...we met. He's staying at our bed and breakfast,’’ Lauren explained quickly. Oh, God, what kind of a mess had the far too good-looking lunatic gotten her into?

The mounted patrolmen took off down the alley.

The lieutenant's partner got out of the car and stood silently in the background. As two more uniformed officers arrived from the second car, the lieutenant raised a hand. ’’I've got it, guys. Doesn't look like we've got a situation anymore anyway.’’

’’Sure. Night, Lieutenant Canady,’’ one of them called.

’’Hey, Lieutenant, you're working late,’’ the second man said, respect in his voice.

’’Yeah, well...anyway, I've got this. Thanks,’’ Canady told him.

’’Yessir.’’ The pair spoke in unison and headed back to their car.

’’Mark,’’ Canady said. ’’Mark...?’’

’’His name is Mark Davidson.’’

’’I see.’’

He had a notebook out, but he wasn't writing. ’’And who was the other man?’’

’’I don't know him. He and a friend of mine have had a few conversations,’’ Lauren said. Oh, great. Now she was dragging Deanna into it. ’’She doesn't really know him, either.’’ She looked toward the wrought iron fence, the courtyard and the bar. Deanna was nowhere to be seen. ’’She's still inside, I guess. I thought he-Jonas-was going to start a fight, and...I guess I thought I could stop it.’’

’’Is that what happened, Big Jim?’’ Canady asked the sax player.

’’Just the way I saw it,’’ Big Jim said.

She wanted to kiss him. She let out a sigh of relief and swore silently that she was going to have nothing more to do with Mark Davidson.

She heard the sound of hooves. The mounted officers were returning.

’’If there were two guys about to tear each others'throats out, there's not a sign of them anywhere around here. Big Jim must have doused the fight right out of them,’’ one of them said.

’’Thanks, Macinaw,’’ the lieutenant said.

’’We'll be back out on Bourbon,’’ the mounted officer told him.

The lieutenant nodded and watched them ride toward the street.

Then he startled Lauren when he took a step toward her and indicated her throat. ’’That's an interesting cross you're wearing. Antique.’’

’’Uh, yes.’’

He stared at her, as if expecting her to say more. She swallowed, not about to tell him that she had put it on after Mark Davidson had left it on the table that afternoon. She hadn't wanted to lose it until she had a chance to give it back.

’’You should always wear it,’’ he said quietly, then stepped back.

’’What's your bed and breakfast?’’ he asked.

She told him, and he arched a brow at her. ’’Did you call in the other night to ask the patrol officers to keep an eye on the place?’’

She flushed. ’’Yes.’’

’’You were afraid?’’

’’I.... I had seen someone lurking around on the sidewalk.’’

He nodded, watching her intently. ’’So where are you from?’’

’’Actually, I'm originally from Baton Rouge. But I live in L.A. now.’’

’’I see.’’

What did he see?

’’I'm here with friends. We're on vacation. If I can tell you anything else, I'd be happy to. If not...I should get back to them.’’

’’Sure.’’ He glanced around at his partner. ’’I'm officially off, Bobby. Think I'll call it a night. Keep your eyes and ears open for anything. I'm going to go in and watch Big Jim's next set, have a beer.’’

’’Sure thing, Lieutenant,’’ his partner said. He turned, and headed back for the patrol car. ’’Call me if you need a ride.’’

’’I can get him home,’’ Big Jim said.

’’Cool.’’

The officer walked on. ’’Miss Crow?’’ Lieutenant Canady said, indicating that she was free to return to the bar.

’’Thanks,’’ she murmured.

She walked through the courtyard. No one seemed to have noticed everything that had gone on only a few feet away. Then again, what had really happened?

Two men had fought briefly, then disappeared-as if into the mist.

Deanna was back at the table in earnest conversation with Heidi. Lauren headed for her chair.

Neither Big Jim nor Lieutenant Canady followed her. Big Jim went back to his place in the band, and Canady took a seat directly in front of the stage. The band members all acknowledged him with nods, smiles and, in one case, a raised glass.

The lieutenant took a seat, loosened his collar and ordered a drink.

Though he seemed to be watching the band, Lauren was convinced the only reason he had come in was to see if she really was with friends. Or maybe just to keep an eye on her. She didn't understand why, but she was as unnerved by the him as she had been by everything else.

Deanna leaned across the table and asked, her voice low, ’’What happened? That guy in the band must be sharp as a tack-I think he called the cops before the guys even made it outside. And when I was going to follow you, he stopped me and gave me this.’’

She produced a business card and handed it to Lauren.

’’What is it?’’ Heidi asked.

’’It's for another bed and breakfast,’’ Lauren murmured. ’’Montresse House.’’

’’Think he lives there?’’ Heidi asked with a giggle. ’’That would be a different way to pick up women, huh?’’

’’He wasn't trying to pick me up,’’ Deanna said.

’’No?’’ Heidi queried.

’’I can tell, and you know it,’’ Deanna told her.

’’Maybe he's friends with the owner or something, and just hands out cards,’’ Lauren suggested.

’’Yeah. There's something about him that's...I don't know. Trustworthy,’’ Deanna said.

Lauren fingered the card. ’’I'll put it in my wallet.’’

’’Sure. You never know when we might come back.’’

Deanna's voice sounded strange. As if she was really thinking that she would never want to come back.

’’So what happened out there?’’ Heidi asked again.

’’Nothing,’’ Lauren said. ’’The two of them yelled at one another, and then the guy from the band, Big Jim, came out and threw a beer at them. They disappeared before the cops showed up.’’

’’Disappeared?’’ Deanna said in dismay.

’’You can't be that hung up on this guy yet,’’ Heidi said. ’’And you should both take a lesson from this-don't get involved with strange men.’’

They both stared at her.

She let out a sigh. ’’Let's go back to the cottage. The mood tonight is definitely blown. Great party we're having.’’

Lauren sat back, caught sight of their waiter and motioned that they needed the check.

He brought it to them, and they quickly handed him cash, then got up and headed for the door. Though his back was to them, Lauren was convinced that the cop was aware of their exit.

’’Well, that was a downer,’’ Heidi said a few minutes later as they walked through the night.

Deanna laid an arm across her shoulders. ’’Heidi, I'm sorry.’’

’’No, I'm sorry. I just don't get it. Did the two of them know each other?’’ she asked.

’’I don't think so,’’ Lauren said.

’’Then...?’’

’’Who knows?’’ Lauren replied.

They turned off Bourbon Street, walking briskly.

Lauren knew, somehow, that they were being followed. She turned around. There was no one there, but it didn't matter. She knew what she knew. But she didn't have a sense of darkness or of shadows. Instead she knew that, at home in the night, the cop was following them.

’’Let's go on a river boat cruise tomorrow,’’ Deanna suggested.

’’Cool idea,’’ Heidi agreed. ’’And before we leave, I want to drive out to the zoo, too. I really love it.’’

’’Great idea,’’ Lauren said, turning around again. She couldn't see him, but she was sure that he was standing in the shadow of one of the nearby buildings.

They reached the courtyard of the B and B without incident. The gates creaked when Lauren opened them. They walked around the pool. The gorgeous and friendly lesbian couple from cottage three were sitting at one of the tables, sipping from plastic cups and watching the stars. Both women, Janice and Helen, were tall and blond, and modeled for a large clothing chain.

’’Beautiful night, huh?’’ Janice called.

’’It's so pretty here, just breathing in the magnolia, watching the sky,’’ Helen offered. ’’Don't you think?’’ She seemed anxious for them to agree with her.

’’Beautiful,’’ Lauren agreed.

’’Janice thjinks it's kind of creepy, too,’’ Helen added.

’’Darkness and shadows,’’ Janice said, then laughed. ’’I've got too much imagination. Helen doesn't mind the most gruesome horror movie, but I can only watch them at home, where I can leave the room when I can't take it anymore.’’

’’Well, I'm going in. I'm beat,’’ Deanna said, and, walked on toward their cottage to a chorus of good-nights.

’’I'll follow her,’’ Heidi said.

’’I guess we'll go in, too,’’ Janice said. ’’Although we do have more champagne, if you'd like some.’’

’’Tomorrow night?’’ Lauren suggested.

’’Great,’’ Janice said. ’’Meet you out here? I really do love this place at night. It's just that sometimes...’’

’’Sometimes what?’’ Lauren asked.

Janice shrugged and looked apologetically at Helen. ’’I get the feeling we're being watched.’’

Were they all crazy, Lauren wondered, or was their uneasiness just natural? The cottages were secluded, it was true, but the main house overlooked them. And the wall that separated the B and B from the old Victorian next door, where the bottom floor sold T-shirts, coffee and voodoo potions, and the upper floor was rented out as apartments, was tall and solid and would be hard for an intruder to scale.

’’Deanna thinks she's being watched sometimes, too,’’ Lauren said.

’’What a shock,’’ Helen said, laughing. ’’She's gorgeous. Imagine that. Some peeper watching a gorgeous woman.’’

’’Let's all keep our doors locked, huh?’’ Lauren said.

’’You bet,’’ Helen agreed.

Lauren couldn't help but be glad that the other women had been outside to greet them-even if Janice's words had given her a start. And Helen's explanation was a sensible one.

They wished each other goodnight and headed off toward their own cottages. Lauren looked back toward the street when she reached her door and saw that they had indeed been followed back from the bar by a man.

But she could see him plainly. It was definitely the cop.

She turned away and went inside.

’’I'm going to bed,’’ Heidi said. She quickly hugged them both. ’’Forgive me for being bitchy. Tomorrow night, no fights, we just have fun.’’

’’Absolutely,’’ Deanna swore.

’’You got it,’’ Lauren promised.

Deanna gave Lauren a hug, too, as Heidi went into the bedroom. ’’You're a great friend. And I'm being a really weird one. Sorry. Love you.’’

’’I love you, too,’’ Lauren assured her. ’’And it's not you being weird. It's just that weird things that have been happening, you know?’’

’’Yeah, I do. But do you want to know the really weird thing?’’

’’What?’’

’’In spite of tonight, I really want to see Jonas again. Don't worry, though. I'm not going back out in the night or anything. I'm wiped, too. I'm going to bed.’’

’’Goodnight.’’

When Deanna had disappeared into the bedroom, Lauren went to the window, pulled back the curtain and looked outside again.

The cop was gone.

As she stared out, she heard a soft tapping on the door. She jumped, just managing to hold back a scream. It was the cop, and that was why she couldn't see him on the street.

Without thinking, she opened the door.

It wasn't the cop.

She drew breath to scream, but she never got the chance.

A hand covered her mouth, and she was dragged out into the night.

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