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Crescent Moon (Chapter 12)

I hadn't planned to fall asleep. Hadn't realized I had until the pounding woke me.

"Adam," I mumbled, too tired to consider why he would bother to knock on his own front door. He certainly hadn't last night

The man standing on the porch couldn't have been more opposite of Adam Ruelle if I'd created him myself. Six-foot-five and about 250, he had blond hair shorn close to his head. His muscles were big, his hands even bigger, and when he spoke I was reminded of home and not of hot sex, damp sheets, and jungle nights.

"Diana Malone?"

I blinked at his electric yellow tie, complete with a navy blue New Orleans Saints insignia. The sun sparked off his shiny shoes and straight into my brain. I grunted and walked away, leaving the door wide open.

He took the gesture for the invitation it was and followed. The place was still trashed and I didn't bother to apologize. I hadn't done it.

I also hadn't had time to do anything but get rid of the refuse. I'd figured on using the better part of today on a little cleaning, but now I needed to drive to town, find a one-hour photo shop, then hit the library and do a little research.

Though the Ruelle Mansion might appear to have come through a time warp from the Civil War, in truth the utilities had been updated in the last decade. However, the years of neglect had not been kind. The utilities weren't working.

I'd told Frank not to bother getting them fixed. I didn't want repairmen hanging around, asking questions, scaring away the wildlife. Besides, I'd camped out in worse places than this. I tugged out my battery-operated coffeemaker and got down to business.

"I'm Detective Conner Sullivan – New Orleans PD."

I'd already figured him for a cop. No one showed up this early in a suit and tie unless they were badge happy. What I couldn't figure out was what a guy like him was doing in a place like this. So I asked.

"Why is the New Orleans PD in St. Tammany Parish?"

I managed to get the coffee grounds into the proper container, then poured distilled water into the carafe and waited. I'd learned a long time ago that shaking the thing only made a mess. It didn't make the coffee come out any faster. More's the pity.

"I'm not squatting," I said when he didn't answer right away. "I rented this place fair and square. Or my employer did."

Sullivan stared at me for several seconds. His eyes were brown, which didn't seem right, but then, not every person of Irish descent possesses the blue or green gene.

"I'm not here to roust you," he murmured. "We don't usually send detectives for that."

"Good point." I picked up the coffeepot and lifted a brow in his direction.

"No thanks. I've already had so much I might jump out of my skin."

My lips twitched at the thought of this laconic man jumping anywhere over anything. I wondered if he were trying to make a joke, except he just kept staring at me with his curious cop eyes and flat, unsmiling mouth. Guess he was serious.

I poured myself a cup, then sat on my sleeping bag, leaving the only chair, a foldout canvas model, for him. He ignored it, choosing to stroll around the room peering into corners.

"I know you rented the place," he said, "but why?"

"I'm investigating reports of a wolf in the swamp."

"In Louisiana?" He cast me a quick glance. "I don't think so."

"I'll find that out and be on my way."

"What do you know about Adam Ruelle?"

I bid my surprise behind a sip of coffee. Why was everyone so interested in him? "According to the locals, he's dead."

Sullivan turned quickly for such a big man. "According to you, he isn't."

Hmm. He'd been busy this morning, checking my rental status, reading Cantrel and Hamilton's report.

I slurped more coffee, took my time swallowing, then lowered the cup. "A man who says he's Ruelle has been around."

"Where is he now?"

Good question. I had no idea where Adam lived. He just turned up wherever I was. Which was downright odd now that I thought about it. "Why do you care?"

Sullivan kept his dark gaze on my face. "A man was killed."

"Charlie. I know."

"Not him. Another man. Last night."

The cup halfway to my lips again, I had to tighten my fingers quickly before I dropped it into my lap. "Where?"

"Not far from the incident with Charlie Wagner."

I'd sworn I'd heard a growl, seen an animal, but what if I'd killed a person?

My hands started shaking, and coffee nearly cascaded over the edge of my cup. I set it on the floor as I took several deep breams and forced myself to mink.

I'd walked around, hadn't found anything. Not a person, not an animal, no blood. But it had been dark, and I wasn't Outdoor Girl no matter how much I liked to pretend that I was.

"Shot?" I blurted.

He gave me a strange look. An animal had killed the others. To know the man was shot – well, basically I'd just confessed.

Sighing, I ran through the names of everyone I knew. Not a lawyer among them. Hell.

"Not shot," Sullivan murmured.

Since I'd already fitted myself for a pair of handcuffs, my mind groped for meaning and quickly found one. "Another animal attack?"

I started to get to my feet, intent on seeing the body, checking the tracks, but his next words had me sitting right back down.

"Strangulation."

Now my mind was really groping. "Strangled? How?"

"Bare hands are the usual method."

I blinked at the repetition of my own thoughts of the night before. Adam had given me his gun. He'd had only his hands for protection. Had he used them?

"Fingerprints?" I asked.

" 'Bare hands' was just a figure of speech. A rope was used. Probably gloves. Not much evidence." He took a deep breath. "There've been more disappearances than usual in and around New Orleans."

I narrowed my eyes. "And you're starting to think serial killer."

His face went blank. "I never said that."

He hadn't said much, including what he was doing out of his parish. But I could figure it out. Tourists and locals disappearing, some of them turning up in the swamp. When St. Tammany police found a body, it was natural they'd call the man in charge of the original case, see if their corpse matched any of his missing.

"Why do you want to talk to Adam?"

Sullivan lifted his brows at my use of a first name, but he didn't comment. "Dead people keep turning up on his property."

"The others were killed by animals."

"True. But this one is murder, and despite what you see on television, strangling someone isn't easy. You have to be strong and you have to be quick. There's a bit of an art to it One someone like Ruelle would know."

"I heard he was in the Special Forces."

"He was in something," Sullivan muttered.

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"There's a block on his file that requires higher security clearance than I have."

"Bummer," I muttered.

Sullivan scowled. "Do you know where he is or don't you?"

"Don't," I answered with complete truthfulness.

The detective stared at me for several seconds. His stoic glare probably worked on most people, but not on me. He hadn't spent eighteen years with my mother.

"Fine." He reached into his jacket, pulled out a card. "If you see him, call me. Better yet, tell him to call. If he doesn't have anything to hide, we should be able to clear this right up."

"Uh-huh."

Sullivan cut a glance in my direction, but I just smiled as if I hadn't been being sarcastic.

"Who was the victim?" I asked as I walked Sullivan to the door.

"We don't know."

"Come on, Detective, the name's going to get out eventually."

"I hope so; then I'd know it." He shook his head. "This guy had no ID."

"Stolen?'

"Maybe. But his money clip was still in his pocket. His fingerprints didn't pop. There isn't a missing persons report that fits his description."

"If he's a tourist, it might take a while for anyone to notice he's gone."

Sullivan seemed about to say something more, then tightened his lips and kept further comments to himself. Considering this was shaping up to be a murder investigation, I didn't blame him.

"If you think of anything that might be useful," he stepped onto the porch, "let me know."

With a nod, I shut the door. I probably should have told Sullivan I'd been in the swamp last night, but I hadn't killed the guy and I hadn't seen anything.

Except a wolf or something like one.

A lie was a lie, even if it was by omission. However, I didn't want to be dragged downtown for questioning when I had an appointment with a one-hour photo shop.

"If mere's anything on that film that'll help, I'll take the picture directly to the police station." I put my hand over my heart. "Swear."

Since there was no one to hear my vow, it wasn't really binding, but I felt better anyway.

I took a sponge bath, brushed my teeth in a bowl. I didn't mind camping, but the lack of a shower was a definite drawback. I'd have to rent a cheap hotel room once, maybe twice, a week, or I wouldn't be able to stand myself.

Grabbing the gun and my camera, two things I did not want to lose – though from the age of the garbage I'd removed from the inside of the house, no one had stayed there for months – I went out the door.

What could have spooked the homeless away from such a good flop spot? Had word gotten out that people were dying?

I shivered despite the early-morning heat. Not for the first time I questioned the wisdom of remaining in the swamp alone.

After tucking the pistol into the trunk with my computer, I headed for town. I probably should have unloaded the weapon – I wasn't exactly clear on the transportation-of-firearms rules around here – but the idea of having the bullets in one place, the gun in another, a rabid wolf or even a serial killer chasing me around and around and around… I decided I'd take my chances with the police.

I easily found a one-hour photo shop, dropped off the film, and headed to the library for a little research. This early in the morning the place was cool and deserted. Just the way I liked it

A quick trip through the search engine netted me nothing. Unless the Ruelles had written a book or had one written about them, that usually didn't work, but it was always a good place to start

My next stop was the desk of the reference librarian. When in doubt, ask questions.

"I'm looking for information on a local family."

Short, thin, ancient, with granny glasses, clunky shoes, and – wait for it – a shawl, the woman's nameplate read Mrs. Beasly.

"Oh! Are you researching your family tree?"

Since she seemed so excited about the prospect, I said, "Sure."

"What's the name?"

"Ruelle."

Her bright, helpful smile faded. "Oh, no, dear, you must be mistaken."

"Why's that?"

"There hasn't been a female born to the Ruelles for at least a century."

I didn't miss a beat. "My connection is much older than that"

If I was going to lie, I might as well lie big.

"I see."

Mrs. Beasly contemplated me over the top of her wire rims. I wondered if she'd been an English teacher with a penchant for rulers before she'd migrated to the library. I hid my knuckles behind my back and tried to appear angelic, always difficult with my devilishly red hair.

"Isn't that a bit strange?" I asked. "No females."

"That isn't the only thing."

"Oh, really?"

She glanced around as if someone might be listening, but we were still the only people in the library. To help her out, I leaned over the desk and craned my ear in a conspiratorial manner.

"The poor family," she whispered. "It's as if they're cursed."

Cursed? my mind mocked. As in… cursed to run as a wolf beneath the crescent moon?

Couldn't be. Because I didn't believe in werewolves or curses. However, I didn't believe in coincidence, either.

How many curses were there around here?

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