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Crescent Moon (Chapter 4)

Not the same one. Couldn't be.

I stood near the window shaking my head, unreasonably spooked by a flower.

Well, maybe not unreasonably. I hadn't brought it here.

My gaze flicked around the room. There wasn't anywhere to hide, except –

I glanced at the floor, and the breath I'd been holding streamed out in relief. The wooden bed frame ended at the carpet. There was no "under the bed."

Slowly I crept toward the bathroom. Why I didn't just call security I'm still not sure. Perhaps I couldn't bring myself to say, "I found a flower. Save me!"

I'd left on the bathroom light as I always did when sleeping in a strange place. I hated walking into walls half-asleep.

The reflection in the vanity mirror revealed there was no one inside. Just as there was nothing in the closet. Which meant –

I turned toward the window.

The curtains, meant to block the sun so Mardi Gras partiers could sleep away the day, also blocked everything else. Unable to bear not knowing, I strode across the room and whipped them back.

Then stared past the empty balcony, studying the flickering neon across the street My room was on the fifth floor. How could anyone scale the hotel without being seen from below?

But would the drunks even notice? If they had, would they care or merely cheer? However, if they'd cheered, I'd have heard them.

"Damn," I muttered.

Someone had been here. But who? How? Why?

All questions for a time when the sun was shining. Too bad they kept me up for the rest of the night.

Dawn found me dressed and swilling coffee from the complimentary urn in the lobby. If I could have positioned my mouth directly beneath the spigot without undue notice, I would have. I was so tired.

I showed the concierge the address on my handy dandy sheet of paper. Contrary to the opinion of the sexy-voiced Cajun with an attitude, the concierge confirmed it as the location of a trustworthy guide service – CW Swamp Tours.

I retraced my route to the dock where a man waited on an airboat. "Deanna Malone?"

I guess he was waiting for me.

"Diana," I corrected, and he grinned.

I wished that he hadn't His teeth were nothing to write home about. They'd make a short letter, since there were so few left. A shame. He didn't appear a day over twenty.

"Mr. Tallient sent me."

The accent was Deep South – not a hint of France, and I missed it.

"I was here yesterday," I said.

His face, which resembled both Howdy Doody and Richie Cunningham, despite the bright white hair that shone beneath the morning sun like a reflector, crumpled with the effort of thought.

"Was I supposed to come yeste'day? I get confused."

Hell. I hoped he didn't get confused in the middle of the swamp.

"I met someone – " I began.

"No one but me comes to this place."

"Tall, dark." I left out "handsome," fearing I'd sound too much like Snow White. "Long hair."

My guide shrugged. "Don't bring no one to mind."

"Did Frank – Mr. Tallient – tell you what I need …?"

I wondered if he was Adam Ruelle, except Ruelle was mysteriously missing. Besides, I doubted a man who had been raised in a mansion, however broken down, would let his teeth rot out of his head. Then again, I could be wrong.

"What's your name?"

"Charlie Wagner. Tallient said you wanted to look for the wolf."

"Have you seen one?"

Charlie's gaze slid from mine. "Can't say as I have."

I found his choice of words interesting. He couldn't say. Didn't mean he hadn't seen it

"You gonna meet me here at dusk?" he asked.

"Dusk?" The last time I'd come at dusk I'd nearly been eaten by an alligator, and that had been the best part.

I remembered the voice, the scent of smoke, his breath in my hair, and his arm cradling my breasts. A

long, long time had passed since a man's anything had been near them.

Maybe the alligator hadn't been the best part, after all.

"Wolves don't come out in the light," Charlie explained.

I knew that "All right," I said. "Dusk."

He made no move to leave. After several silent moments, I asked the only question I still had: "Do you know Adam Ruelle?"

Charlie had been peering into my face, and now he glanced away. "Never met him."

"Know where he lives?"

"No one does."

"What about the Ruelle place?"

Charlie pointed to the far side of the water and the waving grass.

I had nothing else to do Tallient had already hired Charlie. And I was curious.

"Take me there," I said.

Charlie's boat was a smooth, fast ride. I probably should have been wary. Airboats flipped in the swamp all the time. But the whip of the wind in my hair, the sun on my face, was too enjoyable to ruin with what-ifs.

In the daylight, the swamp was beautiful. A riot of colors, hardly any alligators, not a nutria rat to be had. I doubted the area would be as appealing tonight.

The red, stalklike flower grew everywhere. I jabbed my finger at a clump as we scooted past, but since we both wore earphones to drown out the blare of the boat, Charlie wasn't going to be answering my questions anytime soon. He merely flashed me his un-teeth and kept driving.

The Ruelle Mansion became visible as we slid wide around a small island. The place would fit perfectly on a Halloween card.

The boards had gone gray; the windows were broken; the porch listed to one side. Despite its condition and obvious age, the word stately came to mind. In days past, music, laughter, life, had filled the rooms. If I concentrated very hard, I could imagine the Ruelle Mansion coming alive again.

Most plantations in this part of Louisiana were located on the Great River Road, which ran from New Orleans to Baton Rouge. Finding one here was as mysterious as it was fascinating. I felt as if I'd stepped through a time warp and into another century.

Charlie cut the engine, and we bumped against the decaying dock.

"How long since someone lived here?" I asked.

"Used to be a lot of transients in and out. But no one lately."

"Why not?"

"People got spooked. Ha'nts and such. Heard tell a few folks disappeared and no one ever saw 'em again."

I stared at the building. If any place looked haunted, the Ruelle Mansion did.

'I'd think the walls would have rotted in the damp."

"Made of cypress wood from the swamp. Never rots. House'll stand until the end of time."

While I should have been reassured that the structure was sound, instead I was a bit creeped out that the house would be standing here when the rest of the world had passed away.

"Come with me," I ordered.

I wasn't afraid of ghosts, but I had a hard time believing every homeless person in the area had been scared off by the rumors. I didn't relish running into a transient as I wandered through the place.

Charlie shrugged, tied up the boat, and followed.

"What're those flowers?" I indicated a patch that seemed to mark the end of the yard and the beginning of the swamp. "The tall red ones."

"Fire iris."

"Pretty." I took a step in their direction.

"Don't touch 'em!"

"Why?"

I had visions of hives, rashes, swamp warts. Hell. The thing had been on my bed.

"Bad luck."

"What kind of bad luck?"

"Hoodoo and such."

Hoodoo was an old-time, backwoods version of –

"Voodoo?"

His only answer was another shrug.

This was the second time voodoo had entered the conversation since I'd gotten here. Of course I was in New Orleans, the voodoo capital of America. I shouldn't be surprised.

I wasn't. However, I decided it might behoove me to make a visit to Priestess Cassandra after all.

Charlie climbed the steps, his boots thunking against the worn wood like distant thunder. The sun threatened to cook everything well done, yet he wore jeans, a long-sleeved shirt, and work boots. I suspected the latter had something to do with snakes. Glancing at my sneakers, I made a mental note to buy heavier shoes.

He opened the door, and I followed him in. Someone had stayed here once. Several hundred someones, by the size of the garbage pile. The smell didn't help.

Old food, new dirt, and…

I could have sworn I smelled blood.

I shook my head. The place was dim, dusty, dirty, but there wasn't any blood. Why would there be?

If there'd ever been any furniture, it was gone now, either stolen or maybe used as kindling – although I couldn't imagine the weather ever being cold enough to warrant a bonfire.

There weren't any holes in the roof or the floor, only the windows. With some elbow grease and a few pounds of soap and water, the place could be habitable again. Hey, I'd seen worse.

A board creaked overhead, as if someone had accidentally stepped on a crack, then frozen at the sound.

"Hello?" Charlie called.

No one answered.

I jerked my head toward the stairs and together we climbed them, splitting up on the second floor. Charlie took the right side; I took the left. I didn't find anything but dirt until I reached the last room near the back of the house.

There wasn't anyone there – at least no one alive. Ha-ha. But there was a picture on the wall. A very old, very interesting picture. I was still looking at it five minutes later, trying not to hyperventilate, when Charlie found me.

"Who is that?" I asked.

"Ruelle."

"I thought you'd never met him."

Charlie cut me a quick glance. "Not Adam. That there's his granddaddy, several generations back." He tapped the corner of the photo where a tiny notation read: 1857. I'd been too flipped out to notice.

"Name's Henri." Charlie spoke the name with a French twist, dropping the h, putting the accent on the second syllable. "He's been dead nearly a hundred and fifty years."

Charlie's words reached me from a long way off. I couldn't stop staring at the photo.

The face was that of the man in my dream.

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