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Crescent Moon (Chapter 8)

The officers were more interested in my claim that I'd spent the better part of the last hour with Adam Ruelle than my tales of an invisible growling beast that might or might not have killed Charlie.

"No one's seen Ruelle in years. Most folks think he died in the swamp."

"I guess most folks are wrong," I said.

The officers – both young and buff, one white, one black – exchanged glances.

"What?" I asked.

"Some say he's a ghost."

I'd thought that myself, but did a ghost let off body heat? Could a ghost hold your hand? Or fetch a cell phone? I didn't know, and I didn't plan on asking these children. Although they were probably around thirty, like me, they seemed eons younger.

The two skirted the damp earth near Charlie, taking care not to disturb the evidence as they peered at the ground.

"Huh," said the blond, baby-faced officer with a name tag that read: Cantrel.

"Yeah," said the other, who went by the name of Hamilton.

I waited, but neither of them was forthcoming with any info.

"What?" I asked, a little more loudly than last time.

"Only tracks are the victim's and yours."

I hadn't thought to search for tracks. Hadn't thought beyond my fear and the strange feelings Adam Ruelle had engendered in me.

"There aren't any animal tracks?"

"Sure." Hamilton nodded. "Big dog maybe."

I joined them to peer at the light wreath of paw prints surrounding Charlie. "That wasn't a dog."

"How you know for sure, ma'am?"

"I'm a zoologist I've seen wolf tracks."

"There aren't any wolves in Louisiana."

"Is that like the state motto or something?" I rubbed at the pain right between my eyes. "Wait a second." I dropped my hand. "No other tracks but mine, Charlie's, and the – " I waved at the canine impressions.

"None."

No wonder they didn't believe Ruelle had been here. The man hadn't left any tracks.

I frowned. Then again, he hadn't been wearing any shoes.

By the time the other officers arrived, I'd finished my statement They cordoned off the scene, then began to gather evidence and prepare the body for transport Cantrel offered to take me back to my car, and I gratefully accepted. I didn't want to go alone, even if I had been capable of driving an airboat.

A short while later, he deposited me at the dock. "We'll be in touch."

"Do you have any leads in these murders?"

"Murders?" Genuine surprise twisted the word.

"I heard another man had his throat torn out in the swamp."

"So?"

"Two men, killed the same way. I'd think homicide would be working overtime."

"Homicide?" He laughed. "By a dog?"

"That wasn't a dog, and you damn well know it."

The anger in my voice made him stop laughing. He glanced at the flowing tributary, then back at me. "My boss thinks there might be a rabies problem. Feral dogs. Even coyotes. Virus spreads like wildfire."

I lifted a brow. He could be right. Except a rabid animal wouldn't have run from Ruelle and me after killing Charlie. A rabid animal would have attacked us, too.

I knew a little bit about rabies. Certainly the infected animals were vicious, violent, but they were also as good as dead. If there were a rabies epidemic in the Honey Island Swamp, there'd be a lot more bodies. Both human and beast.

Cantrel climbed back on the airboat, sitting in the driver's seat with a confidence that revealed he'd been there : before.

"You seem to know what you're doing." I waved a hand at the vehicle.

"I've been driving these all my life."

"You're from the area?"

"Right around here."

"Then you knew Charlie."

"Yeah." He sighed. "Decent guy."

We both went silent, thinking of Charlie.

Cantrel straightened – all business once more. "You'll need to stay out of the swamp now, ma'am. Too dangerous."

"I don't have much choice. I've been hired to – "

I broke off. I couldn't say I was looking for a loup-garou. Cantrel might just commit me to the insane asylum. Around here, they probably still had one.

"Hired to what?" Cantrel pressed.

"Research," I said, which covered quite a bit and usually bored people so much, they stopped asking questions.

"I thought you were a zoologist Shouldn't you be… in a zoo?" He flushed. "I mean, working there."

I didn't want to explain what I really was. So I didn't.

"I'm working here."

"It'd be best if you stayed out of the swamp." He glanced at the crescent moon slowly moving across the night sky. "At least for a few days."

Before I could question him further, he started the motor and whirled away.

Once I was alone, the silence surrounded me. I glanced toward the water and caught the glint of the moon off several sets of bobbing eyes, though none of them seemed interested in getting any closer.

I patted my gris-gris. For a bogus protection charm it worked pretty well. Nevertheless, I hurried to my car and returned to the city.

Bourbon Street was in full swing. I glanced at my watch. Midnight. Why did it feel so much later?

I wasn't hungry, but I hadn't eaten all day and while my body could definitely stand to lose a few pounds, I knew better than to skip food entirely. I enjoyed feinting even less than I enjoyed wearing Lycra.

I forced myself into the crowd and let them push me ; along the scarred, broken sidewalks, past the bars, the strip joints, the souvenir shops that sported T-shirts with obscene slogans, until I found a restaurant that wasn't too busy. Then, with a mighty thrust, I tore myself away from the throng and stumbled into a cobblestone courtyard filled with tables.

I chose one nearest the street While I might not enjoy walking in a crowd, I definitely liked watching them. Though loud and mostly drunk, the Bourbon Street horde was fun. Cheery people visited New Orleans, and those who lived here loved it.

Sure there was voodoo and murder and something in the swamp, but this was also the Big Easy, and it had become that for a reason. New Orleans was the land of great music, good food, never-ending booze, hot sex. During the day, the rot showed. But at night, the neon camouflaged everything.

I ordered a zombie – why not? – and a po'boy. It wasn't until I was halfway through the food and all the way through the drink that the now-familiar sensation of being stared at came over me. However, there weren't any alligators on Bourbon Street, unless you counted the stuffed ones in the shop windows.

Uneasy, I glanced around, but all the other diners were busy with their own libations. The waiters were waiter-ing; bartenders, bartending.

I slid my gaze toward the crowd, but it continued to flow by without any hesitation. I told myself I was exhausted from the combination of a drink, a full stomach, and a busy day, then paid my check and left.

The uncomfortable sensation continued. I glanced back every few seconds, but with hundreds of people on the street, I couldn't determine if any single one meant to : follow me. Ducking into my hotel, I slipped behind a pillar and peeked out.

Nothing.

As I headed upstairs, I told myself I had good reason to be spooked. Someone had put that flower in my room. Someone had taken it out again.

I unlocked my door, checked the bathroom, the closet, a shady corner. No one here but me.

My gaze was drawn to the balcony. I found myself crossing the room, opening the French doors, stepping outside. I let my gaze wander over the crowd from above, and I saw him.

The revelers flowed around the man as if he were a huge rock in the middle of a river. He never glanced at them, just continued to stare at me. He was no one I'd ever met, yet somehow I knew him.

His clothes were dirty, torn, his hair wild; he wasn't wearing any shoes. What was the deal with shoes around here?

My phone started ringing – loud, shrill – and I spun toward the room, heart thundering. When I got myself under control, realized it was just the phone, I turned back, letting it ring.

He was gone, of course. No sign of him anywhere. Not that he couldn't disappear into the crowd, a bar, hell, maybe thin air.

The damn phone kept trilling. Wasn't there voice mail in this place? I snatched it up.

"Yes?" My heart still pounded fast enough to make black dots dance in front of my eyes. I needed to breathe.

"Diana."

Frank.

"I've been calling for hours. I was worried."

"Mmm," I murmured, staring at the wide-open balcony doors. Should have shut those.

"Is something wrong with your cell?"

Mechanically I patted my pockets, pulled out the phone, remembered shutting it off after calling the police.

"I was… in the field."

"I suppose it wouldn't do for you to sneak up on the loup-garou and have your phone frighten him away."

As if I could sneak up on a werewolf – I sighed – or any wolf, for that matter.

"What have you found?" Frank continued.

"Nothing really."

"What have you been doing with your time?" His voice was sharp, accusing, annoying as hell.

"My guide's dead."

A shocked beat of silence came over the line before Frank drawled, "That didn't take long."

"What didn't take long?"

"For the loup-garou to get him."

I frowned. "Why do you think a wolf killed him?"

"Didn't it?"

I was still on the seeing-is-believing plan, and I'd seen • nothing but a tail. Could have belonged to anyone.

I meant anything.

"I rented the Ruelle Mansion for the next month," Frank continued, letting the matter drop. "You can move in whenever you like."

"Great. I'll have my things shipped from storage."

"Let me know where they are, and I'll take care of it"

Usually I paid the owner of the storage facility to do that, but if Frank wanted to pay, I was all for it. I gave him the address.

I almost asked if Frank had rented the place directly from Adam Ruelle, but I recalled his reaction the last time I'd mentioned the name and decided to keep the question to myself. Frank thought Adam knew something, and maybe he did. But I'd find out what for myself.

"I'll arrange for a new guide," Frank said, as if his last arrangement hadn't died from a mortal throat wound.

"I'll take care of it."

In truth, I didn't plan on hiring anyone. I couldn't put another person in danger. I'd buy a gun; I'd done so before. Then I'd explore the swamp on my own.

"If that's what you want," Frank agreed. "I'll call you tomorrow."

"How about if I call you when I have some news?"

I couldn't work if he was going to check up on me all the time. He was already making me half-nuts.

"All right," he said slowly.

"I'll be out in the field a lot," I explained. "My phone will be off."

"Of course."

Frank still sounded a bit miffed, but he said good-bye without further comment

I moved to the balcony, checked the crowd once more. No one paid me any mind, which was as it should be.

I began to think I'd only imagined being followed –  again. I rationalized that even if the man had been staring at me, and I kind of thought he had, it was because he liked redheads, big girls, or balconies on Bourbon Street.

Still, I shut and locked the French doors before heading for my laptop. I had an idea.

Though wolves usually claim a fairly large territory, the proximity of the recent deaths made me think this wolf didn't. Although, for all we knew, the thing had been killing throughout the swamp – a distance of some 250 square miles – and only the bodies closest to civilization, i.e., on the Ruelle property, had been found.

I'd bookmarked the articles Frank had originally given me, and I brought them up on the screen, clicked through, made a few notes.

I was just about to do a search for other mysterious animal killings under the crescent moon when a tiny photo of one of the swamp victims caught my eye. I clicked on the enlargement feature, and then I couldn't move, speak, even breathe.

Hell, I could barely think.

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