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Crescent Moon (Chapter 9)

I leaned closer, squinting at the screen. The man was dead; he couldn't have been standing outside my hotel room watching me. I knew that as well as I knew my bra size. So why were my hands shaking?

"Place is getting to you," I muttered. "Haunted houses. Werewolves in the swamp. Voodoo priestess."

Maybe I should talk to Cassandra. If anyone would know why I'd seen a dead man walking, that someone would probably be her.

Except it was well past midnight and there was no way I was going out on the street in the dark – even if it was lit up like Mardi Gras.

Instead I returned to my research, found several articles about dead people in the swamp, cross-referenced them with the phases of the moon, and came up with a list.

I found no mention of rabid animals, rogue beasts, or a serial killer. Which struck me as odd. Had no one but me and Frank noticed bodies were piling up under the crescent moon?

I studied the dates. Over the past ten years there hadn't been more than three bodies found per annum. Which was probably why there hadn't been an outcry. Especially in an area where death lived everywhere and had for a very long time.

According to my Internet sources, my guidebook, and my memories, New Orleans could have been called the Big Epidemic instead of the Big Easy. As it was located below sea level, between Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi River, yellow fever had loved the place. From 1793 to 1905 there were twenty outbreaks.

Besides the plagues, they had starvation, war, pestilence. The usual. However, in New Orleans the troubles seemed multiplied. Which is probably why when they partied, they did so for days.

I continued to search for deaths, disappearances, locations. About 2:00 A.M. my eyes drooped. I was so tired, I barely got my clothes off before I fell into bed. The next thing I knew, the sun was up.

No dreams. No visitations. No flowers. A good night

I took a shower, snagged some coffee, and headed for Cassandra's. On the street, shopkeepers sprayed the side-walks, flushing away the refuse left over from the nightly celebration. Water dripped from balconies and onto my head as residents watered their plants. I dodged people meandering down Bourbon Street with cocktails in plastic glasses. Had they ever gone home?

The door to the shop was locked. I glanced at my watch, then the sign on her window. Two hours until she opened for business. I needed to talk to her now.

I'd just lifted my hand to knock when she opened the door. My eyes narrowed. "How did you know I was here?"

"How do you think?"

She turned, leaving the door open. I stepped inside.

"Lazarus?" she called.

I froze, one foot in, one foot out

"You mind shutting that?" she called. "If he sees the daylight, he'll bolt."

I cringed at the thought of Lazarus bolting over my sneakers, or maybe up my leg, and slammed the door. "How does a snake bolt?"

"You'd be surprised."

"Why is he out of his cage?"

"I let him out at night." Cassandra went down on her knees, peeking under one of the display cases. "Would you want to be stuck in a cage every minute of your life?"

Lazarus was a snake. Did he have wants and needs?

Something skittered across the open space. "There he is," I said, just a little too loud.

Cassandra started, bumping her head on the case before giving me a disgusted glare. "I thought you were a scientist. How can you be afraid of snakes?"

"Who said I'm afraid of snakes?"

She snorted.

"Call me crazy," I said stiffly, "but I don't like being in a small confined space with a freaking python."

"He's not interested in you."

A slight thud caused me to turn. Lazarus was right behind me. I stared at the odd growth in his throat Or was that his neck? Maybe his body?

"There you are!" Cassandra hurried over and snatched him up, popping the snake into his cage, then flipping the lock.

"Does he have a tumor?" I asked.

"What?" Horrified, she bent and peered at him.

Thai ing bump."

"I thought you were a zoologist."

"Crypto."

"Still – didn't you study reptiles?"

"As little as possible."

She put a hand on her hip and tilted her head. "What do snakes eat?"

"Rodents." The light dawned. "That's what's in his throat"

"Another reason I set him free at night He's much better man a cat. Never, ever, brings me a present" Cassandra shuddered.

I'd never had a cat never had a pet Can you imagine my mother allowing an animal to walk on her winter-white carpet? She'd rarely allowed me there.

However, I knew cats liked to share. Or maybe brag. I could see Cassandra's point, though I'd stop short of befriending a python.

Cassandra turned away from the snake. "What brings you here?"

I hesitated. It was one thing to consider asking the advice of a voodoo priestess in the middle of the night and quite another to actually do it in the daylight

"Tea?" She pushed through the beaded doorway without waiting for my answer, which would have been "ack" if I hadn't known that was rude.

I followed her into a quaint kitchen. "Don't suppose you have coffee."

"You suppose right. The stuff will stunt your growth."

I lifted a brow at her petite form.

"Never mind." Cassandra set the tea on the table and motioned me into a chair. "What happened?"

I found myself telling her everything. Since Simon's death I'd had no one to confide in, no one to bounce ideas off of, no one to trust Why I'd chosen Cassandra I wasn't sure. She just had a way about her.

Despite her youth, she seemed wise. Her eyes were a little sad, as if she'd seen more than she should. I sensed she'd lost someone, too, someone she'd loved. Despite our differences, I felt a kindred spirit and I responded.

She listened to all that I told her, not speaking until I was through. "Comparing a news photo and a man you saw from pretty far away is a stretch."

"I know."

"He could be a relative of the deceased. Resemble him just enough to throw you off."

"Most likely."

Cassandra took a sip of her tea, swallowed, set the cup down with a click, and met my gaze. "Then why are you here?"

"Exactly."

She blinked. "What?"

"Why am I here? I'm not the spooky type. I don't believe in this stuff. Yet here I am, asking a voodoo priestess why a dead guy was following me down Bourbon Street Why?'

"You've lost your mind?"

"I'm starting to wonder."

"Maybe you just need a friend."

I lifted my gaze. "That pathetic, am I?"

Cassandra smiled. "Not at all. You travel a lot How could you make friends?"

"Even if I was any good at it"

"You seem pretty good at it to me." I half-expected her to reach over and pat my hand. "Anyway, you came to the right place."

"For a Mend?"

"That, too. I like you, Diana. I think I have something that'll help you out."

Cassandra stood, then headed into the shop. I followed. A quick glance into the snake cage revealed Lazarus at work on his breakfast. At least cats ate their prey, eventually; they didn't wear it

"If you see the guy again, blow this into his face." She handed me a tiny burlap bag.

"More gris-gris?" I asked, my fingers searching for, then finding the one I'd stuffed into my back pocket.

"No. This'll tell you if he's dead."

I frowned at the sack. "It'll tell me if the man who's following me down the street is dead?"

"Yes."

"Cassandra, what are you talking about?"

Her brow furrowed. "Zombies."

"Zombies!"

She winced. "You don't have to shout. What were you asking me about?"

"A dead guy."

"Who was walking. Add them together and that equals zombie."

"In New Orleans maybe."

"In any damn place."

She was right. I had come to ask about zombies; I just hadn't wanted to ask. But now that she'd answered…

"How are zombies raised?"

"I'm not exactly sure." Her lips pursed. "There are a lot of theories, spells, but I've never been able to raise one."

"You've tried?"

She shrugged. "It takes a lot more power than I have."

"Power?" I couldn't believe I was talking about this.

"Raising the dead is serious business."

"No shit," I mumbled.

"You don't believe, even though you've seen."

"We don't know what I saw. Probably the guy's cousin, uncle, twin."

"Use the powder; then you'll know."

"What happens if I blow this stuff into a zombie's face?"

"The one who raises the zombie gives it purpose and strength. His or her power keeps the zombie moving physically. Mentally they just aren't right."

I was starting to get the drift.

"If I blow this in his face – "

"The magic dies. He'll revert to a corpse right before your eyes."

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