"How intriguing that you're in such a hurry to be off," Jennie said, "Since, quite honestly, I'm assuming that Fiona is here today not as a friend, but because she is willing to entertain the idea that a shapeshifter is the guilty party rather than a vampire."
"Actually, Jennie," Fiona said, "I'm here because I want to ask you for your help."
"My help?" Jennie said, her ruffled feathers smoothing over almost visibly.
"Yes. Jennie, you know everyone...I'm hoping that you'll be on the lookout and let us know if you see anything that might be a clue, or anyone behaving oddly in any way."
Jennie arched her brows. "But Jagger is on the case." She lowered her voice, looking around to be sure she wouldn't be overheard. "And he's a vampire."
"A vampire who has to be on his way, Jennie...." He gave her a kiss on the cheek, and then his eyes met Fiona's. She was sure she saw a sizzle of amusement.
He didn't touch her.
She hated that she wished he had.
He walked away down the hall, his strides long and sure.
"Jennie, I'm really sorry if I gave you the wrong impression by being here," Fiona said. "I really do think we need all the help we can get."
Jennie sighed. "Well, I can assure you, this isn't the work of a shapeshifter." She looped arms with Fiona, leading her back into the ballroom. "Why don't I join you at your table for a few minutes?" she suggested.
As they approached the table, Sean quickly went to find an extra chair for Jennie. There was gushing all around as she sat, her fellow shapeshifters congratulating her, Caitlin mentioning her pride in her, and August Gaudin announcing she was a wonderful example for everyone in the city.
Jennie thanked them, then glanced around quickly, making sure no one was nearby.
"Listen, we all have to focus on solving this murder. It looks like we have a rogue vampire among us, though I do have to acknowledge that Fiona may be concerned because the only other entity who could have pulled this off is a shapeshifter."
"It was obviously a vampire, it's just that I'm afraid neither my sister nor DeFarge wants to admit that," Caitlin said.
Fiona controlled her anger; Caitlin should never betray a breech between the three of them.
"We know it wasn't a werewolf," Shauna said happily.
"And I'm quite certain it wasn't a shapeshifter," Jennie said. "You have to understand our kind, Fiona. We're pranksters, not violent at all."
"It's true," Sue said. "I love to shapeshift into some hot movie star and tease the paparazzi."
"Or a rock star," Mya said, giggling. "I've met the most interesting people that way."
"You two are wicked," Sean said.
"Hey, you like to impersonate politicians," Mya reminded him.
"My favorite, ever, was being Tom Cruise," Jill Derby announced in a whisper, grinning.
"You didn't!" Mya said.
"I did," Jill said.
Fiona forced herself to laugh along with the rest of the group. "I'm just asking all of you--help us out, please."
"None of us want another war," August Gaudin said quietly.
"No," Fiona said, rising. "We don't want a panic, and we don't want a war. And we have to live by the law, just like everyone else. The difference being, of course, that we have to handle our own criminals. If a vampire is guilty, I guarantee you he will be brought to justice."
She looked at her sisters.
"Whoever is guilty, he will be brought to justice. I swear it."
David Du Lac groaned audibly.
Jagger, standing at the head of the table, looked up and saw that Fiona MacDonald had arrived.Of course, she had.
He wanted to stride over to her, take her by the shoulders and shake her.
She had to give them some space. She had to give them a chance to police their own.
"Gentlemen, ladies, please proceed, I'm not here to interrupt," she assured the assembled group.
There were about fifty people there, including several vampires who held positions in the highest echelon of city politics. There were also two football players, a local DJ, a TV anchorwoman, a singer, a float designer, a costumer, a woman who worked at the city's most successful wig shop, several restaurateurs and others who weren't well-known but were still important in their own right.
"Fiona!" Gina Lorre, the anchorwoman said, smiling.
"How lovely to see you."
"Thank you," Fiona said, as gracious as if she'd just been welcomed by the queen--or at least the voodoo queen. This was New Orleans, after all. One of the football players rose, insisting she take his chair. She thanked him, giving him a patented Fiona-smile.
He smiled back, smitten. Their Keeper was a stunning young woman, Jagger admitted to himself. She was also capable of radiating confidence. Not arrogance--just confidence. Along with her beauty, her manner, her silken voice and her undeniable grace meant she was not just accepted but, he saw, truly welcomed.
Was he the only one who didn't want her there?
"I didn't mean to interrupt. I'm so sorry," Fiona said. "Please, Detective DeFarge, go ahead. I'm just here to keep abreast of what's going on. I have complete confidence that you'll quickly and efficiently solve this problem by yourselves."
Like hell! he thought, not believing her for a moment.
But he smiled. "Of course. And naturally we're all pleased that you're keeping abreast, and that you have complete confidence in our ability to handle this situation."
He looked from her to the assembly and made a point with his next words. "As of yet, there's no proof positive that this is the work of a vampire rather than a shapeshifter. However, since the evidence does point in our direction, I want to make sure that we're all aware of just how deeply this may affect our lives. We've worked extremely hard around the world--and especially here in New Orleans--to be a part of society. We work, we play, we fall in love. Right here in this city, we enjoy our jazz, our homes, our world--and when that world needs protecting, we come out and fight natural disaster alongside everyone else. We have proven that we are among the city's finest citizens."
"Jagger, that's just it," Billy Harrington, a college student, said. "I don't understand why any of us would have done this and put everything at risk. It just doesn't make sense."
"Billy, in a way it does," Jagger said. "Take human beings. Everyone's born with a capability for good and evil, and with natural instincts that drive them toward one rather than the other. People can be almost unbelievably evil toward each other, practicing torture and murder--sometimes for love, sometimes for hatred, sometimes in passion and often for greed. We have the same instincts as humans do, but we try harder to control our baser impulses--we have to, because our natural craving is for blood. Why couldn't there be one among us whose instincts are baser than most, who is weary of the restraints we put on ourselves so we can live something approaching normal lives? We have to bring that person to justice. Each of us has power and strength, but together we are less than half a percent of the population, and we can be brought to extinction, even though each of us would take down dozens of 'them' if it came to a fight. That's the reality--even beyond the fact that most of us like our lives and enjoy our neighbors, human and other, making it imperative that we police our own."
"We do police our own," David Du Lac said firmly.
"I know that. And we're not alone in this," Jagger said. "Jennie Mahoney intends to keep watch among the shapeshifters, and August Gaudin has always been a friend, and a supporter of peaceful coexistence among all the races. We've had a decade of ease, with any disagreements being solved quietly among our own, but now we must be vigilant. Rumor and suspicion can lead to hurt and bitterness, and I don't want us all to start looking at our neighbors and suspecting them of being responsible. But I do ask that if anyone among you find something suspicious, you bring it to me. It's easy to cause a world of hurt by casting accusations without solid evidence, so we all need to stay calm and be discreet at all times. First, because we don't want to sow suspicion among ourselves, and second, we don't want to cast blame where it doesn't belong and drive our fellow races to see us as monsters."
"I'm sure they already do," Billy said dryly.
"Why not? We are monsters."
The comment came from a relative newcomer at the end of the table, Mateas Grenard.
"Mateas, would you care to speak?" Jagger asked. If the man wanted the floor, it was better to give it to him now than listen to subtle barbs that would get beneath everyone's skin.
Grenard stood. He was a hair shorter than Jagger, a little stockier, but he bore himself with confidence and a certain charm.
A man who could easily influence others, Jagger thought. A vampire to be noted.
"We are monsters--that's why we have a Keeper," Grenard said, smiling and nodding toward Fiona. She watched him without expression, waiting for his words.
"When I arrived, I was amazed at the self-control you--we--exercise here in New Orleans. I love being here, but I've often wondered why we don't do as they do in other places and feast on occasion upon the dregs of society. How often does the murder of a prostitute really get noticed? And this state has a death penalty--why waste the blood? There are drug lords and gangs out there. I keep thinking that an organized kill now and then--especially one supervised by an officer of the law--would not be out of order."
"I don't know about that," Gina Lorre said. "Someone would be bound to notice that even a hooker or a criminal was drained of blood. I don't know exactly what happened, but when we were looking into this murder, our reporter found out that the young man working the graveyard shift at the morgue quit the day after the body of Tina Lawrence was brought in." She looked worried for a minute. "Jagger, she's not out there, is she?"