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"No, she's not out there," Jagger said quietly.

"Even if she were, this is a forgiving city, and we all know that dozens of human beings in the area think they're vampires," Mateas Grenard pointed out.

Fiona stood. "That may be true, sir, but no human being is capable of taking blood as a vampire takes blood. As Detective DeFarge has pointed out, we don't know for a fact that a vampire is guilty--but suspicion falls that way. And to address your other point, if the vampires justified the taking of a human life, no matter how seemingly worthless, then the shapeshifters would want to kill, and the werewolves would be hungry, and those three groups are just the largest and strongest of the underworld. What if every race decided it had a right to take a life now and then?"

"Excellent point," David Du Lac commented.

One of the city commissioners stood. "More than an excellent point. I can tell you that the city government is already up in arms, arguments have started with the tourist board, and there's trouble brewing, despite the fact that the victim was hardly an innocent and there are plenty who claim she only got what she deserved. Luckily for us, because of the way she was displayed, so far the majority opinion is that some nut case psycho committed the murder. But I know for a fact, the department brass are breathing down Jagger's back, wanting to know where she was killed, and how, not to mention how all her blood was drained.... We need to work to keep the status quo. Everyone has to help by doing exactly as Jagger has asked and bringing anything odd, any suspicion, to his attention and only his attention, so we can retain the peace among ourselves."

A murmur of approval rose from the group.

"Ah, well, then I fear I am in the minority," Mateas Grenard said.

"That's fine," Jagger told him. "Discussion is always welcome."

"Open discussion, yes," David Du Lac said. "Mateas, we thank you for speaking candidly."

"Yes, and I thank you for understanding our position here in New Orleans," Fiona told him.

"I bow to wiser heads," Grenard said.

"All right, ladies, gentlemen, I thank you all for coming," Jagger said. "David will call for another meeting, if need be. For the time being, please be on the alert, and come to me with anything you feel might be relevant."

Murmurs of consent went all around, and the group began to break up. David Du Lac, always the perfect host, had arranged for refreshments and a table at the rear of the room was set with food and wine.

Jagger greeted friends, nodded to acquaintances and made his way to the table, procuring two glasses of wine.

Fiona was still at the rear of the room, talking to David and Gina, when he walked up and offered her one glass. "Thank you for coming, Fiona."

She flashed him a quick glare. He knew what it meant: thanks for inviting me.

"David told me about the meeting. I thought it was important for me to be here," she said.

"Well, of course it is, sweetheart," Gina said, walking up and giving her a hug.

Jagger met Fiona's eyes and raised his own glass in a toast. "To all involved doing their best to find a speedy solution to our problem," he said softly.

Fiona stared at her wine suspiciously.

David laughed softly. "It's nothing but merlot, and an excellent vintage, I swear."

Fiona blushed and drank.

"I promise you, I will be totally vigilant," Gina said. "I have to go, my darlings, David, Fiona...Jagger, you handsome hunk of...well, whatever." She looked at her watch. "Goodness, I have to be at the studio in a little over an hour. See you all soon."

"Take care, Gina," Jagger told her.

She laughed softly. "Just hope the killer, who and whatever he is, doesn't come after me, or he'll be sorry."

Others were filing out. There were pleasant goodbyes all around.

It might have been a late night buffet thrown by the tourist board.

Jagger offered David his hand, and the two men shook. "Thank you," Jagger told him.

"I am always ready to serve," David said graciously.

Billy came by. "Fiona, thank you," he said. "I think it's cool that you're our Keeper."

He was so young and cute and sincere that even Fiona could ignore his blatant admiration.

"Thank you, Billy. Will you be okay this late? Aren't you living in a frat house?"

He grinned. "I am, but don't worry. I'm great at sneaking back in. Oh--and guess who's the new late-night morgue attendant?"

"You?" David asked him.

He grinned. "Seemed perfect for me. I start tomorrow night."

"I just hope you get nothing but the elderly dying of natural causes," Jagger told him. "I don't want to have to come in and see you anytime soon."

Mateas Grenard left right behind Billy. He, too, stopped to thank David for his hospitality.

Then the man looked at Fiona with a twinkle in his eye and took her hand, planting a kiss lightly on it. "Miss MacDonald, a sincere pleasure. And, DeFarge," he said, turning to Jagger while still holding Fiona's hand. "I speak my mind, but I didn't make the kill. I swear it."

"Did you think that I was suspicious of you?" Jagger asked. He wanted to wrench Fiona's hand away from Grenard's hold.

Grenard chuckled softly. "I'm a newcomer and not shy about expressing my views--and I'm not stupid. Of course I would fall under suspicion. But I didn't do it. Don't waste your time on me."

"I never waste time, and I always discover the truth," Jagger told him, then turned to Fiona. "Miss MacDonald, are you ready for me to see you home?"

"If you've business to attend to, DeFarge, I can see our Keeper home," Grenard offered.

"That won't be necessary, thank you. I have a few matters to discuss with Fiona," Jagger said, but he didn't look at her, afraid she might say that she preferred to go with Grenard.

But she didn't.

"I'm ready whenever you are," she said.

"Alas, well, then, good night, my friends," Grenard said, and departed.

Jagger doubted that she was going to let him see her home for the pleasure of his company. Maybe she distrusted Grenard. Or maybe she was hoping that he had something to say.

"Good night, David, and thank you," Fiona said, kissing him on the cheek. "Thank you very much."

"Don't be a stranger, sweetie," David told her.

She shook her head. "I won't be. Just, please, tell Dragon-lady to let me in when I come."

He laughed. "Consider it done."

"Dragon-lady?" Jagger echoed, and was surprised to see Fiona flash a smile.

"Bitchy shapeshifter," she said.

"Valentina," David explained. "She seems to have claws when she sees our dear Keeper." He smiled. "I shall inform my hostess that you are always welcome here, Fiona. Come back some night, when the music is sweet and the 'joint is a hoppin' and a poppin'.'"

Fiona promised him that she would. Then Jagger nodded to David and led Fiona toward the door, steering between the tables in the courtyard to reach the street.

It was the rare hour of "tween" in New Orleans. The clubs often stayed open until five, and a few of the late night pizza, chicken or burger joints boasted twenty-four-hour service. But, for the most part, the last partiers had finally called it quits, and it was too early for the workaday world to have begun stirring.

The streets were quiet.

And beautiful.

"You walked?" Jagger asked.




He sighed deeply. "Don't you ever listen to intelligent advice?" he asked her.

She lifted her hands. "I'm a Keeper," she told him.

"And you're vulnerable. Any vampire could take you by surprise, and a werewolf could be on you before you blinked. Not to mention that a shapeshifter can be and do pretty much anything. And let's not forget our normal run-of-the-mill crackheads, heroin addicts, thieves, rapists and murderers."

She had the grace to flush.

"I can change pretty quickly myself, you know. And anyone can be taken by surprise."

"Right. So don't let that anyone be you," he said.

She glanced up at him with her beautiful, opalescent eyes, a dry grin curving her lips. "I'm glad to hear that you genuinely seem to want me to survive."

"Protect and serve, that's my motto," he said.

"And you resent my intrusion," she said.

He shook his head. "No, I don't resent you. I just don't understand why you won't believe that I'm not shirking my responsibility, that I am policing my own, that I will act when necessary--even against my own breed. My...people are committed to the 'lives' we lead here, Fiona. For the most part, we're extremely good citizens. If someone is guilty, they will be brought to justice. And I won't be acting alone. The entire vampire community will be behind me."

"Get real," she murmured.

"Pardon?" he asked.

She squared her shoulders. "What have you discovered?" she asked. "Anything?"

He looked ahead as they walked, weighing his answer. They were into the Quarter, and the moonlight and soft glow of the street lamps hid anything that might mar the perfection of the buildings, with their balconies and decoration. He thought there was little in the world as picture perfect as the architecture in the French Quarters. People loved their balconies, and ferns grew profusely in pots and planters, along with flowers in an array of colors, and insignia plaques that held the city's symbol, the fleur-de-lis, adorned more than one building. Banners still proclaimed the city's pride in the New Orleans Saints, and beautifully fashioned signs advertised various shops and restaurants.

"Jagger?" she asked.

"I spent part of last night at Barely, Barely, Barely--the club where Tina Lawrence worked. I met a woman there, a waitress, who came in this morning and worked with a police artist to create a sketch of a man she thought was suspicious. I met a werewolf who worked with her, and verified that Tina carried on a conversation with the man and intended to meet him after work. I don't know if he's the one who killed her, but I didn't recognize him."