Page 26

Suddenly he crashed into someone hidden in the shadow of a massive--and armless--weeping angel.

Instantly on the alert, he drew back, reaching for the gun in his shoulder holster. "Stop," came a woman's urgent whisper. "Please."

He was startled by her near hysteria, but even so, he recognized the voice. It was Sue Preston, a shapeshifter friend of Jennie Mahoney's.

He caught her hand as he hunkered down by her. "What is it? What's going on?" he asked.

"They're fighting--and it's terrible," Sue said. She was a pretty young thing, but right now she had giant tears in her eyes. "I saw Georgio Tremont on Chartres Street when I was having dinner, and then Ossie Blane. We started talking, decided to kill some time before the assembly, so we came out here to go walking, and the next thing I knew, they were tearing into each other."

Georgio Tremont was a vampire.

Ossie Blane was a werewolf.

This could be trouble.

"Stay here," he told Sue quietly.

He rose and slipped around the side of the small family vault where he'd found Sue. Another thud. Someone--or something--had crashed hard into the wall right beside him.

He didn't let who--or whatever it was--rise. He shot out an arm and reached, and found himself grabbing the scruff of a furry neck.

It was Ossie Blane. He'd changed, and was in rare, snarling form.

Werewolves were very powerful. Their teeth were merciless.

Jagger knew he would have one chance before winding up in a literal fight for his life.

He kept his grip hard and shook Ossie with all his strength. "Ossie! It's Jagger, Jagger DeFarge. Stop this now!"

Ossie was, at heart, a decent guy, and to Jagger's relief, that guy hadn't sunk too far beneath the surface. Ossie went still. Slowly the snout became a face. Hair dissolved.

Claws and fangs retracted.

The sleek shape of the wolf elongated and straightened into an erect position.

Gasping for breath, Ossie stared at him.

A wing of perfect, menacing darkness came gliding toward them both. Jagger stepped forward, using the full brunt of his body as a bulwark. The vampire came flying into him with so much force that Jagger had to take a step back to absorb the blow.

Bend and you'll never break.

He didn't think his martial arts teacher had been thinking vampires when he'd said it, but it had turned out to be true nonetheless.

Georgio dropped to the ground after slamming into him. For a moment Jagger was reminded of a commercial he'd seen, in which two birds laughed at a man who hit the ground after walking right into a newly cleaned and completely see-through glass door.

With a stunned cry, Georgio started to make his way to his feet.

Jagger helped him up. "What are you two idiots up to?" he demanded.

"DeFarge, what are you doing here?" Georgio asked.

"That walking furball attacked me!"

"I didn't attack you!" Ossie protested, stepping forward belligerently. "I said that it was obvious that the killer's a vampire, and that no one should be attacking innocent college students."

Jagger interposed himself between them. "Look, we're all in a bad situation right now, and we have to keep calm. The last thing we need, if you'll pardon the pun, is some kind of witch hunt."

To Jagger's amusement, the other two pointed fingers at each other at the same time and said in unison, "He started it!"

Most of the time they were both average citizens, interesting conversationalists over a meal or a drink. Ossie loved animals and worked at the zoo, and Georgio was a middle-school teacher.

"Both of you," Jagger said quietly. "Look at what you're doing. Myths and movies call us monsters. This is why."

Sue emerged from behind the angel-topped mausoleum at last.

"You scared me," she accused them. "I thought you were my friends."

They might have been a comedy act when they spoke in unison again.

"I'm so sorry, Sue."

Jagger leaned back, crossing his arms over his chest.

"All right, time to kiss and make up. I ought to knock your heads together. Damn it! We need to get through this together or the whole city's going to turn on us. We need to find a killer--and I don't give a damn what race he is. To do that, I need help, not a couple of hotheads trying to rip each other to shreds."

Ossie hung his head. "I'm sorry, Jagger--Georgio. And Sue. Really."

"Maybe we could keep from mentioning this?" Georgio asked, looking across the darkened cemetery, worry creasing his brow. He turned back to Jagger. "All the Keepers will be at the assembly, right?"

"Just about everyone will be at the assembly. There are a few people working in emergency services or other jobs where their absences would be noted, but I'm expecting a showing of at least two hundred," Jagger said.

"I'm planning to get there early. In fact, I was on my way when I got sidetracked by your fight. Speaking of...You all need to clean up and get there on time, and you had both better do something really nice for Sue." He turned his attention to her. "You okay?"

She nodded, linking arms with the two men. "Thank you. We're fine," she assured him.

He left them making their apologies, making it back to his car in time to see two thugs were trying to break in.

They were wearing ski masks.

In New Orleans.

"Hey!" he shouted.

One of the men looked at him, and then they both took off.

He could have caught them. Maybe he should have.

But he was looking for a killer who was going to take more victims if he wasn't stopped. Soon.

"I'm sure of it. Billy is the killer," Caitlin said. She, Shauna and Fiona were in their communal living room, watching the clock, discussing the events of the day.

"I just don't believe that," Fiona said. She was pacing, she realized. Arms crossed over her chest, walking back and forth in front of the fireplace like the depressed polar bear in the Central Park Zoo that had needed therapy, because all it did was swim back and forth, back and forth....

She stopped pacing and realized both her sisters were staring at her, waiting for her to speak.

"Are you even listening? I said if Jagger won't put him down, you'll have to," Caitlin said.

"We don't have any proof that it was Billy," Fiona said. "Look, for one thing, we're all concentrating on the second murder and forgetting about the first. Billy has no connection to Tina Lawrence, who was last seen at a strip club. The police have a sketch of a man who was there that night, and not a single person has come forward to say they recognize him, think they recognize him, or even know anyone who even slightly resembles him."

"Could there have been two separate killers?" Shauna wondered aloud.

"I don't think so. Too many similarities," Fiona said, and took a deep breath. "Here's where we are right now. Tina Lawrence, last seen at the strip club. A man was watching her--he's never been seen again. We've actually questioned Abigail, but she doesn't remember anything. She was at a party, she was drinking beer. Someone might have slipped something in her drink--frat boys have been known to do that--but we don't actually know, since there was obviously no autopsy. No one from the party remembers actually talking to Billy, though a lot of people got the impression he was there. They all knew he had plans in the Quarter--which he did. He was at the meeting with the three of us."

Caitlin had been curled up on the sofa. Now she stood, walked up to Fiona and placed a hand gently on her shoulder. "Look, I know I've been a bitch. It's just that I can't forget that vampires caused all our problems--caused Mom and Dad their lives. But I want to help you, want to be a good sister and a good Keeper. And I don't want to upset you, but I do need to point out two things. First, both victims were drained of blood, vampire style. And this wasn't the act of a human being. A human being might have pulled off the blood draining, but both victims woke at dark. Only a vampire can create a vampire."

"Or a shapeshifter--posing as a vampire," Shauna pointed out.

"I think you're forgetting one thing. Shapeshifters can take on many forms, but when it comes to masquerading as another supernatural, they don't have the strength of the real thing," Caitlin said.

"That's true," Fiona agreed. "But," she asked quietly, "how much strength would a shapeshifter have needed to attack two women? Tina Lawrence had a violent streak, true, but she was still only human. A shapeshifter might not be as strong as a vampire or werewolf, but he would still be more powerful than a human being."

"You just don't want to accept that it was a vampire," Caitlin told her. "You just don't want to accept the possibility that it might have been a shapeshifter," Fiona countered.

They stared at each other. Then they both started to smile at the same time.

"All right--it was most likely a vampire," Fiona said.

"And, I admit, there's a possibility it was a shape-shifter," Caitlin said.

"What a relief," Shauna said. "Now we can go to the meeting and present a united front."

"We have to," Fiona said. "We have to make the entire paranormal community understand completely that we're not only judicious but strong--and we will keep the peace."

Shauna jumped up from the sofa.

"Group hug!" she cried.

Laughing, Fiona let herself be dragged into her youngest sister's exuberant embrace.

"All right--enough," she said finally, taking a step back. "One for all, and all for one. Now, let's get over to that meeting."

Despite the time it had taken to break up the altercation, Jagger arrived at David's early. A little while later, from his seat in the front row, he watched the attendees filing in and realized everyone seemed to naturally group together with the other members of their own race.

Ossie and Georgio had made up, but even so, they split up when they entered, Ossie to sit with the werewolves and Georgio with the vampires. Even the Keepers separated on arrival and sat with the races they were charged to protect.