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The scariest sound in New Orleans' French Quarter is silence.
Even at four a.m. on a damp November Sunday morning, there should have been a few horns blaring, one or two belligerent drunks staggering around, a street hawker trying to solicit one more customer into a nightclub making its last call, the final trill of a trumpet.
All I heard as I followed Jake Warin along lower Dauphine Street were the falls of our footsteps on the concrete sidewalk. It was as if the thick mist that shrouded the gas streetlamps in golden balls of light had absorbed everything else and corralled the sounds from Bourbon Street into the confines of the street itself.
Just in case slipping into a gory police crime scene wasn't eerie enough.
We turned the corner at Ursulines and found our contact standing against the side of a generic sedan that had been parked across a gated driveway. He wore a New Orleans Saints cap, but his nylon windbreaker had NOPD stamped across the back in gold block letters that glittered in the misty light. It, plus the gun on his hip, offered a warning to anyone who might take a notion to rob him: don't.
"You owe me," he said, and he wasn't smiling.
Homicide detective Ken Hachette had agreed to let us into his crime scene as a favor to Jake, his former Marine buddy who'd recently trained to join a new FBI unit called the Division of Domestic Terror, or DDT.
Ken didn't know the DDT's brand of domestic terror would involve the preternaturals that had flooded into New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina tore down the metaphysical levees between the modern city and the Beyond. He thought it had to do with Homeland Security.
Ken also didn't know his friend had been turned into a rogue breed of werewolf called loup-garou. To him, Jake had simply grown bored with running his Bourbon Street bar, the Green Gator, and wanted a career change. At least half of the Gator's day-to-day operations already had been turned over to his bartender-slash-manager, Leyla.
Finally, Ken didn't know I was a wizard, the sentinel for the greater New Orleans region, and not an FBI consultant as my handy little badge proclaimed.
What Ken Hachette did know was that neither Jake nor I had any business at his crime scene. "You realize how much hot water I'll get into if my boss hears about this?"
The mist muffled Jake's silky-sweet Mississippi drawl. "We're here. Might as well let us take a look. I need the experience looking at scenes, and DJ knows a lot about the Axeman. The real one."
Yeah, I knew a lot about the famous serial killer who'd rained terror all over the city back in the early part of the twentieth century—I'd learned most of it over the past twenty-four hours from the Internet. It's amazing what turns up when you Google Axeman of New Orleans. There were better ways to do research, more accurate ways—even magical ways. But this had been a last-minute gig and even a research geek like me knows when to take a shortcut.
Ken unwrapped a stick of sugarless gum and rolled it up before popping it into his mouth. Then he folded the wrapper into a small, neat square and stuck it in his coat pocket. His face, the color of a deep, rich caramel, glistened with mist, and he pulled a handkerchief from his pocket to wipe it off. Who carried handkerchiefs? In our limited acquaintance, Ken had struck me as the type of man who might iron his boxer shorts and arrange his sock drawer by color.
The anti-DJ, in other words.
"Yeah, okay. Come on. Don't touch anything." He untied the yellow crime scene tape that stretched across a wrought-iron entry gate and waited until we walked inside. Much of the lower Quarter was residential, and surprisingly large Creole-style homes lay nestled behind the narrow street entrances.
We crossed the slate pavers of an elegant courtyard edged with a jungle of banana trees and palms, and waited while Ken untied yet another length of yellow tape, this one barricading a set of French doors.
"Who was the victim?" I closed my eyes while Ken fiddled with the tape and pulled out a key to unlock the house. I might be a wizard, but I had enough elven genes from both of my parents that I'd won the freak lottery and ended up with some elven magic in my repertoire—part of which was the ability to sense the presence of preternatural energy. The aura of anything inhuman that might have been out here in the courtyard, however, had dissipated into the mist.
Warped as it sounded, I was praying for a nice, ordinary, human serial killer. I'd barely recovered from an attack and near-drowning three weeks earlier at the hands of a psycho nymph, not to mention cracked ribs courtesy of overzealous merman CPR. Breathing remained a painful chore, and I really, really wanted Axeman Deux, as the media had dubbed the killer, to be Ken's problem.
The detective rattled off the details in short, clipped phrases. "Joseph Isaacson. Age fifty-seven. Owned a shipping-container company that does a lot of business with the port. Divorced. Lived alone. Same MO as the other attacks."
The copycat murders had started two weeks ago, and tonight's was the third death. These attacks shared a lot with the original ones committed in 1918 and 1919 by a never-identified serial killer the newspapers had named the Axeman because of his chosen weapon. The assaults came late at night, death resulted from hard blows to the head with an ax while the victims slept in their beds, and the bloody weapon had been left propped against a door or kitchen counter at the scene as a gory souvenir.
We entered the French doors into a parlor that could have served as a ballroom back when this place had been built in the early 1800s. It had been decorated in tasteful shades of cream, tan, and ivory, which made the puddle of blood next to an end table all the more gruesome.
Jake knelt next to the blood and I followed his gaze to the droplets trailing crimson across the room and into a back hallway. How was the loup-garou inside him handling the blood? Jake had been withdrawn for the last few weeks—since he'd almost lost control on our one and only attempt at a real date, and again after my near-drowning.
Nothing could kill a budding romance like having a guy threaten to go furry while you're making out on the sofa or stare down at you with flat yellow eyes and bared teeth as you lie helpless on the ground.
Physically, Jake hadn't changed a lot since being turned loup-garou three years ago. His wiry runner's frame was more muscled, but he still had the laid-back exterior, the amber eyes, the sun-streaked blond hair, and the dimples. But the loup-garou tended to be violent loners, and Jake's control over his wolf was shaky. He'd never embraced what he'd become. We still flirted with each other a little, but in the last couple of weeks it had become hollow, as if done from habit rather than from heart.
"The ax was propped against the table here." Ken squatted next to Jake and pointed at a small cherry end table with delicate legs. "The bedroom where the body was found is down that hall. This ax was the same as the others."
"Any fingerprints?" Jake asked.
"Plenty—but nothing that matches anything in our databases. He's not being careful about what he touches. He's taunting us."
I didn't like the sound of that. It could be a sloppy or arrogant human killer with no police record … or a prete who knew nothing about forensics.
They stood up, and Ken pointed to spots where little cardboard placards had been placed by the crime lab team. "Look in those areas and see if you can find anything we missed."
"Good idea." Jake's eyes lingered on the pool of blood before he turned away and began canvassing the room.
Had Jake's voice sounded a little shaky, or was I looking for trouble? My former cosentinel Alex Warin, an enforcer for the wizards and Jake's new boss on the DDT, thought this low-stress assignment would be a good test for his cousin. Alex was supposed to be on this field trip instead of me, gauging Jake's reaction to a bloody scene.
When Alex had been called away to investigate a merman-weregator problem in one of the river parishes, I got drafted—thus the late-night Axeman research.
I was partly here to see if the murder had any prete connection, and also to see how Jake handled himself.
There hadn't been anything to indicate preternatural involvement, but any copycat crime pushed my paranoid button these days. Since the borders between modern New Orleans and the Beyond had dropped last month, any old prete could wander into town without the fear of being escorted out of the modern world by the New Orleans sentinel—namely, me.
That included the historical undead, famous former citizens given immortality in the Beyond by the magic of human memory. I wanted to make sure Axeman Deux wasn't the real Axeman, come back in undead form to resume his murderous ways.
I had more than a passing acquaintance with all the trouble that could be caused by a member of the historical undead. The undead pirate Jean Lafitte had initially come to my house to shoot me. I'd visited his hotel room on business, only to find him interested in pleasure. We'd shared boat rides, he'd tried to impale me with a dagger, I'd accidentally set him on fire with the ancient elven staff I call Charlie, and we'd ventured back to 1850 to have a dinner date at Antoine's before getting assaulted by an elf.
Yeah, it's a complicated relationship.
While Ken and Jake looked at spots where the police had found minute bits of evidence—hair and fibers that could have come from either the victim or the killer—I pretended to study an antique vase and reached out with my senses.
I usually wore my mojo bag, a pouch of magic-infused herbs and gemstones that blunts my empathic abilities, but I'd left it off tonight. Whatever was here, I needed to pick up on it, whether it was residual energy from the Beyond or the fact that the blood scent made Jake's mouth water. Can I hear an ick?
I ignored the wonky energy of loup-garou and filtered out the other sensory details: the quiet voices of the men as they talked about the crime, the drip of water off the leaves of the banana tree outside the doors, the iron-rich scent of blood, the muddy odor of wet concrete. There was nothing else here except human energy.
That could be attributed to Ken, but it also didn't rule out the historical undead, whose energy read mostly human. By spending time around Jean Lafitte, I'd learned the slight variation between the auras of regular humans and that exuded by the famous immortals.
At least my time with the pirate hadn't been for nothing.
"Okay if I go back to the bedroom?" I approached the guys, who were enthusiastically discussing carpet fibers.
"Sure," Ken said. "Just don't—"
I threw up my hands. "I know, don't touch anything."
He smiled at that, and it took a decade off his face. "Alex has said that to you a few times, I bet."
Laughing, I walked down the hallway, avoiding the blood droplets on the polished wooden floors. I'd met Ken shortly after Katrina, when Alex and I had just become cosentinels and were posing as a couple. I'm not sure he'd ever learned our true relationship. Not that I could even define it these days. Friends on the way to being … something … maybe … or not.
Yeah, that relationship was complicated too.
I didn't need to follow the bloody path to find the room where the murder had occurred; the stench of death led me to the second door on the right. The overhead lights had been left on, and thank God my stomach was empty so I was spared the humiliation of barfing at Ken's crime scene.
A duvet covered in intricate gold and brown embroidery lay in a heap at the foot of the bed, exposing a bare mattress. The sheets and pillows were missing—probably covered in blood and brain matter and taken by the cops. The top third of the mattress was soaked a deep crimson, and the spatter of red on the wall resembled some horrible Rorschach test.
I went through my ritual again, filtering out extraneous sensory data, focusing on the room. Death, especially violent death, leaves behind a signature, but it was fading.
The human aura was stronger. The place had been covered with cops. But underneath it all, like the high-pitched whine of a mosquito that's flown too close to one's ear, the not-quite-human energy of a member of the historical undead swept across my skin.
Damn it. This wasn't going to be Ken Hachette's case. It was going to be mine.
Copyright © 2013 by Suzanne Johnson