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Twilight always fell anxiously over the Big Easy, es-pecially when it rained. That's when the ghosts came out. A wisp of steam rising from the wet pavement. The murmur of voices from a hidden courtyard. Something dark and stealthy moving in the shadows, and sud-denly you were reminded of a past that wouldn't stay buried.
New Orleans was like that. A city of memories, Dave Creasy always called it. A city of secrets and whispers and the kind of regret that could eat a man up inside. Like the wrong woman, she'd get in a man's blood, destroy his soul, make him feel alive and dead at the same time. And on a hot, rainy nightwhen the ghosts came outit could be the loneliest place on earth.
Welcome back, a voice whispered in Dave's head as he lifted his face, eyes closed, and listened to the rus-tle of rain through the white oleanders that drooped over a crumbling brick wall along St. Peters.
It was strange how the city could still seduce him.
He'd been born and raised in New Orleans, and like everyone else he knew, there'd been a time when he couldn't wait to get out. Now he couldn't seem to stay away. The ghosts wouldn't let him.
A car slowed on the street in front of him, and a child stared out at him from a rain-streaked window. She looked a little like Ruby, and Dave watched her until the car was out of sight, the pain in his chest as familiar now as his heartbeat. Then he started walking.
Around the next corner, a neon half-moon sputtered in the gathering darkness. He wanted to think of the light as a beacon, but he knew better. The Crescent City Bar could never in a million years be considered a haven. Not for him, at least.
As heentered the room, an infinitesimal chill slid over him. Welcome back, that taunting voice whispered again.
The bar was nearly empty. A handful of zombielike patrons sat with heads bowed over drinks, the only ac-knowledgment of their coexistence a mingling of ciga-rette smoke that drifted up from the tables. The old wood blades of the ceiling fans rotated overhead, barely stir-ring warm air that reeked of sweat, booze and despair.
Welcome back, welcome back, welcome back. Dave took a seat at the end of the bar, where he could watch the door. He hadn't been a cop for nearly seven years, but old habits died hard.
From the other end, the hulk of a bartender watched him with open suspicion. He was tall and tough, with skin the texture of leather. Jubal Roach had to be at least sixty, but the forearms underneath his rolled-up shirtsleeves bulged with muscle, and his sullen expres-sion reflected, as Dave knew only too well, a still-mur-derous disposition.
Dave's old partner had once warned him about Jubal's temper. They'd stopped in for a beer after their watch one night and the surly bartender had copped an attitude from the get-go. Back in the day, Dave hadn't been one to turn the other cheek.
"Man, let it go," Titus had said in a nervous whis-per. "You don't want to tangle with that S.O.B. Once he start in whaling on you, he like a big 'ol loggerhead. He ain't gonna let you go till it thunders. Or till you dead."
It was good advice. Too bad Dave hadn't had the sense to heed it.
He and Jubal played the staring game for several more seconds, then, with a hardening of his features, the older man ambled down to Dave's end of the bar.
"Jubal." Dave greeted him warily, mindful of the nightstick and brass knuckles the bartender kept under the counter. "How's it going?"
"Dave Creasy. Been a while since I saw your ugly mug in here. Kinda thought you might be dead."
Kinda hoped was the inference. "I bought a place in St. Mary Parish awhile back."
"Same difference, you ask me." Jubal got down a glass and a bottle of whiskey. "The usual?"
"Nah, I'm on the wagon these days."
Eight months, four days, nine hours and counting.
"Since the last time I got thrown in jail for disorderly conduct."
Jubal's gold tooth flashed in the light from the Abita Purple Haze sign over the bar.
Dave touched the area over his left eye. His memo-ries of that night had faded, but the scar hadn't. It had taken him two days to get out of the drunk tank, an-other five before he'd stumbled into the nearest emer-gency room with a raging fever. The infection had laid him flat for nearly two weeks, and by the time he got out of the hospital, fifteen pounds lighter, a jagged scar was the least of his worries.
"You're lucky you didn't lose your eye," the young intern had scolded him. "However, at the moment, I'm more concerned about your liver. You have what is known as alcohol hepatitis, which can be treated but only if alcohol consumption is stopped. Otherwise, this condition is likely to cause cirrhosis, Mr. Creasy," he'd stated bluntly. "If you don't stop drinking, there's a good chance you won't make it to your fortieth birth-day."
Dave wasn't particularly worried about dying, but he would prefer not to go out the way his old man had. So he'd stopped drinking, again, started going back to AA, and he'd moved down to Morgan City to work part-time for his uncle while reopening Creasy Investi-gations. Marsilius had found him a little house on the bayou where he could live and set up shop until he was able to afford office space in town. The only problem with that arrangement was that his uncle now consid-ered it his moral duty to keep Dave on the straight and narrow.
As if testing Dave's resolve, Jubal poured a shot of Jack Daniel's and slid the tumbler across the bar. "First one's on the house. For old times' sake."
"No thanks, but I'll take a cup of that coffee I smell brewing."
"Suit yourself." Jubal filled a cup and passed it to Dave. "If you're not drinking, what brings you in here?" "I'm meeting someone." Dave lifted the cup and took a sip of the strong chicory blend. The coffee was hot. It scalded his tongue and he swore as the front door swung open. And in walked Angelette Lapierre.
She stood in the doorway taking stock of the room just as she always did. That was Dave's first memory of her, the way she'd planted herself on the threshold of the captain's office, her gaze sweeping the room as the group of homicide detectives huddled over a map had looked up with a collective indrawn breath.
Dave had been married back then and in love with his wife, but he couldn't help noticing Angelette. Dark-haired, dark-eyed, she'd had that dog-in-heat quality that drew men to her side and made any woman unfor-tunate enough to be in the same room dislike her on sight.
Dave had tried to ignore her, but later in the crowded squad room, he'd glanced up to find her watching him, and her slow smile had sent a shiver down his back-bone. Something that might have been a warning glinted in her sultry eyes that day, and Dave would later wish that he'd taken heed of it.
But instead, he'd told himself there was no harm in looking. What Claire didn't know wouldn't hurt her.
Dave winced at the memory. He didn't want to think about her at that moment. He didn't want to think about her ever. She was a part of his past. One of the ghosts that came out to haunt him on rainy summer nights.
But he couldn't help himself. He closed his eyes briefly as an image of his ex-wife appeared in his head. She wasn't as curvy or as beautiful as Angelette, but her appeal was far more dangerous because she was the kind of woman you could never get out of your sys-tem. No matter how much you drank.
As if she was reading his mind, Angelette's expres-sion hardened. Her gaze seemed to pierce right through him, and then she blinked and the daggers were gone. The familiar smile flashed, dazzled, even as her chin lifted in defiance.
Same old Angelette.
She wore a blue dress, transparent from where she stood in the doorway. Jubal leaned an elbow on the bar and swore under his breath. Together he and Dave watched her walk with fluid grace to the stool next to Dave's, a whiff of something seductive preceding her.
Still smiling, she placed her purse on the bar and crossed her legs, letting that blue dress skate up her slender thighs.
"I don't want no trouble," Jubal warned.
She tossed back her dark hair and laughed. "I don't want any trouble, either."
"You start throwing beer bottles like you did last time, I'm calling the law on both of you."
"I am the law, remember?" She laughed again, but her amusement didn't quite reach her eyes. "Just relax, okay? Dave and I kissed and made up a long time ago. Didn't we, Dave?"
"If you say so." He was all for letting bygones be bygones, but when Angelette leaned over to brush her lips against his, he couldn't help tensing.
Her gaze lit on the scar above his eye. "Wow. Did I do that?"
"Better than a tattoo."
"Speaking of tattoos, I got myself a new one. Re-mind me to show it to you sometime."
Dave let that one go. He might not be the sharpest tool in the shed, as Marsilius frequently pointed out, but he'd learned his lesson with Angelette.
Not getting the response she wanted, she turned to Jubal. "Double whiskey."
There was something about Angelette that Dave hadn't remembered from before. She'd always had an edge. Had always been able to give as good as she got. An ambitious female detective had to know how to handle herself in a man's world. But it wasn't that. It wasn't her years as a cop that had given her face a brit-tle veneer. It was selling out. Being on the take for too long had chipped away at her sensuality and left in its wake something hard and unpleasant and faintly dec-adent.
Dave cradled his cup, gratified to note that his hands no longer trembled. He hadn't felt this steady in years. "So how did the anger management classes go?" He knew the question was likely to set her off. Angelette didn't like being called on her bullshitby him or by the judge who'd ordered her into the classesbut Dave couldn't resist goading her a little.
She surprised him. Instead of rising to the bait, she gave an airy wave with one hand as she lifted her drink with the other. "Oh, I finished up months ago. You're looking at the new and improved Angelette. What do you think?"
One brow lifted as her eyes seemed to challenge him. Not bad? There was a time when you couldn't keep your hands off me, you bastard. "You're not far-ing too badly yourself. You've put on a little weight, but it suits you. I was never all that partial to scrawny guys. A girl has to have something to hang on to, right, Jubal?" She gave the bartender a wink.
The older man glared at her with open suspicion. "You want another drink?"
"Oui, bien sÃ»r." She waited for him to pour the whiskey, then picked up her glass. "Let's move over to a booth." She slid off the stool, and as she turned, her full breasts brushed up against Dave's arm for a split second before she moved away.
He got up and, taking his coffee with him, followed her to a back booth. By the time he sat down, she'd al-ready finished her second drink.
"Maybe you ought to ease up on the hooch."
"What is that? A friendly piece of advice from one drunk to another?" Her face was flushed and her voice sounded strained as she folded her arms on the table.
Something was wrong. Dave could feel it. Her eyes wouldn't quite meet his. Instead, she watched the steam rising from his cup that drifted up between them.
"What did you want to see me about?"