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In an old French Quarter cemetery that cradled saints and sinners alike, dawn stained the slumbering fog bloodred. Layer after layer, it awakened, rising like the resurrected dead and swirling in soft eddies around the young woman cutting through it.
"It has to be here somewhere," Caitlyn Villare called over her shoulder. Tension tightened her voice, and perspiration curled damp tendrils of long blond hair that clung to the fair skin at her temples and behind her neck. Her hand swished impatiently through the clotted June air, disturbing a small cloud of biting gnats.
From the next row of graves, a bull of a man wearing a rumpled chino blazer and a salt-and-pepper buzz cut shot her a grim look. "Let's not get your hopes up too high. I saw the rock that old bat was wearing, and if some lowlife caught sight of it out here
Reuben Pierce let the words die, but his grim brown eyes did the talking for him. An old friend of her father's, the retired cop served as her assistant, fellow tour guide and bodyguard. Or babysitter, as Caitlyn thought when she was most exasperated with her over-protective older sister, Jacinth.
But he was right, Caitlyn admitted to herself. As soon as the two of them had escorted her party of tourists out through the cemetery gates last night, unsavory types had undoubtedly descended, trolling for any leavings and hoping to surprise any straggler foolish enough to return for a private viewing.
Only last month, a lone touristnot one of her clients, thank goodnesshad been found here, his pockets turned out and his throat slashed, his cooling corpse lying in a congealing pool of blood. She shivered at the thought of it, hurrying her steps, and said to Reuben, "If I don't find that ring, that horrible old woman will tell everyone I stole it."
Caitlyn's stomach tightened with the memory of the shriveled crone, a tiny, wrinkled figure who'd worn a black lace veil over the silken white coil of her hair. At first Caitlyn had taken her attire for a costume, not unlike the gypsy storyteller outfits she herself wore to help enliven her tales of New Orleans's famous cities of the dead. But at four o'clock this morning, when the old woman calling herself Eva Rill had furiously rapped her cane against Caitlyn's front door, she was still dressed entirely in black, right down to the little round hat with the raven's feathers and the lacy cloud of netting.
Widow's weeds, her getup would have been called in an earlier century, but Caitlyn, who loved costuming as much as any of her fellow theater students, imagined them the garments of a dark witch or an Old World sorceress.
"You should have heard the shrieking," Caitlyn went on. "She said she'll file a complaint with the police if I don't return the ring by noon today. Swore she'll have my license pulled and I'll lose everything I've worked for everything Jacinth and I are turning ourselves inside out to try to"
With the fog lifting, she saw the roll of Reuben's eyes and heard his scoffing laughter.
"Come on, kiddo. Calm down. First of all, what kind of idiot wears a rock the size of a pigeon's egg around the Quarter after dark? Even a tourist should know better. And who's gonna honestly believe you could somehow manage to slip that ring right off her bony finger without her noticing and screaming bloody murder?"
"Josiah Paine, that's who." Caitlyn grew morose, thinking of her former boss, the man who'd taken a chance on hiring her not long after she and her sister had come to New Orleans to settle their grandmother's estate. They hadn't planned on staying in the city their mother had refused to speak of, the city where their father had been murdered when Caitlyn was an infant. Nor had the sisters planned on falling in love with the crumbling Esplanade Avenue mansion they'd inherited, or the decaying, magnolia-scented tales of a place that all too quickly felt like home.
"Or at least he'll pretend he buys it," she grumbled, "so he can scare off every potential customer in earshot."
"Paine can be a pain, all right." Reuben gave a shrug. "But the more he trash-talks your business, the more free advertising the fool's giving you. I've told him as much myself."
"I'd rather find the ring than test your theory." Cait-lyn poked among the weeds screening a stone obelisk, her mood darkening with the memory of the night her former boss had erupted, accusing her of holding back tip money, which he claimed as his due.
She'd grown used to his moods, his tendency toward pitting the employees against one another, even his shouting, but that night he had laid hands on her, slamming her so hard against a wall that she'd found bruises later. Embarrassed that she'd put up with his abuse for so long, she'd told no one, instead walking out and putting the whole sordid episode behind her.
And savoring the sweet revenge of seeing her dramatic delivery and winning people skills earn her the sort of word of mouth his cowed and miserable employees never could. Though she still couldn't afford an office of her own, she was booking more and more business using her home phone and computer.
Caitlyn moved along the row of tombs, weathered structures built in deference to the high water table's alarming tendency to float coffins to the surface. Some of the houselike vaults, mausoleums and monuments were more recent, clearly well tended, while others tilted, crumbling within the confines of fenced familial plots. Losing sight of Reuben, she followed the route she had taken last night, the pathway leading to the cemetery's oldest section.
So intent was she on her search that she never noticed how the chorus of morning birds fell silent. Nor did she pay any heed to the fiery disk of the sun climbing above the bruised horizon.
Half-hidden by another spray of weeds, she caught the bloody wink of a ruby flanked by a pair of teardrop diamonds. Her heart leaping with joy and relief, she opened her mouth to call to Reuben.
And that was when she noticed that the ring adorned a finger. A finger on a hand so pale, it might have been chiseled out of marble.
A hand connected to the outstretched arm of a young woman lying on her side behind a tombstone, her features set and rigid, her long blond hair fanned out.
And her green eyes looking like those that stared back at Caitlyn from her mirror every morning.
Except that these were glassy, hollow, as dead as the girl who lay there and said nothing, though her open mouth, obscenely rimmed in still-moist red lipstick, remained forever frozen in a hell-born silent scream.
Marcus Le Carpentier had her in his sights. So ethereal, so fragile, she looked as though she might crumble into dust with the weight of the slivered sunbeam that pierced the fog layers like the devil's darning needle.
Like the light, his caress came from a distance, focused by a lens that captured the rising bands of moisture, the single, slanting ray and the wings of the stone angel atop the mossy tomb. He blew back thick dark hair from darker eyes, his skin tightening with delicious anticipation.
When he saw this dawn angel, Isaiah would be so pleased, but it was nothing compared to the pleasure Marcus himself was deriving from this moment.
Moving the tip of one long finger atop the shutter button, he held his breath and framed the ethereal light, the mist, the haunting artwork he had come so very far and through so very much to
A gasp caught his attention a split second before something struck him from behind, hard enough to send both his four-thousand-dollar camera and its case flying. As he fell, Marcus instinctively grabbed for the one indispensable, irreplaceable item he had left to his name.
It hit the hard stone corner of a raised vault with a splintering noise before bouncing off and striking the bricked surface below.
"No!" he shouted, as he fell down on hands and knees.
Adrenaline pounding through him, he leapt panting to his feet, his fists already rising to ward off another attack.
The blonde who'd fallen into him scrambled out of reach, an instant before a piercing scream erupted from her rounded mouth, quickly drawing a brute with a graying buzz cut and blood in his eyes.
"What did you do to her?" The huge man stepped from the mist to move in on him, his own fists raised like a prizefighter's.
Marcus stood his ground, an eerie calm icing his voice. "To her? Let's talk about what she did to my camera, plowing into me like that."
Though he towered over Marcus's six feet, the man with the buzzed hair stopped short, studying his younger, lighter adversary. With the force of a stare that made most fights unnecessary, Marcus kept the human pit bull at bay.
Meanwhile, the young woman, no older than her early twenties, finally found her voice. "Not him, Reuben. It's theshe's dead!"
Both men followed her pointing finger toward a body. A body even paler than the terrified blonde who had destroyed his camera.
In every other respect, they looked virtually identical. Beautiful, with rivers of hair like summer moonlight and rounded eyes green as the bayou.
Except that one was still as stone, with her mouth agape and a lurid line of color bruising her alabaster neck.
"Holy hell." Reuben jerked a cell phone from his rumpled jacket. "Who isshe looks almost like"
"Like me, I know." Terror pinched the living woman's voice.
Marcus knelt beside the crumpled female, his hand reaching to confirm what his eyes already knew. The skin of her wrist was cool and unyielding, as well as pulseless. Along the underside of her bare outstretched armher top was sleeveless, and ink-black to match her short skirthe focused on the line of livid purple, then the bruising on her neck. The splash of blood at the hollow of her throat seemed garish in contrast to her otherwise unblemished pallor.
But not nearly as horrifying as the way the eyes glittered when a ray of sunlight pierced the fog.
Rising with an oath, Marcus backed away, taking in the unnatural sheen of the blond filaments, the glassy stare that, he saw with a jolt, was real glass. Turning his head to take in the living woman, he realized that the dead one didn't look like her, not really .
Even though someone had apparently taken pains to make her seem that way.
Reuben began speaking into the phone, reporting their location and the discovery of a corpse, so Marcus directed his attention to the living woman.
"That's a wig she's wearing," he pointed out. "And those eyes. They aren't natural, either."
She edged close enough that he could hear the quick rhythm of her breathing, could feel the nervous energy pulsing from her. Peering at the body, she said, "Why would someone do this?"
Don't get involved, warned the instinct that four years of running had honed to a keen edge. Yet the fear in her red-rimmed eyes, the popped pearl button on her ivory blouse and the torn knee of the pants that skimmed her slender body made her need so real and immediate, so human, that he couldn't stop himself from asking, "Who knew you would be here? Some admirer you've turned away? An ex-boyfriend who can't let go?"
Fear flashed over her beautiful features, and she shook her head. "There's no one like that, no one in a long time. But there was this old womanshe accused me of."
Her trembling hand pointed to the ring the corpse was wearing, a ring with a stone so large, he suspected it was as artificial as the long blond hair and green eyes.
Why couldn't the body be a fake, too? A mannequin, arranged and decorated as a bad joke? But the cool flesh had felt all too human, and the horror of the gaping mouth was all too real.
Reuben flipped his phone shut and in a take-charge voice said, "Police are on their way. They'll want to talk to us."
Something in Marcus froze at those words. To hide his reaction, he turned away and scooped up his rattling Nikon, along with several small items that had fallen from the camera bag.
"Sorry I ran into you. It was just soso awful, seeing her, that I" the woman said before Reuben overrode her, his flat brown stare boring into Marcus.
"What're you doing out here at this hour?" The huge man sounded coplike himself, suspicion tightening his clean-shaven jaw.
Marcus raised the camera in answer, then tossed back the question. "And the two of you were out here because.?"
"We were looking for a lost" the woman started. "That's none of his business, Caitlyn," Reuben warned her before his voice softened. "You're hurt."
"No, I'm fine. I'm " She glanced down at a few drops of blood that had seeped through the torn material at her knee. Shaking her head, she said, "Never mind that."
She looked into Marcus's face, her expression a brand of innocence he'd forgotten existed in the world. "I'm Caitlyn Villare, from Villar-Al Tours. This is my assistant, Reuben Pierce."
Considering the difference in their ages and the man's obvious protectiveness, Marcus would have been less surprised to learn that Reuben was a doting father or an uncle. But not a sugar daddy, not to this angelic-looking blonde.
"We were looking for something one of my clients lost here last night," she told him. "A ring."
"I'm Ethan. Ethan Thornton." The lie came smoothly, honed by years of practice at using different names in different cities. Only this time, for the first time in memory, he felt the kick of conscience. "I have an interest in funerary art."
"You have an interest in taking pictures of dead girls, too?" Reuben challenged. "Maybe setting up your own"
As Marcus fixed him with another cold stare, Caitlyn cut him off. "Reuben, this is horrible enough without you pointing fingers. I'm sorry, Mr. Thornton."
Reuben's expression said he wasn't, that he remained suspicious. But at least he backed off, muttering only a face-saving "Cops'll be here any minute. Guess we'll leave the questions to them."
The three of them stood in awkward silence, avoiding eye contact as they waited forand, in Marcus's case, dreadedthe first sirens to pierce the delicate veil of birdsong.