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Authors: Jeaniene Frost

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T
he townhouse smelled of death, blood, urine, and random police officers, in that order. Bones grunted as he knelt next to one of the reddish-brown stains on the floor.

“With the stench from all the different coppers in here, I'm amazed you could even decipher the LaLauries' scent.”

Jelani stayed at the top of the stairs, not venturing down to the first floor.

“They weren't only down there. They slept in the bed up here”—Jelani pointed to a room down the hall—“and sat on the couch here”—with a stiff finger at what Bones supposed was the family room.

Bones inhaled deeply, making a mental catalog of the scents. Then he leaped up the stairs in one bound, noticing Jelani's inadvertent flinch as he watched.

Right.
No need to remind the fellow of what he couldn't do anymore.

“The bed and the sofa, you say?” Bones asked, changing to walk with the slowness he used when around humans. The sofa faced the telly, with a view out the balcony to the left of it. Bones went over to it and inhaled again, noting the differences—and the similarities—from the smells downstairs.

“The owner of the flat. The girl. Has her body been found elsewhere?”

Jelani gave him a slight smile. “What makes you think this wasn't the boy's place?”

Bones shot Jelani an annoyed look. “There's a feminine scent all over this flat. This wasn't where the boy lived, though it's mostly his blood on the first floor.”

“There's a picture of the girl in her bedroom.” Jelani's voice was neutral, as if they were discussing the weather. “She's beautiful. I imagine she's still alive. For now.”

Bones stared at Jelani. All his instincts told him that the ghoul was hiding something. Bones wondered if he'd known the girl. Jelani was acting as if none of this affected him, but his scent was of fear…and hatred. If he'd been emotionally attached to the flat's owner, that would make sense.

Or he could just be frightened of what would happen if Bones was unable to kill the LaLauries by the time Marie returned. Since Marie had left him in charge, it would be considered Jelani's failure as well.

“You've never told me how you know Delphine and Louis's scent to recognize it,” Bones stated.

Something flashed across Jelani's face before it became smooth as dark glass again.

“I was married in the eighteen sixties,” Jelani replied. “She was a slave in the St. Francisville house, which happened to be where the LaLauries fled after they left the Quarter. While I was fighting in the Union Army, Delphine and Louis tortured and ate my wife. I arrived too late to save her, but I'll never forget their scent.”

Bones didn't blink. “Your arms and legs?”

“Amputated after the battle of New Market Heights. They told me it was a miracle I survived at all. Majestic changed me afterward, at my request. I wanted to live long enough to one day see the LaLauries die.”

Jelani's expression was pure defiance now, as if he ex
pected Bones to berate him for changing into a ghoul solely for revenge.

“I was turned into a vampire against my will,” Bones replied evenly. “Brassed me off for a good long while, then I got over it. Can't change how we ended up as we are, so why bother fretting over it? If you're looking for judgment, look elsewhere.”

Jelani seemed surprised. “I hadn't heard that about you,” he murmured.

Bones let out a short laugh. “Why would you? It's not the sort of tale to be bandying about, is it?”

“Don't you hate your sire for that?”

I did.

For years, Bones had hated Ian for turning him into a vampire. But Ian hadn't done it to be malicious—he'd done it out of a twisted sort of gratitude. If not for Bones sharing his meager food, Ian would have died on that long voyage from London to the New South Wales penal colonies, where they first met as prisoners.

But Bones wasn't about to share that with Jelani. No need to air those particulars to a ghoul he barely knew.

“I don't hate him anymore,” was all Bones said.

“You have a house in the city,” Jelani noted, changing the subject. “Will you be staying there?”

Bones shrugged. “Not after tonight. You can ring my cell, if you need me. I'll send word when it's finished.”

Jelani smiled, and it was cold. “Don't underestimate them. Delphine took the boy during an evening walking tour of the Quarter. He was seen leaving with a dark-haired girl right after the tour had stopped at her former mansion.”

Has a sick sense of humor, does she?
Bones thought sardonically. Their old home was about the last place he'd expect to find the LaLauries hunting, but it told Bones quite a bit. They were arrogant, which was good. Arrogance and a sense of invincibility were two large points in his favor toward killing them.

“How many ghouls and vampires live in the city?” Bones asked.

Jelani mulled it for a moment. “Year round, a few hundred. At Mardi Gras, that number doubles, easily. Humans aren't the only ones to enjoy the city's festival.”

Bugger. Which was why it was an ideal time of year for the LaLauries to hunt, of course. The abundance of people, alive and undead, made them blend that much more into a crowd.

Of course, it would make Bones blend, too. He felt confident he could catch them. What he wasn't certain about, was how many people they might kill before he did.

“I'll ring you when it's finished,” Bones repeated to Jelani, and walked out of the blood-soaked townhouse.

T
he afternoon sun glinted off the countless beads people wore around their necks. The streets weren't completely clogged yet. More people would venture out once it got dark. It amused Bones that a vampire could be about at this time of day, yet some humans let their excesses from the night before trap them in bed until dusk.

Bones's only concession to being out in daylight was to wear shades and sunscreen. He wouldn't burst into flames if the sun touched his bare skin, as the movies so comically claimed. Still, an hour in the sun for a vampire was akin to all day at the beach for an albino. He'd heal almost instantly, but there was no sense using his strength over something as trivial as a sunburn.

He'd already walked the length of the Quarter and back, noting the differences since the last time he'd been here—three years ago? No, it was four, because he'd celebrated the new millennium here. Blimey, the years were blinking by. It had been well over a decade since he'd set foot in London.
Once I kill the LaLauries and finish tracking down Hennessey and the other miserable blokes he's involved with, I'm going home,
Bones decided.
It's been too long. I'm even sounding more like a Yank than an Englishman these days.

Only a couple blocks down was the LaLauries' old house. Even in daylight, there were shadows shifting
around it. Residual ghosts. Any sentient spooks who'd died there stayed away from the place, not that Bones blamed them. At night, the house positively crawled with old, despairing energy from its gruesome past. It was no accident that the house had changed hands so many times over the past hundred and seventy years. It was now empty and for sale again as well. Humans might not be able to see the residual manifestations, but they could sense them, on some deep level.

And Delphine LaLaurie, at least, seemed drawn to the house as well. Why else would she pluck one of her victims right in front of it during a tour? Was the irony just amusing to her? Or did she still, after all this time, miss her old home? Was that why the LaLauries kept returning to the Quarter, despite the danger of Marie's wrath?

Bones came closer to the house. The strong smell of chemicals wafted to him from a store to his right.
Salon
, he diagnosed, then glanced at his reflection. His hair had been brown for quite some time. Since someone was obviously hunting him, it wouldn't hurt to alter his appearance.

He entered the parlor, not surprised to find a few people waiting. Every business in the Quarter enjoyed a boost from Mardi Gras, except perhaps church services. He put his name on the list, took a seat, and waited. Forty minutes later, he was brought back by the hairdresser.

“Hi there, what'll it be?” she asked in a friendly way.

“Color, trim, and wash, if you please,” Bones replied.

“You English have the loveliest accents.” She laughed. “Makes everything you say sound so proper.”

After she washed his hair, she led him to her cubicle. Bones read her name on her beautician's certificate and gave a snort of amusement.

“Rebecca DeWinter. Was that an intentional reference?”

She looked at him in surprise. “Yeah. My parents loved that book. You're the first person who's tied my name to it. Not many people are big readers of the older classics.”

Bones stifled his next snort, because telling her that he
still considered
Rebecca
to be new fiction would require too much explanation.

“I go by Becca, though,” she added, giving his head a last toweling. “So, what are we doing with color today?”

What shade hadn't he done recently? “Make it blond.”

She blinked at him in the mirror. “Really?”

“Platinum, the whole lot of it.”

Her hand was still in his hair, absently fingering his curls. Bones met her eyes in the mirror. She turned away quickly and threw “Let me just mix the color” over her shoulder.

A smile tugged his mouth. He had no false modesty about his looks. They'd been his trade in the seventeen hundreds when he was human and survived by selling his body to women. Since then, they'd ensured that he didn't spend many nights alone, but by his choice, not for need of coin anymore. And at times, he'd used his looks when he was hunting lethal, feminine prey. They'd been a useful tool, but Bones placed far more importance on maintaining his wits and strength.

Becca came back and applied the color to his hair. Bones chatted with her, learning that she'd worked here for a couple of years, lived just outside the Quarter, and—interestingly enough—had been closing up the night Eric Greenville was murdered.

“…such a shame,” Becca continued. “I can't tell you how many times I've seen those tour groups by our window while the guides talk about that old house. They can't stand on their corner, since that's private property, so they hang out in front here. How awful for someone to be robbed and murdered by a person he met on one of those.”

“Is that what the papers say happened?” Bones asked, though he already knew the answer.

She shrugged. “Yeah. Weird stuff always happens during Mardi Gras.”

That might be true, but Bones was more interested in how Becca might have caught a glimpse of Delphine LaLaurie
that night, whether she realized it or not. He'd intended to track down the tour guide from that evening, for the same reason, but that person would be much more recognizable to Delphine. Becca was anonymous. She could be right useful, and judging from her scent—and the lingering looks she snuck his way—she wouldn't be averse to spending more time with him.

“I'm in town on business,” Bones said casually. “Leaving soon after Mardi Gras ends, but I wondered if you'd fancy having dinner with me?”

He'd been watching her in the mirror as he asked. Her eyes widened, then she broke out into a smile.

“Um, sure. That would be nice.”

She was quite pretty. Shoulder-length brown hair with blond highlights, a nice full mouth—and arse—and she looked well into her twenties, so not a novice when it came to dating.

Infinitely biteable,
Bones decided with a speculative gaze. “Are you free tonight?”

She glanced away. Funny how many otherwise confident women shied under a direct look.

“Yeah. I get off in an hour, but you know, I'd want to go home and change…”

“Smashing, I'll pick you up at your house 'round eight,” Bones stated, giving her his charming smile. It worked well enough. She didn't argue, as it were.

When he left the salon, his hair was champagne blond, he had Becca's address in hand, and a far different plan for to-night than he'd started out with.
You might turn out to be my homing beacon for Delphine,
Bones thought, giving Becca a peck on the cheek while promising to pick her up later.
Or at the very least, we'll both have dinner tonight.

B
ecca ordered a salad for her entrée. Bones, used to the baffling tendencies of women on first dates to pretend they didn't eat, said nothing. He just ordered the large prime rib with three sides and cajoled Becca into eating half his food. Aside from being thinner than he preferred, Becca could also use the extra iron from the red meat, since Bones intended to lower her blood count by a pint before the evening was finished.

After dinner, they walked along the streets of the Quarter. Bones gave Becca his coat, since her short dress with spaghetti straps did little to keep out the chill. Around them, the crowds were getting livelier as alcohol mixed with the veil of darkness, and the primal vibe of the city urged people to lose their normal inhibitions.

The hum of energy and excitement coming from the writhing banquet of humanity brought out the undead in force as well. Bones, under the pretext of joining in the festivities, bought masks for himself and Becca. His hid half his face, but hers was a silly little thing with feathers that covered only the area around her eyes.

With his aura of power carefully in check, new hair color, mask, and persona of being just another blood drinker strolling with his future meal, Bones was as disguised as he could be. Somewhere in this seething mass of people,
the LaLauries could be hunting, choosing their next victim. Time for Becca to assist him.

Bones drew her a few feet into the next alley they came across. Even above the raucous noise around them, he could hear her heartbeat speed up as he leaned down.

Instead of kissing her, however, Bones brought his face close to hers, letting green spill out of his eyes while he spoke low and resonantly.

“Remember the girl, Becca? The dark-haired one you saw that night walking with the murdered boy, can you see her face in your mind again?”

Bones knew she could. Determining that Becca had seen Delphine with Eric was the first thing he'd done when he arrived at her house earlier. A few flashes of his eyes, some help regressing her to that evening, and Bones was sure Becca had gotten a clear view of the female ghoul. Now to focus Becca on Delphine's image, so she'd recognize her on the spot if she saw her again.

Becca nodded, transfixed by his gaze. Bones caressed her cheek.

“If you see her again, you'll tell me at once. If I'm not with you, you'll ring me straightaway, but you will
not
go anywhere with her, ever.”

“Ever,” Becca echoed.

“You won't remember this conversation, either; you'll only remember to act as I've told you if you see her. And no matter the circumstances, you won't notice my eyes being anything but brown, or my teeth being anything but normal, right?”

Another nod. “Right.”

“Good.” Bones smiled. The emerald light left his eyes. Once free of their entrapping glow, Becca blinked, her awareness returning. Her gaze flicked to his mouth, and she licked her lips.

Bones closed the few inches between them, settling his mouth over hers in a firm, leisurely kiss. She tasted of wine
and prime rib, and beneath that was her own taste. Sweet, like crushed flowers.

A scraping sound from above made Bones yank to the side with a curse. Someone was up there.

In the next moment, pain seared his back, just a few inches below his heart. As Bones spun around, he spotted a redheaded vampire perched on the roof on the other side of the alley.

“Ralmiel,” Bones muttered, recognizing him. He jerked away in the next split second before another arrow was fired off. This time, it landed in the building instead of his flesh.

“'Allo,
mon ami
,” the vampire called out genially. “Stand still so I can kill you.”

“Oh my
God,
” Becca gasped.

“Go into the parade now,” Bones ordered her, shoving her in that direction.

Another arrow came at him, striking him in the arm he'd extended to push Becca safely away. Bones yanked the arrow out, spun to avoid another one, and propelled himself straight up in the air. Since he was in the alley, most bystanders wouldn't see him, and the ones who did would be too drunk to remember it clearly, anyhow.

Ralmiel gave an infuriating chuckle as he sprinted away, leaping over the roofs in gravity-defying strides. Bones chased him, drawing several knives from his sleeves. He flung them at the vampire's back, but only one landed, and not in his heart. Bloke was fast.

“You cannot catch me,
mon ami
!” Ralmiel laughed, darting across the next roof onto the steeple of St. Louis Cathedral.

“Too right I can,” Bones growled, crossing the same distance in an aerial leap. He reached inside his sleeves, grasped two more knives, and rocketed them at the vampire.

The knives landed in Ralmiel's chest, but he'd jerked
back in a life-saving microsecond that meant the difference between them piercing his heart and burying less harmfully into his sternum.

“Sacre bleu,”
Ralmiel swore, yanking them out and toss-ing them off the roof. Then he smiled at Bones. “Close, though,
non
?”

Bones reached in his sleeves again—and came up empty. Right, he'd given his coat to Becca, and it held the rest of his knives.

Ralmiel aimed his crossbow, then gave a snort as he saw that he, too, was out of silver.

“Normally it takes no more than four arrows,
mon ami.
I wasn't expecting you to be so quick. We'll have to continue this another time.”

Bones jumped onto the church's roof. “We can settle this without weapons. Come on, mate, afraid to only use your hands in a death match?”

Ralmiel had an odd grin. “I think I will let you live to-night and kill you tomorrow. Or the next day. I get paid the same either way.”

Bones let out a short laugh. “Decided to take one of the many contracts out on me, did you? After I kill you, mate, I'll be curious to see what
your
corpse is worth.”

Ralmiel sketched a bow, squeezing something in his hand. “I think not.” Then he vanished in front of Bones's eyes.

Bones stared at the spot where Ralmiel had been.
What kind of trick was this?

Since they were in New Orleans, the heart of magic and voodoo, perhaps it was a sort of spell. The few other times Bones had run across Ralmiel, he damn sure didn't have the power to dematerialize on his own. Bones didn't figure he'd hide such an ability, either.

Though that begged the question of why Marie would allow Ralmiel, a known hit man, in her city to hunt the hitter she'd hired. If Bones was dead, then he couldn't take
care of her problem with the LaLauries, could he? He'd have to inform Jelani of this. Perhaps Marie wasn't aware of Ralmiel's presence.

But now to find Becca, and erase from her mind all the things she'd just witnessed.

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