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~LEOPARD'S PREY: CHAPTER ONE~
Last Updated: March 06, 2015 11:14:48


Savage Nature by Christine Feehan

The bayou was no place for the faint of heart–especially at night. Alligators, snakes, even the occasional large cat preyed upon the unwary. Strange lights and mysterious sightings of everything from ghosts to vengeful creatures haunted the bayou at night. It was easy to get turned around, to get lost in the endless sea of grasses and the mist covered cypress trees. One misstep and a man could sink below the ground and never find his way to the surface.

Remy Boudreaux loved the bayou. Night. Day. It didn’t matter, it was home and it always would be. He loved the superstitions, the healers and the magic. The food. The swamps. Even the damn alligators. He loved the sultry heat and the golden sunset pouring into the water.

There was New Orleans. A city he was proud of. No matter how many times nature–or man slammed it–the city rose over and over, each time better and stronger. It was his city. His bayou. His swamp. And his people.

The people in the bayous and swamps went about their business every day without asking for a handout. They fished and hunted, shrimped and pulled in crabs for their families. If there was trouble, they preferred to handle it on their own. They carved out lives for themselves and their families in mosquito infested swamps and waterways. They didn’t ask permission or give apologies. They lived life as it came and they lived it large. Most had big noisy families, and celebrated every chance they got. They were your best friend or your worst nightmare, quick to anger and just as quick to give you the shirt off their backs.

Remy had traveled all over the world and he’d come back time and again to the bayou–and to his people. He loved each of them as fiercely and as passionately as only a Cajun could–or a leopard protecting its lair. What he didn’t love was murder. These were his people and no one was going to come into his world, take lives and get away with it.

Remy was a big man, tall, broad-shouldered with the signature heavy roped muscles of his kind. His hair was a bit shaggy, and midnight black. His eyes were either a striking cobalt blue or if the situation called for it, glacier-blue. Unless his cat was close, and then his gaze went watchful, serious, focused and very green. His face was tough, strong-jawed, the lines carved deep. He had a serious shadow going nearly all the time and the scar running down the side of his neck could have been from a knife–or a claw.

Remy Boudreaux was not a man anyone crossed. He was as Cajun as they came, born and raised in the bayou. He was more animal than man, the instincts of his leopard aiding him as a homicide detective. He had a reputation, well deserved, as a man not to trifle with. He took murder in his city or his bayou or swamp personally.

There was little moon and the water appeared black and shiny as the airboat skimmed over it. Tall grassy reeds rose in columns on either side of them, forming a narrow canal. The tall grasses were thick and impenetrable, making it impossible to see over, around, or through them. Gage, Remy’s brother handled the airboat easily, guiding it through the treacherous waters without hesitation.

“You sure about this, Gage? The same killer?” Remy asked. His gut already gave him the answer. Gage didn’t make mistakes, not when it came to murder.

Gage Boudreaux was sheriff of the parish. He and his men were responsible for bayous as well as the outlying areas. Right now, he was running the airboat, a grim look on his face. He felt exactly the same way about murder as Remy did.

“The body was found at one of the camps on the edge of the swamp, on the other side of Fenton’s Marsh.”

Remy swore under his breath. “Saria found the body, didn’t she? She’s still creepin’ around the swamp at night taking photographs. I was hopin’ Drake would get that girl under control.”

Gage snorted. “Our sister has never been under anyone’s control, Remy, and you know it. Her husband is wrapped around her little finger. He’s no help. In any case, she knew better than to disturb a crime scene. She took pictures just in case someone or something came along when she went for help.”

“There’s no cell phone service out in the swamp. She has no business out there without back-up. Anythin’ could happen. And this is not the first dead body she’s discovered out there. You’d think Drake would have enough sense to know she isn’t safe alone in the swamp at night,” Remy snapped.

Sometimes his much younger sister made him crazy. She was a law unto herself and she had been since she was a toddler. Their drunken father forgot her half the time and most of the boys were off doing their own thing, so she ran wild–and was still running wild even married to a man like Drake Donovan who was certainly no pushover around anyone but her.

Saria had no problem going into the swamp at night for her photography. Granted, she made a lot of money on her photos and her reputation was growing as a wildlife photographer, but the things she did were dangerous and she had to stop. That was all there was too it.

“Whoa, bro,” Gage said. “I see the storm clouds gatherin’. Getting’ into it with Saria is useless. You’d be talkin’ to the wind. She’d go all silent, nod her head as if she understood completely and then she’d just do whatever the hell she wanted to do.” Gage shrugged. “Although, if she listens to anyone, it’s you.”

“I wasn’t plannin’ on confrontin’ Saria,” Remy stated. He had long ago given up confronting her directly unless the circumstances were dire. She always seemed to know if he was willing to back up his threat with action or not. Locking her up was the only–and extremely dangerous–solution. Saria tended to retaliate as any self-respecting leopard would.

He didn’t want any more details on the crime scene. He liked to make his own first impressions so he didn’t want to talk about what Saria found in the swamp. The serial killer from four years earlier, had hit New Orleans hard, leaving behind four dead bodies over a period of two months and then was gone. If this was the same killer, Remy feared this wouldn’t be the only body found and no one would be safe until he was caught. The swamps and bayous were lonely and took in a lot of territory. The killer would have a big playing field.

Remy was Cajun, born and raised, but he was also leopard–a shifter.  A small clan of leopards had made their homes along the bayous. He didn’t just take the form of a big cat–he was leopard with all the traits of a beast. The wildness in him was always close to the surface. Passion ran just as hot as tempers. Jealousy, and fury were every bit as strong as love and loyalty. There was no way to fully submerge their animal natures. They lived by a different set of rules and answered to their lair leader–Drake Donovan.  Theirs was a ruthless, brutal set of laws, but necessary to keep their people under control. Some married leopards, others married outsiders who usually had no idea and never would. It was necessary to keep their ability to shift absolutely secret–even from family who were unable to shift.

“Drake and Saria have a guest stayin’ at their bed and breakfast,” Gage ventured. “A friend of Saria’s. They went to school together.”

That cool matter-of-fact tone didn’t fool Remy for a moment. There was a hint of excitement, a definite, I’ve-got-a-secret-that-will-blow-your-mind underlying all that cool.
Remy remained silent. The easiest way to get someone to tell something they were eager to spill was to not be interested. He kept his eyes on the black water ahead.

Gage growled, a rumble of annoyance. “You’ll never change, Remy. Bijou Breaux, the daughter of the most famous rock star in history. She’s finally come back. Her daddy’s been dead for four years. You’d have thought she’d come back a long time ago.”
Remy remembered enormous, dark chocolate eyes, so haunted that there’d been times he’d wanted to sweep that child up in his arms and take her somewhere safe.  She had inherited her father’s ability to sing the angels right out of heaven–he ought to know–he’d followed her career.

“It couldn’t have been easy bein’ the only daughter of man that famous. He died of an overdose, Gage. The drugs and women goin’ through that house had to have been horrific for a child. Every time we turned around, the cops were at that estate and somethin’ bad was goin’ on.”

“Poor little rich girl?” Gage asked, a teasing note in his voice.
Remy turned cool eyes on him and the grin faded from Gage’s face. “I wouldn’t put it like that, although the kids in school certainly taunted her day and night. I believe the proper line was, ‘born with a silver spoon’.”

“She inherited millions. And the money’s still pouring in,” Gage pointed out. “Just sayin’ bro. Money can make up for a lot.”

“Trauma and neglect? I don’ think so,” Remy said. “Her daddy was crazy. Everyone in the bayou and in New Orleans knew it, but he got away with it. He had everyone in his pocket. The cops, the teachers, everyone said she was a problem child with no talent and moody as hell.”

“Maybe she was a problem child,” Gage argued.

Remy sent him a steely glance, the sliver of moon lighting his face for one brief second so that the lines etched deep seemed carved into stone. “Or maybe her father paid them off, like he did the cops and judges and everyone else he came into contact with. Maybe you’re just a little too young to remember what Bodrie Breaux was really like.”

“Aren’t all rock stars into women and drugs?” Gage gave a little shrug. “His music was awesome. It couldn’t have been that bad bein’ the daughter of someone who is a legend.”

“Really? I heard the kids taunting her on the street more than once. And her best friend slept with her father in high school and then tried to blackmail him, at least that’s what Saria said and I believe he did sleep with the girl, even though Bodrie denied it and accused both Bijou and the girl of lying.  With a father that famous, how was it possible to tell a real friend from someone who just wanted to use you to meet your daddy?”

Gage sent him a look over his shoulder–one that made Remy uncomfortable–but he wasn’t certain why. He felt sorry for the child, he always had. She was all eyes and thick, wild hair, a sullen expression, moody and ready to fight at the drop of a hat.

“You seem to know a lot about this girl.”

Remy gave a casual shrug. “I helped her out a time or two. And sometimes Saria would talk about her when I came home.” Twice he’d pulled Bijou and Saria out of a party when things got out of hand. Both times the girls had been sober, but a few of the very drunk boys thought they had easy targets–well–they were lucky to have walked away intact. Bijou Breaux was no easy mark and neither was Saria. They’d had to fight for themselves almost from the moment they were born. Both had a soft heart, one that could get them in trouble if the wrong man came along. It was no surprise that Saria and Bijou had become friends. Both were loners and had to grow up fast.

“When she was young,” Gage, said, “I’ll admit I didn’t care much for her. She always had such an attitude. I never saw her smile, not one time.”

Remy remembered her small, tentative smile, as if she feared with one smile she might be giving too much of herself away. She’d held both arms tight around herself, her long hair hanging in her face, drawing his attention to her eyes and feathery, impossibly long lashes. Her bow of a mouth curved reluctantly and for one moment his heart had stuttered. He’d seen a glimpse into a young girl, already far too old for her years, holding on by a thread.

“She smiled. Maybe you were just too much like everyone else, judging her for how you thought she should be. I’ll bet you thought she was stuck up.”

Gage kept his eyes on the black, shiny water, maneuvering the airboat around a bend and through a narrow opening in the tall grass to the canal that veered off toward the swamp.

“She was stuck up.”

Remy shook his head, watching the water ahead of them for alligators. Bijou Breaux been a mixed up kid, born into a rotten situation. All the money in the world didn’t fix what went on in that mansion. Just once he’d caught her with drugs and he’d been ice-cold, his reaction so ferocious he couldn’t comprehend his own emotions. He dumped the drugs, uncaring who they belonged to. His leopard wanted to be unleashed on the others in that upscale, expensive hotel room and he’d barely managed to keep the animal under control while he beat the three men to a bloody pulp and then yanked Bijou out of the room and out into the night.

He’d done the unforgivable, shocking himself. His anger had to go somewhere and God forgive him, he didn’t know what to do with her. He sure as hell wasn’t going to put her in the system. He gripped her shoulders with hard fingers and shook her like a rag doll until her head lolled on her shoulders and tears filled her eyes. She didn’t blink them away, and she didn’t stop staring at him. He knew he couldn’t hide his fury. Worse, he knew he was angry at her father, at her situation, at the corrupt department he worked for at the time, not at such a young, mixed-up little girl. He was frustrated by his helplessness and taking it out on her.

She’d been eight years old and should have told her daddy on him or had him brought up on criminal charges. He’d never struck a woman, let alone a child in his life. He would have beat a man for shaking a child so hard had he caught him doing it. She’d endured it stoically, not shedding one tear swimming in her eyes.

He’d put her back on her feet hard enough to rock her. She didn’t utter a sound, just looked at him puzzled. She should have threatened him. Talked back. Done any number of things a smart ass child with too much money would do or say, especially one whose daddy could buy and sell them all without noticing the cost. He expected it. He waited for her reprimand.

She’d studied his face for a long time. Serious. Sober. “Why did you do that?” There was true curiosity in her voice.

“What the hell’s wrong with you Bijou?” He’d turned away from her, restless, his leopard on the prowl, fury still holding onto him with both fists. Those getting ready to party with her had all been older–eighteen to twenty-five, all friends of her father and ominously, all men. He’d wanted to unleash the leopard on them not just beat them. “You aren’t like him.” He knew she was aware exactly who he was talking about–her rock star father, legend and revered by everyone–but him. “You’re like your mother, not him. What the hell were you thinkin’? Are you lookin’ to let him completely destroy you? Is that what you want?”

She frowned, pressing her lips together tightly for one moment and then taking a small breath before answering. “No one gives a damn.”

“I do. I give a damn. And you should too. Do you have any idea what could have happened here tonight if I hadn’t come along?”

“I expected to die.” She sounded old–too old. Oh, so weary and very honest. She wrapped both arms around her middle and held on tightly.
His heart had nearly ceased beating. Worse, his eyes burned. How could her father expose her to the kind of people who surrounded her day and night? It was the very first time he thought of his own young sister, running wild in the swamp, home alone, caring for their drunken father while he and his brothers lived life.

He wanted to shake her all over again and he wanted to pick her up and carry her somewhere safe. But where? There was nowhere he could take her that her father wouldn’t come after her and buy his way out of trouble.

“I ought to beat you within an inch of your life for even suggestin’ such a thing. You’re not a coward, Bijou, and don’ you ever act like one again.” His hands did settle on her thin shoulders. Hard. But he stayed still, resisting the urge to make her a target for his rage all over again. She looked at him without wincing. “Do you understand me? This will never happen again. Will it?”

Her eyes on his, she shook her head.

“Say it. I want to hear you say it. You’re done with drugs, alcohol and anything else that father of yours has to offer.”

“I’m done with drugs and alcohol,” she had repeated in a low, steady voice.

“I’m takin’ you home and havin’ a word with your daddy.” He planned to beat the man within an inch of his life, just as he’d promised her he’d do to her if he caught her with drugs again.

That’s when she’d given him that smile. That so small, tentative smile as if knew what he wanted to do. “It won’t do any good, but thank you all the same.”

The child was standing there thanking him and he’d just committed an unpardonable sin, shaking her hard enough to injure her. And she was right, which only infuriated him more. Even his chief wouldn’t back him up. He would have to take her back to that mansion with its swimming pools, home theatre, bowling alley and all the drugs and alcohol and blatant corruption and immorality that went on there.

She didn’t say a word as they made the journey from the hotel to her home. The gates were manned by a guard who waved them through and frantically called up to the house. He stopped her as they approached the door to the ten thousand square foot mansion.

“You know what I did, layin’ my hands on you like that was wrong. No one, law enforcement or not, has the right to ever touch you, especially in anger.”
She nodded solemnly, her gaze steady on his, a rather disconcerting stare for one so young.

“Are you sorry?” She asked.

There was nothing in her voice or on her face to give her feelings away on the matter.

He frowned, thinking it over. She deserved the truth, but he wasn’t certain he knew the truth. His gut had reacted. His leopard, snarling. Raging. But, no, it wasn’t right, yet…

“I don’t know the answer to that, Bijou,” he said brutally honest with her, with himself. “I don’t know what else I could have done to get your attention or to…” He faded off, knowing he’d been frustrated, not having any idea what to do with an eight year old child who was already an adult and heading down a path of destruction he couldn’t stop.

He wasn’t a fool. Good people often took bribes. They had families and needed the money. Cops had extra work when Bijou’s father was in town, hiring out as bodyguards and security. Often the extra perks included young, good looking women. Bodrie Breaux was never going to have to answer for his deeds, unless there was truly a judgment day. Neither were the others whose job it was to protect this child, but took his money instead.

He could arrest Bodrie, but he’d lose his job, just as Bijou said. He couldn’t argue with her, and he couldn’t explain why the sight of her in that hotel room surrounded by drugs and men who surely would have taken advantage of her had another guest become upset at seeing a child with three older men going into a hotel room.

He reached passed Bijou and opened the front door, indicating for her to precede him. She straightened her shoulders and her chin went up. A sulky, sullen expression crept over her delicate features as she shook her wild mane of hair to let it settle in her eyes. She marched in with Remy behind her.

There were needles lying around the marble floors, a bowl filled with pills and lines of cocaine lay out on a mahogany coffee table. Empty bottles of various strong alcoholic beverages along with empty wine bottles were scattered around the room.  Several band members in different states of undress lay huddled on pillows, or couches with one and sometimes two young women. Boxes of unused condoms were scattered around the room and used condoms were on the floor and the expensive rugs. Bodrie Breaux sprawled naked in a stupor between two naked women.

Bijou didn’t look at any of them. She kept her too-old eyes on him. There was no doubt she could read the distaste on his face. “Don’t do it. If you arrest him, he’ll be out in an hour and you’ll lose your badge. Don’t bother. I’d rather have you around.”

“Who are they?” He nodded toward the two women with Bodrie. One had lipstick smeared across her face. Someone had drawn on her breasts with lipstick and cocaine still clung to her belly.

“One is my tutor and the other is my governess. They get paid a fortune for something that has nothing at all to do with me.” There was no bitterness in her voice, only weariness, and acceptance. “When he gets tired of them, he’ll fire them and hire new ones.”

“Can I take you somewhere else?”

She shrugged. “Where? I have no other relatives. I have no idea who my mother’s people are. There’s me and Bodrie.” She shrugged a second time. “I’ve got this. This is a nightly occurrence.”

“I can’t leave you here.” Remy shook his head.  He’d shoot himself first. He’d never ever sleep again if he left a child in such an environment. He could sort it all out at the station once he got her out of harm’s way. “Get out to the car. I’m taking you to Pauline Lafont. She owns the Lafont Inn.”

“I know her,” Bijou responded. She looked around the room and for the very first time, she looked like the child she was. Her shoulders sagged, and for one moment, tears swam in her eyes. She blinked them away and nodded, bolting past him for the door.
Once in the patrol car, he scribbled his private number on a piece of paper and handed it to her. “You get into trouble, call me.”

Pauline had taken her in for the night, just as he’d known she would. He’d gone back and talked to his supervisor and then, on suggestion of the captain, took a leave of absence. It took a long while for the sick feeling to leave his gut and an even longer time to forgive himself for the way he’d handled the situation. Bijou needed someone to treat her with a little caring, not shake her until her teeth rattled. And he damn well should have stood up to the department, even if it did cost him his job. He’d been so disgusted with them, him, and especially Bodrie Breaux.

The encounter with Bijou had changed his life. He’d left New Orleans and joined the service. He traveled as often as he could, to see if more of his kind were in the world and if so, how they handled the savage nature of their leopards.  He had resolved to be more in control and to come back home and change things, make more of a difference. He’d run into Bijou a couple of times after he’d returned home, mostly when she was in some kind of trouble, but she avoided his eyes. To his knowledge, she didn’t drink or do drugs, although she often was at the parties.

“She’s just a little kid, Gage,” Remy murmured aloud. “Cut her some slack.”

Gage laughed, a taunting, annoying sound that made Remy wish he wasn’t always striving for control. He had the urge to shove his brother out of the airboat.

“Well Bijou is no little girl anymore. She’s stop traffic, drop dead gorgeous.”

Remy’s heart stuttered and deep inside, his leopard snarled and unsheathed his claws at the note of interest in Gage’s voice. He still felt protective over that child and he was damn well going to look at her like she was a child, even though he knew Gage was right about the way she’d grown up. Something in Gage’s smug secretive attitude raised an alarm. He was missing something. His head went up and he fixed eyes that had gone a cobalt blue on his brother.

“Saria didn’t bring that girl out here, did she?” He knew the answer before his brother answered. A snarl escaped, a low sound that set the swamp into a frenzy of warning calls. “She’s not home two minutes and they’re already in trouble together.”

Gage shot him a look and then hastily turned his attention to picking his away around a cypress grove. He cut the speed of the boat and maneuvered the large broken knobs sticking up in the water. “They found a dead body, bro, they didn’t actually kill the guy.”

Fils de putain,” Remy snapped, swearing under his breath. “It’s bad enough to have Saria runnin’ the swamp at night, but draggin’ Bijou with her is ridiculous. Don’ think for a minute those two aren’t goin’ to get into trouble. Damn Drake anyway.”

“Well, you can take it up with him,” Gage said. “He’s guardin’ the vic, keepin’ the gators and other creatures off the corpse.”

Bright lights lit up the swamp just ahead as the boat eased its way around the bend. The sound of a generator matched the steady drone of insects. Alligators bellowed disapproval from various directions, reminding them every step they took on solid ground or in the water, was dangerous. Cypress trees rose out of the water, long tails of moss hanging from nearly every limb, draping the branches and swaying with the slight wind.

Remy stepped off the airboat onto the semi-solid ground. His boots sank a few inches and he hastily moved to firmer ground. The swamp smelled of decay and death. The scent of blood was strong. Drake Donavon greeted him with a firm handshake.

His brother-in-law always surprised him with his strength. He was rugged looking with his permanent five o’clock shadow and his wide shoulders and thick chest. It wasn’t that Drake didn’t look strong, it was that his grip was crushing, and Remy was an extremely strong man himself.

There was something steady and enduring about Drake, a calm most leopards couldn’t quite achieve. He not only had the hot passion and temper of the leopard under control, but Drake could lead a lair of alpha males and keep them loyal and working together. Remy considered Drake a fair man, as did the other leopards, which went a long way when the law of the jungle prevailed.

“Saria okay?” Remy asked.

Those cool green eyes went a little gold. “She’s just fine, thanks. Finding the body was a bit of a shock, but Saria doesn’t spook easily.”

That was Drake’s way of saying Saria was his and no one else was going to tell her what to do. A definite back off warning.

Remy met those glittering eyes with a stare of his own. “She’s your responsibility, Drake, as is her guest.” His chin nodded toward the vomit on the ground a few feet from him. “That’s not Saria, so I’d say it was Bijou. Neither should have been out here without an escort and you know it. That body could have been either of them. I don’ want my sister or any other woman seein’ this kind of thing.” Remy refused to drop his stare, something that could be construed as a challenge to the leader of the lair. Damn it all, Saria and Bijou had no business in the middle of a gruesome murder scene.

Drake didn’t blink. “Saria is Saria, Remy. You and your family are responsible for the way she is. I don’t beat my wife because she was allowed to go her own way from the time she was in the cradle, nor will I ask her to change. I fell in love with an independent woman.”

Remy shrugged, refusing to take the blame for his sister’s shenanigans now that she was married. “Perhaps you should accompany her into the swamp at night, at least until this killer is caught.”

A slow grin softened the hard lines in Drake’s face. Laughter lit the green eyes, so that the gold was nearly gone in an instant.

“You’re trying to get me killed, because you know if your sister thought for one moment I was protecting her in her precious swamp she’d probably stick a knife in me. If you want leadership that bad, Remy, say the word. It’s all yours. You tricked me into it in the first place, you and your hell-raising brothers.”

Drake’s ability to defuse escalating tension was one of the traits Remy most admired in his brother-in-law–and what was most needed in a leader. Remy had never been able to keep Saria under control and neither could her husband. She went her own way. When it was needed, Remy had no doubt that Drake would put his foot down and Saria, being sensible about most things, would listen–he hoped. He couldn’t imagine Saria defying her husband over her safety.

He nodded, allowing a small grin to escape. “It’s not happenin’ bro. I’m not takin’ on the lair for you.”

“I took on your sister for you,” Drake pointed out.

Remy shook his head and turned his attention to the crime scene. They were all waiting for him and he needed to get on with it, but even after all the years on the force, he had to steel himself if it was the same serial killer from before.

The body hung from the limb of a cypress trees, and just like the others he’d found in the courtyards of New Orleans four years earlier, death had been both gruesome and brutal. Blood ran in rivers, pooled in dark, dank puddles. Insects clung to every inch of the body. Sprays of blood soaked the nearby trees and brush, indicating the victim was alive when the killer had cut into him. The body had been hacked open and the killer had harvested the rib and chest bones. The left hand had been hacked off.

He closed his eyes for a moment. It was impossible not to recognize the victim, even with the swarm of insects clouding his face and body. The face was distorted in death and covered in bugs, but everyone in the bayou had seen that particular red plaid shirt many times on a shrimper named Pete Morgan.

Pete was as good as they came.  Fiercely loyal to his wife, family and friends. He’d been in the bayous all of his life. Born and raised. That red plaid shirt had been his trademark. He owned several of them and didn’t wear anything else unless it was Sunday. Remy had gone to school with him, fished with him, stood for him when he got married. Got drunk with him when his first born had died a week after birth. Rejoiced with him when a healthy son was born two years later.

Remy made the sign of the cross, uncaring that anyone saw him. It was always difficult to see a gruesome murder, but to know the victim made it ten times tougher. He took a deep breath and forced himself to look around the crime scene, giving himself time to assimilate that his friend was dead and his end had been brutal.

He knew why Gage hadn’t said a word to him. Of course he’d recognized Pete. So had Saria. It was even possible that Bijou had. Gage needed a fresh pair of eyes, completely absorbing the crime scene. Gage believed in Remy and his abilities so he’d allowed him to be just as shocked as the rest of them.

“He isn’t shy, this killer,” Remy tested his voice, found it professional and steady. “Any boat comin’ through the swamp could have seen him, but he still took his time.” He turned and looked at Drake. “The vic hasn’t been dead that long.” Which meant Saria and Bijou just missed the killer. He might even have heard them coming.

Drake nodded as cool as ever. “Saria was very aware of that.”

Remy didn’t care if Saria was aware of it or not. He wanted Drake to be aware of it. He had no doubt this was the same killer. The signatures were all there. The killer didn’t bother to try to hide them–or maybe he wasn’t aware he signed his work. The first kill site Remy had seen of this man’s work had been in the vaulted Garden District in a historic bed and breakfast, with the victim hanging in the middle of the courtyard right beside the fountain. Just as this one was gruesome and messy, that scene had been horrendously nightmarish.

Arterial blood had sprayed everywhere. The body swung grotesquely from the hangman’s noose and the left hand had been cut off, dipped in oil with candles tied around the fingers and displayed obscenely on a very precise and clean altar. The altar had been in sharp contrast to the messy scene.

Remy turned to survey the altar erected there in the swamp a few feet from the body, precisely, he knew, four and a half feet to the inch, just as it was in the last four murders, four years earlier. There was no doubt this was the same killer. If he repeated the same pattern as he’d followed four years ago, there would be at least three more bodies before he was done. Each body would have different bones removed from it, all while the victim was alive and hanging. Sometimes they died of shock and blood loss first, other times of asphyxiation.

The killer was bold and always prepared. He took his time and often the crime was committed in an area where anyone could happen upon him. Still, he never seemed to hurry. The altar, so meticulous and precise, was at such odds with the haphazard kill site. If Remy hadn’t known better, he would think there were two perpetrators at the scene, but he’d studied the photographs and committed the scenes to memory. There was one murderer and he cared nothing for the victim.

Clearly, the murder victim wasn’t human to him. The only thing he wanted was the bones, the rest was a personal ritual of some sort. He just got the job done of harvesting the bones as quickly as possible, hacking up the victim without seemingly noticing the mess, or the fact that the donor was still alive. Only then did he slow down and take his time over the preparation of the altar. Whatever he was doing seemed to catch him up in some kind of weird enthrallment–unless there were two of them–which Remy had considered more than once.

“Voodoo?” Gage asked.

Remy frowned and shrugged. He didn’t believe it was a voodoo altar, although certainly it appeared to be one. There were objects found in voodoo practice, but when he’d consulted Eulalie Chachere, a legitimate voodoo priestess, she had told him that the altar wasn’t right even for a black magic practitioner. Still, he would consult her again. She was an expert and if anyone could figure out what that altar meant, it would probably be her. Remy knew her and trusted her. “You’ll have to consult Eulalie. She worked with me before so she’s familiar with the crime scenes. She won’t disclose details. She can be trusted.”

“I was hoping you’d work this case with me, Remy,” Gage admitted. “You’re the murder expert, not me. He’s not finished.”

No, he wasn’t. Remy had an extra sense for such things even if he hadn’t seen the murderer’s work before. He would kill again and soon.

Remy nodded. “I’ll talk to Eulalie. She’ll help us. I’ll need to talk to Saria and Bijou as well.” He sighed. The last thing he wanted to do was talk to Bijou about anything unpleasant. It had taken years to forgive himself for the way he’d handled her ugly childhood, and he’d hoped that if they crossed paths as adults they could both put it behind them.

He forced himself to look at the body of his childhood friend. As long as he’d been the ‘vic’ Remy could push the reality away for a time so he could get the job done, but grief was pushing close. “Have you notified next of kin?”

“I’m going to do that now,” Gage said.

Remy inhaled. He should be the one to do it. He’d been best man. When he opened his mouth to suggest it, Gage shook his head.

“I was friends with him as well,” Gage said. “And I went to school with his wife. You have enough to do. You always get the short end of the stick, and I’m askin’ you to take lead on this. The least I can do is spare you talkin’ to Amy.”

“Thanks, Gage,” Remy said. “Tell her I’ll stop by later.”

“The photographer has already taken pictures and forensics is waiting. I wanted you to see everything first before anything could be disturbed. Saria took photographs as well. She documented everything she saw and had Bijou do the same. Saria has an eye for detail. I told her you’d want a word with her. They’re both waiting at the Inn.”

Remy nodded as he skirted the crime scene. Somewhere close would be the stash of a blood-stained, hooded plastic suit, homemade, stitched together with meticulous, even stitches, plastic gloves and coverings for boots. He found what he was looking for the required four and a half feet from the body on the opposite side of the altar. This time, the discarded, bloody suit was half in the mud, as the killer had chosen a cypress tree near the water’s edge, not giving himself enough room to put the clothing in a safer place. A mistake?

Remy frowned. That was unlike the killer. He didn’t make mistakes, but the ritual of the altar and discarding of the kill suit was part of his rigid routine. He had never deviated. The plastic clothing should have been set safely away from the water which meant the tree chosen should have been over by several feet. Remy turned back, and studied the grove of cypress trees. There were plenty of others trees the killer could have hung the body on.

He studied the grasses and the directions they were bent. Trails led around various trees and always back to the one the killer had used to hang Pete. “Are you certain the integrity of the crime scene was preserved? Saria and Bijou didn’t walk around? None of you did?”

Drake shook his head. “We know better.”

Remy nodded and made his way carefully around the area to the back of the tree where Pete’s body hung. The old cypress had several letters carved into it, obviously over several years. The letters P and M had a fresh line drawn through them. His leopard gave a leap of recognition. This particular spot had been a favorite of those living up and down the bayous or close to the marshes and swamps, to meet and party. He remembered it from his youth. His initials were carved into the trunk, along with his brothers and even his Saria’s.

“He didn’t choose this location randomly,” Remy said. “He wanted to use this specific tree. Gage, take a look at this. Have the photographer photograph the entire trunk.”

He studied the old carvings. The spot was easy to access from two different canals and a good place to meet where parents weren’t going to find you. Lovers had carved their initials into the trunk surrounded by hearts. Others had simply put their initials in. S and B definitely stood for his sister, Saria. He wondered if the bold B and B were Bijou’s initials, although he couldn’t imagine her ever coming to the swamp to party.  He wanted a list of all initials and a confirmation of just who those initials belonged to and said as much to Gage. If the killer was choosing victims by those who had partied here, had this gone from random killings to actual targeted prey? Or had it been that all along?

 




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