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Chapter One

Thursday, December 8

For eighty years, I’d lived alone, dedicating myself to study and contemplation. My long undeath gave me the luxury of keeping my own peace. I had never felt the lack of others’ company until I gained an assistant who demanded I treat him as a partner, a demand that left me with misgivings. Sarasija’s arrival replaced peace with joy and meditation with laughter.

And the stillness of chant with…Lady Gaga.

Between the early sunset and the lack of artificial light, December on the bayou allowed me to wake earlier than in any other time or place. The stair treads were worn and familiar, and, following the sound of electronic music, I went barefoot out the big front door of my home on the Amite River.

The sky was overcast, the clouds swollen with enough moisture to make the Spanish moss glisten. I’d intended to circle the house, keeping under the shadow of the eaves until I found Sara, but I was distracted by laughter. Two young girls paddled up to my landing, a sturdy can light on the prow of their pirogue lighting the way.

“Maddy, we shouldn’t be doing this.”

Their presence transformed my peaceful mood to one of fear, and I had to agree with the hushed statement. With only a couple of exceptions, my neighbors did not visit me, and that they should be children…

“It’s all right, Michaela.” The leader, presumably Maddy, hopped out onto my dock carrying a small box. “See? There’s somebody out on the front porch. I can just run up there and ask him.”

Merde alors. Ask me what?

The girl’s blond curls were tied back from her face, and she wore a neon-green lifejacket. While I’d spent little time with children, I guessed her age to be ten or eleven years.

I strode down the lawn, intent on heading her off before she came much closer. I needed them to leave before anyone learned they’d been here. The electronic pulse of Sara’s music echoed the panicked beat of my heart, and I fought the urge to summon him with a thought.

“Hey!” She waved at me, full of life, absolutely lacking in suspicion. “Are you Mr. Dupont or Mr. Mishra?”

She knew our names? That gave me pause. Perhaps Dorothy had sent her. “I am Dupont. What can I do for you?”

“I’m Madison Langlois, and my friend Michaela and I are selling Christmas ornaments to raise money for the women’s shelter. Are you interested?”

“No, thank you.”

If my stern tone put a hitch in her step, it was brief. “But you haven’t even seen them yet.” She opened the box. “Look. See? Our goal is five hundred dollars, so the women can get Christmas presents for their kids.”

I did as she asked, awkwardly peering into the box, impressed by her enthusiasm. The ornaments were clear glass filled with glitter and shiny, colored trim. As much as I wanted to send her back to the boat, if Sara found out I’d altered the memory of a child, he’d never forgive me.

“I’m sorry, but I’m not interested.”

Her jaw firmed, putting me in mind of another young girl, also called Maddy. My youngest sister, Madeline, had a similar way of ordering the world to her liking. She’d met a man from Texas in about 1930 and lived in Austin until a car accident in 1972, all the while believing her oldest brother had died in mysterious circumstances.

“Maybe I could just give you a donation?” I could never refuse my Maddy either.

At that, she cheered up. “Sure, Mr. Dupont. That’d be awesome.”

“Very good. Um…” I had no idea what to do with a ten-year-old girl. Leave her here alone while I went into the house for my billfold? Who allowed a child to paddle around the swamp alone so late in the day? Before I could start to lecture her on safety, Sara jogged around the side of the house.

“There you are.” His smile was brighter than the light on the boat. “I was messing around in the garden. What’s going on?”

“This is Miss Madeline—”

“Madison,” she corrected.

Pardon. Madison. She and her friend are selling ornaments to raise money for the women’s shelter.”

Sara lifted one of the ornaments out of the box. “These are cool. We’ll take a couple. How much are they?”

Maddy blinked between the two of us, as if calculating who would give her the better deal.

“I believe I can make a fifty-dollar donation.” I took charge of the situation, because we did not need a houseful of baubles. “Would that be sufficient?”

Sara’s surprised glance hinted that perhaps we would be taking at least one of the ornaments. Deciding he’d be the better one to deal with her, I excused myself to get my donation. On my way back to the lawn, someone shouted from across the water.

A skiff buzzed into sight, its shallow outboard kicking up the smooth water. “Madison Langlois, what the hell are you doing?” Again, my heart lurched. This could mean trouble. Real trouble.

“Come on, Maddy,” the child in the boat echoed. “Chase sounds pissed.”

“Fine.” She tossed her head with the practiced frustration of a much older woman. “My brother is so overprotective.”

I handed her the money and she snapped the box closed. “Thank you very much, Mr. Dupont, and you too, Mr. Mishra.”

“Girl, you get down here right now. You were supposed to be home before dark.” Her brother sounded angry and frightened, sentiments I could easily appreciate.

Sara volunteered to walk her down to the dock, but she declined. I had no desire to speak to the young man in the skiff, who eyed me warily from fifty feet away.

We watched the two young girls paddle double-time in the direction of the skiff, and didn’t turn for the house until they were out of sight.

Without the outboard motor, the gentle sounds of the river surrounded us, calming me. Only time would tell if we had dodged a bullet or if the gunman was still finding his aim.

Sara stood close enough for me to catch a whiff of his honey scent and to feel his body’s warmth. “We have our first ornament.” He lifted the thing so the last of the daylight shone on its glittering features.

“An ornament.” I shook my head and brushed a stray strand of hair from his brow. He was blessedly innocent of the possible trouble we just faced. I drew him to the porch, his fingers cool from the damp air.

“Who lets a couple of young girls paddle around the swamp?” he asked.

I opened the door and stepped aside, allowing him to enter. “I suspect they weren’t supposed to come this far.”

“I bet their parents chew them right out.”

“After the older brother is finished, oui.”

He squeezed my hand. “Must be time for Vespers. Go do your thing while I clean up and throw some dinner together.”

He didn’t always want to cook for himself, so I encouraged him with enthusiasm and headed for the stairs. He got as far as the kitchen door before stopping. “Oh yeah, Bren stopped by to drop off the stuff I ordered. She said her grandmother wants you to call.”

Resting my hand on the wooden newel at the bottom of the stairs, I gave him a close look. Whatever he’d ordered had him grinning like an imp, though Dorothy’s message was my more pressing concern. “I’ll do that now.”

“Sure.” He disappeared into the kitchen. The old telephone sat on an end table, and I dialed the phone number from long memory.

Dorothy ran Pinky’s, a small sundries store with a restaurant in back, the only place to buy groceries within ten miles. In her day, she’d been widely acknowledged for her beauty, though I had always respected her for her intelligence and wit. If she recognized the similarities between me and the Mr. Dupont who’d lived in the River house when she was a girl, she’d never mentioned it. We had an accord, Dorothy and I, one I would be reluctant to break.

While the phone was ringing, I noticed two paper shopping bags in the corner of the room. The phone had just enough cord for me to reach the closest bag, but before I could open it, Dorothy answered.

“This is Thaddeus Dupont.”

“I guess you got my message.” Dorothy sounded annoyed, as if she’d rather I hadn’t called.

“Yes. What can I do for you?” I opened the bag and lifted out a glossy black box. Christmas lights. Surprised, I bit my lip against a sharp surge of irritation.

“Well,” she said, “those lights are back.”

Confused, I set aside the first box and lifted out another. “Lights?” More lights?

“You know what I’m talking about. The swamp lights. Back in my grandmother’s day, she’d say Old Ivey was out looking for someone who got murdered.” She paused, and he could almost hear her collecting her thoughts. “Some call ’em the feu follet, and people been following ’em to find the treasure but getting lost in the swamp instead.”

I lifted a third and then a fourth box of Christmas lights out of the bag. “And what has this to do with me?” Fueled by exasperation, my tone was sharper than normal, but what was Sara thinking? A single ornament was one thing, but I never decorated for the holidays, especially with multicolored, LED, synchronized flashers.

“Maybe nothing, Thaddeus, but after the troubles you all had last summer, I figured I better say something in case Old Ivey’s looking for someone you know.”

I carefully set down the box of lights. “I can assure you, Miss Dorothy, I have not murdered anyone and stashed their body in the swamp.”

She paused for a good long while. “No, no, I suppose you haven’t.” The stiffness left her voice, and she exhaled softly. “But something’s going on, and you know how some people get carried away.”

Sara wandered out of the kitchen, his smile brightening when he saw I’d discovered his secret. “Things will die down. They always do.” I knew that from experience. As a solitary man who kept to himself, I periodically came under scrutiny from the neighborhood. There would be talk, and the bravest would come down the river to my house and poke around. My assistant, or maybe Mayette, would allay their fears, and the next good bit of gossip would distract them.

She snorted. “Well maybe you should, I don’t know, see if you can find where those witch lights are coming from.”

Now we’d come to the root of her problem. She wanted me to investigate. Sara pulled one of the strings of lights out of its box and plugged it in, flooding the room with color. I blinked hard against the glare. “You think that will help?”

“Yep. So far, everyone who’s gone missing has turned back up, but if they didn’t, well, that’d be real bad.”

“Look!” Sara’s enthusiasm bled through his whispered comment. He pressed a button so the lights started flashing. “They work.”

I waved off Sara’s laughter. “I agree. Thank you for the information, and I’ll let you know what I find out.”

She thanked me, grudgingly, and ended the call. I hung up slowly, considering the best approach to take.

“You don’t mind, do you, Thaddeus?” Sara unplugged the string of lights and began packing them away. “I wanted to surprise you, put some lights on the porch and maybe on the banister. We don’t have to do the whole Christmasy-Christmas thing, but the lights are pretty.”

Did I mind? Yes, in theory, though when faced with the hope in his eyes, I found the idea of decorating might not be so intolerable. “We do have a bauble.” I sighed, rubbing at the tension in my neck. “I think, Sara, you could ask me to hang the Christmas star in the heavens, and I would find a way to accomplish the task.”

“You’re crazy.” He ducked, hiding behind a shield of hair.

Unable to resist the temptation, I crossed the room and wrapped my arms around him. “You may be right.”

Chapter Two

Sara lay in the circle of Thad’s arms and stared into darkness. The one window in the room had been boarded over. Despite the fact he knew the sun was well over the horizon outside, it was ever night in this room.

Cuddling was good, he reminded himself. Sleeping the night, the day, together was good, and something he had argued for. And Thad wouldn’t notice or mind if he wanted to turn on a lamp or get a nightlight.

He didn’t want a lamp or nightlight. He was horny. He wanted a freakin’ orgasm like he would have gotten with any other lover. He never had trouble going to sleep in the daytime after they made love.

He wiggled around onto his back. Masturbating wouldn’t disturb the man next to him, but it felt weird. He had tried it before, but lying next to your sleeping vampire boyfriend’s nonresponsive body and jerking off was plain awkward. Going downstairs to what was, technically, still his bedroom was somehow worse. Lonely and sad. He didn’t want just the orgasm. He wanted intimacy with the guy he was pretty sure he was in love with. The guy who still skyped a priest to confess after every time they made love.

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