Secrets in the Moon (Crescent City Werewolves #1)

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Farewell For Now

Cora couldn’t repress a pang in her heart at the sight of her luggage being carried out of Hayes’ apartment and into the unmarked cars parked in the street. She hid it with a pleasant expression, fluffing up her thick stole to give herself something to do while Hayes spoke quietly with the two policemen, both out of uniform. No one looked happy, and she couldn’t say she felt any better.

In fact, she found this new arrangement to be downright silly. Why should she be in danger from Harold Beaumont? Unlike Freddy, she didn’t know the enchanter or where he might be hiding. But she did know what powerful men were like when they wanted their way, and it was obvious city officials were scrambling to stop the chaos caused by Freddy and his cult. Now she would have to stay at one of those dour women’s retreats until they decided she was safe. As if she could be safer under police protection than with Hayes.

Just then, he walked over to her. His shoulders were visibly tense, and he spoke in that flat tone he used when hiding his anger. “I’ll drive you there. They’re going to escort us.”

In the car, he growled briefly when the shorter, stouter officer signaled at him that they’d lead the way. “I’m sorry things turned out like this.”

“So am I, but there are worse things than being bored.” She looked out at the heavy traffic, already feeling better now that they were talking about it. “I say we take this as a chance to find Harold Beaumont before anyone else. If you can’t reason with someone, embarrass them instead. And being stuck in a room can’t stop me from working as your assistant sleuth.”

He nearly smiled at that, but it was obvious he was still on edge.

“I… hope you don’t regret anything about last night,” she said, feeling surprisingly hesitant. She’d been considered a bad decision by more than one man, but a good cry and a round of shopping always melted her indignation. Normally. That wouldn’t be the case if she saw the same cold light in Hayes’ eyes, and she knew it.

For an agonizing breath, he remained focused on the road ahead. Frustratingly, the brim of his hat slanted over too much of his face to glean anything from his expression. The crush of traffic, complete with insults, honking horns, and rumbling engines, created a cacophony that somehow made their little space all the more private while she waited for an answer.

Just as her fingers began worrying at the pearls sewn on her purse, he reached over and squeezed her hand.

“No, Bunny. I don’t regret it,” he said, his deep voice softening until it brushed her ears like velvet.

Her heart threatened to break open and gush everything it held. Not only her feelings for him, but also the urges to break the arrangement with the retreat. She wanted to shake off the escort car and drive somewhere they couldn’t be found. She wanted to continue what had been interrupted last night. A brief touch between their gloved hands was no longer enough, especially since this might be their last conversation for quite some time.

As if sensing her thoughts, his voice turned brisk. “So. Beaumont. What are your ideas on finding him?”

It was an obvious change in topic, but even she had to agree it was for the best. “Well, if he’s still able to cast magic, then he must have access to supplies. While you and Captain Dempsey were trying to outshout each other, I pestered one of the officers into telling me a few things. Beaumont’s only known laboratory has been burned down, so he must be working from whatever place Freddy gave him for the cult-related enchantments.”

“Why would Freddy Davenport give him a separate lab?”

“That was always Freddy’s way. He had lots of hobbies and kept any middlemen needed for them at his beck and call. He had a repair shop built into his car garage and another in his boathouse. They were fully staffed at all times. It used to confuse people, you know, since he had a reputation for being careless, but it’s really very straightforward. He had obsessions and put everything into them.”

Hayes nodded, falling silent while navigating the car through a rough patch of traffic. Cora glanced out the window as the road curved away from the cramped businesses and waves of foot traffic. Signs became replaced by wild grass and tangled blackberry bushes. It was nice to get away from the hustle and noise of the city, and yet it meant she was that much closer to the retreat.

Unwilling to face the future, near as it was, she quickly added, “I told the police all this, but they don’t believe Beaumont would hide on Freddy’s land. ‘Who would hide in the home of the man trying to kill him?’ Even though they admit he’s likely a madman.”

“Even a sane fella would see it as a sound option. Right now, Beaumont is the most notorious figure in the city. The property of a man locked up, powerless, and facing death is much safer than trying to blend in with the public.”

For a moment, she almost forgot to feel sad. “Then you agree with me.”

He smiled—really smiled. “Let’s just say the police aren’t the only ones trying to find every piece of land that belonged to him.”

As salt tinged the air and the trees on either side flattened into marshland, she asked, “That Admiral Antwerth alias that bought materials from Miss Feral—what was the delivery address for it?”

“A storage unit that was traced back to Davenport. He would have hired someone to pick up the shipment and take it to Beaumont.”

“And how much of Freddy’s estate have the police searched through?”

Now that the traffic had faded to a few cars, they moved at a good clip. Hayes seemed more at ease, relaxing in his seat and leaving just one hand on the wheel. “The mansion where he performed the rite and a lighthouse that’s been unused since he closed his family’s shipping lines. They know he has more property, but there’s no telling how long it’ll take them to go through it all.”

Cora nodded absently. “Freddy always bled money and was quite willing to sell off businesses and land that had been in his family for generations. I think we should look at his finances to compare what’s been sold with what’s left. If he held onto anything that would have made him a lot of money, then it’s suspicious.”

“Could also be a patch of land that nobody would want to buy.”

“Oh, that’s an easy guess. Bullfrog Pond. It’s been dried up for generations and is too close to no man’s land for anyone to want it. Freddy once used it for his airplane hangar, but he stopped flying planes years ago.” The excitement left her voice as she remembered she couldn’t track down this lead with him.

Then Hayes glanced at her, some of his usual humor back in his eyes. “How about a bet on it? You say he’s on a prized piece of land, and I say he’s in a dried mud patch.”

She smiled at the reference to their night before. “What’s the prize?”

“Bragging rights.”

“Deal.” Then she realized they were stopping near a cluster of buildings. The smell of brine remained heavy in the air. “Oh, no. Are we here?”

Hayes remained in the car with her while the officers also parked and got out, looking around. “Not exactly. They’re worried about us being followed.”

“By Beaumont?”

“Even reporters would be bad enough. Whatever they find out, so will everyone else.”

Cora made a noncommittal noise, still studying their surroundings. The damp air and bold gulls perching on every car and roof suggested that they were very close to the ocean, but there were too many buildings to see anything. There were well-kept houses mixed with hotels, shops, and restaurants, but all were so close together and narrow that Cora knew they had to be in an older part of the city.

Hayes made eye contact with the taller officer in an unspoken signal. Then he said, “We’re walking the rest of the way. They’ll come back for your luggage after you’re inside and safe.”

“They seem so serious. Are they really expecting trouble?” It looked like a quaint, harmless tourist town to her, but she checked her thigh holster anyway before getting out with him.

There were enough pedestrians that they blended in while crossing the street toward the town’s bank. It was a stately old building, several stories high and with massive columns flanking the entrance. Several people were going inside and coming out, but the officers wordlessly guided them around the side instead. Cora couldn’t help being very aware of how loud her heels sounded against the old-fashioned cobblestones compared to the fellas’ silent steps.

When the shorter officer raised a hand, she casually brushed at the folds of her skirt, ready for anything. Instead, he just knocked on a polished steel door painted white to match the marble wall.

The man who answered looked as staid and droopy as an aged bulldog. His grey hair glinted in the thin sunlight while he motioned them inside, and he sounded neither alarmed nor interested while shutting the door behind them. “This way.”

The room was well-lit but very plain compared to the bank’s exterior, with only several steps leading up to another steel door. Cora bit back a gasp of surprise when the man grabbed the polished wooden handrail and pulled, lifting the entire staircase from the floor. Cogs groaned against each other as the facade continued to rise, revealing an entrance to a secret tunnel.

“What…” she started to say, but the taller officer interrupted her.

“Better take your shoes off, lady. It’s soft dirt and rock from here on out. You’ll roll an ankle in those heels.”

Cora gave him a bright smile. “I’m sure I’ll be fine. I walk everywhere in these.”

When the man looked ready to argue, Hayes stopped him with a brief but deep growl.

The other officer shrugged. “You’ll be the one carrying her if she twists something.”

The tunnel’s mouth was just big enough for them to duck through, and it was a short, two-foot drop down to its dirt floor. The taller officer went first and immediately slipped. By the time he had finished swearing and stumbling back up, Hayes had gone through without incident. He offered a hand to Cora, but she merely smiled again and jumped down beside him, landing easily.

“I’m very flexible,” she said breezily, while the officer glared and slapped dust from his suit.

Both policemen remained quiet while they walked through the worn brick tunnel, and Hayes didn’t seem inclined to talk either. Cora noticed how his earlier tension had disappeared. In fact, he was downright relaxed compared to the officers, who looked ready to pull their guns at the sight of a rat.

Finally, just to chase away the oppressive silence, she asked, “Why does this tunnel exist?”

Hayes sounded amused. “It was built before the turn of the century. Many prestigious clients used it after finishing their business at the bank.”

“And what was on the other side?”

“A brothel.”

“Oh. I never realized they were once legal.”

At that, the shorter officer answered. “They weren’t.”

The tunnel ended with a short wooden staircase. The taller officer went up first. Hayes kept himself between her and the door but still looked calm. At the man’s call of all-clear, they went up as well.

All that met her curious gaze was a clean, gravel pathway surrounded by uncultivated bushes growing among clusters of cypress trees. In fact, she didn’t see any buildings at all.

“The brothel burned down fifty years ago,” murmured Hayes. “Now it’s merely wildland used to give the retreat some privacy.”

For several yards, she remained quiet, aware of her growing nerves even as birds chirped cheerfully and sunlight sparkled among branches. Both policemen looked relieved, even eager that the journey was nearly over. And Hayes… well, he had resumed wearing his professional mask, making it impossible to guess what he thought.

Then a flicker of movement near a large cypress on her right caught her attention, and she glanced over in time to see a man pull back out of sight. No, not a man—even from that distance she had seen the glint of gold eyes.

Shock burst through her just as Hayes squeezed her arm to get her attention. The shake of his head managed to convey both a warning not to alert the officers and reassurance that it was all right.

Her surprise only intensified, and she used the act of slipping her hand through his arm to furiously whisper, “You knew he’d be here?”

At his slight nod, she added, “Because you told him to be, didn’t you?”

His gaze remained on the officer in front of them. “Did you really think I’d trust the police to handle this?”

“But you’ve never mentioned working with other—”

Before she could finish the sentence, both policemen stopped by a ridge of pine. The shorter one glanced at Hayes. “This is as far as you go, buddy.”

Cora looked past the man and caught glimpses of a white building, simple yet imposing. Beyond it waited the glimmering ocean. They had reached the retreat.

In an attempt to remain lighthearted, she said, “I suppose I can’t receive letters as well as visitors.”

Hayes looked guarded again, eyeing the officers and their obvious impatience. “You might be able to write them.”

She forced herself to let go of his arm, aware of how her pulse raced. “Be careful. I’ll hold you to that. Although I’m sure your days will be much more interesting than mine.”

He gave her a small smile, but his expression remained serious. “I won’t try to contact or visit you. Not for any reason. If anyone or anything suggests otherwise, don’t believe it.”

She nodded. “Then… I suppose this is goodbye.”

The gold of his eyes darkened a little, and he lost that crisp tone for something warmer, something private. “No. It’s an, ‘I’ll see you soon.’ Hang in there, Bunny.”

She held onto his words while the receptionist checked her in and the head doctor greeted her personally. He was a thin, mild man who only said that he hoped she’d enjoy the stay, and that while nothing could be given to her from the outside, they’d do their best to accommodate her otherwise. Cora gave a suitably polite response, hoping she didn’t look as reluctant as she felt.

A nurse showed her to the bedroom. It was bright, airy, and as luxurious as any hotel room she’d been in. These types of places usually were, since the women who visited them were rich and sick from indulgence instead of disease. Cora wasn’t surprised when her luggage arrived only after it had been searched for bottles of morphine and caches of cocaine.

Unpacking didn’t take too long. The robe and gown offered for patients actually recovering from injury or illness were just as dreadful as she’d imagined, and she quickly shoved them to the far end of the closet, which was much too small to hold all her clothing. It was something that would have annoyed her normally, but instead she thought back to how Hayes’ closet had been even smaller. How she hadn’t minded it at all. She checked her watch. He probably wasn’t even back in the main districts of the city yet. Hardly half an hour had passed.

The large window had a bench built into it, allowing the patient to sun herself. It could also be opened to allow in the scent of the rose trellis below. When Cora looked through the pristine glass, she saw a sedate garden and some green lawn where a few patients walked or performed other types of gentle exercise. The ocean looked so near and yet also completely out of reach, and watching the glimmer of its waves made her feel even worse.

She tried reading a few books but quickly grew bored. A call button brought in a nurse no matter what time of day or night it was, but she resisted the urge. There was nothing really wrong. Merely, she didn’t want to be here.

She managed to wait until after supper before asking a nurse for writing materials.

“I’m sorry, Miss Marshall. You aren’t allowed pens or pencils.”

She supposed she couldn’t make a fuss over that when it was how Freddy had died. “What about drawing crayons?”

It wasn’t the prettiest letter, but she was still able to write it.

My dear Detective,

It’s funny to think that the last time I wrote to you, it was to ask for a consultation. I am much more confident now that everything will turn out fine. Perhaps that’s ironic, since I’m just as caged now as I was then. But don’t worry, this isn’t a “poor little me” letter. The staff and room are very nice, and so is the view. And frankly, the last thing I want to talk about is staying here.

I thought of something else related to Beaumont and Freddy’s death. What was Freddy about to reveal to his lawyer? I think the time of his death is as suspicious as its manner. From the moment he woke up surrounded by the ruins of his ritual, he began confessing all his deeds and didn’t stop. So why kill him when the cat was already out of the bag? Maybe there was something more he knew…

Just some thoughts to add to the ones we had earlier. I’m sure you’re already working on our bet. And Hayes, I know you’re very serious about your work, but try to have some fun as well. Sometimes it’s as if you’ve forgotten what that even feels like.

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