the keepers-Page 4

Tony Miro was waiting for him in front of the club when he pulled up a few minutes later.

It was odd to think that the club was really only a degree below plenty of the other clubs in town. Even on Bourbon Street, you could find some truly sleazy down and dirty places, but…Barely, Barely, Barely seemed even more worn around the edges, and he knew the girls working the poles in the place were going to be a little harder, a little more beat-up by life, physically and mentally.

He had met strippers who only worked the clubs to get through college–it was good money, and sad but true, good money that seemed like easy money often twisted people, and led to worse ways of making more money, and plenty of bad things to spend it on. Not that all strippers were prostitutes. But in his time on the force, he'd seen far too many girls who started out stripping on the weekend, only to discover they enjoyed the drugs they often started taking to give them the courage to strip in the first place. Drugs cost money, and prostitution paid better than stripping.

He left the car on the street, his police insignia evident. Tony approached him with a long-legged stride. He was wearing a work suit, and when he eased a finger around his collar, Jagger realized he was uncomfortable.

"Everything all right?" Jagger asked.

"I questioned everyone in the place, and I got a list of their charge customers," Tony told him. "Some of the girls weren't working last night, so I've listed them at the end. I highlighted a few names–" he pointed to the list he was offering to Jagger "–because those two were bartenders, and those two were the girls who went up right before and after Tina Lawrence, and that name–Trish Bean–belongs to the cocktail waitress who was working the floor while Tina Lawrence was working the pole."

"Thanks. Did you see anything, hear anything, among the workforce? Do we have a reason to compel a search warrant and start looking for blood?" Jagger asked.

"No. And I don't think she was killed here," Tony said. "But then again, I don't seem to have your nose for blood."

Jagged nodded dryly and said, "It's acquired. Let's go on in."

Tony opened the door, wincing. "Back into Dante's Inferno."

It wasn't really Dante's Inferno. It was a strip club where very little was spent on a cleaning crew and every effort was spared when it came to the decor. Animal-print upholstery that looked to be from the sixties or seventies covered the ratty sofas and chairs. There was a main stage, along with a number of small circular tables cum stages with their own dance poles, surrounded by C-shaped couches covered in the same retro animal prints.

The place was dark, filled with smoke, and what seemed like a miasma of pain and loneliness that stretched back through decades of human existence. Two girls were dancing on the main stage, while the small stages Tony said were for "private screenings" were all empty.

"The bar?" Tony asked.

"No, let's check this one here, in the back," Jagger said, heading toward one of the tables with its own stripper pole.

Tony, wide-eyed, looking torn between fascination and repulsion, joined him, groaning softly as he sat down.


"Something sticky–I just sat in it," Tony said.

"Is it blood?"

"Some kind of fruity drink," Tony said.

"Then ya just gotta live with it a bit," Jagger told him, grinning. "Who's on stage now?"

"The one girl over on the left is called Rosy Red. Her real name is Martha Hamm. And the other one, the blonde, is Jamaka-me, real name Tammy Curtis. Jamaka-me was on stage just before Tina Lawrence–who was known as Ange-demonica when she was working. They all have stage names," Tony explained.

"Hers was pretty grotesque, if you ask me."

Jagger grinned at his partner. Tony was twenty-eight. Both his parents had been born to Italian immigrants in an area of Boston where Italian was still the most commonly heard language. Tony had gone to Loyola here in town and fallen in love with New Orleans.

He was still a good Catholic Italian boy, though. He had grown up quickly working New Orleans' rough streets, but he had a pure heart that seemed to be something of a birthright.

A tired, skinny cocktail waitress wearing some kind of a costume–Jagger wasn't sure what, but both the tail and the ears were drooping–came up and asked them what they'd like. She noted Tony's badge hanging from his breast pocket and said, "Oh. Cops. You want some coffee…?"

"Are you Trisha Bean?" Jagger asked her.

She nodded glumly.

He was sure she'd never worked the stage. Trisha Bean, who worked with coffee beans, he thought dryly, and she even looked a bit like a string bean, she was so thin.

"Yeah, Bean's even my real name. Go figure, huh?" she said. She was clearly long past seeing any humor in the situation. "Coffee? Speak up. Believe it or not, I'm busy, and I need the money. I've got a kid to feed."

"We're actually off duty, so I'll have a beer," Jagger said. "Something in a bottle, please," he added, as Tony held up two fingers to tell her to double the order.

Trisha Bean laughed. "Good call. Don't think the beer taps in here have been cleaned since year one. Be right back."

"Don't you want to question her?" Tony asked.

"I will. Let her get the drinks first." Jagger loosened his tie and set a foot on the coffee table. "Chill. Keep your eyes open. Watch everyone in here. I would bet money that the killer came in here to find Tina Lawrence. I'm not sure where he'll go next, but I think it was a conscious decision to go with a stripper."

Tony looked at him with surprise, then gave serious attention to the room.

Jagger laughed. "Tony, casually, or these guys will make us for cops and be out of here in two seconds flat. Ease it back."

Tony flushed and relaxed as Trisha Bean returned with their bottled beers. "Here you go," she said.

Jagger set a large bill on her tray, telling her to keep the change.

"They're paying cops well these days," she commented, but he saw the smile of appreciation in her eyes.

"I have to confess, family money," he told her.

"'Family money?'" she said. "I'd be living the life of luxury. A little pad dead center in the Quarter, no crack whores banging around the building at all hours of the night. Anyway, what can I do for you? I wasn't holding out on you before," she told Tony. "I just didn't see anyone being any more of an ass than usual in here the night Tina was taken and killed. You think she went with the murderer willingly?"

"I think she met him here, yes," Jagger fudged.

Trisha was thoughtful. "Oh!" she said suddenly.

"There was one guy I noticed…." Clutching her tray to her, she spun around and pointed to a private-screening table that was a few rows closer to the stage. "He wasn't being a jerk, though. He was in here alone, sitting right there. He was drinking, but he wasn't smashed, and he tipped me and the girls pretty good. I remember now, because Tina…went to that table. Here's the thing I noticed most, though. He was young, and really good-looking."

"Young. How young?"

"Twenty-five, thirty…maybe thirty-five. And he was almost…pretty. Beautiful skin. Thin, tall…pretty."

"Dark? Light?" Jagger asked.

"Dark hair, nice cut, lean face."

"What color eyes, do you remember?" Jagger asked.

"You know, I don't remember his eyes at all," she said. "Kinda dark in here."

"How about I get you to see a sketch artist?" Jagger asked her.

"Can I do it in the morning?"

He nodded. "Give me your address, and I'll pick you up and get you home after. Thank you," he said.

She nodded. "I just gotta get my kid to school first, you know?"

"Of course. I really appreciate all help," Jagger assured her.

She walked away, and Tony turned to stare at Jagger. "I talked to her at least twice today. She didn't remember the guy then."

Jagger shrugged. "You were being a cop then, looking for someone who'd made a stink. She was nervous. Now you're being human. You're having a beer. People think better when they don't feel threatened."

As Jagger spoke, Jamaka-me did a flying leap onto the main stage, spun around the pole athletically and leaped down to the floor.

Her action was greeted by whoops and catcalls and applause.

She moved through the audience, accepting tips stuck in the string that passed for a thong but managed to hide nothing at all.

Finally she leaped on their table and stared at Jagger before doing a slow, sultry spin around the pole.

Jagger met her eyes.

Werewolf, he thought.

At 3:00 a.m., Fiona was still wide-awake. She gave up tossing and turning, threw her covers off and walked to the windows that led to her balcony.

She loved this house, as did her sisters. It was huge and old, filled with memories of their family. Its long hallways were hung with photos of the three of them and their parents. Skiing in Aspen–and meeting up with other Keepers. A holiday to Jamaica–and a meeting with another Keeper family from New York City. The father was in charge of Leprechauns, which weren't nearly as plentiful in New Orleans as they were in Boston and New York. But then, no one had the workload her parents had always managed, except those working in places like Transylvania, Edinburgh or the true home of all the magical creatures of the earth: Ireland.

Out on the balcony, she looked across to her sisters' rooms. Shauna had the middle bedroom, and Caitlin's windows were just beyond.

Shauna's room was dark, but Caitlin was pacing. Her light was still on, and Fiona could see her walking back and forth, back and forth, behind the curtains.

Caitlin despised vampires. She believed that they were the eternal troublemakers, and she blamed the deaths of their parents on vampires.

Fiona wished that she could ease some of the hatred in her sister's heart. It wasn't that she didn't know that her own reason for existence was to keep the vampires' bloodlust in check or that she thought her job was easy. In truth, all the beings of the underworld were so much stronger and, often, craftier than humans, or at least they came with talents that allowed them to carry out feats of tremendous deceit.