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            Two independent cases involving missing women vie for the attention of psychic Diana Racine and her life partner in crime, NOPD Lieutenant Ernie Lucier.

In the first case, Diana and Lucier search for the missing mother of a street boy they’ve taken under their wing. In the process of finding her, they expose the city’s secret underbelly of crime and corruption.

In the second case, an eccentric socialite pressures Diana to rid her mansion of her twin sister’s ghost. But first, Diana and Lucier must prove the sister is dead.

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                   Chapter One                   

        Téo 

Ernie Lucier breathed in the warm summer air, more humid than usual due to the past few days of unrelenting rain. Tourists mingled with New Orleanians, jamming Jackson Square, intent on enjoying the beautiful evening. Lucier wrapped his arm tightly around Diana’s waist, drawing her close. God, he was happy.

Diana struggled to keep up. “Hey, put on the brakes, will ya?”

He slowed his pace. “Sorry. I forgot you take girly steps.”

She came to an abrupt stop, hands on her hips. “Wait one minute. You’re six-two; I’m a foot shorter. They’re not girly steps, they’re five-feet-two steps. Plus, I’ve just filled my belly with exceptional Cajun cuisine. If I walk any faster, it’ll wind up all over the sidewalk. What’s your hurry, anyway?”

He nuzzled her and whispered, “I’m in the mood.”

“For what?”

“For cuddling with this cute little psychic gal I know who―”

“Stop, thief! That kid stole my purse.”

Lucier and Diana turned to see a woman dressed in leopard leggings, screaming at a scrawny kid sprinting through the dawdling masses.

“Oh, shit. Wait here.” Lucier took off in pursuit.

The kid turned on the speed, darting in and out of the crowd. He should have been no match for the man, but the residual effects of Lucier’s recent health problems showed in his sluggish pace.

Come on, Ernie. You can do it. He got a second wind and forged ahead, regulating his breathing and settling into a rhythm. He needed to get his hands on the little bandit.

Rather than blocking the kid’s way, the crowd opened a path for him to soar through.

Lucier raised his arm to attract attention. “Police. Stop that boy.”

“Stop him yourself,” someone said.

“Don’t shoot him,” another yelled.

The last comment pissed Lucier off, as if he’d shoot a kid for stealing a purse. He dug into the inner breast pocket of his linen jacket, pulled out his badge case, and waved it in the air as he ran. By the time anyone saw it, the kid had scooted past them. At least Lucier had worn jeans and running shoes for the casual evening out.

Huffing, his heart on the verge of exploding, he yelled again, “Stop!” Damn if he was going to lose ground to a pre-teen purse-snatcher. An extra burst of speed brought him almost within reach. One lunge forward and he grabbed the rascal by the shirt and lifted him clear off the ground.

“Leave me alone,” the kid shouted to anyone who’d listen, his legs pinwheeling in the air. “He’s trying to kill me.”

A few in the gathering crowd tried pulling the boy away from Lucier. Barely able to breathe, he sputtered, “I’m a police officer.” He raised his badge. “This boy stole a woman’s handbag.”

The kid, slightly less winded than his apprehender, waved his free hands in the air and shouted, “I don’t have a handbag. See? Nothing. He’s a perv.”

With an angry mob leering at Lucier, he raised his hand. “Don’t do anything stupid. This kid took a woman’s handbag and ran with it. He must have ditched it.”

“Your word against his,” someone in the crowd said, championed by a few others.

“How do we know you didn’t steal the badge?” another voice chimed in.

With all the recent national news coverage about overzealous cops, he understood the crowd’s concern. He moved his jacket aside to display his weapon.

A woman pointed. “Look, he has a gun.”

As the crowd moved toward Lucier, he settled the boy on the ground with a firm grasp on his arm. “Anyone try to stop me and you’ll be assaulting an officer of the NOPD.”

“If he took a handbag, where is it?”

“Right here,” Diana said, breaking through the angry mob and clearly out of breath.

“That’s Diana Racine,” a voice called out.

“Yeah, and that’s her cop boyfriend.”

“I recognize him now.”

Lucier suppressed the urge to roll his eyes, but for once, he appreciated that he was recognizable. He glanced at Diana, who grinned.

“I saw him toss it inside a trash barrel on the corner,” she said.

“That’s my purse.” The leopard-clad woman with huge dangling earrings approached with the noisy clickety-clack of her high heels. “That little punk took it. If I weren’t a lady and wearing four-inch heels, I’d have gone after him myself. And if he wasn’t a minor, I’d kick him where it hurt.”

From the way her low-cut top left half her chest exposed, Lucier doubted she was a lady, but he kept the thought to himself. Whether she was a lady or not, the kid stole her purse. “You want to bring charges?”

“I needed money to eat,” the kid said, his body trembling, “I was hungry. I asked people for money, but no one would give me any.”

“Yeah, right.” The woman moved in on the boy. “You’re a lying little thief, that’s what you are.”

Wriggling in Lucier’s hold, he started to cry. “I’m not.” Lucier knew crocodile tears when he saw them. Still, what if he really was hungry? “What’s your name, son?”

“I’m not your son,” the boy said defiantly, wriggling even more in Lucier’s grasp. “I don’t have a father.”

Oh, Jeez. When it came to kids, Lucier knew he was the softest touch on the force, but he couldn’t cave now. “Name,” he demanded.

The child, a mix of ethnicity typical of New Orleans, clamped his mouth shut and went limp. He couldn’t have weighed sixty pounds.

“Name, and you better give it to me.”

For the first time, fear twisted the kid’s face. “Matéo. They call me Téo.” He pronounced the name Tayo. “You’re not going to arrest me, are you? The money was for food.”

“You stole this woman’s purse. What do you think?” He took the purse from Diana’s hand. “Hold on to him.”

She grabbed the boy’s arm, winced, and stepped back. The kid didn’t try to wriggle from her hold.

Lucier had seen that look on Diana’s face before. “What?”

Diana shook her head. “Not now. Later.”

Lucier had seen that expression many times. He could only imagine what electrical charge she got from the boy. With a backward glance, he approached the woman in the leopard tights with her recovered purse and pulled her aside from the throng of people that had gathered. He extracted his card. “You can file a complaint; that’s up to you. But if the kid’s homeless and hungry, I hope you consider dropping the charges. Can you hold off? You got your purse back.”

The woman looked to the boy. She grabbed her purse and pulled out a card from inside. “I own Trixie’s Toys on Bourbon. I’m Trixie. If the kid’s lying, I’m coming in tomorrow to file a complaint. Lemme know.”

“Thanks,” Lucier said. “I will. Give me a chance to check his story.”

She looked him up and down, flashed a seductive smile. “You can come and tell me in person, you know. I can set you and your girlfriend up with a few toys. Or for you with, you know, whoever.”

“I’ll bring her in and buy her a sexy nightgown. How’s that?”

Trixie shot Diana an appraising nod. “Hard to make a little thing like that sexy, but I’ll see what I can do.”

Diana was a whole let sexier to Lucier’s eye than Trixie would ever be, but he wasn’t about to offer his opinion. “Thanks, Trixie.” She batted her false eyelashes and walked off, tossing a flirtatious grin over her shoulder and shaking her backside for all she was worth.

Diana looked like she was going to burst when he turned back to her. He’d bet his adorable, unpredictable girlfriend had seen something when she touched the young purse snatcher, something she couldn’t wait to impart. To her credit, she said nothing. She didn’t have to.

“What are you going to do with me?” Téo asked.

“If you’re telling the truth, then the first thing we’ll do is get you something to eat.”

“No jail?”

Lucier didn’t know whether the kid was lying, but something about the boy got to him. Maybe it was his big dark eyes, the smudge on his cheek, or the dirty clothes. Whatever, he’d clearly been through some hard times. “We’ll see.” He winked at Diana. He knew she couldn’t eat another thing, but he hoped she’d play along. “Hungry?”

“Ah, dessert for sure.”

They were near one of Lucier’s favorite restaurants, The Camellia Grill, where the servings were plentiful and the service couldn’t be beat. Someone moved over a seat so the three of them could sit together at the u-shaped bar. “What do you want to eat, Téo?”

Looking over the menu, his eyes wide, Téo said, “Everything, but I’ll settle for a burger and fries.”

Lucier ordered for Téo. “Coffee for me.”

“I’ll have a slice of that wonderful cheesecake,” Diana said, “but I’ll need help eating it.”

“I’ll help,” Téo said.

Lucier’s heartstrings plucked. Téo looked a little like one of his sons. He tried not to think of that right now. He needed to keep emotions out of this. What had Diana seen when she grabbed the boy’s arm?

“What’s your last name, Téo?” When the boy didn’t answer, Lucier said, “Last name.”

“Jackson,” he mumbled.

“Matéo Jackson?”

Téo nodded.

“How old are you, Téo?”

“Ten.”

“Where do you live?”

“Here and there. Depends.”

“On what?”

He set those big soulful eyes on Lucier. “On wherever looks safe.”

That stopped Lucier. “Where are your parents? No fudging the answers; I need to know.”

Téo leaned back in his chair. “I don’t know what happened to my mother. Last I saw her, she had company, but when I went home, she left a note saying she’d be back. It didn’t look like her writing. She never came home. I looked everywhere for her. This time when I got home, the door was padlocked. The landlord wouldn’t let me back into the house unless we paid the rent.” The boy’s eyes filled with tears. “She has a drug problem. No telling where she is.”

Lucier knew the lure of drugs, the dependency, and physical desire. No, more than desire, need. During a recent investigation, the bad guys hooked him on heroine when he got too close to exposing them. The addiction worked and almost killed him in the process. He’d have done anything to get his next fix.

“Who’s her supplier?”

Téo stiffened. “I … I don’t know.”

Was he was too scared to say?

“I waited at the house, but she never came home. The landlord let me pack some things and told me when I paid the rent he’d let me back inside. I’m ten years old. Where would I get rent money?”

No kid should ever be in that position. “Where did you live?”

Téo told him. Lucier recognized the area. Not a bad part of town. In fact, it was a middle class neighborhood, and that confused him. “What’s your mother’s name?”

Téo sipped his soda. “Shaleen. Shaleen Jackson.”

“So you’ve been living on the street?”

Tears filled his eyes. “Sometimes. There was no place else to go.”

“Did you steal before tonight?”

The boy looked away.

“Did you?”

“I was hungry.” Tears cascaded down his cheeks. Real tears this time.

When the food arrived, Téo dove into his burger with a gusto Lucier hadn’t seen since he was in the army. The kid took a huge bite, then crammed a couple of fries into his already overstuffed mouth.

“Hey, take it easy. We’re not in a rush.” He caught Diana brushing away a tear. “Stay right here.” He put his hand on Téo’s shoulder. “You’re not going to take off, are you?”

Téo chewed and swallowed. “You’ll only come after me. But I don’t know, you might not have another run in you.”

Lucier almost laughed. “Might not, but I’ll call a patrol car, and when they pick you up, they’ll take you to juvie, and they won’t feed you.”

Téo scrunched his face and added a nod. “I’ll be here.” He dug back into his burger.

Lucier moved to Diana’s side and whispered in her ear. “What did you see?”

She whispered back. “He sleeps in a crack between buildings on a piece of cardboard.”

Lucier felt ill. What had happened to his mother that this boy slept on the street? Wherever it’s safe. He was going to find out. He’d track down his mother, dammit. He went outside and called Beecher, who was working late tonight. “Sam, check on a woman by the name of Shaleen Jackson. She has a son, Matéo, ten.” He gave Beecher Téo’s address. “That’s all I know right now. Find out as much as you can. See if the kid is in school, and check who’s dealing drugs in that area. Mother’s a user.”

“What’s with the kid?”

“Caught him stealing a woman’s purse so he could buy something to eat. I’m feeding him now. Diana said he sleeps in an alley on cardboard.”

“Old kindhearted Lucier. Next thing you’ll be taking him home with you. Remember, he’s a thief.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.”

“I’ll get on it right away. Nothing much going on here anyway. Oh, by the way, Miss Rousseau called again after you left. She’s begging to meet Diana. I don’t know what to tell her anymore.”

Lucier let out a long sigh. “I’ll make an appointment to see her tomorrow, and I’ll talk to Diana. But right now, find out about the kid’s mother.”

“Will do. I’ll have something in the morning.”

Lucier cut the connection and went back inside where Téo was now polishing off Diana’s cheesecake. Diana saw what she saw. He had no illusion about that.

“Are you going to put me in jail?” Téo asked.

Diana leaned in. “No, you’re coming home with us tonight. Maybe the lieutenant can find your mother, get her help. Maybe.”

Diana didn’t even look at Lucier when she announced her decision. Not even a glance. What could he say now? One night. That’s all. Then tomorrow he’d figure out what to do. He’d talk to Child Services and find the boy’s mother. One night.

“Where do you keep your things?” he asked the boy.

“My backpack? It’s safe.”

“Let’s go get it.”