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The child awoke, not sure why. He could hear voices from the living room, but they were hushed, and though he immediately sensed a strangeness in their tone, he knew they hadn't been loud enough to wake him.

He lay there, wondering.

Then he felt it.

Exactly what "it" was, he didn't know. But it wasn't frightening. It was just a sense of being comforted, like a blanket, like the soft brush of a feather, entirely pleasant. He felt enveloped by gentleness, care and concern. Even strength.

All the different tales that had been told to him seemed to blend together. There was a mist in the room that echoed the stories of the Great Spirit. He thought he heard a cry on the air, barely discernible, a soft keening. Perhaps it was only in his mind, but it might have been the distant cry of the banshee.

He wasn't frightened.

Whatever it was… a mist, a shape, nothing concrete, but yet… it was there and it touched him, reassured him. The bathroom light was on; the little night-light was always kept on for him, even though he was five and already quite grown up.

But he knew that the mist or whatever it was had nothing to do with light or dark. It was simply there. It was a kiss on the forehead, a promise that everything was all right. It wasn't a something but a someone, he thought. Someone who loved him and needed him to know that he was loved in return. Someone who had entered…

The kiss again, and the feeling of love, somehow deeper than anything real. And there were words, but not words that could be heard. They were words he simply felt.

Another world…

When the door opened quietly, he lay still. He could hear the tears in his grandfather's voice as he whispered to his uncle, "He's sleeping. There's no need to wake him."

He wanted to rise, to wrap his arms around his grandfather, to tell him that it—whatever it was—was going to be okay. But something held him silent, eyes closed, pretending he was sleeping. They were whispering again.

He was a strong child. He would be fine.

But he was an only child. He would be so alone.

No. It would be all right. He would have the rest of his family. And he was one of a great Brotherhood. He would be all right.

He definitely didn't want anyone to know that he was awake, listening, and that in their words he had already grasped the sense of tragedy that was tearing them apart.

He was afraid that if he made the slightest sound, he might lose the precious sense of the light, the touch… the love that surrounded him.

Finally they left, the door closed.

It was in the morning that his grandfather spoke with him, stoic as always, firm in his belief in the Great Spirit, God, the Creator. There would always be an end to life here on earth, his grandfather told him, and it was how each man lived it that mattered, not the length of his lifespan. There was a world beyond, and it did not matter what a man called that world; it was simply there. His parents were gone from this place, and they could not be with him, not in the now. Nothing could hurt them anymore, ever. All they would know in the future would be the tender grace of their Maker. He—no matter what one chose to call him—would watch out for them.

His grandfather was wise, and yet the boy couldn't help but wonder if he himself wasn't more at peace than the man who would now raise him. His grandfather's eyes were filled with pain. He didn't fully feel the truth of his own words; he hadn't felt the gentle touch.

The boy slipped his hand into his grandfather's, then touched his face. His grandfather offered him the wisdom of the native peoples; his mother had brought him the fanciful mystery of a faraway country and the beliefs of the Old South. "It will be all right," he said simply, knowing his parents were still alive in his heart and would always watch over him from above.

"My boy." His grandfather wrapped him close.

Yes, the boy thought, his parents would be fine, in a world past all pain, all strife. But all the same, they were gone.

His father would never throw him up in the air again, play ball with him, teach him, tell him tales of the Great Spirit. And his mother would never match those tales with her own Gaelic whimsies. The soft tinkle of her laughter would not come again, nor would she tell him that he was a big boy, yet tuck him into bed anyway.

They would never offer him their deep, unconditional love again…

No, that wasn't true.

He knew that love as deep and abiding as theirs had been was eternal. And there was comfort in that, a comfort that could ease loss and pain.

But there were other elements in the world that were also eternal.

Just as there was love, there was hatred.

Just as there was gratitude, there was vengeance.

He believed that he had a gift, and that his gift was special. But it wasn't long before he learned that he was destined to face far more than the soft touch of love in the night.

* * *

Chapter 1

"Six, please," Nikki DuMonde said. "Six." She was smiling, but firm as she emphasized the number, indicating the tray where there were only five cups of café au lait. She and Andrea Ciello were in line at Madame D'Orso's, as they so often were. Madame herself was wonderful, but apparently she was busy, and the young woman behind the counter seemed overwhelmed. It seemed quiet enough right now. Though many of the little terrace tables were taken, there was only one other person inside the café at the moment, and he was slumped against the far wall. She glanced toward him. He had looked up once and had an attractive face, eyes that were intelligent, cheekbones hard and sculpted. But his clothes were ragged, with a slept-in look; he was unshaven, and his hair was shaggy and unkempt.

"Six coffees, six orders of beignets," Andy added, flashing a smile as the girl added a cup to the tray along with plates filled with the delicious pastries so famous in New Orleans—and better, in the minds of the locals at Madame's than any other place in the world. "S'il vous plait," she added.

As the girl turned to ring up their order, Andy assessed Nikki with her exotic dark eyes. "My treat today," she said.

"Don't be silly."

"No, ever since I came aboard, you've been wonderful." She had only been a tour guide for Myths and Legends of New Orleans for about four weeks. For Nikki, it was old hat.

"Hey, we all rely on each other, since we always work in pairs. And you're doing just fine."

"Oh, I don't know," Andy said, tossing a length of her sleek dark hair over one shoulder. "I know all the stories, and sometimes I get chills, like there's someone looking over my shoulder. But you… Nikki, it's like you see ghosts."

Nikki shrugged, glancing around the café. "Maybe it's just ingrained," she said. "I went to school with half the palm readers and voodoo queens working the Quarter these days. I guess it's like… well, walking into any place that's really historical… and…"

Nikki frowned and floundered, looking for the right word.

"Creepy?" Andy suggested.

Nikki shook her head. "Where deep feelings existed, where trauma occurred—like Westminster Abbey in London. When you walk in there—"

"The place is like one giant cemetery," Andy said dryly.

Nikki laughed. "Yeah, it is. But you can get the same feeling at a Civil War battle site—even with all the bodies removed. I guess it's a way of feeling the past, of history, people, the emotions. Remnants of the lives that were lived there, lost there."

"You see ghosts," Andy said, nodding sagely.

"I do not see ghosts."

"You have an affinity for them."

Nikki was growing uncomfortable. "No. I told you. It's just a feeling of… history and the human condition, that's all," she said firmly. "Everyone gets it at some point, at some place."

Andy reflected a moment. "Well, I do feel something in several of the cemeteries. And now and then in the cathedral, there's a kind of… vibe."

"Exactly," Nikki agreed. She reached for the tray, but Andy was getting it, so she turned to head back to their table and nearly screamed.

The derelict had risen. He was in front of her, his mouth working, as he reached for her.

She couldn't help but recoil, but even so his hands touched her shoulders. She thought he was going to collapse against her, but he straightened, his mouth still working as if he was trying to say something.

He needed money, she thought.

"Here," she said quickly, reaching into her purse. She pulled out a bill and, pity replacing her feelings of revulsion, said, "Get yourself a real meal, please. No alcohol or drugs, please. Get food."

She felt his touch again as she went quickly past him, Andy in her wake, hurrying with the tray.

The others were outside, but before they could reach the table, Andy said softly, "Nikki, that was really kind of you."

"He'll probably just drink it or shoot it up his arm," Nikki said.

"No, maybe not. Actually, he didn't look like a junkie."

"Just a bum."

"There but for the grace of God go I," Andy murmured beneath her breath. Nikki turned to look at her, but Andy shook her head. She had been in trouble with drugs; she'd been dead honest with Nikki when the two had first met. She'd been clean for years, however. She seldom even drank now, unless it was a special night out, a celebration.

At the moment, however, she clearly didn't want to say any more, not in front of the friends waiting for them: Nathan, Julian, Mitch and Patricia.

They all worked for the same tour company, and they were making a success of it, despite the competition in New Orleans. Maximilian Dupuis, the founder of the business, had taken Nikki on board first. Max had found her through the articles she'd been writing for one of the local tourist papers.

Max himself was really something. Tall, dark and bony, he resembled a vampire and could have haunted New Orleans just fine himself, though the cigars he loved to chomp on kind of ruined the impression. Nor was he really interested in ghostly occurrences himself.