Page 10

Naturally, Nikki had kept silent about her strange dream. She could barely remember it, anyway—other than the fact that Andy had been there at the foot of her bed. But she hadn't been there. She had been either dead or dying by that time.

She was pretty sure, though, that even as they went through the motions, the police believed that Andy's death had been self inflicted, even if accidentally so. Still, Massey had assured Nikki that, as tragic and frustrating as it was, finding a murderer could take a long time. Months or even years. Though Detective Massey didn't say it, she knew that far too often a killer was never discovered and walked away free.

That made her think that maybe she should mention her dream to someone. The only person she had told was Julian, and he had looked at her with such incredulity that she had immediately felt foolish. Julian had gone on to warn her that telling her bizarre tale would either make the police think she was a kook who had been giving her own tours for too long or a suspicious individual herself.

But the dream bothered her on a daily basis. No. Hourly. Constantly.

She felt a pang in her heart that was so sharp it might have been delivered by a knife.

Oh, God, Andy, I can't stop believing that you came to me for help.

And I failed you.

She closed her eyes tightly as she stood near the coffin, desperately trying to remember everything that she had seen that night.


It was Patricia, looking at her with dampened eyes. "Come on, now. Let them finish."

Nikki nodded and looked around. The funeral had been small, but a few people had made it. There were her neighbors, and even Madame D'Orso from the coffee shop, and a few other local business owners.

As always, there were the curious, tourists, who happened to be at the cemetery and slipped in to join the crowd at the service.

A stretch limo awaited their group, and Nikki knew it was time to walk away.

She looked back. The cemetery workers were in the tomb, getting ready to slide the remains into the appropriate vault.

The band played to the end.

They drove back into the French Quarter, and then went through another ritual, the after-service gathering at Madame D'Orso's.

Madame was in her element. Tall and buxom, with her silver hair swept high on top of her head, she took charge naturally. She had liked Andy. Besides, it was her place. Nikki realized that she was one of the few people who knew that Madame's real name was Debra Smith and she'd actually had ancestors come over on the Mayflower. But a pretense of being French was a good thing for business in the French Quarter.

She had come through today, closing her café in the morning, then opening in honor of Andrea in the afternoon.

Julian, Nathan, Mitch and Patricia were trying to do what was usually done on such occasions, remember the person with affection and a smile.

It wasn't easy, when some people clearly thought it was her own fault for being a junkie.

People cared, but Nikki knew, too, that most of them would not think about that day much after they had returned to their regular lives.

At last, as the hour grew late, people began to leave.

Madame, who had truly been the perfect hostess, settled tiredly into a chair by Nikki. She patted her hand where it lay on the table. "Come on, child," she said. "Andy wouldn't want you to be morose forever."

Nikki nodded. "No, of course, you're right."

Madame smoothed a stray lock of hair from Nikki's face. "You're plumb ashen, girl. Pale as if you'd seen a ghost."

Nikki's brows arched. Julian, who was standing nearby, turned and stared at Nikki.

She frowned back at him, then turned to Madame.

"Hey… do you remember that last day when Andy and I were in here?" she asked.

"Well, vaguely," Madame said. "You all come in most days, you know."

"I know, but that day, there was a… kind of a bum hanging around. He looked as if he'd be good looking if he had a bath and a haircut."

Madame looked at her blankly.

"You must have seen him," Nikki persisted. "I asked you about him, so I figured you would have noticed him when you went back inside."

"Honey, I see lots of folks. And we get our share of bums. If one passed out on my floor, I'd have the police in so fast he wouldn't even get to exhale. Other than that, I doubt I'd notice."

"He must have come and gone while you were busy," Nikki murmured.

Madame smiled. "Do you know what I do remember? Andy teasing you about the fact that you needed to get yourself a fellow."

"That's when the guy was in here," Nikki said triumphantly.

"Honey, I'm really sorry, I don't know why it's so important, but I really didn't see him."

Julian, frowning, took a chair at the table. "Nikki… do you think the guy followed you and Andy? Maybe that's something you should report to the police."

She shook her head, aware that Julian's gray gaze was intense and serious. "You guys were sitting out here when Andy and I brought out the beignets and coffee, and you didn't see him—did you?"

"No… but we weren't paying any attention. We weren't paying any attention that night, either," Julian said ruefully.

Patricia came over and slid into another chair. She, too, patted Nikki's hand. "You holding up?"

"I'm fine," she murmured. "Patricia, you did make sure that any tours for tonight were rescheduled, right?"

"Yes, I did. I spoke with Max, just as you told me, and he apologized again for not being here, by the way," she said, offering Nikki a weak smile. She shrugged. "We had no problem rescheduling—there was a mention about the funeral in the paper. People—" she glanced dryly at Julian "—even tourists, tend to be sympathetic—still curious, yes, but sympathetic… "

"Did everyone reschedule?" Nikki asked.

"Oh, yeah," Patricia said.

"Those sympathetic tourists are sure we'll be the best tour out there now," Julian said, and flashed a stern look at Patricia.

"What was that look all about?" Nikki demanded.

Patricia stared at Julian, then shook her head with a sigh. "Oh, one woman said that she was certain the spirit of our departed comrade would remain with us on our tours, making them even better," she murmured.

"How awful," Madame breathed.

"Some people are just heartless that way," Mitch said, sliding into another chair at the large round wrought-iron table. "Hey," he said pragmatically, "some of the stories we tell are pretty grim. It's just that now… well, now Andy's part of it, whether we like it or not."

"We will never, ever mention Andy on a tour!" Nikki said fiercely.

"Of course not, but, Nikki, in our business, you know that this will come up," Mitch reminded her. He offered her an ironic smile. Mitch wasn't as dramatic a guide as either Julian or Nathan, but his knowledge of the area was inexhaustible. He had a wonderful all-American, corn-fed look, ash-blond, flyaway hair, bright blue eyes, handsome face. He was very popular with the younger crowd. Nikki was certain that they often had repeat local customers just because a certain teenage crowd loved to follow him around the city.

He frowned, looking at her suddenly. "We will never, ever mention Andy," he agreed. He hesitated, clearing his throat. "I'm sorry, you knew her much better than we did. She was only with us a few weeks… Nikki, are you doing all right?"

She nodded.

"I think one of us should come stay with you," he said firmly.

She shook her head. "Thanks, Mitch. Julian has been hanging around for me." She stared at them all. "Okay, I'm telling you, and I mean it. I'm convinced that someone forced that heroin on Andy. Whether it had to do with her past or not, I don't know. But also, I'm okay, and I don't need my friends to babysit me. But thanks."

"Well, I don't know how you're living alone," Patricia said, flipping aside a length of her long dark hair. She glanced sideways at Nathan, who was saying goodbye to the last of their comourners. She grinned suddenly. "I was wondering if maybe Nathan and I weren't making a mistake… rushing to live with one another. Now I thank God every minute that we're living together. Because those drugs came from somewhere. From someone. I just think I'd be pretty miserable and scared right now, if I were alone."

"Hey, you two are just right for each other," Nikki commented. "And that's why it's good that you're living together. Anyway, I'm going to shake this off. It's just that it's only been a few days. But I'm not going to turn into a coward. I'm going to be proactive and bug the police until they discover her murderer—don't look at me like that. There was a murderer. That's the least I can do for her."

"One way or another, I agree with Nikki. Whether someone just pushed the purchase on the streets or plunged the needle into her vein, someone caused Andy's death. And for the sake of everyone in the parish, we need to know who. We'll all work on that, right, guys?" Mitch asked.

They all nodded.

"And by the way," Julian said, "I am staying with you tonight, Nikki."

"Julian, I'm all right."

"And so am I. But I think we ought to be all right together."

"The bed in the guest room is as hard as a rock. You said so yourself," Nikki reminded him.

"Honey, I'm all in. Tonight, I could sleep on a real rock just fine."

She was about to protest again, then sighed. "Okay, thanks. I guess, tonight, I'll be glad of the company."

The two of them were the last out of Madame D'Orso's. Julian decided they should walk Madame home first. It was around midnight, which in New Orleans, in the Vieux Carré, wasn't all that late. Madame said that they really didn't need to walk her anywhere, there were plenty of police about and the streets were crowded.

Julian, however, told her that they could use the walk anyway. The night was beautiful, with fall just beginning. The oppressive humidity that could press down on the city had lightened.