"What?" a woman called from the crowd.
"Her slaves were found, many chained to the walls in positions that would be impossible to achieve by the finest contortionists. Bones were broken, many were horribly crippled. Some were found in cages, smaller than dog kennels, and some were found strapped to crude operating tables, and only in the heinous mind of Dr. Lalaurie could the possible purpose of his torments be known. And in the attic, human body parts were found strewn about. It was said that many of the staunchest firefighters became ill—and a few actually passed out."
"So then did they get the Lalauries?" a woman asked.
Nikki started to answer, but her voice froze in her throat.
As she stared through the crowd, she saw Andy.
She was still wearing the suit in which she'd been buried. She looked beautiful, as always, but…
Nikki just stared, and Andy gave her a rueful, apologetic smile.
"Well, did they get them?" a man persisted.
Nikki barely heard him. She just stared at Andy, still unable to speak. Then she managed to whisper, "You're not there."
A young man near her heard and asked, "Who's not there?" He looked around curiously.
"I've got chills," someone in the crowd said.
"Nikki!" Julian called.
She managed to rip her gaze from Andy's to stare across the crowd at Julian.
Someone else had joined their group, standing next to Julian. It was the man from the night before, and from the police station. The man who had shown her the picture of the bum from the coffee shop, the other ghost she had seen walking these streets. Brent Blackhawk.
For some reason, the sight of Brent Blackhawk snapped her out of her frozen state. She refused to glance again toward the spot where Andy had been standing.
"The Lalauries… "
At first, her voice was nothing but a croak. She looked into the crowd again. Andy was still there, unnoticed by anyone else.
I am losing my mind, she thought.
No, she couldn't. She couldn't allow it to happen.
She turned away again, facing the house, afraid that she was suddenly going to see dozens of graying, decaying, tormented and tortured souls, streaming from the house. Ghosts. Ghosts no one but she could see…
"The entire neighborhood came bursting from their homes, sickened, horrified," she said, her voice strong and rising dramatically. "The citizens were so appalled that a dual lynching almost occurred. But somehow, just ahead of that furious crowd, Madame Lalaurie and her cruel doctor husband managed to escape. She got away in her carriage and managed to catch a schooner from St. John's Bayou to St. Tammany Parish."
"And then what?" a woman demanded indignantly. "They went after her, right?"
"Then, I'm afraid," Nikki said, "what is known begins to blend with legend. Some say that she went on to Paris, and whether she and her husband began their experiments anew on servants in Europe, no one knows. Others say they somehow remained on the North Shore for the rest of their lives. Some say that Madame Lalaurie died in 1842, and that her body lies in New Orleans somewhere."
"Ugh," said a girl of about eighteen, drawing a ripple of relieved and slightly uneasy laughter from the crowd.
"But the house is still standing," said a man. "So it didn't burn down?"
Nikki glanced back at the crowd. Be gone, Andy. Please, be gone.
Andy was no longer where she'd been standing.
Nikki took a deep breath.
"The house did burn down, but in 1837, it was rebuilt, and that's when the stories began about strange noises, about mysterious lights being seen. No one seemed able to stay in the house at first. One owner kept it for only three months. The voodoo queens of the city began to warn that there was a curse on the location. A barbershop on the premises lasted just a few months; a furniture store did little better. But then the Civil War divided the country, and attention was drawn from the house. For a while, during Reconstruction, the house was a school that was open to white and black girls alike. Then the school system was segregated, and it became a school for blacks only—that lasted one year. The house next became a conservatory, but its reputation had become such that no one would attend a conceit, and the conservatory was a failure—and the night of the final performance was one on which locals swore they could hear Madame Lalaurie and her fiendish friends from beyond this world celebrating and partying loudly. This, of course, is all rumor, and hearsay. What is true… "
She turned back to face the crowd again and fell silent, swallowing hard.
Andy was back. She seemed to be trying to stay hidden within the crowd.
Far from Julian.
And Brent Blackhawk.
Blackhawk was staring at Nikki. Even in the shadows of the night, she swore that she saw the color of his eyes, that intense green, as he watched her closely, seeming to see all kinds of things within her that she wanted to keep hidden.
Andy, you're not really there. This is all in my mind.
"So what's true?" someone demanded.
Nikki gritted her teeth, staring hard at the image of Andy she was trying to convince herself existed only in her mind.
"What's true?" she repeated. "The house was divided into apartments, and in 1889, a man named Joseph Edouard Vigne began living in one of them. People believed that he was a drifter, a poor man, barely getting by. But when he was found dead in his apartment in the Lalaurie House in 1892, there was over ten thousand dollars found hidden away in various places among his belongings. How did he die? If he was murdered for his riches, me killer certainly hadn't discovered them. Did he die of natural causes? Or did the ghosts of the Lalaurie House catch up with him? That's for each individual to decide. But now, according to those who believe, Joseph roams the place looking for his wealth, along with the spirits of the tortured slaves, who are said to rattle their chains as they roam the halls seeking freedom and salvation."
"Yeah, right. Ghosts," said one big man, but he jumped when his wife touched his arm.
"What then?" Andy mouthed to her from her place in the crowd. Andy was smiling wistfully. This had been one of her favorite tales to tell.
"As you can see from the perfect condition of the house, the current owner is having no difficulties, or none that we know of. There are a number of apartments in the house now, all inhabited. In the early 1990s, there was a saloon here, and it did fairly well—it was called the Haunted Saloon. There was a furniture store here after that, and it didn't do so well. The owner assumed that he was being vandalized the first few times he found his wares wrecked, with a curious substance on the ruins, something that smelled quite bad and had an oily essence to it. After he felt he had been the victim of petty criminals one time too many, he took his shotgun with him and waited with his merchandise. The night came… and the night went. And in the morning, he'd seen nothing. But his merchandise was wrecked again, and the odor of decay permeated the place, along with the foul substance. Soon after, the owner determined that he would do much better setting up shop elsewhere."
"But… people live there now?" a woman asked, the wife of the big man who had jumped. She was hugging his arm tightly.
"Yes, and all seems to be fine," Nikki said cheerfully. Okay, Andy, stay there. I've decided that I'm not sane, but I'm just going to live with the madness, and I am not telling anyone else about you. "There's one final note. Around 1941, a grave marker was found in St. Louis Cemetery Number 1. It had the name of Madame Delphine Lalaurie on it. However, it wasn't attached to any specific tomb, grave or even wall vault, so… did she return to New Orleans? And, as some ask, is she still here? That answer is up to the mind of everyone who hears the story."
She turned and hurried onward toward the next stop on the tour. As she walked, she felt Andy at her side.
"You're not here," she said, not glancing around.
"Excuse me, dear, am I walking too close?"
She turned. The question had come from a pleasant woman of about sixty, with soft gray hair and powder-blue eyes, looking perplexed.
"No, no… I'm sorry," Nikki murmured, and tried to think of an explanation. "Practicing out loud," she apologized quickly.
"Ah," the woman said, and smiled.
Andy was there, of course, on her other side.
"Go away," Nikki murmured.
"Pardon?" the woman said.
"No, no, I'm sorry. I wasn't talking to you. Really."
The woman looked at her as if she was seriously deranged.
And that was the way she was behaving, she realized.
She had to ignore Andy.
So she did. Determinedly. Until she came to the next stop on the tour, a tavern where pirates had once met, now a bar that offered bluegrass but still advertised its past.
At some point, Andy faded from the crowd.
But Brent Blackhawk remained, always hovering at the rear of the group.
The tour turned out to be one of the best she had ever led. The customers were willing to suspend disbelief. They asked questions. They were fun. They shivered with pleasure at all the right places. They wanted to know what was fact, what was rumor and what was supposition.
When she finished, back at Madame's, most of them were planning on taking one of the cemetery tours the following day, and she had never received more tips in her entire life.
With the remnants of the tour still there, Madame's began a little nighttime business boom. Nikki talked with some of the attendees, while Julian, some distance from her, talked to another group about the other tours the company offered.
Andy stayed away.
But Brent Blackhawk was still there. He waited until the last of her customers had moved on to order café au lait or sweets from Madame's counter.
Then he approached her.
"Brent Blackhawk, Miss DuMonde. From the police station."
"Oh, yes, of course," she told him, and she knew there was a vein of ice in her words.
"We need to talk," he told her.