Page 25

"She's really a Yankee," Nikki whispered in a teasing aside.

Madame rolled her eyes. "That's hush-hush," she said. "Are you going to be hiring this guy?" she asked Nikki.

Brent cocked his head slightly, studying Nikki. She realized that the idea had already occurred to him as a way of staying on the scene, though it hadn't crossed her mind.

"Oh… well," Nikki said, staring at Brent. "Max makes everyone pass a test first, you know."

"I'm willing to bet I can pass any test on New Orleans you throw my way," he told her.

"We'll see about that," she said.

Patricia and Nathan had come in, and were at the end of the line.

"You two just go sit," Madame called to them. "I'll see to it that one of the boys brings out coffee, beignets and some juice, how's that?" she asked Nikki.

"You're too good to us," Nikki said.

"Tourists," Patricia grumbled, shaking her head as she had to navigate a group of them on her way to the table just off the street. Despite the heat of the sun, Madame's sidewalk café area was cool and comfortable. She had artistic little fans going and a striped canvas overhang that kept out the most rays of the sun.

"May I remind you to be nice to tourists? We survive off them," Nikki said.

But Patricia wasn't listening. She was looking at Brent Blackhawk. "Hi," she said with a flirty smile.

"Yeah, hi," Nathan said, coming up behind her and studying Blackhawk. "I'm Nathan, and this is Patricia."

"Nice to meet you," Brent said, and introduced himself.

Patricia cast a curious glance Nikki's way as she asked him, "Are you coming on as a tour guide?" she asked.

"I'm applying for a position," he said.

"That was fast," Nathan told Nikki. He was doing his best to sound pleasant, but he, too, had a slight accusatory note in his tone.

Julian made an appearance then, coming up to the table on the terrace. "Brent. Joining us again?"

"You two know each other?" Patricia asked.

"We've met a couple of times," Brent explained. "And I think I'd make a good addition to your group here—at least as a temporary fill-in," he finished.

Patricia looked at Julian, who was frowning as he looked at Brent.

"I have a shirt just like that," he said.

"This is your shirt," Brent said. "Nikki convinced me you wouldn't mind if I borrowed it."

They all stared at her then. She felt herself blush, because she knew exactly what they were thinking.

"Julian, I really didn't think that you'd mind."

"Hey… " Julian said, lifting his hands.

A little smile curved Patricia's lips. "Oh," she murmured knowingly. "I see."

"Brent is a friend," Nikki said.

"A new friend," Julian said.

"Oh?" Nathan murmured.

"Hey, there's Mitch," Nikki said. She waved to attract his attention.

Mitch walked over to them, staring curiously at Brent as he came. "Hi."

"Brent is Nikki's new friend," Patricia said after more introductions had been made.

"Julian's met him before, too," Nathan said, frowning at Julian.

"There was a little fracas the other night," Nikki said, "and Brent stepped in on our side." She glared at Julian, the look in her eyes warning him not to open his mouth about her visions of ghosts, or the fact that they had officially met Brent at the police station.

"How nice," Patricia said. "I mean, not that there was a fracas."

Julian waved a hand dismissively. "A bunch of drunk college kids." He added, a bit grudgingly, Nikki thought, "It was a good thing Brent happened on us."

Nikki smiled, slipping her hand around Julian's arm. "Julian stuck his neck out, defending my honor."

"Bravo," Patricia said. "Drunk teenagers on the streets of New Orleans. Imagine," she added jokingly.

"Yeah," Julian muttered. He offered Nikki a perfunctory smile. "And now Brent's one of us. Wearing my shirt."

Just then Madame herself appeared, carrying a massive tray with a dexterity few people possessed. She set the tray down on their table.

"Madame, I'm sorry you had to come out here yourself with this. We could have stood in line," Nikki said apologetically.

Madame laughed, her eyes twinkling. "You're my steadiest group. If I can't take care of you, I shouldn't be in business." She plopped herself into one of the chairs and picked up a napkin to fan herself for a moment. "I declare, autumns are getting hotter and hotter."

"Brent is applying to be a guide," Nathan said to Madame, though his eyes remained on Brent, his look slightly suspicious. "He claims to know the area. And we do need a fill-in."

Madame nodded, still fanning herself, looking at Brent.

Nikki noted that everyone—including Madame—seemed wary of Brent. Fascinated by, but definitely wary of, him. Of course, he was a newcomer. Maybe he just didn't look like the kind of guy who'd be applying for something as simple as a job as a tour guide.

There was something about him that warned people that he was a no-nonsense man with steel in his backbone, no matter how pleasant his manner. Yeah, he would make a good cop. Or a spy, or an FBI agent. But he claimed to be none of the above.

No, he was a ghost hunter.

"So, young man, you know New Orleans?" Madame asked.

"Like the back of my hand," he said lightly.

"Right off the top of your head?" Julian persisted. "All about the city? Garden District? French Quarter? Pirates, French, British, Spanish… the Louisiana Purchase… 'Beast' Butler, the Civil War? And, most importantly, our haunts?"

Brent laughed softly. "I can definitely deal with your haunts," he assured them, looking straight at Nikki.

"Impressive," Madame said, pouring coffee from the urn and passing it around. Finally she took a sip from the cup she had poured herself. "Have a beignet, young man. They're the best in the entire parish, if I do say so myself."

"You really think you have all that stuff down pat?" Mitch asked.

"Really," Brent said, nodding, sipping coffee, accepting a beignet.

"What did you two have planned for the afternoon?" Mitch asked Patricia and Nathan.

"Nothing important," Nathan said. "Not until it's time for our St. Louis No. 1 tour."

"And you?" Patricia asked Mitch.

"What are you all getting at?" Nikki demanded.

"The Garden District tour this afternoon. It's scheduled to be you and Julian, but I think we can all hang around and give Brent here a chance to prove his stuff."

"Oh, no. You all did that on paper, remember?" Nikki said.

"But I don't think any one of us were as sure of ourselves as Brent," Patricia said, smiling.

Nikki suddenly realized that the other men all wanted Brent to fall flat on his face. There was a little bit of a testosterone thing going around the table. Patricia seemed to be a bit in awe. Brent Blackhawk was definitely an imposing presence.

"That's not how we do this, putting someone on the spot," Nikki said uneasily.

"There, see?" Julian stated.

Apparently no one needed her approval anymore.

Brent was staring hard at Julian. "No problem," he said, taking another sip of coffee, his green eyes hard. "You're on."

* * *

Chapter 11

"In New Orleans, you'll often see references to 'cities of the dead.' And I'm sure, as you walked through the gates to Lafayette Cemetery Number 1, you felt like you were entering a city, a city filled with structures representing an amazing range of architectural styles. The word cemetery actually comes from a Greek word meaning 'to put to sleep, or to lay to rest, a resting place.' We often see the words Rest in Peace etched on headstones, and that is what we pray for for those we lose, that they will rest in peace. In New Orleans, for many reasons, we let our dead rest in peace in magnificent structures that rival those we plan for the living."

Hanging at the rear of the group as Brent conducted the tour, Nikki glanced at Julian, who shrugged, lifting his hands with a we'll-have-to-see-how-he-finishes gesture.

"He looks good up there," Patricia whispered to her.

And he did.

As Nikki had known, Brent didn't disappear in any crowd. It wasn't just his height but his carriage that made him such an imposing figure.

"Let me say," Brent continued, "that a great deal of the history that makes New Orleans unique can be seen and felt as we wander here. Some call it the most northern of the Caribbean cities. Others consider it the most European of all American cities. This cemetery was established in 1833, created from plantation land that had been owned by the Livaudais family. By that time the city was already rich in French, Spanish and English culture, and others were pouring in, German, Irish and plain old mixed-American immigrants from the North. They all brought a sense of their pasts along with them, and combined that with the need to build aboveground here in this land where floods come all too often. Remember, we're not in the oldest cemetery—that's another tour. But besides the flooding, there were other factors to consider in building the many different kinds of tombs you'll see here. The concept of 'a year and a day' wasn't born because of water levels and heat—it goes all the way back to Judeo-Christian mourning rituals and the sense of what is proper. You'll often see many names on a tomb, and that is because, after a year and a day—if in so short a time burial space is needed again—the earthly remains of a loved one are separated from the coffin, which is discarded, and interred in the rear of the tomb or in a cache below. In death, many families are thus joined as one."

"Ugh," a pretty girl in the crowd said. "You mean… they pull the bodies out? Get rid of the coffin and mix them all up?"