"Ashes to ashes, dust to dust," another woman commented.
"Hey, you'd save big on people expecting you to buy a really expensive coffin," a heavyset man offered, obviously considering that a major plus.
"True," Brent told him. "But death is never cheap—we all know that."
"There's a fact," the big man said, and they moved on.
Brent pointed out the many different surnames etched on the tombs, then went into a speech about the epidemic that had gripped the city soon after the cemetery's establishment. After that he talked about the Civil War, pointing out a number of tombs where good Confederates had found their final resting places, and also those tombs where soldiers who had remained loyal to the Union had come home to rest.
At one point he talked about the fact that Lafayette Number 1 still served as a final resting place for many who passed away.
His eyes met Nikki's across the crowd, and she felt a warmth despite the sudden breeze that rose, ruffling her hair.
As if they had somehow forged a special bond, something beyond the fact that she still felt, far too frequently, the urge to throw herself into his arms.
For comfort, security…
For much, much more.
She turned away. His voice became a drone as she found herself hanging back.
Cities of the dead.
This particular city…
Rows and rows of mausoleums, some decayed, fantastic angels, sad as they lowered their heads in prayer.
Her own family's tomb.
A woman standing before it, head lowered.
She found herself slowly walking away from the group, toward the beautiful Grecian-style mausoleum where so many of her ancestors lay.
Mingled together now in death. Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust.
And a woman standing there, her back to Nikki.
Fear rose in Nikki's throat. She looked at the dark hair, the slump of the woman's shoulders.
She swallowed hard. "Andy?" she whispered.
The woman turned.
It wasn't Andy.
She smiled at Nikki. "Sorry, I'm Susan Marshall."
Nikki felt like a fool. "No, I'm sorry. I thought you were someone else. Excuse me."
"This is a gorgeous tomb."
"It's my family's tomb."
"Wow. To know that you're a part of something so historic, it must be wonderful," Susan Marshall said. She shivered then. "I mean… a little creepy, but still cool," she said, smiling.
Nikki almost screamed when hands fell on her shoulders. She gulped back the sound and turned to see Julian standing behind her.
"You scared me to death," she said accusingly.
"I was worried about you—you suddenly disappeared," he said, scowling.
"This is Susan Marshall," she said quickly, to distract him.
"Hi," Julian said, offering a hand and introducing himself. Nikki suddenly realized that Susan was very attractive.
"You're here by yourself?" he asked Susan.
"I understand it's safe here in the Garden District," Susan said.
"It's safer in a group. Why don't you join the tour?" he suggested.
"Oh, well, I couldn't do that, I didn't pay—"
"We're more than halfway through. Please, just join us," Nikki said. She glanced at Julian. He hardly seemed to notice she was there. All his attention was on Susan.
"Please, join us?" he said.
"If you're sure… "
"Absolutely," Julian said;
Nikki trailed slightly behind them. She was startled when she heard a rumbling in the sky. Looking up, she saw that the storm clouds were gathering.
"Good thing we're more than halfway through," she murmured.
Neither one of them even seemed to hear her.
They caught up to the rear of the tour. Mitch flashed Nikki a questioning smile, and she flashed a reassuring smile back.
The rain hadn't begun, but the sky was darkening. Nikki didn't think that it made scientific sense, but a mist was beginning to rise from the ground, which shouldn't have happened until rain actually fell and the heat of the ground turned water to vapor.
"What a day for this tour, huh?" Nathan, an arm around Patricia, whispered to Nikki. "Even the weather complies to make him look good. He really is good, Nikki. The guy has come up with bits of history I didn't know myself!"
"I think he's terrific," Patricia said.
Nathan gave her a little shake. "Quit looking at the guy's butt, huh?"
"I am not looking at his butt," Patricia protested, giggling. "Honestly, though, he really knows this place."
"Snap him up for Max before he applies to one of the other companies," Mitch suggested.
The mist seemed to sweep around Nikki. She found herself suddenly tempted to look back, but like Lot's wife, she was afraid that she would turn to salt if she did.
Yet… something beckoned.
She stood stiffly, refusing to give in to the inclination.
The others moved ahead, but she remained where she was, afraid to so much as breathe.
At last she gritted her teeth and turned.
The mist seemed to whirl along the path back toward her family mausoleum. Ghostlike in every way, haunting, mysterious, beckoning her to that place between light and darkness, life and death…
But there was nothing there.
No sign of Andy.
She turned back.
And jumped, a scream rising in her throat.
Andy was there. Just in front of her. Hovering away from the rest of the crowd, surrounded by the whirling gray mist…
She turned back, looked at Nikki.
Nikki shook her head. "No, no, no… please don't be there," she whispered. She needed to get Brent's attention.
He was far ahead, listening gravely to a young brunette's question as they stood next to one of the society tombs.
"Andy, go away," she pleaded, closing her eyes.
She felt something, someone, coming closer.
Felt breath against her cheek.
She opened her eyes.
Julian. He had left Susan's side and was staring at her, frowning in concern. "Who are you talking to?" he demanded.
Nikki looked past him.
Andy was gone, as if she'd disappeared into the mist.
"I'm not talking to anyone," she lied.
"Nikki, you were just—"
"I stubbed my toe," she muttered, and, brushing past him, hurried to stand at the front of the crowd.
Brent's eyes met hers, and he frowned.
She forced a smile. Andy was gone. There was no sense in interrupting now to tell him that she had seen her friend.
Not now, in a cemetery, with a strange mist rising when it wasn't even two o'clock in the afternoon.
"Wow," Mitch said, congratulating Brent.
"I will have to admit, you've pretty much shown us up," Julian had the grace to agree.
"How do you know so much?" Nathan demanded.
Brent gazed at Nikki as he replied, "I was born here."
"But you're an Indian," Patricia interjected, then reddened, realizing how politically incorrect she had been. "I'm sorry… Native American."
He laughed. "Partly. Part Irish. And my grandfather's wife was actually of Nordic extraction. My father and mother happened to meet and marry in New Orleans, so even though we traveled a lot, I basically grew up here."
"You feel like conducting the St. Louis Number 1?" Mitch asked.
Nikki was being silent, and her silence disturbed Brent. He held still for a minute, letting the breeze whisper around him. It was getting late for whoever was going to meet the group at the other cemetery.
He didn't mind doing the St. Louis tour—though Huey might be a bit disconcerted to see him—but Nikki's continuing silence disturbed him. She was smiling, but it was a forced smile.
She had seen Andy, he thought.
A flare not so much of anger but futility swept through him. She hadn't told him.
He should have felt Andy's presence. He had known that at least a dozen other haunts had been following the tour that day, intrigued. None that he knew, though, and none that could have been Andrea Ciello. She had no intention of making herself known to strangers.
He wanted to shake Nikki and tell her that she had to help him. He took a deep breath.
"Hey, where'd your new girlfriend go?" Patricia suddenly teased Julian.
"She had an appointment to meet her sister," Julian explained.
"That's what they all tell me, too," Mitch said with a sigh.
"I have her phone number," Julian told him, shaking his head.
"Hey, love and games later," Patricia said, glancing at her watch. "Time for St. Louis Number 1, guys."
"So will you lead that one?" Mitch asked.
"If it's all right with Nikki."
She shrugged. "Sure. The rest of you can follow Brent around."
He was thinking of a way to protest, when Patricia beat him to it. "Oh no. You're the one who talks to the boss. You know damn well that if you say to hire him, that's exactly what Max will do."
Nikki shrugged. "Max isn't here, and we need to fill the slot. So Brent gets the job," she said simply.
"Then let's head out," Mitch said. "I've got the van. I'll drop you in front of Madame's to greet the hordes."
"All right," Brent said.
"We'd better hurry before our group thinks they're not going to have a guide," Patricia said.
"I'm sure Madame is watching out for our interests," Julian said. "But yeah, let's get going."
Brent had no chance to talk to Nikki in the van; they were pretty much packed in like sardines. But when they piled out at Madame's, Nikki seemed to have regained her composure. "Nice job," she said to Brent, her aquamarine eyes guileless. She even offered him a smile.