Julian moved ahead, announcing that they were ready for anyone interested in the St. Louis Number 1 tour.
Nikki started to follow the others, but Brent caught her arm. "You saw her, didn't you?"
She looked at his hand on her arm, then into his eyes. "No."
"Why are you lying to me?"
She let out a sigh. "Okay… I might have seen her. But so briefly, I'm not even sure."
"You've got to tell me when she's there."
"Look, I just told you, I wasn't sure. And you were giving the tour, you were busy. And you're hurting my arm."
He instantly released her. "Nikki, please—" he began.
"And this," Julian was announcing, "is Brent, your guide through the streets down to the cemetery, and to the fascinating history and lore of the oldest of the cities of the dead."
Brent stepped forward to lead the crowd of tourists: couples, families, a few loners, teens, one pair of silver-haired octogenarians, both with sparkling powder-blue eyes.
"Good afternoon, and welcome to the Crescent City, the Big Easy, N'Awlins. I'll talk about the city's history while we head on over to the cemetery, and please, stay with the group at all times, because as wonderful a city as this is, we have our share of pickpockets."
Though the distance to the cemetery was only a matter of a few blocks, given the size of the group, progress was slow. Brent talked about the French, Spanish and English, and the Louisiana Purchase, the power and might of the Mississippi, and stopped in front of one of the old taverns, where it was said that pirates met and Jackson had assignations with men of ill repute before recruiting them to his cause. At a house at the edge of the canal, he told the story of a twentieth-century murder in which the perpetrator had been convinced he was a vampire and had drained his victim of blood. When the police convinced him that he was deranged, he shot himself. There were those, he said, who believed that his victim now stalked the streets in ghostly form, convinced that he was an after-life vampire and seeking to drain people of their very breath.
Other groups were in the cemetery when they arrived, but Brent had no trouble holding the full attention of his audience. He started out with the tomb of the famous voodoo queen Marie Laveau, then led the group to view the tomb of Homer Plessy, involved in the 1896 landmark case of Plessy vs. Ferguson, which established the concept of separate but equal. Certain that Huey was somewhere around, he decided to tell the haunt's story. "In cases of epidemic or need, vaults could be used by those who didn't own them. There's no actual data on precisely where, but near here was interred a hardworking elderly slave, Huey, slain by his master, some say through cruelty, some say through forethought and murder. It's said that Huey haunts St. Louis Number 1, looking for justice. He can be playful or tough—he was bitter about his own death, but a fine old fellow, and he has it in for anyone who intends to vandalize this place." He raised his voice. "Huey should know, however, that his wretched old master, Archibald McManus, died in horrible agony. Perhaps there is such a thing as retribution, and though we often wonder why it doesn't seem to occur often enough in this life, in some cases, it does."
He gazed around, letting his words settle with his audience and looking for Nikki. She was standing with Julian, whispering. She seemed at ease now, even entertained. Huey's story was one they probably hadn't heard before.
"Archibald McManus?" exclaimed an attractive young woman somewhere in her early twenties. She was on the tour with two other women.
"She's a McManus," one of her friends said.
"It's a common enough name," Brent said.
"No," the girl in question said. She laughed. "I'm here because my roots supposedly go back to this area. My dad said that my great-great-grandfather was a plantation owner here, that something terrible happened, and his children moved away and all lost touch with one another. Do you know any more about this guy?"
Brent nodded. "Public library, though you may not like what you find out."
"Every family probably has one inhuman wretch, huh? Ouch!" she cried suddenly, turning to the redheaded friend at her side. "What did you do that for?"
"What?" the redhead demanded.
"You pulled my hair."
"I did not."
Brent winced, wishing he hadn't told the story. Now he could see Huey. Instead of being relieved and at peace with the satisfaction of knowing that old Archibald had gotten his comeuppance, he was angry with the girl who was a descendant of the man's.
"Let's move on," he said quickly.
He started walking, leading the crowd through the maze of tombs in the city of the dead. He felt Huey at his side.
"You leave that girl alone," he ordered softly.
"She comes from his blood. Bad blood."
"The sins of the fathers are not visited upon the children," he said.
Brent glanced to his right. Huey was gone. Julian was there, frowning at him.
Brent turned, teeth grating. He had to be careful. Nikki was next to Julian, looking at him curiously.
He jumped up on a broken tombstone. "The sins of the fathers are not visited upon the children," he repeated. And he told them about a beautiful young Creole woman who had run away with the son of a wealthy English family. "When the man died in an epidemic, his mother saw to it that her daughter-in-law was cast from the house and the marriage annulled. In a few years' time, the Creole beauty died of illness brought on by her struggle to survive. However, years later, when the Englishwoman was sick and alone, she fell in the streets of the Vieux Carré one day. She was helped up by a beautiful young woman who might have been the reincarnation of her late daughter-in-law. It was her granddaughter. The girl might have thrown her grandmother back into the street, but she brought her instead to the nuns, who nursed her unto death. The girl then saw to it that the old woman received a decent burial here in St. Louis Number 1. Now they all rest together. The granddaughter, by the way, sought nothing from the estate, but the lawyers found her, and she inherited a home near Jackson Square. She, in turn, married a dashing young American soldier, and they had five children, many of whom are also buried in the vault there. The stone is wearing away, but the motto above the elaborate iron gate says, 'God is my witness, Christ is my judge, life is to live, and in living, love.'"
Huey was staring at him from the center of the group.
At least he wasn't pulling hair anymore.
It was getting late. The gates would be closed and locked soon, and Brent knew it was time to get everyone out, himself included.
He thanked everyone for coming, suggested the other tours the group gave, and assured everyone that he would get them back to Madame D'Orso's, so they could proceed with whatever they had planned for the evening.
As he led the way out, Huey was at his side. "You comin' back, Injun boy? You going to tell me exactly what happened?"
He hung back and let the others lead the tour out of earshot before he responded.
"Works two ways, Huey. I need your help."
"And quit pulling hair."
"She's the spittin' image of old Archibald."
"Oh, bull, Huey."
Patricia had hung back to meet him, and was smiling warily.
"Pardon?" he said.
"Who's Huey—and what's bull?" she demanded.
He flashed her a quick smile. "Sorry, I'm talking to myself."
"What a relief," she said with a smile. "I thought I was the only one who did that."
They came out on the main street, and Brent paused to see that their group was all together.
Nikki came over then. "Good job," she said softly. She wasn't touching him. She was just up on her toes, whispering in his ear. A simple thing. So simple. The moisture of her breath was warm, the air cool, and he was almost staggered by the instant sense of heat and electricity mat shot through him, tightening every muscle in his body, creating a hunger that was almost painful.
But not evident, he prayed.
He couldn't speak. He simply had to move ahead and get a firm grip on his libido.
Nikki didn't want to return to Madame's, and she'd pretty much had it with tours for the day. Brent had proven himself as far as she was concerned, but if the others wanted to force him into taking the night tour, as well, that was their concern.
She trailed somewhat behind as they left St. Louis Number 1. Julian walked by her side. "He certainly knows New Orleans," he said.
"Yeah, apparently he does," she agreed.
"You still didn't have to give him my shirt," he said.
She glanced at him, surprised. "Julian, you've never been like that. You're really mad that I let him borrow your shirt."
"I'm really worried that you let him stay at your house," he said.
"We don't really know anything about him."
"The cops seem to trust him. He's with some agency that they all bow down to, as far as I can tell. Anyway, he only stayed at my house. I didn't sleep with him."
She hadn't realized that Patricia had joined them until she said, "You didn't? I would have. Well, if I weren't head over heels in love with Nathan, of course." She tossed aside a length of her hair. "Seriously, I'm kind of glad he walked into our lives. He'll protect Nikki. I really believe that."
"Nikki has me," Julian said.
"Right. And what happens when you go out on a date?" Patricia demanded.
"I really don't think I need protection," Nikki insisted.
"Yes you do," Patricia said simply, and she looked at Nikki in a way that very briefly showed her that Patricia was scared herself.
"You," Julian said, pointing at Patricia, "just trust him because he's good looking. I think there's something weird about the guy. Nikki needs to be careful."