Something else was odd. One of the gunmen had known exactly where Nikki was hiding. And if Nikki were there, it would have been a likely guess that he was with her.
What about Julian?
Odd man out?
Or the one to give Nikki away? Julian had known her since childhood. Knew her better than anyone else.
Knew the cemetery. Had he come with them as a setup, knowing that the gunmen would hunt them down but not harm him?
His mind raced. Julian had excelled in theater arts. But he was Oscar material, beyond a doubt, if he had pulled off the fear he'd shown that night.
If not Julian, then who?
He remembered walking by Madame's, and Contessa, the weird old marble-eyed seer, coming up to Nikki, giving her a warning.
Was the woman in on it and trying to keep Nikki alive?
At that moment it had been Nikki, Max, Julian, himself… and Madame D'Orso.
His footsteps quickened.
He hurried toward the station, anxious to find Nikki, and even more anxious for Massey or Joulette to make it back.
"Hey," the desk sergeant called. "You Nikki DuMonde?"
Nikki nearly tripped over Julian as she hurried over to the man. She didn't get to answer. "She's Nikki. Yup, that's her."
The sergeant frowned at Julian, shaking his head. "I got a call from the brass at the cemetery. Seems that the Blackhawk guy you're waiting for is going to be tied up with them for hours yet. He says to go home with Julian." He arched a brow as he looked at Julian, who had evidently driven him nuts with his pacing. "I take it you're Julian."
"Just go home, with Julian?" she said.
"Yeah, I'll have a couple of uniforms drop you off." He called out to two cops who had just come in. One was stirring a cup of coffee, looking worn-out.
"Stevens. Hurst. Need an escort for these folks. See that they get to the lady's apartment safely."
One of them nodded, looking tired but willing. "Thanks," Nikki said. "We could just walk. I don't live that far."
"I said I'll arrange a safe escort home, and that's what's happening," the sergeant said firmly.
Rather than argue, Nikki nodded. "Thanks."
"Yeah, thanks, we're outta here," Julian said.
One officer, whose badge identified him as Hurst, opened the door. Nikki and Julian thanked him and walked out.
"We're right there," Hurst said, indicating the car almost directly in front of the station. The second officer opened the rear seat for the two of them, and in seconds they were headed for Nikki's place.
"Pretty cool, getting an escort," Julian said.
"I guess. I'm tired, too, but… I want to know what happened," Nikki said. "We don't have any answers about Andy."
"We will," Julian assured her. "If there are answers to get, your buddy will get them. He's the real thing—a real what, I'm not sure, but he's real, all right."
"This it?" Hurst pulled up in front of Nikki's place.
"Yes, Officer, thank you."
Nikki and Julian exited the police car. The officers did the same. "We'll make sure you get inside safely," Hurst said.
"I could probably take it from here," Julian said.
"Hey, we were told to see you inside safely," Hurst said.
He fiddled with the latch to the gate.
"I'll get it," Nikki said, smiling.
Both officers came into the yard and watched as Julian followed her toward her door. Feeling definitely guarded, Nikki walked up to the porch, inserted her key in the lock and twisted it, then turned to wave to the officers and let them know her door was open.
She never made it. She was dimly aware of something long… metallic… flying toward her head.
Then it struck.
The pain was searing, white hot.
She crashed to the ground, white hot gone to cold and ebony as the entire world faded away.
Brent reached the station and hurried in. The sergeant at the desk looked up and greeted him.
"Massey and Joulette back yet?" he asked.
The sergeant shook his head. "Not yet. Got the call, though. I sent your friends on home."
"What?" Brent said sharply.
"They called from the cemetery. I could hear all the commotion. He said I should send your friends home. Said you would be all night, probably."
"'Who called?" Brent demanded sharply.
"Well, it was Massey. Or Joulette." The man flushed. "I couldn't hear. There were sirens, but it came in on police band. Had to be one of them."
"And you let them go—you just let them go?" Brent demanded.
The sergeant looked flustered and defensive. "I was told to. They're safe, don't worry. I gave them an escort. A police escort."
"By known cops?" Brent demanded.
The sergeant looked at him as if he were absolutely crazy. "Of course they were known cops."
"Where are they now."
"I don't know, but I'll give them a call."
Staring at him hotly, the officer tried the radio. He looked slightly uneasy when he didn't get an answer. "They're probably watching them… may be checking out the apartment. I'll try Hurst's cell phone."
"Never mind," Brent said sharply. "Send a car out."
"Send a car!"
Brent turned and burst back out of the station. He probably knocked over tourists, musicians and locals alike as he raced through the streets. As he ran, he heard a siren; the desk sergeant had finally called for a car.
He reached Nikki's.
A police cruiser was parked in front.
He wrenched at the gate, threw it open and nearly tripped over one of the officers. The man was clammy, but had a pulse. He left him and hurried to the next guy.
He could see blood on the man's temple, but he, too, had a pulse.
The door was standing open. Brent raced for it. "Nikki?"
He ran through the house, but he knew it was empty. A misty figure was trying to form.
"Gone… they got her!" she cried.
"Who, Andy, who?"
Andy shook her head… then cocked it. "That car… that car… they have her… in that car."
He heard the revving of an engine then and raced back out of the house. Another cruiser was pulling along the street and parking. Two uniformed officers slipped out of it. "Hey, buddy!" one cried.
"You've got two officers down," Brent said. "They're alive. Call 911."
"Halt or I'll shoot," one warned.
He stood still, gritting his teeth, knowing that if he told them what to do with themselves and ran, they would shoot.
The sound of the freshly revved engine faded as the car took off.
"Look, call your sergeant. I'm Brent Blackhawk."
Another car jerked up in front of the house. It was Massey and Joulette. Massey stepped out. "What the hell happened?"
"Two officers are down, Nikki and Julian are gone," Brent said. He still had his hands raised. "Tell them who the hell I am!"
For a moment there was silence. Could Massey be in on it? Or Joulette? Or both? If so…
"Get in the car!" Massey called. "He's with us. Get help out here!" he shouted to the officers.
Brent raced to the car. He had no choice but to take the chance.
Joulette was driving. "Now what?"
"Get around the corner. Nikki's in a car."
"What car?" Massey asked.
Brent stared at Massey. "You tell me. You called the desk sergeant, sending her home."
"The hell I did," Massey insisted.
"Joulette?" Brent said evenly.
"I didn't call anyone. And I told that to the desk sergeant," Joulette snapped. He was moving, starting to flip on his siren.
"No," Brent said quickly. "Just get around the corner."
Joulette did so, muttering beneath his breath. "This is nuts. Follow that car. What the hell car, are you going to tell me?"
"I don't know," Brent grated between clenched teeth.
Joulette went around the corner. There were a number of cars on the street. Brent groaned inwardly.
"Go out… get on I-10," Massey said. He picked up the radio and called for backup.
Brent turned and stared at him. "That's where we found Tom Garfield," Massey said.
Brent leaned back in the seat, praying he was right.
He closed his eyes for a minute.
The car grew suddenly chill.
Brent opened his eyes.
He was no longer alone in the back seat.
Tom Garfield was next to him.
The ghost was looking straight ahead, his eyes fixed on the road.
"I-10?" Brent said softly.
Brent leaned back again. "I'm going to suggest, gentlemen, that you call the station and have Madame D'Orso, nee Debra Smith, picked up."
"For what?" Massey demanded, looking back at him with a frown.
"Conspiracy to commit murder."
At his side, Garfield looked at him and cocked his spectral head.
This time it was Brent who nodded.
* * *
The pain in her head awakened her.
She opened her eyes, and the world was dead black. And still. She started to shift, trying to figure out where she was.
At first she was completely disoriented. For several seconds she was aware only of pain and confusion. And then she remembered. She had opened her door. She had started to turn.
And been hit.
Who the hell had hit her?
Julian? God, no. Please, not Julian.
But if not…
Then someone had been inside. Someone had been waiting. The police officers… they must have been hit, too. Unless they had been in on it. No. Then the entire police force would have had to have been in on it.
But someone had called the desk sergeant—from the cemetery—to say she should go home.