Page 50

"You're a raving lunatic," Haggerty said. But he suddenly jerked around, as if he'd been struck from behind. Nikki felt herself miraculously freed.

Brent didn't wait. He didn't use his own gun. With a flying leap, he went for Haggerty's knees.

The man fell. Brent rose, ready to slam a knee against him, but it didn't seem necessary. Haggerty was on the ground, screaming, bringing his arms up, flailing…

Nikki didn't see the ghosts of Tom Garfield and the real Agent Haggerty that night. She was in Brent's arms too quickly.

But she heard the screams…

And then the shouts. Light flooded the darkness, and the bayou country came to brilliant and vivid life as cops swarmed in.

The man on the ground kept screaming, and screaming, his voice rising, shrill with pain, even as he appeared to struggle with himself.

Then he began to confess.

Nikki was confused… then shocked.

In the end, she still didn't know exactly what had happened. She only knew that she was being led from the swamp.

And that she was with Brent.

And that she was alive.

The following evening, she let Brent explain to the others.

They weren't meeting at Madame's—they would never meet at Madame's again. Of course, it wouldn't be Madame D'Orso's anymore anyway.

She had been in on the conspiracy. Her café had been a meeting place for the drug dealers, too.

"I'm so lost," Patricia said, sitting in the curve of Nathan's arm. "Madame was the head of the whole thing?"

Brent shook his head. "Madame was merely the go-between, and a source of news and information. She put buyers and sellers together, and helped find the little guys who sold on the streets. Like those who got killed last night," he added.

"So… " Patricia pressed.

"I still don't know how you knew that Haggerty, not Massey, was guilty," Nikki told him. "You found a body when you stumbled on Julian—"

"No thanks to you," Julian muttered, rolling his eyes.

"Julian, you weren't in the trunk with me, so I thought… "

"They had me in the back seat. I did the same thing you did. I wasn't out. When I heard the arguing going on by the road, I ran."

"Explain to me who was arguing," Mitch said. "I'm still confused."

"I knew I should have stayed with the shrimpers," Max moaned.

Brent smiled ruefully. "I should have seen it all before. Hell, someone should have seen it. But Robert Greenwood—that's the real name of our false Haggerty—played it with raw nerve. He had been the henchman for a long time. He was the one who made Tom Garfield and then killed him—with a little help from Madame D'Orso. She had seen Tom in the café a few too many times. She knew he had picked up on something and was getting closer and closer to the truth. She hit him with a tranquilizer right before he stumbled into Nikki and Andy, and he was picked up right after, stumbling in the streets."

"Then Greenwood killed Andy… but why?" Max demanded.

"I can explain that." It was Owen Massey who spoke, coming up behind them where they sat at Sarah's, a different café on a different street. "Garfield had something, and Robert Greenwood knew it. But it wasn't on the body. And they couldn't find it at Madame's. It had to be on either Nikki or Andy."

"So why Andy and not Nikki?" Mitch asked.

Brent took over again. "Robert Greenwood knew everything about the group, since Madame kept him up on what was going on. He knew Andy had been a junkie, because he knew he could make her OD and it would look believable. So he started with her. He knew once Tom Garfield was killed that there would be a number of agents working the case, but he also relied on the fact that there's often poor communication between agencies. One man would be assigned to liaison with the New Orleans police. He found out who with little difficulty—lots of cops came to Madame's, too—and killed the real Haggerty, dumping his body deep in the bayou. Once he'd rid himself of the real agent, he turned himself into the man. It wasn't hard for him," he explained.

"He was a con, used to being a chameleon. He and the real Haggerty were the same in size, they were lean jawed… he cut his hair, bought contacts—and counted on the fact that most ID pictures suck," Massey said. He shook his head. "We should have known. Our boss would get calls from the FBI, complaining that they hadn't heard from him. Then he'd call in saying he was onto something, and that he needed the others to back off. Eventually, if he'd played it long enough, he would have been caught. But he didn't intend to play it that long."

"When did he intend to stop?" Patricia asked, puzzled.

"When Billy Banks was elected," Brent said.

"What?" Max demanded, suddenly sitting up straight and looking completely puzzled. "How the hell… ?"

"Massey and Joulette hit it on the head in the cemetery," Brent said. "Billy Banks wanted to be big in politics, and he also needed money to bankroll his campaign. He found Robert Greenwood and the world of illicit drugs. Banks could move all kinds of deals, get the stuff in, and pretend in the meantime that he was going to be hard on crime. He made money, and he tried to make Harold Grant look inept."

"Great," Max groaned. "It was a massive conspiracy. Banks at the head of it, Madame as a liaison, and this pseudo-Haggerty fellow, Greenwood, running all the dirty work. His underlings all used ski masks. I assume that meant they never knew one another and never knew Haggerty? Or Greenwood, I mean."

"That's pretty much how it went," Brent said.

"And you suspected all of us," Julian said with a groan.

"It had to be someone close to Nikki and Andy… and that was you all," Brent explained.

"I wasn't even here," Max complained.

Brent offered an apologetic smile. "Billy Banks never got his hands dirty—he was above it all. He was just the financing."

"My money is legitimate," Max protested.

"I know," Brent said.

Max stared at him.

"I checked you out, of course," Brent said.

"The thing I don't understand," Julian said, puzzled, "is how you knew from seeing a decaying corpse that Haggerty was fake."

"Or," Massey added with a shudder, "why the man was struggling as if there were a gator chewing him apart while he was lying on the ground. Why the hell he admitted every thing… ratted on Billy Banks in seconds flat."

Brent smiled at Massey.

"I think you do," he said softly.

Massey looked away. "Hell! All I know is that thanks to you, Blackhawk, I need a vacation. One hell of a vacation. And I'm going to get it. So is Joulette. Shit. You had the two of us suspicious of one another, sneaking around to check up on our own leads. We both thought the other guy was ratting to Haggerty. Meanwhile, it was Madame giving him information."

Mitch cleared his throat. "There's still another question. What was Haggerty—sorry, Greenwood—looking for? What did he think Andy had? And once he'd trashed her place and hadn't found it… was that why he went after Nikki, as risky as it was?"

"My purse is at a forensics lab," Nikki told him. "Whether it was true or not, we don't know yet. But Robert Greenwood believed that Tom Garfield had kept information on a chip—that he'd filmed some of the comings and goings and dealings he'd seen, and that, knowing he was about to be a dead man, he'd passed it on."

"I'm sure they'll find it," Brent said softly. "It's either caught in the lining of Nikki's purse—which is why a girl who looks a lot like Nikki was mugged, and then Nikki herself—or it's on the clothing she was wearing that day. We pretty much know everything." He glanced at Massey wryly again. "Thanks to Greenwood's mysterious confession."

Max sighed and stared at Nikki. "You do realize that we're about to have the most popular tour company in the entire parish, don't you? We'll have to hire a lot more people. Of course, given the terrible circumstances we've recently lived through—"

"We? You just got back," Julian protested.

"We. We're just one big happy family, right?" Max said. "I've canceled all tours for the next week. I believe we go on having customers meet here, but I'll have to work out the financial end with the owner." He stared at Brent with a sigh. "I guess you're not really working for me, are you?"

Nikki stared at Brent. He glanced her way with a dry smile. "Now and then. When I can. And Nikki won't be around for a while, either."

"Nikki?" Max said.

"You're going to have to work yourself for a while. I'm going with Brent to see the Wild West."

"Ah, the Indian thing," Max said sagely, then quickly amended, "Sorry, Native American."

Brent laughed. "We're going on a honeymoon, to the Grand Canyon."

Max congratulated them; Julian rolled his eyes; Patricia shrieked, saying the wedding had better be in New Orleans. Massey promised them a police escort if they wanted one.

The talk and the explanations went on for a while, until it seemed they had talked themselves out and silence fell, but it was a pleasant silence.

Then Brent excused himself and Nikki, and asked Massey to accompany them.

"Where are we going?" Massey asked.

"The cemetery."

Massey groaned.

"No, no, it's all right," Brent told him. "You just need to wait outside."

"Then why are you taking me?"

"It's illegal to be in there, of course," Brent told him. "Unless we have official permission."

"I owe you. But don't you go conjuring up any ghosts. I didn't see what I thought I saw last night. You've just got something in your voice, and that's how you made Greenwood believe those fellows he'd killed were next to him."