The Hurricane she had assumed she would nurse all night was already empty. A waitress replaced it without being asked.
She smiled her thanks and spoke to her boss.
"Max, thanks, that's great. I'll tell the others."
"Tell us what?" Patricia demanded.
She waved an impatient hand again, trying to get them to shut up while she was still talking.
"When are you coming back?" she asked Max. "I need to ask you—"
"Do what you need to do. I'm not sure yet when I'm coming back. You've got my cell—call me with any problems. And for tonight, let loose. Eat, drink and be merry. We'll talk soon."
He'd hung up.
"What did he say?" Julian demanded.
She told them about their ranking in the tourist mag. A cheer went up, and then a toast. "Did we order food?" Nikki demanded.
"Our little China doll is getting tipsy!" Patricia teased.
Nikki groaned. "Hey, for real."
"Hey, for real," Julian assured her. "We've got a shrimp and crawfish appetizer coming, gumbo and a special thing, pork, red beans and rice… succotash, darlin'!" he teased, managing to sound just like Max.
"Thank God," she murmured.
"Indeed. Another toast," Nathan said, raising his glass. "We're the best. And Congrats to Nikki, our blond beauty."
"Hey, don't look now, but that guy over there is looking to be a couple tonight," Patricia said, nodding toward the other side of the room.
"He's looking at Nikki, not me," Andy said.
Nikki twisted around. The guy in question was nice looking, sandy-haired, either a businessman letting down his hair, or maybe a college student.
"No, I think he's looking at you, Andy," she said.
"Ladies, ladies, I hate to disappoint you, but I think he's looking at me," Mitch said.
Another round of drinks came to the table. Nikki's head was beginning to buzz, but it was a celebration, and she did need to let loose now and then.
So she ate crawfish and had another Hurricane, and laughed at the banter around the table.
The plane rose, angling into the air.
Below, there was light.
Along the coast, the highly populated sections were ablaze with artificial light. Housing and commercial development were pushing the boundaries, eating up great chunks of the Everglades.
And yet the great area of no-man's-land remained, thick with grass and slow-moving water—and darkness.
South Florida. From the air, it was easy to see just how much of the landscape was still taken up by the "river of grass," since, technically, the Glades weren't swampland at all.
Brent loved it, loved the festivals held by the Seminole and Miccosukee Indians. He loved playing guitar with his friends. Loved the seemingly endless expanse of the Glades, even with the mosquitoes, snakes and alligators.
The Everglades made a great place to dump bodies, too. When someone went missing… well, the police knew where to look.
This was his home now, the place he'd chosen to live. But there was also the home of his childhood.
After the deaths of his parents, his grandfather had been his legal guardian, so he'd spent a great deal of time, school vacations, holidays, summers, in South Dakota. But his mom's family had been among many Irish immigrants to the Deep South, and until recently, they'd lived in the parish of his birth. Most of the time when he'd been growing up had been spent with that side of his family, in Louisiana.
New Orleans. The French Quarter. Where he'd been born.
He knew the area far too well.
New Orleans. And beyond the Vieux Carré, the bayous. Endless canals. Alligators, shrimp and shrimpers, crawfish, Cajun food…
There were bodies there, too. And strange events that went beyond the accepted norm…
It was what he did, he reminded himself.
But not always by choice.
Damn, but he hated to go home.
* * *
"Help me! Nikki, wake up and help me!"
Nikki woke groggily from a deep sleep. She forced her eyes open.
"Nikki, please, for the love of God… there's nothing. I have nothing. Tell them—you've got to tell them!"
She blinked. There was a soft glow of green light emanating from her clock, and a thin gleam coming from the bathroom, from the night-light she kept on. She had failed to fully close the draperies across the sliding doors in her bedroom. Though she faced the small garden area at the rear of the house, enough light made it into the back that a gentle glow came in through the window. Though the light seemed pale and misty, she could see the basic shapes of the furniture in her room.
And the woman at the foot of the bed.
Andrea was standing there, clad in a long T-shirt advertising the New Orleans Saints. Her long dark hair was tousled, as if she'd just gotten out of bed.
"Andy, what are you doing here? What are you talking about?" she asked, glancing over at her bedside clock. Almost 4:00 a.m. They had only parted at two, and after all those Hurricanes, Nikki felt as if her mind was moving on a very slow track. In fact, her head was pounding. She had to be dreaming, but it was unfair for her head to hurt so badly in a dream.
"Go away, Andy. You're the one who kept ordering the drinks," she grumbled miserably.
"The bum in the coffee shop, he's dead, Nikki."
Nikki shook her head, which made it hurt even more. "Andy, we didn't know the guy. We couldn't know if he's dead." She stopped to think for a minute, but between the liquor and exhaustion, she knew she wasn't doing too well.
"How did you get in here, anyway? If you guys are trying to scare me… Did Julian put you up to this? Hell, I don't really care right now. Go away. And lock the door behind you when you go."
"Nikki! Please… help!"
"I understand a joke, Andy, but I really feel like hell. So… ha, ha, go away."
"Nikki, for the love of God," Andy implored. "Wake up… I think… I think it's you they're after."
"Andy, go away. Go home. What the hell are you doing out dressed like that, anyway? Look—I'm closing my eyes. When I open them, you're going to be gone. And if those other idiots are with you, tell them to get out, too."
"Okay, I'm going to open my eyes, Andy, and you'd best be gone!"
She opened her eyes. To her amazement, Andy was gone.
"Make sure my front door is locked when you go!" she called.
She sighed. She needed to get up and make sure that the door had been locked. She should close the drapes—and avoid the sun that was going to tear into her eyes in the morning. But none of them had to work tomorrow morning. Not until night… the eight o'clock tour. Ample time to recover, and so, to get in all the healing sleep she needed. She should get up…
She couldn't quite do it. Couldn't quite make herself get up.
She closed her eyes, and went back to sleep.
When Nikki woke in the morning, she didn't even remember at first that she'd opened her eyes to see Andrea in her room. Her head was still thudding. She managed to crawl out of bed and into the bathroom, and down several aspirins. In the kitchen, she decided toast would be a good thing. Coffee first, because she couldn't bear life without it, then toast and orange juice.
Walking back into her bedroom, she unlatched her glass doors and walked out on the little balcony that looked over the small courtyard in the back of the house where she lived. The antebellum grande dame had been restored beautifully—into six apartments. She had chosen her own when the work had barely been completed because of the two upstairs bedrooms, hers, that she slept in, with the windows that faced the garden, and the spare bedroom, that she used as an office, that overlooked Bourbon just beyond the small front yard and brick fence. Then, to make it all the more wonderful, downstairs her front entry wasn't through the main hall, but was a separate entrance, a one-time servants' door. It opened to the far end of the broad porch, an amenity accessible to all the tenants, but convenient to her. The porch looked on to grass and flowers and the swing that fell from a huge old oak. Downstairs, the street was blocked from view—and vice versa—by the brick fence. From the front, all the music and mayhem of the city could be. heard, but in the rear, all was quiet.
A slight breeze filtered in. Fall was coming, and with it, days and nights that we're beautiful, still warm, but relieved of the drop-dead humidity that could plague the city.
She determined to shower quickly and dress. That might help.
It did. Her hair still damp, in jeans and a knit shirt, she walked out to pour her coffee. The headache was beginning to recede. She took her coffee outside.
It was at the front door—where she discovered both her bolt and the chain lock still in place—that she remembered the dream. She smiled to herself.
She'd never have another.
So—the crew hadn't sneaked in on her last night, determined to play the world's most annoying practical joke.
She really had dreamed it all up!
Andrea would be amused when she heard about it. No… she wasn't going to say anything to Andrea at all. That would only bolster the teasing concept that she had no life other than her work, that her life would be much more fun if she did submit to more alcohol upon occasion, and that she was… well, something of a workaholic.
She took her coffee outside, sat in one of the big wicker chairs on the porch, and looked out at the lawn and the eternal flowers there. Pretty. The breeze was pleasant. «
A few more cups of coffee, her toast… and she might feel like living again.
She closed her eyes, letting the air caress her cheeks, ease away the night of living it up a bit too much—well, for her, anyway. But she was very serious about her work for Max. She might be underpaid for the amount of responsibility she was taking on now, but she knew that Max had big plans. He wanted to go around the country with his tours. Nikki had always loved to travel, and once Max got going, she wanted in on the whole thing. People simply loved this kind of tour. And no matter where a city might lure lots of tourists, there were surely ghosts to be found!