All right, this was her special turf. She'd spent her life here, right here, in the French Quarter. If there was a story out there, she'd heard it. The history of the city was something she could recite in her sleep. And she loved it. Funny, that made her think of Andy.
When she'd first met the girl, her friend had been amazed that she still loved living in New Orleans. In fact, she'd burst into laughter when Nikki had urged her to tell her why she was grinning like an imp.
"It's just… well, you're not a drinker. And it seems you always want to go somewhere without crowds… so, why live in and love New Orleans?"
The question had startled Nikki. "It's home. It's all I know. And, okay, so I'm not a big boozer. I love jazz! I love the artists on the street, and the performers… and even the people who pass through!"
And she did.
"What on earth do you do during Mardi Gras?" Andy had demanded, still laughing.
"Visit friends in Biloxi," she said dryly.
It was true. There were always tourists in New Orleans. She liked tourists. She just didn't like the melee that came along with Mardi Gras in New Orleans.
Well, she thought, yawning and stretching, she would stay in New Orleans for Mardi Gras next year. They all wanted a party. She'd do it—for Andy, and the others, as well, she figured. Julian was Mr. Party himself, a good friend, and she loved him—even if she was ready to clobber him right now. She'd known him her whole life, and he'd taken the job when she'd asked him on Max's behalf because of her, not because he'd originally thought they could really do something new and special. He was wickedly tall and good looking, and great at this work, even if he was overly dramatic. Didn't matter—those who went on the ghost walk with him were always thrilled.
Sure, this year, she'd have a party. Patricia, who had grown up not too far away, in Cajun country, longed to have a really good Mardi Gras party, too. She'd grown up close—but far enough away so that she longed to be part of the real heart of the celebration, too—from the above-the-vomit line, as she called it. Mitch, of course, was from Pittsburgh, and he was dying to get into the dead center of it all. As he had told Patricia, he didn't care what evils lurked on the street; he wanted to see it all. Of course, he'd prefer a nice party place, but…
Nathan was more like her. He was shy, except with friends, unless he was on, and then, like Julian, he was on. Now, he was madly in love with Patricia, and he was comfortable with their close group of workers. Though Nikki was certain Nathan would just as soon head for Biloxi during Mardi Gras, too, he would want a party because Patricia would want a party.
And, of course, it would be an important time for them to be working.
They were doing so well.
Nikki felt a real sense of pride—despite her pounding headache. A lot of the time, tourists thought that costumes and makeup on tour guides was just schmaltz.
Not so with their group.
They were good. They knew their subject matter. They could answer questions. They didn't just give a tour—they were an event.
And though the whole thing had been created through Max's plan, vision—and money—Nikki felt as if it were her own dream child finding real fruition. She had been there with Max at the very beginning, when there had been just the two of them, working hard, footing it all over the place by herself. Befriending the concierge staff at the hotels, begging store managers for flyer space. She had been the one to give the free tours to travel agents, thanking God that Max had saved up enough to be able to bring the people in. After the first go, Max had told her to bring Julian in. He hadn't been convinced that he'd ever really get a substantial income from the enterprise, but he'd been willing to take a chance because she was so impassioned.
And he was a total ham.
They had begun to thrive, and so, Max had told her to increase the program, and the staff. She had found the others later—they'd had to "audition," bom for historical accuracy, and for their ability to tell a damned good and eerie story without getting into outright lies. No one in their group ever said that such things as vampires, ghosts, or any other metaphysical creature existed. They told the stories that had been told. The legends. They were still known as the "ghost" walk, though officially, me company was called "Myths and Legends of New Orleans."
Nikki ran her fingers through her hair, trying to let it dry in the breeze.
A newspaper came flying over the brick wall. The newsboy—late as he was!—had cast it over the brick with amazing accuracy.
It landed in front of her. Staring down at the headline, she let out a sigh. There were two pictures on the front page. One of the statelier Harold Grant and one of the more charismatic Billy Banks.
"Billy Banks," she muttered aloud. "Who the hell votes for a guy named Billy Banks?"
As she leaned down to pick up the paper, she heard the front gate opening.
As it did, she felt a vicious cold sweep through her, as if an arctic blast had suddenly hit her entire bloodstream. Her breath caught.
Her sense of foreboding… It was coming true.
She looked up, remnants of her dream flashing through her mind's eye like a chaotic movie trailer.
She knew, though he was in plainclothes, that the man who approached her was a policeman, and that he was about to tell her something terrible.
She stood up, her mouth working, no words coming.
"You—you're a cop. Something's happened," she finally gasped out.
The officer nodded. He cleared his throat. "I'm Detective Massey, Owen Massey, Miss DuMonde."
Nikki stared at him, hating the wave of knowledge that filled her, muscles constricting as she denied everything rushing into her mind.
"No, no… there's a mistake."
"I'm so sorry."
"Someone is… hurt?"
"I'm here about Miss Ciello, Miss Andrea Ciello."
He looked helpless—big, kind and helpless. Cops like him must have to give people bad news all the time, but it looked as if it had never gotten easy for this guy. "We were referred to you. A Mrs. Montobello is the one who called us… insisted we go in, swore that Miss Ciello would have come to see her first thing in the morning. She said that you were Miss Ciello's best friend? I'm sorry, so sorry. I wish there were an easier way to do this. Um… should we go inside?"
"What's happened? Tell me what's happened!"
"No! Talk to me, tell me, what's happened?"
"Overdose, I'm afraid. We believe it was accidental, but you know, we have to go through procedure… The thing is, we need someone to make a formal identification of the body."
"Body?" Nikki gasped.
"Yes, I'm afraid—"
"No!" Nikki stared at him in disbelief. No. It had to be an elaborate joke. Andy—vivacious, fun-loving, rowdy Andy—couldn't be dead.
"I'm truly sorry. It appears that she—"
"Andy was clean."
"I'm sure she wanted to be clean."
"No! She was clean." Nikki realized that she was backing away from the man, denying everything that he was saying. But it couldn't be true. "She was clean. She knew not to touch the stuff. It's impossible that she did this to herself. It's impossible that… "
But from the way he was looking at her, she knew it was true.
Just as the dream had been true. She wanted to black out; she wanted the world to go away. Yes, she had always had a sense of the past, of spirits that remained, but never, never, had she felt… seen… anything like…
Last night. Andy had been dead. Or dying. And she had come to Nikki for help. She had failed her friend somehow.
She shook her head again. Her words were fierce. "Andrea Ciello was off drugs. I know it. If something's happened to Andy, it was not self-inflicted, and it was not accidental. She was murdered."
The officer was staring at her, troubled, frowning.
"I'm telling you, she was clean. And if you don't believe me, I'll raise a stink in this parish that you won't believe. She can't be… oh, God."
No. This was impossible. She was still dreaming. Imagining this cop just the way she'd imagined Andy last night.
"I'm sorry, Miss DuMonde. Look, is there someone I can call? Are your folks here… a sister, brother, friend?" he asked.
She ignored him, shaking her head, anger keeping her standing. "She did not overdose. If she had drugs in her system, someone else put them there. I am going to demand an investigation. I want to see a homicide officer."
"I handle homicide cases," he said gently. "We have to look into any death that's questionable in any way."
"Oh?" She stared at him anew, heart racing.
"It wasn't a natural death," he said. "So they call us in."
"What time was she killed?" Nikki managed to ask.
"What time did she die?" he countered gently.
"Please. Yes, whatever. What time—did she die?" Nikki gasped out again.
The detective looked wary, as if he wasn't sure why that information should be so pertinent.
"The ME only had an estimate, but it would have been right around 4:00 a.m.," he told her.
She reached out, grasping for a railing… for help… for something that wasn't there. Too late, the detective realized what was happening.
Nikki crashed down on the porch as the world faded before her, Andy's words suddenly echoing in her ears.
"Sorry," the taxi driver told Brent as they slowed to a near halt on entering the French Quarter.
"No problem," Brent told him.
It was usually a slow process, maneuvering the tourist-filled streets. Delivery vans could block a narrow byway, and any little snarl could close things off, though in the tight confines of the place—with many streets blocked off for pedestrian traffic only—most people preferred to walk. Still, vehicles were sometimes necessary, and delays were just a fact of life.