Brent breathed a deep sigh as he looked around. Charming. That was definitely a word to describe the architecture, the handsome wrought-iron railings the locals called iron lace. The sound of the music, the colors, the architecture itself. Yes, the place had charm.
And once upon a time he had loved it.
But that was then, and this was now, and if he'd never come back, it would have been just fine.
"What the hell is going on?" he asked as a patrolman in the street brought the traffic to a stop.
"Debate," the taxi driver said.
"Debate?" Brent said, and frowned.
"Politicians, and I'm not sure what they're debating. They both claim to have the same platform. Working to keep the history and unique quality of the place while cleaning up crime. I guess the old guy is saying that he knows what he's doing, that his record is great, and we're already on the way, while the younger guy is claiming the old guy hasn't done a thing, hasn't moved fast enough… well, you know. It's politics. Everyone swears to move the moon, and everyone out there is a liar, just the same." He winked at Brent in the rearview mirror.
"The crime rate has come down, though, hasn't it?"
"Crime rate goes down, crime rate goes up. Hey, no matter who wants to run what, nothing changes. Those that have want to keep what they have. Those that don't have want to get. We have real poverty in some areas, some pretty rich folk in others. Same old, same old, the human condition. Unless you change the conditions… well, that's what both our boys say they mean to do, so… you know how you usually vote for the guy you dislike the least? Well, both these guys are likable, so I guess we can't lose."
"I think so. But then, I love this place. You visit often?"
"Where you from?"
Brent started to say, All over.
But he didn't. He told the truth.
"Here. Right here."
"Yeah? Well, welcome home!"
The traffic began to move again.
They passed the police station on Royal.
At last they came to the bed-and-breakfast where Brent was planning to stay, after crashing at a hotel out by the airport the night before.
He paid the driver, met the hefty man who owned the place, paid and found his room.
And crashed down on the bed. New Orleans.
Arriving here was like having his blood drained from his body. Like being on the wrong side of a bout in a boxing ring. The pain in his head crashed like hurricane waves on the shore.
Drapes were drawn, door was closed… darkness.
All he needed was a little time. And he could adjust.
He didn't want to adjust.
But he would.
* * *
A year and a day.
That thought kept going through Nikki's head as she stood in the graveyard. Andrea hadn't hailed from New Orleans, but she didn't have any family left anywhere else, either. She'd been orphaned, like Nikki, and had grown up in a series of foster homes.
There had been no one to call. Andrea had been out of school for two years, traveling and taking odd jobs along the way. She'd left no names to contact in any kind of an emergency. She had gone to Tulane and probably still had friends in the area, but who they were and how they could be reached, Nikki hadn't had the faintest idea.
And because there was no place Andrea had called home and no one she had called family, Nikki had decided that she would take care of all the arrangements.
So Andy was being buried in Nikki's family vault, since there was plenty of room and no one left to fill it. The DuMondes had lived in the area since the late 1700s. Where her very early ancestors had been buried, Nikki didn't know. But in the 1800s they had acquired a plot in the Garden District. Someone at some time had put some money into the family mausoleum. Giant angels guarded the wrought-iron doors to the elaborate family tomb that boasted the name DuMonde in large chiseled letters.
The last interment had been her parents, killed in an automobile accident when she had been a toddler, and her grandparents, gone just a few years ago.
As she stood in front of the door, she realized that it was truly sad, but she barely remembered either her mother or her father. She had pictures, of course, and because of the pictures, she had convinced herself that she remembered much more than she really did.
A year and a day…
The time it took for the fierce New Orleans heat to cremate the earthly remains of a once-living soul. Then the ashes could be scraped back into a holding cell in the niche within the vault, and a new body could be interred. There were actually twelve burial vaults within the family mausoleum. Nikki had decided that Andrea should be buried with her own folks. She certainly didn't believe that corpses or remains could find comfort with one another, but it made her feel a little better to know that they would be interred together.
Of course, funerals were for the living.
Julian wrapped an arm around her shoulder. They all thought she was in serious shock. She was. They all thought it was because she and Andy had bonded so quickly. It wasn't.
She had liked Andrea, really liked her. But none of them had known her more than a few weeks.
It was partly because Nikki was convinced Andrea had been murdered, no matter what anyone else said or thought. But there was more.
It wasn't the fact that a monster was out there, still at liberty, unknown by the police, that was the greatest horror.
It was the dream…
"Sweetie, it's over," Julian whispered to her. "Set your flower on the coffin."
She nodded, swallowing. And set the flower on the coffin.
The funeral had cost a mint, a mint she didn't really have. But the rest of the group had been wonderful, contributing what they could, and Max had told her to take whatever she needed from the corporate account.
After she set her flower down, she turned. The glass-enclosed, horse-drawn hearse, empty now, remained on the dirt path that led from the street to the vault. The band began to play—a typical New Orleans band, a small group that Nikki was convinced would have meant a great deal to Andrea. It hadn't exactly been a full-blown New Orleans jazz funeral, but it had been close.
Andy had wanted to be a part of the real New Orleans.
Now she was.
Andrea had been dead for four days. Despite the fact that an autopsy had been not only demanded by Nikki but required by law, nothing the ME had been able to tell them had shed any light on the situation. Nikki had continued to insist to Massey that there had been a killer.
To her relief, he didn't try to convince her that she was simply in denial, grieving for the loss of a friend. Perhaps he didn't believe her, but he had at least gone through the motions of an investigation.
All they knew was that Andrea had gone to Pat O'Brien's with her friends, and at 2:00 a.m. they had parted company.
What had happened after that, none of them knew.
The police had found her—forcing the door of her apartment at the insistence of Mrs. Montobello—at nine o'clock in the morning. Andy had checked in with Mrs. Montobello with such regularity that the woman had been worried, and rightly so.
Andy had no longer been clad in the short sassy skirt and bandeau top she had been wearing when they celebrated. She had been in a New Orleans Saints shirt and nothing else.
Just as Nikki had seen her.
She had been found with a needle and other drug paraphernalia at her side. The only prints found in her place could be traced to her friends, and even those had been sparse. Many surfaces had been wiped clean. Nikki knew that some of the officers involved in the case believed that was because Andy had recently cleaned the apartment. Thankfully, Massey seemed to find it a bit suspicious.
But… other than that…
There had been no forced entry, nothing to show that anyone else had been with her that night. There was nothing…
Nothing. Nothing at all. Or, if the police did have anything, they weren't sharing.
Nikki didn't think any of her own friends believed her. They had tried, however, to help her cover any possible angle. They had all spent hours in the police station, trying to remember if they had seen anyone, anyone at all, looking at Andrea oddly or threateningly. Hard to decide, though they did remember the sandy-haired guy who might have been looking at Nikki herself. Admittedly, they had all been smashed.
Oh, God, please let it be that she didn't feel fear and pain, Nikki thought.
Had Andy been followed home? By someone who had been watching her at the bar? Or by someone who had seen her on the streets as she walked home.
Were the others right, when they looked at her with sympathy, thinking that she just couldn't accept the fact that Andy had fallen back into using? God knew, it was easy enough to buy whatever drugs you might want.
No. There had been someone else, someone who had forced the drug on Andy.
Mrs. Montobello hadn't heard a thing, which wasn't surprising. She couldn't hear a bomb go off without her hearing aid, which she wouldn't have been wearing at four o'clock in the morning. She was here now, softly crying into an embroidered handkerchief. Andy had always been so good to her, checking up on her, bringing her gourmet treats and other little presents. Poor Mrs. Montobello was really going to miss Andy. But as to being much help when it came to the investigation… well, she wasn't any.
The account executive who lived above Andy had been in New York on business. The single mother of two next to him had taken her toddlers to her mother's house. So there had been no one in Andy's quaint Victorian manor who might have heard anything, or have any clue as to what had happened.
The police had posted an appeal in the newspaper seeking anyone who might have seen Andy that night. And people had come in, trying to be helpful with stories about any strange character they might have met.
In New Orleans, that could be practically anybody.
The police were at a loss. As far as Nikki knew, the crime scene investigation department had gone over Andy's apartment with the best forensics available. They hadn't found as much as a hair that might help unravel the mystery of her death. Not a single clue.