Her last table was a single guy. He didn't seem too young-more than college age-but neither was he old. He was dressed in black jeans and a black denim jacket, and though it was getting dark, he was wearing sunglasses.
His hair was reddish, he had freckles, and he was decent when she spilled a little of the wine he had ordered, smiling and licking the drop off his hand.
"I'm so sorry."
"The management give you a hard time here?" he inquired. She realized he had an accent. It was her day for foreigners.
"No, they're fairly decent, but no one likes it when the customers complain."
"I guess not. Hey, you know anything about the groups around here who give tours?" he asked.
"Well, there are a few companies at the moment. Some have been here forever. Some come and go.
Folks like ghost stories. And we've had lots of grisly murders here in New Orleans."
"So I've heard," he said, still smiling.
"This time of year, with Halloween coming up, there may be a lot of new tours going on."
"Yeah, maybe. Hey, why don't you go ahead and give me my check? I saw you talking to that girl over there before, telling her you needed to get going, that you were exhausted."
"You heard me?" she said incredulously.
"I must have been talking louder than I thought. I didn't mean to be offensive."
"You weren't. You've been helpful."
"Oh, about the tours-"
"Yeah." He shrugged. "I'm an out-of-work actor. Getting some dramatic storytelling work at the moment would be fun."
"Most of the groups make you take a test to prove you know the history and can tell the stories."
"Oh, I know history. And I can spin a good yarn. Give me my check, so you can get out of here." He smiled broadly. "You need a ride anywhere?"
"Oh ... I ... uh ..." she stammered. He was pleasant enough, but she knew better than to accept a ride with a stranger.
"Never mind-bad question," he told her. He took his check from her fingers and gave her some money. "I'll be seeing you," he told her.
"Thanks," she said.
He started walking away. She realized how much money he had given her. She turned to thank him.
He was already gone. As if he'd disappeared into thin air.
Twice that day she'd gotten lucky with men.
Or so she thought.
When she stepped outside, the streets were still busy. It was New Orleans. The streets were always busy.
Jazz always played.
She loved that about New Orleans.
The problem was, of course, that she had a bit of a long trek home. She had a car, an old-very old-Chevy Nova. Bought for a mere one hundred dollars, it was good for the few miles a week she drove between the college and the French Quarter.
She had to park it outside of the Quarter because space inside was so very dear. She couldn't begin to afford a garage. And so she left the bustling tourist area of the old sector each day for streets beyond that weren't considered at all safe. During the daytime, they were all right. But at night...
Today her car was almost all the way down by the cemeteries. They didn't usually freak her out. In fact, she loved the history of the place. Not that Pennsylvania didn't offer history-it certainly did. But New Orleans was just so unique. The different accents, the different cultures, the weird, aboveground vaults ...
So haunting in the moonlight.
Moonlight that played with shadow.
There were clouds overhead. Every now and then the streets were pitched into darkness.
She was halfway toward her car when she first heard the footsteps.
Not her own. She had been listening to that swift, rhythmic echo since she had started out.
She clutched her purse tightly to her chest. Great. She was going to get mugged the first day she'd made real big bucks working. Both the solo guys-the one first thing in the morning and then her last customer of the evening- had been generous to a fault. The first guy had put down a twenty to pay for a cup of coffee!
After working all day and running herself ragged, she had about a hundred bucks. Good, necessary money for her.
Clip, clip. She swung around, trying to see who was following her.
Your life is worth more than any amount of money!
She could almost hear her mother saying the words. She bit into her lower lip. They were true words.
She had never realized how true until this very moment.
She quickened her pace.
She heard the footsteps again. She spun around.
There . . .
Behind her! Black shadow.
No! There-in front of her! Shadow, flying. No, the moonlight, haunting, teasing ...
Then again ...
Clip. Clip... The sound of footsteps. Furtive. Menacing.
"Hey!" she cried out suddenly. "I carry pepper spray!"
Pepper spray? What kind of an idiot was she?
"Pepper spray-and a fifty-seven Magnum!" she shouted
Did she hear laughter, or was it a haunting echo in her own mind?
She looked and looked....
There was no one, no one ...
Shadows, laughter, footsteps ...
She began to run.
And the clip . . . clip . . . clip came faster and faster, too. The shadow... it flew, rose like a giant black bird. It swept into a canopy above her head.
The moon, the glorious moon, covered by shadow, darkness falling ...
And then ...
She began to scream.
Rick Beaudreaux arrived late, and he looked tired, Jade noted immediately.
It was obvious that he'd seen the newspaper article. His eyes caught Jade's quickly, and there was a question.
He knew what had happened in Scotland, and he had assumed that Jade was going to be upset.
But he had been greeted at the door not just by Jade, or even by Jade and Renate, but by a small throng of people. Every one of Jade's celebrating guests-the Wednesday Eve Group-was there to watch him.
His brows rose as he remained in the doorway; he looked at Jade and smiled, and her heart pounded a little bit- he really was a perfect heartthrob, a guy with all the right stuff. Yes exactly, he is the right stuff, she told herself somewhat angrily. She was glad to see him; she wasn't glad to see him. He was everything she had wanted in life ... and strangely, she felt as if a relationship with him would be like betraying someone else. Who, idiot? She didn't know. But she'd had the most bizarre feeling, standing on the balcony earlier. As if someone was out there. She almost felt... touched. The breeze had been almost unbearably sensual. Yes, I am waiting. . . .
Alone, she had almost said the words out loud. Then she had heard Shanna calling her in and she had felt like an idiot, having sexual fantasies with a breeze when a perfectly good-no exceptionally fine-man wanted in on her life. Tonight.
Yes, tonight, definitely. None of this insane stuff in her head!
"Come in-if they'll let you," she told Rick, her lips curling into a smile.
He grinned, glad to see that she seemed to be okay.
"Don't 'Hi, guys' us," Renate commanded immediately. "I know you're a cop and that you can read, and that you can see between the lines. These little darlings are pooh-poohing everything I say. And Jade is scared-"
"I'm not exactly scared," Jade murmured.
"She'll be psychotic if Renate keeps it up," Shanna said dryly.
"She needs to be careful," Renate said.
"Hey, champagne, Rick? We're celebrating here tonight," Matt reminded him.
"Champagne, sure, great, why not?" Rick said. "Congratulations, Matt Big-time. You're the next best thing to knowing Stephen King."
"I'm far humbler," Matt said mildly.
"King's written far more books," Renate noted.
"So what do you think, Rick?" Shanna asked.
He hesitated, staring at Jade. He shrugged. "I think New York is far away."
"One of the survivors from Scotland was killed in New York," Jade said. "Hugh Riley."
"Hey!" Matt suggested suddenly, gulping down a bite of éclair. "Maybe it's just the same name, and not the same man."
"Strange things do happen," Jenny Dansen told them. "We were just reading an article in a magazine-Todd and I, that is-about a man who survived two plane crashes and then died in a third. I mean, really, such things do happen. Chance, circumstances. I mean, obviously the planes weren't out to get him or anything."
"The Vikings believed that our futures were woven from the moment of our births," Danny said. "That's why they were so brave. Fear would avail them nothing. What was going to happen to them would happen to them. And then, of course, they would simply go on to Valhalla and live there in their heaven.
Not a bad concept, eh?"
"How old was the guy you met in Scotland, Jade? "Jenny asked.
"Twenty-one or twenty-two."
Renate picked up a piece of newspaper. "Big-time coincidence. This one happened to lose his head at the age of twenty-three."
"I can check into all of it," Rick said. "We don't need to stand here and speculate." They all stared at him.
He cleared his throat. "I meant later. We're have a party tonight, right?"
"Right. To success, in all its forms and guises."
Shanna came forward, carrying a crystal flute. "Right Champagne for the cop!"
"Why, thank you, Miss MacGregor."
"My pleasure. A toast! To Jade, and to Matt!"
"Hear. Hear!" Danny exclaimed.
"To thrills and chills and commercial success!" Jenny told Matt. "And to history and our own evil dead and the great cathedrals and churches where they attempted redemption!" she continued, lifting her glass to Matt and then to Jade.