Read an Excerpt
Jessica Fraser listened to the music, the cool jazz tones. She had closed her eyes, and despite the voices, the scraping of chairs and clinking of glasses, she could filter everything else out and hear the music. She wished she could just give way to it, forget the night, forget work and her upcoming flight--even the very good friends surrounding her. From the moment she had first come to New Orleans, years ago now, she had been in love not just with the city's sense of history and pulsing life, but with the sounds, especially the music. Tonight, for a few minutes, closing her eyes, she was alone. All she could feel was the music, as if it had entered her body and soul, and soothed her.
Of course, few people actually considered Bourbon Street to be soothing.
Yet even as she listened to the music, savoring the feeling of calm, a sense that all was not well startled her. She opened her eyes and looked around, plagued by a sudden and yet very disturbing feeling that she was being watched.
"Hey, did you hear me?" Maggie Canady asked, nudging Jessica.
"I'm sorry. What?"
"What you need to design," Maggie said, "is a bathing suit for people with a little more body than they want to show."
"Oh, Maggie, just get one of those tankini things," put in Stacey LeCroix, who helped Jessica with both her B and B and the designing she did, both sidelines, since Jessica's real livelihood came as a practicing psychologist. Stacey was young, cute and thin as a reed.
Maggie sighed. "Honey, a tankini doesn't do a thing in the world for too much rear and thunder thighs."
Jessica couldn't help but laugh as she looked across the table at SeanCanady, Maggie's husband, a tall, well-built man who combined a look of complete authority with a handsome, strikingly rugged face, an asset in his job as a cop. "Please tell your wife she doesn't have thunder thighs."
Sean pushed back a thatch of thick blond hair and looked at his wife. "Maggie, you don't have thunder thighs."
It was a curious complaint, coming from Maggie, who tended to be far more serious and spent her time worrying about the fate of the world. She had been much occupied in the past months dealing with problems in the parish, the "coming back," as they called it, of New Orleans. On top of that, she was a stunning woman with burnished auburn hair and hazel eyes that seemed to flash with gold. She was usually last person to feel insecure about her appearance. Maggie knew there were real evils in the world, but she tried not to worry about the possibilities--natural and otherwise--unless she had to.
Maggie sighed deeply. "Who knows? Maybe I just gained a bit more thigh with each of our three children. But I dream of a comfortable, good-looking bathing suit. Jessica, can't you come up with something? Hey, Jessica--are you with us?"
Jessica started; she had been looking around, certain she would find someone watching her. But no one seemed the least bit interested in her or her table.
Maybe it was just the odd restlessness that had settled over her before she had even reached the club tonight, a restlessness she hadn't been able to understand.
"Um...of course." Jessica said, forcing her attention back to the conversation. "If you want a bathing suit that covers more of you, I can certainly design one for you."
"It's going to make for a really weird tan line," Stacey warned.
Jessica looked at her assistant. Stacey was wonderful. She was a fireball of energy, just over five feet tall, but confident and even fiercely assertive at times--assertive, not aggressive, Stacey had once told her.
"This whole conversation is..." Jessica began, but caught herself before saying inane. She winced, wondering at the impatience she was feeling. It was as if she needed to be somewhere, doing something, but she had no idea where or what. Maybe she was just on edge about heading out to the conference.
Jessica turned to see a man heading toward them. Bobby Munro, Stacey's latest boyfriend, was one of Sean's fellow cops, tall, dark-haired and good looking.
He nodded at Sean. "Lieutenant."
"Bobby, I thought you had to work," Stacey said. "I do, private party, around the corner," Bobby said. "I just came to wish Jessica a good trip. And say hello to you, of course." He stood behind Stacey, bent down and kissed the top of her head, then looked at Jessica. "You be careful, huh?"
Jessica groaned. "It's just a conference," she said. She considered asking the others if they had been seized by any strange feelings, if they felt that eyes were secretively scrutinizing their every move, but forced herself not to. Sean was a cop, for God's sake. If he saw or even felt anything, he would certainly say so. She was just on edge because going to a conference in Romania wasn't exactly her usual thing.
Bobby waved and left, and once he was gone, Sean leaned forward again.
"You're awfully tense for someone heading off to a simple professional conference," he said. "Hell, Jessica...it's a foreign country."
"It's not a trip into the deepest jungle, Sean. Romania is very much a part of the modern world," she said.
"We should be going with you."
Jessica waved a dismissive hand in the air. "Don't be ridiculous."
"I--" Stacey began.
"I need you here to take care of things. I'm just going to a conference."
"Still," Sean observed, "you're awfully tense. Do you want a drink?"
"I'm not tense," Jessica informed him quickly. Yes, she realized, she was. She had practically snapped at Sean. She was tense--and she had no idea why. "I'm sorry. It's just that ..." She stared at her friends. She just couldn't sit still any longer. She stood suddenly, feigning a yawn. "Guys, excuse me, will you? I leave tomorrow, and I guess I'm a little on edge."
"I knew it." Sean said. "You are worried about your trip."
"No, just antsy, I guess. But I think I'll head home," Jessica said.
"I think I'll leave, too," Stacey said, rising. "It's too bad you're not going on a real vacation. You need one. You aren't yourself tonight. Maybe psychologists need psychologists more than anyone else. Maybe you should be taking a trip to a mountain cabin. This is just more pressure, and very strange. I mean, seriously, who ever heard of a psychologists' convention in Romania?"
"I'm an experienced traveler, so don't worry about me. This will be almost like a vacation, I'll do all kinds of wonderful touristy things," Jessica assured her.
"Will you go to Dracula's castle, walk in the mist-shrouded woods and listen for werewolves?" Maggie asked.
"Exactly," Jessica said, smiling. "I'll be back in a week."
Sean laughed. "I hardly think Jessica needs to worry about vampires and werewolves. For God's sake, she's from New Orleans, land of voodoo--and all the crazies who think they're zombies and vampires."
"He has a point," Jessica assured Maggie.
"I know, it's just that...I don't know. I just don't like it."
"I'm going, and it's going to be a great experience. I'm grateful you all care. I love you, and good night." Jessica hugged them all, then left, walking past the stage on her way out. She lifted a hand and waved to Big Jim, the trumpet player.
He was a huge man, his skin was like ebony, yet he played his instrument with a delicacy that belied his size. There was an angel's touch in his music. He also had great instincts about people and situations, perhaps handed down by his family, many of whom were known in the local voodoo community.
Like Sean and Maggie, he'd befriended her when she'd first moved to the parish. He looked at her now, shaking his head with a sigh. Then he quietly mouthed the words to her, "Be careful."
She mouthed in reply, "Always."
He still didn't look happy. But then, Big Jim's mother had been a voodoo priestess, and he was a definite believer that things weren't always what they seemed. She lowered her head, hiding the secret grin that teased her lips. Bless him. He was such a good guy. Just like a big brother.
Band member Barry Larson, lanky, in his thirties, a transplant from somewhere in the Midwest, covered his mike with his free hand. "Hey, gorgeous. You have a good trip and come home safe, okay?"
He smiled deeply. He was nice, a little bit geeky. She'd been afraid when she first met him that he'd had something of a crush on her, but he'd never said anything and over time had become a good friend.
She left the club, glad that the French Quarter was back to its busy, even a little bit crazy, self. It was just around eleven, a time when the streets were at their busiest. She quickly walked the three blocks to her house, then, at her gates, paused for a minute. There was a stirring in the air. Rain tomorrow, she thought, and looked up at the sky.
She didn't like what she saw. As she hurried toward the front door, she reminded herself that Gareth Miller was in the cottage at the rear, once the old smokehouse. Gareth was great. In return for a place to live, he kept an eye on the place, and on her and Stacey. He was a quiet man, kind of like a reticent hippie, with his slight slouch and longish, clean but unkempt hair.
He was another of the good friends she'd made here, and her home was safe in his keeping.
Even so, she paused again halfway up the walkway, staring heavenward. Again the sense of urgency assailed her, a feeling that she needed to be moving quickly.
Maybe they're right. Maybe I do need a real vacation, she thought. Or maybe I'm just losing my mind.
She almost laughed aloud at the idea of a vacation when she was feeling this terrible need to hurry, to get ahead of something....
Too bad. There was nothing she could do about it now. The plane would leave the next day, and she would be on it.