Jessie Kilpatrick was beginning to regret her plan. It’d been a great idea: drag her hermit of a sister out on a sultry May night to take a stroll around the French Quarter. Maybe even have some fun together, like it used to be. Anything would be better than watching Katarina curl up in her bed, nose deep in another book of ghost stories. Unfortunately her identical twin wasn’t playing along.
“Can we go home now?” Kat asked, her tone dangerously close to a whine. “You know I don’t like Bourbon Street. It’s too weird.”
Weird? That was saying something coming from a girl who led ghost tours on New Orleans’ streets and into its spookiest cemeteries, during which Kat would regale the rapt tourists with tales about Voodoo queens, zombies, black curses and the spirits of dead pirates.
“Come on, it’s early,” Jessie said. “Let’s stay a bit longer.”
Kat wasn’t listening to her now, staring at nothing, her forehead wrinkled as if in pain.
“You okay?” No reply.
She’s zoning again. She knows that creeps me out.
“Let’s see if we can grab a table at Johnny W’s up on the gallery,” Jessie urged, hoping to bring her sis back to reality. “We can split a burger and fries. I’ve got my fake ID. We can get some beer and—”
“No!” Kat said, exhibiting a rare flash of anger. “No on the drinking. No on being down here.”
“Because of them, right?” Jessie asked.
The “them” being ghosts, which Kat claimed she could see. It hadn’t always been that way: It was only after Hurricane Katrina that her sister had begun to change. Their mom had said it was to be expected after all that had happened during the storm: the loss of their father, watching as New Orleans reeled from the horror of the dead, the maimed and the abandoned. In fact, Kat had grown even quieter, more withdrawn in the two months since Ian, their brother, went missing.
Now it was as if Kat and Jessie were no longer identical twins. Her sister had dyed her hair blue-black and went uber Goth with her clothing. Black, with occasionally a bit of dark blue. An odd choice for New Orleans’ steamy summer weather.
Jessie’s hair was still caramel brown, currently pulled back in a ponytail to keep it out of her face. Jeans or shorts were her thing, along with colorful T-shirts, preferably those with statements like Chicken Little Was Right. As Jessie saw it, black was for mourning.
She loved being with people, loved hanging out, talking and dancing. She’d gone through three boyfriends in her senior year because she was easily bored. Kat? Not a steady guy since eleventh grade, and that one was only because she was seriously into the dude’s pet iguanas.
Kat rubbed her temples as if she had a headache, frowning. “I only came along because of you. It hurts to be here.”
Hurts? That was new. Jessie rolled her eyes. “You’re going drama queen on me.”
“No, I’m not,” her sister replied, steel in her voice now. When a tourist bumped into her, she stepped to the side to allow him to pass. “Can’t you feel how much it’s changing?”
Jessie turned to survey the heart of New Orleans, trying to picture it through Kat’s eyes. It didn’t work. Bourbon Street was Ground Zero for strange behavior in this city. At a little past nine-thirty, it already brimmed with bodies, mostly inebriated tourists. Go a block or two either way and it was quieter, but this street was considered the heart of New Orleans.
Most locals avoided this stretch of real estate on a Saturday night, but not Jessie. It was pure sensory overload. As you walked along it alternated between hot and humid to icy cold when you stepped in front of the open doors, all because the restaurant and bar owners blasted their air conditioning to compensate.
Jessie took a deep inhalation of the tantalizing scent of fried fish that wafted out of one establishment, followed by the yeasty smell of beer at another. Music flowed out of the bars as well—country, rock, blues or jazz. It was as if Bourbon Street didn’t know what it wanted to be, so it was trying to be everything at once.
“Nothing’s different,” Jessie said. “Same weird. I don’t know why it’s bothering you so much.”
The neon signs sent shafts of colored light along the rain-dampened pavement as couples wandered along, some toting alcohol, others just staring into the various bars, restaurants and sex shops. A brass quintet fired up a blaring version of “When the Saints Go Marchin’ In,” which had Jessie humming along.
She gazed up at the closest gallery where people sipped their drinks and watched the stream of humanity below. One woman pointed and laughed when a hairy dude on inline skates rolled along the street. He wore a grass skirt, two coconut shells for a bra, and a long purple wig. His wiry gray mustache somehow seemed to fit.
“You really can’t feel it, not at all?” Kat said, gesturing around her.
“No, to me it’s just home.”
New Orleans in all its gaudy glory.
There was always a vibrancy here, a pulse of life echoing around them, a visceral electric buzz Jessie could feel deep in her veins. It was weird, but she got high off it, a triple Grande espresso with a side order of an adrenaline rush. Something she could never quite explain to her sister. She’d tried and failed. Repeatedly.
Kat squinted now, as if her headache was growing worse. “It feels different. More . . . dark. The ghosts are uneasy and they only get that way when something bad is going to happen.”
A spectral early warning system?
Jessie gave in. “Okay, let’s go home.”
“Look, maybe I’m wrong. I don’t know. You stay and do whatever it is you do down here. I’ll go.”
“Yeah. But be home before Allie or you’ll get another lecture,” Kat said, acting more like their aunt, the cop, than someone who had just turned twenty. Then she must have realized how she sounded. “Look, I’m sorry I’m a bummer.”
Bummer? No, you’re way worse than that. Which Jessie didn’t dare say or her sister would go into pout mode and stay there for a day or two.
“I just worry about you,” Jessie said. “You’re so . . . ” She couldn’t find the right word, at least not one that wouldn’t piss off her sister.
“Reclusive, introverted?” Kat offered, doing her human thesaurus thing.
“Yeah, all those. I don’t want you to become some lonely old lady with a hundred cats, you know?” She caught hold of her Kat’s chilly hand and squeezed it. “I just want you happy, and I don’t think you are right now.” Because I’m not.
Her sister looked away, confirmation that Jessie was closer to the truth than either of them liked. “I just want . . . ” Kat began, then shook her head. “Never mind. It’s okay.”
No, it’s not. What hurt more was that Jessie didn’t know how to make it right.
“I wish Dad was still alive and I want Mom to get better, be more like her old self.”
“And we both want Ian back,” Kat replied. “I miss him so much.”
Jessie found her eyes clouding at the mention of their brother. “I miss him too. If Ian’s alive, where the hell is he? Why hasn’t he called us?”
Kat shook her head. “Maybe someday we’ll know the truth.”
Not until they find his bones at the bottom of Irish Bayou.
While they walked back down the street, Jessie and Kat fell silent for a couple of blocks, each caught up in their own thoughts. As kids they’d always chattered back and forth, finishing each other’s sentences. They’d dressed alike, just to mess with other peoples’ heads. It was fun. Their triplet, Ian, had played along—the Third Musketeer, they’d called him.
It had all changed two months before when the car containing their mother, brother and their dog, had plunged into Irish Bayou during a heavy spring thunderstorm. Their mom had been badly injured and was now recuperating in a rehabilitation facility in Kenner. The doctors said her mind might never be the same.
Ian had disappeared, as in no trace of him. The divers had done their best to find him once the storm had passed, but he hadn’t been in the car when they’d winched it out of the water. With the heavy rains, the current could have easily pulled the body away from the crash site. As one of the cops had so callously observed, “There’s gators in there. I wouldn’t put too much stock in finding anythin’ left.”
“He’s alive,” Kat murmured, eyes wider now. “He feels closer now.”
Please God, don’t let her be wrong.
“You guys always kinda creeped me out,” Jessie admitted. “I don’t know how you could get into each other’s heads like that. I mean, if it was you and me, sure. That’s a twin thing. But Ian isn’t identical to either of us. How could you two have such a connection?”
Kat shrugged. “Always did. I’m not the only one who thinks he’s alive. Even Mom says he is.”
Jessie rolled her eyes. “Our dear mother was talking to a grapefruit during breakfast the other day and acted like it talked back. You know what she’s like now.”
“I know,” Kat said quietly.
“But, ah . . . she’s better,” Jessie added. “I mean, she remembers us now. That’s good, right?”
A curt nod was the response.
They parted company at St. Peter Street and Kat headed toward the family bookshop and their home above the shop. It was difficult for Jessie to let her go on her own—that came from losing Ian—the fear that somehow her other sibling would be taken from her. She waited until Kat vanished from site, then she headed to Johnny White’s. A few minutes later a text arrived from her sister.
HOME. STOP WORRYING
“Not a chance.”
Jessie paused at the doorway to a bar, spending a few moments listening to a smoky jazz trio, then wandered on. She and Kat had just turned twenty, a birthday made bittersweet as their brother wasn’t around to share it. There’d been no cake, no celebration. No joy.
After the wreck, they’d dropped out of their second year in college. There was no other option, what with their mother so badly injured. Though they both had enrolled for the fall semester, Jessie knew she wouldn’t be attending.
Too soon. Not until we know about Ian.
Her sister had disagreed and there’d been some heated arguments about the issue. Arguments that would continue until Kat understood how things really were, and that it wasn’t going to be Jessie who went back to school. At least not for a while.
As she grew near to Johnny White’s, she spied a former high school classmate, now a student at Tulane University. Lisa Timmons was easy to spot: She was tall and her blond hair hung to her waist, supermodel straight, as if the gods had gifted it to her just to annoy the lesser mortals. It did annoy Jessie, whose hair always turned unruly in New Orleans’ unrelenting humidity. Then she’d learned Lisa spent a crap ton of money on some special treatment to make it look like that, and had to spend even more every six months to keep it that way.
Even from a distance, Lisa didn’t look happy, not with that cocked hip and the “You’re not listening to me” expression she adopted whenever she wasn’t getting her way. They might be friends, but they weren’t close because it was All Lisa, All the Time.
She was arguing with a guy, probably the latest boyfriend. All through high school Lisa had attracted boys like mushy apples did fruit flies, and cycled through them every few months or so. This one was as tall as her, about five eleven, with broad shoulders and dark hair that curled along the open collar of his blue shirt. He wore a pair of faded blue jeans that were shiny at the knees. A denim jacket hung off Lisa’s shoulders, covering her skimpy tank top.
As Jessie drew near, she heard her say, “Don’t be like this.”
The young man frowned. “I should have known you’d be just like the rest of them.”
“Listen to you! All rich and famous, but you don’t give a damn about anyone else.”
Rich and famous? Jessie slowed her pace, taking another long look at the guy. Smoky brown eyes set off his face, moving it from every day to unique. Still, he didn’t ding her “Ohmigod, that’s so-and-so” meter.
“I ask for one little thing and you get pissed at me. Is it because I wouldn’t sleep with you?” Lisa demanded.
Okay, that’s awkward. Jessie actually felt bad for this dude.
The guy’s face colored, his posture tensing. “That wouldn’t have made a damn bit of difference. No way am I doing what you want. Just drop it!”
Knowing now wasn’t the best time to say hi, Jessie paused long enough for someone to move out of the way on the sidewalk, then stepped around the couple. Lisa’s guy suddenly shifted to the right, and a second later Jessie was hit full on with a cupful of cola and ice, courtesy of her outraged buddy.
“Wow. Great aim. I’m impressed.” the guy said, smirking.
“Really? Was that necessary?” Jessie called out, dripping liquid in all directions.
Lisa stared at her. “Oh, Jessie, I’m sorry. I didn’t see you. I was aiming at this piece of . . . crap,” she said, glowering at the young man as if it’d been his fault. “We’re done, Sayer. Hit the road.”
“Works for me,” the guy replied. “Jacket?”
Lisa slung it at him. “Go to hell.”
“You first, babe,” he said. After he delivered a blistering glare at Jessie, he stalked off into the crowd.
Jerk. “What was all that about?” Jessie asked.
“Nothing . . . well, I need to know the truth about something and I thought Sayer would help me. Obviously not.”
So you drowned me because you didn’t get your way? Of course you did.
Lisa’s phone pinged and she scrolled through the message. “All right!” she crowed, smiling now. “I got what I needed, no thanks to that dick. Look, I gotta go. Call me, okay?” Then she scurried off into the crowd while Jessie drip dried in the New Orleans’ heat.
“Yeah, thanks, glad I could be part of your little psychodrama there.”
Jessie carefully wiped her face with a tissue, hoping her mascara hadn’t done a runner. The evening was shot. No way could she hang around looking like she’d bathed in cola as it was already becoming sticky.
As she turned to go home, someone brushed by her, moving quickly toward the business district, like they were following Lisa. Jessie found herself shivering uncontrollably for a few seconds, as if Death himself had just walked past her.
She’d felt that way two other times in her life, when her dad had died, and the night of the car wreck. Coupled with Kat’s premonitions, Jessie swore she felt the darkness increase, despite the bright lights and the drunken laughter.
Now I’m going crazy too.
After the inadvertent baptism in soda—and having to explain to her sister exactly how that had happened—Jessie needed to escape. Despite Kat’s plea that she stay home, she took a quick shower, then hopped in the family car and headed out of the city. It was late, just after ten, but if she was lucky, she could make the trip and still be home before midnight. She was too old for a curfew, but she respected her aunt’s paranoia. As a New Orleans’ street cop who saw some really bad stuff go down late at night, Allie didn’t want her nieces to be part of that.
By the time Jessie reached Highway 90 northeast of the city, a brief rain squall had run its course, now just a misty drizzle. As she cut off onto Highway 11, the Toyota’s wipers dragged across the windshield, revealing the pavement in brief patches. She usually had the radio on, but she’d purposely left it silent to concentrate because of the rain. Her hands gripped the steering wheel so tightly they ached. They always did when she drove here. The pain kept her focused, kept her mind from playing games.
Nearly every night for the last two months she’d made the trip along this two-lane road, slowly driving past where the accident had occurred. If the traffic was light, she’d pause and leave flowers behind. Coming here during the day didn’t feel right, and Kat didn’t want to join her, so she’d made the pilgrimages into the dark Louisiana countryside on her own. Jessie never really understood the need she felt to visit this place. It was dangerous out here. What if something happened? What if she landed in the water and drowned like Ian?
My. Brother. Is. Not. Dead.
That had been her mantra ever since the call from the parish police, telling them of the accident. It was why she drove along the same stretch of water, praying for a miracle.
Kat insisted this was an irrational obsession. Her sister didn’t understand. Once Jessie stopped making this journey, Ian really would be gone. This was her way of keeping him, and her hope, alive, feeding the dream that had her brother materialize out of the darkness like nothing had ever happened.
But deep down, Jessie feared that dream was being suffocated with each passing day. Soon it would no longer have the oxygen needed to survive, probably like Ian when the car had sunk deep into the brackish water.
I’m so messed up.
As she drove closer to the accident site, Jessie murmured a prayer. If only God would hear her, just once. Movement on the road ahead caught her notice, probably a raccoon or an alligator. She sucked in a sharp breath when a dark figure appeared in the glare of the headlights. Moving too fast, she had to swerve to miss him. The car instantly rebelled, going into a long skid on the wet pavement.
Time slowed as the vehicle edged toward the rain-swollen marsh, toward where her brother’s bones might rest. Finally the car lurched to a stop at an angle across the two lanes. Heart pounding and her breath coming in short pants, Jessie laid her head on top of her hands clenched around the steering wheel. Her stomach rolled over, threatening to eject its contents. Swallowing heavily, she slowly raised her head to find she sat in the middle of the two-lane road, the perfect place to get flattened if another driver wasn’t paying attention.
Unwilling to turn around in the dark, not with water on either side, she eased the car to the shoulder on the proper side of the road, and put it in Park with a shaking hand. Flicking on the emergency flashers, only then did her eyes go in search of the person she’d nearly hit.
As if she’d conjured him out of her dreams, a form moved out of the darkness and into the headlights.
“Ian?” she whispered. The figure was about her brother’s height, tall and leggy, and clothed in a dark denim jacket, no doubt to thwart the mosquitoes. He staggered, as if disoriented.
“Oh, God.” Jessie flew out of the car, bashing her elbow on the door. “Ian?” she cried.
As she ran forward, he looked up and she saw his face clearly in the lights. Hope flipped to fury as she skidded to a halt on the wet pavement. It wasn’t her brother. No, it was Lisa’s boyfriend, the guy from Bourbon Street.
“You have got to be kidding me!” she shouted, her blood boiling. She marched toward him. “You stupid moron! What are you doing out here?”
He blinked at her, confused. “Getting drunk. What does it look like?” he replied, holding up a six-pack of beer with his other hand, three of which were already gone. Then he blinked again, this time recognizing her. “What are you doing here?”
“Trying not to run over your stupid ass, what do you think?”
Jessie took a long breath to hold back the tears. For the barest of moments she’d thought her prayers had come true.
Not tonight. Maybe not ever.
The sound of chorusing frogs grew louder around them. The marsh had a strong, sulfur stench and the mosquitoes buzzed her face unmercifully, eager for fresh blood. A low rumbling noise indicated there was a gator nearby.
Jessie put her hands on her hips. “I could have killed you.”
The young man shrugged. “Whatever.” He stumbled toward her. When he grew closer, he veered toward the other side of the car, as if being close to another human was painful.
“You’re wasted,” she said.
“No, but I’m getting there.”
He set his cans of cheap beer on the hood, then heaved the empty into the water. With much effort, he freed a full can from the plastic holder.
“Does Lisa know you’re out here?” Jessie asked.
He popped the top on the brew. “Why the hell would she care? She’s just another skank. I’m better off rotting in this bayou than—”
“Don’t say that!” Jessie shouted, slamming a fist down on the car hood. “Don’t ever say that.”
He blinked at her. “Hey, chill.”
Jessie wrapped her arms around her body, trying to extinguish the images roiling in her mind now.
“Someone would miss you,” she said, her voice quaking. “Someone would wonder how you got hurt . . . how you . . . died.”
“No, you’re wrong. No one would miss me,” he said, shaking his head.
“I would,” she said defiantly.
He looked at her, frowning. “Why? You don’t even know me.”
“Doesn’t mean I wouldn’t care.”
He looked down the highway, squinting. “There’s another car coming. You need to get moving or you’re going to be the one who’s dead.”
He wasn’t lying: There were headlights in the distance. “You want a ride back to town?”
“No. Just want to be left alone.” He took a few steps, then halted. “I’m Sayer . . . Arceneaux. The last name is spelled with an ‘x’”. He stifled a burp. “A-r-c-e-n,” he paused, “e-a-u-x. Make sure they get it right in the obituary, okay?”
“The what?” she blurted.
Then the guy whose last name ended in an “x” headed for the other side of the road, swigging his beer as he walked. Jessie returned to her car and waited as the other vehicle passed by. To her relief, the drunken fool didn’t jump in front of it.
“I don’t care if you are an idiot,” she muttered to herself. “No way I’m leaving you out here on your own.”
It took her a while to find a place to make a U-turn, then she headed back toward Lisa’s ex, passing two cars along the way. Neither had bothered to stop for him. When Jessie caught up with him, she slowed the car to a crawl, realizing he had something in his hands.
What are you doing?
Sayer straightened up now, holding a big turtle. He walked it to the water’s edge, away from the road, then set it down. It snapped at him as he pushed it into the bayou with a foot. As if realizing he was being watched, he turned and stared at her now, the remaining beers still hanging from one hand. Jessie clicked on the flashers again, and rolled down the passenger side window.
“The offer of a ride is still open,” she called out. “Even if you are a royal jerkface.”
As he wiped his hands on his jeans, Sayer scowled. “Go away,” he said. “I just want to be left the hell alone.”
“You could die out here.”
“Works for me.”
That does it. Jessie slammed on the brakes, put the car in Park and launched out the door. Pointing at him over the roof, she shouted, “No way! You get in this car or I’ll call the cops on you. They’d just love busting your ass.”
His eyes narrowed. “You wouldn’t dare.”
“Yeah, I would. This pity party of yours has gone on long enough. Get in the damned car.”
He gaped at her. “Who the hell do you think you are?”
“The name’s Jessie. Looks like I’m your guardian angel tonight.” He didn’t move. “Get. In. The. Car. Now!”
When he still didn’t move, she grabbed her cell phone from off the seat and began punching in numbers, like she was calling the police. Because she would.
“All right, dammit.” A round of creative swearing erupted, then Sayer swung open the passenger door.
“Lose the beer,” she ordered, ending the fake call. “I do not want to spend the night in jail. My aunt, the cop, would skin me alive.”
More swearing, but the cans went flying into the water. Sayer slid into the Toyota and slammed the door with great force. Jessie got into the car, shaking so hard it was difficult to click the seat belt. She pointedly waited until her passenger had done the same. He smelled of marsh, cheap beer and aftershave, a strange combination.
“Thank you,” she said, just to piss him off.
Sayer glowered at her. “You’re as crazy as I am. I could be some pervert and you just let me in your car. You can’t go around doing stupid stuff like this. It’s not safe.”
The car picked up speed. “Oh, stupid stuff like drunk-walking on a dark road in the rain?”
“What you’re doing is dangerous,” he insisted.
Jessie eyed him for a second before turning her attention back to the road. “You’re right. I won’t do it again.”
He huffed. “Good.”
“Here’s where you’re supposed to say you won’t either.”
“I don’t give promises I don’t intend to keep.”
God, you’re stubborn. “If this is about Lisa, you just need to get over her. She goes through boyfriends like crazy.”
“It’s not just about her. It’s . . . more complicated than that. And not your problem.”
“It would have been if I’d hit you. I’d see your face in my nightmares for the rest of my life.”
Sayer looked over at her, surprised. “I didn’t think of that.”
“Clearly. Why was Lisa so mad at you?”
Sayer’s body sagged as if he was exhausted. “She wanted me to get some information for her. She thought since I was Harmond Arceneaux’s kid, it’d be easy. I told her no.”
Arceneaux. This time the name clicked. “Your dad the guy that owns the fertility clinic or the attorney who was up on bribery charges last year?”
“Attorney. Those charges were dropped,” he said tersely.
“Okay. How’d you get way out here?”
“I hitchhiked. Bought the beer at a bait shop.”
Jessie caught sight of a nutria ambling its way across the road in front of them. “Giant freakin’ rats. I hate those things,” she said. Then she remembered what Sayer had been doing right before she’d picked him up. “You moved that turtle off the road so it wouldn’t get squashed.”
What’s with this guy? Jessie growled under her breath. “Fine.” You save turtles, I save jerks.
Her passenger stared out the window, his jaw clenched while Jessie concentrated on her driving. He’d been right—picking him up had been totally insane. But at least he was safe for tonight.
This guy wasn’t her problem. Or at least Jessie was trying to convince herself of that. Something about Sayer got to her, and it wasn’t because she’d found him near where Ian had disappeared. His odd behavior told her there was more going on with him than a fight with his girlfriend.
Though it was getting late, Jessie wasn’t going to drop him off on some street corner, fearing he might just hitch another ride back to the bayou. After much prodding, Sayer finally gave her directions to his house and, no surprise, it was in the Garden District, the old money part of New Orleans. As she pulled up to the curb in front of a tall, bay-front Italianate home, she guessed that the house dated from before the Civil War, maybe the early 1860s. It sat in the middle of the block like a queen, and all the other houses were mere attendants.
“Nice place. Apparently those bribes are paying off,” she said.
Sayer glared at her. He climbed out of the car and was about to slam the door when she called out, “A thanks for the ride would be nice.”
He eyed her, his brows furrowed in thought. “Yeah. Thanks. For nothing.”
“Stay alive, Sayer Arceneaux with an ‘x’. Trust me, somebody loves you, even if you are a totally selfish butthead.”
“Go away,” he said, then slammed the door.
“Consider me gone.”
(c) 2016 Jana Oliver
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