The tinkling of the shop bell interrupted our conversation.
“Excuse me,” Cassandra said.
“I need to go anyway.
I tried to return the gris-gris, but she wouldn’t take it.
“That’s for you.”
“I don’t think so.”
“It’ll protect you against the mojo from the flower.”
“Sure it will.”
She tilted her head. “What can it hurt?”
“Depends on what you put in here. Bats’ wings? Puppy dog tails? I’m allergic.”
Cassandra laughed. “Nothing so ominous. Some herbs, red pepper. Dust from the grave of a believer.”
I made a face.
“Kidding,” she said. “I also put in a little something to keep the beasts of the swamp away.”
“Right. That oughta work.” Along with a gun and a baseball bat.
“If you’re going to be working in the swamp, I doubt you’ll want the alligators hanging around.”
I shoved the gris-gris into my pocket.
“In the old days, people placed charms in their left shoes,” Cassandra continued, “but the old days are the reason a lot of folks wound up lame.”
“I can’t imagine why.”
“Just keep the gris-gris on you by day and under your pillow by night. Make sure you take it out before the maid sees. Some tend to get a little freaked if they find them.”
I couldn’t tell if she was teasing or not. Probably not.
“Let me know how things work out,” she said. “I enjoyed talking to you.”
I’d enjoyed talking to her, too. I didn’t have many friends. Hell, I didn’t have any. Once I’d found Simon, I’d let the few I had drift away. I was in a bizarre profession, which didn’t lend itself to camaraderie. I disappeared at the ring of the phone, never knew when I’d come back, forgot lunch dates, could care less about movies. And the other cryptozoologists…
Well, they’d as soon steal your Loch Ness Monster as look at you.
Arriving back at the hotel, I discovered the maid had cleaned my room and departed. I dropped my clothes on the floor, left a request for a wake-up call for an hour before dusk, then shoved the gris-gris beneath my pillow.
After the dream I’d had last night… Well, as Cassandra said – couldn’t hurt.
I slept like the dead, waking with a yelp when the phone shrilled next to my ear. A recorded voice reminded me of my wake-up call.
No gifts on the bed. My gris-gris was right where I’d left it. Yay.
I got dressed, pocketed the charm, grabbed my camera, my cell phone, and a tote bag to put them in, then went to meet Charlie.
He was waiting when I pulled up at the dock. The sun cast orange rays through the trees and across his face. I blinked. For an instant the light had taken on the shade of fresh blood.
I pushed aside the disturbing thought. I was the moon goddess, not a prophet, if I believed Cassandra’s name-dropping. But what did a moon goddess do? I probably didn’t want to know.
The gris-gris weighed heavily in my pocket, and I was tempted to throw the talisman into the drink. But I didn’t want Charlie to see it. The way he’d behaved this afternoon at the mansion, anything weird might spook him away for good.
“Ready?” he asked.
In lieu of an answer, I climbed into the boat, and we headed off. Night settled over us like a cool velvet curtain. The stars came out, and the crescent moon rose.
Charlie turned on the spotlight attached to the front of the boat, and I stared, transfixed, at what seemed like a hundred shining orbs in the water.
“Gators,” he said. “They like the dark.”
In the daytime it was easy to believe the alligators were slow and unthreatening. Not very many of them out here at all. But in the night, surrounded by their glowing eyes, every one of which seemed to stare directly at me, they seemed very threatening indeed. I longed to be back on solid ground.
“Where are we going?” I asked.
“Thought you wanted to see the place where the body was found.”
Charlie pointed straight ahead. “Right there.”
“Who discovered it?”
“You?” I stared at him incredulously. “You said you hadn’t seen the wolf.”
“Friend of mine did.”
“So it didn’t necessarily kill the man.”
“Guy’s throat was torn. Paw prints all around him.”
“Not a coyote?”
“Coyotes are scavengers and cowards. They wouldn’t kill a man.”
“Neither would a wolf.”
Charlie shrugged. “Me and my friend was huntin’ nutrias, found the body. I stayed, while he looked around. Said he saw a wolf disappearing into the tall grass.”
“He’s sure he saw a wolf?”
“Huge, black, big head, long legs. He shot it, but the thing disappeared.”
“He’s sure he hit something?”
“Found a bit of blood. Nothin’else.” :
“Isn’t it illegal to shoot a wolf ?”
The species was still endangered in some areas, threatened or protected in others, though their numbers had increased sufficiently in a few northern states for them to be delisted. In other words, wolves could be killed by certain people with good cause, not by any old person whenever they felt like it.
“No law around here like that,” Charlie said. “Ain’t no wolves.”
I went silent, thinking, as Charlie pointed the boat at the shore. “I’d like to get a peek at that body.”
I didn’t realize I’d spoken out loud until Charlie an- swered. “Already in the crypt, I’m sure.”
“Whole city’s below sea level.”
Ah, the singular burial practices of New Orleans. While I wasn’t an expert, I had read an entire guidebook that I’d bought at O’Hare before getting on the plane.
For hundreds of years, citizens of the Crescent City stacked their dead on shelves inside brick monuments known as ovens. After a year and a day, the body was decomposed enough to dump into a well with all the others who had gone before, making room for the next entrant on the assembly line of death.
Most people choose to be buried in a family crypt. Better to spend eternity mixed with Gramma than the psycho next door.
I was pulled from my thoughts when the boat bumped against the embankment.
“You stay here,” Charlie said. “I’m gonna clear the gators out of the way.”
“Swell.” I contemplated the staring eyes. “What if one of them wants to climb aboard?”
My hand crept to the pocket that held my gris-gris. I sure hoped the thing worked, and wasn’t that a change in attitude?
“I doubt they could, but – ” He leaned over, flicked the catch on the cabinet beneath his seat, and pulled out a handgun. “There ye go.”
Picking up a bat, he strode into the night.
The weight of the gun felt good in my hand. Not only had I taken self-defense classes, but I’d learned how to fire both a rifle and a handgun. I wasn’t half-bad.
Water lapped against the boat in a rhythm that would have been peaceful if it weren’t for the bobbing army of eyes. I began to feel chilled, and it wasn’t lack of the sun. Something was watching me again.
I glanced at the tributary. A lot of somethings.
A rustle from the bank made me start. “Charlie?”
I waited, but Charlie didn’t appear.
“Charlie?” I called a little louder, startling the alligators that had swum in close.
The brush seemed to be waving in a nonexistent breeze. I crept to the front of the boat and shifted the spotlight.
The glare blazed across the top of the grass, splashed off the crooked limbs of the cypress trees, and revealed an indentation in the flora, as if a large body was moving steadily toward…
His answer was a scream, a gurgle, then silence.
I jumped out of the boat, not even thinking about the alligators, not even caring. At least I remembered the gun.
The spotlight lit my way as I headed in the direction of the scream. Charlie must have gotten rid of all the alligators in the vicinity, unless they’d smelled my gris- ; gris, or maybe they’d slithered back into the water to avoid…
Whatever the hell had come after Charlie.
I paused, listened, caught a faint rumble to my left Tightening my fingers around the gun, I barreled through the overgrowth, shouting Charlie’s name.
Some animals will run if you startle them. Then again, some won’t
I’d come far enough that the light from the boat was fading. When I burst through a tangle of weeds and into a small clearing, I had to squint to see. Or maybe I just had to squint because I couldn’t believe my eyes.
Charlie was on the ground. Dead from the appearance of the throat wound. A man knelt next to him, fingers pressed to Charlie’s neck. At first I thought he’d been attacked, too.
Blood all over a bare chest will give that impression.
But with that much blood, I should see a gap, a tear, a great big hole. He definitely shouldn’t have been able to stand, to move, to walk toward me. I panicked and lifted the gun.
“Stop.” My voice sounded thick, as if I were speaking through swamp water.
The man kept coming – fast – his long, dark hair flying around his face, giving me tantalizing glimpses of a nose, a chin, teeth. He snatched the pistol, and the bronze bracelet on his wrist shimmered as he tossed the weapon aside. I’d never flicked off the safety, but he didn’t know that.
Then he shook back his hair, and I couldn’t think beyond the sight of the face I’d seen twice – in the picture on the wall of the Ruelle Mansion and in my erotic dream of the night before.
“You’re – “
I meant to say dead, but the word froze on my tongue when he grabbed me.
Solid, warm, real. He wasn’t a ghost.
So what in hell was he?