The bayou killed.
But it also gave life. And it was home.
As was the covens.
They thrived in the swampland, creating their black magic just as they would tonight as he began his own private kingdom.
The magic circle had been formed. The mandrake root had been pulled, a task itself that had put him at risk for death. But he had withstood the maddening shriek as he’d confiscated the plant, knowing the importance of it for his ritual.
At sixteen, he was finally a man.
He studied the thirteen-year-old girls as they were brought before him, the flames from the open fire illuminating their pale, frightened faces. They stood shivering in thin white virginal dresses, their heads bowed in fear, yet sublimation. Symbolic, yes. But the translucent cotton fabric also offered a reprieve from the vicious heat of the bayou and teased him with a sneak peak at the supple bodies that lay beneath. Two blond girls studied him as if he had not earned the right to be a man.
But he had.
Just as the full moon glowed, hypnotic, beckoning the animals to prowl, the wild to hunt, the men to mate. Just as the drums of Mardi Gras pounded out the ancient voodoo priestess spells.
It was time for the passage.
And he could choose among the girls offered.
Automatically one stood out. He’d watched her for ages. Known he wanted her. Her eyes haunted him.
Her hair flamed as red as the sunset on the deep murky Mississippi River. Her temper matched it fiercely.
She was a bad girl. Defiant. Adversarial. A fighter.
One who needed to be broken.
He met her gaze and held it, uncertainty gnawing at him like the mosquitoes clawing at his bare legs. He could never please his father. Wasn’t tough enough. Big enough. Enough of a fighter. The other boys laughed at his artwork. Called him a sissy and other vile names.
Would he be man enough for Adrianna?
Yes, he had spread the mandrake root oil on his body, inhaled the intoxicating aroma, grateful the aphrodisiac would entice Adrianna to succumb to his wishes. She just had to get near him…
A frog croaked from the depths of the backwoods. An alligator lay stone still, searching for his own prey, waiting, watching, ready to pounce. The mysteries of the wild surrounded him, the scent of jasmine, marshy land, danger. Spanish moss draped the cypress trees along the swampland with gnarled witch-like fingers, hiding its secrets, ready to snatch another lost soul to the tangled wild vines and brush of the backwoods. Yet honeysuckle and verbena sweetened the air.
“Now, son.” His father, tall and commanding, placed his hand on his shoulder. “You have chosen the first, the one to begin your kingdom?”
“Adrianna,” he said, his palms sweating. Drums pounded as the masked musicians and the clan danced around the fire. The witchdoctor screeched his secret chant. Sobek had to be pacified tonight.
“Ahh, the feisty one. The one with the witch’s eyes.” An odd expression replaced his smile. “She would be the perfect sacrifice to the Crocodilian gods.”
He trembled at the thought. “No, father. I want to keep her for myself.”
“No, son. She has the evil in her just like her mother.”
His father gestured toward Mrs. Small, a frail woman who’d been drugged since her arrival. His father had found her on Bourbon Street and brought her and her daughter to safety with the clan. The tenth woman his father had added to his own kingdom.
Now he knew his father’s true reason.
Adrianna’s mother brushed her daughter’s hair from her cheek in a motherly gesture, then suddenly pushed her forward. Did she know the extinct of her offering?
His father jerked her up beside him, and the voodoo priestess doused her with oil and whispered a spell of love and fertility.
Adrianna’s icy look chilled his blood as if she had silently cast a death spell upon him. Maybe she was a secret member of one of the covens, a witch who had enticed him for her own sick motives. Or maybe she was born of the swamp devil herself. After all, no one knew who her father’s identity.
The clan surrounded them, chanting and clapping to the beat of the drums, urging them to start the celebration into adulthood. Snakes hissed and spewed venom from the depths of the fiery pit. The crude carvings of the crocodile surrounded them. The battle between good and evil.
He reached for Adrianna, the special necklace he’d crafted for her dangling in his other hand. His gift — the serpent swallowing its tail — it symbolized the great work of alchemy, the transformation into a higher form already inherent within it. That was his gift for Adrianna. If evil possessed her, he would cure her of it. Then he could save her.
But she screamed in protest, then threw the necklace into the dirt and spit at him. His father slapped her, and she wrenched free, grabbed a rifle near the fire, raised it and a gunshot blasted the air. The bullet slammed into his father’s chest and sent his body flying backward. Shouts and cries erupted. He went numb at the sight of the blood spilling from his father’s crumpled body. Like a scarlet river, it ran down his white shirt and splattered onto the ground.
“I could never love you,” Adrianna screamed at him. “You can’t make me.”
Then she turned and ran into the bowels of the bayou. Like predators ready to swallow her, the weeping willows and gnarled branches of the oaks and cypress trees captured her into the black abyss.
Chaos erupted. The witch doctor knelt to tend to his father. His father’s wives surrounded him, as did the rest of the clan.
“He’s dying,” someone whispered frantically.
The still waters of the bayou that had lain eerily quiet mere seconds ago, churned to life. The gators’ yellow eyes pierced the blackness, searching for prey. One crocodile shot forward, his teeth gnashing. Adrianna had crossed into the unknown part of the swampland where danger awaited.
The bayou took lives. The animals, the plants, the heat, it was relentless. She didn’t even have water. And the snakes and alligators lay waiting for their next meal. Then there was the fabled swamp devil who met at Devil’s Corner. He would eat her alive.
There was no way she would survive the night.
He knotted his hands into fists. After what she’d done, she didn’t deserve to live. She deserved to be punished. To suffer the bayou.
One of the men shouted that they had to find the girl murderer. He ran for a pirogue to take on the river to search for her.
Although if the swamp devil or the gators got her first, there would be nothing left to bury, nothing but mutilated flesh, bones and tissue…
No, he’d find her first. Then he’d make her pay for killing his father.
New Orleans — thirteen years later. One week before Mardi Gras.
“I know your secrets. And you know mine.”
The hairs on the nape of Britta Berger’s neck stood on end as the note slipped from her hand to the wrought iron table. She’d already sifted through a half dozen letters for her Secret Confessions column at the magazine she worked for, Naked Desires. All erotic. Some titillating, others romantic as they described various private confessions and sexual fantasies. Some bordered on S & M. And others were plain vulgar and revealed the debauchery of the south’s sin city.
But this note felt personal.
An odd odor wafted from the envelope, a scent she vaguely recalled. One that made her skin crawl.
Powdery sugar from her morning beignet settled like snowflakes on the charcoal gray paper as she glanced around the crowded outdoor cafe to see if someone was watching her. A drop of sweat trickled into her bra, a side effect of the record high warm temperatures for January.
Or maybe it was nerves.
The French Quarter always seemed steeped in noise, but today excitement buzzed through the air like mosquitoes on a frenzy. The twelve days of partying and parades organized leading up to Mardi Gras had already brought hordes of masked creatures, artisans, musicians, voodoo priestesses, witchdoctors, tourists, and crime. Bourbon Street fed the night life and drew the tourists with its infamous souvenir shops, voodoo paraphernalia, palm readers, street musicians, strip clubs, jazz and blues clubs, seedy all-night bars. And then the hookers…
The massive crowd closed around her as the sidewalk seemed to move with them. Any one of them could be the enemy. Any one of them could have sent her the note. Battling panic, she reread the words. I know your secrets. And you know mine.
Yes, she’d done things she wasn’t proud of. Things no one else must ever know. They would say she was a bad girl. But she had done what she had to do in order to survive.
The very reason she was the perfect editor for the Secret Confessions column. She wanted her privacy. Understood that the written word could be evocative. But the fantasies deserved to be kept anonymous.
Just as she tried to do with her identity. Always changing her name. Running.
And what better place for her to hide than in the heart of New Orleans, so near where it had all happened? Working for this magazine was the perfect cover, the perfect way for her to blend with the masses.
But how could the person who’d written the note know about her past? The horror. The shame. The lies.
They couldn’t. It was impossible. She’d never told a soul.
Furious, she stuffed the note inside the envelope. It was probably just a prank from some sex-starved fan who wanted to win her attention like the pervert with the fetish for penis-rings who’d exposed himself to her in Jackson Square last week.
Just because she printed sexually explicit material, some people thought she understood their individual desires. Condoned their behavior. And that she wanted them personally.
Shivering at the thought, she tried to shake off her anxiety. No one knew the real Britta Berger.
And no one ever would.
She took a deep drink of water to swallow the remnants of the beignet which had lodged in her throat. In the background, the blues singer drifted into a slow tune, crooning out his heartache blues. A tall man around forty with a goatee and wire-rimmed glasses strode by and stared at her. She froze. Was he going to stop? Tell her he had sent the note. That he’d been following her. Waiting to watch her reaction?
Oddly though, he winked at her, and strode down the crowded sidewalk toward the Business District. She breathed out a sigh, but forced herself to take a mental snapshot of the man in case she saw him again.
Time to let old ghosts die. Move on.
Shaking off her paranoia, she started to close the envelope but a photo fell into her lap. A picture of a dead woman?
Was this some kind of voodoo spell?
Her heart pounding, she examined the picture more closely to see if it was real.
A naked woman had been tied to a four-poster bed. The bedding appeared rumpled, and stained with blood. The woman’s eyes were wide-open in terror, outlined in crudely painted-on black make-up, her slender young face contorted in agony. Ruby red lipstick covered her mouth, and was smeared as if she’d hastily applied it. The remainder of her make-up was grotesque, overdone to the point of making her look like a whore. And the blood red color of the lipstick matched the crimson red teddy that had been ripped and lay at her bare feet.
Where had the photo been taken? She scanned the room for details. An alligator’s head hung on the scarred wall in the dilapidated shanty. A snake was coiled by the bed. A lancet pierced her heart.
Inhaling sharply, Britta zeroed in on the necklace dangling around her bruised throat. The black stone was shaped like a serpent swallowing its tail.
Britta had seen that same necklace before. Years ago…
The man had tried to make her wear one, but she’d thrown it into the dirt and run.
The scene moved in slow motion in her mind. The scents of rotten vegetation, blood, mutilated animals, the marsh rose from the depths of her darkest hours to haunt her. Like quicksand, the muddy soil tried to suck her underground. Alligators and snakes nibbled at her heels, begging for dinner. Bones crunched where one had found his dinner.
She closed her eyes, banished the images and sounds. Visualized herself escaping. Slowly, her breathing steadied, and the panic eased in her chest. She was overreacting. The picture was probably fake.
But the yellowish/blue tint to the woman’s skin and the blood looked real. And her gut instincts told her that the woman had been murdered.
Dusk darkened the sky around the backwoods, blurring the lines between day and night as the murky Mississippi churned and slapped against the dilapidated shanty.
Detective Jean-Paul Dubois stared at the crime scene in disgust. The woman had been viciously murdered. Blood covered her bare chest and had dried onto the stained sheets of the bed. A scarlet teddy lay at her feet which were bound to the footboard with thick ropes, and her hands were tied to the headboard. Whoever had killed her had defiled her body, left her naked, bound, posed, her heart literally ripped apart with some kind of ancient spear.
His gaze fell to the serpent necklace, and he recognized the symbolic meaning. Good fighting evil.
Apparently the evil had won this time.
The CSI team arrived but he held up his hand for them to wait, then bowed his head for a moment, silently offering a prayer of reverence before he allowed them to move forward. With two sisters of his own, and the neverending guilt of his wife’s death on his conscience, seeing any female hurt and stripped of her dignity grated on his soul. At least Lucinda had not suffered rape or this humiliation. But still her death had cut him to the bone.
He had to put her out of his mind. Had to work, keep busy, pay penitence for his mistakes by saving others.
The Dubois’ men were cut from Cajun cloth. Had shady characters in their own ancestry. But today’s Dubois men spelled law. All three of them. Himself, Damon and Antwaun. He’d do his job and find out who had made this woman suffer.
He mentally cataloged the crime scene while his partner Detective Carson Graves searched the exterior. The room reeked of raunchy sex. Her face was painted with make-up in a grotesque style. Especially her eyes.
Then her heart had been brutally slashed. The killer had intentionally left her vulnerable and exposed as if to shame her. Worse, he’d left her deep in the bayou where the vermin might eat her before her body could be discovered.
It appeared ritualist. Had he murdered before?
Or had this sicko just come to New Orleans?
Bourbon Street, the Mardi Gras …as much as Jean-Paul loved his home in the bayou, something untamed in the land and climate drew the crazies like flies to sweet maple syrup. And with the pre-Mardi Gras celebrations, crime would only escalate.
Still, he did things by the book. No man was above the law. He had to make sure the investigators did everything right.
Flies and mosquitoes swarmed inside. The sounds of the woods croaked and buzzed around him while the muddy river carried vines, broken tree limbs and God knows what else upstream. Shadows hugged every corner, offering a hiding place for predators.
The stench of death and decay from the victim assaulted him, along with another strange odor that he didn’t quite recognize. The female CSI officer paused, stepped outside for air, then returned, looking pale but determined a few seconds later.
Judging from rigor and her body’s decay, she had been here at least a couple of days. In fact, they might never have found her had a local fisherman not noticed a faint light from an old bulb shining in the darkness and decided to check it out.
“At least he left her inside the cabin,” Skeeter Jones, the head CSI officer murmured.
Yeah or the gators would have fed on her already. Then no one would ever have found her.
The medical examiner, Dr. Leland Charles, leaned over to examine the body. “The chest wound looks bad. A wide blade, lots of bruising, looks as if he twisted it. He wanted her to suffer. Her coloring is pale with a yellowish tint.”
“We’ll check and see where he got the lancet.” Jean-Paul stooped to study the spear. “They sell them in the gift shops in town.”
“Hell, a man could have his pick of murder weapons from the street vendors,” Charles muttered.
“So, what was the cause of death?” Jean-Paul asked.
“There are no ligature marks on her neck so I’d rule out asphyxiation. She might have bled out from the chest wound, but I want to check tox screens. ” Charles noted more bruises on her body, her ribs, abdomen, thighs. “She did fight back — ” he murmured, “ — as much as she could in her position.”
Jean-Paul wondered if she had agreed to the bondage, then changed her mind later. Or she could have been unconscious when the perp tied her up. “I want the cause of death as soon as you finish with her. And make sure to send me the result of the full tox screen and rape kit. We need to determine if the sex was consensual.”
Charles nodded, then dabbed a q-tip across the woman’s abdomen and bagged it. “It looks like he rubbed some kind of oil on her body, maybe one of those love potions or sensual oils they sell in the market.”
Jean-Paul scanned the room for a bottle. “So, our guy uses massage oil as if he wants the woman to enjoy sex, then kills her? I don’t get it. Maybe he was conflicted?”
Charles muttered a curse. “Figure out what makes this one tick and you’ll catch him.”
“Maybe the night started out with romance, then things got rough.”
“And something she said or did triggered the man to snap and he killed her,” Charles added.
Jean-Paul shook his head, not buying it. The scene seemed too posed. Too planned. “No, the serpent necklace and lancet indicate he came prepared.” And what the hell did the mask of that crocodile head mean?
A tech motioned toward the medical examiner, and Jean narrowed his eyes. “Did you find something?”
She shrugged. “Boombox is still warm. Found a CD in it called Heartache Blues.”
“Symbolic or what?” Dr. Charles commented.
“She ripped out his heart, so he did the same to her.” Jean-Paul made a sound with his mouth. “Could be his motivation.”
“Check out the artist,” the tech said. “Some newbie named Randy Swain. I saw a write-up about him in the paper. He’s here for the music festival.”
Along with a thousand others. All strangers which made their investigation more difficult. “Of course.” Jean-Paul made a note to question the singer Randy Swain. And to question a couple of guys who made masks and sold them in the market.
The woman bagged the CD, dusted the boombox, then tagged both items for evidence.
“Anyone find the girl’s identification?” he asked.
One of the CSI techs shook his head. “Not so far.”
“Where are her clothes?”
“We didn’t find them either,” the CSI tech replied. “No clothes. No condom. Nothing personal. Not a toothbrush, comb, or even a pair of underwear.”
“This guy knows what he’s doing,” Jean-Paul said “He’s meticulous. He cleaned up. Didn’t leave any trace evidence.”
“There’s usually something, a hair fiber, an errant button, thread off a jacket,” the female crime scene investigator said. “If there is, we’ll find it.”
Jean-Paul nodded and studied the victim’s face again. Woman? Hell, she looked so damn young. Like someone’s daughter or little sister. Except for the grotesque make-up. Had she been a hooker or had the killer only painted her to resemble the girls in the red light district?
His cell phone trilled, and he checked the number. His superior, Lieutenant Phelps. He connected the call, his gaze catching sight of his partner combing the wooden dock. “Lieutenant, what is it?” Jean-Paul asked.
“We just got a call I need you to check out.”
Do we have a lead already?”
“Maybe. You know that erotica magazine, Naked Desires?”
He grimaced. His sisters had mentioned it at one of their family gatherings. Apparently they thought some of the letters were titillating. “I don’t exactly subscribe to it.” Phelps chuckled. “I wouldn’t expect my pride and joy officer to.”
Jean-Paul grimaced. He hated all the hype he’d received after the hurricane. Just because he’d stuck to his post, done his job and saved a few people, he’d received a damn commendation. Big deal.
He’d lost his wife…
“So what is it?” he asked.
“Britta Berger, the editor of the Secret Confessions column called and said she had something we needed to see.”
“Now?” Jean-Paul tapped his boot impatiently. “What is it, some letter that freaked her out?”
“Apparently it’s a photograph, not a letter,” Phelps said in a serious tone.
“But doesn’t this case take priority?” Jean-Paul asked.
“It is about the case,” Phelps said deadpan. “According to her description, she received a photograph of a crime.”
“A murder,” Phelps said. “One that sounds suspiciously like the one you’re investigating.”
Jean-Paul gripped the phone with a sweaty hand. Had the killer photographed his handiwork and sent a copy to Britta Berger? And if so, why?
He stood outside the door to Naked Desires
, the urge to go in making him shake with need. The moment he’d seen her photograph in that magazine, he’d recognized her. His Adrianna.
How ironic to finally have found her here in the city. So close to where he had first met her. So close to where everything had gone wrong.
What was she doing now? Studying the photograph he’d sent her? Staring in horror at the woman’s vile bloodless eyes? Wondering why he had sent her the message?
Adrenaline churned through his blood, heating his body.
He had to see her. Touch her. Watch the realization dawn in her eyes…
No. Not yet.
He’d waited years for this moment. Had searched in every face and town he’d visited. Had combed the edges off the bayou, hunting, hoping, yearning, praying she had survived. So he could kill her.
Laughter bubbled in his chest. And now the moment was so near, his vengeance almost within reach. Yet he had to draw it out. Earn his redemption. Save the other sinners. Make them pay.
And make Adrianna watch them suffer.
With each one, she would feel him breathing down her neck. Coming closer. Know the pain of having death upon her conscience.
Just as he lived with his father’s death upon his.
God made the world in seven days and nights. Seven days and nights he had been tortured after she took his father’s life.
Seven more days until Mardi Gras.
Each day until then, a celebration.
Each day until then, a time to torture.
And on the seventh day when Mardi Gras reached its grand finale, he would find salvation. He couldn’t wait to see the shock in her eyes when she realized that she had never escaped at all. That she had to pay for her sins.
And that she had to die because he loved her.