May, New Orleans
The woman had no name. No voice. No face.
Dr. Reginald Pace studied her near lifeless form as she lay on the shiny surgical table. The harsh fluorescent lights glowed off of her charred skin and raw flesh, painting an almost inhuman picture.
Her silent, pain-filled, vacant eyes begged for mercy. For death.
But the voice inside his head whispered that he could not fulfill her wish. That her body craved the transformation that only his gifted hands could offer.
As a plastic surgeon, he had seen the ruins of people’s faces and bodies on a daily basis. But never had he beheld a sight like the one before him. She looked almost inhuman.
Mangled, charred skin had peeled away from the severed tendons and crushed bone. Lips that might have once held a feminine smile now gaped with blisters and raw flesh. Eyes blinded by pain had flickered with a plea for death to end the agony before he had swept her under with the bliss of drugs.
His healing hands would piece her back together.
His healing hands and time…
Layer by layer he would rebuild her. Repair severed nerve endings, damaged cartilage. Replace tissue. Mold the monster into a beauty.
Without a face, a name, a picture, he could shape her into whatever he chose.
The woman of his dreams, God willing.
He gently brushed the remnants of her singed hair from her hairline. She would be in agony for a while, but he would be there with her every step of the way to offer her comfort.
And she would recover; he wouldn’t rest until she did.
A smile curled his mouth as he picked up the scalpel to get started. Yes, she would thank him in the end.
And then, she would be his creation.
His to keep forever…
A year later, New Orleans
Damon Dubois was a dead man.
At least he felt dead inside. As dead as the soldiers who’d fallen and given their lives for the country. As dead as the ones who’d lost their lives during the terrible hurricane that had nearly destroyed New Orleans.
As dead as the woman he had caused to die.
He could still see the flames licking at her skin, see the smoke swirling above her face, hear the crackle of the house as wood splintered and crumbled down on her body.
Ironically though, his heart still beat and blood still flowed through his veins, forcing him to go through the motions of life.
A punishment issued by the gods, he was certain.
For although his head hadn’t touched the pillow yet on this dreary evening, nightmares haunted him with the cries of that anguished woman screaming in pain.
And then there was the bebe’s ghostlike cry…
“’Tite ange,” he whispered. “Little angel, you did not deserve to die.”
Perspiration beaded on his neck and trickled down into the collar of his shirt as he opened the French doors to the hundred-year-old house he’d bought on the bayou and breathed in the sultry summer air. The end of May was nearing and already the summer heat was oppressive. Sticky. The air hung thick with the scent of blood and swamp water. A Luis Armstrong blues tune floated from the stereo, the soul wrenching words echoing his mood.
Still, eerie sounds cut through the endless night. The muddy Mississippi slapping at the embankment. A faint breeze stirring the tupelo trees. The gators’ shrill attack cry in the night. Insects buzzing for their next feed.
Though a thick fog of blessed darkness clouded the waning daylight, morbid images bombarded him. A hand outstretched, begging for help. The fingers curled around the tiny bebe’ rattle. The accusing horror-stricken eyes.
He blinked to stop the damning images, but they flickered in his mind’s eyes like flashes of lightning splintering the sky.
The scream tore through the air again, and he swallowed back bile. Its shrill sound refused to stop, pounding against his conscious with a will that he couldn’t defy. Reminding him of his past. His sins. His vow of silence.
So many secrets…tell and you die.
Inside his pocket, his cell phone vibrated, jarring him back to the present. Hauling him away from the pain and self-recriminations clawing at his mind.
He gripped the mobile unit with sweaty fingers and connected the call.
“Special Agent Damon Dubois.”
“Damon, thank God you answered.”
His little brother Antwaun’s strained voice rattled unevenly over the line. Something was wrong. What kind of mess had his youngest sibling gotten into this time?
Hell, not that he had a right to judge anyone.
But the family knew nothing of his secrets. Or his lies…
“You have to come out to the bayou. We found a woman…at least part of one.” Holy Christ. “I’ll be right there. Where are you?”
Antwaun relayed the address, and Damon snapped the phone closed, grabbed his badge, then his weapon and strapped it onto his shoulder holster. Fifteen minutes later, he parked and headed through the densely packed stretch of the swamp. The scent of murk floated from the marshy water as the mud sucked at his feet. The voices and faint beam of flashlights ahead served as his guide through the knot of trees, and when he reached the crime scene tape the police had already strung up, he identified himself to the officer in charge.
Through the shadows, he spotted Antwaun and strode toward him. His brother’s forehead was furrowed with worry, the intense anger in his dark eyes warning Damon that this was not an everyday crime scene. It was personal.
“What’s going on, Antwaun?” he asked quietly. “Is this a federal case? A serial killer?”
Two uniforms frowned and muttered curses at his arrival, already the thread of territorial rights adding tension to an anxiety-ridden situation.
Antwaun leaned close to him, his voice a conspiratorial whisper. “Hell, Damon, I think I know the victim.”
Damon’s gaze shot to his brother’s, his pulse racing. “How do you know her?”
“I can’t be sure, but …” his gruff voice cracked with emotion, “but if it is who I think it is, we dated.”
The oppressive heat thickened, causing a cold clamminess to bead on his skin. “You recognize her or what?”
Antwaun scrubbed a hand over the back of his scraggly hair, his face as pale as buttermilk. “Like I said, we only found part of her.”
Damon sucked in a sharp breath, then followed Antwaun over to the edge of the swamp. The murky, wet slush chewed at Damon’s shoes, the stench of blood and a decaying animal hitting him. Somewhere nearby the hiss of gators warned him that the hungry creatures lurked at the edges of the river. Yellow eyes pierced the inky darkness, the scaly predators hiding beneath the water’s surface, taking stock of their prey. Biding their time. Waiting to strike.
Then he saw her. At least the part that was visible.
Just a single hand sticking up through the sludgy quicksand of the bayou.
Brittle, yellowed bones poked through skin that had been gnawed away. The fingertips were half gone. Blood dotted the remnants of mangled flesh, revealing exposed veins that had been sawed away by the jagged teeth of the animals that now watched in silent reverie.
“How…” he had to clear his throat, push away the mounting fury and choking bile. No woman deserved to end up like this. Had she been dead or alive when the gators got her? “If this is all they found, what makes you think you know her?”
Antwaun’s hand shook as he pointed to her third finger. At least what was left of it. “That ring…”
“Yeah?” Damon squinted, moved closer, knelt and spotted the thin thread of silver glinting thought the mud and debris. Amazingly the simple silver band still clung to the bone.
“I gave it to her,” Antwaun said in a low tortured voice as if his heart had been ripped out. “Right before she went missing.”
She lived in the darkness. Had known nothing but pain for months.
And all that time, she had been missing, but no one had come looking for her. Why?
Clutching the sheets of her hospital bed between bandaged fingers, she begged for relief from the agony and the mental ache of her own tormenting thoughts. Time bled and flowed together, sometimes non-existent. Sometimes slipping through the hourglass in torturous slow motion. Sometimes chunks and days, even weeks gone by without notice.
Isolated, starved for human contact, she lay waiting for his visit.
The bleep bleep of hospital machinery became her music. His voice, her salvation.
Gruff. Soothing. Coaxing her to sit up. Eat. Fight for her life. Heal.
His touch offered comfort, compassion. Murmured promises that she might recover one day. Be human. Even beautiful.
Yet as much as his manner evoked concern and care for her, even growing feelings, the scent of medicine and the hospital permeated his clothing, reminding her that he was her doctor, she his patient. And she had yet to see her reflection because he had stripped the hospital rehab facility of mirrors.
She was only one of many he had helped. But she’d heard the rumors. The hushed voices.
She was the woman without a face. A human monster.
He had repaired what he could. Endless, countless surgeries over the past few months. Bandages and medication, and hours on end of mind control techniques to keep from going crazy.
Sometimes she feared she walked a tightrope to insanity.
Then he disappeared.
But another came. A monster like her who whispered in the shadows. The man with the scale-like skin.
Her one and only friend here. Lex Van Wormer.
He seemed to sense when she was teetering on the edge, and reeled her back in, sewing the tethered strands of her mind together with some fanciful story. Silly dreams of a future she had to look forward to.
One he dreamt about as well, but one that eluded them both. Instead they had become prisoners of the darkness.
A gentle knock sounded at the door, and the heavy wooden structure squeaked open. A sliver of light from the hall sliced the black interior causing her to blink. Slowly over the past months of her imprisonment, her vision had adjusted and returned to near normal, although she still preferred the shadows. Whether to shield herself from having to face others and see the disgust or pity in their eyes, or because she’d begun to view the darkness as her best friend she wasn’t certain.
Her breath lodged in a momentary panic in her throat as she listened to the approaching footsteps. One of the nurses with another round of injections? Dr. Pace with his soothing voice and promises that she would get better? Or Lex, somehow sensing that she had suffered another nightmare?
Nightmares or memories – she could no longer distinguish the difference. She only knew that night after endless night, some fathomless sightless, black-hearted devil chased her. That he waited around every corner, watching, stalking, breathing down her neck. That she had to escape. That he wanted her dead and would stop at nothing until he achieved his purpose.
The door closed, blanketing the room once again in the gray fog of twilight, offering her safety.
It was always twilight in her room.
“Lex.” She exhaled a sigh of heartfelt relief. Though he called her the foreign name, she hadn’t recognized it. But the first time he’d seen her, he’d commented that her eyes reminded him of sparkling crystal cut glass, so he’d given her the name and the nurses had latched onto it.
That she’d been blind at first and hadn’t been able to see him hadn’t mattered. She’d relished his company.
Then, finally, on a pain-filled admission to prove to her that she wasn’t alone in her world of shadows, he’d allowed her to touch his hand. She’d felt the scaly dry patches of leather-like skin and had understood his reason for withdrawing from the world.
The condition caused by exposure to an unknown chemical in the war had disfigured him and eaten away at his body like battery acid. For a brief time before the bandages from her eyes had been removed, she’d feared she would react to his impairment and hurt him.
But she had grown accustomed to the sound of his voice as he read her poetry at night, to the cadence of his laugh as he’d fabricated stories of journeys he’d taken, and his looks hadn’t mattered. In fact, she hadn’t even cringed when she’d finally rested her eyes upon him.
Apparently, he had adjusted to seeing her without a face, and covered in bandages as well. Who else would be so accepting?
He dragged the straight chair against the wall near her bed, then reached for her hand. A light squeeze, and her breathing steadied.
“Thank you for coming.” Heavens, she hated the choked, childish quiver of her voice. But she had been so lonely.
“I’ll always be here for you, Crystal. Always.”
She closed her eyes to stem the tears threatening. Theirs was an odd relationship. Two misfits thrown together, two survivors hanging onto life by a severed thread. Yet they weren’t really living either.
“I’ve missed you, Crystal,” he said in a low voice.
She tensed. She’d sensed that his friendship ran deep, that he wanted more from her. She loved him in a platonic way, yet something was missing.
Too many pieces of her past lost. Too many questions unanswered.
Another man…maybe waiting.
The sound of Lex turning his harmonica over in his hands with fingers brittle from his disease, forced her to open her eyes again.
“Our quote for the day,” he began, “is from Ecclesiastes 49:10. Two are better than one, for if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow.”
A sliver of unease tickled her spine as his words washed over her. Lex was her friend, but if she healed as Dr. Pace promised, and she had to hold onto the hope that she would recover, she couldn’t imagine Lex as her lover. And she knew that he wanted more from her.
He lifted his harmonica and began to wail out a blues song that gripped her with sadness. Regret fed the flames of her emotions. She loved Lex, and she didn’t want to hurt him.
But she had to find out who she was. Where she’d come from. How she had ended up here.
If she had a family, a husband, other friends. A lover.
And why in the past nine months, not a single person had cared enough to hunt for her.