He saw her.
Half-running, head bent, fingers clutched at the hood of her coat, she hurried through the darkness to the small church.
From his hiding spot beneath the magnolia tree, the Chosen One waited. His blood began to sing through his veins as he crouched in the darkness, every muscle tense, nerves strung tight as piano wire.
How easy it would be to catch her. In three swift strides he could be upon her and drag her away. While her father waited inside. That particular thought appealed to him, was warm seduction.
But it wasn’t her time, he reminded himself. There were others.
She paused beneath the overhang near the front doors, tossing off her hood and shaking her hair free. Long and wavy the strands gleamed a tempting red brown in the lamplight. The Chosen One swallowed and felt the first stirring between his legs.
He wanted her.
So badly he ached.
Just looking at her, his senses were heightened. He heard his heart beating,felt his blood pulse through his veins, smelled the heavy odor of the Mississippi River winding dark and slow through the town where traffic whined on slick streets and sin was waged at every corner.
As she disappeared through the doors, he edgeddeeper into the dense foliage of the grounds to his hiding spot near the flawed stained glass window. A tiny panel of glass had been removed and replaced by a small clear pane, giving a perfect view into the nave. Crouching, the Chosen One peered through this portal and he watched as she walked down the aisle, genuflected, then slid into the pew to take her seat next to her father. The bastard cop.
They exchanged a few words before she planted herself next to him.
Once seated, she fidgeted in the pew. Looked bored. As if she’d rather be anywhere than at evening Mass with her father. She flipped her long hair this way and that, glanced at the others as they entered, slumped onto her lower back to bite at one fingernail as dozens of candles burned.
The Chosen One let his gaze move to the cop.
He was a solid man, over six feet. His jaw was square, his eyes deep-set and world-weary, showing his forty plus years. Rick Bentz was a detective whose tarnished reputation had been polished to a recent sheen, his past sins forgotten if not forgiven. In his black suit and starched shirt, he appeared more uncomfortable than his daughter, definitely out of place in the house of God.
As well he should be.
Tugging on his tie, Bentz leaned closer to the girl and whispered into her ear. Immediately she stopped biting at her nails and straightened in the pew. She folded her arms over her abdomen defiantly and inadvertently raising her breasts, making them plump a bit at the neckline of her dress. White supple flesh against turquoise silk.
The Chosen One imagined what was hidden beneath that smooth fabric . . . rosebud nipples; virgin skin and lower, a dark nest of curls the same reddish brown as that luxurious tangle of copper that tumbled to her shoulders.
He thought of her as the princess.
Her father’s pride and joy.
Athlete, scholar, and . . . a little naughty. Rebellious. It was there, in her eyes. He’d seen it before. Heard it in her deep, sexy laughter.
She glanced toward the window with her wide green eyes. The Chosen One froze in his hiding spot.
Her mouth pulled into a tiny, defiant pout.
His cock responded. Just a little twinge.
He imagined what those lips might do with the right sort of prodding . . . Closed his eyes, felt the cool caress of the rain running down his neck as his fingers strayed to his crotch.
His erection stiffened to full mast. Hard. Throbbing. Anticipating.
Soon, Princess, he thought. Soon. But I must take care of the others first. Then it will be your turn.
His eyes flew open at the sound of his watch’s timer. He clicked off the alarm and bit back a swear word. That was careless. Unlike him. Angry with himself, the Chosen One took one last glimpse of the church’s interior and found the princess still staring at the window. As if she knew he was there.
Quickly he ducked from beneath the tree and jogged through the curtain of rain. He’d stayed much too long. Furious with himself, he picked up his pace, long legs sprinting easily across the wet lawn to the corner where he turned down a narrow alley, ran three blocks, then doubled back to a parking space in front of an abandoned, boarded-over building that had once been a garage.
He was sweating, not from exertion but anxiety as he climbed into the black
older car with its tinted windows. He stripped off his running clothes and gloves, then folded them neatly into a leather duffel.
Soon it would be time.
Soon Rick Bentz would feel the pain of losing that which he held most dear.
But first Bentz needed to know what was at risk; he had to feel real fear--a dark, gnawing dread that would eat at him when he realized that everything he did, everywhere he turned, every place he’d once held sacred, would no longer be safe.
A smile crept across the Chosen One’s jaw as he withdrew a towel from his bag. Quickly he swiped the rough terry-cloth over his face and neck. Then he took the time to check the rearview mirror. Blue eyes stared back at him. Hungry eyes. "Bedroom eyes" he’d been told by more than one woman who was foolish enough to think he could be seduced.
But . . . beneath his gaze he caught the merest glimmer of a shadow, something wrong, out of sync in the reflection. As if someone was watching him. He snapped his head around, stared through the foggy rear window to see if the mirror’s reflection had caught someone peering into the car. He squinted through the raindrops and fog of condensation.
Nothing moved outside.
There was no one around on this deserted street. And yet he felt . . . a connection somewhere. This wasn’t the first time, he’d sensed a presence on several occasions. Each time the feeling became a little more certain, a tad more intense. Sweat rolled down his temples. His heart hammered wildly.
Paranoia . . . . that’s what it is. Stay cool. Keep focused.
There was no one in this desolate part of town,no one who could possibly see through the smokey glass windows of the boxy sedad on this gloomy night.
He had to calm down. Be patient. Everything was coming together.
Rick Bentz’s worst nightmare had already begun.
He just didn’t know it yet.
"You need a woman," Reuben Montoya observed as he pulled the police cruiser into the lot of Bentz’s apartment.
"Good. Maybe I could borrow one of yours. "Bentz reached for the handle of the door. What he didn’t need was any advice from a young cop with more balls than brains as evidenced by the earring winking in Montoya’s ear and the neatly trimmed goatee covering his chin. The younger detective was smart as hell, but still a little wet behind the ears. And he didn’t know when to keep his nose in his own business.
"Hey, I’m a one-woman man these days," Montoya insisted and Bentz snorted.
"I mean it. "Montoya slammed the cruiser’s gear shift lever into park, then reached into his jacket pocket for a pack of cigarettes.
"If you say so. "
"I could set you up. "Montoya was a young cop, not quite thirty, with smooth bronze skin, a killer smile, and enough ambition to propel him out of his poor Hispanic roots and through college on an athletic scholarship. Not only had he kicked the living hell out of a soccer ball, he’d made the dean’s list every semester and then, upon graduation, with his future as bright as the damned sun, he decided to become a cop.
Montoya shook out a filter-tip,lit up, and blew a cloud of smoke. "I know this nice older lady, a friend of my mother’s-- "
"Can it. "Bentz shot him a look meant to shut him up. "Forget it. I’m okay. "
Montoya didn’t back off. "You’re definitely not okay. You live alone, never go out and work your tail off for a department that doesn’t appreciate you. That’s your life. "
"I’ll bring it upwhen I’m up for my next raise," he said and climbed out of the passenger seat. It was a cool night; the wind rolling off the river had a winter edge to it.
"All I’m sayin’ is that you need a life, man. Your kid’s gone off to school and you should have some fun. "
"I have plenty. "
"My ass. "
"‘Night, Montoya. "He slammed the door of the Crown Vic shut, then made his way into the building. A woman. Yeah, that would solve his problems. He grabbed the evening paper and his mail on the ground level, then climbed up the stairs to his second floor unit. What did Montoya know?
Shit. That’s what the kid knew: Shit.
Bentz had learned long ago that women only added to his problems; and he’d learned from the master.
Sexy as hell.
The one woman he’d given his heart to; the only woman he’d allowed to break it and break it she had. On more than one occasion. With the same damned man. He unlocked the door and snapped on the lights.
Hurt me once, shame on you.
Hurt me twice, shame on me.
Tossing his keys onto the desk, he shed his jacket and yanked off his tie. God, he could use a beer and a smoke. But not a woman. Trouble was, he’d sworn off all three. No messages on the answering machine. Montoya was right. His social life was nil. He worked out by pounding the hell out of a boxing bag that hung in the second bedroom, didn’t even belong to a bowling league or golf club. He’d given up sailing and hunting years ago, along with poker and Jim Beam.
Rolling up his sleeves, he walked to the refrigerator and stared at the dismal contents. Even the freezer, where he usually kept a couple of those frozen man-sized microwave meals was empty. He grabbed a can of non-alcoholic beer and popped the top, then clicked on the TV. A sportscaster started rattling off the day’s scores while highlights flashed in rapid fire images across the screen.
He settled into his recliner and told himself that Montoya was way off base. He didn’t need a social life. He had his work and he still had Kristi, even if she was off at school in Baton Rouge. He glanced at the telephone and thought about calling her, but he’d phoned last Sunday and had sensed she was irritated; hated him intruding on her new-found freedom at college, acted as if he was checking up on her.
He turned his attention back to the tube where highlights of Monday night’s Saints game was being replayed. He’d grab a sandwich at the local po’boy shop two blocks overthen open up his briefcase and catch up on some paper work. He had a couple of reports to write and he wanted to pull his notes together; then there were a few open cases that were going stale; he’d need to look them over again, see if there was anything he missed the first, second, third and fourth times through.
He had plenty to do.
Montoya was wrong. Bentz didn’t need a woman.
He was pretty sure no one did.
Olivia didn’t like the lawyer. Never did. Never would. She couldn’t imagine how her grandmother could have trusted anyone so obviously crooked. Ramsey John Dodd, who liked to be called RJ, was as oilythe Grannie Gin’s fried chicken and twice as plump. " . . . so the estate’s all wrapped up, the taxes and fees paid, all the heirs having gotten their disbursements. If you want to sell the house, now’s the time. "From the other side of his oversized desk in this hole-in-the-wall he called an office, Ramsey John tented his pudgy hands together and patted his fingertips . Behind him, trapped between the blinds and the only window in the airless office, a fly that should have died months ago buzzed in frustration, banging against the glass.
"I’m still not sure about moving. "
"Well, when and if you decide, I could put you in touch with a good real estate man. "
I’ll just bet you could.
"Wally’s a real go-getter. "
"I’ll let you know," she said, standing abruptly to end the conversation and help disguise the fact that she was lying through her teeth. She wouldn’t give any associate ofRJ Dodd the time of day much less any business.
He shrugged the shoulders of his too-tight suit as if it was no matter, but Olivia sensed his disappointment. No doubt he would have gotten a kick-back for any referral that panned out.
"Thanks for all your help. "
"My pleasure. "
She shook his sweaty palm and dropped it.
Her grandmother could usually smell a con man six miles away. How in the world had she ended up with this snake? Because his services come cheap, was the obvious answer. Aside from that RJ was a nephew of one of Grannie’s friends.
"Just one thing that troubles me," RJ said as he forced himself from his squeaky chair.
"How come you ended up with the house and contents, and your mama, she only got the insurance money?"
"You’re the lawyer. You tell me. "
"Virginia would never say. "
Olivia offered him a weak smile. He was fishing and she didn’t understand why. "I guess Grannie just liked me better. "
His fleshy jaw tightened. "That could be, I suppose. I didn’t know her very well, just enough to figure out that she was an odd woman, you know. Some people around these parts claim she was a voodoo priestess. That she read fortunes in Tarot cards and tea leaves and the like. "
"Well, you can’t always believe what you hear, can you?" she said, trying to change the subject. It touched a little too close to home.
"They say you inherited it. "
"Is that what you want to know, Mr. Dodd?If I’m psychic?"
"It’s R J," he reminded her, grinning and showing off the hint of a gold molar. "No reason to get your back up. I was just makin’ conversation. "
"Why don’t you ask my mother about all this?"
"Bernadette claims she didn’t inherit the gift if that’s what you want to call it, but that you did. "
"Oh, I see . . . it skips a generation. Of course. " Olivia smiled at him as if to say only an idiot would believe such prattle. There was no reason to confirm or deny the rumors. She knew only too well how true they were. It just wasn’t any ofRamsey Dodd’s business. She hoped it would never be.
"Listen," he suggested, stepping more agilely around the desk than a man his size should have been capable. "A word of advice. Free. "He seemed to drop his usual pomposity. "I know your grannie thought a lot of you. I also know that she was . . . an unusual woman, that because of her visions, she was considered odd. Some people trusted her with their lives. My aunt was one of ‘em. But others, they thought she was into the dark arts or crazy or both. It didn’t make her life any easier, so if I was you, I’d keep my mouth closed about any of that vision-shit. "
"I’ll remember that. "
"Do that. . . it would have behooved your grandmother. "
"Is there anything else?" she asked.
"Nope. That’s it. You take care. "
"I will. Thanks again for all your help. "She stuffed the manila folder he’d given her into her backpack.
"It’s been a pleasure workin’ with you. Now, if you change your mind about sellin’ the place, just give me a jingle and I’ll have Wally call ya . . . "
She didn’t wait for him to escort her to the door, but showed herself out through the paneled reception area where a single secretary was poised at a desk situated on a shabby carpet that stretched between three offices, two of which looked vacant as the name plates upon the doors had been unscrewed, leaving tell-tale holes in the thin veneer. Grannie should could pick ‘em.
Outside, she crossed a parking lot where the potholes had been patched and climbed into her truck. So J. Ramsey knew about her trips to the police department. Great. It was probably all over town, would probably get back to her boss at the Third Eye and even to the University where she was taking graduate classes.
Wonderful. She rammed the old Ford Ranger into gear and roared out of the lot. She didn’t want to think about the visions she’d had, the glimmers of evil that she sometimes felt rather than saw. Disjointed, kaleidoscopic shards of horrid events that cut through her brain, made her skin rise in goose bumps and troubled her so much that she’d actually visited the local police.
Where she was considered a nutcase and had been practically laughed out of the buildings.
Heat climbed her neck at the thought. She flipped on the radio and took a corner a little too fast. The Ranger’s tires screeched in protest.
Sometimes being Virginia Dubois’s granddaughter was more pain than it was worth.
"Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned," the naked woman whispered, unable to speak loudly, unable to scream because of the tight collar at her neck. On her knees, chained to the pedestal sink, she obviously didn’t begin to recognize the magnitude of her sins or the reason that she was being punished, that he was actually saving her.
"Tell me," the Chosen One whispered. "What sins?"
"For . . . for . . . " Her terrified eyes bulged and blinked as she tried to think, but she wasn’t penitent. Just scared. Saying what she hoped would convince him to set her free. Tears streamed down her cheeks. "For all my sins," she said desperately, trying to please him, not knowing it was impossible; that her destiny was preordained.
She was quivering with fear and shivering in the cold, but that would soon change. A bit of smoke was already beginning to waft into the tiny bathroom through the vents. Flames would soon follow. There wasn’t much time. "Please," she rasped, "Let me go, for the love of God!"
"What would you know about God’s love?" he demanded, then, tamping down his anger, he placed a gloved hand upon her head, as if to calm her and from somewhere outside, through the cracked window he heard a car backfire on the wintry streets. He had to finish this. Now. Before the fire attracted attention. "You’re a sinner, Cecilia, and as such you will have to pay for your sins. "
"You’ve got the wrong woman! I’m not . . . her . . . . I’m not Cecilia. Please. Let me go. I won’t say a word, I promise, no one will ever know this happened, I swear. "She clutched at the hem of his alb. Desperate. And dirty. She was a whore. Like the others. He turned his attention to the radio sitting on the window sill and swiftly turned the knob and the sound of familiar music wafted through the speakers, fading to the sound of a woman’s sultry voice.
"This is Dr. Sam, with one last thought on this date when John F. Kennedy, one of our finest presidents was killed . . . Take care of yourself, New Orleans. Good Night and God Bless. No matter what your troubles are today, there’s always tomorrow . . . Sweet Dreams . . . "
He turned the dial, switching stations and heard the static and chirps of announcers’ voices until he found what he wanted: pipe organ music. Full. As if echoing in a cathedral.
Now it could be done.
As the whore watched, he withdrew his sword from behind the shower curtain.
"Oh, God. No!"She was frantic now, pulling at the chain as the collar tightened even further.
"It’s too late. "His voice was measured and calm, but inside he was shaking, trembling, not with fear but anticipation. Adrenalin, his favorite drug, sang through his veins. From the corner of his eye he noticed flames beginning to lick through the screen of the vent. The time had come.
"No, please, don’t . . . oh, God . . . "She was clawing at her tether now, vainly trying to hide behind the pedestal as the collar tightened, her wrists and ankles bleeding and raw from her bonds. "You’ve got the wrong woman!"
His pulse throbbed, pounded in his brain. For a second he felt a tingle against the back of his neck, like the breath of Satan. He glanced at the mirror, searching the shimmering surface, looking beneath the reflection of his own image, his face hidden ina tight black mask, but feeling as if someone was watching through the glass. Witnessing his act.
But that was impossible.
Sweat slid into his eyes as he lifted his sword so high his arm ached. Smoke burned in his lungs. Blood-lust ran through his veins as he grabbed a fistful of hair in his free hand. He stared down at her perfect neck surrounded by the choke collar. He was hard between his legs, his erection nearly painful. Oh, how he would love to thrust into her body, to taste of her before absolving her of her sins. But that was not his mission. Denying himself of such wicked pleasure washis own act of martyrdom.
"For your sins, Cecilia," he said, biting out the words as ripples of pleasure passed through him, "and in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit,I commit your soul to God. "