“It's time.” The voice was clear.
Smiling to herself, Camille felt a sublime relief as she finished pushing the last small button through its loop. She stared at herself in the tiny mirror and adjusted her veil.
“You're a vision in white,” her father said . . . but he wasn't here, was he? He wasn't walking her down the aisle. No, no, of course not. He'd died, years before. At least that was what she thought. But then her father wasn't her father . . . only by law. Right? She blinked hard. Woozy, she tried to clear her brain, wash away the feeling of disembodiment that assailed her.
It's because it's your wedding day; your nerves are playing tricks on your brain.
“Your groom awaits.” Again, the voice propelled her, and she wondered if someone was actually speaking to her or if she was imagining it.
Silly, of course it's real!
She left the small room where she'd dressed and walked unsteadily along the shadowed corridor, lit by only a few wavering sconces. Dark, yet the hallway seemed to glisten.
Down a wide staircase with steps polished from thousands of feet scurrying up and down, she headed toward the smaller chapel where she knew he was waiting.
Her heart pounded with excitement.
Her blood sang through her veins.
What a glorious, glorious night!
One hand trailed down the long smooth banister, fingertips gliding along the polished rail.
“Hurry,” a harsh voice ordered against her ear, and she nearly stumbled over the dress's hem. “You must not keep him waiting!”
“I won't,” she promised, her voice reverberating from a distance, as if echoing through a tunnel. Or only in her own head.
She picked up her skirt to move more quickly, her feet skimming along the floor. She felt light, as if floating, anticipation urging her forward.
Moonlight washed through the tall tracery windows, spilling shadowed, colored patterns on the floor, and as she reached the chapel, her legs wobbled, as if she were wearing heels.
But her feet were bare, the cold stone floor penetrating through her soles.
Poverty, chastity, obedience.
The words swirled through her brain as the door to the chapel was opened and she stepped inside. She heard music in her head, the voices of angels rising upward through the spires of St. Marguerite's cathedral on this, her wedding day.
Night . . . it's night.
Candles flickered at the altar and overhead a massive crucifix soared, reminding her of Christ's suffering. She made the sign of the cross as she genuflected, then slowly moved forward.
Poverty. Chastity. Obedience.
Her fingers wound around the smooth beads of her rosary as the music in her head swelled.
As she reached the altar, the church bell began to toll and she knelt before the presence of God. She was ready to take her vows, to give her life to the one she loved.
“Good . . . good . . . perfect.”
Camille bowed her head in prayer, then, on her knees, looked up at the crucifix, saw the wounds on Christ's emaciated body, witnessed his sacrifice for her own worldly sins.
Oh, yes, she had sinned.
Over and over.
Now, she would be absolved.
Closing her eyes, she bent her head with difficulty . . . it seemed suddenly heavy, her hands clumsy. The chapel shifted and darkened, and the statuary, the Madonna and angels near the baptismal basin, suddenly stared at her with accusing eyes.
She heard the scrape of a shoe on the stone floor and her lightheartedness and joy gave way to anxiety.
Don't give in. Not tonight . . .
But even her wedding dress no longer seemed silky and light; the fabric was suddenly scratchy and rough, a musty smell wafting from it.
The skin on the back of her neck, beneath the cloying veil, crinkled with anxiety.
No, no, no . . . this is wrong.
“So now you know,” the voice so near her ear reprimanded, and she shrank away from the hiss. “For the wages of sin are . . .”
“Death,” she whispered.
Sheer terror curdled her blood. Oh, God! Scared out of her mind, Camille tried to scramble to her feet.
In that instant Fate struck.
The rosary was stripped from her hands, beads ripping over her fingers and flesh, only to scatter and bounce on the floor.
Camille tried to force her feet beneath her, but her knees were weak, her legs suddenly like rubber. She tried to stand, pushing herself upright, but it was too late.
A thick cord circled her throat and was pulled tight.
NO! What was this?
Needle-sharp shards cut deep into her flesh.
Panic surged through her.
No, no, no! This was all wrong.
White hot pain screamed through her body. She jerked forward, trying to throw off her attacker as her airway was cut off. She tried to gasp, but couldn't draw a breath. Her lungs, dear Jesus, her lungs strained with the pressure.
Oh, God, what was happening?
The nave seemed to spin, high-domed ceiling reeling, the monster behind her back drawing the deadly cord tighter.
Terror clawed through her brain. Desperately, Camille tried to free herself, to kick and twist again, but her body wouldn't respond as it should have. The weight against her back was crushing, the cord at her throat slitting deep.
Blood pounded behind her eyes, echoed through her ears.
Her fingers scrabbled at the cord around her neck, a fingernail ripping.
Her back bowed as she strained.
She fought wildly, but it was useless.
Please, please, please! Dear Father, spare me! I have sinned, but please . . .
Her feet slipped from beneath her.
Weakly she failed, her strength failing her.
No, Camille. Fight! Don't give up! Do not! Someone will save you.
Her eyes focused on the crucifix again, her vision of Christ's haggard face blurring. I'm sorry . . .
She was suddenly so weak, her attempts frail and futile. Her strong body grew limp.
“Please,” she tried to beg but the sound was only garbled and soft, unrecognizable.
The demon who dared set foot in this chapel, the monster who had defiled this holy ground, held her fast. Pulling on the cord. Unrelenting. Strong with dark and deadly purpose.
Camille's lungs were on fire, her heart pounding so loudly she was sure it would burst. Through eyes round with fear, she saw only a wash of red.
Oh, Dear Father, the pain!
Again, she tried to suck in one bit of air, but failed.
Her lungs shrieked.
Brutal strength, infused by a cold dark wrath, cinched the garrotte still tighter.
Agony ripped through her.
“Whore,” the voice accused. “Daughter of Satan.”
Eyes open, again she saw the image of Christ on the cross, a film of scarlet distorting his perfect face, tears like blood running from his eyes.
I love you.
The deluge of sins that was her life washed over her - quicksilver images of those she had wronged. Her mother and father, her sister, her best friend . . . So many people, some who had loved her . . . the innocents.
This was her punishment, she realized, her hands falling from her neck to scrape down her abdomen and linger for a second over her womb.
Zzzzt. Snap! A bright light flashed before her eyes, then all was dark.
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, wash my soul clean . . . . Forgive me, for I have sinned . . .
“Oh, for the love of St. Jude!” Valerie clicked the escape key on her laptop again and again, as if she could punch the life back into the hand-me-down computer with its antiquated hard drive and mind of its own. “Come on, come on!” she muttered between clenched teeth, then gave up, unable to turn the damned thing off without taking out the battery.
That did it! Tomorrow, she'd go computer shopping despite the dismal state of her bank account. She still had a little room on her credit card, but then, once she bought a new computer, it would be maxed out as well.
The price of divorce, she told herself callously as she shoved the laptop onto the rumpled bedclothes. In her mis-matched pajamas, she walked into the kitchen of the small carriage house and dipped her head under the faucet for a drink, then stared through the rain-spattered window to the uneasy New Orleans night.
The air was thick, sweat dampening her skin, with the coming of summer. She cranked open the window, allowing the dank smell of the slow-moving river to roll inside. Far away, the hum of traffic could be heard on the freeway, a steady rush that competed with the song of crickets and the low rumble of toads.
Pealing forlornly, the bells of St. Marguerite's struck off the hours of midnight.
Inexplicably, Val's skin crawled. Her cop-instincts went into overdrive and she felt, again, as if she were being watched, that hidden eyes were assessing her.
“Too many nights with the sci-fi channel,” she told herself. “Too many nightmares.”
For a fleeting second a splintered memory with sharp, brittle edges pierced her brain. Looming. Indistinct. But evil.
Her blood chilled with the image. Draped in black, with cruel eyes and a foul order, the sinister creature grew larger. Threatening. A chain dangling from its clawlike hand.
No one could help her.
No one could save her.
“Husssshhh,” the creature hissed, lowering the silvery noose. “Hush.”
Camille! Val thought in horror.
This demon wants Camille . . .
In a blink, the horrifying image disappeared, shrinking into the corners of her mind. From experience Val knew it would lurk there until, unbidden, it would rise again.
“Leave me alone,” she muttered under her breath and ignored the hairs that had raised on the back of her arm. The fiend was a figment of her imagination--nothing more; nothing a sane, stable woman would believe.
Val took a steadying breath as the church bells of St. Marguerite's still tolled plaintively through the night. Her insides still cold, she gripped the edge of the counter to steady herself and force the ugly apparition back where it belonged, into the darkest nether regions of her mind, the crevices where sanity didn't dare tread.
Don't go there, she warned herself silently. Do not go there . . . Dwelling on the insidious pictures in her mind would only create a self-fulfilling and hideous prophesy.
“Everything's fine,” she said out loud, though her insides were trembling. Quivering with a fear that she tried to keep hidden. No one could know. She was a strong woman. Nightmares or visions conjured by her willing brain weren't allowed to scare her. “For God's sake, get a grip!”
Willing herself to let go of the counter and her ridiculous fears, she told herself she was just stressed out. Who wouldn't be? An impending divorce, a lost career, a business teetering on the edge of bankruptcy and a sister, her only sibling, intent on taking vows in a convent right out of the middle ages! And then there was the email from Camille. Disturbing.
Val thought about St. Marguerite's, the historic cathedral where her sister, who would eventually take her vows.
That is, if they let her.
It still seemed so out of character for Camille, the party girl. Always with a boyfriend, always fending off trouble. From what she knew about St. Marguerite's, Valerie doubted that her sister's sins would be easily forgiven in that arena. St. Marguerite's Convent, with its locked gates, antiquated communication system, and strict rules, seemed more like a medieval fortress than house of God; it was an isolated place the rest of the twenty-first century had zipped past. The people within those hallowed walls harkened back to earlier centuries where archaic conventions, cruel discipline and antediluvian opinions prevailed. Probably because of the Abbess or Mother Superior or whatever that old bat Sister Charity called herself. A throwback to the days of wearing dark habits, rapping the knuckles of unsuspecting students, and using threats and fear over praise, Sister Charity was as much a warden as she was leader.
Why Camille ever decided to take her vows at an institution as rigid as Saint Marguerite's remained a mystery.
No, it's not. You know the reasons; you just can't face them.
A whisper of evil skittered through Sister Lucia's brain.
Her eyes flew open to darkness, the blackness of her tiny room in the convent. Her skin crawled and her mouth tasted of metal. Father in heaven, please let this just be the remnant of a bad dream, a nightmare that-
There it was again, that horrid precursor of what was to come. She tossed off the thin covers and slid to her knees, her nightgown puddling around her as she instinctively reached for her rosary draped over the metal bedpost. She made the sign of the cross with the crucifix and began to silently recite the Apostles Creed, her lips moving in the darkness, sweat collecting at the base of her skull. “I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth . . .” And she did believe. Fervently. Usually she found comfort in this ritual she'd learned in her youth. In times of stress or worry or need, she sought solace by running her fingers over the glossy beads and whispering the prayers that brought her closer to God.
Pssst! Again the horrid electric current that hissed beneath her skin brought sweat to her brow.
Not here, oh, please . . . not in the convent! Her prayer was interrupted and she started over, squeezing her eyes shut, leaning into the thin mattress with her elbows, her brain thrumming.
Once again she touched the crucifix to her forehead and began the succession of prayers that came so easily to her mind.
This had to be a mistake, she thought wildly as the familiar words slipped over her lips. Since she'd entered St. Marguerite's, intent on taking her final vows, she'd had no . . . “incidents”, as her mother had called them. She'd thought she was safe here.
“I believe in--”
Psssst!!! Louder this time.
The painful jolt cut through the darkness.
Lucia sucked in her breath and dropped her rosary, her prayer cut short. She stood, abandoning any attempt to forestall the inevitable. Walking barefoot over the hard wood floors, she sensed the tremor of trouble brewing as surely as a hurricane off the Louisiana coast. In her mind's eye, she saw the chapel of this very parish and blinked against an onslaught of images.
An indistinct face.
Billowing dark robe.
Twisted, deadly lips.
A heavy door clicking as it closed.
A bloody crucifix, crimson dripping from Christ's sacred wounds.
Death, a voice intoned over the raw static in her brain.
She flew into the hall, dimly lit by scattered wall sconces, and descended the curving staircase. Her fingers trailing along the worn bannister, she followed a predetermined path. Pale light passed through the dark panes of stained glass, the heat of the June day still lingering into night.
Why? Lucia wondered frantically. Why now? Why here?
It's nothing . . . just a bad dream; all your fears crystalized, that's all.
Her heart pounding like an erratic drum, she turned toward the chapel, the smaller place of worship tucked behind the huge cathedral. With a sense of darkness propelling her forward, she pushed through double doors that parted easily and stepped into God's house. The chapel was usually a place of light and goodness, forgiveness and redemption, but tonight she sensed that evil as dark as Satan's soul lurked there, lying in wait.
“Father, please be with me.” She dipped her fingertips in holy water and crossed herself as she entered the nave, where all of the images congealed. Red votive candles flickered, casting shadows that shifted on the stone walls. A massive crucifix was suspended from the arched ceiling over the altar where Jesus, in his agony, watched over the chapel.
Instinctively Lucia made the sign of the cross again. The thrumming in her brain began to throb.
From the corner of her eye she caught a glimpse of movement - a dark figure in billowing robes disappearing through a door.
“Father?” she called, thinking the person running from the chapel was a priest. The door clicked closed. “Wait! Please . . .” She started for the doorway. “Father -- oh, no--” Her voice left her as she glimpsed a flutter of gauzy white fabric, the scallop of lace undulating on the floor by the first row of pews.
Her heart nearly stopped.
The horrid, rapid-fire images that had awakened her seared through her brain again:
A door shutting as the church bells pealed.
Just like before.
The whisper of evil brushed the back of her neck again. She nearly stumbled as she raced forward, her bare feet slapping the cold stone floor, echoing to the high, coved ceiling.
This can't be happening!
It can't be!
Stumbling, running, afraid of what she might find, she dashed to the front of the apse, to the altar and the glorious, now dark stained windows. The crucifix towered to the high ceiling, the Son of God staring down in his pain.
“Oh, God!” Lucia cried. “Dios! Mi Dios!”
Horror shrieked up her spine.
A crumpled form lay in front of the first row of pews.
“¡No, por favor Jesús, no, no, no!”
Her blood turned to ice at the sight of the body, supine near the baptismal font. Biting back a scream, Lucia fell to her knees near the bride dressed in a fragile, tattered wedding dress. A thin, unraveling veil covered her face.
Lucia's stomach wrenched as she recognized Sister Camille, her face pale in death, her lips blue, her eyes wide and staring through the sheer lace.
“Oh, sweet Jesus. . .” Lucia gasped. She touched Camille's still-warm flesh, searching for a pulse at the nun's neck, where small bruises circled her throat. Her stomach threatened to spew. Someone had done this to Camille, tried to kill her. Oh, God, was she still alive? Did she feel the flicker of a pulse, the slightest movement beneath Camille's cooling skin? Or was it only a figment of her own imagination?
“Camille,” Lucia coaxed desperately, her voice cracking, “Don't let go, please. Oh, please . . . Mi, Dios!”
The ringing bells overhead sounded like a death knell.
She looked up. “Help! Someone help me!” Her voice rose to the rafters, echoing back to her. “Please!”
To the near-dead woman, she whispered, “Camille, I'm here. It's Lucia. You hang in there . . . please, please . . . it's not your time . . .” But someone had decided Camille needed to die, and despite her good thoughts, Lucia knew of one person who wanted Camille Renard to die.
She whispered a quick prayer to the Father, praying with all her soul, then, tears filling her eyes bent close to Camille's ear. “Don't let go.” With her own gown, she tried to staunch the blood, to stop the spreading pool of blood from the wounds on Camille's neck.
Camille didn't move.
Skin ashen. Cooling.
Blood flow slowed to nothing.
Lucia was frantic. She had to do something! Anything! Please God, do not take her. Not now . . . not yet . . . Oh, Father!
“Help!” Lucia screamed again, unwilling to leave the friend she'd known so closely for a year, a woman she'd known of most of her life. She couldn't be dying . . . couldn't be . . .
Lucia's mind was awash with images of Sister Camille, beautiful and lithe, with her secretive smile and eyebrows that would arch to show amusement or disbelief. A troubled woman, yes, a nun with far too many secrets, one she'd met long ago before they'd independently decided to take their vows.
Throat closing, she whispered, “It's not your time, Camille. You hear me? Don't leave . . . don't you . . .”
But the poor tortured woman was gone, her spirit rising from the lifeless shell that was her body. Stolen from her.
“No . . . please . . . Father--”
Thud! Somewhere a door banged shut as the bells pealed again.
Someone was coming!
Good. “Just hold on,” she said to the ashen body, though she knew intuitively that it was too late. “Help is coming.” Her words hung in the chill night air.
Lucia felt a shiver slide down her spine as doubt clouded her mind. She linked her fingers through those of her friend and sent up another desperate prayer as the church bells in the steeple began tolling off the hours.
Was help really on the way?
Or was the person who had done this to Camille returning?
Val was calmer now, the quivering of her insides having subsided. She filled her favorite, chipped mug with hot water, set it in the microwave, and watched as hidden letters appeared. The heavy cup, bought on-line at ABC.com, displayed the cast members of Lost, her once favorite television show.
It had been a Christmas gift from Camille, a treasure she'd bought before the show had aired its final episode.
Back in the days when they hadn't let anything drive a wedge between them. Not even Slade Houston.
“Oh, Cammie,” she whispered, shaking her head at their own ridiculous fights as the microwave dinged. Gingerly gripping the cup's handle, she scrounged the last tea bag from a box and dunked the decaffeinated leaves into the near-boiling water.
Though it was midnight, sleep, for Valerie, was still hours away, if at all possible. What was it Slade had always said? That her insomnia was one of the reasons the department had kept her on; she was a workaholic who, because of her inability to sleep, could work sixteen hours straight while being paid for eight.
Then again, Slade was known to exaggerate.
Part of his ridiculous cowboy humor.
Twisting the kinks from her neck, she closed her eyes and, for a heartbeat, she saw her husband's face again: Strong beard-shadowed jaw, crooked half-smile with teeth that flashed white against skin tanned from hours working under the brutal Texas sun, and eyes smoldering a deep, smokey blue. Slade Houston. Tough as old leather; all rough-and-tumble cowboy, sexy as all get-out and just plain bad news.
So why was she thinking of him tonight?
And last night and the one before that and...
“Idiot,” she muttered under her breath as she willed Slade's image to disappear. The bells had stopped ringing sometime in the past few minutes. Good. Silence. Peace.
But the eerie sensation that something as very wrong tonight lingered and she couldn't help feeling on edge.
She'd visit Camille tomorrow, regardless of the Machiavellian methods that old bat, Sister Charity tried to use to dissuade her. “I'm sorry, but seeing your sister now is impossible. We have strict rules here,” she'd told Val the last time she'd tried to visit Camille unannounced. “Rules we abide by, rules sanctified by the Father.”
Yeah, right. If Sister Charity had any good intentions, Val had yet to see a one. In Val's opinion, the Reverend Mother was on a power trip fueled by self-importance and a skewed view of religion.
Always a bad combination.
And one, this time, Valerie intended to thwart come daybreak.
The last tolling bell faded to the sound of footsteps emanating from beyond the chapel walls. Lucia's skin crawled as she stared at the dead girl. She tried to pray, but couldn't find the words. Who had done this to Camille? Why? And the weird bridal dress, the ring of bloody drops around the neckline . . . what was that all about?
She glanced to the side door that had shut just as she'd arrived, and her heart hammered. Someone else had seen Sister Camille on the chapel floor. Lucia had crossed paths with either Camille's assailant or a witness to what had happened. Fear prickled the back of her neck as she wondered if help was on its way...or was the assailant returning?
Making the sign of the cross, Lucia turned toward the doorway and screamed at the top of her lungs. “Help!”
The side door swept open, banging against the wall. Mother Superior, an imposing woman in a long black habit, hurried into the nave. Her graying hair, which was usually concealed by her veil, appeared fuzzy and disheveled. “Sister Lucy! For the love of the Holy Mother, what's going on?” she demanded. Her skirts swished against the smooth floor and her face was a mask of disapproval, her lips pinched. Suddenly realizing where she was, she paused to quickly genuflect at the crucifix and make the sign of the cross over her ample bosom.
“It's Sister Camille...” Lucia rose, her gaze still upon Camille's body.
“What about . . . ? Oh!” The mother superior dragged in a quick breath as she rounded the final pew. “Saints be with us.” Wide skirts swooshing, she ran to the victim's side and dropped to her knees.
“It's too late. She's dead.”
“But how? Why?” Sister Charity whispered, as if she expected God to answer as she fussed over the corpse and said a quick prayer. “Who would do this?”
“I don't know . . . someone was here, before me,” Lucia said, trying to separate fact from fiction; the images that were real as opposed to those that had been conjured in her mind. “I saw the door to the hallway close.” Yes, yes, that was right. She pointed to the door that lead to a back hallway. “And . . . I think Sister Camille was alive at that point.”
The older nun touched Camille's wrist and placed her ear next to Camille's nose, listening for any sign of life. Lucia knew she would find none.
“What were you doing here, Sister Lucy?” Mother Superior asked, addressing Lucia in her formal name - the saint's name she had taken along with her vows.
“I, uh, heard something,” Lucia lied, as she had so often the past. No one here knew her secret, not even the priests to whom she confessed.
“Heard something? From your room?”
“Yes, I was on my way to the bathroom.”
As if she realized this conversation could wait, the Reverend Mother, still kneeling at Camille's side, ordered, “Go find Father Paul. Send him here.”
“Shouldn't we call the police?”
The Reverend Mother closed her eyes as if seeking patience. “Do as I say. After you send Father Paul, then go to my office and dial 9-1-1.”
“But, the police should be alerted first--”
“Don't argue! The best thing we can do for Sister Camille is to pray for her soul. Now, go! And if anyone else wakes up, send them back to their rooms!” Her expression brooked no argument and Lucia took off, walking rapidly through the very doorway where she'd seen someone exit. Send the other nuns back to their rooms? Cells, more likely. Or kennels. Like dogs. Oh, Lord, she knew she was not cut out to be a nun. Not with impure thoughts like these.
Heart pounding, she closed the door behind her and took off at a dead run...heading straight to the Reverend Mother's office. Let them punish her later, but right now she knew Camille was the priority. She pushed open the door with its frosted glass and stormed into Sister Charity's inner sanctuary.
Everything was neatly place on bookshelves that lined the room--books, candles, crucifixes, a healthy amaryllis with a heavy white bloom and a solitary picture of the Pope. Lucia rounded the big, worn desk, where far too many times she had sat on one of the uncomfortable visitor chairs, her hands clenched in anxiety, as the Mother Superior, across the expanse of lacquered walnut had lectured her. She reached for the telephone with its heavy receiver, a black dinosaur left over from the sixties or seventies, and dialed quickly, nervously waiting for the rotary dial to click into place.
“9-1-1. What's the nature of your emergency?” a woman's voice answered.
“Sister Camille is dead! There was some kind of accident here at St. Marguerite's Convent -- no, in the chapel -- and she's dead! I-I think she was killed. Please, please send someone quickly!” Her voice, already tremulous, was elevating with each word.
“What is the address?”
Lucia rattled off the street address and, when asked, her name and the phone number.
“What kind of an accident?”
“I don't know. Maybe . . . maybe she was strangled . . . all I really know is that she's dead and the Mother Superior is with her now.”
“Oh, I don't know! We need help. Please, please send help!”
“We are. Officers have been dispatched. You need to stay on the line.”
“I can't . . . I have to tell Father Paul.”
“Please, Miss Costa, do not hang up. Stay on the line--”
Ignoring the dispatcher, Lucia dropped the phone, letting it dangle, as she took off at a full run through the back door of the office, one only Sister Charity used.
Lucia's heart was a drum as she sprinted through the dark hallways with their gleaming floors, down the stairs and out double doors to a courtyard. As if Lucifer himself were chasing her, she raced through the rain-splattered cloister and past a fountain. Wind scuttled across the flagstones, kicking up wet leaves, tugging at the sodden hem of her nightgown.
She couldn't tell anyone about how she was awakened so abruptly in the middle of the night. What would she say? Anyone who heard about the voice that directed her, the beast she'd somehow unleashed, would think she was certifiable. As she did herself. She figured that voice in her head was between her and God. No one else. Not even the Father Paul or Father Frank. They might think she was possessed by a demon and maybe she was, but she just didn't want any attention drawn to her.
It's not about you! Camille is dead! Dead! Someone killed her and left her lifeless body in the chapel.
And somehow the voice new. Awoke her.
Oh, it was all so disturbing.
Through another door and under a dripping portico, she flew to Father Paul's door, where she pounded desperately.
“Father!” she cried, shivering in the pale glow of the priest's porch light. “Please! Father! There's been . . . an accident!”
Over the drip of rain, she heard footsteps behind her, the scrape of leather against wet stones. From the corner of her eye she saw movement in the shadows, a dark figure emerging through a garden gate. She gasped, stepped back and nearly tripped on her own hem as a large man appeared, his face white and stern, his eyes sunken and shadowed in the night.
“Father Frank,” she whispered, recognizing the younger priest. She had clasped her hand over her breasts and suddenly realized that the cool rain had soaked her cotton nightgown, which now pressed flush against her skin. The fabric clung to her body, hiding nothing in the watery light. “There's been an accident or . . . or . . .” She swallowed hard, aware of the secrets that Sister Camille had shared. Secrets about this tall man standing before her. “It's Sister Camille, in the chapel . . . she . . . she . . . ” And then she saw the blood leeching from his cassock, running in red rivulets onto the smooth, shimmering stones of the pathway.
“She's dead,” he said, his rough voice barely audible over the gurgle of rainwater in the gutters, his gaze tortured. “And it's my fault. God forgive me, it's all my fault.”
“Still up?” Freya's voice cut into her fantasy.
“Always.” Val tried to ignore the worries about Camille. She tossed the tea bag into the sink and glanced over her shoulder toward the archway leading to the main house. When they'd bought this old inn, Val had been attracted to the small living space of the carriage house, while Freya took over the private quarters just off the main kitchen. Freya, all tousled reddish curls and freckles, appeared in shorts and an oversized T shirt. She was cradling a cup with whipped cream piled so high it was frothing and running over the lip of her cup. Somehow, Freya managed to lick up the drip before it landed on the cracked linoleum.
At five-three, Freya still had the honed body of the gymnast she'd been in high school, and the metabolism of a girl twenty years her junior.
“You look like hell,” Freya observed.
“Really, you should try to sleep.”
If only. She turned and leaned her hips against the counter. “Insomniacs R Us.” The inability to sleep was something she and Freya shared in common.
Freya toasted her friend. “Mine is decaf. Though it doesn't mean I'll actually fall asleep anytime soon.”
“I've got decaf, too. Something called 'Calm'.” Val took an experimental sip. Hot water tasting of ginger and chamomile singed the tip of her tongue. “It's supposed to help you chill . . . Wait a minute, let me see exactly what it's guaranteed to do.” She picked up the empty box and read the label. “Oh, yeah, here it is . . . 'Calm's unique formula is guaranteed to ease the worries and cares of the world away with each flavorful swallow. With hints of ginger and jasmine, this chamomile blend will relax and soothe you.”
“Sure,” Freya mocked, wrinkled her nose. “Soothe you? No way. Anyway, it sounds disgusting.”
“No, just boring for fans of triple caramel-chocolate-macchiatos with Red Bull chasers.”
“Very funny.” Freya couldn't help but grin as she climbed onto one of the two café chairs near Val's bistro table.
A friend since eighth grade, Freya Martin had convinced Val to invest in this, their eight-bedroom bed and breakfast inn in the Garden District, a few blocks off St. Charles Avenue. Named the Briarstone House, the old Georgian had been minimally damaged during Hurricane Katrina, but the owners, Freya's great aunt and uncle, had decided they weren't about to weather any more Category 5 storms. Actually, they didn't want to see any category 1, 2, 3, or 4 either.
Auntie and Uncle had wanted out of the Gulf Coast and fast.
Freya had wanted in.
She'd bought out Uncle Blair and Aunt Susie on a contract. Leaving most of the furnishings, they filled an RV and drove west, into the sunset, searching for a dry climate, new snow-bird friends and endless nights of card games and martinis.
To Val, right now, her nerves on perpetual edge, that sounded like heaven.
Valerie had been at a crossroads in her own life when Freya had asked her to become her partner. It hadn't taken much to convince her that an investment in a creaking old Georgian manor, rumored to be haunted, no less, was the best idea in the universe. Especially since the inn was barely a mile as the crow flies from Camille and St. Marguerite's.
Since Freya and her live-in boyfriend had recently parted ways, Freya had decided she needed a business partner. She'd emailed Val with the details, and Val jumped on the opportunity.
A deal was struck.
The rest, as they say, was history.
Some of it bad history.
And now, with the gurgle of rain running through the gutters and the church bells now silent, Val wondered if she'd made the right decision. Again. And the eerie feeling that had been with her earlier, still remained. Mentally shaking it off, she glanced at the window, but, of course, couldn't see the church spire in the dark.
“Okay, spill it. Something's wrong, isn't it?” Freya asked, eyebrows puckering. “Wait a minute, forget I asked. Something's always wrong. Let me guess . . . It's Slade.”
“It's not Slade,” she said emphatically, and Freya rolled her eyes, not buying it.
“If you say so.”
“Trust me, it's not Slade.”
“It's always Slade. We should talk about him.”
“No way.” Scowling, Val skewered Freya with her best don't-go-there glare.
“Really, you should know that--”
“We've been over this ground before. I don't want to talk or think about him until I have to. In court.”
“I'm serious, Freya. Slade's off limits.” She really didn't want to discuss her ex again. Especially not tonight, when she was feeling so off-center; when the nightmare that usually only appeared
Freya looked as if she were about to say something more, but thought better of it. “Fine. Just remember I tried.”
“Did he do something I don't know about?”
“Probably.” Val lifted a shoulder. “Who knows and who cares?”
Freya opened her mouth, but before she could bring up Slade's name again, Val said, “It's Cammie, okay? I haven't heard from her in over a week.” The old timbers of the house creaked overhead and, for a second, Val thought she heard footsteps. The ghost again, she supposed. Freya thought the house was haunted; she didn't.
“Hear that?” Freya asked. Unlike Val, Freya was a believer in all things supernatural.
“The house settling.”
“It settled two hundred years ago.”
Val rolled her eyes.
Freya got the message. “Okay, okay. You're worried cuz Cammie's incommunicado. So what? I don't hear from Sarah for weeks and she's my twin. If you believe all the twin literature, we're supposed to be on the same wave length and have some special,” she made air quotes “spiritual connection.” She rolled her eyes and took another sip. “They say we formed a psychic bond from our time together in the womb. Somehow, Sarah never got the message.”
Val ran her thumb over the chipped ridge of her mug. “But Cammie is different.”
“Cammie is probably just busy. You know, doing what nuns do. Praying, doing penance, good deeds, whatever.” Freya wiggled the fingers of her free hand as if to indicate there were a myriad of things keeping Cammie from communicating. “Maybe she's taken one of those vows of silence.”
“Cammie?” Val questioned. Gregarious, out-going, flirty, over-the-top Camille Renard? “You do remember her. Right?”
“Oh, yeah.” Freya bit her lip. “Always in trouble.”
“That hasn't changed,” Val admitted, the uneasy feeling returning.
“I know, that's really the problem, isn't it? Cammie just doesn't seem cut out to be a nun.” Another sip. “Just like you weren't cut out to be a cop.”
Val felt that same little bite that nipped at her when she thought about her career gone sour. She wanted to argue and defend herself, to tell Freya that she'd been a good cop, but the effort would have been futile. A gust of heavy wind slipped through the open window, rattling the blinds, reminding her how she'd screwed up. “Well, I don't have to worry about that now, do I?”
“Hey, I didn't mean--”
“I know.” She waved in the air, as if swatting a lazy fly. “Don't worry about it.” But it was a sore subject, one that burned a hole in her brain and kept her up at night. She slid the window down and caught a watery image of herself: pale and ghostly skin, cheekbones high and sharp, wide mouth turned down, and worried hazel eyes. Her curly auburn hair was scraped back into back into a drooping ponytail. God she was a mess. Inside and out. Rain skewed her reflection as she latched the window tight. “Anyway, you're right. I do look like hell.”
“Nothing seventy-two hours of sleep won't cure.”
Val doubted it.
“Anyone ever tell you that you worry too much?”
“Then you should take it as gospel. Quit dwelling on Cammie, okay. So she's doing the 'running off to a nunnery thing'. It'll pass.” One side of Freya's mouth lifted. “I'm surprised she hasn't already been thrown out.”
If you only knew, Valerie thought, sipping her tea and glancing out the window again into the thick night where the spire of St. Marguerite's cathedral was cloaked in darkness, invisible.
Oh, God, Freya, if you only knew.
Slade Houston squinted into the darkness. The tires of his old pickup hissed over the slick pavement and the wipers were having one helluva time keeping up with the torrent as he drove across the state line into Louisiana. His old dog Bo, a hound of indeterminate lineage, sat beside him, his nose pressed to the glass of the passenger window. Every once in a while Bo cast a bald eye in Slade's direction and hoping for him to crack the damned thing.
“Not tonight, boy,” Slade said as he fiddled with the radio which crackled from interference. He found a station playing an old Johnny Cash song, but the lyrics couldn't keep his mind from returning to reason for driving in the middle of the night. A fool's mission, at least according to his brothers, Trask and Zane, who'd let him hear it while he was packing up the Ford just before dusk.
“Why the hell you want anything to do with that woman is beyond me,” Trask, his middle brother had muttered under his breath. “Only gonna bring you grief.”
“More grief,” Zane, the youngest, had added.
Not that Slade had asked for any advice as he'd loaded his pickup with a sleeping bag and duffle before whistling to Bo.
“Just take care of things. I shouldn't be gone long,” Slade had said, as the dog, with his perpetual limp and gnawed ear, leaped into the cab. Slade had slammed the door shut and felt the heat of his siblings' sullen glares.
“How long?” Zane had asked.
“Don't know yet. It depends.”
“Just be smart,” Trask had advised.
“Why start now?” Slade had flashed a grin to lighten things up, but the joke had fallen flat. Neither brother had cracked the hint of a smile; they just glared at him with their jaws set.
That hadn't been too much of a surprise. Neither one of them had liked Valerie before the marriage, and their opinions hadn't changed much over the years.
Slade had tried to let it drop as he climbed behind the wheel. Through the open window crickets had taken up their evening chorus and the western hills had been silhouetted by the brilliant shades of orange and gold.
Trask hadn't been ready to give up the fight. “You plan on bringing her back here with ya?”
“Valerie?” he said, just to get under his brother's skin. As if there was anyone else. “Don't know yet.”
“If ya do hook up with her again,” Trask said, “then you're a bigger fool than I take ya for.”
“She wouldn't be willing, even if I asked.” That was the truth.
“She's bad news,” Zane reminded him.
“Don't I know it.” But he'd cranked on the engine of the dusty rig anyway, executed a three-point turn in the gravel drive without a second look at the weathered two-storied ranch house he'd grown up in, and hit the gas. He didn't bother watching the setting sun light the sky ablaze behind the barns with their creaking weather vanes of wild mustangs. His old Ford had bounced down the rutted lane, dried sow thistle and Johnson grass scratching the underbelly of the truck as it rolled past acres upon acres of fields dotted with cattle and horses, land he and his brothers had inherited from their father.
A red-tailed hawk had swooped through the darkening sky as he drove past the old windmill that sat solitary and still in the dead air. A good omen. Right?
He'd snapped on the radio, then turned the truck past the battered mailbox onto the county road. Through the small town of Bad Luck, he drove until he came to San Antonio where he cruised onto I-10, the long strip of asphalt cutting dead east. He'd left his brothers, Texas and the sun far behind him.
To chase down a woman who didn't want him.
He had the divorce papers in the glove compartment of his truck to remind him of that sorry fact.