Authors: Jamie Freveletti
For Alex and Claudia,
with love and laughter
mma Caldridge found the bloody offering on her credenza just before midnight. She had been working late preparing samples and organizing slides in the makeshift lab set up in the rented villa's spacious garage, and returned to the main house for another cup of coffee.
A small votive candle flickered next to the pile of feathers and hacked-off rooster foot, all arranged in a triangle on top of a pentagram drawn in a red substance that looked like blood. Emma's lab, Pure Chemistry, was located in Miami, and she had seen Santeria altars before, with their animal sacrifice and elaborate rituals, but this was nothing like that. This was voodoo.
She stayed still and listened for any sound that might indicate that someone was still in the house. The room was dark, the world asleep. She heard the rush of waves in the distance, the sound of a breeze moving through the trees outside, but nothing that indicated intruders. Her heart thudded in her chest, but she remained motionless, silent. If the intruders were in the house and expected to hear her scream or otherwise react, they would be disappointed.
Emma was used to facing danger. While she hadn't been tested in quite a while, her instincts had come back quickly when needed. Now, she remained quiet. The dark arts were a frightening thing, but she knew that the danger in the message wasn't from the mass of feathers, the dead animal, or the pentagram. In her experience, the danger came from the humans who created the mess and would be part of the corporeal world.
That she remained still came from a more practical consideration as well. She knew that if the intruders weren't in the house, it was entirely possible they were outside waiting for her to burst out of the front door and run to her car. Again, they would be disappointed. She rarely acted out of panic.
Emma pulled a pencil out of a cup next to the phone and used the eraser to lift the mass of feathers. Underneath, she found the doll. Its body was fashioned of hastily stitched burlap that sported brown yarn for hair and two black felt dots for eyes. A toothpick jutted from the center of the doll's forehead.
Emma snorted at the crude scare tactic. She was unafraid of ghosts or demons and things that went bump in the night. If it made noise, then a human, animal, or physical element created it. She heard the sound of breaking glass in the distance. The intruder was in the garage.
She dropped the pencil and ran through the darkened house, out the French doors at the back of the kitchen and onto the lawn. The garage held her work. Work that she needed to keep Pure Chemistry functioning as a going concern. Her heart thudded when she thought of someone destroying it. As she neared the garage she saw the shape of something that may have been a man, standing in front of her carefully prepared slides. He swept something across the table and she watched in disbelief as bottles, jars, and the containers holding a week's worth of work went crashing to the cement floor. She ran toward him, barely noticing the sharp gravel of the drive on the soles of her bare feet.
The garage's overhead light cast a yellow glow over the tables that Emma had set up to form the work space. The man upended the nearest table, sending another set of Petri dishes, test tubes, and even a microscope tumbling to the floor.
“Stop it!” Her voice was harsh. He froze. As she neared she could see the machete in his hand. It was what he'd used to sweep the bottles off the table. “That's my work. You have no right to be here.” The man stayed still, saying nothing and keeping his face turned away. Emma heard the gravel crunch behind her.
“He responds only to me.”
A woman stood at the corner of the drive. The weak moonlight lit her dark skin. She wore a scarf wrapped around her head and a pareo was knotted at her hip. She smiled, and her teeth, straight and white, glowed in the night, givingÂ her a feral appearance. Emma leveled a stare at her.Â The woman's hard eyes were what botheredÂ her most. They revealed a person without a soul, like the witch women in the Sudan who rode with marauding armies, wore black robes, and beat on drums while soldiers killed everyone in the village. The woman at the corner of the drive reeked of depravity. It was all Emma could do not to take a step back, away from the force of ill will that flowed from her in waves.
“He's my slave,” the woman said. “A zombie.”
“Don't be ridiculous,” Emma replied, her voice sharp. She knew better than to show fear or acquiesce to the woman's bizarre claim, but found it difficult to maintain her ground. She hadn't expected to meet with evil in the middle of the night on a beautiful Caribbean island. Yet she managed to remain in place. “He's a trespasser. And so are you.” Her anger fizzed at the deliberate destruction of her work. The woman moved closer, walking in an exaggerated, swaying motion.
are the outsider on this island. We belong here. Leave. And take your bottles and experiments with you.”
Emma glanced at the man, but he remained still, not moving a muscle. His stillness was strange, and a frisson of a chill ran through her. She wished that she had thought to bring her cell phone. She was loath to leave these two even for the time it would take to retrieve it. If she did, she was afraid they would destroy even more.
“I saw the mess you made in the entrance hall,” she said. “I'm going to call Island Security about your breaking and entering.”
The woman chuckled, but the noise sounded wicked. “Island Security knows better than to interfere with a bokor priestess.”
Emma was glad that the man stayed frozen during this exchange. She didn't want to grapple with both the woman and him. She took a step toward the woman.
don't know better, and I'm telling you one more time to leave. Now. And take your companion and absurd talk of zombies with you.”
The woman raised an eyebrow. “Ahh, the scientist in you doesn't believe? Be warned. You have no idea what you're dealing with here. With one word from me he'll cut you to ribbons. There's no negotiating with him.”
“I don't recall offering any negotiation. I said leave. Both of you.” Emma kept the man in her peripheral vision. With the machete in his hand, he didn't need to be a zombie to hurt her. Flesh and blood human would be enough.
The woman flicked her hand. “Kill her,” she said.
The man burst into motion. He raised the machete and sprinted to her, closing the distance between them in seconds. His hair hung in thick Rasta braids down his back, and his face was contorted in a strange spasm. His eyes pointed straight to the sky even as he ran toward her, swinging the machete. It was as if he was not in control and that his body was responding to a force outside of his mind. His tongue whipped right and left, adding to the horrific sight. He started screaming in a high-pitched wail.
Emma spun and ran toward the villa. She heard the priestess's harsh laugh and the man's feet on the gravel driveway behind her. She had the fleeting thought that the man was insane and if he were to catch her would show no mercy.
She made it to the French doors and wrenched them open, tumbling through the entrance and slamming them behind her. She turned and flipped the dead bolt just as he crashed into the glass with his hands. The machete's blade made a clanging sound on the pane.
He stood there, breathing heavily, his weirdly canted eyes still staring upward. She crossed to the phone on the kitchen counter, dialed the emergency number and glanced back.
He was gone.
ameron Sumner sat at the blackjack table and watched the croupier deal out the cards. The woman to his left watched as well. She had long blonde hair, a full figure, pretty face with brown eyes, and wore no wedding ring. He estimated her age at about twenty-eight, just a couple of years younger than him. It was unusual that such a young woman played the casinos alone. Perhaps she had a gambling problem, he thought, but rejected the idea as soon as he had it. She didn't appear desperate or stressed at all, and wasn't sweating with the thrill of the game, as most chronic gamblers did. Sumner had noticed that whatever table he joined, she inevitably appeared. She didn't speak to him, but played her hand with intelligence and calm, hitting when the odds were against the dealer and sticking when they weren't. She won three out of four hands.
He kept playing, lightly scratching the table with his cards to indicate to the croupier that he wanted a hit, making a small wave to stick, and watched the woman do the same. When the cocktail waitress appeared, Sumner ordered a Maker's Mark whiskey, the woman seltzer water with lemon. It was at that moment that he knew she was staking him out. She was on duty and not drinking.
He completed the hand, tipped the croupier, took his chips and pushed away from the table. The Maker's Mark came with him to the roulette wheel, where he played his favorite number: 32. A former girlfriend used to despair of his adventurous side until she'd become interested in numerology. After that she proclaimed his life path number to be 32, shrugged, said it was in his blood, and embraced it wholeheartedly. He didn't believe in numerology, but playing the number reminded him of her, and he smiled.
Twenty minutes later the blonde joined a nearby wheel. Close enough to see him, but not at the same table. She would move closer, he was sure of it. After twenty minutes more she strolled over and took the empty seat next to him. He smiled inwardly. After a few moments she made an attempt to reach across the roulette wheel to place her chips on a number located at the far side.
“Excuse me,” she said as she leaned over him. He smelled her perfume and was treated to a full view of her chest in her low, but not too low, blouse.
“Of course,” he said. He shifted his chair back to allow her access. The wheel turned and landed on 32. The croupier doled out Sumner's winnings and pushed them across the felt tabletop with his stick.
Sumner was on the small island of St. Martin on business. As a supervisor in the Air Tunnel Denial program, he flew intercept planes for the United States Southern Hemisphere Drug Defense program. Generally he and his crew operated out of Key West, but the recent upsurge in the areas of the Caribbean and West Indies islands had altered the ATD's focus. Sumner's job was to locate suspicious flights, usually flying under radar, warn them against crossing into United States territories and, once they did, arrest or intercept the planes before they landed. He was also charged with investigating the origin of the flights and putting an end to the drug operation.
He figured the woman could either be an undercover security officer hired by the casino, a member of the small island's police force, undercover, or a foil hired by the drug cartel to compromise or eliminate him before he had a chance to shut down the operation. He hoped she wasn't part of the cartel, but he thought that the most likely scenario.
Sumner won two rounds in a row, decided that was the best he would do against the house, and once again collected his chips. He swallowed the last of the whiskey before strolling to the window to cash out. After pocketing his winnings he headed to the exit. The blonde woman intercepted him.
“Leaving already?” Her voice was low and husky. She stood in front of him holding a stack of chips in one hand and her own drink in the other.
He nodded. “Quitting while I'm ahead.”
“The house isn't going to like that.” She smiled at him.
“It's such a small amount, I doubt they'll care.”
“Maybe you should stay and have a drink in the bar. It's quite early by island standards.” Her words were light but her gaze pointed. Sumner thought that perhaps she was a call girl working the casino, except for what he saw in her eyes. He thought he read a warning in them.
“Do you work for the casino?”
She looked surprised and shook her head. “Not at all. What gave you that impression?”
“You seem reluctant to let me leave.”
She raised an eyebrow. “Just thinking that you'll enjoy yourself more here than at home.”
“I have a good book.” She looked a bit stung, and he said, “But I thank you for your concern. I'll enjoy the quiet.”
She shrugged. “I hope you do. Good-bye.” She turned and walked back into the maze of tables.
The balmy air smelled of saltwater and engine grease, a combination that wafted off a nearby pier. Sumner crawled into the small rental car and started back home. He drove carefully, keeping with the flow of traffic on the narrow road with one lane in either direction.
His rental was actually the beach house for a much larger estate. St. Martin's crime rate had been escalating in recent years, and as a result the estate was gated, with two large dogs that roamed the grounds. Sumner hit the button and watched behind him in the rearview mirror while waiting for the gate to open. In the distance he heard the dogs barking. He'd have a few minutes, if he was lucky, to drive through before they swarmed over the road. The gate swung closed behind him just as the dogs appeared. They were in full howl, and the largest, an Akita with an impressive ruff around his neck, began snapping at the car tires. Sumner proceeded ahead at a slow pace, using the car bumper to nudge the dogs out of the way. One, a large Rhodesian ridgeback incongruously named Susie, put her paws on the driver's side window and peered in at him, her big nose sniffing at the glass. Her bark turned to a sound of welcome once she recognized him.
The big house sat on the bluff above, with lights blazing. Even at the distance of four hundred yards, Sumner could hear the beat of heavy dance music as the inhabitants partied. He drove through the palm trees on either side and down the winding road to the beach. His place was considered a small guest house despite its three bedrooms, dedicated pool, and location on the water. He killed the engine and stepped out of the car.
He was alone. The dogs had followed him halfway down before heading back to the entrance. A sliver of moonlight shot across the gently moving waves, and he stood there a moment, enjoying the sound of water lapping against the shore. He heard a padding noise and then Susie loped into view, her long tail wagging as she approached. She pushed her head against his knee in greeting. He reached down to scratch her ears before turning to the door. He was three steps away from the entrance when Susie began to growl.
He paused, straining his ears to pick up any hint of what the dog had noticed. He focused his senses around the heavy bass still pounding from the house above. Hearing nothing else, he took another step toward the door. Susie's growls grew louder and she began to pace in front of him. He kept moving forward and the dog subsided, walking alongside. When they reached the entrance, Susie sniffed at it in loud inhalations, her sides heaving. She snorted then and shook her head, stepping back.
Sumner paused again. The back of his neck tingled and he wondered if something, or someone, was waiting for him on the other side of the panel. He reversed himself and moved away. The beach house had a second, rarely used rear door off the laundry room that led onto a backyard with a clothesline stretched across it. He headed that way, keeping his head down and moving as silently as they could. Susie stayed with him. Reaching the door, he slid his key into the lock. It turned with a snick and he slipped inside. Susie pushed in after him, knocking the door wider with her big body. He grabbed her collar to hold her in place.
He decided against turning on a light as he worked his way down the hall. The dog's nails clicked against the floor and for a moment he wished he'd left her outside, except he had no weapon other than Susie. In full howl and enraged, she made a formidable sight. He peered into the darkened living area. A far bank of windows faced the ocean, taking full advantage of the view. To his left was the front door.
A glance at it told him everything he needed to know. A tangle of wires ran from what looked like a car battery to the door handle. An LED display glowed red. Sumner couldn't see what it was and didn't bother to stay. He spun around, dragging Susie with him, and ran back the way he'd come. His heart beat in a crazy rhythm and his hand on the dog's leather collar was suddenly slick with sweat. He made it into the laundry room and managed to slam the door closed when the bomb exploded.