The swamp had four distinct seasons and with the seasons she had moods as well. Tonight she wore a mantle of purple, all different hues, dark swirls that filled the night sky and lighter lavenders that crept through the cypress trees. The moon illuminated the veils of moss hanging to the water’s edge, turning them a pale, silvery blue. Crimson and blue made up the color purple and it was evident in the splashes of dark red slashing through the trees to pour into the duck-weed carpeted water below.
Saria Boudreux smiled as she carefully stepped from her airboat to the blind she’d set up, building it day by day, a little at a time, so as not to disturb the wildlife around her. She’d grown up on the edges of the swamp and there was nowhere she was happier. The blind was set up alongside an owl’s nest and she hoped to get night pictures, a coveted coup that could possibly bring her a great deal more money. More and more, her photography was allowing her an independence from her family’s store that she hadn’t thought possible.
Going to school had been difficult—she’d been miserable—until she’d discovered the world of photography. Most of her childhood had been spent running wild in the swamps, fishing, maintaining the crab pots, even helping hunt alligator with her father when her brothers were gone—which had been most of the time. She wasn’t used to authority in any form, and school was too structured, had too many rules. She couldn’t breathe with so many people around her. She had nearly fled into the swamp to avoid the rules when a kind teacher had pushed a camera into her hands and suggested she take some pictures of her beloved swamp.
There was a bit of a moon tonight, so she wouldn’t need the dim light she had used the last few nights to reveal activity in the nest. The babies made eager sounds as an adult approached, and as it descended, Saria tripped the camera’s shutter release. At once there was a burst of light, much like a lightning strike as she set off the electronic flash. Used to lightning, the birds never seemed to be bothered by the occasional bright flare.
She caught a glimpse of talons and a beak outlined against the night sky as the owl
dropped down to the nest and her heart sang. At night the swamp had a different music to it. The bellow of alligators could literally shake the earth. Movement was all around her, in the air, under her feet, in the water and through the trees. The natural rhythm even changed from daylight to dark. Sometimes, lately, she thought maybe she’d been spending too much time in the swamp. Her night vision seemed vastly improved, so that even without the flash of the camera, she often caught sight of the adult owls returning with their catch.
Flickering light caught her eye. Someone had to be poaching, or night fishing around Fenton’s Marsh. Fenton Lumber Company owned thousands of acres of swamp and leased it to most of the families that she knew. Seven of the families living in the burrow each leased several thousand acres to hunt, trap and fish, making their livings almost entirely in the swamp. Some of the men, like her brothers, worked on the Mississippi to bring in money as well, but their lives centered around the swamp.
Fenton’s Marsh was considered rather sacred and off limits to her people. She found herself scowling at the thought of anyone poaching there. Jake Fenton, the original owner, was well-respected by those living there—and it was hard to gain the trust and respect of anyone living in the swamp, yet all the families liked the older man and often invited him into their homes. He’d become a regular fixture in the swamps. More than once, several of the alligator hunters had allowed him along, a huge privilege when it was dangerous work and a greenhorn was never welcome. He had given them generous leases and no one would jeopardize their livelihood by biting the hand that fed them. Fenton was dead, but everyone knew that the marsh contained oil, and his grandson, Jack Bannaconni would be developing it one day. Out of respect for Jake Fenton, they left that marsh alone.
The adult owl took off again, the rustle of movement attracting her attention briefly, but she refrained from trying to get anymore shots. The lights in the swamp made her uneasy and she didn’t want the flashes from her camera light to give her away. She shifted position, easing the cramping in her hip, reaching almost unconsciously for her gear. She had meant to spend the night and go home in the early morning light, but the uneasiness was suddenly full blown fear and there weren’t a lot of things Saria was afraid of.
She had begun the climb down from her blind when she heard a ragged scream. The sound was human. Male and ugly, harsh—and terrified. The swamp came alive in an instant, birds protesting, frogs and insects going silent, the normally rhythmic world evaporating in an instant into chaos. The scream ended abruptly, a ragged, cut off note of agony.
Chills slid down her spine as she quietly slipped into her boat. Had an alligator managed to kill the person hunting it? As she pushed off into the carpet of duckweed a screaming roar of absolute fury cut through the swamp. Spitting growls and the deep roaring reverberated through the cypress grove. The world around her froze, every creature going still. Even the alligators fell silent. The hair on her arms and the back of her neck stood up. Goosebumps rose. The breath left her lungs in a rush.
A leopard. She knew the legends and myths of leopards in the swamp. The Cajuns who spoke of seeing one of the elusive creatures referred to them as ‘ghost cats’. A few naturalists said they didn’t exist. Others claimed they were Florida panthers out of the everglades, looking for new territories. She knew the real truth and they all had it wrong.
Saria sat very still in her boat, her body trembling, her hand feeling for the reassuring knife at her belt. She’d carried that knife from the time she was ten years old and she’d discovered the truth. Using careful, deliberate movements, she extracted her gun from the case beside her and checked to make certain it was perfect firing order. She had begun practicing at the age of ten and was a deadly shot—which had made her invaluable when hunting with her father. She could hit that small quarter-sized spot on the back of an alligator’s neck to kill it every single time.
She moistened her suddenly dry lips and waited there in the dark, heart pounding, hoping the trees and the root systems hid her. The slight wind carried her scent away from Fenton’s Marsh. The roars faded into the night and the silence stretched for what seemed hours. She knew the large predator was still close—the night was far too still.
She had tried to tell herself for years that she’d had nightmares, and maybe she’d actually convinced herself it was true until she heard that sound—that roar. And now she could hear a rasping call and then a sawing cough. She closed her eyes and pressed her fingertips to her temples, biting down hard on her lower lip. The sounds were unmistakable. She could pretend away many things, but not that. Once heard, it was never forgotten. She’d heard those sounds when she was a child.
Remy, her oldest brother was already sixteen when she was born, and already considered a man. He worked on the river, as did Mahieu by the time she was walking. The boys were in school and worked afterward for long hours while her mother succumbed slowly to some wasting disease and her father retreated further and further into the world of alcoholism. By the time she was ten, her mother was long gone and her father rarely spoke. Remy and Mahieu and Dash were all serving in the armed forces overseas and Gage had just joined. Lajos, at eighteen, ran the store and bar nearly single handedly and rarely had time to do more than grab a handful of food before rushing out to work.
Saria had been responsible for the house and the fishing lines, running wild in the bayou without supervision from that time on. The boys had come home for a mini-reunion before they scattered again, back to the service. They were barely aware of her existence, eating the meals she provided, but not really paying attention to the fact that she cooked. She had desperately wanted attention and felt alienated and left out—not angry exactly, but rather sad that she didn’t really fit in with them.
The night had been warm and humid and she hadn’t been able to sleep. She was so upset at the way her family treated her—as if she didn’t exist—as if she was beneath notice. She’d cooked and cleaned and taken care of their father, but like him, her brothers must have blamed her for her mother’s slow sink into depression and then death. She hadn’t known her mother when she was the vibrant woman they all remembered, she’d been too young when she’d died. At ten, she’d been resentful of their relationships when she felt as if she didn’t quite belong with them. She had gotten up and opened her window to let in the comforting sounds of the swamp—a world she could always count on, one she loved. The swamp beckoned to her.
Saria hadn’t actually heard her brothers leave the house, they all moved in eerie silence—they had most of their lives—but when, resentful and hurt, she’d gone out her window to find solace in the swamp as she had hundreds of nights, she caught sight of them slipping into the trees. She followed, staying well back so they wouldn’t hear her. She had felt so daring and a little superior. Her skills in the swamp were already impressive and she was proud of herself for being able to track them without them knowing.
That night had turned into a surreal nightmare. Her brothers had stripped. She’d sat up in a tree with her hands over her eyes wondering what they were up to. Who would take their clothes off in a swamp? When she’d peeked through her fingers, they were already shifting. Muscles contorted grotesquely, although later she’d admitted they’d all been fast and smooth at it. Fur covered their bodies and they were horrifying real as leopards. It was just— scary gross.
They had made those same noises as she heard tonight. Chuffing. Rasping, sawing coughs. They’d stretched tall and raked the trees with claws. The two smallest had gotten angry and erupted into a furious fight, swiping at one another with claws. The largest roared in fury and cuffed both hard enough to send them rolling, breaking up the fight. The sound of that ferocious roar had shaken her to her very core. Her blood went ice cold and she’d run all the way back to the house and hid under her covers, her heart pounding, a little afraid she was losing her mind.
Leopards were the most elusive of all large cats and the true shifters were even more so, keeping the knowledge even from family members who couldn’t shift—such as Saria. She’d tried to find out about them, but there were only obscure references in the library. She had convinced herself she’d made up the entire thing, but there had been other signs she couldn’t altogether ignore, now that she had seen them.
Her father often rambled on in his drunken state and she had listened carefully to the strange references he made to shifters. Surely they couldn’t really exist, but sometimes her father made random remarks about running free as he was meant. He’d stumble off to bed and then next morning there would be rake marks on the side of the house, or even in his room. He would be sanding the wood down and resealing it when she woke up. If she asked about the scratches, he refused to answer her.
Sitting in the swamp with only the night to protect her, she knew a leopard was a cunning predator and once on the hunt, he would find her. She could only hope he hadn’t notice those first few flashes of her camera’s light and would come looking. It seemed like hours before the natural rhythm of the swamp began to come to life, insects humming and the movements reassuring if not comforting as creatures once again began to carry on with their lives.
She stayed very still while the terrible tension drained out of her. The ghost cat was gone. She was certain of it. She immediately left the safety of the cypress swamp and made her way to Fenton’s Marsh. Her mouth was dry, her heart pounding in terror at what she might find, but she couldn’t stop herself.
The body laid half in and half out of the water, right at the edge of the marsh. She didn’t recognize the man. He appeared to be between thirty and forty, now lifeless and bloody. He’d been stabbed in the stomach, but he’d died from a suffocating bite to his throat. She could see the puncture wounds and the raking claw marks clearly on the body. Blood leaked into the water all around him, drawing insects and interest from alligators.
She pressed her fingers to her eyes for a moment, sickened that she didn’t know what to do. She couldn’t go to the police. Remy was a homicide detective. He was the police. And could she turn in her own brothers? Would anyone even believe her? Maybe this person had done something terrible and given one of her brothers no choice.
Saria made her way home slowly, dread filling her as she tied up her boat and stepped onto the dock. She stood for a moment, observing her home. The bar was dark, as was the house and store, but she knew with that strange warning radar she always seemed to have that she was not alone. She circled the house, determined to avoid her brothers. As she reached for the back door, it jerked inward and her oldest brother filled the doorway, towering over her, a handsome, dark-haired man with serious, watchful green eyes. Startled, she stepped back before she could stop herself. She knew he would catch the fear flickering in her eyes before she had a chance to cover up.
Remy’s eyes narrowed, inhaling, as if drawing her fear into his lungs. He swallowed whatever he’d been about to say, concern replacing impatience. “Are you hurt?” He reached to take her arm, to draw her into the house.
Saria stepped back out of reach, her heart pounding. Remy frowned and raised his voice. “Mahieu, Dash, get out here.” He didn’t take his eyes from her face. He didn’t even blink. “Where have you been, cher?” His tone demanded an answer.
He looked so big. She swallowed, refusing to be intimidated. “Why would that suddenly matter? You never wanted to know before.” She gave a little casual shrug.
There were no footsteps—her brothers moved silently, but both Mahieu and Dash stood shoulder to shoulder behind Remy. She could see their eyes moving over her, taking in every detail of her no doubt, pale face.
“Were you with someone tonight, Saria?” Remy asked, his voice gentle—too gentle. He reached out and just as gently caught her arm when she shifted as if she might run.
She wanted to cry at the gentleness in his voice, but she knew Remy could go from gentle to lethal in moments. She’d seen him handle suspects on more than one occasion. Nearly all of them fell for his gentle routine. She wished he was really all that kind and caring with her, but until recently, none of her brothers had noticed her.
She scowled at him. “That’s none of your business, Remy. Nothing I did mattered to you while I was growing up, and there’s no need to start pretending it does now.”
He looked shocked. She saw it on his face right before he went all Remy on her, no expression what-so-ever. His eyes went flat and hard, kicking her accelerated heartbeat up another notch. “That’s a hell of a thing to say to me. We practically raised you. Of course we’re goin’ to be concerned when you stay out half the night.”
“You raised me?” She shook her head. “No one raised me, Remy. Not you. Not dad. I’m a little too grown for any of you to suddenly decide you’re goin’ to start wonderin’ what I’m doin’. And just for your information, since you know so damned much about me, I go out into the swamp nearly every night. I have since I was a kid. How the hell did you possibly miss that with all your concern?”
Dash studied her face. “You tangle with somethin out in the bayou, Saria, or someone?”
Her heart jumped. Was that a taunt? She didn’t know if there was some double implication. She took another step back. “If I had a problem with someone, I’d take care of it myself, Dash. Why are you all suddenly interested in my life?”
Remy rubbed the bridge of his nose. “We’re famille, cher. If you’re in trouble…”
“I’m not,” she interrupted. “What’s this all about, Remy? Really? Because none of you have ever questioned where I’ve been or whether or not I was capable of takin’ care of myself. I’m at the bar alone for days at a time. None of you ever questioned whether that was dangerous or not, although I was underage runnin’ it.”
Her three brothers exchanged long sheepish looks. Remy shrugged. “Maybe we didn’t, Saria, but we should have. I was sixteen when you were born, feelin’ my oats, cher, burnin’ through my youth. You were a babe. So maybe I didn’t pay attention the way I should have, but that doesn’t mean you aren’t mine. Famille is everythin’.”
“While you all were out feelin’ your oats, I was takin’ care of our drunken pere every night. Paying bills. Runnin’ the store. Makin’ sure he ate and had clean clothes. Orderin’ for the store. Fishing. You know. Grown-up things. Keepin’ the place runnin’ so you could all have your fun.”
“We should have helped you more with pere,” Remy admitted.
Saria blinked back unexpected tears. Remy could be so sweet when he chose, but she didn’t trust his motivation. Why now? She risked a quick glance at her brothers’ faces. They were all watching her intently. They were utterly still. Their eyes had gone almost amber with the pupils fully dilated. It took every ounce of courage she possessed not to turn and run.
“Now I’m grown, Remy. It’s a little too late to start wonderin’ about my life now. I’m tired and want to go to sleep. I’ll see you in the morning.” Not if she could help it.
Remy stepped aside. She noticed they all inhaled as she walked by, trying to read scents off of her. She smelled like the swamp, but she hadn’t touched the dead body, just went close enough to shine her light on it and see.
“Sleep well, Saria,” Remy said.
She closed her eyes briefly, just the simple gesture giving her another attack of nerves.
Six months later
The wind moaned softly, an eerie, lonely sound. A snake slid from the low hanging branches of a tupelo tree and plopped into the water, swimming away, no more than a ripple in the dark water. Over head dark clouds, heavy with rain, boiled in the evening heat.
Saria stepped from the pirogue to the rickety dock, pausing to inhale deeply while she cast a careful look around, studying the shore and grove of trees she had to walk through. Years earlier, one of the farmers had planted a Christmas tree farm that had never quite taken off, although the trees had. The town, small as it was, had grown to the edge of the farm and the variety of cedar, pine and spruce trees were beautiful but had grown thick, creating a forest effect behind the cypress grove on the water’s edge.
Moss hung in long silvery webs, swaying gently from the twisted cypress branches lining the river. The grove was fairly large, and with the gray mist spreading like a fine veil, the cypress trees lining the water appeared spooky and ghostlike. Behind that, the thicker farm trees loomed, a silent dark forest. Icy fingers crept down her spine as she stood there on the wooden planks, a good distance from civilization.
Night often came fast to the river and she had waited for her brothers to leave, checking on the fishing lines and crab pots before she took off to come to the mainland. All the while, she’d had the feeling someone was following her. She’d stayed in close to the banks of the river as much as she could.
Someone—something—could have kept up with her and certainly could be ahead of her now. Her brothers had gone out in the bass boat, leaving her the old pirogue, which was fine with her as a rule, but something unseen in the night made her wish for speed.
Lately she’d been uneasy and restless, her skin too tight as if it didn’t quite fit over her bones. Itching came in waves as something seemed to move beneath her skin. Her skull felt too large, and her jaw and mouth ached. Everything felt wrong and perhaps that contributed to her gathering fear that she was being watched.
Saria sighed, moistened dry lips and forced herself to take that first step toward the farm of trees. She could bypass it, but it would take time she didn’t have. Her brothers were going to be back and they’d be angry if they caught her going off by herself again. They’d been as edgy as she was, and to her dismay, had taken to checking up on her continually. The last couple of weeks the attention had grown worse until she felt as if she was a prisoner in her own home.
She began walking, touching the knife strapped to her belt for reassurance. If someone—or something—truly was stalking her, she was prepared. She walked in silence, along the narrow path through the grove, toward the old church.
Behind her and a little to her left a twig snapped, the sound over loud in the silence of the grove. Her heart began to pound. The mist thickened with each passing moment, slowly drawing a veil over the dark clouds and sliver of moon. The fog turned the crescent a strange, ominous red. She quickened her pace, hurrying through the variety of trees.
Saria emerged from the grove of Christmas trees straight onto a sidewalk leading through the small town just off the Mississippi river. A large holding wall helped to prevent flooding. Most of the land had been built up to help with the flooding as well. She walked quickly down the walkway along the river. The wind sent waves lapping at the wall and piers. She took another cautious look around, but didn’t slow her pace. The church was just ahead and she felt a pressing need to get inside.
In spite of the night, the air was very hot and heavy with moisture, promising rain soon. She felt sweat trickle down between her breasts, but wasn’t certain if it was the oppressive heat or sheer fear. She breathed a sigh of relief when she gained the steps to the church. Deliberately she paused there, covering her hair with the lace wrap that had been her mothers. While she did, she turned and surveyed the street. Quaint gas lights lit the street, glowing a strange yellow in the mist. She felt the weight of eyes watching her, but she couldn’t spot anyone overly interested in her.
She turned her back to the street, and walked up the steps to the church door. Right between her shoulder blades she felt an itch and the hair on the back of her neck stood up. She pulled open the door and slipped inside, her heart pounding. The interior of the church was dimly lit. Shadows clung to the walls and created dark valleys between the empty pews. She dipped her fingers in holy water and made the sign of the cross as she walked slowly toward the confessional. The statues stared down at her with empty, accusing eyes. She had been here several times since she’d found the first body, but she couldn’t bring herself to confess—not even to Father Gallagher—not even now that there had been two more.
She felt guilty, no doubt about it, although she’d tried to get help and that had only put her in danger. Now, the priest was her only hope—if she could get up the courage this time to ask him. She waited her turn, closed the confessional door and knelt on the small padded bench provided. She bowed her head.
The darkness and privacy screen of the shadowy confessional prevented Father Gallagher from identifying which parishioner had just entered the small booth. He knew it was a woman by the faint fragrance of lavender and wild honey. The scent was extremely subtle, but, in the stifling heat of the confessional, the fragrance was a welcome change from the sweat that sometimes was faintly sickening.
“Father,” the voice whispered.
He leaned closer alarmed by the note of desperation in her tone. Over the years he had learned to recognize real fear.
“It’s Saria,” the voice continued.
He knew Saria, had known her since she was a toddler. Bright. Intelligent. Not given to flights of fantasy. He had always known her to be a cheerful, hard-working girl. Maybe too hard-working. She came from a large family, like many of the Cajuns attending his church, but she had stopped coming to mass and confession years earlier. About six months ago, she had returned to confession—but not to the service—coming faithfully every week, but not confessing anything of importance that might have made her suddenly need to come back to the church. Her whispers made him think perhaps there had been another reason for her once again coming to the confessional.
“Is everything all right, Saria?”
“I need to slip a letter to you. It can’t be mailed from this parish, Father. I’ve tried and the letter was intercepted. I was threatened. Can you get it out for me some other way?”
Father Gallagher’s heart jumped. Saria had to be in trouble if she was asking such a thing and he knew from long experience, the people in the bayou as well as up and down the river were hard working, large clans, that often kept troubles to themselves. She had to be desperate to come to him.
“Saria, have you gone to the police?”
“I can’t. Neither can you. Please Father, just do this for me and forget about it. Don’t tell anyone. You can’t trust anyone.”
“Remy is a policeman, isn’t he?” he asked, knowing her oldest brother had joined the force years ago. He didn’t understand her hesitation, but he had a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach. His comment was met with silence. He sighed. “Give me the letter.”
“I need your word as a man of God, Father.”
He frowned. Saria wasn’t dramatic either. This strange conversation was completely out of character for her sunny personality. She feared very little. She had five very large brothers who would probably skin someone alive if they tried to hurt her. They’d grown up rough, big strong boys and had turned into formidable men. He couldn’t imagine why she wouldn’t go to Remy. He had been head of the family since her father’s death some years earlier.
“Should I be afraid for you, Saria?” He murmured, lowering his voice even more and pressing his ear to the screen. The situation would have seemed surreal and dramatic had it been someone else, but Saria had to be believed.
“Somethin’ bad is happenin’ out in the bayou, Father, but I can’t call the police. We need someone else. If you can get this letter out without anyone from here knowin’, he’ll do something. Please, Father Gallagher, just do this for me.”
“I give you my word I won’t tell anyone, unless,” he emphasized, “I think it is necessary to save your life.”
There was another small silence. A rustle of paper. “That’s fair. Please be careful, Father,” Saria whispered and pushed the flat envelope through the opening. “No one can see you with that. Not in this parish. Not in this Ward. You have to take it far from here to mail it.”
Father Gallagher took the envelope, noting it was sealed. “Say three Hail Mary’s and the Lord’s Prayer,” he whispered, reminding her to keep up the charade of confession if she wasn’t actually going to confess any sins. He waited, but she stayed silent and he blessed her, tucking the envelope into his robes.
Saria crossed herself and left the confessional, going up to the front pew to kneel before the altar. There were several people in the church and she took a slow, surreptitious look around, trying to see if anyone could have followed her. She didn’t see anyone suspicious, but that didn’t mean anything. Most of the people she knew attended the church and could pretend, as she had done, that they had legitimate business there.
Just a short distance away, the Lanoux brothers lit candles. Dion and Robert had recently lost their grandmother and it stood to reason they might be in church. Both men were stocky with roped muscles and dark, thick curly hair. Handsome men they had quite the reputation as lady’s men in the community. She’d found both of them to be gentlemen beneath their rough and tumble ways and she liked them both.
Armande Mercier sat beside his sister, Charisse, fidgeting while she prayed piously in the second to the last pew. Charisse’s head was bent, eyes closed, lips moving, yet twice when Armande sighed heavily and ran his finger around his shirt collar she sent him a sharp glare. He sent Saria a glance and quickly looked away, unusual for Armande. He was probably the biggest flirt in the ward. She found him selfish but charming and he definitely protected his sister who Saria was quite close to. Saria’s brothers often gave Armande a free beer when he came to their bar, feeling sorry for him taking care of his tyrant of a mother and his extremely shy sister.
The two elderly women in the back were well known to her as was the older man, Amos Jeanmard, sitting in the corner, his walking stick close. She had gone to school with his daughter, Danae and knew his son, Elie, who was older by a few years. She knew them all, just as they knew her. They’d always been friends and neighbors—members of one of the seven families on the edge of the swamp where she resided. She’d gone to their homes, attended weddings and funerals with them. They supported her family bait shop and grocery store. Many of them were customers of the small store and bar the Boudreaux family owned. Now, they terrified her. She had even grown to fear her own kin.
She made the sign of the cross and left the church, anxious to be gone before Father Gallagher was finished hearing confession. She didn’t know if she could face him and not give herself away. The stress was getting to her and her stomach had begun churning. She ran lightly down the steps and headed back toward the dock where she’d left her boat.
The night seemed darker, the shadows longer, reaching for her as she hurried toward the grove that would provide the shorter route back to the dock. Quickly, she moved along the narrow path through the thick stand of trees. The hairs on the back of her neck stood up, goose bumps raised along her arms and she shivered, cursing under her breath as she hesitated, nearly turning back toward the lights of town muted by the fog. As if on cue, the rain began to fall, a downpour of warm drops that soaked her instantly. The deluge drove her into the grove where the overhead canopy might protect her a little from the onslaught. She hurried along the path, head up, searching for anything that might be causing her warning radar to go off.
A large shadow shifted in the trees. Her heart jumped and then began pounding. Something seemed to move, pushing against her flesh from the inside out, leaving behind an itch as it receded. Her skin felt tight and her jaw ached. She became aware of her hands hurting. She looked down to see her fingers curled tightly, sharp nails pressing into her palm. Behind her, cutting off her escape to town, she heard a soft chuffing noise and her blood ran cold. Her heart beat accelerated out of control, thundering in her skull. Her breath came in ragged gasps.
She took a cautious step toward the dock, her hand slipping the knife from her belt. The hilt felt solid in her palm and she curled her fingers tightly around it like a talisman. Her own brothers wouldn’t kill her, would they? Her mouth was dry.
She tried to listen as she hurried, but her own heart and her gasping breath filled her ears, the thunder a terrible roaring, drowning out everything else. The veils of Spanish moss swayed, creating an eerie macabre ghostlike presence in all the trees. The branches, twisted and gnarled, reached out in the dark like ghoulish hands. She’d never been afraid in the groves of trees along the river. She’d never feared alligators or the swamp even at night. She was careful, as her father had taught her, yet now terror gripped her.
She knew better than to run, knew it would trigger the leopard’s instincts, but she couldn’t stop herself from picking up her pace, moving as fast as she could through the pouring rain without actually running. She heard a whoosh, like the rush of a freight train. Something hit her from behind, slamming into her back so hard, she felt as if her bones shattered. The heavy weight of it drove her down so she hit the ground hard, landing with her hands pinned under her, the knife still firmly in her grip, but completely useless. She felt hot breath on the back of her neck and tensed, ready to fight. The thing was far too heavy to push up. She couldn’t get her knees under her and the moment she started to struggle, it sank teeth into her shoulder.
Saria opened her mouth to scream, but got a mouthful of mud. Tears burned her eyes as she waited for it to kill her. Claws gripped her hips hard, warning her not to move. She went still beneath the heavy weight. For a moment neither moved. Very slowly she turned her head. The leopard shifted to bring his head beside hers. She found herself staring into yellow-green eyes, wide and unblinking, the thing stared back at her. There was intelligence there, and a warning. Breath blew hot against her skin.
She shuddered as the large head drew near her face. The mouth yawned wide and she closed her eyes, certain those terrible teeth would close around her face. The rough tongue lapped once over her face, removing the stream of tears. She drew in a breath and then felt fire raking down her back, ripping through her shirt. She screamed again, struggling, trying to throw him off. His claw dug into her flesh and carved four deep grooves from her shoulder blades to her waist line.
Deep inside of her, something wild lifted its head as if awakening. Adrenaline pulsed through her, rushing like a drug through her veins, strength and energy pouring into her, lending her phenomenal strength. She shoved up hard, gathering her legs under her enough to create a small separation, just enough to roll. At the same time, she brought the knife up, slashing toward the leopard’s jugular.
The cat’s front paw flew toward her knife hand, the heavy body pinning her, as the great claw shifted and to her horror, fingers caught her wrist and slammed her hand back into the muck. That human hand, coming out of a leopard’s body terrified her. It was grotesque and wrong and not at all romantic like a young child had envisioned. Deep inside her own body, something shifted and moved, pushing aside fear to ignite a burning bright anger.
They stared at one another, fury smoldering deep inside her body. She could almost feel something inside of her, living and breathing, furious that the leopard dared to touch her. Her skin itched and her jaw ached. Her entire body hurt, probably from the vicious hit when the cat brought her down.
“Go ahead,” she bit out, trying not to sob, trembling with a combination of fear and anger. “Just do it.”
He held her down with his heavy paws, breathing against her neck again. She closed her eyes and waited for the death bite. Unlike most large cats, leopards preferred to bite the throat of his prey and hold until the victim suffocated. Slowly, almost reluctantly, the large leopard backed away from her. She peeked out from under her lashes and watched it as it steadily backed up, one silent paw at a time. All the while, those yellow-green eyes remained on her face.
She didn’t dare move, afraid she would trigger more aggression in the animal. Long after he disappeared into the fog, she lay on the ground, shaking, tears running down her face. It hurt to try to sit up, her back on fire. The rain soothed the fiery streaks. The bite mark on her shoulder oozed. Infection was a real threat in the swamp. She couldn’t go to a doctor, and if she went to the treateur, what was she going to say? That a leopard attacked her in the cypress grove just outside of town? The woman would have her committed.
She sat in the rain, listening. Already the regular sounds of the night were resuming and deep inside her body, whatever had stirred subsided. For several long minutes, she sat in the mud with the rain pouring down on her, weeping. Her stomach lurched unexpectedly and she rolled painfully to her hands and knees and retched again and again.
She was a Boudreaux and she’d been taught since birth not to trust outsiders. Her family was shrouded in secrecy and she was cut off from the world. She could leave the river—but she knew no other way of life. Where would she go? Who could she turn to? Saria lifted her head slowly, and looked around her.
This was her home, the wilds of the river, the bayous and lakes, the swamps and marsh. She couldn’t breathe in a city. She wiped at the mud on her face with her sleeve. The movement caused a spasm of fire to chase down her back and small flames to burn over her shoulder. Her stomach lurched. Stifling a small sob, she pushed herself up with one trembling hand. Exhaustion set in. She stumbled her way to the dock, every step painful. She was afraid the leopard had broken something in her back.
It was difficult to step onto the pirogue, but she did a lot of deep breathing as she reached for her pole to push off. Her back muscles were on fire with every movement. She looked back at the grove as she thrust the flat-bottomed boat away from the dock. Her heart jumped. Red eyes stared back at her through the mist. He was still watching her. She stared right back at him as she pushed out into the current and let it take her back down river. The red eyes suddenly disappeared and she caught a glimpse of the big cat running, using long leaping strides, weaving in and out of the trees, heading into the swamp.
Trying to beat her home? Did she believe any of her brothers would harm her? Could one be a serial killer? She’d found a second body three months ago and now a third. She’d tried to mail the letter out herself, but found it taped to the bottom of her pirogue, scaring her nearly to death. Her brothers were tough men, all capable of killing should the need arise, but wantonly? Any of them? She shook her head, not wanting to believe it was possible. But the evidence… Maybe if she just told all of them when they were together, just blurted out that she’d found bodies, it might be possible to tell from their reaction.
Saria found it impossible to think the rest of the way home. Using oars or a pole required back muscles and her body protested every movement. She didn’t even care to look to see if the leopard cut through the swamps and beat her home. There were several boats tied up to the dock and music blared out over the water. Lights spilled out over the river. A couple of men were standing outside the bar, but neither looked up as she tied her pirogue to the dock.
The bar was open which meant at least one of her brothers was at home. She would have liked to peek in and see just which one was there, because that would rule him out as a suspect, but she didn’t dare take a chance of anyone seeing her.
The house was nestled back in the trees with the river running on one side and surrounded by trees on the other three sides. She used to find comfort in the trees, often climbing them and surveying the world from the heights as a child, now she searched the branches frantically for signs of a large cat as she went around to the back of the house, hoping to avoid her brothers if any others were at home.
There were no lights on and she paused on the back stairs, listening. Her hearing seemed more acute sometimes, like a switch that went on and off, as did her night vision. Right now, she could only hear her own ragged breathing. She crept into the dark house, not bothering with lights, trying not to make a sound as she made her way through the small rooms to her bathroom.
Saria stripped off her ripped jacket and examined the slashing tears before she shrugged out of shirt. The shirt was soaked with blood. She held the remnants up, looking at the gashes that could only be made by a large cat’s claws. The sight of all that blood and the tears made her feel sick. She balled the shirt up, threw it into the sink and turned her back toward the full length mirror. The glass was cracked in places, but looking over her shoulder, she could see the grooves marring her skin. They looked angry and red—definitely an infection waiting to happen.
She touched the puncture wounds on her shoulders and burst into tears. Saria stood in the shower, shaking, letting the hot water pour over her, rinsing away the blood, her back and shoulder stinging horribly. Her legs gave out and she sank down onto the floor of the shower stall and cried, letting the water wash away her tears.
She drew her knees up and hugged herself tight, ignoring the burning along her back. Why hadn’t the leopard killed her? Clearly he knew she’d found the dead bodies. She breathed deep to keep from vomiting. She had no idea what to do, but she had to scrub to remove all scent from her body and also get rid of her clothes. Leopards had a great sense of smell and she didn’t want any questions.
Forcing her body back up, she reluctantly took up the soap and poured the gel over her back, using a scrub brush to work the soap into her wounds. She had to stop several times and breathe deep to keep from fainting. It hurt beyond anything she had imagined. She rinsed off and repeated the scrubbing with the bite on her shoulder. She patted her body dry and rummaged in the medicine cabinet until she found iodine.
Saria bit back a scream as the iodine burned through the gouge marks on her back and the puncture wounds on her shoulder. She had to push her head between her knees, breathing deep as blackness edged her vision. Bile rose and she fought hard to keep from being sick.
“Fils de putain.” She hissed the words between clenched teeth, struggling to keep from landing face down on the floor as the world around her darkened and white spots fluttered in front of her eyes.
It took several minutes for her world to right itself and she was able to straighten again without her legs going rubbery on her, although her back protested with a fierce burning. She breathed through it and carefully bandaged the puncture wounds on her shoulder. She couldn’t do anything about her back and knew whatever she wore would be ruined, so she pulled on an old shirt she could throw away and soft sweat pants.
She couldn’t just go to bed and hide beneath the covers, she had to get rid of her shredded clothes. She picked up both the jacket and shirt and shoved them in the sink. Her brothers would smell them if she didn’t do something about it before she threw them away. The only thing she could think to do was pour bleach over them, which she did. She left them to soak while she went to get water and some aspirin.
The scent of bleach and blood had permeated the bathroom by the time she returned. This was not going to work. The bleach would definitely mask the scent on her clothes, but her brothers would be suspicious. She rinsed the shirt and jacket and cleaned the sink. She would take the clothes out to the swamp and burn them.
Saria tried to still her chaotic mind long enough to think the situation through as she slipped out of the back of the house, and into the thick grove of trees toward the swamp. Why hadn’t the leopard killed her? The shifter knew she had found the body. Wouldn’t it have been simpler just to kill her—unless—the killer was one of her brothers and he couldn’t bring himself to kill a family member.
“Saria! Where the hell are you, cher?”
Her heart jumped at the sound of Remy’s voice calling from the back porch. Lately, he’d been checking several times a night to make certain she was in her room.
Swearing to herself, she hastily dug a hole and shoved the tattered remnants of her clothing into it. She had to answer. He would have seen her pirogue tied to the dock and he would come looking for her. “I’ll be right in,” she called as she buried the evidence. “I just was getting a little air.”
“Hurry up, Saria, you shouldn’t be out alone at night in the swamp.” His voice was always gentle. That was Remy, but under all that soft, black velvet, there was steel. She knew he’d come after her if she didn’t get inside.
She dusted off her hands and pushed up. “I’m coming. No worries. I’m tired tonight.”
When she heard voices in the front of the house she hurried in and made a point of closing her bedroom door loudly. She lay on her stomach awake, most of the night, listening for the sound of her brothers, but after their voices faded, there was only the comforting sounds of the swamp.