New Orleans, Louisiana
“You want something special?” she asked, running the tip of her tongue over her lips provocatively.
He shook his head.
There’s something wrong with this guy. Seriously wrong, Cherie Bellechamps thought, a drip of fear sliding through her blood. She thought about calling the whole thing off, telling the John to get lost, but she needed the cash. Maybe her imagination was getting the better of her. Maybe he wasn’t a creep.
She unbuttoned her dress slowly and felt his eyes upon her, just as hundreds of other eyes had stared in the past. No big deal.
Over the noise of the city, music played from her bedside radio. Frank Sinatra’s smooth voice. Which usually calmed her. Not tonight.
A hot June breeze, heavy with the dank breath of the Mississippi, blew through the open window. It ruffled the yellowed lace curtains and cooled the beads of sweat collecting on Cherie’s forehead, but didn’t ease her case of nerves.
The John sat on a three-legged stool and fingered a rosary in one hand, the blood-red beads catching in the frail light. So what was he? Some kind of religious nut? A priest who couldn’t handle celibacy? Or was this just another weird fetish? Lord knew in New Orleans there were thousands of oddballs, each with their own sexual fantasy.
“You like?” she asked, conjuring up a slightly Cajun accent as she ran a long-nailed finger along the cleft of her breasts and pushed aside any lingering trepidations.
“Keep going.” From the stool in the little room, he wiggled a finger at her bra and panties.
“Don’t you want to?” she asked, her voice low and sultry.
She didn’t know how much he could see. This second story room on the fringes of the French Quarter was lit by a single lamp, the shade covered in a black lace mantilla so that intricate shadows played upon the walls and hid the cracks in the old plaster. Besides that, the John was wearing Ray Bans with dark lenses. Cherie couldn’t see his eyes, but it didn’t matter. He was good looking. Athletic. His jaw was square, his nose straight, his lips thin and secretive in a day’s worth of stubble. He wore a dark shirt, black jeans and his hair was a thick, coffee-brown. Unless there was something hideously wrong with his eyes, this guy was Hollywood handsome.
And spooky as sin.
Already he’d asked her to scrub her face and don a red wig to cover her short platinum hair. She hadn’t argued. Didn’t care what got a trick off.
She flicked off the front clasp of her bra and let the scrap of red lace slide to the floor.
He didn’t so much as move. Except to rub the damned rosary beads.
“You got a name?” she asked.
“You’re not going to share it?”
“Call me Father.”
“Father like . . . my dad . . . or . . .” she glanced at the dark beads running through his fingers, “. . . like a priest?”
“How about Father John?” It was her attempt at a joke. He didn’t smile.
So much for levity.
Time to end this, get paid, and send him packing.
She wriggled out of her panties and sat on the edge of the bed, giving him a full view of every part of her.
Okay, so some guys got off on watching a woman strip. Some even just watched, never touched as she fondled herself, but this John was so cold and emotionlessBeerily soBand what was with the glasses? “We could have some fun,” she suggested, trying to speed things up. He was well into his hour, and so far nothing much was happening. “Just you and me . . .”
He didn’t respond except to reach over and drop a hundred dollar bill onto the night stand. Sinatra’s voice was cut off as Father John switched the radio station. From “When I Was Seventeen . . .” through a series of beeps, chirps and static until he found the station he wanted–some talk show she’d heard before–a popular one with a female psychologist giving advice. But Cherie wasn’t listening. She was staring at the C-note on the night stand. It was marred. Ben Franklin’s eyes had been blacked out with a marking pen, as if he too, like the man in shades, was hiding his identity.
Or didn’t want to see.
Odd. Creepy. Weird.
Father John had picked her up a block off Bourbon street, asked her for a date, and she’d looked him over, thought he’d seemed all right and named her price. He’d agreed and she’d brought him here, to the seedy apartment she and a couple of other girls kept just for this purpose. Her other life was in another parish . . . across the lake . . . and for a second she thought of her five-year-old daughter and the ongoing custody battle with her ex. No one in Covington knew she turned tricks to help make ends meet; no one could ever, or she’d lose custody and any contact she had with her only child.
Now she was second guessing her actions. The John was too edgy, his calm masking a restlessness that was evident in a small vein throbbing near his temple and the movement of finger and thumb on the beads. She thought of the pistol she kept in the top drawer of the night stand. If things got dicey, she’d reach over, swoop up the hundred-spot, yank open the drawer and pull the .38. Scare him off. Keep the C-note.
“Why don’t you join me?” she suggested, laying back on the chenille bedspread, smiling and not expecting him to move. God, it was hot.
“Take off my clothes.” He stood. Walked to the bed.
His command seemed out of sync, but at least it was a common one. So he was going to get down to business. Good. Voyeurs usually didn’t touch. The minutes were ticking off but she took her time, standing so that she could slowly unbutton his shirt. She shoved it off shoulders that were muscular and a chest without any flab, just a wall of rock-hard muscles covered with dark, coiled hair. She unbuckled his belt and he fingered the cross she always wore as it dangled just above her breasts.
“It–it was a gift from my daughter . . . last Christmas.” Oh, God, he wouldn’t steal it, would he?
“You need something more.” He slipped the rosary beads over her head. Over the red wig. Yeah, maybe he was a priest. “ freaky one.
The sharp beads were warm from being fondled. They fell into the cleft between her breasts. It was creepy. Too creepy. She should tell him to get out now.
“There. That’s better.” One side of Father John’s mouth lifted, as if he was finally satisfied with the scenario. Ready to get down to business.
“What’s with the rosary?”
His body was perfect. Honed. Tanned. Hard.
Except for his cock. It hung limp, as if he wasn’t getting off at all.
She ran a finger down his chest and he pulled her against him. Kissed her hard with cold, unfeeling lips and dragged her onto the sagging mattress of her iron bed. She had a rule: no lips on lips, but she let it slide, just to end this.
“That’s a boy,” she cooed and reached for the sunglasses. Strong fingers circled her wrist.
“Afraid I’ll recognize you?” Maybe he was famous¾ God, he was good-looking enough. Maybe he was some kind of celebrity and didn’t want her to recognize him. Or maybe he was married. More likely . . .
“Just . . . don’t.” His grip was like steel.
“Fine, fine . . . whatever.” She kissed his cheek and ran her fingers along the ridges of his well-toned muscles. He moved against her and she worked hard, touching all those erotic spots guaranteed to cause an erection. To no avail. No matter how much she kissed, licked and purred, he was only going through the motions, not turned on at all.
Come on, come on, she thought, I haven’t got all night. She was vaguely aware of the radio, the psychologist, Dr. Sam was close to signing off, giving her signature spiel about love and lust in this city on the Delta, and Father John, too, turned to listen to the radio shrink.
Maybe he was being distracted and that was the problem. She reached for the radio dial—
“Don’t touch it,” he growled, every muscle in his body flexing.
Blinding pain exploded in the left side of her face as his fist connected.
She squealed. Tasted the metallic flavor of her own blood. This was not good. Not good. “Wait a second, you son of a bitch” ”
He raised his fist again. She saw him through a rapidly-swelling eye. “Don’t mess with the radio or my shades,” he growled.
She tried to squirm away. “Get out! Get the hell out!”
He tried to kiss her.
She bit him.
He didn’t so much as flinch.
“Get out, you bastard! No one hits me. Don’t you get it? It’s over.”
“Not quite yet it isn’t, but it will be.” He pinned her to the sheets. Kissed her again. Hard. As if he was getting off on her pain. Cheek throbbing, Cherie tried to wriggle out from under him, but he held her fast with his athletic body.
She was trapped.
Frantic. Hitting him, clawing at him, shoving him.
“That’s it, you sinner, you cunt,” he growled. “Fight me.” His hands were rough. He nipped at her breast, twisted the other.
She screamed and he stopped her by grinding his mouth against hers. She tried to bite him, flailed at him with her fists, but he was strong. Incensed. Turned on. Oh, God, how far was this going to go?
Fear congealed her blood. What if he didn’t stop? What if he tortured her all night?
Pain shot up her torso as he bit her breast.
Writhing, she spied the radio, the digital display glowing over the hundred dollar bill, Dr. Sam’s voice cool and collected and savvy.
Help me, Cherie thought, scrabbling for the drawer and her gun, knocking over the lamp, kicking wildly, feeling his suddenly rock-hard erection.
So it was rape.
He wanted to rape her. If he’d only said something, she would have played along, but now she was scared. Scared as hell.
Just do it and don’t hurt me!
He yanked her head off the pillow and she cried out just as he tightened the rosary around her throat, the sharp edged beads slicing her skin, the dark facets winking malevolently.
Oh, God, he’s going to kill me. Fear screamed through her blood. She looked into those shaded eyes and knew it.
He twisted the rosary as he thrust deep into her. Cherie’s eyes bulged, she couldn’t breathe, her arms flailed and she scratched, but to no avail. Blackness . . .all around her there was blackness . . . Her lungs burned . . . her heart felt as if it would explode . . . . Please God, help me!
He wrenched the beaded noose. She gasped. Got no air. Something rasped and gurgled inside her. Blood, oh, God, she tasted her own blood . . . Again . . .
Blackness crawled from the outside in and she thought fleetingly of her daughter . . . sweet, sweet baby . . .
He was sweating, grinding against her, his breath racing and as she let go she felt him stiffen and heard his guttural, primal roar. Dimly over the sound of his labored breathing and the roar in her brain there was another voice. Far away. So far away.
“This is Dr. Sam, with a final word . . . Take care of yourself, New Orleans. Good night to you all and God bless. No matter what your troubles are today, there is always tomorrow . . . . Sweet Dreams . . .”
There’s no place like home, there’s no place like home.
Now, click the heels of those ruby slippers three times and . . .
“That’ll be thirty-seven dollars,” the cab driver muttered, breaking into Samantha’s thoughts. He pulled the cab around the circular drive and as close to the front door as possible while she dug deep into her jacket pocket for her money clip.
“Would you mind taking the bags inside?” she asked.
The driver, twisting his head to get a better view from the front seat, slanted her a curious look. His eyes were dark. Suspicious. As if he expected some kind of come on. Finally, he lifted a big shoulder. “If that’s what you want.”
Using one crutch, she crawled out of the cab into the sultry Louisiana night. A fine, steamy mist shrouded the live oaks surrounding her rambling old house in this unique community tucked along the southern shore of Lake Pontchartrain, a few miles west of New Orleans. God, it was good to be home.
Some vacations were dreams, others were nightmares. This one had been worse than a nightmare, it had been an out-and-out disaster.
But at least she knew she would never become Mrs. David Ross. That would have been a mistake.
A heavy breeze riffled through the clumps of Spanish moss dripping from ancient, gnarled branches. The flagstones of the front walk, slick with rain, shimmered in the frail illumination cast from the porch light. Wet weeds that had the nerve to poke through the cracked mortar tickled the bare toe of her injured leg as she hitched her way over the uneven stones. Sweat ran down her spine. Barely July, and the Louisiana heat closed in on her. Gritting her teeth, she hobbled up steps to the broad porch that skirted the front door and swept around all sides of her lakefront cottage. Wind chimes tinkled out their lonely tune. She propped her crutch on the arm of the porch swing, then found her spare key tucked in the cobwebs behind the shutter of one window. Quickly, she unlocked the door. As the cab driver lugged her bags, she flipped on a switch. Immediately the foyer was illuminated, two hundred year old hardwood gleaming with a fine patina, the air inside the ancient house stagnant, hot and still.
The driver dropped her three bags near the hall tree, then retrieved her crutch.
“Thanks.” She handed him forty-five dollars and was rewarded with a satisfied grunt and a quick nod of his head.
“Welcome back.” Dark eyes flashed from beneath the bill of his Saints’ cap. “Have a good one.”
“I’ll try.” Shutting the door behind him, she pocketed her house key and called over her shoulder, “Honey, I’m home.”
Just the soft ticking of the clock over the mantel and the drone of the refrigerator from the kitchen. She flipped on the switch for the overhead fan, another for the air-conditioning.
“Awe, come on. . .” she called into the darkened rooms. “You’re not mad because I left you here all alone, are you? You know, that’s so typically male.”
Finding the spare set of keys in the pantry, she waited, listening for the distinctive click of ID tags or the light tread of paws upon the floor. Instead she heard a soft meow and then Charon slunk out of the shadows. Pupils dilated, his eyes were as dark as his inky coat, just a tiny ring of gold visible. “Don’t tell me, now you’re going to play hard to get,” she accused as he eased around the edge of the foyer, feigning disinterest, his tail twitching. “Oh, yeah, you’re a real cool dude.” She laughed and he sauntered closer, doing a few quick turns around her ankles and rubbing up against the fiberglass shell surrounding her left calf and foot.
“Like the cast? Compliments of that fiasco in Mexico,” she said plucking his near-liquid body from the floor and holding him close to her chest as she scratched his chin. Charon, a stray she’d named after the ferryman in Dante’s Inferno began to purr instantly, his aloof routine forgotten, his wet nose brushing the underside of her chin. “So what went on here while I was away, huh? Did Melanie take good care of you? No?” Smiling, she carried the feline into the den and cracked a window, waiting for the house to cool.
She set Charon on the bookcase where he slunk through her tomes on psychology and her stacks of paperbacks, then hopped onto the desk where her mail had been stacked neatly, sorted carefully by envelopes, junk mail, magazines and newspapers. Melanie, Sam’s assistant who had not only watched the house and seen to Charon while Samantha was vacationing, but had commandeered her radio show as well, was nothing if not efficient.
Samantha pulled out the desk chair and plopped onto the familiar seat. She glanced around the room. It felt different somehow, but she didn’t know why. Maybe it was just because she’d been gone so long, over two weeks. Or maybe it was because she was jet-lagged and she was a little on edge. Though the flight hadn’t been that long, she’d spent too many hours without sleep in the past few days and the trip had been an emotionally draining.
Ever since touching down in Mexico two weeks earlier when things had started to go awry. Not only had she and David had the same old fight about her giving up her job and moving back to Houston, but there had also been the boating “accident” that had dumped both her and her purse into the shallows of the Pacific. She’d ended up with a sprained ankle and no ID–the purse had never been located. It had been a nightmare trying to get out of the country, and when she’d finally persuaded the authorities to let her back into the US”, she’d been sporting this god-awful, heavy cast.
“These things happen,” David had said with a shrug as they’d finally boarded the 737. He’d offered her a smile and a lift of his eyebrows as if to say, Hey, there’s nothing we can do about it now. We’re in a foreign country. He’d been right, of course, but it didn’t help her bad mood and suspicion that the fishing boat captain had been drunk or under the influence of some other drug and that somehow her purse, along with a couple of others in the tour group, had been found by local divers, the credit cards, cash and other items of value now being used or pawned up and down the west coast of Mexico. According to the captain, the tiny fishing boat had lurched, avoiding a rock¾ for God’s sake. It seemed implausible. A stupid mistake from a captain who daily patrolled the waters off Mazatlan. Samantha hadn’t bought it and had wanted some kind of compensation, at the very least an apology for crying out loud. Instead she’d landed in a tiny hospital with an elderly doctor, an expatriated American who looked as if he should have retired in the seventies. He probably had, or been run out of the States for malpractice.
“Sour grapes, Dr. Sam,” she chastised herself as Charon settled into his favorite spot on the window ledge. He stared through the watery glass, his eyes following something in the darkness. Probably a squirrel. Samantha looked through the panes and saw nothing but the dark shadows of the night.
She pushed the play button on her answering machine while grabbing her letter opener and slicing through the first envelope— a bill. No doubt the first of many. The recorder went through a series of beeps and clicks before playing.
The first call was a hangup.
She tossed the bill onto the table.
The second was a solicitor asking if she needed auto glass repair.
Better yet. She thought of her red mustang convertible, couldn’t wait to get it on the road again. But she didn’t need a new windshield. “No thanks,” she said tearing into several letters— offers of credit cards, requests for contributions to worthy causes, the sewer bill.
Finally a voice.
“Hey, Sam, it’s Dad.” Sam smiled. “I forgot you were out of town . . . You give me a call when you get back home, okay?”
“Will do,” Sam said as she scanned her most recent Visa bill and was grateful that she’d called Melanie who had assured her that she would cancel all her credit cards immediately.
Two more hangups and then she heard her boss’ voice boom from the recorder. “Sam, I know you’re probably not home yet,” Eleanor said, “but call me the minute, the minute you get in. And don’t give me any crap about you not going to work because of your leg, that’s just not cutting it with me. I got your message from the hospital, but unless you’re hooked to an IV and a heart monitor and strapped to a hospital bed, I want you back at the station pronto. You got that? Melanie’s doing a decent enough job, I mean it, but since you’ve been gone, ratings have slipped and Trish LaBelle over at WNAB is picking up your market share . . . not good, Sammie, definitely not good. Your listeners want you, girl, and they aren’t in the mood to accept any substitutes, no matter how good they might be. So don’t you go bringin’ me some note from a hunk of a doctor, y’hear? Uh-uh. You all haul your ass down to the station. Okay, I’ll get off my soap box now. But call me. A-S-A-P.”
“Hear that, Charon? I am loved after all.” she said absently to the cat, then felt the skin on the back of her neck prickle. Some noise, some shift in the atmosphere, some intangible thing caught her attention.
The cat sat on the sill, his body frozen except for the barely perceptible twitching of his tail. “You see something?” she asked, trying to shake off the feeling. She dropped the rest of the mail and moved to the window, searching the darkness through the steamy drizzle on the window panes.
The live oaks stood like bearded sentinels, unmoving dark shapes guarding her two-hundred year old house.
Sam’s heart nearly stopped.
Was that the wind in the branches, the house settling, or someone shifting their weight on the porch? Her throat went dry.
Stop it, Sam, you’re jumping at shadows. There’s nothing sinister here. This is your home. But she’d only lived here three months and after she’d moved in, she’d learned the history of the house from a gossipy old neighbor across the street. According to Mrs. Killingsworth the reason the old home had been on the market so long and Sam had gotten it far under its market value was that the woman who had previously owned the place had been murdered here–the object of an enraged boyfriend’s vengeance.
“So what’s that got to do with you?” she said now, rubbing her arms as if she were chilled. She didn’t believe in ghosts, curses or the supernatural.
The recorder spun. “Hi, Sam.” Melanie’s voice. Samantha relaxed a bit. “Hope you had a good trip. I called the credit card companies, as you asked, and left the mail on the desk, but you’ve probably found it by now. Charon was a pill while you were gone. Really out of sorts. Even sprayed on the piano, but I cleaned it up. And the hair balls. Gross. Anyway, I bought you a quart of milk and some of those fancy French Vanilla coffee beans you like. They’re both in the fridge. Sorry to hear about your leg. What a bummer. Some romantic getaway, huh? See you at the station, or you can call if you need anything.”
Sam hobbled back to her chair. She was imagining things. Nothing had changed. She glanced at the picture of David on her desk. Tall and athletic, with gray eyes and a square jaw. Good looking. Executive Vice President AND Director of Sales for Regal Hotels, she’d been reminded more often than not. “ man with a future and a quick, if cutting, sense of humor. A catch, as her mother would have said had Beth Matheson still been alive.
Oh, Mom, I still miss you. Sam’s gaze moved from the 5×7 of David to a faded color portrait of her own family, both smiling parents flanking her in her cap and gown at graduation from UCLA. Her older brother, Peter, stood just behind her father’s shoulder, frowning, looking away from the camera, not even bothering to remove his sunglasses, as if making a statement that he didn’t want to be there, wasn’t interested in sharing any of Sam’s glory as her parents beamed beside her. Beth had believed in marriage and would want to see her daughter with an ambitious man; successful David Ross would have been just such a man.
And a man with a dark side.
Too much like Jeremy Leeds. Her ex.
She sliced open another piece of junk mail and wondered why she was always drawn to control freaks?
“Hey, Sam. Dad again,” her father’s voice said. “I’m worried about you. Haven’t heard anything since you called from Mexico trying to get out of the country. I assume you made it . . . hope so. So, how’re you getting along with the leg? Call me.”
“I will, Dad. Promise.”
Several other calls came through with well-wishes for her recovery. She listened to each as she continued opening the bills. Celia, her friend who taught first grade in Napa Valley; Linda, a college roommate who had settled with her cop husband in Oregon; Arla a friend she’d kept in touch with since grade school. They all seemed to have gotten the word that she’d been hurt, and they all wanted her to call back.
“It’s great to be popular,” she muttered to the cat as the receptionist for her dentist called to remind her of her six month cleaning. The next call was from the Boucher Center where she did volunteer work, reminding her that her next session was the following Monday.
She reached for the final envelope— plain, white, legal-sized. No return address. Her name typed on a computer label. With a slit the envelope opened and the single page dropped onto the desk.
Her blood froze.
She stared at a picture of herself. A publicity shot she’d had taken several years ago. It had been copied, then mutilated. Her dark red hair swung around a face with high cheekbones, pointed chin and sexy, nearly-naughty smile, but where there had once been mischievous green eyes with thick eyelashes there were only jagged edged holes as if whoever had cut them out was in a hurry. Across her peach-tinged lips was a single word scribbled in red pencil:
“Oh, God.” She pushed herself away from the desk, repelled. For a second she couldn’t breathe.
She heard a scraping sound on the porch.
As if someone had been watching through the window and was hurrying away. Footsteps.
“Oh, no, you don’t,” she said, whipping around in her chair and stumbling to the window only to look out at the dark, lonely night. The tick of the clock was barely audible over the beating of her heart, and as she stared through the steamy glass, the recorder played the next message.
“I know what you did,” a male voice whispered in a low, sexy tone.
Sam spun around and glared at the machine with its flashing red light.
“And you’re not going to get away with it.”