Sara’s mother called him again outside of Baton Rouge, thankfully after his nav had guided him off of I-10 and onto 12.
“Yes, Ma, I’m awake. I’ve got plenty of gas. I stopped to eat two hours ago. I’m not texting and driving. I’m not speeding.”
After three days on the road, he could predict in what order the questions would come. They both knew the last answer was a lie. They both knew what the next words would be.
“You don’t have to do this, Sarasija.”
“We’ve been over this. I’m a big boy. Let it go.”
“I don’t like you living-in. What kind of person advertises for an assistant in a town three thousand miles away?”
“I’m sure the FBI will be able to tell you after they find my body.”
“Not funny, Sarasija. What does this Mr. Dupont do? I can’t find him on the internet. Not even a Facebook. I have a Facebook. Your grandmother in Jaipur has a Facebook. Who doesn’t have a Facebook?”
“Lots of people aren’t on Facebook.” Or he had heard some people weren’t, anyway. “Rich people who want to be private, maybe. Stop worrying.” As if she would. “He didn’t even hire me directly, Ms. Alves did. She has a Facebook and LinkedIn and a website. Look her up. And she advanced the money for my moving expenses. It’s totally legit, so stop worrying. Maybe my first duty will be setting up his Facebook.”
“Who offers a salary so large without even an interview? Did you ever speak directly to Ms. Alves?”
“I was a last-minute replacement. I’m lucky somebody left them in the lurch.”
Another silence. Then a sigh that said she hadn’t really given up badgering him. “Where are you?”
“I’m almost there. I just left Baton Rouge. Ms. Alves wants me to be out at the house by six tonight so she can introduce me to Mr. Dupont and stuff. Hey, maybe she wants to make sure I’m not the axe murderer, huh?”
That line went over almost as well as the crack about the FBI. Ma had no sense of humor about his current adventure.
“It’s almost six now, Sarasija.” Now her tone conveyed disapproval at his tardiness.
“There was a stalled car on the bridge over the Atchafalaya. I’m sure Ms. Alves and Mr. Dupont will understand.” Or he hoped they would, because he’d been trying to reach Nohea Alves for the last hour to let her know he’d be late.
A few minutes later, Ma ended the call the same as all the others. “I miss you already, Sarasija. If you don’t like Mr. Dupont, come home. We’ll get the money some other way.”
Maybe, but Sara didn’t see how.
If it were just his father’s company, he might feel differently. Saving the company wouldn’t bring Dad back. But Ma stood to lose the house, life savings, everything. This job was his only chance to make up for his part in the family financial disaster. No matter how suspicious it seemed, he had never considered turning it down.
Not that he’d ever tell his mother he had any misgivings at all, but he had looked in a lot more corners of the internet than Facebook, and he couldn’t find anything about Thaddeus Dupont either. A niggle of doubt tickled his stomach, punctuated by an ominous beep.
Phone, Sara. Just your phone. He plugged in the charger, wedged the phone into a stationary position in the center console next to his travel mug, and jigged both ends until the red charging light came on. Note to self: buy new car charger first thing tomorrow, because this wedging, jiggling routine was a major PIA.
Queuing up a new playlist would require more wedging and jiggling, so he tried the radio. The scan picked up WWOZ out of New Orleans. Badass! He and Nate, his roommate for the past three years, had binge-watched all four seasons of Treme over a long weekend. They had downloaded the soundtracks and played them endlessly afterward.
Sara would be living less than an hour outside New Orleans. Nate was already planning a trip down next month. He had some kind of crazy plot to get his work to pay for it. By the time the Natester got here, Sara would know the best places to get crawfish pie and po’boys and jambalaya, not to mention the best places in the Quarter to cruise hot Cajun guys. Louisiana was going to rock, no matter what Ma thought.
The optimism and music didn’t erase all the doubt, so he started a game he had been playing with himself ever since he accepted the job—the Deal with Dupont. Maybe Dupont was a University of Washington alum who wanted to give back. Maybe he’d grown up in Seattle and wanted someone from his hometown. Maybe he had decided to hire staff from each state in the union starting in reverse alphabetical order.
There were all kinds of explanations, and all of them seemed perfectly reasonable with WWOZ blasting out Big Easy awesomeness.
He jammed out to Credence Clearwater, the Neville Brothers, and Dr. John. He turned when his phone said turn and tried not to notice the sun dropping lower and lower. Three voice mails, two emails, and a text message. Maybe Ms. Alves had her phone off or couldn’t get reception out here in the country. Whatever the problem, they could sort it out when he got there.
Turn left onto Cypress Bayou Road. He was flying fast to make up time. Even with the nav, he almost missed his final turn. The two-lane road, almost hidden in the trees, flashed past the window. He hit the brakes hard, skidded to a stop on the shoulder, checked his rearview, and reversed back to make the turn.
The new road was a lot smaller than the one he had just left. It was also…residential? Nothing like any homes in Seattle, though. The road curved along the side of the Amite River, and none of the houses sat on the ground. Some were raised a few feet. More, many more, were elevated a full story on stilts. At ground level were garages and storage. The area would flood, he realized. Duh. The reality of living in a flood plain hadn’t sunk in until he got the visual.
Continue on Cypress Bayou Road for twelve point three miles, his phone instructed. Okay, he had a ways to go yet. Good. Because nothing was wrong with any of these houses, except they weren’t exactly in the income bracket he had been expecting.
He checked the clock. After seven. Not good.
The road curved away from the river, and homes became less frequent, or maybe they were clustered down by the water. He passed the occasional mailbox, but the houses they belonged to were hidden in the trees. On WWOZ, Dr. John rasped out some nonsense about a black widow spider. Kinda creepy, Doc. Without lawns and structures, the forest closed in around him, blocking out most of the light. The lush, subtropical vegetation he had admired along the highway since Houston seemed less lush and more impenetrable, adding to the spooky swampland vibe.
Ridiculous. It was the same vegetation he had been looking at all day. It was getting darker, because darkness happened when the sun started going down. And maybe he should find a new playlist, preferably something with a nasty beat recorded in the last decade. He reached for his phone, remembered the iffy cord, and punched Scan on the radio instead. Dr. John broke off as the numbers scrolled across the display, then picked right back up as if WWOZ was beaming in on a special frequency just for him.
He hit the power and cut the good doctor off mid-wail just as the road curved again and opened up onto buildings, sunlight on water, and a dead end.
All righty, then. He must have arrived? Except…where?
No help from the nav.
He coasted forward to the cul-de-sac at the end of the road, which split into two driveways. On the left was the parking lot for what looked like some sort of extremely rustic convenience store. PINKY’S was hand lettered on a piece of plywood over the door. BEER. SOFT DRINKS. BAIT. SUNDRIES. Wouldn’t they be better off up at the intersection with the main road? He stared at it for a second, then decided it didn’t matter.
A padlocked chain blocked the drive on the right. A small sign hung in the middle. 13001. No Trespassing.
13001? His new address. The phone sat silently in the console. Maybe the nav cut out? Lucky the road was a dead end, or he would have missed it.
Behind the chain, the driveway ended next to a small metal building. In the tall grass down by the water were the remains of what might have once been a pier. The overgrown grass and weeds growing out of cracks in the driveway gave the lot a neglected air.
No house. No car. No Ms. Alves.
He looked at the street number.
Im-fucking-possible he had the address wrong.
Seven fifteen. He picked up his phone. Maybe Ms. Alves had replied to his email or text.
A black screen confronted him. Great. He gripped the phone between his knees so he had both hands free. Jiggled connection to the phone; rotated the lighter plug.
He stared out the window at the empty lot. What now?
The OPEN sign blinked cheerfully at the shop next door. He sighed and got out of the car. The humidity slapped a wet towel in his face as soon as he opened the door. A layer of water condensed on his skin. By the time he had walked the few yards across the parking lot, his shirt was soaked with sweat and his whole body felt sluggish and waterlogged.
Somehow, the sweat was the last straw, worse than the traffic jam on the bridge, the broken charger, and the mysterious dead-end address. He took a determined breath of air that somehow smelled heavy and breathed like mud. Acclimate, he told himself. I will acclimate. What choice did he have?
The bait shop was bigger than he had first thought. Like everything else, the building sat a few feet off the ground. A deck ran the length of the building and disappeared around the side. Along the wall, a succession of large bins promised SHINERS! CRICKETS! WORMS!
Enthusiastic. The impression didn’t falter when he opened the door. The little store was packed with so much merchandise, stuff literally hung from the ceiling. He blinked up at the water toys and life vests in assorted sizes. Coolers full of drinks, bathing suits, camping and fishing supplies lined the walls, and a small grocery section held more sundries than he could name—even if he included what appeared to be a stuffed alligator head in “sundries.” Crammed into the valuable wall real estate were signs offering knife sharpening, key-making, crawfish in-season (twenty-four-hour notice) and Jet Ski rental.
“Evenin’. Whatcha looking for, hon?”
“Fuck!” He almost pissed himself, jerked around, then wanted to die of embarrassment. “Sorry. I’m so sorry.”
“Well, now, didn’t mean to startle you. You okay?”
The woman behind the counter was petite, but he bet she was a force. Her face, framed by snow-white curls, was lined in all the best ways, and her bright eyes watched Sara curiously.
“Sorry for my language.” His mother had raised him right.
“You’re excused. You lost?”
“No. I mean, I hope not.”
“Well, which is it?”
“I’m, uh. I’m supposed to be at 13001 Cypress Bayou Road?”
“You’re in the right place. Dupont is next door.”
Where? In the shed?
“Is he expecting you?”
“Yes, but I’m late. I’m supposed to meet a Ms. Alves?”
“Darlin’, I haven’t seen Nohea all week. You sure you got your days straight?”
“Pretty sure. I’m Mr. Dupont’s new assistant. I’m supposed to start today, and I haven’t been able to reach Ms. Alves to let her know I got stuck in traffic.”
“Assistant?” She gave him a funny look. “Well, sure you are. Welcome to the neighborhood, honey. We supply all Mr. Dupont’s groceries, so we’ll get to know each other.” She gave him another assessing look. “You sure you have the right day? Maybe you should call Nohea, or, what do you kids do now, text?”
“I’ve been trying. My phone charger’s broken, and the battery died.”
“Ah, puave ti bete, ain’t that the way? Bet you were on the road all day, too.”
“You look half-wilted. Come on back.” She didn’t wait for an answer before heading through a door next to the sunscreen display. “I’d sell you a charger, but we’re out until the truck comes in next week. You can use the house phone if you want.”
Sara trailed her into the next room, which turned out to have a nice bar, a few tables, and patio doors opening out onto a deck overlooking the river. Way more than a convenience store. Did he want to use the phone? His had been dead less than thirty minutes, and he hadn’t been able to reach Ms. Alves all day. If she wasn’t here already…
“You want a coke? I’m Dot, by the way.” She raised her voice. “Bren? You want to get Mr. Dupont’s new…assistant…a coke.”
“Be right there, Maw-maw. I just—oh—hello.” The girl at the register stared, then looked him over with a slow smile. “You’re Dupont’s new assistant?” Her short black hair had purple highlights, and she wore shorts and a Pinky’s T-shirt.
“Yep. At least I hope I am. Nothing like showing up late your first day, huh?” He smiled. “I’m Sara. I guess we’ll be neighbors for the next year.”
Bren threw Dot an unreadable look. “Sara? Well, you’re not his normal. What can I get you?”
“Thanks, but maybe you could just give me directions? I don’t want to be any later than I am already.”
Dot and Bren exchanged another look.
“Someone will have to take you,” Bren finally said. “Didn’t Nohea arrange to meet you?”
“Yeah, but I haven’t been able to reach her all day.” Had he mixed up the dates? Yeah, no, Ms. Alves had emailed him yesterday confirming his arrival time today. “I really don’t want Mr. Dupont to have to wait. I don’t want him to think I’m not reliable.”
“Well, I suppose I can take you.”
Dot made a soft noise under her breath. “It’s almost dark, Bren.”
“Maw-maw, we have lights. I’ll be home in no time. Anyway, taking him will be a favor to Mr. Dupont.”
Dot looked as though she would say something else, but Sara headed her off. “Please? I’m already off to a bad start my first day. Can’t you help me out?”
“Well, I wouldn’t want to inconvenience Thaddeus Dupont, heaven knows. I suppose you can go, Bren, but you come straight back, you hear?”
The next thing Sara knew, Bren was hustling him out the door. “Come on, get your stuff before she changes her mind.”
“Get my stuff?”
“Well, not everything. Just grab enough for tonight.”
“Wait. What? Can’t I just follow you?”
“Ha-ha. Very funny—oh shit. You’re serious.”
They were at his car, where Bren wanted him to get his stuff because… Oh. The significance of the boat dock address finally hit him. “I can’t get there from here, can I?”
“Well, not in that. Cute car, though.”
The electric-blue Civic, a sixteenth birthday present from his parents when money hadn’t been an issue, was tricked out with Lambo doors, a bass cab, and custom rims. Even after six years and almost a hundred thousand miles, the car was his most valuable asset. He’d just been asked to leave it on the side of the road in the middle of a swamp. He popped the trunk and pulled out the same duffel he’d lived out of for the past few nights. He hesitated, looking at the rest of his luggage.
“I’m sure Nohea will be out first thing in the morning to get you sorted.”
“What about my car?”
“No one will bother it as long as you’re parked here.”
She sounded so sure of herself, he didn’t think to question how she could be so positive. Instead, he followed her across the parking lot, through the store, and out the back door. Rustic convenience store, my ass. He bet Pinky’s had anything you needed out here.
Down by the river, there was a drive-down boat launch, enough dock space for a few dozen boats, and two gas pumps. Bren led him down to the last slip, where a small flat-bottom boat bobbed in the water. Before he knew it, they were headed down river at a steady clip. The noise of the motor discouraged idle chitchat, but Bren fiddled with the radio until she hit a station. Not Dr. John, thank you. Because that shit with WWOZ had freaked him out a little.
Apparently, swamp kids liked Dave Grohl as much as Seattle kids. For a few minutes, his day didn’t suck—cruising down the river, listening to the Foo Fighters, on his way to his kickass new job. Bren throttled down until the engine noise settled to a low hum and veered off the open river. Then she veered again, and they were in straight-up swamp. The radio went static, more static, full-on static. Bren tried the tuner, and staticky Grohl returned briefly, then gave up the ghost to WWOZ.
She hit the power button. “I don’t know why the radio always goes funky out here.”
The loss of music settled over them with the next layer of twilight. The boat slid through the water as Bren navigated through tree stumps, low-hanging branches, and occasional knolls of land. Without the radio, the sounds of the swamp took over—crickets so loud, they should have drowned out the music, the lower thrum of frogs, and the occasional screech of a bird. Apparently, he needed a better soundtrack, because Dr. John tuned in to his head where there was no Off switch.
Bren flicked a switch, and lights at both ends of the boat came on, beating back some of the gloom. Sara forced his fingers to unclench from the seat. Jesus, he’d been admiring the same cypress trees and Spanish moss out the window all day. Except down in it, the scenery seemed less romantic and more…
“What the hell?” He scrambled across the seat. “Alligator! Bren, there’s an alligator over here!”
Bren peered over the side of the boat, where dark eyes glided above darker water. “Wow, he’s a big ’un. Don’t worry, they aren’t usually aggressive. I wouldn’t do any night swimming, though. You’ll have to get used to them out here. Might be more of them than there are us.”
Bren sounded so casual, he felt like an idiot. Except, alligator. No. Sorry, he refused to feel unmanned by his fear of a six-foot predator with very large teeth.
“Maybe we should have called Mr. Dupont to let him know we’re on the way.” He needed to talk. Anything to break the mood and make things seem more normal.
“Eh, wouldn’t have done any good. He works nights. Way I hear, even if he’s up, he won’t answer his phone half the time.”
Major distraction, because now curiosity was killing him. The Deal with Dupont—works nights. What the hell did he do all night in the middle of a swamp? Sara tried to figure out some way of pumping Bren for information without coming off like a gossip and couldn’t do it. The best he could come up with was “Your grandmother knows him?”
“Well, they’ve been doing business for a while. I guess she knows him as well as anyone. He mostly keeps to himself.”
“You’ve never met him?”
“I’ve seen him over at his dock a few times.” She frowned. “You know, I could swear I’ve talked to him, but I can’t remember when or what we talked about. Or maybe I’m remembering his father. The land’s been in the same family for generations.”
“No offense, but are you sure you know where we’re going?”
She scoffed at him. “’Fraid I’ll feed your Yankee ass to the gators?”
“Crossed my mind.”
She laughed. “I’ve done plenty of deliveries out to his place. Don’t worry, I’ll get you there in one piece.”
A few minutes later, she made good on her promise as the swamp gave way to actual land. Bren guided the boat up to a long, skinny pier jutting out from a sloping lawn. In the fading light, Sara could barely make out a large structure set back among the trees. Bren steadied the boat while he clambered out onto the pier with his duffel, then peered up toward the house. “I don’t see any lights. You want me to come up with you?”
Yes. Except she had promised her grandmother she would come straight home, and he was a big boy. He didn’t need someone to hold his hand while he walked a hundred feet to meet his boss.
“He’s probably in the back.”
“I guess. You sure you don’t want me to hang out for bit, just in case?”
“I’ll be fine. He’s expecting me, and I’ll be living here. I mean, his other assistants survived, right? It’s not like he’s an axe murder.” That came out as a joke, right?
“Yeah, no. You’re right. They all seem to love the job. I just, what if he’s not home?”
“No, she said he expected me by six, so he must be in there. Get home to your grandmother.”
“Have it your way.” She pushed off from the dock. “Good luck with the new job.”
Sara watched the boat disappear into the swamp, then picked up his duffel and started across the lawn. The house wasn’t as far as he had thought. The distance was an optical illusion, because a structure that big should have seemed a lot more obvious. Instead, the trees, the wispy Spanish moss, and the hint of fog along the ground combined to deflect the eye until the house seemed to waver insubstantially in mist. Sara got an impression of a steep roof and aged wood, then he was on the long porch running the length of the house without knowing quite how he had traveled the last few yards.
God, it had been a long day.
Tall windows lined the porch, but they were shuttered, so he couldn’t see anything inside. The door was heavy wood behind a screen. There was no bell. Why was knocking so much harder?
Sara stood outside, his heart pounding in his chest, and called himself every kind of idiot. Mr. Dupont expected him. This would be his home for the next year. If it hadn’t been for a fender bender on an endless bridge, he would be inside right now. He wiped sweaty palms down his pants. Took a deep breath and tapped on the doorframe.
The long wait should have given him a chance to calm down. Instead, his reluctance to disturb the silent house grew. He counted to a hundred, slowly, and then rapped harder.
The third time, he pounded.
After that, he cursed. Quietly, under his breath, in case the door suddenly opened.
He left his bag and walked the length of the porch and through spongy earth down both sides of the house, looking for any hint of light. Nothing. No light. No sound. The utter inanimateness of the building mocked him. He went around to the front. Feeling like a total douche, he opened the screen door and tried the knob. Locked.
Well, that was just…super swell.
A cast-iron patio set occupied one end of the porch. He sank down into one of the chairs, stared out at the water, and took stock of his situation. He was in the middle of a swamp at a house that looked deserted. He had no phone. It was almost full dark. He slicked his hand through sweat-soaked hair. At least he wouldn’t freeze.
Down by the water, some of the shadows began to move, followed a second later by the sound of bodies sliding into the water. Probably more of them than us. The sounds of the crickets and bullfrogs faded behind a high-pitched whine next to his right ear. A second later, he slapped at a sharp sting against his arm, then another. He looked down to find a visible smear of blood and another mosquito settling in for lunch.
Freakin’ perfect. He mostly keeps to himself. Bren’s words from earlier snuck into the forefront of his brain. Only how the neighbors described every axe murderer ever. What kind of person advertises for a personal assistant in a town 3,000 miles away? He propped his feet up on the table and settled back in the chair, too tired to come up with any new explanations for Dupont. I don’t know, Ma.
The final bit of twilight faded, and living in the city hadn’t prepared him for the reality of night. Even straining his eyes, he couldn’t see a damn thing. He could hear plenty, though, most of it scary as shit. Yeah, man had invented fire first thing, because this kind of dark ate your soul and left your body for whatever crawled up out of the swamp.
He sat in the dark, cursing his own stupidity for not stopping earlier to buy a fifteen-dollar car charger and trying not to jump at every crackle and splash. He was so focused on the noises in front of him, he completely missed the first signs of life from the house.
He didn’t hear the door open or movement on the porch, but suddenly, every instinct screamed to high alert. Danger. Way more danger than anything the swamp had served up.
He froze and tried to focus past the sound of blood rushing behind his ears as his heart rate kicked into high gear.
Something was on the porch behind him.
Heat and honey. Crimson and coal. A haze of color and sound. The man—for it was a man—stood on the porch as if he had every right to be there. As if I didn’t care he’d interrupted Vespers, the evening chant that allowed me to greet him without breaking his foolish neck. As if I’d expected to find him, tall and proud and soft as a yearling buck.
I had no such expectation, and he had no right, and only the luck of the innocent kept me from breaking his neck on principle.
“If you’re here to sell me something, I must respectfully decline.”
“I’m, um, Sara. Sara Mishra.” He scratched his arm, adding an earthy copper note to his honey scent. Blood. “Are you Thaddeus Dupont? I’m sorry I’m late. I was supposed to be here by six to meet Ms. Alves, but there was a stalled car and my phone died and—”
I cared little for his arguments, as long as he left, so I raised my hand, driving my gaze to the bottom of his fathomless brown eyes. He paused, then gave me a nod and kept going.
“You are Mr. Dupont, right? I’m really sorry for being late.” He nodded again, uncertain, no longer a yearling buck but a hare, ready to turn and run. “Wait. I already said I was sorry.”
His speech lacked a Cajun swing and his rapid-fire heartbeat echoed in my throat, under my sternum, stirring the hunger. He shouldn’t have kept talking after I willed him to stop.
“I am Dupont.” I spoke because it forced my body to breathe, and breathing gave me something to do besides surrender. His resistance to my will frightened me, adding a dash of cayenne to the craving his presence evoked.
“Awesome. I’ve only got my one duffel bag.” He gestured into the darkness over his shoulder. “Bren over at Pinky’s said Ms. Alves would help me get the rest of my stuff later.”
What had Nohea done? “I’ll call her now.” If my couyon associate had hired a man to be my assistant, we were all in trouble. I gestured toward the door, inviting the rabbit into my lair.
“I’ve been trying to reach her all day.” His bag was big enough to hold a body. “Don’t worry, though. I’ve got everything I need right here.”
Taking one step to the side, I allowed him to enter. Once out of the steaming sable night, his posture straightened, firmed, and he stood tall enough to look me in the eye. I flexed my fingers, rooted my bare feet into the wooden floorboards, refused the impulse to stroke the breadth of his shoulder, the beautiful curve of his ass.
My home was simple enough, two stories, elevated to clear the water, with a deep porch and a pitched roof. A lone candle burned on the desk next to my psalter, providing the scant light my vision required. My furnishings were equally simple: a long low couch bolstered by two ancient club chairs, their leather upholstery buffed beige on the armrests. A kneeler pulled up to the desk. Such art as would keep my mind on the eternal.
“Wow.” The northern man with the woman’s name—Sara—stumbled over the low table in the center of the room. Large windows overlooked the bayou, glossy and black except for the pool of reflected candlelight. “You must be part bat to navigate this place.”
“Here.” I switched on the overhead light, an old screw-on fixture holding two low-watt bulbs. His presence made me conscious of the dense humidity enfolding us, mingling our energies through the medium of water.
He rested the body bag on its end, holding it upright. “Where should I put this?”
“Please sit down while I call Nohea.” I waved him over to the couch. “I believe there’s been some mistake.”
He demonstrated the scope of my mistake by ignoring the command to sit. Instead, he eased the duffel bag against the wall and wandered around the room, examining the art, touching, breathing, disturbing my peace. His wide brown eyes spoke of youth, though his proud carriage and the late-day scruff on his chin were all man. Each step he took tightened fear’s grip on my gut till the friction sent a completely unwarranted spark to my groin.
I pulled the cell phone from my desk drawer, the hunger clawing at my resistance. Dialing Nohea’s number, I breathed the words of a psalm. Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: they shall prosper that love thee.
Like David, I yearned for the Lord’s strength, to keep from tasting this most succulent temptation.
The call went to voice mail, an exercise in vacuous communication. Nohea had been my business manager for less than two years. She’d inherited the position, and I’d been impressed by her diligence. This error was highly uncharacteristic, assuming it was an error and not something darker.
“So, are you an art historian or something?” Sara caressed a picture’s frame with his fingertips. “You’ve got one of everything here.”
So light, those long, trailing fingers. How would they feel on my skin?
“I guess in this one, the pope’s telling off some demon.”
“Close.” Disconnecting the call, I moved toward him, stopping when his honey scent made my mouth water. Always the hunger. “It’s a fifteenth-century piece called Saint Wolfgang and the Devil.” Another step, another shot of desire. “I find it both amusing and an eloquent reminder of the challenges we face.”
He grinned at me over his shoulder, his wavy bangs partially obscuring one eye. “You spend a lot of time dealing with the devil?”
So confident. So soft. “Don’t you?”
He paused as if my tone had unsettled him. For my part, I took my nerves in hand and dialed Nohea. Again it went to voice mail. “Merde alors.”
“Look, your contract was pretty straightforward, but if there’s a problem, I guess I can…” He paused again, rubbed his face. “Well, shit. I don’t know what I’ll do. I can’t get to my car without a boat, and there’s no way in hell I’m doing it alone at night.”
I could have told him he’d face as much danger here than in any swamp. He wouldn’t have believed me, for his bravery rose sweetly, like the incense from a swinging thurible at Mass.
Non. I would not give in. As if readying my home for a hurricane, I shored up my internal defenses. I had been the old man in the swamp for more years than anyone around had been alive. Surely this one bright spark of humanity would not be my undoing.
“You won’t have to travel at night.” An owl’s mournful cry rose over the song of the frogs and underscored the tension crackling between us. “I’ll phone Bren and ask her to retrieve you in the morning.”
His expressive mouth gave up any pretense of a smile.
“And I’ll have Nohea write you a reference.” His dejection touched me. None of this was his fault. It’s who you are and what you could do to me. “You’ll be compensated for your time.”
“Sure. Yeah.” He covered his mouth with an open palm. “It’s just, I drove all this way, and…”
“I’m sorry.” Though Nohea owed us both an apology. A corrosive trickle of anger threaded past the hunger and desire. Recruiting my assistant was her primary task. The position had two main stipulations: a one-year contract offered to a female candidate. For me to live with a man in this isolated place would be a death sentence, for him surely, and likely for me as well.
“Nah, it’s cool. I mean, I don’t understand, but whatever.”
I moved toward the hallway. “Come. I’ll show you where you can at least get a good night’s sleep.”
With a soft grunt, he lifted his bag, the light pad of his footsteps barely louder than mine. I opened the door to the guest room. “You’d be wise to lock the door. The key is on the windowsill.”
He brushed past me in a burst of nectar and warmth. “Is there someone else here?”
“No, just the two of us.”
The door swung shut. “Effing hermit.” The whispered words were loud in my ear, punctuated by the click of the key in the lock.
For the first time all night, he did as I asked.
As a young man, I studied the Word. I worked the land. I joined with my brethren and forced my foolish heart to open so the Rule of St. Benedict could wear away my pride and my selfishness.
Then my first life ended, and I was remade. For some ten years, I indulged in every vice, a soulless being of the night. The White Monks engineered my rescue, and I returned to the Rule. As a result of my effort, the will of God, or sheer dumb luck, I have sustained myself over eighty years, giving the Lord what the Devil once tried to claim.
On nights like this, the effort weighed heavy indeed.
I mounted the steps to the second floor, accompanied by the endless chorus of peepers, ornamented by the whip of a bat’s wing, the slop of a diving caimon, the scream of a bobcat. To those were added the small sounds a man makes as he’s undressing, the soft thump of a shoe, the quick buzz of his zipper, the rustle of fabric pooling on the floor. Even from the upper level, I could hear Sara moving, the soft whir of his breath.
No one could breach my sanctuary. The stairs ended in a small landing, with two doors opening from it. In one room, I stored most of the family heirlooms I no longer needed. I spent my days in the other room, if not asleep, then in the somnolent state required by my nature.
Kneeling on the bare wood floor of my inner sanctum, I regained some measure of peace through meditation, then began the chant for Compline. Over one hundred years, I had cycled through the missal, till I could recite the psalms and antiphons and sing the hymns from memory.
He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High, abides under the shadow of the Almighty.
The psalms are the perfect prayer, the rhythm of the words molded and shaped by years of recitation, the way stone steps curve under the persistent pressure of weary feet. The couplets leave space for the breath, carrying prayers aloft where the Almighty can hear them.
This night, I could not fit my will to the shape of the words, and my breath stuttered between the phrases.
The hunger. Always the hunger.
I fought till the sweat beaded across my brow, until the pain of it twisted like a fist in my intestines. Sara had asked about Saint Wolfgang, who faced a warped, insectile demon with a bombastic smirk. I had faced real demons, and while I grasped the Saint’s humor, no demon had ever tortured me worse than the man asleep in my house.
Not just any man. With his warm brown skin and his honeyed scent and his steady, even breathing, Sara created a pulse my chanting could not match. At dawn, I would retire. He would wake, Bren would come, and Nohea’s error would end.
Halfway down the steps, I realized my failure. I bit down on my lip to keep from crying out, hard enough to taste blood.
The lock on his door was intended less to give him peace of mind than to create a mild deterrent for me, for I could not open the door without first acknowledging my intention. With a gentle nudge, the door swung open, and I again fell to my knees.
This time at the edge of a banquet, one I could not touch.
His breath rumbled in and floated softly out. Keeping a span between my body and the bed, I drank in his beauty. Dark hair tumbled around his face, and his black lashes were long and thick. I had no need for light to see the most minute details, the faded crescent scar above his right brow, a small mole on the tender skin between his jaw and his left ear.
My body’s ageless variation on humanity proved still capable of hardening with need. My hands hung loose at my sides, their lack of action requiring more effort than lifting a ton of rock. My own breath rasped, harsh and desperate, leaving me poised on the edge of the precipice. I struggled to find a prayer to keep myself from tumbling into the abyss of heat and sex and blood.
His honeyed scent wrapped around me, nearly tipping the scales. I leaned forward close enough to feel his breath against my cheek. Close enough to see the steady pulse at the base of his throat.
Gloria patri et filio et spiritui sancto…
I landed hard on my heels.
Sicut erat in principio, et nunc, et semper…
Rose to my feet.
Et in saecula saeculorum. Amen.
Pounded up the stairs. Reached for the one thing I could do. The only thing that would help.
When one possesses more strength than any three men combined and the ability to heal on a dime, any suffering is limited, transient. Regardless, I stripped off my shirt and grasped the leather-wrapped handle. The tails were tipped with lead, designed to tear flesh without the permanent burn of iron. Though the two of them could not be more different, still Sara’s presence had called to mind a ghost I would sooner keep buried.
Kneeling for the third time, I swung the flogger hard, setting my back on fire.
Too bright to still be night.
Where was he? After days on the road, Sara didn’t know. There wasn’t any traffic noise. Where were the cars?
He rolled over and opened his eyes to the sight of a crucifix on pale plaster. He stared at it, trying to make the mutilated body of Christ conform to budget hotel décor. Where the hell had he stopped?
His brain woke up more slowly than his body, gradually filling in the previous day. He hadn’t stopped. He’d made it to Louisiana and the home of Thaddeus Dupont, who had redefined Sara’s previous vague definition of the phrase wealthy eccentric. The hermit in the middle of a swamp. Okay, Ma, now we know, thank you very much. At least he hadn’t been chopped into bits and fed to the alligators, so that was something.
He stretched and took further inventory of his surroundings. The four-poster bed was pretty cool. And, damn, his room at home had a memory foam mattress and pillows, but right now he could have been floating in a cloud. Ceilings high enough to feature a big paddle-shaped fan. Dresser. An armoire. An actual antique armoire. His buddy Nate, a massive gay stereotype regarding home décor, would be in heaven.
He was looking around for his phone to send him a picture when the rest of reality kicked him in the gut.
He was freaking fired.
He finally found his phone. At least he had remembered to put it on the charger before he passed out. He crossed his fingers and hit the power. And praise the dead Jesus on the wall, his phone lived. An actual signal was confirmed seconds later when it blew up in his hand, vibrating and buzzing like the world was ending. Missed calls, voice mail, texts, emails, tweets and—aw hell—he had forgotten to call Ma last night.
He stared at the barrage of communications from every possible source, all with one message. CALL HOME.
He contemplated the screen glumly and half considered turning the thing off so he wouldn’t have to deal with any of it. How was he supposed to tell Ma he’d been fired? She wouldn’t care, he knew. She would be ecstatic to have him home. But…
Another buzz as a new text from his big brother appeared.
Dev: You better be dead, asshole. Ma’s trying to book me a flight because she can’t get the Louisiana State Police to take her seriously. Pick up your phone.
Trust Dev to text in complete sentences.
Sara: Dead battery. Sorry.
The phone immediately started ringing. He ignored it and finished his reply.
Sara: Will call Ma later. Have to go.
Then he turned the phone off. Total chickenshit move. He needed a little space before he talked to anyone.
How could he be fired? He had a contract. Dupont hadn’t even given him a reason. Misunderstanding? What misunderstanding? “Your health benefits don’t kick in for three months” was a misunderstanding. Give up your apartment and move halfway across the country to not have a job was something completely different. Why the hell hadn’t he said something to Dupont last night? He searched his memory for the rest of the conversation. He was to be compensated? Hell, no. Not unless compensated meant the whole eighty grand. Ma needed every dollar.
He rummaged in his duffel for clean clothes. He wanted a shower something fierce, but he wanted answers more. Dupont had some explaining to do. He gave the crucifix another glance as he left the room. Freakin’ hermit. The thing was gruesome. Catholics were weird.
When he stepped out into the hall, the silence hit him again. He stopped and listened, trying to decide which way to go, but the house offered no clues. He chose left, mostly because it was familiar. In the room with Saint Wolfgang, he paused. Everything looked as he remembered it except… He pivoted, trying to remember the details of what had happened the night before.
Dupont had found him on the porch. Sitting in the dark outside a locked house definitely counted as a misunderstanding. He had been tired, and scared, and shit, he had babbled incoherently when Dupont startled him. Okay, not a great first impression.
Not a fireable offense either.
Then they had gone inside and…what? Why did everything seem so fuzzy? He remembered Saint Wolfgang, and Dupont saying something about devils and misunderstandings.
Dupont wasn’t an old dude, not old at all. If asked to guess, Sara might have said they were about the same age. His dark, wavy hair looked too long and unruly to be remotely corporate, and his shapeless clothes had obviously been chosen for comfort.
The olive undertones in his pale skin hinted at a person who would tan dark and easy but didn’t get much sunlight. Tech geek, maybe. If not for his bossy, uptight attitude, he could have been another college kid chilling out in nature over summer break. The attitude added an easy decade, though. And the eyes. Dupont had the most intense eyes.
Funny he couldn’t remember their color, but he had been so tired from the drive. What had they actually said? Nohea, misunderstanding, and then somehow Sara had agreed to leave the next day. He’d just accepted that he was going to turn around and go home. He shook his head, trying to figure out why he had done that. Had he actually said he would?
He ran his finger along Saint Wolfgang’s frame. He should have allowed another day for the drive down. He was shit for brains when he got tired. Now where had Dupont gone? They needed to straighten this out.
He tried the door on the other side of the room, which led to the kitchen. No Dupont. He found a note, though, propped conspicuously on the counter by the coffeepot.
He picked it up. Damn, dude had some handwriting. He traced the flowing script. Who wrote like that? He skimmed the words, which basically stated he could help himself to anything from the kitchen and Bren would pick him up sometime before noon. My sincere apologies for any inconveniences.
Sara read the last line three times. On the fourth, he crumpled up the piece of paper with the pretty writing. Bastard. You’re not getting rid of me so easily. He took stock of the other items on the counter, dumped grounds from the canister into the coffeepot, and added water. Couldn’t even stick around to tell me yourself? What’s up with that? Milk, juice, eggs, and bacon in the fridge. Bread and fruit on the counter. Cereal in the cabinet. He went for fruit and toast and took them out on the porch.
The temperature outside hadn’t yet made it to the energy-sapping, steam-room levels of the day before. There were fans over the porch, and he turned them on. The breeze carried the scent of the wisteria growing up the column on the side of the porch, and the view over the pier was…nice. For a few minutes, he forgot to be pissed.
Then he thought about calling Dev and Ma, and his mood soured again. Did he want to live the next year in the middle of a sweltering, alligator-infested swamp? Hell, no. He had expected to spend the summer after graduation fucking off before grad school, because God forbid any of the Mishra kids left college with anything less than a PhD.
Even after his father’s death…
He took another swig of coffee and managed to choke down the last bite of toast over the ball of grief, anger, and shame lodged in his throat. Losing this job wasn’t an option.
He stared out into the swamp for a few more minutes, trying to decide what to do. Then he got out his phone and scrolled through the barrage of call-home messages from the night before. Nothing from Nohea Alves. He tried her number and got a message saying her voice mail was full. Not helpful. Also, what the fuck? He added corporate HR department to his mental requirements for his next job.
Then he made a decision. Too bad he didn’t have Bren’s number, because she’d be making a trip for nothing. He didn’t want to be a dick about it, but contracts bound both ways. Leaving the premises would send the wrong message. He had a contract. He wasn’t going anywhere. It would be easier to stay than try and argue his way back in. Better to break the news to Dupont gently, though. They would be working together for the next year. It would suck if they couldn’t get along.
After breakfast, he returned to his room. He wanted to be ready, whenever Dupont showed up. A shower would help, and maybe nicer clothes than a T-shirt and shorts. They were in a swamp. Even if Dupont didn’t care how his assistant dressed, Sara wanted to make a good impression. He didn’t know what Dupont’s deal was. Whatever the misunderstanding, they’d have to sort it out. Dupont needed to understand he had hired an awesome assistant.
He didn’t remember the final bit of weirdness from the night before until his hand touched the bedroom doorknob. Dupont had told him to lock it. And he had, hadn’t he? But it hadn’t been locked this morning. He had walked right out without thinking about the key at all.
The music of the swamp changed at dusk. The crickets’ song faded, and innumerable grenouille begin their evening conversation. Their single-syllable words added texture to the night, my signal of safety for leaving my windowless room.
By habit, I rose in time for Vespers to pray. My knees were immune to the unyielding wood floor and my body unaffected by the heavy blanket of humidity. The regular rise and fall of the psalm tones lulled me into contemplation.
For the rod of the wicked shall not rest upon the lot of the righteous; lest the righteous put forth their hands unto iniquity.
I feared the rod of the wicked had found Nohea. The young man who had appeared on my doorstep identified himself with a woman’s name; however, the coincidence was too obvious, too blatant.
Nohea’s intelligence had always impressed me, and a mistake of this magnitude was uncharacteristic. I sank into the moment, pondering the question and shifting the heavy air in time with my breath. How had a man—a young, desirable man—come to be hired as my assistant?
A low tone interrupted my meditation. It sounded again, drawing attention to one of my few concessions to modern communication, my iPad.
The signal sounded a third time, and I rose, swiping the screen and carrying it to my narrow bunk. Skype. Someone wanted to talk.
I opened the program, hoping to see Nohea. Instead, Brother George glared at me. “I hope I’m not disturbing you.” A self-righteous man, his constant judgment was a thorn in my peace of mind.
“I just finished with my prayers.”
Some twenty years ago, Brother George had been assigned to be my liaison with the White Monks, a subset of the Dominican Order of Preachers, whose special skills allowed them to directly combat evil. When Satan’s children—demons and hellions and fiends—engaged with humankind, the White Monks forced them Below.
According to Brother George, my nature was as tainted as any of the monsters we fought. Communicating with him required every bit of my forbearance. With any luck, the Lord would credit our exchanges against the time I’d spend in Purgatory. Assuming Brother George was wrong. Otherwise, my efforts were wasted, because I’d be going straight to hell.
I rested the iPad against the footboard and used his bombastic opening monologue to remind myself of my pledge. In return for an assistant to satisfy my need for sustenance, I’d serve the White Monks in whatever capacity they deemed appropriate. I couldn’t be a full member of the Church; Brother George counseled me in a weekly confession but did not offer me absolution, and when I chose to attend Mass, I received an unconsecrated host at Communion. Though their terms were harsh, if I met them, I stood a chance of restoring my soul.
When it came to beauty, our heavenly Father had dealt Brother George a penurious hand. He had too much nose and too little chin and small eyes peering out from under bushy gray brows. I didn’t pay him much attention at all until he mentioned my business manager’s name.
“Pardon me, Brother. What did you say about Nohea?”
His thin lips tightened further, and beads of sweat glistened along the edge of his tonsure. “I said, she missed this morning’s meeting. Have you heard from her?”
The White Monks provided for Nohea too, my human presence during daylight hours. “She was supposed to be here last evening.”
“Supposed to but wasn’t?” His unpleasant tone turned caustic. “Sounds like your manager needs a lesson in discipline.”
I spoke carefully, sorting through the possibilities, tamping down a moment of regret for sending Sara away. My motivation was too suspect to examine closely. “Nohea organized the transition to my new assistant.”
“Yes. We received her contract.” Sara’s name must have fooled Brother George, too.
“His?” Emotions flashed across his face. Surprise. Concern. Glee.
“His.” My confirmation caused his smile to broaden, an expression so exceptional on his wizened features, I choked on my dismay. “I sent him away.”
“Oh no, Brother Thaddeus. You cannot. The contract has been signed.”
The implication in his words rolled over me, hardening my dismay into the walls of a trap. “Then I shall retrieve him.” As if that glorious young man was a wallet or a set of keys whose worth was best proven by his absence.
Brother George had been waiting twenty years for me to slip, and from his barely suppressed smirk, he had me. “Perhaps Nohea can assist you.” His head gave a portentous tilt, as if the motion could tighten the trap around me. “You have seen her?”
“Mmm.” Some residual humanity kept me from giving him a direct answer. All my lifetimes had taught me not to share secrets with someone so désagréable.
“Well.” Brother George crossed his arms, gloating at me from under his bushy brows. “You have a new assignment, so I’ll need both you and Nohea to meet with me as soon as possible.”
I nodded, my palms open. “Of course, Brother.” Assignments were best given in person, in places where information could not be overheard.
“Notify me when you get to town, and I’ll tell you where and when.”
My jaw tightened at his high-handed tone, though anticipation beat in time with my pulse. It had been two years since my last assignment. Two years since leaving the river. And now Sara arrived, Nohea proved undependable, and I had an assignment.
“I’ll be in touch,” I said. “God’s peace be with you, Brother.”
“God’s peace.” He reached forward to close the connection as soon as the words left his mouth. Brother George made it very clear I was as much a trial to him as he was to me. I tapped my iPad screen, sending it to sleep, though I did not move right away.
I lost myself in the swamp music. My previous assistant had left a week ago, and now my most pressing concern was for sustenance. Feeding from Sara would have begged disaster. Fear of the possibility had racked me all night, though the twin desires, hunger and lust, had come close to winning through.
My resolve had held, and now I had to move on. A quick search of the house should tell me whether Nohea had been present. I rose, headed for the door, heard a sound.
Footsteps. On the stairs.
Inhaling, I caught the faintest hint of honey.
Mon Dieu, j’ai faim. So hungry.
For one moment, I lost control, a very human lapse, where I want became the only thing. When I regained myself, I had bent Sara over the banister, his hands scrabbling at my shirt. I shifted away, and his hands flew out, as if he might overbalance. I caught one wrist, his flesh warm, his pulse thudding under my thumb.
“What. The actual. Fuck.” He jerked his hand away, then blinked, slowly, rubbing the place I’d touched with trembling fingers. “I wasn’t, um”—he paused to clear his throat—“sure you were still here.”
“Je m’excuse,” I murmured, breathless. I took another step. “Come. We’ll eat.” Brushing past him, I headed down the stairs. He stayed still, clasping his wrist, the heat of his gaze following me. “Come.” I paused on the steep stairs. “We’ll talk.”
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