Authors: Rebecca York
He cleared his throat. “I’d like some more information about your brother.”
“Background, to start with.”
The subject might be painful, but it was safer than dwelling on what had transpired between herself and Michael Rome in the dark hours of the night. Briefly she repeated some of the same facts she’d imparted to Dr. Frederickson.
“So getting involved with Dove was out of character for him, as far as you can determine?”
“Yes.” She hesitated. “I have a theory about how it happened, if you want to hear it.”
“Lonnie.” Her voice stumbled over the name. “Lonnie said my brother had been sticking his nose in where it didn’t belong.”
“It could have meant he was trying to horn in on the guy’s drug distribution territory.”
“I can’t believe Aubrey would do that! Besides, Lonnie also implied that he’d taken care of Aubrey to keep him from talking.”
“Huh. That does add an interesting element, but it could just be wishful thinking on your part. I get the feeling that you didn’t really know your brother very well.”
Jessica knit her fingers together. “That’s right.”
“I moved away when he was twelve.”
His gray gaze seemed to pin her to the sofa.
“That was the summer you hit the papers?”
Her eyes registered shock and indignation. “You’ve been checking up on me, and you forgot to mention it.”
“I want to hear your version of what happened.”
“That’s buried in the past. You have no right to ask me about it.”
“Listen, my boss thinks your psychic ability or whatever it is may help crack this case. But to put it bluntly, I don’t believe in phenomena that I can’t explain scientifically. And I don’t have time to waste. According to my best information, a ton of Dove is about to hit the streets. When it does, there are going to be a lot more whacked-out kids like your brother.”
Jessica stood up and walked to the window. Her back was rigid. “I don’t have to prove anything to you.”
“Tell me about the Reverend Peter Ashford.”
He saw her shoulders begin to tremble. Now was the time to press her as hard as he could.
She whirled to face him, her skin drained of color. God, what was this man doing to her? When she was in need of his aid, he had bought her trust with his care and understanding. Now she felt as if he had slipped a knife between her ribs. “Why do you want to hurt me?”
“Liar.” She sucked in a steadying lungful of air. The old pain was as fresh in her mind as though it had been yesterday. “You want to know about the Reverend Peter Ashford? Well, he was going to kill me, and he would have if my parents hadn’t come home early from choir practice that night. They thought he’d come over to save another soul from the devil.”
“He tried to kill you? That wasn’t in the papers.”
Her voice was taut with emotion. “I’ve never told anyone about it.”
Her knees buckled, and he was out of the chair and across the room before she sagged to the floor. “Easy, baby.” The soothing note in his voice was the one he’d used the night he’d brought her home from Lonnie’s.
Sitting her on the sofa, Michael turned her toward him and cupped her shoulders in his large hands. “Jessica, I shouldn’t have—”
She reached up and removed the hands. “But you did.” Squeezing her eyes shut, she tried to hold back the memories, but they came washing over her like a giant wave knocking her flat against hard sand. “How much do you know about that summer?” she whispered.
He could see that he was going to get exactly what he had asked for. “Just what was in the papers. You helped the police find two missing children by handling their possessions.”
“The first one, Darlene Carpenter, was a child I baby-sat for occasionally. Her parents were frantic when she didn’t come home from school one afternoon. Her books were discovered in the woods near her home.”
Michael studied her drawn face. Her eyes were dark pools of emotion. He sensed they no longer focused on their surroundings.
“When I put my hand on the books,” she whispered, “it was like watching a horror movie that I couldn’t turn off. I could see everything that was happening, but I couldn’t see her attacker’s face.”
She didn’t seem to hear his words. “It came back to me every time I closed my eyes. I kept seeing the look of terror on Darlene’s face and hearing her plead and then scream. And then I’d start screaming myself. My parents thought I was possessed by a demon. They had the minister over that same evening and tried to calm me down. It was Ashford. Every time he came into the room, I started to shake, but I didn’t know why until later.”
She was trembling almost uncontrollably now.
“What happened?” Michael rasped. He had wanted to determine if this experience was real. Well, now there was no doubt about the verity of her gut-wrenching emotions. But were they the result of hysteria or a psychic experience? He still didn’t know.
“My parents were very religious, and Ashford had a tremendous amount of influence with them. Together they kept me from going straight to the police, but the next day when a detective came around the neighborhood asking questions, I couldn’t help myself. I started babbling about the visions and when he wouldn’t believe me either, I dragged him to the place where they found her. Thank God she was still alive.”
Violent shudders racked her body. Michael could hear her teeth chattering.
“Before, when my friend Simone and I played around with magic and stuff, it was fun. But this thing was something I couldn’t control. I was frightened and alone. All I wanted to do was be like everyone else again.”
“So how did you get involved when the second child disappeared a couple of months later?”
“That time the police came to me. I was terrified, and my parents were furious. But from the moment the detective put that poor boy’s muddy sweater in my hand, I was seeing his ordeal too. God, it was horrible! The first time there might have been a chance that I’d stumbled on Darlene because the dry well was in the wooded area near our school. But I didn’t even know this other kid or the neighborhood where he was accosted.”
She pressed her face into her hands.
“Jessica,” he soothed.
When he took her shoulders and drew her trembling body against his, she didn’t have the strength to object. She felt his fingers stroking her back, her hair.
“That time I saw the molester’s face.” She looked up at Michael, eyes pleading for his understanding. “It was Ashford. At first I told myself I was wrong or that I’d made it up somehow because I was already afraid of him. There was no evidence to support the revelation, and the children were too frightened to tell their parents what had really happened. But after I led the police to the second victim, Ashford took on my salvation as a personal crusade. Nobody else could tell. But I knew he was going to kill me if he could just get me alone.”
Michael swore under his breath. “And when you told the police, they didn’t believe you.”
“They’d been so insistent on wanting my help. When I started saying things they didn’t want to hear, they stopped taking me seriously. One of the officers on the case leaked my accusation to the papers. Suddenly the whole community was up in arms against me.”
“Why did they think you’d lie?”
“You have to understand what kind of people they were. They held anyone who was a minister next to God. There was no way they could believe what I was saying about Ashford.” Her voice took on the character of a bewildered child. “And when the man committed suicide the night after he’d been at our house, everybody blamed me because I’d accused him. They thought I’d driven him to it—that he couldn’t take the shame and humiliation.”
Michael could hear the remembered pain and frustration behind her words. “Wasn’t there anything to support your side of the story?”
Jessica laughed harshly. “The victims were too traumatized to talk. I can understand why. Ashford had a very strong personality. He’d frightened me almost witless. He probably convinced those kids they were going to roast in hell if they told on him. But I finally became so hysterical that the police agreed to search his house. By that time it was too late. His sister had already cleared out his belongings. The detectives found nothing incriminating.”
“I’m sorry you had to go through that.”
The empathy in his voice was like a healing salve on wounded flesh. It also released the torment she’d been afraid to expose to the open air. During that whole time, she’d never been able to cry out her fears and desolation. Later she’d determinedly locked the experience away. Now in Michael’s arms, she could weep for the girl who had suffered so unfairly.
He held her and rocked her gently. It was strange that though he had precipitated the pain, she could take such comfort from him. Gradually her tears tapered off.
When he sensed her control returning, he pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and handed it to her.
She blew her nose. “Why did you do that to me?”
His voice was gruff. “Because I had to know if it was real. Putting my trust in your information is like putting my life in your hands. If you were playing games, I’d be in a hell of a fix.”
Drawing back, she studied his face, aware that he believed what he was saying but also certain that he was hiding something—maybe even from himself. “That may be true. But I think what you really wanted was for me to say I wouldn’t work with you. Isn’t that right?”
“Why would I do that?”
“So you could go back and report to your supervisor that you’d struck out.”
His eyes had turned the color of gun metal. “I told you this could be dangerous. I wanted to keep you out of it.”
“Thanks a bunch. Are you always so straightforward?”
“When I’m out on the street doing my job, I’m hardly ever straightforward.”
“Well, you’re not going to manipulate me again. I’m in this thing whether you like it or not.”
Michael sighed. “I don’t like it, but I guess I don’t have a choice.”
n hour after nightfall, the drums started. Despite his years of fieldwork, the hollow, primitive cadence made the hair on the back of Jed Prentiss’s neck bristle as he maneuvered the boat close to shore. It was hard to believe that Jackson Talifero couldn’t hear the same insistent rumblings so close to the sanitarium. The observation made him wonder even more strongly what the hell was going on at the Blackstone Clinic.
The only other sound was the lapping of water against the sides of the fishing craft. He looked up at the velvet canopy of the sky studded with brilliant points of light and an almost full moon. Though he’d traveled less than ten miles from the other side of the island, he had the eerie feeling that he was very far from civilization.
As he drew near shore, he could see a break in the thick vegetation that must be the outlet of a small creek. Cutting off the engine, he got out the oars and paddled several hundred feet up the waterway. The raised roots of a mangrove tree offered a convenient mooring. After securing the craft, he jumped out and gathered up his pack. Inside was a machete, a pair of high-powered infrared binoculars, and some tiny transmitters that he intended to plant in some of the clinic buildings—preferably in Talifero’s office. Quickly he changed into the black fatigues and long-sleeve shirt he’d also brought along and fastened on his holster.
The jungle around him was teeming with animal life. Small feet scurried in the underbrush, and thousands of insects added a steady background hum. They made him feel like an intruder and reminded him to proceed carefully. The dense foliage hid patches of marshy ground and, for all he knew, quicksand and poisonous snakes.
It took him an hour to go a quarter of a mile, relying on the machete only when necessary so as not to leave an obvious trail. As he moved through the ferns and vine-covered trees, the drums grew louder and the tempo increased. Was Talifero holding a ritual for the psychotic inmates?
He would have given the party a wide berth, but it seemed to lie almost directly on his route to the sanitarium. Through the foliage he caught a flicker of firelight. Now that he was closer, he could distinguish the chanting of many voices accompanying the drums. It sounded as if there were more people than he had originally thought. Was anyone standing guard?
The thought crossed his mind that perhaps he’d picked a bad night to come visiting this end of Royale Verde. Despite his message to the Falcon, he hadn’t given the voodoo angle much credence. But this sounded pretty serious. On the other hand, he wasn’t sure he could give Barahona’s gumshoes the slip two evenings in a row. The next time he had a few in a bar, they’d undoubtedly follow him to the men’s room. Probably his best strategy was to reconnoiter and then make a decision.
Glancing around, he spotted a sturdy tree that looked as if it would be relatively easy to climb. Perhaps from the top he could get a better view of the clearing. After slinging the binoculars around his neck, he checked to make sure his gun was secure in its holster and set the pack and the machete down in the brush.
Silently he swung himself up onto the lowest branch and then began to climb. About twenty-five feet from the ground, he paused and peered out from between feathery leaves. To his right he had a good view of the clearing that had been drawing his attention.
From his vantage point he saw that flaming torches had been stuck into the ground at intervals of about eight feet, forming an almost perfect circle. Inside its boundaries perhaps thirty or forty dark-skinned men and women were chanting and swaying in time to the thudding beat of the drums. All were facing away from him in the direction of a stone altar topped by two thick wood posts about five or six feet apart.
As Jed watched, a tall figure wearing a mask and robe made of bright bird feathers ascended the steps and stood surveying the crowd. The man stretched his arms and the writhing bodies before him accelerated their pace and became more frantic in their movements. Arms and legs suddenly jutted out at odd angles. Necks bent as if they might snap off.