Authors: Rebecca York
The man had strong power over the assemblage. Was he the priest? And for what sort of ceremony?
Even from this distance it was a breath-stopping scene. Though Jed had spent months in the jungles of South America, he had never witnessed anything quite so primeval. Wrapping one arm around the tree trunk, he adjusted the binoculars. They gave him a close-up view, but not of the panorama. He could see more details, but only in bits and pieces.
He was concentrating on the frenzied drummers who sat cross-legged at the far edge of the circle when a scream drew his attention to the altar. Swinging the binoculars back, he was just in time to see two large men dragging a struggling woman to the base of the low steps. The priest gave a sign and the men pulled the protesting captive forward. A white cloth was wrapped around her hips, but from the waist up she was naked except for the intricate painted design that covered her exposed brown flesh. In a moment her hands had been secured to metal rings in the wooden posts.
Focusing on her face, Jed caught the look of pure terror that washed over her features. In the next second the priest came forward with a small wooden bowl. One of the men grabbed the woman’s hair and pulled her head up. Jed’s view was blocked momentarily. When he trained the binoculars on the victim once more, her body had sagged forward. He could only guess that the priest had administered some sort of drug.
What in hell was going on here? he wondered, shifting uncomfortably against the tree trunk. Was there any chance of rescuing the woman? He did have a gun, he reminded himself, and the worshipers down there probably weren’t armed. But they were so caught up in the primitive frenzy of the ceremony that they might well attack him anyway.
Jed was still debating what to do when a rustling in the underbrush made his head whip around. He could see nothing. But in the next second he heard a whooshing sound and felt a sharp pain in his shoulder. It was like the prick of a giant hypodermic needle.
Blowgun, he thought, as his vision began to swirl and a roaring noise in his ears all but shut out the sound of the drums. He grabbed frantically for the trunk of the tree, but his hands would no longer obey his clouding mind. His fingernails scraped uselessly against the soft bark. Then, in slow motion, he felt himself slipping toward the ground.
He wasn’t even able to scream. His body bounced against a tree limb and then another, breaking his fall. Nevertheless, when he slammed into the ground, it was with bone-jarring force. Pain washed over him. But the drugged dart had done its work. Mercifully, in the next second he slipped from consciousness.
* * *
M GOING TO WORK
with you, perhaps we should lay down some ground rules,” Jessica suggested. Her voice was calm, but it held an undercurrent of determination.
Michael stood up and jammed his fists into his pockets. Whatever else he thought about this woman, he had to admire her resilience. “You’re the one who’s dealt yourself in.”
“Nevertheless, I want to know where I stand with you.”
“If you can provide me with any information that might help, I won’t refuse to use it.”
“And you’ll share with me what you know.”
Michael grimaced. He wasn’t willing to make that commitment. “Right now that’s damned little. I’ve never come up against so many people who were afraid to talk. Whoever is controlling Dove has a lot of power in this city. But there is an angle we might try. Would you consent to my searching your brother’s apartment?”
“That’s what I’d started doing when you knocked on the door. I didn’t find anything.”
“You probably weren’t very systematic. Do you mind if I have a look?”
“Be my guest.”
Michael stood up and gazed around the living room. “Then I’ll begin in here.” To her surprise, he started with the baseboards and worked his way up the walls, checking behind every picture and curtain. Next he made a careful inspection of the furniture, removing cushions, checking seams and bottoms. After putting the sofa back together he handed Jessica a fistful of loose change and a ball-point pen before turning to the anniversary clock on the mantel.
“You really think you’re going to find something in there?” she asked, looking at the glass-domed timepiece with its exposed mechanism.
He shrugged. “I’ve found dope hidden everywhere—tea bags, toilets, flashlights. You name it.”
“I didn’t know we were looking for dope.”
“There may still be some of your brother’s supply of Dove around here.”
“I never thought of that.”
“You’re not a DEA agent. But whatever may be hidden in his apartment, there are rules for doing a thorough search, and they’ve served me well for years.”
As Jessica watched him work, her respect for the man grew. She’d thought he spent most of his time on the street rapping with likely contacts. Now she realized that his job also involved hours of painstaking detail work.
His methodology paid off when he noticed the seal on the bottom of the bathroom scale had been broken. Prying up the metal plate, he removed the cover. Taped to the inside was a plastic bag with several sheets of paper inside.
“This sure isn’t the warranty,” Michael observed as he brought the booty back to the living room. Jessica could barely contain her excitement. Michael opened the plastic carefully before pulling out photocopies of two letters and a sheet torn from a directory. After reading them, he handed them across to Jessica. “What do you make of these?”
The first was a piece of correspondence from Henry Bergman, the head of the chemistry department at Chartres University, dated about a year ago. It informed a Dr. Gilbert Xavier that the federal government had reevaluated his grant proposal and rescinded their support of his research as of the end of the semester. Under it was another letter from Bergman, written several weeks earlier, that withdrew the university’s request for an extension of the stipend in question. The last piece of paper was page 18 from the
International Directory of Private Psychiatric Clinics.
Jessica’s brow wrinkled. “I remember the name Xavier from some of Aubrey’s letters. My brother worked for him one semester as a lab assistant. He was disappointed when the man left.”
“Xavier left the university?”
“That’s what I remember.”
“It looks as though Bergman was playing games with him.”
“Yes. What kind of research was Xavier doing, do you suppose?”
Michael didn’t immediately answer the question. “You remember that we first saw each other at the university?”
“I wasn’t there on a random fishing expedition. I was trying to find out if anyone knew about a former student, Daniella La Reine.” Briefly he filled Jessica in on what he knew about the woman.
“And she was in the chemistry department, like Aubrey and Xavier.”
“That’s right.” Michael looked thoughtful. “I saw you coming out of Bergman’s office. What happened when you tried to talk to him about your brother?”
“He made it clear we didn’t have anything further to discuss.”
“Exactly the reaction I got in the chancellor’s office. I assumed they were just nervous about publicizing a university drug problem. Now I’m wondering if the reason is a bit more sinister.”
“What are you thinking?”
“That maybe Xavier was fooling around with psychoactive drugs. Maybe he even synthesized something new.”
“Do you think he was trying to develop something with commercial value? Or was he in it for some other reason?”
“I can check the records tomorrow to try and find out what he was researching, but I have a hunch I won’t find anything. Too bad your brother didn’t write down what he suspected was going on.”
“Maybe the university was worried by Xavier’s research and wanted to get him out of there before it turned into a scandal.”
“I’m not sure I buy that. And it doesn’t explain what this listing is doing with the letters.” Michael gestured toward the sheet torn from the directory.
Jessica picked up the page and scanned the entries. There was a brief description of each clinic’s professional services and staff along with phone numbers and addresses. But she had no idea what she was looking for.
Then she reached out her index finger and began to run it slowly down the entries. Halfway down the page her finger began to tingle, just as it had when she’d picked up the paper napkin from Harley’s.
“What is it?” Michael questioned.
“Something about this one.”
He moved to her side and read the entry. It was for the Blackstone Clinic, a private sanitarium on Royale Verde, a former French protectorate in the Caribbean.
“I don’t know. I’m just getting...” She paused and gave Michael a direct look. “Getting a sensation from it.”
He shook his head. “A sensation?”
“A tingling feeling in my finger.”
He swore under his breath. “I’d feel damned silly making a report based on a tingling sensation in your finger.”
“But you can have the Blackstone Clinic checked out.”
He shrugged. “I suppose there’s no harm in doing that.”
* * *
several coins into the collection box, Gilbert Xavier turned and made his way down the far-left aisle of the old cathedral. Slipping into a pew that was partly hidden by a gold-topped pillar, he clasped his thin fingers and bowed his slightly balding head as in prayer.
He hadn’t been to church in years, and he’d told himself that he was there now because it was a very unlikely place for Talifero’s men to look for him. But under the vaulted ceiling with its figures of angels and saints, he felt a sense of peace steal over him. He’d been on the run for weeks, and instead of thinking coherently, he’d simply been reacting and making some very foolish decisions.
Take the episode with Daniella La Reine. He’d counted it a piece of extraordinary good luck when he’d run into his sexy former student in the French Quarter and realized that she was working as a high-class prostitute. When he’d casually mentioned Dove’s aphrodisiac properties, she’d been excited about using it and had been willing to let him stay in a vacant room at the Bryant Hotel with her in exchange for a modest supply of the drug. It had even amused him that she was touting it as a voodoo potion, given the compound’s origins.
But his amusement hadn’t lasted for long. The talkative Daniella had spread the word about Dove too freely. The wrong people had gotten wind of the arrangement, the way they seemed to hear about everything. Now the woman had left the city in fear of her life and he was shuffling from pillar to post—and running out of money.
He thought about how he’d gotten himself into this mess. He’d devoted years to looking for the active chemical agents in the plant compounds used by voodoo healers. The most exciting line of research had been with a drug he’d labeled V-22, which had very pronounced psychoactive effects.
It had taken months to purify V-22. The process itself was tricky and even dangerous due to the unstable nature of the chemical. Finally, he’d produced enough to conduct several tests of its properties, using student volunteers. Just when he was about to proceed to the next phase, the university had cut off his funding and made it clear that further research would not be countenanced, even if he could acquire outside backing. He’d been desperate for a way to carry on with his project because it looked as if V-22 might have a salutary effect on victims of certain mental disorders. But he’d felt that could only be proven through clinical tests—which he now had no way of conducting.
The chemistry department chairman, Hank Bergman, had been sympathetic. Over drinks at the faculty club, Bergman had mentioned a place he knew about called the Blackstone Clinic down on Royale Verde. The director, Jackson Talifero, was interested in experimental drug therapy and might be willing to fund his research on V-22. Xavier had written to the man and received an invitation to visit.
Royale Verde turned out to be just the environment he was looking for. There was no government regulation to interfere with his clinical trials. And the facilities at Blackstone were fabulous. Talifero was willing to supply him with an exceptionally well-equipped lab, assistants, and access to patients who might benefit from V-22.
Talifero had been suave and persuasive. Xavier blushed now at his naiveté in accepting the man’s offer without checking carefully into his background. His purposes in developing and manufacturing V-22 had been quite different from Xavier’s own. Though the chemist had kept his suspicions under control for months, he’d finally been able to ignore them no longer.
Now, from his shadowy pew, he raised his head and looked at the lighted statues on the altar. Their eyes seemed to bore into Xavier, and he quickly lowered his gaze.
As a child Xavier had believed in confessing his sins and receiving his mercy. Now he doubted very strongly in that sort of metaphysical salvation. He needed to put himself under the protection of some agency with much more worldly powers—like the DEA, for instance. He didn’t dare go to the local authorities. Too many people here in New Orleans had an interest in Talifero’s continued well-being. He knew for a fact that some of the local police were on his payroll. The director of the Blackstone Clinic was playing in a high-stakes game.
Maybe if he told the DEA about Talifero, they’d grant him immunity from prosecution. Or maybe he’d have to spend a few years in a federal penitentiary. But even that was better than ending up dead—or back on Royale Verde in Talifero’s clutches. But how was he going to put himself in touch with the federal authorities, particularly since Talifero’s goons were one step behind him every move he made?
* * *
pulled a pack of Rolaids from his desk drawer and stuck two in his mouth, adding shrimp and sausage gumbo to the list of things that gave him indigestion. Or maybe it was just this damned case.
Michael Rome had spent a couple of hours with the mug books and they’d sent a composite drawing and various fingerprints to the FBI. But they still didn’t have a make on Lonnie. His dead buddy was another matter. He was a small-time crook named Joe Valenchi who’d done time in the state pen. But he hadn’t had either the brains or the connections to be very high up in this organization, whatever it was.