Authors: Rebecca York
“Sugar, you don’t want to go fooling with a voodoo potion. I can make you feel real good, without drugs.”
“Are you sure you don’t have any of that stuff? I’m willing to pay.”
Cheryl shook her head. “No. If I was you I’d forget about it, unless you want to go back to Big D missing half your marbles.”
“That bad, huh?”
“Thanks for the warning, darlin’.” He stood and chatted for a few minutes more, the conversation light and flirty as if he were considering changing his mind about her offer. In the course of telling him why she was more desirable than Daniella, Cheryl added considerably to the knowledge he had gained from three days of painstaking legwork.
He had a description of Ms. La Reine now. He was pretty sure her “voodoo potion” was really a brand-new street drug called Dove. And he knew she had been a student at Chartres University before deciding that she wanted a shortcut to big money. Perhaps someone there remembered her.
His loquacious informant also had quite a bit to say about the short, nervous man with thinning hair and wire-frame glasses who’d been a regular customer of Daniella’s over the past few weeks. Cheryl noted that when he’d left her colleague’s room, he hadn’t had a particularly satisfied look on his face. At Daniella’s prices, she didn’t know why he kept coming back.
Michael tipped his hat, keeping his exit as much in character as his entrance. Like most of the people he’d talked to recently, Cheryl would remember the urban cowboy trappings and mannerisms better than his face. But that was exactly the idea.
He was a master at assuming a carefully cultivated persona, and that ability had saved his life on more than one occasion. So had the large hands wedged casually into his pockets. They were like the rest of his body beneath the expensive western finery—firm, tough, and well trained. In fact, they could slice through a five-inch wood block or put a hole in a brick wall.
When he reached Bourbon Street, he stopped at the first open-air bar he came to and ordered a mint julep. For an agent on assignment, liquor was against the rules, but he wasn’t going to tell if the bartender didn’t.
What a city, he thought, turning to drape himself against the bar as if he were simply interested in watching the passing scene while he sipped his drink. If ever there was a place that seethed with wicked excitement, it was New Orleans. Unfortunately, he wasn’t there to enjoy wicked excitement.
Nominally, he was on assignment for the Drug Enforcement Administration. But the top-priority request for his services had really originated in Berryville, Virginia, at a country inn called the Aviary. The inn was a front for a secret intelligence organization known as the Peregrine Connection. While Michael Rome officially worked for DEA, he was also a Peregrine operative reporting to its director, Amherst Gordon, code-named the Falcon.
Only a few highly placed government officials knew of Gordon’s existence. He was an old espionage mastermind who had staged his own death in order to go underground. The operations the Falcon now ran, many of which were funded by his own personal fortune, could never be officially approved by the attorney general. Because Gordon didn’t have to answer to Congress, Peregrine could do things in days that would take the FBI or CIA weeks to set up.
One of the Falcon’s most reliable underworld sources had warned that a new and frighteningly destructive drug called Dove was being test-marketed in the Crescent City. If it made it big there, the sky was the limit. Michael’s job was to throw a monkey wrench in the distribution network and make sure that didn’t happen. And he didn’t have a hell of a lot of time to do it.
* * *
HE VOODOO PRIESTESS
put a beautifully manicured hand on Gilbert Xavier’s arm. Her tawny fingers were graceful and tapered, the nails a deep crimson, the color of blood. A flowing white caftan covered her body from neck to toe, and her thick hair was wrapped in a jade turban secured in the center of her forehead with an ornate silver pin depicting two entwined serpents.
Her dark eyes probed Xavier’s countenance. He tried to hold his gaze steady under her scrutiny, knowing that after three weeks on the run he looked more like a hobo than a college professor.
Was he a fool to trust this woman with his life? He wasn’t sure, yet something had brought him to her door.
“Things have not gone well with you, Gilbert,” she observed as she drew him into her little house. The clapboard dwelling was in one of the city’s less prosperous districts. Like its neighbors, it needed a coat of paint and new louvered shutters. But inside, the air of poverty vanished. The small living room was elegantly furnished with Oriental rugs and Victorian antiques from some of the most exclusive shops on Royal Street.
Gilbert turned the woman’s statement aside. “But you seem to be doing very well.”
His hostess shrugged delicately. “People ask me to help solve their problems. An impotent husband with a young wife. A pregnant girl whose lover is hesitant about marrying her. They are always satisfied with my services, so they come back again.”
“I have a problem too,” he ventured.
The fingers on his arm squeezed sympathetically. “I wouldn’t need to read tea leaves to know that. But I am glad that you came to me. Sit down and tell me your troubles.”
He sank heavily onto a green velvet high-back couch, and she drew up a matching chair. How much could he trust her, he wondered.
She read the hesitation in his eyes. “Gilbert, I’m like a doctor or a lawyer. Your secrets are confidential here.”
“There are men who want to find me so that they can control me,” he blurted. “And there’s danger to you if I say too much.”
She waved her hand dismissively. “I have ways to protect myself from danger.”
“Maybe not from these men.”
“But you believe in the power of my magic, or you wouldn’t be here.”
Did he believe? Though he was well educated—with a Ph.D. in chemistry, no less—he’d seen what this woman could do. She was part witch doctor, part folk healer, and part charlatan. Maybe he had come here because he was desperate enough to believe in her power.
“We will make a charm to throw your enemies off the scent.”
She stood up and left the room. He could either follow or flee. He chose to follow, his eyes trained on the back of her flowing robes as she led him down a narrow hall, which ended at a doorway closed off by a thick beaded curtain. Beyond was a room that he remembered all too well. It was a twilight place with bamboo wall covering, pungent candles, and carved wooden figures with jeweled eyes that jumped out at you in the dark.
The woman must have sensed the tremor that rippled through his body. “You were eager for my help once. Are you afraid to accept it again?”
That had been in an entirely different context, a different life. He had been willing to take what he could from her, as long as he didn’t have to acknowledge the magic.
“I’m not afraid,” he lied.
The beaded curtain rustled as she pushed it aside and gestured for him to sit down on one of the flat cushions that were the floor’s only covering. When he had complied, his companion gave him a satisfied smile before kneeling in front of a low altar at the far end of the room.
He had watched her do that before. Only then drums had beaten a frantic rhythm in the background, and the room had been full of dark, writhing bodies. Now it was just the two of them, and he was a participant, not an observer.
For a moment the priestess was completely silent, then she began a soft chant as she lit more candles, the graceful movements of her body beneath the flowing silk caftan strengthening his sense of foreboding. In a way, he could trace the root of all his problems back to his fascination with this woman and her dark secrets. No, that wasn’t fair. He accepted the responsibility for the mess he’d gotten himself into.
The woman had finished her chant. When she turned back in his direction she was holding a carved wooden box, which she set on the floor in front of him. Then she went to a cabinet along the wall and began removing jars and vials. As she opened them, he caught whiffs of rosemary, violet, sassafras, and less pleasant scents that he couldn’t identify. They all went into a stone mortar and were pulverized.
Returning to kneel in front of him, she held up the bowl and began to chant again. The syllables were soft and sibilant in a dialect he didn’t understand. They seemed to swirl around him like a suffocating mist.
When she finished, she set the mortar down and raised the lid of the box. Inside was a tapered silver knife. The repoussé on the handle matched the silver serpent on her turban, except that the two snakes’ mouths were open where they met the blade.
He drew in a sharp breath. Though his heart rate had accelerated, he was powerless to move.
With one hand, she reached out and picked up his sweaty palm. With the other, she raised the knife.
“We need some of your blood to bind the potion.”
The knife came down and he felt the point pierce his skin.
id your brother have a stable personality before this drug-induced psychosis?”
Jessica propped her elbow thoughtfully on the edge of the wooden chair in the hospital consultation room. Across the oak-grained desk, Dr. Thomas Frederickson sat with his ball-point pen poised above a sheet of paper.
Drug-induced psychosis—so someone had finally put a label on Aubrey’s disturbing behavior. At first it had been a question of saving his life. Though he now seemed on the road to physical recovery, he wouldn’t communicate with her at all, and his only words to the nurses and doctors were little more than sporadic bursts of rage.
Just how well did she really know her younger brother? Over the past few years they hadn’t spent much time together. It was probably her guilt about neglecting him that had sent her rushing back to Louisiana.
Dr. Frederickson waited patiently, making a point of not pressing the young woman who sat across from him. They’d already talked briefly a few times. Though she’d been distressed about her brother’s condition, she hadn’t gone to pieces. Now she looked a bit more rested. Her face, he supposed, was conventionally pretty. But there was a very personal style about this woman that took her out of the ranks of the conventional. And there was a sense that when she met his direct gaze, she was probing into his psyche as much as he was delving into hers. For a psychiatrist used to controlling this sort of interview, the observation was a bit unsettling.
She was wearing a navy-and-canary Indian print dress set off at the neckline with a hand-worked brass necklace, he noted, and her curly auburn hair was freshly washed and brushed, but not tamed. Her complexion was creamy peach, her large eyes a dramatic hazel. Right now she didn’t look as if she’d spent long hours in the psychiatric unit’s grim waiting room. But Dr. Frederickson knew that she’d agreed to go home and get some sleep only after she’d been assured that Aubrey was going to pull through.
“Was my brother stable?” she repeated the question in a clear alto voice that was softened by a faint southern accent. “I’m not sure what that means, exactly. He didn’t have any serious problems like delinquency or drinking, but he and my parents used to fight a lot.”
“The usual things. Not wanting to eat the dinner my mother had prepared or refusing to clean his room.”
Frederickson smiled. “That’s not out of the ordinary. How did he handle the conflict? Was there any violence?”
“Oh, no! Aubrey was famous for stomping off to his room to sulk—or disappearing for long bike rides.”
“And what would you say about your parents? How would you describe them?”
“They were very rigid.”
The psychiatrist looked up, wondering why she had singled out that adjective.
“You mean they were particularly strict about issues like dating and smoking?”
She nodded tightly. Yes, and going to church every week, and minding your elders. That had been part of her southern upbringing. But her mother and father had also had a way of snapping their minds shut to what they couldn’t understand. Their lack of insight and support had caused a crisis in her own adolescent years. Could that be relevant to Aubrey’s case?
“Was taking drugs a way for Aubrey to rebel against their authority?” Dr. Frederickson asked.
She raised a hand to her temple and stroked for a moment, the gesture partially hiding her eyes. “My parents were pretty old when they had us.” She paused for a moment, suddenly immersed in all the old pain. “They died when Aubrey was twelve and I was seventeen. He went to live with our aunt, Edna Ballin, who ended up adopting him. I was already in college in the East and decided to stay there. But I’ve always felt guilty about not coming back here to take care of my brother.” She didn’t want to tell him the whole story of why she’d been compelled to put so much distance between herself and New Orleans.
Dr. Frederickson heard the distress in her voice. “It must have been a pretty rough time for both of you.”
“It was.” Let him make his own assumptions about why.
“But you were only a kid yourself,” the psychiatrist reminded her gently. “You were hardly capable of shouldering the responsibility for a twelve-year-old. If your aunt adopted him, she must have cared strongly about him. Did he have a good home with her?”
“Yes. She was a wonderful person. She doted on him, and she wanted a relative to carry on the Ballin name. Except for a small legacy to me, Aubrey was her only heir. Most of the money is still in trust until he’s twenty-five.”
“So he was in good hands, and you don’t have to feel guilty.”
They talked for a while longer about Aubrey’s background. Though a measure of Jessica’s equanimity returned, there was still no way to come up with an explanation for what had happened to her brother.
“It just doesn’t make sense,” she concluded.
“Maybe he got in with the wrong crowd,” Dr. Frederickson suggested. “Did you know any of his friends?”
“No. I haven’t been back here in a long time.”