Face down a crazed hermit with a shotgun? No problem. Sneak in – and safely out – of a satanic cult ritual? Been there, took the video. Get wrapped in a voodoo priestess’s boa constrictor? Loved the feel.
Natalie Severin thrived on her work’s strange challenges. Except one. Foggy nights. For sheer terror, nothing struck as primal and raw a nerve as fog.
Simply put, Natalie hated fog. The loathing birthed when she was six and locked out of her foster home on a foggy night. It solidified when her twin routinely scared the crap out of her with his cower-beneath-the-covers tales. The way he spun it, fog always concealed something nasty. Fog meant the hunger of a heat-sucking alien or the looming face of a disembodied demon.
New Orleans centered fog was the worst. Born of the pervasive stifling humidity, condensed by the dark waters that entrapped the city and permeated its outskirts, Big Easy fog was a clammy touch on sweaty skin and a distorting silent veil that reeked of rotting vegetation.
So, why, always was it a foggy night when her editor sent her on one of these cock-brained stories? Check it out, Natalie. Lights in the bayou outside the city? Could be an alien infestation.
This world contained a lot of weirdness, but she’d never found a lick of evidence that any of it was caused by aliens.
She hitched her hobo bag more firmly across her sweat-soaked shoulder. The only things infesting this muck were under-age dopers, gators, and swamp gas. She slapped at her bare neck. And mosquitoes.
Thick fog deadened each footfall as the bald spot of a parking lot vanished behind her and she picked her way deeper into the bayou. Tree trunks and saplings surrounded the narrow path in a dense, wet forest, while vines and hanging moss trapped her in the damp vapor. One false step and she’d be knee deep – or worse -- in the black, stagnant waters.
Mist eddied about her boots, covering her ill-defined route. Disoriented, she stopped.
Dampness sucked at her. She tucked a wayward strand of her red hair under her Saints cap and then undid the silk scarf knotted at her waist. Draped over her neck, it offered a thin protection against the ravenous mosquitoes. Pulling her black T-shirt away from her sticky body, she fanned her belly with the hem. Where was her path?
The capricious fog shifted, and a few yards ahead, she spied her target – the cypress tree split by lightning. Bennie had said he’d meet her there A-SAP, lead her to where the lights were moving. She closed the gap, then risking the light, she hit the Indiglo button on her watch. 11:02 PM. Where was Bennie? He said he’d be waiting.
She glanced around, but the infernal fog played its deceptive games, smudging gnarled cypress trees to eerie shadows, hiding movement with its own undulations. Her breath rasped against her teeth, too harsh for the ephemeral, vaporous night. She pressed her lips together, trying to swallow her irrational fear.
Sweat gathered along her spine as she waited beside the damaged tree. There were other routes -- waterways accessible by pirogue, treacherous paths revealed only to those who knew the swampy lands. She was not one of those people. Her forte was the streets, not here. She had to wait for Bennie.
To be honest, she wasn’t even sure she could find her way back to the parking lot. The admission crawled up her spine.
Too quiet. Not even the normal sounds of night insects and nocturnal predators, more at home than man in the undomesticated wilds. Beyond the faint drip of fog condensing on leaves and the pulse of blood in her ears, only silence existed, as confining as a casket.
White tendrils of mist wrapped her like frayed tendons. She shifted her feet, trying to break up the hated fog. Alternately concealing, then revealing as it curled along the bayou, fog was confusing and deceptive. It was a lie, a promise of beauty that hid evil.
Like the foggy night she’d found her estranged husband’s incinerated remains.
Something cold brushed her arm. She spun, heart knocking against her ribs, and a bone white hand slid out from the fog. Out of her nightmares, it reached for her.
A yelp escaped past her control. She flinched back, and then shook her head to erase her momentary weakness. The hand was not a disembodied demon. It was attached to a moving shadow, physical enough to stir eddies of fog.
She braced her hand on the water proof cypress, settling back into sweaty-palm-edginess, while the shadow solidified into a skinny body. A man. When cavernous cheeks and greedy eyes formed on the ashy face, she let out a breath.
“Bennie! I was beginning to think you’d played me false.”
“Keep your voice down. I saw something.” His nasal tones grated on her.
“The source of the lights?”
“Nope. A man, p’haps, but he weren’t sticking around long enough for me to be sure.”
Her terror of the fog buried beneath the scent of story. “You gonna take me to those lights?”
He glanced around, his hands in his pockets jingling the coins.
“Backing out?” she challenged.
“You got the money?”
She pulled an envelope from her hobo bag and handed it to him. He took a quick look inside before shoving it in his back pocket. After another furtive glance around, he motioned for her to follow. “No talking.”
Natalie followed, glad she’d worn boots and jeans despite the heat as they picked their way through the sodden ground. Wet branches scraped against her denim-clad legs, and she gave a few more useless swats against the mosquito horde.
Just about the time she was beginning to think Bennie was as lost as she was, he drew up and motioned her to stop. He turned and laid a finger to his lips, an emphatic gesture for her to be quiet. She slid closer, her nose wrinkling as Bennie’s rancid odor reached her nostrils. Rotting vegetation was a perfume compared to Bennie.
She peered forward, and then bit back a muffled curse. Dratted fog covered too much. She edged closer to the tiny clearing formed where a couple of trees had fallen.
From the clearing, a beam of white light, strong enough to pierce the fog, blinked twice. Her heart battered against her ribs. Not E.T.’s ship, that was a flashlight. If there were monsters out tonight, they were the human kind.
As if waiting for that signal, the fog parted, at last giving her a clear view.
Two skinheads waited, giggling and sneering at something by their feet, and paying no attention to their surroundings, thank you, Jesus. Dawglip and Kracker were their street names. If those two sorry pieces of humanity were here, their headman, AX, couldn’t be far away, and AX was the worst of a real bad bunch.
No fear of the unknown here. This sour taste on her tongue was the credible fear of the known. The fear of soulless cruelty.
Her fingers tightened around her bag strap, and, before the punks saw her, she shifted further behind a tree. Not aliens, not ghosts, not demons. This crew was vicious, crude, and undisciplined, and they didn’t give a donkey’s ass about the supernatural. If AX was involved, then she was looking at something fricking illegal.
Hoohah, but she had story here! Excitement bubbled like seltzer. Nothing supernatural, but still something real and potent.
What exactly were the skinheads waiting for? She strained forward, trying to see more. Chances were AX wasn’t the brains of whatever was going on. A trickle of breeze moved the fog, and she saw something else – poster-storage-sized tubes stacked at the edge of the black water, where an airboat hulked.
Weird containers for drugs.
A shadow on the far side of the clearing caught her eye. A man, gliding between the cypress as easily as the fog. She caught enough of a glimpse to identify him before he disappeared into the night.
Ramses Montgomery? He was a vet, not a reporter or a cop. Hell and damnation, what was he doing here? And dressed in all black like her – for protection and stealth.
As though Ram ever went about unnoticed. Dawglip and Kracker excepted. Even the deceptive fog hadn’t blurred that hard, masculine body or softened the blackness of his hair. She caught another glimpse of him as he angled past a patch of fog. Nor did the stifling air blunt his crackling aura of determination. Suddenly her skin felt too tight to contain the rapid flush of blood.
He was one finely put-together man, a fact recognized by every one of her double-X chromosomes.
Not that she planned on doing anything about it. Her skimpy supply of cautious instincts warned her to stay far away from Ram Montgomery.
For a lot of reasons.
“People shouldn’t outghta treat a dog like that,” Bennie muttered, drawing her attention back. “Even a stray.”
The line of skinheads shifted, and Natalie saw what Bennie meant. Her stomach churned on the pizza she’d had for dinner, burning her throat with cheesy acid.
A dog was tied in place by a ragged rope. A street mutt of no determinable parentage, it stood its ground against the human beasts tossing sticks at it and occasionally striking out with a boot. The beleaguered dog snarled and snapped at its tormentors, but the blood matting the fur, the mangled ear, the heaving chest told a different tale. The dog was losing the fight.
Natalie lunged forward, furious.
Bennie hauled her back, his scrawny arm stronger than she gave him credit. His fingers bit into her cheeks, holding her head still, while his other arm snaked around her shoulders. His knife tip pierced the silk scarf at her throat.
She stilled, even as she saw Ram appear at the far side of the clearing.
“I took a risk bringing you,” Bennie hissed. “You wanted to know what caused those lights. Now you do. You ain’t gonna finger me. We’ll stand here real quietlike, watching, until they leave. Montgomery’s on his own. His funeral.”
One veterinarian against two amoral toughs? With AX likely joining them real soon? Not favorable odds for the dog’s rescue. Or Mongomery’s health. She might have some personal issues with Ram Montgomery, but he didn’t deserve to be skewered.
She waited for Bennie’s knife to waver.
Ram thrust his body between the skinheads and the dog. Kracker let fly with another sharp stick and hit Ram on the cheek. A dark, thin line welled up. Blood.
She flinched in sympathy, her cheek stinging. Ram didn’t acknowledge the hit.
The dog pressed its head against Ram’s jean clad leg, instinctively turning to the human’s protection. With his eyes on the punk duo, Ram reached down and, avoiding the injured ear, scratched the dog’s head. Hang on pal. She could almost hear the vet’s reassurance.
“Leave the dog alone,” he commanded, his voice a low rumble of anger.
Somehow, she didn’t think the two would heed the warning. She waited, sweat dripping between her breasts, and drew in a breath of thick, hot air. As he watched the drama unfold, Bennie’s knife tip relaxed from her throat. Slowly, she cupped her hands together, then slid them up her chest, shifting energy, drawing power into her arms and legs.
Ram’s glanced flicked toward her. Had he seen her? His cheek twitched, the line of blood shifting its slow trickle. “Go,” he said.
Was he talking to her or the skinheads?
“Looks to me there’s two of us and one of you,” sneered Dawglip.
“Take your boat. Leave the dog. And your merchandise.”
Dawglip jerked his head to his pal, Kracker. “Bonus tonight. Someone’s gonna get hurt.”
“Unfortunately,” Ram agreed. He gave the dog another pat, and then straightened.
Her heart thumped her ribs, an echo to the dog’s tail against the tangled-weed mat. Ever so slightly, she tilted back against Bennie, holding her breath against the stench, and put her throat further from his blade. Gave her hands an opening. Her toes dug deep in her boots.
Ram gave a near imperceptible shake of his head. Though he didn’t look at her, something deep in her gut told her he’d seen her and knew what she was about. He was telling her to stay put.
Arrogant, macho –
Ram struck in an unreal blur, so fast and concealed by the fog she couldn’t see the motion. Only heard the results. The thud of flesh. The crunch of bone. The curses. The raw scream.
She’d barely blinked and the moment passed.
Kracker cradled his arm. “My hand!”
“That’s for the paw.” Ram stepped back, breathing controlled, untouched except for the blood on his cheek. Masculine power, leashed, but ready. Retribution in the flesh. He threw their confiscated knives – how in the name of sanity had he gotten those? – into the water, saying to Dawglip, who was moaning and holding the side of his head. “That’s for the ear. Go, and don’t make me repeat myself.”
Dawglip and Kracker scrambled away, slipping on the fog-damp weeds and tripping on knobs of cypress knees.
Behind her, Bennie mumbled a fervent prayer.
Tension knotted in Natalie’s stomach. Okay, maybe arrogant and macho were justified adjectives, but that didn’t answer the break all barriers question: How the hell had he done that? Maybe it was a martial arts technique she’d never seen – and she’d studied several – but that wasn’t what electrified the hairs at the back of her neck. Even the ex-SEAL who’d taught her last women’s self defense class hadn’t moved that fast. Nobody had those kind of reflexes.
Nobody, apparently, except a Big Easy veterinarian.
Reporter’s instincts kicked into overload, throwing each leaf, each drip of water, each labored breath into stark relief. She had uncovered something strange here, the tip of a very odd iceberg.
Despite the excitement, her mouth puckered around a taste of queasiness. A jumble of fears – the fog, the skinheads -- snuck in like maggots in an
abandoned pantry, sly and malodorous.
And the man who was so much more than a simple vet? No, she had have been tricked by the deceptive fog. All that was going on was compressed time.
Time to start doing what she did best – prying.
First things first – the dog, the knife at her throat, the -- oh effing hell! Natalie’s jaw froze. AX slid between the trees, gun cradled in his hand. His cronies, courage revived, circled to rejoin him. Ram, crouched beside the injured dog, his hands beginning an expert evaluation, was paying them no mind. He’d no notion of the stalking danger. Too far away for her to reach them.
Bennie leaned over and breathed in her ear. “Move out quietly.” His grasp on her relaxed.
Natalie gripped her hands together, tight, and thrust upward and outward, breaking his hold, shoving the knife away from her throat. She jabbed her elbow back, straight into Bennie’s abs. Letting her go, he staggered back with a gasped “oof.”
“Ram! To your left!” she shouted, sprinting forward.
AX spun toward her voice. She swerved; fortunately, his shot missed.
She’d given Ram the needed seconds. In his hands, a loose branch became a missile. Straight at AX’s gun hand.
AX cursed as the weapon spun from his grasp.
Natalie lunged forward, scrambled up with the gun before AX could reclaim it.
Dimly she heard Bennie mutter, “This ain’t no good,” as he faded away. Like she’d figured, Bennie was into self-preservation.
“Stop!” She trained the gun on AX, arresting his dive. Kracker and Dawglip edged back away.
AX was surprisingly handsome, if you were into smooth, and he gave her a practiced, knowing smile. One that had likely charmed numerous women into ignoring that he also had a reputation for rough sex.
She smiled right back, keeping the weapon steady.
“That’s a man’s gun,” he told her condescendingly. “Not something a little thing like you wants to be experimenting with.”
A little thing like her? Oh, please. She was five eight and weighed one forty. “It’s a .40 caliber Glock M-27 pstol. Nine rounds in the magazine. Minus the one you aimed at me leaves me with eight. Grip’s a bit big for my hand, but I’ll manage.”
AX’s eyes narrowed. Without taking his gaze off her, he commanded. “Kracker, Dawglip, get your sorry asses back here.”
“Stay where you are.” She gave her own command.
“Damn, but I hate guns,” Ram muttered.
“Fortunately, I don’t, and, AX, mine’s aimed straight at your family jewels. Anything makes me nervous, and you’ll have one second to be a man.” Mentally she played back her defense class. Two hands. Steady. Oh, Dear Lord keep my hands steady. She refused to swallow against the powder mouth, preferring to keep a steady eye on the target.
Kracker whined. “Let’s go, AX, before this turns worse.”
AX clenched his fists, biceps flexing, and the mouth of his croc tattoo opened wider. Apparently, though, he had survival instincts, too, especially disarmed. His head tilted, then, glance shifting between her and Ram, he slowly backed away. “C’mon, boys. This ain’t over. Til, later. I know who you are, bitch.”
Running into the bayou, the trio disappeared into the fog. Natalie chased forward.
“Don’t.” Ram’s quiet command stopped her. “He’s still dangerous. And I need your help.”
She was going to chase through the fog after three thugs? Not. She joined Ram and sat cross-legged at the dog’s side. The pup lay quiet as Ram ran expert, assessing hands across the matted fur. “How is he?”
“She.” Ram braced his palms on his thighs. A muscle twitched in his cheek. “Cut up. She’s lost a lot of blood. I need to get her back into my office. IV fluids. X-rays –” He bit off the list, then leaned forward and probed at the lump. The dog whined.
“What is it? What’s wrong?”
“She’s still bleeding.” His voice cracked, but he affectionately scratched behind the dog’s ear. Trying to keep the dog soothed, she realized.
After the effort of a whine, the dog lay limp and motionless. Natalie’s jaw tightened. Dammit, they would not lose this innocent dog. She yanked off her silk scarf and thrust it at him. “You can use this to bind her.”
He shook his head, not looking at her. “The bleeding’s internal.”
With a determined move, he laid one of his hands against the bump, while the other grasped a raw pink gem attached to a steel-link neck chain. “Give her a name.”
“A name!” he snapped.
“Val. For a valiant heart.”
“Okay, Val, we’re going to try something different.” His mesmerizing voice softened until she heard nothing but an indistinct chant.
She started to protest. They had to leave, had to do something. The dog could not wait.
“I know what I’m doing, Natalie,” he warned, not looking at her. “Keep petting her for me.”
Her mouth snapped shut. She hated feeling helpless, but he was definitely the one in charge when it came to healing animals. Laying the gun on the ground, she petted the dog’s head.
Her world narrowed to the rise and fall of Val’s chest, to the silkiness of the fur beneath the crusted blood. Val’s dark eyes fixed on her, as their brave light faded.
Tears ran down her cheeks in a salty heat. She blinked them back, swallowing a sob. “We’re losing her.”
Ram’s only answer was a quick shake of his head.
He was wasting time! The need to act scorched across her muscles, but something in Ram’s steady confidence held her in place. Dampness seeped through her jeans, and a cypress knot jabbed her knee, but she stayed at her job. The urgent hum inside her found release only in petting and soothing Val.
Whatever Ram was doing had better work.
“Put one of your hands on mine,” he ordered, not looking at her.
“Just do it!”
She complied, one hand atop his, one hand stroking Val. The dog felt clammy. The man’s strong hand was hot.
Abruptly, the fog thickened, gathering and pulsing around the locus of their hands. The hairs of her arm stood on end, as though electrified. Dense with humidity, the fog condensed when it touched her fevered skin. Droplets of water slid down her arms, dripping onto Val’s fur one by one.
They were encased, bound in wet white. She could see nothing except a gleam of golden fur and a shimmer of pink at Ram’s throat. The muscles of his arms and legs, the black of his shirt stretched across his chest, the untidy dark hair, the strong neck as he bent and focused.
His voice – low, mesmerizing, inexplicable in words, undeniable in power – drew the fog in a bandaging shroud. Without explanation, he placed Natalie’s palm on the dog’s wither and let go of the gem. His hands painted fog across Val’s fur. One pass,he brushed across Natalie’s knuckles. Not an erotic touch, not at this moment, yet the touch was as compelling as deep down familiar as the caress of a treasured lover.
Her heart raced, and her breath came in gulps. Reaction to the man? Hatred of the encompassing fog? Fear for the beaten Val? She couldn’t tell; the strands intertwined, inseparable and inevitable. Only her worry over Val kept her from fleeing the power of the fog and the man.
“Just a little longer, girl,” Ram murmured. “Be strong.”
The encompassing fog began to undulate. Gradually it picked up speed until it flowed across Natalie’s hands like a river. Hot and cold, energizing, soothing. Moisture penetrated her skin, reaching deep into sinew and cell. It washed away the cramp in her fingers and the ache in her arm.
What the hell?
A faint vibration tickled beneath her knees. A gator passing in the nearby waters? An airboat out hunting? The vibration grew, from the heart of the earth, shaking her teeth with its rumbling power. She clamped her jaw together, fighting, until it peaked, then faded. As if waiting for that cue, the fog broke apart, moving off them and thinning to wisps.
Val gave a weak bark and licked Natalie’s hand with a rough tongue. Natalie jerked back, the uncertain ground shifting beneath her. Her gaze fixed on Ram. He stared not at the dog, but at her, his hands outstretched. In supplication? Pain? Power?
Thin threads of horror wrapped around her throat like a garrote. If only the simple act of silence could vanquish the impossible.
The dog got up and gave a tentative shake, then another, stronger, bark.
Val’s fur was still blood-caked, but the mangled ear was straight. The lump had settled.
Gone was the specter of death.
The dog was healed.