I STRAINED, BARELY BREATHING. H AD I REALLY HEARD WHAT I thought I had? Minutes crept by. Doubt crept in. Then it sounded again, faint and surreal.
An undulating moan, a high-pitched laugh.
The electric skeleton!
I was not far from the Riverbank Inn. Where Primrose had stayed. Where she had never been seen again.
I pictured Primrose's bloated face, saw the gouges left by underwater feeders.
I lay bound, gagged, and blindfolded in a sack beside the Tuckasegee River!
I had to break free!
My skull pounded from its encounter with the rock. The rag cut off my air, and tasted of garbage and filth. The duct tape burned my cheeks and lips, and fired splinters of light up my optic nerve.
And I could hear the swish of roaches on my nylon jacket, feel their movement in my hair and on my jeans.
My thoughts flew in a thousand directions.
Again, I listened. Hearing no indicators of a human presence, I began manipulating my bindings, breathing steadily through my nose.
My stomach swirled, my mouth grew dry.
Millennia passed. The tape loosened a millimeter.
Tears of frustration welled behind my mashed lids.
I kept at my ankles and wrists, yanking, twisting, tugging, stopping periodically to monitor for sound outside my bag.
Roaches scuttled across my face, their feet feathery on my skin.
Go away! I screamed in my mind. Get the fuck off!
I struggled on. Sweat dampened my hair.
My mind soared like a nocturnal bird, and I looked down on myself, a helpless larva on the forest floor. I pictured the blackness around me and wished for the safety of a familiar night haven.
A twenty-four-hour coffee shop. A tollbooth. A precinct house. A nurses' station in a sleeping ward. An ER.
Then I remembered.
Could I reach it?
I drew my knees to my chest, scrunching the hem of my jacket as far up as possible. Then I jerked my elbows across the nylon, raising my hips each time. Blindly I inched the pocket forward, gauging its progress by touch.
Reading my clothing like a Braille map, I located the nylon loop attached to the pull tab and grasped it between the fingertips of both hands.
I held my breath, applied downward pressure.
My fingers slid down the nylon and off the end.
I tried again, with the same result.
Over and over I repeated the maneuver, fishing, squeezing, pulling, until my hand cramped and I wanted to scream.
Pressing the zipper tab to my thigh with the back of my left hand, I bent my right wrist and tried to hook a finger through the loop. The angle was too shallow.
I bent my hand farther. No go.
Using the fingers of my left hand, I placed pressure on my right, increasing the backward angle. Pain screamed up the tendons of my forearm.
As I thought my bones would snap, my index finger found the loop and slipped through. I tugged gently. The tab gave, and my bound wrists followed it down. With the zipper open, it was easy to slide the fingers of one hand into the pocket and withdraw the scalpel.
Carefully cradling my prize, I rolled onto my back and wedged the instrument against my stomach. Then I peeled off the napkin by rolling the scalpel between my hands. Rotating the blade toward my body, I began sawing the tape that bound my wrists. The scalpel was razor sharp.
Easy. Careful. Don't carve your wrist.
In less than a minute my hands were free. I reached up and tore the bindings from my lips. Flames raced across my face.
I yanked the rag from my mouth, alternately gulped air and spat. Gagging on my own foul saliva, I sliced through the blindfold circling my head and ripped it from my eyes.
Another burst of fire as skin and some eyebrows went with the tape. With shaking hands, I reached down and freed my ankles.
I was slashing at the bag when a sound paralyzed my arm.
The chunk of a car door!
How far away? What to do? Play dead?
My arm flew, a piston driven by a will of its own.
Feet rustled through leaves. My mind calibrated.
I jabbed at the canvas. Up, down. Up, down.
The rustling grew louder.
I thrust my boots into the opening, thrashed out with all my strength. The tearing sounded like a shriek in the stillness.
The rustling paused, resumed, faster, more reckless.
“Hold it right there.”
I pictured the gun, felt bullets slam into my flesh. It didn't matter. I'd either be dead now or dead later. Better to make a fight of it while there was still the chance to resist.
I flipped around, grabbed the edges I'd torn, and pulled with both hands. Then I lunged headfirst through the opening, tumbled facedown, rolled onto my feet, and stood on rubber legs, trying to focus.
“Madam, you are dead.”
I bolted away from the sound of the voice.
Keeping the gurgling of the river to my left, I ran through darkness dense as an endless tunnel, one arm in front of my face. Obstacles leaped at me without warning, forcing my feet on a zigzag path.
Again and again I stumbled on some form of planetary rubble. A rock older than life itself. A fallen trunk. A dead branch. I kept my balance. Burning fear gave rise to strength and speed.
The things of the night seemed to go silent. I heard no buzzing, no chirping, no padding of feet, just my own rasping breath. Behind me, footfalls, thrashing like some giant woodland beast.
Sweat soaked my clothing. Blood pounded in my ears.
My pursuer stayed with me, neither closing in nor falling back. Was he working a home court advantage? Was he the cat, I his mouse? Was he biding his time, confident the prey would be his?
My lungs burned, unable to take in enough air. A stabbing pain ripped my left side. Still, the blind urge to run.
One minute. Three. An eternity.
Then the muscles of my right thigh cramped. I slowed to a limping lope.
The cat slowed, too.
I tried to push on. It was no good. My legs and arms were going dead.
My pace dropped to a trot. Sweat trickled from my forehead and burned my eyes.
I saw the outline of a dark shape in front of my face. My outstretched hand slammed something solid. My elbow folded, and my cheek hit hard. Pain shot through my wrist. Blood moistened my palm and cheek.
With my good hand, I reached out and explored. Solid rock.
I probed farther.
My heart shriveled.
I'd run up against a cliff wall. Water to my left. Dense trees to my right.
The cat knew. I had nowhere to go.
I pulled out the scalpel and held it behind me. Then I turned, back to the wall, and faced my attacker.
He spoke before I saw him.
He was breathing hard, and I could smell the rancid odor of sweat and rage.
“Stay away from me!” I yelled with more bravado than I felt.
“Why should I do that?” Taunting.
I knew that voice. The caller at the morgue. But I'd also heard it in person. Where?
Crunching, then a black cutout appeared in the darkness.
“Don't take one step closer,” I hissed.
“You're in an odd position to give orders.”
“Come near me and I'll kill you.” I grasped the scalpel like a lifeline.
“The proverbial rock and hard place, I'd call it.”
More crunching. The cutout resolved itself into a man, arm extended in my direction. Broad shoulders, thick arms.
It was not Simon Midkiff.
“Who are you?”
“Surely you know that by now.”
I heard the click of a safety uncatching.
“You killed Primrose Hobbs. Why?”
“Because I could.”
“And you plan to kill me.”
“With the greatest of pleasure.”
“Your meddling destroyed a holy thing.”
“Who are you?”
Kulkulcan. It was one I knew.
“The Mayan deity.”
“Why settle for a pharaoh or some faggot Greek?”
“Where is the rest of your society of sickos?”
“If it wasn't for that miserable crash you'd never have stumbled onto us. Your busybody intrusiveness uncovered things you had no right to know. It has fallen to Kulkulcan to exact vengeance.”
The melodious voice was now tinged with fury.
“It's over for your Hell Fire Club.”
“It will never be over. Since the dawn of time the mediocre masses have tried to suppress the intellectually superior. It never works. Conditions can make us dormant, but we reemerge when the climate changes.”
To what egomaniacal delusion was I listening?
“It was my time to enter the ranks of the holy,” he continued, oblivious to the fact that I hadn't replied. Or indifferent. “I found my offering. I made my sacrifice. I honored the ritual that you have profaned.”
“Jeremiah Mitchell or George Adair?”
“Irrelevant. Their names don't matter. I was chosen. I was ready. I followed the way.”
Keep him talking, my mind reasoned. Someone knows where you are. Someone is doing something
“Kulkulkan is a creator god. You destroy life.”
“Mortals are transient. Wisdom endures.”
“The wisdom of the ages, shown to those worthy to receive it.”
“And you ensure its survival through ritual slaughter?”
“The body is a material envelope, of no lasting value. We discard it in the end. But wisdom, strength, the essence of the soul, these are the forces that prevail.”
I let him rant on.
“The brightest of the species must be nurtured. Those passing from this earth must yield their mana to those who remain, add to the strength and wisdom of the chosen.”
“Through blood, heart, muscle, and bone.”
Dear God, it was true.
“You think you can increase your IQ by consuming the flesh of others?”
“As flesh wastes away, so does strength. But mind, spirit, intellect, those elements are transferable through the very cells of our bodies.”
I clutched the scalpel so tightly my knuckles ached.
“Herodotus told of the eating of kinsmen among the Issedones of Central Asia, who grew strong and ruled. Strabo found it among the Irish clans. Many conquering peoples gained strength through eating the flesh of their enemies. Eat the weak and grow stronger. It's as old as man himself.”
I thought of the Neanderthal bones, the victims in the kiva near Mesa Verde. The skeletons in my morgue.
“Why the elderly?”
“The aged hold the greatest reservoirs of wisdom.”
“Or do old people simply make easier targets?”
“My dear Miss Brennan. Would you rather that your flesh contribute to the advancement of chosen beings or be consumed by maggots?”
Anger welled, overrode fear.
“You egotistical, demented prick.”
“Fee-fi-fo-fum, I smell the blood of an Englishman. Be he alive or be he dead, I'll grind his bones to make my bread.”
At a distance, the skeleton moaned, cackled.
I was confronted by madness! Who was this man? How did I know him?
I began inching along the wall, holding the scalpel behind me with my right hand, feeling with my left. I'd taken a half dozen steps when a powerful beam shot out of the dark, blinding me like a possum on a backyard fence. I threw up an arm.
“Going somewhere, Miss Brennan?”
In the backglow I could see his lower face, lips drawn back in murderous rage.
Stay away from him!
I pivoted to run, tripped, and fell. As I scrabbled to right myself, the shadow sprang, closed the gap, and a hand reached out and grabbed my ankle. My feet went out from under me again, and my knees cracked against alluvium. The scalpel flew into darkness.
“You goddamn treacherous cow!”
The golden voice was now sizzling with fury.
I kicked out but couldn't break his grip. His fingers were like steel clamping through my jeans.
Never more afraid in my life, I gouged my elbows into the earth, trying to hitch myself forward, kicking out with my free leg. Suddenly, his full weight was on me. A knee pinned my back, and a hand pressed my face into the ground. Dirt and debris filled my nose, my mouth.
I thrashed wildly, kicking and clawing to get out from under him. He'd dropped his flash and it lay on the ground, lighting us like some writhing, two-headed beast. As long as I could move, he would not get that garrote wire around my throat.
My hand touched something jagged and hard, and my fingers closed around it. I twisted my torso and struck out blindly.
I heard the soft thunk of rock against bone, then the metallic clink of steel on granite.
He slammed his fist into my right ear. Lightning exploded in my head.
He released his grasp, fumbled to retrieve the gun. I jerked an elbow backward and caught him along the border of his jaw. His teeth cracked and his head flew back.
A shriek like that of a wounded animal.
I pushed with all my strength and his knee slipped off my back. In less than a second I scrambled to my knees and crawled toward the flashlight. He regained his balance and we dived at the same time. I got it.
I swung as hard as I could and connected with his temple. A thump, a grunt, and he fell backward. Clicking off the beam, I lunged toward the trees and crouched behind a pine.
I didn't move. I didn't blink. I tried to reason.
Don't thrash into the trees. Don't turn your back on him. Maybe as he moves you can slip past him, run back toward the inn, scream for help.
Dead calm, broken only by his panting. Seconds passed. Or maybe it was hours. I felt dizzy from the blow to my head, couldn't track time or space or distance.
Where was he?
A voice from near the ground. “I have found the gun, Miss Brennan.”
A single shot exploded in the stillness.
“But we both know I don't need it now that that cur of yours is out of the way.”
His voice came to me as though under water.
“I'm going to make you pay for this. Really pay.”
I heard him rise.
“I have a necklace I want to show you.”
I inhaled deeply, trying to clear my head. He was coming at me with the garrote.
Out of the corner of my eye, a glimmer. I turned. Three slivers of light were bobbing toward me. Or was I hallucinating?
“Freeze!” A gravelly female voice.
“Drop it!” Male.
“Stop!” A different male voice.
A muzzle flashed in the darkness in front of me. Two shots rang out.
Return fire from the direction of the voices. The ping of a bullet ricocheting off rock.
A thud, an expulsion of air. The sound of a body sliding down the rock wall.
Hands on my throat, my wrist.
“—pulse is strong.”
Faces above me, swimming like a mirage on a summer sidewalk. Ryan. Crowe. Deputy Nameless.
“—ambulance. It's O.K. We didn't hit her.”
I struggled to sit.
“Lie back.” Gentle pressure on my shoulders.
“I have to see him.”
One circle of light slid to the cliff where my assailant sat motionless, legs stretched in front, back against rock. Slowly, the light illuminated feet, legs, torso, face. I knew who he was.
Ralph Stover, the not-so-happy owner of the Riverbank Inn, the man who would not let me into Primrose's room. He stared sightlessly into the night, chin forward, brain slowly oozing onto a stain on the rock behind his head.