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The evening news superimposed weather statistics - humidity, temperature, barometric pressure - over footage of Mardi Gras parades in New Orleans. Masked attendants on glittering floats hurled handfuls of beads and "doubloons." High-stepping bands danced over the booty. Excited revelers jostled each other to catch all they could, some even raising upside-down umbrellas to provide larger targets while they shouted to the floats.
"Throw me somethin', mister," Clem said, mimicking the revelers and flipping a doubloon in his own hand. This coin, however, didn't gleam - and it weighed much more than the parades' aluminum currency.
Liking the heft of it, Clem tossed it again. He had a lot more to celebrate tonight than Mardi Gras. He and his two buddies, Earl and Bobby Lee, had made yesterday's paper with their recent discovery of decomposed remains in the Louisiana swamp. They'd been searching for a local man whose car went off a bridge last week; instead, they'd discovered a skull, a hipbone, and maybe a thighbone, with scraps of cloth and a nylon belt. Pretty cool.
Better yet, they'd found a dirt-encrusted plastic wallet, like the kind kids carry, with three gold coins spilling out.
Of course,they hadn't told the authorities about the coins. The man who had gone off the bridge - later found drowned - had owed Earl money. They figured they deserved what they could get.
The curtains of Clem's living room window burst bright with lightning, while a simultaneous thunderclap shook the earth - one mother of a storm out there. Clem glanced back at his TV, which now displayed the weather map. Storms covered southern Louisiana and Mississippi. Even if Earl and Bobby Lee did get here this century, the parties wouldn't last long.
Another boom of thunder struck the air around him with a flash. The lamps, the hum of the fridge and the TV all faded out.
In the sudden, dark silence, something hit the front door. Clem nearly jumped out of his skin, then snorted at himself. "Wuss." Find a few moldy bones, and he turns into an old lady.
Thud! Thud! Thud! Not so much a knock as a deliberate, sludgy pounding. The door shook under each blow ... but then, it was a cheap door. It went with the cheap apartment.
"Keep your pants on!" Clem called. Probably Bobby Lee and Earl, laughing their butts off. He reached for the door.
It waited. He snatched his hand away as the door shuddered beneath another knock. "Damn it, I said -" But when Clem did yank open the door, his protest caught in his throat.
Between the blackout and the steady downpour, he could hardly see the figure - taller than Earl or Bobby Lee - filling his front stoop. That wasn't what scared him, though. Something seemed weird, wrong, about the shape before him.
He noticed a dark smear on the front of the door. "Aw, man ..."
But with the next explosion of lightning, Clem saw what was really weird about the guy on his stoop.
It struck. He didn't get a chance to scream. Yesss ...
As Clem's body slid down the mud-slick door, the doubloon fell from his suddenly lax fingers. It bounced, rolled into a puddle, vanished beneath the coffee-colored, rainpocked surface.
Then the lights flickered back on to show nothing on the stoop but muddy footprints, smeared where Clem's corpse had been dragged across them. The drumming rain quickly washed the mud away, too.
* * *
The wind picked up, became the tormented moans of lost souls. Too late, always too late. Then they, too, vanished.
In the background, muffled by the steady tattoo of the downpour, sounded the jazz strains of Pete Fountain's Half-Fast Marching Band ... and a cry of "Throw me something, mister!"
Drinkin' in the dark. And it didn't get much darker than this, mused Guy Poitiers, leaning against a thin tree trunk. Even if there were a moon tonight, which there wasn't, heavy cloud cover hid the sky and sprinkled misty rain. Oh, well. Louisiana, with its thick vegetation and tall, top-heavy loblolly pines, wasn't exactly known for its big sky.
From the dampness floated the mournful hoot of a wood owl. "There are," Guy drawled at the portent of death, "certain benefits to not giving a damn." He crushed his empty beer can.
Only the crickets, the cicadas and the banjo frogs made any comment. Them, and his belated conscience.
"I mean a darn," he muttered. Vaguely curious, he tipped the flashlight on his belt loop far enough to click it on and see his watch. He clicked it off again, let it dangle again from his hip. He'd agreed to give up swearing for Lent. Here it was eight minutes into Ash Wednesday, and already he'd sinned.
Had to be a new record. Well, heck, he hadn't observed Lent for years, anyway. He wouldn't have given up anything, had he not returned to the old homestead, with its memories of a more religious childhood - and with his devout aunt, desperate for comforting. Guy didn't fully approve of his lapse back into religion, even so. He didn't like people counting on him, not for his beliefs or anything else.
Just in case he started to give a ... darn. He crouched down to the cardboard box at his feet to trade his empty for a refill. He had to do it by feel, since turning on the flashlight had destroyed what little night vision he had. The wet spring night, thick with the fragrance of new growth, was a black void around him. A void with an owl.
He didn't normally drink like this, but he could find his way around a twelve-pack. Now an eleven-pack. No, a tenpack, he thought as his hand closed around another cool can, and he lifted it in memory of nights when he'd snuck out here with his brothers - and in memory of the cousin who should have lived to sneak out with them. "Happy Mardi Gras, Lazare," he muttered at the nothingness around him. "Laissez les bons temps rouler." He didn't really speak French, but his parents and grandparents did; he'd picked up a few useful phrases. "Let the good times -"
And then he heard the giggle. Guy blinked, and immediately doubted the sound. A giggle? Not a lady's giggle, but a kid's? He replaced the unopened can and hefted the cardboard box. It seemed pretty full.
He tried to chuckle, but it came out more as a wary "Huh." And he realized the banjo frogs had quit their prideful croaking. The cicadas' endless drone stumbled into uncertainty.
Another giggle bubbled at him from the trees, thin and distorted, and Guy slowly rose to his full height, sans beer. He tried to shake off the sense of morbid familiarity that sped his pulse - a familiarity even less conceivable than the giggle.
Then, through the thick pines, a faint voice called out. "Gilly?" And Guy - Guillaume - felt his breath leave him as solidly as if he'd been tackled by four very large defensive linemen. No one had called him Gilly since ...
He swallowed, hard, and decided to go back to the house and check on Tante Eva. Party over.
Excerpted from Beneath The Surface by Evelyn Vaughn Copyright © 2002 by Harlequin Enterprises
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.