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They never should have been there.
"Stop walking. Now. Stand still, dammit!" Aaron Mogge-ridge shouted at the retreating back of Sonny DeAngelo.
"Sonny," Aaron yelled. "I'm out of rope with my mom. If she finds out about this, I'm toast. She'll kick me out of the house."
"Yeah, yeah," Sonny said. "I got a lot more worries with my uncle. How would you like to have Angel trying to straighten you out? And Eileen's too soft to quit on you. Shit, come on, will ya?"
Aaron pulled a foot out of the sucky mud and stomped it down on a white cypress stump. "We're lost," he pointed out. At least Sonny had quit walking away. "Do you know which way to the bayou?"
Bayou Nezpique had been behind them when Sonny had insisted on striking out into swampy ground, but who knew where it was now? "You don't have a clue, do you? I told you fooling around in swamps was a bad idea. Why did you really want to get into this stuff? And don't give me that ecosystem crap again."
Sonny turned around and retraced his steps, smacking his sodden sneakers through a thin layer of brown water covered with frothing scum into the bottom sludge. He looked like he was enjoying himself.
"You're like a stupid kid," Aaron said. "Jumpin' in puddles. I'm calling for help. It's getting dark, Sonny. You want to be out here in the dark? It'll get colder and it could rain buckets. Where'd you think all this water came from? It's almost December and we're getting a helluva lot of rain." He reached for his cell phone and started punching in numbers. He was scared. Sonny was a city kid, a New Yorker; he didn't know shit about a Louisiana swamp.
"C'mon," Sonny said. He poked at Aaron's cell, messing up the number. "If we call home like a couple of scared girls, we're done for."
"Look around," Aaron said, raising his arms. "We don't know where we are. It's gonna get dark. This isn't Brooklyn, it's a swamp. Y'know what kind of stuff hangs out in swamps?"
"Pretty much what hangs out in parts of Brooklyn." Sonny kept his head shaved and oiled but the shadow of his thick black hair always showed. It came to a point in the middle, in front. His eyes pissed Aaron off. They looked innocent. Big, brown and soft, and they lied. Sonny DeAngelo was the toughest kid he had ever met. Sonny was seventeen and Aaron would be before long, but most of the time Aaron felt like Sonny was years older.
"Okay," Sonny said, his voice dropping. "I'm an ass, just like you say. But we're in it now and we gotta get out, so quit panicking and start working with me."
"Shit, what now?"
"I know this place. I've lived here all my life and I know where I don't go. This is a big don't go. But I let you talk me into it.You don't get to tell me to work with you, because you don't know jack shit. You work with me, ballhead."
Sonny grinned. "Sure thing." He posed like a scarecrow with its head on one side, and his thin black sweater hung from his arms and body. His flat belly showed above the black pants that hung on his hip bones. He pointed one long forefinger. "I do know where we are. I didn't tell you in case you chickened out, but there's a guy I want to get a look at."
What Sonny had just said didn't compute for Aaron. He shook his head.
"I'm not making this up," Sonny said. "We got to that busted dock and I knew we had to come this"
"What guy?" Aaron asked. "What guy, Sonny? You didn't say anything about looking for a guy."
"He lives around here. The bartender at Buzzard's Wet Bar told me about him."
"Buzz's? You were at Buzz's?"
Sonny shrugged. "I just wanted to see what it was like in there."
"If someone squeals on you, Angel's going to take you apart. It's gonna be ugly." Aaron made a circle, searching for something familiar, anything that would steer them out of there.
"We gotta concentrate," Sonny said. "That broken dock where I stopped? Back there on the bayou? That was the marker for us to head into the trees. His place is around here and we're going to stumble right over it any second now."
"Liar," Aaron said. "Ecosystems."
"They said I wouldn't do it," Sonny said. "I'm gonna show them. Wait till I prove it to them tomorrow. There's no such thing as voodoo. Or a root doctor."
Aaron moaned. "A root doctor?You're off your head. If one of those guys was around hereand he isn'tI sure as hell wouldn't be stopping by for a visit. I'm calling Matt Boudreaux."
"The police chief?" Sonny's voice squeaked. "For cris-sakes, let's move. All I want to do is see where this guy lives and get me a memento."
Aaron looked up through the trees. They weren't dense but they were all he could see in any direction. Cypress, their feet in standing water. Moss hanging like grey-green slime. Broken stumps scattered. "A frickin'minefield," he muttered. "If there
whatever you're looking for, how will you prove you saw it?"
"If I take a bit of wood back and say it's from his house, they'll have to believe it. Maybe I'll haul along a dead rat, too."
"You don't know a thing about this place,"Aaron said. "Okay, we've got to choose. Back the way we came or straight on."
"Straight on," Sonny said, frowning now. "We'll get out to an old logging road eventually. I just want to see his house andhey, we can ask him how to get out of here."
"Our bikes," Aaron said. "We've got to find them or we'll never get home. That's it." He gritted his teeth and dialed 911.
"Don't," Sonny whispered. "Please don't do that. You know I'm supposed to behave while I'm here. That's why I'm here. Uncle Angel's"
Aaron held up a palm. "No signal," he said. His skin felt tight. Just like he'd been expecting, raindrops began tunneling down through the trees.
He heard a sound that didn't fit. One look at Sonny showed he had heard it, too. With a finger to his mouth he got to Aaron, took his arm and backed him into the nearest cover three tall stumps crowded together.
The sound came again and again, then turned into a steady splashing and stumbling racket.
"If that's your root doctor, there's no use hiding. He already knows where we are." Aaron spoke softly through barely moving lips.
"And if it's somebody else?" Sonny said against his ear.
"Give me the voodoo man over some others it could be."
"What d'you mean?"
Sonny's features weren't as clear anymore. The light was just about all sucked out. "Stay here," he said. "I'm going to try running to that tree, the really big one there. If we split up, we're more difficult to catch. That's if there's someone planning to catch us. If it wasAngel, he'd be calling our names."
"I wish it was him."Aaron twisted the neck of Sonny's black sweater and hung on. "You're not going. We stay together."
The splashing, the cracking of branches stopped abruptly. "We can take him," Aaron murmured. "Not if he's got a gun."
Aaron felt puzzled and said, "Root doctors don't carry guns."
"You know any of 'em well?"
"Never met one."
Only the creaking of winter-pale tree limbs and the slapping of raindrops broke the silence, these and the critters on their way home. Those raindrops whirled, catching what light came from above.
The splashing started again, then stoppedthen started. Sonny put his mouth to Aaron's ear again. "He doesn't know where we are for sure. He may not be looking for us at all. Hang on. I think he'll go away."
Aaron nodded and held his breath. With his body so quiet, his heart slammed at his eardrums. He took another breath. "Nothing now," he murmured. They were in big-time trouble. Getting out of there was all that matteredas long as they could do it alive.
He pulled way back between two trunks and inched around, looking for any movement. The cracks through the stumps weren't big enough to see through. He worked slowly sideways until the fingers of his left hand touched the smooth edge of a cypress.
Sonny caught at Aaron's right shoulder but he shrugged him away.
A loud click, a crack, a flash of light, and Aaron could have sworn he felt the bullet slice through the air close to his face.
"God." He froze in complete panic for a moment, then rolled back the way he had come. He and Sonny didn't speak. The time for that was over.
They were trapped with a shooter who was just waiting for them to make a tiny move.
"Strangers a-coming!"A man's full, deep voice sang out the words and Aaron squeezed his eyes shut. He felt light-headed.
"Strangers a-coming!" Louder, even richer this time. "What they want? Who break the peace? You be sor-ry!" The laugh that followed started with a gurgle and hurtled up the scale.
"That's not the guy with the gun," Aaron said. "He's behind and to the right. This one's
" He wasn't sure where the guy who had shouted was, but there were two men out there.
Sonny put his fingers in his ears. He didn't look gutsy and fearless anymore.
Aaron gripped his arm. "I think the screamer's way over to our left now. Maybe he's trying to help us." He let out a yell and ran toward the big voice.
Air burned his throat and his eyes. But he shouted and screeched louder and louder.
He saw a searing flash, just like the other one. It definitely didn't come from the same direction as the mouthy guy.
A thud into Aaron's back, way to the left side, spun him around. "I'm shot!"
There was pain. Dull pain. Then numbness, heaviness. He hit the scummy water, face-first, before the lights went out.
Sonny turned one way, then the other. Don't let him be dead.
A racket set up, like nothing he'd ever heard before. The clink of sharp things rattling together, and bellsor at least metal clinking on other metal surfaces.
Coming out of the boggy haze, a figure loomed. Tall, in a fever of movement. Great head shaking, voluminous cloth billowing behind, and a glow that picked out a bumpy, shiny red face with holes where the eyes should be.
The creature paused, humming, shaking his noisemakers softly. At first Sonny thought the freak's head looked big because he had a mass of shaggy hair, then he saw a bulbous, colorful turban built up to outlandish proportions.
And Sonny heard more splashing, this time made by someone fleeing, throttle wide-open, from the red, shiny-faced guy. Suddenly he realized that the creature wore a maska bright red mask, with a skeletal face painted in black.
Sonny had to get Aaron.
He had to get the hell out of here, they both did.
This was the voodoo man. And damn if it didn't look like he was staring at Aaron, but hadn't noticed Sonny.
Long arms shot out. Spiking his knees skyward with each step, he made for Aaron. In the glow that went with him, he twisted his hands this way and that. Fingernails inches long, glowed white and clicked together. The tips glinted silver.
Amid unearthly sounds, the manif that's what it was reached Aaron, stooped and brought his head close, listening. Even at a distance, Sonny saw him nod and hoped it meant Aaron was alive.
With both arms, the man scooped up Sonny's buddy as if he was a baby. Scooped him up, holding Aaron's left side tight with both hands.
Sonny saw blood drizzle through the fingers. "Oh, my, gawd," he muttered. Aaron was done for. They were probably both done for.
"Chuzah, me," the man cried. "He wants you to follow."And he loped rapidly away. "Come youthe other boy hidin'in the three stumps. That one back there with the gun, he gone, but he could come back." All that rattling came from garlands of bones, little bones, big bones, skulls, strung around the man's neck and waist. The bells were gold, Sonny saw them glitter. He shouldn't have pushed to come here. Look what he'd done to Aaron.
Sonny couldn't make his feet move. He couldn't feel his feet or his legs, but he felt how he was rigid and his blood fluttered in his veins.
"You follow Chuzah. Now! This boy bleedin' to death."