A serial killer targets New Orleans nuns in this “nail-biting tale of dangerous secrets and deadly passions” by the #1 New York Times bestselling author (Booklist).
When New Orleans detective Reuben Montoya is called to investigate the murder of a nun, he's shocked to recognize the victim. Sister Camille was his high school girlfriend. And she’s just been found on the altar of St. Marguerite's cathedral…viciously garroted.
Before devoting herself to god, Camille had a knack for making bad choices. She joined the convent after falling for her sister Valerie’s soon-to-be ex-husband. But as Val—a former Texas cop—digs into Camille's murder, she realizes how little she really knew about her sister and their shared past.
As more women of the church are found brutally slaughtered, no one is beyond suspicion—not even Friar Francis O’Toole. And no one is safe—least of all Valerie. Because this killer knows all, forgives nothing, and will not rest until Valerie becomes the next to pay for her sins.
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By LISA JACKSON
KENSINGTON BOOKSCopyright © 2011 Susan Lisa Jackson
All right reserved.
Chapter One"It's time." The voice was clear.
Smiling to herself, Camille felt a sublime relief as she finished pushing the last small button through its loop. She stared at herself in the tiny mirror and adjusted her veil.
"You're a vision in white," her father said.
But he wasn't here, was he? He wasn't walking her down the aisle. No, no, of course not. He'd died, years before. At least that was what she thought. But then her father wasn't her father ... only by law. Right? She blinked hard. Woozy, she tried to clear her brain, wash away the feeling of disembodiment that assailed her.
It's because it's your wedding day; your nerves are playing tricks on your brain.
"Your groom awaits." Again, the voice propelled her, and she wondered if someone was actually speaking to her or if she was imagining it.
Silly, of course it's real!
She left the small room where she'd dressed and walked unsteadily along the shadowed corridor, lit by only a few wavering sconces. Dark, yet the hallway seemed to glisten.
Down a wide staircase with steps polished from thousands of feet scurrying up and down, she headed toward the smaller chapel where she knew he was waiting.
Her heart pounded with excitement.
Her blood sang through her veins.
What a glorious, glorious night!
One hand trailed down the long, smooth banister, fingertips gliding along the polished rail.
"Hurry," a harsh voice ordered against her ear, and she nearly stumbled over the dress's hem. "You must not keep him waiting!"
"I won't," she promised, her voice reverberating from a distance, as if echoing through a tunnel. Or only in her head.
She picked up her skirt to move more quickly, her feet skimming along the floor. She felt light, as if floating, anticipation urging her forward.
Moonlight washed through the tall tracery windows, spilling shadowed, colored patterns on the floor, and as she reached the chapel, her legs wobbled, as if she were wearing heels.
But her feet were bare, the cold stone floor penetrating through her soles.
Poverty, chastity, obedience.
The words swirled through her brain as the door to the chapel was opened and she stepped inside. She heard music in her head, the voices of angels rising upward through the spires of St. Marguerite's Cathedral on this, her wedding day.
Night ... it's night.
Candles flickered at the altar, and overhead a massive crucifix soared, reminding her of Christ's suffering. She made the sign of the cross as she genuflected, then slowly moved forward.
Poverty. Chastity. Obedience.
Her fingers wound around the smooth beads of her rosary as the music in her head swelled.
As she reached the altar, the church bell began to toll and she knelt before the presence of God. She was ready to take her vows, to give her life to the one she loved.
"Good ... good ... perfect."
Camille bowed her head in prayer, then, on her knees, looked up at the crucifix, saw the wounds on Christ's emaciated body, witnessed his sacrifice for her own worldly sins.
Oh, yes, she had sinned.
Over and over.
Now she would be absolved.
Closing her eyes, she bent her head with difficulty. It seemed suddenly heavy, her hands clumsy. The chapel shifted and darkened, and the statuary, the Madonna and angels near the baptismal basin, suddenly stared at her with accusing eyes.
She heard the scrape of a shoe on the stone floor, and her lightheartedness and joy gave way to anxiety.
Don't give in. Not tonight ...
But even her wedding dress no longer seemed silky and light; the fabric was suddenly scratchy and rough, a musty smell wafting from it.
The skin on the back of her neck, beneath the cloying veil, prickled with anxiety.
No, no, no ... this is wrong.
"So now you know," the voice so near her ear reprimanded, and she shrank away from the hiss. "For the wages of sin are ..."
"Death," she whispered.
Sheer terror curdled her blood. Oh, God! Scared out of her mind, Camille tried to scramble to her feet.
In that instant, Fate struck.
The rosary was stripped from her hands, the beads ripping over her fingers and flesh, only to scatter and bounce on the floor.
Camille tried to force her feet beneath her, but her knees were weak, her legs suddenly like rubber. She tried to stand, pushing herself upright, but it was too late.
A thick cord circled her throat and was pulled tight.
NO! What is this?
Needle-sharp shards cut deep into her flesh.
Panic surged through her.
No, no, no! This is all wrong.
White-hot pain screamed through her body. She jerked forward, trying to throw off her attacker as her airway was cut off. She tried to gasp but couldn't draw a breath. Her lungs, dear Jesus, her lungs strained with the pressure.
Oh, God, what was happening?
The nave seemed to spin, the high-domed ceiling reeling, the monster behind her back drawing the deadly cord tighter.
Terror clawed through her brain. Desperately, Camille tried to free herself, to kick and twist again, but her body wouldn't respond as it should have. The weight against her back was crushing, the cord at her throat slitting deep.
Blood pounded behind her eyes, echoed through her ears.
Her fingers scrabbled at the cord around her neck, a fingernail ripping.
Her back bowed as she strained.
She fought wildly, but it was useless.
Please, please, please! Dear Father, spare me! I have sinned, but please—
Her feet slipped from beneath her.
Weakly she flailed, her strength failing her.
No, Camille. Fight! Don't give up! Do not! Someone will save you.
Her eyes focused on the crucifix again, her vision of Christ's haggard face blurring. I'm sorry ...
She was suddenly so weak, her attempts frail and futile.
Her strong body grew limp.
"Please," she tried to beg, but the sound was garbled and soft, unrecognizable.
The demon who dared set foot in this chapel, the monster who had defiled this holy ground, held her fast. Pulling on the cord. Unrelenting. Strong with dark and deadly purpose.
Camille's lungs were on fire, her heart pounding so loudly she was sure it would burst. Through eyes round with fear, she saw only a wash of red.
Oh, Dear Father, the pain!
Again, she tried to suck in one bit of air but failed.
Her lungs shrieked.
Brutal strength, infused by a cold, dark wrath, cinched the garrote still tighter.
Agony ripped through her.
"Whore," the voice accused. "Daughter of Satan."
Eyes open, again she saw the image of Christ on the cross, a film of scarlet distorting his perfect face, tears like blood running from his eyes.
I love you.
The deluge of sins that was her life washed over her, quicksilver images of those she had wronged. Her mother and father, her sister, her best friend ... so many people, some who had loved her ... the innocents.
This was her punishment, she realized, her hands falling from her neck to scrape down her abdomen and linger for a second over her womb.
Zzzzt. Snap! A bright light flashed before her eyes; then all was dark.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, wash my soul clean.... Forgive me, for I have sinned....
Chapter Two"Oh, for the love of St. Jude!" Valerie clicked the ESCAPE key on her laptop again and again, as if she could punch the life back into the hand-me-down computer with its antiquated hard drive and mind of its own. "Come on, come on!" she muttered between clenched teeth, then gave up, unable to turn the damned thing off without taking out the battery.
That did it! Tomorrow she'd go computer shopping despite the dismal state of her bank account. She still had a little room on her credit card, but then, once she bought a new computer, it would be maxed out as well.
The price of divorce, she told herself callously as she shoved the laptop onto the rumpled bedclothes. In her mismatched pajamas, she walked into the kitchen of the small carriage house and dipped her head under the faucet for a drink, then stared through the rain-spattered window at the uneasy New Orleans night.
The air was thick with the coming of summer, sweat dampening her skin. She cranked open the window, allowing the dank smell of the slow-moving river to roll inside. Far away, the hum of traffic could be heard on the freeway, a steady rush that competed with the song of crickets and the low rumble of toads.
Pealing forlornly, the bells of St. Marguerite's struck off the hours of midnight.
Inexplicably, Val's skin crawled. Her cop instincts went into overdrive, and she felt, again, as if she were being watched, that hidden eyes were assessing her.
"Too many nights with the sci-fi channel," she told herself. "Too many nightmares."
For a fleeting second, a splintered memory with sharp, brittle edges pierced her brain. Looming. Indistinct. But evil.
Her blood chilled with the image. Draped in black, with cruel eyes and a foul odor, the sinister creature grew larger. Threatening. A chain dangling from its clawlike hand.
No one could help her.
No one could save her.
"Husssshhh," the creature hissed, lowering the silvery noose. "Hush."
Camille! Val thought in horror. This demon wants Camille....
In a blink, the horrifying image disappeared, shrinking into the corners of her mind. From experience, Val knew it would lurk there until, unbidden, it would rise again.
"Leave me alone," she muttered under her breath, ignoring the hairs that had risen on the back of her arm. The fiend was a figment of her imagination, nothing more—nothing a sane, stable woman would believe.
Val took a steadying breath as the church bells of St. Marguerite's continued to toll plaintively through the night. Her insides still cold, she gripped the edge of the counter to steady herself and force the ugly apparition back where it belonged—into the darkest nether regions of her mind, into the crevices where sanity didn't dare tread.
Don't go there, she warned herself silently. Do not go there. Dwelling on the insidious pictures in her mind would only create a self-fulfilling and hideous prophecy.
"Everything's fine," she said out loud, though her insides were trembling. Quivering with a fear that she tried to keep hidden. No one could know. She was a strong woman. Nightmares or visions conjured by her willing brain weren't allowed to scare her. "For God's sake, get a grip!"
Willing herself to let go of the counter and her ridiculous fears, she told herself she was just stressed out. Who wouldn't be? An impending divorce, a lost career, a business teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, and a sister, her only sibling, intent on taking vows in a convent right out of the Middle Ages! And then there was the e-mail from Camille. Disturbing.
Val thought about St. Marguerite's, the historic cathedral where her sister would eventually take her vows.
That is, if they let her.
It still seemed so out of character for Camille, the party girl. Always with a boyfriend, always fending off trouble. From what she knew about St. Marguerite's, Valerie doubted that her sister's sins would be easily forgiven in that arena. St. Marguerite's Convent, with its locked gates, antiquated communication system, and strict rules, seemed more like a medieval fortress than a house of God; it was an isolated place the rest of the twenty-first century had zipped past. The people within those hallowed walls harkened back to earlier centuries where archaic conventions, cruel discipline, and antediluvian opinions prevailed. Probably because of the abbess or mother superior or whatever that old bat Sister Charity called herself. A throwback to the days of wearing dark habits, rapping the knuckles of unsuspecting students, and using threats and fear over praise, Sister Charity was as much a warden as she was a leader.
Why Camille ever decided to take her vows at an institution as rigid as Saint Marguerite's remained a mystery.
No, it's not. You know the reasons—you just can't face them.
A whisper of evil skittered through Sister Lucia's brain.
Her eyes flew open to the blackness of her tiny room in the convent. Her skin crawled, and her mouth tasted of metal. Father in heaven, please let this just be the remnant of a bad dream, a nightmare that—
There it was again, that horrid precursor of what was to come. She tossed off the thin covers and slid to her knees, her nightgown puddling around her as she instinctively reached for her rosary draped over the metal bedpost. She made the sign of the cross with the crucifix and began to silently recite the Apostles' Creed, her lips moving in the darkness, sweat collecting at the base of her skull. "I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth...." And she did believe. Fervently. Usually she found comfort in this ritual she'd learned in her youth. In times of stress or worry or need, she sought solace by running her fingers over the glossy beads and whispering the prayers that brought her closer to God.
Pssst! Again the electric current that hissed beneath her skin brought sweat to her brow.
Not here, oh, please ... not in the convent! Her prayer was interrupted and she started over, squeezing her eyes shut, leaning into the thin mattress with her elbows, her brain thrumming.
Once again she touched the crucifix to her forehead and began the succession of prayers that came so easily to her mind.
This has to be a mistake, she thought wildly as the familiar words slipped over her lips. Since she'd entered St. Marguerite's, intent on taking her final vows, she'd had no "incidents," as her mother had called them. She'd thought she was safe here.
"I believe in—"
Psssst! Louder this time.
The painful jolt cut through the darkness.
Lucia sucked in her breath and dropped her rosary, her prayer again cut short. She stood, abandoning any attempt to forestall the inevitable. Walking barefoot over the hardwood floors, she sensed the tremor of trouble brewing as surely as a hurricane off the Louisiana coast. In her mind's eye, she saw the chapel of this very parish and blinked against an onslaught of images.
An indistinct face.
Billowing dark robe.
Twisted, deadly lips.
A heavy door clicking as it closed.
A bloody crucifix, crimson dripping from Christ's sacred wounds.
Death, a voice intoned over the raw static in her brain.
She flew into the hall, which was dimly lit by scattered wall sconces, and descended the curving staircase. Her fingers trailing along the worn banister, she followed a predetermined path. Pale light passed through the dark panes of stained glass, the heat of the June day still lingering into night.
Why? Lucia wondered frantically. Why now? Why here? It's nothing ... just a bad dream. All your fears crystalized, that's all.
Her heart pounding like an erratic drum, she turned toward the chapel, the smaller place of worship tucked behind the huge cathedral. With a sense of darkness propelling her forward, she pushed through double doors that parted easily and stepped into God's house. The chapel was usually a place of light and goodness, forgiveness and redemption, but tonight she sensed that evil as dark as Satan's soul lurked here, lying in wait.
"Father, please be with me." She dipped her fingertips in holy water and crossed herself as she entered the nave, where all of the images congealed. Red votive candles flickered, casting shadows that shifted on the stone walls. A massive crucifix was suspended from the arched ceiling over the altar where Jesus, in his agony, watched over the chapel.
Instinctively, Lucia made the sign of the cross again. The thrumming in her brain turned into a throb.
From the corner of her eye, she caught a glimpse of movement—a dark figure in billowing robes disappearing through a door.
"Father?" she called, thinking the person running from the chapel was a priest. The door clicked closed. "Wait! Please ..." She started for the doorway. "Father— Oh, no ..." Her voice left her as she glimpsed a flutter of gauzy white fabric, the scallop of lace undulating on the floor by the first row of pews.
Her heart nearly stopped.
The horrid, rapid-fire images that had awakened her seared through her brain again:
A door shutting as the church bells pealed.
Just like before.
The whisper of evil brushed the back of her neck again. She nearly stumbled as she raced forward, her bare feet slapping the cold stone floor, echoing to the high, coved ceiling.
This can't be happening!
It can't be!
Excerpted from DEVIOUS by LISA JACKSON Copyright © 2011 by Susan Lisa Jackson. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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