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The sky rolled with a mass of gray clouds, and the air became thick with humidity. Olivia Markham glanced anxiously at the swirling sky as she pulled into Cypriere, Louisiana, all five weather-beaten buildings of it. Peering down each side of the street, she searched for signs of life. It would be the first she'd seen in well over two hours of driving deep into the bayous.
A wooden sign swung under the awning of an old brick building to her left. The painted lettering on the sign had long since faded, but Olivia could barely make out the word "cafe." Surely someone inside would be able to give her directions. She pulled into an open parking space right in front of the cafe and hurried inside. Bells on the door jangled as she crossed the threshold and the eight or so patrons stopped what they were doing to stare at her.
She paused for a moment, but when any form of greeting wasn't forthcoming she launched into her own. "Hello," she said. "Apparently, I'm a little lost. Can anyone give me directions to laMalediction?"
The patrons dropped their gazes back to their tables without saying a word. A middle-aged waitress sloshed coffee on her hand and although the hot liquid must have burned, the waitress froze, looking over at a man sitting at the counter.
A man with salt-and-pepper hair and a gold bar pinned on his shirt identifying him as Sheriff Blanchard turned to face her. "Ain't no one lived at laMaledic-tion for over thirty years. What business you have out there?"
No business of yours. Olivia felt her back tighten with aggravation, in no mood to deal with another round of small-town mentality. "I've leased the house for the winter."
"What in the world would you do that for? Winter's wet and the road's cut off from town half the time. Nothing out there for a young lady to do."
"I'm a writer," Olivia said. "Horror novels, actually, and haunted houses are my specialty."
The sheriff inclined his head toward the plate glass storefront. "You'll be wanting to stay in town until the rain stops. Bayou roads are no place for somebody unfamiliar with Cypriere, especially during a thunderstorm."
Olivia shook her head, the overwhelming urge to race away from these people overpowering any good sense she might have otherwise had. "I need to get settled before dark. I'll take my chances with the rain."
The sheriff narrowed his eyes at her, but before he could say another word the cook pulled a tablet out from under the counter and began to draw a crude map.
"You take the main road east," the cook said and pointed at a line on the map. "There ain't no street signs to follow, ain't no street either when it comes right down to it. It's more like a dirt path, and you're gonna have to find your way by landmarks. I've drawn them on the map and labeled them."
Olivia gave the cook a grateful smile. "Thank you. I'm sure I'll see you again. I'm not much of a cook, and I eventually tire of sandwiches."
The cook gave her a single nod and turned back to the grill, ignoring the sheriff's disapproving stare. Olivia took one step backward toward the door, feeling that she'd already overstayed her welcome even though she hadn't unpacked a single bag. She gave the frowning sheriff a wave, then turned around and left the cafe.
She glanced at the map, then backed her car up and headed east. What the heck was going on here? She figured laMalediction's bloody history would prevent the more easily spooked from speaking of it at all, but these people lived within miles of the structure. Surely they knew that it was only a house?
She glanced in her rearview mirror for a final look behind her. The sheriff was standing just outside the cafe, watching her intently as she drove out of town, but when she took a good look at his expression the annoyance she'd expected to see was nowhere in sight. Even though it was easily eighty degrees outside, she felt a shiver run through her.
The sheriff looked frightened.
"Damn it!" Olivia jammed her foot onto the brake as the road she'd been driving on disappeared into a wall of cypress trees. She must have missed a turn somewhere. Glancing up at the rolling black clouds, she bit her lip. That creepy sheriff was going to be right. Chances of her beating the storm to laMalediction were growing slimmer by the minute.
If it was the right way to begin with.
The thought ripped through her mind like one of those bolts of lightning that was surely on its way. What if the cook had meant to get her stranded in the storm?
Imagining monsters when there were none was great for her stories, but she couldn't afford that kind of fantasizing in real life. She looked at the map once more and decided that she must have missed the twisted cypress trees that marked the last turnoff. Backing up slowly, she scanned the brush and finally located the trees almost hidden by a drape of moss and marsh grass. Mentally chastising herself for her earlier fear, she eased her car into the narrow opening. Only a thin strip of illumination from the fading sunlight passed through to the path.
Ten minutes later the light vanished completely and rain began to pour in giant, blinding sheets. Her visibility reduced to almost nothing; she eased her foot off the accelerator, slowing to a crawl. Seconds later her car dipped into a low spot on the path and came to a stop, the tires spinning in place. She grabbed her cell phone from the passenger seat. No signal.
Hitching a ride wasn't likely given the location, and she wasn't going to drive her car out of the hole it was stuck in. Walking was the only option. So did she brave a monsoon and try to locate a house hidden away in the bayou, or did she follow the path back to town, which would probably take hours?
Suddenly, lightning struck in front of her car, shaking the entire vehicle with its impact. The aftershocks of the blast echoed around her like flashes from a camera, illuminating an iron gate twenty yards in front of her. She felt her pulse quicken. Surely, the house was close. She kept a change of clothes, toiletries, and her pistol in her backpack. That would do for the night. She grabbed the backpack and a flashlight and stepped out into the storm.
The rain pelted her, stinging her face with its force. She lowered her head and rushed along the path as fast as her vision and the thick bayou mud allowed.
Would this house be the one?
She was holding one hand over her eyes to block the rain, straining to make out the jutting edges of the almost invisible structure in front of her when a burst of lightning struck right over the top of the house, lighting up the structure and the grounds surrounding it. She sucked in a breath so hard it made her chest hurt. Her heart pounded in her throat, blocking out the noise of the storm around her. She felt her fingernails dig into the palm of her hand as she clenched it.
She'd looked for it for eighteen years. And now, she'd found it.
Olivia ran the remainder of the way to the house, sliding to a stop on a covered porch. Her heart raced as she unlocked the massive front door. She felt inside the door for the light switch, but nothing changed when she pushed it up. Shining her flashlight into the pitch-black house, she saw a huge circular staircase in the center of a two-story entry with marble floors.
She pulled off her mud-caked boots and left them on the porch, then closed and locked the front door behind her. Without electricity, the smartest thing to do was find a bedroom and secure it for the night. In houses of this era the bedrooms were usually upstairs, so she grabbed her backpack and started up the spiral staircase to a long hallway.
The first two rooms were being used for storage, but she hit pay dirt on the third. A huge bedroom, complete with king-size bed and adjoining bath. The bedding was dusty but would do for a night. She closed the bedroom door and turned the giant iron key in the lock on the inside, wishing she had the dead bolts from her luggage. Not that it mattered. A house this old would have secret passageways for servants, and she needed to locate them. Securing her sleeping quarters was her first task when entering old homes, and her need for security at laMalediction was stronger than any she'd ever had.
She started tapping the walls in the far corner of the room, working her way around and listening for a hollow sound or trying to detect flex in the paneling. After an hour of looking she gave up and slumped into a chair in front of an antique desk. When she got her luggage she'd have the tools necessary to do a thorough job. Right now she needed a hot bath and a good night's sleep.
She grabbed a T-shirt and shorts from her backpack, turned on the water in a huge, claw-foot tub and sighed with relief when it came out hot. She shrugged off her damp clothes and slipped into the steamy bathwater. This is heaven. Leaning forward, she placed her head under the faucet and began to rinse her short tresses.
And that's when she heard a creaking sound.
She bolted upright and banged her head on the faucet. "Who's there?" she called out.
Only silence greeted her.
She waited a couple of seconds and was ready to decide it was just the house settling when she felt a gentle current of cold air blow across her bare skin. Shivering, she rose quietly from the tub and reached for a thick towel that hung on the wall. She stepped silently onto the floor, cursing herself for leaving her weapon in her backpack, and crept to the bathroom entry.
Her flashlight was propped on a shelf above the sink and it cast a dim glow around her. Without so much as a breath indicating her presence, she leaned into the doorway and peered into the bedroom.
She grabbed the flashlight and shined it into the bedroom for a better look. Still nothing. But as soon as she stepped through the doorway, she felt the remnants of cool air pass across her bare arms and knew it hadn't been her imagination. That draft had come from somewhere in the bedroom, and since both the windows and the door were locked tight only one explanation worked. There was another way into the master suite, and someone had used it.
She turned the flashlight on her backpack to see if anything looked disturbed, and that's when she heard a noise downstairs. Standing stock-still, she listened, hoping to hear the sound again, but there was only silence. Frustrated, she blew out the breath she'd been holding.
It's an old house. It makes noise.
But what she'd heard wasn't the normal creaking and settling of an old house. It was a whooshing sound. Like someone was moving something bigmaybe the exit panel to the hidden passageway attached to her room.
Damned if someone was going to get away with spying on her. She hurried into the bathroom and pulled on her shorts and T-shirt, not even bothering to dry off, then grabbed her nine millimeter out of her backpack and slipped out of the bedroom and into the pitch-black hall. She paused a couple of seconds until her eyes adjusted somewhat to the dark, and then lifting her gun next to her shoulder in a ready position she crept down the padded center of the hallway.
At the end of the hallway, she crouched down and peered between the wrought iron banisters of the staircase. The entry was empty and she squinted into the black, trying to make out movement in the sitting room. Nothing.
Holding her breath, she strained to hear, hoping the sound she'd heard earlier would repeat. One second. Two seconds. Three. There it was again.
Now or never.
She took a deep breath and slowly exhaled, then, staying low, she eased down the stairs and slipped behind a life-size gladiator statue in the entry. She peered into the sitting room, and for a moment it looked as if a piece of the back wall shifted. And that's when she heard itthe shuffle of footsteps on ceramic tile.
An entryway that opened to the kitchen stood on the opposite end of the sitting area. She tightened her grip on her pistol and slipped around the corner and into the sitting room. Staying as close as possible to the wall, she made her way around the room and stopped at the edge of the kitchen entrance to listen again.
For a moment there was nothing, then she heard the footsteps, the sound so faint it barely registered. Her pulse was already racing and she felt her heart beating in her chest when she realized the footsteps were getting closer. She flattened herself against the wall and took aim at the entrance. Then the footsteps stopped.
Her heart beat so loudly she was certain it would give her away. She'd stopped breathing altogether. Did she stay put or confront the intruder? Surely, whoever was sneaking around wasn't expecting a woman with a gun. The element of surprise should be on her side. She closed her eyes and said a silent prayer. Then before she could change her mind she slipped around the corner and into the kitchen.
And that's when he grabbed her.
He was fastfaster than she would have believed someone could be and still not make any noise. Before she could even zero in on him, he'd disarmed her and had one hand over her mouth, holding in the scream she tried to let out. She felt her heart in her throat and for the first time in her life wondered if this was how it was all going to end, just like a scene out of one of her books.
Suddenly the lights blinked on and he spun her around to face him, one hand still gripping her shoulder.
"Who the hell are you?" he asked, his amber eyes blazing.
The man was probably mid-thirties, tall and despite the hooded jacket he wore, Olivia could tell he was built for action. Olivia yanked her shoulder out from under his hand and took a step back, glancing at his hand that held her gun. "I'm the person with a key. Who the hell are you?" Olivia shot back, hoping her voice didn't sound as shaky as she felt.
"The caretaker. You're trespassing on private property."
"I'm not trespassing. I leased this house, and if you were really the caretaker, you would know that. Who hired you? Wheeler?"
The man's eyes narrowed at her. "You know Wheeler?"