GhostWalker Wyatt Fontenot knows the price he paid for the secret military experiments that gave him his special catlike abilities. After all, he left his bayou home a healer and came back a killer. While Wyatt and his GhostWalker brother Gator may have known exactly the sort of game they were getting into, Wyatt never anticipated where it would lead—or to whom.
The swamps hold many mysteries, but few are as sinuously seductive as Le Poivre de Cayenne. The woman the locals call Pepper is every bit as enigmatic as the three little girls she’s desperately trying to protect. From what, Wyatt is soon to discover. Right now Pepper needs a man like Wyatt. Passionately. But her secrets are about to take them both deeper into the bayou than either imagined—where desire is the deadliest poison of all.
INCLUDES A BONUS EXCERPT FROM CHRISTINE FEEHAN’S GHOSTWALKER NOVEL, NIGHT GAME
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
For My Readers
The GhostWalker Symbol Details
protection against evil forces
the Greek letter psi, which is used by parapsychology researchers to signify ESP or other psychic abilities
qualities of a knight—loyalty, generosity, courage and honor
shadow knights who protect against evil forces using psychic powers, courage and honor
The GhostWalker Creed
Wyatt Fontenot tied up his airboat, but stood in it in the dark, listening to the familiar sounds of the bayou. He’d grown up in these swamps, hearing the bullfrogs, the bellow of the alligator and the plop of snakes sliding from the cypress trees into the dark waters. The constant drone of insects had been his lullaby. The soft fall of rain didn’t bring the cold, rather just ratcheted up the heat, wrapping one up in a blanket of humidity and the strange perfume of the swamp.
He let his breath out slowly, just drinking in the sights around him. He’d always felt at home in the bayou. He’d never really much liked going other places, but now, he wasn’t certain it was the smartest thing in the world for him to be back . . . yet. He couldn’t breathe in cities, yet now that he’d come home, he found his chest was tight and his famous Cajun temper had settled into a slow boil in the pit of his stomach.
“You all right, Wyatt?” Malichai Fortunes asked softly. He stood just to the left of Wyatt, in the deeper shadows of the sweeping cypress, impossible to see until he moved.
Wyatt glanced at him. Malichai was a big man, all roped muscle and cool, with strange, almost golden eyes. He looked into a man, cutting straight through to who and what he was. Wyatt had learned to trust him implicitly. They were both bone weary. Exhausted. Four months and over four hundred rescue operations, most conducted in the “hot” zones of war. The last had gone to hell and them with it.
“Yeah, I’m all right. Just breathing in home,” he replied.
The scent of pipe tobacco drifted to him. The slight wind rustled through the trees, swaying the branches in a macabre fashion. He’d always enjoyed taking his city friends out into the swamp at night and scaring the hell out of them before taking them to one of the backwoods bars where they could get drunk and fight with anyone who looked at them wrong.
He could fish with a string or a knife. He could kill a gator with a knife or gun. He was one of the best hunters in the swamps. Few of the boys who knew him ever challenged him to a fight. His word was gold all over the swamp and bayous. He’d studied long and hard to be a doctor, a surgeon, one that could come home and be of great use here in the bayou. It wasn’t that he couldn’t have left—he hadn’t wanted to leave. There was a huge difference.
He let out his breath again and scrubbed his hand down his face, wishing he could wipe his memories of his own damn foolishness away so easily.
“Did you tell your grand-mere we were coming with you?” Ezekiel Fortunes, Malichai’s brother, asked softly. Too softly. His voice was almost a rolling purr in the night, like that of a cat waiting for prey.
Wyatt glanced at the third man on the airboat, the man to his right. Ezekiel was an inch or so shorter than either of the other two, but he had the same roped muscles and solid build. His eyes, a strange amber color, glowed in the dark just as Wyatt’s and Malichai’s did. All three could see as easily at night as they could during the day, which gave them a decided advantage in night combat situations.
“Nonny’s expecting all three of us,” Wyatt said. “And you two had better be on your best behavior. She’s good at grabbing ears and twisting if you get out of line.” He rubbed his ear, a little grin slowly finding its way to his mouth at the memory of quite a few of those ear-pulling incidents. “War wounds aren’ goin’ to save you.”
“She’s a good cook?” Malichai asked. “Because I’m starving.”
Wyatt and Ezekiel both laughed. “You’re always starving.”
“We never get to eat. Someone’s always trying to kill us,” Malichai complained. He looked around him. “I’ll bet there’s good hunting here.”
Wyatt nodded slowly. “We’re resting, boys. Resting and relaxing. Not hunting. These people are my neighbors. They’ll want to drink with you and fight with you, but you don’t get to kill them.”
“You sure do know how to take the fun out of a party,” Ezekiel groused.
Wyatt stepped off the airboat to the solid wooden pier. The last time he’d been home, he’d fixed the rotting boards and it was still in fine shape. He’d been afraid his grandmother would have tried to repair the dock in spite of her age and failing health. That would be just like her. It was the last thing he’d done for her before he’d left—in the dead of night—without a word. Skulking away like some sulking child just because he got his heart ripped out. No, because he thought he got his heart ripped out, which was infinitely worse.
He just stood there another minute, reluctant to walk up to the house, knowing his grandmother would welcome him with open arms, and not one hint of censure, but he felt guilty. He kept trying to think of what to say to her. There were no words. None at all. She would know the moment she saw him, the moment she looked into his eyes and saw what he’d done, that he’d been changed for all time—just as his brother Raoul had been.
“What is it, Wyatt?” Malichai asked again. His voice was pitched low and he used that same purring tone of the hunter Ezekiel had used.
“She’ll know. Nonny. The minute she lays eyes on me, she’ll know what I am.”
Ezekiel looked out over the bayou, avoiding his gaze.
Malichai shook his head. “No, she won’t, Wyatt. She’ll know you’re different in some way, but she won’t know what you are.”
“I left a doctor, a healer.” Wyatt looked down at his hands. “I came back a killer. You tell me how she isn’t going to know that.”
“We don’t have to stay,” Ezekiel reminded, his tone noncommittal. “We can turn around and get the hell out of here if that makes you feel any better.”
“She asked me to come home,” Wyatt said. “She doesn’t ever ask for much. She said she needed help, and my other brothers are out of the country at the moment. I had leave comin’ and knew I had to face her sooner or later. It’s been a while, but the bayou still feels like home.”
Malichai looked around him slowly. “It feels like a hunting ground to me.”
The Fontenot home was old, even for the bayou, but kept in very good shape. Iron gates and a large fence kept the property private with its own pier off the river. Nonny’s hunting dogs had set up a cry when the airboat had first arrived, but Wyatt had sent them a quick, silent command and they’d ceased baying immediately.
There were two large buildings, the house and a garage. The garage had double pull-down doors and a single, smaller entrance, all locked with padlocks. The house was two stories, with a balcony and a wraparound deck.
“This is nice, Wyatt,” Malichai said. “A sweet setup.”
“It started out as a frame house, very traditional,” Wyatt said. “One and a half stories, with a galerie raised on pillars to keep it from the soggy ground. We’ve got good frontage on the bayou, which allowed us good access to the waterways. We have plenty of woods to hunt, and we harvested trees to help build this. We have fields for growin’, and Grand-mere had the touch when it came to plantin’. We did all right.” There was pride in his voice. “We built the house, my brothers and me, for Nonny.”
“It’s amazing, Wyatt. What a place to grow up in,” Malichai said. He glanced at his brother. “We could have done some damage here.”
“We’d have been able to eat once in a while,” Ezekiel said, with another slow look around him. “You wouldn’t need much more than this place.”
“There’s always plenty to eat here,” Wyatt assured and stepped back, waving them forward. “Seriously, with four big boys to feed, Nonny was trappin’ and huntin’ and fishin’ every day. She wanted us all in school to get an education. Then she had a heart attack and Raoul—Gator, we call him here in the bayou—he snuck away from school and helped out with supplyin’ us with food. ’Course when the rest of us did it, Gator beat the crap out of us.” Wyatt laughed at the memory.
“We know about beating the crap out of people,” Malichai said. “That’s usually how we got our food.”
Ezekiel nodded. “We got real good at it.”
“Grand-mere is in her eighties with a bad heart. Don’ go makin’ her cut down a switch to use on either of you,” Wyatt warned, half teasing, but more serious. “Because she would if you don’ mind your manners.”
Ezekiel glanced uneasily toward the house. “Wyatt, we’ve never had a family. It’s always been the three of us. Malichai, Mordichai, and me. We’re not exactly civilized. Are you certain you want to bring us into your home?”
“I’m certain. Nonny will be happy for the company. There’s no other place to just relax and rest. The moment she knows you both were wounded, expect to be spoiled. She cracks the whip when we need it, but she’s always been the glue that holds our family together. You’re going to love her.”
Ezekiel took a long slow look around. “Mordichai would love it here. He’s hanging with Joe, making sure he pulls through, then he plans to join us. This is his kind of place.”
“Damn straight, it is,” Malichai agreed.
“Wyatt. Boy, come on in and stop swappin’ lies out there. There’s been a couple of gators gettin’ all frisky lately on the lawn. I wouldn’ want you to run into them. And the Rougarou has been a visitin’ folks up and down these parts lately. Wouldn’t want you or your friends to be caught out in the open.” Grand-mere’svoice cut through the night. Clear. Crisp. Welcoming.
Wyatt smiled for the first time. Just the sound of her voice settled the knots in his gut. “You’re smokin’ that pipe again, Nonny. I thought the doc told you to stop.”
What the hell is Rougarou? Malichai asked, using telepathic communication.
Local legend mainly used to scare the crap out of wayward boys to keep them out of the swamps and bayous at night, Wyatt answered with a quick grin. Not that the tactic was particularly successful.
“Doc’s not even wet behin’ the ears yet, Wyatt,” his grandmother said. “I ben smokin’ this pipe nigh onto seventy years now. I’m not about to quit now.”
She was sitting in an old sturdy, hand-carved rocking chair on the verandah, pipe in one hand and a shotgun close to the other. Wyatt frowned when he saw the gun. He took the pier in several long strides, covered the circular drive and the lawn in a few leaps and landed on the porch in a crouch beside his grandmother.
She was very small and fragile looking, the shotgun nearly as big as she was, but her hands were rock steady. She wore her silver white hair braided and looped in a bun at the back of her head. Her skin was thin and pale, but her eyes were clear and just as steady as her hands.
“What the hell’s goin’ on, Nonny? Did someone threaten’ you?”
She took the pipe from her mouth. “Greet me properly, boy. I been a missin’ you for a long while now.”
“I’m sorry. You worried me holdin’ that shotgun so close.” He leaned in to kiss her on both cheeks. “You smell like home. Spicy pipe tobacco, gumbo and fresh-baked bread. I’m never home until I get close to you, Nonny.”
Nonny blinked back pleased tears and turned her face away from him. “Since when did you learn to leap around like a jungle cat, Wyatt? They teach you such things in the service?”
Wyatt’s heart jumped. He hadn’t thought about using his enhancements in front of his grandmother. “I learned to run fast right here in the bayou tryin’ to get away from that switch of yours.” At least that wasn’t a lie.
She gave a little sniff as she looked past Wyatt to the two men who followed him much more slowly. Her sharp eyes couldn’t help but notice that the taller of the two was limping and the shorter one had dropped back behind him, almost as if he were a little reluctant to come here, but clearly he was really looking out for the other one, his gaze sweeping the bayou and surrounding buildings constantly.
She stepped up to the porch column, studying both men. “Are you hurt too, Wyatt? It seems the lot of you are all injured in some way.”
“We took some fire,” Wyatt admitted. “Helicopter went down and we were trapped behind enemy lines, but we made it out. Each of us took a hit or two, but we’re good. We’ve come to help you out with your problem and maybe get a little rest and recoup.”
“Just what does ‘a hit or two’ mean in terms of injuries, Wyatt?” There was a note in his grandmother’s voice warning him she wanted information.
Wyatt sighed. Sometimes there was no getting around his grandmother. She could be stubborn and tough when she wanted to be. “Malichai took a hit in the leg. It was pretty bad, but I was able to repair the damage right there. Ezekiel took both of us down, protecting us when someone lobbed a mortar in our direction. His back took the brunt of the fire. And I had a couple of smaller injuries, a ricochet when the helicopter first took fire and a stab wound just below my heart. Joe, our pilot got the worst of it, but Mordichai, Zeke and Malichai’s brother, is with him, seein’ to him.”
Nonny closed her eyes for a moment and hugged the pillar tighter. She swallowed hard and then took a deep breath and nodded. “Thank the good Lord none of you were killed.”
“It wasn’ even close, Grand-mere,” Wyatt lied, and kissed her cheek. “I want you to meet my good friends.”
The two men made it to the stairs and halted. Neither took a step closer. There was no denying the way their eyes glowed like a cat’s in the dark. His grandmother had been hunting all her life. She wouldn’t fail to notice such a detail, but she simply smiled at them both.
“Any friend of Wyatt’s is welcome here. I expect you’re both hungry. There’s always food on the stove. Simple, but nourishin’.”
“Nonny, this is Ezekiel and Malichai Fortunes. My grand-mere, Grace Fontenot. Nonny.” Wyatt introduced.
He couldn’t keep the notes of love and of pride out of his voice. His grandmother had raised four big Cajun boys, pretty much on her own, and they’d been wild. In truth, he’d brought Ezekiel and Malichai home with him not only because they were his best friends, but because he felt both of them could use a good dose of his grandmother. They needed to know what home and family really was. The cat in them was always seeking to get the upper hand with its need to hunt.
“Thank you for having us, Mrs. Fontenot,” Malichai said, his tone very formal.
“Call me Nonny. Everyone around here does,” she said. “And Ezekiel, thank you for shieldin’ my grandson when you were takin’ such good care of your brother.”
Ezekiel ducked his head, embarrassed.
“Yes, ma’am—Nonny,” Malichai murmured, and came up the stairs as if there might be a hidden mine under each step. He held out his hand. “I’m Malichai. Ezekiel is my older brother.”
Her faded eyes shifted to the man standing so utterly still at the bottom of the stairs. He was so still, he nearly faded into the night. “Good Christian names,” she commented.
The two brothers exchanged a long look. “Not so much, ma’am,” Malichai said. “There’s very little Christian about us.” He nodded his head toward the shotgun. “That’s how we read people from the good book.”
“There aren’t any gators close, ma’am,” Ezekiel said. “Are you worried about squirrels or some other varmint?”
Nonny smiled at him. “Human varmints, boy, that’s what this old squirrel gun is for. Human varmints and the Rougarou.”
“Hell of a squirrel gun, Nonny,” Wyatt said, picking up the gun. It was clean and oiled and fully loaded. “It looks new to me.”
“Gator gave it to me for my birthday. I told him not to remember such things, but once I saw how beautiful it was, I was fine with him givin’ it to me.” She waved them inside.
The moment Wyatt was in the house, he was glad he’d come home. There was something always welcoming and peaceful about Grand-mere’s house. Shame shouldn’t have kept him away for so long. There were pictures of his brothers and him, all young, along the stairway. They got older in the photographs toward the bottom of the stairs, but all had the same thick, wavy black hair and laughing eyes.
Wyatt swallowed hard, keeping his face forward and his expression clear. He didn’t have those laughing eyes anymore and it was through his own stupidity. He was going to have to talk to Nonny—to confess what he’d done. Knowing her, she’d box his ears and tell him no woman was worth it—and he’d agree with her on that. He’d learned his lesson the hard way.
A hand-carved chest sat at the bottom of the stairs with a marriage quilt over it. Two more chests were lined up, both with marriage quilts over the top of them. The fourth—his brother Gator’s—was gone now. He remembered how his brother’s wife, Flame, had cried and clutched the marriage quilt to her that Nonny had made long ago. Each of the boys had one on top of their ornately carved chests. So, okay, his sister-in-law was the exception to the women-weren’t-worth-it rule. They’d keep her in the family.
He knew Nonny longed for babies. She’d hoped Flame and Gator would provide them for her, but Flame couldn’t have children. Nonny loved her dearly, but she prayed for a miracle and wasn’t quiet about her praying. Often, she glared at Wyatt as if he needed to pull babies out of a hat for their family. He avoided the subject at all costs. He glanced back at Malichai and Ezekiel. He should have warned them what a force Nonny was and how she could get you promising things you never considered.
Both men were looking around the house with wide, almost shocked eyes. Wyatt looked too. He knew what they saw. When they were growing up, the Fontenots weren’t the richest family in the bayou, not by a long shot, but there was love in the house. You couldn’t walk indoors without feeling it.
The smell of fresh bread and gumbo permeated the house. He lifted his head and found himself smiling. She’d made his favorite dessert as well. That was Nonny, she did the little things that mattered.
“I called ahead, but you didn’t tell me you felt so threatened you needed to sit outside your home with a shotgun,” Wyatt said, heading toward the kitchen.
“Best not to mention things like that right off,” Nonny replied with a shrug of her bony shoulders. “You might not have been able to come and then you woulda felt bad. There’s no need of that.”
Of course there wasn’t. Grand-mere would never want one of her boys feeling bad for her or even feeling concern. She humbled him sometimes with her generous spirit.
The pot of gumbo was right there where it always was. He couldn’t remember a time when he had come home and not found something simmering on the stove. He reached up into the cupboard to pull down the bowls.
“You’re in for a treat, boys.”
“You’re not goin’ to show them around the house first?” Nonny asked. There was laughter in her voice.
“Eatin’ is on our minds, Grand-mere,” Wyatt admitted.
“He’s been talking so much about your cooking, ma’am,” Malichai added, “that all we’ve been thinking about is food.”
“That’s good,” Nonny said, and sank into her familiar chair at the kitchen table.
Wyatt couldn’t help but think about all the times he’d sat at the table with his brothers as laughter and conversation had flowed. There was a part of him that wanted to go back to those carefree days when living on the bayou was enough—was everything.
When all three men had a bowl of gumbo, warm fresh bread and hot café, Wyatt glanced at his grandmother.
“Tell me what’s going on around here that has you packin’ a shotgun, Nonny.”
She leaned back in her chair and looked at him with her faded blue eyes, eyes still as sharp as ever. “There’s been a coupla strange things happenin’, Wyatt. I know you don’ believe in the Rougarou, and in truth, I never much believed either, but there’s been things in the swamp there’s no accountin’ for.”
She paused dramatically. Malichai and Ezekiel both paused as well, the spoons halfway to their mouths. Wyatt kept shoveling food in. He was used to his grandmother’s storytelling abilities. She could hold an audience spellbound. She’d used it more than once to keep the boys from wolfing their food.
“Food disappearin’, clothes stolen right off the line.”
“Sounds like someone hungry, Nonny, a homeless person maybe.”
At the word “hungry,” both Malichai and Ezekiel resumed eating.
“Maybe,” Nonny conceded. “But the food was taken from inside the houses. Sometimes the clothes as well. The houses were locked.”
“No one locks houses on the bayou,” Wyatt said.
“They do now with all the thievin’ goin’ on. I keep a pot of somethin’ simmerin’ on the stove at all times, Wyatt. You know that. Neighbors drop by. Sometimes Flame comes unexpectedly when Gator’s out doin’ whatever it is he does. I lock up, and I’ve got the dogs. Twice I let them in the house with me, but every third or fourth mornin’ the food was gone out of that pot, even with the dogs inside.”
“Someone entered the house while you were sleepin’?” Wyatt demanded, his temper beginning to do a slow boil.
Nonny nodded. “Yep. I couldn’ even figger how they got in. When food disappeared here, I started puttin’ a package out with little bits I thought might help. Food, clothes, even a blanket or two. Each time I put somethin’ out, it was gone the next mornin’, but three mornin’s in a row after that, I had fresh fish on my table waitin’. Dogs didn’t bark. The doors were locked. I couldn’t tell how they got in, but it made me a mite uncomfortable knowin’ the Rougarou was in my house.”
“Why the Rougarou and not a person, ma’am?” Malichai asked.
“Delmar Thibodeaux seen it himself, with his own two eyes. It was movin’ fast through the brush, so fast he could barely track it.”
“Delmar Thibodeaux owns the Huracan Club, where liquor flows in abundance,” Wyatt explained to the others.
“He swore he wasn’t drinkin’ when he saw it.”
Wyatt sighed. “What else is goin’ on around here, Nonny? That shotgun wasn’t out for the Rougarou. You wouldn’t kill it.”
“I might,” the old lady insisted. “If it threatened me.”
Wyatt lifted his eyebrow at her. “Animals don’ threaten you, Nonny. Everyone in the bayou knows that. Even the alligators leave you alone.”
The boys were fairly certain they’d inherited their psychic abilities from their grandmother, although she never admitted to anything.
Nonny let out a resigned sigh. Clearly she wanted the shapeshifting legend to be true. “Do you remember that old hospital that burned down a couple of years back? There were whispers about that place, some madman owned it and held a girl prisoner there and she set the whole thing on fire to escape.”
Wyatt nodded reluctantly. There were always rumors in the bayou—superstition melding with truth. The bayous and swamps were places where myth or legend often was rooted in reality. In this case, he knew the whispers were true.
Dr. Whitney, the previous owner of the hospital, was truly a madman. He had dedicated his life to creating a supersoldier. Those soldiers were known as GhostWalkers, because they owned the night. Few saw them, or heard them as they carried out their missions. Few knew that their DNA had been tampered with and they were all psychically as well as physically enhanced.
Now they were getting into classified things—things he couldn’t discuss with his grandmother. He kept his head down while he ate.
“I remember it,” he admitted.
“Some big shot bought up the land right away and cleaned it all up. They built a long, ugly building with few windows and walls at least a foot thick, all concrete. Not a single man or woman on the river was employed.”
There was no denying the little sneer in her voice. It was considered an insult for a large company to come into the bayou and not hire the locals who needed work. Most of the families living on the river would have taken it the same way. The “big shot” hadn’t made any friends with his decision to give work to outsiders, but he hadn’t broken any laws either.
“Who owns the land now, Nonny?” he asked.
Whitney Trust had owned it, and Lily, Whitney’s daughter, had sold it the moment she realized her father had used the facilities to experiment on a child. Wyatt didn’t look at either of the Fortunes brothers. Like him, they were fairly new in the GhostWalker force, but he had information they didn’t on the founder and creator of the program.
“They have a big sign up on their fourteen-foot-high chain-link fence with razor wire rolled up along on the top and men with guns patrolling with dogs,” Nonny said in disgust. “Like they’re afraid everyone in the bayou wants to know their business.”
Wyatt couldn’t stop the grin. “Nonny, everyone in the bayou does want to know their business.”
She threw back her head and laughed, the sound adding to the feeling of home.
“Ma’am,” Malichai interrupted. “Do you mind if I have another bowl of this very good gumbo? I’ve never tasted anything like it.”
“It’s authentic gumbo, a traditional recipe that’s been in my family for generations,” Nonny said, looking pleased. “Dive right in, that’s what it’s there for. We always have somethin’ cookin’ on the stove for you when you come in hungry.”
“I’m always hungry,” Malichai admitted.
“You’re a big man and it takes a might of food to keep you satisfied,” she said.
“If you don’t mind me saying, ma’am,” Ezekiel said, “he’s got some kind of hollow leg that’s plain impossible to fill. I ought to know, I tried for years.”
“He broke into a grocery store once,” Malichai said, “you know, back when we were kids,” he added hastily when Wyatt shot him a look. “The kind that has the hot chicken roasting and already-cooked food. Our brother Mordichai and I feasted all night and we were still hungry in the morning. Ezekiel said it was impossible to keep up with our stomachs.”
“He’s like a starved wolf, ma’am,” Ezekiel said. “Never gains an ounce of fat, but he gorges on food when we’ve got it. Our other brother is the same way.”
Nonny’s eyebrows drew together in a frown. “You boys had no one lookin’ after you when you were young? Not anyone?”
Malichai shrugged. “We did a pretty good job of it, ma’am. We had each other’s backs. We grew up in a city, and we knew every building and alley there was.” He scooped a hefty amount of gumbo into his bowl and caught up a generous amount of bread before taking his seat.
“The older we got, the easier it was,” Ezekiel added. “We got a reputation for fighting and the others left us alone.”
Nonny shook her head. “You boys. You’ll fit right in with my boys. They do like to fight.” She sat back in her chair with a feigned little slump. “I should put in a call to Delmar and warn him you might be visitin’ his place and not to let the three of you in.”
“The Delmar that saw the Rougarou,” Malichai clarified.
“That’s the one,” Wyatt said. “His place, the Huracan Club, is the best place on the bayou to go for drinks, women and fights. Well, for drinks and fights. Or just plain fights,” Wyatt said to the Fortunes brothers. He laughed and raised his eyebrow at his grandmother. “That would just be mean, Nonny. We’re all grown up now and we don’ get into trouble like we used to.”
She gave a little unladylike snort. “I’m expectin’ lightnin’ to strike you any minute now, boy.”
“Why the shotgun, Nonny?” Wyatt persisted quietly, slipping the question back in casually. He slathered butter on the bread and took a bite. Pure heaven. Evidently Ezekiel and Malichai felt the same. They were making short work of the three loaves his grand-mere had baked.
“That fence is right along that swamp area where my plants I need for medicinal purposes grow. I was there harvestin’ the other day and some kind of ruckus broke out in that buildin’, with alarms shriekin’ and voices on loudspeakers. Dogs were goin’ crazy, and the guards got all panicked. Now that’s none of my business. My plants was my business, Wyatt.”
Wyatt put down his spoon and sat back, giving her his full attention.
“All of a sudden, these men surround me, trampin’ through my plants and swearin’ like they was gunna kill me. I had to raise my hands, and one of them put his hands on me, so I kicked him where it counts.”
Wyatt felt the familiar surge of heat rushing through his body, threatening to boil over. He had a temper, he knew that, but his enhancement had made it worse, much more difficult to control, and the thought of a man putting his hands on his grandmother made his blood swirl hotly. Beneath the table his fists clenched and under his feet, the floor shivered.
Both Ezekiel and Malichai put down their spoons as well, heads up alertly, suddenly listening just as closely to what Nonny had to say.
“Explain puttin’ his hands on you, Grand-mere,” Ezekiel said, his voice deadly quiet.
“Now don’ go gettin’ all riled, boys. I can handle myself, I’m not that old yet. He was pattin’ me down for weapons. Took my best knife too. Still has that knife, and I want it back. They told me they knew where I lived and called me by name. Ms. Fontenot, they said. The big one said he’d be comin’ by my house and settin’ his dog on me if I didn’ keep my nose out their business and keep my mouth shut ’bout what I seen and heard.”
“What did you see and hear?”
“That’s the thing, Wyatt.” Nonny sounded annoyed. “I was workin’ and had my contraption in my ear, the one you got me for Christmas with all the music. I wasn’ listenin’ or lookin’ until those sirens went off.” Clearly she was deeply disappointed she hadn’t seen whatever it was they didn’t want her to see. “I got me the idea that they’re making dirty bombs.”
Wyatt worked hard to keep the smile from his face. He found the idea that his petite grandmother even knew what a dirty bomb was both unsettling and a little funny. She glared at him, so he didn’t make the mistake of actually grinning.
“Dirty bomb?” he echoed. “Where did you come up with that?”
“I listen to the news,” she replied with great dignity. “I know what goes on in the world, and those men are up to no good.” She leaned close. “When they go to the Huracan Club, they don’ talk to nobody. Not even Delmar. They jist keep to themselves and glower at everyone. Even when the boys push them a bit, they don’ want to fight and that’s jist not natural. Delmar says they don’ drink anythin’ but beer and never more than two apiece.”
“Maybe the bayou doesn’ give them a powerful thirst like it does the rest of us. Are they city boys?” Wyatt asked.
“They don’ look like city boys, Wyatt, except for a couple of the suits that come and go on occasion.”
“So you do keep an eye on the place,” he said, using his mildest tone.
His tone didn’t matter. She gave him a look that had withered him as a boy and still left the pit of his stomach unsettled.
“Everyone keeps an eye on them. I’m tellin’ you, somethin’s not right there.”
“Well, you know, Grand-mere, I think it best you stop your harvestin’ until I check it out. Which man put his hands on you? Do you have a description for me?”
“I can do better than that, Wyatt. I took his picture with that newfangled camera Flame got me. She calls it a cell and it rings now and then, but I don’ know how to answer it so I just take pictures with it.”
Wyatt shook his head. “You don’ answer your phone, Nonny?”
“Who wants to be talkin’ when they should be workin’?”
“She’s got a point,” Malichai said. “Can we see this picture?” He glanced at Wyatt. Clearly he couldn’t imagine a man patting down Nonny and then intimidating her by threatening to come to her home. “I’m glad you have that shotgun, ma’am.”
“I may have to use it if you keep callin’ me ma’am,” Nonny said. “My boys call me Grand-mereor Nonny. You’re here in my home and I’m claimin’ you as my own.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Ezekiel said. “Thank you. We’ve never been claimed before.”
Wyatt snorted derisively. “Don’ be so happy about it. That means she’ll take a switch to you if you give her any trouble,” Wyatt said.
“He sounds like he got the switch a lot, Nonny,” Malichai said.
“He should have gotten the switch,” Nonny said, “but he and his brothers were far too charmin’.” She sounded proud—and loving.
Wyatt could hear the love in her voice. He almost couldn’t remember the reason he’d been so reluctant to return to the bayou. He loved it there, everything about it, especially his grandmother. After hearing about the men guarding the new plant, he was more than happy he’d come back home. Still, what man wanted to come home and admit to the woman he respected and admired most, just what a blind ass he’d been?
“Did you go back there, Nonny?” he asked suspiciously.
“I’m fixin’ to. They trampled my plants, and I’ve spent years puttin’ them all in that one spot in the swamp so I could gather them easier. I’m too old to be gallivantin’ around the swamp lookin’ for the right plants to make medicine when the traiteur calls for it.”
“Our local healer,” Wyatt supplied.
“I’ll go look after your plants for you, ma’am,” Ezekiel said. At her swift look he cleared his throat. “Grand-mere, I mean. I’ll be more than happy to read anyone from the good book who comes looking to step on those plants again.”
“You’re a fine boy, Ezekiel. You may not have had much parentin’ but you probably are one of those boys who just figgurs it out on your own,” Nonny said.
Wyatt sent Ezekiel a sharp glance. All three of them were enhanced physically and psychically. Unfortunately, their cat DNA gave them a need for hunting. Wyatt felt sometimes as if his mind was always at war. The healer side of him versus the killer instinct that the cat had. Ezekiel already had been an aggressive, dominant male. He didn’t fight for fun in the way Wyatt and his brothers did—Malichai, Mordichai and Ezekiel had fought from birth to stay alive. The new mixture of DNA into their already explosive make-up could be hazardous under the wrong circumstances.
You can’t kill in my grand-mere’s backyard. He used telepathic communication.
Ezekiel didn’t look up from mopping up the gumbo with the bread.
What did you plan on doing, Wyatt? Malichai asked. Shaking hands with them and thanking them politely for patting down your grand-mere?
Your sarcasm is not appreciated. I plan on a little recon before I go to bed. I want to check out this building and who owns it. I can get word back to Mordichai and see if he can dig anything up on them for us while he’s lookin’ after Joe.
Wyatt hadn’t been too surprised when his ability to speak telepathically with his team had been so easy—he’d always heard others in his head—catching random thoughts now and then—which was how he caught the love of his life cheating on him. At least at the time he’d thought she was the love of his life, now, after much soul searching, he realized he was just a damned fool with a white knight complex.
Beneath his hands the table trembled slightly, just enough for both Malichai and Ezekiel to frown at him.
What’s wrong? We’ll get these bastards, Ezekiel said. No one’s going to hurt your grandmother, not with us here.
What could he say? That he couldn’t bear thinking about what an idiot he’d been because he’d thought some woman ripped out his heart, stomped on it and then told him what she really thought of him—none of it good. He thought he loved her from the time he was five years old, when he’d first laid eyes on her at a neighborhood fais do-do. He’d devoted himself to her, although they didn’t date in school. She appeared too fragile and always turned to him when she broke up with her latest boyfriend.
He hadn’t ever let himself believe, not for one minute, in spite of Nonny warning him a time or two, that Joy Chassion was playing him, using him until someone came along who could get her out of the bayou. He hadn’t wanted to know—to believe—to even consider for one moment that his judgment could be that bad.
He’d never had that kind of hurt before and he sure as hell never wanted to experience it again. He’d sworn off women. They were unreliable and untrustworthy. He’d be damned if he ever went down that road again. And worse, he couldn’t trust his own judgment. Joy hadn’t been worth it, and the sad truth was, he’d never really been in love with her, only with his own fantasy. He’d made a damn fool of himself and he’d have to live with the consequences for the rest of his life—and so would his family. Nonny was going to have to look elsewhere for babies.
The funny thing was, he must have known all along that Joy couldn’t be trusted. She wanted money and a different life. He had the ability to give her both, but he never told her. Never wanted her to know. She had to love him for who he was, not what he could do for her.
Wyatt shook his head. “Grand-mere, I’ve been braggin’ to Malichai and Ezekiel that there’s nothin’ quite like our café andbeignets. They’ve never had them before.”
Nonny looked both shocked and horrified. “Never?”
She got up immediately and went to the warmer, where she removed a large platter of beignets. She placed it squarely between the two men and marched back to get the hot black coffee for them.
Wyatt waited until she was seated again and his two friends were covered in powdered sugar. He leaned toward his grandmother, holding out his hand to her. “Your phone, Nonny. I want to see what these men look like.”
She pulled the small cell phone from the pocket of her sweater. “I took several. Those are the men who trampled my plants. The one with the dog tried to scare me, but I whispered to it and it stopped showin’ me its teeth. He wasn’ too happy and I was afraid I mighta gotten the dog in trouble.”
Malichai and Ezekiel both put down their beignets to study the series of photographs on her phone. Most were quite clear in spite of the fact that she was taking them on the sly.
“Which one put his hands on you?” Ezekiel asked.
“You sound jist like my boys. No sense in gettin’ everyone riled up. My dress and jeans came out clean and I woulda had to wash them anyway.”
Wyatt stiffened. “What does that mean? You fell?” he demanded. “Did you fall down? Did they push you?”
“I said they put their hands on me and I kicked one where it counts,” she reiterated. “He didn’t like it much, ’specially when his friends all laughed at him.”
This time the table actually shook. It was no slight tremor. Wyatt got up and paced across the floor trying to rid himself of restless energy—energy that could easily get out of hand with his kind of temper.
“He shoved you into the swamp?” He managed to get each word out between his teeth. He glared at Malichai, who had begun eating the beignets again. “He shoved her and you’re eating?”
Malichai’s eyebrow shot up. “Fuel, my man. One of us has to be efficient when the two of you are hotheads. Nonny, out of curiosity, were you aware you raised a hothead?”
She nodded thoughtfully. “I did, Malichai. I did. I thought he might grow out of it, but like his brothers, he’s got that Cajun temper and it just grew up right along with all of them.”
“You should have told me immediately that these men pushed you down, Nonny,” Wyatt said. “It’s no laughin’ matter. I thought maybe they got a little overzealous tryin’ to guard their plant when somethin’ went wrong, and that was bad enough but . . .”
He raked both hands through his hair and his eyes glittered like a hungry cat hunting prey. “Shovin’ you? Pattin’ you down? Threatnin’ you? No, that’s intolerable. I think I need to have a little friendly chat with these men.”
Ezekiel rose and pushed back his chair, reaching for the plates. “Thank you for such a fine meal. I’ll just do up the dishes, Grand-mere, and then we’ll go see about reading from the good book along with Wyatt.”
Malichai shoved both chairs back into the table and helped gather the bowls. “Magnificent meal, Nonny. I’m actually full . . . for the time being.”
“Leave the dishes, boys,” Nonny said. “I’ll get them done. You boys don’ be out too late, and Malichai, there’ll be somethin’ hot on the stove when you come back in.”
"We’re goin’ to take the pirogue so we can go in quiet,” Wyatt announced as he stepped off the porch. “Neither of you has to come with me. I’m goin’ in soft, just a recon to see what I’m up against.”
“Like hell we’re going to let you go alone,” Malichai said. “I ate a lot. I need a little exercise before going to sleep.” And I don’t believe for one minute you’re going in soft. I’ll just tag along and make certain you behave yourself.
Wyatt sent him an innocent look.
Ezekiel nudged his brother. “You just want to walk off the dinner so you can eat more. I swear, Malichai, you should weigh five hundred pounds.”
“I got all the good genes,” Malichai said, and stepped onto the pirogue. “What the hell is this contraption? Are you certain it’s safe?”
He peered into the black water. Hanging like great ropes, vines of moss dangled from the cypress trees, sweeping the water with thin, feathery arms, creating a macabre effect. The humidity was extremely high, so that everything in the night seemed to move slow and easy, and even the air seemed to enter lungs slow and lazy.
Ezekiel studied the small, flat-bottomed wooden craft that appeared to be made from a tree trunk. The last thing he wanted to do was to find himself in the dark water with snapping turtles, snakes and alligators.
Wyatt leaned on a long pole. “The water’s shallow. If you can’t stay balanced, no worries. You’ll only go up to your thighs. Or waist. Unless we hit a pocket where the bottom falls out.”
Ezekiel shot him a glare. “I’m armed, you cretin.”
Wyatt laughed. “If you prefer, you can hang out here and Grand-mere will keep you safe with that shotgun of hers.”
Ezekiel stepped carefully onto the pirogue. “That’s one hell of a woman. Do they even make them like that anymore?”
Wyatt pushed off carefully using the long pole. Malichai picked up the other one to help. He watched Wyatt and then mimicked his movements.
“I think my brother Gator got the last one,” he admitted. “She carries a big-ass knife and isn’t afraid to use it. The first time I ever saw her, she broke into our home, crept up on Gator and stuck a knife to his throat. He stole her motorcycle, and she took my Jeep. It was a really interestin’ relationship.”
“My kind of woman,” Ezekiel said.
“She’s one of us,” Wyatt added. “A GhostWalker.”
“I figured she’d have to be if she managed to get the drop on your brother,” Malichai said. “He’s got a badass reputation.”
He took a careful look around him. It was dark and eerie in the bayous. The network of canals was hidden from one another by tall reeds and strips of land with weeping cypress trees.
“A man could get lost around here,” he observed. “I’ve never had trouble in jungles or desert, but this is something altogether different.”
“I grew up here, Malichai,” Wyatt assured him. “This was my play yard. We hunted and fished here. We had crab and crawfish traps we attended to daily before we ever went to school. We used a rowboat to take us to the French Quarter where we caught the buses to school.”
“What did you hunt?” Ezekiel asked.
“Anything we could eat. We couldn’t afford ammo, so every single bullet had to count. We didn’t miss.”
“Did Grand-mere teach you to shoot?” Malichai asked.
Wyatt nodded. “With guns, knives and a bow and arrow. We all had chores. Once a year we collected the moss from the cypress trees and laid it all out to dry. It was a big job. There were five of us and we used the moss to stuff our mattresses. We needed a lot of it. That’s what we slept on.”
“I noticed a lot of the furniture was thick and sturdy and carved out of wood,” Malichai said. “Whoever did the furniture making was good.”
Wyatt smiled at him. “We got good. After a few chairs collapsed and we broke the sofa once, we learned if we wanted a chair to sit in, or a table to eat at, we’d better do a good job. We offered to buy Nonny all new furniture after we were grown and a little more successful, but she loves the things we made. She’s very sentimental.”
“I wouldn’t give it up either,” Ezekiel said. “I thought the table and chairs were unique and quite comfortable. Did you carve those chests in the hall by the stairs?”
“Each of us carved one. They’re marriage chests. Nonny wanted us to have them for our brides. Gator took his, and Flame was particularly happy about it. She didn’t have a family and I think the chest and things inside it made her feel connected, really part of our family—which she is.”
“Did Grand-meremake those quilts?” Malichai asked.
Wyatt glanced at him and then away. There was a note of longing in Malichai’s voice, one Wyatt was certain he wouldn’t want anyone to notice. Growing up poor in the bayou had been a struggle, but they hadn’t realized they were poor. Nonny made them feel lucky and very loved. He knew his brothers felt the same as he did about their home.
“Yours was a good childhood,” Ezekiel commented.
“Yeah,” Wyatt agreed. “The best. We worked hard but we played just as hard.” He held up his hand for silence and indicated for Malichai to put his pole down.
Sound travels on these waters like you wouldn’t believe. No noise. Ezekiel, can you do your thing with the insects? If they go silent, the guards are goin’ to know. We want the alligators to bellow and the frogs to croak.
Ezekiel, even as a boy, could manipulate the insects, calling them to him, sending them away. None of the team knew how he did it, but the ability was an asset unlike any other. He could move without detection through any type of terrain and protect his entire team while doing it. Since his enhancement, Ezekiel’s ability had grown into a powerful instrument. He could flood the entire compound with swarms of insects, snakes and frogs should he want to do such a thing.
No problem. Give me a minute to connect. Ezekiel was all business. Once on the hunt, he wasn’t a man who joked around like some of the other members on the team—Wyatt included.
We’re close then? Malichai asked.
We’ve got a little tramp through the swamp. It’s dangerous. There’re a few spongy places in this direction.
Wyatt used the pole carefully, each movement slow and easy, so that even the pole moving through the water made no splash as he used it to push off the bottom and propel them forward through the shallow water toward the shore. The pirogue easily ran onto the ground and all three stepped off.
Gator slide right at your feet, Malichai. Move to your left. You don’ want to meet that big boy tonight. He’s been around for a long while and he’s a wily one. He’s eaten more than one huntin’ dog for dinner.
That’s why you have all those dogs at your place. You use them for hunting, Malichai said.
We also like Nonny to have them around when all of us are gone.
Malichai slid his knife from his boot and stepped away from the muddy slide where clearly a large alligator moved from land to water on a regular basis. The moment they stepped onto land, all three changed subtly, lifting their faces to the air for information.
The five o’clock shadow on their faces along with the small hair on their bodies acted like sonar, a radar to give them precise information on their surroundings. They could tell if a small space was enough to slide their bodies through or if the branches of a tree could support their weight. They knew the location of every animal close to them. They each had allowed their hair to grow longer, believing it aided them in gathering more information as well as keeping them in tune to their surroundings and danger.
Can we use the trees? Malichai asked.
Once we’re closer to the compound. We can move fairly quickly through here. There’re only a few spots that are dangerous. Watch for snakes.
I’ll keep the snakes away, Ezekiel assured.
Wyatt led the way. On land, they made no noise, slipping through the thick brush and reeds easily, their bodies fluid, the roped muscles and flexible spines giving them an advantage as they made their way toward the part of the swamp Nonny had spent years transplanting her medicinal herbs and plants in.
We’re right at the edge of Grand-mere’s field. The local traiteur has used Nonny’s concoctions for years. Wyatt didn’t bother to try to keep the pride from his voice.
He remembered as a little boy, coming to this part of the swamp with his grandmother. She carried plants, carefully wrapped to transplant. One by one. She found them in other places throughout the vast swamp land, dug them up in the heat and humidity with mosquitos biting her and tramped through dangerous swamp to transfer them to this section.
Why? Ezekiel asked, surveying the acre of plants.
She told me that we all get old and havin’ them in one spot where we could watch over them and take care of them would ensure our families would always have medicine if they couldn’t afford modern medicine. Remember she’s in her eighties. She was the local pharmacist for years. When the traiteur needed a medicine, she would experiment with plants and herbs until she found the best one that worked. That’s what all this is. It’s the bayou’s pharmacy.
Grand-mere is quite a woman, Malichai reiterated.
Wyatt felt pride in his grandmother and was pleased at the admiration of his friend for her. Nonny wore old clothes and smoked a pipe. She was very traditional in a lot of ways and some people just didn’t take to her. He was glad his friends didn’t view her at face value.
Malichai and Ezekiel were two of the toughest men Wyatt knew—and he knew plenty of hard-asses. As a rule the brothers kept to themselves. It had taken hundreds of missions before the two had included Wyatt in their small circle of absolute trusted friends.
He had hoped his grandmother would work her spell on them both, but on Ezekiel in particular. His nature, shaped on the streets of Detroit, was already savage. Adding cat DNA made him far more aggressive and dangerous. Grand-merewas a stabilizing influence no matter what. He couldn’t imagine anyone resisting her down-home wisdom and the sheer welcome she gave to complete strangers. It helped that already, he could tell, she had their respect.
Dogs, Ezekiel warned. Up ahead and to the left of us.
That would be the corner of Nonny’s pharmaceutical field. They spread out, each moving independently of the other, heading for the thick growth of trees outside the tall chain-link fence.
Nonny was right. The fence was overkill for whatever they were keeping hidden from the world. Wyatt caught sight of the sign. Wilson Plastics. Now that was a load of crap, but they’d claim they were researching and needed the security to keep out rival companies. He’d have to send Joe the name of the company and find out who owned it and what they actually did.
Rolls of razor wire had been strung all along the top of the fence. The three-story building was a good forty feet from the fence with no ground cover.
Are they keepin’ us out, or somethin’ in? Wyatt asked the others.
Good question, Malichai replied. I’d say there’s a good chance it’s both.
Maybe they really are making dirty bombs in there, just like Nonny said, Ezekiel added. We’ve got a guard and dog approaching at six o’clock, Wyatt, and I think he’s the one that shoved Grand-mere.
Wyatt studied the big man. He moved easily, fluidly. Too easily. The large semiautomatic cradled in his arms looked a part of him.
Something’s not right here, Ezekiel said. That’s no private security. He knows his way around a gun. And that dog is skilled. He’s not for show.
Maybe, but more likely ex-military private security. He just doesn’t feel enhanced to me. Good, but not Whitney kind of soldier, Wyatt said.
The dog looked out toward the trees where the three of them were concealed, alerting for just a moment before Ezekiel could calm him.
Dog smells big cats and doesn’t like it. He’s difficult to control. If I push too hard I could hurt him, Ezekiel warned. You’re better with mammals, Wyatt. You try. I’ll save my energy for reptiles.
The handler was skilled as well. He didn’t dismiss the dog’s seeming confusion. He stopped immediately and shone his light all along the ground leading to the fence on the inside, not the outside. That told Wyatt there was something inside they didn’t want out.
You need the practice, Ezekiel, and the dog’s listenin’ to you. Wyatt wanted to save every bit of energy for dealing with the man who’d shoved his grandmother. He knew he wasn’t 100 percent healed, but he wasn’t going to wait to give the man a beating.
The guard checked the fence itself next. He stepped up to it with his light and carefully examined all along the chain link, even up to the razor wire. He was thorough in his inspection, taking his time, another mark of a professional. When he was finished, he crouched beside the dog, scratching its ears and talking low while he examined the ground on the other side of the fence.
What the hell is he lookin’ for? Wyatt asked.
Not us, Malichai said. It hasn’t even occurred to him yet that he might have someone out here watchin’ him.
The guard spoke into his radio softly. Wyatt’s hearing had always been extremely acute and was even more so from both his psychic and physical enhancements. With the feline DNA, he found he could hear higher pitches far better than he’d ever been able to before.
Did you make out what he said, Wyatt? Malichai asked.
He asked someone inside to check the cells. Cells, not rooms. And I don’ think he’s enhanced. He’s been a soldier at one time, but he’s not a GhostWalker.
Wyatt’s warning radar was beginning to give him a few prickles. He took a long slow look around, careful not to rustle a single leaf in the tree.
I don’ think we’re alone out here, boys. You feelin’ anythin’?
There was a long silence while both brothers stretched their senses to encompass as much of their surroundings as possible.
I don’t see or hear anything at all, Ezekiel said, but the dog is getting harder to control. I think we’re going to have to get out of here for tonight and rethink our plan of reading to that man from the good book.
That wasn’t happening. You go on ahead and I’ll meet you at the pirogue.
Wyatt stared hard at the man who had shoved his grandmother into the swamp. He’d patted her down and pushed her. She could easily have broken a hip, and the guard had known it but hadn’t cared.
The guard brought the dog twice up to one of the gates and stood waiting, as if he’d receive a signal to let the animal loose. The dog barked, baring its teeth, looking out behind Malichai.
He’s feeling something I can’t, Ezekiel said.
Fall back, Wyatt told them. He’s goin’ to come out and investigate.
Not alone, he’s not, Malichai said.
As the guard opened the gate, two other guards ran up to join him. Neither of the others had a dog, but they were heavily armed. They came outside the fence and immediately spread out, keeping about five feet apart as they moved toward the grove of trees where Wyatt and the Fortunes brothers had taken up residence.
That dog has the scent of something, Ezekiel said. And it isn’t us.
Wyatt inhaled deeply, taking in the odors of the night. Jasmine hung heavy in the air, mixing with the smell of the swamp, the moss hanging in ropes from the cypress groves and the mix of wild flowers. The pharmaceutical field had its own perfume from hundreds of varieties of herbs and flowering plants, some poisonous, some not, but all with their individual scents.
He caught the odor of the alligator. A bobcat lurked close. Somewhere a little farther off was a small herd of deer. Raccoons caught fish near the riverbank and a family of opossum trailed through the vegetation seeking dinner. Nutrias, originally from South America, traveled in a small group as well, wandering around destroying the plants as they devoured the stems and roots.
The wind shifted just a fraction and he caught the same scent the dog had. Elusive. Beckoning. Mysterious. Impossible to identify, but there. It made every hair on his body stand up. His heart beat faster and blood ran hot through his veins. He felt an itch between his shoulder blades as if someone had a scope and a rifle with their centers on him.
The dog burst from the gate and, slipping its collar, sprang away from his handler, rushing across the clearing and low-level plants straight into the cypress grove. He made no noise at all, but he moved fast with purpose. His handler raced after him, calling his name, clearly alarmed at the dog being off the leash. What was out there that might harm his dog? The other two men moved much more cautiously, exchanging a quick signal with one another before they followed into the grove, maintaining a five-foot spread from one another.
Wyatt ran lightly along a heavy branch that nearly touched another tree next to the one he was in. He leapt for the tree, landing lightly and quickly moving to the next. He used the branches as a highway above the swamp, following the three guards. He knew their exact positions but he couldn’t always see them through the thick vines and foliage.
Someone shouted—the dog handler, he was certain. The guard fired his gun in short bursts. The dog yelped. In the distance, through the tree branches, Wyatt caught a glimpse of something moving fast—too fast for anything human. It was small, no more than a foot or so tall. It ran, zigzagging as the guard fired at it.
Movement drew Wyatt’s gaze back to the guard as something hit the dog handler hard in the back, knocking him forward and down. For a moment, Wyatt thought he might actually be catching his first glimpse of the Rougarou—shapeshifter of the bayous and swamps—but this was no tall creature with a wolf’s head. It was small in comparison to the guard, but not tiny like the first creature. He was fairly certain whoever had struck the guard was human.
He moved carefully, knowing he would draw fire from the other guards if they spotted him in the trees. By the time he was able to see again, whoever it was had smashed the guard’s gun into pieces against the trunk of a tree. The dog hurled itself on the smaller figure, driving it to the ground. Animal and human rolled for a moment and then, to his astonishment, the dog went flying backward with such force that when it landed, the blow was strong enough to knock the wind from the animal.
Whatever it was that had attacked the guard ran in the direction of the much smaller creature, just as fast, with blurring speed, leaping over fallen logs and yet never once running into an obstacle in spite of the speed.
The other two guards laid down fire, spraying the swamp with bullets, but none appeared to strike their target. The two small creatures, one no more than a foot and a half tall and the other maybe hitting five feet or an inch or two above, ran through the dense vegetation without hesitation or a hitch in their strides.
None of the guards gave chase, and that was significant as well. The guards, as armed and as well trained as they were, didn’t want to follow the two figures into the swamp at night. They were afraid.
One of the guards reached down to help the dog handler from the ground. He immediately rushed over to kneel by the dog.
“Is he alive, Larry?”
“Yeah.” The dog handler sounded grim. “She didn’t kill him, but his rib might be cracked. We were lucky.”
“You shouldn’t have let him loose, Larry.”
“Go to hell, Blake, he slipped his leash.” The dog handler gathered the animal into his arms and lifted him gently.
Wyatt liked him better for that. Still, the man was due a good beating, and he wasn’t getting out of that.
“Gentlemen, put down your guns,” he advised softly. “I’m only goin’ to tell you once. If you don’ comply, I’ll shoot you in the leg. If you still don’ comply, it will be the other leg. We’ll just keep goin’ until you run out of blood or I run out of bullets.”
“Don’t you worry, my friend,” Malichai said, his voice coming out of the night low and purring. “I’ve got enough ammo to keep on shooting long after you’re out.”
“And then I’ll start,” Ezekiel added.
Surrounded, the guards put their weapons on the ground, stepped back away from them and linked their fingers behind their heads.
“You’re making a mistake,” the one named Blake said.
“No, I think you’re the ones who made the mistake.” Wyatt leapt from the tree, landing in a crouch on the balls of his feet, right beside Blake’s gun. He tossed it up into the tree where Ezekiel was concealed and then threw the second one to him as well.
“Put the dog down. I don’ want to hurt an animal, so if he’s protective of you, leash him and hand the leash to one of your friends. They can just make themselves comfortable while you and I settle our score.” Wyatt pinned the other two with a serious gaze. “Don’ make the mistake of thinkin’ you can go for your holdout guns or your other weapons. I know you have ’em and I just plain don’ give a damn. That’s how angry you’ve made me. So know my two friends will shoot you down the moment you make one wrong move.”
Larry set the dog near the third guard, clearly not trusting Blake. He snapped the leash back on him and handed the end to his friend. “Don’t let him loose, Jim,” he cautioned, and then turned slowly. “Who the hell are you and why do you have such a hard-on for me?”
“You know that sweet old lady you thought you’d shove into the swamp? The one you threatened? The one you told you’d come by her home and take care of her?” Deliberately, and making a show of it, Wyatt placed his gun a distance from them and walked within feet of Larry. “That’s my grand-mere, and I don’ take to anyone threatenin’ her or puttin’ hands on her.”
“It wasn’t personal,” Larry said with a small shrug. “I was doing my job. We don’t want anyone coming around, not only for our protection but theirs as well.”
“It’s very personal to me,” Wyatt said. “So let’s get to this.”
“You swamp rats are all alike. We go to that shack you call a club and everyone wants to fight us to prove what men you are,” Larry accused, shaking his head.
The other two guards laughed. “This ought to be fun.”
“No, we’re not alike,” Wyatt said quietly. “That’s where you’re wrong. The boys at the Huracan are out for fun and they were invitin’ you to join in. No animosity and nothin’ to prove, just a good Saturday night bataille. Me, I’m dead serious about teachin’ you some manners, there’s no funnin’ in my mind at all. Swamp rats know how to treat women, and apparently you need to learn that lesson.”
“You’re going to be one sorry rat,” Larry said, and circled Wyatt, his hands coming up in the classic boxer’s stance. “I’m so sick of all of you, thinking you’re so tough just because you grew up around alligators. I’ll bet that’s what they call you around these parts—Gator.” He said the name in a sneering taunt.
“No, that would be my brother, and you should be damn glad he’s not here. He wouldn’ be quite so gentle as I’m goin’ to be.” Wyatt nodded at the man’s boot. “If you think you’re goin’ to make your try for that holdout gun, all bets are off.”
Larry scowled at him. “I won’t need a gun for this.” He stepped in close and fired off three rapid punches at Wyatt’s face.
Wyatt blocked all three, and delivered a hard right to the man’s belly, punching deep, driving the air from his lungs and letting him know it was a punishment, not a dance. The breath exploded out of Larry and he stumbled back, doubling over. Wyatt slammed an elbow on his back, driving him straight to the ground. He stepped back.
“The thing you should know comin’ into a neighborhood, Larry,” he said, his voice gentle, as if he was a mother instructing a child, “you treat the people decent. That’s all, just decent. And you don’ ever put your hands on old ladies or any woman for that matter. It just isn’ done.”
Larry got to his feet slowly, this time looking at Wyatt warily. His two friends stopped laughing, watching as he staggered a little. All traces of amusement and contempt were gone from Larry’s face.
Wyatt let him get his feet under him and set himself back in his warrior’s stance. He exploded into action, gliding in, hitting Larry hard with two straight rights to the left eye, both shockingly hard, knocking Larry’s head back rapidly. The third punch was a left roundhouse to the jaw. Larry’s body shuddered. His legs turned to rubber and he went down. Wyatt stepped back a second time. He wasn’t even breathing hard and he hadn’t broken a sweat.
“You might want to drop by Grand-mere’s house and apologize. She’s hell on wheels with a gun, but if you come by all sorry, with your tail tucked between your legs, she’ll feed you and forgive you, because that’s what we do here.” The soft voice changed. “Get up. We’re not nearly finished.”
Larry rolled over and stared up at the night sky. “You hit like a damn jackhammer.” His left eye was already swollen shut. “I’ve never been punched that hard in my life. I didn’t know anyone could hit that hard.”
“Swamp rats learn how to punch on the way outa their mama’s womb. Stand up. And for the record, I’m takin’ it easy on you.”
Larry held up his hand. “I’m done, man. I get it. I’ll apologize. The place was crazy that day and she was just in the way.”
Wyatt reached down and yanked him off the ground with one hand as he struck three more times in the mouth with the other. He dragged Larry close to him, looking eye to eye. “This is our land. You don’ own anythin’ beyond that fence. Those acres of plants belong to the people of the bayou. We use them for medicine. You don’ come onto our land and dictate to us when we can harvest them. She wasn’ in your way. You were in her way.”
Wyatt released Larry’s shirt and the man dropped again to ground. The earth beneath them shivered. It was a small tremor, but it was there, indicating Wyatt’s temper was rising, not diminishing.
“Wyatt, don’t get all crazy on us,” Malichai warned. “You don’t want to bring their house down.”
“I want Nonny’s knife. That knife is important to her, you thief.”
Larry rolled over, glaring with his one good eye. Blood bubbled around his split lip and inside his mouth. “You want her knife?” He yanked the knife from his boot and stood up, staggering a little. “Come and get it.”
“Oh, now that’s just downright stupid,” Wyatt said softly. “Real stupid. How do you think we killed the food we ate? Do you really think we had the money for bullets? I cut my teeth on knives, killin’ game, fightin’ with my friends and protectin’ our property. You really don’ learn, do you? That’s called bein’ too stupid to live. You don’ choose a man’s weapon and then expect to live through the fight.”
Wyatt circled Larry, watching his eyes. He definitely couldn’t see out of his left eye, so he moved to Larry’s left, forcing him to turn to keep him in sight at all times. The man spit blood out several times, and twice he looked as if he might fall, but he didn’t drop the knife.
Wyatt moved in with blinding speed, for the first time using his enhanced cat reflexes. He caught the man’s wrist in a brutal grip, controlling the knife as he stepped back behind Larry, taking the arm with him. Larry went flying down, screaming at the pressure on his arm. Wyatt held him there, removed the knife from his hand and slipped it into his own boot and then casually stuck the boot in Larry’s throat.
“You’re damn lucky I don’ break your arm. This is me not bein’ angry. You don’ want to ever make me come for you again because I won’t spank you sweetly like I’ve done. I’ll shove a knife down your throat and toss your body to the gators. I expect you’ll be by to tell Grand-mere how bad you feel for shovin’ her into the swamp.”
There was no let up on the arm at all. Wyatt made it clear that he could break the bone at any time. The pressure on the throat remained just as steady. “Our people will be here to replant the plants you trampled on. You aren’ goin’ to give them trouble. Not you and not any of your friends. I don’ really give a damn what you’re doin’ behind that fence, but you don’ get to come onto our land and treat anyone like you own it all. Do we have an understandin’?”
“I think we do,” Blake said. “Let him up.”
“I need him to say it,” Wyatt said quietly. “It’s been a long day and I’m damn tired. Get it done or I’ll end it for you.”
“I understand,” Larry bit out between his teeth.
Wyatt released him immediately and stepped back. He moved into the shadows of the trees, keeping his gaze on all three men.
Blake and Jim hurried over to Larry to help him stand. The dog remained standing, not looking toward Wyatt or the two men concealed in the trees. Wyatt knew that meant Ezekiel had control of the animal.
“Our guns?” Jim asked quietly.
“We’ll leave them for you outside the gate,” Wyatt replied. “We wouldn’t want anyone to lose his temper and do somethin’ stupid. It seems you don’ have any more sense than you do manners.”
Blake shot him a look that said he’d be more than happy to lose his temper, but all three men turned back toward the compound, Larry between the other two.
Wyatt waited until they were all the way inside with the gate closed before he moved.
“That was you being nice,” Malichai said. “Impressive. You didn’t even break a sweat.”
“We grew up fightin’ in the bayou, no rules, just gettin’ it done,” Wyatt said. “What idiot would pull a knife on me?”
Malichai leapt from the tree and landed easily on the balls of his feet. “Not me, bayou badass. I’m all for going back home and seeing what Grand-mere has left on the stove. Watching you expend all that energy just helped me work up an appetite.”
“Not quite yet,” Wyatt said. “I think we need to figure out just what spooked those boys tonight.”
“Grand-mere’sRougarou, is my guess,” Ezekiel said as he jumped from the tree. “Those guards were scared. All three of them. And the dog too.”
“I wonder why. They were armed to the teeth,” Wyatt mused, looking toward the swamp where the fast-moving figure had disappeared.
“Does the Rougarou have babies?” Malichai asked. “Because there was a little scary thing running faster than possible and disappearing into the swamp. I swear the damned thing glowed.”
“I saw it too,” Ezekiel admitted. “But I wasn’t going to say anything.”
“At night, the swamp can get you all mixed up,” Wyatt admitted.
His gaze drifted back to the compound and the three men limping their way to the building. He didn’t trust them not to come running back with automatic weapons—but then he wasn’t a trusting man.
“As far back as I can remember, I’ve heard tales of monsters in the swamps. They say we don’ have panthers here, but I’ve seen ’em. They say a lot of things, but the truth is, no one knows what’s true and what’s not. I don’ believe in the Rougarou, but it was fun as a child to be scared. I think we’re chasin’ something else, but what it is, I have no idea,” Wyatt said with a small shrug.
He was used to chasing myths in the swamps, and it didn’t bother him in the least. Screams and strange noises abounded. Sometimes the swamp went eerily quiet. It didn’t matter. It was home to him. He thrived there. Felt alive. The humidity. The heat. The insects. The way of life. It was home. If that included a monster or two, well, that just provided unexpected excitement.
“The guards are inside,” Wyatt announced. “Let’s move.”
He was already leading the way, heading toward the spot in the swamp where he’d last seen the blurred images. The three of them cast around for signs and scents of the mysterious intruders.
“Over here, Wyatt,” Ezekiel said. “I’ve got a partial track, but it looks like a baby’s bare footprint. Am I looking at a bear cub? A really small one?”
Wyatt crouched down to examine the small smear of a footprint in the muddy leaves. He brushed the debris from the track, but there was only a heel mark and what had to be the ball of a foot. But it was tiny. Far too small to be a bear, even a cub.
“There’s blood over here,” Malichai informed them. “It’s splashed on the leaves and there are a couple of spots on the ground. The guards sprayed bullets over this entire area and they must have hit something.”
“If the guards actually did hit something, the wound didn’t slow it down,” Wyatt said. “I was watching it run, although it was so fast and smooth, I honestly couldn’t see an image, just a blur, but if they were hit, the body didn’t even jerk and they didn’t miss a step.”
“It’s a lot of blood, Wyatt,” Malichai said, moving through the brush.
“It’s the adult, not the infant,” Ezekiel added.
Excerpted from "Viper Game"
Copyright © 2015 Christine Feehan.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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