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Novel: Savage Nature - Chapter 3

Saria blinked back unexpected tears. Remy could be so sweet when he chose, but she didn’t trust his motivation. Why now? She risked a quick glance at her brothers’ faces. They were all watching her intently. They were utterly still. Their eyes had gone almost amber with the pupils fully dilated. It took every ounce of courage she possessed not to turn and run. “Now I’m grown, Remy. It’s a little too late to start wonderin’ about my life now. I’m tired and want to go to sleep. I’ll see you in the morning.” Not if she could help it. Remy stepped aside. She noticed they all inhaled as she walked by, trying to read scents off of her. She smelled like the swamp, but she hadn’t touched the dead body, just went close enough to shine her lit on it and see. “Sleep well, Saria,” Remy said. She closed her eyes briefly, just the simple gesture giving her another attack of nerves.THE wind moaned softly, an eerie, lonely sound. A snake slid from the low-hanging branches of a tupelo tree and plopped into the water, swimming away, no more than a ripple in the dark water. Overhead, dark clouds, heavy with rain, boiled in the evening heat.

Saria stepped from the pirogue to the rickety dock, pausing to inhale deeply while she cast a careful look around, studying the shore and grove of trees she had to walk through. Years earlier, one of the farmers had planted a Christmas tree farm that had never quite taken off, although the trees had. The town, small as it was, had grown to the edge of the farm, and the variety of cedar, pine and spruce trees were beautiful but had grown thick, creating a forest effect behind the cypress grove on the water’s edge. Moss hung in long silvery webs, swaying gently from the twisted cypress branches lining the river. The grove was fairly large, and with the gray mist spreading like a fine veil, the cypress trees lining the water appeared spooky and ghostlike. Behind that, the thicker farm trees loomed, a silent dark forest. Icy fingers crept down her spine as she stood there on the wooden planks, a good distance from civilization. Night often came fast to the river, and she had waited for her brothers to leave, checking on the fishing lines and crab pots before she took off to come to the mainland. All the while, she’d had the feeling someone was following her. She’d stayed in close to the banks of the river as much as she could. Someone—something— could have kept up with her and certainly could be ahead of her now. Her brothers had gone out in the bass boat, leaving her the old pirogue, which was fine with her as a rule, but something unseen in the night made her wish for speed. Lately she’d been uneasy and restless, her skin too tight as if it didn’t quite fit over her bones. Itching came in waves as something seemed to move beneath her skin. Her skull felt too large, and her jaw and mouth ached. Everything felt wrong, and perhaps that contributed to her gathering fear that she was being watched. Saria sighed, moistened dry lips and forced herself to take that first step toward the farm of trees. She could bypass it, but it would take time she didn’t have. Her brothers were going to be back and they’d be angry if they caught her going off by herself again. They’d been as edgy as she was, and to her dismay, had taken to checking up on her continually. The last couple of weeks the attention had grown worse until she felt as though she were a prisoner in her own home. She began walking, touching the knife strapped to her belt for reassurance. If someone—or something—truly was stalking her, she was prepared. She walked in silence, along the narrow path through the grove, toward the old church. Behind her and a little to her left a twig snapped, the sound overloud in the silence of the grove. Her heart began to pound. The mist thickened with each passing moment, slowly drawing a veil over the dark clouds and sliver of moon. The fog turned the crescent a strange, ominous red. She quickened her pace, hurrying through the variety of trees. Saria erged from the grove of Christmas trees straight onto a sidewalk leading through the small town just off the Mississippi River. A large holding wall helped to prevent flooding. Most of the land had been built up to help with the flooding as well. She walked quickly down the walkway along the river. The wind sent waves lapping at the wall and piers. She took another cautious look around but didn’t slow her pace. The church was just ahead, and she felt a pressing need to get inside. In spite of the night, the air was very hot and heavy with moisture, promising rain soon. She felt sweat trickle down between her breasts, but wasn’t certain if it was the oppressive heat or sheer fear. She breathed a sigh of relief when she gained the steps to the church. Deliberately she paused there, covering her hair with the lace wrap that had been her mother’s. While she did, she turned and surveyed the street. Quaint gaslights lit the street, glowing a strange yellow in the mist. She felt the weight of eyes watching her, but she couldn’t spot anyone overly interested in her. She turned her back to the street and walked up the steps to the church door. Right between her shoulder blades she felt an itch, and the hair on the back of her neck stood up. She pulled open the door and slipped inside, her heart pounding. The interior of the church was dimly lit. Shadows clung to the walls and created dark valleys between the empty pews. She dipped her fingers in holy water and made the sign of the cross as she walked slowly toward the confessional. The statues stared down at her with empty, accusing eyes. She had been here several times since she’d found the first body, but she couldn’t bring herself to confess, not even to Father Gallagher, not even now that there had been two more. She felt guilty, no doubt about it, although she’d tried to get help and that had only put her in danger. Now, the priest was her only hope—if she could get up the courage this time to ask him. She waited her turn, closed the confessional door and knelt on the small padded bench provided. She bowed her head.

THE darkness and privacy screen of the shadowy confessional prevented Father Gallagher from identifying which parishioner had just entered the small booth. He knew it was a woman by the faint fragrance of lavender and wild honey. The scent was extremely subtle, but, in the stifling heat of the confessional, the fragrance was a welcome change from the sweat that sometimes was faintly sickening. “Father,” the voice whispered. He leaned closer, alarmed by the note of desperation in her tone. Over the years he had learned to recognize real fear. “It’s Saria,” the voice continued. He knew Saria, had known her since she was a toddler. Bright. Intelligent. Not given to flights of fantasy. He had always known her to be a cheerful, hardworking girl. Maybe too hardworking. She came from a large family, like many of the Cajuns attending his church, but she had stopped coming to mass and confession years earlier. About six months ago, she had returned to confession—but not to the service—coming faithfully every week, but not confessing anything of importance that might have made her suddenly need to come back to the church. Her whispers made him think perhaps there had been another reason for her once again coming to the confessional. “Is everything all right, Saria?” “I need to slip a letter to you. It can’t be mailed from this parish, Father. I’ve tried, and the letter was intercepted. I was threatened. Can you get it out for me some other way?” Father Gallagher’s heart jumped. Saria had to be in trouble if she was asking such a thing, and he knew from long experience that the people in the bayou as well as up and down the river were hardworking, large clans that often kept troubles to themselves. She had to be desperate to come to him. “Saria, have you gone to the police?” “I can’t. Neither can you. Please Father, just do this for me and forget about it. Don’t tell anyone. You can’t trust anyone.” “Remy is a policeman, isn’t he?” he asked, knowing her eldest brother had joined the force years ago. He didn’t understand her hesitation, but he had a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach. His comment was met with silence. He sighed. “Give me the letter.” “I need your word as a man of God, Father.”