Chapter OneSarah Bayou, Louisiana 1:05 a.m. October 4
The flatboat glided slowly through the bayou.
Too slowly, Jules Hebert thought tensely. He had deliberately chosen a flatboat rather than a motorboat because it would be less obtrusive at this time of night, but he had not counted on this case of nerves.
Keep calm. The church was just up ahead.
"It will be fine, Jules," Etienne called softly as he wielded the oars. "You worry too much."
And his brother, Etienne, didn't worry enough, Jules thought in despair. Ever since childhood it had been Jules who was the serious one, the one who had to accept the responsibility while Etienne ambled along through life with endearing blitheness. "You arranged for the men to be waiting at the church?"
"And you told them nothing?"
"Only that they would be paid well for the work. And I parked the motorboat to bring them where you told me to."
"It will all go very easily." Etienne smiled. "I promise you, Jules. Would I let you down?"
Not intentionally. The affection between them was too strong. They had been through too much together. "No offense. Just asking, little brother." Jules stiffened as he saw the dark looming silhouette of the ancient stone church in the faint moonlight as they rounded the corner. It had been deserted for over ten years and exuded dampness and decay. His gaze flew to the sparsely scattered plantation houses on either side of the bayou.
No one. No sign of anyone stirring.
"I told you," Etienne said. "Luck is with us. How could it be otherwise? Fortune is always on the side of the right."
That had not been Jules's experience, but he wouldn't argue with Etienne. Not tonight.
Jules jumped out of the boat as they reached the landing, and the four men Etienne had hired streamed onto the boat.
"Be careful with it," Jules said. "For God's sake, don't drop it."
"I'll help them." Etienne leaped forward. "Christ, it's heavy." He put his massive shoulder beneath one corner. "On the count of three."
With great care they lifted the huge black coffin onto the landing.
Lake Cottage Atlanta, Georgia
Eve Duncan woke with a start, her heart pounding.
"What is it?" Joe Quinn asked drowsily. "Something wrong?"
"No." Eve swung her feet to the floor. "I just had a bad dream. I think I'll get a glass of water." She moved to the bathroom. "Go back to sleep."
Good heavens, she was actually shaking. How stupid could she get? She splashed water on her face and took a few sips of water before going back into the bedroom.
The lamp on the nightstand was on and Joe was sitting up in bed. "I told you to go back to sleep."
"I don't want to go to sleep. Come here."
She went into his arms and cuddled close. Safety. Love. Joe. "Want to make love?"
"The thought occurred to me. Maybe later. Right now, I want to know about your nightmare."
"People do have bad dreams, Joe. It's not that uncommon."
"But you haven't had one in a long time. I thought you were over them." His arms tightened around her. "I want them to be over."
She knew he did, and she knew he tried desperately to give her the security and contentment that he thought would rid her of them. But Joe should know better than anyone that the nightmare would never entirely go away. "Just shut up and go back to sleep."
"Was it about Bonnie?"
"No." Eve felt a ripple of guilt. Someday she had to tell him why the dreams of Bonnie were no longer painful. But not yet. Even after this last year with him, she still wasn't ready. Someday.
"The new skull? You've been working hard on it. Maybe too hard?"
"I'm almost done. It's Carmelita Sanchez, Joe. I should be able to notify her parents in a couple days." Then there would be closure and, perhaps, peace for them. "And you know my work never brings me anything but satisfaction. No bad dreams there." Just sadness and pity and a driving passion to bring the lost ones home. "Stop probing. Bad dreams don't have to have deep psychological implications. This was just a crazy, disjointed ... It was probably something I ate. Jane's pizza was a little too rich for ..."
"What was it about?"
Joe wasn't going to give up. He would pick at the subject until everything was out in the open. "A coffin. Okay? I was walking toward this coffin, and it scared me."
"Who was in the coffin?" He paused. "Me? Jane?"
"Stop trying to read something into it. It was a closed coffin."
"Then why were you scared?"
"It was a dream. For heaven's sake, I deal with dead people every day of my life. It's perfectly natural I should have an occasional macabre ..."
"Why were you scared?"
"Drop it. It's over." She pulled his head down and kissed him. "Stop being a protective ass. The only therapy I want from you right now is strictly physical."
He went still, resisting. Then he relaxed and moved over her. "Well, if you insist. I suppose I'll have to be a gentleman and let you seduce me."
Eve was surprised. She knew how stubborn Joe could be. She smiled and gently tugged at his hair. "Damn right, you will."
"We'll talk about the coffin later...."
The coffin was in place in the altar of the church.
Jules bent to check the pedestal beneath it to make sure it was sturdy enough to bear the weight of the specially reinforced airtight coffin. He'd had it built to his own specifications and had been assured there would be no problem, but it was his responsibility and he was determined not to fail. Nothing must damage the coffin's precious contents.
"I've paid them off. They're on their way back," Etienne said from the doorway. He came toward Jules, his gaze fixed on the coffin. "It looks so strange there.... We did it, didn't we?"
Jules nodded. "Yes, we did it."
Etienne was silent a moment. "I know you were angry with me, but now you understand, don't you?"
"Yes, I understand."
"Good. Well, here it is. We did it together." Etienne put his arm affectionately around Jules's shoulders. "It gives me a good feeling. You, too?"
"No." Jules closed his eyes as the pain surged through him. "Not a good feeling."
"Because you worry too much. But it's over now."
"Not quite." Jules opened eyes that were full of tears. "Have I ever told you how much I love you, what a good brother you've been to me?"
Etienne laughed. "If you had, I would have been the one who was worried. You're not a man who ..." His eyes widened in shock as he saw the gun in his brother's hand. "What are you ...?"
Jules shot him in the heart.
Disbelief was frozen on Etienne's face as he fell to the floor.
Jules couldn't believe it, either. Dear God, let him take that moment back.
No, for he would only have to do it again.
Jules fell to his knees beside Etienne and gathered him in his arms. Tears ran down his face as he rocked him back and forth. Little brother. Little brother ...
Control. He had one other task to perform before he could allow himself to grieve. The motorboat taking the men away from the church should be out of the bayou and on the widest part of the river by now.
He fumbled in his pocket for the switch and pressed the red button. He could not hear the explosion, but he knew it had happened. He had set the charge himself and he never allowed himself to make a mistake. There would be no survivors and no evidence.
It was done.
Jules turned back to Etienne and tenderly brushed the hair from his forehead. Sleep, little brother. He prayed Etienne was at peace. He was glad it was too dim in the church to see the shock and pain frozen on Etienne's face.