He stood at the end of the old jetty that lurched out into the bayou. The water was dark and oily-looking where she’d gone through the scum of green algae, but he could see her down there,
a vague white shape in the blackness.
He had no idea how long he’d been standing there — he’d left his watch in the car and it seemed as if time had somehow remained with it, back along the twisting narrow path through the scrub-oak and cypress. Thoughts of the past and the present and the future tangled inside him, slashing and churning through his mind like shards of glass and roiling thunderclouds.
The woman began to move beneath the water — languidly, as if awakening from a long sleep.
She arched her back in a slow stretch.
Then a leg kicked out, jerked back, kicked again. Then was still.
The sky had begun to purple with the coming night, and the thick syrupy air of the bayou was filled with shrilling crickets and burping frogs. He was aware of these sounds, but only vaguely. They were something he sensed rather than actually registered. Something peripheral.
All his concentration was focused down into the water.
Mosquitoes swarmed around him but seemed reluctant to land. It was as if his body heat drew them close but then something — some pheromone he was throwing off perhaps — acted as a repellent.
On the far side of the bayou a clump of dead cypress thrust bleached, limbless forms from the black water, their buttressed trunks like the flared robes of silent priests. And crowding in from the sides, the twisted limbs of living trees, thrown into silhouette by the departing sun, dripped streamers of Spanish moss.
There was a swirl in the water. The crickets and frogs fell silent.
Down on the bottom, the woman gave a sudden twitch, was still again, then her movements began to speed up; becoming animated and jerky — a marionette controlled by a drunken puppeteer. She came rushing to the surface and broke through in a welter of spray, gobbets of green scum streaming from her hair and shoulders.
With head thrown back, bare breasts thrust out and arms trailing beside her she was like the figurehead of a clipper-ship buffeting through a heavy sea. And in that brief second, she became his lover again — eyes closed, mouth opened in a cry of pleasure. The sheer beauty of the scene seemed to throw everything into slow motion and he felt a stab of pain for something lost.
But it was no more than a flash — a fleeting millisecond before the gnarled jaws of the alligator speared into view, clamped around her waist. Those cruel teeth puckering her flesh wrenched the scene back to its reality — switching her silent cry of ecstasy to one of horror.
At that same instant, his sense of loss ceded to something primitive and compelling that sent a wicked shiver along his spine.
The woman rose higher until her legs and feet cleared the water and she paused, seemingly gripped by the cloying air of the bayou. In that brief frozen moment, he saw how her legs and torso had been ripped and gouged, and the torn flesh at the side of her neck.
Then, as the air released its grip and she began to fall back, the jaws of a smaller alligator shot into view and clamped onto her left leg, jerking it savagely sideways at an impossible angle.
The woman and her two suitors splashed back in a welter of spray and were swallowed by the dark water. The surface of the swamp swirled, was broken briefly by the thrash of a scaly tail then settled back to oily stillness. Soon after, the creatures of the night resumed their shrilling and rustling and croaking.
Now, suddenly, these sounds came loud to his ears and he shook his head.
Had he been dreaming? The darkness was almost complete now. What was he doing there?
A vague memory of the afternoon came back to him and he realized it wasn’t a dream. A dizziness came over him, and he had to struggle for breath and consciously fight off the blackness that threatened to engulf him.
But then, just seconds later, he was bathed by the light of perfect clarity. He heard wild laughter pouring out across the night and realized it was coming from him — surging from his throat — primal and fierce. And he felt himself become as one with all that was around him.
Power coursed through his veins and his laughter and strength owned the swamp.
And when he wanted silence, he cut off the laughter and the night held its breath. All the scuttling, crawling creatures around him were still. He controlled them with his will, just as he controlled those creatures below the surface, and he thrilled to the glory and magnitude of what he’d created. This was his play — something he alone had brought into being — and it had turned out to be a hundred times greater than his wildest expectations.
He’d called for a wind and unleashed a hurricane.
Again, the water before him swirled then went still. Although he could no longer see her, he knew what would be happening down there in the darkness — those ragged teeth playing with her soft naked flesh.
Suddenly the surface erupted in a fountain of spray as the woman came punching through for the second time. Now she was twisted sideways in the alligator’s mouth, her back bent unnaturally as if something inside her had broken. And as the huge beast rose from the water it shook her violently in its efforts to free her from the smaller one that clung doggedly to her lower leg. The motion made her arms flail wildly, slapping at the jaws that gripped her as if she were making a last pathetic attempt to free herself.
Then, with a horrible wrenching crack, the left leg shredded off at the knee and the smaller alligator eased down into the murk with its prize.
The larger one sank back briefly then rose again with the remains of the woman as if flaunting its victory. The eyes of the man were drawn to the knee that ended in shreds of flesh hanging down like torn scraps of clothing, and that savage tingle of pleasure passed through him yet again, the taste of her springing fresh to his memory.
The cold eye of the alligator fell upon him and he shivered as he felt something pass between them — a primeval thread of understanding it seemed — just before the great gnarled head twisted away and sank beneath the water for the final time.
For a long while he stood there on the dock, holding on to what he had. He knew when he left that place, his strength would remain there, and he would become vulnerable again.
And so it was.
When he turned and walked back along the creaking boards and onto the narrow path that led to where he’d left the car, the euphoria and power drained away to be replaced by a terrible sense of doom.
It was then that he made up his mind to leave. For his own survival he would have to make a change.
He knew the problem wasn’t just Louisiana and New Orleans — part of it had to be him. But surely the decadence of that place had something to do with it.
Maybe he could fight it if he made a fresh start.
Thursday, September 20
A gusty wind rattled rain against the window as Detective Doug McKenna sat in his office flipping idly through the pages of a month-old Newsweek. It was eight pm on a cold September evening — time for him to head home. But instead, he remained seated at his desk apathetically skimming through the old magazine.
It wasn’t so much a reluctance to go home that kept McKenna at his desk, more a matter of indifference. He let out a deep sigh. Sooner rather than later, in deference to Marion and the supper she would have prepared, he’d have to make the move — put on his coat and drive through the rain to his neat, two-story brick house in Leaside.
With its leaded bay window, high gabled roof and the two mature oaks standing sentinel on the front lawn it was one of the more handsome dwellings on the street. But inside it felt hollow. Inside, there was only desultory conversation and the constant babble of a television that was seldom at rest.
McKenna felt more content in his small downtown Toronto office with its cluttered desk and walls studded with photographs testifying to his twenty-four years of police service. Unlike the television at home, the racket of the station — the raised voices, the obscenities, the constant shrilling of phones — was real.
He still loved Marion in some vague fashion, but it was an indifferent love — a love based on habit rather than any strong feelings or even closeness. The simple fact was that the years had taken them in two entirely different directions and they had little in common any more.
At forty-three McKenna was a good-looking man, thickening a little around the middle perhaps, but not going to fat. He had a squarish, solid face with a determined mouth and cleft, resolute chin — a reliable face. His most distinguishing feature was a scar that crossed the bridge of his nose and curved down his left cheek — the result of a bar-fight with a drunken Irishman he’d been attempting to arrest during his first year on the force. His eyes were a startlingly deep shade of blue that, depending on his mood, would darken to storminess or soften to a placid calm.
Right now, they were disinterested eyes that drifted over the magazine while the detective’s mind wandered back to his early years on the force. It seemed like yesterday and a hundred years ago at the same time. He remembered clearly the enthusiasm he’d felt back then. He couldn’t recall when the lethargy and cynicism had begun to set in.
A piece in the magazine caught his eye — a one-column article reporting the death of two men when their small plane crashed some sixty miles north-west of New Orleans in the vast Atchafalaya Swamp. It was the name of the swamp that drew him to the article. He and Marion had gone on an airboat tour of the place during one of their vacations.
The aircraft — which happened to be loaded with two hundred kilograms of cocaine — had ploughed into the bank of a remote bayou, killing its pilot, passenger, and a large alligator in its underground lair.
As well as the bodies of the pilot and passenger, investigators found part of a mangled human skull along with other human bones — an apparent victim of the huge reptile. Dental records had subsequently confirmed the skull to be that of Joelle Bouchard, aged twenty-three, who had been reported missing in early June.
The article went on to mention that Bouchard had worked as a bartender in the French Quarter during the week and wrestled alligators at a tourist park on weekends. “It was highly unlikely,” a police spokesperson was quoted as saying, “that she would attempt to wrestle an alligator in such a desolate area.”
The authorities were treating Bouchard’s disappearance and subsequent death as suspicious.
McKenna leaned back in his chair and turned his head to the rain-streaked window where the lights of the building opposite blurred in the spatters and runnels. His mouth puckered in concentration as he tapped idly at his chin with a pencil he’d been holding.
He considered himself a practical man, not given to belief in the occult, or premonitions, or anything else of that nature, but for some reason the article assumed an importance he couldn’t fathom. It had no connection to anything he was working on at the time or had been in the past, but the dead woman seemed to jump off the page at him.
The pencil tap, tap, tapped on McKenna’s chin as he pictured the skull lying crushed and broken in that dank underground lair. Had the woman been dead when the alligator took her, or had she thrashed out her last terrifying moments in its jaws? He gave an involuntary shudder. The latter scenario didn’t bear thinking about.
There must be hundreds of missing persons out there in Louisiana’s swamps and bayous, maybe even thousands, the detective surmised. Gangsters who’d dropped their guard for a fatal moment. Drug runners who’d screwed up a deal. And innocent folk who simply met the wrong person at the wrong time. But those other ghosts didn’t haunt him — only that of the woman who wrestled alligators.
Joelle Bouchard was to hover in the back of McKenna’s mind right up to the time when her killer’s identity became known to him. But by this time, he had come to accept that not all aspects of the human mind could be explained by logic. That prescience, and sixth sense, and other strange phenomena did in fact exist.