Viper Game – Christine Feehan

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’s voice 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.

.

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