[The Devil’s Due is now available in paperback, Kindle, and NOOK formats. To celebrate, here’s a sneak preview, which will continue at about 1,000 words per day for the next few days. Enjoy!]
The air was muggy and damp, as if it had just rained. The ground was squishy under Jill Matthews’s bare feet. The mist began to clear, but her mind still buzzed as she fought off sleep.
“Take your time,” the woman said. “I don’t mind.”
She had heard the voice before. But what was she talking about?
In another second, she realized where she was. New Orleans. Gethsemane Cemetery. Above-ground crypts and mausoleums stretched out in every direction, punctuated by trees and religious statues. The pressure in her head got stronger. She shivered and let where she was standing sink in. She looked around, not frantic but curious. Before she saw it, she knew it had to be there.
Of course. It was right in front of her. Her Pawpaw’s crypt.
“Wh-why have you brought me here?” she said. “Who are you?”
“All in good time” was the woman’s only answer.
A small bouquet of flowers appeared in Jill’s hand as if by magic. She gasped and stared at them.
“Go ahead,” the woman said. Tentatively, the girl bent down and set the flowers in the stone vase provided.
As she rose, she spotted where the voice was coming from. The woman was seated on a stone bench only a few paces away underneath a statue of an angel. Her black hair blew free in the gentle breeze, as did her flowing green gown. Her fair, slender arms gleamed in the gray, predawn light. She smiled. There was no question she was very pretty, but something about her seemed a little too perfect. Her fierce dark eyes were brighter than should have been possible. Her voice had been just a bit too silky. With every word, she seemed to exude a subtle power that communicated she was not someone to be trifled with.
Jill slowly approached.
“What do you want?” She was tired of games. Scared and disoriented as she was, she wanted answers.
“Only to help you, my dear. Only to help you.”
“By bringing me here? To my grandfather’s grave? My parents—”
The woman laughed. “Darling, you have much to learn. Look around.” She gestured regally. “Pay close attention.”
The girl took in her surroundings. This was definitely the cemetery where her grandfather was buried, but something wasn’t right. The birds in the trees sang harmonies she had never heard before. The air exuded the slightest hint of spice. The color of the slowly brightening sky was ever so slightly off.
“This is some kind of dream.”
“Yes…and no,” the woman said. “This place does exist, I assure you. You’ve simply never seen it from this…ah…angle before. Graveyards usually exist in the Wonder as well as Top- side where you people build them. That is especially true in a place as full of magic as New Orleans.”
“I-I don’t understand. What are you talking about?” She set her hands on her hips. “And what do you mean, ‘you people’?” No, this white woman didn’t really go there, did she?
“No offense intended, my dear,” she said with a smile, and Jill couldn’t help but believe her. Her voice was so compelling… “Everything will become clear soon enough. But as I was saying, this is New Orleans—after a fashion. And you are quite right: it is also a dream.”
“‘Such stuff as dreams are made on,’ perhaps. Although I am quite real, I assure you. I thought it would be helpful for us to meet in a place like this, a place you hold close to your heart.” The woman leaned forward. Her eyes flashed once more.
“I’ve brought you here to warn you, child.”
The girl shuddered. “Warn me?”
The woman nodded.
“You are only now beginning to awaken to your potential. It can be a disorienting experience with no one to guide you.” Jill’s neck-hairs got fidgety. Something in the pit of her stomach told her this dream, or whatever it was, was about to get worse.
“Oh, you may not know in your head what’s coming, but I’ll bet you can feel it in your heart just the same. You’ve always been quite perceptive, haven’t you?”
Something shifted in Jill’s vision, like the shimmer of air over the pavement on a hot summer day. All at once, the trees seemed to grow wilder, twisting in tortured angles. It was as if the cemetery were in a haunted forest and not in the middle of a major American city. She suddenly felt exposed, vulnerable in her nightclothes.
She became aware of movement all around her—dark figures darting about, hiding behind the crypts and grave markers. As soon as she locked eyes on one, it was gone. There must have been a dozen of them, some large, some small. They slithered and skittered among the tombs, whispering to one another in the shadows.
“There’s no telling what you may see when your mind is fully opened to the Wonder,” the woman said.
“I-I want to go home.”
“Of course, child,” she said. “Go home to your family, your friends. But in time, you’ll realize that you need what I can offer you. When you do, I’ll be there.” She smiled broadly. “I promise.”
Jill sat up in bed, breathing heavily, sweating like she had just run a mile. Her alarm clock said 5:03. It took her a min- ute to convince herself of where she was—her grandmother’s house, in the guest bedroom at the end of the upstairs hall.
Every time she had the dream, it had gotten worse. More vivid. More like something real.
There was a quiet knock at her door.
“Jill? Are you okay?”
It was William, her twin brother.
“Go back to bed,” she said in a shaky voice.
Instead, he cracked the door open. “I heard you from the bathroom,” he whispered. “Are you okay? Have you been crying?”
“No,” she said. She wiped a tear from her cheek.
“You can’t lie to me, sis,” William said. “You never could. Something’s wrong.” He stepped into the room.
She decided to take a chance. She switched on the lamp on her bedside table, drew her legs up under her, and patted the side of her bed. William sat down next to her.
“Did you ever have a dream that seemed so real you’d swear it really happened?”
“Only, it couldn’t have happened, because…there were things in the dream that…that just couldn’t happen in real life?”
“You mean, like a nightmare?”
“Worse than a nightmare.”
“What’s up, Jill? You sound serious.”
“It’s probably nothing,” she said. “It’s just…It was so real. It was like I was there.”
“It’s just your imagination,” William said. “Like all those times you thought somebody was spying on you and Taylor.” Jill was suddenly wide-awake. What if somebody was spying on her and her best friend?
“You know, Danny Underhill never came back to school,” she said.
“What’s Danny Underhill got to do with anything?”
“Maybe nothing, but you’ve got to admit, it was weird for a kid to transfer into school in February and then transfer back out in April. They said his dad’s company moved him around a lot, but to only spend three months in Macon? That’s just ridiculous.”
“Jill, I know you never liked Danny, but do you really think he’s part of some kind of conspiracy to spy on you? And how in the world is he supposed to track you all the way to New Orleans?”
“You’re right,” she said, defeated. “That would be crazy… But you’ve got to admit, right before he left town was when Taylor started acting strange.”
“I remember,” William said, shaking his head. “Being all polite to her teachers. Flirting with all those guys…”
“You know she still thinks you’re a dork, right?” Jill scolded. William blushed.
Jill resumed her train of thought. “And then, just when Danny left, she went back to being herself. Only, not really. She was…I don’t know…not right. One minute she was looking over her shoulder like somebody was coming to get her. Then she was walking around in a daze. I don’t know how she ever finished the school year like that.”
“Since when has Taylor Smart ever cared about school?”
“Yeah, well, she was acting weird, even for her. And now, every time I go over to her house, she keeps looking at me funny. Like there’s something she wants to tell me. You ask me, some- thing happened to her last month. I’ve got a bad feeling Danny did something to her….”
In her mind, Jill pictured her former classmate, his bushy eyebrows, his curly black hair, the weird way his eyes glowed yel- low when he was startled or embarrassed. Those eyes reminded her a little too much of something from her dream.
“Listen, let’s just get back to sleep. Okay? You had a bad dream, and you’re worried about your friend, and both things got all jumbled up in your head.”
“Besides, Germaine and Tonya are coming tomorrow.”
That, at least was a pleasant thought. As soon as their cousins arrived, they’d have kids their age to hang out with for the rest of the weekend.
“Thanks for listening.”
“What are brothers for?” he said. “This time tomorrow, the only thing you’ll be dreaming about is having another bowl of Maymay’s jambalaya.”
“You’re not too bad—as brothers go. You know that?” She tossed a pillow at him. “Now get out of my room!”
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