Shannon Riley's poetry, fiction and articles have been published in more than 300 magazines, anthologies and newspapers, including Gauntlet, Deathrealm, Eldritch Tales, Ideals and Stories of Fear III. In addition she has had her work featured on various websites, such as Art of Horror, Morbid Musings, Gothic.net and very soon Twilight Times. She is the author of five chapbooks - titles like The Enchanted Unicorn (a children's fantasy) and Beasts (horror). Shannon is also the editor and publisher of Southern Rose Productions, which she founded in March 1988. She lives on a three acre honeysuckle plantation in northeast Mississippi with her cocker spaniel Spooky, where she herds cats, and her dark poetry collection Yearning for Midnight will be out later on this year.
The bullet from the Winchester .30-06 shattered the coffee mug in Lily Carter's hand and sent shards of glass, deadly as shrapnel, flying in all directions. It kicked up a small puff of dust as it bored through layers of faded wallpaper before embedding itself in the wide oak plank of the shanty wall. Lily's husband, Moses, his mouth full of sausage and biscuit, stopped chewing and stared in astonishment. Blood, darker than the rich chocolate color of her skin, oozed from a half-dozen minute cuts on Lily's face and arms.
Chaos erupted outside breaking the stunned silence. Moses scrambled to the window just in time to see a huge white-tail buck deer, head thrown back and nostrils flaring, crash out of the pine thicket across the road, three baying hounds nipping at its legs. The deer cleared the road ditch in an easy bound, but seconds later, a second rifle blast halted its flight and brought it down.
Three orange-vested hunters burst from the woods. 'Got damn! I got 'em, boys,' a tall blond man, built like an ole Miss linebacker, yelled.
The deer lashed out with its hind feet, struggled to rise. Its soft brown eyes shone with panic and pain.
The man who had spoken tossed aside the gun he carried and whipped out his hunting knife, falling upon the wounded animal, slashing its throat. Seconds later dark blood pooled on the faded asphalt and the raw, coppery sweet odor mingled with the scent of wood smoke and cooking food on the crisp morning air. The deer gave one last futile kick and lay still.
Tom Warren stood up, breathing hard with excitement, and swiped the knife blade across his pants' leg. He looked down at his prize and grinned.
'All right!' Ned Griffin said, slapping him on the back.
Warren fished a silver flask out of his hunting coat pocket, offered it first to the man who had spoken and then took a long drink himself. Ignoring the small, swarthy black man who was with them, Warren stuck the flask back in his pocket.
'Henry,' he said, turning now to this man, 'go get the SUV and let's get this baby back to the lodge.'
He glanced toward the shanty and saw Moses staring from the window. 'Moses? Moses Carter! Get your black ass out here and earn your pay.'
Moses shook his head, exasperated, and gave Lily an apologetic look. Seeing that she was not badly hurt and that she had regained her composure enough to begin dabbing blood from the shallow wounds with the corner of her apron; Moses patted her shoulder affectionately. The he shoved open the door and stalked silently out to assist his employer.
'Careful with those antlers,' Warren said, as the men heaved the deer's carcass up over the hood of the muddy custom built four-wheel drive vehicle and secured it with rope. 'It's a twelve-pointer. Not bad, huh boys? This baby's head's going to look sweet hanging over my fireplace.'
'Damn, it's too bad you had to cancel the hunt tonight,' Ned Griffin said as they rode back to the lodge. 'I was looking forward to running my pup with your hounds. It's a shame, too, tomorrow being your birthday and all. Of course, if your old lady won't let you go....' Ned grinned.
'Helen says she's got a surprise of some sort planned for me tonight after the party,' Warren said. 'Hell, the way she's been on my ass to get married lately, it's probably a preacher with a shotgun.'
'Just be careful she don't slice off your balls and hang them in her trophy room, my friend.' Griffin laughed.
'Don't bet on it,' Warren answered. He thought of Helen Sanders and wondered how such a pretty piece of ass could turn into such a bitch. She hadn't been that way when he'd met her four years ago.
Helen had attended a party at the estate as the guest of his sister, Mildred. Warren had known he had to have her the moment he'd laid eyes on her. And he'd let nothing stand in the way; not Millie's objections, nor Helen's coy hesitation - not even the fact that she was another man's wife. 'I get what I want,' he told his sister. 'Always have, always will.'
'One day you just may get more than you bargained for, little brother,' Millie told him.
Warren wore down Helen's resistance with roses and diamonds and left his lawyers to deal with the prominent Memphis physician who was her husband. And in the end, Tom brought his prize back to Mississippi to stay, just as he'd predicted he'd do.
But Helen had no intention of becoming just another of Warren's trophies. She took an active part in managing the estate.
Of course, he remembered, it hadn't been so bad at first, and her porcelain skin and long platinum hair had made him the envy of every man in the country. And she had business savvy too, he grudgingly admitted. And hell, even the hands liked her.
Then again, they had reason to, the way she'd stayed on his ass until he repaired their houses and added a health care program to the employee benefits for the forty black men and their families who lived and worked full-time on the 30,000 acre estate.
Not that it hadn't been a good investment, of course. When Ben had been trampled by that new stallion last fall, the insurance had saved Warren money he would have had to pay out of his own pocket to cover Ben's back and hip surgery. And Moses here. Why, Helen had brought his wife into the main house and cared for her herself when Lily had had pneumonia.
What did piss Warren off, though, was how the hands had started treating Helen like she was the boss instead of him.
A woman ought to know her place, damn it.
But he had to admit that the estate ran more smoothly with her help, and that was why he'd let her talk him into signing an agreement (with his lawyer's approval, of course) that if he should become disabled or died, Helen would take over as manager of Forest Glenn. (Hell, in all honesty, he thought that agreement would be enough to satisfy her, and she would stay off his back about getting married.)
It hadn't been enough for her, though. Now four years later, she had issued an ultimatum: either Warren settle down and make their living arrangement legal or it was over. She'd given him until his birthday to make up his mind, and he had reluctantly agreed to announce the wedding tonight. The thought of surrendering his last shred of freedom left a bitter taste in his mouth.
'Hell, man,' Ned's voice broke into his thoughts. 'If you don't want to get married, why don't you just call it off? It's a free country, you know.'
'It's not that simple. Helen's threatened to sue me for half of everything I've got, if I don't go through with it. She'd probably get it too.'
'How could she do that?'
'Seems her lawyer found a clause that says in Mississippi a common law marriage is binding under certain conditions. And I wouldn't be surprised if my family didn't uphold her in it. You know how much the think of her. Especially Millie.'
Warren swung the truck off the road onto the paved drive that ran past the polo field and ended near the dog kennels behind the mansion.
'That's too bad.' Griffin said. He knew Mildred Warren only too well. Once when he and Tom were out partying, Millie and Helen had followed them to Memphis. At two o'clock in the morning, the two women had bullied and intimidated the motel keeper into giving them the key to Warren's suite. He and Warren had been entertaining two very drunken, very naked young dancers from the Kit Kat Club at the time. The ensuing scene almost made a teetotaler of Griffin.
'Looks like you're up shit creek without a paddle, old buddy,' Tom said. 'If Millie's got a hand in this, God Himself can't save you.'
'Well, sir, maybe not de Lawd, but...' Tom glanced over his shoulder at the two black men riding in the back seat of the Mercedes. Moses Carter dropped his head.
'What did you say?' Warren asked. He jerked the steering wheel of the vehicle sharply to the right, pulled over to the side of the road and killed the engine.
Moses kept his head down, his voice low and fearful. 'I know I'se out of line to say so, but if Master Warren don't want to be gettin' married, dey's way's o' gettin round it.'
Tom noted the man's submissive tone, his use of the word "master," a term from generations past when back before the Civil War Moses' great, great grandfather had been a slave belonging to Warren's own ancestor. Moses used the word only when he feared he might be treading on thin ice and wanted to retain his employer's favor.
Still Warren was intrigued by what the man said. 'Yeah? What kind of ways?' he asked.
'Lily's cousin. He might could help you.'
'How? With some kind of hoo doo?' Griffin sniggered.
'Be quiet, Ned,' Warren said. 'I want to hear what he has to say.' He turned to Moses. 'What about your wife's cousin?'
Moses glanced at Ned apprehensively. 'He's a Conjure man. Knows strong medicine.'
Warren had seen the mulatto, not one of the regular hands, but a strange man who came and went of his own accord. He was feared and respected by the blacks who lived on the estate, and it was rumored that he sometimes conducted bizarre ceremonies at night down on Red Row where the homes of the black employees were located. Warren had heard that chickens and goats were often sacrificed during these rituals.
Many of the blacks, decedents of slaves who had stayed on free men after the Civil War, still clung to traditions and customs that were part of their ancestral heritage. Warren's father and grandfathers had been wise enough not to interfere, but the employees' religious practices were a source of irritation to Warren and a running joke with his friends. He frequently threatened to put a stop to their services, and if not for Helen's pleas on their behalf, he would have already done so.
Deep inside, Warren, while not a religious man himself, had an uncomfortable feeling there might be more to the old beliefs than he cared to admit. And then, too, there was always the possibility that banning the religious ceremonies might cause some of his hands to leave. Moses himself had almost left once, disgruntled by Warren's iron rule, and only Helen's intervention had succeeded in convincing him and others to stay. Helen was always molly coddling the blacks, treating them like they were equals. Always wanting more pay and more benefits for them. It made him sick.
'Moses,' Warren said. 'I may be crazy, but I'm desperate enough to try anything. Tell Lily's cousin I want to see him right away. I'll wait for him at the Lodge.'
The trophy room at Forest Glenn mansion, the Lodge, as it was called, also served as Warren's office, and there he waited for the shaman. The room itself was like a museum. As big as a small house, it held Warren's prized specimens from his hunting expeditions all over the world. They were testimony to the prowess of the millionaire sportsman Africans called "The White God," but whom his tough, demanding father had called an irresponsible playboy. Splendid skins draped tables and chairs and an antique cabinet housed a collection of ivory from China and India.
Only here in this room among his treasures or riding at breakneck speed after the hounds did Warren feel free and whole. His freedom and the thrill of the hunt meant everything to Warren. It was his life and marriage to Helen would ruin everything.
She was just like his father and Millie. She wanted him to settle down and give up his frequent hunting expeditions, to turn Forest Glenn, now primarily a game preserve, back into a farming operation. 'I'd rather be dead,' Warren had told her.
He knew he was a disappointment to his family, but what did they know? He had a right to live his life any way he liked, to have what he wanted, to possess it, control it, and yet a mere woman thought she had a right to control him, to deprive him of his life and freedom. The thought seared his mind like a flame.
He rubbed his hand across the smooth pelt of an African lion and savored a delicious chill as he recalled racing after the beast across the cratered Kenyan plain.
A number of the trophies in the room were displayed in realistic settings. In one corner stood a musk ox, which he had killed in Greenland, and a life-like jaguar, shot in Mexico, gazed serenely from atop a high shelf. A huge polar bear, standing near the jaguar, caught his eye. 'Silver Star, my beauty,' he murmured, patting its muzzle.
Grimly Warren crossed the room to his gun cabinet. He unlocked the glass door and inspected his firearms one by one: the Holland & Holland double-barreled .470 Nitro Express; the Rigby bolt action .416; the pre-1964 Winchester .454 and the .375 H & H magnum. At one time or another, each one had tipped the scales in his favor when everything that mattered hung in the balance.
The .30-06 he had used in this morning's hunt lay on a nearby table waiting to be cleaned and polished before being returned to the cabinet.
If all else fails, he thought, there's still one way out of this mess. He picked up the gun and stoked the gleaming barrel. Never underestimate your prey, Helen, he thought. If you drive it into a corner, it can turn on you. Extracting a shell from his cartridge belt, he was about to slide it into the chamber when he heard the knock on the door.
'Ah, Mr. Warren. You wanted to see me?' asked the man who entered. The mulatto moved with catlike grace and an assurance that set him immediately apart from the estate workers.
'Have a seat, Mr-?' Warren said, indicating a ladder back chair near the fireplace.
'I am called Samedi,' the man answered. He smiled and Warren thought how strange it was that the firelight reflected in this man's eyes made them glow like embers.
'All right, Samedi. I'm a busy man so I'll get right to the point. Moses said you might be able to help me, as I will put it, evade the ties that bind. What do you suggest?'
Warren's guest settled into the chair, making himself comfortable. He gazed into the flames and stroked his bearded chin thoughtfully. 'Betraying a kind and beautiful woman is a deed not to be taken lightly.'
'The world is full of beautiful women. Can you help me or not?'
'Perhaps. For a price.'
'How much? Five thousand? Ten?'
'So. I see you are a man who assumes money can buy anything. Sometimes, Master Warren, the cost is greater than one can imagine.'
'Name your price and if you can get me out of this, it's yours.'
'Ah, sir, you fail to understand. Money is only one method of payment. The easiest one.'
'What do you want, Samedi? Tell me, or stop wasting my time. Or maybe you can't do anything? Is that it?'
Samedi's eyes locked on Warren's. Fires burned in their unfathomable depths. 'I will accept your first offer of five thousand dollars as partial payment. It is to be divided at once among the families of your neediest employees. The balance of payment is a turning of your own heart. Nothing more or less. For this you will avoid marriage and retain your right to hunt forever. But I must warn you, decide with care, for once you have agreed to my offer, there can be no turning back. To do so would bring grave consequences. Are you willing to make the sacrifice?'
'That's it?' Five thousand dollars was no sacrifice in light of Warren's millions. He'd distribute the money. Moses could tell him who needed help most and he'd easily take care of that detail. As for the change of heart, he had no idea what the man was talking about and cared less. 'Sure,' he said. 'It's a deal.'
Samedi smiled and handed him a small package. 'Good. This is what you must do...'
That night, chandeliers and diamonds sparkled and Champagne flowed. Lace covered tables were laden with roast beef, venison, country ham with all the trimmings and rich homemade pastries. Uniformed servers bustled everywhere and several Hollywood celebrities, a congressman and a lieutenant governor mingled with the more than two hundred other guests gathered at Forest Glenn to celebrate Tom Warren's birthday and forthcoming marriage.
The elegant clothes, the lavish entertainment, the magnificent ballroom in the antebellum mansion carried with it a sense of unreality as if it were a step backward in time, a scene from a photograph of the Old South a hundred and fifty years ago come to life.
Helen, stunning in a black silk evening dress, moved through the crowd, the perfect hostess, putting everyone at ease. Warren noticed with smug satisfaction that she still turned the head of every man present. He might not want her anymore, but it was nice knowing that he was the only one who could have her. The band struck up "Tennessee Waltz" and he took her hand and pulled her out onto the dance floor.
Moments later, Samedi, resplendent in tuxedo and tie, strode across the room toward them. 'May I cut in?' He bowed politely.
Warren's face flushed crimson. This wasn't part of the plan. Just because he and this black son of a bitch had an agreement... Warren jerked Helen back and stepped up into the man's face. 'I don't care who you are. No black bastard is going to dance with a white woman in my home. Get out of my house.'
The music stopped and people turned to stare.
Warren shoved Samedi, but the man grasped Warren's arms and held him as easily as if he had been a child. 'Perhaps the price was too high after all, was it not, Mr. Warren?' he said and smiled.
People began gathering around them and Samedi released Warren and walked out into the night.
Warren turned toward the bandstand. 'Let's hear some music, people. My friends came here to dance.'
Hours later, when the party was over and while Helen helped the houseguests settle in for the night, Warren retired to their room alone. He was still confused and angry by Samedi's actions. Who did he think he was anyway? Just because he'd made a deal with the man didn't mean he could pull a stunt like that. That was the trouble with those people; they didn't know their place.
Anyway, the plan no longer depended on Samedi's cooperation. Arrangements had already been made. A few hours ago, Warren had sent Moses to hand deliver letters to both his personal physician and his attorney - letters that outlined the plan and requested their assistance, in return for tidy sums, of course. They each had been his accomplices in questionable schemes before. They wouldn't let him down now. Money buys such good friends, Warren thought and a sarcastic smile crossed his lips.
Tomorrow, as Helen and his grieving family prepared for his closed casket funeral service, he would be on a jet bound for England, a new life and freedom.
All that remained for him to do was to swallow the drug Samedi had given him that afternoon during their first meeting. It was a potent muscle relaxant that produced a death-like trance so deep that no one, except a physician, could tell whether the person who had ingested it was alive or dead.
Warren unwrapped the package and palmed the two capsules it contained. He lifted his brandy snifter in a toast. 'Here's to freedom.' He smiled. Then added quickly, 'and to sacrifices made for it.'
Warren opened his eyes and found that he was no longer in his bedroom. He was disoriented. The contours of the room seemed familiar, yet somehow strange, muted and vaguely disturbing. He squinted his eyes and tried to focus more clearly, but the effort made him dizzy. Moonlight, streaming in through the tall bare windows to his left, lent a sense of intangibility to the scene before him. He could make out the stone fireplace at the far end of the room, the ladder-back chairs before it, and the trophies standing at various places around the room. The trophy room, his office, but something was wrong. A hundred eyes glowed in the shadows.
Directly before him he recognized the shape of a broad fleshing beam. Beside it, a staking beam, the kind used by taxidermists in the removal of the skin of large animals. He could make out the large metal bolts securing it to the floor. From an exposed beam overhead hung a skinning gambrel, moonlight glinting evilly on the razor-sharp meat hooks.
To the left of the fleshing beam, a table had been swept clear of pelts and now held a tray and numerous bottles of solution. Warren was reminded of a hospital operating room.
What was going on here?
Stay calm, he told himself. Either this is a nightmare or a hallucation from the drug that damned nigger gave me.
He struggled to move, but found himself completely paralyzed. He tried to scream for help, but could not make a sound. From the corner of his eye, he discerned that he was slumped back in one of his hardwood rockers. His right leg tingled where the edge of the seat restricted circulation, and his whole body felt scraped and raw.
Footsteps echoed in the corridor outside, and Warren tried again, unsuccessfully, to cry for help. Relieved, he heard the sound of the door opening.
The glare from the overhead lights momentarily blinded him, and when his eyes adjusted, Samedi, dressed now in the ceremonial robes of his native Haiti, stood before him. Moses and Henry, the black man who had accompanied Warren on the hunt the previous morning, were there as well. Warren studied the somber faces of the men and, realizing his own helplessness, a gnawing fear began to take hold in his mind.
Samedi crossed his arms and smiled. 'Ah, Master Warren, I see you have finished your nap. Perhaps now we can get on with the business at hand.'
Warren struggled again to force his unwilling limbs to obey him, but it was useless. Physical sensation, heightened to the most acute sense of awareness, coursed through his body and his mind was now perfectly clear, but his muscles refused to respond to his brain's commands. He was trapped inside his own body.
Samedi spoke, his voice low, deceptively soothing, as if he were explaining to a child. 'Our bargain was that I would help you to escape matrimony, was it not? And your desire, more than all else is to pursue the hunt forever? Am I not correct?'
Samedi selected a syringe from the tray on the table beside the fleshing beam and filled it from one of the bottles. Warren saw with mounting horror that the other bottles contained Pickles Neat-Foor Oil, carbolic acid and a variety of other solutions used in the tanning process. The gleaming metal tray held instruments designed for that very purpose: a broad-bladed butcher knife, two-handled draw bladed fleshing knives and slender, deadly sharp scalpels all ready for use.
'It's too bad you reneged on the second part of the payment. I'm keeping my part of the bargin, but now I have to make adjustments.'
Reneged? Adjustments? What was this crazy bastard talking about?
Samedi smiled again, almost sadly. I told you the monitary payment was the easy part. The change of heart was more than you were willing to pay.'
Warren felt the needle prick his useless right arm. 'Relax, that was only a double dose of amphetamines,' Samedi said. 'We wouldn't want you dozing off again and missing the thrill of the kill, now would we, Master Warren? Or should I call you "bwana" under the circumstances?
'I know all this must puzzle you. You would likely have expected me to sacrifice an animal on such an occasion. But you see, I am not only a brujo, I am a medical doctor in my own country, and I have a greater sacrifice in mind.
'In any case,' Samedi said, motioning his companions to step forward, I know you will appreciate being awake to experience the one part of the hunt you have never had opportunity to fully participate in. The grand finale, if you will.'
Moses and Henry stood on either side of his chair now, waiting, as Samedi continued. 'Look around you, my friend. Here are the prize specimens of your greatest hunts.' He gestured toward the polor bear and the jaguar crouched overhead.
Warren knew he must be imagining it, but the jaguar's tail seemed to twitch, its lips curl back from its snarling mouth. And there. Yes. He was sure of it. The bear's stance had changed. His heart hammering in his chest as if to burst, Warren watched in horror as Silver Star reared, ready to charge. A trickle of saliva oozed from its mouth.
'A magnificent collection,' Samedi continued. 'But there is one thing missing, one more trophy needed to make this display complete, truely unique. The hunted - and the Great White Hunter. Do you not agree, bwana?'
And as they dragged Warren forward, his naked body readied to be hung, feet first, from the skinning gambrel, in his hot, maddened brain, he somehow understood the rightness of it and agreed that it was so.
(C) Shannon Riley 2002
© Paul Kane 2003-2017. All rights reserved. Materials (including images) may not be reproduced without express permission from the author.