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Karin Slaughter, Emma Donoghue, Peter Robinson, Fidelis Morgan, Lynda La Plante, Lee Child, Mark Billingham, Denise Mina, John Harvey,. Kelley Armstrong, John Connolly, Jane Haddam, Laura Lippman, Peter Moore Smith, Jerrilyn Farmer, Jerrilyn Farmer

Like A Charm

© 2004

For Random House UK – My publishers, my friends

ROOTBOUND by Karin Slaughter

Blood Mountain, Georgia, 1803

Macon Orme was so hungry when he found the squirrel caught in the snare trap that he ate it with his bare hands. The hot rush of blood hitting his stomach was like poison, but he swallowed the fatty meat past the gag that wanted to come, the squirrel's razor-like claws cutting into the sides of his face as he gorged himself on the sweet meat of the creature's underbelly.

Satiated, he fell back against a rock, his breathing coming in pants, the lingering taste of the squirrel sticking in the back of his throat like molasses. His stomach made a churning sound, and he put his hand there as if to quiet it. He could feel the blood dripping down his chin and caught it with his sleeve, hoping the dark material of his shirt would not show the mark of his sin.

'I'm sorry,' he said, an apology that would never be heard to the man who had set the snare.

Three days had passed since he had stood at the poctaw, the wishing circle of the Elawa. Hallucinations came easily with hunger, and when Macon closed his eyes he was sitting there again. He could smell the smoke from the fire, feel dark hair brushing against his bare arm. The woman had stood before him, half naked and gyrating in some dance that obviously had a religious meaning for her people but in Macon had only brought out burning lust. He squeezed his eyes shut, thinking about being inside her, feeling the gyrations first hand. So many years had passed since he had lain with a woman without having to pay first. So many years had disappeared into the quagmire of his mountain existence. When he thought of her beneath him, his balls ached with anticipation, even as a cold winter wind snapped through the trees.

Macon stood because he had to. He felt a flash of guilt for breaking his self-imposed fast, but three days without nourishment was a lifetime to a man whose belly was all too familiar with the pains of hunger. Bad fortune had made him go without food before, but it seemed like every time he thought of the woman his body demanded more nourishment than it had ever needed before. If he did not want her so much, he would hate her.

As if they sensed his need, animals seemed to taunt him, running across his path, veering in and out of his line of sight. A deer stood in the forest, eyeing him carefully, as if searching Macon 's soul. A rabbit followed him for a mile at least, slowly hopping in Macon 's footsteps, pausing now and then to clean its face. Most of his life had been spent trapping these beasts in the hundreds: laying snares and steel traps that cut so deep sometimes there would be an amputated paw waiting instead of a full-sized jackrabbit when he checked on his weekly rounds. Other times, he would see the teeth marks in the stubbed end of bone where they had gnawed off their own limb in order to free themselves. These were cunning animals, bent on survival. Macon gave them his respect because he saw in them something he saw in himself. He would survive.

Though he found himself of late wondering what this survival cost him. He had not seen a looking glass in many years, but often Macon would see his own reflection in a stream when he stopped for water. Age had descended harshly. White grew into his beard, and when he thought to comb his fingers through his hair chunks would come out in his hand, the roots sticking up like tiny fragments of his youth.

There had been a time when vanity had been second nature to Macon Orme. He had oiled his hair and done it proper with the bone comb that had once belonged to his father. Saturdays he had bathed before the weekly dance, where he would hold the neighbour's daughter close to his chest, smell the musky scent of her, dream of pressing his hips into hers. Sundays he had worn a starched collar that chafed his neck, pants that showed a fine crease down the front. He had kept a watch in his pocket on a slender silver chain. Macon Orme had been a farmer, a man concerned with the passage of time. Then the Muscogee came and destroyed the farm. The Indians were merciless. They stole the horses and gave his mother such a fright that she grabbed her chest and fell dead to the ground. They razed the crops and what they could not carry away on horseback they burned. They took it all like it belonged to them.

Macon punched his fist into his thigh. Here he was, fifteen years later, making a fool of himself for some dark-skinned heathen; the same sort of heathen who had birthed the bastards who took his farm. That farm would have been Macon 's inheritance. He would have had something to give the neighbour's daughter, something to lure her into letting him press his hips into hers for real. He would have given her a child – many children. They would have grown old together but for that day when everything had been taken away from him.

And yet, he longed for the Indian woman in a way he had never known. He dreamed about her, tasted her in his sleep. Even before he had happened upon their camp three days ago, Macon had felt a tugging at his chest, as if a string had been looped round his heart and something – someone – was pulling him towards her. That last night before he found their small settlement, a powerful burning in his chest had awakened him, and he had abandoned his camp and stumbled up the hill towards the woman without even knowing why.

She'd stood there at the peak, wind blowing her wild black hair. Fire of a colour he had never seen spat up in front of her, the smoke climbing lazily into the night air. Macon inhaled, and the burning in his chest calmed with each deep breath. Peace came over him, and he crouched in front of the fire like a heathen and watched her dance.

'O-cko-wanee-ki,' she sang, her voice husky and without any particular music. Her skin was dark as pitch; hairless and smooth.

A gold chain trickled out either side of her fisted hand, and she held it over the fire, inches from the flame, so close that a sweat broke out over Macon 's body just watching her. Slowly, she let out the chain, mumbling incomprehensible names for the small charms attached to the bracelet.

'A-shownee,' she said. Bear.

'Coskoo,' she said. Monkey.

Six charms slid out of her hand, snaking closer and closer to the fire. Macon watched, his mouth open, smoke wafting into his lungs, as a golden bear dangled over the flames. The detail was astounding, the creature almost lifelike as the flames licked up and down the side. He could see every part of the animaclass="underline" the soft fur, the needle-thin claws, the pads of its one open paw as it stood on hind legs to strike. Macon leaned closer to the strange fire, hypnotized by the tiny red jewel at the centre of the bear's chest.

Hours might have passed, but Macon did not notice. The woman danced in a circle round the fire in all her naked glory. She twirled and leaped until the moon hid behind the mountaintops, and then she stopped as suddenly as it all had started, again dangling the bear out over the roaring fire. Her head jerked up suddenly, and she stared at him – right into him. Macon felt every muscle in his body tense, his bones aching from the pressure. He was panting; his head started to spin.

She chanted something under her breath, so low that even straining he could not hear her. Something flashed in the deep, dark black of her eyes and she held out her hand, the bracelet in her palm. Macon could see the charms, but his mind gave no name to any of them but the bear dangling at the end. This last charm she held swaying over the fire, so close her skin must have burned, yet she did not flinch.