The predator unsheathed her claws to slash into the unresisting body and rip out the still-beating heart. A howl of agony, quickly silenced, tore the stillness. A geyser of blood gleamed black in the firelight.
The creature lowered its head and lapped with delicate precision.
The cry ripped through Charley’s senses and dragged her back to semi-consciousness. A sharp, metallic taste lingered in her mouth and her pillow felt damp.
Disoriented, she stared around. The distinctive scent of sun-warmed canvas filled her nostrils. Outside, birds and insects continued their afternoon serenade. Her memory returned in a hurry. After lunch she’d headed to her tent for a nap.
For less than a moment, fragments of the dream flickered across her memory. Recognition hovered at the edge of consciousness before fading. Too exhausted to puzzle over a dream, she flopped back and curled into a protective ball.
Sleep returned in an instant.
She dozed until an inhuman outcry tore apart the breathless afternoon stillness.
Heart thundering in her ears she bolted upright in her cot. She felt the blood leave her face. “Dear God,” she whispered.
Trembling under the thin sheet, she listened to the whirring of wings as a flock of birds took to the air screeching their alarm. The brief flurry of activity culminated in an ominous silence. Another piercing yowl rang out. It was followed by a prolonged shriek that faded away in a series of agonized squeals, squeaks, and bleats.
She sprang up and darted from her tent in time to see a pair of toucans burst from the jungle canopy to flap their way to safety. A passing student narrowly averted their head-on collision by grabbing her arm.
It occurred to her she might still be in the throes of a nightmare. She made an effort to get a grip on herself. “What is that God-awful racket?” She heard the slight quaver in her voice.
A broad grin split the student’s bearded face. “Chill, babe,” he reassured her. “This is my second year of suffering. You never really get used to the boss’ bagpipes, but the shock fades.”
Her brain whirled as she tried to make sense of the words. “Say what?”
“Kincaid is letting off some steam. He claims it helps him find clarity to solve a problem.”
She felt her lips twitch into a reluctant smile. Ten-to-one, her presence in camp formed a huge portion of the problem. “It sounds like a slaughterhouse.”
Louder and more discordant, the mournful howls and shrill shrieks coalesced into a continuous, wailing drone.
“Look over there.” The student pointed to a lone, colorful figure disappearing down the path surrounding the camp. The red and green tartan of the bag clutched under his arm warred with the fuchsia print of the aloha shirt draping a lean torso.
The plaintive racket drilled into Charley’s brain like a jackhammer. Slowly her heart resumed a normal rhythm. “I’ve never heard anything quite like it,” she admitted. “His playing is an insult to music lovers everywhere.”
But somehow the dreadful off-key playing made Kincaid more human. Anyone who played that badly in public couldn’t possibly take himself too seriously.
The young man grimaced. “This year he graduated from the practice chanter to the full set of pipes. Much louder. Much more difficult. Much worse for the listeners.”
She privately thought Kincaid should consider it a miracle someone hadn’t destroyed the instrument of torture before now. She concentrated on finding the melody. Sure enough a mournful bass-line moan underlined the distorted strains of Amazing Grace.
She turned her eyes heavenward and muttered a fervent prayer that Kincaid would find the clarity he sought in record time.