In the air around me there were screams, mostly ones of pleasure. With each breath I took in lungfuls of the smoky red air, and the oppressive heat of the place had me sweating inside my ill-chosen clothing. I felt like I had stepped off the plane into a war zone, and not the holiday my companion assured me it was.
“What's the brouhaha about, again?” I asked her, as she walked beside me, carefully matching my steps. I only coughed twice getting the question out, but she seemed unaffected.
“Fertility festival, senhor,” she said, and the carefully crafted look in her eyes was one I easily recognized. Little minx! I hadn't looked carefully before, but now that I did, I was liking what I was seeing. A small thing, petite but not childlike, with long black hair and skin of a color that wouldn't look out of place lounging on a beach somewhere. I mentally thanked the Bureau. They probably didn't mean to land so many beautiful women into my bed, but they did, bless them!
We were walking to our hotel, through what looked like it should have been an open air market. Our bags, the woman beside me explained, had already been taken there, to await our arrival. The streets were filled with people, dark, like her, in varying states of dress and undress, and most of them covered with red and orange paint. There was a hunger on their faces that I hadn't seen before in the civilized society I was coming from, and neither the men nor the women seemed at all embarrassed by their condition as we passed them. Red tarps were thrown over ramshackle stalls that I imagined would normally house fruit or fish, and with the heat in the air and the sweat tickling down my neck and fusing my shirt to the small of my back, it was getting to be a little uncomfortable.
“Does this happen... often?” I asked. The noise was loud, almost too loud, and I had to raise my voice to be heard. I wished that I had been paying closer attention earlier when she had given me her name.
“Once a year. We pray to the Gods for a sign, that the crops will be good, and that our children will be healthy. Each spring, on the solstice.” She licked her lips as she spoke, and I gave her a smarmy smile in return. I was a little surprised by her open want, but who was I to turn down a lady? Even more than her desire, I was distracted by the pagan nature of this 'festival'. Scantily clad natives dancing in the streets? And already I was a little skeptical of the exact nature of those screams I had been hearing, coming from the alleys disconnected to the main street.
“I thought you people were civilized,” I said, speaking more to myself than the woman beside me, but her sweet laugh told me that she had overheard.
“Oh, we are civilized, senhor. We are.” She paused, letting the flow of bodies go past us, the two of becoming rocks in the stream of people, and then she tugged on my arm. “This way.”
I resisted. “Are you sure? The pilot told us to go straight from the landing strip to the hotel. We should be able to see it... and I thought, maybe you wanted something?”
“Oh, I do. Trust me.” The tug on my arm was this time accompanied by another sultry look, so I allowed myself to be led.
Off the main street, the voices got much less distant and much more immediate, as if any corner I looked down would have their owners, engrossed in whatever activities were making them so vocal. The red haze was thicker here, and coming from some unknown source. A smoke machine? And why was it so damned hot? At some point my guide decided that I was doing too much thinking and not enough walking, so she pushed herself ahead of me and took my hand. I followed readily enough. My clothes were getting soaked through with my own sweat, so I stopped once, to take off my jacket and drape it over my arm. The look she gave me when she saw what I was doing convinced me that I was doing the right thing.
Finally, we got to a building. It wasn't our hotel, I could see that clearly, but she was intent on entering it. I stopped outside, letting her tug on my hand, as I assessed the exterior.
“Is this it?” I asked, knowing full well the answer.
“It's better,” she said. I tried to give her a look of disapproval, but she gave me a smile that told me she was more confident that I could ever be. I love dominant women. “Don't you want to hear more about the festival?” she asked, and she dropped my hand.
“The fertility festival?”
She nodded, a sparkle of saliva winking at me from between her parted lips. “Yes.” I'd never heard so sensual an affirmation. She took several steps forward, toward the building, and I followed. It was like I couldn't help it. Like I was transfixed by her dark, mysterious eyes. There were promises in them that I intended to see kept.
“I'll tell you.” We were at the doorway, and she was whispering in my ear. Her breath was almost cool on my overheated face. As soon as I entered the building the sounds of outside melted away. There were no more moans, or screams, and the lighting was dark and subdued – no longer the passionate red I was already sick of.
“The festival... is ancient.” We are walking down a hallway. There are shapes moving through open doors, but they are dark and only half seen. The illusion of movement, and nothing more. “It celebrates live, the beginning of new...” We are at a doorway. She enters, and I follow. “And the end of old.” She sits down on a mattress, filthy and probably as old as the festival she is talking about. I don't care. I am entranced. I sit beside her, and she reaches out, almost tenderly, to unbutton my shirt. “Lie down,” she tells me, “and close your eyes.” I do so. She continues to touch me, and I am so gone that I do not care when I hear other footsteps entering the room, or the sounds of their ragged breathing.
“Wait,” I say, opening my eyes. “What was that last part?” That is the only reason I see the knife that brings swift death with it.