Darkfever, p.16
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       Darkfever, p.16

         Part #1 of Fever series by Karen Marie Moning
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  If Barrons got my not-so-subtle message, he gave no sign of it. His eyes were focused on the man at the shrine, his jaw set.

  As the man turned from the reliquary, the two Unseelie flanking him turned also. Whoever the big, bad Unseelie was that was after the Sinsar Dubh, he’d stationed his watchdogs here, too. Our unknown competitor was watching the same people Barrons was interested in: McCabe, Mallucé, and now O’Bannion. Unlike the Rhino-boys at McCabe’s and Mallucé’s, however, these were casting no glamour of being human whatsoever, which perplexed me until I realized that they really had no need. In their natural state, they were invisible to everyone but sidhe-seers like Barrons and me, and we seemed a pretty rare breed. I had no idea why these Rhino-boys had chosen to remain invisible rather than inserting themselves into O’Bannion’s tangible reality as others had done with McCabe and Mallucé, but they had, which meant I had to determinedly not look at them at all. At least when Unseelie were faking passing as humans, I could notice whatever illusion they were presenting and not give myself away, but when they weren’t, I didn’t dare observe the space they occupied, which was easier said than done. Sliding your gaze over something that looks so alien is a little tricky.

  I took a cue from Barrons and focused my attention on the man between them who was, no doubt, Rocky O’Bannion.

  I could instantly see how he’d gotten where he was. In any century, this man would have been a fighter, a leader of men. Dark, brawny, six feet of graceful, glistening muscle in black trousers, a white shirt, and a fine, soft Italian-made black leather jacket, he moved with the confidence of a man who knew his slightest wish was the rest of the world’s command. His short black hair was thick, his teeth the perfect white of an ex-boxer with money, and when he smiled, which he did now at Barrons, it was lightning quick and full of dark Irish deviltry.

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  “Good to see you again, Barrons. ”

  Barrons nodded. “O’Bannion. ”

  “What brings you here tonight?”

  Barrons murmured something complimentary about the pub and then the two men moved swiftly into a conversation about recent trouble O’Bannion had been having at one of his shipping concerns down by the docks. Barrons had heard something out on the streets that might be useful, he said.

  I watched them while they talked. Rocky O’Bannion was a lodestone, six feet of pure muscle-packed charisma. He was the kind of man men wanted to be and women wanted to be dragged off to bed by—and I did mean dragged off—there would be no dominating this man by any woman. There was no doubt in my mind that the powerful, ruggedly attractive Irishman with the stone-hewn jaw was also a stone-cold killer, and from the way he was trying to pave his way to heaven by plastering over his sins with the putty of religious zeal, he was also a borderline psychopath.

  Yet none of it diminished my attraction to him one bit—that was the true measure of the man’s presence. I was revolted by him, and at the same time, if he were to focus that devilish Irish charm my way, if those dark, heavy-lidded eyes would turn with favor in my direction, I was afraid I would flush with pleasure even as I knew I should be running as fast as I could the other way, and for that reason alone, the man scared the living bejeezus out of me.

  I was surprised to notice that Barrons didn’t look much more comfortable than I, and that worried me even more. Nothing disturbed Jericho Barrons, yet I could clearly see tension in the angles of his body and strain in the lines of his face, around the mouth and eyes. Every bit of earlier playfulness in him was gone. He was lean, mean, and hard again, even seemed a little pale beneath that exotic golden skin. Though he stood inches taller than our host and was even more powerfully built, though he usually exuded comparable vitality and presence, at the moment he seemed . . . diminished, and I got the sudden, weirdest impression that ninety-nine percent of Jericho Barrons was currently focused somewhere else, and being nearly used up, leaving only one percent of him here and now, in this room, paying attention to O’Bannion.

  “Beautiful woman, Jericho,” O’Bannion said then, turning his gaze—as I’d feared—my way. And as I’d feared, I blushed. The boxer stepped closer, circled me, looking me up and down, and made a rough sound of masculine approval in the back of his throat.

  “She is, isn’t she?” Barrons replied.

  “Not Irish,” O’Bannion observed.

  “American. ”

  “Catholic?”

  “Protestant,” Barrons said.

  I didn’t bat an eyelash at the lie.

  “Too bad. ” Rocky turned his attention back to Barrons and I breathed again. “Good to see you, Jericho. If you should hear anything further about my troubles at the dock . . . ”

  “I’ll be in touch,” said Barrons.

  “You like him,” I said later, as we picked our way back through the nearly deserted four A. M. streets of downtown Dublin. The information Barrons had given him had actually been pertinent, identifying several members of a local gang as the thorns in O’Bannion’s side.

  “No, Ms. Lane,” Barrons replied.

  “Okay, maybe not like,” I corrected, “respect. You respect O’Bannion. ”

  Again Barrons shook his head.

  “Well, what, then?” Barrons had accorded Rocky O’Bannion a certain solemn distance he’d not shown any of the others and I wanted to know why.

  He thought a moment. “If I were in the middle of Afghanistan’s mountains and could choose either one man to fight barehanded by my side, or a full complement of sophisticated weapons, I’d take O’Bannion. I neither like nor respect him, I merely recognize what he is. ”

  We hurried along for a few blocks in silence.

  I was grateful to be out of the stilettos I’d worn earlier and back in comfortable shoes. When we’d left O’Bannion’s, Barrons had whisked us back to the bookstore, where he’d demanded a full report of what I’d sensed. After I’d told him, he’d left me alone in the bookstore while he’d gone off by himself somewhere to “get reacquainted with some of the finer points of the city’s sewage system,” he’d said.

  In his absence, I’d gone upstairs and changed. I could figure out proper sewer-crawling attire all by myself—something old, dark, and grungy.

  We’d returned to the general vicinity of O’Bannion’s Pub & Restaurant in a dark, nondescript sedan I’d never have noticed parked in the shadowy rear of Barrons’ fascinating garage, left it at the curb several blocks from our intended destination, and hoofed it from there.

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  “Stay here a minute. ” A hand on my shoulder, Barrons stopped me on the sidewalk, then strode into the middle of the street. He was his usual self again, occupying more space than was his due. He’d changed, too, into faded jeans, a black T-shirt, and scuffed black boots. It was the first time I’d ever seen him in something so . . . well, plebian for him, and the hard, muscled body those clothes showcased was nothing short of incredible, if you went for that kind of man. Thankfully, I didn’t. It was like seeing a powerful, stalking black panther, blood frothing its muzzle, wearing street clothes—very weird.

  “You’ve got to be kidding me,” I said when, shoulders bunching and biceps bulging, he lifted the manhole cover, slid it aside, and beckoned me.

  “How did you think we were going to get into the sewer system, Ms. Lane?” Barrons said impatiently.

  “I didn’t. I must have purposely bypassed that thought. ” I walked over. “Are you sure there’s not a convenient flight of stairs around here somewhere?”

  He shrugged. “There is. It’s not, however, the best point of access. ” He glanced up at the sky. “We need to get in and out as quickly as possible, Ms. Lane. ”

  I understood that. In very little time it would be dawn, and the streets in Dublin began bustling with people as early as daybreak. It would hardly do to come popping out of a manhole right in front of them, or worse, inches from a car’s fro
nt bumper.

  I stood over the open hole in the street and peered down into the darkness. “Rats?” I asked, a bit sadly.

  “Undoubtedly. ”

  “Right. ” I took a deep breath and blew it out slowly. “Shades?”

  “Not enough to feed on down there. They prefer the streets. Take my hand and I’ll lower you down, Ms. Lane. ”

  “How will we get back up?” I worried.

  “I have a different route in mind for our return trip. ”

  “Does it involve stairs?” I asked hopefully.

  “No. ”

  “Of course not. How silly of me. And for our return adventure,” I said, in my best game-show-announcer voice, “we will be scaling the side of Mount Everest, hiking boots to be provided by our trusty sponsor, Barrons Books and Baubles. ”

  “Amusing, Ms. Lane. ” Barrons could not have looked more unamused. “Now move. ”

  I took his outthrust hand, let him dangle me over the edge and drop me down. Destination: a darker, even scarier Dublin, deep underground.

  SIXTEEN

  It turned out not to be so scary after all.

  In fact, not nearly as scary as upside had been lately.

  Down there, in the dreary, dirty sewers beneath the city, I realized how drastically my world had changed, and in such a small amount of time.

  How could a beady-eyed, twitchy-nosed rat—or even a few hundred—compare to the Gray Man? What consequence raw sewage and stench next to one’s likely fate at the hands of the Many-Mouthed-Thing? What significance ruined shoes or nails torn scrabbling over rocks in collapsing parts of the city’s underbelly, when measured against the brazen theft I was about to commit? Against a man who’d taken out twenty-seven people in a single night just because they were in the way of his bright and shining future, no less.

  We turned one way, then the next, through empty tunnels with unobstructed walkways, into ones fouled by slow-moving sludge. We sloped down deeper into the earth, veered up, and descended again.

  “What is that?” I pointed to a wide stream of fast-moving water, visible beyond an iron grill mounted in the wall. We’d passed many such grills, though smaller and set lower into the walls. Most were affixed in sunken spots, with large pools of black water collected around them, but I’d seen nothing like this. This looked like a river.

  It was. “The River Poddle,” Barrons said. “It runs underground. You can see where it meets the River Liffey through another such grill at the Millennium Bridge. In the late eighteenth century, two rebel leaders escaped Dublin castle by following the sewer system to it. One can navigate the city fairly well, if one knows where things connect. ”

  “And you do,” I said.

  “I do,” he agreed.

  “Is there anything you don’t know?” Ancient artifacts, how to freeze obscenely large bank accounts, the seedy subculture of the city, not to mention the exact layout of its dark, dirty underbelly.

  “Not much. ” I could discern no arrogance in his reply; it was simply fact.

  “How did you learn it all?”

  “When did you become such a chatterbox, Ms. Lane?”

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  I shut up. I told you pride is my special little challenge. He didn’t want to hear me? Fine, I didn’t want to waste my breath on him, anyway. “Where were you born?” I asked.

  Barrons stopped short, turned around and looked at me, as if bewildered by my sudden spate of talkativeness.

  I raised my hands, bewildered too. “I don’t know why I asked that. I had every intention of shutting up but then I started thinking about how I know nothing about you. I don’t know where you were born, whether you have parents, siblings, a wife, children, or even exactly what it is you do. ”

  “You know all you need to know about me, Ms. Lane. As I do about you. Now move. We’ve precious little time. ”

  A dozen yards later, he motioned me up the rungs of a steel ladder bolted into the wall and, at the top of it, I became instantly, deeply nauseated.

  There was one extremely potent OOP—dead ahead.

  “Beyond that, Barrons,” I said apologetically. “I guess we’re kind of screwed, huh?”

  “That” was what looked like a bulkhead door. You know, the kind they use on bank vaults that are several feet thick, made of virtually impenetrable alloys, and open with that big spinning wheel thing like on submarine doors. It was just too bad “the handle” wasn’t on our side. “Don’t suppose you have a convenient stash of explosives on you somewhere?” I joked. I was tired and afraid and I was getting a little slap-happy, or maybe it was just the general, ever-increasing absurdity of my life that was making it difficult for me to take anything too seriously.

  Barrons eyed the massive door a moment, then closed his eyes.

  I could actually see the internal analysis he was performing. His eyes moved rapidly beneath closed lids, as if scanning the blueprints of Dublin’s sanitation system as they flashed across his retinas, Terminator-style, while he targeted our exact position, and searched for a point of entry. His eyes flew open. “You’re sure it’s beyond that door?”

  I nodded. “Absolutely. I could puke right here. ”

  “Try to restrain yourself, Ms. Lane. ” He turned and began walking away. “Remain here. ”

  I stiffened. “Where are you going?” A single flashlight suddenly seemed grossly inadequate company.

  “He’s counting on natural barriers to protect it,” Barrons tossed over his shoulder. “I’m a strong swimmer. ”

  I watched his flashlight bob as he hurried down a tunnel to my left and disappeared around a corner, then there was nothing but blackness and I was alone in it, with only two batteries standing between myself and a serious case of the heebie-jeebies. I hate the dark. I didn’t used to, but I sure do now.

  It felt like hours, although according to my watch, it was only seven and a half minutes later that a dripping-wet Barrons opened the bulkhead door.

  “Oh God, what is this place?” I said, turning in a slow circle, transfixed. We were in a rough-hewn stone chamber that was crammed with yet more religious artifacts displayed side by side with ancient weapons. It was evident from the high-water marks on the stone that the subterranean structure flooded occasionally, but all of O’Bannion’s treasures were mounted well above the highest, suspended on brackets bolted into the walls or displayed on top of tall stone pedestals.

  I could just see the dark, handsome, psychopathic ex-boxer standing here, gloating over his treasures, the frightening gleam of religious fanaticism in his heavy-lidded eyes.

  Wet footprints led from an iron grate low in the wall, beyond which lay deep black water, straight to the door. Barrons hadn’t even paused to look around when he’d entered.

  “Find it, get it, and let’s go,” Barrons barked.

  I’d forgotten he couldn’t know which item it was. Only I could. I turned in a slow circle, stretching my newfound Spidey-sense.

  I retched. Dryly. Fortunately, it seemed I was getting a little better at this. My supper stayed in my stomach. I had a sudden vision of O’Bannion coming down to discover his artifact missing, with neat little piles of puke all over the place and wondered what he would make of it. I snickered; a measure of how completely freaked out I was. “That. ” I pointed to an item mounted just above my head, almost lost amid the assortment of similar items surrounding it, and turned to look at Barrons who was standing behind me, just outside the bulkhead door. He was staring down the corridor. Now he turned slowly and glanced in.

  “Fuck,” he exploded, punching the door. “I didn’t even see it. ” Then louder, “Fuck. ” He turned away. His back to me, he snapped, “Are you sure that’s it?”

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  “Absolutely. ”

  “Well, get it, Ms. Lane. Don’t just stand there. ”

  I blinked. “Me?”

  “You’re
standing right next to it. ”

  “But it makes me feel sick,” I protested.

  “Now’s the perfect time to start working on that little problem of yours. Get it. ”

  Stomach heaving all the while, I lifted the thing from the wall. The metal brackets suspending it popped up with an audible click when I removed its weight. “Now what?” I said.

  Barrons laughed and the sound echoed hollowly off the stone. “Now, Ms. Lane, we run like hell, because you just set off a dozen alarms. ”

  I jerked. “What are you talking about? I don’t hear anything. ”

  “Silent. Straight to every house he owns. Depending on where he is at the moment, we have little, or even less, time. ”

  Barrons wasn’t turning out to be a good influence on me at all. In a single night he’d gotten me to dress like a floozy, burgle like a common thief, and now he had me cussing like a sailor as I seconded his opinion. “Fuck,” I exclaimed.

  It occurred to me as I raced through the predawn streets of Dublin, with a spear longer than I was tall tucked beneath my arm, that I didn’t expect to live much longer.

  “Lose the pessimism, Ms. Lane,” Barrons said when I informed him of my thoughts. “It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. ”

  “Huh?” I said, gasping for breath. I tried to fling myself into the car, but succeeded only in getting wedged in the open door by the spear.

  “Slide it over the top of the seat and into the back,” he barked.

  I managed to unjam myself and did just that. I had to roll the window down so part of the shaft could protrude. Barrons slid behind the wheel at the same moment I dropped into the passenger seat and we both slammed our doors.

  “Expect to die,” he said, “and you will. The power of thought is far greater than most people ever realize. ” He started the car and pulled away from the curb. “Fuck,” he said again. It seemed to be the word of the night.

  A Gardai car was passing us, moving very slowly. Fortunately it was on Barrons’ side, not mine, and the cop couldn’t see the butt of the spear sticking out.

 
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