Darkfever, p.5
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       Darkfever, p.5

         Part #1 of Fever series by Karen Marie Moning
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  “If you insist. Don’t be a fool. Don’t insist. ”

  “I’m insisting. What is it?”

  “Last chance. ”

  “Too bad. I don’t want a last chance. Tell me. ”

  His dark gaze bored into mine. Then he shrugged, his fine suit sliding over his body with suppleness and ease only exorbitant custom-made clothing could achieve. “The Sinsar Dubh is a book. ”

  “A book? That’s all? Just a book?” It seemed terribly anti-climactic.

  “On the contrary, Ms. Lane, never make that mistake. Never think it just a book. It is an exceedingly rare and exceedingly ancient manuscript countless people would kill to possess. ”

  “Including you? Would you kill to possess it?” I needed to know exactly where we stood, he and I.

  “Absolutely. ” He watched my face as I took that in. “Reconsidering your stay, Ms. Lane?”

  “Absolutely not. ”

  “You’ll be going home in a box, then. ”

  “Is that another of your threats?”

  “It is not I who will put you there. ”

  “Who will?”

  “I answered your question, now it’s your turn to answer mine. What do you know of the Sinsar Dubh, Ms. Lane?”

  Not nearly enough, obviously. What on earth had my sister gotten into? Some kind of shadowy Dublin underworld filled with stolen artifacts, peopled by murderers and ruthless thieves?

  “Tell me,” he pressed. “And don’t lie. I’ll know. ”

  I glanced at him sharply, almost able to believe he would. Oh, not in some extrasensory way—I don’t believe in that kind of stuff—but in the way of a man who scrutinizes people, gathers their tiniest gestures and expressions, and measures them. “My sister was studying here. ” He’d given me the bare minimum. I would give him nothing more. “She was killed a month ago. She left me a voice-mail message right before she died, telling me I had to find the Sinsar Dubh. ”

  “Why?”

  “She didn’t say. She just said everything depended on it. ”

  He made an impatient sound. “Where is this message? I must hear it myself. ”

  “I accidentally deleted it,” I lied.

  He crossed his arms over his chest and leaned back against the wall. “Liar. You would make no such mistake with a sister you care enough about to die for. Where is it?” When I said nothing, he said softly, “If you are not with me, Ms. Lane, you are against me. I have no mercy for my enemies. ”

  I shrugged. He wanted the same thing I wanted and he was willing to kill for it. That made us enemies in my book any way I looked at it. I glanced over my shoulder at the hallway beyond the open door and pondered my next move. His threat did not decide me. I wanted to see his face when I played the message for him. If he’d had any involvement with my sister or her death, I hoped he would betray something when he heard her voice and her words. I also wanted him to know that I knew as much as I did, and to believe the police did, as well.

  “I already gave a copy of this recording to the Dublin Gardai,” I told him, as I fished my cell phone out of my purse and thumbed up my saved messages. “They’re working to track down the man she was involved with. ” See Mac bluff. Better than See Mac run. Way better than See Mac get her stupid self killed. He didn’t challenge my words—so much for his boast that he would know if I lied. I pressed speakerphone, then play, and Alina’s voice filled the small room.

  I flinched. No matter how many times I listened to it, it made me cringe—my sister sounding so frightened, hours before her death. Fifty years from now, I would still hear her message, ringing in my heart’s ear, word for word.

  Everything has gone so wrong . . . I thought I was in love . . . he’s one of them . . . we’ve got to find the Sinsar Dubh, everything depends on it . . . we can’t let them have it . . . he’s been lying to me all along.

  Page 17

 

  I watched him intently as he listened. Composed, aloof, his expression told me nothing. “Did you know my sister?”

  He shook his head.

  “You were both after this ‘exceedingly rare book’ yet never ran into each other?” I accused.

  “Dublin is a city of a million-odd people inundated daily by countless commuters and besieged by a never-ending wave of tourists, Ms. Lane. The oddity would be if we had encountered each other. What did she mean by ‘you don’t even know what you are’?” His dark gaze fixed on my face as if to gauge the veracity of my answer in my eyes.

  “I wondered that myself. I have no idea. ”

  “None?”

  “None. ”

  “Hmm. This was all she left you? A message?”

  I nodded.

  “Nothing more? No note or package or anything of the sort?”

  I shook my head.

  “And you had no idea what she meant by the Sinsar Dubh? Your sister didn’t confide in you?”

  “I used to think she did. Apparently I was wrong. ” I couldn’t mask the note of bitterness in my voice.

  “Who did she mean by ‘them’?”

  “I thought you might be able to tell me that,” I said pointedly.

  “I am not one of these ‘them,’ if that is what you’re inferring,” he said. “Many seek the Sinsar Dubh, both individuals and factions. I want it as well, but I work alone. ”

  “Why do you want it?”

  He shrugged. “It is priceless. I am a book collector. ”

  “And that makes you willing to kill for it? What do you plan to do with it? Sell it to the highest bidder?”

  “If you don’t approve of my methods, stay out of my way. ”

  “Fine. ”

  “Fine. What else have you to tell me, Ms. Lane?”

  “Not a thing. ” I retrieved my cell phone, resaved the message, and jerked a frosty glance from him to the door, encouraging him to leave.

  He laughed, a rich dark sound. “I do believe I’m being dismissed. I can’t recall the last time I was dismissed. ”

  I didn’t see it coming. He was nearly past me, nearly to the door, when he grabbed me and slammed me back against his body. It was like hitting a brick wall. The back of my head bounced off his chest, and my teeth clacked together from the impact.

  I opened my mouth to scream, but he clamped a hand over it. He banded an arm beneath my breasts so tightly that I couldn’t inflate my lungs to breathe. His body was far more powerful beneath that fine suit than I ever would have guessed, like reinforced steel. In that instant, I understood that the open door had been nothing more than a mocking concession, a placebo he’d fed me that I’d swallowed whole. Anytime he’d wanted, he could have snapped my neck and I wouldn’t have gotten off a single scream. Or he could simply have suffocated me, as he was doing now. His strength was astonishing, immense. And he was only using a small fraction of it. I could feel the restraint in his body; he was being very, very careful with me.

  He pressed his lips to my ear. “Go home, Ms. Lane. You don’t belong here. Drop it with the Gardai. Stop asking questions. Do not seek the Sinsar Dubh or you will die in Dublin. ” He released enough pressure on my mouth to afford my reply, enough on my ribs to permit me breath to fuel it.

  I sucked in desperately needed air. “There you go, threatening me again,” I wheezed. Better to die with a snarl than a sniffle.

  His arm bit into my ribs, cutting off my air again. “Not threatening—warning. I haven’t been hunting it this long and gotten this close to let anyone get in my way and fuck things up. There are two kinds of people in this world, Ms. Lane: those who survive no matter the cost, and those who are walking victims. ” He pressed his lips to the side of my neck. I felt his tongue where my pulse fluttered, tracing my vein. “You, Ms. Lane, are a victim, a lamb in a city of wolves. I’ll give you until nine P. M. tomorrow to get the bloody hell out of this country and out of my way. ”

  He let me go, and I crumpled to the floor, my blood sta
rved for oxygen.

  By the time I picked myself up again, he was gone.

  FIVE

  I was hoping you could tell me something about my sister,” I asked the second-to-last instructor on my list, a Professor S. S. Ahearn. “Do you know who any of her friends were, where she spent her time?”

  I’d been at this most of the day. With Alina’s e-mail schedule clutched in one hand, and a campus map in the other, I’d gone from class to class, waited outside until it was over, then cornered her teachers with my questions. Tomorrow I would do the same all over again, but tomorrow I would go after the students. Hopefully the students would yield better results. So far what I’d learned wouldn’t fill a thimble. And none of it had been good.

  Page 18

 

  “I already told the Gardai what I know. ” Tall and thin as a rail, the professor gathered his notes with brisk efficiency. “I believe it was an Inspector O’Duffy conducting the investigation. Have you spoken with him?”

  “I have an appointment with him later this week, but hoped you might spare me a few minutes in the meantime. ”

  He placed the notes inside his briefcase and snapped it shut. “I’m sorry, Ms. Lane, I really knew very little about your sister. On those rare days she bothered to come to class at all, she hardly participated. ”

  “On those rare days she bothered to come to class?” I repeated. Alina loved college, she loved to study and learn. She never blew off classes.

  “Yes. As I told the Gardai, in the beginning she came regularly, but her attendance became increasingly sporadic. She began missing as many as three and four classes in a row. ” I must have looked disbelieving, perhaps a little stricken, because he added, “It’s not so unusual in the study-abroad program, Ms. Lane. Young people away from home for the first time . . . no parents or rules . . . an energetic city full of pubs. Alina was a lovely young girl like yourself . . . I’m sure she thought she had better things to do than sit in a stuffy classroom. ”

  “But Alina wouldn’t have felt that way,” I protested. “My sister loved stuffy classrooms. They were just about her favorite thing in the world. The chance to study at Trinity College meant everything to her. ”

  “I’m sorry. I’m only telling you what I observed. ”

  “Do you have any idea who her friends were?”

  “I’m afraid not. ”

  “Did she have a boyfriend?” I pressed.

  “Not that I was aware. On those occasions I saw her, if she was in the company of others, I didn’t notice. I’m sorry, Ms. Lane, but your sister was one of many students who pass through these halls each term and if she stood out at all—it was through her absence, not her presence. ”

  Subdued, I thanked him and left.

  Professor Ahearn was the fifth of Alina’s instructors that I’d spoken to so far, and the portrait they’d painted of my sister was that of a woman I didn’t recognize. A woman that didn’t attend classes, didn’t care about her studies, and appeared to have no friends.

  I glanced down at my list. I had a final professor to track down, but she taught only on Wednesdays and Fridays. I decided to head for the library. As I hurried out into a large grassy commons filled with students lounging about, soaking up the late-afternoon sun, I thought about possible reasons for Alina’s unusual academic behavior. The courses offered through the study-abroad program were designed to promote cultural awareness, so my sister—an English major who’d planned to get a Ph. D. in literature—had ended up taking courses like Caesar in Celtic Gaul and The Impact of Industry on Twentieth-Century Ireland. Could it be she’d just not enjoyed them?

  I couldn’t see that. Alina had always been curious about everything.

  I sighed and instantly regretted the deeply indrawn breath. My ribs hurt. This morning I’d awakened to find a wide band of bruises across my torso, just beneath my breasts. I couldn’t wear a bra because the underwire hurt too much, so I’d layered a lacy camisole trimmed with dainty roses beneath a pink sweater that complemented my Razzle-Dazzle-Hot-Pink-Twist manicure and pedicure. Black capris, a wide silver belt, silver sandals, and a small metallic Juicy Couture purse I’d saved all last summer to buy completed my outfit. I’d swept my long blonde hair up in a high ponytail, secured by a pretty enameled clip. I might be feeling bruised and bewildered, but by God I looked good. Like a smile that I didn’t really feel, presenting a together appearance made me feel more together inside, and I badly needed bolstering today.

  I’ll give you until nine P. M. tomorrow to get the bloody hell out of this country and out of my way. The nerve. I’d had to bite my tongue on the juvenile impulse to snap, Or what?—you’re not the boss of me, second only to an even more juvenile impulse to call my mom and wail, Nobody likes me here and I don’t even know why!

  And his assessment of people! What a cynic. “Walking victim, my petunia,” I muttered. I heard myself and groaned. Born and raised in the Bible Belt, Mom had taken a strong position about cussing when we were growing up—A pretty woman doesn’t have an ugly mouth, she would say—so Alina and I had developed our own set of silly words as substitutes. Crap was fudge-buckets. Ass was petunia. Shit was daisies and the f-word, which I can’t even recall the last time I used, was frog. You get the idea.

  Page 19

 

  Unfortunately, we’d said them so often as children that they’d become a habit just as hard to break as real cusswords. To my endless humiliation, the way it usually worked was the more upset I got, the more likely I was to fall back on my childhood vocabulary. It was a little difficult to get an out-of-hand bachelor party at the bar to take you seriously when your threat was they’d better “back off or the bouncer was going to kick the fudge-buckets out of them and toss their petunias right out the door. ” In this desensitized day and age, clean language got you laughed at more often than not.

  I cleared my throat. “Walking victim, my ass. ”

  Okay, I’ll admit it; I’d been quaking in my proverbial boots by the time Jericho Barrons was done with me. But I’d gotten over it. There was no question in my mind that he was a ruthless man. But a murdering man would have killed me last night and been done with it. And he hadn’t. He’d left me alive, and by my reasoning, that meant he would continue to do so. He might bully and threaten me, even bruise me, but he wouldn’t kill me.

  Nothing had changed. I still had my sister’s murderer to find, and I was staying. And now that I knew how to spell it, I was going to find out exactly what the Sinsar Dubh was. I knew it was a book—but a book about what?

  Hoping to miss the rush-hour crowds and conserve money by eating less frequently, I stopped for a late lunch/early dinner of crispy fried fish and chips, then headed for the library. A few hours later, I had what I was looking for. I had no idea what to make of it, but I had it.

  Alina would have known some clever way to search computer indices and go straight to what she wanted, but I was one of those people who needed the placards at the ends of the aisles. I spent my first half hour at the library pulling books about archaeology and history off shelves and toting them to a corner table. I spent the next hour or so paging through them. In my defense, I did use the rear indexes, and midway through my second stack I found it.

  Sinsar Dubh1: a Dark Hallow2 belonging to the mythological race of the Tuatha Dé Danaan. Written in a language known only to the most ancient of their kind, it is said to hold the deadliest of all magic within its encrypted pages. Brought to Ireland by the Tuatha Dé during the invasions written of in the pseudohistory Leabhar Gabhåla3, it was stolen along with the other Dark Hallows and rumored to have found its way into the world of Man.

  I blinked. Then I scanned down the page for the footnotes.

  1Among certain nouveau-riche collectors, there has been a recent surge of interest in mythological relics, and some claim to have actually beheld a photocopy of a page or two of this “cursed tome. ” The Sinsar Dubh is no more real
than the mythical being said to have authored it over a million years ago—the “Dark King” of the Tuatha Dé Danaan. Allegedly scribed in unbreakable code, in a dead language, this author is curious to know how any collector proposes to have identified any part of it.

  2The Tuatha Dé Danaan were said to possess eight ancient relics of immense power: four Light and four Dark. The Light Hallows were the stone, the spear, the sword, and the cauldron. The Dark were the mirror, the box, the amulet, and the book (Sinsar Dubh).

  3Leabhar Gabhåla (The Book of Invasions) places the Tuatha Dé Danaan thirty-seven years after the Fir Bolg (who followed Cesair, the granddaughter of Noah, the Partholonians and the Nemedians) and two hundred and ninety-seven years before the Milesians or Q-Celtic Goidelic people. However, earlier and later sources contradict both the true nature of the Tuatha Dé and their date of arrival as put forth by this 12th-century text.

  I closed A Definitive Guide to Artifacts: Authentic and Legendary and stared into space. You could have knocked me over with a feather. Seriously. One of those little down ones from inside a decorative pillow. If you’d just swished it at me, I would have toppled.

  Mythological race? Dark King? Magic? Was this all some kind of joke?

  Alina didn’t get into woo-woo stuff any more than I did. We both loved to read and watch the occasional movie, but we always went for your run-of-the-mill mysteries, thrillers, or romantic comedies, none of the bizarre paranormal stuff.

  Vampires? Eew. Dead. Enough said. Time-travel? Ha, give me creature comforts over a hulking highlander with the manners of a caveman any day. Werewolves? Oh please, just plain stupid. Who wants to get it on with a man who’s ruled by his inner dog? As if all men aren’t anyway, even without the lycanthrope gene.

  No thank you, reality has always been good enough for me. I’ve never wanted to escape from it. Alina was the same way. Or so I’d always thought. I was seriously beginning to wonder if I’d ever really known my sister at all.

  Page 20

 

  I just didn’t get it. Why would she leave me a message telling me I had to find a book about magic that, according to T. A. Murtough of A Definitive Guide, didn’t even exist!

 
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