Darkfever, p.7
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       Darkfever, p.7

         Part #1 of Fever series by Karen Marie Moning
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  I laughed harder. “What, some pesky little fairy’s going to get me?”

  His eyes narrowed. “Just what do you think those shadows were, Ms. Lane?”

  “Shadows,” I retorted, my amusement fading. I was getting angry myself. I would not be made a fool of. There was no way those dark shapes had been anything more substantive. Fairies didn’t exist, people didn’t see them, and there were no books about magic that had been written a million years ago.

  “The Shades would have sucked you dry and left a husk of skin scuttling down the sidewalk on the night breeze,” he said coldly. “No body for your parents to claim. They would never know what happened to you. One more tourist gone missing abroad. ”

  “Yeah, right,” I snapped. “And how many other lines of bull are you going to try to feed me? That the shi-sadu really is a book of dark magic? That it really was written a million years ago by some Dark King? How stupid do you think I am? I just wanted to know what the word meant so I could maybe help the police find who killed my sister—”

  “How did she die, Ms. Lane?” Barrons asked the question soft as silk, but it slammed into me like a sledgehammer.

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  I clenched my jaw and turned away. After a moment I said, “I don’t want to talk about it. It’s none of your business. ”

  “Was it abnormal? Horrific, Ms. Lane? Tell me, did her body look as if animals had gone at her? Hard?”

  I whirled back around. “ShutupIhateyou,” I hissed.

  Impatience blazed in his eyes. “Do you want to die like that too?”

  I glared at him. I would not cry in front of him. I would not think about what I’d seen the day I’d had to identify Alina’s body. Not in my worst nightmares did I want to die like that.

  He peeled my answer from my face and half his mouth drew back in a smirk. “I didn’t think so, Ms. Lane. Listen to me and learn, and I will help you. ”

  “Why would you do that?” I scoffed. “You’re hardly the Good Samaritan type. In fact, I think the word ‘mercenary’ has a little picture of you beside it in the dictionary. I don’t have any money. ”

  Both sides of his mouth drew back this time—in a snarl—before he quickly recomposed his face into a mask of smooth European urbanity. Wow, I’d sure struck a nerve. Something I’d said had pierced his thick hide and it seemed to have been the word “mercenary. ”

  “I can hardly leave you to die. It wouldn’t sit well with my conscience. ”

  “You don’t have a conscience, Barrons. ”

  “You know nothing about me, Ms. Lane. ”

  “And I’m not going to. I’m going to talk to the police and they’re going to reopen my sister’s case. I’m not going to see you again or any stupid shadows. I’m not even going to ask you what the shi-sadu really is, because you are beyond delusional. Stay away from me, or I’ll tell the police all about you and your crazy ideas and threats. ” I snatched up my purse and drugstore bag and walked to the door.

  “You’re making a huge mistake, Ms. Lane. ”

  I yanked it open. “The only mistake I made was yesterday, believing anything you said. It’s a mistake I won’t repeat. ”

  “Don’t cross that threshold. If you walk out that door you’ll die. I give you three-day odds, at best. ”

  I didn’t dignify it with a response. I let the slam of the door behind me do that.

  I think he might have yelled something through the door, something weird like, Stay to the lights, but I wasn’t sure and I didn’t care.

  Jericho Barrons and I were done with each other.

  Or so I thought. It would turn out to be just one more of those things I was wrong about. Soon, we would be living inside each other’s hip pockets, whether we liked it or not.

  And believe you me, we didn’t.

  SEVEN

  Later I would look back on the next few days as the last normal ones of my life, though at the time they seemed anything but. Normal was peach pie and green beans, bartending and coaxing my car to the garage for the latest two-hundred-and-fifty-dollar Band-Aid, not investigating my sister’s murder in Dublin.

  I spent all day Wednesday on campus at Trinity College. I spoke with the last professor on my list, but she had nothing new to add. I talked with dozens of Alina’s classmates when their sessions let out. The story they told was so identical from one to the next that they were all either part of a vast X-Files conspiracy—I always hated that show, it was too vague and open-ended and I like my tidy denouements—or this was really who my sister had been while she was here.

  They said for the first two or three months she was friendly, outgoing, smart, someone others wanted to hang out with. That was the Alina I knew.

  Then suddenly she changed. She began missing classes. When she did show up, if someone asked her where she’d been, she behaved strangely, secretively. She seemed excited and deeply preoccupied, as if she’d discovered something far more interesting to immerse herself in than her studies. Then, during her last months there, she lost weight and looked exhausted all the time, like she was going out drinking and partying all night, every night, and it was taking its toll. “Edgy” and “nervous” were two words I’d never associated with my sister, but her classmates used them liberally in describing her.

  Did she have a boyfriend? I asked. Two of the people I spoke with said yes, two girls who seemed to have known Alina better than the others. She definitely had a boyfriend, they said. They thought he was older. Rich. Sophisticated and handsome, but no, they’d never seen him. No one had. She never brought him around.

  Toward the end, on those rare days she showed up for class at all, it seemed she was making a last-ditch effort to try to get her life back, but she looked weary and defeated, as if she knew it was a battle she’d already lost.

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  Later that night I stopped in an Internet café and downloaded new tunes for my iPod. ITunes loves my Visa. I should be more frugal, but my weaknesses are books and music and I figure there are worse ones to have. I’d been hankering for the Green Day Greatest Hits CD (the song that goes “sometimes I give myself the creeps, sometimes my mind plays tricks on me” had been majorly on my mind lately) and got it for the bargain price of $9. 99, which was less than I would have paid in the store. Now you know how I justify my addictions—if I can pay less for it than I would at Wal-Mart, I get to have it.

  I sent a long, determinedly upbeat e-mail to my folks and a few shorter ones to several of my friends back home. Georgia had never seemed so far away.

  It was dark by the time I headed back to the inn. I didn’t like to spend much time in my room. There was nothing comfortable or homey about it, so I tried to keep myself busy until I was ready to sleep. Twice, while walking home, I got the weirdest feeling I was being followed, but both times I turned around the scene behind me was a perfectly normal Dublin evening in the Temple Bar District. Brilliantly lit, warm and inviting, thick with throngs of pub-goers and tourists. Not a thing back there that should have sent a chill of foreboding up my spine.

  Around three o’clock in the morning, I woke up strangely on edge. I pulled the drape aside and looked out. Jericho Barrons was on the sidewalk in front of The Clarin House, leaning back against a lamppost, his arms folded over his chest, staring up at the inn. He wore a long dark coat that went nearly to his ankles, a shirt of shimmering blood-red, and dark pants. He dripped casual European elegance and arrogance. His hair fell forward to just below his jaw. I hadn’t realized it was so long because he usually wore it slicked back from his face. He had the kind of face you could do that with; chiseled, symmetrical bone structure. In the morning, I decided I’d dreamt it.

  Thursday I met with Inspector O’Duffy, who was overweight, balding, and red-faced, with pants belted low beneath a stomach that strained his shirt buttons. He was British, not Irish, for which I was grateful because it meant I didn’t have to st
ruggle with his accent.

  Unfortunately, the interview turned out to be more depressing than quizzing Alina’s classmates had been. At first, things seemed to go well. Though he told me personal notes on the case were not a matter of public record, he made me (yet another) copy of the official report, and patiently recounted everything he’d told my father. Yes, they’d interviewed her professors and classmates. No, no one had any idea what had happened to her. Yes, a few had mentioned a boyfriend, but they’d never been able to find out anything about him. Rich, older, sophisticated, not Irish, was all they’d been able to find out.

  I played him her frantic phone message. He listened to it twice, then sat back and knitted his fingers together beneath his chin. “Had your sister been using drugs long, Ms. Lane?”

  I blinked. “Drugs? No, sir, Alina didn’t use drugs. ”

  He gave me that look adults get when they think they’re telling you something for you own good and trying to be gentle about it. That look pisses me off to no end when the adult is so obviously wrong. But you can’t tell grown-ups a thing when they’ve got their minds made up. “The decline her classmates described follows the classic downward spiral of drug use. ” He picked up his file and read from it. “Subject became increasingly agitated, edgy, nervous, almost paranoid. Subject lost weight, looked exhausted all the time. ” He gave me that irritating brow-raised, expectant can’t-you-see-what’s-right-in-front-of-you look some people use, like they think they can cue the right response from you with it.

  I stared at him stonily, resenting the word “subject” clear to my toes. “That doesn’t mean she was doing drugs. That means she was in danger. ”

  “Yet she never told you or your parents a thing about this danger? For months? You said yourself what a close family you have. Wouldn’t your sister have told you if her life was in jeopardy? I’m sorry, Ms. Lane, but it’s far more likely she was concealing drug use than her life was in danger and she never said a word to anyone. We see this kind of behavior in inner-city youth all the time. ”

  “She said she was trying to protect me,” I reminded him stiffly. “That’s why she couldn’t say anything. ”

  “Protect you from what?”

  “I don’t know! That’s what we need to find out. Can’t you just reopen her case and try to find out who this boyfriend was? Surely someone somewhere saw the man! In her message, it sounded like she was hiding from someone. She said he was coming. She said she didn’t think he’d let her out of the country. Obviously someone was threatening her!”

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  He studied me a moment, then sighed heavily. “Ms. Lane, your sister’s arms had holes in them. The kind of holes that needles make. ”

  I flew to my feet, instantly livid. “My sister’s whole body had holes in it, Inspector! Not just her arms! The coroner said they looked like teeth marks!” Not of any person or animal he’d been able to identify, though. “And parts of her were just torn!” I was shaking. I hated the memory. It made me sick to my stomach. I hoped she’d been dead when it had happened. I was pretty sure she hadn’t been. The sight of her had pushed Mom and Dad right over the edge. It did the same to me, but I came back from that hellish place because somebody had to.

  “We examined her ourselves, Ms. Lane. Neither animal nor human teeth made those marks. ”

  “Needles didn’t either,” I said furiously.

  “If you’ll sit back d—”

  “Are you going to reopen her case or not?” I demanded.

  He raised his hands, palms upturned. “Look, I can’t afford to send men out on cases that have no leads when we’re up to our ears in ones that do. There’s been a recent spike in homicides and missing persons like we’ve never seen before. ” He looked disgusted. “It’s as if half the damn city’s gone crazy. We’re short-staffed as it is. I can’t justify putting men on your sister’s case when there’s nothing to go on. I’m sorry for your loss, Ms. Lane. I know what it’s like to lose a loved one. But there’s nothing else that I can do for you. I suggest you go home and help your family get through it. ”

  And that concluded our interview.

  Feeling like a failure, needing to do something that would yield a tangible result, I trudged back to the inn and collected my trash bags, boxes, and broom, then sprang for a cab because there was no way I could carry it all to Alina’s place. If I couldn’t do anything else right, at least I could sweep up trash. I did every night I closed at The Brickyard and was darned good at it.

  I cried the whole time I swept. Sorry for Alina, sorry for myself, sorry for the state of a world in which someone like my sister could be murdered so brutally.

  When I was done sweeping and crying, I sat cross-legged on the floor and began packing. I couldn’t bring myself to discard a thing, not even what I knew should get tossed, like torn clothing and broken knickknacks. Each item was lovingly crated away. Someday, years from now, I might pull the boxes from the attic at home in Georgia and sort through them more thoroughly. For now, out of sight was out of mind.

  I spent the afternoon there and made a decent dent in it. It would take a few more days to finish up, clean the place, and see if there was any damage her deposit wouldn’t cover. By the time I left, it was overcast and pouring rain. There were no cabs in sight. Because I had no umbrella and was starving, I splashed through puddles and ducked into the first pub I saw.

  I didn’t know it, but I’d just closed the book on the last normal hours of my life.

  He was sitting at a table about a dozen feet from my booth, opposite a petite woman in her early thirties whose drab brown hair just brushed her collar.

  She was a tad easier on the eye than mousy, which was why I noticed them, because he was drop-dead gorgeous. I mean, close-your-eyes-and-wish-some-guy-that-hot-would-ever-look-at-you gorgeous. Lots of times you see it the other way around, the sultry do-me-big-boy Betty Boop with a Jack Nicholson, but you don’t often see a Fabio with an Olive Oyl.

  Tall and hunky, with a ripped, tanned body beneath his white T-shirt and faded blue jeans, he had long blond hair that shimmered like gold. His face had that exotic model look, his eyes were sexy brown, his mouth full and sensuous. Everything about him was gorgeous. He looked elegant yet earthy, graceful yet powerful, managed even in jeans to appear rich as Croesus.

  I admit I was fascinated. Though the woman wore a frothy short skirt, a silk blouse, and was smartly accessorized and polished right down to her French-manicured toenails, the kindest anyone would ever call her was plain, yet he seemed to positively dote on her. Couldn’t stop touching her.

  Then one of those stupid double visions began.

  I’d just finished my cheeseburger and was leaning back in my booth, taking my time with my fries (I adore fries, by the way, or I used to, anyway; I’d heavily salt and pepper the ketchup, then slather them with it and eat them slowly, one at a time, after everything else was gone), when his gestures suddenly seemed more unctuous than charming, and his face more gaunt than sculpted.

  Then, abruptly, he was gone and for a split second something else occupied his chair. It happened so fast that I had no idea what had taken his place, just that it wasn’t him for a moment.

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  I closed my eyes, rubbed them, then opened them again. The blond sex-god was back, stroking his companion’s jaw with his hand, brushing his fingers to her lips—with sharp yellow talons that protruded from a hand that looked as if a thin layer of rotting gray skin had been stretched over a corpse’s bones!

  I shook my head brusquely, covered my face with my hands, and thoroughly rubbed my eyes this time, hard enough to smudge my mascara. I’d had two beers with my meal, and although I can usually handle three or four before copping a buzz, Guinness dark is stronger than what I drink back home. “When I open my eyes,” I told myself, “I’m going to see what’s really there. ” Meaning a man, not a hallucination.

 
I guess I should have specified that last part out loud, because when I opened my eyes again I nearly screamed. The sex-god was gone and the mousy woman had her mouth turned into the palm of a monster that was straight out of a horror movie, and she was kissing it.

  Gaunt, emaciated to the point of death, it was tall—and I’m talking like nine feet tall. It was gray and leprous from head to toe, covered with oozing, open sores. It was sort of human, by that I mean it had the basic parts: arms, legs, head. But that was where the resemblance ended. Its face was twice as tall as a human head and squished thin, no wider than my palm. Its eyes were black with no irises or whites. When it spoke, I could see that its mouth—which consumed the entire lower half of its hideous face—wasn’t pink inside, it had a tongue and gums that were the same gray color as the rest of its rotting flesh and covered with the same wet sores. It had no lips and double rows of teeth like a shark. It was, in a word, putrid.

  The blond sex-god was back. And he was looking at me. Hard. He was no longer conversing with the woman, but staring straight at me. He didn’t look pleased.

  I blinked. I don’t know how I knew what I knew in that moment; it was like it was programmed into me on a cellular level somehow. My mind was split into separate camps. The first camp was insisting what I’d just seen wasn’t real. The second was demanding I scramble up, grab my purse, throw money down on the table, and run out the door as fast as I could. Camps one and two sounded mildly hysterical, even to me.

  The third camp was calm, cool, composed. And icily insisting that I had better do whatever I had to do to convince whatever was sitting at that table masquerading as human that I really couldn’t see what it looked like beneath its facade—or I was dead.

  That was the voice I obeyed without hesitation. I forced myself to smile at him/it and duck my head as if blushingly flustered to find myself the focus of such a sex-god’s attention.

  When I looked back up, it was the gray leprous thing again. Its head was way higher than where the sex-god’s would have been, and it was all I could do to focus on the thing’s navel (it didn’t have one), which was where the sex-god’s head would have been if I were still seeing it. I could feel its suspicious gaze on me. I gave its navel-region what I hoped was another flustered, self-effacing smile, then returned my attention to my fries.

 
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