Darkfever, p.8
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       Darkfever, p.8

         Part #1 of Fever series by Karen Marie Moning
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  I have never eaten french fries since. I forced myself to stay there and eat the entire platter, one by one. I forced myself to pretend the rotting monster was a gorgeous man. To this day, I believe it was only because I stayed that it found my bluff convincing. I still have to swallow the urge to vomit every time I see a plate of fries.

  It was feeding off her each time it touched her. Stealing a little more of her beauty through the open sores on its hands. As I ate my fries, I watched her hair turn duller, her complexion muddier, she grew plainer, drabber, grayer, each time it touched her. I suspected she’d once been a stunningly beautiful woman. I wondered what would be left of her when it was done. I wondered if she would wake up tomorrow morning, look in the mirror and scream. I wondered if her friends and family would recognize her, know who she’d once been.

  They left before I did, the short ugly woman and the nine-foot monster. I sat for a long time after they’d gone, staring into a third beer.

  When at last I paid my tab and rose from the booth, I headed straight for Jericho Barrons.

  EIGHT

  It was only seven-thirty, but the relentless, driving rain had ushered in the night while I’d been sitting in the pub. The streets were dark and mostly deserted, with few tourists thirsty enough to brave the downpour for a pint of stout when their hotel lounge would serve just as well. Tips in the pubs would be light for bartenders tonight.

  A sodden, folded newspaper clutched to my head, I sloshed through puddles. I was glad I’d changed from the pretty yellow linen suit I’d worn for my interview with the inspector, into jeans, a lime-green V-neck T, and flip-flops to clean Alina’s place, however I wished I’d had the presence of mind to grab a jacket too. The temperature had dropped sharply with the chilly rain. July in this part of Ireland wasn’t real warm to begin with, especially for a girl used to the steamy summers of southern Georgia. Dublin’s summer topped at highs of sixty-seven and could sink to as low as fifty. Tonight was barely that.

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  I was relieved to find the bookstore still ablaze with light. I didn’t know it yet, but I’d just crossed another of those lines of demarcation in my life. I used to need my bedroom completely dark in order to sleep, with no trickles of light stealing in through the blinds, no neon-blue glow cast by my stereo or laptop. I would never sleep in full dark again.

  Barrons wasn’t there, but Fiona was. She took one look at me past the queue of customers at her counter, and said brightly, “Well, hello again, dear. Just look at what the rain’s done to you! Wouldn’t you like to freshen up? Be back with you in a jiffy,” she told her customers. Smiling fixedly, she took me by the elbow and practically dragged me to a bathroom in the back of the store.

  When I saw my reflection in the mirror above the sink, I understood her reaction. I would have gotten me out of there, too. I looked awful. My eyes were huge, my expression shell-shocked. My mascara and liner had pooled into dark raccoon circles around my eyes. I was white as a sheet, had chewed off all my lipstick but for a streak at each corner of my mouth, and there was a big smear of ketchup down my right cheek. I was soaking wet, and the high ponytail I’d clipped my hair up in this morning was listing sadly behind my left ear. I was a mess.

  I took my time freshening up. I stripped off my T-shirt and wrung it out in the sink, then paper-towel-dried my bra as best I could before putting my shirt on again. The bruises on my ribs were still dark but much less painful. I fixed my hair, then dampened more paper towels and dabbed at my face, gently removing the smudges from the delicate skin around my eyes. I dug out my on-the-go cosmetic pack from my purse—a sewing-kit-size collection of tiny amounts of the basics no proper southern belle should ever be without that Mom had bought for Alina and me this past Christmas. I moisturized and powdered, smoothed on a bit of blush and a touch of liner, then glossed my lips Moon-Silvered Pink again.

  I opened the door, stepped out, walked right into Jericho Barrons’ chest, and screamed. I couldn’t help it. It was the scream I’d been holding down since I’d seen the hideous thing in the pub, and it had stayed inside me as long as it could.

  He grabbed me by my shoulders—I think to steady me—and I punched him. I have no idea why. Maybe I was hysterical. Or maybe I was just mad because I’d begun to understand that something was very wrong with me and I didn’t want it to be. When insane things start to arrange themselves in sane patterns around you, you know you’ve got problems. It was his fault. He was the one who’d told me impossible things to begin with. I hammered him with my fists. He just stood and took it, his hands clamped on my shoulders, his dark eyes fixed on my face. Don’t get me wrong, he didn’t suffer graciously, he looked pissed off to no end. But he let me hit him. And he didn’t hit me back. Which was, I suspected, a pretty major concession from Jericho Barrons.

  “What did you see?” he demanded when I finally stopped. I didn’t bother asking how he knew. We both knew I would have come back to him only if I needed something I couldn’t get anywhere else—like the answers I’d refused the last time I was there. And that meant something had happened to change my mind.

  His hands were still on my shoulders. Tonight, proximity to him was different but no less disturbing. I don’t know if you’ve ever gotten out of your car near downed electric lines in the road during a storm, but I have. You can feel the energy sizzling and crackling in the air as the lines flop and twist on the ground, and you know you’re standing next to raw power that could turn your way with killing force at any second. I shrugged in his grip. “Get off me. ”

  He removed his hands. “You came to me. Remember that. ”

  He never did let me forget it. You chose, he would remind me later. You could have gone home. “I think I’m going to be sick,” I said.

  “No, you won’t. You want to be, but you won’t. In time, you’ll get used to the feeling. ”

  He was right. I didn’t throw up that night, but I never stopped feeling like I might hurl ketchup-soaked fries at any moment.

  “Come. ” He led me back into the main part of the store and escorted me to the same camel-colored sofa I’d occupied a few nights ago. He spread a blanket over the leather to protect it from my wet jeans. Down south, a sofa is never more important than the person sitting on it; it’s a little thing we call hospitality. It was impossible to miss how badly I was shivering and there was the small matter of the wet T-shirt, cold nipple problem I was having. I shot him a dark look and wrapped myself up in the blanket instead. With those lightning reflexes of his, he grabbed another wool throw and managed to toss it beneath my butt before it hit the sofa. He took a chair opposite me. Fiona was gone and the sign in the window was off. Barrons Books and Baubles was battened down for the night. “Tell me,” he said.

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  I recounted what I’d seen. As before, he asked me many questions, demanding the tiniest details. He was more pleased with my observances this time. Even I felt they were keen, but then, when you see Death for the first time, it makes a heck of an impression.

  “Not Death,” he told me. “The Gray Man. ”

  “The Gray Man?”

  “I didn’t know he was here,” he murmured. “I had no idea things had gone so far. ” He rubbed his jaw, looking displeased with the turn of events.

  I squinted. “What’s that on your hand, Barrons? Blood?”

  He started, glanced at me, then at his hand. “Ah yes,” he said, as if remembering, “I was out for a walk. There was a badly injured dog in the street. I returned it to its owner’s shop to die. ”

  “Oh. ” Would wonders never cease. He seemed more the type to put it out of its misery where it lay, perhaps with a sharp twist of the neck or a well-placed kick, not take into account the human factor. I would later discover that my gut instinct was right; there’d been no dog that night. The blood on his hand was human. “So what is this Gray Man?”

  “What you thought it
was. It selects the loveliest humans it can find and steals their beauty bit by bit until nothing is left. ”

  “Why?”

  He shrugged. “Why not? It is an Unseelie. They require neither rhyme nor reason. They are the Dark Ones. The old tales say the Gray Man is so ugly that even his own race mocks him. He steals the beauty of others out of corrosive envy and hatred. Like most of the Dark Fae, he destroys because he can. ”

  “What happens to the women when he’s done with them?”

  “I suspect most kill themselves. Beautiful women rarely possess sufficient depth of character to survive without their pretty feathers. Strip them down and they crumble. ” The look he gave me was judge, jury, and executioner.

  I made no effort to keep the sarcasm from my voice. “Flattered as I am that you count me among the beautiful people, Barrons, allow me to point out that I’m still alive. I encountered the Gray Man and I’m still here, just as pretty as always, dickhead. ”

  He raised a brow. “Now, there’s a visual for you. ”

  I was chagrined. I never called people “dickheads. ” Oh well. It had been a rough day. Sorry, Mom. “What’s wrong with me? And that’s not an invitation for you to begin tallying your many perceived flaws in my character. ”

  He smiled faintly. “I told you the other night. You are a sidhe-seer, Ms. Lane. You see the Fae. Though you are capable of seeing both Light and Dark, it seems thus far you’ve encountered only the unpleasant half of their race. Let us hope that continues, at least for a time, until I have trained you. The Seelie, or Light Fae, are as disconcertingly beautiful as their darker brethren are distressingly foul. ”

  I shook my head. “This is impossible. ”

  “You came to me, Ms. Lane, because you know it’s not. You can rummage about in your repertoire of pretty self-delusions looking for a way to deny what you saw tonight, or you can look for a way to survive it. Remember what I said about walking victims? You watched one get preyed on tonight. What do you want to be, Ms. Lane? Survivor or victim? Frankly, I’m not certain even I can make you into the former, given the raw material I’m forced to work with, but it appears I’m the only person willing to try. ”

  “Oh, you just suck. ”

  He shrugged. “I call it like I see it. Get used to it. Stick around long enough and you might learn to appreciate it. ” He stood up and began walking toward the back of the store.

  “Where are you going?”

  “Bathroom. Wash my hands. Scared to be alone, Ms. Lane?”

  “No,” I lied.

  He was gone long enough that I began peering into the corners of the room, making sure all the shadows were cast by objects and obeying known laws of physics.

  “Okay,” I said when he returned, “let’s pretend I’m buying into your little story for a few minutes. Where have these monsters been all my life? Walking around all over the place and I just never noticed them before?”

  He tossed me a wad of clothing. It hit me squarely in the chest. “Get out of those wet clothes. I’m no nursemaid. You get sick, you’re on your own. ”

  Though I was grateful for the clothing, he was in serious need of a lesson or two in manners. “Your concern is touching, Barrons. ” I practically ran to the bathroom to change. I was cold and shivering and the thought of being sick in Dublin in my cramped room by myself without Mom’s homemade chicken noodle soup and TLC was more than I could bear.

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  The ivory sweater he’d given me was a blend of silk and hand-spun wool, and fell just past midthigh. I rolled up the sleeves four times. The black linen trousers were a joke. I had a twenty-four-inch waist. His was thirty-six and his legs were a good six to eight inches longer than mine. I rolled up the cuffs, tugged my belt from the loops of my jeans, and bunched his pants at my waist. I didn’t care how I looked. I was dry and already starting to warm up.

  “So?” He’d removed the damp blanket from the sofa and sponged it dry, and I sank down, cross-legged, on the tufted cushions and resumed our conversation without preamble.

  “I told you the other night. You must have grown up in a town so small and uninteresting that it was never visited by any of the Fae. You’ve not traveled much, have you, Ms. Lane?”

  I shook my head. Provincial with a capital P, that was me, just like my town.

  “Additionally, these monsters, as you call them, are a recent development. Previously, only the Seelie were capable of free passage among the realms. The Unseelie arrived on this planet already trapped in a prison. Those few that enjoyed brief paroles did so only at the Seelie Queen’s or her High Council’s behest. ”

  I’d gotten stuck on a phrase. “Arrived on this planet?” I echoed. I thought about that a minute. “I see. So these monsters are really traveling space aliens. How silly of me not to have figured that out. Can they travel through time, too, Barrons?”

  “You didn’t think they were natives, did you?” He managed to sound a shade dryer than I had, an accomplishment I hadn’t thought possible. “As for the time-traveling aspect, Ms. Lane, that would be a ‘no, not right now. ’ But some of the Seelie used to—those of the four royal houses. Things have happened recently. Inexplicable things. No one knows for certain what is going on, nor even who holds power at the moment, but word is the Fae can no longer sift time. That for the first time in eons they are as trapped in the present as you and I. ”

  I stared at him. It had been a joke, my time-travel crack. A snort of laughter escaped me. “Oh my God, you’re being serious, aren’t you? I mean, you really believe that—”

  He was on his feet in one fluid motion. “What did you just see in that pub, Ms. Lane?” he demanded. “Have you forgotten so quickly? Or is this how fast you managed to concoct a pleasant little lie for yourself?”

  I rose to my feet, too; my hands at my waist, my chin high. “Maybe it was a hallucination, Barrons. Maybe I really did catch a cold and I have a fever and I’m sick in my hotel room right now, dreaming. Maybe I’ve gone NUTS!” My whole body shook from the vehemence with which I shouted the last word.

  He kicked the table between us aside, sending coffee-table books flying, and stepped nose-to-nose with me. “How many of them will you need to see to believe, Ms. Lane? One every day? That could be arranged. Or perhaps you need a reminder right now. Come. Let me take you for a walk. ” He grabbed my arm and began dragging me toward the door. I tried to dig in and hold my ground but I’d left my flip-flops in the bathroom and my bare feet skidded across the polished wood floors.

  “No! Get off me! I don’t want to go!” I smacked at his arm, his shoulder. I was not going back out there.

  “Why not? They’re just shadows, Ms. Lane. Remember? You told me so yourself. Shall I take you down into the abandoned neighborhood and leave you with those shadows for a time? Will you believe me then?”

  We were at the door. He’d begun sliding the dead bolts. “Why are you doing this to me?” I cried.

  His hand went still on the third bolt. “Because you have one hope of survival, Ms. Lane. You must believe and you must fear, or you’re wasting my time. Fuck you and your ‘Let’s pretend I believe your little story. ’ If you can’t give me a ‘Tell me, teach me everything, I want to live,’ then get the bloody hell out of here!”

  I felt like crying. I felt like collapsing in a puddle right there at the door and whimpering, Please make it all go away. I want my sister back and I want to go home and forget that I ever came here. I want to never have met you. I want my life back just the way it was.

  “Sometimes, Ms. Lane,” he said, “one must break with one’s past to embrace one’s future. It is never an easy thing to do. It is one of the distinguishing characteristics between survivors and victims. Letting go of what was, to survive what is. ” He slid the last bolt and yanked open the door.

  I closed my eyes. Even though I knew I’d seen what I saw tonight, a part of me was still denying it. The mind works ha
rd to reject that which opposes its essential convictions, and Monster Fairies From Outer Space deeply opposed mine. You grow up thinking everything makes sense—it doesn’t matter that you don’t understand the laws that govern the universe—you know somewhere out there some geeky scientist does, and there’s a degree of comfort in that.

  Page 31

 

  I knew there wasn’t a scientist alive that would believe my story, and there was no degree of comfort in that. Then again, I suspected there would be even less comfort in dying like Alina had.

  I couldn’t honestly say, Tell me, teach me everything, when all I really wanted to do was cover my ears and chant a childish, I can’t heeear you.

  But I could say with complete sincerity that I wanted to live.

  “All right, Barrons,” I said heavily. “Close the door. I’m listening. ”

  NINE

  Fae: a. k. a. the Tuatha Dé Danaan. Divided into two courts: the Seelie or Light Court, and the Unseelie or Dark Court. Both courts have different castes of Fae, with the four royal houses occupying the highest caste of each. The Seelie Queen and her chosen consort rule the Light Court. The Unseelie King and his current concubine govern the Dark.

  I looked at what I’d just written in my journal and shook my head. I was sitting in my fourteenth pub of the day, or rather early evening. I’d spent the entire day pub-hopping, staring at people, trying to have another double vision. I’d not been successful and the longer I went without having one, the more removed and implausible the events of last night seemed. As did the insanity I was penning in these pages.

  Shades: one of the lowest castes of Unseelie. Sentient but barely. They hunger—they feed. They cannot bear direct light and hunt only at night. They steal life in the manner the Gray Man steals beauty, draining their victims with vampiric swiftness. Threat assessment: kills.

  Jericho Barrons had told me many things last night before packing me off in a cab for The Clarin House. I’d decided to write them down, fully aware that it read like something straight out of a badly scripted late-night sci-fi horror flick.

 
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