Copyright © 2017 by Donna Augustine
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Knuckles hit the wood of my front door.
Over, and over, and over again.
That was the sound that woke me from where I’d been asleep on the couch. Not an alarm for work. I’d stopped showing up there weeks ago. Not family. I didn’t have one of those anymore. And not friends. I’d never had many of those, and this past month had taken care of the few I’d had left.
As always, consciousness hit like a hammer striking a stubborn nail that didn’t want to sink in. The knuckles continued their uneven cadence as I lay there and gritted my teeth through the pain of being awake. Awake meant I was still alive. Alive meant I had to live another day, even though the chore of getting off the couch seemed akin to climbing Mount Everest.
But climb I must. There was no out. This was it. I’d have to keep going, waking up day after day, whether I wanted to or not, because of a promise I made fifteen years ago before I’d had the maturity of knowing how bad this life could get. But it was a promise I’d keep to a man no longer among the living.
“Ollie?” Dr. Martin called from the other side of the door.
If I’d wanted to talk to someone, I wouldn’t have thrown my phone off the bridge weeks ago.
I reached out a blind hand to feel for a water bottle that wasn’t empty. After tipping over a couple of empties, my hand landed on a winner.
If I’d been a normal person, I would’ve glanced over and located one easily. But I wasn’t ready to open my eyes and deal with them yet. And they’d be there. They always were. They’d been my constant companions, the only ones I couldn’t seem to lose.
Swallowing a swig of warm water, I realized the knocking had stopped as the silence spread out like a lifetime of doom before me. Maybe if I fell back asleep now, I wouldn’t wake up again? If the mind didn’t want to continue, it seemed logical that the body would eventually agree to go along with the plan.
My dream of an eternal peace was disrupted by the jingle of keys and at least two sets of feet walking down the apartment building’s hallway.
The knocking started back up but stopped after a couple raps. Dr. Martin was speaking again, but not to me this time. Then there was the voice of my super, saying something or other about how he wasn’t supposed to let him in. Of course, that didn’t stop the jingle of keys and the sound of my deadbolt shifting.
“Olivia? Are you in there?” Dr. Martin’s voice echoed through my apartment, bouncing against the bare walls and wood floors, filling the apartment with his voice.
I didn’t move or make a sound, but that was pretty easy. Wasn’t sure my voice was working anymore, and the permanent indent I’d created in the couch hugged my tired body like a well-worn catcher’s mitt ready to be retired.
There were only a couple of steps down my hallway before they’d find me. The bedroom was a few steps away but still too much effort. He’d only search for me there next anyway.
I rolled from my side to my back, a precaution against seeing them if I opened my eyes. The one predictable thing about my constant companions was they didn’t float.
The steps got closer, and then there was nothing but silence for another moment. I imagined the two middle-aged men taking in the picture I made.
“Is she alive?” Dan whispered, as if his voice would wake the dead.
Dan, my super, the one who’d been hitting on me since the day I moved in, was now afraid to get within a few feet of me. Seemed there were a couple of brain cells rattling around in that head after all.
“Her chest is moving,” Dr. Martin said in a tone that made it clear that, although I might’ve changed my assessment of my super, he wasn’t very impressed. “I can handle it from here.”
Dan, or at least I assumed it was Dan, let out a long whistle, before I heard him retreating back down the hallway and shutting my door.
Dr. Martin’s steps were coming closer.
The sound of a cardboard pizza box skidding across the wood floor preceded a rustle of papers and a thump as they fell. The sound of the chair creaking under his weight told me his diet wasn’t working out too well since the last time he’d mentioned it.
There was another stretch of silence before a drawn-out sigh filled the air, which sounded nearly as tired as I felt. His conscience might’ve dictated this visit, but his stamina wasn’t quite on board with it all.
“How are you doing, Olivia?”
It was such a simple question, one people asked all the time, and yet I’d never really known how to answer it, even before it had gotten this bad. Still, if he was going to put out the effort, I felt compelled to muster up a response.
“I’m fine.” Lying there in clothes stained with my dinner from three nights ago and still not opening my eyes, “great” seemed like it might’ve been a stretch.
Another long slow, exhale. “It’s normal to feel like this after what you’ve been through.”
“I know, doc.” I didn’t need a degree in psychology to know there was nothing normal about this, but it was easier to go along and get along. I didn’t have any fight left to spare.
“It’s going to take time after… Well, after any tragedy it takes a while.”
Accident—that was the word that had been on the tip of his tongue before he swallowed it back. That was what the police, the fire department, and even the arson expert had called the explosion. An accident.
Couldn’t blame doc for not saying it. I’d be afraid to say that word to me, too. Last time someone had said it, they’d had to shoot me up with enough tranquilizers to take down an elephant as I screamed that there were monsters everywhere coming to kill us.
No one, not even doc, wanted to hear about the monsters anymore, and I knew continuing to talk about them would eventually land me in only one place. A dark padded room might not be too bad, but they would follow me in there too. At least free, there was the illusion I might escape them one day.
“Olivia, you haven’t opened your eyes since I’ve gotten here.”
He knew the reason for that too. I’d been seeing doc since I was a kid, before I’d begun to edit my life story to fit what people expected. It was easier for all involved if I lied—after all, my recent lapse screaming about the monsters had gotten me nowhere but an overnight in the psych ward. “Sorry about that. Nasty migraine.”
Give him an excuse to believe I was okay. That was what he wanted. It was what we both wanted so we could wrap up this little meeting.
“Olivia, please look at me. I’m worried about you.”
Damn doc and that stubborn vein of duty running through him. He was going to make me work for my peace.
I forced myself upward, knowing I was going to have to put on a better show than this if I wanted to earn my quiet. Dropping my arm, I saw doc sitting there staring at me, and also what I’d dreaded. One of the monsters had sprung up beside him. They were always varying shades of grey to the inkiest black. This one looked the way I’d imagine a troll would, standing near the doc’s shoulder, its eyes a silver-grey—eerily like my own when I thought about it, which I preferred not to. It was still better than the ones that had red eyes.
The monster leaned closer to him, and the doc shivered. He glanced behind him at the old single-pane windows. It wasn’t a draft from the windows. I could’ve told him it was the companion beside him, but he wouldn’t have believed me anyway.
When he looked back at me, the sun shining through the window showed off the fresh lines around his eyes and the dark shadows beneath. He looked like he’d been sleeping about as much as I had, and I knew I had to wrap this up for both our sakes.
He leaned forward. “I stopped by your work when you didn’t answer the phone. They said you quit.” His eyes wandered around the room. “When was the last time you left your apartment?”
“Doc, I’m going to be fine. I’m sorting through this and need a little more time before I’m willing to open up. But I’m not going to snap my cap and do something crazy. I’m not suicidal or homicidal or any other word that revolves around killing.”
He squinted, and I saw the pity in his eyes. It was the one emotion I hated most.
I ran both hands through my hair, pushing back the dark curtain it had formed around my face as I stared at my feet, my big toe hanging out of the sock on the right foot. I was going to have to get a little tougher if I wanted to get him out of here. This wasn’t something he could fix, so I was doing him a favor driving him out. These creatures were dangerous. I knew that now. Was positive of it.
I only paused a second before I turned back to him. “I know I don’t seem okay right now, but to be honest, neither do you.”
The doc shifted and the monster laughed. I threw it a dirty look as the doc’s eyes shifted downward.
I looked back down at my big toe, wondering if I should’ve given him a few more minutes to leave on his own before I went there. I still remembered the session when I’d told doc that the monsters had said his wife was cheating on him.
I’d been seeing him for a while, hearing how it was all in my head for longer than I could remember, and the tedious nature of it all made me feel like my brains were turning to mush.
It wasn’t like I’d ever wanted therapy. I knew they were real. Everyone else needed the therapy. But, to make my parents happy, I’d gone once a week to see the doc, and he’d asked me over and over again what the monsters did, what they looked like, did they speak? Well, ask a question enough times and you better be prepared for when you get the answer.
Doc shifted in his seat and leaned back, farther away from me. I shifted slightly down on the couch, helping him out by widening the gap more. “I’m sorry.”
“For what?” he said. “Nothing to apologize for.”
I nodded, not arguing the point but sensing my opening. He was ready to leave. I’d sufficiently primed the pump. “I’m okay. I’m just sad. I’m sad to the depths of my bones, and sometimes when I wake up in the morning, I wish I hadn’t. But I still get up, I eat, and I get by. I’ll be fine.”
Fine. Not good. I didn’t think I’d ever be good, but I’d live.
I watched his face as he took in my words. I’d thrown in enough hurt for him to realize the rest had been truth as well. I didn’t know if I was going to be good anytime in this life, but I’d keep living it, for whatever it was worth.
I knew we were in the home stretch when he rattled off the normal questions—was I sleeping, was I feeling threatened, blah, blah, blah…
It was a test I knew all the answers to. It was amazing how well you could get by with just “sure” and “fine.”
After a promise to call the office and set up an appointment, he stood like a vanquished foe accepting his defeat. He could leave me here alone, feeling like he’d done something. I could be left alone. Somehow in this scenario, I was the victor. All I’d won was my solitude, but that was enough.
I saw him out and walked back to the couch, avoiding the dark figures that seemed to be looming in the most unexpected corners, and slumped back into my dent, my eyes downcast. That was when I noticed it, an envelope with “important” handwritten on it.
I hadn’t seen the doc leave anything behind, but he must have. I grabbed the envelope, withdrew the sheet of folded paper, and opened it to see a single sentence.
Don’t speak to the monsters.
No signature, no name. This wasn’t from the doc. I glanced around the room, avoiding looking at an especially large monster near the kitchen.
How long had this been sitting here? Had I grabbed it in my mail? I couldn’t remember the last time I’d gotten my mail. How long had this been sitting here?
One month ago, I’d spoken to the monsters for the first time in a decade, and someone out there knew.
If I hadn’t gotten that note yesterday, then I wouldn’t have jumped off the couch the second I heard something slither underneath my door. I dodged left around a little furry monster and grabbed the note lying facedown in my hall.
They were back. Note in hand, I didn’t bother reading it as I flung the door open and saw Dan walking down the hall, about to turn the corner.
Wait, Dan saw the monsters?
I looked down at the paper.
You need to get your mail out of the lobby. The mailman can’t fit it in your box anymore. It’s all over the lobby and I’m getting complaints.
A month ago, he would’ve stalked me to deliver this message in person, maybe delivered it himself to show me what an upstanding person he was. Now I got notes under my door so he didn’t have to get too close.
I walked back into my apartment, crumpled the piece of paper, and threw it on top of an overflowing pile of trash can. It bounced to the floor, setting off a garbage avalanche as I settled back into the dent in the couch.
It took a solid twenty minutes—or, by my new method of telling time, two-thirds of a Seinfeld rerun—of internal debate before I decided that getting my mail might not be the worst idea. When you didn’t leave your apartment, having heat and electricity became more important than normal, especially in a Boston February.
My holey socks were sopping wet before I made it down the single flight to the lobby. Didn’t anyone know how to wipe the snow from their feet?
I let out a breath strong enough to puff out my cheeks as I eyed the soggy pile of what I presumed to be my mail under the metal boxes in the wall, unless someone else in the building had died and I didn’t know.
Wet magazines almost created a Slip ’N Slide as the key to my mailbox gritted in and then resisted turning. Dan had said he was going to fix this two months ago, back when I was still worthy.
After a couple solid tugs, the box vomited up more of my mail in a splatter onto the lobby’s puddled floor.
Scooping up my wet mail, I kept my head down as people entered behind me, resisting the urge to check and see if they were wiping their feet.
I was the antisocial freak of the building, and saw no reason to break that impression now. If I spoke in my current mood, it would only serve to diminish my standing. I hated the world and everyone in it, and I didn’t have to get to know you first.
A pair of male hands reached down and began helping me gather up my mail. I bit back the groan as the consequences of his kindness hit. Now I was going to have to speak to him, even if it were a single word. I could only hope that wouldn’t somehow morph into conversation. The odds were in my favor, considering I hadn’t brushed my hair in three days.
He handed me his share of the soggy pile as I turned and rose. My helper stood beside another man who appeared to be with him, partly because I couldn’t figure out another reason for them both to be standing there staring at me. They also appeared to have been churned out of the same cookie-cutter machine, with long wool coats over suits and ties, but both had forgotten to groom their hair or five o’clock shadows. Not that I could climb on a soapbox and preach, but at least I was consistent in my appearance.
It might have been their unblinking attention, or the way they stood a little too close, but something about these two tripped my inner alarms. It wasn’t a take off at a run alarm. It was more like a milk that was on the brink of turning that you had to smell a couple of times sort of problem. A monster that had lingered in the corner’s shadow crept over and started sniffing one man’s shoes, almost like the dog it appeared to be, then sneezed.
Yeah, something wasn’t right with these two. That was my cue to get out of there.
“Thanks,” I said, taking the long path around them toward the stairs.
“Wait,” one of them called, as I climbed the first two steps back to my floor.
I turned, against my better judgment, to see why I was supposed to wait.
“We’d like to speak with you.”
I took another step up, the smell of something rotten getting stronger. “Why?”
“Don’t run,” one of the men said. “We just want to talk to you.”
Run? Most sane people with a lick of instinct would’ve been hightailing it away from them. They were lucky they were talking to me instead. All I had left in me was a leisurely stroll away.
The idea of them possibly being the murdering types ran through my mind, and instead of wanting to flee, I imagined a guilt-free exit. Murder would mean I hadn’t given up. My life had ended by no fault of my own, and if everyone I loved were in heaven right now, I’d be with them instead of here, alone. If there were no heaven? It wouldn’t matter anyway, because I’d be dead. Except would putting myself in harm’s way screw me on a technicality?
I leaned a hip on the stair railing, my hands full of mail, and decided this needed further investigation. “Who are you? I’ve never seen either of you before.” I looked them over closely. Could it be them? They hadn’t seen the monster sniffing around them. I would’ve noticed a sign or a glance. But maybe? “Did either of you write me a note?”
They looked at each other, checking to see if one had done it without the other’s knowledge. “No,” they finally answered after their silent deliberation finished.
“Then what do you want?”
The two looked at each other as if they needed to clarify their answer—again. I didn’t have time for this. Well, technically I had all the time in the world, but I didn’t have the patience for anything. “If you’ve got something to say, I suggest you spit it out. I’ve a TV show coming on in five minutes.”
The slightly taller, and, if possible, scruffier of the pair finally spoke. “We’re here to offer you employment.”
I coughed to cover a bark of laughter. Prior to my world collapsing, I’d been a cashier at a very reputable convenience store. To my understanding, cashiers weren’t hard to come by, even if you did want experience. Maybe they presumed this was a good line because of where I lived, having no idea that I’d inherited the place from my grandmother and could barely pay the taxes on it. “What position are you offering me?”
“It’s a communications position,” the shorter but broader one said.
I made a short humming sound, as if giving this some thought. That was the beauty of not fearing death. You weren’t so terrified in a situation like this that you couldn’t have a little bit of fun with your would-be attackers.
“How much does it pay? I’ve got a high standard of living.” I crossed my ankles, putting my holey socks on display.
They both glanced down at my feet. The shorter one pulled it together quicker, while the taller one seemed to get hung up on a stain on my sweatpants.
“A million,” the shorter guy said as he tried to nudge his buddy out of his stare.
“A mil? Like, you mean a month, right? You can’t mean a year. I could never live on that.” I huffed, and added a couple shakes of my head, sending knotted locks swaying.
The taller guy’s eyes narrowed as if he were having a hard time playing my game, but the shorter one kept rolling right along with me. “You’d have to negotiate that with our employer, but you’ll have to speak to him yourself. You’ll need to come with us.”
Would going with them qualify as suicide? It was sort of a murky area.
Too murky. Nope, this wasn’t going to work out. Couldn’t break the promise. “Sorry. I don’t have time today. Maybe next week.”
I turned and began climbing the stairs.
“You have to come with us,” they said before I hit the fifth step.
“No, I don’t think I do,” I said in a singsong voice as I got to step six. You never knew—maybe if they chased me, I’d fall down the stairs and break my neck. Could a girl get that lucky?
I heard a couple more people entering the lobby, and glanced back out of curiosity when I heard one of them groan. Another two men I’d never seen before walked in.
I would’ve remembered either of them. They were the antithesis of my current company, with their suits. One of the new guys was at least a half foot over six feet, and had flaming red hair that made me imagine leprechauns. His companion, although tall, was closer to six, and had the craziest blond beard I’d seen since ZZ Top or Gandalf.
Between their worn leather jackets, which couldn’t do much for them in the frigid cold, and the hard stare of their eyes, they appeared like they might’ve just come from beating someone up in the alley. What was going on? Had the whole building been taken over while I’d slept on the couch?
“What are you doing here?” one of the suits asked the thugs.
“You’re early and you know it.” Red tapped his watch as he held it up. “Eight hours left, and don’t tell me you didn’t know.” He spoke like a father chastising his son who was late for dinner.
Beard turned to me and said, “What are you listening for? This conversation has nothing to do with you.”
I moved back down to the fifth step. “Who are you? Do you even live here? This is my building and I was speaking to them.” I would’ve pointed condemningly if my hands weren’t full of soggy mail.
“Not anymore, you aren’t,” Beard said, waving his hand at me as if to shoo me upstairs.
“I’ll hear that from them, thank you.” I looked directly at the two I’d been speaking to. “When does this gig start?” I took a step back down the stairs. “Let’s go meet your boss.”
The suits were rapidly shaking their heads, and the more assertive, shorter guy said, “No. Sorry. Misunderstanding. We’ll see you—”
Red cleared his throat. “You know the rules.”
It appeared to be a standoff between the suits and goons. Then, as if coming to some sort of silent conclusion, they all walked out of my lobby without so much as a goodbye.
I took my soggy mail and climbed the stairs. If the scary people didn’t want to speak to me then that was fine. They could all go find themselves another victim.
Top Gun or The Neverending Story—those were the best picks the bargain bin at the corner store could offer up. Great movies, except I’d seen each one more times than I could count.
Both went in the basket. I only had the concentration of a fish these days, so it didn’t make much difference what was on. Binging on pizza while watching movies on a screen only a foot away might’ve been a slump for most, but it was a step up for me at the moment.
It was all about baby steps away from the abyss until I no longer wanted to leap into it with abandon. Since death was off the table, I’d have to go about living to some extent. I’d even showered today and put on clean yoga pants and socks without holes. It was enough progress that I felt justified in going back and falling into the permanent dent in my couch for the next twenty-two hours before being compelled to take some other small step but gigantic push forward.
Movies selected, I ignored a monster hiding in the shadows as I headed toward the conveniently placed chips and candy. Stalling a few more minutes so my pizza would be finished by the time I walked to the pizzeria, I threw some salt and vinegar chips in my basket, along with some Reese’s Cups and a pack of Twizzlers. I took a step toward the register before I backtracked and threw in some Laffy Taffy too.
Another dodge around a monster trailing in a fellow shopper’s shadow and I was in line at the cashier. I stared up at the chipped ceiling paint and pretended to be pondering some great philosophical question, or maybe I appeared to be pining after a boy. Didn’t matter. Monsters didn’t float.
The smell of mothballs wafted over from the woman checking out in front of me, carried by a draft from the door opening. Even staring up, I caught sight of the top of a red head that was too tall to stay out of my vision.
No way. Don’t look. Keep my eyes on the ceiling. Who cared if it was them? It wasn’t like they’d wanted to speak to me anyway. Probably just bored or chilly in the alley.
I hummed Canon in D as Mothballs took her sweet old time emptying her basket.
Red and Beard approached until they were so close that, even staring at the ceiling, it was hard to ignore their warm breath, letting me know someone liked to drink coffee at night.
“Our boss needs to speak to you,” Red said, his head bouncing around as if he’d had one cup too many.
“I thought no one wanted to speak to me?” I wasn’t sure if it was the fact that we were in a public place that gave me the balls, or the little issue of losing the fear of death since my life literally blew up in front of me. Having a death wish was sort of liberating like that.
“That was yesterday,” Beard said. “We couldn’t speak to you then.”
“Sorry, but I’m not in the mood for anyone crazier than myself today. I’ve already got plans for the evening.” I held up my basket so they could see the movies before I turned forward again.
That was when I noticed that Mothballs had paused in emptying her cart so she could see what my new company was about. Great, just what I needed today, for her to let off the gas when she’d already been crawling by on fumes.
Red and Beard remained where they were, practically entrancing Mothballs with their presence.
“You don’t understand. He really wants to speak with you,” Red said.
“Well, if he really wants to meet me…” I turned. “It’s still no.” I looked back to Mothballs. “If you could keep it moving, I’ll make sure I give you the CliffsNotes after you’re done so you don’t miss a word.”
She huffed but went back to emptying her cart.
Beard cleared his throat. “We’d like to do this the nice way, but there’s other options.”
Did they not realize we were in the middle of a store? With an audience? Mothballs was all ears, and she looked the type to have nine-one-one stored in her favorites.
I tilted my head to the side, making sure they had a good view of the eye roll. These two had better work on their act. I wasn’t looking to school anyone, but somebody had to help these two out. “Look, I don’t want to tell you how to run your business, but shouldn’t you two be waiting in a dark alley? This isn’t the way to go about things if you want to be successful in your current line of work.”
Beard looked at Red. “I’m really sick of doing this, and her being a wiseass isn’t putting me in the mood.”
“You think I’m in the mood?” Red asked him. “It’s enough work when they’re scared and do what we tell them to.”
I’d gone back to ignoring Beard and Red as Mothballs started arguing with the cashier. “That’s the wrong price. It’s on sale.”
A groan worked its way up out of the depth of my annoyance to settle on my lips. Every time I thought maybe there might be a god, something like this would happen and smash it all to pieces. I tried some deep breathing, like Dr. Martin had always suggested, but it wasn’t making the urge to swat her with my Twizzlers any better.
“Look, can you come nicely?” Red asked. He was nearly screaming as Mothballs was insisting the cashier go to the aisle and check the price.
I dug a quarter out of my pocket and placed it on the counter in front of her. “Here. Here’s the quarter. Can we move things along?”
“No. It’s on sale,” Mothballs said, eyeing my quarter as if it were a pile of rat poop and not the very thing she’d argued for.
I moved back into my spot in line at purgatory, and Beard stepped closer. “You need to come with us.”
“Not happening. You need to back off.” I hooked a thumb toward Mothballs. “This is making my mood worse, and I didn’t start off so good to begin with. Now bugger off.” Bugger off? Where had that come from? I’d had the BBC playing in the background a lot. It must’ve been seeping into my subconscious.
I turned, giving Red and Beard my back. These two whack jobs could go find another victim. I wasn’t letting any crazy person kill me if they weren’t willing to put in some effort. You need to come with us. That was it? That was the best I got? How insulting. They could go wait it out in an alleyway like any other self-respecting thug and try to lure me in, not approach me in the middle of a store.
I felt hands grip my upper arms, and then I was losing my movies and goodies to the floor as they lifted me off my feet in between them.
“What are you doing? Let me go,” I said, trying to wriggle out of their grasp, but we were on the move already. “Call the police,” I screamed toward Mothballs.
Mothballs, who hadn’t been able to get her fill of my business before, didn’t seem to care at all as I was being manhandled out of the store.
“Hello! What is up with you people?” I screamed at the cashier, Mothballs, and a few other patrons who went about their business.
“They can’t hear you anymore.”
“What? Why?” I went limp from shock, and they used the opportunity to ease their transition out the door. It didn’t last long, as I swung my legs wildly at the two of them now.
“The way it works,” Red said as we crossed the parking lot. They didn’t put me down until we’d made our way over to an old Caddy. It was midnight black, pristine, and looked like a seventies model. These guys knew how to roll, I’d give them that, but they were a little dense as far as picking targets.
These two needed a wakeup call before they invested too much more time on me. “Just to lay all our cards out on the table, I have no money.” The stained sweatpants and holey socks the other day should’ve tipped them off, but I wasn’t taking anything for granted with these two.
Red almost seemed insulted. “We don’t want your money.”
Actually, they both were acting like they tasted something sour now. “Then what do you want?”
“You need to come with us and meet someone.”
“Why do they want to meet me?” I had nothing. I was an utter nobody. No one wanted to meet me.
“Kane will explain,” Beard said, tilting his head toward the car.
I was probably counting down the minutes before they manhandled me into it anyway, but I’d never been one not to push a situation as far as I could go. “If he wanted to meet me so much, why couldn’t he have come to me?”
“Because that’s not how this goes. It’s been a month and now you go see the boss,” Beard explained, giving me his full attention until he was distracted by Red popping the trunk on the Caddy. “Why did you do that?”
Red turned and pointed toward me. “Because it’s my turn to sit in the back, and I like space. Plus, the last one peed her pants.”
“You know, every single time you pop the trunk, it freaks them out and it’s not funny. We aren’t allowed to put them in there since…” He glanced at me. “Since the incident.”
“Even if she’s not freaking out? Maybe we can give it a try. It’s real roomy in there.”
“No. No this time and no for the next fifty times. Stop asking.”
They continued to bicker over where I’d go, but all I cared about was what he’d said about a month. It was a month today since everything had fallen apart. How did they know that?
“You said a month?” I asked, looking between Beard and Red. “Why a month? What do you mean by a month?”
Red glanced over at Beard. Beard shrugged in a why not explain-type gesture.
Red turned back to me. “A month since the explosion.”
“That’s why you came to find me?”
“Yeah,” Read said as Beard nodded.
I grabbed the front of Red’s jacket. “Did you write a note?”
He took a step back, the jacket taut between us. “Didn’t write it. Only delivered it. Boss wrote it.” My hands dropped as he continued, “By the way, you’re going to get bugs if you don’t do something about all those pizza boxes.”
Could it be that after all this time I’d found someone else who saw the monsters? “He knows about the monsters?”
“Of course he does.”
Since I’d been a small child, I’d known things weren’t as everyone had told me. Now I finally might have someone who had answers.
“Take me to Kane.” I walked over to the car and opened the front passenger door.
Red yelled, “I get shotgun!” as I was closing the door.
Beard opened up the driver’s side, calling to Red as he did, “Get in the back.”
Beard settled behind the wheel. Red got in behind me, huffing the whole time, and then complaining the seat was too far back as he kicked his legs sideways.
An excitement I hadn’t felt in years coursed through my system as Beard pulled out of the parking lot. “How far?”
“Fifteen minutes,” Beard answered.
Fifteen minutes. That was all. I glanced out the window, amazed that this person had been so close, answers just out of reach.
I’d thought I knew every part of Boston there was. I’d been born and raised here, but after ten minutes, we were turning onto streets I’d never seen before. They were empty except for what I could only assume were gangs.
“Where are we?”
“About a block away,” Red said from the back seat.
“But where? I’ve never seen this area of town.” We drove past two men in a fistfight in the middle of the street.
“This is No Man’s Land.”
Beard pulled the Caddy into an empty alleyway, and I followed them out of the car.
Beard and Red waved me forward to a steel door that sat at the end of the alley. The building it belonged to looked like an old factory. It was hard to tell what was in it from ground level, since there weren’t any windows until the second floor.
I stepped forward to where they were waiting in front of the door. “Your boss, this Kane person, he’s here?”
“Yes. This is his building,” Beard said as Red started banging on the door.
I looked around the place, but there wasn’t much to see as Red banged over and over again.
“Damn, Jerry. He always leaves his post.” Red was shaking his head as he pulled out his phone. “Hey, fucko, answer the door,” he screamed into it after a second. He pocketed his phone and looked at Beard. “He was winded when he answered.”
Beard shook his head, sending his beard into a little waggle as he did. “That boy cannot keep it in his pants. He still hooking up with the vamp?”
Vamp? As in vampire? I kept my mouth shut, afraid to stop the flow of conversation.
“Either that or he’s running marathons in under five minutes. You know what they’re like in…” Red looked over at me. “You know what I’m talking about.”
I kept my head turned slightly as if I weren’t interested, but the conversation seemed to have halted in spite of my act.
Vamps. It had to mean vampires. If there were monsters, it wasn’t a huge leap to think there were other things. Were these two vampires? Nah. Didn’t seem so from the way they’d been speaking about the “vamp.”
I was ready to start bouncing on my heels if I didn’t get in there and to this Kane person soon. I’d been waiting years to get answers, and now I had to wait for this Jerry to have sex? It was near unbearable.
Rubbing my arms to ward off the chill, I asked, “You sure he’s coming?”
The door swung open before they could answer.
A strapping kid in his mid-twenties opened the door, all tan and glowing, as if he belonged in the islands and not this frigid winter. He seemed happy enough, with a smile on his face as he apologized with perfect white teeth, to have been doing exactly as they’d assumed.
At least, I thought he was apologizing. It was hard to hear with the heavy bass blasting out of the door.
“You going to leave us out here all damn night?” Red asked. Him I could still hear.
“You know how boring this shit is,” Jerry said as he backed up and I followed Red inside the place, Beard following behind me.
The place was not what I’d been expecting from the outside. It was teeming with people and looked more like a club than a factory.
It was a humongous open floor with a two-story ceiling, and steel-topped tables scattered about. Some people were lounging around with drinks in front of them, a few were dancing, and some played cards with stacks of chips in front of them. A bar ran the length of the wall, with no bartender in sight, and there were a few booths hugging the corners.
“Lower this shit!” Red yelled. I hadn’t noticed a DJ, but someone was handling the music, because the decibels immediately came down a few notches.
Beard motioned for me to follow him farther into the place. No one gave us more than a passing glance as we walked toward the back of the room, where a set of stairs led to a second-story walkway that ended with a door to a room that was above the main floor.
The people in here might not have been interested in me, but I couldn’t help being mesmerized by them. They all seemed a bit…odd. Not in a way I could put my finger on…they just were. It was like when you caught sight of a strange person on the street but someone had gone and gathered them all up in the same place. Were some of these people vampires?
“What is this place?” I asked Beard, Red lingering behind and, from the looks of it, trying to unsuccessfully chastise a smiling Jerry.
“This is the Underground,” Beard said.
“Like, a club for…underground types?”
He smiled. “Exactly.”
As if they somehow sensed the need to demonstrate just how different they were, two men in the center of the room stood up, almost upending the table full of cards and chips in front of them.
“You’re a fucking cheat,” one of the men said, and I was close enough to see his fangs drop down as his lips curled back.
Holy shit, there were vampires in this place.
“Prove it!” the other shouted, and then his clothes were tearing off him until he morphed into a huge, snarling wolf. It happened so fast that I almost didn’t believe what I’d seen. Except I knew I’d just seen it. A vampire and a werewolf were about to rip into each other before my very eyes.
Beard reached forward, wrapped a hand around my arm, and tugged me back a few feet. “This is why they shouldn’t be able to play cards together, but nobody listens to me. Every damn week.”
Jerry, the handsome, smiling doorman, quickly made his way over and inserted himself in between the two about to go at each other as Red made his way toward me and Beard.
“Shouldn’t one of you two be helping him?”
Beard waved a hand in Jerry’s direction. “He’s fine. Kane will be out any second anyway. No one’s allowed to fight on the floor.”
“Pisses him off real bad,” Red added. “He’s sick of replacing furniture. Rules are, if you want to kill someone, you’ve got to take it out to the alley, where you can’t break anything. Also, it’s good to point out that you need to hose down any blood or fleshy bits left over. Those little pieces get stuck in the concrete nooks and crannies, and they’ll build up after a while. You get a bad stench then.”
Red was looking at me as if I’d understand what he was talking about, and I nodded, having not one idea what a rational answer sounded like in this situation. What the hell had I just walked into?
Beard took one look at me and must have read the shock there, even as I tried to hide it. He turned to Red, speaking over my head to him. “How many times do I have to tell you, too much information? Little bits at a time.”
Growling in the center of the room drew my attention back to the pair squaring off. Beard and Red were continuing to argue about how much I needed to know at the moment, when a light from above halted everyone in the room.
A man stepped onto the landing outside of the room above, and all eyes settled on his broad frame. He didn’t say anything, but the vampire’s fangs snapped back in and the werewolf let out a whimper as it sat back on its haunches.
The man on the top landing glanced around the room. His eyes landed on me briefly before he looked at my companions. He nodded before walking back into the room, this time leaving the door open.
“Who was that?” I asked, already sensing I’d found my destination.
“That would be the boss,” Red said as he moved toward the stairs.
Beard’s hand at my back suggested I follow. I was sandwiched between the two men as we made our way toward the stairs.
Peace returned, people turned occasionally as we walked past them, and I picked up the words “paper doll” more than once as they looked me over.
Why in the world would they call me a paper doll?
The room above the chaos turned out to be an office. A single lamp sat on a desk and shed just enough light to see how well used the space was as I took in the piles of papers and boxes with more papers beside it.
There were lots of papers and boxes, but no monsters? Where were the monsters? I turned, searching for them just as he spoke.
“This her?” The voice was deep, with a slight gravel to it, and although this man had spoken softly, he easily dominated the room.
I turned toward his voice, seeing him walk from one of the darkened corners across the room. He was taller than I’d realized. The smell of sandalwood and cedar, and something indefinably male, drifted toward me in his wake as he moved toward the desk.
He spared me a glance. Deep-set hazel eyes seemed to size me up in that instant and determine my value, before he settled behind the desk and his attention was drawn to one of his many papers. With his dark head turned, only a strong profile was visible.
The brief attention gave me a pretty good idea what he’d deemed my value to be. The last time I’d been dismissed so quickly by a man was before I’d gotten my first training bra.
“Yeah, Kane. This is the new one,” Beard said.
Kane’s perceived value meant nothing as I stepped forward on my own and took the chair in front of his desk, keeping my chin up and my shoulders square. It didn’t matter if he’d dismissed me as if I were a rat scurrying across his floor. That wasn’t my purpose here. Hopefully this man had the answer to a question I’d been asking my entire life. “Are you—”
He held up a hand, as if to tell me he needed another minute, except without being polite about it in any way. I held my tongue, but only because I needed him.
He finally laid the paper he was so engrossed by on his desk and gave me his full attention—for another half-second, anyway, before he turned to his man who was busy making himself a Keurig coffee on the side of the room.
“Butch, did you drop off that other thing before you fetched her?” he asked, looking at the man I’d been thinking of as Red.
“Yeah. Had to scare off the others before we got to her.” Butch rustled through a small drawer of little cups before he turned to Beard. “Leon, did you take the last French vanilla again?”
Leon walked over and peered over Butch’s shoulder. “I might’ve.”
“You might’ve, or you know?” Butch asked.
Kane kicked his feet up on his desk. “Leon, you forget to tell Isabella again?”
“Might’ve.” Leon’s cheeks bunched up.
Butch grabbed a little plastic cup out of the drawer, shaking his head the whole time he loaded it into the machine. “This is the third time you’ve done this in a month. You keep using all the French vanilla and then not telling Isabella.”
“You’re going to go out and get more before tomorrow morning,” Kane said to Leon.
Leon shrugged as he put up his hands. “I know. I’ll go. I swear.”
Butch took his coffee from the machine. “No, you’re really going this time. If I have to drink that other shit tomorrow, you’re collecting the next one on your own.”
Next one? Did they mean people? This wasn’t the first time they’d mentioned having done this before. How many times had this happened? Looking about the room and their attitudes, it certainly didn’t seem as if I were a novelty.
Leon moved in front of the machine. “I said I’d go. What else do you want from me?”
Butch didn’t’ stop shaking his head until he took a sip of his new coffee, which seemed to start him back up again. “I swear, no French vanilla and you are on solo.”
Leo wasn’t even speaking anymore, but gesturing with his hands, as if to say, I can’t do anything else about it.
I’d watched a vampire and a werewolf nearly kill each other a minute ago, I’d confirmed that my monsters were real an hour ago, and all these people were worried about was having the waft of French vanilla clinging to their morning coffee? Enough with this. “Excuse me.”
When that didn’t stop the coffee quibbling, I repeated myself, a hair shy of a scream. “Excuse me.”
They all turned toward me as if they had forgotten I was sitting there.
I nailed this Kane with a glare worthy of my cashier days, when a customer didn’t help bag. “I’m sure your coffee is very important, but you wanted to talk to me. Are we talking or not, because I’ve got other things I could be doing.” I didn’t bother mentioning that I’d probably want to talk to him more.
Kane’s attention was back on me, and his head tilted slightly to the side. “More backbone than the others. I dare say a little prickly, even? You sure you grabbed the right one?”
His goons had a good chuckle.
Butch sipped his second-choice coffee. “She’s a bit feistier than the others, for sure, but she checks all the boxes.”
“She does looks like one—black hair and grey eyes.” Kane’s gaze ran the length of me now that I had his attention. I gripped my hands on my lap, refusing to straighten my hair or look at the hole in my shirt. I shouldn’t have worried. The appraisal didn’t last long before he turned back to his thugs. “Where did you pick her up?”
“Store near her apartment,” Leon added, searching for his own K-cup as he struggled to make a choice.
Kane looked down at his desk again, holding up a sheet of paper. “Your name is Olivia Wit, correct?”
“I’d hope you would know that after your men stalked me for the last two days.” “Stalked” might’ve been a little strong, but I needed to make my point. He was the one that wanted something, as far as he knew.
Kane let out a small laugh before adding, “She is amusing.”
For someone who looked to be in his early thirties, he’d really been spending a lot of that time growing a hell of an ego on him. If I hadn’t needed answers, I might’ve told him to go screw and walked out. But I did, so I sat silently and glanced around the room again.
Where were they? They never went away, ever. I leaned back, making it look like I was checking out where Butch and Leon were as I checked out every corner of the room again. They had to be here. Had to.
“Are you looking for something?”
I swung back around to see Kane had gotten out of his seat and perched on the desk right in front of me. It reeked of an intimidation tactic. Wouldn’t work. You can’t scare someone with a death wish. Only thing it did was confirm that the two of us were about as alike as the North Pole and the equator.
I lounged back in my seat, muscles as languid as ever, and I could see from the way his eyes took in my form that he got the signal. This Kane guy was full of himself, but some of the ego might’ve been earned. He was not going to be easy to navigate.
Decades worth of questions were rattling around in my mind, but spewing them out rapid fire wasn’t a good way to ensure I’d get the answers. He’d been searching for me. He needed me for something. That was the most important question at the moment.
“I’m not looking for anything. Your men said you wanted to speak to me?” I raised my eyebrows, letting him know that I wasn’t to be toyed with. Game on.
“If you’re honest, this will go much smoother. You don’t want to lie to me.” He didn’t break eye contact, his legs a foot from my own.
I stared back. “And if I don’t answer?”
“This chick ain’t only crazy, she’s got a death wish,” Butch whispered to Leon while they drank their coffee. They were watching the standoff between us like we weren’t just prime time, but prime time on premium cable.
The thing was, I wasn’t crazy. I needed answers, and badly. I couldn’t blow it by getting my back up because maybe this guy wasn’t so likeable.
We watched each other for another couple of seconds before he made a second attempt.
“You’re seeing a psychiatrist because of visions?”
I knew I had to meet him halfway. I couldn’t leave without answers… I just couldn’t. “If I answer your questions, will you answer mine?”
He nodded. “If I can. Tell me about the visions.”
I glanced to the corner behind him, still looking for the monsters that had gone missing, before I looked back at him and said, “I see things in the shadows.”
“What types of things?”
I slumped in my chair, pulling away as much as I could, from the questioner and the question, out of reflex. I’d said I wanted answers, and I did, but years of hiding the truth was a hard habit to overcome. I didn’t talk about this, not unless I had to, and certainly not to someone I didn’t know.
But this was the cost, and I’d never been so close to the truth before. “It varies. They come in all shapes and sizes. The only constant is that they seem to form in the shadows of things. Sometimes a person’s shadow and sometimes the shadow of things like a bookcase or a house.”
He crossed his arms as he leaned back. “Do they speak to you?”
“Sometimes.” I crossed my arms. “My turn. The monsters I see in the shadows, do you know what they are?”
“I know about everything.”
That was one of those statements that would’ve driven me crazy before the explosion, before I’d learned what really mattered. He could keep his arrogance as long as he could manage. He’d learn, just as I had, that nothing and no one in this world was safe. Once you learned that lesson, it was hard to feel like anything grander than an ant moving along and waiting to be stepped on.
Didn’t matter what delusions he had. They weren’t my problem.
“Then what are these monsters that…” My brain always got stuck on this part, like a mental tic or a skip in a record, as if my mind was trying to delete that verse of the song.
“That caused the explosion?” he added.
He hadn’t helped out of consideration, but out of expedience. This man was as cold as a January frost.
“Yes.” Every other time I’d broached the subject of the monsters in the shadows, I’d been laughed out of the room. It was hard to believe that after twenty-two years, I might finally get some answers.
“They’re called crawlers, and they’re real enough to take out an entire building full of people. They’re creatures from another dimension that leak out into this world. Most can’t see them. That doesn’t mean they aren’t real.
“That’s how I found you. There’s certain telltale signs of their presence. Mass casualty events with only one survivor tend to be a flag.”
“That thing, the one that I saw right before…” Fuck. I was not going to get choked up now. I needed to pull it together.
So much for game on. If I kept going like this, it was going to be more like cry on. My entire life I’d been told I was crazy. I’d lost everything and people had said I was having a psychotic breakdown. And just like that, in a blink of an eye, all my beliefs were validated, and in the worst possible way.
“Ah, fuck. She’s gonna cry now. They always cry,” Butch said.
“I hate this part,” Leon added.
I turned and nailed the thug brothers with a look that would’ve fried bacon. “Do I appear to be crying to you?” And I wouldn’t, especially not now.
Turning away from them, I tried to concentrate on the information Kane was giving me, but I couldn’t stop myself from getting sucked back into the swamp of emotions. They nearly drowned me every time I thought of that day.
I could still see the blast, feel the heat as I stood there and watched, knowing in that moment they were all gone—my father, my mother, and my sister. “I tried to get them out.”
My skin warmed as I realized what had slipped out, and I wished I could reel the words back in. I seemed to have a problem with shutting down completely whenever I remembered.
Whenever I had talked about the incident, whoever the unlucky bystander was who might’ve been nearby, they always tried to make me feel better. I’d watch as they’d searched for words that would fix this. Some things weren’t fixable. You merely learned to live with them.
I glanced up and could see this man didn’t have that issue. He wasn’t searching for words. He took what I’d said in as if it were a statement, and made no effort to fix it. I wasn’t sure if it was because he knew he couldn’t or if he was so cold he simply didn’t care enough to try.
Maybe it should’ve been hurtful, but it wasn’t. It was a relief. I’d spent too many years trying to ward off other people’s fixes even before this, and nothing was preferable.
When he finally spoke again, it wasn’t to me, but to Butch and Leon.
“Definitely Shadow Walker.”
They grunted their agreement.
“A Shadow Walker?” I asked, looking at him, then to Butch and Leon, then back to him. “How did this happen to me?”
He straightened and walked behind his desk, as if he were losing interest again, but he kept talking. “A Shadow Walker is an anomaly of the human race. They pop up randomly from ordinary families all the time for no apparent reason.”
“Can you all see them, too?”
“I can.” He pointed at his men. “They can’t.”
“Are you a Shadow Walker?”
The answer was abrupt enough that I knew there would be no other details forthcoming about how he could see them too. I didn’t care. The importance of it was dwarfed by the magnitude of the reality that he was confirming for me.
“So, what do you want from me? I’m sure you didn’t bring me here for my own enlightenment.” I doubted this man did anything for anyone but himself.
He laid another piece of paper he’d been perusing on the desk and looked back at me. “I need you to talk to these monsters.”
“Why don’t you talk to them yourself?”
“Because they’ll only speak to a Shadow Walker. For this, I’ll pay you five million dollars. Enough so that you can go lock yourself into a dark room until you die, if that’s what you want. I also know of a way to get rid of the crawlers after you’re done, if that’s also something you want.”
He could get rid of them? Was that really possible? I bit the side of my mouth so as to not spurt out what I was really thinking. If he had any idea how much I wanted them gone, who knew what someone like him would ask?
“Ten million,” I said, not caring if he gave a dime. I’d hold a conversation with my shoes for fifty bucks if he wanted. I’d talk up a storm, like a drunken parrot on a pirate ship, if that was what it took to get rid of these crawlers.
“Done,” he said, as if it were of no consequence.
If he was lying about the money, he might be lying about getting rid of the monsters too. “I want to see proof of funds.”
His eyebrows rose, as if he doubted what he’d heard. “Proof of funds?”
“Yes. I think that’s a pretty standard request, considering the transaction you’re proposing. Don’t you have a bank statement or something?”
“There’s other ways to accomplish this.”
“I’m sure there are.” I knew an implied threat when I heard one, and I thought on it for a moment. Then decided I didn’t care. “From what I’m hearing and surmising from you and your men, I’m not the first Shadow Walker you’ve…approached. Maybe not even the twentieth?”
He leaned an elbow on the arm of his chair, not admitting or denying. I peeked over my shoulder, and the thug brothers both shrugged. Good enough.
Turning back around, I leaned forward as if I were about to share a dark secret with Kane, then whispered in a sort of loud way, “Doesn’t seem like it’s been working out so hot, so I think you should work with me.”
His jaw shifted slightly; he clearly wasn’t appreciating my humor. “I’m tempted to throw caution to the wind and let you go self-destruct on your own.”
It was the first time I’d seen anything other than a frosty exterior, and the heat he threw off nearly singed me across the desk.
He was pissed, but I wasn’t playing make-believe that he could do what he said without some sort of proof. “Is that a no?”
“I’d show her proof,” Leon said from the back corner of the room. “I think this one might actually last a while.”
Kane’s eyes flickered over my face, and I knew he was judging me by some measure I couldn’t possibly guess at, as this was my first go around, and who knew how long these people had been doing this?
“You’re pretty fearless,” he said.
My eyes widened a hair at the unexpected compliment. “Thank you.”
He wasn’t smiling when he added, “Probably to the point of stupidity.”
I crossed my legs as I mustered up my best glare. “I’ve been scared a long time and it’s gotten me nowhere. Useless emotion.”
“I hope you can hang on to that attitude, but I’m not optimistic. There’s a lot to be scared of.”
He was speaking to me as if I knew nothing of the world, as if I hadn’t lived through my own personal hell. Maybe I was barely hanging on, but that didn’t mean I still wasn’t holding. “I don’t break easy.”
“Break?” he scoffed as if I’d made a bad joke. “You think what you’ve been doing is living? You’re already broken.”
I looked at the handsome bastard who seemed to think he knew it all, and couldn’t stop myself from jabbing back. “Yeah? Well, I’m not so optimistic about you, either.”
I wished my insult took root, but it didn’t seem to even nick his surface.
He reached down, and I heard the sound of a dial moving then the noise a safe makes as its locks disengage.
“Here,” he said, dropping the contents of a velvet bag on the table. “There’s proof of funds.”
The diamonds sparkled in the light, but that didn’t mean they were real.
“How do I know they aren’t cubic zirconia?”
He relaxed back on his reclining chair, and I got the sense he wasn’t going to argue with me anymore.
“Supposing you do have the cash—”
“Why, thank you for that leap of trust.”
I nodded, not really caring about the money so much, but the next thing was a deal breaker. But if he was honest about the cash, he was probably on the up-and-up about being able to get rid of the crawlers. “So, I get the money, you’ll get rid of the creatures, and all I need to do in return is speak to them?”
“Yes. They have information I need.” He was leaning back in his chair again as he sorted through more papers, as if this negotiation was taking up too much of his time.
He didn’t bother looking up at me as he answered. “A spell. I’ll let you know more as needed.”
“I can get spells? As in magical spells?” Magic. I could do magic? While I was in awe, he seemed uninterested.
“Yes.” He reached over and pressed a button on the phone on his desk. “Bella, can you come in here, please?”
A stunning blonde, probably about the same age as Kane, if I had to guess, walked in a moment later. After a quick glance at me, she stepped around the desk to stand so close to Kane that her pencil skirt and blouse brushed his arm.
“What rooms do we have available?” Kane asked, glancing at her.
She opened up the book she had in her hands and blew out a little stream of air as her eyes widened. “We’re pretty packed since the fire sisters burned down the building on eighth.”
“Is there anything? She’s a Shadow Walker, so…” His voice was soft as he spoke to her, and I wasn’t sure if it was because of who he was speaking to or the subject matter.
“Oh.” She glanced over at me again as if she’d missed something, then went back to her book. “Well, if it’s not going to be for long, there’s always the suite on sixth if you want to put her there.”
“I don’t need a room. I haven’t agreed yet, and I definitely didn’t say I’d stay here even if I did.”
Kane and Isabella glanced at me as if they thought they’d heard something, but then went back to speaking to each other.
“Nothing else?” His voice, which had been softer, now held a slight edge.
“I know you like to leave that open, but it’s the only thing available.”
“Fine. Give her the rooms on sixth.” He was addressing her and motioning toward me with his hand.
“I haven’t agreed to stay. You can’t keep me here. It’s against the law.”
“Whose law?” He shook his head while Butch and Leon laughed, and even this Isabella woman was smiling.
“You people can laugh all you want. I’m not staying here.” I made sure I looked at everyone in the room so they saw this wasn’t a joke to me.
I’d just finished glaring at Leon when Kane said, “And I’m not going to force you to. You’re going to come back here of your own accord within days. Your kind always do. I’m doing you a favor.”
I stood, getting ready to make a run for it if needed, in case he was lying. “You can keep your favors. I don’t need them.”
I heard the thugs exhaling loudly. The woman rolled her eyes, and Kane didn’t seem to care either way.
“I knew she was going to be more difficult than the others,” Butch said. “She came too easy. It didn’t bode well.”
I turned in time to see his friend shake his head in commiseration. As if noticing me watching him, he added, “Cut her some slack. She doesn’t know any better.”
I was certain that was for my sake alone.
Kane cleared his throat. “I don’t have time for this right now. Don’t speak to the monsters without me and don’t get involved if you see something. The rest we’ll work out when you get back. You can go now.”
“See something?” I asked.
His attention had already moved on to something Isabella was showing him.
“You’ll understand.” He pointed to Butch and Leon. “See her home.” He went back to his paperwork and waved a hand toward the door, dismissing me.
As I walked from the room, the only thing that kept repeating in my head was, What a dick.
Didn’t matter. I knew what I was now, and I had a name for the monsters. I might not have to ever come back. If he knew a way to get rid of these crawlers, then I’d be able to find it too.
“Come on, let’s go bring you home,” Leon said as we walked away from Kane’s office.
“For now,” Butch added.
I nearly tripped over my feet by the sudden reemergence of the crawlers, but caught myself before I fell. “Why weren’t there crawlers in the office?”
“Me and Butch don’t see them. Couldn’t tell you why they’re one place and not another,” Leon said.
I moved forward, walking down the stairs. Butch and Leon were walking behind me as I heard Butch saying to Leon, “How do we keep pulling this duty for the last goddamn six months?”
“Because you pissed him off and I tried to cover your ass. You did this to us. It’s your fault,” Leon replied.
“Exactly how many women have you kidnapped?” I asked as Leon moved past me once we hit the main floor.
“Not only women. Men too. We like to consider ourselves equal opportunity abductors,” he answered with a chuckle.
“How many people, then?”
“I don’t know, a few hundred?” Butch asked Leon.
Leon nodded. “Yeah, about that, give or take fifty. But they weren’t all abductions. I mean, you came mostly willingly, if you think about it.”
“What happened to the others?” I asked as we made our way through the main room that seemed to be in full swing now. I saw a couple of pairs of fangs hanging down, and the man who had turned into a wolf.
“Shadow Walkers never last long. They seem to be born inherently weak. That’s why they’re called paper dolls. It’s not like humans tend to be strong, but nothing like paper dolls,” Butch said.
Leon turned and shot Butch a look.
Butch said, “It’s not like she wouldn’t have found out.”
I didn’t bother mentioning that I’d already heard the name on the way in, and it wasn’t a huge leap of logic to put that together. That wasn’t the thing that caught my attention.
“Why do you say human like I’m the only human here?”
Leon cleared his throat. “That’s not what he said.” He was staring down Butch something awful.
“Nope. You misunderstood. Me and Leon, a hundred percent human. Kane too.” Butch moved in front of me, and then Leon, with a sudden burst of energy toward the door.
The cold, brittle air gusted through the alley as we made our way toward the Caddy, Butch speeding forward and yanking open the front passenger door.
“You’re such a child,” Leon called. He motioned me toward the back seat.
I couldn’t seem to remember how we’d gotten here, or I would’ve headed off on foot. But I didn’t know how to get back, and it was really damn cold, so I climbed in the back seat.
It didn’t take long for Butch to start chatting to Leon. “One of these times I say we just keep ’em. I’m tired of escorting them all around when I have plans. We lock ’em up in one of the closets until they are willing to do whatever he says.”
Leon waved his right hand all around. “You know how Kane feels about that. Waste of energy when they all come back on their own.”
I ignored their chatter. It didn’t matter what they said or what they wanted, and they could talk about closets the whole way back if they felt like it. I wasn’t going to see either of them again anyway. I was going home with the answers I’d gotten, and it would be enough to find my own way out of this mess.
I settled back and tried to commit the scenery to memory as we rode away from the building to parts of Boston I recognized. By the time we hit the North End, I couldn’t remember how we’d gotten there.
They pulled up to the curb right in front of my building.
I got out of the car, never so happy to see my building.
I glanced back at them as they got out of the car. “That’s a tow away zone.” As far as I was concerned, a ticket was the least these two should get, but maybe that would make them leave.
“Yeah, it’s great you have one right in front of your building,” Butch said, as they both followed me inside the lobby.
I kept walking forward, still hoping they wouldn’t follow.
“No elevator?” Butch asked as I walked past it and to the stairs.
“It’s only one flight, and you don’t need to see me up.” I climbed. They followed.
I managed to open up a gap of space between us as I got to my apartment. I opened the door and the two suits I’d seen, the ones who’d approached me yesterday in the lobby, were sitting on my couch eating my Doritos.
“What are you doing?”
One of them looked up mid-crunch.
“Sorry. You’ve been gone a while, and we got hungry.” His shorter friend put the cookies he was holding down on my table, next to what I knew to be my last bottle of water.
“What I mean is, what are you doing in my apartment?” I walked over and jerked the bag of Doritos away. Between the cookies and the Doritos, they were eating what would probably be my dinner tonight, since the pizzeria had surely tossed my pie hours ago.
One of the suits’ mouths dropped open, as they caught sight of Butch and Leon entering behind me.
“You two,” he sputtered.
“Time to leave. Already brokered a deal.” Leon waved his hands in a grand gesture toward the open door that was partially visible through the hall.
“You brokered a deal with them? But we saw you first,” the shorter one whined as they stood.
“Yes,” I lied. I thought I lied, anyway. I hadn’t signed anything. “Get out and leave my cookies.”
“You heard her,” Butch said.
I watched as the two men got up and made a path for the door. They were leaving, but it wasn’t quietly.
The shorter of the two mumbled, “I told you not to eat those Doritos. Told you she wouldn’t like it. Now look.”
“I was only going to have one chip when you dug the cookies out.”
“You started it.”
“Was I supposed to watch you eat?”
I could hear them arguing all the way down the hall.
“You too,” I said as I watched Butch and Leon making their way to the couch. “I want to be alone, and I don’t need you people here.”
“We cleared your apartment and now we have to go?” Butch asked, as if somehow insulted.
I pointed toward the door.
Butch shook his head but turned to leave. “Just once it would be nice if it went down differently,” he said to Leon.
“I know,” Leon said, following him.
I watched them exit and shut the door behind them, but just as with the first two, I could hear them speaking as they walked away.
“She didn’t seem so bad,” Leon said.
“She’s talking a good game, but she’s still a paper doll. She’s not going to be around long, anyway.”
I locked the deadbolt and opened my laptop. My fingers flew over the keyboard as I typed, Shadow Walker and Crawlers.
Unfortunately, this wouldn’t be easy, since all three of those words were common enough to draw thousands of hits.
I grabbed my bag of Doritos and a half-full bottle of water I’d left in the kitchen, settled into my dent, and started reading.
I looked at the monster closest to me curled up on my couch like it was a pet cat, and was tempted to ask the little shit how it spelled its name. Even if it did answer, I’d given up on making heads or tails of most of their words years ago. It was an odd day when they spoke anything resembling English. Plus, Kane had warned me not to speak to them. Maybe it was for the best to err on the side of caution.
After I’d spoken to them the last time…
Nope, not going to think of that.
No matter how many articles I pulled up, nothing sounded remotely like what I was dealing with. There was that weird occult shop on the corner. I’d stopped in there a very long time ago, but I hadn’t had a name then. Might not hurt to stop in there now. I found their hours online and shut my computer.
Eyes burning from lack of sleep, I checked the time. A couple of hours and they’d be opening for the morning.
I leaned back into my indent, hoping they’d have answers and I wouldn’t have to go talk to that nasty man again.
Even though I’d tried to catch some sleep in the couple of hours left before dawn, I was as wired as if I’d had jumper cables hooked up to me. Having another person say the monsters were real somehow made them all the worse. By the time the clock hit twenty to nine, I was out the door and heading to the mystical shop on foot, not wanting to get stuck in a cab with a crawler.
I got there ten minutes earlier than their opening time, but the lights were already on and the door was unlocked. There was a lone woman sitting behind the table. Her hair was a mixture of blond and grey, with all sorts of wavy pieces trying to break free from order.
“Can I help you?” She had a manner about her that invited confidence, and there was a price list hanging behind her that offered tarot readings by Susie for thirty dollars.
I glanced at the back wall of the shop, which was lined with books. “Do you have any books on Shadow Walkers?”
Her face scrunched like a paper bag, adding ten years to the already forty-something. “Shadow what?”
I leaned a hand on the glass counter that housed all sorts of stone baubles, fearing I’d already gotten my answer. “Walkers. Shadow Walkers.”
“Never heard the term.” Her head tilted. “What is that?”
I rested both hands. “What about crawlers? Have you ever heard of them?”
She pursed her lips and shook her head. “Never. Are you sure you have that right? I thought I’d heard of everything.”
I dropped my head. “I don’t know.”
“I’ve heard of a lot of stuff, but not that,” she said.
I nodded. I was going to have to go back. If I couldn’t find out any more on my own, I wasn’t going to have a choice. I took a couple of steps away and then sat on the wooden bench not far from the register as an especially ugly crawler sidled up beside Susie.
I had the names, and they did nothing for me. Had he made them up? Resting elbows on knees, I dropped my face into my hands. What choice did I have but to go back?
“You know, I’ve got a friend, a fella that owns a shop on the other side of town. I could give him a call if you want?”
She was probably offering because I presented such a pathetic-looking figure. Maybe she was afraid I wasn’t going to leave as I sat there pondering my options on her bench. I didn’t particular care why. I popped my head back up. “That would be fantastic.”
She nodded, not looking overly happy she’d mentioned it, but digging out her cell phone and calling anyway.
“Hey, Pete, I’ve got a girl over here that’s asking if I’ve got any information or books on something called a Shadow Walker or crawlers?” She looked at me as she said the words, as if to make sure she had them right.
She let her eyes wander around the shop the way people do when they’re only half listening to a conversation. Then something was said that caught her attention, her brow furrowed, and her eyes shifted back to me.
“Yeah, I’m still here,” she answered. “Okay.”
She hung up the phone but kept it in her hand. She licked her lips and mustered up a fake smile.
“Sorry, he didn’t know anything, so you should probably get going.” She was going to lose some skin on her hand if she didn’t let up on the knuckle rubbing.
I slowly rose to my feet. “You’re lying.”
“You need to go now.” She took a step back, her eyes darting around the shop as if looking for an escape route.
“Not until you tell me what you know,” I said, walking over to the counter.
“Will you go then?” Her voice had acquired a whine.
“Yes,” I answered, and hoped I wasn’t lying.
“All he knows is it’s some sort of dark magic and that really bad things happen around you people.”
“He said if you were asking, there was a good chance you were either one or connected to one somehow.” She pointed toward the door. “That’s all he said. I swear. Now please leave or I’m going to call the police.”
“Thank you,” I said, and turned to leave. She followed me at a distance, and I saw her locking the door through the windows a moment later, and then pulling down her shades.
What kind of monster was I?
I walked a few blocks away, coming to terms with the fact that I might need Kane. I might have to go back there.
No might. I was going to have to go back.
I dodged a monster that vaguely reminded me of Snuffleupagus from Sesame Street and was walking along in a small girl’s shadow, and found myself heading toward the mall. I didn’t know why, but the monsters tended to not like the place that much. Maybe if I could get rid of some of them, I could think clearer. There had to be some other way than him.
After dodging another twenty or so monsters, it wasn’t long before I was swinging open the door to the mall entrance and getting hit with a blast of warm air, just in time to keep my toes from freezing. I hit the main floor and headed toward the candle shop. Not only did the crawlers not like the mall, they seemed to hate the smell of candles. It wouldn’t buy me too much time, because their like for me seemed greater than their aversion to smelly wax.
I turned a corner, five stores away from smelling some pumpkin spice and berry blast, and saw them.
A teenage girl, maybe seventeen or eighteen, was leaning with her back against the wall in between a sporting goods store and Sarah’s Secret Undies. A man, about twenty, was facing her, his hand planted on the wall beside her shoulder. I was only ten feet shy of them when I watched as the man curled his lips back, his fangs descended, and he sank them into her throat.
There, in the middle of the mall. During the day? There wasn’t a drop of sunlight in this place, though. Could be?
As I fought back a scream, people walked past as if it weren’t happening.
His head was positioned in a way that made me think his teeth must’ve been in her. The girl started pushing on his chest, and then switched to hitting his shoulders and back when that didn’t work.
Kane’s words came back to me. Don’t get involved.
I wasn’t a total novice. I’d watched Buffy. I knew what I had to do.
I searched the immediate vicinity for a weapon. A stake; I needed some sort of stake. Luckily, I was next to a Tim’s Toys. There was a miniature pool table set up outside, with tiny cue sticks. I grabbed one off the table and ran up behind the creature before he killed the girl.
I gripped the cue with both hands over my head. I only had one shot of killing it, and that was while the vampire was transfixed on sucking everything this girl had out of her.
The disgusting results from slamming a makeshift stake into the heart of the creature were immediate. The man was gone, replaced by a pile of goo and clothes in front of me, and I was left holding the miniature cue. I’d just killed my first vampire.
People kept walking past as if nothing were amiss. The girl, who’d been screaming, was now calm and rubbing her neck as if she had a cramp.
Her eyes settled on me as I stared at her, waiting for her to start gushing thanks.
She looked down at the ground between us. “Ew, did you just, like…throw up? Gross.” She curled up her lips and walked away, as if I were a drunken bum.
I dropped the stick in the pile, my hands shaking. What the hell was going on here?
It took ten minutes to run back to my apartment, and I almost wiped out as I ran up the stairs because of all the puddles. Someone needed to put up a damn sign. As soon as I reached my apartment, I slammed and locked my door behind me and then sagged against it.
Then I looked down the hallway and saw my living room.
My blinds had been pulled down and the cushions of my couch ripped open. My table was broken, only three legs left, with a stray one across the room.
I half walked, half bounced off the walls, on my way to the bedroom, to find it was no better, my drawers emptied, the mattress off its frame. Not to mention the place was crawling with monsters, and I didn’t have time for them.
“Get the hell away,” I yelled as a large one stepped in front of me.
I clapped a hand over my mouth, but the words were already out. Great. Now I’d done both of the things that Kane had asked me not to, just as I was coming to terms with him being my only option.
On my way out, I shut and locked the apartment, more out of habit than anything else. I could leave it open at this point. What was the worst that would happen? They’d cut my couch into four pieces?
I walked down the stairs and made it across the street before grinding to a halt. I had no idea where Kane was. I couldn’t remember the first thing about getting back to his building, and I’d tried to commit it to memory.
My mind was filled with nothing but gaping holes when the explosion happened. Instinct had me crouching and covering my head as debris rained down.
I stayed there, huddled on the sidewalk, as I heard people yelling and running past me.
My arms were still wrapped around my head, and I might have stayed like that all night if someone hadn’t stopped in front of me.
“You okay, lady? Were you in there?” a boy asked.
I coughed, trying to clear my throat enough to sound confident.
“I’m fine. I was just walking by.”
The kid, probably only ten or eleven, nodded and moved closer to the scene that was still at my back.
I stood but didn’t look, only moved farther down the block until I would appear to be more of a spectator to the fire than a victim. There was a little unoccupied stoop I crouched into, preparing for what I’d see.
The entire building, from the first floor to the sixth, was blowing flames. Large chunks of the brick wall were missing; the largest section was where my apartment had been.
People were coming out of the nearby building like ants out of a disrupted nest, all swarming to see the tragedy. The crawlers watched beside me as if mesmerized by the flames’ dance of destruction, as the last of my life seemed to smolder away.
* * *
The hours churned on as the fire department fought a flame that refused to go out. People came and went, drifting closer until they’d gotten their fill of the disaster and left to go to their own cozy homes. I stopped noticing them as I sat there. I didn’t notice much of anything other than the flames, until the monsters started to scatter. Since I’d been old enough to remember, they’d been with me. There had only been one time that they’d been absent.
Down the road, a man, silhouetted by a streetlight behind him, headed my way.
Kane stopped a few feet shy of me. He watched the building burn without saying anything, not a “sorry” or any other condolence. Just like the first time I’d spoken to him, I found his lack of emotion and empathy to be a relief. It was the one quality I did like about him. I didn’t have to respond to the normal platitudes. It just was.
When he finally spoke, it wasn’t what I’d expected. “I told you not to do two things. You did both.”
When he’d first approached, I figured he’d seen this on the news, but they hadn’t been there for the vampire killing.
“How’d you know?”
“Leon and Butch have been tailing you.”
Should’ve known that. I leaned back against the door of the empty building.
“Why hadn’t I seen a vampire until you got involved in my life?”
Even in the early evening lack of light, I could see the look in his eyes.
“Because you’ve reached your magical majority. For some it comes in their teens; sometimes, like with you, it’s early twenties. Others it isn’t until their thirties. You’re going to see a lot of things now because the veil has lifted.”
He took a couple of steps away from me and then stopped. “You won’t be able to get back without me showing you, and I think you know your options have shrunk to one.”
He was right. I’d tried to remember where the Underground was before and my mind had drawn a blank, as if I’d never been there. There were some people out there that had a bad sense of direction, but I wasn’t one of them. I only need to go somewhere once and it was as if I had a burned path in my brain, but not with that place.
The sound of his feet hitting cement made it clear he wasn’t waiting. Unless I wanted to sleep on the street tonight, I needed to get moving. He knew it and I knew it. Wasn’t anything left to argue.
I thought bottoms were reserved for drug addicts and gamblers. Apparently not, since I was pretty sure I was wallowing in the muck of the lowest denominator.
I stood up and let out a string of curses, every one I’d ever heard, and loud enough that the people still watching the fire looked over at me.
He stopped and glanced back at me too, before looking at a gold watch on his wrist. Monsters had just blown up my apartment building, I was on the verge of losing whatever sanity I had left, and he was concerned about having a few more minutes of his time wasted. If this wasn’t the bottom, I was afraid to see what that underbelly looked like.
I caught up to him, and we walked away from the disaster still roaring behind us. Instead of dodging monsters in my path, I was dodging groups of people showing up to see the fire that just wouldn’t quit. No one and nothing stepped in front of Kane.
He had a car waiting a block away, and I climbed into the passenger seat of the black sports car, a type I’d never seen and certainly couldn’t name, which had a strange-looking B on the steering wheel.
As we drove into the area that was way too quiet to be a part of Boston, but was somehow, I asked, “Why is it that I don’t remember how to get back to the Underground?”
“Because you aren’t supposed to.”
“How can I stay somewhere I can’t get back to once I leave?”
“You’ll remember after you sign.”
“Standard nondisclosure form.”
I watched as we drove, determined to remember anyway. He parked the car in the alley as I tried to think of the last three or four turns. I couldn’t remember anything before parking.
He walked inside the building, and I got the feeling he would’ve left me in the alley if I hadn’t hurried along. People glanced over, but nobody batted an eye as we walked across the main floor and up the stairs into his office, lending credence to the idea that this probably happened over and over again. Now that I was firmly stuck, I wasn’t sure I wanted to know how many times.
I took the now-familiar seat in front of his desk. He walked behind it, opened a drawer, and pulled out a sheet of paper.
He laid the paper and a pen in front of me.
You are hereby bound to not disclose anything.
This was the nondisclosure? No threatening of libel or suing in court? Was this some sort of joke?
I held the sheet up. “There’s no names on this, not even a date?”
“It’s covered.” He pushed the pen toward me.
“What about my conditions?”
He rested a hip on the desk as he said, “I’m good for them.”
I laid the sheet down again. I had nothing left to argue with, and nothing to lose. I took the pen and signed my name and then slid the paper toward him.
He picked it up, crumpled it into a small ball, and then threw it into the air. It didn’t come back down in one piece, but broke apart and disappeared into smoke.
As it did, it felt like a vise was wrapping around my chest. It wasn’t quite crushing, but it wasn’t easy to draw a breath, either.
“It’ll pass in a few seconds.”
As he was saying the words, the vise that had wrapped around my chest had already started to diminish. Note to self: it might be pertinent to ask a few more questions before I signed anything else. Seemed there were worse things than fine print when it came to signing contracts with Kane.
He looked down at the watch on his wrist again while I waited for my chest to expand fully.
“You could’ve warned me.”
He shook his head and stood, walking toward the door. “No, I couldn’t. Every time I have it’s taken an extra five to ten minutes to finish up this business. I’ll show you to your rooms.”
Wow, five or ten extra minutes. What a bitch that was.
I followed him out of the office as the reason I hated him so much struck home. It wasn’t that he was rude. Although he was. It wasn’t the coldness about him. I actually found that easier to handle. It was that when he talked to me, it was always like I was a colossal waste of time. That was what bugged the hell out of me, but I kept following him anyway, because I wasn’t up for living on the streets.
We made our way through the main floor and a hallway off the back, where two elevators stood side by side.
He pressed a button next to the one on the right. “This is the one you need. It only stops at the sixth floor. The other one doesn’t go that far.”
The doors slid open as I was about to tell him I didn’t take elevators.
He stepped into the elevator, free from crawlers. What was the deal with this guy? He was a walking crawler repellent.
He stood waiting as I eyed up the box. What if they showed up after the doors shut?
“They won’t get on.”
I stepped into the elevator with him. “It wasn’t them I was worried about.” It wasn’t a complete lie.
I knew this was “Kane’s level,” as Isabella had suggested as much, but I hadn’t thought it was only Kane’s level. But for as large as the hallway was, there were only two doors, which pounded home the impression I’d gotten the moment I’d stepped off the elevator. I was in his domain.
He walked to the door on the right and opened it.
It looked like a hotel suite, a very nice hotel suite with generic greys and whites. A sectional dominated the living room area, and a door off the back probably led to an equally generic bedroom and attached bath. Generic or not, it was a lot nicer than where I’d been living and wished I still was.
“Let Isabella know if you need anything.”
“Is there a key?” I asked.
“You don’t need one up here.” He walked toward the other door that I assumed was his place.
“Kane, one last thing.”
He stopped and turned.
Did I have the nerve to ask? Did I want an answer to this question? I wanted to know so many things…but this was the one thing that had kept me sitting there and watching the fire for hours on end.
“You told me not to speak to them without you. Why?” When he’d said it in the office, on some level I’d thought it had to do with keeping whatever magic he was searching for all to himself. Then my building had blown up.
He paused before answering. “Because you’ve hit your magical majority.”
It was an evasive answer, and I had a strange feeling he wasn’t doing it for his own sake. “But why does that matter?”
He turned fully toward me and paused again before saying, “You sure you want to know?”
“You can see crawlers, but they’re still bound to that other plane. Now that you’re of age, once you speak to them, they can use that contact to put a toe into our world.”
“So when I talked to them…” I swayed on my feet as he watched me, not moving toward me but standing where he was about five feet away. I reached out a hand to the wall.
That night, the evening of my sister’s gallery opening, I’d talked to one. I’d known it—even with everyone telling me it wasn’t my fault, I’d known it was. They’d said it was a freak accident with the heating system, but I’d never truly believed that. I’d known it was the monsters; I just hadn’t realized I’d been the one who gave them the opportunity.
I didn’t care what I looked like as I half slid, half fell onto the floor.
He was probably judging me. From the little I knew of Kane, I could already tell he wasn’t the type to fall apart over anything. He was probably thinking I was weak.
He could judge all he wanted. I didn’t care. I didn’t care if he stayed in the hall or left; either way, I was as alone as a person could be—except for the guilt.
I heard his footsteps as he approached. I saw his shoes as he stopped in front of me. I wasn’t sure what he was looking for—maybe tears? I didn’t have any of those left. I was entering a drought season after a rainy period.
“You’ll get over it,” he stated as if it were fact. “If you last.”
I let out a strange laugh that sounded like it came from a different person, one on the fringe of hysteria. “Must be nice to know everything.”
He didn’t shoot a comment back the way I thought he would. He just left.