“The creatures. They have many names, but the easiest to pronounce is earthdemon. Some superstitions call them spawn of Satan. I don’t know about that. They claim they evolved from a life form that developed beneath the earth, much the way people evolved from things that came out of the ocean.”
Talk about driving distractions, I had this flash vision of this guy in a bar sharing a pitcher of beer with giant frogs dressed in business suits. “Do you sit around discussing this stuff with them?”
“I have no head for science. That’s all I know about them.”
Usually I am very good at keeping my eyes on the road. Now I did a quick swivel. His face didn’t give away a thing. “You’re telling me that you converse with those things and discuss subjects like evolution?”
“Of course. They are very intelligent, Miss Royal. They know all the human languages as well as our history. What keeps them in hiding from humans is their genetics. They can’t infiltrate because of their forms and they can’t dominate because they reproduce very slowly and have only a fraction of our population.”
“Even if I believed you, I don’t know what these creatures have to do with me.”
“I am trying to tell you,” he said. “Three centuries ago your relatives somehow managed to destroy an earthdemon and he put a death curse on them. Curses are peculiar things, an attempt to use magic incorrectly. Or at least, that curse went wrong.”
Now he had so much of my attention, I was glad traffic was moving slowly and only required me to watch for traffic lights, brake lights, and pedestrians. “Keep talking. Went wrong how?”
He squirmed, his mouth drawing into a sucking lemons tightness, his hands moving along the sides of the seat. “This is damp. You must have left the window open to the rain.”
I smiled pleasantly at the windshield. “If your friends shoot my friends, I can’t promise dry seats.”
He held his hand palm up and stared at a smear of blood.
“Guess my car washer missed a bit,” I added. “You were telling me about a curse that went wrong.”
Pulling a handkerchief out of his pocket, he carefully wiped his hand. “It was a death curse. A curse done by a dying being has extra power. It was supposed to turn the Royals into sunspinners for the rest of their natural lives, another thirty years or so, to contemplate their act and suffer. It is an old curse meant to alter appearance, generally unused because it tends to be unstable. The demon who used it took a risk with an unknown. He meant them to have thirty years to hide away from others and to live with hunger and pain and persecution. Possibly be hunted as witches. That was rather popular at that time, along with a belief that witches and Satan could be invisible for short periods of time and therefore sneak up on people and harm them.”
“What?” I spotted an unloading zone and slid in. Maybe I overestimated my ability to drive and listen. I wanted to study this guy’s face to look for signs of lying. “Thirty years? They’ve been around ten times that long.”
“Yes. Apparently whatever makes people die was destroyed by the sunspinning. I am told that curse is meant to make beings fade in and out at odd times. It somehow adds light to their cells. Does that sound right? My guess is that the light destroyed something in their DNA. They are a bit like the Joshua trees, lack whatever it is that makes life forms die. That might also make them immune to common illnesses. Tell me about the man who was with you. Is he one of the sunspinners? He looked normal. Is that true of the others? Are they immune to pain? Can they invoke degrees of invisibility?”
So he didn’t know the Royals’ limitations. He wasn’t aware that digging out a bullet hurt like hell before it started to heal over. Or that they retained whatever frailties they already had, that Walter suffered from weak eyes and aching joints, that Edith sometimes lost her balance. He wasn’t even sure about the invisibility. Umm. Not something to tell him.
“What’s going on now?” I demanded. “The family has been in Seattle for over a century without seeing those monster things. No one has asked them to move before now.”
“The earthdemons have power bases elsewhere. They have multiplied at a much slower rate than humans. Still, they have multiplied. They have firm footholds in several countries. Their number in this country is growing. The northwest is new territory for them. It really has nothing to do with you except that you are caught in a battle for area control.”
“Make sense, mister.”
“Mortviner. Sorry, I should have introduced myself. I am Albert Mortviner. The best I can tell you is that there is a territorial power struggle starting and you are the stalemate. As long as you remain, your family remains. The earthdemons cannot move in while the sunspinners are here. What is needed is for you to leave and your relatives will go with you.”
“Okay, Al, you have one more minute to tell me why and then I want you out of my car.” Because I am sick of egotistical untrustworthy males. My life already contains way too many, I thought.
He made an unsuccessful attempt at a smile. “The truth can be dangerous, Miss Royal. The sunspinners may be indestructible but you are not. Nor is any other human and that includes your friend in the hospital.”
“Get out,” I said.
“Miss Royal, the sunspinners impede progress. The demons tried to advance and ran into a resistance. When they moved toward it, it increased in direct proportion to the location of your house. The sunspinners don’t exactly keep the demons out of the area, but they weaken their powers.”
I thought about that and then the lightbulb went on. “Are you saying that the sunspinners are like a vaccine, keeping an infestation of those demon things away?”
“That’s a simplification, but yes, it would seem so.”
“What are they keeping out? I mean, what do the demons want to bring in?”
“Nothing you will be aware of.”
“Like vice? Drugs? Corruption? Or do you mean the bit about vaccine literally, that they bring pestilence?”
“No, not pestilence.”
“But if we stay, the other bad stuff can’t move in?”
“It’s here. It’s everywhere. They don’t create it.”
Maybe not, but I was getting a picture of an ill-wind spreading a whole lot of evil. “They escalate it, right? Sounds like the sunspinners need to stay here for the sake of the whole population. Not much of an argument, Al.”
“I don’t need to argue,” he said. “You have two choices. Take my offer, move on, exist anywhere and any way you want, no limit on the cost. That one is simple and would satisfy. If you don’t accept, their second choice is to kill you, Miss Royal. If I could prevent that I would.
“Like you, I have no power against earthdemons. With you gone, your relatives will have to try to manage alone and I presume that is difficult for them. Their past history indicates that they remain in hiding and always have other family members protecting them. They will need a new cover. At that point, we will help them relocate and even provide them with a human caretaker of our choosing.
“The reason the demons prefer the first choice is that it will be faster. I’ll be in touch.”
He got out of my car, didn’t so much as look back at me, and hurried down the sidewalk and into the crowd. The back of the light gray suit was damp with odd pink blotches. Let him explain that to the cleaners.
It took me a long minute to pull my thoughts together and drive off. Demon gangs? A death curse that went wrong? The man was insane! Oh, right, that’s what my first husband said about me when I told him that my relatives were invisible.
At home I sat at the kitchen table clutching a beer bottle. Mist streaked the window making the room gray, but not dark enough to make Charley visible.
After I told him about my meeting with Mortviner, I asked him, “Is any of this possible?”
“I don’t suppose he told you why we originally wanted to kill that thing.”
“Don’t you know?”
“No. I really do try to remember, sweetie, but getting zapped into everlasting invisibility is kind of like shellshock, I guess. I go through this with every generation.”
With every generation of my ancestors, yes. I kept thinking of Charley in terms of now, as my contemporary. “Maybe you were destroying it because demons are evil.”
“We were some sort of avengers?” Charley asked. “Wow! Love it. But shouldn’t I have one of those gaudy capes? And be able to fly?”
“He didn’t explain why you destroyed it. All he said was that the curse backfired and bang, bang, you surprised them all by living forever.”
“Surprised us, too,” Charley said. “So now our choice is to go away nicely or they force us out.”
“And open some sort of channel for evil.”
“Hmm. If it was us or them, I’d say we stay. If we’re a roadblock to a demon invasion, good. That should win us good guy points in some universal game. But waiting for them to kill you? No way. Our best bet is to bargain and get the best deal. We haven’t moved in one hundred years. Maybe it’s time.”
“You think so? I wish I knew what they plan to bring in. Are they taking over a lottery? Or are we talking serious evil, destruction of the weak, exploitation, corruption, what?”
Charley pointed out, “Heroes in films don’t have a lot of fun, ever notice? Same in real life. That’s why people give them medals, to sort of make up for the suffering. You want to be a hero?”
“It’s never been my ambition.”
“You aren’t Buffy or Dr. Who or The Cheerleader. You have no magic powers.” He was trying to make me laugh and failing.
With my beer bottle as my security blanket, I said, “No, but you do. There’s something about the five of you that keeps them from taking control. And it’s worse than that. He said there are two factions, a kind of war for domination which will start as soon as we leave. Does that sound benign?”
“It sounds like a scare tactic,” he said.
“I thought so, too, at first. And then I thought about the rest of the world, places scattered all over the globe, a lot of them functioning fairly well. But what about the places where everyone lives in fear and where good people are removed violently? Maybe I feel this way because he called them demons. Maybe I am reacting to the term. I don’t really know what demons are, do you?”
“Something spawned by the serpent in the garden of Eden?”
“Mortviner said that the demons claim they are not spawn of Satan. They told him they evolved.”
“That evolution theory, that was Darwin, right? He was named Charley, too. He used to give these public lectures. Smart guy but no charisma on stage. I heard him early on. Maybe he got better.”
The thought of discussing Darwin’s stage presence made my head spin. “Hand me the phone, Charley. Let’s start by getting that window replaced.”
Ever try to replace a window? After a long phone call, the put-on-hold-and-transfer type, and a time-wasting discussion with the salesman who came out to the house, we agreed that I did not want all the windows replaced, I did want exactly the same type of window as had been there, and yes, it would be nice to cover the opening until the glass was ready.
Oh. They didn’t do that. I’d have to arrange that through a builder because the only service the window company provided was to install windows.
The salesman did a lot of measuring and note-taking. I stood around shivering in jeans and a Mariner sweatshirt. The April day was April chilly and with no window, that meant chilly inside and out.
After the salesman went away, Charley dragged some boards out of the garage. I watched them float above the lawn toward the house. While I stood guard, in case someone came wandering around the house, the boards arranged and nailed themselves in place.
“Car door out front,” Charley said and slapped the hammer into my hand.
Before I could say anything, two policemen rounded the corner of the house. Surprise, surprise, my old bad penny friends, showing up unwanted.
“Miss Royal? Broken window?”
I sighed and dropped the hammer on the ground so that they would not feel threatened because God forbid they should have any reason to spend an extra second thinking about me. “Yeah, the window salesman just left and do you know how long it takes to get a new window installed?”
“How did it break?” It was the same officer who had asked all the questions at the hospital. He had mentioned his name but I could not remember it. I asked.
“Jefferson,” he told me. Mister? Officer? Lieutenant? President? As out of practice of talking to policemen as I was, I had no idea and he didn’t say.
If I suggested neighborhood vandals, he would want all sorts of details and probably insist on a search of the property. A windstorm would involve a tree limb and there were no trees of that size in the back yard and no fallen limbs lying about. But there was a ladder leaning against the garage.
“I was carrying the ladder and I tripped on something, gopher hole probably, don’t suppose you know how to get rid of gophers?”
“You dropped the ladder through the window? Why were you carrying a ladder?”
I pointed at the rhododendrons. “Every year I have hopes of shaping up that hedge. I cut off mountains of branch, and next time I come outside, I swear, they’ve all grown back.”
“Is this the right time of year for trimming, when they are in bloom?” he asked.
“The right time for any garden chore is when I am in the mood.”
He gave me a good cop smile and said, “I thought most of the houses in this neighborhood use garden services.”
“That’s right, a truck full of workers who hop out and do a routine series of maintenance chores. They show up once a week in summer, less in winter. Its a yearly contract service. In between times I get inspired. Or uninspired. When a job assignment stymies me, I come out here and whack at the plants.”
Without so much as a flicker of a change of expression he said, “Mr. Norris has some scratches that look like glass cuts.”
“Wouldn’t be surprised,” I said. “He was here before we went up to the cemetery and he examined the window. He leaned over the ledge to see how bad it was.”
“And how bad was it?”
I held up my hands in a gesture of surrender. “You know what? Broken glass is broken glass whether it is cracked or is completely shattered. It is not something that can be repaired. There is nothing to do but get a new window put in.”
He gave me a long slow look that made it clear he knew I would think up an answer to any question and he wasn’t buying my replies. He would return with more questions.
That was fine by me. And if he caught a slimy green creature in my backyard, he was welcome to take it away with sirens blaring.
The phone in the office rang and was unmistakable through the gaping hole.
“Need to get that,” I said, “might be my insurance man,” and raced into the house and through the kitchen.
I left the policemen standing in my back yard. No, I was not going to invite them in for donuts but if they wanted to admire magenta rhodies, they were welcome.
My coffee cup was still on the counter, half-full, cold but better than nothing. I grabbed it off the counter in passing, and charged down the hall. My foot skidded on the freshly waxed floor as I rounded the corner, and for a moment, I expected to come down hard. But I managed to keep moving.
As I dove for the phone, I sloshed coffee all over my sweatshirt. I howled, grabbed the phone and screamed, “What? What?”
“Steve. From the office. Is this a bad time?”
Steve. Oh yeah. Getting to be a nuisance but not a cop nuisance and so I silently thanked him for the interruption.
“No, sorry, just spilled coffee, sorry, hi, Steve.”
“Umm, I was looking at the paper and saw this ad for this great new Thai restaurant opening on Capitol Hill. At least, the ad looks great. I wondered, want to try it tonight?”
I scowled at my coffee cup and at my lousy memory. What was the last excuse I’d given him?
“That’s so kind of you but I really can’t tonight,” I said, and reached across the desk to flip on my e-mail.
There was this pause during which I tried to remember if I had once told him I liked Thai. Why would I do that?
Before I could remember what excuse I had previously used, Steve said, “That’s okay. Sorry to bother you.”
Nothing from Mother. Never was. Nothing from SNorris. Never would be.
“Thanks, anyway,” I said, hung up the phone and it rang again.
Watching through the space where there should have been window, and now there were two boards up and two boards lying on the ground leaving a large gap, I could see the policemen walking around my backyard, peering at everything. Looking for what?
I answered the phone again and said, “Royal here.”
Strangers asking me to dinner, policemen pacing through my garden, and now Devon Chevel. Lucky me.
“Do you know there’s a new Thai restaurant on Capitol Hill? You should try it out.”
There was a really long pause confirming my belief that Devon was not a fast thinker.
“Also, there is a policeman in my back yard so I better go back and talk to him.”
“The police again? What’s going on?” Devon said in a terrified whisper, which was good, because if he had to choose between ordering me to the office or ordering me to stay someplace else to talk to the police, we both knew what he would say. “You’re busy, so I’ll let you go.”
“Right,” I said, even though I could see the policemen leaving the back yard.
I clicked off Devon, wandered into the dining room and watched as the officers crossed the street to their car. If they had any reason to question me, any idea that I knew spit about the Hadley murder, they would have stayed. Good. For the moment, they were gone. Not for one second did I believe they would stay gone.
As for SNorris, he was heading for a breakdown. Despite Charley’s assurances that Sam looked unbreakable, I’d found a way to break the man.
And so I wrote an e-mail he could choose to ignore. But maybe he would read it.
Big guy, I typed, you sounded confused about what happened to you. You had parts of it right and parts were all mixed up. You came over to my house and I’d just broken the window with a ladder. You were very kind and measured it for me so that I could get repair estimates. Sorry to remind you of this, but I bumped into you because I am clumsy, and you fell and got cut on the glass. I helped you put on Band-Aids, remember? I was upset about the cuts and you suggested we go for a walk to calm me down. We ended up at a cemetery. And a sniper shot you. We made it back to my car and then you passed out, so I think you were in shock by the time I got you to the hospital. It’s been a rough week for both of us.
Should I mention the Hadley murder? No, not in writing, not on an e-mail that the police could find. I wasn’t supposed to know about Hadley’s death.
If there’s anything at all I can do to help you, please call. I feel so guilty. If you never want to see me again, I completely understand. I’ve caused you nothing but bad luck.
Okay, I hit send. I didn’t know anything else I could do for Sam Norris. Well, I could never cross his path again, bad for me, good for him.
“Charley,” I said in the direction of footsteps pattering by, “I need to find out more about this Albert Mortviner. Want to look him up?”
“Already did,” he said from somewhere near the sunlit window. “He has an office uptown with no particular explanation of why. It is simply titled Albert Mortviner Inc.”
“So how do I find out what he does?”
“I tried the internet. Nothing there.”
“An office address?”
“I have that,” he said. “Give me time to dress and then wait patiently until sundown, sweetie.”
When I opened my mouth to argue, he said firmly, “Don’t waste your breath. You are not going there alone.”
“Okay, Charley. You can ride shotgun, be my shield, whatever.”
“Oh please, do I really have to play shield again? Did I tell you about that damn Custer?”
“Your choice,” I said.
“Not with him, it wasn’t.”
Where did he get that stuff? Oh, that’s right. It had been three centuries since he’d had a mother to tell him lying was naughty. He was lying, right? I needed someone to reassure me that Charley was lying. Had he been raised by a mother? And where was MY mother?
Once in a while I receive a picture post card with a brief wish-you-were-here message, insincere because if I were there she would have to be in Seattle. The postcards always feature a color photo of someplace scenic. Never the same location twice. She appears to find her way to every capitol city in South America, southeast Asia and most of Europe. Her trail jumps back and forth, sometimes China or India, sometimes countries whose names I need a world atlas to locate. Did she really go to all those places or has she figured out how to have cards sent to me from around the globe?
Like the sunspinners, Mother can afford what she wants. Mortviner thought we could be tempted by cash. We don’t need cash.
Once a week I cash large checks on the family account, still in Mother’s name and mine, and hand cash to Paul and Charley, however much they request. Edith doesn’t want cash as she never leaves the house. She makes all her purchases online and pays with one of my credit cards.
Gizelle prefers Paul to carry cash for her, probably because her small designer evening bags are filled with comb and cosmetics and exquisite antique cigarette cases.
Walter keeps a small drawer full of rolls of quarters and hundred dollar bills. He only requests funds occasionally. His one expenditure is his nightly walk to a corner grocery that has a row of newspaper boxes outside where he can drop in change and get his paper. Sometimes he stops by a tobacco shop that stays open late and has poor lighting, run by a man who looks as though he has been there forever. He is Walter’s one outside contact.
They talk cigars and Walter fingers the pipes and then comes home with small but pricey purchases, after which he does need more cash. He can afford the best, which must make his tobacconist friend happy. I suspect there are fewer and fewer connoisseurs of pipes and cigars who like to chat brands and origins.
The point is, the sunspinners can all afford whatever they want.
So can Mother. So can I.
The clan of Royal ancestors included investment bankers, land barons, importers, exporters, anything that could profit from a good tip. Invisible people pick up tips easily. The five sunspinners weathered the years unchanging. Their caretakers tended to die young of mental illness, or opted out through alcohol or drugs, until now there was only me to own the house and keep out trespassers.
Distant relatives exist and carefully remain geographically distant. I don’t think any of them know about the sunspinners, but they know enough to stay away, never try to make a claim to the family fortune. Well-paid lawyers have made that clear to them.
If our lives sound perfect to anyone, that person has never been required to live in hiding and constantly fear imprisonment in some experimental lab. Because although the sunspinners have this paranormal ability to live forever and heal easily, they have no other paranormal qualities. They are not super strong or magical. They could be imprisoned. Easily. All that had spared them so far was the fact that no one knew they existed.
Now they were faced with demons who knew.
That evening Charley and I stood in the foyer of a downtown office building and read the location board, a tasteful listing, white letters on black behind glass, polished brass frame built into the polished marble wall. Albert Mortviner Inc., Suite 1604.
“Sixteenth floor,” Charley said. He was dressed in his usual jeans, plus loafers, leather jacket, silk muffler, pigskin gloves and his favorite Stetson. It was black, funky, and threw a deep shadow on his face.
“It’ll keep my head there even if they have overhead lights,” he assured me.
Not that it mattered. Albert Mortviner knew more about Charley than Charley did. Or maybe not. Mortviner had some incorrect assumptions about invisibility.
The lobby was deep, high-ceilinged, dimly lit by art deco fixtures, carpeted in thick patterned wool that probably dated from sixty years ago and showed no sign of wear. The bank of elevators displayed their original brass trim. If the door slid open to reveal a uniformed elevator operator I would not have been surprised.
But no, the elevators were converted to self-service as the lobby’s lone concession to the passing of time.
For the first ten floors I was fine. I leaned back against the clouded mirror panels and checked out reflections of Charley from several angles. The mirrors gave him a golden sheen. When he saw my reflection staring at him, he grinned. The Stetson and leather jacket look was right up his ego. It matched his image of himself as ladies’ man, I suspected.
As we rose past eleven, I felt them, imagined them, saw their demon shapes in my mind, felt pressure building in my chest like a cold river of fear that wound through me and raised goose flesh on my arms.
“Some of them are here,” I whispered. “In this building.”
“Can you smell them?”
I sniffed. The elevator smelled of brass polish and carpet cleaner. “No.”
Twelve, fourteen. Charley reached past me to push the button for fifteen.
“The directory said sixteen,” I said.
“Uh huh. That’s why we’re getting off on fifteen.” As the doors slid open, he shooed me out in front of him.
“Why are we here?”
“To walk around a bit and get an idea of the layout.”
Same layout I saw every time I went to a dentist appointment in a downtown office building, long corridor with pebble-glass doors and small black titles painted on glass. This particular floor was big on optometrists, ophthalmologists, and plain old basic opticians, although considering the location and probable rents, I suspected they majored in designer frames.
What I needed was an optician who only worked at night and in a dimly lit office so that I could bring in Walter. He tended to lose his glasses and always needed a new pair.
None of the doors on this floor showed any lights behind the pebble glass, not in sympathy to the light sensitive, but only because none of these people worked a minute after five o’clock. I had thought a few tenants might hang around until, gee, six maybe? Even seven?
We’d made a point of coming right after sunset, when deep shadows from tall buildings turned the sidewalks dark, but early enough that a few offices would still be open for after hours clients and the lobby doors would still be unlocked. The building management must have agreed with my thinking because the place was open. Only the offices hadn’t got the message. They were all locked up.
Maybe we would find more activity on other floors.
“What are you feeling?” Charley asked and so I knew that he felt the same thing.
“Let’s try the stairs.”
That sounded like a good idea. It would take a few minutes longer and I was beginning to regret this trip.
“Why are we looking for the very folk who tried to kill us in the cave?” Charley asked.
“We have to settle this with them. We can’t have them continuing to threaten us. Maybe we can come to some sort of agreement.”
“Like, we tell them they can’t have Seattle but they’re welcome to Vancouver or Portland?”
“If that isn’t a joke, don’t tell me,” I said.
“It’s a joke,” he said.
The staircase was next to the elevator bank. As we trudged up, trying to be quiet and stay alert, I could hear an elevator through the wall. Up or down? And if I knew that, it would tell me what? It could be coming or going to any floor at all. At the landing Charley opened the solid door slowly, peering around the edge.
“All clear,” he whispered and I followed him out.
“Now I can smell them.” It was faint. Anyone else might think it was a chemical used for paint removal, or something like that. Now that I knew that stench, there was no way to mistake its source.
A long and narrow corridor was faced by the usual row of pebble-glass windowed doors, none of which displayed the name Albert Mortviner. Each door was marked 1604. Nothing else. The lighting was discreet. It came from little brass wall sconces and heavy brass ceiling fixtures that aimed light at the ceiling.
Charley was pleasantly all there. “He has the whole floor.”
“Looks like it.”
“Lady and the tiger time,” Charley said. “Which door do you choose?”
“Doesn’t matter because they are sure to be locked. More and more I am wishing I came down here this afternoon.”
“No, when the building was filled with people. I could probably bumble my way through one of those doors and say I was looking for the optician and get away with it. With everything locked up, if anyone finds us, what is our excuse?”
“Picky, picky,” Charley said. “For starters, we now know that whatever Mortviner does for a living, he doesn’t mention it on his doors. More, he doesn’t give his name even though it is on the register downstairs. What kind of business does that?”
“One that doesn’t want to be disturbed. Doesn’t take new clients. Doesn’t have clients stop by.”
He draped his arm around my shoulder. “Very vague, sweetie. Give me some solid examples.”
“The type of accounting firm that does audits for large businesses. Or a law firm that limits itself to corporate law. Or --”
“Okay. Maybe. So let me ask another question. What sort of business employs demons?”
“And do they pay income tax?”
“Because they are in there and moving this way,” he said and stationed himself in front of me.
All four of the doors on the corridor popped open. Four men in suits stepped out, square-shouldered men, straight spines. I automatically swung around and hit the elevator button.
Nothing happened with the elevator but everything happened with us. The men spilled out around us and I swear they all looked alike, okay, minor differences, but all about the same size, all with overneat haircuts and close shaves and bland faces and very strong hands, I did notice that.
They came at us from different angles, the first two quickly, snatching Charley and pulling him away from me. He let out a yelp as they hustled him forward through one of the doors.
I stood in the corridor watching, trying to think what to do and no longer able to remember why I had been so stupid as to come to an office building after most of the offices were closed.
When Charley and his escorts were half a room away, the other two grabbed me. I tried to twist away from them. Their fingers dug into my upper arms and I hate it when men do that because it makes really ugly bruises. I kicked out a foot, caught one in the knee, enjoyed the grunt of pain, then caught the smell.
They were doused in men’s cologne, something very strong and probably expensive. The designer who distributed it under his own name would not be pleased by the nauseating after-scent of dog breath. Between them they half carried me to another door and pushed me through.
Both doorways opened into the same small reception area. Charley struggled to look back over his shoulder at me. His mouth hung open with surprise.
No good asking me what was going on. I had no idea who they were or what would happen next.
What I did know was that the two men holding me had definitely been hanging around with demons too long because they reeked of that odor.
The reception area contained an empty desk, swivel chair, tall drooping potted plant, and one of those cloth covered divider walls blocking the view behind it.
My feet barely touched the carpet. They dragged us past the desk, past the divider and into a room that took up the rest of the sixteenth floor. There were support pillars in neat rows, bisecting acres of floor covered with industrial carpeting, and the walls were floor to ceiling windows.
Millions of lights shone in the evening sky beyond the glass, block after block of tall office buildings. Curves of light in white and red ribbons swirled through the view where freeways and ramps were crowded with commuter traffic. Could have been a romantic view location for a fancy restaurant, the sort of thing Paul and Gizelle loved. It wasn’t.
The furnishings were standard office equipment with metal desks and chairs and file cabinets scattered around in no particular order. A few long tables of the conference room type were shoved against a wall.
“This place sure lost its charm,” Charley said. “Did you melt off all the brass trim when you blew out the walls?”
“Ha ha.” Albert Mortviner leaned against one of the pillars.
We had considered the possibility that he might be in his office after normal business hours and decided to chance it. I had hoped that if he was still around, it would be Al and maybe an assistant working late and that a face to face with Mortviner would be informative. I reasoned that if I knew what sort of business he ran, I might know why he was dealing with demons.
And given a little more time to talk, I might even find out what exactly was the effect of the sunspinners on the demons.
Not going to get the chance for a peaceful meeting, no way. More likely we had invited ourselves to be dropped down an elevator shaft.
Although we were on the sixteenth floor, I wasn’t worried about being tossed out a window. This floor had been modernized with built-in enormous double plates of glass and no small side windows that opened. The original building design would have included lots of small side windows to be opened to the breeze when air conditioning was wanted, not that cooling was often wanted in Seattle.
What blew my mind was Simone Marsh standing next to him. Above the gray suit and ruffled pink silk blouse every sprayed-stiff blond hair was in place. The cosmetics were heavy and the scowl unpleasant.
No change there. Had I imagined her death screams beneath the pile of slimy monsters?
Charley said, “You’re looking well, Miss Marsh. How much is Miss Marsh and how much is creepy beastie?”
Her face remained an expressionless blank when she hissed.
The bright ceiling lights kept Charley’s face in a shadow beneath his wide-brimmed Stetson so that he looked solid, but all I could see in that shadow was the glitter of his eyes. When he took a step toward her, she stepped back.
Albert’s narrow mouth twitched at the edges, a new expression for him. Amused.
“Get him out of here,” Simone whispered. No shouting this time.
Her eyes were flat, no reflections in them, but wide open. Her suit seemed tighter, or perhaps it was a different suit in the same color. It looked odd the way it clung, the way the sleeves seemed too short and exposed bony wrists. At least there was no space under that suit to hide a gun. I was relieved that she wasn’t carrying a briefcase.
“Go right ahead,” Albert said. “Why don’t you take his hand and lead him back to the elevator, Simone?”
“We could go through you first,” Simone growled at him.
She really did growl, not the feminine voice from my kitchen or in the cave below the mausoleum, but something rough and distant like a sound cutting across the zoo.
Albert nodded but did not look particularly worried by her threat. “Who will front for you? Without me, how will you deal?”
Charley kept moving toward her, very slowly for Charley who tended to be impatient, one step, a hesitation, then another step. She backed away at the same pace. Her forehead dripped perspiration that trailed down her face in thin lines, leaving streaks on her makeup.
Charley reached out a hand as though to touch her and she doubled over, clutching her waist.
“They really do burn you, don’t they?” Mortviner said.
He watched her as though she were an interesting insect, nothing for which he felt sympathy. When I first met him, I thought the face was regulation bland. Now, standing staring at him, not distracted by driving my car or avoiding demons, I had a better view. His eyebrows stuck out in uneven wisps above almost colorless eyes. His thin nose curved slightly above his tight little mouth.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“No idea,” Charley said.
Mortviner looked surprised. “You don’t know?”
“And why are these guys hanging onto me? They smell like a locker room and right now, they need to head for the showers.”
The prissy mouth could laugh. “Let go of her,” he told the two who held me. “She isn’t going anywhere.”
They did what he said. They dropped my arms and stepped away from me.
“What is this place?” I asked. “It looks like an industrial loft.”
“Get him away!” Simone’s voice was a thin shriek, nothing like the sassy tones she had used at my house and in the cave. Those flat eyes seemed unable to look away from Charley.
Mortviner ignored her. “Headquarters, Miss Royal. Think command central, that’s closer, or let’s see, maybe the term war room is best. For every force there has to be a center, a location in which power can be organized and distributed.”
“You mentioned war before. What sort of war?”
“Nothing that concerns you.”
“You keep telling me to leave Seattle. That makes this war thing my concern. I can’t agree to let you launch some sort of attack on the city.”
Simone let out a harsh laugh that collapsed into a sob.
He shrugged and glanced at Simone. I had thought his face expressionless but now his disdain was showing. He did not like her, that was clear, but why he associated with her was less obvious.
“Can’t agree? My dear, you don’t have to agree because you have no power. You can’t even tell me what color tie to wear,” he said to me. He gave me a smile that really creeped me out and added, “If you have a color preference, that’s something I might do for you, but that’s as much as you are apt to get.”
Wasn’t that the rotten truth and why was I forever watching movies about tough women cops, and playing computer games that featured paranormal heroines? I didn’t have the skills to trip a ten-year-old purse snatcher. The worst I could do to this geek was dial 9-1-1 and scream rape and hope that someone big and tough and armed arrived before I died of fear.
Somehow I didn’t think Albert Mortviner was going to allow me that one phone call.
I looked slowly around the enormous space, noticing the furnishings, the lack of computers, the view of the city. I couldn’t make any sense of the space, couldn’t guess its purpose. Certainly without computers it was not an accounting firm, not a law firm, nothing to do with any commercial enterprise I could think of. I had been in a variety of firms to look over their operations and design websites for them, so I did have some knowledge of a range of businesses. True, none of the ones I’d seen included demons.
Watching me, Albert asked, “Do you think we’re going to knock over the Space Needle or sink a bridge, Miss Royal? All right, let me explain and do try to listen. This war is between two controlling factions of demons. Neither side wants to damage the city. Think of this as a secret political rivalry that is in no way connected with local government. I could make up names for each side, if that helps. We can call them the Muds and the Pea Soups.”
Again the hiss from Simone.
“I can’t help what color you are. If I told Miss Royal the actual names of the factions, she couldn’t pronounce them.” Turning to me he continued, “It’s a private demon fight for territory and it will be neater and over faster if you leave.”
“You killed Hadley. That wasn’t neat.”
“I didn’t kill Hadley. As you may have noticed, these people are short on patience. They became dissatisfied with him when he failed to procure your house. The one who shot Hadley has been removed.”
“Removed. Is that a synonym for executed? What is this, gang warfare? I don’t understand you at all.”
“Imagine two boxers in a ring and a ref with a gun. Every time a boxer takes a fall, the ref shoots him. The fallen boxer’s side sends in a replacement, a kind of tag fight. This can go on forever with bodies piling up to the ceiling and the surrounding audience taking a lot of stray bullets from that gun. But if you remove the ref, the first two fighters will duke it out until one kayos the other. At that point it’s over. The winner and his backers get the purse. The audience goes home undamaged.”
Sports analogies outside of baseball leave me muttering the word men, except in this case, I didn’t know what these creatures were. Was Albert Mortviner a human?
“What does this have to do with me?”
“Your relatives, they are like that gun-toting ref. They can shoot the wrong opponents. They can destroy my team.”
“Are you insane?” I demanded. “My relatives never harm anyone.”
Albert’s mouth tightened. “Look at her, Miss Royal.”
Simone Marsh had collapsed and lay writhing on the floor, her face pressed into her knees, her hands clutching her head, her long fingers twitching and tearing at her hair. Charley stood half a room away from her, motionless.
“I don’t know what’s wrong with her. He isn’t anywhere near her.”
“He’s in the same city. That’s enough. So what’s your decision? I have papers here. All you have to do is sign. We’ll move you wherever you want to go. You’ll be rich and more importantly, once you’re moved, you’ll be free of us. That’s the best I can offer.”
“What sort of business do you run?” I asked. “Does anyone work here or is this someplace you only use for meetings? There aren’t even phones on the desks.”
“The location is new. We’re setting it up and still don’t have all the wiring in. Why do you care?”
“I would like to understand exactly what is going on. You are asking me to agree to a move that my family doesn’t want to make and you aren’t telling me why it is necessary.”
Albert nodded toward Charley. “That one was at the mausoleum.”
“Yes, and what happened to the trapdoor? The police searched the mausoleum. They didn’t find a trapdoor.”
I didn’t really much care about the trapdoor but I did care about keeping him talking because I now felt something expanding in the two guards who stood by me and it made me nervous as hell. They smelled of that heavy cologne and under it was that trace of demon. Now something else reached out. I felt as though I was standing in front of an air conditioner, only it wasn’t cold air hitting me.
Cold fear spilled over me, tensing the muscles in my neck and spine. Neither of them said a word. If they spoke, would they sound like Simone, a hiss in the consonants? They stood in back of me and were twice as far from Charley as was Simone. Was that by accident?
I took a few steps toward Charley. The guards in business suits who were watching me did not move forward. I took another step and Charley turned to look at me. He extended his hand to me. Before I could go any further, Albert stepped between us.
Whatever they offered, why would I trust them?
He held out a sheaf of papers and a pen. I shook my head no.
Did Albert flinch?
Hard to know, but whatever happened, there were two of those guards again, coming from behind me, grabbing my arms, holding out my hand, slapping the pen into my palm and folding my fingers around it. I felt a chill cut through me and my knees started to shake.
Charley shouted, “Let her go!” and ran toward me.
Behind him Simone struggled up from the floor into a kneeling position, her weird fingers tearing at her stiff hair as though it was an uncomfortable wig. She gasped for breath, then drew into herself, her arms crossing and hugging her own shoulders. Rocking back and forth, she made a low keening sound.
As Charley approached me, the guards backed away from me. They remained expressionless but there was tension in the way they moved. One of them let out a hiss. I remembered Simone in the cave, telling the demons to get bodies and a whole string of absurd ideas clicked into place.
“You are demons!” I exclaimed. “You disguise yourselves as people.”
The two men who had dragged Charley from the hall to this room now grabbed him and dragged him further away from me. They weren’t the same at all as the ones who stood on either side of me. Charley’s guards moved like humans.
My guards behaved like humans when they were calm, but now I could hear their breathing turn to hissing.
And I could see them shuddering. One raised his hand to straighten his collar. His fingers splayed in odd directions with the overlarge knuckles cracking.
Worse, I felt Simone’s darkness as she rushed across the loft toward me, felt the coldness as her long arms wrapped around me, disproportionately long. Her arms continued to grow longer, stretching to thin ropes until her bony wrists poked out past her cuffs. The stench of a sewer radiated from her much the way fear escalates body odors in humans. There was no human smell or body warmth in her.
A chill tightened my scalp and ran down the back of my neck. My tongue felt swollen, filling my mouth, and I couldn’t speak.
She shoved and I fell over backwards. My elbows hit first and a layer of carpet did little to soften the jolt. Pain stiffened my arms and shoulders.
Numbed by surprise or stupidity, I sprawled beneath her, staring over her shoulder at the ceiling. Her strength was so much greater than mine, I knew I couldn’t wrestle her off of me. Think superhero movie, yeah, she was one of those uber villains.
The trouble was, this story lacked a superhero. All I had was me and I have trouble removing twist-tops from plastic juice bottles.
Clutching at the collar of her suit, I tried to pull it up and back against her throat to put pressure on her windpipe. If she felt it, it didn’t bother her. The pale smooth skin of her neck seemed to collapse into folds of wrinkles that hung over her collar. Her neck stretched and her head arched back and away from me.
She pressed her hands on the sides of my face and turned my head until I heard something pop. Pain ran from the back of my skull to the base of my neck and radiated out beneath my shoulder blades.
She could not be breaking my skull, because if she was, I would be dead. But it felt like that’s what she was doing.
I focused on her. I tried to see into those blank eyes and then I tried to stiffen my muscles because otherwise, the next pop was going to be my neck bones cracking.
Next: CHAPTERS 14 and 15
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Next: CHAPTERS 14 and 15
Return to HomePage for links, news, specials and giveaways.