The smell of fresh paint stopped him in his tracks. Hand on the doorknob, Edgar Benedek looked up to see, with delight, that the Board of Regents had finally sprung for a few hours of a sign painterís time. There, before his eyes, was lettered in two neat, precise rows, "Paranormal Research Unit, Dr. Jonathan MacKensie, Ph.D., Director."
Stifling the impulse to send up a rousing whoop when there was no one else around to appreciate the display, Benny settled for a broad grin and a nod of congratulations for the victory he knew a certain anthropology department head had won in the boardroom. It had taken nearly nine months of in-fighting, a half ton of supporting documentation, hours and hours of private negotiation, and, toward the end, outright bribery and covert threats, but Dr. Juliana Moorhouse had finally gotten an official budget approved for her pet project: the Georgetown Institute Paranormal Research Unit. Bruised egos still managed to put a few dents in the new project ó designated office space was a dusty, unused corner of the sciences building, furnishings had to be creatively scrounged from other areas of the campus, and the computer equipment was on permanent loan from the electronics building, the result of an equipment upgrade in the computer department, and a few called-in favors. But while the Unit had been making do for several months, even thriving despite its limitations, final recognition had been stalled until now. Now, there was a name on the door.
And if Benny had any quibble at the moment, it was that only one name was drying on the door. The one battle that had been lost from the very start was the one over granting Edgar Benedek official recognition for his contributions to the PRU. MacKensie had protested, once. A sharp look from Dr. Moorhouse had silenced him. That same look had settled briefly on Benedek, as she said coolly and precisely, "Donít push it."
His words later to Jonathan were as valid now as they were then: "Forget it. Itíll come when it comes." Getting his name in serif letters on a wooden door could wait until they got the PRU flying, until they could prove their indispensability and use it as a bargaining tool to pry more concessions out of the Board of Regents. Meanwhile, he was literally sitting in the catbird seat, the envy of every Ďbloid hack of his acquaintance, and that was more than enough for now.
With a silent promise to Jonathan MacKensieís painted name that one day it would have company, he opened the door, remembering at the last moment to catch it before it slipped off the broken hinge. "Yo!" he called as he wrestled the door closed behind him. "The prodigal snoop has returned. Anybody minding the store?"
The office was even more cramped than he remembered, and it took him a minute to realize that someone had dumped at least another truckload of computer readouts on the long workbench that took up most of the office. Jonathanís little desk, crammed into the corner that had the only window, was empty; the computer station near the door was also abandoned, and Benny frowned at it, uncertain for a moment why that felt wrong. He was distracted by a voice of greeting, and a face peering out from behind a pile of readouts.
"Hey, Angie, mi amore!" He pulled up short on his way around the worktable, glancing back over his shoulder. "Wait a minute. Whereís our resident workaholic?"
Pressing a pen against her mouth, Angela Ravesi squirmed in acute discomfort. She glanced at the empty computer station, then up at Benny. "I guess you donít know, huh?"
His eyes went up in anticipation. "I guess that means she didnít take an early lunch?"
She grimaced mildly, a definite negative. Snagging a packing crate for a seat, he leaned forward to pin the embarrassed grad student under a searching stare. "Come on, whatís the scoop?" he cajoled, eyes lighting with anticipation. "Whyíd Carla raise anchor and ship out?"
"Benny ... I canít. Really," she demurred after three unsuccessful attempts to speak sent a bright red flush into her cheeks. "Itís ... itís none of my business."
"Whoa. That messy, huh?" He leaned back, contemplating the variables, but not missing the startled glance Angie shot him. "You can at least tell me who broke first. Did Carla finally throw the long bomb, or did Jonny intercept at the one-yard line?"
She stared at him, at first in confusion, and then in mild admiration. "You knew?"
"You didnít?" he mocked gently.
Her embarrassment fled, replaced by the hard edge of irritation as she shrugged. "It was a little hard to miss," she confided with a wry smile.
"For you and me, maybe," he enjoined pointedly.
A troubled look clouded her eyes as she sighed. "Donít sell him short on this one, Benny. He knew, all right." To his derisive snort, she pressed, "Heís gone through this before, you know. How could he have not known?"
"You tell me. Carla all but ripped his clothes off every time she looked at him, and all he ever did was...."
"... treat her like he would have treated any other student," Angie said firmly. "Come on, Benny, what else could he have done?"
He considered the question for a moment. "You really want me to answer that?"
"Forget it," she muttered, suppressing a smile.
"So?" He waggled his fingers meaningfully. "What hit the fan where and when?"
Again she hesitated, shaking her head. "Benny, itís really...."
The opening of the door snapped her head up and her mouth closed. Jonathan MacKensie, struggling with an armload of books and the broken door, froze at Bennyís greeting, his suspicious gaze sliding almost immediately to Angie, who ducked her head. To Benny, Jonathan remarked without enthusiasm, "You said you wouldnít be back until Friday."
"I lied," Benny said cheerfully, rising to swing his knapsack onto a stable stack of paper. "And wait until you see what Iíve got for the database...."
Jonathan visibly flinched, getting Bennyís attention for only a split second before a strange guttural noise from Angie took it away again. Antennae up, Benny stared at each in turn, challenging them with waiting silence.
Angie broke first, clearing her throat as Jonathan retreated to his desk, unloading his burden there. "Iím afraid I have some bad news, Benny."
"A problem with the database?" he guessed warily.
"Uh ... yes. We, ah ... donít have one anymore."
"We donít have one anymore." He mulled her words along with his careful repetition, nodded once, and unsuccessfully sought some kind of explanation from Jonathan, who kept his back turned. "Okay, so whatís the punchline?"
"Carla crashed the database," Angie finally managed in a thin, strained voice, dropping her forehead into her hand. "Iíve been trying to reconstruct from hard copy, but...."
"Carla crashed the database? Our database? The whole database?"
Angie winced, which Benny took as a tacit chide for the shrill pitch of his voice. He took a moment to calm down before saying, "So, like, it was an accident, right?"
Five long seconds of silence were broken by Bennyís low growl. "No, I didnít think so."
Angie tossed her pencil down in growing disgust. "Four months," she growled, voice edged with exhaustion. "It took us four months to pull that database together, and she wipes it out in less than ten seconds."
"Backups?" Benny suggested with an arched eyebrow.
She spared him a tired look. "Carla was in charge of the backup system. She trashed everything."
Bennyís unexpected cackle brought Jonathanís head up and a startled frown to Angieís face. "Not everything," Benny crowed, opening his knapsack with a flourish.
Angieís eyes widened as Benny produced three plastic boxes and displayed the labels for her. "Benny!" she squealed, grabbing his hands.
Intrigued and confused, Jonathan stepped forward in time for Angie to grab his sleeve and pull excitedly. "Itís a backup! Itís a full backup!" she cried, snatching the boxes from Benny for close investigation.
Jonathan cleared his throat loudly, three times until Benny finally glanced at him. "A full backup?" he said, an accusation in his calm voice.
"Yeah. We had an agreement, remember?"
"We agreed you could use some information in the database, Benedek. Not the entire thing!"
Unfazed by the rising pitch of indignation in the professorís voice, Benny merely chuckled. "Wow, I must be having auditory hallucinations. I could swear I just heard you quibble."
Jonathan inflated, but then caught sight of the glow suffusing Angieís face, and the glint of tears in her tired eyes as she lovingly fingered through the disks in one box. Sighing heavily, he made a dismissive gesture and turned away.
"Youíre welcome," Benny tossed after him before returning his attention to Angie, who was impulsively hugging the box. "Itís everything we had through the 15th, not including the stats I brought back from Toronto last time, and anything else input after that...."
"Benny, itís four months of work I donít have to do again, and believe me, thatís all I care about." Her excitement faded as she stared at him, her smile softening as she reached over and tugged at his sleeve.
Thinking she wanted to tell him something in confidence, he leaned in toward her expectantly, and was surprised by a fierce kiss square on the lips.
"Whoa," he chuckled, warmed. "That does it, Iíve got to pull off miracles more often."
"Iíd appreciate one for explaining to Dr. Moorhouse why youíre walking around with a complete copy of what is supposed to be a confidential database," Jonathan said, without rancor, as he slid into the chair behind his desk.
"No problem," Benny said, turning a level eye toward him. "In this case, nothing works better than the truth."
"I never trusted Carla."
The silence fell with a thud. Jonathan glared down at the hand he clenched against the desk top. Angie drew in a sharp breath, as though ready to chide Benny and then thinking better of it. "Iíd better get started on this," she muttered, turning away.
"Angie, youíve been working non-stop for two days," Jonathan protested. "Why donít you take a break?"
"I will, I will. After Iíve backed this up, twice. Maybe three times. But not before," she ended firmly, stepping on MacKensieís protest.
He ceded with a reluctant nod, returning her smile wanly as she settled determinedly in front of the computer keyboard. The next full minute passed in strained silence as Benny stared a hole into MacKensie, who in turn did his level best to ignore the scrutiny.
"You owe me," Benny announced at last, in a voice meant only for Jonathanís ears.
"Thatís debatable," MacKensie said, still shuffling through papers and books in an effort to appear that he had better things, or at least less embarrassing things to do.
"Yeah? Want to put the question to a vote, then?" He inclined his head meaningfully toward Angie, who was completely intent on booting the colicky operating system.
Wincing, Jonathan shook his head. "All right," he grumbled. "Whatís it going to cost me?"
"Iím not hungry."
"Nobodyís saying you have to eat."
Jonathan paled, swallowing the beginning of a protest. Common sense and pride warred fiercely, reflecting as a flash frown followed by a long, resolute sigh. "Yes, fine."
Benny gave him a congratulatory nod, which Jonathan met with a mild grimace. "Ang, me and the prof are going out for a sandwich. Want us to bring you back anything?"
He had to repeat the question to get her attention. "No," she mumbled, distracted by her efforts at the terminal. "No, thanks. Bye."
"I really hate these emotional goodbyes," Benny cracked, pulling up short when Jonathan reacted with another flinch. "Letís get a move on, Jocko. Iím really looking forward to the main course."
"What did you mean?"
The unexpected question stopped Bennyís steak bomb sub halfway to his mouth. Where Jonathan MacKensie had only moments before been evasive and preoccupied, he was now regarding Benny intently across the Formica tabletop. "When you said that you never trusted Carla," he pressed when Benedek only inclined his head in exaggerated confusion. "Why?"
Benny made a gesture that took in his grease-soaked sandwich. "Can I get a mouthful first?"
Backing down reluctantly, Jonathan leaned back, staring dispiritedly at the contents of his untouched coffee cup. Benedek watched him covertly as he tackled his meal, analyzing the professorís troubled facial expression and comparing it to MacKensieís previously uncommunicative mood.
"She was trouble." Benny wiped his chin, enjoying the reaction his abrupt announcement elicited. Jonathanís head snapped up, dead eyes sparking with interest.
"Trouble?" he echoed, too quickly, as though desperate to hear and understand. "What do you mean by that?"
He snorted mildly. "You already found out."
"Wait." Hand raised for patience, Jonathan closed his eyes briefly. "Youíre saying that you knew sheíd do ... something like this?"
"No, Iím not saying that. Back up a little, okay? Iím saying that I could see she was trouble looking to happen. I told you about this, I asked you two months ago what she was doing working for the Unit, didnít I?"
MacKensie had to think, and paled when the memory came back to him. "Yes, you did, but ... I ... she...."
"You believed her, you mean." He laughed, shaking his head as he pulled several limp strings of onion free for special attention. "One, the gal is an engineering major. Two, she had little or no interest in computer work, ditto paranormal research or even anthropology. Three, anybody with half a brain could have figured out what she was interested in ó namely, one very thick-headed anthropology professor."
Jonathan shifted, uncomfortable. "Thatís not fair."
"Of course not. But at least itís true."
He sighed in defeat. "If youíre accusing me of making a mistake by accepting her offer of help in the Unit based on those observations...."
"I am not accusing you of anything," Benny assured him, calmly dipping his french fries into hot fudge sauce. "Iím sure you had your reasons for putting our nine months of work and Angieís four months of sweat at risk."
Controlling his temper with an effort, MacKensie leaned across the table again. "All I asked was how you knew ó how you could have possibly known that Carla was capable of such a ... such a vindictive act."
Benny favored him with a look of solemn surprise. "I didnít. Iím as buffaloed as you are. Not that I didnít think she was capable of it, mind you ... but I really didnít think sheíd go after you that way."
He stiffened slightly. "What do you mean?"
Benny opened his mouth, frowned, then shook his head. "I dunno."
"No! Benedek, I want to know what you meant by that. How would you have expected her to ... to Ďgoí after me?"
The pleading look in MacKensieís eyes overruled his inclination to brush the stray thought aside. "Look, it makes sense in a strange way ó sheís hurt, she wants to hurt you back, so she destroys something thatís important to you. But thatís the weird part. Anybody who knows you also knows that the PRUís database is at the bottom of your personal like list. Okay, sure, itís your responsibility, so losing it damages your reputation a little, but Iíll just bet that you didnít die inside like Iím sure our gal Angie did."
Jonathanís almost imperceptible flinch was tacit affirmation that Angie had indeed taken the databaseís loss very hard. "Youíre saying, then, that you would have expected her to strike back on a more ... personal level?"
"Maybe." Shrugging, he went back to the remnants of his meal. "It might be a good idea to watch your back for a while."
Losing what little color he had left, Jonathan sagged against the side of the booth. Benny took his time finishing the rest of his sandwich, flicking a paper napkin open with a flourish before announcing, "Wanna tell me why you arenít arguing with me?"
Distracted, Jonathan raised his head. "About what?"
"About whether trashing the database was the sum total of Carlaís offensive campaign, or just the opening salvo."
He sought for coherence, his hand waving vaguely as though to summon the words he needed. "Because I just donít know," he said finally, with a heavy sigh. "This whole thing ... I donít know. She said things ... I thought she was being over-dramatic, which was perfectly understandable, after all..."
"Okay, rewind a little. She said what things when?"
MacKensie stiffened slightly, aware that heíd said too much. "The circumstances are something I donít really care to discuss right now," he said with as much dignity as he could muster.
"Whatís to discuss? She finally got up the nerve to throw herself at you, you ducked, right?"
"No. Yes! I mean ... no!" Badly confused, Jonathan shook his head quickly. "Thereís a great deal more to it than that. Iím not saying that I ever encouraged her," he said angrily to Benedekís soft snort. "The only mistake Iíll admit on that count was that I never ... discouraged her. But I never led her on, Benedek. I thought ... I honestly thought that her ó her infatuation would run a natural course, that she would finally see...."
He ran out of steam, closing his eyes again and mumbling something under his breath. "So?" Benny prodded when Jonathan let the silence grow, preferring to stare angrily out of the dinerís grease-smeared window. "What happened then? Carla went off like a warehouse of fireworks?"
"No." Again it seemed an effort on Jonathanís part to think and speak. "I mean, not right away. She seemed to understand. Thatís the truly confusing part, she seemed to understand. It was all so ... so civilized, so amicable. I merely explained to her that, in my position, a ... relationship with a student was simply out of the question, and she said she accepted that."
"Until two days later, when she showed up at my apartment again." Leaning forward against the tabletop, Jonathan wearily rubbed his forehead. "Sheís withdrawn from school. Ten credits from graduation, mid-semester, and she just quit."
"Aha," Benny murmured, piecing out the rest of the scenario with the same concentration he gave to making short work of his ice cream dessert. "She called your bluff, eh?"
"It wasnít..." His anger cooled as abruptly as it had flared. "You know, this really isnít any of your business."
"Pal, if I gave a damn about that, Iíd be bagging groceries at the A&P. Besides, why donít we just completely ignore the fact that 90% of that research I placed into Angieís capable hands only an hour ago represents 100% of my time, talent, and genius? Not to mention the cumulative wear and tear on my personal telephone line and shoe leather."
"All right, all right," Jonathan begged, clearly unable to handle any more guilt than was already loaded onto his shoulders. "But Iíve already told you that I had no idea that she would ... that she was capable of actually...."
Bennyís eyes narrowed at MacKensieís strange inability to complete the thought. "What? Capable of actually carrying out a threat, you mean?"
Sighing heavily, Jonathan nodded. There was a trace of residual fear marring his face, intriguing and alarming Benny at the same time. He leaned forward to ask earnestly, "What did she say? I mean, tell me exactly what she said."
"I donít remember the words," Jonathan said after a moment fighting with his conscience. "She was very ... distraught. Apparently sheíd been talking with several people on campus and they led her to believe that I was ... Ďinvolvedí with someone else."
"So? Why didnít you jump on that and lie through your teeth?"
"Because I refused to lie to her, and because ... because itís not a lie. Not completely."
Bennyís eyes widened. "Whoa. I canít believe this. You actually kept a secret from me ó I must be slipping."
"Itís not a secret, either," Jonathan snapped, looking more miserable by the moment. "Itís just not something I feel is subject to general discussion."
"Well, donít expect me to start respecting your feelings now," Benny told him pointedly. "Whoís the correspondent?"
Another sigh, this time signaling defeat, brought out a single word. "Angela."
The dessert spoon clattered noisily to the table top as Benny quietly choked. "Angie?" he managed on the third try, wiping melted ice cream and fudge off his chin. "You? And Angie? I knew it!"
Jonathan tossed a pile of paper napkins at him in disgust. "No, you didnít," he snarled. "The truth bears very little resemblance to your prurient fantasies. Angela and I ... have an understanding. As long as sheís a graduate student here at G.I., our relationship is strictly platonic."
"Yeah. I believe that like Carla believed that," Benny smirked.
MacKensie controlled himself with an effort. "This is ridiculous," he muttered, shoving the coffee cup aside. "Why am I wasting my time?"
"Because you still havenít told me what Carla said. She made a threat, right? Singular or plural?"
Grudgingly returning to the question at hand, MacKensie shrugged. "I told you, I donít remember the exact words. She was upset with my negative reaction to the news that sheíd dropped her studies. Apparently I was supposed to view it as an expression of ... love."
"Go on," Benny urged when Jonathan paused to muster his dignity.
Favoring the man with a black glare, MacKensie drew a deep breath to continue, "I couldnít calm her down. She said things ó screamed, actually. Much of it was nonsense, but I understood enough to realize that she was blaming Angela. When I tried to assure her that Angela had nothing to do with it..."
Benny interrupted him with an impatient gesture. "I want the nitty-gritty, Jack. Weíre talking revenge motivation here. What was the gist of the curse?"
"She accused me of destroying her life," he admitted with difficulty. "She said that she was going to hurt me as badly as Iíd hurt her. And then she switched 180 degrees and pleaded with me to ... to change my mind. If I didnít, sheíd find a way to change it for me."
Pursing his lips thoughtfully, Benny balled up the used napkins and tossed them onto his empty plates. "Sheís definitely sitting on the down side of the seesaw," he declared. "Is that all of it?"
He nodded. "She ran out. I tried to find her for four days, but no one knew where sheíd gone. The fifth day was when we found that the PRU office had been broken into, and all the data destroyed."
"Youíre sure it was Carla, then?"
Jonathan quirked a mirthless smile. "There was a note on my desk. She didnít want to chance that the credit would go to some unnamed vandal."
"Now that I can understand," Benny muttered, shaking his head in awe. "Any sign of her since?"
"None. I contacted her family, but they hadnít even been aware that sheíd quit the university. No oneís seen or heard from her for nearly a week." His troubled frown returned, full force. "You donít think sheíd do anything ... crazy, do you? I mean ... dangerous?"
Benny stifled the impulse to make a cheeky crack, suddenly overwhelmed by the feeling that, as much as he wanted to, it was no longer so easy to laugh off. "She say anything along the lines of life no longer being worth living, that sort of thing?"
Jonathan thought for a moment before shaking his head.
"Then the answer is, no. I donít think sheíd do anything to herself. But to you ó I honestly donít know. She mightíve gotten it all out of her system when she blew everything out of the PRUís system...." He paused, considering the anxious eyes Jonathan had fixed on him, and rued the fact that he couldnít take his usual perverse pleasure in not assuaging the fear he also saw there as he continued, "But then again ... maybe not."
Benny found Angie exactly as theyíd left her, staring at the glowing monitor screen. She looked up at his entrance, giving him a quick smile of greeting. "Jonathan didnít come back with you?"
"Right about now, heís probably doing his level best to convince Dr. Moorhouse that the miraculous resurrection of the database is a genuine unexplained phenomena. Howís it going?" he asked, peering over her shoulder at the screen display.
"Everythingís installed and backed up twice. Plus...." she reached over to pat three plastic disk boxes set aside on the crowded desk. "... one for good luck. Iím going to ask Dr. Moorhouse if we can keep this locked in her office."
"Good thinking," he agreed fervently.
"Yeah," she sighed, aimlessly scrolling through a series of screens. "Hindsight makes geniuses of us all, I suppose."
Alerted by the edge of despair in her tired voice, Benny casually leaned against the desk, maneuvering for a peek at her averted face. "Youíre not blaming yourself, are you?" he asked quietly.
She cringed, then turned the movement into an awkward shrug. "Hey," he cajoled lightly. "Take my advice ó leave the guilt trips to the prof, okay? Heís got more experience than you do."
"And less cause," she murmured.
Benny cocked his head, staring until she reluctantly met his gaze. "Care to cross-index that one for me?" he challenged softly.
With a heavy sigh, she abandoned her aimless attempts at the keyboard. "Itís my fault," she said after a moment spent collecting herself. "When Carla showed up three months ago and volunteered to help with the database, I should have said no."
"Yeah, and I shouldíve bet the rent money on the Mets in the Ď69 World Series," he told her pointedly.
"No." She grimaced, waving vaguely. "Benny, you said it yourself ó Carla was never very subtle. I knew she didnít have the slightest interest in the work we were doing here, but when she came to me and begged me to let her help ó I had midterms coming up, an overdue research paper and Dr. Moorhouse expected three subsections of the database in hard copy on her desk in less than a week. I should have turned her down, but...." She trailed off tiredly, ending in a dolorous shake of her head.
"You used her like she was using you," Benny decided. "Sounds fair to me."
"At the time, maybe. But it wasnít worth the payoff."
"Look, we all missed the call on this one," he told her quietly. "Letís face it, we bent over backwards to play fair with her, and if thatís our only mistake, well ó consider yourself bloodied but unbowed, okay?"
She agreed with a reluctant nod and an attempt at a smile that faded as she continued to stare at him in thought. "Itís funny. I never thought youíd be so easy to talk to about ... something like this."
"Thatís me, Mr. Easy," he chuckled, giving her a wink.
"Would you be this philosophical if you hadnít happened to sneak a full copy of the database out from under our noses?" she asked, only half-teasingly.
He had to stop and think about that one. For four months he had called in favors, spent backbreaking hours sorting through musty archives, spent hours on the phone and, sometimes, in dimly lit corners of restaurants and alleyways, digging for information that, when placed in Angieís capable hands, became so many bits of electronic data. The database was his idea to begin with, a brainstorm in response to Dr. Moorhouseís plea that the PRU show some tangible return. His assertion that it would be of immeasurable value as a resource tool, not only for the PRU but for all paranormal researchers both present and future, had met with enthusiastic endorsement from Dr. Moorhouse, who was either unaware of or chose to ignore the fact that, despite lofty words to the contrary, Benny could have really cared less about other paranormal researchers. In his eyes, the database was, first and foremost, a tabloid hackís dream-come-true.
Some of his best stories of recent months had germinated from morsels gleaned from his pirate copies of the database, and to his mind, it was only fair that he, who had Ďresearchedí most of the material contained therein, should reap the rewards. So how would he have felt if he hadnít felt so proprietary about the thing? If heíd walked into this room and discovered that months of painstaking work had been sadistically destroyed by a woman whose warning signals had been flashing for almost as long.... Benny caught himself in mid-wince, then realized that he hadnít quelled it quickly enough. Angie turned her head away, unable to look at him.
"The truth?" he ventured. "I really donít know. Iím not sure I want to know. But Iíd never have taken it out on you, okay?"
She accepted with a wan smile, which faded as another troubling thought edged in. "And you shouldnít blame Jonathan, either."
"Yeah, you told me," he said, with more impatience than he intended. "It isnít his fault that he canít wrap Ďem around his finger anymore. Maybe he needs a refresher course. Or at least a bigger stick."
He caught himself; too late. Angie, her face flaming red, went very still, staring at her hands clasped tightly in her lap. "Damn," Benny muttered, mentally kicking himself. "Listen, Angie, I, uh ... didnít mean...."
She flashed a smile at him, forcing a nonchalant gesture. "I guess he told you, huh?"
The strain in her voice betrayed her depth of feeling, and Benny hesitated, thrown for a complete loss. When he could speak again, he did so slowly, and very carefully. "He told me that he thought Carla was jealous of you. He also said that, given the circumstances, she had good reason to be."
Angieís eyes flickered, as though she hardly dared hope that Benny was being sincere. "He said that?"
"Yeah," he smiled reassuringly. "He also said it was none of my business."
She laughed, nodding. "Yes, he would, wouldnít he?"
Relief that the cloud was lifting from her face was abruptly pushed aside by a stray thought. A woman scorned was one thing ó but if that same woman had obsessive jealousy fanning the flames....
"Did Carla ever say anything to you about this?" he asked suddenly.
Angie frowned, puzzled by the intensity with which he asked the question. "No, she never really talked to me. I mean ... at the beginning, it was as though we were best of friends, but that was when she was settling in, and she only ever wanted to talk about ... about Jonathan."
"The day that everything blew up ó did you see her?"
She nodded, thinking. "She showed up, late. Stormed in, actually. She was barely civil, just sat down and started working on the computer. Only...."
Benny leaned forward, intrigued by her deepening frown. "Only what?"
"She didnít do any actual work. She wouldnít answer me when I asked what she was doing, and practically took my head off when I tried to sneak a peek over her shoulder. It looked as though she was ... I donít know. Reviewing? Or ... studying something."
"But you donít know what it was?"
"No. She backed out to system level before she left, and deleted the tracking log, so I had no way of knowing what sheíd accessed ó or even why."
"So youíre saying that she was angry?" Benny said thoughtfully. "You figure this was after she went head-to-head with our boy?"
"I just assumed it was before, but...." Her eyes lit. "Youíre right, I think it would have had to have been after."
A sick feeling roiled in Bennyís stomach. There was something wrong about a woman, whom Jonathan had described as behaving irrationally, acting with cold purpose only a short time later. "And she didnít say anything to you?"
"No, nothing at all. Benny? What are you getting at?"
"Iím not sure yet," he answered truthfully, shaking his head to clear it. "Iím not even sure why Iím worrying about it, because Carla is not worth an ulcer in this or any other lifetime."
"Youíre right," Angie declared emphatically. "Consider the subject closed and changed. You said you had some new input for me?"
"Ah, ah." He waggled a warning finger. "I thought I heard someone with a British accent telling you to take a break?"
For a moment, she considered arguing, but exhaustion nixed that idea before it was fully formed. "I could use some sleep," she admitted. "But not before I drop these off at Dr. Moorhouseís office."
"What a coincidence! Youíre going my way. If weíre in luck, weíll be just in time to pry Jonny out of whatever tight spot his glib tongue has gotten him into, and heíll owe us undying gratitude, which we, of course, will add to the list. Ready to go?"
Boxes safely stashed in her well-worn knapsack, she shut down the P.C. with a flourish and nodded. "You know what I really wish?" she said, accepting Bennyís arm to steady her navigation out of the cramped space. "I wish Iíd done my stomach lining a favor and called you two days ago."
"Why didnít you?" he chided.
"Because I didnít want you to feel as lousy as I did," she admitted with an embarrassed laugh.
"You know what I wish?" he said suddenly, as he wedged the cranky office door closed behind them.
Turning, he gave her a strange, soft smile. "I kinda wish Iíd seen you first."
He couldnít sleep, and even Ingrid Bergman in her prime failed to lift his spirits. Although it seemed that all the problems of the past week had eased with Bennyís last-minute save of the PRUís raison díÍtre, something in his mind refused to be put to rest. Guilt, perhaps, although Dr. Moorhouse had gone to some lengths to assuage that. After a few disparaging comments about how Benny managed to spirit away full copies of the PRUís database without arousing the least suspicion, sheíd finally admitted that heíd done everything he could have done, given the circumstances. He knew that, and knew it well. Experience was, here as always, an infallible guide. While it exasperated his department chairman to have him appear in her office with the name of yet another coed who had given evidence, verbal or otherwise, that she would prefer a more personal relationship with her anthropology professor, Dr. Moorhouse trusted him enough to know that he did nothing to encourage those attentions. And, more than once, her trust in him had held firm in the face of spurious claims and accusations made against him by frustrated students.
But Carla hadnít resorted to those tactics. She hadnít tried to bribe, or wheedle, or threaten, or publicly compromise him. Sheíd merely attacked, swiftly and violently. And that, he realized grimly, continued to plague him. As an act of revenge, it simply didnít work. Yes, the destruction of the database had distressed him, but heíd hurt only for the pain that its loss caused Angie.
Bennyís smirking insinuations aside, he was confident about his relationship with Angela Ravesi. When Randy, his previous research assistant, had transferred to Loyola in order to be with her fiancť, she had given Angie her wholehearted endorsement as a suitable replacement. The woman was less than a year away from her Masterís in Metaphysics, and was just as enthusiastic about the Paranormal Research Unitís work as Randy had been. At first put off by her fervent interest in something that Jonathan still considered to be Dr. Moorhouseís frivolous whim, he had gradually come to appreciate her charm, personality, and quick-witted intelligence ó not to mention her flashing Italian eyes and enticing smile. When it became obvious that the attraction was mutual, a long conversation in a quiet corner of a neighborhood restaurant had been enough to establish the ground rules. Civilized, amicable. And, as Jonathan had reflected upon more than one occasion since, the year it would take her to complete her Masterís program at G.I. couldnít pass quickly enough for his liking.
The movie droned on, ignored as he leaned back in the armchair, frowning. A memory came into sharp focus: Angieís ashen, horror-filled face as she realized that the hard disk had been completely wiped, her shaking hands feeding in disk after disk only to discover that they, too, had been systematically erased. Her voice, broken by tears, as sheíd informed him that the note left on his desk was no empty threat ó the deed had been done. Thatís what he remembered. So, as an attack on him, Carlaís act had only been partially successful, since really he hurt only for....
Angie. His eyes snapped open, staring at Ingridís ethereally beautiful face on the TV screen before him without seeing it. Is that it? Carla was attacking Angie, not me? He fumbled with the remote, flicking off the distracting image. Leaning forward in the chair, he rubbed hard at his forehead. It all made a weird sort of sense, and finally gave him the answer to the question of his ongoing uneasiness. It was as if heíd known it all along, yet was either unable or unwilling to admit it to himself until now ó or until Benedek managed to put most of it into perspective for him.
Benedek. His frown deepened as he remembered the manís entrance into Dr. Moorhouseís office with his arm draped familiarly around Angieís shoulder. His relief at having been saved from facing the department chairwomanís disapproval alone had been short-lived, squelched by the strange, amused glances Benedek and Angie kept exchanging. And the way the young grad student stifled her smile every time she caught Jonathan looking at her.
With a mental growl, Jonathan shook his head and gave his eyes one final fierce rub. In the midst of sternly ordering himself to bed, he heard someone speak his name.
Through blurred eyes, he stared at the blank television screen. He listened to the silence, tense and expectant. Summoning courage past the flutter of panic building in his chest, he forced his head to turn and search the shadows around him.
The voice was clear, from only a few feet away. He gasped, jumping out of the armchair into a defensive stance. "Who ó what... how did you...?"
His mouth fell open as the intruder stepped forward into the circle of light cast by the floor lamp. "Carla?" he breathed, incredulous.
She smiled slightly, taking another step toward him as he stared at her in disbelief. Her pale brown hair, always worn straight or in a stylish braid, curled in a foamy gold-flecked halo around her face, which seemed to absorb the pale light from the lamp and reflect back in a shimmering glow accented by her eerie smile. In a fog of astonishment, he noted her dress, a sleek, billowy white silk that flowed with her slightest movement, that accentuated rather than concealed every contour of her body.
Her smile widening, she moved toward him again, but this time her movement snapped him out of his moment of shock. "What are you doing here?" he demanded, jumping back with his hands raised defensively. "How did you get in here?"
"You invited me," she said, her voice a strange, seductive whisper. Her smile turned down into a small pout as he backed away from her attempt to touch him. "Youíre not afraid of me, are you?"
"No, I...." He cleared his throat, struggling for composure. For some reason, his panic faded, and he felt confusion slip away, replaced by an eerie lassitude that seemed to grow with the smile on Carlaís radiant face as she closed the distance between them.
"Thereís no reason to be afraid, Jonathan." Her sibilant voice was the only clear thing in a world gone strangely gray and soft-edged, illumined only by the fire in her dark eyes. He stared in fascination, unnerved by the impossible paleness of her skin, the too-brilliant redness of her lips as she lifted her hand to gently touch the side of his face.
Her fingers were ice-cold and he gasped, flinching away. But he couldnít move; it was as though her simple touch had paralyzed him. Where her hand rested against his face, the chill spread, webbing through his body like threads of ice until there was only the promise of heat radiating from her glowing eyes, and one small voice of reason and growing panic that finally forced out a protest.
"How ... did youó" He drew a breath, alarmed at the sheer effort it cost him. "Why are you here?"
Her smile faded for a moment, taking what little warmth was left him. Her cold hand lightly stroked his face, and he shivered to feel the place from which the question had come disintegrate like so much fragile ice. "Because you would not come to me," she whispered.
She tilted her head up, and pausing only to slide her hand to the base of his neck, drew him into a kiss.
Her lips burned, first ice and then fire, but he lacked the strength to resist or struggle free. He knew only that this was somehow wrong, but no longer understood why.
She pressed against him hungrily, prolonging the kiss as her hands drew through his hair, stroked his neck and shoulders. He responded as she tacitly directed, feeling only the cold and the strange half-sleep strangling his senses. A dream, thatís all. Just ... just a nightmare. This isnít happening. This canít be real.
As if sensing his disjointed thoughts, she drew away, regarding him through narrowed eyes. "You sent me away," she breathed, a soft chide that struck unexpectedly at his heart. "I wanted you. I needed you. And you sent me away."
Sent her away? Through a golden haze, he stared into her dark eyes, at the impossible crimson flames dancing in their depths. How could he have ever sent her away? Without the warmth of that fire in her eyes, he would surely perish from the cold; without her at his side for the rest of his life, he would certainly die.
He shook his head, the only way he could express his vehement denial of her ludicrous claim. Her smile surged in triumph as she placed her hands on his shoulders, drawing him to her again. "Jonathan, I want you, now. Tell me that you want me."
Her lips touched his cheek, trembling there with the promise of eternal warmth if he accepted her; icy despair if he turned from her. But there was no real choice anymore. Life without her was unthinkable.
He turned his head, burying his face into her hair. With a small cry of pleasure, she arched against him, moving her hands slowly down his shoulder, his back, and from there to the belt of his bathrobe, which seemed to fall away at her touch.
Her icy hands against his skin drove all breath from his body. He stiffened involuntarily, but she shifted against his reflexive movement and sent him off-balance into her embrace. For a moment, his senses cleared, and panic surged back. Whatís happening? This ... this isnít right, whatís happening to me?
At his ragged gasp, her grip tightened on him. "No," she rasped near his ear, drawing her mouth wetly along his jaw. "Let it happen. Donít fight. Just let it happen."
"No!" Blind with panic, he tore away, stumbling against the sofa. With a low growl, she caught him by the shoulders and bore him to the floor. Pressing the full weight of her body against his back, she held him there until his strength faded and his frantic struggles ceased.
"Carla," he begged. "Please. No."
She rose long enough to turn him onto his back, then lowered her body onto his, deftly foiling his frantic, weakened efforts to push her away. "Iíve waited a long time for this, Jonathan," she whispered, cradling his trembling face in her hands. "Tell me that you want me. Now."
The fog returned. The only thing he could see clearly was her eyes, bright and alive above him, so beautiful. His labored breathing eased as his panic subsided. He tried to lift his hand to touch her face, but his entire body seemed paralyzed, useless. Yes, she was beautiful; yes, he wanted her more than life itself.
It took everything he had to speak a single word, filled with longing. "Carla...."
She smiled, and let her hands slide down to his bare shoulders, then up again so that her fingers caressed his throat. "Weíll never be apart," she told him, pressing her lips against his in a soft lingering kiss. "Never."
Her lips moved down his chin to his neck, leaving a fiery trail that sent a shiver through his body. A sharp stab of pain in his throat brought a cry to his lips, but the sensation was gone as abruptly as it came, washed away by a strangely welcome wave of heat and cold. All other feeling drained away, leaving him with only a sense of total peace and contentment.
Which remained undisturbed even as Carla raised her head to smile at him; to reveal a face flushed with triumph and sharp, gleaming teeth stained with fresh blood.
"You and I," she told him softly, and he smiled his fervent agreement as she slowly began to remove his bathrobe. "Not just tonight, not for a lifetime ó but forever. Forever."
Benny checked his watch, then rang the doorbell again. Eleven thirty in the morning. Heíd already checked to see that Jonathanís car was parked in the side driveway, so wherever the man was, he hadnít gone far. And no matter how late an hour he kept, Benny had never known the man to remain in bed past eight oíclock, even if it meant passing the day as an exhausted zombie.
His third knock went unanswered. From his pocket, Benny fished out the key ring heíd finagled from the reluctant department secretary. Heíd caught her off-guard, getting her to admit that Jonathan had entrusted her with duplicates of his apartment keys so that she or designated graduate students could tend to his plants while he was away on a dig or a PRU investigation. It had been easier than heíd anticipated to get the keys from her, a mystery solved when she told him worriedly that her three phone calls to Professor MacKensie that morning had gone unanswered.
He made a show of sloughing off her concern, but didnít admit the core of his own concern ó of the five phone calls he himself had made that morning, the last one had been answered, in a way. On the twentieth ring, a loud sound had erupted over the phone line, followed by a strange muffled noise, and then silence. Heíd spent the next five minutes on the open line, listening in vain, until he finally decided that what heíd heard was the telephone hitting the floor.
The operator verified his guess; the receiver was off the hook. Youíre home, Jonny. Someone is, anyway. And if youíre going off the deep end on me, there are better ways to do it, you know. Using the key Liz had provided him with, he opened the front door.
The apartment was dark, heavily shaded against the morning sun. Entering the living room, he spied a darkish lump on the floor and stooped to pick it up. A blue terrycloth bathrobe. He grimaced in mild confusion, glancing around at the painfully neat room. Everything about Jonathan MacKensieís life was painfully neat ó for a piece of clothing to be so casually discarded like this was as wrong as ....
"Jonathan?" Still clutching the bathrobe, Benny headed for the stairs, taking them at an easy lope. Three closed doors confronted him; he knocked on each in turn before opening, finding the bathroom and a linen closet before finally entering the darkened bedroom. "Jonathan? Yo? Itís the Avon lady, buds, rise and shine."
By the dim light filtering through the drawn shades, he could see that it was Jonathan sprawled in a tangle of sheets on the bed. The telephone lay on the floor, emitting an angry buzzing signal. Benny paused to scoop it up, replacing the instrument on the night table before reaching over to shake Jonathanís shoulder.
To his vast relief, MacKensie stirred slightly, trying to pull away from the unwelcome intrusion. "Hey, Jack. Are you okay? Come on ó thatís it, open wide. Itís me, itís your old pal, Benny."
Jonathan regarded him groggily, his head falling back onto the rumpled pillow. "Wh-what ... are you doing here?"
"Saving your bacon yet again, Juanito. Itís almost noon and youíre about to miss your graduate seminar on the Cultural Significance of Paper Napkins and Plastic Champagne Glasses In The Modern World."
"Go away," MacKensie groaned.
"After the shimmy I had to do to get myself in here, not likely, my man. Hey, donít do that ó I just wanna see if you got a temperature, okay?"
The sharp edge in Bennyís voice had its effect; Jonathan released the painful grip heíd suddenly fastened on Benedekís wrist. Unnerved by the dark albeit drowsy glare MacKensie fixed on him, Benny rested the back of his hand against the manís forehead. No fever there; in fact, his skin felt unusually cold.
"Hang on, I want to get a better look." He pushed away from the bed and, moving to the nearby window, sought the cords to pull the drapes. "I need to get a little more light in here...."
"No," he heard Jonathan protest behind him. "Leave it. Benedek...!"
He turned in confusion, but in the same movement pulled the curtains open. MacKensie recoiled with a cry, clawed hands covering his face as he curled into a ball on the bed.
"Whoa!" Benny snapped the drapes closed again. "Iím sorry, geez. Why didnít you tell me youíd hung one on?"
The words felt wrong the moment he said them. But as far as he could see, all the evidence was in ó all the classic signs of a colossal bender were etched into Jonathanís pale, sweating face as he eased back onto the pillows that Benny collected for him. "The least you coulda done was invite me to the party, you know," Benedek growled as he made an effort to sort out the mess of sheets and blanket. "So, where do you keep the raw eggs and Worcestershire sauce? No, never mind, Iíll find them. Look, you stay here and concentrate on breathing, and Iíll be back in a flash, okay?"
He was halfway down the steps when the wrongness finally crystallized, stopping him in his tracks. No bottles. No glasses. No cloying, acrid telltale scent in the air, or on Jonathanís breath for that matter. Hopping the rest of the way down the steps, he inspected the living room on his way to the kitchen. Nothing. The kitchen cupboards held a boring assortment of dried foodstuffs, including a bottle of Worcestershire sauce that he ignored to press his search. The refrigerator held two unopened bottles of fine white wine and a half-full bottle of cooking sherry.
Which still left the possibility that heíd made a neighborhood bar that much richer on his way to oblivion, but that didnít add up either. The Jonathan MacKensie that he knew would sooner have his scholarly research papers show up on the front page of The National Register than appear in public four sheets to the wind.
Abandoning his original purpose, Benny dashed up the stairs again, pausing to collect himself before quietly opening the door, peering into the half-lit gloom. Jonathan was as Benny had left him; lying on his back, apparently sound asleep. The rapid rise and fall of his blanket-covered chest betrayed the illusion of peace. Alarmed, Benny moved in for a closer look. Beads of sweat stood out in high relief on MacKensieís ashen face; his breathing was raspy and labored.
"Damn," Benny muttered, snagging the telephone. "Ya, hello. D.C., Georgetown. Gimme the number for the Dunbarton Oaks Medical Center, willya?"
"What are you doing?"
Jonathanís groggy voice startled him for a moment. "Outpatient info, yeah, thatíll do just fine."
"Who are you calling?"
Benny shushed him, memorizing the computer-generated numbers, repeating them in a fast litany under his breath as he redialed. "The experts, Jack. Iím gonna ask them whether I should shove some aspirin down your throat or your entire body into an ambulance. You ... hey!"
He sprang back as Jonathanís hand flashed out, cutting the connection, then sending the telephone crashing to the floor. Collapsing with the effort, he lacked strength to successfully resist Bennyís help getting him settled back, closing his eyes against the manís angry glare.
"What the hell was that?" Benny spluttered, retrieving the telephone from the floor. "If aspirin is against your religion, you could have just told me, you know."
"Iím fine," Jonathan insisted hoarsely, keeping his eyes closed and his face turned away.
Benny snorted. "Good try, Jocko, but between you and me, donít expect an Oscar on your mantle for this one, okay?"
"Iím ... tired. Thatís all." His voice faded and he made a visible effort to summon the strength to continue. "Go away, leave me alone. I just want to sleep." Cracking his eyes open, he squinted vaguely up at Benny. "How did you get in here?"
"Trade secret, pal. You...."
He froze, frowning suddenly as he leaned down to get a better look at the dark, irregular splotch on the side of Jonathanís neck, just below his ear. "What happened here? Come on, chill a sec ó let me see this."
"See what?" Jonathan murmured irritably, swatting at Bennyís attempt to turn him to the light. With a growl, he rolled away, hunching his shoulders up to his ears, but not before the bottom had dropped out of Benedekís stomach.
He straightened slowly, mindful of the near impossibility of taking a breath past the tight constriction in his chest. Swallowing hard, he managed hoarsely, "Cut yourself shaving, Jonny?"
"Go away," an annoyed voice muffled in a pillow told him.
"I said ... thatís a pretty nasty cut. Got any peroxide?"
No answer. Keeping one eye on Jonathanís huddled back, Benny backed into the bathroom. Scrounging through the medicine cabinet produced a small bottle of antiseptic, a pad of gauze and a box of plastic bandages. He stared at them, fighting the sick feeling that rose in him at the futility of believing that they could even begin to fix what was wrong here.
Gathering resolve with a deep breath, he returned to the bedroom and pulled on Jonathanís raised shoulder. "Come on. Florence Nightingaleís booked solid, so Iím just gonna have to do."
Jonathan fought him stubbornly, but finally gave up, exhausted. He muttered under his breath, glaring as Benny upended the bottle to wet the gauze square.
"Wanna tell me how this happened?" Benny said quietly, dabbing the cloth against the raw wound.
"How what hapóow!" Hissing, Jonathan tried in vain to pry Bennyís hand away. "What are you doing?"
"And let me warn you right now, I happen to know that no animal could get close enough to you to go for the neck ó at least not before it got sneezed into the next county. And as for sticking yourself accidentally with a pin, that one was old before your grandfather was born."
"What are you talking about?" Jonathan grumbled tiredly, abandoning his attempt to escape Bennyís ministrations.
Benedek leaned back, considering the puzzled frown on Jonathanís face as the man reached up to touch the new bandage on his neck. To his dismay, he read genuine confusion in the manís glazed eyes.
"Jonathan ... what happened here last night?"
"Last night?" He repeated the words faintly, shaking his head once. "Nothing happened. I ... I watched TV. Then I went to bed...."
"Benedek." Anger flashed briefly, snuffed out by exhaustion that left him gasping for breath. "Do me a favor."
"Get the hell out of my house."
He rolled away, burrowing in a pile of pillow and sheets. Sighing, Benny rose, pausing only return the bottle of antiseptic to the bathroom cabinet before leaving the room, shutting the door carefully behind him.
Retrieving the bathrobe from the railing as he descended the staircase, he inspected it by the sunlight streaming through the front living room window. A fingernail scraping of a dark stain on one shoulder seam produced dried brown flakes.
"Damn." Discarding the robe, he grabbed for the telephone, punching out a number he knew as well as his own ó the Georgetown Institute Paranormal Research Unit.
"Yo, Angie, glad I caught you in. What? No, heís, ah ... heís fine. I mean ... heís just a little under the weather. No problem, really." He sent up a prayer of thanks that she couldnít see the lie drain color from his face as he continued, "Listen, I need you to do a little favor for me, okay?"
Benny turned the pages of the newspaper with exaggerated care, scanning the headlines until he found what he was looking for ó a three-paragraph brush-off of an indigentís untimely demise, compared briefly to several other similar cases, equally baffling. All appeared to have inexplicably bled to death from relatively minor wounds inflicted on the victimsí ...
"... neck," he muttered darkly, discarding the paper to pull a binder onto his lap. Sitting cross-legged on the threshold of the bathroom, he cast a glance into the darkened bedroom before angling the top page of printout toward the light of the fluorescent lamp over the sink. Not only had Angie printed out all the information heíd requested and in twenty minutes less than sheíd guessed the task would take, sheíd even flagged all the subsections and presented it to him already neatly bound. And had, to his relief, not asked a single question about why he suddenly needed such specific information.
He wasnít sure himself, but having it here, under his hands, had a definite calming effect on his nerves; nerves that were closer to the breaking point than he cared to think about.
His hands shook as he paged through the printout and fought to make sense of the words. Everything here was merely a cold, precise listing, indexed and cross-referenced, of information heíd gathered himself, so logic told him that nothing would be a surprise, or much help, for that matter. But a part of him hoped that by some miracle, two seemingly unrelated bits of data had been thrown together and would somehow jump up at him and give him the answer he needed.
A sound from the direction of Jonathanís bed shattered his concentration. He froze, not even daring to breathe or look up as the sound repeated: a sleepy snort that heralded a slow rise to wakefulness.
Closing his eyes, Benny tilted his head against the door frame and waited as the occasional low moan took on the sharper edge of confusion and then panic, ending in a sharp exclamation of dismay. A brief, violent struggle ended as abruptly as it began, leaving a silence in which Benedek hardly dared breathe until it was broken by Jonathanís faint, incredulous, "Benedek? You did this?"
He exhaled slowly, lowering his head to stare at the printout in his lap. "Yep. I did. Next question."
It was a long time coming, and when it did, it was in a barely audible and badly frightened voice. "Why?"
The answer heíd spent hours preparing disintegrated. He chanced a brief glance up and regretted it instantly. From the bed, Jonathan stared at him with horror-filled eyes, every muscle in his body straining against the two neckties that bound his hands to either side of the bed frame.
Benny gulped in a deep breath, mustering his nerve. "You had a visitor last night. And you might say they made an impression on you."
"What are you talking about?" MacKensieís voice cracked with anger and apprehension. "Benedek, get these things off me."
"And I have every expectation that the party in question will be returning for a rematch tonight."
Both curse and terrified plea, Benny flinched under its unexpected impact. "I wish I was, pal," he muttered bleakly. "I really wish I was."
"Why are you doing this?"
"Jonathan ó listen to me." He settled his head against the doorframe again. "First, whether you believe it or not, this is all for your own protection. Hold it, hold it, let me finish. No, better yet ó you tell me where you got that cut on your neck."
"Cut?" he echoed uncertainly.
"Two pretty nasty punctures, to be exact, right over a vein. Lost a lot of blood from the looks of it, so you must remember how it happened, right?"
"I donít know what youíre talking about," Jonathan groaned. "Benedek, get these things off me."
"Not even a guess?"
"I donít ... I donít know," he spluttered in helpless frustration. "I donít know what youíre talking about."
He waited under Jonathanís ragged breathing had eased, hoping that most of the manís panic had subsided with it before continuing in a voice of forced calm, "Iím talking about vampires, Jonny. Iím talking about you having an up close and personal with one here, last night."
"You really are insane, arenít you?" His voice rose sharply. "Vampires are myths, Benedek. Superstitious folklore. If thereís anything at all wrong with my neck, itís probably a simple rash or skin infection that your warped imagination...."
"Hold it!" Benedek ordered harshly. "Just hold it right there. You think Iím getting some kind of sadistic yock out of this, donít you? For your information, pal, that is not a simple rash or a skin infection, okay? Those are punctures, deep ones. And for once in my life, I happen to know what Iím talking about." He paused, swallowing back the anger that threatened to crack his voice. "I know what Iím talking about," he insisted, more subdued. "Iíve ... seen marks like those before. And believe me, no antibiotic in the world is gonna make them go away."
Jonathan released a shaky breath, almost a sob. "Youíre not making any sense," he protested wearily.
"Mexico, nine years ago. Farm animals, family pets, little kids and old people dropping like flies. I caught a wire piece about some old guy insisting that there was a vampire on the loose, so I naturally hopped on the next flight down."
"Why are you telling me this?"
"Just shut up and listen, okay? And get one thing straight right now ó I didnít believe the old geezer for one minute. All I wanted was a full page splash, with pictures, of this nut case insisting that people were being offed by Draculaís Latin cousin. I went down there looking for a scraggly old guy with bug eyes, hair down to there, just enough of a mind left to put two words together in a coherent sentence, and relatives standing behind him rolling their eyes. But what I found was a quiet, shy, well-educated guy whoíd seen the throats of his son and two grandchildren torn open by what the doctors kept insisting was pernicious anemia."
He paused, sagging against the doorjamb as the memory and all the raw emotion he associated with it surged back. Jonathan remained silent, and for a time, only the sound of his rapid breathing told Benny that the manís fear and panic were not being assuaged by this tale.
"I saw some of the victims, Jack. I saw that old man rage at the authorities when they refused to listen to him, to even consider the simple fact that the puncture marks on the throats of every single corpse could be anything more than a really weird coincidence. I watched him beg them to give him permission for a simple exhumation, and I barely kept them from beating him senseless because he refused to take no for an answer. And I saw his heart break when they carried his little granddaughterís body into the church the next day."
The memories were all there, in brilliant flashes behind closed eyes, and the effort of putting words to them drained his energy. "The police werenít being stupid, though. I finally figured that out. They were just being ... human, I guess. And they were scared. Boy, were they scared. And they couldnít deal with this old guy telling them something from their nightmares was a genuine, walking-around reality. So ... they just didnít deal with it at all, pretended that it didnít exist. And people kept dying."
His eyes burned and he paused to rub at them. "I went with him, the morning after they buried the little girl. Just after sunrise. I slipped the cemetery gatekeeper just enough pesos to keep him looking the other way, and then me and three of his sons dug up the coffin of a prostitute that had died five weeks before. Until the moment they smashed the lid open, I really believed that all weíd find in there was a maggot banquet in progress. But ... it was like sheíd died only five minutes ago. I mean, she was dead all right, but damn it ó she had blood on her face, I swear to god she did."
He drew a breath, forcing back the quaver in his voice. "And you know ó I had my camera with me, but it just wasnít something youíd want in the family album. Or even the National Register. Itís hard to explain, but ó you either believe, or you donít. It doesnít matter whether you see it right there in front of you, or in a photograph or you donít see it at all, because logic and sanity have got nothing to do with it. I could have shown those policemen a thousand pictures ó hell, I could have shoved their heads right into that coffin, and they still would never believe because they couldnít. They just ... couldnít."
He fell silent, cradling his throbbing head in his hands. Jonathan finally spoke, his voice low and strained. "Nothing youíve just said explains why youíre doing this to me."
"No," he sighed heavily. "No, I donít suppose it does. Iím sorry I wasted your time."
MacKensie emitted a sound of raw frustration, quickly stifled. "Benedek, please. Let me go."
"Arenít you curious about how I managed to hog-tie you like that without waking you up?" Benny said abruptly. "Donít you even want to know what time it is?"
Jonathanís confused gaze slid over to the digital clock on the nightstand. "Itís seven twenty-five," he stammered.
"At night, Jonny. At night."
"No! Thatís...." He stared at the clock again, and his voice dropped to a whisper. "... impossible."
"I used to think so, too," he growled bitterly. "But I learned something nine years ago, pal. I learned that you donít let anybody tell you that your grandfather is nuts, and you donít have to carry that cross he gave you around all the time just because he told you to. I learned the hard way that you just donít take those kinds of chances. And if that doesnít make any sense to you, then ... Iím sorry. But right now, making you understand anything is the least of my problems." With a growl, he pushed to his feet, crossing to the window to peer behind the heavy drapes. The last shreds of orange light were fading from the sky and it was all he could do to breathe past the constriction growing in his chest and throat. "You might just as well get comfortable, Jack," he said, as calmly as he could manage. "If youíre hungry, youíre gonna have to settle for a sandwich, and me to hold it for you."
When Jonathan made no reply, Benny glanced over to see that the man was still staring at the clock, but the bewildered look on his face faded away, replaced by a kind of hollow, lost expression. But what unnerved Benedek the most was the strange peace that came over Jonathanís face, which seemed to mirror the arrival of full night outside the window.
"You should really pay more attention to what goes into your database, pal." Benny let the curtain drop, moving to stand by the side of the bed as he dug into his jeans pocket. "Matter of fact, I had Angie print out everything we had on the nature of the beast. And if youíre a good boy and promise not to bite, Iíll do some selected readings for you later on."
Jonathanís eyes focused on him with the subtle flinch of someone who had not been listening. "If I accept, for even one moment, that what you believe is true, that a ... a vampire is after me, then ó why this? Why are you making it easier for her?"
Eyes narrowing, Benny studied him suspiciously. "Her? Who mentioned gender around here?"
"You did. A Mexican prostitute, you said. Although I fail to see why, after all these years, sheíd come after me, not you."
Bennyís mirthless laugh faded quickly, replaced by a sharp shiver of apprehension. Given his genuine hysteria of only minutes before, Jonathanís reply was too deft, too lucid. While every muscle in his body remained rigid and strained, the tension belonged not to fear but to ... expectation.
"I get the weirdest feeling that you know as well as I do that that particular senorita has been out of circulation for a long time," Benny told him quietly. "I was there, remember? I saw what they did to her, and let me tell you right now, it was pretty thorough. And Iíll tell you something else ó I donít ever want to have to see something like that again. And youíd better believe, I donít want to have to do it, either."
He opened his fist, revealing the object heíd fished from his pocket. Jonathanís confused gaze went from Bennyís face to the metallic object hanging on a chain from his fingers. "What is that?"
"The kind of insurance you canít get from Blue Cross." Benny turned his hand, deliberately letting the silver cross catch the faint light spilling in from the bathroom.
Jonathan hissed softly, wincing. "Get it away," he rasped, cringing in revulsion as Benny lowered the cross closer to his face.
"Whatís the matter, Jack?" Benny challenged grimly. "Itís just a hunk of metal, right?"
"Get it away," he moaned, barely able to look at it, and badly confused as he tried. "What are yó no!" His sharp cry broke apart in a gasp as Benny dropped the cross against the base of his throat and held it there.
Jonathan convulsed, face contorting in agony. Closing his eyes against a strong surge of guilt and empathy, Benny held the cross in place until MacKensie sagged, gasping desperately for breath.
"It hurts," he moaned weakly. "Why does it hurt?"
Carefully, Benny lifted Jonathanís head long enough to slip the chain over, then settled the cross in the hollow of the manís throat. "Iíll explain it all to you some day, I swear," he murmured, taking a moment to straighten out the sheets and blankets again.
"I donít understand." His voice was a thin, plaintive plea directed to the ceiling. "It ... it canít be true. Vampires donít exist. They donít exist."
His impassioned cry of defiance shattered into a strange choking sound as he turned his head away. Numb, Benny nodded once as he moved away from the bed. "If itís any comfort, I wish you were right," he muttered, staring down at the discarded binder without the slightest interest in picking it up. "But one way or the other, I donít think weíll have too long to wait. And in case youíre still fretting about it, I didnít do this to you to make anything easier for anybody. I did it to keep the snack bar off limits while I check out your mystery guest from last night. He, she or it canít touch you like that, so when they swoop in tonight, theyíre just gonna have to deal with me."
Benny glanced sideways to see Jonathan staring at him with neither fear nor confusion, but with a strange kind of sadness that brought back yet another harsh memory. A young mother, wearing clothes of mourning as though they were unbearable weights, hovering over a tiny coffin. Her swollen, red-rimmed eyes had sought out and found those of her father-in-law, and offered silent apology in the midst of her terrible grief. Regret that was far too little, and much too late.
The telephone rang, startling them both. Halfway to the night table, Benny froze. Jonathan was staring at the telephone, an unmistakable gleam of hope lighting his eyes. It vanished the next moment as he caught Benny studying him, and he quickly averted his face into the shadows.
"Iíll just take that call in the study," Benny decided, backing away to the door. "Donít go anywhere, okay?"
He sprinted down the steps, grabbing the telephone in the living room on the sixth ring. "Benny?" Angieís surprised voice answered his greeting. "I didnít expect you to still be there. Jonathanís all right, isnít he?"
"Yeah, heís, ah ... better. I just dropped off some preventive medicine, so to speak."
"Could I talk to him for a minute?"
He thought fast. "Bad timing. Heís, ah ... indisposed. You know?"
She made an understanding sound. "Well, I just wanted to tell him that thereís something strange going on around here."
"Strange?" The hairs at the back of his neck chose that moment to stand on end. "What do you mean, strange?"
"I just came back from dinner ó I wanted to finish inputting that new information you brought back from Kurdistan, right? Well, the door was still locked, but I found the computer powered up. Benny, I know I shut it down before I left."
"You think someone broke in?"
"I ... Iím not sure. I guess it wasnít Jonathan, huh?"
He opened his mouth to answer negatively, then stiffened. "Carla has a key, doesnít she?"
"Benny, right now even you donít have a key. We changed the lock two days ago. Jonathan and I have the only copies."
"Have you told security?"
"No, not yet. I wanted to talk to Jonathan first."
A stray thought slid in sideways, surprising him with its urgency. "Angie, did you check the access log?"
"No, but I can do that now. Hold on." Benny heard a thunk as she set the receiver aside, then the distant pecking of fingers hitting the keys. After a while, she returned, her voice puzzled and agitated. "Benny, someoneís erased an entire subsection of the database."
"Someoneís got an interesting modus operandi," he growled. "What subsection?"
"Looks like the one...." She paused, resuming with the shrill edge of confusion. "... the one I just printed out for you this afternoon, the one on anthropomorphic folklore. Fairies, leprechauns, werewolves...."
"... and vampires," he finished, his stomach taking a sharp twist. "Angie, forget Kurdistan, all right? Get out of there, now."
"Look, donít argue with me. Just go back to your dorm and ... and....listen, you donít happen to own a cross, do you?"
"Cross? What are you talking about?"
"Any kind of religious thing. A St. Christopherís medal will do. Or can you get hold of some garlic?"
"Benny, will you please tell me what youíre talking about?" she insisted, voice low with fear. "If this is your idea of a joke, itís not very funny."
"Angie, please. Get out of there. Now."
There was no reply, only a sound that could have been a gasp. "Angie?" Heart pounding, he strained to listen, but there was only silence. "Angie, are you there? Angie!"
"Benny?" she stammered, her thin voice trembling with unmistakable terror. "Benny, sheís here. Carlaís here. She ... she...no!"
Angie screamed, an agonized shriek eclipsed by a terrible crash, abruptly cut off as the line went dead.
Dropping the phone, Benny was at the door when his heart started again, bringing back a sharp, lucid thought that froze him in his tracks. Indecision tore at him as he stared up, but the memory of Angieís terror-filled cry propelled him out the door with the silent, fervent prayer that a simple silver cross would live up to its reputation.
Only instinct and raw adrenaline got him to the Sciences building without major mishap. Abandoning the car at the front entrance, he sprinted into the building, pausing only long enough to snag the startled security guardís arm. With the confused young man doing his best to keep up, Benny covered the distance to the sub-basement office at a dead run.
Barely breaking stride, he hit the door, and the last good hinge splintered out of the frame. Two steps in, he stumbled, nearly going to his knees before he caught himself on the edge of the worktable. His senses clearing as he forced air into his strained lungs, he stared aghast at the scene of disaster around him.
The computer workstation was destroyed. On the paper-strewn floor, the monitor lay upended, its screen smashed and frame badly dented. Part of the keyboard protruded from under a skewed mass of printout. Jonathanís desk was on its side, next to the broken pieces of his chair. File cabinets listed, their missing drawers tossed carelessly about, contents strewn in every direction.
Behind him, he heard the guardís startled exclamation, but ignored him, searching the office. "Angie? Angie!"
In a far corner of the office, something shifted, sending a shower of paper drifting to the floor. Holding the guard at bay with an extended arm, Benny took a cautious step forward. "Angie? Where are you?"
"Over here." Her small, terrified voice sent a wave of relief crashing through him as he fought through the detritus to reach her. He found her wedged in a tight corner between filing cabinets.
He grabbed her arm, coaxing her head up to reveal reddened, terror-filled eyes. Without hesitation or explanation, he probed her throat with his fingers, heaving a sigh of relief to find it unmarred as well as no other obvious sign of injury. "Angie, are you okay?" he breathed.
She nodded numbly, pressing her tightly clasped hands against her mouth. "Thank god," he whispered fervently, impulsively placing a kiss on her forehead. "If anything happened to you, Jonathan would turn me into a class exhibit."
Behind him, Benny barely heard the security guardís anxious demands for an explanation. "Go get the police," he barked. "And an ambulance. Move it!"
"Iím all right," she managed to protest shakily. "She ... she didnít touch me."
"It was Carla? Carla did this?"
Terror brimmed in her eyes again, and Benny did his best to soothe her until she could speak again. "She ... she said that Jonathan was hers and nobody was going to stand in her way. And then she tried to ... to...."
Unable to get her breath, she unfolded her hands, showing Benny an elegantly incised golden cross still attached to the chain around her neck.
Stunned, he stared at the cross, and then at her. "How did you know?" he whispered incredulously.
"I didnít." Her eyes filled with tears again. "Iíve always had this ó itís a confirmation gift ... and when we started work on the database, and I read some of the things you were bringing in for us, I ... I thought I was just being silly, but it made me feel better, and ... and when she came at me, I saw ... her teeth, they were ... oh, god...."
Her breath came in sharp gasps, and he wouldnít let her speak until the threatened panic attack subsided. "I didnít know what was happening," she said, forcing her shaking voice to calm. "Carla grabbed me, but she screamed when she touched my ... my neck. Then she just went berserk, throwing things at me...." The tears finally broke free, streaming down her face as she dissolved into quiet sobs. "Benny, whatís happening?" she pleaded tearfully. "She canít be ... itís just not possible! Whatís wrong, whatís happened to her?"
"I donít know," he sighed.
"Come on," she chided harshly. "You had me print out the entire section on vampires and now this happens and you donít know? She ... she is, isnít she? I mean, she...." Her breath caught as she grabbed his arm, eyes wide with horror. "Jonathan?"
He was spared having to answer by the return of the flustered security guard with the news that the ambulance was on its way. By the time Benny had carefully maneuvered Angie out of the cramped space and into an undamaged chair, the paramedics had arrived with four policemen minutes behind them.
With the security guard distracting the newcomers with his incoherent story, Angie grabbed Bennyís arm. "Tell me, please," she begged in a whisper meant only for his ears "Itís true, isnít it?" Taking his silence for an answer, she tightened her grip. "Benny ó she hasnít hurt Jonathan, has she?"
Unable to lie to her, he took her hand, pressing it between both of his as he went into a crouch at her side. "Itís okay for now, trust me. Leave everything to me. I wonít let her anywhere near him, I promise."
On her tear-stained face, he saw the memory surge up, and pulled her into a fierce embrace as she again dissolved into near-hysterical tears, edged with anger and frustration.
A paramedic approached, tacitly indicating that he wanted her full attention and cooperation, but only when Benny was ready to release her to them. At length, she took in several deep breaths, and drew away to pull herself together, but not before placing a soft kiss of gratitude on his cheek.
Benny started to move away, but Angie held on to him, drawing him back to whisper, "What am I supposed to tell them?"
"Just ... just tell them you didnít really see who did it. Tell them anything."
"Anything except the truth, you mean," she said bleakly, her last words dissolving in a half-sob. "Benny, I just donít understand. How could something like this happen? How did she ... how could she? Why?"
Hard questions, most of which heíd already had thrown at him by Jonathan. "I wish I knew," he sighed. "I really wish I knew. Listen to me...." He placed his hand over the one with which she still clutched the gold cross against her neck. "Whatever happens, donít let anyone take this away from you, okay?"
Panic flashed in her eyes to realize that he wouldnít be going with her, vanishing the next moment when she remembered why. "We have to warn Jonathan."
"I told you, itís under control. And I want to keep it that way, so you do everything I say, okay? You go with these nice gentlemen, let them check you out, and when you get a clean bill of health, you go back to the dorm, you pack a bag and you go home to Boston for a few days. No, donít argue with me. Iíll cover everything with Dr. Moorhouse."
Her token protest died behind tightly pressed lips as she nodded again. "Okay. But, Benny, please ó promise me. Donít let her hurt him."
"On my life," he murmured, giving her a peck on the forehead before releasing her hand and stepping back to let the paramedics take over.
With Angieís fervent assurance that Bennyís part in the destruction surrounding them had been that of cavalry to the rescue, the police allowed him to leave with only a caution to make himself available for further questioning. Once out of sight around the corner, he took the rest of the distance at a fast sprint. Ten minutes and dozens of broken traffic ordinances later, he burst into Jonathanís apartment and bounded up the stairs.
Catching himself just in time, he paused long enough to attempt a dignified entrance. But his exertions cost him his breath, and he found himself using the door as support as he opened it. "Jonathan?" he gasped, blinking to adjust his eyesight to the half-gloom.
His answer was a rustle of movement from the bed, and Benny saw, to his immense relief that everything was the same as he had left it, including the wild-eyed stare Jonathan directed at him across the room.
"Whew." Benny crossed the room carefully, mindful of the sudden weakness in his legs. He paused to visually check that his careful first aid remained untouched; yes, the bandage was still firmly in place on Jonathanís neck, and the cross remained undisturbed. His added relief upon seeing that dimmed slightly to see that the gaze MacKensie had fixed on him seemed less frightened than desperate. "Whatís the matter? You okay?"
"Benedek." His voice, hoarse and low, shook with urgency. "Please. Let me go."
He sighed, closing his eyes. "Weíve already covered this ground, okay?"
"You donít understand." Terror surged like sparks of white light in his eyes. "You have to let me go, Benedek. Please."
Shaken by the unexpected intensity of the manís plea, Benny shook his head. "Save your breath, pal," he said quietly. "Iíve had a bad night already."
For a moment, Jonathan appeared almost grief-stricken, but his expression opened up into wild panic as he gasped, staring over Benedekís shoulder.
"Iíd listen to him if I were you."
Even before the amused voice spoke from a shadowed corner of the room, Benny spun, heart leaping to his throat. With a deep-throated laugh, Carla stepped forward into the faint light spilling out from the open bathroom door.
It was all he could do to keep his mouth from dropping open. Carla, whom he remembered as a humorless, ego-wrapped engineering student whose clothing and personality recalled the colors of a wet autumn day, stood before him like a goddess descended to earth. Hair that had spent its life bound tightly in braids and knots now spilled like a burnished cloud around a face that was flawless perfection. And her white dress, cut in a style more suited to a ballroom or even a bordello, flowed like cream over every curve of her body. And her eyes ... beams of pure silver light seemed to radiant from them in a spidery web, beckoning him closer and closer ....
He stumbled back a step, and the thin strands snapped, wafted away, leaving in her eyes only darkness and confusion. And he smiled suddenly, realizing that her attempt to entrance him had actually worked to his benefit by suppressing his first moment of shock and panic, leaving him remarkably clearheaded.
"Nice entrance," he smirked. "Care to make it an equally nice exit?"
Her eyes narrowed, betraying her uneasiness even as she said haughtily, "I thought you wanted to talk to me."
He almost glanced back at Jonathan, then thought better of it. "Been conversing with some little birds?"
She stepped toward him, then hesitated, giving him a wary, searching look.
"If youíre looking for an opening, sweetheart, forget it. Iím on to your game. So I guess youíre 2 and 0 so far tonight. That was some smooth move, by the way." His voice hardened. "What was that, anyway? Your idea of settling a grudge? A diversionary tactic? Or just a little appetizer before the main course?"
Carla retreated, glowering. "Consider it a warning," she said icily. "A warning to you. Get out of my way."
"And if I donít?" he challenged softly.
"If you donít, I promise that youíll find the consequences very unpleasant."
Her confidence was back, expressed in the high lift of her shoulders, the crisp enunciation of her threat. Benny stared at her, again struck by the incredible transformation. Until that moment, heíd assumed that this had been some sort of tragic accident, triggered by curiosity or carelessness. But looking at her now, seeing the self-satisfied look on her face, he suddenly guessed the truth.
For a moment he couldnít get his mouth to work. "You ... you brought this on yourself, didnít you?"
She smiled at him in mocking congratulations.
"Why?" His quiet voice held genuine incredulity. "Carla, why? Donít you understand? You ó youíre dead. Youíre not human anymore. You killed yourself, and for what?"
"For power." She drew up to her full height, eyes flashing. "For true power, Benny. The power to never again be denied, to have anything I want, when I want it, how I want it."
He kept staring, shaking his head in disbelief. "Then you just better hope that you never want to spend the day at the beach," he said softly. "Or have kids. Or any kind of normal life."
Her eyes dimmed, and he thought he caught in them a flash of fear. But it was gone in a surge of anger, sparking her eyes as she ventured a threatening step toward him. "Iíll have everything I want."
He held his ground without flinching and she hesitated, frowning. "We can stay like this all night, Benny, but it wonít change anything," she said after a tense silence. "Heís mine now. He wants to be with me. How can you deny him that?"
"Pretty much the way Iím doing it right now," he growled.
"And for how long?" Her head tilted up, eyes slitting speculatively. "How long can you keep him like this? How long before someone comes looking for him and finds ... this?" She gestured gracefully, giving him a mocking smile. "I could leave this room right now and call the police. And what would you tell them when they came knocking at the door?"
"That the good professor is nursing one helluva hangover and the cops should have better things to do than check out crank calls," he snapped. "If thatís your best shot, sweetheart, then I suggest you crawl back into your hole right now."
"Best shot?" Lip curling in a gentle sneer, she shook her head. "Not even close, Benny. Not even close."
She laughed, a sharp sound that eclipsed another noise behind him. Too late, he realized that in the heat of the confrontation, heíd forgotten one very important thing.
Heíd forgotten to check the restraints.
The violent creak of bedsprings spun him around. He had a blurred impression of Jonathan rising up, falling toward him with something clutched in both hands, and then reality shattered in an explosion of red and white light.
Pain came, jagged thrusts into his skull, and he gasped for breath between spasms as he sank to his knees. Somehow he managed to wedge an arm over the foot board of the bed, the only thing that kept him from toppling to the floor. Clinging with what little strength he had left, he fought to clear his vision of those damned flashing lights.
Above him, he sensed movement and raised his head to squint up into a blurred, vaguely familiar face. The image resolved when, ignoring the pain, Benny cleared his vision with a few hard blinks, in time to see Jonathan reach toward him in mute apology.
But he froze, starting as though heíd been struck in the face. Staring fearfully over Bennyís head, Jonathan straightened. His fingers slipped around the cross at his neck and held there a moment. Then, with the barest tug, the chain snapped.
"No," Benny grated, struggling against numb muscles and nerve endings to get to his feet. He failed with a frustrated moan, barely maintaining his grip on the bedpost.
A hand closed on his wrist, steadying him. Startled, Benny tried to pull away, but the effort made the world spin. He focused on the face before him; abnormally pale and calm, Jonathan returned his gaze without flinching, but for a moment Benny was sure he saw a flash of what might have been fear mingled with what could have only been regret.
Bennyís faint hope that Jonathan was trying to help him disintegrated when he saw what the man held in his other hand. "No, wait," he gasped as MacKensie looped the ragged necktie around his wrists. "Jonny, come on, donít ... donít let her do this, okay? Come on, youíre still in there, I know you are. Listen to me, Jonathan. Listen to me, please!"
Intent on his task, Jonathan hesitated. Encouraged, Benny twisted his head, trying desperately to get the man to meet his gaze. "Jonathan, you can shake it," he insisted in a sharp whisper. "All you have to do is remember who you are and what she is. Donít ... ow!"
In a sudden, defiant burst, Jonathan secured the necktie ends to the bedpost and yanked hard on the final knot. The unexpected pain took Bennyís breath for a moment; when he opened his eyes again, Jonathan was still there, but Carla had joined him. With a triumphant smile, she went to her knees at Jonathanís side, placing her hands on his bare shoulders. The manís dead eyes flamed at her touch; he relaxed visibly, accepting her light caress of his face and neck.
Lowering her chin lightly to his shoulder, Carla made a brushing gesture with the curled fingers of one hand. In response, Jonathan leaned over and snagged Bennyís collar.
He tried in vain to pull away, but the room spun dangerously, draining his resistance. Jonathan undid the top button, pulling the collar open to expose Bennyís throat and left shoulder. A Star of David medallion hung around his neck and Benny cringed as his friend reached for it. "Jonathan," he grated. "No."
Trembling fingers hesitated. Benny opened his eyes in time to glimpse a look of incredible anguish fade from Jonathanís face as Carla stroked his forehead. He grasped the medallion chain and broke it with a single tug. A flick of his hand sent Bennyís last hope flying into the darkness.
Carla rose, moving to stand over Benny. He stared up at her smug, glowing face, fighting back the surge of panic threatening to paralyze him. "How much control do you really have over him, anyway? Do you really think heíll just go sit in the corner like a good little boy until youíre finished?"
Uncertainty again flashed across her face, vanishing in a hard mask of irritation. "I donít have to kill you," she purred, going to her knees at his side in a movement that was as graceful as silk in a gentle breeze. Her fingers kneaded the flesh of his throat, and she smiled exultantly as his ragged gasp. "Youíre not worth my time. This will simply be ... insurance. A reminder not to get in my way."
"Then do yourself a favor," he rasped as her hand slipped around his neck. "Go the whole ten yards, sweetheart, because thatís the only way youíll keep me out of your way. And you can take that to the bank."
Anger flared like sparking coals in her black eyes. "Maybe youíre right," she hissed, digging sharpened fingernails into his throat until he cried out in pain. "This wasnít exactly what Iíd planned for tonight, but this could be just as ... diverting, in its own way."
Jonathan made a sound, almost a moan. Startled, Carla glanced at him, unable to hide her consternation before Benny caught it. "This control business is harder than you thought, isnít it?" he taunted.
She glared at him, then looked back at Jonathan. A shiver went through the man as he met her gaze. Then, with an audible sigh, he sagged against the bed as though drained by her will, or by the sheer effort of his resistance.
Without another word, she tangled the fingers of one hand through Bennyís hair, forcing his head back. His gasp became a cry of agony as she bit savagely into his throat.
She made no pretense at subtlety or seduction. This was an attack and she meant for him to know it. She made him feel the sharpness of her teeth, the coldness of her lips, and the warmth of the blood she greedily drained from him, leaving nothing but ice in its stead.
Staring at the ceiling, mouth opened for a moan he lacked breath to voice, he tried to deny the absolute certainty that the end of his life was only moments away, and that he had only himself to blame. Because of one lapse of concentration, he was lost, Angie was in danger with no one left who knew enough to protect her, and Jonathan....
I promised. On my life, I said. I promised her I wouldnít let Carla get him. On my life, I said....
A surge of anger colored by anguish sent a faint shiver through him, freeing his voice enough to protest weakly, "No...."
She ignored his plea, tightening her grip on him. Another groan shuddered up from the depths of his chest, shattering in his throat. The chill spreading through his body deepened, draining his resistance, numbing his pain. He slumped in Carlaís arms, closing his eyes with a low moan.
The plea roused him from his rapid descent into a darkening gray fog as he wondered where he had found the strength to speak. The pressure of Carlaís deadly embrace eased; she lifted her mouth from his throat. He gasped in desperate relief, eyes flying open to see, dimly, Jonathan standing over them with his hand on Carlaís shoulder.
"Stop. Please," Jonathan spoke again, his voice thin and unsteady.
Her eyes glowed with fury. "You dare...."
Jonathan touched trembling fingers to the side of her face. "You ... came for me," he whispered.
Joy lit her face as she gazed up at him. Then, reluctantly, she turned her attention back to the man in her arms, who stared in speechless horror at the smear of blood glistening on her lips. He knew the reason for the speculative gleam in her glowing eyes ó she couldnít decide whether to finish her kill or to accept Jonathanís unexpected offer.
Her concentration shattered as Jonathan took her face into his hands. Without hesitation, she released Benny, rising to her feet to take MacKensie into a passionate embrace.
Benedek sagged against the foot board, barely feeling the pain from the strain on his bound wrists. His thoughts were in shreds, his muscle strength non-existent. Any relief he might have felt at his sudden reprieve disintegrated as he became aware that Carla was guiding Jonathan toward the bed, not the door.
And it was with true horror that he realized that, even without restraints, he could not stop her.
As much as he despised her, hated what she was, what she had done to him, and what she was doing to Jonathan, he would never be able to raise a hand against her. She had taken his soul with his blood, and his will would never be free as long as she existed. The control that she exerted over Jonathan, forcing his friend to act against him and to look on passively as she nearly killed him ó she had that control over him now. He could feel it, like a terrible ebb tide dragging him away from every conscious effort he made to hate her. The only emotion he seemed able to maintain was jealousy, blazing up to hear Carlaís delighted laugh as she pressed Jonathan down onto the bed.
The clerk behind the convenience store counter looked up from his magazine as an annoying bell announced the entrance of a new customer. "Ah," he said as the man, bent over in obvious pain, shuffled up to the counter. "Donít tell me, let me guess. Alka-Seltzer? Pepto? Third aisle on your left. No? Rolaids, then? How about a bottle of cheap wine?"
"How about an ice pack?" Benny rasped, hand pressed tightly to his aching head.
"Hospitalís a mile and a half down the...." He stared down at the top of Bennyís head as the man half-collapsed against the counter. "You might want to reconsider the cheap wine."
"Are you Herbie?"
Benny managed to bring his throbbing head up in time to see the veil go down over the clerkís eyes. "I think that depends on whoís guessing," he replied coolly.
"My nameís Benedek. Jeeter told me to look you up."
"Benedek? Right! Yeah, Jeeterís talked about you. Whyíd she send you to me?"
He met the clerkís gaze and held it. "Why else?" he said softly.
"Hmm." Herbie eyed him speculatively. "Come on, sit down before you fall down." He came around the side of the counter, taking Bennyís arm to guide him to the chair next to the cash register. He stepped back to study Benny critically. "You or someone you know?"
His shaking hand strayed from the bump on his head down to his neck. He could feel the torn flesh of his throat through the cloth of his tightly-buttoned shirt. "Both," he said quietly.
"Too bad. How many times?"
"Me, once. My friend ... at least twice. Yesterday and just a few hours ago."
Herbieís eyes narrowed. "You got in the way, right?"
He closed his eyes with a tired sigh. "Yeah, something like that."
Lips pursed, Herbie continued to regard him in silence. "I gotta level with you here," he said at length. "Thereís not a whole lot I can do to help...."
"You can tell me who would take money to turn a coed into a vampire."
Herbie stared at him. "I really hope youíre joking, okay?"
"Iíve never been more serious in my life," Benny assured him. He sketched out events for Herbie, ending with the attack in Jonathanís bedroom. "She set out to become a vampire, Herb, and she did it. Now I want to know who did it for her ó and to her."
"Oh, man. This is serious," Herbie muttered, shaking his head. "And Jeeter couldnít help you?"
"She said that you were president of the local. If anyone knew about a rogue, you would."
"Rogue." He snapped his fingers. "I sent out some guys to check out a couple of murders ó you know, street people. All they can tell me so far is that they were pretty sloppy jobs."
"That was probably Carla, getting in some practice before the Big Bite."
"I bet I know who her master is, too. Youíll never touch him. Heís too old, and much too powerful. He probably took on your little coed out of sheer boredom, and then left her to her own devices ó which is not only dangerous, itís in violation of union charter. Not that heís a member, or that weíd have him even with dues paid up through the next century, but if he was a member you can bet heíd be in for a pretty stiff fine right now."
"Personally, Iíd like to make it as stiff as wood, right through the heart," Benny growled, cradling his throbbing head.
"Look, heed some words of sage advice." Voice lowered, Herbie leaned forward to lend emphasis to his words. "Donít even think about tangling with this guy. We know all about him, so ... let us take care of him, okay?"
"I donít really care about him," Benny said tiredly, rubbing his eyes. "Iíve got to deal with Carla. He isnít going to get in my way, is he?"
Herbie snorted and shook his head. "Trust me, heís gotten everything heís going to get out of the deal, so your little Carla is on her own. Oh, man, this is not good." He abruptly turned inward, talking more to himself than to Benny. "The last thing I need is some neophyte loose on the streets making like Carmilla on Ďludes. When the steering committee hears this, theyíre just gonna shó"
The bell jangled again, bringing up Herbieís head and a forced smile of greeting in the same moment. "Yes, maíam?" he said as the woman sailed up to the counter.
Benny leaned back in his chair, struggling to keep alive the surge of adrenaline that allowed him to function. Hours ago, after Carla had abandoned him for Jonathan, heíd slipped into a hazy limbo somewhere between sleep and unconsciousness, not rousing until he heard her voice calling softly to him.
His eyes had opened immediately, lifting up to see her standing above him, her face glowing with an unearthly light. And her eyes ó gleaming in the half light, so bright, so ... so beautiful ....
His heart had leapt with joy when she had touched his face, smiling down at him. "Maybe it will be better this way," she had murmured, caressing him softly with her fingertips. "Youíll come when I call you, do I as tell you, obey me in all things. Youíll protect me, wonít you, Benny?"
"Yes," heíd rasped, hurt that she would even have to ask. "Yes...."
Satisfied, she had released the bindings around his wrists, allowing him to sink to the floor, moaning with relief. Sheíd placed her hand on his raised shoulder, and her cold touch had seemed to draw away all his physical pain. And heíd thanked her as heíd drifted off into blessed sleep. Heíd thanked her....
He shivered in revulsion at the memory, then suppressed it, belatedly remembering that he was no longer alone. When he opened his eyes, the customer was on the far side of the store, poking in the freezer section, and Herbie was leaning against the counter, watching him.
Benny drew a breath, straightening in his chair. "Is this part of the Ďnew imageí Jeeter was talking about? Unionizing, holding down respectable jobs...."
"Finding our niche in society?" Herbie paused, deciding whether to change the subject back or indulge Benny for the moment. "Donít look so surprised. The days of skulking around in graveyards have been over for a long time. Just because weíre Ďundeadí doesnít mean we donít have rights, too."
"And that includes the right to...." He stopped himself, but not before the muscles in Herbieís face tightened perceptibly.
"You know, for a supposedly intelligent man whoís supposedly been doing a lot of research on us, you sure donít know much, do you?" To Bennyís relief, there was only mild exasperation in Herbieís voice as the young man shook his head, snagged a chair with his foot and sat down. "First of all, I want to introduce you to a really radical concept. Vampires are no different from anybody else."
"Except for maybe a little matter of breathing?" Benny offered cautiously.
"Except for that," Herbie agreed amicably, much to Bennyís relief. "And a few other minor technical details. But the point Iím trying to make is, weíre all different. We all used to be human, and we didnít lose all of it after the transition. Well, most of us didnít, anyway. And hereís the really radical part ó most of what the public at large believes to be true about all of us, isnít. Some, yes; a handful, just a fraction of a percentage may stalk innocent people for their blood, even kill them, but most of us have a hell of a lot more sense than that. Your, uh ... Mexican adventure was a throwback."
"You, ah ... know about Mexico?"
"Itís my business to know about these things. Chill out, Iím not about to call you on the carpet for that one. In fact, I should shake your hand ó that woman was a complete embarrassment."
"Among other things," he muttered. "So youíre saying that a few bad apples have generated all the bad press." He nodded to himself, surprised at how much sense it made. "Herbie, where were you when I was looking for this interview?"
"Right here, working the night shift. All you have to do is look around, my man ó thereís a lot more of us than you think. Donít look like that, I just finished telling you we donít jump people in dark alleyways anymore. All right, so maybe we keep a profile so low as to be nonexistent, but do you know how hard it is to get a civil rights case tried in night court?"
"Especially with someone like Carla muddying the pond?"
Herbieís face darkened. "Sheís trouble, all right. Do you think she can be reasoned with?"
"Not by me," Benny sighed. "But if you think you can get through to her, you can name your price."
"Donít tempt me," Herbie muttered on an exhale of breath. "No, from what youíve told me, sheís in this mess for all the wrong reasons. She wanted control over someone, and sheís got it, so she isnít likely to listen to my sermon about leading a quasi-normal life." He stopped, a strange appraising look coming in his eyes as he studied Benedek for a moment. "And if youíve come to me to ask me for help to destroy her...."
"No," he said quickly, warned to the right answer by the tone of Herbieís voice. "I mean ... if thereís another way to break her hold...."
The other man looked less than pleased. "Thereís something wrong here. You shouldnít ... I mean, doesnít she know what youíre up to?"
"She...." He swallowed the lump that rose in his throat. "Sheís not thinking about me," he said, dismayed by how difficult it was to speak.
Herbie was silent a moment, looking down at the ground. Then, softly, he said, "Iím sorry."
"I ... wish I wasnít," he replied tiredly.
"There may be no time left to save your friend. If she decides to, uh...."
"She wonít," Benny said firmly. "She wants a toy, a puppy dog ó a slave, not competition. She wonít risk going further."
Herbieís expression became admiring. "Not a bad piece of logic. I guess you have been paying attention."
Benny leaned forward. "Herb ó tell me what to do. How do I break this? How do I get Jonathan away from her?"
"You donít." Herbie shook his head slowly. "You canít. Sheís made sure of that. Only she can give up her control over you, and even then ó well, you canít guarantee she wonít change her mind later on. Unless...."
"Unless what?" Benny pounced. "What?"
Herbie hesitated, gripped by deep indecision. Finally, he released a long, uneasy sigh. "I wouldnít even consider this under normal circumstances, but ó"
"Pal, the word Ďnormalí doesnít apply to this situation. Tell me."
Still distressed, Herbie bent down to rummage under the counter, pulling out a worn knapsack. "Youíre getting this on one condition. You have to swear on your lifeís blood, youíll pardon the expression, that you will never, never tell anyone where you got it."
Hand deep in a pocket, Herbie paused to stare at Benedek, waiting for his answer. Wondering what could fit inside that small bag that would be important enough to warrant the dire tones in the manís voice, Benny nodded. "I do solemnly swear. What is it?"
"A phone number. Got a pen?"
Nonplused, Benny fumbled one out of his pocket and handed it to Herbie, who, snagging a length of used register tape, scribbled out a number from the battered book heíd produced from the knapsack. "You never got this from me. In fact, I donít even know you, and we never met before in our lives. And if you forget that, you can also forget about getting a decent nightís sleep, ever again."
"I got it." He stared at the scrawled numbers on the piece of paper that Herbie seemed unwilling to hand over even as he offered it to him. "Who am I asking for?"
"Just call and tell the guy that someone gave you this number. And remember, thatís all you say ó someone gave you this number, okay? Heíll take it from there. But youíve got to be completely straight with him. Tell him everything he wants to know, and I mean everything. Thatís important. If he thinks youíre holding back on him, for whatever reason ... well, just donít take that chance. Because right now, heís the only one who can help your friend ó and you."
The phone call, which at Herbieís request was made at the first available booth he found ten miles away from the store, did nothing to sooth his fraying nerves. The receiver had been picked up on the fifteenth ring, and a cool, neutral voice greeted him with a single word: "Speak."
"My...." He cleared his throat. "My name is...."
"No names. Speak."
"Right. Uh ... someone gave me this numberó"
"Where are you?"
He looked around. "Tysonís Corner, I think. I mean, Iím not from...."
Ignoring him, the voice instructed him to proceed to an all-night family restaurant on the Leesburg Pike. Without heeding his protest that he wasnít sure how to get there, the party at the other end of the line ended the call abruptly, leaving him to stare bleakly at the dead receiver.
Inquiries at two gas stations finally got him to the restaurant and under the care of a sympathetic waitress who kept his coffee cup filled and chat to a minimum. The first two cups disappeared quickly, but seemed not to make a dent in the heavy fog of fatigue overtaking him. Giving up, he leaned forward on his arms, bowed his aching head over the fragrant steam and closed his eyes.
On the verge of slipping into a doze, he sensed the cup being slid out from under him, and roused himself to assure the waitress that he didnít need a refill. But his words ended in a startled squawk as he found himself staring across the booth at a complete stranger, who was inspecting the contents of his cup with a frown. "Did you put sugar in this?"
Benny finally found his voice after the stranger, discarding the cup with a scowl, flagged down the waitress for a fresh cup of coffee, strong and black. Time enough for a close study of his new companion, and the realization that if heíd had a preconceived notion of what to expect, this man wasnít it. He was slightly built, with a narrow face and high forehead, and a long, straight nose burdened by a thick-framed pair of glasses. His clothes seemed old and worn, but Bennyís keen eye recognized the expensive material and cut. And his brownish hair was also deceptively casual, belying the hand of a master stylist. Thin fingers pulled out a pack of cigarettes from an inside pocket, then paused as he glanced around. With another expression of disgust, he spied the signs delimiting the non-smoking section and replaced the pack.
"Are we still on a no-name basis?" Benny ventured, pulling his coffee cup back as he eyed the stranger cautiously.
"Too awkward. First names will do."
"Fred. Or Charlie. Maybe Harry. Which one do you prefer?"
He blinked. "Which one is your name?"
The man glared at him, then leaned forward with a sigh. "Listen, Benny. Weíll get along a lot better here if I ask the questions and you answer them. Got it? Now ó what do you want to call me?"
Irritation sent a hot flush into his face at the manís supercilious attitude. "Dick," he growled.
"Fine," he replied, unfazed. "Call me Dick, then. And try not to waste any more of my time, okay? Now ó tell me why someone gave you that phone number."
He swallowed his anger, sternly reminding himself of Herbieís solemn assertion that this man was the only one who could help him. As he related his tale, he kept his eye on Dickís face, which changed only once during his narrative: from a scowl to a frown and back again.
In the silence following Bennyís assurance that there was no more to tell, Dick removed his glasses, studied the tops of the frames with an intent squint, then folded them into an inside jacket pocket. "Not too shabby. Certainly held my interest. Ought to be good for at least, oh ... fifteen weeks on the bestseller list, I should think."
Incredulous, Bennyís eyes narrowed. "What the hell kind of thing is that to say?"
He made a brief gesture as though inviting Benny to figure it out for himself. "Look. Iím not going to paint it white for you, okay? This is a mess, a big one. And I canít do anything for you."
"You...." Panic jolted him as Dick rose from the booth and calmly straightened his jacket. "Wait. Wait! I ... I need...." His breath gave out and he gasped for air and equilibrium. "I was told that you were the only one who could help me."
"Thatís probably true. In fact, it is true."
A sharp hand motion was enough to remind Benny of Dickís injunction against questions. "Listen, pal," Benny growled. "I donít know what your game is, and I really donít much care. If you want money, Iíll get it. If you want something else, Iíll get that too. Tell me what you want, Iíll get it for you, I swear I will. But if you really are the only one who can help me, then you have to. You have to help me."
"Letís get something else straight right now," Dick said, voice sharp with quiet anger. "This mess is your fault. Your ignorance and stupidity paved the road. You can ask for my help, but you have not right to demand it."
"My fault?" Benny echoed weakly, both a question and a painful affirmation of something heíd already suspected.
Dickís cold eyes seemed to soften a little, as if he recognized the depth of guilt that had stolen Bennyís anger. "Thereís a difference, Benny," he said quietly. "A difference between knowing and understanding. You wanted to know everything there was to know about vampires, but you never understood how to handle that knowledge. So you put it into a machine and left it for others to see, others who understood even less than you. And now you want me to clean up after you, when you understand even less than you did before."
"All right," Benny said, eyes closed in pain. "I admit all that is true, I was incredibly stupid. But I canít ... fix things myself. Not just because of her and what she did to me. Because I still donít understand, donít you see?"
"No," Dick said tersely. "Not yet, anyway. Because you havenít told me the truth."
Benny shook his head, overwhelmed by helpless frustration. "Iíve told you everything, I swear I have."
"Youíve told me why you need my help. But you havenít told me why you want it."
Staring up at Dick, Benny slowly pulled back his shirt collar with an index finger, revealing the ragged wounds in his throat. "This isnít enough?" he whispered incredulously.
"Not for what youíre asking me to do."
"All Iím asking...." He paused to swallow the wave of frustration that threatened to steal his voice, then continued in a calmer, albeit shaky voice. "All Iím asking for is help."
"Yes, for...." His breath deserted him as he realized what was behind the note of accusation in Dickís voice. More carefully, he replied, "For me ó and for my friend."
"As I understand this, you want me to free both of you from her influence. Is that right?"
It was suddenly very hard to breathe at all. A vision of Carla overwhelmed his mindís eye ó so very bright and beautiful, she held out her hands to him, beckoning him with a smile, promising him that the only joy he would ever know was in her arms. Behind her, a dark presence lurked, threatening to take this light from him. He would kill before he would let that happen. He would kill....
Benny recoiled from the vision, breaking free with a sharp gasp. Blinking hard, he found Dick staring at him, his expression inscrutable, still waiting for an answer.
It took time for Benny to regain enough composure to speak, and when he did, it was in a weak, halting voice that reflected the sheer effort it took to separate his true thoughts from Carlaís control. "I donít ... want her. Sheís making me think I do, and ... itís hard, but ó I donít want her, and Iím not asking you to help me get her for myself, and Iím not asking you to help me with a story, and.... My friends are in trouble. Carla might go after Angie again, and if she does, I canít stop her. And Jonathan...." He glanced up at Dick to see that the manís expression hadnít changed, but he seemed to be listening intently. "He didnít ask for this, he doesnít deserve it. Me, maybe, but not him."
"Why do you care what happens to him?"
From someone else it might have been a dismissal, but Benny knew that Dick wanted a real answer to the question, and if the answer didnít satisfy him, then the man would be out the door and no one would ever answer that phone number again.
"Heís ... my friend." Benny spoke slowly, each word painfully extracted from the most private part of his psyche. "Maybe ... maybe the best one I ever had. And I donít want to lose him this way, not to her. Not to her. Not this way. Look ó if you want me to beg, then okay, Iíll beg. On my knees, face on the ground, any way you want it. Any price, Iíll pay it. Anything. But youíve got to help. Please."
Weary beyond belief, he ended his words with a sigh, head sinking down onto his crossed arms. A touch on his shoulder startled him, but his head was too heavy to lift and he waited for Dick to speak.
"The offerís good enough," he said finally, in a voice that almost hinted at warmth. "Come on ó weíve got a lot of work to do."
Benny started awake, surprised less by the slamming of the door that had roused him than he was by the realization that he had fallen asleep in the first place. Rubbing his fogged eyes, he pushed up to a sitting position on the bed and groaned at the protesting ache pounding behind his forehead. "How long have I been out? What time isó?" A groping hand finally got the bedside clock turned towards him and he gaped in disbelief. "How the hell did it get to be 7:30?"
Dick, in the process of settling down in a chair by the hotel room window, barely glanced at him as he opened a newspaper. "I understand it happens at least twice a day."
"Funny guy," Benny growled irritably. "You didnít happen to pick up breakfast while you were out getting that paper, did you?"
"The room service dinner menu is next to the phone."
"Dinner?" With a rising sense of dread, he pushed off the bed and crossed to the window, pulling aside the drapes. "The sunís almost down!" he exclaimed angrily.
"Give or take a few minutes," Dick replied, unperturbed.
"But ó you ó why did you let me sleep that long?" he spluttered.
"Because you needed it."
"Butó" He broke off with a moan, as his agitation set off a renewed throbbing in his head. A quick grab of the curtains kept him from toppling over, and he concentrated on breathing until the dizzy spell passed. "Itís almost night," he said when he could speak again. "I thought you said we had a lot of work to do."
"We do. Youíve already done most of it. You needed sleep, I need you rested."
"Wait, wait. I thought ... I mean, wouldnít it be better ifó"
Dick flipped a page of the newspaper, then spared him a patient look. "Do yourself a favor, and forget everything you think you know. This isnít Mexico."
"Why does everybody seem to know about Mexico?" Benny muttered to no one in particular.
"You did a decent enough job there, although in my personal opinion it was strictly amateur hour. But it wonít work that way this time. I donít work that way."
"Then how do you work?" Benny said, easing his sore body onto the bed with a long sigh. "What are you planning to do?"
A unexpected silence met his question, and he opened his eyes to see Dick staring at him speculatively. "Why are you looking at me like that?" he demanded nervously.
"You agreed to trust me," Dick said quietly. "You agreed to do everything I asked you to do, without question, right?"
He remembered the conversation ó more of a monologue from Dick, delivered moments after theyíd returned to Bennyís motel room, in which heíd spelled out the conditions of their arrangement. "I donít remember anything in there about you not telling me whatís going on," he replied defensively.
"Use your brains. Itís lousy strategy to tip your opponent to your battle plan, isnít it?"
"Iím not the enemy here...." His protest died in a cold shiver. He was the enemy; the perfect spy. Everything he knew was Carlaís for the asking.
"You canít trust me. Thatís it, isnít it?" Benny said tiredly.
"Right now," Dick said calmly, going back to the newspaper, "you canít even trust yourself. Iíd see about getting something to eat if I were you. Itís going to be a long night."
Benny didnít move, staring bleakly up at the ceiling. "How are you going to find her?"
"Iím not. You are."
He was silent for a moment. Then: "Sheíll know."
"Yes, she will. But she wonít know why, because you donít know why, and maybe, just maybe, her curiosity will get the better of her. If not, well ó she can only put you off so long. Eventually, youíll find her ó or sheíll find you."
Benny shuddered at the thought, and tried not to think about whether his reaction had been one of revulsion or anticipation.
He found her. Too easily, he thought, but Dick offered no opinion one way or the other, maintaining a staunch silence as he drove the rental car according to Bennyís monosyllabic directions. He seemed to be sensitized to her, feeling a strong, almost tangible pull on his heart, strong enough to order a U-turn when he sensed they had driven too far in one direction.
A two-hour drive had brought them deep into the Blue Ridge Mountains, and it wasnít until Benny had told Dick to back up and turn down a hidden driveway that he realized where they were. Months ago, when Carla had made her first weak attempts at comradeship, she had invited the PRU staff, Benny and Angie grudgingly included, to spend weekends at her familyís vacation lodge in the mountains. No one had ever taken her up on her offer, and Carla had sullenly let the matter drop.
Dick shut off the headlights as he eased the car down the unpaved lane, giving Benny a bad moment as he wondered how the man could see to drive in the pitch blackness surrounding them. But then, before them, a light flared behind a curtained window in the near distance. With absolute certainty, Benny knew that the welcome was for them.
He was still staring at the window when Dick nudged him, and only then became aware that the car was parked and the engine silent. "Letís go."
"I...." He found to breathe. "I donít think ... I should."
"I said, letís go."
"You said ... you canít trust me. I canít trust me."
"All the better I keep you where I can see you. Get out."
He did, reluctantly, noting that the man made no effort to muffle the sound of the door closing. Obviously he too realized that the light was their beacon, and obviously it didnít seem to bother him half as much as it bothered Benny.
The lodge was a handsome split-level affair with a modest facade of stone and brick. Any typical family of four would find it an adequate home, and yet Carlaís family considered it to be little more than a Ďcabin in the woodsí, a weekend getaway. He wondered briefly if her parents knew what had happened to her; then, remembering remarks Carla had dropped in passing, wondered how long it would take them to notice that something was amiss ó if they ever did notice.
The front door opened as they approached. Benny stopped short, ready to run. If it had been Carla standing before him, nothing would have stopped him from dropping to his knees at her feet and begging for her forgiveness. But it was Jonathan, dressed only in a loosely belted robe, who stood in the doorway, looking out at the two men as if they were both strangers.
Benny winced at the harsh wave of jealousy that washed over him. Jonathan was pale and tired, and seemed barely able to stand without the support of the door, but he was strangely calm as he stared at them. "Sheís waiting for you," he said, standing aside for them.
Dick made a gesture commanding Benny to enter before him. He moved forward, each step taking more strength than he was sure he could muster. As he crossed the threshold, he dragged to a halt, staring at Jonathan in fear and fascination. The other manís face was chalk white, with deep purple shadows under his eyes and haggard lines in his face, and he trembled slightly under the strain of what Benny sensed were very recent demands made on his body. The raw puncture wounds on his throat were not fresh, Benny noted with relief. Perhaps that meant she was waiting for....
He drew a sharp breath, stifling the thought, but Jonathanís eyes flicked up as though he had sensed the momentary lifting of Bennyís heart. "You shouldnít have come," he said hoarsely, before turning away and moving back into the darkened room.
Benny had no time to figure out whether Jonathanís words were spoken in anger or despair as he became aware that Dick was watching him intently. He moved cautiously farther into the room, lit only by a dim lamp near the window. Before he saw Carla emerge from the shadows, heíd already sensed her presence and it was all he could do to keep from crying out to feel the depth of her annoyance at him.
He stared at her, open-mouthed with awe. She wore only a sheer negligee, apparently hastily donned; it did nothing to conceal her lithe body, and only heightened the burning sensation deep in the pit of Benedekís stomach. Tossing back her disheveled mane of hair, she approached him slowly, mouth set in a tight, angry line. Every instinct screamed for him to run, but he was rooted to the spot, unable to move even as she lifted a hand to his face and trailed her fingers down the side of his neck.
"I underestimated you," she decided as she nudged aside his shirt collar to caress the two puncture wounds in his throat. Her smile widened when he shuddered at her icy touch. "But, I think youíll find that the mistake was that you underestimated me."
His heart broke when her eyes left him, seeking out someone (who was it? He couldnít remember ... ) behind him. Her head tilted quizzically for a moment. "Whoever you are, youíre a fool," she said softly, with a dangerous smile. "Youíll be wise to take my advice: this is none of your business. Leave now and perhaps Iíll let you live."
"Living isnít one of my concerns. It hasnít been for a very long time."
Her attention left Benny completely, freeing him enough to recognize Dickís mildly amused voice. His confusion was mirrored in Carlaís face as she studied Dick in the dim light. Then, with widened eyes, she glanced at Benny, then back at Dick. "You havenít told him? He doesnít know?"
"He didnít need to know."
"Is that why you agreed to help him?" She stepped away, pressing a hand to her mouth in a exaggerated attempt to stifle a laugh. "You want me to give up my control over him, so that you can have him, right? You want him for yourself, donít you?"
Going cold, Benny turned to face to look at Dick, who returned his stare impassively. "What is she talking about?" he demanded, already knowing the answer.
Carla giggled, clapping her hands in delight. "Oh, this is wonderful!" she crowed. "Yes, yes, by all means, you can have him. I certainly donít want him. But you have to promise to keep him out of my way. Otherwise, Iíll have to kill him."
Bennyís eyes never left Dickís face. "I trusted you," he grated.
The brief smile that flickered on the other manís face said without words that Dick considered Bennyís accusation of betrayal to be a thing of no consequence to him.
As Dick stepped forward, Benny flinched and stumbled against a room-partition bookshelf. He clung there as the other man, with a dismissive look, moved past him to confront Carla, who met his gaze with a calm smile.
"I donít want him," Dick informed her, almost genially. "And you donít want him either, so ... I guess youíll have to kill him, wonít you?"
She glanced over at Benny and shrugged. "Eventually."
"Itís not wise to put these things off." Dick raised a finger to his lips, in thought. "Thereís something I think youíre just beginning to figure out here. Controlling one person, well, thatís easy, even for someone with limited experience like yourself. But trying to control two at a time ó thatís asking for trouble."
A flicker behind her eyes betrayed that she recognized the truth behind his words, but her jaw set stubbornly. "I donít need lectures from you," she pouted.
"No, but youíd better listen anyway. You canít keep both of them, not without losing one ó or both. Theyíll try to kill each other over you, and theyíll keep trying until one of them succeeds."
She forced a smile. "That could be fun," she said, but a quick glance sideways at where Jonathan sat unmoving in an armchair belied her words.
"Well, if you think so, then letís make it a party, shall we?"
Sickened, Benny sagged against the bookcase, fighting the enervating pull of despair. He had no hope of escape, not now. A dash for the door might get him as far as the front steps before one of them caught and dragged him back. He should have known, he should have guessed that Herbieís reasonable nature masked a black heart. This was what a vampire meant when he offered help: deliverance into the hands of fellow vampires who delighted in making sport with their human victims. This canít be happening. How could I have been such a fool? This is a nightmare, itís got to be a bad dream, just a bad dream....
A hand closed over his upper arm, startling his eyes open. He cried out, trying to break free. But Dickís grip tightened, pulling him away from the bookcase. "Here he is," he told Carla cheerfully, undisturbed by Bennyís struggle to free himself. "Now, before we begin, there are a few things I want to make sure you have straight. Your victim can become a vampire as a result of your first attack, your twentieth attack ó or not at all. The sole determining factor is when you cause their heart to stop beating."
Carlaís brow raised in genuine surprise. "He never told me that," she muttered under her breath. "He just said to make sure that they werenít dead when I...."
"Thereís a great deal he didnít tell you, Iíll wager. So what you have to consider here is method of disposal. If you kill him yourself, well ... heíll rise as a vampire that will consider you his master, but thatís no guarantee of fealty. I donít think youíre ready to contend with an enemy who is at least as powerful as you are."
She shifted uncomfortably, covering her apprehension with a haughty sneer. "It would be too kind a fate for him." Her eyes narrowed abruptly. "Who are you, anyway? Why did you have him bring you here?"
"Because he came to me with a story of a woman who had chosen this lifestyle for herself, but who apparently did not choose her master well. There are many things he should have told you, things you need to know in order to survive. Youíre making mistakes and if you donít listen to me, it will all come out very badly."
She bristled, but kept her temper in check. "And why should you care?" she challenged softly.
"I care," he replied with a smile that to other eyes would have appeared genteel, but which sent a shiver of horror down Bennyís spine. "Because itís my business to care. We are a small but elite fraternity, and what one of us does affects us all, for better ó or for worse. And because ó I sense that you have promise."
Flattered, she returned his smile, most of her suspicion melting away. "All right," she purred coyly. "If you insist on correcting my mistakes, letís start with the one I made by letting him live." Her flashing eyes went to Benny, who hung in Dickís grip, listening to their exchange in silent horror. "You can kill him for me."
"No. Heís yours, not mine. Not an injunction, merely a matter of ... personal taste."
She pouted in brief disappointment. "I could let him bleed to death, then ó like the others. Or I suppose they could find him at the bottom of the mountain ó that would solve the problem of garbage disposal. Should be quite a mystery as to why he decided to go rock-climbing in the middle of the night."
Her hand flashed out, taking Bennyís chin between her fingers to force his head up. As she smiled malevolently into his eyes, he realized with a churning twist of his stomach that she had withdrawn her control over him. He felt no desperate longing, no fiery desire, no urgent need to lose himself forever in the depths of her flashing eyes. The only thing he felt was the rapid pounding of his heart ó and sheer terror.
"Youíre frightened of me," she cooed, laughing as she coaxed a wince from him by brushing the fingers of her free hand across his beading forehead. "How delicious. Consider it a small payback for all the times you embarrassed me, humiliated me, bullied me, insulted me...."
Her expression hardened as one sharp fingernail slashed into his cheek.
The sound of his scream fed her satisfied smile. She watched him gasp for the breath the sudden pain had cost him, waiting until his eyes opened before slowly drawing her fingers across the raw, wet gash.
He tried to look away, but Dick held him still and dread fascination kept his eyes open as Carla languorously brought her fingers, glistening with his blood, to her lips. As she slowly licked each finger clean, she stifled a laugh of malicious delight at the sickened look on Benedekís face.
"Very impressive," Dick said in a voice that held no sincerity.
She spared him an irritated look before turning her attention back to Benny. "Youíll do this one little thing for me, wonít you?" she cooed. He tensed as he felt the familiar tug, an undeniable urge to grant her any wish. "Iíll give you a flashlight so that you can find the trail, but you must promise me that youíll set it down before you jump. Daddy will be so upset if I allow his expensive equipment to get damaged."
His mouth opened, and words of fervent agreement trembled there ó and died.
"Not so fast."
The compulsion to speak faded abruptly along with his strength. Oblivious to the near-dead weight he supported with just one hand, Dick continued, "He mentioned someone else whom you attacked. A failed attempt, I believe. A loose end."
She frowned. "I suppose thatís true," she said sullenly.
"That will have to be rectified."
"No," Benny whispered, numb with horror at the sheer depth of the manís betrayal.
"Donít worry about that," Carla assured him with a sneer. "I have plans for dear, sweet, little Angie. She canít keep her guard up forever and you...." She teased her fingers in the air near Bennyís face, again delighting in his flinch. "You wonít be around to protect her, will you?"
"He sent her away. Only he knows where. Donít dispose of him until he tells you."
Benny groaned. "You bastard," he muttered under his breath.
She arched her eyebrows briefly, taking the suggestion under consideration. Then, her eyes brightened. "No, Iíve got a better idea. Iíll send him for her! He can bring her to me. Yes, she trusts you so much, doesnít she? What will she think when you she finds out why youíve brought her here? Oh, I can just imagine the look on her face!" Her head went back in a peal of laughter as she clapped her hands like a little girl granted her fondest wish.
Benny closed his eyes tightly, fighting for breath. "No," he hissed between clenched teeth.
"Oh...." She exaggerated a pouty whine on top of the unbridled glee already thickening her voice. "It will be so hard to decide who to kill first, though. Maybe I wonít have to decide right away. Maybe ... Iíll keep the pair of you in the basement while I think about it for a while." She gouged his cheek again, eliciting another agonized cry from him. This time she held her hand against his trembling face, watching in fascination as his blood flowed down in a shimmering pool inside her palm. "Yes," she murmured, her half-closed eyes muting the flames of lustful yearning. "Like ... a stocked larder, I think."
For a brief, crazed moment, Benny thought that the scream had come from someplace deep inside himself, someplace that hadnít needed the use of his breath, strength, or voice to form such a raw, terrible sound. But he knew the truth in the next moment, when Carla spun around.
Blinking his vision free of the blur of physical pain, Benny saw the same sight that sent Carla staggering back with a cry of fear. Jonathan was standing only a few feet away, his entire body contorted with the same terror and anger that had exploded into his scream.
Carla recovered after an uncertain moment, drawing her to her full height. "Jonathan," she said, a quaver marring her otherwise calm voice. "Thereís no need to be afraid. You know I would never harm you. Never you...."
She stepped forward, fully expecting Jonathan to take her extended hand as well as her promised comfort. Too late she realized that her hand was dripping with Bennyís blood.
Jonathan recoiled with a terrified whimper, stumbling against a chair as he frantically backed away from her.
"No!" she cried tearfully. "You ... you canít! You canít!"
Benny dimly realized that Dickís grip on his arm eased, becoming support rather than restraint. But the scene unfolding before him drove the question from his mind before it had been fully formed. He watched, stunned, as Carla tried once more to calm Jonathan with her touch, and once more failed.
"No," she wailed, heartbroken. "Please, Jonathan, you ... you canít do this to me. Please, you canít hate me. I wonít let you hate me!"
"Itís too late for that now."
She turned tear-filled eyes toward Dick, her face twisted with rage. "You!" she spat. "You tricked me! You lied to me!"
"I spoke the truth. Iím showing you the truth."
"No!" she screeched, her entire body shaking under the force of her vehement denial. Dissolving into wracking sobs, she sank to the carpeted floor.
Without warning, Dick released Benedek, whose legs immediately buckled beneath him. He stumbled to his knees, clutching his bruised, numbed arm. Dick ignored the blazing glare Benny sent after him as the other man moved to stand over Carlaís huddled, trembling body.
"He never told you what it would be like," Dick said softly, seemingly unconcerned whether she was listening, or even heard him over her violent weeping. "He let you believe that you could bend others to your will effortlessly, without pain. He allowed you to continue thinking that you could use your new powers against those you thought to be your enemies, that you could manipulate, torment and yes, even kill them without recrimination. He left you without telling you the truth. The truth about the terrible price you have to pay."
Carla lifted her head, revealing her anguished, tear-drenched face. Her grief-reddened eyes sought Jonathan, who cowered in the far corner of the room where he had retreated in abject terror. "I didnít mean ... I didnít want...." She drew a shuddering breath. "I just wanted him to love me...."
Her voice rose to end on a soft, heartbroken wail. Lost in her grief, she neither reacted nor resisted when he crouched by her side, placing his hands on her shoulders.
"He should have told you," he said, a quiet yet forceful whisper near her ear. "Yes, this man is bonded to you by the blood you took from him; yes, his will is overcome by the power of that bond, by the power that you possess over him. But you should have been told that, in the end, you cannot have that which was never freely given to you."
She shook her head helplessly. "But he ... he said he loved me. He said he wanted me, it wasnít a lie, it couldnít have been...."
"It was your voice, speaking through him. His voice, saying the words that you wanted to hear. Carla ó you never had him. You never will."
"No," she whimpered, dissolving into violent, soundless sobs.
Benny finally found the courage to move, careful not to make a sound as he slid across the carpet to the dark corner in which Jonathan huddled, knees drawn up to his chin, arms protectively cradling his face. As he drew near, he heard the sound of Jonathanís harsh breathing, near- hysteria reflected in the violent shaking of the tormented manís tightly coiled body.
"Jonathan?" he ventured, uncertain whether he should try to touch the man without first making him aware of his presence. "Jonathan? Itís ... itís okay, I think. I mean, Iím not sure, but...." He glanced over his shoulder to see Dick was still speaking lowly to Carla, unheeding of anything except his words and her grief.
"Jonathan," he tried again, more urgently. "Come on, answer me. Donít go down with her, donít let her win."
"Get away from him," Carlaís sharp, tear-filled face commanded suddenly. He started, twisting around in time to see her shake off Dickís hands as she glared angrily at Benedek. "Heís mine. Heís mine."
"Donít do this," Dick growled in warning, grabbing her arm.
She staggered to her feet, yanking free of his grip. Taking an unsteady step toward Benny, she fixed him with a dangerous stare. "Get away from him," she snarled. "Get away from him, or I will rip your throat out."
He paled as he recognized the spark of grief-spawned insanity in her eyes. For the first time that night, even Dick tensed as she once again shook free of his attempt to restrain her.
"Carla, donít do this," he hissed. "You donít understand...."
"Heís mine." Deceptively cam, she lifted her chin haughtily. "He loves me, he wants to be with me. Tell them, Jonathan. You have to tell them."
With a prolonged, anguished moan, Jonathan unfolded as though pulled apart by invisible hands. He fell back against the wall, arms wrapping tightly around his waist as he convulsed in agony.
"Stop it!" Benny cried, helpless with rage. "Stop it, damn you! Youíre killing him, canít you see that?"
"Carla!" Dick shouted, shaking her roughly.
With a feral snarl, she shoved Dick away, then extended her hands toward Jonathan in desperate plea. "Tell them," she whispered tearfully. "Tell them."
Jonathanís harsh breathing suddenly ceased. In the awful silence, his sweat-drenched eyes slowly opened.
"Jonathan?" she quavered, a smile trembling uncertainly on her lips. In her deranged state, she seemed unaware of the horrific sight she presented: her once pristine negligee was splattered with Bennyís blood, the same blood that was smeared across her face, running in tear-driven streams down her cheeks.
Jonathan stared up at her without expression or emotion. Encouraged, she leaned forward in an attempt to touch his face.
A terrible cry tore from Jonathanís throat, taking the last of his pent-up breath as he twisted away from her, crumpling to the floor.
Carla shrieked, a prolonged and horrible scream reverberating through every muscle of her body. When she collapsed in a paroxysm of grief-filled sobs, Dick caught her, pulling her into a supportive embrace. She clung to him, burying her face against his chest. Gently, he lifted her in his arms to carry her to a sofa on the far side of the room.
In the sudden silence, Benny unfolded from the cover he had taken at the onslaught of Carlaís terrible cry. Neither he nor Jonathan seemed to be the center of attention anymore. But his relief disintegrated when he spied Jonathanís still, unmoving body on the floor nearby.
He scrambled on hands and knees to the manís side, pushing on Jonathanís shoulder to get at a pulse point. "Youíd better be there, Jonny," he muttered under his breath, a desperate prayer. "I swear, Iíll come after you and drag you back by your hair if you...."
With a moan, he sagged, bowing his head over his hands where they gripped Jonathanís shoulders. Heíd felt the backlash of Carlaís cry, and it had nearly stopped his heart. How could Jonathan, the direct target of her rage, have survived? Even if Benny did manage to coax his friend back, what would be the point? They had no hope of surviving the night anyway. They knew too much. And they were at the mercy of a man undevastated by the events around him, a man that Benny was absolutely certain would protect his secrets at all costs.
"Never mind," he sighed, closing his eyes against the sting of frustrated tears. "You go if you want to. Iíll catch up with you later."
Lost in a sick half-daze, he gradually became aware that the dim light from the single lamp in the room had faded. Forcing his head up, he stared up into the face of the reason why. Dick stood over them, his features shrouded in the gloom, completely unreadable.
"How is he?" Dick said quietly, his voice as inscrutable as his face.
Benny swallowed, barely managing to speak past the heavy lump in his throat. "I ... I think heís...."
Dick dropped into a crouch and, ignoring Bennyís feeble attempt to stop him, pressed two fingertips behind Jonathanís ear. After a moment, he retracted his hand and grunted softly. "Close, but not quite gone," he murmured without emotion.
Benny stared at him, beyond anger. "Get away from me," he growled. "Get the hell away from us."
Again ignoring him, Dick peeled Bennyís hands from their white-knuckled grip on Jonathanís shoulders. With a snarl, Benny fought as long and as hard as he could before his strength deserted him, a struggle that lasted barely three seconds before he collapsed, sprawling to the ground. He looked on helplessly as Dick gathered up Jonathanís limp body.
"Leave him alone," he croaked, a demand that segued too quickly into a plea. "Damn you, leave him alone."
But Dick was already gone, disappearing with Jonathan into the shadows.
The sickness in the pit of Bennyís stomach surged up, bringing with it an enervating miasma. With a weak groan, he fell into the fog, drifting with it with the faint, desperate hope that it would save him somehow, or at least ease the pain yet to come.
Vaguely he became aware that he was being lifted up, carried. The fog refused to let him care. It was useless to keep fighting when there was no hope of winning, anyway. Better to just get it all over with. Encourage it; yes, even welcome it. Only one stray thought marred the blissful relief his decision brought him. Angie....
He snapped awake, clawing at the hand that pinned his shoulder down. "Donít hurt her!" he gasped frantically. "Donít ... donít hurt her...."
"Relax," a gentle voice told him. "No one is going to hurt her. Relax."
His vision was a gray blur, useless. But the frantic pounding of his heart seemed to ease immediately, as if responding to some hidden command. Tension drained from him in a sigh, allowing his body to relax back into cushioned softness.
The restraining pressure left his shoulder. Fighting the urge to drift off into exhausted sleep, he rubbed his eyes clear, then looked up to find himself staring into Dickís calm, expectant face.
"Listen to me," the man said in a voice that was soft in tenor, but terrifyingly commanding in tone. Bennyís throat constricted, inexplicably certain that if refused to listen, or worse, refused to obey, his life would snap like a frayed thread.
"I must leave for a time," Dick continued without waiting for a sign of acknowledgement. "Youíll wait for my return."
Refusal was not an option, and Benny spent no energy on it. Swallowing hard, he managed to speak in a dry throat. "Jonathan. Where is he, what did you ... where is he?"
Dick moved back a step, clearing Bennyís direct line of vision. A few feet away from where he lay on some sort of sofa or chaise longue, was a bed. Pale yellow light from a bedside lamp illuminated the blanket-covered occupant, only his dark hair and part of his face visible above a pile of pillows.
"Allow him to rest," Dick told him, calmly straightening a jacket cuff as if that was all he needed to restore the dignity destroyed by the disheveled appearance of his blood-stained clothes. The strange part was, Benny reflected dimly, was that it seemed to work. "You must rest, also. Wait for me here. And if he should awaken before I return...."
He paused, glancing back as though to gauge the necessity of completing his thought. "If he awakens ... do what you can."
"What I can?" he echoed, shaking his head in confusion.
Dickís eyes flickered briefly with an impossibility ó open compassion. "If he awakens," he said softly, "let him know that youíre here. Let him know ... that heís not alone."
Before Benny could catch his breath, Dick turned away, melting into the shadows of the room.
He fell back with a moan, his head sinking into a delightful softness that a desultory probe revealed as a pillow. An unfamiliar rough material draped over his legs and lower torso proved to be a thick afghan, and he dragged it up to his neck using what little strength the cushions he lay upon hadnít already absorbed. Too late he realized that he should try to stay awake and aware, not let Dickís promised return catch him sleeping and unprepared. The thought broke apart like so much fragile glass as he slid into exhausted sleep.
In the midst of a gray-limned dream, he heard the cry. A soft sound at first, it grew louder as he searched for its source. He recognized it: the wail of a human being in deep, relentless pain. And then he recognized the voice.
"Jonathan?" He struggled free of the binding web of sleep, falling back at his first attempt to sit up. In his fog of confusion, two thoughts stood out with stark clarity: the soft wail that drew him, and Dickís final warning.
Unsteadily, he got to his feet, managing to cover the distance to the bed before stumbling. Clutching the canopy post for support, he looked down at Jonathan to see that the man held his sweat-drenched face in clawed hands. The tormented manís cry, broken only by ragged gasps for breath, escaped him through tightly clenched teeth.
"What is this?" Benny muttered under his breath, fear gripping his heart. "What the hellís happening?"
Part of him knew, and it turned him cold. Carla was gone, but she wasnít dead. And the part of him that she had taken was still missing just as it was missing in considerably less measure from Benny himself. He felt it only as a dull ache at the back of his heart; there was no question that what Jonathan felt was what was even now tearing him apart.
Let him know that youíre here. Let him know that heís not alone. Hesitantly, Benny reached out with his free hand, touching Jonathanís shoulder. The man flinched at the touch, but the cry cut short in his throat. For a moment, he trembled as though about to reject the contact; then, with a ragged sigh, he relaxed, hands slipping away from his face.
The pain didnít ease, though; Benny could see it clawing at Jonathanís body as the man struggled to focus. He held his breath, searching Jonathanís glazed eyes until he found what he was looking for: cognizance ... and recognition.
Encouraged, he tightened his grip on Jonathanís shoulder. "Can you hear me?" he whispered. "Itís okay. Itís okay, sheís not here. Sheís not going to...."
Wrong thing to say, he realized too late. Jonathan winced, groaning with the spasm of pain that threatened to double him over. Alarmed, Benny held him down by both shoulders until Jonathan fell back, gasping.
Benny ground his teeth, overwhelmed by helpless rage. Carla was the cause of this agony, and Carla was the only one who could relieve it. But Carla wasnít here. For that matter, neither was Dick.
After blithely putting him and Jonathan through hell, Dick had callously abandoned them, and for what? For her? Well, why not ó they were bats of a feather, after all. As long as the important details, like Carla, were attended to, the human detritus could fend for themselves.
The word was barely distinguishable, but it snapped Bennyís eyes open with a start. Jonathan stared up at him, still shaking with the effort it had taken him to speak. A faint glimmer of horror merged with the pain in his eyes as he struggled to form words again.
"... your ... face ... ?"
"My whó?" He touched his cheek in confusion, and nearly collapsed. Breathing through the explosion of pain, he kicked himself for forgetting about Carlaís Ďgiftí to him. Dried blood fell away in huge brown flakes, not comforting him as to how bad the injury appeared to Jonathanís eyes.
As he regained his composure, he became aware of pressure around his wrist. Looking down, he saw that Jonathanís hand gripped his in a gesture of mute concern. "Itís okay," Benny hastily assured him, wishing he could believe it. "Iím okay, really, I ... geez, listen to me." He gulped air into his strained lungs. "Everythingís just hunky-dory, ainít it?"
Jonathan remained silent, staring with eyes that Benny wasnít sure were focused on anything in the room. His grip on Bennyís arm remained tight, almost desperate. At length, he spoke in a voice that drained of strength with every word. "Where is she?"
His first attempt to speak failed with his courage Determined, he drew a long, steeling breath. "I ... donít know. Honest, I donít know. But I do know ... at least, I think Iím sure that ... sheís not coming back."
He stiffened, eyes squeezing shut. His reaction stole the last shred of hope Benny had that both of them could survive this night. If Carla were to suddenly appear at their side right now, any attempt she made to claim him would kill him as surely as running a knife into his heart. But if she never returned, never released that vital part of him that she had so willfully taken for her own, he would die anyway.
"Iím sorry," Benny sighed with a low moan of frustration. "God, Iím sorry...."
"Angela...." Jonathanís stronger, but still unsteady voice brought Bennyís eyes open again. "Did she ... hurt Angela?"
"No," Benny assured him quickly, grudgingly impressed with the depth of concern he sensed in the manís voice, considering his own desperate situation. "Angieís fine. No thanks to me, though. The womanís a wonder, Jack, a true wonder. Carla wouldnít have gotten far in a tangle with her."
Jonathan relaxed with a sigh of profound relief. The harsh lines of pain in his ashen face eased as his head drooped on the pillow. "Good," he murmured groggily. "Thatís ... good...."
Benny shook his head as he watched the manís breathing slow into the deep, regular rhythm of sleep. Somehow it figured that Jonathan MacKensie, even in the throes of excruciating physical and psychical pain, couldnít rest until assured that everyone else he cared about was all right.
Jonathanís grip on his wrist had loosened with the onset of sleep; Benny slipped free and took a moment to rearrange the blankets before stumbling back to the chaise longue. Donít worry, though, he thought fuzzily as he curled up into the warmth of the afghan. Iíll take care of her for you. And ... Iíll make sure she knows.
He wasnít sure what woke him up; the strong beam of sunlight cutting across his face, or the sound of movement nearby. Pushing up onto one arm, Benny blinked away the shroud of sleep over his eyes. Someone stood at the side of the bed, bending over Jonathan. The clothes were different, and the face was hidden from his view, but recognition hit Benny like a slap in the face.
"Get away from him!" Benedek barked.
Dick glanced over his shoulder, unperturbed by the threat in Bennyís voice. "How did he sleep?" he asked, straightening.
"Like hell, what did you think?" Angrily shoving aside the tangled afghan, Benny started to get to his feet. Sudden pain erupted behind his eyes, punching the breath from his lungs; white-faced, he sat down hard, bending his head over his knees until the crashing wave abated.
A hand pressed against his shoulder. Benny tried to dislodge it, but a weak jerk was all he could manage and the hand remained. Something smooth and cold nudged into his hand. He focused on it, and found himself staring down into shimmering orange liquid.
"Drink this," Dick urged, waiting until Bennyís grip had firmed before releasing the glass and his shoulder.
He briefly considered throwing the glass and its contents into the manís face, but the effort wasnít worth the energy it would cost him, and the juice would do his stomach more good than his injured pride. He took a sip that became a frantic gulp as he realized just how thirsty and hungry he was.
"Slowly." Dick steadied the shaking hand holding the glass.
He drained every drop, letting Dick take the glass back from him as he sighed in relief. A word stuck in his throat, and he coughed to free it. "Thanks."
"Did he wake up?" Dick asked as he turned to discard the glass on the night table.
"Yeah, a couple of times. The second time he just turned over and went back to sleep, but the first time...." He hesitated, shaking his head.
"Go on. What happened?"
Benny peered up at him. "What do you think? Youíre the one who told me to keep on eye on him."
"Thatís not what I told you to do."
"Okay." He sighed, suppressing his annoyance. "Okay, he ... he woke up in a lot of pain, and I did what you told me to do. I let him know I was there and ... yeah, it seemed to help. He just asked me if Angie was okay, and then he went back to ó"
"Wait," Dick held up a hand, frowning. "He asked you something?"
"Yeah," he replied, his confusion growing to see Dick glance back at Jonathan, eyebrows lifted high. "Whatís wrong?"
"Nothing." Dick almost smiled, completely bewildering Benny. "Nothing at all. Looks like I underestimated your friend after all."
"What does that mean?" Benny asked cautiously, not entirely sure he wanted to know.
Without answering, Dick turned away to inspect a nearby fireplace. Benny started to get to his feet, but a vicious dizzy spell put an end to that idea. The light streaming in through the window was strong, stinging his eyes. He rubbed his temples hard, stopping abruptly when a sudden thought hit him.
He stared at Dick, who was crouched down in front of the hearth, removing the screen. Sunlight splashed bright yellow bars across the manís back. Sunlight.
His voice finally came back to him in pieces. "Who the hell are you, anyway? What are you?"
Again no answer. Dick rummaged through a kindling box, selecting and rejecting with what seemed to be intense deliberation over each piece. Irritated, but at the same time intrigued by the growing mystery, Benny tried once more. "What happened to Carla?"
"Sheís in safe hands," Dick said calmly without looking up from his self-appointed task. "Youíll never see her again, and thatís all you need to know about her."
"Not all," Benny disagreed fervently. "I was with him last night, I saw what he went through. Sheís not even here, and sheís still killing him." He paused for breath, angered by Dickís indifferent pose as he calmly selected two logs to set in the fireplace. "Why did you come back, anyway? Why canít you just leave us the hell alone?"
Dick straightened, dusting his hands clean. "I came back to finish the job," he said quietly. "The job you asked me to do."
Benny found himself staring at the man lying motionless in a tangle of blankets on the bed. "I didnít ask for this," he said bleakly.
"I agreed to help you. I never gave you a guarantee that things would work out to your benefit. If you had insisted on a promise, I wouldnít have given it to you. I wouldnít have lied to you."
"But youó" He stopped, wincing. No, Dick hadnít lied to him. There had been nothing to lie about ó no questions had been asked, so no answers had been given. "You said you could free him."
"Yes. I can."
"Heís not free."
"No, heís not. Not yet."
Yet. Bennyís head came up with the first surge of hope heíd felt since meeting this odd person two nights ago. "How, then?"
Again Dick chose to ignore him, this time crossing the room to a chest of drawers. An open briefcase lay there, and he removed something long and thin from it, inspecting it carefully.
Benny stared at a spot on the rug where a sunbeam pooled yellow light, and which Dick had blithely crossed. The nagging question resurfaced, and his attempt to quell it failed miserably.
"She said ... you were a vampire," he blurted out.
Fitting a round piece onto the long stem, Dick paused to look up at him. "Yes."
He was finding it very hard to breathe. "Are you?" he managed weakly.
The piece snapped on, and Dick hefted the completed object to check the fit. "Yes."
His stomach roiled, and he clutched at it in a forlorn attempt at relief. "I knew it," he muttered grimly.
"Yes, you did. Why are you asking, then?"
"Because ... I donít understand. Whose side are you on?"
Dick was silent as he returned to the fireplace. "Allegiance has never been a consideration," he said finally, hunching down to inspect the beginnings of a fire he had assembled there. "I donít take sides. I simply salvage what I can, eliminate what I cannot."
"Including us?" Benny whispered, cold.
The corner of Dickís mouth turned up slightly. "Donít worry. I consider you salvageable. So far."
"If youíre a vampire, then why arenít you...." He gestured helplessly. "Itís morning, full sunlight, and youíre walking around in it."
Dick produced matches from his pocket, striking several to place under a pile of kindling. He waited until a tiny flame heralded success before answering. "There are many things that you know about vampires. But there is so much more that you donít know. That you can never know. And if you value the breath in your body ó youíd better pray that you never find out."
"Are you threatening me?"
"Iím warning you, for the safety of your physical welfare as well as your sanity."
Beyond confusion, Benny shook his head slowly. "Why do you care?"
Dick studied Bennyís face, a hard look coming into his eyes. "If I thought you would understand, I might tell you."
For a moment, Benny thought he glimpsed grief in Dickís eyes, but the man looked away too quickly. "Try me," Benny encouraged softly, intrigued.
Silence fell heavily in the room, at length broken only by the soft hiss of burning wood as the fire grew. Poker in hand, Dick carefully tended the flames, making sure the logs caught evenly. Then, satisfied, he stood up and, hands deep in his jacket pockets, stared for a time at the small, cheery blaze.
"My transition was not ... voluntary," he said at last, in a soft voice that held no emotion. "The man whom tradition forces me to refer as my Ďmasterí was very old, very powerful. He took what he wanted, without regard for anything except his own twisted needs and desires. And so...." He paused, then shrugged. "He took me. I was nothing special, just a minor entertainment to ease his boredom. In fact, I doubt he would have remembered my name if I hadnít...."
Again he paused, this time with a strange sound that could have been a laugh. "He was fair, though," he continued after a moment, his voice shaded slightly darker. "He taught me everything I needed to know. Everything, that is, except one thing. One small detail that I never seemed to grasp. He thought it of no consequence ó as long as heíd given me all the knowledge I needed in order to survive, his obligation to me was discharged. And that ó that was his fatal mistake."
"Fatal?" Benny echoed hollowly, mystified.
One of the logs splintered with a sharp crack. Dick took his time tending to it before speaking again. "Despite his age, his knowledge, and his power, he was never able to teach me how to accept what heíd done to me. What he had ... made me. It was impossible to conceal my hostility from him, of course, but he discounted it as transitory. After all, I could either learn to accept what I was, or I could go insane. As far as he was concerned, simple choices. My choices and nothing for him to waste his concern. Again ó his mistake."
Unable to bear another long pause, Benny urged, "What happened?"
"I searched for an answer. First, I took everything he taught me and challenged it all. It took years to separate the superstition from fact, but I did it. Then I searched for what he hadnít told me, things that even he didnít know. Some are things that no one else knows ó except me." The darkness lifted briefly from his face as he glanced back at Benny and smiled at the spellbound look on the other manís face. "I walk in sunlight. I breath air, I eat three balanced meals a day to survive, and if I donít quit smoking, I may die of lung cancer ó if the cholesterol count doesnít do me in first."
"You mean ... you cured yourself?" Benny breathed.
"No." The shake of his head was firm, immediate. "There is no Ďcureí for death."
Benny winced, rubbing at his aching forehead. "I ... I donít understand."
"Understandable. The term Ďdeathí is misleading. The human language doesnít provide for the minor subtleties required to explain those things that the human mind is unable to comprehend, after all. For you, death is a complete ending. Your spirit departs to wherever it is that spirits go, and your discarded body eventually reverts to a few handfuls of dust. Very neat, and very final. For a vampire, however, death is life. Upon our Ďbirthí, we are no longer subject to the laws of the natural world. The life force that animates us comes from a place other than here." He indicated his chest. "That is the Ďgiftí my master gave to me ó the ability to tap into that other place and to draw on its dark powers. For a price."
"Blood?" Benny guessed quietly.
"A minor consideration. Blood abstinence is as acceptable to a vampire as would be celibacy to a mortal being."
"Possible, not necessarily preferable," Benny murmured. "Got it."
"Sensitivity to certain anointed objects, inability to tolerate direct sunlight ó all minor things. The true price is exacted from us ... here." He touched his forehead, then his chest. "If we embrace our new existence, we lose ourselves. We lose ... our humanity."
"So youíre saying that you can get it back. You can become human again?"
"I can reject the dark powers to a large extent by simply refusing to rely on them. But it takes concentration, constant vigilance. I canít allow myself to forget the one thing Iím trying so desperately to forget."
Dickís clenched hand shook, echoing the passion in his low voice. "You hate it that much?" Benny asked quietly in the silence.
"No," he said after momentís reflection. "I hate what I could become. What I almost became."
A sudden thought struck him as he glanced back at the bed. A disinterested onlooker would never guess that only hours ago, the man lying peacefully asleep had nearly died at the hands of a woman who had gleefully embraced everything Dick claimed to despise. In many ways, Dickís story paralleled Jonathanís situation, chillingly so. "Your master isnít the one Carla went to, is he?" he ventured suddenly.
"Oh, no." His smile was broad and completely merciless. "No, that would be quite impossible."
Benny already had a good idea why, but curiosity prodded the question out of him anyway. "What happened?"
He took a moment to consider his answer in the sparkling flames. "I found nothing worth salvaging," he said finally, averting his face from Bennyís searching gaze.
The tightness in Bennyís chest eased a little, and he took in his first unstrained breath in longer than he could remember. "So you, like, turned this into a career or something?"
"Or something," Dick agreed without inflection.
"I donít get it, then." Bitterness crept into Bennyís voice. "Whatís your criteria? Why have you let someone like Carlaís master get past you? How the hell could you let something like this happen in the first place?"
Dick turned to him, one hand raised warningly. "Youíre confusing vigilance with vigilantism."
"Iím not confusing anything, pal. Iím not the one whoís confused at all. Youíre the one who says he hates vampires, and youíre the one who stood there telling Carla she had to deep-six one of us so that she could survive."
"You would rather I destroyed them all, indiscriminately," Dick said, unruffled by Bennyís bitter diatribe.
"Now that was an easy guess, wasnít it?" he growled, staring angrily in the direction of the bed again.
"Including the one who gave you my phone number?"
His head snapped around, mouth falling open in astonishment. "How did youó? I didnít ... I never said...."
"No, you didnít betray a confidence, and I wouldnít ask you to. In my position, however, itís a matter of survival for me to know exactly who has the ability to contact me at any given time. They donít like me very much ó they fear me, and with good reason. But they respect me. And they respect what I do because they realize that it in many ways, it is in their own best interests as well. That is why you were referred to me by them."
Light-headed with confusion and residual anger, Benny rubbed his forehead wearily. "I guess that makes you kind of like a ... a union enforcer," he murmured, stifling a rueful laugh that segued into a shaky sigh. "I still donít get it. If this is what you do ó why did you make me beg you for help?"
"Because I donít destroy indiscriminately. I had to be sure exactly what it was you were asking me to do."
Benny nodded, mentally sifting through the various uncertainties that had stood in the way of a mutual understanding. The suggestion that the entire situation was a scam cooked up for the sole purpose of putting another Edgar Benedek tome on the best-seller list; worse, that he was driven by bloodlust-induced jealousy to seek help in destroying his competition for Carlaís attentions. "And thatís your reason for putting us through hell?" he asked quietly, without rancor.
"Not entirely. You see, there never really was anything I could do for you at the point you came to me for help, except force the showdown. It was up to you and your friend to save yourselves."
Benny gaped at him. Smiling slightly, Dick shook his head. "I had faith," he said with soft assurance. "The moment you told me that your friend prevented Carla from killing you, I knew there was hope."
"He ... what?" Crossing his arms to ward off a sudden chill, Benny focused on the memory as Dick continued, "That was a conscious decision made by someone for whom independent thought should have been impossible."
"Wait." Benny swallowed hard. "Youíre saying ... she didnít make himó" He trailed off, finding his answer in the memory of the surprise on Carlaís bloodstained face. "That means...."
"That she was inexperienced, sloppy."
Benny shook his head slowly. "It means youíre not the only one who underestimated him," he murmured.
"Letís hope he doesnít disappoint us now."
"What do you mean?" Benny asked, head coming up with a snap.
"It means that the easy part is over."
"Easy?" With a groan, he sank his head into his hands. "I donít think I want to hear this."
"If you want to save your friendís life, I think you do." He waited until Benny raised his eyes and gave him an shaky nod of acknowledgement before continuing. "Traditionally, there is only one way to break the blood bond between vampire and victim: the unequivocal destruction of either ó or both."
Benny lost all color. "I kinda hope youíre about to tell me that thereís a wooden stake with Carlaís name on it out there somewhere."
A brief glance up and silence was his answer. Fighting back panic, Benny cleared his throat. "So, um ... whatís the alternative?"
"A rather ... non-traditional method." Dick gazed in the direction of the fireplace for a moment, an odd look passing over his face. "I must warn you now, it will be neither pleasant ó nor painless."
He forced the stale air in his lungs out very carefully. "Let me know when it starts getting better, willya?" he muttered bleakly.
As Benny spoke, Dick moved to the head of the bed to check on Jonathan. He stopped short, tilting his head quizzically. "And how long have you been awake?"
Benny leaped from the chaise, braking himself on the canopy post. Jonathan stirred, peering up at him with eyes unfogged by sleep, and an almost sheepish look on his pale, drawn face.
"You ó youíve been eavesdropping!" Benny blurted.
"I didnít want to interrupt," Jonathan amended, wincing as he eased onto his back and sank gratefully into the pillows.
Heartened by the manís relative coherence if not by the gray tinge in his sweat-drenched skin, Benny forced a smile. "Youíre feeling better, right? I mean, you ... you...."
Words deserted him when Jonathan closed his eyes in a visible effort to suppress a shudder. Slowly, he shook his head as one arm curled across his midriff, pressing tightly.
Of its own volition, Bennyís hand found Dickís arm, fingers clawing into his jacket sleeve. "I told you," he growled behind clenched teeth. "Sheís not even here and sheís still killing him."
Jonathanís eyes flickered open in response to Benedekís outburst, but his gaze settled on Dick, staying there for a long moment. "Whoever you are ... thank you," he said quietly.
Benny gaped, unnerved by the depth of sincerity in the stricken manís weak voice. How much did Jonathan remember of his ordeal? And how much presence of mind had he retained throughout that allowed him to recognize that Dickís participation in that ordeal had been a mere charade? If it had been him on the receiving end of the full brunt of Carlaís fury, Benny was certain that his mind would be in shreds right now, and yet Jonathan seemed to fully realize what could have happened ó what would have happened if Dick had not been there to provide the distraction needed to loosen Carlaís concentration. And that he had given Jonathan as well as Benny the crucial weapon they needed to win ó a reason to fight back.
Dick gave him a brief, taut smile that clearly discounted the need for gratitude. "Itís not over yet," he warned.
"I ... heard." Trembling fingers reached for his neck, stopped, then retreated. "What do I have to do?"
The question was echoed in Bennyís eyes as they followed Dickís move away from the bed. From the fireplace mantle, he retrieved the device he had assembled earlier, carrying it back with him to present for their inspection.
Benny peered at it in confusion. A length of iron metal, one end encased in a highly polished wooden handle. Attached perpendicularly to the other end was a metal disc, wrought openwork. The carved design was intricate, and, Benny was certain, extremely arcane. Jonathan studied it with interest, then glanced up questioningly. "I donít recognize it."
"I would be greatly alarmed if you did," Dick assured him. "It is a very old and very powerful icon. I have found that while it is not an essential ingredient for the task, its inherent protective properties make it a highly preferable addition. You see, the marks that you both bear are not ordinary injuries. They will not heal naturally, not as long as the creature that inflicted them upon you lives."
Bennyís stomach churned wildly as he stared at the metal rod and realized what it reminded him of. "Youíre going to use that ... on us?" he ventured warily.
"Itís the only other way," he said calmly. He turned, crossing back to the fireplace. Leaning down, he very carefully lowered the metal rod into the flames.
"Wait." Exploding with the burst of pent-up air in his lungs, Benny brought himself up short with an effort that reverberated through his body. "Wait, you ó you canít do this. Look, just tell me where you took her and ... and Iíll take care of this myself, okay?"
Dick straightened, eyes narrowed for what Benny was certain would be a blank refusal. "Iím telling you, Iím not going to let you do this!" Benny insisted angrily. "This ... this is insane! Iíll put that stake through her heart myself if I have to, but I am not going to let you get anywhere near us with that ó that thing!"
Bracing for a violent rebuttal, Benny blinked in surprise when Dick merely shrugged his reply.
"Okay," Benedek said, forcing himself to relax while keeping an uneasy eye on the man. "Great. As long as we understand each other. Now. Where is she?"
"I have no idea." Dick moved past him, stopping at the foot of the bed to give Jonathan a brief, appraising glance. "She is in other hands now, no longer my concern."
Dick did little more than turn his gaze on him, but the effect was like a hard, cold hand closing on Bennyís throat. "I have no reason to lie to you."
"Iíll find her," Benny said stiffly, backing off. "With or without your help, Iíll find her."
"I donít doubt that you will. But you wonít be able to lift a finger against her. And you will never find her in time."
The quiet words struck him, hard. Bennyís gaze swiveled back to Jonathan, looking for help. His friend lay rigid, expressionless; only his whitened fingers clutching the blankets gave away any hint of what he was thinking as he listened.
"It is, however, your decision."
Benny looked back at Dick, only to find out that it was Jonathan the man had addressed. To his horror, he saw resignation draw Jonathanís head into a reluctant nod.
"No." Benny leaned against the bedpost when the urgency that shook in his voice took its toll. "Donít listen to him, listen to me. Iíll find her, I swear I will. Donít let him talk you into this, Iíll find her...."
His words ended in a frustrated hiss as Jonathan slowly shook his head. "No," he said, his voice thin and tired. "Heís right. Thereís no time. No ... other choice, really."
"There has to be." He sent a baleful glare over his shoulder at Dick. "Damn it! There has to be!"
"To avoid unnecessary injury, youíll have to be restrained," Dick spoke directly to Jonathan as if Benny no longer stood between them. His voice still commanded obeisance, but it was tempered with unexpected compassion. "That can be accomplished a number of ways, but the easiest method would require ... cooperation."
Behind closed eyes, Benny sensed two pairs of eyes on him and stiffened. "No," he snarled. "Just ... no."
It was a calm, reasonable request for his attention, and he stubbornly held out for three full seconds before he cracked his eyes open. Jonathan regarded him without emotion, save for the hint of regret shimmering in his eyes as he said, softly, "It really would be easier."
He sagged against the canopy post, blinking back the stinging sensation behind his eyes. Staring angrily at a far wall, he became aware that Dick had moved to within a pace or two of him, waiting for his decision. Under his breath for Dickís ears only, he muttered, "Are you going to tell me that thereís nothing to be worried about?"
A pause; then: "No."
No lies. The ground rules were still the same, at least. Bennyís jaw worked angrily as he summoned the courage to speak again. "This will kill him."
Another pause. "Possibly."
The qualification didnít need to be spoken. It was a chance, a slim one at best. But it was the only chance Jonathan had left.
The word drifted out on the tail of a weary sigh. "All right. All right."
He dragged himself along the bed, snagging his arm around the opposite canopy post before he could bring himself to look up. Jonathan was watching him anxiously, but Dickís movement back to the fireplace distracted him. Both men watched as the metal rod was carefully extracted from the flames.
"Youíre going to owe me big time for this," Benny muttered behind clenched teeth, unable to take his eyes off the incongruously cheerful red glow of the rodís metal tip.
Jonathan drew in a deep breath, unashamedly gripping the arm that Benny offered for just that purpose. Somehow he managed to summon up a faint smile as he replied, "Iíll add it to the list."
He awoke to a gentle breeze caressing his face. Resisting the urge to let it lull him back to sleep, Benny stirred, turning over onto his stomach to peer around him groggily. Nearby, the window was open, and gauzy curtains flared into a pool of deep orange sunlight. All he could see of the bed from this angle was a rumpled pile of pillows and blankets.
Dick was gone; no surprise there. No trace of his erstwhile presence remained in the room ó even the fireplace had been swept clean. He had no memory at all of Dickís departure; but then, the man could have employed an army of chimney sweeps accompanied by a mariachi band, and Benny wouldnít have been aware of a thing. Not after....
He lifted his hands, squinting at the vivid abrasions on both wrists that colored the older bruises from his ordeal at Carlaís hands. It was something of a relief to know that Dick had had the good grace to untie him before heíd left. At least Jonathan had been spared these particular scars....
The memory spurred him to his feet and across the room to check on the bedís occupant. Jonathan was curled up on his side, in nearly the same position into which heíd collapsed when Benny had released him, moments after unconsciousness had silenced his scream and drained the agony from his convulsed body. Unable to bring himself to touch the man, Benny watched carefully until he was assured that Jonathan was merely sound asleep. The jagged lines of pain were gone from his face. In fact, there were no signs of distress at all. There was even a hint of color returning to his face, a heartening sign.
Jonathanís shoulder was hunched up, denying Benny a chance to check the condition of the manís throat. But if his shattered memories were any kind of reliable guide, he wasnít entirely sure his stomach could handle it even if he could bring himself to look, anyway.
He held his breath, steeling himself to look into the place within himself that Carla had brutally taken captive. Tension eased out of him on a sigh to realize that the hold she had on him, that heíd felt like a cold hand gripping his heart, had vanished without a trace. He shuddered at the allusion. If it had only been as easy as disappearing like a whiff of smoke....
Pushing the stark memory aside, he opted for a moment of chagrin instead. It pained him to admit it, even to himself, but it was beginning to look as if Dick had been right. About everything. Including the depth and breadth of the innate stupidity that had brought them down this dark road. His stupidity. And his ignorance.
Shutting down his brain against the echoes of guilt, he stumbled out of the room in search of a bathroom. In his confusion, he headed in the direction of the living room, opening the first door he found at the end of the hall. Discovering only another bedroom, he started to back out, then stopped short. His grip on the doorknob tightened convulsively as he stared at the unmade bed, the wildly disheveled sheets, and various articles of clothing discarded on the floor.
Sick to his stomach, he slammed the door shut and leaned against it until his composure returned. In the midst of his inner battle, he found something that surprised him even more: the realization that Dick was actually capable of some degree of compassion. After all, he could have installed them in this room, which was the first one he would have come to from the living room. Instead, he had passed it by for the smaller room at the end of the hallway.
He finally found the bathroom at the other end of the corridor. Grabbing the edge of the sink, he drew a deep breath and waited for a full count of five before lifting his eyes to the mirror.
As heíd fully expected, he recoiled from his reflection. Although he had a dim memory of Dick giving him a damp cloth with which to clean his injured face, dried blood still clung to his beard stubble, flaking in patches down the side of his neck. His skin was pale, highlighting dark purple bruises beneath his swollen eyes. But as he forced himself to focus, his confusion grew. Actually, he didnít look much worse than he did on any given Monday morning after a typical party weekend, save for ....
He swallowed, hard. His memory was fragmented, but each piece held a very sharp-edge. Gingerly, he pushed aside his shirt collar, fully expecting to see the flesh of his throat twisted by a savage burn obliterating every trace of Carlaís attack.
His fingers probed, tentatively at first. Eyes widening, he strained for a closer look in the mirror when he felt nothing but the familiar roughness of beard stubble.
It was gone. The ragged puncture wound had vanished without a trace. And the mark that Dick had overlaid upon it ó he hadnít imagined the searing pain, nor the scream of agony that was his last memory before falling into blessed unconsciousness, yet there was nothing, not even a bruise.
He blinked, squinting into the mirror. No, there was a mark. Extremely faint, more like a pale tattoo than a scar. Fine white lines forming a delicate pattern. An arcane pattern.
Releasing his breath slowly, he ran his hand across his face, finding that his facial laceration had also healed without leaving a trace. Strangely buoyed, he rummaged a washcloth from a drawer under the sink and scrubbed until his skin glowed pink.
Reaching for a towel, he froze. Water dripped unnoticed into his widened eyes as he listened, hoping against hope that what he thought heíd heard was nothing more than an auditory hallucination. Slowly, he turned the water off and again listened expectantly to the silence.
Nothing. He drew a deep breath as he grabbed the towel and vigorously dried his face. Nothing. Just nerves, thatís all it was. Just....
He nearly collapsed as his pounding heart exploded, ripping away his breath at the sound of the distant, feminine voice. It was impossible. It had to be impossible. His hand went to his throat, gripping hard as the nightmare memories threatened to overwhelm him again. She couldnít be ... no, it was impossible....
His eyes opened with a snap. Wait a minute. It is impossible. I was there, damn it! I lived through it, I suffered through it, I know.
Confusion pushed aside his initial panic, giving him the courage to open the bathroom door and peer out into the darkened hallway just as the voice called again. "Jonathan? Benny, are you here?"
This time, it was recognition that took his breath away. He leaped down the hallway, skidding into the living room to stare in disbelief.
Angela Ravesi jumped back with a sharp, startled cry, staring at him nonplused for the moment it took her to recover. Her sigh of aggravated relief caught in her throat as she focused on him and his disheveled condition. Paling, her hand flew to her mouth. "Oh, my god," she whispered. "Oh, my god. Benny...."
Before he could react, she had flung her arms around his neck, embracing him tightly. Bewildered, he felt her tremble against him and tentatively put his arms around her in a vague attempt at comfort. "Angie, what the hell are you doing here?" he managed, his attempt at indignation unraveling when he heard the distinct sound of a sob against his shoulder. "I told you to go home to your folks...."
"I did. I did," she insisted, raising her head from his shoulder to reveal tears shimmering in her eyes. "I caught the first flight back when your friend called me in Boston...."
He grabbed her arms, pushing her away. "What friend?" he demanded sharply. "Who called you?"
She shook her head, badly confused. "He ... he said his name was ó no, wait. What he said was that your name for him was Dick. He even picked me up at the airport and brought me here. He said ... you needed me." Her voice faded as she stared up at him with a mute plea for understanding. "Benny?"
He leapt for the front door, Angie following close behind. But he already knew what he would find even as he stood on the front porch, straining to hear even the sound of a car engine fading into the distance. He saw nothing; he heard nothing save the gentle sounds of mountain afternoon.
"I ... I donít understand," Angie stammered. "The carís here, but ó where did he go?"
"I donít know," he admitted reluctantly. "And if weíre all very lucky, weíll never find out, either."
"Benny?" Her voice became strained. "Youíre not ... upset with me, are you? I had to come. You understand that, donít you?"
With a tired sigh, he drew her back into his embrace. "Angie, Iíd wring your neck for this, but right now ó right now, Iíve never been so happy to see anyone in my entire life."
"Your friend ó whatever his name is ó told me that it was safe to come back."
His muscles stiffened. She pulled away from him, gathering her courage to speak to the shimmer of fear that had suddenly flared in his guarded eyes.
"Benny, he ... he told me everything that happened."
Jaw clenched, he was unable to speak for a moment. Then, with calm, quiet fury, he said, "He had no right to do that."
"Oh, come on." Her eyes narrowed in irritation as she made a disgusted sound. "Benny, he had to tell me. Donít you understand? When you didnít call Liz back, she called the police. They went to Jonathanís apartment, Benny. They found traces of blood in his bedroom. And because of that, theyíre not treating the break-in at the office as simple vandalism anymore. They have APBs out on both of you."
He groaned, closing his eyes. "It just doesnít get better, does it?" he muttered bleakly.
"Benny?" Her hand touching his cheek coaxed his eyes open. Bravely stifled tears finally broke free, sliding down her cheek unnoticed. "It was all true, then?" she quavered. "Everything he told me?"
He nodded reluctantly, wincing at the grief it caused her. "Everything he says ... is always the truth," he said wearily.
She swallowed, shaking herself slightly to regain a measure of composure. "Whereís Jonathan?"
Grasping the hand that she still held to his face, he squeezed it gently as he mustered a smile. As much as he wanted to break Dickís neck for luring Angie here, he suddenly realized why the deed had been done. She was here to remind them of that precious resource they had fought to protect and preserve, but that had been dangerously drained by the battle. It was there, right there in the palm of his hand. Warmth, concern ... humanity.
"Come on," he said, inclining his head in a tacit request for her to follow him. "Heís asleep, but ... I think you may be just what the doctor ordered."
As he turned, she managed to keep his hand, tightening her grip on it as he led her back into the house, through the living room and down the hallway to the bedroom. Benny stopped at the half-open door, peering in for a moment; then he took Angie by the shoulders, gently nudging her into the room before him.
She moved toward the bed, turning to send a confused look back at Benny. He shooed her forward, but came up close behind her, watching her intently as she gained the side of the bed. Her shoulders stiffened as she saw Jonathanís pale, bruised face for the first time.
"Oh, my god," she whispered again, reaching for the manís raised shoulder with a trembling hand. "Benny? Is he...?"
"Sleeping," he assured her. "Heís fine. Heíll be fine. I think," he added under his breath, unheard by Angie as she bent over Jonathan in an attempt to get a better look at his face.
As soon as her fingers brushed his cheek, Jonathan stirred, opening his eyes to look up at her groggily. For a moment, Benny thought he saw a flash of panic cross the manís face and braced himself to intervene if recognition didnít come fast enough.
He relaxed when Jonathanís eyes softened in wonder. "Angela?" he rasped. "Wható?" A frantic glance around confirmed for him that his surroundings hadnít changed, and his confusion grew. "What are you doing here?"
Her fingers stroked his face, gently untangling his matted hair to sweep it off his forehead as she struggled to pull up a smile of reassurance. "Iím doing this, obviously," she murmured, her laugh failing at the same moment tears slid down her face. "Oh, god," she whispered, desolate. "What did she do to you?"
As Jonathan reached up to enfold her in a silent, desperate embrace, Benny gave in to the demand of his body and eased down on the corner of the bed. He leaned his head against the bedpost, losing himself in the mad whirl of colored lights behind his eyelids.
A soft touch on his shoulder startled him out of his mindless reverie. Angie stood before him, her tear-reddened eyes full of concern. As he drew a breath to speak, she leaned down to press a kiss onto his lips.
When she released him, he blinked up at her with a nonplused expression that coaxed a small laugh from her. "Thank you," she whispered fervently. "Thank you."
The warm feeling that had started to spread through him vanished abruptly. He caught the hand she still had on his shoulder, pulling it away. "No," he sighed heavily. "No thanks. No...."
"No," he insisted, resisting her attempts to calm him. "Donít you see? Everything thatís happened is Ďno thanksí to me, so donító"
He broke off with an exasperated sigh, succumbing to the embrace she pulled him into. "Thatís not what your friend told me," she whispered close to his ear. "And youíre the one who said that he always spoke the truth."
Her close warmth suffused him, enough so that he found it impossible to hang on to irritation. "He talks too much," he sighed, returning her affectionate squeeze.
"I brought clothes for both of you," she said once she had pulled away from him, leaving another quick kiss on his mouth before she did. "And food. Iím supposed to make sure you both eat. He said that neither of you have had anything substantial since Wednesday."
"Since...." Bennyís hand went to his head. "Wait a minute. What day is this?"
"Friday?" He groaned, rubbing his eyes. Heíd thought only a few hours had passed since Dick had exorcised the damage Carla had inflicted on them. But if this was Friday, that meant both he and Jonathan had lain unconscious from the ordeal for more than twenty-four hours. And wasnít it just Monday when heíd blithely traipsed into the PRU office and into the beginnings of this whole sordid mess? "Thereís a whole week shot to hell," he muttered, mustering a weak laugh at a joke that suddenly wasnít very funny.
Angie had returned to Jonathanís side, recapturing the manís hand. He was sitting up in bed, a pile of pillows bolstering his back. Benny blinked in surprise ó the last time heíd looked, Jonathan was still flat on his back and weak as a kitten. Not that he seemed any stronger now ó obviously Angie had done most of the work drawing him into position. His eyes were heavy-lidded, his expression unreadable. The manís color was much improved, but how much of it was genuine recovery, and how much was merely a flush put into his face by the mere fact of Angelaís presence remained to be seen.
"So," Benny said, composing himself once more. "What else did he tell you?"
She hesitated, unsure whether the sharp edge in his voice held bitterness. "Well ... as far as handling the police go, we pretty much have to figure out what youíre going to tell them when you get back. But he was pretty specific about what you couldnít tell them."
"Let me guess," Benny said, quirking an unamused smile. "He was numero uno on the list."
"He said you should avoid the entire issue. They just ... wonít understand."
He nodded knowingly. "And I know how they feel, too," he muttered under his breath.
"There wonít be any problems about Carla." Her voice became strained as she tightened her grip on Jonathanís hand, caressing it absent-mindedly while her eyes darted apprehensively between the two men. "Apparently her family will get some sort of explanation."
"Did he say what will happen to her?" Jonathan asked quietly.
Benny stared, incredulous. "Do I believe what Iím hearing? Did I actually hear a note of concern in your voice?"
"I...." He broke off with a tired sigh, shaking his head once. "Iím sorry, but ... I would like to know."
"And he warned me you would ask," Angie told him with a soft smile. "He said that sheís in good hands. She needs time to adjust, and ... learn. Beyond that, he said that you mustnít worry about her; you mustnít think about her at all, because youíll never see her again. Heís guaranteed that."
Benny tensed, alerted by the abrupt fading of her voice. "How exactly did he explain that?" he demanded warily.
She wet her lips nervously. "He ... he said that the protection he gave you...." A quick intake of breath confirmed for Benny that she knew exactly what the protection was and what receiving it had entailed. Swallowing, she continued in a more subdued voice, "The mark will protect you not just from Carla, but from ... anyone like her. But that doesnít mean that youíre invulnerable. He says that, if anything ó you have to be even more responsible about ... everything."
"Yeah," he said, guilt closing his throat. "Well, he doesnít have to say it twice. The first thing Iím gonna do when we get back is finish the job that Carla started. Just tell me where in Dr. Mís office you stashed the database backup, and Iíll take care of the rest."
"No." Her voice carried a faint note of horror that opened Bennyís mouth in surprise. "Benny, thatís not what he wants you to do."
He shook his head, bewildered. "Youíve got to be joking," he laughed nervously. "That thing is what got us into this mess in the first place!"
"And destroying it isnít going to change what happened, and it wonít keep it from happening again." Her voice shook with passion. "Only we can do that. Responsibility, Benny. Now that we realize the true scope of what we know, he wants us to guard that knowledge ó not destroy it."
Unconsciously, he rubbed his neck and imagined he could feel the almost invisible mark beneath his fingertips. What was it, really? A healing scar ó or a proprietary brand? Whichever it was, it would remain a constant reminder of the consequences of ignorance ó and irresponsibility. Angie was right. No ó Dick was right, as usual. Destroying the information wasnít the answer. But the alternative presented an equally frightening dilemma.
"Sounds like a pretty big job," he said quietly. "Maybe ... too big for me. Iím not sure Iím cut out for this."
"Youíre the only one who seems to think so," she told him, a gentle chide.
He gave her a wry smile that faded as he caught sight of Jonathanís face; pale, impassive, only his eyes moving between them as they spoke.
"Thereís one other vote left," Benny told Angie quietly.
She tightened her grip on Jonathanís hand, drawing his gaze up to meet hers. "Heís right," she whispered. "We canít do it without you, and we canít do it ... if you canít."
Benny held his breath, watching the war of emotion flicker behind Jonathanís tired eyes. Notwithstanding the fact that the database had provided the trigger that had set off a horrific chain of events, the project had never been a favorite of Jonathanís in the first place. Benny knew that he wouldnít be in the least surprised if MacKensie shied from the idea of assuming guardianship over that particular bank of knowledge. He also knew that, personally, he wouldnít be too broken-hearted if Jonathanís decision turned that way.
At length, Jonathanís head moved in an effort that seemed to drain him. "No," he said quietly. "We canít destroy knowledge, no matter how dangerous it may be. The real danger ... is ignorance."
Something about the strained quality of the manís voice gave Benny pause. There wasnít enough sincerity there for his liking, and that left him unwilling to accept Jonathanís words at face value. "Academic bullshit," he growled, shaking his head.
Light flared in Jonathanís dead eyes as he focused on Benny for the first time. "He said he searched an answer, for years," he said in a strangely intense voice. "For years. When it was already too late. But it only took you a few hours."
He had to wait until the heavy feeling at the base of his throat eased before he could speak again. "I guess thatís unanimous, then."
Angieís tiny cry of triumph segued almost immediately into a reflective, "Oh...."
"What?" Warily, Benny watched as she gathered up Jonathanís hand, pressing it tightly between both of hers. It was more than obvious that some kind of bad news was in the offing and he tensed as she drew a deep breath.
"Itís going to take a while before we can get a replacement for the computer, and make repairs to the office and ... Iíll do what I can to straighten out the files, but in a few weeks I wonít be able to work with the PRU anymore. Iím sorry...."
"Angela?" Jonathanís confusion and alarm mirrored the expression on Bennyís face as he reached over to take her arm, turning her to him. "I ... donít understand. Why are you leaving?"
A smile wavered on her face as she used her free hand to flip a disarray of hair out of Jonathanís eyes. "Because Iím signing up for accelerated courses next semester," she told him gently. "That is, if my academic advisor ó you ó will approve it for me. I can have my Masterís by September instead of waiting until next June ... and I donít want to wait any longer."
For the first time, a genuine smile broke through the grayness overlaying Jonathan MacKensieís face. Responding to the change, Angie leaned over and accepted his heartfelt kiss.
Mildly amused as the embrace lingered, Benny shrugged to himself. "Maybe her replacement will be a redhead," he mused under his breath.
"Besides," he heard Angie say with a breathless laugh, "I think youíll have your hands full with your newest doctoral candidate."
"My what?" Jonathan blinked.
"His what?" Benny stared at her, heart sinking to see the dancing light in her eyes as she winked at him. "Oh, for ... how the hell did youó?"
"Liz receives all the transcript and matriculation requests," she told him matter-of-factly. "I file them."
"What are you two talking about?" Jonathan ventured when Benny looked away with a grimace and Angie stifled another laugh.
With a low, annoyed growl, Benedek dug into his jeans pocket, producing a severely rumpled piece of paper. "This," he muttered, reluctantly handing it over to Jonathan. "And donít you dare laugh, either."
Gingerly handling the paper which threatened to fray apart at the worn creases, Jonathan scanned it. His eyebrows shot up in astonishment. "A doctorate? In Metaphysics?" Widened eyes focused abruptly on Benedek. "You?"
"Yeah, me," he grumbled, embarrassed.
"I didnít even know you had your Masterís," Jonathan murmured, his attention back on the document.
"You didnít even know I had my high school diploma," Benny mocked a growl.
Another surprise jolted Jonathan. "Dr. Moorhouse approved this?"
"Dr. Moorhouse ... suggested it," he admitted reluctantly, doing his best to avoid meeting MacKensieís gaze. "She canít get me on the payroll without ... credentials."
In the silence, he finally ventured a look. "Youíre not laughing."
Jonathan blinked, caught between bewilderment and open wonder. "Iím sorry. I will if this is a joke. But if it isnít...."
Benny drew a breath to gain the courage he needed to shake his head. "No, not yet anyway. But if youíd put your signature down there next to Dr. Mís, itíll make for a hell of a punchline."
Jonathan didnít move, staring at him with what was either complete confusion or genuine awe. Angie nudged him gently. "Dr. Edgar Benedek. Has a nice sound to it, doesnít it?"
"Dr. Benedek," Jonathan echoed, still staring.
"Hmph." Benny stifled the touch of unease at the strange look in MacKensieís eyes. "Whatís the matter? Feeling threatened?"
The frown cleared from Jonathanís forehead as a reflective smile touched his face. "Got a pen?" he asked quietly.
Angie found one in the nightstand drawer. Without hesitation and only a little trouble steadying his weakened hand, Jonathan signed the paper.
"Thanks," Benny said as Jonathan handed the document back to him. He regarded it a long moment, remember the anxious days and weeks of indecision in which this piece of paper resided in his pocket, removed and replaced so many times that heíd long ago lost count. For the first time, the decision felt absolutely right. Drawing in a deep breath of relief, he tucked the folded sheet carefully into his pocket again.
"That makes one I owe you," he told Jonathan with a grateful nod of his head.
Taking Angieís hand again, Jonathan leaned back with a sigh. His gaze took in both of them, absolutely at peace as he assured Benny, "Iíll add it to the list.
© M.D.Bloemker. The contents of this page may not be copied or reproduced without the author's express written permission.
Return to Fiction top page
Return to Shadow Chasers Home Page
Return to MaryB's Home Page
Send comment on this story to the author.