Chapter One if here if you missed it.
Price of Angels
Copyright © 2015 by Lauren Gilley
Matches. Michael kept innumerable packets of the things in his gun safe at home, all lined up in rows in a shoebox. Matches from restaurants and liquor stores, saved up over the years. Matches were the trick to this whole operation. He collected them like rare stamps. Because without them, he’d just be putting a body in a hole, and that was too crude and negligent to serve his purpose.
It always started with the digging. By-hand, with a steel-handled shovel, the earth set aside in an orderly pile. This one hadn’t needed to be as large as some of the others, so he’d kept it about five-and-a-half feet by two feet. Then, he’d laid a single layer of crackling brown packaging paper. That had then been soaked with lighter fluid. Next was a layer of wood kindling. Then a few logs, smoky-smelling hickory. If anyone caught a whiff somewhere, off fifty acres away, it would smell like a barbecue. Then, rolling it from its plastic, wrapped up like a tenderloin in more paper, the corpse was placed in the grave. More fluid. And then the match.
Up in flames it went.
Michael left his shovel propped against an old weathered fence board and walked back to the truck, before there was too much smoke. Safely inside, all the windows rolled up and crusted with frost where the now-settling dew was already beginning to freeze, he let the fatigue and the soreness finally take hold of him, and he slumped back against the headrest behind him, letting his body go limp against the tattered leather upholstery.
Burying a person was hard work. And this had been a particularly unpleasant body disposal.
Last night, after Dartmoor had rolled up its sidewalks, and a few of the boys had settled at the clubhouse bar to drink and shoot the shit, Michael had been summoned across the common room by his president, Ghost lifting an eyebrow in silent command from the mouth of the hallway.
Michael had gone to him at once. “Yes?” He folded his hands behind his back, awaited instruction. None of his brothers, least of all Ghost, ever wanted to talk to him just to be social.
Ghost leaned sideways against the wall, eyes going across the common room, to the pool table where his son was lining up his next shot. Aidan and Tango were ribbing each other, laughing like they’d already had too much to drink, this soon after five.
“There’s one more loose end,” Ghost said, “out there dangling in the breeze.” His eyes came to Michael. Very sharp, dark eyes, that missed nothing. “That girl Jace and Andre knew. The one the boys tried to talk to,” he said, quietly, inclining his head toward Aidan and Tango.
Michael nodded. “I know the one.”
“She bolted after the boys paid their visit. Couldn’t find her anywhere. But she’s back, now. Jasmine said she ran into her. Said she was renting an apartment outside of town.” He extended a hand, a scrap of paper held in his palm. “This is the address.”
Michael had nodded again, accepting the paper, understanding completely what his president was asking him to do. In so many ways, that implicit trust, the way Ghost didn’t micromanage him, was a compliment unlike any he’d ever received. Ghost trusted him, with the most critical, highest risk tasks. And Ghost wasn’t the sort of man who put much stock in people, as a general rule. A compliment from the man was like ten compliments from some other schmuck.
“I’ll take care of it,” Michael had said, and Ghost had touched him lightly on the arm in thanks as he walked past.
And so Michael had gone for his usual dinner beforehand, to give the girl, Serena, time to wake up and get ready to leave for her night shift job at the twenty-four hour CVS. On a full belly, he’d driven out to her apartment, parked in a shadowed section of the lot not monitored by cameras. He’d waited for her to appear in the dim flickering security lights: flash of bleached hair, store-issue polo shirt, khakis. She’d walked with her head down and her bare arms clenched tight across her middle to ward off the sharp winter chill.
She’d never seen him leave the truck, never heard his swift, cat-footed approach. Slender, and petite, she’d been like a breakable thing made of twigs in his arms. A panicking toy, as his hand clamped so tight over her mouth that she couldn’t open her jaw wide enough to bite him. A very fragile, underfed, damageable little woman, as he’d crushed her in the total cover of shadows.
It made him sick. The Salisbury steak made a gallant leap up toward the top of his stomach. He didn’t want to do this to a woman. Not right, not right at all.
But Ghost had ordered him, so he strangled her, right there, in the parking lot, so as not to make a mess. Her struggle was laughable. Not one whimper slipped beyond the unrelenting pressure of his hand at her mouth. And after, she sagged limp in his arms. A broken doll, with badly dyed hair falling across her slack face, making her look like a Barbie, sightless eyes and vacant stare.
People watched too many crime shows, Michael decided, now, as he watched the flames flicker at the edges of the grave, as the fire really began to catch; thick smoke doubled over on itself, and rose, colorless by the time it dissipated through the tall pines; if he inhaled deeply, he could smell the hickory; yum, like dinner. People watched all sorts of primetime dramas in which crack forensics teams solved the most enigmatic of murders, bringing swift, irrefutable justice to killers just like him.
But it didn’t work like that in the real world. Away from all the dramatic close-ups and the inspiring musical scores, killers like him slipped beneath everyone’s notice. A penniless girl with no family and friends disappears one night as she leaves for work? Who’s going to report that? Her boss, maybe. But by the next morning, he would have taken her car to the chop shop Ghost’s friend ran, and Michael would have left behind not one shred of evidence. No leads, no directions, no hunches. Girls like Serena disappeared all the time. No one would think to look for her charred bones on this idyllic hill among fifty rolling acres of field and forest, without a human witness for miles.
The fire was getting restless, the flames licking up in great impatient tongues. Michael closed his eyes and tried not to think about how much the smell reminded him of food.
His thoughts wandered. Food…
He ate dinner almost every night at Bell Bar. Sometimes, a public place afforded him more privacy than any of the private Dog lairs around Dartmoor. And sometimes…well, sometimes he allowed himself to enjoy, just a little, the undaunted company of Holly the waitress, who never seemed phased by this silence.
Tonight, though. Bizarre.
It had begun a few months ago as a strange sort of pseudo-childlike outreach of friendliness from her. She’d bring his drink, his food, and then ask about the book he was reading. Comment on the weather. He’d thought, at first, that there was something wrong with her, that she had some sort of mental deficiency. But then he’d glanced up into her wide green eyes and beneath the overture, he’d seen the unadulterated terror in her. Holly was a girl who was very afraid of something, and she was covering that fear with a soft, feminine sort of sociability, provocative in a way that was unconscious; it was innocent, the appeal, was there because of the way she was built and the way the sweetness just came pouring out of her.
He’d grown used to her. Once, he’d even had sort of a conversation with her, about Oliver Twist, of all things, because she wanted to get a library card, but had no idea what to check out once she did, because she’d had “not much exposure to books” and wasn’t sure what she’d like to read. That had sent up a dozen red flags, but Michael had let it slide, had instead written out a list of books for her on a damp napkin.
He knew she’d never gone to the library, because she hadn’t brought it up again. And that wasn’t like her to let something drop. If he had a tear in his shirt sleeve, she commented on it. If he ordered a different kind of drink, she commented. Holly seemed, desperately, to want to bridge some common ground between them, during her visits at his booth. If she’d read any of those books, she would have been talking about them, trying to use them as some sort of bond.
Michael had decided that, though terrified, she must also be lonely, and wanting a friend. She was a poor judge of character, though, if she was picking him. Of all the men and women who came into that bar, it was him she wanted to spend her time with. He didn’t get it. Any man in the place would have offered to be her white knight. But she had no interest in sex. She never flirted, never said anything suggestive, never smiled that smile that girls used to get bigger tips.
That had all begun to change, though. In the last few weeks, the way she leaned against his table and gone from unconsciously sexy, to intentionally seductive. She was flashing him the low-lidded eyes, the cleavage, reaching to touch his hand with fingertips that trembled as she traced the vein at the back of his thumb. Before, she’d merely relaxed in his presence, and that was what he’d found attractive about her: the way she was so pretty and soft and gentle when she began to let her guard down. But her blatant flirting? That was stiff and unnatural.
And then tonight…
“No,” he’d told her, because her eyes had been gleaming like a prey animal’s, and her breath had been short, and she’d been too petrified to keep her hands still on the table. Like hell did he want to force himself inside a frightened, dry, shaking girl who didn’t even want him. Women were complicated creatures he wouldn’t pretend to understand, but he knew enough to be sure that an unwilling partner would make the whole dynamic all the more one-sided and awkward.
Holly had been crying, as she walked away. He’d hurt her feelings, and really, he hadn’t wanted to do that. “Come back,” he should have told her. “It’s not your fault. I’m just no good at this. And besides, you’re scared to fucking death.”
He wanted to ask her what she was so afraid of. He was wildly curious, at this point. Whatever it was, it was more frightening to her than the idea of offering her body to someone.
He felt a restless tightening of his skin, a prickling of awareness down his spine that put pressure in his pelvis. He couldn’t let himself dwell on her offer. It was very tempting.
Through the windshield, he watched the fire rally one last time, and then begin to die down, the smoke turning dark and quenching. He’d let it clear a little, and then he’d cover what remained of the body, six feet of earth to keep the coyotes from digging it up. And then he’d strip off his smoke-smelling clothes, bag them, pull on fresh, and go fetch the girl’s car to the chop shop.
No time to think about a green-eyed girl wanting to give it up to him.
“Are you alright?”
Ava wasn’t sure why the question had come blurting out of her. Maybe it had something to do with these new, fluffy mommy hormones coursing through her bloodstream. She wasn’t normally one for inquiring after strangers, but at this point, she’d said it, and she couldn’t take it back.
Holly the waitress gave her an automatic, halfhearted smile as she collected Mercy’s empty glasses and dinner plate, but her tear-filled eyes widened in slight surprise. She hadn’t expected the question either.
“I’m fine,” she said, voice quivering at the end. “Let me get these dishes cleared away, and I can bring you a refill.”
“Oh no, we don’t need anything else,” Ava said, with a quick glance toward Mercy’s three empties. “Just the check, if you would.”
“Right.” Holly, tray loaded, executed a whirling turn, and disappeared between two tables, in more than a professional hurry.
Ava frowned to herself. Unlike RJ and a handful of the other Dogs, she had no curiosity about Holly the waitress, aside from the dim wonder that the girl kept funneling her attention toward Michael, of all people. But tonight, she’d watched, as Mercy got up to, as he so eloquently put it, “take a leak,” Holly slip out of Michael’s booth, the bright shine of tears standing in her eyes. Hardly a mystery, given Michael’s blank-faced disinterest in everyone and everything, but Ava had felt a faint stirring of concern. Some maternal instinct sifting up to the surface, she guessed.
She was still staring across the bar, watching Holly dash at her eyes before approaching her next table, when Mercy returned. “I thought the spacing out part came later on in the pregnancy,” he said, waving one long hand in front of her face.
She swatted him away and faced their table again. “I was just thinking about something.”
He looked extra beautiful to her tonight, with his hair unbound, the jagged ends brushing the tops of his shoulders, framing his narrow face in a way that made the sharp angles look even more masculine and unforgiving. His dark eyes were bright with blended mischief and happiness. He was so happy these days, so excited about the tiny life growing inside her and the secret-free future that lay ahead of them.
He raised his brows as he looked down at her. “About…”
“That girl Holly. The one with the boobs you always look at.”
There was a wicked curve to his smile. “Is this you telling me you want a three-way?”
“No.” She gave him a murderous look that made him laugh. “I just noticed, is all, that she’s been crying ever since Michael left.”
Mercy sighed and shook his head. “She’s got it bad for that weirdo. No accounting for taste. Maybe he finally gave her the brush-off.” He drew up indignantly, one hand braced on his hip. “And I don’t always look at her, you know.”
“Really,” Ava said, dryly.
“I don’t. What the hell do I want with some waitress?”
The funny thing was, though he was still joking, she could see the gleam of seriousness in his eyes. He wasn’t the kind to play the field just for the fun of it. There were too many demons in his head for him to be satisfied by the thrill of strangeness. He needed his comfort, that trust, the relaxation that came from totally knowing a person.
But Ava shrugged and said, “What everyone else wants, I suppose,” as she got to her feet.
It was still early – twelve weeks – but she already felt ungainly and heavy in the middle. Psychosomatic, probably.
Mercy picked up her laptop for her, closed it and slid it into the shoulder bag she used to carry it. “Sounds like someone hasn’t been getting enough attention,” he said, sending her a meaningful look that finally got the best of her composure and made her laugh.
“You do nothing but pay attention to me. I can’t believe Dad hasn’t fired you yet.”
“Fire me?” He pressed a hand to his heart, his dramatic taken-aback expression stage-worthy. “I’m his favorite son.”
“Can’t argue with you on that one.” She made a face on behalf of her brother, Aidan. He was probably sitting in the clubhouse right now, feeling sorry for himself, about this exact issue.
She reached for her bag and he slung it over his own shoulder with a little headshake. He’d be carrying it.
“Ghost and me, we’ve come to an understanding,” he continued, pulling out his wallet and peeling off enough cash to cover his dinner, their drinks, plus a more than decent tip. “He was just telling me today that he understands, what with us newly married, that I need to be spending a lot of time at home with you right now.” He grinned. “In bed, mostly.”
“The day my father says something like that is the day we check him into the mental health ward.”
Mercy laid the money down on the table, not waiting for their check, and extended a hand for her, pulling her up lightly to her feet. “Okay, maybe he didn’t say it with words,” he conceded, drawing her up against his side as they headed for the door. “But I could see it in his eyes. We’re connected like that.”
“Uh-huh.” Within the warm circle of his arm, she buttoned up her wool coat and popped the collar against the chill that awaited them outside. “And this connection you have with him. It’s the reason you’ve been getting off work so early this week, right?”
He grimaced. Ghost had asked him to work overtime the last four days in a row. Ava saw nothing of him during the daylight hours, unless she went by the bike shop, and even then, her father would try to shoo her away, insisting they had a backup of import bikes that needed Mercy’s delicate touch.
“Dad,” Ava had said in reprimand, not buying the excuse.
“What? The man takes nine weeks off from work, I’ve got shit for him to do when he gets back.”
Either way, she’d enjoyed having dinner with her hubby, even if she’d been too green to eat anything herself.
His arm was around her shoulders, but somehow that wasn’t enough. She slid her arm around his waist, inside his cut and jacket, around the hard lean middle of him, pressing herself into his side. She heard his light breath of a chuckle through his nostrils, felt his fingers tighten on her shoulder, the little signs that he marveled and delighted in her intense affection. Her sweet boy. Her sweet, broken man.
“How’re you feeling?” he asked quietly, pausing as they reached the door, his free hand on the push bar.
“Better,” she assured. “The ginger ale helped.”
He pushed through the door, towing her along with him, and Ava gasped at the sharp punch of December air as it blasted her face and tunneled down into her lungs. “Damn.” She turned her face into Mercy’s shoulder as they stepped out onto the sidewalk and the warm bright comfort of Bell Bar was cut off behind them with a metallic clang of the door falling back in place.
“Walsh said something about it snowing for Christmas,” Mercy said, lifting his voice to be heard above the rippling breeze.
“Wouldn’t surprise me.” Her jaw clenched and she burrowed closer to Mercy as they walked, awkwardly, together like this, back toward their apartment. Walking the short distance to the bar had sounded fine earlier. It seemed like a stupid idea in retrospect.
“Poor fillette,” he crooned in a voice that was half-laugh, half-come-on. “Cold little girl.” A playful voice she knew all too well.
“It’s freezing,” she said, in her own defense. “Yeah, I’m cold.”
Once they were out of sight of the Bell Bar door, he spun her back against the brick wall, landing her gently against it, covering her body with his, his open leather jacket shielding her from the worst of the wind.
Ava gasped in brief surprise, then laughed. “What are you doing?”
“Warming you up.” In the smeared light of the streetlamps, she saw the quick gleam of his teeth as he beamed a wicked grin down at her. One of his big hands reached through the gap between her coat buttons, slipped beneath her sweater, covered her belly. “You don’t want the baby getting cold, do you?”
“The baby’s plenty warm in there.”
His hand moved lower, shoving boldly into the waistband of her leggings, fingers toying against the cotton screen of her panties.
Ava closed her lips against the scandalized, delighted sound that tried to leave her throat. Her hips titled in automatic invitation, her body responsive to his touch at a moment’s notice. But she said, “The baby’s not down there.”
“Good, I don’t wanna have to share.” He bent to kiss her, his hair swinging forward to tease at her face. It smelled like the flowery Herbal Essences shampoo he used; felt like watered silk on her skin.
“Mercy,” she protested, even as her neck stretched and her lips parted.
The loud and unhappy grumbling of a rattletrap car engine going past brought her back to her senses. He kissed her once – it was warm and verging toward hot – before she gave him a little shove. “Not on the street,” she said, laughing. “Not when it’s this cold, and there’s people driving by, and we’ve got a warm bed waiting on us at home.”
His hand slid from her leggings – she regretted that, if she was honest – and he tossed a glare over his shoulder at the rust bucket Buick limping along in front of the bar at a halfhearted one mile an hour.
Ava reached to lay her hand over the breast pocket of his cut, his chest, his beating heart beneath the layers of leather and cotton, and the tattoo of her teeth inked into the skin above. “We don’t have to steal time anymore,” she reminded, an excitement pulsing through her words. Just the sparse contact they’d had so far had heated her skin, faded the breeze to an annoyance, a dim scraping at her skin that was no match for the heat storm building inside her. “We can take however long we need.”
His gaze came back to her, a soft, tender expression lurking just behind the cocky smirk he presented to her. “We can, can’t we?” There was a small note of wonder in his voice, trace of that disbelief that still lingered in both of them. They were married now. No one could keep them apart. No one could threaten them with anything.
“Let’s go home,” Ava said, reaching for his hand, threading her fingers through his long dark ones. “I’d rather have you naked anyway.”
He grinned. “Yes, ma’am.”
There were still tears in her eyes. Holly blinked at them furiously and dabbed at them with a napkin, but they kept coming in little trickles, leaking away from the buildup of frustrated sobs that wanted to burst out of her. She wouldn’t allow that sort of crying, of course. Crying had never served her a purpose a day in her life. But she’d been so patient, had been working all this time to cozy up to Michael, and he’d rejected her flat-out. If he had no interest in her body, what was her currency to be, then? What could she trade to get what she wanted? What she so desperately needed. Killers weren’t killers, she knew, out of the goodness of their hearts.
“Holly, hon.” Carly drew up in front of her as she stood in front of the soda station, trying to restore her composure. The other waitress, small and brunette like Holly, was on eye-level, and there was no hiding the wet sheen of tears from her. She laid a hand on Holly’s arm. “What’s the matter?”
“Oh, nothing.” Holly forced a smile and made a few final dabs with the napkin. “Just allergies, probably.”
Carly made a face, not fooled. “Did that guy say something to you?”
A gentle grimace. “The one you…the one you always sit and talk with. That creepy guy who doesn’t ever say anything.”
“He says things,” Holly defended, before she could catch herself, then, in a rush: “And it’s not about him, anyway. Something must be blooming. Ragweed, maybe.”
“In the middle of December, yeah,” Carly said, frowning. “Look, you’re closing up tonight, right?”
Holly nodded and jammed the crumpled napkin into the pocket of her silk uniform shorts – boxing shorts in keeping with the boxing theme of the bell, because Jeff the owner claimed the old ring bell mounted above the bar was signed by Muhammad Ali.
“Let me cover for you,” Carly said. “You go home, get some rest. You’ve been pulling really long shifts.” Her expression said she was worried about Holly.
“That’s sweet, Carly, but I couldn’t–”
“Can and will,” Carly said, nodding, her mind made up now. “You go take a hot bath, watch crap TV, go to bed early. I took all that vacation time last month; I’m glad to close up tonight.”
“I really should–”
“Go home, is what you should do. Go, shoo.” She made a waving motion that left Holly smiling.
“Thank you.” Holly was exhausted, if she let herself think about it. Maybe that’s why Michael’s refusal was so devastating: she was just too tired to handle it right now.
On impulse, she pulled the other girl into a fast hug. “Thank you,” she repeated. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me.”
Carly snorted, like she knew. As Holly went to punch out, Carly called after her. “And don’t you waste one tear on that weirdo loser. There’s a million other guys better than him. You deserve better.”
When her back was turned, Holly felt her mouth twist in a wry grimace. Carly, if only you knew, she thought. I don’t deserve anyone.
The owner, Jeff, wasn’t in tonight, so there was no one to protest her punching out early and stowing her apron in her cubby. Her jacket was one she’d bought at a secondhand store here in Knoxville, her first week in town, with a crumpled wad of cash. It was brown leather, with zippered pockets and feminine darts at the waist, a collar that snapped across her throat if she chose to fasten it there. Very appropriate for a waitress trying to make friends with a biker, she thought. But it was hopelessly little protection against this December cold snap; the wind cut right through it. She pulled it on and zipped it up, as she stood in the break room, because that was all she had. At Target, she’d bought a child-size pair of cheap red cotton gloves, and she tugged them on too, along with her five dollar matching red scarf, which she knotted tightly under her chin.
She left Bell Bar via the rear door, the one that fed into the alley, and the coldness outside snatched the breath from her lungs, squeezed tight at her sinuses and gave her an instant headache.
The alley was narrow and more than a little slimy. The one good thing about the cold was that it had pushed back the normally strong stench of the dumpsters. The overhead security lamp offered precious little in the way of light, and the shadows lay thick across the asphalt, most of them human-shaped and misleading.
Holly was glad she hadn’t walked to work. In the small grubby lot behind Bell Bar, her car waited.
It wasn’t hers, per se, but she’d been slick enough to swipe it, the day she’d left home. Her old home. And she’d had the thoughtfulness to have it repainted. She didn’t like to dwell on that particular transaction, was just glad for the halfway decent coat of new black paint on the old, formerly white Chevelle.
Her keys made the familiar jangle as she unlocked the door. She scanned the shadows of the lot, the spots of deep dark between the other cars as she opened the door and slid inside. Thump – she locked the door the second it was shut. The engine turned over with a conspicuous growl that was too loud. Nothing to be done for it. The thing was a classic – 1967 – and it was a deep-throated, proud machine.
It was a short drive to her apartment, and an even shorter walk to the door. She rented a room on the third floor of an old converted Victorian estate, the manse carved up into four units, plus her attic loft. The driveway was a wide circular pass that went all the way around the house, passing in front of the carriage house where she had a storage locker, and out on the other side, leaving plenty of parking room for the five tenants.
Holly clutched her purse to her chest, keys clenched tight in her fist as she skirted the heavy shade trees and power walked up to the front porch. It was so dark. Shadows everywhere: between the shrubs, under the thick oak limbs, in the corners of the wraparound porch, lurking in the eaves, with their contrasting black trim on the gingerbread. She hated nighttime, hated everything about it. She felt small, vulnerable, and exposed. For all that it hid the demons of her imagination, it seemed to put her on display, her footfalls too loud, her breath pluming like smoke. She waited, every night, for the life she’d fled to catch up to her, to literally spring from the shadows and dig claws into her.
That didn’t happen tonight, though. Tonight, she made it to the door, unlocked it, slipped inside. The main floor of the house smelled like burnt cookies: old Mrs. Chalmers baking again. She heard the dim thump of music: Eric putting together another demo album for his band.
The front hall ran straight back to the sun porch, the first floor units branching off to the side, light shining dimly through the glazed glass transoms and door insets. Holly took a moment to breathe in the musty scents of the old mansion, the tang of beeswax, the dry smell of dust, letting her pulse slow. Then she started up the staircase, hand on the smooth waxed bannister, the steps creaking and groaning beneath her work sneakers.
The second staircase was narrower, tucked away in a corner of the second floor hallway. Formerly used by the servants that lived in the attic, it gave Holly private access to her loft. She let herself in, welcomed by the lamps she’d left on, and set about the business of engaging all her locks.
She’d gone to Home Depot the day she’d moved in, and bought an assortment of locks and security chains. Eric the bass player downstairs had helped her install them, more than a little curious as to her reasoning.
“I want to feel safe,” she’d explained, and left it at that.
She didn’t feel safe, even with them, but it was better than not having them.
Only once she was all locked in could she release a deep breath and let herself slump back against the door, enjoying the sight of this, her first place that was hers and hers alone. A place that she’d decorated. A place where she slept with the foreign and wonderful knowledge that no one would wake her roughly in the night. A place decorated and loved. She’d told herself not to fall in love, because she had no idea how long she could stay here, but it had happened anyway. She loved these walls, and this space.
There were five windows, Gothic dormers that projected out along the roof, creating deep ledges, one of which she’d filled with a tiny fake Christmas tree, draped with colored lights. The ceiling was sloped, angling down in the four corners from a central ridge. It created a cozy, cave-like loft, full of charm.
Her furniture had come with the place: the iron framed bed under one eave; the sun-faded, but clean peach sofa and loveseat; the patchwork chair and footstool, the rug with its brown and cream swirls and loops. There was a dated, but serviceable TV, hooked up to the satellite that fed the whole house. A shabby-chic wall of corrugated tin provided sliding barn door access to the bathroom in one corner. There was a bookcase loaded with dusty old volumes, left by the various tenants over the years, Mrs. Chalmers had explained. The kitchenette boasted a narrow fridge, sink, oven with cooktop, one small counter and three cabinets. Original knotted pine floors ran the length of the apartment, smooth and scalloped from years’ worth of tread.
Holly unwound her scarf and gloves, left them on the pegs by the door with her jacket, and went first to the Christmas tree that filled the window and half the apartment with the multicolored glow of the cheery lights. She turned on the TV, found a channel running sitcom reruns. Walked to the bed and sat down on its edge, on the faded peach and mint green quilt.
Her legs were covered in chill bumps and vaguely blue thanks to the silk boxing shorts she had to wear to work. Some nights she folded up a pair of jeans to take in her purse, but other nights she didn’t bother.
She chafed her shins with her hands, bringing the circulation back to them, letting the Christmas lights and the happy murmur of the TV soothe her, warm her shaking cold insides. Usually, just those small things were enough to push the shadows back, such small comforts she’d never known before.
But tonight, her heart was heavy, and it would take more than small comforts to assuage its hurts.
She clicked on the bedside lamp and then reached for the snaps of the leather cuff on her left wrist. She had vague tan lines, from September, when she’d first found them at a thrift store and started wearing the bracelets. The skin they covered was milky white by contrast, and the old rope scar had been angered by the cold night air, red and raw-looking under the lamp. She massaged it, though it didn’t hurt; willed it away, though she knew it would stay forever. Off came the other cuff and she set them aside, on the nightstand. Her shields against all the questions she never wanted to try and answer.
Her journal was in the top drawer, and she withdrew it now, the small notebook with the red leather cover. It was the kind with silk ribbon ties, which she always knotted carefully after each use. A symbolic way to keep the words safe, hidden. God help her if anyone ever found this book, but she had to keep it. She had to put her observations somewhere, or go completely mad at last.
She unknotted the ribbon, turned to the most recent page, reached for the pen in the bottom of the drawer.
He said no. What am I going to do?
The sound of the siren woke Ava. She was dreaming about New Orleans, about the sanctuary in the swamp that was Saints Hollow, the swarming midges and the relentless heat, wanting an escape from this tight grip of winter, perhaps, when the siren cut through the dream fog and brought her slowly awake, as its whining grew stronger and stronger, right outside on the street.
Mercy was, as usual, taking up most of the bed, and when she opened her eyes, she could see that it was his hair, and not her own, that fell across her eyes. His face was tucked tight against the back of her head, his strong arm tight around her, his hand pressed over her belly. It wasn’t possible for him to hold her any closer than he was doing, and she could hear, and feel, him snoring against her neck.
She reached to brush the silky black hair out of her face and shifted position, easing from beneath his arm, earning a snort for her efforts.
He inhaled deeply, chest swelling, pressing at her back. “Wha…?”
“You could sleep through the apocalypse, couldn’t you?” she asked, managing to sit up, his arm still heavy across her lap.
He was breathing hard, a little disoriented, coming out of a dream of his own. He cleared his throat and sounded more awake. “What’s wrong?”
“Sirens.” Her robe was draped over the bed post and she slipped it on over her naked, chilled skin.
“So? There’s always sirens.”
“They stopped right outside. Close somewhere.”
Mercy and the bed both groaned as she got to her feet.
She smiled to herself in the dark. He was downright clingy these days, wanting to take advantage of every second they had together, wanting to be as close as possible. She woke, sick to her stomach most nights, and found him either tangled with her, arms and legs locked at funny angles, or awake and watching her. He would settle, eventually, once he got used to the idea that they had nothing but time ahead of them, but for now, she thought his overflowing affection was pretty adorable.
As she left their closet-sized bedroom, she heard him curse and climb out of bed to follow her.
“You don’t have to get up,” she said, as she rounded the corner into the bathroom, where she would have the best window view of the street below.
“Neither do you,” he muttered, shuffling loudly after her.
It was a tiny place, the apartment he’d had as a bachelor years before, and that they’d managed to rent again, by perfect chance. The bathroom was all original fixtures – claw tub, pedestal sink, subway tile – and cold as a tomb in the dead of night. Ava shivered as the tiles bit into her bare feet, and walked to the streetlamp-glazed window, peering out toward the commotion.
There were revolving blue and red lights: an ambulance, fire rescue truck, and a police cruiser.
Mercy stepped up behind her without regard for personal space, his chest pressing into her shoulders. He didn’t have a robe, like she did, and she didn’t know how he stood the cold, naked like he was. “What?”
“Someone’s hurt,” she said, judging by the assortment of vehicles. She frowned to herself, at her ghostly reflection in the window glass. “Someone at Bell Bar.”
It was three-thirty by the time Michael ditched Serena’s car and called it a night, a text fired off to Ghost to assure his president that the job was done, as professional and seamless as always. He didn’t count on a response and didn’t get one; he’d just wanted to clock out, so to speak.
Three-thirty. Tonight’s closing time at Bell Bar.
Holly was probably closing.
He shouldn’t have cared. On some plane, he didn’t.
But he couldn’t recall a time in his life when a woman had invested any time in him. And Holly sitting across from him every night, asking him about his reading, inquiring after his health, bringing him complimentary pie – that all smacked of investment. She had those big doe eyes, and there was emotion shining in them. She harbored an affection for him. All the groupie girls at the clubhouse, they’d come to him, because they wanted a Dog, and any one would do, but he saw the fear, the caution in their eyes. He didn’t compliment them, flirt with them, play to their insecurities. He wasn’t one to give the full-on outlaw experience. They were always tugging their clothes back in place right after he finished, making excuses, ducking back out into the hall, looking for one of the other boys, the ones who talked shit and fed them meaningless lines.
Holly wasn’t nervous with him. Holly always came, always sat, always squeezed her breasts together, a move that contrasted sharply with the soft, kindhearted wonder etched across her pretty little face. She was drawn to him. Wanted to be with him. He didn’t understand it, but at three-thirty in the morning, after he’d spent the night disposing of a body, it seemed extremely stupid of him to question her motives. And he regretted telling her no flat-out. He should have worked his stiff mouth into more elegant words. Should have explained things to her.
That was all – he was thinking about her now because he felt guilty about leaving her hanging on one syllable. No. And because she wanted to spend time with him, she deserved a complete sentence. He owed her that, because she liked him, and he didn’t understand why.
He’d go by the bar again, he decided. Walk her to her car, make sure she got away safely, and he’d tell her that he appreciated the offer, but that he didn’t sleep with girls who were that scared.
When he rounded the corner at the bakery, and headed toward Bell Bar, his foot slid off the accelerator a moment. Flashing emergency lights, so many of them, turning the night into a disco.
He let the truck coast to a halt. Something had happened. Not a drunk customer, too late for that. This was an employee who was hurt. This was…
He gunned the engine and parked along the empty curb, hitting the pavement at a fast walk, breath coming in thick, smoke-like plumes in the frigid night.
As he approached the side-alley that ran alongside the bar, he saw that the paramedics were standing back at the sidewalk, hands at their hips, looking grim. There was no helping whoever was hurt, then.
“What’s going on?” he asked, tone harsher than he’d intended, and the paramedics snapped around to look at him: young guys, wide eyes, big arms.
He wasn’t wearing his cut, so neither of them gave him the usual cautious look. One said, “A girl got attacked. One of the waitresses, I think.”
There was a sudden, unexpected tightening in Michael’s chest. “Which one?”
The paramedic shrugged. “Dunno. She’s got dark hair.”
One of the cops was walking back toward the front of the building from the alley, talking into a walkie-talkie.
“Hey,” Michael called to him, and he glanced up, looking harried and aggravated. “What happened?”
He jerked a thumb over his shoulder, back down the alley. “Girl got–”
“Yeah, I heard. I wanna know who it is.”
The cop scowled at him, one of Fielding’s young flunkies.
“I’m looking for my girlfriend,” Michael lied. “She works here.”
The cop’s expression changed, became less pissed-off, and more careful. “The bartender inside says her name’s Carly.”
The relief had physical ramifications, a loosening of all his sore digging muscles. The release of a deep breath he hadn’t known he’d been holding.
“Not Holly?” he asked, just to be sure.
“I said Carly, didn’t I?” the cop snapped.
Michael nodded. Not Holly this time, no. But it could have been.
I want to understand, Holly wrote, because she couldn’t settle down and relax. I didn’t know a man had it in him to refuse. Deny himself? Or else he doesn’t like me. Yes, that has to be it. He doesn’t like me. Then I won’t have another shot with him. No means no. What will I do? He was my best hope…
The telephone on the end table rang beside her, startling her, sending her leaping from her spot on the couch.
“Damn,” she murmured, pressing a hand to her stuttering heart. The journal had flown out of her hands and landed with a smack on the boards. She bent to retrieve it, closing it up tight and holding it to her chest, before she answered the old curly-corded landline.
“Holly, dear,” Mrs. Chalmers’ voice filled her ear. “Are you alright? You sound out of breath.”
“Fine, ma’am.” She took a deep breath and forced herself to smile, knowing the expression would work its way into her voice. “What can I do for you?”
“Nothing,” the kindly old widow assured. “But someone rang the doorbell in front.”
Holly hadn’t heard it, above the rumble of her TV. She felt something like panic twirl through her. She couldn’t afford to be so lax. Couldn’t miss a single sound, couldn’t let herself be surprised.
“There’s a young man down here,” Mrs. Chalmers continued, “who’s here to see you.”
“Oh,” Holly said, and all the breath left her, the panic heightening, closing around her windpipe with a relentless squeeze. So this was it, then. They’d found her, finally. It had taken longer than she’d expected, but it had to be them. She had no friends; she didn’t go on dates. There were only three possibilities as to who might have come ringing doorbells in the dead of night looking for her…
“He said to tell you,” Mrs. Chalmers said, “that his name is Michael, and that he wants to ‘pick up where you left off.’ ”
Holly released a deep breath, shoulders slumping, the terror turning loose in a rush that left her light-headed. “It’s Michael?”
“That’s what he says, dear. Very stern-looking fellow.” Mrs. Chalmers lowered her voice to a whisper. “Unpleasant, really. But I told him I’d ring you and I told him he could wait in the parlor for you to come down.”
Her relief was so great, she could have done cartwheels across her loft. Instead, she said, in a too-bright voice, “I’ll be right down to see him, Mrs. Chalmers, thank you so much.” As an afterthought: “I hope the doorbell didn’t wake you.”
“Oh no.” The old woman made a dismissive sound. “I couldn’t sleep. I was doing my night baking again.”
Holly thanked her once more, then hung up.
And went straight to the bathroom mirror.
She hadn’t showered yet, so her careful makeup was still intact. Her hair she’d tied up, though, and she’d changed into baggy gray sweatpants and a shapeless black long-sleeved shirt. It would have to do. She didn’t want to keep him waiting, especially if he wanted to “pick things up.” She didn’t know a man to care what covered her body. She pulled the elastic from her hair, shook it out so it fell in dark waves down her back, and stepped into her slippers before she disengaged all the locks and let herself out.
She loved her slippers. About three bucks at Target, they were lined with fluffy fake Sherpa, and looked almost like real leather, if you squinted. They were soft. Comfy. She’d never owned a pair of slippers before, and she hadn’t been able to resist them, an impulse purchase when she was shopping for milk and detergent.
Light, silent steps down both staircases, and her heart was hammering by the time she swung around the post at the foot on the main floor. The house was mostly quiet and dark around her, save Eric’s record-cutting noise and Mrs. Chalmers’ soft business in her back rooms. The foyer was illuminated by a series of table lamps, set on antique pieces flanking the walls. By their light, she had a view into the parlor, the front-most room of the house, one that had been kept as a public space where residents could meet with guests.
It was a dainty, feminine room. Long, tufted white sofa against the far wall, bracketed by ornate rosewood tables, lamps with belled, beaded shades. A sequence of old portraits marched along the wall above; Mrs. Chalmers had no idea who any of the subjects were, just dead people, she’d said. In the bay window, two French-style chairs of pale blue velvet framed another rosewood table, another lamp. The floor-length drapes filtered the light from the streetlamps outside.
This was where Michael was sitting, in one of the chairs in the bay window, one ankle propped on the opposite knee, so his jeans rode up and the spur strap of his heavy black boot was visible. He had his elbows resting on the arms of the chair, hands draped loosely over the ornate curves of wood. His head cocked a fraction at her appearance, eyes narrowing even more as he studied her with unself-conscious intensity. People don’t look at other people like that, she wanted to point out to him. It seems rude. He didn’t seem to care, though, just stared at her a long moment before he finally turned to glance at the chair beside him, and then back at her, a silent request for her to come sit down.
She complied, sitting sideways so she had a view of his face beneath the ornate lamp shade, legs tucked up into the seat with her. She grabbed onto one of her slippers with her right hand, a small comfort. “You came,” she said.
He lifted a hand, studied the dirt under his nails – dark dirt that she didn’t remember seeing at Bell Bar earlier that night – and frowned. “I was driving by the bar on my way home.” Somehow, she’d expected his voice to sound different here, in the place where she lived, more relaxed and less controlled. It didn’t. “And there were all these lights and sirens. Cops and EMTs.”
His eyes flicked over, a quick, unreadable touch that made her feel warm on the inside. They were amber in the lamplight. Long-lashed and truly beautiful.
“I thought maybe you were closing up tonight, so I stopped to see what was going on.”
Her stomach flipped at his words. “You stopped to see me?”
“I stopped because it looked like someone had gotten hurt. And someone had.”
Just as soon as the spark had flared, it died, a familiar oily dread building up in the pit of her belly. “Who?”
“One of the waitresses. Girl named Carly.” The touch of his eyes again. “She’s dead.”
Holly felt the news strike her like a physical blow. Her lungs seized up, and her stomach cramped. She curled in on herself, pressed her forehead into the musty velvet back of the chair. “Oh no,” she groaned. “No. Oh my God, oh my God.” The tears pricked in her eyes; bile pressed at the base of her throat.
She hadn’t ever had a friend before. In all her twenty-six years of life, she’d always been friendless. But Carly had felt like a friend. Finally. Like someone she could talk and laugh and joke with. Someone kind, who she liked, who seemed to like her back.
Her first, maybe her last friend – dead.
“Oh my God, Carly,” she whispered. “Please no.”
It had been so many years since she’d felt the savage thrust of grief. It was bright and hot, the pain, arcing through the inside of her skull, forcing the breath out of her lungs. Her only friend was dead, and it was like that awful moment in the clearing in the forest, nose full of the rich, wet smell of upturned earth, the flower petals crushed in her hands. She swallowed, again and again, against the revulsion.
Not true, not true, not true…
Except that it was, because Michael wasn’t the sort of man to come searching for her on some dishonest whim. There was cruelty in the lines of his face, but not falseness. No liar in the world had ever been as surly as this man.
Carly was dead.
But she was equipped to handle the most awful of things, wasn’t she? Yes.
“What happened?” she asked, sitting upright again, sniffling hard.
Michael watched her a long moment, eyes moving back and forth across her face, his expression blank, before he sucked at one corner of his mouth, that little thinking face he made. He was trying to decide how much to tell her, she realized. He didn’t know how much she could bear to hear.
“You can say it,” she said. “I won’t fall apart.”
He studied her another moment, then nodded. “From what the cops could tell, she was taking the trash out the side alley door, and got jumped from behind while she was facing the dumpster. Her face got slammed up against the side of the thing. She had bruises on her neck, blood in her eyes. The one cop wouldn’t talk to me, but the young one would. He recognized me from around town. He said it looked like she got strangled to death, the marks on her throat. The broken vessels in the eyes. They won’t know if she was sexually assaulted till the ME gets done with her.”
“And you’re sure it was Carly?”
“Brunette. Little like you are. Bartender ID’d her.”
Holly sighed. “Yeah, that’s Carly.”
“I thought it might be better hearing it from me, than seeing it on the news in the morning,” Michael said.
She nodded, managed to offer him a scrap of a smile. “It was. Thank you.”
He continued to watch her, gaze never wandering from her face, the occasional blink the only sign that he was a living man, and not a mannequin.
Holly slumped sideways against the back of the chair, exhausted by the news.
“You were friends?” Michael asked. It was the first time, in their almost four months of acquaintance, that he’d ever asked her anything. This simple question shouldn’t have mattered to her, but it did, a small spot of warmth in an otherwise cold night.
“Yeah.” She smiled, faintly. “I was supposed to close tonight and she was worried about me. She sent me home early, and covered the rest of my shift.”
“Why was she worried about you?”
Because I was crying, because you said no, she thought. But she said, “Because I was sad.”
He frowned, just a little, brows drawing together over his very straight nose. “Sad.”
“Even more now, because I might as well have killed Carly myself.”
“That’s stupid,” Michael said, evenly, without missing a beat.
Holly felt her brows go up. She stared at him, inviting him to explain, the guilt pounding inside her.
“She offered to take your place, didn’t she? You didn’t do anything wrong. You had no hand in killing her, and if you’d stayed, it would be you dead, instead of her.”
She shuddered. “Carly was a sweet person,” she said, though the idea of it would be you dead was making her lightheaded. “She didn’t deserve to die.”
“But you did?” he asked, his voice relentless, too direct for this conversation.
Holly shrugged and glanced away from his unforgiving stare. Yes, if it came down to her or Carly, then she was the one who’d deserved to die. She was the one with unspeakable sin attached to her name. She was the one who wouldn’t be missing out on much of anything, if she were killed. She was the one seeking out Michael. Didn’t that automatically make her the worthy candidate for death?
“That’s what you think,” he said, the force of his gaze drilling into the side of her face. Didn’t he know this was a sensitive topic? Didn’t he have a softer voice somewhere, buried inside him? “You think it should have been you.”
Holly hated lying. She detested it; it left a dark, stale taste on her tongue every time. At moments, she was forced to do it – at least that’s what she told herself; lie, or face the wrath again. Lie, or risk the pain again, like that awful time both her blackened eyes had swelled shut, when she’d been blind. In that house with them, and totally blind.
But here, sitting with Michael, her natural aversion to falsehoods was stronger than any fear. He may have been blank-faced and insensitive, but Holly realized she wasn’t afraid of losing her eyesight as she sat with him. She wasn’t braced and ready for pain.
So she told the truth. “Yes, I think it should have been me.”
Michael watched her, blinking at least, hands curled over the arms of the chair, still as frozen water. Still as a wilderness predator. Waiting.
Holly wiped at her eyes, pads of her fingers glimmering wet as they withdrew. “Carly was a good person,” she repeated. “She shouldn’t have been murdered tonight.”
“No,” he agreed. “She got in the way of whoever’s hunting you.”
She snapped around, breath catching in her throat, too startled to speak as she faced his unwavering calm once more. Fear shivered across all her nerve endings. How did he know? How could he possibly know?
“Holly,” he said, and it was the first time he’d ever spoken her name aloud. The sound of it leaving his lips surprised her. If it surprised him, he didn’t show it, but he paused a moment. Yes, she knew, for Michael, that constituted surprise. “I can smell the fear on you from ten yards away. You’re petrified, all the time, every time I’ve ever seen you.” He said it almost gently, his voice a notch softer.
She looked away from him again, drawing her knees up against her chest and resting her chin on them, staring across the parlor toward the leaded-glass panes of the dainty china cabinet, and the blue teacups behind them.
“You’re afraid right now,” Michael said. “But not of me.” A note of doubt at the end, a sort of question without inflection.
“No.” She wrapped her arms around her legs. “Not of you.”
“Tell me who, then.”
She wanted to. Oh, how she wanted to. That was why she’d spent every night since August chattering away at him, because she wanted to be able to tell him who she feared the most, and she wanted him to take care of it for her.
But he’d told her no tonight. He wasn’t the kind of man she could charm with a cocked hip and a suggestive look. Michael wasn’t the sort of man a girl like her could ever befriend. If he didn’t want her body, what could she offer him? The hundred dollars folded up in the bottom of her boot? He wouldn’t do what she needed him to for so small a sum.
“Not tonight,” she whispered. “I can’t tell you right now.” Not until she understood better why things had gone so wrong this evening.
He took a deep breath and got to his feet, the rustling of his clothes obscene compared to his complete stillness and silence of before. “If you change your mind” – he scratched at an eyebrow with a thumbnail, a fast, human gesture, proving even the most statuesque of men had itches and pains too – “you know where I have dinner every night.”
He was halfway to the door, when she sat up. “Michael?”
He didn’t just pause, but came to a complete stop. Not moving. Not twitching. Eyes on her face and hand at the knob, like a film someone had stopped with a press of a remote.
She wanted, with a question on her lips and his steady gaze attached to her, to feel frightened of him. She couldn’t muster any fear, though. He was not a scary man.
“How’d you know where I live?” she asked.
“I asked the bartender,” he said, and opened the door and went through it.
Holly listened to the old house settling around her. Eric’s muted music running along the floorboards. And then she got to her feet. Up both sets of stairs, as fast as she could go, through her loft, door left open behind her for the first time. She went to the window and pressed her hand to the fogged glass.
There were taillights sliding around the corner: Michael.
She sighed and sank down on the window ledge. Not tonight, no, but tomorrow. Then she would tell him. Somehow, she’d find some bravery between now and then.