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Bloodfeverby Karen Marie Moning
You're a difficult woman to find, Ms. Lane," said Inspector O'Duffy as I opened the diamond-paned front door of Barrons Books and Baubles.
The stately old-world bookstore was my home away from home, whether I liked it or not, and despite the sumptuous furnishings, priceless rugs, and endless selection of top-rate reading material, I didn't. The comfiest cage is still a cage.
He glanced at me sharply when I stepped around the door, into full view, noting my splinted arm and fingers, the stitches in my lip, and the fading purple and yellow bruises that began around my right eye and extended to the base of my jaw. Though he raised a brow, he made no comment.
The weather outside was awful, and so long as the door was open, I was too close to it. It had been raining for days, a relentless, depressing torrent that needled me with sharp wind-driven droplets even where I stood, tucked beneath the shelter of the column-flanked archway of the bookstore's grand entry. At eleven o'clock on Sunday morning, it was so overcast and dark that the streetlamps were still on. Despite their sullen yellow glares, I could barely see the outlines of the shops across the street through the thick, soupy fog.
I backed up to let the inspector enter. Gusts of chilly air stepped in on his heels.
I closed the door and returned to the conversation area near the fire where I'd been wrapped in an afghan on the sofa, reading. My borrowed bedroom is on the top floor, but when the bookstore is closed on weekends I make the first floor, with its cozy reading nooks and enameled fireplaces, my personal parlor. My taste in reading material has become a bit eccentric of late. Acutely aware of O'Duffy on my heels, I surreptitiously toed a few of the more bizarre titles I'd been perusing beneath a handsome curio cabinet. The Wee People: Fairy Tale or Fact? was chased by Vampires for Dummies and Divine Power: A History of Holy Relics.
"Dreadful weather," he observed, stepping to the hearth and warming his hands before the softly hissing gas flames.
I agreed with perhaps more enthusiasm than the fact warranted, but the endless deluge outside was getting to me. A few more days of this and I was going to start building an ark. I'd heard it rained a lot in Ireland, but "constantly" was a smidge more than a lot, in my book. Transplanted against my will, a homesick, reluctant tourist, I'd made the mistake of checking the weather back home in Ashford this morning. It was a sultry, blue-skied ninety-six degrees in Georgia—just another perfect, blossom-drenched, sunny day in the Deep South. In a few hours my girlfriends would be heading up to one of our favorite lakes where they would soak up the sun, scope out datable guys, and flip through the latest fashion magazines.
Here in Dublin it was a whopping fifty degrees and so darned wet it felt like half that.
No sun. No datable guys. And my only fashion concern was making sure my clothes were baggy enough to accommodate weapons concealed beneath them. Even in the relative security of the bookstore, I was carrying two flashlights, a pair of scissors, and a lethal, foot-long spearhead, tip neatly cased in a ball of foil. I'd scattered dozens more flashlights and assorted items that might second as arsenal throughout the four-story bookstore. I'd also secreted a few crosses and bottles of holy water in various nooks. Barrons would laugh at me if he knew.
You might wonder if I'm expecting an army from Hell.
"How did you find me?" I asked the inspector. When I'd last spoken to the Garda a week ago, he'd pressed for a way to reach me. I'd given him my old address at the Clarin House where I boarded for a short time when I first arrived. I don't know why. I guess I just don't trust anyone. Not even the police. Over here the good guys and the bad guys all look the same. Just ask my dead sister Alina, victim of one of the most beautiful men I've ever seen—the Lord Master—who also happens to be one of the most evil.
"I'm a detective, Ms. Lane," O'Duffy told me with a dry smile, and I realized he had no intention of telling me. The smile vanished and his eyes narrowed with a subtle warning: Don't lie to me, I'll know.
I wasn't worried. Barrons said the same thing to me once, and he has seriously preternatural senses. If Barrons didn't see through me, O'Duffy wasn't going to. I waited, wondering what had brought him here. He'd made it clear he considered my sister's case unsolvable and closed. Permanently.
He moved away from the fire and dropped the satchel slung over his shoulder onto the table between us.
Maps spilled across the gleaming wood.
Though I betrayed nothing, I felt the cold blade of a chill at my spine. I could no longer see maps as I once had: innocuous travel guides for the disoriented traveler or bemused tourist. Now when I unfold one I half expect to find charred holes in it where the Dark Zones are—those chunks of our cities that have fallen off our maps, lost to the deadly Shades. It's no longer what maps show but what they fail to show that worries me.
A week ago I'd demanded O'Duffy tell me everything he knew about the clue my sister had left at the scene of her murder, words she'd scratched into the cobbled stone of the alley as she lay dying: 1247 LaRuhe.
He'd told me they'd never been able to find any such address.
It had taken a bit of thinking outside the box, but that's something I'm getting better at every day, although I really can't take much credit for the improvement. It's easy to think outside the box when life has dropped a two-ton elephant on yours. What is that box anyway but the beliefs we choose to hold about the world that make us feel safe? My box was now as flat, and about as useful, as a tissue-paper umbrella in all this rain.
O'Duffy sat down on the sofa next to me, gently, for such an overweight man. "I know what you think of me," he said.
When I would have protested politely—good southern manners die hard, if at all—he gave me what my mother calls the "shush wave."
"I've been doing this job for twenty-two years, Ms. Lane. I know what the families of closed murder cases feel when they look at me. Pain. Anger." He gave a dry laugh. "The conviction that I must be a chuffing idiot who spends too much time in the pubs and not enough time on the job, or their loved one would be resting in vindicated peace while the perp rotted in jail."
Rotting in jail was far too kind a fate for my sister's murderer. Besides, I wasn't sure any jail cell could hold him. The crimson-robed leader of the Unseelie might draw symbols on the floor, stamp his staff, and disappear through a convenient portal. Though Barrons had cautioned against assumptions, I saw no reason to doubt the Lord Master was responsible for my sister's death.
O'Duffy paused, perhaps giving me a chance to rebut. I didn't. He was right. I'd felt all that and more, but weighing the jelly stains on his tie and the girth overhanging his belt as circumstantial evidence, I'd convicted him of loitering overlong in bakeries and cafes, not pubs.
He selected two maps of Dublin from the table and handed them to me.
I gave him a quizzical look.
"The one on top is from last year. The one beneath it was published seven years earlier."
I shrugged. "And?" A few weeks ago I would have been delighted for any help from the Garda I could get. Now that I knew what I knew about the Dark Zone neighboring Barrons Books and Baubles—that terrible wasteland where I'd found 1247 LaRuhe, had a violent confrontation with the Lord Master, and nearly been killed—I wanted the police to stay as far out of my life as I could keep them. I didn't want any more deaths on my conscience. There was nothing the Garda could do to help me anyway. Only a sidhe-seer could see the monsters that had taken over the abandoned neighborhood and turned it into a death trap. The average human wouldn't know they were in danger until they were knee-deep in dead.
"I found your 1247 LaRuhe, Ms. Lane. It's on the map published seven years ago. Oddly enough, it's not on the one published last year. Grand Walk, one block down from this bookstore, isn't on the new map, either. Neither is Connelly Street, a block beyond that. I know. I went down there before I came to see you."
Oh, God, he'd walked into the Dark Zone this morning? The day was barely bright enough to keep the Shades hunkered down wherever it was the nasty things hide! If the storm had blown in even one more dense, sky-obliterating cloud, the boldest of those life-suckers might have dared the day for a human Happy Meal. O'Duffy had just been waltzing cheek-to-cheek with Death, and didn't even know it!
The unsuspecting inspector waved a hand at the pile of maps. They looked well examined. One of them appeared to have been balled up in shock or perhaps angry disbelief, then re-smoothed. I was no stranger to those emotions. "In fact, Ms. Lane," O'Duffy continued, "none of the streets I just mentioned are on any recently published map."
I gave him my best blank look. "What are you saying, Inspector? Has the city renamed the streets in this part of Dublin? Is that why they're not on the new maps?"
His face tightened and his gaze cut away. "Nobody renamed the streets," he growled. "Unless they did it without notifying a single person in authority." He looked back at me, hard. "I thought there might be something else you wanted to tell me, Ms. Lane. Something that might sound . . . a bit . . . unusual?"
I saw it then, in his eyes. Something had happened to the inspector recently that had drastically changed his paradigm. I had no idea what had shaken the hard-boiled, overworked, fact-finding detective from his pragmatic view of the world but he, too, was now thinking outside his box. I needed him back inside his box–ASAP. Outside the box in this city was a dangerous place to be.
I thought fast. I didn't have much to work with. "Inspector," I said, sweetening and softening my Georgia drawl, "putting on the southern," as we call it back home, a sort of verbal honey-butter that masks the unpalatable taste of whatever we're slathering it on, "I know you must think me a complete idiot, coming over here and questioning your investigative techniques when anyone can see you're the expert in the field and I don't have an ounce of training in detecting matters, and I appreciate how patient you've been with me, but I no longer have any concerns about your investigation into my sister's death. I know now that you did everything you could to solve her case.
I meant to stop by and speak with you before I left, but . . . well, the truth is I was feeling a bit embarrassed about our previous encounters. I went back to the alley the other day and took a good look around, without crying and letting my emotions get away from me, and I realized that my sister didn't leave me any clues. It was grief and anger and a whole boatload of wishful thinking on my part. Whatever was scratched into that alley had been done years ago."
"Whatever was scratched into that alley?" O'Duffy repeated carefully, and I knew he was recalling how adamant I'd been only last week about exactly what was scratched into that alley.
"Really, I could barely make it out at all. It might have been anything."
"Is that so, Ms. Lane?"
"Yes. And I meant to tell you it wasn't her cosmetic bag, either. I got that mixed up, too. Mom said she gave Alina the silver one and it wasn't quilted. Mom wanted us to be able to tell them apart. We were forever arguing over whose was what and what was whose. The fact is I was grasping at straws and I'm sorry I wasted your time. You were right when you told me I should pack up, go home, and help my family get through these difficult times."
"I see," he said slowly, and I was afraid he really did—right through me.
Didn't overworked, underpaid civil servants only grease squeaky wheels? I wasn't squeaking anymore, so why wasn't he getting the message and holstering his oilcan? Alina's case had been closed before I'd come over, he'd refused to reopen it, and I'd be darned if he was reopening it now. He'd get himself killed!
I abandoned the oversweetened drawl. "Look, Inspector, what I'm saying is that I've given up. I'm not asking you or anyone else to continue the investigation. I know your department is overloaded. I know there are no leads. I know it's unsolved and I accept that my sister's case is closed."
"How . . . suddenly mature of you, Ms. Lane."
"A sister's death can make a girl grow up fast." That much was true.
"I guess that means you'll be flying home soon, then."
"Tomorrow," I lied.
"I can never remember. I've got it written down somewhere. Upstairs."
"Who beat you?"
I blinked, fumbling for an answer. I could hardly say I stabbed a vampire and he tried to kill me. "I fell. On the stairs."
"Got to be careful there. Stairs can be tricky." He looked around the room. "Which stairs?"
"They're in the back."
"How did you bang up your face? Hit the banister?"
"This store is called Barrons Books and Baubles. I wasn't able to find anything in public records about an owner, dates of sale for the building, or even a business license. In fact, although this address shows on my maps, to all intents and purposes, the building doesn't exist. So, who's Barrons?"
"I'm the owner of this bookstore. Why?"
I jerked, stifling a gasp. Sneaky man. He was standing right behind us, the epitome of stillness, one hand on the back of the sofa, dark hair slicked back from his face, his expression arrogant and cold.
No surprise there. Barrons is arrogant and cold. He's also wealthy, strong, brilliant, and a walking enigma. Most women seem to find him drop-dead sexy, too. Thankfully I'm not most women. I don't get off on danger. I get off on a man with strong moral fiber. The closest Barrons ever gets to fiber is walking down the cereal aisle at the grocery store.
From the Hardcover edition.Copyright © 2007 by Karen Marie Moning
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