REEDITED – Publisher approved. Excerpt from final version of the book. Next episode today, 7.11.2014! Stay tuned.
When she meets heartthrob Damian Novac, shy student Alice develops a heavy crush against her best wishes. Hoping to get close to him, she joins Damian and friends on a winter trip in the Carpathian Mountains – a choice that will change her life abruptly.
When the train derails in high snow, they seek refuge at an abandoned cottage, but soon people of their group start losing their minds and dying. Alice barely escapes with Damian and some of their friends, only to realize she’s far from safe even back home. A shady corporation which conducts experiments on humans and which seems to have ‘engineered’ Damian into something monstrous many years before is on their trail.
Alice becomes an important tool in the investigation which leads back to Damian’s past. A man of secrets and obscure powers, Damian might be a villain or a hero. He might save Alice’s life or he might take it. Though aware of the danger he poses, she can’t fight the obsession that will draw her ever deeper. Will Damian become her lover or her executioner?
A novel that will keep you reading, diving into the demonic nature of criminal masterminds, spiced with hot, dangerous romance.
I was twenty-two when I met him, studying English Language and Literature at the Universitatea Ovidius in Constanta. It was my last year on the campus close to the deserted beaches of our ghostly town, and my first year ‘back on market’ after a painful break-up. The highlight of it was my ex finally admitting – or simply alleging, as I hoped – that his interest had never been in me, but in the wealth of my father and the future that might’ve resulted from a union with me. Being the daughter of Tiberius Preda turned out to be a stigma rather than an advantage, and as a consequence I resorted to keeping the connection secret and my lifestyle modest.
So I proceeded carefully with my new love interest. The only problem was that I didn’t really possess any other means of standing out beside my father’s name and a set of freckles that made people go “Aw, sweet,” rather than “Wow, hot!”. Grooming was a challenge, too. Foundation always ended up looking like unevenly distributed flour on my skin, and my hair galvanized like wire no matter what I did. Ruxandra helped sometimes and spent hours on my styling, trying to cheer me up.
“You’ll learn, no worries,” she’d say.
She was wrong. I never did. And she finally gave up with a hopeless shake of her head. “God, Alice, you do have two left hands.”
I first saw him in the cafeteria, surrounded by a group of loud laughing, overconfident boys with iron pumped chests. But it was him who drew my attention like a magnet, and a glance around the cafeteria was enough to realize I wasn’t the only one interested in him. He was tall and athletic, with waves of dark hair brushing his broad shoulders. Well muscled under a white knit sweater that his body molded, he made for quite a view, and as good as all wenches around drank it in.
“Damian Novac, med school,” Ruxandra whispered in my ear, noticing my dropped jaw. She tossed a strand of ebony hair off her shoulder with a graceful move. “They call him Bane ‘cause of the looks. Women’s Bane.” Large grin.
“I don’t remember seeing him before,” I said, eyes still fixed on the delicious sight.
“They usually have classes at the Old University, but they’re with us two semesters.” Of course – the Old University was being refurbished.
She smiled in his direction. I didn’t dare do the same, but looked around like a fox watching for hunters, making up strategies before dodging out of the bushes. The last thing I needed was getting another bullet through my head.
Damian didn’t see me that day, or the day after. Being petite and almost skinny had its advantages in matters of stealth, so I could observe him from afar for weeks. He was aloof, yet his eyes always intent, as if his thoughts were fixed on something way beyond those walls and his cares way more serious than the infatuations of wannabe divas. He wasn’t oblivious to their advances, just utterly unimpressed.
His group of friends, nevertheless, always surrounded him, as if searching for his approval for everything they did. Even a manly laugh and a tap on the shoulder were always accompanied by a furtive was-that-all-right glance. So an alpha, I thought.
“No wonder we’re all leaving wet traces like snails when he’s around,” I once whispered to Ruxandra. She laughed her sensual laugh.
“So love it when your sweet mouth picks up dirt, Alice.”
“I speak but the truth.”
We left the university giggling. At that age we were still able to speak the naked truth, no matter how ugly or dirty it was. We couldn’t care less about “social acceptability”.
We sat in the confinements of Montana, a nearby wooden pub that served as a haven for furious bikers on Saturday nights, when it reeked of beer and pot. But during the day it was nice and quiet. We had our peace drinking bad filtered coffee and making plans.
Ruxandra wanted me to get over the disaster with my ex once and for all. She took her role as image consultant very seriously, while I came up with ways of manipulating destiny into “casual” bumping into Damian at a popular but jam-packed club – the Marquette, deep in the heart of the city – or at parties organized by fellow students.
It was at one of those parties at the dorms that I finally arranged to stumble into his arms with a glass of red wine. Ruxandra had forced me into a push-up bra, a red sleeveless top and tight jeans, but I still looked like a malnourished, rusty-furred poodle.
The room was hot and crowded, so I hopped over legs and bottles in my way, faking a fall against Damian’s chest. It was hard, and the hands steadying me were big like shovels.
“S … sorry,” I mumbled.
He looked down at his ruined shirt.
“It’s all right.” His voice sounded like black velvet – deep, soft, giving me goose bumps.
I dared a look straight at his face and my heart leaped into my mouth. Up close he was so handsome with his pale green eyes, perfectly chiseled features and strong jaw, that he should’ve been as illegal as heroin. My nose was at the level of his chest, breathing in the scent of freshly cut wood – maybe fir. Jeez, he’s huge.
With a slightly pissed frown but gentle hands, he made sure I could stand on my own feet and turned to walk away. No, no, no!
“Let me take out the stain,” I shrieked over the pounding music and clasped his arm. “There’s some detergent in the bathroom.”
He turned to me, the frown lingering on his brow, his tone polite but detached.
“I’ll do that myself, thank you.”
I panicked, thinking that he saw through my plot. I searched desperately for a way to keep contact and gave him an awkward smile. Reciting the words Ruxandra had made me learn by heart seemed like the only option.
“You need to wash out the wine within the next two minutes, if you want to save your shirt. I’m a woman and I have some dexterity with that, that’s all.”
He glanced around as if assessing who paid us attention. Dancing and drinking people – Ruxandra and George included – stared at us. Then a possibility hit me – maybe he scouted the area for his girlfriend or something.
At that thought, my stomach clenched. Though I hadn’t seen him with anyone during the weeks I’d observed him, a girlfriend wasn’t completely out of the question. Maybe she wasn’t from campus. But then again, Ruxandra would’ve come upon that anyway in her subversive, shrewd investigations.
“Two minutes,” I reminded him of the time ticking until the stain would be forever imprinted in his white shirt. “Let me save the situation and then you won’t see me again.”
He gave me a reserved smile and motioned me to lead the way. The gesture was infused with elegance and strength at the same time, coming from a stud like him. Oh, how I’d ride you, boy!
We waited in front of the bathroom until a drunken blonde reeled out. Luckily it didn’t take longer than two minutes, otherwise I would’ve risked him changing his mind. Girls around us fidgeted and swayed, eyeing Damian. Boys already mistook the hallway and some corners for toilets as they staggered and cursed.
Damian and I didn’t speak to each other, but I was sharply aware of his presence behind me, of his breath above my head. He stood real close, my backside crushed against his thigh as sweaty bodies squeezed us together. My heart raced, I struggled with my burning cheeks and wild imagination as we closed the door behind us. Jeez, I’m alone with him! Alone with him in a messy bathroom . . .
To my jaw dropping surprise, Damian began unbuttoning his shirt. I swallowed hard. Still, to make my indifference to him credible, I refused the sight.
“Keep it on. Unless, of course, you have a change of clothes within reach.”
“I don’t.” Again that deep voice that I couldn’t believe I was finally hearing, spoken only for my ears.
I snatched the detergent from a pile of tubes and boxes on the washer, and rinsed the stain – half his shirt, that is. After spraying some water on it from the tips of my fingers, I began rubbing the wine into instead of out of the fabric with one hand, keeping it stretched and away from his body with the other. The large spot soon turned transparent, I could see a blur of his flat abdomen and his happy tail through it.
“I’m Damian, by the way,” he said.
“I must say, you’re quite observant, Alice.”
Clumsy grin, “How so?”
“I’m impressed you should notice the stain remover and think about it as soon as you ruined my shirt.”
Shoot, he knows what I’m doing . . .
“It requires some presence of mind.”
“I … I brought it, actually. Today. George is in constant need of such.” I knew George would support my allegation, he was “my people” and deep in this with me. He’d organized the party and we were in his dorm.
“I understand.” Damian’s eyes glittered with some kind of cunning. “Have I seen you before, Alice?”
I shrugged and faked lack of interest, ignoring the way he spoke my name and how it made my cheeks prickle.
“Maybe. In the cafeteria, or at the Marquette. That’s where I seek refuge from my persecutors.”
“The Inquisition, isn’t is obvious?” I said, pointing at the haycock on my head, which caused a dashing smile on his face. He seemed to be growing comfortable.
“You claim yourself a witch?”
“I claim nothing without my lawyer.”
“Astute. And George? Is he one of your allies?”
“You could say that. He’s dating my best friend, Ruxandra.” As for me, I’m available and all for you, mister.
“Now I remember,” he said as if he truly just realized, “I saw you at the Marquette with him and some others. You never miss some fun.”
He saw me? “I’m forever in search of it. As are you, I notice.”
“Hardly. I supply food and beverages.”
Say what? “What do you mean?”
He shrugged, making it clear that he didn’t want to dwell on the matter.
“It’s just an activity that pays bills. And what brings me to the Marquette and parties.”
“So you’re no real friend of Bacchus’?” I realized I’d never seen him with a beer in his hand, or any kind of alcohol for that matter.
He laughed – another velvety sound.
“You find me entertaining?” I asked.
“I like the way you speak. It’s a bit, how shall I put it? Unusual.”
He nodded, those pale, striking eyes intent and fixed on mine. I alone had his attention now, the whole world was shut out.
“I merely adjust to my interlocutor.”
He laughed again as I tried to sheath my crush on him with the veil of further jokes and friendship. He acted like he bought it, laughed more, and soon our groups mingled in the cafeteria.
A few weeks later, George came up with another of his plans that both our gang and Damian’s appreciated. It had begun to snow and he organized a trip to the mountains, so it wasn’t long until we got on a train with heavy backpacks and furred boots, but my hopes of finding a place by Damian’s side shattered as soon as I set foot in the compartment.
He was flanked by a bearded, rugged-looking guy with a guitar and Olympia Slavic, a platinum blonde Beauty-Queen who I didn’t stand a chance against. She was tall and loud, her grin white and large, but she couldn’t be his girlfriend. Everyone knew she danced in a private booth at the Marquette for a rich guy – a mobster, bald and fat, some people speculated, though nobody had ever seen him. But he wasn’t here now, and the farther Constanta stayed behind us, the more all over Damian she was. I ducked in my coat and scarf up to my nose and watched frustrated how she drew closer to him.
“Come on, Novac,” she said, her pitch too high, “I won’t bite, I’m just freezing.”
He rested one arm loosely on her shoulder and turned his eyes to the window. She leeched on to him but he kept distant, which made me feel not all was lost. I wanted to slap myself for clinging to the faintest hope and for the way I ogled him, but I couldn’t help it. He looked fantastic in his brown coat, dark jeans and what seemed like army boots. His hair spilled in raven waves to his shoulders and the stubble gave his beautifully chiseled face the air of a young barbarian.
Olympia caught me staring. She pulled her knees up and cuddled to his chest. I doubted she did it because she saw any kind of competition in me – that was out of the question – but because she felt powerful and probably enjoyed my suffering, knowing I would’ve done anything to be in her place. She closed her eyes and pretended to fall asleep with a triumphant smile on her face.
Cottages glided by as the train – barely more than an old cart from communist times – moved lazily, its whistles lost in the night as we advanced to the middle of nowhere. A few times I thought Damian glanced at me and my heart jumped, but I dismissed it as wishful thinking until the train got stuck in what looked like Siberian snow, ice flowers spreading visibly over the pane. Everybody breathed out steam and I couldn’t feel my feet anymore, shaking violently. That’s when Damian gazed long at me with a worried frown.
“George,” he said, lifting his arm and waking Olympia, “Where’s the Vodka I gave you?”
George’s sleepy eyelids fluttered open. He brushed sandy tendrils off his forehead and removed his own arm from around Ruxandra, who shivered at his chest, her eyes hooded, her lips white and thinner than usual, as if they’d shrunken. He reached to the overhead rack and dropped a bag on her head.
“Sorry, Rux,” George mumbled and took down a ragged backpack. Something clanked inside. He staggered on his skinny, Spiderman legs to Damian, who stood up to support him.
“Jesus, you look like you might break into ice shards,” Damian said.
“I’m afraid my brain’s already splintered. I should’ve been the first to think of the liquor,” George replied with a stiff grin that meant to be friendly but rather gave the impression of a frozen fossil.
Damian opened the backpack and took out three small bottles like the ones Russians keep in the inside pockets of their sheepskin coats. He handed one to Olympia and one to George.
“Pass that around,” he told them, then took a seat by my side with the third bottle.
I blinked and barely refrained from rubbing my eyes. I couldn’t believe he was so close to me, by his own choosing this time.
“Drink this,” he said softly, holding the open bottle to my mouth. A sharp smell made me crease my nose and push his hand away.
“Vodka. It’ll help warm up,” he insisted.
I sniffed at it a couple of times and finally took a sip that went like a flash of fire to my stomach. I grimaced, but Damian chuckled and looked at me like you would at a playing puppy. It was the strangest expression I’d ever imagined on his face, like a predator smiling clumsily at a shivering deer. I smiled back, my heart drumming.
It wasn’t until my eyes fell on the open mouthed Olympia that I realized why he must’ve switched to my side: I was the only one without a pair of arms around me. Damian was just looking after the less fortunate. My chest deflated.
“Thanks, but I’m fine,” I grumbled and drew away, pulling my knees up.
Suddenly, the car began to wobble like a ship on a stormy sea. The girls shrieked and boys glanced around with wide eyes. As the lights flickered and finally went out, I burst into a fit of screaming too. A hand wrapped around my arm and pulled me to a broad chest, my nose sinking in a fluffy pullover.
“Earthquake,” Damian’s voice sounded above my head. At the next jerk, he dropped back in the seat with me in his lap.
“Maybe they’re just, just, just taking us out of the snow,” Olympia babbled.
“It ain’t no shovels moving this train!” The guy with the guitar croaked.
The train came to a brusque halt in its swaying, and Damian jumped to his feet, sheltering me with the sides of his open coat. I pushed my face deeper in his pullover as he slid the compartment door open with his elbow.
“What are you doing?” George squealed.
“We need to get out of here,” Damian replied. His tone was calm, but not devoid of stress.
“What if it starts again?” His bearded friend said. “We’re deep in the mountains, we could get killed in an avalanche or something!”
“And you think we stand a better chance if an avalanche traps us in this rust box, Hector?” Damian raised his voice over his friend’s but didn’t wait for a reply.
He rushed with me down the aisle and only put me down as we reached a growing clutch of shrieking people by the exit. Fear gripped me, my heart punched hard against my ribcage as I stretched my arm to keep him close. To no avail, I lost him as he made his way through.
In the chaos of screams and bodies squashing me between them I freaked out, but I was unable to make a sound. The door snapped open and a winter gush wheezed through, lashing my face numb as people poured out of the train and drifted me forward with them. I sank to my knees in the glistening snow and waved my arms to keep from falling into the forested abyss that gaped before my eyes.
A huge, warm hand clasped mine, steadying me, and the instant I looked into Damian’s focused face I understood he’d only left my side to break down the door. I forgave him on the spot.
He turned to help the others out of the train but missed one, who bumped hard against me and sent me like a ball down the slope. I rolled and rolled, my mind frozen as snow infiltrated to my skin from under my scarf and sleeves. A front clash with a tree trunk knocked the air from my lungs and the last thing I saw was a shower of white that filled my mouth and nostrils. I choked under the mountain of cold that gagged me, desperate to breathe in.
My head began to cloud with lack of air, and I felt my pulse give up. That moment I knew the sense of safety was a mirage, as if some tiny fairy at the back of my mind urged me to keep fighting.
I saw a bright sphere, but I knew it wasn’t the moon. It was light at the end of a black tunnel, a light that sucked me toward it with the force a vacuum cleaner would a fly. However hopelessly, I fought against the pull, which stopped by miracle as I came really close to the now huge moon. Weight started to press rhythmically on what I now identified as my chest and I started to spin backwards, as if something drew me with the same force farther and farther from the bright sphere. As it became smaller, it warped into the shape of a child-like face with eyes bright like laser piercing at me through the darkness. A crystalline voice like tinkling icicles filled my head. “You need me . . .”
Every breath hurt as if my sternum had been smashed with a rock. The blur before me cleared to Ruxandra’s face, her chocolate eyes wide and worried above mine.
“She’s awake!” She called. More faces popped into the picture, looming above her head.
I tried to get up on my elbows, but the pain punched full force into my chest. With a groan that hurt too, I fell back on something soft that smelled of piss.
“Don’t strain yourself.”
“It hurts,” I whispered.
“It’s the CPR. Damian might’ve pressed too hard on your chest.”
Ruxandra smiled. “He launched after you when you fell. He carried you here, too.” There was a glint of do-you-realize-what-this-means in her eyes.
Carried me . . . an open-mouthed, blue and cold almost-corpse. Shame sent another stab through my chest. I looked down at myself, and saw I was wrapped in two coats – my own and a new puffer one, my scalp itching under what could’ve been a busby, yet none of it helped much. I still shivered as she tucked me under a blanket, leaving my arms out.
Muttering and shadows twirled around, only Ruxandra’s face constant in the picture. I registered a friendly, “Water by the bed,” and George’s, “Bug off, here’s the Vodka.” Someone placed a candle on a nightstand by my head, as if I were dying. Still, candles were the only source of light in the room as far as I could tell – causing the eerie shadow play.
One by one the shadows cleared and left me in my best friend’s care, now that I was out of danger and required no more of their attention. It was then that my chest felt a bit lighter and I tried for breathed words again.
“Damian … CPR?”
Ruxandra threw me a glance, her hands rubbing mine.
“Med school, remember?”
This was turning overboard – breaking down the train door, jumping after me, cradling me to shelter, and now it turned out he’d brought me back to life, too. As far as I knew, cheesy Superman days were over and I suspected Ruxandra was making fun, spraying fuel on my crush.
“Playing hero,” I whispered.
Her head turned in the opposite direction – maybe the door. My socks got hitched off and something hot pressed to the naked soles of my feet. The feeling was beyond unpleasant, like needles stinging in my flesh.
“Rux, wha – ?” I managed and lifted my head. My very tongue froze.
Damian held a bottle of water at my feet, his honey-skinned hand covering both of them. He didn’t wear his coat, only the gray pullover that complimented his athletic body and those dark jeans that hinted at his strong legs. While I looked a mess. I scrunched my eyes shut as he began kneading my toes. I’m not seeing this! I’m not seeing this!
“A train off track and frozen mountains are no playground,” he scolded in that deep voice of his. So he’d heard my mockery. I wanted back in my snow grave.
“Will you take over from here?” Ruxandra addressed him – agile on the first opportunity to give us some time alone, I figured. “I’m afraid George will drown in all that Vodka he saved, if he misses me for too long.”
I kept my eyes shut as they probably exchanged nods or rather headshakes. I didn’t want to roger Damian’s affronted refusal to watch over an ungrateful wreck. It was only when I heard the door creak shut that I opened one eye, as if peeking at an incoming blow.
Damian flipped the blanket aside and sat on the bed, diving into the mattress.
“May I lay with you? You’ll warm up faster,” he said softly, his tone yet amused.
Lay with me? The implications left me breathless. I nodded.
He stretched by my side, lifting my head with a huge hand and slipping an arm under the nape of my neck. Our eyes locked and my mind stuck on how rare the color of his was. Special, weirdly so. Every morning I saw a dull, washed-out nuance of blue in the mirror, as I saw brown and every combination thereof often around, but I’d never seen that pale green as if looked at through crystal, creating an irresistible contrast to his honey skin. I imagined it flash with some kind of madness, like a demon’s eyes. Maybe it did when he was angry. And I could make him angry right now. I could jolt up and press my lips on his, taking him by surprise.
But I made it only as far as resting my head on his arm that felt like concrete under a layer of fluffy pullover, and putting a hand on his chest – very broad, well-shaped, yet not bulky.
“Where are we?” My chest hurt with every word, but I had to derail his attention before my less than orthodox thoughts showed in my face.
“A cottage in restoration. The train fell off track too far from Predeal and this is the first lodging we found. There’s no phone signal so deep in the mountains either, so we had to make do.”
Yes, off track, this was the second time he mentioned it.
Damian shook his head.
“That was my first thought, but I was wrong. Earthquakes are not common in these parts of the Carpathians. They tried to pull the train forward through the snow and it slipped off.” There was a pensive touch in his words. It suited that deep, velvety voice of his that inebriated me, though it sounded as if he were hiding something – but I didn’t care right now.
I looked down at the shape of our legs under the blanket, thinking of what to say next to keep the conversation going. Damian began stroking the side of my torso over the coat, I felt his hand close to my breast. It made the blood race through my veins.
“So, did you only punch me or . . . mouth to mouth, too?” I couldn’t believe the pain I put my ribcage through only to say the stupidest thing ever.
“Didn’t come to that, don’t worry. You spat out snow turned to water during the chest compressions.”
“Oh . . . Sorry.”
He laughed. “You sure didn’t get the finest education at home.”
“No. I did not.”
I searched for something else to say, but my mind was stuck in the awareness of him, of his breath on my forehead.
“Try to get some rest,” he said, as if he sensed my inner struggle. “Talking might be difficult for some hours, maybe even days.”
Now that was bad news. Ruxandra would surely hunger for every detail of what happened in this room and I wouldn’t be able to deliver, which counted as high treason regardless of excuse.
Guitar tones slowly filled the silence. They were just as out of tune as the hoarse male voice that accompanied them, but it made not speaking more comfortable and I thought it relaxed Damian, too. I closed my eyes and tried to fall asleep, but his body so close to mine made it impossible. His chest rose and fell calmly as he breathed and I wondered relentlessly what he felt, what he thought of. What he thought of me.
He still stroked me so maybe he’d give in to easy sex. In the end, he’d saved my life and maybe he even expected such as a sign of gratitude. Maybe he waited for me to make the first move, yet I needed a cover in case it went wrong.
Faking sporadic sighs from the world of dreams, I let my body snake on Damian’s. Since I was supposed to be asleep I couldn’t be held for it, but the feel of his muscles under the pullover made my breath intensify, which may have exposed me. His rhythm didn’t change and, as I risked a glance through my lashes, his jaw rippled. He was angry.
I stopped moving but it seemed he’d already made a decision. Though he withdrew his arm carefully from under my head, as soon as that was done he jumped off the bed soundlessly like a gazelle and closed the door behind him. I opened my eyes, tears of shame dripping on the pillow.
With only the drunken version of Dust in the Wind to keep me company, more dark thoughts crept into my head. What if he was into Olympia after all? Or maybe into another? He could surely pick and choose with as good as the entire campus drooling over him. And what if he only wanted to be friends with me? Greedy for the shaft in his pants I’d probably lost that now too, which made my chest hurt as much as sniveling did.
Unable to put up with my own company anymore I threw the blanket aside, groped for my socks and boots and followed the music down a narrow corridor. It led to what looked like the main chamber of an old rustic lodge with wooden furniture, carpets on the walls and a terracotta stove.
With power out, candles were the only source of light here too, making the snow clinging to the windows glitter like in fairy tales. More drunken voices now joined the bearded singer’s and people chained together with hands on each other’s shoulders, swaying left and right.
I spotted Damian across the room. He sat on a windowsill, his booted feet on the back of a wooden bench. With elbows on his knees, he planted me a steel scowl from under knitted eyebrows.
My severely bruised ego screamed, ‘Hide!’ and I hurried to mingle in, trying to find Ruxandra. She danced in a lush embrace with George, who hurried to get rid of me by introducing me to Olympia ‘Beauty-Queen’ properly. My lips sucked lemon as I saw Damian’s coat hanging on her bony shoulders – so I wasn’t the only lady whom he aided in distress.
Maneuvered into it by George, I sat with her by the stove. She returned to a conversation with her friends, and made a show of how she ignored me – meaning that every time I opened my mouth, she’d go ahead and ask one of the others about the parties at the dorms that she’d missed – probably ‘cause of her sugar daddy – or introduce some cheap gossip with, “Oh yeah, did you hear that . . .”. I tried talking to an older guy with wiry curls, but he soon switched to the other side of the human circle. After about an hour, Olympia and I were left alone for some awkward moments.
The silence pressed harder on me than trying for small talk, so I managed to bring a cheesy, “So, not exactly what we had in mind for lodging, huh?” and, “Are you originally from Constanta or only studying there?” about my lips – Though she was as popular as anyone ever got, I hadn’t been particularly interested in her background until now.
Looking away from me and with disdain in her voice, she said her dad was from Serbia and I instinctively mentioned my mother’s American heritage, trying to establish a bond. In the end, we were both half-breeds and getting along would take some pressure off my back. But our connection was interrupted before it was made.
“You’re American?” the older guy with wiry curls bounced in, his voice too loud. His drunken eyes sparked at me as if I’d suddenly turned into an exotic dancer – a remarkable shift.
Heads turned, Hector’s fingers tangled in the guitar cords, and I immediately regretted having touched on the subject.
“That would be an overstatement,” I muttered.
“How can you overstate origin?” Olympia sneered. She looked daggers at me, so it wasn’t hard to tell she hated my stealing the spotlight, especially for one of her own reasons to be special.
“My dad studied in the States. Met my mom. She followed back to Romania. I’m a half-breed.” I glared at her and then at Mr. Nosy.
“So your mom’s the American and your dad the knight from Draculean lands?” He gave me a grin, meant and failing to be charming.
I nodded, eager to get the subject behind me and to gag his big mouth.
“The States, huh? In those times?” Olympia tried harder to splash me with mud. “How did he pass Ceausescu’s dogs?”
I hadn’t seen that coming. I was cornered, and forging lies would’ve eventually put me in even worse light – it had before.
“It was Ceausescu’s dogs who sent him there.”
Complete silence. My eyes flew over to Damian. He watched with arms folded across his chest, his eyes narrow. For a moment there I hoped he’d jump to my rescue again, but he remained as immovable as stone.
“Tiberius Preda? He is your father?” The older guy whispered.
Shit . . .
I nodded and the guy’s mouth popped open. Still, I had a feeling he was the only one in our group with enough real information to know what my dad’s name stood for in the right context, he was old enough. For the others it should’ve meant only DNA research and heavy moneybags.
“So, you’re rich daddy’s girl,” Olympia confirmed my hunch, laughing like in kindergarten. I wanted to slap her, but she was taller and stronger, so I feared the aftershock. Not my hot-blooded friend’s case, though.
“Listen, hottie!” Ruxandra placed herself before Olympia, her tone cutting. All signs of fun and liquor-conditioned euphoria were gone from her face. “Alice didn’t make the sacrifice she did for anybody to still treat her like a social mutant!”
Olympia glowered back at Ruxandra, more pissed off by the intervention than taken aback.
Driven by the pressure that built up in my head I didn’t wait for the outcome of this confrontation. I ran out the door with face in my palms, fighting to keep back tears and unable to fathom how I could be so stupid to mention my roots so easily, especially to someone who so obviously resented me. The cool air on the porch dried my eyes, but also painted a sharp picture of my situation – lame, hopeless.
The lodge was somewhere high and close to the forest, countless fir branches warped with snow marking the contours of endless hills, a full moon hanging low in the sky. A beautiful place it was. A setting for Beauty and the Beast. For fairy tales Mom used to read to me on cozy winter nights by an adorned tree. I’d fall asleep in my pink pajamas, clutching Judy the Monkey to my chest and dreaming of a prince in a fairy tale of my own. Yet my story turned out to be so much different – I was the Beast.
I sank my hands in the snow on the porch and splashed it like water on my face, hoping the icy sting of it would cast both Damian’s rejection and Olympia’s laughter to the back of my mind. It did, for but a second.
“So, daddy issues?” Damian’s voice made me jump to my feet.
Imagine my surprise to see him standing by my side like an assassin who’d popped out of nowhere. I refused to let it show with clueless blinking or gaping, but gave the first answer that crossed my mind.
“I’m sorry I startled you.”
“Do I appear startled?”
He looked down at me, those eyes so pale and striking a shiver coursed down my spine. “More like a kid playing ostrich in the snow.”
A kid. That’s what I am to you, too, then. I clenched my teeth, didn’t reply.
“Ruxandra said something about sacrifices,” he mused after a short pause. He sounded as interested as anyone ever got.
“Ruxandra spoke without thinking.”
“And without your consent. Still, I think she acted out of admiration.”
“And that puzzles you, I gather?”
“It intrigues me.”
“Of course it does.” I snorted again, bitterness on the tip of my tongue. “I didn’t discover insulin or appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated, so you don’t think I deserve admiration.”
“Is that a statement or a question?” His eyes glinted like lustrous crystal. I turned away, gazing in the distance and faking cold indifference to his looks.
“All right then, here it is,” I said. The mountainous landscape with its winter charm made for a confessional state of mind, and I’d already made a fool of myself, so it couldn’t get any worse than that. “My dad is a man of wealth and influence, but I guess his name already told you that. But a parent’s success can weigh heavy on the kid’s shoulders, you know? Everybody expects so much of you. I could live with it up to a certain point but then, on a drinking night with his friends, my ex bragged about intending to marry me for my dowry. I heard about that, but refused to believe it. So I decided to have myself removed from my father’s will as well as from his list of heirs, just to prove everybody that Tony wasn’t a jackass. The only thing I kept was my last name, certain it would soon change anyway. But Tony left me a short while later, of course.” I coughed out the last words and grimaced at the pain in my chest.
“So you gave up your inheritance to clear his honor?”
“You make it sound as if I’m a hero.”
“I’m sure Ruxandra shares my point of view.”
“Ruxandra and I have known each other for some years now. She’d taken me under her wing before this stunt.”
“So she didn’t need reasons to like you.”
“No. She didn’t.” I stared at him, drawn ever deeper into his scrutinizing gaze. Just yesterday I would’ve done anything for such an opportunity to spend time alone with my love interest, but now was the worst moment to be exposed to him. I must’ve looked a complete mess huddled in two dirty coats, with crazy hair, knotting my skeletal fingers like some underage witch. I hurried to derail his focus.
“How about you?”
“What about me?”
“What’s your story? I mean . . . Truth be told, you’re quite popular, yet few people know anything about you.”
He smiled that dashing smile of his.
“Have you inquired and been left wanting?”
“Oh, you have a way of putting things . . .”
“I merely adjust to my interlocutor.”
“And a strong memory, master Novac.”
“Did anybody tell you that or did you draw your own conclusion?”
“I thought it was my turn to ask questions.” I tried to sound cool again, waving a finger at him. He took a step closer, his stare steady on my face.
“I’m not done,” he said. “This Tony guy, you must’ve loved him to sacrifice everything you did.”
“Is that a statement or a question?” I muttered, my eyes locked on his sculptured lips, craving to raise my hand and touch them.
“A question. Are you going to answer it?” he continued softly, as if he wanted to seduce the answer out of me.
“No.” Don’t ask where the word came from, for I do not know. All I knew was that I had to resist him.
“You don’t want to go there?”
“Is this an interrogation?”
“Does it feel like such?”
“It feels shrinky.”
“Oh, that’s by no means what I intended.”
“Do you have a problem with shrinking?”
“Are we changing parts, with you as the inquisitor?”
“We are.” Boy, am I tough. I felt suddenly proud of myself. But something told me Damian Novac would by no means put up with my inversing poles, therefore I waited for him to crush my will. The prospect was thrilling, but the blow never came.
“As long as it satisfies you.”
Satisfies . . . “So? Is it contempt for doctors I sensed there?”
“I’m a step away from the Hippocratic Oath, Alice, so no. It just wasn’t my intention to go shrinky on you. You probably don’t need that.”
“What do you think I need?”
“I don’t presume to know. That’s why I’m asking questions.”
My heart skipped a beat. The irresistible barbarian who’d followed me to the porch turned out to be a shrewd scholar who messed with my head – a seductive combination that shouldn’t exist. I prayed to God the map of my desires – that had everything to do with this refined beast – didn’t display on my face.
“Asking questions is a shrink’s job. Why take on it with me?”
He knitted his eyebrows and pressed those beautiful lips together in a hard expression. Still, my sixth sense told me it wasn’t because I had him locked, but because he was reluctant to reply.
The thought trailed off soon though, his towering closeness heating up my blood so much that the winter night had no effect anymore. I felt as if in a furnace and I breathed too fast, but the spell scattered to the four winds when the front door burst open as if thrown off by draft.
Olympia appeared in the frame, wrapped in a shabby quilt that didn’t succeed in reducing her beauty. Her hair flowed straight and slippery platinum down her chest, her face well tended and her golden, catlike eyes glimmering under thick lashes – gorgeous, truly a queen, despite the dark rings that betrayed how tired she was. She extended her arm to offer Damian the piece of brown clothing that hung around it.
“I thought I’d bring your coat,” she addressed him without even throwing me a look. “You’ll need it, if you plan on staying out here long.” There was a drop of scorn in her voice. Maybe she did have a claim on Damian after all. I swallowed the sudden lump that formed in my throat at the idea.
“Thank you,” Damian said, relieving the weight of his coat off her arm. “You shouldn’t have, though. I was just bringing the girl back in.”
“You go ahead,” I said. Damian had turned his tall, V-shaped back at me and already taken a few steps to the door, making anger and defiance fire up in my stomach. I wouldn’t follow this handsome master like an insignificant, nameless slave, especially not after he’d turned his attention away. “I’ll stay here a while, enjoy the quiet.”
Purpose achieved. Damian made a half-spin and looked down at me, a glint of surprise in his eyes. I couldn’t believe he thought me completely under his spell just after sharing an overly platonic hour in bed and exchanging not thirty minutes worth of dialogue tonight. Maybe he thought I’d follow him like a tail-wriggling dog now, hoping that he’d throw me another bone.
“The wind’s taking up. A blizzard coming, maybe,” he insisted.
A defiant grin curled my mouth. “The door’s not that far away. I’ll make it through before anything sweeps me off my feet.”
Damian seemed to get the hint. He frowned and shook his head, just slightly like at an errant child as he held the door for Olympia and followed in.
I was again alone on the porch. The wind blew sharply through my hair indeed, the cold penetrating to my bones. Maybe it had moments before too, but Damian’s presence had kept me from perceiving it. I looked out into the distance, shivering at the void that built up inside me as strings of white fell from the sky faster and faster, hatching the dark horizon.
It was difficult to keep my head up when I walked back in. Damian stood with his group of boisterous friends in the center of the candlelit room, keeping a reserved smile on as they slapped his back and tempted him with liquor. He seemed relieved to see me, but maybe it was just in my head – he looked at me just once. Hardly a surprise, considering my competition. Olympia danced like a sexy snake around the bearded singer and in Damian’s field of vision, probably spurred by Vodka and Scotch.
I spotted Ruxandra and George on a sheepskin and sat by them. They offered me a cup of white wine thinned with snow – maybe Cotnari, but the label had been peeled off the bottle, so I couldn’t tell for sure. They insisted I accepted a refill and ignored the palm I held up to stop them. Same drill for another refill, as George kept laughing and asking uncomfortable questions like whom I planned to “bed” tonight if Damian wasn’t available, despite Ruxandra’s constantly admonishing him. I dodged him off as well as I could, my eyes darting from Damian to Olympia.
The wine didn’t manage to get me drunk but caused an ugly headache as Olympia’s dance took ever more sensual turns. Other girls accompanied her, their lids heavy from drinking and their moves erratic and ridiculous. But Olympia . . . She danced like a professional ballerina in elastic jeans and tight wool top, throwing her shiny hair back with lascivious moves, spinning and stretching to the bearded singer’s guitar and voice. You can leave your hat on, Joe Cocker. Couldn’t be better. All that training with the mobster sure gave results.
Probably too controlled to watch with a hanging tongue like the others, Damian resorted to throwing her glances once in a while, while sipping from the plastic cup. She kept looking at him, smiling and winking sexily every time she caught his eye, but he knitted his brows, as if something grew heavier on his mind with every minute. Soon, as the blizzard began wheezing and raging, he made his way to the window, looking as if his mind left the lodge, focused on some disturbing memory. His jaw hardened, making his profile seem carved in stone. Good God, was he handsome!
Redirecting my eyes and mind somewhere else almost hurt. I drank cup after cup of oily wine, switching my attention to the bets George and Ruxandra placed on who was going to crack and touch Olympia first.
“Bet ya five cups on Biker,” George babbled.
It took only a glance in the direction of his not too discretely pointed finger to realize he was talking about the older guy with wiry curls who’d brought up my dad’s name earlier, and who now sat drinking and grinning lecherously too close to Olympia’s dancing legs.
“A whole bottle it’ll be the Hector,” Ruxandra said, gesturing to the bearded singer with her cup.
“You’ll fall in a coma only if you think of drinking that much,” George mocked, slipping a skinny arm around her shoulders.
I couldn’t help a smile, since they looked like a frog and an olive-feathered swan in love, although Ruxandra’s swan looks were treacherous in more than one way. Her graceful stature hid the strength of a panther used to hard work in a gym without heating or other such amenities, and her long-lashed, bitter chocolate eyes exuded mysterious wit. I often compared her to the fiery gypsy Carmen, enhanced with the brains of Virginia Wolf.
“You’re underestimating me, Georgey,” she retorted in a seductive mock-tone, “I’m afraid it’ll be you singing naked in the snow, if you take just another gulp.”
Truth be told, George did already have some difficulty rounding his words and his gaze was foggy, his eyes deep-set in his long, narrow face. The sandy hair looked like a mop on top of his head, disheveled as if he hadn’t combed it in weeks. Welcome to the club.
“We’re both too impaired for activities as extreme as betting,” he said with a peace-making wave of his hand, “Let’s stick to black runs.”
Joke aside he kissed her, taking her lips between his thirstily, one at a time. I tried to look away, but it’d been almost a year since my own lips had been touched and longing kept me staring and feeling like a pervert. I cleared my voice, sick with myself. George drew away with a crooked grin and an apologetic shrug.
“Besides,” he turned to Ruxandra again, “Olympia only has eyes and hots for Novac.”
“You promised to teach me poker, George,” Ruxandra interrupted before he could add more damage to my jealous blush, and motioned with her chin to a smoking and cards playing group well over their thirties. “Let’s join.”
I didn’t get the rules and George’s tongue-knotting explanations weren’t any help. None of us had much money, so the loser had to take off a piece of clothing each lost round. After I got stripped to my jersey, I decided to call it a night and made for the small chamber we called a “bedroom”, straining not to glance at Damian.
The leftovers of some candles lay around in pooled wax. Only now did I notice the beds – four of them – were mere bunks, probably with straw under the grey, dirty sheets. Maybe they’d served for construction workers until late autumn. But since the place had been abandoned over the winter, humidity had infested it with the smell of mold. The cinder was weak in the stove.
I dropped on the same bunk I’d lay on with Damian, wishing for the “Crime and Punishment” that had stayed on the train. The good old Russian novel could transport me now in another dimension even more pitiful than ours, where the hero would take another face but Novac’s. He would be battered by fate, cracked and not as handsome, but he’d do. I closed my eyes and relied on my imagination to picture him, but that only sent my head spinning like a carousel. Sleep came in spurts and then fled completely as people began trickling into the room. I counted eight from under half-closed eyelids – still better than counting sheep. Then more followed.
Some sticky woman cuddled behind me, stepping on my legs when I resisted her siege and stiffly held on to my position by the edge. She stank of alcohol and I eventually recognized her as one of the “intruders” – people from the train who’d come to the same shelter, but weren’t part of our group, like the “Biker” who’d exposed my connection to Tiberius Preda.
The other bunks were quickly taken, and the rest huddled on jackets and sheepskins on the floor. None of them thought of feeding the fire, relying on the body heat of their partners or friends to keep warm – as I relied on the lady’s who now snored charmingly by my side. The blizzard intensified, whipping against the window, draught tugging at my forehead. It was a steady roar that mingled with drunken moaning – a couple were surely doing it on the floor.
“Stop!” the girl said, loud enough for me and everyone else in the room to hear it, if they were awake. She sounded familiar, but not familiar enough for me to identify her.
“Aw, you like it rough, then?” The man’s voice was not only too thick, but also feverish, matching his snogging on her skin and the shuffle of jackets under and over them.
“Get off me, you fuckin’ dog!”
My eyes snapped wide open, searching for the scene. All I could see were the girl’s white wool arms and long denim legs moving, the meaning of it edited by my brain – she was trying to protect herself. A few others sprang from their sleeping places, while some mumbled groggy-headed.
A boy managed to light a candle after repeated attempts – I could tell by the lighter sparks and cusses – and, as he brought it close to the screaming girl, I gaped in smitten disbelief.
Olympia’s face was pale and drawn with fear. The rings around her now bulb-like eyes were deep trenches and her top was torn, revealing small, white breasts with pointy nipples.
Others from the main room burst in. I took a few shy steps toward the scene when a man ripped from the bundle, using the confusion to walk casually to the door. His contour was big – maybe a fleshy person, yet not exactly fat – and I knew on the spot it was the Biker who’d watched Olympia dance, as I knew he was her aggressor. With a cry I drew attention and pointed at him, but what followed left me stunned and sweating.
Two boys rushed after him, head first like angry bulls, but the man spun around unexpectedly and slammed his fists into their faces – right first, left second. I flinched, expecting booms, bangs or cracks, yet there was no sound except for the victims’ growls. One of the boys desisted and retreated like a beaten dog, but the thinner one attacked again, hands outstretched, giving out a cry of anger. I imagined him with exploded blood vessels in his eyes and bared teeth, but his zeal was abruptly put to rest when another punch sent him flat on his back. Before the others could react, Biker tried to make for a sprint through the door, bumping hard into a tall frame like a ball against a mound.
Damian. In the light of an oil lamp the bearded singer held behind him, he glared crystal daggers at Biker, blocking his way out. With his face framed by dark, wavy hair, he looked like a beast about to bite. After only a few seconds of hesitation, Biker bent from his waist and thrust himself at Damian. He moved out of the way and caught the rapist by the jacket, pulled him up straight and slammed his head into the doorframe. Hard. I heard wood or bones crack this time. The man groaned in pain and his body turned to jelly. Damian yanked him to his feet and faced him, keeping a grip on his throat.
“In a hurry?”
A streak of blood trickled from Biker’s temple down his cheek and he was clearly dizzy. Damian’s muscles snaked under the pullover as he slammed the rapist’s back into the doorframe.
“I see you’re big on brawling,” Damian hissed, glancing at the two boys who were now supported by their friends. “Why don’t you pick on somebody your own size?”
Biker’s mouth drew in the grin of a nutcase enjoying pain. “I might ask you the same thing.”
Another slam against the doorframe. “Why do you pick up fights, Rocky?”
The man didn’t reply, so other voices rose in chaotic explanations that said everything and yet nothing. “Attempted rape” and “Olympia” made it to my ears though, and certainly also Damian’s. But, to my surprise, it didn’t seem to anger him. On the contrary, his arms fell off Biker and his glare softened a little.
“You’ve had too much to drink. We’ll deal with this when you’re sober.”
That I didn’t like Olympia must be obvious until now, but Damian’s reaction angered me. I stepped in without another thought.
“That’s no justification! This guy is a potential rapist! I’m sure this wasn’t his first time and it won’t be the last, especially if we let him off the hook about it on the wishy-washy grounds that he was impaired.”
Damian’s eyes fell on me with a flash. They had the effect of a blow, I retreated a step.
“You’re quick to judge, Alice.”
I shook my head in disbelief. He couldn’t be so thick. “Quick to judge? Look at that woman, Damian!” I pointed at the group behind me, assuming by the calming whispers that Olympia was still among them. “She’s been abused, whether this asshole went the whole way or not! That leaves scars, ugly, deep scars!”
He didn’t follow the direction I pointed in, but kept staring at me as if I were some clown that compelled him.
“I wasn’t talking about Rocky Balboa here,” he said, “I was talking about me. You’re quick to judge me.”
I held my breath until he went on, low but determined.
“I wouldn’t let this asshole off the hook in a million years. But I won’t smash his face while he’s under the heavy influence of alcohol either.”
Blood flooded my cheeks. His tone told me he saw past my words and actions. I realized it wasn’t only Olympia’s situation that had driven my anger, but I’d also jumped at the first opportunity to label Damian a worthless scum, no better than Biker. I couldn’t live with him being a golden guy and I not good enough for him, so my mind had tried to switch into a comfortable position. The worst part was – Damian knew it before I did.
“If you’d given me the chance,” he continued, “I would’ve said Hector and I would take our friend to the attic and tie him up until his mind clears. And when we get out of here, we’ll turn him in.”
Biker laughed, but there was no amusement in it. Rather madness.
“Turn me in . . . And to whom, Lupan? To the cops, or your friends at BioDhrome, along with all of these ants?”
Damian blinked twice, as if recovering from a blow he hadn’t seen coming. He turned to the man and stared at him for seconds, while the others behind me shuffled and whispered. My eyes darted from him to Biker, seeking sense.
“What is this bullshit?” Damian hissed, that word coming out of his usually elegant mouth shocking to my ears.
“How long, Che-zuh-reh? How long until we start drawing blood this time?”
“That’s not my name.”
The man gave another disturbing laugh. “Of course not.”
Before he could speak again, Damian grabbed one of Biker’s arms and Hector another. I instinctively looked at the latter, hoping something in his face, his reaction, would betray some meaning to all this.
The bearded singer’s features were now clear in the light of the oil lamp he carried in the other hand. He was robust, his small eyes shadowed by bushy eyebrows and he had the nose of an eagle. His skin was the color of ripe olives, which made me think of a gypsy, the rich beard adding to the ominous air. But his face betrayed no other emotion besides anger, there was nothing else I could read or interpret.
Biker tried to jerk from their grasp, but he didn’t stand a chance. There were muffled bumps and cusses as they took him up the creaky stairs to the attic. Though I wanted to follow, my feet wouldn’t take a step, soft and unreliable, my ears thudding with anxiety.
Talking took up pace and volume, and soon there was a fuss about everything: How Olympia was feeling – she got most of the attention again –, the two heroes’ injuries, Biker’s words. A few hours later, as dawn slowly drew a bloody horizon across the mountainous contour, a consensus was reached – the man and his companions were complete strangers to us until yesterday, so there was no way Biker could know Damian or any of us. He was completely drunk, he talked nonsense.
It was easy for my tired mind to accept their conclusion. It made sense. The one question running around in my head right now was another, anyway – How come Damian didn’t lose his temper when he learned Biker had tried to force himself on Olympia? As much as I loathed myself for it, hope bloomed in my chest. Hope that he didn’t care about her, that there was yet nothing between them.
The sleep I got tormented by daylight, snoring from at least a dozen sources and bad breath from just as many mouths ended about noon, with a headache and a sensation of weakness all through my body. I barely carried myself to the kitchen, mind numb and lids swollen.
The voices were disturbingly cheerful. They stabbed my brain and I was tempted to skirt around the overpopulated room, but it contained the only sink where I could wash my face and teeth. Toothbrushes and all kinds of items for personal hygiene had been abandoned on the train – unlike the booze – so I rubbed my teeth with my finger, bent over the rusty, enamel-peeled sink. The water was freezing, smacking me to sharp awareness.
Chattering slowly gained meaning. People gossiped incessantly about last night and the story took thrilling turns for those who’d been too wasted to experience it live. There were versions where Olympia kicked Biker in the balls and Damian punched him senseless. The reason why he and Hector hadn’t barged in along with the others was that they’d been in the attic, looking for lamps and other useful objects that might help us survive several days of isolation or the road to the nearest village or town. I didn’t know if it was any truer than the kick in the balls, but it was plausible.
Groggy and with throbbing temples, I looked for Ruxandra and eventually found her arranging sandwiches on a clay plate – a rarity.
“Wow, I didn’t know people still used these things.” I looked over her shoulder and reached for a bite. She slapped my hand off.
“This ain’t for you, sweetheart. Make your own.” She was stiff and frowning. If I knew anything about her – and I knew her well – she was either preoccupied or nervous.
“Breakfast or clay plate?”
She glanced around, making sure no one was listening.
“I’m taking this to the attic,” she whispered, and I instantly felt like a guilty accomplice.
“You’re most certainly not! If anyone feeds that asshole, it should be someone who can tame him.”
“You mean Novac or Hector? Neither are here, and this is my chance.”
Suddenly Novac? What happed to Damian? “Why should you need a chance?”
“They won’t allow anyone up to the attic. But I need to talk to him, and I don’t know how much time I have until they’re back.”
“Where are they?”
“Novac went with two others to look for the nearest village or town, if they find one within a few miles. They’ll bring back help and food. Hector’s cutting wood in the barn.”
“I’m coming with you.”
She shook her head. “No you’re not. Stay here, make sure no one comes up.”
“Why are you doing this, Rux? What can you possibly want with the guy?”
She looked aside through the window. It was the first time Ruxandra formulated sentences in her head before she spoke them to me, which drew serious alarm.
“Don’t think, Rux, talk! Do you know him?”
“I don’t, but Olympia surely does.”
“Okay . . .” It did come as a surprise, but stayed so for only a moment. It actually made sense. I’d heard most rapists turn out to be men from the victim’s close circle. “But what’s your business with him?”
“He has information I need. Information all of us need.”
Shaking my head, puzzled and a bit annoyed, “All right, let’s take this step by step. What do you know of the guy?”
“If I’m right, his name is Marius Iordache and he’s an investigation reporter with Adevarul.”
I tilted my head back, inspecting her. “And that is important because . . .”
“Because he wrote an article about a certain Cezare Lupan. Che-zuh-reh,” she stressed the pronunciation, looking me hard in the face.
“And why is that important?”
“You still ask? You heard him call Novac by that name yesterday.”
I snorted. “So Damian’s some undercover rock star or something?”
“Don’t mock. Cezare Lupan is the name of a file classified by the Romanian Intelligence Service, the R.I.S. Olympia dug out that article from a ten-year old archive she shouldn’t have had access to,” she spat fast.
That came like a knock in the temple. I shook my head, baffled. “What?”
She looked aside and bit her lip, didn’t answer. I opened my mouth several times before I could speak again.
“And you drop this on me as if nothing?”
“I thought it was nothing until now.”
“Elaborate,” I said, frowning to focus.
Ruxandra crossed her arms, searching for the way to put it. She spoke fast, under her breath, her eyes darting left and right to ensure privacy.
“A few weeks ago, George and I went out to the Bourbon Pub on what was supposed to be a romantic date. Imagine my surprise to see Novac and Olympia there, talking closely over drinks – she had scotch, he had water. I was worried they might be out on a date themselves so I dragged George into it. No need to say that spoled his romantic mood.
“An old-looking newspaper lay on the table, but Olympia stuffed it in her purse before I actually got too close. George felt awkward and pretended to need the men’s room, while I drew a chair and sat at their table without asking for permission. I did ask, however, if they were enjoying their night – my very presence ensuring they weren’t. With a foxy grin Olympia told me she needed Novac’s help with some research, told me the story about the article and the Cezare Lupan file. I did wonder why she’d need Novac’s help, she’s in Journalism, he’s in Med School, but I was soon sure she used it as a lame pretext to get close to him.
“Novac looked uncomfortable, but vertical. Now it occurs to me, Olympia might’ve been past the pretexts and in the blackmailing stage, since she only stopped talking about the article when Novac interrupted her, bluntly, slightly exasperated, and promised he’d meet her again the next evening. I realize the story must’ve been buried deep, away from any public access. A secret that she’d received clues on or that had been simply delivered into her hands.”
Stuck on one idea, I ignored this last one.
“What would Olympia blackmail him for?”
She shrugged and replied plainly, “Sex.”
“Oh, come on, Rux,” I laughed, “Why would someone like her need to blackmail a guy?”
“Because she’s fuckin’ obsessed with him, Alice, that’s why. And he does not want her.”
I bit hard into my lip. “And then? What happened?”
“Then he stood up and left. No good-byes, no kisses, not even handshakes. When I asked her if they were a couple, she grinned and said not yet. Then it was all clear to me.” Here Ruxandra began stressing her words. “Clear that Novac wasn’t interested in her. The way he looked at her, his attitude, he was cold as ice. I didn’t tell you, because I thought it a cheesy story Olympia used as a pretext to spend time with Novac, a story that had nothing to do with him – how was I to know it was about him – and because I knew you’d back off, if you learned how aggressively Olympia was chasing him. And you shouldn’t back off, not because of her. But maybe because of this – a classified file with the R.I.S.”
I stared at her, not sure how to take this.
“That’s not necessarily a bad thing. My dad suspects they have a file on him, too, and he’s not a criminal or something.”
“Do you hear yourself, Alice? We’re talking about the fucking R.I.S.! Your dad is famous, powerful, and he was once an agent abroad, he’s someone worth keeping a file on. What’s Novac’s excuse, he’s just a student.”
She shuffled from one leg to the other, eager to go, while I stared at her, stunned. The others were still busy eating and gossiping, but they would soon burn off their material and eavesdrop for ours.
“Here’s the deal,” Ruxandra said, “We need to know what that article says exactly. If I’m right, there’s no way we’ll ever hear another word on it unless we use this chance. Novac might be a great danger to us all, Alice.” Her eyes darted around once more, focused and stressed. “He’ll take a while until he walks through that door, but Hector will be back any minute now. Just call I need a quilt at the base of the stairs if he wants to come up.”
Before I could reply she rushed to the attic. I was determined to ignore her request and run after her, but I bumped into George on the corridor, who was interested in just that – Ruxandra’s whereabouts. I was tempted to tell him and get him up there too, but I knew she would never forgive me. This was on our “treason” list.
I told him she was out for some fresh air and baited him to the kitchen, saying that food was already scarce. This wasn’t far from the truth, since the little that had been saved from the train was quickly vanishing in grumbling bellies, ravaged by last night’s drinking.
George walked to the short, exfoliated fridge and grabbed two small bags of chips. He threw me one, and only eating and turning Ruxandra’s words on all sides in my head did I realize how privileged I was with my little university life back in Constanta, sipping steaming coffee every morning and eating two meals a day, safe from shady men who posed as poor students but could be anything from Jack the Rippers to Soviet spies. The more I thought of it, the more ridiculous the possibility seemed. So ridiculous, it made me nauseous.
Soon Olympia emerged from the bedroom. She looked tired and sick, her face still white from shock. I got up, swallowed my dislike of her and played the compassionate part, asking if there was anything I could do to help. She sneered me away and soon forced herself to laugh and act jovially with the others. By the time Ruxandra came back, lifting a stone off my heart, Olympia was already the center of attention again, keeping all eyes and ears off us.
“What did he say?” I whispered.
“Nothing much. He’s sober now and won’t talk easily. You have to buy me more time.”
“Forget it. I won’t aid you in exposing yourself to a potential rapist like that, for any reason.”
“He’s wound in rope, Alice, from neck to toes. He’s lying on muddy hay and needs to be baby-fed. He’s harmless.”
“Why take the risk anyway? I’m certain he’s just a drunk loser with no real ammo. I mean, just take a look around us, Rux, there’s no one here worth more than a record for drunk driving.”
The door creaked open and Hector walked in, carrying firewood on a shoulder like a strong peasant, and for a moment Ruxandra’s eyes glinted. Yes, he was much rougher than George and surely didn’t have his sense of humor, but he looked strong and grounded. I guessed Ruxandra was growing up, and her taste in men followed suit. I elbowed her and gave her the Moon-this-is-Houston-do-you-copy line, hoping to turn her away from the ridiculous investigation. But it only served to wake her from a moment’s reverie and switch her law-school best student ambitions back on.
“Just keep him off my trail. If he goes out again, watch him. If he comes back in, keep him talking,” she said, and turned on her heels.
In the afternoon the others went back to drinking and playing cards. Ruxandra mingled with them, fixed on gathering info, while I got close to the lady I’d shared a bunk with last night. I even asked her questions about Biker, since she was part of his group, but the woman and her companions only knew Biker from the train.
He’d given them a short version of his life – he was an investigations journalist indeed, and he’d been divorced for a year. The woman seemed desperate to convince me that she knew nothing of his “practices” and “inner demons”, and told me that she’d assured my “brunette friend” of her full cooperation with the police when the time came, too.
She even gave me a worn book she said Biker had been clutching to his chest when he’d jumped off the derailed train. It was a brain-wrecking, battered-looking work by a Dr. Nathaniel Sinclair about what read like genetics, even though the vocab didn’t quite fit. It seemed archaic, as if written by a brilliant mind way ahead of its time.
Still, it was nothing someone like Marius Iordache had any reason to be interested in, but something he must’ve used on the train to help keep conversation at bay when he no longer wanted it. I only managed the first five pages, frustrated and dreaming of ‘Crime and Punishment’.
When evening grayed the windows, the moment came. Hector walked out the door, and Ruxandra fired a glance at me. I decided to let her have her way – I didn’t stand a chance of persuading her otherwise anyway – and darted after him, right into the sharp wind outside that nailed me on the porch, while Hector hurried to a barn blurred by snowfall.
Night descended fast over the hills. Our shelter was so lonely in the wilderness, so cut off from the world, that only the thought of war felt more threatening than this isolation.
There was no sign of Damian, and fear punched a void into my chest. Anything could’ve happened to him. No, something must’ve happened to him. He was gone at least eight hours. Soviet spy or not, he was still just a man.
As I made out Hector’s frame walking heavily toward me, carrying more wood on his shoulder, I held out the door.
“What are you doing here, babe?” he said hoarsely.
Babe? As in sexy? I pulled a curtain in front of the flattered face my inner self made.
“I . . . I was thinking about Damian and the others. Weren’t they supposed to be back by now?”
He dropped the pile of wood in the hallway and put his hands on his waist, moving it in circles to relieve pain. He grimaced as he spoke, looking down at the pile.
“They shouldn’t have left in the first place. Damian knew the blizzard had only taken a short break.”
My heart jumped.
“Shouldn’t we go searching for them or something?”
Hector stretched and looked up, to the ceiling.
“I admire your courage, babe, but you wouldn’t last an hour out there.”
“I wouldn’t be alone. I’d be with you,” I pushed.
Hector snorted and started toward the main room.
“If it’s Damian you’re worried about, don’t,” he threw over his shoulder.
Shit, he knows I’m into him. Everyone does. I felt exposed, I could see them all watching my midnight fantasies alone in my room, laughing at me. Shame burned in my cheeks and I wanted to hide, but for some reason I grabbed Hector’s elbow. He turned and scowled at me.
“I’m worried about all of them. Why would I think especially of Damian?” I jeered.
“Well, maybe because he saved your life?”
Yes, of course. Anyone would inquire about their rescuer and feel obliged to return the favor. My secret was still safe and my lips glued together to avoid another stupid remark.
Hector’s tone softened as he continued, slowly. “For your peace of mind, Damian can take care of himself, and he’s good with winters. As for the other two, they couldn’t hope for more reliable company, they’re safe.”
Good with winters – so Soviet spy-like, theory might just hold, my inner self mocked, hoping it was true, given the circumstances. But Hector didn’t lose another word on the subject of Damian. I didn’t dig any deeper either, afraid that I’d expose my infatuation with him, so we moved on to discussing survival strategies based on Discovery Channel documentaries.
In order to keep informed of his actions and intentions, I helped him feed the stoves and got a number of splinters in my frail bookworm hands in the process. Then, right after we’d rekindled the fire in the ‘bunk-room’, his moving toward the stairs drew a signal of alarm. He was going to check on Biker.
“I need a quilt!” I yelped. Hector stared at me as if I were a mad cow.
“And you expect me to bring you one?”
I blinked and chuckled like a Barbie-girl, certain I didn’t look good doing that, but his attention left me in just a second. Sudden turbulence and screaming in the main room made his head snap in its direction.
We rushed into the dim chamber where Olympia acted “all epileptic,” according to George’s wide-eyed, clueless explanation. As Hector worked our way close to her through a mass of gathered people, the sight hit me – eyes rolling, body convulsing, her hair clinging to her sweaty forehead.
“Shit, man, the woman’s possessed!” a boy called, jerking away from Olympia as Hector fell to his knees beside her and snatched something from the boy’s shaking hand.
I couldn’t identify the object until he fit it in Olympia’s mouth – a wooden spoon, maybe to ensure she didn’t swallow her tongue. My skin creased and my mind locked on this isn’t happening like a scratched record, while the sight of her limbs slowly gumming in twisted positions burned into my memory. It never really left me.
Ruxandra plunged in through the crowd and dropped by Olympia’s side. After a few attempts at slapping her back to reality, she yelled, “She’s not coming back to her senses!”
Hector stretched an arm to keep her away. “Stop that!”
“Why isn’t she reacting?”
“I don’t know, I’m not a fuckin’ doctor!”
“CPR, mouth to mouth, do something!”
“She’s not in cardiac arrest, you idiotic doll!”
But I was, I realized brusquely. And shuddered. Things Dad had taught me about first aid and health care stormed to the front of my mind as Olympia began moving her head from side to side, giving out feeble sighs.
“Let’s take her to bed, I know how to take care of her,” I suggested to Hector.
Without further questions, he scooped her up and followed me to the bedroom. The others trailed like a flock of curious hens, but Ruxandra’s confident voice stopped them at the door. “This ain’t the Big Brother house, the woman needs to rest.”
Hector laid Olympia on the bed and shuffled the blanket over her.
“Milk and bananas.” My tone was more assertive and matter-of-fact than I’d ever thought myself capable of, which made Hector stare at me puzzled.
“Calcium and magnesium,” I offered a brief explanation, taking a seat by Olympia’s side. Hector didn’t move. I realized he had nowhere to get milk and bananas from, so I added, “Talk to Ruxandra, she’ll figure out what to do.”
“Where will she get them?” Olympia said in a faint voice after Hector left the room.
“She’ll find something in the kitchen or improvise. She’s quite ingenious.”
Few people knew, but Ruxandra had been labeled a genius four years ago, when she’d applied for university. People of her heritage required previous examining and testing before they went to the “higher” circles such as universities, which were reserved for those of nobler – “fairer” – descent.
“I doubt Ruxandra will be able to conjure calcium from thin air. There’s nothing healthy to eat or drink in this place.” Just as faint. And disinterested.
“She’ll get it somewhere. It’s not that rare in nature, even in some unhealthy foods.” I said and lit the leftovers of two candles.
“All I need is to get out of here,” Olympia whispered.
She looked aside, the small flames casting eerie light on her face and sending a strange feeling up my throat. The circles around her eyes were black and deep, and her cheeks were sucked in, as if the person who’d laughed at me just yesterday had fallen heavily ill. I stroked the sweaty tendrils off her face with an automatic impulse. They felt like mine when I had nightmares.
“We all do. Just hang in there, the others will find help. We’ll sure be out of here in the morning.”
“In the morning . . .” A tired smile curled her mouth. “None of us will make it till morning.” She trembled, her lips white and her eyes foggy. She looked delirious.
“Try to get some rest. Fatigue and paranoia go hand in hand,” I insisted and stood up, intent to bring some water and lower her fever back to normal. Otherwise I feared she’d be beyond repair before help came.
Olympia clasped my hand. “Don’t take me for a lunatic, Alice. We won’t survive this, not unless we break them, all of us.”
“Break what?” I grimaced to keep her calm. It failed.
She took her hands to her face, her polished fingernails scratching the skin down her throat, blood trickling in their wake. “The confinements of our flesh . . .”
She’s mad . . . I jolted to her, pushing her hands down in panic. “Olympia, for Christ’s sake!”
Her grin stretched to her ears like the sneer of a skull. The blizzard now whistled beyond the walls as if aligning to Olympia’s growing intensity, making the window chatter from its hinges and a chill course down my spine.
Her voice caught guttural, low stress. “What miracle do you expect by invoking him, that usurper? This isn’t the work of god or devil, but the work of man alone.”
“What are you, a philosophy major?” I tried for a joke to ease the ill temper that seemed to build up in her. But before I could blink, her hands wrapped around my neck, squeezing so tightly that I panicked, sure I’d swallow my throat bones. My tongue pushed out of my mouth, I choked on every attempt to pull in air and this isn’t happening turned on fast forward.
It wasn’t until my ears stopped buzzing, making way for the outraged voices around me, that I was again aware of where I was and what had just happened. After a severe fit of coughing that abused my still sensitive ribcage, anger slowly replaced shock. Still, I didn’t get up from the floor. An ugly truth hit me – I was so darn weak, Barbie could’ve easily disposed of me. I raised my eyes to her.
Ruxandra – probably my savior this time – restrained Olympia, whose sweat-damp hair flew in every direction around her head as she struggled.
“You’re guinea pigs for the strong!” She cried over and over again. Guinea pigs was especially frequent and accompanied by spittle as Ruxandra and George tied her to the bed with wound sheets and some old rope Hector brought from the attic.
I scrambled up and dragged myself to the main room, stumbling over drunkard sleepers – people too wasted to realize anything of what happened around them – and boiling in my own juice. Tripping over bottles lying on the floor, I fell by the terracotta stove, feeling miserable and breaking out in tears. My brain was blocked and refused to think until a cluster of people walked in, led by Hector, the bearded singer. With weak hands but strong pride I wiped the tears and blew my nose in a dirty glove I found groping on the floor.
“I’ve seen this before,” one of them said, his voice too loud. “A cousin of mine, last year. They took her to a hospice, branded her nuts.”
“Did your cousin mention guinea pigs?” George laughed and slapped his back.
“I wonder if you’d still talk shit, if it were your mamma in her place,” Hector croaked.
“My mamma doesn’t strip for mobsters who beat her into madness,” George reacted with a scowl.
“Hey, I hear neither did Olympia,” another one chimed in, although he also sounded amused, “She used to go to the club as a client, and her dances were meant for the delivery boy, namely Novac.”
“I guess it caught the wrong guy’s attention.” That was George again. “By the way, Hector, is it true that Temptress and Muscle Tank are having an affair behind the mobster’s back?”
Now that’s direct. I perked up my ears.
“You ask dangerous questions, George,” Hector replied.
Great. Just what I needed to glaze over my wrecked self-esteem – Damian and Olympia as protagonists in a forbidden love story. Apparently Ruxandra was wrong, or her people reading skills were damaged – Damian was into Olympia, blackmail or not. She was a beauty, there was no arguing that, so doing her couldn’t be that unpleasant. My heart ached, but I used the moment to strengthen the decision of letting go. I’d go for someone bald and fat like Olympia’s sugar daddy next time, but broke.
Hector’s thick fingers slid over the cords in a lilt melody, as if to block further inquiries. But his tactics had its downside. The group changed the subject but kept on opening one too many bottles – impressive how much they’d saved from the train and carried through the snowstorm like veritable addicts.
Soon the talking turned loud and chaotic. I could only make out isolated words but no sentences, while the sharp smell of alcohol gave me a headache. Just as the party went wild again, Ruxandra dropped by my side with an exhausted groan, resting her arms on her knees. Judging by her tucked up sleeves she must’ve gone hard on Olympia. I didn’t pity the girl, honestly.
“Olympia got tired of struggling and fell asleep. No amount of calcium or magnesium could’ve stilled her, and we don’t have any anyway, so I put a bag over her head. Let her inhale her own CO2 until she turned into a vegetable. I know, it sounds horrible, but it was for a noble cause. How’re you feeling?”
“Fine,” I lied. “Thanks for getting her off me.”
“Oh, George helped.” She dismissed the subject, but urgency was obvious in her face as she tried to touch on another. “Alice, we need to talk.”
I couldn’t care less right now about what she had to say, sinking in the pain Damian’s affair with Olympia caused me. I was sinking in obsession, I was aware of it, my cheeks burned with jealousy.
“You were wrong,” I said, unable to contain myself, “Damian and Olympia do have something going. Either her blackmailing strategy worked, or she’s just irresistible.”
“Alice, we have more pressing matters to discuss now,” Ruxandra insisted.
“What’s pressing is that you weren’t straight forward.”
“Now hold on.” She put up her palm. “I honestly don’t believe he’s interested in her. What I really think is that he’s being halfway nice to keep her from spreading what she knows. Or . . . At the most . . . He’s been sleeping with her to ensure she keeps her mouth shut.”
These words shot a stinging image into my head, an image of Damian’s muscled, bronze body snaking between Olympia’s long, toned legs. I couldn’t hold back a pained sigh.
“You shouldn’t have let me get my hopes high.”
“I honestly thought you had a chance there.”
“Just look at me, Ruxandra! I’m a bad a joke! Do you think me so dumb as to really compare myself to Olympia, or you, or others in your league? Are you dumb enough to do that?”
Ruxandra pulled me to my feet, keeping a tight grip on my shoulders.
“It’s that bastard Tony you have to thank for this arsenal of complexes,” she grunted through her teeth. “I can’t wait to get back home so I can seek him out and make him suffer.”
“I’m just looking truth in the face.”
“You’re not ugly, Alice, you’re a very pretty girl!”
“That’s right, girl. Not woman.”
“Oh, stop, please.”
“Maybe that’s why Damian rejected me when I tried to turn him on in the bedroom. I must’ve made him feel like a pedophile.” My whole face caught fire as I confessed.
“Or maybe he respects you too much to do you in a filthy bunk! That’s what my gut tells me.”
“Oh, drop it, Rux, that’s just sugar coating. He simply doesn’t want me. I might as well strive to plant a flag on the moon.”
“Alice, your ruined self-esteem really has to wait,” she said, exasperated.
A huge frame passing the threshold drew my attention and my resolve to quit the chase for the unattainable barbarian threatened to tumble. Damian stopped in place, his tresses, eyebrows and stubble adorned with snow, a heavy sheepskin cladding his broad shoulders. Another guy limped and hung on him like a cloth on a tree, seemingly ravaged not only by the blizzard but also shock, while their other companion stared at Damian as if he were Batman for whatever reason.
Before anybody got to utter one word, the alarmingly wretched guy hanging on Damian crouched from his waist in spasms, throwing up as if all his organs constricted. Hector dropped the guitar and jumped to his feet, hollow wood and cords resounding against the floor.
“Dragged, man!” the guy rattled, “Those shits, they fucking dragged me!” He convulsed again, the foul smell of his vomit reaching my nose. It didn’t seem to bother Hector though, who grabbed his shoulders, straightening him up.
Damian intervened, his arm mowing Hector’s hands off the wretched boy. “Just gather all sharp objects you can find in this place.”
“Don’t be scarce of words now!” Hector urged.
“There’s no time for this,” Damian said with a serious frown. He looked tense, terribly tense.
“They didn’t even look like people, man, but fuckin’ animals,” the wretched boy babbled. Then another spasm and another violent throw-up – the only sound in the room. I forgot to breathe.
For quite a few moments I was convinced this was some sick joke, not feeling anything, not reacting, not moving, but seeing every line on the boy’ bent profile, every fold on his leather-patched coat, as if my senses had sharpened in a split second.
He didn’t reply to the low, puzzled “Who?” coming from a few other guys with some presence of spirit, and it wasn’t until Hector asked Damian a direct, “What the hell is he talking about?” that an intelligible, however reluctant answer came.
“We found a village in the valley, not far from here. Our knocks on doors were left unanswered, but we knew there were people there. They watched us from behind curtains.”
“They looked like the eyes of beasts, man!” the wretched boy shrieked, while Damian settled him on a rickety chair in the corner, assisted by Ruxandra.
“The police station, the church, everything looked deserted, as did the house by the mayor’s office,” Damian continued, his jaw rippling – He was angry. Maybe anger was his mechanism to keep fear at bay, or at least that’s the first thing that crossed my mind. “The door was open, screeching in the wind, so we figured the place was uninhabited. We were right. It was cold, the furniture splintered, but there was old food in the basement. Old food is better than no food, so we took the safest provisions, cheese and jarred vegetables. We started back.”
“We were almost here when something lashed around my leg, man!” the wretch intervened again, neurotic. “Hadn’t it been for Novac, they would’ve dragged me off the cliff!”
“How did you fuckin’ do that, dude?” their other companion chimed in, still looking at Damian like at a god made flesh.
“We had to leave behind everything that burdened us, so we could move faster,” Damian cut the guy off, pretending not to have heard him. “We brought back no provisions, so we’ll have to leave this place as soon as possible.”
Noticing Damian wasn’t going to lend him either attention or the opportunity to speak again, the astonished guy went on to the others like a disciple spreading a faith.
“He broke it! He fuckin’ broke it, dude!” he exclaimed, mimicking breaking bread – or necks – with his hands, looking like the King’s Fool. An instant later, his shoulder disappeared under Damian’s palm.
“Talking makes little sense now,” Damian said, “What we need to do is gather all bottles in a pile.”
Just a few more moments and comments, then he and some others, including the Fool and Hector, crouched down, and by the slivering sound I could tell they gathered scattered bottles. What that had to do with the whole thing, I didn’t know. But no one dared question the measure out loud, probably still chewing on what had been said.
“We’re fuckin’ dead.” The wretched boy breathed slower now, his lids falling heavy. Warmth made exhaustion show in his square face, his whole body mellow in the chair, his chest stained with greenish vomit. It was painful only to look at him. I couldn’t keep this isn’t happening from starting another solo in my head as it slowly dawned on me – someone had tried to kill them.
It took a while until everybody processed what was said and reality kicked in – some came to their senses with headshakes, some with rapid blinking and a few with hysteria. As for me – I felt rooted in the ground.
The place crowded as the others joined from the bedroom where they’d left Olympia, and an avalanche of questions started, ranging from, “What’s this all about?” to painfully insensitive, “What’s that got to do with the booze?”
“Broken bottles can be used as weapons,” I heard Damian’s bass voice reply, his forehead now higher above all others across the room. “Like screwdrivers, cutlery and pens.”
“Why this mobilization?” George said.
“They followed us back here, man,” the wretch said, his voice low and shaky. “They wheezed and growled in the dark, always hidden but always close. Those shits, they’re lurking out there.”
“Maybe they were wolves!” George returned, his pitch high with panic.
Damian cut in with a grave certainty that made my skin crease, “Those were no wolves.”
I slowly walked backwards, out of everybody’s way, until something bumped in my back. By the wide, hard edge I knew it was the windowsill, which is why I didn’t turn. I pressed against it, keeping my arms across my chest and my fingers hooked in the puffer sleeves. Damian’s explanations to panicked questions flew by me. I heard the sound of his voice but not the meaning of his words.
Despite my obvious weakness for him, I had no doubt all of this was his fault. It was either his shady background, as Ruxandra called it, or his affair with a mobster’s woman that had brought this upon us. Defending his honor or whatever, the cheated man must’ve sent his thugs to settle accounts with Damian, while the rest of us were just collateral damage – and Olympia had known this. She’d expected it. “None of us will make it ‘till morning”.
But then again, would even a mobster go to such lengths for an unfaithful lover? Would even a mobster go as far as to derail a train full of neutral people in snowy mountains, forcing them to take refuge in a remote cottage, emptying a whole village and populating it with his thugs only to get back at a rival? Why, when he could’ve staged anything in Constanta? This theory hung by a thread. But the other one . . .
Whatever villains the R.I.S. hunted might just have that kind of power, which they would use for the right stake.
Only one detail stayed the same in both cases – Olympia had known. “This is not the work of god or devil, but that of man alone”. “None of us will make it till morning.” Unfortunately I couldn’t get to her now to press for more info – The way out of the main room was blocked by chaotic movements and shrieking voices.
My eyes rested on the wretch, who still sat in the corner chair and in my field of vision. Ruxandra was bent over his chest and rubbed it with a cloth, but he didn’t seem aware of her. He had the sickening pallor and lost stare of a dead man.
I hoped he would react somehow and come out of his shell at least a little bit, but not a muscle moved on his face. He stared as if through me. Maybe he didn’t even acknowledge my presence there, and I misinterpreted the direction of his gaze. I followed it and turned to look behind me, expecting four small windowpanes separated by wooden lines in the shape of a cross.
Suddenly, two glowing circles like eyes in a black picture flashed into mine and made me give out a sharp scream. I rushed backwards, waving my hands in a desperate attempt to cling to something, anything, and soon a wall of bodies replaced the gleam that had sent me frantic.
My brain banged against my skull for moments until I realized someone was shaking me, their bony fingers stabbing my arms through the puffer and wool. The physical sensation brought me back to awareness.
George’s long, thin face was an intermittent vision as I blinked fast, trying to gather myself. His words were muffled and the first thing I clearly heard was, “Are you going mad, too, Alice?”
“The window! I saw someone!” I squealed.
The wretch moaned in his corner and my head snapped to him. His eyes were wide with fear, fixed on the pane, while his body struggled with invisible enemies, the chair screaming under him.
A commotion started, and before long people claimed, “There’s nothing here.” I pushed George aside but still hung on him for support as I craned my neck to see the panes. My legs were jelly-soft and barely kept me standing.
Indeed, darkness spread over the window, only the snow in its corners glistening like the veil of a ghost.
“I saw someone,” I whispered. Someone, I was sure of it. And that someone was indeed no wolf. The eyes had been at the level of mine, which meant whoever was out there was a tall person. Outside the ground was much lower than inside the lodge, I’d realized that when I’d been out on the porch. No animal standing on its back legs could have as much as reached the sill.
“Are you sure?” George asked.
I already had second thoughts – not as to the glowing eyes, but to whether or not I should insist on it. Bottom line was: we were all in deep shit, but panic was a bad advisor.
“No. I started when I bumped against the window, the rest could’ve been just in my head.”
“For fuck’s sake, Alice, you almost gave me a heart attack.” George scorned.
“We have enough pressure already,” another one called, his face hidden in the group.
I shut out all reproaches and welcomed Ruxandra’s comforting presence by my side.
“This whole thing is getting to us all,” she said. She allowed me some time to gather myself, but the small slaps on my hands and face were a clear sign of urgency.
“What did you get out of Marius?” I asked as soon as I could master my voice. I, too, had an uncontrollable urge to find out what the hell had put us in this situation.
Ruxandra searched my eyes sharply, made sure I could stand, then slapped me once more, lightly.
Before I could blink she started toward the door, snaking her way to the kitchen. I hurried to catch up with her down the narrow hallway, the floor crackling under my feet as I bumped into people who talked feverishly about what was to be done and how we could escape this frozen prison. At least those were the bits I caught.
We found Damian and Hector forging the same kind of plans with a few others – including George, to my surprise, who listened with a serious look on his face, nodding. He seemed proud to be a part of their closest gang, regardless of the extreme occasion.
Damian stood with his back at the counter, knives and other metallic, rusty objects lined on it, the sheepskin coat folded on a chair by his side.
“ . . . not before Hector and I have scouted the area,” he concluded as we came in.
I wanted to punch myself for how my heart fluttered each time I laid eyes on him, no matter how shitty the situation. I’d already waved a finger at my inner self and decided that Damian Novac was a no-no. I reminded myself that, if we survived this mess he’d put us in, he would only have me toss and turn at night, obsessing about the smallest gestures he made and the most meaningless of glances – like I had until now. The man was serious trouble, no matter from what angle I’d look at him.
Sick of myself, I kept a low profile by the door, but Ruxandra went straight to the men.
“Have you seen this before?” she interrupted Damian, her tone accusatory.
“Seen what?” Damian’s deep, forbidding tone shattered Ruxandra’s determination, but she picked herself up soon enough.
“Damian, you’re keeping things from us and– ”
“I thought you wanted to ask, not impute something,” he interrupted.
Ruxandra brought a fist to her mouth and cleared her voice, probably buying time to rephrase once more. As she spoke, she sounded defiant. “I see, this is a game. Okay. Let’s play. Why did you have us gather all objects that can be used as weapons?”
“So we know exactly where to reach in case we need to protect ourselves, and not grope around,” he replied as if he were prepared for the question.
“Why not simply arm everybody?”
“Because I don’t want you panicking at the slightest sound and hurting each other before somebody actually bursts in.”
“You expect people to barge in on us?”
Damian’s eyes flashed angrily as he spoke the next words.
“People,” he stressed, as if saying a name, “chased the three of us from the village back here. They tried to kill one of us. A lash whipped out from the darkness and wound around his ankle. They dragged him, his body hit against trees and rocks until he came to a precipice, where he almost saw his end. Yes, I think People will eventually barge in on us, and they’ll bring some hellish killing techniques with them.” His voice was steady, but frustration and anger lurked deep in it.
“You make it sound like People are pretty good at what they do. And yet here you are, Damian, all three of you. Why do you think you made it back?”
“What are you implying, Ruxandra?”
“I’m implying People want us all in one place,” she said, raising her chin and taking a step closer to him. “I’m implying they were after us from the beginning. They were after the whole group, whom they want to take down in one blow. I’m implying they can take us down in one blow. I don’t think they need guerilla tactics, but just wanted to scare you, so you wouldn’t leave this place again. You made it back because People let you. They chased you back to your cage, and now they’re waiting for the right moment to attack, which is why they haven’t stormed in after you. You didn’t bother to block the door, so I think you know this damned well. You know what to expect.”
Damian’s face was expressionless. “And your question is?”
“Am I right?”
“It doesn’t sound like you still have a doubt.”
“To make the question clearer still: Have you met People before, Damian?”
His features hardened even more. “I have.”
My jaw literally dropped but Ruxandra straightened up, even more accusatory. “Then why don’t you tell us what to expect now?”
“Because it won’t do you any good.” His eyes swept over us, the people cluttered in the doorstep. I thought his glare rested on me a second longer than on any other face.
He grabbed the sheepskin and started to the door. Toward me. I melted on my feet, cursing myself silently. How could I be so taken with him, even now? Stupid bimbo!
Hector followed, and George scurried after them like a pet. Those of us who clustered in their way drew aside. My heart smote me as Damian passed by, leaving a trace of cool air and fir scent behind. The others trailed after them like tide, leaving Ruxandra and me gawking at each other.
“What was that?” I mumbled, walking slowly to her.
She shook her head and dropped on her buttocks by the fridge.
“I’ve been trying to tell you, but you wouldn’t listen. We’re in serious trouble, real trouble, Alice.”
I sat by her side, my brain buzzing with increasing alarm, now that Damian wasn’t close enough to keep my reason numb. Still, I refrained from pressuring Ruxandra with words and resorted to watching her intently. She looked stricken and took a while of eye darting and head scratching before she spoke, measuring her words.
“Getting Marius Iordache talking wasn’t easy, you know? He was suspicious even about the food, paranoid even. It was hard work persuading him it wasn’t poisoned, I had to eat half of it myself. Now part of me wishes I hadn’t succeeded.” She shuddered hard.
“Is his story that ugly?”
“You don’t begin to imagine.”
“You know who People are, Rux?”
She inhaled deeply, trying to act calm, but she knotted her fingers nervously.
“Ten years ago, young Marius Iordache covered a hot story that should’ve made headlines – He was the first to discover and research what he hoped would make his career, what he called the Cezare Lupan case. However, the R.I.S. filed it classified, then shot down Marius’ story, stating it was all sensationalism. Marius lost all credibility.
“He archived the article at Adevarul and started his own investigation, determined to prove the story real and cleanse his name, but always ran into a dead end. The audience labeled him paranoid and obsessed with conspirators when he came out on TV, alleging the R.I.S. had switched off all sources and covered the truth. He became the fool of the year, which is why he eventually dropped the matter, but never forgot it. Luckily, being the boss’ nephew, he didn’t lose his job, not to this day.
“Now here’s the first interesting turn: A month ago, Olympia contacted him. They met in Bucharest, where she told him she knew all about the story, she’d even seen the Cezare Lupan file and she could help him prove it all real. Marius, still obsessed with the matter, agreed to give her the archived article – she insisted on the original paper – in exchange for a look at the file, which she was supposed to make a copy of. She didn’t keep her word and went off radar. He got a hold of her in Constanta, told her he’d be a thorn in her rib until she fulfilled her promise.
“The attempted rape was the first subject we began to bond on up in the attic. Marius alleges that Olympia, cornered by his presence in Constanta, led him on. She even invited him on this trip, facilitating access to Cezare Lupan himself. Marius was thrilled, and agreed to keep his identity secret ‘til the ‘right moment’ – if Cezare discovered who he was, he might’ve not come along or disappeared. Once here, Olympia subtly came on to Marius and later staged the attempted rape to make him look the villain, so nobody would trust anything he might say about her. She punched him in his weak spot – credibility.”
Makes sense. Last night she’d come with him to the room and lay by his side without objection. Objection came late, very late, but that still didn’t get the rapist off the hook. The asshole should’ve stopped at her first no.
“Get to the point, what was the story?” I urged her, feverish with impatience.
“This is how Marius summarized the article: In 1995, fifteen-year-old Cezare Lupan got on a train. His purpose: seasonal work abroad. He never came to destination, though. The train broke down in a village close to the border – somewhere around Oradea, but still the middle of nowhere – and he checked at an old inn, which offered free lodging for him and eleven other youths who travelled from different places and for various reasons. What they had in common? They’d all transferred to that train in Bucharest, left home at a young age and had almost no contact to their families. A few days from that, a farmer found the place empty and messed up, there were stains of blood on the floor and on rags, and the windows were broken. It looked as if a massacre had taken place, save for the main element – bodies.
“One year later, Cezare burst into a hunting lodge in the Apuseni Mountains, surprising a ranger, who fortunately stopped to think before he reached for his rifle. Cezare’s clothes were torn, smeared with mud and blood. His hands were callous from scrambling through dirt and stone, he looked and behaved like a wild beast. The ranger, used to wild beasts I guess, managed to reason with him, contacted the authorities and gave him in.”
“Marius says all this?” My voice cracked.
“It’s what he wrote ten years ago.”
“And what else? What had happened at the inn?”
“Apparently there was an ambush on the inn the night Damian – or Cezare – spent there. None of the others were ever found, dead or alive. But the most shocking part was actually in the headline, which I saved until now, because it only makes sense in the context: Cezare Lupan escapes the hands of organ dealers.”
I froze. “What?”
“Yes. The article concludes the operation had been orchestrated by criminal corporation, BioDhrome. They allegedly dissolved soon after the police started on their trail, but Marius is convinced that’s bullshit. They were a corp, much too big to evaporate in thin air just like that. He’s convinced they used their power and money to . . . transform. He’s also sure there was more than organ trafficking involved, experiments on humans. It was these experiments conducted by BioDhrome that became a matter beyond police competence, a matter of national security. A matter for the R.I.S. and the Military. Marius tried to go deeper on this but, as I said, he found all ways shut. The R.I.S. blocked all his attempts, as I told you, and discredited him.”
An electric wire seemed to shoot through my heart, briefly but sharply, leaving me now just baffled.
“And you believe him all this?” I said, grinning like an idiot. This isn’t happening was on replay.
“And why not, Alice? His account is the only thing that makes sense since we got off that train, plus that it fits so well with what Olympia said that night at the Bourbon. Now she acts crazy, Marius almost loses his mind, people try to kill us with no obvious reason and Damian’s acting all mysterious. What else could explain all this, if not that they’re after unfinished business with Cezare Lupan, as well as our kidneys and livers?”
I stared blankly at her, while she went for a bag of snacks. Her gnawing was loud, and she looked as if she chewed on her own nerves.
“It can’t be,” I shook my head, “It can’t be happening.”
“You’re in denial,” she sneered through her teeth.
“Cezare . . . Is that his real name?” It sounded so out-of-this world, even coming from my own mouth.
“Could be. The R.I.S. might’ve put him in a witness protection program and given him a new one.”
“Witness protection program? You’ve seen too many American movies.” Or I was indeed in denial. My reason was on pause.
“The R.I.S. is the best disciple of the K.G.B. They do it much better than Hollywood.”
The grip of shock on my brain started to loosen against my struggles to remain under its anesthetic effect, and my mind began to wrap around the hideous reality bit by bit. A paralyzing fear gripped me.
“This is some mind-blowing shit, Ruxandra . . . Some serious shit.”
“You bet your ass.”
I was pretty hard to surprise when it came to crime, since burglars, armed gangsters, pimps and hookers were an issue in Constanta as they were in as good as all cities of Romania. I was used to walking among such people every day in the streets. I’d gone to school and played hopscotch with their kids until they’d gone rogue, like their parents. Ruxandra herself was the daughter of a gypsy shylock with a belly like a balloon and a threatening dark frown, who’d insisted that Ruxandra remain illiterate, and planned her marriage for the age of twelve. Luckily, her mom had run away with Rux and her sister and fought for their education. Whenever Ruxandra disclosed her roots – which happened as often as a solar eclipse – jaws dropped and eyes popped. I guess we both strived to bury our origins, and that had welded our bond. Her sister, Saveta, on the other hand, was not at all ashamed with her heritage, but she didn’t wear it printed on a t-shirt either.
Yet organ dealers and illegal medical experimentation were a completely different level. Derailing trains and making people disappear without a trace meant power. A whole lot of power. Something we couldn’t fight against. A huge organization, a monster, its claws drilling deep in the Romanian underground.
“If they want our kidneys and livers, they’ll get them, Ruxandra!” I squeaked, “We don’t stand a chance!”
“Pull yourself together!” She slapped my back, then jumped up and grabbed one of the metal objects from the counter. Only when she pressed it in my palm did I realize it was a short, rust-adorned screwdriver.
“What are you doing?”
“Keep it under your sleeve,” she said, tucking a knife under her own.
“But Damian said – ”
“I don’t care what he said. Right now, I don’t trust anyone in this place any more than I do People out there.”
“Rux, you’re losing it.” The words were careful to leave my mouth. She looked as manic as Olympia had just a few hours earlier, save for the dark circles around the eyes.
“Oh, you think?” she snapped, her cheeks red and her brows scrunched. “There are three people here who knew about BioDhrome – Damian, Marius and Olympia. Not to mention that Hector’s been conspicuously calm about this whole situation, too. Now you mark my words: one of them has drawn us in this trap. One of them works with those butchers hand in hand. So I’m not following a suspect’s orders. And neither are you.”
As soon as she finished her sentence she grabbed my wrist – rather roughly – and technically dragged me to the main room. It was loud and crowded, but she elbowed our way close to the center, where Damian and Hector answered questions worse than in a press conference with Mike Tyson. George tried for the anchor role, appointing the next questions, but no one minded him. He looked overwhelmed and utterly useless. Ruxandra shot a few of her own arrows in the mix, but they didn’t hit anyone’s ears, not until she managed to clasp Hector’s arm.
“This is crazy,” she yelled, “What’s the plan?”
“There is no plan,” Hector yelled back. “We just get out of here as soon as Damian and I have checked the area.”
“Out? Fucking out? Into what, chains, knives or bullets?”
Angered, Hector pushed her into a mass of bodies. I was in the front line, her shoulder squashed my face.
“Stay here, if you prefer gas.”
“What do you mean, you troll?” she shouted after him, but he was already too far. He talked to George and pointed in our direction, making the latter nod seriously. Proud to have gotten a direct assignment, he hurried over and led us to the putrid sofa by the stove.
“Gas, yeah,” George said as if he’d lived through this before himself. I couldn’t decide if his composure was admirable or just plain ridiculous. “They’ll throw in a gas that’ll blast our adrenaline levels so high, that we’ll jump at each other’s throats.”
“We’ll fucking kill each other?” Ruxandra shrieked.
“Some would end up dead, others severely wounded,” he cut her off, dropping the loaded meaning on us like a bedrock. “In any case, it would go fast. When no one, or just too few still stand, they’ll barge in. They’ll shut down the survivors and take the bodies.”
Hellish killing techniques.
“Novac told you that? Why didn’t he fucking do it from the start?”
“You use that word a lot,” George admonished.
“Oh, don’t you try to educate me, George, I’m too old for that shit!”
“Mind your fucking tone!” Before I knew it, he slapped her hard with the back of his hand. Ruxandra’s head snapped sideward. Out of instinct, I jumped up and shielded her with my palms up, bitten by George’s sudden violence that showed in his face as if his arms had never been around her and his lips never on hers.
“For Christ’s sake, what’s gotten into you, George?”
He skirted around me, grabbed Ruxandra’s shoulders and pushed her against the wall.
“You started this, bitch! You talked too much in front of too many, now look at the panic around you! They assaulted him with questions, he gave them answers, and all hell broke loose!”
“At least you know the shit you’re into, you slobbering moron!” Her knee found its quick way between his legs. George crouched in pain, with both hands on his jewel. His face was a swollen red, his eyelids wrinkled as he pressed them shut. Ruxandra clutched his nape and the same knee kicked his mouth, while I watched dumbfounded.
The next instant George was hauled into the wall. The attacker immediately flung himself into the picture, too, hands stiff like claws, hair messed up, his nostrils almost fuming – the wretch. He was no longer a zombie, but a crazed animal, holding its prey in place and looking eagerly around for something to grab, something to hurt with – Ruxandra had taken care of him when he’d come back from the horror blizzard, he must’ve felt protective of her and madly furious of George. Out of reflex, I followed his scowl. Nothing, there was nothing around us.
It hit me. There was nothing weapon-like, because Damian and Hector had gathered everything in a pile, which was nowhere within reach. The measure was never meant to provide us with easier access to weapons, but to keep us away from them. Like a logical wire leading to it, the next thought was of the gas. One glance around the room was enough to see a number of heated arguments and fights had started everywhere. So the poison was already in. It had been in, probably in smaller check-doses, all along, maybe even on the train. It had been in yesterday, when Marius had punched those boys and provoked Damian. Tonight, when Olympia had plunged into fits of hysteria and attacked me. It hadn’t been the alcohol consumption that had led to those clashes, but the gas.
But where did it come from? I spun in place, getting dizzy as I searched for the source all over the room. Windows closed. The door to the corridor open, most certainly the ones to the bedroom and kitchen, too, but the entrance door was surely shut. There was no draught. Stoves. It was the stoves.
In a fraction of a second my brain spat out thoughts that fell into place like triple aces on casino machines. Out, we had to get out, but my mouth didn’t bother to open. Not a soul would listen to me, a flimsy creature with a little voice, it didn’t take a genius to know that. I didn’t even present enough interest for anybody to attack me.
Damian was my best hope of making myself heard, but he wasn’t easily reachable. He’d placed himself between two of his square friends, whose fists were already balling by their thighs, ready to jump at each other’s throats. He’d taken the posture of a bouncer, his gaze sharp as he tried to talk sense into them. The men turned red with violent impulse against him, months or even years as adulating Betas and Omegas had accumulated bitter envy that now fought its way out. Still, even under the influence of whatever substance floated unperceivable in the air and put them into fight mode, they didn’t dare move against him. They knew better.
Before I could reach them, a mass of hysterical people poured in my way. The noise was now deafening. I lost Damian from sight and hurried to move out of the congestion before people’s eyes fell on me along with their wrath. My heart pounded with fear, my eyes wide and my mind alert. There was not a friendly face or tone left, every single person everywhere I looked had turned into an animal. By this time maybe even Damian and Hector.
As I found refuge by the wall, I realized my hand was cramped, clutching hard to a thick handle – the screwdriver. Air, I had to let air in, aware that, soon, the screaming and kicking all around would either freeze me in panic and some unseen blow would knock me down, or that I’d end up hurting someone with the screwdriver myself, maybe even causing irreparable damage in a desperate attempt to stay in one piece.
Not another thought and I was at the window, the one closest to the stove, gripping to the handles and trying to jerk the frame open when my eyes struck against the black pane. I let out a startled cry.
There they were again, those eyes, now clear and perfectly defined. Like the glare of an animal caught by camera flash, they glowed bright, only that the color was clear as laser – Blue. The pane broke instantly with a splintering sound, followed by a sharp pain in my knuckles. Without realizing, I’d punched the window. Then the fog of shock dissipated, stripping the truth.
Mine. Those were my own eyes. I squeezed my hand above the cut to numb not only the pain, but also the dizzying swirl of automatic connections in my head. Luminous eyes – was it an effect of the gas?
The next thing I knew, a furious groan cracked in my ears. In the blink of an eye George gripped a pointy shard that hung from the frame like a lonely fang, and stabbed his opponent in the throat with it. I screamed in shock as thick, dark red blood poured from under the hand the wretch took to his wound, between his fingers and down his wrist. He opened his mouth in distorted awareness that life drained out of him, his eyes blasted open, the nerves in his eyeballs seemed to explode like red lightning while he rattled. Desperate. Dying.
Maybe there was still time. I flung the puffer coat off me and jolted toward him, intent to press the material on his wound and stop the bleeding, but bumped into George’s arm that punched into my stomach like a barrier of bone. Struggling for breath, I managed to pull myself up. It was too late. The wretch lay on the floor, crouched and coughing out blood, the sound of it drilling through my brain.
Time lost meaning. I stood there, watching transfixed how this young man died. I didn’t want to see it, nor could I look away. Every second of his suffering imprinted in my head as everywhere around fists punched, windows broke, men and women growled like beasts.
Windows break. My fault. This boy’s death was on my hands. Trying to stop the mayhem, I’d only fulfilled the prophecy. This time too, some peasant would find the place torn apart, windows broken, blood smeared on walls and rags that parents would clutch to their chests as they’d fall to their knees and cry out to heaven in despair. It seemed BioDhrome had foreseen this scenario – that someone would go for the windows, trying to let in air. Maybe it had gone down the same ten years ago. Maybe they did this so often, that they had as much experience with it as any expert with their craft.
Exposure. Exposure was the only chance to get the angry beasts everybody had become out into the open, out into the cold winter air that would slap their wits back into their heads. It was a long shot. But it was the only shot. Enough planning.
I turned on my heels and sprinted to the main door, grabbing coats, jackets and arms in my way, pulling hair, bumping into brawling bodies, as many of them as I could. I don’t know by what miracle fists hit only the air behind me, by what miraculous instinct I ducked down before anybody could grab me. Maybe fear had really kicked my adrenaline level so high that my feet moved like propellers and my reflexes sharpened. I threw the main door open and cast myself into the raging, white blizzard that felt like needles against my skin. Sight instantly blurred with tears, visibility was reduced to inches, but my legs kept running as if a whole murderous army chased me.
I hoped it did. I hoped they’d gotten out of that slaughterhouse disguised as a lonely cottage, a wooden ghost in the Carpathians. I hoped I’d angered them enough to have them rush after me, screeching their teeth, thirsty to see blood drain from my body like it had from that poor boy. Thirsty to see me squirm in dying pain. But I also hoped that, by the time they caught me, they’d be themselves again. This wasn’t supposed to be a suicide mission, but a wake-up action.
The snow was quicksand to my legs, it sucked me down, but despair fueled my otherwise lazy muscles and propelled me forward. Every glance I threw behind revealed nothing, the storm was a wall both in front as well as behind me. It roared loud, swallowing all other sound. There might have been wolves just meters away, I wouldn’t have known, I wouldn’t have heard them howl or growl.
Suddenly, something thick, heavy and metallic closed around my ankle like an iron fist, and jerked my leg from my hip, causing such pain that my heart stuttered out of rhythm. I fell flat on my face. Before I could spit out the snow in my mouth, a force yanked me in a pull. I snaked backwards, dead trees, roots and stones rushing by, while I desperately tried to hook my fingers in the ground.
Snow was scraping glass to my palms and I knew when a couple of fingernails sprang off. The pain was there, but just so severely unimportant that it didn’t stop me from grabbing on to every dead branch, from hooking my fingers into the frozen ground again and again. Still, I let go fast of anything stable, or the pull would’ve ripped the leg from the rest of my body. The ride was dizzying and my screaming automatic. I didn’t hope for help, nor was I scared, I just did things out of instinct. My mind didn’t work, I was on autopilot.
It was only when I came to a brusque stop that I began to realize the burn all over my skin. Not the face, since I’d kept it up to detect any means of saving myself, but the arms and belly. I waited a few moments for the pull to start again and, when it didn’t, I rolled on my back. My flesh was stiff. I couldn’t flex my muscles to get up, I only managed to lift my head. The clothes were torn, the skin on my front and arms was red. It looked like beaten meat. I cried before I touched myself, expecting pain. But there was nothing, nothing except the burn, as if everything under skin level was completely numb.
Whimpering, I put snow on the reddest places with a stiff hand, but even that small amount of wit fled off when a pair of legs in earth-gray pants and rubber boots emerged from the white storm. The face cleared from behind the curtain of snow only when it was really close above mine. A face withered by many winters, with ashen stubble and a rotten grin. A face that might once have been peasant’s, but belonged now to a blood-thirsty animal. Not for a second did I have hope, I knew he was there to hurt me, I saw it in his glare.
He said something, but I didn’t hear it. The sound was lost in the storm roar. He pressed his fingers on my stomach, grinning with expectation, hungry for the pain. But, when nothing came, he tightened his lips in anger and threw himself over me. Crazed, with sadistic eyes, he crushed his fist into my face.
The blow felt like lightning in the most literal sense. Then it all went black for moments, until the next one came. Then the next one, until I tasted blood in my mouth. He wasn’t going to stop. He was going to beat me to death, leaving my corpse disfigured.
In a surge of despair sight resurfaced, bringing the psychopath’s face in sharp focus. That ugly face with a bad, stinking grin. The face of an evil maggot who didn’t deserve to live. Who thrust himself at a helpless woman, taking her for an easy prey, for a chunk of meat on which to unleash his killer instincts. Instantly such anger fueled my blood, pumping like frantic petrol in my veins, that I felt as strong as a machine gun. I let out a cry of rage and sank my fingers in his eye sockets, pushing hard with my thumbs against his eyeballs and wishing for the rusty screwdriver I’d lost during his sadistic pull. They felt like hard jelly. He grabbed my wrists and tried to pull away, but I didn’t let him. I wound my legs around his waist, sticking to him as a leech would.
“Oh, no, we’re going all the way, asshole!” I could only hope he heard me. I wanted him to feel the fear, to feel repentant, to become aware of what he put me through. To be in the victim’s shoes. To feel it in his flesh, in the very marrow of his bones. I could not let him live. I would not let him live.
“I’ll fucking suck the life out of you!” I screamed.
He fell to the ground with me, wriggling like a stabbed snake, but went smart enough to move his hands from my wrists and grab my shoulders. He rolled over me. Applying more strength, I felt the fingernails I had left pierce his eyelids, but just a moment later, something made of fur knocked him hard from my hands. He flew to the side, followed by more stripes of fur that leaped after him. I got up on my buttocks and squinted to peer through the blizzard. Though I didn’t see anything, I did hear his cries and faint animal growling. Wolves, those strings of fur were wolves.
For some reason, fangs felt more threatening than the rusty chain that still coiled around my ankle, more threatening than the man’s psychotic glare, than his blows. In a second I was up on my feet, slowly walking backwards, my eyes darting left and right, careful for the rest of my body not to make a sudden move. They could still have been very close. I bled, which placed me far down the food chain and would make them put up a fight for my flesh.
I dragged my leg with the heavy chain. One wrong step was enough to stumble and fall backwards, my body smashing against rocks. I fell for long moments down some endless slope, blow after blow hard in my ribs and crack after crack loud in my ears. It stopped with a knock in the back of my head, and light began to close in on a small moon. That face again. Those eyes. The brightness fizzed in them like flickering neon and I was sure this was it. My muscles relaxed, my lungs gave out one last, resigned breath. All light went out.
To be continued
Copyright by Ana Calin, February 2014
Hope you enjoyed this! Stay tuned for the following chapters during the following months. Feel free to leave a comment and share your thoughts with me and other readers. We’re looking forward to them!