Chasing Damian – Part 12

As promised, part 12 of “Chasing Damian.” Stay tuned next Friday for part 13, and every week for much more.

See the first 50 pages here.

Novel Synopsys:

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 that conducts experiments on humans and which had ‘engineered’ Damian into something monstrous many years before is on their trail.
Alice becomes an important tool in the investigation, which may cost her life. A man of secrets and obscure powers, Damian might be a villain or a hero. Though aware of the danger he poses, she can’t fight the obsession that draws 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.

forbiddenlove

Telling her the conclusion I’d reached during the night was only a matter of minutes. Ruxandra listened with her usual concentrated frown. The discussion was shorter than I’d expected, since none of it seemed to surprise Rux. Hardly anything still could, she said. She asked no questions.
George still snored as we picked our outfits for today. It was an easy and fast process, with Ruxandra grabbing her bags from Marvimex, which she’d dropped on the chair by George’s couch when she’d stormed to him yesterday. I plucked from the wardrobe whatever my hand touched first.
The pair of thick black trousers and the brown sweater didn’t compliment my body the way the clothes from yesterday had, not to mention what an ill fit they were, but more creaking of the wardrobe doors would’ve woken George, so I had to make do.
Mom was up ahead of us, as usual. A rich breakfast was already on the table: marmalade, chocolate croissants, butter, scrambled eggs and, luckily, black tea, which is the only thing I managed to get down my throat.
Mom grinned, guessing what knotted my stomach. “Anxious about seeing Damian today?”
Ruxandra’s eyes flipped up at me over the rim of her teacup.
“He’s just a friend,” I muttered. The word prickled my tongue.
“Now that you mention it, I never got to ask,” Mom said, “how long have you known each other?”
“Um, about two months,” I replied, recounting our history in my head.
The first time I’d laid eyes on him in mid November. How I’d stalked him from afar for about a month and made plans over the Christmas break with Ruxandra to get his attention, falling deeper into a crush before I realized wasn’t even entirely human. How I’d stumbled into his arms in mid January at the party. How we started talking to each other in the cafeteria afterwards – most of this ‘talking’ consisting of short exchanges and jokes from my part – over the following weeks. Then the trip to the mountains and the events that had shaken me to the core. And now we had . . . Wow, already the 20th of February. “Three, maybe.”
“That’s a while,” Mom said. “I’ve seen great loves develop over that amount of time.”
“Not the case here,” I retorted, a little acrid.
“I really think he likes you,” Mom insisted, wrapping up sandwiches that I didn’t want to imagine what she’d do with.
“Are you and Rux hand in hand to make a sucker out of me?” – Not that it came into question that I’d still chase him, but I just had to voice the problem that had tormented me when I’d started to, at least for therapy. “The competition’s fierce for the guy, can’t you imagine already? And he’s actually seeing one of the campus Barbies,” I spat, a flash of Damian rolling his hips into Svetlana shooting me a headache.
As I’d foreseen, Mom moved with the aluminum-foil clad sandwiches in the direction of our bags. I instantly remembered the rice pudding she’d packed once back when I was in elementary, the entire classroom laughing and pointing fingers at me in the lunch break.
“What are you doing, Mom?” I snapped.
She ignored the question and stuffed the sandwiches in our bags. “He’s great looking and, as far as I can tell, darn smart, of course there’s competition for him. But all this must’ve concurred to his developing refined tastes. And setting his eyes on you.”
Ruxandra intervened. “Jenna, are you saying you have a good feeling about the campus Prince Charming? As far as I know, you hate the type.” She sounded and looked surprised, too.
“Yes, I actually do have a good feeling about him,” Mom replied with a warm smile and the look of wisdom on her face that I’d trusted all my life. Had I been wrong forever?
We took the bus to campus. It was packed and it stunk of dirty puffer and wool, onions and sweat, but Officer Sorescu would surely refrain from offering himself as an escort ever again, so crowds were the safest place to be. As was the constant company of trusted people.
The cafeteria was as loud and busy as ever, so Rux and I met there again after lectures, as usual. Though hating myself for it, I couldn’t help glancing around for Damian, while fellow students bombarded us with questions about the events in the mountains – They’d heard a mild, fabricated version.
Then I saw him walk in, looking stunning in a beige V-neck knit tight on his muscular arms, brown chinos and boots, backpack slung on one shoulder. My heart leaped into my mouth, but sank only instants later, as Svetlana appeared high on thin heels with a couple of giggling girlfriends.
Within a few minutes her arm coiled around Damian’s like a snake around a thick tree branch, her grin large and white, her hair falling long and glossy platinum down her back. Dressed in a fitted white blouse with a generous cleavage-view to her small but firm breasts, and slim khakis, she was beautiful and seductive.
She seemed to have recovered completely from the state I’d last seen her in. Not a shadow of distress on her smooth face, as if her whole life experience consisted of dolls and later beauty shops and cocktail parties.
Damian didn’t grant me one glance, as if he didn’t even know me, but Svetlana’s eyes did stop on mine at a certain point. I must’ve glared, feeling angry and impotent, unable to do my father justice, even though he didn’t quite deserve it – He had no one but himself to blame that his much younger lover and the only man he’d trusted with his secret banged each other behind his back. Nevertheless, he was my father. My allegiance to him before third parties was unconditional. Not to mention that jealousy I desperately tried to ignore if not deny ate at me like an army of rodents at a piece of cheese.
Svetlana sank her head. Though she’d already proved stronger than me physically, it was understandable now. I was so angry I would’ve stopped at nothing. I would’ve knotted her jugular around her throat if it cost me a whole bruised face, which must’ve been obvious in my glare.
She began rummaging in her designer bag as a man’s face suddenly replaced the sight. He stood real close, so I had to back up a couple of steps to bring him into focus. My mouth popped open.
“Tony?!”
He smiled a shy smile. “Hi, Alice.”
I stared at him, unable to utter one word. It had been many months since this man had stood before me with his round face, cheeks like red peppers, small eyes the color of bark and the ridiculous air of arrogance. But, unlike his usual self, he was sober. Even his hair was slicked back like that of mobsters in old movies. He looked halfway presentable with vest over shirt, suit pants, coat á la Clark Gable hanging on forearm. He brought cool winter air with him, so he must’ve just come in.
“I,” he began, voice shaky, “I saw you on the bus, I . . .”
“Aha.” Eyebrows high up, I still couldn’t recover from surprise.
“You were with Rux,” – who, I now noticed in a glance, was also staring with an open mouth – “Wondered if I should come and talk to you. I, I heard what happened, you know.”
“What did you hear?” shot automatically out of my mouth.
“The whole story, you know. The train, broken down in the mountains. The avalanche, you were trapped there. Until they found you, the villagers, you know,” he stuttered.
“Oh.” So the fabricated version.
“You’re looking good, Alice, really good.” Now he ogled me from head to toes, much the way Officer Sorescu had the evening before. Tony, too, seemed unable to control his slippery eyes despite my unflattering baggy brown sweater, overworn black khakis and leather boots with low heal. Un-fucking-believable.
“It took a while until I decided to come here and talk to you,” he said.
“I understand.”
“You do?”
“Perfectly.” – Resentful grin.
“You still haven’t forgiven me, have you?”
“You still ask?”
Slam on the table, coffee mugs clattering, my heart jumping out of my chest. Ruxandra’s eyes stabbed Tony, her fist clenched, knuckles showing white. “Can you believe yourself, asshole?” she spat, so loud that every head in the cafeteria turned in our direction. My eyes darted to Damian, who was looking at us with the expression of a wolf ready for attack. I had an idea.
I placed a light hand on Ruxandra’s forearm. She gave me a questioning glare with a quirked-up eyebrow.
“It’s all right, Rux,” I said, looking deep into her bitter-chocolate eyes and praying for telepathy to work, “the man has good intentions. Why don’t you tell him exactly what happened up there, if you feel up to it. I sure don’t yet.”
Ruxandra glared at Tony. It took a few moments until she was able to address him again, eyes down in her books, hand angrily flipping pages to stay busy. While she presented in short the fabricated story as alien from the truth as E.T. from Earth, involving peasants welcoming us by their stoves until the authorities found us, I observed Damian from under my eyebrows.
Observing is an overstatement, though. I glanced at him once in a while, trying to read the emotion in his face. The flashes revealed tight jaw and eyes fixed on us, metallic. Maybe he feared we might tell Stranger too much, but I’d sure as hell make him believe a hotter version.

To be continued …

***

Enjoyed this? Don’t keep it to yourself. Share your opinion with the writer, publisher and readers, we’re happy to hear from you. Stay tuned for episode 13 next Friday or subscribe at anaatcalin@gmail.com to receive notification at each new post.

Enjoy the first 50 pages of the book here.

Love,

Ana

Chasing Damian – Part 11

As promised, part 11 of “Chasing Damian”. Stay tuned next Friday for part 12, and every week for much more.

See the first 50 pages here.

Novel Synopsys:

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 that conducts experiments on humans and which had ‘engineered’ Damian into something monstrous many years before is on their trail.

Alice becomes an important tool in the investigation, which may cost her life. A man of secrets and obscure powers, Damian might be a villain or a hero. Though aware of the danger he poses, she can’t fight the obsession that draws 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.

forbiddenlove

Pic source.

Rux nodded, neck long and face drawn in mock-refinement. “Words put to paper in your dear philosophic period. Freshman year, wasn’t it? When you were still tactless and fearless. Why play pretense now, Alice? You know that what most if not all women want above all else is to be beautiful and desirable. Fuckable.” She sneered the last word in my ear, Marlene Dietrichish enough to set us both laughing.

“I did say that, didn’t I?”

Twisting a strand of my hair on her finger, “You must’ve read it somewhere.”

“Most probably some philosopher.”

“Maybe Schopenhauer the Misogynic.”

“Maybe Nietzsche. I’d expect such impertinence of him, too. Wouldn’t hurry to ascribe it, though, it was a while back.”

“Well, you know what they say. We forget names and titles but the content shapes us. Do you still believe in the thesis?”

I pondered and, for the first time ever since Tony had stood and left me crying at a corner table, I spoke with the ugliest of truths, fished right out of the pond of mud and shit deep down.

“Strongly.”

Ruxandra smiled. “Then hear and savor: You returned home different tonight. It must be the adrenaline Novac makes boil in your blood. You’re still the sweet Lolita with baby blue eyes and creamy caramel locks but somehow more . . . glamorous. Striking even.”

“But still Lolita,” I whispered, then changed the uncomfortable subject. “What’s up with George? Why has he been so restless without you today?”

Ruxandra dropped back on the bed, hand already reaching to turn off the reading lamp. I jumped on the mattress next to her and caught it.

“I’m listening.”

She rolled on her back, eyes to ceiling. When she spoke, she did so as if she were talking to herself. “All he wants to do is cling to my chest and snivel. The entire time. Among sobs he might repeat apologies, although I dread it when he does.”

“Apologies?”

“He feels guilty for having been violent with me up in . . . up there. He fears he might’ve done with me what he did with . . . that guy.”

A heavy silence fell over us. What was I supposed to tell her? Oh, honey, everything’s gonna be all right? Overused and arid of meaning. I let go of her hand and lay down by her side. She turned off the light, and for minutes both Ruxandra and I stared upwards in the darkness.

“You think he would’ve done it, Alice?”

The question I feared. I squeezed her hand, my voice faint. “Yes.”

Further moments of silence, even though we were both wide awake and haunted. I decided that, since we were speaking with the dirtiest of truths again, we might as well do it all the way. Plus, this particular truth might just have made her feel better.

“You would’ve done it, too, Rux.”

The sheets rustled as she rolled to face me. I didn’t do the same, but kept staring upwards, eyes darting all over the ceiling in search of words.

“The gas, it rose our adrenaline to a specific level that stripped us of everything to sheer instinct. We were . . .”

“Killing machines,” she breathed.

“Every one of us was ready, willing, if not eager to spill blood.”

“Not every one. You weren’t.”

I couldn’t keep back a bitter laugh. The memory of the peasant in rubber boots, his bad-smelling grin, the wrinkled, bloodshot eyes that my fingers had clawed into, all of it played before me like a movie on fast-forward.

“Oh, yes, Rux, me too.”

She squeezed my hand harder. “That was different. It was self defense.”

“You call it self defense when you don’t have a choice,” I snapped. “But I overpowered him, Rux. I scratched his eyes, he couldn’t have followed if I’d used the chance and run away. But no, I wanted to finish him.”

A while later I was calm enough to add, “Malice is in all of us, I guess. When stripped of the glazing of civilization and given the proper chemical input, we’re all just instinct. We’d never guess who we really are until we get down there, to the most base of levels.”

Another few moments of silence, grotesque memories sucking us both in. When Rux talked again, I heard her as if through static.

“I don’t know, but base isn’t how I felt.”

Now it was my turn to be curious and surprised. “How did you feel?”

“Superior.”

The mattress wobbled as she rolled on the other side. She cried herself to sleep that night. The bed was a vibrating cradle, one that cast me into dark thoughts in the silence. For hours I thought about what she meant by superior. How could anybody feel like that in the state we’d been? We’d been animals. Stronger than in our civilization-coated environment where most of us are lost to apathy, but still base.

Maybe indeed better than merely human in some sense. In the sense of tougher, maybe more efficient. All due to the gas that had turned our bodies into some kind of high-performance machines. I’d even recovered from multiple fractures and God knows what else before I’d woken up. The realization gave me the chills.

But if the gas alone could do that, resulting in blood tests that baffled doctors, then what had BioDhrome done a whole year with Damian Novac? I shuddered at the idea of him lying on a metal table, needles sticking out of his body, his eyes half-closed and mouth open, a tube snaking down his throat.

Then I thought about Giant. That he was so large he could’ve easily won Mr. Olympia could be ascribed to steroids, the brightness in his eyes to the gas, but combined? In the context of Damian’s and BioDhrome’s story?

With his breathtaking looks that bordered on inhuman Damian seemed to be of the same outlandish league as Giant, so the latter was surely one of BioDhrome’s experiments, too. An agent, Damian had said. Then it hit me.

A genetically modified organism.

I sat up in a flash. This is it! This was the result of everything linked together: BioDhrome conducting medical experiments, the R.I.S.’ chase for them, my Dad’s part in it as a geneticist, the weird Giant and the striking Damian, all of it led to one conclusion: BioDhrome agents were genetically engineered killers.

I felt a consuming urge to find out exactly what they’d done with Damian and what made him “unable to live among people”. “An Upgrade is as doomed as a target,” Dad’s words came to mind. Yes, that’s what they must be called, Damian and Giant. Upgrades. More than ‘normal men’. Superior, as Ruxandra had put it.

For hours I strolled in circles around the room. Barefoot and gnawing at my partly nailless fingers, there was little difference left between me and an asylum lunatic. When Ruxandra shook me awake from the chaise longue in the morning, my eyelids were swollen and heavy.

“What are you doing, curled up there?” she inquired, black hair messy, eyebrows raised, eyes bitter chocolate.

“I’ve got it, Rux. I’ve got it,” I grumbled.

***

To be continued

***

Enjoyed this? Don’t keep it to yourself. Share your opinion with the writer, publisher and readers, we’re happy to hear from you. Stay tuned for episode 12 next Friday or subscribe at anaatcalin@gmail.com to receive notification at each new post.

Enjoy the first 50 pages of the book here.

Love,

Ana

SAVE A LIFE – A world-class ballet dancer paralyzed in full glory

 

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This is an appeal to all my friends and readers and to the world at large.
Sadly this post isn’t fiction, but the true story of an amazingly talented young dancer, Bogdan Nicula, whom I had the honor of knowing personally fifteen years ago. We didn’t stay in touch, but a couple of weeks ago I was shocked to learn that he struggles with ASL, the disease against which last year people poured buckets of ice on their heads and which nails Stephen Hawking in his high-tech chair too.

But in Bogdan’s case the disease seems to be advancing at a much faster pace than usual. Bogdan now lies on a hospital bed in Düsseldof, Germany, where he used to work as a ballet dancer until December 2014. His family and friends hope to raise the necessary funds for his transport to Thailand for a stem cell transplant, his only chance of survival.

His friends and colleagues, ballet dancers from Bucharest, Constanta and Cluj, Romania, organized beautiful charity ballet shows, but until now they could only raise about a quarter of the necessary sum.
Bogdan Nicula is a valuable, acknowledged artist in Romania and Germany, he danced on the world’s greatest stages includig the Balshoi Theatre, Moscow. For this reason the Romanian press reported his case, and I took the liberty of translating a chunk from an article that offered the detailed story.

View the original here.

The Tragedy of the Romanian Ballet Dancer who paralyzed in full glory. Bogdan Nicula suffers from the same disease as Stephen Hawking.

In less than six months Bogdan Nicula (35), a Romanian ballet dancer living and working in Germany, was forced to leave the stage of the Opera House in Düsseldorf for a hospital bed, now almost entirely paralyzed. His family is struggling to raise the money for a stem cell transplant, Bogdan’s only chance of survival.

He danced on the world’s greatest stages, from famous German theatres (Mainz and Düsseldorf) to the Balshoi Theatre in Moscow, being one of the most talented Romanian ballet dancers known abroad. But Bogdan Nicula’s career was interrupted this fall, after he was diagnosed to be suffering from a  relentless disease, the same one that nails Stephen Hawking – the famous physicist and Nobel Prize winner – to his chair, namely amytrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). It was to raise funds to find a cure for this disease that last year Hollywood stars poured buckets of ice on their heads in what became a viral movement on the internet (“The Ice Bucket Challenge”).

The first signs of the disease

For 25 years Bogdan Nicula worked every day to achieve the best possible muscular coordination, as well as strength, gracefulness and the discipline necessary to attain success as a dancer. He began dancing ballet in the 6th grade, when he moved from a normal school to the School of Coreography in Bucharest, where he managed to catch up the work of two years in only six months.

After graduation he worked at the ballet theatre “Oleg Danovski” in Constanta, on the coast of the Black Sea, and in 2001 he started his international career on the stages abroad as a main dancer at Ballet Mainz and later at Ballet am Rhein, Düsseldorf, Germany. His schedule used to start early in the morning with training and it would end late in the evening with ballet shows. But in September 2014 it changed abruptly. Bogdan began to feel drained of energy much faster than usual and increasingly exhausted. He began having difficulty controlling his arms and legs, and getting back pain. Bogdan went to the doctor’s for investigations. The diagnosis came as a shock.

In Bogdan’s case the disease avances four times faster than usual. By the end of December he was forced to use a wheel chair and since January he’s lying on a hospital bed, almost entirely paralyzed and barely able to breathe by himself. He only let his family know at the beginning of January, when his state worsened and he found himself unable to fend for himself in any way.

The disease evolved at a very high pace

The newspaper “Adevarul” contacted Bogdan’s mother two days before she came back home from Germany. She was at Bogdan’s side and crying. “We found out on the 10th of January. He didn’t tell us before, didn’t want to cause us pain. He’s in a good state of mind, he can still eat and talk even though with difficultly because of the oxygen mask, but he can’t use his arms and legs anymore. He’s a vegetable,” says Bogdan’s mother among sobs. “I pray to God for a miracle, he’s such a good boy, such a loving child. I spend the whole day with him. Friends from the theatre come to visit, they took care of him, he wasn’t alone for a second. I pray to God to save him.”

The family needs 50.000 Euro

“Adevarul” also contacted Monica, his sister, who explained that her brother’s only chance is a stem cell transplant, a procedure that can be successfully performed at the Beike Biotechnology clinic in Thailand. “This disease usually evolves between three and five years, but his case is particularly dangerous. Before Christmas he could still walk and in January he was almost entirely paralyzed. When we came to the hospital in Düsseldorf he was already wearing an oxygen mask. His only chance is a stem cell transplant. We already sent the documents to the clinic in Thailand, and the doctors told us the transplant must be carried out as soon as possible. The problem is that he can’t be transported as a normal passenger, he needs special transportation. The costs for the transport and transplant are very high, around 50.000 Euro,” Monica explained.

The family doesn’t have that kind of money, and for this reason they opened a donations account for Bogdan, while his former colleagues from Romania organize charity ballet shows. The theatre in Constanta, where Bogdan first worked after graduation, already raised a sum of money which they deposited in Bogdan’s account. On the 23rd of February the Association Movement for Ballet and Performance Arts – founded by Bogdan and three friends – will organize a charity show at the National Opera House.

Bogdan’s mother, Stela Nicula, opened two donation accounts:

BRD Groupe Societe Generale

Account holder Stela Nicula

Account in Euro: RO55BRDE441SV25286444410

Account in Lei: RO27BRDE441SV25065844410

Swiftcode: BRDEROBU

Bic code: BRDE

This is a good cause. Bogdan Nicula was an ambitious, talented dancer who performed and delighted the public for many years. Now his life depends on your generosity. Should you decide to offer your support, please send an e-mail at anaatcalin@gmail.com and I will send you a free copy of my newest novel, “Chasing Damian” (probably under a new name depending on the publisher).

Much love,

Ana

 

Chasing Damian – Part 10

As promised, part 10 of “Chasing Damian”. Stay tuned next Friday for part 11, and every week for much more.

See the first 50 pages here.

Novel Synopsys:

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 that conducts experiments on humans and which had ‘engineered’ Damian into something monstrous many years before is on their trail.

Alice becomes an important tool in the investigation, which may cost her life. A man of secrets and obscure powers, Damian might be a villain or a hero. Though aware of the danger he poses, she can’t fight the obsession that draws 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.

forbiddenlove

Pic source.

I couldn’t hold back anymore. Tears broke down my face, an uncontrollable salty flow that mingled with the cold downpour.

“Two doctors from Barcelona and Bristol were murdered,” I cried, clinging to his jacket in a surge of trust I couldn’t explain. Letting the worry and fear stream out of me felt liberating. “One from Bulgaria was taken in by the police after he presumably put Giant out there. And you want me to believe my father is safe? I’m so terribly afraid he’s already dead!”

“None of those doctors are dead, and neither is Dr. Lazar Dobrev in police custody. They have all been extracted.”

“You know the man’s name?” I asked baffled.

“I told you, I used to be a BioDhrome agent. I have my ways to information. Often to more information than ever reaches the R.I.S.” There was mockery and contempt in his tone.

More? “You know how the Cezare Lupan file disappeared, then?” I dared.

“I do.”

“How then? Who has it?”

He shook his head and let his hands fall off my arms in a slow caress.

“The less you know, the better protected you are,” he repeated like a mantra. “I already told you much more than I should have.”

“Why did you?”

Damian smiled a genuine smile. With a gentle finger he stroked a wet tendril off my cheek. His gesture gave me the goose bumps. I pressed myself harder against his leather-clad body, unable to hold back.

“What did you mean when you said that because of my father you can live among people again, Damian?”

“What do I owe your father?” he said, his huge hands covering mine and pushing them gently downwards. “How did I meet him? How did the Cezare Lupan file disappear? Is Damian Novac even my real name? And the list of questions can continue, isn’t it?”

I nodded, eyes fixed on his, knowing he could read the eagerness in them.

“Those are questions I can’t answer.”

“Why not?”

“As I said, the less you know, the better protected you are.”

“What about BioDhrome, Damian? What did BioDhrome do to you?” I whispered.

He shot a blade-sharp glare in the distance, above my head. I was now treading a mined field, I knew.

“Even if this is the only answer you give me, I beg of you,” I insisted.

“The less you know . . .”

With that he settled me out of his way and dashed out the gate before I got to blink. A few moments later, soaked to the bone and snuffling, I was leaning over the fence, peering down a dimly lit street blurred by heavy rain.

CHAPTER IX

“I don’t trust him,” Ruxandra said, sitting by me on the edge of the bed as I towel-dried my hair. “I say we take this to Hector. I mean, come on, there’s no such thing as an ex-mobster, Alice, much less an ex-BioDhrome. They’re a vicious pack, they trade with organs and conduct genetic experiments, and I doubt they let anyone out of their ranks alive. If you ask me, there’s an awful lot of power behind what BioDhrome does, and I’m not talking only megalomaniac oligarchs who want to live forever, but secret services, maybe entire fucking governments. Damian wouldn’t have been able to escape them, so he must still be in the game.”

“I’m not stupid, Rux,” I retorted. “I know you have a point. But I don’t trust Hector either. I don’t know, it’s a just a feeling I have . . . Plus, BioDhrome is too big of a fish, a nasty international corp as you put it, with an awful lot of power. I doubt his unit has the slightest chance against that.”

“But he’s got Novac within his reach. And Novac confessed to you, Alice. He confirmed that he worked for BioDhrome. That will be useful for Hector.”

“As if Varlam doesn’t already know that. He’s been trying to come about proof for years, he won’t be able to do much with my statement. Plus, Damian’s right – The police can’t protect me. Giant wants me, that’s a fact, and with Damian gone, if they do arrest him by some absurd chance, who’s gonna make sure Giant doesn’t get me?”

“He didn’t even tell you his name, did he? Giant’s name, I mean. Let alone his own,” Rux mumbled, her backside wriggling like the tail of an upset cat as she prepared the bed for the night. Mom’s satin nightgown flowed down her legs, making her look like a temptress from a Latin American soap.

“Look, I’ll talk to Damian again tomorrow, all right?” I said few moments later, as I turned off the light and tucked myself in. “I’ll push for more answers.”

The mattress warped as Ruxandra turned on the side, facing me with an arm under her head. She grinned, I could sense it.

“I know what you’re thinking,” I said.

“And? Am I right?”

I exhaled in surrender and pulled the blanket up to my nose, as if that could conceal my thoughts and fantasies.

“I guess so.” Yes, I was completely taken with him, even under the circumstances. I dreaded him and I wanted him. And I was happy I had a reason to approach him again tomorrow.

“I think he’s pretty much into you, too.”

That slapped the Sandman completely off my eyelids, sending him rolling on his back.

“You think?”

“Now you know I don’t trust Novac. He’s dangerous, but maybe you have nothing to fear. Maybe he’s lying to you about having quit on BioDhrome so that you’ll give him a chance, as fairy-talish as that may sound.”

“You talk as if his liking me were something natural.”

“It is, you know my position on this. Only that this time I don’t have the slightest doubt he’s interested. The way he held you at Marvimex, it looked and felt . . . possessive. As if he made it clear you were his, and his alone.”

I didn’t reply, hoping she’d say more. I couldn’t hear enough of this. But there was something else Ruxandra seemed eager to talk about. She propped herself on an elbow and turned the reading lamp on. Her chocolate eyes appeared to pour all over my face.

“There’s something going on with you, Alice.”

“Huh?”

“You’re different. Something changed. I mean, you’ve always been a pretty sight, but . . .”

“Good night,” I cut her off and turned my back at her. I wasn’t in the mood to take the slightest amount of shit from the collection ‘You’re beautiful the way you are’. I preferred the ‘He might just want to fuck you at least once’ series. But Ruxandra jumped out of bed, grabbed my hand and pulled to drag me out.

“What the hell are you doing?” I squealed.

She rummaged in her bag and took out a make-up set the size of a cell-phone. She opened it and stuck the mirror out to my face.

“Just look at yourself and save me the torture of explaining.”

An eye appeared first, then the mouth, then a cheek. Rux didn’t succeed in centering the thing on my face, but I doubted there was anything special to see anyway. The last image I had of myself was pretty fresh, too. Just a while ago I’d wiped the steam off the bathroom mirror.

“I still don’t see your point.” I pushed her hand away.

She dropped on the edge of the bed, forcing me to look into the thing. She pointed her finger at this and that part of the mirror, which surely reflected my face from her angle, but all I could see was the plastered ceiling seemingly afloat in the vague lamplight.

“You’re different since you came back with Novac at Marvimex, as if his presence had somehow activated the femme fatale in you,” she said, gaining more and more enthusiasm, “Your skin is silken and smooth, your lips gained volume and a rosy color. I don’t know what happened tonight, but the result is obvious. You look ravishing, Alice.”

“I don’t see anything, to be honest. And I can’t even believe we’re having this conversation, it’s just plain stupid. And cheap. And bimboish. ”

She clapped the make-up set shut and gave me a narrow-eyed scowl. “The Alice I know is very much in touch with that ‘little bimbo inside splashing around in mud, lurking even in the most bespectacled of female intellectuals. Phony they are if they deny her.’ Should I go on?”

“I recognize my own quotes, thank you.”

To be continued

***

Enjoyed this? Don’t keep it to yourself. Share your opinion with the writer, publisher and readers, we’re happy to hear from you. Stay tuned for episode 11 next Friday or subscribe at anaatcalin@gmail.com to receive notification at each new post.

Enjoy the first 50 pages of the book here.

Love,

Ana

Chasing Damian – Part 9

Happy New Year! May 2015 be full of great surprises and presents. Here’s the first one from me: Part 9 of “Chasing Damian”, publisher approved and re-edited. Stay tuned next Friday for Part 10, and every week for much more .

See the first 50 pages here.

Novel synopsis:

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 that conducts experiments on humans and which had ‘engineered’ Damian into something monstrous many years before is on their trail.

Alice becomes an important tool in the investigation, which may cost her life. A man of secrets and obscure powers, Damian might be a villain or a hero. Though aware of the danger he poses, she can’t fight the obsession that draws 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.

 

 forbiddenlove

Pic source.

Part 9

After a short pause and a crooked, almost sad grin, “I believe you’ve met him tonight. I’m only here to make things clear for you. Keep a low profile, because you’re a very easy victim.”

My tongue froze, leaving me unable to ask at least one of the avalanche of questions that tumbled from brain to mouth. To make things even worse, Mom appeared with a tray of cookies and mugs of tea at this very moment, smiling innocently and acting too friendly. She sat in Dad’s armchair, dressed in her cherry-red pencil suit, her hair up in an elegant bun.

It’s hard to classify Damian’s attitude. He made a great impression on her, but without playing the exemplary good boy. In his leather jacket and with elbows resting on his knees, he dodged off her questions in such way that it left me blinking like an idiot, glancing from one to the other.

To her inquires of the collection, “Where have you grown up?” and, “What do you plan to do after graduation?” he provided replies such as, “In a village in the Delta. They call it the End of the World,” and “Cure people and then take crap from them, of course.”

He made her laugh, which gave him the opportunity to wield his shrewd technique of always staying a mystery – He proceeded to asking her questions. A man of common sense, though, he didn’t touch on anything sensitive beyond, “How long haven’t you seen your homeland?” and “What ways did you use to get Roma interested in education?”

As she told her story with bridled enthusiasm and fine gesticulation, I fidgeted waiting for the chance to be alone with him again – in vain. As soon as his tea mug was empty and Mom’s story done he stood up, whisked his jacket and wished us ladies a nice evening.

“Thank you again for seeing Alice and Ruxandra home safely,” Mom said, her tone mild and warm.

“Oh, Officer Sorescu had that under control. It was a whim of fate that we bumped into each other, really.”

Refined barbarian.

With a hand on the door handle he looked at me, the candle flames playing their game on his deceitful, handsome face.

“I’ll accompany you to the gate,” I said.

“Not necessary,” he blocked.

“Oh, but it is.” With a fake smile I walked passed him and led the way out.

I could feel his stare on my back as we strolled down the aisle to the gate. I stopped and turned slowly, not sure I wanted to catch the expression on his face. Apparently he didn’t want it caught either. When my eyes rested on his he looked aside and hooked his thumbs into his jeans pockets, offering me his carved profile.

“Who is that giant guy, Damian?”

“That’s a good name – Giant. Just call him that.”

“I’m not in the mood for jokes.”

“Neither am I. The less you know, the better protected you are.”

Protected?

“And why is my protection important to you? Don’t you fight on the same side Giant does?”

Damian took a few steps toward me, hands unhooked from the pockets, his stare steady on my face, as if the implication offended him.

“Listen, Alice, let’s get one thing straight, okay?”

Opening my arms in a Halleluiah-gesture, “I’m willing to get everything straight, Damian.”

“I owe your father a lot. It’s because of him that I can live among people again, you understand? He’s been extracted to safety, but you are open. You, his daughter, the apple of his eye.

BioDhrome know how much you mean to him. They know that, if they get you, Tiberius will come out of hiding. If you heard the entire talk we had at the hospital, then you know I offered to protect you. He refused, but obviously, I’m your only hope. Your surveillance officers are useless.

“And I will protect you, for his sake if not for other reasons. I’ll protect what he loves most. But that doesn’t make me your friend, Alice, you understand? Your father would disapprove, and he’d be right to do so.”

I stared at him with a stupid grin. “Are you saying you can do what the police and even the R.I.S. can’t? That you can protect someone where they can’t?”

“I used to be a BioDhrome agent, Alice. I’m many things the police and even the R.I.S. aren’t.”

BAM! There it was, the guilty plea loud and clear, knocking me in the head. Hector Varlam would’ve surely sold his soul for this.

“I believe BioDhrome led the operation in the mountains with the purpose of kidnapping you,” he continued, low, “and getting to Tiberius through you. They couldn’t have gotten to him directly, he was too . . . well protected.”

“What the hell are you saying?” I spat through my teeth. “That I’m the reason people died? That my friends could now be dead because of me? How weak is that, Novac? How lame is that, placing the blame on me?” My chin trembled to keep back tears of denial. “Giant talked to me tonight, you know?”

Drop by drop but fast, rain started whipping against my face, forcing me to blink fast and making Damian an intermittent vision.

“You didn’t expect that, did you?” I sneered in the tone of a nutcase. “Yes, he talked to me, and you know what he said?”

“What?” – soft, calm, but standing too close, hands gently clasping my arms. I tried to ignore the pace my heart took.

‘The Executioner’s gem, the Executioner’s aim’ were his words. Do they ring a bell?”

Damian made no answer, but his eyes flashed with recognition.

“They do, don’t they? That’s what they call him, isn’t it? The Executioner. Who’s out to execute. Me. And how did you know he’d be at Marvimex? You work together!”

“You don’t understand, Alice,” he whispered.

“Oh, I understand little indeed, but I don’t have a doubt here. You helped them organize the operation in the mountains. If I was their target from the beginning and you just happened to be on the same trip . . . It’s you who should’ve delivered me to them, isn’t it? You failed, so they sent the Executioner!”

His grip around my arms tightened so much that I gave out a cry of pain. He yanked me to his chest, lifting me so that I had to stand on the tips of my toes, and brought his face so close to mine that our lips almost touched. The words came out of his mouth in gusts of pleasant breath and rainwater that smashed into my face.

“Believe me, woman, had I wanted to harm you in any way, you wouldn’t be standing here now. You don’t have a clue how I searched for you, howled your name against all peaks. I sought help at the military base. I made sure we searched every corner of those forests. I exerted pressure until we found you frozen in that precipice, your limbs twisted…” He paused here, his upper lip curled, “And you think I should or would’ve delivered you to BioDhrome?”

You searched for me?”

“Alice, pay good attention, ‘cause I won’t repeat this: I’m here to protect you. I’m not your enemy, I never was, but nor am I your friend. I am a killer, it’s in my blood and no matter how much time I spend in the world of normal men, I’ll never be one again. BioDhrome made that impossible. When this is over I’ll leave and you’ll never see me again but, until then, your only safe shelter is under my wing.”

To be continued . . .

***

Enjoyed this? Don’t keep it to yourself. Share your opinion with the writer, publisher and readers, we’re happy to hear from you. Stay tuned for episode 10 next Friday or subscribe at anaatcalin@gmail.com to receive notification at each new post.

Enjoy the first 50 pages of the book here.

Love,

Ana

 

Chasing Damian – Part 8

As promised, here goes Part 8 of “Chasing Damian”, publisher approved and re-edited. Stay tuned next Friday for Part 9, and every week for much more .

See the first 50 pages here.

Novel synopsis:

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 that conducts experiments on humans and which had ‘engineered’ Damian into something monstrous many years before is on their trail.

Alice becomes an important tool in the investigation, which may cost her life. A man of secrets and obscure powers, Damian might be a villain or a hero. Though aware of the danger he poses, she can’t fight the obsession that draws 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.

forbiddenlove

Pic source.

Part 8

As soon as the plump man turned around, his jaw dropped. Damian was either a striking sight to him too, or Sorescu had been warned to keep clear of him. Ruxandra’s eyes darted from me to Damian in surprise, but she didn’t make a sound.

“Not a great evening for outdoor shopping, is it?” Damian said with a vicious grin.

After a quick set of blinking, Sorescu came to himself. “Do I know you, Mr. . . .”

Assassin and the metal under his sleeve jumped to mind again. I shuddered and swallowed the knot in my throat.

“Novac,” Damian replied, offering his free hand for a shake. For a second I feared – or hoped – Sorescu would grab his forearm and feel the blade, as far fetched as the possibility was. But his ego prevented any chance of discovery.

“I see,” he said, sinking his hands in the pockets of his trousers and pushing his chest forward. “Well, Mr. Novac, how may I help you?”

“I’m one of the survivors from the mountains, your colleagues have me under surveillance. Which is how I know who you are, Officer, and why I was disturbed to find Miss Preda straying around Marvimex, desperate to find you. You lost her from sight, and, as her close friend, I must express my doubts as to your competence.”

With this last word he let go of my arm, his hand moving to the small of my back and covering it almost entirely. An electric sensation coursed through my body as the memory of our first night at the cottage lit in my head. His arms, weapons now strapped to them, they’d held me, stroked me . . .

“Close friend?” Ruxandra broke my moment’s daydream and the silence between the two men, who were glaring at each other like fighters in a ring. “Forgive me, Damian, but I . . .”

“I’m sure you must’ve noticed Alice was missing, didn’t you, Ruxandra?” Damian interrupted her without taking his eyes off Sorescu. “Why didn’t you draw the Officer’s attention?”

Rux began to babble unintelligible words. She shifted from one leg to the other, the look in her eyes stating a big BUSTED.

“I’m sure Miss Preda hasn’t been away for that long, maybe a few minutes,” Sorescu retorted, his tone conciliatory all of a sudden. “And Miss Ignat already has what she came here for, so we’ll be heading back now anyway.”

As Sorescu reached out, inviting me to cross to his and Ruxandra’s side, Damian’s hold tightened around my waist. I felt his muscled thigh hard against my hip and my cheeks prickled.

“Minutes can be lethal, Officer. The fact that you don’t know this is another reason for me to doubt your expertise. And to take Alice home myself.”

“I’m afraid that won’t be possible. She came here with us, she’s going back with us.”

“As you surely understand, I can’t rely on that.”

Sorescu smiled sheepishly, hands up as if surrendering in front of a gun, “Tell you what, mate: Why don’t we drive back together? That way you’ll be sure she made it home safely.”

“All right. That would at least allow my supervisors a dinner break,” Damian said with a smug grin, as if he’d obtained the very result he aimed for.

We followed Sorescu out of the bazaar. This time Ruxandra walked alone under her umbrella, and Damian shielded us both under mine. Wet gravel crunched under our boots, my arm hooked around Damian’s. The arm of the villain I was obsessed with. We only separated by the car, with me taking the back and Damian the passenger seat.

Ruxandra kept her head down during the entire ride, while Damian kept Sorescu feeling like a trapped mouse. The tension was only masked by dull radio chattering. I patted Rux’s leg and, when she glanced at me with a long face, I mouthed an It’s okay which had no effect.

It was easy to tell she was disappointed in herself. Maybe she felt guilty for having lost me from sight. But I didn’t find the energy to try and make her feel better now. I was too busy hating myself for the way I felt. Damian’s presence as well as the killer knives under his sleeves made my heart race and my cheeks burn in two very different ways.

It was in front of our house that words were spoken again, with Officer Sorescu grudgingly offering Damian a ride home, now that he’d “seen his close friend delivered safely.” To both Rux’s and my surprise Damian not only refused, but turned and directly requested to be invited in for a cup of tea, since the rain and cold had “permeated to his bones.” Yet as we got out of the car he looked anything but a man bothered by the low temperature or humidity. He actually seemed as comfortable with it as most people are with early summer, and I wasn’t the only one to notice it.

Officer Sorescu stayed behind the wheel with the heating on and the window down, his eyes darting from Damian to me. Soon his curious gaze turned into a sleazy measuring from head to toes that was yet another shock – since I was the subject of his inspection. Men had never looked at me like that, especially if they had someone like Ruxandra in their field of vision. But you know what they say. If a cool guy wants you, that makes you desirable for others, too. This must’ve been the effect in my case now – Sorescu misinterpreted Damian’s attitude toward me. He thought Damian was into me. My inner self laughed bitterly.

Guilt and rush crept up my spine as I walked towards the front door, opening the way for an armed man who breathed threat in my nape. The windows were dark, only a dim light flickering behind the curtains in the living room. This could be the end, I thought, bringing Damian Novac into our home. But the feeling that a refusal would’ve made matters worse wouldn’t budge.

Damian hovered in the doorstep as if he were a vampire who needed further invitation to walk into the vital space of his victim. I stared at him, a titan away from his Olympus and his time, clad in leather and jeans, wary to enter the home of a mortal. Just as I contemplated exploiting the moment and begging him to turn around, the door to the living room went ajar. Welcoming candlelight shone through to the vestibule, bathing Damian’s face in its mild golden touch.

“Oh, there you are,” Mom greeted with a large smile. She kissed Ruxandra and me, then her eyes rested on Damian. She welcomed him so warmly, my skin creased. He’s got fucking weapons under his sleeves.

“Please, have a seat,” she offered with both her arms stretched to the old, fluffy sofa as she took us to the living room. That she was ecstatic about Damian’s visiting, and that she still believed he harbored tender feelings for me was obvious as it was alarming.

The perfumed candles in the silver candelabrum – an antique Mom had bought in Paris and that she was particularly proud of – gave out a warm light fit for a library. Indeed, fit for our living room, dominated by the massive bookcase, broad sofa with the wooden coffee table and Dad’s old plush armchair. Damian took an instant to look at it as if it were a museum piece, then slowly lowered himself onto the sofa. It warped and squeaked under his weight, dark jeans molding on long, muscular legs. With a flick of his eyes that he made sure only I noticed, he demanded that I sit by him.

“Power’s out,” Mom said with an apologetic shrug. “Thank God the stove’s on gas.”

With that she retreated to the kitchen. Her alleged purpose – making tea and bringing cookies. Her true intent – giving Damian and me time alone, which overcharged my nerves, making me uncontrollably gnaw on my lower lip. Mom had also maneuvered Ruxandra out of the way with a simple reference to George having asked about her all evening, which caused Rux to spin on her heel and dash to George’s room like Speedy Gonzales.

Damian turned his face to me. The flames danced in his crystal eyes, his hair now flowing wild to his shoulders, danger emanating from him as it does from a predator. I winced as he touched my chin with two fingers – an unexpected, but gentle gesture.

As those fingers slid down my throat they produced such sweet pleasure that I couldn’t restrain a low sigh and my lids falling heavy. He was touching me. Damian Novac was actually touching me. My reason shut down.

“I’m in your home, Alice, and the police couldn’t do shit about it, you realize this?” he whispered, his breath touching my ear and his fingers stroking the base of my neck. His scent of young wood and leather made me dizzy. I couldn’t find my voice, and my pulse thumped in my ears, soon covering the squeaking sound his leather jacket – which he’d refused to take off – made as he moved his arm.

“You also realize I’m carrying weapons, don’t you?” he continued just as hushed, his fingers now wrapping around my hand and taking it to his left arm, which rested on his knee.

The blade was hard under the jacket. He guided my palm up and down the blade, slowly, making me rub it as I would his manhood. It stirred feelings in me, not of revulsion or anger, as it should have, but of need in my groin.

“I promised you some answers, Alice, so here they are.” His voice rippled, deep and velvety. “Number one. The police can’t protect you from a BioDhrome agent, I believe I’ve already made this point.”

“Are you a BioDhrome agent?” I whispered. My hand still caressed the blade, still guided by him.

“Number two,” he whispered, ignoring my question, “Your father will be safe as long as you don’t try to find him.”

This time the information sank in quickly, slapping me back to myself. My hand stopped moving and Damian didn’t force it.

“Number three,” he continued, beastly eyes drilling into mine, “You’ve managed to draw too much of BioDhrome’s attention. They sent an agent for you, Alice. That’s bad news. Really bad news.”

He retreated, his breathing a bit heavy.

“Are you that agent, Damian?” I managed, my voice thick with both longing and anger.

To be continued

***

Enjoyed this? Don’t keep it to yourself. Share your opinion with the writer, publisher and readers, we’re happy to hear from you. Stay tuned for episode 9 next Friday or subscribe at anaatcalin@gmail.com to receive notification at each new post.

Enjoy the first 50 pages of the book here.

Love,

Ana

Chasing Damian – Part 7

As promised, here goes Part 7 of “Chasing Damian”, publisher approved and re-edited. Stay tuned next Friday for Part 8, and every week for much more . . .

See the first 50 pages here.

Novel synopsis:

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 that conducts experiments on humans and which had ‘engineered’ Damian into something monstrous many years before is on their trail.

Alice becomes an important tool in the investigation, which may cost her life. A man of secrets and obscure powers, Damian might be a villain or a hero. Though aware of the danger he poses, she can’t fight the obsession that draws 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.

 forbiddenlove

 

Pic source.

Part 7

The largest man that must’ve ever existed stood before me, his head much above mine. He was big to the extreme, something most people don’t get to lay their eyes on in a lifetime. A black cloak that reminded me of the garment of a priest molded on the wavy, way-too-big shoulder muscles. Cold sweat trickled down my temples.

His face was obscure behind eyes that shone like silver lights in a way that wasn’t natural. On the spot I realized he must’ve been a freak of nature, for which the Persian Empire was once so famous. Except that he was definitely here now, thousands of years off.

“Now this is unexpected,” he spoke, the words as if pounding from a loudspeaker that stood too close.

I stared into his star-like eyes. Their brightness blinded me to any details of his features, and I just petrified in the face of something so unusual and yet so familiar. It took only another second to realize he must’ve been under the influence of the gas that had turned us into monsters up in the mountains, the gas that had made my own eyes light up like torches.

“A gem, indeed.” It was a vibrant whisper.

What the hell are you?”

A grin that I didn’t see but sensed stretched across his nightly face. “The Executioner’s gem. The Executioner’s aim.”

A hand started toward me, looking like he was introducing himself. But I was too afraid to stand around and find out whether it wasn’t actually going for my throat. I stumbled a step backwards to put distance between us.

His feet moved slowly, but clearly intent to follow. My pulse took up and my rational mind shut down – quickly and skillfully, well trained from the mountains – as I turned on my heel and started running, boxing heavy rugs out of my way, lamps slivering as they brushed my hair.

Not thinking made it easy to move and my body immune to the bumps into other people as I emerged back into a crowd. But even in this state one thing was clear as day – The man had wanted to draw me to him, and the family that had drifted me along to that lonely corner of the roofed bazaar had been his instruments. Ruxandra was no safer than I was, and Officer Sorescu would be completely useless against the giant freak. It would take no more than a slap to send him flying on his back and sinking into unconscious slumber.

Just as I identified Ruxandra’s back among the strollers something hard wrapped around my waist. An arm with something rigid along it like a plank of metal, I realized as it lifted me from the ground as if I were a feather. I wanted to scream but a large hand covered the lower half of my face. Panic struck at the certainty that the giant with glowing eyes would squash me in a second. But the man spun me round and crammed me between two booths.

I looked up into pale, crystal-green eyes glinting under dark eyebrows, and recognized the finely chiseled face of Damian Novac.

CHAPTER VIII

I stared at him with an open mouth. The beauty of his face struck me as if I saw him for the first time, and I realized he was of the same league as Giant – extraordinary and just as scary.

I felt tiny as a child. My heart raced and my face burned, so close to a titan’s chest. He smelled the way freshly cut wood had in Gramps’ barn many years ago.

“What the hell were you thinking?” Damian hissed through his teeth. His eyes pierced into mine with the sharp purpose of crystal shards, but also something else that I couldn’t quite give a name to. Maybe some kind of angry relief.

“Are you back to your senses already?”

I managed to find my voice.

“What are you doing here, Damian?” Then some of my wit followed, “Or should I call you Cezare?”

His lips drew in the ghost of a grin. “Both will do. But you haven’t answered my question – What the hell was going on in your head, straying around alone?”

I jotted my chin and gave him the most capable of scowls. It didn’t seem to impress him, but I was proud of it anyway.

“If anyone owes explanations here, mister, it’s you.” Before I knew it, my index finger poked until it hurt against his stony chest clad in just a white V-neck and a thin leather jacket. “I’m looking for a way to contact my Dad, who was allegedly extracted by the R.I.S. after the little talk he had with you.” “One can’t protect from fire with fire or from hell with demons,” the memory of Dad’s words echoed in my head. “My Dad, who seemed to know you all too well.”

Damian’s jaw tightened, his face taking on the hardness of honey-glazed marble. So fast that I didn’t even perceive the move, he caught my wrist in an iron grip.

“How much of our talk did you hear, girl?”

Girl. “Is that fear I sense?” I mocked, merely trying to hide my anguish.

“It is, yet not for myself. You apparently know too much, too, Alice.” – urging tone, yet not threatening.

“Finally he remembers my name. Well, there’s not much you can do about it now, is it? But rest assured – the more I find out, the more questions I have. Too few answers.”

“And who have you talked to about these questions and answers until now?”

“Why should I tell you? Let’s get one thing straight, Damian, Cezare, or whatever your name is: I don’t trust you.”

Damian raised his chin, looking tall, imposing. His hair spilled in raven waves to his shoulders, his mouth was a dark grin and his eyes sharp crystal. A beautiful devil he was. I swallowed and sank my head, praying he hadn’t seen the way my eyes had widened at him and exposed me for a treacherous second.

“Good,” he said. My head snapped back up. I stared at him in surprise, which I tried to mask with mockery.

“I ain’t that dumb after all, am I?”

“Oh, dumb is last the thing you are. Actually, you impress me every day more, Alice.”

“That sounds like a line from a cheap movie, Fallen Angel.”

“Fallen Angel? Is that the cheap title?”

“As cheap as ‘you impress me’ and all that, but since I can’t be sure what your name is, I picked one.”

“Nice name you’ve chosen, I’m flattered. But I’m not an angel, Alice, not even a fallen one.”

“What are you then?”

His fingers wound around my arm, sinking into my flesh.

“You want answers? I’ll give you some,” he hissed.

Before I could react Damian started walking, pulling me after him. To make him loosen his grip, I clasped his forearm with my free hand and felt something hard strapped to it. Something metallic. Though I couldn’t be sure, the first thing that jumped to mind were the blades I’d read assassins used to carry under their sleeves ages ago. Shock paralyzed my tongue, making me unable to warn Ruxandra or Officer Sorescu before Damian patted the latter’s shoulder.

To be continued.

***

Enjoyed this? Don’t keep it to yourself. Share your opinion with the writer, publisher and readers, we’re happy to hear from you. Stay tuned for episode 7 next Friday or subscribe at anaatcalin@gmail.com to receive notification at each new post.

Enjoy the previous 50 pages of the book here.

Love,

Ana

Chasing Damian – Part 6

As promised, here goes Part 6 of “Chasing Damian”, publisher approved and re-edited. Stay tuned next Friday for Part 7, and every week for much more . . .

See the first 50 pages here.

Novel synopsis:

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 had ‘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, which may cost her life. A man of secrets and obscure powers, Damian might be a villain or a hero. 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.

Part 6

forbiddenlove

Pic source.

“See, what did I tell you? They found Mad Conan to blame it on. As for the old man, he’s a scapegoat,” Ruxandra said as images of a wrecked old doctor with Einstein hair, cuffed hands and fragile body in a suit appeared on the screen, led to a police car by two men in black uniforms.

The connection to Dad fired in my head.

“Jesus, Rux, this is bad! This is real bad!”

She looked at me, startled by my reaction but as sharp as I knew her. In a few breaths and with no second thoughts I broke my oath and told her about the extraction, glancing at the door to make sure Mom didn’t catch me on it.

“Help me, Rux,” I pleaded. “I need to see him, make sure he’s not being held hostage and questioned like a heretic.”

“There are people outside, Alice. They’ll follow you,” she retorted, skipping the surprised part. She took the information as I gave it to her, frowning and fully present.

“So what if they do? They’re not my problem, Mom is.”

“Alice, those bulldogs outside will make sure you don’t find Dr. Preda, if you’re not supposed to.”

“I’ll just go to Varlam at the station. He’s supposedly available for us at all times, isn’t he? And I’ll find a way to get him talking. I’ll offer info in return, I don’t know.”

“And why would Jenna try to stop you?”

“She deems Dad a danger for us right now, because of his ties to BioDhrome. And she knows that, if I want to see Varlam, it’s because I want to see Dad. Better yet, if I go out now, no matter the pretext, she’s gonna know what I’m actually up to. You have to get me out of the house, please.”

“You don’t have Hector’s number?”

I shook my head. “No. Mom made sure all contact details are out of my reach, probably also yours. He’s not on the internet either. Hell, I think hardly any R.I.S. agent working undercover as a bearded rocker would post himself on the web with office hours and gun registration number. The only solution is going to the station.”

Ruxandra studied me for a while. A deep-in-thought V formed between her eyebrows as she assessed my face, and the moment Mom walked back into the living room, she began talking without warning or turning her eyes from me.

“There’s no way I can spend days here without something proper to wear.”

She sounded so convincing, I fell for it myself. “You can have anything from my wardrobe,” I babbled, blinking fast.

“You’re petite, Alice, you don’t own anything I can actually take out on the street or campus tomorrow.”

Her eyes danced on mine, maybe in expectation for me to kick the ball back at her. But, since I was too puzzled to produce a sound, she went on herself.

“I need to get some things from our place.”

I appreciated the our and instantly understood what she was doing. But Mom intervened as if burnt with a hot iron.

“You’re sure not going to that part of the city, not with darkness knocking on the door.”

Ruxandra’s clever face froze for a moment, but, as she turned to Mom, it had already regained its elasticity and added a rakish smile.

“You’re right, Jenna, I didn’t think about that. We’ll ask one of the boys outside to accompany us to Marvimex.”

“They’re here as watchmen and not escorts,” Mom admonished.

“Then please, have a word with them,” Rux said.

Mom gave me an I-know-what-you’re-up-to glance, which I blocked with an innocent smile and a shrug.

“I’d love to get out of the house for a bit,” I said. “I need a breath of freedom, Mom.”

It was the begging tone that unbalanced Mom’s resolve, no doubt. After little more insistence from our part she allowed us to get ready while she went out, looking for Officer Sorescu or one of his colleagues. I had no idea why Ruxandra hadn’t tried to lose the escort, but I decided to trust her judgment in the end. She always knew what she was doing.

I parted the curtains with two fingers and spied – much like old Mrs. Teodorescu from across the street did each time a car pulled up in front of one of the neighboring houses. Mom crossed the street with rapid steps, keeping the long winter coat gathered close around her body.

To my gaping surprise, she entered the corner bar – for the very first time in her life, I was sure – where loud drunkards burned away their time gambling cigarettes and bottles, sometimes their wives’ jewelry, sometimes their wives. With its barred windows and narrow entrance the place was perfectly designed to keep interest at bay. Yes, suited for undercover tailing operations, why not.

“What if the place hadn’t existed, I wonder.” Ruxandra’s voice startled me. I’d thought she was already getting ready, didn’t realize she was still present. “Would they have extracted Mrs. Teodorescu and had an agent disguise himself as her? Imagine a guy with a moustache in an apron.”

She forced a laugh that made her look and sound mentally deranged rather than amused. The picture of Officer Sorescu’s round face framed by a colored kerchief did reach my mind’s eye, though.

Ruxandra took my hand and pulled me to the antechamber, where challenge number two was up – getting around George. He lay on the sofa with eyes fixed on the small TV, watching no less than Bugs Bunny. Mom must’ve turned to the old tape to keep his mind off anything heavy.

Ruxandra stared at him, holding a finger up in front of her pursed lips – keeping me quiet, I imagined. He seemed not to be aware of our presence, his mouth open, drooling, and brows high in the lost expression of a retarded person. Maybe the colored motion on screen simply helped him relax and put his mind off duty. Or maybe he was high on prescription medication.

Slowly, Ruxandra opened the doors to the wardrobe. The slower she moved the louder they creaked, and George stirred.

“For fuck’s sake, Rux, he’s not Alien or something,” I mumbled, refusing to accept that George wasn’t to be treated like a normal man anytime soon.

“Shhhhh! D’you want him screaming and wriggling?” she retorted through her teeth.

I knew she was right but it felt wrong anyway, treating George like an inconvenience.

Ruxandra skimmed over the shelves with an all business frown, scanned the available items – not by far satisfactory, judging by the silent scoffs – and snatched a white wool sweater and a pair of tight jeans that reminded me too much of what Olympia had been wearing in the mountains. But as soon as Rux closed the double doors to my room behind us, I shrugged off the memory as I did the nightgown and pulled them on without protest. Time was too precious.

The jeans were a couple of years old and had gone through repeated washing along with the other pairs, but I’d only worn them once on the day of acquisition. Tony had labeled this particular pair “slutty” ‘cause it molded on my thighs “like latex leggings do on hookers’ legs”. What saved them from becoming a give-away was my “modest” wardrobe, as Rux often put it, so I’d kept them to make me feel I owned at least a little more than I needed.

A change of clothes was already folded for Ruxandra on the rocking chair by the window. I watched her sinewy shape dance into it and recognized Mom’s elegant red turtleneck sweater and her white winter puffed pants.

“How do I look?” she inquired, probably trying to shallow-talk some of the pressure away.

“When did Mom give you the threads?” If Mom had offered Rux access to her wardrobe, what was the point of shopping, especially at five in the evening?

“She didn’t. I helped myself after the shower today.” She winked. “Once a gypsy, always a gypsy. We seldom need permission.” A reasonable explanation followed after a short laugh. “Joke aside, your clothes are all too small, and I figured Jenna wouldn’t mind. She never did before. I took these threads for tomorrow. I wanna go back to campus, I won’t let this thing control my life.”

“But she’ll see you’re wearing her stuff when we go out. Marvimex won’t stand, she’ll know we’re going to see Varlam. Plus, even if we manage to persuade her we’re going shopping, we might not even make it to him with one of those watchmen on our heels,” I threw at her, sounding increasingly desperate as I realized our plot was rickety.

“Oh, we’re going to Marvimex first, all right. I can’t wear Jenna’s clothes forever, she knows that. I can only wear them for a day or two, until I get myself new ones. Once we’re there, I’ll talk the guy into accompanying us to see Hector. I’ll tell him you and I have confidential information, and that our seeing him needs cover.”

“He won’t buy it,” I shook my head. “It’s weak, it won’t work.”

“Wanna bet?” Rux retorted, a mischievous grin quirking up a corner of her mouth.

In the end Rux turned out to be right, Mom didn’t even ask how come my best friend was wearing her outfit. The explanation must’ve been obvious.

Embarrassing as it was, we had to accept Mom’s pushing cash in our hands with bent heads. All the money I’d managed to save from tutoring activities was hidden in Ruxandra’s apartment – that we weren’t allowed to set foot into for, I guess, forever –, as were Ruxandra’s savings from all that baby-sitting.

In less than half an hour we were standing under the large sign creaking askew above the entrance to Marvimex, the rain rapping on our umbrellas. The crooked plate read “Shopping Center”, yet the place wasn’t far from a ghostly bazaar. Engulfed by grey blocks of flats with walls damped by rain that testified half century of communism, it looked like a stable with dozens of barracks in the middle of a concrete fortress. They were populated with small, fat men and women wearing thick golden chains around their necks, offering contraband like circus performers did their often disturbing tricks. Still, many shoppers preferred the place to the Tomis Mall for its cheap and often unique wares.

Valuable objects such as antique adornment artifacts and clay pots weren’t unusual here. There were actually even stories of vintage jewelry that had made it to the manors of lords and ladies in England or even tycoons in the States for hundreds of thousands of dollars. But to me, these were no more than myths until proven otherwise.

Officer Sorescu sheltered Rux under the umbrella he held for both of them. She’d been quicker to charm him than I’d thought possible.

I caught glimpses of her profile now and then as we slithered through strings of people towards the roofed hall that housed an anthill of booths. These glimpses were enough to read seduction off her smile and divine the batting of her thick lashes. They produced the effect of melting poor Sorescu on his feet, and I knew she would soon be able to touch on the sensitive subject, namely ask him to accompany us to the police station for a confidential meeting with Detective Hector Varlam. Then the even more sensitive core of the subject would follow – no one was to hear of this.

But the view was lost as a young family in shopping rush suddenly squeezed me among them, and disappeared again just as suddenly in the roofed hall. Persian rugs hung around among lamps and chandeliers of different shapes, their glass icicles clinking whenever they trickled too low and touched my hair. They gave dim and pleasant light of warm and silent colors.

It was as if I’d been teleported by some tornado in another dimension, this part of the bazaar as good as empty of life except for a few passer-by shadows here and there, thin and untouchable ghosts. I spun among the hanging rugs, curtains and lamps that surrounded me the way circus gadgets would a child. Intertwined patterns engraved into the carpet fabric had a hypnotic effect. An effect that was all-surrounding.

It was unsettling, this feeling, like a presentiment of danger that came true when a powerful voice called my name. I turned on my heels and gasped sharply.

To be continued.

***

Enjoyed this? Don’t keep it to yourself. Share your opinion with the writer, publisher and readers, we’re happy to hear from you. Stay tuned for episode 7 next Friday or subscribe at anaatcalin@gmail.com to receive notification at each new post.

Enjoy the previous 50 pages of the book here.

Love,

Ana

Chasing Damian – Part 5

As promised, here goes Part 5 of “Chasing Damian”, publisher approved and re-edited. Stay tuned next Friday for Part 6, and every week for much more . . .

See the first 50 pages here.

Novel synopsis:

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. 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.

Part 5

forbiddenlove

Pic source.

CHAPTER VII

“I’m your daughter, you really believe I’d betray your secrets?” – stab in the chest. As I don’t betray Dad’s. “All right, may I die in chains, if a word on this leaves my mouth,” I went for one of the many gypsy oath formulations I’d learned in Ruxandra’s home.

Mom shuddered. “Not like that, please. Your word suffices. Keep this all to yourself, for your own good.”

“No need to elaborate on that. Elaborate on extracted.”

Deep breath, gathering her nerves. “Tiberius has been working with the Intelligence Service for years, Alice. He’s been analyzing blood samples they delivered him, samples that came from dangerous thugs. The results were always classified, your father never spoke of them. But when he began receiving samples from so-called BioDhrome agents, he withdrew in his shell like a turtle. Still, his baffled face spoke volumes. Even when he grew more accustomed to whatever he discovered, it took its toll on him. It almost drove him insane, which cost us many midnight fights.” Her voice trailed off, lost in painful memory.

“Tell me about it,” I whispered. All those late nights when Dad tiptoed to the master bedroom, the quiet quarrels they thought I didn’t hear, played like a movie in my head. All those empty weekends, Mom sunken in her books and I in mine, Dad only a picture on a shelf, even though he was still of this world.

“I put him under pressure for years to quit what he was doing. I imagine that’s why his heart grew cold to me, and he began seeking comfort elsewhere. Oh, dear baby, I haven’t asked – some coffee? Tea?”

With the premiere of her confession on my shoulders, I nodded, and Mom put a kettle on the stove. I let her decide on whether coffee or tea and moved a few inches in to let her sit by me and slip a loving arm around my back, as if to support me through what she’d say next.

“Your father is a BioDhrome target. He’s been one for a long time. So the R.I.S. took him in when we were still at the hospital in Brasov. He’s safe with them.”

“How can you be sure?” Worry broke through my voice, no matter how hard I tried to keep it chained.

“Because there’s nothing safer than R.I.S. protection in this country.”

“The few words I exchanged with him back at the hospital, he didn’t seem anxious about his life. He wanted to stay here, with us.”

“Without protection, two of his colleagues have been killed, Alice. People who worked with Intelligence Services in Barcelona and Bristol, also in matters related to genetic research. The R.I.S. are certain BioDhrome was the author, and that Tiberius is a target of greatest importance to them too. Therefore he’s a risk factor in this house, for us and for himself. Now that he’s out of the picture we’re safer, but still. Officer Sorescu, the man you saw in here . . .” even more careful now, “He’s around with his colleagues, just in case. Ruxandra and George will be staying with us, it narrows down the number of places that need surveillance.”

“Does this mean we’re confined to these walls?”

“No, you’ll be free to live your life almost as you did before. The police, the R.I.S. and the doctors, they all agree that the trauma will be slow to leave you, so a normal life is essential. Especially public places are benefic. Crowds are safe.”

She smiled as if this were supposed to thrill me like alcohol would a teen. And it did, to a certain extent. Crowds, places like the campus and even clubs were safe indeed in our town, the built-in curiosity of people would let no event unobserved. It worked better than CCTV, so there was strong reason to believe that BioDhrome wouldn’t risk an action in open field. They’d try to get us alone, at night in lonely places or even in our homes. So surveillance made sense.

But the feeling that Dad had been extracted against his will nagged. He’d been desperate like never before at the hospital, his tone had left no room for doubt. He’d been convinced that he could protect us, especially by being present.

“And if we want to talk to him? Is there some number we can call? Some place we can go, for example, I don’t know, a phone cabin downtown like in those detective movies or something?”

“We can contact Detective Varlam.”

“I see.” I was unable to control an acid grin. So this is how Hector was forcing cooperation. By leaving us no way around him. On a second thought, what if extraction was no more than a cover? A gross lie? What if he’d thrown Dad in a nasty cell and punched and kicked information on Damian Novac out of him? I jumped to my feet, bumping into the table edge. My ears whistled in tune with the kettle on the stove.

“Well, I’d like a word with him right now,” I spat.

Mom stood up, too, hand on my cheek to calm me down, blue eyes identical to mine wide and worried. Standing a head taller though, she made me feel like a kid again.

“Alice, honey, the whole idea behind this was to keep contact slim. Why bother organizing an extraction, if family stops by at the hideout to say hello anytime they please?”

“And you accept this so easily?” I snapped and brushed her hand off. “Are you really not worried about him, not one bit? His absence doesn’t bother you in the least?”

Now it was Mom’s turn to frown and apply a hard edge to her voice. “It’s not much difference to the last years, is it?”

“But this is different, Mom! You have no idea what we’ve been through up there, in the mountains. BioDhrome is serious shit, they’re really deep trouble!”

“Exactly! I am worried about your father, Alice, believe me, but yes, I admit, I’m more worried about you. Officer Sorescu even thinks that this attack on your group was meant at kidnapping you, in order to force Tiberius to turn himself in to them. To BioDhrome. So if his presence puts you in danger, then I don’t need or want to see him again until the afterlife.”

Her words sent a stab through my brain, but I kept protest and anger behind tightened lips. Mom’s honesty was sharp, like glass colliding with glass in her voice, leaving no trace of the vulnerability she’d put in her confession. Moreover, Dad had been cheating on her for a long time and she knew that. I happened to know even with whom. Indeed, why should she give a shit. I tried for a peace-making tone.

“But I wouldn’t be seeing him, Mom. I’ll just talk to Detective Varlam, make sure Dad’s all right. I need details.”

“I know you’re hard to assure of anything, sweetheart. You have a counterargument ready for anything, you’re able to question even the law of gravity, and I think you’re taking it too far sometimes. That’s why I’m telling you now: your father is safe and sound, take that for granted.”

Mom wasn’t the dictator Dad could often be, but when she stood for something there was no way past her will. Behind the mask of the kind, soft-spoken Madame Jenna everyone appreciated, she had ways of getting what she wanted, brains to bow to and the patience of a reptile. On days like this, I ate my heart out for not having inherited at least half of everything she was.

Still, I found the guts to try and make up a strategy around her in my head, but before it caught shape I heard the door from the antechamber to my room. Then light steps. Ruxandra’s steps. The knock on the doorframe to signal her presence was accompanied by a weak smile.

Her pretty face had lost much of its glow, her olive complexion now pale in its own way, her hair a washed-out black, rumpling down to her waist. Her jaw was locked despite the smile. The experience we’d been through had taken away what was left of her carefree self, I would say, and Ruxandra had become a twenty-two-year-old veteran of fight for survival.

Mom smiled back and hurried to pour her a cup of coffee, eager to cover the subject of our conversation. Ruxandra relished in Mom’s warm welcome like an orphan would in a Christmas night with presents, and joined me at the table, huddled in my old pink bathrobe that came too short on her arms and legs.

They were all “Rux, dear,” and “Jenna” to each other, as always. They had a special relationship. Mom had made a life purpose of plunging deep into the troubles of the gypsy minority, she had dedicated them her time even though there was no trophy to be won. Rich wives of the Western World she came from did charity, Mom had told me, but she didn’t think much of it. “Raising funds for clerks. Trust me, half of the donated money ends up on their pay-checks,” she’d say.

But Mom was determined to be of use on a very personal, palpable level and made a great ‘career’ of social work. Many of the gypsy kids in our neighborhood, Ruxandra and her sister Saveta included, had listened to her winter stories and learned to read and write from her. Both Romanian and English. It had been Mom who’d helped Ruxandra’s mother leave her husband and find a job at the textile factory many years ago. She’d fought and achieved so much in those difficult times. A rush of admiration swept over me, and a smile drew my lips. My heroine.

Ruxandra took a long sip of coffee, fingers curled around the mug, then leant her head back, savoring not only the aroma but also her surroundings. There was love in her gaze as it crossed over every detail of the room – The cluttered wooden cupboards nailed to the walls over the counter, the door to the back garden with its dusty glass pane, the pots, kettles and spoons dangling from a wooden stripe with hooks above the sink like bells waiting to be played.

“I’ve missed this place,” she said, her hand gently stroking the nylon table cover.

Mom gave her a warm smile. “It’s missed you, too.”

Despite the promising start, the conversation got stuck as soon as Mom uttered a, “Did you sleep well?”. Ruxandra lowered her head and pressed her lips, as if not wanting to remember. But, if she’d had nightmares, I hadn’t noticed. She’d been still and quiet. Only George’s low moaning and sighing had reached me once in a while through the veil of light sleep.

Mom tried to guide Ruxandra back on the conversational track, but all she got were attempted smiles from the trembling corner of her mouth. She wasn’t quite herself, that much was obvious. But then again, neither was I.

Mom’s insistences on tea, cookies, coffee, chocolate, marmalade and another dozen sweets per minute were a clear sign I was a disturbing sight too. I wasn’t even sure to perceive and answer all her questions, I had this feeling they’d passed by my ears more than once, like deja heards or something.

George woke up late in the afternoon. His sudden screams as if someone were slicing him alive made us all jump, and Mom almost threw down the door to the antechamber to attend him. His pained groans sent chills down my back. Ruxandra slapped her palms over her face, her shoulders shaking in hard sobs.

Carefully, I took her in my arms. I threw a glance at the big, lazy clock on the highest shelf of the bookcase – it showed four in the afternoon. George had at least gotten a good chunk of sleep. Unlike Ruxandra and I, who hadn’t even found the energy to lose the pink nightgowns we still wore like overgrown babies, curled on the couch, TV on.

Without Mom to promptly switch channels as soon as the news came on, always packed with tragedies and subliminal, “This is the end of the world”, Ruxandra and I were now fully exposed to them. A report about a massacre at a remote cottage in the mountains of Bulgaria made us both lift out heads, teeth clenched, eyes bulging.

The twin of our story, only that no one had been found, dead or alive. The perfectly groomed reporter’s words were like another deja-heard, her voice matter-of-fact but disturbed in its depths. Her story was accompanied by censured images that played on the half of the screen next to her face.

“Blood on pieces of clothing and torn curtains. Broken windows and dried blood on shards of glass. Stains of blood…” And this is where my ears began buzzing, muffling the sound of the TV. My blood pressure must’ve shot up to the sky.

So this one made it on the news.

“They’ll cover up in a few days max,” Ruxandra said, close enough to my ear to pierce through the buzz.

“How could they? How could a footage like this be a mistake? They fucking filmed the mess. People are not stupid, Rux.”

“No, they aren’t. But there have been so many tragedies with so many explanations lately, that illegal experimentation won’t cross their minds. They’ll accept any animal attack, serial killer, drugs and orgies that ended up badly, you name it.”

Then the reporter said, “The police arrested Dr. Lazar Dobrev, a psychiatrist. He used to treat one of the missing persons, who’d been diagnosed with schizophrenia. Yet Dr. Dobrev set him on the loose. The man was known to have murderous compulsions, which he shouldn’t have had trouble acting on at a height of two meters and a hundred and seventy kilograms of muscle.”

To be continued.

***

Enjoyed this? Don’t keep it to yourself. Share your opinion with the writer, publisher and readers, we’re happy to hear from you. Stay tuned for episode 6 next Friday or subscribe at anaatcalin@gmail.com to receive notification at each new post.

Enjoy the previous 50 pages of the book here.

Love,

Ana

Chasing Damian – Part 4

As promised, here goes Part 4 of “Chasing Damian”, publisher approved and re-edited. Stay tuned next Friday for Part 5, and every week for much more . . .

See the first 50 pages here.

Novel synopsis:

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.

 

Part 4

forbiddenlove

Pic source.

Mom drove all the four-hour way to Constanta in silence. George was in great need of it. He was sensitive to all sound, he’d cover his ears, his face would twist in a grotesque mask and he’d squeeze his lids shut at every word he heard. He’d killed a man with his own hands, the trauma was most severe for him, the doctor had explained. He remembered every detail of it vividly, which tormented him with violent headaches.

“Don’t leave him alone, for whatever reason,” the doctor had warned.

The street up to my parents’ house revealed itself on a last turn, cobbled and ghostly in our headlights. Barking from neighboring yards and the crisp sea air were the first to greet us, lonely and timeless, like the screech of our old iron gate and the warm darkness of our living room. I think that was my first real experience of synesthesia, I could almost feel the massive oak bookcase through my skin, the homely upholstered couch, Dad’s favorite armchair.

George didn’t wait for an invitation to throw himself face-down on the sofa in the small antechamber that opened into my room, which I used to call my boudoir back in high school. Ruxandra and I shared my bed.

Mom turned on the lamp outside, the thick skeleton of our old apple tree bathing in its mild light. We kept the curtains open so we could face it from the bed, my old guardian from childhood days. It felt safe, it felt home, but I still couldn’t close my eyes until the early morning hours. Something was missing, something wasn’t right. Something wasn’t home. It only hit me when my eyes snapped open at midday, my brain refreshed: Where was Dad?

I threw the blanket aside, squirmed out of bed – squashing Ruxandra in the process, provoking a grunt and a sleepy frown – and rushed to the master bedroom.

The curtains were drawn, making way for the pale winter light through the overlarge window. The just as oversized bed was made – of course, Mom must’ve been up for hours, if she’d slept at all, considering the circumstances. Having left the parental home a few years ago to live with Ruxandra and her sister in the town suburbs, most of my parents’ habits had moved to the back of my brain, only to resurface when exposed to them again. As they did now. I remembered the smell of scrambled eggs that used to draw me to the kitchen when I was a child. It hadn’t spoilt my olfactory senses in many years and it didn’t now either, but, as I said, old memories resurfaced.

I tiptoed to the kitchen to find Mom sitting at the table, her thin fingers slowly stroking a coffee mug smeared with souvenir photos of San Francisco – one of the few items that still bound her to her own home. Her stare was lost over the black liquid that didn’t give out steam, which meant she must’ve been staring blankly at it for some time now. Her hair, blond and crisscrossed by platinum strands, fell rumpled to her slim shoulders. She was clad in a fluffy, white nightgown.

The sight was disconcerting, considering her usual innate urge of always looking flawless and making an impression of aristocracy on all eyes that fell on her, including the cleaning lady’s. Now the absence of an elegant and shiny bun and the uncovered wrinkles on her meager face in the presence of a stranger were another definite sign something was wrong.

His sitting on the kitchen couch, the corner cupboard hanging over his head like the Sword of Damocles, was even more disturbing. A heavy winter coat was hanging negligently off the couch edge, his chubby hands cupping a coffee mug of his own like pillows of flesh emerging from under thick pullover sleeves. His mien was grave as he set brown, warm eyes on me.

Round and young, but marked by determination, that’s the impression his face made. Common features, like mine, someone I wouldn’t have noticed in a group or anywhere else. But now he sat in my parents’ kitchen. Was he a lover? No way, my inner self snapped. She would’ve gone for someone less . . . fat. Plus, he didn’t seem to be feeling awkward, nor did he try to justify his presence.

Just a few moments of puzzling silence, then he stood up, gathered his coat and turned to the door that led directly to the back garden – something told me he’d come in through the same, but I was clueless as to the reason why he refused to use the front door. With a hand on the handle and the coat on the other arm, he turned once more to Mom.

“We’ll be close.”

She nodded. He threw me a glance that said, “I’ll let you girls talk,” before he left.

Unable to formulate questions even in my head, I opened my mouth to speak, but nothing came out. Still, the sixth sense activated again and sent me with slow steps to the table, then seated me in the man’s place.

Mom didn’t raise her head. On the contrary, she seemed to sink it even closer to the mug, a hunch forming on her slim back that was otherwise as straight as a wood plank. Hadn’t it been for the thick nightgown, I would’ve seen the skin stretch over her ribs. The truth of the man’s visit must’ve been a burden not much different from an affair. Could it be?

“So?” I managed after a while.

Her fingers still stroked the mug with slow, even moves. “We’ll be under surveillance. I don’t know for how long.”

Surveillance?

“Why’s that?”

“You and your friends. The . . .” she chewed on her lower lip, probably to keep back what looked like a nervous breakdown. Her cheek twitched. “Those people from the mountains. BioDhrome, they told me.”

Panic shot to the tips of my toes.“BioDhrome’s our priority now, Tiberius. They won’t stop here.”

“Where’s Dad?”

Only now Mom looked me in the eyes, eyebrows up like a crying pet’s. She looked for the way to put it, there was no doubt.

“No, God, please no!”

Mom’s expression grew from wrecked to worried, more alert now, the way it had been at the hospital. She gripped my wrist, voice soft and soothing, though it cost her some effort.

“No, baby, no. He’s all right, safe and sound.”

Pulse still up until the information sank in. “Where is he then?”

This was the news she’d been nervous about, I could tell by the pause and fixed gaze on my eyes.

“He’s been extracted, they told me.”

Extracted? What’s that supposed to mean?”

Another nervous chew on her lip. “This BioDhrome thing.” Then reconsidering, “Alice, this must stay between us. Tell no one, not Ruxandra, not anyone.”

“Just tell me, Mom!”

“Give me your word first. For your own safety, not mine.”

To be continued.

***

Enjoyed this? Don’t keep it to yourself. Share your opinion with the writer, publisher and readers, we’re happy to hear from you. Stay tuned for episode 4 next Friday or subscribe at anaatcalin@gmail.com to receive notification at each new post.

Enjoy the previous 50 pages of the book here.

Love,

Ana

Chasing Damian – Part 3

As promised, here goes Part 3 of “Chasing Damian”, publisher approved and re-edited. Stay tuned next Friday for Part 4, and every week for much more . . .

See the first 50 pages here.

Novel synopsis:

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.

Part 3

forbiddenlove

Pic source.

CHAPTER VI

Unbelievable how Dad could still shove my questions under a carpet after all these years. He wanted to forget I wasn’t a child or a pet, and tried to shift focus by answering my questions with his own.

“Are you feeling dizzy?” – recovering from surprise, stroking my forehead.

“How do you know him?”

“Does your head feel heavy? The whole body? Lift your right hand,” – as if he didn’t hear me this time either.

“What did they do to him, Dad?”

“Is breathing difficult? How about talking?”

“Damn it, Dad!” – no difficulties there – “What’s the story?”

The door creaked ajar and Dad’s face sprang over mine. He whispered sternly in my ear, “Breathing is difficult, Alice. Everything hurts, no matter what.” Then he straightened up to face the visitor.

A mind-blowing surprise to see the person interested in my wellbeing this time was Hector, the bearded singer with aquiline features. It wasn’t until two men in POLICE jackets followed, that I realized he wasn’t there as brother-in-pain. His frown and suspicion-filled eyes measuring Dad from head to toes already spoke of a strict inspector or something, but as he flashed his badge my mouth still popped open.

“Your wife kindly announced us that Miss Preda is awake,” he croaked, low and controlled, as if he hadn’t been there with us, as if he’d only just read the case facts in a file that got slapped on his desk. What movie is this?

“She’s still weak, Detective, she won’t be able to deliver much.”

“I’d be much obliged, if she tried,” – adjusting his attitude to match Dad’s aristocratic demeanor, clearly mocking.

“Later, Detective, I must insist.”

“Time is precious, Dr. Preda, given the circumstances. Surely you understand.”

More of this back and forth, “I insist,” and “So do I,” until Dad was left with no choice, the two officers framing him on each side. With silent threat on their furrowed brows they grabbed Dad by his arms. Offended, he jerked from their grasp and whisked his suit, giving me a reassuring, “I’ll be back with you as soon as the hawk’s out. Don’t let him pressure you.”

With that the officers ushered him out, and Hector took the chair by my side, examining me with a stiff attitude. His lips were white and split like a crack addict’s, there was a large cut with stitches on his forehead, not to mention that one eye was already turning from blue to black, so it couldn’t be just in my head – He’d been there with us, he’d taken a gulp of dread and violence as large as I had.

“What is this?” I managed, unable to hide astonishment.

“It’s obvious, isn’t it? Detective Hector Varlam, at your service.”

“Jesus, Hector!” – memories of lilt guitar tunes spinning in my head – “You were there with us. You lived it all first hand, what? Why? Jesus, Hector, why are you here?”

“Now, now, take it easy babe,” – with a gentle touch on my wrist, the familiar bearded singer replaced the detective with the experienced frown – “I don’t need you to recount what I already know, of course. I only need to find out what happened after you played decoy and got almost everybody out of the cottage.”

“How do you know I played decoy?” – didn’t wait for the answer though, other questions pressing against this one like a crowd against a door – “And what d’you mean almost everybody?”

“There have been fatalities, I’m afraid. Marius Iordache and six others didn’t make it out in time. I hate being the one to deliver this news.”

“Jesus Christ!” One particular memory lighting up – the wretch, coughing out blood and grunting like a dying animal.

“Alice, please,” Hector lowered his voice and face, acting the accomplice who felt with me, “This isn’t easy on my side of the barricade either. But we have to keep a cool head and recount the facts while the whole thing is still warm. If too much time passes, the brain begins to edit broken pieces of memory.”

“How long have you been on this case, Hector? How long have you been chasing BioDhrome?”

“Quite a while. For six years, to be exact.”

“So you didn’t get them in six fucking years, and now you want me to believe my account of a fight in frosty woods will make the difference?”

“A fight? Is that what happened?” – raised eyebrows, but no genuine surprise.

“I have a feeling you know more than you let on.” Like he did that I played decoy.

“The rescue team did find the body of a villager close to where they found you. But the man was all meat stripes, and I seriously doubt you were the author.”

“I wasn’t. It was wolves.” But I had a feeling he knew that, too. A shudder traveled down my spine.

“Humor me. Tell me what happened.”

I did. Short sentences, only facts – struggling to push the gate shut in the bustling face of all emotion. Hector listened, eyes down at his hands.

“You were the only one attacked, you know,” he murmured, without lifting his head. “The rest of us ran and ran, faster and faster, whipped by such rage and bloodlust that we saw red.

“The rush started to fade as I strayed through the forest and, by the time I reached the village in the valley, I was drained of strength. My lips and fingers were frostbitten. There wasn’t a soul in the village, Alice, it looked completely abandoned. But all survivors, your friends Ruxandra Ignat and George Voinescu included, found their way there – all usable paths turned out to lead to the village like a fuckin’ maze – and we sought refuge in the church.

“Interestingly enough, Damian Novac came in last, hours later, and he wasn’t alone. He’d found the military base deep in the woods, some miles from the village, and brought help. How he made it there remains a mystery. Like so many things about him.” At this point, his eyes shot at me. “He was here with your father, wasn’t he?”

“So is this it? Is this why you’re really here and pretending to be bonding with me? To find out what they talked about?” I grinned at him, unable to hide the contempt in my voice. He and Damian had been hanging out for years, and yet here he was, this stuck-up detective who thought too much of his acting skills, squeezing information from a traumatized civilian.

“He’s dangerous, Alice, you must understand. I have reason to believe he’s a BioDhrome agent. I don’t have proof, since the guy is damned shrewd, but I’ve been around him for six years. Six. That’s enough time to feel things, if not know them.

“I’d studied Novac for a long time before this mission, monitored his every move, adjusted my personality to get under his skin. We became good friends, or so I thought. But his past, he always guarded it with inhuman wit. Still, one thing slipped – his friendship with your father. Until I saw him emerge from Dr. Preda’s private booth at the Marquette . . .” he went on carefully here, “The booth where Olympia danced for him, you understand? For your father. I’m sorry, Alice. I really didn’t want to tell you this, but I need your trust.”

Rage clouding my head, “What are you fuckin’ saying?”

“I’m saying that your father rented a booth at the club and paid for anonymity. I’m saying he’s having an affair with Olympia Slavic, and Damian Novac is the only person he trusted with this secret. And there’s much more where that came from. But I’ll have to stop here, you’re in no condition to hear this . . .”

“My condition didn’t stop you until now. Go on.”

Hector gritted his teeth.

“You know how I received this assignment? The Cezare Lupan file, archived with the R.I.S., disappeared six years ago. Disappeared, you understand? No one can make that happen unless they’re the K.G.B., F.B.I., fucking David Copperfield or a nasty monster with friends in high places, like BioDhrome. That’s how the Intelligence Service got me on the job.

“After six years of fuckin’ med school with him, I still don’t have material evidence against Novac, I don’t, but I’m positive as hell he works for powerful sharks. Still, any chance of producing evidence by myself is gone with the wind. My cover is now history, blown when we got out of that frozen hell, blown when my R.I.S. superiors came forward too directly, overconfident I’d gotten all the proof and witnesses we needed to nail Novac after this. Novac sniffed them, he now knows who I am.” – Bitter grin.

“But know this, Alice: I have no doubt that he’s been playing your father, too. Maybe he even introduced Dr. Preda to Olympia, with the purpose of loosening his tongue, do you realize? BioDhrome needs information from him. Your father may be a genius, but Novac’s Machiavelli resurrected.”

The whole room spun with me. This isn’t happening was back in the charts.

“So help me.” Hector lowered his voice even more, taking my hand in both of his. They pressed on my bandaged fingers, reminding me of how my nails had come off. The pain helped revive awareness that I was still in the real world.

“What did they talk about, your father and Novac?”

There was such emphasis on this last question, that my thoughts suddenly fit together like puzzle pieces, leaving no room four doubt. He’d come to see me as an investigator, yet he’d done as good as all the talking, telling me horror stories about a Machiavellian agent and a father I refused to recognize. All this even though I was lying on a hospital bed, with IV lines snaking around my arms. “Everything hurts, no matter what.”

The son of a bitch was trying to manipulate me into betraying my own father, and Dad had known it. Maybe everything he said was indeed true, but he was wielding the truth to get a fat bonus – he was trying to nail Dad along with Damian Novac, or Cezare Lupan, or whatever his name was. I turned my head to the narrow window, letting the gray daylight flood my eyes, as stinging as it was.

“I wouldn’t know, Detective. I wasn’t yet awake.”

“Yes, you were,” he insisted. “Your mother told me you were.”

“She was wrong.”

“As simple as that?”

“It’s the simple truth. Now if you don’t mind, I’m tired. Everything hurts.”

To be continued.

***

Enjoyed this? Don’t keep it to yourself. Share your opinion with the writer, publisher and readers, we’re happy to hear from you. Stay tuned for episode 4 next Friday or subscribe at anaatcalin@gmail.com to receive notification at each new post.

Enjoy the previous 50 pages of the book here.

Love,

Ana

CHASING DAMIAN – Part 2

As promised, here goes Part 2 of “Chasing Damian”, publisher approved and re-edited. Stay tuned next Friday for Part 3, and every week for much more . . .

See the first 50 pages here.

Novel synopsis:

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.

Part 2

forbiddenlove

Pic source.

CHAPTER V

Whispering somewhere close. If I was dead, I wasn’t alone in it. It was true, you still existed somewhere after you died. You don’t see, but you can hear – not an ideal situation, but still something. And it’s warm and so very comfortable, all that whispering, as if somebody’s careful not to disturb you.

Then I must’ve fallen asleep and dreamt, even in death, and it was anything but nice. I was small, so small, like a bee in a jar. And I tried to get out, but the glass was slippery, there was nothing I could grab. Every time I tried to reach up, my palms would leave traces of blood down the jar. Instead of fingernails, I had pus and blood. I screamed, a sharp scream like a train whistle, then a hard push on my hands. And then my eyes were open, though painful, so very painful.

I sat up, sweat trickling down my forehead and neck. The room seemed warped, like in a dream, my skull heavy as if it contained rocks. I dropped back on pillows that smelled of disease and needles stung my arms.

A sweet, pained voice rang close to my ear. “Alice, baby, you’re awake! Thank God, you’re awake!”

English. That moment I knew Mom was leaning over me, her lips pressing on my temple and forehead again and again. I tried to open my eyes, but the lids were swollen and hurt. Everything hurt.

She held my hand, I now felt it, aware again of the life that flowed feebly through me. A slow pulse in my chest, like a lazy clock. Tick – pause – Tock. Tick-pause – Tock.

Among sobs, Mom began telling me the story of the Sleeping Beauty. It had been one of my favorites as a kid, and her voice brought back the oldest and sweetest memories of pink pajamas and Judy the Monkey. Memories as distant as how and why I’d ended up feeling as beaten and finished as I did. My mind was taken only with the prince with beautiful, sculpted face and long raven hair blowing in the wind as he rode his white stallion, the girl slumbering in a high, ivory tower and the taste of cotton candy mingling with that of blood.

The story came to a forced end when two men walked in – I could tell they were men by the low, deep voices that didn’t manage to keep their heated conversation to the mere level of whispers.

“I won’t leave her under your wing alone.” The direct, determined tone was enough to trigger the man’s identity in my head – Dad. The feeling of warmth and peace was now whole – they were here, both Mom and Dad. I was safe.

“You’re being unreasonable, Tiberius,” the other man warned in a pleasant but commanding voice. Probably as commanding as his person, since he called my dad by his first name – The fewest called the great Dr., PhD., A-pile-of-titles-in-biochemistry-I-can’t-even-read Tiberius Preda by his first name.

Suddenly, images of a rusty chain and strings of fur crossed my mind’s eye like sharp lashes. Then the fall, the knock in my head. The conclusion was rapidly reached – I was at a hospital and the man must’ve been a doctor.

“I’ll be her sole guardian.”

“That’s not a good idea,” the doctor stressed.

Among wretched sobs, Mom whispered, “She’s woken up, Tiberius. She was up on her hands, she opened her eyes.”

The shuffle of fabric told me Dad hurried to my side. Hands checked the catheter in my arm. IV lines. Hospital, doctor, catheters . . . Reality caught outline. How on earth could I have survived? A leaden sensation all through my body prevented me from moving or making a sound, but my brain activity took off like a rocket.

“She’s regaining her strength fast,” Dad said, and bent close to my ear, “Alice, do you hear me? Are you awake, sweetheart?”

Regaining my strength felt far from the truth, since I didn’t find enough to moan, let alone answer.

“She fell asleep again,” Mom lamented, as if I were more dead than alive. “She fell asleep, my poor girl.” My temple tickled – She was caressing my hair.

“You should get some fresh air, Jen. You look and sound tragic, and that’s the last thing she needs.”

Mom took offense, it was obvious in her higher-than-usual pitch.

“I’m not going anywhere. This is my baby, barely out of a cold ditch.”

“Your tone.”

“No, Tiberius, your tone. I’m not one of your sluts.”

“That’s it, Jenna, you need fresh air.” Dad was now severe – that kind of severe that used to sew my lips together years ago. Now it shut Mom up and strengthened my decision of playing asleep. I sensed her linger in the doorstep, as I did her crying eyes on my face before her steps faded down an echoing hallway.

“I’ll leave you with her,” the doctor said calmly.

“No, don’t. Close the door, we need to finish our talk.”

“Not here. Not now.”

“I won’t leave her with you, lad, and I don’t want you doing anything behind my back to force my hand.”

He can force Tiberius Preda’s hand?

“I won’t take action without your knowledge”, the doctor said, “But I won’t back off.”

“I won’t have her in your custody. That’s my final word.”

“Let’s talk about it later, some other place.”

Dad seemed not to hear him. “There’s something else that can’t wait, though. Have you seen her blood count? It’s so good it’s frightening. After hours in the cold and everything she’s been through, not even a bladder infection. She fell down a precipice and not a broken bone. This is not normal. Besides, she’s always been a fragile kid.”

There was a trace of discontent in Dad’s voice that baffled me to my stem cells. If I was doing better than ever, what was there to be so urgent about? And why was I hooked to IV and felt like shit? And why ask my own doctor if he’d seen my blood count?

Thank God my face was too stiff to express anything. The slightest sign that I could hear them, and false smiles would greet me, then the discussion would be taken somewhere else, leaving me with no clue as to my own situation and Dad’s distress.

The doctor wasn’t as surprised, though. “She won’t remain this strong. But either way, she remains in danger.”

Oh, please talk sense!

“What if she doesn’t come back to normal? Ruxandra Ignat, her blood count looks just as staggering, there’s still no change …”

Ruxandra’s alive?

BioDhrome’s our priority now, Tiberius. They won’t stop here.”

He knew about BioDhrome? And Dad did, too?

I strained to pinpoint the doctor’s voice. I knew him, I surely did. Deep, composed and pleasant to my ears like thick, flowing honey. My mind searched and searched, until recognition hit – my unattainable barbarian, Damian. He was alive, thank God he was alive, thank God for learning it before I was aware enough to go nuts with the uncertainty!

I was tempted to open my eyes, but the effort equaled lifting bricks only with my eyelids, giving me the necessary seconds to reconsider. The conversation would come to an end at the first sign I was awake. I stayed still as a corpse, but inside excitement, joy and curiosity strained to pump my pulse. For whatever reason, they failed, my body wouldn’t respond. IV lines. What am I on?

“Especially if their values don’t come back to normal.” Dad’s voice broke.

“They will. Those values were only triggered by the gas. It raises the adrenaline up to that particular level that regulates all functions of the body so that it can become a fighting machine, the best version of itself, this is no secret to you. But the effects will fade eventually, and Alice will be the fragile kid you knew again. But that won’t stop BioDhrome.” There was scorn in Damian’s tone, as if he suspected Dad of wishing weakness on me. It didn’t throw Dad off his distressed track, though.

“The effects of this experience might not wear off after a while, and you know it damned well. I don’t want her . . . Forgive me, but I don’t want her ending up like you either. An Upgrade is as doomed as a target.”

Huh?

“They did much more with me than they did with Alice, you know this. She’s far from an Upgrade yet, and her values will normalize. You’ve seen George Voinescu’s results, his liver’s already a wreck again.”

Permanent experience effects, Upgrades, what the fuck?!

“What you had was inclination, Damian, talent, if you will. That played the most important part. Their procedure came second. Blood and spirit are connected, make no mistake about that, and don’t listen to small minds with a degree in science. Alice might not be talented, she may not be as strong and angry as you were, but she is on that path. She is . . . not well, lad.”

“For that you have only yourself to blame,” Damian said, calm but cold like a judge in court. “She gave up your inheritance, she ran away from everything you represent, she went desperate enough to want and marry a loser, so she could be rid of your name. Of your indifferent, frosty shadow. And things got worse and worse.”

Pause. Both in Dad’s breathing and mine.

“Put like this it strikes you, doesn’t it, Tiberius? Quod erat demonstrandum. With all due respect, you can only hurt your own daughter. And you surely won’t be able to protect her now, with BioDhrome’s eye on her.”

“How deeply did you two bond, boy, that she told you all this?” Dad sneered. He’d virtually bowed his head and gulped down all Damian’s scorn, however veiled in a detached tone, but it was easy to imagine him pointing a rifle at my handsome barbarian now.

“I asked. She talked. I listened.”

“Did all that listening get her in bed with you?”

Oh, no, no, no, Dad, please don’t!

“Have I not proven my loyalty and respect?” Damian’s voice went a frequency deeper, sounding like insulted bass. This time emotion was clear, making my stomach prickle with both butterflies and embarrassment. “I only got close to her when the situation turned ugly, returning the favor you once did me. I owe you much, Tiberius, and this is my opportunity to repay you. You’re powerless now, but I can and will protect Alice until we track down BioDhrome’s head and chop it off.”

“You’re the one who put her in danger when you embarked on this trip, knowing she’d be on it.”

“I didn’t expect a hit, there hasn’t been one in years. Not to mention that the people on board would be missed by many, unlike the wretches BioDhrome usually targets.”

Long pause.

“So can I rest assured that you haven’t taken a special liking to my daughter, Damian? That you weren’t on that trip because of her?”

Another pause, this time in Damian’s response and in my breathing again. He hesitated. Good God, he hesitated . . . Was it a good sign? Was he reluctant to admit that he liked me? Or was he unsure of how to tell Dad his baby wasn’t worthy of attention?

“Why don’t you prove your respect once more, and keep as honest as I know you,” Dad demanded. I struggled to control my breath as expectation built up – virtually, but the pulse stayed steady. The strangest sensation.

Damian’s reply lagged for seconds, but when it came, it was velvety and clear. “Alice is a gem, I must admit. Sweet in appearance, sharp in wit and loving as an angel. But she’s your daughter.”

Expectation popped like a balloon stung with a needle. The refined barbarian that was Damian Novac had found the perfect words to avoid a direct answer, but there it was, between the lines. It may have been his way of saying I was the little sister of Shitty, since “amazing”, “stunning” or at least “attractive” hadn’t as much as touched his description of me. To save a bit of face, I prayed my playing asleep had worked the first night at the cottage as it did now.

After tormenting moments Dad spoke again, low and careful, “Don’t take this the wrong way, lad. It’s just . . .” Awkward pause. “You’re dangerous, Damian. It’s not your fault, they did this to you, yet . . .”

“I get it,” Damian cut him off.

The air was so laden, that I could almost hear Dad nod. “I can’t risk them doing the same with Alice.”

“Then let me take over. Will you tolerate my wing over her?”

Long pause. Apologetic, maybe fearful answer.

“I won’t, lad. Your wings are black and thorny. One can’t protect from fire with fire or from hell with demons.”

Damian lingered in silence for moments, but his anger filled the room, heavy as his presence. I could feel it as I did my own strange anxiety lacking the frantic heartbeat.

“You leave me no choice, Tiberius.” – Urging. Low.

“Respect and loyalty, Damian, if I may remind you.” – Dignified, determined, yet pleading. “Just don’t do anything behind my back.”

“As I said. Not without your knowledge.” With that, Damian closed the door behind him.

A chair raked the floor as Dad pulled it close to the bed and sat down. He stroked my forehead with long, lab-man fingers for a long while, a while that I used to calm my rage at destiny, to quench the curses that burned the tip of my tongue, and to ensure I’d look innocent and unknowing when I’d open my eyes. Yet the first sentence that came out when Dad’s tired face appeared through the blurry shield my eyelashes made was,

“What did BioDhrome do to Damian Novac?”

To be continued.

***

Enjoyed this? Don’t keep it to yourself. Share your opinion with the writer, publisher and readers, we’re happy to hear from you. Stay tuned for episode 3 next Friday or subscribe at anaatcalin@gmail.com to receive notification at each new post.

Enjoy the previous 50 pages of the book here.

Love,

Ana

CHASING DAMIAN – Full first 50 pages

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.

forbiddenlove

Pic source.

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.

“Alice.”

“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 . . .

“Impressed?”

“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.”

“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.”

“You think?”

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 . . .”

 

CHAPTER I

 

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.”

“Damian?”

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.

“No earthquake?”

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.”

“For what?”

“Spitting.”

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.

“Heavy loads.”

“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.”

The girl.

“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.”

No shit?

“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.

 

 

CHAPTER II

 

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?”

Who? What?

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.

 

 

CHAPTER III

 

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.

“What happened?”

“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.

“Who? Speak!”

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.

“Follow me.”

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.”

 

CHAPTER IV

 

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!

Love,

Ana

CHASING DAMIAN – Part Three

Mystery pic

Pic source.

Everybody went crazy. Voices and people whirled around, while Damian and Hector struggled to restore order.

I didn’t realize I slowly walked backwards, out of everybody’s way, until something bumped in my lower back. By the wide, hard edge I knew it was the windowsill, which is why I didn’t turn. I kept pressing against it, keeping my arms across my chest and my fingers hooked in the slicker sleeves. Damian’s explanations to panicked questions flew by me – my nerves were close to snapping, which made it impossible for me to grasp them.

For a moment there I had no doubt this was all his fault. It was his affair with a mobster’s woman that had surely brought this upon us. Defending his honor or whatever, the cheated man must’ve sent his thugs to settle accounts with Damian, while the landlord and the woman, Sidonia, Raluca, Gino, all of us, we were just collateral damage.

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, only to get back at a rival? Why, when he could’ve staged anything in Constanta?

That someone might’ve set up the episode with the train was already a hypothesis that wandered from mouth to mouth in the lodge. Everyone who mentioned it claimed it had originated from Damian or Hector, but it might as well have been a simple rumor – impressive how fast these things work.

Lindy was the missing link that no one took into account here, since no one knew what she’d said to me while we were alone. She’d known this would happen, she’d told me none of us would survive this, but I’d taken her for a paranoid brat.

And still, she’d also said things that made as good as no sense. My intuition kept poking at me for some reason, telling me there was yet another missing link, just one more. But no matter how hard I tried and searched my memories of all that had happened, I couldn’t put my finger on it.

My eyes rested on Marius, who still sat in the corner chair and in my field of vision. Sidonia 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.

A shiver went down my spine as I looked at him, trying to picture what he’d seen, as if it could all mirror in his eyes like in lenses – the bloody woman with a cracked head, the man whose flesh had been ripped off his bones, the animals or people that had followed him and Damian, their shapes and identity confined by the woods.

But Marius’ eyes stayed blank and his body inert, as if shock or terror had put him out of service. I felt guilty for this fleeting thought, but the sight was as tragic as it was ridiculous – a man with features roughened by testosterone and iron pumping, scared stiff. I couldn’t hold back a smile as my mind found the jest in tragedy, probably to let out some of the tension.

I hoped Marius 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 again, 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 pushing into my arms through the slicker and wool. The physical sensation brought me back to awareness.

Gino’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, Aura?”

“The window! I saw someone!” I squealed.

Marius moaned in his corner. 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 Gino aside but still hung on him for support as I craned my neck to see the panes. My legs were soft like jelly 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?” Gino 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, Aura, you almost gave me a heart attack.” Gino scorned.

“We have enough pressure already,” another one called, his face hidden in the group.

I shut out all reproaches and welcomed Sidonia’s arms taking me away. It was a mystery where she got all that energy to be a tireless Mother Theresa, jumping between those of us who needed help one after the other –Lindy, Marius, and now I leaned on her again. I didn’t deserve her.

“This whole thing is getting to us all,” she said in a sweet voice, stroking my hair.

Her warmth tempted me to spill the entire sack of anxiety that weighed on my chest, but people surrounded us and I didn’t want to risk being overheard. Besides, talking would’ve decompressed me and burdened her, which would’ve been unfair and selfish.

“I’m okay,” I lied again, the sight of the silver eyes flashing in my memory.

They were unnatural for a person, I knew that, and yet I had no doubt they belonged to a man or a woman. To someone made of flesh and blood. The scene had been too short for my mind to understand on the spot, but memory luckily retained it.

I didn’t focus on remembering but rather let the scene replay itself in my head over and over again, while relishing in the comforting sound of Sidonia’s voice, though I didn’t listen to what she said.

The glowing circles took shape before me again, their edges sending rays to their center as well as to their outer layers. Maybe that shocking pair of eyes was just very bright of color. Like crystals. Maybe some anomaly. A person with the eyes of a wild animal, watching us. Spying on us. Intending to split our flesh as if we were just hunks of meat. I shuddered, revolted.

“Shock is a natural protection against pain,” were Sidonia’s words as I returned to reality, leaving the realm of my own mind.

“What did Novac say?” I cut her off.

She blinked, taken by surprise. “About what?”

“The things that followed him and Marius. He said they weren’t wolves and he sounded sure of it. Did he say what they were?”

Sidonia chuckled, raising her eyebrows. “You weren’t hanging on his every word?”

“The news of blood and lacerated people knocked me off my feet. I wasn’t myself for a few minutes.” For the first time since I’d laid eyes on him, Damian Novac didn’t come first on my list of priorities.

“For an hour or so is more like it. That’s when he told us we might’ve landed in the middle of a vendetta against the landlord and his wife or . . . simply have nutcases on our trail.”

“He lied.” I stood up, whisking my jacket and looking around for him. “Where is he now?”

Sidonia came to her feet too, placing herself before me with hands on her hips. She looked straight into my eyes. “What do you mean, he lied?”

“I need to talk to him, Sid.”

“If this is another strategy, let us talk about it first.”

The idea alone made me puff with anger. “Do you honestly think I’d concern myself with strategies now? I’ve just put two and two together, Sid. This is indeed a vendetta, but one against Damian Novac, who’s drawing us all in with him.”

“Tell me your thoughts before you tell anyone else. You might be wrong.”

“I seriously doubt that.” I puffed again and drew her by the stove. Leaning so close that our heads joined together like gossiping sparrows’, the story shot out of my mouth in whispers. I started with the moment I’d been left alone with Lindy and took her through all the connections I made in my head. I didn’t mention the apparition in the window.

Sidonia scratched the back of her head while she listened and by the time I was done her eyes were deep blue with concentration. She took a few moments before she spoke and I could already tell she’d contradict me.

“This still doesn’t add up, Aura,” she said. “First of all, I’m still sure there’s nothing between Lindy and Damian. But even if they had something, look at it this way. Lindy saw this coming, yes, but why would she go on and on about guinea pigs? That can’t be related to the cheated mobster. The attackers went against the landlord and his wife, not us – that can’t be related to the cheated mobster. Messing with a large group like ours is risky, unless you have everything planned, because you intended it from the very beginning – that can’t be related to the cheated mobster. As to derailing trains, you’d only do it if you needed to trap a considerable number of people . . .” Her final words trailed off, her eyebrows scrunched as she chewed her own idea. “It can’t be . . .”

“What?”

“You gotta be shittin’ me . . .” Her eyes darted around. I instantly knew she scanned the info in her ruffled blond head, stricken by what she found. Curiosity fired up my neurons.

“What are you talking about, Sidonia?”

She looked me straight in the face again. She spoke fast, like every time something dawned on her. “Come with me.”

Before I could blink, Sidonia 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 Gino, 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.

A candle still burned on a short, exfoliated fridge, though it was no longer needed. The room bathed in the natural light of a pale sunrise, the window steamed from warm breath that blurred the wavy snow and trees outside.

As soon as my eyes fell on Damian, my heart skipped a beat. He stood with his back at the counter, knives and other metallic, rusty objects lined on it. The sheepskin coat was 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 I allowed a handsome stud to play with me. 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 being trapped in the mountains with a handful of psychopaths on our tracks, 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.

Sick of myself, I kept a low profile by the door, but Sidonia went straight to the men, stopping in their midst.

“You’ve seen this before,” she interrupted Damian, dropping the accusation on him. He looked at her from under his eyebrows, but didn’t react.

“Shouldn’t you be attending to your boyfriend?” Hector grumbled.

Sidonia turned to him. “Marius doesn’t appear to see or hear me. I washed the vomit off his coat and made sure he’s warm, but that’s pretty much all I can do for the moment.”

“Feel the need to justify yourself?” Hector’s teeth showed like a splash of gray on his beard. It was a mischievous, if not even bullying grin.

“You asked, smartass,” Sidonia bit back.

“Just go back to him, woman.”

I should step in for her. Yet I didn’t, too much of a coward to draw attention to myself, even in order to save this heroine who’d done more tonight than was humanly reasonable.

“Cut it out, you two,” Damian said, “Now’s not the time for this.”

Sidonia pirouetted again to look him in the face. “Damn right – not for this. Now’s the perfect time for you to spit it all out.”

“Excuse me?” Damian’s deep, forbidding tone shattered Sidonia’s determination, but she picked herself up soon enough.

“Damian, you’re keeping things from us and– ”

“I thought you wanted to ask and not impute something,” he interrupted.

Sidonia 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 if we need to protect ourselves, and not grope around,” he replied as if he were prepared for the question and all others that followed.

“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?”

“They did on the landlord.”

“Who was home only with his wife. What makes you think their attackers would take a risk with a large group?”

“Probably to make sure we won’t report with the authorities before they clean up the scene,” he said, leaning against the counter and folding his long, muscled arms across his chest. His raven locks caressed his shoulders and his eyes gleamed emerald. He must’ve been angry again, but nothing else in his face showed it.

“I think it’s because they were after us from the beginning. They were after a large, young group.” Sidonia’s voice pinched here, as if she’d caught him with something.

Damian’s face was expressionless. “That’s not a question.”

“Am I right?”

“You might be.” I realized he had a talent for drawing anyone into sleek, straight-to-the-point conversations, not just me.

“Is this the Bathory’s signature?” she said after a short hesitation, that I was sure only I perceived.

Damian’s face hardened as if he were made of stone, pausing for moments. Bathory made me freeze, too.

“Anything’s possible.” His tone was cold and even, there wasn’t the faintest drop of emotion in it. He sounded so staggeringly calculating, like a freakin’ assassin.  Sidonia raised her eyebrows as if a fairy tale just came true.

“So you’ve seen this before?”

“I have.”

“Why didn’t you say so from the start?” She yelped, throwing her hands in the air.

“You didn’t ask,” Damian said just as evenly, but didn’t give her the chance to continue the interrogation. While she stared at him with an open mouth, he grabbed the sheepskin and started to the door. Toward me. I melted on my feet.

He motioned with his chin for Hector to follow him and Gino scurried after them like a pet. Those of us who clustered in their way drew aside. My heart smote me as he passed by, leaving a trail of cool air and fir scent behind. He granted me a glance that I would’ve missed if my eyes weren’t stuck to him, but I refused to go into the frenzy of interpreting and re-interpreting it.

The others soon cleared off too, leaving Sidonia and me gawking at each other.

“What was that?” I mumbled, walking slowly to her.

“I’m just relieved I didn’t look like a complete idiot,” she whispered, still bewildered. “I bluffed with a tale Lindy spread about him.”

“Involving the Countess of Bathory bathing in the blood of virgins?”

“Nothing as esoteric, I’m afraid. Rather one of those things you sometimes hear about on the news and brace yourself that they’re even possible. Lindy silenced the rumor when she and Damian, er, befriended each other. It all sounded like a freakin’ script back then, made up by a woman who hardly knew anything about him, but now . . . ” She shook her head and dropped on her buttocks by the fridge.

I sat by her side, my brain buzzing with curiosity. I needed to know what she knew, and I needed it now. Still, I refrained from pressuring her and resorted to watching her intently. She looked seriously stricken and took a while of eye darting and head scratching before she continued, measuring her words.

“There’s little real info on this man. The short story goes like this: his parents live in a village close to Constanta – nobody knows which one exactly. His dad’s a truck driver and his mom a housewife.”

“I know, he left home at fourteen, supported himself through high-school and now college. No siblings.” I rubbed my hands with impatience.

She nodded and smacked her lips. “And that’s pretty much it. But, in the absence of solid data, people tend to make up rumors. There is quite a number of them about Novac.”

“I heard some myself.” It wasn’t like I hadn’t done my homework. But I hadn’t been as penetrating as my friend, not close. She was the Sherlock no figure of interest on campus was safe from, especially not my crush. Again I felt I didn’t deserve her dedication.

“This one you haven’t. Few people took it seriously and, as I said, Lindy dropped it a while ago herself.”

“I see there’s much you’ve kept from me, you control freak. But that’s okay, as long as you tell me now.” Expectation made me fidget already. My stomach gave a long, loud rumble and the sheepish look of guilt on Sidonia’s face was replaced by worry.

“You should eat something. It’s been what? Over fifteen hours since your last meal?”

Now that she mentioned it, my belly began to hurt, too. Still, I ignored it.

“What are you doing, Sid, playing with my nerves? This isn’t a freakin’ tell tale evening, don’t keep me on needles here.”

She got up and pulled me to my feet, moving me out of the way to open the fridge. The thing didn’t actually work and we didn’t need it anyway, we could keep anything frozen just by putting it outside the front door. As I saw it stuffed with chips and snacks, I realized we used it as a cupboard and was pleasantly surprised the others hadn’t saved only booze from the train.

“Here’s what we’ll do – I tell you while we eat.”

“Too bad there’s no popcorn.” I rolled my eyes and snatched a bag of chips – amazing, these new things from the Western World. I opened it and began nibbling like a rodent, more to get Sidonia talking than to calm my hunger, which I didn’t actually feel.

***

To be continued

Copyright by Ana Calin, 01. February 2014

***

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CHASING DAMIAN – Part Two

forest winter

Pic source.

Back in the dim party room Lindy acted “all epileptic,” according to Gino’s wide-eyed, clueless explanation. As I worked my 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!” Marius called, jerking away from Lindy as Damian fell to his knees beside her and snatched something from Marius’ shaking hand.

I couldn’t identify the object until he fit it in Lindy’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 relaxing in twisted positions burned into my memory. It never really left me.

“She’s not coming back to her senses!” Sidonia yelled, trying to slap Lindy.

Damian stretched an arm to keep her away. “Stop that!”

“Why isn’t she reacting?”

“I don’t know, I’m not a fuckin’ doctor!”

“You brought Aura back, now bring her!”

“That was first aid, but this is different. There’s nothing I can do.”

As if she’d heard Damian’s hopeless statement, Lindy began to move her head from side to side, giving out feeble sighs that sounded pain-free to me. That instant I was sure she’d staged the whole thing to get Damian’s attention, since it had been the distress I’d found myself in that got him in bed with me – however fruitless the event remained – and out on the porch, leaving her and the party behind. Now she was sure using strategies of her own, customized to hit Damian’s protective instinct spot on.

“Maybe it’s just low calcium. We should call an ambulance, they’ll shoot it in her vein.” See if the prospect of needles and scrubs shake her back to her feet.

Against my expectations, Lindy’s half closed eyelids didn’t even twitch at my words and not even as Gino gave reality clear voice. “You can forget ambulances, doctors and even priests. There’s no one coming up here tonight, the snowstorm cut off all roads and communications.”

“Does she know this?”

“Really, Aura?” That was Raluca. It was too dark to see the familiar chocolate in her eyes, but her tone bore the rare bitterness of scorn, which sent a stab of guilt to my heart. Indeed, that was not for me to judge. Not now. I punched off all second thoughts – though they kept rioting in the back of my head.

“She could use the amenities I had,” I suggested to Damian.

He scooped her up and followed me to the room we’d shared not so long ago. The others trailed like a flock of curious hens, but Sidonia’s pitchy yet confident voice stopped them at the door. “This ain’t the Big Brother house, the woman needs to rest.”

Damian laid Lindy 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. He looked at me puzzled and I instantly looked away, pretending he didn’t have an effect on me.

“Calcium and magnesium,” I offered a brief explanation, taking a seat by Lindy’s side. Her lips were cracked, but it might as well have been from the harsh wind she’d fought against as she’d walked here. Damian didn’t wait for another word and rushed out the door.

“Where is he supposed to get that?” Lindy said in a faint voice. Maybe she already felt better.

“The owners of this place. Or the village.”

“I doubt farmers have bananas in winter.” Just as faint. And disinterested.

“He must get it somewhere. You need that.” I lit the leftovers of two candles.

“All I need is to get out of here,” Lindy whispered.

She looked aside, the small flames casting eerie light on her face and sending a strange feeling up my throat. There were black circles around her eyes and her cheeks were sucked in, as if the person who’d laughed at me not half an hour ago had fallen ill within minutes. 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, we’ll find help 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 as if she went delirious.

“Try to get some rest. Fatigue and paranoia go hand in hand,” I said 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 – which I doubted would happen before two or three days. After all, this was Romania of the ‘90s.

Lindy clasped my hand. “Don’t take me for a lunatic, Aurelia. 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 as if she wanted to escape her own body. “The confinements of our flesh . . .”

She’s mad . . . I jolted to her, pushing her hands down in panic. “Lindy, for Christ’s sake!”

Her grin stretched almost to her ears like the sneer of a skull. The blizzard now whistled beyond the wooden walls as if aligning to Lindy’s growing intensity, making the window chatter from its hinges and a chill course down my spine.

Lindy’s 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 again, sure I’d swallow my throat bones.

“Draw it out of me, maggot, suck it out!” She bellowed.

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.

“Suck it out!” She piped, her bloodshot eyes framed by those dark circles glowering into mine like a maniac’s.

I grabbed her wrists, but whatever was going on with this woman gave her the strength of wood, as if she’d merged with the walls. Even her skin seemed to turn brownish, but it could’ve been just the oxygen leaving my brain.

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, Skeleton-J. Lo could’ve easily disposed of me. I raised my eyes to her.

Sidonia – probably my savior this time – restrained Lindy, 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 Sidonia, Gino and another guy tied her to the bed with wound sheets and some old rope the latter said he’d found in the attic.

Two soft hands clasped my shoulders and led me away from the group that had gathered by the bed. My knees gave in and I dropped on a chest that creaked even under my insignificant weight.

“Are you all right?” I recognized Raluca’s calm voice.

I nodded.

“What happened here?”

I didn’t answer, but kept staring at the others attending my Nemesis.

“Are you hurt?”

“I’m fine,” I spat. “It’s Lindy you should worry about. She’s a danger to herself and talks gibberish.”

“Don’t be bitter, Aura, she’s ill.”

“My point exactly. She needs immediate help and none of us has the training to provide it.” I kept my tone free of inflections this time. It was always tricky with Raluca, she was only sweet to both her sister and me when we were in trouble – when we needed it most. Her usual, very serious self frowned at us every chance she got and I’d grown cautious with my words around her. She always kept out of the childish plots Sidonia and I wasted our time with. Which is why her words caught me by surprise now.

“She needs to get back home as soon as possible. Her boyfriend will surely take it from there,” she whispered in my ear.

I caught the spark of mischief in her eyes. I couldn’t believe she’d actually used the party to gather info on my competition for Damian, which she now introduced with a cocked eyebrow.

“B-boyfriend?” I babbled.

“Rumor has it she’s seeing a rich guy – bald and fat some people here speculate, though they’ve never seen him. New mafia, they said. What they know for sure is that Lindy dances for him in a private booth at the Marquette. He buys her Prada and whatever western designers, pays for college and gives her money for her kid, too.”

My ears buzzed again.

“Kid?”

“A three-year-old daughter. Lindy’s mamma raises her.”

I blinked rapidly, trying to make sense of this.

“Lindy is a mother?” I whispered. “Wha– What’s her daughter’s name?”

Raluca shrugged. “I didn’t ask. But I asked about her and Damian Novac and apparently Lindy’s obsessed with him. She must miss a young body.”

I gave her a twitchy smile, but that’s all I managed. I sprang up and ran out to the main room, tripping over bottles lying on the floor and falling on a pile of jackets by the terracotta stove, feeling miserable and breaking out in tears. The chase after Damian had gotten me injured, attacked and looking like a complete idiot.

Lindy was better than me in each and every way. She was beautiful, she was profounder than she let on and she was screwed up. All in all, she was interesting and I was no match for her. I was just a maggot indeed, reaching out for much more than I deserved – the heart of a man out of my league – and for that I now paid a bitter price. I decided to look for someone bald and fat like Lindy’s sugar daddy, but broke.

A cluster of people soon walked in, led by the bearded singer, his features now clear in the light of an oil lamp he carried – another item they’d found in the attic, I imagined. He was robust, his small eyes shadowed by bushy eyebrows and his nose like an eagle’s. The rich beard made him look older than he must’ve actually been, adding to the air of wisdom.

“I’ve seen this before,” one of his companions said, his voice too loud. “A cousin of mine, last year. They took her to a hospice, labeled her nuts.”

“Did your cousin mention guinea pigs?” Gino laughed and slapped his back.

“I wonder if you’d still talk shit, if it were your mamma in her place,” the bearded singer croaked. My mouth popped open at his ghetto rather than scholastic choice of words. So much for judging a book by its cover.

“My mamma doesn’t strip for mobsters who beat her into madness,” Gino reacted with a scowl.

“Hey, I hear neither did Lindy,” another one chimed in, though he also sounded amused, “She went 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 Gino 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.

This time the bearded singer’s answer suited his guru appearance. “You ask dangerous questions, Gino.”

Great. Just what I needed to glaze over my failure – Damian and Lindy as protagonists in a forbidden love story. My heart ached, but I used the moment to strengthen the decision of letting go. Trying to apply the optimist’s creed, I focused on the good part in all this – going unnoticed makes it easy to gather information, no matter how poisonous it proves for one’s heart.

Hector’s thick fingers slid over the cords in a lilt melody, as if to block further inquiries. I imagined he and Damian were close friends, since people turned to him for intelligence. But his tactics had its downside. The group changed the subject but kept on chattering and 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. Luckily, just as the party went wild again, Sidonia dropped by my side with an exhausted groan, resting her arms on her knees. Judging by her tucked up sleeves she must’ve had some work to do.

“Lindy eventually got tired of struggling and fell asleep. How’re you feeling?”

“Fine,” I lied. “Thanks for getting her off me.”

“Oh, Gino helped.” She waved a hand, being modest again.

“Listen . . .” I paused, unsure how to put my thoughts into words without offending her. But I desperately needed to talk to someone about my new wound. “Did you know that . . . Well, that Lindy and Damian have something going?”

“Now hold on.” She put up her palm and knitted her sandy eyebrows in a serious expression. “We don’t know that they have anything going. We just know that she’s been chasing him around, popping up wherever he happened to be – just like you. Only that her chase is aggressive. She infiltrated his circle of friends, called him up late at night, asking him to meet her so she could play the friend in need, crying on his shoulder.”

“Allow me to correct you, Sid. You knew all this. I didn’t.”

“Look, Aura. We may not know much about Damian Novac, but one thing’s certain – he’s a very clever guy. Mediocre strategies won’t work with him and that’s why we needed a premium one. Had I told you, you would’ve backed off. And I honestly think you have a chance there.”

“Just look at me, Sidonia! I’m a bad a joke! Do you think me so dumb as to really compare myself to Lindy or others in her league? Are you dumb enough to do that?”

Sidonia pulled me to my feet, keeping a tight grip on my shoulders – she was slim but a fitness freak, with palms that could force me into obedience.

“It’s that bastard Alex you have to thank for this arsenal of complexes,” she spat through her teeth. “I can’t wait to get back home so I can seek him out and kick his ass.”

“I’m just looking truth in the face.”

“You’re not ugly, Aura! You’re a very pretty woman.”

“Complexes or not, Damian’s not interested in me. I tried to turn him on in the bedroom and I failed.” Shame burned in my cheeks as I confessed and the news may have bombed Sidonia’s theories. She narrowed her eyes and glanced at the bearded singer.

“I’ll have to get under Hector’s skin to find out more. He’s Damian’s best friend I gather, so he must know all there is to know about him. But it won’t be easy, he’s grumpy.”

“Just drop it, Sid,” I blocked with a headshake. “I might as well strive to plant a flag on the moon. He just doesn’t want me, why seek more proof?”

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 shoulders. I recognized Marius limping and hanging on him like a cloth on a tree, ravaged by the blizzard, but the acknowledgement was marginal. Sidonia ran to him.

The others were already wasted, raising their bottles and plastic cups as if toasting for the return of their brothers.

“Hey, look who’s back,” Gino stuttered.

Damian gave him a cold scowl. His voice was deep and controlled, but I could instantly tell something was wrong. “Gather all bottles in a pile.”

The boys laughed and one of them – maybe some failed poet – tried to go witty. “Has the road battered you so, or has your thirst been spurred by snow, Novac?”

He hardly finished his sentence when an ugly growl drew all eyes to Marius. He 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.

“What happened?”

“She still stood, man!” Marius rattled, “Her clothes, slick with blood, her head cracked, but she still stood!” 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.

“Speak!”

“Just gather all sharp objects you can find in this place,” Damian intervened, his arm mowing Hector’s hands off Marius.

“Don’t be scarce of words now!” Hector urged.

“There’s no time for this,” Damian said with a serious frown, fixing his bearded friend as if transmitting some coded message.

“She threw herself in her own grave, man!” Marius squeaked. “And the guy, dragged until his clothes and flesh ripped off in bundles!” 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 Marius’ bent profile, every fold on his leather-patched coat, as if my senses had sharpened in a split second.

Marius didn’t reply to the low, puzzled “Who?” coming from a few guys with some presence of spirit, and it wasn’t until Hector asked Damian a direct, “What the hell is he talking about?” that a direct, however reluctant answer came.

“We went looking for supplies.” He threw me a green glance here, his jaw rippling. He looked tense and angry, very angry. Maybe anger was his mechanism to keep fear at bay, or at least that’s the first thing that crossed my mind. He continued slowly, while settling Marius on a rickety chair in the corner, assisted by Sidonia.

“The snow is high and the wind strong, it was hard to move forward. The blizzard was already frantic by the time we reached the landlord’s house. The front door was open, flapping in the storm, and the fire was dying. ”

“There were stains of blood marking the way out to the back yard, man!” Marius surged, trying to get on his feet again, but Damian’s hand kept firm on his shoulder. Judging by his worried frown and hard jaw he didn’t welcome Marius’ skipping the introduction, threatening to raise panic.

“Calm down. There’s a fair number of us, we’ll be fine,” Damian whispered close to Marius’ ear. I shouldn’t have been able to catch it since I was too far from them, but shock had turned my hearing so sharp that every breath and every rumbling stomach echoed deep in my head, each sound distinct and yet all simultaneous. It felt as if my ears had been trenched.

After Marius rested his head back against the carpeted wall, Damian crouched down. I couldn’t see him anymore among the people, but by the slivering sound I could tell he gathered scattered bottles. Gino and some others hurried to help him, while Hector kept on his feet by the door.

“Talking makes little sense now,” Damian said, “Fact is, we’re not alone in this white hell. Don’t just stand there, Hector, gather all sharp objects you can find. Those from the kitchen too.”

“We’re fuckin’ dead.” Marius 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. I couldn’t keep this isn’t happening from starting another solo in my head as the meaning of all this slowly dawned on me – they’d witnessed someone dying. In pain.

It took a while until everybody processed the two men’s words 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 Lindy, and an avalanche of questions started, ranging from, “What’s this all about?” to, “What’s that got to do with the booze?”

“Broken bottles can be used as weapons,” I heard Damian’s bass voice reply to the last one. His forehead was now higher above all heads that separated me from him. “Like screwdrivers, cutlery and pens.”

“Why this mobilization?” Gino said.

“They followed us back here, man,” Marius said, his voice low and void of hope. “Kept their distance in the dark, but they wheezed and growled.”

“Maybe they were wolves!” Gino returned, his pitch high with panic.

Damian cut in with a grave certainty that made my skin crease, “Those were no wolves.”

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To be continued . . .

Copyright by Ana Calin, January 2014

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Enjoyed this? Don’t be shy and leave a comment, allowing other readers to know your thoughts and stay tuned for Part Three, coming up on Saturday.

Love,

Ana