He was following me again. I knew it, instinctively, even though I hadn’t actually seen him. It was as if he was just beyond my vision, on the outer edges of my sight, hiding in shadows. Skulking.
Not stalking. There might be huge gaps in my memory but I had a mirror and absolutely no delusions about my totally resistible charms. I was determinedly average â€“ average height, average weight give or take ten pounds. Well, in fact, give ten pounds, right around my ass, but who needs to be picky? Anyway, totally average. In fact, the only thing the slightest bit remarkable about me were my eyes. They changed with whatever I was wearing into the oddest, most vivid colors; emerald green, amethyst, cobalt blue, rich gold, and all the shades in between. There was an easy answer to that if I didn’t want to stand out â€“ I wore only muddy colors, black and browns, and my eyes remained an indeterminate hazel. I had short hair, the muddy brown you get when you dye it too often,. My skin was olive-tinged, my bone structure average, and there was no clue to who or what I was.
Here’s what I knew â€“ my name was Rachel. My current last name was Fitzpatrick, but before that it was Brown, and the next time it might be Montgomery. Average names with Anglo-Saxon antecedents. I didn’t know why, I just went with it.
I’d been Rachel Fitzpatrick for almost two years now, and it felt as if it had been longer than usual, this comfortable life I’d built up. I was living in big industrial city in the Midwest, working for a newspaper that, like most of its brothers, was on its last legs. I had a great apartment in the top floor of an old Victorian house, I had an unexciting car I could rely on, I had good friends I could turn to in an emergency and have fun with when times were good. I was even godmother to my co-worker Julie’s newborn baby girl. I just kept waiting for the other shoe to drop.
It was November, and I thought that probably I had never liked November. The trees were bare, the wind was biting, and the darkness closed around the city like a shroud. And someone was watching me.
I didn’t know how long he’d been there â€“ it had taken me awhile to realize he was there again. I’d never gotten much of a look at him â€“ he kept to the shadows, a tall, narrow figure of undeniable menace. I had absolutely no wish to see him any better.
I was very careful. I didn’t go out alone after dark, I kept away from secluded places, I was always on my guard. But I never mentioned him to my friends, even Julie. I told myself I didn’t want them to worry. But I didn’t go to the police either, and it was their job to worry.
I spun any number of possibilities out of the big gray blank that was my memory. Maybe he was my abusive husband, watching me, and I’d run away from him, the trauma of his brutality wiping my mind clean.
Maybe I had been in the witness protection program and I’d gone through some kind of horror, and the mob was after me.
But it didn’t explain why they hadn’t come any closer. No matter how careful I was, if someone wanted to hurt me, to kill me, there was probably no way to stop them, short of â€¦ well, there probably was no way to stop them. So my watcher presumably didn’t want me dead.
I was working late on a cold, rainy Thursday, trying to get a bunch of obituaries formatted. Yup, doing obituaries late at night was not my favorite thing, but with the Courier on its last legs we all put in overtime whenever asked, and worked on anything that was needed, though I drew the line at sports. I was ostensibly Home and Health editor, editor being a glorious term for the only reporter on the beat, but I generally enjoyed my work.
The wind had picked up, howling through the city and shaking the sealed windows of the new building the Courier had unwisely built less than five years ago, and I logged off my computer, finished for the night. I glanced at the clock â€“ it was after ten, and the office was deserted. My car was in the parking garage â€“ there had to be someone there. And I could have my keys out, make a dash for my reliable old Subaru and lock myself in if anything loomed up out of the darkness.
I could always call Julie and see if her husband could come and escort me home. While I hadn’t told them about my watcher, I had explained to them that I was extremely skittish about personal safety, and Bob had come to the rescue on a number of occasions. But they had a brand new baby, and I didn’t want to bother them. I’d be fine.
I grabbed my coat, heading for the elevator, when the phone at my desk rang. I hesitated, then ignored it. Whoever it was, whatever they wanted, I was too tired to provide it. All I wanted was to get home through this blasted wind and curl up in my nice warm bed.
The elevator was taking its own sweet time considering the entire building was practically deserted. My desk phone stopped ringing and my cell phone started. I cursed, reaching in my pocket and flipping it open just as the elevator arrived.
It was Julie, sounding panicked. "Rachel, I need you," she said in a tear-filled voice.
Something was very wrong, and my stomach knotted. "What’s wrong?" And like a fool, I stepped into the elevator.
"It’s the baby. She’s …"
The door closed, the elevator began to descend and I lost the signal.
"Shit," I said, very loudly. We were on the twenty-second floor, and I’d pushed the button for the second level of parking, but I quickly hit a lower level floor to stop the descent. The doors slid open on the dark and empty eighth floor and I jumped out. I pushed the call back button as the doors slid closed, abandoning me in the darkness, and a shiver ran over me, one I tried to ignore. I had nerves of steel, but I was never foolhardy and there was no reason to feel uneasy. I’d been in this building alone on numerous occasions.
But I’d never felt so odd before.
Julie answered the phone on the first ring. "Where did you go?" she said, her voice frantic and accusing.
"Lost the signal," I said briefly. "What’s wrong with the baby?"
"I’m at the hospital. She couldn’t breathe, and I called an ambulance. They’ve got her in the emergency room and they kicked me out, and I need you here for moral support. I’m terrified, Rachel!" Her voice was thick with tears.
"Where’s Bob?" I said, trying to be practical.
"With me. You know how helpless men are. He just paces and looks grim and I need someone to give me encouragement. I need my best friend. I need you. How soon can you make it?"
Odd how we could become such good friends in so short a time. It had felt like a lifetime bond, not an office friendship, almost as if I’d known her before, in another life. But she had no clues about my past any more than I did, and I believed her. "Which hospital?"
"St. Uriel’s. We’re in the emergency waiting room. Come now, Rachel! Please!"
St. Uriel’s, I thought. That’s wrong, isn’t it? There was no Saint Uriel, was there? But I made soothing noises, anyway. "I’ll be right there," I said. And knew I lied.
I quickly, mentally reviewed the contents of my desk. Nothing much â€“ a copy of House and Garden, the latest Laurell K. Hamilton, and the bible, which was admittedly weird. I didn’t understand why I had it â€“ maybe I’d been part of some fundamentalist cult before I’d run away. God knows. I only knew I needed to have a bible with me.
I would find another, as soon as I checked into a hotel. There was no need to go back. I travelled light, and left as little impression behind as I could. They’d find no clues about me if they searched my desk. Particularly since I had no clues about myself.
My apartment was only slightly less secure. There were no letters, no signs of a personal life at all. I had a number of cheap pre-Raphaelite prints on the wall, plus a framed poster of a fog-shrouded section of the Northwest Coast that seemed to speak to me. It was large, and I hated to leave it behind, but I needed to move fast. I’d have to ditch the car in the next day or two, buy another. It would take Julie that long to realize I’d gone missing. She’d be too busy hovering over baby Amanda, watching each struggling breath with anxious eyes.
But Amanda wouldn’t smother. She’d start to get better, as would any other newborns with the mysterious flu-like symptoms, and soon the hospital would be full of them. All I had to do was get far enough away and they’d recover.
I pushed the elevator button, then paced the darkened hallway, restless. Nothing happened, and I pushed it again, repeatedly, then pressed my ear to the door, listening for some sign that the cars were moving. Nothing but silence.
"Shit," I said again. There was no help for it â€“ I’d have to take the stairs.
I didn’t stop to think about it. The time had come, as it always did, and thinking did no good. I had no idea why I knew these things, why I had to run. I only knew that I did.
It wasn’t until the door to the stairs closed behind me that I remembered my watcher, and for a moment I freaked, grabbing the door handle. It was already locked, of course. I had no choice. If I was going to get out of town in time I had to keep moving.
In time for what? I had no clear idea. But baby Amanda wouldn’t survive for long if I didn’t move it.
I tripped and went sprawling, slamming my shin against the railing. I struggled to my feet, and froze. Someone was in the stairwell with me. I sensed him, closer than he’d ever been before, and there was nothing, no one between him and me. No buffer, no safety. Time was running out.
I had no weapon. I was an idiot â€“ you could carry concealed weapons in this state, and a really small gun could blow a really big hole in whoever was following me. Or a knife, something sharp. Hell, didn’t I hear you could jab your keys in an attacker’s eyes?
I didn’t know whether he was above me or below me, but I had no choice. The only doors that opened from the stairwell were the ones on the parking level. If I went up I’d be trapped.
I had no choice but to keep going. I started down the next flight, moving as quietly as I could, listening for any matching footsteps. There were none. Whoever he was, he made no sound.
Maybe he was my paranoid imagination. I had no concrete reasons to do the things I did, I acted on instinct alone. I could be crazy as a bedbug, imagining all this paranoid power. Why in the world should small, insignificant Rachel Fitzpatrick have anything to do with the well-being of a baby? Of a number of babies? Why did I have to keep changing my name, changing who I was? If someone was following me, why didn’t he catch up with me?
What would happen if I simply drove back home and stayed there? Joined Julie at the hospital?
Amanda would die. I knew it, deep in my heart. And I knew I had to run.
Azaziel moved down the stairs after the demon, silent, scarcely breathing. He could sense its panic, and he knew it was going to run again. It had taken him longer to find it this time than before â€“ it must be getting better at pulling a new identity around it. If the demon vanished this time it might take too long to track it down.
It was time to take it. He had no idea why he’d hesitated, why he’d watched it without doing anything. His hatred for the creature was so powerful it would have frightened him, if he was capable of feeling fear. He was incapable of feeling anything, only his hatred for the monster. That was what had stayed his hand. Once he killed it he would feel nothing at all.
He had no idea how easy the demon would be to kill. It looked like a normal female, but he felt its seductive power even from a distance. It didn’t need any of the obvious feminine wiles to lure him. It didn’t wear makeup, didn’t dress in seductive clothes. It tended to dress in dark colors, with loose fitting t-shirts and baggy pants. There was nothing to make a man think of sex, and yet every time he looked at her, at it, he thought about lust. It wouldn’t do to underestimate her power.
It. Part of the demon’s power was to make him forget that it was nothing but a thing, not the vulnerable female it appeared to be. It was so easy to slip, to think of it as a woman. A woman he would have to kill.
He could catch her in the parking garage, break her neck and then fly up into the sun till her body burned in his arms. He could bury her deep beneath the earth in the belly of a volcano. Somehow he thought he would need fire to eradicate her completely, her and her evil powers. Only when she was dead would the threat dissolve.
The threat to newborn babies. The threat to vulnerable men who dreamed of sex and found only a demon possessing them.
And the threat to him. Most of all he hated her for the connection that was to come, with him of all people. And the only way to make certain that never happened was to destroy her.
He was standing in the corner of the stairwell on the bottom floor, watching her. He’d pulled his wings around him, disappearing, and while she paused, looking around her, she saw nothing, and she moved on.
More proof of her power, the power she was trying so hard to disguise. No one else sensed him when he cloaked himself. But she did. Her awareness was acute as his was. And he hated it.
Tonight, he told himself. Tonight he would kill her. Whether he’d present proof to Uriel was undecided. He may simply leave him unknowing. He could finally return to Sheol, take the reins back from his brother Raziel if he must. And see Raziel’s bonded mate in Sarah’s place.
No, he wasn’t ready. Surely there must be something else he had to do before he returned.
She’d escaped into the garage, and he followed her, the door closing silently behind him. The place was brightly lit, but there were only a handful of cars still there. She was already halfway to her dark red Subaru.
He knew then where he could take her. The place where he’d found Raziel five years ago, Raziel and his mate. At the very mouth of hell.
What better place for a demon?
He waved his hands, and the parking garage plunged into darkness, every light extinguished. He could feel her sudden panic, which surprised him. He wouldn’t have thought demons would feel fear. She started running, but her car was parked midway down, and he spread his wings and took her.
I screamed, but my voice was lost in the folds that covered me. I couldn’t see, couldn’t hear, could barely move, so disoriented and dizzy that I felt sick. I felt the ground give way beneath my feet, and I was falling, falling â€¦
Something tight bound me, but I couldn’t sense what. It felt like irons bands around my arms, holding me still, and my face was crushed against something hard, something that felt like cloth. I breathed in, and oddly enough I could smell skin, warm, vibrant male skin. Impossible. I smelled the ocean as well, and we were at least a thousand miles away from any salt water.
I squirmed, and the bands tightened, and I couldn’t breathe. My chest was crushed against whatever thing had done this, and I was helpless, weightless, cocooned by the monster that had grabbed me. I tried to move once more, and the pain was blinding. As if my heart was being crushed, I thought, as consciousness faded and I fell into a merciful dark hole.
I could hear someone singing, which was absurd. I was either dead or I’d been captured by some science fiction-y creature who’d sealed me in a cocoon or a hive, probably to be eaten later. I’d seen those movies, I could remember them even though I couldn’t remember my own parents.
I knew that I hurt, everywhere, but most particularly my chest. It felt as if someone had reached inside me and crushed my heart in his hand. Another movie, I thought, feeling dizzy.
But the one thing I did remember was that life was never like the movies. Whoever had done this to me was human, and therefore I could fight back.
Cautiously I opened my eyes.
It looked like a seedy motel room. The radio was playing in the background, something soft and depressing. I was lying in the middle of one lumpy bed â€“ another bed was beside me, empty. But there was a depressed area on the pillow where someone been, so presumably I wasn’t alone in the room.
I tried to move, just a little, and while my body screamed in protest I was no longer restrained. I was lying face down on the mattress, as if someone had dumped me there, and I was relatively sure I hadn’t been raped or otherwise interfered with. Someone had simply managed to scoop me up and run off with me.
The watcher. I rolled over on my back, very gingerly, half afraid he was waiting to pounce again. I kept picturing him like a bat, swooping down on me, dark wings beating at my head. Either I hit my head and had a concussion, which was always possible, or someone had drugged me.
The room was even worse than I thought. It was more like a flop house than a cheap motel. Not that I’d ever been in a flop house before. At least, I didn’t think I had, but the small table and two chairs, the hot plate and the dismal china sink all looked like my idea of one.
I turned back, and almost shrieked. The bed beside me was no longer empty. A man lay there, watching me out of hooded eyes.
I opened my mouth to speak, but my voice was strangled in my throat. He must have seen the fright and the fury in my eyes, but he didn’t move.
There was one small, grubby window, and I could tell from the color of the sky that it must be a little past dawn. And then I remembered Amanda and the others, and real panic set in.
"Have to â€¦ get out of here," I managed to wheeze.
He didn’t move, didn’t react, and I wondered if he’d heard or understood me. Maybe he didn’t speak English.
I couldn’t afford to waste time. I began to pull myself to a sitting position, ignoring the pain that shot through my body. "You have to listen to me," I managed to say, my voice still thick with pain. "I can’t be here. I have to get far away. People will die."
He still didn’t move. The room was murky in the pre-dawn light, and I couldn’t see him clearly. All I could tell was that he was long and lean, and he was most definitely not from around here. They didn’t grow them like that in the Midwest. Where he was from I couldn’t begin to guess, but probably not from outer space.
I sat up, my feet on the soiled carpeting, and nothing was restraining me. "I’m getting out of here," I said, starting to push myself up from the bed. I hurt like hell, but I could make it. I had to make it.
"No." The one word came from him, though it didn’t even seem that he moved his lips. But the word was short, sharp, definite.
"I told you â€¦"
"You told me people will die," he said in a bored voice. "The only one who is going to die is you."
I supposed his casual words should have chilled me, but I’d already figured out I was a lost cause. "Look," I said patiently, "you can do anything you want. Stab me, strangle me, shoot me â€“ I don’t care. Just do it miles away from the city."
He was watching me out of enigmatic eyes. I suppose I should have looked him over more carefully, to see if I could find a weak spot, but I was too wound up thinking about Amanda. No more, I thought. For God’s sake, no more babies.
"We’re in Australia," he said.
I stopped trying to get up, finally looking at him. "How long have I been unconscious?"
"A couple of hours."
Okay, now I knew he was a certifiable fruitcake. Not that I should have had any doubt â€“ sane people don’t swoop down on you like a bat and abduct you. I tried once more to get off the bed and this time I made it. It was as if whatever had held me back finally let go.
"Go to the window if you don’t believe me."
I went. I didn’t see koalas or kangeroos bouncing by the window â€“ it looked like any dingy waterfront. Even so, it would take more than a couple of hours to reach the ocean. So clearly I’d been out for longer than he’d said, but that didn’t matter. All that mattered was that Amanda and all the other newborns would now be safe.
"Okay," I said, turning back to face him. I was tired of running, tired of the fear and panic that had threatened to strangle me. "Go ahead. Make my day."
And I spread my arms wide, waiting for him to kill me.