I expertly flipped the last pancake onto the plate and then shut off the stove. The countertop was laden down with eggs, pancakes and fresh coffee, and just as I readjusted the two stools for the umpteenth time that morning, Andrew emerged from the bedroom.
He stifled a yawn and blinked to clear the sleep from his eyes. “Morning. Oh, hey, you didn’t have to do all that.”
I came out from around the counter and stood up on tiptoe to kiss him. He returned it enthusiastically and when we parted, he stumbled back from the intensity.
“Did you sleep well?”
“Out like a light.”
I smiled. “Breakfast is all set, so dig in. I’m going to go change and will be right back.”
He looked slightly disappointed. “Would you mind wearing that shirt just a little bit longer? It’s a good look for you.”
I felt my face warm. “Sure.”
As it turned out, I ended up wearing it all day tied off to the side to better fit me along with the jeans that Andrew had laundered for me the night before.
We finished breakfast while seated at the counter with the warm early light of day filtering in through the windows. We talked and laughed about little things while we ate, the conversation effortless yet infinitely meaningful to me. When we finished we both helped to clear away the dishes and then set off for work. The others were already at the house currently being processed, a retired couple who had decided to downsize and had traded in their house for a Winnebago to travel around the United States.
The work was tedious and hot and my day consisted of going through the contents of the garage and the lady of the house’s borderline-scary Christmas décor collection. At one point Andrew tracked me down to see how things were progressing and found me literally waist-deep in a pile of wreaths, strings of lights, and whimsical looking figurines.
He handed me a bottle of water and I took it gratefully. “Hey.”
“Hey.” He surveyed the piles that I had carefully arranged on the display tables and was prepping for pricing. He picked up a piece from a snowy village setup in which all the pieces—including the people and animals—were all painted a monochrome baby blue. He made a face. “Jesus,” he muttered and set it down.
“Mmm. Actually, Jesus is over there along with the rest of the Nativity scene. If we’re lucky we might be able to get twenty bucks for the whole set,” I deadpanned.
He choked back laughter. “Good thing my devoutly-religious mom wasn’t here to hear you say that. She thinks that you’re a sweet and wonderful woman.”
“And what do you think?” I strode forward and put my arms around him.
He smiled down at me. “I completely agree with her.”
There was a muffled shuffling of feet to our left and we both glanced over to see Karla hovering awkwardly in the doorway.
“Um, Amanda says that she needs a second opinion on what to price an item upstairs.” She kept her gaze on a spot directly behind us and I felt Andrew’s muscles tense slightly. Things had cooled significantly since yesterday’s office debacle, but to her credit she had remained civil and professional throughout the day. He sighed and stepped away from me and I casually made my way back over to the mound of items that I was still sorting through.
“Yeah, I’ll be right there.”
She nodded silently and retreated back inside.
He glanced at his watch and sighed again. “Feel free to take a break any time that you want. I’ll be inside going through the remaining contents and assisting with the final set up.”
I nodded. “If you want, I could stop at that sandwich shop over on Dresden and bring back lunch for everyone.” While I knew that bringing back a gyro was a poor substitute for losing out on Andrew’s affections, it would help to ease my own guilt somewhat.
He brightened. “Hey, that sounds great. Let me get everyone’s order and then I’ll meet you in the living room.”
I nodded and set the pieces of the snowy village set up back in their box, then dusted my hands off on my jeans. As I came in through the side door which connected the garage with the house’s spacious kitchen, I saw Karla in the process of tagging the various utensils and appliances which had been neatly laid out on the counters and marble-topped island. She looked up as I approached and then her eyes flicked to the t-shirt that I was wearing. I sighed, not wanting a confrontation or a continuation of yesterday’s office drama.
I edged towards the stove and tried to appear nonchalant as I passed, and I heard her set a large silver salad bowl down on the counter. She sighed and her voice was neutral. “Katrina?”
I paused, ready for any number of possible outcomes to this. “Yes?”
“Thanks for offering to bring lunch for everyone. You don’t have to do that.”
“I want to, besides—”
“Look, you don’t owe me anything, least of all an explanation of what happened yesterday.” She rubbed the back of her elbows absently and turned to face me. “I could tell from the moment I met you that Andrew had eyes only for you, even if he didn’t fully realize it then. I’m happy for you and him. He’s been through a lot.”
“So he’s been hinting at. He hasn’t told me everything yet.”
She nodded. “He will. I can tell that he trusts you, which isn’t always easy for him.”
I nodded silently, unsure of how to react to this sudden turn of events.
“Well,” she said as she set a matching set of serving spoons in the bowl. “I guess I better finish this up so I can go help assist upstairs. This house has so much stuff in it, it’s crazy.”
“You should see their Christmas collection—it’s downright spooky.”
She chuckled and I saw a ghost of a smile on her lips. “Thanks, Katrina.”
Mystified, I left the kitchen and headed towards the living room where Andrew was seated on the edge of a flowery couch with plastic sheeting draped over it. He rose at my approach and handed me a crumpled piece of Steno Pad filled with his characteristic messy scrawl. “Here’s everyone’s order. Thanks again for doing this—what’s wrong?”
“Hmm? What do you mean?”
He ran his hands up through his hair. “I don’t know, it’s just that you had this look on your face.”
I took the paper from him and reached up, smoothing his hair back in place. His dark eyes were filled with so many conflicting emotions as I ran my fingers slowly through his scalp. “I just spoke to Karla in the kitchen right now. She thanked me.”
My fingers stilled. “I have no idea, but I think it was her way of letting me know that she’s okay with our relationship.”
He scoffed and shook his head. “Women. I’ll never understand you.”
“Truthfully, I’m surprised. If it were me who had missed out on your affections, I’d be devastated.”
He smiled down at me. “Lucky for you, you didn’t miss out.”
I edged closer and tilted my chin up in invitation. “And you as well.”
With one hand I yanked him down for a kiss that left him momentarily breathless, and with the other I reached into his back pocket and withdrew his truck keys. He made a harsh sound in the back of his throat as I released him and I backed up slowly, waving the paper at him as I turned around to leave. “Be right back.”
I was out the door before he could form a coherent response, but I seriously doubted that even if I had waited, that he was still too flustered regardless.
I exited the sandwich shop laden down with the crew’s orders: egg salad on rye, a gyro with extra Tzatziki sauce, a turkey club, a Rueben, and prosciutto and provolone on a basil ciabatta roll. This last one was Andrew’s and I quirked an eyebrow. For a guy who thought that Whataburger’s was the key to happiness, he had surprisingly refined tastes when it came to deli fare.
I set the stack of foam boxes in a canvas shopping tote and secured it on the passenger seat, then went around to the driver’s side. As I waited for a car to go by I happened to glance up at the various people coming in and out of the trendy cafes and shops that lined this particular street and caught a flash of red. I immediately snapped to attention, my instincts kicking in and my senses on heightened alert. As I scanned the crowds I could plainly discern two individuals sporting the characteristic reddish aura of my kind. They strolled casually down the sidewalk, neither apparently aware of my proximity, completely at ease.
I felt my ire rise, recalling the words of my last victim moments after he had smashed my head in the side of my car: “So you’re the one that has the rest of us on edge; you look pretty harmless to me.”
Without even realizing it I had run out into traffic, only to be greeted by a cacophony of bleating horns, angry shouts and more than a few one-fingered gestures by the drivers who swerved wildly to avoid hitting me. People on the opposite side of the street looked up at the noise and confusion, including the two individuals. I clearly saw the whites of their eyes as they saw me headed straight for them, my own aura undoubtedly blazing around me. The taller of the two shouted to the other and they took off running, trying to duck down a side street. A few people in their path were knocked over as they shoved their way through the human mass, and I continued to pursue them, effortlessly dodging the tangle of arms and legs of the people I passed.
I momentarily lost sight of them as I rounded the corner of a red-brick pub, but the sound of their retreating footsteps and of their labored breathing was plainly discernible even from yards away. I increased my speed now that I was out of sight of the crowds still trying to make sense of what had just happened, when I saw them headed north right through someone’s lawn. With an angry snarl I attempted to close the distance between us, but then the pair split off in opposite directions, momentarily confusing me.
I came to a dead stop, unsure what to do. I was in the middle of a residential neighborhood—undoubtedly the older section of town based on the condition of the houses—where people were walking their dogs, trimming hedges, or lounging on their front porches.
“Shit.” I swept my hair back and scanned the street. Luckily no one had seen the pursuit, but now I was left with the sixty-four-thousand dollar question: Where did they both run off to? I glanced up and saw the faded street sign five feet away. Holden. The name sparked something in my memory and I recalled the mental image of the map that I had printed out and made notations on a few days before. If I was right, then the next street should be…. I sprinted back in the direction that I had come and sure enough, the sign confirmed what I had begun to suspect.
The sandwich shop was located on Dresden Street, which was two blocks from where I currently stood. Holden bisected Tanner, which is where one of my targets had headed. The other had headed off in the opposite direction, most likely in the vicinity of Lake View Park or Terrace Gardens. Each of these locations were areas that I had identified as potentially being linked to one of several mysterious deaths in the area, and were relatively close to the house that was currently being processed by Crossman Estates. Granted this couple had elected to retire and were not deceased, but the relative proximity to these locations—not to mention where I just happened to be today—had to have been more than coincidence. The stakes had been raised just now by this little pursuit—they had recognized who and what I was and had intentionally set out to prevent me from finding out the location of where they and the others were undoubtedly holed up.
I knew that I was close to finding this location, but now was not the time or the place to pursue this theory of mine. Andrew and the others were waiting for me back at the house and a residential neighborhood like this was not the best place to conduct any type of stealth mission, especially during daylight hours. No, this would have to wait until another day and time when I was sure that I could come alone and Andrew would remain ignorant as to what I was doing.
Unfortunately this little waiting game meant gambling with innocent peoples’ lives, as my kind had to eventually hunt, which meant someone would have to die soon to satisfy their hunger.
I trudged slowly back down the street and crossed with a crowd of shoppers and tourists at the light like a normal human being and got back in Andrew’s truck. My appetite was completely gone by the time I made the short drive back to the house being processed, but to maintain appearances I joined the others in the dining room and ate my sandwich without really tasting it.
I relaxed some of the iron control that I had over my other hunger and felt it stir in anticipation of the ensuing hunt, eager to slake my insatiable thirst with the life force of those that I would eventually track down.
“Tastes good, doesn’t it?” Andrew indicated my sandwich with the remnant of his own.
I smiled and a little of the predator within me crept through. “Yes, it does.”