The sky had barely begun to lighten in the east when Nick climbed out of bed. He had spent most of the night lying awake thinking about seeing Katie tonight. Every time he looked up at the ceiling, he saw the image of himself with Rachel and Ebony. He hated that mirror.
He showered, dressed and made coffee. At seven o’clock, he called Katie and tried his best to sound upbeat. “Hey babe, I’ll pick you up after work, okay?”
“Okay,” Katie answered.
“I have your overnight bag in my trunk. From Saturday night.”
“Oh, right, I forgot,” she said.
“I’ll see you at five?” The long pauses and cool tone of Katie’s voice unnerved Nick. He wished he could see her now, he couldn’t read her expressions through a phone. He also wanted the awkward phone call to end.
“Yes,” she said.
“Love you.” There was no reply. “Katie?” The call ended. He put the phone down on the counter, then picked it up and called Stephanie.
“Hey Steph. Are you still at home?”
“Do you have a vacuum cleaner I can borrow?”
Nick steered the small vacuum around the bedroom carpet. He wiped down the nightstands and put the freshly laundered sheets on the bed. When he finished in the bedroom, he moved on to the bathroom. By mid-morning, the entire apartment was spotless. He poured lukewarm coffee into a mug and called Stephanie at work.
“I had no idea they made purple vacuum cleaners, but it did the job. Thanks,” he said.
Stephanie giggled into the phone. “I bought it because it was purple.”
“Hey, I have another favor to ask. Can you ask Ruby if I can meet with him today?”
Her tone turned somber. “He’s dealing with the aftermath of Chris’ death. I’ll ask and call you back.”
While he waited for Stephanie’s call, he mixed up a flat bread dough. He used one of his grandfather’s fine-edged chef knives to mince the fresh herbs his grandmother had given him and folded them into the dough. He covered the bowl with a towel and set it on top of the stove to rise.
Stephanie called a few minutes later. “Mr. Ruby said he can fit you in at two-thirty this afternoon.”
“Perfect. Thanks, Steph.”
“Is everything all right?”
“Yes, I need to talk to him about my manuscripts. Thanks, again.”
Stephanie greeted Nick, but she wasn’t her usual bubbly self. She sat slump-shouldered in front of her computer with red, puffy eyes. Ruby’s office door opened at two-thirty sharp. He stood in the doorway holding his cell phone to his ear and motioned for Nick to come inside as he talked.
“We all have problems, Mike,” Ruby said. “I have a platinum rock band scheduled for a world tour with no lead singer.” Ruby paused and rolled his eyes as he listened. “Yeah, yeah. What do you expect me to do about it? Scrape the bastard off the ground, put him in a envelope and mail him to his wife? Tell her the body will be shipped after the damn autopsy.” Ruby put his cell down on the desk.
“What can I do for you, Nick?” Ruby settled into his chair and lit a cigar.
“I have several things, Mr. Ruby,” Nick said.
“Well, spit it out. Slaughter’s suicide is taking up my whole damn day. Especially since my sensitive secretary took a personal day yesterday. Her absence delayed several projects.”
“It was a suicide?”
“Who knows? The press is leaning that way. All this media speculation is making a bigger splash than Slaughter made when he hit the pavement.” Ruby threw back his head and laughed.
Nick shifted in his chair and cleared his throat. “I have my manuscripts ready to submit for the second and third books of the trilogy.”
“Excellent. I’ll call Jack, my publisher. You can drop them off to him downstairs.”
“I want to make the edits. And I don’t want my story changed like it was in the first book.”
Ruby puffed on his cigar and studied him with narrowed eyes. “Your overnight fame has gone straight to your balls, hey, Nick?”
“No sir. I just feel strongly about my story.”
“Whatever. Work it out with Jack.” Ruby got up, walked to his computer and studied the monitors. “Anything else?”
“There won’t be any more events like the VIP party, will there?”
“Why, you horny, Nick?” Ruby grinned. “I’ll give you Rachel and Ebony’s phone numbers.”
“That’s not what I meant. You said from now on it would be interviews and book signings, right?”
“Yes. In fact, I’ve scheduled two book signings for the end of this week. I wanted you to do them sooner, but I didn’t want Slaughter’s messy exit to overshadow your events.”
“I don’t want any more public humiliation.”
“Humiliation? Look at this.” Ruby tapped on a monitor with his fingernail. “Half a million books sold. I’ve had to reorder the posters and T-shirts. All sold out.”
“Half a million books?”
Ruby returned to his desk and took a check from his drawer. “Here you are, Nick, as promised.”
“Holy shit.” Nick stared at the check in his hands made out for over six hundred-thousand dollars. “Is this for real?”
“Your royalties. Do the math. Anything else on your mind, Nick?”
“Um, yes.” Nick slipped the check into his shirt pocket. “I’d like your permission to remove a mirror in the apartment. I’ll do the work myself. I have experience with patching and painting.”
“I pay you to write,” Ruby said. “I pay a maintenance company to service the building.” Ruby cocked his head and asked, “Where is this mirror? Can’t you simply take it off the wall?”
“In the bedroom. And, no I can’t, it’s attached.”
Ruby scrawled a note on a pad. “The maintenance staff aren’t the brightest bulbs. I’ll need to tell them which wall exactly in the bedroom?”
“It’s not on a wall, it’s on the ceiling.”
“Huh? The former tenant must have installed it.” Ruby smirked. “A ceiling mirror in your bedroom and you want it taken down?”
“An odd request for a virile, young man.” Ruby leaned across his desk. His upper lip curled into a sneer. “What’s the problem, Nick? Is your fiancée shy?”
Nick ignored the taunt. “There’s one more thing I’d like to ask you.”
“Make it quick. I have a meeting at three concerning Slaughter. That prick is becoming as annoying dead as he was alive.”
“I’d like to buy the Mustang from you, if you’ll consider selling it.”
Nick tasted his pesto sauce and added a pinch more salt and some fresh lemon zest. He put the bowl into the refrigerator. Hesitating at the open door, he took a beer from the shelf and made a mental note to brush his teeth before picking up Katie. As he walked around the apartment sipping the beer, he straightened a picture on the wall and rearranged the items on his desk for the third time. He hadn’t felt this nervous since his first date with Katie. His cell phone rang. Seeing Katie’s name displayed, he answered on the first ring.
“I wanted to let you know you don’t have to pick me up at the hospital,” Katie said.
“Why?” Had Katie decided to dump him? Nick took a breath to steady his nerves. “Should I pick you up at your apartment instead?”
“No. I have an errand to run with Tara. She’ll drop me off at your place on her way in to work.”
“So, I’ll see you . . . when?”
Nick sat at the kitchen counter. Katie’s voice sounded strained. He wondered what the errand with Tara could be. Katie never kept secrets from him. Tara’s involvement gave him a bad feeling. He finished his beer and grabbed another from the refrigerator.
At seven twenty-six, Nick stood by the living room window looking down at the street below. He gripped his cell phone, debating whether or not to call Katie when a light blue sedan pulled up in front of the entrance. The driver and passenger doors opened at the same time. Katie stepped out from the passenger side. A man ran around from the driver’s side and opened the trunk. He handed a large box to Katie and kissed her on the cheek. As the man turned to get back into the car, Nick recognized him. Jon Gerber, the male nurse. Nick’s jaw tightened. Katie lied about Tara giving her a ride. He feared Gerber was taking advantage of the rift in their relationship. He walked to the front door taking deep breaths to calm his temper. When the elevator bell sounded, he opened the door. Katie hurried down the hall carrying a large, gift-wrapped box.
“Let me take that for you,” he said holding his arms out.
“I’ve got it.” She slipped past him and headed for the kitchen counter. “Oh, shoot,” she said.
Katie pointed to the new coffee maker. “I brought a housewarming gift, but you already have one. A nicer one. Mine’s just a Mr. Coffee pot, like the one I have.”
“Your’s makes the best coffee, plus it’s a no-brainer in the morning. This one’s too complicated. Steph gave it to me, that’s the only reason I set it up.”
“Oh,” Katie said. “I’ll take it back and get something else.”
“Are you kidding me? It stays.” Nick ripped open the box and set the coffee maker on the counter in front of the other one. “I love it. Thank you.” He leaned to kiss Katie.
She abruptly turned her head. “Your apartment is very nice.” She strolled into the living room.
“I like it.” Nick followed her as she wandered around the room. Each time he stood close to her, she moved away to admire something. Feeling frustrated, he walked back into the kitchen. “Do you want something to drink? I have the tea you like,” he called out.
Katie stood near the kitchen. “Do you have wine?”
Nick bit his tongue and nodded. Katie rarely drank alcohol, but her request suited the strange way she acted tonight. He poured two glasses and handed one to her.
Nick watched her take a tiny sip and then put the glass down. Her eyes darted around the kitchen, looking at everything but him. She wrung her hands and twisted the diamond engagement ring on her finger.
“You look fantastic, is that a new outfit?” He admired her tight black jeans and the black lace bra which peeked above the neckline of her pink tank top.
“Yes.” She removed her leather blazer, walked into the living room and draped it over a chair. He noticed her matching pink high heels. It was not her usual style of clothing.
“You’re all dressed up and I look like a slob.” He motioned to his sweat pants and tee shirt.
“You look fine. Besides, you’ve been cooking.” She picked up a knife he had left lying on the cutting board and positioned it over a plump, ripe tomato. “I’ll help,” she said. “How do you want this cut?”
“Careful.” Nick reached and held her hand. “This is one of my grandpa’s chef knives. Really sharp.” He wrapped his arms around her. She slipped sideways to escape his hold. Her bottom brushed against him as she moved past. He eased himself down onto a stool to hide his arousal. Katie picked up her glass and raised it to her mouth but didn’t drink. Her whole body trembled, and she gripped the wine glass with both hands to steady it.
“What’s wrong, babe?” he asked.
“Oh, God, I can’t do this.” She put the glass down on the counter and ran toward the front door.
Nick ran after her and put his hand on the door above her head so she couldn’t pull it open.
“Can’t do what?” he said. “Katie, please, talk to me.”
Tears misted her eyes. Her breath came out in short gasps between her words. “I can’t pretend to have polite conversation when I know you asked me here to break our engagement.”
“What? No! Why would you think that?” He took her hand. “Please, let’s sit down.” He led her to the couch and sat next to her.
Katie perched on the edge of the seat. “Tara said you told her you were breaking our engagement as soon as I got over the stomach bug.”
“What? Katie, that’s a lie, I never said—”
“That’s why I put off seeing you. She said you posted on your website you were looking for girlfriends.”
“Freaking Tara. I should have known.” Nick let out a long sigh. “Katie, the last thing I want is to break our engagement. I didn’t even know the website existed until Tara told me about it. And I have no control over it, Ruby’s staff runs it.” He buried his face in her hair and breathed in the familiar, sweet scent. “The only thing I want is for us to be us again. I’d do the last three days over if I could. I know you’re angry and I don’t blame you.”
“I was angry, Nick. I felt so sick last weekend, I could barely think.” She touched his hand. “I shouldn’t have let Tara get me upset. But I felt so hurt and her constant chattering about those models and all the women propositioning you on your website . . . it got to me.” Katie smiled for the first time that evening. “Nick, I believe you didn’t sleep with those models. I remembered what Chris told us at the party. The awful lies about him in the press. Ruby’s doing the same thing to you. Poor Chris. I heard about his death on the news. Do you think all the media pressure drove him to kill himself?”
“I don’t know.” He didn’t want to think about poor Chris right now. Nick pressed his face deeper into Katie’s hair and pulled her closer. She believes me. Relief and then shame flooded over him. He wondered if his guilt would ever go away. “If you believe me, then why would you think I wanted to break our engagement?”
“Because everything’s changed.”
“Yes, it has. You proposed to me before the VIP party—before you got a taste of fame and beautiful women falling all over you. Ruby insists on promoting you as an eligible bachelor. What if he drops you because you’re engaged? You’d lose your book deal because of me. I was afraid you regretted proposing to me. I don’t fit into your new life—”
He stopped her words by pressing his lips against hers. He wrapped his arms around and pulled her close. The need to lose himself in Katie’s embrace overwhelmed him.
“Nick? If you’re not breaking up with me, then what did you want to talk about tonight? You sounded so urgent.”
He grabbed a throw pillow and covered his lap to hide his arousal. “I’ve missed you. Talking to you. Being with you. Making love to you. You’re more important to me than a book deal or Ruby’s crazy publicity stunts. None of it matters if I can’t be with you. I want you in my life, every day, like it was before all this.”
“I missed you, too,” she said. “Three days is the longest we’ve ever been apart.”
He picked up his wallet from the coffee table and took out a slip of paper. “Here.”
“My bank deposit slip.”
“Sixty-thousand, three-hundred and eight. Wow! Is this from your book sales?”
“Look again,” he said.
“Oh my God! Six-hundred and thirty-eight thousand dollars? Is that right?”
“Yeah, pretty wild, huh? My book’s sold half a million copies. Plus the stupid posters and shirts.”
“Nick, this is amazing. What are you going to do with it?”
“You tell me. You’re the sensible one when it comes to money.” He grinned. “But I do have one purchase I want to make.”
“Ruby’s agreed to sell me the Mustang. Thirty thousand. Ray checked out the car. It’s a good deal.”
“You love that car. Now it’ll be yours.”
“That’s my point, Katie. The VIP party, posters, that damn website, I hate all of it. I don’t want to be dependent on Ruby for everything in my life. The car is only the first step. The second is I want you to move in with me. I’ll pay Ruby rent. If you don’t like this apartment, we’ll find another place. Whatever you want to do.”
“Oh.” She fanned her flushed face with her hands.
“Are you all right?”
“Yes, it’s just . . . I expected tonight to be awful. I’m so relieved. And happy.”
He grinned. “Maybe you should go into the bedroom and lie down.” He nuzzled his face against her neck.
She smiled and kissed him. “You can put that pillow down now.”
Katie walked into the kitchen barefoot wearing one of Nick’s tee shirts. She watched him roll out the flat bread dough and place it on a baking sheet.
“Nick, that ceiling mirror has got to go.”
“Already talked to Ruby about it. His maintenance guys are taking it down this week.”
“Here, this is for you.” Nick pointed to a legal pad and pen on the kitchen counter.
“I asked you to move in. You always make a list of the pros and cons before you make a decision.”
Katie stretched her arms above her head and then hugged herself. “Unlimited access to your comfy tee shirts is a definite pro. But, how will your family feel about us living together? They’re planning a big wedding. Nonna is so religious. We’d be living in sin, according to her.”
“I’ll be a very happy sinner,” Nick said. “We’re adults. And besides, they don’t need to know.”
“It wouldn’t be right to lie to them.”
“Not lie. Just not mention it.”
“Tara will have to find a new roommate to cover half the rent.”
“Don’t expect me to feel bad for her after all the trouble she caused.”
“How will I get to work? My apartment is close to the hospital so I can walk.”
“I’ll drive you.”
“What if you have a meeting or something? I want to be able to get to work on my own.”
“Then I’ll buy you a car. It’s not a big deal for me to drive you, though.”
“I guess. But the Mustang’s old. Is it reliable? What if there’s a snowstorm?”
“It’s fully restored with brand new parts. The car’s old school, I can maintain it myself. And if it ever needs major work, my best friend, Ray, owns a classic car shop. Plus, there’s a bus stop out front and a cab stand.” Nick dried his hands and picked up the pen. He wrote on the pad and then turned it back toward Katie.
She read the items he wrote out loud. “What ifs . . . tsunami, earthquake, zombie invasion.” She smacked his arm with the pad. “Very funny.”
“Just wanted to make sure you covered all the cons.”
“Fine.” She wrote on the list.
He read her addition to the con list over her shoulder. “What? No appreciation for expensive lingerie?”
“The underwear on your bedroom floor cost me sixty dollars. You didn’t even look at it.”
“Sure I did. It was, um . . . pretty.”
“You took my bra off before we made it to the bed. Then you pulled my thong off. With your teeth.”
He grinned at her. “I’m not apologizing.”
Katie laughed and shook her head. “I should have known better. It was Tara’s idea to go to the mall tonight. After spending all that money, here I am, naked under one of your old T-shirts.”
“You went clothes shopping with Tara?” Nick focused on cutting a tomato into thin slices.
“Yes.” She sighed. “I let Tara brow beat me into stepping up my game, as she put it, to keep you interested. She said I needed to dress sexier, like the models at the VIP party. Stop wearing my frumpy nursing uniform.”
“You couldn’t look frumpy if you tried.” Nick put the knife down and squeezed her hand. “Katie, please stop listening to Tara. She’s a liar and wrong about everything.”
“I usually don’t listen. She is a drama queen. Guess I was feeling insecure.”
“So, Tara drove you here?” He tried to sound nonchalant.
“No. She planned to, but we stayed too long at the mall. She barely had enough time to get to work. I rode back to the hospital with her. I was going to call you, but Jon offered me a ride. He lives near here.”
“Did you ever think he might want to give you more than a ride?”
“Don’t worry about Jon. He’s a nice guy, but not my type. I think he has a girlfriend.”
Nick breathed a sigh of relief as he slid the pan into the oven. He had jumped to conclusions about Gerber. “Hey, I want you to read something.” He went to his desk and came back with a stack of papers. “I talked with Ruby’s publisher today. I can’t fix the first book, but I modified some chapters of the other two volumes to get my original story back, or close, at least. Your meticulous notes helped me a lot. Thank you.”
Katie’s face lit up. “Can I read it now?”
“If you want. Dinner’s not for another thirty minutes.”
He turned on the gas fireplace while Katie snuggled into a pile of pillows on the living room floor to read.
“I put your drink on the coffee table,” Nick said.
Katie wrinkled her nose. “Oh, the wine–”
“I know you don’t like wine. I made you a cup of tea.” He slapped her bottom as he walked past on the way to the kitchen. “That’s for listening to Tara.”
“Nick, how could you do this?”
He dropped the hot pan on the cutting board and looked up. Katie stood at the counter with his manuscript pages in her hand.
“I had to. He sacrificed his life to save Caroline.”
“Well, I absolutely hate it. Your new ending sucks.”
Nick grunted and then smiled. “Don’t sugar coat how you feel about it, babe.”
“I can’t help it. Julian and Caroline have to end up together.”
“It doesn’t work anymore since Ruby changed the first book. There’s suspension of disbelief in any horror novel. There are also vampire rules, I can’t change them. Remember the old vampire he met in the second volume who explained everything to him? In order to save a victim from becoming a vampire, you must kill the vampire who bit them. Diana tricked Julian into biting the reincarnated Caroline. Now he has to die in order to save her life. Period.”
“Forget the vampire rules. The story is about their romance. After all they’ve been through, for over two centuries, readers will feel cheated with this ending.”
“Julian is over two hundred years old, Katie. When he kills Diana, he becomes mortal and rapidly ages. Having an ancient dust-bag hook up with a twenty-year old woman, that would be real horror.”
“You have to figure out another way then. I want Julian and Caroline to be together. Period. Killing himself, even to save her life, is not romantic.”
“To give your life for someone else is the ultimate expression of love. Hell, it’s biblical.”
Katie shook her head. “For someone who’s so sweet and passionate, how can you possibly think that’s a romantic ending?”
Nick shook his head. “Dinner’s ready.”
“So, what do you think about moving in with me?”
“Let’s see, you made love to me, cooked a gourmet dinner and now you’re giving me a back rub in front of the fireplace.” She closed her eyes and sighed. “You’re making it difficult for me to say no.”
“I have to finish my list. Then wait twenty-four hours before making my decision. My list has rules. I can’t change them.”
“You’re making me suffer for killing Julian, aren’t you?”
“Maybe.” She smiled. “I’ll have to add gaining weight to the con side of the list.” She picked up a piece of the herbed flat bread and dipped it into the pesto. “Dinner was incredible, Nick. If you hadn’t decided to become a writer, you could have easily been a five-star chef.”
“I enjoyed cooking at the restaurant. Unfortunately, no one has built a kitchen big enough for me and my father to be in at the same time.” He picked up the legal pad. “You have nothing written on the pro side of your list.”
Katie sat up and put her arms around his neck. She brushed her lips against his ear and whispered, “I will.”
Nick lay with his head propped on his elbow watching Katie sleep next to him in bed. He rolled on his back and smiled up at their reflection in the ceiling mirror. If she didn’t have to work in the morning, they would have stayed up all night talking about their future plans. Too excited to sleep, he quietly slipped out of bed so as not to wake her.
He walked to his desk and sat down at his computer. His new novel had stalled after three chapters. Writing under the pressure of a deadline was new to him, and he didn’t want to sacrifice quality to meet the deadline. He opened his computer file of story ideas, hoping one might spark a plot strong enough to carry a full-length novel. Several of his ideas involved vampires, but since his trilogy featured vampires, he wanted something different. He scanned the short blurbs he had written about vengeful ghosts, pacts with the devil and a modern-day witches coven. Another file held dozens of short horror stories he had written. Joseph Cullen had published several short story collections. Nick decided he’d email Ruby’s publisher, Jack, about doing his own book of short stories. It would buy him time to work on a new novel. He liked working directly with the publisher, rather than with Ruby. Jack was knowledgeable, welcomed Nick’s ideas and was eager to work with him.
He pulled a small stack of business cards from his wallet and found the publisher’s card wedged between Joseph Cullen’s and Victor Ruby’s. After sending Jack the email, he started to slide the cards back into his wallet.
The phrase on the back of Victor Ruby’s card caught his eye. He worried he might have writer’s block. The phrase worked for that asshole Cullen and if Ruby expected Nick to outsell him, he figured he’d give it a try. Unsure how to pronounce the words, he sounded each one out loud. “Peta Babkama Luruba Dalkhu Anaku.” He laughed to himself as he sat with his fingers poised over the keyboard waiting for instant inspiration to strike. After a minute or two, he felt silly and went back to searching through his idea files.
The apartment grew warm. Although certain he had turned it off before they went to bed, Nick got up and checked the fireplace. The glass front felt cool and no flames burned inside the hearth. Yet, the temperature in the room continued to climb. He opened the living room window. The cool night air offered no relief from the rising heat. Perspiration soaked through Nick’s tee shirt and sweat rolled in rivulets from his scalp, down his forehead, and into his eyes. He checked the thermostat on the wall. The digital display read seventy-two, but the air felt more like one hundred and seventy-two degrees.
An odor of sulfur mixed with charred wood filled his nostrils. Maybe there’s a gas leak or electrical fire. He hurried to the bedroom to check on Katie. Hesitating in the bedroom doorway, he wondered if he should wake her, but then decided to let her sleep. He looked around the kitchen and examined the gas range. All of the knobs were in the off position and the foul odor wasn’t coming from the oven.
From the corner of eye, he saw movement in the living room. In spite of the oppressive heat, a chill ran down his back as he hurried to investigate. He found nothing unusual or out of place.
Returning to the kitchen, he grabbed a dish towel, wet it with cold water and pressed it against his sweaty face. His body burned with a feverish heat. The last thing he needed was to get sick, he had too much to do. The cold towel helped. As he lowered the towel to run it under the water again, a smoky, black mass hanging in the air inches from his face startled him. His mind reeled to make sense of it.
The swirling black mist slowly formed into a face, suspended bodiless in the air, with dark cavernous eye sockets and a gaping hole for a mouth. Two tiny red points appeared in the blackened voids where eyes should be. They burned brighter and grew larger. His initial confusion turned to terror. His heartbeat raced, yet his arms hung like lead pipes at his sides and his legs stood frozen. His mind screamed for him to run, but his body refused to react. The suffocating stench of sulfur made him gasp for air. He stared, open-mouthed and paralyzed, as the undulating face loomed closer and expanded. Long black tendrils stretched down into the shape of a body beneath the gruesome head. Shadowy arms lunged out and hot fingers clutched his throat. Nick willed his stiffened arms to move. He clawed at the air around his neck, but his fingers passed through the vaporous claws that strangled him. His vision narrowed to a long tunnel focused on two burning red circles at the end. A wriggling sensation like thousands of fiery worms burrowing beneath his skin revolted him. Blackness engulfed him.
When he opened his eyes, he found himself sitting at a desk in front of a laptop computer. A red haze colored the room. He squinted at the blurry text on the computer screen but couldn’t focus his eyes to read it. He stood on unsteady feet. His body felt uncoordinated and his legs lurched in a stiff, awkward motion when he walked. The apartment and its furnishings were unfamiliar. He slowly dragged his feet across the floor and scrutinized everything in the room. A leather jacket lay draped over an easy chair across from the kitchen. He picked it up with rigid fingers, raised it to his face and breathed in a floral scent from the jacket’s lining.
An open case of knives on the kitchen counter drew his attention. The bright ceiling light reflected in the shiny, steel blades. Mesmerized, he ran his fingertips over each one, admiring how they gleamed and shone. He selected a fillet knife and pulled it from its strap. The sight of the finely-honed edge and long, slender blade sent a shiver of excitement through his body. The handle felt good in his hand. His coordination returned. He turned and walked toward the partially open door at the end of the hall. The same sweet scent from the jacket, only stronger, enticed him to enter the darkened room.
He stood at the foot of the bed and watched the woman sleep. Long blond hair partially covered her face. The sheet clung to her body. Her deep, slow breathing teased him, alternately pulling the material taut across her breasts when she inhaled, and then loosened when she exhaled. Women always teased him, mocked him. They were inherently cruel creatures. He despised them.
He flexed his fingers to adjust his grip on the knife handle. It felt like a familiar old friend. He focused on the woman in the bed. This one wouldn’t tease him anymore. The anticipation of the razor-sharp blade slicing into her flesh aroused him. He planned each thrust, each slice, and thought about her blood soaking into the white sheets. Each stick of the blade had to be done slowly, carefully, or else his pleasure would end too soon. She’d beg him to stop, promise to do anything he wanted. But he knew it was a trick, lies to distract him from his work. Soon she would lie helpless and bloody, like the others.
He relished the thought of releasing the coppery scent of her blood. Letting it envelop him like a lover’s perfume. He licked his lips in anticipation of the warm, salty drops splattering across his face. The final slash would be to her throat. He’d savor the gurgling sound as air mixed with the blood. He would gaze into her eyes, her pupils wide with terror, and watch until they turned glassy, and then finally, dull. Dead.
He drew a deep breath, smiled and raised the knife.
The woman stirred and opened her eyes. “Nick?” She shielded her eyes with one hand against the light from the open door behind him.
Nick’s body shook. His limbs jerked with the sudden spasms. Gasping, he forced his fingers to release their vice-like grip on the knife handle. It dropped from his hand and banged against the wooden sideboard of the bed.
“What are you doing?” Katie pushed herself up into a sitting position.
Doubled over with convulsions, he pressed his arms tightly across his stomach. He coughed, wretched and defied the voice which screamed inside his head to pick up the knife and stab Katie. He kicked the knife away from his reach. It slid soundlessly across the carpet and disappeared into the dark void under the bed.
“Are you sick?” Katie swung her legs over the side of the bed. “What’s wrong?”
“N-nothing,” he stammered. “Go back to sleep.” He turned and grabbed the door knob. Twisting the lock on the inside knob, he pulled the bedroom door shut, locking Katie in and himself out. He staggered into the bathroom and locked the door. Hunched over the sink, he vomited.
“Nick? Are you all right?” Katie wiggled the bathroom door knob.
He rinsed away the vomit and then splashed cold water on his face.
“Open the door. Let me help you.”
“I’m . . . all right. J-Just sick.” He leaned on the counter with shaking arms and stared at his reflection in the mirror. His face wet and void of color except for an odd glint of red in his eyes. His clothing, drenched with sweat, stuck to his trembling body.
“Sweetie, let me in.” She gently knocked on the door. “I’m a nurse, remember? I’ve seen sick people before.”
He unlocked the door and opened it a crack. “I need some time. I threw up.”
Katie pushed the door open and put her hand on his forehead. “You’re pretty warm,” she said, “but it looks like your fever broke. You’re soaked in sweat.”
His muscles tensed as she touched him, and a burning sensation crawled through his veins. The red haze returned, clouding his vision and his thoughts turned dark. Grab the bitch by the hair, drag her to the bed, get the knife. . .. The bloody images flashing in his mind first thrilled and then revolted him. He fought the murderous urges. Bile rose in the back of his throat. He turned and heaved into the sink basin.
Katie wet a wash cloth and pressed it against his forehead. She cradled his head between the cool cloth and her other hand clasped on the back of his neck. “You need to get out of these wet clothes.”
The softness in her voice and the scent of her perfume fanned a dark fire inside him. He had to make Katie leave before his last thread of self-control snapped.
“I-I’m going to take a shower. Go back to bed. Leave me alone.”
He saw her hurt expression as she turned to leave. “I’ll get you some clean clothes.”
Nick twisted the door lock after she exited. He struggled to peel off his wet clothes and stepped into the shower. He turned the cold water on full force. The jolting spray calmed the intense burning in his body and he leaned his back against the cool tile wall and let the water flow over him. He slowly slid down the shower wall and sat. He buried his face in his hands to muffle his sobs as the icy water flooded over him.
Shivering, he reached over and turned off the faucet. He rubbed himself dry with a towel and inched open the door. A clean pair of sweat pants and a tee shirt hung on the outside door knob. The bedroom door stood wide open. Katie lay sleeping in the bed. He locked the bedroom knob and shut the door. He didn’t trust himself to be near Katie.
He dressed and found a blanket in the linen closet. Wrapping it around himself, he shuffled to the living room. It was after four in the morning. He had been in the shower for three hours. Cold and exhausted, he huddled on the couch and tried to make sense of what happened.
Katie would be waking soon to get ready for work. She expected him to drive her to the hospital. The thought of being alone with her in the car made him shudder more than the chills that wracked his body. He pulled the blanket tighter. What had come over him and what if it happened again? He drew his knees up under the blanket and squeezed his eyes shut. Tears leaked down his face.
He wanted to kill Katie.