Victor Ruby’s call, demanding Nick come to the office right away, awoke him the next morning. Nick checked his cell phone. Although he hadn’t returned Katie’s previous calls, finding no messages or texts from her left him with a hollow, empty feeling.
Ruby escorted him into his office. “You certainly have a knack for promoting yourself, Nick. The media is all abuzz about your affair with Bethany.” He chuckled and added, “Lee’s nose is broken. He’s livid. He’ll probably have two black eyes at the premiere.” Ruby lit a cigar, layering a cloud of thick, pungent smoke onto the stifling air in his office. “We need to keep up the momentum until your own movie debuts. How do you feel about switching from author to actor?”
He wondered why Ruby hadn’t mentioned Mary’s disappearance. Perhaps he wasn’t aware she had fled the city. Could it be that simple to end this nightmare, just pack his things and leave?
Ruby’s long nails tapped on the desktop. “Well?”
“I’m not an actor,” Nick grumbled.
“One could argue you aren’t a writer either,” Ruby said with a sneer. “Other than your fairy tales about vampires, ghosts and witches.”
“You’ve certainly shown me a new definition of horror.”
“See Nick, I knew you’d come around. Some people have to experience it in order to understand what real horror is. Girlfriends slashed to pieces. Families burned alive. Nuns, children, little old ladies and war heroes make the best victims. When terrible things happen to them, people find it so much more horrifying, don’t you agree?”
“What are you getting at?”
“Our first conversation. What is horror, remember? Thanks to me, you have a new perspective.” Ruby grinned and blew a plume of smoke into Nick’s face.
Nick waved the smoke away. “Evil doesn’t always win. God does exist and I believe He’s more powerful than you.”
Ruby clapped his hands in mock applause. “Well, well, the fallen Catholic has spoken. Tell me Nick, did God comfort you on your last visit to church?”
Nick envisioned the steaming, blood-red holy water writhing like a bloated eel on the church floor. He stood to escape Ruby’s piercing eyes. As he walked past, he glanced down at the deep bottom drawer in Ruby’s desk, adorned with a silver handle and no visible lock.
He pointed to Ruby’s blank, silent computer monitors. “So, how’s the Nick Tera Fan Club doing?”
Ruby’s lips and eyes squeezed into straight lines.
A rush of confidence emboldened Nick as he met Ruby’s angry stare. “The last time I visited that cesspool you call a website, I noticed fans had to sign up and receive an application and then mail it back to you. What happened to one click delivers your soul to the almighty devil?”
Ruby spoke in a low, jagged tone. “I said it was an experiment. A few kinks came up. I’ll work them out.”
“So, in the meantime, the devil has to wait for snail mail to deliver his signed contracts.” Nick threw back his head and laughed. “I bet only a small percentage actually print, fill out the form and then mail it back. Shit, does the age group you’re targeting even know how to mail a letter?”
“We’re done for today, Mr. Tera.” Ruby ground his cigar into the ashtray until the butt end shredded from the pressure of his pointy fingernails. “Leave.”
Nick smirked at him as he exited his office.
His small victory in Ruby’s office quickly faded to despair. Another day had passed, and he was still trapped in Ruby’s hellish web. He drove around the city thinking about Katie until his gas tank neared empty. After filling up at a gas station, he bought a hot dog from a stand and sat in a small park to eat. His appetite waned after two bites; he threw the rest to a flock of hovering pigeons.
Later that evening, the ringing of his cell phone jarred him from his half sleep and half alcohol-induced daze. He pulled himself up from the couch, focusing his bleary eyes on his phone. His family restaurant’s number displayed on the screen. He didn’t want to talk to his grandmother in his condition. But she had taken in Stephanie at his request, the least he could do was answer her call.
His father’s voice answered, “Nick, come to the restaurant right away.”
The urgency in his father’s voice sliced through his drunken fog. “Why, what’s up?” He heard voices and a woman crying in the background. “Pop, what’s wrong?”
“I don’t want to say on the phone. Hurry, Nick.”
Dread stuck in his chest like an icy knife. His father never called him. Something must have happened to Nonna or Sal. Did his sarcasm cause Ruby to retaliate? He drove as fast he could, running two stop signs and swerving around the slower traffic. Cars lined the street in front of the restaurant. Turning the corner, he parked in the only space next to the yellow-painted curb.
Inside, his grandmother’s church group huddled around their usual table by the front window. They cried and passed tissues to each other. Nonna sat at the head of the table. She looked up at him with wet, grim eyes, stood and wrapped her arms around his waist.
“Nonna, what happened?” He hugged her and then pulled back to look into her face.
“Maria and Ray,” she gasped. “Someone shot them.”
A cold numbness drizzled down Nick’s body. He let go of his grandmother and staggered backwards.
His father and Sal rushed from the kitchen. Their lips moved, but all Nick heard were the words little old ladies and war heroes re-playing in his mind, punctuated by Ruby’s wicked laughter.
“Nick, did you hear me?” His father pushed down on his shoulders. “Sit.”
Nick dropped down into the chair. “Ray and Mrs. G, are they . . . dead?”
“No,” Sal said. “But, Ray’s hurt real bad.”
“When . . . how did this happen?”
Nonna dragged a chair next to him. “Three hours ago. Captain Brannigan called us. Poor Maria. God help her. Her mind is not so good anymore. She asked Ray to walk to the shelter with her. She thought today was Thursday, the day she brings cookies to the kids.”
“It was still daylight. There were witnesses. Some thug jumped out of an alley and pointed a gun at them,” his father said. “Grabbed Maria’s purse and then fired. Ray pushed Maria out of the way. She fell and banged up her arm.” He paused and his face paled. “This scumbag starts to run away, then stops and shoots Ray in the back as he’s helping Maria up.” His eyes misted and his voice thickened. “He might be paralyzed, Nick.”
Nick sat stunned, looking from his grandmother, to his father, to his brother. All three stared back with bleak expressions.
The small hanging bell on the front door jingled and they all turned. Father Santore walked inside, bowed his head to the group of ladies and then hurried across the room to Nonna. He placed his hand on Nonna’s shoulder. She patted it and stood.
“We go to the church now to pray for Ray and Maria. And we light a candle.” She nodded at the priest. “Nickie, go to the hospital. Represent the family.”
He stood. His legs quaked and he couldn’t focus his thoughts. Only two days ago he’d joked with Ray about his dance moves inside the U-haul truck. Before that, he had punched Ray in one of his red-tinted rages. Now Ray lay shot and possibly paralyzed. Nothing made sense anymore.
Father Santore squeezed his arm. “Are you all right, son?” His dark eyes peered from beneath bushy black and grey eyebrows that knitted together as he frowned.
“Yes, Father.” The priest’s steady gaze unnerved him. Had he recognized Nick running from the confessional the other night? He turned to his grandmother. “I’ll drive you to church. You shouldn’t be walking at night.”
“Father Jonathan drove the church van here,” Santore said. “There’s room for all of the ladies. We’ll drive each home to their doors when we’re done. Don’t worry, Nick. Go, see your friend.”
The priest held the door while the somber line of women shuffled outside. Nonna wrapped a moss-green cardigan around her shoulders and followed. Nick walked her to the van where a younger priest held out his hand and helped her into the vehicle.
“Go now, Nickie,” Nonna called through the open window. “We pray for Ray and Maria. God will heal them. Have faith.”
Ray’s family filled the hallway outside his room in the Intensive Care Unit. A nurse allowed two at a time inside the room and cautioned them to stay only a minute.
Nick offered his condolences to Ray’s brothers, sisters and their spouses as they exited the room.
Ray’s older brother, Louis, thanked one of the nurses for the pillow and blanket she handed to him. With tears running down his face, he told Nick, “I’m gonna stay in the waiting room tonight.”
Ray’s parents were the last to leave. Ray’s father held his wife up as they made their way down the hall. Nick hugged them both. Ray’s mother tried to speak but couldn’t find words. She clutched Nick in a tight embrace, her warm tears bled through his tee shirt.
Ray’s father shook his hand. “He’s gonna need you, Nick,” he said. “You’re like a brother to him.”
Nick swallowed hard. Guilt gnawed at his stomach. This was his fault. He goaded Ruby and Ruby attacked his best friend. Who would be next? He hadn’t acted like much of a brother to Ray recently. “How’s Mrs. G?”
Ray’s father sighed. “She has a sprained wrist. A few scrapes. They’re keeping her overnight on the second floor to monitor her. They gave her something to make her sleep. She’s worried sick about Ray. We haven’t told her he might not walk again. And she’s upset because the thief took her purse, with her mother’s rosary beads inside.”
Nick waited until the family boarded the elevator. He asked the nurse if he could see Ray.
She hesitated, then smiled. “Only for a minute,” she said.
He slipped inside the door and stood at the foot of the bed. The bed didn’t look like a normal hospital bed. It sat higher, tipped forward at a slight angle and had hydraulics beneath it. Ray lay with his eyes closed, wearing a strange open helmet of metal bars attached to a thick collar around his neck. Tubes ran from both of his arms up to intravenous bags hanging on stands. A mass of colored wires taped to his chest led to metal boxes with digital displays mounted on the wall behind the bed. Nick stared down at him. Ray lay so still Nick feared he had stopped breathing.
He moved on heavy legs to the bedside and touched Ray’s forearm. “I’m so sorry, Ray. So sorry. This is my fault. I shouldn’t have taunted Ruby. I deserve to be in this bed, not you.”
A warm hand patted his arm and startled him. Katie smiled. “This isn’t your fault, Nick.” She squeezed his arm and then walked around the bed, checking the tubes and wires.
“What’s the thing on his head? And the strange bed?” Nick asked.
“The device is called a halo. It keeps his head and neck rigid to avoid further spinal damage. There’s a bullet lodged near, or possibly in, his spine. With the swelling and tissue trauma, they can’t be sure. The bed’s a Stryker frame, it keeps him stable and lets us care for him without having to move him.”
“They’ll take out the bullet, right? Then he’ll be okay?”
“There’s a neurosurgeon flying in tomorrow morning from Chicago. He’s going to try.” Katie stroked Ray’s cheek through an opening in the halo. “If the bullet struck his spinal cord, removing it may cause more damage. They can’t get a clear picture until the swelling subsides. He’s on an anti-inflammatory, an antibiotic, pain meds and drugs to induce a coma state.”
“A coma?” Nick covered his face with his hands. “Oh my God.”
“It’s to keep him still so he doesn’t cause more damage.” Katie’s voice was calm, reassuring. She adjusted the blankets and gently moistened Ray’s lips with a medicated swab. Watching her comforted Nick. He understood why so many of her patients sent her gifts and cards long after they were discharged.
She took Nick’s hand. “We should go now. There’s nothing anyone can do until the surgeon arrives.”
Nick touched Ray’s arm. “Hang in there, buddy.” He reluctantly followed Katie.
They walked down the hall in silence, their arms encircled around each other’s waists.
“You must be furious with me after I ran out on you the other night. I’m sorry, I—”
“I was furious, until Nonna called and told me about Ray . . . this puts things into perspective. I wanted to be here when you first saw him. It’s a shock.”
When they stepped into the elevator, Nick pulled her close and kissed her. “I love you so much.”
Katie snuggled into his embrace. They kissed until the doors slid open.
“Did you walk here tonight?” he asked.
His heartbeat sped up. What if Ruby had sent the men in the van after Katie just as he was certain he’d sent the gunman after Ray and Mrs. Gonzalez. “I’ll drive you home.” Ray wouldn’t be able to pick up Katie from work anymore. The thought made him feel guilty and terrified at the same time.
They drove to Katie’s apartment without talking. Nick couldn’t erase the image of Ray wearing the halo from his mind. He steered with his left hand and gripped Katie’s hand with his right.
Inside, Katie brewed coffee for Nick and fixed herself a cup of tea. She placed a mug in front of him on the table. An envelope lying on the table addressed to Tara with the Nick Tera Fan Club in the return address caught his attention. “What’s this?”
Katie rolled her eyes. “Tara brags that she’s your biggest fan. Apparently now she has an official card to prove it.”
Nick ripped open the letter and found an application to join his fan club along with a small card. A strange phrase was printed on the card. He recalled Tara telling him she joined his online fan club but signing up electronically mustn’t have worked or Ruby wouldn’t need to mail out printed cards. The knowledge provided a small comfort as he tore the envelope into pieces and stuffed it into the kitchen trash can.
“That’s Tara’s mail, you really shouldn’t—”
“Trust me, I’m doing her a favor. Doing us all a favor.”
Katie shrugged and sat at the table. “Do you want to talk about Ray?”
Nick cleared his throat. “His chances of being paralyzed are pretty high, aren’t they?”
“Yes,” Katie answered softly. “But until the neurosurgeon examines him—”
Nick pounded his fist on the kitchen table. “This fucking sucks!”
Katie’s tea splashed over the sides of her mug and formed a puddle around the bottom. She pulled a paper towel from the holder and folded it under her cup to sop up the spill. “Yes, it does.”
“All the shit he went through in Iraq and Afghanistan, he survived. Then he comes home and gets fucking shot in the back in his own neighborhood. Not to mention this piece of crap tried to shoot his grandmother, too. I wish I could have five minutes with the bastard who shot him.”
Katie reached over and placed her hand on top of Nick’s clenched fist.
“I’ve known Ray my whole damn life. He’s like my second brother.” Nick rubbed his eyes and looked away. When he turned back to face Katie, he forced a weak smile. “Did I ever tell you how we became friends?”
Katie returned the smile. “No, how?”
“We were six years old. First day of first grade. The bell hadn’t rung, so we were running around the playground. Ray and I tried to climb up the ladder to the slide at the same time. He grabbed onto the rungs and wouldn’t let go, no matter how hard I punched him. He was six inches shorter than me but charged at me like a damn bull. Rammed his head into my stomach and knocked me on my ass. We rolled around fighting on the grass until a couple of teachers pulled us apart. I remember thinking, ‘this kid’s fearless’.”
Nick ripped off a paper towel and blew his nose. “That same day, after the last bell rang, he came up to me outside and stuck out his hand, like an adult. He said, “My name’s Ray.” We started hanging out at each other’s houses after school. After that day, we both had second families.
“I didn’t realize you two were friends for so long,” Katie said.
“Nineteen years. When we weren’t getting into trouble, we were altar boys together. Served all the Sunday masses for Father Santore. Talk about a hard-ass priest. He caught us drinking the wine one day after mass. Made us get buckets and brushes from the janitor’s closet and scrub the church vestibule floor on our hands and knees.” Nick grinned. “The whole time we were altar boys, the church had really clean floors.” Nick’s grin faded. He shook his head and stared into his coffee.
Katie squeezed Nick’s hand. “Being paralyzed is a terrible thing, but it’s not death. Ray’s a fighter. There are so many things now to help people be independent. With therapy and time—”
“No. No–for Ray, it would be the same as death. Worse.” Nick stood and threw the wet, crumpled paper towel into the trash can. Tearing another from the roll, he turned his back to wipe more tears from his eyes before sitting down.
“Ray is fearless. The only thing that ever scared him was girls. Not scared, but he was shy and tongue-tied around them. He used to have me ask girls out for him.”
Katie smiled, rolling her eyes. “I bet you excelled at that.”
“I never had a problem talking to girls. Except for when I first met you.” He paused and turned the mug around in his hands. “I guess that’s how Ray felt all the time.”
Katie moved behind Nick and rubbed his shoulders.
“I’d be here all night telling you the crazy shit we did.” His eyes brimmed with new tears. “At my mom’s funeral, Ray happened to be home on leave from the army. If he weren’t . . .”
Nick couldn’t say the words out loud, but the scene played vividly in his mind. Ray had insisted on being one of the six pallbearers at his mother’s funeral. Four of his uncles and a cousin manned the other five handles on the casket. Nick carried the front right corner. His legs shook during the final procession down the aisle of the church after the funeral mass. Exiting the church, his knees buckled just as they descended the steep, concrete stairs leading to the sidewalk. His sudden lurch threw the other men off balance. For an instant, which had felt like an eternity, he pictured his mother’s casket tumbling down the steps and crashing into the black hearse parked on the street below. Yet, his corner of the casket never dropped. When he stood up, he saw Ray in his Army uniform holding his handle of the casket.
“I remember.” Katie wrapped her arms around his shoulders and pressed her cheek against his. “Up until the last few days, your mom’s funeral was the only time I had ever seen Ray.”
Katie straightened up and retrieved a brown paper bag from on top of the refrigerator. “Are you hungry? I’m starving. I never ate dinner.” She unwrapped the package. “One of my patient’s moms baked loaves of zucchini bread. I hid it so Tara wouldn’t scarf it all.” She placed the loaf on a plate and then rummaged through a kitchen drawer and pulled out a long carving knife.
The glint of silver caught Nick’s attention. He stared, fascinated by the way the overhead light played on the long, tapered blade.
Katie smiled at him. “I know what you’re thinking, Mr. Chef. It’s the wrong kind of knife to use for bread. It’s the only sharp one I have, so it’ll have to do.” She cut two thick slices, put them onto a plate and placed it between them on the table.
Sweat beaded on Nick’s forehead caused by the rising inferno inside him. Then something darker stirred. Mesmerized by the knife, Artie’s perverse thoughts invaded his mind and his body like a swarm of stinging wasps. His body trembled as he fought to push back the emerging demon.
Katie broke off a corner of bread and popped it into her mouth. “Mmm, delicious. Do you want some butter?”
“Huh?” Nick stared at her. Her hair and face had a crimson tinge.
“Do you want butter for your bread?”
“N-no. Not hungry.” He wiped his sweaty forehead with the paper towel he clenched in his fist.
Katie swallowed the mouthful of bread, stood and hugged him. “The surgeon they’re flying in is the best in the country. All we can do right now for Ray is to pray.”
“I gotta go.” Nick jumped up from his chair and pushed Katie aside.
“Nick, no. You look exhausted. My place is closer to the hospital. We’ll go see Ray first thing in the morning.” She scooted in front of him blocking his exit, stood on her tiptoes and kissed him. “I hoped you’d stay here tonight. It’s been days since we—”
“I can’t.” He backed away from Katie and rushed to the front door. Artie clawed beneath his skin. Katie threw her arms around him. He squeezed his eyes shut and willed the demon to leave. White-hot pinpricks peppered his body and images of the shiny carving knife jabbing into Katie’s flesh made his eyes shoot wide open.
“If you’re too upset to make love, I understand. Stay here tonight. Please.”
“It’s not that I don’t want to . . .” He pulled away from her embrace and faced the door.
“Every time I get close to you lately, you push me away. I don’t understand.” Katie’s voice quivered. “Tell me what’s going on. We’ve always been honest with each other. You owe me that much.” She wrung her hands. “Is there someone else, Nick? That actress on the news, Bethany Grant?”
Nick turned, his hands clutched the door knob behind him. Tears mixed with sweat rolled down his cheeks. “Do you remember the night you called me? You saw a black shadowy figure—”
“And you said it was only a nightmare. That has nothing to do with how you’re acting now.”
“Yes, it does. Katie, I was wrong. It wasn’t a nightmare, it’s real. And it gets worse. So much worse. I-I’m that shadow now. It’s inside me. Steph was beaten because of me. And now, Ray’s paralyzed because of me. I love you so much, but if I stay here, I’ll hurt you. Or worse.” Artie’s perverted whispers throbbed in his head like a relentless toothache.
“You’re not making any sense. And your eyes, they’re so red again. Did you take more pills?”
Artie’s whispers rose into shrill shrieks. The knife glistening under the light on the table beckoned. He wanted to feel the weight of it in his hand and caress the silvery blade with his fingers. He wanted to draw Katie’s blood with the knife.
Sobs strangled his words. “I couldn’t . . . live with myself if I . . . I can’t see you anymore, Katie.”
“You’re breaking up with me?” Tears welled in her eyes.
“Y-yes.” He jerked open the door and ran down the path.
“Don’t come back here,” she yelled. The rest of her words dissolved into her sobs.
Nick ran to his car and fumbled to fit the key into the ignition. He sped away, trying to put distance between Katie and the depraved force commanding his thoughts. As he neared Ruby’s office building, he focused his murderous urges on Ruby. He had no plan, only the knowledge that Ruby lived on the top floor of the building and he had to destroy him in order to end this nightmare.
The building’s windows looked dark. The front doors were locked. Ruby’s Jaguar wasn’t parked in the lot.
Nick sat in his car while Artie chewed at his thoughts. Visions of the carving knife on Katie’s table taunted him. He gripped the steering wheel and gritted his teeth as he fought the desire to return to her apartment. The demon’s seductive whispers described the long, sharp blade slicing into Katie’s soft flesh. Aroused by the images, Nick moaned and licked his fingers imagining the salty taste of her still-warm blood. He jumped out of the car, furiously wiping his hands on his shirt and spat out the imaginary blood. In the dark, deserted lot, he screamed curses at the sadistic killer inside him and fought to regain control of his thoughts. When Artie finally retreated, the other unnamed demon took his place, bringing feverish waves of rage and violent tremors that wracked Nick’s body. He channeled the demon’s fury toward Ruby.
He paced around his car and planned his attack, scene by scene. When Ruby stepped from his sleek, red Jaguar, he would ram him with the Mustang. He’d pound his fists into Ruby’s maddening smile, shattering his white teeth. Then he’d grab his ponytail and slam his head into the pavement, again and again until his face became an unrecognizable, bloodied pulp and his mocking laughter stopped forever. A low growl deep inside his chest burst from his lips into bouts of maniacal giggling. Between the spasms of laughter, he chanted, “Kill Ruby. Kill the devil. Kill the devil.” His laughter turned into gleeful shrieks, barks and then howls. “Die. Die. Die. Die.” He stomped his boot heel into the asphalt, over and over, imagining Ruby’s skull crushed into splinters beneath it. He stamped his foot until he collapsed across the hood of his car in exhaustion.
The night dragged on, but Ruby never came. Fatigue overwhelmed Nick. He crawled into his car and fell into a fitful sleep. Vivid nightmares of Ray withered in a wheelchair and Katie’s bloodied body jolted him awake. At sunrise, the demons finally released their grip. Like barbed wire embedded into his flesh, they slowly tore their claws from him, leaving him bone-weary and trembling with pain.