He awoke the next morning to an empty bed. He found Katie sleeping at the kitchen table, her head resting on a notebook. Open textbooks lay scattered across the table. She jumped when he gently massaged her shoulders.
“When did you get up?” He picked up the empty coffee pot.
“Around two.” She stretched her arms above her head. “Oh, it’s almost seven. I have to get ready for work.”
“Go ahead, I’ll make us coffee.”
He set up the Mr. Coffee pot and pushed the button. Katie had plugged his cell phone into the charger he kept at her apartment. He checked it for messages. Finding none, he left the phone to continue charging. While he waited for her to shower, he flipped through the morning news channels on the television. When he heard her hair dryer turn on, he knew she was done in the bathroom. He showered and dressed before she had finished doing her hair and make-up.
“It’s not fair,” she grumbled, watching him tie his sneakers. “Guys are ready in ten minutes. It takes girls an hour.”
“Coffee’s ready.” He smiled and left her to finish dressing. When she emerged in her nursing uniform, Nick set a mug of hot coffee on the table for her.
“Thanks.” She stood, organizing her books and sipping coffee.
“Want me to make you some breakfast?”
“No, thanks, I’m not hungry.”
“At least sit for a few minutes. Relax.”
Katie looked at him with watery, pink-rimmed eyes. He thought she might burst into tears. Wrapping his arms around her, he whispered, “One more day, then your exams will be over.”
She snuggled against him. “I’m sorry. I’m a mess this morning. I’m so stressed over the Radiology tests.”
“You’re fine,” he said. “C’mon, I’ll walk you to work.” Katie grabbed her bag and Nick scooped up her books.
“It’s like you’re walking a damn kid to school with all these books,” she said. “What have you got planned today?”
“Ruby’s secretary is supposed to call and let me know the schedule for the week. And, oh yeah, I’m supposed to write more books.” He purposely left out the news about the upcoming VIP party. He planned to surprise Katie once her tests were over.
“I know you’re upset about your novel,” Katie said. “I’ll try to read some of it tonight.”
“Focus on your exams. There’s nothing I can do about the book now, it’s already printed.”
They had reached the driveway of the hospital when Nick stopped. “Damn it!”
“What?” Katie asked.
Nick shook his head. “I left my cell phone and gym bag at your place.”
“Oh.” Katie said. “If you weren’t so busy baby-sitting me this morning.”
“No big deal. I have my key. I’ll run back.” He kissed her goodbye. “Try to relax.”
Nick cursed his forgetfulness as he ran back to Katie’s apartment. He hoped he could get in and out, without running into her roommate, Tara. Her work schedule at the hospital varied so much it was impossible to know when she’d be at the apartment. His encounters with Tara were always uncomfortable to say the least. She blatantly flirted with Nick whenever Katie wasn’t around.
“Crap.” Nick spotted Tara’s red Mazda parked in front of the apartment. He put his key back into his pocket and rang the doorbell.
“Well hello, Nick!” Tara smiled, opening the door wide. “I was just getting ready for bed. Want to join me?” She stood in the doorway in a short, leopard print nightgown. The thin material clung to her bulbous breasts and well-padded hips.
“I came by to grab my stuff. Be out in a second.” Nick squeezed around her to enter the apartment.
“Who’s Stephanie?” Tara’s high-pitched, nasally voice made Nick’s head ache. “She’s called you three times in the past fifteen minutes. Must be important.” Tara held up Nick’s phone.
“Give me that, Tara.” Nick reached for his phone.
She spun around and held the phone away from his grasp. “Come and get it.”
“Stop playing games.” Nick walked toward her. “Give me my phone.”
“Oh, come on Nickie, don’t get mad,” Tara cooed. “I won’t tell Kate about Stephanie, especially if you’re nice to me.” She tilted her head sideways and twirled a long blond hair extension on the right side of her head. It was the newest addition to her ever-changing, multicolored hairdo.
“Go ahead and tell Katie,” Nick snapped. “I’ve got nothing to hide.” He pried the cell phone from Tara’s hand.
“Ow!” Her eyes squeezed into black-lined slits. “I could tell Kate you barged in here and attacked me.”
“You wish.” Nick retrieved his bag from the living room floor and turned to leave.
Tara’s stocky body blocked the front door. “You think you’re too good for me, don’t you? You wouldn’t know what to do with a woman like me!”
“You’re right. I wouldn’t.” With Tara’s weight leaning against it, Nick tugged the door until the opening was large enough for him to slide through. She yelled out an obscenity as he walked down the path.
Tara’s behavior angered him. He kept her suggestive comments to himself so as not to upset Katie. He had tried everything he knew to discourage Tara’s advances, but she continued to taunt him. Tara tested his rule of never hitting a woman.
Once he had put distance between himself and Tara, he pressed the call back button on Stephanie’s last call.
“Hi Nick, I’ve been trying to call you.”
“My phone was on the charger. I didn’t hear it.”
“Mr. Ruby wants you to get clothes for the VIP party. Can you meet me downtown at eleven? The store is called Male Storm Clothiers. That’s M-A-L-E.”
“Of course, it is.” Nick chuckled. “Where’s it at?”
“Two blocks north of the hot dog stand we went to, left-hand side.”
“All right, I’ll meet you there at eleven.”
Nick had errands he wanted to do before meeting Stephanie. He stopped at home to drop off his bag, change his shirt and retrieve the ten-thousand-dollar check he’d tucked away in his dresser drawer. As he walked toward the front door, his grandmother called after him.
“Nickie, there you are. I didn’t hear you get up.”
Smiling, he leaned down to kiss her. His grandmother knew he had been gone all night and she knew exactly where he had been. Though she would never allow Katie to stay overnight in Nick’s room, she had reluctantly adopted a don’t ask, don’t tell attitude about the reverse situation. She would never be as forgiving if he were a granddaughter. Being a male in his family had its advantages.
“You look happy today,” she said.
“I am happy, Nonna.”
“You want something to eat?”
“No thanks, I’m on my way to an appointment.”
“This new work, it make you happy?”
“Yes.” He surprised himself with how easily he answered. “It does make me happy.”
Walking downtown, he thought about his grandmother’s comment. He did feel happy, in spite of knowing his story and name had been changed. Lots of authors wrote under pen names and had their manuscripts edited. He focused on the fact his first novel would soon be in print. And with Victor Ruby as his agent, he was on the path to success. Although Ruby marketing him like a new toy at Christmas made him uncomfortable, he accepted it as a trade-off for getting his book published.
Seeing his bank account balance also made him feel good. He was finally earning a living on his own, away from the family restaurant. But it was his next errand that made him feel the happiest. Leaving the bank, he headed to the jewelry store to buy Katie an engagement ring.
He had taken Katie ring shopping on a whim several months ago. At the time, he had no idea what diamond rings cost. The excursion proved both educational and humiliating for Nick. He soon realized he couldn’t afford the smallest diamond in the store. Katie told him she didn’t need a ring, then took his hand and led him out of the store. Though they never spoke of rings again, Nick vowed someday he would buy Katie a ring worthy of his feelings for her.
Scanning the jewelry store window, he immediately focused on a ring in the center display. He pointed it out to the clerk inside the store. The man told him it was an eighteen-carat gold ring with pavé diamonds in a halo bezel setting. Katie had admired a similar ring. The diamonds in this ring were significantly larger and more brilliant than the one she had tried on. The only positive that came from his ring shopping excursion with Katie, was he’d learned her ring size.
The clerk slipped the freshly polished, size-six ring into a black velvet box and commented it was the fastest sale he had ever made. The final cost came to just over forty-three hundred dollars. Nick slid the box into his front jeans pocket and left the store grinning.
He arrived early at the Male Storm clothing store. Looking in the windows, he saw mostly black leather and denim items. Small placards on the mannequins boasted designer names, but no prices.
His cell rang at eleven o’clock. A breathless Stephanie informed him she was running late. Nick walked a few doors down and bought a coffee to go. He sipped it while he waited in front of the store.
“Sorry I’m late,” Stephanie said.
“Well, there was a huge problem at the office. Chris and Ruby got into it. Again.”
“Who’s Chris?” Nick asked.
“Oh, sorry. Ian Slaughter from Blood Lust. His real name’s Chris Turner.”
“Ruby changed his name, too?”
“Yeah, he does that a lot.” Stephanie made quote marks in the air with her fingers. “It’s all about the image with Ruby.”
“Why were they fighting this time?”
“Same thing. Chris wants to break his contract.” Stephanie looked up and down the street, then lowered her voice. “His wife is threatening to divorce him because he’s away so much.”
“Chris looked pretty lethal in that poster hanging in the office. Ruby better watch out.”
“All the stuff on stage with the knives and fake blood is theatrics. All Ruby’s idea. Chris is a sweetheart. And a great musician, classically trained on guitar. He’s written some beautiful ballads.”
“Yet Ruby puts him in a heavy metal band. Go figure,” Nick said.
“He has a little girl, Brittany. She’s three. He misses her and wants to go home to the west coast. Ruby has him booked non-stop for concerts across the U.S. and Europe. They both know without Chris as lead singer, Blood Lust would be Blood Bust.”
Nick touched the velvet box inside his pocket. “Chris’s wife and daughter have to come first. You think Ruby will let him out of the contract?”
Stephanie frowned. “Not easily.”
Having choices when it came to his attire for the VIP party pleasantly surprised Nick. Ruby’s only stipulation was he wear black leather; either pants or a jacket. Nick opted for the jacket.
“None of this stuff looks formal, Steph.”
“The VIP isn’t traditionally formal, it’s more like a masquerade party. It’s the horror industry. Think outrageous, sexy,” she said. “Even the society snobs let loose at this party.”
“This is more comfortable than a suit and tie.” Nick stood in front of the full-length mirror and admired the sleek, black leather jacket styled like a suit jacket, a white silk shirt and black jeans. The open neck and oblong pewter buttons gave the shirt an edgy look. A tailor tugged on the hem of the jeans and inserted pins. “And it’s not too outrageous, considering I’ve been told my taste in clothes is ‘fuddy-duddy’”
Stephanie’s face reddened. “I only meant you’re too young for an old-guy suit and tie. She draped a long, black silk scarf with thin red pinstripes around his neck. “There, that’s better.”
“A scarf? Isn’t that kind of girly?”
“No. A lot of French and Italian designers feature scarves in their men’s collections.” She tucked the scarf under the back of his shirt collar. “I never noticed the scar on your neck before. How did you get it?”
He laughed. “I used to make up cool stories to tell the kids at school. But truth is, when I was about two years old, I grabbed an open soup can off the kitchen counter. Cut my neck on the metal lid.”
“Ouch,” Stephanie said.
“I don’t remember it. My mom told me about it. She cut her hand a lot worse trying to take the can away from me. It left a big scar on her palm.”
The tailor stood up. “All set, sir. We’ll have everything ready in two days.”
Stephanie looked at Nick. “If you’re satisfied with the clothes, I think we’re done.”
“I’m good. How much is all this stuff?”
“Don’t worry.” She flashed a platinum credit card. “There’s major perks to working for Ruby.”
“Seriously? He’s paying for all of this?”
“Yup, all part of creating the perfect image for his client.”
“The cost comes out of my future royalties, right?”
“Trust me, Ruby’s got the money figured out. He’s convinced you’re going to make him a lot of money or he wouldn’t be so generous.”
“I hope so. I could get used to a lot of money,” Nick said.
“I am used to it.” She waved the credit card. “Now, I get to shop for my dress for the party.”
“Nice. So, where do young women find dresses for the VIP party?”
“My favorite place is across the street. Damned Divas.” She giggled when Nick rolled his eyes. “It’s a funny name, but they specialize in one-of-a-kind dresses. Perfect for the VIP. You wanna come with me?”
“That’s okay, I’ll pass. Enjoy your shopping.”
When Nick met Katie outside the hospital that evening, she looked exhausted. He carried her books and listened to her describe her day as they walked to her apartment.
“. . .and on top of that, I only had forty minutes of Radiology training, ’cause two girls were out sick on my floor.” Katie sighed. “Sorry, I’ve been whining for blocks. How was your day?”
“Pretty uneventful.” He cupped the ring box inside his pocket.
When they reached the door of Katie’s apartment, Nick saw lights on inside.
“Is Tara off tonight?” he asked.
“She pulled the graveyard shift. She leaves for work at ten-thirty. Aren’t you staying?”
“Not tonight.” Nick put her books on the kitchen table. “You’re beat. Get some sleep so you’re fresh for your exams.” He hugged her. “You’re going to ace those tests tomorrow.”
Katie’s body relaxed against his. “I hope so.” She wrapped her arms around his neck.
He kissed her. After several minutes, he pulled away. “If I don’t leave now, you won’t get any sleep tonight.”
Nick stayed up late working on his new novel. He labored over each sentence. No matter how many times he rewrote the paragraphs, the words sounded awkward when he read them back. He finally shut down his laptop after midnight and stretched out on his bed, too tired to undress.
A ringing sound roused him from a deep sleep. Disoriented, it took him several seconds to realize it was his cell phone. He finally located it in the back pocket of his jeans. With his eyes closed, he answered, “Yeah?”
“Nick, oh thank God! I’ve been calling you.” Katie’s tone sliced through the thick fog in his mind and made the hair bristle on the back of his neck.
“What’s wrong?” He bolted upright in bed.
“What? You mean a break-in? Did you call 911?” He held the phone to his ear with one hand while he pulled on his sneakers with the other. “Are you all right? Where are you?”
“No, not a break in.” Her breaths sounded sharp and rapid. “There’s—I can’t explain it. I’m scared. Can you—”
“On my way.” He pulled on his jacket and patted the pockets to check for his keys and wallet.
“Please, don’t hang up. Stay on the phone.”
“Okay. I’ll be there in ten minutes, or less.” He started out of his room, then turned back to grab his grandfather’s old M1911 automatic pistol he kept in the top of his closet. He checked the magazine, then jammed it into the back of his waistband.
He ran down the stairs, jumping over the last three steps. “I’m out the door now.”
“I know it sounds crazy. Something’s here. I can’t . . . describe it.”
“I’m at the end of the block by the florist.” He sprinted around the corner. The wet pavement shone under the streetlights after last night’s rain. A strong, cool breeze whipped his jacket behind him as he ran. Although he couldn’t make sense of Katie’s words, the fear in her voice spurred him to run faster. Maybe he shouldn’t have brought the gun. If he found anyone hurting Katie, he’d end up in prison for murder. He wondered if he should break their connection and call the police. Before he could suggest it, Katie gasped into the phone.
“A–are you there?” Panic choked her voice.
“I’m at Fountain Park. Just a few more blocks.”
With one hand clamping the phone to his ear, he ran full-out for the last five blocks, his breath huffing into the speaker.
“At your complex . . . now,” he panted. “Coming up . . . the path.” His outstretched hand slammed into the front door, stopping his forward momentum. He banged on the door. “Katie!”
The door opened two inches. Katie stared up at him with glassy eyes. The opening narrowed while she fumbled with the chain lock. He pushed the door open and Katie grabbed onto him.
“You all right? What’s going on?” He scanned the small apartment. The living room and kitchen lights were on. A dim line of light showed under Katie’s closed bedroom door. The bathroom and Tara’s bedroom doors were shut. Katie’s breathless jumble of words disintegrated into unintelligible sobs.
Nick closed the front door and locked it. “It’s okay.” He led Katie to the couch in the living room. Her fingers clutched the material of his tee shirt as he eased her onto the couch.
“My room,” she said between sobs.
“Stay here.” He pulled out the gun. Twisting the knob, he shoved her bedroom door open until it hit the inside wall. Her bedside lamp illuminated the room. Books, papers and her laptop lay strewn across the rumpled bed. He looked inside the closet, under the bed and checked the locked window. Shaking his head, he walked back into the hallway.
Katie stood petrified at the edge of the living room and pointed toward Tara’s room. Nick heard the scratching sounds on the other side of Tara’s door. He motioned for Katie to stay back. Adrenaline pumped through his body. Grabbing the doorknob, he turned it, and then kicked open the door. He moved the gun from side to side as he scanned the darkened room. He felt for a switch with one hand and flipped on the light. Furniture, clothes, shoes, toiletries and stuffed animals cramped the small room. Flowered curtains billowed inward through an open window. Aiming the gun, he swung the door closed expecting to find the intruder. Nothing. The scratching sound started up again.
The poster of himself and the two models hung on the back of Tara’s door. The bottom corners had come loose and rolled. Gusts of wind moved the corners of the slick paper against the door.
“Shit,” he mumbled. Ripping the poster down, he crumpled it and threw it on the floor. He slammed the window closed and locked it.
“Nick?” Katie called from outside the door.
Katie cowered in the corner of the hallway. He reached out and hugged her. “Nobody’s here. Your stupid roommate left her window open. The wind was blowing a poster on her door.”
Nick dropped a tea bag into a mug of boiling water while he listened to Katie recount her evening. It had taken him ten minutes to calm her down enough to talk coherently. She sat at the kitchen table fingering the tiny gold cross hanging from the chain around her neck as she rocked back and forth in the chair.
“I was in my room, studying. For hours,” she said. “My brain needed a break from all the medical books, so I started reading your book. Victor Ruby’s business card fell out with that odd phrase on the back. I know some Latin from nursing school, but the spelling didn’t look right. I sounded out the words and they didn’t sound Latin either. I opened my laptop to Google the phrase.”
She nodded when Nick set the hot tea in front of her.
“All of a sudden my room got so hot. The air became thick. And a smell, like something burning. I could barely breathe. I thought the apartment was on fire.” She closed her eyes. “I ran out here to check the kitchen. Out of the corner of my eye . . . I saw it.”
“A black shadow. Shaped like a man. He was behind me. But when I turned around, he disappeared. I kept seeing him, but only glimpses. Everywhere I turned he was there . . . then gone. He was taunting me.” She rubbed her forehead. “I ran into my room to grab my cell and I felt his breath on the back of my neck. It felt evil. Then hands grabbed my neck. They kept tightening. I tried to pull them off, but there was nothing there.” She covered her neck with both hands. “It was choking me. I thought I was going to die. Then, it just let go. I ran out and slammed my door closed. That’s when I called you. I should’ve run outside, but I was so scared, I couldn’t think straight.”
Nick didn’t know how to respond. Hearing Katie say she had been spooked by a shadow baffled him. She excelled at nursing partly due to her ability to stay calm in an emergency. He had never seen her behave like this. Something had obviously terrified her.
“You’ve been stressed over your exams and you haven’t slept a full night in weeks. Then you start reading a horror story. Maybe you dozed off and dreamed—”
“No! It wasn’t a dream.” Katie stood and leaned across the table. “Something was here. I saw it. Smelled it. Felt it. It tried to kill me.”
“Okay, okay calm down. Do you see, or feel, anything now?”
She shook her head. “No.”
“Well, that’s good.”
“You don’t believe me, do you?” Katie paced the small kitchen. “You’re humoring me, like a child who had a nightmare.”
Nick massaged her shoulders. “I do believe you saw something, but what, I don’t know.”
Katie crossed her arms and stared at him.
“It’s late. Why don’t you try to get some sleep? You have exams tomorrow.”
Her chin dropped and her bottom lip quivered. “You’re gonna stay, right?”
He smiled and touched her cheek. “Of course.”
Lying on his side in bed with Katie’s back tucked against him, Nick stroked her hair until her body stopped trembling and her breathing slowed to even breaths. Her words played in his mind, but still didn’t make sense. She must have had a bad dream. He fell asleep holding her. The alarm clock woke them both a few hours later.