Authors: Marjorie M. Liu
“A star is born!…Liu is an amazing new voice: ingenious, fresh and utterly spellbinding.”
“Delivers a high-tension plot and protagonists so appealing that you might be tempted to invite them over for dinner—despite one being a werewolf and the other a vampire… [Liu] draws characters with such precision… they practically step off the page.”
“Ms. Liu expertly grabs the reader with her dark and intensely detailed plot filled with mystery and passion… A must read for those who love paranormal fiction.”
“[Marjorie M. Liu’s] vivid descriptions, snappy dialogue, and spellbinding characters all come together in one explosive story that will leave readers begging for more.”
“Liu skillfully continues the drama that builds around the inhabitants of Crimson City. Paranormal fans will savor this installment.”
“If you’re an Anne Rice or a Charlaine Harris fan,
A Taste of Crimson
is just right for you. Finally, a romance with a little bite!”
“The mystical meets the magical in
, and is sure to captivate lovers of paranormal romance.”
“I didn’t just like this book, I LOVED this book. [Marjorie M. Liu] has a great new voice, a fresh premise, everything I love to read. Anyone who loves my work should love hers.”
“A groundbreaking new paranormal novel. Author Marjorie M. Liu has crafted a stunning tour de force that combines raw action, unbelievable phenomena, and deep passion…
A definite keeper!”
“One of the coolest books you will read this year! It has everything an author can dish out, but it is unlike anything you have read before. It’s full of mystery, murder, deception, greed, magic, romance, lust, and some sparkling humor.”
reads like the offspring of a Feehan novel and an X-Men comic, and it is loads of fun… the most promising debut I’ve read in a long time… original, sensual, and action-packed.”
“Marjorie M. Liu writes an action-packed novel that will keep your attention from start to finish.”
It was a shock coming face to face with another prisoner. Not a ghost town any longer, running the edge of abandonment and solitude. It wasn’t just her anymore, the lonely freak.
Elena wondered how long the Russian had been kept in the facility, if he was the man she had heard screaming. He certainly seemed unwell, though she could not say how except that it was instinct, her gift. He was a tall man, lean and well built with the pale skin of the sun-shy. Dark hair framed his face, the sparse angles of his cheeks and the hard line of his mouth, lovely and haunting.
Elena had difficulty looking at the Russian. His nudity was part of her discomfort, but there was also something fascinating about his face—so intense, so pained—that it instantly repelled her, as though her mind and heart simply could not take the force of his gaze. It was like looking into the sun.
Dorchester Publishing Co., Inc.
200 Madison Avenue
New York, NY 10016
Copyright © 2006 by Marjorie M. Liu
The name “Love Spell” and its logo are trademarks of Dorchester Publishing Co., Inc.
Printed in the United States of America.
The child’s name was Olivia McCoy. She was eight years old, with a large brain tumor swelling against her skull. Conventional treatments had only delayed the inevitable and likely worsened the quality of Olivia’s end, and yet, unable to let go, Mr. and Mrs. McCoy had brought their daughter to the Milwaukee Children’s Hospital for one last stand. The hospital had a good reputation for healing childhood cancer, and while the doctors frequently patted themselves on the back for their successes, each triumph was tainted by uneasiness.
They did not know why all the children in their ward inevitably recovered. The statistics simply did not allow for such a confluence of miracles.
Elena, a simple unpaid volunteer inside the hospital, was not so surprised.
Today she was delivering stool samples and plasma, running from one department to the next, taking the calls of the nurses who needed charts delivered, patients transferred, messes cleaned. Flowers had to be delivered from the gift shop, cards signed by forgetful and not-quite-so-loved ones. Kind words needed to be said to the dying, hands held for just a few moments to give comfort. The patients, young and old, liked Elena. She made people feel good, even if they did not know why.
The nurses and doctors knew this and, as Elena had anticipated, allowed her some freedom of movement. She could go into patient rooms and sit for a while, unattended. The children liked to be read to, especially when their parents had to leave for work or run errands or sleep. Olivia, for example, enjoyed hearing about the old woman who named things, or the story about a kitten with a big meow. Elena thought she was a very sweet girl.
Which was why, with the books piled on the bedstand and Olivia fast asleep, Elena decided it was time for a little miracle. It was clear to her—based on experience, careful eavesdropping, and sneakpeeks at Olivia’s charts—that the treatments were not working and the girl would be dead in a week. With children—unlike adults—Elena could not bring herself to perform triage. Every life needed to be saved.
Olivia’s foot was cold. Poor wasted body. She slept uncomfortably, with the pale exhaustion of the dying: a shallow rest, as though in her mind she knew the end was near, and was afraid of never waking up again.
Cancer always put a bad taste in Elena’s mouth, like an unripe persimmon, shriveling the insides of her cheeks. No other disease caused quite the same reaction. Elena held on to the little girl’s foot—and through that contact entered her dying body. Olivia’s spirit felt older than her years: like a mummy, dry and brittle.
Elena, drifting like a ghost inside Olivia, played her game of possession. She breathed for the girl an image of health, coaxing and prodding, a gentle
heal yourself , bury it down
, because Olivia already had everything she needed: protective mechanisms that made it possible for any human to spontaneously regress even the most malignant of tumors. Natural human capabilities were a wondrous thing, but only if the body woke long enough to use them. Elena was very good at waking people up.
It took some time. Olivia’s body was stubborn. Eventually, though, Elena felt the response: a subtle twist, a gathering of strength around the cancer in the child’s brain. Little teeth gnawing away at the tumor. No more swelling after today. The girl would live longer than a week, longer than two, and in three—after exceeding everyone’s expectations, after the deathwatch had grown tiresome—the doctors would perform another scan and discover the dying tumor, the healing brain, the happy child.
Elena fled back to her body. Sounds returned: the nurses, chattering softly in the hall outside Olivia’s room, the click and beep of essential instruments, the squeal of stretcher wheels. She imagined the girl looked better already; there was pink in her cheeks.
Elena never heard the men enter the room. She felt pain between her shoulder blades, had a moment to think that was strange, because she was always careful on the farm and rarely pulled a muscle, and then she started falling and it was impossible to stop, to hold on, to keep upright.
Hands caught her. Rough, strong hands. Lifting her off the ground. Her throat felt paralyzed. She saw white coats, hard eyes.
, she thought, lucid enough to feel fear.
They finally found me
Elena was carried away.
Still, Artur felt a moment of fear as he stood between mold-slick walls, a naked lightbulb swinging overhead. He imagined the first instance of his swift violation, a lingering degradation and pain. He forced himself to imagine the real terror written in the matted spatters of sticky blood cast on the concrete beneath him. He recalled what it felt like to die, alone with a murderer.
Those particular memories never changed, no matter the circumstances, no matter the victim. His gift was a curse.
“You going to be okay?” Dean asked, standing near the stairs. He held a paper bag. The dim light hollowed out his face, stealing the sheen from his blond hair. He looked unwell, his mouth twisted in nausea and anger. Dean always had trouble staying detached from a case. Artur wondered what his own face looked like.
“How much time do we have?” he asked, ignoring Dean’s question. Dean did not need an answer; it was the same question he always asked when they worked a case together. Ritual. Tradition. Dean never played by the rules, but in this he was predictable. Predictable like Artur, who did not want to be in this room that begged for his touch. Not so long ago he would have walked away from a scene like this, turned his back and fled, no matter if it meant leaving a killer free.
Those days were done, however, and though his desire to run was still present, it was tempered with purpose now, the moral fiber his employers had seen within him and encouraged.
Employers, friends, family… Is there a difference among any of those things now?
No, Artur answered himself. Not with Dirk & Steele, which was so much more than a detective agency, so much more than what it showed the public. The organization had to keep up the front, the lies; the truth was too fantastic, the idle dream of a sensationalist: that yes, a man
start a fire with his mind alone, or that another might read thoughts as easily as breathing; that animals could change into men and that men might alter reality with the snap of fingers—stop a bullet, levitate, shake the earth with nothing but a smile.
All these people like him and Dean—so few in number, working under the auspices of an internationally respected detective agency—were bound together by one mission, one promise: Help others, help those who need it. Do the right thing, no matter how difficult, and above all else, keep the secret safe. Keep
secret safe. Because Dirk & Steele was a means of helping more than one kind of people—the gifted, the unique—and without it, without that protection and purpose…
I would be alone. All of us, who are not family, would be alone. The world is too large, too full of fear for what we are capable of should the truth be discovered
“Dean?” Artur asked again, when his friend remained silent. He wondered briefly if this would be the night that broke tradition, but Dean finally shook his head and tapped his forehead.
“Not much time. The Vetters are in their car. They’ll be home soon.”
Home. Artur recalled, for a moment, another basement—another lightbulb, swinging—and the cold taste of stone that was always pain, always something less than human. Bitter. He was always eating bitterness.
Artur stripped off his right glove, pushing away memory and replacing it with his earlier musings, the very worst of his considerable imagination, steeling himself with horror. Very few of his friends knew or approved of his coping mechanism, but Artur appreciated himself. As a child, in a place much like this, he had made his decision—a decision that meant postponing his inevitable insanity by means of another kind of madness: Assuming the worst of everyone. Preparing for nightmares by dreaming them first.
“Did you sense anything in the house while you attuned yourself to the Vetters?” Artur asked. He was aware his friend had spent a great deal of time in the living room and kitchen, soaking up the essence of the family who lived here, forming the requisite connection that allowed him to see objects and people across great distances. “Did the walls speak to you?”
“Glimpses,” Dean replied, with a look in his eye that said he knew the question was a stall tactic. “But too many people have been through here since the murder. They got the scene screwed up for my head.”
“Yes,” Artur murmured. “ ‘How simple it would all have been had I been here before they came like a herd of buffalo and wallowed all over it.’” His accent was thicker than usual; his English sounded almost unintelligible to his own ears. But too uneasy to feel embarrassed, he crouched with his hands hovering palms down over the red and sticky floor. His black leather coat felt hot, but he did not remove it. There were guns holstered in the lining, in addition to the .22 tucked in his shoulder rig. He never liked being far from his weapons.
“Didn’t know you were a Sherlock Holmes fan,” Dean said, recognizing the quote. He closed his eyes. “We’ve got two minutes, tops.”
Artur admitted, “The original English is better than the Russian translation.” He sensed Dean draw close, quiet. He sensed the walls and the floor and the old dark blood quivering with molecules of memory. He sensed the incredible fullness of consecutive moments caught in time, and he pressed the back of his pale hand against the floor, against blood, and…
It was like time travel, rewinding the actions of ghosts trapped in echoes, fast and faster, following the golden ball of memory to the center of a labyrinth, the emotional heart, the Minotaur on his bed of bones. Past police and crime-scene investigators, past screams of discovery, past—
I am dying, oh, God, please make it stop
please save me
—to darkness, a choking throat with fingers pressing hard, so hard, and—
stop, don’t, please
Artur saw the murderer through the victim’s eyes: brown hair, green eyes, a cold smile. So cold, so old with rage, a tethered death, caught on the end of a long black thread—
—and then he moved his hands and he was in the killer’s head—
because it has been too long and please, scream a little when I touch you; just cry a little
—and he saw darkness, an empty street. He felt the calculation, the press of time and pattern, heard the quick tread of a running woman, like a heartbeat pounding on concrete—
so sweet, so pretty, just an appetizer until I have to go
—and the memories shifted and he was once again the woman, once again on the ground, sobbing and screaming, sharp shining metal poised above her throat, above her like the man, so silent, so quiet, as he… as he…
“No,” gasped Artur, wrenching himself free, tearing his heart from the echo. The vision threw him back in a hard rush, a violent upheaval that was emotion translated into the physical. He felt lips on his body, pain and terror, as he… as he was…
Artur vomited. He felt a paper bag around his mouth and Dean—Dean, who knew him so well—was holding it for him, careful not to touch any part of Artur’s exposed skin, so careful not to abuse his spirit with more: more vision, more filth, more and more and more…
Artur could not stop heaving. Dean swore. He whispered, “We’ve run out of time, man. They’re back.” He pushed the soggy bag into Artur’s hand and pulled the chain on the lightbulb. Darkness swallowed them. A soft dark fell, like a blindfold, the prelude to a caress.
Artur clenched his jaw tight, choking as his body continued to reject his mind’s trauma. He hunched in on himself, aware of the floorboards creaking above his head. He heard a woman’s muffled .voice, querulously demanding, and the male response: short, clipped. Artur could not understand what they were saying, but Dean breathed, “Good,” and for once—for the first time in years—Artur let someone else worry, and concentrated solely on regaining some semblance of precious self-control.
Long minutes passed. Artur’s body settled slowly into itself, like his soul, drifting home. His heart rate slowed. He could breathe without gagging.
Above them came hard-soled footsteps, the click of high heels. A door slammed. There was just enough light from under the basement door to allow Artur to see, and he watched Dean close his eyes and shake his head.
“That was close,” he said, still whispering. “Lucky for us, they didn’t feel like spending the night above a crime scene.”
“They are afraid the serial killer will come back.”
“Yeah.” Dean glanced at him. “Did you get what you needed?”
Too much. Too much of everything I did not need.
“No,” he said, stuffing the bag full of vomit into his coat pocket. He had to stop eating on the days he worked. “A face, a mind. Emotion drowned the rest.”
Dean opened his mouth. Hesitated. Artur said, “I know. We need to find another option.”
Another option should have been unnecessary. Artur was the agency’s trump card, the one who almost never failed, who could be counted on to provide a location, a name, something personal—a trail, most often of tears, leading to a resolution of the assigned case. But not this time.
“Come on,” Dean said. “Let’s get out of here.”
They left the scene the way they came in, through the back door. Entering had been easy: old locks, simple to pick. It was, speculated some of their police sources, the same place where the murderer had entered the house with his victim. A serial killer, who had raped three women to death after taking them into the homes of strangers.
Marilyn Bennigton was the latest: a perky blond, twenty years old. A member of Kappa Kappa Gamma. She liked to run.
She had gone missing after one of those runs disappeared for a full two days until the Vetters returned home from their vacation and found her body in the basement, naked and restrained. Internal injuries had killed her—that, and massive bleeding from certain orifices.
The police had no leads, no fingerprints or DNA. All they knew for certain was that the killer was incredibly strong and cunning, a classic sociopath, using death as a means of releasing a lifetime of repressed rage toward women. A typical profile, according to the police.
Except, Artur knew, there was nothing typical about the mind he had just listened to. Only an echo, a memory of a memory, but he had seen enough to know that the murderer was a man fueled by more than just rage and superiority. He took joy in his work. A hard, bitter joy that had less to do with women, and everything to do with pain.
It was only midnight. The crime scene had been released that afternoon, which usually meant news media clamoring at the front door and windows for an exclusive peek at death, but this time the police had done a good job preventing leaks. Maybe tomorrow the house would be swarmed, but not yet. Tonight it was perfect and quiet, the thick trees around the old Colonial a lovely cover for benign intruders. The Vetters lived in the countrified suburbs, with few neighbors and even fewer cars on the road.
Dean closed the back door. He pulled a handkerchief from his jeans pocket and began wiping down the brass knob. They’d worn no latex gloves to prevent fingerprints on this excursion. Dean did not normally take readings of objects, but in this case, Dirk & Steele had decided that four hands were better than two. Not that it had helped.
Artur heard a rustling sound: dry leaves, the movement of branches. Not the wind. He reached for his gun.
A small body sheathed in light glided from the trees. It landed on the grass with a hop, a flap of wings. The light dimmed; a crow peered up at Artur with sly golden eyes. Dean cursed. Artur understood his irritation.
“We are trying to be subtle,” he said to the bird. The crow made a throaty noise that sounded suspiciously like laughter. Dean aimed a kick at its head and the crow jumped backward, easily, out of reach. Golden light rolled off its feathers, cold fire, and a moment later a naked man rose from the grass. Dark hair, golden eyes. The light went out.
“Got a cigarette?” he asked, rolling his shoulders. Tattoos spun down his long, lean arms. Artur smelled smoke, leather.
Dean shook his head. “I’m gonna kill you, Koni.”
“Sure,” said the shape-shifter. “That’s what you always say.”
Dean moved. Artur grabbed his shoulder.
Koni laughed softly. “Bastard. You think I would pull that trick if anyone was around? Give me credit.”
“Did you learn anything while we were inside?” Artur squeezed Dean’s shoulder: a warning. He did not have energy for an argument. Not now, with Marilyn still dying inside his head. And besides, he trusted Koni’s instincts for subterfuge and concealment. One did not live in modern society as a creature beyond human ken without learning the trick of secrecy.
A year ago, Artur would have thought such tricks applied only to himself and his friends at the detective agency. Magic did not exist, except as a fallback to explanations science could not yet provide. Telepathy, telekinesis—these were infinitely rare abilities, but not beyond the realm of human possibility. At least, not to those who had reason to believe.
And then everything had changed. The world became stranger, inexplicable, mysterious. Legends walked; Artur could no longer think of myth as simple story, amusement for a child’s bedtime. Myth breathed. It flew on black wings bathed in golden light, labored as immortal warriors cursed to enslavement, killed as madmen with fire for hands.
It will be aliens next. Little green men.
Or something even more bizarre. Artur, though he had never taken anything in his life for granted, had finally lost all expectations for what could be considered real and normal. Anything was possible now.