Album by Tom Olbert
by Tom Olbert
Steve Gallagher choked back the vomit rising in his throat as he looked down at the emaciated female corpse on the floor. That dead thing was Marie Cianci? The babe with the sparkling brown eyes and lilting laugh he’d met at Mike Harmon’s last party? She looked like she’d been cooked alive. Scarcely anything but skin and bones left. Almost like some damned Aztec mummy. He almost gagged as he saw the bloody hole in her chest.
“Sir, you can’t be in here. Keep back.” Steve’s head was reeling. He was only dimly aware of the cops, their hands on his shoulders and chest holding him back. His stomach turned at the sight before him, yet he couldn’t tear his eyes away. It was then that he noticed the strange, elongated bruises, like dark creeper vines running under Marie’s dried flesh. He didn’t even want to guess at how they’d been inflicted. He winced as he wondered if she’d still been alive during the worst of it.
“Who the hell is he?” a man’s guttural voice called out from somewhere as flashbulbs popped. “Who let him in here?”
“I’m sorry, Lieutenant,” one of the cops said. “He just came charging in. Sir, please identify yourself. Sir?”
shook his head, the numbness slowly passing as his head cleared. “I’m . . .uh…Steve Gallagher,” he stammered out of a dry throat, still only dimly aware as he pulled out his wallet and showed his I.D. to the officer.
“Oh, right….Mr. Gallagher. We were planning on paying you a visit later, sir,” said the paunchy detective with the nicotine breath as he stepped in front of him. “I’m Lt. Morretti, Homicide. Would you mind explaining what you’re doing here, Mr. Gallagher?”
“Doing here? I…” His mind raced as he tried desperately to convince himself the nightmare from which he’d awakened screaming shortly before hadn’t actually ended, and that he was still asleep and dreaming all this. He’d seen in his dream…through someone else’s eyes it had seemed… A door lock dissolving. Marie’s face twisting in horror as she’d screamed. It had been so real. Waking up in a cold sweat, panting and exhausted, he’d had to reassure himself. Phoning Marie’s apartment and getting no answer, he’d driven straight over.
“You what, sir?” Moretti asked, bringing his ugly face unnervingly close to Steve’s.
“I…had a feeling something might be wrong, so…”
“You had a feeling?” He nodded slightly, his eyes dropping from Steve’s as he glanced at one of the other detectives, the slightest hint of a smirk on his face. “Yes, we all have those, don’t we, sir? Now, let’s see…” He flipped through his notebook. “The neighbors say they saw you enter this house with her around midnight last Thursday. Do you confirm that?”
Steve glanced around the room in the dim light, taking in the familiar surroundings, including the piano on which she’d played Mozart so beautifully. He didn’t usually go in for that artsy type, but she’d been sweet, and…under that polished Catholic college-girl exterior had been a ripe, healthy hunger for life—and a naiveté easily exploited. “Yes,” he managed, finally. “I was here.”
“And you haven’t seen her since?”
“Since? I…no. No, not since we… No, not since then. We left each other phone messages.” Or, more accurately, she’d left him messages, and he’d found ways to strategically avoid answering them. “Uh… The last one she sent me was…” He started awkwardly rummaging through his pockets for his cell phone, feeling more like a suspect every second.
“Don’t bother, Sir,” Morretti sighed. “We’ve already checked your phone records. Can you verify your whereabouts this morning around 2:00 AM?”
“This morning? I was…home.”
That’s when the scent hit him. That haunting scent that pierced to his marrow like a skewer. Her scent. Melissa’s. This place reeked of it. As had his own apartment the previous night when she’d come to him. They’d made love, time becoming meaningless. That almost super-human power of hers had raged through him, pure light and star-flame shooting through his brain, his nerves on fire with the addictive anguish she created. The sight of Melissa as she’d stepped out of the shower the morning after was still fresh in his mind. The warm sunlight streaming over her glowing, golden skin, those piercing eyes of hers shining like black stars. He’d felt like death, drained and empty as he’d awakened with the dawn, but Melissa had looked strong and filled with energy—like a freshly fed animal.
He glanced about, praying the cops wouldn’t notice his quickened breath. He wiped the sweat from his upper lip. Even as they stretched on white surgical gloves and marked a chalk outline about the body, he could detect Melissa’s scent everywhere, including the body itself. “I asked you a question, sir. Were you alone last night?”
His heart pounded. “What? Oh, sorry. Yes. I was alone.”
Moretti stared at him. “You don’t strike me as the type of guy who sleeps alone often, Mr. Gallagher. Flashy test pilot like you, travels in rich circles.” He took out a cell phone and called something up, showing it to Steve. Steve sighed, recognizing the YouTube footage of him and that Hollywood actress with whom he’d gotten very publicly drunk a year before. Then, a more recent bit of footage of him and Cameron Mannering. A mock grin crossed Moretti’s fat face. Steve read in his eyes the distaste, the envy, maybe even the hate he’d come to expect from common men. Men who could only dream of living his life. “You must have trouble keeping track.” Moretti casually glanced at the body.
Steve fought to keep from trembling. “Look…You can’t think I had anything to do with this! I’m an Air Force officer, for God’s sake! I’m not some maniac. That…doesn’t even look human!”
“Calm down, sir,” Moretti said with a patronizing smile. “Nobody suggested any such thing. Anyway, there are signs of forced entry, so nobody’s suggesting the victim knew her killer. Strange, too,” he remarked, glancing at the door as Marie’s body was zipped up in a black body bag. As briefly as he’d known her, and in spite of the fact he’d hoped never to see her again, Steve actually felt like crying. She didn’t deserve this. “The door lock was dissolved, maybe by some kind of acid. Weird smell to it,” he remarked, waving his hand in front of his nose. A cold chill swept though Steve’s gut as he remembered the noxious metallic smell in his nightmare. “The forensics boys are thinking maybe some kind of tactical chemical. You know, the type you guys in the military are always developing.” He looked straight at him. Steve fought to keep his eyes level with the other man’s. “Well, we know where to reach you if we need you, sir. Get a good night’s sleep. Oh, and the next time you have one of your ‘feelings’…try to stay clear of any more crime scenes.”
Steve turned to walk out, numb all over. “Flyboys,” he heard the detective muttering to one of the other cops, behind his back. “When my daughter starts dating, remind me to keep her away from them.”
As the highway lights raced by in the night, Steve’s hands clammy against the steering wheel, he was flashing back to the night he’d met Melissa. An icy chill was creeping up his spine even as he remembered that sultry night in the Bahamas.
A night of wild pleasures at one of Cameron Mannering’s estates. It had been like a dream. The warm waters of a heated pool under starlight. Beautiful women splashing about naked. Expensive wines flowing like tap water. Sweet reefer on the deck overlooking the sea. Mannering lived like a bloody potentate, and virtually outside the law. “Enjoying yourself, Mr. Gallagher?” the tall, lanky New Zealander had asked with a broad smile, swishing the Cognac in his glass. The billionaire’s faded blue eyes had sparkled, the moonlight flashing off the diamond ring on his finger. His long black hair, now fading to grey and tied in a loose ponytail, had swayed in the warm evening breeze.
“Very much, Mr. Mannering,” Steve had said with a smile, harboring a deep-seated admiration for the self-made aerospace tycoon. A real man’s man this one, Steve had reflected. Unlike his own father, whose quaint work ethic hadn’t kept Steve’s mother from running off with a more successful man.
“Cameron, please,” he’d said, patting Steve’s shoulder. He’d sighed, looking at the night sky over his hilltop mansion. “All aboard for this last frontier,” he’d said, passing his hand across the constellations. “The number of habitable space platforms in Earth orbit is growing every month. Space tourism is destined to be the Gold Rrush of our age, m’boy, and I intend to be there ahead of all of them. Picture it: A half-dozen hotels in orbit by 2040. Trans-orbital sightseeing tours. Pay extra, circle the moon.” He’d smiled broadly, a twinkle in his eye as he’d sipped his drink. He’d stepped in close to Steve, the Cognac heavy on his breath. “My Air Force sources inform me you were dropped from the space program because your psych tests indicated a tendency toward ‘recklessness,’” he’d whispered. Steve had felt very nervous, his mouth going dry. Mannering had chuckled and slapped Steve’s arm. “What lesser men call ‘recklessness,’ I call ‘daring.’ I need people like you to make my dream a reality, Steve. Interested?”
Steve’s heart had throbbed. A chance to make it into space? “Just tell me where to sign on the dotted line, sir!” Later that night, his head had been swaying wildly with drugs and excitement as he’d stepped off the stairwell down onto the beach, hoping to clear his head in the fresh air. The waves had been crashing on the beach down below, the palm trees swaying in the warm breeze. He’d felt like running and shouting. He’d felt like he could jump up and pluck the stars down from the sky one by one. That’s when her overpowering scent had touched him for the first time, riding on the sea breeze, entering his blood and racing on fire to his brain.
There she’d lain, under a palm tree, her arms outstretched. The moonlight had washed over her creamy white skin, her revealing black dress flapping tantalizingly in the breeze, her long black hair wild and free. Her eyes, like sparkling black gems, had seemed to bore their way into his soul. She was like some cosmic wonder that had fallen from space like a meteor. She had smiled up at him and softly beckoned. He couldn’t resist her.
The rest had been like a half-remembered fantasy. Frolicking in the foamy waves under the stars. Her enticing laughter and child-like squealing as he’d chased her to the edge of the sea, caught her and spun her in his arms. Warm closeness on the balcony outside her room, the silky white curtains floating in the warm breeze. Her scent as sweet and intoxicating as the wine.
It wasn’t until he’d been with her a while that he’d realized, much to his embarrassment, who she was. “Oh, My God…You’re Melissa Colby, the astronaut. NASA sent you on those last two lunar missions. Checking out the comet deposits on the surface, right?”
“You got it.” She’d chuckled playfully, her finger tracing the line of his jaw. “You’ve never made it as far as the big black, have you, Stevie boy?”
“No,” he’d said, suddenly feeling woefully inadequate. “They had me testing the new suborbital stealth wings.” He’d remembered cruising at the edge of space, the dull shimmer of the atmosphere like a crack of light beneath him, the sun just peeking out over the Earth’s horizon…the big black unknown hanging tantalizingly above, just out of reach, like a teasing, unattainable woman.
“Still a virgin, if you’ve only gone halfway,” she’d quipped, running her strong, slender fingers through his hair. He’d felt humbled as never before. “The black void is like nothing you can imagine,” she’d whispered, bringing her full, trembling lips close to his.
He’d stared into the shining black void of her eyes, starlight reflected there. It was like looking into some cosmic abyss. He’d trembled, as much with fear as with anticipation. “It must make you feel…tiny.”
“At first,” she’d said, drawing him close, her firm, slender arms sliding around his neck. “Until you surrender to it, become part of it; then it makes you feel huge.” Even memory was inadequate to record what had followed. Like dying, and being reborn at the same time. Like a star exploding and hurling its essence across the universe, forming new suns, new worlds.
He was startled back to reality by the shrill, angry blast of a car horn. He’d nearly caused a collision, turning down a dark off-ramp. He shook his head. What the hell had he gotten himself into? His heart was pounding as he drove toward Melissa’s townhouse. Did the cops know about her? His mind was reeling, sweat streaming down his face. How had she even found out about Marie? He hadn’t told her! Was she really capable of that? For jealousy? The thought of that made his blood run cold. Dammit, why hadn’t he told that detective about her?
Had he fallen so far under her spell that his first instinct was to protect her? Even now? Well, it was too late to play good citizen. If he came clean now, the cops would surely think he’d been in on it. Not to mention the scandal that would follow. And it would come out that he’d violated federal law by selling Air Force tech info to Mannering. His whole future was in jeopardy now.
He drew a strangled, trembling breath as he pulled into the driveway of her luxurious home. He felt he was on his way to face a ravening beast in its lair. “Hold it together,” he admonished himself, parking and forcing his feet to take him up the steps to her door. His hand trembled as he put his key in the lock. The front hall was dark. He made it as far as the living room before he froze, numb with horror, his knees buckling. The music coming from the living room. Mozart’s Requiem. Exactly as Marie had played it. In the dim light of a street lamp shining through a window, he could barely make out a silhouetted female figure seated at the piano. “Come in, Steve,” a familiar feminine voice said. “I’ve been expecting you.” She turned on a table lamp beside the piano. He gasped, steel fingers clamping around his heart. There Marie Cianci sat at the piano, grinning, her brown eyes sparkling.
He staggered, gasping for breath. Was this truly a dream, then? Or a bad trip? Was he simply going mad? Or was he the victim of some incredibly elaborate, sick practical joke? If that wasn’t Marie’s body they found at her house, then whose was it? He felt the room swaying, more so than after any flight simulator test. Hold it together. Hold it together. “Marie…?” he finally managed to choke out. “They told me you were dead.”
She smiled, getting up from the piano bench and walking towards him. As she approached, her face seemed to change in the half-light, altering as in a dream. Her face grew longer, her eyes darker. Her hair darkened and lengthened before his eyes. A familiar scent struck him. “Hello, Lover,” Melissa whispered as she stood before him. He slapped his face, and pinched hard into his forearm, cursing the pain of stubborn reality. “What’s wrong, Steve?” she asked, her fingers touching his jaw and turning his face to hers. “Don’t I wear your precious little Marie well? You had fond thoughts of her, though I fail to see the attraction. I took all I needed from her. What more could you ask?” Her fingers stroked his face and hair as she smiled broadly and licked her lips. “Come.”
It was as if the smells of death and hell itself were washing over him. “Get the hell away from me,” he screamed, pulling away from her and staggering backwards. “What in the hell are you?”
“You know what I am,” she answered with a mocking smile. “I chose you. You’re part of me now. Why do you suppose you couldn’t tell that stupid cop about me? There’s a part of you inside me, and a part of me inside you. Your over-riding instinct now is to protect me. To protect us.” His breathing accelerated, his face flushing hot as he stared at her insufferably smug, smiling face. His fear turned steadily to anger, then to hatred, and finally to rage.
“Damn you to hell!” He lunged at her, clutching her throat and throttling her, wildly, joyfully digging his fingers into the soft flesh of her throat. He groaned in pain as her slender fingers revealed impossible strength, crushing his wrists in a vice-like hold and effortlessly prying his hands away from her neck. The reddish bruises on her throat healed miraculously before his eyes as she glared at him. He roared in pain and anger as she drove him halfway across the room, the back of his head colliding with the aluminum frame of a bookshelf. Stars flashed through darkness. He felt the softness of the carpeting against the throbbing back of his head. He was looking up at her from the floor, her face cold and hard, her eyes like smoldering coals.
Her fingers clutched his head as she descended upon him, her breath cold and intoxicating, her eyes now inches from his. Those eyes blasted into his brain like twin rockets, and he found himself launched into the black void of the cosmos. He saw galaxies exploding and suns being born. He saw gaseous giant worlds. The inhabitants of their cloudy heights were beyond description. Gigantic, bioluminescent life-forms of unimaginable strangeness and beauty, their exquisitely delicate tendrils miles long. He saw solar systems of multiple suns, their conflicting gravitational tides turning small, hard planets inside out. From exposed veins of metallic ore blossomed stunningly beautiful outcroppings of multicolored crystalline formations. They gently vibrated, forming neuron-like connections in a gigantic cosmic intellect. He saw the glittering ice fields of the rings of Saturn. He saw the fiery cloud tops of Jupiter. He saw Earth and the moon. And he saw Melissa look up, the sun reflected in the glass of her space helmet suddenly darkening as a great shadow descended upon her. Her eyes widened as she screamed. The scream was lost in the cold, lonely vacuum of space.
He awoke in a cold sweat, his chest heaving. Her claw-like nails ripped open his shirt. His head swam, his mind surfacing intermittently, as though from a nightmare. “That was only a small sample of what I have to offer,” she whispered enticingly, her lips moving down the length of his pectoral muscles. “Earth is nothing. Let it go and come to me.” His perceptions blurred, his memory faltering. He couldn’t remember how he’d gotten to the bedroom. Nor did he care. For those few minutes, nothing in the universe mattered but being with her.
Slowly, as reality reasserted itself, his reason returned, and a plan formed. He knew he had to kill her. To kill it. It was obvious that whatever alien intelligence had returned to Earth inside Melissa Colby had bonded with him somehow and could read his thoughts. But…if he were of two minds…could she read both at once? He listened to her soft giggling as she lay beside him in warm darkness. She didn’t seem to know what he was thinking now. Back at Marie’s apartment, this thing could read his thoughts. But when his reason functioned independently of his instinct, his thoughts were beyond her reach. She could read his heart’s desire, or what cold logic dictated. But one could be used to mask the other. “In the mood for sweet bath oils, my love?” he asked jokingly. She tittered and kissed his neck as she slid off the bed and toward the lavatory.
As the water level rose in the bathtub, steam rising and the sweet, pungent aroma of scented bath oils filling his nostrils, Steve began to feel a twinge of sorrow, or perhaps even guilt. Those feelings joined to form lust as her lithe, perfect body slipped into the steaming water. “Coming?” she asked playfully. His heart pounded. He gritted his teeth in anguish, trembling, fighting to contain the two tears stinging the corners of his eyes. As his grief and hatred exploded into each other, shattering his lust, her eyes suddenly flared in anger, but she’d caught on a fraction of a second too late. His hand had already reached the blow dryer, flipped the switch, and tossed it into the water.
She…it…shrieked like a howling banshee, thrashing in a cascade of silver-blue electrical charges, like some horrible writhing specter, the overhead lights flashing wildly. He pulled back in horror, instinctively shielding himself but unable to flee, at once terrified and mesmerized by the frightful lightshow. Was it only a trick of the intermittent light, or could he actually see her flesh melting into the water? Was that truly her face—a contorted mask of pain, pleading to him with anguished eyes as it dissolved into frothing, pinkish fluid—or only his own imagination? And what did he see emerging, half substance, half shadow, from the deteriorating, shapeless mass that had been her body? Could he actually discern multiple silvery, shimmering clawed limbs writhing and thrashing?
His mortal terror finally overcoming his paralysis, he slammed the bathroom door behind him and hastily snatched up his clothes. He dressed in a fevered panic, imagining the police smashing down the door at any moment. His mind was a blind rush of panic as he broke open the liquor cabinet and smashed every bottle he could lay his hands on, hurling them against the walls and floor, a part of his fevered brain actually enjoying the mad rush of it all. Catching his breath, he stared at the dim light reflecting off the bottle of vodka he held and considered taking a belt to kill his pain. His survival instinct kicking in, he cursed himself for his stupidity and smashed the bottle against the Picasso hanging on the far wall. His hands shaking, he pulled out his lighter and ignited the drapes. The fire whipped quickly across the walls and carpeting. The place was a bright orange inferno by the time he’d run out the door.
He could smell the smoke, and the sickening stench of cooked meat as he ran to his car. He choked back the nausea. He panted, struggling with his car keys. He could see lights flashing on in surrounding houses. He could hear the distant banter of neighbors even over the anguished screams of half-human rage roaring through his brain as he hit the gas pedal, his car screeching down the drive. He fought to keep steady as he pulled out onto the deserted highway. He floored the pedal, the highway markers blurring in his headlight beams. Dawn was still hours away. His breathing slowly steadied as he felt his drenched clothing clinging to this flesh. Oh, Dear God, he thought as he wiped the tears from his eyes. Oh, Dear God.
Over the weeks that followed, he took what money Mannering had paid him and disappeared. Skipped the country and traveled. He lived hard and fast under a dozen fake names. Dangerous thrill-seeking. Formula One racecars in Europe. High-stakes gambling in Monte Carlo. His nature had always craved risk, danger. Or had it been the fear of actually facing life and ending up like his father? He wondered if a part of him actually hoped that death might claim him. There was hardly enough gin, or absinthe, or fast women to bury the disgust, the horror, and—astonishingly enough—the guilt he felt over Melissa.
How many times had he woken from nightmare recollections, screaming in a cold sweat, much to the discomfiture of whatever young woman whose company he’d had that night? All the beauty he’d found since, all the sex, all the cheap thrills…it couldn’t even begin to equal what she’d been to him. One night, on the Riviera, his date had pulled back the curtains and stared out over the balcony of his villa, smiling at the light of the moon and the stars. He’d roughly pulled her away, angrily drawing the curtains closed. She’d stared at him as he’d clutched the curtain in a trembling fist, sweat beading on his forehead. What was up there was still as enticing and deadly as an addictive narcotic. He had to lose himself in Earth. Anchor himself firmly to it, for fear that addiction might claim him again.
One morning in Rome, making his way past the open-air market, the smell of roasting chestnuts in the air and the memory of last night’s pleasures fresh in his mind, he was able to discern, over the usual bickering of peddlers, something that caught his ear. Some newspaper item about an American traveling under multiple aliases now being sought by INTERPOL for questioning in connection with multiple murders. He froze, his spine turning to ice. He glanced down at a pudgy, middle-aged man in a grey cap, seated in front of a grill with chestnuts roasting, stabbing his grubby finger at a newspaper article. He read over the man’s shoulder. His Italian was a bit rusty, but he could recognize the names of women from several countries with whom he’d recently made love—and of whom he’d recently had disturbing nightmares he’d tried to dismiss. From the conversations around him, he could discern the familiar and gruesome details of how they’d died: Just as Marie Cianci had. He felt a cold numbness, like an icy blade sliding into the pit of his stomach. Feeling himself growing pale, Steve tried to keep steady, forcing the blood back into his cheeks as he turned and walked quickly down the street the way he’d come. Not too fast, he chastised himself, feeling eyes boring holes in his back. He fought off the urge to turn and look at the neighborhood shop-woman the man had been talking to. Had she glanced up at him with recognition just as he’d turned away? Had his photograph made the papers?
His heart beat faster as two Carabinieri officers sauntered up the street towards him on horseback, their rifles slung over their shoulders, their blue uniform capes flapping in the breeze. He coughed, trying not to look too obvious as he stared down at the filthy, vegetable-strewn cobblestones, the hoof beats growing maddeningly louder as they passed on by. He hurried down the street, his path taking him past the Vatican. Even as the blood pounded through his veins, his terror mounting, he couldn’t help remembering the quaint Catholic admonishments of his old Grandma. “Sin charges a high wage,” she’d said. Maybe she should have been more specific.
His face was flushed, his breathing slow and heavy, as he rode the old-fashioned lift to Angelina’s apartment. What was he to tell her, he wondered as he got off on her floor, the sun streaming across the dingy white-painted halls. A mad woman I thought was dead has followed me from America and is killing every woman I touch? She’d think him insane and call the police, surely. The smartest thing was simply to slip a few more lira to his “friend” in the immigration office and get the hell out of this country pronto. But he couldn’t just leave without warning her. He couldn’t face the thought of yet another innocent life on his conscience. His blood ran cold, his stomach turning. He clutched the steel banister and nearly doubled over in the corridor, thinking about all the others. God, how many? How many? He’d barely kept track. He cried, contemplating suicide. Is that what it would take to make Melissa stay dead?
Managing to pull himself together, he walked shakily toward Angelina’s door. The smell that greeted him was noxious. Like smoldering, freshly forged iron. He figured they were doing soldering work on the old wiring. Then he saw the smoke rising from the half-dissolved metal of the door-lock, the door half-ajar. His feet froze to the floor. He remembered what the American detective had told him about the way the killer had gained access to Marie Cianci’s home. He could dimly hear an unfamiliar sound coming from inside—a soft gurgling, like an infant suckling her mother’s breast. He gathered his courage, pushed open the door, and walked in.
He clenched his fists, wanting to scream in rage at the sight on the floor in front of him. Angelina lay there, her beautiful green eyes flaring for the last time as her youth and strength flowed from her lovely frame, drained into the succubus-like form crouched over her. The woman killing her…rather, the thing that had taken a woman’s form…was somehow indistinct, her features unrecognizable. Like a waxwork mannequin, its face melting in fire. Something only half-visible protruded from the shape-shifting creature’s mouth; silvery, shimmering, half-ethereal, it was like a disgustingly gigantic version of a mosquito’s stinger, extending six inches or so into the bloody hole in Angelina’s chest.
The tube was nearly imperceptible, save for the excitation of air it seemed to generate, and the blood and bodily fluids passing through it. Long, thin welts or bulges appeared under Angelina’s flesh, spreading throughout her body like worms. Shaking off his paralysis, Steve roared, attacking the vile thing. Black eyes flashed up at him. He dimly caught the flash of silvery, half-visible claws lashing out. He felt a terrible shock, knocking him backwards against the wall. He groaned in half-consciousness, the room pitching, his limbs numb as he slumped to the floor. He could only watch helplessly, sobbing in rage and grief as Angelina gasped her last breath, her body growing limp, the light leaving her pleading eyes, her lovely, glistening skin turning to dried leather. The vampire-thing finished its repast, withdrawing, slurping the tube-thing back into its mouth. A dozen long, thin, silvery tendrils branching from the siphoning end of the tube, all of them dripping with blood, withdrew like whipping snakes from under Angelina’s skin, leaving a familiar pattern of ink-vine bruises on her body.
Steve crouched in the corner, fighting to move. As feeling slowly returned to his limbs, he saw the creature’s face slowly clarify into Angelina’s. She smiled, her green eyes sparkling. She licked her full lips and tossed her long, luxuriant brown hair. She laughed as she stared at him, as though enjoying sweet, cold revenge. “You like?” she taunted, in Angelina’s voice. Her face changed before his eyes, the hair growing shorter, turning from brown to blonde, the eyes turning from green to blue. Now, she was Michelle, a girl he’d known in Paris. “N’est-ce pas?” She laughed, her face changing again. The hair turned auburn and lengthened, the eyes growing larger and darker. Now she was Nadia, the girl he’d known in St. Petersburg. “Ve make love, da?” He shut his eyes, unable to watch the sickening album of death.
A warm, soft hand stroked his face. He started, and opened his eyes. Melissa’s face was before him, smiling. “Miss me, lover?”
He pulled away from her, his back pressed to the wall, slowly pulling himself upright. “I killed you.”
“Yes, and that really stung,” she said with a mocking pout. Her face hardened as she stood. “Did you really think you could get rid of me that easily?” Her expression softened again. “But forgive and forget. All couples quarrel. Come to me. I’ve missed you so.”
“Stay away from me!”
Melissa screamed, her eyes blazing, her face contorted with rage. “What more must I do?” she demanded, her shrill voice and flaring black eyes curdling his blood. “I’ve assimilated the knowledge and characteristics of every woman you’ve ever desired. I’ve offered you everything you could possibly want. What more do you want from me?”
His hatred exploded. “What more do you want from me, dammit?” he roared at the top of his lungs. “I’ve made love to you! I’ve protected you. I emptied myself into you, as with no one else, ever! But, it’s never enough! What more? Why won’t you let me get back to my life?”
“You still don’t understand, do you?” She scowled at him in obvious disgust. “We’ve bonded. Your life is part of me now. All you have—your last bit of energy, every last strand of your genetic material, every last bit of nutrient and acid in every last cell in your body—is to be absorbed, so the cycle can continue. The life you’re trying to reclaim no longer exists. Accept it.”
His eyes darted about the room as he instinctively sought a weapon. As his eyes fixed on a large alabaster vase, he remembered what he’d learned of her back in America. He forced himself to look at her. To take in every beautiful inch of her perfect form, and let his lust flow hot through his blood. She smiled, beckoning him. He quickly turned, snatched the vase from its pedestal and smashed it. He stared at her, forcing himself to focus only on her beauty even as he held the razor-sharp shard in his hand.
She smirked, narrowing her eyes. “Haven’t you realized yet you can’t hurt me?”
“This isn’t for you,” he said, tearing open his shirt cuff and putting the shard’s edge against his wrist. His heart pounded as he felt the sharp edge against his vein.
“No!” she shrieked, an expression of horror on her face as she lunged at him. As she reached him, he turned swiftly and swung backwards, slashing the shard deeply across her throat. He laughed in sick delight as her blood splashed across the wall in a bright spray. A part of him had actually wanted to die.
She glared at him, the gash running across her throat instantly healing. “Now, that wasn’t nice.” He gasped, the shard slipping from his numbed hand as her fingers clamped around his throat in a crushing, vice-like grip. His vision faded into soft, swirling grey, his brain swimming in electrical warmth. When he could breathe again, he was on his back, Melissa’s glaring face materializing out of the grey mists. “I’m tired of your games, Steve,” she whispered through clenched teeth. He felt her tearing off his clothes. “Willing or no, you will join with me this one last time.” Her insufferably irresistible scent filled his nostrils, his blood surging. “Our bond will be completed.” He felt himself growing involuntarily hard and eager, and it sickened him. “And at a time and place of my choosing, you will be drawn to me, and the cycle will continue.”
As she came down upon him, he turned his head aside, feeling a prisoner in a hell of excruciating ecstasy. His eyes fixed on the bloodied shard laying nearby.
“Whoa,” Roger whispered as he peered through the electron microscope at the blood sample, the blood-encrusted alabaster shard close by his long, scrawny hand. “Dude, this is truly either Nobel-winning science journal stuff, or major tabloid scam. Either way, I am truly in awe of you, my friend.” He looked up at Steve, a toothy smile crossing his thin, beaky face.
“I can assure you, it’s real, Roger,” Steve grumbled, trying to hide his revulsion of the young man. An idiot savant, this one: A scientifically brilliant mind insufferably packaged in a socially stunted wrapper of gibbering stupidity. Typical of NASA science techs these days. “I need you to tell me what it is.”
“Yeah, well,” Roger glanced about his private lab, running a hand through his frizzy reddish hair. “More like who it is, dude. I’ve run these patterns through a computer program, and it isolated like twelve different human DNA imprints, all female. Thing is, it’s not so much what I can see under the scope that’s gonna rock the world…it’s what I can’t see.” He adjusted his glasses and looked over his last printout. “I mean, I can see what it’s doing to the blood cells on an atomic level, but I can’t see what’s doing it. It’s there, but it isn’t. Cool.” He started giggling, and Steve felt like punching his lights out. If only life were still as simple as high school had been.
He forced down his anger. “Roger…” he said in a slow, steady voice. “What are you talking about? What can’t you see?”
“Dark matter, dude! Impossible, but that’s what it’s gotta be. I mean, we always knew it interacted with conventional matter on a cosmic scale. I mean, it holds entire galaxies in shape. Like Obi-Wan Kenobi says, ‘It surrounds us, it penetrates us…It binds the universe together.’” He chuckled in that insufferably guttural way of his. Steve clenched his fists and ground his teeth. “But who knew it could interact with conventional matter on this small a scale? Awesome.”
Roger stared at him with that stupid grin of his. The smile slowly disappeared as a pensive expression spread across his face. “It’s not giving off any of the conventional life signs. Well, it wouldn’t, being composed of an entirely different kind of matter. Could it be alive? In theory, I don’t see why not. Pretty much depends on how you define life.” He was beginning to look even more intrigued. Even excited. “I guess…we could be talking about something that lives in space. Breathes radiation the way we breathe air, feeds on star matter and noble gases the way we chow down on organic matter. Something that makes its way through the universe, riding the lines of gravitational force maybe, until it finds organic life to bond with. It would probably have to, to thrive inside Earth’s atmosphere. Whoa. Inspiring, dude.”
“I’ll take that as a ‘yes.’ Okay. The question is…how do you disrupt dark matter?”
“Oh, is that all? Nobody knows that! Why don’t you just ask for God’s hat size while you’re at it?”
He started giggling again, and Steve reached his limit. He roughly grabbed Roger by the front of his Star Trek T-shirt. “Look…I need answers, all right? What could affect dark matter? You must have some idea! I’ve already learned for myself electricity won’t do it.”
“Electromagnetic? N-no way, dude,” he said, straightening his shirtfront as Steve released him. “I-I could have told you that wouldn’t do squat. That leaves gravity, and strong and weak nuclear forces.”
Steve sighed, rubbing his stubbled face. “I skipped a few physics lectures in college, okay? What exactly does that mean?”
“Well, I guess you mean in practical terms? Well…you’d need fissionable…Hey, but hold on, dude. We had a deal here, remember? No more intel until you come across with your end of the bargain. Pony up, stud.”
Steve grumbled in disgust, reaching into his jacket pocket. “Here,” he sighed, extracting the wetware memory record module. “I had an electroencephalogram done at Cal-Tech. This is a full-sensory memory record of all my…experiences over the past three months. Once you download it into a mem-sensory V.R. stimulator, it’ll…give you long hours of pleasure, I’m sure.” He winced at the thought of this sniveling geek getting off on his memories. His private moments. But what choice had he?
Roger’s thin chest trembled as he held the black disk with reverence in the palm of his hand. “Dude, you are my Yoda. May the force be with you!”
Steve felt like throwing up.
“Well, Mr. Gallagher, I was wondering if I’d ever see you, again,” Mannering quipped as he gazed at the magnificent view of New York’s night skyline through the bay window of his penthouse. “It’s not often I get to entertain an international fugitive in my home. Well, not too often.” He grinned as he sipped his espresso.
“I’m done selling you Air Force data, Mr. Mannering,” Steve said angrily, his former admiration for the man quickly souring to hate for his increasingly insufferable arrogance. He’d gotten Steve into this mess–and he was hoping, he could get him out of it. “And I’m not going to be one of your space jockeys. All the same, you would be well-advised to help me.”
Mannering turned from the window and glared at him. “Now that sounded decidedly like a threat. You realize one phone call to the police would end your life very quickly?”
Steve fought down his fear, his heart racing. He had to keep steady to win this hand. “Sure. But since I’d have nothing to lose, I could easily take you down with me by telling them all about our past dealings. I can prove you’re in possession of classified data. Oh, and then there’s the goings-on in the Bahamas to consider. The drugs. The bribes. The underage fillies. I arranged to have surveillance vid’s made of everything. You never know when that sort of thing may come in handy, y’know. ‘Seize the opportunity,’ as you always say, Mr. M.”
Mannering’s eyes narrowed in the dim light. Steve smirked the tiniest bit as he saw the other man’s hand trembling with obvious anger, Mannering’s gold-ringed finger tightening on the espresso cup. A moment later, Mannering relaxed, his composure returning, but somehow missing the former hint of interminable superiority. Yup, Steve had won the hand, and it actually exhilarated him. It felt good to be even a little bit in control of his life again. Mannering sighed in resignation. “What do you want?”
The moonlight streamed through the window, washing silver across the sheets of transparent plastic swaying in the soft night breeze. The vile smells of cement and plaster dust filled the stale city air. Steve glanced nervously about the shadowed interior of the half-finished shopping mall construction site. He looked at his luminescent watch. Nearly midnight. The dissolved, smoldering hole in the chain-link fence through which he’d slipped in order to get into this dark pit told him she was already here, somewhere.
Her thoughts had entered his mind, like a commanding voice, compelling him to come here. The cold sweat was beading on his face. Don’t think about it, he said over and over in his head. Don’t think, at all. His breath was growing rapid and his heart was racing as his eyes swept the shadowed recesses of the huge, cluttered room and the scaffolding all around him. “All right, I’m here, bitch!” he shouted, forcing his fear to turn into anger. “I’m bored with cat and mouse! Come out and let’s finish this!”
“Your blood flows hot, lover.” He nearly jumped out of his skin. Melissa’s voice seemed to caress the back of his neck like icy cold fingers, and her scent descended to his marrow like a cold knife. His blood turned to curdled milk as he forced himself to turn. She stepped from the shadows, a dark goddess, her eyes cold as ice. “Good. Your energy has always attracted me.” The hint of a cruel smile crossed her soft lips.
Focus on her beauty, he reminded himself. Not hard to do. His hand clenched painfully on the handle of the revolver under his coat, his fingers slippery against the metal. His breathing accelerated as he looked at her. “You look beautiful,” he said, quite truthfully. “I’m actually looking forward to this.”
She snickered, a hint of boredom crossing her features. “That’s over, Steve. You’ve already served that purpose. The next phase of the cycle can now begin. Come,” she commanded, extending her hand.
He took a halting step forward, reaching for her hand, fighting to keep his own from trembling. He looked up at her and smiled. He stepped back, whipping the gun from under his coat and blasting joyously, blue-white flashes searing his eyes in the darkness, the repeating gun report shattering the night. Six bullets ripped through her torso. She doubled over, her face creased in unfamiliar anguish, as brilliant white glowing silver showed through the holes in her black dress. She looked up at him and glared with hatred. He smiled down at her, gleefully. The uranium with which Mannering had filled those hollow-tipped bullets had done the trick, just as Roger had predicted. He gloated, feeling power flow through him. As the light left her eyes, she glanced up at him one last time, a knowing smile crossing her face through the fading grimace of pain.
Her features dissolved, flesh and hair melting into rivulets of grayish fluid, as though the elemental forces holding them together were now gone. The concrete floor under her began to dissolve as if eaten by a spreading puddle of invisible acid. He stepped back, repulsed and a bit fearful, as a sickly greenish-yellow puddle glowed like phosphorous, spreading towards his feet. The light dimmed and faded until only a dark, smoldering crater remained. It was finally over, he realized. She was dead. As he turned to leave, he felt something. Heard something. An infant crying? Where? He followed the sound…no, the feeling…real or imagined, into the shadows. And there they were.
Pods of some kind. Grayish-brown slimy bags of living tissue, pulsing with life, jacketed in sickly mucous slime. He felt like vomiting as he realized they were splitting open. Hatching. Inside each of the pods…was a human infant. Mewling, gurgling little babies crying, shivering in the cold. His emotions overwhelmed his reason as he looked at their angelic little faces. They were beautiful. He started to remove his coat, instinctively looking for a way to keep them warm, even as it slowly dawned on him what they must be—whose they must be. A part of him wanted desperately to run but something more basic even than selfish survival compelled him to stay.
He bent down to pick one of them up. He actually laughed in delight as he felt that tiny body, so fragile and yet so vibrant, cradled in the crook of his arm. He smiled down at his child. Its eyes snapped open, a harsh, inhuman black. He gasped as its stinger-like tongue lashed out, striking his neck, paralyzing him. He felt only cold, numb horror as the creature lunged at him, multiple curved fangs now exposed as its jaw widened, biting into his throat.
It was all a numb wash of fear and loathing after that. Reality shifting in and out of black emptiness as he begged to awaken from what he desperately wanted to believe was a nightmare. He felt nothing as the hybrid infants devoured him. Drained every last drop of his blood, every last bit of his energy, every last strand of his DNA, just as she’d said. Like insects after mating—the offspring feed on the male, their father. He serves his purpose to the fullest and the cycle of life continues. Each time their faces clarified in his mind, they were older, years’ worth of growth flashing by in minutes as his energy and nutrients flowed into them.
Toddlers one minute. Children the next. Then youths. Boys and girls. Their cruel dark eyes shined in the half-darkness as they smiled down at him, his blood dripping from their sharp teeth. What struck him most, even now, was their haunting beauty. He saw a bit of every one of them in the newborns’ faces: Marie. Angelina. Michelle. Nadia. Melissa. And, yes, himself. Even through the horror of what was to come, he couldn’t help but feel something akin to pride, or perhaps even immortality, as they all pounced to finish their bloody repast.
Cameron Mannering floated weightless above the luxuriant white tiling of his orbiting hotel suite, looking down through the window at the beautiful blue curve of Earth, hundreds of miles below. “More champagne, my dear?” he asked playfully, passing the plastic squeeze bottle full of his finest champagne to the beautiful woman, laughing as she slowly somersaulted in mid-air beside him.
“Who needs this when we have all that,” she joked, letting the bottle spin free, end-over-end, as she cast her piercing black eyes out the window toward the blazing white constellations. “So many tourists up here now, thanks to you,” she said, tickling his chin with her index finger, her long blonde hair floating in a wild cascade of golden strands around her head. That’s when her scent hit him. That haunting scent that pierced to his marrow like a skewer. “Soon, there’ll be more like me,” she said, her lips curled in a mischievous smile. “A lot more.” She gazed down at Earth. Hungrily, it seemed.
That almost super-human power of hers raged through him, pure light and star-flame shooting through his brain, his nerves on fire with the addictive anguish she created. “I’ll drink to that,” he said as he began eagerly to disrobe.
“No,” she said as she slithered out of her clothes and across his chest. “But our children will.”