Conceding to Kismet

Freya’s Fortune: a cold city in the North home to a sinister background.  A'lela Mason had no idea of the secrets it contained when she moved there nine years ago to work at a homeless shelter.  Now after seven years as its director, she has come to the breaking point.  When a young woman of the streets is murdered, A'lela decides she has had enough of the life of a Samaritan.  Little does she know that she will walk straight into the arms of the killer, Jonquil Montague, a priest who is nothing like what he seems.

Jonquil is a centuries old immortal who took up the priesthood when his guilt overcame him.  However, he now serves a different master and has been told he will be sent someone who will help them change the world.  That person is A'lela.  Before she can resist, Jonquil transforms A'lela to one of his kind.  Now with the assistance of his old friend Ming-xi, he attempts to convince A'lela to give herself over the master he serves while keeping his bishop Gerald Lightfoot from discovering the truth about his identity.

Meanwhile, Detective Trisha Gallagher is the next in a long line of detectives working the bizarre string of murders that date back years before she arrived in Freya’s Fortune.  During her investigation she makes terrifying discoveries about the overcast town and the detectives who have come to close to finding the secrets it holds.

Blood Tastes Sweet rewrites traditional gothic lore and brings it to a new level for a new audience.  Inda Lauryn brings her style to take on a new genre of literature with this tale of faith and fate.

Prologue

Pain. It was the only thing in her head. It was the only constant life had ever brought her. Pain. It overwhelmed her. It consumed her lifebreath so that she could not inhale without feeling it overtake her. Pain. She no longer wanted pain. She no longer wanted life.

            Tanya had walked the streets since she was 17. By then, she was already adept at what would be her future trade. It had been easier in her youth. She could always find a John who wanted a young one. She passed herself off as 14 until she was about 22. Tanya then decided her youth did not need to be her main attraction. Her skill and experience were second to none. She knew how to sell those points.

            She had never had a pimp. If a John did not abuse her, a pimp definitely would have. It was only a matter of which man tried to cheat her, so she avoided pimps. They still came after her. A couple had even given her a “preview” of their methods when she refused to work for them. She learned to use a gun after a few years. It had saved her in a few scrapes with pimps and Johns.

            Now at age 32, Tanya had had enough. Tricks were becoming more difficult to come by. The real moneyed men wanted youth despite experience. In her profession, she had become an old hag. Her looks were far from gone, but she was definitely not the TV beauty that oversaturated everything. Then there was Internet porn. So many Johns kept asking her to do things that made her stomach turn. She could not keep up.

            This last John had been the final straw. He wanted to play games. Tanya was not really averse to that. Role playing usually made things a little more interesting. But she had gotten a bad vibe from this one right away. She tried to run away, but he caught her by the hair and dragged her into the room. Her purse was out of reach. She could not get her gun. He bound her to the bed and struck her in the face as he told her what a dirty whore she was. Tanya blocked out the pain and focused on the crucifix that hung on the opposite wall. She did not scream and she did not cry.

            She was raped. It had happened before, but such ill treatment had become much more frequent as of late as if the fact of being an old pro meant she had not feelings at all. In her youth, Tanya believed she would be forgiven for her actions because like everyone else she needed to survive. However, so many of her Johns lately felt the need to humiliate her and remind her that after 15 years she was still nothing more than what she was at 17 – a common whore. She had not gone to college like she wanted. She was never going to become a nurse. This was all life would ever offer her. Pain.

            Tanya winced as she ran her hand over her bleeding, swollen lip. She could barely open her left eye. She wanted to scream at the people who passed her on the street trying hard to pretend they did not see her. It was the only time they did not look at her. Any other time they felt free to look her, cluck their tongues in judgment or shout obscenities at her. It all stopped whenever the visible scars showed, whenever her face gave evidence of her own occupational hazards. Apparently it was rude to openly gaze at an abused woman, even if she was a whore. Such an action might acknowledge a wrongdoing most people would rather ignore.

            She stepped into an empty dark alley and checked the gun’s chamber. She only had one bullet left. She could not do it here. Even she had too much dignity to die in an alley. She knew exactly where she wanted to do it.

            St. Lebuin always reminded Tanya more of the Taj Mahal rather than a church. She never understood how a church that preached nobility in poverty could scream excess with every brick, every window and every door that provided its structure. She walked into St. Lebuin. It was empty at this time of night, but people were always welcome to come in and pray. The homeless who tried to sleep in the pews were directed to a mission for a proper bed.

            Tanya went to one of the pews near the front. She knelt down and pretended to pray. She opened her purse and put her hand around the hard steel gun. This was the perfect place. This beautiful ornate building required to welcome all souls and sinners. Whenever these parishioners passed judgment on those less than they were, they would be forced to consider that maybe this judgment led to someone taking her own life. She would have an impact finally.

            Tanya considered saying a prayer for forgiveness but decided that would be futile. She closed her eyes and began to take the gun out of her purse.

            “May help you with something?”

            Tanya was noticeably startled. She had not heard him approach. She studied him as he stood over her gazing at her curiously. His hair was jet black and hung in soft waves between his ears and shoulders. His eyes were the darkest, iciest blue she had ever seen. But his skin… His skin was milk white, making his eyes and hair appear even darker. Tanya thought she might not be in her current predicament if more her Johns looked like this. She immediately blushed at the thought when she remembered he wore a collar. Then again she knew better than to judge a man based on the uniform he wore, even if he was a priest.

            “No, Father. I was just on my way home.”

            His face suddenly became completely benevolent.

            “Do you mind if I sit here with you a moment?”

            “Not at all.” Tanya got off her knees and sat on the pew with the young priest. She nervously touched her swollen lip. He handed her a handkerchief.

            “Thank you.”

            “You’re welcome.”

            Tanya dabbed at the tender flesh around her mouth and saw that it had begun to bleed again. Her ruby red blood stained the white cloth. She noticed the priest gazing queerly at the bloodied handkerchief.

            “I’m sorry about this, Father. I’ll replace it.”

            “No need. It has to be used for something.”

            “But my… you do know I’m a prostitute, don’t you?”

            “I do know. Do you believe you deserve this because of it?”

            He slipped his hand under her chin and lifted her face. He looked over her wounds, lingering at the blood that continued to trickle from her mouth. Tanya quickly dabbed at it again.

            “I don’t know what I believe anymore.”

            They sat silently a moment as Tanya tried to will the blood to congeal as quickly as possible. She sat back when the bleeding fell under control. She knew talking irritated it, but something about this priest made her want to put off what she had come to do. Despite the pain, she kept talking.

            “We went to a church similar to this one when I was a girl,” she began. “My parents and my two sisters. We never missed a Sunday. They made me go to confession at least twice a week. I used to be such a good Catholic. Of course that all began to change during adolescence. I was miserable then. Confession was like the best and worst thing to happen to me. I could do whatever I wanted. The drawback was I had to tell a priest about it. The good part was I could atone with just a few Hail Marys and Our Fathers. Tell me what sane person will actually stop committing sins when all he has to do after that is confess, say a couple of prayers and the slate’s wiped clean.”

            The priest smiled amusedly. His dark eyes twinkled. Tanya continued.

            “I rationalized that way until about 17. That was when Father Reardon died. Father Jenkins took over after that. Everything changed. He was so strict. A couple of days after I made my last confession, I came home to find him sitting with my parents. He told them. His sense of duty to help my parents guide me to the right path overrode confidentiality. Everything that was supposed to be anonymous and in confidence was out there in the open. They had ransacked my room and gone through all my things. That was the first time I ever felt violated. I left that same day. I never went back.”

            She grew quiet again. Some of the pain had ebbed. She still knew what she had to do, but it would not be here, not with this priest. She would have to find another place. Not a motel though. Not the city dump either. She needed to go somewhere that would create a stir. Then it hit her. Those damn college kids who always thought they knew what was best for everyone could use a little dose of reality.

            The priest was giving her an odd look again. The warm feeling she got from him earlier chilled. It was not quite the look she got from a John but there was something odd. He focused on her mouth. Tanya usually knew what that meant, but this was different. He seemed fixated on the swelling.

            “I should go now,” Tanya said as she stood. She offered him the handkerchief before she realized she was offering him a bloody rag. He simply smiled and reached out to wipe a slither of blood that had begun to drip down her mouth again. She hurriedly made her way to the door. She took one last look at the priest. She hoped it was only a figment of her imagination, but she thought she saw him lick her blood from his finger.

            Tanya was a block away before she remembered her plan. She stopped in her tracks. She was headed the wrong way. She turned around to head in the opposite direction. She stopped when she looked at St. Lebuin. She thought she saw someone standing outside the door, someone with skin so white it almost appeared to glow in the dark. She went back the way she had begun.

            A strong, sudden breeze whistled by Tanya’s ear.

            “Most sacred heart of Jesus…”

            Did she really hear that voice? The breeze rushed by her other ear.

            “…I accept from Your hands whatever kind of death…”

            The voice whispered to her through the wind.

            “…it may please You to send me this night…”

            She began to walk in a quicker pace.

            “…with all its pains, penalties and sorrow…”

            She did not look where she was going.

            “…in reparation for all my sins…”

            She began to run.

            “…for the souls in Purgatory…”

            She had no idea where she was.

            “…for all those who will die tonight…”

            She had reached a dead end.

            “…and for Your greater glory…”

            Tanya looked at the brick wall before her. This was the end of the line. She had no idea why it came to her. As soon as the word came from her lips, she found herself in unison with a voice from behind her.

            “Amen.”

            She turned to see him slowly striding toward her. He was so bright that he was almost blinding. Tanya reflexively shielded her eyes as he approached. The fear that had gripped her earlier intensified. Her fight or flight response overrode her desire to die at that moment.

            He stood close to her. The first thing she noticed was that his collar was gone. She then moved to his eyes. They were no longer the dark icy blue they had been in the church. They were still icy but clear. That queer look he had given earlier was back. It was desire, but Tanya knew it had nothing to do with her body or any of the pleasures she could provide with it. He had something completely different in mind.

            Tanya became paralyzed when he put his hand on her arm. She felt her body growing cold. She struggled to speak.

            “What are you?” she choked out.

            “You know what I am,” he said calmly. “You know why I’m here.”

            “But you’re not real. You don’t really exist.”

            “You see me. You hear me. You feel me. You know I’m real.”

            “What are you going to do to me?” she squeaked.

            “I’m going to finish what you came to do, but you won’t have to die in sin. I can save your soul.”

            “But how did you…”

            “It is my gift. I was given a sight. I knew you wanted to take your own life as soon as you walked into my church. If I take your physical life, I’ll save your eternal soul. That’s what you really want, isn’t it?”

            Tanya was trying to surreptitiously reach into her purse for the gun. This man terrified her and she would rather shoot him than allow him to put his hands around her neck.

            “It won’t work,” he said as if reading her mind. “You know bullets can’t kill me. Just relax. I’ve already said a prayer for you. Your pain will go away.”

            “My pain,” Tanya repeated as if in a trance. “My pain will go away.”

            “You’ll help me, too,” he said softly as he brought his face closer to hers. “You’ll satisfy my craving for blood with the taste of flesh. Are you ready?”

            Tears fell from her eyes. “Just don’t leave my body here.”

            “I won’t,” he said as he bared the razor sharp incisors and sank them into her neck. Blood always tasted different when it came directly from the source. Human blood was the best. A woman’s blood – pure ecstasy. This woman was no exception. He need not fear tainted blood in this modern world. He always found that disease could not affect him. He knew from the slight caustic twinge to her blood that she had just been infected with that horrible virus. He would leave just enough of her blood for the authorities to find it. Whoever had beaten her had probably infected her, possibly intentionally.

            She began to grow limp in his arms as he drained the life out of her. Her pain was leaving. She could not even feel the razor-sharp incisors piercing deeply into the tender flesh of her neck. Everything around her was growing dim. Then suddenly she saw a small powder blue light. It grew bigger and brighter as she got closer to it. Tanya saw a figure emerging from the light. As she got closer, she recognized the face of her mother who had died four years earlier. Tanya reached out hoping all had been forgiven between them. Her mother smiled and took her by the hand, leading her into the warmth of the blue light.

            He took her body to the back of the church knowing there would be no one around for a few hours. He laid her down in the garden among the decorative flowers. He plucked a few of them and arranged them in her hair. Perhaps her gray, bloodless pallor would not look so grotesque when Sister Agnes found her in the morning. He remembered to take his handkerchief that she still tightly clutched in her hand. He knelt over her body and clasped his hands. The words may have lost all meaning to him centuries ago, but he knew they would mean something to the poor lost soul he had just taken. He recited the words:

 

We beseech Thee, O Lord,

in Thy mercy,

to have pity on the soul of Thy handmaid;

do Thou, Who hast freed her

from the perils of this mortal life,

restore to her the portion of everlasting salvation.

Through Christ our Lord.

Amen.

 

            He wiped the dirt from his knees as he headed back into the church. Once he got back to his cell, he soaked his handkerchief in cold water. He checked himself in the mirror silently laughing at the old myth that his kind showed no reflection. He knew how not to get any blood on himself, but he always liked to be sure. He went back to his station near the pews until daylight began to break. He headed back to his windowless cell. He would have to get some sleep as usual or prepare for it so that nothing seemed out of the ordinary. The bishop would want to speak with him soon.

 

Chapter 1

Sister Agnes’ bloodcurdling scream filled the air across the city. It rang out in echoes far beyond the churchyard from which it originated. It rivaled the sound of the early birds and the morning hustle. Everyone in the city of Freya’s Fortune heard that scream. Everyone except Father Jonquil Montague who slept peacefully in his cell just a few feet away from Sister Agnes.

            Bishop Gerald Lightfoot scurried through the halls leading to the cells. The police were on the way and he needed to see Jonquil right away. This awful tragedy had possibly happened on his watch. He knocked urgently on Jonquil’s door and waited for the young priest to open it. In all his sixty-three years, he had never met anyone like Jonquil. He had liked Jonquil since their first meeting when the younger man was transferred to his parish, but he was uncertain of him. Gerald found something odd about his pale, milk-white skin, but he believed Jonquil’s explanation of photosensitivity. Imagine being allergic to sunlight. Gerald had seen Jonquil’s hand once get caught in a beam of sunlight. The burn was horrible, but it had healed rather quickly. Gerald was glad the young priest was a nocturnal creature only keeping the fires burning overnight. He knew Jonquil was handsome and although he felt that fact alone might bring younger parishioners, it could also cause unnecessary complications. It was best to keep Jonquil partially under wraps.

            Gerald knocked again. He finally heard shuffling as Jonquil got himself out of his bed and into his robe. He remembered then that Jonquil would have only had a couple of hours of sleep if that much. Jonquil might have been the only one in the entire city not privy to Sister Agnes’ screams.

            Jonquil opened the door. Gerald rushed in and quickly closed the door behind him.

            “There’s been another murder, Jonquil,” he said. “Sister Agnes found the body just now – in our garden.”

            Jonquil offered Gerald the only chair in the room then turned on the only lamp. He took a small bottle of brandy out of his night table drawer and poured a glass for the bishop. As Gerald settled his nerves, he looked over the younger man. His dark black hair had always looked even darker against the pallor skin. So did those dark blue eyes. Then Gerald noticed Jonquil did not seem quite as pale as usual. At certain times, there did seem to be a distinct pigment to his usually bloodless-looking exterior. Gerald could not remember when he had seen it before. He always assumed that perhaps this environment was somehow good for Jonquil’s condition.

            “Last night at any time did you hear anything, any commotion or disturbance of any kind?”

            Jonquil appeared to think for a moment before he shook his head. “Everything was pretty quiet as usual. A few confessions and a lost soul. Otherwise, a rather quiet night.”

            “You didn’t see anyone hanging about? Did you even have one of those constitutionals you like to take?”

            Jonquil’s midnight stroll. He may not have been able to tolerate sunlight, but he still enjoyed a good walk every now and then. Sometimes he would watch the night life while the city was alive with activity despite the darkness. Other times, he would observe as the city began to sleep. Every once in a while, he would even disappear until nearly sunrise. He still never seemed to miss a thing though.

            “I was out before ten, but I’m afraid I was back inside well before midnight. Not much activity neither here nor there.”

            Gerald had finished his drink. “The police will be here soon. I don’t know what to tell them.”

            “You can only tell them what you know. You found a wo – a body on the premises. Or Agnes did. Do you think she was killed here?”

            “I don’t know. No one heard a thing. No one saw a thing. It’s just…”

            “Just what?”

            “She’s pale – like the others. The other bodies were drained of blood, so I believe this has to be the same one as the others. I don’t know about all the others, but this young woman had a rosary in her hand like some of the other victims. I have the feeling it was not hers.”

            “You think her killer placed it there?”

            Gerald nodded. “The paper made no mention of the other victims holding rosaries, but after the first murders, a detective came to see me. He asked lots of questions about the faith. I think the others may have had rosaries, crosses or other symbols.”

            “Really?”

            “Oh, you know this all began months before you got here, Jonquil. Two people had already been found with a few more in a couple of surrounding cities, their bodies drained of blood. The press found out that the victims had punctures in the neck. They believe the killer is someone into some cult activity, but we don’t have that particular culture here.”

            “Interesting. This woman in the garden, does she have those particular wounds. I think so. I only briefly looked her over.”

            Jonquil yawned and rubbed at his eyes. He had not been asleep that long. Sometimes he hated being nocturnal. Gerald noticed Jonquil’s actions and stood to leave.

            “I apologize for having to wake you before you’ve had adequate time to rest. I’m certain the police will want to speak with you when they arrive. If it’s okay, we can just meet you in your day office.”

            Jonquil had a windowless office he used when he absolutely had to be up during daylight hours. It was one of his safe places.

            “I’ll get dressed,” Jonquil said a Gerald left. He watched the door for a moment after Gerald was long gone. He already had his story ready about his previous night’s activities. In the meantime, he remembered the taste of the young woman’s blood on his tongue. So sweet.

~~~

So much uselessness and futility plagued Freya’s Fortune. A’lela Mason witnessed it every day. She never dreamed she would contribute to the futility of everyday existence that overran the city lately. She began to believe though that nothing she did diminished it. Seven years running the local shelter did nothing to actually combat homelessness. Lately she even wondered if it were a good idea.

            A’lela wandered aimlessly through the city avoiding the shelter she no longer believed had any effective impact. It was all in vain: the shelter, her life, anything that sought to reverse the fortunes of the wretched of the earth was all in vain. The hope, idealism and naïveté that had brought her to Freya’s Fortune nine years ago slowly evaporated like rain water on a hot day, the type of day that left her thirsty and dehydrated so much that she felt she would never be quenched. The hopelessness that replaced that thirst was just so unbearable and left A’lela feeling as if nothing could ever be cold or wet enough to satiate the most urgent of human necessities. A’lela no longer could tell which was worse.

            A’lela wandered aimlessly through the city. She saw many of the people who had come to Francesca’s Place then contribute to the shelter’s poor retention rate. So many still slept on the street unable to imagine life any other way having been subjected to their lifestyle for so long. Such acclimation could not be undone within a matter of days; at least that was what A’lela constantly said to reassure herself that she always did the best she could regardless of the fact that she failed much more often than she kept someone from returning to the freedom of the lifestyle that held no rules for anyone except one – survive. The woman who returned to an abusive husband had her very survival in mind when she sometimes made that fateful decision. The man who gave in to the pull of drugs had convinced himself that his very survival depended upon the very poison he shot through his veins or ingested through his nose and lungs. A’lela could not simply chalk this up to the old adage you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink. She found that you could indeed do both; however, the horse resented the force making him drink. A’lela realized long ago that she was seen in the same light as the abuser and the drug, a force that restricted with rules and bylaws, a force that held the power to determine if he was worthy to stay in the shelter. She was just as resented as any drug or other abusive entity.

            A’lela wandered aimlessly. No direction home and no means of getting there. She ignored the cell phone buzzing at her hip. She had not bothered to go into work that day. She had not called in to say she was not coming. A’lela had no desire to deal with quidnuncs and their inane gossip. Perhaps that was the problem. She knew too many people who liked to talk about what was wrong and sometimes offer a solution or two, but come time of inception for the actual doing and they suddenly had no time; they were already busy with the useless tasks they too complained did not do enough to help their causes. A’lela had tried to ignore the growing frustration she felt with the whole endless process, but she was only one person. If the people who felt the same as she were not apt to take action, then what could she as one lone entity do? What differences could she make besides a few symbolic dents into a system designed to keep the odds stacked against her and any efforts she made to change it? Hopelessness. That was all that was left.

            The window display boasted an array of new fashions for the upcoming season: ankle-length and knee-high boots in earth tones such as brown and gray, cashmere sweaters in cream and other off-white colors, suede and leather slacks in black and dark blue. A’lela did not see any of them. Instead, she caught the reflection that stared back at her from the dingy glass. She could hardly recognize the dark brown face that stared back at her. She still looked her 32 years, younger actually since she stopped aging around 23 or 24. Her thick, bushy eyebrows complimented the long eyelashes that protruded from the hazel eyes that stood in stark contrast to the deep brown of her skin that grew deeper in the summer. Her flat nose sat over her plump lips, the only feature on her face she bothered to decorate since she could not tolerate leaving them dry. When she did paint them, the color was always brown or dark purple when she felt adventurous. She knew she was beautiful among and beyond her own although she never relied on that fact. Her face was very much in tact and the hair pulled into a long black braid that reached the upper small of her back showed off every part of her face. Her face did not worry her. The fact that she was 5’7” and had recently dropped from a healthy 144 pounds to almost 125 pounds in a matter of weeks worried her.

            A wiry young man came out and nearly ran her down with his ladder on his way to wash the windows. A’lela came back to herself momentarily and looked at the young man who went out of his way to make sure she saw him. She recognized him as a recent addition to the shelter. A’lela realized then why he had gone through such pains to make sure she saw him. He thought she was checking up on him. This was how they saw her: she was The Man, as much a part of the system as the ones who fed off their misfortune to gain power and/or profit, depending on which came first and would lead to the other. They were right.

            She took one last glance at the now wet glass, adjusted her ecru cardigan and resumed her aimless wandering through Freya’s Fortune. Maybe later she would indulge in a steak dinner, something she had vowed to relinquish all those years ago in order to set an example. Her financial sacrifices had not been as rewarding as she hoped and she now felt it was time to splurge. No one applauded her for bagging her lunch for the past nine years, saving restaurants as a treat for birthdays or special occasions or waiting on reserved lists for new books from the library. No one would notice that she was breaking her own rule on her own accord. A’lela simply did not matter that much in the full scale of mundane matters.

~~~

“She stopped in for a while. I believe it was close to 4:30 in the a.m.” Jonquil spoke to the detective whose name he had already forgotten. He could tell by her dark eyebrows that she was definitely not a natural blonde. He never understood why they all wanted to be blond. “I spoke with her for a while. She was troubled. She told me what she did for a living. She had been beaten pretty severely…”

“You’re certain she had those bruises before she was killed?” the detective asked as if to clarify.

            “The blood was still fresh upon her lips,” he said with perhaps more emotion than he should have. The detective looked at him with a raised eyebrow then quickly made her face blank again. “She had been brutalized. She couldn’t stop the bleeding at her mouth. The cut was severe.”

            “I see,” she responded. She knew she would have to prod him for more information. She had broken his train of thought and put him on guard. “What did you talk about?”

            “Faith mostly. She was raised a Catholic, but left it behind when she was still a teen. She had been on the streets since then. I believe perhaps she was tiring of that life. She had that look of the downtrodden. I actually had more fear that she would do harm to herself rather than someone would hurt her.”

            “She seemed suicidal?” the detective’s eyes lit up.

            “I come across it more than I would like. Sometimes the signs are obvious. Catholics take suicide seriously, detective. I believe her coming here was a cry for help. I know it may sound crude to say, but I think her soul was saved when someone else took her physical life. Tell me. Did she fight her attacker?”

            The detective shifted as she pondered whether to tell Jonquil but decided it could do no harm. “Actually, she had no defensive wounds. She appears to have relented.”

            “I surmised as much. Gerald said she appeared to be smiling. I can only hope she found that peace she sought.”

            “I suppose that’s one way of looking at it,” she said as she rose. “If there’s anything else you can remember, be sure to give me a call.”

            Even in the low-light setting, Jonquil knew she was studying his seemingly translucent skin. They always did.

            “If you don’t mind my asking…” she began then trailed off.

            “I’m sure Gerald explained that I have a very severe case of photosensitivity. The tiniest bit of sunlight can burn my skin. So can high-watt bulbs. I have to keep low light.”

            “Is that the reason you chose this particular vocation?”

            “Part of it,” Jonquil said blandly. “But mostly because I was called to serve God this way.”

            “Of course,” she said trying to hide her embarrassment. “I’ll be seeing you around Montague.”

            Jonquil watched her leave, certain she would deliver on that promise to see him again. He knew he unsettled her and she would probably research his “condition” as soon as she got back to her office. He knew her type. She wanted to come after him because he felt wrong to her. He was out of the bounds of normal. So was her case. She would need to make him fit into it somehow. But he knew as well as she did that she could not go after him just because he had a skin disease. Doing so would damage her. Besides, she would never be able to explain why he would have killed that young woman then moved her body into his own backyard. He also knew she could not connect him to the other murders.

            Jonquil smiled to himself. He had believed in his faith when he first became a priest nearly 600 years ago. He had hated killing even if it was for his own survival. He tried to survive from the blood of animals or other sources. It was probably around 200 years ago he began to doubt mankind’s ability to save itself. He no longer sought forgiveness or redemption for his need to take human life. His collar was now a clever disguise. Those who believed in the existence of the undead also believed they were destroyed by religious symbols. Jonquil knew better.

            He had made The Compromise all those years ago when he still felt guilty about having to kill. He still used his power to discriminate among potential victims, but these days he used it more as a protective measure rather than to protect innocent humans. He no longer saw any of them as innocent, only damned, especially the worst off among them. It amazed Jonquil that the people who benefited least from their beliefs held on to them more staunchly than the rest. He admired their resolve in a way. It made his life a lot easier. He would not have to feed again for some time, but in this place he had never had any trouble finding a victim.

            The blood of a human female tasted best of all. Despite her disease, Jonquil had enjoyed the taste of the young woman’s blood. Many of his latest victims had been vagrants, men. No one had missed them. By the time they were found, their bodies had been badly decomposed and unidentifiable. However, because of The Compromise, Jonquil still killed those who had families or other loved ones who would miss them. They had the white light about them. The ones with the white light were not as rare as he would have thought, not in Freya’s Fortune. With the winter approaching, many more deaths were on the way, but these would not be attributable to Jonquil. The winters in the city could be brutal. As much as the homeless population dwindled during the frigid months, a brand new set of the underclass came to replace them. So Jonquil always had a supply of fresh blood at his disposal. He only feared he might have to leave Freya’s Fortune in order to fulfill his end of The Compromise someday.

            Jonquil returned to his cell and undressed again. He knew Gerald would grant him rest after waking him so abruptly that morning. He also knew Gerald and Agnes were probably already being inundated with questions and perverse curiosity seekers filing through the church. At least he did not have to deal with the questions, the assumptions and the lingering stares. Not yet.

~~~

She remembered Tanya. A’lela had happened to be cleaning the vestibule that day. The running started off as a sort of rumbling, a small rumbling produced by the clack of high heels. A single high heel. A’lela looked up just in time to see her running in the door. Something instant transpired between the two of them in the brief moment they stared at each other; in that brief moment, there was an unspoken understanding between them. A’lela looked outside at the pursuer who began to withdraw once he saw Tanya had an ally. A’lela then directed her attention back to Tanya. She saw a woman getting old before her time, which was an anathema in the profession written all over her face. Despair marked every line and bruise on her face, set deep in her eyes and clung to her like a child nursing from its mother. It was strong enough to fill the building without her even having to leave the vestibule. A’lela set down her cleaning supplies and took Tanya by the hand.

            “I suppose it’s time for lunch.”

            Half of A’lela’s deli sub went to Tanya when she decided she would like a bowl of the house soup along with her sandwich and dessert of peach yogurt. She knew Tanya had not come to the shelter to be fed or housed, but A’lela did not want to send her out without her knowing she still had a safe space to come back to when she needed.

            Tanya Duffy.

            “Well, Tanya Duffy, I’m A’lela Mason. Are you new here?”

            “Actually, I’ve been in this town more than two years.”

            “Really? I’ve never seen you here before.”

            “Well, I sleep during the day mostly.”

            “Oh. Are you worried about that man who followed you here?”

            Tanya shook her head to the negative. “I’m sure I could have handled him, but I try to avoid trouble when I can. I just finished a job. He wanted me to come with him. I wasn’t in the mood.”

            A’lela automatically looked at her watch thinking it was a bit early in the day. Tanya released a grin when she realized why A’lela had checked the time.

            “Honey, I get some of my best clients in the morning. I don’t get the kind of clients who want to take me out on a proper date or a good hotel. They meet me when they can.”

            A’lela returned the grin as she finished her lunch. “You know you’re welcome to stick around as long as you need. No need to hurry.”

            “Actually, the soup did me some good. I feel so warm inside. I think I can sleep now.”

            A’lela watched Tanya until the woman was no longer in sight. Women like Tanya were one of the largest reasons she had settled here and taken the position at Francesca’s Place. Freya’s Fortune was one of the worst areas in the country in terms of homelessness and prostitution. A’lela had ambitiously combined studies in social work and political science hoping to find a compassionate compromise between the two entities and change the system from within. She felt if she understood the politics as well as the social discourse, she could better serve the people who unfortunately needed institutions such as Francesca’s Place. She was reminded of all that idealism as she watched Tanya walk away before she continued to clean the vestibule.

            The last iota of that idealism evaporated as she looked into Tanya’s still face. The serene smile on Tanya’s lips did nothing to alleviate the pain beginning to spread all over A’lela’s body. She could no longer ignore it and tell herself that someday she would be in a better position to help her constituents but until then she had to play by the rules that had already been set out for her. She could no longer tell herself that she was the stronger person for fighting the odds stacked against her, sacrificing money and other luxuries in her quest to save mankind. She could no longer see that day coming in the near future. Every time she told herself “someday,” someone succumbed to the forces A’lela thought she was fighting. Every time she told herself she could save them even if it was one at a time, she lost one. Now this one had a face.

            The doctor in the morgue said nothing as A’lela ran her hand along Tanya’s bruises. She was so cold. A’lela’s mind drifted to the coming winter.

            “Tanya Duffy.”

            “Do you know of any next of kin? Friends or family?”

            A’lela shook her head to the negative as she worked on maintaining her composure. She suddenly came upon the two punctures in Tanya’s neck.

            “Shit!” Dr. Tillman exclaimed. “Gallagher’s going to kill me. You weren’t supposed to see that.”

            “Someone did this to her deliberately?” A’lela asked in a stunned confusion. Dr. Tillman looked at her a moment then evaluated that she could be trusted.

            “I’m sorry, but this is something the cops don’t want anyone to find out yet. At first I thought this was part of some kinky sex game. I mean she was worked over pretty good before she was killed, so I assumed things went too far. But she’s not the only one to come through here with those peculiar wounds.”

            “Prostitutes?”

            “Well I’m not sure. The last few were men, but they were definitely vagrants, so we can’t say for sure. They were completely drained of blood, but there were no signs of sexual activity. I began to wonder if we have one of those gothic subcultures here in Freya’s Fortune, but I still haven’t seen Hot Topic move to town.”

            A’lela looked at Dr. Tillman. The woman had to be in her early 50s at least. A’lela was certain she had been around death nearly that long. Her light grey eyes were the same color as her ponytail and eyebrows. Despite the rare sunny season that was not yet over, Dr. Tillman’s skin was nearly as pale as Tanya’s. A’lela could see she did not have live company in the morgue very often.

            “So you think someone drank their blood?”

            “Well, definitely drained. I still haven’t figured out how they drained all that blood. They do it in a funeral home with a syringe and valve, but you would have to be pretty out of it not to fight that. Ms. Duffy here still had some of her blood and there was no evidence of being drugged. Of course, we had to test it.”

            A’lela unintentionally let a tear fall. “This isn’t right. No one should have to die like this – alone with nobody to give a damn about them.”

            “That’s not exactly true, is it Ms. Mason,” Dr. Tillman prodded gently.

            She allowed it then. Her tears fell free down her face. She cried for Tanya, for the other vagrants and mostly for herself. This was not how she needed to start her day. A’lela received the phone call before she left home, so she went straight to the morgue. She had not expected to be greeted with Tanya’s pale lifeless form. She did not bother to call the shelter to tell anyone she would not be coming in to work. Once she left the morgue, A’lela had simply begun to wander aimlessly through Freya’s Fortune with no destination or purpose. Just like her life.

            It would be sunset soon. A’lela had not eaten all day. It had taken this long for her appetite to return and the hunger pangs hit her with full force. She decided to do something she had never done the entire time she had been in Freya’s Fortune. A’lela went home and pulled out the little black dress she had reserved strictly for fundraisers and other such special occasions. She refreshed herself with a hot shower. A’lela rarely wore perfume, but she was about to indulge so she decided to go all the way. She lightly spritzed herself with the Elegance she carefully rationed to last as long as possible. She refashioned her braid into a playful ponytail that swung freely about her shoulders. The strappy sandals that had been collecting dust under her bed were carefully dusted and given their proper due. A’lela still had no makeup, so she colored her lips brown as usual.

            A’lela parked her car a little ways down the street from the one upscale restaurant in town, The Red Esplanade. She had long resented the open-air eatery since it practically flaunted its decadence for all passersby to see and envy. She had often walked by and silently clucked her tongue at those who had no remorse for their excess. This evening, she would be among them.

            She was actually seated at one of the tables furthest away from the actual esplanade area, which was fine by A’lela. Even though she planned to indulge in whatever she wanted, she had never acquired a taste for alcohol so she eschewed the popular house wine. She did try a virgin strawberry daiquiri. She needed one after she refrained from making a scene with her waitress, who apparently was a culinary genius. A’lela told her she wanted the steak well done, but the woman “suggested” she have it rare. A’lela insisted she preferred it well done. The waitress whined that would kill all the flavor. A’lela replied that it would kill all the bacteria as well.

            Arguing about steak. She was actually arguing about a steak with a woman who was supposed to be serving it to her. When it came back to her cooked all the way through, A’lela checked it to be sure it had not been tampered with in any way. Detecting nothing amiss, she cut into the tender meat and savored the first bite. How could anyone ever want to have their steak rare? A’lela imagined the taste of blood tainted the actual meat. She wanted nothing to interfere with her ability to enjoy her meal, not even the recurring thought that the steak had to be as bloodless as Tanya’s lifeless body. She tried not to think of blood as she kept cutting. Blood would not ruin this. None of it was on her hands. She was allowed to enjoy something on her terms. Hell, she was entitled.

            Steak, a fully loaded baked potato and a banana caramel shortcake later, A’lela felt satiated. She had never felt quite so satisfied in her life. Instant gratification was much better than delayed any day. She began to walk the length of the red brick esplanade. For much of nine years, she had avoided this part of town believing it better to not go where temptation could get her in the first place. She had also let herself be disgusted with the ones who never ventured to the other side of Freya’s Fortune just a couple of blocks away as if they were afraid the human misery and despair that infected the place was contagious. However, when the night gave cover, many of them dared to take the chance in order to satisfy their appetites for cheap women, men or drugs. They were the true reason Freya’s Fortune could never rid itself of the “undesirable elements” every politician used as a buzz word during election seasons.

            “Excuse me.”

            A’lela turned to see a smiling face behind the wheel of a nice car she could not identify.

            “Do you need a ride?”

            “No, I don’t,” she said as she turned to look straight ahead again. He drove away. A’lela knew she did not look like the regular girls who worked the street. Besides, she was in the wrong part of town for that particular business. She saw the car park a ways down the street. The man got out and began to walk back toward her. She had no pockets and was not sure where the mace sat in her purse. She grew frantic as he got closer and she still could not find the mace. He stopped a few feet from her.

            “You know there was a murder last night. The victim was about your age. It’s not a good idea for you to be out here alone.”

            “But she was a prostitute.”

            “Yeah but that might not have had anything to do with why she was killed.”

            “You seem to know an awful lot about it.”

            “Look. I’m a cop.” He slowly reached into his pocket and produced a badge. A’lela looked over him skeptically. “I can pitch over the badge if you like.”

            He tossed her the badge when she continued to eye him suspiciously. She caught it with one hand since the other was finally wrapped around a can of mace. Stephen Calloway. A’lela looked it over. The badge seemed authentic. She tossed it back to him and continued to watch him.

            “If you’re a cop that means you have a gun.”

            He smiled. “I’m off duty and I’m sure nothing I have on my person is as good a weapon as whatever you’ve got your hand on in that purse.”

            A’lela slowly withdrew her hand sans mace. He had not come any closer. “Thanks for the offer, but I’ll be fine.”

            “How about I walk you? I really don’t feel right leaving a lady alone after what happened.”

            “I don’t live around here and my car is parked the other way down.”

            “If you were just out for a walk, I’ll join you. Otherwise, let me take you to your car.”

            A’lela mulled it momentarily. “I’m not ready to go home just yet. Do you mind if we walk a little?”

            “No I don’t mind, but you haven’t told me your name.”

            “A’lela.”

            They started off side by side. A’lela knew she was an average-sized woman, but Stephen towered over her. He was definitely built like a cop, his muscles clearly visible under his skin tight navy blue tee. His jeans showed his lower half was just as well-toned as the upper part. His neatly trimmed goatee framed a warm smile that brought light to his deep brown eyes. His dark hair was trimmed closely to his scalp. A’lela knew she would have remembered seeing him around before then had she ever encountered him. He was too handsome to be missed.

            The moon glowed brightly a couple of hours later. Stephen pointed out his modest beige house. Even in the dark, A’lela could see the well-kempt flower beds. He offered to show her the inside of the house if she trusted him. Normally, A’lela would have immediately declined to go home with a man she had just met that day, but she was not done getting to know him. She liked what she knew so far from their walk. Maybe she would like what she found inside the beige house even more.

            As the dawn started to break, she watched him as he slept peacefully on the couch. She had already made the bed and written him a note thanking him for its use. A’lela had not realized until then how much she did not want to be alone. She had no idea what she had been searching for all day, but Stephen had been a pleasant if unexpected distraction. Now as she watched him sleep with no worries, her own came back to call on her. She left her phone number on the note then took the walk back to her car. When she got back home, she ignored the answering machine and went straight to her bedroom. As she prepared to catch up on some more sleep, she wondered what Stephen’s reaction would be when he awoke and found her gone.

 

Chapter 2

Most of the day had passed by the time A’lela woke up for good. Her cell phone was still off and she had unplugged her landlines. As she stretched and yawned, much of the previous day began to come back to her. She remembered Tanya’s death and Stephen’s kindness. She also remembered she could not bring herself to spend another second at Francesca’s Place.

            A’lela finally rolled out of bed and plugged her phones back into the wall. She turned on her cell phone and figured most if not all of the missed calls were from Chauncey. She was no longer certain if she had told him she was going off to identify Tanya’s body. He was probably the only person looking for her.

            Although she heard the phone ringing, she took her time under the hot shower. There was a frantic knocking on her door by the time she stepped out and wrapped a towel around her body. Chauncey’s emerald green eyes blazed with a mix of worry and anger. A’lela watched as he had a small inner struggle on deciding just where to place his eyes.

            “Well, at least you’re still alive,” Chauncey said before she finally stepped aside to let him in. She returned to her bedroom to finish her grooming.

            “A’lela, what the hell happened? No one’s seen you since the day before and you won’t answer your phone.”

            A’lela kept applying the lotion and said nothing.

            “Everything was in chaos yesterday! You can’t simply hire a temp for the day for the director.”

            She put on her bra and panties then spritzed herself with her strawberry scent.

            “If you needed the day off, you should have called. If you need a sick day, you need to call it in!”

            She slipped on her dark jeans and matching blouse.

            “I’ll let it go this time since this has never happened before, but be certain it never happens again!”

            A’lela stepped back out into the living room where Chauncey had been chastising her. She stopped a few feet in front of him and silently looked at him.

            “Why aren’t you dressed for work?” he asked.

            “Tanya Duffy died yesterday.”

            She spoke in a monotone. No emotion or expression came through her voice. He looked at her oddly, unsure of how to respond to her declaration.

            “Who is Tanya Duffy?” he finally asked.

            “Exactly what I thought,” she said as she headed to the door. “I’m not going back, Chauncey. You’ll just have to do the work yourself instead of underpaying me to do it. It’s not worth it anymore. I’ve had enough.”

            Chauncey looked as if he was going to faint. A’lela was unmoved.

            “What do you mean you’re not going back?”

            “I had high hopes when I came to Freya’s Fortune. I was willing to put up with the low pay and all the extra work that wasn’t in my job description because I believed in this work. I look around this place and you know what? I don’t see a damn bit of difference. I see write ups about the good work you do at your shelter. I see you going to banquets in your honor and fundraisers that don’t quite bring back as much money as you thought it would. And most of all, Chauncey, I am tired of you not giving a damn about the people you pretend to help.”

            A’lela walked to the door and opened it.

            “Look. It’s been a long couple of years, A’lela. Why don’t you just take a few days? Take a couple of weeks if you need. We’ll find the money to get you a raise…”

            “What was her name?”

            “What?”

            “I just said it a moment ago. What was her name?”

            “A’lela, what are you talking about?”

            “A woman was killed and left out to find like trash. Her body was drained of blood. She was a prostitute, but that shouldn’t be important. She came to Francesca’s Place. Of course you weren’t there. I was. I wondered why I got such a promotion after only two years. Do you know how I’ve spent the past seven? I live with seeing the ones we can’t help every day. Where are you every day? Where are you when a junkie vomits all over the floor when he’s having withdrawal pains or a woman has had to drag her children out of an abusive home and has no idea how she’ll make it through the night? I was there, Chauncey. I don’t want to be anymore.”

            Chauncey had sat quietly during her tirade. He then headed for the door but turned to say one last thing before he left.

            “You clearly need some time off. Burnout happens to all of us. I’ll think of someone to fill in for you. I’ll check on you in a couple of weeks. I sincerely hope you’re feeling better by then.”

            He hurried off, thinking of how to explain A’lela’s sudden absence and a possible replacement for her. She was invaluable to Francesca’s Place. Losing her would spell disaster. He had to think of something quickly to assure she would come back to work. Chauncey did not want to explain to the board yet again why they had lost yet another great employee.

            A’lela felt slightly vindicated when Chauncey left. The problems of others were no longer among her worries. In that case, she no longer seemed to have any. Life was going to be much easier. A’lela felt she could eventually put Tanya and all the rest out of her mind. She still believed time could be a healer. She hoped she was right this time. She knew the one thing she had to do was avoid fretting over what she would do with the rest of her life for the time being.

            Right now, she would have some fun. She had lived in Freya’s Fortune for more than nine years and yet she did not know her adopted city. A’lela then decided her plans for the rest of the day. She would take a walking tour of Freya’s Fortune. She would get to know this dreadfully overcast city that somehow still seemed to draw a reasonable population.

            A’lela checked the weather. Rain was expected for the evening so she grabbed her trusty golf umbrella. She was almost glad. She liked to have an excuse to carry something she could use as a weapon. She went through her closet to find the hemp field bag she always used whenever she went for a walk with no purpose. She did not have to fear it getting snatched from her shoulder. Instead of her cute boots, she found her sneakers anticipating being on her feet all day.

            She mentally envisioned how she would spend her day. She still had time to have brunch at Florey Eatery, which was less than a mile from her home. After that, she might visit the city museum. Perhaps she would just walk through the west side of town and look at the nice houses she knew she would never be able to afford. Or she could take another walk along the Red Esplanade and see if she ran into Stephen again.

            A’lela pictured Stephen’s face as she walked out the door. How could she have been here all this time and never noticed him? Then again she had never gotten over her long-standing distrust of cops. She tended to ignore them in the street and had only had bad experiences with them on the job. It usually had to do with a vagrant supposed to be at the shelter or worse, death. She had liked Stephen though. She did not simply feel safe with him. She felt like she belonged with him.

            As she devoured her blueberry, banana pancake, A’lela wondered if she should venture around his house. Whether or not he was home she did not know. Eventually, she decided against that small excursion. That particular move reeked of desperation to her. She might have resolved to have more fun, but chasing Stephen was a step too much right now. Baby steps, A’lela said to herself as she left Florey. However, she could not stop herself from checking her cell phone just to be sure she had not missed his call.

~~~

Detective Trisha Gallagher sat back at her desk with her third cup of coffee. She slowly sipped it as she read the information that she printed from the health website. Apparently there really was such a thing as a sun allergy. That priest, Jonquil Montague, was telling the truth about his condition. Still, his skin seemed wholly unnatural to her. She had to admit, though, that he had come to the right place if he needed to avoid sunlight. Freya’s Fortune was by far the grayest place she had ever seen. No wonder they could not keep most of their law enforcement officers long term. The suicide rate was unreal. Then there were the bizarre crimes like the one that had taken the life of Tanya Duffy.

            Trisha knew there were self-proclaimed enclaves spread throughout the country, but she also knew that many of them had prohibited the drinking of blood. The undead. Father Montague certainly looked like he fit the bill. She had been startled by his appearance. She was certain he had noticed even though he had not said anything. He had to be used to such reactions. That did not make Trisha feel any less lousy about her reaction.

            She had had to quickly recollect herself. His appearance unsettled her. Then the way he corrected her after she mispronounced his name. “That’s yon-kill,” he enunciated slowly. She could not trace his accent except to surmise it was Eastern European. By his last name, she would have guessed he was Italian. She just could not pin down his point of origin.

            Furthermore, Trisha contemplated his theory that Tanya was suicidal. “Catholics take suicide seriously, detective,” he had said. From what she knew about the religion, Catholics took many things seriously even when it had nothing to do with them personally. That was another thing that struck Trisha about Father Montague: he seemed to be lacking a certain self-righteous indignation she had come to expect from Catholic clergy. In fact, had it not been for his collar, she would have never thought him to be a priest. She would have thought a man of God living in Freya’s Fortune might have a much stronger sense of urgency about all the tragedy that must come through his church on a daily basis. Maybe he was desensitized to it. Trisha hoped she would never be.

            “Hey, T.G.,” Darwin called to her. Trisha was so engrossed in her thoughts that she had lost track of what she was doing. She set down her coffee mug and straightened up as Darwin sat down. He carried a huge stack of files with him.

            “Congratulations. You have now inherited Freya’s Fortune PD’s longest series of unsolved murders.”

            Trisha looked up at him with the alarm silently shining in her eyes.

            “These cases go back ten years. They stopped for a while then started again three years ago. Not all victims were found in the city limits, but other victims in surrounding areas were found in the same condition as the others: no blood and two deep puncture wounds in the neck. Victims are usually female with the exception of some of the most recent ones. Nearly all were homeless or otherwise destitute. Strange because the ones who had family or friends we could speak with all said the victims had been suicidal or depressed. Someone got to them before they could carry it out.”

            Trisha began to flip through the files. There was a look of horror and shock on many of the blood-drained faces, surprised at whoever had attacked them. She thought of The Hound of the Baskervilles and how the first victim was described as having a face contorted in fear. Trisha thought she would never see a real-life example of it. She could imagine the terror they felt in those last moments. However, like the victims who had peaceful or no expressions on their faces, they also had not defensive wounds. It was as if they had been terrorized into submission. Trisha had never seen anything like it.

            “Didn’t know there were this many. I know it may sound obvious or trivial, but has anyone ever found any type of underground culture that’s into – you know…?”

            “Well, that was one of the first routes always taken in these cases,” Darwin answered. “Even though we’ve never found any groups or cults, we have occasionally spoken with ‘experts’ on the lore. They all agree on one thing – this isn’t someone pure to the original story.”

            “Why not?”

            “All our victims had religious relics on them: crucifixes, rosaries, candles or something like it. Any contact with those symbols would kill a real creature.”

            That leaves out Father Montague, Trisha thought to herself. “Well, the cult thing is most likely a red herring. This person or people are taking blood and leaving these religious symbols on the body. Perhaps it’s someone who despises the church. He wants us to think it’s a Catholic. Why he would pose as Dracula, I don’t know.”

            Trisha looked at Darwin as she broke her thoughts. “I need to get copies of these. Is this all?”

            “These are the murders here in Freya’s Fortune. There are seven other boxes with information about cases in the surrounding areas within a 50-mile radius.”

            “Jesus.”

            “Jesus had nothing to do with this.”

            “Let’s hope you’re right.”

            Trisha gathered the files and set off to find Bruce, the office assistant. While he copied the files, she began to make a list of possible leads. There was no organized atheist group in the area. She thought perhaps she could check with the local shelter to find out if they frequently had anyone come through with an ax to grind against religion – or if anyone who worked there had. Trisha could not imagine a poor vagrant pulling off such a sophisticated crime. She would also have to pay a visit to the funeral home. She had heard of how blood was removed from a corpse with a syringe and a valve. However, she could not see a syringe making those punctures. Perhaps someone could shed light on those wounds.

            She knew this would be complicated. No eyewitnesses had seen a thing and there had never been a physical description of the suspect or suspects. Trisha felt like she was chasing the invisible man. How could these types of murders have gone on for so many years without ever leaving any type of trail to the killer’s identity?

            They stared at her as she left the building; she could feel their eyes on her. After three years, she was still the new kid. Trisha wondered if this case was the last phase in the hazing process. So far she had mostly handled robberies, home invasions, domestic disputes and other such cases. She expected things to get more exciting now that she was in homicide and vice, but she thought she would be forced to handle more on the vice end, especially since there was much more of that particular crime than homicide. Now Trisha knew she would have to prove herself and get this case in the black.

            She lugged the case files into the house when she reached home. Her husband Leon had not made it home yet. She checked the freezer to be sure they had an option for dinner. Two Marie Callendar dishes would be on the menu tonight.

            Trisha had buried herself in the case files and did not hear Leon when he arrived. He was already upon her planting a kiss on her forehead before she saw him.

            “You scared me,” she laughed.

            “Well, not my fault. That job of yours will give you nightmares.”

            Trisha smiled at Leon as he headed back to the kitchen. Married slightly over a year, the two were still getting to know each other. It was love at first sight for Trisha when she first met the museum coordinator on her first day off from the job. She had just gotten off a domestic dispute and needed to be away from everything. She went into the museum on a whim.

            The place was nearly empty that day. Trisha slowly sloshed through the exhibits and displays not really looking at anything. She sat down on a bench for a moment trying to forget as much of the previous days as possible. She did not realize she was staring off into space until he was sitting beside her.

            “We call this the re-creation room.”

            Trisha whipped around to face the olive-skinned specimen that had suddenly appeared at her side. He smiled at her with light green eyes that sparkled in the low light. She could not help but return her own cherry red smile at this gorgeous man. Trisha listened as he explained that the museum kept recreations of famous pieces of art for school field trips and such. She listened politely then had a discussion with him about what little she knew of art. Before she knew it, they were sitting over a candlelight dinner at the Red Esplanade.

            Leon hesitated to ask Trisha to marry him for months because of her occupation. Then he decided if she could take risks, so could he. They were married after a brief engagement. He had been worried when she told him she would be transferred to homicide and vice. However, he knew Trisha could be as stubborn as any mule.

            They talked as they had their TV dinners. Although she never discussed details, Trisha always told Leon what case she was on figuring he would either read about it in the paper or see it on the news. However, he had never before nearly choked on his carrots when she gave him the news.

            “Trish, people have been whispering about that case, whispering not talking. There’s something unnatural about it. I really don’t feel good about you being on that case.”

            “What do they mean unnatural?”

            Leon hesitated before he spoke again. “People around here don’t believe that whoever doing the killing is human. These people are found with no blood in them. Who has the ability to do that? It’s been going on for years.”

            “Honey, I appreciate your concern, but I’m sure there’s a logical explanation for this. I’ll be fine. Besides, this just might be what I need. I’ve waited three years for this, Leon. I’m not going to back out on this.”

            “Have you ever asked yourself why they have so much trouble keeping homicide detectives here?”

            Now it was Trisha’s turn to sigh. “It can’t just be these murders. Maybe people can’t take the gray sky. I must have a higher tolerance for it than most. You, too. As long as I can keep my head, I don’t think either of us has anything to worry about.”

            Leon nodded, but he still looked unsure. They finished dinner in silence. While Leon went off to settle in front of the television, Trisha went back to the case files. The religious bent of the murders bothered her. She was no atheist, but she hated to think someone was deliberately trying to create a religious drama. Or worse – this could be some religious fanatic taking things too far. He definitely had the virtue of patience. Ten years was a long time to never leave a trace. Trisha knew this much: she was dealing with someone who knew how not to get caught. Now the difficult part would be finding the answer to that elusive question – why?

~~~

The day had gone by rather quickly. A’lela found a few sights she had seen but never explored and a few she did not know existed. She enjoyed them all, particularly Flaneur from where she bought a double scoop of mint chocolate chip ice cream. She savored every single solitary drop of that delectable home-churned treat. A hunger had been awakened in A’lela. She could not get full. When she finished her ice cream, she found some apple slices with cream cheese dip. A’lela let Andes mints melt in her mouth as she strolled along the streets. As it grew dark, she found a hole in the wall eatery where she found a decent chicken pesto sandwich and steak fries.

            Now as she walked through an unfamiliar part of town, A’lela munched on a bag of Raisinets. She was so into the chocolate treat that she lost track of where she was. A’lela looked around for a bus line but saw none. She began to walk down the street trying to find a familiar landmark.  She had seen some of these buildings as she drove by sometimes.

            The sudden clap of thunder distracted her. A’lela realized she was clear across town from her own home. She still wanted to continue her walk, but night had fallen and the rain would prevent her from seeing anything. She started out in the direction home.

            The rain came down in a sudden downpour. A’lela huddled under her umbrella, but she could still feel her feet getting wet. She could barely see in front of her. She would have to wait for the storm to die down or find the number for a cab. She saw a church and decided to stand under its veranda while she made her decision. She ran up the steps and started to hunt for her phone. The sound of the organ caught her ear.

            A’lela opened the door of the church and felt herself being drawn inside. “Ave Maria.” The organist was playing one of her favorite hymns. She walked up to the front pew and sat down. A’lela closed her eyes as she listened to sweet melodies from the organ. For the first time in many months, she felt at peace. She felt safe from the world waiting for her just outside the walk of this beautiful church.

            She had not been to church in years. A’lela had nothing against God, but religion was not her way. Francesca’s Place did not allow a religious agenda as it did not want to scare away anyone who did not like propaganda. A’lela was just fine with that, but she had to admit there was a little solace in that moment in that grand building.

            The music stopped. A’lela slowly opened her eyes, already losing the sense of safety she had felt. She realized that the lighting was dim. A couple of electric lights burned, but much of the light source was candlelight. A’lela then got an eerie feeling. She scanned the area ahead of her looking for the organ. She had to catch her breath when she noticed the man standing in front of the organ.

            At first she thought he was an albino, but she realized his hair was jet black. He began to come toward her. A’lela wanted to leave, but she sat still in her place because she did not want to appear rude. Once he came closer, she noticed his eyes were a beautiful shade of dark blue.

            A’lela tried not to let her nervousness show as the priest sat down beside her. She barely looked at him, but she knew he smiled benevolently. She did not want to stare at his incredibly pale skin. He was probably used to it, but that did not make it right.

            “Is there something I can do for you?” he said benevolently.

            A’lela looked at him and noticed the slight sparkle in his eyes. She smiled back at him.

            “No. Quite honestly I got caught in the rain. I came up the steps to stand under the veranda. Then I heard the organ. I came inside because I heard the organ. It was so lovely. I’ve always loved ‘Ave Maria.’ I don’t speak Italian. I don’t know what the words mean, but I love it. It called to me.”

            “You’ve been having a rough time, haven’t you? You feel sick in the heart. Perhaps fate brought you here.”

            “Perhaps. If I were you, though, I wouldn’t go looking for me to be sitting in the first row come Sunday morning.”

            He laughed. “Do you not believe in God?”

            “I believe in God. God believes in me. Organized religion hasn’t exactly made the best impression on me. No offense.”

            “None taken. I find it refreshing when someone questions authority. It’s not healthy to live as a mindless drone.”

            “I agree, but I am surprised to hear a priest suggest his way of life is unhealthy.”

            He grinned broadly again. “Maybe not unhealthy but not for everyone. I wouldn’t recommend it for anyone with a weak disposition.”

            “I don’t think I’d recommend it to anyone. It’s hard enough to ask people to believe in something with good logic or reason. Asking them to just have faith in something you can’t even prove exists seems unfair.”

            The priest sighed. A’lela wondered if she had made him angry, but when she glanced at him again, she saw the smile still curled at the corners of his mouth. He finally spoke again.

            “I see a lot of people who come here destitute and spiritually bankrupt. We offer them hope and the will to go on.”

            “I see the same people. We offer them the will to do for themselves because they know they won’t be abandoned if they try but fail. It’s much easier to have hope when your stomach’s not empty and you have a safe place to sleep off the street.”

            She saw him flinch, but he still smiled.

            “Sorry. I don’t mean to sound like a big cynic. I’m sure you care about the people who come to you for help, but it’s not the same as being out there.”

            “No, it’s not,” he readily agreed. “The church does offer a certain amount of protection from the rest of the world. The trick is to remember how it affects the ones who still have to live in it.”

            “Sounds reasonable enough.” A’lela stood. She wanted to see if the storm had passed or if at least the rain had slackened up. “I should get going. It was nice meeting you.”

            He stood and extended his hand. “It was a pleasure to meet you as well… uh…”

            “A’lela,” she said as she extended her own hand.

            “Jonquil,” he said as he clasped her hand. As soon as he enclosed it, his body tightened as if he had been seized with electricity. Something in his eyes changed; they grew bright and A’lela thought she saw a flash of light surge through them.

            She tried to control her breathing and keep the fear that suddenly gripped her from registering on her face. The hand in Jonquil’s began to shake as she tried to pull it away.

            “I – I – I should go. I think I can make it now. Thank you, um, Jon-quil.”

            Jonquil slowly released her hand but kept his eyes on her. A’lela stared back at him uneasily a moment with no idea why he had suddenly grown so serious. When she realized she was backing away, she turned and tried to walk in her normal stroll to the door. She felt his eyes on her even as she stepped back out into the rain that was still coming down in torrents.

            A’lela collected herself for a moment. She fished her cell phone out of her bag but found that her battery had died. She did not know if a bus stop was nearby. She was in for an all-night walk. Any fear she had about it left as she thought about the look in Jonquil’s eyes as he took her hand.

            What was that about, she asked herself as she started on her way. He was not giving her a look like so many men had given her over the years. She could read that look right away. A’lela hated that look. That look always told her the same story: I’d like to use you for a few hours for my own gratification and no I don’t care if you get anything out of it or not. She hated that look.

            That was not the look Jonquil had given her. His look was foreign to her. He looked more like he had been possessed, like she had somehow bewitched him. His entire demeanor changed. She could tell he did not want her to leave.

            A’lela felt cold, but she knew it was not from the rain. The chill that ran through her would not go away with the cocoa she planned to have once she got home. Everything she had eaten that day began to unsettle in her stomach.

            Jonquil. She could not get his pale skin out of her mind. She could still see his dark blue eyes in the dark. She could still feel his hand around hers. His soft, warm hands. His soft, warm hands that commanded the organ to play one of the most beautiful melodies she had ever known. Could someone who played “Ave Maria” so beautifully really cause her any harm?

            No matter how much she tried to assure herself, she could not still the rapid beating of her heart. She was miles from home, a woman walking alone at night. A’lela had done it before, but she had never felt quite so vulnerable.

            A sudden wind rushed passed her. It was not from the weather. A’lela stopped in her tracks paralyzed with fear. The strange wind rushed passed her once again. She began to run with no idea where she was headed. She suddenly found herself on a dead-end isolated street. She saw no signs of life around to help her, at least not until she saw the glaring bright light…

 

© 2010 Conceding to Kismet for Inda Lauryn

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