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Once Bitten

Fan Fiction by Adam Smith (USA)

Chapter 12

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2 August 1983

Eli had showered and was drying the bottom of the tub with a towel when he got back to their apartment on Skäftingebacken.  He had beaten the sunrise by fifteen minutes.

“I was starting to worry about you,” she said warmly as he stood in the bathroom doorway and began to strip off his sopping-wet clothes.  She offered him a towel as he pulled off his shirt, then leaned over and kissed him on the cheek.

He deliberately beat her to the punch for the evening’s report.  “So, how did things go tonight?”

“Mmm . . . okay.  I found someone--a drunk.  Over near Vällingby.  It was easy, and he didn’t suffer much, I think.”  She sat down on the toilet as he threw his pants up over the bathroom door.

“Did you just take a little, or . . . .”

“No.  All of it.  It happened outside, and I was too hungry to try something else.”  She looked down at her naked feet.  “How about you?  Did everything go all right?”

“Well . . . not exactly.  Things got kinda complicated.”

She looked up and gave him a worried look.  “Oh?”

“Yeah.”

On his way back from the Mälaren River where he’d dumped Rafael’s body, he had thought about how he was going to explain everything.  He had tried to figure out a way to tell the story so that she wouldn’t think he’d just chickened out when it came to Maria, but in the end he couldn’t think of a convincing way to stretch things that would make any sense.  So he just told her the whole story from start to finish, watching her face carefully as he talked.  At times he had read concern, confusion, and even surpressed amusement.

She was silent for awhile after he finished.  Then she got up, threw a blanket into the tub, and laid down on it.  “Come on.  It’s time for bed.”  She looked up at him expectantly.

He gave her a puzzled look, then switched off the light and climbed in behind her.  “Aren’t you going to say anything?”

She sighed.  “It’s all right, Oskar.  It’s not the greatest situation, but we’ll just have to deal with it.”

“Are you mad at me?”

“Not really.  I was afraid maybe you weren’t ready yet, but I wanted to give you the chance.  I told you before, not everything turns out perfectly.”

He swallowed and clasped her to himself.  “Well, the thing is, Eli . . . I don’t know if I’ll ever be ready to hurt someone like this lady.  I just—with that guy, it was easy, because he was bad and was going to hurt her.  But with her, by the time I was ready to do it, I knew her too well.  And I—”

“Oskar, it’s all right.”  She turned her head and kissed him.  “I’m never going to tell you what to do about this sort of thing.  It’s not my place--I have no right.  It’s . . . it’s bad enough that I’m responsible for what you are.  We’ll just . . . we’ll have to be more careful who we pick, that’s all.”

An enormous feeling of relief swept through him, and he was silent for awhile, grateful for her understanding.  He kissed the back of her head and said thanks.  She murmured her assent and wriggled closer to him.  Then he began to feel drowsy, and with his eyes closed, spoke softly into her ear.  “So what do we do about Maria?”

“You made a promise—we’ll have to keep it.  But then I think we should move.”

Before he could reply, his mind disengaged, and Oskar fell asleep.

4 August 1983

Maria had not even tried to go back to bed.  She had cleaned up the rest of her apartment, made sure all the doors were locked, blinded all the windows, and turned on all the lights.  Then she had sat down on the couch, stared at the drapes covering the patio door, and thought about everything that had happened.

She had met a vampire.  Just saying it to herself felt ludicrous.  If it hadn’t been for the cracked glass over her framed picture of David, she felt as though it might have all been a bizarre dream. 

Oskar.  A boy who didn’t think of himself as a vampire; who wished he wasn’t.  She couldn’t keep her mind off him, or all of the incredible things that had happened in such a short time. 

Like how she had been talked into letting him into her apartment; something she’d never done for any stranger.  You couldn’t be too careful these days, especially when you were a single woman, living alone.  But she had done it without a second thought.  Why?  Was it because he had looked so sad, but . . . yes, beautiful—at the same time?  She was uncomfortable thinking about a 12-year-old boy this way, but somehow it seemed true.

And after he’d killed Rafael and they had warmed to one another, she had touched his back.  His skin . . . how it had changed like that, healed so quickly; and it had been so pale, soft, and smooth—like the skin of a newborn.  Her mind kept returning, over and over, to these details.

And then to learn that this boy Oskar was with someone else; someone he was worried about, whom he’d referred to as “her.”  A girl vampire, then?  There were two of them?  And they were coming back tonight, to make sure she was safe, to protect her from Miguel.  It all seemed unreal.  A child was coming to protect her.  He had seemed so sincere, but what if he had just been . . . toying with her?  What if he had just tricked her so he could come back when he was hungry again?  So both of them could . . .

She shuddered.  She couldn’t believe that.  He had been in her room before Rafael came, but had run away, had tried to leave in a panic.  Was it just because the lights had come back on, that he had stopped?  The thought of him doing to her what he’d done to Rafael paralyzed her with fear.  And to think she’d actually tried to keep him from leaving!  But he did seem sincere when he’d confessed his intentions.

She drifted off into an uneasy sleep, then woke up with a start.  She barely had enough time to get dressed and make it to her first class, and she passed the day in a distracted daze, not really listening to the lectures, her notes haphazard and disorganized.  She deliberately kept away from the few people she knew during her classes, afraid that if she were drawn into conversation, she wouldn’t be able to keep her mouth closed.  It was very hard because she felt an incredibly strong urge to tell someone about everything—after all, it was the most momentous thing that had ever happened to her. 

At times she thought of the people she might be able to tell; someone who might actually believe her.  Maybe Marta, her best friend.  But the fact that she would have to explain Rafael’s slaying in her apartment, and her involvement in that, as well as the promise she’d made to Oskar, kept her from doing anything.

When she got back in the afternoon, the light on her answering machine was blinking.  With trepidation she pressed the flashing red button.  As she feared, it was Rafael’s younger, tougher brother.  She’d heard from one of the other girls that Miguel had been charged with murder in Salamanca, but had somehow beaten the rap.  And she’d heard other things, too; that he was involved in a lot more than prostitution. Drugs, guns . . . .

Usually, his speech was smooth and darkly sensuous; now it just sounded worried.  “Hey Maria, this is Miguel.  Have you seen Rafael?  He hasn’t called, and I’ve been looking for him all morning.  Call me, will you?”

Hesitantly, she dialed his number and waited for him to pick up.  Did he know that Rafael had come to see her?

“Yeah.”

“Miguel?”

“Maria--hey.  Hey, listen—you seen Rafael?  He’s missing.  Stella hasn’t seen him all day.”

She tried to sound surprised.  “Missing? What do you mean?  I saw him last night.”

“When did you see him?”

“It was late.”  Best to stick as close to the truth as possible.  “He, um, he came to my apartment because I forgot to pay him.”

“What do you mean, you forgot to pay him?”

She adopted a self-embarrassed tone.  “I ran into this little boy on the street on the way home, looking for his mom.  I took him inside so he could make a call.  And I just forgot, that’s all.”

He laughed cynically.  “What—you going soft in the head, Maria?  So he came and you paid him?”

“Yeah.”

“And then what’d he do?”

“He left.”

“What time?”

“It was after 2 a.m., I think.”

“Say where he was going?”

“No.”  For effect, she added:  “Does he ever?”

There was a pause; a pause that drew out sufficiently long that she felt compelled to fill it.  “Are you sure he hasn’t been picked up for something?”

“No, he’s been clean lately.  And he hasn’t called.”

“Well I don’t know, Miguel.  I paid him and he left.”

Miguel grunted.  “Shit.  Well, if it was after 2 then you were the last one to see him.  Are you working tonight?”

“I . . . I can’t, Miguel.  Not tonight.”

“Well call me when you’re ready.  You got my number.”

She agreed and hung up.  Her hands trembled, but she felt a glimmer of hope.  Maybe she could see her way clear of this.  But what would she tell Oskar and his friend?

Kurt parked his car, got out, and headed toward the stairwell that led to the apartment where John Doe had been killed--75 Ibsengatan.  Staffan Rydberg stood in the bright, crisp sunshine, waiting for him at the bottom of the stairs in a freshly pressed uniform.

“Good afternoon, I’m Detective Magnusson.”  He thrust out a hand.  “Officer Rydberg?”

The man transferred a large yellow envelope from his right hand to his left and then shook Kurt’s hand forcefully.  “Good afternoon, detective.  Yes, I’m Staffan—Vällingby Police.  How are you?”

“Oh, not bad, not bad.  Please, call me Kurt.  So this is it, huh?”  He looked up the stairwell, trying to see the door to the apartment.

“Yes.  And here are the photographs you requested.”  He handed the envelope to Kurt.

They talked further as they began to ascend the stairs together.  “Thanks for taking the time to meet me here.  I had planned to just get the photos, but your idea to come here was good.  I’m surprised you were able to get ahold of the landlord on such short notice.”

“Not a problem.  I got to know him a bit during the first investigation.  And he said that the tenant who lives here now works in Stockholm during the day, so the timing worked out fine.  So I understand you’re working on that thing in Tyresta?”

Kurt nodded, then related some of the details about Christensen’s death and explained how the trauma was similar to what had happened to Joakim Bengtsson and the John Doe.  Staffan agreed that they seemed remarkably similar.  Then he produced the landlord’s key and unlocked the door.

The door creaked as they pushed it open and stepped into the foyer.  “So the tenant used a false I.D. and the rental agent couldn’t remember what he looked like, right?”

“That’s right.  Just remembered him being a white, middle-aged man.”

“And none of the neighbors knew anything?”

“Nope.  The guy was apparently pretty reclusive.”

“And lived alone?”

“As far as we know.”

Kurt snapped on the hall light.  “The bathroom is--”

“. . . over there.”  Staffan motioned to their left, and together they went down the short hallway to the door.  Staffan reached in and switched on the light.  Then Kurt stepped in and Staffan explained how Doe’s body had been found lying on the floor.

Kurt grunted.  “Where was the knife recovered?”

“Under the sink, opposite the toilet.”

Kurt took the photographs out and began to look through them, occasionally glancing up and around the tiny room.  Then he looked at Staffan.

“There’s really no question that a child was involved in our case, and in the Bengtsson case. Because they had similar injuries to their chest wall and ribs, we’ve been thinking that both of them, and probably your John Doe here, were killed by two people: a ten or eleven-year-old, and a big man who restrained them while the child inflicted the fatal neck injuries.  Plus, we figure whoever is twisting the necks of these guys must have a lot of upper body strength.  A ten-year-old would not have the ability to restrain a big fellow like your Doe here, and certainly not Christensen, let alone break their necks like that.  You agree?”

“That would make sense.”

“And there’s no doubt in your mind that Doe was killed in the bathroom, right?”

“All the blood was here.  And you can see in one of the photos that he grabbed the doorjamb during the assault.  There was blood on the jamb and a splatter pattern outside the bathroom.”

“So this big fellow, maybe your mystery tenant, grabs Doe from behind while somebody, perhaps a child, is literally tearing open his throat.”

“Well, we’re assuming that those things are going on at the same time, but yes.”

Kurt nodded.  “Right.  But how the hell could all of that happened in this little tiny room?”  He scratched his head as he looked slowly around the bathroom.  “I mean, the assailant would’ve had to have been standing in the tub, right?  There’s almost no other space, is there?”

Staffan raised an eyebrow; he hadn’t thought of that before.  “Yeah, seems logical.”

“So Doe comes into the bathroom with his knife for some reason, and is surprised by a guy built like a sumo wrestler, hiding in the tub behind a shower curtain?  Who grabs him from behind?”

Staffan nodded.

“Well where’s the fucking shower curtain?”

Staffan blinked and began to feel uncomfortable.  “There wasn’t any.  But maybe the tenant took it with him when he cleared out.”

“Staffan, there’s not even any rod in the photos.”  Kurt handed them to him.  “How many people take the damn shower curtain rod when they leave?”

“I can’t think of anyone.”

“So how on God’s earth could this guy have surprised your John Doe?  Unless he wandered into here with his knife while it was so dark that he couldn’t see anything.”

“That seems unlikely.”

“It sure does.  Something doesn’t make sense here, but I’ll be damned if I can figure it out.”

Eli awoke before Oskar.  She could tell he was still sound asleep from the soft rumbling from his chest that vibrated through her back. 

She smiled to herself.  How strange--that she had lived for so long, yet had never realized that she made such a sound until after she had turned Oskar.  A mysterious fact about herself, only now revealed.  But she supposed it was like snoring . . . the people who snored never heard themselves, did they? 

They were bemused by their “purring,” and had discussed it on more than one occasion.  Her sounds reminded him of a kitten.  His reminded her of a tomcat that had taken up residence with her family when she had lived near Norrköping, a big mouser they’d named Jeppe Råttdödare.  Jeppe used to climb into Eli’s bed at night and sleep on her pillow; sometimes right on top of her head.  He had made the same kind of rumble that Oskar was making right now.  Eli loved it.

Oskar.  She clasped his hand to her chest, happy just to hold it, but worried.  She had known something like last night would happen.  Maybe not so soon, but eventually.  She hadn’t been the least bit surprised when he’d told her about Maria.  And although what he had done was dangerous, she was not truly disappointed in him.  Because Oskar was . . . well, Oskar was Oskar.

When she had first met him, he had been struggling to preserve an inner goodness.  Not that he was a saint—no, that wasn’t the point.  He’d told her that he liked to steal things, that he lied to his mom, that he ate too much candy, and that he liked to read dark, violent books.  And sometimes he could be thoughtless and cruel, even to her.

But truth be told, what Oskar did was a reaction to the things going on around him, not because he really enjoyed being bad.  She figured that if he had gotten along better with his mother, had a more caring father, and hadn’t always been picked on at school, he probably would not have had so many bad habits.  He would have been more like the Oskar who opened himself up to her, the boy who had chosen to love her so completely, so unconditionally.  From how he had acted toward her, she knew that behind those walls he threw up to protect himself from the world, he was a naturally kind, intelligent person who was caught up in bad circumstances; who was trapped in a life that was killing him, day by day.  He had been struggling to find a way out of that life, seeking some pathway to an understanding of himself that allowed him to keep his basic core of humanity. 

That had been her story, too.  And that, she now realized, was what had brought them together.  It was at the heart of what they shared; it was what bound them together.  It had taken her a long time to understand this.

For these reasons, she could not become too upset with Oskar for what had happened.  Through no fault of his own--unless falling in love was a fault--he had become like her.  She was the one responsible for that.  He had forgiven her for her mistake, which was amazing in and of itself.  And after a slow start, he was making an effort to do what was necessary to survive. 

But she understood intuitively that she couldn’t push him too hard.  If she did, she would upset his inner equilibrium and perhaps turn him into the kind of person who could never have fallen in love with her in the first place.  And she simply could not do that to him--could not bear to destroy that part of him that he was still struggling to preserve.  For in truth, the fight to reclaim a life was what she was doing, too, and his love for her had gone further than anything else in more than 200 years to make her feel like a real person again.  So she knew she was just going to have to deal with it.  Dealing with it was the price she had to pay for his love.  She accepted this.

What did this mean, though, for their survival?  If they hunted together all of the time, then she could make the hard choices.  If he were more or less along for the ride, would it be easier for him to simply accept her choices?  What if they tried that for awhile, and even then he balked at doing what was necessary?  What if he began to demand that they feed only on people he thought somehow deserved to die?  Could they really find that many “bad” people, and live off them alone?  She doubted it, and the thought worried her terribly.  It would greatly limit their choices, and would eventually force them to do things that would increase the risk of being caught.

She shifted uneasily in the tub and thought about getting up, then decided to stay a little longer and enjoy Oskar’s embrace.  So he had sparred this Maria’s life; and not only that, had revealed himself to her in a way that the woman could not possibly ignore or explain away.  This, Eli understood, made her very dangerous.  Because someone who truly understood what they were would be strongly tempted to tell someone else.  The urge to share such knowledge might be almost irresistible . . . unless it was counterbalanced by dire consequences. 

So the question was:  how trustworthy was she? 

She had told Oskar that she was a prostitute.  Apparently, from the sound of it, she was a student by day and a hooker by night.  Eli had met a few prostitutes in her time, and understood some things about them.  What worried her most was that prostitutes were generally vulnerable, downtrodden people.  They usually were not in control of their circumstances; in fact, the opposite was true.  That meant that if the right kind of coercion were applied, Maria would probably tell on them in a heartbeat to save herself or the life of someone she loved, like her son.  For Oskar’s sake, Eli hoped this wasn’t true; that maybe, Maria was another kind of person—but she doubted it.

So she wanted to meet this prostitute, this Maria.  Oskar’s promise to her gave Eli the perfect opportunity for such a meeting.  And when she saw Maria tonight, she would take her measure, and decide just how far she could be trusted.  And if she did not measure up, well . . . Eli would cross that bridge when she came to it.  But no matter what she had to do, she would protect Oskar.  And even if the worst thing came to pass, it might end up being best for Oskar—because, Eli had come to realize, maybe too much love could kill someone just as easily as too much hate.  Maybe a lesson from the school of hard knocks, even if it seemed bitter at the time, would help him in the long run if he could forgive her, if it didn’t drive him away.  She wasn’t sure.

But . . . could she really kill Maria?  Oskar had told her that she had a little boy.  What had Eli told him?  No pregnant women, little kids, or mothers.  Those were her own words.  Did they mean anything?  And what if Maria proved herself trustworthy?  If she . . . accepted them, maybe offered to help?  She could make their life easier in many ways.  But oh, this was so dangerous . . . .

Eli twisted restlessly in the tub.  She no longer wanted to think about Maria.  She was tired.  Tired of having to make choices like this; of forever having to decide who should live and who should die.  Tired of being the bad guy. 

It suddenly struck her how strange it was:  a year ago, she had been dead inside and the choices were easy.  Now, Oskar’s love had brought her to life, and the choices were hard.  Why couldn’t anything be simple and easy?  Why did her life with Oskar always have to be so complicated and scary?  She wanted to just crawl off into a hole somewhere with Oskar and be alone.  Away from everyone; away from the world.  To a place where no choices were necessary, somewhere where they could just live and be happy—like the night they had shared each other and she had gone to his birthday party.  But even though it had seemed real, that place didn’t really exist.  That would be escaping into the past, into nothing but memories.  The only real place that existed without worry and fear was death, and she feared that almost as much as she feared losing Oskar.

But what had Oskar said when they were digging that man’s grave? That he wanted answers, wanted to know how their curse had started, so perhaps they could find a way to undo it.  He wanted to look for something secret, something that would change things.  She had felt tempted to scoff at the notion, but . . . was there something hidden that could save them, something she had overlooked?  She wanted to believe it, but the thought of going back to Norrköping to investigate whatever remained of the vampire lord’s castle frightened her deeply.  So many bad things had happened to her there . . . could she be strong for Oskar?

Maria poured the instant rice out of the slim, small box into the saucepan.  The leftover half breast of chicken sat wrapped in plastic on the counter, waiting for her to put it in the microwave and then slice up to put over her rice.  None of it looked appealing; she just wasn't that hungry.

Her afternoon had been filled with worry; she felt like a target, a sitting duck.  Who would come first—Miguel or Oskar?  And who would be the most dangerous? 

Earlier, after her phone call with Miguel, Maria had thought about going over to Marta’s.  She could tell her that she just wanted to visit for awhile, and thereby duck the whole thing.  She had actually called Marta, but when she got her answering machine, she’d hung up without leaving a message.  In the middle of her call Maria had realized that going to Marta’s would only postpone things, and could potentially endanger her life, too.

She was filling a measuring cup with water from the kitchen faucet when she heard the sound that she’d been thinking about all day: a soft rapping on the sliding glass door of her patio.  It was almost 9:30 p.m.

The blue plastic cup trembled in her hand as she shut off the faucet and poured the water into the sink.  Why was she so scared?  She knew who it had to be: her preteen vampire-savior.  Only someone who could fly could knock on a door that was fifteen feet above the ground.

She left her saucepan on the stove and went to the patio door; pulled the drapes back.  There Oskar stood, and behind him, another child whom she could not see as well in the shadows.  The pitter-patter of her heart steadied once she saw the calm, expectant smile on Oskar’s upturned face.  How could she have doubted his intentions?

“May I come in?”

She suddenly understood--he hadn’t been being polite the first time.  They needed an invitation, just like in those old vampire movies.  If she didn’t invite them in, they couldn’t hurt her. 

She looked from Oskar to the one behind him, Oskar’s friend, whom she saw more clearly now.  She was shorter than Oskar; a slender, prepubescent girl with dark hair and dark eyes.  Their eyes met, but the girl’s round, pale face gave away only nonchalant expectancy, nothing more.  Her expression was completely neutral; Maria could detect neither hostility nor friendliness.  But she met Maria’s eyes with a steady, untroubled gaze that was very much that of an adult, not a child.

She had to think quickly.  She considered just talking with them through the patio door, but she was afraid this would make her seem distrustful to Oskar, and damage whatever sort of bond she had formed with him, so she rejected the idea.  She reached for the door handle, flipped the lock switch, and began to slid it open.  Then an idea came to her.

The door was open about ten centimeters when she paused.  “I’ll let you in if you promise not to hurt me.”

Oskar raised his eyebrows, clearly surprised.  The girl said nothing, but Maria saw the reaction in her face—a flash of consternation.  She had not been expecting this.

She suddenly remembered the oath that Oskar had extracted from her about promising not to tell anyone about him.  It had seemed sort of childish to Maria at the time, but he had obviously respected the concept.  So she added,  “You have to swear you won’t hurt me.”  Oskar turned and looked over his shoulder at Eli with an open expression, clearly wondering whether there was any issue. 

Eli was frustrated and impressed at the same time.  The woman had been smart enough to understand the need for an invitation, and had not carelessly discarded her one, true protection.  Then she had cleverly offered a conditional invitation.  If they accepted the invitation with no intention of honoring the condition, they would be unable to enter without bleeding.  And likewise, if Eli swore in good faith now but changed her intention while inside, she would bleed as well.  Of course, they could run around to the front door, where Oskar had already been invited, but if they did so, the message would be obvious: Oskar's friend cannot be trusted.  If only they hadn't been so worried about being seen inside the apartment building . . .

Eli couldn’t blame Maria for demanding a promise; after all, she had seen what Oskar did to Rafael.  She felt a grudging respect for her—whatever else she was, she wasn’t stupid.  Eli would have to accept her terms to have any meaningful conversation with Maria, and right now, a meaningful conversation was what she wanted.  So she looked Maria in the eye and said, “I swear I will not hurt you.”  Then she nudged Oskar.  He jumped a little, clearly uncertain about what was going on.  Then he turned back to the door and said, “Oh yeah—sure.  I swear too--I won’t hurt you.  Come on, Maria, what’s all this about?”

Maria rolled the door back, and the two of them stepped inside.

Miguel downshifted his Porsche 911 into third, pulled around a truck, and thrust his hand out to Stella.  “Give me some of that, will you?”

Stella took another swig, then handed the bottle of Explorer to him.  He drank deeply, then belched.  “Fuck.  This is bullshit--I’ve got such a headache.  When I get my hands on Rafael, I’ll kill him.”  The streetlights glinted off the deeply polished maroon exterior of his most prized possession as he gunned it to scoot around the truck, continuing their westward journey on E18.

Stella took the final drag off her HB and flicked it out her window, then immediately took another from the inside pocket of her jacket and began to talk from the side of her mouth as she lit up.  “Shut the fuck up, Miguel--you’re such a pussy.  I took most of the calls today, not you.”  Her short, red hair blew around her head in a tangled mess which Miguel found very sexy, and he glanced over at her, taking it all in: the heavy gloss over her full, sensuous lips; lots of eyeshadow; a thick, cord-like gold chain from Rafael that was so long, it disappeared into her cleavage; legs wrapped up in tight, designer jeans that seemed to go on forever.  Hell, she wasn’t even wearing a shirt under her jacket--just a black, lacy bra.  How was that for self-confidence?  And she had not an ounce of fat except where it was best put to use, so she could afford to be confident.  Miguel put the vodka between his thighs and reluctantly turned his attention back to the road.  The things he’d do to her, if only she wasn’t Rafael’s bitch . . .

Ordinarily he would not have tolerated her mouth, but right now he was too distracted about where the hell his brother had gone to make anything of it.  Rafael could be irresponsible sometimes, but business was business.  He’d never just up and disappeared like this before.

The whole day had been one long pain in the ass, spent mostly on the phone trying to track him down.  And she was right, he had shoved a lot of the calls from tonight’s customers off on her.  Big deal.  So she’d missed a day of shopping downtown like usual, blowing all of Rafael’s money on expensive clothes and shoes, like those fucking heels she was wearing now.  How do women walk in those things, he wondered?  But they did make her legs look great, he had to admit.

She blew a lungful of smoke out the window and looked at him.  “So Maria decided to have a quickie with some street kid and forgot to give Rafa his cut, huh?”  She laughed harshly.  “That sounds like her.”

Miguel chuckled at the images her comment brought to mind.  “Yeah.  Well, I don’t know if the kid actually got lucky—she said he needed to call his mommy—but who knows with that broad?  She’d put out for just about anything.”

“Even for you,” she jabbed.  Before he could respond, she asked, “You’re sure she’s the last one who saw him?  Otherwise, we’re wasting our time going over there.”

There was a pause as Miguel debated making a retort to Stella’s insult.  Finally he just replied sullenly, “Yeah, I’m sure.”

“When you talked to her this afternoon, did you ask her see if Rafa’s car was parked anywhere nearby?”

Miguel hesitated; he hadn’t thought about this.  “No.”

“Why not?”  Her voice was full of mocking condescension.  “You’re so fucking stupid, Miguelito.” 

He glared at her, the anger boiling up to the surface.  He thought about the H&K P7 snuggled up against his tailbone, and about how good it would feel to pull it out right now and drill a round right into that bitchy face of hers.  Maybe into her eye, or in the middle of her forehead.  Just seeing the shocked expression before her brains blew out the back of her head would almost make cleaning up the leather upholstery worth it.

“Shut up, Stella,” he growled.  “We’ll look for his car when we get there.”

Verner Hallberg and Martin Lundgren trotted up the steps of the Stockholm Police Station on Kungsholmen and went though the big double doors, heading for Kurt’s office.

“. . . yeah,” Martin replied.  “I don’t think the chief was too happy to hear what Kurt had to say.”

“Well who could blame him?  You have to admit, it does sound bizarre.”

“I know.  But the facts are bizarre, Verner.”

“You’re right about that.  And when you fellas hear what I’ve found out, you’re going to think they’re even stranger.”

Martin was secretly upset that Verner had taken so long to get the information Kurt wanted.  He didn’t like anything that put Magnusson in a foul mood, especially not when the heat was on to try and solve a murder. 

He glanced at the older man and saw him puffing a little to keep up with Martin’s brisk stride.  Well, old Vern was slowing down a little; he was only a year or two from retirement.  He’d been bald for years, and had tried to compensate for his shining pate by growing a big, bushy mustache that he didn’t do a very good job of keeping trimmed.  He’d put on a little weight, too.  Maybe he just didn’t care anymore.

Martin and Hallberg passed through Martin’s office, and then Martin pushed Magnusson’s door open and stuck his head inside.  “Kurt, you got a minute?”

Kurt barely looked up from the papers on his desk.  He had the overhead fluorescents off and was reading from his desk lamp, which cast a warm, mellow glow in the center of Kurt’s sturdy old desk and lit up the soft, fatherly features of his downturned face.  Kurt waved with one hand.  “Yep, come on in.”

Martin sat down in one of the matching mahogany office chairs opposite Kurt’s desk.  Hallberg put a couple of files on top of a tottering stack of papers on one corner of the desk and then sat down as well.

Kurt put his pencil down and looked up at Verner.  “Watcha got for me, Vern?”

“Kurt, there were 15 homicides last year in the Stockholm area.  Nine were solved, and six were not.   Three of those six were known to involve children.”

Kurt looked at him, then past him, with a puzzled expression; then he rubbed his chin.  “Oh yeah . . . those bathhouse slayings.”  He shot a look at Lundgren.  “Jesus, Martin, why the hell didn’t we remember those?”

Martin looked at him, his mouth half-open.  Well, it wasn’t the first time he’d been caught flat-footed.  “I dunno, boss,” he replied sheepishly.  “I just didn’t make the connection, I guess.”

“Yeah—me neither.  Shit.”  Kurt disgustedly picked up the top folder and began reviewing its contents.  “Well give us the details, will you, Vern?”

“The murders happened on November 12, 1982.  Jimmy Forsberg, his younger—”

“Hang on.  November 12th?  That was . . . shit, Martin, that was only three days after the John Doe got killed.”  Kurt reached for a cigarette; he needed one right now.

Martin nodded in agreement.  Then Verner continued.

“Anyway, the victims were Jim Forsberg, his brother Conny, and Martin Ahlstedt, a friend of Conny’s.  All of them were killed at the side of the pool in less than a minute by—get this—‘a flying black-haired angel with teeth.’  This ‘angel’ tore the heads off two of the kids, and broke the other one’s back.  Then it pulled a boy named Oskar Eriksson out of the pool and the two of them disappeared.  They haven’t been seen since.”

The incredible story Hallberg had just related hung in the air, defying any of them to make sense of it. 

There was a click from Kurt’s lighter as he lit up.  He drew deeply, then exhaled at the ceiling.  “The teeth, Martin--for Chrissakes.”  He slapped the top of his desk with the palm of his hand.  “I really should resign right now, to have forgotten that detail.”

“Come on, Kurt,” Martin remonstrated.  “We’ve been working on a lot of crap since that all went down.  Cut us a little break, will you?”

Kurt looked down once again at the paper.  “This is just a summary.  Who carried the ball on the investigation?”

“A constable named Gunnar Holmberg.  And I’ve already called him to schedule a meeting with you tomorrow morning.”

“Excellent.  Were any of the victims bitten?”

“The M.E. thinks that the arm of the oldest kid—Jimmy—was bitten clean off at the elbow.  They found it at the bottom of the pool.”

Kurt shook his head . . . it was so hard to believe.  “How big was this Oskar?”

“Ah, he’s not your bear hugger, Kurt.  Skinny kid, apparently a real wimp at school.”

“How many witnesses were there?”

“Just one—another schoolkid.  Scared out of his wits.”

“I may want to talk to him personally, depending on how thorough the reports are.”

Martin shook his head.  “Flying.  That kid had to be on drugs.”

“Apparently not,” Hallberg offered.  “He gave them a urine sample and it was clean.”

Kurt grunted.  “Did they get a composite sketch of this flying angel?”

“No.  The kid didn’t see the face well enough.”

Kurt grabbed the other folder and opened it.  “Did you find anything out about vampire cults?”

“Very little,” Hallberg replied.  “There are no reports of any such cults in or around Stockholm.  But as you’ll see, I did find one thing: in 1932, a prostitute was found murdered in her apartment in the Atlas area near Sankt Eriksplan.  Someone crushed her skull and drank her blood.  The murder was never solved.”

Kurt studied Hallberg’s notes for a moment, then looked up at them.  “Well, I don’t know who killed the girl over in Atlas, but whoever he was, he’d probably be in his ’70s by now, and the one we’re dealing with makes him look like a piker. 

“Gentlemen, we’ve got six homicides in less than a year: five of them in or near Blackeberg, and this most recent one less than 20 kilometers away in Tyresta.  I believe the flying angel, whatever he, she, or it turns out to be, is our prime suspect in Christensen’s death, and that this person is working with an accomplice, although I am less certain about that than I was a few days ago, now that I’ve seen the inside of the apartment where the John Doe was found.  Speaking of which, Martin, did you find out the name of the funeral home for Bengtsson, and give them a call?  And check the missing person reports like I asked?”

“Yes.  Vasastans handled Bengtsson’s services; I called them and as it turns out, a couple of guys split the cost of the burial: Morgan Sundquist and Lacke Sorensson.  Now here’s the missing person reports from last November and December.”  He handed some sheets across the desk.  “Look at the fifth one.”

Kurt’s eyes scanned down the documents; then he raised his eyebrows.  “I’ll be goddamned.  Lacke Sorensson, reported by Larry Wiese and Morgan Sundquist as missing on Friday, November 12.”  He looked up at Martin.  “You, sir, have just redeemed yourself.”

Martin smiled.

Oskar wandered in, looked around the living room/kitchenette for a few seconds, and then sat down on the couch.  The girl immediately sat down in the chair closest to the patio door.  Maria noticed that she was wearing a thin, pink sweater that had a hole in the top, near the seam at one shoulder, and black sweatpants, knotted with a shoelace.

Maria began to slide the patio door closed when the girl looked back over her shoulder at her with her big eyes and spoke up.  “You can leave that open, please.  If you could just pull the drapes?”  Maria hesitated for a second, but then complied.  Then she sat down on the couch.  Oskar pulled his legs up, indian-style, and half turned so he could look at Maria and Eli at the same time.  “Umm, Maria, this is my friend, Eli.  Eli, this is Maria.”

They exchanged polite ‘hellos,’ and for the first time Maria got a good, clear look at Eli’s face.  She immediately understood how Oskar might have fallen for her.  Eli was the most beautiful child she had ever seen.  Her face was perfectly proportioned; her skin, delicate and flawless.  Maria knew just by looking at it that if she were to touch it, it would feel velvety-soft, like Oskar’s.  Her nose was well-proportioned, neither too big nor too small, and her eyes, now looking at Maria so intently, were a mysterious mixture of brown and hazel.

“Do the two of you have last names?”

Eli answered.  “We have each other, so we don’t need last names.”

Oskar looked at Eli and grinned.  “Yeah, she’s always just been ‘Eli’ to me, pretty much.”  Then he looked back at Maria, eager to get down to business.  “Maria, did you hear from Miguel?  Do you think he knows what’s going on?”

“He called and I spoke with him this afternoon.  I told him that I saw Rafael last night when he came over here, looking for his money that I’d forgotten to pay him because of what happened with you.”

“What did he say?  Was he suspicious?”

“Miguel is always suspicious, Oskar, and a little hard to read.  I don’t know him very well, but he may be kind of unpredictable.  But no, he did not seem overly suspicious, although he does know that I’m the last one who saw Rafael alive.”

Eli spoke.  “What does he look like?”

“He’s in his late 30’s, sort of medium height, I guess.  Not tall; not skinny or fat.  He looks a lot like Rafael, Oskar, if you can remember.  Black hair, brown eyes.  He keeps his hair cut real short, and it’s curly.  And he has sort of a ‘fu manchu’ moustache—if you know what I mean.”

Oskar looked perplexed.  “Fu Manchu?”

Maria smiled for the first time during their meeting, then motioned with her fingers on her face.  “You know—it goes down either side of his mouth and then makes a little beard.”

Eli looked at Oskar and also gave him a small smile before looking back to Maria.  “Did he threaten you?”

“No.”

“Did he say he was coming here?”

“No.”

“Do you think he will?”

“It’s hard to say with him.  But he might.”

Eli thought for a minute, and then said, “How did Rafael get here?”

Maria froze, looked uncertain.  “I—I don’t know.  But he probably drove.”

“So his car is probably parked nearby?”

Now Maria looked scared.  “Yes.  Shit!”  She stood up and began to pace around the room.  “If Miguel finds his car, he’ll know that Rafael never left.  And then he’ll—”

Oskar piped up.  “Do you know what kind of car he drove?”

“Some little black car, it’s Japanese, a, a, Datsun Z-something.  With two doors.”

Eli stood up.  “I think we should go find his car, if we can.”

“Shit.  Okay—yes.  But what if we see Miguel on the street, or—”

Eli stood directly in front of Maria and took her hands into hers.  Maria immediately calmed to her touch; then looked down into Eli’s upturned face.  “Oskar and I will take care of Miguel; don’t worry about him.  But we need to know that we don’t need to worry about you.”

“Worry about me?”

“Yes.  How many people have you told about us already?”

“N—no one!  I promised Oskar I wouldn’t!”

Eli continued to hold Maria’s hands; squeezed them lightly.  She stared directly into Maria’s eyes.  Oskar stopped breathing and stared apprehensively at the two of them.  “How many people have you thought about telling?”

Maria faltered.  “I . . . well, I thought about telling one person, but I didn’t.”

Oskar looked on, now clearly troubled.  There was a pause.  Eli shifted her hold on Maria’s hands to her wrists; applied pressure.  “Maria, sit down.”

Maria’s face had gone slack, and as Oskar watched, she slowly sank to her knees, her eyes once again locked on Eli’s.  When her bottom finally came to rest on her heels, Eli put her hands on Maria’s shoulders and looked down at her.  Her voice was steady and even.  “Maria, do you understand what we are?”

“Yes.”  Her voice trembled with fear.  “I think so.  I mean, I saw what Oskar did.”

“Then you understand that we have needs.  Needs that don’t sit very well with ordinary people.”

Maria appeared even more frightened; her eyes were huge and pleading.  “Yes.  You aren’t going to kill me, are you?  Please don’t.  You swore.”

“I don’t want to kill or even hurt anyone, Maria, including you.  But Oskar and I are outcasts.  We don’t fit in, and all we have is each other.  So we do what we need to, to survive.  Because we want to live, too.  Just like you.”

“I promised Oskar I wouldn’t tell.  And I haven’t.”

“But it’s only been a day, and you haven’t been able to think of anything else but Oskar, have you?”

Maria clearly did not want to answer the question, but finally she said, “Yes—you’re right.  But it’s so strange, it’s just—he came in here, turned my life upside down like this, he killed Rafael right here in my living room, I—”

“Maria—”

“. . . look, I—”

Maria—”

“ . . . I didn’t ask for this.”  She looked up into Eli’s face angrily, no longer frightened; glanced at Oskar.  “He—Oskar, you told her, right?” She looked back at Eli.  “He, he tricked me into thinking that his mom had abandoned him, left him on the street.  I said he could come in and use my phone.  I was trying to help him, for God’s sake.  And all along, he was going to kill me.  Jesus.”

Eli released Maria; then she, too, sank to her knees so that they were eye to eye.  “Maria, I’m sorry that things happened that way; Oskar’s kind of new at this.  But now that you know about us, you won’t be able to put us out of your mind, will you?  Because we’re so different.  And Oskar has told you a lot about us, hasn't he?”

“Yes.  Yes, he did, but--I’ll try as hard as I can to forget I ever met you.   Honestly, I will, I promise I’ll never tell anyone.  I don’t know what else I can say.”

Oskar got off the couch, came over and sat next to the two of them.  “This is all my fault.  For getting Maria involved.  Please, Eli . . .  let’s just help her with this Miguel guy, and then move like you said.  Maria’s good—she won’t tell on us.  Will you, Maria?”  He looked back and forth from Eli’s face to Maria’s, his face pleading.

Maria looked at Oskar, then back to Eli.  She sighed, then put her face in her hands before looking back up at Oskar.  “This is so . . . Oskar, Eli is right.  I came very close to telling a friend about you today.”  She looked from Oskar to Eli.  “Because you’re just so . . . the two of you are just so—different from anything I’ve ever experienced.”  She took Oskar’s hand into hers; caressed the back of it with her fingers.  “You said that this is some sort of disease that the two of you have.  And you came in here, planning to kill me, but you didn’t because I was nice to you.  So I know there must be good in you, even if you are a vampire.  And if you love Eli, here, then I know—” she looked at Eli—“that there must be good in her, too.  And that’s really why I haven’t been able to get you out of my mind, even though you’re so scary.  Because it seems like you are a nice person who is sort of . . . stuck.  You told me that what happened to you was an accident.”

Oskar spoke softly.  “Well, we can’t afford to have any more enemies, Maria.  We could really use some help, actually.”

There was a pause.  Eli held her breath—Maria’s answer would determine whether she lived or died.

“I could help you.”

Oskar looked up at her.  “Really?  You would?”

Hesitantly, Maria replied.  “Y- yes.  I don’t know how, but . . . .”

“But what about your husband and your son?  David?”

Maria looked down.  “I . . . I lied to you about that, Oskar.  Well, I told you I’m a prostitute, so you know I’m not married.  But about David . . . he’s not alive anymore.”

“Oh—sorry.”  Oskar squeezed Maria’s hand.  “What happened to him?”

Eli spoke.  “Oskar . . . .”

“It’s okay.”  Maria let go of Oskar and then sat cross-legged on the floor.  Oskar and Eli sat down as well, the three of them forming a small circle.

“Four years ago I was an alcoholic and addicted to cocaine.  I got pregnant with a man I didn’t know too well.  I didn’t mean to, but it happened.  And I had David.  And when he was born . . .”  she sniffed and looked away,  “. . . he was very premature.  And he was born with all kinds of problems.  And when he was three days old, he had a really long seizure, one that they couldn’t stop with medicine.  And he died.”

There was a long silence as Maria began to weep.  Then Eli spoke.  “I’m very, very sorry, Maria.”

“Yeah,” Oskar added.  “I’m sorry, too.  And I’m sorry if I upset you.  I didn’t mean to.”

She wiped her eyes and her nose, and then offered Oskar a little smile.  “It’s okay, Oskar.  It’s just something that I have to live with, every day.”  She looked at David’s picture on her table.  “And I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to forgive myself for what I did.  That was pretty much . . . rock bottom for me; for my life.  I’ve been trying to pick up the pieces ever since.”

She looked at Oskar and Eli.  “And I know I’m not perfect.  I’m still doing things that are wrong.  But at least after David died, I stopped the crack and the booze.  I guess it took something like that to break my addictions.  But I haven’t touched a drop, or done any of that, ever since.”

“So, you two.  What could I possibly do to help you?  I don’t have any money.  I don’t have a car; what I own is what you see right here.”

Eli and Oskar looked at each other.  Oskar started to speak, but Eli squeezed his hand and shushed him.

“Here’s the thing, Maria.  We need to move soon.  We’re going to Norrköping to try and find a way to get rid of our disease.  We’ll need a place to stay, and that’s hard because we’re kids.  We need a grown-up to sign a lease for an apartment.  Would you be willing to do that?  You don’t need to stay with us or pay anything.”

Oskar looked at Eli, wide-eyed.  She hadn’t told him about these plans.  But he was impressed that she had remembered what he’d said in Tyresta.  She hadn’t forgotten.  A happy thrill coursed through him—a little ray of hope that Eli was going to pitch in and try to find a way out of their dilemma.  He felt the urge to kiss her, but didn’t think it would be a good idea in front of Maria.

Maria didn’t take long to answer.  “Well that doesn’t sound too hard.  Do I have to use my own name?”

“No.”

“Okay.  When will we go?”

“This weekend?”

“Okay.”

Eli stood up, took Oskar’s hand, and pulled him up.  “Good.  It’s settled.  Now, let’s go look for that car.”

The speedometer hovered at 143 kph as Stella took the bottle back from Miguel, brushing his crotch with her fingers as she did so.  As he glanced down and over at her to see what was brewing, they passed the Ursviksvägan exit.  She looked at him, smiled seductively, and then took a swig.  “Maybe you should slow down, Miguel.  You just missed our exit.”

Surprised, he quickly glanced out the windshield, then at his side view mirror, and finally craned his neck around to catch a glimpse of the rapidly receding sign.  “Ah, fuck that,” he said, surpressing his frustration.  “I’ll go to 279 and take that down to Bällstavägen.  It’s faster that way.”

“Oh, Miguel . . . sometimes slower is better, know what I mean?”  She shifted in her seat and stretched her legs as best she could. “Christ, this car is little--there’s no leg room.  And it’s too hot.  God.”  She ran her window down and pulled off her jacket.  Then she thrust her head out of the car and laughed into the wind.  “Ah, this is better!”

He glanced over and down at her bra.  He didn’t have to look very hard.   They were there, all right; barely concealed by all that lace.  Shit, man . . . maybe Raf’s gone for good.  Maybe that wouldn’t be so bad, after all.

He looked back to the road and realized he was very close to running into the back of a moving van.  His eyes widened and he quickly applied the brakes.  The big Bembros worked very well--perhaps too well.  Stella, who was not wearing her belt, was thrown forward, nearly hitting her head on the small window on the front of the door.  The bottle of Explorer, which she’d been holding loosely between her legs, tipped forward, sloshing vodka down her jeans and onto the floor.

Jesus, Miguel!  Watch your driving, you idiot!”

He felt the urge to bellow at her at the top of his lungs, but didn’t.  Instead, as his speed slipped down to 120, he swerved abruptly over to pass the van, throwing her against the door.  She grunted as the wind was knocked out of her, and as she bounced back he grabbed her left breast and gave it a healthy squeeze.  He grinned.  “Sorry, Stella.  Just got a little distracted.”

She righted the vodka, looked at him defiantly, and then threw the bottle out the window.  “You prick.   You keep your hands off me, or you’ll lose them.  I promise.”

He looked over and gave her a malicious smile.  “What’s the matter, Stella?  Is the party over?  I thought it had just begun.” Then all humor vanished from his face and he looked dead serious. “I’ll put my hands wherever I want--and Rafael won’t say a word.  I promise.”  He dragged over and took the exit, heading south on 279.


 
“Just a minute, Eli,” Oskar said as they began to leave Maria’s apartment.  Maria and Eli turned to look at him as he paused, just inside the doorway.  He looked Eli in the eye and said, “you can come in.” Eli said ‘oh yeah,’ and stepped back inside.  Oskar looked at Maria and said, “Don’t worry; it’s just in case we run into Miguel and need to come back in here fast.”  Maria looked at the two of them and said hesitantly, “do I need to do it, too?”

“Nope,” Oskar replied cheerfully.   “One’s enough.”  And before Maria could say anything more, they both stepped out into the hall and Oskar shut the door behind them.  As the metal door thudded firmly closed, Maria realized, not for the first time that night, that her life was firmly in their hands.  She trotted nervously after them toward the lobby, a third wheel to a pair of children.

They slowed when they reached the corner where the hallway intersected the lobby entrance, and Eli peered around to check for Miguel.  The only person in the lobby was an elderly gentleman with a tweed cap perched jauntily on his head who tottered slowly toward them using a cane.  He gave them a friendly ‘good evening’ as they passed him and came to the front door.  There they paused, and Eli turned to Maria.

“Tell us more about what this car looks like.”

Maria tried to think.  “Well like I said, it’s a black coupe—you know, a two-door.  Like a little sports car.  With silver wheels and stripes.”

“What color are the stripes?”

“Silver.  No—gold, not silver.  Gold.”

“Okay.  We need to do the door thing again before we leave.  And I think we should stick together—it’ll be safer that way.  Maria, do you know what kind of car Miguel drives?”

“A Porsche.  I think it’s called a Carrera.”

“I know what those look like,” Oskar said excitedly.  “They’re really cool--and fast.”

“A ‘Carrera.’  I don’t know what that means, Oskar,” Eli replied.  “And ‘fast’ doesn’t help me, either.”

Maria broke in gently.  “It’s a sports car, too, Eli.  It’s sort of a dark red color, like wine.  Maroon.”

Once again Oskar and Eli repeated the invitation ritual, this time at the front door to the apartment building.  Eli had just stepped inside when a young couple swung through the doors after her.  “Hello!  Excuse us,” they said as they brushed past.

Eli turned and spoke quietly but earnestly to Oskar.  “Oskar, it looks like there’s a lot of people around here, so we need to be careful.   No flying or anything crazy like that unless we absolutely have to, okay?  Plus, we need to remember that we have to protect Maria, and she can’t do the things we can do.  Remember, if we decide to run fast, she won’t be able to keep up.  So just try to act normal, okay?”

Oskar nodded enthusiastically.  “Okay.  Got it.”

“Good.”

Eli turned to Maria.  “Maria, you know this neighborhood better than we do, and you’ve seen these cars before.  So can you take the lead?  And if anyone asks, we’re your kids, okay?”

Maria tried to smile, despite her nervousness.  “Okay--I’ll pretend I’m your mom.  Looking at Oskar, no one would think twice, I think.”

They stepped out onto the sidewalk and looked up and down Tallgatan, scanning for Rafael’s car.  The cool night air felt good on Maria’s face; it enlivened her senses, and helped her focus.  She wondered why she hadn’t thought to look for Rafael’s car earlier, when it had still been light, but she knew why—because she had been in a daze the whole day.  She had felt out of phase, as if she were living in a dreamworld.  Rafael’s unbelievable death the night before; Oskar’s strangeness; her fear of Miguel; and just within the last hour, her fear of Eli—it was all too much.  Even now events were moving too fast for her.  She was behind the power curve, and was struggling to keep abreast of everything.  If she had gone to Marta’s, would any of this be happening?  She kept looking at Oskar, hoping she had been right to put her confidence in him.  Somehow, she knew that he was now the key to her continued existence, and the thought frightened her in the extreme.

Oskar pointed to their right to a group of cars at the end of the block, clustered under a street light on the opposite side.  “There’s a black car down there, but I can’t tell if it’s got two doors or four.”

Together they moved at a brisk clip down the street toward the cars.  As they drew near, though, they realized that Oskar’s car was a sedan, so they kept going until they reached the corner, turned right, and headed northwest on Vintergatan.  This time they saw nothing resembling Rafael’s car, but there was some traffic going past, and a few pedestrians as well.

Maria was not the only one who was nervous.  Eli, too, felt very uncomfortable walking down the middle of the sidewalk, in full view of passersby and of the motorists trundling past.  The shadows and dark places that they passed kept distracting her from looking for Rafael’s car.  She wanted to take Oskar by the hand and run away into the darkness; flee into the blackness of the night that had always been her refuge.  She wanted to abandon this troublesome woman, and leave her to her fate with Miguel.  After all, she owed Maria nothing.  But Maria could tell Miguel about them just as easily as she could tell her friend.  Perhaps moreso, if Miguel did grow suspicious about Rafael’s recent disappearance and began to ask a lot of questions.  Not that Miguel would be likely to believe such an outlandish story, but still . . .

An inner voice kept telling her that the safest, smartest thing to do would be to take Maria down as soon as there were no people around to see anything; just drag her behind a big bush and break her neck, swiftly and silently.  She would not even feed on her; just kill her, and leave the body.  But could she persuade Oskar afterwards that killing Maria had been the safest option for the two of them?  After all, Maria had agreed to help them, and signing a lease for them was no small thing.  If only she knew Maria better; if only there was more time to spend with her, and find out just how trustworthy she was.  The time in Maria’s apartment had simply not been long enough for Eli to get a good read on who she was; on how far she would stick out her neck to help them.  And now, here they were: running around out in the open, exposed for the whole world to see, to protect this woman they barely even knew.  Eli didn’t like it—not one bit.

Soon they reached the corner of Vintergatan and Råstensgatan.  Maria intended to turn right and head up Råstensgatan, in order to circle the block before beginning a search of the side streets.  A quick glance showed only a few cars parked along Råstensgatan, but before turning the corner, Eli announced that she could see something that might be Rafael’s car further up on Vintergatan.  Unfortunately, the cars were parked perpendicular to their line of sight, making them hard to see.  Deciding to check it out, they crossed Råstensgatan toward the car, and Eli moved ahead to see better.

Oskar could tell how nervous Maria was from the way she was acting.  She kept looking around everywhere, and practically jumped at each passing car.  So he trotted up next to her, took her hand into his, and squeezed it gently.  “Don’t worry, Maria--Eli and I will be with you, in case there’s any trouble.”  He looked solemnly up at her face.  She felt a little better, and offered him a weak smile.  “Thanks, Oskar.”

Up ahead they heard Eli’s excited voice.  “I think this might be it!”  Quickly, they caught up to her.  Sure enough, she was approaching a small, black, two-door sports car.  But as she began to circle it she said, “Wait a minute—I’m not sure . . . there’s no stripes, and it says . . .” she looked up at them, “--it says ‘Opel’ on the back.”  Finally able to see the tiny car, Maria knew immediately that it wasn’t Rafael’s.  They stared at it in frustration for a few moments, and then headed back toward Råstensgatan.

Miguel slowed the Porsche and turned left off Landsvägen onto Ekensbergsvägen, then crossed the bridge over the train tracks that served the Sundbyberg commuter rail station.  The flat-six made a raucous, mechanical growl as they sped up past some office buildings and business parks, then burbled down as he approached the intersection with Gränsgatan, a major thoroughfare that would lead them into Sundyberg’s downtown area.  He stopped behind a few cars at the intersection and put on his left turn signal.

Now that they were off the highway and close to their destination, the tension between them had dissipated.  He felt calm and relaxed when he turned onto Gränsgatan and asked her if she remembered Maria’s street address.

Stella savored the smoke in her lungs for a few seconds before exhaling.  She had put her jacket back on and rolled up her window.  “She lives down at the corner of Götgatan and Tallgatan.  It’s just a couple of blocks up, but you can’t turn onto Tallgatan from here.  You’ll have to go up to the traffic circle and then come back down Götgatan.”

“Fucking traffic engineers,” he muttered.  “My mother could design a better road system.  All these one-way streets, cut-offs, traffic circles—shit.”

Maria, Oskar and Eli turned the corner from Råstensgatan to Götgatan.  They were now headed back toward Maria’s apartment building.  Cars were parked all along both sides of Götgatan as they headed down the hill.  Maria and Oskar both had a feeling of déjà vu as they approached the place of their initial encounter the night before.

Maria and Oskar spotted Rafael’s car at the same time.  It was down at the far end of the block, at the corner of Götgatan and Tallgatan.  Maria felt the terror rise up through her gorge.  It had been parked just around the corner of her front door the whole time.  If they had simply turned left instead of right when they’d first come out, they would have spotted it immediately.  She began to run toward it, hoping against hope that if she could get a closer look, maybe it wouldn’t be his; that perhaps her eyes were deceiving her.  But of course, the idea was ridiculous; there was no mistaking its glossy black exterior, or the gold stripes just above the rocker panels, or the brown and tan interior.  She knew the inside of the car quite well, because Rafael had screwed her in it a year-and-a-half ago.

Oskar came up beside her, with Eli right behind.  “This is it, right?”  He looked at her, then at Eli.  “Well . . . now what?”  Eli was about ready to say that it would be a good idea to go back to Maria’s apartment when a small, maroon sports car entered her field of vision from the left.

“See anything?” Miguel asked.

“Not yet—slow down, will you?  We’re almost there.”

He eased off the gas and continued to scan the street ahead.   Christ—why did all of the apartment buildings in Stockholm have to look the same?  The same old patterns, over and over—it was almost as if someone were deliberately trying to drive everyone who lived here insane.  It was as if—

Stella’s excited voice interrupted his thoughts.  “Hey!  I see his car!  It’s parked right outside Maria’s apartment!”

“Huh?  Where?”  He looked to his right.  Sure enough, there it was.  And—

“Hey . . . there’s Maria, too.”

Miguel slowed further and eased the Porsche over to stop alongside Rafael’s car.  What the hell, he thought.  He’s been here with Maria the whole day?  What . . . are they screwing each other or something?  And why wouldn’t they tell him—

He looked over a Stella, who was starting to open her door before he had even stopped the car.  Oh, shit.

Oskar watched, wide-eyed, as an angry, red-haired woman jumped out of the Carrera and started to come around the rear of Rafael’s car toward them.  Who was this?  He looked over at Maria--just in time to see her break and run.

The woman began to shout at them.  “Maria, you bitch!  Where is he?  Where is that bastard?!”  Oskar had never heard a woman sound so angry . . . she was scary.  Without thinking, he, too, turned and ran after Maria.

Eli stood on the sidewalk for a few seconds, just watching.  The driver of the car, whom she was certain was Miguel, got out and was standing by his door, chuckling for some reason as he watched the action.  Then she focused her attention back to the red-haired woman--whoever she was—who was yelling at the top of her lungs.  The woman was making too much noise; she would attract attention. 

Eli’s patience finally boiled over, and she felt a flash of red-hot anger.  It was the same anger that she’d felt the night after she had turned Oskar, when he had told her to be quiet because the neighbors would hear; an anger at the whole world, at people.  People like these: this noisy, obnoxious woman; Miguel, who was clearly some sort of slimeball; and at Maria, for getting them involved in this crazy, stupid mess.  To hell with it—she didn’t care who might be watching.  She trembled with rage, let go, and allowed herself to be consumed by its flame.  In the blurred half-second while she changed she saw Miguel getting back in his car—intending to park it?, and the woman running toward her, intent on pursuing Maria for God-knew-what, oblivious to her presence.

She launched herself at the red-haired woman, seized her forearm, and yanked her bodily up into the air as fast as she could.  Stella abruptly stopped yelling, speechless and in shock, her body dangling below Eli as they rose like a shot fired from a cannon.  And before she had a chance to say or do anything, Eli flung the woman with all her strength up into the cool night sky.  They were already well over seventy-five meters in the air, and Eli’s throw hurled the woman even higher for a few seconds before she descended in a graceful arc toward some high-rises to the northeast.  There was a faint thud as the woman struck the eighth story of one of the tall buildings, bounced off its unyielding, concrete elevation, and plunged into the trees around its base.

Eli hovered, one hundred meters above Götgatan, angrily staring at the place where Stella’s body had gone.  There was a dark splotch where her body had struck the wall.  She glanced down to see the traffic moving up and down the street as usual, seeming for all the world like just another summer night in suburban Stockholm.  Then she turned and descended soundlessly to the rooftop of Maria’s building.

Miguel was standing on the sidewalk beside his Porsche, which he had parked illegally in front of Rafael’s car.  Eli watched as he looked around, called the woman’s name a couple of times, and then walked rapidly toward the front of the building.  He hadn’t seen what had happened.

Eli moved as quietly as a cat around the roof to the front to see if Oskar and Maria were still outside, but they weren’t.  Miguel approached the entrance, and when a woman opened the door and left the building, he slipped inside.  Eli thought about following him in, but then ran across the roof to the back side of the building.  She quickly looked around and saw no one in the small, grassy plaza there.  She liked it better back here because there were no streetlights, and she quickly descended a downspout, leapt onto Maria’s patio, and went inside.

She found Oskar and Maria huddled in the hallway.  They were as quiet as clams and were staring at the front door, obviously waiting for Stella to arrive.  They were surprised to see Eli come into the living room behind them.

Oskar looked at her with his mouth open.  “Eli!  Where’s that woman?”

Shh!  She’s gone—don’t worry.  But Miguel is coming,” Eli whispered.  “You take Maria out through the patio door and down to that plaza behind the building.  Find a place to hide and wait for me.”

“What are you going to do?”

“Take care of Miguel.  Now go on—hurry.”

Oskar didn’t like the look in Eli’s eyes; there was something hard and dreadful in them.  But there was no time to argue.  “Okay.  But be careful—please.”

He gave Eli a kiss, and then he and Maria went out onto the living room patio.  Oskar told her to grab onto his back; then he jumped up, and the two of them disappeared into the trees below.  Eli shut the door behind them and pulled the drapes.  Then she turned off the lights and unlocked the front door.

Miguel went down the hallway and approached Maria’s apartment.  He was beginning to feel a little confused.  He had expected to see Stella yelling at Maria through a locked door, or to hear some shouting from inside the apartment as she confronted Rafael and let him have it for his infidelity.  But there was nothing—not a sound.

He figured the door would be locked, so he pounded on it with his fist.  “Maria?  Stella?  Rafael?  Open the goddamn door.”  Then he tried the door, and to his surprise, the handle turned and the door popped open.  And behind the door was . . . darkness.

For a second, he was certain that somehow he had the wrong apartment.  He glanced at the door to be sure.  Yes—it was the right number.  He frowned.  What the hell was going on?  He heard no sound at all.

He flicked on the wall switch, and a little lamp sitting on a side table to his right came on.  There was nobody in the room.  Once again he called out their names, but there was no answer.  Where the fuck had everyone gone?

A very unfamiliar sensation crept coldly up his spine.  He had only felt this way two times in his life; both occasions had been drug deals that went bad, and people had been killed.  Scary, scary shit; but he had survived.  Quietly he shut the door behind him, reached back and pulled his H&K from its holster.  The feel of its compact, heavy weight in his hand was comforting.  He squeezed the handle to cock it, then moved around the corner to look into the kitchen.

There was nothing.  But both doors—one to the bedroom, the other to a bathroom—were closed.

He stepped over to the bedroom door.  Slowly he pushed down the handle with his left hand, then quickly swung the door open, reached inside, and flicked on the light.  Empty.  Only a bed, neatly made, and an open glass door to the bedroom patio, half concealed behind some drapes which swayed gently in the breeze.  Wordlessly he shook his head.

None of this makes sense.  It’s obvious there’s no one here--I should just leave.  But he didn’t.  One more room in this tiny apartment to check; then he’d leave.  He turned around and moved to the bathroom door, the one that opened onto the bedroom.

He opened it, once again with with his left hand.   It swung inward with a creak to reveal a toilet and a shower, nothing more.  He groped around the doorjamb for a light switch, but found none.  Well, he could see well enough with the bedroom light.  He raised his gun, stepped into the bathroom, and yanked the shower curtain back.  Nothing. 

The bedroom light suddenly went out, plunging him into shadow.  Instantly he spun around.

A girl was standing, buck-naked, at the foot of the bed in the spectral light from the patio window, watching him. 

The gun wavered in his hand; then he released its grip and lowered it.  “Who—who are you?  Where’s Rafael?  Stella and Maria?”

She didn’t answer; only moved slowly, steadily across the bedroom toward him, the ghostly gray light shimmering on her shoulders and on her dark, dark hair.  He swallowed, and as she drew near, he realized just how huge and black her eyes were.  She was sad . . . so sad.  He could lose himself there, in those mesmerizing, lovely eyes.  She came to him with outstretched arms; a thin, little girl who needed comforting; needed love. 

“Hello, Miguel.  I’ve been waiting for you.”  Gently and with tender care she took the gun from his hand as she embraced him and stood on tiptoe to softly kiss his cheek.  Even as he tried to understand how she could know his name he did not resist, did not care when his beloved weapon thumped softly to the carpet.  And if he had been twenty years younger, before his life of corruption and debauchery, he might have listened to that tiny voice in the back of his head that told him to run, to flee for his life, to get away from this strange and somehow terrifying little girl.  But he wasn’t; and so instead he gave in to himself and pulled the lithe, naked body to his; knowing that what he was doing was insane and terribly wrong, but not caring. 

His hands moved as if by themselves over the soft, pale skin, and then they were lying on the bed together and she was on top of him, her hands touching, caressing; and then she kissed him on the lips, her mouth open, and he kissed her back; and then her lips slid from his and descended down, down to his neck, where they kissed again.  And he loved it, loved everything about it, especially the wrongness of it all.  And so when the tiny prick of pain came he barely registered it, barely noticed; and when his life slipped away a few moments later, he did not complain.

More next week

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