"I don't know. But we'd better get back to your pseudo-stepmother and Jessica and throw this project together," Eric suggested. "Before they come looking for us."
I turned off the light, and followed him back to the front of the house. The lamps were still turned on, but the living room was empty. Jessica's school books were stacked neatly on the coffee table, and Gina's magazine was back in its rack.
"Gina?" I called, "Jessica?"
I was hardly eager for their company, but their absence was unnerving. When Lucien stepped into the room it became far more than unnerving.
"Aimee," he said warmly. "And this must be Eric, your advanced French partner?"
He put forth his hand and shook Eric's. Eric didn't wince, but he stiffened, ever so slightly. And then Lucien smiled, his brilliant, radiant smile. He looked so beautiful, that it terrified me.
I held up my handful of sharpie markers, and pointed to the copier paper box.
"Eric and I are going to decorate this box with French phrases and famous French landmarks," I explained.
"Really?" Lucien drawled.
It was impossible to tell if he was simply bored or skeptical.
"Where are Gina and Jessica?" I asked, trying to sound casual.
"They've gone shopping," Lucien said pleasantly. "I canceled my last class, and came home early."
"Do you feel well?" I asked, hoping to hear that he had caught some kind of flu, and was headed directly to bed.
"I feel wonderful," he replied, instantly dashing my hopes. "Thank you for asking, however."
The situation was getting creepier and creepier.
"We should start our project," I told Lucien. "So that Eric can get home at a reasonable time."
I sat down on the sofa, and Eric joined me, careful to keep a distance between us. He handed me the lid to the box without touching my hand, and I gave him a marker holding it by one end. I wanted Lucien to see that I didn't like being close to Eric any more than I did Jessica or Gina. As for French, my mind was drawing a blank on even the most simple of phrases. Which was pathetic, considering it was the human language I have spoken the longest.
"Aren't you the least bit curious as to why I canceled my last class?" Lucien inquired, sounding disappointed.
I looked up from my still pristine box lid. I was tempted to say something about the fact that it probably had to do with the fact that Lucien didn't actually teach any classes at all, but I knew better. I decided to continue in my role as dutiful daughter.
"Why did you cancel your class?" I asked.
Lucien's smiled widened.
"I'm so glad you asked," he said cordially. "It was because of a conversation I had with your stepsister Jessica, concerning your behavior in school."
Good old Jessica. Couldn't wait for Lucien to get home to spread the news that his supposed daughter was the school winner of the sleaze-of-the-week contest.
"She called me on my cell phone," Lucien confided. "Because she felt it was so important for me to hear as soon as possible."
It was my last ditch effort at protecting Eric, but like most last ditch efforts, it failed miserably.
"All about this passionate romance you have going with your advanced French partner. Kissing in the hallway at school! Holding hands! Jessica was very worried that you would develop a reputation for being fast."
"How kind of her," I muttered.
"I think we all know better," Lucien laughed. "But it was a kindness to me. When I saw those paintings I couldn't believe what I had found. But two of you? And apparently matched? Even better."
I don't know which of us stood first. It seemed to me like we rose simultaneously. Eric put his arm around me protectively, which seemed to amuse Lucien. And when he snapped his fingers and two men entered the room with guns, I could see why he was amused.
I gasped. I couldn't help myself, and I felt Eric's arm tighten around my waist. I stole a look at him. He looked as stunned as I knew I must. Something was dreadfully wrong with the two men who had entered the room. They were dressed entirely in gray. Gray business suit, gray buttoned-down shirt, gray tie, and gray shoes. But it wasn't just the monochromatic scheme of their matching attire that was frightening. It was the fact that their skin and eyes were as gray as they clothes they wore. I had never seen a zombie. I had never believed in their existence. But I did now.
Lucien laughed again, clearly enjoying my reaction.
"You disappoint me, Aimee," He said with mock despair. "Don't you like your father's friends?"
"What . . . are they?"
I didn't mean to ask, I didn't want to ask, but the words flew out of my mouth of their own accord.
It was no kind of an answer, but I wasn't about to press Lucien for a further explanation. Suddenly the most horrible thought entered my mind. Once again, I spoke without thinking.
"Did you kill Gina and Jessica?" I whispered.
I thought of their lifeless bodies, lying somewhere in the house, and it was enough to make me sick to my stomach.
For a long moment Lucien didn't respond. My words seemed to have transformed him. He was still so incredibly beautiful, but behind his beauty lay an impotence and rage that was so strong and so frustrated it was almost palpable. And then he smiled, and the moment passed, as if it had never been.
"How sweet you are Aimee," he complimented me. "To be so concerned about others. But rest assured, Gina and Jessica are truly spending the evening at the mall. And now it's time for us to get down to business, don't you think? We need to be gone before those delightful ladies return."
"What do you mean?" I asked.
"Our time here is done, Aimee," Lucien said impatiently. "You'll give me the keys, and our business will be at an end."
I didn't have to be told that both Eric's life as well as my own would also be at an end.
"Gina and Jessica will miss us," I argued.
Lucien shook his head and spoke gently, as if to a young child.
"Do you really think so?" he asked, putting a very amused emphasis on the word "really".
I remembered my conversation with Jessica earlier in the evening, and my heart sank. I was sure that both Gina and Jessica had already forgotten Lucien Clair and his daughter. Ditto for Skye Lake High school, where Jessica reigned supreme.
"I don't have the keys," I replied, which was nothing less than the truth.
"Where are they?" Lucien demanded.
"In Saratoga," I told him. "I hid them at the battlefield."
That was a lie, but the only one who seemed to catch me at it was Eric.
"What are you doing?" he asked.
"Buying us time."
Neither of us looked at the other as we spoke our thoughts into each other's mind. Lucien knew we were matched. The last thing we needed was for him to know we could communicate telepathically as well.
"Then I guess we'll take a little drive upstate," Lucien commented.
If this were an action movie, Eric and I would have simultaneously engaged in some real kick-butt karate-jujitsu-tae-kwon-do-judo moves and knocked the guns out of the gray-faced zombies and dashed off to freedom in Eric's car. But sadly, the truth is that the guys with the guns simply ushered us outside. To do us justice, both men held semi-automatics, and looked like they knew how to use them.
We climbed into Lucien's limousine. One gray guy got into the front seat to drive, and the other joined Lucien in back. Eric and I were seated next to each other on the seat facing them. My hand gripped his so tightly I was probably cutting off his circulation, but I couldn't help it. Everything inside me screamed that we were going to die at the hands of this truly evil being.
At that point, I think the panic and fear was beginning to make me lose my mind. All I could think of was that Emily Autumn song: Shallot. It was one that I had once thought haunting and beautiful, and now found frighteningly accurate. Music and lyrics floated across my mind.
"And it's raining — and the stars are falling from the sky — and the wind — and the wind I know it's cold — I've been waiting — for the day I will surely die — and it's here — "
I could feel myself growing hysterical, but I couldn't seem to calm myself down.
Somehow, Eric's voice managed to break through the barrier of fear, and I could feel him inside my mind, as if he were pouring out liquid warmth and comfort.
"Aimee," he said more gently. "I don't think Lucien is aware that we have gotten intimate enough for telepathy, and we need to talk while we can. I'll look out the window, and you can look down at your lap. Okay?"
"Yes," I replied.
I was feeling stronger just by having him in my head, and some of the very real fear had ebbed slightly.
"I know you lied about the keys — " Eric began.
Lucien interrupted our conversation by reaching into a sack that lay next to him on the rear seat. When he extracted a familiar piece of fruit, my stomach churned.
"Would you like an apple, Aimee?" he offered. "You could share it with your friend. A little snack for the trip."
"I'm not hungry," I told him, answering for both Eric and myself.
No way was I going to reward the psychopath who was going to kill us with another apple lusting session.
"Ugh," I told Eric. "I can't believe Lucien offered me an apple again. You should see his expression when he watches me eat one! It's practically X-rated. And it's only with me. Jessica ate an apple and he didn't look twice at her. He's so creepy —"
It was at just about this point that I could no longer tell whose thoughts were racing through my mind. It was as if our two minds had joined completely to form one mind. Thoughts from one of us or both of us seemed to explode into life, as everything, every single little thing, finally fell into place.
Apples. X-rated. Keys to Aedin. Evil. Even his name, Lucien. And Clair: which was French for light. Beautiful as an Angel of Light. One who could enter and leave Aedin at will, simply by slithering under the gate.
I tried to turn my startled gasp into a coughing fit.
If I had thought it was impossible to wrap my mind around the possibility of being an elf, it was even more impossible to grasp the fact that I was seated opposite the world's most infamous angel. Fallen angel, I corrected myself.
"Lucifer — " I whispered.
The words were out of my mouth even as I heard Eric urging me to be quiet in my thoughts.
"If you wish," Lucien said graciously. "I've been called by many names over the centuries."
I forced myself to look at the gray man seated next to Lucien. It was stupid, but somehow I felt safer referring to him as Lucien. The man sat completely still, as if he had been drained of all life. Or perhaps just his soul. It occurred to me that this might be what a human being without a soul looked like. I wondered vaguely if an elf would look any different.
"Aimee," Eric broke into my thoughts again, which was a good thing as they were wandering aimlessly in an effort to control my rising fear.
I shook my head to clear it. It didn't help much.
"Aimee," Eric persisted, his tone gentle and reassuring. "Why did you lie to Lucien?"
It was plain to see that I was not the only one who preferred to refer to the one who was literally the fake father from Hell by his false name.
"To buy us time," I told him. "I lied because I don't have the keys any longer."
"Oh," Eric tried to sound upbeat. "That's probably a good thing. And you were only a little girl at the time. Who knows where they are?"
"Not so little," I corrected him. "By our definition of time it was a pretty recent loss. But they aren't just missing. The keys were destroyed."
"How?" Eric asked. "When?"
"I kept them for a long time," I continued. "It takes about ten seconds in an orphanage to discover that if anything is precious to you, it needs to kept hidden. I hid them in the hem of a skirt, or a jacket, whatever I could find. I couldn't remember my parents, I couldn't remember you. But I always remembered the gardener. I knew they were his keys. Sometimes, when I was much younger, and I found myself alone, I would take out the keys and just hold them. I'd let them get warm in my hands and close my eyes and try so hard to imagine the garden. As I grew older, I knew it was just a waste of my time. But still, I kept the keys. They were all I had left of my past.
And then the Nazi's came. I was living in France, remember? I looked to be only sixteen or seventeen, but it didn't matter. I was still part of the French resistance. The resistance gathered whatever it could. The women gave all kinds of jewelry: gold rings, gold earrings, gold bracelets. I gave a set of golden keys. No one asked where they came from. I'm sure no one cared. They were needed, and they melted just as well as the rest of the items."
"Why Saratoga battlefield?"
"I don't know. I thought maybe we could hide behind one of the monuments? Or run off into one of the wooded sections? I'm not much of a planner, okay?"
"I didn't say I had a plan," Eric replied.
I could feel his easy grin lighting up my mind. I smiled right back at him, but my smile faded almost as soon as it began.
"When we reach the battlefield and Lucien realizes that the keys are gone for good, he's going to kill us. Himself, or using those gray men."
"At least he won't be able to open the gate to Aedin."
We were silent. There was really nothing more to say. We were being driven to our death by the very definition of evil. He had his own armed zombies, and I hated to think what else Lucien could conjure up. Not that he needed any help. What were two elves compared to the great granddaddy of all bad guys? The one whose favorite pastimes were death and destruction? Which led me right back to the question that I had asked earlier —
"Why didn't Lucien kill Gina and Jessica?" I asked Eric. "Wouldn't their deaths have made a nice kind of appetizer for us; the main course, so to speak? He likes inflicting pain, and killing. And he is totally incapable of compassion."
"I don't know," he replied. "It makes no sense."
Lucien broke into our conversation.
"We're almost to the battlefield, kids," he said cheerily. "In just a little while our business will be at an end."
"You mean our lives will be at an end," I said bitterly. "You don't have to pretend that you'll let us go, the way you did Gina and Jessica."
"No I don't," he agreed, his smile widening even further. "And it's a real treat, let me tell you. Lucky for me, you two are a very long way from your own garden."
"Suppose I don't tell you where the keys are?" I asked, "It's a big battlefield. And maybe I lied. Maybe the keys aren't even there."
"Well . . ." Lucien said, sounding more amused than worried. "That's why it's even more fortunate for me that there are two of you. And not just any two elves, but matched ones."
"Eric doesn't know where the keys are," I lied.
"It doesn't matter," Lucien said amiably.
"Why not?" I demanded.
This time it was Eric who answered.
"Because a matched pair of elves cannot be separated except by both their deaths. We don't have widows and widowers like human beings have. We become one. One life. One death. All Lucien has to do is threaten to kill me, and you'll give him whatever he wants. You can't fight it, and he knows it. Same for me. It's the way we were created."
"Certainly comes in handy," Lucien approved.
The car finally came to a stop, just inside the entrance to the battlefield. The gray man seated next to Lucien handed over his semiautomatic, and Lucien used it to usher us out of the car. We stood next to it in silence. The park was deathly quiet at this time of night. The road lightly dusted with snow.
"Stay here," Lucien told his men. "I'll take care of this myself."
In a James Bond movie this is usually a good sign that the hero and heroine will escape in perhaps a questionably plausible way. But this was no film. Plus, James Bond usually has some kind of really cool gadget-type weapon which enables him to save the world which his trademark style and grace. We had nothing. The only one with a weapon was Lucien.
"Let's get on with it," he ordered, gesturing with the gun.
As if he actually had to. Not only was it frighteningly huge, it looked like something straight out of the military. In fact, I suspected it was U.S. Army property. And it was about to be used in a way I felt certain the armed services wouldn't approve.
Lucien was still smiling, as we walked down the road toward the first stop site on the battlefield tour.
"Is it much farther?" he inquired cheerfully. "I hope not. My hands are fairly itching to use this thing. Your deaths are going to be quite messy I'm afraid. Lots of blood. Very nasty for the human being who finds you. But I so rarely get a chance to do this. Can't tell you how exciting it is, for me, personally."
"Lovely man. Well — not man," I commented sarcastically to Eric as we walked. "If his fingers were so itchy, why didn't he kill Gina and Jessica just to scratch and get some relief? Not only is he evil, he's a total psychopath."
A sudden burst of emotion filled my mind from Eric's. Oddly enough, it was elation.
"I know," he told me. "I know why Lucien didn't kill Gina and Jessica."
"Please don't say it was because of some kind of fond regard," I begged.
There was no way I could stretch my mind around that concept.
"It's because he can't," Eric said.
This time, there was no way I could even begin to stretch my mind around the concept.
"What do you mean?" I asked him in disbelief, "Are you kidding me? This guy has let-me-kill-something written all over him! Have you been listening to Lucien? We're going to be messy and nasty."
"You spent centuries touring orphanages in France," Eric reminded me. "Most of which were run by nuns. What did they teach you?"
"Hymns. Prayers. How to read, at one point. Mostly, though, I spent most of my time in the kitchen garden. They found I had a gift for making plants grow under almost any conditions."
"Okay," he continued. "Whose garden is this?"
"Human beings," I replied, baffled. "Is this a trick question?"
"No," Eric promised. "I meant, who does this garden belong to? Who tends it, who takes care of it, who owns it? Bought it and paid for it?"
"Oh," I finally figured it out; generations of nuns would have been proud. "The gardener's son. It's his garden."
"And it's a protected garden. The humans are protected from Lucien Clair. He can entice them, lure them, deceive them, and if they choose he can take their very souls. But he can't kill them. Death is a weapon he doesn't have over human beings."
It was no wonder Lucien was acting like a kid in a candy store. We weren't human, and we weren't in our own garden. Lucien had said something about that earlier, but I hadn't known what he meant by it. Now I did. Lucky Lucien, he'd gotten two victims for the price of one.
There was really no point in going on. I could feel the despair seeping in from Eric's mind as well. I hoped that although semiautomatic guns were messy and nasty, they would also be quick and relatively painless. But of course, there was no way to know ahead of time. I stopped in my tracks.
"Well?" Lucien urged.
"It's over," I said.
I felt the comfort and approval coming from Eric, even as I could sense the lingering despair. I tasted fear, and wondered if it was his or mine or both of us together.
"What?" Lucien demanded.
"It's over," I repeated, "The keys are gone. Destroyed. They were melted down during World War II, when I was part of the French resistance."
Lucien looked stunned, as if he couldn't quite understand my words.
"When the Nazis came and occupied France, I joined the resistance," I explained. "I donated the keys to Aedin to the cause. Everyone was donating metal of every kind."
"You melted them?" Lucien asked, clearly enraged at the thought.
"Not everyone liked Hitler and Mussolini as much as you obviously did," I replied.
It was a stupid thing to say. Especially to the furious creature holding the semiautomatic gun. To say that Lucien was furious was a complete understatement. His rage was so deep and powerful it was as if it had a life of its own. And spewing from his mouth was steady stream of obscenities, some of which I had never even heard before, and that's saying a lot, considering how long I've lived in the garden of the humans.
What was amazing to me, and absolutely mesmerizing, was the fact that Lucien was still so incredibly beautiful to look at, despite the filth flowing from his lips. Finally, he either ran out of words, or simply decided it was time to cut his losses and kill us.
"Well," he said pleasantly, "at least this little adventure won't prove to be a total loss."
I was holding Eric's hand when Lucien began firing. I suppose we could have tried to run, but trust me, you can't run from a semiautomatic gun. The spray of high-powered bullets streamed out of the gun, showering us both in a deadly rain. I felt the impact. I'm not sure which of us let go first, but I clearly recall falling to the ground as if in slow motion, and watching with fascinated wonder as the snow began to turn red.
I could hear Lucien laughing delightedly. And I thought how sad it was that my last coherent thoughts would be about the sound of his satisfied laughter. I waited for my mind to slip into that final darkness, but instead I felt pain. A steadily growing pain, at very specific points along my body. The snow around me was still red with my blood, but I could fell my strength returning, which made no sense at all.
I glanced over, to see Eric sitting up, a look of wonder on his face.
"We're healing," he said. "Look at your hand."
My hand felt like it was on fire, but as I gazed at it in disbelief, I saw the blood cease its flowing, and the skin replacing itself. Suddenly, there was no sign of where the wound had been, and my hand no longer burned. Other parts of me still did, but now I almost welcomed the pain, because I knew what it meant.
At about the same time Lucien also realized what was happening. His laughter stopped abruptly and turned into a sound I hope never hear again. Rage. Impotence. Hatred. Insanity. There aren't words to describe it, not in any language.
I sat up, and Eric reached down and hauled me to my feet. Both of us were still bleeding in places, but less profusely. Lucien had thrown away his gun in disgust.
"This isn't your garden," he said angrily. "You don't belong here."
Eric put his arm around me.
"You can't be protected here," Lucien added. "You're not human. You should be dead. You should both be dead —"
His voice rose a little on that last word.
Eric and I remained silent. We had no argument to offer. Although it wouldn't have made Lucien any happier, we both agreed with him. Neither of us had any idea why we weren't bloody corpses looking quite messy and nasty right now.
Except somehow, we weren't. And then it occurred to me: that old adage, which in the end, proved to be absolutely true. It's not what you know, it's who you know. I wasn't human, and this wasn't my garden. But in Aedin, long ago, I had been the gardener's very special assistant. And in his son's garden, I had been given protection.
Wrong garden, wrong species. And it still didn't matter. We'd been given refuge and love. I suppose, it was a bit anti-climactic, but with a semiautomatic gun laying on the bloodstained ground, anti-climactic was okay with me. My heart was still racing a mile a minute.
Of course Lucien could never grasp the concept of love. He left us, looking just is beautiful as he had from the moment I first laid eyes on him. Given his true nature, I would have expected something a little more dramatic. Perhaps a flash of green glowing light, accompanied by the acrid smell of sulfur and brimstone. Or even to see Lucien sink slowly onto the ground and transformed into the serpent I knew he could be, slithering away over the snow. Even something out of a Harry Potter movie would have been more frightening. But real life is never like the movies. Lucien didn't crumble. He didn't turn into a Lord-Voldemort-esque creature, or get swallowed up by the ground. He simply walked away, and remained the most beautiful creature I had ever laid eyes on. Perfect. Mesmerizing. Incredible.
We heard a car start. Still, we waited a long while after the sound of the engine had disappeared into the night. Then Eric used his cell phone to call a cab from Saratoga, and it delivered us to his apartment in Malta.
"You know," he told me, "you could pass for early twenties with your hair up, different clothes, and a little makeup."
"I'm sure I could," I agreed.
"You don't have you heart set on being a professional French foreign exchange student, do you?" he asked.
"No," I replied. "I have my heart set on you."
Which explains why Aimee and Eric Jardin, a young married couple, always seem to move every few years. My own happily-ever-after, with a moving van substituted for the white charger.