2845 E University St – Apt 1
Springfield, MO 65804
Don't Fear The Reaper
This whole nasty supernatural mess started on your average early autumn night. My tiny studio apartment was a complete mess, as usual, art supplies strewn here and there; my futon, battered chair, and TV – the only large, non-art-related things in my apartment – shoved against one wall. I hunted around for a black tank top and jeans, dressing in the light streaming through my western-facing window. I slid around my living room, getting ready for work, unconsiously humming a pop song under my breath. My best friend subjected me to trashy dance music a little too often, apparently, but I was running too late to care. I only just managed to find my favorite gold earrings and dragon armband buried under a pile of possibly clean clothes before tearing out the door.
I walked the city side streets, cutting across the more unsavory part of town to get to my aunt's bar, Valhalla. As she liked to say, "if I'm going to run a business that caters to dead-beats who like to get drunk and brawl, I might as well give it a nice manly Viking name." It takes a special kind of lady to open up a rowdy tavern. Well, let's just say that there's a reason that Valhalla doesn't need to employ bouncers.
The bar was opening up as I sauntered through the door, greeted by a chorus of "Hi Jade"s. I tossed a wave over my shoulder at the girls who worked the floor – they were all blonde-haired and busty, dressed like medieval wenches, to fit the theme and draw customers. I've never been sure how Aunt Tara could get away with that, with discrimination laws and all. My black curls, warm skin, and almond-shaped eyes made me stand out from the others, which is why I got stuck mixing drinks behind the bar instead of being out on the floor. That, and the fact that I have a rather extreme reaction to drunks who tried to grope me. Aunt Tara took me off the floor after the second brawl I started. I didn't mind, having the bar as a barrier made for better tips at the end of the night.
People started to filter in as the light faded from the western sky. I took orders and made drinks, flirted with the sweet guys and rebuffed the aggressive ones. My shift dragged on into the night. It was Tuesday, which was typically a slower night, but the bar was even emptier than usual. A few of our regulars were scattered around, drinking alone. Even on weekdays, the bar was full of laughter and yelling and rock'n'roll – but tonight someone had put a twenty in the jukebox and turned on the country music. Small wonder the mood was glum, what with some guy warbling about his ex-wife and dead dog.
One of my regulars, Henry Malone, staggered up to the bar. His eyes were bloodshot, his hair mussed and greasy under a ball cap. He slumped down onto one of the stools, muttering under his breath. He slammed an empty shot glass down on the bar. "Whiskey. Now." His speech was slurred, but not enough that I couldn't make out the undercurrent of viciousness in his voice.
I stared at him in surprise. Henry was normally a good patron – stayed until close and drank a lot of cheap beer, but didn't bother anyone. Tonight was different. I grabbed his glass and put it away. "You're done, Henry. You've had entirely too much."
The man lunged across the bar with unexpected speed. He grabbed my wrist and squeezed. "I'm a goddamn paying customer, and you're going to do what I tell you, you mouthy little brat. My wife died ten years ago today, and I'm bloody celebrating, got it?" His eyes were nearly popped out of his face, and he looked half-mad with grief and rage.
I stared at his hand where it gripped my own. The veins on the back of his hand were black and swollen, raised up from his leathery skin. I glanced up, seeing the same blackness in the veins under the filthy collar of his shirt. Black shadows crowded the edge of my vision, narrowing my focus to Malone's snarling face.
His hand suddenly released my wrist, and it was like the sun breaking through the clouds. Aunt Tara grabbed Henry by the shoulders and steered him out the door. I could hear her voice ripping him to shreds all the way across the room. She shoved the drunk out the front door and slammed it behind him.
I smiled faintly – I'd never met a man tough enough to stand up to my fiery Irish aunt. Even my father, her brother-in-law, had been half-terrified of her. But then, my dad wasn't exactly the bravest man on the planet. Or the most stable, for that matter. So maybe he wasn't the best judge of character.
Aunt Tara walked up and rested a hand on my shoulder. "Hey girl, you feeling okay? Looked like you were gonna pass out on me."
"Yeah, I'm good. His breath was terrible, made me dizzy for a minute." I flashed a grin at the skeptical woman in front of me. "Thanks for the save, boss-lady."
She smiled wryly. "No problem, Jadie. Call me if you need me, hear?" I nodded, but she leveled a look at me that clearly said "you'd better or else I'll whip your ass."
I sighed and waved her away. "Really, Aunt Tara, I'm fine. No need to get all mama-bear on me." She just wrinkled her nose and walked off, satisfied.
As the night wore on, I began to feel terrible – depressed and anxious and lethargic, all rolled into one, and I had no idea why. I'd stayed up far too late the day before, my eyes were burning in the smoky air, and my breath felt thick in my throat, choking me. As the clock ticked towards midnight, I felt more and more like Cinderella – I had to get the hell out of there.
The relief was nearly overwhelming Aunt Tara came to relieve me of my post. The night air in the alley behind the bar wasn't fresh and crisp, as it had been at my rural childhood home in the Midwest, but it was refreshing compared to the stifling haze inside. I tipped my head back and tried to find the stars in the smoggy sky. As I leaned against the bar wall, I heard a wheezing gasp. Instead of finding a passed-out drunk, I saw him.
Tall, lean, and deathly pale, he straightened from a crouch over a huddled form. Turning toward me, his black trenchcoat rippled like woven shadow. Shoulder-length silvery hair framed a face that was more striking than handsome. His cheekbones were too sharp, lips too thin, and I'm pretty sure no one has found a hooked nose like that attractive since Caesar. His eyes, though – they glowed electric blue. There was power there, and intensity, but a curious sense of weariness as well. They locked with my own green eyes, pinning me to the spot like a tack through butterfly wings. He broke the connection with a blink, stepped back, and faded into the darkness.
Gasping for air, I pressed the heel of my hand against my thundering heart. What the hell was that, anyways? Annoyed at myself for staring at the guy like some helpless heroine in a bad vampire movie, I leaned against the wall of the bar to catch my breath. After a moment, I remembered the figure I saw huddled behind the man in black. It was an older man, curled into a ball on the ground. Cautious, I walked over to his prone form, realizing who he was: Henry Malone. I leaned down to shake him, only to find him unresponsive. His face was covered in the swollen black veins I'd thought I'd imagined in the bar. A cold fist squeezed my heart as I dropped to my knees and checked his pulse – nothing. No heartbeat. And no other marks on him, either. He was just curled up on the ground, hand still clutching his chest.
Shivering, I bolted back inside. Aunt Tara called 911 and closed up shop early, breaking out some of her good brandy. The other girls lingered around, fear in their bright eyes. I cradled my own snifter of brandy, mind replaying the scene over and over again.
The cops said that Henry probably had a heart attack. He was the right age, and wasn't in the greatest shape. They said nothing about the black tracings under his skin, and gave me an odd look when I asked them what it meant. One of the EMTs patted my shoulder and said something about the shock of finding a corpse. He murmured something to one of the cops, who guided me to his car, compassion in his voice. I spent the ride home thinking.
I knew the paramedic was wrong; Henry hadn't just fallen over dead from a heart attack. His dead body wasn't the first I'd seen – both my parents were dead, and three of my grandparents. I'd been to more funerals in the past ten years than most people my age had ever attended. But none of them had looked that...wrong. Not even my father's, and he'd shot himself in the head. For some reason, he was all I could think about. I remembered him pacing restlessly in our living room, telling me about the demons that ate souls – about how one had killed my mother and would kill me, too, if I wasn't careful. He saw shadows in every corner, death in every person. My old therapist told me it was metaphorical, that he just couldn't deal with my mother's death. She had thought he was crazy. Maybe I had imagined the ugly black markings – maybe I was crazy, too.
I walked in my front door and picked up my art supplies. Painting was the only therapy that had ever truly worked, so I turned off my brain and let my hands work for a while before slumping onto my futon. Sleep was a long time in coming, and even when it finally pulled me under, I dreamt of writhing darkness, hands reaching out to me, and a skull with burning blue eyes.
A loud crash woke me. Groggy, I propped myself up and rubbed the grit from my eyes. I felt like I'd had less sleep than usual – like I didn't go to bed right after my shift at the bar. Something weird kept tickling the back of my brain, like a half-remembered dream, but I brushed it aside. A little grumpy, I glared at whoever had just dared to come barging into my house so early – on my day off, no less.
My best friend shot me a wide grin. "Rise and shine, darlin'! It's a beautiful day outside."
I groaned and threw my pillow at her. "Go 'way, Renee. It's way too early for your loud mouth. And what the hell are you wearing? What did you do, go dumpster diving behind a thrift store?"
The freckle-spattered redhead ignored my good-natured grumbling, drug my beanbag chair over next to my futon, and plopped down on it. "For an artist, you sure as heck don't have much appreciation for creativity." She gave me this ridiculous self-satisfied look and smoothed the black satin pencil skirt she was wearing with orange and green striped leg warmers, a dark purple blouse, and a red lace scarf.
"Uh-huh." I let the matter drop – there was no arguing with Renee, most of the time. I sighed and settled myself with the blanket over my lap, running a hand through my unruly hair, still half-hairsprayed from the night before. "Why are you here so early, anyways? You're two hours early – which is about four hours earlier than you usually are."
The mismatched southern diva tucked her bare feet under her, leaning forward and smiling sweetly at me. Renee Sinclair only smiled like that when she was trying to get what she wanted – and it was never a good sign to have that smile focused on you. Renee had a way of getting what she wanted, and it had nothing to do with her daddy's money. She grabbed my arm in hers, turning it over to display my elaborate henna tattooing under a layer of paint stains.
I sighed and pulled my arm back. We'd had this particular conversation a million times already, but Renee's just that stubborn. "I've told you, it would look weird with all your freckles. Besides, it takes me hours to do, and lasts for weeks – if your dad saw it, he'd freak out long before you could explain that it's just a dye and will go away eventually. He already hates my guts."
She tossed her hair over a shoulder and pouted at me. "Come on, Jade, you promised. That's why I came over so early, so we'd have time before we went out! And Daddy can stick it, I'm a grown woman."
"A grown woman that still lives with her father."
Renee rolled her eyes at the familiar conversation. She hated her dad's rules but wouldn't move out. It irritated me, but Renee had never really been the independent type. We were an odd pair, and most people couldn't figure out why we got along, but Renee was like a sister to me.
"So. Henna?" Renee batted her false lashes at me.
I pulled myself out of bed with a groan, shuffling into my tiny bathroom. Picking up a hairbrush, I watched Renee in the mirror as I began to work the knots out of my hair. I knew a losing battle when I saw one, so I used the opportunity to fix the fashion disaster that was Renee. "I don't remember promising anything like that, but fine. If you lose the leg warmers, I'll henna your feet. Lose the scarf and I'll even let you wear those gold stilettos you've been lusting after."
Shrieking with glee, Renee peeled off the scarf and leg warmers – another likely-permanent addition to the clutter in my apartment, courtesy of Renee – and made a beeline for my small collection of shoes. My lips quirked upward in a small, exasperated smile. I shut the door on her and climbed into the shower, sighing in bliss as the hot water hit my shoulders. I washed and dried myself quickly, then pulled on a paint-splattered t-shirt and jeans.
Walking back out into my studio, I found Renee staring at one of my paintings. It was half-finished, a modern battlefield – the filthy back streets of my city, choked with blood and refuse, the bodies of cops and gang members. I'd been working on it, on and off, for months, ever since I'd moved out of my clean, well-maintained university dorm, and into a studio loft on the wrong side of town. The painting had always been missing something. But now...
Now he dominated my artwork, sporting details that I hadn't realized I'd noticed last night: his hands were in the pockets of his faded jeans and he was wearing a Pink Floyd shirt under his trenchcoat, but his shadow flared out behind him like a pair of huge black vulture's wings. Henry Malone was a twisted black corpse at his feet. A shiver ran down my spine – I didn't really remember painting that. And yet, it was clearly my work, and I had just washed a smudge of the expensive blue paint used for his eyes off of my arm.
Renee's voice jerked me from my stunned daze. "Jade, sweetie, this is hella creepy. But damn good. When'd you finish this?"
I shook my head and went to grab a water bottle from my mini-fridge, attempting to act casual. "Last night, I guess. After work. Like it?"
Renee pulled her rhinestone-encrusted red iPhone of her pocket, snapping a picture. "Damn right I like it, sister. In fact, I'm sending this to Paulo right now. You remember Paulo, right? Andrea's boyfriend, the one who owns the gallery? He keeps harping on me to send him some of your work for display, he loves to showcase local talent, but you know me, I always forget..."
I sort of tuned out Renee's rambling halfway through her monologue, nodding and making affirmative noises as necessary. The man in black occupied my attention. I had half-thought that I had dreamed him, but there he was, demanding my attention. It kinda ticked me off.
Renee's round face suddenly appeared in my field of vision, concern in her dark eyes. "Hey – you okay, sweetheart? You're looking a little pale. I mean, this painting's a lot darker than your normal stuff. You haven't been all depressed or anything, right? 'Cause I'd pretty much feel like a horrible person if you had, and I hadn't noticed."
I smiled a little at the concern in her voice. As shallow and selfish as Renee could be, there was a reason she was my best friend – despite her, shall we say, unique taste in fashion. "I'm okay, Ren. Just tired. Let's get to your feet, hm? Otherwise we won't have time before we have to leave." I decided not to mention Henry Malone. There was nothing she could do, and hearing about it would only stress her out.
Renee sniffed imperiously. "It's my party, it doesn't start until I get there." She grinned and flopped back down on my beanbag chair, wiggling her pedicured toes at me.
I just shook my head and grabbed my henna kit, sitting on the floor to decorate my friend's pale, mostly-unfreckled feet.
A few hours later, we made our fashionably late entrance to Renee's house party. The living room was choked with black cocktail dresses and grey sport jackets, worn by the business-types that worked for Renee's father. Every so often, however, I'd catch a glimpse of brilliant color or bohemian design, worn by one of Ren's actual friends. She'd always tended to run with the creative crowd – I think she trusted us more than the entourage of polite scavengers that came with being a rich girl.
Renee and I separated early in the evening; she left to go schmooze and I decided to talk to some people with brain cells. The night flew by, and I only had to tell off a few guys who thought slumming with a starving artist would be cool. All in all, it was a good distraction from the weird turn my life had taken the night before.
I was talking with Kaida and Marika, a couple of friends who had just gotten jobs as burlesque dancers, when I saw him again, not fifteen feet from me. He was gliding through the packed crowd with incredible grace, somehow managing not to touch anyone. People just sort of moved out of his way without seeming to see him at all. I narrowed my eyes in suspicion. He'd been with Henry last night – even if the guy didn't have anything to do with Henry's death, it was still weird that he would show up here. I was putting my money on creepy stalker. "The creeper guy over there, in the black trench? Have you guys ever seen him before?"
Kaida just gave me a look. "What are you talking about?"
"You don't see him? He's right over there." I waved my hand at him, as inconspicuously as possible.
Marika laughed and patted me on the arm. "Honey, I think you've had a few too many, huh? Why don't you go sit down for a minute?"
A weird feeling settled in my stomach. Why hadn't they seen him? I looked back over in his direction to find him still there, staring at me with raised eyebrows. I frowned and headed toward him. Before I could reach him, he melted back into the crowd.
A blonde girl who had been standing next to him began to wheeze, then bent double, gasping for breath. I noticed black traceries under the thin skin of her shoulders, reaching down her arms and under her dress. The people around us glanced in curiosity, but no one moved. I put my hand on her arm. "Hey, are you okay?"
The girl just shook her head. Darkness pressed in on my vision, and I quickly dropped my hand.
Renee suddenly appeared at my elbow, a concerned look on her face. "Melissa? Are you alright? Did you come with someone?" The girl shook her head again, harder, collapsing against Renee.
I turned to the room at large and used what Renee always called my "shut the hell up and listen" voice. "If any of you know CPR, come over here. And someone call an ambulance!" I turned back to Melissa, who wasn't making any noise anymore. She was turning blue. The blackness was creeping up over her jawline. It turned her pretty face into a Jackson Pollock painting.
Someone yelled that the paramedics were on their way, but I could tell it was too late. The young woman was unconscious in Renee's arms, veins black up to her cheekbones. A few minutes later – just as we began to hear sirens – Renee picked up one of Melissa's limp hands. At that moment, I looked up and saw the man again, not three feet from me. He leaned over and brushed his fingertips over the back of the girl's hand, up her arm to her shoulder, while Renee checked for a pulse. She shot me a panicked look.
"I can't feel anything!" I already knew, though. The veins at Melissa's temple, forehead, hairline – all were raised and swollen, just like Henry's had been. They squirmed and wriggled under her skin like thick black worms.
I pressed a hand against my mouth, turning away. My stomach roiled with nausea, and I took several deep breaths to try to calm it. I looked around, but the man was gone again. Twice I'd seen the man in black, and both times he'd left death in his wake.
For the second night in a row, I was in the company of a dead body. But this time, I was furious. Henry Malone was old, depressed, and probably had a heart condition. Melissa couldn't have been more than twenty-two, with her whole life ahead of her. Why did she have to die so suddenly?
I stayed with Renee after everyone else had left. She was upset, so I brought her back to my house. We sat in the dark and watched John Hughes movies, trying to rid ourselves of the lingering fear. I didn't mention the man in black – with any luck, I'd never see him again. But I've never had much faith in my own luck.