Born in Darkness, Page 2J. Kenner
“It’s a lot to take in, I know.” He opened the door wider. “Why don’t you get in, Lily? We really should talk.”
My name echoed through the night I looked around, wary, but there was no one else around. “I want answers, you son of a bitch.”
He shook his head, and I could imagine him muttering, tsk, tsk. “Hard to believe you’re the one all the fuss is about, but the big guy must know what he’s doing, right?”
“But look at you, staring at me like I’m talking in Akkadian. To you I probably am. You’re exhausted, right? I tell you, jumping right into the testing . . . it’s just not the best method.” He shook his head, and this time the tsk, tsk actually emerged. “But do they ask me? No. I mean, who am I? Just old Clarence, always around to help. It’s enough to give a guy an inferiority complex.” He patted my shoulder, making contact before I could pull away. “Don’t you worry. This can all wait until tomorrow.”
“What testing? What’s tomorrow? And who are you?”
“All in good time. Right now,” he said, “I’m taking you home.”
And before I could ask how he planned to manage that, because I had no intention of getting into the limo with him, he reached over and tapped me on the forehead. “Go to sleep, pet. You need the rest.”
I wanted to protest, but couldn’t. My eyes closed, and the last thing I remember was his amphibian grin as my knees gave out and I fell to the sidewalk at the frog-man’s feet.
I woke up on a bathroom floor, curled around the base of a porcelain throne. My stomach felt strangely empty, and the lingering taste of bile hung in my mouth.
Other than that, I had no general complaints, and the fact that I was alive—despite Lucas Johnson, despite the freakish monster, and despite the strange little frog-man—seemed something to celebrate.
At the same time, I had to wonder if it had all been a dream.
It must have been, right?
I sat up, then dragged my fingers though my hair, frowning to find the hair longer than I expected. I drew my hand back and looked at it, only to find that it wasn’t my hand at all. Or my toenails, painted that dainty shade of pink. And the Hello Kitty pajamas I now wore were most definitely not my style.
Bile rose in my throat again as I remembered how out of it I’d felt when I’d been running for my life, and I reached up, grabbing the side of the sink, and hauled myself to my feet.
I pressed the heels of my palms against the countertop and stared at the face staring back at me.
Who the hell is that?
The girl I usually saw in the mirror carried ten extra pounds that refused to come off—probably because she refused to give up the Kit Kat bars she kept behind the counter at Movies & More. Her ears were double-pierced and she had a single, tasteful stud through the side of her nose. Her thick mousy hair was cut into a super-short, no-muss, no-fuss style.
That girl no longer stared back at me.
Instead, the face in the mirror had perfectly trimmed coal-black hair that hit midway down her shoulders and moved with all the grace and shine of a shampoo commercial. Her green eyes sparkled under plucked eyebrows that arched slightly in an expression of either interest or disdain. Her complexion was perfect, not the ruddy skin I was used to seeing. And tiny diamond studs graced her single-pierced ears.
A strange wooziness came over me, and I realized that I was hyperventilating. Purposefully, I dropped onto the toilet seat, tucked my head between my knees, and breathed.
What the fuck?
What the fuck is going on?
I couldn’t be someone else. It was impossible. That didn’t happen. It wasn’t real.
I am me.
Me, I thought, and I could prove it.
Frantically, I yanked the Hello Kitty top up, exposing my belly. My fingers probed taut, unblemished skin that had never once been stabbed in the gut. Confused and desperate, I shoved the waist of the loose pants down, searching for a wound but finding nothing. But I remembered it. The searing pain. The grin on Johnson’s face as he plunged in the knife. And the pungent smell of blood and bile as it gushed out of my body.
I trembled—the kind of shaking that’s deep in your bones. This wasn’t the kind of thing that happened to people. It wasn’t the kind of thing that happened at all.
I’d turned into someone else.
My body might have bled out, but the essence of me went on, alive and kicking in this stranger who was becoming more familiar by the second.
I didn’t understand how, but I couldn’t escape the truth staring back at me from the mirror. That was me. No matter how unfamiliar she looked, that body with cutesy PJs, perfectly trimmed hair, and unblemished tummy really now housed me.
Dear Lord, how?
For that matter, Why?
I turned away from the mirror, my whole body shaking. Then I saw the crumpled white gown on the floor, and the shakes turned into near convulsions. A bloom of red spread out from the bodice, and my mouth went dry. Oh, God. Oh, God. Oh, God.
I turned back to the mirror and ripped the T-shirt off over my head. As with my belly, my chest—or, rather, this chest—was unblemished, the skin marked only by a small tattoo on her left breast. I looked closer and realized the tattoo was a small dagger. Not what I’d expect from a girl who wears Hello Kitty jammies and keeps bubble bath above the toilet, but hardly nefarious.
There was, in fact, nothing about this body that suggested foul play. Certainly nothing that suggested she’d recently been cut by a knife or stabbed with a dagger. But how could that be possible? She’d been covered in warm blood. I’d been covered. A sacrifice strapped to a cold slab. A feast for a monster.
There had to have been a cut. A stab. Something.
But there was nothing. Just my own memories, and those were faded and spotty.
I sank to my knees and bent forward, resting my forehead on the cool bathroom tile, the sacrificial gown clutched tight in my hands as I fought to remember. To organize my thoughts and bring some semblance of normalcy to a completely not normal situation.
My memories. My life. My own personal nightmare.
Lucas Johnson. Rose. The haunted terror in her eyes. My rage. My promise to keep her safe.
The taunting snarl on his tattooed face before I’d pulled the trigger, intending to blow him away. And the icy glint of steel before he shoved the knife deep into my flesh. The horror of knowing that I was dying and that, despite my best efforts, he would live on.
Something new teased at the edge of my memory—the sensation of falling, the thrum of wings beating against the stale air, and a brilliant light that both warmed and blinded me. A soft voice had emerged from the light. A voice with a beautiful face and gossamer wings. An angel, and it offered to let me live. Offered to pull me back from the nipping flames of hell.
Offered me a future and a chance to atone for my multitude of sins. Lying. Stealing. Drugs. Larceny.
And, yes, attempting cold-blooded murder.
I didn’t fully understand the bargain I’d made, but at the time, I made the only choice I could.
I chose life. But as I stood up and once again faced the reflection in the mirror, I had to admit that this wasn’t exactly what I’d expected.
My body’s name was Alice Elaine Purdue. Appropriate, I thought, because I’d definitely entered Wonderland.
I’d learned this tantalizing tidbit of information the old-fashioned way: I’d snooped.
More specifically, I’d poked around in the medicine cabinet until I found something with my body’s name printed on it. A good plan, as it turned out, because Alice was the proud owner of both birth control pills and a prescription cream for athlete’s foot.
I grimaced. Considering the firm state of Alice’s ass and the fungal state of her feet I assumed we’d been working out regularly, then showering in the public stalls without wearing flip-flops.
I scowled down at my toes
, which thankfully didn’t itch, then decided that it was time to leave the bathroom. It opened, conveniently enough, into a bedroom, and I stepped inside the darkened room, lit only by the single bedside lamp. The room was sparse, but still looked lived in. Two paperbacks were tossed carelessly onto the floor beside the bed, both Jane Austen novels. A variety of pastel necklaces hung from a hook glued near the top of the bureau mirror. A pink leather jacket lay balled up on the floor, half in and half out of the closet.
Beside the lamp was a small snapshot, snug in a cheap, plain frame. In the picture, a huge black cat sprawled on the back of a sofa, two adolescent girls snuggling against it from behind. I recognized the face that belonged to Alice. Or, rather, to me. The other girl seemed older, but so similar in appearance I assumed she must be a sibling. Serious brown eyes with long lashes above high cheekbones. Thick black hair pulled back in a high ponytail. A firm, strong mouth that seemed determined not to smile, though Alice was locked in an expression of perpetual amusement.
Who was she, this serious girl? I stared into her eyes, thinking of Rose and searching for answers. I found none until I took the more practical approach of sliding the picture out of the frame. On the back, in a delicate hand that I assumed belonged to a parent, someone had written Alice and Rachel snuggle with Asphalt. No year. No convenient notation—“sister” or “cousin.” Tears pricked behind my eyes. Somewhere out there, Alice had a family that knew nothing of what had become of her.
Just like my stepfather. Just like Rose.
Agitated, I tossed the photo onto the bed, then stood and moved to the window. I pushed aside the blinds and looked out at the gray buildings that lined the opposite side of the street. Cracked cement steps led up to front doors littered with mailboxes tacked to the siding, and gray paint peeled lazily under the crisp autumn sun.
Sun. Apparently Alice had blackout shades in her bedroom. What I’d thought was predawn was actually late afternoon.
I pressed my head against the cool glass, focusing on the gray facades that faced me. Something solid and permanent and real. Something on which I could ground my undulating emotions. Even that view, though, wasn’t doing the trick. I didn’t know this street, these houses, and a tremor of panic shot through me. I quashed it firmly, hating my cowardice.
Everything I’d been through so far, and this was what was getting to me? A freaking street address?
No. Chill. I drew in a breath, trying to get my head in order. The fungus cream had a pharmacy label, and the address was Boarhurst. Not the Flats—not home—but I knew Boarhurst. Once a small community in and of itself, it had been consumed by Boston like so many other villages, now clinging to their identity as distinct neighborhoods within the Boston sprawl. My various entrepreneurial activities had put me on the T to Boarhurst a couple of times. I didn’t know the place like the back of my hand, but I knew enough to get around.
I let the blinds fall back into place, and darkness once again consumed the room.
I stood there, somewhat calmer now that I at least knew where I was, and I tried to fit the rest of the pieces together. I’d died. That much I knew. And I’d come back. That much had become obvious.
What I didn’t understand was why.
“Cause you’re our girl,” a voice said. “You’re the girl who can keep the demons from opening the gate. Keep that puppy locked up tight.”
I spun around, my heart pounding, and found myself staring at the mysterious frog-man, a beer in his hand and his fedora slung low over his face.
“Get the hell out of here,” I said, pressing my back against the wall, fear so intense I thought it would shoot out of my fingertips.
“Hey, hey, hey.” He held up his hand in a peacekeeping gesture. “I know you’re scared, but give me a break. I threw my back out lugging you from the limo to this apartment. And then I had to suffer through hours of boredom while you conked out on the bathroom floor. Now that you’re back in the land of the living, I’m hardly going to vamoose now.” He took a step toward me, and I tensed, ready to attack and run if need be. “Come on, kid. You’re gonna hurt my feelings. I ain’t here to hurt you. I’m here to help you.”
“Bite me.” I shot him my best tough-girl glare, slightly less effective considering the Hello Kitty pajamas. “Now, get out of here before I scream my head off.”
The frog-man just grinned. “Call me Clarence, okay? The frog thing isn’t too flattering.”
“Dammit,” I said. “Stay out of my head.” He’d done that number on the street, and I hadn’t liked it any better back then. “And I want answers. Right now. You can start with who you are.”
“Think of me as a human resources professional. I’m here to guide you through your first day on the job.” His forehead scrunched up. “All the days, actually, but first things first.”
“Job? What job? What are you talking about?”
“It’ll come back to you.”
“Humor me, and tell me now.”
“It’s the chance of a lifetime, kid. An opportunity for redemption. A chance to do some real good. To make the world the kind of place it should be. A paradise instead of a cesspool.”
I shivered, suddenly fearful I did understand; my mind simply refused to go there no matter how hard the frog-man pushed.
“Clarence,” he said, creeping me out again by climbing into my head. “And yes. Battle of biblical proportions. The ultimate battle of good against evil. A war that’s been raging for millennia, and still rages today. The kind of thing that would make reality-TV executives drool if only they could get their cameras in on it. But it’s down to the zero hour now. Things are heating up. Bad things. Apocalypse things. And that, Lily, is where you come in.
“Me?” My voice rose with both fear and incredulity. “Are you nuts? What does the Apocalypse have to do with me? And what did you mean, I can make sure the gate stays locked? What gate?”
He moved his hands through the air as if reciting the title of a movie, its name up in lights. “Gate. To. Hell. Eh? Eh? Gets your juices flowing, doesn’t it.”
I blinked. “Gate to hell? Gate to hell?”
“Damn straight, kid. The Ninth Gate opens, and the underworld swarms in. And I’m not talking the trickle of these past millennia, but a full-blown onslaught. There’s an army gathering on the other side, all set to come through when the dimensions line up.”
My head was spinning. “Dimensions? What are you talking about?”
“You think demons can cross over any old time? They can’t. That’d be some serious havoc, wouldn’t it, girl? No, demons can only cross over when a portal is open.”
I was almost afraid to ask. “So how do portals get open?”
“Got a few sorcerers in this world who know how to do the dark tricks, but even they can’t hold a portal open for long. Get one, maybe two, demons at a time that way. But when there’s a natural convergence like we got coming up . . . ”
“Okay, slow down. What the devil are you talking about?”
“The next full moon, pet. We’ve got a full-fledged interdimensional convergence coming up. You know what that means?”
“I’m going to go out on a limb and guess the end of the world.” I wished I could say I didn’t believe any of this crap, but I’d just awakened in another body, so I was pretty much all about the bizarre right then.
“My star pupil. Only trust me when I say there are a hell of a lot more than four horsemen. Do you think that would be pretty? Do you think the world as we know it would survive?”
“Wait,” I said, because even though my tolerance for all things freaky had increased, this still crossed the line into seriously fucked-up. “Back up. What?”
“A group of demons is preparing to open the last of the nine gates to hell,” he said slowly and clearly. “Over the course of millennia, the other eight gates have been permanently sealed. But this one—” He cut himself off with a shake of the head. “Well, they just might manage to get this one open.”
. . . But . . . . . .as still about seven steps behind him. “Even if everything you’re saying is true, what’s that got to do with me?”
“The prophecy. That’s where you come in. You’re gonna protect it, Lily. You’re gonna stop the demons and lock the gate up tight.”
“Are you crazy?” I asked, thinking that he most likely was. “I’m not—I mean, how? How could I possibly manage that?”
He lifted the bottle of beer, his head cocked to one side as he examined me critically. “You really don’t know? You remember so little?”
“Dammit, Clarence. Just tell me.”
“You’re an assassin, Lily. And if the prophecy is true, you’re a damn important one, too. It’s you who’s going to kill the demons. It’s you who’s going to stop the ceremony.”
“An assassin,” I repeated, completely dumbfounded. “That’s insane.”
“Is it? You’ve already picked up a gun to hunt down a man. Now you’ll use a blade.”
“No. No.” An assassin? Not damn likely. “I did the hunting and killing thing once. Once,” I repeated, my voice tight. “And I had good reason. That son of a bitch destroyed my sister. Fourteen years old, and she was in the hospital for a week, her face so swollen I could barely recognize her, her vagina so ripped she needed stitches. Fourteen years old.”
I could barely see him through the red haze of my memories. “He sent her postcards after. Called her. Stalked her.” I caught a memory of Rose falling to her knees in terror, and me standing right there, promising to make it all better even as I burned with rage and the violent desire to rip Johnson to pieces.
“He wasn’t going after her when you went out to kill him,” Clarence said, his voice as flat as his eyes.
I lifted my chin. No way—no way—was I feeling guilty for that. “He destroyed her. He fucking destroyed her and they just kicked him back onto the street.” I trembled, sucked in a hard breath, and faced Clarence dead-on. “I went after him. Only him. And I had damn good reasons. But I’m not a killer. That’s not me. It’s not who I am. It’s not what I do.”