NOW -- a Sneak Peek at "The Devil She Knew...."
Tomas winked at his tenant as he asked the phone, "What's up?"
"Mr. Martinez?" Speaking of self-imposed fragility! The use of his surname, the waver in the voiceit had to be Marcy Bridges from the third floor. She was extremely polite, that one, despite her apparent terror of him.
"Last time I looked, that was me." Tomas used his free hand to drape more fake foliage on clear hooks he'd installed above the living-room drapes. "What can I do for you, Ms. Bridges?"
"I shouldn't have called," she said quickly, which annoyed him further. Any good rabbit should know that running was practically an invitation to be chased.
"Ah, but you did call." Tomas jumped effortlessly down from the ladder so that he could better concentrate on her meek little Midwestern voice. "Might as well tell me why."
Whatever she said next came out so rushed and breathy that he couldn't understand, so he frowned and asked, "Pardon?"
She said, more slowly, "There's something something bad in my closet. I'm sorry. I didn't know who else to call."
Some days, he wished this building had more male tenants. He sighed and bent to retrieve another strand of autumnal garland from Mrs. Roberts' bin. "Is it a spider?"
"Uhm" Marcy's voice wavered. "Nooo. Not a spider."
"A mouse?" He noticed that Mrs. Roberts looked even more concerned about mice than she had about him communing with the dead, and grinned at her.
Marcy Bridges wasn't answering. Not a good sign. Maybe he should be worried about her closet after all. "Something larger?"
"Arhwuhh..." Was she covering her mouth? Then she simply whispered, "Please hurry."
The please, timid but clearly desperate, worried him.
"I'm on my way." Tomas dropped silk leaves back into their bin. "Do not worry. I will handle it." Whatever it was.
These were his apartments, and he would accept no other outcome.
After jogging downstairs for a mouse trap and a bat, Tomas took the old, rumbling ironwork elevator to the third floor. When he knocked 3B's door, he startled a scream from inside.
Something was definitely wrong. Marcy Bridges might not be the most courageous woman he'd ever met--whenever she was forced to request his help, she seemed worried he might murder her in cold blood rather than fix her plumbing. Probably something to do with his long hair. The tattoo circling his left wrist. The fondness for black leather. The un-vanilla heritage.
But a scream? That sounded like she might be up against more than figments of her fearful imagination.
Tomas banged on the door harder. "Ms. Bridges? Hey, you okay?"
Locks rattled. In a moment, Marcy flung the door open.
Tomas stared, grip tightening uselessly on the baseball bat.
She was wearing a towel. Just a towel. He'd never really thought of Marcy Bridges as a looker before this moment. She had light brown hair and a medium build, nothing flashy or sexy about her except maybe her mouth. Her wide, inviting mouth usually seemed out of place on so timid a woman. Or so he'd thought. That had annoyed him, too, the waste of such a mouth.
Now, what with all that soft, pale, naked skin, her mouth did not look out of place at all.
Her wide green eyes, darting back to the apartment behind her, did.
"What's wrong?" he demanded.
"I can't find Snowball," she said, voice shaking. "We've got to find Snowball!"
Snowball was her little white cat. Tomas knew that because he had never once crossed her threshold without some plea, in person or in writing, for him not to let her furry feline demon escape. Go figure, that she'd be the one to lose the cat, except.
Well, she did say that whatever had frightened her was bigger than a mouse. "Is the cat in the closet?" he asked.
Marcy plastered a hand to her mouth and moaned.
* * *
Normally the man kind of, well, concerned her. Tomas Martinez dressed like a biker. He wore his long, dark hair in a braid down his back. His golden eyes, like a tiger's, always managed to look simultaneously bored and predatory, neither of which Marcy enjoyed.
But she had worse fears to contend with. The closet. Her culpability. And now her cat.
Not Snowball. Not in that strange fire.
"I haven't seen her since I got out of the shower," she explained, hurrying back to the bedroom with Tomas stalking after her. The cat was her roommate, her friend, the closest thing she had to a child. Where was she? "We played shower tag--she likes to balance on the ledge of the tub and pat at me through the curtain--but then I came in here."
The bedroom looked normal.
Her step slowed, hopeful. She even reached out and smoothed a wrinkled corner of her bedcovers. Maybe she'd imagined it. Maybe.
"Hey, lady." Tomas caught Marcy's arm with a large, warm hand, forcing her to either fully stop or try to drag him forward with her sheer strength. Not having an abundance of sheer strength, she faced him. He looked as solid as ever, somewhat annoyed, competent and dangerous. For the first time, she felt relieved that he looked dangerous.
Fire with fire, and all that.
He said, "Not that I mind, but--have you noticed you're wearing nothing but a towel?"
Oh. Was she?
Marcy clutched the edges of the bath-sheet closer together, then saw that the maintenance man's golden gaze, though still predatory, looked increasingly less bored or annoyed. Awareness oozed down her spine, and not from cold. Was he?
"My cat may be in Hell and you're scoping me out?"
"In Hell?" repeated Tomas Martinez, blankly. He did not deny the scoping. In fact, he blatantly continued to scope.
Marcy pointed at the closet door, and her towel began to slip. She caught it, then pointed again. "There's something in my closet and, well." Only one way to say it. "I think it's some kind of portal to a hell dimension."
It took Tomas a long time to look away from her perilous towel, toward the closet. Then he squinted back at her, even more darkly intrigued. "Have you maybe been drinking, or have I?"
He shrugged with a little sideways nod of his head, then went calmly to the closet door--and opened it.
Marcy closed her eyes.
"Here, kitty kitty kitty," he said, sounding more like he wanted to capture and eat the kitty than like he wanted to give it yum-yum treats and chin rubs.
Marcy winced her eyes back open.
Clothes filled her closet, hanging neatly from rods lining both sides. A long, six-drawer dresser stood against the inside wall under the shorter items. Her shoes sat in ordered pairs on top of that.
Not a bit of it burned with the fires of eternal damnation.
Good! Except "That's not right," she said.
"Not right?" Tomas drew the door wider, to show her. "Ms. Bridges, if this is Hell, then Martha Stuart must be Satan. Not that people haven't had their suspicions."
Normally, Marcy would have been more startled by the maintenance man's wicked smile. His sense of humor made him seem a little less dangerous and in some ways, a little more. Now, she had no time to be startled. She took a step closer. "No. I mean, this isn't how it was before."
Tomas shrugged and turned back to the closet. "Kitty? Hey, cat. Gata. Get your fuzzy butt out here."
Marcy moved up behind him, then leaned slowly around. Please don't let Snowball be in there. Please let it all be some kind of delusion. Her bare shoulder brushed his arm--and the air seemed to lurch around them. A gout of flame spiraled into existence in the center of the closet. It flared outward into a fiery ring, deepening in the center
"Madre de dios!" Tomas yanked Marcy against his side and spun as if to protect her as the widening ring became a tunnel. His hands were hard, and his broad shoulders blocked the flame. He pushed them both away from the closet, but his voice cracked. "What the hell is that?"
Marcy couldn't answer. She was numbly watching a flock of darting, black-winged things spill out of the portal in her closet, amidst the smoke, and wheel around her bedroom. One of them caught in her curtains, thrashing about. Another knocked a picture off the wall. They left black, smoky streaks across the walls and ceiling.
Again, she heard the throb of laughter, deep and malevolent and inescapable.
Give up, it seemed to say. Send this fool away and give up yourself, give up your reality, give it all.
Despondency washed over her, drew her down, pulled her under.
Tomas startled Marcy by spitting out a curse and catching her under the arms. His thumbs dug into her flesh, very near her breasts, holding her up. Marcy blinked, realizing that she'd been sinking and was halfway to the floor, hanging from his hold.
Embarrassed and disoriented, she tried to regain her bare feet while the maintenance man kicked the closet door shut. He didn't make it easier by dragging her out of the bedroom and shouldering that door closed too.
Then he let her crumple to the cold linoleum, opening his grip only once she was safely down. She didn't mind, what with him pressing his back against the bedroom door as if to stop anything from getting out. He seemed even larger, from her vantage on the floor. His eyes looked wild in more ways than one.
"What was that?" he demanded again.
"You heard it too?" Please have heard it too.
"Heard? What, heard? Did you see that thing? What is it?"
"I don't know!" Which was trueshe hadn't had a lot more time to grasp this than he had. So why did she feel like she was lying? "I left Snowball in the bathroom, and I opened my closet and it happened."
"Why this morning?" But he didn't seem to expect an answer; he was wondering out loud. "Why here?"
I think it's because I did a spell. She had to tell him. She always did the right thing, and there Tomas Martinez stood like some dark street warrior between her and danger; of course she had to tell him. She parted her lips, drew a bracing breath.
And she couldn't force the words out.
"I" she tried, looking up at him from the linoleum, but her throat closed up. What she knew about magic was new-age theory, maybe the emotional attributes of certain colors, scents, crystals. Nothing she'd read had led her to believe she could summon anything so dramatic as whatever was swirling around in her closet. Snowball was gone. Now she'd drawn Tomas Martinez into danger. And something possibly evil and definitely otherworldly seemed to be speaking in her head.
Could this really be her fault?
"I" she tried again, then sighed in defeat. She couldn't look up at this man and confess something this big. Not yet. "Maybe this is because it's my birthday?"
Tomas stared down through his tiger eyes. "Happy birthday."
"Thank you," whispered Marcy.