“THE EXECUTIONER” (Part I) Blurb:
When English student Alice Preda meets campus heartthrob Damian Novac, she develops the heaviest crush ever. She joins him and friends on a winter trip in the Carpathian Mountains, hoping to get close to him, but this choice will change her life abruptly.
When the train derails in high snow, the group of students seeks refuge at a cottage deep in the woods, but soon they start losing their minds and dying. Alice and Damian are among the survivors and return home, but the nightmare is far from over. She discovers that a shady corporation which conducts experiments on humans and which had engineered Damian into something monstrous many years before is on their trail.
A man of secrets and obscure powers, Damian might be a villain or a hero. Though aware of the danger he poses, Alice can’t fight the obsession that draws her ever deeper. Will Damian become her lover or her executioner?
I met him at twenty-two, while studying English Language and Literature at the Universitatea Ovidius in Constanta. It was my last year on the campus close to the deserted beaches of our ghostly town, and my first year back on market after a painful break-up. A short while after doomsday my ex had admitted – or simply alleged, as I hoped – that his interest had never been in me, but in the wealth of my father and the future that might’ve resulted from a union with me. Being the daughter of Tiberius Preda turned out to be a stigma rather than an advantage, and as a consequence I resorted to keeping the connection secret and my lifestyle modest.
So I proceeded carefully with my new love interest. The only problem was that I didn’t really possess any other means of standing out beside my father’s name and a set of freckles that made people go, “Aw, sweet,” rather than, “Wow, hot!”
Grooming posed a challenge, too. Foundation always ended up looking like unevenly distributed flour on my skin, and my hair galvanized like caramel wire no matter what I did. Ruxandra helped sometimes and spent hours on my styling, trying to cheer me up.
“You’ll learn, no worries,” she’d say.
She was wrong. I never did. And she finally gave up with a hopeless shake of her head. “God, Alice, you do have two left hands.”
I first saw him in the cafeteria, surrounded by a group of loud laughing, overconfident boys with iron pumped chests. He drew my attention like a magnet, and a glance around the cafeteria was enough to realize I wasn’t the only one interested in him. Tall, with waves of dark hair brushing his broad shoulders, and a remarkably well-muscled body under a white knit sweater, he had as good as all wenches around drooling over him.
“Damian Novac, med school,” Ruxandra whispered in my ear, noticing my dropped jaw. She tossed a strand of ebony hair off her shoulder with a graceful move. “They call him Bane ‘cause of the looks. Women’s bane.” Large grin.
“I don’t remember seeing him before,” I said, eyes still fixed on the delicious sight.
“Meds usually have classes at the Old University, but they’re with us two semesters.” Of course – the Old University was being refurbished.
She smiled in his direction. I didn’t dare do the same, but looked around like a fox watching for hunters, making up strategies before dodging out of the bushes. The last thing I needed was getting another bullet through my head.
Damian didn’t notice me that day, or the day after. Being petite had its advantages in matters of stealth, so I could observe him from afar for weeks. He was aloof, yet his eyes – striking, pale of color and glowing strangely in the light – always intent, as if his thoughts were fixed on something way beyond those walls and his cares way more serious than the infatuations of wannabe divas. He wasn’t oblivious to their advances, just utterly unimpressed.
His group of friends, nevertheless, always surrounded him, as if searching for his approval for everything they did. Even a throaty laugh and a slap on the shoulder were always accompanied by a furtive was-that-all-right glance. So an alpha, I concluded.
“No wonder we’re all leaving wet traces like snails when he’s around,” I once whispered to Ruxandra. She laughed her bold laugh.
“So love it when your sweet mouth picks up dirt, Alice.”
“I speak but the truth.”
We left the university giggling. At that age we were still able to speak the naked truth, no matter how ugly or dirty it was. We couldn’t care less about “social acceptability”.
We sat in the confinements of Montana, a nearby wooden pub that served as a haven for furious bikers on Saturday nights, when it reeked of beer and pot. But during the day it was nice and quiet. We had our peace drinking bad filtered coffee and making plans.
Ruxandra nagged at me to get over the disaster with my ex once and for all. She took her role as image consultant very seriously, while I came up with ways of manipulating destiny into “casual” bumping into Damian at a popular and jam-packed club – the Marquette, deep in the heart of the city – or at parties organized by fellow students.
It was at one of those parties at the dorms that I finally arranged to stumble into his arms with a glass of red wine. Ruxandra had forced me into a push-up bra, a red tank top and tight jeans, but I still looked like a malnourished, caramel-furred poodle. I hopped over legs and bottles in my way, faking a fall against Damian’s chest. It was hard, and the hands steadying me big like shovels.
“S … sorry,” I mumbled.
He looked down at his ruined shirt.
“It’s all right.” His voice sounded like black velvet – deep, soft, giving me goose bumps.
I dared bat my lashes up at his face, and my heart leaped into my mouth. Up close he looked even more handsome with his pale green eyes, chiseled features and strong jaw. So handsome that he should’ve been as illegal as heroin. Despite the high heels my nose was at the level of his chest, breathing in the scent of freshly cut wood – maybe fir. Jeez, he’s huge.
With a slightly pissed frown but gentle hands, he made sure I could stand on my own feet and turned to walk away. No, no, no!
“Let me take out the stain,” I shrieked over the pounding music and clasped his muscular arm. It felt literally stone hard. Wow! “There’s some stain remover in the bathroom.”
He turned to me, the frown lingering on his brow, his deep voice polite but detached.
“I’ll do that myself, thank you.”
I panicked, thinking that he saw through my plot, so I searched for a way to keep contact and gave him an awkward smile. Reciting the words Ruxandra had made me learn by heart seemed like the only option.
“You need to wash out the wine within the next two minutes if you want to save your shirt. I have some dexterity with that, that’s all.”
He glanced around as if assessing who paid us attention. Dancing and drinking people – Ruxandra and George included – stared at us. Then a possibility hit me – maybe he scouted the area for his girlfriend or something.
At that thought, my stomach clenched. Though I hadn’t seen him with anyone during the weeks I’d observed him, I couldn’t completely exclude a girlfriend. Maybe she wasn’t from the campus. But then again, Ruxandra would’ve come upon that anyway in her subversive, shrewd investigations.
“Two minutes,” I reminded him of the time ticking until the stain would be forever imprinted in his white shirt. “Let me save your fine garment and then you won’t see me again.”
He gave a reserved smile and motioned me to lead the way. The gesture had elegance and strength at the same time, coming from a stud like him. Oh, how I’d ride you, boy!
We waited in front of the bathroom until a drunken blonde reeled out. Luckily it didn’t take longer than two minutes, otherwise I would’ve risked him changing his mind. Girls around us fidgeted and swayed, eyeing Damian. Boys already mistook the hallway and some corners for toilets as they staggered and cursed.
Damian and I didn’t speak to each other, but I was sharply aware of his presence behind me, of his breath above my head. He stood by me, my backside crushed against his thigh as people squeezed us together. I could swear I’d never felt anything as hard as his body. My heart raced, and I struggled with my burning cheeks and wild imagination as we closed the door behind us. Jeez, I’m alone with him! Alone with him in a messy bathroom . . .
Damian began unbuttoning his shirt. I swallowed hard. Still, to make my indifference to him credible, I refused the sight.
“It’s okay, I can work with it on. Keep it, unless you have a change of clothes within reach.”
“I don’t.” Again that deep voice that I couldn’t believe I was finally hearing, spoken only for my ears.
I snatched the stain remover from a pile of tubes and boxes on the washer, and rinsed the stain – half his shirt, that is. After spraying some water on it from the tips of my fingers, I began rubbing the wine into instead of out of the fabric with one hand, keeping it stretched and away from his body with the other. The large spot soon turned transparent, I could see a blur of his abdomen and his happy tail through it.
“I’m Damian, by the way,” he said.
“I must say, you’re quite observant, Alice.”
Clumsy grin. “Am I?”
“I’m impressed you should notice the stain remover and think about it as soon as you ruined my shirt.”
Shoot, he knows what I’m doing . . .
“It requires some presence of mind.”
“I … I brought it, actually. Today. George is in constant need of such.” I knew George would support my allegation, he was “my people” and deep enough in this with me as not to complain I’d accused him of sloppiness to save face. He’d organized the party and we were in his dorm.
“I understand.” Damian’s eyes glittered with some kind of cunning. “Have I seen you before, Alice?”
I shrugged and faked lack of interest, ignoring the way he spoke my name and how it made my cheeks prickle.
“Maybe. In the cafeteria, or at the Marquette. That’s where I seek refuge from my persecutors.”
“The Inquisition, isn’t it obvious?” I pointed at the haycock on my head, which earned me a weird, animalistic grin that probably wanted to be a smile. It was the strangest expression I’d ever seen, and it took me aback. I dropped my eyes to the stain again to avoid the awkwardness, which seemed to help Damian grow even more comfortable.
“You claim yourself a witch?”
“I claim nothing without my lawyer.”
“Fair enough. And our host, George? Is he one of your allies?”
“You could say that. He’s dating my best friend, Ruxandra.” As for me, I’m available and all for you, mister.
“Now I remember,” he said as if he truly just realized, “I saw you at the Marquette with him and some others. You never miss some fun.”
He saw me? “I’m forever in search of it. As are you, I noticed.” That’s right, I saw you too. My heart pounded faster as I risked the hint at my interest in him.
“Hardly. I supply beverages.”
“What do you mean?” My head snapped up.
“It’s just an activity that pays bills. And what brings me to the Marquette and parties.”
“So you’re no real friend of Bacchus’?” I realized I’d never seen him with a beer in his hand, or any kind of alcohol for that matter.
He laughed a rusty laugh. His features transformed into that animalistic grimace once more, as if he weren’t used to expressing amusement at all.
“You find me entertaining?” I asked.
“I like the way you speak. It’s a bit, how shall I put it? Unusual.”
He nodded, those pale, striking eyes intent and fixed on mine. I alone had his attention now, the whole world was shut out.
“I merely adjust to my interlocutor,” I whispered.
I tried to sheath my crush on him with the veil of further jokes and friendship. He acted like he bought it, and soon after the party night our groups mingled in the cafeteria.
A few weeks later, George came up with another of his plans that both our gang and Damian’s appreciated – a trip in the mountains. We got on a train with heavy backpacks and furred boots, but my hopes of finding a place by Damian’s side shattered as soon as I set foot in the compartment.
He sat flanked by a bearded, rugged-looking guy with a guitar and Svetlana Slavic, a platinum blonde Beauty Queen who I didn’t stand a chance against. She was tall, slim and bony, her grin white and large, but she couldn’t be his girlfriend. Everyone knew she danced in a private booth at the Marquette for a rich guy – a bald and fat mobster some people speculated, though nobody had ever seen him. And he wasn’t here now, so the farther Constanta stayed behind us, the more all over Damian she was. I ducked in my coat and scarf up to my nose and watched frustrated how she drew closer to him.
“Come on, Novac,” she said, her pitch too high, “I won’t bite, I’m just freezing.”
He rested one arm loosely around her shoulder and turned his eyes to the window. She leeched on to him but he kept distant, which made me feel not all was lost. I wanted to slap myself for clinging to the faintest hope and for the way I ogled him, but I couldn’t help it. He looked fantastic in his brown coat, dark jeans and what seemed like army boots. His hair spilled in raven waves to his shoulders and the stubble gave his chiseled face the air of a young barbarian.
Svetlana caught me staring. She pulled her knees up and cuddled to his chest. I doubted she did it because she saw any kind of competition in me – that was out of the question – but because she felt powerful and probably enjoyed my suffering, knowing I would’ve done anything to be in her place. She closed her eyes and pretended to fall asleep with a triumphant smile on her face.
Cottages glided by as the train – barely more than an old cart from communist times – moved lazily, its whistles lost in the night as we advanced to the middle of nowhere. A few times I thought Damian glanced at me and my heart jumped, but I dismissed it as wishful thinking until the train got stuck in what looked like Siberian snow, ice flowers spreading over the pane. Everybody breathed out steam and I couldn’t feel my feet anymore, shaking violently. That’s when Damian gazed long at me with a frown.
“George,” he said, lifting his arm and waking Svetlana, “Where’s the Vodka I gave you?”
George’s sleepy eyelids fluttered open. He brushed sandy tendrils off his forehead and removed his own arm from around Ruxandra, who shivered at his chest, her eyes hooded, her lips shrunken. He reached to the overhead rack and dropped a bag on her lap by mistake.
“Sorry, Rux,” George mumbled, and took down a ragged backpack. Something clanked inside. He staggered on his skinny spider legs to Damian, who stood up to support him.
“Jesus, you look like you might break into ice shards,” Damian said.
“I’m afraid my brain’s already splintered. I should’ve been the first to think of the liquor,” George replied with a stiff grin that meant to be friendly but rather gave the impression of a frozen fossil.
Damian opened the backpack and took out three small bottles like the ones Russians keep in the inside pockets of their sheepskin coats. He handed one to Svetlana and one to George.
“Pass that around,” he told them, then took a seat by my side with the third bottle.
I blinked and barely refrained from rubbing my eyes. I couldn’t believe he was so close to me, by his own choosing this time.
“Drink this,” he said softly, holding the open bottle to my mouth. A sharp smell made me crease my nose and push his hand away.
“Vodka. It’ll help warm up,” he insisted.
I sniffed at it a couple of times and finally took a sip that went like a flash of fire to my stomach. I grimaced, but Damian chuckled and looked at me like you would at a playing puppy. Again that strange expression on his face, like a predator cornering its prey. I tried a shaky smile back, my heart drumming.
It wasn’t until, trying to avoid staring too long and too intensely at Damian, my eyes fell on the open mouthed Svetlana, that I realized why he must’ve switched to my side: I was the only one without a pair of arms around me. Damian was just looking after the less fortunate. My chest deflated.
“Thanks, but I’m fine,” I grumbled and drew away, pulling my knees up.
Suddenly, the train began to wobble like a ship on a stormy sea. Girls shrieked, guys glanced around with wide eyes and, as the lights flickered and finally went out, I burst into a fit of screaming too. A hand wrapped around my arm and pulled me to a broad chest, my nose sinking in a fluffy pullover.
“Earthquake,” Damian’s voice sounded above my head. At the next jerk, he dropped back in the seat with me in his lap.
“Maybe they’re just, just, just taking us out of the snow,” Svetlana babbled.
“It ain’t no shovels moving this train,” I recognized the guy with the guitar croak.
The train came to a brusque halt in its swaying, and Damian jumped to his feet, sheltering me with the sides of his open coat. I pushed my face deeper in his pullover as he slid the compartment door open with his elbow.
“What are you doing?” George squealed.
“We need to get out of here,” Damian replied. His tone was calm, but not devoid of stress.
“What if it starts again?” His bearded guitarist friend said. “We’re deep in the mountains, we could get killed in an avalanche or something!”
“And you think we stand a better chance if an avalanche traps us in this rust box, Hector?” Damian raised his voice over his friend’s but didn’t wait for a reply.
He rushed with me down the aisle and only put me down as we reached a growing clutch of shrieking people by the exit. Fear gripped me, and my heart punched hard against my ribcage as I stretched my arm to keep him close. To no avail, I lost him as he made his way through.
In the chaos of screams and bodies squashing me between them I freaked out, but I was unable to make a sound. The door snapped open and a winter gush wheezed through, lashing my face numb as people poured out of the train and drifted me forward with them. I sank to my knees in the glistening snow and waved my arms to keep from falling into the forested abyss that gaped before my eyes.
A huge, warm hand clasped mine, steadying me, and the instant I looked into Damian’s focused face I understood he’d only left my side to break down the door. I forgave him on the spot.
He turned to help the others out of the train but missed one, who bumped hard against me and sent me like a ball down the slope. I rolled and rolled, my mind frozen as snow infiltrated to my skin from under my scarf and sleeves. A front clash with a tree trunk knocked the air from my lungs and the last thing I saw was a shower of white that filled my mouth and nostrils. I choked under the mountain of cold that gagged me, desperate to breathe in.
My head began to cloud with lack of air, and I felt my pulse give up. That moment I knew the sense of safety was a mirage, as if some tiny fairy at the back of my mind urged me to keep fighting.
I saw a bright sphere, but I knew it wasn’t the moon. It was light at the end of a black tunnel, a light that sucked me toward it with the force a vacuum cleaner would a fly. However hopelessly, I fought against the pull, which stopped by miracle as I came really close to the now huge moon. Weight started to press rhythmically on what I now identified as my chest, and I started to spin backwards, as if something drew me with the same force farther and farther from the bright sphere. As it became smaller, it warped into the shape of a child-like face with eyes bright like laser piercing at me through the darkness. A crystalline voice like tinkling icicles filled my head. “You need me . . .”
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