“Alice is a gem, I must admit. Sweet in appearance, sharp in wit and loving as an angel. But she’s your daughter.”
Expectation popped like a balloon stung with a needle. The refined barbarian that was Damian Novac had found the perfect words to avoid a direct answer, but there it was, between the lines. It may have been his way of saying I was the little sister of Shitty, since “amazing”, “stunning” or at least “attractive” hadn’t as much as touched his description of me. To save a bit of face, I prayed my playing asleep had worked the first night at the cottage as it did now.
After tormenting moments Dad spoke again, low and careful. “Don’t take this the wrong way, lad. It’s just . . .” Awkward pause. “You’re dangerous, Damian. It’s not your fault, they did this to you, yet . . .”
“I get it,” Damian cut him off.
The air was so laden that I could almost hear Dad nod. “I can’t risk them doing the same with Alice.”
“Then let me take over. Will you tolerate my wing over her?”
Long pause. Apologetic, maybe fearful answer. “I won’t, lad. Your wings are black and thorny. One can’t protect from fire with fire or from hell with demons.”
Damian lingered in silence for moments, but his anger filled the room, heavy as his presence. I could feel it as I did my own strange anxiety lacking the frantic heartbeat.
“You leave me no choice, Tiberius.” – urging. Low.
“Respect and loyalty, Damian, if I may remind you,” my dad retorted, determined yet pleading. “Just don’t do anything behind my back.”
“No. Not behind your back.” With that, Damian closed the door behind him.
A chair raked the floor as Dad pulled it close to the bed and sat down. He stroked my forehead with long, lab-man fingers for a long while, a while that I used to calm my rage at destiny, to quench the curses that burned the tip of my tongue, and to ensure I’d look innocent and unknowing when I’d open my eyes. Yet the first hoarse words that I managed when Dad’s tired face appeared through the blurry shield my eyelashes made were, “What did BioDhrome do to Damian Novac?”
Unbelievable how Dad could still shove my questions under a carpet after all these years. He wanted to forget I wasn’t a child or a pet, and tried to shift focus by answering my questions with his own.
He recovered from surprise and stroked my hair. “Are you feeling dizzy?”
“How do you know him?”
“Does your head feel heavy? The whole body? Lift your right hand,” – as if he didn’t hear me this time either.
“What did they do to him, Dad?”
“Is breathing difficult? How about talking?”
“Damn it, Dad!” – no difficulties there – “What’s the story?”
The door creaked ajar and Dad’s face sprang over mine. He whispered sternly in my ear, “Breathing is difficult, Alice. Everything hurts, no matter what.” Then he straightened up to face the visitor.
A mind-blowing surprise to see the person interested in my wellbeing this time was Hector, the bearded singer with aquiline features. Only when two men in POLICE jackets followed, did I realize he wasn’t there as brother-in-pain. His frown and suspicion-filled eyes measuring Dad from head to toe already spoke of a strict inspector or something, but as he flashed his badge my mouth still popped open.
“Your wife kindly announced us that Miss Preda is awake,” he croaked, low and controlled, as if he hadn’t been there with us, as if he’d only just read the case facts in a file that got slapped on his desk. What movie is this?
“She’s still weak, she won’t be able to deliver much.”
“I’d be much obliged if she tried,” Hector adjusted his attitude to match Dad’s aristocratic demeanor, clearly mocking.
“Later, Agent Varlam, I must insist.”
“Time is precious, Dr. Preda, given the circumstances. Surely you understand.”
More of this back and forth “I insist,” and “So do I,” until Dad was left with no choice, the two officers framing him on each side. With silent threat on their furrowed brows they grabbed Dad by his arms. Offended, he jerked from their grasp and whisked his suit, giving me a reassuring, “I’ll be back with you as soon as the hawk’s out. Don’t let him pressure you.”
With that the officers ushered him out, and Hector took the chair by my side, examining me with a stiff attitude. His lips were split, a large cut with stitches presided on his forehead, not to mention that one eye was already turning from blue to black, so it couldn’t be just in my head – he’d been there with us, he’d taken a gulp of dread and violence as large as I had.
“What is this?” I managed, unable to hide astonishment.
“It’s obvious, isn’t it? Agent Hector Varlam, at your service.”
“Jesus, Hector!” Memories of lilt guitar tunes spun in my head. “You were there with us. You lived it all first hand, what? Why? Why are you here?”
“Now, now, take it easy, babe. I don’t need you to recount what I already know, of course. I only need to find out what happened after you played decoy and got almost everybody out of the cottage.”
“How do you know I played decoy?” I didn’t wait for the answer though, other questions pressing against this one like a crowd against a door. “And what d’you mean almost everybody?”
“There have been fatalities, I’m afraid. Marius Iordache and six others didn’t make it. I hate being the one to deliver the news.”
“Jesus Christ!” One particular memory lit up – the Wretch, coughing out blood and grunting.
“Alice, please,” Hector lowered his voice and face. “This isn’t easy on my side of the barricade either. But we have to keep a cool head and recount the facts while the whole thing is still warm. If too much time passes, the brain begins to edit broken pieces of memory.”
“How long have you been on this case, Hector? How long have you been chasing BioDhrome?” I didn’t even think of going about the bush. If he’d been undercover it was because he already knew, no doubt. He didn’t try to hide it either.
“Quite a while. For six years, to be exact.”
“So you didn’t get them in six fucking years, and now you want me to believe my account of a fight in frosty woods will make the difference?”
“A fight? Is that what happened?” He looked at me with raised eyebrows but no genuine surprise.
“I have a feeling you know more than you let on.” Like he did that I played decoy.
“The rescue team did find the body of a villager close to where they found you. But the man was all meat stripes, and I seriously doubt you were the author.”
“I wasn’t. It was wolves.” But I had a feeling he knew that, too.
“Humor me. Tell me what happened.”
I did. Short sentences, only facts – struggling to push the gate shut in the bustling face of all emotion. Hector listened, eyes down at his hands taking notes on a small notebook.
“You were the only one attacked, you know,” he murmured, without lifting his head. “The rest of us ran and ran, faster and faster, whipped by such rage and bloodlust that we saw red. For me the rush started to fade as I strayed through the woods and, by the time I reached the village in the valley, I was dead tired, my lips and fingers frostbitten. I didn’t find a soul in the village, Alice, it seemed completely abandoned. I was the first to find refuge in the church. Soon the others joined, your friends Ruxandra Ignat and George Voinescu included. All usable paths turned out to lead to that village and its church like a fuckin’ maze. That church was the only friendly-looking place, all houses and other buildings looked like coffins.
“Interestingly enough, the only one who managed to escape that maze was Damian Novac. He came in last, hours later, not alone. He’d found the military base deep in the woods, some miles from the village, and brought help. How he made it there remains a mystery. Like so many things about him.” At this point, his eyes shot at me. “He was here with your father, wasn’t he?”
“So is this it? Is this why you’re really here and pretending to be bonding with me? To find out what they talked about, compare my version to the one they’ll later give you?” I grinned at him, unable to hide the contempt in my voice. He’d been shadowing Damian for years, and yet here he was, squeezing information from a traumatized civilian.
“Damian Novac is dangerous, Alice, you must understand. I have reason to believe he’s a BioDhrome agent. I don’t have proof, since the guy is damned shrewd, given, but I’ve been around him for six years. Six. That’s enough time to feel things, if not know them.
“I’d studied Novac before this mission, monitored his every move, adjusted my personality to get under his skin. We became friends, or so I thought. But his past, he always guarded it. Still, one thing slipped, by chance actually – his friendship with your father. I discovered it when I saw him emerge from Dr. Preda’s private booth at the Marquette . . .” he went on carefully here, “The booth where Svetlana danced for him, you understand? For your father. I’m sorry, Alice. I really didn’t want to tell you this, but I need your trust.”
Rage clouded my head. “What are you fuckin’ saying?”
“I’m saying that your father rented a booth at the club and paid for anonymity. I’m saying he’s having an affair with Svetlana Slavic, and Damian Novac is the only person he trusted with this secret.”
njoyed this? Find the previous episodes here: Prologue, Episode I, Episode II, Episode III, Episode IV, Episode V, Episode VI, Episode VII, Episode VIII, Episode IX, Episode X, Episode XI. More coming up next week! Until then, keep enjoying the goodies on this site, from personality tests to online stories – check out the dark mysteries of The Marquis here.
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