“My Dad is the mobster she danced for?”
“The mobster thing was just speculation, cheap gossip. But Novac . . . I’ll have to stop here, you’re in no condition to hear this . . .”
“My condition didn’t stop you until now. Go on.”
Hector gritted his teeth. “You know how I received this assignment? The Cezare Lupan file, archived with the R.I.S., disappeared six years ago. Disappeared, you understand? No one can make that happen unless they’re the K.G.B., F.B.I., fucking David Copperfield or a nasty monster with friends in high places, like BioDhrome. That’s how the Intelligence Service got me on the job.
“After six years of rubbing shoulders with him, I still don’t have evidence against Novac, I don’t. But I’m positive as hell he works for BioDhrome. Still, any chance of producing evidence by myself is gone with the wind. My cover is now history, blown when we got out of that frozen hell, blown when my R.I.S. superiors came forward too directly, overconfident I’d gotten all the proof and witnesses we needed to nail Novac after this.”
The room spun with me. This isn’t happening was back in the charts.
“So help me.” Hector lowered his voice even more, taking my hand in both of his. They pressed on my bandaged fingers, reminding me of how my nails had come off. The pain helped revive awareness that I was still in the real world.
“What did they talk about, your father and Novac?”
He put slightly too much emphasis on this last question. My thoughts suddenly fit together like puzzle pieces, leaving no room four doubt: he’d come to see me as an investigator, yet he’d done as good as all the talking, telling me horror stories about a Machiavellian agent and a father I refused to recognize. All this even though I lay on a hospital bed with IV lines snaking around my arms. “Everything hurts, no matter what.”
It dawned on me. The son of a bitch tried to manipulate me into betraying my own father, and Dad had known it. Maybe what he said was true, but he wielded the truth to get a fat bonus, trying to nail Dad along with Damian Novac, or Cezare Lupan, or whatever his name was. I turned my head to the narrow window, letting the gray daylight flood my eyes, as stinging as it was.
“I wouldn’t know, Agent Varlam. I wasn’t yet awake.”
“Yes, you were,” he insisted. “Your mother told me you were.”
“She was wrong.”
“As simple as that?”
“It’s the simple truth. Now if you don’t mind, I’m tired. Everything hurts.”
Hector tensed, I felt it in his grip on my hand and the intensifying pain in my fingers.
“I really hope you’re not covering anything, Miss Preda,” he stressed. “More shit will happen if I don’t lock up Damian Novac soon.”
“And who else would you have locked up, Agent Varlam?”
“Whoever aids him in his endeavors, directly or indirectly,” he spat.
Especially because of this covert threat I was relieved when he left the room, and anxious to see Dad at the same time. Soon I received another visit, but it wasn’t him. Mom rushed to my side and kissed my forehead, again and again, smothering me. I was so eager to talk to Dad that I didn’t wait for the right moment to ask about him, making Mom feel superfluous. She said he’d be back any minute now, but minutes and hours flowed slowly, the nerve-wrecking clock ticking them away.
No, Damian can’t be working with BioDhrome, I chewed on my thoughts. Of this one thing his conversation with Dad should have assured me. But then again, maybe he’d been playing Dad for whatever reason all the time they’d known each other. Maybe he did sleep with Svetlana Slavic, Dad’s slut, and maybe that wasn’t the only way he betrayed Dad. Maybe he was indeed a foe.
After two phone calls in hushed voice, with her hand covering the receiver and her mouth, Mom announced that Dad had urgent business back in Constanta and had been forced to return on a short notice – a surprise, considering his vehemence in staying by my side. But when Mom mentioned the business was related to “the case at hand”, assuring me that Dad was all right, I relaxed. Her voice usually had that effect on me. She also revealed we were at the General Hospital in Brasov.
A white-lit place it was, but depressing as hell. I got to explore its corridors while searching for Ruxandra as soon as I could walk, which didn’t happen until the following day. Considering the great blood values I was supposed to have according to Dad, the weakness and vertigo that made me throw up were unexplainable. Didn’t dare talk to Mom about it, though. It was hard to even look her in the face, knowing what I knew now – that Dad had been sleeping with a girl my age, a girl I knew. But I couldn’t walk without help, so I had to live with the crushing guilt as we strolled through the hospital. To top the whole thing, I had this ever-present sensation that I saw Damian everywhere, unyielding and unnerving that I almost choked on it.
“Is it just me, or you’re hoping to see this boy?” Mom said with a patient, experienced smile.
“I do.” The truth tumbled like a rock off my chest.
“He must be very fond of you, too. He spent hours by your bed.”
My heart jumped. “He did?”
Nod. “Didn’t take his eyes off your face. If I didn’t know better, I’d say he was hypnotized, standing there like a statue.”
I don’t think a bungee leap could’ve been more exhilarating than the feeling that coursed through me at those words.
“When your father and I arrived, he was already with you. God, sweetheart, never put me through this again . . .” She paused, swallowing the panic down her thin, dry-skinned throat as she skipped to a part that seemed to comfort her. “That boy was always there as doctors swarmed around you, and he stayed after they stabilized you, too. I didn’t have the heart to ask him for privacy.”
“He’s remarkably handsome, if I may say,” Mom continued with another conspirator smile. If only she knew how innocent she actually was, despite her long years of wisdom.
“That he is,” I whispered.
Only as we finally found Ruxandra’s room in the east wing – as dark and humid as any old building that rarely saw an investment – did the bitterness succumb, replaced by a flood of sadness at the sight of my friend lying on that piece of metal with a flimsy mattress, her chocolate eyes drooping and lips drawn downward from crying.
We exchanged no words. Just that locking of the eyes. I dropped by her side and squeezed her in my arms as hard as my tired muscles allowed. She was softer than usual too, her flesh felt like warm polenta. And tears flowed, wordless, both of us shaking with them, our fingers hooking like claws in each other’s hair, tugging as memories drained from us. We cried and leaned on each other like exhausted boxers until there was no drop of rage left, just sighs and lunatic laughs.
Although Ruxandra was perfectly healthy too, as her blood tests showed, the hospital wasn’t cleared to let her go. The police had ordered that none of the survivors leave the premises until specifically permitted to do so, which left no big difference between the hospital and prison. Hector prolonged this situation by as much as his badge allowed, so clearance came in about twenty-four hours. Every survivor was then ready to leave, no one with serious injuries or needing medical attention for an extended period of time, but mentally we were all wrecks.
Mom drove all the four-hour way to Constanta in silence. George had great need of it. He was sensitive to all sound, he’d cover his ears, his face would twist in a grotesque mask and he’d squeeze his lids shut at every word he heard. He’d killed a man with his own hands, the trauma was most severe for him, the doctor had explained. He remembered every detail of it vividly, which tormented him with violent headaches.
“Don’t leave him alone, for whatever reason,” the doctor had warned.
The street up to my parents’ house revealed itself on a last turn, cobbled and ghostly in our headlights. Barking from neighboring yards and the crisp sea air were the first to greet us, lonely and timeless, like the screech of our old iron gate and the warm darkness of our living room. I think that was my first real experience of synesthesia, I could almost feel the massive oak bookcase through my skin, the homely upholstered couch, Dad’s favorite armchair.
George didn’t wait for an invitation to throw himself face-down on the sofa in the small antechamber that opened into my room, which I used to call my “boudoir” back in high school. Ruxandra and I shared my bed.
Mom turned on the lamp outside, the thick skeleton of our old apple tree bathing in its mild light. We kept the curtains open so we could face it from the bed, my old guardian from childhood days. It felt safe, but I still couldn’t close my eyes until the early morning hours. Something was missing, something wasn’t right. Something wasn’t home. It only hit me when my eyes snapped open at midday, my brain refreshed:
Enjoyed 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, Episode XII. 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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