Fran, the wind whispered.
My mother’s voice was just as distant as the wind. “Honestly, Fran, I have no idea what you thought you were doing—”
I tuned her out to listen as hard as I could for the elusive sound that flirted on the edges of my awareness.
It was Ben. I knew it was Ben, and he needed my help. Desperately. I ran into the darkness to find him, the nightmare recreating an event that somewhere in my brain I recognized had actually happened, but this version of it was twisted by both the passing of time and my own tormented emotions.
The moon was out, but its illumination did not reach through the dense forest. I dodged skeletal branches of trees as they tried to snatch at my hair and clothing.
I’m coming, Ben! I will save you!
Too . . . late . . .
Desperation filled me, both mine at the need to find him, to help him, and that which he was pouring into me: the knowledge that I wouldn’t be there in time.
Sobs of pure frustration caught in my throat as I battled my way through the eerily grabbing tree branches until at last I saw a dark shape slumped up against a dead tree.
He wore the tattered remains of a leather jacket, his shirt completely gone, his face, arms, and torso stained dark with a crisscross pattern of blood oozing up from deep slashes. As I ran toward him, his body slumped to the side. Too . . . late . . .
I screamed in wordless horror as he died in front of me, the sound echoing in my head until I woke, drenched with sweat, from the nightmare.
“Nightmare again?” came a sleepy voice from the other side of the room.
I swallowed back the fear that clutched my throat. “Yes. Sorry I woke you.”
“’Sokay. Just stress. G’back to sleep.”
“I will, thanks.”
I turned my pillow over to the cool side, my heart as sick as my stomach. It wasn’t just the stress of my job that had given me the nightmare. I was having them more and more frequently, making me all that more desperate to escape my life.
I laid back down, and prayed for dreamless sleep.
“And I said to her, look, you don’t own me, okay? Yes, we have incredibly hot sex, but there’s more to a relationship than just that. And she said that she just wanted to be with me, and couldn’t live without me, and all sorts of things like that. Don’t get me wrong, it’s nice to have your girlfriend want you and all, but there’s such a thing as stifling someone! There are times when I think you’re so lucky, Fran. You have no idea what it’s like to be in a relationship that’s doomed from the very start.”
I stared blankly at the sidewalk, my heart contracting at Geoff’s words. She was a remarkably pretty girl despite her masculine name (she said her parents didn’t believe in conforming to traditional gender roles), with shoulder-length black hair and cute freckles. Although we’d been roomies for almost a year, I was still a bit startled by her lack of awareness.
“You tell your boyfriend you want some space, and poof! He gives you space. You see him, what, once a year? And the rest of the time he leaves you alone to do whatever you want. Now that’s a mature relationship. Do you have a couple of bucks I can borrow? I don’t get paid until Friday.”
“He’s not really my boyfriend.” I reached into my jeans pocket for my Starbucks card, handing it to her as she stopped at the walk-up latte window and ordered a latte and an Americano.
“Thanks, Fran, you’re a doll. What were we talking about? Oh, your boyfriend. You’re so lucky with him.”
“He’s just a guy I know. Used to know.”
“Your setup is perfect,” Geoff said with blithe disregard. “He’s in Europe, and you’re here, doing your own thing. No one on your back all the time, telling you what to do. No one demanding that you stop what you’re doing to pay attention to her. No one pressuring you with drama queen scenes saying she will die if you’re not right there for her. I envy you, Fran, I really do.”
I accepted the latte she handed me, following as she led the way down the street toward the old redbrick building where we shared a third-floor apartment, each step causing my soul to cry a little more. I ached to tell her the truth, but had decided when I first met her that she would never understand. Her feet were too firmly planted in the everyday world. How could I explain to her that my former boyfriend was a vampire?
“I told Carmen that I needed a little space, too, but you know what she did? Started cutting herself.” Geoff’s cell phone burbled. She pulled it out as she continued to talk. “Like I don’t have enough of my own emotional issues that I have to deal with hers, too? Do you have any idea what a stress it is to be bisexual these days? My therapist says I’m just asking for trouble, but what does she know. Oh, great, it’s the drama queen again. This is like the fiftieth time she’s texted me today. I had to turn off my phone in surgery because she wouldn’t stop sending me messages, and Dr. Abbot said she was going to end up pulling some poor dog’s tooth instead of cleaning it if my phone made her jump just one more time.”
I murmured something noncommittal.
We stopped in front of the residents’ door at the side of the building. The first floor was taken up by a bookstore, one of my favorite places to spend time. “My hands are full, Fran. Can you get your keys?”
I set my latte on the large metal mailbox that was attached to the building and hunted through the backpack I used as a bag for my keys, my fingers groping blindly in its depths.
“I tell you, if I could, I’d trade Carmen for your Brent any day.”
“Ben,” I corrected, his name bringing another little zap of pain to my chest. “He’s not mine. You can have him.”
“He’s like the ideal man, leaving you alone except for when you want him. If I was into guys as much as girls, and I’m not because some men are okay, but most of them have way too many issues for me, then I’d definitely give you a run for your money with him. But I’m not, so you don’t have to worry.”
“That’s reassuring,” I murmured, the tiniest of smiles making an appearance as I pulled out a couple of paperbacks in order to grope around the bottom of my backpack. If there was one thing I knew about Ben, it was that he wasn’t looking for another woman.
At least I didn’t think he was. I frowned, thinking about the last time I’d spoken to him. It was the last and biggest in a series of arguments, and he’d sounded so distant and cold. . . .
“I’m loyal that way. It’s one of the reasons why we’re such good roomies. Because seriously, there are some weirdoes out there you can get stuck with. And you’re just as normal as they come.” She glanced toward my hands. “Well, almost as normal as they come. But you know, hey, everyone has their little quirks, right? And I can definitely put up with you being a tiny bit paranoid about germs and insisting on wearing latex gloves all the time. It doesn’t bother me at all. It’s probably good, actually, given all the colds and flus that go around nowadays, and if you want to look like a goth by wearing black lace gloves over the latex ones . . . well, that’s no big deal, either. My last roomie was into that Lolita crap, and you looking a bit gothy is a big improvement on that, let me tell you! Although you don’t really look goth anymore since you cut your hair and dyed it auburn—”
I frowned harder into the blackness of my bag, still not finding my keys, so frustrated by that fact, it took me a few seconds to realize that Geoff wasn’t talking anymore. I looked around, my eyes opening in surprise as a large man in black overalls shoved Geoff into a van.
“Goddess!” I yelled, dropping my backpack to run toward them. “Stop that! Help! Someone help! My friend is being kidnapped!”
“Mmrph!” Geoff said, the man’s hand over her mouth. Her eyes were filled with panic as she struggled. A second man was in the back of the van, grabbing her legs as she tried to kick the first guy.
“Help!” I screamed again, but the street, normally filled with shoppers, was strangely devoid of anyone else. It was up to me to save Geoff. Without thinking, I leaped forward as the driver of the van gunned the engine, throwing myself into the back of the van on top of Geoff and the first man, who was in the process of slamming shut the door.
“Let go of her,” I growled, curling my fingers into a fist the way Ben had showed me all those years ago. “Or you’re going to be really, really sorry!”
“You’ll be the one who is sorry,” the man said in a heavy Scandinavian accent, his eyes holding a red light that warned me he wasn’t a common, average kidnapper. “The master seeks this one. Begone.”
Before I could land the punch I was about to make, the man threw his weight against me, sending me flying backward. Frantic to keep from falling, I grabbed at him, but it did little good. All I got was a necklace the man had been wearing before I tumbled out of the van, hitting the street hard enough to knock me silly for a few seconds. When I looked up, trying desperately to clear my vision, the street was empty.
“The master,” I repeated, getting painfully to my feet and hobbling over to the sidewalk. I’d heard someone refer to the master five years ago. “Oh, no, it couldn’t be him. What on earth does he want with Geoff? It’s me he swore to get revenge against!”
I looked down at the necklace in my hand. Because of my gloves, I couldn’t feel anything other than the weight of the gold chain. I should have called the police and reported an abduction. I should have screamed until someone came to help me. I should have let someone with power get Geoff back. I should have . . .
“Bloody boiling bullfrogs!” I snarled, ripping off one of my black lace gloves and the thin latex glove beneath it, taking a deep breath. If it really was who I thought it was behind the kidnapping, the police wouldn’t be able to help at all, which meant it was up to me to find out who was behind the abduction of Geoff.
The second my bare hand touched the chain, my head was filled with images, a variety of faces that I didn’t recognize, a confusing jumble of women in old-fashioned outfits with bodices and long skirts, of men riding horses across a coastline, waving swords and yelling at the top of their lungs, and of a big structure burning while screams ripped into the night.
“And if that doesn’t say Loki at work a millennium ago, then I don’t know what does,” I growled a minute later, stuffing the necklace into my pocket as I pulled on my gloves again, hurrying down the road to a busy cross street. I hesitated at the bus stop, knowing time was of the essence. If the emotions I’d felt on the kidnapper’s necklace was right—and I had no reason to doubt my psychometric abilities—then he and his buddies were planning on hustling Geoff to the airport in a few hours. I had little time to make it to the warehouse they were using before she was out of my reach.
“This situation calls for a little splurging. After all, if you can’t spend a little mad money when your roomie is kidnapped, when can you?” I muttered to myself as I hunted down a cab. I finally found one and gave the driver instructions on where to go. “I don’t know the address, but I do know it’s on Knowles Street. Big warehouse with the picture of a penguin painted on the side.”
“Sounds like the old Icy Treats place,” she said, punching in a couple of buttons on her laptop before pulling out into traffic. “Shouldn’t take us long to get there.”
Fifteen minutes later we pulled up a half block away. I looked at the warehouse, worried that we were too late, but no, there was the nose of a black van just barely visible from behind an industrial-sized trash bin. I glanced back at the cab, gnawing on my lower lip for a second. “Um . . . how much would it cost for you to wait here for me?”
“How long will you be?” the driver asked me. She had bright yellow hair—not blond, actual yellow—and so many piercings on her head I couldn’t count them all.
“I don’t know. Maybe ten minutes?”
She named a figure. “But you’ll have to pay me what you owe me now. I’m not allowed to let customers leave without paying.”
I flinched at the amount she mentioned, but gave a mental shrug as I pulled out some cash, thrusting it toward her. “Wait for me. I’ll be as quick as I can.”
“Ten minutes. After that, I leave,” she said, getting out of her cab to lean a hip against it. “I need a smoke anyway.”
I nodded and hurried behind the trash bin, peering around it in the very best James Bond “sneaking up on kidnappers” manner. No one was in the van, and although the warehouse had windows, they were boarded up. I prayed they had no sort of high-tech security system as I dashed to a small door along the wall, pausing to snatch up a big piece of metal pipe that was lying near the trash bin. I weighed it for a couple of seconds, trying to decide if I could actually bring myself to use it, but the memory of the stark horror in Geoff’s eyes had me clutching it tight. “You are going to be one sorry god if she’s hurt,” I snarled under my breath.
The door creaked a little when I opened it a few inches, making me flinch and hold my breath, but no sound emerged from the warehouse, and nothing met my gaze as I peeked in. Sending a little prayer to the god and goddess my mother always swore would always protect me, I slid inside, braced for an outcry or attack.
The warehouse was mostly empty, a huge old building filled with a whole lot of black, and a few faint rustling noises that I took to be rodents. I wasn’t particularly afraid of rats and mice, finding the two-legged variety much more worrisome. But the relative quiet of the warehouse worried me. Was I too late? Had the men taken Geoff off in another car?
The faintest murmur of male voices had me stiffening as I turned to the right, where the vaguely black shape of a staircase loomed. I gripped my piece of pipe and started up the stairs, blindly feeling my way up each step, moving slowly and carefully so as not to alert anyone to my presence.
By the time I neared the top of the stairs, the sounds of voices were much clearer. I flattened myself against the steps and eased up my head to see how many of them there were. In a small oval pool of bluish white light, three men stood around another person, who had been tied to a chair.
Three against one. Not very good odds. But I wasn’t about to let Loki take my roomie. With another deep breath, I lifted my pipe and flung myself up the last couple of stairs, yelling a one-word spell of protection that my mother had insisted I learn. “Salvatio!”
The first man dropped before I even realized that I had swung my pipe at his head.
“Oh my god!” Geoff screamed as I stood stunned for a second, staring down at the man lying at my feet. “That was awesome!”
The two other men clearly couldn’t believe it, either, because they stared at their fallen buddy for a couple of seconds before turning identical expressions of surprise on me.
That didn’t last long. The one who had shoved me out of the van yelled something in a Nordic language and ran for me.
“I can’t believe I’m doing this,” I told him as I swung my pipe and sidestepped him, the pipe connecting with the back of his head with a metallic clang that made my stomach turn over. “I’m not at all a brave person. I don’t beat people up. Ever. Well, okay, maybe a demon or two, but they aren’t real people.”
“The master will have your life for this,” the third guy said as he slammed me up against a wall.
“Get him! Smash him! Beat his brains in!” Geoff chanted from her chair, the scrape of wood against the floor audible as she chair-hopped over to us.
“Eep,” I managed to squeak out, trying to crack the man on the head with my pipe, but he had wised up after watching his two buddies drop and held my arm straight out at my side. His fingers started to tighten around my neck, causing black splotches to dance in front of my face. “Tell your master that he can’t have Geoff. If he wants to get tough, he’ll have to face me, and the last time he did that, it didn’t end well for him.”
The man stopped strangling me for a second, a look of confusion filling his eyes. “Who are you?” he asked.
The chair screeched against the floor.
I twisted my body, bringing my knee up to nail the guy in the noogies, biting his arm at the same time. He cursed profanely, dropping to his knees as I raised my pipe high over my head. “My name is Francesca Ghetti, the keeper of the Vikingahärta, and Loki’s worst nightmare!”
“You go, Fran!” Geoff cheered as I stood over the kidnapper.
Her words brought some sanity back to me. I was panting, the blood rushing in my ears, my heart beating wildly. I looked down on the man for a second, toying with the thought of braining him, too, but instead I just stomped on his foot hard enough to make him yelp, and jumped over his halfhearted attempt to grab me.
“There’s an X-Acto knife over there,” Geoff said, nodding toward a rickety table half hidden by shadows. “I’ve been watching it for the last ten minutes, trying to figure out how I could get to it. Oh no you don’t, Buster Brown.”
As I snatched up the knife, Geoff kicked at the kidnapper, who was just getting to his feet. He howled as she hit him dead center in his groin.
“Oh, that has to hurt,” I murmured as I bent over her, cutting through the nylon cord that bound her to the chair. “Poor guy isn’t going to have kids after this.”
“Poor guy? Are you insane? He’s a kidnapper! You sure you don’t want to smash his brains in?” Geoff asked when her bonds fell to the ground. She rubbed her wrists, glaring down at the writhing man. One of the others started to moan and move his arms and legs.
“I’m sure. Let’s get out of here before the other two wake up.”
“Okay, but you know, no one would blame you for roughing them up a little. . . .”
We made it outside before the groin man started down the stairs (hunched over quite a bit). I didn’t stop to explain to Geoff, just grabbed her arm and hauled her after me to where the cabby was just getting back in her car. “Take us to 1021 Woodline Avenue,” I told the cabby, shoving Geoff in the car. I glanced back at the warehouse, adding, “And hurry, please.”
The door to the warehouse was flung open, and two men staggered out. I was relieved to see that I hadn’t done any permanent damage to them, and hoped the third wasn’t seriously hurt. The cabby eyed them for a moment, then met my gaze in the rearview mirror. “You in some sort of trouble?”
“No. Someone else is going to be, though,” I said grimly.
“Gotcha.” She gunned the engine and pulled a very illegal U-turn, the shouts of the guys faintly following us as we zipped down the road.
I leaned back against the seat, letting go of my breath.
“You want to tell me what all that was about?” Geoff asked, examining her wrists.
“Er . . . not really.”
“They thought I was you, you know,” she said, eyeing me carefully.
She nodded. “They called me Francesca. I guess it’s because I copied your haircut before you cut yours. They said the master wanted to see you, and they were going to take me to him. What the hell is going on, Fran? Who were those goons? And why would they want to kidnap you to take you to some bondage dude? Or wait, was it a kidnapping?”
“Bondage dude?” I asked, confused how she leapt from Loki to that.
“Master, remember? What else is that if not bondage?” She eyed me again. “You know, I had no idea you were into that sort of thing. I’m not, myself, but I have friends who run a little club in town—”
I held up my hand to stop her. “I’m not into bondage. The master in this instance isn’t into bondage, either. At least I don’t think he is. He’s an old man. A really old man.” Like a couple of thousand years, at least. “He’s . . . uh . . .”
She raised an eyebrow as I thought frantically of what to tell her. Almost a year of living with her had made me very well aware that she freaked out at anything even remotely supernatural. There was no way she wouldn’t do the same if I told her the old Norse gods were alive and well and after revenge.
At least one of them was.
“He’s what?” she asked, prodding me.
“He’s . . .” My shoulders slumped. “He’s into bondage.”
“I knew it! I knew there was more to you than just a germ fetish! So this was what, a fantasy setup? Wow, that’s really wild. I’ll give you Mistress Dominica’s number later, if you like, although if you have your own connection, you probably won’t care too much. Are you a bottom or a top?”
I blinked at her. “Eh . . .”
“Bottom. I knew it. I’m a top, myself, but as I told you when I moved in, you don’t have to worry that I’m going to try to seduce you.” She smiled at the cabdriver’s startled glance in the mirror. “I have to give it to you guys, that was a hell of a kidnapping fantasy. I guess I won’t be siccing Daddy’s lawyers on the guys if they were your friends, although I have to say I thought they were a bit rough, especially when that one guy slammed you up against the wall. Unless, of course, you like that.” She gave me a considering look.
I smiled feebly, and spent the remainder of the ride wondering why the vengeful Norse god Loki would pick now to pop back up in my life.