Sitting on a stool at the bar, Nine examined the handwritten letter from Steve Reynolds while Peter stood beside her leaning on the end of the bar. He watched her brow furrow, the way her nose scrunched when she concentrated. Cute. Her eyes shot back to the top of the page, and she read the message again.
Peter grabbed the bottle of wine, and refilled their glasses. The wine wasn’t from his sister’s vineyard, a cheaper brand from the warmer end of the valley, but it tasted fine.
Nine stayed late nearly every night to clean up and keep him company. He appreciated her help, but more than anything he enjoyed being near her. And the kiss the other night. A quick peck, but he couldn’t stop thinking about it.
“This Reynolds guy seems like a slippery one,” said Nine. She set the letter down, and gazed at Peter. “So the coffin, the guns, the packs of blood, it all belongs to this Kandy Knight. And you’re supposed to find her and help her. Is that it?”
Peter shrugged, and then nodded.
“And what about that powder we inhaled? This letter doesn’t mention it.”
“That’s what bothers me, too. It’s almost as if the coffin was rigged to release the powder so that the person opening it would breathe it in.”
“You, Peter,” said Nine. She held her head in her hands. “Reynolds wanted you to inhale that shit. Do you suppose that’s what he meant about a cure? Are we supposed to take that serum to cure whatever that powder infected us with?”
Slipping off the stool, Nine wrapped her arms around Peter and hugged him tight.
“We both feel fine,” said Peter. Squeezing her felt like sunshine melting frost. “Shouldn’t we feel sick if he wanted to encourage us to take his cure? We could just ignore it all.”
“But we can’t,” said Nine. She looked up him, her eyes intense. “You’re in his debt now for the expensive sword and the car, even. We should try to find Kandy Knight. Maybe she’s the only one that needs the serum.”
Peter kissed Nine. He hadn’t intended to; it just happened. On the corner of her mouth, his smooch was practically a friendly gesture. Although her body pressing close felt dangerous, and she kissed him back, full on. Gaze locked on hers, unspoken word passed between them. Upstairs?
Peter released Nine and took a big gulp of wine, the sharp scent filling his nose.
“It’s getting late,” said Nine.
“What about the serum? Do you think we should take it just in case?”
Nine shook her head. “The letter doesn’t give us a timeline. I think we should find Kandy first and work this out with her.”
Peter nodded. It sounded reasonable.
“Besides, you’d be stupid to go injecting a strange drug without knowing what it is first.”
Peter agreed and wished Nine a good night. He watched her disappear into the kitchen, and listened to the delivery door slam closed. The ache he felt after she left told him he should have stolen another kiss. In his book, having a sexual relationship with an employee was a sin, and his thoughts about her felt dirty.
Climbing the stairs, between the second floor and the third, he spotted movement. At first he didn’t understand what it was he was looking at. At the top of the stairs, a shape melted out of the darkness, a woman’s figure. Stepping back, he missed the step and fell.
He tucked his head down as his legs flew up and over. Somewhere on the second floor landing, as he rolled, he wondered if he had remembered to renew his health plan. There wasn’t any pain, just shaking and rolling as he watched the ceiling spin around into the stairs. Something cracked against his elbow, and darkness swept him.
Head throbbing, Peter opened his eyes finding blinding light, and squeezed them shut. His head throbbed all the way into his chest. Lifting his hand sent a jolt into his elbow. He opened his eyes finding wavy colors within brilliant light. Slowly, the light faded and he saw the ceiling of the restaurant and the second floor balcony.
At the bottom of the stairs, he felt like a turtle stuck on his back with one leg on the steps and the other twisted underneath him. Touching his face, he found blood under his nose and more in his hair above his ear. He tried raising his head, but a thunder of pain pulled him down again.
Everyone had left for the night. Keeping his head down, he reached around checking the damage. His leg hurt almost as much as his arm did, but both limbs moved. Rolling just enough to get his hand to his back pocket, he reached for his phone.
His pocket was empty.
Moving his head made the throbbing worse, but gritting teeth, he summoned his strength to look around. His phone rested on the floor beside the leg of the nearest table just out of reach.
Twisting onto his side, he pulled his foot free. No break there. Testing his other limbs, he found everything in working order. Rolling over, he climbed onto his hands and knees. His head felt so heavy, he let it hang for a moment.
Left hand first, right knee second, he began to crawl. Each motion resulted in a pop in his head, and he cringed. Right hand planted, he slid his left knee. Left hand, right knee. Right hand, left knee, he made it to his phone.
Screen cracked corner to corner, his phone was dead.
He said a word he hoped no one ever heard him say, and he didn’t want to repeat it because it made his head hurt like hell.
Nine. He wanted to hold Nine in his arms.
He thought about crawling to the restaurant phone at the front. Who would he call? If he managed to make it that far, he probably didn’t need a hospital. A check-up maybe. Nine?
What time was it?
The damn phone was dead, and it couldn’t tell him the time.
He managed to climb to his feet, swaying, gripping the handrail like an old man. He could lay on the sofa, and if he still had a headache in the morning he would make an appointment with a physician to make sure he didn’t have a concussion.
Someone had been upstairs in the hall. He thought about calling out, but any person with good intentions would already be at his aid. An intruder?
Guns. The guns were in the office, but so was the intruder if the intruder hadn’t already left.
By the time he reached the second floor, the throbbing subsided to a dull thump echoing his heart. On the third floor, he was practically walking normal. At the top of the stairs, he spotted her.
There in his office, a woman sat in his chair behind his desk. Dark, wavy hair fell on her shoulders. Her flesh appeared pale in the glow of the monitor, but her lips were luscious red. Nine had mentioned how she put makeup on the dead at her family funeral home. It was like that, bright red lips and violet eyeshadow on a middle-aged woman sitting behind his desk wearing a devious grin like death.
Her eyes were iridescent red. Unreal. And when she spoke, he could see her fangs. He couldn’t hear her words, not at first, but her smooth voice came to him like a memory trailing her lips.
You’re Peter Gray.
Legs giving out, he fell over. Everything flashed bright freezing into pale ghosts.