Her mouth and throat were bone dry. Where were the girls?
And Daniel? Did she dare cry out? Was Aaron watching for her, waiting?
She shed her shoes to walk through the grand entry hall and past the stairway. She looked into the kitchen and dining room, the parlor, and then the library.
Daniel Canady was there, slumped over his desk. The desk where he had drawn his books out when she had come here. She remembered how she had sat with Sean at a window seat. It had been so wonderful. A night with him, a normal night. Falling in love again, seeing his eyes, hearing his laughter, having his fingers brush her, touch her. But this was where it had brought them now!
She swallowed hard, thinking that she couldn’t bear it if she had brought about the deaths of Daniel or her friends. How could she ever face Sean again if she had caused the murder of his father, and how could she ever live with herself if Cissy or Angie were to die, and so horribly, because of their association with her? She closed her eyes suddenly. Her father had loved her; he had refused to believe that she had been damned. Had she wanted some kind of forgiveness so badly that she had damned all those around her?
“Please!” she prayed silently, and she wondered if her prayers could ever be answered as she moved on her stocking feet into the library. Daniel’s back was to her. She was terrified that she’d touch him—and discover he was slumped over because his head was nearly detached from his body.
But his head was still attached. Shaking, she fell to her knees by his side, trying to see him in the shadows brought on by the coming storm. A jagged streak of lightning lit up the sky beyond, and she saw that a trickle of blood streaked down his face from his temple. But his flesh was warm, and she frantically touched his throat, looking for a pulse, and she found one.
A whimpering sound came to her, and she turned. There they were as well, Cissy and Angie, both still alive, tied together and slumped against the far wall. Cissy’s head was down; Angie stared at her with wide, terrified eyes that pleaded for help.
“Oh, thank God!” she breathed. Coming to her feet, Maggie started across the room to free them, praying that Cissy was conscious, and that she’d be able to run.
But suddenly, a cold draft seemed to burst into the room, ruffling the drapes, stirring papers on the desk.
She heard her name called out in a low, slow, haunting whisper. “Maggie, Megan, Meg ... Ms. M.
Montgomery ... come, Maggie, what will you do now? Where am I, Maggie? Can you see me, can you find me? Ahh ... do you dare come for me, fight me? If you win, they live. If you lose, I do as I choose.
And you suffer until you wish you were dead anyway, Maggie, Maggie, Magdalena!” She kept walking across the room, searching the shadows, trying to discover where he was.
“Aaron, this is between us—”
“Canady is between us. Did you like the present I left you in the foyer?”
“Who was she, Aaron?”
“Maggie, I don’t even know. The Avon lady, maybe. A poor misfortunate who stumbled into my path. I told you, I was rudely awakened by Lieutenant Canady. Then I was just so awake, and I knew what I had to do ... I hurried right over to Montgomery Enterprises and watched your friends. Pretty, pretty girls, Maggie. I was just on fire! I didn’t want to do anything premature, so I slipped into a local strip joint for a bite before collecting the girls and bringing them here. I didn’t have much time. I needed to get you to this old homestead as well, and I’m imagining that even Canady might figure out where we are soon. It was just that once I picked up your lovely friends to bring them here, I was so tempted to drink
... and I wanted you here for the finale, of course. You shouldn’t feel too badly. This one didn’t hurt at all. She died crushed in my embrace, loving every minute of it.”
“I hate you, Aaron. I hate you because you’re a cold-blooded killer—”
“No, Maggie, we’re all cold-blooded killers. You can’t change nature, not the nature of the beast.”
“No, you’re wrong, we don’t have to be cold-blooded killers—”
“What a lying, self-righteous little beauty you are, my sweet. You’ve killed. You know you’ve killed.”
“When you judged a man, and determined he should die? Oh, Maggie, you’re a spawn of Satan, and you want to give yourself the power of a god! You think you can set yourself up as judge and jury?” She shook her head. “Go to hell, Aaron, where you belong. I still believe in God.”
“Fool, for God has forsaken you! Do you think you can find forgiveness because the blood you crave comes from the Red Cross?” he mocked.
“Aaron, you’re the fool. What will this prove? I hate you for your brutal cruelty, for the vicious sickness that’s so apparent in your eyes. Aaron, you were a monster long before you were ever diseased.” Deep, haunting laughter filled the room, seeming to come from everywhere.
“Diseased? You consider us diseased, my dear?”
“Yes! Exactly!” she said in a soft whisper.
He shook his head. “We are magnificent creations! We are the culmination of the power of evil, or so we can be! We are predators, like sharks, like crocodilians—black widows, Maggie, if you will. We are born to kill, to rip, to tear, to weed out the human population. You are a blind little fool to deny it, to try to be what you are not!”
“I refuse to be a monster, Aaron!”
“You refuse to do so, alas! Perhaps you’ll change your tune. All for a noble cause, of course. Come to me, Maggie. Ask for my forgiveness. I think I’d like you on your knees. Beg me, promise me—poor, damned creature that I am!—a taste of heaven. Do all this . .. and maybe I’ll let the girls and old Canady here live.”
“I’ll do anything you want, Aaron. Just let me untie them so that—” She had reached Cissy and Angie. They were bound with their own stockings. Tightly. So tightly that she struggled with the knots. Her gaze met Angie’s, and she tried desperately to reassure her with her eyes, and make her understand that she must free Cissy as well, and that they must get out.
She screamed, startled when a heavy blow fell across her shoulders, sending her flying across the room.“Get up, Maggie. I didn’t decide to free anyone yet.” She stood.
“I just told you that I’d do anything—”
“Lip service, Maggie. Come to me.”
“Where are you?” she demanded harshly, coming to her feet, alarmingly aware of his strength. She realized that she’d beaten him before because she had always fought him with a heedless rage—he had killed all that she had loved, and she hadn’t cared anymore. He had gotten smart as well as strong. Taunt her, make her think that she could save her friends, and he had power over her.
“Where are you?” she repeated. She needed to get him out of the library. Perhaps that would give the others a chance to free themselves.
She started walking slowly back toward the door to the library. When she reached the doorway, she heard his laughter again—coming from behind her. She spun around.
Now he was there, in the flesh—standing beside Daniel Canady.
Tall, lean, handsome features as ever distorted by a cruel grin.
He had picked up Daniel’s head by the hair. He held his knife, one with a blade over six inches long, against Daniel’s throat.
“Remember all that I’ve done, Maggie? With a knife just like this one ...”
“I remember, Aaron.” She lifted her chin and waved a hand in the air, indicating his head. “But when you started all of this, here, now, were you trying to make me think that Lucian was the one doing the killings?”
He shrugged. “Sure ... I didn’t intend to fool you for long, but I thought that perhaps, seeing me from a distance, hearing what I looked like, well, you might think that your precious Lucian had come back to basics and was truly being a king of our kind.”
“No one would ever mistake you for Lucian, Aaron.”
“Oh, and why is that? Do you think that our mighty Lucian has never ripped mortals to shreds? You fool yourself, if you believe such fantasy.”
“No one would ever mistake you for Lucian,” she repeated.
“Come on, get into the spirit of this. What will you do for me, Maggie, if I let Canady live? He’s so close to death at this moment, I can almost taste it.”
She exhaled on a long breath.
“Psychology, Maggie? I’d be so careful if I were you. No matter how powerful you think you are, you couldn’t possibly reach me in time to stop me from killing him.”
“You’re asking me what I’ll do for you. What do you want, Aaron?” He reflected on the question for a minute, smiling.
“I’ve made myself pretty clear, I think. Kneel, Maggie.”
Slowly, keeping her eyes on him, she did so.
“Tell me you’re sorry, Maggie. Come to me on your knees, and tell me that you’re sorry for the way you’ve hurt me over the decades.”
She inched toward him, realizing that she had no choice. Aaron didn’t bluff.
Time. She had to think ...
She came toward him slowly on her knees. Very slowly. “Let him go, and I’ll leave this house with you.”
“Oh, Maggie! How you lie.”
She shook her head. “I’m not lying, Aaron. I’ll do anything if you’ll let him live, and let the girls go.”
“How noble. But let’s see if you’re telling me the truth. Come ... keep coming. Come all the way over here ... Now stand. Slowly. Now kiss me, Maggie. Make it good. Make it a promise of everything to come.”
She stood before him, and yet he hadn’t moved. He still held Daniel’s head by his hair; still held a knife to his throat.
She touched his cheek. On her toes, she brushed his lips with her own. His mouth was cold. He tasted of blood. It should have whetted her own hunger. That was what he had intended.
“Thirsty, Maggie?” he whispered against her lips.