Nightside [Diana Tregarde series]

BOOK: Nightside [Diana Tregarde series]
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Marion Zimmer Bradley Literary Works Trust
www.mzbworks.com

Copyright ©1989 by Mercedes Lackey

First published in Marion Zimmer Bradley's Fantasy Magazine, issue 6, 1989

NOTICE: This work is copyrighted. It is licensed only for use by the original purchaser. Making copies of this work or distributing it to any unauthorized person by any means, including without limit email, floppy disk, file transfer, paper print out, or any other method constitutes a violation of International copyright law and subjects the violator to severe fines or imprisonment.
Nightside
Mercedes Lackey

It was early spring, but the wind held no hint of verdancy, not even the promise of it—it was chill and odorless, and there were ghosts of dead leaves skittering before it. A few of them jittered into the pool of weak yellow light cast by an aging streetlamp—a converted gaslight that was a relic of the previous century. It was old and tired, its pea-green paint flaking away; as weary as this neighborhood, which was older still. Across the street loomed an ancient church, whose congregation had dwindled over the years to a handful of little old women and men who appeared, like scrawny blackbirds, every Sunday and then scattered back to the shabby houses that stood to either side until Sunday should come again. On the side of the street that the lamp tried (and failed) to illuminate was the cemetery.

Like the neighborhood, it was very old—fifty years shy of being classified as “Colonial.” There were few empty gravesites now, and most of those belonged to the same little old ladies and men that had lived and would die here. It was protected from vandals by a thorny hedge as well as a ten-foot wrought-iron fence. Within its confines, as seen through the leafless branches of the hedge, granite cenotaphs and enormous Victorian monuments bulked shapelessly against the bare sliver of a waning moon.

The church across the street was dark and silent; the houses up and down the block showed few lights, if any. There was no reason for anyone of this neighborhood to be out in the night.

So the young woman waiting beneath the lamppost seemed that much more out of place.

Nor could she be considered a typical resident of this neighborhood by any stretch of the imagination—for one thing, she was young; perhaps in her mid-twenties, but no more. Her clothing was neat but casual, too casual for anyone visiting an elderly relative. She wore dark, knee-high boots, old, soft jeans tucked into their tops, and a thin windbreaker open at the front to show a leotard beneath. Her attire was far too light to be any real protection against the bite of the wind, yet she seemed unaware of the cold. Her hair was long, down to her waist, and straight—in the uncertain light of the lamp it was an indeterminate shadow, and it fell down her back like a waterfall. Her eyes were large and oddly slanted, not Oriental; catlike, rather. Even the way she held herself was feline: poised, expectant—a graceful tension like a dancer's or a hunting predator's. She was not watching for something—no, her eyes were unfocused with concentration. She was listening.

A soft whistle, barely audible, carried down the street on the chill wind. The tune was of a piece with the neighborhood—old and timeworn.

Many of the residents would have smiled in recollection to hear “Lili Marlene” again.

The tension left the girl as she swung around the lamppost by one hand to face the direction of the whistle. She waved, and a welcoming smile warmed her eyes.

The whistler stepped into the edge of the circle of light. He, too, was dusky of eye and hair—and heartbreakingly handsome. He wore only dark jeans and a black turtleneck, no coat at all—but like the young woman, he didn't seem to notice the cold. There was an impish glint in his eyes as he finished the tune with a flourish.

"A flair for the dramatic, Diana,
ma cherie
? he said mockingly. “Would that you were here for the same purpose as the lovely Lili! Alas, I fear my luck cannot be so good...."

She laughed. His eyes warmed at the throaty chuckle.

"Andre,” she chided, “don't you ever think of anything else?"

"Am I not a son of the City of Light? I must uphold her reputation,
mais non
?"

The young woman raised an ironic brow. He shrugged. “Ah, well—since it is you who seek me, I fear I must be all business. A pity. Well, what lures you to my side of this unseasonable night? What horror has Mademoiselle Tregarde unearthed this time?"

Diana Tregarde sobered instantly, the laughter fleeing her eyes. “I'm afraid you picked the right word this time, Andre. It is a horror. The trouble is, I don't know what kind."

"Say on. I wait in breathless anticipation.” His expression was mocking as he leaned against the lamppost, and he feigned a yawn.

Diana scowled at him and her eyes darkened with anger. He raised an eyebrow of his own. “If this weren't so serious,” she threatened, “I'd be tempted to pop you one—Andre, people are dying out there. There's a ‘Ripper’ loose in New York."

He shrugged, and shifted restlessly from one foot to the other. “So? This is new? Tell me when there is not! That sort of criminal is as common to the city as a rat. Let your police earn their salaries and capture him."

Her expression hardened. She folded her arms tightly across the thin nylon of her windbreaker; her lips tightened a little. “Use your head, Andre! If this were an ordinary slasher-killer, would I be involved?"

He examined his fingernails with care. “And what is it that makes it extraordinary, eh?"

"The victims had no souls."

"I was not aware,” he replied dryly, “that the dead possessed such things anymore."

She growled under her breath and tossed her head impatiently, and the wind caught her hair and whipped it across her throat. “You are deliberately being difficult! I have half a mind—"

It finally seemed to penetrate the young man's mind that she was truly angry—and truly frightened, though she was doing her best to conceal the fact; his expression became contrite.

"Forgive me,
cherie
. I am being recalcitrant."

"You're being a pain in the neck,” she replied acidly. “Would I have come to you if I weren't already out of my depth?"

"Well—” he admitted. “No. But—this business of souls,
cherie
. How can you determine such a thing? I find it most difficult to believe."

She shivered, and her eyes went brooding. “So did I. Trust me, my friend, I know what I'm talking about. There isn't a shred of doubt in my mind. There are at least six victims who no longer exist in any fashion anymore."

The young man finally evidenced alarm. “But—how?” he said, bewildered. “How is such a thing possible?"

She shook her head violently, clenching her hands on the arms of her jacket as if by doing so she could protect herself from an unseen—but not unfelt—danger. “I don't know, I don't know! It seems incredible even now—I keep thinking that it's a nightmare, but—Andre, it's real, it's not my imagination—” Her voice rose a little with each word, and Andre's sharp eyes rested for a moment on her trembling hands.

"
Eh bien
,” he sighed, “I believe you. So there is something about that devours souls—and mutilates bodies as well, since you mentioned a ‘Ripper’ persona?"

She nodded.

"Was the devouring before or after the mutilation?"

"Before, I think—it's not easy to judge.” She shivered in a way that had nothing to do with the cold.

"And you came into this how?"

"Whatever it is, it took the friend of a friend; I—happened to be there to see the body afterwards, and I knew immediately there was something wrong. When I unshielded and used the Sight—"

"Bad.” He made it a statement.

"Worse. I—I can't describe what it felt like. There were still residual emotions, things left behind when—” Her jaw clenched. “Then when I started checking further I found out about the other five victims—that what I had discovered was no fluke. Andre, whatever it is, it has to be stopped.” She laughed again, but this time there was no humor in it. “After all, you could say stopping it is in my job description."

He nodded soberly. “And so you became involved. Well enough, if you must hunt this thing, so must I.” He became all business. “Tell me of the history. When, and where, and who does it take?"

She bit her lip. “'Where'—there's no pattern. ‘Who’ seems to be mostly a matter of opportunity; the only clue is that the victims were always out on the street and entirely alone, there were no witnesses whatsoever, so the thing needs total privacy and apparently can't strike where it will. And ‘when'—is moon-dark."

"Bad.” He shook his head. “I have no clue at the moment. The
loup garou
I can recognize, and others, but I know nothing that hunts beneath the dark moon."

She grimaced. “You think I do? That's why I need your help; you're sensitive enough to feel something out of the ordinary, and you can watch and hunt undetected. I can't. And I'm not sure I want to go trolling for this thing alone—without knowing what it is. I could end up as a late-night snack for it. But if that's what I have to do, I will."

Anger blazed up in his face as if from a cold fire. “You go hunting alone for this creature over my dead body!"

"That's a little redundant, isn't it?” Her smile was weak but genuine.

"Pah!” He dismissed her attempt at humor with a wave of his hand. “Tomorrow is the first night of moon-dark; I shall go a-hunting. Do you remain at home, else I shall be most wroth with you. I know where to find you, should I learn anything of note."

"You ought to—” Diana began, but she spoke to the empty air.

* * * *

The next night was warmer, and Diana had gone to bed with her windows open to drive out some of the stale odors the long winter had left in her apartment. Not that the air of New York City was exactly fresh—but it was better than what the heating system kept recycling through the building. She didn't particularly like leaving her defenses open while she slept, but the lingering memory of Katy Rourk's fish wafting through the halls as she came in from shopping had decided her. Better exhaust fumes than burned haddock.

* * * *

She hadn't had an easy time falling asleep; and, when she finally managed to do so, tossed restlessly, her dreams uneasy and readily broken—as by the sound of someone in the room.

Before the intruder crossed even half the distance between the window and her bed, she was wide awake, and moving. She threw herself out of bed, somersaulted across her bedroom, and wound up crouched beside the door, one hand on the light switch, the other holding a polished dagger she'd taken from beneath her pillow.

As the lights came on, she saw Andre standing in the center of the bedroom, blinking in surprise wearing a sheepish grin.

Relief made her knees go weak. “Andre, you idiot!” She tried to control her tone, but her voice was shrill and cracked a little. “You could have been killed!"

He spread his hands wide in a placating gesture. “Now, Diana—"

"'Now Diana’ my eye!” she growled. “Even you would have a hard time getting around with a severed spine!” She stood up slowly, shaking from head to toe with released tension.

"I didn't wish to wake you,” he said, crestfallen.

She closed her eyes and took several long, deep, calming breaths; focusing on a mantra, moving herself back into stillness until she knew she would be able to reply without screaming at him.

"Don't,” she said carefully, “Ever. Do. That. Again.” She punctuated the last word by driving the dagger she held into the door frame.

"
Certainement, ma petite
,” he replied, his eyes widening a little as he began to calculate how fast she'd moved. “The next time I come in your window when you sleep, I shall blow a trumpet first."

"You'd be a lot safer, I'd be a lot happier,” she said crossly, pulling the dagger loose with a twist of her wrist. She palmed the light switch and dimmed the lamps down to where they would be comfortable to his light-sensitive eyes, then crossed the room, the plush brown carpet warm and soft under her bare feet. She put the silver-plated dagger back under her pillow. Then with a sigh she folded her long legs beneath her to sit on her rumpled bed. This was the first time Andre had ever caught her asleep, and she was irritated far beyond what her disturbed dreams warranted. She was somewhat obsessed with her privacy and with keeping her night boundaries unbreached—she and Andre were off-and-on lovers, but she'd never let him stay any length of time.

He approached the antique wooden bed slowly. “
Cherie
, this was no idle visit—"

"I should bloody well hope not!” she interrupted, trying to soothe her jangled nerves by combing the tangles out of her hair with her fingers.

"—I have seen your killer."

She froze.

"It is nothing I have ever seen or heard of before."

She clenched her hands on the strand of hair they held, ignoring the pull. “Go on—"

"It—no, he—I could not detect until he made his first kill tonight. I found him then, found him just before he took his hunting-shape, or I would never had discovered him at all; for when he is in that shape there is nothing about him that I could sense that marked him as different. So ordinary—a man, I think, and like many others—not young, not old; not fat, not thin. So unremarkable as to be invisible. I followed him—he was so normal I found it difficult to believe what my own eyes had seen a moment before; then, not ten minutes later, he found yet another victim and—fed again."

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