It starts off a nightmare.
He has a feeling he's been here before, but he hopes not.
A voice; laughter.
Dark wings, and the edges are on fire. Burning feathers. It makes him sick.
Fingers on his face, burning through the skin, and lips at his ear.
A smile. A laugh.
Bright blue eyes.
A deal; a promise. The words are forgotten.
He wakes up screaming.
Casey McAuliffe hated his office. He had specifically asked for one without a view; he remembered writing it down in all of his reports that he had submitted to his supervisors. Standing at the window, he felt as if he were just a sneeze away from falling down to the sidewalk thirty-two stories below. Glass was all that stood between him and certain death. The higher ups thought it made the room look more expensive, to have such a clear view of the city skyline. Casey would have preferred to look like a cheap bastard, but no one really cared what he thought. Come in, give reports, make money, go home to an ungrateful wife and two bratty kids. What a life! He could do without. Sometimes it made him think that he should just sneeze and fall, but why give his wife the pleasure of his life insurance? He knew he should have changed beneficiaries long ago.
Fingernails tapped nervously on the windowpane. Traffic below looked horrible. Taxis and cars were practically stacked on top of each other and the radio in the corner was cheerfully announcing that things were expected to be at a standstill for an hour. Apparently there had been an accident over on twenty-first and main. Two deaths and one rushed to the hospital- oh, how tragic. He might have believed it if the reporter didn't sound so happy to have something to babble about. Now and then the woman remembered to sound horrified, but for the most part she was too caught up in her air time. She flitted back and forth between the accident and the traffic, reminding all listeners that today was supposed to get up to a scorching ninety-nine degrees. She fervently hoped that the cars stuck in traffic had an air conditioner, or the ambulances would be taking away heat stroke victims later as well.
One fingernail rapped particularly loud against the glass in his distraction and he flinched back as if he expected the entire thing to give out in front of him. He gave a little nervous laugh, brown eyes flicking back and forth as he searched for cracks, and although he found none, he decided not to tempt fate further and retreated to a chair at the long table. One hand wiped sweat off his brow and he laced his fingers tightly together on the tabletop, seeking out the clock with his eyes. His meeting was supposed to start in just fifteen seconds. Where was his client? The man was frighteningly punctual; Casey thought he must have a clock inside his head to get to their meetings on time. Thoughts of the other man had him pulling off his glasses and he rubbed uneasily at his eyes. He'd met with this man four times already and the man gave him the creeps like no one and nothing else. He was never outwardly intimidating or hostile, but there was just something to him that scared Casey more than his so-called extravagant office ever could.
The second hand passed the twelve and kept going, and the door stayed closed. Casey fidgeted, checked the watch on his wrist to make sure, and put his glasses back on. The radio was giving details about the victims of the accident, going on at length about how one of the drivers had been a mother of two preschool children. She gave their ages and paused for a moment in an attempt to sound taken back by this horror, and her voice was watery as she continued. Sympathetic, but going strong. She should have been an actor; maybe she could win an award for this sort of thing. Casey checked the clock. Thirty-four seconds late. Thirty-five, thirty-six.
He stood up and paced a bit, starting towards the window before wheeling back and going for the radio instead. One bony finger poked the button to turn it off and he paced some more. One minute fifteen, one minute twenty.
He went to the door and opened it, peeking out into the hall to see if maybe the man was waiting out there. There was no sign of anyone, though Casey could hear the clacking of the receptionist's keyboard as she updated her files. With another glance back at the window, he slipped out and headed to the desk. Nerves made his hands sweaty and he wrung them together as he stopped off to her side, clearing his throat quietly to get her attention. She glanced his way without slowing and he forgot his question for a moment in favor of watching neon red lips move. She had gum, perhaps. Some sort of candy. What sort of red was that supposed to be, anyway? He bet it glowed in the dark.
"Help you?" she asked.
"My nine o' clock is late," he said.
She looked at him for a moment longer before looking at the clock on her computer. "It's 9:02 on a Monday morning," she said, as if that explained everything. "Give him a break; he's probably nursing a hangover."
"He's never late," Casey protested.
She gave a shrug of her shoulders and checked her files, looking for the spot she'd lost to talk to him. "I'll let you know if he calls," she said, meaning it to be a dismissal. Casey lingered on, checking his watch one more time. "I'll let you know," she said again, sounding irritated.
He decided to retreat back to the office and sat down once more, drumming his fingers on the table. He wondered if the man had gotten caught in traffic, and pushed himself up from his chair restlessly to go look. He didn't know what sort of car he was looking for, but it was worth a shot. No one had budged. He could hear sirens still, and he contemplated turning the radio back on before deciding it wouldn't do any good. He took a careful step back from the glass but leaned forward as he did so in order to keep his eye on the traffic, and he decided that if his client had indeed gotten stuck, then they might as well call their meeting off. The radio had said it would be an hour before the cars got anywhere, and surely Casey could find something else to fill his time in an hour. He wondered how long he was supposed to wait before he could just duck and run.
At 9:15 he decided he would go ask the receptionist if he could leave. When he opened the door, however, she was nowhere in sight. There was a little note stuck to her desk for any arriving clients that said she would be back in just a moment. Casey picked up the note, read it up close, and set it down again. After a moment he poked it to straighten it, wondering if he could just walk out. He had almost screwed up the courage to do so when her phone rang, and the sound of it startled him into retreating back to his office. He knew better than to touch her phone, so he stood in the doorway and watched it ring. Perhaps it was his client? He wished she was here to take the call.
After four rings it went quiet, and he sighed. He had pulled his glasses off again to polish them when the elevator door opened, and he went still as his missing client stepped in. Nervous brown eyes bounced to his watch. 9:17. Seventeen minutes late. There went Mr. Punctual. He pasted a smile on but it felt scared even to him.
"Good morning, sir," he said. He tried to make his voice sound as perky as the reporter's, but it came out thin. "I hope you are doing well."
"As fine as can be expected," was the smooth response, and the dark haired man started forward. Casey gave ground in front of him, moving back further into his office. He slipped his glasses on and pulled out two chairs for them. His guest didn't sit. Instead he reached out and dropped a manila envelope onto the table in front of Casey. Casey noted that he was wearing gloves and wondered how he could stand to do such a thing if the heat was as bad as the reporter claimed.
"This is…?" he asked, poking at one corner.
Casey opened it obediently and dumped out a stack of photos. It took his mind a few moments to register what he was seeing. They were shots taken through a window, of a man and a woman in what seemed to be the throes of passion. Some shots were far back; others were zoomed in to catch faces and expressions in exquisite detail. Casey didn't recognize the man. He did recognize the woman; he certainly knew the ring on the hand she had threaded through thick blonde hair.
"Beth…?" he whispered, feeling his stomach curl in stunned horror. His gaze flew up from the pictures to his client's smooth face. "What sort of joke is this?"
"Keep flipping," came the calm command. Casey's hands were shaking on the photos as he did as he was told. He felt sick to his stomach; his vision blurred in front of him. The last picture on the stack was apparently the one he was supposed to find. Same man; different woman. His daughter. Sweet sixteen. Jesus.
"Ohhh," he moaned, dropping the shots as if they burned him to touch. He felt like throwing up; he turned to one side and gave a dry heave. "Oh no, oh my God, oh no… Where did you get these? Where did you get them? Who is this man?"
He pushed himself to his feet. "Where did you get them?"
"It doesn't matter." One shoulder lifted in a calm shrug and the other started towards him, tugging at his gloves to make sure they were still snug on his hands. His arm caught Casey around his shoulders and the man was grateful for a moment at the support. He thought his legs would give out from under him. This had to be some sort of a sick joke. He wouldn't believe it. He closed his eyes tightly but the images were burned into the backs of his eyelids, and he sucked in a deep breath through clenched teeth. Forget the meeting. He was going home to confront Beth about- about this. For the first time in nearly thirteen years now the anger overrode the nerves and he felt his backbone reappear. He'd go home and then-
There was a fierce shove. He went stumbling forward, mouth open to cry out, to demand an explanation. Brown eyes opened just as he hit the glass.
It shattered under the weight of impact just as he'd always seen it in his mind, an explosion of glass that sparkled in the brilliant morning sun. He felt it tear open his face and hands and then there was the sudden sick realization that there wasn't a ground beneath his feet. Brown eyes opened wide before his glasses fell off his face, casting the world into a blob of colors. Standstill traffic was a psychedelic river of colors far below; the skyline turned to menacing shadows. He tilted forward, felt the wind rush around his face, and Casey fell just as he'd always fallen in his nightmares. But this time it wasn't a dream.
He screamed the whole way down.
His client watched him plummet, watched him hit the sidewalk. It happened just how he'd known it would. He heard screams but was already turning away, feet thudding softly against the floor as he started for the door. The receptionist was still gone. She'd left to get coffee and had stopped to flirt with the coffee boy. She would be back in two minutes, and two minutes was more than he needed to get off of this floor. He'd stuck the elevator here and now rode it down to the ground floor. The security guard didn't notice him leave, absorbed in watching an action movie on the television screen on his desk. No one noticed or cared about the raven haired man that let himself out of the revolving doors into the bright morning sun.
Brad Crawford was not the sort of man that got lost in a crowd. With raven hair and cool honey brown eyes, he was one of a thousand. He had the height that Americans favored and a lean build from a rigorous workout routine, and his clothes were tailored specifically for him. On first glance, he was just another rich shmuck who traded billions of dollars a year and probably made a fortune off of the stocks. CEO, VP, the P himself… It was just an idle observation as others passed, and it lasted only until they actually looked into his eyes. There was an eloquence to his words and his actions, a refined sort of grace that was seldom seen these days and only seen in those that could afford to have it. There was confidence in his voice and power in the easy way he handled things, and his eyes?
The waitresses at the Debutante called him Snake.
He was a source of much gossip in the back rooms, and they would often gather at the kitchen doorway to peek out at his seat. He came in every day at the same time to sit at the same table. He paid the expensive café a nice fee to keep the table forever open for him from eight to nine in the morning, seven days a week. He either showed up or he didn't, but he was never late. He came dressed in the finest suits, carrying a briefcase that probably cost just as much as the clothes, and ordered the same thing every day. The second he walked through the door, the waitresses started on his order, and it was out to him as quickly as possible. He was not the kind of man anyone wanted to make wait.
They knew his name because it was on his card. He paid the café in monthly installments both for the seat and the food, and it was up to him whether he lost the money by skipping a day or two. He didn't insist for it to be rolled over and the managers didn't offer it as a solution, and everyone figured he could spare the loss. Brad Crawford. His signature on the receipt was a pretty scrawl, precise and neat. Twenty-five, some guessed. No older than thirty. Somewhere in that range. Unmarried, judging by the lack of a ring, and the girls argued constantly over whether or not there was a mistress. Some felt sorry for the imagined girl; others said they wouldn't mind. He was scary to deal with even in their few moments of service but it was obvious he was wealthy. They were making fifteen bucks an hour at the Debutante, and several declared that they would gladly trade it to be the Mrs. Crawford, or even just the Mrs. Friday Saturday Sunday would do, thanks.
Mary Ellen was new. Nineteen years old, with white blonde hair and green eyes, she was the newest of the pretty ladies Sam Douglas hired for his wait staff. He only hired the most attractive and he could afford to be picky, considering the crowds he tailored to. He was good at avoiding discrimination suits, though no one really knew how he managed. Right now he was standing at the register, picking at the buttons and keeping a careful eye out. Word around the kitchens was that Douglas had never come in before the lunch rush back in the day, but that was before the Snake started showing up. Now he wished to be on hand to keep an eye on things, mostly at the request of one of the waitresses. He knew the girls were frightened of him, and while he chided them for their "unfounded fears", Mary Ellen had been told that he went back into an office and drank rum after every occasion he had to meet personally with the dark haired man. He swore up and down that he'd fire his girls if they gave the man just reason to complain, but he softened that by saying that he'd throw the man out on the street if he ever proved their fears to be justified.
Mary Ellen looked back across the café towards the little table by the window. It was in the corner, giving whoever sat there the benefit of being able to keep an eye on everything that went on inside and outside of the trendy shop. A reserved sign was set in place on its surface, and none of the waitresses were foolish enough to remove it until nine a.m. Even on cold mornings, when the place was crowded with businessman wanting a hot drink and a chance to sit still before a long day of work, they had to turn away men who could have used the booth. It was worse on days when the Snake didn't show up, Mary Ellen had heard, but considering what Mr. Crawford paid for the luxury of the open chair, the booth was off-limits.
She fidgeted nervously with her little clipboard, fingers finding the pencil in her pocket and testing the tip. The café opened at five in the morning for those who had to be at work at insanely early hours, and she had gotten here at four thirty to have a pep talk with Douglas about her morning. She was the waitress on staff today. Douglas hated having her work the morning shift alone on her first day, but Betsy had slipped in the tub yesterday and sprained her ankle. The other girls would show up at seven forty-five, but that wasn't enough time for them to be clocked in and ready to go. She surreptitiously checked her watch, watching the seconds tick away. She'd set her watch to the café's clock, which apparently had been reset to whatever clock the Snake kept using. Anna told her that it had been done as a joke in the first weeks, when waitresses started noticing that he showed up at the exact same time every day. At eight a.m. on the dot a bus stopped at the corner right outside, and this mysterious businessman would walk through the doors. They'd tweaked the clock out of amusement, just to see, and Anna said it was like clockwork, day after day. If eight o' clock came and passed, he wasn't coming, and they could relax.
She thought about her biology exam and tried to swallow a yawn. She had yet to go to sleep; she'd been up all night studying for her finals. She had opted to stay in the city for summer school and had juggled her classes around so she could work and learn at the same time. She shouldn't have changed her major that second time. She was never going to get out of college. She yawned again and this time had to cover it when a hand. She wished eight would come and go. She had been so excited to get this job here. She needed the second job, needed the second paycheck. Her roommate had ditched on her just last week and there was no way Mary Ellen could carry the weight of the rent alone. She was too proud to call her parents and ask for the money, and with two other siblings in college, money was tight as it was. She wanted to be happy about this job, but the other girls had made her so nervous about this customer that she couldn't relax, and she knew her smile looked forced.
She realized she was holding her breath. Green eyes bounced to the manager and found that he was watching her, waiting to see how she performed. Her gaze swept to the door and her knuckles were white on her clipboard.
58, 59, 8:00:00.
The bus stopped outside.
The door stayed shut.
She watched it for another minute to make sure and then her shoulders sagged in relief. She sucked in a deep breath and forced herself to calm down, and when she looked towards her manager again, her smile was real. How lucky for her, to have him be absent on her first day! Surely the next time he came in she wouldn't be alone, and there'd be another waitress for backup. She could observe how they interacted and then be prepared for when it was finally her turn to serve him. Her fingers loosed on her clipboard and one hand moved again to the pockets of her apron, this time seeking out the pack of cigarettes she'd stashed there. God, she needed a smoke break already. She had been so tense ever since Douglas had told her this morning that Betsy wasn't coming.
The day was instantly perfect, and Mary Ellen swept out from behind the counter to tend to her few tables. She asked if they would like a newspaper to read over breakfast, or if they needed creamer. Perhaps more coffee? Was it hot enough for their liking? She worked the crowds with her charm, and perhaps it was the sheer force of her relief that helped her cajole some smiles out of the rest of the crowd. She felt light and free, and for another ten minutes she knew she was going to love the job.
When she turned around, ready to go alert the busboy that table fourteen needed to be cleared, she almost ran into a broad chest. She took a startled step back, mouth open to offer up profuse apologies. One hand instantly went to the pitcher of coffee she was holding; nails clicked against the expensive sides as she tried to steady it from her sudden retreat. Green eyes flicked up to a face and she only got a few words about before her tongue froze. "Excuse me, I'm so-"
She remembered that her great-grandmother had died when she was twelve. She had been reading the newspaper to the frail old woman and it had taken her a while to notice that NaNa wasn't listening anymore. Her first thought had been that the woman had drifted off to sleep, but pale brown eyes were still open. She'd set the newspaper aside, sliding from her chair, and gone to investigate. Careful fingers had touched bare, wrinkled arms, and there had been a feel to them that had made her stomach churn. And those eyes- completely devoid of any warmth or life. Dead.
He had those eyes as he stared down at her, and she suddenly could sympathize with the feeder mice they sold at pet stores. She knew she should move, knew she should speak, but she was frozen to the spot. This was him. He could be no one else.
He was attractive, just a shade shy of gorgeous. She thought he could probably be a model for some men's wear magazine. Smooth, perfect skin and jet black hair that shone in the light; he had the face of a god, except for those eyes. They stared out at her from behind thin rimmed glasses that made him look frighteningly intelligent rather than boring and nerdy. She could smell his cologne and she thought for one scary moment that she was going to bolt.
"You're new," he said.
His voice startled her into speaking and the rest of her sentence came out as a rush. "Excuse me, excuse me, I'm sorry, I wasn't paying attention. Please, let me escort you to your seat."
"I know the way."
She didn't know what to say to that, so she watched in a numb silence as he moved past her and continued to his booth at the corner. She turned wide eyes on Douglas, who was looking alert at the counter. He gave a jerk of his chin and she obeyed instantly, following after her customer to his table. He sat and set his briefcase on the seat beside him, and she forced a smile onto her lips. "Your order will be out in just a second, sir," she said, and at his nod, she dismissed herself as quickly as she could. She didn't stop walking until she was safe in the kitchen, out of sight. She would have kept walking if Douglas hadn't caught her arms and stopped her. He turned her sharply around to face him and searched her face intently.
"Are you all right?" he wanted to know.
"He scared me," she blurted out without thinking. "You said, they said, everyone said that he was going to be here at eight. I had decided that he wasn't coming and oh my Lord there's something wrong with him!"
"What did he say to you?" Douglas demanded.
She shook her head, casting blond hair everywhere. "He said I was new," she said. She didn't recognize the sound of her own voice; it was high pitched with fear. His stare was burned into her eyelids; that sense of being weighed and measured by something far greater than her made her stomach clench. "Does he keep tabs on the waitresses? Does he? What's he doing here?"
"Shh, shh…" He squeezed her arms gently to try and calm her. "He's been coming here for seven months. Of course he can recognize a new face. Don't worry, don't worry. Don't let him get to you. I don't know why he came in late. It's the first time he's done it since he first started coming here. Let's just get him his order and that's the last you'll see of him today. He never asks for anything else; he just likes to be left alone with his food and coffee. Come on, can you do this for me? Let's just get him his food and I'll let you take an extra break to calm down. Can do you that?"
She wanted to shake her head, but his tone was reassuring, and she forced herself to take several deep breaths. Just carry him his food and retreat again. She could do that easily enough, couldn't she? She concentrated on breathing and Douglas murmured reassuring things, knowing that she was trying her best. At last she nodded, and Douglas offered her a smile. "Good girl," he said. "There's a good girl."
She just nodded again, and he went to call in Crawford's order. She found herself a seat to wait and held onto her clipboard, staring at the door as if she expected him to sweep in here looking for her. It took just six minutes for his order to get ready and Douglas came to help her get back out of the chair. "You can do this," he told her, giving her shoulder a light shake. "Just get past this and the rest is easy."
She nodded, feeling slightly braver under his encouragement, and accepted the tray of his food. He followed her to the door and stopped there, and she forced herself to keep going. The Snake was reading some files as she approached his table and she was heartened by the fact that he wasn't paying attention to her. "Excuse me," she said quietly, and he obediently shifted his work so she could set down his plate. She gave him a napkin and silverware and set the dish down, turning it slightly to make sure it was perfect. The coffee mug and saucer were set down close by, and then came the little dish of required creamers. Toast was on a separate saucer and she set it down, elated to find her tray empty. Douglas was right; it was going to be all right. As long as he just didn't look up at her, she would be fine.
"Will you be needing anything else?" she wanted to know.
"No, thank you," came his quiet voice, and without his eyes on her she allowed herself a moment to reflect that he had a really nice voice. The sign of a good education. She inclined her head to him and started to turn away, but she had just taken a step away when he spoke up. "It's a bad habit, you know."
She went still at the sound of his voice. Her heart gave a startled lurch in her chest and she swallowed hard to force on a calm expression before half-turning back to face him. "Excuse me?" she wanted to know.
He glanced up from his reports, flicking a sideways look up at her face. She was frozen to the spot under the weight of that look, under the sheer ice there. He reached out and she didn't think to move in time. Fingers touched her apron right where her cigarette pack was, and he withdrew his hand to shift his grip on his files. Her heart was hammering in her chest and she looked down at her apron, wondering how he'd seen the pack. She'd hidden it among napkins and straws at Douglas' request; he didn't want that telltale bulge showing against her pocket. Crawford turned his attention back on his work. "It gets people killed. I would advise you to quit."
She stared at him for a long moment and then turned quickly away, rushing towards the kitchen. Douglas had been distracted by a customer but she saw him break away at her retreat. She didn't slow. One hand dug her cigarettes out of her apron and the other grabbed her time card. She smashed it into the machine as hard as she could and rammed it back into its slot on the rack. She heard Douglas call her as she ran for the back door but she didn't slow, she couldn't slow. All she could see were those golden brown eyes, that smooth expression. She elbowed the back door open, already digging a cigarette out of her pack, and entered the back alley at a run.
She never saw the delivery truck coming.
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