9:02PM, Wednesday, March 20th, 2013
Both legs and adrenaline gave out three flights up, and she sagged against the stairs between the landings, trying to catch her breath. Gabriella struggled to make sense of what had happened. What were those things? Adult cognition came up empty, and childish imagination filled in the gaps with the half-glimpsed monsters that had once hunted her from the depths of the closet and from under the bed.
Gabriella shook her head free, and tried to remain rational. What do I have to work with? Well, whoever – and whatever – they were, they knew her name, and where she worked, and had come out in force to kidnap her. She grasped at straws. Why? for– for– she didn’t know. Her inner child called upon a host of adult experiences, used it to paint lurid scenes of gruesome detail, of what might lie in store for her, on the other side of that gaping, distended maw, and suddenly she was retching, pouring out a bloody-looking mixture of the red wine, brie, and caviar she’d served to celebrate the signing.
Finally she was done, and she felt absolutely wrung out. What now? How could she escape? Where could she go? Honestly, she had no idea. She wanted to go home. All thoughts of a bath had vanished; now she wanted nothing more than to curl up under the warm covers of her bed, and hold the little girl inside tightly. She’d be safe there – nothing could penetrate the walls of that childhood womb. They were monster-proof then, and somehow she held onto illogical faith that they would be just as impenetrable now.
Gabriella crawled up a few steps, distancing herself from the steaming mess on the stairs, and hugged her knees. She just didn’t know what to do. She laughed quietly to herself, a rasping cackle sucked dry of humor, and rocked back and forth. She knew how to deal with clients, associates, and retainers; in situations like this, she was out of her depths. Stephanie was the one who was always bitching about dealing with low-life scum.
Lightning struck in Gabriella’s brain, and she slapped her forehead. Duh! Stephanie! Trembling fingers fished her phone from her purse, and she dialed her home line. Gabriella doubted that Stephanie actually dealt with as many horrible human beings on a day-to-day basis as she complained, but she’d certainly had some experience with it. Stephanie would know what to do to be safe. It was what she did best.
Gabriella chewed on her knuckle as the phone rang, and rang, and rang. Doubt rolled over her like thick fog. What if Stephanie isn’t home? Gabriella didn’t remember her talking about having a date, but that didn’t mean much; Gabriella had been quite consumed with her own plans and preparations. Emotion rode her heart like a bucking bronco, and after fifteen seconds of ringing she was resigned to simply hang up. Then, without warning, the line clicked live. The soft sound of Stephanie’s Mozart CD filtered through the tinny phone speaker, and Gabriella couldn’t help but smile tentatively. Gabriella had come to hate that CD, but right now it was the most welcome sound in the world – the sound of mundane normalcy where everything made sense.
“Stephanie, it’s me,” Gabriella said.
The only reply was the graceful strains of Mozart’s Piano Sonata in C.
“It’s me, Gabriella,” she repeated, more urgently this time. She could hear Stephanie breathing on the far side. “I need your help.”
The first movement ended, and a pause – pure silence – hung in Gabriella’s ear. She wondered if she’d been disconnected, or if Stephanie had hung up, and the line just hadn’t realized it yet. Then loud screaming filled the gap, just as the CD’s second track started. Just as quickly the scream was gone, and there was only the gentle sounds of Mozart’s piano and the heavy pulse of someone’s breath – not Stephanie – against the phone.
Spiders tiptoed squirming lines up Gabriella’s spine. She knew that voice, that scream, and she feared what it meant. She flung the phone against the wall of the stairwell, and watched the pieces bounce and skitter down into the soup of vomit pooling below her. Home was not safe either. And Stephanie... Stephanie is... Gabriella’s mind shut down in self protection before she could finish processing that thought.
The sound of footsteps above her broke the daze that had fallen over her. She froze, listening to the slow click of steps as each foot fell upon the next stair. It wasn’t the hurried pace she’d seen and heard from the monsters. Even still, she started back down, trying to get away from anyone who might find her, and turn her over to those– those things. In her rush she slipped on the wet pieces of phone, and slid painfully into a heap on the next landing.
The sound of the steps accelerated, drawn by the noise, and Gabriella found herself suddenly looking up, into the face of a young woman. She was younger than Gabriella, and thinner, and probably more graceful, too. The woman had flawless skin, bronze on top of sweet caramel, and arrow straight black hair pulled back from her face and gathered obediently into a single pony tail. She wore a dark blue wrinkled blouse and a khaki linen pants, but somehow, everything about her still screamed celebrity. Or royalty. Rich chocolate colored eyes studied Gabriella apprehensively.
Even through the fear, jealousy stabbed Gabriella in the back, and unconsciously she pushed one of her own disobedient strands back out of her face. She didn’t want to think about how she herself looked. A chubby, puke-faced, helpless b---- covered in vomit, she thought, and scowled slightly to complete the look.
The woman’s face folded with concern and curiosity. “Miss de la Rosa?” she asked as she extended a hand, and her voice was pure honey tinged with exotic spice. “I’ve been trying to meet with you for a while. Josephine Calfuray.” The woman helped Gabriella to her feet, appraising her carefully. She looked over the stains on Gabriella’s clothes, then glanced back at the puddle slick oozing down the stairs. “Are you ok?”
Gabriella felt hysteria rise, and twisted it into a laugh. “Ok? No, I’m not f------ ok.” She batted away the woman’s hand, and pushed her hair back out of her face instead. As she studied Josephine carefully, Gabriella realized that she did recognize her. She’d seen her in the waiting room at least twice, and the woman had interrupted Gabriella once while on the phone with a client. That had not gone well; after that, Gabriella had assumed that she’d given up. So why is this woman here now? Gabriella frowned and started pawing through her bag. “Don’t ask me if I’m ok. I just got grabbed and chased by – f---, where is my barrette?”
Josephine’s face flickered with confusion as she tried to follow Gabriella’s thought process; at the mention of being chased, however, her attention focused to laser-like intensity. “Chased by whom?” she asked, and her voice was thick with urgency. “Muscular humanoids, with whitish-grey skin? With eyes that move like a sack full of drowning kittens?”
Gabriella’s eyes abandoned her purse, and instead stared at Josephine. “Kittens in a wet sack,” she said, and her voice went hoarse. “Holy s---. That is a horrible, awful, accurate description.” She found herself trembling again at the memory of that face. “And a mouth like a pit of horrors.”
Josephine nodded. “The Nephisyr.”
“Is that what they’re called? Nephisyr?” The word did not fit Gabriella’s mouth, and she was glad to spit it out. “What are they? Where did they come from?” She glanced at the door leaving the stairwell. “Why are they after me?”
Josephine nodded. “I am sure you have many questions,” she said as she took Gabriella gently by the arm. “But if the Nephisyr are here we should find a safer place to talk.’
Gabriella yanked her arm free of Josephine’s grasp. “What makes you think I’m going with you?” she asked, backing away.
Josephine held up her hands in cautious surrender. “Miss de la Rosa, I am not your enemy. Quite the contrary, I have been trying to help you. Please, trust me.”
Gabriella frowned. “Why the hell should I do that? I don’t know you from Eve.”
“What choice do you have?” Josephine shrugged. “I’ll help you get past those Nephisyr. And everything will be explained once you meet Master–”
“I’m not going to meet your f------ Master,” Gabriella snapped. “For all I know you might be working with those f------ Neph– nephis– whatever.” She pulled a pen from her purse, then tucked the bag under one arm.
“No,” Gabriella said. Her mouth clicked shut and locked with finality.
Josephine’s face fell, and she tapped one finger against her chin. After half a second, however, acceptance brushed the disappointment away, and she looked at Gabriella expectantly. “Where are we going then?”
Gabriella gathered her hair up in her hands and pulled it out behind her as she prepared to roll it up. At the question she paused what she was doing, and cocked an eyebrow at Josephine. “We?”
Josephine smiled. “As I said, I’m here to help you.” She paused and her face turned serious. “Even if you won’t come with me to the airport, I’d rather you not get caught by the Nephisyr. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone.”
Gabriella stared hard at Josephine, trying to read her, and finished coiling her hair into a bun. “Do you have a phone?”
Josephine shook her head. “I do not,” she said. “They can be problematic, at times.” She watched Gabriella fumble with her hair, and started forward. “Let me help you with that.”
Gabriella jerked backwards, and kept the svelte raven-haired woman in front of her. “No. No thanks.” She twisted the pen into her hair, securing the bun, and her eyes narrowed in calculated measure. They flicked towards the door, then back to Josephine. “You really want to help me? You go first.”
The finger returned to Josephine’s chin, just for a split second; then she reached out, and grasped the push bar. Before she opened the door, however, she looked back at Gabriella. “Where are we–” she started, then stopped. “Where are you going?”
Gabriella pulled a ring of keys from her purse. “I am going to my car, and driving to the police station on 21st street to report those–” She blinked. “– to report an attempted kidnapping.” She nodded to herself – that sounded so much less insane than trying to report monsters, or Nephisyr, or whatever. “You can go wherever the f--- you like.”
Josephine shook her head emphatically. “You won’t be–”
The door jerked open, yanking the handle out of Josephine’s hand and cutting off whatever she’d been about to say. On the other side, a trio of Nephisyr spread inconceivably wide smiles full of dagger sharp teeth. “Gabriella Elizabeth de la Rosa,” the lead one said. “We are so glad we’ve found you.”
“S---,” Gabriella said again, and turned to run up the stairs.