All rights are reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means without written permission of the author




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ANATHEMA

K.A.Tucker

Papoti Books


Copyright 2011 K.A.Tucker

All rights are reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means without written permission of the author.


This book is a work of fiction. The names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the writer’s imagination or have been used fictiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to persons, living or dead, actual events, locales or organizations is entirely coincidental.


Editing by Marg Gilks


Cover design by Extended Imagery/Carl Graves


v1


Published by Papoti Books

www.papotibooks.com


Smashwords Edition


To Lia and Sadie, for being.


To Paul, for reading a girl’s book… twice.


To my friends and family, for their endless support.


Contents


Prologue

1. Sofie

2. The Gift

3. Drowning

4. Dead Is Dead

5. Veronique

6. Déjà Vu

7. Crazy?

8. Reconnaissance

9. Attacked

10. Truth

11. Cursed

12. Extinction

13. Bribery

14. Daisies and Deceit

15. Sea of Merth

16. Telepathy

17. Murderer

18. Choices

19. The Cover, Uncovered

20. Immobilized

21. Making Plans

22. The Beards

23. The Council

24. The Portal

25. Exiled

Excerpt from Asylum





Prologue


Trust me,” Sofie whispered, her delicate hands sliding up Nathan’s chest to slip behind his neck.

And if you’re wrong … ?” Nathan began but, unable to finish the sentence, his voice trailed off.

I’m not wrong!” she snapped.

He pulled away and moved to stand before a nearby window, his arms crossed over his chest.

Let me prove it to you.” She glided over to his side, and lifted a finger to push a stray lock of chestnut brown hair off his forehead.

But Nathan ignored the affectionate gesture, focused now on the bustling nightlife beyond the walls of his chateau. Rarely did he envy humans. Tonight, though, as he watched horse–drawn carriages roll along Paris’s cobblestone streets, carrying passengers on their way home from frivolous celebrations and too much wine, his jaw tightened with jealousy. Why couldn’t his problems be so trivial?

He saw a man stumble out of a tavern and fall to the ground in a drunken heap, directly in the path of two draft horses, and his eyes widened. The idea of witnessing a man trampled to death lifted his spirits. That human’s problem would rival his own … He gripped the window frame in anticipation, watching the beasts’ mammoth hooves trotting toward the man’s limp body, seconds away from squashing his head as if it were a ripe melon. At the last moment, two men grabbed the drunk by the heels and dragged him to safety. The horses continued on, undisturbed. Damn those good Samaritans.

Nathan scanned the streets for another person in a predicament worse than his own, knowing the chances were slim. His attention landed on a young couple in the midst of a lovers’ quarrel, one that quickly escalated from shrieks and hand gestures to a swift knee to the man’s groin. The growing crowd of spectators around the couple erupted in laughter as the young man crumpled to the ground, writhing in pain. Despite the situation, Nathan chuckled, aware that his redheaded spitfire may react in the same fashion momentarily.

Sighing heavily, Nathan dropped his eyes to the oak tree beneath his window, its leaves a rich golden hue with the change of season. It was to be Sofie’s burial spot.

That day couldn’t be today, though. He wasn’t ready.

Nathan shook his head. “No … I cannot bear the risk.”

Sofie didn’t respond immediately. When she did, it was with the sharpness of a well–honed blade. “Fine.” The silk layers of her evening gown rustled noisily as she stalked toward the door.

Before she reached it, Nathan was across the room, his hand barring her exit. “Please don’t ask it of anyone else,” he pleaded. He knew the request was useless, though. She stared back at him, her olive green eyes blazing in defiance, her intentions clear. She would find someone—someone who didn’t care whether she survived. He couldn’t allow that.

Another heavy sigh, this one in surrender. “You’re impossible, woman,” he whispered, shutting his eyes. There was no hint of anger in his tone.

Sofie’s throaty laughter filled the room. Victorious, she stretched up to lay an intense kiss on his lips. A farewell kiss, if this failed …

Taking her hands in his, he pulled her to the center of the room where the kerosene lamp burned, the only source of light in the spacious master bedroom.

No,” she protested, scowling, as he reached for it.

I’m not compromising on this,” he answered firmly.

After a second of deliberation, Sofie nodded, relenting—knowing better than to press him further, knowing she had won the war. She lifted her hands to pull her loose hair up off her neck.

Nathan shut his eyes, mentally preparing himself. He trusted her abilities. If anyone could solve this problem, it was his Sofie.

But if she was wrong …

He opened his eyes to see Sofie’s dazzling, confident smile. How he would do anything to see that smile for eternity!

In one fluid motion he extinguished the lamp, plunging the room into darkness.



Sofie’s chest heaved as she inhaled deeply, trying to regulate her pounding heart. She had worked tirelessly for this moment, to allow for this possibility—pushing her mind to the brink of sanity, drawing on her skill until she’d drained every ounce of energy.

It was finally happening.

Or was it? Anticipation turned to panic as the seconds stretched to minutes with no signals from Nathan. She stood in silence, her eyes searching the darkness in vain, fighting against the urge to speak out, to plead with him. What if he had changed his mind? What if he had left the room? What if—

Pain. All concern vanished.

Sofie regained consciousness on the bedroom floor. The room was still absolutely dark, yet her eyes darted wildly around, taking in every picture, every fabric pattern, every crack in the ceiling as if sun streamed through the windows. Exhilaration flooded through her.

With only a thought, she was on her feet and standing in front of a mirror. She gasped at the reflection. The eyes staring back were no longer her lackluster olive but a mystical pale mint. Her hand flew to her neck. No puncture marks. Not even a scratch. The only evidence was some dried blood on skin that was now creamy and pale. A slow sigh escaped her lips as the crushing fear of failure lifted from her chest.

It had worked.

She began giggling.

What in God’s name are you so happy about?” a voice boomed. Her head whipped around. Mortimer stood in the doorway, a look of sheer horror splayed across his face. “Do you realize what you’ve done?” he yelled, slamming his fist against the solid wood door. Splinters flew from the blow.

Sofie twisted her mouth in annoyance. “What are you talking about? It worked!”

You call that success?” He gestured to Sofie’s left, his eyebrows raised mockingly.

She turned curious eyes to follow his hand. Her stomach dropped when she saw the body lying motionless beside the bed. “Nathan!”

She flew across the room with inhuman speed, dropping to her knees to clutch Nathan’s beautiful face, needing to see his rich chocolate–brown eyes gazing adoringly at her. She released a sharp gasp when she saw the vacuous gray of death staring back at her.

I don’t understand,” she whispered, tears welling in her eyes.

You have no idea what you’ve done to us,” Mortimer answered through gritted teeth. It was obvious that Nathan’s death was the least of his concerns.


1. Sofie


See you tomorrow, Betty,” I called out to the shelter’s evening receptionist as I passed the front desk. The plump, middle–aged woman responded with a gentle smile and a quick nod before turning her attention back to the homeless man standing beside her.

I held out my hand as I stepped onto the dimly lit sidewalk, testing for rain, expecting it. A relentless, bone–chilling drizzle had laid siege to Portland for the month of September—the kind of gloomy, wet weather that made a person dream of hibernating under a heavy blanket until spring.

To my pleased surprise, my hand encountered not a drop—no rain yet, anyway. I tucked my umbrella under my arm and began walking toward Congress Street, a nightly ritual after finishing my volunteer shift at the shelter. There was something therapeutic about wandering through the city’s Art District, admiring the hopes and dreams of local artists on display. More importantly, it dragged out the inevitable trip home before curfew. I was never in a rush to get back to my foster home.

Half a block up, I found a scruffy old man lying across the sidewalk ahead of me. “Evening, Eddie!” I called, smiling gently. Eddie split his time between the shelter and a nearby alley. “I’ll bet Betty can find you a nice, warm bed tonight.”

Eddie clambered to his knees with surprising agility and, seizing the corners of my navy raincoat with his grimy hands, began a recital of complete gibberish, his fervor increasing exponentially as he rambled on. “Oh, chocolate pools flatter my wretchedness. Yours is the face of an angel, complete with heaven’s cream and a halo of spun gold. You are a goddess!”

There were random moments of lucidity with Eddie, days where we could chat normally about trivialities like the weather and local politics. Other days I found him perched on a makeshift pedestal, ranting about giant beasts lurking in the shadows. Then there were days—like today, as he made my dull brown eyes, pallid complexion, and blonde hair sound like gifts from the gods—when he was a whole new kind of crazy.

No, Eddie. I’m not your goddess, but thanks … I’m flattered.” I gently patted his hand.

Three drops of water landed in quick succession on my nose, then the rain began to fall. Drat. “Do you need an umbrella?” I eyed the roof of Eddie’s home in the alleyway behind him—a cardboard box cleverly shielded by the four umbrellas I had provided for him over the last two weeks.

Eddie responded with his familiar vacant stare, placid eyes indicating he was now there only in physical form. Reaching down, I gently tugged at his arm. His body resisted, as unyielding as a concrete statue. I knew it was hopeless. “Oh, Eddie,” I sighed. “You’re going to catch pneumonia if you stay out here.” I popped open my own umbrella and wrapped its handle within his hands, hoping it would keep him dry until his mind returned and moved his body indoors.

Wrapping my arms tightly around my chest, I set off at a brisk walk. I could handle a little rain. As if Mother Nature were privy to my thoughts, the sky suddenly opened up and the light drizzle evolved into a monsoon, pouring buckets of water onto my head. I began running blindly, seeking shelter.

Guilt welled in the pit of my stomach as I ran, picturing Eddie sitting on the sidewalk with one measly little umbrella to protect him. I should go check on him. Maybe the cold rain snapped him out of his daze, and I can convince him to stay at the shelter tonight. Yes, that’s the right thing to do. It’s only a few blocks back, if I turn around now—

My shin collided with something solid. I stumbled, executing an awkward cartwheel before crashing facedown in a puddle on the concrete sidewalk.

How long I lay in heap on the sidewalk, disoriented, faintly aware of rain permeating my clothes through to my skin, I couldn’t say. I regained my senses when I couldn’t hear drops pelting the sidewalk anymore. Crawling to my knees, I wiped the mucky water off my cheek and checked for blood. None. No scrapes or cuts. My shin didn’t appear to be broken or even hurting, though it should by all accounts be shattered. Maybe I’d earned a bruise at least. Otherwise, miraculously, I was fine.

The victim of my inattentiveness was not so lucky. I groaned, my hands flying to my forehead in dismay as I appraised what looked to have been a lovely and expensive stained–glass object, now scattered in dozens of pieces. I leaned over to begin collecting the shards.

You’ll cut yourself,” a woman’s silky voice called in a French accent.

I looked up. A stunning redhead stood in a doorway, regarding me with eyes that were the most peculiar shade of pale mint green—so pale, they appeared inhuman. She has a good point, I realized as I regarded the jagged piece of glass in my hand. “But I can’t just leave it here. Someone may hurt themselves on it.”

And what do you plan on doing with all the pieces?” she asked, lifting a brow in query.

I don’t know … glue them back together?” I said with the certainty of a gas station attendant asked to perform solo brain surgery.

The woman smirked. “I bought that lantern in France. It’s one of a kind and it certainly can’t be glued back together,” she informed me, her tone cool, yet serene.

Oh no. This was hers. “I’m so sorry. There was so much rain! I was distracted and I just … hit it. I’m so sorry. I’ll pay you for it.”

You have ten thousand dollars?” Those haunting eyes gazed down at my rain–soaked department store clothes with amusement.

I felt the blood drain from my face. “No, but—” The ground swayed, and I tasted bitter bile forming in the back of my throat. I didn’t have ten thousand dollars. I had exactly forty–seven dollars in my bank account and no job.

She regarded me silently, her expression unreadable. Finally she spoke. “I’m Sofie. What’s your name?”

I hesitated, swallowing. “Evangeline.”

Evangeline …” My name sounded so elegant, rolling off her tongue. “Please, come in and warm up with something hot. On the house, of course. I insist.” She reached out with a delicate–looking hand to help me to my feet. “Leave all of this. I’ll clean it up later.”

Confused by her kindness, I accepted, following her like a disoriented puppy.

A soft buzz of conversation and jazz music enveloped me as I stepped into the warm café. A stone fireplace was the source of that heat, a blaze of fierce orange flames dancing on its hearth.

Welcome to Newt’s Brew,” Sofie said as she led me past sharply–dressed patrons lounging in upholstered chairs of varying style and pattern as they sipped lazily from colorful mugs. “Here, sit.” She pointed to a stool by the counter. “Hot chocolate?”

I nodded.

I also offer lattes, cappuccinos, espresso, herbal teas—anything at all, if you would prefer something else. And of course, the most supremely delectable pastries,” she added, noticing my eyes bulge as I observed the array of sweets in the display case behind the counter.

Hot chocolate would be wonderful, thanks,” I said, curiosity pulling my eyes away to scan the place—all dark hardwoods, rich fabrics, and ornate moldings.

Sofie went behind the counter and tossed me a large towel. “You look like a drowned cat.” Her accent made the statement sound exotic.

I glimpsed my reflection in a mirror on the wall behind her, and had to agree. I spent the next few minutes quietly drying my long hair, wishing I could strip out of my wet clothes and curl up by the fire.

Follow me, please,” Sofie said, heading over to the fireplace. “Would you mind?” she asked the couple sitting in the seats directly in front of it, as she gestured at me.

Oh no, that’s okay!” I quickly countered, embarrassed, but the couple was already up and on their way out the door, all smiles.

Sofie motioned to one of the chairs.

You really didn’t need to do that,” I said, guilt creasing my forehead.

She waved my protests away, her other hand pointing insistently toward the chair.

Accepting with a sheepish smile, I sank into the chair, my wet jeans clinging uncomfortably, then closed my eyes as my body absorbed the heat.

Moments later I heard something being set on the table beside me and opened my eyes. A mug of hot chocolate mounded high with whipped cream sat there; Sofie had settled in the seat across from me. I stared at her in awe. No one, aside from my own mother, had ever shown a quarter of the compassion that this stunning woman was doling out so freely and unwarranted to a girl who had just broken one of her valuable possessions.

So, how do you propose to pay me back for my lantern?”

Her words yanked me back to reality. My gaze dropped to floor, and that pungent bile crept up to touch my taste buds again. The simple act of breathing became difficult. Great question. How was I going to come up with ten thousand dollars? Though I’d tried hard to find a job in the last four months, the rejections were always the same: experience needed. And I was fresh from high school graduation—no experience here.

The silence dragged on as I studied the flames. Finally I braved Sofie’s gaze again. She was leaning back in her chair with the poise and style of a super model, her fitted black dress accentuating her curves and highlighting her creamy pale skin.

She spoke before I could. “You know, many people would say that it’s my fault for putting something so expensive out on the sidewalk. It was bound to get broken,” she offered, still with no emotion.

My mouth opened to respond but no words came out. That thought hadn’t crossed my mind. The excuse would certainly get me off the hook, but I knew my conscience would never accept it, instead pricking me endlessly like a sliver in my clothes. “No. You’re nice, offering me an excuse, but I broke it and I should pay for it … somehow.”

An oppressive weight settled on my chest and I sent my eyes to roam the room again. The tables were covered with dirty mugs waiting to be picked up and I could see that the wet floor was in desperate need of a mop. It dawned on me—I hadn’t seen anyone serving customers. “I could work here?” I blurted without thinking. A vivid image of me in my Sketchers and faded jeans, tripping over a chair leg and scalding a customer with a tray of hot drinks, popped into my mind. I quickly amended my suggestion. “I could wash dishes, clear tables, run errands—whatever you need. All day, seven days a week. Whatever you need. It may take a while for me to earn the money …” More like forever.

Those cool, pale eyes studied me silently, revealing nothing.

I don’t know. Maybe it’s a stupid idea.” I bit down on my thumbnail.

She ignored that. “Yes, I believe I can find something for you here. Can you start tomorrow night at six?”

Seriously?” I exclaimed, unable to hide my shock.

She nodded, once.

As I glanced around the place, a thrill stirred in my stomach. What would I be doing? I didn’t care. “Okay. Yes. Thank you.” I made a mental note to call the shelter to let them know I wouldn’t be coming in for the next few … years.

Wonderful.” Sofie rose and walked over to the counter. She grabbed a pen from behind the counter and scrawled something on a sheet of paper, then returned and handed it to me. “Please fill this out. I’ve marked your starting pay at the top.” I saw the slightest smile touch Sofie’s plump lips—the first one that night. “Some say I pay too well.”

I looked down at the elegant writing at the top of the job application, and gasped.



My watch read ten minutes to six when I pushed through the heavy wooden door of Newt’s Brew the next evening, my nerves performing a full circus production in the pit of my stomach. I’d sat up in bed most of the previous night, replaying the inexplicable evening in my head countless times. Half of me was sick to my stomach knowing I wouldn’t be registering for college before my fiftieth birthday, given the debt I had so clumsily acquired. But the other half wondered how I had managed to go from landing my first job in a trendy cafe to a salary that could only be described as ridiculous.

Newt’s Brew was empty. Not one customer idled with a cup of coffee. No buzz of conversation in the air. Maybe it was still early, I decided. Sofie stood behind the counter, her back to me, intent on something in her hands. “Hi Sofie!” I called in a bubbly voice.

Good evening, Evangeline,” she responded without turning, with that same reserved air I was coming to recognize as a usual aspect of her personality.

My chest tightened. What if she regrets hiring me? “Tell me what I can do,” I urged, sprinting around the counter to face Sofie. Clad in a provocative, knee–length indigo–blue dress that accentuated her waspish hourglass figure, she was opening a trash bag. I tugged self–consciously on the bottom of my shirt. After spending the entire day in front of my closet, fussing over my mediocre wardrobe, I had finally settled on my nicest pair of dark blue jeans and a gray and black striped shirt, certain that I would still look like a hobo off the street next to the worst–dressed customer in this place.

These all need to go,” she said, waving a hand dismissively at the display of desserts.

I picked up a silver platter and sniffed a slice of apple pie. It smelled fine.

Help yourself, if you’re hungry,” she offered, bending to tuck the bag into the trash can.

Are you getting a new batch in?”

She shook her head. “I have to close Newt’s. I have some unfinished business in New York.”

Close? My smile faltered. “Oh … For how long?”

A few weeks, at least. Maybe more.”

My smile fell completely. “Well … is there anything I can do to help? I have ten thousand dollars’ worth of hours to put in for you, don’t forget.” A small, uncomfortable giggle escaped me. I’d happily forget that part.

This place is pretty much ready for closing,” Sofie answered, moving to the sink to rinse her hands.

Okay. Well, I’ll be here when you get back, I guess.”

We spent the next minutes in awkward silence as I scraped chocolate sauce off a plate, feeling as if an internal bubble had just been popped. Why am I so disappointed? So I’ll have to wait a few weeks to begin paying off my gigantic debt. So what?

Because it wasn’t just about the money, I realized. I wanted to work here—to meet new people, to talk to them, to have them actually respond to me. To befriend Sofie … I stole a glance toward her back. She’s so interesting. So cool.

Unless you want to come with me to New York?” Sofie asked suddenly, turning to meet my gaze.

The plate slipped from my hands and clattered noisily against the tile floor. I felt my eyes bulging. Go to New York City with her?

You don’t have to. I could use your help, though,” she added.

I … I don’t—” I stammered, my heart beginning to race. Me in New York? I had never been beyond Portland’s suburbs.

You wouldn’t have to worry about accommodations or meals.” Sofie leaned down to pick the plate up off the floor.

It’s a wonderful offer, Sofie,” I began, picturing myself surrounded by skyscrapers and the bustling city life. My stomach spasmed with excitement. This is crazy—isn’t it? Would a sane person say yes to this? I barely know the woman! Granted, I had smashed her property and she in turn had graciously invited me in for cocoa and a high–paying job—hardly the signs of a serial killer. And this was a job, after all. People traveled all the time for jobs, I rationalized.

Consider your debt to me squared away after this trip,” she added. “You’ll have earned it.”

My jaw dropped, and my shoulders lifted as if relieved of an oppressive weight—and they had been. I won’t owe her anything? But … that means she won’t be obligated to have me work here. I bit my lip, glancing around the empty café with a twinge of regret.

Of course, if you want to continue working at Newt’s, you’re welcome to,” Sofie added as if reading my mind.

The offer was turning richer with every second that I dithered. I didn’t know what to do. I wished I could ask my mother for advice. “Wow. You’re hard to refuse,” I began, smiling nervously.

What’s there to refuse?” Sofie reached out, a cordless phone in her hand. “Tell you what: if your parents are okay with it, then you know it’s a good idea, right?”

I hesitated for a few seconds but eventually accepted the phone and dialed home.

My foster mom picked up on the second ring. “Hello?”

Uh, hi, Shelley?”

Yes, Evangeline. What would you like?” she asked in her typical polite but detached tone. She was never unkind, nor was she overly friendly. She was just there. All of my foster families had been the same. I was used to it. Sometimes I wondered if they were government–designed robots disguised as foster parents—programmed to conform to the law but incapable of exhibiting emotion.

Um, well, I got a job yesterday, down at a café in the Art District,” I began. This was the most I had spoken to her in days.

That’s nice.” Silence.

And my new boss just asked me to go to New York to help her with some business. Would that be okay with you?” I held my breath.

You turn eighteen tomorrow. You can legally do what you want.”

I was amazed that she’d remembered my birthday. Clearly she had no plans to celebrate it. Not a shocker. I normally went full–fledged hermit on my birthday anyway, burrowing under a blanket with a bag of popcorn and a mittful of Disney classics. “Okay, well, I may go then. I’m not sure when I’ll be back, though.”

Have fun.” I heard the phone click before I could say another word.

Well?” Sofie asked.

I stared at the dead receiver in my hand. How representative of my life. In the five years since my mother’s death, my existence had become like a one–way conversation with the world—a solitary life spent drifting through homes and schools, all but invisible to those around me.

Until now. Sofie had noticed me.

I think I’d like to come to New York with you, if that’s alright.” Am I really doing this?

Wonderful!” Sofie said, revealing a rare spike of excitement.

Yes, great.” I smiled nervously, half expecting men in white coats to storm through the door. “So, when are we leaving?”

Sofie reached under the counter, retrieving a purse and coat. She walked toward the door, her stilettos clicking sharply against the wood floor. “Now,” she called to me, flicking off the light switch. I stared, waiting for her to elaborate. “Don’t doddle!” she added, suddenly urgent.

I joined her at the front door and we stepped out just as a black sedan pulled up to the curb. “You’re kidding,” I exclaimed, my nerves stirring my bladder.

Hop in!” she instructed, opening the door for me.

But … I should pack some things …”

She waved away my concerns. “Don’t worry about any of that.”

I stood there, baffled. Don’t worry about clean underwear and a toothbrush?

A sharp edge in Sofie’s voice brooked no argument. “Get in the car, Evangeline! The plane is waiting.”

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