The pounding against the walls was a warning, like the footsteps of the monsters in her nightmares as they climbed the stairs to her bedroom. This time, just like all the other times, Constance heeded it.
She swiftly left the south end of the home and began her cleaning in the comparatively safer north end. She squirted Windex on the double glass doors overlooking the Bay of Funchal and gazed at the blue expanse with its hovering ceiling of clouds as she wiped. They were high in the hills of Monte, on the island of Madeira. The island was famous for its eponymous port wine and for sled toboggan rides that tourists rode down curving streets to the lowlands. Neither was the reason Aleksander Sopov had chosen to live here. He lived here because no other chimera did. Those who lived in Portugal remained on the mainland. Outside of business, Aleksander associated with no one. If he could, Constance was sure he would have opted to live inside a cave at the bottom of the ocean. Alone. Forever. For anyone else she would have felt pity, but Aleksander would kill her if she dared.
More thumps. A low, guttural growl that no human throat could have produced.
The hairs rose on the back of her neck, making her consider pulling the pins from her hair and letting it hang straight. Aleksander wouldn’t call it unprofessional of her. He wouldn’t notice the change at all. That had been the problem, hadn’t it? For thirteen months now, she had made no impression on him, good or bad. She was, most days, completely, utterly invisible to him.
She glanced down the long hallway at the shut door of his workroom. A shudder ran through her body, bone deep. Probably she should check on him…but she wouldn’t.
After finishing the windows, she tidied up a living room that was already immaculate. Mostly she dusted and fluffed pillows, rearranged magazines on the coffee table, continuing the fiction that someday Aleksander might sit here and read one, maybe enjoy a cup of tea, spare her a few words.
She scowled at the fantasy, if that was what you wanted to call it, and thought about vacuuming. With neither of them leaving the house and tracking anything back in, what was the point? For a moment she felt lost, standing within the perfectly clean living room. Eight months of her life, and all she had to show for it was a home that could be featured in an interior decorating magazine. Like Aleksander, she socialized with no one, because no one knew she was here. Also because, in the end, she was here for one and one reason only.
A reason that became more obsolete with each day that he continued to ignore her.
When the doorbell rang, it was a relief to focus on something besides herself.
The guest at the door surprised her. He was one of the most handsome men she had ever seen, as well as one of the largest. He towered over her own five-feet, six inches, and his broad shoulders stretched the wine-red long-sleeved shirt he wore, though not because he was a gym rat. He carried his size everywhere, which told her it was genetic. Even his thighs, encased in jeans, were big.
A lock of inky hair had fallen over one bottle-green eye, but the sides of his hair were cut short. Ex-military or police? she wondered. The deep dimples in both stubble-darkened cheeks suggested he smiled a lot, but he wasn’t currently.
“Hello,” he said. She liked his voice. It was deep, to match his masculine appearance. Finally his lips curled up, and the dimples deepened boyishly. “Do I have the right address? I’m looking for 226.”
She glanced past him to the driveway that disappeared as it sloped down the hill. If he had brought anyone else, they must be hiding out of view.
“This is 226,” she said warily.
His shoulders slumped in relief. “I saw the number, but I didn’t expect a woman…” He smiled sheepishly. “Sorry, that came out rude. I’m Kirk. Kirk Sullivan.”
Bemused, she said, “What are you doing here?”
It was his turn to be confused. A second later his expression darkened. “They still didn’t tell you I’d be coming? What is this supposed to be? Some kind of ambush?” His brows drew down, and he muttered, “Or maybe they’re setting me up, hoping Aleksander kills me.”
“You know Aleksander?” She couldn’t conceal her shock. The only people who knew that the poisoner lived here weren’t people at all. Immediately she looked at the newcomer on the doorstep differently, searching for that predatory edge she’d come to recognize in the chimera despite their best attempts to pass themselves off as human.
“It’s a complicated story. May I come in?” He looked resigned, his body too loose limbed to launch into a threatening action. Constance had learned to trust her gut, and right now her instincts weren’t clamoring with alarm bells. After a brief hesitation, she stepped back and allowed him inside.
“Nice place,” he remarked as he slowly made his way through the entryway, heading for the glass windows in the living room. He stood looking at the view, hands in his pockets, a duffel bag slung over one shoulder. “Thought a professional murderer would live in a cave, or maybe some decrepit castle.”
She almost smiled at the assumption that mirrored her own thoughts about Aleksander. She didn’t, though. It made her realize she hadn’t smiled in some time. Not genuinely.
“You said there’s a complicated story?” she prompted.
He sighed. “I assume since you live here with him that you’re aware of the Council?”
She bit the inside of her cheek to keep from outwardly reacting to the question. “I am.”
“They’re the ones who sent me. I guess you could say I’m here to serve penance. Do my term, whatever.” He turned and flashed her a small smile that was nonetheless enough to make her heart pound a little faster. “What’s your name?”
“Constance. Constance Cooper.”
“Nice to meet you, Constance. You live here, huh?” His expression shifted, though she couldn’t read it. “You’re his…girlfriend?”
She flushed. “No.”
Was that relief on his face? It disappeared before she could tell for sure. “Of course you’re not,” he said. “You’re his—”
“I’m Aleksander’s assistant and—” She caught herself from saying “caretaker” or worse, “nursemaid.” “Housekeeper,” she said instead. “Mr. Sullivan, why are you here?”
“It’s just Kirk. And as to why I’m here, well, the Council sent me to be Aleksander’s grounder.” Kirk’s crooked smile said, can you believe it?
“Grounder?” she whispered. She felt nauseated. Light-headed. All this time with no contact from the Council, she had begun to hope that they were unaware of what was happening out here, that they believed she’d succeeded. But if they’d sent a grounder, that meant they knew. It meant they might come for her as they should have done months ago.
“Hey, are you okay? You look like you’re going to—” He surged forward and caught her as her knees began to buckle beneath her. “Hold on,” he said softly and picked her up as if she weighed nothing and carried her to the sofa. He sat down and propped her against him. His fingers, despite being thick and blunt, were gentle as they brushed errant strands of hair that had fallen over her eyes. “You’re okay. You’re safe. Just lay here and relax.”
She shut her eyes, mortified. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to.”
His chuckle was warm. “Of course you didn’t. Just take it easy. We’re fine here.”
It had been so long since she’d had physical contact with another person that she’d forgotten how warm another body could be and how comforting the steady fall and rise of their chest could feel against her cheek. “I’ll be okay in a second,” she murmured, though she didn’t want to move. Not for a few minutes, anyway.
“What do you think happened?” He smelled like wood and spice, sending an image through her mind of the two of them walking hand in hand through a forest in the winter, each of them carrying mugs of mulled cider.
“It’s nothing. Really.” She moved his hands away and sat up, guilty about the tiny fantasy she’d entertained. Though his warmth and solidity beckoned to her, she forced herself to move across the cushion so there were a few inches between them. “I sometimes get faint if I haven’t had breakfast.”
He rubbed at his stubble-darkened chin. “Now that you mention it, I last ate on the plane four hours ago.” He touched her shoulder very lightly, as if afraid he’d startle her. “Have breakfast with me?”
“Of course. I can put something—”
“I’ll help.” His grin was wide and genuine. “I always say the best way to get to know new friends is by cooking with them.”
His grin took on an edge of resignation, but the light didn’t dim from his eyes. “Let’s crack some eggs, and I’ll explain.”
* * * *
Kirk was an excellent cook, knowledgeable and cooperative. But although soon they were sitting across from each other with fluffy omelets on their plates, Constance was unable to eat hers, so great was her shock over what he had told her while they cooked together.
“You shouldn’t be held accountable for your brother’s mistake,” she said, outraged on his behalf.
“Maybe not, but I can’t have these guys going after him.”
“This is completely unnecessary. Aleksander doesn’t need you.”
He didn’t pick up the tremor in her voice or notice that she was a terrible actress. He was too busy making faces at his breakfast.
“Try telling them that. Oh, right. I did.” He stabbed the eggs with his fork and looked disappointed that they didn’t bleed. “This is going to be a tough four months. I’m still not completely sure what my duties are, but I get that they’re going to involve a lot of groveling and eating of humble pie.”
She tasted blood in her mouth and told herself she needed to get a grip before he realized something was wrong with her. Shaky, she took a sip of orange juice to buy some time. “Aleksander is coping just fine,” she managed to say in a reasonable tone. “You should speak with Domenic. Tell him to convince the Council that this is a waste of time.”
“They seem to believe otherwise. And Domenic didn’t exactly paint a picture of Mr. Charming when he described Aleksander. I always say where there’s smoke there’s fire. Even if I cheer the guy up enough to laugh a time or two, that might be enough to get the Council to lay off Leo.” Kirk sighed and sat back in his chair, his gaze finding the windows again. “I studied on the plane.” His smile was embarrassed. “You know, how to be subservient to him. I think I’ll be able to fake it. Hopefully he’ll just want someone to push around, maybe take a few hits.” He sat up taller as if energized by the possibility. “I hope that’s what he needs. I can handle that
But it’s not, she thought, feeling empty inside, as barren as a would-be mother with withered eggs.
“He’s not human,” she whispered to her plate, reminding herself of that fundamental truth.
“Doesn’t matter. I can take care of myself. I’ll just make sure I don’t eat anything he cooks for me.”
She smiled wanly at his joke. “He doesn’t administer his own poisons. That’s what the assassins are for. They’re the only ones who are brave enough to draw close to the changed ones.”
“‘Changed ones’ are what you all call the chimera who can’t control their instincts?”
She was far more comfortable talking about chimera than about her life with Aleksander inside this house. She sat forward slightly, eager to share her knowledge.
“Yes. It doesn’t happen often, but sometimes chimera lose control of their natures. All kinds of things can trigger them—physical or psychological stresses, biological defects… Sometimes the trigger can’t be pinpointed. They simply snap. And when they do, they can no longer maintain their human disguises. They revert to their natural forms. But they do more than that. I think it’s some kind of ancient gene that becomes activated and mutates. Whatever it is, it traps their bodies in a spiral of decay. Their forms deteriorate along with their minds, and they end up becoming hideous, insane things who can’t help themselves.”
“At which point Aleksander and his merry band of assassins kindly put them out of their misery.”
Kirk’s voice was sharp and held a note of bitterness that Constance didn’t understand. Then she remembered: Kirk was a cop. He wouldn’t take kindly to someone who killed others with impunity, no matter the justification.
“How long has Aleksander been supplying the poison for this mission of mercy?”
“Just under a hundred years.” At Kirk’s look of surprise, she explained, “Chimera can live for several centuries. Aleksander is the youngest poisoner they’ve used. His mother was the poisoner before him.”
“His mother? Don’t tell me, poison runs in their blood.”
She bit back a smile. “I don’t know his family history beyond that. I’ve never asked.” Along with a whole host of other questions she was dying to know but would never, ever ask Aleksander.
Kirk eyed the room. “I guess it’s not surprising that he learned it from a parent. Killing your own kind can’t be a choice.”
“It’s necessary,” she said, surprised by her compulsion to defend Aleksander, “otherwise the changed ones would roam around undisguised, and humans would see them.”
“What do you think other humans would do if they learned about the existence of chimera?”
Constance didn’t like something she heard in Kirk’s voice. “It would be terrible. For both sides. Chimera wouldn’t allow their kind to be captured.”
“What if the military wiped them out? Would we be worse off without shape-shifting monsters in the world?” His raised eyebrows suggested he didn’t think so.
“Your brother might be with the chimera,” she reminded him. “If there was an attack like that, he would be hurt too.”
“Yeah.” Kirk scrubbed his hands over his face. Besides the stubble attesting to how long he’d traveled to get there, dark circles were forming beneath his eyes. “Seems somewhere along the way, he picked up a fascination with monsters.”
“If you’re going to stay here,” Constance began cautiously, “we should set you up in a room. Unless you’ve changed your mind?”
She held her breath until he answered firmly, “I’m staying. I won’t let Leo down.”
Deflated, she pushed back her chair and reached for his plate. “Then we should–”
From the south end of the house came the sound of a door banging against the wall. Constance nearly dropped the plates. “It’s Aleksander.”
Kirk stood and moved between her and the doorway, his strong body tensed as if he were about to engage in a fight. “Good. Let’s get this started.”