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Tags: #Fantasy, #Fiction, #General, #Anthologies (Multiple Authors)

Hotter Than Hell (6 page)

BOOK: Hotter Than Hell
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…about bodies moving together, heated and wanting, packed into the dark anonymity of a downtown club.

…about Brandon’s hands and Travis’s mouth.

…about everything NoMan could do for her bottom line, and she forced herself not to move away.

When Tom turned to check on her, Ali managed a grimace he took for a smile. Or he assumed she was grimacing about the situation, not the pain. As long as he left her to it, he could make any assumption he wanted.

Finally, she felt a tiny dribble of warn liquid roll out of her ear. Tears sliding down both cheeks, she moved her scorched face away from the brass and tossed her head, once, twice. The softened wax shifted. Slid. Dropped out.

Brandon’s voice slid in to fill the space, lifting the hair on the back of Ali’s neck, the howl of Travis’s fiddle coiling sleek and dangerous in her belly. Her body moved to the music as the familiar ache began to build.

They still couldn’t see her, but somehow they knew. Travis drew one final note from his bow and Brandon stopped singing. Hands wrapped around the microphone, he smiled and said, “That was our last song, ladies and gentlemen.”

She heard Mike growl, “Keep singing,” although with the wax in he couldn’t have heard himself.

“Not right now,” Brandon told him, and Ali wished Mike could hear the threat in the singer’s voice. It made every threat he’d ever uttered seem like posturing.

Tom grabbed her as she moved forward into the actual room, brought his face down to hers, and demanded to know what she’d done.

No point in answering since he couldn’t hear her. So, she showed him.

Still handcuffed, she darted her head forward, caught his right ear between her teeth and, holding on as he tried to shake her free, plunged her tongue into his ear and worked the wax plug out. He’d always been impressed by what she could do with her tongue.

On the stage, while the rest of the band watched in confusion, Travis played a new note and Brandon sang the counterpoint. The two sounds rose and wound about each other as the NoMan brothers directed their full attention on the action in the hall.

Releasing her, Tom straightened, listened for a moment, and pulled the plug from his other ear.

Heads began to turn as more and more of the industry executives realized something new seemed to be happening. Expressions ranged from confusion to anger as hands rose and manicured fingers dug at the wax.

No matter what story Mike had spun to gain their initial cooperation, this was about to get messy. Ali turned to show the brothers her wrists. “Little help here, guys.”

The note changed.

“Tom! What the hell are you doing?” Mike might as well have remained silent for all the notice Tom took as he pulled out the handcuff key.

Ali grinned as the cuffs dropped to the floor, steel ringing against the tile. “They’re controlling him, Mike. Take my advice and cut your losses.”

Unfortunately, he couldn’t hear her.

When Tom wrapped one huge hand around his shoulder, crushing the elegant line of his suit, holding him effortlessly in place, he was too astonished even to shout. Demanding Tom listen to him , he grabbed the younger man’s wrist with both hands. Tom ignored both the words and the grip and removed both of Mike’s earplugs, one after the other.

As the music changed again, Ali scooped the wax plug she’d taken from Tom off the floor, scrubbed it against her dress, and shoved it into her empty ear.

Stepping back into sight of the stage, she raised a hand in farewell. NoMan’s audience had begun to move to the music and while she had no idea just where they’d be moving to, it really wasn’t something she needed to see.

“Apparently, Michael Richter is taking a well-earned vacation in an undisclosed location, no one knows where Tom Hartmore is, two recording companies have filed for bankruptcy, one high-placed executive has given everything to charity, two more have turned themselves in for tax fraud, and there are at least three messy divorces happening in the industry between people who’ll be dividing acts with their assets.” Glen set the paper down on her desk and shook his head. “If Brandon and Travis are responsible…Are you sure you can control them?”

“Not control, manage,” Ali reminded him. “Besides, they owe me.”

“Speaking of.” He put one finger under her chin, and studied the burn across her cheek. “That looks like it’s healing well.”

“Still hurts.”

Green eyes crinkled at the corners as he grinned. “You need something to take your mind off it. Just say the word and I’ll break out the champers. Tell me that NoMan’s finally decided to sign with us.”

“I’ll tell you tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow? Why tomorrow?”

“Because once they sign, they’re off limits and tonight I’ve been invited to a private concert.” Ali leaned back, tucked her hair behind her ears, and smiled. “They’ve promised me an audition I’ll never forget.”

MINOTAUR IN STONE

Marjorie M. Liu

I DREAM OF THE MINOTAUR WHEN MY EYES ARE closed. I cannot see him, whole, just fragments: the cold hard sinew of his large hand, the corded muscle of a massive thigh. I glimpse, briefly, the line of a collarbone, the hollow of a straining throat; higher, the curve of a horn.

Minotaur. Son of a wayward queen and a god.

And he wants me to save his life.

The first time I dream of the Minotaur I am curled in a nook on the basement level of the library, the third lowest floor, part of the catacomb, the labyrinth. It is very quiet, deathly so, almost midnight.

Security guards roam high above. I do not fear their discovery. At night, they are too uneasy to trawl for bottom-dwellers in the underground shadows of the library’s belly. Spooks, ghosts, ax-murderers in the stacks; I have heard those men tell ridiculous stories.

There is nothing to fear. Books are my friends, have always been my friends, and when I lived homeless on the street I learned to hide in the tall stacks, live in the shadows of musty corners, hidden by the illusion of intellectual preoccupation, studious charm. Now, barely in my twenties, it is a small thing in the evenings, after my tiny job at the library café, to make myself soft and invisible; to blend, to become, to live as an uninvited guest, quiet as a book—and as a book, a dull creature on the surface, but full of the raging wild dark inside the words of my heart.

The café closes at eight. The library doors at nine. By ten, all the stragglers have been rounded up.

Thirty minutes later the lights switch off. I know this routine, though I have never seen it. Every night, as soon as I leave the café, munching on some snack I am allowed to take free from the pastry display, I meander down the broad marble stairs, flowing with the public. One more stranger, a slip of a girl, moving neither fast nor slow, sometimes with a book in my free hand. Going places.

People leave me. We part ways as I descend deep into the catacombs. Sometimes a crowd, then nothing at all. It is, I often think, like walking through a door no one else can see—a slipstream gate, from one world to the next—into a forest of stone and tile, where branches are straight as shelves, holding books and yellow brittle newspapers, aisles riding like paths into shadows, the illusion of endlessness, the maze, the winding circle.

Occasionally I find another reader in the labyrinth, but no one lingers. There is a cold air, a sense of oppression. Eyes in the dark. It bothered me once, long ago, but I did not run. I read out loud instead, in a whisper to the darkness, until the cold air turned warm and those eyes lost their power to scare. So that now I pretend I have a friend, one friend, someone who welcomes me home.

I hide my sleeping bag and backpack in the gap behind a row of crusty encyclopedias. The lights do not function in that particular aisle. I move by instinct and memory as I find my belongings and jiggle them free. There is a bathroom nearby. Ancient, also unlit, no door. The toilet works, as does the faucet. I keep a battery-operated lantern just inside, on the floor.

I undress, folding my clothes, putting them aside. I toss my underwear in the sink, and then, cold and naked and barefoot on the ancient tile, I clean up. Wash my short hair under the faucet with cheap shampoo, savoring the chemical scent of lavender and jasmine. Run wet hands over the rest of my body, soaping up, rinsing as best I can. A puddle spreads around me.

When I am done, I drape my wet body in a big floppy t-shirt. I wash and wring out my underwear.

Hang the pair on the rim of a toilet stall, then take down another that has been drying there all day, and slip them on. It is an easy routine.

On the night I dream of the Minotaur, I turn off the bathroom lantern and in pure darkness walk back to my sleeping bag. Air dries my body. I lie down, cradle my head on my arm, and close my eyes.

I dream. I dream of a place I have never been, though in the way of dreams, it is familiar. There is sand underfoot and the air is warm and wet. I look up, searching for stars, but all I find is stone. Stone all around. I am in a box, and there is only one way out.

So I take it. I walk across the sand to a door made of bone, smooth and pale and grinning with skulls; a warning, a promise, an invitation. One touch and my hand burns. I flinch, but do not turn away.

I enter an oubliette. A place of forgetting, of never turning back. I know what that is. I know what it is to be forgotten.

I stand just within the doorway of the void, and for the first time in my dream, feel fear. A terrible urgent despair, the kind that begs sound—a wail or cry or quick breath—because sound is life, sound means presence, and I could forget myself in this place. I think I already have.

But just as I am about to retreat through the door of watching bones, I glimpse something in the void—

a solid curving plane of gray. The round edge of a shoulder, perhaps, holding very still.

“Hello?” My voice is soft. There is no answer, but in the silence I sense another kind of weight, a longing, familiar as the unseen eyes that watch me nightly from the shadows of the basement labyrinth.

I cannot turn from that presence; as though a hand wraps around my body, I am drawn across the sand.

I walk into darkness, blind. The shoulder I saw before disappears, but I continue on, helpless. Just a dream , I tell myself. Only a dream .

Except, I can feel the grains of sand digging between my toes, and the air in my lungs is heavy and hot.

I feel very much awake, very much alive.

And suddenly I can see again. Not much, just that same sliver of gray; a shoulder, attached to a long muscular arm; higher still, the faint outline of a broad chest, a strong throat. All at a height much grander than my own. I am looking at a giant. A giant made of stone.

I stand very still, staring; then slowly, carefully, reach out. I cannot explain my action. I must touch and be touched, though it is only rock beneath my hands. But I hesitate, at the last moment. I fear, irrationally, that I might be burned—and indeed I flinch as though harmed, because what my fingers find is not cold or stone, but flesh and warm.

I stagger, falling. A hand catches my waist, then my arm; in that grip, profound strength. Terror flutters my heart, freezing my voice. I think, dream , but I cannot wake no matter how loud I scream inside my mind.

A rumble fills the darkness. I reach out. My palms press against yet more skin, a body trembling with sound. Like a thundercloud, sighing in the night. I try to see, but cannot. Try to free myself, and am held closer.

“Let go,” I breathe, struggling.

“No time,” whispers a low voice, rough and masculine. “Listen to me. Listen.”

But he says nothing else and I gaze up and up, staring at shadows gathered around a curving line, hard and tipped and ridged. A horn. I can see nothing else. In the oubliette, where I should find only darkness, gasps of light are playing tricks.

Something grazes my cheek; fingers, perhaps.

“Tell me,” says the voice, quiet. “Tell me what you hear.”

“You,” I whisper, my voice shaking on the word. “Only you.”

I hear a sigh, another rumble that pushes through my body, settling around my heart. A sad sound, old and tired. Again, my cheek is touched. Fingers slide into my hair, warm and gentle. For a moment my breathing steadies and I can think again.

A dream, I tell myself. Then, softly, “You are a dream.”

“A dream,” murmurs the creature. “A dream, if I could so be. Your dream, better.”

“My dream,” I say. “But you are.”

“No,” breathes that low voice. “I am the Minotaur. And this is no dream.”

The hand holding my arm slips away; the body beneath my palms follows. I am left standing alone in the darkness. I feel bereft, lost without that touch which so frightened me. I cannot explain it. I do not want to.

“Soon,” rumbles the voice. “Soon, again.”

“Wait,” I say, but the world falls away, the oubliette spinning fast into a jolt, a gasp—

I wake up.

A week passes before the Minotaur returns to me. I think of him often. Dream or not, I cannot help myself. I feel his fingers on my cheek as I pour coffee. I feel his body beneath my hands as I wrap scones in wax paper. I hear his voice inside my body as I count change for an old man in a suit.

Everywhere, the Minotaur.

And when I close my eyes for just one moment, I return to the oubliette, to the darkness filled with thunder, and feel him with me like a shadow pressed against my back, watching and waiting. The longer I wait, the more I want to be with him again. The more I want to understand.

Some dream. I wonder if that is all it is. If there is more, and whether, like Ariadne with her ball of golden thread, I will be able to find my way home again the next time the Minotaur comes for me. And I know he will. I feel it, fear it—am even eager for it—though it sows discontent, unease. For the first time in a long while, I think about my life. Not about the things I do not have, but the people who are gone. Parents. Friends. I had them once, I think, but at some distant time so far past, such people seem more dream than the Minotaur.

All I have is myself. All I need is myself.

Until now.

BOOK: Hotter Than Hell
2.74Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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