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Authors: Stephanie Draven

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Midnight Medusa

BOOK: Midnight Medusa
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Midnight Medusa
Stephanie Draven
Chapter One

Renata forced the cutting edge of her blade against the war criminal’s cheek, just below his eye. The man didn’t tremble with fear the way she wished he would—not the way she still trembled when she remembered the explosion. Neither did his cruel mouth quiver the way hers did when she remembered being engulfed in flames. No, the war criminal’s expression didn’t change.

Even though she held his fate in her hands, he wasn’t afraid of her. He was cold, stony and remote—even as she brought her hammer down and drove the sharp chisel into his face, for he was made of marble and knew this was as close as the sculptress would ever dare to come.

In the quiet of her studio, Renata slowly came back to herself. She realized that it was dark; she had been carving with nothing to guide her fingers but moonlight and her own depthless rage. And now her dust-covered hands were shaking. Her mind reeled with memories of the war that had killed her father and little brother. Her throat swelled with grief like it had when her mother was abducted by an enemy soldier. Tears burned beneath Renata’s lashes and she knew she had to stop working, if only for a moment. She wiped her eyes with the back of an aching forearm, smearing her cheeks with grit and reminding herself that the war was long over.

It was one of those notoriously hot summer nights in New York City, and Renata’s unruly tresses were already coiled with perspiration, wet against her neck. Her cotton tank top clung damply to the small of her slender back, perspiration tickling the scars along her spine. It was sweltering.

Renata considered turning on the air conditioner, but she hoped the heat might bring her pet snake from its hiding place. The snake could be anywhere amidst the boxes, stone chips and art magazines that littered Renata’s studio, and she sighed knowing that her foster family would scold her for letting Scylla escape her cage and slither off. Then again, they had never liked her pet snake. True, Scylla wasn’t cuddly like a cat or a dog, but Renata knew that just because a snake—or a person—didn’t wear her heart on her sleeve didn’t mean she didn’t have one.

It was already midnight though; Renata had no time to search for runaway serpents. She had to put her obsessive final touches on
The War Criminal
in time for the art exhibit tomorrow.

Steeling her courage, Renata took a deep breath and lifted her tools to work again, but as she did so, she heard rustling in the draperies over her window. “Is that where you’ve been hiding, Scylla?” she asked, and before she could turn around, she felt a cool breeze lift the downy hairs at the nape of her neck.

Was she imagining she heard someone lifting the sash? Had the emotion that always gripped her while working on this sculpture finally driven her mad? Even over the thumping of her heart, she heard a small tearing sound, like fabric being snagged on a latch. Someone was breaking in!

Renata’s mind reeled with disbelief and fear. She was alone; she had deliberately rented a studio off the beaten path. It had seemed like a good idea because she prized her solitude, but now she wondered if anyone would even hear her if she called for help.

In the stillness of her studio, Renata gripped her wooden mallet in one hand and the chisel in the other, her knuckles going white. Her instinct was to not make any sudden movements, so she turned slowly, and she glimpsed a dark figure shadowed under the sweep of the drapes. A large lumbering man was silhouetted against the moonlight. Renata forgot to breathe. She saw a gun in his hand. Her heart forgot to beat. She was too afraid even to scream.

The last time someone had pointed a gun at her, she was just a little girl in war-ravaged Bosnia, but the man aiming the cruel barrel of his weapon at her now didn’t look like a soldier. “I won’t hurt you if you come with me,” he said, his voice thick with some accent that Renata didn’t immediately recognize.

At his words, Renata went weak all over, terror rushing through her veins like a hot, withering poison. Who was he? What could this hulking stranger possibly want with her? And why should she believe that he wouldn’t hurt her when he was pointing a gun at her?

Since she was a little girl, she had been a victim, as her sculptures attested. But Renata wasn’t a little girl anymore, and this wasn’t Bosnia. Something inside Renata snapped—like the angry strike of a whip—and she decided then and there that unlike her mother,
she
wouldn’t be taken. “I’m not going anywhere with you!”

With nothing but anger to direct her hand, Renata launched her hammer through the air towards her assailant. In slow motion, she watched the tool hurtle towards the intruder, cartwheeling end over end.

The hammer struck him square in the forehead.

It was only a wooden hammer—not one of the metal ones she sometimes used—but it made an audible and satisfying crack against the intruder’s skull. Shocked, the man staggered back, his arms tangling with the curtains. Only then did Renata cry out, but it was the intruder who screamed the loudest.

A gyrating tangle of scales and fangs had slipped from the draperies and coiled around the man’s shoulders.

Scylla had been hiding there after all, and—as hostile to intruders as its owner—Renata’s pet python constricted around the assailant’s neck. Perhaps scenting the man’s fear, the python pulled into strike position. “Get it off!” the intruder shrieked, fumbling with his gun.

Renata could see that the man was genuinely terrified, but her survival instinct was stronger than her compassion so, seizing the opportunity, she turned for the door and ran.

 

Only after the detective showed her his NYPD badge for the third time did Renata accompany him inside her studio. Even then, she crossed her arms over herself and tucked her fingers under so that he wouldn’t see her tremble.

There was no sign of the intruder or the snake.

Dark, swarthy, and clad in a black leather jacket, the detective took a brief look around the studio. “This is the scene of the crime?”

Renata merely nodded; even under the best of circumstances, she was guarded with strangers, and these were not the best of circumstances.

Still, there was something familiar about the detective’s shadowed eyes. He’d introduced himself several times, but she found that she just couldn’t remember his name. Maybe it was because she was in shock, or perhaps it was because she couldn’t stop staring at his startlingly handsome face.

Renata had nearly been kidnapped, so now was not the time to notice a handsome man, but as a sculptress, she revered chiseled cheekbones and strong jawlines like his.

“Let’s go over this one more time,” the detective said.

“I’ve already told you everything,” Renata snapped, fixing her cool gray eyes on him. With practice, she had perfected that classic New York City bitchy-but-beautiful stare that drove most men to take a step back, but the detective didn’t seem cowed.

“With repetition, sometimes an extra detail or memory comes to mind,” the detective insisted. So they sat together on her old beat-up college futon with the denim cover, now as threadbare as her calm. He wrote
Renata Rukavina
at the top of a page and took careful notes as she told him all over again what happened.

When she finished telling her story, she noticed that the detective was sitting too close to her, and when he leaned forward she worried for a startled instant that he might try to kiss her. But instead, he exhaled a great breath, and fleetingly, she smelled the aroma of freshly baked bread. It was the middle of the night—no one was baking—but the scent somehow relaxed Renata enough to let the detective take her hand.

There was a strange tugging sensation as her skin came into contact with his. She wondered that she allowed it; with friends and lovers—even with her foster family—there was always a struggle between her need for intimacy and her fear of it. Yet she was letting this stranger hold her hand.

“You just had a scare, but you’re okay now,” he added.

And somehow, she was.

“You’re sure you don’t know the guy who tried to break in here?” The detective’s mop of dark hair softened the intensity of his gaze. “You’ve no idea why anyone would break into your studio this hour of night?”

Renata shook her head again. If she’d testified before the war tribunals, someone might have had cause to try to shut her up, but that’s why Renata hadn’t testified. Why she would
never
testify.

The detective finally went to the windowsill to dust for fingerprints. Meanwhile, Renata searched for her pet python. As she checked all of Scylla’s usual hiding spots, she realized the detective was examining her work. “These are some powerful pieces,” he said of the statuary adorning her studio.

“Thank you,” Renata said politely. “They’re not to everyone’s taste. One of my critics said they were nightmares brought to life.”

The detective circled a black marble sculpture of a man with a gun strapped over his shoulder, his clenched fist pulled back to brutalize an unseen victim. “Not a nice guy, I’m guessing.”

“He was charged with crimes against humanity,” Renata said, feeling a well of rage rising as she remembered his deeds. “He died before they could convict him, though.” What she did not tell the detective was that the soldier had died the very night Renata finished his sculpture, and thus joined her collection of ghosts.

When she was a fledgling artist, Renata carved the faces of children felled by sniper fire outside Sarajevo. Even now, after years of experience, the only living person in her art collection was
The War Criminal,
so she watched warily as the detective approached the almost-finished statue and ran his hand over the stone. “This is the guy on trial at The Hague right now isn’t it?”

“Yes,” Renata replied, impressed. It seemed unlikely that an ordinary police detective would know anything about it; in Renata’s experience, most people chose to forget the war that had destroyed her childhood. That this man seemed to care made Renata willing to talk. “
The War Criminal
was going to be the centerpiece of my exhibit at the gallery tomorrow to coincide with the expected verdict against him, but now I’m afraid I won’t finish in time.”

“But you
must
finish it,” he insisted, a ripple of anger passing across his shoulders beneath his leather jacket. His sudden vehemence startled Renata, and seeing this, he measured his tone. “I’m just saying that you can’t let anything stand in your way. An art exhibit is a huge deal, isn’t it? You’ve worked hard for it, haven’t you? You can’t let someone scare you from finishing important work like this.”

Renata was flattered that he thought her work was important, but she was terribly unsettled. She wished he would tell her that they had her would-be kidnapper in custody. She just wanted to feel safe—but then, hadn’t she always? Renata shrugged apologetically. “I can’t do the delicate finishing touches with shaking hands.”

“Look,” the detective said. “If it’ll make you feel better, I’ll keep my squad car parked right outside tonight and make sure nobody bothers you. Meanwhile, you should just take your fear from tonight, turn it to anger, and finish your sculpture.”

Renata tilted her head at the curious phrasing he used. “I don’t think you should be encouraging that. My therapist thinks I have anger issues.”

He gave a mirthless smile, a gleam of savagery in his eye. “No doubt. Sounds like you clocked the perp. Did you throw the hammer because you were scared or angry?”

“Both,” Renata admitted.

“Then it seems to me that your anger is what kept you from being kidnapped tonight and it’ll help with your art too.”

Renata couldn’t help thinking, yet again, that this was no ordinary police detective. Once again, he took her hands in his. She felt something tug at her emotions and she realized she was no longer shaking from fear.

Only rage.

Someone had broken into her apartment. Someone had pointed a gun at her and tried to take her. Someone had come into her world, uninvited, and tried to rip apart her life just like the invading soldiers had done all those years ago. And someone should have to pay for that.

Anger roiled and coiled inside her, twisting upon itself with venomous purpose. It was past midnight.

Renata picked up her tools and began to sculpt.

Chapter Two

The dark shadows of Renata’s studio receded with the sunrise, and she was roused by an early morning phone call. When Renata told her about the break-in, her foster-mother sounded worried. “You should have never taken a studio in that part of town. Why wasn’t
the boyfriend
there with you?”

“Scylla turned out to be much better protection,” Renata said, deciding that now was probably not the time to announce that she and
the boyfriend
had parted ways. It had happened the way it always did: he accused her of keeping secrets from him, and maybe she had been secretive. After all, some pain you just couldn’t share except through art. “Anyway,” Renata said into the phone. “I just wanted to call and ask you to wish me luck at the exhibit today. I’m a little nervous.”

“Oh, Renata, your work is amazing. You’re going to be the talk of the town, honey.”

Renata would feel better if her foster parents could attend the exhibit, but they were several states away. Besides, they had already done enough for her. They had taken her in as a child-refugee of a foreign war, and stood by her through countless surgeries to repair her scars. The art show was just going to have to be something Renata did on her own.

“Renata, I know the news is unsettling.…”

Cold dread pooled in the pit of Renata’s stomach. “What news?”

Her foster mother’s silence told her all she needed to know. Renata grabbed the remote and turned on the television.

The war criminal was dead.

It was happening again. The International Criminal Tribunal had not even had the chance to pass judgment on him. He had simply died in his cell.

 

Perversely, the morning’s headlines made Renata’s exhibit extremely popular. Visitors flocked to see her artwork, all whispering about the mysterious way in which the accused war criminal had died. Renata knew she should be elated by the attention, but she was sad, because no matter how much critical acclaim she received, if not for her foster parents, Renata would be alone in this world.

“Don’t stare like that,” Marta, the gallery owner, chided. “You look beautiful, but it’s very intimidating. Smile, it’s your big debut! And here, let me fix your hair.”

Renata knew her exotic dark curls were impervious to the taming of a comb or barrette and they’d never submit to the sleek styles that were currently in fashion, so she rolled her eyes and said, “Never mind my hair, Marta! What are they saying about the exhibit? Do they like it?”

“Darling, they love it! And I need to introduce you to a potential buyer with very deep pockets.”

For Renata, this was the most discomfiting part about art. She loved creating, she savored the outlet, and she needed to sell her work to pay the rent. But as a sculptress, she felt an intimate relationship to every piece in her collection. It was difficult to let them go. Still, Renata forced a smile and followed Marta through the throngs of well-wishers.

“Renata,” Marta began. “Meet Ms. Kokkinos. She’s a private collector, and a great admirer of your work.”

A private collector? Renata had assumed that any potential buyer with deep pockets would have been here representing a museum. She never expected a private collector would be interested—after all, Renata’s art was sad. Who would buy it to adorn a garden or household foyer?

Ms. Kokkinos turned out to be a woman with a perfectly coiffured helmet of silver hair and an unblinking stare. She towered over Renata and her sturdy frame made Renata’s own limbs seem willowy. But the older woman’s most arresting feature was the disquieting color of her eyes. Renata had never met anyone with eyes as gray as her own.

Before Renata could offer her hand, the tall woman thrust a business card into her palm. “Ms. Rukavina, my nephew sang your praises and I must say, he was not wrong. Your work is
devastating.”

At a loss, Renata asked, “Your nephew?”

“He’s a police officer. I believe he helped you with a break-in at your studio? I hope you weren’t hurt.”

The detective. Of course. Now that she thought about it, Renata remembered the Greek cast to his features and could almost see them reflected in the severe face of his formidable aunt. “No, no, I wasn’t hurt. I’m honored by the detective’s interest in my work—and yours too.”

Ms. Kokkinos nodded curtly. “I’m particularly interested in
The War Criminal.
Would you be willing to make similar sculptures on commission?”

Renata tried not to show her astonishment. No one had ever commissioned a work from her before. “What do you have in mind?”

“I’d like you to sculpt this man.”

Renata already had the woman’s business card in one hand, so she had to reach with the other for the sketch. In so doing, she glanced at the drawing and her heart lurched.

She knew the face.

This was the face of the soldier who abducted her mother. And upon seeing him again, Renata’s knees threatened to buckle beneath her.

Ms. Kokkinos must have seen the horror writ plain on Renata’s face, because she eyed Renata owlishly and said, “You needn’t haggle over the price. I’m an heiress to a vast fortune, so you’ll be generously compensated.”

Renata didn’t want to be rude, but she felt bloodless and unsteady. “Would you mind—would you mind terribly if I took a moment to get some air?”

Renata didn’t wait for a reply. Clutching the drawing and the business card, she hastily withdrew, navigating her way around the velvet gallery ropes and pushing through the crowd. Renata headed straight for the exit that led to the fire-escape balcony. She just hoped she could get there before her knees gave way.

She found the door and flung it open. Without looking at the sketch again, she folded it into a small square around the business card and tucked both inside her bra, close to her heart. Then Renata took deep, comforting gulps of air. It had always been like this when someone triggered an unexpected memory. Even after her surgeries, when the doctors helped find a way for her to stay in the country, news from Bosnia panicked her. Even when she was safe in an American school, loud noises, such as a bell signaling the end of class, sometimes froze her heart within her chest.

Now as the fresh air calmed her jitters, Renata sighed with relief. The scars on her back were bothering her, but when she reached behind to adjust her dress, she realized that it wasn’t the fabric irritating her. Something hard and unyielding dug into her, and as she brushed it with her fingers, she realized it was the barrel of a gun.

“Don’t scream,” a man said from behind her. His arm wrapped around her, hard as iron, and he clamped a hand over her mouth.

Renata tried to decide if she should kick him or impale his foot with the stiletto heel of her golden sandal. But before she could decide, he hauled her towards the rail. “We’re going down the fire escape stairs.”

This was the second time in two days that someone had tried to abduct her at gunpoint, but unlike the lumbering intruder, this man had a graceful strength that prevented her from raking at him with her fingernails when she tried.

“I don’t want to hurt you,” he said, sighing deeply by her ear. Suddenly, she smelled acrid smoke and charred flesh, the horrible stench of war. The stink of the explosion, the sensation of being on fire, and the sizzle of her own skin as it burned. Then came the blinding pain and the screaming, and remembering, she was overcome.

Paralyzed, she let her attacker pull her down two steps at a time. In Bosnia, when people were kidnapped, they were forced into the woods and shot, so why wasn’t she fighting him? Behind her, the gallery was crowded. If only she could scream, surely someone would help her, but his fingers were clamped securely over her mouth!

Her captor pushed her down another stair, and though she fought down her fear long enough to struggle, it only resulted in her shoe falling off and dropping like a golden teardrop to the ground below. Frustrated, the villain hauled her into his arms and dropped to the landing which groaned under their combined weight.

Thankfully, people on a lower floor of the gallery must have heard the noise or seen Renata’s shoe fall because someone called out “Call 911!”

Her kidnapper growled, dragging Renata as she flailed. She was fighting to catch the wrought-iron bars with her hands to stop their descent. Her heart thundered in her ears, louder than the sound of sirens on the streets below. If only she could delay him, the police would rescue her.

Desperate, Renata bit down hard on the fingers over her mouth, and knew she’d drawn blood by the familiar metallic tang on her tongue. Blood was an unmistakable taste, and it sickened her.

Her abductor hissed in pain, but showed no signs of slowing. Together, they dropped the last few feet from the ladder of the fire exit into the alleyway below where a van with darkened windows waited. A side door opened, and Renata was thrown into the vehicle. She landed hard underneath her assailant as two goons slammed the door shut and the van screeched out of the alleyway.

BOOK: Midnight Medusa
13.88Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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