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Authors: Francine Pascal

Kiss

BOOK: Kiss
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To Nicole Pascal Johansson

GAIA

I'll
probably never have kids. I'm not just saying that. There are a few really good reasons to think so:

1. I can't even manage to get a guy to kiss me, let alone . . . all that;

2. I seem to have very, very bad family karma (if you believe in karma, which I don't, but it's kind of a fun word to say);

3. Somebody tries to kill me at least once a week.

If you knew me at all, you'd know I'm not being a wiseass when I say that. Let me give you a quick example: I went on the first real date of my life recently, and the guy tried to murder me — literally — before the night was over. So, really, what are the chances I'm going to stick around on this earth long enough to find a guy to love me so much that I'd actually want to have kids with him in the far distant future?

But if by some miracle I ever did have kids, I would never, never, never have just one.

I remember this old neighbor of mine telling me how great it was to be an only child, how you got so much more support, love, attention, blah, blah, blah, blah. How you didn t have to share your clothes or fight over the bathroom.

I would die to have a sister or brother to share my clothes with. (Although to be honest, what self-respecting sibling would want any of my junk?) I fight over the bathroom with
myself
when I'm feeling really lonely.

The summer I was thirteen, the year after my mom . . . and everything, it was over a hundred degrees practically the entire month of August, so I used to go to this public swimming pool. All the lifeguards, and lifeguards-in-training, and life-guards-in-training-in-training, and swim team members chattered and gossiped and giggled while I sat on the other side of the pool. I never made a single friend. One day I overheard my foster creature at the time say, “Doesn't it seem like all the other kids at this pool arrived in the same car?”

That, right there, is the story of my life. I feel like the whole rest of the world, with all their brothers and sisters and parents and grandparents and uncles and aunts, arrived in one big car.

I walked.

The neighbor I mentioned earlier, the one who was so psyched about only children? I think he neglected to consider how the whole scenario would look if you didn't have parents.

the color of fear

Gaia sucked in a few shallow gasps of air, raised a pair of wide, haunted eyes to his, and whispered, “I see dead people. . . .”

Flesh Crawler

“MRS. TRAVESURA?”

At first Ella Niven didn't realize the voice was speaking to her. Then she remembered.
Travesura
was the Spanish word for “mischief.” It was the name she'd given when she'd first made the appointment.

She looked up from her magazine. The stunning Asian receptionist was smiling down at her. “The doctor will see you now.”

Ella nodded. Setting down the magazine, she grabbed her purse and the shopping bag resting beside her chair and followed the woman.

There were several other women in the posh waiting room. All were reading magazines. All were the indeterminate age of the extremely wealthy somewhere between thirty-five and death. Clearly most of them had consulted the plastic surgeon many times before this.

Ella noticed that most of the women also had shopping bags with them. She recognized the familiar logos of Chanel, Saks Fifth Avenue, Bergdorf Goodman, and a couple of other Fifth Avenue boutiques, all glimmering like badges of honor.

Ella's own shopping bag was from Tiffany. As she crossed the room, she was acutely aware of each of the other women taking note of the robin's egg blue bag in her hand.

The receptionist led her out of the waiting room and into a long, gray corridor. At first Ella thought the walls were made of slabs of marble — but was shocked to realize they were actually enlarged, black-and-white close-ups of human flesh. A gigantic palm here. A colossal kneecap there. She'd never considered how the wrinkles and creases of one's skin could look like striations in rock.

Up ahead, the corridor ended in a pair of brushed-aluminum doors. The receptionist indicated that Ella could continue on alone. When Ella was within a yard of the metal doors, they glided open soundlessly.

The office was large and spare. Floor-to-ceiling windows wrapped around two sides of the square chamber, giving a panoramic, sixty-story view stretching from Central Park to the East River.

As Ella entered, the doctor was standing behind a large, black desk that gleamed like highly polished onyx. Oddly, it was bare except for a light blue folder that seemed to float — weightlessly — above the slick surface. It must have been an optical trick.

The doctor was tall, and pale, and bald. He wasn't dressed in a physician's white coat, as Ella had expected. He wore a black suit over a black turtleneck.

Drawing closer, Ella discovered that her initial impression was wrong again. The man
wasn't
bald. His hair was white, but cropped exceptionally close to his skull. His skin was the same ghostly color. That's what had created the illusion of baldness.

Still, the doctor's eyes were his most remarkable feature. They were deep set and a light shade of yellowish green. They gleamed like cat's eyes beneath his brow. In all her life she had never seen eyes that color.

Not on a human, anyway.

“‘Mrs. Travesura,' I presume?”

His tone of voice made it clear he knew it wasn't her real name.

She nodded cordially. “How do you do.”

The doctor didn't answer but gestured to the chair opposite him — an artsy contrivance of chrome bars and black leather straps.

The doctor sat down. “I understand, from our initial conversation, that there is a certain . . . procedure . . . that you wish me to perform.”

“That is correct.”

“Now. If I am not mistaken, you are . . . shall we say,
employed
by a certain L —”

“Exactly,” Ella interrupted. She needed to shut off this particular line of inquiry as quickly as possible. “I am. He, however, is not to be contacted under any circumstances. I must shield him from this undertaking. It is of utmost importance.”

The doctor nodded, but he looked skeptical.

Ella knew he had past connections to Loki. That's how she had found him. But if he were to contact Loki directly, Ella knew her plan would be derailed instantly. Loki would accuse her of deep, twisted jealousy. But the fact was, when Ella succeeded with this plan, and Tom Moore arrived at the bedside of his poor, disfigured, comatose daughter, Loki would be forced to give Ella the credit she was due.

For now, she needed to change the course of the conversation. She cast her gaze at the mysterious blue folder and gestured toward it.

It worked. “Ah . . . the portfolio,” he explained, placing his hand lightly on the folder. “It represents my . . .
side business,
if you will. ‘Before' and ‘after' photographs of some of my more
interesting
accomplishments.” He slid it across the desk toward her. “Care to take a look?”

Ella stared down at the ice blue folder in front of her, but she didn't touch it. She didn't need to see what was inside.

“Oh, c'mon . . . go ahead.” He pushed the folder a few inches closer to her. “Aren't you in the least bit curious?” His tone was friendly. Flippant, almost. But — glancing back up at him — she saw that the man's eyes had locked on her with the cold, intense scrutiny of a snake. It was as if he were mentally willing her to look at the pictures. Daring her, even.

When she didn't respond, he reached forward and started lifting the cover. “Just take one little —”

“I'm familiar with your work,”
she interrupted.

The doctor instantly snapped his hand away. The folder whispered shut.

He shrugged. “Suit yourself.”

Ella had the feeling she'd just failed some kind of test. She tried to regain ground.

Sitting up taller, she leaned forward slightly, bowing her shoulders so that her cleavage was displayed at its most alluring angle. “Believe me, Doctor,” she began in a persuasive voice, “I wouldn't be here if I weren't already
highly
confident about your . . . skills.”

If the doctor noticed her breasts, he made no show of it. His eyes remained locked on her own.

“And yet,” she went on — leaning forward a little more — “regardless of your expertise, I think you may find this particular . . . patient . . . to be an
extremely
unwilling subject.”

“Many such patients
are
reluctant,” the doctor agreed. “At first.” His eyes seemed to sparkle at some dark, private memories.

“This one is different,” Ella stated firmly. She was growing annoyed. Why wasn't he looking at her chest? She leaned forward even more. “You might as well know, Doctor: You're not the first . . . professional . . . I've contacted in this matter. Others have tried to treat this patient. They failed.”

“My success rate is impeccable,” the doctor assured her. “And as I informed you at the outset, Mrs.
Travesura,
one gets what one pays for.” He stressed this last phrase meaningfully.

Ella took the hint. Reaching down, she picked up the Tiffany shopping bag that was lying at her feet. She placed it on the desktop, sliding it toward the doctor across the slick surface. As she did so, her hand accidentally brushed up against the folder.

Despite herself, she flinched.

The doctor noticed this, and his lips curled in mild amusement. He took the Tiffany bag, glancing inside.

Ella watched him and waited. She didn't expect him to react at the sight of the money; he was no doubt used to seeing such large sums of cash. She was waiting for him to notice what
else
was in the light blue bag.

The doctor's smile faded. Reaching into the bag, he removed a small, rectangular device. It might have been a cellular phone, except that it had a tiny LCD monitor where the earpiece should be. He held it up, a question forming in his bile-green eyes.

“It's a tracking device,” she explained before he could ask. “Satellite technology. Effective within a fifty-mile radius. It allows you to pinpoint the precise location of a radio transmitter.” Opening her purse, she withdrew a tiny metallic chip about the size of an aspirin.
“This
transmitter, which will be planted on the subject tonight.”

She paused to gauge the doctor's reaction. It was crucial that he go along with the plan.

“Interesting,” was all he said. He placed the tracking device down on his desk and sat back in his chair, steepling his fingers together on his chest.

Keeping her voice steady, Ella continued: “You will use the device to track the subject. There is a telephone number on the back. Once you have completed the job, you are to go to the nearest pay phone and call this number. Is that understood?”

The doctor stared at her over his fingertips. “Perfectly.”

Was he mocking her? She couldn't tell. But she didn't care now. This transaction was drawing to a close.

“Good,” she said. “Well — uh,
Doctor
— I believe that about covers it.”

She stood up. So did he. She would not let him try to shake her hand. The
thought of being touched by those long, bloodless fingers made her flesh crawl.

There was only one more matter to square away before she could leave.

She placed her hands on his desk. “I have to make sure we're perfectly clear on one point,” she informed him, trying to make her voice as threatening as possible. “You may be as . . .
thorough
. . . as you desire. In fact, I encourage you. But it is of the
utmost importance
that the subject makes it through the procedure.
Alive.”

The doctor stepped around his desk, smiling widely and warmly. “Your concern, Mrs. Travesura, is quite touching,” he said, his voice dripping with sarcasm. “But it's unnecessary.”

He suddenly dropped his smile — and with it, his act. “The subject will live. I can assure you of that.” His voice was much colder now. Deader. As devoid of life as his skin. “There's no challenge in it for me otherwise.”

He nodded at the folder, still sitting on his desk.
“They
all lived,” he informed her, his voice ringing with chilling pride.

BOOK: Kiss
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