Authors: Barbara J. Webb
MIDNIGHT IN ST. PETERSBURG
by Barbara J. Webb
For my husband, Seth
Who never told me to get a real job.
Saturday After Dark
Five minutes before she was supposed to be at dinner, Rose still had no idea what she should wear. She dumped her suitcase full of clothes onto the hotel bed and pawed through them one last time, hoping something beautiful and elegant would magically appear. It didn’t. Seemed the fairy tale she’d stepped into wasn’t the sort that provided evening-wear. As far as she knew, no mice had turned into horses yet either. But then, the night was young.
Hard to believe that just last Saturday night, she’d been alone in her tiny apartment in Phoenix, surfing the internet for jobs while she tried to calculate how many years it would take her to pay off her student loans at a social worker’s salary and if she could afford to think about grad school. Rose had resigned herself to a future of ramen noodles and Kool-Aid when her phone rang and everything changed.
A job offer. More than a job offer. An all-expenses paid vacation to exotic St. Petersburg, Russia, including first-class plane tickets and a hotel suite all her own just to listen to a pitch. Their pitch, as in
, and not the other way around. This luxury, the posh surroundings—all for Rose, and maybe that was a little suspicious. Hell it would have been a lot suspicious if even once during the conversation they’d mentioned wanting to hire her to do social work. But the man on the phone had specifically referenced her other skills, the ones no school in the world taught, and for that alone, Rose would have made this trip if she’d had to pay for the travel herself.
Now here she was due at dinner in this fancy hotel and for the first time it sank in on Rose she might be in over her head. What if there was a dress code? What if the prospective employer who so casually tossed out thousands of dollars on plane tickets and top-floor suites expected someone more polished, more experienced? And most of all, what was it they expected her to do?
Because one thing Rose knew: St. Petersburg was wrong. It was broken. Even with her back to the window, Rose felt the city’s roiling malaise like a blanket trying to smother her. A blackness so deep it overwhelmed her othersense, so aggressive it felt alive. It threatened to darken her vision and dampen her hearing until the physical world around her became a dream and the tenebrous sadness intensified to become her only reality.
In a way, that could work to her advantage. If this job was about those talents she’d never put down on an employment application, then her potential employers couldn’t have a lot of qualified applicants to choose from.
After years of running different phrases through Google and a lot of volunteer work at a couple different psychiatric hospitals, Rose had found a handful of others like herself.
was the label bandied about in the dark corners of the internet, and oh boy were they. Every one she’d met in person had been stuck in a mental ward, crying into their pillow, withering year by year. Young or old, as far as Rose could tell, all sensitives broke down sooner or later as the constant press of other people’s problems became overwhelming. And that was out in the normal world. Slap on a city that felt—what, haunted?—and Rose was willing to bet the titanic sum of her student loans that there wasn’t anyone else with her gift anywhere near St. Petersburg. This city was no place for sensitive sensitives.
Rose sighed and dug out a skirt still wrinkled from packing and a matching pair of leggings. They’d just have to take her as she was. She wasn’t sure how long she’d be able to stand it here, but for now, curiosity won out over caution. With one final look in the mirror to make sure nothing was sticking up or out, Rose made for the elevator.
The early-evening traffic in the Astoria’s lobby was enough to distract Rose from the city’s dark aura. To the naked eye, the few people scattered through the gold and marble hall were pleasantly cheerful, smiling and chattering away. But Rose knew the truth behind the tableau. She felt the desk clerk’s impatience, the withered despair of the man waiting by the door, the dishonest smiles of the pretty young couple walking hand in hand, while inside the woman fumed with resentment and the man burned with jealousy. Everybody lied, and no one knew that better than a sensitive.
A tall, elegantly dressed gentleman disengaged from the concierge desk.“Miss Daziani.” Rose loved the sound of her name in his thick Russian accent. “Your party waits. This way, please.”
Rose followed him to a conference room that tonight served as a private dining room. An elegant meal was set out, spread across a lacy white cloth and accompanied by delicate china and spiral-stemmed crystal—definitely the prettiest arrangement Rose had ever seen. But despite Rose’s earlier concern about being out of place in the high-class environment, it wasn’t the fancy dining table that stopped Rose in the doorway.
It was the men who sat around it.
In the course of her research, Rose had found tantalizing hints of a supernatural world beyond the broken sensitives she’d managed to track down. Despite her every effort, the rumors and obscure references had never panned out. The community she’d been so desperate to find had remained hidden. Until now.
The three men at the table looked regular enough on the outside, but to Rose’s othersense, they were alien. These weren’t overwhelmed psychics cowering from a world they couldn’t shut out. These were men immersed in the exotic secrets Rose had been searching for her whole life.
The concierge spoke over her shoulder, making her jump. “Mr. Rutledge, Miss Daziani is here.”
The handsome young black man at the head of the table stood. His casual jeans and sweater were as reassuring to Rose as the broad grin that spread across his face as he held out his hand. “Miss Rose, so lovely to meet in person. Please, come on in.”
Rose recognized his voice, the smooth southern drawl. “You’re Alec Rutledge. From the phone. We talked.” Rose snapped her mouth shut before she could babble any further inanity. Her brain was still trying to adjust to the sudden proof of the truth she’d been chasing.
As she shook Alec’s offered hand, Rose felt…nothing. Her eyes saw him; her ears heard him. His skin against hers was warm. But to Rose’s othersense, the sense by which she navigated the world, he simply didn’t exist.
If Alec was concerned by Rose’s lack of eloquence, it didn’t show on his face. “I’m so glad you could join us. Let me introduce you to your colleagues. Father Mike Sullivan…”
Alec gestured to the old man at his left. As if Rose needed help identifying the priest in the room. And Father Mike Sullivan was serious about it too. No simple collar on top of normal street clothes—this guy was in the full black suit with the fancy button-down shirt and a Pope-approved look of disapproval on his face. Like Alec, Mike was completely invisible to Rose’s othersense.
When it became obvious Mike was neither going to stand nor offer a greeting, Alec turned smoothly to the third man in the room. “And Ian Fior.”
Ian, Rose could feel. And then some. He rose gracefully to his feet and took Rose’s hand with a captivating smile. “Rose, is it? Delightful to meet you.” His lilting tenor held a hint of Irish. Vibrant. That was the word for Mr. Ian Fior.
Alec was good looking, but Ian was something else entirely. Now Rose was paying attention, she found it hard to look away. Gorgeous was too tame a word for it. He had the inhuman perfection of a photoshopped model. His hair was a shade too red; his eyes too intensely blue to be real. And beneath his broad shoulders and angelic face was a resonance like nothing Rose had ever experienced.
Most people, Rose sensed their insides as sounds through a heavy door or the view through a window obscured by a sheer curtain. Most people, Rose could tune out once she got a sense of their overall emotional pitch. Ian’s emotions were invasive, disorienting. He pulsed with a mad energy that jangled against the malaise of St. Petersburg, brilliant and whirling and intense.
Rose pulled her hand away, breaking the physical contact, and Ian’s presence faded to a more manageable level. Still, Rose made for the chair next to the priest, wanting as much physical distance between her and Ian as possible. She focused on getting there without tripping, then tried to sound casual as she said, “Sorry I’m late. Did I miss anything?” Like she had mysterious meetings with weird supernatural people all the time.
“We’re one person short yet.” Alec waved at the wine array and leaned over for her glass. “Would you care for a drink?”
Half empty glasses on the table told Rose the party had started without her. A rainbow of open bottles poked up from ice-filled high-hats clustered at the head of the table. “Sure.” She pointed at a pink wine in the middle that no one had touched yet. “That one.”
The food, too, looked untouched so far, but the aromas over the table set Rose’s mouth watering. From the silver chafing dishes she smelled butter and garlic and the unmistakable scent of well-roasted beef. Loaves of heavy dark bread steamed next to baskets of crusty rolls. Rose’s stomach gave a rumble. Hopefully their fifth would arrive soon. Whatever he or she might be.
Rose had no idea what was going on with Ian, but Rose had a word for Alec and Mike. Sometimes the internet knew what it was talking about.
was the label used by people who seemed in the know. The less-informed used other words with varying levels of hysteria—sorcerer, witch, wizard. Rose had read all kinds of crazy theories about voiders and the magic they supposedly wielded. A lot of them were hard to accept. The worst of the stories claimed that voiders came into their power by selling their souls to otherworldly beings. Demons, if you believed in that sort of thing.
Rose didn’t pretend to be an expert on souls, but she had to admit, these two had given up… something. Ian’s whirling insides might be invasive and disorienting, but the absolute lack of any emotional energy from Alec and Mike was creepy.
Alec filled Rose’s glass, then settled back into his chair. “I hope all y’all got a chance to do some sight-seeing this afternoon. St. Petersburg’s a lovely city.”
Mike snorted. “Yeah, sightseeing is exactly what I wanted to do after a transatlantic flight.”
Rose, herself, had been more interested in a nap on arrival—even in first class, the travel had been exhausting—but the last thing she wanted to do now was agree with the crotchety old priest. “I wouldn’t know where to go first.”
“This hotel is in a great location.” Alec refilled his own glass from a bottle of pale white wine that was near empty. “We’re right in the heart of where the nobility lived, and a number of their homes have been made into museums. And of course St. Isaac’s next door is one of the most famous cathedrals in the city.”
Rose shivered at the mention of the cathedral. Her quick look on the way into the hotel hadn’t been encouraging. “Is it safe? Everything here feels—“ She broke off, looked around. Was she supposed to talk about this stuff? Even if everyone here was as unusual as she was, was she supposed to keep secrets?
“It’s all right, Rose.” Alec correctly interpreted her expression. “We’re all friends here. You can share.”
How to even describe it? Rose had never tried to talk about the impressions her othersense gave her. This was the first time she’d been around people who wouldn’t call her crazy. “I just got here, so I don’t have a good feel for the city yet, but if I’d come here to play tourist, I’d probably be booking my flight home as soon as I could manage it.”
“You’re a sensitive, then,” Mike said, dismissive. Not a question.
Rose stared at him and shrugged. Not an answer. She might not be able to read Mike’s inner soul, but she’d known enough men and women of the church to be wary.
Alec didn’t seem concerned. “It’s true St. Petersburg isn’t the sort of place you want to be wandering by yourself at night. No different than New York or Chicago in that respect.” He flashed a smile at Ian and Mike in turn. “But the tourist spots—“