Saturday, November 08, 2008
Twilight Healer - Barbara Custer
By Barbara Custer
ISBN number: 978-0-6151- 9317-5
Publisher: Night to Dawn books.
Genre: dark fantasy/vampire romance.
Publish date: Spring, 2008
Where can be purchased: www.bloodredshadows.com, and www.Amazon.com.
It will eventually become available as an e-book through www.filamentbookclub.com
Leslie Tate is a respiratory therapist struggling with her mother's suicide and her father's illness. Her career as quickly crumbling, and vampire-like murders are taking place near her home and workplace.
Alex offers a refuge until they are caught in a centuries old battle between vampires, demons, and the underworld god Hades.
Before Leslie can be with her love, she must find a way for them to survive.
Excerpt from Twilight Healer
Leslie floated through a gray mist. The whisper of the woman’s footsteps faded; everything went silent. The numbness and pain didn’t seem so awful. Nothing seemed bad except the pointed teeth and hungry look in the woman’s eyes, until what felt like a hammer rammed her left chin.
From far away, the woman’s laughter, then slurping sounds. The breeze on her face,
(OH! OWWW! How it hurts, it HURTS, my jaw what did you do)
and her eyes snapped open. Blood was dribbling from her nose, pooling on her neck and the sofa cushions. Her jaw seemed to burn in rivers of fire. Only dimly aware that she was sobbing, Leslie gazed at the woman in the white dress. She saw the fangs, still nested in the woman’s hideous smile, and the gray dots spiraled up before her eyes again. The woman sat on the sofa facing Leslie.
(My jaw, she busted my jaw)
She was licking maroon stains from her right fist. Leslie refused to give into the grayness. Instead, she pushed herself up on one elbow…oh, how it hurt, it was like being stabbed with knives—and faced her attacker.
“Oh, my God,” she heard herself murmur.
The woman’s voice, laced with what sounded like a thick European accent, wafted through the cloud of pain. “I wouldn’t run if I were you,” she said, smiling.
And if you try, her smile said, I’ll pulverize you. It gave the message loud and clear, without any accent.
Leslie looked up at the overhead chandelier. Spiked crystals hung from its brass plate. Like fangs. “I’m sorry,” she blurted between swift, harsh breaths. “I didn’t know anyone lived here.”
The woman sidled forward, pressing her leg against Leslie’s hip, chilling like a cold beef slab. “You’re the sorriest woman I ever met,” she said amiably.
Too much. The gray dots again, the woman’s voice fading into an eerie tunnel. Leslie waited for the sensation to pass, then continued. Her rattling teeth drowned out the sound of her whimpering. “I got sick...dizzy. Your door was open, and I thought I’d rest.”
“That doesn’t surprise me.” The woman smiled again. “We know each other well, Leslie. Quite well.”
God, she knows my name. Another hostile stranger like those bitches at Ross. Only this one uses her fists. Looking at the woman, Leslie sensed emptiness, a black hole. Her host’s vacant stare hinted that she’d become unhinged from the familiar landmarks of her life. Her pupils were dilated black marbles. Leslie recognized that look. It was the look of someone high on drugs. It was--
Don’t look at her eyes, a voice inside screamed. Leslie flipped her head sideways. She paid for the sudden movement with a thousand kilowatts of agony. “I don’t remember meeting you.”
“I’m Drusilla Mason. You give sick people breathing herbs, right?”
Leslie gulped, choking on the coppery taste of blood. The pain was now radiating to her head. “I’m a respiratory therapist,” she said. “I banged my head in a car accident, and the last two years became blank. Did we work together?”
“In a way,” Drusilla said. “Your lost years became mine.”
“I don’t understand.” Grabbing a tissue from her pants pocket, Leslie blotted her nose. The tissue came away soaked with blood.
“Don’t be coy, Leslie,” Drusilla said in a steady voice. “You threw yourself at my husband.”
“You’ve got the wrong person. I never chase after married men. You can take that one to the bank.”
“His name’s Kenworthy.” Drusilla licked her lips, clearing the blood off her chin. “Somehow, you got his attention. He married me because I look like you.”
Leslie swallowed again, tasting more blood. The grayness dissipated, leaving behind terrible throbbing in her jaw. “I don’t remember anyone named Kenworthy either,” she said, struggling to a sitting position. “I’m talking amnesia here.”
“I don’t know about amnesia, but you look awfully nervous,” Drusilla said in a sugary voice. She go up and paced around the room, eyes on Leslie.
Damn straight I am, Leslie’s mind screamed, because you busted my jaw. You’ve gotten into bad dope, Drusilla, something that made you crack, and there’s no telling where the pieces will fall. “I didn’t mean to intrude,” she said, fighting the tremors in her voice. “Please don’t...”
“Don’t hurt you? You have no concept of real suffering,” Drusilla sneered softly. “Frankly, Leslie, I think you lack manners. Here you lie, bleeding on my couch, and staring at me as though I were garbage, the way my masters used to look at me. I find that very offensive.”
ALEX! ALEX WALLACH! WHERE ARE YOU? Leslie looked down at the blood that was now soaking the cushion. Her blood, which was still dripping from her nose. You rescued me from the bitches at Ross, why not this monster? Why not Drusilla before she kills me? She got no answer, of course, but images rushed through her head, memories of her and Alex. Alex comforting her near Saunders’ office. Alex swabbing alcohol on her cuts. She’d scratched her throat on some rose bushes before her accident, but she still felt the scabs. Then a voice floated from her subconscious.
How did you really get those scratches, Leslie?
Not scratches, but love bites...the sound of drinking. “We’re tied,” she remembered Alex saying. “If anyone tries to hurt you, just think my name.”
But that didn’t sound right. People did not drink blood or communicate by thought. Alex wanted her to telephone him. “I wish I could fix whatever you think I’ve done,” she said, reaching for her sneakers and coat. “But I can’t. I’d like to go, but I’ll need help getting home. May I use your phone?”
Drusilla swept the room with eyes that burned like smoldering coals. “I don’t have a phone,” she said coldly. “Find your own way home.”
In the next instant, Drusilla’s foot, clad in a shoe with a spiked heel, lashed out, torpedoing Leslie’s left hip. Ungodly pain like ground glass shattered through Leslie’s side. The room spun around her, and she felt herself fall in slow motion. She got a look at the bloodstains on to the velvet rug; a glimpse of the light playing on the gold-lined patterns embroidering the velvet. The lines merged, forming skull faces. The gut wrenching screams she heard came from her throat.
“I used to beg for mercy when my masters chased me with their whips. They never listened. You look just like them with your shiny clothes and painted face.” Drusilla’s cherry-red lips curled into a sunken and rather horrible grin. “Where you’re going, you won’t need shoes or a coat. Get up.”
Leslie wanted to—badly needed to get up and run. But the shattered fragments in her pelvis ground against each other, flashing sharp, hot, terrible agony. Sprawled on her side, she looked up at Drusilla, who now stood over her. “I can’t,” she cried, her voice sobbing. “You’ve broken my hip.”
Folding her arms across her chest, Drusilla gave Leslie a piercing gaze. “Perhaps you’d like to wait for Kenworthy. Big mistake. He won’t find you so desirable after I finish with you.”
Leslie tasted hot salty tears mixed with the blood. She thought about Warren, her dad, and Shelly, and how they’d welcomed her home with a family dinner. The Last Supper, she thought crazily. What made her run to those trees?
“You want to kill me?” she sobbed. “Go ahead.”
“Now, why would I do that?” Drusilla twirled her red curls with a manicured finger. “The fun’s only beginning.”
“If Kenworthy cares for me, like you say, he’ll be furious.”
“Kenworthy will never know. I can get away with anything because I’m an immortal. Know what that means?”
Leslie huddled on the floor, shivering, though beads of sweat formed on her skin. Signs of incipient shock. The pain came and went in waves. Nothing Drusilla said made sense, but she’d rather talk than get beaten. “It means that you’re a ghost.”
Drusilla resumed her pacing, still watching Leslie. “Kenworthy and I are vampires. Plain and simple.”
“Damn!” Leslie clawed at her neck, where she felt sudden and intense itching. Had Drusilla–
“Relax. If I bit you, you wouldn’t live to remember it.”
Leslie lifted her gaze to Drusilla’s face. The black hole loomed large, threatening to swallow her. “Certain diseases cause craving for blood, but vampires don’t exist.”
Oh, yeah? The voice inside yammered. Drusilla’s teeth look very real. And, while we’re at it, how did you really get those neck scabs?
“Where I live, blood drinking is a way of life,” Drusilla said. “I grew up in Adria, a very old country belonging to the gods. You cross dimensions of time to get there. Humans can’t make the trip unless escorted by immortals.”
Leslie rubbed her arms, trying to ease the goose bumps. Her surroundings took on a nightmarish quality, but the pain made everything real. Reaching into her pocket, she pulled out her rosary, a present given by the hospital chaplain.
Drusilla’s fist reared out and snatched the rosary. “Idiot!” Her voice seethed with contempt. “Religious symbols don’t hurt me.”
“I guess not.” Leslie squeezed her eyes shut, praying for rescue or death. She opened her eyes again and turned her head. Stabs of pain muttered through her cracked jaw. “You say that my memories became yours. What did you mean?”
“My mind absorbed your memories...birthdays, holidays, work days, as if I’d lived them. I remember your father’s stroke and the way he hassled his healers, even though I never met him.”
“Was I a good therapist...healer?”
Stepping back, Drusilla howled with laughter. Moments passed, and then she composed herself. “I’ll tell you what you want to know after we go for a walk.”
Grabbing Leslie by the armpits, Drusilla hauled her to her feet. Jolts of pain flared through her battered hip. Her right leg buckled. She bawled, fresh hot tears rolling down her cheeks.
“What? You want more?” Drusilla yanked Leslie again, bony hands wrapped around her left arm. Sharp burning followed, accompanied by the sound of Leslie’s arm tearing from its socket the way a drumstick tears from a turkey. “Want me to break your neck? I could do that very easily, you know.”
“I can’t take any more,” Leslie screamed. “Go ahead and kill me.”
“In due time.” Drusilla hoisted Leslie in her arms like a sack of potatoes. “You lived a soft life, hiring machines to do your work. I saw them in my visions before Kenworthy made me a vampire.”
“What kind of visions?”
“I saw you walk into a sick room with a zombie-look on your face. You pushed some button on the machine, the one that killed the person you were paid to cure. A man wearing fancy clothes said that your carelessness cost lives.” Drusilla shook her head. “I felt sorry for you until I saw the lust in Ken’s eyes.”
“I did all that?” Leslie dangled in Drusilla’s arms, longing for the grayness to return and dull the pain. “Did you see me show anyone kindness?”
“You invented enough lines to fool Adria’s governor,” said Drusilla. “I saw it all, right up to the time your horseless carriage hit the tree. Tell me, Leslie, have you ever seen any bats? Big white things with red eyes and teeth?”
Leslie nodded, shivering. “My doctors saw them too.”
“Hades made those bats spy on people like me and Kenworthy.” Drusilla’s voice sounded tinny and distant. “Those bats transferred memories between us.”
“How?” Leslie asked in a faint voice.
“Their powers enable them to transfer memories between dimensional twins like you and myself. Everyone in your world has a twin in Adria.”
Leslie shook her head. “I don’t get what you’re...”
“Be quiet,” Drusilla said sharply. “I must concentrate.”
Leslie’s mouth snapped shut. She watched Drusilla close her eyes. When Drusilla opened them again, she headed to the front door. Stepping outside, she followed a narrow path that wound through shrubbery. Moments later, she paused by a lake.
“Take a good look,” she said.
Leslie craned her neck. The moon splashed silvery puddles on the water and scattered leaves. A damp wind seeped through her bloodstained clothes, chilling her to the bone. She heard rustling noises behind them, perhaps the snapping of twigs. “Someone’s following us,” she said.
Drusilla cast furtive glances over her shoulder. “You’re only hearing things.” She smiled, but her voice sounded edgy.
That was when a woman’s screams cut through the trees, blood chilling cries sounding almost inhuman. Drusilla let out a skeletal laugh. “Hades’ bats must be enjoying their meal. A school of those bats can pick a body clean.”
“I believe it.” Leslie stared ahead with widening eyes.
The screams issued from a cave nested in the shadows. Its entrance, shaped like an inverted V, was surrounded by clusters of rocks. The structure reminded her of the boulders she’d seen in the mountains as a little girl, when she traveled with her family. “A bat almost...never mind.”
“Almost broke into your father’s house?” Drusilla laughed again. “I can read your thoughts. Lucky for you and Papa, your brother carried a gun. Want to see what made that girl scream?”
“No, but I’m sure you can’t wait to show me.”
Drusilla nudged her, and now Leslie’s shoulder burned like white iron. The agony went through her body. Shattered bone chips grated her hip and jaw. Sweat trickled down her face in spite of the chilling wind slapping her cheek.
“Our officials chain criminals some place where the birds and people like me can get to them.” Drusilla ambled toward the cave’s rocky opening. “That girl you heard was caught dipping into the butcher’s money box. Stealing is a capital offense.”
The bone fragments shifted in Leslie’s hip. She bit back a scream. “Where I live, murder is a capital crime.”
“If I spare you, you’ll sing to your officials and complicate things for me.” Drusilla smiled again, a crooked, malignant grin. “Besides, I’ll enjoy watching the bats tear your flesh.”
“Drusilla.” Leslie yawned. Grayness was setting in until dirt got into her nostrils. She sneezed heartily, jarring her broken bones. The ten-thousand kilowatts of agony that followed jolted her back to reality. She tried telling herself that death offered reunion with her mother, but she kept thinking about her father. Who would cook his mechanically soft meals? Certainly not Warren. He hated cooking.
After spitting more blood, she gasped for breath. “I’ll die before your bats find me. Please leave me alone so I can make my peace with God.”
“Better make your peace with Hades. He’ll damn your soul to Tartarus. Listen and you’ll hear the condemned beg for his mercy.”
Listening hard, Leslie made out a cacophony of cries sounding like people caught in a burning building.
Stooping low, Drusilla stepped inside the cave. Her feet made horrible crunching noises. The stench of carrion caused Leslie’s stomach to churn. Bile rose in her throat, and she swallowed hard to keep from vomiting.
To her right, a young woman lay tethered to a rock, writhing against her ties. Her screams had faded, replaced by barely audible whimpers. Dirt and mud coated her face, skeletal limbs, and torn clothes. Something gleamed in the moonlight, only a few feet from the beaten woman. A human skeleton, fully gutted, lay propped against the rocky wall, suspended by chains around its wrists and ankles. Even in the darkness, Leslie saw tufts of pink flesh and gristle clinging to its ribs. Flies formed dark clouds over the body. She opened her mouth to scream, but her cracked, roughened voice afforded only faint, crowing noises.
Bending over, Drusilla laid Leslie on the ground next to the skeleton. “The sun will come up soon,” she said, glancing toward the archway, “so I can’t watch the fun. But I’ll check on you tomorrow night.” With a peal of laughter, she glided into the shadows.
Leslie kept her head flat, eyes away from the skeleton. Razor blades of pain shot through her hip and shoulder if she so much as wriggled. Her left arm dangled like a battered ornament. Even if she could run, where could she go? Miles of forest surrounded the cave.
“Damn you, Gerry,” she muttered, listening to her wheezing breath. “You said I caused Mom’s death. Think I’ve had enough punishment?”
“Leslie,” called a distant voice. It sounded like Alex. “Where are you?”
Leslie’s eyes blinked, and her shoulders sagged. She never heard any voice. It was her desperation talking.
“Leslie!” Louder this time. Then Alex ran into the cave, still screaming her name over and over. Leslie was suddenly aware that his eyes glimmered like emeralds between his powder white cheeks. She thought he looked like an angel.
“Alex!” Fresh tears pooled in her eyes. Her voice was barely audible over her wheezing breath. “Alex, I’m not going to make it.”
“Leslie, why did you run to the woods?” His voice came out in choked sobs. “Were you contemplating suicide?”
“Gerry and I had a horrible fight.” Leslie wiped her eyes with her good hand. Alex’s face swam in and out of focus. “I thought...”
“Never mind.” Alex caressed her face, brushing back her curls. “I found you in time.”
Leslie shook her head. “Not this time. Will you tell my father that I love him and that I forgive him about Mom? Please?”
“You can tell him yourself after I’ve brought you home.”
Leslie stared at Alex’s face, the tears in his eyes, his anguished voice, and then she understood. He wanted to save her badly, but he didn’t have access to a car or medical supplies.
“Alex, listen carefully,” she mustered between hoarse coughs. “This girl, Drusilla, who looks like me...she beat me up. I think she’s the one the police want. She said she loves to kill, and she accused me of chasing her husband, Kenworthy something or other. She ranted on about vampires and second dimensions. Do something to stop her from hurting others.”
Alex knelt by her side and draped his cloak over her shivering limbs. “Drusilla...or whatever she calls herself...sounds dangerous, but she has it right about the world existing in two dimensions. You never saw a cave like this near your father’s house. Doesn’t that seem strange?”
Leslie nodded, shuddering. “But vampires and second dimensions don’t exist. She’s gotten into drugs, that’s what.”
Alex blotted Leslie’s face with a hanky. “I think you know differently.”
“I guess I do,” Leslie managed between clicking teeth. “But I don’t want to believe it because Drusilla said that only vampires can travel between dimensions without help. You came here to find me, so that makes you...”
“One of them.” Alex lowered his eyes. “I tried to tell you, but you weren’t ready to hear me.”
“I remember you comforting me in the hall near Bill’s office. You took me for a ride, and then you...” Leslie blinked her eyes and shook her head. “It doesn’t matter now.”
Cradling her shoulders, Alex looked her in the eyes. “Yes, it does, Leslie. Your injuries are grave, and Adria doesn’t have sophisticated medical equipment. Even if I get you to a hospital in time, this woman won’t rest until she kills you.” His voice softened, and tears fell down his cheek. “Immortality offers your only chance for survival, and I can give you that.”
“Immortality?” Leslie fixed her gaze on Alex and noticed his teeth for the first time. Two of them, pointed, just like Drusilla’s. But his voice whispered kindness and sadness. “You act more human than many people I know. Maybe vampires come in different breeds.”
“No, it’s the same breed. But we have free will.” Alex hiked his shirt sleeve. “People might say that if I really cared, I’d let you die a natural death. Maybe they’re right. If you join me, you’ll live by twilight forever.”
Leslie met Alex’s gaze. Her thoughts about Drusilla and the pain faded. Instead, she saw a man who was trying to save her life. “I’d rather Dad saw me by twilight than not at all. Another death in the family would kill him. Will this change affect my quality of life?”
“Not at all. The keen senses you’ll develop may even improve it.” Alex tilted her face toward his. “Will you join me?”
“I want...” Leslie’s mind went blank. She felt the wind again, a high, roaring wind inside her own head. “Yes, I’ll join you. Will I have to do anything complicated?”
“No. We’ll have to exchange blood, a lot of it to make you immortal. Once your heartbeat stops, your body will change.”
Using his teeth, he sliced his right forearm, and then held the wounded area to her lips. Leslie gagged on its bitter smell.
“Drink.” He stroked her cheek. “Think of this as medicine.”
“Medicine.” Leslie parted her lips. She licked and swallowed, trying hard to ignore the acid taste. Only faintly aware of the pinpricks in her skin, she focused on his eyes. Their emerald glow washed through her consciousness, filling her with serenity. Moments later, all time and space slipped away, and the darkness waded in.
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