Love Me To Death
By Marissa Clarke, Liz Pelletier
Entangled Publishing, LLC Copyright © 2014 Marissa Clarke
All rights reserved.
This couldn't be happening; things like this happened to other people.
The skinny guy in the black baseball cap leveled the gun at the clerk behind the counter and without a word, pulled the trigger. Elena dropped to the floor between the candy shelves and car care products, ears ringing.
She studied the man's reflection in the circular convex mirror above the beer cooler as he rummaged through the cash register, stuffing his pockets with bills. His reflection was distorted, but she could still make out enough to give a description to the police. It was impossible to tell how tall he was, but he had black tangled hair and unnaturally pale skin. His blue flannel shirt was filthy and torn. More animal than human, he cocked his head to the side in a swift, jerky motion, then stared into the mirror. His eyes were ... red?
The slam of the cash register drawer made Elena flinch. In horror, she watched through the mirror as the killer stalked to the far side of the store, passing the milk cooler one aisle over from her. Without a sound, she slid out of the center of the aisle, flattening up next to the metal shelves of candy, hoping he wouldn't spot her in the mirror. He paused, met her eyes in the reflection, and laughed. It was a hideous, feral laugh that made her body tense in a terrified rigor. She'd never heard anything like it. Almost metallic, it sounded like more than one person laughing. In the mirror, she watched him round the corner of her aisle.
Run, her body screamed. Elena leapt to her feet and flew for the door. Run! As she skidded around the corner at the end of the aisle, a gunshot rang out, followed by a searing pain as if her shoulder blade had exploded. Her knees gave way, and her head hit the floor with a sickening crack.
Footsteps. A pause.
"Get up!" the man growled in his unnatural, metallic voice, shoving her with his foot.
Play dead. She remained on her belly, eyes closed, breathing shallowly. Please, let him think I'm dead. Blood from her shoulder oozed under her cheek. He kicked her ribs, and she groaned.
"It's a shame I've already had dinner," he said.
Oh God. He had shot her again, and pain raged through her body like fire radiating from her shoulder blade. His leisurely footsteps were followed by the tinkle of the bell on the door.
She was going to die.
For twenty-six years, Elena Arcos hadn't even really lived, and now it was over. Always waiting for something to change, something to give her purpose, someone to take her away. But that had never happened. She had lived her life under the radar, trying to not make waves. Trying to conform. Waiting. Waiting ... for what?
She was going to die, dammit. Right here, on the filthy floor of the Corner Quick Mart. Just another news headline with no backstory whatsoever.
"Roll over and look at me." The male voice was deep, calm, and tinged with an exotic accent she'd never heard before. The timbre and confidence of the voice commanded compliance, but Elena found herself unable to move.
The bell on the door hadn't jingled again. This was someone who was already in the store — but she had been the only customer.
"I said, roll over."
"C-can't." Just the mere attempt to speak caused such intense pain she was certain she would faint.
"Bullshit. Your act worked on that worthless, thieving bastard, but it won't work on me."
Act? Undoubtedly, this was a death-experience hallucination. The power of his voice combined with his thick accent made her want to obey his order and roll over so she could put a face with the voice. She placed her palm on the floor in order to push up, but it slipped out from under her in the slick pool of her blood spreading across the grungy vinyl tiles. She whimpered as her chest slammed painfully back to the floor.
His voice rumbled near her ear. "Weak, pathetic creature."
She cried out as she was yanked roughly onto her back.
"Open your eyes!" the deep voice commanded. "Do it. Stop wasting my time."
Dressed in black, a magnificent tower of a man with ebony hair stood astride her, hands on his hips. He was scowling — eyes narrowed. He leaned closer and stared. Surely, this beautiful male creature was the angel of death, come to release her from the pain.
She looked into his gold eyes, glad this would be her last memory. She would leave life with the image of this perfect face in her mind and his forceful voice in her brain. Even through the mirage-like haze of pain, she noticed the well-developed muscles in his arms as he reached behind his head and drew out a long, brilliant sword from a sheath behind his back. He held it over his head like a knight from Arthurian Legend, the glimmering tip of the blade pointing down at her chest.
The pain felt like it was far away as she focused on his beautiful, fearsome form. Elena found herself calm rather than frightened as she stared up at the amazing creature preparing to plunge a sword into her heart.
She had never envisioned death like this. She had always assumed it was a horrible, shattering experience. This was ...almost pleasant.
"I'm ready," she whispered.
A puzzled expression crossed his face. "I can't understand you. If you have last words, spit the blood out of your mouth so you can speak."
She closed her eyes, beginning to slip away under the surface of unconsciousness. Strong fingers on her jaw jerked her head to the side.
"Spit!" he ordered.
She smiled at the memory of the beautiful face of her angel of death as she succumbed to the darkness.
The lights were bright enough to shine pink through Elena's closed eyelids. No pain. Certainly this was heaven.
"Miss Arcos?" It was a woman's voice. Alto. Sweet.
Elena felt too good to open her eyes. The last thing she remembered was the searing pain of the gunshot wounds, and then his golden eyes. "Mmm hmm?" She remembered a sword ...
"Miss Arcos, are you awake?"
"Mmm hmm." And the body of a god.
"There are two investigators here to talk to you about the robbery."
Nope. Not heaven. She opened her eyes to find a woman staring at her from the end of the bed. She was in her midfifties, wearing cranberry medical scrubs with her short, brown hair pulled back with barrettes.
Elena shot bolt upright. The hospital. Damn. She marveled again that there was no pain as she reached behind her to pull the open back of the gown together.
Maybe she had dreamed the whole convenience store robbery — gorgeous, golden-eyed death angel and all.
When she reached up to run her hands through her hair, her fingers got tangled. She pulled her blood-matted curls over her shoulder to examine them. Her blonde hair was darkened with sticky, dried blood. She could hardly find her voice. "What happened?"
The nurse shifted nervously at the foot of the bed. "You've been unconscious for a while."
"What happened to me?"
"Well, that's what the investigators are trying to find out. May I bring them in? They've been waiting a long time to talk to you."
Investigators? The last thing she needed was to be interrogated. What in the world had happened anyway? If she wasn't dead, then she was the one who needed answers, not them.
The nurse pushed a button on the side rail, raising the head of the bed so that Elena was sitting up. She pulled the covers up to her neck as the nurse left to summon the police investigators. As she replayed the robbery in her mind, she could find no explanation for what was happening.
She was dead.
There was no way she could have lived through the second shot. And if she had, she certainly wouldn't be pain-free like this. But she was covered in blood — at least her hair was.
She had to get out of here. She looked around the room in an attempt to figure out which hospital she was in, but it was just a typical ER exam room. Could have been any one of the Houston Medical Center anchors.
Ah ha! A Central Hospital OSHA protocol was plastered to the cabinet in the nurses' station — just like the one that hung on her lab door at work. She could see the poster through the glass wall at the end of the room. So private — like a fish tank. At least she was in the hospital she worked for.
Elena jerked the rough sheet higher under her chin. Through the glass wall, she saw the nurse leading two men toward her room. They joked and laughed with each other until they reached the door, where they became somber and businesslike.
Both of them were somewhere between forty-five and fifty. As if they had planned their outfits in advance, they both wore short-sleeved button-downs and tan slacks. The shorter one with sandy-colored hair spoke first. "Miss Arcos, my name is Jack Knowles, and this is Edward Gonzalez. We're investigators with the HPD Robbery/Homicide Division. May we ask you a couple of questions?"
Elena crossed her legs under the covers. "Um, sure." Why, she wondered, did she feel like she'd done something wrong? She should be glad these guys were trying to find the asshole who had shot her and the store clerk. Instead, her instincts were screaming that she should be wary and guarded. She shook her head to clear it. These were the good guys, right?
Detective Gonzalez walked around to the other side of her bed, so that she was flanked on either side, like they were setting her up for a game of keep away. Her heart raced as Detective Knowles placed a laptop computer on a tray table near her bed and slid it in front of her.
"What happened to you in the store?" the dark, stocky Detective Gonzales asked as he flipped open a small notebook like something out of a dime-store detective novel. His brow furrowed as he studied her.
She got the distinct feeling these guys thought she was a part of the robbery. The instinct to remain guarded flared again.
"I don't really know what happened. There was a guy with a gun," she muttered, closing her eyes.
"Do you know the man with the gun?" Knowles asked.
The computer drive whirred to life. "No."
Gonzalez's voice came from the other side. "How did blood get in your hair and on your clothes?"
She kept her eyes closed. She was right; with one on each side, they were playing verbal keep away — or at this pace, ping-pong. She didn't want to play. She was dead.
"Miss Arcos?" It was Knowles. "How did you get covered in blood?"
"I've no idea. I thought he had shot me, but I guess I was wrong." Her answer was feeble, and she knew it. Telling these guys about the sexy death angel would guarantee her a trip to the funny farm — at the very least a heavy-duty psych evaluation, which would delay her discharge from the hospital. She kept her eyes closed in some kind of denial of reality
The nurse's voice came from across the room. "Detectives, the test results are back. It is human blood on the patient's body and clothes, and it matches her blood type."
Elena assumed Gonzalez was speaking because the voice came from his side of the playing field. "Miss Arcos. We need to get some answers from you. Please open your eyes and cooperate."
How did you explain the unexplainable? She had been shot. Twice. She should be dead. Maybe if she cooperated, they would go away. These are the good guys, she reminded herself. She opened her eyes and looked at the detective named Knowles. She gasped.
Sitting on the counter behind him was her angel of death from the convenience store. He was wearing black jeans and a black leather vest with no shirt. Strange markings covered his arms, neck, and chest, like tattoos in an alien language or something. The gold hilt of his sword peeked from over his shoulder. Maybe he had failed the first time and was here to claim her.
From his casual perch on the counter, the death angel gave her a smile. The impact was devastating. Elena's heart ripped into hyperdrive. It wasn't a "hey, good to see you" kind of smile. It was a devious, "I know something you don't know" smile. He was dangerous — and she knew it. Dangerous and irresistible. Her body came to life as if electrified. She shifted uncomfortably on the hard hospital bed and recrossed her legs.
The detectives seemed oblivious to the sword-wielding man's presence mere feet from them. In fact, Detective Knowles set his notepad on the counter inches from the death angel's thigh. He was invisible to them.
I'm crazy. There was no other explanation.
"Miss Arcos, why don't we start with some basic information," Detective Knowles suggested, clicking a ballpoint pen.
Elena answered questions about her age, address, contact numbers, and other personal information, while the detective scribbled on a form on a clipboard. "How are you feeling?" he asked as he flipped the page over.
"Like I want to go home."
The man with the sword was no longer on the counter. She scanned the room and couldn't find him. She chewed her bottom lip as Knowles inserted a disc in the laptop on the tray table in front of her. Out of nowhere, the death angel appeared at her shoulder, causing her to flinch and whack her knees on the table drawn across her bed. He leaned forward, studying her mouth, only inches from her face. She stopped chewing her lip and drew her mouth into a tight line. Oh God. What was that smell? It was him. He smelled as good as he looked, like leather and something else — some kind of cologne or soap.
She stared at the death angel's scowling face. Gorgeous, angular, with a day's growth of beard dusting his jaw line. "Who are you?" she whispered.
Detective Gonzalez patted her hand. "We're investigators. We're trying to figure out what happened to you in the store."
She found herself unable to draw her eyes away from the dark stranger who had backed up and was now leaning against the wall. Why couldn't they see him? He had a smirk on his face, which made her heart hammer. "I want to go home," she whispered.
"After we watch the disc from the surveillance camera in the store, we'll leave you alone. We're hoping you'll be able to clarify what's happening as we watch it," Detective Knowles said.
The man with the sword moved to the end of the bed. He appeared to be looking at her eyes. Not into them, like someone would if they were trying to communicate. No. He was looking at her eyes, as if he were studying a pinned bug specimen. Elena squirmed like that bug as she managed to pull her eyes away from the death angel.
Detective Knowles punched some keys on the laptop, and the disc began to play. There was no audio. On the screen, she watched herself enter the store. The camera had filmed from the corner where the mirror was mounted. She watched as she walked straight to the candy aisle. Detective Knowles paused the disc.
"It looks like you are familiar with the store. Why were you there?" Knowles asked.
"I was getting a Milky Way bar."
Gonzalez smiled. "Do you do this often?"
It was obvious he thought she was lying. "Yes. I have hypoglycemia — low blood sugar — I need candy when it gets bad."
It was Knowles's turn to lob the ball across the court. "So, you've been to this store before?"
"How many times?" Gonzalez seemed to enjoy the game more than Knowles. Grinning, he leaned against the bedrail, close enough for her to smell cigarette smoke clinging to his clothes.
"Um. Pretty much every day for the last three weeks."
Knowles's turn again. "Why for three weeks?"
She groaned. If only she knew. "My blood sugar has been out of whack since I started working at the hospital," she explained, smoothing the top of the sheet into a neat, straight fold. "The store is the first place to buy chocolate on my way home."
Gonzalez asked, "What do you do at the hospital?"
"I'm a research biologist in the hematology lab."
Gonzalez must have forgotten it wasn't his turn in the keep away game, because he continued the questioning. "What is your job in the lab?" (Continues...)
Excerpted from Love Me To Death by Marissa Clarke, Liz Pelletier. Copyright © 2014 Marissa Clarke. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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