Dark Heirloom (An Ema Marx Novel Book 1), page 1
Dark Heirloom. Copyright © 2012 by J.D. Brown
All rights reserved and preserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission of the author.
Printed and produced in the United States of America.
First Published in the United States of America by NightMare Publishing.
Second Edition, August 2015
Cover Art Design Copyright © 2015 by Jennifer Brown
Edited by: Bobbi St. Jean
Layout and Interior Design by: NightMare Publishing
This book is a work of fiction. The characters, settings, incidents, and dialogues are products of the author’s imagination and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. The publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for the author or third-party content.
NightMare Publishing logo is a trademark ™ of NightMare Publishing USA.
To my Mother, who taught me that everything happens for a reason, that I’m alive because I deserve to be alive and happy, that the world is mine if I want it, that I can be anything I want to be, and that I had better listen to her because she is always right. Mom, I wouldn’t have made it this far without your strength and courage.
A scream tore from my throat. The rapid slap of my sneakers against asphalt echoed through the alley. My foot plunged into ice water as I dashed across a pothole. I winced as the dampness soaked through my sock, but I didn’t stop running. The Chicago wind ripped my hair and coat back as if trying to halt my escape. A chain link fence rose in the distance as I neared the end of the alley. Shoot. I could have sworn this one opened to Clark Street.
Thud. Something heavy landed behind me.
I froze. My heart pounded in my ears. Tears fell as I closed my eyes. Please, please, God…
His heinous laugh drowned out my ragged breath. Caught at a dead end, I had no choice but to turn and face him. He stood in the shadows, the darkness of his attire blending in with the night. Only the glow of his emerald eyes gave him away.
Think, I shouted to myself. What does he want? My purse? My money? With a shaky hand, I pulled my wallet from my bag and flung it at him. He shifted his weight, dodging the wallet in one simple move. I stared like an idiot as it landed in the gutter behind him. Why is he chasing me if he doesn’t want my money? What else could he want?
He grinned, bearing a set of abnormally sharp, stark white teeth. Who the hell is this freak? He stepped toward me, and my fists clenched as I stepped back. He took another step forward. My back pressed against the cold metal of the fence. Icicles lining the chain links melted through my coat, sending chills down my spine and a quiver to my lip. My foot was already numb from the cold. Tears blurred my vision as I swallowed the lump of panic building in my throat. “Leave me alone!”
He kept advancing, his gaze locked on my face, his gait slow with one foot in front of the other, like that of a cat. I shoved a trembling hand in my purse in search of my pepper spray. He snatched my wrist and yanked me forward. I fell to my knees. The contents of my purse spilled and scattered.
“What makes you think I want anything from you?” he sneered.
My chest heaved as I pushed myself up. I glanced past him, to the mouth of the alley. He scoffed. “You think you can run? Go ahead, mouse. Run.”
I was almost to the street when a thick shadow dropped from the sky. Two rock-solid fists shoved my chest. I fell backward. My head hit the pavement. Stars danced in the periphery of my vision as I struggled to sit up, but my limbs moved in slow motion.
Two hands, each finger adorned by a silver ring, gripped my shoulders and lifted me. My back hit something solid and cold—a brick wall. My feet dangled above the ground. He held me at eye level; his sour breath churned my stomach as his face inched closer to mine.
“I know what you’re thinking.” His voice was deep, smooth, as he rolled his R’s. “You’ve done nothing wrong. Nevertheless, once you kill one rodent, you have to kill them all, even a little mouse like yourself.”
My blood drained at the utterance of the word kill. I squirmed in his grasp. “Please, don’t hurt me.”
He lifted one hand and clenched my jaw. His fingernails dug into my skin. Whimpers murmured from my shuddering breath. I cried not from the pain, but from fear.
“Would you like to know a secret?” His hot breath caused bile to rise in my throat. “Only you disgusting pests can see our eyes glow. I’m sure you knew that already. I’m sure your mother told you the stories. I bet you didn’t listen to her. I bet you thought they were just fairy tales and bad dreams, hmm?”
I had no idea what he was talking about. I concentrated on finding a way out of his grip, hoping his guard would slip while he continued his monologue.
“You know, when you find one rat, there are a dozen more in the nest.” He tightened his grasp. “Where’s your rat hole, eh, little mouse?”
“Let me go!” Pain manifested in every inch of my face; my jaw throbbed and my head spun. A stiff ache cut through my spine. Fear and cold shook my core, and exhaustion weighed down my struggling limbs. I just wanted it to end.
He studied my face for a moment, a frown tugging at his lips. “Very well.”
He released my jaw then reached back under his jacket. The sharp sound of metal being unsheathed pierced the night as he drew a long silver dagger. My eyes widened at the emblems engraved on every inch of the blade and handle. I recognized them as Norse in origin. I also recognized the precise way in which he held the dagger level with the left side of my rib cage.
He’s going to stab me in the heart.
He pulled his arm back, holding the weapon steady.
I squeezed my eyes shut.
A light brightened behind my eyelids. His flinch startled me and my eyes opened. His grip held, but he hesitated to strike. The thunk of a window being forced open preceded a woman’s voice.
“Everythin’ all right out here?”
My would-be murderer glanced up. His lip rose, showing his fanged teeth, as a low growl rumbled from his throat. He released me. I dropped to the damp ground like a dead weight. But I wasn’t dead. Not yet.
“Young lady, are y’all right?”
My limbs wobbled, but I managed to stand. I glanced around the alley, but my attacker had disappeared from sight. Whether he was truly gone or hiding in the shadows, I didn’t know. My pulse sped up. What if he comes back?
I glanced in the direction of the voice. An elderly woman leaned out a window several feet above the spot my assailant had thrust me against. Wisps of white hair blew about her frail face and pulled at her black cloak. I opened my mouth, and then closed it. My mind failed to find words. All I could think was to get as far away from here as possible.
I staggered onto the sidewalk and then ran as fast as the sting in my knees would allow. Wind blew hot tears across my temples. I cupped a hand over my mouth to muffle the sob that threatened to invite my attacker back.
By the time I reached the main door to the apartment complex, my chest burned as it heaved in rapid pants of air. My hands fumbled around empty pockets for keys. Shoot, they must’ve been in my purse.
I pressed the doorbell button next to my apartment number on the side panel. Please be home. Silence ensued. A whimper carried on my labored breath. I pressed all the doorbell buttons and then slapped my palms against the door.
I faced the panel. “I locked myself out. Can you unlock the main door, please?” Silence. Then a buzzer broke through the night, signaling the door’s temporary unlatch. Once inside, I boarded the elevator. My pulse finally slowed as the elevator carried me to the third floor. My breathing returned to normal as I entered the hall and approached my apartment door. Fortunately, I kept a spare key under the welcome mat.
Inside, I closed and locked the door before flicking on the light. Then I turned and leaned against the cold wood. The entire interior of my one-room studio could be seen from the hall. The kitchen and handmade breakfast nook took up over half the space. The bed stood pushed in the far right corner. The bathroom and closet were located in the center left wall. The only window sat directly across the way from the door.
Everything looked exactly as I’d left it, minus my soon-to-be ex-boyfriend, Anthony. Of course he wouldn’t be here, on the one night of my life I really did not want to be alone. I lowered to the floor, my back sliding against the wood. Tears blurred my vision as the stress of the night weighed on what little sanity I had left.
A phone. I need a phone. I managed to push myself up despite the achy protest in my joints. In the kitchen, I grabbed the cordless phone and dialed 911.
A chill ran the length of my spine despite the blast of artificial heat. I squirmed against the leather seat of the taxi and pulled my coat tighter, but nothing helped. Outside, the Chicago skylines faded, soon replaced by the quiet suburbia of my childhood.
My backpack rested on the floor between my feet. I bent to unzip the front pocket and pulled out a compact mirror. I checked my jaw to make sure the bruises were still covered. With makeup, they looked more like acne than fingerprints.
Puffy pink bags rimmed my brown eyes. No amount of concealer could cover three hours spent talking to police, canceling credit cards, changing bank accounts, and alerting the apartment association to possible robbery due to misplaced keys. The cops had filed a report and suggested I stay with a friend for a couple of days. The closest friend I had was my mother.
I ran a hand over my box-colored red hair, smoothing the ponytail against my neck, as I thought of the phone conversation with Mom this morning. We hadn’t seen each other in almost a year. I hadn’t told her why I was coming over, and she hadn’t asked. A memory from last night flashed in my mind. The man’s voice rang like an alarm.
Where’s your rat hole, eh, little mouse?
My back stiffened. He’d threatened to kill my family. He could’ve gone back and picked up my spilled belongings. Any number of items could’ve given away my address. But could he know where my mother lived? I tried to remember if I had anything with her address written on it. Oh, God, my cellphone. I had canceled the service this morning, but what if he went back for it last night?
I sucked in a deep breath, then swallowed my nerves. I’m just being paranoid. Mom’s fine. Yet despite the pep talk, my hands continued to wring.
The taxi rounded the corner and cruised down a narrow residential street leading to my mother’s neighborhood. My fingers twitched for new reasons as I took in the familiarity of the area. The vehicle pulled into Mom’s driveway. I stared at the house. The chipped, off-white paint had been crying out for a new coat since before I was born. The front door hung slightly askew; Mom still hadn’t fixed the top hinge. The living room window still had a hole in the top right corner. Plastic and duct tape covered it.
“Ahem,” coughed the cab driver, pulling me from my thoughts.
I paid him, swung my pack over my shoulder, and slid out of the taxi. My sneakers sank ankle-deep in snow. A curse passed my lips as ice water seeped into my socks. Snow always took longer to melt in the ‘burbs since they didn’t use as much salt, but why hadn’t she shoveled?
I trudged up the covered walkway, and then rang the doorbell. Seconds passed before I pushed my finger against the doorbell again, my nerves churning in my gut.
Her voice rose through the thin walls. “I’m coming.”
Relief washed through me, but its potency was bittersweet. The door opened. My mother’s voice rose in pitch. “Ema? What are you doing here?”
My eyebrows furrowed. “I told you I was coming.”
A gleam came to her eyes. “Oh, that was today?”
“Yes, Mama, I called you this morning. How could you forget?”
“Oh, I guess I didn’t believe you. You never visit me anymore.”
I rolled my eyes. Mom never apologized. Instead, she had a tricky way of making herself the victim of every situation.
“Come inside, you’re letting the warm air out.” She hunched her shoulders as she turned away and reached for the nearest table to support her weight. Her sluggish steps caught me off guard, but I held my tongue, closed and locked the door, and then followed her in silence.
Mom retreated into the leather Lay-Z-Boy recliner. The armchair used to belong to my father. Nothing about the house had changed since my last visit. The plain, brown-painted walls and low ceiling made the place feel as homey as a shoe box.
Something didn’t feel right. The air smelled of dust instead of antiseptic. I swiped a digit along the end table and quirked a brow at the black grime coating my fingertip. Upon closer inspection, I realized a fine layer of dust covered all the furniture and baseboards. Mom’s plants had yellowed and wilted. Little spider webs booby-trapped the corners. That wasn’t like Mom.
I put my backpack down and went to her side. “Mama, when was the last time you dusted, or watered the plants, or vacuumed?”
She waved a hand. “It’s fine.”
I placed my hands on my hips. “It’s filthy.”
“Who are you to judge me? I’m an old lady; I’ve earned the right to live how I want.”
After years of dealing with her obsessive-compulsive disorder, I doubted this was how she wanted her house. She wasn’t an old lady, yet she had clearly aged since I last saw her. Deep wrinkles creased the corners of her eyes and lips. Gray strands peppered her black hair. I crouched and leaned my elbows against the chair’s armrest. “It hasn’t even been a year, how did your hair get gray so fast?”
She scoffed. “It’s been gray for a long time, lányom, I just stopped coloring it.”
“Why? You looked so young and pretty with long, black hair.” I traced the bun at the nape of her neck. “Why don’t we go to the store and buy some dye. I could do your hair for you in the kitchen. It’ll be fun.”
“What for? Old women have no business coloring their hair. You should dye your hair. Red’s not a good color for you. And wash your face; you have too much makeup on.”
I stood and ran a hand over my ponytail. “But I like red. You know, you can at least dust the place once in a while. Want me to shovel the driveway?”
“No,” she spat. “My house is fine.”
I held up my hands, palms forward. “Okay, just offering. So, when’s dinner?”
“Now I have to feed you?”
“I only asked because you said you were going to make Paprikás Csirke for dinner.”
“When did I say that?”
“When I called you this morning.” Was I losing my mind, or was Mom grouchier than usual?
“Humph. You’re a big girl, make it yourself.”
My jaw hung as she turned her attention back to the soap drama on TV. Rolling my eyes, I grabbed my backpack and shuffled down the hall to my old bedroom. I flicked on the light and tossed my pack and jacket on the bed. Nothing had changed in there either. My old bookshelf caught my attention. Overdue library books crammed the sills. Most of them were texts on European history, but I also had half of the local library’s collection of encyclopedias. I pulled out my favorite World War II text and tucked it inside my backpack for later.
I turned the light off and closed the door as I left. In the living room, I peeked at Mom. She had a tray with a glass of w
“Mama, what are you taking?”
“Painkillers. They’re for my arthritis.” She set the tray aside and leaned against the recliner’s backrest.
“Did you get those from a doctor?”
“Of course I did. I’ve had arthritis for a long time, I’ve just never mentioned it.”
Now I understood why she hadn’t cleaned the house as vigorously as she used to. Guilt thronged my chest. I should have visited more. I should have been around to help her when something as simple as dusting became too difficult. “Mama, you should have told me. I would have come around more to help you.”
“I’m going to be here for a couple of days. How about I clean this place up a bit?”
“No, damn it. I don’t hear so much as one word from you all year, and suddenly you show up at my door and tell me how to do things. I’m the mother, I tell you how to run your life.”
I rolled my eyes. “Fine, Mama, how should I run my life?”
“You can start by getting rid of that loser boyfriend and marrying a doctor.”
My fists clenched. “For your information, Anthony and I are breaking up.”
A tense moment of silence passed before my mother spoke. “About time. Now you can marry a good man.”
“Anthony is a good man, Mama.” That was a lie, but I wouldn’t give her the satisfaction.
“He can’t take care of you, Ema. He can hardly afford to help you pay the rent.”
He didn’t help pay the rent at all, but that was beside the point. “I don’t care about money, Mama. I care about love.”
“Yesterday, Laura told me her daughter got engaged to a bioengineer, and Martha’s daughter just had a baby. Why can’t you give me a grandchild?”
My jaw dropped. “You want me to get pregnant so you can brag to your friends?”
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