Chapter no 4 – Last Summer

Hell Bent

She would have stayed in New Haven for the summer. If not for Eitan.

Alex told her mother she’d gotten a job on campus, and that was enough for Mira. She thought Los Angeles was temptation for Alex, that she’d step off a plane and fall back into her old life with her old friends.

There was no chance of that, but They’re all dead, Mama wasn’t going to put Mira’s mind at ease, and the truth was that Alex didn’t want to go home. She didn’t want to sleep in her old bedroom with the sounds of the 101 like an angry ocean in the distance. She didn’t want to hear about her mother’s latest obsession—gemstone massage, aura cleansing, essential oils, an endless hunt for easy miracles. Leaving Yale felt perilous, a little too much like a fairy tale, a cruel one where once she left the enchanted castle, she’d have no way back.

She thought she’d spend the summer with Dawes and Michelle Alameddine, hatching a plan to rescue Darlington. But Dawes had to nanny for her sister in Westport, and Michelle had been difficult to reach, so Alex was mostly left alone at Il Bastone. She’d wondered if the house would reject her after all the bloodshed of the previous semester, the stained glass window that would never be quite as perfect as it had been, the floor still stained with Blake Keely’s blood and now hidden by a new carpet. What if she showed up at the front door and the knob simply wouldn’t turn for her?

But on that spring day, when Alex stowed their common room furniture in the basement of Jonathan Edwards, and said goodbye to Mercy and Lauren, Il Bastone’s doorknob had rattled happily beneath her hand, the door springing open like a pair of welcoming arms.

She really had meant to find a job for the summer, but business around campus had slowed too much. So eventually, she just stopped looking. She had a small summer stipend from Lethe, and she spent it on junk food, frozen egg rolls, and pigs-in-a-blanket she could heat up in the toaster oven. She hadn’t even asked if she could stay at Il Bastone. She just did. Who else had bled for this place?

Alex spent her days examining the course catalogue and talking to Mercy. They’d pieced together as much of Alex’s schedule as possible so that she could get ahead on the reading. She read paperbacks too, one after the next like she was chain-smoking—romance, science fiction, old pulp fantasy. All she wanted to do was sit, unbothered in a circle of lamplight, and live someone else’s life. But every evening was spent in the library. She’d write down Dawes’s suggestions in the Albemarle Book or come up with some of her own, then wait to see what the library would provide. One book had a spine of actual vertebrae, another released a cloud of soft mist every time she opened it, and another was so hot to the touch she’d had to scrounge around in the kitchen and return with oven mitts.

Only the armory was climate-controlled, to protect the artifacts, so when the weather got too hot, she took a heap of blankets and pillows from the Dante bedroom, and made a nest for herself at the bottom of Hiram’s Crucible. Darlington would have been scandalized, but the air-conditioning was worth it. Sometimes when she slept there, she dreamed of a mountaintop covered in green. She’d been there before, knew her way up staircases and through tight passages that smelled of damp stone. There was a room with three windows and a round basin in which to watch the stars. She saw her own face reflected in the water. But when she woke, she knew she’d never been to Peru, only seen it in books.

Alex was lying on her side on one of the velvet sofas in the parlor of Il Bastone, reading a beat-up copy of The Illustrated Man she’d found at the Young Men’s Institute library, when her phone rang. She didn’t recognize the number, so she hadn’t bothered to answer. She’d purged all of her old contacts when she’d left Los Angeles. But the second time the phone rang, she picked up.

She recognized Eitan’s voice instantly, that heavy accent. “Alex Stern.

We need to have conversation. You understand?”

“No,” she said, her heart jackrabbiting in her chest. It had rained that day, and she’d pushed open all the curtains so she could watch the storm, bright gasps of lightning crackling across the gray sky. She sat up, marking her place in her book with a receipt. She had the uneasy sensation she’d never get to finish this particular story.

“I don’t want to discuss on the phone. You come see me at the house.”

He thought she was in LA. That’s good, Alex told herself. He didn’t know he couldn’t get hands on her easily. But why was he calling? Eitan had been Len’s supplier, an Israeli gangster who operated out of a sleek mansion that floated on an Encino hilltop above the 405. She’d thought he had long since forgotten about her.

“I’m not going up to Mulholland,” she said. “I don’t have a car.” Even if she had been in LA, there was no way she was driving into the hills to Eitan’s house just so he could put a bullet in her brain with no one there to watch.

“Your mother has car. Old Jetta. Not reliable.” Of course Eitan knew where to find her mom. Men like Eitan knew all about where to look for leverage. “Shlomo watches your house for so long, but only your mama comes and goes. Never you. Where are you, Alex?”

“Right now?” Alex looked around the parlor, at the dusty rugs, the summer light turned soft by the rain-spattered windowpanes. She heard the ice maker rumble from the fridge in the kitchen. Later she’d go make a sandwich with the bread and lunch meat Dawes had ordered when she discovered how much of Alex’s diet consisted of chicken fingers, and that arrived every week as if by magic. “Crashing with friends in Topanga Canyon. I’ll come this weekend.”

“Not Saturday. Come tomorrow. Friday before five.”

Eitan kept kosher and kept the Sabbath holy. Killing and extortion were for the other six days of the week.

“I’ve got work,” she said. “I can come Sunday.” “Good girl.”

She hung up and clutched the phone to her chest, staring up at the coffered ceiling. The lights flickered, and she knew the house was picking up her fear. She reached down and pressed her palm against the polished floorboards. The night Alex had almost bled to death in the hallway above, Il Bastone had been wounded too, one of its lovely windows smashed, its carpets ruined with blood. Alex had helped to clean it all up. She’d hovered beside the man Dawes had hired to restore the window. She’d steamed and scrubbed the blood from the floors and the carpets in the hallway. Her blood, Dean Sandow’s, Blake Keely’s. Both of them dead but not Alex. Alex had survived, and so had Il Bastone.

She couldn’t tell if the vibration through the floor was real or imagined, but she felt calmer for it. This had been her safe place as the campus emptied—warded, dark, and cool. She ventured out only occasionally, went for walks up the hill and out to the covered bridge by the Eli Whitney Museum, its red barn spanning the river like something out of a painting Mercy would laugh at. She took her new bike down to Edgerton Park, rode through the flower beds and looked at the old gatehouse, and every other morning, she rode all the way to Black Elm, fed Cosmo, wandered the overgrown hedge maze. But always she returned to the house on Orange, to Il Bastone. She’d thought she would feel lonely here, without Dawes or Darlington, but instead she’d sipped sodas straight from the old-fashioned icebox, napped in the fancy bedroom with its moon-and-sun stained glass, snooped around the armory. The house always had something new to show her.

Alex didn’t want to leave. She didn’t want to go back to her mother’s

miserable apartment in Van Nuys. And she didn’t want to talk to Eitan. Did he have unfinished business with Len that had been put on hold for a year? Or did he somehow know what Alex had done? Had he connected her to his cousin’s death?

It didn’t much matter. She had to go. She toggled through the numbers on her phone and found Michael Anselm. He was the Lethe board member who had stepped into the authority-shaped hole left by Dean Sandow. He’d graduated fifteen years before, and Alex and Dawes had looked up his Lethe Days Diary but found it particularly boring. Names and dates of

rituals and little else. That was how he seemed on the phone too. Dry, dull, eager to get back to his job in finance or banking or whatever passed for printing money. But he’d gotten Alex a bike and a laptop, so she wasn’t going to complain.

Anselm picked up on the second ring. “Alex?” He sounded worried and she couldn’t blame him. She might very well be calling to tell him that the law school library had caught fire or an undead army was amassing in Commons. She didn’t know much about Anselm but she pictured him wearing striped ties and going home to a yellow Lab, two kids involved with Habitat for Humanity, and a wife who stayed in shape.

“Hi, Michael, sorry to bother you in the middle of the day—” “Is everything okay?”

“Everything is fine. But I need to go home for the weekend. To see my mom.”

“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that,” he said, as if she’d told him her mother was ill. Which Alex had been perfectly prepared to do.

“Can you, I mean, can Lethe help me out with the fare?” Alex knew she was supposed to be embarrassed, but since nearly dying in this house, she hadn’t hesitated to ask Lethe for anything and everything she might need. They owed her, and Dawes, and Darlington. Dawes wasn’t asking and Darlington sure as hell wasn’t going to collect, so it was up to Alex to clear the ledger.

“Of course!” Michael said. “Whatever you need. I’ll put you on with my assistant.”

And that was that. Anselm’s assistant arranged for a car to the airport and the return flight. Alex wondered if she would be on it or if she would die at the top of Mulholland Drive. She packed underwear and a toothbrush in her backpack, and made a stop in the armory, but then realized she had no idea what to bring with her. She felt like she was walking into a trap, but Lethe didn’t traffic in the kinds of objects that could stop men like Eitan. At least not anything she could bring on a plane.

“I’ll be back,” she murmured to the house as the front door locked behind her. She paused to listen to the soft whining of the jackals beneath the porch and she hoped it was true.

Alex had made good on that promise. She’d even finished that Ray Bradbury paperback. She just hadn’t known she would return with fresh blood on her hands.

The Coat of Many Foxes

Provenance: Goslar, Germany; 15th century Donor: Scroll and Key, 1993

Believed to be the work of Alaric Förstner, who was subsequently burned at the stake for his decimation of the local fox population. The coat changed hands multiple times, and there are records that indicate it belonged to an Oxford don around the same time that C. S. Lewis was teaching there, but this has never been fully substantiated. There is speculation that at one time, hanging the coat in a closet, armoire, or wardrobe would create a portal, but whatever magic the coat may or may not have possessed is long gone. Yet another example of the instability of portal magic. See Tayyaara for a rare exception.

—from the Lethe Armory Catalogue as revised and edited by

Pamela Dawes, Oculus

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