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There was someone standing at the end of the alley behind the city morgue. It was a man. He wasn't moving. The darkness shadowed his features, but Iris could see that he had long, dark hair. He stood squarely between the two buildings at the point where the alley opened onto the street. The streetlight framed his outline.
The moon was nearly full, so it was easy to see in the narrow alley, even without streetlights. Iris Tanner, a small blonde, dressed in layers of sparkly rags, had just poked her head out of the open window of the city morgue, peering cautiously outside. No movement caught her eye. Crates and trash were scattered over the asphalt, but no rats scuttled through them. Nothing moved. The brick walls reached towards the night sky, blocking even the breeze. The alley was motionless, but there was someone standing at the opening to the street.
Sneaking in and out of the morgue was old hat for Iris. She did it once a week, wriggling through a window in the alley that had a faulty latch. This week, as usual, she'd used her time inside to cut up corpses and stuff the gory pieces into plastic sandwich bags, which she kept in her satchel.
Iris panicked, but she didn't move. She'd been doing this for nearly a year, and she'd never been spotted before. Her pulse raced. She fought the urge to yank her head back inside the window. If she moved too quickly, he might see her. And maybe he didn't know she was there. Maybe he was just a guy standing in the alley, staring straight at her, but not seeing her. No. No, he was looking at her. He could see her. Damn it.
Alarmed, she tried to reassure herself. He was probably just a homeless guy, wandering through the streets, and they'd just happened to see each other. Still. It didn't hurt to be cautious. Iris concentrated on making the man want to walk away. She felt power burst out of her and hit the man. He absorbed the magic, but it didn't phase him. He didn't walk away.
Now Iris could hardly breathe from fear. She shot a glance over her shoulder. The alley dead-ended. She was trapped. She turned back to look at the shadowed figure, who still hadn't moved. Her magic should have worked. It always worked. Unless he wasn't really a man, just something that looked like one. A black pixie? That wasn't a worry. If he were, he wouldn't much like the taste of her.
What was she going to do? She'd been seen, crawling out of the window of the City Morgue, with her satchel full of dead flesh. The man would be able to figure out what she was. He would know. And he might tell someone. The pixie police. The media. Anyone. Iris wished she could just crawl back into the window and start all over again. Her breath was coming in gasps, and she felt trapped and terrified.
Abruptly, the man turned and walked.
The message was clear. He'd gone because he wanted to, not because Iris had tried to make him.
Still, she slumped against the side of the building in relief. He was gone, and that was what was important. She let herself take a few minutes to calm her breathing, staring up at the swelling moon. Then she wriggled and squeezed the rest of the way out the window and took off down the alley to the street. She ran all the way back to the subway station. This time of night the station was nearly empty, except for a few bums sleeping on the stairs. One was awake, and he wordlessly lifted his Styrofoam cup up to her. She made him see a few coins drop into it and then hurried on. The illusion wouldn't last once she was gone.
The train car she caught was mercifully empty. She sat down, stared through the window at the walls of the tunnel rushing past her. Relaxing, she tried to reassure herself about the evening's events. The man couldn't have known what she was doing there. He couldn't have understood. Except now he might, considering he was resistant to her magic. But if he could resist, he wasn't a worry. He'd be hiding from the pixie police too. Humans couldn't resist the magic. Some of them could recognize it, but they couldn't resist it. If he were with the police, she'd be dead. He'd have shot her. Technically, the police were supposed to wait for a court order before execution, but that didn't mean they always did.
Was she getting sloppy? Always going to the same place? Maybe she had enough to lay low for a while. Maybe—
The subway stopped, and a man in his twenties got on. He sported a leather jacket with zippers all over it and a green Mohawk. He looked at her, and Iris made him think he hadn't seen anything. A puzzled look crossed his eyes, and then he sat down. The train began to move again. He could smell what was in her satchel. Iris could tell by the face he made. It didn't smell good to her either. It was too freshly dead. She wanted to ignore him, slip on her headphones, and listen to the mix tape she'd made. But while her illusions could alter sight, they couldn't affect the other four senses. Mr. Mohawk might assume that the train car had a lingering smell, but the muffled sound of music might make him suspicious. Why had she made herself invisible anyway? She was just another passenger. There was nothing suspicious about her. She guessed she was just jumpy.
After three stops, the guy got off. She put on her headphones, cranked the volume, and closed her eyes. Guitars wailed. She lost herself in the music. When the train reached its furthermost point, she got off and began trudging toward home. It was a good mile-and-a-half walk, but she couldn't afford a car these days. Walking was good for her anyway. It was summer; the night air was warm. She walked past clubs—the music pulsing inside, vibrating the air—and bars—light and conversations spilling out of their open doors. Everything else was closed up tight. Windows were dark except for security lights in clothing shops and hardware stores.
She slipped into one of the bars. Bought a pack of cigarettes from a vending machine. Thought about having a drink, but decided against it. She was tired, and alcohol made her feel sorry for herself. A few drinks and she'd be pouring out her own personal sob story to some clean shaven boy with short hair in the front and long hair in the back. Some boy who worked in the city and did a line of coke to wake up for his morning commute.
Maybe he'd be impressed. "That's your voice? On 'Livin' in Sin?' Sing it for me." Maybe he'd even ask her back to his place. But inevitably, the question would come up.
"Why'd they kick you out of the band?"
She'd tried lies. Tons of them. "Drugs."
"So you're clean now?" Translation: "So you're boring now?"
Sometimes she said something vague like, "Creative differences."
"So why aren't you working on something on your own then?"
And there was no answer for that.
If she got really drunk, she was afraid she might tell the truth. That would never produce any good results. Pretty boy would inevitably lose her fast, and she'd spend weeks waiting for the pixie police to knock down her door, or for the story to show up in the tabloids: "The Secret Past of Rock Band Satin Blades" or something. So far, she was safe. But getting a drink would be testing fate. So she went back outside and lit one of her cigarettes. The first drag stung the back of her throat, but the smoke filled her lungs sweetly. For a few minutes, she just stood there, sucking long, slow drags from her cigarette. Then she took off again.
Her apartment was upstairs in a townhouse that had been cut up into smaller apartments. A rickety outdoor metal staircase led to her door. It had been painted black, but the paint was curling off now, leaving patches of metal, which glinted dully in the streetlights. She took the stairs two at a time, feeling in her pocket for her house keys. Not there. She reached into her satchel and searched through the squishy plastic bags until she felt the hard coldness of them.
She fitted the key to her lock and turned it.
Her door was already unlocked. As it creaked open, Iris felt the panic she'd felt at the morgue return with acute fierceness. Her door should not be unlocked. She distinctly remembered locking it when she'd left earlier that night. God. Could the man know where she lived? Was he inside now, waiting for her? What was he going to—
"Iris, you're back," said a voice as she entered.
Scott was sitting at the kitchen table in the dark.
God. Scott. After all of that, it was Scott. She didn't know if she could handle any more scares tonight. She wanted to strangle him, but at the same time, she was just so happy it was only him.
The apartment wasn't much. It was three rooms. A kitchen/dining room, a living room/bedroom, and a bathroom, all woefully small. But it was furnished. And it was cheap.
"You broke in, but couldn't figure out the light switch?" she asked, flicking it on.
"I didn't want to freak you out. You know, if the lights were on when you came home."
She shrugged, setting her satchel on the table and sitting down with him. "I've got nothing worth stealing."
He nodded at the satchel. "That what I think it is?"
"It's fresh," she said.
"Could I have one?"
"I thought you were getting stuff from the Choices Clinic in town." It was easier to say stuff than it was to say bodies. Scott was always at her like this, begging for food. He was going to have to learn to fend for himself sometime. Especially considering that Iris wasn't exactly sure if it was safe to be around her anymore. Not after seeing that man tonight . . .
"I was. I am. It's been a slow week."
She sighed. "Fine." She was feeling magnanimous tonight.
He dove for the satchel.
"Not one of those," she said. "That would be a waste." She picked up her satchel and went to her pantry, which was lined with small sandwich bags. After emptying the satchel into the pantry, she selected two of the other bags and went back to the table. She handed one to Scott and opened the other. The smell of rotted flesh flooded her senses.
She reached into the bag, pulled out a piece of its contents, and shoved it into her mouth. Damn, she'd been hungry.
"God," said Scott between mouthfuls, "thank you! Thank you so much. I thought I was going to—thank you."
Iris didn't answer. She just ate. When she was finished, she turned the bag inside out to lick it clean. She sat back and enjoyed a feeling of satisfaction. It had tasted so good. She'd been waiting all night for it, and it had been worth it. She licked at her lips. Then she looked down at her fingers, bits of flesh clinging to them. A wave of revulsion hit her. She lived like this. She ate rotted flesh. Hell, she craved rotted flesh. Just a year ago, her future had seemed so bright. And now . . .
Disgusted, she got up, threw the baggy away, and washed her hands in the sink.
"I don't mean to lecture you," she said to Scott, "but I can't keep doing your dirty work. This is it, Scott. I'm not doing this anymore. Next time, go to the graveyard."
Scott made a face. "The embalming fluid gives me heartburn."
She rolled her eyes.
"And last time, I could swear the night watchman saw me. Even through the illusion I threw up. It's too dangerous."
"Well, that's your problem, isn't it? God knows I have enough of my own."
"Your royalty checks?"
"No, that's fine now," she said. She sat back down at the table. "A man saw me in the city tonight. He resisted my magic. I'm not sure if I should even go back to the city morgue."
"Shit. That sucks. Do you think he was a pixie?"
"I don't know."
"Did he know what you were doing?"
"How could he? It's probably nothing. He was probably someone—something—walking along who happened to notice me. But it gave me the creeps. I even hid myself from some punk kid on the train." Iris tried to make herself believe what she'd said. It was nothing. It really was nothing.
"I won't bother you anymore," said Scott. "I'm sorry."
"Thanks," Iris said. She paused. "Look, Scott, if it gets bad. The hunger? You know, I'd rather you come to me than . . ."
He nodded. "Thank you."
Psychotic ghouls were bad for the whole community. Anything that high profile attracted too much attention.
Scott got up. "Thanks again for dinner," he said. He disappeared out the door.
Iris picked up his bag and threw it away. The smell of it made her want another one. A sandwich bag worth of dead flesh wasn't much of a meal. But she had to hold off. If she only ate one a day, she could probably make her current stash last for three weeks. That was plenty of time to find another food source. She hoped.
It wasn't as simple as just finding a place where there was human flesh no one would miss. The ghoul community wasn't actually much of a community. For the most part, ghouls tried to stay out of each other's way. But they did that for the sake of their existence. Keeping their distance was safer. Numbers attracted attention, and attention attracted the pixie police, so there definitely wasn't safety in them. For that reason, ghouls tried to spread their food scavenging as wide as possible. Out of respect for the "community," Iris couldn't go just anywhere. She was the only ghoul that she knew of that raided the city morgue. There were already two raiding the hospitals in the suburb where she lived—she couldn’t go there. She might be able to snag some organ transplants at a hospital a few towns over, if she could figure out a way to make the commute. She couldn't take the subway, because it didn't reach this far outside the city. But even if she could, the smaller the area, the more likely detection was, and she'd never survive a full-on ghoul hunt.
Maybe if she just waited, it would be safe to go back to the morgue. The man she'd seen had probably been a pixie or a black pixie, and they didn't care about ghouls. It was just safer to be cautious. A year ago, when she'd first become a ghoul, another ghoul named Traci had taken Iris under her wing. In a pinch, just once, Traci had gotten some food from a funeral home. She'd been desperate, because if a ghoul didn't eat, the hunger became unbearable. As repugnant as eating rotted human flesh was, few ghouls ever held out, because their hunger was too great. If they managed to keep from eating for long enough, the hunger drove them mad. Their brains came unhinged, and they'd eat whatever dead person they could come across, no matter where they were, or who could see them. Traci hadn't wanted that for herself. She'd known she'd needed to feed, and so she had.
Family members didn't take well to a munched-on corpse at a viewing. Traci had been hunted down and killed by the pixie police. Three bullets to the head, four to the heart, seven in the stomach, and five others in various places. Iris didn't want to end up that way. She didn't have much of a life anymore, scavenging for food and hiding like a criminal, but what life she did have was hers. She was attached to it.
She went into her living room/bedroom. Her bed, a queen-sized mattress sitting directly on the floor, was against the far wall. It wasn't made. The tapestries she used for bed sheets spilled onto the hardwood floor. She had a small TV by the door, posters of bands on the walls, an acoustic guitar in one corner, and clusters of candles of all shapes and sizes on every available surface, including the floor. She started to light the candles. She liked the soft flickering light they cast. It made everything seem a little less real, and that's how she wanted to feel most of the time: like none of this was real. She let herself get lost in lighting the candles. There were so many. It was like a ritual, steps she had to take to let herself into the dream world.
When she was finished, she took her guitar out of its battered case and began to play. Without realizing it, her fingers slid naturally into the chords for "Livin' in Sin." She stopped playing. She didn't want to play that song anymore. It hurt too much. It used to be her song, but it wasn't anymore. It had been stolen from her. Sometimes she wondered if that wasn't all that had been stolen from her. She seemed to have lost her ability to write when she lost the band. She'd been working on a new song for a year. She hadn't gotten very far with it. Hell, she hadn't gotten anywhere with it.
Writing songs used to be so easy. She used to wake up with them playing in her head, banging on the inside of her skull, begging to be let out. Sometimes it was a set of lyrics; more often, it was a tune. Usually, the melody came first. Then came the excruciating—but terribly exciting—process of trying to find the chords that went with the melody. Sometimes she was sure it was in the key of G, but when she tried to work the melody into the key, the melody refused. She'd then try to work it into every key she knew—all the majors, even a few of the minors—and then discover it was in G after all, but that she needed to rearrange the chord progression. Once she had all that, the words seemed to sing themselves, emerging perfectly from the melody.
She even used to be able to force it. She could write a perfectly passable song without any burning inspiration. It wasn't the same, but she used to be able to do it. Before, the songs came to her. Now, nothing came. She searched for the songs, but they eluded her. She used to play guitar whenever she had a chance. Even if she wasn't writing anything new, she'd loved to play old songs, sing them different ways—raspy or breathy or belty. Lately, anything to do with music seemed almost like a chore. Iris didn't know if her ability to write songs would come back, but she kept trying. She played every day. She worked on her new song every day. Once, she thought she'd gotten it. She'd come up with something really good—until she heard her melody on the radio and realized she must have unwittingly stole it. Since then, all she seemed to be able to play was "Livin' in Sin," the hit single from the rock band Satin Blades. Her band. The song was good. It wasn't Mozart good. The chord progression was simple, and the lyrics weren't Shakespeare. But it was catchy and well put-together, and it was hers. Or at least it had been. Half the album even featured her vocals. The other half was Rosalyn Silver, her replacement, who, she had to admit, did a damned good Iris Tanner impression. Ros was a better singer than she was. But Ros couldn't play an instrument or write a song, and Iris had written all the songs.
Satin Blades' sophomore album would flop. Iris knew it. She hoped it and felt guilty. But it hurt too much to see how successful the band was. It hurt too much to see how successful she would have been. Iris' hands wanted to play the song, so Iris let them. She wouldn't sing it, though. She might not be able to control the fact she was itching to play it, but she could keep herself from singing it. Somewhere in the middle of the second chorus, she just stopped. She put the guitar back in its case. This was stupid. Maybe she just had to accept it. It was over. She didn't write songs anymore.
What was the point? She couldn't go anywhere with her music. A ghoul rock star? That would attract the pixie police in a heartbeat. She'd had dreams. She'd come within a breath of realizing them, and they'd been yanked permanently out of her reach. Maybe all she was doing was torturing herself. She lay back on the floor. Stared at the candlelight dancing and flickering on the ceiling. Maybe she needed new dreams. She laughed out loud. Dreams? What kinds of dreams did a ghoul have? "I dream of someday having fields of dead people to feast on. Fields."
She smiled grimly at the ceiling.
It was late. She should sleep.
God. She was hungry.
She dug out the cigarettes she'd bought earlier and lit one. Cigarettes used to dull hunger when she was human. They didn't so much anymore—magical hunger was different than physical hunger—but it gave her something to do with her mouth. And the cigarette did taste good. She picked up an ashtray and began to walk around her small apartment, smoking and flicking ash furiously. Maybe she should go have a drink. She ducked into her bedroom and checked the glowing red numbers on her alarm clock. The bars were closed by now. There were bars in the city that were still open . . .
What was she thinking? She couldn't go back to the city. She collapsed into a chair at the kitchen table. She smoked.
She was hungry.
She went back into her bedroom, lit another cigarette, and turned on the TV. She flicked through the few channels she got about three times. They were all infomercials. She couldn't afford cable. Her income was comprised mostly from royalty checks from the Satin Blades albums. The rest she made playing at a few local pubs and cleaning houses. She should have taken business courses in high school. She could have been a secretary. She switched off the TV. Put on a tape. The first crashes of drum filled the space of her apartment. Quiet Riot. "Cum on Feel the Noise." She cranked it. Iris felt destructive. In a frenzy, she went back to the kitchen, grabbed two baggies and began cramming bits of flesh into her mouth. She was finished with both of bags before the song ended. Then she felt guilty. That food was supposed to last her for weeks.
But her hunger was sated, and she felt sleepy. She turned off the music, turned off the lights, blew out her candles, took off her clothes, lay down, gathered her tattered covers around her naked body, and thought, "Tomorrow. Tomorrow, I'll wake up with an idea for a song."
Outside, Billy Jordan watched the lights blink off inside the upstairs apartment. He'd been standing outside for hours, trying to work up the nerve to go up and knock on her door. He hadn't made it further than the second step. Now he guessed he was too late.
Besides, maybe he was wrong. Maybe she wasn't Iris Tanner. He'd only seen her far away on stage. The last time had been right after Satin Blades had gotten signed. He still remembered thinking she was beautiful. Long, thick, crazy blonde hair falling in her face, obscuring her delicate features. It was like she was trying to hide behind all that hair. Maybe she was trying to hide in all those layers of clothing and jewelry too. It made her all the more alluring. Especially because there was nothing about that voice that could hide. She didn't have a beautiful voice, but it was strong and clear and full of feeling. Listening to her sing, he'd felt as if he knew her. If it was Iris, what was she doing here? He'd always thought it was strange when the first Satin Blades album came out and there was another girl's picture on the cover.
He would talk to Iris. He wanted to talk to her. But not tonight. He backed away from the apartment, pulling his dark hair into a ponytail at the nape of his neck. What could have happened to her? Why was she climbing out of the window of the City Morgue?