She was alone in her apartment, so she almost discounted the movement in her peripheral vision. An anomaly of tired eyes. A tiny blip, an eye mote. It had been a long day. But her gaze slid sideways, away from the book she was reading.
Michelle was suddenly afraid she was going through delirium tremens again when she actually focused on the hideous thing moving on the wall. But her eyes were open. The terrifying hallucinations that accompanied alcohol withdrawal had only happened when she closed her eyes to sleep.
This wasn’t an illusion, but she blinked a few times to make sure. It was a large beast, probably a lizard because it was long and thick. It had a tail. Lizards were ordinary in Hawaii.
On closer inspection she noted the thing was coal black. It had numerous ugly, hairy legs sticking out of its sides, which were moving it rapidly and in a disturbingly awkward manner sideways down the wall toward her bed. Toward her. The tail swished in opposition to myriad legs.
Michelle threw off the covers, and her book landed somewhere on the opposite side of the bed, as she made a panicked rush to the kitchen for insect spray.
She ran back to the bedroom doorway, holding the can in front of her for protection, skidded to a stop, and peeked around the corner into the bedroom. There it was. Creepy, ugly thing. Still climbing. The head was detached from the body on a stick-like neck and she shuddered.
Her heart was racing and she held her breath as she slowly tiptoed toward the wall where it was adhered on sticky toes. Finally, she raised the can and blasted it.
The black monster stopped with a jerk. The head swiveled toward her. It hissed, a definite zzzt sound. Then it seemed to hunch, and started a panicked scuttle across the wall, hopped around the corner and ran behind her bookcase. She followed it all the way, using the can like a machine gun. The bug fell on the floor and contorted a few times. She peered at it from between the book shelves, suddenly motionless.
She sat on the bed panting, glad it was out of sight for a minute. Never had she wanted a drink so badly.
The thing had actually made a sound. A threatening low buzzy sound. She would swear it looked directly at her with those creepy eyes. It was unbelievable.
When she finally got her heart and breathing calmed down she laughed shakily. Delirium tremens my ass. That thing was an arachnophobic’s nightmare. She couldn’t remember ever having seen such a large insect. Even in Hawaii, where giant bugs thrived in the tropical weather. Now she had to see the body again. Make sure it was really, permanently, dead.
She got a flashlight and beamed it on the floor behind the books. She searched tentatively at first and then obsessively, moving books and then rolling the whole bookcase away from the wall, but it was gone.
Picking up her cell from the bedside table, Michelle tapped the automatic dial.
It rang four times and Michelle almost hung up, then: “Shelly?”
“Did I wake you?”
“Ah, no, no.”
She definitely sounded sleepy, Michelle thought. Damn. “Something weird just happened. But if you’re asleep…”
“Do bugs make noises?”
“I think I just killed this enormous insect. But before that, he hissed at me. And I swear, he looked me right in the eyes. Like he had some kind of strange intelligence.”
“Have you been…”
“No, no. Not for more than a year.”
“Well, I know you haven’t. Sorry. It’s just that…I mean the bug’s dead? If not, I’ll get rid of it for you.”
“That’s the odd thing. I saw it dead on the floor. And now it’s disappeared. It was so big, I just can’t figure out how that happened.”
“About four inches, including the tail.”
Michelle heard Heather laughing. “It had a tail?”
Through the phone there was whispering. Male, sleepy whispering. Damn. Heather had someone over. Maybe she had interrupted something.
“Listen,” Michelle said, “We’ll talk in the morning. Go back to sleep.”
“I can come over,” Heather insisted. She lived right down the hallway in the same condominium. “I just finished peeing on a stick. So I’m awake.”
“How’d it go?”
“Another month and another definite No.”
“Like clockwork, every month.”
“Well, it’s a definite relief, if you know what I mean.”
“Sometimes I wish I did. But you do this every month. And you use birth control.”
“I don’t trust birth control.”
“Yeah, but I’m not scared of bugs.”
“This was one hell of a bug. I’ll see you in the morning.”
Michelle clicked off.
She retrieved her book and took a quilt and pillow into the living room to lie down on the couch. No way would she sleep in the bedroom with the black spider, or whatever it had been. She tried to recall types of exotic insects with tails and could only come up with scorpions. But they were brown. A horrible thought took hold; insects with tails usually had stingers. Like bees and wasps. Maybe it was a new species of deadly poisonous insect. Or a type of lethal amphibian.
She found herself getting angry that she could never drink anything alcoholic again. It didn’t seem fair that she could never again have the common calming effect of the colorless liquid. Vodka had been her ‘drug of choice.’ But she reminded herself that she couldn’t drink in a common way. No, she had to swig the stuff till she was blasted comatose.
One would never be enough for her. When it came to the juice she didn’t care about anything except the lovely feeling that sent her to blessed oblivion. Where she wished she were now.
One small sip and she could forget the ghastly bug and relax and go to sleep. Oh well, honestly, to forget that thing would take a whole bottle.
Michelle knew she was irrationally phobic and foolish to be repulsed by tiny and mostly innocuous insects, but the creepy, awkward, jerky way they moved and their alien multi-lensed eyes sent shivers down her spine. It was silly. She was almost six feet tall and she shouldn’t be scared of bugs. But it was a convenient reason to drink. Scared me to death. Couldn’t help it. Had to calm down somehow.
Michelle tried to think of the thing as pathetic. The way it had scuttled away from her. It was probably more scared than she was. After all, she had killed it. Hadn’t she? Or was it searching for her right now, to bite or sting? Creeping sneakily under the closed bedroom door, slithering down the hallway into the living room to get her. Growing more and more angry that she had almost asphyxiated it. A vengeful bug with murderous intent.
She giggled at her own morbid imagination. It was alive and ticking. Hopefully, the bug was dead.
She nestled her shoulders against the back of the couch and reached back, pulling off the tie that held her hair back. She needed its warmth around her neck tonight.
As she was drifting to sleep the blackness of the beast brought memories of the most handsome man she had ever seen. His eyes had been black.
There he was again. Michelle noticed him immediately the next morning as she walked out the front door of her condominium. It was man she had been thinking about as she fell asleep.
Michelle motioned to the valet stationed in front of her condominium that she needed her car. She glanced at the man again as she waited. He was across the street, standing in the light rain beside a small black car. She felt her heart do a little flop, then a lurch, like there was a fast extra beat. Even with the rain plastering his wavy black hair and dripping down his face, he was extraordinary. She tried to glance at him quickly, sideways, so he wouldn’t notice, and wondered what it would be like to be so gorgeous and a male. He must be used to being watched. Still, it would be disconcerting.
Beautiful is not a word commonly associated with men, but he had a vivid artistic face. One could imagine him a ballet dancer, a painter, or maybe a poet or musician with the wide forehead, thin nose and high cheekbones. His eyes were long and slanted, almost Oriental in his Occidental face, which made it unforgettable. The eyes were so large and dark they appeared luminous, and a little frightening.
The man turned away from his car and his eyes seemed to reach right through her, as if he were looking at her and beyond at the same time. She felt like moving forward, almost as if she were hypnotized. It was the rain making her shiver, she told herself harshly, not the sultry black eyes, which she tore her own away from. The notion was a little absurd that his attraction was pulling her toward him, against her own volition and even her own consciousness. She noticed she had moved forward a few minuscule steps.
Even more absurd was the fact that she thought he had been following her yesterday. She had been walking downtown, on her way to lunch, when she spotted him ahead of her, looking in the window of a clothing store. The man had such presence she stopped dead. There was a strange feeling that she knew him. Before she could search her memory, he was looking directly at her.
She had turned abruptly away, feeling foolish, afraid he had noticed her staring, but there was still that odd feeling that she remembered him. It was irrational, she told herself, because he really was unforgettable.
Later that same day she had seen him again, driving his car, a Porsche, right next to her in downtown Honolulu. Then later that evening he had suddenly been beside her as she went into the front door of her own condominium.
That’s what made her think he was following her. He was politely holding the heavy glass door and smiling. The ironical smile made her believe he had noticed her earlier that day on the street, gawking like a lovesick adolescent.
When she had glanced up into his eyes, she saw absolutely no color, only blackness. Or maybe his eyes were comprised entirely of pupils. She had felt the hairs on her arms rise suddenly. It was like looking into an empty abyss, or the night sky without stars. She thought she might sink into those eyes and cease to exist, as if he were some strange hypnotist who could compel her into unknown realms. It was a little terrifying and quite thrilling.
She put it down to the fact that she hadn’t had a relationship in years. She had smiled briefly at the attractive face looking down at her and murmured thanks for his help with the door. She thought fleetingly that maybe he was part Japanese or Chinese with those long slanted eyes, there were lots of racial mixes in Hawaii, but he was so tall one would not think so.
The security guard poised in front of the building didn’t stop him, so she had to believe that the gorgeous dark man was living in the same building.
And here he was again this morning. Looking at something beyond her.
The valet beeped to get her attention. Michelle felt like she was coming out of a trance as she tipped the valet and got in her car. She decided to forget the dark man. He must be hopelessly obnoxious and haughtily arrogant because he had inherited the DNA that makes male gorgeousness. He was probably self obsessive, narcissistic and a snooty jerk to boot. Probably held women in contempt when they fell all over him, slavering for attention.
Or possibly he was gay. Which would explain why he had seemed to look through her rather than at her. Absolute zero interest in the opposite gender. It made sense. Every man she had ever known who was totally gorgeous had also been gay.
She passed several of her office buildings on the way to work. There was a euphoric, proprietary feeling of pure luck that she had happened upon such a splendid job, Property Manager for Heroshi Corporation.
The feeling of happy serendipity about her wonderful position dissolved when she got to the office.
Susan, the office receptionist, handed her a bundle of yellow messages torn from her pad and said, “telephone book.” Their code for lots of complaints. She winked in sympathy.
“Good grief,” Michelle muttered as she took them and started sorting through the thick pile.
“Crying wolf?” Susan asked.
“No. These actually look pretty serious. Am I late or something?”
Susan shook her head. “They all came in in the last fifteen minutes.”
“Can you take my calls for a few minutes. I have to get started on these…” Michelle said, frowning down at the pile of messages.
“Shall I tell them you’re in a meeting?”
Michelle shook her head and smiled. “No. They’ll just think I’m trying to avoid them. Tell them I’m on the phone and I’ll get back as fast as I can.”
Michelle hurried to her office and began making calls.
The air-conditioning had mysteriously quit in the Lanai office building (an outrage in a tropical climate where all buildings were aggressively cooled to almost freezing) and she had ten furious messages from the tenants about their suffocating environment. Michelle sat at her desk and cursed the inanimate mechanical systems that went down for no apparent reason.
She started organizing the messages for each of the buildings she managed, calling repair crews and maintence men before she even started returning messages from irate tenants. A whole sewer system had backed up. A palm tree fell, breaking several windows in another building. That was odd because although their root systems were not deep, there hadn’t been any abnormal wind phenomena, and they seldom fell over. Sprinkler systems seemed to be off timer in another building and had flooded a garage. And the lights in another building were blinking, indicating a malfunctioning electrical system.
When an elevator in her own building quit there was nothing to panic about. Elevators and air conditioners were the bane of her existence. Mechanical failures happened all the time. But a woman trapped in the elevator did panic, and when she was finally freed she was unconscious, having fainted. The engineer who pried the elevator door open took one look and thought she was dead. Paramedics were called. Michelle spent an hour with the woman, apologizing on the management’s behalf, in the hope that Heroshi wouldn’t be sued.
A few minutes later there was an emergency call from another building. A lawyer had stripped all the wall paper off in his entire hallway. Michelle hurried to her car and drove over to the building on Kalakowa. Drywall plaster shards and sheets of wallpaper debris littered an entire hallway, causing ugly chaos and hazard to anyone walking through.
Tenants in the hallway besieged her, outraged by the mess. The lawyer who had caused the mess, sauntered over languidly and said the decorators she had arranged to renovate the building were too slow. He wanted compensation for his own wallpaper, a hideous orange with brown flecks, which would clash terribly with the interior design of the entire remodeling. Michelle clenched her teeth. The lawyer made her feel like squeaking obscenities and running away. Instead, she smiled at the shyster and spent a half hour trying to rectify the situation, pointing out that the hallway was a building ‘common area’ and he had no right to change it. Of course he had to know that, as a lawyer. What was his problem? she wondered. Temporary insanity?
Later, back in her own office, Julio, her maintance manager ran into her office. He was soaked, dripping water from his hair and all his clothing.
“My God, what happened,” Michelle asked, startled to see him dripping all over the carpet.
“Broken water main. You come.”
Michelle trotted after him to the elevator and they watched the flashing floor numbers until they reached the 22nd floor. She just had time to pull off her shoes as water gushed inside when the doors parted. They waded in. The burst water main came from the Men’s Room. It had rapidly turned into a flood that ran like a tidal wave down the hall of offices, ruining the carpeting in the hallway and several offices on that floor.
As they hurried toward the Men’s Room, there was a sudden piercing, undulating shrieking sound.
They both stopped. “That’s the fire alarm,” Julio shouted over the noisy assault.
“Damn,” Michelle said, after a moment. She realized the water had proceeded down through the ceiling, and into the smoke alarms, setting them off. Tenants started sloshing past them to evacuate into the streets.
Several tenants greeted her, and Michelle had to tell them that since the fire alarm was sounding, they’d have to take the stairs. All the elevators automatically went to the ground floor level and locked when the fire alarms sounded. She yelled at them to be careful, to hold on to the railing. The metal stairs would be slippery if they were wet.
This was turning into a nightmare. She couldn’t tell the tenants not to evacuate until Julio was absolutely certain there wasn’t a fire somewhere in the building.
“Go shut off the main water valve,” Michelle told Julio.
“Gonna cause a stink. Toilets won’t flush, start backing up,” Julio warned as they went into the Men’s bathroom.
Michelle could see why Julio had been soaked earlier. The main water supply pipe for the entire building was situated underneath the sink, behind the wall. It had broken, torn a hole in the wall, and a geyser of water gushed out sideways. “Gotta do it. It’s causing too much damage to the whole building.”
“Hokay Boss,” Julio said. He flashed a smile and they both exited the bathroom. Michelle watched him run for the fire stairs, and yelled after him, “And turn off that fire alarm.”
The valve to shut off the building water supply was in the lower garage. It would be a while before Julio could get to it and stop the flood.
Michelle went into one of the deserted offices off the hallway and went across to a wall of windows. She looked out at the beautiful volcanic mountains in the distance. The sky was a wonderful blue with puff clouds scudding. Down in the street, the fire department, with blaring sirens, showed up in remarkably short order.
Michelle ears rang with the sudden silence when the fire alarm stopped ringing. She hurried over to the elevators, which were now working.
Before Michelle left the lobby to go outside and face all the employees of the highrise building, she noticed that she had a shoe in each hand as she reached for the front door. She scrubbed her wet feet on the carpet, put her shoes back on, took a deep breath and went outside.
She stood in front of the crowd, waving her arms and shouting above ill-tempered murmurs, to the tenants standing impatiently in the street, and to the firemen in their helmets and yellow fireproof suits, that the building had a major flood, not a fire.
There were days when she hated the job she loved.
On top of everything else, a contract arrived almost at the end of the day, with surreptitiously changed terms in the lease. It was sent directly to her boss for his signature. Luckily, he had her look it over before signing. The mysterious ‘mistakes’ would have cost her company, Heroshi, hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Knowing that the real estate agents were trying to pull some sneaky underhanded tricks, she called and politely informed them that there were typographical errors in the contract.
In cutthroat big business, everyone was polite.
The thing that scared Michelle was that her boss would sign anything she personally put in front of his nose. His trust was awesome and frightening. He would also fire her if she ever made a mistake.
It took until nine that night for her to personally change the terms of the leasing contract on her computer. There had been meetings with the accounting and construction departments of the large multi-national company she worked for. The owners of the conglomerate were Japanese. They had poured money into Hawaii, buying up commercial real estate at a fantastic rate. She had started with one small building and was now managing six, with no end in sight. If she didn’t goof up.
When she looked at her watch and saw it was ten p.m. she finally gave up and started cleaning her desk. The bi-yearly financial projections that were due at the home office in Tokyo tonight, Japan’s morning, would have to wait. She had been too busy to get her work done. She was also scared of making the corporate controller in Japan, Nakamura, angry. She decided to work on her computer at home and have the financial projections ready to fax by morning. If she had a job, she thought wearily.
Never, as a property management, had she ever had a day like today. It seemed like a strange scheme to bewitch all the buildings at the same time with multiple disasters. A conspiracy to wreck her job and ruin her career.
Before leaving the building, Michelle checked her pager and got a new battery from the guard stationed at the front of the building. She was on twenty-four hour call in case there were any emergencies.
* * *
She was opening her mailbox in the lobby of her condominium. She almost dropped her briefcase.
It was the gorgeous dark man.
“Long day?” He was moving toward her. “Perhaps you’d like to go out for a quick drink?”
He had on an actual cape. It reminded her of the old Dracula movies. As he went to his own mailbox she could see that he was older than she had originally supposed. His face was almost gaunt and he had fine wrinkles radiating from his eyes. The black hair was beautifully glazed with silver, almost as though it had been done in a salon for a movie part: Older vampire with perfect hair.
“Yes. I’d like to,” Michelle said without thinking and stopped abruptly. “I mean, no. I don’t drink. But I would like to go with you.”
Michelle stopped talking, deciding she was blathering like an idiot. But he looked so incredibly handsome, and the cape was so theatrical, she felt like she was momentarily living in a romance novel, where the handsome haughty male takes the breath away from the innocent simpering female and causes her heart to pitty-pat.
“You’re radiant when you smile,” he said in a matter of fact way, smiling at her. He had perfect white teeth.
Oh, great, Michelle thought. He talked like the hero in one of the historical novels she had been thinking about. Michelle decided not to comment about her dubious radiance, but there was no awkward pause.
“I just moved into the building,” he said. “Wanted to meet some of my neighbors.”
There had been intense gossip and speculation about the person who had bought out six tenants on the top floor and made it into one gigantic penthouse. It had a private elevator and a helicopter pad on the roof. It must be this man, Michelle thought. The only thing missing was the European accent. He would have been a dead ringer for some count from a previous century. Or an Italian prince, with his dark coloring.
His hand reached to shake hers, “My name is Omar.”
Michelle was thinking, perfect! with a kind of ironical glee. Omar was the perfect name for the man out of the Arabian nights, or the vampire. Then she glanced at his hand, as her own automatically reached out to grasp his. She felt herself pause unconsciously, then forced herself to take the hand. The fingers were so long they looked pathological. Spider fingers. And freezing at that.
“You seem to know mine already, but my friends call me Shelly,” she said. She tried not to wince. He had given her a tiny electrical shock, the kind you get by scuffing over carpet and then touching a doorknob.
They walked a few blocks to the Ilikai Hotel, and rode to the top floor in a glass elevator. As they went up, the bright lights of the Waikiki area widened, revealing a panorama of glistening waves on the beach lit up by a full moon.
Michelle had seen this sight often, so she studied Omar as he gazed at the beautiful view that even the rampant and greedy construction in this area could not destroy.
She guessed he was in his late thirties or early forties. Michelle didn’t mind at all. Older men were safer. In side view his profile showed the thin nose to be slightly hooked. He seemed to be quite powerful physically, with broad shoulders, and he was very tall. Michelle guessed he was about 6’5 or maybe even taller, and for that reason the cape didn’t seem silly, as it would have been on a smaller man. She thought he must have been to some formal occasion earlier. Capes were so unusual in Hawaii, with its tropical weather.
On the walk over Omar had asked her mainly about herself and Michelle had not learned much about him except that his condominium in her building was to be a summer place for him. He had the type of old world gentlemanly air drenched into the wealthy at a very young age. He opened doors, walked on the outside and took her arm at street corners. The mannerisms seemed ingrained, as though he had grown up in another age. Chivalry was not totally dead when you ran into older men sometimes. Michelle thought it was nice and felt safe. Except when she glanced into his eyes. They still seemed darkly strange.
When she looked at him she felt as if he knew exactly what she was thinking, and probably hiding an amused and bored smile, so she found herself a little embarrassed and talked too rapidly, about her job, the condominium that he had bought into, and even the evening weather, which was beautiful. The clouds of the daytime had blown away and the air was thick and moist and moved warmly with the tropical breeze. It made her feel like taking her hair out of its staid bun and shaking it free around her shoulders.
The bar was not crowded and the host seated them at a small table away from the dance floor. The band was on break and many people were leaving. Even so, the cocktail waitress didn’t seem to notice them. Finally Omar said he would go to the bar and get their order. Michelle told him she wanted a Bloody Mary without the vodka.
When Omar left the table Michelle reminded herself that she was a powerful executive in a large corporation with hundreds of people working for her. She hated herself when she got fearful as she found herself in his presence. But she was always uncomfortable with men. She wondered if she would ever get over it and have a normal relationship. She wondered if one horrible incident would flaw her personality forever and make it impossible for her to even have normal male friends. Many times, alone with a man on a date, she would find herself trembling uncontrollably. She would have to make an excuse that she was sick so the guy would take her home.
Omar returned, serving the drinks with a flourish that made Michelle smile. She pulled the celery out of her drink and started nibbling. Omar was making things easy, by talking himself. She learned that he traveled extensively and had just returned from France, where his permanent residence was located. He described where he lived and about his favorite walks through the city, the museums and art galleries, and the Opera, which he evidently frequented often, while Michelle memorized his unusual face.
Then she took a sip of her drink.
Immediately she knew it was alcoholic. She closed her eyes for a moment, loving the taste, the wonderful burn in her throat. It was not a ‘slip,’ imbibing in alcohol when you have been abstinent for some time and intend to resume the abstinence. She had not consciously drunk a beverage knowing it contained alcohol, and something dark and careless in her mind whispered, You didn’t mean to do it, so go ahead. Get out of your head and enjoy. Go on and have a ball!
Another part of Michelle was outraged. She jumped up so quickly that she bumped into the small table, knocking it over. Both drinks spilled into Omar’s lap.
In that moment, Michelle was not sorry the drinks splashed on his perfect suit. She had told him she did not drink, had made it absolutely clear in fact, and he had gone and got her a drink with vodka in it. It was outrageous and unbelievable.
“That drink has alcohol in it,” Michelle said angrily, trying to control herself, not yell in a public place. She turned on her heel and started to walk away.
Suddenly her wrist felt like it was in a vice, stopping her before she had taken a second step. Omar held her arm so tightly it was impossible to move. She didn’t want to struggle with him and felt herself starting to panic, as she always did with men. She was trembling, but stayed still. She had no choice.
“I thought I got exactly what you wanted,” Omar’s voice said caressingly.
And had he ever! But did he know it? She searched his face, oblivious to the people in the room who had turned to see what the commotion was about.
He was studying her, Michelle decided. His eyes were contemplating her reactions like they were feeding off her. She thought she saw triumph in the eyes. She thought she saw lust. And she thought she saw surprise.
“I’m sorry,” Omar murmured softly, eyelids now lowered, almost covering his eyes, hiding intent. “I’ll get a replacement. The bartender misunderstood. Please forgive me.” He looked so contrite Michelle decided her first impression had been wrong. He let go and her wrist felt numb.
Michelle suddenly felt guilty for ruining his suit and making a spectacle with a man so polite he probably viewed the whole scene as humiliating. He was being nice, had made a mistake, and she was acting like a child.
Two waitresses hurried over and a man at the next table was picking their table up. Omar started wiping his pants with tiny cocktail napkins.
“I’m sorry too,” Michelle said. “I get sick when I drink alcohol.”
As the drinks were replaced, Michelle thought that he couldn’t have known or understood what drinking had been to her; that simply saying that alcohol made her sick was a gigantic understatement. How she had passionately loved it and had also been its slave. She could blame it on that black time after she had been hurt, but Michelle knew better.
She remembered the debilitating hangovers, throwing up, the headaches and the trembling that she could not stop. She remembered the times when she would have done anything for a drink. Even drive drunk to get it. But the blackouts were the worse thing, having no recollection of what she had done or said; trying to piece together a time of total blankness, which she knew was brain damage. She had told herself fiercely that she had her reasons, but there was no reason good enough for being that self destructive.
Omar was patting her arm. “There’s no problem. A little dry cleaning…everything will be fine as new.”
He was letting her know that it didn’t matter that his suit was ruined. Each pat caused one of those funny electrical shocks.
End of chapter 1 ___________________________________________