Kiss of Crimson (Chapter Three)

Tess came awake with a start.

Shit. How long had she been dozing? She was in her office, Shiva's case file open beneath her cheek on the desk. Last she recalled, she'd fed the malnourished tiger and put it back in its containment so she could begin writing up her findings. That was–she glanced at her watch–two and a half hours ago? It was now a few minutes before three A.M. She was due back in the clinic at seven o'clock.

Tess groaned around a big yawn and a stretch of her cramped arms.

Good thing she woke up before Nora reported back to work, or she'd never hear the end of–

A loud bump sounded from somewhere in the back of the clinic.

What the hell?

Had she been jolted out of her sleep by a similar noise a minute ago?

Oh, jeez. Of course. Ben must have driven past and seen the lights on in the clinic. It wouldn't be the first time he'd come around on a late-night drive-by to check in on her. She really didn't feel like getting a lecture on her crazy hours or her stubborn streak of independence.

The noise came again, another clumsy bump, followed by an abrupt clatter of metal as something got knocked off a shelf.

Which meant someone was in the back storage room.

Tess rose from her desk and took a few tentative steps toward her office door, ears tuned to any disturbance at all. In the kennels off the reception area, the handful of post-op cats and dogs were restless. Some of them were whining; others were issuing low warning growls.

"Hello?" Tess called into the empty space. "Is someone here? Ben, is that you? Nora?"

Nobody answered. And now the noises she'd heard before had gone still as well.

Great. She'd just announced her presence to an intruder. Brilliant, Culver. Absolutely frigging brilliant.

She tried to console herself with some fast logic. Maybe it was just a homeless person looking for shelter who'd found his or her way into the clinic from the back alley. Not an intruder. Nothing dangerous at all.

Yeah? So why were the hairs on the back of her neck tingling with dread?

Tess shoved her hands into the pockets of her lab coat, feeling suddenly very vulnerable. She felt her ballpoint pen knock against her fingers. Something else was in there as well.

Oh, that's right. The tranq syringe, full of enough anesthetic to knock a four-hundred-pound animal out cold.

"Is someone back there?" she asked, trying to keep her voice firm and steady. She paused at the reception station and reached for the phone. The damn thing wasn't cordless–she'd gotten it cheap on closeout–and the receiver barely reached to her ear from over the counter. Tess went around the big U-shaped desk, glancing nervously over her shoulder as she started punching 911 on the keypad. "You' d better get out of here right now, because I'm calling the cops."

"No… please… don't be afraid… "

The deep voice was so quiet, it shouldn't have reached her ears, but it did. She heard it as surely as if the words had been whispered right up next to her head. Inside her head, strange as that seemed.

There was a dry croak and a violent, racking cough, definitely coming from the storage room. And whomever the voice belonged to sounded like he was in a world of hurt. Life and death kind of hurt.

"Damn it."

Tess held her breath and hung up the phone before her call connected. She walked slowly toward the back of the clinic, uncertain what she was going to find and really wishing she didn't have to look at all.

"Hello? What are you doing in here? Are you hurt?"

She spoke to the intruder as she pushed open the door and stepped inside. She heard labored breathing, smelled smoke and the briny stench of the river. She smelled blood too. Lots of it.

Tess flicked the light on.

Harsh fluorescent tubes buzzed to life overhead, illuminating the incredible bulk of a drenched, badly injured man slumped on the floor near one of the supply shelves. He was dressed all in black, like some kind of goth nightmare–black leather jacket, tee-shirt, fatigues, and lace-up combat boots. Even his hair was black, the wet strands plastered to his head, shielding his downturned face from view. An ugly smudge of blood and river water traveled from the back door, partially opened onto the alley, to where the man lay in Tess's storeroom. He had evidently dragged himself inside, maybe unable to walk. If she hadn't been so accustomed to seeing the grisly aftermath of car accidents, beatings, and other bodily trauma in her animal patients, the sight of this man's injuries might have turned Tess's stomach inside out.

Instead, her mind switched from alarm and the instinctual fight-or-flight mode she'd been feeling out in the reception area to that of the physician she was trained to be. Clinical, calm, and concerned.

"What happened to you?"

The man grunted, gave a vague shake of his dark head like he wasn't going to tell her anything about it. Perhaps he couldn't.

"You're covered in burns and wounds. My God, there must be hundreds of them. Were you in some kind of accident?" She glanced down to where one of his hands was resting on his abdomen. Blood was seeping through his fingers from a fresh, deep puncture. "Your gut is bleeding–and your leg too. Jesus, have you been shot?"

"Need… blood."

He was probably right about that. The floor beneath him was slick, and dark from what he'd lost just since his arrival at the clinic. He'd likely lost a good deal more before he got there. Nearly every patch of his exposed skin bore multiple lacerations–his face and neck, his hands, everywhere Tess looked, she saw bleeding cuts and contusions. His cheeks and mouth were pale white, ghostly.

"You need an ambulance," she told him, not wanting to upset him, but, damn, the guy was in bad shape. "Just relax now. I'm going to go call 911 for you."

"No!" He lurched from his slump on the floor, thrusting his hand out to her in alarm. "No hospitals! Can't… can't go there… They won't… can't help me."

Despite his protest, Tess started to run for the phone in the other room. But then she remembered the stolen tiger hanging out in one of her exam rooms. Hard to explain that to the EMTs or, God forbid, the police. The gun shop had probably already called in the theft of the animal, or would by the time the store opened that morning, just a few short hours away.

"Please," gasped the huge man bleeding all over her clinic. "No doctors."

Tess paused, regarding him in silence. He needed help in a big way, and he needed it now. Unfortunately, she looked like his best chance at the moment. She wasn't sure what she could do for him here, but maybe she could patch him up temporarily, get him on his feet, and get him the hell out of there.

"Okay," she said. "No ambulances for now. Listen, I'm, uh–I'm actually a doctor. Well, more or less. This is my veterinary clinic. Would it be all right if I come a little closer and have a look at you?"

She took the quirk of his mouth and ragged exhaled sigh as a yes.

Tess inched down beside him on the floor. He had seemed big from across the room, but crouched next to him, she realized that he was immense, easily six and a half feet and two hundred fifty-plus pounds of heavy bone and solid muscle. Was he some kind of bodybuilder? One of those macho meatheads who spent his life in the gym? Something about him didn't quite fit that mold. With the grim cut of his face, he looked like the kind of guy who could tear a gym rat to pieces with his teeth.

She moved her hands lightly over his face, feeling for trauma. His skull was intact, but her touch told her that he'd suffered a mild concussion in some fashion. Probably was still in a state of shock. "I'm just going to check your eyes," she informed him gently, then lifted one of his lids.

Holy shit.

The slitted pupil cutting through the center of a large, bright amber iris took her aback. She recoiled, freaked out by the unexpected presentation.

"What the–"

Then the explanation hit her, and she instantly felt like an idiot for losing her cool.

Costume contacts.

Chill out, she told herself. She was getting jumpy for no good reason. The guy must have been at a Halloween party that got out of hand or something. Not much she could tell from his eyes so long as he was wearing those ridiculous lenses.

Maybe he'd been partying with a rough crowd; he certainly looked big and dangerous enough to be part of some kind of gang. If he'd been rolling with gangbangers tonight, she didn't detect any evidence of drugs on him. She didn't smell alcohol on him either. Just some heavy-duty smoke, and not from cigarettes.

He smelled like he'd walked through fire. Just before he took a pe into the Mystic River.

"Can you move your arms or legs?" she asked him, moving on to inspect his limbs. "Do you think you have any broken bones?"

She skimmed her hands over his thick arms, feeling no obvious fractures. His legs were solid too, no real damage beyond the bullet wound in his left calf. From the look of it, the round appeared to have passed clean through. Same with the one that hit him in the torso. Luckily for him.

"I'd like to move you to one of my exam rooms. Do you think you can walk if I help hold you up?"

"Blood," he gasped, his voice thready. "Need it… now."

"Well, I'm sorry, but I can't help you there. You'll need a hospital for that. Right now, we have to get you off this floor and out of those ruined clothes. God knows what kind of bacteria you picked up in that water out there."

She put her hands under his armpits and started to lift, encouraging him to stand. He growled, something deep and animalistic. As the sound left his mouth, Tess caught a glimpse of his teeth behind his curled upper lip.

Whoa. That's weird.

Were those monstrous canines actually… fangs?

His eyes came open as if he had sensed her awareness. Her unease. Tess was instantly blasted by piercing bright amber light, the glowing irises sending a bolt of panic straight into her chest. Those sure as hell weren't contacts.

Good Lord. Something wasn't right with this guy at all.

He grabbed her upper arms. Tess cried out in alarm. She tried to pull out of his grasp, but he was too strong. Hands as unyielding as iron bands clamped tighter around her and brought her closer. Tess shrieked, wide-eyed, frozen in fear as he drew her right up against him.

"Oh, God. No!"

He turned his bloodied, battered face toward her throat. Sucked in a sharp breath as he neared her, his lips brushing her skin.

"Shhh." Warm air skated across her neck as he spoke in a low, pained rasp. "I won't… not going to… hurt you. I promise… "

Tess heard the words.

She almost believed them.

Until that split second of terror, when he parted his lips and sank his teeth deep into her flesh.