Scott had called a taxi while she finished at the police station. He had the driver wait for him while he ran into a pharmacy to get her some supplies for her arms. Normally, she would have protested his paying for an outrageous taxi fee – and for calling the taxi in the first place – but she was too tired and confused to put up a fight. She took the plastic bag of gauze and antiseptic and whatever else he had deemed essential to first aid and agreed to let him drive her to work the next day. She watched from the stoop of her building as the taxi left. Scott waved from the backseat.
The climb to the third floor felt like a million steps, and she missed the lock on her first try. She finally got the key in and turned and pushed open the door, stumbling into the apartment and toward the blessed relief of her bed. Two steps into the room and she stopped short. Her eyes were wide in the semi-darkness. The door swung shut against her, lightly bumping her shoulder, and a scream of fear got strangled in her throat. Someone was inside with her.
The orange-hued light from the street glowed around the edges of the sheet she kept tacked over the front window and battled with the blue-white light of the security lamps at the railroad tracks visible out of her other window. A figure was caught in between. It sprawled across her couch and invisible except for the darker shadow it made against the cushions. Fear crawled up her spine and raked its fingers across her skull. Her breath caught in her throat and her brain was screaming, get out, but her legs wouldn’t move.
“Where have you been?”
Surprise hit the pause button on fear and Lena blinked. “Excuse me?”
The figure sat up and the gravelly voice continued, “Shots fired at the diner. It came over the police scanner hours ago. I thought I told you not to go back there?” He stood, and the shadows slid away. Kurt, in all his stained shirt and horrific haircut glory, folded his arms across his chest and glowered at her.
“Suggested,” she corrected without thinking. Her heart was still recovering from a near fatal stop. Her brain was trying to pull back from fight or flight and into rational conversation. Blood pounded uncomfortably in her ears, her chest was tight and her stomach spasmed.
“What?” he growled.
“You suggested I quit the diner, and I never agreed.” She stepped sideways and kicked the door shut behind her. Lena set her bag on the counter, tempted to let her head fall onto the surface too. It might knock some sense back into her. She needed that. There was nothing about finding Kurt in her apartment, or anything in the last two days, which made sense. At least he isn’t trying to bite me or arrest me.
“Really? You want to argue semantics.” His tone implied he found that hard to believe. “I said I would try to keep them away from you, but you are being difficult.”
“I’m difficult?” She laughed, a hollow, empty noise that sounded more tired than amused. Lena stepped over to the sink and poured a glass of water from the tap. She fished painkillers out of the pharmacy bag. “No one asked you for help, so go find someone else to lecture. And for god’s sake, stop breaking into my apartment.” She pushed away from the counter, moved past him, and sank down in a corner of the couch. Lena closed her eyes against his tall silhouette. It said a lot about her new tolerance level for normal that she wasn’t particularly concerned, once she had realized it was just a strange homeless guy in her home.
“I didn’t break in,” he responded in lower voice. “Your window was unlocked.”
For a brief moment, Lena considered freaking out. In the back of her mind she wondered it this was what an out-of-body experience felt like. She weighed the merits of completely losing her cool, screaming at Kurt until the neighbors called the cops. Soto would show up to make arrests. It might make her feel a little better. Of course, that would mean more questions in the interview room at the station. That would mean reports being filed and the possibility of a news story. That could mean attention from all sorts of people that Lena did not want attention from. Like television crews. And the camera hungry waitress at the diner. And the toothpaste twins. She could do without any of them, but she had definitely seen enough of the dental hygiene fan club to last her for a long time. Probably forever.
In addition, freaking out seemed like it would take a lot of energy. So she answered him calmly, “The fact that you used a window is the definition of unlawful entry, I’m pretty sure. I mean, I’m no lawyer, but I’ve seen Law and Order. I think this would be an easy conviction. And also – super creepy. Don’t do that.”
“Creepy. Right.” The overhead light flicked on, bright against her lids. His knee brushed against hers as he sat down on the trunk, the crinkle of plastic alerting her that he had brought her bag of first aid supplies with him. “I’ll keep that in mind next time I am trying to verify that you are alive.”
“Concerned?” She snorted, “Why don’t you spend your time taking care of those nutjobs, instead of checking on me? As if a fist fight weren’t bad enough, now they have guns.” She kept her eyes closed and tried to maintain a light tone. “Got to say – as far as dealing with threats to my life go, you kind of suck. If you are going to do something about this, you should get on that.”
“I’m working on it,” his voice sounded tight, but Lena didn’t open her eyes until she felt his hands on hers. Gently, he unwrapped the stained bandages. The cuffs of his shirt were folded back once. She could make out a single, sharp curve of blue-black ink just above his left wrist. “Tell me about the shooters. They were the same two from last night?”
Lena considered his question. The boots and number of men had indicated a different group that the two that Kurt had forked up. She hadn’t actually seen the men who shot up the diner, so she didn’t know for certain that they were or weren’t also grinning psychos. But then, chances were slim that the same diner would be the scene of two unrelated crimes two nights in a row. Soto wouldn’t take long to draw conclusions about that.
Lena had worked at the Boxcar for five years and never so much as been held up, much less attacked or shot at. Stupid Kurt, stupid Kurt and his stupid pie. Scratch that, my stupid pie, she thought. She had managed to go almost five years just minding her own business and cashing her paychecks without anything bad happening to her. Nothing really good, either, her traitorous mind whispered. Lena shook that line of reasoning away.
She just had to go and give him that pie. If she hadn’t, he would have left early and the toothpaste twins might have followed him somewhere else. If they had come in, she would have reported their crazy grins and the subsequent attack to the police like any average run in with drug addicts and her worker’s comp would be paying for her injured arms.
If she had kicked I’ll-Gladly-Pay-You-Tuesday outside instead of giving him the benefit of the doubt, instead of offering a little humanity through pie, Soto would have been nicer to her. Lena would have looked like a hard-working citizen. The detective would have been understanding and sympathetic and not looked at her as if she was either a liar or an idiot.
I am a liar.
And also an idiot.
If she had kicked Kurt out of the diner, the toothpaste twins could have done a lot more than scratch up her arms and scare the bejeesus out of her. And Lena doubted Soto was ever nice or sympathetic. “She was probably just as scary as a junior high hall monitor,” she finished, then realized belatedly that she had been speaking aloud. Lena could feel a blush building on her cheeks, but Kurt didn’t look up from her wounds. “Anyhow, the shooters tonight seemed new.”
Kurt wiped her arms with an alcohol swab, which stung enough to make her eyes water. She hissed in pain and watched blood and pus pool sluggishly in the wounds. It wasn’t really Kurt’s fault…but still, stupid Kurt. Stupid Kurt and his goddamned grinning jack-o-lantern fan club.
“These may not heal for a long time.” Kurt opened a bottle of hydrogen peroxide and Lena didn’t have a chance to pull away or grimace before he was pouring the liquid over her arms. It bubbled and fizzed as it hit pus and then soaked into the towel he held to catch the excess.
“A little warning?” She bit her lip as he got out the alcohol wipes again.
“If you are going to keep ignoring good advice, you are going to get hurt.” His words were harsh, but his voice remained low and even. He had a light touch with the wipes. “You should call in sick.”
“I think we have been over this before. That won’t pay the bills.”
Kurt went to work with a roll of gauze and medical tape. “They will really stack up if you are hospitalized. Or maybe you prefer dead. Corpses don’t need to worry about the rent.”
His suggestion stung more than the peroxide. “Thanks for the unlicensed doctoring and the condescension, but you look like you should get going. I’m sure you have things to do. Aluminum cans to pick up, flatware to weaponize.” She pulled her arms away and he let her. Kurt got up to rinse out the towels in the kitchen sink.
“I don’t think you understand how serious your situation is,” he began.
Lena interrupted him, “Oh, it’s serious all right. I have a detective who thinks I’m hiding something – because I am. A homeless guy who breaks into my place – because an unlocked window is not an invitation. Shooters shooting at me, psychos trying to bite me, a missed day of pay,” her voice broke, “a friend who could have been hurt.” Her eyes fell to the chest where he had been sitting, and she growled. The decorative iron circles embedded in the cracked leather were wet. “And now blood on my stuff.” She frowned at him, “If you are bleeding, clean it up. This chest is a family heirloom.” That was a stretch. It was old – but it certainly didn’t have any sentimental value to her. Kurt swiped one hand against the back of his leg, and it came away red. Lena examined him closer. He looked almost as tired as she felt. His hair was crazier than usual, his lower lip was red and a little swollen, and his knuckles were skinned raw. “Maybe you are the one who should be taking things more seriously. You don’t look so hot.”
He ignored her and pulled a kitchen towel out of a drawer to tie around his leg. “The things that were in the diner last night-”
“No, no, I don’t want to know. Just-“
“Skraelings,” he continued, rolling over her protests. “They are old creatures, and these two seem to believe that you have something to do with me, and what they think I have. They are persistent, and if you don’t believe anything else I tell you about them, believe this: they will come after you again if you give them the opportunity.” His brown eyes bore into her. “Let work know you won’t be in. Visit family out of town.” He cinched the towel tightly and Lena couldn’t stop herself from flinching in sympathy. Kurt’s face showed no signs that he was in pain. He was brutally, intently earnest.
A shiver threatened to vibrate her entire body and Lena couldn’t help but remember the wave of icy pain that had raced down her arms when the woman in the diner grabbed her. She wanted Kurt to be wrong. She wanted to be able to ignore it and have the situation go away. She had tried that before, and Scott had almost been shot.
“Okay.” She took a deep breath and gestured for him to sit on the trunk again. “Okay. Let’s say – for a moment – that I am with you on the whole skray-lay-“
“Skraeling,” he corrected, sitting down gingerly.
“Skraeling thing,” she finished. Lena reached for a new alcohol swab and focused on Kurt’s knuckles. It was too hard to look at his set jaw and hard gaze and still control the fearful shiver that was just under her skin. “What is the deal?”
“The deal is you should leave town for a while,” he said, but he didn’t pull away as she began to clean his scrapes.
“Yeah, that’s not gonna happen. So…you were telling me about the toothpaste twins.” Lena breathed steadily and concentrated on the torn skin of his knuckles to keep from thinking about what she was doing – what she was willing to believe.
“Skraelings are…well, let me start at the beginning.” He caught her eyes with a pointed look, “No interrupting, no matter how crazy you think I sound, or how many questions you have.” He waited for her hesitant nod before continuing. “The word skraeling is Old Norse, the Vikings used it to describe the Native Americans they found when they first came to the New World. Today we translate it as ‘barbarian’, but it had a different meaning in the those days. In Old Norse ‘skra’ means skin, ‘lingar’ means people – so ‘skin people’. They called the natives this because of the animal skins they wore.”
“Is this going to take very long? Because I am really tired.” Lena grabbed the antiseptic gel and ignored Kurt’s frown. Irritation helped to control her uneasiness. “Could you sum it up for me? Or at least fast forward a few centuries?”
It quickly became clear to her that Kurt was not a cliff notes kind of guy. As he spoke, his voice fell into a lilting cadence. It was as if he were repeating something that had been memorized long, long ago. “Long before Eric the Red sailed across the Atlantic, Scandinavians told stories of monsters. Servants of Nott, the goddess of night and messengers, they were sent to take back information that had fallen into the wrong hands. They were created to battle immortal creatures who would try to steal the knowledge, the power, of the gods. But one day, Loki, the trickster-”
“Oh, yeah,” Lena interrupted, more to break up the poetic, ritualistic way Kurt spoke than to move the story along. “I saw that movie. He’s bad news. Hot, but some real issues there.”
Kurt paused for a moment, his face twisted into a grimace that could have been disgust or disbelief. Slowly he began again, “Loki disguised himself as Nott and took an item. When ordered to return it, Loki refused, instead determined to give this gift to man – and probably cause humans all sorts of trouble. Nott released her guard of skraelings upon the earth to search for Loki and that which he had stolen. Days turned into weeks, months, years they searched for the errant god. They found evidence of his gift everywhere they looked, but nowhere could they find the trickster. The longer they were among men, however, the more they began to free themselves from Nott. They used their magic to bind themselves to the human disguises they wore, to bind themselves to the Earth, so that they might continue to punish those who benefited from Loki’s largesse. After some hundred years, they set their search for Loki aside, instead using their magic to search the minds of men, to steal knowledge from humans and hoard it. “
Lena couldn’t help but recall that frozen moment when the woman had looked into her eyes. Lena had been powerless to control her own thoughts. It had seemed – she knew – that the woman was flipping through her memories; searching for what, Lena didn’t know. She couldn’t believe she was asking, the story sounded ridiculous, but it felt too real, “Why didn’t the gods stop them?”
“Nott tried to recall them, but they had been separated from her for too long and no longer answered her summons. And so the Norse people learned to fear what had once been the gods’ long arm of justice. Monsters who disguised themselves with the skins of men, who stole the minds of those they deemed unworthy of knowledge. The Skraelings – the people skins.” They were both silent for a few moments. Lena shivered again, and concentrated on wrapping a thin strip of gauze over Kurt’s knuckles. If she dwelt on the possibilities for too long…
What might have happened if she had been alone in the diner that night.
What might be out in the dark, searching.
What it might be wearing.
Who it might be wearing.
If she thought about it she wouldn’t be able to move past the fear.
Kurt continued, “Whether or not this story is their true origin, I can’t say. But nearly every culture has stories of creatures like this. Some good, some bad, some just self-serving. The Navajo have skinwalkers, which can steal the skin of a person and read their thoughts. The Japanese have kitsune, the Germans – dopplegangers. The list goes on, but the common tie is a creature disguises itself as a human and deals in knowledge.” He refocused on her, his intensity more appropriate for a battlefield than her apartment. “You can recognize the skraeling by its smile: the human mouth cannot contain the many teeth of the monster and so it is always smiling. And ready to bite.”
“That’s…” Lena paused for a few moments, turning over Kurt’s story, trying to look at it logically. The idea of monsters hunting people from under masks of the dead should have been enough to make her lock the door and never leave the apartment. She compared it to the scene in the diner, and then to the shootout the night before. “That’s stupid. Why would they have guns? Voldemort doesn’t need a gun. Orcs don’t get weapons permits. The Gormorgan doesn’t take down prey with its semi-automatic.” Kurt blinked, and sat back. Lena warmed to her logic. “I mean, if I was a bad-ass magic monster and I wanted someone to talk, I’d read their mind, or take off my skin,” her stomach rolled at the mental image, “and scare it out of them. From what you say they could just chew a person to death. Why would they need a gun?”
“To be honest, I don’t know,” Kurt frowned. He spoke slowly, working through the possibilities. “I’ve never seen anything that would indicate skraelings are what you might call team players. But I guess it wouldn’t be inconceivable for them to contract out – especially if they are still recovering from their run in at the diner. A second, unrelated individual or organization is unlikely, but…” His voice faded away and his eyes grew unfocused. He spoke slowly, almost to himself, “This was the third break-in in two weeks where nothing was taken. Things had been done that people aren’t strong enough to do – like ripping the legs off of a metal chair – that had to be skraelings. But armed men…it could be…but…”
Kurt was deep in thought, and not making a lot of sense, so Lena prompted, “There were other crimes like this one?”
“Yeah. A church over on Q Street – St. Mary’s. They ignored the sacristy and all the stuff worth anything and broke into the kitchen in the basement. Tore down a steel door, tossed a store room and ripped up a bunch of clothes and stuff for the needy.” He gestured to his cargo pants, dirty, ragged, and torn at both knees. One even looked a little bloody. “I pick up things there sometimes. Lucky for the church, their soup kitchen was closed that night, so nobody was hurt. Then on Tuesday, a warehouse on Missouri Avenue. It was vacant, hasn’t been used for a couple of years. Homeless had been camping out there.”
“Homeless like you?” Lena asked, beginning to see a pattern.
Kurt nodded. “Some windows were broken and junk thrown all over the place.” His mouth tightened into a hard line. “The police found a guy wandering around the area. They called him a ‘known vagrant’ in the paper, but apparently he had no idea who or where he was. I talked to a few regulars in that part of town. The guy was a blank slate. Didn’t recognize anything – didn’t even know how to tie his shoes. The homeless in the city are all fairly upset – nervous. They should be.” Lena swallowed, hard. It hadn’t occurred to her that the toothpaste twins had looked anyplace else for Kurt. The squatter at the warehouse had his mind taken from him – that could have been her. If Kurt hadn’t been at the diner, she could have been the one wandering around with her shoelaces dangling.
“Then last night the call came over the scanner for the diner.” He blew out a sharp breath of frustration. “I am working to resolve this situation, I can’t keep coming here to check on you.”
“I don’t recall asking you too,” she retorted. It didn’t come out as snappy as she had intended. She was still thinking about the other break-ins. People had been hurt, more could have been, because the toothpaste twins were looking for Kurt. They had wiped one man’s memory. She wondered what they would do when they found the right guy. She wondered what they thought Kurt had.
He opened his mouth to say something, then closed it with an angry snap. The little apartment was filled with heavy silence.
The sun had risen while they were talking and it promised another day of oppressive heat. Suddenly, exhaustion fell over Lena and she couldn’t keep her eyes open any longer. Her arms ached, she still felt chilly, and her head was beginning to throb again. The previous two days had been too much – too surreal. She was done with it. Scary, demonic, mind-erasing things were after her. The only person who seemed to be able to deal with them kept his valuables in a shopping cart and considered B&E a normal activity. Her best friend, her only friend, had narrowly missed being shot.
“Thanks for the bedtime story. It was really comforting, in a Hitchcock-Meets-Girl-Scout-Campfire sort of way, but you need to leave so I can go to sleep.” She stood and moved away from the couch.
“You’re going to sleep here?” He sounded more resigned than surprised.
“It is my apartment, and the rent is paid until next Thursday, so I’d rather not waste it.”
“If the skraelings-” Kurt sounded serious, but Lena was too tired to be bothered.
“They weren’t, they won’t,” she interrupted. “I was just collateral damage. They were looking for you, not me, and they don’t know where I live or they would have come here instead of sending their foot soldiers or whatever back to the diner.” As she said it, the argument began to make sense to her. It was logical, reasonable. Lena ignored the little whisper in the back of her mind that said nothing about the previous forty-eight hours had been logical or reasonable. She toed off her shoes and collapsed on the bed. “Look, I’d love to discuss this with you some more,” her tone clearly indicated the opposite, “but I am dead on my feet. If you feel the need to stay here and make sure the toothpaste twins don’t attack in my sleep, feel free. Otherwise, lock the door on your way out.”
“The toothpaste twins?” he muttered, but she was already asleep.