She’d run away with someone else, and that someone else was Black Arthur, who fed people to demons, who had tortured the woman he was supposed to love until she ran again.
I know you’re not Daniel Ryves’s son.
Everybody always found it hard to believe that he was Alan’s brother, because he was not Alan’s brother. He’d never had a brother.
“Do you really know Alan?” Mrs. Walsh asked, her voice trembling. “Can you tell me how he is? Daniel and Alan simply disappeared one day, and I always wondered what had happened to them. And then Alan found me. He called and he wrote and he visited. He was so polite; he was so good. I didn’t see my nephew for fourteen years and he came back crippled and saying that his father was dead, and then he vanished. I just want to know if he’s all right.”
She looked as if she was going to cry. Alan would have cared.
Nick stared at this woman, Alan’s aunt, and realized that this stranger had a better claim on Alan than he did.
The small sitting room and its decorations did not seem frozen anymore. Nick wanted to smash it all. He’d been cold before, but now his blood felt too hot. He was burning up, he was shaking with rage.
The horrible woman’s voice changed. “Are you all right?” she asked. “Do you — do you need to sit down? Would you like a glass of water?”
Natasha Walsh moved forward, and Nick grabbed hold of her upper arm. She recoiled from the look on his face.
He’d always known that he scared people sometimes. Clearly it was a talent he’d inherited from his father.
The woman was suddenly breathing hard, in small gasps weighted by fear. “Don’t hurt me.”
He hated her. She’d told him that everything he’d ever known about his life was a lie, and he hated her almost as much as he hated that liar Alan. Alan, who belonged in this place, with this woman and her family, and not with him.
Nick put his lips to her ear and whispered, “Why not?”
He shook her hard, and she gave a thin, small scream and tried to break away. She didn’t have a chance.
“Let me go,” she pleaded.
“Why?” Nick demanded, his voice rising to a shout. “I don’t feel sorry for you. I don’t feel anything for you. Why should I?”
He shook her again, her shoulders impossibly thin and frail in the grip of his hands. She stared up at him with terrified eyes that were washed-out copies of Alan’s deep-blue eyes and for a moment he couldn’t bear it; he didn’t know what he was going to do.
Then the picture slipped out of her shaking fingers and clattered onto the rug.
Nick looked down and saw Dad staring up at him.
He let the woman go and bolted out of that warm, comfortable home into the rain.
He had not heard when it started raining, but now the drops pounded against his skin and rattled the roof of the car. He stood with his arms braced against the roof, the rain pulling a slick black curtain of hair over his eyes, and wondered why he didn’t just get into the car and drive. It occurred to him that he was not sure where to go. Home had always been an uncertain concept, attached to no particular place and centered on someone who he now knew did not belong to him.
There was no home to go back to. He pressed his forehead against his wet forearms, against the slippery metal of the car roof, and tried to think. It could not be true, not really. There would be no way to live if it was true.
He drove back to London eventually, because he could not stay outside that house and he could not think of anything else to do. He was not panicked or running for a bolt-hole like a wounded animal. He felt strangely empty of feelings or ideas, as if someone had slit him open and removed them. He just kept driving.
Alan called this kind of rain cats’ paws, and this rain seemed to mark the passing of a nightmarish army of cats. Nick could barely see to drive, and the gray of a pouring sky seemed not to change but to bleed into the gray of a city. He only really noticed that he was in London when the car coughed to a stop on Tower Bridge, and he realized that night had been closing in behind the rain.
Nick got out and went to the front of the car, intending to check out the engine, but the rain hammered all thought from his mind. He stood staring at the car bonnet, the rain distorting the road and the passing cars into a river of ink, the flow broken occasionally by flashes of metal.
He turned away and left the car amidst the indignant honking of other motorists. He started walking through the rain. Within minutes he felt numb with cold, the relentless lashing of rain against his skin becoming as personal a rhythm as his footsteps.
The towers on the bridge loomed like enemy fortresses against a sky gone slate gray with rain clouds and the approach of night. Nick stared up at them and then at the London skyline, the buildings spiky and glittering as stiletto knives. He bowed his head and walked through the driving rain.
He had to walk for a long time to get home. The sky had turned dull, dead black, and his legs had the heavy feeling that meant every muscle would be aching tomorrow. The rain had not stopped falling. As he approached the flickering sign of the Chinese takeaway, the light turned the raindrops silver, and Nick had forgotten what it felt like to be dry.
He came into the house and leaned against the door. The rain drummed outside, and he wondered if he should just go back out and keep walking. He’d known what to do when he was walking.
He looked up, more because of the light being switched on than at the sound of his name. At the top of the stairs stood Mae, limned by the pale yellow light of a na**d bulb.
“Where have you been?” she asked. “It’s three in the morning. Alan’s going crazy with worry.”
He flinched at the name like a kicked dog and hated himself for doing it. Mae’s face changed from inquiry to suspicion.
“Nick,” she said. “What’s going on?”
He wanted to snarl at her that it was none of her business; he wanted her to shut up and get out of his way. He wanted to tell her that he’d never liked her. When he’d thought that he liked her, he’d been wrong.
He couldn’t seem to find any words, just a hollow feeling where words should have been. He opened his mouth and an odd sound came out, like a croaking bird, and he stared up at her blankly.
Mae came running down the stairs, and he moved forward. He wanted to tell her to stop, not to ask him any more questions, but he did not want to open his mouth and find nothing there again.
“You’re soaking wet,” Mae said. She spoke kindly, and Nick wished she would stop. It reminded him of Alan.
She touched his shoulder, pinching the material of his shirt between two fingers and peeling the drenched material away from his skin. Nick knew he was drenched; he didn’t need her to prove it to him, but it was only when she touched him that a look of real alarm flashed over her face. He stood dumb, wondering why, and she pressed her hand flat against his shoulder.
Against her steady hand, he realized he was shaking.
“I’ll get—” Mae began, and Nick stopped her.
It was easy to catch her and hold her trapped against the banister. She was small and he was strong, and he pinned her with one hand.
Her breath started coming a little faster and he could see a pulse at her throat jumping even in the low light, but she did not struggle. She stayed perfectly still and raked her eyes carefully over Nick’s face. He could practically see her mind ticking over the possibilities, trying to form a plan, trying to guess what Nick would do next.
He kissed her.
He moved in and pressed her hard against the banister, holding her soft and small and trapped against him. He kept her face tilted up, her chin cupped in his palm and his fingers against her jaw. His arm around her waist was tense, unyielding as an iron bar.
She could not get away, and she did not try. After a moment her arm slid around his neck, and she kissed him back.
Nick was only aware of how miserably cold he had been when he felt the chill, settled into dull pain in his bones, finally ease. He grabbed the dry, warm material of her T-shirt in his fists, pushed it up until he felt the smooth, warm skin of her back under his hands. Mae curved her mouth against his and against his shut eyes the swinging lightbulb became the dancing lanterns of the Goblin Market, and he thought with savage satisfaction of how hurt Alan would be by this.
He and Mae heard the dragging sound of Alan’s footsteps at the same time. She pulled back and Nick tried to follow her mouth but did not push the issue when she turned her face away, her breath wavering against his cheek.
Alan was standing at the top of the stairs, his curly hair sleep-ruffled and his kind face startled, about to be hurt. Nick had not realized how much he hated him until now.
“You,” he said. The word came out thick, as if he were snarling through a mouth full of blood.
Alan had stopped looking surprised. His eyes traveled from Nick’s face to Mae’s, and he began to look angry. Alan didn’t have a clue that Nick had ever, for even a moment, liked Mae. The way he saw it, the only reason Nick had for doing this was to hurt him.
“Sorry to interrupt,” he said quietly. He was far too good at lying and keeping secrets to reveal anything in front of Mae. “Can I ask where you’ve been?”
“Where I’ve—” Nick abandoned Mae and started up the stairs, slowly, moving as he did when he was stalking something for the kill. “Where did you go,” he asked, “last Christmas?”
Alan looked shocked. Of course he looked shocked. He’d thought his lies would never be discovered; he’d thought Nick would never suspect. Nick had always believed that Alan did not lie to him, that he was the exception, but why should Alan make an exception for him? He was nothing to Alan.
After a moment Alan’s ordinary, gentle face was in place, a mask that Nick hated and wanted to break into a thousand pieces. Nick kept advancing.
Alan said carefully, “What do you know?”
“I know everything!” Nick shouted. “I know that Black Arthur is my father. I know that you’ve been lying to me all my life. You’re not my brother.”
Alan bit his lip. “It’s not that important,” he said in the lying, soothing voice he always used with people who might suspect them. “It’s like being adopted. It doesn’t mean a thing.”
“If it wasn’t important, then why did you lie? Why did you keep lying?”
Alan glanced down the stairs to Mae, and Nick saw he was too hurt to be calm about this. “Because I knew you’d go mad!” Alan snapped. “And you’re not exactly proving me wrong, are you?”
“Shut your lying mouth,” said Nick softly. “It isn’t like being adopted. That’s not why you lied. You hid the fact that your own mother existed; you didn’t even dare tell half a lie and say we were half brothers. You tried to tie me to you and that dead idiot Daniel as tightly as you could. You were scared to death that I’d grow up to be a monster!”
“Don’t talk about Dad like that,” Alan said sharply. “And you’re not a monster.”
“Why not?” Nick asked. “I’m much better at killing than you are. I can call the demons with a piece of chalk and a word. Did you ever think about what that might mean, Alan? Were you ever scared of me?”
Alan flinched, and Nick saw the truth written cleƒuth miarly on his face for once. He’d been scared, all right.
Nick wanted to make him scared now.
“You thought I might grow up to be a magician like Black Arthur,” Nick said slowly. “After all, both my parents have a taste for blood.”
“I didn’t,” Alan told him in a thin voice. “I never thought you were anything like Black Arthur. You’re not his son, he didn’t bring you up, he didn’t die for you—”
Nick reached Alan at the top of the stairs and roared that thin voice down.