“Wait until it leaves. We don’t fight our battles in public. Dead, its glamour fails. The whole bar would see its true form.”
“Well, maybe the whole bar should see its true form,” I said. “Maybe they should know what’s going on and what’s out there.”
Barrons gave me a look. “Why? So they can fear things they can’t do anything to defend themselves against? So they can have nightmares about monsters they can’t see coming? Humans are of no use in this battle.”
I pressed a hand to my mouth and concentrated on keeping my supper of microwave popcorn down. It felt like it was popping again in my stomach and the bag was about to blow. “I can’t stand here and watch this,” I said. I didn’t know if my sudden nausea was in reaction to the Unseelie, or to the sight of its victim.
“It’s almost over, Ms. Lane. He’s nearly done. In case you couldn’t tell.”
Oh, I could tell. The moment I’d spotted the Gray Man and his companion I’d known he was nearly done. The woman the gaunt, nine-foot-tall monster was feeding off had good bones. Model-worthy bones: the kind that make all the difference between a pretty face and an agency-quality one. Me, I have a pretty face. This woman had once been exquisitely beautiful.
Now those great bones were all that was left of her, beneath a veneer of thin, pallid, sagging flesh. And still the ravaged woman was staring up at the leprous Unseelie with worship in her eyes. Even from here I could see the bloodshot jaundice of her whites, from dozens of tiny exploded capillaries. I had no doubt that her teeth had once been pearly, but they were now gray and had a brittle, crumbling appearance. A small, vicious-looking, pus-filled sore had blossomed in the corner of her mouth, and there was another budding on her forehead. As she tossed her head, smiling flirtatiously up at her destruction—in her eyes, a gorgeous blond man—two clumps of her hair fell out, one onto the floor, the other onto the shoe of a man standing behind her. The man glanced down, saw the tuft of scalp and hair on his shoe, and kicked it off his foot with a shudder. He took one look at the Gray Man’s victim, grabbed his date’s hand, and dragged her off through the crowd like he was fleeing the black plague.
I looked away. I couldn’t watch. “I thought it just made them ugly. I thought it didn’t feed on them until they died.”
“It usually doesn’t.”
“It’s killing her, Barrons! We have to stop it!” Even I heard the edge of hysteria in my voice.
He spun me by my shoulders and shook me. His touch crackled through me like heat lightning. “Get a grip, Ms. Lane! It’s too late. We can’t do anything for her now. That woman has no hope of recovering from what it has done to her. She’s going to die. It’s only a question of when. Tonight by the Gray Man, tomorrow by her own hand, or in a few weeks from a severe wasting disease doctors won’t be able to identify or arrest by any means known to man.”
I stared up at him. “Are you kidding me? You mean, even if the victim tries to go on with her life to whatever degree she can, she dies in time anyway?”
“If the Gray Man takes it this far, yes. It usually doesn’t. It usually leaves its victims alive because it likes to revisit them, to savor their pain for a long time. Occasionally, however, it finds one so beautiful it doesn’t seem able to bear that she exists, so it kills her on the spot. At least she’ll never have to look at herself in a mirror, Ms. Lane. At least her sojourn in hell will be brief.”
“That’s supposed to be a comfort?” I cried. “That it will be brief?”
“You underestimate the pricelessness of brevity, Ms. Lane.” His eyes were ice, his smile colder. “What are you, all of twenty-one, twenty-two?”
There was a tinkle of breaking glass, a dull thud like that of a body hitting the floor, and a collective gasp behind me. Barrons looked over my shoulder. His arctic smile faded.
“Oh God, is she dead?” a woman cried.
“It looks like her face is rotting!” a man exclaimed, aghast.
“Now, Ms. Lane,” Barrons ordered. “It’s on the move. Headed for the door. Go after it. I’ve got your back.”
I tried to glance over my shoulder. I don’t know if I wanted to make sure the woman was really no longer suffering, or if there’s just some innate human instinct to look at dead people—it would certainly explain our funeral practices, not to mention all those rubberneckers clogging up the roads around Atlanta at the scenes of traffic accidents. But Barrons caught my chin in his hand and forced me to look straight into his eyes. “Don’t,” he barked. “The dead ones stick in your memory. Just go kill the fuck that did it.”