A delicious aroma tickled his nostrils and brought him to full alertness, only to find himself flat on his back, his boots off his feet and placed neatly by the doorway, his jeans still on, and a bandage wrapped around his torso.
Thankfully, there was no more pain from the gunshot and he was able to sit up and get out of the bed. More annoying was the urge to use the bathroom. How many times did the physical body need to relieve itself? Surely once was enough.
He grimaced when he caught a glance of himself in the mirror. He’d been wiped clean of the dirt and sprayed blood, but his hair was a tangled mess. He fisted half of it and tied it behind his head, unsure exactly how knots were worked out of hair. It would be a problem for another day.
It seemed he had a lot to thank Sophia for. After he passed out on her, she must have treated the wound and cleaned him up. Damned if he hadn’t wanted to be awake for that. He’d take the pain of a gunshot wound to feel her hands on him again.
He padded downstairs, his feet almost silent on the wooden stairs, to hear a beautiful sound coming from the kitchen. He leaned against the doorframe, happy to just watch as she placed some cut-up vegetables in a steaming pot of boiling water and hummed a tune he didn’t know the name of.
She could hum a monotone and he’d be happy to listen to her.
She turned and shrieked, putting a hand over her chest. “My God. You scared me. I didn’t hear you coming.”
“A lot of people don’t,” he said, then, “If you’re eating the bananas, only eat the inside. The outside is hideous.”
She looked curiously at him and a confused smile played on her mouth. He liked her doing anything with those lips.
“I’ll keep it in mind.”
He tilted his chin at the pot. “What are you doing?”
“Oh. I thought I’d make some stew for when you woke up, but it’s not quite ready yet. You woke up earlier than I expected,” she said.
“Where did you find all of the ingredients?”
Her confused look grew more intense. “In your fridge. Surely you know what’s in there.”
He shook his head. “Just moved in. I’m not sure where a lot of things are in this house.”
“I see. Being an undercover cop must have its disadvantages. At least they stock you up all right. I can’t complain.”
He grunted. All he found was fruit before, but judging by the items on the counter, Danu must have restocked so that Sophia would not go hungry. “I’m glad you found the food. Tell me, how often do people eat?”
He was hungry again, although this time he wanted more than the bananas. The savory smell of the stew made his mouth water and the anticipation of eating was becoming more distracting by the minute.
“Sit down before you fall over and I’ll get you a bowl. It should be almost done,” she said.
That was a good suggestion. He sat and she placed a bowl and spoon in front of him. He had one taste and the next moment there was nothing left in the bowl. He came back to his senses to see hers was still three-quarters full.
“There’s more in the pot, if you want it.”
“It’s delicious. Thank you.”
A pink flush stole over her cheeks as her eyes roamed over his naked torso. She discreetly cleared her throat and played with her bowl. She looked pretty and he was pleased he’d been able to put the color there. He filled his bowl and leaned against the kitchen counter as he ate, wondering how else he might compliment her so that her cheeks remained flushed. It wasn’t hard to find nice things about her.
She was dressed in another floral concoction that suited her more than he could ever imagine. “I’m glad you found something fresh to wear. It suits you.”
He was pleased to note she did flush a darker pink. “I hope you don’t mind. I had to shower and then I found these in the other bedroom. I couldn’t put my other clothes on, they were stained with your… Anyway, I’m surprised you have them. My size and everything.”
It seemed that Danu was full of machinations. However, this time he was pleased with the result. Sophia should be warm, comfortable, be able to dress in anything she desired and have enough to eat. Anything to make her happy. Always. When he saw Danu again, he would thank her. That wouldn’t be a problem.
However, he didn’t really want to see Danu at the moment. Not quite yet.
There was a mew and she bent to lift the kitten off the floor. “He’s cute. What’s his name?”
“I don’t know. He’s your present. How about you name him?”
Death was more interested in anything she would name the kitten. He was sure that the name would be ideal, whatever it might be.
“Okaayyy. What about Maisha?” The cat purred as though it had always been his.
“That sounds perfect.” And it was.
Sophia flushed as she patted the cat. “It means life in Swahili.”
His brows shot up in surprise. “Swahili?”
She nodded her head. “I can speak seven languages, but it’s not as amazing as you think. I traveled a lot with my parents. Dad had a traveling job and we would move to other countries and live there for a while. To fit in at school and make friends, I had to speak more than English. I guess I fell in love with languages after that. There are words in some languages that can’t be translated into English. Some sound so beautiful spoken out loud. Others have so much more than one meaning.”
“I never have a language problem at… work,” he said. Then again, he hadn’t stopped to stay and speak with the souls he harvested. A twinge of guilt worked into his still-beating heart. Maybe he owed something more to the souls he harvested other than his back and his contempt.
“I studied languages in college. The ancient ones people don’t speak anymore. I loved deciphering them into words people can understand.” Her face dropped. “Anyway, that was before…”
He grunted. “Before the Church of the Chosen.”
She petted the kitten while she found her words and her face lost the pretty flush. He found the silence comforting and was happy to give her space to think. “That was how I met Jim Broton. He came to me to decipher scripts he said he’d uncovered in the deserts of the Middle East. They were actual manuscripts. Ancient scrolls that were over two thousand years old.
“I worked with a restorer to open them up without damaging them. They were so delicate, but we worked slowly in an oxygen-reduced, climate-controlled room. There were seven of them in total. I was able to translate one before Rod—my associate—worked on the others.”
She peered up at him, her eyes shining. “It was so exciting, Liam. I discovered the words of an ancient religion, and they were good words. Words to live by. They meant something and made me feel something I never had before. They made sense of life. They turned living each day into truly being alive. That to treat each day as a celebration was one of the fundamental building blocks to live by. I was inspired.”
She fell silent, but he wanted to know what else she had to say. What else she thought about those words, because he suspected those words weren’t only meant for humans. He just wanted to hear her talk. Learn what she had to say. “What else, Sophia? Tell me.”
She swallowed. Hard. “It seemed I inspired Jim as well. He took the words and he took the scrolls. I went after him. The scrolls were priceless! I worked with the police, but he’d gone underground. The police didn’t have the resources to keep looking for ancient scrolls.
“I remembered him mentioning a little farmhouse he had inherited from his grandparents, so I drove out to see if he was there.”
She fell silent. He knelt down beside her and tucked a lock behind her ear. “You found him, didn’t you?”
He recalled the farm when he’d gone to harvest those souls. Barren. Dirty. Endless. The perfect place for a lunatic to run a cult.
“I was surprised and stunned that he’d started a cult. Even more so that he’d already recruited people. I knew that people would want to hear the words, but he’d twisted them so much that they had become self-serving. That was wrong. He knew it. I knew it and I was desperate to get them out. I should have turned that car around and driven away when I saw the fence and the gates and the dogs. But I wanted those scrolls. I went in and demanded that he give them back to me. I said the people of the world needed to see what the rest of the scrolls said.
“He suggested that I stay to translate the rest of them. There were two more that I hadn’t done, you see, and I was desperate to know what they said. So I stayed. And I translated. And he never let me leave.”
Death wiped a stray tear from her cheek. She swiped at it angrily and huffed. “You think I’d be all out of tears, wouldn’t you? You should never cry for the stupid people.”
“I don’t think you’re stupid. I think you’re brave. Few people would have the guts to track down ancient scrolls for the betterment of humankind,” Death said.
She put her hand over his and squeezed. “Do you really think that’s what I did?”
He nodded, delighted when her hand stayed over his. “I don’t think there’s any other reason why you would go after the scrolls. That was exactly what they were meant for.”
Every millennium or so, Danu would manifest to the human realm, and appear in a physical form and speak to someone who would enlighten the world. It was probably one of those souls who had transposed her teachings into the scrolls.
He would have harvested the soul and not even known the significance of what they had achieved in their life—wouldn’t have cared.
“Jim became crazier every day. One day, I noticed one person missing. I confronted him and he said that Mike had asked to go and he’d let him leave. Then it was Mandy and Sara. I asked to go as well, but he just told me that I was scared because I had translated the scrolls.
“More and more people came in every day. Melody was only ten years old when her parents joined the cult. I was horrified that Jim would allow a child to be there, but by that stage there was no reasoning with him.
“Her parents died when he gave the drug to the twenty ‘volunteers’ and me. They held me down and made me drink it, and then left us out in a field. I think the only reason I survived is because I managed to spit a lot of it out.
“I tried to wake the others, I really did, but I was so tired because the drug was in my system and I knew that was my only chance at escape.”
Death did know that she’d tried everything. She’d even breathed for some of them, putting her mouth over theirs to keep their bodies alive. But he had already reaped those souls. Their bodies would never live again. He wound his arm about her neck. Pressed his forehead against hers. So, so sorry that a beautiful, giving soul like hers had to go through such a horrific event.
The tears flowed freely down her face now, and she didn’t bother wiping them away. “Melody’s parents were dead, and for her, I made myself get up and walk. I walked and walked and walked until I came to a farmhouse. I was near collapse, but thankfully the farmer was home and he believed me. I phoned the officers that had tried to help recovering the scrolls and they came. They set everyone free and arrested Jim. But he… he…”
The television report. The link between Sophia and the next story. “He was released from jail.”
She nodded. Her breath fanned over his face, stew and the delicate taste of cinnamon. “You can see why he’s so desperate to get me. I brought down his cult and took back the scrolls. I destroyed his life and his plans. He’s come after me and now he has Melody. He’ll only let her go if I go to him. And I can’t let him have her, Liam. He’s taken too many innocent lives. He’s not going to get her too.”
“How do you know what he’s going to try next?” He traced her cheek with a knuckle, committing the line of her jaw to memory. Her skin flowed like silk beneath his touch. A delicate shiver stole through her body. “Let me help you, Sophia.”
She dug her phone from a pocket and showed him the message. A rock formed in the pit of his stomach.
“He wants you to go to him tomorrow.”
She nodded, released a shivery breath. “Yes. He does. But I still have tonight.”
She leaned forward and pressed her lips to his and for a moment he was stunned, before he gave in to pure instinct. His fingers firmed at the back of her head, he slanted his lips across hers and kissed her the way he’d yearned to kiss her since the moment he’d laid eyes on her.