The Dead Room

Page 1

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The light was blinding.

For a moment it seemed as if nothing had existed before it, as if nothing could be greater than rising to meet it. It seemed to reach out with a sweet, alluring warmth. At the source there seemed to be beckoning shadows, but though Leslie MacIntyre could see nothing clearly, they seemed to offer comfort, as well, as if they were waiting to welcome her, to enfold her into their loving arms.

"Hey, you!"

The voice was husky, affectionate, yet strangely jarring. She looked up. It was Matt. She didn't know where they were, but so long as she and Matt Connolly were together, everything was all right.

They'd met when she'd been the new kid on the block. Though he was a few years older, he'd pulled her along in his wake and made her one of his crowd. He'd called her Rebel, but he'd done it in such a teasing tone that no one had ever been able to use it against her. He'd mocked her Southern accent, then announced that it was the most charming thing he'd ever heard. She'd practically worshipped him over the years, then-yes, she could admit it-lusted after him as they'd grown older. Strangely, it was a tragedy that had made her hopes and dreams come true, that had suddenly made him realize the girl he had befriended had grown up. And since then…

The years hadn't all been perfect. They'd been quite a thing once she'd graduated from high school, but their pride had sometimes gotten the best of them. One tempestuous blowup had led to a breakup, sending him to college in another state far to the south to play football, while she, still his Rebel, had stayed behind in Yankee territory, opting for NYU. Despite a year in the pros post-college, he'd gone on to journalism, while she had chosen urban archaeology, specializing in her own adopted home of New York. He had started in sports but gone on to world affairs, then come home to write a column about life and issues in New York City.

Back in New York, he had found her again-digging in the dirt, he joked. For months, they had both been cautious, dying to see each other, afraid of the intensity of the emotion that still roiled between them. One night he had simply shown up at her door at 3:00 a.m. and sanity flew to the wind. They'd immediately gotten engaged, and now they were planning a wedding.

Oddly enough, their lives together had added to both their careers. He'd done some of his very best pieces for the paper-a man's take on the modern wedding. Through Matt, Leslie had been drawn into conversation with a detective about an elderly man who had gone missing. She knew the area in Brooklyn where he had disappeared, which was filled with old subway tunnels. Asking the detective to humor her, she had led him to the place where the man had ended his days.

She'd felt almost as if she'd been beckoned to the site, though she argued with herself that knowledge and logic had brought her to the place. But now many detectives found her very interesting, and Matt had warned her that they were thinking about asking her to use her extraordinary knowledge of the city and its infrastructure to help with a new spate of disappearances. Matt himself was taking the matter very seriously and writing about it for the paper. People constantly disappeared in New York, of course. But these disappearances seemed to be linked. The missing were all women who lived on the streets. And they were all prostitutes.

Matt had pointed out that, throughout history, neither the police nor the populace had seemed to care about the fate of those who lived in the underbelly of society.

The moral majority never worried too much until it was threatened itself.

She could tell that Matt wanted her to get involved, though she seriously doubted she could be of any help. She wished she could, but she couldn't suddenly claim to be some kind of clairvoyant.

And she had her real work, which she believed was important, and which she loved.

And which had brought them here. Here? Where exactly were they now?

They'd started the evening in the newly renovated Hastings House, at a fund-raiser so the historical foundation that employed her could continue excavating the neighboring site. There was a field of architectural gold to be explored there, and her employer was thrilled to have such an eloquent columnist as Matt Connolly on their side while they battled a major construction company for the right to do research before everything was destroyed for the sake of a new high-rise.

But as for actually being with Matt tonight…They'd barely had a chance to say hello.

A number of representatives were there from the development company that had bought the surrounding property-trying to pretend that they were delighted to plan around the historical significance of the place-along with Greta Peterson, socialite and ambassador for the Historical Society, a few Broadway personalities, some local celebrities and more. Hank Smith, of megadeveloper Tyson, Smith and Tryon, had swooped down on Matt the minute they'd entered the place, hoping to sway Matt's opinion to the firm's side. There were police representatives, including Captain Ken Dryer, the charismatic department spokesman, Sergeant Robert Adair-who was in charge of the investigation into the missing prostitutes and was actually watching her with brooding contemplation most of the night-and politicians from the five boroughs.

She'd been across the room from Matt, exchanging pleasantries with a colleague.

She'd just excused herself to go to Matt and then…


He was hunkered down beside her now just as he had been when a football struck her in the head when they were playing in the streets so many years ago. He offered the same smile he'd given her then, full of interest and amusement toward most situations, a dry smile. Even a bit rueful, as if, in the end, there was little to do but mock himself.

"Matt," she murmured, frowning, wondering why she couldn't remember crossing the room to his side. And what was she doing on the floor? "You're here."

"Yeah, I'm here," he murmured. "For just this moment."

"Just this moment?" she queried. She wanted to reach out and touch his face. Damn, but he'd always been gorgeous. In a manly, rugged way, of course. Steady blue eyes, generous mouth, broad forehead, high cheekbones. Tall and in shape, he was the guy everyone would have hated if he hadn't been so damned decent. So men liked him, and women loved him.

Despite her confusion, she felt herself rise and turn toward the light. It had the most incredible power. She couldn't resist it. She felt that it offered release from pain, from doubt.

"No," Matt said softly as he caught her arm. Or was that just her imagination? She turned her attention back to him, confused. She could no longer hear the string quartet that had been playing that evening. From a far distant place, she thought she heard screams and chaos.

"Silly Rebel," he said softly, as he had so many times when she was growing up. "You have to stay here. You can't go yet."

"Who's going to stop me, Matt Connolly?" she demanded. "You?"

"It's not your time," he said. "Leslie, there are things you need to do. You are not to follow the light," he said firmly.

"Hey, are you holding out on me?" she demanded lightly, looking around and seeing people getting up and moving single-file toward the light. "Matt, I'm with you. We're together. I have to get in line."

"We're all in line, in a way, from day one," he said very softly. "But not you, not now. You have to stay here. Some things are meant to be."

"Some things are meant to be?" she whispered.

"Some things are meant to be," he said firmly.

He squeezed her hand, and heat shot through her.

Then it felt as if she were jolted. As if they were interrupted.

"Hey!" a deep voice called. "This one is alive!"

It was as if she were watching a movie, but she was in it. There was a horrible scent in the air, as if something were burning. People were everywhere, running, shouting.

There had been an explosion, she thought. Someone had screamed something about gas, and then a blast had seemed to rock the world. Yes! She could remember it now, the feeling of being lifted, of flying…slamming hard against a wall. But…she wasn't lying against a wall.

She was looking down on a scene of absolute chaos. And she was in it. She was lying in a row of sleeping people. She couldn't recognize any of them. Matt…where was Matt? Emergency personnel were moving purposefully through the chaos, imposing order. The newly painted walls of the room were blackened and scorched. There had been a blast and a fire. Everything pointed to it.

And she hurt! Oh, God, she ached everywhere, she thought, back in her body, no longer looking down on the carnage. The scent of charred wood…worse, the scent of charred flesh, filled her nostrils.

Because the people she was aligned with were not sleeping.

They were dead.

She could see the open, glazed eyes of the woman beside her. Suddenly she realized that a man was hunkered down by her side. And it wasn't Matt.

"This one is alive!" the man yelled.

Of course I'm alive, she thought.

There was sudden confusion. People rushing over to her. More shouting.

"Quick, or we'll lose her! Her pulse is fading."

More people started rushing around her.


There was a fire in her chest.

Every bone in her body seemed to be in raw agony. She knew she needed to open her eyes, to take a breath.

She blinked. The lights blazing all around her were the false and neon glitter of night.

"We've got her! She's back."

Then she was being lifted onto something soft and flat. She was dimly aware that someone was talking to the man at her side. Her vision of the scene around her suddenly seemed acute and agonizing.

There were four bodies against the wall. And one of them was Matt.

Then there was no light, no confusion. Just the horrible knowledge.

Matt was dead.

She started to scream….

"Calm down," a medic said. "Please…You're alive, and we want to keep you that way."

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