Break the Night

Break the Night

Anne Stuart

June 2017 $13.95
ISBN: 978-1-61194-766-3

What if Jack the Ripper never died?

 
Our PriceUS$13.95
Code978-1-61194-766-3
 
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As the skies turn red over Los Angeles, Jack the Ripper roams once more. Saucy Jack is back, and women are dying.

Caught up in the case, artist Lizzie Stride is haunted by dreams of the crimes. And even more disturbing? Her name is identical to a victim from 1888.

J.R. Damien, a newspaper reporter, is likewise haunted by violent dreams as well, dreams vivid with details only the Ripper could know. Details that later prove true. When he meets Lizzie, he knows something else only the real Ripper would know—she’s the next victim. Or will be if he doesn’t stop Jack, even if that means stopping himself.

Does reincarnation really exist? Are Lizzie and Damien doomed to play out the same hideous dance of death from more than a century ago in the streets of London? And why is he unable to resist Lizzie? Why is she helplessly drawn to him?

In a struggle between love and death, which will prevail?

Anne Stuart recently celebrated her forty years as a published author. She has won every major award in the romance field and appeared on the bestseller list of the NY Times, Publisher’s Weekly, and USA Today, as well as being featured in Vogue, People Magazine, and Entertainment Tonight. Anne lives by a lake in the hills of Northern Vermont with her fabulous husband.

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Excerpt


Prologue

THE SKY OVER Los Angeles was blood red.

At first meteorologists thought it was a new form of pollution—red smog, caused by a combination of industrial exhaust and the peculiar wea­ther conditions. A good stiff wind would blow everything away in just a matter of time.

But the red sky continued, and the scientists began to debate. It had to have been caused by the latest nuclear accident, or perhaps brushfires burning out of control. Maybe even an act of God.

The historians were no comfort. The red sky had been recorded throughout the past, from France in the 1400s, when Gilles de Retz cut a bloody path through the countryside, to London in the fall of 1888, when Jack the Ripper made his rounds, to Germany in 1905, when Peter Kurten, the Dusseldorf Ripper, carved his way through a terrified popu­lace.

The Santa Ana winds blew hot and dry from the desert, swirling down from the blood red sky, and suicide rates tripled. The endless storms followed, drenching the sprawling cityscape. And somewhere in the dark, rain-soaked streets of Venice, California, Springheeled Jack, Saucy Jack, Jack the Ripper, made one of his periodic appearances. And the streets ran red with blood, so much blood that not even the rain could wash it clean.


 

 

Chapter One

LIZZIE STRIDE pushed her hair away from her face, leaving a streak of red paint across her high cheekbone. It was too hot in her studio apartment, but she couldn’t afford to turn up the air-conditioning. She couldn’t open any windows, either—the rain had been falling nonstop for days now, and even her skin felt moldy. Running the dehumidifier already ate up about half her electricity allowance—she couldn’t afford to crank up the air conditioner besides.

As long as her work survived, she could sit there and suffer. No one melted from a little heat and humidity, even if it felt as if she might. What mattered was the mask beneath her hands as she smoothed and shaped the red-tinged clay over the heavy eyebrows. If anything, the weather was good for it, keeping the material pliant for a longer period of time. Long enough for her to decide exactly how she wanted to shape this one. How to bring it to life.

She took several deep, calming breaths. Surely she could lower her steamy body temperature by meditating. The mind was infinitely power­­ful—she just hadn’t learned how to harness hers. She could hear Kate Bush on the radio, singing something eerie, a fitting counterpoint to the face beneath her fingertips. It had turned evil beneath her hands, as her masks had done far too often of late. She didn’t tend to waste much time analyzing her work. Each face grew on its own beneath her long, deft fingers. Sometimes a clown, all garish colors and absurd fea­tures, some­times a diva with ostrich feathers and jewels. Sometimes a fiend from hell.

Unfortunately, the monsters sold better than the other, more friv­o­lous masks. It was no wonder, she thought, shoving her hair back yet again. The world was full of human monsters, and L.A. had more than its share.

They’d found the sixth body two days ago in a dumpster in Venice, and within hours she’d been trapped at the police station once more, trying to make sense of a random savagery that should have had no connection to her at all. Except for the fact that each victim was wearing one of her masks when the body was found.

The Venice Ripper, they were calling him. Fortunately, the newspa­pers didn’t know about the masks, or about the truly horrifying details of the medically accurate butchery of the prostitute-victims. Liz­zie was still anonymous enough, an innocent pulled into the horror by her art and by a madman’s random appreciation.

When the police had traced the second mask to her, she’d stopped working for a while—too horrified by the piece of evidence she’d identi­fied. The blood-soaked papier-mâché had once been a Kewpie-doll face, and the knowledge that the killer had used her masks during his bizarre killing spree made her feel sick inside, like an unwilling accessory to the madman.

But stopping her work, hiding in her apartment when she wasn’t making ends meet as a waitress at the Pink Pelican Cafe, did no good at all. She’d made a lot of masks in the two years she’d been in the Los Angeles area, and sold a fair number of them. And the killer seemed to have an inexhaustible supply.

She sat back, staring at the mask beneath her fingers. The red streaks looked like blood, the mouth was open in a silent, hideous scream, and somewhere a killer waited—one of her masks in his blood-soaked hands.

Kate Bush stopped singing. The news came on, a muffled voice, one she didn’t want to hear. The Ripper had claimed another victim, the body found dumped behind a building near the beach.

And Lizzie brought her fists down on the mask, crushing it beneath her strong hands.

DAMIEN STOOD AT the window overlooking the gray, endless sprawl of the city, his long fingers wrapped tightly around a mug of coffee. He’d lost weight in the past couple of months, more than was good for him. It was no wonder—he subsisted on a diet of black coffee, straight tequila, cigarettes and fast food when he remembered to eat. Most of the time he forgot.

It was all right, though. He’d grown soft in the past few years. Life could do that to you—too many awards, too much money, and things got a little too easy.

Not that they were easy for him now. He’d left his job at the Chroni­cle after the second Ripper murder. After the second nightmare. Left his Pulitzer and his retirement fund and his beautiful, intelligent research assistant who’d let him know she was interested in doing more than his legwork, left behind the toughest, fairest editor in the business. Left behind a weekly paycheck, and his only connection to sanity.

None of that mattered. None of the safe, comfortable things he’d worked for made any difference to him any longer. He was a man pos­sessed, driven, with only one need in life—to find the Ripper and stop him.

He looked at his reflection in the rain-streaked glass. Gaunt, un­shaven cheeks, dark, tormented eyes, hair long and shaggy. The Ripper probably looked a great deal like him. Haunted. Hunted. Driven.

Damien leaned his forehead against the grimy window, staring out into the bleak twilight before he shut his eyes, only to see the blood once more, and hear the scream of the dying woman. The sound that would live in his mind forever. And he smashed his forehead against the glass, once, twice, until he heard the window crack.

THE APARTMENT WAS still and silent hours later when Lizzie let her­self back in, locking the door behind her. She’d turned off the air-con­di­tioning before she left, and the accumulated heat and dampness swept over her like a wave. She leaned against the door, not bothering to turn on the light. She could smell the clay from the smashed mask, the bitter, oily odor from that morning’s coffee, mixed with the memory of yesterday’s pasta. She almost wished for the hot, desert winds to sweep through, clearing away the constant, heavy rain.

"We’ll be glad to give you police protection,” Detective Finlay Ad­amson, the coffee-guzzling, avuncular police detective working on the Ripper case, had told Lizzie when he drove her back to her apartment late that afternoon. This time they’d kept her only three hours, going over the same old unanswerable questions. "I don’t think you’re in any particular danger—this psycho only goes for prostitutes, and he’d have no reason to hurt you. For what it’s worth, the police psychiatrist thinks he considers you some kind of ally, and—”

"Please, don’t!” Lizzie had begged him, the nausea rising. "It’s not my fault that some monster uses my masks.”

"Calm down, Miss Stride. No one’s blaming you,” Adamson said in his patient voice.

"I’m blaming myself! As far as I know, no one’s bought more than two or three masks of mine. I’ve asked everyone who sells them for me, and no one remembers making any more sales than that. Are you certain you’ve checked all the galleries and gift shops?”

"You wouldn’t believe how many times we’ve checked,” Adamson said wearily. "The kind of place that carries your stuff isn’t great on keeping records. We’re just lucky we found you in the first place. A reporter happened to recognize one of the murder masks as yours. Appar­ently he has a couple of them himself.”

The sick feeling in Lizzie’s stomach didn’t subside. "A reporter who collects masks? Who’s covering the Ripper murders? Doesn’t that strike you as a little too coincidental? Are you sure... ?”

"Don’t do my job for me, Miss Stride. Everyone’s a suspect in this case, even the most unlikely people. Including yourself. We haven’t discounted Damien, even if it doesn’t seem possible.”

"Damien?”

"Used to write for the Chronicle. J. R. Damien. He quit a few months ago to concentrate on the Ripper murders. Apparently he’s writing a book about them.” Adamson’s tone of voice made it clear what he thoughtof reporters getting in his way. "He still does most of their coverage of the Ripper murders. We’re just lucky he’s kept quiet about the masks. Reporters aren’t known for their cooperation with the police, but Damien’s been decent enough so far. Now don’t go getting paranoid about all this. We think the Ripper’s got enough masks to keep him busy for quite a while—you said you sold that last one more than a year ago, so he must have been planning this for a while. Just keep your doors locked and your guard up.”

"I do anyway. This is southern California, remember?” Lizzie said, trying to sound both tough and casual at the same time and failing at both.

"How could I forget?” Adamson had said wearily. "Give us a call if anything seems unusual.”

Lizzie stared around her dimly lit apartment for a moment, willing her­self not to imagine murderous shadows where none existed. She shouldn’t have been so quick to turn down police protection. She shouldn’t have been so quick to take Adamson’s word for it that she was safe.

She flicked on the light, kicking off her sandals and crossing the rough wooden floor to stare at her ruined mask. She was safe, she re­minded herself. No one knew who she was, presumably not even the Ripper. He simply had an affinity for her masks.

She shivered at the horrible thought, moving on into the kitchen area of her small apartment and reaching for a bottle of fruit juice. She needed to get away from here. If only she had family, money, some kind of escape.

Her family was long gone, her father no more than a name on a birth certificate, her mother dead by the time Lizzie was in college. As for money, that had always been a scarce commodity, and working as a craftsperson in an overpopulated area like L.A. didn’t lend itself to finan­cial solvency.

Her friends, mostly actors, writers and the like, were even more im­poverished than she was. None of them could lend her the money to get out of town, to go someplace where the sun shone without murder­ouswinds ripping through your hair, a place where you could breathe, where you could meet a stranger’s gaze and not have to worry about whether he was going to hit on you—or cut your throat.

No, for now she was trapped in her heat-soaked apartment. At least no one connected her with the Ripper murders. No one besides the police and that one reporter even knew about the masks.

Except, of course, the Ripper.

And even he didn’t know where she lived. She sold her masks through shops and galleries, willingly paying the commission so that she wouldn’t have to deal with the ugly financial details. No one had been asking about her; no one had tried to find her address. Detective Ad­amson believed she was safe from the Ripper, and she wished she could share his certainty. She knew that if the Ripper ever found out where she lived, he would be paying her a visit.

The ringing of the phone sliced through the shadows, making her jump and slosh the bottle of juice over her oversize white shirt. She didn’t want to answer it. It was bad news; she just knew it and she wasn’t ready to deal with any more disasters today.

The answering machine clicked on, quiet, efficient, spewing out her generic message. And then Courtland’s arch, actressy voice, for once devoid of artifice, echoed throughout the apartment.

"You’re in deep shit, Lizzie, and you didn’t even tell me!” she wailed. "It’s all over the news, and even if they didn’t give out your address, all anyone has to do is pick up a telephone book and—”

Lizzie had already snatched the receiver off the cradle. "What are you talking about?”

"You’re there, are you? I should have known. I’m talking about the ar­ticle in TheChronicleabout the Ripper,” Courtland said. "And your masks. Why didn’t you tell me?”

"It’s in the paper?” The sense of doom that had been hovering be­yond Lizzie’s shoulders settled down with a heavy weight. "What does it say?”

"Everything. It even has an absolutely terrible picture of you. Like I said, Lizzie, you’re in deep trouble—the local news stations are picking it up, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the national outlets don’t show up. I don’t know what the police were doing, letting that man print that arti­cle.”

"What man?” She tried to keep her burgeoning panic down.

"That reporter for the Chronicle. Damien something. He’s been run­ning a regular column on the Ripper ever since the second murder. Haven’t you been paying attention to anything? I think you should sue him, Lizzie.”

The sky was almost pitch-black when she glanced out the window. It was only late afternoon but the rain was coming down in angry tor­rents, and somewhere out there the latest Jack the Ripper copycat was waiting. Waiting for her. "Sue him, hell,” she said, ignoring the tremor of fear in her own voice. "I’m going to kill him.”

She slammed down the phone, then stared at her trembling hands. Why hadn’t Adamson warned her? She didn’t usually read the paper, and when she did, she avoided anything to do with murders in general, and the Ripper in particular.

Adamson must have figured she was spooked enough, or maybe he hadn’t known about the article. The situation was macabre as it was without the world at large knowing her grim connection to the grisly murders. She pushed her hands through her thick hair, forcing herself to take a calming breath. Why did the Venice Ripper concentrate only on female prostitutes? Why couldn’t he decide to pay a little visit to a man named Damien? Where was a good serial killer when you needed one?

She shook her head, trying to clear the grim fantasy from her ex­hausted mind. Outside, she could hear the ever-present sound of the rain beating down on the two-story building she shared with a couple of starving actors. They were out of town, and she was alone. In the rain, with a killer on the loose. One who had a grotesque affinity for her.

She yanked out the telephone book and began leafing through it. There were more than a dozen Damiens, none of them with the initials J. R., and she was about to slam the thing shut in frustration when she tried the alternative spelling, only to find that a J. R. Damien lived within ten minutes of her house. In Venice, where the Ripper prowled.

She punched the numbers into the telephone before she could think twice about it, but of course all of California communicated by answering machine, and one clicked on after the first ring. A man’s voice, deep, harsh, cool, came over the line in a prerecorded message. Referring the caller to the Los Angeles Chronicle.

She slammed down the phone. It was the same Damien, all right, and there was no way she was going to get through the night without confronting him.

She sank down into the sofa, letting the waves of heat wash over her, and yet inside she felt cold as ice. Why wasn’t the constant heat warm­ing, reassuring, comforting? Why did the very thickness of the sultry weather seem one more threat to her safety and well-being?

She closed her eyes for a moment. She hadn’t been sleeping well. It was no wonder, of course, with a killer on the loose, a killer who had a bizarre connection to her. Even though she’d tried to avoid the grue­some details, some had slipped through, overheard standing in line at the grocery store, presented as a counterpoint to dinner when she was work­ing her waitress shift. Those details would crop up in the middle of the night, as she lay in her narrow bed, and she would wake up in a panic, her body covered with sweat, the white sheets tangled around her like a shroud.

The house creaked. It was cheaply built, made to house the influx of labor after World War II, and the walls were thin, the foundation was cracked and sagging, the windows loose in their frames. Jared and Frank were out of town—there was no one upstairs in their apartment, wander­ingaround. Those weren’t footsteps overhead. No one was nearby, lurking, watching her, waiting for the right moment.

She pushed herself off the couch in a sudden panic. She didn’t want to check her doors and windows, making certain they were locked. To check them would be to admit that the fear existed, and to admit it was to give in to it.

She went through the motions. She ate a carton of raspberry yogurt, washed down with a fruit drink. She took a long, cool shower, dressing in an old pair of jeans and a faded tank top. She turned on the air condi­tioner, telling herself she should clear away the mess from the old mask, start a new one. A fairy princess, maybe. Or a political caricature. Maybe a wizard.

She stared at the ruined mask and knew she wasn’t going to do any such thing. It was already late, and the heavy rain continued outside, slapping against her window, but she wasn’t going to be sensible and stay put, curl up with a good book if she couldn’t work. She was going out to find J. R. Damien and give him a piece of her mind. Then maybe she would be able to rest.

HE KNEW WHO he was. The savior, the slasher, sent by God to wreak justice and revenge on the filth-ridden whores of Los Angeles. He’d come before, many, many times before, in different cities, different centuries, taken up residence in different mortal souls, but his mission had always been the same.

Sometimes they’d caught him. He’d been guillotined, hanged, drowned, shot. Other times he’d gotten away, his blood-lust slaked, leaving his host to live out a normal, peaceful life, with the memory of the bloody mission no more than a dream.

He came in many guises, and that was why they seldom caught him. That was why no one would catch him this time, unless he chose to let them. He became whoever he chose to be, his will so strong that people simply saw the image he projected, not the creature behind that illusion.

It was no wonder those idiot police couldn’t find him. How could they find an executioner who was a derelict one day, a teenage boy the next? A linen-suited businessman, then a middle-aged mother?

He stared down at his hands, his clever surgeon’s hands. He’d sent countless whores to their just reward—and it wouldn’t be long before his mission was complete. Then he could rest, retire back into normalcy, complacency, no one ever realizing the great work he’d done. Just as before.

This time, he thought, he might like to be a woman. It was easier sneaking up on them when he became a woman. The sluts had gotten skittish, wary, and he had to become even more clever when he lured them to an alleyway. Fast with the knife, cutting off their screams before someone could come to their rescue.

He hadn’t made a mistake yet. He wasn’t about to start. But this time, he thought he would like to be a woman, meting out justice to her own kind. And as he watched his hands, she admired the bright red of her highly polished fingernails.



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