AN OLD FRIEND OF THE FAMILY…
Alexandra Belarus is a struggling artist living in New York City, even though her family is rich in real estate, including a towering Gothic Gramercy Park building built by her great-great-grandfather. But the truth of her bloodline is revealed when she is attacked on the street and saved by an inhumanly powerful winged figure. A figure who knows the Belarus name…Lexi’s great-great-grandfather was a Spellmason—an artisan who could work magic on stone. But in his day, dark forces conspired against him and his, so he left a spell of protection on his family. Now that Lexi is in danger, the spell has awoken her ancestor’s most trusted and fearsome creation: a gargoyle named Stanis.Lexi and Stanis are equally surprised to find themselves bound to each other. But as they learn to work together, they realize that only united can they save the city they both love…
Waking was easy. Something primal in the night sky called out to me like a banshee at the witching hour. When was the last time I had even encountered one of them, I wondered? I could not recall that . . . or much of anything. But that was always the way of waking, I remembered. The lingering disorientation of dreaming held its sway for a moment longer before slipping from my grasp like leaves on the wind. The haunting, faintly familiar face that had been the focus of them once again faded. Stanis, the figure said, and nothing more. I fought to hold the image—that of a pale gentleman with wild, black tangles of hair and kind blue eyes.
Had the hair always been black? I was not sure. Frozen fragments of my broken memories made me swear I recalled this exact same figure with a full head of gray as well, but already I could feel something in my mind pushing those thoughts aside as the routine of waking took over.
I stretched, every muscle in my form crying out with pure joy. As I relaxed my body, an intense itch flared down two long sections of my back. My wings, I remembered. Of course. I looked back over my shoulder to find the giant stone wings like those of a bat curled close to my back. I worked the muscles along my shoulder blades, the heavy wings extending, flexing out for a moment to relieve the itch they had called forth upon my waking, both pleasure and pain in the gesture.
A hunger awoke in my chest, but I forced myself to ignore it for the moment. It would win—as it always did—but for now I fought it off as my hearing focused in on the sounds of the city rising up all around me. The occasional bleat of traffic down below sounded out, much like the sheep I remembered that used to roam the vast fields that had once occupied this island.
Manhattan, I recalled. Long ago, the whole island had looked more like the tiny park in front of the building where I had awoken, the one the humans called Gramercy.
A cool wind blew through the green leaves of the trees in it—had they not just been bare?
Was the word Manhattan even right, either? I was not sure and forced myself to concentrate through my still–lingering confusion of thoughts. I looked at the towers of glass and light rising up around me, hoping for familiarity and glad when I discerned a few that kept their long–standing forms, still unchanged in this modern world.
The tallest of the skyline’s towers still stood off to the north of my rooftop, its lone spire illuminated in bright lights—this time red, blue, and white. Sometime in the near future the sky itself would light up in colorful explosive bursts, the humans celebrating, cheering . . . but surely it was not already that time of year again? I did not understand the ritual, but it was something I used to mark the passing of the years.
I turned from the building and its light, looking south now. In recent times, the skyline had changed a great deal that way. Two of its other great towers had stood there, once the highest and most majestic points on that horizon, but now there was nothing where I remembered those structures to have been, which only added to my sense of disorientation.
Before I could wonder too long whether I was mistaken in my thoughts, that gnawing hunger rose in my chest again, a burning need to do. What, though, I still was not quite sure. It picked away at me like a hammer at stone until I could ignore it no longer. The itching sensation between my shoulders rejoined it and I gave in to the pull of it all. Looking back over my shoulder, I watched my stone wings unfurl from against my body once more, stretching twice as wide as I stood tall. The itch died as I worked them, retracting the wings close to my body and then extending them to their fullest over and over.
My mind began to clear. All of the sensations rose to the center of my thoughts, a strong and unrecalled memory forcing itself forward—one of the rules.
With wings extended, I leapt off my perch along the edge of the roof I called home, my body dropping into the night sky. As I tumbled down toward the park, my wings recalled memories of flight, lifting me before I struck the street full of traffic below. I set off, heading north, the red, blue, and white lights of the tallest tower a flaming beacon of orientation, all other thoughts leaving me as that one word once again consumed all other thoughts, burning them away.
But just what I was meant to protect, I was unsure.
Punching clay felt a lot more satisfying than any sexy–time Ghost–pottery–wheel–spinning nonsense ever could. Each strike released my anger, my balled–up fists sinking rewardingly into the unfinished statue’s form, the clay still too soft to actually do any damage to my fingers or wrists. In my twenty–two years, I hadn’t been violent by nature; nor had I ever spent my time punching much of anything, but in the moment, rage held its sway over me and I couldn’t stop myself.
I pulled my hands free, flecks of clay flying and sticking into my long black hair. Normally I’d have already tied it up while working in our old unused Belarus family art studio on the seventh floor. But then again, normally, someone—namely my brother—wouldn’t have dressed my latest attempt at a Gothic–inspired statue so it was wearing a basketball jersey and mirrored sunglasses, one of its now–deformed hands wrapped around a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon. As a final comment on my artistry, a half–smoked cigarette hung from its mouth, along with ten more discarded butts adorning the top of its head in an attempt at a Statue of Liberty–type crown.
A sound from somewhere up above the art studio, on the roof of the building itself, snapped me out of my red rage, making me step back from my now–even–worse–looking statue–in–progress. Whatever potential I had seen in it was now lost, its form pummeled and twisted like something Salvador Dalí would have envisioned. I let out a long sigh and wiped my now–gray hands down the front of the overalls I preferred to wear in the art space. They weren’t exactly flattering, but function won out over fashion in my book, some of the clay getting on the straps of the black tank top I wore underneath them. My whole ensemble was coated in enough clay, it was most likely trash–bound anyway.
I walked across the large open floor of my family’s building, out of my great–great–grandfather’s art space with its dozens of historic pieces and hundreds of puzzle boxes, past his rows and rows of private library collection before sidestepping around one of the many mid–nineteenth century sofas there.
Having heard the sounds on the roof, which I was sure meant my brother, Devon, was up there, I threw open the door leading out to the small terrace just below it, walked out, and turned to face it as I stared up into the night sky.
“Hey, asshole!” I shouted. “Get the hell down here, right now!”
No response. Typical Devon. I stormed back in, leaving the July air to pour into the building, which was musty enough to need a good airing out every once in a while anyway. I went back over to the art studio, heading for the table I had left my shoulder bag on. I tore it open with such a fury I shocked myself, worried for a moment that I had ruined it. That thought riled me even more, to the point that by the time I found my phone, my hands were shaking.
I clicked on “Devon,” then waited for it to dial through, my eyes panning the room as I stood there. Part of me was already secretly glad I had destroyed my work. Compared to everything else around the art studio—here thanks to the long–lost talents and skills of my great–great–grandfather Alexander Belarus—mine was a pale imitation.
“Yeah?” my brother’s voice barked into the phone, causing me to jump. Short. Curt. So very Devon.
“Get down from the roof,” I said. “Now!”
His usual heavy sigh came through the phone. “Lexi, what are you rambling on about now? I’m not even home. I’m waiting on a meeting.”
I pulled my phone away from my face and checked the time. “At this time of night? It’s nearly eleven!”
“Listen,” he said. “Sometimes you’re dealing with contractors, unions, architects, zoning, permits . . . and that shit waits for no man. Got it? You take the meetings when they come. C’mon, I realize you have no grasp of the family business—”
“Nor do I have to,” I said. “That’s what they have you for. I have zero interest in real estate development.”
“Aww,” my brother mocked. “I thought you were all about family and the Belarus legacy, Lex.”
“Moving property and writing contracts are not the Belarus legacy,” I said. “It’s the actual art and architecture that our great–great–grandfather crafted for this city. You’d know that if you actually opened a book in our family library or just looked for once at one of his pieces of art here. Speaking of which . . .”
Devon chuckled. “Hey, you just said you wanted me to spend more time in the art studio, right?”
“Not defacing my art,” I said. “I would appreciate it if you’d keep your hands off of my work.”
“That’s not work,” he said. “Dressing up, learning the family business . . . That’s work.”
“Firstborn son gets all those perks,” I said. “Not me.” I had never even been on our father’s radar for that type of stuff. Devon was the favored scion. Truthfully, I didn’t care about all the construction and landlording . . . and Devon knew it, this not being the first time our differences on honoring the family’s name had put us at odds. “Our true legacy, I have always and still believe, lies in the beauty of the buildings our great–great–grandfather designed, Devon. My work as a sculptor is the best way I know how to pay homage to that. You, dear brother, don’t care about design or craftsmanship. You care about cold, hard cash.”
“You should take an interest in the family business,” he said, his voice dark now, his business tone.
I laughed into the phone. “Are we the mob now, Devon?”
“Carving pretty things isn’t where the money is,” he said. “That’s why I did what I did to your precious statue—to prove my point. That stuff’s not important for the Belarus name. It’s land. It’s property. Jesus, Lexi, do you have any idea how this company runs? This is about land in Manhattan, about who controls it, and who can earn off it. No one cares who designed the buildings.”
“Half this city owes Alexander Belarus a debt of gratitude!” I shouted.
“Fine, Lex, I’ll build him a museum. We’ll put all his stuff behind glass, charge admission. Then we might make some money. You’d be happy. I’d be happy. Everybody wins. Will that suffice?”
“Not really,” I said, unable to let go of my anger, my short nails digging into the palm of my free hand. “You’d probably just screw up everything in the museum like you did here in the studio.”
“Give me a break, will you?” he fired back. “There are bigger things out there than all that playing around you do.”
“If history and art are playing around,” I said, “then so be it.”
“It wouldn’t hurt you to learn the family business, Lexi,” he said, short. “I have to go. Meeting time.”
“And it wouldn’t hurt you to be a better brother,” I said. “Stay away from my stuff, Devon. We’re not kids anymore. I feel stupid even having to say it.” Tears of frustration began to pour, and before he could get in the last word as he always had to, I ended the call, slamming my phone down onto the soft leather of my bag. I ran into the library, opting for the comfort of one of the more shadowy sofas as far from the lights of the art studio as possible. The quiet darkness calmed me a little, but thinking about the ruined statue kept nagging at me.
I didn’t know how long I had been sitting there—minutes, maybe a half hour—when another sound caught my attention, this time coming from the terrace outside the set of double doors off across the far end of the floor. Footsteps. I snapped out of my funk and wiped my tears away as best I could. A small ray of happiness welled up in me as the sight of my favorite short–haired blonde appeared at the French doors, now sporting fresh bangs that sat just above her black horn–rimmed glasses. Her dancer’s bag was thrown across her body from one shoulder to the opposite hip, and she twirled around in perfect form once through the doors.
“You going to air–condition all of Manhattan now?” Aurora Torres asked, pulling the doors shut.
“Maybe, Rory,” I said. “I thought your apartment all the way down in the Village could use it, what with your thermostat issues.”
Rory started across the room toward me. “Appreciate it. Our air conditioner still isn’t working. Marshall dropped it off to get fixed, but the guy is giving us the runaround. If it doesn’t get fixed by the Fourth, I’ll leave it to Marshall to set off his own fireworks. He’s used to battle, after all, what with running Roll for Initiative.”
I laughed. “See? Something good came from looking for a roommate on Craigslist.”
She nodded. “It’s amazing how Marshall spending all his college savings on his tabletop–and–role–playing–game hobby–turned–business can keep him going,” Rory said. “Plus it gives me endless things to tease him about. But conflict seems to be part of his day–to–day. They do a lot of ’war gaming,’ or so he tells me. I don’t get any of it.”
“Let your roommate fight the battles,” I said. “Nice.”
She stopped in front of my sofa, pulling her evidently heavy bag off her shoulder and shaking it at me. “Like I’ve got time between my course load and dance rehearsals for my MFA program.”
“I thought your program was already one of the toughest in the city,” I said. “Which normally has you a little frantic anyway. I thought summers were for lightening all that.”
“Not when you take a summer intensive,” she said. “And it is intensive, overachiever that I am. Then there’s the workout of climbing up your fire escape to avoid the rest of the Belarus clan. My body hurts.” She put the bag down, bending with it, and that was when she noticed my face. “What’s wrong?”
I wiped the tears from my eyes with the back of my clay–flecked forearm, avoiding the bits of it stuck there. “Three guesses,” I said.
“Douglas Belarus,” she said, then tapped the side of her head like she was thinking. “He’s worried that his daughter doesn’t spend enough time getting holy and taking to the knee at Our Sister of Perpetual Bowing and Scraping.”
I laughed despite my tears at the truth of it, snorting through my now–running nose. “Wrong, although I’m sure he’d love it if I did join him more often. Love the parental dad unit, but not really looking to get my church on that many times a week.”
“Okay, then,” she said. “Juliana Belarus, then, caring mother but also a quiet mouse when it comes to who wears the pants in the family.”
I shook my head. “Strike two.”
“Ah,” Rory said, dropping onto the sofa next to me. She threw her arm around my shoulder and squeezed, her deceptively thin frame still well muscled enough to make it hurt a little. “Big brother strikes again. What did he do this time, as we continue on into the third decade of the Sibling Cold War?”
I pointed over to the art studio side of the floor. Rory’s eyes caught sight of my former masterpiece and let out a low, slow whistle.
“Wow,” she said. “Made your art his own personal punching bag, I see.”
My face went flush with embarrassment, but I couldn’t help but let a small laugh escape my lips. “Actually . . . that part was me.”
“Really, now?” Rory stood and walked over to the area, circling the table the tall slab of half–molded clay sat on. “I’m impressed, Lexi. You been working out? Maybe I can make a dancer out of you yet. You did some serious damage here.”
“The punches are mine. All the rest is Devon, though.”
“It’s good you got out some of your aggression there, Lexi,” she said, and I gave her a wary sidelong look. “I mean it! Look, I know he’s family and all, but some people are just born mean–spirited. He’s a natural–born asshole, my dear. Your reaction to his bullshit is normal.”
I stood up, walking back toward the art studio. “I knew I picked cubby partners well back in third grade,” I said. “Thanks.”
Rory gave an elaborate flourish and a bow, each motion fluid and graceful.
My phone vibrated on my bag at the table next to her. Rory snatched it up and waved it for me to see. “Speak of the devil,” she said.
“Give it,” I said, but Rory held it away from me while it kept on ringing.
“No,” she said. “I know you, Lexi. You’re just going to be the one to be all apologetic and try to make nice, as usual. And it’s not okay. The way he treats you borders on abuse. You have every right to be pissed. Say it.”
“This is stupid,” I said. “Just give me the phone.”
“Say it,” she repeated, unwavering. There was almost a pixieish glee in her eyes.
“Fine,” I said, just wanting the phone at this point. “I have every right to be pissed.”
Rory rolled her eyes. “Mean it.”
Whether I was exasperated with her game or the fact that I just wanted my damn phone, I wasn’t sure. I only know that it triggered something deep inside me that snapped. “I have every write to be pissed!” I shouted.
Rory jumped in surprise, then handed the phone over to me. “Excellent,” she said. “Now have at him!”
I swiped my finger across the screen, lifted the phone to my head, and screamed into it, “Go screw yourself, Devon,” I said. “Next time you see me, you’d better walk off in the opposite direction. For real.”
A pronounced silence filled the line.
“Hey there, ass!” Rory shouted with a bit of a suppressed giggle to it, apparently loving the fury I was throwing at him.
A man’s voice came on the line but it was not my brother. “Is this Lexi? Lexi Belarus?”
“Only my friends call me Lexi,” I snapped, ignoring the stranger’s butchering of my last name. It came out Bell La Roose, reminding me of the childhood jibes of Bella Moose, not at all sounding like Bell Air Us. That didn’t bother me so much. I was more upset at him using the familiar version of my first name. “Which one of Devon’s friends is this? You can go screw yourself, too.”
“Sorry,” the man said. “That’s the only name that the phone shows.”
“Who the hell is this?”
“This is Officer Michael Lawrence of the NYPD. May I ask how you are related to Devon?”
“I’m his sister,” I said, my anger mixing with growing curiosity.
“We found this phone lying on the street, and you’re the last number dialed. I think you should know that there’s a distinct possibility your brother may be in trouble.”
“Trouble how, exactly?”
“Do you have any association with a building on St. Mark’s Place?”
I had to stop and think for a moment. “I think so,” I said, my blood running cold. “That’s one of my family’s properties. We’re in real estate.”
“I regret to inform you that there’s been an accident.”
“What . . . kind of accident?” I went to lean back against one of the drafting tables in the studio, but missed it completely. Rory caught me and didn’t let go, especially since I had just said the word accident.
“A building collapse, miss,” the officer said. “Your family’s building.”
“That can’t be true,” I said, feeling all the emotions of the past few minutes drain away, a little more every second. “I just spoke to him . . . maybe half an hour ago . . . ? You’re mistaken.”
“I wish I were, miss,” the man said. “But it is unlikely.”
“Maybe he wasn’t there,” I said, panic filling my chest, the beat of my heart rising up into my throat. “Maybe he got out. That’s why you were able to find his phone.”
“Was he wearing a ring with a dark green stone in it on his left hand?”
“Yes,” I said, clutching at the similar one hanging around my own neck from an old silver chain. “It’s a family thing. There should be a crest of sorts carved into it, a sigil. Kind of looks like bat wings surrounded by an octagon, stylized B on it.”
“Yes, miss, I see it,” he said. “Since you were the last person he talked to, we’re going to need you to come down to the Ninth Precinct and identify his hand.”
“Just his hand?” I asked, a nervous, hysterical laugh overtaking me.
“Holy hell,” Rory whispered, then clamped her hands over her mouth.
“Jesus Christ,” a man somewhere in the background on the other end of the line said. “Give me that goddamn thing. Hello?”
An older voice this time.
“Yes? What’s going on?”
“I’m sorry about that, miss. My partner shouldn’t have said that.”
“Just tell me what is going on!” I said, shaking now. “Why was he asking me about my brother’s hand?”
“Because,” the older man said. “It’s all we found. It was still holding the phone.”
To keep up-to-date, input your email address, and we will contact you on publication
Please alert me via email when: