Read Deficiency Online

Authors: Andrew Neiderman

Deficiency

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Synopsis:

Niederman (The Baby Squad, etc.) unleashes a remorseless monster who looks human but is far more deadly in this fast-paced medical murder mystery. In a small town in upstate New York, a young woman is rushed to the emergency room, where she soon dies. Dr. Terri Barnard determines the cause of death to be extreme vitamin C deficiency, which sounds preposterous given the woman's general good health. But when another young woman dies of a sudden loss of vitamin B, Terri and the local authorities begin to suspect that a very unusual serial killer may be on the prowl. In a parallel narrative, a nameless drifter seduces women young and old. A medical enigma, he seems to draw strength from the women, draining them of the nutrients his body lacks. He is confused not only by his body's abnormal physical needs, but by memories, or rather, their conspicuous absence: he cannot remember his family, or anything about his life prior to a few years ago. The story cuts back and forth between the two perspectives, and accelerates as Terri and her colleagues come closer to finding the predator. Despite a strong setup and an intriguing villain, the finale feels rushed, and the explanation for the killer's biology is disappointingly derivative.

DeficiencyByAndrew Neiderman

 

Copyright © Andrew Neiderman, 2004ISBN 0-7434-7828-2To Tyrah Stenftenagel, a future fan and all my future fans from Palm Valley

 

PROLOGUE

 

Paige Thorndyke paused just inside the entrance of the Underground. The Underground is a perfect name for this dance club, she thought disdainfully. The stairway descended a full flight below the sidewalk, and the moment she opened the door to the lobby she was greeted by a musty odor that reminded her of what the basement at home smelled like, especially when the humidity was too high and everything had that dank, awful, redolent odor. Whether intentional or not, the walls here were just as poorly lighted and looked like raw cement.

She crossed the small lobby in which two pumped-up wannabe television wrestlers strained their undersized tuxedos at every seam. As if they were really passing judgment on her qualifications to enter, they nodded their approval, each man's neck bulging like a pinched inner tube. Neither smiled. They looked as if they had superglue smeared around their lips, keeping them from relaxing.

Paige hesitated as she approached the second set of doors, but as if some modern-day Satan was watching her and pushing buttons, the doors opened automatically with a dramatic swish, giving her the feeling she had indeed descended into a region of Hades and was now being sucked into its belly. Inside, the dance hall resembled an inferno — the blazing pink and blue, red and yellow lights flickered over the crowd and up the pink stucco walls. The dance floor itself was a layer of glass beneath which a ruby-tinted liquid flowed, giving the revelers the sense that they were dancing on a stream of wine or blood. The fog generated by dry ice twisted and knotted above and around them, spinning a web of smoke that gnarled and curled like a snake slithering into itself.

Paige regretted agreeing to meet Eileen Okun here. She was never fond of barhopping and found hanging around in dance clubs even more uncomfortable and somehow threatening, especially this one. The loud music, the liberal pouring and drinking of booze as if it was water, the entire atmosphere changed people or perhaps liberated the wildness and evil that hitherto lay restrained within them. It reconnected them to their animal selves. To Paige, most everyone down here recalled a mole or some reptile. That tall, thin black-haired girl in the skintight leather mini wiggled as would a rodent working its way toward scraps of food. Her eyes even bulged. And that buxom redhead who wore a pushup bra hovered over her shorter companion like a cat about to pounce, her fingers bent into small claws as she swung her arms above and around him.

Of course she knew what Eileen would say — at least these girls were dancing; they had partners and more than likely, they would leave with someone. Unfortunately, Eileen was right. Men were so simple, always going for the obvious ones, she concluded. I don't know why I agreed to come here, she thought and actually heard herself whimper. She had merely stepped foot in the place and her mind was already in turmoil because of it. Why do I keep doing things I really don't want to do?

Because you're twenty-eight, she replied to her own question, and you're unmarried, unattached, and working in a travel agency where the only eligible bachelor is Clarence Tugman, a short, pudgy thirty-year-old who still lives with his parents. Most of the young men who came to the agency as clients either had someone already with whom they were traveling, or didn't seem to be interested in her. Maybe it was because she showed little interest. She wasn't good at flirting and was disdainful of it in others. I'm wound too tight, she thought, remembering a boy in high school who had accused her of being just that.

She had no one to blame but herself. Why had she come back to her hometown? Why had she let herself sink in the quicksand of complacent security by living at home like Clarence Tugman? Why hadn't she gone off to California like Adrian, or New York City like Toby and Betty? Her closest high school girlfriends were all married or into exciting careers. Her current best friend here, Eileen, really her only friend, at least had an excuse for being here. She was relatively new to the area. For Eileen, this place was some sort of an adventure. But Paige could easily see the future she was committing herself to when she had returned after four years at the state university in Albany where she acquired a degree in liberal arts to hang on her bedroom wall. She had heard the warnings and she hadn't heeded them.

Voilà. Here she was; here she had been for almost six years after college. This was the year of her first high school reunion, ten years later, and although she had sent in her check and said she was attending, she dreaded the thought. Most anyone else with whom she had been friendly from the class and who had remained here was at least married with a family by now, even "Slow Boat Shirley" who had simply been given an attendance diploma.

Her eyes went down; she sought out the darkest, most secluded spot by the bar and fumbled nervously through her purse for her money to buy herself a drink.

"Relax," she heard someone say. He was seated so deeply in the shadows himself that she hadn't noticed him. Actually, it was more like he had suddenly appeared out of thin air. "Your money is no good here."

"Pardon me?"

He seemed to rise out of the darkness like a fantasy out of the coils of a deep sleep.

"I said, your money's no good here," he said more authoritatively. "What will you have?"

She stared at him for a moment. Was this blond-haired, evenly tanned man with the most beautiful blue eyes she had ever seen actually talking to her, really to her?

"I…"

"You came to the bar. You wanted something to drink, right?" he said smiling. It was such a warm smile, and yet those white teeth, those sensuous lips sent tingles down her spine, making it more than merely a friendly smile. He had a small cleft in his chin, just enough to make it interesting. This was a very sexy, very handsome man, she concluded. Was she dreaming? Did she long for it so much that she had freed a reckless imagination and concocted this wonderful illusion? Am I talking to myself? she wondered, or am I talking aloud without realizing it, and being overheard?

He continued to stare at her, to hold his smile, to drink her in with such intensity, she felt undressed.

"It's not a hard question," he said laughing softly.

"What? Oh yes. Um… Vodka and tonic."

"Vodka and tonic," he said sharply to the bartender. Then he sat back, the shadows closing in around his face again. She moved to the black vinyl stool and placed her purse on the bar.

"Thank you," she said.

Paige wasn't comfortable permitting men to buy her drinks, especially men she didn't know, not that it happened that often. She believed that when a man bought you a drink and you accepted it, he immediately thought that meant he bought you.

Of course you would jump to think that, her other side quickly snapped. Always thinking negatively, especially when it comes to men.

Maybe she was being too harsh. Eileen wouldn't hesitate to accept a drink from a stranger, would she? If it weren't for Eileen, she wouldn't be doing anything tonight, she concluded sadly.

Anyway, she had no idea why she had so quickly and easily accepted a drink from this stranger. She surprised herself with her impulsive action.

"No problem. You looked kind of lost for a moment and I thought, there's someone who feels the way I do." He leaned forward again and smiled. "I'm a stranger in these parts," he added in a mock-western accent, pretending to tip back a cowboy hat.

"Oh." She laughed, a thin, wispy sort of laugh, a laugh she hated because it sounded so forced. "Well, I'm no stranger to these parts, but to be perfectly honest, I was indecisive about coming in tonight. Even after I had entered. Especially after I entered," she added with a frankness that even surprised herself.

"Oh?"

She gazed around as she spoke.

"A friend was supposed to meet me here and she's not here," she continued as if that would explain everything — her whole life, why she was alone, why she looked and felt the way she did.

"Yeah, I thought you might be looking for someone who hadn't arrived." His smile turned into an expression of concern — thoughtful, deep. "It can't be easy for a young woman these days, especially one who's alone."

The bartender brought her drink.

"Well, I'm… I'm not usually alone," she lied. "Usually, I go out with friends, but it's just one of those nights where I was somewhere and my friend was somewhere and…"

"Sure," he said turning his palms out as if to say, "That's my point."

She felt herself relax, her body pour down to the stool as she sipped her vodka and tonic. Why worry about making excuses, creating a false front? Be yourself, be comfortable in yourself, she urged herself.

"It's very crowded tonight anyway," she said looking back at the dance floor. She felt a need to keep talking as if the silences between them would give him time to reconsider what he had done and he would move away quickly.

"Yes, it is. Apparently, the Underground lives up to its reputation. This afternoon I asked someone where was the hottest place in town, and he told me to come here. I got here only a few minutes before you did," he said. She thought he was explaining why he hadn't another girl beside him, but of course, she recognized that as her own insecurity.

"Oh," she said. And then she smiled and thought, if Eileen could see me now, she wouldn't believe it. Where was she? How could she not show up? Maybe she never would!

"My name's John," the dark stranger declared and extended his hand.

My mind is clouded with animal imagery tonight, she thought, for his arm seemed to slither over the portion of the bar between them and his long, graceful fingers rose up toward her like the head of a snake about to strike. She turned awkwardly on the stool to shake his hand, and felt the heat in his palm, a heat that seemed to travel with electric speed into hers and up her arm. Also, his fingers clung to hers, but not because he was squeezing hard; it was more like his skin was magnetic. She held onto his hand at least three times as long as she normally would hold onto someone's hand when she shook.

"John," he repeated, widening his smile. "Follow me and I will make you fishers of men."

"Pardon?"

"Christ's invitation to the disciples."

"Oh." She finally released his hand.

"Actually, I think I was named after Kennedy. My mother was in love with him."

She smiled. He was so warm and relaxed; he sat there so casually and had such poise, while her heart thumped so loud she was sure he must hear it. She looked nervous and stupid, fidgeting with the plastic mixer stick. And, he made reference to the Bible. How many young men today even read any of the Bible?

"After all that, aren't you going to volunteer your name?" he asked.

"What? Oh. I'm Paige," she said. "Paige Thorndyke."

"Paige. Are you a page in someone's book?" he asked, smiling.

"Hardly. No. I'm no one's little story," she replied, and he laughed.

She laughed herself, but still nervously.

"I'm glad of that even though you make it sound like a fault," he said, suddenly looking serious. He gazed at the crowd. "Maybe it is. Too many of us become someone else's little story. People don't take each other as seriously as they once did. Everyone uses everyone," he added. "We're so accustomed to disposable things, we even treat each other that way," he concluded, turning the glass in his hand.

She was fascinated for the moment. She even held her breath. How deep, she thought, and how right.

He apparently realized his pensiveness and turned quickly to her.

"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to get so heavy. This is not exactly the place for philosophical discussions," he added smiling again.

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