He stood before the fire, feeling its heat, listening to the crackle of flames as they devoured the tinder-dry kindling. With all the shades drawn, he slowly unbuttoned his shirt, the crisp white cotton falling off his shoulders as moss ignited, hissing. Sparking.
Above the mantel was a mirror and he watched himself undress, looked at his perfectly honed body, muscles moving easily, flexing, and sliding beneath the taut skin of an athlete.
He glanced at his eyes. Blue. Icy. Described by one woman as “bedroom eyes,” by another as “cold eyes,” by yet another unsuspecting woman as “Eyes that had seen too much.”
They’d all been right now, he thought and flashed a smile.
A “killer smile” he’d heard.
The women had no idea how close to the truth they’d all been. He was handsome and he knew it. Not good-looking enough to turn heads on the street, but so interesting that women, once they noticed him, had trouble looking away.
There had been a time when he’d been so flattered that he’d rarely turned the other direction, a time when he’d picked and chosen and been rarely denied.
He unbuckled his leather belt, let it fall to the hardwood floor. His slacks slid easily off his butt, down his legs and pooled at his feet. He hadn’t bothered with boxers or jockeys. Who cared? It was all about outward appearances.
His smile fell away as he walked closer to the mantel, feeling the heat already radiating from the old bricks. Pictures in frames stood at attention upon the smooth fir. Images he’d caught when his subject didn’t realize he or she were on camera. People who knew him. Or of him. People who had to pay. The kid, the old lady, the brothers. All caught on film without their knowledge.
His eyes fixated on one photograph, slightly larger than the rest, and he stared into her gorgeous face. He traced a finger along her hairline, his guts churning as he noticed her green eyes, slightly freckled nose, thick waves of unruly reddish curls. Her skin was pale, her eyes alive, her smile tenuous, as if she’d sensed him hiding in the shadowy trees, his lense poised at her heart-shaped face.
The dog, some kind of scraggly mutt, had appeared from the other side of the woods, lifted his nose in the air as he’d reached her, trembled, growled, and nearly given him away.
By that time he’d been slipping away. Silently moving through the dark trees and brush, putting distance between them, heading upwind. He’d gotten his snapshots. He’d needed nothing more.
Because the timing hadn’t been right.
But now . . .
The fire glowed bright, seemed to pulse with life as it grew, giving the bare room a warm, rosy glow. He stared again at his image. So perfect in the mirror.
He turned, facing away from the reflection.
Looking over his shoulder, he gritted those perfect white teeth, gnashing them together as he saw the mirror’s cruel image of his back, the skin scarred and shiny, looking as if it had melted from his body.
He remembered the fire.
The agony of his flesh being burned from his bones.
He’d never forget.
Not for as long as he drew a breath on this god-forsaken planet.
And those who had done this to him would pay.
From the corner of his eye, he saw the picture of
Look out, he thought, smiling evilly. I’m coming,