Danut is late again.
I swear, loudly, and press my face against the damp boards covering the broken stained-glass window, trying to get a better view. Outside, the late afternoon sunlight dances in an open field, and the tree branches in a nearby copse wave at me as the wind ruffles through them. A handful of colored leaves skip across the clearing. I squint and scan the surrounding area, sighing. No van. No Danut. Shit.
I step away from the window and begin pacing the marble floor of the abandoned church. In the corner near the wooden door, the metal pans and rubber hoses of my lab lie coiled and waiting. The product of the last few hours' labor sits in a backpack nearby. I continue pacing, running through my mind all the things I'm going to say to Danut when he shows up. Though in reality, I know I won't say anything. If I complain too much about him to our boss, Gavril, he'll just tell me to go back to selling, and I can't do that anymore. I just don't have the stomach for it.
I slip around a marble column, out of view of anyone who might approach the back door, and settle into a crumbling pew. I pull out my nail polish. Given how many times Danut has been late in the past, I've learned to bring something to pass the time. I look idly around the church as I drag the brush over my nails. I have to admit, this was a good site. One of my better picks, actually. It's abandoned so locals don't come here, the leaky roof makes it well-ventilated, and it's several kilometers from the nearest village. Which means no cops, or at least, not very often.
I've always loved the Gothic arches and stone columns of these old churches. There's something timeless about them, even the abandoned ones with nothing inside. This one in particular must have really been something once – not every church has stone walls and marble floors. And even though the wind and rain have done a number on the whole building, not a single marble tile or statue is missing. The locals must have really respected it, even after they stopped coming here.
It's hard to find places like that in the States, which is one of the reasons why I came here to Romania a couple of years ago to live with my cousins. That, and I didn't know what else to do after high school. So I got into selling speed here, but didn't have the stomach for it and went into production instead. Hey, don't judge. Where I come from, it's either that or the drive-thru window.
At least the income is pretty good. I always did good in my high school chemistry classes, and in the handful of community college ones I took later. I used to want to join the FBI and work in the labs there, but there isn't really a career path from a small-town high school to a place like the FBI. And I'm pretty sure they won't appreciate me using a rap sheet as a resumé.
I like the consistency of lab work. I like knowing that if I always add so much of this chemical and so much of that chemical, I'll always get so much product. No guesswork, no trying to scope out new customers, and no always looking over your shoulder wondering if one of your best clients might actually be a cop. I just focus on the chemistry and try not to think about where it goes after Danut picks it up.
This church, though – I had a feeling about this one ever since Gavril and I first came by to scope it out. It's famous in the region for the statue of the huge dragon over the arch at the main entrance. The dragon is over nine feet long, and the detailing from the wings to the claws is really something. The lifelike snarl on its face gives me the chills whenever I look at it. It's seriously unbelievable. The whole thing is carved from a single piece of stone. I guess most people would call it a gargoyle, although Gavril said technically it's a grotesque because it doesn't have a drain spout. I like that about him. Unlike that knuckledragger Danut, Gavril actually cares about the culture here.
He couldn't get enough of this church when I brought him with me to scope the place out last week. "Amazing," he said when we went through the front door and into the nave, the main part of the church. I followed him, nodding, as he talked and walked down the long center aisle. "The architecture's probably German High Gothic – see the wide center aisle and the two smaller aisles along the side walls? That's typical. The pointed arches, too, the ones that look kind of like wishbones," he added, gesturing overhead at the rows of arches spanning the long end of the church like a ribcage. "Typical Gothic. Also, the shorter transept. Very distinctive of the style," he mumbled when we got to the far end and stood where the altar used to be. He stopped then, and pointed at a small empty room on the back left side of the church: "I bet that used to be the sacristy. Where the priests used to keep the vestments and stuff."
"Yeah, it's great. How do you know this stuff anyway? You sitting on your ass with some art books while I'm out here making a living?" I joked.
He sighed and scratched at the corner of his eye where faint crow's feet were forming. He's about fifteen years older than me, and he says sometimes that it feels like even more. "Hey, I've got to do something. You take forever in the lab."
I grinned and changed the subject. "So is this place okay? I mean, it's been decommissioned, it's way outside the town, and no one comes here anymore anyway. I asked around."
He shrugged. "Frankly, Anica, I'm not sure setting up a lab in a church is a good idea. Bad karma and all. But if you're okay with it, I'm okay with it. Just be careful. If no one comes up here anymore, there must be a reason."
"I told you, it's been decommissioned. I checked with the local diocese. They haven't had priests or services here for years. No one comes here. Relax."
"Yeah, I know. Be careful anyway, though. Just because it's decommissioned doesn't mean it's not still sacred to someone."
A loud thump on the church roof pulls me back to the present. I freeze, just as I'm putting the last coat of nail polish on my pinkie. Sudden noises always make me nervous, especially when I'm working alone. I hear it again, a gentle tapping, and look up just as a drop of water spatters on my face. Shit. Now it's raining, and of course the roof is leaking. I wonder aloud where the hell Danut is as I move back against the stone wall. The roof is more stable here. I lean against the boarded window again and squint through the crack. The sun has slipped over the horizon now, and the copse and field are both drowning in deep purple hues. In the failing light, I check my watch and swear again. I hope he can find his way up here in the dark.
Night falls fast in this part of the country. After a few minutes at the window, I have to step back because it's too dark to see anything. I finger the lighter in my jeans pocket - I wasn't planning on staying this late so I didn't bring a flashlight, but I always keep a lighter with me, because of my work. The rain has picked up and is now drilling a brisk staccato on the roof. I pull up the hood on my sweatshirt and lean against the wall, shivering in the sudden chill. Overhead, the roof creaks and groans over the sound of the rain. I tell myself it's just the old church settling in for the night, but even I'm not so sure.
A sudden crash wakes me from my reverie. I'm on my feet in a second. I run toward the back entrance, but what I see there stops me dead in my tracks. The back exit where I was supposed to meet the van is now a rain-spattered pile of rubble. A section of roof has caved in over the door.
I swear again, and kick a chunk of stone that tumbles down onto the church floor. Great. Now I can't get out this way. I decide if the roof's not stable, I better not wait for the rest of the church to fall on me. I grab my purse and head for the front entrance, planning to brave the rain and walk the few kilometers to a nearby village. The lab's in a dry spot on the floor, and anyway, I'm sure no one will come up here in the rain. I'm going to the village. Danut can look for me there.
My sneakers pad along the center aisle of the church. I tuck my curly, dark blond hair into my hood and keep my head down to avoid the raindrops from the leaky roof. I pull my hood close. I'll be warm and dry soon.
I reach the last row of pews, and stop dead. The front end of the church is completely dark. The faint starlight has all but disappeared, blocked by the huge shape in front of me. I stare at it. I recognize the stone teeth, the curved claws, the now-fully-extended wings of the creature that had been sitting over the front archway just hours earlier. Only now it's directly in front of me, blocking my only exit. And it's moving.