Laina stirred her float and studied its milky spirals. Greasy aromas flooded the diner, so she could almost taste the burger she ordered–she glanced at her watch–twenty minutes ago.
“Got another date later?” Rory asked.
“Huh?” She looked up from the entrancing eddies of her root beer.
He propped his elbows on the table. “You keep checking the time. I must be rotten company.”
She dropped her hands into her lap. “Sorry. Forgot to eat dinner, so now I’m starved. It’s not the company.”
“When you didn’t answer my text, I thought maybe you just used me for the store discount.” He winked.
“I had a crazy busy day.” She folded her arms. “And it was five texts.”
“Yeah. Five is less than fifty, though, right?” He scratched the back of his head and grimaced.
“Yes.” She raised her brows, leaning back from the table. “Yes it certainly is.”
“I’m not a desperate text-bomber, so don’t freak out. There’s an explanation. See, I was working the shop with my grandmother.”
The waitress reached in front of Rory to set down a plate fringed with dangling onion rings.”Rocket burger with fried peppers?”
Laina scooted her drink aside, then looked up as the waitress strolled back to the kitchen. She rose a few inches from her chair and called after her. “Is it gonna be much longer?”
“Be right out.”
She plopped back onto her seat. “What do they have to butcher a cow in the alley?”
“Hmm. Let’s hope its bovine meat. Lemme check it for you.” Since the burger almost matched the size of his face, Rory used both hands to lift it. His teeth crunched through the toasted bun and peppers. He spoke through a half-chewed mouthful.”Mmm. Definitely cow. Want a bite?”
Laina swallowed the surge of saliva to quiet the rumbles in her gut. “If they take another half hour, I might.”
“Okay. These are the best in town, so well worth a little wait. You really never ate here before, huh?” Rory chomped another fragrant, steaming bite.
“No.” She drummed the tabletop for a moment, then slid her float back to take a sip. “You were about to explain why you were so anxious to talk with me, though.”
“Yeah.” He swallowed. “I wasn’t gonna text you after the first time, but my grandmother kept bugging me.”
She squinted at his half-eaten burger. “Your grandmother wanted us to have a date.”
“No, she wanted me to tell you stuff about the amulet.” Rory dabbed his mouth, chuckling. “She was searching all over the store room, ranting about a girl on a foggy street in her dream. When I finally told her I sold the amulet, she wouldn’t stop hounding me. Have you ever had a Chinese woman harp at you? The high pitched nag is unbearable.”
“Zombie burger with cheese fingers.” The waitress laid a grease-streaked plate in front of Laina.
“I ordered the sunshine special.” She looked up at the sunken-eyed brunette.
“Want me to take it back? It’ll be another ten on the sunshine.”
Laina scooped the soggy burger from her plate. “No, but I want a discount.”
Zombie-waitress rolled her eyes. “Course you do.”
As the disgruntled girl shuffled away, Laina snatched up a limp french fry. “Yours is fine, but mine’s late and revolting. This is how my week has been. I must be cursed or something. Is that what your grandma wanted you to tell me?”
“She did say, ‘Xingyaozuoguai’ over and over. It’s a Chinese phrase that means–”
Dropping the fry, she pushed back from the table. “Please don’t tell me it means summoner of demons and troubles.”
“I didn’t know you studied Chinese.” He tilted his head. “Wait, how could you have heard that? It’s legend, not conversational language.”
She rubbed chills from her arms. “I dreamed of a Chinese woman shouting it at me.”
“Very funny.” His lifted the last quarter of his sandwich. “I don’t believe in that stuff.”
She grabbed his wrist. “While I was walking through fog on my street.”
Rory’s smile faded. “You’re serious?”
Laina spoke through gritted teeth. “What else did your grandmother tell you about the amulet?”
“This is so weird.” He shook his head. “There’s got to be some other explanation.”
She tossed her napkin at him. “Look, you want to talk about weird? In addition to the serial killer targeting my apartment building, I’ve been followed, attacked, and haunted. Now, tell me what your grandmother thought was so important.”
“She said something about fear attracting evil spirits. Like a dinner bell.” He pushed his plate away and swallowed hard. “Laina, what she says just can’t be true.”
“What?” Her cell phone rang. She didn’t even glance at her purse. “What did she say?”
“I honestly don’t buy into this. I hate to make you more upset over some superstitious nonsense.”
“If you don’t tell me right now, I’m going to find your grandmother and give her a reason to nag you.”
He studied the table and drew in a deep breath. “The legend says this amulet acts as a fear amplifier, drawing more evil to the wearer than normal. Even if the wearer removes it, the effect remains until the curse is broken. My grandmother seemed to think it would get worse with time. It affects people around you, terrorizing bigger circles. Eventually it’s supposed to draw a city-wide maelstrom of demon activity. Or something like that. Crazy, right?”
Laina gaped for a moment. “You weren’t going to let me in on this?”
He patted her forearm. “It’s just a legend. I didn’t want to tell you, because I didn’t want to scare you.”
“Did you stop to think it might be true? What about my dream?”
“There are lots of ways this could be explained. Look, you have to resist believing this stuff. The self-fulfilling prophecy effects of believing you’re cursed, as you sort of mentioned before, can have amazing power. The rest is just coincidence.” He shrugged.
“You really think there’s an explanation for all of this.” She narrowed her eyes at him.
“Sure. I see how this has upset you, especially after your scare at the apartment. Totally the opposite of what I intended for us here.” Rory leaned forward. He brushed a lock of hair from her face and tucked it behind her ear. “I apologize for my part in this. For the amulet, my grandmother, and anything else I might have done that I’m not aware of yet.”
“Hmm. Still working the charm, there.” She tilted her head and bit into a limp french fry.
“So, I gotta work on it.” He sat back with a sigh, gazing at her. “You just radiate it.”
“Wow.” She cut her sandwich in quarters, barely glancing up at him. “Buy that line in a shop downtown?”
“No, really. I was drawn to you, the first day.”
Laina dropped the knife and it clattered onto her plate. Vamp’s sneer flashed into her mind. “Did you say, ‘drawn’?”
“I guess it sounds corny, but–”
“No, it just reminded me of someone else’s words.” Clearing her throat, she shook the image from her thoughts. “Sorry for snarking at you. I’ve had a day.”
“I understand. Maybe we should try dinner under better circumstances. A little earlier in the evening next time, and I’ll take you to a nicer restaurant, too.” He flashed a grin and reached across the table to touch her hand. “If not, please let me give you a ride home after work. It’d be the least I could do.”
“I might just consider that.” Laina’s phone rang from inside her purse. “Someone keeps calling. Maybe I should check it.”
When she pulled out her cell, the screen indicated two missed calls and a text from Jayme.
U OK? TV news says girl attacked in yr bldg? Call me.
“Everything okay?” Rory asked.
“No.” She hit redial. “Mind taking me to my cousin’s apartment instead?”
“Keep me safe from the traps set by evildoers,
from the snares they have laid for me” (Psalm 141:9).