I had never met Conover in person, but it seemed I was about to get my chance. Arm linked through his, Lavonia Hammersmith was homing in on Hank and me for the second time that evening. Then, they were standing in front of us.
"Ms. Gregson," began Lavonia, "Malcolm—that is, Mr. Conover—would like to make your acquaintance. As a matter of fact, he expressly requested an introduction the moment he found out you were here." Both her expression and tone bordered on mystified.
The famous philanthropist sent her a sheepish look. "Pardon me for acting like a star-struck schoolboy, cousin, but I’m one of Ms. Gregson’s most loyal admirers."
"Please, call me A.J.," I said, handing Hank my glass so I could offer my hand.
Conover’s attention shifted from Lavonia to me. The hand that gripped mine was unexpectedly strong and calloused, but that didn’t surprise me nearly as much as what happened when our eyes met. I felt my surroundings tilt as I slid into that other dimension. Assaulted by the now-familiar vertigo, I dropped Conover’s hand and took an instinctive step back, trying not to stammer when I told him it was always nice to meet a fan.
"Oh, I seldom miss your broadcasts," he said with a Kris Kringle-y smile, as lines blurred and colors ran. His gentle voice seemed to come through a long, dark tunnel as he added, "I was concerned when you disappeared from the airwaves a few weeks back. Yours is a dangerous line of work, after all. Then I saw this evening’s editorial and realized you were in your usual fine fettle."
"Caught that one, did you?" murmured Hank.
My heart bucked violently when Conover jumped back into ultra-sharp focus. I could see every pore, each individual eyelash, each putrefying sore that erupted on his forehead, cheeks, and chin. His flesh grew rancid, then dry as parchment, pulling his lips into a grisly grimace as his face rotted right before my eyes. Watching the skin flake off his bones was like watching a corpse decompose in time-lapse. Conover was still smiling, but his pearly whites were pointed like fangs and caked with gore, and his gaze glowed like the coals of Hell. Then the last layer of skin vanished, and I almost fainted for the first time in my life.
Atop those narrow silk-clad shoulders sat the Death’s Head, the visage of Charon himself. As I watched, spellbound, those soulless eyes locked on me. Instead of pupils, the irises were holed by the irregular Greek coins known as oboli. Charon’s fare. And they were engraved with my name.
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