Category Archives: A Tale Told By Erika

New Stories Coming…

So, my friends, my fans of the Beer and Bacon Babes site- guess what?!?! New stories coming!

And not just ANY new stories! Stories from my fellow author at my press, Tigearr Publishing! We’re looking at Romance, Fantasy, Paranormal, Thriller, we run the fun range on awesome genres!

These are all published, super-TALENTED authors. I know that this blog has an audience of devoted, truly engaged readers so I am excited to offer such fabulous writers. I think everyone is really in for a treat!

You’re welcome- gear up- the next four weeks? Super fun!!

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http://tirgearrpublishing.com/index.htm

 

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Bubble Trouble

We’ve been busy.  This site has fallen silent over the past months.  But life has a way of stabilizing again and bringing things back into balance.  Novels have been written, agents have been wooed or are being wooed and now, it’s time to return our attention to this place of creativity and whimsy.  It is simply too fun to let go.

So… we’re back!

Erika had the following prompts to choose from for her challenge:

Amy- Strawberry Bubble Gum

Cameron- It’s a proven fact that you never have double stick tape when you need it.

Jen- Opening line:  In the end it was the spiders that got her.

Wendy- Harry Potter meets Buffy the Vampire Slayer                                                                                   

Anyone who knows me would assume I would pick the Buffy and Harry prompt and that includes me.  I’m still shocked, but I chose… Amy’s.

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“Did bad people steal nice lady’s clothes?” I heard a piping voice above me.

I opened my eyes, blinking against the bright June sunshine.  Straightening my sunglasses, I squinted at the small figure hovering above me.  Wait, hovering? Yelping, I grabbed my towel and sat up in the chaise. “You… what are you?” I squawked as I covered my red bikini.

Stumbling, I stood and backed across the deck, searching for the sliding glass door.  My heart pounded.

“My name is Heddywn ap Heilyn ap Awstin,” he began. The air around him shone gold.

I cut him off.  “Whoa. Stop.  That’s a lot of names.”  My head was pounding from last night’s kegger.  Never again, I swore.

“I have sixteen more names, lady,” he replied, drawing himself up to his full height of less than a foot in mid-air.  He took his cap off in a sweeping motion and bowed. “And my service you have.”  His aura shifted to a cheerful yellow.

“Your what?”

“My service, help, for thanks to you, most beneficent provider of the victuals.”  He came closer and I drew back, my head bumping the glass door of my parents’ house.  Add the thump to my hangover and a merry drum circle of pain danced around my brain. Ugh, never again I silently repeated, staring at my unlikely guest.

He was adorable.  Dark hair, dimples, ravishing blue eyes, and, oh yeah, about ten inches tall with wings moving as fast as a hummingbird’s.  Wings.

I cleared my throat.  “Victuals?” I asked, proud that my voice didn’t crack.  Part of me wanted to duck inside and lock the door, but part of me couldn’t take my eyes of this itty bitty vision of perfection. I mean, a fairy?  In my parents’ backyard?

“Yes, victuals,” he said, waving an arm around the deck. “The best in our territory.  See the nectar.”  He pointed to the hummingbird feeder.  His aura changed again, transitioning from yellow to a brilliant blue.

“For the birds,” I said.  He ignored me.

“The salty, yummy goodness,” he continued, waving at the remains of yesterday’s lunch on the deck’s picnic table.

“Curly fries. Can’t argue with you there,” I said.

“Chewy, fatty, manna from heaven.” He pointed to the plate which had held this morning’s microwave bacon.  I couldn’t finish it, but the dish was clean now.

“Bacon.” I sighed. “That about sums it up.”

“But most munificent of all,” he said, flitting to and fro in the air, gesticulating as he spoke, “for us, you left… BEER!”  The air around him shone bright yellow again.

He swooped over a cache of beer bottles on the deck left where my friends and I had discarded them last night before heading out to the party.  I made a mental note to clean up.  It was still a few days until my parents got back from San Diego, but no sense leaving everything for the last minute.  Their view of their nineteen-year-old drinking was bound to be dim.

“Look, um, what do I call you?”

“I am Heddywn ap Heilyn ap Awstin–“

“Right, right, I got that.” I relaxed and sat down on a bench at the table.  My companion, or hallucination depending on your point of view, sat on a candle across from me.  “Look, would you be offended if I called you something else?”

“You wish to give me a title?”  He perked up and slicked his hair back.  I couldn’t see that he needed to worry.  Add another five feet and a few inches and he would be calendar worthy material.  He was strangely dressed.  His clothes were a bit of this and a bit of that, crudely stitched odds and ends.

“Yeah, right, a title.’  I thought for a moment. He was hot enough to appear on romance covers.  Well, matchbook size covers.  “Let’s call you… Fabio.”

Sir Fabio?”

“Sure, Sir Fabio.  Um, are you a fairy?”

“Fairy? Me? No, fairies are scary, grumpy, and huge.” Fabio’s blue eyes were wide and his aura changed to a bright turquoise.  I thought perhaps the changing shades represented the swing of his emotions. “I am a pixie.”

“A pixie.  Wow, I’ve never met a pixie before.”

“Excellent!  I am the first!” He flew up in the air like a shot and did a loop-the-loop. “Now, shall nice lady convey titles to my clan?”

“Uh, my name is Molly. Clan?”  Before I had time to think Fabio gave a shrill whistle and I winced as the yard exploded in color and movement.  One, two, three… six more winged beings emerged, their little high-pitched voices all talking at once.

Each pixie was dressed like Fabio in a bit of this and a bit of that.  Their wings caught the summer sun in an iridescent rainbow’s shine. The air around each diminutive being shone with changing colors.

After a few moments seven pixies alighted on my table.  The six newcomers lined up and Fabio marched before them, his wings neatly tucked against his back and his expression serious.  “Pixies of the Green House That Once Held a Black Cat,”  he said with a solemn air. I started, my parents’ cat Sebastian died a year ago.  Had these beings been here all along? Fabio continued, “This is Molly, She Who Left The Supreme Victuals, and she has decided to gift us all with titles.”

“Ohhhhh,” breathed the assembled pixies.  They all regarded me with wide eyes.

I rubbed my forehead, wondering what had happened to my quiet, recover-from-a-hangover day. “Right, okay, titles for everyone.”  Gazing at the group, though their clothes were rag-tag, there was no denying that these were beautiful creatures.  I had a sudden inspiration.  “You need special names, er, titles.”

I pointed to the first, a gorgeous little blond, a goddess in miniature. “You shall be Lady Charlize.”  Next was a copper-skinned little angel. “Lady Beyonce.” Finally, Lady Ginger rounded out the females.  My head was spinning, so I gave the males the first names that came to me: Prince William, Brad Pitt, and Ryan Gosling.

What?  They seemed happy.

I sat back and watched as they cavorted and played, calling one another their new titles in high, squeaky voices.  Shifting fields of color radiated each pixie’s emotions through their auras.  Matching expressions to colors I began to figure out what each shade meant.  I got stuck on green until Prince William sidled up to Beyonce, glowing in verdant glory.  She radiated red and smacked him upside his perfect little head when he got too handsy.  Mystery solved.

As the shadows became long and my head felt better I decided it was time for me to change and grab some dinner.  “Fabio?” I called.

“Yes, oh glorious Molly?” he answered.

I could get used to being treated like this, I thought.  “Would you and your clan like some new clothes?”  It occurred to me that my old Barbie and Ken clothes were just sitting there in the garage.  Some were my sister’s, but Mom would never notice if I just took a few.

“You can do that?” Fabio asked,

“Sure, I think they’ll fit,” I said.

“First beer and now garments?” He shook his head. “We shall be like kings and queens amongst pixies.”

“Yeah, royalty, that’s it.”  I ran to grab the clothes.

Returning, I brought the group my flashiest, most Vegas-worthy doll garments.  I mean, why let them go to waste?

“We shall guard them with our paltry lives,” said Sir Ryan Gosling, hitting his tiny chest with one clenched fist.  Fabio, Beyonce, and the rest watched him and then hurried to copy his movements.

“Ouch,” mumbled Charlize, who had gotten carried away in her chest-thumping enthusiasm.

“Look guys, I mean, knights and ladies, I need to get going.  Don’t worry about the clothes.  They’re yours to whatever you like with.  I really need to think about getting this place cleaned up before my folks get home.”

“What is this ‘folks’?” asked Lady Ginger, toying with her fire-kissed locks.

“Those Who Rarely Leave Victuals,” intoned Fabio in a mournful voice.

“Oh, them,” said Ginger, her aura dampening for a moment.

“Yeah, them,” I said, “and they’ll pitch a fit if I leave everything like this.” I gestured to the remnants of various meals on the deck and throughout the yard.  I liked to be outside and it showed.  “I have to do the inside, too.”

“We hear your plea,” said Fabio, flying up to look me in the face.  He saluted. “We shall clean this yard for you.  It shall be as if we were never blessed with the victuals.”

“Thanks!” I raised my eyebrows. “Are you sure?”

“It would our honor,” he said and the other pixies nodded vigorously.  Fabio’s gleeful smile reappeared. “Perhaps, oh glorious Molly, we might finish such snacks as can be discovered?”

“Certainly.” I smiled back. “In fact, here.”  I ducked inside and grabbed a paring knife and a strawberry gumball.  On the picnic table I cut the gum into seven ragged pieces. “Here’s an extra thank you for helping me out.”

The humming of their wings filled the air as the seven crowded around the unassuming pieces.  “What is it?”  “Can you eat it?” “It’s very pink.”

“It’s bubble gum and you chew it.  Don’t swallow it.  You can flatten it out and blow air against it and make bubbles.  It’s fun, I promise.”

“Hmm, if you say so Munificent Molly,” said Fabio.  The others nodded, frowns on their faces, radiating a faint rose luster.  Annoyance? Doubt?  Oh well, I hoped they liked the clothes.  I needed to get some food.  I was starved.

***

The next day I peeked outside.  The back yard seemed empty.  Had I imagined yesterday’s crazy events?

I walked across the deck.  The yard, deck, and patio were immaculate.  Garbage, beer bottles, everything was cleaned up, as though it had never been.  The bubblegum was gone, too.

“Molly!” “Molly!” “Lady Molly!” My name was being called by many small voices.  I turned and stifled a giggle.  The clothes fit the pixies very well.  However, the pixies had little regard for the intended sex of the wearer.  I was treated to the sight of Brad Pitt in a ballerina tutu and Lady Beyonce in a white Liberace-style sequined tux.  Color combinations were also original.  For instance Sir Ryan Gosling looked quite fetching in a brilliant red and gold tartan plaid jacket with a purple floral wrap-around skirt.  Pixies didn’t wear shoes, but Sir Fabio had made my plastic sparkling doll pumps into a necklace.

“You all look… stunning,” I said, biting the side of my cheek to keep from laughing as the little folk bowed and preened in their new finery.

“We know,” said Lady Charlize, batting her eyelashes coquettishly, “but that’s not the best part.”

“It’s not?” I said.

“No, the bubbles,” she said with a sigh. “The perfection that is the bubble.  We have never experienced anything like it.”

“No other pixie has been so fortunate,” said Fabio in a serious voice.  “All envy us now.”

“Okay, pixies love gum,” I said, biting my lip now. “Good to know.”

“Do you have more?” asked Lady Ginger in her lilting high tones.

“Shh,” said Prince William. “The benevolent Molly has already bestowed so much upon us.”

I waved my hands.  “No problem, guys.” I laid another strawberry gumball on the table. “You all did such a great job on the yard.  It’s the least I can do.”

“Ohhhh, more bubble!” squealed Brad Pitt, spinning around in delight.  The other pixies capered and cried out in glee.

“A-ha!” came a new high-pitched voice.

I turned to the right side of the yard.  Seven more pixies flew over my fence and hovered above my deck.  They were dressed like my bunch had been yesterday, odds and ends, but they were also armed: screws, a nail file, a small screwdriver, half a scissors, all household instruments with a new purpose.  “So, it is true,” said their leader, an exquisite little female with blue hair. “There exists more of this ‘bubble.'”

“Go Away, Clan From The Big Tree!” scolded Fabio, his aura going deep red.  “This is our place and our bubble!”  His companions rumbled their agreement (as much as pixies can rumble). Weapons appeared from out of nowhere amongst my stylish group.

“We take the bubble!” cried the feisty blue-haired leader and the two bands converged upon one another.

“Wait, wait!” I cried, slamming my hand on the table.  They stopped and all the pixies hovered, watching me with weapons drawn.

“How about this,” I suggested, “You stop fighting and I give you another piece of bubblegum.  Then each side can have their own gum.”  I placed a second gumball on the picnic table.

There was a stunned silence.  Fourteen sets of eyes stared first at me and then at the twin pink spheres on the wooden table.

Two pieces of the strawberry bubble?” squeaked Prince William.

“Two?” echoed Charlize.

“Two,” I repeated firmly, “one for each side, but only if you promise not to fight.”

“Twice the bubble.”  My diminutive friends’ faces were beatific.

“Twice the flavor.”  Their fierce counterparts’ expressions were likewise entranced.  I wondered what on earth manufacturers had put in this gum that it had such an effect on the pixie population of Alameda County.

“Twice the happiness.”

There was silence.  I exhaled, blowing my bangs upward.  The tiny would-be warriors sounded a lot like a commercial.  “So, we’re good now, right?”

“So good,” squeaked Charlize. “Twice as much for the victor!”

“Wait, no fighting,” I said, but no one was listening to me, giant or not.

“For the bubble!” cried Fabio.

“The bubble!” screamed the other pixie clan.

And with that, the battle was joined.

"Bubble Trouble" A story by Erika Gardner

“Bubble Trouble” A story by Erika Gardner

P.S.  To My BBB Gals (That’s Beer & Bacon Babes to those not in the know)- I hope you noticed that I included all our favorites in this story: beer, bacon AND babes- LOL!  Love you, my writing friends!

Erika Gardner... a lover of all things dark chocolate, heavy metal and geeky

Erika Gardner… a lover of all things dark chocolate, heavy metal and geeky

This post was written by Erika Gardner.  If you enjoyed it, please sign up to receive updates on this blog or on her personal site www.erikagardner.com.  You can follow Erika on Twitter @Erika_Gardner or “Like” her Facebook page Erika Gardner- Writer and Storyteller.

At Last

Erika had the following prompts to choose from:

Amy- A parasol in an English garden

Cameron- Herman the hermit crab found a new home.

Jen- Buckle Hairy Fin

Wendy- What really happens when you fall down the rabbit hole.

After much agonizing and a couple of inspirational running sessions, she chose… Amy’s

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I hear voices on the wind. Once in a while, they call me still.

It started the summer I turned sixteen. My ten-year-old brother, Charlie, and I were staying with a great-aunt of ours in England while our parents toured the United States in support of my mother’s latest book.  Aunt Cora was  our father’s aunt, the much older sister of his mother, my late Grandma May.

“Don’t worry, Lucy,” my mom reassured me as she helped me pack.  “Your father has always been Aunt Cora’s favorite.  She dotes on him.  Poor old thing never really recovered from the loss of her younger brother.  He was only twenty-two. Grandma May said Cora always blamed herself for his death.”

“What happened?” I asked.  To my  teenaged self, the tragedy of dying young seemed romantic and intriguing.

“Hmm,” Mom said, folding pants with brisk, precise movements. “I don’t think I ever heard exactly.  Some sort of accident, in the garden.”

“Oh,” I said, feeling deflated.  A gardening accident hardly had the dramatic punch I hoped for.

“Nancy!” Came my dad’s voice. “Would you please explain to Charlie why he cannot bring Indiana Jones on the plane?”  Indiana Jones was my brother’s pet snake.

“Be right there, dear!” My mom smiled at me. “You can finish up here? You must be so excited– just think, England for the whole summer!”

A week later as I gazed upon Aunt Cora’s home outside Sheffield, in South Yorkshire, I was less than thrilled.   From the moment we set foot in merry old England it rained.  It poured when we got off the plane, as Aunt Cora met us and drove us east from Manchester, and  it was drizzling still as we unloaded our bags from her Land Rover.

Our family were minor aristocrats at some point, now we could only be called middle-class, but Aunt Cora’s home was large, old and had the look of a small-ish country manor house nestled between gentle hills and a canal leading to the River Don.  Eight bedrooms, she told us in the car, which was impressive, but only two  and a half bathrooms, which was less impressive, especially as one of those was exclusive to Aunt Cora.  At sixteen I spent a fair amount of time in the bathroom looking in the mirror.  Laugh all you want at those eighties hairstyles, they took a lot of time and effort to achieve.

Garden pathway along sunny flower wall leading into the distance“Tsk, tsk,” said Aunt Cora as she pulled into her circular drive with an expert hand.  At eighty-five she was a straight-backed, tall figure who oozed practicality and competence.  “Such a shame it’s raining on your first day.  Still, you’ll have ample time to explore later and I have plenty of indoor projects you’ll be a great help with.  Now, let’s see about getting the kettle on.  A cup of tea is just what we all need.”

Charlie and Aunt Cora, loaded down with luggage, headed into the house, but I hesitated, staring at the grounds around me. The garden was gorgeous, everything you could want an English garden in June to be.  At that moment the clouds parted and for the first time since Charlie and I arrived in England, the sun shone.

The flowers were still wet from the rain and the drops on their petals sparkled in the sunshine like diamonds.  Transfixed, I set my bags down next to the car and walked through the formal flower beds around to the side of the house where the foliage was more natural.  On the left side I followed a gold gravel walkway along a hillside with a gray rock wall, covered in flowers.  At the end of the path was a gate.  As I headed toward it, a girl just a little older than me emerged from a path to my right near a tumble of ruined stone behind the house.  “Hello!” I called.

She turned at the sound of my voice.  I was struck by her clothes, so different from my acid-washed jeans, sweatshirt and red Keds.  She wore a white calf-length skirt that flared below her hips, black thick-heeled pumps with an ankle strap and a V-neck lavender blouse with long sleeves that puffed at the shoulders.  A necklace of some kind caught the sunshine for an instant, the metal glittering around her throat.  Her long, black hair fell in soft waves down her back.  There was something about her struck me as strange.  Standing in the welcome sunshine I felt cold, but could not understand why.

The stranger also froze and for an instant our eyes met.  “Lucy?” I heard my brother’s voice calling me.  At the sound the girl turned and ran out the open gate, her fleeing feet not making a sound.  On impulse I ran after her, ignoring Charlie.  I raced along the path  to the river.  There was no sign of the girl anywhere.  Feeling foolish, I hurried back to Charlie.

3208763331_4a30150617_oThat night, trying to fall asleep in the soft feather bed of my light-blue guest bedroom, I replayed the odd encounter again in my head.  As I drifted off to sleep a worrisome thought passed through my weary brain.  I remembered what was off; in the bright afternoon sunshine  the girl had not cast a shadow.

The next morning, I stared out the window.  It was raining again.  “Come to England, they said,” I muttered. “It’s summer, they said.  Ugh, I say.”

“You said it,” grumbled Charlie from behind me.  “You done with breakfast?”

“Yep.”

“Aunt Cora wants to see us.”

“I’ll clear for you, my dears,” said Mrs. Hardy, a capable, pink-cheeked middle-aged woman who served as Aunt Cora’s daily help, secretary and sometimes nurse all in one friendly strawberry-blonde bundle of energy.  She reached for the dishes with a broad smile on her plump face.  They made quite a pair: Mrs. Hardy so short and round and our great aunt so tall and spare.

“Oh, Mrs. Hardy?”

“Yes, sweetheart?”

“I saw a girl in the garden yesterday, but she left before I could talk to her.  Do you know who she was?”

“Dark-haired girl?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Oh, that’s Stella, neighbor down the lane a bit.  Nice sort o’ girl,” said Mrs. Hardy, wiping down the dark wooden table with care. “You best be getting to your aunt now.”

I went, shaking my head at myself.  What a dork I am, I thought.

Cora’s bedroom was on the second floor and overlooked the canal as well as the green vista of the tree-filled countryside around them.  It was a pleasant room and displayed an unexpected streak of sentimentality in its owner, being full of mementos of her past.  Charlie gazed around with unabashed curiosity while Cora observed him from her desk with a certain tolerant humor.  “Who’s that?” he asked, pointing to two paintings above the fireplace of a man and a woman both with light brown hair and brilliant blue eyes very like Cora’s own.

“Those are my parents, your great-grandparents,” she said with a smile.

“And those people?” he pointed a series of three group portraits hanging on the opposite wall.  They showed a young woman and two children.  In each successive picture the woman changed little, while the children became teenagers and later young adults.

“That is me, pictured with your late grandmother, my younger sister May, and your late great-uncle, my younger brother, Thomas,” she said, her smile fading as she regarded the paintings.  “He was a very handsome young man.  May and I were never close, but Thomas and I shared a special bond.  Your father reminds me of him.”

I walked over to study the painting, wanting to a get better look at this namesake of my father’s who died so young. Like me and Charlie, Thomas was fair-haired.  Cora was equally fair, her shining flaxen hair piled high on her head.  My grandmother had her parents’ light brown hair and bright blue eyes, but Thomas’ eyes were deep brown, a striking contrast with his blonde hair.

“Strange to think I should be the last one left of us,” she murmured.

“Was he ever married?” I asked.  Once again, I had the feeling that I was overlooking a crucial detail, but I couldn’t see what.

Aunt Cora raised one eyebrow at me. “Thomas? Certainly not!  Of course, there were plenty of girls chasing him around.  They came from all over the county.  None of them were worthy of him… definitely not her.”  She spoke with vehemence, as though continuing an old conversation.

“Her?” asked Charlie in a bright voice, coming to stand next to me before the portraits.  “Who her?”

Cora rose and said, ignoring his question, “Come, come, as it is raining I thought you might want to poke through the attics.  I need you to bring down boxes so I can organize what is to be donated to next weekend’s church sale.  I am sure all those old toys and things will be quite amusing for you and it will spare my old bones immeasurably.”

“Okay,” said Charlie, with his usual good humor.  “Can I keep anything?”

Our aunt smiled once more. “Perhaps, but please check with me before you pocket your spoils.” She glanced at me. “Lucy, dear, I hope you will feel free to find something for yourself?”

I shrugged.  At sixteen I considered myself far too adult for old toys.  Aunt Cora seemed to know what was passing through my mind for she added, “There may be some jewelry or other trifles that would be more to a young lady’s taste.”

“Oh, um, okay.”  That did sound more interesting.  So I skipped the usual morning primping, pulled my blond hair into a high ponytail and joined my brother in the attic.

closedparasolAunt Cora was right, we had a grand time that morning.  I will never forget the thrill of unpacking the boxes and finding new items.  Most possessed the hilarity implicit in one generation’s perceptions of what previous generations found to be stylish.  For me, the clothes from the fifties, sixties and seventies were a riot.   Charlie was like a prospector, exclaiming on one find after another and then squirreling away his treasures.

Time went so quickly we worked right through lunchtime and Mrs. Hardy had to come and tell us to stop as she and our aunt were already done eating and she wanted to start clearing up the kitchen.

At lunch, as we enjoyed hearty sandwiches and  tomato soup, Aunt Cora took a break from her boxing of our finds to have a quick cup of tea with us.  “So,” she said, setting her clipboard down on the table and sitting across from us as Mrs. Hardy handed her a mug. “How did it go?  You’ve brought down enough for a half-dozen sales.”

“No problem, ” said Charlie, his face covered in grime, as he finished chewing. “I’ll even put stuff away again.  Look at everything I found!”  Leaping up, he began showing  off his stash, littered on the floor around him: a pogo stick, tinker toys, an Erector set, army men.  I glanced at Aunt Cora and rolled my eyes.  She smiled and gave an almost imperceptible shrug before leaning across the table and tapping it with one bony finger.  “Well done, Charles, although I cannot imagine however you will get all this back to the wilds of America with you.”

“Don’t worry, Aunt Cora,” he said with a grin. “I’ll figure it out.”

“Indeed,” she said. “Now wash your hands again before you eat after touching all those dirty things.” She stood and took her cup to the sink.  Rinsing it, she called over one shoulder, “And Lucy,  were you able to find anything for yourself?”

“Well, sort of, just one thing,” I said pulling my find out from beneath the table.

“Yuck, that dirty umbrella?” said Charlie, shaking his head at me as he waited for the sink.

“It’s only because it was so far back, hidden in the rafters,” I retorted, stung. “Besides, this isn’t just an umbrella.  I think they call this a parasol.”

There was a crash and the sound of breaking china in the sink as my aunt dropped the cup she was rinsing.  “Wow, Aunt Cora!” said Charlie. “You okay?”

She dried her trembling hands on a dish cloth and then placed the pieces of the broken mug in the waste bin.  Smoothing her shirt, she said, “I am quite fine, Charles.  Now, Lucy, what have we here?”

I held up my treasure.  “May I keep it, aunt?”

“Well, I quite agree with Charles, what a piece of rubbish,” she said, pressing her lips together in a thin line.

“See?” said Charlie. “Told ya’.”

“Shhh, Charles,” said Aunt Cora. “While it is quite dreadful, if you would like it, I can hardly deny you your choice, especially after so much hard work.  I do wish you had chosen something more suitable, but then, there is no accounting for taste.”

I felt myself flush and wished I could crawl away and hide.  It was awfully dirty, but somehow, when I touched the parasol I knew it needed to be out of the attic.  This was something that had to see the light of day.  Running one finger over its delicately carved wooden handle, I felt it again, the powerful impulse to clean away the grime and take it out– take it out in the garden.

I spent the afternoon returning rejected items back to the attics and the evening cleaning my new parasol with great care.  To my surprise, and delight, under its patina of dirt was an item of surpassing beauty.  The wooden handle was carved with graceful lines and the hand painted screen was white with lovely flowers in light blues and purples.  Exhausted, I gloated over my prize that night in my room.  Vindication replaced my earlier embarrassment as, other than a faint rattle in its handle, the parasol was perfect.

The next day broke sunny and fair and Charlie and I bolted for the outdoors.  He quickly found a friend in Mrs. Hardy’s youngest son, a twelve-year-old imp named James and the two disappeared to the Hardys’ home.  I did not mind being abandoned in the slightest.  I was longing to explore the garden and then envisioned a pleasant afternoon reading outside.  Seeing a few clouds on the horizon I brought my parasol.  The flowers seemed even brighter and more exquisite today in the sunshine.  As I went down the narrow track to the back of the house, I saw the dark-haired girl, Stella? She was once more coming from the path to the right near the ruins.  I raised a hand in greeting, but, just as yesterday, after a startled glance my way she ran out the back gate, soundless, her white skirts disappearing in the greenery toward the canal.

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As I investigated the various walks and secret corners, I found just the sort of bench I had hoped for, near some glorious pink hollyhocks.  I settled down with my book.  After a time the bright sun made it difficult to read, so, feeling quite well-prepared, I opened my beautiful parasol to shade my pages.

Like a murmur in the next room, I heard the sound of a man’s voice.  Glancing around, I saw that I was alone.  “Hello?” I called, but all I heard in response was the chirping of birds above me.

Returning to my chapter, I heard the voice again.  It sounded like he was calling someone.  I stared at the garden around me, but no one was there.   I shook my head, returning to my book, but no sooner had I begun reading when I heard the voice, clearer and closer than before.  This time I could make out words, “Where are you?”  Responding to the deep sadness in the tone I closed my book and parasol and, setting them aside, I got up to investigate.  Heading up the walk back towards the more formal gardens near the house  I ran into a vigorous older man crossing my path, his hair streaked with silver.

“Hullo,” he said with a wide smile, lighting up his wide-set gray eyes with a twinkle.  “You must be young Lucy.”

“I am,” I said. “How did you know that?  I’m sorry, Mr….?”

“I’m Graham, friend of the family, no need for titles with me,” he said, sticking one hand out in greeting.  “Cora told everyone you and your brother were visiting.  Come, it’s time for a spot of lunch.  I’ve been sent to fetch you.”

“Nice to meet you,” I said as we headed for the house. “So that was you I heard.”

Graham raised grizzled eyebrows at me. “I didn’t say anything.”

Frowning, I followed him inside where Aunt Cora was waiting for us.  Mrs Hardy had gone home to check on the boys.  “Ah, Lucy, I see Graham was able to find you,” my aunt said. She placed a hand on the arm of the tall, dark-haired girl next to her. “And here I have one more local to introduce to you.  This is our neighbor, Stella.  She lives a few houses down the lane.”

“Pleased to meet you,” said Stella, dimples springing  to life in her pink cheeks as she smiled.

“You, too,” I said.

“My greetings to your mother, Stella,” said Aunt Cora.  “I hope you will pardon us.”

“Sure- time I was off,” said Stella, waving amiably. “Afternoon, Lucy, Graham.”

As the door closed behind her, I frowned.  Her hair was dark alright, but it was short and curly.  This was not the girl I had seen in the garden.

Before I could comment on this, Cora beckoned me to join them at the table. “Graham is one of my oldest friends,” she said.  “Why, he grew up on my parents’ lands back when this was still an estate.”

Graham smiled as we all sat down to eat. “Aye, you should have seen this place before the war.”

Aunt Cora’s smile faltered.  “Yes, everything was different before 1939.  Seems like another life.”

Seeing her mood change Graham launched into a series of funny anecdotes.  He worked as a university professor and he shared many wry observations on his students’ foibles.  Aunt Cora’s smile returned.

After our meal she went to lie down.  I offered to show Graham out.  He was an intelligent, humorous bachelor with kind eyes and a self-deprecating, dry wit.  Despite the difference in our ages, I found him easy to talk to.  As we stood by his car I felt comfortable enough to ask him, “I don’t mean to pry, but what was that bit about 1939?”

He leaned against his Volvo and pursed his lips. “Well, it was the start of World War II.”

“Oh, of course, stupid of me not have known,” I said, feeling my face turn pink.

“No, no, it’s part of the history books for your generation, but Cora and I lived it,” he said.  “More than that though, 1939 was the year Cora lost her brother, Thomas, and it was the year my sister disappeared.  It was an awful time.”

“I’m so sorry,” I said.  “Was she younger or older?”

“Older, by two years,” he paused, his eyes far away, “Lorna was eighteen when she disappeared.  I was away at school at the time.  The term was just ending.  I came  home a couple of days… after.”

“After?”

“After Thomas died and Lorna disappeared.”

“Wow.  What happened? I mean, sorry… if you don’t mind me asking.”  It occurred to me that this might be a painful subject.

He seemed to understand. “It was forty-six years ago.  I’m fine.” He drew a deep breath and continued, “Of course, your aunt never got over Thomas’ death.  She always blamed herself.”

“I heard it was some sort of gardening accident?”

Graham snorted.  “You could say that, stones for a gazebo his parents were have built fell on him, the back of his head was crushed.  Cora accidentally dislodged a cart with the building materials that hadn’t been unloaded yet.  It rolled down the hill and into Thomas.  He had never had a chance. ”

“I thought gazebos were made of wood?”

“Not this one,” said Graham.  “It was to be quite the grand affair, but it was never finished.  Cora was distraught and refused to allow her parents to continue with the project- too many painful memories.  Then that September the Germans invaded Poland and the war changed everything.”

There was a silence and then Lucy asked, “But what happened to your sister?”

“No one knows.  The night Thomas died was his twenty-second birthday party.  This place was packed with people, celebrating.  My sister never came home.  Between the gala and the accident, no one realized Lorna was missing until the next day.  Cora has always been convinced Lorna left with a broken heart.”

“Why would she think that?”

“Thomas and Lorna were an item.  Cora said it wasn’t serious and that Thomas broke things off earlier in the week. Lorna couldn’t accept the break-up and tried to see Thomas at the party, but Cora asked her to leave.  Thomas backed Cora up and my sister was distraught.  No one knows what happened next, only that the next day, she was gone.”

“What do you think happened?”

Graham spread his hands out in front of him.  “After so many years wondering, I have no clue.  Her last phone calls with me were so lit up, she seemed so happy.  I can’t imagine her leaving, but there was no hint of any harm coming to her  and my family were never able to trace her whereabouts.  Of course, with the war, the chaos it brought, it was easier for a young person to disappear and start a new life as someone else.  After all, she was an adult.”

“I’m so sorry,” I said.

“Again, after so many years, it’s  something I live with,’ replied Graham.  “Thank heaven for Cora, she’s twenty-three years older than me and she’s almost been like a third parent over the years.  First Lorna, then my folks died in the war.  Cora stepped in and helped with my education.  I know people think she’s stern, but she was always good to me.”

I smiled, thinking of my tall, strict aunt.  “She does seem pretty formidable.”

Graham wagged one finger at me in a chiding motion.  “You just say that because you are so young.  I’ve heard rumors of Cora herself being quite the social butterfly in her youth.  Why there are even stories of her parents shipping her off for a European tour so they could extradite her from the evil influence of some tall, dark and handsome local Lothario!”

I tried to picture my aunt as a young girl and stifled a giggle.  Graham opened his car door. “It was a pleasure to meet you, Lucy.  I hope you have a wonderful summer.”

Looking back, it was a wonderful time.  Our days passed and a kind  of routine came about.  We had chores, “projects” our aunt called them, but we had free time, too.  Charlie and I got to know Stella, Graham, Mrs. Hardy and her son, James, quite well, but not so with our aunt.   She was strict and fair, but held herself aloof.  She also had no patience for what she termed, “my girlish fancies.”

I continued to see the dark-haired young woman in the garden.  No one else had seen her and Aunt Cora seemed quite insulted that I should be “telling tales” when I asked after the stranger.  My aunt stared at me, as though trying to contain herself and then said in a flat, expressionless voice,   “Lucy, you will keep these delusions to yourself.  You are far too old for make-believe.  People will believe you have gone soft in the head.”

Seeing her opinion was so adamant, I decided not to tell her about the voice I heard in the garden.

On sunny days as I read under my parasol I could hear him, my stranger.  He was only a voice and he always said the same thing, in the same heartbroken voice. “My very own, where are you?”  I would sit listen so hard, trying to figure where out where the voice came from, but it seemed to be all around me and I knew, if I closed the parasol, the voice would disappear.

So it happened that one late afternoon I sat on my bench with the parasol open, listening.  I no longer bothered with the book.  What did some made up story matter when I had a real mystery to figure out?  Graham came striding up the path and stopped, gaping at me.  “What’s wrong, Graham?” I asked.

He pointed at the umbrella in my hand.  “Where did you get that?”

“What? This?” I looked at the parasol, closed it and then I regarded Graham. “I found it in the attic.”

Graham’s face turned red, then went white.  I stood, worried that he was having a heart attack when Aunt Cora followed Graham up the same path. “Ready for supper–,” she began, but stopped when she saw Graham staring me. “Oh, dear.”

“What’s wrong with him, aunt?” I asked.

Graham collected himself.  When he spoke his voice was flat, matter-of-fact. “That is Lorna’s parasol.  It was a gift from Thomas and her favorite possession.  She went everywhere with it.  It disappeared with her. Why was it in your attic?”

Cora held up an imperious hand.  “It is nothing.  I found it the day after the party.  I knew it would raise questions so I hid it.  Easier for everyone.”

Graham continued to stare at her.  A muscle in his forehead ticked.

“Every time I open it in this garden, he calls for her,” I said.  The two adults stared at me. “Don’t believe me? Listen.” I opened the parasol.

For a moment there was silence, not even a bird spoke in the fading light of a summer evening.  I saw Aunt Cora shift in impatience just before the voice came, calling her. “Where are you, my very own?”

The blood drained from Cora’s face.  “Thomas,” she whispered.

“I’ll be damned,” said Graham.  “He’s searching for Lorna, too.”

“I don’t understand, Thomas is dead, Lorna is dead.  Why is he searching for her?” I said, staring at Aunt Cora’s wretched expression.

Graham’s face twisted in pain. “Thomas was buried in hallowed ground, given a service in accordance with his beliefs.  He’s unhappy, but at rest, as he expected to be.  Yet Lorna has none of that.”  He glared at Cora and thundered, “What did you do with my sister?  Where is her body?”

“Honestly, Graham,” she said, turning away as though in distaste.  “She was never up to your intellectual standard.  You were so much better off without her.  As Thomas would have been.”

“She was loving and kind.  More than that, she trusted you.” His voice was now a steel whisper, taut with feeling. “She was my sister!”  Gray eyes met bright blue ones in a battle of wills.  “Now, where is Lorna?”

I had a flash of understanding.  Things I had been trying to figure out for weeks aligned themselves like puzzle pieces waiting to be fitted in a predetermined design.  “She runs to the river, she always runs to the river.” I realized out loud.

“What, Lucy?” said Graham.

The picture was becoming clearer.  “I thought she ran away because she saw me, but that’s not it.  She’s stuck, reliving the same moments again and again.  Like a phonograph needle on the words of a song.” I stared in horror at Aunt Cora as she drew herself up proudly.  “She’s running away from you; she’s always been running away from you.”

“I do not know what you are referring to,” my aunt said not meeting my stare.

“I’ve been seeing the last moments of her life.  Dear God, Aunt Cora, what did you do to her when you caught her?” I thought for a minute.  “You killed her, didn’t you?  And Thomas, he must have… did he see you?  So you murdered him, too?”

“Tsk, tsk, Lucy. I would appreciate it if you would endeavor not to be so melodramatic. It was a moment of deep pragmatism.  Thomas simply would not allow me to protect him from these crumpets that chased him.  Lorna was just the latest of a long line and she would not be frightened off.  Fancied herself in love.  I did my best for Thomas, I held her under.  When he found us, Thomas wasn’t sure if I had disposed of her or was trying to save her.”  Aunt Cora’s disdain was biting.  “When he realized the truth and would have betrayed me by allowing his weakness to control him, well, I had to protect my interests and his character.  My parents were always emphatic: you are nothing without your reputation… it was a simple thing.  Men always underestimate women.  I used a brick on his head.  I hope, I pray that he never knew.  Later, I released the cart and it crushed him.  My poor darling.”

She stared at us and then raised a revolver.  I swallowed, my heart rate rising.  I had no idea she carried a gun.

“You must understand,” Cora continued, “after all this time.  I simply cannot allow Thomas’ good name to raked through the mud and I certainly will not allow his final memory to be associated with that chit of a girl.  She was just like the others I drove off.”  Her face twisted into a grotesque mask.  “None of them was good enough for my Thomas.”

“Why?” asked Graham.  “Why did it matter to you?  Why was it so important who your brother married?”

My breath caught as the next piece of the puzzle slipped into place, something that had bothered me since the first time I saw my uncle’s portrait.  “Because he wasn’t her brother.  Thomas was her son.”

Graham turned to me. “Lucy, what are you talking about?  I knew them growing up.  Believe me, Thomas was her younger brother.”

I looked from Graham to Cora and saw in her eyes confirmation that the puzzle pieces spoke the truth.  I shook my head. “I should have known when I saw the family portraits.  We just studied this in biology.  It is not physically impossible for two blue-eyed people to have a son with deep brown eyes, I mean, gene mutation does occur, but it is genetically highly improbable.  Graham, you yourself told me Cora left the country to escape an entanglement with a dark, presumably, brown-eyed, ‘Lothario.’  In that time she did not tour Europe; she had a child, whom her parents introduced to the community as her younger brother.”

“Oh, good God,” said Graham.

My aunt’s square shoulders slumped, but then she straightened. “You are just like your wretched sister– all about yourself, never thinking about other people’s lives.  You’ll have to go, too.”

“What?” asked Graham.  “Why me?”

“Lucy is a child.  No one will believe her, especially with her babbling about seeing women in white this summer– most unstable, my dear– but, you are something else, a professor, well-liked, respected.  I cannot have you ruining everything.  After all this time, no one can know.”  Cora’s eyes burned with fanatical fire and she raised the pistol again, pointing at Graham’s chest.

“Aunt Cora!” I screamed. “No!”  As her finger pulled the trigger and the handle went back, I raised the only weapon I had, my parasol, and I cracked Aunt Cora over the head with it as hard as I could.  She went down, bleeding at the temple, her eyes closed.  I gasped as pieces of the handle clattered on the patio stones at my feet.

One of these pieces was small and shining.  Graham glanced at my fallen aunt, but instead he bent and picked it up.  It was a ring of gold, set with a single diamond.  Even at sixteen I knew that it was an engagement ring. Another puzzle piece came together in my mind. “We only have Cora’s word that Thomas and Lorna’s relationship wasn’t serious, and she’s the only one who said they broke up.  Remember, you said your sister was so happy.  Maybe they knew Cora would protest their engagement, so Lorna hid the ring in the parasol handle.  A large party like Thomas’ birthday was the perfect place to announce their marriage plans.  Cora might be unhappy, but it would be done, public.  They would be able to move forward.”

“There’s something engraved,” Graham said.  Squinting in the fading light he read, “To L-  For Always- Yours, T.”

As he spoke the words the golden sunshine of dusk seemed to gather itself together, forming the shape of a young man.  The air around him crackled and popped with electricity as, for a few fleeting moments I saw my great-uncle Thomas as he must have looked the night he died.  His eyes searched the garden, passing over Graham and me.  “Lorna,” he called, as I had heard him say so many times this haunted summer, his voice breaking on the words, “where are you, my very own?”

I was not surprised when a faint miasma appeared above the ruins of what would have been a very fine stone gazebo.  It grew stronger, outlines of silver light and sparkles of lavender.  All at once, she was there, a graceful specter wreathed in smiles, floating, almost dancing toward Thomas.  Lorna reached one hand out to Graham as she passed and pressed a ghostly hand to her lips, breathing a kiss to her brother before she joined hands with Thomas.  “I am here, my love,” she said. “I never left you.”

Looking back I suppose that the ghosts should have scared us, but they never did.  Aunt Cora with her burning, hateful eyes was far more frightening than these two spectral lovers, dancing for a brief moment in the summer air.  I had the sense of destiny being nudged back into place.

The images dissolved as the gold and the lavender joined, sparkling in a graceful phantom ballet, swirling in the twilight before disappearing, never to be seen again.

**************************************************************************************************************

I am forty-four years old now.  I’ve had twice the number of days as Thomas and even more than that were stolen from Lorna.  My parents decided that Aunt Cora was simply a sick old woman.  I think she was sick alright, but it happened long before she was old. She lived the remainder of her days in a very special hospital.  I’m told she was a model patient.   I often wonder what her life would have been like if she could have raised her baby as her son, instead of with the stifled longing of a pretend-sister.

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They found Lorna under the ruins of the gazebo that never was.  Around her neck was a locket– the necklace I caught a glimpse of every time I saw her.  Inside, Graham showed me, was a miniature of Lorna and Thomas: laughing, alive and in love.

Still, this isn’t a sad story.  Not any more.  Because now and again, as I am outside, in a garden, any garden, I will hear a man’s loving murmur on the wind and then the answering musical laughter of a young woman drifts across the breeze, and I know that they are together.  I do not know theology or religion and I do not hold the answers to life after death.  I can only say that somehow, somewhere, in the universe, Lorna and Thomas are together… for always… at last.

This post was written by Erika Gardner.  If you enjoyed it, please sign up to receive updates on this blog or on her personal site www.erikagardner.com.  You can follow Erika on Twitter @Erika_Gardner or “Like” her Facebook page Erika Gardner- Writer and Storyteller.

The Devil’s Own

Erika had the following prompts to choose from-

Wendy-  If I could live in a movie it would be…

Amy-  First line:  “When she walked down the aisle, she stumbled when she spotted her high school sweetheart in a pair of dark sunglasses sitting in the first row.”

Cameron-  The case of the missing pens

Jen-  Great big gobs of greasy grimy gopher guts

She chose… Cameron’s…

**********************************************************************************************************************

When I first considered my prompts, I was immediately drawn to Amy’s.  I thought, how fun, the main character is about forty and at a heavy metal show, maybe Iron Maiden.  As she walks to her seat she sees her boyfriend from high school, still looking eighteen; he hasn’t aged a day!  I was thinking of perhaps a modern-day revamping of  “A Portrait of Dorian Gray.”

That got me thinking… which led me to this… the case of the missing pens.

I drank my tea as I waited for my newest client to show up for our 10am meeting.

It had been almost a year since Sam died in a freak car accident.  As my mind lingered on our shared jokes, frequent laughter and the few kisses we exchanged in the days just before his death I longed for one more talk, another kiss and the feel of his arms around me one more time, just one more damn time.  I sighed, not fooling even myself.

One more would never be enough.  How could it ever be?  I had been lucky to have that time together, enough to realize our love for each other.  I just hadn’t been lucky enough to get to keep him.  No, one last time together wouldn’t be enough.  There wasn’t a number big enough.

I closed my eyes for a moment, putting thoughts of Sam away.

“You’re Charlie Watts?” A stranger stood next to my table and set his coffee down at the place across from my seat.

“You seem surprised,” I said.

“I suppose I was expecting someone older, more British and male,” he said, folding his arms and raising one eyebrow at me.  “You aren’t what I would picture as a drummer.”

I stifled a groan.  The fact that my name was the same as the drummer for the Rolling Stones had elicited a lot of jokes (usually unoriginal and not-funny) and comments (all trite) over the years.  I waited, raising an eyebrow at him in turn.

He smiled in a charming way and stuck out a hand. “Hi, I’m Nick Scratch.  We emailed?”

I stood and grasped his hand.  “Charlie Watts, P.I.”

“Please to meet you,” he said. “Thanks for making time for me on such short notice.”

Nick Scratch was a few years older than my own age of thirty-three and handsome in a well-groomed, blonde metro sexual way.  His shoes, leather loafers, were expensive.  His dark blue suit was well-cut, extenuating his lean form, and his tie sported the latest “in” colors for spring: lime green and royal blue.  He had a way about him that reminded me of the few really professional confidence men I had met over the years.  The sort of suave, “I can be anything you need” oiliness that set alarm bells ringing in the back of my head.  Oh no, sir, I thought, there isn’t a thing I need from you.  He had started to pull a business card from his shirt pocket, but then tucked the card away again.

“You can give me a card if you like,” I said, taking a sip of my tea.

He shook his head.  “Wrong card.  Force of habit, I meet so many potential customers, you see.”

“Alright,” I said, flipping open my iPad and preparing to take notes. “How can I help you, Mr. Scratch?”

“Please, call me Nick.”

“Sure.  What seems to be the problem, Nick?”

He turned his coffee cup a couple of times.  “Charlie? Short for Charlene?”

“Charlotte.”

“Ah, of course.”  Still he hesitated, gazing at his cup.  When he lifted his head I was struck by the appeal in his brilliant blue eyes.  My eyes are blue, but his were blue off the charts.  “This is… embarrassing.  You see, I’ve lost something, or it’s been taken, but either way I was the responsible party.  It isn’t going to look good for me.”

He had my attention now.  It was always easier dealing with my clients when they got to the heart of the matter.  Sincerity usually translated to more accurate, truthful information and that meant I wouldn’t waste precious hours chasing false leads to save some idiot’s ego.  But I digress.

“What did you lose, Nick?”

He blew on his steaming coffee and took a cautious sip.  I got the feeling it was for show; he was stalling.  “I lost a case, a valise.”

“What were its contents?”

“Does it matter?”

I pushed my iPad away from me.  “It does if the contents are illegal.  I don’t bend the rules, Mr. Scratch.”

“No, no, you come highly recommended and your integrity is vouched for.  That’s why you are so intere… er… why I chose you.  And it’s Nick, please.”

I folded my arms and waited.

“Please,” he said, holding up both hands in a conciliatory manner, “there’s nothing illegal in the case.  I promise.”

“Any leads you can offer?”

“Only that the thief must be an employee of the company I work for.”

“You’re sure?”

“As sure as I can be.”

“How on earth could you possible know it’s an employee?” I asked.

He paused, his jaw clenching for an instant.  In fear? In anger? I couldn’t tell, only that there was some real emotion there.  “This case opens in a unique way.  One must have a blood match.”

“A blood match?” I repeated.  “Truly?”

“Yes.”

“There’s no other way.  You can’t crack it, can’t blow it up?”

“No.”  His answer was confident in its grim finality.

“Okay, then.  How long has your property been missing?”

“Eight hours.”

I allowed my surprise to show on my face.  “You must have emailed me about ten minutes after you realized it was missing then.”

“Sixteen minutes.”

“That’s pretty quick.  Contents insured?”

“These are beyond any value.  No insurance company can help me.”

“Really?”

“Really.  These are… unique.”  His emotions read true.  As far as I could tell, Nick was missing something of value and he was worried.  You don’t survive long in my business without being able to get a good read on people.  “Here, this is for you.”  He pushed a thick file folder toward me. “My personal number is written on the front.  I’ve provided a website and password which will allow you to peruse our security footage at my various facilities.”

I thumbed through it.  “This is a lot of information.  Still not going to say what exactly I’m searching for?”

“No.”

“And if it is removed from the valise?  How will I know what I’m looking for?”

“They won’t be removed.”

“Won’t or can’t?”

He smiled in a rueful way. “Stop digging, Charlie.”

“It’s Ms. Watts.”

His smile faded.  “Stop digging, Ms. Watts.  Start working your case.”

“You understand my rates?  $750 per day plus expenses?”

He cocked his head to one side.  “I do and I accept them. However, I will leave you the option of changing your price should you see fit.”

I frowned, confused. “Excuse me?  Why?”

He stood and waved an arm for me to proceed him with exquisite courtesy.  I noted that he was at least a foot taller than me.  “I like you, Ms. Watts.  That’s all.  No agenda, I am simply leaving you the option should you see fit to take it.”

As we left, passing the register we heard loud voices.  “I want a manager!  Right. Now.”  A customer was berating the cashier.  The unlucky young man at the register sporting a nose piercing and ear gauges, turned away, muttering to himself, “What I’d give to be out of here.”

Nick leaned over and discreetly handed him a business card.  “When you know what you want, give me a call.”  The twenty-something barista stared at the paper, transfixed.

“You’re a head hunter?” I asked.

He shrugged.  “In a manner of speaking.  Call me when you have some information?”

I nodded, glancing at the manilla folder.  I was curious and eager to begin.  “You bet.  I’m going to get started right away.”

“Thanks, I appreciate you making this a priority.”  He sounded sincere… and relieved.

It only took me ten minutes to drive to my office which, coincidentally, was also my home.  Times being what they were it made no financial sense for me to rent an outside space and hire an administrative assistant.  I worked from home, took my own phone calls and did my own errands.  One thing I didn’t do though, was invite clients to my house.  I reasoned that was what the good Lord created Starbucks for.  My house wasn’t much, but it was my sanctuary and I intended to keep it safe.

I parked my black Toyota Tacoma on my gravel driveway.  Carl, my Rottweiler (yes, I named him for the “Good Dog Carl” books), bounded up with his usual infectious wiggling joy.  “Hey, boy,” I murmured, tousling his silky ears. “C’mon, Mom’s got work to do today.  Gotta pay the mortgage.”

I spent the entire day and into the evening on Nick’s problem.  Late that night, cracking open a well-deserved Lagunitas IPA, I put my feet up on my desk and thought.  Based on the warehouses and lists of employees, their duties and hours combined with their sworn statements, I was fairly certain that I could lead Nick to his missing items.  I was also equally certain that I didn’t know squat about what was really going on here.  For starters, how this file had been pulled together in the intervening hours was beyond anything I had ever seen.

Nevertheless, the next morning after I braided my long, dark hair and tried to make myself reasonably presentable, I called my client and told him the good news.  Nick pulled in front of my house within ten minutes.  I wasn’t happy as I had wanted to meet at the Starbucks.  How had he gotten my address?  Did he have me followed?  I mean, it wasn’t hard to do, but it was pretty rude.

Carl, my adorable affectionate pet, was growling, hackles raised, and teeth showing in a savage display.  I had never seen him react to anyone this way.  My dog was actually foaming at the mouth as he stalked Nick, step by step.  Stranger still, Nick didn’t seem the least bit affected; he even seemed amused.  I frowned.  Carl was a big dog, and he did not appear at all sweet right now.  Anyone would have been a little scared, or at least put off by this kind of aggressive behavior.  “Carl, bad dog. No!”

Nick turned to me.  “No, Ms. Watts, don’t scold the beast.  He is doing as a good dog should do.”

A rush of good will filled me at his patience with my ill-mannered pet, replacing my earlier puzzlement.  Carl rushed forward again, snapping and growling in a ferocious display as he lunged for the interloper.  Fearing for Nick’s safety, I put myself between my dog and my client just as the Rottweiler leapt.  ‘Carl! No! Down!”

Carl twisted to avoid landing on me and his massive bulk hit the sidewalk.  He whimpered, a broken and confused sound as he slinked away from me and Nick.   I hurried to the dog, who licked my hands in canine submission.  Looking up, I saw  Nick’s sympathetic blue gaze on me.  “I told you,” he said, “he’s a good boy.  Dogs just don’t like me, never have.”

Just then, my mail carrier, Hank, came whistling up the walk.  True to form, Carl launched into full-scale barking, but without the foaming, growling and hackles he had exhibited with Nick.  I stared, wondering at the difference.  Hank gave me a cheery, “Good morning,” but his worried eyes lingered on the large dog I was holding back.

“Always with the dogs.  Damn dogs.” I could him muttering as he went down my driveway, shaking his head.

As Hank passed Nick I saw him reach into his pocket for a card. “When you know what you want, give me a call.” I heard Nick say in a persuasive voice.  Hank paused, staring at the card as though seeing the world for the first time, his face alive with some dawning realization.  I couldn’t help speculating on what he could possibly be thinking.

“I should take Carl to the yard,” I said.

“Of course, take all the time you need.  I am sorry I upset your pet.”

I took Carl to the backyard, slipping him a couple of his favorite liver treats.  He still whimpered, nuzzling at me as if afraid for me, rather than simply afraid.  I shook my head, knowing I was anthropomorphizing to the ‘nth degree.

I returned to Nick as he held his car door open for me.  Trying to act as if sliding into a Bentley was something I did all the time, I settled myself on the plush leather and got down to business.

“I’m not sure why you called me,” I said as we backed out of the driveway.

“Really?  Whyever not?”

“This wasn’t a difficult case to crack.”

“I have many servants, and many who wish to, what is the word? ‘Kiss-ass?’ I need someone who thinks for herself, who can draw conclusions. I… I do not always understand people.”

“Okay, I hope you didn’t waste your money.”

“Well, I do not have my property in hand as yet, nor have you been paid. Perhaps, as the saying goes, you should not be counting chickens.”

“Point taken,” I said and then I told him where to drive.

We went to a lonely warehouse on the outskirts of town, where country met city in a confused juxtaposition of scenery.

“So, Ms. Watts, why here?” asked Nick as he parked.  Shutting off the engine, he turned to face me.  The bright morning sun lent him a glow, even a halo of suffused golden light.

“You can call me Charlie,” I said, remembering his kindness toward my Cujo-esque dog.

He acknowledged my comment with an incline of his head.  “Thank you.  Now, why are we here?”

“Based on the records that you gave me, only sixteen of a possible four hundred and thirty-two employees were in the right place at the right time to take the case as you described.”

He blinked.  “You eliminated so many based on?”

“Many were eliminated through their schedules and log-ins, some by their commutes and travel times, not to mention Fast-Pass information and others by their snack preferences.”

“Their snack preferences?”

“Yes, you see certain of your businesses have specialty snacks that they are quite good at preparing and some of your employees are adamant in not missing.  You know, the chicken chile nachos or the loaded potato skins.”

“You, you, were able to narrow suspects through snack habits?”

“Right, you see your snack bars don’t stock enough.  They always sell out of the good stuff, even on graveyard shifts.  There’s a limited time for the quality foods.  By tracking where an employee’s key card was used to purchase food and triangulating that with security footage, I was able rule out those employees whose movements could be accounted for at the critical time.”

“Through snacks?”  Nick was shaking his head.

“Well, and driving, company meeting logs, that sort of thing, but sure, snacks, too.”

“In the middle of the night?”

“Everyone loves to eat.”

He smiled then, a wide natural grin, the first I had seen from him.  “No argument there, Ms., I mean, Charlie. Shall we look around?”

“That’s what we’re here for.”

“Who’s there?” I heard a woman’s voice.

Turning we saw a short elderly Asian woman in a green security uniform.  She moved in slow, stiff jerky movements.  “Good morning, Mrs. Ito,” said Nick, bowing with respect.

The woman’s face crinkled with a welcoming smile. “Hello, Mr. Nick, very nice to see you.  What a pleasant surprise!”

“Are you alright, Mrs. Ito?” he asked, putting a hand under one of her elbows.

“Oh, I’m fine, just fine.  Still, I’m not getting any younger.  My knees hurt, and my hips.  Got a bad shoulder, just never seems to stop hurting.”  Her voice trailed off. “I can’t remember what it was not to hurt.”  She shook her head, and said in a brighter voice, “I’m fine, not to worry a bit, Mr. Nick.”

Nick reached into his shirt pocket.  “When you know what you want, give me a call.”

She stared at the card, but didn’t take it.  “No, I’m fine.”

“You hurt all the time, Mrs. Ito, we can’t have that.  I want to help.”  He held the card out to her.

She shook her head. “Not to worry, sir.”

Nick leaned toward her, his voice gentle.  “You said it yourself, when was the last time you didn’t hurt?  When did the pain go away? No one deserves that.”  He held the card closer.

Her hand trembled as she reached for the slip of paper.  Nick’s smile was dazzling. “When you know what you want, give me a call.” His voice was hypnotic.  I frowned, unsure of what I had witnessed.

“Have a good day, Mrs Ito,” said Nick.  He searched in his pocket and pulled out the cards.  I could see he only had two left.  I glanced at the cards.  In large letters on the top I could read, “Morning Star, Limited.”

“What’s “Morning Star?’ A talent agency?” I asked.

Nick returned the cards to his pocket in a quick movement. “Something like that,” he said, not meeting my eyes.  “Where now? According to you, we still have sixteen employees to sift through.  And there’s no cafeteria here.”

“No.” I shook my head.  “Just one.”

Nick turned to meet my eyes.  “Only one?”

“Best as I can say.” I shrugged, and then I was lost.  Staring into Nick’s eyes was like nothing I had ever experienced and I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to explain it.  Imagine staring into the oncoming storm, spitting into a hurricane, watching a whirling vortex of ancient evil, good, pain, sorrow, joy, humor, hate, love, all wrapped in one incredibly complex being.  “What are you?” I gasped, wrenching my gaze from his through sheer force of will.

“Not like you,” he said, his tone frank and a little sad. “Now, my property?”

I trembled as I pointed toward the rear double doors.  “I believe there is a man, named Gilbert, who loves the back lot of this place.  Your profiles and statements make him out to be a simple man.  I think he’s out back.”

Nick’s face altered to such a grim mask that I feared what might happen next as he hurried through the doors I had pointed to.  I followed behind.  I would have wrung my hands if I had known how exactly this was done.

The back field was in actuality, a lovely meadow, the country half of the strange melding of city industry with rural space that was this particular property.  Under an oak tree sat a man, with a small case open, and he seemed to be drawing.  Coming closer, I saw he had fountain pens scattered about him and he was drawing on what appeared to be business cards.  All around him, spray painted on the ground in red were arcane symbols that I did not recognize.  They surrounded him in a large circle.  With a start I saw that Gilbert actually sat in a giant pentagram filled with other painted symbols.  Nick’s face darkened with anger.  “Gilbert!” He thundered.  “How dare you?”

The man named Gilbert, looked up, his smile was beatific.  In an instant I realized he was stoned out of his mind.  “Making pretty pictures, trying to undo what I did.  Don’t want to give it up.”

“A little late now,” growled Nick.  “It is mine.  You signed.”  He seemed to grow larger, his features even shifted.  It was as though he became a different man.  His voice sounded different and the bright glow I had observed about him darkened.  Without meaning to, I took a step back.

Gilbert waved a hand around him, at the pens strewn about in his pentagram. “But now, no one can sign.  No more deals.  Gone, gone.  Contracts gone.”  His voice was a sing-song, but then he spat at Nick, speaking with force.  “Get thee behind me, Satan, get thee behind me and torment me never more.”

In the bright morning sunshine, I felt as if all the heat had been sucked from the sun.  My hands trembled as I reached behind me to check that my pistol was tucked into my shirt as always.

“Forget the gun, Charlie,” growled Nick.  “It’s gone.  Though feeble, do you really think I’d let you carry a weapon of any kind against me?”

“Nick,” I whispered, “what is happening?”

He turned to me and I saw again the strange changes in his features, his mannerisms, even his voice.  As he addressed me, I saw the Nick I had met in the coffee shop reappear.  “You’re different,” I continued, “When you speak to me versus how you are with Gilbert.  You aren’t even the same man.”

“I started out The Adversary,” Nick said in a quiet voice as he circled Gilbert, inspecting the markings on the ground. “When I was young, I always imagined myself the lawyer, a voice arguing for justice.  It seems these days my destiny is that of a salesman.” He met my eyes again, the contact burned like a living brand, searing my soul. “You do not want what I am selling.”

I shivered as he continued moving with slow deliberation around Gilbert who muttered nursery rhymes under his breath, ignoring Nick and I.  Nick continued, “They call me evil.  I am their definition of evil.   Yet, I am only what you all bring with you when you approach me.  If you bring weakness, then I match it.  You bring hate and bigotry, then I give you your just desserts.  But you, Charlie,” and he turned to me,  “are something else. You are not vain about your looks like many women, though you are fair.  You do not seek to be  young forever, you seem to enjoy the voyage of life and though you have lost, and lost greatly, you accept this as what the universe is and how humans move through it.”

“Who wants to live forever?” I whispered, scared at what might happen next.

“More than you’d think,” said Nick in a dry voice.  “Take our friend here.” And he pointed to Gilbert.  “He wants to live forever, well, correction, he didn’t say forever.  His bargain specifies that he will be young all his days.  Of course, given this transgression, plus the fact that my contracts do not lend themselves to longevity and I’d say his days of wine and roses are just about done.”

Nick stopped moving and I held my breath.  “You missed a spot,” whispered Nick in a venomous tone to Gilbert, pointing to a gap in the arcane circle.  “I find our contract null and void.”  Before my eyes Nick was changing, becoming dark and evil.  He pulled a card from his pocket, but this one I could see was covered in tiny script. Gilbert stood, I could see his despairing wail on his lips before he even gave it voice.

“NO!” I screamed with all my might.

“What?” spat Nick.  “He is mine, legally, morally and now, certainly for his transgressions these past hours.  His soul, unending hellfire- that’s the deal.”

My heart was pounding and I gasped for breath. “You said, I could change my fee, that I could name my price.”

Nick became still.  He did not answer me, but I knew he was concentrating on my every word.  “I cannot,” I said, “I cannot stand here and watch whatever you are about to do to him. Don’t make me a part of this.”

“You wish me to take him to Hell and do it there?  Done.”

“No!” I screamed.  “My price is you release him, the contract as you said is null and void.  Now, forgive the debt.”

Gilbert had fallen silent and Nick regarded me.  The meadow seemed to be holding its collective breath.  “Run,” said Nick with contempt to Gilbert, “and for the rest of your miserable and long life, during which you will age, thank the heavens for Charlie.  Without her you would reside with me for all eternity.  Perhaps now you’ll take this second chance and make something else of your life.  Something deserving of a different hereafter, one without me. Now… RUN!”

Gilbert took off.  I have never seen anyone move so fast.  Amazing what motivation can do for a body.  The unnatural silence of the field behind the warehouse gave way over the minutes to a more normal silence.  It was the kind of quiet filled with the buzz of insects and the occasional bird call on a sunny morning.

“You never offered me a card,” I said at last, wondering why.

“I do not have anything you want,” he answered with a thoughtful expression.

I remembered Sam’s bright eyes and broad smile with a pang of yearning.  No, I told myself again, one more conversation, one more touch would never be enough.  There isn’t a number big enough, you would always want more.  Glancing up, I saw Nick’s hand on his shirt pocket, as though about to reach inside.  I frowned at him and his features lit in an unexpected smile. “Still no?” he asked. “Good.”

Leaning down he repacked the small valise, setting his pens and cards inside with care.  I watched and the thought crossed my mind, would it do any good to try to stop him?  Would it change anything?  Save anyone?  I started toward him. “Don’t even think of it,” Nick said in a flat,murderous tone.  I found I could not move, I was frozen, held by an unseen force.

Nick straightened, still wearing a smile as he regarded me and I found I could move again.  “Though it may sound strange for one such as me, I would vastly prefer if you never took a card.  I think this world is far more interesting with you in it .”  In a gesture of surprising grace, he bowed  and then gently took my hand in his and kissed it with an old world gallantry.

Stepping back, he added, “And I would never wish mine on you.”

He turned to go and I couldn’t resist saying, “So, should I call you, Lucif–”

He stopped and our eyes met, in an intense rapport.  Again, I saw something more than human, greater than me and a whirling eldritch kaleidoscope of evil, good, pain, sorrow, joy, humor, hate, love, all wrapped in one being.  When I blinked, the instant of contact was over, broken.

You can call me ‘Luke.'”

He walked across the sunlight meadow, case in hand.  A shadow appeared before him, malignant and so dark I couldn’t see anything through it.  Its blackness seemed to seethe and boil as though alive.  It was a gateway, I realized, but I shuddered to think where it led.  Luke looked back once, and raised his hand to me, before striding into the gaping maw and disappearing.  For a moment the shadow coalesced into the shape of a pair of huge, ebony wings and then faded without a trace.

And that is how I first met the Devil and helped him find his pens.

Erika Gardner... a lover of all things dark chocolate, heavy metal and geeky

Erika Gardner… a lover of all things dark chocolate, heavy metal and geeky

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