Introduces:

A Sampler of Stories

© 2002 Chapters reproduced with the permission of the publishers and the authors.

Visit our website at http://ceauthors.com

 

 

Table of Contents

Foreword M. D. Benoit
Angels Among Us CE Barrett
Death Awaits Beverley Bateman
Dancing with the Devil Patricia Crossley
StarLight, StarBright Erin Fox
Cross of Sapphires Irene Gargantini
Heavy Load Biff Mitchell
Promise Me Marcella Kampman
Where's Michelle Chris Grover

Foreword

In this sampler, you will get to read eleven Canadian Authors who are published electronically. They have offered you the first chapter of one of their ebooks, so that you get to know them and, hopefully, will want to read on.

Some of these authors are self-published, some have an e-publisher. What brings them together is a love of the written word, and of storytelling. 

I hope you will also want to read Looking In... Portraits of the Canadian Soul, an eAnthology written by 14 Canadian Authors. You can find it at http://ceauthors.com/ceanthology.htm. If you are reading this sampler from a CD, it is also included on there.

Enjoy!

 

M. D. Benoit

President

Canadian eAuthors Association

http://mdbenoit.com 

 

C.E. Barrett has been writing stories since the age of ten and completed a science fiction novella at 16. "Angels Among Us" is Chris’ first published novel and there is a medieval fantasy series in the works. To read more of this author’s works, visit http://www.cebarrett.com and wander through.

"Angels Among Us" is available from SynergEbooks at http://www.synergebooks.com in several electronic formats, and from Word Wrangler Publishing at http://www.wordwrangler.com/cebarrett.html in paperback.

Angels Among Us

by

C. E. Barrett

Chapter 1

The force of his landing drove the air from his lungs in a great 'whoosh'. He lay, stunned and disoriented, for a long moment before pushing himself up onto his hands and knees. He stared without comprehension at the bent and crumpled long grass where he had lain. It should have been the icy concrete of the streets of Montreal.

Hmmmm, he thought. I must have hit my head on something when I fell. I'm dreaming, I suppose. I hope someone calls an ambulance soon. Maybe I'm already on my way to the hospital. He felt his head for a bump and laughed to himself. That's silly. I wouldn't have a bump in my dream. But I've lost my hat. He shrugged philosophically. Dreams were like that sometimes.

He stood upright and looked around. The grassy meadow stretched to the horizon in all directions but one. To his right, a road ran along the side of a hill. A brilliant sun shone high in the sky. He removed his gloves and put them in his coat pocket as he began to walk towards the road.

* * * * *

What the heck is this? She rose, somewhat unsteadily, to her feet and essayed a cautious look around. This is not at all right! Of her car, the parking lot, the grocery store, her entire town, not a shred, not a speck remained to be seen. Even the contours of the land didn't match Weymouth's topography.

Over there! A road, perhaps? Something, anyway, that made a straight horizontal line along the hillside in that direction. All else was a seemingly endless field of grass, tall, yellowing and waving gently in the warm breeze. She turned in a slow circle, straining her eyes for a glimpse of anything she considered 'civilization'. Nothing.

She remained perfectly still for a moment, letting the scene sink in. There was an almost dreamlike quality to her surroundings, and she was more than a little disoriented. Then she shook herself mentally and decided that, dream or not, there was no point in standing here.

To the road it would be, then. She picked up the grocery bags she had dropped when she hit the ground. She had tripped over a pebble in the Foodland parking lot on her way to her car, and had thrown out her hands to catch herself. Now, though, she had no idea where she was, and did not intend to abandon her purchases, even if a lot of it was junk food.

She waded through the grass, the hillside slowly looming larger. The horizontal line was somewhere above the top of her head, but the slope to it wasn't too bad. She should be able to make it in one trip, even with the groceries. She would just hang them all on one wrist and use her free hand as needed.

As she got closer, she could see that it was, indeed, a road. Quite a way in the distance were small groups of people. Some were heading this way, some resting, some apparently milling about aimlessly. Halfway up the hill she paused to rest, and realized she hadn't been alone in the field, either. Dotted here and there were other lone figures with paths behind them leading from sudden flat spots. Her own trail through the grass looked just like theirs.

What the heck ? She wondered. It looks like we were all just 'dropped off'. But...never mind right now, Seren. Just get up to the road, and take it from there.

She resumed her climb. For miles in either direction, others were doing the same.

The road, when she reached it, proved to be a two-lane blacktop with the familiar yellow lines down the middle. She looked left and right, wondering which way to go. Off to her left, the road turned away, disappearing behind the breast of the hill, only to reappear further on, continuing its journey. To her right, it ran straight, disappearing in the distance.

She crossed the road, dropping her bags to the level shoulder. Sighing, she sat with her back to the uphill slope, much steeper than the one she had just climbed, and considered her situation. Paved roads meant civilization somewhere, preferably not too far away. But no vehicles had passed, and there were far too many pedestrians, most of whom, even from a distance, appeared to be as lost and confused as she was herself.

"I hate dreams like this," she murmured to herself, knowing she often recognized dream states and was frequently a lucid dreamer. "I hate thinking it's real, and getting sucked in until I wake up. I don't want to be here...so, TIME TO WAKE UP!" she yelled at her subconscious. "WAKE UP!! I have to get up and go shopping." She waited. "Dammit all!" She tried every trick she knew to control the dream, to restart it in the parking lot, to fly, anything - everything. Nothing worked.

Maybe I'm not dreaming, she thought, and on the heels of that, thought, Oh, yeah. Like when you think the flying dreams are real, too, and then you wake up.

She opened a grocery bag. She knew that in her dreams small tangible items tended to be distorted or senseless - written words that could not be understood, or remembered, that changed every time she read them. Everything in the bag looked real enough. She pulled out a box of cereal. The name was right, and the ingredients made as much sense as a mouthful of chemical compositions could. And the polysyllabic words were the same when she reread them.

She tapped the box with her fingertips and returned it to the bag. "But what if...?" she asked herself. She smiled to herself wryly. She had read enough Science Fiction to entertain the idea that she had dimension-hopped, or quantum-leaped, or some such thing. How come it couldn't happen when she was out camping and had a bunch of survival gear on hand? Of course, she hadn't actually gone camping in about four years, but still...

The possibility that she really had traveled to a parallel world or something equally improbable began to sink in. Panic nibbled at her mind. She didn't know where she was or how to get home from here, and her children were waiting for her. She stepped on the panicky thing that was struggling to overwhelm her. I don't have time for you right now! You're not helping.

A sudden alternative popped into her mind. Maybe I'm dead, she thought. Maybe I smucked my head on the fender when I fell, and this is the afterlife. She pondered this possibility for a few moments. But why would I be carrying groceries, or ghost-groceries to Purgatory or wherever? That just doesn't make sense.

Oh, and being in Dimension X or on Planet Wheretheheck does, replied her sarcastic side.

"Either way, sitting here is getting me nowhere, and if I want to find a town or something, I better get going." The sound of her voice gave her courage. Once again, she gathered her plastic bags and set off down the road, taking the long straight route that disappeared in the distance. To her right, the people scattered through the meadow were slowly approaching. Just ahead, a man was climbing onto the roadway.

 

His heavy overcoat was much too warm for the weather. His balding head gleamed with perspiration, which trickled down his temples and face into his neatly trimmed beard. He reached the top and rested, bent over with his hands on his knees, to catch his breath. As Seren drew closer, he straightened to his full height.

He was easily over six feet tall, and was quite stoutly built, firm rather than flabby, and well dressed. His blue eyes regarded her with wary curiosity. This woman in front of him was not what he had expected to see. He studied her briefly, noticing little details; the deep pockets of her shorts, the bulge in one where something wallet-sized sat, her bare ankles above the leather of her sneakers. He wondered what she represented. Weren't people you met in dreams supposed to have some meaning? He was somewhat bemused by the whole situation, and was more than half-convinced he was hallucinating after having hit his head when he fell.

Still, there was no point in being rude. His voice, when he spoke, was pleasant and cultured, with a hint that it could become supercilious and snobbish at the drop of a hat. He merely smiled politely and said, "Excuse me...but are you from around here?" He indicated the grocery bags. "I see you've been shopping and I was wondering if you would direct me..." His words trailed off as she shook her head.

"Sorry. I came from out there, too." She jerked her chin at the field behind him. He turned, and for the first time realized the situation as he noticed all the people making paths from nowhere. Most were moving toward the road, but some were wandering in seemingly random directions.

"Where did they all come from?" he murmured and looked back at her with a quizzical expression. She shrugged. "Well, then, I don't suppose there's any point in asking if you know where we are, or how, indeed, we got here."

She shook her head. "Nope. I know as much as you. One minute I was in the Foodland parking lot, I tripped over something and BANG! landed here."

"I was running for a taxi, and stumbled over the curb." He frowned and looked back over the field. This isn't real, he thought. I'm hallucinating. I must be hurt worse than I thought. Maybe I'm dying. He felt a momentary pang of regret for the symphonies he would never direct, the pain his family would feel at his death. Then he pulled himself together. He was not a man who fell apart easily. He had spent too many years developing the control for which he was well-known. He reached into an inner pocket of his coat and pulled out what appeared to be a tiny cell phone. She watched as he pushed a button with his thumb, and held the phone to his ear.

"Nothing," he said. "Not even static." He switched it off and returned it to his coat pocket. "It was worth a try," he said.

"Too bad it didn't work," she said sympathetically.

They looked at each other. He indicated their clothes, his heavy overcoat, her T-shirt and walking shorts. "It would appear we're from different latitudes," he said. "Where, exactly, were you?"

"I was in a small town in Nova Scotia," she said, and added automatically, "Canada."

"Really? I was in Montreal. There'd been a heavy snowfall just a few days ago."

"In June? That's hard to believe, even for Montreal."

"No. January the fifteenth." He looked at her clothing more closely. "You were in June?" An eyebrow lifted as he considered this. He wondered if she meant the June past or the one coming up. "What year?"

"1999. You?"

"2008."

They stared at and then through each other. He began slowly to think he might actually be awake and aware. He couldn't explain how or why they were here, but the reality was sinking in.

"Oh good. We're not only from different 'wheres' but different 'whens', too," she said. She focused her eyes on his face. "This can't really be happening. I bet I hit my head when I fell and I'm in a coma in the hospital and pretty soon, I'll come to, and everything will be okay again."

He made a tentative gesture, as if to pat her shoulder reassuringly, but withdrew his hand, wiping it across his forehead instead. "I rather doubt we are sharing a coma dream, Ms..."

"Baker," she supplied the name automatically. "Seren Baker."

He held out a hand. "Daffyd ap Owen."

"Pleased to meet you," she shook his hand and then laughed. "I can't believe we're doing this...acting like we've met at the mall or something. I mean...LOOK!" and she dissolved into laughter. He chuckled quietly with her. She was right. The situation was insane, and their reaction possibly moreso, for all it seemed so 'normal'. She regained her composure, but with occasional snorts of suppressed giggles.

"Well, Mr...Owen or ap Owen?"

"ap Owen."

"Mr. ap Owen...no sense standing here. I think I'll keep moving along."

"Do you mind if I join you? I can carry a couple of those for you." He didn't relish the idea of being alone in this place. It made him uneasy, which he successfully hid under his confident demeanor.

She shrugged. "Sure. I don't mind." He seemed nice enough; not really the ax-murderer type. She grinned inwardly, thinking she had written one horror novel too many. But she supposed there were worse things than having company in this strange world, especially when the company in question was this pleasant.

He took off his heavy coat and draped it over his arm. "I'd hate to be returned to Montreal without it," he explained, relieving her of a pair of grocery bags. They headed down the road in companionable silence. Occasionally they passed a lone person sitting or wandering on the side of the road. No one responded to their greetings, so they didn't bother to stop. There was enough weirdness going on today without their going out of the way to add to it.

 

Abuse investigation has been a part of Beverley Bateman's adult life. Her career in public health nursing brought her into daily contact with challenging families, giving her an up-close view into the lives of families from all social levels and occupations; including drug dealers, hookers and abusers. This provided Beverley with a wealth of knowledge for her to draw on as she develops situations with realistic characters facing emotional and life-threatening challenges. Beverley admits to being an avid reader of mystery and romantic suspense, which began early in life with Nancy Drew. She also confesses to spending a lot of time dreaming up locked-room plots and conversations between fictional characters. After years of writing down scraps of plots and promising to write the whole story one day, Beverley finally decided it was time she succumbed to her long-time desire to write. You can reach Beverley at http://www.beverleybateman.com .

 

LIST OF BOOKS

DEATH AWAITS ISBN# 1-58697-146-8 Available Now

POD ISBN# 1-58697-903-5 Coming Soon

FADE TO BLACK – Coming Soon

JUST LIKE YOU - Coming soon

RFI WEST Inc.

http://www.rfiwest.com

 

DEATH AWAITS

By

Beverley Bateman

 

CHAPTER ONE

She fumbled for the key, her hand still holding the leash, and automatically tried the door with her other hand, fully expecting it to be locked. It clicked opened.

She frowned and hesitated a second. That’s strange. He always kept it locked.

A soft popping sound came from inside the room.

A low guttural growl became a snarl as the giant wolfhound yanked on the leash, dragging her reluctantly through the doorway.

She let out an involuntary gasp. Her peripheral vision picked out Mr. Andrews, still sitting in his favourite chair, dark blood staining the centre of his forehead. Staring straight ahead she saw the man, still holding a gun.

He turned his head at the sound.

Their gazes met and locked briefly. She shivered as she stared into the coldest, palest, blue eyes she had ever seen.

Straining at the leash, attempting to lunge forward and barking furiously, Wolf almost pulled her farther into the room.

In that split second Susan Brown knew the true meaning of terror. Her chest contracted. She heard a scream. But it couldn’t have come from her; she couldn’t even breathe. She felt frozen, unable to move, for what seemed like hours, but must have been only seconds. Offering up a wordless prayer that her legs would move, she turned and felt a flash of relief when they responded. Pulling at the leash with both hands, she raced back down the apartment hallway.

Oh God, I’ve got to get to Hank. I can’t let anything happen to my son. He’s too young to be without his mother. Her pulse pounding in her ears, terror clutching her throat, her thoughts on her son, she ran. The enormity of what she had just witnessed was slowly sinking in. The killer would be after her, probably speeding silently down the hall behind her. Even if she got away he’d have to find her. She’d seen him murder a man. He’d have to kill her.

The dog’s leash was still wrapped tightly around her hand. He whined as he resisted, trying to return to his master. Her mind stayed fixed on Hank, sweet, loveable Hank. She had to get to him. She had to make sure he was safe. If the killer shot her, what would happen to her son? She was a single mother. First, no father, and now there was the risk he could loose his mother. And if the killer didn’t shoot her and found out about Hank, he might try to get to her through her son. Oh God, and then he’d kill them both.

Prodded by fear for her son, Susan rounded the second floor landing, feet barely touching the floor. Damn, the dog is slowing me down. She should let go of the leash, but it was wrapped too tightly around her hand. She would have to stop to release it, so she kept running, dragging the reluctant, barking wolfhound behind her.

She didn’t see the man until she landed on top of him at the foot of the stairs. The three of them collapsed in a pile. Man, woman, and dog, all leashed together. Susan’s gaze met his glare and she found herself staring into deep, Mediterranean-blue eyes. Her stomach contracted in a spasm of cold recognition. Then the terror blasted back, full force.

"What the hell’s goin’ on?" He snapped.

Susan struggled against him. The dog leash, tangled around their legs, held their bodies firmly together.

The frantic dog continued barking, struggling for freedom. The result pulled them even tighter together. The barking, the heat, the sweat and the closeness surrounded and compressed until she couldn’t breath.

With supreme effort, spurred on by terror, Susan managed to slide out of the tangled mess. She hit the floor running, racing out the door, down the few steps and into the descending darkness of the humid air and the crowded, New York Street.

"You! Stop! Wait! Stop! Damn it!" she heard him call after her.

July rain spattered her face, dripped off the end of her nose and chin. She started breathing again. Behind her, she could hear him swearing and Wolf barking. Free of the dog she sprinted through the crowd, down the street and around the corner. Her feet pounded against the pavement as she pushed past blurs of people, lights, and buildings. She vaguely heard the angry voices as she shoved her way through the crowd slamming bodies that were in her way and for the first time she could remember, she was glad of her height and long legs. They rapidly covered the distance between her and Hank. Once they were safe she’d take time to figure out a plan. Thank God she had grown out of the gangly, awkward stage or she’d be tripping over her feet about now.

She felt badly about leaving the dog. Poor Wolf…he was such a sweet animal. Now he’d lost both his master and the only other person he knew, his hired dog walker. Hopefully, someone would be found to look after him, but that wasn’t her concern. Not now. Her mind was unable to focus and kept flitting from one idea to the next. She had to maintain her concentration and come up with a damn plan, for the sake of her son.

She didn’t slow down until she neared the apartment building. Still jogging, she emerged from the stairwell and approached her second floor apartment door. Okay, girl…just what are you going to do now?

As the youngest of four, her family usually helped solve her problems, even helped make decisions. Until she was thirteen and, as the youngest, was left home alone with her mother, her siblings had done everything for her. She had finally realized she was responsible for her own life. It was slow work and when she was under stress she reverted to her engrained patterns of behaviour, wanting someone else to take responsibility. She sighed, she not only had to fight this battle alone, but somehow she had to make sure Hank wasn’t hurt. It might be a stretch, but if she contacted her family the killer might even track them down and use them to get to her. Who knew what a cold-blooded killer might do to keep from getting caught? Her brief experience with the law had taught her that the bad guys won more cases than the good guys. Fear clutched at her chest as she thought of all the different scenarios the killer might try. Her problem was, she really couldn’t think like a killer, only like a scared mother.

She fumbled for the key and jammed it at the lock, hand shaking. Glancing down the hall, she jumped at every sound. It took three tries to get the key into the lock and turn it. Inside, she slammed the door, leaned back against it, took several deep breaths, and tried to calm herself, and gather her fragmented thoughts in order to come up with a solution to the problem. Susan wiped her eyes with her sleeve—Oh, to hell with it—and wiped her nose too. Where can we go?

Susan moved to the bedroom, mind racing, she glanced at the bed, wishing she could curl up and have a good cry. Instead, she took a deep breath, squared her shoulders, and wiped another tear away with the back of her hand. Susan grabbed a large gym bag from the floor of the closet then started yanking open the dresser drawers. Snatching handfuls of clothing, she stuffed them into the bag. After a quick glance around, she picked up a smaller tote from the floor, and strode to the bathroom. She shuddered as the vision of the gun and the killer’s eyes flashed through her mind again.

In the bathroom, Susan swept stuff from the cabinet and the counter into the tote, making sure she remembered Hank’s ventilator. He didn’t need it very often now, but not knowing what was ahead for them, his stress-induced asthma attacks might very well be more frequent. She paused in front of the mirror and stared at the image of a woman about thirty, with tousled shoulder-length dark hair, the unruly curls a result of the rain. The woman staring back at her looked pale and tired. The usual reflection, of a self-confident woman, the one she tried to portray to the world, was missing from the image. It had always been a false image. Inside she had never been very confident.

Now, terrified and confused, the reflection was probably closer to the true picture. She was that child again, dependent on someone, everyone to help with her problems. Her finger paused over the faint jagged scar under her left eye. Almost immediately the old feelings of never fitting in flooded her. The scar certainly wasn’t a big deal now, but it was a constant reminder that she didn’t belong. She pulled her shoulders back, sighed and headed for Hank’s play area where she shoved a few of his favourite toys into the smaller bag.

Susan grabbed the phone and started to call for a cab, then banged the receiver down. A cab would be too easy to trace. They’d have to take the subway to the bus depot. It would take a little longer, but it would be safer. They’d catch a bus going somewhere, anywhere. Then she’d figure out a plan. First they had to get away from here.

She passed a picture of her son, stopped, picked it up and stared at it briefly, then dropped it into a bag. Grabbing both bags, she headed for the door. Pausing, she turned and surveyed the apartment to see if she had forgotten anything then hurried out. Across the hall, she pounded on Mrs. Muldoon’s door until it opened.

"Good gracious, child. What is the matter? We’re not deaf you know."

"Sorry, Mrs. Muldoon. Family emergency. I’m here for Hank. We’re in a hurry. Have to go away for a couple of days."

"A family emergency? Now that’s too bad. Nothing too serious I hope, dear."

"No. No, I don’t think so. I hope not. I…here darling, put your arm through here." Susan kneeled and helped Hank on with his jacket. "Thanks for taking care of him, Mrs. Muldoon. I’ll send you what I owe you."

"Now you don’t worry about that. We’ll settle up when you get back. You just take care of yourself. And you take care of that lovely little boy of yours. He’s a good one, that one." She leaned over and gave them both a hug.

"Thanks. I will. Uh, maybe you could keep an eye on the apartment for me? Until we get back?"

"Don’t you worry about your apartment, dear, I’ll watch it for you. Then we’ll have a nice cuppa and you can tell me all about this emergency of yours."

"Right. Thanks again, Mrs. Muldoon. Come on, Hank, we’re in a hurry."

"How come, Mommy?"

"Mommy will explain later. Bye, Mrs. Muldoon."

"Bye now. You take care, love." Mrs. Muldoon stood in her doorway, waving, as Susan scurried down the hall.

At the end of the corridor Susan turned briefly and waved. Then she tightened her grip on Hank’s hand.

"Let’s go, honey." As she started down the stairs, she had a sudden feeling that she wouldn’t be seeing Mrs. Muldoon again. Fear overshadowed any sadness the idea might have caused.

She headed toward the subway, holding Hank’s hand tightly. The crowd was thinning. People had arrived home for dinner, and it was too early to be going out for the evening. The rain had almost stopped. It was still hot and humid. Hank trotted along beside her, looking confused and a little forlorn. She couldn’t slow down to talk to him, not yet.

"I’m sorry, honey. Please try to keep up. Mommy will explain soon."

She kept checking over her shoulder. It was silly. No one could have found them yet. Still... They took the subway to the bus depot. For the first time in hours she felt she could breathe. They were going to make it. She almost smiled. Imagine, feeling safe on a New York subway. She hugged Hank tightly, brushing back his blond hair and planting a kiss on the top of his head.

"Don’t worry, honey. We just have to go away for a little while. It will be fun, you’ll see. We’re going to take a bus ride." She had to remain calm for his sake.

He gazed up at her with gorgeous blue eyes, frowning. "But why are we going away? Don’t you like Mrs. Muldoon anymore?"

"Yes, of course I do, dear. Something happened at work and I need to go away for awhile."

"But..."

"No more questions right now. We can talk when we’re on the bus." She gave him a quick squeeze, then placed her finger across his lips.

"Where...?"

"No more questions. We’ll talk later."

As soon as they arrived at the bus depot, she checked the departure schedule. A bus, leaving for Albany, was already boarding. Susan bought two tickets and walked quickly toward the coach. Her son clung desperately to her, looking tired, confused and sad.

"It’s okay, honey. You can nap on the bus."

She didn’t really know where they were going after Albany, or where they would end up. She just knew they were running for their lives and they had to get out of town fast. She checked over her shoulder as they boarded, wondering if anyone watched from the shadows.

 

* * *

 

Lieutenant Mitch Pellagrino entered the lobby, pulling out the radiophone from an inside pocket of his jacket.

"Sanchez. I’m startin’ the routine. Nothing unusual. Meet you up top." He wiped the sweat from his forehead. If this wasn’t hell it had to be close to it. Sitting around in a New York heat wave babysitting some low life scum who was being forced to testify in a major crime bust. The guy had refused to go into the witness protection program. Now all of a sudden, just a few days before the trial, he cries for help.

Crime always goes up in a heat wave. The cops in that division were short staffed. Who wasn’t in a heat wave? It wasn’t Mitch’s case, but between the guy whining about not wanting to go through with the trial and a rumour that there might be a contract on the weasel, he and Sanchez had been elected to baby-sit. And here they were, without even a proper briefing. Mitch was mad enough to punch the little weasel him. Thank God the trial was in two days. Then he could get back to just being a New York detective.

He wiped his forehead again, thinking about a cool beer at O’ Flaherty’s. Mitch and his partner did a sweep of the building every hour. They even had a key so they could open the door to the apartment to verify the witness was still there. That was the only plan they had. No back up, not even adequate information to run an effective operation. Mitch swore to himself, then started up the stairs. He was struck almost immediately and found himself lying on his back on the floor, the female canon ball on top of him. Struggling to get to his feet, he found a leash around his legs and a damn dog barking in his ear. Her long, well-formed body moved and pulsated against his, firm breasts pressed against his chest. Her face was only inches from his. Wide open eyes, dark amber-brown with flecks of gold, stared into his. Green highlights sparkled. An unusual little scar lay just under the left eye. Her lips were full, sensuous and tempting. Damned tempting.

Damn it, man, the job; think about the job.

Suddenly she was gone.

"You! Stop! Wait! Stop! Damn it!"

Mitch watched as she disappeared through the door. He’d screwed up, all because some bloody bitch had wriggled her body on top of him and he hadn’t held onto her.

He remembered the uneasy feeling in his gut when he had looked into her eyes. It was like, like he knew her, maybe, or something. He hadn’t looked at a woman, in that way, since he left his wife, so that couldn’t be it. Nah, that feeling is just because she made a bloody fool out of me. Another point for the damn women.

Reaching tentatively for the leash, he kept one eye fixed on the dog, which continued to bark. It didn’t look particularly vicious, but it sure the hell was big. Its tail continued to wag, its tongue lolling out the side of its mouth, drooling over everything in its path, which at this point were the legs of Mitch’s jeans. Why was it he always managed to get involved with dogs, usually big dogs? If it wasn’t women, it was dogs. He could do without either in his life.

Well, at least the slobbering creature’s teeth weren’t bared. Long ago when he’d been attacked, that had been his first clue—those bared teeth, edging slowly toward him, a low guttural growl, and then the lunge. He remembered it as vividly as if it were yesterday, automatically rubbing his shoulder. The scars were still there to remind him.

Managing to push the leash over his ankles, he struggled to his feet. Once he steadied himself, he fumbled inside his jacket and pulled the 9mm Beretta from his belt. The woman had been coming downstairs, from the direction of the witness’s apartment. She’d been white as a ghost and terrified of something. That cold knot in his stomach said there was trouble. Not likely she was a contract killer, if there was one, but she sure as hell might have seen one. If that was the case, and the guy had managed to get by them, he’d still be in the building. Mitch stared down at the animal, shaking his head. "Oh, what the hell… Come on, mutt."

Mitch bent down and picked up his radiophone from the floor where it had fallen when she hit him. Holding it in his other hand he hit the button. At least it was still working. "Sanchez. Where the hell are you? Something’s gone down. The apartment—now. And Sanchez ..."

"Yeah?"

"Watch out for a gunman. I’m not sure, but we might have a shooter loose in the building."

"Gotcha."

Holding the Beretta in his right hand, he grabbed the leash with his other and dragged the dog back up the stairs. It was the only witness he had right now and, while he would have preferred to let the beast run off, that didn’t seem to be an option at this point.

Mitch inched cautiously up to the second floor, the dog’s protests echoing off the hard surfaced walls. As they climbed, the barking changed to a constant whine. So much for the element of surprise.

Part way down the quietly elegant corridor he could see an umbrella, laying on the light grey carpet. The woman had probably dropped it there. He stopped briefly, surveyed the area, and then continued to move cautiously down the hall. The dog switched to whimpering as they got closer to an apartment door, which stood ajar.

Mitch stopped to one side of the door, back against the wall, listening. His nose twitched. He closed his eyes and sighed. Most people wouldn’t pick up on that distinct smell, but he’d worked homicide long enough to know the scent of death, even before he saw it.

He continued to listen, hearing only dead silence, except for the damn dog. It whimpered and nuzzled against Mitch’s thigh. Unconsciously Mitch patted the woolly head.

"Sshh. Quiet boy."

He checked down the hall for Sanchez. No sign of him. He should be here by now. Well, Mitch wasn’t going to stand around and wait for his partner. Where the hell is he? Damn it!

Mitch dropped the leash. He took the gun in both hands, raised it to shoulder level then swung quickly through the doorway into the apartment, his eyes scanning the room for any movement.

The dog suddenly lunged past Mitch, almost knocking him down as he raced to the far corner, yowling. The racket stopped as the dog planted his feet and skidded to a stop, in front of a man seated in a gold brocade wingback chair beside an unlit fireplace.

He was a small man, with light brown hair, balding on top, wearing a maroon smoking jacket and dark pants. Blood trickled down his face from a small hole in his forehead. It dripped slowly, one drop at a time, onto the open book on his lap. His eyes were open, fixed in a vacant stare.

The dog inched forward and sniffed the body. He put his head on the man’s lap, resting it on the book, continuing to whimper. The blood dropped onto its head, one drop at a time.

At the sound of footsteps in the hall, Mitch turned quickly, backing into a corner, gun raised.

The gun came into view first. Then Pete Sanchez swung into the room. He was shorter than Mitch and probably six or seven years younger. He’d only been on the force for a couple of years and was a by the book cop. His main motivation was to show everyone that a Puerto Rican was as good a cop as anyone. He wanted to move up the ladder quickly, to show the world and himself that a Puerto Rican was good enough to make it to the top. He was ambitious, but he was a good partner.

Mitch nodded toward his left. Without a word, they moved as a team to the first door off the main room. Mitch kept his weapon in both hands, releasing it only long enough to open the door. He swung into the room. Pete followed, using the same procedure. No one. A quick scan of the room showed no sign of forced entry, or robbery. Nothing.

They followed the same procedure with each of the other rooms. The results were the same. Nothing. No sign of anyone. No sign any of the rooms had been entered.

Mitch strode to the window and raised it, leaning out and looking down at the street. It was just as he had left it a few minutes ago. Still raining lightly, people thronged together in a sea of colour, heading home or to the subway. No suspicious individuals, and no brunette.

He wiped the sweat from his brow with his sleeve. The humidity was almost unbearable, and the rain only seemed to make the air heavier and steamier. He’d have to change his shirt again, if he got a chance. He snapped the disposable gloves on.

"Eh, what the hell happened here? Who did it?" Sanchez turned to Mitch.

"How the hell should I know? And where the hell were you?"

"Doin’ the routine thing. I figured I’d finish checking the doors and halls as I came up. You got a problem with that?"

"Took your bloody time. See anything? Anything at all?" Mitch snapped.

"Nope, nothin’. Everything’s quiet, except for a few residents in the hall, wanting to know what happened. You didn’t see or hear anything either? Like how the hell did this go down?"

"I don’t know. No one came in the front door. Everything was quiet until the... damn dog started barking."

Mitch didn’t know why he had stopped. Was it just to protect himself so he didn’t look like a bloody screw-up again? He certainly didn’t want to admit he’d let that damn brunette get away. Besides, he wasn’t a hundred percent sure he had heard anything. Right after he’d radioed Pete the first time, there might have been a scream, seconds before she landed on him. Then again, if it was a scream, it might have come from the street or who the hell knew where?

"You hear somethin’ else?" Pete asked, staring intently at Mitch, his bushy eyebrows drawn into a frown.

"Nah, just the damn dog." Mitch replied. "Sure no one came in or out the back way?"

"I’m sure. No one came or went out the back way. I never saw a soul. You sure nobody came out the front?" Pete asked, still watching Mitch’s face closely.

Mitch hesitated just a second. "I’m sure, damn it. Someone had to come out the back. There’s no other way out. No one who wasn’t a resident or a regular came out the front."

"Doesn’t make sense. He had to go in and out by one of the doors. What the hell does this guy do? Fly?"

"Uh huh, it looks like it. I passed a fire door on my way down the hall. Probably leads up to the blasted roof, but there’s no goddamn way down from there."

"Maybe we should check anyway?" Pete suggested.

"Uh huh. That would be appropriate. Right after we finish here. No sign of a break in or a struggle. Nothing’s overturned. Dead guy must have let the killer in. But why would he let him in and then go back to reading his book, unless... unless the killer had a key and let himself in." Mitch became silent. Unless it was that damn brunette. She probably had a key, but she didn’t have time to have done it, between when I saw her go in with the dog and the scream. At least I don’t think so. If I hadn’t let my guard down for that split second... Damn women. Always manage to screw me. You have to be alert every bloody minute or they manage to make a fool out of you.

He recalled the feel of her body and her wonderful scent, like a flower garden after a spring rain. What the hell was he doing? She was a suspect, for God’s sake.

Mitch wondered if she lived with the guy. The thought irritated him. He hadn’t noticed anything in any of the rooms to suggest a woman lived here, no female clothing or toilet articles. Maybe she was just a friend, not that he gave a damn one way or the other. So why did he keep thinking about her?

Pete scratched his head. "Who’d you think would have a key?"

"Probably one helluva a lot of people. The landlord, the cleaning lady, the maintenance man, a delivery man, us, just to name a few." Mitch strode to the white and gold antique phone on the table in the corner.

"Is the dog his?" Pete nodded to where the animal still sat with his head on the man’s lap.

"Yeah, I guess. Behaves like he belongs here."

"Yeah, he does. They didn’t tell us about any dog."

"They didn’t tell us a helluva a lot."

"True. Whatcha gonna do with it?"

"Me? With what? Oh, the dog? How the hell should I know? I figure it might have seen the murder. Hell, he might be our only witness. Don’t suppose downtown will buy into keeping him as a material witness... " Mitch raked his gloved hand through his hair.

"Doubt it."

"How about convincing HQ to pay for kennel fees? Just until we find someone to take him. Think that would work?"

"Once again, I doubt it. They’d think you were nuts." Pete said.

"They think that already. Maybe I’ll try finding a relative, or maybe one of those snoopy neighbours."

"Not likely. Too bad, too. He’s a nice dog, but not many people are going to want an Irish wolfhound. They usually like small dogs, or shepherds." Pete replied.

"That what he is? A wolfhound? He is damn big. Maybe I could find the nearest SPCA and drop him off... Someone’s bound to want a great dog like him."

"The SPCA will probably put him down in a couple of days, if no one adopts him. That’s what they do, ya know. Don’t know much about animals, do you?" Pete frowned, as Mitch shook his head.

"Nope. Never really interested me. Especially dogs. Hey, maybe you could take him?" Mitch suggested.

"Sorry, nope. I live with my family. Remember? There’s five of us and Ma has a poodle."

"Jesus, Sanchez. Oh, never mind."

Mitch felt his brows furrow and his mouth tighten. He resented Sanchez for living at home and having a large, loving family. He resented what his own family, and that ex-wife bitch, had done to him and how he didn’t have a home anymore. Anger began to rise inside him as he thought about it. He punched his right hand into his palm. Life outside his work sucked. In fact, he didn’t have one, but that was his choice. At least that was what he told himself. He wasn’t into chicks and the singles scene, and anything else was just too complicated. He’d sworn off women permanently. They were all the same and he refused to set himself up for the pain that went with the humiliation, ever again.

"Eh, why don’t you take him?" Pete interrupted.

"Huh?"

"The dog. Why don’t you take him?"

"No damn way. First, my landlady says no pets, and my room’s too damn small. And second, dogs and me don’t get along too good. One bit me once. Since then I firmly believe that dogs should always be kept at a safe distance."

"This one looks pretty friendly."

Mitch scowled. He’d have to figure something out. Right now, the dog was the least of his problems. "Yeah, well I’ll worry about him later. Right now I better call this in, then we’ll check the roof. You might want to pick up that umbrella in the hall. It might belong to a witness, or the murderer. The lab guys can dust it for prints when they get here."

He picked up the receiver and dialled the number. The guys uptown weren’t going to like this. They weren’t going to like this at all. In fact they were going to be downright pissed off. The idea had been to keep the guy alive, at least until after he testified. That’s why he and Sanchez had been assigned this damn babysitting job in the first place. They’d even had a heads up that there might be an attempt on his life and the guy still got knocked off. That was all they’d been given. Damn. They’d only been on the job a couple of hours.

A draft beer at one of the local dives they called a bar looked like it was out of the question now. So was a little flirting with the local waitress. He didn’t have girlfriends, hadn’t for more than four years, but he did like to sit in the bar and look. Momentarily, he remembered the feel of the brunette as she moved over him, struggling to escape. She’d had one helluva body. He remembered how his own body had responded to her touch. It had been awhile since he had felt those rising sensations.

Damn, it was hot. Mitch wiped his forehead again. He probably wasn’t even going to get time to change his damn shirt. This thing would take all night and probably straight through the next week or two. He’d screwed up. The case would be dismissed due to lack of evidence and the racketeers would be back on the street by tomorrow. No way should the killer have gotten to the witness, not if they’d been doing their job. It was almost like the guy had inside information.

Mitch sighed heavily. He couldn’t find another witness to testify against the racketeers, but he’d have to at least find the shooter.

He knew he should mention the girl, but this looked like a professional hit. If she saw anything, the shooter would probably be looking for her, too. Mitch wanted to get to her before the killer did.

He was convinced there was an information leak in the department. There had been too many coincidences, before his brother was shot. Dom’s death had just reinforced Mitch’s conviction. IA had investigated but never come up with anything. Mitch didn’t want information leaked that might give the killer a head start in locating the witness. Mitch wanted to find her first and see what she had to say, either about the murder or what she had seen.

Damn, maybe he was kidding himself. Maybe he just wanted to see her again. He sighed heavily as the voice at the other end of the line barked into the receiver.

 

Patricia Crossley lives in Victoria, B.C. Born and brought up in England, she has lived in six different countries and uses experiences from her travels around the world form a backdrop to her romance novels.

Her stories offer compelling characters with elements of mystery, time travel and the paranormal. "Beloved Stranger," set in Ontario and Quebec, is the story of two modern lovers brought together by ghostly voices from the past. Her time travel romance "Journey's End" takes place in England and was awarded four stars by Romantic Times Magazine. "A Suitable Father" is set in the Pacific Northwest and "Dancing with the Devil" moves from Africa to Victoria, BC. Patricia's short stories have appeared in Canada's "Storyteller" magazine.

Recently Patricia spent six months in Kenya to administer scholarships for needy girls. Her next project is an account of this life changing experience. You can reach Patricia at patricia@patriciacrossley.com or visit her website at http://www.patriciacrossley.com 

Books/publications:

A Suitable Father; New Concepts Publishing

http://www.newconceptspublishing.com/asuitablefather.htm 

Journey's End: New Concepts Publishing

http:// www.newconceptspublishing.com/journeysend.htm 

Beloved Stranger: NovelBooksInc

http://www.novelbooksinc.com/authors/patricia_crossley/beloved_stranger.html

Dancing with the Devil; Atlantic Bridge Publishing

http://www.atlanticbridge.net/publishing/dancing.htm 

The Fireworks Display: TrebleHeartBooks

http://www.trebleheartbooks.com/THBShortSynop.html 

Prize winning story in Storyteller Magazine, July 2001

Saturday Night; DiskUs Publishing (August 2002)

http://www.diskuspublishing.com 

Short story, appeared in print in Storyteller Magazine 2001

 

Dancing with the Devil

By

Patricia Crossley

 

Chapter One

Jazz woke, heart pounding, eyes instantly wide open. She could see nothing in the half light, could only feel that something was smothering her. She struggled for breath and clawed at the covering that clung to her face, cutting off the air. Her fingers caught in the protective netting strung over the bed and she ripped at the drapery, frantic to free her head and arms, sucking in air to her starved lungs.

Rolling off the camp cot, she fought her way out of the remaining netting, careful to check the floor as she picked up her boots. She shook each one out in turn before she thrust her feet inside. One of the crew had found a small scorpion in his film pack the day before. It was tiny, about the size of a fingernail, and it scurried away to disappear into the sand floor.

Leaving the boot laces loose, she stood up and pulled on a shirt. There were sounds now from outside the tent. The sun was well up, beginning to send warm fingers of heat through the canvas. She could hear a truck engine coughing somewhere, the gas evaporating as usual before the motor could catch. Vehicle maintenance wasn't a strong point in the crew of people they'd hired in this remote corner of the world.

Her hands were hot and dry on her face and she pulled the hair back out of her eyes impatiently, tying it with an extra large elastic band that had been holding the pages of her notebook together. Everything was covered by a thin layer of dirt that managed to work its way into every crack.

Yawning and stretching out her back, she shuffled over to the kerosene stove and felt blindly for the matches.

As the water boiled, she put the beans in the hand grinder and turned the handle. The aroma of the freshly ground coffee spread like a blessed perfume around her, masking the scents of dust and greasy clothing and overheated engines. If she packed nothing else, she always made sure she had a supply of good coffee. It went into her travel pack along with the other less glamorous essentials like maps and notebooks, a Swiss Army knife and a Mag Lite.

A few minutes later, she stepped outside into the sandy compound with her first lovely cup, black and steaming in the morning air, and contemplated a scene of organized chaos. She took a sip and let the taste linger in her mouth. Under the palms that gave scant shade, a group of natives was busy loading the back of a flat bed truck, shouting, cursing and laughing in a cacophony of sound.

She watched Abdul step around a group of men across the clearing and move quickly to her side. She took the last swallow of coffee. "What's going on?"

He smiled briefly, a flash of white teeth against the dark skin. "We must move on. Wind storm coming."

She looked up into the cloudless sky. "When?"

He shrugged and spread his hands in the fatalistic gesture she'd grown to know so well. "Two, maybe three hours. Wind, sand. It will be most unpleasant."

"Where are we going?" The frantic activity reminded her of the "bug out" scenes in M*A*S*H* that she'd watched on TV as a kid.

Another voice interrupted. "We'll pull out and try for some shelter. We'll need a windbreak of some kind." She turned to find the photographer, Pete Browning, behind her, looking as disheveled as usual and with two cameras slung round his neck.

"The rebels will have to contend with the storm too," he added. "We might get a few days cease fire."

A couple of men emerged from the tent she'd just left carrying her folded cot.

She frowned, fully back in the present. "Let's do some interviews, get hold of someone who thinks he's a leader. It's about time we got some first-hand information.. We could go ahead with Abdul to translate and scout around-" She took a step away, ready to organize the quest for extra information.

Peter laid a hand on her arm. "Not you, Jazz," he said as he pulled a folded piece of paper out of his upper shirt pocket. "This came through during the night."

She felt the tiny bump of her heart as her pulse beat faster. Her promotion! Already. She kept her face impassive as she took hold of the warm paper, the creases already marked in brown by the ubiquitous sand. Pete and Abdul watched her as she unfolded it, the sounds of the camp suddenly hushed in the thickening air. The message had been sent from the newspaper's head office yesterday afternoon and been passed on through Nairobi to their location in Somalia.

"To: Jasmine Hargrove," it began, "Regret to inform you your father deceased June 19. Request your presence. Urgent. Contact Willis and Greene, lawyers..." and a series of contact numbers followed.

She read it again, searching for details, for an explanation, for some kind of personal word. Suddenly, the flimsy paper trembled in her fingers. She swallowed hard, trying to clear the dust from her throat, and opened her mouth, but no sound came out.

Her mind raced to take in the news. It obliterated all thoughts of her job. He was gone and there was no explanation. Suddenly, the hot tears burned at the back of her eyes and she blinked hard. No chance now to have it out with him, to make him understand. How did he die? She turned the paper over. There were no more details.

"I read what it said," Pete said. "I'm sorry."

She drew in a deep breath. "My father-"

He gathered her into his big arms and squashed her against his cameras. She didn't care about the discomfort; it felt good, she needed to be held. She moved slightly so her cheek rested against the flatness of his chest and she felt the steady beat of his heart. He held her firmly, not too tight, his hands steady on her back.

She had to move away. "I'm sorry," she said, suddenly embarrassed. "I shouldn't have done that." She lifted her hands and pushed her hair back from her face. "They want me to go home. There's a lot to settle."

"Yes, of course." Pete let her go and turned to Abdul. "You'll need to put Ms. Hargrove's bag in the Landrover."

"No," she whispered, an icy panic clutching at her despite the oppressive heat of the desert. "You don't understand, I can't go."

He patted her shoulder, misunderstanding. "Don't worry about the storm. You've got time. Is that right, Abdul?"

Abdul nodded and flipped one hand in a kind of "maybe" gesture. "Be very quick," he said.

"The crew will manage without you," Pete said as she still hesitated. "We all understand. Believe me, everything will be fine."

She looked at him for a moment, searching for words. But there were none. She drew in a deep breath. She had to go. She hadn't gotten where she was by wimping out on what had to be done. Besides, it would be worse to have to sit out the storm and then leave.

"Let's go for it," she said.

"Your'e on." Pete flashed her a grin as he pulled on a jacket scattered with pockets and took out some sunglasses. He hadn't shaved, and dark stubble followed the line of his jaw. To her astonishment she found herself wondering how it would feel under her fingers... A lock of dark hair fell over one eye and he pushed it back impatiently. He looked as if driving out in an imminent sandstorm with a grouchy reporter was just what he wanted to do.

"I'll drive her to the airfield," he yelled to Abdul's back, then turned to her again. "Move it, Jazz. You've just about got time to get the plane out before the storm hits." He strode off, shouting orders to send a radio message to the tiny airstrip in the valley.

In a daze she pushed her clothing into a couple of bags and picked up her pack that was always ready to go. There wasn't much else to worry about. The crew all traveled light these days, never knowing when they'd have to bug out just like those doctors and nurses on the TV show. At least they had only themselves to worry about, no sick people to think of and little equipment.

"Let's go, Jazz," Pete yelled from outside the tent. She grabbed her laptop in its case with the bags and lifted the tent flap. Most of the area was now bare, all their equipment bundled onto the trucks. Pete sat behind the wheel of the Landrover, waving at her to get in. Within two minutes they were bouncing down the rutted, hard-packed sand that passed for a road.

For several minutes they bumped along without speaking. Pete bent forward, gripping the wheel tight. She watched him as he concentrated on holding the line as the whole vehicle bounced and jolted, rattling and clanking on the cracked earth. His dark hair blew in the breeze, whipped up by their speed. Big aviator sunglasses hid his eyes.

"Hold on to your back teeth," he yelled above the noise of the engine. He gave her another wide grin, taking his eyes off the road for a second.

She nodded grimly, hanging on for dear life to the support bar of the open vehicle. Pete fell silent, concentrating on hanging on to the juddering steering wheel. She supposed he would drop her at the airfield and then find his way back to the group wherever they were. He seemed to know what he was doing.

"How long will it take you to catch up with them again?" she gasped as her rear end hit the hard seat one more time.

"Not too long, I hope." He craned his neck to see round Jazz and peer at the horizon. She saw anxiety in his eyes.

She glanced in the same direction towards a grey haze that seemed to spread like oil over the burnished sky. "Is that the sand storm?"

" 'Fraid so." He pushed even harder on the throttle and the Landrover bucked and jumped like an untrained pony. What looked like a hard, flat surface from a distance was sprinkled with half buried rocks and ridges of solid sand.

"Ouch," she said as her knee came up to meet the dashboard.

He didn't turn to look at her, but she sensed an increased tension in the set of his broad shoulders under the khaki drill shirt.

Suddenly the Landrover seemed to take off and sailed several feet through the air. It landed with a solid thump and immediately listed to one side.

"Shit!" Pete took his foot off the pedal and threw the gear shift into neutral. He hauled on the hand brake and was out in an instant looking at the back wheel.

Jazz scrambled to follow him. The tire lay in shreds. A deadly combination of speed and sharp rock had ripped it from the rim.

"You okay?" Pete asked belatedly.

She nodded. "Where's the spare?" she asked

Pete looked back at the grey cloud. No longer a smudge on the horizon, it spread visibly towards them, growing as it drew nearer. A dark wall approached them and the wind blew on their faces, its intensity increasing by the minute. The air grew noticeably cooler as the sky disappeared in the murk. Jazz took off her soft green hat and pushed her hair back as it whipped around her face, narrowing her eyes against the dust. A faint groaning came from the direction of the wall: the wind announcing its presence. She'd read about the power of wind and sand, about how it could scrape paint bare in a few minutes.

Pete hauled an unwieldy bundle from the back of the vehicle.

"There's no time to change the wheel. Grab hold of this," he shouted. "We'll have to try to get the top on."

She felt his urgency in the speed of his movements. Her hands fumbled in her haste as she took one side of the canvas that flapped and writhed like a wild thing as they struggled to fit it back over the supports. Pete's muscular forearms flexed with effort as he fought to bring the fasteners together. When one side was secure, he stopped to wipe his streaming face and glanced at the darkening sky once again. His expression was carefully blank as he turned back to the job.

The pressure of the wind hurt her ears, and the sand, already whipping past them, burnt and stung her face. She tried to speak, but her mouth filled with dust, and the swirling air snatched her breath away, making her gasp like a drowning person. She hunched over, struggling to stay on her feet.

Pete grabbed a shirt from the back seat and held it out to her. "Here, put this over your head."

"Thanks." She took the cloth and wound it over her head, fighting to pull in the strands of hair that clung to her cheeks. She folded the rest of the shirt over her mouth and nose, leaving only her eyes free.

After what seemed an eternity, the top was in place. Pete opened the door. "Now get in! Close everything up!"

Only a moment's hesitation. She struggled back into the Landrover and fastened the last of the grommets to hold the canvas in place. Pete followed immediately, cursing and spitting sand from between his lips. Quickly they found and closed all the air vents, shutting off the thin, stinging ribbons of sand that blew in.

A filtered, greenish-yellow light penetrated the eerie darkness inside the canvas walls. She felt the vehicle move and rock as the wind caught it, trying to roll the whole thing over. She gasped and seized the handholds on the doors.

"Hold tight," Pete said. His hand reached out and felt for hers. She let her fingers lie in his, grateful for the comforting strength that came through to her in his touch. The sides of the vehicle closed in on her, shutting out the outside world, shutting out sound and light, entombing her in the airless shell reeking of weathered canvas and dust. Sweat began to bead on her face; the car was turning into an oven.

She loosened the shirt from around her head, freeing her mouth and nose to pull in the air she desperately needed. The whistling, moaning noise from the wind rose in pitch until she longed to block her ears. Underneath the sound, she could hear an increasing patter of sand hurled against the canvas, like some demented rock band practicing a music that no sane audience would ever want to hear.

Bit by bit, it grew darker still and hotter in the pitiful shell of the car. Despite the wild sounds from outside, she could hear the gasps of their tortured breathing. She grasped Pete's fingers in an involuntary spasm and she felt his hand warm and solid against hers. The other noise gradually decreased as the light dimmed. They were now inside the wall of sand.

They were buried in a tomb of a vehicle.

They would never be able to open the doors, dig their way out.

Panic rose in her, sweeping through her body like a fever until she could think of nothing else but air and freedom. She let go of Pete's hand and clawed at the rest of the shirt still clinging to her head and face. When she was free at last, she turned to the door and tugged at the latch. Over Pete's ragged breathing, she heard a whimpering cry, and realized it was her own voice, frozen in her throat.

Pete's arm came round behind her, holding her tight against him. His hand closed over hers again, warm and rough, yet gentle. His body was a rock beside her, his arms and hands a haven in a sea of panic. He held her fast against her struggles and raised one hand to lift the hair from her face and mouth. "Hush, you're okay," he whispered. "You're okay. Just lean on me. Don't think about it. We're safe."

She gave a strangled cry and with a dry sob she buried her face against his chest, fighting to control her shaking. Ever since she'd lived the nightmare of the cellar, she'd had this terror of confined spaces, of being trapped inside a box with something terrible...

The sound of Pete's voice gradually broke through her panic as her breathing slowed. He spoke slowly, soothingly, as if to a child.

"...so you never know what family will do," he was saying. What on earth was he talking about?

His hand lay on her head, stroking her hair. "...so my sister was there with this TV host who wanted to know what she thought people did on a first date. It was one of those cutesy shows that have kids answer ridiculous questions. Marian, that's my sister, said: 'On the first date, they just tell each other lies, and that usually gets them interested enough for a second date.'" He shifted against her. "I'll just move my arm a bit." She felt him adjust his position so that her neck rested in the crook of his arm.

She tried to moisten her lips with a dry tongue. It was an effort to speak. She didn't know if the words would come out of her tight throat. "She was probably right," she said. Her voice broke in a little croak at the end.

He shifted again in the cramped space to look down at her. "You were listening," he said with a smile. "I was desperately trying to think what I would do with a claustrophobic women who was determined to claw her way out before the storm's over."

She took a deep breath to make sure she could speak, that her voice wouldn't shake and give her away. "I'm okay..."

"Try to hold on. We're all right. Let's not talk too much."

Jazz knew what he meant. They needed to conserve their air. They could be here for hours, days.

They would use up all the oxygen ... She tried to pull her mind back to other things, tried not to think of each breath diminishing the supply of air ... The sand building up ...

Pete settled her against his shoulder again and gently pushed the hair back from her face. His lips were close to her cheek and he made soft, soothing noises. Jazz closed her eyes and made a supreme effort of will to control her breathing and to sit very still, not thinking of what was outside.

After what seemed like a long time, Pete stirred and stretched as best he could. Miraculously the pounding and wailing had ceased.

"Has it stopped?" she asked through dry lips.

"I sure hope so," he answered and cocked his head to one side. "Can you hear anything?"

"No." She wiped a hand across her face and felt grit under her fingers. She tried to find enough moisture in her mouth to swallow and coughed on the sand that had sifted between her lips. Pete pulled a small green scarf from around his neck and gently brushed her face. "Sorry it's not very clean," he said.

Jazz took it from him and crumpled it into a ball. "Lean forward," she said.

Very carefully, she dusted the sand from his eyebrows and traced the line of his lips. They were strong and well defined. The sand clung to the stubble of his beard. She was very conscious of his gaze on her face as she concentrated on not sending debris into his eyes. With a final flick of the cloth she sat back.

He took the scarf from her and bound it outlaw style over his mouth. "Put that cloth over your face again," he said. "Let's give it a go."

He turned away from her towards the side of the Landrover that leaned lower. "With any luck," he said, bracing his feet against the door, "this will still open. The sand will be piled on the other side and this door could be almost clear." She felt the muscles of his back flex and move against her. "Put your arms round me," he said. "Just push against me when I say."

On his count of three, Jazz shoved him with all her strength. She licked cracked lips and tried not to think of water.

"Again," he said. "I think it moved."

She strained every muscle as she pushed with all her might.

Each minute seemed like an hour until Pete had cleared enough of a hole for her to slither through. She stood beside the Landrover, breathing in deep, sucking blessed air at last into her lungs. The wind had dropped but the so-called road had disappeared. As far as she could see was an unbroken expanse of rock and sand with no trace of the trail they had followed.

 

***

 

"We were lucky," Pete said.

She stared at him wordlessly.

"It could have been even stronger and lasted for days," he explained. "At least we know where we are."

"We do?" She brushed sand from her arms and legs. It was everywhere, on the surface of her skin and in every conceivable spot on her body. She coughed and wiped some dust from her mouth with her sleeve.

"Yup. That's the way we came." He pointed in a direction that looked exactly the same as any other. "This vehicle carries some water. I'll try to reach it."

He thrust his head and shoulders back inside and she saw the vehicle lurch as he thrust his way into the car. At last he re-emerged grasping a plastic jerrycan of water and the mouthpiece of the shortwave radio that was mounted on the dashboard.

"We're in luck. The crew put in the supplies." He unscrewed the top of the can and held it out to her. She fought the impulse to drink all the beautiful, life giving, tepid water that tasted of warm plastic and took two restrained gulps, trying to swirl it all around her mouth before swallowing it.

"Good girl." Pete took one mouthful and fitted the cap back on.

"Did you bring the satellite phone?" he asked.

She shook her head. "I left it for the crew."

He held out the radio speaker on its spiral chord. "Let's try this. Do you know how to work it?'

She nodded a yes and took the receiver from him, knowing that if the unreliable crew back at the base hadn't checked the batteries recently, they wouldn't reach anyone. She tried the call three times over the dead air. Nothing.

She turned to face the direction he'd indicated. "Is that the way we walk?"

"That's where the camp was, but we don't walk."

Suddenly she was unreasonably angry: angry at Pete, angry at the elements, angry that Pete had witnessed her weakness in the car, angry at her father for dying at this particular moment. "We have to do something. There's a map and a compass in my kit. Do you expect us to sit here and wait to die of thirst?"

"We won't die of thirst if we're careful. What do you expect to find back at the camp? They all left soon after we did. There will be nothing recognizable about the site. No provisions, no shelter, no water. Here we have shelter, we can make shade, we have some water, and Abdul knew where we were headed."

She still wanted to argue with his calm logic. "We could make for the airfield."

He nodded, his expression serious. "We could. Except that I'm not one hundred percent sure of the direction with the track blocked out. We don't have enough water to carry us through a long trek under this sun. Even with the compass it's too risky. The first rule for survival is to stay put."

She stood for a moment, searching for another suggestion that would make them move. Frustrated energy buzzed through her, urging her to take action, so she could at least appear to be finding a solution to their situation. Nothing came to mind.

"Well, don't just stand around," she said. "Let's make ourselves some shade."

Pete nodded. "But we'll take it easy," he said. "No more than ten minutes in the sun at a time."

It took them over an hour to loosen the canvas top of the Landrover and spread it enough to make an improvised lean-to shelter under which they could lie, motionless, waiting for dark or rescue, whichever came first. Pete allowed them another ration of water.

She drank it out in the open, postponing the moment when she would have to crawl into the shelter. Would have to lie there for hours with the canvas just inches from her face. The air would be heavy and hot-"What I'd really like is a tall, cold glass of mint julep," she said. "On a verandah with a ceiling fan to stir the air, lots of ice in the glass and just enough rum..." She patted the jerrycan of warm water. "What's your favorite?"

"I don't drink."

She turned towards him. This was interesting. Some personal quirk. She'd never noticed in their previous assignments whether he drank or not."You must be the only photographer I've met who doesn't."

"Maybe." His lips were pressed together in a thin line and she couldn't read the expression in his eyes. For a moment, she was tempted to pursue the topic, make the most of a revelation of an unknown detail in his life. Then he looked at her, and her breath caught in her throat. There was pain in his eyes, determination too, and defiance. She no longer wanted to dig away at his reasons for not drinking alcohol. She set the water down in the shade of the vehicle.

"Do you have extra clothes in those bags of yours?" Pete asked.

"A couple of sweaters, some socks."

"You'll have to get them out. It will be cold tonight."

Why hadn't she thought of that? She'd been in the country longer than he. She should have been the one checking they were as prepared as possible for survival.

Pete reappeared from inside the vehicle with the soft canvas bags carrying her clothing and notebooks. He thrust them towards her. "Take out what you need," he said, "and we'll use the bags for backrests."

Irrationally, she wanted to refuse, to tell him she had a better idea, but of course she hadn't and of course he was right. In silence, she pulled out sweaters and socks and zipped the bag closed.

She refolded the clothing, laid it carefully to one side, and watched Pete kneel down to smooth the sand and place her bags against the tilting side of the Landrover. The space was beginning to look suspiciously like a double bed.

"You might as well come in and rest,"he said. "Conserve your strength."

The last thing she wanted to do was lie motionless next to him and wait passively for rescue, like a puppy in a pet shop window. There were a couple of things to take care of before she could settle for the night. She moved away from the slope of the dark canvas. Pete stood up again.

"Excuse me for a moment," he said and walked to the other side of the crippled vehicle. In a few moments she saw the back of his head and he remained motionless, obviously taking care of a call of nature.

He turned and came back to her. "Sorry it's not more comfortable," he said, "but at least it's private."

"This won't be the first time."

"I know. Just walk a few paces away. Don't lose sight of the vehicle."

What did he think she was? An inexperienced rookie? She strode a measured ten paces from the car and unzipped her pants, keeping her back turned. She could write an article on bathroom facilities around the world if she thought she could ever sell it. So far, her favorite had been the Russian two seater in white porcelain with blue flowers. The memory made her smile.

She trudged back through the sand to find Pete already lying inside in the shade, propped on one elbow. Shadows fell across his face and upper body, making it hard for her to see his expression. He was squeezed up into the corner against the wall they had made with the canvas top spread out from the vehicle. He stretched out a hand.

"Come inside," he said. "You can stay on the side closest to the opening."

She tossed her head. "I can take the inside place-"

"No you can't," he interrupted. "You need to be close to the opening." He sat up and smoothed the already smooth sand. "Just as I need to stay away from alcohol."

She met his direct gaze, holding his eyes with hers. He understood her problem, understood that she was ashamed and frustrated by her perceived weakness.

"Thank you," she said simply. She pushed the jerrycan of water between them, catching the little smile at the corners of his mouth as she did so, and slid in beside him.

He lay on his back, staring up at the sloping canvas above them, his hands behind his head, one knee bent up as he tried to fit into the confined space. She was grateful to him for taking the worst spot, only too aware of what she would have gone through had he called her bluff about taking the narrow space up against the canvas wall.

"Do you want to talk about your dad?" he asked gently.

She turned her face away from him. "There's not much to tell. He was larger than life in every respect. Lots of money, lots of friends, lots of land, lots of battles. I guess they need me to settle the estate."

"You haven't been home for a while?"

"Not for fourteen years. I decided I couldn't take it at home any more and I left when I was seventeen. I never went back."

"And your mother?"

"My mother had a hard time. She left my dad after my-" she paused for a moment unsure that she really wanted to continue, then took a breath,"-little sister died. She was called Jeannie."

She felt him take her hand again and tried to pull away, but he held on and she relaxed. The warmth of his rough, dry hand was strangely comforting.

"I've got a little sister, too," he said. "Except she's not little any more. She's twenty-eight and has two kids."

Just as she opened her mouth to ask him more, she felt him sit up to open the water bottle again.

"It's getting dark," he said,"Take a drink while we can still see and put on the sweaters and the extra socks."

"What about you?"

"I'll be fine. I've got a jacket."

It wasn't easy to struggle into the sweaters without more contact with him than she wanted. She more or less had to lean against him as he guided her hands into the armholes and pulled the warm material over her head..

"I feel like the Michelin man," she said as she pulled her hair free from the neckline of the second sweater.

He leaned back as far as he could in the confined space and looked her up and down. "Nah," he said. "You're much prettier. Now, take your drink."

She swallowed another gulp of water, and he replaced the top and pushed the container to one side.

"What about you?" she asked again.

"I've had enough. You're going to have to lie against me. We need to conserve body heat and stay as close together as possible."

Jazz knew he was right, but this was one more thing she hadn't thought of. He gently turned her on her side so her face was towards the opening. Carefully he placed the length of his body against her and wrapped his arms around her. The weight of him against her was unexpectedly comforting, and her bottom fit snugly into the curve of his body. She felt him move and understood he was pulling the jacket he'd spoken of over them both, to form another little tent inside the one they had created.

The sudden darkness of the desert night had already fallen and she felt the air rapidly cooling against her face. They were alone in a vast wasteland, without food, with a limited water supply, with no means of communication, but she felt safe and secure. Pete had kept her safe from her own fears during the storm, telling her stories about his sister to keep her mind from the terror.

"Does your sister still say funny things?" she murmured into the darkness.

"You bet." His voice came from just behind her left ear "Keeps us all laughing. She's a great mom, too."

"That's important." She thought of Jeannie. How much had she been able to laugh in those last months before the disease took her completely?

Pete shifted slightly against her.

"You're not married?" she asked.

"Not any more."

She waited for a beat, but all he said was: "How about you?"

"No, never married," she said and moved her leg to ease her calf muscle. "I've never been much interested in being married. Too many complications in this job. Transfers, assignments ..." She let her voice trail off.

"Where's home?" Pete asked gently.

"I've got an apartment in Toronto, but I'm never there. Dad lives-lived-in Oak Bay. But he had interests all over the Okanagan."

"I know it." He sounded as if he was smiling. "My mother lives in Victoria now and my sister's just outside. Mom retired there to be near Marian. Nice place.."

"Uh huh." Victoria was Canada's number one retirement spot with its mild climate and beautiful scenery. She was growing drowsy with the warmth of Pete's body against her back. She closed her eyes. "I'll get the plane tomorrow," she whispered.

"Sure you will," he answered.

 

***

 

She woke in a panic again, not knowing where she was, feeling the weight of an arm over her, holding her down, the pressure of a strange body against her back. She raised her arm and hit the canvas roof just inches away.

"Hold still."

Pete's voice came out of the semi darkness and she felt his strong hands on her, holding her. "You'll bring the whole thing down on top of us."

The thought of the canvas collapsing on her, enveloping her in heavy, airless darkness was enough to make her pause. She struggled to control her breathing, to tell herself that there was air and light and space outside, easily accessible.

Pete propped himself up on one elbow and peered at the luminous hands of his watch.

"It's just about dawn," he said. "It'll be warm outside in a half hour or so. Are you cold?'

"No." She wasn't cold at all. In fact, she was comfortably warm, especially where Pete's body lay alongside hers, especially where his arm had been draped across her side, where his hands had touched her to soothe her sudden fear.

"Can you wait a while for some water?' he asked, settling back down.

"Sure." How long did he expect them to lie here in this kind of close, decidedly intimate contact? She would only have to turn to him and-

"I think it's warm enough now," she said."Outside, I mean."

Before he could answer her, she pulled herself away from him and plunged her head and shoulders through the opening in the canvas wall. She thrust her arms forward and pulled herself unceremoniously out of the makeshift shelter.

The air was a shard of ice stabbing at her lungs, making her suck in her breath and hug her body with her arms. The first radiance of dawn was brightening the horizon with shades of coral, purple and magenta. The sky above her was still the soft, deep indigo of the desert night, but as she watched, the fingers of light crept forward, extinguishing the bright stars one by one. After a moment, she stretched out her back and took another breath of cold air.

Pete emerged from the shelter, struggling into his jacket.

"What now?" she said.

He ran his hands through his hair that was sticking up around his head."We wait."

"Wait for what?"

"For someone to find us. It's not as if no one knows where we were heading."

He handed her the water jug and she took another mouthful. The water was icy cold now and she shivered.

"Told you it was too early to get up," he said with a small grin.

She eyed him warily."It will soon be full light," she said."I like it better outside."

She pulled the top sweater down around her hips from where it had ridden up in her hasty exodus from the shelter and stamped her feet against the chill."I'd kill for a cup of coffee," she muttered. The bite in the air and the drink of water was reminding her that she'd left without breakfast the previous day."Do we have anything to eat?"

"'Fraid not." He thrust his hands into one of his many pockets and drew out a battered pack of chewing gum."You're welcome to this," he said, holding it out to her."At least it will keep moisture in your mouth."

She shook her head."Maybe later. We won't be here very long."

She knelt down beside the shelter and fumbled in the shadows for her bag, feeling for it where it had served as a pillow. She rummaged through it, found a brush and sat back on her heels. The elastic band that held her hair was tangled in the mass of curls at the nape of her neck and tugging on it hurt like hell. She muttered under her breath.

"Hold on." She felt Pete's fingers on hers."Let me."

He squatted beside her and very gently and carefully he loosened the band and drew out the locks of hair.

"Thank you," she whispered.

"Give me the brush."

"No, I can-"

He took the brush from her fingers and began slowly stroking it through her hair, from the crown of her head to the tousled ends. It felt wonderful. Her whole body responded to the soothing massage and she felt herself relax.

"You've done this before," she said.

"Yes, I have," he replied.

She waited for him to continue, to explain how he came to be able to brush a woman' s hair in such an expert way, but he said nothing more. Maybe I don't want to know anyway, she thought. Maybe it would just lead us into territory where we shouldn't venture.

Pete broke into her thoughts."I want you to take advantage of the shade in the shelter as much as you can," he said."But we won't be easy to spot from a distance, so I'll stay on watch."

She turned abruptly and the brush caught in a vicious knot of hair."Ouch, enough," she said."Sorry. I'll take the brush now." She faced him on her knees."You don't think I'm going to sit in that horrible shelter like some Victorian miss protecting her complexion from the sun, do you? I can take my turn on watch."

She saw his mouth open to protest."I'm a reporter, Pete, I travel the world for my stories. I've frozen in the mountains, I've thrown up in an Atlantic storm, I've fought crowds of panicking refugees. I can stay on watch for an hour."

He held up his hands in mock surrender."Okay, okay." He looked at his watch."You take the first hour," he said."I could use some more sleep."

The magnificent colors of the dawn faded quickly to the monotonous greys and browns of the desert. It was impossible to pick out detail on the ground more that a few hundred yards away. Total silence reigned in the sandy wasteland. No birds penetrated this far, no animals emerged to investigate the intruders. Only a few scrubby, half dead pieces of vegetation clung to life. The morning dragged by on creeping feet, growing hotter and dustier by the minute. Jazz removed her sweaters. Pete slept for an hour, and when he emerged for his watch, he tied one of her bright colored shirts to the useless aerial of the Landrover, but the cloth hung limp and lifeless.

He spoke little, but she saw him replacing the clothing and the bags under the canvas shelter, patting down the sand where their movements had made ruts and ridges. Did he expect to spend another night out here? They could go without food, but their water supply was getting low. He picked up his camera and took some shots of the makeshift shelter and the surroundings. When he finished he saw her watching and gave a shrug."Never miss a picture," he said.

She'd seen his work. He was good."How long have you been doing this?" she asked.

"About eight years as a freelance." He pulled out a canister of film from one of his pockets and began to open up the camera."I've always had a camera in my hand for as long as I can remember. Just didn't make it into a job at first." He took the finished roll out of the camera and slipped it into his pocket. She wondered what he'd done in the years before he devoted himself full time to photography. Before she could ask, he continued."I like capturing the reality of things, showing people a world they would never know." He gestured out into the desert, towards the horizon."At one time, all this would have been just an artist's impression, if it was depicted at all. So at some fundamental level, not quite real. But a good photograph is different. A photograph is almost as good as being there."

"Unless it's doctored-"

"Ah, there's the rub," he said."My pictures will never be played with. You can be sure they're honest, just like your articles." He gave her a broad grin."I'll get off my soapbox."

They settled into silence again, waiting. Jazz tried the silent radio one more time in the hopes of a miracle, but there was no sound, not even a crackle of static to raise her spirits.

They sipped twice at the water and when it was time for her second watch, she accepted a piece of gum. At midday she was sitting in the airless shade, scribbling in her notebook, putting the finishing touches to an account of what had happened, when Pete sprang to his feet and began waving his arms over his head, yelling at the top of his voice.

She scrambled up, spilling her pen and papers around her and rushed to his side. A dot on the horizon was moving at a snail's pace. She kept her eyes fixed on it, shading her face with her hand in an attempt to see more clearly. With agonizing slowness, the dot became a blob, then the blob metamorphosed into more than one shape, moving in unison.

"What is it? she said. "Can you make it out?"

Pete continued to squint against the brightness and rubbed his eyes. He took hold of one of the cameras around his neck and peered through the lens, adjusting it carefully. "Got them," he said. "It's someone on a camel."

Her heart sank. A wandering Arab with a camel was not what she was hoping for. He might have food and some precious water he'd be willing to share, but he wouldn't have a radio. Depending on where he was headed, it could take him a week to deliver a message.

"Has he seen us?" she asked.

"I think so."

She ducked back into the shelter and began stuffing her clothes and papers into her bag.

"How many camels does he have?" she called.

"At least two."

She scrambled to her feet. "Good. We'll ride with him to the airfield."

Her spirits rose at the prospect of movement, of action, but it seemed an eternity before the camel driver was close enough to make out detail. He was nothing more than a mound of clothes on the lead camel, swathed in loose folds that covered his head and mouth. When he arrived within hailing distance he raised a hand and shouted.

Pete waved back. "It's Abdul."

"Well, thank God for that." At least it wasn't some nomad who spoke no English and rarely ventured into civilization. "Why hasn't he brought a Jeep?"

Pete gave her an enigmatic look. "We'll ask him."

Abdul made his camel kneel and slid down with practiced ease.

"I am thankful to Allah to find you safe," he said.

"Not nearly as thankful as we are to see you," she answered. She didn't want to sound ungrateful, but she had to ask the question. "Um. Couldn't you bring a vehicle?"

"Sorry, miss," Abdul answered. "The vehicles are finding it difficult to start. They have sand in the engine. And there is no road any more. The camel can travel where a Landrover cannot."

Pete clapped him on the shoulder. "Quite right, Abdul," he said cheerfully. "You did exactly right. Wouldn't want to get another Landrover bogged down would we?" He turned to Jazz. "Ever ridden a camel before?"

She shook her head.

"You can add it to your long list of exploits." he said. "Don't get too close to its head. If they can reach you, they like to bite and if they can't get to you, they spit."

"No, no, sir," Abdul protested. "Adiva is kind and gentle. That is also the meaning of her name. But first I think you must be hungry."

He opened a leather pouch at his waist and withdrew a package wrapped in cloth. He spread dates, figs and nuts before them. It looked like a feast.

"Abdul," she said with her mouth full, "you're a guardian angel."

The man smiled and made a small, courteous gesture. "Please, miss, if you have eaten enough, come with me. I will help you." He guided Jazz to stand next to the huge wooden saddle on the kneeling animal. Adiva's mouth moved constantly in a rhythmic chewing and her eyes followed Jazz's movements. The creature had long eyelashes and big, mournful brown eyes. She smelled of dust and dry fur and well used cloth.

The damned animal's going to know I'm an amateur, Jazz thought. Can camels throw a rider? But she had no choice.

"You'll need a lift up," Pete said, stuffing the last date into his mouth. "Put your foot in Abdul's hands."

She placed her foot in the man's cupped palms and then felt Pete at her back. His hands were on her hips and she could swear he put his shoulder under her behind. It was all over in a flash, before she could react, and she slid onto the hard seat, inadequately padded with pieces of smelly old rug and ragged cushions.

She refused to look at Pete. She settled herself with dignity between the horn and the backrest and wriggled back and forth to find a comfortable position.

"Hold tight, Jazz," Pete called. Abdul gave a kind of click and a hiss and Adiva's rear quarters lurched upwards, making Jazz cling to the saddle for dear life. In dignified slow motion, the camel lumbered up to stand on all fours.

Pete handed her bag up to her and then swung himself up behind Abdul on the other, larger camel. "I told you I'd get you to the airfield," he said with a grin. "Let's go."

Abdul leaned over to take hold of Adiva's bridle rein and they set off at a measured, swaying pace.

 

***

 

The little caravan bumped to a halt near the white concrete building of the airfield. Jazz had learned quite a bit about camels in the last three hours. First, they were deaf to all noises save those made by their master. They were arrogant, self opinionated, complacent-and they could trot.

She'd spent most of the three hours hanging on for dear life to the lurching, rocking seat while Adiva followed the swaying rear end of the other beast. After a while, it had become almost hypnotic, and by the time the airfield was in sight, she felt she was starting to get the hang of the ride. Her stomach, however, thought it had barely survived a storm at sea. She swallowed hard against the nausea that threatened to overwhelm her.

At another click and hiss from Abdul, Adiva stopped and stood patiently.

"Hang on tight," Pete called out. She was getting tired of hearing him tell her to hang on.

Without warning, Adiva sank down to her front knees, almost sending Jazz headfirst over the pommel. She slid forward on the wooden seat, adding bruises to places she wouldn't mention.

As she gasped for breath, the camel's hindquarters went down and she was propelled back to sit upright in the saddle once more.

Pete was by her side in a moment, holding out his hand to help her down. With difficulty, she raised her leg over the horn and slid into his arms. He held her, his hands strong and warm on her back.

"Are you okay?" he asked.

She'd endured the jolting ride in the Landrover, had almost suffocated in the storm, had slept on the ground in bitter cold and suffered the sickening motion of the camel. Pete had been beside her, his strong body shielding her, his good planning protecting her. For once, she'd not had to fight entirely on her own; she couldn't ever remember feeling so comforted and safe.

For moment, she allowed herself to enjoy the sensation of Pete's chest pressed against her as she felt with her toes for the stony ground. The sleeves of his shirt were rolled up to the elbow and she rested her hands on his forearms, feeling the warm, smooth skin under her fingers. The muscles and tendons rippled gently as he held her more tightly.

This is just a reaction to the stress of the situation, Jazz, she told herself. How many times have you seen this happen when men and women have come through a dangerous episode together? It was one thing she'd always guarded against.

She pushed away from him. "I'm fine," she said and removed herself gently from his embrace. She searched for words that would convey gratitude without exposing too much of herself. "Thank you for all you did. I'm glad you were with me."

She brushed sand from her crumpled cotton pants and reached for her bag. She nodded towards a small plane on the runway. "Can I take that?"

"We'll check" He took her elbow and they went to find someone who could help.

She took off an hour later in a swirl of dust and gravel. Through the cloud she could see Pete watching the departure, shielding his eyes as she lifted into the air. At least she could fly a plane, even if she wasn't much good at riding a camel.

She heaved a sigh of relief as she rose into the clear sky. It was funny how she hated confined spaces on the earth, but the cramped seating allotted to the pilot never bothered her. It must have something to do with the limitless vistas through the windshield.

Pete had given her a kiss on the cheek before she climbed into the cockpit and she'd leaned into him for one last time. "If I get to Victoria, do you mind if I call you?" he'd asked.

This was the little, seemingly insignificant moment on which her whole future could turn. This was harder than almost anything she'd done in recent years. She looked into his face. "Sure, give me a call sometime," she answered, forcing a cheerful grin, and gave him a return peck on the cheek before she turned towards the plane.

 

Erin Fox lives in small-town, Southern Ontario with her husband and three sons. Her day-job in a busy hospital blood bank has proven to be an invaluable resource for her writing, and the part-time hours allow ample time to care for her family, as well as pursue her passions. Although her educational background lies in the sciences, Erin has had an ongoing affair with the written word, and she is thrilled at the opportunity to share her love of gritty and compelling stories with a wide range of readers.

Beyond Innocence was her debut novel, published in October, 2001. Her second novel, StarLight, StarBright was released in March, 2002. Both novels have won numerous awards. Beyond Innocence took third place in the prestigious Daphne du Maurier contest for mainstream suspense, and StarLight, StarBright was awarded the Wings ePress publisher's award for literary excellence.

You can reach Erin at erin_fox@canoemail.com  or visit her at http://www.authorsden.com/erinfox 

Books: Beyond Innocence, and StarLight, StarBright, are both available from Wings ePress (http://www.wings-press.com) in multiple e-book formats as well as quality trade paperbacks.

 

STARLIGHT, STARBRIGHT

by

Erin Fox

Prologue

Melissa shivered. The spring breeze that teased the curtains through the open bedroom window was warm and scented with lilacs. And yet she couldn’t seem to shake the chill that had settled over her like a dark, damp mantle the moment she stepped into the house that night.

She flicked a switch and flooded the space with light. The room was just as she had left it. The bed was heaped with chintz pillows. The woodwork gleamed with fresh polish and every knick-knack and perfume bottle sat exactly as it had for the last two years. Not one silk tassel or a single fiber of carpet was out of place.

She told herself that she was just being silly. Her paranoia was the result of too many lonely nights spent listening to local news stories of brutal rapes and gruesome murders. The idea of some villain having designs on someone like her was ridiculous. Besides that, she had a state-of-the-art alarm and security system. And that window opened out onto a two-story drop. She was perfectly safe and--

The ring of the phone pierced her like a steel icicle. She snatched it up and snapped, "What?"

Silence.

Her knuckles whitened around the receiver. "Vince, if that’s you, you slimy, two-timing son of a--"

Click.

Dial tone.

With a low growl and a shaking finger, she clicked off the cordless phone and glared at it. For a moment she ached for the days of big, clunky dial phones that she could slam a receiver down onto without fear of damaging the delicate electronic innards.

At the thought of innards, she entertained a fleeting image of her ex-husband, eviscerated and dangling by his gonads from the top of the Peace Tower on Parliament Hill. That thought brought a small smile to her thin lips.

He had been harassing her with pleading phone calls ever since the divorce had been finalized. But, in the last week, the calls had dwindled down to annoying episodes of heavy breathing and heavier silences.

Of course, she didn’t know for certain that it was Vince. She had just assumed. After all, who else would want to harass or molest, or pay any attention at all, for that matter, to the likes of her? To Melissa with her small eyes and unremarkable bone structure? To Melissa with her big feet and bigger bank account? Poor little rich girl. A trite but true cliché.

A gust of wind billowed the curtains into the room, and sent a fresh chill shimmering over her skin. Still clutching the phone in a sweaty palm, she crossed the room and pulled down the sash. She snapped the lock back into place, and tried to recall if she had left the window open that morning. Or perhaps the cleaning woman had opened it to air out the winter mustiness that still clung to the inside of the house after the long months of a typical Ottawa winter hibernation..

She lifted her eyes to gaze out the window at the winking lights of her hometown that glittered off the glasslike surface of the Rideau Canal.

Suddenly she wanted to be a part of it. She wanted out of this house with its cavernous rooms and torturous memories. The vast emptiness of it pressed in on her so she couldn’t breathe. It almost seemed alive. She could feel its malevolence like a presence, with eyes that watched and a nose that could smell her fear.

She fought for breath as fingers of panic unexpectedly wrapped around her throat and sank into her soul.

"Stop it!" she shouted.

She wasn’t sure who she was addressing, herself or some intangible evil. But it didn’t matter. Absurd or not, the sound of her own voice eased her tension, and a nervous giggle swelled up from her chest.

She shook her head in self-deprecation but, even as she did so, she had to acknowledge her need to get out. A bunch of her friends were meeting downtown for drinks. Melissa had declined the invitation, pleading a headache and sore feet. But now her desire for companionship outweighed her desire for a hot bath and a box of Oreo cookies.

She needed a lift. She needed to feel sexy and desirable. She needed to feel like she was part of the human race. Maybe she’d actually wear one of those slinky cocktail dresses her ex had picked out for her but she had refused to wear for fear of actually drawing attention to herself. Suddenly she craved attention. Even enduring the lurid gaze of a gold-digger was preferable to cowering in an empty mansion, feeling scared and sorry for herself.

Determined to rise above the pall that had settled over her in the last hour, Melissa strutted over to her huge walk-in closet and pulled open the door.

She barely had time to register surprise before the hand clamped across her mouth and strong arms pinned her hands to her sides.

His gloves filled her nostrils with the scent of fine calf skin leather as his hand tightened painfully across her jaw. Melissa’s eyes were wide with terror and her heart pounded furiously as he dragged her toward her bed and hissed in her ear, "Life’s just not fair, is it?"

She whimpered in a muted plea for release. But he ignored her and continued, "Nope. It’s not fair and you’d better get used to it. We all have to learn the lesson...eventually."

He lowered her to the bed, his body heavy and oppressive, stifling her breathing and filling her world. Belatedly, she remembered the phone still clutched in her hand. But she was only able to hit two buttons before he wrenched it from her and dropped it to the floor.

He gently brushed a wisp of hair from her cheek. "I’m sorry, honey," he whispered, and she almost thought he meant it. His eyes behind the ski mask were at once sad and fevered. "But we can’t let you call them." He ripped open her blouse. "Not quite yet."

One

The evening sun glittered through the brilliant ruby liquid. Alec lifted the glass to catch as many of the fading rays as possible. The light danced and swooned within its dark, rich depths, struggling in vain to escape the seductive allure of the provocative French Merlot. At last he drew the glass to his lips and breathed deeply the delicate aromas of lavender and vanilla before taking his first tentative sip.

The wine swirled across his tongue and caressed his senses. He allowed his eyes to drift closed, losing himself in the experience. He even imagined he could feel its healing touch on his tattered soul. Few things in life these days could give him as much pleasure as a truly refined glass of wine. He had spent the last several years educating his palette and perfecting his technique so he wouldn’t look the fool whenever the topic came up in casual conversation. Here in Bordeaux, one of the most renowned wine regions in France, that was a foregone conclusion. One could no more avoid discussing grapes and French oak than one could avoid water in the Seine. His education had begun as a work-related necessity but, somewhere along the way, he had fallen in love. In his opinion, wine was indeed the nectar of the gods.

"Mon Dieu!" exclaimed the sultry figure who had coiled herself around a huge cushion on the expansive satin-sheathed mattress. "Je pense que tu préfères le vin à moi."

"Speak English," he said evenly, his eyes now riveted on the scenery outside the wide picture window. Row upon row of neatly trimmed vines, their limbs heavy with blossoms, stretched to the horizon. "That’s the only way you’ll learn."

She quietly muttered a few unflattering names before sighing and speaking in halting English. "Mm…You like the wine…better than me, I think."

"Perhaps."

"I should fire you immediately for being so...so..." she struggled with her limited vocabulary.

"Insolent?"

"Oui! That’s it. You, sir, are a bastard."

He chuckled quietly to himself. He found it very interesting that that particular epithet had found its way into her repertoire. He took another leisurely sip before turning his gaze on his charge. A black silk peignoir encased her figure like a shimmering second skin. Her long, black mane flowed over her shoulders and spilled down her back. She watched him with enormous brown eyes fringed by a cloud of dark lashes. She was strikingly beautiful, and even more strikingly rich. She was intelligent and exciting, if occasionally petulant and moody. She was his employer and he was sleeping with her, but that didn’t mean he had to like her.

"Go right ahead," he challenged. "I had at least three offers of employment last night at the party. Some of them were even richer than you." And younger, he added silently.

She raised her hand and with a practiced arm threw her empty glass squarely at his head. He deftly avoided it with a small step to the side and the glass shattered against the marble fireplace behind him.

"You really are a spoiled brat, ma chèrie." He drained his glass and moved toward her, gliding across the Berber with the casual grace of an alley cat. "I should make you clean that up. You overwork your staff mercilessly, and waste perfectly good Waterford in the process." He shrugged out of his tux jacket and dropped it on the floor as he settled down beside her on the bed. It had been another tedious afternoon at the gallery.

She flushed crimson. On some women, the fire of feminine fury was flattering; it made their cheeks rosy and their eyes sparkle, but Sylvie was not so lucky. Anger merely exaggerated the crows feet and fine lines around her mouth. It tightened her rose-tinted lips and gave the astute observer a hint of the half-dozen surgeries that had been necessary for her to maintain the semblance of youth.

"Y--you have no right to speak t--to me like that," she finally sputtered. "You are merely hired muscle--a mindless brute that I pay to keep me safe and amuse me between the sheets. You are little more than a...a...gold-plated gigolo." She tossed her hair back defiantly.

His hand lashed out and latched around her fragile wrist with the strength of a python. "You may pay me to protect you from your imaginary enemies, but you do not pay me to sleep with you," he hissed.

"Let go of me," she commanded.

He ignored her. "I sleep with you because it amuses me. And because, if not for that little diversion, and the gallons of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay that you provide for my entertainment, I would be bored stiff."

She tried to wrench her wrist away, but it was a futile attempt. "You..." she whined impotently.

He continued blithely on, the frustration and rage of the past few years bubbling up unexpectedly. Suddenly he needed to vent, and Sylvie Pierrot was vulnerable and handy. She also embodied everything about this damn country that he abhorred.

"Do you know how much I hate this country?" He didn’t wait for a response. "You people make me sick. I’ve never known such a group of arrogant, pompous snobs. You, who think your language is more pure and more eloquent than any other language on Earth. You, who think you are the only ones who know how to make fine wine or fine cheese. You, who must rely on immigrants to stabilize your population because the native French can’t be bothered with having children!" He finally dropped her wrist and wiped his hand on his trousers as if she carried the plague on her skin. "And you--you take the cake. You squander your family’s money on frivolities like a bodyguard that you have absolutely no use for other than to elevate your social status. You think of no one but yourself, barely take an interest in the business that puts clothes on your back and champagne in your bathtub. You treat your employees like dirt...and your friends no better."

He tired of looking at her face with its gaping mouth and wide incredulous eyes. He stood and whirled away from her. He stalked to the bathroom and slammed the door behind him, amazed that he didn’t hear the crash of another wineglass shattering against the oak. He rolled up his sleeves and ran cold water into the sink. He splashed his face as if that could wash away the film that he had gradually been accumulating ever since he had come to this damn country.

He studied himself in the mirror as water dripped off his chin. Who was he? He just didn’t know anymore. The crooked nose, jade green eyes and jutting jaw were familiar. The scar that made a jagged L beneath his left eye wasn’t strange. The unruly mane of auburn hair and fine spattering of freckles across his high cheekbones were just as they had been since he was twenty. The face in the mirror hadn’t changed in the past fifteen years. He still boasted the charming combination of boyish innocence and rugged austerity. Someone had once told him he was a quirky cross between Ron Howard and Clint Eastwood...with a French accent.

He was certainly no fashion model, but women seemed to find him appealing regardless. They seemed to be drawn to the enigma that was Alec Robert Frechette. He used to get a kick out of being an enigma. He used to get a kick out of a lot of things. He used to have a sense of humor. He used to have other things that were more important to him than a BMW and Brie. He used to feel like he mattered.

He heard the bathroom door ease open. Without looking at her he taunted, "Looking for more abuse? There’s lots more where that came from."

"How can you judge us so harshly? Your grandmother was born right here in Bordeaux, non? You cannot deny the trickle of French blood in your own veins." Trickle of French blood. He knew she had chosen the word deliberately as a slight to his lineage. However, she was surprisingly calm considering the torrent of insults that he had unleashed.

He snorted and grabbed a plush, monogrammed towel. "I most certainly can deny it. My grandmother abandoned her heritage, and while I may have been born in Québec that does not make me Québecois." He scrubbed his face and hands dry. "And it certainly doesn’t make me French." He sneered the word, relishing the opportunity to scorn the coveted French bloodlines, just as the French scorned their lowly Quebecois cousins. He tossed the towel in the tub and headed for the door, but she blocked his path.

"Where are you going?" she asked.

"I’m leaving. I assumed I was fired."

"Mais non!" She shook her head in frustration, before correcting herself in English. "You assumed wrong." She backed up the statement by reaching for the buttons on his shirt. She managed to undo four of them before he gathered his wits about him enough to respond.

"I just insulted you and your entire country, and you still want to keep me on?"

Her fingers were already caressing his chest. "Oui. You remind me of the..." Again she struggled. "...le loup." She smiled seductively and he wanted to vomit.

He batted her hands away and shoved her roughly aside. "I’m no wolf," he spat. "And if you’re not going to fire me, then I quit."

Her eyes turned feral again. "You cannot quit. You signed a contract."

"Just watch me."

He had already wrenched open the door to the third floor bedroom suite when her voice reached him again. "Where will you go? I will make sure no one in Paris will touch you!"

He stopped and turned around, studying her silhouette in the evening sunlight that had now taken on a warm golden hue. He hadn’t thought about that until just that moment, but the answer was all too obvious. In fact, it was long overdue. He had been running long enough.

"Home," he said simply. "I’m going home."

He slammed the door behind him.

 

In a previous life the author was a computer scientist, carrying out research in the approximation of complex functions, visualization of graphics objects, and efficient structures for the representation of acquired data.

In her current life she enjoys writing novels, mainly of the romantic suspense genre. A retired faculty member from The University of Western Ontario, she has taken several courses on fiction writing (including all those offered by The Friendly Pencil over the Internet.) She uses a pen name (Rene Natan) for her stories.

Member of several professional societies she has recently become an associate member of CAA and CeAuthors. You can reach her through email at ReneNatan@aol.com or visit her at http://www.members.aol.com/renenatan/index.html

Novels:

1. Mountains of Dawn (1999); 446 pages; (ISBN 0-9686352-0-2); publisher: Juppiter99.

2. The Collage (2002); 283 pages; (ISBN 0-9671636-3-3); TGF Press, http://www.thefloatinggallery.com.

3. Cross of Sapphires (2002); 299 pages; (ISBN for hard copy: 0-9686352-1-0; ISBN for e-version: 0-9686352-4-5) publisher: Juppiter99; Juppiter99@acm.org.

 

Cross of Sapphires

by

Rene Natan (Irene Gargantini)

 

Chapter One

Venezuela, on the way to San Cristóbal

January 1995

A DHC3 Otter touched ground, its wings shaking at each bump of the rudimental runway. It taxied to the service building and stopped. For a moment the aircraft seemed bereft of inner life—its color changing from vivid orange to opaque amber as gashes of sun alternated with clusters of clouds.

A dozen nuns, each wearing the traditional black habit with a candid wimple, strode toward the plane while whispering to one another, veils of curiosity draped on their faces.

The cockpit hatch opened; a small staircase unfolded; and a man wearing jeans, a suede jacket, and sunglasses calmly deplaned. He paid little attention to the young woman sitting against a rock at the end of the airstrip. He saluted the religious group, then proceeded in large strides toward the service building.

He took off his sunglasses as he entered, turned around, and glanced out of the corner window. The woman was still in the same spot with a large map spread across her knees.

"Welcome, Señor Carlton," said a voice behind him. "I am here. Thing’s okay."

"Thanks, Vicente." He swiftly walked toward the opposite window. His eyes moved quickly from the restaurant to the hut and then to an apparently stranded bus. "I’ll be back soon," he said, turning around. Vicente didn’t seem to understand, so he rephrased his sentence, this time sounding out each word clearly, "Me back. Soon." He smiled as a universal sign of reassurance. He added, "Go. Bring food and drinks."

The pilot walked over to the restaurant, guided by the scent of beans and tomatoes. A square tarp set on seven robust poles sheltered the restaurant. Fabric nets weighted at the bottom protected three sides from flying intruders. A trailer housing the kitchen sealed off the eating area on the fourth side. A rugged banner on top of the entrance advertised the one-dish menu: pabellon criollo—shredded beef with a zesty sauce, fried bananas, black beans and rice—and chicha—a drink made of milk and rice.

Carlton skirted the tent and headed for the next building—actually a large, sturdy hut—where all sorts of goods were on display: canned drinks, candies, snacks, hats, T-shirts, magazines, more or less recent, and local jewelry made of painted leather. He moved leisurely among the stands, picking up an object here and there as if to check the price. His interest, however, was in the people around him. He glanced back at the young woman, who was zipping shut the side pocket of her knapsack, and at the nuns. Most of them had returned to their bus; a few were still strolling around the area; others were kneeling to recite a rosary.

"Ready, señor," Vicente said. "Food and drink ready."

"Let’s go, then." Together they walked back to the plane.

Vicente quickly loaded a case of drinks and two big trays of canned food into the cargo section.

"Thanks, Vicente." Carlton then raised his voice to be loud and clear, "I’ll do some checking before continuing for Bogotá." He gestured. "Go, Vicente. Gracias."

He got out a toolbox and a voltammeter. He began fiddling around the aircraft.

***

Carlton knew the woman was watching him. He could feel her eyes on him.

She rose and moved toward the plane. She stopped a few feet away from it. Beside her was her luggage—a big square duffle bag and a huge metal- framed knapsack, with a tent folded on top. She stood there turning her head left and right as though trying to see his face, semi-hidden behind the propeller. Five minutes later she said, "Hi, I’m Mary White."

Carlton tilted his head toward her.

"I’m with that tour group there," she pointed to the bus, "heading for Bogotá. I traveled with the nuns from the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Coromoto. We were on our way to San Cristóbal." She stopped, seemingly expecting some attention. When this wasn’t forthcoming, she continued, "The bus broke down three hours ago. There is no sign that we might leave soon. The driver walked back to El Llano, the main highway, to seek help." She paused. "I heard you say you are going across the border. I wonder if…" She stopped; then, "Could I be your passenger? I’d pay, of course."

Mary moved her luggage very close to the aircraft and waited—her long hair and her blue skirt tugged by the breeze. Underneath her silky blouse she was wearing a necklace with a pendant in the shape of a large cross.

"I don’t give lifts," Carlton answered dryly. He turned his back.

"That’s too bad. I wouldn’t be any trouble. Three hundred dollars cash." Her tone was soft yet persuasive.

Carlton didn’t reply. He moved to the landing gear and checked the wiring.

Mary followed him. "Five hundred. I could be of help."

"Are you a mechanic?"

"No, I have nursing training—just in case."

"I’m healthy, thank you." Carlton skirted her to grab a wrench.

"One thousand dollars. I’d do anything you ask." Her voice was just a whisper. She was so close to him that her hair, lifted by the wind, grazed his face.

Carlton bent to pull on a cord to test its connection. It was then that he saw Mary turning around and lifting her bags. "Wait!" he called.

She instantly dropped her bags, about-faced and waited.

"Anything I ask?" Carlton finally showed his face completely and looked her over. "Anything at all? That is a pretty strong statement."

Mary flickered her eyes between Carlton and the ground.

It would be interesting to find out how far she was ready to go. "Aren’t you concerned about making such an offer? What would you do if I asked for something…" He stopped and looked straight into her eyes, "for something of an intimate nature?"

This time Mary held his gaze. She folded her arms behind her and didn’t utter a word.

Carlton kept watching her as he stored the wrench in the toolbox. Slowly he moved again behind the propeller, waiting for her reaction.

There was none. No offense or anxiety shown and no withdrawal, thought Carlton. Vern was right: she’s a high-stakes player. He was ready to continue the game and prod her further, when a sudden gust sent his voltammeter skidding on the runway.

The woman promptly recovered it and handed it back to him.

He had to leave. The wind was gaining strength by the minute. He quickly put away all his instruments and moved close to her. Seriously he said, "Five hundred dollars will be enough and it will be all." He extended his hand, "Stephen William Carlton, Steve for short. I’m a bush pilot."

"Mary White," the young woman said again as she gave his hand a solid shake. Her lips parted in an open, friendly smile. "I’ll be right back." She ran to the bus, talked to a couple of the nuns and returned immediately.

"Get in, Mary—that’s your name? I’d like to leave right away. A storm is approaching from the northeast. I want to stay ahead of it."

Mary flung the duffle bag deep into the plane and was ready to do the same with the knapsack, when Steve stopped her.

"I’ll take care of that. I don’t want you to destroy my plane. It’s almost a relic ready for a museum. Just get aboard." He lifted the knapsack high. "That’s heavy!" he exclaimed with surprise. "What do you carry in it?"

"Just a few condoms," Mary replied softly. She turned her head toward him for a split second and added, "brand names only."

Steve watched her climb the stairway, brisk yet graceful. She may be a murderer, he thought, but she surely has a sense of humor. He was going to enjoy this assignment—if he survived.

"Come here, Mary, sit beside me." Steve lifted her seat belt, moved her hair aside, and strapped her in. "This is your chance to learn to fly. Just watch me."

In no time the plane was in the air. The airstrip became smaller and smaller, then the plane suddenly entered a thick layer of cumuli.

"Do you see that instrument in front of you?" Steve asked, looking at her. "It’s based on the Global Positioning System. I punch in the destination," Steve struck a few keys, "and I get the distance I have to fly and the current speed. That’s the first row of measurements. See those numbers?"

"Y-es," replied Mary, her eyes fixed on the small screen.

"Good. Below are the estimated time and the instructions: L for turning left, R for turning right. See that ‘5’ under L? It means I have to turn a bit to the left. Watch me now. I’m going to do just that. See?"

"Yes…"

"Now that number becomes ‘0’, like the one under R. It means that I can keep going straight. So now I go straight." Carlton paused to glance at Mary. "It’s that simple."

Mary’s eyes were locked on the tiny screen, where numbers changed continually. Then she turned toward Steve—total incredulity in her eyes. "That’s not possible! How does the plane—your plane—know that?"

"It’s a magic plane." Steve gave her a quick, warm smile. Their eyes met and locked to establish an intangible yet powerful bond. Neither made a sound.

Then the aircraft quaked left and right. "It may be bumpy for a while, since we’re close to the storm center," Steve announced.

"It’s also getting cold," said Mary.

"Grab the sleeping bag behind you." Steve watched as she bundled herself in it. "Better?"

"Yes. I feel warmer already."

Half an hour later it was clear they were in the very middle of the storm. The radio emitted noise, not coordinated sounds. Rain splattered the windows from every direction. Thunderbolts flashed left, right, and above.

An hour later the engine missed a beat, then another, then many.

"We have problems," said Steve, "big problems. Get ready for a rough time." Almost immediately the plane began to dive. Steve got it under control but muttered, "We’re low, too low. I can’t see…" The clouds thinned and opened to a stretch of land. "Brace yourself," shouted Steve, "we’re going to land. In that glade."

The wingtips brushed past a few trees on the left while scarring the barks of others on the right. The plane headed toward the woods at the edge of the clearing. From nowhere a boulder appeared. Steve desperately shoved the right rudder to the floor trying to avoid a collision. It was too late. The propeller hit the rock. Something came hurtling at the cockpit. Steve saw only a blurred object spearing toward him. He felt a squeeze in his chest, sending waves of pain to his entire body.

And then he sensed no more.

 

 

Biff Mitchell says: "My writing is a way to record everything that never happened to me, transcribe all those conversations I missed, and poke fun at everything I forgot to laugh about." You can reach Biff at biffmitchell@yahoo.ca or visit him at http://www.authorsden.com/visit/author.asp?AuthorID=8425

Publications:

Heavy Load (A Laundromance), by Jacobyte Books (2001) http://www.jacobytebooks.com

Clearings (a collection), by ShortStuffBooks (2002) http://shortstuffbooks.tripod.com/fiction/index.html 

Team Player, coming as an ebook in the Fall of 2002 from Jacobyte Books and as a print book in the Fall of 2003 from DreamCatcher Publishing.

 

Heavy Load (A Laundromance)

By

Biff Mitchell

Chapter 1

Here it comes, a tap at my back door lock, a click, a clicketyclick, a tumbling metal-on-metal click and a clack. Janie's here. Time to wake up.

Time to flow with electrons and ether and chi, with waves and strings of vibrating particles kick-started by the clicketyclick of Janie's key. Time to wake up and start the day running; that's me, energetic at the drop. Enthusiastic and motivated! The day's two halves full! Open my door, Janie. You've got me humming; make me sing. C'mon, Janie, turn on the juice, the juice, bring on the juice. And here it comes, the first switch. Flick it, Janie, flick it! And …

click

… she flicks the switch! Whoa, baby! Feel it flow, like a million jolt caffeine rush, flashing fluorescent light over this whole section of chairs and booths, the big round table, the long folding table and rows of machines. They spring up from the shadows in the bath of light.

And that's just for starters!

Now, Janie maps out the rest of my waking with the firm pad of her sneakered feet. Yeah, Janie, that feels good, sort of like a nudging massaging motion, a time-space kind of thing, you know, where the photon's here and then it's there, and it doesn't really matter where it was in between 'cause, now it's here and … oops … it's there. Yeah, there, a little more there.

And Janie pads on, down the aisle between the two big sorting tables and into my long morning shadows. A sharp left turn towards my vending machines and dry clean stacks, as Janie pads unrushed, and stops with more jingling and clicketyclicks to unlock my front doors, then pads back another twenty steps, and stops in front of the office door, and clicketyclick, it's open, and Janie enters humming to herself. Always humming, my Janie. Always upbeat in the morning.

And now Janie stands in the semidarkness of her office, looking through the single wide window, mirrored on the other side, into my interior, Janie's private view into all that goes on inside me. And she pauses with her hand resting by the main switch, her hand resting right on top of the main switch, just resting there. If I could drool, this is where things would get plenty wet, but this is Janie's moment, where Janie looks out over my rows of machines and chairs and tables and walls and ceiling and all that potential, all that quiet and stillness ready to pounce into noise and action, and treats herself to a moment of pride.

Yep, here's my proud Janie pausing in the semidarkness, pausing with her hand right beside the main switch, just nonchalantly proudly pausing, taking in all the work she's done, everything that she's done with me, all the glory of a dream made real, and, OK, Janie, I think this moment of pride is taking just a little bit, a tad, too long. Pride crasheth into a spin cycle gone haywire, Janie. Let that finger fall on the switch. The switch, Janie, the switch. Make it happen, Janie. Your finger's moving to the beat of your humming, moving slowly by inches, inching its way down, inching down, less than inching now, kind of like one of those photons having a hard time getting into quantum gear, and it's almost there and …

click.

WOW! Fire in the circuits!

Sparks! Yeah! Wires pumping energy like a hundred fourth of Julys compressed into a single nanosecond and exploding throughout me, billions of electrons flowing into my florescent lights, into my video games, into my washroom light bulbs, like a sudden shift … oops … it's there! And I'm everywhere inside myself, in my corners, my crawl spaces, my nooks and crannies, like polarity switching around and around again, and Janie's pride, Janie's thoughts, Janie's ether and chi emanating with the sound of her humming, buzzing through my morning numbness like billions and billions of tiny tickles, mixing with the motions of magnets and coolant and the lightning flow of light bouncing off my walls and floors and back up to my ceiling, and I'm fully awake. Ah, yes, I'm awake and ready!

And now, now, Janie stands with her arms folded across her chest, just looking over me, proud of me, proud of what she's done with me, tickled pink with my rows of washers and dryers, my industrial-size machines, my vending machines, my television set, my change machine, my coolers, my dispensers, my telephones, my bright walls, and all the signs that Janie painted herself with memorable lines like:

TABLES ARE FOR FOLDING.

PLEASE DO NOT SIT ON THEM.

GRAVITY CAN BE PAINFUL.

And one of my personal favorites:

PLEASE

CHECK INDUSTRIAL SIZE MACHINES

FOR SMALL CHILDREN BEFORE USING

That's the kind of person Janie is. Loves children, loves a laugh. But I'll tell you more about Janie later. I'm starting to feel kind of … invigorated now, alive and more aware, and calmer now. Maybe not entirely calm, but calmer. I've had my morning jolt and I'm ready for the day. And now, allow me to introduce myself.

I'm the Washing Green. I'm a laundromat. Yep, a laundromat. But you might already have guessed that, or maybe you just thought I was somebody hanging around inside myself, somebody with a strong empathy for laundromats. Well, yeah, I do hang around inside myself, but it's a bit more complicated than that. We'll get to that later. For now, I am a laundromat, but not just any laundromat. Nope. I'm the biggest, coolest, most-up-to-date, user-friendly, human/machine integrated, full service laundromat in town and starting right now I'm going to give you the BIG TOUR.

Ready?

First, we leave Janie's office, with Janie still cross-armed and satisfied, gazing over my spectacular contents, and we start at the back door, the one Janie just came through. This steel-rimmed glass door, wired to an alarm, leads in from the parking lot. Notice the steel plates at elbow level? That's so nobody accidentally crashes elbows or laundry hampers through the glass. That was Janie's idea. Loves people, Janie. This door leads directly into my TV nook with a round table surrounded by easy chairs with arms. Arms are important because some of the people who come here need to catch up on their sleep. And the chairs are all solid light greens and blues to endow me with a quiet, relaxing aquatic atmosphere. And just behind the table and chairs, Janie had some study booths installed, because some people need to catch up on their studying. The TV is mounted high on the wall across from the study booths like a big square eyeball staring down. Janie keeps the volume down low during exam times because some people are easily distracted.

Moving along now, we have two six foot long wooden tables for folding – don't sit on them, gravity hurts – and these branch out to the left, into my main laudromat area with four wide, ceiling to floor, picture windows. They don't just let the light in, they pump it in. These windows add exterior dimension to my interior, big wall-size portals into the outside world so that it's virtually impossible to feel cramped in me. In fact, if you don't mind a bit of a reach, it's almost like doing your laundry outdoors, safer too; you don't get sunburn. Notice that the windows surround my main laudromat area, where I have a hundred regular top-loading washers and front-loading dryers and thirty industrial size front-loading washers and dryers. This is the business end of me, le raison de laundroetre. Most of my machines are in rows stretching from the back to the front of me. On the other side of those rows, things get more into the human/laudromat continuum. But before we get into that, there's two more big folding tables, and towards the back of the building, two more rows of washers and dryers, and towards the front of the building, another big round table surrounded by easy chairs, and there's more chairs along the walls.

Can you picture all that? OK, let's just say washers, dryers, tables and chairs and get right into my favorite part of me.

In the far corner, towards the front, with picture windows spanning either side, I've got a small circular stage with a sign hanging down from the ceiling that says:

POET'S CORNER

(No foul language PLEASE)

Yep, my very own Poet's Corner, a place where harried housewives, harried students, harried househusbands, and all the other harried people who have something to say about the harried world they live in can get up on the stage and read, recite or just act it all out, with or without guitar, and they don't even have to rhyme. In fact, my personal favorite poem didn't have any rhyme at all – didn't have much reason either – but there was just something about it that moved me.

The poet was a bald-headed guy in ripped jeans and dirty T-shirt who stood on the stage just before closing one evening and yelled out:

'Uh oh! Reality!'

… while pretending to strangle himself. And then he yelled:

'Uh oh! Reality!'

…pointing his finger like a gun at his head.

'Oh no! Reality!'

… stabbing himself with an imaginary sword, although it really did look like he was in pain. I found it very intense.

'Oh no! No! Reality!'

And he dug his finger up his left nostril, pulled out a gross, hard-looking booger and ate it. And get this, everybody just ignored this dirty-shirted artist and went about packing their stuff in bags and hampers and walking out the door without so much as a glance at him, as though culture might be contagious or something. OK, so it was impolite culture, but I thought it was kind of a thought provoking performance art, kind of like mime with voice, sort of like reality is up your nose, and now … oops … it's on your finger.

Back to the tour.

The window at the front of the building, right beside Poet's Corner, looks out onto four round tables made of concrete, with matching concrete benches on a tiled patio. Now, I can't guarantee anybody's protection from the sun in this area, but that doesn't stop it from being a popular place on sunny summer days, with people reading, talking, waving to people driving by, or just sitting back and roasting themselves in the sun, knowing that I'm taking care of the washing and drying on the other side of the window.

And over here, my heavy duty industrial machines are stacked by the front window, and right beside them is the main entrance with two big glass doors that swing both ways … that's to make it easy for you when you have a heavy load, entering or leaving. Janie, always thinking about these things. And they have the same elbow-level metal plates as the back door. Beside the main door, there's a phone booth with two phones. Forget about using either of them. They're always busy. You'll have about as much luck making a call on one of those phones as winning a lotto. And moving on past the phone booth we come to the counter with the cash register, the new computerized cash register with over a hundred programmable functions, I might add, and just past this is the automated dry cleaning hangers and the vending area. The hangers are a blast. Janie pushes a button under the counter and shirts, pants, dresses and coats whiz round and around. Now that's using technology! Directly across from the counter, is the office, with a sign on the door that says:

IF YOUR NAME AIN'T JANIE,

THEN YOU AIN'T IN HERE.

The sign is there mostly to scare away the local gossips who come in here three or four times a week with, sometimes, just half a hamper of wash, just enough for a legitimate laundry visit, and all they really want is to corner somebody and talk for hours and hours about things that nobody wants to hear about. And, since Janie is here all the time, she's the primary target. So, the sign. But people just walk right in anyway.

Right beside the door, and to make your laundromat experience enjoyable and memorable, is the vending machine section, my own little automated store where I have machines loaded with soap, softeners, bleach, detergents, mouthwash, razor blades, cough syrup, Tylenol and Aspirin, notebooks, pens and pencils, cookies, soups, juices, pop, chocolate bars, suntan lotion, sandwiches, tea, six types of coffee including Cappuccino, and lots of other goodies. And I've got shelves with books, magazines, newspapers and gossip sheets. Sell a lot of those. I've got a change machine, the only one in town that's never broken down. Slide in a fiver and the coins come tumbling out like a Vegas payout! Slide in a tenner and you're ready to clean up. Clean up! Get it? Sorry. Back to the tour.

Over to the counter again and behind it, is the last big window, looking out to a long, thin patch of well-cropped green grass. People bring towels and blankets here in the summer. Well, yeah, people bring towels and blankets here all year long, but in the summer, on hot sunny days, that patch of grass is almost like being at the beach, bikinis included. In fact, I've had more than one close head-on collision on the street in front of me.

And all of this is just the surface stuff. There's a lot more to me, stuff that you never see. Like, inside my walls, I have studs and joists, braces and bolts, tongue and groove subflooring, trusses over my ceiling. And my wiring! I've got enough wiring in me to light up a whole street of houses, big houses, big houses with lots of lights and appliances. And then there's my plumbing. Each of my washers goes through about thirty gallons of water in a complete wash cycle, and these are just the regular size washers, not the industrial ones. Thirty gallons. And sometimes more. Think about this: on a busy day, when all my machines are in use, I pump out over 50,000 gallons of water! In just a single day! And all that water comes in through my plumbing and goes out through my plumbing. Pretty impressive, huh?

But that's not nearly as impressive as the next thing I'm going to show you, if 'show you' is the right way to put it, more like 'introduce you to'? Well, you figure that one out for yourself. But before we get into that, let's officially acknowledge the fact that I've been talking to you and you've been listening to me. I mean, who do you think took you on the BIG TOUR just now? Me. Now, in the back of your mind, while you were being amazed at all the wonderful things you saw on the tour, a little voice was probably saying: 'How can this laundromat be talking to me? Have I gone nuts? Have I slipped into a black hole and gone to a crazy universe? Is this a joke? What kind of laundromat talks?' And I realize that this creates cognitive problems like, can I believe a laundromat? Can I trust a laundromat? How valid is anything said by a laundromat? How do I evaluate information from a laundromat? So, let's talk about where I come from … not the floors and machines part of me … let's talk about the part that talks. And keep in mind, some of this is theoretical.

Now, laundromats are focal points of energy, reservoirs of invisible waves and emanations. There's the electric current flowing through the wiring in my walls, and there's the electricity flowing going through the machines, the washers, the dryers, the vending machines, Janie's computer, the coolers, and the change machine. And let's not forget the magnetic fields around the telephones. These all create electromagnetic energy waves. And then there's the people who come in here. The chi and the electrical emanations from their bodies and the waves of thought emanating from their brains, the sound waves as they speak, the ups and downs of emotional energy, the yelling and the whispering. All these vibrations and emanations mix with the flow from the machines and the wires and the magnets in the telephones and meld into this big pulsating energy oneness.

And then one day, a neutrino zipped through me. A neutrino so small that you could put maybe a trillion of them on the smallest atom's left eyebrow and still lose it. But as it zipped by, it zapped a tiny little subatomic hairline fracture into the time/space continuum in the pilot light in one of my dryers and created an even tinier hole in the fire. It lasted just the tiniest little subatomic fraction of a second before it closed up. But, before it closed, it dripped a little bit of something from far away into the pilot, and presto! Me! And, to tell you the truth, I don't know if that big melding into vibration oneness and the energy fields had anything to do with it. It could have just been the neutrino; it could have been all of it put together. And like I said, this is all just theory – but there I was, small at first, but I grew.

I spread from the pilot flame and into the dryer and into the floor and into the other machines and into the walls and the air between the walls. You'd be surprised how much energy you never see is zinging around in air, like light waves, heat waves, chi, you name it. It's crowded stuff. And then I spread into the ceilings and the floors, and the plumbing and the fixtures. And I grew.

But let's get one thing clear: I'm not the building. I'm me. I live throughout the building the same as you live in your body, and your awareness is spread throughout your body, but you can lose a toe and still be you. Of course, if you lose your brain, that's another matter, and, hey, who can prove you lose your awareness when you lose your brain? Nobody! In my case though, unlike the relationship between your mind and your body, I can't move my building around. Believe me, I've tried. I can't budge a thing. I can't turn machines off when they're overheating. I can't turn off the washroom tap when somebody leaves it on. All I can do is be aware, and move my awareness around the building and into things, and maybe it just all adds up to the right feng shui.

*

There's one other thing I'll bring up shortly, but let's take a break from all this talk about me. I have some customers in me now, early Saturday morning laundromat attendees. Time for introductions. Let's see, there's Sally, a regular, and her three sons. I like Sally. She's a middle-aged single mother with straight black hair, a few lines around her eyes, and a nice smile. Sally's a bit on the harried side, but she still has a nice figure and she's still pretty, in a slightly harried kind of way. The kids are Jonas, five; Michael, seven; and Josh, nine. A nice mathematical progression.

Sally's using my industrial-sized machines. She always checks inside for Jonas after finding him in there once. Jonas is a cute little guy with a splash of sandy blond hair that hangs down over his eyes, and he's curious about everything, almost like everything he sees is something wonderful. I can feel this kid's awareness growing by leaps and bounds. Sort of like me. Don't care much for Michael. He whines a lot and torments Jonas when Sally and Josh aren't looking. He never looks anybody straight in the eye, always looks somewhere else, usually the floor, when he's talking to people, except when he's tormenting Jonas. Then, he looks right into Jonas' eyes.

Josh is a good kid. A little more mature than most nine-year-olds, but I see that a lot in the oldest kids in single parent families, but Josh doesn't seem to be losing any kid-hood over it. In fact, he gets right down with Jonas sometimes and shares his amazement at ladybugs and spiders. Michael steps on ladybugs. Josh, though … he'll make a great dad someday, and a good looking one, with jet-black hair and a narrow face with dark, intelligent eyes.

And let's see. There's Eddy in the first row of regular washers, by my TV nook. He stands by this washer and dryer the whole time he's in me as though he's afraid somebody's going to steal his laundry or something, and the whole time he taps his fingers on my machines and drives everyone nuts. He almost drives me up the wall sometimes. Picture that.

I've got three college girls at the washers close to Poet's Corner, all overweight, all giggling and whispering and making goo-goo eyes at the good looking jock loading clothes from a blue hamper into the machines at the other end of their row. He looks just a little bit like Josh, dark hair, narrow face, dark eyes … but something else in them, a little more intense than intelligence. He's wearing a gray Fruit of the Loom track suit with lots of muscle outlined under them, and I'll bet those Nikes cost a fortune. And judging from the wear and tear, it looks like they're used for more than just show.

Neither he nor the giggling college girls have been in me before, but I've been getting a lot of newcomers since the Spin Ahoy! burned down two weeks ago. And, no, I didn't have anything to do with that. We laundromats do not do that to our own kind, and besides, I don't need to bring in extra business that way. I heard it was faulty wiring.

That's all that's in me for now, but I'll get busy as the day goes on. It's Saturday, washing day for students and the working folk. I'll have over seventy people in here, some of them regulars, some of them refugees from Spin Ahoy!, and some of them people who finally had to know what color their clothes were when they bought them.

I've gotten to know my regulars well, through little things like their moods and their postures, and sometimes through the things they say. I even know them by the things they forget they've said. For instance, one day, Sally told Jonas to stop flicking crayons across the floor. Jonas wasn't listening and kept on flicking.

'Stop that right now!'

He heard that. He stopped. He sat. He stared. For five minutes.

'I'm bored,' he said.

Sally, busy sorting and folding clothes, said: 'Look, I'm busy. Do something … anything. Flick crayons or something!'

I knew she was going to say that. Because I know Sally.

I guess the biggest clues I get are from their clothing, from the holes in their socks, the runs in their pantyhose, the beer stains and vomit on their shirts, the missing buttons. They bring their lives in to me packed in baskets and bags and backpacks, and the shape and texture of their clothes is almost always the shape and texture of their lives. Hey now, that was almost worthy of a few utterances at Poet's Corner, huh? But it's true. I know the regulars, and even the newbies, by how they wash their clothes, how some separate whites from colors and some don't. How some stack their clothes neatly and others toss them into plastic garbage bags.

I've seen people spend one or two hours in me without ever once looking at another person. They just spend the whole time with their heads buried in the TV or a magazine, or, like Eddy, buried in their own world and suspicious of everything outside it.

I may be a laundromat, but a lot more than just washing and drying goes on inside me. I'm a panoramic view into the human condition. I'm a thousand stories unfolding on my folding tables alone. I'm a steady stream of secrets shoved into plastic bags. And on top of all that, I'm a Mecca of regeneration. Hey, suddenly, all new clothes. OK, so maybe not new, but suddenly wearable. Some people don't wash their stuff for weeks, maybe even months. They pull things out of my dryers and look at them like 'this is mine?' Shirts they forgot they had, pants that don't fit any more, a pair of socks without holes!

And speaking of socks, ever wonder what happened to that missing sock? I know what happened to it, and it's no big mystery. Almost always, you'll find it in the drum of the dryer. They stick there. Sometimes, it'll even work its way under the agitator in the washer. Other times, it'll be on the ground or floor somewhere between me and wherever you keep your laundry hamper. Sometimes, it'll be between the machines, a variation on the floor scenario. Sometimes, it'll be in your sock and underwear drawer. The good thing, here, is that it's probably clean. The bad thing is … it's probably wedged into the back of the drawer and you're never going to find it. And if it's none of these, then the only logical possibility is that your sock was eaten by a sock monster. Back to the people.

These people, the regulars and the newcomers, are what make my awareness a special thing. Without them, I'd be aware of what? Wiring, florescent light fixtures, wooden beams and struts, machines, rays of light, creaks and cracks and whirring sounds. My awareness would just settle along with the insulation in my walls and harden.

*

And now for that one other thing I promised I'd bring up. Let's see, not Sally, not the kids. Somebody new. No, not the chubby girls, and definitely not Eddy. How about this new guy? The jock. There's something in his eyes that interests me. He just pushed his quarters into the coin slot and he hears the sound of water splashing into the washer. Sometimes sounds and sights help with this, but they're not really necessary. I'll explain that later. Let's go with the flow of the water splashing into the washer.

Whoa. Lot's of physical stuff here, like lobes, thalamus, hypothalamus, pons, corpus callosum, cerebellum, hippocampus, pituitary gland, neurons passing electrons from axons to dendrites. Had enough Latin? I have. And, to tell you the truth, I don't understand any of this stuff any more than I understand how I move from the cross beam in the ceiling over Janie's office to the pilot light where I was born. All I know is that I'm in the jock's head. Oops … I'm here! But I'm ignoring all the wet, physical Latin stuff, and going with the flow, and … water splashing all over his body, all over his arms and legs and head, dripping down his chest, rivulets swishing on his stomach, and it's scalding hot! I can feel it. I can feel the boiling spray and his hands rubbing in soap under his arms and across his chest and he's rubbing the soap in harder.

Wash it off, wash it off.

He's putting the soap in the soap dish under the shower nozzle and picking up a face cloth and rubbing it hard all over his shoulders and arms and rubbing the cloth harder and now it's on his stomach.

Bitch, bitch, bitch!

And he's rubbing up and down and in circles and up and down and the scalding water is burning his skin. I'm getting a terrible sense of filth buried under his skin and crawling through the hairs on his arms and chest and oozing over his body like a stinking itch. He's getting a bright red rash on his stomach and chest from the heat and the friction.

Filthy fucking …

And I'm out of here.

Now, wasn't that interesting? And I picked up a name in there, Baxter; it had a feeling of belonging, which usually means it's the person's name. It sort of floats around with a sense of: 'this is me, this is me.'

*

And that's just for starters.

 

Marcella Kampman has been writing for several years.  She has had several articles and a short, non-fiction story published.  She is a member of ORWA (The Ottawa Romance Writers Association) and RWA (Romance Writers of America).  Her first romance novel, PROMISE ME, was written under the penname Vanessa deHart and is available from http://www.LTDBooks.com.  To find out more about Marcella (aka Vanessa) check out her web page at http://www.geocities.com/marcella_kampman

    

 

Promise Me

By 

Vanessa deHart

 

Chapter One

 

When Pigs Fly.  How apropos.  The name suited the small-town pub, although the locale hardly suited him.

What a helluva day.  Damon stared moodily into his drink.  He twirled his glass around on the ring of condensation on the scarred counter.  The blare of music accosted his ears.  The reek of stale beer and greasy chicken wings assaulted his nose.  He sighed and took a gulp.  What a helluva place. 

He yanked his silk tie loose and thrust it into his jacket pocket where it hung on the back of his barstool.  He loosened the top two buttons of his shirt, pocketed his diamond-stud cufflinks, and rolled up his shirtsleeves.  Overhead a ceiling fan whirred noisily yet accomplished little.  In agitation he raked his fingers through his hair.

People jostled him from all sides.  Voices rose and fell in a tumultuous torrent.  He sat hunched over his drink, isolated from the boisterous crowd. 

“I think there’s something wrong with Angel,” a male voice said somewhere off to his right.

“Not in trouble with the law again, I hope.”

“I think it’s something a lot more serious.”

“What could possibly be more serious than that?  Heck, that last fiasco had the town talking for months.”

Uproarious laughter drowned out the voices.  Just great.  Damon rubbed at the prickly five o’clock shadow lining his jaw.  All he needed was to be stuck in a hick town that boasted its own Mafia brute.  Any guy named Angel, who was undoubtedly a regular troublemaker with the law, had to be nothing less than a hit man for a gang.

He cursed his car for breaking down in the middle of nowhere.  He should’ve put his fear aside and flown to Ottawa.  He owned a private jet, but he only flew in it under duress.  He knew he wouldn’t be in this mess if he could just slay that one incapacitating dragon.  Why was hindsight always twenty-twenty?  Now here he sat, marooned, while elsewhere, urgent business required his attention.

From their haphazard places on the walls, photographs of pilots and poorly rendered paintings of airplanes stared down at him.  To make matters worse, he’d ended up in pilot heaven.  His temples began to throb with a headache measurable on the Richter Scale.

“Angel’s been seeing an awful lot of Stu lately.  He’s been flying in at all kinds of odd hours and staying through the night.  I wonder what’s going on?”

“They are good friends, you know.  Hey,” a wicked chuckle punctuated the young man’s next words, “you aren’t jealous, are you?”

Damon paused with his glass in midair.  He glanced about to see exactly what kind of a bar he’d landed in.  He noticed a healthy number of women around.  He took a cautious sip.

The first man, apparently ignoring the intended jibe, said, “I don’t think Angel’s feeling her old self.  She didn’t come last Saturday, the first I’ve known her to miss in living memory.  I’m just worried about her, that’s all.” 

“Speak of the devil, or should I say angel, here she comes now.”

Damon, his interest piqued by the overheard conversation, looked towards the door.  Several young men, who appeared to have been keeping an eager eye out for the woman in question, jumped up at her entrance.

“Angel!” someone called out.  “Come on over and join us.”

“Angel baby, you look sensational.”

“Wanna beer?”

“Bring the lady a beer!”

Declining the cold brew thrust in her direction, Angel laughed and greeted people as she squeezed into a spot along one of the long plank tables where a space on the crowded bench had miraculously appeared. 

Damon blinked.  The woman was a vision against the backdrop of the hazy pub.  Long blonde hair cascaded down her back.  She wore a bright, full skirt that swirled when she walked and a simple, off-the-shoulder T-shirt that enhanced her smooth skin.  He forced his attention back to his drink and the captivating ring of condensation. 

Two seats beside him were suddenly vacated as the men who’d been sitting there left to join the crowd gravitating towards Angel.  She held court like some kind of queen.  Damon resisted the urge to glance her way.  He wasn’t interested.  He took another long pull from his drink.

Two women immediately claimed the seats beside him at the bar.  One woman wore a short black dress that looked a size too small, while the other looked to have been poured into a skin-tight green outfit with flashing sequins that drew a man’s attention away from her face.  Studiously he ignored them.

“I’m surprised Angel came after all,” one of the women said irritably.  “It’s tough to get a piece of the action with her hanging around.”

“You know what they’ve been saying about her after that fainting spell a couple a weeks ago.”

“Yeah.  The guys say she hasn’t been feeling well lately.”  The woman in the too tight dress snorted.  “And I heard Bud say he found her spilling her guts out behind the hangar just the other day.  You know what I think?  I think little miss perfect finally let some guy under her skirt.”

“I think you’re right.  And if that’s the case she wasn’t so perfect after all not to take precautions.”

“Serves her right.  She’s probably too perfect to know how to get rid of it.  Harry!” the woman in black called out in a sharp voice to the bartender.  “Bring me a Screwdriver.”

The woman nearest him, the one glittering in green sequins, seemed to suddenly notice that he was sitting alone.  “Hi, honey,” she said.  “You’re new in town, aren’t you?”

Damon stood up, intent on leaving, then decided that he wasn’t about to let these women drive him away.  Not deigning to give the woman a reply, he resumed his seat and his taciturn silence.  There was no law that said he had to be sociable on his off hours.

Angel glanced around at her friends and co-workers and sipped at a glass of water.  The scent of Harry’s famous spicy chicken wings made her stomach gurgle in anticipation.  An irresistible sense of familiarity and friendship embraced her and she smiled, glad she’d come.

“Who’ll we get to strip tonight?” Arlene, one of the women already seated, asked with an exaggerated leer.  Dull light gleamed along her dangling earrings and highlighted the purple streaks in her short, spiky hair.  She owned the only lingerie shop in town and often went out of her way to promote her goods.

“You couldn’t pay me enough.”  Pete, a gangly young pilot who always looked as if he were trying to grow a beard, shuddered in mock horror while holding up his hands to ward off invisible mobs of women.

“You’d have to pay us to watch,” Cindy, a pretty, plump brunette and one of the few female pilots, declared.

Pete’s ears reddened; Angel laughed at the banter.  Idly she glanced through a gap in the surging tide of bodies surrounding her.  She spied a stranger lounging at the far end of the bar.

The dark stubble hugging his sexy jaw belied the fact that he looked out of place in the pub.  No one else wore a suit.  Most of the men wore jeans—faded, torn, patched, or otherwise.  Some had on khakis, but none wore suits.

The newcomer stood up for a moment, tall and broad shouldered—clearly the most handsome man in the room.  Angel let her unabashed gaze travel up and down his six foot plus frame.  Attractive, she mused.  Very attractive.  She wouldn’t mind watching him strip.

His dark hair looked mussed, as if he’d run his fingers through it recently.  She tried to imagine what it would feel like to slide her own fingers through its thickness.  

She stared with uninhibited interest as he settled back down to nurse his drink.  He leaned back on one arm while glancing around the room.  His roving gaze immediately captured Angel’s blatantly curious appraisal.  Lifting his drink, and one dark eyebrow, he saluted her.

Checking the impulse to return the salutation, Angel turned aside.  Slowly she raised her glass and took another sip.  The man looked vaguely familiar, as if she’d seen his face before.  Could she be starting to forget things like that?  Could she have forgotten ever knowing such a virile man?  Goosebumps dotted her flesh at the grim possibility. 

“Let’s dance.”  She grabbed the nearest man and hauled him to his feet.  “We’ve been sitting long enough.” 

Not until they were halfway across the room did she notice that heavy-set Rob Peterson, one of the newly licensed pilots, clung to her hand.  Rob wasn’t exactly one of her favorite people, but he would do in a pinch. 

“The lady wants to dance!”  The call went out to the live band in the corner from another pilot standing on the sidelines.  “Give the angel some room to spread her wings.”

A path opened up to the tiny dance floor, nothing more than a bare space left vacant in front of the band.  Once Angel realized what she’d started, she caught the lead musician’s eye.  Bud, her flight dispatcher, attacked the strings on his guitar.  In the space of a note the leisurely tune disappeared and the steel-stringed instrument throbbed to a rock-’n’-roll beat.

Carl, the drummer, touched one of his sticks to his forehead in acknowledgement, and she smiled.  He’d keep the music hopping.  He worked for her as the flight school’s chief technician.

Rob grasped her hand and began to swing her around in a fair imitation of the jive.  “I finally got you where I want you.”  He reeled her in to his side.

Angel laughed.  “Dream on.”  With a jump and a shout she flung her hands in the air in time with the music. 

Another pilot stepped onto the dance floor and tapped Rob on the shoulder, letting him know his time with her had come to an end.  Angel kissed her fingertips and waggled them at Rob before giving her full attention to Frank, a reed-slim black man and her most senior flight instructor. 

A sudden awareness made her glance through a hazy slit in the crowd towards the stranger still seated at the bar.  The breath caught in her throat.  She wished he’d come and dance with her.  She grinned up at a new partner, breaking the eye contact that had held her spellbound.

Some time later, several guys from her last course swarmed the dance floor.  They’d been a rowdy bunch to teach and were an even rowdier group to dance with.  Like a hot potato they handed Angel around and around until the group collapsed in hoots of laughter.  With her arms linked between two chortling men, she stumbled breathlessly back to her place at the table.

Sliding along the bench Angel squeezed in next to Cindy.  “Some girls have all the luck,” Cindy said as she shook her head and groaned.  “You know, you are the luckiest woman alive.  What I wouldn’t give to be you.”

Angel grabbed her arm.  “Don’t ever envy me,” she snapped.  “You have no idea…” 

She turned her head before Cindy could somehow see into her eyes and thereby learn the truth.  With trembling hands she pushed her hair behind her shoulders.  The worst of it would be to lose her independence.  If she could no longer run her flight school, if she was forced to live with her folks again, if she… 

No one knew.  No one had to know.

Her pulse raced.  The upbeat music, with its surging measure, tugged at her tormented imagination.  Boisterous laughter broke into her reverie, and with a start she returned to the conversation.

 “—came out of the cockpit wearing a parachute and said, ‘you folks wait here while I go down for help!’”

Another round of laughter washed over her senses and buoyed her soul.  She’d missed the joke, but not the healing laughter.  A good dose of humor was just what she needed.  Coming tonight had been the best course of action.

She smiled up at Frank.  She’d ask him to come over later tonight to discuss business.  The school was in a lot of financial difficulty right now, but she knew that its reputation was solid enough to weather the storm as long as its creditors didn’t panic.

A compelling force made Angel look in the direction of the bar.  All thoughts of business flew out of her mind.  The newcomer still sat there, watching her with a speculative gleam in his dark-shadowed eyes.  Their gazes caught and held.  His recurring interest intrigued her.

Again she let her thoughts drift over the possibility of watching him strip, or dancing with him, up close and personal.  With the safety of distance, she let her gaze linger over his body.  This time she offered him a silent salute with her lifted glass.

“That guy sure is a hunk.”  Cindy sighed elaborately in her ear.  “What I wouldn’t give to dance with him.”

“Looks like Dolores and Lydia are trying to do just that.”  Angel indicated the two women perched like vultures on either side of him.  “I guess they’re hoping to get lucky tonight.”

“He looks too smart for them,” Cindy said.  “You know, he looks familiar.  I swear I’ve seen his face before.”  She twirled a brown lock of short curly hair around her index finger, her hazel eyes narrowed and thoughtful.

“You think so, too?”  The relief Angel felt at hearing those words astonished her.  “I dare you to go over and talk to him.”

“No way!” Cindy nudged Angel with her shoulder.  “I dare you to go over and talk to him.”  She chuckled and gave a half smile.  “I bet you can’t get him to dance with you.”

“What do you wanna bet?”  Anticipation slammed into Angel.  She knew what some people were saying about her, and she didn’t care.  She wasn’t about to cower in a corner.

“The usual.”  Cindy raised her eyebrows.  “I knit you something of your choice, or you give me some hours free flight time.”

“You’re on.”  Angel gave Cindy a high five.  “Better get your knitting needles out.  Christie’s baby’ll be here soon, and she could always use another baby sweater.”

“Don’t count your chickens.”  Cindy dropped her hand and picked up her mug.  “He looks like one tough customer.”

Before Angel could comprehend her own actions, her feet propelled her halfway across the room.  This is insane.  What am I doing?  She never indulged in her particular brand of brazenness with strangers.  But then, a tiny voice reasoned, What’s there to lose?  Before she stalled and lost altitude, she closed the distance separating them.

Several of the school’s candidates lounged around the bar trying to entice the women sitting there to talk.  Dolores and Lydia, flanking the handsome visitor, knew a good thing when they saw it and weren’t biting. 

Angel stepped up behind the stranger’s broad back.  She rested her hand on his shoulder to attract his attention.  The feel of his warm, hard muscle under her fingers sent a tingle of awareness coursing through her system.  She looked over his shoulder into the mirror behind the bar and their gazes locked.  A real-life portrait, hovering there amidst the sparkling lights and the shimmering reflections of the hanging glasses, captured her attention.

The man in the mirror lifted the corners of his mouth into a lazy, slow smile that sent her pulse racing.  Angel returned the smile and winked.  He raised an eyebrow and swung about to face her.  Up close she could see that his eyes were a deep, midnight blue.

“I saw you coming,” he drawled.

His husky, sensuous voice sent delicious shivers racing along her spine.  Shimmering warmth stole over her. 

“Let me guess,” he said as he looked her up and down, “you’re Angel.”  He picked up his glass and took a long swallow, then tipped it towards her.  “Are you offering to be mine?” 

 “To be your what?”  Angel didn’t want to be cast in the same mold as the other two women.  Stalling, she hooked her hair behind her ears.  “You want me to be your heavenly messenger?  After all, that’s what my name means.”

“Actually, I could’ve used a little divine intervention earlier today.  What I figured you’re offering me now, tonight, is to be my own personal angel.”  The double entendre made her heart skip a beat.

Angel intended to maintain control of the situation and knew she had to keep the bantering light.  She planted her hands on her hips.  “Only the devil would ask that.”

“My name’s Damon.”  He grinned.  “I’m almost a demon but not quite.  Is that devilish enough for you?” 

He had a very sexy smile.  She liked the way his mouth curved higher on one side.  The dark, day’s growth hugging his jaw made him appear rakish.  No, dangerous.  But then, she’d flirted with danger more times than she could count in the cockpit.  She could handle him, no problem.

“Damon.”  She tested his name on her tongue.  “Loyal friend.  Hmmm… and are you?  Loyal that is?”

Before Damon could respond, Rob Peterson interrupted.  “Sooo, Damon,” he said as he propped himself against the bar. “Are you here to fly with our Angel?”

“Butt out,” Dolores snapped at Rob.  She turned and glared at Angel.  “He doesn’t look like he came here for you,” she said pointedly.  “He’s not your type.”  Dolores laid her bright-red-manicured hand possessively on Damon’s arm.  Her short, skin-tight black dress showed every curve to great advantage.  She leaned closer.  “I was just getting to know Damon when you horned your way in.”

“You obviously didn’t get very far, Dolores.”  Angel tipped her head and lifted a brow.  “It’s Ladies’ Night, and you’re still sitting here.” 

Dolores hissed in displeasure.

A hard glint sparked to life in Damon’s midnight-blue eyes.  “Now how would you get me to go further?” he asked.  Angel’s pulse fluttered in warning at his softly spoken words.

“Let’s see…” Angel mused.  “We could dance.” 

“I don’t dance.”

“I’m sure I could teach you.”

“Maybe I don’t want to learn.”

Damon leaned his elbows on the bar behind him.  He already knew what the two women beside him wanted, he saw their kind often enough, but despite what he’d overheard earlier about her, Angel seemed different.

“Why?”  He narrowed his eyes.  “Why me, when you can have any guy in the room?”

“I’ve already danced with them.”  She dismissed the entire male population with a wave of her hand.

Damon enjoyed watching her easy graceful manner when she absently tucked her hair behind her ears.  The slight action stirred up the fresh scent of peaches.  He’d watched her earlier with the men out on the dance floor.  She was a woman who exuded vitality, a woman who lived life to its fullest.  Against his better judgement, Angel intrigued him.

He thought of all the women he’d ever known, and they were all the same.  Their promises, hinted or delivered, always fell short of the mark.  What he did want, didn’t exist.  He noticed the sparkle of mischief in Angel’s luminous gray eyes.  Besides, she wasn’t promising him anything now, was she, other than a bit of fun?

Angel tapped a finger on her lower lip.  Damon’s gaze followed the small movement.  She lacked the painted artifice of the two women flanking him.  He felt the arc of sexual tension wrap its sinuous threads about his tired mind, stirring his exhausted body to a heightened awareness of her soft curves.

Suddenly weary of where this was all leading, Damon decided to put an end to the banter.  He knew she was just teasing, he had seen it all before, but something about her made him hesitate.  He looked at Angel, with the light dancing around her head like a halo, and the words to send her away died on his lips.  There was just that something about her.

“If he doesn’t want to dance with you then you could take him flying, Angel,” one of the men leaning against the bar suggested.  “A night flight!”

“Yeah,” another enthused.  “Take him to heights he’s never imagined.”

“You can make him soar, Angel!”

“You guys are impossible.”  Angel groaned and threw up her hands. 

Damon watched those slim, delicate hands and wondered for an insane moment what it would feel like to have those hands touch him.  That’s it.  Now he knew for sure that his brains were addled. 

“You can teach him,” Frank said.  “If you could teach this drunken sot how to dance amongst the clouds,” he explained as he put his arm around Rob’s shoulders and nudged Damon, “then you could teach anyone.”

 “Okay.”  Angel spread her hands.  “But I don’t have time to give him the full course.”  She smiled.  “It’ll have to be a crash course.” 

“Oooh…” A bunch of the fellows winced in commiseration.  “Go easy on him, Angel.  Don’t let him crash the first time out.”

“Actually,” she lowered her voice, “I had something more like this in mind.” 

On a dare, she asked the handsome stranger for a dance.  But somehow she’d gotten sidetracked.  She reached out and let her fingers run boldly through Damon’s hair.  It felt soft and silky, just like she’d fancied.  She stared at the furrow her fingers made, then dropped her gaze to study the pulse at the base of his throat.  She noticed a few dark curls lying against the crisp whiteness of his shirt. 

She imagined touching them; she flexed her fingers.  She imagined tasting him; she licked her lips.  She imagined loving him; she inhaled his musky scent.  Every sight, every sound, every smell struck her suddenly as being brilliantly precious and exquisite. 

As his hand snaked out to halt hers, a tiny diamond glittered from the eye of an eagle engraved on a gold band around his little finger.  The sight of the bird’s reaching wings unfurled her own. 

“Don’t you dare,” he warned as she sidled closer.

Angel stared at the sensuous mouth that had just issued the latest challenge.  Tonight she dared anything and everything.  She leaned forward and put her lips against his.  Just a taste.  That’s all she wanted.  Then she’d go.

Totally unexpected, the shock electrified.

Angel gasped.  His warm breath fanned her mouth with an intensity that seared.  She tasted strong liquor, raw male, and glorious life.  Their breaths mingled.  She breathed in his essence.  His fingers gripping her shoulder branded her.

Angel plunged in free fall.  She never wanted to recover.  She longed to fall forever into his embrace.

Sanity slapped her in the face.

How could she use another human being this way?

She tried to pull back, but he held her in place.  With her face only a few scant inches from his, she stared into the depths of his dark eyes, gone smoky now with desire.  What had she done to him?  Her pulse hammered at her throat.  What had she done to herself?  She had never felt this erotically overwhelmed before.  She didn’t want to analyze her uncharacteristic actions or reactions.

Shocked at the roiling sensations the simple kiss had evoked, Angel jumped out of his grasp.  Her hand flew to her mouth. 

The sounds of hoots and cheers broke in upon her consciousness.  To top it off, she’d kissed him in a public place.  Angel shoved her hair behind her ears.  She tried desperately to recover her senses before the whistles and catcalls died down.

She glanced at Damon relieved to notice the smug, sardonic expression that now replaced the momentary passion.  He managed to obscure his growing desire behind typical masculine arrogance.  Thankfully, he hadn’t been as affected.  She’d never been a tease and certainly didn’t intend for this to go any further.

 “Sorry fellas.”  She held up her hands.  “I’m afraid Damon’s a slow learner.  He’ll have to get himself another dance partner.”  Her quick glance took in both women.  She knew Dolores and Lydia would be more than willing to pick up where she’d left off.  “He’s all yours, girls.”

Lydia grabbed his arm.  “Let me show you, honey,” she said in her sultry voice, “how a real woman kisses.”  She pressed herself closer to Damon.

“I think I just might take you up on your original offer,” Damon answered Angel.  He stood and towered over her.  His inscrutable gaze pinned hers as he ignored Lydia’s more blatant approach.

Angel inhaled deeply and willed her heartbeat to slow down.  She’d experienced such adrenaline surges after particularly wild flights when safe landings were still in doubt.  In this situation she suspected the safe landing was definitely out of the question.  Time to bail out.

“That’s quite all right.”  Angel lifted her chin, forcing her gaze not to drop.  “I’ve changed my mind.”

“I don’t think so.  I want to dance.  And you’re the one I’m going to dance with.” 

He grabbed her hand.  Angel groaned inwardly.  Would she never learn to curb her impulsiveness?  No matter where she was or what she was doing, trouble always found her.  Well, she’d have the one dance with him then call it a night. 

Damon’s hand scalded the small of her back as he propelled her along.  His warm breath fanned the top of her head as she felt his lean, hard body pressing up close behind.  For a moment she found his strong presence oddly comforting.  She recalled the meaning of his name.  She could use a loyal friend during the upcoming ordeal.  Someone to stand by her through thick and thin.  Someone who wouldn’t abandon her when the going got rough.

Like the Red Sea parting, the way before them opened up and led unerringly towards the dance floor.  The band immediately struck up something with a quick beat, but Damon ignored the rhythm of the music. 

His left hand clasped her right against his chest while his other hand encircled her waist and pinned her against the solid wall of his hard body.  For a brief respite Angel pretended that she belonged in his arms.

“You never did answer why you wanted to dance with me.”  Damon’s breath stirred her hair.  “Aren’t there enough other men for you to pick and choose from?  Or were you just looking for another one to add to your list?”

“List?  What list?”  Angel looked up at him and laughed.  “They’re all my friends.”

“I’m not.”

“Actually…”  She shrugged in his arms.  “I asked you on a dare.”

“And you, naturally, always accept a dare.”  He made it a statement.

“Always.”

Matching him step for step, she asked, “So why did you decide to dance with me after all?”

“To escape those two femme fatales.”

Angel laughed at the apt description.  Knowing the truth, she chose to enjoy the moment.  All thoughts, worries, and fears fled as she allowed herself to be wrapped within the security of his embrace.  Melting against him, she savored the feeling of his powerful presence.

He lowered his face to hers.  He rubbed his rough jaw along the soft skin at her temple.  The tingling sensation reached to her very toes, and she suddenly felt weak at the knees.  She closed her eyes.  His hard thighs rubbed hers.  Her legs wobbled. 

With an intensity that overwhelmed her, she wanted a man just like Damon to hold, to make love to, and to grow old with.  But Damon was a complete stranger.  She didn’t even know the first thing about him.  He could be an ax-murderer for all she knew.

“I suppose you wanted to flaunt that you’re the most desirable woman here.  I’ll play along with that.  I’m even willing to bet that all the other men in here would go along with that too.”

He lifted her chin with the back of his knuckles; his big hand still clutched hers in his strong grasp.

“What are you saying?”  She snapped out of her dream.

“Seems to me like they’re lining up expecting to get another dance with you.  Maybe even one of those gut-wrenching kisses you hand out so freely.”

Angel dragged her mind back from the brink of the seductive abyss.  Rob staggered into her peripheral view.  Noticing his drunken leer, she knew exactly what he wanted.  The last thing she wanted was to be passed off to a string of guys for a slow dance.  A very slow and intimate dance.  For years she’d kept every eligible male, even those not so eligible, at bay.  She wasn’t about to let any of them think their chance had come. 

Experience had taught Angel to spot a problem and make course adjustments long before the situation became a crisis.  Intent on catching Damon off guard, Angel raised their joined hands, threw her head back, and in her best instructor’s bellow shouted,  “It’s Ladies’ Night Out!  Damon here wants to dance!  Who wants to be first in line to dance with our handsome guest and show him what a great place Swift Falls is?”

Women swarmed the dance floor.  They seemed to come out of the old pub’s woodwork.  And then Angel fled into the night, not even leaving him her shadow to follow.

 

Chris Grover writes what she most enjoys reading--mystery and suspense with a dash of romance. Chris also loves to travel and uses her visits to faraway places in her writing.

Her first romantic suspense WHERE'S MICHELLE takes place in England and was released in March 2003. Her second book, WITHOUT A CLUE, set in Paris, France, was released in May 2003. Both books are available from Amber Quill Press at http://www.amberquill.com . 

Chris has also written a paranormal novella that's included in Enchanted Holidays, an anthology to be released shortly by Hard Shell Word Factory, and a paranormal short story in another anthology coming sometime next year from Mundania Press. 

Chris is currently working on a mystery series set in England, and a romantic suspense that takes place on the Oregon coast. After that, a ghost story set at an English country hotel at Christmastime... 

Visit Chris at http://www.chrisgrover.ca  

 

WHERE'S MICHELLE

By 

Chris Grover

 

A novel of romance and intrigue.

 

PROLOGUE

 

Vic Leighton didn't relish the thought of a long walk on a cold January night. Nevertheless, at one in the morning with the streets of London deserted and not a cab in sight, he knew it was safer than using the Underground where he'd likely get mugged by the derelicts who went down there to keep warm. With luck, he'd find a cruising cab within the next few blocks. If he didn't, he had more than enough time to make the journey on foot.

 

An hour later, when Vic finally reached Pirates Wharf, he paused behind a pile of moldering packing cases and made a quick but careful check of the immediate area.

 

Satisfied he was first to arrive, he glanced beyond the abandoned wharf to the dark waters of the river. A couple of fat black water rats appeared from behind one of the wooden pilings. Catching his scent, they stood on their hind legs and sniffed the air, then disappeared with a soft plop into the water.

 

He sighed and leaned back against a rusting forklift. Contrary to what the tour guides claimed, there was nothing romantic about the River Thames. At least not this particular stretch which had somehow escaped redevelopment and where he still knew every inch like the back of his hand. Even tonight with a kindly moon painting pretty, silvery patterns on the surface, it was still the same dirty, depressing place where he'd lived as a child.

 

As memories crowded his mind, he pulled up the collar of his jacket against the evening chill and sucked in a shallow breath.

 

He hadn't been back to the East End in years, but the narrow streets of his birthplace near the London Docks smelled exactly the way he remembered. A mixture of damp, decaying buildings and overripe garbage, the acrid stench of poverty.

 

Back then, the wharf had been a hustling, bustling hive of activity with ships coming and going at all hours, and he'd known just about everyone who lived and worked in the area. The old folks and the immigrants who'd occupied the falling-down houses because they couldn't afford anything better. The runaways who eked out a living on the streets, the barrow-boys and the market traders.

 

He smiled inwardly. He'd been a barrow-boy himself once, touting the superior qualities of his fruit and vegetables to the passersby. Then there had been the night traffic. The tarts, the pimps, the pushers and the buyers, and the rest of the sewer scum who steered clear of strangers and were seldom seen during daylight.

 

Now, he was the stranger. No one from those days would recognize him--with his three-piece suit, fancy haircut and manicured nails.

 

A stiff breeze ruffled his hair, bringing with it other scents, other memories before moving on to pursue a scrap of paper in a whispery, hustling game of chase down the ancient stone steps and into the river.

 

His gaze slid slowly along the dimly lit strip of deserted wharf and the past wrapped around him like a blanket, filling his mind with scenes that shifted and blurred. Barely remembered voices, half-forgotten faces. Fragments of the life he'd once known, but could never know again because--

 

Because Nigel Bassington-Bloody-Pryce had taken it all away.

 

"Hey, Vic? That you?"

 

The hoarsely spoken words cut into Vic's reverie and his body tensed as a heavyset man appeared in the doorway of a tumbledown warehouse a few feet away. The light from the lamps lining the wharf showed him it was not the man he'd been waiting for. He wasn't surprised. He'd expected it. "Still running Nigel's errands, I see."

 

The errand boy came closer, a derisive smile touching his pale flabby face. "So, what you gave me wasn't the originals."

 

Vic returned the smile. "Surprised?"

 

"Damn right. Thought I had you in a box. Never even occurred to me you'd pull a fast one." He gave a snort of disgust. "Got the originals with you?

 

Vic gave a negative shake of his head and the smile vanished.

 

"Where are they, then? In the States?"

 

Vic shook his head again. "No. Here in London."

 

"At your hotel?"

 

A tug boat drew level with the wharf and when Vic didn't answer, the errand boy turned his head to watch as the boat chugged slowly up river. "Despite what you think, Bassington-Pryce is a good man, Vic. And one of these days, he'll make a fine Prime Minister."

 

The thought of Bassington-Pryce as PM made Vic's blood run cold and hardened his resolve to prevent that happening, regardless of the cost. "Over my dead body. Cold-blooded murderers like him belong in prison, not parliament."

 

The errand boy made a dismissive gesture with his hands. "Don't start on that again. Eight years ago it was ruled an accident and I guarantee it will stay an accident. What you've got won't get the case re-opened."

 

Vic trapped the man's gaze. "But in the right hands it would cause more trouble than either of you want."

 

"Maybe so. But Nigel's willing to pay, so we don't have to worry about what might happen, do we?" The errand boy's coarse features relaxed into an encouraging smile. "Come on, Vic," he urged softly. "Nigel wants you to name your price. So, I suggest you do yourself a favor and take his money this time around. Believe me, lad, it's the right thing to do."

 

Vic continued to hold the man's gaze. Eight years ago, instead of taking money, he'd done what he'd thought was the right thing. Except back then, he'd been young, naive, and very expendable. The helpless victim of a clever cover-up orchestrated by the man standing before him now. He'd been stripped of everything, including his name, and his family had been left with the belief he was dead.

 

But he wasn't helpless now. Success made a man vulnerable, as Bassington-Pryce and his errand boy were about to find out firsthand.

 

"This is not about money," Vic said, pausing to let his words sink in. "This is about justice. Either you and Nigel resign within the next twenty-four hours or everything I have goes to the Sunday papers free of charge."

 

The errand boy's face turned even paler. "You wouldn't. We'd be ruined."

 

"Exactly!" He'd waited a long time to gain the upper hand and the knowledge he had it made him smile. "It's like you told me eight years ago: Your choice, lad. Back off quietly, or do it the hard way."

 

"But I didn't kill anyone."

 

"Maybe not, but what you did was a thousand times worse," he said unable to hide his bitterness. "You left me alive."

 

The errand boy suddenly lunged forward. Vic tried to sidestep the attack, but he wasn't quick enough. The blow caught him on the side of his head. He felt himself falling backward toward the river, then--

 

Vic's head hit the stone steps with a sickening thud. The errand boy froze mid-stride. Seconds passed, but Vic didn't move. Heart thundering in his chest, the errand boy knelt down and slid a hand inside Vic's jacket even though he was wasting precious time. The faint coppery smell and the slowly widening pool of darkness staining the steps beneath Vic's head told him everything he needed to know. Vic Leighton was very definitely dead.

 

He cursed under his breath and got swiftly to his feet. He hadn't meant for this to happen. He'd just wanted to scare Vic, make him understand with whom he was dealing.

 

He paced swiftly back and forth.

 

What in hell was he going to do now? If his role in what happened eight years ago became public knowledge, he'd be in real serious trouble. His career would be finished. Dead certain he'd go to jail. Unless …

 

A search of Vic's pockets produced neither the evidence nor a clue to its whereabouts. He forced himself to think. Vic had said the originals were here in London. Where in London? Knowing Vic, wherever the damn things were it wasn't likely to be logical or obvious.

 

He glanced quickly but carefully up and down the wharf. Positive there were no witnesses to his actions, he shoved Vic's body down the steps and into the river. Being reasonably sure Vic was dead wasn't enough. He had to be absolutely certain.

 

He started to leave the wharf, but a thought slid into his mind and made him hesitate. If Vic was stupid enough to believe Nigel's promise to meet with him personally, then he wouldn't have anticipated any rough stuff or taken elaborate steps to protect his precious evidence. Ergo he would have stashed it either at his hotel or his London office.

 

He felt a welcome rush of relief. Once Vic's body was found, retrieving the evidence would be a piece of cake.

 

Available from http://www.amberquill.com 

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