Friday, September 30, 2022
Thursday, September 29, 2022
Alayna lives as a recluse in the giant redwood forest far from prying eyes. When intruders break into her home with the intention of robbing and using her, a man with vivid green eyes becomes an unlikely saviour. The instant they see each other their fates are sealed. Ben and Alayna have the kind of attraction that reeks of a celestial mandate.
THE BLACKTOP GLISTENED after the rain, a dark snake unfurling through the redwood forest. Cat eyes shone as if tiny creatures populated the yellow lines.
The ripe smell of rich earth competed with the distinct aroma of wet tar, and drips of fresh water plinked through the foliage. Nearby a spotted owl delivered its distinguishing call.
Although it was early yet in the afternoon, the gloom above gave the appearance of approaching night.
Set back slightly from the switchback road, a small cottage huddled, nearly smothered in ivy huddled beneath the giants populating northern California, wisps of smoke curling from a stone chimney. Azaleas and rhododendron vied with prolific sword ferns for space in a small garden.
On the porch an ancient bench watched the days pass by, whether wet or dry. A red squirrel perched on the gate post, unmoving until a woman came out the front door, and then he hurtled up the nearest bole.
Grinning, Alayna gave a whistle and left an offering of nuts and fruit in the stone platter upon the low wall. Already, as she turned away, the squirrel shimmied downward. Soon, she knew, his furry family would join him.
NOTHING OF NOTE happened in the small town of Legget, besides tourists arriving to take photos of their cars driving through the Chandelier Tree, or of themselves standing within the carved arch in the massive trunk.
They stopped for a bite, maybe some gas, and then most moved on to the nearest camping grounds. At certain times of the year it was busy, but at others nothing much occurred.
Jack and Shaun argued with Ben outside the local diner. The place was closed and a For Sale sign sat in the window.
“We need cash, bud, or we’ll never get to San Francisco,” Jack snapped out, irritated that he needed to repeat himself. “This one-horse town has zip for us; the tourist season is over, man. I say we grab a few dollars from the gas station and head south.”
His scrawny body quivered with intent.
“Yeah, hanging around here will only get us stuck and bored,” Shaun said. “There’s nothing to eat either.”
They were quite the opposites, Jack and Shaun, for Shaun was fat. He was stupid, too.
“Shut up,” Jack snarled at him. “What do you know?” He shifted his attention to the third member of their trio. “Ben, come on. Shaun and me, we’ll grab the dough, just keep the engine running, man, like always. Man, it’s not hard.”
Ben stared at him. “And how far will a few dollars get us? I’m telling you, it’s a waste of effort.”
“You’re just a fucking wuss. We’ll find other places along the way, get more. For fuck’s sake, man, do you want to stay in this empty shithole?”
Ben lifted green eyes to the forest surrounding them on all sides. A slight breeze promised rain later as it ruffled his fair hair. Yes, he could stay. He hankered after some peace and quiet. Jack, however, would pull a knife on him if he dared suggest it. The weasel had a mean streak, and no conscience. He liked that knife too damn much.
“I’ll wait outside,” Ben eventually said.
Jack slapped him on the back and Shaun laughed. “Get the wheels. We’re going in.” Jack grabbed Shaun’s wobbling arm and they strode across the road.
Their inane giggling disturbed the quietness in the air.
Idiots. Folk would remember them.
Frowning, Ben climbed into the driver’s seat and turned the ignition key. The old blue Chevy spluttered twice and then caught. Eyeing the progress of the other two, hating himself for giving in yet again, he timed his swing and landed in a squeal of brakes before the glass doors as they vanished into the shop.
He didn’t watch. He didn’t want to see another unsuspecting kid manning the register frightened out of his wits by the insane Jack and the stupidity of that oaf Shaun.
It was time to leave those two behind, but not in this quiet place. They would do too much harm here. He’d either abandon them somewhere more populated or simply walk away when Jack wasn’t looking.
The rear doors slammed as the two flung bodily into the car.
“Get fucking driving!” Jack screeched.
The Chevy sped away, heading north.
ALAYNA FINISHED EATING the vegetable soup she’d prepared for her supper and placed the remains in the fridge, along with the butter. Tomorrow night’s meal. She wrapped the rest of her freshly baked loaf and put it in the old wooden bread box.
While rinsing her few dishes, she stared out into the darkening forest. It was autumn now and summer’s ever-present fog began to vie with the downpours that heralded winter’s approach. It was always somewhat on the cooler side here, but she preferred that. Heat had never summoned her, held no allure. Heat wasn’t good for her, point of fact. She was comfortable in the mists, in the bracing air of a fertile forest.
The fog thickened. Soon it would be so silent out, one would believe oneself entirely alone in the universe. The road would remain empty, isolated, and without movement but for the occasional elk crossing its expanse on a journey through the night time forest. This was perfection. Silence and isolation.
After the life she had, she desired nothing else.
This was a place and time in which to recuperate. People drained one of energy.
Finishing the dishes, she set two lanterns alight and carried one to her desk in the living room, leaving the other in the kitchen window. Setting it to one side, she drew her laptop closer, flipped the lid, and called up her work in progress. She enjoyed the rustic lifestyle, but her laptop was her mainstay of technology.
This book was taking a bit longer than the others did. She found that the wildlife offered greater distraction these days than her mind usually conjured.
Still, she had to eat.
It was a few small edits from finished. She started typing.
“STOP!” SHAUN SCREAMED, and Ben slammed on the brakes, nearly wrenching his head from his shoulders.
“What the fuck, man?” Jack demanded, craning around to the back. He’d earlier clambered into the front passenger seat, almost causing a goddamn calamity when his elbow ‘accidentally’ hit Ben in the jaw.
“I saw a light,” Shaun mumbled sheepishly.
Ben drew in a breath. Not this again. Some unsuspecting household was about to be robbed. “No one lives out here,” he said. “This is a waste of time.”
Jack eyed him. “You’re going soft, bro. We may have to teach you a lesson, toughen you up a bit.” He eyed Shaun next. “Where’d you see it?”
“Up a ways.” Shaun jerked a meaty thumb over his shoulder.
“Back up, Ben,” Jack ordered. “This isolated, maybe they got gas tanks out back, in case.”
Yeah, the idiots didn’t think it out too well. Not that they ever did. So they robbed the register, got a few dollars, but paper didn’t create gas, did it? They should’ve filled the tank before leaving Legget behind and instead they now raced along a dark road as empty as the tank would soon be.
These two assholes hadn’t yet realised he deliberately drove north into the highlands, knowing there was little to be had along the way. He intended to engineer his walk away. He’d had enough of them and didn’t want to land up behind bars for theft or worse. All three of them on foot? He’d leave them behind within minutes.
Ben backed up, and there it was, a light.
A lantern in a cottage window.
Blinking, he stared at it. It called to him, like the proverbial lamp in the storm.
His heart thundered into rapid motion.
He didn’t like this.
This felt wrong. Something here was not as it seemed.
“Developing a conscience, bud?” Jack punched him on the arm, hard.
“Fuck off,” Ben said, bringing the car to a halt.
ALAYNA LIFTED HER head, swiping dark blonde strands of hair from her face. Did a car just stop outside?
Standing, she lifted the lantern on her desk. Maybe a traveler was in some kind of trouble.
The lamp slid from her grasp when three young men hurtled through the front door, which shattered on impact and instantly flames licked at the ancient rug.
“Fuck! Stupid bitch!” Stamping the blaze roughly out, the vocal one of the three snapped out, “You alone?”
Of course she was. To claim she wasn’t would simply reveal she was a liar and that was potentially worse for her. “I’m alone. May I help you? Would you boys like something to eat?”
“Yeah,” said the fat one, grinning.
“Shut up, Shaun!” The thin, dirty one, glared over his shoulder and then crowded into her personal space. “You got any gas?”
Ah. She understood the situation in a heartbeat. “There’s some in the shed out back, yes.”
“Shaun, go!” Scrawny screeched.
The final young man in the trio, she noted, hadn’t moved a muscle since entering. After watching his buddy snuff the flames, he had glanced into the kitchen, to the other lantern, and then remained motionless. It was the strangest thing; his face was perfectly composed, as if nothing disturbed his inner self.
Was that serenity, she wondered, or the face of a psychopath? Why was she thinking this now? Clearly they were here to cause harm and whatever he was inside had little bearing.
Now he did move, and she discovered she was holding her breath. As Shaun shoved past him into the night, muttering about always getting the shit end of the stick, he stepped aside with barely veiled dislike.
Clearly, then, not so serene.
The skinny fellow looked her up and down insolently. “You’re a little old for me, under normal circumstances, but you could still keep a man warm, s’pose. What you? Like forty or something?”
Dread crawled across her skin as bumps of puckered flesh. Her gaze flicked to the silent one, somehow drawn there. Her blood ran cold when she read the expression on his face. No, not his face. That remained carefully schooled. It was in his eyes … incredible eyes, dear God. This boy was about to commit murder. And she wasn’t his victim.
“You will regret it,” she said then, feeling she needed to warn him of the dangers to his soul.
His green gaze shifted to her and seemed to pierce her soul. “I don’t think so,” he replied. There was no emotion in his voice either.
“What the fuck …” the scrawny one muttered. “Ben, fucking get her and hold her, I’m getting fucking hard here, man.”
Ben inclined his head. “Sure, Jack.”
He approached as Jack unzipped his filthy jeans. As he drew abreast, he snatched Jack into a head lock.
“Worm!” he spat.
Jack struggled, gasping for air, arms flailing uselessly. Clearly Jack wasn’t a fighter. He was all air and sound.
“Behind you!” Alayna gasped, noticing fat Shaun’s shadow in the doorway.
Ben whirled, putting his back to her, still holding a wheezing Jack. “Back off, Shaun.”
“What you doing, man?”
No one was now looking at her. She stepped back unobtrusively until she felt the rifle stock under her fingers. Gripping it, she swung it around, holding it aloft. As she did so, Shaun barreled towards the other two, screaming obscenities at the top of his voice.
Alayna pulled the trigger.
The fat boy hurtled backwards and toppled through the door. A gurgle sounded and then … nothing. She didn’t see where the bullet made impact, it happened that fast.
An audible crack of snapping bone came next and she shifted her gaze to the other two, in time to see and hear the gaunt one hit the wooden floor, his neck at an odd angle.
That had taken both strength and determination.
Perhaps pure desperation.
Utter silence enveloped the small space.
And then Ben said, “I’ll remove the evidence, and then be on my way. You might have to scrub the deck outside after I’m gone.”
Alayna nodded. It was as much as she could manage at that point.
His gaze again stripped her soul naked, before he bent and hooked his hands under Jack’s arms and dragged him out. A car door slammed soon after.
The sound of a heavier body slithering with difficulty along her garden path sounded, and then a door banged again.
Moments later Ben darkened her doorway. There was no expression on his face. “Lock up. Oh, and put a fresh round in that chamber.”
He touched his forehead and was gone. An engine roared to life outside and tires screeched on the slippery surface.
The sound vanished into the distance, heading south.
Tuesday, September 27, 2022
Monday, September 26, 2022
Fire spews and ice follows. The world Drakonis is near death and all life has fled. Except for Brennan, the thief who hears mysterious directions to Castle Drakon on the wind, and brothers Bastian and Cole, who choose to follow her. Then there’s Halley, an exotic dancer from the burning cities, and Audri, who refuses to speak.
These five are the last and it is their task to ensure at least memory remains, or Drakonis will be eternally forgotten. To ensure this, they must find Castle Drakon.
In a grotto under the ice they discover three others alive and before the warmth of a fire hear of a mighty legend. Unravelling its mysteries could lead to a way off a dying world. An ancient light will illuminate their path.
Fire in the Grotto
The flames are bright, because here it is safe; here no light is able to escape to reveal us.
The fire is hot, and we are glad of it; most of us have been cold too long, most of us cannot now remember ever being warm.
We ran from fire, yes, into ice, but it feels as if that heat was a lifetime ago. We cannot recall a full stomach either or remember when last we drank of fresh water.
I reach my hands for the flames and for a moment I believe I can hold them and set them alight inside me. I am weary of cold. I am terribly weary of running.
This is why I am here.
I hope, now, with the end approaching, I may stop running. Although it may be that we dupe ourselves only with what hope is left, in this desire I am not alone.
Opposite the fire there is Bastian; his head is bowed, his dark hair filthy, obscuring his face. We have now run together, but we also met before, once, in our old lives.
Next to him is Cole, also dark-haired, almost asleep due to the unaccustomed sense of release and comfort.
They are brothers, but very different I think, despite similar appearance. I know Cole better; we have sprinted rooftops in that other life. I know he misses it as much as I do.
Crouched apart from us, fingers white around clumps of old straw - which is what we’re sitting on - there’s Halley, a dancer from a distant city … at least, this is what she claims. None of us have seen her dance. She appears the most frightened by our gathering; she does not trust easily. It will take years to undo her natural distrust.
Do any of us retain belief in these times, truth be told? Halley, particularly, is ever skittish, though. Her past weighs heavily on her. She is the most exotic of all of us, with curled golden locks, caramel skin, and the darkest eyes I have even seen. I like her and I think Cole does too, although his is a different kind of like.
And then there is Audri. Pale and fair and graceful; she looks like the dancer among us. No one has heard Audri speak. We do not know if she cannot or whether silence is a choice she made or was forced into some time in her past. She stares into the fire unafraid. As ever, she is self-possessed
I think she feels me looking, for she lifts her green gaze to me, and smiles. I want to embrace her, for that smile tells me we made the right choice.
We have run far, from fire and death into this terrible cold, holding onto only hope, and here, if for a brief time, we may sit and experience the warmth of a comforting fire. This little blaze has not the power to destroy.
An instant later I wonder how far we would go to keep this respite inviolate. It is a respite only, whatever we choose to fool ourselves with.
Bastian would kill for it, I know; he is the oldest and has run the longest, and seeks to protect his brother Cole.
Me? I would back him up and wield whatever weapon is to hand.
In this I am no doubt a fool, but I am weary of running.
The grotto is deep below the surface of this ice-ridden plain.
Bastian found the entrance in the rubble underneath the cliffs that mark the start of the highlands. Already on the edge of life for months, we drew from the reserves that come only with desperation, and crawled in after him. We shuffled for hours, one behind the other, in absolute darkness, until flickers of amber light revealed we had not imagined the summons or directions, that trust was not misplaced.
All of us are adorned with ragged knees and shins, torn palms and broken nails, but we are also so dirty and tatty you cannot distinguish fresh wounds from old.
After an hour of sitting, an hour of heat, we wonder if trust led us right. Nothing moves other than the flames, and there are no sounds of occupation … and yet someone built this fire.
Bastian looks up at me, a question in his blue eyes. I wish we lived in a different time, for I want to lay my hands upon his cheeks and tell him not to worry. I, after all, led them across the plain. My words brought us here.
“Ah, I see you have thawed somewhat.”
A man enters from the shadows behind Bastian and Cole - the brothers’ jerk around - his movements slow and careful. He seeks to put us at ease, I realise. His hands are displayed as empty, a gesture of peace.
He is old, very old. Wrinkled, barely any hair, and what he has left is pure white. He wears a black robe, a frayed length of rope knotted around his middle. Pouches hang from it. There is a rustle from one as he moves, and another tinkles slightly.
His feet are bare and he has no beard. I am glad of it; a beard would be too much stereotype. I have seen his kind crouched on street corners in the cities, begging for alms, ignored. This old man is no tramp, though; there is an air of confidence about him.
He cannot survive a climb into the highlands, I think. When we leave here, we leave behind a skeleton, for he will not survive the fate of Drakonis much longer.
We all stare at him as he walks around the fire to come to a halt beside me. A hand descends to my head and rests there.
“Welcome, Brennan, and thank you for bringing your friends.”
I cannot react; I am paralysed by that touch. The last time someone touched me to impart only comfort is now almost lost to memory. I am undone by the pathos.
Bastian reacts swiftly. He hurtles to his feet. His eyes seem to flash in the dancing amber light. “We heard the summons and we listened to Brennan, but blind belief may have led us astray. Who are you, old man?”
“Bastian, all your questions will receive answer. Please sit. You are safe here.”
Cole reaches up and hauls his brother down. “We trust Brennan, brother. Relax.”
“You trust her.”
“And you trust me, right? Give it a chance.”
Cole and Bastian trade stares for a while until Bastian eventually nods and looks away.
That hand is still on my head. It smooths my hair with careful strokes and then it is removed. I feel … bereft. I look up to see pale eyes twinkling at me, and I smile. Perhaps it is all right. I hope with all my heart blind trust has not led me astray. How do I answer to that? If I came alone it would be my mistake, and I would have to live with it, but I am not alone, am I?
“Who are you?” I ask. My voice is hoarse.
The old man settles into the empty space beside me, hands resting on knees. A pouch thunks into the straw. There is something heavy in there.
“I am Winter.” He smiles and waves a hand. “Not my real name, but I’ve forgotten in the long march of years what my mother called me. Someone called me ‘Winter’ in jest as a lad, and it stuck. Some now believe it’s because I love the feel of a decent fire.”
“Which means you must be cold,” Bastian mutters. He does not mean cold of body.
Winter smiles and chooses to take the comment as meaning his flesh. “I am, yes, all the time. This here is a cold land, young man. We are far north of the equator and it was cold even before the fires began in the south. I now believe fate gave to me this epitaph of ‘Winter’, for I am destined to live out my final hours under this ice field. We go together, a final symbiosis.”
“Why are we here?” Cole demands, ignoring the old man’s explanations.
He does not do so out of disrespect; he simply understands we have run out of time.
“You are here to know yourselves before your end march. Your time has come.”
At least, these are the ones I have covers (images) for! These covers may still change ... probably will, but right now they serve to get me writing. At this stage. Tesserae is probably closest to the finish line, with Mark of the Kalion and Circles of Civilisation next, but who knows? The bug might bite for one of the others ... 🌟
Sunday, September 25, 2022
Tomorrow she will go on with her life …
It’s a hot day in Cape Town but a woman holds the vigil at a window overlooking the beach. She has repeatedly dreamed of a sailing boat, a lost soul perhaps, entering upon silver streaks on the water. Is this merely dreaming or, as she believes, a vision?
She will watch, she will give it this one day and night, and then go on with her life, and waiting with her is Barney, her beloved dog, and Fantasy, her snooty cat. Man, a girl and her fur babies get hungry while waiting for something to happen, and yet her instincts keep her there … watching … waiting …
Lattice 3 from Latticework: 14 Lattices from Space and Time
SHE LEANS ON her elbow, chin in hand, and stares out over the bay. The sun is bright on the water and the sun worshippers are out in full force on the narrow strip of beach, their colourful umbrellas and sunshades drawing the eye.
Bronzed bodies languish amid reddening skins. She, however, is uninterested in people silly enough to burn to crisps in such heat; she watches the water intently, staring through the hot silver stripes upon the waves.
Twice now she has dreamed of the yacht and both times the images were so real she can no longer ignore it. She sees sails dancing upon a beam and with it there is a feeling of sadness. Such sadness that she is in tears when she awakes.
She will look and watch until she either dies of eyestrain or something happens to prove her night visits are more than dreams. Or, she thinks in amusement, she will die of starvation, just sitting here.
The screams of frolicking kids rise up to reach out to her through closed windows, but she barely hears them. The drone of a jumbo jet overheard faintly rattles the glass and is then gone. The subdued sounds of slow traffic vying for right of way along the crowded street do not even register, and neither does the periodically jarring siren of an angry driver leaning on the hooter. Her mind is engaged in the soothing notes of Mozart at his absolute best.
Barney snuffles at her feet, gives a loud moan and thumps his tail resoundingly upon the wooden floor, and then sees that his mistress is not about to budge yet. He releases an exaggerated yawn and sinks to the floor with a long-suffering sigh. The great big fur ball is asleep in seconds. Lucky sod.
She leans down to scratch him behind his ears and then props her chin up once more, all without taking her eyes from the water. At least Barney adores Mozart too.
Alex did not. Alex thought loud rap was music, the louder the better, and scoffed at her love of classical music. She kicked him out eventually, more because of his musical tastes and his love of inflicting it on others, than for any other reason.
He was a distraction for a while, but not enough to warrant putting up with that noise. The peace after his railing mode of departure was worth billions. And Barney hated Alex; what more proof did a girl need? Barney, for heaven’s sake, puts up with Fantasy, her I’ll-take-you-on-hell-on-four-paws Himalayan cat. That is saying something for Barney’s nerves.
Mozart delves into his famous clarinet concerto and she feels her body relax. Out of Africa indeed. That is African sun out there, although in cosmopolitan surroundings.
Cape Town on a hot day. Sun worshippers and cell phones, bling and gourmet treats. It could be the French Riviera, for pity’s sake. Karen Blixen would turn in her grave, for certain. Karen Blixen probably never dreamed of a modern sailing yacht.
We should all do the best we can with what is given us,
so that one day we too can look back and say,
‘I lived a good life’.
At the End is an insight taken from FingerNale Tales and tells the story of a woman looking back over the years of her life.
I NEVER THOUGHT I would get old. It comes as a surprise to sit here at age ninety. Really it does. This, for me, is merely a number, for I do not feel nine decades old and, despite those sets of ten and the various injuries sustained over their progression, my body tells me it is a lie.
Is my mind as sharp as I believe? You be the judge of that. Base it on these ruminations, perhaps.
Let us see. I remember being lowered headfirst over the font in church and having water sprinkled upon my head. My mother in later years told me I was three weeks old.
The time I skinned both my knees after slipping on wet paving - I was eighteen months, and put up quite a racket. Another tumble, this time from my tricycle - two and a half years old. First day at school. High school. First boyfriend. Tenth boyfriend - he was the one I married, at age twenty-two, bless his now departed soul.
I recall every birth also, four of them, two boys and two girls, although I doubt a mother ever forgets, no matter how old she is, no matter how old her children are either. Unless you are unable to remember.
This is not a maudlin trip down memory lane, though, and I am not about to discuss those diseases that befall some of the aged (and sometimes much earlier than old age). My point is, I do remember all of it, and I believe my mind is as sharp now as it was when I juggled job and studies.
Do you agree?
Saturday, September 24, 2022
You will have noticed I'm posting chapters 1 from my books (TINSAL and ILFIN so far), and here's 3 more. As these are excerpts from shorter stories, some are parts, other full chapters. Enjoy!
Alyria is sleepless in humidity, her thoughts in turmoil. Going to her studio to paint, she discovers that someone has broken in and stolen her art, and the thief may still be in the house. Brandishing a paintbrush as weapon, she prepares to defend herself …
Somewhere in the South
Heaving out a cross between a growl and a sigh, she kicked the thin sheet serving as covering – covered only because one had to hide from mosquitoes in this sticky weather – and padded barefooted to the bathroom.
Faint glows from the streetlight further along meant she wouldn’t stub her toe on something unseen. Jenna, her housemate, tended to drop stuff as she dashed about, and left whatever it was exactly where it fell.
Allowing darkness to cool her, without much success, she tinkled into the bowl, leaving the door open. Summer needed to surrender to autumn soon; this humidity drove her insane. A storm to release the expectant energy in the air would be most welcome, too.
Snorting as she washed her hands after, she became aware of the fact that her mind had now calmed into a rolling pattern. Mostly about the weather. Even wishes for snow, as if that was likely here.
Funny that. Trying to relax, her thoughts went all carnival freak show on her, but awake and on the move, everything settled. It bloody should be the other way around, but then her whole life worked inside-out, so why expect a smidgeon of normality as due to her?
Moving along the dim passage to the kitchen Jenna invariably left in a mess, the urge to paint overcame her. Despite her raging thirst, she knew if she ignored the prompting she’d definitely regret it in the morning. These days the compulsion came rarely; time to use it or lose it again.
A few weeks back, preparing for a job interview, she ignored the urge in favor of preparation – bloody needed that job – and later that evening stood before her easel with no insight at all.
Yeah, she got the job – doing layout at a local printer – but it merely paid bills. It certainly did not challenge her. She knew her way around the software and was hired because of that, not for any artistic input. It bored her into numbness.
Art was her life, her passion. Emphasis, though, needed to go on the ‘was’. Art was her life. After catching Cole in bed with Jenna’s cousin, everything that made her, Alyria Marn, the person she grew up to be, vanished.
Harry leads a solitary existence, tending bar because it allows him to interact with people without becoming involved. His life isn’t a normal one, after all.
When the woman perfectly dressed and groomed takes a seat in the shadows and asks for wine, something about her calls to him. He answers that summons and it changes everything, for they have something extraordinary in common.
His dreams, and hers, will never be the same again.
GIVING THE GLASS a final swirling polish, Harry studied the brunette seated near the end of the counter, where the shadows hid her somewhat from general view.
Lifting the vessel, he checked for marks. Beer guzzlers didn’t worry much about fingerprint smears on their robust glasses, but wine drinkers were finicky. And, by the looks of the woman - perfectly groomed - she’d definitely take offense to a less than shiny goblet.
Grabbing the house white and holding the glass in its polishing cloth, Harry ambled to the curved end of his domain. She wanted to see the bottle before accepting the wine, so he chose the more upmarket one, not the cheaper plonk generally on offer.
She barely glanced at him when he presented the opened wine - fortunately this one came corked and she’d know that from the bottle’s neck - but did study the wine glass for a few beats, before nodding.
He poured the obligatory taste test volume, but she waved a manicured hand in dismissal, and thus he filled her shiny vessel. Technically he poured into a red receptacle, but she’d asked for a large white, emphasis on large. His boss wouldn’t mind; fact was, if she didn’t finish the bottle, it would go to waste. Well, it wouldn’t really, because he, Harry, would take it home at the end of his shift, but as a sale it would go to waste. Few ordered wine in this place, and those that did opted for the cheap stuff.
Having done his duty, Harry retreated. Glancing over his shoulder as he moved away, he noticed how the woman stared at the golden liquid.
Uh-oh. A potential alcoholic about to fall off the wagon? In her case it was tripping from a chariot, but the result would be the same.
He swung back, swiftly setting the opened wine down on the counter. His sister had fallen a few times and each time she reached out for help again, the standing up had been harder for her to achieve.
His duty was not only serving customers; he was here to discern who could and who should not drink. His empathy and his keen eye was the reason he’d held this job so long. His boss told him that, and he knew it as a facet of his inner self as well. Many thought little of his bartending - especially his sister - and yet he found it fulfilling. In this shadowy place he encountered personalities from all walks of life, and had, years ago, discovered that each had something to teach him.
Without a doubt, he knew people.
He knew how to listen.
“Ma’am,” he said as he stopped opposite the woman.
She ignored him to continue staring at her fermented brew, leaving him with no opening in which to move forward. Not a talker, then. Most patrons loved the sound of their own voices, but not this one.
“Perhaps a water is more to your liking?” he offered, thereby obliquely making reference to her potential chariot status.
Her long eyelashes fluttered up and blue yes speared him. Contrary to his expectation, amusement lurked there, borne out when her mouth lifted at one corner.
“Thank you for your concern, but I am not in trouble,” she murmured.
By God, she had a voice able to churn the guts of even a gay man. Husky, gravelly, filled with nuance, super sexy. Her voice was the lie to her appearance. On the outside, every dark hair was in place -a bob cut - and every crease of her formal suit was in its ironed position, but on the inside, man, on the inside she was something else entirely.
Harry inclined his head. “I’ll leave you to it, then. My apologies.”
As he moved away once more, she lifted her wine, and sipped. For some reason that subtle slurp, barely audible, set his hands to shaking.
Hauling in a self-admonishing breath, he glanced around the bar. On a Tuesday it was usually quiet, and now, with forty-five minutes to closing, only two men sat over beers at a far table. Those two were regulars; they’d up and leave once their drinks were consumed. He knew they never drank more than three each, and both were on their third.
No one needed him right now.
Harry turned back to the woman.
“Folk tell me I’m a good listener,” he said.
He’d used that line many times and it usually worked. Truthfully, many came in here not to just drink their problems away; some simply wished someone would hear them, and therefore started talking when he offered a willing ear. It was also true that sometimes they didn’t know when to shut the hell up, but he suspected this woman wasn’t one of those.
She proved it when she lifted one perfect eyebrow. “Does that work for you?”
He grinned. “Usually.”
“Curiosity gets you into trouble,” she murmured.
“And occasionally curiosity can get you out of trouble, too,” he rebutted.
She inclined her head but said no more.
Harry leaned forearms on counter to narrow the space between them. “Let me guess; you’re in finance or you’re connected to the law. Either someone’s crooking the books or you have a difficult case.”
Sipping, she shook her head, amusement climbing into her gaze once more. Setting the glass down with exaggerated care, she offered, “You shouldn’t judge a woman by what she wears.”
Interesting. Women generally dressed according to that kind of judgement. They sought to make a clear impression with what appearance was able to sell.
“Someone needed to believe what it is you project?”
“Bingo,” she said, almost inaudibly.
Again she sipped her elixir first. “Neither. You’re fishing and I am in no mood for guessing games.”
Harry straightened. He was being boorish. Curiosity wasn’t part of his job description, and it certainly wasn’t in his nature to force something from someone unwilling to share.
“I’m sorry. Enjoy you wine.”
Moving off, he inwardly berated himself, because, this once, he had to admit he was curious. He wanted to know her story. Mostly, he desired to hear her speak. Her voice was something else, did things do his innards.
“I filed my Will today,” he heard from behind him, and her statement was utterly devoid of all emotion.
Inhaling, Harry casually turned. “Will? As in Last and Testament?”
She nodded, staring into her golden elixir. She’d barely touched it, despite requesting the large glass. “The law firm needed to see me as a woman with a long life ahead of her, an affluent one simply dotting an i and crossing a t.”
He closed in carefully, afraid to spook her. “But you’re not?”
Smirking, she lifted her glass and gulped down a huge mouthful. Once she had swallowed, she said, “I’m affluent, make no mistake. It’s the long life that may be an issue.”
The manner in which she stated it caused a shiver to run throughout his body. “Are you ill?”
Pressing her hands flat on the counter - he noticed how her skin there lost all colour, as if she forced all her strength into the action - she stood. “Forgive me. This has nothing to do with you. I don’t know why I said anything.” She reached for her purse.
“Told you I’m a good listener,” he said quickly, giving her a cheeky smile. “Consider me your confessor. I have no other business tonight.”
That was true. The two regulars were waving their way out as he said it. All he still needed to do before heading home to his lonely cottage was to wash the final glasses, tally the night’s takings - a matter of five minutes - and lock up.
He found himself praying that she’d stay, that she’d talk to him.
A caregiver acts as confessor to an infamous patient.
Emma Reed is Ward Sister at a frail care centre. When Celeste Harwood is admitted, she is suspicious of the woman’s motives. Has Celeste come to hide from the world? If so, that is not right; her bed is needed for someone deserving.
When Emma sees how wary the nurses are of Miss Harwood, she understands something else is at work. Her doctor arrives and tells a tale of murder, of a woman about to suffer a terrible death, and Emma’s curiosity is aroused.
Fortunately, Celeste wants to share her story …
AS THE MORNING chorus of birds sounded, before proper light had arrived to herald the new day, Emma, in her small kitchen, already sipped her coffee.
Her shift was seven to seven for the next three days, as ward sister at the local frail care centre, and that meant long hours on her feet, and early mornings out of bed. Luckily, she was an early riser anyway. The progression into Spring made it more bearable also, as by the day the days grew longer, and light now accompanied her to work.
After finishing her black brew - instant because she had no time for filtering - she rinsed her mug, grabbed her lunch box filled with healthy snacks, checked that her phone and sunglasses were in her bag, found her car keys, and headed out, locking her flat’s door behind her.
No-nonsense shoes barely made a sound on the threadbare carpeting in the corridor as she strode swiftly for the block’s main exit. No doorman here, not even a buzz-in system; the door was never locked, a state most residents bemoaned, given their rundown neighbourhood. That, however, was not her present worry.
In the grey light, Emma went to her small car, glancing around to see the parking spaces of their dedicated lot all filled. Most only left for work in about two hours, and she had to admit she preferred the silence as it was now. No need to greet folk; no need to interact with anyone.
The streets, though, were not as quiet. Shift workers were going on and coming off duty, and trucks and vans were already about the day’s deliveries. Busses ran also, although not yet as full as their later counterparts would be.
Twenty-three minutes later she pulled into the centre’s parking lot. In rush hour traffic it would take more than an hour, another reason she preferred the early hour.
She noticed the younger nurses arrive, as well as two doctors. No one called greeting, moving instead with purpose to relieve the night shift.
The first sunbeam hit the windows as she strode up the ramp to the staff entrance, creating on the two-storey building multiple mirrors. Averting her gaze, Emma entered. The patients would soon be awake.
AROUND 9:30 A.M. the bustle of breakfast, medication and rounds finally died down enough for Emma to pay attention to her list of new patients, those arriving later in the day. Part of her duty was to see them settled.
Three longer term ‘residents’ had died during the night before last, and thus were three places available, and would be filled today. A list of those seeking final care before passing on was consulted every time a death occurred, and beds were allocated according to need.
One, she saw, was a cancer patient, a man in his seventies. Another was a teenage girl on life support after a car accident; her parents had not yet found the courage to let her go and her bed in the hospital was needed for other patients. The third was a woman in her late thirties with a degenerative disease …
Emma frowned over the notes accompanying that patient’s identity. She could find nothing on the woman’s condition, only that she had been waiting three months for a frail care bed, signed off by various doctors as necessary, no recovery likely.
“Hannah, do you know more about this woman?” she asked the older nurse at the station with her.
Hannah peered over her shoulder. “Harwood? Nay, love. Guess we’ll soon find out. I’m off for coffee and a sandwich. Want something?”
Emma smiled her appreciation. “Tea, if you don’t mind.”
“Back soon.” Hannah winked, and left.
Sighing, Emma withdrew her lunch box to nibble on an energy bar.
PUNCTUALLY AT 1 P.M. the first ambulance arrived, bearing Mr Rivers, the cancer patient.
Despite his obviously weakened condition, he was in good spirits. “Call me Pete,” he told everybody, and, as he wheeled down the passage to his final bed, Emma already knew Pete would be a favourite.
It also meant his death would hit the staff hard.
1:30 saw the arrival of the teenager, a beautiful girl with blond hair and unblemished skin utterly unmoving on the trolley leaving the ambulance. Emma swallowed on seeing her; the girl - Cathy - had already moved on. What remained now to transfer to the bed she would inhabit until her parents signed the consent forms that allowed her to go was only a vessel.
Silence accompanied the teenager to her room. Many nurses suspiciously blinked. Yes, it was harder when the young came here to die.
AT TWO, MISS Celeste Harwood entered the precincts of the frail care centre, and her arrival instantly created unease.
In a wheelchair pushed by one of the paramedics, she sat bolt upright, her every hair in place, her makeup flawless. With red hair cut short, sleek curls hugged the woman’s thin face, and pink blush lent her cheeks the guise of health, and coral lipstick her lips a robust appearance. She wore a colourful robe, shimmering silk, with matching slippers on her feet. This wasn’t hospital garb, but it was bedwear, if of the kind one found in the boudoirs popular in historical romance novels.
Emma noticed that the paramedic seemed uncomfortable, handing his charge over with haste and few words. Hannah, who accepted the paperwork, glanced down, then looked up swiftly to gape at the woman as if she could not believe her eyes.
“It’s Miss Celeste,” a young nurse whispered to the other beside her.
Someone famous, Emma reasoned, and moved to put all speculation to bed. “Let us get Miss Harwood to her room,” she stated, snapping her fingers when the nurses were tardy in their response.
Not one to read gossip-type magazines and hardly ever on social media, Emma had no idea who the woman now in their care was and did not care either. Rich, poor, famous or not, here it was about the final days, not about personalities and celebrities.
The woman’s large green eyes swung to Emma, to study her in some amusement, but her expression was otherwise neutral. She allowed the nurses to wheel her away without saying a word. As she disappeared, Hannah approached, her mouth already open to spill the gossip.
“Not now,” Emma frowned. “I need to have a word with her doctor.”
Hannah’s lips glued shut briefly, but then she whispered, because she could not help herself, “That’s Miss Celeste, the Seer.”