Tales of the Graveyard Shift: The Greasy Goblin ~~ Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Thirteen

I’d finished shaking by the time I made it back to my brother’s office. If it was from rage, fear, or both, I wasn’t sure. So, I took a moment to compose myself before I knocked. The muffled voices on the other side of the door went quiet. When it opened, my brother was in the doorway, blocking the rest of the room from my view. He didn’t look too terribly happy with me, if the stony expression and clenched jaw were any indication.

Well, you did make his wife cry, Rational Brain said.

“I, uh, came to apologize,” I said lamely.

He didn’t move, just regarded me with his best, ‘I’m disappointed in you,’ brother face. Ouch. He’d gone for the big guns.

“Joel,” Candy admonished softly, “let her in.”

It was another, long moment before he obliged, his eyes narrowing on me, telling me to behave, or else. Then he opened the door wide enough for me to enter the room. I shuffled in, my head down and my hands in my pockets. Once I’d come inside enough for Joel to close the door, I stopped, keeping as much distance between the couch and me. My brother walked over to join her there.

I took a deep breath, and brought my gaze up to meet Candy’s. Adding another point to the unfair category, she was pretty even when she cried. Her bright eyes were wet, and the tip of her nose was ever so slightly pink, but other than that she was still her usual, pristine self. When I cried, I went full-on ugly mode: blotchy skin, red eyes, snot, stuffy nose. The works.

“I need to apologize to you,” I said. My words were soft, and burning with shame that also reddened my cheeks and the tips of my ears.

Joel muttered something under his breath that sounded like, “You’re damn right you do.” Candy elbowed him in the side, and sent a glare his way. It contained no heat, but the message there was, ‘Shut up.’

When she turned back to me, we exchanged small, commiserating smiles about my brother. I straightened and cleared my throat, now that it wasn’t likely I’d alienated my sister-in-law for all eternity. Which was likely literal for her.

“I won’t try to make excuses about being in shock, and I could have handled that a lot better. I just want you to know my feelings about you and the children haven’t changed.” I paused, thinking of ‘Uncle Dizzy,’ and his threats. Something in my mind hardened, and I did my best not to clench my teeth. “And I’ll do anything I can to make sure you don’t have anything to worry about from me.”

Something must have shown on my face, because Candy tilted her head, and a small line formed between her eyebrows when she frowned. She opened her mouth to say something, but my brother covered her hands with his.

“Dear, I think we’ve both been away from the children far too long. It’s Jason’s birthday, and I don’t want to be stuck up here longer than necessary. Would you mind going down, so he doesn’t think we’ve abandoned him?” Joel said, his face softening as he spoke.

Candy and I knew what it was, though: he was trying to speak with me without her there. She narrowed her eyes, and gave him a long, assessing look. Whatever silent communication went on, it wasn’t long before she pursed her lips then rose from the couch. I thought she was going to the door to leave, but instead she made a beeline for me, and embraced me in a completely unexpected hug.

“Thank you,” she whispered, holding me close.

We will not cry, Rational Brain said, voice thick.

Primal Brain just blubbered.

“Of course; you’re family,” I said, the words hoarse.

She pulled back, and gave me a watery smile before looking back over her shoulder at Joel.

“You owe me,” she said, smug satisfaction coating her words like the most delectable chocolate.

When she turned back to me, she winked, and left the room. Once the door closed with a soft click, I turned to Joel and raised an eyebrow.

He rubbed the back of his neck and refused to look at me. “When we got married, we might have placed a bet on the hypothetical scenario that, if you ever found out, whether or not you’d accept her and us.”

My mouth dropped open. “And you-you bet against me?” I asked, incredulous.

He shrugged, and chuckled sheepishly. “You aren’t the most tolerant person, Stumblebum.”

I snorted. “That’s beside the point. You’re my brother. We’re supposed to have each other’s backs through thick and thin, and we aren’t supposed to bet against each other with other people. It’s against the rules!” I growled, putting my hands on my hips.

He chuckled and shook his head, and then finally looked up at me. “Against the rules, huh? I’ll keep that in mind.” As the laughter died on his lips, his expression sobered.

“What happened downstairs?” he asked, leveling his best lawyer eyes my way, willing me to tell him everything.

My gut cramped, and I sucked in a small breath between my teeth that hissed.

“I met Dezanoth,” I said, forgoing the children’s nickname for him. As much as I wanted to downplay the threat in my own mind as far as my personal safety went, I needed Joel to be a little more cautious.

At the demon’s name, he grimaced. “Dezanoth doesn’t have a very high opinion of humans in general, much less an upstart like me who married one.” He took in my grimace and sighed. “And I supposed you were your usual charming self?”

I chuckled weakly and raised my hands, palm up, and shrugged. “Guilty as charged.”

Joel groaned, and put his face in his hands. “It’s shocking that something hasn’t murdered and eaten you yet.”

I made my way over to the couch and sat on the other end from him. At the couch’s movement, he looked up at me with a pained expression.

“What am I going to do with you?” he asked.

“Help me not get murdered and eaten?” I guessed.

He scoffed. “I don’t take hopeless cases; you know that.”

I rolled my eyes.

“Speaking of cases,” he said, his tone going from brotherly to lawyer, “I heard you cleared Celinwel of Stribs’ murder?”

I blew out a sigh. “Yeah, which means I’m back to square one.” Then a stray thought wandered through my brain. “You don’t think the goblins will let me off the hook, do you? I may not have proved it was Celinwel, but I did prove it wasn’t her. Does that count in some roundabout way as fulfilling the bargain?”

“I doubt it,” he said, and shook his head. “You can try to use that logic on them, but I don’t think Gozuk will let you off the hook until Stribs’ killer is caught.”

I slumped back into the cushions. “And here I was hoping that’d be the end of it, and that I’d get my apartment back.” I sighed.

“Get your apartment back? What do you mean?” he asked, eyes narrowing. “They didn’t in some way cause you to get evicted to hold that over your head, did they?”

“Aw, I’m touched at your concern,” I said, and put a hand to my chest.

He scoffed. “As if. I just didn’t want to deal with you moving in here.”

“Hah! I could just move in with mom and dad,” I said. Our eyes met for a moment, and we both shuddered at the thought. “Okay, so I’d rather live in your kids’ treehouse than move back in with our parents, but, no. They didn’t threaten to evict me, or anything that convoluted. They sent a goblin to stay with me, and keep an eye on me, I guess.” I shrugged.

“Which goblin?” he asked, curious.

“Slies.”

He relaxed visibly at this. “Slies is a decent enough guy. More easy-going and willing to speak on-level with humans than most other goblins. At least it wasn’t Brikt.”

I let out a surprise burst of laughter that devolved into giggles when I tried to picture the wall of muscle trying to fit on my futon. I waved off Joel’s questioning look, and got myself under control.

“At any rate, Dezanoth and Gozuk basically threatened me with the same thing should I fail: you.”

Joel’s eyebrow’s shot up to his hairline. “Me?” Then after a beat, he shook his head. “I guess for most normal people that kind of threat would make sense. Obviously, they don’t know us very well.”

“Yeah, though Dezanoth added a bit of spice to his, threatening the continued well-being of Candy and the children,” I said.

Joel’s humor vanished. His eyes hardened at my words and his mouth formed a thin line. “He did, did he?”

I bit my lip, but gave him a small nod.

Joel’s smile in response was more feral than friendly, and I didn’t want to be Dezanoth the next time the two were in the same room without any witnesses. After a moment or two, where I’m sure visions of murder were dancing in my brother’s head, he spoke again.

“Obviously I haven’t been able to make any calls for you, since I was consoling my distraught wife,” he said, giving me the side eye. He ignored my subsequent grimace and continued; “But I can say that The Owner contacted my law firm about the steps he needed to take to prove someone was stealing from him.”

I perked up at this, sitting up straight. “Oh? Someone’s stealing from him? Does he know who?”

“No,” Joel said.

I sighed, and slumped back down.

“However,” he said, ignoring my theatrics, “he did say he thought it was Stribs, and likely Celinwel, too, since they were thick as, well, thieves.”

I pondered that for a moment. “Well, we’ll be able to find out soon enough, since he’s dead and she quit.” I turned my head to look him in the eyes. “You don’t think The Owner killed him, do you? And why does it sound like you guys say The Owner as though that’s his name? Come to think of it,” I said, not pausing long enough to let him answer, “no one has ever said his name, who he is—” I glanced at the door”—or what he is.”

My brother blinked at the endless stream of words pouring from my mouth.

“No, I don’t believe the owner killed him. He’s too smart to come to the firm for help with a thievery problem, telling us who he thought it was, and then go through the trouble of killing him.”

I tilted my head back and forth. “Yeah, I suppose that’s true. It’d be too obvious for you guys to not suspect him after something like that.”

“As for his name and what he is, well, no one knows. Everyone just calls him ‘The Owner’.”

“What do you mean, no one knows? Didn’t you just say you guys do business with him?”

“Yes…” Joel said slowly, “but with supernatural clients we have a, ‘Don’t ask, don’t wind up with your spleen removed,’ policy. I’ve never been crass enough to ask, after being introduced to him that way,” he said, and leveled a hard look my way.

I chuckled and bit my lip. “Well, we both know you’ve always had the better manners of the two of us.”

Joel sniffed and looked down his nose at me. “Isn’t that the truth?”

I took the opportunity to throw one of the couch pillows at him, which he caught with relative ease, the jerk.

“Anyway, if you want to know more about the missing inventory, you should speak with Elodie. She does the inventory for the store, and she’s a vampire like Odella. Though, as far as I know, they pretty much hate each other, so the fact you work with Odella and that she’s marked you might not get you two off on the correct foot. If you’d like, I can put in a call to The Owner, and have him smooth the way with Elodie. However, if she’s the one who killed Stribs, it might tip her off.”

I frowned and tilted my head. “I know Stribs was a dick, but it doesn’t sound like Elodie would have a reason to kill him, unless he did something to really offend her. And since Stribs didn’t seem to like Odella, I imagine he’d be nice to Elodie just to irritate Odella.”

“You’re not wrong there. As far as I know, Elodie and Stribs were on neutral terms until she discovered inventory was missing. How much do you know about vampires?” he asked, leaning forward and putting his elbows on his knees.

Not expecting to be put on the spot, my mind scrambled for as much information as possible.

“Well, they drink blood, can hypnotize you with their eyes, have to obey their masters when they’re young…Beyond that I’d just be pulling from all the trashy romance novels I’ve read, where the only thing that makes it fantasy is the lead love interest’s desire for blood and sharper than average canines,” I admitted.

Joel’s mouth quirked up in a smile, and he gave a short bark of laughter. “Well, you’re not wrong about those books. Candy likes them, too, but I can’t say I see the appeal.

“However, only two of the things you mentioned are true for all vampires: blood and obeying their master when they’re young. All of the other traits will vary from vampire to vampire. Odella is better at hypnotizing, as you put it, whereas Elodie is better at communicating with snakes, one of the animals associated with vampires.

“There’s one thing that all vampires share, though: their compulsion to count. Now, you can’t just throw a bunch of stuff on the ground and have that distract them while you run away. It really depends on the vampire. From what I understand, Elodie is incredibly good with inventory, and Odella is never wrong when it comes to her cash flow.

“Combine all that with the fact vampires are just as territorial as the Weres, and I would not want to be the person Elodie catches stealing inventory she’s in charge of,” Joel finished, his voice going low and his eyebrows knotting.

“When you put it that way, I can see how she might end up murdering him,” I admitted.

Joel checked his watch and sighed. “We’ve missed most of the birthday. We should get down there before my good-natured wife turns into something far less pleasant,” he said, and then stood.

For most guys it’d be a joke to say their wives turned into she-demons or hell cats when riled, but for Joel, well, it might actually happen. So, I wisely followed him out of the room, an apology ready on my lips.

 

<*****>

 

The remainder of the birthday was a pleasant affair, and I was sent away with more leftovers than Slies and I would likely know what to do with. I’d been piled on by my nieces and nephews before leaving. I could see Dezanoth lurking in the background, the corner of his mouth quirked up in a smug smile, and his head tilted just enough that he could look down his nose at me. I threw a glare his way, and made sure to hug the kiddos extra tight, and for a little longer than usual. I even gave Candy a hug before leaving, though my brother and I just waved, forgoing the familiar affection.

I checked my clock on the dash of the car when I got in. If I made it home in the next half an hour, I could get a few more hours of sleep before work. The thought of hitting my pillow and drifting off to dreamland was more than enough to motivate me along the roads back home. I know Joel told me not to take Thea home, which I assume means he didn’t want me to drive by the tree anymore. I’d avoided it on the way to their house, but it was the fastest way back into town, and it was practically the middle of the day. Didn’t witches need darkness, midnight, and virgins? Since none of those things were available, I doubt the Witch of the Wood would be on a stroll near the road and decide to snatch me up.

Remember what we said about not being that white girl in every horror movie ever? Rational Brain asked, voice scathing.

I hate to agree with stick-in-the-mud, but Joel might be right here, Primal Brain hedged.

“It’ll be fine,” I said out loud, and then took the turn toward town.

Famous last words, Rational Brain muttered.

Don’t say we didn’t warn you, Primal Brain cautioned.

The trees flew by, the evergreens looking particularly lovely in the early afternoon light, but as we drew closer to the tree, my shoulders bunched up more and more. Tension sang through me like a plucked line of a deep-sea fisher’s rod with a fish on. When I came within ten feet of the tree, I held my breath. Level with it, and my hands gripped the steering wheel so hard my fingers went bloodless. But then we were past the cursed thing, with nary a whisper of encouragement to kill myself.

I let out a shaky breath, loosened my grip on the wheel, and slumped a little in my seat—

“See? Nothing to—”

–just in time for the largest stag I’d ever seen in my life to walk casually in front of my vehicle. I let out an unholy screech to rival that of my tires as I slammed on my brakes and swerved to avoid the animal. I veered across the oncoming lane, and that was the last thing I remembered before slamming into a tree.

The calm, unconcerned eyes of the deer, and my steering coming to meet my face when my airbag didn’t deploy.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Tales of the Graveyard Shift: The Greasy Goblin ~~ Chapter Ten

Chapter Ten

 

 

As I made my way home, I stopped and grabbed some food for Slies and myself from work. The openers made no comment on my disheveled, exhausted appearance. They merely handed me my food and drinks, and nodded, not willing to engage me in conversation. It was good to see my usual resting bitch face was still enough to strike fear into the hearts of mere mortals.

I’d hit overload. My mind was empty and my body was floaty, as though I was made from nothing more than wisps of a cloud, breaking apart in the face of the rising sun. The drive through town was uneventful, and after I pulled into my parking spot I turned off the car and dropped my head back against the headrest.

Sleepiness made my limbs and eyelids heavy, and I had to yank the latter open before I fell asleep in my car. I grudgingly gathered my things, locked my car, and trudged to my apartment door. With my arms full, I toed my shoes off, and went to kick at the door to get Slies to open it. He opened the door before I could connect with it, and I lurched through the entrance as I met with no resistance.

He deftly side-stepped me as I caught myself just over the threshold before I wrecked myself.

“Oh, good, you brought food,” he said, and took everything from my hands before I could drop it. He took the food inside, leaving me standing near the entrance, empty-handed, blinking against the sleepiness trying to drag me under.

I grumbled something incoherent—even to myself—and grabbed my shoes from outside and put them on the mat just inside the door. I shuffled toward the kitchen and stopped like a deer caught in headlights.

Slies had been a busy boy.

Gone was my futon, replaced by some black leather monstrosity that took up almost the entire tiny room, the rest of which was occupied by a large-ish television screen.

“Um…” I prompted, and gestured languidly toward the living room.

Slies was busy digging in the paper bag and didn’t answer, but he’d heard me, as his ears curled in anticipation for more shrieking. In all honesty I didn’t have the energy, but there was something working its way from the back of my brain, trying to tell me to make an issue of this. I was just too tired to know why.

“So, did ya learn anything new?” he asked, and took a bite out of some kind of sausage breakfast sandwich.

My brain shifted gears at his words. “Yeah, it wasn’t Celinwel,” I said, and started shuffle-stepping toward the bedroom door.

Slies appeared in front of me, crumbs from the sandwich across his mouth, and I almost stepped on him. I jerked to a stop to keep from doing just that, as he finished chewing and swallowed.

His expression was more curious than shocked, as he tilted his head slightly to his right. “Whatcha mean she didn’t do it?”

I sighed, cast a weary glance at the couch, and headed over to sit down. I sank down into the buttery softness of the cushions, and though they were cool to the touch, they warmed immediately beneath my body heat. I groaned in pleasure and closed my eyes. Slies gave me a few moments, almost long enough for me to fall asleep, before he cleared his throat.

I cracked open one bleary eye. He was in front of me with one eyebrow raised and his arms crossed over his chest. At least he was fully clothed.

I went through the arduous process of recounting the night, from the time I got to work until Celinwel left. Nothing else was of note, really, other than Thea’s warning, which was more for me than anyone else.

“So she was in cahoots with the human, and some guy?” he asked, more to himself than me.

Still, I lolled my head forward in the laziest of nods. “Seems so,” I mumbled, my chin against my chest.

“No mention of who this mystery dude might be?”

“Mm, nope,” I said, making a little popping sound with my mouth with the letter ‘p’.

Slies harrumphed, and his footsteps moved away over the carpet. Next thing I knew a blanket was being thrown over me, and I mumbled some form of thanks before drifting off into blissful sleep.

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

I awoke with a major crick in my neck and back. The new couch was comfy, I’d just ended up in an odd position. The sun’s last rays of the day streamed in through the line of holes in the apartment blinds. How did I manage to be in a perfect position to have them right across my eyes, like some kind of blinding death ray from a B monster flick? It was just my usual luck.

Luck of the cursed, maybe, Rational Brain noted scathingly.

Coming over to see my side of things, eh? Going all superstitious and paranoid? Primal brain chortled.

In your dreams, Neanderthal.

“Finally up, then?” Slies’ voice cut through the brain chatter.

I groaned in response and sat up, my couch quilt lovingly sewn by my father’s crotchety old grandmother was tangled around my legs. It’d been a gift to my parents on their wedding day with the note; ‘Since your wife can barely keep your house clean, I assumed she doesn’t know how to sew.’ Unsurprisingly, my mother had jumped at the second chance to get it out of her house when I moved out for college. The first had been my brother, who had refused to take it with him.

“It might behoove you to know,” Slies began, and I turned to look over at him as he leaned against the counter, “that Gozuk had Celinwel captured, and the gnome king has stated that if his daughter is not returned within the next three—well, two now—hours, he’ll waste no time waging a war to end all wars,” Slies informed me, in a bored tone, picking at his nails with one of his daggers.

I blew out a sigh. “Well, that sucks for her.” It was difficult for me to sympathize with someone who recently tried to kill me.

He nodded. “Sure does. Of course, it sucks for you, too, because she was supposed to work tonight and you’ll be a person short. Well, I guess if she dies you’ll be short all her shifts. Combine that with being short for all of Stribs’ shifts, and you’re looking at one hell of a week. Probably two or three until you can hire someone else.” He stretched, dagger still in hand, but when his hands came back down to slip inside his pants pockets, the dagger was gone.

I spluttered. “You make it sound like I have a choice.”

Slies smiled a particularly nasty smile that immediately sent a cramp through my belly. I was not going to like this.

“Well, the gnome king has demanded your presence to help establish his daughter’s innocence, as per the conversation you overheard. However, you’re technically under goblin protection at the moment, so he can’t force you to appear without kidnapping you from under us. Gozuk won’t go out of his way to make sure you’re there because he hates Celinwel, and will use any excuse to put her head on a pike—literally.”

“But…” I prompted. I was too damn tired to try and figure out political machinations I couldn’t work my way through if I was awake, and fueled by enough caffeine to power a legion of people trying to get through a 24-hour gaming marathon.

“But,” he continued, not making me work too hard for it, bless his little green soul, “Gozuk never relayed anything about stopping you if you tried to show up on your own.”

“That sounds like a lot of work for someone I don’t particularly like, and who doesn’t like me in return,” I said, weighing which would cause me more work in the long-run.

Ugh, why can’t people just not get themselves killed and have their murderous, yet innocent, girlfriends get captured by goblin kings, Primal Brain muttered.

Do you even comprehend what you’re thinking when you think it? Rational Brain asked.

“True, but she can break down a grill like nobody’s business,” Slies pointed out.

“Fair enough,” I grumbled, and threw the blanket off my legs. I checked the time, and of course I had four-ish hours before I had to be to work. By my estimation—utilizing my limited knowledge of how gnome-goblin hostage situations function—I had enough time to try and save Celinwel. Unfortunately.

I looked down at my work clothes and wrinkled my nose.

“Yeah, these things aren’t formal affairs, but that probably isn’t appropriate,” Slies said, while regarding the grease stains on my shirt and pants.

“Fine, I guess I’ll change, but I don’t have anything more formal than jeans,” I warned.

“Jeans will do,” Slies said.

I grumbled as I stood up, and then I shuffled into the bathroom to get ready for something I was going to regret.

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

About forty minutes later we were back at The Salty Wench. Slies explained it was the closest thing to neutral ground they had, since Dymas would summarily kill anyone who harmed anyone else under his roof. It was an ancient custom to give protection to those who eat and drink in your home, and Dymas considered The Wench as such. He didn’t care about any of us, one way or the other, he just didn’t want rampaging supernaturals destroying all he worked for. Having neutral ground for the various factions to meet on was Dymas’ compromise to paying property taxes. Apparently, even supernaturals weren’t immune to bureaucracy. Go figure.

Krot was nowhere to be seen, and instead a grumpy goblin guard paired with an equally grumpy gnome guard opened the door and let us in. Both were in run-of-the-mill, medieval, ‘we’re going on a castle raid’ armor. Nothing was visible on them except dark eyes and an air of irritation that wafted off them like stink from garbage.

The door closed behind us, leaving us in the semi-dark of the entry hall.

“For meetings such as this, the kings tend to revert to the old ways, no matter how modern they might be otherwise,” Slies said, not bothering to keep his voice low.

“Just like a goblin to mock tradition,” said a voice in a scornful tone from the main room.

“And just like a gnome to cling to them so fiercely he’d let his own daughter die,” Slies said, and angry silence followed. “Granted,” he continued, apparently unable to help himself, “she is a raging bitch.”

There was a scuffling from the other room, and raised, angry voices all talking over one another. When I looked down at Slies, he had a half smile on his lips, immensely pleased with himself.

“If you get me killed because of your smart mouth, I’ll haunt you,” I said, deadpan.

“You couldn’t haunt your way out of a wet paper bag, let alone enough to make me miserable,” he paused, and chuckled, “but I’ll do my best.”

Hardly reassuring, Rational Brain said.

I simply scowled at him.

He made his way into the main room, and when I was able to take in the whole of it, it looked like an episode of West Side Story meets World of Warcraft. Dymas was sitting on the other side of the bar. He must have grabbed a stool from somewhere, because his feet were propped up on the bar, and he was filing his already wickedly sharp claws.

Not so subtle threat display, Primal Brain noted.

Both sides were a grumbling, seething mass of fury, and all that was missing was a wrestling ring and an easily distracted referee so one king could murder the other and walk away with their hands clean. I recognized the other goblins from when I’d been summoned to view Stribs’ corpse, though only one of them was focused more on his fellow goblins than the gnomes. Zeec, I think his name was, the healer. His interest was more on Gozuk, and even at a distance, I could see his right eye twitch.

Given the situation, though, his wonky behavior wasn’t what drew my attention. The gnomes were what grabbed that.

Where the goblins were more mafia, the gnomes came off more like the scum of Wall Street. Book smarts versus street smarts. The kind of people that screwed old ladies out of their retirement. I’d like to say I could see the family resemblance between the king and Celinwel, but in all honesty all the gnomes looked alike. Did that make me racist (species-ist)? The biggest difference was the hair style: his was short and spiky, as well as growing out of his ears, and his nose was bulbous and took up most of his face.

My overall nervousness boiled down to the fact that I was surrounded by super-pissed short beings who could slice and dice me with their copious number of blades before I could blink an eye. My only option, as we’d discussed on the way over, was to let Slies be my representative.

Oh, how the not-so-mighty have fallen. I’d gone from hoping I’d make it out of this alive, albeit slightly maimed, to hoping for a quick death instead of evisceration—given the average height of those who wished for said death.

“Slies, why are you here?” Gozuk asked, his voice like the rumbling of the earth before it swallowed you whole.

Slies made a low, scraping bow, with one hand across his mid-section, and the other with his palm forward and away from his body. “Simply following protocol. Holly decided to attend the meeting, and, as her duly appointed—by you—protector, I simply came along for the ride,” he said, maintaining his position.

Gozuk’s eyebrows were low and knotted over eyes that never wavered from Slies, whose head remained tilted down along with his gaze. His long ears curled, and the green of the tips deepened, which I guessed was the equivalent of human ears reddening. His mouth was a thin, compressed line, and his nostrils flared.

“It’s a little more self-serving than that,” I said, diverting the goblin king’s angry stare before he set Slies on fire from its intensity. My stomach churned as I came under scrutiny, and I did my best not to cower.

“Oh, yeah?” he asked, at the same time the gnome king said, “Typical Ord.”

Despite my desire to remain among the living, my head snapped over to meet the eyes of the gnome king. “Call me Ord again, short stack, and I’ll bury you in a hole so deep, even your earth-dwelling subjects can’t hear you scream,” I growled.

He titled his head back, and looked down his nose at me, which was impressive under the circumstances. His mouth curled on one side, and his lower lip was pushed up, curving his mouth downward.

“So keep your slurs to yourself, and maybe I can help keep your daughter from dying so we don’t have to train a new hire,” I said, spitting the words at him like a hissing cat.

His eyes narrowed, and though he didn’t nod, he simply turned back to Gozuk, ignoring me. Which was fine, considering my legs had turned to jelly and I was ready to vomit.

“You would protect such a crass creature, Gozuk,” the gnome king said, his eyebrows lifted slightly with disdain, and eyes relaxed and filled with contempt.

“Who I choose to protect is my business, Dakwor.”

Dakwor looked me over from the corner of his eye. “Yes, and her manners suggest she’s just as illegitimate as your business.”

Before my head could explode from the sudden surge in blood pressure and rage I experienced, Slies laughed.

“If you want to talk illegitimate, I have hard-proof of your daughter’s misadventures into the unlicensed pharmaceutical business, which she dragged a few of your cronies into,” Slies said.

The gnome king flushed and his eyes narrowed, but he regained his composure quickly and threw his shoulders back.

“My daughter simply wanted to try her hand at entrepreneurship before settling down to the family business. Where’s my daughter, Gozuk? Or have you already dispatched of her, and are ready to agree on the terms of engagement?” he asked, his fists clenching and unclenching at his side.

I’m assuming they’re not talking about the marriage type of engagement, Primal Brain said.

They’re talking about war, Rational Brain said, tone grave. While I don’t value most humans very highly, this wouldn’t bode well for the ones we actually like.

Not to mention we might lose our job. I mean, two dead employees in just about as many days as we’ve worked there doesn’t look too good, Primal Brain noted.

That too, Rational Brain agreed.

Considering they were rarely in agreement, we were up shit creek without a paddle.

“The little wench is no more dead than your pitiful soul, Dakwor,” Gozuk said, and held his hand up in a lazy, couldn’t give a shit if you paid me, gesture.

The comment didn’t appear to reassure Dakwor, which let me know just how much Dakwor thought of his soul and what he knew of his daughter’s behavior.

The crowd of goblins parted like the green sea, and from their center they dragged a squirming bundle of pissed off Celinwel. Rope bound her entire lower body, except her feet, and her mouth was covered with run-of-the-mill silver duct tape, which would not be a fun experience pulling off later.

When her eyes landed on me, she started trying to yell behind the tape and wriggle toward me. Odds were even between her trying to kill me again and cursing me to the deepest pit of hell, or if she was asking for help. Considering her constant state of nastiness toward me, she’d probably kill me even if it spited her and she wound up dead as a result.

“I want my daughter released, now,” Dakwor growled, and he bared his teeth in a feral snarl. His minions behind him rustled like an angry wind, making their metal armor rattle and leather armor creak.

“Of course, there’s just the matter of clearing up her killing my son, and you can all be off back to your little holes in the ground,” Gozuk said, unconcerned by the angry mob of gnomes.

Slies nudged me, and I started, as I’d been focused on the back and forth between the kings.

“Uh, I’m pretty sure she didn’t kill him,” I said.

Gozuk’s head turned slowly to me, and he did not look happy at my interruption. Dakwor and Celinwel scowled, but I think that was simply because they both hated me.

I held my hands out in front of me. “Don’t get me wrong,” I continued, “she definitely had a plan to do so, but someone else got to him first.”

“Who?” Gozuk asked.

“I don’t know,” I admitted.

“See? You’ve got nothing but an overheard conversation, and—“

“Actually,” Dymas interrupted, and everyone in the room froze, having forgotten where they were, “I can confirm that Celinwel came to The Salty Wench during the time Stribs was murdered, because I distinctly remember kicking her out. She was peddling her, ‘entrepreneurship’, and that will not be tolerated at The Wench.”

Gozuk clenched his jaw. “Why didn’t you say anything earlier?”

Dymas shrugged. “You didn’t ask, but I won’t have undue violence unleashed in The Wench, no matter how much the receiver of such a punishment may deserve it,” he finished, and stared Celinwel down.

If she could have sunk through the floor, she probably would have done so, if only to avoid such a stare.

“Also,” he said, and looked at me, “the human may not have much in the way of manners, but she’s telling the truth. Or at least as much of it as she knows. There’s another in the room who knew the truth, and I can smell their fear as surely as rain falls from the sky in winter.”

“Who?” Gozuk and Dakwor asked.

Dymas smiled and enigmatic smile. “Remove the tape from Celinwel’s mouth, and she might just be willing to tell you, if only to save her own skin. The selfishness of a continued existence at the expense of another’s life is an easy choice for someone of her moral caliber.”

Gozuk swung a narrowed gaze to Celinwel, and snapped his fingers. The goblin closest to her—Brikt, the one who looked like he ate gym equipment for breakfast—reached down to pull the tape from her mouth, but Zeec jumped forward and cold-cocked the other goblin. Zeec then pulled a knife from his belt, raised it in the air, and lunged for Gozuk.

Between one blink and the next, every goblin within reaching distance of Gozuk, plus Slies and Dymas—who had moved too fast for my human sight to follow—had the business end of a blade aimed for every vital spot imaginable on Zeec.

Zeec was breathing heavy, and his eyes were brimming with hate at Gozuk.

“Well, that answers that question,” Dymas purred.

“Why, Zeec?” Gozuk asked. Not in a disappointed tone, or one of puzzlement, sadness, or any other emotion. Gozuk might as well have asked him what he’d eaten for breakfast for all the care he had for the answer. Like when we ask a customer how their day is going; it’s nothing more than forced small talk. In all likelihood, he simply wanted to know what drove Zeec through his horrible decision making process, so he could avoid such a thing again.

“She said if we killed both of you, we could move in on some of the territory, and she’d share the profit with me. Not to mention, she liked me more than Stribs, anyhow,” he said, belief in his words permeating every word.

What a poor, pitiful fool. She used him like a convenient Kleenex, Rational Brain said.

“Zeec, you well and truly are an idiot,” Slies said, almost sadly, and pulled his blade back. He then motioned for a couple of the goblins to move forward, and they disarmed and bound him.

Slies sighed and watched the spectacle. “Healers are a bitch to replace, too.”

“I wish I could’ve offed that pissant, though. Always calling me low class and laughing at me, throwing rocks and getting people to beat me up. He deserved what he got; I just wish it would’ve been me that did him in,” Zeec said and glowered. “I wouldn’t have been as nice as them.”

“Get him out of my sight,” Gozuk said, fury as cold as the mountains in winter coating his words.

I moved aside as they hauled him past me, six of them carrying him on their shoulders like pallbearers with a casket, and he caught my eye.

“This is all your fault, you fuckin’ Ord.”

That was the last straw. I was tired, my life was being turned on its head because some dumb goblin went and got himself killed, and this all could have ended if I’d just kept my mouth shut and let Gozuk have Celinwel. So in a way, he was right, and that made me even madder.

I slapped him so hard I thought I’d broken my hand against his thicker-than-a-human’s jaw, and the sound managed to echo in a space it shouldn’t have been possible. It rocked the goblin’s head back, the piercings in his ear jangling at the sudden movement, and he cursed at me as the other goblins continued on their way as though nothing had happened.

Laughter bubbled behind me, and I turned to find Slies holding his midsection trying to not laugh while Dymas’ eyes danced with merriment. My hand throbbed, but I refused to acknowledge it, and give them the satisfaction of knowing just how useless the gesture had been. I was pretty sure it hurt me more than Zeec.

Idiot, Rational Brain said, exasperated.

Worth it, Primal Brain countered.

Shut up, both of you, I grumbled.

 

 

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Potato Chip Prompt ~~ Not a Chance

Reporters are trained to develop a sixth sense, a nose for when a story smells fishy. And something about this one wasn’t right. First of all, werewolves can’t swim. Something about their mass and water didn’t work well together. They could in human form, of course, but the werewolf floater–read dead, drowned guy–was naked. Werewolves had incredibly flexible rules on nudity, but the middle of a Michigan winter was a bit much even for them.

Which brought me to point two: by all rights, the lake should have been frozen. In fact, most of it was. Every part except a perfect circle of liquid around the dead Were, as though someone had pointed a huge hairdryer downward and melted the ice.

“They’re sayin’ his higher than normal body temp caused the ice tuh melt, as he was shiftin’ back,” the gruff, older Detective Larson spat. He was sitting by my desk, slumped down, an ever-present scowl on his grizzled face.

“Well, you know the Shrews–they’d try to cover up a war by saying it was a minor disagreement over cheese,” I said, and scoffed. The SRU–Supernatural Response Unit, or Shrews–were notorious for downplaying everything.

But even they were reaching with this one, because reason number three was sitting right by my desk. Every detective I knew would rather eat his pension than talk to a reporter. Especially one barely above Townie status.

“Yeah, but they were really tryin’ tuh play this one off. Not to mention…” He paused.

“What?” I prompted, politely. Detective Larson was already irritated he had to come to a reporter about this when he hated my ilk. He hated me, too, just an iota less than the others. Or maybe being an out-of-towner was my advantage.

He still scowled at me. “The lake still isn’t frozen. Not even the tiniest bit on the surface.”

“Sounds like magic, not some cockamamie accident with a drugged out Were,” I agreed. “Maybe you should let the Shrews handle it?”

This time he scoffed. “Not a chance. That kid was my nephew. Like I’d leave this investigation up to those backbiters.”

Tales of the Graveyard Shift: The Greasy Goblin ~~ Chapter Nine

The conversation went as well as one might expect. There was lots of shouting, and plenty of expletives and name-calling. Knight’s hair was sleep tousled, which was the only difference in his appearance, and it didn’t help that he was consistently running his hands through it. His suit was just as wrinkled, and I wasn’t sure if this was his usual state of dress, or if I kept meeting him under rushed circumstances. I sat there, taking it all in, and when Knight paused to breathe I interjected:

“Don’t you want to know what I found out?”

His face resembled a teapot close to boiling over. “No! I do not! Stop with the interfering before you get killed.”

“I can’t.”

There was a moment where I thought his head might actually explode, but then he just stormed out of the sphinx’s office, muttering under his breath.

“Well, that was incredibly entertaining,” Thea said from her perch on the desk. Her legs hung over the side, swinging back and forth, and a manic smile donned her face. Well, I wasn’t actually sure she had many other expressions, but it suited her, somehow.

“Yes, Knight has always had a way with people,” the sphynx observed. He turned his attention to me. “We were never properly introduced, what with you telling me I should die and all, but my name is Dymas.”

I cringed, and held out my hand. “Holly.” We shook, and everything drained from me at once. “And I think I’m ready to go home now.”

“Understandable,” Dymas said. He motioned toward the doorway, and Krot lumbered into the room.

“Wotcher, Squawker?” Krot said, and stopped not too far from me, and laughed another big-bellied laugh.

“Krot,” Dymas said, half in reprimand and half to get his attention.

“Eh?”

“Escort Ms. Holly out to her car, and keep your hands to yourself, if you please,” Dymas said, and held out a hand to help me to my feet.

When I stood, Thea hopped off the desk. “Which way ya headed?” she asked, her orange cat eyes bright with typical cat mischief and amusement.

“Uh, back toward town. The—,” and I stopped. I wasn’t sure what all I was getting into, or who these people might be affiliated with, but I didn’t want to just outright tell them where I lived. “Yeah. Back toward town.”

“Excellent! Mind if I get a ride?”

“Sure,” I said slowly, and glanced at Dymas. He gave a small nod, which I hoped meant she wouldn’t murder me en route to my apartment.

“Thanks!” she said brightly, and exited the office.

“Well, I guess that’s my cue. Th—“

“Don’t thank me,” he said, but not in a, ‘I’m politely declining your thanks as most people do,’ kind of way.

I reared back a bit at his conviction.

He dipped his head. “There are those who consider it an insult. Beings as old as time. While still others take it to mean you owe them a debt. It’s best if you simply find another way to express your gratitude,” he cautioned.

I nodded, still not sure. It went against just about every single thing I was taught by my parents regarding manners, but what could I do? “Then, the way you handled the situation was exceptional?”

He nodded again. “That will do. Compliments are never a bad way to go.” Then he paused for a moment. “Usually, anyway. Rest well,” he said, and walked back around his desk. He sat down and straightened the papers knocked askew by Thea sitting on it, getting the already tidy desk back in perfect order.

I took this as my cue to leave, and headed out through the tavern, while Krot shuffled along behind me. It was now mostly empty with only a few hangers-on; my co-workers who hadn’t tried to slit my throat had shuffled by the office to bid me farewell and apologize for Celinwel’s behavior. When I went outside, Thea was next to my car but thankfully not sitting on it.

I pulled my keys out from my purse, which someone had retrieved from the table for me while I was in his office, trying to smooth out my frayed nerves.

“Watcha self, Squawker. Hate ta see ya die,” he said, and laughed. Then he shuffled away without waiting for my witty reply. Which was good, since I didn’t think I could muster enough brain power to do that if my life depended on it.

“So, Thea. Where am I taking you to?” I asked, and unlocked the car. I tossed my purse in the back while she climbed in the passenger seat, and then I got in as well and we were off.

“Just start heading toward town. I’ll tell you when to stop,” she said, watching the landscape go by as I drove.

O-kay. She’s a bit of an odd duck, Primal Brain observed.

More like an odd cat. I wonder what she is…Rational Brain wondered.

The drive from The Salty Wench was uneventful and silent. I wasn’t much of a jabberjaw with people I knew, let alone a complete stranger. Not to mention, I’d stuck my foot in my mouth enough for the last couple of days without doing so with one more supernatural.

We passed the woods by, their darkness almost a living, breathing thing that could reach out to snatch us right from the road. Despite the lightening of the pre-dawn sky, the threat of the shadows had me on edge. There hadn’t been much time to process everything I’d gone through so far. With Celinwel’s attack, I’d gone from thinking it was a little scary but somewhat cool, to just being terrified. It also might be the fact I was tired, and hadn’t gotten a full night’s sleep the night before.

Add that to all the everything else going on, and, well, I couldn’t say I was coping terribly well.

A giant yawn cracked my jaw, and I did my best to keep my eyes open.

“Tired, huh?” Thea asked.

I nodded, keeping my eyes on the road.

“No worries, we’re almost there. Just stop at the road past The Tree, and you can drop me off there.”

Have you ever seen one of those moments where a television or movie character slams on the brakes when another character reveals something shocking? Well, that’s not what I did, because my brakes were on the sphincter-tightening side of reliability. However, it was a moment that certainly called for such a reaction.

“The Tree as in The Tree. The one in all the local legends?”

“One and the same!”

“Uh, are you sure you want me to drop you off there? I’ve heard…stories,” I finished lamely.

I know someone mentioned the witch older than the town itself, but not all the stories revolved around the Witch of the Wood. Some of them had to do with creatures, or even the trees themselves coming to life and killing unsuspecting humans. Not to mention, this stretch of road had more car accidents than any other in this county or the ones bordering ours—combined.

“Those stories are nothing more than humans trying to deny human cruelty. Just because the woods are a favorite spot for body dumps and suicides doesn’t mean there are monsters about,” my father grumped. He’d said this to me after I’d rushed home with another story told by a gaggle of teenage girls, trying to scare the nerdy outcast.

Now I knew better, though.

She waved me off. “Don’t worry about it. Of course,” she added slyly, “you could always come home with me, and you can hear the stories first hand from the Witch herself.”

I chuckled nervously. “I think I’ll pass this time.”

She shrugged. “Here it is.”

I pulled over across the oncoming lane, but tried to stay as close to the road as I could without someone swapping paint with me. I put the car in park, and peered out the window like a child peeking out from underneath the covers on their bed. People tend to feel invincible in their cars—look at all the road rage you’ve encountered that turned to fear once the other person gets out of their car—much like a child feels safe beneath their blanket. Watching the darkness that refused to shrink back from the lightening of the sky, and seemed to say, ‘Come into my parlor…”, all while licking its chops, it sent a shiver through my core.

No, Primal Brain said, the authority here, because that was what that the pitch black was: primal. It was the presence that made cavemen huddle close to their fires at night, though they knew no physical predator was near. What was in this dark wouldn’t hurt you physically—it would steal your soul.

Then there was the tree itself: a towering, old-growth evergreen, with ridges so deep in the wood they were like thousands of canyons, forged by the weather and time. It had a beauty all its own, like the whisper of the devil on your shoulder, convincing you to do what you know you shouldn’t. It was more subtle, but the more I stayed here on the side of the road, the more insistent it became. In combination with the darkness it was a one-two punch for my human mind.

If the darkness was the monster under my bed, the tree was the bully in high school that drove you over the edge of your ability to cope. Supernatural versus human.

I shuddered, a chill settling in my spirit. “Why would anyone live here?” I asked in a hoarse whisper, my voice sounding as though I’d spent the last hour screaming for dear life.

“Certain bits of land hold power for various reasons: death, belief, sacrifice, and so on. If someone knows how to tap into that, they can be very powerful indeed,” she said, though her voice was a distant droning despite being in the car with me.

Come to me…

A searing pain across my hand broke whatever hold the edge of the road had on me.

“What the fuck?” I shrieked, and looked down at my right hand. Four thin, bloody scratches raced in angry lines across the back of it. I looked over to Thea, who was shaking her hand as though it were sore. “Was that–?”

“Well, I couldn’t very well let you get out of the car and kill yourself, now could I? Pain was the fastest way to snap you out of it,” she said, far too chipper for what nearly just transpired.

“And what, besides the obvious, just happened?” I growled. I wasn’t too keen on the fact I’d nearly just killed myself because some tree wanted to get its jollies by watching me die.

Thea paused in thought, as though considering not only the question, but her words, and how much she could reveal.

“As I said, some land holds power and some people can tap into that power. When this is done, the forest becomes as much a manifestation of the being using it, as the person can take on the traits of the forest. Of course, like attracts like. A forest with dark power born of blood, black magic, battle, and so on, will attract beings with similar power. They…hunger for each other, the way two psychopaths in a relationship will feed off each other’s psychopathy.” She paused, making sure I was following her words.

I nodded. “The way people of similar natures congregate with each other, or how the mob mentality can take over.”

“Precisely. My Mistress has never been mistaken for a nice person, nor would you count her among the more altruistic witches living near Seattle. If she does something that seems nice, or helpful, it is only to further some plan that will benefit her.”

There was another long pause. “Why are you telling me all this? Won’t she be angry?”

Thea shrugged. “I am her servant, or what people today know as a familiar, and we are so bound that if she did not want the words to leave my lips, they would not. Such is her power over me. The fact I am able to tell you, either means she does not care that you know, or more likely that you haven’t enough power to do anything with the information,” she said, then added; “There will come a time when this information is useful to you. The Mistress chose me when I was human for my ability to See the future, or what we call a seer. You’ve landed in a large tangle of a supernatural mess, and you’ll have to pay the Mistress a visit. These are both words of caution and wisdom I offer you.”

I absorbed her words, and the implication that someday I would be taking a walk in those deep, dark woods. I shuddered, and the icy claws of fear gripped my heart.

She smiled a small, understanding smile that held all the cheer of someone watching the start of an execution. When the person being executed finally understood the doom looming over their heads, and terror shone bright in their eyes while they choked on their panic.

“If she’s so powerful, why isn’t she in charge around here?” I asked in a whisper, silently thanking the fact she wasn’t inclined, whatever the reason. Just the vibe from the forest told me this was not a person you’d want running the show.

This time, Thea’s smile was fiendish, as though she relished her next words. “Land will call to a witch, and they need it the way humans need water to survive. The more powerful the land, the more powerful the witch it attracts, like moths to a flame. The longer a witch remains with her piece of land, the more powerful she and the land become. She has been here so long, the Native Americans in this region have stories of my Mistress dating back to the first time they settled this land.

“That being said, there is always a price for magic. The more powerful the magic, the bigger the price. When a witch binds with her land, she has a limited area and time she can leave that land. The weaker the witch, the larger the range and longer the time she can be away from it. Covens circumvent this by pooling their power in their piece of land, the way the Seattle Coven does. Of course, this also means they cannot work magic of any magnitude without the cooperation of the others.”

“So it hobbles them,” I said.

She nodded.

I looked toward the forest again, then quickly back to Thea. “What of your Mistress?”

“The last time the Mistress left her forest was to steal me from my parents, but she didn’t have to go far. A few steps at the most. I…don’t remember much. She stole those memories from me, and keeps them somewhere safe, and away from me. I do remember my parents were explorers, foolishly coming too close to her territory, and I’m around 150-200 years old. It was right on the edge of the forest she took me, wooing me away from the safety of our camp. She knew what I was, though I hadn’t come into my powers yet.” She stopped, and looked at the tree. Ghosts and shadows moved through her eyes, and her youthful appearance suddenly took on an older, wearier image.

“My mother and father searched the woods for me, despite their fear and the words of caution from the others they traveled with. When their group found them three days later, my father was dead, murdered by my mother who’d been driven mad by her grief. ‘What have I done?’ she’d asked. Before they could stop her, she scrambled up to the highest branches of a nearby tree, and threw herself to her death. The Tree is her tree, and my parents aren’t buried far from it, their souls trapped inside the Evergreen by their anguish and grief.”

Her sorrowful words hung in the air like the musty smell of a long-abandoned house. When you’re a kid, magic is something amazing, and in stories it seems to do so much good. So far, from what I’d heard tonight from Odella and Thea, it brings nothing but pain and anguish.

“Any way,” she said, taking on her usual bright, cheerful tone, “thank you for the ride. Go home and get some sleep, if you can. From what I’ve Seen, you’re going to need all the rest you can get,” she said, and winked.

Before I could ask just what my future held, she got out of the car and walked around the front of it. Between one blink and the next, a larger than normal black, shorthair, rumpy Manx cat took her place. It stared at me for a moment, bright orange eyes taking me in, and then she turned and disappeared into the gloom.

 

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Tales of the Graveyard Shift: The Greasy Goblin ~~ Chapter Eight

Chapter Eight

Apparently, supernatural bars didn’t have to worry about pesky human laws regarding alcohol, because it was still flowing freely around the tavern. I sipped my cranberry juice as the conversation flowed around me. People had started filtering out of the tavern as dawn approached, and those remaining cast disapproving glances toward our rambunctious group.

There is an exhausted giddiness people succumb to when working overnights; when you stay up beyond when you should have gone home and fallen asleep. You get loud and not a little obnoxious, but the others were having fun and most of the other patrons were leaving anyway. I nibbled on my food—some kind of appetizer I didn’t have the courage to ask about. None of it really had any taste, as I tried to turn over a plan in my mind to get Celinwel alone, as well as confess to Stribs’ murder.

Easy peasy…

Odella stood, as though to leave, when the Sphinx called out to her.

“Not going to leave us with a song tonight are you, Odella?”

There was a split second of silence, and then a cheer went up through the tavern. Odella smiled a small, pleased smile, and then she turned to me and winked.

“Listen closely, and maybe you’ll learn something interesting.”

She sashayed up to the bar, and those still there made room for her, removing bar stools and people too drunk to move themselves. She took a seat on the bar with a graceful hop, and she hovered in the air for a moment before settling lightly as though gravity meant nothing to her.

She signaled to a man on the opposite side of the room. He was as out of place here as a fish out of water, wearing a button down shirt of Oxford blue, with an almost scale pattern of lines that shimmered dully in the low light. The pants were black, pressed, and fitted perfectly to his lean, almost slender frame, with a wide, brown leather belt cinched snug over his hips. His shoes were black leather Oxfords, and he moved much in the same way Lia did. Like water given life, all grace and flow.

As her name crossed my mind, I turned to look at her, and was met with an expression moving between various emotions faster than flood waters: longing, disgust, sadness, and hope. I had to turn away from such turbulent emotions, as they had the feeling of something not meant to be witnessed so openly without invitation.

When I turned back to the man, he was watching Lia with an equally intense expression, though far more sad. His eyes were a blue so light they were nearly white, set in a diamond-shaped face with cheekbones that stood out prominently above sunken cheeks. His hair was so pale it bordered on translucent, and was longer on top, carelessly brushed back and curling at the end. The rest was short, fading to a length that was shorn to his skull the last inch or so.

He broke eye contact with Lia, though he’d never broken his stride, and made his way to the bar. The man didn’t join Odella on the bar itself, but bowed to the wildly clapping and howling crowd, and produced a violin from thin air with a flourish of his hands.

Just like magic, Primal Brain noted.

You don’t say, Rational Brain added, sarcastically.

Shut up, Primal Brain said sullenly.

Odella cleared her throat. It was nothing more than a small sound, barely audible, and yet it commanded the entire room to fall silent, and set everyone on the edge of their seats in anticipation.

Odella then murmured something to the man, who nodded, and brought the violin up into a ready position.

It only took a couple of notes for me to recognize the tune: Go Tell it on the Mountain, which I found to be an odd choice for a vampire. But what he was playing was not the lively song I’d been raised with, and was almost set to a funeral march pace, the strings almost weeping as he drew the bow across them with aching slowness.

Then she began to sing, her voice clear as a bell and sorrowful as death.

Go tell the preacher

Go tell the preacher

Go tell the preacher

While the lyrics were different, I was still unsure why a vampire was singing something so obviously religious…

Then the man dragged the bow across the strings, the screeching wail setting all the hairs on my body at attention.

That everybody’s dead

Until the last line.

My eyes widened, though she kept hers closed as she sang.

The man came to the village

And charmed all the women

They started disappearin’

One by one

They searched for days and weeks, but

Their husbands could not find them

Their mothers were a-mourning

For their daughters’ souls

They found where he was hiding

Deep inside the forest

He’d dug them all a grave

And, laid the girls to rest

When the day was over

And darkness fell around them

The women all woke up, though

They were not the same

Time for a feast, girls

Time for a feast, girls

Time for a feast, girls

Drink until they’re dead

The villagers were screaming

Their throats were all ripped open

Fangs flashed in the moonlight

And the blood, it fell like rain

One of the women

Came to her senses

Her husband’s lifeless body

Laying in her lap

She ran through the forest

Back toward the village

She went right to her house

But could not enter there

She called out for her children

But they would not come near her

They sensed something was different

With their mother, drenched in blood

She fell to her knees, there

Her red eyes full of tears

Hollow words, they passed her lips

Her voice so harsh and raw

Go tell the preacher

Go tell the preacher

Go tell the preacher

That everybody’s dead

Leave upon the sunrise

Faster than the Spring winds

For if the man catches you

You’ll both be dead, as well

Then the man appeared, and

He pulled her up and held her close

With one last look at the children, said

“Catch me if you can.”

The children did not answer

And waited for the dawn, then

They ran down to the church

And, crying said the words

Go tell the preacher

Go tell the preacher

Go tell the preacher

Everybody’s dead

I hadn’t known I was holding my breath until the last bittersweet note died on the air as Odella had all those year ago. The despair, which had the weight of centuries behind it, was dizzying, and too much for my brain to handle.

“I can’t breathe,” I whispered hoarsely, as someone asked; “Are you alright?”

“Bathroom,” was all I managed to get out, my throat closing around the words as my stomach heaved and I staggered to my feet.

My vision narrow, and not able to see too far in front of me, I stumbled my way down the hall and into a door that had a big ‘W’ on it, which I hoped didn’t mean something else in supernatural taverns.

I barely managed to make it into a stall before I started heaving, my body trying to physically purge what my mind would never be able to.

I don’t know how long I knelt there in front of the toilet, the cold, hard tile floor digging into my knees. The door to the bathroom opened and closed as few times while I was there, but the last time the soft footfalls ended right outside my stall door.

“You going to be okay?” Odella asked, her usually upbeat, somewhat manic voice was softer, and full of concern.

“How could you go on?” I choked out, tears running down my face, my forehead resting on the corner of the chilled, metal toilet paper holder.

Clothing rustled as she made some small movement, perhaps a shrug. “How could I not? Those first years you are dedicated to your Master. Even though I’d broken free for only a moment to warn my children, that wasn’t the case from then on out. It was nearly a century of blood, and of course death, before I left him. By then, time had dulled the pain to something more bearable, though of course I never forgot.”

A heavy silence followed her words, and belied the nonchalance she was trying to project.

“What were their names?” I whispered.

“Balfour was my son, and Myra was my daughter. My husband’s name was Tobias.” Her voice was hesitant and quiet, as though if the words left her lips they’d fly away with the memories of them, never to return. In that moment she’d shared something deeply personal with me, and though I forgot names as easily as women lost bobby pins, I held onto the names with everything my mind had.

“I have to leave; dawn approaches. Will you be okay?” she asked.

“I’ll be fine, you can go,” I croaked, but made no move to get up just yet.

“Okay. Get some rest, and sweet dreams,” she said, and laughed, the sound like shattered glass.

The door opened and closed, though I didn’t hear her footsteps. It was a long moment before I heaved myself off the floor, which in retrospect was now really creeping me out, because public restrooms were not known for their cleanliness.

I flushed the toilet, and left the stall to wash my hands. I was still shaky, but judging by the noise outside of the bathroom, everything had returned to normal. I slipped out of the bathroom, and looked both ways down the hall. Some small flicker of movement caught my attention. It was at the end of the hall, and of their own accord my feet began moving that way.

You’re acting like every girl in horror films with too much curiosity that we make fun of, Rational Brain warned.

It wouldn’t hurt just to peek, Primal Brain said.

Ration Brain threw up their proverbial hands. Morons, the both of you.

I tiptoed down the hallway, and as I passed the men’s room and grew closer to a corner, raised voices filtered in between the music from the tavern.

“Not what—“

“—swore you’d follow through!”

“You didn’t say—“

I made it to the corner, but I didn’t dare take a look around it. One of the voices was Celinwel’s, and boy was she pissed. The other voice I didn’t recognize, was brushing Celinwel, and her concerns, off.

“Look, he’s dead. What does it matter?”

“It matters because whoever killed him didn’t leave any evidence behind!”—I wondered briefly how she knew that—“Which means they’re going to suspect me now. I gave you what to plant on his body after he was dead so someone else would take the fall.”

“I don’t know why you’re so upset, jeez. Just calm down.”

“Calm down?!” she said, her voice a strangled screech. “When that great green lump has his healers do a thorough examination of Stribs, they’ll find the sedative that I gave him. Without the other evidence, it all just looks like me!”

“You don’t know that. Stribs used to do all kinds of drugs. Why would this be any different?”

At this point I took a quick glance around the corner, and Celinwel had her hands balled into tight fists at her side, looking up at the other woman. Nothing struck me as particularly supernatural about her: she had an oval, plump face, framed by thick, dirty-blond hair in a side part, held back from her face with two marbled black and brown clips. Her nose turned up slightly at the end, which she held in the air in a rather haughty nature, and looked down it at Celinwel. She raised a single, thin, pale eyebrow at the angry gnome.

“Because it’s not a drug you take for any reason, except when a healer is doing a healing on you.”

“So?” the other woman asked, and shrugged her meaty shoulders. She shifted her weight to jut out a fleshy hip, and moved her long, forest green cardigan out of the way to rest her hand there. Her medium rinse jeans with stylish holes and tears were tucked into knee-high, burnt umber boots. When she tossed some of her hair over shoulder, it revealed an ample chest barely contained beneath a dove gray top.

When Celinwel didn’t answer immediately, she continued. “Won’t that just mean it’ll implicate who you wanted to in the first place? Who knows, maybe he really did do it?”

“Even if he did, what makes you think he’d tell them that?”

“Some misguided sense of love for you, maybe?”

Celinwel snorted.

At least she has some kind of self-awareness to know she’s not an entirely likable person, Rational Brain observed.

But if it wasn’t her…Primal brain said.

“Point is, we had a deal. I take care of your ‘problem’, and you take care of mine.”

“And I still say it was taken care of, even if it wasn’t how you wanted it done.”

“I—“

Someone behind me and out in the bar area dropped a glass, shattering it, and it caused Celinwel and the woman to look over toward me. All eyes widened, and my brain scrambled along with my feet to get back down the hallway.

I severely underestimated how fast gnomes were.

She hit me right behind my knees and tackled me to the ground after barely more than two steps. A small hand grabbed my shoulder, and turned me over, slamming said shoulder into the floor. Pain jarred through my shoulder and rattled my teeth. I bit my tongue and tasted blood.

When I opened my eyes, a dagger hovered a mere inch away from vision. My breath wooshed from me faster than the air from an over-filled balloon punctured by a fork wielding toddler.

“Have you been eavesdropping, little Ord?” she growled.

It shouldn’t have, but the whole situation must have finally rattled some morbid humor loose from my brain, because I laughed.

“’I ain’t been droppin’ no eaves sir, honest,’” I quoted, and giggled like a madwoman.

Celinwel’s dagger-free fist connected with my chest in a quick, powerful downward punch, and knocked the wind from me, chasing away my amusement as quickly as it’d found me.

My eyes watered, and I struggled to breath and not squirm. I looked up at the gnome straddled over my chest, dagger still more than an idle threat not far from my left eye.

“Celinwel!” someone barked from behind me, and her head jerked up. It sounded like the sphinx, but I wasn’t risking a glance to see for sure.

“What?” she spat, annoyed at the interruption.

“She has eaten and drank beneath my roof. By our law I am honor-bound to protect her from all threats, up to and including killing whatever is threatening her if said threat cannot be dissuaded. I already smell her blood, Celinwel. Do not test me.”

The dagger dipped a mere centimeter at the speaker’s pronouncement, which sounded as though he was quoting something, and I swallowed a lump in my throat. He didn’t sound particularly motivated on my behalf to kill Celinwel, but his honor seemed like it’d be reason enough.

Won’t do us much good if we die before he can get to us, Rational Brain squeaked.

She considered his words, emotions flashing across her face faster than the rapids of the waterfall in springtime: anger, fear, defiance, and finally grudging resignation. She’d weighed the potential threat to her life against that of killing me, and I suppose she didn’t like her chances.

The dagger vanished to locations unknown, and she turned her attention back down to me.

“This isn’t over, Ord,” she growled, placing emphasis on ‘Ord’.

“It sure isn’t if you don’t stop calling me Ord,” I mouthed off before I could stop myself.

I didn’t need to see, or hear, the sphinx shake his head. Disbelief at my stupidity was as palpable on the air as the smell of ale.

He and Knight can start a, ‘Why are we protecting this nitwit’ club, Primal Brain snickered.

If looks could murder, I’d have been dead twice over and once more for good measure. Celinwel was none too happy, but she moved away so fast I wasn’t actually sure if she’d jumped or ran. She was next to the other girl, whose eyes I could now see in the low light of the hallway were a baby blue with a glint of crazy. Much in the same way a pond looks safe before a gator breaks the surface and drags you to the bottom to drown you.

I might not have been able to picture her as the murdering or murder-for-favor type until I saw that look in her eyes.

“We’re leaving,” Celinwel said, and they headed back down the hallway to where they’d been arguing. A moment later the backdoor slammed, followed by a gust of cool dawn air.

As I lay on the floor, not quite willing to move so soon after my near-death experience, I wasn’t sure the situation could get much worse unless someone had called my parents to come pick me up.

“I had Thea call Knight.”

I was wrong.

 

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Writing Prompt: It Wasn’t a Crime

writing-prompt-1

“You can’t expect me to believe that,” the detective said, as he laced his fingers and leaned forward on the table, his muscular forearms straining against the dark blue fabric of his off the rack suit. The rain beat down on the roof like the torrential downpour of a god’s fury, and had soaked the detective on his way in. The man in the striped, button-up shirt sat back in his chair, to distance himself from the concentrated smell of old cigarettes wafting from the detective’s wet clothing, as well as the scornful words.

“You can believe what you want, Detective Coulee, but what I did,” he paused, the words caught in his raw, aching throat, “I did for love.” He broke eye contact with the detective, bowed his head, and turned his cinnamon brown eyes to the bright gold of his wedding band. When his head dropped some of his ashen brown hair, like the bark of a live oak, escaped his hair tie and fell froward to frame his lean, gaunt face.

“This was love?” Detective Coulee asked, unfolded his hands, and opened a file to his left. He pushed photo after photo across the cold, metal surface of the table, and though his face betrayed no emotion his amber eyes burned with anger. The lines worn into the detective’s face, like trenches of grief, were made deeper that night as he studied the mutilated body of a beautiful, young, and vibrant woman.

At the procession of photos, the young man glanced up but did not move his head.

“If I didn’t stop her, who would?” he whispered, and the detective frowned.

“Stop her from what?” The man grimaced and refused to meet the detective’s eyes, so the detective slowly repeated himself. At the second asking the man finally looked up, with tears running down his face through the three day scruff on his cheeks.

“All those people at the hospital. They went there for help but found Nora, my wife, instead. You’re supposed to trust your doctor, especially since they have your life in their hands, but my wife’s hands were not to be trusted.” The man sobbed, and bent at the waist, arms over his middle as though his stomach pained him.

“Are you telling me she killed her patients?” Detective Coulee asked, trying to keep the dawning horror from his face. “How many?”

“Hundreds,” the man whispered, voice barely audible. That single word sent a chill down the detective’s spine, and a queasiness spiralled through his gut. The man continued; “She’d bring me their pictures, each one taken right after their time of death. After the last one I knew I was the only one who could stop her. I couldn’t go to the police. Who would believe me, her drunk, philandering husband, over a prestigious doctor?” he scoffed, and wiped this nose across the long sleeve of his shirt at his wrist. “When I saw my chance, I took it. I had to make sure she was dead, and nothing could bring her back. I couldn’t take that chance,” he finished, gesturing to the overkill and ruin of what was once another human being.

The room was silent for a few minutes as everyone absorbed what they’d heard.

“What made this last one different, Isaac?” Though the detective dreaded the answer, he met the Isaac’s eyes when he looked up.

“It was a child, a little boy, and he looked just like our son, Mason. Mason died during surgery after a car accident that was my fault,” Isaac explained, and grimaced again at the remembered pain, both physical and emotional. “So you see, Detective Coulee, I agree it was murder, but it wasn’t a crime. Now my wife can rest in peace with our son. I did it for them,” Isaac said, and closed his eyes. “I did it for love.”