The Not-Cat — New Short Story

Two cats get involved in a sci-fi mystery…

The Not-Cat

by Catherine Mesick

Sometimes I wonder about them.

I was sitting in the kitchen on a chair, watching Miss Lady and the Goofy One—her hair long and dark, his head shiny and bald, and both of their faces twisted up into very human expressions of distress.

“We can’t let her into Lily’s room,” the Goofy One said, jabbing a finger at me. “Cats can stop a baby from breathing.”

“That’s nonsense,” Miss Lady retorted. “Cats sucking the life out an infant is just an old wives’ tale.”

“That’s not what I’m saying.” The Goofy One shook his head, causing light to dance on it in an entrancing manner. “Amber could settle close to Lily and stop her from breathing accidentally.”

I started a little at the sound of my name—the Goofy One usually just called me “that cat.” I sensed in him an extra urgency which made him forget to be insulting. And he was right—lovely baby Lily was in danger.

But not from me.

“I never suggested that we leave Amber alone in Lily’s room,” Miss Lady said, clearly making an effort to be patient. “We should just take her in there so she can get used to the sight and sounds of the baby—and her scent. She needs to get to know Lily’s scent—that way it won’t be so scary for her.”

The Goofy One snorted at that—not an attractive sound. “Amber could bring in germs—she walks through a litter box, you know.”

And that was when I decided to leave. The Goofy One means well, but there’s a lot he doesn’t understand—and that causes him to say some pretty impertinent things.

Besides, it was almost time for me to watch anyway.

I went outside through my well-hidden cat door in the laundry room and climbed the tree just beyond the deck so I could observe.

From my perch, I could see through the sliding glass door to the two humans, who were still talking animatedly in the kitchen.

They were worried about me.

But I was worried about them.

A small, dark form came running across the back lawn in the gathering gloom, but it wasn’t the one I was looking for.

The form kept running and climbed up the tree, its claws scratching on the bark. It came to sit beside me on my branch as night fell all around us on this soft summer evening.

The familiar scent of Tuxie, the cat from next door, washed over me, and I took in his sleek black coat, white-edged paws, and white whiskers. Two white half circles curled up over his otherwise black chops, giving the impression that Tuxie was perpetually smiling.

The illusion suited him—he was slightly foolish and given to silliness.

Good evening, Amber Eyes, Tuxie said.

My name was actually Queen Amber Eyes, but I permitted diminutive forms. My mother, Heavenly Empress, had given me the name. Heavenly Empress had been a dazzlingly beautiful cat with a snowy white coat and bright, clear eyes—one blue, one amber, and I had inherited the amber. My coat was equally magnificent—I was mostly white with patches of ginger and black. My coat was so beautiful that I often had to stop and admire it when I was cleaning it. Likewise, I was often amazed by the beauty of my own eyes as I looked into my water dish and had to pause to admire them before I could drink.

Miss Lady, thanks to her extraordinary cleverness, had actually figured out my given name and called me Amber Eyes—though this was sometimes shortened to “Amber,” which I also allowed. She hadn’t quite figured out the “Queen” part yet, though she had called me “Princess” a few times.

I knew she would get there eventually—I had faith in her.

Amber Eyes, Tuxie said. Did you hear me?

I looked over at him pityingly. “Tuxie” was his human-given name, and he used it even when he was among other cats. His human had given him the name “Tux” because he looked like he was wearing a human garment known as a tuxedo—and the name had subsequently been transformed into Tuxie. But Tuxie was proud of his name, and I didn’t even know what his original, cat-given name had been. He had even gone so far as to name his human “New Momma,” despite the fact that she wasn’t a cat and couldn’t possibly be his mother.

Tuxie had always been a few crunchies short of a full bag.

Amber—Tuxie began.

Yes, I heard you, I said, twitching my tail. Can’t you see I’m watching?

I glanced over at him.

How did you get outside, anyway?

Miss Lady had wisely installed a cat door for me after I had “escaped,” as she put it, numerous times. It really was quite simple to get out of the human house, and no matter how she tried to lock the place up, I always found a way out.

Miss Lady had told me that the outdoors was dangerous, and that that was why I needed to stay in. But I knew that far better than she did—and that was exactly why I had to go out.

But Tuxie didn’t have a pet door, and I knew for a fact that he had been trapped inside for several days.

New Momma was going out to a party, he said. And I ran outside with her. She was wearing a lot of shiny metal objects—metal strings and rings.

I understood. I had seen Miss Lady wearing shiny metal things when she went outside, too.

Tuxie continued. She was carrying a lot of boxes, and she didn’t see me when I ran out the door with her.

Tuxie was quite good at sneaking into and out of places—just like I was—and I admired him for that. But at the moment, all I could think about was how irritated I was.

That human is not your mother, I said.

I know, Tuxie replied patiently. She’s my New Momma.

I ignored that. What are you doing here?

I’ve been watching you from the window, Tuxie said. You’ve been up to something lately. And I want to know what it is.

I’m not up to anything, I said. I’m watching.

Why?

You’ll see. It’s almost time.

A moment later, I stiffened as the dark shape I was waiting for appeared.

It slinked through the shadows toward my house, bringing with it its horrible atmosphere of wrongness. In outward appearance, the form was a cat—sleek and well-muscled with beautiful, dark-brown fur. In its mouth, the catlike form held a tiny gray mouse, now deceased.

But it was most definitely not a cat.

The creature deposited the mouse on the deck and sat down to wait patiently by the sliding glass door.

That’s Samson, Tuxie said. You were waiting for Samson?

That’s not Samson, I replied.

Yes, it is. He lives in that big house in the neighborhood across the big road.

Take a sniff, I said.

Tuxie trained his nose on the creature below, and after a moment, I saw him go still.

That’s not Samson, he said.

His sides heaved once. Then Tuxie lifted his head and scented the air again.

I don’t know what that is.

Neither do I, I said.

What’s it doing? Tuxie asked.

It’s come every night for the last three nights and left a mouse at the door, I said.

Why?

It’s trying to get into the house.

Why does it want to get into your house?

The question made me uncomfortable, and I shifted my position on the tree branch.

Just watch, I said.

Miss Lady and the Goofy One were in still in the kitchen—which was their usual habit after dinner—and tonight was no exception.

I’d watched them discussing me before, and from the looks of it, they were still at it.

But I knew something else would have their attention soon.

Miss Lady was the first to look up. She saw the catlike creature sitting on the deck with its mouse, and her expressive face was overcome with sympathy.

She began to open the sliding glass door, and I heard her voice float out onto the air, high and sweet.

“Poor kitty. Are you back again? Would you like to come inside?”

Time to move, I said.

I was down the tree and across the deck in a flash.

Soon I was hissing and slashing with my claws, and the not-cat scrambled off the deck.

I watched as it ran across the back lawn and disappeared into the distance.

“Oh, Amber Eyes,” Miss Lady said, her voice gentle but a little reproachful. “You have no need to be jealous. That poor little guy’s just looking for a home.”

She reached down to pat me, and I let her scratch the top of my head. Then she moved to the always-wonderful area under my chin.

“Do you want to come inside now?” she asked.

But I stepped back and began to walk away across the deck.

“I guess not,” Miss Lady said. I felt her footsteps reverberating through the wood of the deck, and I heard her push the sliding glass door open a little wider so she could go back inside.

“See?” The Goofy One’s voice floated out to me. “That’s exactly why I don’t want that cat in Lily’s room.”

I flattened my ears against the sound of his voice, and moments later, the glass door slid shut, blocking him out.

I climbed back up the tree and returned to Tuxie, whose entire body was quivering.

He soon began to pepper me with questions.

What was that creature?

Why does it look like Samson?

Why did you chase it away?

I ignored all the questions except for the last one.

I chased it away, I said, because it’s after Lily.

Protecting Lily was my job. Actually, protecting all of them was my job.

My mother, Heavenly Empress, had told me when I was a kitten that we had a duty to look after humans. They were lovable, she said, but they weren’t very smart, and they were always getting themselves into trouble.

Since we as cats had a highly developed intellect and far superior senses—not to mention much faster reflexes and greater jumping ability—it was up to us to keep humans from harm. And that included not just harm they would cause themselves, but dangers they might encounter out in the world. Heavenly Empress told me that I would know when I met the human I was meant to guard and protect—and she was right. As soon as I met Miss Lady, I knew she was the one—even though I was a very young kitten.

So Miss Lady became my pet human, and I gave her a new name, and we lived happily together—and I looked after her.

And then the Goofy One had showed up.

He had a loud voice, a loud laugh, and loud feet. But Miss Lady seemed to like him, so I let her keep him.

And I gave him a new name, too—one that suited him. Miss Lady and the Goofy One had the human names of Bonnie and Clyde, and for some reason, that always made other humans laugh.

I didn’t know why they would have names that others of their kind thought were funny, but humans often did irrational things.

And so I looked after those two together until Lily came along. Lily, who had a beautiful, new baby smell and who was fragile and hairless as only a human kitten could be. Though I had seen very little of her, I loved her very much, and I knew I was meant to watch over her, too.

And someday, when Lily was a little older, and I had a better idea of what she was really like, I would give her a better name to replace the ridiculous one her parents had given her.

But right now I had more pressing matters to attend to, and I came out of my reverie to find that Tuxie was talking to me.

Why do you think it’s after Lily? he asked.

I can sense it, I said firmly. The not-cat is a predator.

Tuxie paused to consider this. Yes. You are right. I could feel that, too.

I’ve seen its eyes, I continued. The way it stares at Lily. It wants a way in. And it wants her.

Why doesn’t it just use your cat door? Tuxie asked.

I felt a flash of alarm.

It’s well hidden, I said, thinking quickly. Miss Lady was smart to do that. It’s in the door to the laundry room. They don’t use that door anymore, and plants have grown in front of it. You wouldn’t know it was there unless you were looking for it.

I paused uncomfortably. But you’re right. It’s a vulnerable spot. I paused again. Can you take me to Samson’s house?

Yes, Tuxie replied. Why do you want to go there?

I want to see if we can figure out what’s going on. I have a feeling the humans are really going to need our help.

We ran through the growing darkness, and Tuxie led me across the big road to the neighborhood on the other side.

As he ran, his black legs with their white toes became a black-and-white blur, and he looked like a small shadow slipping through the larger ones.

Once again, I admired Tuxie’s stealth abilities.

He led me on past many houses and streets, until we came to a very large, white house with red shutters.

That’s Samson’s house? I said.

Yes, Tuxie replied.

Does he have a cat door?

I don’t know. I don’t think so. I think his humans just let him out. That’s very rare nowadays. Many humans keep cats inside. They think it’s safer. New Momma says there are many dangers in the world.

I thought back to the not-cat, and a deep sense of dread flowed through me.

Your human and the others may be right, I said. But in that case, the humans should stay inside and let the cats go out. That way we can take care of them.

New Momma says she takes care of me, Tuxie said stubbornly. That’s why she doesn’t like me to go out.

But you still sneak out every chance you get, I said.

I like going outside, Tuxie said.

I’d heard Miss Lady sighing when the Goofy One was exceptionally dim.

If I’d been capable of sighing, I would have done so at that moment.

Instead, I returned to business.

Do you think Samson’s humans know someone is impersonating him?

I don’t know, Tuxie replied.

Does the not-cat go in the house and pretend to be Samson? I asked. Or is Samson in the house right now, and the not-cat just runs around the neighborhood?

I don’t know, Tuxie replied.

I think it’s important to find out if Samson is missing or in the house, I said. I also think it’s important to find out if the not-cat has been visiting any other houses with babies. Do you know which houses have babies?

Tuxie thought for a moment. He and I both went out, but he did more exploring, while I did more watching from my tree. He was more likely to know the doings of local humans than I was.

It’s hard to say, he said after a little while. I know of quite a few houses with smaller humans. But babies are harder to know about. They don’t generally go outside much. They usually go straight into the house and then don’t come out for the first few months. And when they do come out, they’re in baskets or carts with wheels.

That’s true, I said. That does make it harder.

Does it have to be a baby? Tuxie asked.

I believe so, I said. The not-cat has been staring very hard whenever it sees Lily in the kitchen. And it doesn’t stare at my other humans at all. And it didn’t stare at the neighbor human when she came over yesterday evening with her smaller human. It was only ever interested in the baby.

That is very disturbing, Tuxie said.

We devised a plan of action together, and soon after that, we parted ways.

Tuxie needed to go home then to eat his gushie food.

He’d explained that since New Momma didn’t know he had gotten out, she would have left the food in his bowl. She’d probably assumed that he was sleeping somewhere and would eat it later.

Tuxie had pointed out that it was important to eat the gushie food before it dried out—and I agreed with him. Gushie food was no good once it became gray and dry, and besides, we would both need food if we were to continue our investigation into the night. After we had both eaten, Tuxie was going to go out again and see if he could find out if Samson was in his house. And I would go out and see if the not-cat had visited any other houses—especially ones with babies.

When I’d asked Tuxie how he was going to get back into his human’s house—since he had sneaked out when she’d left—Tuxie had replied that New Momma typically left the windows open in the summer, and he could climb up and get in through a screen that had a hole in it.

I approved of this greatly. I knew well the joys of screens in windows and doors—both hanging on them and tearing into them.

Tuxie had chosen well.

I returned home and ate myself, and then I headed out into the night.

Tuxie might have seemed like the obvious choice to go exploring the surrounding neighborhoods, since he tended to do that anyway. However, Tuxie didn’t get along well with other cats, and I did. I wasn’t very territorial, and had no interest in taking over another cat’s domain—and somehow they always seemed to sense this. Tuxie, on the other hand, despite his general air of harmlessness and cluelessness, often got into fights with other cats. Those fights usually ended in a whirling ball of fur, with both combatants separating abruptly and running for their respective homes.

That was not how we needed things to go tonight.

We needed other cats to talk to us—to tell us what they’d seen.

And as usual, I was the best cat for the job.

I spent several hours canvasing my neighborhood and the one beyond the big road. I could have gone even further—but it wasn’t necessary.

I found what I needed close to home.

Two cats had seen the not-cat, and both had noticed that it smelled funny—and wrong. The first cat—the gray one with the black stripes—also knew Samson and was quite sure that it wasn’t the same cat. The other one—the cream-colored one—had witnessed the not-cat attempting to get into his house.

And he lived in a house with a baby.

That was all I needed to hear. I returned home and slept for several hours. Tuxie and I had planned to meet in the morning to share what we had learned. I had only ever seen the not-cat at dusk, and my witnesses had told me the same thing.

Meeting in the morning would give Tuxie and me plenty of time to plan our next move.

After I’d had my morning crunchies, I went out through the cat door and climbed up my tree to wait.

I didn’t have to wait long—before an hour had passed, I saw Tuxie’s black-and-white form moving toward me through the dewy grass.

Soon he’d climbed the tree I was perched in, and he stepped out on the limb where I was seated and walked over to me.

Good morning, Amber Eyes, he said.

Good morning, I replied.

Did you have good hunting last night?

Yes, I did. I told him quickly about the two cat witnesses I had interviewed.

At the end of my tale, I could feel concern radiating off Tuxie.

Then you were right, he said. The not-cat is after human babies.

How about you? I said. Did you have good hunting?

Yes, Tuxie replied. I found out what I needed to know. But the news isn’t good.

What did you discover?

The not-cat isn’t wearing a collar—and Samson does. And there are pieces of paper with Samson’s picture on them posted on the telephone poles and fences. Samson hasn’t been back to his home in several days.

Then the real Samson is missing? I said.

Yes, Tuxie said. And there are rumors that he was carried out of his house in the middle of the night.

Carried? I said. By a human?

Tuxie paused for a long time.

No, he said at last. It was a creature like a skink with too-blue eyes. And it was tall like a human.

Tuxie shuddered.

A skink? I said. Do you mean the lizard with the blue tail?

Yes.

Why would a tall lizard take a cat?

It was a skink, Tuxie said. And I don’t know. I think we should tell New Momma.

New Momma? I said. Why?

Tuxie’s tail twitched. New Momma is a human guard. I think she can help us. And we need help.

I considered the problem for a moment. It might not be a bad idea to have help—even if that help was only human. But the human brain was very limited, and my mind boggled at the idea of trying to explain something this complex to a human.

They wouldn’t be able to comprehend it, I said. They would get confused and think we just wanted food or toys.

We should tell New Momma, Tuxie said stubbornly.

Once again, had I been human, I would have sighed.

Tuxie could be really thick.

You can go ahead and try, I said. But what words will you use? How will you tell New Momma that a tall lizard has carried off Samson? And how will you tell her that there is now a not-cat running around the neighborhood impersonating Samson?

Tuxie stared at me for a long time.

Then he continued to stare.

I assumed from his silence that he couldn’t answer my questions.

Here’s what we should do, I said. The not-cat always appears around dusk. We should wait till he comes to my house, and then once I chase him off, we should follow him. We should follow him all night until we figure out what’s going on.

Tuxie stared steadily down at the tree limb we were sitting on. His ears weren’t back, but I could tell he was angry.

Will you come with me tonight? I asked. Your stealth abilities would be very valuable.

Tuxie maintained a stony silence.

I know you love New Momma, I said.

Tuxie looked up. I do love New Momma.

I love Miss Lady, too, I said. And Lily and even the Goofy One. That’s why I want to do this.

Cats are in trouble, aren’t they? Tuxie said. And human babies.

Yes.

I will help you, Tuxie said. But I still think we should tell New Momma. She’s very smart.

I thought it was sweet that he had so much faith in his human.

You must do what you think is best, I said.

Tuxie ran down the tree and disappeared across the yard. I climbed down, too, and went back in the house.

I slept for a long time, and throughout the day, I had water and crunchies from my special bowls to fortify me. By the time dusk rolled around, I was refreshed and alert and ready to tackle the evening’s work.

I was ready to take on the not-cat.

I went outside to climb my usual tree to watch for Tuxie.

Soon I saw him hurrying across the grass toward me. His ears were folded back, and I had a feeling I knew what was troubling him.

Tuxie soon joined me up on my tree limb. His ears were no longer back, but I could see his angry face silhouetted against the orange and pink of the sky.

You were right, he said without preamble.

Right about what? I asked—just to be polite.

I tried to tell New Momma. But she just couldn’t understand.

I looked at Tuxie then, and I could see that his face wasn’t so much angry as despairing.

It’s not your fault, I said. And it’s not New Momma’s fault, either. Humans just have trouble comprehending more complex ideas. But they do the best they can. And I was proud of you for your belief in your human. The more we believe in them, the better they will be able to do.

Tuxie looked up at me. You really think so?

I do.

It’s not just that New Momma can’t understand, Tuxie said, and I could sense both frustration and fear welling up within him. It’s the whole thing. This isn’t just about babies or cats. It’s big—very big. I can sense it.

I was even prouder of Tuxie now—he was embracing his true destiny as a protector of humans.

And I realized he was right. We had to protect the humans.

All of them.

We’ll fix it, I said. We’ll figure out what’s going on tonight. Then we’ll figure out how to stop it.

Tuxie sat for a minute and seemed to absorb that. Then his body relaxed, and he looked noticeably less distressed.

So what do we do now? he said.

We just wait for the not-cat, I replied. Then we follow it. And then we take care of this once and for all.

We didn’t have to wait long.

Soon I saw the sleek, brown creature that should have been Samson but wasn’t wending its way through the grass. It walked all the way across the lawn and passed by the tree where Tuxie and I perched without even glancing at us.

It jumped up onto the deck and deposited a mouse by the sliding glass door like it usually did. Then it sat down to wait.

Miss Lady and the Goofy One were in the kitchen after dinner per their usual custom. After a few minutes, Miss Lady noticed the not-cat and began to walk toward the door.

Time to move, I said.

Tuxie and I scrambled down the tree.

Just as Miss Lady was extending a hand to pet the not-cat, I reached the creature’s side, and my claws flashed out.

Miss Lady let out a soft sound of dismay, but I didn’t have time to comfort her. The not-cat took off immediately, its body a brown flash against the green grass, and Tuxie and I took off in pursuit.

After a while, it slowed but didn’t pause to lick itself as a normal cat would have done. Instead, it simply continued to walk, seemingly unaware of our presence.

Tuxie and I both slowed also and continued to follow the creature.

Where’s it going? Tuxie asked.

I don’t know, I said. We’ll have to continue to watch.

The not-cat led us across three streets to a blue house with white shutters. There it waited by another sliding glass door, though this time it didn’t have a mouse. After failing to attract the attention of the humans inside, the not-cat got up and moved on.

Darkness was gathering slowly as it did in summer, but the night was on its way.

What if the not-cat just wanders around all night? Tuxie asked anxiously.

Be patient, I said. We’ll figure this out.

This time, the not-cat led us to a green house with darker green shutters, and I recognized it as the house of Peanut Butter, the cream-colored cat I had interviewed.

Be alert, I said to Tuxie. This is a house that has a baby.

Tuxie stared at me with big round eyes, and I could see his body tense with anticipation.

The not-cat hurried up to a screen door at the back of the house and scratched at it. The inner, wooden door was standing open, and I could hear the sound of a TV from somewhere deeper in the house.

The not-cat scratched again.

“Mommy, I heard something!” cried a childish voice.

The voice was followed by scampering footsteps, and a human girl with yellow hair looked out through the screen door. When she saw the not-cat, her eyes lit up.

“Mommy! The brown cat is back!” she shouted. “Can we keep him?”

“Caitlin!” called an older female voice from somewhere in the house. “Do not open that door! We already have a cat, and one is enough. We are not taking in a stray.”

“But, Mommy!” Caitlin wailed. “The poor kitty just wants a home!”

“Caitlin, get away from that door!”

The girl’s face disappeared from the screen door, and soft footfalls stepped away.

After a few minutes, the soft footsteps returned.

The screen door opened ever so slightly, and a foot with five tanned toes set itself down on the concrete step. Moments later, a small face appeared.

“I’m just going to leave the door open a little,” Caitlin whispered, peeking out from behind her yellow hair. “It’s okay if you want to come in for a while.”

Her little fingers slid a metal ring along a bar, and the screen door remained open as if by magic.

Caitlin quickly ran back into the house.

The not-cat stared at the open door for just a moment.

Then it ran inside.

Tuxie and I swiftly followed it.

Inside, it was cool and drafty, as if someone had a large fan blowing somewhere. The room appeared to be a kitchen, and the not-cat ran for a cabinet and hit underneath it. Tuxie and I hid behind a trash can that was next to a row of shelves.

Caitlin came pattering back into the room expectantly. She looked around the kitchen but didn’t see the not-cat or us.

Her shoulders slumped in disappointment, and she left the room.

The not-cat waited quietly under the cabinet for a very long time, and we waited behind our trash can with equal patience. The garbage was pungent, and I could smell fruit peels, wet coffee grounds, and the welcome aroma of an empty tuna fish can.

I could also smell the wrongness of the creature.

The humans came and went, and eventually the TV turned off.

Once the house settled into darkness and silence, the not-cat emerged.

Tuxie and I both straightened.

The creature slipped stealthily out of the kitchen and stole without a sound down a dark hallway.

We followed.

Then it slipped into a room with an open door.

Tuxie and I hurried in after it.

Inside was a white crib that loomed out of the dark, and I caught the unmistakable fresh, beautiful smell of a baby.

The not-cat padded silently toward the crib and then stopped.

As I watched, the creature began to grow taller.

It kept growing until it was the size of an adult human.

I stared in horror as the giant cat reached into the crib with its enormous paws.

As it did so, the not-cat continued to transform. Its fur turned into scales, and its face became flattened and snub-nosed like a lizard’s. Its eyes turned a bright, piercing blue, and light actually shone from them like headlights on a human car.

The creature reached out with webbed fingers and picked up a sleeping baby that had been nestled in the crib. The baby stirred, and the creature sprinkled a red powder on its nose.

The baby went back to sleep.

Then, cradling the human baby with one hand, the creature dropped to the floor onto its other three limbs and scuttled out of the room.

Tuxie was staring after the creature with horror in his big yellow eyes.

Did you see that? he said.

Yes, I said. We can’t let it get away!

Tuxie and I ran after the lizard-like creature, following the glow of its blazing blue eyes through the dark.

It ran back to the kitchen, and I realized with alarm that it was running back to the open screen door.

The grown human woman in the house had eventually noticed that the screen door was open and had shut both it and the wooden door—and locked it.

But Tuxie and I had watched as Caitlin had sneaked back into the kitchen later on, and had opened the wooden door and propped the screen door open again—no doubt still hoping to entice the not-cat to come in.

But now the not-cat was using the door as an exit, and it escaped out into the night.

Tuxie and I ran after it.

The creature wasn’t difficult to follow. It wasn’t particularly fast, and its peculiar, three-legged gait—necessary to keep hold of the baby—was hard to miss against the moonlight.

And then there were its eyes—blue and glowing like lamps in the night.

And so we pursued the creature as it ran with its precious captive across lawns and streets.

Eventually, it plunged into a forest.

Tuxie and I ran in after it.

Before long, the creature came to a huge, black metal object that lay on the forest floor. The object looked like a human house that had been squashed to be longer and flatter.

It’s a house for tall lizards, I said to Tuxie.

They’re skinks, he said obstinately.

The creature paused before it and stood on its hind legs. It appeared to be tapping on the black house with its free hand.

I bet it’s going to go inside, I said.

Tuxie was alarmed. We can’t go in there.

We have to, I said. We have to get the baby back.

A door in the big black house began to open.

Come on, Tuxie, I said.

He stepped back. I can’t.

You’re a cat, I said. You can do anything.

This is too much. We need New Momma.

You trust New Momma, right? I said.

Right.

Well, I trust Miss Lady. And she told me a story, I said. She said a big cat came down from the trees and wrestled an alligator and won. She told me then that cats can do anything. And I believe Miss Lady.

Oh, Tuxie said. What’s an alligator?

I don’t know, I admitted. But Miss Lady said they’re very big and have big teeth.

So what does that mean? Tuxie asked, his fear filling the air.

It means we go in, I said firmly.

The door in the big black house opened all the way, and the creature stepped inside.

The door began to close.

Come on, Tuxie, I said.

I sprinted for the closing door.

Moments later, I heard Tuxie following me.

We slipped inside and the door clanged shut behind us.

We looked around.

Both the creature and the baby had disappeared.

I lifted my head and sniffed. The scents inside the house were bad—very bad. And the feeling in the air was worse.

This was the lair of predators.

I caught the scent of the baby and the creature.

This way, I said, running off down a long hallway.

Tuxie followed me, looking rattled.

Did you notice how that creature turned into a giant cat back at the house? Tuxie flattened his ears against his head as he ran. That was terrifying.

Yes, I noticed, I said.

Did you notice how it turned into a giant skink next? Tuxie asked.

Yes, I noticed, I said.

That was terrifying, too.

Yes, tall lizards are kind of terrifying, I agreed, scenting the air once more.

They’re not lizards. New Momma calls them skinks.

Tuxie’s ears were back again.

We can call them skinks if it makes you feel better, I said.

Tuxie’s ears perked up again, so I assumed that that did, in fact, make him feel better.

We continued on, tracking the skink and the baby, and the halls we passed through were long and black like the house itself. There were no other doors apart from the one we had entered through, and the halls seemed to go on forever. But the scent of the skink and the baby continued to draw me on. And even though there were many other strange scents in the air, it was easy to follow their trail.

Where do you think these tall skinks come from? Tuxie asked. I’ve never seen anything like them before.

I don’t know, I said. Maybe they come from Florida. I’ve heard it’s far.

Tuxie considered the information for a moment.

You could be right, he said at last.

Several more turns brought us to a large, open room—and there in the middle was our original not-cat with its blazing blue eyes, along with two other tall skinks with equally bright eyes—one of whom held the baby. The room was black, like the halls had been, and the light would have been very dim for human eyes. Luckily, our superior cat vision had no trouble with the low light, and I could see everything quite clearly.

The skinks were standing around a black table that had three clear boxes on it. In one box was a motionless gray mouse. In the next one, there was a sleek, brown cat, clearly asleep. And the third box was empty—the skinks were placing the baby into it.

Look, Amber Eyes, Tuxie said. There’s the baby. And there’s the real Samson. What should we do?

I see them, I said. Wait just a minute.

Once the baby was in the box, one of the skinks closed the lid and latched it. Then another skink began to press buttons on a wall. Our original skink placed his hands on the box. After a moment, he turned into a human baby.

He began to fall and the skink beside him caught him.

The skink by the wall pressed more buttons, and he argued with the other one in a harsh, rasping language—they both appeared to be very angry. Only the skink that had become the baby remained silent—which, from my experience, was a very unbabylike way to behave.

After a moment, the two tall skinks seemed to give up in frustration, and the baby-skink assumed its original form after its chubby hands were placed back on the box and more buttons were pressed.

Then the three skinks left the room, all rasping at each other.

Once they had disappeared, I jumped up on the black table and sniffed at the boxes.

Tuxie did the same.

What’s going on here? he asked.

I don’t know. I sniffed at Samson through the clear box. But I do understand why they took Samson now.

Why?

They put him in this box so they could look like him. That skink turned into Samson and the baby.

Tuxie sniffed at Samson. At least he’s okay.

He scratched at the box and meowed at Samson.

But Samson didn’t wake up.

Tuxie sniffed at the mouse next. The mouse is dead. Why do they have a mouse?

That skink can turn into other creatures if they put them in these boxes, I said. He probably turned into the mouse, too.

Tuxie stared hard at the mouse for a long moment as if he were puzzling something out.

I think I see, he said. A skink was seen carrying Samson out of his house. I bet he went in as a mouse and then took Samson out. And they need small creatures so they can fit in their boxes.

You’re right, I said.

Tuxie looked pleased.

Why not just use a mouse instead of Samson? I asked.

Tuxie stared hard at the box again.

People will kill mice, he said after a moment. But cats and people are family. A skink is less likely to be attacked if he goes in as a cat.

It was my turn to stare.

That’s very clever, Tuxie, I said. I’m proud of you.

Tuxie looked so pleased I thought he would burst.

So what do they want? I asked. They want mice to get to cats. And they want cats to get to babies. Why do they want babies?

Tuxie thought hard, but he said nothing.

I thought hard, too.

And then it came to me.

The baby couldn’t turn tall, I said.

I am very glad that it didn’t, Tuxie replied. The idea seemed to horrify him.

But they wanted it to, I said. I bet that’s what all the skinks were arguing about. They wanted the not-cat to grow big.

And be a giant baby? Tuxie looked petrified.

I think they want him to look like a grown-up human, I said. But babies and human adults are very different.

Yes, Tuxie said. Babies can’t walk. Babies have to crawl. They also can’t go out by themselves.

That’s it! I said. They want to look like tall humans. They want to look like adults. They want to get into human houses and replace them. And do all the things grown-up humans can do.

Tuxie’s yellow eyes opened wide, and he took a step back.

Why?

They are predators, I said. They want to take over the humans’ territory. And get rid of them.

Tuxie began to tremble. Even New Momma?

Even New Momma.

I turned to the boxes on the table and began to claw at them.

We have to do something, I said. We have to save them.

Tuxie trembled for a moment longer.

And then he began to help me.

We scratched and meowed at the boxes with Samson and the baby, but we couldn’t get into the boxes, and neither Samson nor the baby would wake up.

Tuxie and I both sat down in frustration—there was a latch on all the boxes. There was no way we could open them.

I thought and thought.

And then I had an idea.

We need to tell New Momma, I said suddenly.

What was that? Tuxie asked.

Didn’t you say New Momma was a human guard?

Tuxie was ecstatic. Yes. She wears special blue clothes and everything. You really want to tell her?

Yes, I do. New Momma has hands—not paws. She can open a latch. And she can bring others to see the skinks and chase them away.

Tuxie jumped down from the table in excitement. Let’s go!

Then he paused.

But how will we make her understand? I couldn’t do it before.

I jumped down beside him.

You know New Momma’s shiny metal objects that she wears? I asked. The strings and rings?

Yes, Tuxie replied.

Does she have a special one?

Yes.

Can you get to it?

Yes.

Then we can bring her here, I said.

We found a vent in the big black house and escaped outside.

Then we ran all the way through the dark forest back to New Momma’s house.

Tuxie led me in through the torn screen, and then he led me into the bathroom.

There in the semidarkness, on a shelf next to the sink, was a pile of metal.

Tuxie jumped onto the shelf. This metal string with the ring on it is the most special one.

Pick it up in your mouth, I said.

And then what? Tuxie asked.

And then we run.

Tuxie stared at me for a moment, and then comprehension dawned on him.

Oh, he said.

He grabbed the metal string with the ring on it, and we went into New Momma’s bedroom.

She was asleep, snoring loudly.

I meowed until the snoring stopped and she woke up, and then she turned on the lights and stared at us blearily.

“Crazy cats,” she muttered. Then she squinted at Tuxie. “What have you got there?”

Her eyes widened. “Tuxie, is that my mother’s ring? What are you doing with that?”

In response, Tuxie turned and ran. I followed him, and New Momma followed both of us, shouting at us to stop.

We ran to the window with the torn screen and slipped outside, making sure that she saw us. We waited in the back yard until New Momma made it out of the house and spotted us once again.

Then we led her on a chase.

We ran across lawns and streets, and eventually we plunged into the forest, always making sure that New Momma could keep up with us.

And then we led her to the big black house.

New Momma stared at it for a long time. Her mouth opened and closed.

But no sound came out.

Then she took out a slim phone she had brought with her and talked into it. Soon, cars with whirling red and blue lights showed up, bringing human guards in blue clothes. Not long after, loud flying cars with bright lights appeared in the sky, and even more human guards showed up—this time dressed in dull green. The three skinks came out, and there was a lot of fighting—with many loud explosions. Tuxie and I flattened ourselves against the ground.

But there were more humans than skinks, and eventually the skinks were captured. Their long lizard-like hands were wrapped in metal bracelets, and they were herded onto the flying human cars. The human guards went into the black house and brought out Samson and the baby.

We heard lots of words like “scout ship,” “attack,” “invasion,” and “saved the world,” and all the human guards congratulated New Momma.

I knew Tuxie and I had actually saved everyone—but I was proud of New Momma for paying attention.

I’d done my job as a guardian, and that was all I needed to know.

Once I was sure everyone was safe, I turned for home.

Morning was well on its way by the time I made it in through the cat door.

I walked into the kitchen for breakfast, and Miss Lady hurried out to greet me.

“There’s my beautiful Amber Eyes,” she said, scratching my head. “We were worried about you.”

“This is exactly why I said we shouldn’t have a cat door,” the Goofy One said, coming into the room. “She could get hurt wandering around all night. And she’s covered in dirt. She’s bringing germs into the house. We can’t have germs in the house with a baby.”

“A few germs never hurt anybody,” Miss Lady said. “Did you have a big adventure last night, Amber? Did you? Did you save the world?”

I had—and it was just like Miss Lady to understand.

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

Thanks very much for reading!

Mae Wedding–Free Short Story

Dani is running late for her sister’s wedding. As she hurries to the wedding site—far out in a mysterious stretch of woods—she runs into her ex, Gabe. Can Dani and Gabe rekindle their lost love? Or are they fated to remain on separate paths? (A paranormal romance short story by Catherine Mesick.)

Dani.

Dani.

Danielle!

There were three texts from my sister waiting for me on my phone as I hurried out the door.

Somehow I hadn’t noticed them before.

I closed the door of my town house behind me and then stopped to type a response.

I’m here, Audrey. What do you want?

I stared at the text for a moment, realizing that it sounded a lot sharper than I’d intended it to, and I paused with my finger over the “send message” icon.

I really didn’t want to start an argument with my sister on her wedding day.

Then another text from Audrey popped up.

Danielle! Where are you?

So I just went ahead and sent the text I had already typed.

A moment later, Audrey replied.

Thanks for finally answering. I thought you had overslept.

There was a pause and then another text.

Do you have the ring? You’d better not forget it.

Of course I have the ring, I typed irritably.

But even as I pressed send, doubt tugged at my mind.

I began to rummage around in my flower-covered purse.

I couldn’t find the little black ring box anywhere.

Another text came through.

I’m sorry to be pesky. But I know how forgetful you are. Love you.

I stared at Audrey’s text in irritation and then went back into the house.

I found the little black ring box sitting on the kitchen table, and I snatched it up, feeling its soft velvet surface under my fingers.

I opened the box, just to make sure the ring was actually in it, and the gold band sparkled back at me reassuringly, nestled in its little black cushion. Then I snapped the box closed and dropped it into my purse in annoyance.

Then I made myself pause and take a breath.

It wasn’t the ring’s fault that I’d forgotten it—and it wasn’t Audrey’s fault, either. My big sister wasn’t really a bridezilla—in fact, she’d been good-natured and patient throughout almost all of the wedding preparations.

It was just in the last few days that she’d been stressed out. And I really couldn’t blame her—she just wanted things to go well so that everyone—bride and groom included—had a good time.

As I hurried back toward the door, I paused for just a moment to check my reflection in the mirror in the hall.

I wanted to make sure I hadn’t forgotten anything else.

My sister, who was usually so calm and businesslike, had gone full-on Renaissance fair for her wedding. Audrey was twenty-seven—two years older than I was—and I would have thought that she was too old for that sort of thing.

But playing princess had taken a hold of her mind, and as her maid of honor, I was now dressed up in full maiden of yore regalia. My long blond hair, which I’d been growing out for the last six months, had been done up in braids and ribbons, and I’d been allowed to do my makeup any way I’d wished, as long as it was “natural.” But I couldn’t say the same thing about my dress. I was wearing a long and elaborate rose-colored gown that might not have been so bad if it weren’t for all the bows and ribbons and lace that had been attached everywhere.

And the puffy sleeves.

I really did not like the puffy sleeves.

But it was my sister’s wedding, and she liked the dress, so I was going to do my best to be happy wearing it.

Satisfied that Audrey would approve of my appearance, I hurried outside, slipping just a little in my flower-adorned sandals, and got in my car.

As I turned the key in the ignition—and prayed that my unreliable car would start—I found myself wondering if the princess bug would have bitten me, too, if things had worked out a little differently.

My heart fluttered a little at the thought, but then my car coughed to life, and I backed down the driveway and took off.

The wedding site was way out in the middle of nowhere, in the center of a heavily wooded state park, and luckily, my phone gave me good directions to the place. Even so, I was running short on time, and the parking lot near the site was filling up fast. I knew Audrey was basically ready to walk down the aisle, and our mother was there, but she still needed her maid of honor—if for no other reason than to steady her nerves. I parked quickly and jumped out of the car.

The wooded area where the wedding tents had been set up was vast, and I hurriedly pulled a scrap of paper with directions out of my purse.

My phone couldn’t help me where I was going.

I ran across the parking lot, slipping in my sandals again, and I soon reached the wide dirt path that the directions said would eventually lead to the secluded wedding site.

I hurried onto the path and soon found myself in the woods.

My sandals slapped at my heels as I ran along the hard-packed dirt, and my elaborate hairstyle was so full of bobby pins that I felt as if I had a metal helmet clanking against my head.

Luckily, the directions my sister had given me were good, and I was able to find all the landmarks and turn onto the right twisting dirt path that would lead me to the private area that was reserved for the wedding. I’d missed the rehearsal due to a sudden spring cold, so I was going to see the actual site and the tents for the first time.

I fished my phone out of my purse and looked for a photo of the site that Audrey had sent me. I found the photo and held it up in front of me—the site appeared to be in a little valley.

Then I put my phone back in my purse and hurried on.

As I ran, I kept an eye out for Gabe Kelley. He was the best man for Kevin Lattimer, the groom, and I wondered if I might run into him along the way. Gabe would surely need to arrive early, just as I did, and I wouldn’t have minded talking to him for a few minutes alone.

My heart fluttered again at the thought.

Gabe and I had once gotten along very well—we’d even been headed to a wedding site of our own. And then we had argued—disastrously—and things had come to an end. But time had passed—more than a year, in fact—and I’d found myself thinking about him again.

I wondered if he’d been thinking about me, too.

The path before me suddenly branched off into two, and I stopped to consult my directions.

My little scrap of paper seemed to indicate that I should take the path on the left side, but as I looked at the two forking branches, I saw that the left one was just plain dirt, and the right one had little glowing lights that ran along the ground.

The right one was definitely more festive-looking.

I consulted my little piece of paper once again. It still seemed to show that the left side was the correct path to follow, but as I stood staring at the directions, I could hear laughter and music floating up to me distantly. The sound was coming from the right-hand path.

I decided to follow the branch on the right, just in case.

Maybe Audrey had made a mistake in the directions.

I stepped onto the path, preparing to run again, but I was suddenly overcome by a sense of peace, and my feet slowed to a stroll.

I found myself admiring the decorative lights as I walked.

The lights were ingenious little glowing orbs that seemed to float just above the ground on both sides of the path, and they glowed in beautiful jewel tones—rich reds, deep blues, brilliant greens, dazzling yellows. I peered a little closer, wondering how the floating effect was achieved.

They really were lovely, and I marveled at the ingenuity of Audrey’s wedding planner.

I continued on down the path, and I found myself looking around in wonder. Somehow, the air seemed just a little sweeter, and as I looked up at the bright blue sky just visible through the trees, I found myself thinking that Audrey had chosen the perfect date and place.

May really was a perfect time for a wedding.

Soon I spotted people on the path up ahead of me, and I could hear the distant sound of conversation, along with more music.

I must have chosen the right path after all.

Suddenly, I heard someone calling my name.

“Dani! Dani, stop!” cried a familiar male voice.

I drew in my breath sharply.

The voice sounded like Gabe’s.

But when I turned to see who it was, there was no one on the path behind me. There was, however, a disturbance in a thick growth of bushes nearby.

Someone or something was shaking the branches violently.

I stepped a little closer, and then someone called out to me again.

“My lady!”

This voice was different from the first one—and unfamiliar.

I turned to see a man running toward me.

He was tall and blond, and he looked worried. His pale blond brows were furrowed, and the corners of his thin lips were drawn down.

“My lady!” he said again.

“What’s with the ‘my lady’ stuff?” I asked as he reached me.

Then I took in the belted tunic he was wearing with breeches and boots—definitely Ren fair style.

“Oh,” I said. “You must be here for the wedding.”

The man’s face lit up. “Yes, my lady. My name is Virgil. Your sister sent me to find you.”

I frowned a little as I looked at him. “My sister sent you? I’m afraid I don’t recognize you.”

Virgil looked embarrassed. “I’m a new member of the queen’s guard. But I’m quite capable, I can assure you.”

He held out a hand. “This way, if you please.”

“The queen’s guard?” I murmured to myself. It seemed to me that my sister was laying things on pretty thick.

I glanced up at Virgil as the two of us started walking along the path, and I saw the tip of a pointed ear poking out of his long blond hair—Audrey must have talked him into wearing prosthetics.

“She’s really gone all out for this wedding, hasn’t she?” I said.

Virgil glanced at me a little nervously. “Do you mean your sister, my lady?”

“Yes.”

Virgil cast his eyes down. “It’s not really for me to say.”

I sighed. So Virgil was going to stay in character as a member of the queen’s guard, and we wouldn’t even be able to make small talk. But at least I knew for sure that I had chosen the right path to follow.

I was glad I’d followed my instincts and ignored the directions.

There was a shout and more violent rustling from the bushes we had left behind, and I turned back quickly.

“What was that?” I said.

Virgil’s face hardened. “Nothing to worry about. My men will take care of it.”

I was surprised for a moment by just how serious he looked, but I supposed he was committed to his role.

I allowed myself to be led away.

As we walked along the path, Virgil kept glancing over at me.

“Is something wrong?” I asked.

Virgil’s fair skin went slightly pink.

“It’s just that your gown is most becoming, my lady,” he said. “And if I may say so, you truly are as beautiful as everyone says. And the accident that clipped off the tip of your ear has done nothing to mar your beauty.”

He frowned. “Although I thought it was just the one ear—but it looks like it was actually both.”

“My ear?” I said, puzzled.

Virgil’s blush deepened to red.

“I’m sorry, my lady. I was too free with my words. I shouldn’t have commented at all.”

Virgil’s posture became very stiff and formal, and I found myself thinking that Audrey’s friends were weird.

He continued to lead me along the brightly lit path through the trees, and soon we came out into a clearing.

The clearing sloped down into a little valley, and the valley was filled with white tents and lights that magically floated in the air in all colors of the rainbow. People with long, flowing hair, dressed in elaborate costumes, were hurrying back and forth between the tents, and on the far side of the valley, a white archway covered in flowers had been set up over an equally flower-laden altar.

I paused for a moment to take in the spectacle below.

Audrey and her wedding planner—a motherly woman named Betsy—had really outdone themselves.

I hadn’t paid much attention when Audrey had shared the plans with me, and I realized now that she and Betsy had really known what they were doing.

There was nothing tacky or clichéd about the setup—it looked like a real-life fairy tale.

Virgil had paused also and was looking back at me.

“My lady?” he said.

“Sorry,” I replied. “I’m coming.”

Virgil hurried on, and I followed him down the hill into the little valley.

He led me on to a tent in the center of the site—the largest and grandest one of them all, covered in golden swirls and flourishes—and he stood by the entrance to the tent as if he were afraid to move the gold-edged flap aside and enter.

Instead, he simply held out a hand.

“Your sister awaits, my lady.”

I glanced at him, puzzled, for a moment, and then I pushed the flap aside and stepped in.

Inside, there was a crowd of beautiful girls in equally beautiful dresses, and a soft, golden glow lit up the tent, making it nearly as bright as the day outside. The air smelled sweetly of flowers, and I could hear the murmur of soft voices as the girls fussed around something in the center of the tent.

As I entered, however, the conversation immediately stopped, and all the girls turned as one to look at me.

I realized then that none of the faces before me looked familiar.

“Hi,” I said uncertainly. “Is my sister here?”

The crowd of girls parted to reveal a regal young woman seated at their center.

She had long golden hair, and she was wearing a crown of flowers and a flowing white gown.

She was also stunningly beautiful.

I watched as her lovely features twisted into a frown that was somehow even more beautiful.

“Who are you?” the woman demanded in a clipped yet musical voice.

“I’m Danielle Williams,” I said. “I was looking for my sister—but I must have stumbled into the wrong wedding by accident.”

The woman stared at me as if I were a particularly loathsome bug, and I could feel outrage rolling off her in waves.

I took a step back. “I’m sorry I intruded. You’re a beautiful bride, by the way.”

The woman rose. That one simple movement was fluid, graceful, and somehow mesmerizing.

“Guard!” she screamed.

Virgil stepped into the tent, his eyes downcast.

“Your Majesty,” he said.

“Look at me,” the woman commanded.

Virgil complied.

“Who am I?”

“You are my queen, Your Majesty.”

“Am I? You seem to have forgotten that. What is my name?”

“You are Queen Leandra, ruler of all the Fae,” Virgil replied.

He was visibly shaking now.

I looked from one to the other, trying to figure out if they were crazy or if this was some kind of performance art.

Queen Leandra pointed a finger at me. “Now look at this creature.”

Virgil meekly turned his eyes toward me.

“Why did you bring her here?” the queen demanded, her voice rising.

“I—I thought she was your sister, Your Majesty.”

Queen Leandra fumed. “My sister? You dare compare this lowly thing to her? This is a human being. This is not my sister!”

I had just a moment to feel offended before another young woman suddenly rushed into the tent. She was breathtakingly beautiful like the queen, and she was wearing a rose-colored gown that was superficially like mine.

“Leandra!” the young woman cried, looking around.

Then she ran toward the queen—I assumed this was the missing sister.

“What is it, Iona?” Leandra said, stepping forward. “What’s wrong?”

“Humans,” Iona replied grimly. “They’re having a wedding nearby, and our wards don’t seem to be keeping them out. Several have stumbled close to the tents but have been scared off. One actually attacked our guards and has been taken into custody.”

“Humans?” I said. This was the second time someone had used the term as if it were something unusual. “Isn’t that what we all are?”

Leandra ignored my words and pointed an accusing finger at me. “And then there’s this one.”

Iona turned to look at me and gasped in horror.

“She got in here with no trouble at all,” Leandra hissed. “She could have killed me.”

“What?” I squeaked, startled.

These people were getting crazier by the minute.

Leandra stared at me with fury kindling in her eyes. “You and your conspirators have ruined my wedding!” She turned to scream at the hapless Virgil. “Guard! Do your job and put this miserable creature with the other one!”

Virgil turned toward me.

And I decided to run for it.

But as soon as I pushed my way through the tent flap, I found myself surrounded by a group of tall, blond guards that looked a lot like Virgil.

They led me away, and I fought down a rising sensation of panic.

First, that I’d been kidnapped by a bunch of crazy people.

And second, that they might not actually be crazy at all.

The guards marched me over to a white, unadorned tent on the far side of the valley—far away from the queen—and then they slapped a pair of ridiculously fancy handcuffs on my wrists.

But even though the cuffs looked more like jewelry than a form of imprisonment, they felt solid and unbreakable as I twisted my wrists against the cold metal.

The guards pushed me into the tent, which was dark inside, and they quickly attached my handcuffs to a chain, which they then wrapped several times around a large, sturdy pole in the center of the tent. Then one guard, who looked so much like Virgil that he could have been his brother, pushed me to the ground into a sitting position with my back against the pole.

He wrapped the chain around me several more times and then secured it somewhere out of my sight.

He gave the chain one last rattle, and then he and all the other guards departed, leaving me in the gloom.

But the tent wasn’t completely dark—a vaguely orange glow shone through the white cloth walls—and I wasn’t entirely alone.

I could tell that there was another person on the other side of the pole who was chained and seated as I was. I’d seen a dark form huddled by the pole when I’d been pushed into the tent, and I could hear someone rustling around now.

“Who’s there?” I said.

“Dani, is that you?” said a familiar voice.

It was a male voice—low and a little smoky—and I caught my breath.

“Gabe?” I said.

“Yes, of course, it’s Gabe.”

“What are you doing here?” I said.

“I was following you,” Gabe replied wearily. “You were headed the wrong way, as usual, and I was trying to stop you. And then a bunch of guys in elf costumes jumped me.”

I thought back to the disturbance in the bushes I had seen.

I realized now that that had probably been the queen’s guards grabbing Gabe.

“You were trying to help me?” I asked.

“Yes,” Gabe said in exasperation. “I was trying to help you, Dani. And as usual, that ended up getting me in trouble.”

I sat quietly for just a moment, letting his voice wash over me—I hadn’t seen him in a long time.

And yet I still felt a little tingle when he said my name.

“I’m sorry I got you into this,” I said at last. “But thanks for looking out for me. And I was hoping I’d run into you here—just not like this.”

“You were?” Gabe said. I could hear genuine astonishment in his voice.

“Yes,” I said simply.

“Even after the way we left things?”

“Yes.” There was more I could have said, but it didn’t seem necessary.

I moved a little, and my chains clanked. “So where are we?”

“I overheard some of the guards talking,” Gabe said, his voice tinged with sarcasm. “Queen Leandra of the Fae is marrying Aden, the Lord of the Summer Woods, here today, and apparently the spells they use to keep human beings away aren’t working.”

“I heard something like that, too,” I said. “Though I didn’t hear who the groom was.”

I paused. “Do you believe it?”

Gabe rattled his own chains. “I think we have to.”

“So the Queen of the Fae is getting married in May,” I said. “It’s sort of like a Mae wedding—you know, M-A-E.”

Gabe chuckled. “I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I’ve actually missed your corny jokes.”

It was my turn to be astonished. “You have?”

“Yes, Dani. I’ve missed you. I’ve even missed the things that used to drive me nuts. In fact, I’ve especially missed the things that used to drive me nuts.”

I felt a little rush of warmth when he said that.

Gabe went on. “You know, Dani, I’ve realized that I spent a lot of time trying to change you. You’re scattered and forgetful sometimes. But that’s who you are. And the good qualities you have far outweigh the less-than-perfect ones. I should have seen that a long time ago. I should have valued you just the way you were.”

“Uh, thanks, I think,” I said.

I turned my head in the orange glow, wishing I could see his face. I’d waited a long time to hear Gabe say something like that, and even though the delivery wasn’t ideal, I felt like the sentiment was real.

I just wished I could see his eyes to be sure.

“And I’m sorry I was irritable before,” Gabe said. “This isn’t your fault. There’s no way you could have known those elf guys or Fae guys—or whatever they are—were down here. You saw a likely looking path and you took it. Anybody could have made that same mistake.”

It definitely sounded to me like Gabe was being sincere, and my heart gave a little flutter.

This was the Gabe I’d always hoped to find.

“So you don’t think I’m trouble?”

I could hear a smile in Gabe’s voice. “Well, maybe a little. But you’re the good kind of trouble. And you’re exactly who you should be.”

I felt another rush of warmth. I wanted to turn toward him—to hug him, to kiss him. But all I managed to do was rattle my chains.

And suddenly I thought of my sister.

I groaned. “Audrey’s going to kill me. I’ve got Kevin’s ring.”

My purse, on its slender, flower-entwined strap, was somehow miraculously still dangling from my shoulder.

“And I’ve got Audrey’s,” Gabe said. “I’ve lost track of time, but I have to imagine we’re late by now.”

I glanced around the gloomy tent. “So how do we get out of here?”

“The first thing we have to do is get out of these handcuffs,” Gabe replied. “They’re sturdy, but they look pretty old-fashioned. If I had a pick, I might be able to unlock mine.”

He paused, and I could hear a smile in his voice again.

“Do you remember that survival skills class we took?”

I smiled myself in response. “Yes, I do.”

Gabe had talked me into the class—it had been part of his campaign to get me to be more responsible and less “scattered,” as he put it. But the class had actually turned out to be pretty useful, and I had learned a few things that had come in handy in my own life.

And—like Gabe—I had learned how to pick a lock on handcuffs.

“Wait a minute,” I said. “I’ve got a hairstyle full of bobby pins. Maybe we can use those.”

My hands had actually been bound pretty tightly with the chains, and I couldn’t lift them very high. So I began to brush my head against the back of the pole.

Maybe I could dislodge a few of the pins.

“See if you can scootch down a little,” Gabe said. “If you can brush up against the chains, you might be able to dislodge the pins a bit better.”

After much maneuvering on my part, I was able to loosen a few of the bobby pins, and eventually they fell to the ground with a soft thud.

Gabe quickly scrabbled around on the ground near the pole with his manacled hands.

“I’ve got one!” he said in hushed excitement.

I swept my fingers over the ground, too, and eventually I felt my fingers brush against the cool metal of a tiny bobby pin.

I picked it up carefully, and I got to work on my own shackles.

I could hear Gabe’s bobby pin clinking against the metal of his handcuffs, and before long, there was a tiny click.

“I’m free,” he said softly.

His chains rattled as he worked his way out of their grasp, and as he stood up, I felt my own handcuffs spring open.

I wriggled my way out of my chains and stood up also.

Gabe hurried over to me and wrapped his arms around me.

Then he stepped back, and I was able to look at him for the first time since I’d been brought into the tent.

His face was still a little rugged and weathered from all the time he spent outdoors, his eyes were still warm and brown, and his dark hair still curled a little at the ends.

But as he smiled at me in the amber-tinted gloom of the tent, I could see a look in his eyes that I’d never seen before—one that was open and vulnerable and trusting.

“Your hair’s all messed up,” he said, and he ran a gentle hand over it.

“Oh, Gabe,” I said. And for just a moment, I leaned against him, and he embraced me once again.

Then I remembered we were trapped.

With Gabe’s arms still encircling me, I glanced around.

“We’ve got to get out of here without being seen,” I said. “And I bet there are guards all around this tent.”

Gabe glanced around also. “I bet you’re right. Stay here.”

He turned and walked stealthily toward the side of the tent, and I giggled just a little to myself at the sight of him tiptoeing in his brocade tunic and breeches—Audrey had clearly gotten her hands on Kevin’s groomsmen, too. Then he crouched down, lifted the cloth ever so slightly, and peered out.

I walked over to the opposite side and did the same.

I could see the booted feet of at least three guards from my side of the tent.

I stood up and found Gabe standing beside me.

“So much for staying put,” he said softly.

“I was never good at that,” I replied.

Gabe smiled wryly. “I know. So I assume you saw guards just like I did?”

“Yes—I think we’re surrounded.”

Gabe nodded. “I think you’re right. I don’t know how we’re going to get out of here.”

I glanced over at the pile of chains we had left behind.

“I have an idea,” I said.

Soon we had gathered up all of the chains and unfastened them from their moorings. And then, on my direction, we tiptoed up to the flap that served as the entrance to the tent.

I didn’t know if the flap was tied shut or not, but it really didn’t matter. I doubted it was tied tightly—tents weren’t meant to hold prisoners.

“What do we do now?” Gabe mouthed silently.

“We throw the chains out,” I whispered. “Then we run the other way.”

Gabe’s eyebrows rose. “That’s it? That’s your big plan?”

“Yes,” I said. “Do you trust me?”

Gabe stared at me for a long moment. Then he smiled.

“Yes,” he said quietly.

I smiled back.

“Then on the count of three,” I said. “One—two—three!”

We both heaved our pile of chains out through the front flap of the tent.

“We’ve escaped!” I shouted at the same time. “You’d better come in here and get us!”

Then I turned and ran toward the opposite end of the tent.

Gabe ran after me.

We reached the far wall and ducked under it just as the first guards were entering.

We scrambled free of the tent, and I hurried over to the nearest tent pole.

“Help me with this,” I said.

I began to push at it.

Gabe saw what I was doing, and he pushed along with me.

Within a matter of moments, the pole collapsed, and the roof of the tent began to fall. Soon the big white mass of cloth was writhing as the guards struggled to get out.

Gabe stared at the tent. “They all ran in after us, and you trapped them inside.” He turned to me in wonder. “That really was a good idea.”

I grinned. “I know. Come on! We’d better run.”

I turned and fled toward the trees.

Gabe caught up with me and grabbed my arm. “You’re going the wrong way! The path is over here!”

He veered sharply to the left, and I turned and ran alongside him.

Soon we had scrambled up the hill out of the valley, and I could spy the dirt path with the brightly colored lights up ahead of us.

I glanced behind me.

A crowd of blond-haired guards was charging up the hill after us. Our guards had clearly worked their way free of the tent—and from what I could see—more had now joined the group to help them.

Gabe glanced back also.

Then we both ran even faster.

We ran, huffing and puffing, along the path with the colorful lights, with the shouts of the guards and their pounding footsteps growing closer and closer. We ran and ran and ran, until we finally broke free of the trees.

Then all the shouting stopped, and we nearly collided with two people who had suddenly appeared in front of us.

I stopped just in time, and Gabe skidded to a halt beside me.

I looked at the newcomers—a man and a woman—warily, but they seemed to be a normal human couple. They weren’t tall, willowy, or golden-haired, and they didn’t have pointy ears—instead they looked like typical tourists in shorts, T-shirts, and sneakers.

I glanced at the path behind us with the brightly colored lights.

It had disappeared.

The tourists glared at us and then moved on.

“Sorry,” Gabe called after them. “We’re late for a wedding.”

At that moment, both of our cell phones lit up and began to buzz insistently.

I glanced back at the spot where the vanished path had been. “Do you think we’re safe?”

Gabe breathed out heavily. “I think so—there’s no sign of pursuit.”

My phone continued to buzz.

I saw that I had a long line of texts waiting for me.

I clicked on the first one.

Where are you? Audrey demanded.

I looked up at Gabe. He was looking at his phone, too.

“We’re in a lot of trouble,” I said.

“Yep,” he replied.

“They’re never going to believe us,” I said.

“No—no, they’re not.”

Gabe smiled and held out a hand.

“Let’s go and get in trouble together.”

I took his hand.

“What are we going to tell them?” I asked.

“Let’s just tell them that I got lost,” Gabe said. “And you came and found me.”

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

Thanks very much for reading!

Share Your Gift

All this month, I’ve been making an effort to focus on what I am thankful for. And one of the things I am truly thankful for is the talent of others.

Maybe you’re a math maestro, or you love to paint, or when you play the guitar, you make other people want to get up and dance. Whatever your particular gift is, I hope you will share it with the world—even if what you do isn’t perfect. In fact, especially if what you do isn’t perfect—because perfect can be a little boring, and it’s actually pretty wonderful to watch someone’s gift grow and change and metamorphose into something beautiful and unique. No two butterflies are ever exactly alike, and no one else has the exact same gift that you have.

So I hope you will code, solve problems, invent things, teach others, sing, dance, write, and make other people laugh. Whatever it is that you love to do, share it with us.

Share your gift.

*You probably have more than one gift. I hope you’ll share them all.

Thankful

I’ve made it a point each day this month to think about what I’m thankful for, and I just wanted to share some of the ones that are most important to me.

I’m thankful for family and friends and all of the lovely people I work with.

I’m thankful for a safe place to sleep at night and food in the refrigerator and warmth when it’s cold outside.

I’m thankful for beauty and laughter and kindness.

And I’m thankful for love.

New Release — A Maryland Witch in Arthur King’s Court

A Maryland Witch in Arthur King's Court OTHER SITES

When wealthy retailer Otis Clementine is found dead in his palatial mansion, Chloe Bartlett happens to be on hand. And when the police declare his death to be a homicide rather than an accident, Chloe isn’t surprised—to her it felt like murder all along. And there’s no shortage of suspects—Otis’s many girlfriends, his wastrel sons, and even a disgruntled employee may have done him in—all hoping for a share of his vast fortune.

The handsome, if sometimes infuriating, Professor Mike Fellowes reluctantly helps Chloe investigate—but mostly counsels her to stay out of it.

But Chloe can’t do that because she knows something the police don’t—there’s a magical element to the murder, and as a witch, she’s the only one properly qualified to investigate all the angles.

Besides, Chloe has an additional reason for wanting to look into the crime—the dead man himself asked for her help.

Can Chloe catch the culprit before there’s another murder? Or will bodies begin to pile up on the glittering streets of Arthur King’s Court?

A Maryland Witch in Arthur King’s Court is now out! Read Chapter One below…

Chapter One

“Is that Chloe? I want to talk to Chloe Bartlett.”

The voice on the phone was high and querulous.

I recognized it only too well.

“Yes, Mr. Clementine. It’s me.”

“Don’t you take that tone of voice with me, my girl,” he replied. “I’ve donated a lot of money to that library of yours. If not for me, you wouldn’t even have the lights on in that place.”

That wasn’t quite true, but he had been a generous patron. I took a deep breath and willed myself to be patient.

“What can I do for you, Mr. Clementine?”

I asked the question to be polite, but I already knew what he wanted—it was the third Tuesday of the month.

“Now I want you to take this down,” Mr. Clementine said. “Do you hear me? Do you have pen and paper?”

“Yes, Mr. Clementine. I’m ready to write it down.”

“I want Robertson’s History of Rome, Volume One. That’s Ro-bert-son with an apostrophe ‘s’ at the end. Make sure it’s a history of Rome. Not anywhere else. And I want Volume One, not Volume Two. Do you understand that?”

“Yes, Mr. Clementine.” I glanced at the little clock on the phone. I’d only been talking to him for about sixty seconds, but it felt like ten minutes. “You want Robertson’s History of Rome, Volume One—not Volume Two.”

“I want Volume One,” Mr. Clementine said peevishly, as if that wasn’t what I had just said.

“I understand,” I said. “You want Volume One.”

“It’s important.”

“I understand,” I said again.

“Did you write it down?”

“Yes—I wrote it down.”

“Good. Because you brought the wrong book last time, and that was a complete waste of a day for me. I can’t afford to lose time because of your mistakes.”

I felt myself bristling—I had not brought the wrong book.

But I knew there would be no point in trying to explain that to Mr. Clementine.

He continued. “I want that book. Do you hear me? Bring it by my house today at eleven thirty. Don’t be late.”

Without waiting for a response, he hung up.

“The library doesn’t deliver, Mr. Clementine,” I muttered to myself angrily. “It’s not like ordering a pizza.”

But I realized there was no point in grumbling. I had gotten myself into this situation, and I wasn’t ready to get out of it.

At least not yet.

I was just sighing to myself and checking to make sure that we actually had the book he wanted in the system when I caught sight of a swift movement out of the corner of my eye.

I paused with my fingers over the keyboard.

I turned quickly.

I was just in time to see a tall form disappearing behind the stacks in the graphic novel section.

As I watched, a dark-haired, dark-eyed man peered around the corner of a bookcase.

He saw me looking at him and quickly darted back out of sight.

“Mike?” I said.

I wasn’t supposed to speak out loud in the library unless I was on the phone, but I was so startled that the word slipped out.

The man reappeared and smiled sheepishly.

It was indeed Professor Mike Fellowes.

He was the very definition of tall, dark, and handsome, and my heart gave a little flutter when I saw him.

It had been a little while since we’d seen each other.

He stepped out from behind the bookcase and moved toward me.

“Chloe—” he said.

Even in a whisper, his voice sent a tingle through me when he said my name.

“Chloe, I—”

But Mike got no further.

Another man was also hiding in the graphic novel section, and he stepped out also.

This man was tall, but not as tall as Mike, and he had longish blond hair with streaks of gold running through it. He was tan and athletic, and he wore a tight T-shirt that showed off his muscular torso.

His name was Joe Osgood, and he was often to be found perusing the comic books section and sneaking peeks over at me.

Mike, however, was a surprise.

Joe elbowed his way in front of Mike and walked over to the circulation desk where I stood.

“Hi, Chloe,” he said. “How’s it going?”

I glanced over at Mrs. Ludlow, who was eyeing me severely over the top of her silver-framed glasses. She hadn’t liked my conversation with Mr. Clementine on the phone, and she looked like she wasn’t going to like what was about to happen, either.

For that matter, I wasn’t sure I was going to like what was about to happen.

Joe leaned on the desk, and Mike quickly started toward us.

I wasn’t entirely certain, but I thought I saw Mike’s nostrils flare—something I’d never seen him do before.

A storm was definitely brewing.

Joe was staring at me, and his normally guileless blue eyes held a hint of challenge in them.

But that challenge wasn’t directed at me.

It was directed at the man behind him.

Mike came to stand just behind Joe, and he folded his arms across his chest.

“So how’s it going?” Joe said again.

I drew in breath to say something I hoped would be pacific when Mike interrupted.

“What do you think you’re doing?” he demanded.

There was a clear challenge in his tone, and once again, that challenge wasn’t directed at me.

It was directed at Joe.

Joe slanted a glance back at Mike.

“I’m talking to my girl—my friend. I’m talking to Chloe, who’s my friend.”

“Is that so?” Somehow Mike’s arms seemed to fold even harder.

Joe pushed himself off the desk and turned to face Mike.

I felt an urge to reach out and grab Joe’s arm, but I restrained myself.

“Yeah, that’s so,” Joe said. “Do you have something you want to say about it?”

The atmosphere suddenly grew very tense, and I was aware of the fact that all eyes in the library were turned toward the confrontation at the circulation desk.

“Yes,” Mike grated out. “I do have something I want to say about it.”

“Oh yeah?” Joe said. “Well, I have something I want to say, too.”

Mike arched a mocking eyebrow. He could be very superior and condescending when he wanted to be, and apparently this was one of those times.

“This ought to be good. Go ahead.”

A sneer twisted Joe’s good-natured face.

“July the Fourth.”

He only spoke three words, but the effect on Mike was electric. He turned pale and his mouth dropped open. His arms dropped to his sides, and his hands clenched into fists.

Then he turned without a word and stormed out of the library.

Joe stared after his vanquished foe, and a smirk lit up his face.

“Guess I showed him.”

“Oh, Joe,” I said softly.

I wanted to run after Mike.

But I knew that now was not the time—not yet.

“Well, I suppose I should be going, too,” Joe said. “I’ve got to get some work in today.”

I held out a hand. “Joe, wait. Don’t—”

He paused and looked back at me.

“Don’t go after him,” I finished. “Let Mike leave before you go out there.”

“Don’t worry.” Joe looked very pleased with himself. “I’m sure he got in his car quickly—I doubt he’s even out there anymore. Besides, I won’t rub it in.”

I frowned. “Rub what in?”

But Joe simply smiled and left the library.

If he’d been insinuating what I thought he’d been insinuating, that was probably wise.

I wasn’t some kind of prize to be won.

“Everything okay?” said a new voice.

I turned to see Rita Cavanaugh, the head librarian, walking up to the circulation desk.

Her black hair was pulled back into a chic chignon, and she was wearing a beautifully cut gray dress that was ideal for the hot summer weather and showed off her coffee-colored skin to perfection.

Somehow, even working in a dusty library, Rita always managed to look as if she’d just stepped off the cover of a magazine.

I, on the other hand, had a feeling that I was looking more than a little frazzled.

I could actually feel my curly brown hair frizzing even harder and working its way free of the careless ponytail I’d wrapped it in.

Dealing with three unreasonable men all at once could do that to you.

I blew a column of air up into my hair.

Rita gave me an understanding smile. “Looks like I arrived just in time.”

“Yes, you did,” I said. I glanced at the clock on my computer. “Mr. Clementine just called, and I’ve got to take his book over to him. And then I was just looking the book up when Mike and Joe started to have their thing.”

Rita continued to look calm and unperturbed. “Don’t worry. I’ve got you covered.”

I happened to glance down then and noticed for the first time that she was carrying a book in her hands.

“The Robertson book!” I exclaimed.

I glanced around.

“Sorry,” I whispered.

“I happened to overhear you while you were talking to Mr. Clementine,” Rita said. “So I took the liberty of pulling it from the shelves. It’s Volume One. Just like he wanted.”

She paused significantly. “We have Volume Two also.”

“Thanks,” I said. “I’d better take that one, too.”

Rita gave me a conspirator’s smile and then turned to get the second book.

I began to gather up my stuff and glanced at the clock on the phone.

I’d need to hurry if I wanted to get there by eleven thirty.

Rita soon returned with Volume Two, but she hesitated before she gave it to me.

“You don’t have to this,” she said. “We don’t make house calls.”

“I know,” I said.

“Then why do you do it? Why take a book over to that cantankerous, rude old man?”

“I feel sorry for him,” I said.

Rita gave me a sympathetic look, and I accepted the book from her.

Then I left the library.

As I walked out the doors, I was immediately hit by a blast of the July heat.

The humidity was no joke, either, and beads of sweat began to form quickly as I settled into my very hot car and hoped that the air-conditioning would kick in soon.

Then I drove over to Camelot.

Camelot was the housing development, country club, and golf course that Mr. Otis Clementine had built, though it wasn’t really the main source of his wealth.

Mr. Clementine was, as he had said, a generous donor to the library—and to many other institutions and charities besides—and over the course of his life he had amassed a vast fortune.

Most of his money came from the Brian’s Baskets discount stores that he owned all over the country. The stores sold food and clothing, electronics and housewares, cleaners, toiletries, and all manner of products made out of plastic.

He was by all accounts a business genius, and he only dabbled a little in real estate.

So naturally, his dabbling was highly successful.

Mr. Clementine had actually been born and raised right here in Crabtree Bay, and though he certainly could have lived anywhere, he’d always promised himself that he’d build a castle and a kingdom here.

And he’d done just that with Camelot.

As I turned into the exclusive housing development, I could see Mr. Clementine’s house on a hill, dominating the landscape and looking down on all the other houses.

His house was immense, it was made of gray stone, and it even had a tall tower with a pointed roof.

It was, indeed, a castle.

I drove along, wincing just a little as I always did, as I glanced at the street names in the housing development.

Excalibur Avenue.

Round Table Terrace.

Lancelot’s Love Lane.

There was even the inexplicably named Guinevere’s Gauntlet.

And then there was the largest street in the development—the one that led up to the towering stone house on the horizon and had no outlet.

Arthur King’s Court.

I could never figure out why he had chosen to transpose the name that way.

I supposed it was Mr. Clementine’s idea of a joke.

But after having been acquainted with Mr. Clementine for a few months, I had a feeling that the joke wasn’t something others were supposed to laugh at.

Instead, it was likely to be his way of laughing at us.

There was a glint from the tower up above, and I had a feeling that Mr. Clementine was sitting up there, watching me.

I continued on up the hill to the house, and I was surprised as I always was that there was no gate.

On the contrary, the house had a long, wide path up to it with no obstructions, and a circular drive curled around the front providing ample parking and access.

It was almost as if he were inviting people in—although I knew that likely wasn’t the case.

According to his housekeeper, Mr. Clementine very seldom entertained.

I parked the car and went up to the door, and that same housekeeper answered when I rang the doorbell.

Daphne Minton was a plump, middle-aged woman with brown hair cut into the same kind of sleek, shiny bob that I’d always wanted to try, but I knew my curly hair wouldn’t allow.

Daphne also had a good-natured face and a friendly manner that was somehow off-putting at the same time.

She was both welcoming and forbidding—a quality which I imagined served her well when dealing with tradesmen, contractors, or visitors. She always gave me a strange feeling of ambiguity—I never knew where I stood with her.

“Welcome back, Chloe,” she said.

She ushered me into the house and closed the door behind me.

The interior was all wood and stone and sparsely furnished—I supposed to make it look more like an ancient castle. The only real decoration in the vast front room was an enormous painting of the owner of the house that hung on the wall near the door.

It showed Otis Clementine as a much younger man. He’d had sallow cheeks and a deep, defiant cleft in his chin. His rich, dark auburn hair was swept back from his high forehead, and his piercing blue eyes stared out at the world like he meant to rule it all.

I paused to stare at the painting—somehow it made me shiver this morning.

Daphne cleared her throat and then twitched her finger at me impatiently.

“Mr. Clementine is waiting.”

Then she nodded significantly toward the stone staircase on my right.

I sighed. I had a sneaking suspicion that there was actually an elevator somewhere, but I trudged toward the stairs like I always did.

I got the distinct impression that somewhere up above, Mr. Clementine was laughing at me.

Climbing up the first flight was never that bad, and the next floor up actually changed from heavy stone to light, airy, very modern living quarters.

I climbed up to the next floor, and then I had to pause just a moment to catch my breath. The truth was Mr. Clementine’s tower wasn’t really that high up—the slenderness of the tower and the fact that the house itself sat on a hill gave the illusion of greater height.

From the current floor, I opened a wooden door and entered the tower.

Then I climbed up two more flights, pausing once on the landing between them to catch my breath and look out the window at Mr. Clementine’s expansive back lawn.

Then I reached the top and found myself facing a closed wooden door.

I knocked.

Mr. Clementine’s voice floated out, just as high and querulous as it had been on the phone.

“Come in.”

Otis Clementine was in his late seventies, and his once-thick auburn hair—so vibrant in his portrait—had faded to white and thinned considerably. But his piercing blue eyes were just as sharp as ever, and he regarded me with a malevolent twinkle as I entered the room.

“Chloe, my girl! So you’ve finally arrived. Enjoy your walk?”

Mr. Clementine’s witty quip was followed by raucous laughter, and I was more sure than ever that there was an elevator concealed nearby.

Mr. Clementine wiped at his eyes with a slightly shaky hand. Then he fixed me with his sharp blue eyes again.

“Still, you’re young—you shouldn’t mind a few stairs! How old are you?”

The question was impertinent—and delivered that way—but I decided to answer it. The sooner our meeting was over, the better. And arguing with him would just prolong it—I knew that from experience.

“I’m twenty-three.”

“So I was right. Thirty-three! Just like my son Christopher.”

I sighed. Mr. Clementine’s habit of being contradictory was so ingrained that I didn’t even think he realized he did it anymore.

He continued. “He’s the older of the two, too. But insists on being called ‘Christopher.’ Won’t take a nickname and be called Chris like a sensible boy would do. Then there’s his younger brother. His name is Robert, but he goes by ‘Bobby.’ He’s not too good for a nickname.”

Mr. Clementine shot a glance over at me.

“Don’t just stand there hovering in the doorway, girl. Come in and have a seat. I want to have a look at my book—make sure you’ve brought the right one.”

I was reluctant to enter the room, but I stepped forward.

As I’d counseled myself before, the sooner I got this over with, the sooner I could leave.

“So you brought the book, did you?”

“Yes, I did,” I said as I sat down.

Mr. Clementine held out a slightly trembling hand.

“Give it to me.”

I passed over the book.

Mr. Clementine’s eyes were a bit weak, and I waited while he looked it over. I happened to notice a magnifying glass resting on a beautiful, ornate box decorated with sunflowers. I thought of offering the glass to him, but I figured he knew it was there and would use it if he wanted it.

As he continued to look the book over, a spiteful gleam came into his eyes.

But this time—thanks to Rita—I was ready for him.

“Nope,” Mr. Clementine declared emphatically. “This isn’t the book. This is Robertson’s History of Rome, Volume One.”

“Yes,” I said. “That’s the book you asked for.”

“No, it isn’t. Not a bit of it. I distinctly asked for Volume Two. Volume One is no good to me.”

His eyes glittered in triumph.

I felt a twinge of irritation, even though I was expecting that answer. Mr. Clementine always did this. No matter what book I brought over, he always said that I had to return tomorrow with a different one.

But this time, I simply reached into my bag and pulled out the other book.

“As it so happens,” I said sweetly. “I also have Volume Two right here.”

Mr. Clementine’s triumph turned to astonishment as I handed the book over.

As he examined the book, his astonishment turned to anger as he realized that I had indeed brought him Volume Two also.

“Confound you, girl!”

Realizing he’d admitted to his little scheme, he quickly covered his ire.

“Thank you for the book. Yes—this is the one I wanted.”

He cast another one of his piercing looks my way.

“You’re a clever one, aren’t you? You remind me of my wife, Clytie. Not in looks or coloring, but in cleverness. Clytie always was a sharp one. She knew how to think circles around me.”

Mr. Clementine paused and his expression grew dreamy.

He ran his gnarled hands over the box with the sunflowers, and it seemed for a moment that he forgot I was there.

Then a malicious twinkle lit up his eye.

“So tell me, clever girl, do you know what the name ‘Clytie’ means?”

“Yes,” I said.

Mr. Clementine looked startled. “Yes?”

“Yes—it’s a Greek name. It means ‘lovely one.’ The Clytie of Greek myth fell in love with Apollo, but he didn’t love her back. So she turned into a—”

“Sunflower,” Mr. Clementine said.

“In the later versions, yes. But in the earliest stories, she turned into a heliotrope.”

“Nonsense. It was a sunflower. The sunflower turns to follow the sun—just as Clytie turned to follow Apollo wherever he went in the sky. My Clytie went to follow the sun, too.”

“Sunflowers don’t actually do that,” I said. “That’s just an old wives’ tale.”

Anger flashed in Mr. Clementine’s eyes. “Chloe’s a Greek name, too. Did you know that?”

“Yes. And so’s Daphne for that matter.”

“Daphne? Who’s Daphne?”

“Daphne—your housekeeper.”

Mr. Clementine gave a bark of laughter. “Old Minton? Now there’s an old wives’ tale. She couldn’t be less like Clytie if she tried. My Clytie was a blonde—a beautiful blonde. I never did care for brunettes.”

He shot me another look, and I could tell he was baiting me.

He reached for a magazine that was lying near the sunflower box and pushed it over to me.

“That’s my kind of girl. In fact, that is my girl—Heather.”

On the cover of Eastern Shore Today, a beautiful girl with close-cropped blond hair and a dazzling smile cavorted on a beach in a white sundress.

“She’s lovely,” I said. “Is she your daughter?”

Mr. Clementine sputtered. “My daughter? She’s my girlfriend. I’ve got all boys—four of them. She just had my latest one a year ago—Jaden.”

“Oh,” I said, startled. “She’ll make a beautiful bride.”

“Bride?” Mr. Clementine sputtered even louder. “Clytie was my only wife. I’d never marry that girl. She can’t hold a candle to my Clytie.”

I felt vaguely embarrassed. I wasn’t really interested in Mr. Clementine’s personal life. The white dress must have suggested the idea of a wedding to me.

That, and Mr. Clementine’s constant use of the word “wife.”

He continued. “No—Clytie was my only wife. But I lost her.”

I felt a rush of sympathy for the combative man in front of me. “She died?”

“She did eventually—at least according to the media. But I lost her when she left me. She was only twenty-two. She took off to follow the sun—just like her namesake did with Apollo.”

Mr. Clementine ran his hands over the box again.

“She ran off to Italy. Became a successful actress. She took my son with her. She’d be about fifty-seven now if she’d lived.”

“Your son?” I said.

Mr. Clementine had so many sons that it was getting hard for me to keep track of them all.

“Brian,” he replied curtly.

“Brian?” I said. “As in—”

“Brian’s Baskets. Exactly. I built that business up for him. And someday I’m going to give it to him. I’ve just got to find him first. He’d be about thirty-six now.”

Mr. Clementine looked up at me. “I only saw him once, you know, when he was a baby. But he was just like me. Just like me! He had my ambition, my drive—my everything! And someday I will find him. He left a trail of breadcrumbs—”

His voice trailed off.

“Do you know the tale of Hansel and Gretel, my girl?” Mr. Clementine asked abruptly.

“Yes, of course.”

“They left a trail of breadcrumbs, too, and I mean to follow them all the way to my son.”

“But—” I began.

“Yes? Out with it!”

“The trail of breadcrumbs didn’t work for Hansel and Gretel,” I said. “The birds ate the breadcrumbs up, and they couldn’t find their way back home again.”

Mr. Clementine stared at me for a long moment.

Then he gave a short bark of laughter.

“You have an answer for everything, don’t you, girl? Like I said, you’re a smart one. Just like my Clytie. Someday you’ll find out that I’ve—”

He stopped. “But that won’t be for years now. I’m hale and hearty. Strong as a bull. That day’s not coming for a long time.”

Before I could ask what he meant, Mr. Clementine thumped one of his hands on the book in front of him.

“Thank you for the book. You may go now.”

I stood up, ruffled by the abrupt dismissal, and headed for the door.

“And, Chloe—”

Mr. Clementine’s words drew me back, and I turned.

“Don’t think I’ve forgotten,” he said.

“Forgotten what?”

“The others are starting to forget. But I haven’t.”

Mr. Clementine leaned forward and spoke the words distinctly.

“I know you’re a witch.”

I turned on my heel and left the room.

Mr. Clementine’s laughter followed me down the stairs.

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

Thanks very much for reading! A Maryland Witch in Arthur King’s Court, Book 2 in the Witches of Crabtree Bay series, is available in ebook on Amazon and Kindle Unlimited – US and Amazon and Kindle Unlimited – UK, and in paperback on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Books-a-Million.

Book 1, A Maryland Witch, is also available in ebook on Amazon and Kindle Unlimited – US and Amazon and Kindle Unlimited-UK, and in paperback on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books-a-Million, and Walmart.