Rachael held the phone receiver tight between her ear and shoulder. Her neck was beginning to ache. She’d been tempted to let the phone ring and go into voicemail. Now she wished she had. Not that she didn’t look forward to talking with Phil. However, history showed, when he called out of the blue, like tonight, he usually wanted something.
“What are you saying? That Katrina can’t do the concert?” Her dark auburn hair, tied back at the nape, fell in a long cascade down her back. A stray hair tickled her nose and she tucked it behind her ear.
“Katrina had a minor accident and will be laid up awhile.” Phil hesitated. “We need you, Rachael.”
Rachael paced the kitchen. She opened the freezer and pulled out a small container of rocky road ice cream. This phone conversation called for comfort food. “Phil...” She shoved a spoonful of ice cream in her mouth, felt it melt in smooth perfection on her tongue then disappear. “...the show is only three weeks away. I’ll never be ready that soon. Can’t you find someone else? What about--”
She heard Phil sigh.
“Calm down,” Phil assured her. “And put that rocky road back in the frig.”
“See, it’s deadly.” Phil paused, then said, “You’re the most accomplished flutist I know, better than Katrina. You’ll do just fine, you always do.”
Rachael felt her breath grow shallow. She breathed deep to combat her nervousness. She’d never performed as a soloist. Never desired to. Her voice shook. “As part of the main orchestra, yes, but--”
“Rach, you’re all I have. Sorry. And you’re ready. You’re really ready.”
Rachael switched the receiver to her other ear and worked the kink from her neck.
“Listen, I hate to cut you short but I’ve gotta run.” She heard finality in Phil’s tone. “So much to do, so little time.”
“Don’t forget, solo practice starts Friday evening after regular practice.”
Rachael gasped. “That’s tomorrow!”
“Yeah, it is. Don’t be late.”
“Phil? Phil! Don’t you hang up on--”
A sudden click sounded over the line.
“Damn!” Rachael slammed the receiver into its cradle. “For two cents I’d hire a new agent,” she grumbled.
Yeah right. She ate several more spoonfuls of ice cream, then stuffed the container back into the freezer. She knew she could never fire Phil. He was too great an agent and too good a friend. If only he wasn’t so damn infuriating. But Phil had given her a means to keep Timmy warm, safe, and fed when Timmy’s louse of a father took off. Thank God she hadn’t married the loser. For Phil’s kindness and support, she would be eternally grateful.
However, filling in for Katrina meant additional evening practices at the concert hall and less time spent with Timmy. Rachael sighed. She hadn’t enough time to spend with him as it was. How was she going to explain to a five-year-old who spent half a day in kindergarten and the other half with a sitter that his mommy must go to work during the few hours of evening that belong to him.
Rachael sighed again. It wasn’t that she begrudged having Timmy or caring for him. Timmy was the light of her life, the silver lining to her cloudy existence. Never would she regret giving birth to her son. Her only regret was that she couldn’t do better by him. Timmy deserved better--much better.
“Mommy?” A small tow-headed boy peered hesitantly into the kitchen, his voice shaky and uncertain.
“Timmy, honey.” Rachael cast her concerns aside for a more important issue. She padded across the smooth tiled floor in slippered feet and knelt before him. “Are you okay?” She wrapped her arms about him and gave him an affectionate squeeze. “Why aren’t you in bed?” she asked, though she already knew the reason.
Timmy sniffled. “I had’d a bad dream, Mommy.” Safe in his mother’s company, he straightened his shoulders, his feigned bravado prompting Rachael to smile. “And then I heared you yelling.” His bottom lip extended in a pout. “Are you okay?” he asked in his mature little-boy way.
Rachael’s heart warmed at his concern. Her smile deepened. “I’m fine, honey. Thank you.” She ruffled his sleep-tousled hair, a pale cascade of soft silk that brushed just past his ears. The scent of herbal shampoo wafted about him. “But you should be in bed. You’ve got kindergarten in the morning.”
“But Maawm!” Timmy protested, his pout more pronounced.
“No ifs, buts, or protests.” Taking Timmy’s small hand in hers, Rachael led him through the living room and up the dark walnut staircase to the second floor. “Come on, I’ll tuck you in.” She accompanied him down the narrow hall. As they neared his room, his lips pressed to a firm line, his eyes grew wide and wary, and she sensed a definite hesitation in his step. “Timmy, it’s okay,” she assured him. Recognizing his need to not be alone, she said, “I’ll stay with you as long as you need me.”
Timmy’s lips curved to a tentative smile. The worry crease of his brow fell smooth.
Rachael lifted Timmy in her arms and gave him an affectionate hug. She then laid him on the single bookcase bed where he kept his favorite reads. Lifting his downy comforter out from under him, she lovingly tucked its edges between the mattresses, sealing him in its warmth.
“Will you read me a story?” Timmy asked.
“But I already read you a story earlier.”
“Please, Mommy, please.” His eyes grew wide and pleading. “Jist one.”
“But it’s nearly midnight and--”
“Please. Please, Mommy.” Timmy pouted--a beseeching pout that Rachael could not dismiss. She sighed resignedly. “Okay, but just one--a short one.” She ran a searching finger over the spines of the books that rested above Timmy’s head.
“The one wif the knight,” Timmy said. Contorting about, he pointed to a small thin book.
Pulling it free from the grouping, Rachael read the title aloud. “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the Children’s Version.” She stared down at Timmy’s supine form, so small and comfy beneath the thick covers. “Again?”
Timmy nodded eagerly and snuggled into his pillow.
“But isn’t it a bit...” Rachael paused. Though the story was toned down for youthful reading, it was still violent. “...frightening, for this late hour?” She considered the cover art of a large and fearsome green knight, wondered if this book wasn’t the cause of Timmy’s recent nightmares.
“Oh no, Mommy. He’s a good knight,” Timmy replied. “He jist looks mean.”
“I know, but...” Rachael looked at Timmy’s wide-eyed plea then succumbed. “Okay.” Pulling Timmy’s receding covers up about his chest, she brushed back a strand of pale hair from his face and kissed his forehead, a tinge of mother’s guilt nagging her at the extra practice sessions she would have to attend. She owed Timmy this story. “Close your eyes and think happy thoughts.” Rachael opened the book to page one, chapter one, and began reciting. “‘Silence!’ shouted Sir Gawain one New Year’s Day...”
~ * ~
“Timmy, hurry. You’ll miss your bus.” Rachael pulled her hair back into a cream-colored tie. Quickly, she sipped the last tepid remains of her morning tea.
“Coming, Mommy,” Timmy called from the upstairs landing.
Retrieving her flute case and portfolio of sheet music, Rachael set them near the front door of their two-story brownstone apartment. A long day of practice at the concert hall lay ahead, to be followed by a quick fast-food dinner and an equally long and grueling night of the same, then a crowded bus ride home. Rachael released a long, exasperated breath. Another evening that Timmy would spend with Mrs. Evans, their landlord and babysitter, rather than herself.
“Mommy,” Timmy began. He paused as he pattered down the long flight of stairs that led from the upstairs hall, dragging his cumbersome backpack alongside him like a reluctant pup.
Rachael smiled. “Need help with that?” she asked, reaching out.
“No!” Timmy swung the pack over his shoulder, teetering slightly as the weight of it knocked his small frame off balance. Quickly, he steadied himself. “See, I can do it.” He smiled broadly. He was proud, but not nearly as proud as Rachael as she watched her independent son ready himself for another day of school.
“Mommy,” he began again, slightly breathless.
“What’s a saddalite?”
“Satellite. It’s a small spaceship without people that collects information and takes pictures in outer space, then sends them back to earth to be studied.”
“Are they magic?”
“No, they’re scientific.”
“It means there’s no mystery about them. We know exactly how they work and what they do.”
“You do!” Timmy eyed her with astonishment. “How?”
“Well, I personally don’t know, but scientists do.”
“But the man on the radio said a saddalite fell from the sky and disappeared like magic over England. And they didn’t find hiderhear of it.”
“God! That happened at least six months ago--or more. Are they still talking about that?”
Timmy nodded feverishly. “Uh-huh.” Then his brow furrowed in puzzlement. “What’s that mean? Hiderhear? Was there a rabbit in it?”
Rachael suppressed a giggle. “It’s hide nor hair. It means they haven’t found any part of it, not even the tiniest piece.”
“Ooohhh. So it disappeared like Whodeemi? That’s kinda magic, isn’t it? Cause he’s a magician.”
“Houdini. And yes, kind of. But not really.”
“Don’t you believe in magic, Mommy?”
Rachael sighed. She hadn’t believed in magic in years. Not true magic. “I believe that you’re going to miss your bus if we don’t hurry.”
“And remember, I’m going to be late tonight. I have to practice extra long for a very special concert. But I’ll absolutely come to your room and kiss you goodnight.”
“Do you have to practice?” Timmy asked.
“I’m afraid so.” Rachael helped him slip into his jacket. “Be good for Mrs. Evans when you get home from school,” Rachael reminded Timmy.
Timmy grimaced. “I’m always good for Mrs. Evans.”
Rachael ruffled the golden silk of his hair, loving the soft feel of it as it slid through her fingers. “I know,” she said as she zipped his jacket closed.
Timmy smoothed down his hair, leveling her with a reproving glare that she dared to dishevel him, and just when the bus was due.
Rachael grinned at his growing independence and kissed his cheek. Through the picture window in her living room, her eye caught bright yellow movement down the street. “The bus is coming.” She patted his backside to set him on his way.
Suddenly, Timmy’s eyes grew wide and flustered. “Oh, wait. Wait. I forgetted somethin’.” He dropped his pack and ran up the stairs.
“Timmy!” Rachael called out. “You’re going to miss your...”
Already he was descending the steep incline at a pace too quick for his small feet.
“I getted it!” he announced. He grabbed his backpack and headed for the front door.
“I got. And what did you get?”
“Tim-my,” Rachael drawled. “What did you get?”
A horn blasted outside the brownstone. Timmy bounced excitedly on his sneakers. Mommy, I’m gonna be late,” he huffed anxiously.
“Okay, okay.” Rachael ushered him out the door. “I love you,” she whispered, low and for Timmy’s ears only.
Timmy paused on the walkway steps. The brisk morning breeze ruffled his hair. The brilliant morning sun illuminated it. Turning, he smiled up at Rachael as she stood on the threshold watching him, then he scampered for the bus. It was the same every morning. The pause, the smile. And it never failed to warm her heart.
Stepping back into the apartment, Rachael gathered her things, then began walking the busy street to her own bus stop, mentally preparing herself for the day. Shifting her load, she brushed at a group of unsightly wrinkles that had already begun to form in the soft cream linen of her skirt and suit jacket. When her bus pulled to a halt, she struggled through the door and up its three metal stairs. She dropped several small coins into the change box. They fell with a melodious clatter.
Slowly, she made her way to the one available seat that rested between a woman wearing enough perfume to open her own refinery and a bedraggled man who hadn’t seen a shower in the better part of a month. The combination was enough to make her swoon. Holding her breath, she eased down onto the tattered cushion, tucking her flute case and portfolio safely between her feet and the seat. She glanced over her shoulder at the bedraggled man next to her. He was ogling her legs. Instinctively, she tugged on the hem of her skirt, which had somehow hiked up to mid-thigh.
Perv! she thought.
She definitely needed a car.
~ * ~
“Good practice, wasn’t it?” Samantha patted Rachael’s shoulder as they descended the lengthy stairs that led from the concert hall.
“Could have been better,” Rachael muttered.
Samantha paused in stride. “It’ll get better,” she assured. “We still have two weeks of practice to go.”
“Two weeks,” Rachael murmured, then sighed.
Samantha turned to face her friend. “It’s not practice, is it?”
Rachael shook her head.
“Okay. Out with it,” Samantha ordered. “You’ve been acting weird all night. What’s bothering you?”
Rachael forced a smile. “It’s after ten. Timmy will be asleep by the time I get home. The only time I’ve spent with him today was an hour or so this morning. You know how I hate leaving Timmy with a sitter for so long a time, even if it is Mrs. Evans.”
“I guess I’m just anticipating the next few weeks. You know how it gets.” Rachael sighed. “I miss him already, Sam.”
“It’s only been a day,” Sam teased, then added, “But I don’t blame you. He’s the cutest thing this side of the city.” Hugging her violin case against her chest, she sighed theatrically. “If only he were twenty years older.”
Both women laughed.
“Yeah,” Rachael agreed. “They just don’t make them like that after the age of five anymore.”
“They sure don’t.” Samantha opened the back door of her car and set her instrument case on the seat. Closing the door, she turned to Rachael. “Want a ride?” She smiled that dentist-perfect smile that always made Rachael think Sam had missed her calling as a supermodel.
“Are you sure? Even after that stinking pervert eyed you up and down on the bus this morning?”
Rachael bit her lip. “Oh yeah, I’d nearly forgotten about that.” She contemplated Sam’s offer. “But as long as the pervs only look, I’ll be fine. It’s losing time with Timmy that’s the problem.”
Sam threw her arms about her friend’s shoulders and gave her a reassuring hug. “It’ll be over before you know it.”
Rachael forced a smile. “You’re right.” She straightened her back. Think positive.
“Now about that ride home?” Sam persisted.
“No, really. Thanks. It’s out of your way and my bus will be here any minute. In fact, here it comes now.”
“Okay, be careful.” Sam gave Rachael a sisterly hug. “And watch out for those pervs,” she teased.
Rachael gave her friend a gentle push toward her car. “I will. Now get going. I’ll see you on Monday.”
“Sir! Yes, sir!” Sam saluted Rachael before sliding behind the wheel of her car. “Give that little hunk of yours a kiss from me.”
“You bet.” Rachael took several steps toward the idling bus, admiring, with just a hint of envy, Sam’s free spiritedness and her careless manner of screeching tire as the small purple sports car tore out onto the main drag. She sighed heavily. It was how she wanted to be, carefree and full of spirit and fun. And she was, to a point. But she had responsibilities now. She had Timmy.
Reaching behind her, Rachael felt for her purse. Not finding it, she gently set her instrument case, lunch bag, and portfolio on the ground. She rifled through them to see if her purse had somehow become entangled in the mess. “Damn,” she swore, not finding it.
“Getting on, lady?” the bus driver called impatiently.
Rachael looked up at him. He was new. She closed her eyes and breathed deep. Her money was in her purse in the concert hall. “I guess not,” she replied.
“It’s an hour and a half till the next run,” the driver warned as if that piece of information could magically make her purse appear.
“I know. Thank you.”
“Okay,” the bus driver replied.
The folding bus doors squeaked to a close as Rachael turned toward the hall.
Having retrieved her purse, she again made her way down the cascade of steps. Her eyes lifted to the horizon. A brilliant mauve hue lit the sky. Darkness would envelope the streets in a matter of minutes, and it was a fifteen-block trek home. She sighed sharply. Why had she spent all her cash on lunch that day? Had she had more than a little change, she could have called a cab. As it was, there were no ATMs nearby. Rachael studied the road that led to her apartment. Fifteen blocks wasn’t that far.
Securing her possessions, she began walking, recalling all the city survival techniques she had learned over the years as she made her way home. Rule number one: Avoid the streets after dark.
In a false confident stride, she kept close to the curb, avoiding dark alleyways and deep shadowy alcoves. One by one, she counted the blocks as she kept up a brisk pace.
One, two, three...
A cool breeze swept over her face, warning of an approaching autumn storm. It pulled her hair out from its tie and whipped it about her shoulders.
Four, five, six...
Humidity filled her lungs. Soon sharp pellets of rain would spear from the sky, drenching the city in a chilling wash. She only hoped that she reached home before it let loose.
Seven, eight, nine...
Rachael retrieved her house keys from her purse. She jingled them in her hand before shoving them into the side pocket of her suit jacket where they could be quickly retrieved.
So far, so good. The deserted streets seemed oddly surreal as city dwellers anticipated the approaching storm and stayed indoors.
Almost home. And thank God for that. Her inch-and-a-half heels were killing her feet. Rachael made a mental note to always, from this time forward, tote her sneakers with her.
Her load grew heavier with every step, but the prospect of a warm cup of tea in front of a roaring fire raised her adrenaline level, giving her the added strength to keep moving. Tomorrow was Saturday, and she had the entire day to spend with Timmy. How she looked forward to that, and to the four weeks of relaxation after the upcoming concert. Four weeks to make up for the absences. Four weeks with Timmy and Timmy alone.
The storm raced in faster than she’d anticipated. Never had she seen the sky so ominously dark and heavily laden. It prompted her to quicken her gait.
A crash of thunder rocked the ground. Above, thick simmering clouds roiled over and in on themselves. Rachael stilled in her tracks, awestruck by the chilling force churning above her. A shudder ran through her.
Then a second thunderous crash split the heavens, followed by a renting blaze of white and blinding flash of green. Rachael stumbled back and covered her eyes, dropping all that she carried. A mild charge hung in the air, setting the fine hairs of her arms to stand on end.
“My God!” she swore. She grappled for her belongings and hurried toward the safety of home, only a block away. Securing her cases in a better hold, she raced around a curve in the road.
A steely hand reached out from the dark-treed border of the park and clamped about her arm.
“Gimme your money, bitch,” the thug demanded.
Rachael screamed. Her body jolted from his sudden, bruising grip. A skull-and-cross bone tattoo framed his forearm. His gaze was hard and desperate. Knowing she couldn’t best him, she reached for her handbag to comply. She knew there wasn’t any money in it, but maybe he’d take the whole thing and run without checking.
The thug’s grip tightened. His lips contorted as dark hollow eyes regarded her through her clothes.
Again a flash of lightning split the sky, its sudden brilliance snapping off the cold stare of her assailant.
“My purse. I--I must have dropped it.” Having no bargaining tool, she tried twisting from his grip, but the thug’s pointed fingers bit deeply into her flesh.
“Listen, lady,” he warned. “I wasn’t born yesterday.” He ran a lurid gaze over her. “But if you ain’t got no money, we can work it out in trade. Know what I mean?” He drew a silver object from his pocket. When he pressed its side, a click sounded.
Rachael caught her breath and stilled. Slowly, she lowered her gaze to the open switchblade that rested near her chin.
“You ain’t going nowhere, lady. We’re gonna have ourselves a party.”
A second man emerged from the shadows, taller and infinitely larger. He joined his companion, a similar tattoo marking his arm.
“Don’t hurt me, please,” Rachael pleaded. “I have a kid. Take anything you want. My purse is just over there.” She pointed shakily to where she’d dropped her belongings. “H-here, take my flute. You can hock it and--”
A sharp slap silenced her, and she stumbled back, falling to the gritty asphalt road behind her. One leg struck the high cement curb of the sidewalk, A gripping pain sliced her thigh.
“We don’t want no damn flute,” the second man said.
Rachael looked up at the two men, followed their lewd appraisals to her exposed legs. Quickly, she reached for her flute case. If nothing else, it could serve as a weapon.
Her thoughts raced to Timmy as her fingers brushed the case’s rich leather. She couldn’t die. Not now. Timmy needed her. Grappling for the case’s stocky handle, she nearly had hold of it when a booted foot kicked it from her grasp.
“You won’t be needin’ that,” the man cackled. His dark eyes continued assessing her, a piercing stare that bore clean through to the soul. Her face ached where she’d been struck. Already her cheek was swollen, impairing her left-side vision. She detected the hollow stare of the larger man. His dark scraggly hair rested in a tangled heap on his shoulders, his gnarly beard unkempt over thick lips and a slightly squared jaw. He was foreboding just to look on, but it was the hardness of his eyes that frightened her most.
“Please, don’t,” she pleaded.
The man’s lips curled malevolently, accentuating scars from knife fights long past. “Shut up, bitch!” he bellowed. He grabbed hold of her hair and pulled her to her feet.
Rachael stumbled, struggling to keep afoot against the throbbing of her thigh.
“Let’s go,” the dark giant commanded. With the aid of his accomplice, he dragged her deeper into the grove of trees that edged the park.
Rachael struggled against his hold, but her strength was no match to his. Thunder crashed. Again, Rachael screamed. Then an ominous silence fell over the park. Silence so thick it was palpable. It stilled her cries just as it stilled her attackers. Their sudden release sent her sprawling to the dewy grass.
“What the hell’s that?” she heard one man exclaim. She followed the man’s wide-eyed stare.
A spectral image loomed against a backdrop of roiling dark clouds and brilliant flashes of light. It stood tall and proud and was covered in a chest plate, greaves, and helm that glowed faintly green. One meshed hand gripped the hilt of a sword. Rachael sucked in a breath. Palms to ground, she slid stealthily back on her bottom.
The smaller man stepped foolishly forward. “Hey, Halloweener, this ain’t October, you know,” he taunted. “Shove off if you know what’s good for you.”
The larger man waved his knife in a sluicing motion before him, shifting it from one hand to the other and back with practiced grace.
The knight remained poised and unaffected, his armor gleaming more vibrantly green at each jagged spear that pierced the sky.
“I said, shove off, buddy. This is our lay,” the thug repeated as the two of them circled him.
Rachael again slid back, distancing herself from a violent confrontation. Her thoughts centered on Timmy; her gaze, on the knight. Her attackers no longer paid her any mind, their attention now shifted to the encroacher.
A feral growl sounded beneath the specter’s helm and he maneuvered himself between her and her attackers. Rachael shuffled to her feet, afraid of the specter, but more afraid of the alternative. Then a blinding flash rent the sky, ending with a violent crash of thunder. Rachael screamed, prompting the image to turn and face her.
Her breath caught.
Fierce amber eyes fixed on her through the fine slits of a helm--golden wolfish eyes that held her bound, assessing her. Rachael gasped, then stumbled back as the specter broke contact to face his opponents once more. Her heart pounded as she grabbed her flute and briefcase, kicked off her heels, and raced the half block to home.
~ * ~
Michel faced his opponents. Slowly, he unsheathed his sword. From the corner of his vision, he’d caught sight of the woman as she’d escaped into the night and slammed the door of a dwelling farther down the road to hide behind the safety of its walls. His thoughts replayed her confrontation with the swine before him. They spoke a manner of English. Though French was his first language, he knew the other well.
“Come, paysans,” he called out, prompting them to battle. “Fight me!”
The larger of the two attackers looked pathetically at the switchblade clutched between his fingers, then at the huge menacing sword Michel swung before him in challenge. Seeing the disadvantage, the man’s attitude changed from challenging to compromising. “Listen, man, we don’t wanna fight you.” He stepped back, dragging his accomplice with him.
“Cowards! Attackers of women! Fight!” Slicing the air with his weapon, Michel approached the two men. “Battez un homme, paysans.” Fight a man. The smaller thug scrambled in front of his friend. “He’s bluffin’ man. He ain’t gonna use that thing. He’s just some foreign piece of shit. We kin take ’em.” Sure that his friend supported his decision, he stepped forward, accepting Michel’s challenge.
Michel lunged, slicing the man’s thigh with the tip of his sword. A minor wound, but one that would hurt like the devil.
“Shit!” The man fell back. He landed on his rear with a hard thump. “He cut me, man. He cut me.” He scampered back on his elbows.
The larger man grabbed his accomplice by the arm, dragging him to his feet while his injured friend wrapped a hanky about his wound. “Come on, let’s git outta here.”
“I’m bleedin’ man. Look at this!”
“Yeah, yeah. Come on.”
With the support of his friend, the smaller man hobbled along, his hand pressed to the wound to help staunch the flow of blood. “I’ll kill ya, man,” he screamed back over his shoulder as the two of them disappeared into the park. “You’re dead meat next time, buddy. You jist wait.”
Michel set his sword at rest as the sound of idle threats faded into the distance. Slowly, he slid his weapon back into its scabbard.
~ * ~
“Gracious Lord! Rachael! What happened?” Standing in the kitchen doorway, Mrs. Evans stared wide-eyed at Rachael’s bared feet. “And where are your shoes, girl?”
Having burst through the door, Rachael slammed the bolt lock into place and fell back against the heavy oak barrier to catch her breath. “I-I was m-mugged,” she stammered. She dropped her cases to the floor.
“Mugged? Lord Almighty, you’re shaking like a leaf. Come on.” Mrs. Evans put an arm about Rachael’s shoulders and led her to the couch. “Sit down before you fall.”
Rachael followed Mrs. Evans through the dimly lit living room, too weak to resist.
“I’m calling the police.”
“No!” Rachael protested. “They’ll never b...” Rachael worried her lip. How could she convince the police of what she saw when she didn’t believe it herself?
“They’ll never what?” Mrs. Evans asked.
“They’ll never...umm...be there by the time the police arrive.” She breathed deeply. “God, look at me. I can’t stop shaking.”
Mrs. Evans glanced at Rachael’s cases. She took Rachael’s hands in hers to still them. “They got your purse, didn’t they?”
Rachael looked by the door where she dropped her belongings, though she already knew the purse wasn’t there. “I guess so. I dropped it.”
“Then you need to call the police. You’re not safe. They have all your info, girl, including your address.” Mrs. Evans headed for the phone.
“Wait!” Rachael cried out. She shot a glance at the bolt lock. It was engaged. “I mean, not now. I’ll call in the morning.” She sensed Mrs. Evans’ disapproval. “I promise,” she assured the older woman. “The bolt lock will secure the place until then.” She drew a deep breath. “Right now, I just want to get myself together. ”
“Are you sure?”
“I’m sure.” Rachael sank back into the couch cushions, relieved to be home and safe.
“Okay,” Mrs. Evans replied as she headed toward the kitchen. “How about a nice hot cup of tea. That will settle those nerves.
“You don’t have to do that. It’s late and--”
“Fiddle dee.” Ignoring Rachael’s protests, Mrs. Evan disappeared into the kitchen.
Rachael touched her throbbing cheek, then the harsher throbbing of her thigh. She sighed heavily. If Mrs. Evans had suspected she’d been hurt, she would never have taken no for an answer.
Fortunately, her landlord’s brownstone apartment adjoined Rachael’s with an inside connecting door. Just the thought of unbolting the main door renewed her shakes.
“Here you go, sweetie.” Mrs. Evans reached for the lamp as she handed Rachael her tea. “Let me turn up the lights for you.”
“No!” Rachael took the proffered tea. “I mean, I prefer it dark.”
“I’ve got a headache,” Rachael said, sure that one was coming on.
Mrs. Evans eyed her warily. “Are you sure you’re okay?” she asked.
“I’m fine. Really. Just a bit shaken, that’s all. A nice hot bath will take care of that.”
“Well, then.” Mrs. Evans sounded doubtful. “If you’re sure.”
Rachael sipped her tea. “How’s Timmy?” she asked, changing the subject.
“Snug as a bug in a rug.” Mrs. Evans picked up her babysitter satchel of puzzles, games, and books, and slung it over her shoulder.
Rachael sighed. “Thanks, Mrs. Evans. I know it was last minute and I appreciate you agreeing to watch Timmy while I’m at night practice.”
Mrs. Evan made her way to the connecting door. Before passing through, she turned to Rachael. “Fiddle dee. You know I love staying with Timmy. He’s like a grandson to me. And as my beloved husband departed this world without leaving me a son of my own...” She smiled warmly. “Just lock up tight and, if you need anything, call.”
“I’ll do that.” Rachael got up from the sofa and gave Mrs. Evans a hug. “Thank you.”
~ * ~
Michel assessed the new world around him. The woman’s tall abode sat nestled tightly between similar buildings that stood all in a row. Before it, a thick run of shrubbery grew, flanked by a long cascade of flat stone stairs. The dwelling’s heavy stone walls reminded him of Banesford Manor, but on a much smaller scale.
His eyes strayed to the surrounding village. Small torches sans flame burned before each dwelling and the gritty black road beneath him was of a substance he had never before seen. He scraped its hard surface with the heel of a boot, then removed a gauntlet and ran his hand over its grainy crest. “Saints!” he swore. “What is this place?” Again, he scoured the area, noting how it differed from the Banesford demesne. He felt comfort only in the forestry of the park--and in the single brownstone building numbered forty and seven. The one whereto the woman had fled.
Who was she? Why was she under attack? And why had she fled... from him? By the saints, he had been protecting her. Was there no gratitude in this place?
But she was une belle femme. A beautiful woman with dark fiery hair that hung in loose waves down her back. A heavenly creature--angelic in the creamy white garb that accentuated her womanly curves and revealed an obscenity of leg. Beautiful shapely legs.
Had he died and gone to heaven?
Mais non, c’est impossible. Two swine had attacked her from the shadows of the wood. Such evil did not exist within the boundaries of heaven, and such an angelic vision as she could never abide in the dark depths of hell. Nay, he was neither in heaven nor hell, but rather on earth--a part of earth he knew not, nor wanted to. A part of earth he could well live without, but had no choice but to live within. He shook his head. The magic of the armor had faded as surely as had the voices of his quarry. He’d felt the loss of it the moment he’d come fully to his senses, the moment the lightning had ceased. No longer did his flesh tingle beneath the smooth metal plate, no longer did the armor glow a vibrant shade of green. It felt common now. Finely crafted, but nothing more. The magic that would return him to Banesford was gone.
Pulling free his helm, Michel slumped against a nearby tree. Banesford, he reflected. A fortnight ago, he and Henry of Banesford had braved a violent storm in pursuit of a vicious killer.
“See you him?” Michel had asked his lord and liege
“Nay.” Henry replied.
A third man, however, caught sight of Ruford seated on his stallion at the highest crest of the meadow. “There.” He pointed.
Michel recalled his first impulse. “Allons-y!” He’d called out. Let’s go.
“Nay!” Henry had called him back. “Something is amiss.”
“What is it?” Michel’s steed pawed the earth, anxious to complete the mission.
“Look.” Henry pointed to Ruford’s dark silhouette, a halo of green surrounding it.
Stilling his horse, Michel studied their prey. “Mon Dieu!” he swore. “The glow intensifies.”
“Aye. And Ruford sits unmoving.”
“Then let us grab him whilst we can.” Michel readied to spur his mount forward.
Again Henry held him back. “Nay. I smell disaster.”
Suddenly a thunderous crash shook the heavens and rattled the ground.
Michel recalled the sudden burst of light and how the three of them had covered their eyes against the blinding flash. When they looked up Ruford was gone.
Spurring their horses to full gallop, they had raced to the top of the hill.
“God’s mercy!” Henry swore as they reached the peak. “Is it dead?”
Michel jumped down from his horse and checked Ruford’s steed. “Quite.”
“Gone, my lord.”
“Gone? But how?” Henry shot a fast glance over the field then turned to face Michel. “How could he have escaped?”
Michel could still feel the heaviness of failure.
“’Tis as though he disappeared,” Henry had said.
“He lives,” Michel replied.
“But how?” Henry pointed to Ruford’s lifeless horse.
“I know not, my lord. I only know that I must find him.”
Henry looked at Michel as though he had lost his senses. “Find him? How?
“’Twas the armor which brought the lightning to him, sending him to another place.”
“Nay, Michel. Granted, the metal from which the armor was forged had unusual properties, but to cause one to vanish to another place?”
“You did see it as clearly as I,” Michel retorted.
“I did see him disappear is all. But to believe him yet alive and elsewhere?”
“See you a body?” Michel asked. He sliced the air with his hand.
“The bolt struck him as a purposeful act. Ruford lives. I am sure of it. And ’tis my duty to stop him. I did vow this.”
“Then I release you from this vow,” Henry commanded.
“You cannot. ’Twas not a vow to you,” Michel informed him. “’Twas a vow to another.”
“To whom?” Henry demanded.
Henry’s expression fell. A vow to God was sacred. “But how will you hunt him when you know not where to look?”
“There is but one place to look, my lord.” Michel hung his head.
Lifting his head, Michel met Henry’s gaze. “To the remaining armor.”
Michel recalled the horror on Henry’s face.
“I forbid it,” Henry had bellowed.
“There is no other way,” Michel argued. “Ruford has killed nine innocents already. He must be stopped.”
“Ruford is gone. That is all that matters,” Henry argued.
“But gone where?” Michel asked, knowing that was not all that mattered. “How many others will die, ’haps not at Banesford, but elsewhere--innocent young maids like Isabo.”
Michel would never forget the look on Henry’s face as he reflected on the heinous way his niece was murdered. Her hands bound in silver cord. Her throat slashed from ear to ear.
“But even should it work and you are able to follow him, how will you return?” Henry had asked. “Will you be able to return?”
A sullen Michel looked at Henry as though for the last time. “I know not,” he answered. “But I will have stopped a murderer. Isabo’s killer.”
Michel could still hear Henry’s resigning sigh. It was a sigh of regret. A sigh of sadness and grief. Finally, Henry had relented. “Then go, Michel.” He gave Michel’s shoulder a fatherly squeeze. “And God go with you.”
~ * ~
Michel closed his eyes and gathered his strength. Opening his eyes, he stared off into a new and strange village. He wondered where to go from here. He had a mission to uphold, a vow to keep--that was a certainty. He had taken the greatest risk a man can take. And now that he was here, he must find Ruford, if Ruford was indeed here at all.
But as dire as finding Ruford was, it would have to wait. For the moment, he faced another immediate concern. Lodging. Michel ran an assessing gaze over the village. Rows of stone dwellings stood butted against the other, their flameless torches scattering light over expertly coiffed shrubbery. The dwellings’ stately windows stood at attention, some dark, some shining intermittently with a warm yellow glow. Occasionally, a silhouette passed by, giving evidence of life within.
The surreality of this world both frightened and intrigued him, and he dwelled on this until only one truth came to mind. He had to seek out shelter.
It was on this thought that the first pelt of rain struck his face.
“Dieu,” he swore. “What more can go astray?” Slipping off the chest plate, greaves and gauntlets he’d donned in what seemed another world, he made his way down the empty street to hide his armor beneath a heavy shrub outside the number forty and seven dwelling. Drawing a deep and fortifying breath, he approached its stately door and knocked.Title: KnightStalker
Author: Linda Ciletti