And So It Began . . .

This week’s prompt for a weekly contest on LinkedIn has led to the creation of a prequel to my stories about Federal Agent Lauren Schrecklich and the vampires she battles against. Enjoy!

Gold_medal_of_St._Michael

 

Lauren Schrecklich fingered the St. Michael medal on her rosary—a gift from her father on the day she graduated the police academy. As she lay in her hospital bed, the words to the familiar prayer from her childhood rose unbidden to her lips, “St. Michael, archangel, defend us . . .” Her thoughts migrated to the events that had landed her in Massachusetts General.

 

St. Patrick’s Day topped Lauren’s list of least favorite days. This year, she was scheduled to patrol the city streets on the day, which was named for a saint but reserved for participation in every imaginable vice. Although, like most every Irish saint, Patrick was famous for having turned water into wine, that seemed a poor reason to turn his feast day into a bacchanalia.

 

Late that evening, as Lauren and her partner patrolled the emptying streets, they heard a woman scream. Immediately, she and Arden took off down the alleyway toward the sound. Arriving at the scene, they discovered a man attacking a young woman. Both officers drew their firearms, and Arden commanded the man to release his victim. The attacker, using the victim’s body as a shield, reached a long arm toward Arden and wrested the gun away from him.

 

Well-trained in hand-to-hand combat, Lauren jumped into the fray. Later, all she could remember was the thud of Arden’s body hitting a brick wall, the feeling of panic as the attacker held her against the ground, the sensation of life draining from her as he bit down on her carotid, and a brief moment of surprise as her attacker suddenly backed away just before she passed out.

 

Days later, she had awakened in the hospital, surrounded by tubes and monitors and two g-men that kept wandering in to ask her questions until the charge nurse shooed them away.

 

The agents’ questions disturbed Lauren. “How did you know to confront the attacker with your rosary crucifix?” They kept asking this. She answered truthfully. Still, they kept probing.

 

“I hoped to be able to strangle him with the chain of beads,” Lauren would reply each time Agent Peters posed the question. Agent Morales, who had told her to call him by his first name, Michael, had sensibly stopped asking that particular question.

 

As Lauren caressed her rosary, the agents arrived for another inquisition. She hastily dropped the beads and slid them under a piece of paper on her bedside tray.

 

“How are we feeling this morning, Officer Schrecklich?”

 

Lauren gave a non-committal shrug. She loathed the unsmiling senior agent.

 

“We have just a few more questions for you, Lauren. Then we’re leaving town, so you can rest without us pestering you.” Michael flashed his boyish grin.

 

“Officer,” Peters jumped into inquisition mode immediately. “Can you tell us what caused you to use the crucifix on your rosary against your attacker?”

 

Lauren rolled her eyes. “Look, I’ve told you. I was hoping to get the chain around his neck. Don’t know if it would have been strong enough to strangle him, but with my gun out of reach, it was my only chance.”

 

“Do you regularly carry a rosary?”

 

Exasperated, Lauren sighed. “Only since my dad died. I’ve told you I don’t believe in magic. I miss my dad. I was fighting for my life. That combination seems to have saved me this time around.”

 

“Thanks, Lauren,” Michael smiled. “That’s all we need to know.”

 

Peters didn’t seem convinced but nodded and left the room.

 

Michael hung back. “We’ve run background on you, officer.” His kind eyes sparkled. “I noticed you’ve had an application sitting in our offices for a while.”

 

Lauren’s mouth dropped open.

 

“Your recent encounter might open some doors if you’re still interested.” Michael retrieved the rosary from its hiding place and handed them to her. “Looks like you’re reconsidering your faith. That’s good. Fighting people like your alleyway attacker will introduce you to a new level of vice. You need a way to defend yourself.”

 

Michael slipped out of the room before Lauren had a chance to respond. “A rabbi—just what a lapsed Catholic needs,” she thought, remembering the term used for FBI agents who open doors for people like her. Despite lingering doubt, she grasped the rosary and began to pray, “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit . . .”

wood rosary

Under Cover of Daylight

Yes, Friday Fictioneers is still in swing this week, but I found inspiration from the headlines that grabbed my muse’s attention instead. Perhaps I’ll have a 100-word story for this week’s photo prompt later, but until then, enjoy this 110-word tale and the photo I found that seems to fit.

Deborah Tilley [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Deborah Tilley [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Under Cover of Daylight

 

“A tanning salon?” Lauren was incredulous. “I suppose that’s one way for a vamp to remain undercover.”

 

“This isn’t a single vampire.”

 

Lauren nearly spit out her coffee. “What?”

 

“It’s a ring. We’re sending you undercover to assess the situation while I set up a team to complete the sting.”

 

“But . . .”

 

“A vamp in South America developed a sunlight protection system a few years back. It’s a lacquer, applied like a spray tan. We learned about it during the 2014 World Cup.”

 

“The World Cup? You mean Luis Suarez is . . .”

 

Michael leaned forward. “Lauren, you need to start letting go of your preconceived notions.”

 

Disclaimer: The above story is entirely a work of fiction. To the best of my knowledge, neither Luis Suarez, any of his teammates nor any of the players he has bitten are actually vampires. For details on what really happened, click here.

Belling the Cat

As hinted at earlier, this is the first in a new series I’m calling “Flashes of Awareness.” I’ll post a page with details on that soon. Meanwhile, enjoy the story and stick around a while when you get to the end. There’s a great surprise waiting for you in the real world.

 

Photo courtesy of Todd Foltz, copyright 2014

Photo courtesy of Todd Foltz, copyright 2014

Belling the Cat

Ronald pulled into the driveway Thursday evening primed for a domestic fight. That afternoon, his husband had sent a text, “Got off early. Taking the cat to Vivian’s.” Ronald couldn’t stand that cat, so he should have been glad Jeremy had found a way to get rid of her. But did Vivian have to be involved?

The cat was really just a stray. Jeremy had taken her in just before she gave birth, and he had dutifully found homes for her three kittens. After they were born, the cat refused to stay indoors. Jeremy had taken her to the vet to be vaccinated and spayed, and she would show up regularly at the patio door to be fed. Jeremy doted on the feral thing. Now he had found some drag queen who loved cats. Ronald had a mind to suggest that both Jeremy and the cat move in with Vivian.

Upon entering the house, Ronald found Jeremy in bed with the cat guarding him like a police dog. He lay still, scarcely breathing, his face pale as paste.

“What the hell happened to you?” Ronald snapped, approaching the bed. He jumped back as the cat hissed and threatened to attack. Jeremy’s eyes opened slowly.

“Oh dear, what happened?” Ronald’s tone softened.

“The afternoon excursion didn’t go as planned.”

“I gathered that.” Despite concern for his husband’s health, Ronald’s disdain for Vivian and that stupid cat still had him itching for a fight. A low growl from the feral ball of teeth and claws lying next to Jeremy indicated that he was about to get one.

“It’s okay, Kitty. Hush now.” Jeremy stroked the cat. “Calm down. I’ll tell you all about it.”

It took Ronald a moment to realize that Jeremy was directing that final statement toward him. “I’m going to pour myself a drink. You want anything?”

“Water—with lemon.”

Ronald left and returned with two glasses—water for Jeremy, a gin and tonic for himself. Cautiously eyeing the cat, he placed the water on Jeremy’s nightstand. Slipping off his shoes, he crossed to the opposite side of the bed and slid in. Safely away from the hostile guard cat, he propped Jeremy up against a pair of pillows.

“It appears that Vivian is more ‘Queen of the Damned’ than Drag queen,” Jeremy began, self-consciously fingering a gauze bandage on his neck.

Ronald felt the rage rising in his throat. “What did you do?” Ever since the two had met Vivian at the drag show in Kansas City Jeremy had been taken with her.

“Nothing.” Jeremy looked hurt. “I arranged for her to take the cat. She has a couple acres out on County Road YY past the old dairy—plenty of room and very little traffic. I figured you’d be happy to be rid of the cat.”

“Okay, so what happened?”

“She lives in this horrid hovel—all shuttered up. I thought I was in the wrong place. When I rang the bell, she called for me to come in with the cat. I stopped in the entryway so my eyes could adjust, and the cat started thrashing around in the carrier. I set the carrier down, and Vivian came out looking like a hot mess. Next thing I know, she’s biting my neck.”

Ronald’s eyes widened. “Biting? Like a—“ Jeremy nodded.

“Calm down. You know it takes three bites to turn a person. But I think she might have drained me dry if the cat hadn’t managed to release the latch on the carrier. She went straight for Vivian’s face. This little lady’s pretty vicious.” Jeremy affectionately scratched the head of the feline, who was now curled up on his lap, still eyeing Ronald with suspicion.

“And then?”

“That’s when things get a little fuzzy.  I lost a lot of blood. Vivian must have disappeared into her hovel, and next thing I knew the cat was back in the carrier. I put her in the car, found a handkerchief to wrap around my neck and managed to drive home. I don’t remember much of the trip.”

Ronald sighed. There was no sense fighting tonight. “I’m glad you’re alright. Sounds like I need to make some calls—get a team to take Vivian out of the picture before she skips town. Meanwhile, we need to give that cat a name.” Ronald smiled at Jeremy. “I think we should call her ‘Buffy.’”

Flashes of Awareness

Did you fall in love with the stunning cat photo at the top of this post? The cat’s real name is Dillar. Like Buffy in the story, Dillar is a rescue cat. At the time of this posting, unlike Buffy, Dillar hasn’t yet found her furever home. Photographer Todd Foltz took her picture for the Kansas City Kitty Cat Connection, a cat rescue organization in Kansas City’s Northland. If you want a pet that will be forever grateful to you, please consider rescuing an animal from the Kitty Cat Connection or from another organization in your locality.

Although cats have a reputation for being aloof and standoffish, they can be affectionate and devoted, much like the cat in this story. My oldest cat, whom I rescued from a local park when he was a small kitten, can tell anytime that I am feeling ill, and he always sets up a guard post to keep an eye on me until I’m feeling better.

Both of my cats were rescued, and our baby, Frida, was adopted from Sharon Jones, one of the amazing foster moms that works with the Kitty Cat Connection. Click here or the link above to learn more about the great work that she, Todd and others are doing.

Sweepstakes

Sweepstakes

“Seriously?” Gwen gazed skeptically at the printout of what was obviously a scam email. “People fall for this?”

Her partner nodded. “Our subject has used it effectively in the past.”

“Recent past?” Gwen’s skepticism wasn’t waning.

John nodded and opened his mouth, then closed it again.

“I know, I know. I give people too much credit.”

“Really, you do, Gwen. Not everyone has a high IQ. Even those that do will believe what they want, especially when they’re desperate.”

Gwen sighed. John was right. Still, she couldn’t understand how some people could be so stupid. “You are a finalist in this year’s $4,000,000 sweepstakes,” the email read. “A dinner to be held in your honor will take place at 8:00 in the evening on March 15. Come celebrate and learn if you are the lucky winner. Only finalists are invited. Must be present to win.” The email went on to give directions to a remote address and provide further congratulations to the potential winner.

“Beware the Ides of March,” Gwen muttered, rolling her eyes. She enjoyed her work as an investigator, but she didn’t enjoy saving people from situations that they could avoid given the tiniest drop of common sense.

“Look, the intel is pretty clear. This must be an old, experienced vampire. I, for one, give him props for figuring out a way to lure prey to his lair without raising alarm. We think he’s been operating this way for about 30 years, switching from snail mail to email about five years ago. He does his research, only targets loners who are down on their luck. As far as we can tell, he has nearly an 85 percent conversion rate.”

Gwen shook her head in disbelief and rolled her eyes again. “Oh, come on, Gwen,” John chided. “An 85 percent conversion rate! There’s not an ad agency around that can get close to that. This vamp’s a marketing genius.”

“Do you want me to take him out tomorrow night or bring him in so you can get lessons in marketing?”

John ignored the snide remark and sashayed out of the office, leaving Gwen to review the intel before the sting.

Gwen’s disdain for the general public grew as she reviewed the case. Since 1987, solitary members of the community had been lured to collect prizes of cash. The vampire never invited more than one finalist to his home at a time,  and Gwen had to admire the undead’s ingenuity. After all, it had taken the agency nearly 30 years to catch up with him.

***

The next evening, Gwen headed toward the rendezvous undercover as Harriet Snodgrass. She wore an ill-fitting floral dress that looked like something from the sale rack at Goodwill, bright red lipstick and heavy blue eye shadow.

Gwen felt a growing respect for this particular vamp. She honestly believed he was doing the world a favor with his chosen MO—like a bottom feeder whose job it is to clean up after the rest of the inhabitants in a the pond. “We’ll see how tonight goes,” she whispered to herself.

Pulling up to the address, Gwen quickly took note of her surroundings. All was quiet. A Lincoln Continental with deeply tinted windows sat in the drive. She thought about how Harriet would feel at this moment—certain that her luck was about to improve, that a change of fate lay just around the corner. The intended victim would have been right about the change of fate, but it certainly wasn’t the change she would have expected.

Gwen took a deep breath and exited the car. The stillness of the evening sent an unfamiliar chill down her spine. She shrugged it off as she walked up to the door of the sprawling estate. Just before she pressed the bell, a deep voice startled her. “Forgive me for not receiving you personally. Let yourself in. It’s unlocked.”

The agent pulled open the heavy oak door and stepped into the foyer. The voice came again. “Please, make yourself comfortable. Dinner will be served momentarily.”

The evening was proceeding differently than Gwen had imagined. She began to feel nervous and to wonder if her plan would work. Where was her host? The disembodied voice seemed a bit overly dramatic.

Suddenly, Gwen felt a strong hand grasp the back of her neck. Unfamiliar fear gripped her heart as she began to struggle for freedom. As she thrashed about in an effort to pull her stake from its holster, her attacker let out a cry. She toppled forward when the grip on her neck suddenly released. Catching herself, she spun around to see John standing above the fresh pile of dust, a stake in his right hand and a crucifix held aloft in his left.

“Wha—you—why?” Gwen sputtered. She hadn’t called for backup on the job, hadn’t planned for it, hadn’t wanted it.

“After your reaction yesterday, I wasn’t sure this was a job you were up to. Good thing I came along. Looks like you might have been the main course.”

Gwen reddened. She wasn’t sure what made her the most furious—that John hadn’t trusted her to get the job done or that he had saved her life. He would be completely insufferable after this.

Mobilizing Friendship

Author’s Note: I composed this about a week ago and have hesitated to post it due to the high volume of truth tucked into this piece of fiction. However, it has met with positive reviews in my writers group, so I’m sharing with this word of caution: The characters in this story, aside from the narrator, which is mostly just the author as herself, although they may resemble people from real life, are all fictitious. While the story is inspired by real events, many details have been changed.

 

By Grombo (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC-BY-SA-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5-2.0-1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Grombo (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC-BY-SA-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5-2.0-1.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Mobilizing Friendship

Fused bones in my feet at birth provided significant challenges for me growing up. Although with determination and intense orthopedic care I learned to walk, keeping up with everyone else was usually an unattainable goal. While other kids lagged behind adults because they were dawdling, I lagged behind because my legs simply couldn’t move any faster. Most of the time, my dad just broke down and carried me.

At school, I often resorted to sitting on the steps in front of our classroom rather than attempting to join in fast-paced playground games. Talking with teachers or daydreaming helped me pass the time.

As a teen, I worked hard to keep up with others my age. I poured my energy into youth activities at church. I traveled on mission trips, acted in dramatic productions and toured the Midwest with a puppet team. When it came time for fundraisers, I worked alongside more able-bodied teenagers, waiting tables at charity dinners and slinging Cokes at concession stands. When my swollen feet could no longer bear my weight, I laughed the pain away and found something productive I could do from a seated position.

My determination earned the respect of other teens. One friend who had been like a brother to me growing up decided there was no reason for me to fall behind or miss out on adventures when he could do something about it. I don’t remember the first time we made the arrangement, but throughout high school, we traveled as a team. I would walk as long as my legs allowed. Then Andrew would carry me piggyback for the rest of the excursion.

Andrew carried me around the Smithsonian museums in Washington, across the boardwalks of several old cow towns in Kansas and around the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. I rode on his back through Silver Dollar City and Branson, Missouri. We enjoyed Orlando together as he carried me piggyback around the Magic Kingdom and Sea World. Even the French Quarter of New Orleans found me riding on the back of my caring, fit and loyal friend. In Texas, he got a break when we went horseback riding together. After my temperamental mare did her best to buck me off, I kept my feet on the ground for the rest of that trip. In the inner city of Nassau, Bahamas, Andrew once again provided transportation for me as we picked through trash-filled neighborhoods on our way back to our hotel from the mission worksite.

After high school graduation, Andrew married the girl he’d been dating for the past year and a half. I went on to college. We lost touch. I kept up my habit of working hard—joined a mime troupe, found a cure for my ailing legs in reflexology and energy treatments, learned to dance.

Yesterday, I read an obituary online. Andrew died unexpectedly two weeks ago. I hadn’t seen him since his wedding. I never verbalized how much he meant to me—although what our friendship meant to each other was never lost on those who saw us together. I don’t know why we lost touch originally, but losing Andrew this way—that shouldn’t have happened.

Of Nicknames and Embarrassing Moments

It’s a little early for me to post my response to the weekly LinkedIn challenge, but this week’s prompt “My Most Embarrassing Moment” struck a chord with me immediately. A few of my readers will recognize this story, at least in part.

 

Heehee Marie

As nicknames among adolescents go, “Heehee Marie” wasn’t that bad, even for a serious kid like me. It  out-ranked names like “Leetle Ree-chard” and “Frogger,” which were thrust upon friends of mine.

The problem with being called “Heehee Marie” was that I didn’t understand it. I understood the nicknames of others in the youth group. Joy acquired the name “Surprise” when the quiet 12-year-old hollered “Hail, Hitler!” during a lull in a lunchtime conversation about relatives from the Soviet Union. The youth group quickly explained the difference between Nazis and Communists to her, but the nickname stuck. Tommie earned the nickname “Photo Dweeb” after snapping over 260 pictures during a single trip to Texas. Since these nicknames were doled out justly, I could only assume that mine also had been somehow earned.

Taking everything seriously was in my nature, so I dutifully asked members of the group why they called me “Heehee.” Usually I received a non-committal shrug. Jason, nicknamed “Hobie” after a brand of clothing he often wore,  had originated my nickname, and he finally pacified me by stating that the name just rhymed.

I wasn’t upset by the nickname, and it had already stuck, so I let the matter lie. To some people, I would always be “Heehee Marie.” Since most of those people liked me well enough, I could live with the nickname. It rhymed. I guess that made them happy. Why shouldn’t I be happy as well?

I spent the bulk of my teenage years with that group. A few like Angela, also known as “Giggles” because she actually had a sense of humor, graduated ahead of me while other, younger teens came into the group.

Eventually, I graduated high school and said my goodbyes. Before leaving for college, I had one final event in which to take part—a national quiz bowl tournament. For six years, I had competed in quiz bowl, and my goal was to earn a place in the top 10 individual quizzers in the nation. At my previous national quiz, the pressure had overwhelmed me. This time would be different.

During the final four rounds, the tournament was being recorded as well as televised locally. Since my team and I were scoring well, I began to relax from my typically serious bent of mind. One of my team members even discovered that I indeed had a sense of humor and took pleasure in tickling it at inopportune moments. Toward the end of a round, he whispered something in my ear that made me giggle just before the quiz master announced, “Question number . . .” After the next question, the captain of the opposing team decided to challenge the quiz master’s ruling. The quiz master requested the audio technician to replay the answer so he could review it.

The technician wound the old-fashioned reel-to-reel recording backward too far, to the exact moment when I had laughed at my team member’s joke. The auditorium sat in silence. Throughout the room and across the airwaves came my squeaky, high-pitched laugh, “HeeHEE!” Snap. The technician fast-forwarded the reel, stopped it at the correct spot and replayed the answer.

Suddenly, the reason for my nickname dawned on me—in front of the entire world. I could feel my face turning crimson. As the team captains and the quiz master came to some decision, I rationalized to myself—maybe no one else realized that was my laugh. After all, there were several others within range of the sound equipment.

Just before the final question of the round, my humorous team member leaned over and whispered in my ear, “HeeHEE.” Once again my face turned crimson. My hopes were dashed. Everyone knew, as I now knew, exactly why my nickname was “Heehee Marie.”

HeeHee Marie and Joy, aka "Surprise," at the pinnacle of Pike's Peak, circa 1992

Heehee Marie and Joy, aka “Surprise,” at the pinnacle of Pike’s Peak, circa 1992

The Web

Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0, by Fir0002

Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0, by Fir0002

 

I’m not 100% certain I care for this particular story. It was written in response to a LinkedIn prompt THE SPIDER’S WEB. Perhaps some of you will enjoy it or have ideas for its improvement.

The Web

“In the dawn, you will approach your destiny.”

Clair wasn’t certain how those words had entered her brain or even when. They seemed to have been whispered to her during the night, perhaps as she warmed her hands over the campfire or as she trudged home after an exhausting day on the ranch. Perhaps she had simply dreamed them, but they were enough to rouse her from slumber before the sun arose and to chase her back to the meadow fence where she could watch the sun rise.

Unbeknownst to Clair, those same words echoed through Ben’s mind that morning also. He, too, had no idea where they originated. He, too, awoke early and made his way to the fence, eager to see what dawn would bring.

Arriving at the fence at almost the same moment, the two greeted one another. Although Ben seemed happy to see her, Clair was slightly put off at his presence interrupting her morning reverie. They sat on the top rail as the sky grew lighter and the first rays of sun illuminated the meadow. The early morning silence was comforting as was the company. The spider’s web Clair had pointed out to Ben the evening before now glittered with dew drops. “Diamonds to drape around the neck of Mother Nature,” Ben remarked poetically.

Clair groaned aloud as her heart skipped a beat. He was such a— She caught herself mid thought. Where normally she would think “schmuck,” she found herself considering words like “romantic” and “gentleman.”

The sun rose. Responsibility called. The two parted without speaking their silent pact. They both knew they would return at dawn the next day.

Whistling a bright tune she had learned from Ben years ago, Clair returned to the farmhouse. Her daughter Willow met her in the kitchen and smiled. Recognizing the tune, Willow considered it a good omen. Her subliminal messages must be working.

Round and Round We Go

By Winterhillkennel (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Winterhillkennel (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

“Oh, hell! Here we go again,” thought Frank, now incarnate as a yellow lab puppy and gazing up into the face of none other than a grown-up Billy Steadman.

 

“Aren’t you a cute little fella?” Billy picked the trembling puppy up by the scruff of the neck. Frank responded by peeing on his shoe. “Whoopsie daisy!” Billy laughed, then pulled the puppy close and scratched behind his ears.

 

Once again, Billy didn’t recognize Frank. Of course, the last time they’d met—the last nine times, in fact—Frank had looked remarkably different. And they’d never spent much time in one another’s company.

 

Since the pair’s first encounter, Billy, aside from growing up like all boys do, had remained much the same. That is, he was still the same species. At each of their previous encounters, Billy had been the cause of Frank’s demise, which always resulted in Frank being reincarnated before encountering Billy yet again.

 

When Billy was two, he had the misfortune of encountering Frank as a honeybee—a honeybee who knew only one way back to the hive. Unfortunately for them both, the toddler had wandered into Frank’s path. Billy took the sting. Frank paid with his life.

 

When Billy was four, Frank encountered him once again. Frank, now a goldfinch nesting in an orchard near Billy’s home, observed the happy activity indoors. Flying toward the spot where the child played, Frank smashed into the picture window, and it was lights-out for the finch.

 

For some reason, Frank kept turning up in Billy’s path. He was the squirrel Billy killed with a slingshot, one of the baby rabbits Billy hit with the lawnmower, and a fly Billy smacked with a flyswatter.

 

Today, Frank was not in the mood to meet up with Billy again. He’d just gotten the hang of being a puppy, and the dog’s life suited him.

 

Sure enough, Billy selected Frank from the litter and arranged to take the puppy home. Frank cowered in a corner of the crate that Billy carefully strapped into the backseat of his SUV. “Don’t worry, little fella. We’ll get you home and introduce you to the kids. They’re gonna love you.” Frank doubted he would survive long enough to meet Billy’s kids.

 

Billy pulled out of the drive and turned left down a shady lane. Frank set to howling in hopes that Billy would return him before it was too late.

 

“Now you stop that. Everything’s gonna be—“ Billy’s voice cut off as a Dodge Ram slammed into the side of the SUV, killing Frank instantly.

***

“Simulation complete.” The canned voice came over the intercom, and Frank’s eyes flew open. The imp yanked the electrodes from his own skull without waiting for the attending lower demon’s assistance. “What special kind of hell was that?” he shrieked.

 

The laboratory door opened, and Beelzebub, dressed in a lab coat, entered. “Partial reset reincarnation. It’s a new punishment we’ve been working on for some of our more resistant clientele.”

Rachel’s Comfort

While most of us are deeply grateful for our mothers (I certainly am grateful for mine.), the advent of Mother’s Day comes with a measure of grief for some. Perhaps you are a mother whose child is no longer living. Perhaps you grieve because your mother has passed on. Today, in honor of all mothers who have lost a child, I bring you an expansion on an ancient legend.

Image

Rachel’s Comfort

“In the year 1284 a mysterious man appeared in Hameln. He was wearing a coat of many colored, bright cloth, for which reason he was called the Pied Piper.” Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, Grimm’s Fairy Tales

 

“A voice was heard in Ramah, lamentation, and bitter weeping; Rachel weeping for her children refused to be comforted for her children, because they were not.” Jeremiah 31:15, KJV

The sound of mourning hung in the air of the village of Hameln for weeks. At first,  mothers wept inconsolably. As their husbands and elders scoured the surrounding countryside for some sight of the missing children, a few of the women remained hopeful. In time, as the village realized the permanence of the loss, a bitterness grew. “How dare you pay that bastard with the lives of our children rather than part with your precious gold?” the mayor’s wife accused her husband. Other wives uttered similar accusations to their husbands as the village settled back into its daily routine—a routine now unaccompanied by the merry sound of childish laughter and play.

Despite the loss of her two eldest children, Rachel was comforted by the presence of little Hans. Having left home without his jacket on that fateful day, the small boy, at the urging of his older sister, had turned back to retrieve it. By the time he had returned to the street, the other children had vanished into the mountainside. Rachel had found him sitting on a grassy knoll just outside of town, sobbing at being left out of what he thought to be a grand adventure.

Gathering her youngest son into her arms, Rachel had comforted him, assuring Hans that the others would return soon and there would be new adventures on which he could join them. About that time, two other children had appeared on the knoll. Lars, whose clubbed foot always caused him to lag behind, was leading Greta. Rachel immediately noticed a blank look on the little girl’s face, which mirrored the terror in the boy’s eyes.

Back in the village, Rachel and Inga, the mother of Lars and Greta, became outcasts among the local women. Their sorrow, although deep, could not be comprehended by the grieving mothers whose progeny had all been stolen by the malicious piper.

Of the surviving children, only Hans remained unscarred by the tragedy. Lars limped more markedly than ever and had lost his ability to speak. Greta, who became his voice, could not even see the light of the midday sun.

In the years to come, Rachel never understood why, of all the children in Hameln, only Hans was spared. But she took comfort in the life of her son. Even in the face of deceit and tragedy, hope remained. No piper, no rat catcher, no magician could ever change that.

Smooth Operator

By Krzysztof Biegański, Polska, Kbiegan (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC-BY-SA-2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Krzysztof Biegański, Polska, Kbiegan (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC-BY-SA-2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

“Sorry to be sending you away again so soon, but I need you on a flight to Key Largo tomorrow.”

Lauren stared at the director. The timing wasn’t an issue, but the location was. “Where?”

“Key Largo.”

“For a white collar assignment?” Lauren looked skeptically at Michael. After three years as her director, he knew working for the white collar division of the FBI was merely a cover for her specialization.

“Your subject,” Michael pushed on, sliding a folder toward her across his desk, “is James MacDonald. Or Geoffrey Miles. Kevin Fischer. William Eberstark. Tyler Schwab. Take your pick. In FBI circles, he’s known as the “Smooth Operator.”

“Smooth Operator? Like the Sade song?” Lauren’s eyebrows shot up.

Michael nodded grimly. “He’s been visiting locations from the song for the past 30 years. Showed up in LA in 1985 using an MO we hadn’t seen before, although I’m guessing he was no rookie even then. Ten years ago agents in Chicago were closing in, but he slipped away. We’ve heard rumors of his activity in several northern cities. Then he headed south along the eastern seaboard. We’ve pinpointed his arrival in northern Florida and need a team in place when he gets to the Keys.”

“But—are you sure?”

Michael nodded again. “A cocky move on his part, but don’t let this one fool you. He’s as likely to slip through your fingers there as anywhere else.”

Lauren picked up the folder and flipped through it. “When do I leave?”

“Your flight departs from Andrews at 6:00a.m.”

Again, Lauren looked quizzically at her director. Had he lost his mind? Sending her on a mission in Florida and planning for her to arrive in broad daylight? At least he wasn’t having her fly out of BWI. Her equipment would never make it through airport security.

***

The plane touched down at a private airport in Key Largo. Lauren hired a car and drove to Azul del Mar,  where the Smooth Operator purportedly had made reservations for the coming week.

At the concierge desk, Lauren introduced herself as a federal agent investigating Medicare fraud. The clerk stalled until Lauren produced her badge, then allowed her access to the guest records.

Within a couple of minutes Lauren located the information she needed—a guest planning to check in tonight with specific request for blackout shades on all windows in the suite.

“Looks like I had the wrong intel,” Lauren commented to the rattled clerk.

On her way back to the car, Lauren encountered a groundskeeper. “You should change into your bikini now.”

“The yellow polka dot one?”

The groundskeeper nodded and escorted her back to the rental car. “Drive over to the Marriot. Leave your car with the valet there and check in. Then walk back to Azul del Mar. I’ll have the cabana ready.” He opened the car door and sent her off with a friendly wave.

At sunset, Lauren returned on foot. She had exchanged her workday attire for beach clothing, including a tropical romper custom designed to conceal her weapons. Crossing to the back of the resort, she located a cabana just outside the Caribe suite. A quick assessment of the entry options revealed that the groundskeeper had left the garden door to the suite unlocked. The Smooth Operator wasn’t likely to arrive before 11:00p.m., and his signature crime always took place at midnight. Lauren settled into the cabana to wait.

About 11:15, Lauren heard a car turn up the drive. As its occupants headed up the front walk to check in, she positioned herself just outside the garden door. A few moments later, the couple  entered the suite. The woman was obviously drunk. The man, less inebriated, swatted her bottom playfully. “Slip into something more comfortable, my love.” The woman, a weekender slung over her shoulder, made her unsteady way to the bathroom. The man, his back to the garden door, began flipping through musical selections on the entertainment system. Lauren saw her chance. She slipped into the room, and as the first notes of Sade’s “Smooth Operator” filled the room, the vampire known by the same name succumbed to Lauren’s stake.