My first clue to the events that were set to unfold came from the hand of a woman in yoga pants and a hot pink sports jacket. I was walking down the sidewalk that followed a row of boutiques, cafes, and art galleries that filled St. Michael’s main street when she tapped my arm and said “Excuse me.” It seemed clear she was in the middle of a jog, not just because of her outfit but because of the way she kept her legs moving even while standing in place. I immediately assumed she wanted to pass, and glancing down quickly to make sure the bags in my hand left enough room between me and the cars that lined the curb, I kept walking.
“Excuse me,” she called again, insistently.
I turned in earnest then and saw a woman of about 35 with lightened hair held back by a bright headband that matched her jacket. Her legs were pumping, and she had a gloved hand extended, like she wanted to give me something. I’m sure I made quite a sight. I’d been lost in my memories again and I stared at her for a moment completely nonplussed, trying to fathom what she could possibly have that I would want. I thought perhaps she was a member of one of those particularly insistent Protestant churches, making the rounds of the ladies boutiques, which struck me as a blow below the belt. As long as I’ve been alive, fashion and religion have been quarreling sisters who don’t agree with the other’s life choices but who’ve learned to play nice at weddings and funerals for the sake of the family. What one contemplates in the mirror when squeezing into new jeans is about as far from godliness as can be, and it seemed a horrible affront on her part to violate a detente that had kept the peace for centuries.
“Yes?” I said, unwilling to extend a hand to accept her offer until I had some sense of what was in it.
“I think you dropped this,” she said. She turned her gloved hand and opened it.
“I don’t think—” was as far as I got. In her palm was a tarnished coin, irregularly circular and roughly the size of a silver dollar. It was so worn from age that it was impossible to tell whether the face stamped in profile had been a man or a woman.
“It’s looks very old,” she explained, as if my hesitation caused her some concern. “I thought it might be valuable.”
I lifted my free hand and she dropped the coin into it before smiling in an impersonal but polite way and continuing her run.
I looked at the coin in my hand. There was no mistaking it.
“Thank you,” I said softly after she was too far away to hear.
It was the Moirai penny, the very same coin I had delivered to Dr. Alexander at Etude’s request, the very same coin he had taken from Granny Tuesday. How it had come to find me, I will never know.
I didn’t dare show it to Martin and Annie—not that I distrusted either of them. But the temptations of the currency of fate often prove too great even for the most well-intended of souls. It was heavy, and I don’t carry change, so I could feel it moving in my pocket as I showed my curious hosts what I had purchased in town. They were all too eager to see, asking the moment I stepped inside. I had the sense that neither of them ventured out of that house very often, if at all.
“Lingerie?” Annie asked as Martin turned uncomfortably in his seat.
“When starting over,” I said as I replaced the tissue-wrapped brazier in the bag, “one must start at the beginning.”
“And that’s all?” she asked.
She squinted at me. “Have trouble at the bank?”
“Why?” I asked with mock defensiveness. “Because I came back with so little?”
She was right of course. All I had acquired was some nice undergarments and a pair of black leather boots, far less than what I had hinted when I left. I had had some difficulty acquiring funds.
“Apparently,” I said, “I do not look like someone named Cheryl Dunlop.”
“And you won’t either,” Annie chuckled, “not in French lace.” She poked at the bag on the table.
“It seems I’ll have to update my documents sooner than I thought.” I frowned.
Annie nodded. “I was worried about that. Things are different now, you know. Everything’s recorded but nothing is known.”
“There’s always attic,” Martin said, rejoining the conversation now that the ladies unmentionables were comfortably out of sight.
“Oh, dear,” Annie said with a scowl. “She’s not gonna want any of that old junk.”
“What’s in the attic?” I asked.
“Clothes,” Martin said. “A few centuries' worth, I gather. Bound to be a few things for you in there.”
I still hadn’t gotten over how much he looked like a wax version of himself. I’m sure he was aware of it, the effect he had on people, because he’d developed a habit of looking to the side when he spoke, as if to avoid eye contact, which I did not remember him doing when he was alive. In fact, I remembered Martin Hightower being a warm, affable man who loved my friend dearly. I got the sense he was disappointed in her for what she’d done, but not so much as to hate her for it. The love between them was still there, but it was stiffer, as if had preserved in formaldehyde—neither growing nor shrinking, but also not breathing. I think he understood his situation was something his wife needed, and he was doing it for her despite his deep reservations. It helped, I suppose, that there was a natural time limit. There were only so many years before Annewyn, too, joined the grave, and her husband would again be allowed his rest. Until then, he was enduring the indignity. For her sake.
“Thank you, Martin” I said, being sure to look directly at him in a way that signaled I would not remain perturbed by his appearance. “I should I should look, at least. Perhaps I can find something ‘Cheryl Dunlop-y’ enough to get by the folks at the driver’s license agency. Are you sure you don’t mind parting with some of it?”
“Oh goodness,” Annie scoffed. “We haven’t been up there in years. You’re welcome to anything you find.”
“Except the wardrobe,” Martin added softly from the side.
“Yes,” Annie said, glancing to the floor. “There’s a large wardrobe at the back. Best leave it closed.”
It was precisely then that we heard a loud groan, as if the timbers of the house had just heard the worst pun in the world. This was followed immediately by a booming snap which cracked through the house like thunder, and Annie and I jumped. Something heavy slid across the tiles of the roof then, before falling past the window in the parlor and to the ground, where it landed with a dull but prominent thud.
All three of us rushed to the window, where we saw the two-meter metal spire from the top of the house. It had impaled itself in the ground between the legs of the grocery delivery man, who lay spread-eagled on the winter-brown grass, staring at the sharp metal that would have emasculated him but for a space of three inches. Apples, lettuce, eggs, milk, and other sundries were strewn about, having spilled from a pair of brown paper bags, now torn.
“Oh dear!” Annie bolted for the stairs as fast as he feet would carry her.
I turned to follow, when I noticed Martin had one hand in front of his face as he bent to retrieve his nose, which had fallen to the floor. He lifted it and looked at me, hand still covering what I’m sure was a most unsightly hole revealing his nasal septum. We shared a moment then. He saw that I understood, and was all the more relaxed for it.
“You’re a brave man,” I said before joining my friend on the lawn. I stopped in the kitchen on the way down and grabbed a loose towel. It had been impossible to miss—the delivery man had soiled himself.
rough cut from Bright Black, the fifth and final course of my forthcoming paranormal mystery FEAST OF SHADOWS.