"Matt, I'm not a child."Tricia Meadows tossed her overcoat down the stairs to her basement as she stepped in through the door separating her garage and her kitchen. She walked through her Spanish revival home, passing by the modern décor without paying a whit of attention. As she climbed the stairs, she removed the pins and elastics keeping her jet black hair up in a workable bun. Tricia shook out her hair, combing it out with her red-painted fingernails.
"The Blade wants an heir."
"You mean right now?"
"No, Mr. Stanford, don't haunt them."
She entered her bedroom and changed out of her business suit into a flowing robe. Her work as a mediator today was just the warm up for her more critical work and it helped to dress for the part. The works that she found about her personal project had more contradictory information in it than most politicians' stated positions. However, a common thread ran through it all, and self-debasement, or at least the appearance of such, was important. Where some who had tried dealing with the being failed was going too far. Tricia was determined to not make the same mistake. She had to make sure that the entity knew she had control in the negotiations. No supplicating herself in the nude, no covering herself in the entrails of her victims.
Her latest trophy remained in the trunk of her car, pending on the approval of the offering by her entity. Tricia was positive that the trophy would be allowed, though. Negotiating through a position of strength was always an asset. Knowing what the entity would want, planning for it, even creating a mental list long in advance; Tricia was leaving nothing to chance.
Compared to Tricia's master bedroom, the spare bedroom was sparsely decorated, with only two chairs tucked in the corner. The room's only window was covered by a heavy drape that Tricia kept closed day and night. A bare light bulb in an overhead fixture cast a harsh light on the bare walls and a glare on the hardwood floor. Tricia opened the closet and pulled out one of its two contents, a rolled-up tarp. She rolled it out, adjusting it so it fit inside the room. Satisfied, she took the other item out, a sealed paint can. She opened the can and started pouring it out, tracing a mark stencilled on the tarp. As the paint dripped, she intoned a chant in a language she didn't fully understand.
The light bulb flickered. Acrid smoke appeared at the center. Tricia continued her chanting, long accustomed to the odor of the smoke. Her measured pace completed the diagram before the smoke formed an opening above the tarp. Tricia leapt off the tarpaulin, careful not to disturb any of the paint. Before long, an image of a man with skin the color of ash appeared in the opening. "Speak," he intoned. Despite the low volume, his voice reverberated in the bedroom.
Tricia curtsied. "I have sent the latest offering to you. Is she to your liking?"
"She will do for now." The ashen man leaned closer to the opening. "I still cannot pass through the barrier."
"I am working on it."
"You have until the moon becomes full again or your efforts will have been for naught."
"I am aware of the deadline. I'm on schedule. Would you like to see the timetable?"
"Have you planned for interference?"
"Of course. And I also have taken care to avoid entanglements."
"Good, good. Proceed."
Tricia bowed low, allowing the entity the opportunity to glimpse at her cleavage. "Thank you."
Smoke covered the opening, separating her world from the entity's. Once the room returned to normal, Tricia allowed herself a smile. Her plans were right on track.
Time alone helped Brenna regain her composure, time alone and a cold shower. Able to thinks straight without picturing Matt either in uniform or out - Brenna gave her head a shake to clear the image - she entered the family room. Back in her lace gloves, she ran her fingers along the books her grandmother left to Joni and, ultimately, to her. Most of the books were in English; her mother and grandmother had only known a smattering of other languages. Brenna herself understood most of the antique library, though. In an effort to get a handle on a stuttering problem, she had taken many different language classes. The problem faded away once she had put an effort into culling the stutter, but the language knowledge became useful when reading old diaries during her hunts for ghosts.
A German book on psychometry and auras seemed the best starting point for her. If anything could mention the situation she had found at the office, this came closest. She pulled the book from its location on the shelf and padded on bare feet to a chair in the corner. Brenna curled up with the book on her lap and started reading. Her German was a bit rusty from a lack of use, but she slogged through the text. It covered the basics and origins of auras, though through a religious bias. Couldn't be helped, Brenna figured; the text itself seemed to be a translation of a much older book.
A shadow fell across the page. Brenna looked up to see Grace. "Yeah?"
"How long were you planning on reading?"
"Why? Is dinner ready?"
"No, but you have a visitor."
Brenna blinked and took off her reading glasses. "Visitor?" Grace didn't answer, only walked away. Setting aside the large book, Brenna got up and chased after her sister. "Gracie, what visitor?"
The chase led past the front door. The inner door stood open, though the storm door was closed, keeping Matt outside. Brenna stopped on the cool linoleum of the front hall. "Matt?" she stammered. "I thought-- I mean I wasn't expecting--" She opened the storm door for her visitor as she struggled to find the right words. "Hi," she settled on.
"Hi. Can I come in?" He held up a small plain paper bag.
"Please." Brenna stepped aside to let Matt in. She glanced down at his jeans as he passed her. "Want anything? Coffee? Tea? Beer? Wine?" Other suggestions came unbidden to Brenna's mind. She clamped down hard on them.
"I just wanted to make sure you're okay, Bren," Matt said. "You looked ill. Not that you didn't have a reason."
"You know, the body. Must have been a shock to it see it." Matt shuddered at the memory.
"Oh, right, the body. Yes. Shock." Brenna mopped sweat off her forehead. "What about you? Are you fine—okay?"
"Detective McCoy had me see the counselor afterwards." Matt held his breath. "He also asked me to come by here."
"He'd like to know where you were yesterday evening."
Brenna scowled. "So I am a suspect."
Matt held his hands up in surrender. "The case is starting to wear on him, Bren. This isn't the first body."
"People get murdered everyday, Matt. If he's a homicide detective, he should be well aware of that."
"Brenna, humor me, please. Where were you last night?"
"Well, after you let me go without a ticket, I drove straight here. You know, so you wouldn't get in trouble. I argued with Gracie, took a long bath, had dinner, then Missy called. She sent someone over to pick me up to go to her work. From there, we went to a bar and spent the rest of the night there."
"You were at the bar all through the night?"
"I got home somehow. Missy and I closed the place down, though."
Matt nodded. "How is Missy? Where is she working?"
"Along the beach. Matt, I've never been near that office building before today."
"What about near the Victory Insurance building?"
Brenna shrugged. "Where is it?"
"Never heard of it before. Oh, is this about the woman who went missing last night?"
"What do you know about it?"
"The paper had huge headlines about it this morning. That's all I read."
Matt released his breath. "I'm happy to hear that."
"Am I cleared?"
"Yeah. And I already told McCoy that there's no way you could have killed someone. Especially not like that."
Brenna smiled. "Thanks, Matt."
"He still wants to know how you knew about the body. The office was out for a leadership retreat for the week. If you hadn't found it, it would have been a nasty surprise for the weekend cleaners."
"I don't know what I can tell you." Brenna shook her head. "Remember all the weird stuff that happened around me in high school? It's related."
"You mean you talking to yourself in a conversation?"
Brenna blushed. "Yeah, that."
"I'll do my best to explain it to McCoy." Matt shook the bag he carried. "Do have a tool kit around?"
"I've got the tail light for your van. Since I was here to pump you for information, the least I can do is replace the light."
"Oh. Okay, I guess. I think Dad has them in the garage." Brenna dashed outside and ran into the garage. She forced her breathing to return to normal. This is so not fair, she thought. I was supposed to have an easy night, damn it.
"There you are, Brenna," Joni said as she faded into view. "Why are you out here when your guest is in the house?"
"Mom, don't start right now!" Brenna started looking through the garage for her father's tool kit. "I am not in the mood."
Joni shrugged. "I'm just going to point out that he fills out his jeans nicely."
"Mom, please," Brenna pleaded. "Not tonight."
"Trust me, Brenna. If you get a boyfriend, the urgings go away most of the time."
Brenna spied a tool kit under a pile of rags. She snatched it up. "I don't want them now!"
"Someone needs an early bedtime."
"Someone needs to be left alone by the world for a day." Brenna left the garage. She held the kit aloft so Matt could see it as she walked over to her van.
Matt dashed over to join Brenna. "You know, I never would have expected you to drive something like this."
Brenna shrugged. "I needed something to get me around. This was available at a good price. Besides, I've made some stuff for it." She unlocked the side door and opened it.
"Bren, you realize that I'm still a cop," Matt warned.
"If I had a body in here, would I let you in?" The young brunette climbed inside. "Watch your head. It's smaller than you'd think in here."
Matt clambered inside. "Okay, the curtains are you. What's this?" He pointed at a wooden slab along the driver's side wall.
Warning bells ringing in her head, Brenna unlatched a clip. The slab swung down revealing a bunk. "I really don't like staying in hotels when I'm out of town. Most Wal-Marts let people use their parking lot and the weigh stations along the freeway are deserted at night."
"Is it safe for you like that?"
"Nothing's happened yet." Bent to avoid hitting hitting her head on the van's roof, Brenna walked down to open the back doors. "Besides, Matt, I'm careful."
Matt swung the bunk back up, latching it. "I'm just making sure, Bren."
"Oh. Thanks." Brenna jumped out the back of the Savana. She fanned her hand in front of her face. "It's still a little warm. Do you want something to drink? I think there's beer in the fridge if you want."
"Technically, I'm still on duty for another half hour. A Coke or Pepsi is fine, thanks."
"I'll go look." Running while trying to make it look like she wasn't, Brenna dashed back in the house. She forced herself to slow down once inside. The air conditioning made her shiver, though she appreciated temperature change; it gave her a chance to quench fires within her. In the kitchen, Brenna noticed her sister half-sitting, half-sprawled on a chair while on the phone. The older woman ignored the younger, intent on retrieving beverages for herself and Matt.
Grace burst out laugh as Brenna looked in the fridge. "No, no," the blonde said, "I'd love to go. I'm just kinda pre-sloshed, you know? An' one of Bren's friends," Grace tittered at the near-rhyme, "is here and he's a cop."
"You could call a cab." Brenna moved food around as she searched for the soft drinks.
Grace covered the mouthpiece. "I'm watching you so you don't accidentally have sex or something."
"And you're doing such a good job of it," Brenna muttered. "Aha!" She grabbed two cans of Coke from the back.
"Nah, jus' my sister," Grace said to her caller. "Hey, wanna call Yesi and see if she'll pick me up?"
Brenna left Grace to her phone call and returned outside. At the van, Matt worked on removing the cover to access the tail light. "Found some Coke." Brenna handed one of the cans to her visitor. "How's it going?"
"One of the screws is stripped. How old is the van?"
"Before the turn of the millennium, maybe from 2000? Dad's mechanic said it was written off by an insurance company before he fixed it up five years ago. I chose the colour, though."
Matt turned his attention from the cover to Brenna. "So, 2000? Have you had any problems with it at all?"
"None. Why?" She stepped closer to look at her van. "Did you find something wrong?"
"Nothing. Just wondering." He opened his can of cola. "Just thinking that maybe it's time for you to look for a new one."
Brenna sighed. "I can barely afford to keep this on the road."
"You're working, right?"
"If you count driving around to flea markets, fairs, and wherever else I can sell sketches 'working'."
"Didn't you get into college? Can't you find anything in your field?"
"I did. I got in. I couldn't stay in."
Matt stepped closer, concern on his face. "Bren, you were one of the smartest in our class. A quarter of the class believes the only reason why Janet was valedictorian was because you manipulated your own marks to finish second."
Brenna blushed. "It was that obvious?"
"Not to everyone. Just the people who kept an eye out for you." Matt took a long swig of his soft drink before setting it down on the floor of the van. "So what happened?"
"I couldn't handle it." Brenna heard her voice break. "I tried. Oh, God, how I tried. But there were days where I just couldn't face going in." She felt a warm trail running down her cheek. "Then the days became weeks and then I just stopped going because I couldn't face anyone there anymore and I couldn't . . . I just couldn't go anymore." She spun away from Matt as her tears flowed freely. "I just couldn't."
Matt pulled the tiny woman into his arms, holding her close. "It's okay, Brenna," he soothed. "It's okay. I remember how you were in crowds. There's nothing to be ashamed of."
Brenna shifted around to face Matt and buried her face into his chest. "I just wanted to be normal, you know? Hang out with the rest of the class." She sobbed once into Matt's chest. As she tried to compose herself, she felt Matt's strong, tender arms caressing her back.
"It's okay, Bren. I'm sorry I brought it up."
Brenna looked up into Matt's face. "It's okay." She snuffled. "Bad day." She closed her eyes and nestled her head on him. His smell permeated around and through her. Brenna tried to remember the last time she had been held like this; since forever, or her mother's death, which felt almost as long ago. In the back of her mind, she wondered if she could get Matt off-balanced enough to tip him into the van. From there, no one would see. The Savana's curtains were closed and the back doors were easy enough to shut. Her hand dropped down to Matt's belt buckle. Finally, her need--
"No!" Brenna squirmed out of Matt's hug. "No! No no nono nonononono!" She turned and fled, crying, tears streaming down her face.
"Almost jumped him, huh?"
"I think she needs someone who actually gives a damn right now."
"Matt! Small world!
"Have I ever given you bad advice?"