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Woman, Monster, Mother
A Guest Quarters story
Hunger twisted through Angelica's stomach. The couple who stood arguing on the other side of her desk was wasting her time. Not a good combination, she thought. She leaned back and twined her hands in her shoulder-length hair. "So, since you caught me on the way out to get lunch…"
The woman looked young—maybe early thirties. Her blonde hair rested on the shoulders of her business suit, swinging as she switched her gaze between Angelica and the man she'd come in with. "Bradley," the woman said, poking the man, "I cannot believe that you brought me all the way downtown to see this woman." Her hand slammed on Angelica's desk with the word "downtown," raising a cloud of dust in the still air. "She simply cannot be a private eye."
Angelica coughed, the dry taste of the dust in her lungs. She leaned forward, chair creaking as her stomach growled again. "Why, exactly, are you two yelling at each other in my office? I'm hungry, and if you're not hiring me, I've got an appointment with some Pad Thai at Jungle Joe's Noodles."
Bradley straightened out his polyester suit and stepped closer to the desk. He ran his hand through his thick, short hair. "Winifred and I need your help."
A job. Hunger warred with the part of her mind that kept track of her bank account. "What kind of help do you need?"
"Bradley, we need competent help." Winifred crossed her arms, hiding her hands. "Someone who knows what they're doing. I don't have the time or patience for this charade." Winifred turned toward the door. "I don't know why I keep listening to you."
Angelica shrugged. "You two are going through a divorce. You want it, he doesn't." Winifred stopped, then shut the half-open door. Still inside, Angelica thought. And that means the job's mine.
Winifred slowly turned back around. "How did you know that?"
Angelica took a deep breath and tried to ignore the musky scent of Bradley's cologne. "Elementary, my dear… Winifred." Bradley smiled at that, and Angelica told her guts to settle down. Cute, she thought, but I finished with men long, long ago.
"Cut the crap, lady." Winifred's voice went harsh as she scraped the less-tattered of Angelica's chairs across the wooden floor and sat in it. "If I wanted Sherlock Holmes, I'd watch Robert Downey on DVD."
Angelica shrugged and pulled open her bottom left desk drawer. Her fingers flipped across the paper files. She heard the clunk as Bradley sat in her other chair and winced. When she sat back up, placing the manila folder in front of her, he was trying to balance the chair on its three good legs. "Fine. You don't have a wedding ring. He does. You bicker like you’ve known each other a long time—and I don't get many people bringing BFFs to my office." She opened the folder, slid out a sheet of paper and clicked open her pen. "So what's the problem?"
The two looked at each other for a moment. Winifred took a deep breath, her earlier poise returned. "Tell her, Bradley. This was your idea."
Bradley's shoulders fell. "It's… it's our son. Gregory. He disappeared two months ago."
Of course, Angelica thought, cursing the universe. They had to have lost a son. She tasted the sour bile of memory trying to well up her throat. She glanced at her sparse bookshelf, then back at the couple. "I'm sorry for your loss," she said. "I really am. I'm not sure how I can help you. You've gone to the police, right?"
Winifred raised an eyebrow. "You didn't read about it in the papers?" When Angelica shook her head, Winifred sighed. "Thank goodness, finally someone who doesn't read the gossip pages. Of course I went to the police. They were useless."
"Honey, they're doing the best they—"
"Don't honey me, Bradley. They were useless, just assuming that I'm some kind of gold-digging trophy wife. At least this woman doesn't think that."
No, Angelica thought, I just think you're a bitch.
Bradley put his hand on the arm of Winifred's chair. "Hon—Winifred. Nobody thinks you're a gold-digger."
"Please." She glanced down at his hand, but didn't take it. "They've been saying that since before we got married. I sacrificed my reputation for you and Gregory, and now he's gone…" Winifred closed her eyes and took a deep breath, but didn't say anything else.
Angelica shut the folder and looked at Bradley. "So you've got a lot of money?"
Bradley shifted forward in the chair, causing it to creak dangerously. "Not a lot, no. We—I was due to inherit quite a bit in a couple of months, but, " he glanced at Winifred, then back to Angelica, "that looks like it won't happen. So no. We do fine, I guess—two cars, home in the suburbs—Winifred stays there now—but I'm still making payments on it all."
"That's better than some people." Angelica ran her fingernails down a groove in the wood desk. "Two months. Have you gotten a ransom note?" Bradley shook his head. "That's not a good sign. If it's not for ransom, then there's only a small chance that you'll get your son back alive."
She was watching Bradley, waiting for the tears, but Winifred buried her face in her hands. The woman's body shook with her sobs. Bradley looked at Winifred, then to Angelica, hands held out and half-open.
Angelica stood up and walked around the desk to the sobbing woman, gently placing her right hand on Winifred's shoulder. "I lost a son, too," she said. She waited while the younger woman slowed her sobs and raised her head. "It was a long time ago, but it still hurts sometimes." Winifred's gray eyes pleaded with her. "I'll find your son for you, Winifred." Or find out what happened to him, she thought.
"Right now, I need you to tell me what happened. The last time either of you saw him."
Bradley cleared his throat. "I was with him last. It was my day with him—we'd gone fishing, out at Edloe State Park."
"The police already searched here," Winifred said, fidgeting. "They dredged the lake."
The hot sunlight beat down on them, reflected shimmers from the man-made lake's waves glaring against Angelica's sunglasses. Only a teenage couple walking around the far side of the lake and an elderly fisherman shared the park with them. Angelica trailed her hand through the water. It only had a slight smell of algae; she thought it might as well be a concrete-lined pool. Still, it reminded her of home.
She looked up at Bradley. "Was crowded when you were here?" She heard the teenage girl giggle on the far side of the lake.
"No," he replied, pointing to where the teenagers held each other. "We were over there, about where those kids are. It was Tuesday, but I'd called in so Gregory and I could spend a day doing something fun together."
"You were busy drinking beer with your brother." Winifred's mouth clipped the words sharp and short, her body twitching like a cornered squirrel. "You just wanted to try to make yourself look good. Gregory's a five-year-old boy. He wants to run and play, but you took him somewhere boring. There's not even a playground here, Bradley."
Bradley pinched the bridge of his nose. "Howard only stayed for an hour, Winifred. And Gregory didn't like playgrounds. He didn't like loud noises."
"I know what he likes." Winifred's lips pressed into tight lines. "I am his mother." She turned towards Angelica. "I can't—I can't be here anymore. I'm sorry, I just can't do this." Her heels clacked and skittered across the loose stones as she walked back to the parking lot. Bradley opened his mouth, then closed it again and shook his head.
"It's okay," Angelica said. "Let's take a look where you were fishing."
She crouched at the edge of the water while Bradley shuffled nearby. The green waters kept Angelica from seeing the bottom. She wondered if there were any caves down there, flooded when the dam stopped the river's flow. She wondered if there were air pockets, wondered if there was room to sleep there. She wanted to just dive in and find another hole to hide in, to hide from yet another lost child.
Bradley failed to skip a stone over the water. "Howard was here before lunch. He brought out some hamburgers and fries for us to eat. He ended up leaving a little after one."
"What's your brother like?"
Bradley stared at her for a second, then laughed. "Sorry. Women usually ask that right before they ask me for his phone number." He threw another stone into the water. "Howard's a good enough guy, just always been a little wilder than me." Bradley smiled at her. "I wear a suit jacket, he wears leather. You know." He looked out over the lake. "He does odd jobs right now. Guy could never catch a break." He looked back at Angelica. "He ended up having to do all the talking to the cops, even though he'd been a suspect for a little while. He'd left the park after lunch, though, was practically halfway home. Gregory and I fished after my brother left… until I noticed my son was gone."
"When was that?"
Of course, Angelica thought. Three o'clock and lakes. She ignored the memory of that long-ago violent afternoon. "What do you mean, you noticed he was gone?"
Bradley flushed. "I fell asleep. I didn't mean to, it was just so quiet and restful. Gregory had some action figures he was playing with, and the fish weren't biting, so—" His voice choked to a halt.
"It's okay, Mr. Skillings."
Angelica stood up from her crouch, stretching her legs. "Bradley, then." She started to walk in a spiral, examining the ground. A forest grew on this side of the lake. It wasn't old growth, but it was old enough for her to smell the dark scent of moss from here.
Bradley walked beside her. "The police have already—"
"I know." She looked into the woods. Branches of honeysuckle and hanging monkey vines tempted the old parts of her. How much more would they tempt a young human boy? "The police searched the woods."
"Up to the far side of the park. There's some private property five, six miles back there—an older couple owns it."
Angelica grunted and looked over at him. There was something about Bradley—maybe the nose, or his posture—that was familiarly enticing. "That couple wouldn't let anyone search their land?"
"No," Bradley said. He scanned the far side of the lake, gaze pausing at the parking lot with each sweep. "Nobody pushed it, though. They didn't figure Gregory could have gotten that far, or past the chicken wire all around their property."
Bradley stopped walking and looked out over the lake. "She's not coming back, is she?"
Angelica's brow wrinkled. "Who? Winifred? I'm sure she left for the day."
The left corner of Bradley's mouth ticked upward in a slight smile. He worked the wedding ring off of his finger. "No, I mean at all. She's never coming back home." The ring flicked reflected shards of sunlight as he tossed it out over the lake. It made a tiny splash in the water. "They questioned me because Winifred was going to get custody of Gregory. They thought I took him."
Angelica kept her tone level. "Did you?"
Bradley laughed, a hollow echo of mirth that bounced off the trees. "What a stupid—"
She moved in front of him, deep inside his personal space. "It's not funny. My son was taken from me." His breath, sharp, quick, tickled her cheek. "So let's try this again. Did you take Gregory?"
"N-no," he replied. "I wanted us to be a family again. Not just me and Gregory, but all of us. One family. If I took him, I'd lose Winifred." He waved his hands as he spoke, looking past her out over the water. "Gregory was the only thing keeping us together anymore. I’d been trying for months. Maybe I could have worked things out with her." Bradley sighed. "With Gregory missing, she's just … distant. And now she's gone." Bradley looked at Angelica. "Instead of being with my wife, I'm out here with you." He smiled a little bit. "Well, that's not all bad, right?"
Angelica knew he was cute, the knowledge trying to wake something she'd tamped deep down since her son died. But he was a man, reminding her of the warrior, the man who'd killed her son, who'd tried to kill her under the lake. Her mouth moved before her brain kicked in. "Your son is gone, Mr. Skillings."
Bradley's face reddened, and he took a step backward. "Um, right," he said. "Sorry, just looking for the positive."
"Right." She let it drop, running her fingers against the beach again, trying to ignore the rumbling in her stomach. "So where were the two of you?"
"Over here." The patch of land was only distinguished by a half-rotted stump. "Winifred says I shouldn't have brought him so far away from everyone else, but she doesn't get it." He sighed and sat down on the stump, small bits of it crumbling away under him. The smell of moss and rot tickled her nostrils. "Gregory liked the peace and quiet. When things got too loud, he used to just shut down, or if it was too bad, he'd go into a rage." Bradley put his head in his hands. "Winifred never realized that. He was just a symbol to her. Her child was perfect."
Angelica almost put her hand on his shoulder, but he stood up and walked down the beach. "It's too bad," he said, "that she always missed the real child in front of her."
The setting sun started the crickets and cicadas singing their monotonous drone. After Bradley pulled out of the parking lot, Angelica dropped her boots and socks inside her own car and locked the door behind her. She flexed her feet, soles warming with the asphalt's heat, loping along the edge of the lake. Her legs moved in a loose easy run, then, when she was sure nobody was looking, she burst full speed into the forest. There was no point re-searching the lake, and she wanted to check out that property that wasn't searched.
Running through the woods wasn't being underwater, but it was close enough. Her feet grabbed and pushed off of gnarled roots, hands swinging from the rough monkey vines. The scents of the nighttime forest—loam, fungus, trees, moss—filled her nose, the cool under-canopy air letting her swing, throwing her body through the air. Her mind got lost in the rhythm of movement. She glimpsed her son, his thick muscles bunching, keeping pace to her right, matching her speed evenly, as easily as he had so long ago.
Angelica crashed into a maple tree. She tasted the blood in her mouth, smelled her own onion-scented sweat. She shook her head. Just memories. Not her son, couldn't be her son. He died so many years ago, limping home, right arm torn off at the shoulder. Dying in her arms. Emotions twisted thick tendrils through the cage of her empty gut. She pushed the heels of her palms into her eyes, setting off fireworks of misfiring optic nerves. She stayed motionless. Any word, any movement would throw the cage open and let the sobs roll through her.
Several minutes passed. She waited until her breathing had slowed before she flexed her thigh muscles, launching herself into the air between the trees again. She had to talk to some people about a boy.
The chicken wire lay two hundred yards behind her when the first shotgun blast ripped through the air. Angelica dropped from mid-leap into a tight roll against the damp soil, coming up to rest with her back against the ridged bark of a tree.
A male voice, wavery with age, carried to her. "This is private property!"
When in doubt, Angelica thought, tell the truth. "I'm looking for a boy. He disappeared about two months ago." She heard the man move in the brush. "Maybe you can help me find him?"
A new voice, trying to whisper, slid through the evening air. "Andrew, please. It's a woman."
The man—Andrew—called out again. "This is private property, lady. You don't have no call to be here, what since the police were out here—"
Angelica rolled left, scraping her back against a branch, feet hitting the ground and jumping low towards the voice. The gun boomed again, over her head, as she hit the man's legs in a flying tackle. They both fell to the ground in a tangle of limbs and metal. She caught a glimpse of the woman—old, with a black shape beside her. Angelica twisted herself on top of Andrew, one hand around his neck, the other holding the shotgun away from herself.
The black shape rushed forward, a dog all barking black fur in the moonlight. Angelica looked at it and snarled "Ætstende!" The animal whined and sat down and wagged its tail. Andrew's face twisted, not in fury or surrender, but confusion. Oh hells, Angelica thought, I told it to stop in the old tongue. And then the log in the woman's hands hit her skull.
Angelica woke with her hands bound behind her back, and the two old people staring at her from across a dirty living room. The ropes were tight, and good, a single strand of silver wire through them. She shifted her weight, disappointed that the wooden chair did not even creak. A grandmother clock ticked in the corner of the room.
Andrew held the shotgun leveled at her, sitting in the twin of her chair. The light from a kerosene lantern glittered off his bald skull. His wrinkles cast long shadows across his face. The woman stood behind him, her simple denim dress as handmade as his overalls. The dog—some kind of black lab mix, snout peppered with gray—sat close to the woman. They all stared at Angelica.
"I'm Andrew Sellars," the man said, then nodded up to the standing woman. "This is my wife, Nellie, and our dog, Taylor."
The social ritual had the words out of her mouth before she could stop them. "I'm Angelica." She shook her head slightly to clear it. "You haven't called the cops."
Nellie smiled, but her eyes were tinged with sadness. "No, we didn't. And I'm sorry about hitting you—"
"I'm not," Andrew said.
Nellie glared at her husband. "Like I was saying, I'm sorry about hitting you, but surely you understand. I don't think anything's broken."
Andrew rubbed his leg. "I think my—"
"Hush," Nellie said.
Angelica looked around the room. A few pictures in cheap wood frames rested on the fireplace mantle, nothing more. "You're being surprisingly civil."
Andrew's voice rolled out gruff. "You said you was looking for a boy."
"You said you let the police search here."
"I heard differently."
"Oh dear," Nellie said. She took the shotgun from her husband and leaned it against the wall. "Andrew, can you go make us some tea?" The old man left the room grumbling. The dog watched him go, then circled twice before lying down between the women. Nellie sat down on the chair. "It's not your son, is it?"
"My son's dead."
Nellie smiled. "I thought so." The older woman changed for a moment. Her dress shone, not homemade denim, but the blue of sky through forest leaves. Her hair was not the gray of age, but the yellowed silver of gibbous moonlight. Her wrinkles were a map of rivers and valleys painted across her face. Then it all reverted, and she was an old, slumped woman leaning on the back of a chair trying to regain her breath.
Angelica gasped. "You're one of the vættir. An ælf."
"And you were called Æglæca, when both of us troubled Hrothgar's lands." Nellie sat on the chair, taking another deep breath. "There is less of the green for me to call on, these days. This husband, I think he will be my last." She reached down and petted the dog's black head. "And Tyr here—Taylor, my husband calls him—will be our last companion." The dog panted a smile. Angelica's face mirrored the dog's grin.
"You knew who I was?" Angelica asked.
"I guessed. You seep age and magic. Even Taylor could smell it." Nellie scritched behind the dog's ear. "But there are not many as old as us left in the world, and at first I did not know who you were."
"Why would you stay here to die?" Angelica's heart raced at the thought of anyone as old as she. "You could move, and…"
"Oh, hush. I will not make Andrew leave here, not after the time we've spent on this land." Nellie ran her hand across the fireplace mantle. "It's nearly time, is all. I'm old, and worn down."
Nellie smiled as the teakettle whistled from another room. "Shall I untie you, Grendeldam?" The older woman finished as Andrew walked back into the room. He took a quick glance at Angelica's freed hands, shrugged, and set the tea service on the mantle.
"Table's in the other room," he said. "Sorry." He handed Angelica a cracked teacup, the china as thin as paper. The tea smelled of old forests, of ancient priests gathering herbs, of time. The taste was bittersweet—the warm memory of your favorite childhood toy mixed with the realization that you'd lost it.
"Seems like you and Nellie reached an agreement of sorts," Andrew grumbled. He tossed a biscuit to the dog, who caught and munched it in midair. "I need to step out?"
Nellie took his hand. "No, dear. Everything is fine, now." She glanced at Angelica, who nodded, munching her own cookie. It just barely took the edge off her hunger.
"Right," she said around the shortbread, "I was told the police and search parties weren't allowed onto your property."
Andrew frowned. "Just not true. They came through here, all right. I helped look for that boy. Name was Gregory, weren't it?" He put his hand on his wife's shoulder. "Nellie and Taylor helped, too."
Angelica took another sip of the tea. Memories of her home under the mere flitted across the bottom of her mind. "Then I have to talk to Mr. Skillings again." She handed the cup back to Andrew. "Thank you for the tea."
"Skillings?" Andrew frowned. "There was a man trespassing by name of Skillings. About a month before that boy disappeared. Taylor and I scared 'im off." The dog barked once in a panting smile.
"That was the last name of the missing boy," Angelica said. Her heart thumped hard in her chest. "Thank you again for the tea. I must go."
As she passed the couple, Nellie brushed her hand on Angelica's arm. "Come again, Æglæca."
Angelica took the ælf's hand in hers. "I will."
The thin wood of Bradley's apartment rattled under Angelica's fist. She stood in the courtyard, the other apartment's windows uneasy watching eyes. She pounded the door again. Bradley opened it, the motion stopped by a chain.
"Wha?" Bradley said.
"Locks are only as good as what they're mounted in," Angelica said, and slammed the door into his face. The base of the chain lock clattered to the floor, ripped free of the flimsy wood. She stepped past him. "You lied to me."
"What the hell? Ange… Angelica, what—"
She shoved Bradley back onto the ratty couch. She took a second to take in the dorm room decor, then stared at Bradley. He froze, a deer in her gaze. "You. Lied. To. Me. You told me the police didn't search that property, and they did." Angelica leaned forward, shoving his shoulders into the couch with her hands. "You didn't tell me that you were tramping around those woods a month before your son disappeared." She pushed harder, until he winced. "Why did you lie to me?"
"You told me—"
"That's what Howard said! They talked to him, not me. After they questioned me, I came back here. I couldn't take the stress. Howard told me later what had happened." Bradley ran his fingers through his hair. "I knew Winifred would blame me. Even if they found him, I knew we were over."
Tears started to run down his cheeks. Angelica let go of the man's shoulders and straightened up. "I'm sorry," she said.
Bradley waved dismissively. "It's okay. People usually accuse me of just wanting to stay with Winifred for the money, anyway. At least you haven't done that."
Angelica felt the hair on the back of her neck prick up. "What money?" She thought back to the dinner she still hadn't had a chance to eat, and realized she'd missed something.
"The inheritance. Winifred and I were going to get most of my dad's money, but only if we were still together five years after he died. My father didn't believe in divorce, you know? But really, it never was a factor for either of us, we didn't even know until recently—"
Angelica leaned forward, hand pressing into the couch's fabric. Her voice came out hard and low. "Who gets the money if you split?"
Bradley's eyes widened. "Howard. Instead of just getting a quarter share, he'll get half." Before she could speak again, he said, "Dad was worth about ten million." He reached for his cell phone and dialed. After a moment, he closed his eyes. "He's not picking up."
Angelica's eyes narrowed. "Where does he live?"
She did not bother with Howard's front door. It was forest green, but painted steel. The windows, however, were fragile glass. She crashed through the window, uncoiling to her feet on the floor, sprinkled with shimmering broken glass.
"Not very subtle," Howard said. He sat on a white leather recliner, his trembling right hand holding a pistol. "I was expecting a knock."
Angelica looked at him. She was close. He couldn't be that good of a shot. She took a step forward.
The slug slammed through her left lung, cracking a rib on the way in, then flying out her back. The second bullet tore into her intestines and smashed into her spine. Angelica fell to the floor, gasping, the thickness in her left chest refusing to fill with air.
"My idiot brother called back and threatened me. He had a lot of faith that you'd…well, do something." Howard stood up, but stayed out of her reach. His hand shook only slightly. "You've made this easy to explain. You crashed in through my window and I was afraid for my life. Both true. And then stumbled back out and got away. That won't be true."
"You," Angelica said. "Gregory." It was a struggle to breathe. She could imagine her son taking two slugs and still eating Howard's head. The strength always came slower to her.
"Yes. Me and Gregory. Want me to twirl my mustache? Explain my whole plot?"
"Sure," Angelica gasped.
"No," Howard replied, hand shaking. His aim was still good enough to shoot her in the face.
Angelica felt a rough tongue licking her face. Her eyes opened, the smell of woodsy tea in her nostrils. The Sellar's dog panted over her in a wide grin.
"You're lucky," Nellie said. Ribbons of shimmering pale light wove from Nellie's fingers to Angelica's body, knitting bone and flesh. Her chest wouldn't move. Her heart did not beat. Angelica wanted to—had to—scream, but her body wouldn't obey.
"You're still dead. Mostly dead, anyway." Nellie laughed softly. "But if you say 'to blave', I'm going to have to kill you again myself." The wrinkles deepened on the ælf's face as the healing light flowed from her fingers. "Assuming that I don't die first."
A switch flipped inside Angelica's body; a sudden sharp breath, air a stabbing sharp ice pick like a subzero day in her lungs. Her left hand reached up and clutched Nellie's shoulder. "No idea," she gasped, "blave."
Nellie laughed, the sound of bluebells ringing. "It's from a film." Angelica couldn't tell if the next sound Nellie made was a laugh or a sob. "It was Andrew's favorite when I first met him." The dog whined, and pressed up against Nellie, licking a tear from her face.
The ælf's shoulder felt knobby-thin under Angelica's hand. "Are you okay?" Angelica croaked, her vocal cords cramping. "Andrew?"
Nellie helped Angelica sit up. "No, dear. I'm not okay at all. But I'm glad you asked." Her words were punctuated by wispy tight breaths. "I might see the morning. Bringing you back was diffi… damned hard."
"But Andrew—" Angelica stopped when Nellie pointed at the body lying nearby. The dog walked over to the man lying there, nosing under his hand.
"Andrew tried to stop him. There's another body buried nearby. Taylor'd just found the grave when he came back and attacked us. That man was going to bury you out here, too."
The last wisps of flowing light sank into Angelica's arms. She clenched her fists, hard nails stinging pain in her palms. "Bury me … too? Where am I?"
Nellie's breaths ricked and ratcheted through her lungs. "Just outside Edloe. We were retracing that man's path. Andrew'd just found the grave. It was"—Nellie gulped down another breath—"hidden. The boy's grave. Probably figured nobody'd find yours either."
Angelica stood, muscles sore, but whole. "But Andrew—"
Nellie closed her eyes. "I barely had strength for you, dear. He and I are—were—of the past. You don't have to be."
Angelica cupped Nellie's cheek in her hand. "Thank you."
"Go, Æglæca. For all our sons." She looked toward Andrew's body. "And husbands."
The trees blurred from speed and tears as Angelica raced toward the lake.
The streetlights cast dark shadows over Howard's face as he crossed the parking lot toward his beat-up car. The night smell of the lake was stronger, more like the home she'd shared with her own son, but still lacked something. She moved through the thick, still air, tasting the smell of Howard's sweat and gunpowder and gasoline. Howard opened the car door and sat down. Angelica ran toward him, bare feet thwapping the still-warm asphalt. He shut the car door. She leaped into the air.
Her feet dented the hood of Howard's car as she landed on it. Inside, his hands flew up, keys flying into the back seat. Angelica smashed her fist through the windshield. The safety glass crumbled into hard chunks around her hand as she reached in, grabbed his coat, and rolled onto her back. Howard came out of the car, arcing over her to land on the still-warm asphalt.
Howard rolled out of the fall onto his feet and fired. Angelica felt a twist of fear in her stomach and dropped to her side. Howard's bullet flew wide, burying itself in his car's dashboard. No ælf to save me this time, she thought.
"Dammit!" Howard yelled, "stay dead!" He fired again, as Angelica ducked on the far side of his car. He fired once more. Angelica screamed as the bullet ripped through her right shoulder. She fell to the ground, moaning in pain. She could still breathe, and the blood oozed instead of spurted. She could survive it, if he gave her the chance. She tried to raise herself up, but her right arm collapsed under her, shooting waves of pain through her again. Just a few seconds. I just need a few seconds.
Howard rounded the edge of the car, his hand holding the gun steady. "It was hard killing Gregory, but it's getting easier." He raised the pistol, the dark maw of its barrel staring like the entrance to the underworld. "All I wanted was just one good break."
The large black dog leapt onto the car hood, then into Howard's body. Howard jerked, his shot whining off the concrete, the collapsed to the ground under seventy pounds of angry dog. He shoved the dog off of his chest. Taylor rolled, getting to his feet and growling. Howard raised the pistol again, aiming at the dog's head.
Angelica's left fist smashed Howard's gun hand into the ground. As bones crushed under the pressure, the gun clattered away. "How's that?" she asked.
Howard stared at his ruined hand as Angelica's right fist caught him in the solar plexus. He dropped to the ground, mouth gasping for air.
"If it makes you feel any better," Angelica said, "Beowulf got fooled the same way. He didn't check to see if I was really dead." Her foot shoved into Howard's armpit as her hands picked up his left hand. "I never caught up with that murdering bastard. But you killed someone's son, too." She twisted his wrist, smiling at the man's flailing screams.
"And you'll do," she said. Angelica twisted Howard's arm and wrenched. Then again. And again, until it came free.
She sat in front of the dented hood of his car, eating fresh meat with the dog until she was certain Howard was gone. Now, she realized, the lake smelled right. She loosed the cage in her gut and let the memories of her son wash over her. Sobs shook her body as she cried, holding the dog tight as he licked the tears from her face.
Angelica leaned forward on her desk. "They've dredged the lake, but couldn't find Howard's body." Both Winifred and Bradley sat on the other side of her desk; they kept a discrete distance between them at all times. Angelica tried to remain professional, to care about her client's concerns. The funeral for Andrew Sellar had been that morning, she one of a handful of mourners. There'd been no sign of Nellie. The dog, his nametag reading "Tyr", lay panting beside her desk.
Winifred's voice was quiet. "I still can't believe Howard killed my son to get a bigger share of the inheritance." Her lip twitched slightly.
Nobody elaborated on that, and then there was nothing more to say. Winifred left without another word. Bradley laid her final payment on her desk. He stood there, waiting. Angelica turned to her bookcase, running her hand along the spine of Kemble's translation of Beowulf. Something about the literal translation captured her son's fierce honesty, his love of peace and nature and quiet. "It's past, now, Bradley. Let it go."
His footsteps crossed the room. The door closed behind him. Then she heard it creak open again.
Bradley stood in her doorway. Angelica brushed the hair back from her eyes. "Yes?"
"Well, when we met, you said you were hungry."
She smiled, not too unkindly. "That was a while ago, Bradley."
His neck flushed hot red. "W-well, sure. Yeah, um."
Angelica raised an eyebrow.
He wrung his hands, frantic quick mice scrambling over each other. "I was just wondering if you'd like to have dinner with me."
Angelica looks at the old book in her hands and thinks of the meat she just recently added to her freezer.
"No," she tells him. "I'm full."
Bradley's half-smile turned downward. Tyr looked up at her and cocked his head to the side. Angelica looked hard into the dog's soft, brown eyes for a moment. Tyr nodded at her, then looked at Bradley.
"But I'll let you take me to a movie." Angelica set the book to the side and grabbed her purse. "Be good, Tyr." The dog barked once in assent.
"There's a historical romance that—"
"Anything," Angelica said, walking Bradley outside, shutting the door behind her, "that isn't historical."
Steven Saus injects people with radioactivity as his day job, but only to serve the forces of good. His work has also appeared in print in the anthologies "Timeshares" and "Hungry For Your Love," as well as in several magazines both online and off. You can find him at http://stevesaus.com.
Story by Steven Saus, Copyright 2011
Image by Amber Clark, Stopped Motion Photography, Copyright 2011