Midnight Moon – Hummingbird

Angelia Sanford–formerly Angelia Bucchannan in my Pretty Soldier Midnight Moon days–was borne out of a wager with myself to see how many characters I could create with the base name “Angel.” No I am kidding, really. But I did make five of them in quick succession (the Wolfe triplets Angela, Angelica, and Angelique, and their little sister Evangelina aka Lina).

Each character’s value is precious; Angelia, in her current form, is one-fourth of the Novenine and the Crown Princess of the Kingdom of Asteria (my own made-up country of course–and sounds much better than Novena). Her beauty belies her strength and agility; bluntly, I wanted to capture Angelia roughing someone up. Though, her skirmishes are going to seem like tea parties next to anything Danie or Samantha gets into (which will be proven soon, no worries!).

Not to mention, even though I am wary of romance at the moment, I do rather enjoy the entrance of the Duke of Elwen. In my little movie Lee Pace would play him. Perfect fit, don’t you think?

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Music: “Ah” by Superfly, “Idiot” by Lisa Marie Presley, “Anytime” by Crystal Kay, and “All I Need to Know” by Emma Bunton

Birth
Sunday, September 28, 1980

Generally, when a woman is due to give birth, there is a certain protocol; bags are gathered, family members and friends are called to make the pilgrimage to witness the coming of life. For the twenty-four-year-old Crown Princess of Asteria, the expectations were quite different. Preparations were made on a grander scale. The family tree branched out over geographical boundaries; therefore mass phone calls were made at varying degrees of an hour. The King of Asteria, softened by the impending grandfatherhood, spoke on the front lawn of the Palace Heulwen before departing for the medical center, revealing that his eldest daughter and successor was currently in transit to the hospital.

Everyone held their breath for the safe delivery of the firstborn of the heir.

Well, almost everyone.

The labor was difficult for Princess Katharine; fears that she would perish or her daughters would dominated her moods. The Prince Consort made great effort to console his young, terrified wife as the same feelings coursed through him as well. He figured that the only one who could give her any reassurance had not been born yet.

So he prayed that she would come soon.

She emerged from the womb that she had shared with her sister for thirty-six weeks, deep blue eyes gaping and hungrily taking in the sight of the delivery room. Katharine was uplifted with relief at the first hurdle being surpassed. The newborn barely made a peep until startled by the crash of thunder from an autumn storm outside. The irregularity was noted and was discussed, that is, until her companion made her entrance into this new world as soundlessly as her older sister had. The events were regarded with rapt interest by two new parents as the rest of the world waited for the Grand Reveal of Princesses Angelia Madeline and Aurora Magdalene.

Childhood
1985

The knobby-kneed, tawny-haired little girl who was to run the land had begun to understand certain things by the time she was five.

The first: she possessed power. Not just the mere ability of a gifted child to coerce others into doing what she desired, but something deeper—and grander. This thrilled her a bit because she always imagined that she could impose her own laws (mandatory ice cream for children was at the forefront of her legislation) and place her mark on the world.

“Sister,” Aurora would say to this whenever Angelia mentioned it, “I believe mandatory ice cream would be bad. Mommy says it would make everyone plump.”

And to that, Angelia would shrug and say, “But it’s made of milk and proteins, Mags. It simply can’t be all that bad can it? It’s sorta good for you.”

“But Annie…” And that was usually all Aurora would be able to get in edgewise.

Second: because of that power, she was not loved by all. When she was smaller, her parents had sheltered her from the brunt of it. They still did—however, there were moments when resentment leaked through the bonds of family.

One moment was particularly momentous in her history: the entire family had gathered at the Palace Heulwen with a sense of urgency. When the little ones had asked, the adults assured them all was fine, not to worry. Around them, in print, on television and radio, the country—the world—speculated about the impending death of King Galen IV and its aftermath.

Crown Princess Katharine had already begun assuming her father’s duties gradually as she became of age and it was determined that she was going to be his successor. Dissent came from Galen’s younger children, namely his son Francis. Because Clare, Francis’s mother, was the current Queen Consort, he felt he should follow his father to the throne. It was his birthright as the eldest son. However, since Anne, Katharine’s late mother, had died giving birth and still married to Galen, Katharine, by law, was the next sovereign.

The young children of the Sanford issue generally played together, but verbal jabs occasionally soured the dates. Francis had bestowed the honor of the bitterness he felt toward his older sister to his son Patrick, who was a year older and at least twenty pounds heavier than the twins. Bennett, the twins’ little brother, hated playing with him because he was rough and generally vulgar.

While the adults kept vigil around Galen’s deathbed, the Palace nanny kept watch over the Sanford-Randolph twins, their little brother, and their cousin. Since the quartet had been playing quietly, the nanny momentarily shifted her attention to what was going on with the adults.

“I wanna see Grandfather,” Bennett whined, three-year-old expectations flattened by the current state of things. He absently kicked at a toy—one that had happened to belong to Francis when he was little.

“Oi, that’s mine you little—” Patrick stood, towering over the small boy. Aurora, who had been reading Agatha Christie, looked up sharply. Angelia vaulted off of the couch and stood guard to her little brother. The plaid jumper in which her mother had fastidiously dressed her had not hampered her in the slightest.

“Don’t you dare lay a hand on my little brother or you’ll regret it,” Angelia warned.

Patrick narrowed his eyes at her. “You can’t order me around.”

“That was not an order,” Angelia shot back. “It was a warning.”

“What could you do?” He shoved at her shoulder.  She glowered but did not reciprocate. Aurora had stopped her cold with that look that said, Don’t Annie! You could get into trouble! Again! Damned that she was so predictable to her twin. “You’re just a skirt.”

“Annie’s not just a skirt!” Bennett piped up. “She’s a princess!”

“Quite right,” Angelia affirmed with a nod. “And someday this skirt’s gonna be your queen.”

Patrick stuck his tongue out at his cousin. “Whoever said you would be Queen?” he demanded petulantly. “Girls shouldn’t be allowed to run the country.”

If Angelia had known the term, she would have called herself a feminist. However, she found fault with her cousin at this moment simply because he was being a prick. Her young, supple mind understood that perfectly.

Brows furrowed in fury, Angelia gave the bigger kid a hard shove. He stumbled backwards and fell onto his ample behind. A lamp with a beaded fringe shivered slightly.

As he yelped, Angelia snapped, “My mommy is going to be queen! That is what Grandfather said. What he says goes. And if he heard you…”

Patrick, emboldened by his own fury, climbed to his feet and launched a rather sizable decorative rock at his little cousin. Aurora gasped and Bennett’s little face fell as he struggled with the urge to hurtle himself forward into the fray.

“Annie!” Aurora cried.

It was a moment in time that seemed to be slowed down for dramatic effect. Even as an adult, Angelia still didn’t know how she had managed it.

Blue eyes narrowed, Angelia caught the rock barehanded and launched it right back at Patrick like a seasoned baseball player. Its jagged edges left a rather painful indentation on Patrick’s broad forehead, and for a split second, surprise reigned until the pain took over.

Time zipped by, and suddenly they were no longer alone. Her mother stood at the door, tearstained and mortified at the scene before her. Angelia scented the shift in the air like one could smell smoke downwind from a burning house. She whirled as the other adults filtered into the parlor at the sound of Patrick’s mewling. Francis’s wife Jane went for her crying son, shrieking hysterically. Francis himself entered to assess the scene, then threw down the gauntlet at his older sister.

It was war with flowers flying.

As his parents carried Patrick away, Angelia went to her mother, sick with reprehension. Trembling, weak with this predicament on top of the death of her father, she shook her head at her eldest and went back into the Palace. Nigel watched Angelia’s little face scrunch, feature by feature. His heart cracked for them both.

“Papa,” Angelia began, tears starting to fill her eyes.

“It’s all right, sweet,” Nigel murmured, pulling her close. It was a little lie they could both cling to in the chaos that was rushing forth.

Late Adolescence
1997

Because of her responsibilities, Angelia was often admonished about her growing insolence. The little girl who had deftly defended herself the day that her grandfather had passed had morphed into a young woman with a polished exterior—her mother’s doing. She had made superficial alliances with daughters of allies—also her mother’s doing. It was her father who reminded her that duty to the crown surpassed any base emotion or urge that came over her. It was her father she thought of disappointing more often than she did her mother.

In the twelve years that Katharine had been Queen, Angelia’s awareness had grown exponentially. She had also begun to chafe against her mother’s rule as a teenager did, amplified by the fact that her evolution was in view of the entire world.

Aurora and Nigel often acted as bystanders when the two women quarreled. Bennett usually escaped to find trouble of his own. To anyone watching, it was the equivalent to two snarling bulls brawling. Those two were too alike, and neither wanted to admit it.

However, in this stage of Angelia’s life, Katharine had all of the cards, made all of the rules. Angelia found herself consigned to events and roles that made her skin crawl.

“I don’t want to go to this bloody shindig!” Angelia cried on a particular night, tossing a red silk dress aside. “It’s just a breeding ground for sycophants and rubberneckers. I’d have more fun getting oral surgery with no anesthesia with a rusty butter knife.”

Aurora picked up the dress and put it properly away. “Well, Annie…you could just think of it as target practice.”

Eyebrows cocked, Angelia whirled. “Target practice?” She smirked. “Mags, you evil girl, you. I didn’t think you had it in you.”

Aurora chuckled. “I didn’t mean it in that way.”

“Blast. I was considering packing a pellet gun in my evening bag.” With an evil smile, she went for the closet. “I may still do it. Mother has me going to this thing with Harold Gray.”

Aurora choked on bile. “Excuse me—I’m sorry, Annie…did you say…Harold Gray?” She shuddered—and with good cause. Harold Gray was Asteria’s answer to Billy Zane’s character in Titanic. All Angelia wanted to do was hit him in the face. All anyone wanted to do was punch him in the face.

“Bennett’s idea,” Angelia muttered, eyes dark. Aurora winced. She only imagined what Angelia had in store for retaliation. “You know, they’re all like that at this age.”

“I wouldn’t say that.”

“That’s because you spend most of your time buried in books.”

Aurora threw at pillow at her twin. “There are all kinds of characters in books, you know. Where do you think authors get them? Thin air?”

Angelia caught the pillow. “Hey, who could tell with all those rampant imaginations?”

The duo laughed, not aware of what was in store for the evening.

Much to Angelia’s chagrin, Katharine was overjoyed in Harold’s presence. In front of her, he was charming, demure, and respectful. Nigel, being a typical father, distrusted Harold immediately. However, he was astute enough to sense his nefariousness when Katharine didn’t.

He had tried to voice his concerns. Katharine chattered them away.

Unfortunately, this time Her Majesty had made an egregious error.

During the event, Angelia had tried to escape from Harold. He had found liquor and was up to nothing but debauchery. She would have gleaned some satisfaction from preserving some evidence of this and proving her mother wrong, but she was too disgusted.

She walked outside to get some fresh air. Harold was attentive enough to follow. Bollocks.

She tried to keep her voice even as she spoke. “Harold, I think you need to go home. You are embarrassing yourself. You obviously have had too much to drink.”

Harold snorted. “Angie, you are far too uptight.”

Angelia inwardly bristled at Angie. She fought a full-body shudder. “No, I am not. I am the future Queen of Asteria, and it would hardly do for me to start stumbling around here like you and slurring my words.”

Harold leered at her. “You royal girls are all the same. All breeding and stiff upper lip.” His leer deepened with the weight of experience. “That is, until someone gets you out of your knickers.”

“I assure you, you will not have the honor, sir,” Angelia said, well, stiffly.

“I don’t know about that,” Harold shot back and reached for her crotch.

Angelia’s eyes went wide. “You cheeky bastard!” She twisted deftly out of his grasp. When he made another drunken pass at her, she firmed her mouth—and punched him in his with all of her power. He went flying backwards and landed with a thud. As he groaned with confusion and pain, she shook out her throbbing hand. Damn he’s got a hard head.

“Your Highness?”

Aw bloody hell, was all Angelia could think. If this part got back to her mother, she would never hear the end of it. At least before she had been free of reproach. Now? She whirled around, a dozen excuses and rebuttals on her lips.

They all withered when she rested her gaze upon the person who had spoken.

He was tall, slightly taller than convention. His brown hair was slicked back elegantly, and he was quietly debonair in his tuxedo with the white jacket that his mother insisted that he wear. True concern emanated from every pore. This was not your run-of-the-mill looky-loo. He was in a different league altogether.

“I…” Angelia began, unsure.

He made a minuscule step forward. “I heard you…were having difficulty with your…date.”

“Using the term date for that steaming pile of horse excrement would be an insult,” Angelia remarked. Pissed all over again, she kicked Harold in the crotch. She was pleased at the whimper that came from him and turned on a smile to her attempted rescuer. She didn’t realize the effect she was having on him; it was like she had socked him one, too. She squared her slim shoulders. “But no worries here. I’ve resolved the matter.”

He chuckled nervously at Harold curled up in pain. “So it appears.” Then he frowned. “But your dress…”

“I’m sorry?” She realized what he meant, and looked down. In the struggle, Harold had ripped the right strap of her dress, and a dangerous amount of precious skin was exposed. As she gasped, her mysterious counterpart worked off his tuxedo jacket and offered it. Perplexed at the gesture, she hesitated before taking it. Deciding it was not perilous, she slipped it on.

“Who are you?” she inquired.

“I am the Duke of Elwen, Duncan Bernard Ainsley.” He bowed before her. “At your service, Your Highness.”

She was startled at his manners, and covered herself to preserve her propriety. “I am forever in your debt, Your Grace.”

“You owe me nothing,” Duncan assured her, and led her toward the lights and away from the waiting, prying eyes.

Adulthood
2007

Angelia felt that she became a woman the moment she began not to fear anything.

During the years that had passed between that annoying moment at Hartsborough Prep with Harold Gray and the present, she had learned a great deal about herself, her history, and her destiny. She was not merely a princess, and she would not merely be a princess either. Princesses were meant to exist in fairytales where everything was given to them. She had to learn to grapple and felt herself expert at it. Cinderella probably could not say the same, that humble dame.

She had looked Death in its eyes. There was nothing more terrifying than that. Anything that came after was elementary.

Even her first official Parliament appearance.

“Fear,” Nigel said to her prior, “does nothing but limit the things you can do.”

Angelia turned from the grand window in her father’s study. He tried not to be staggered by the sight of her looking regal beyond her years. The robe suited her. “But isn’t fear useful in some aspect, Father? Fear can control, can coerce.” Her lips curved in an ironic smile. “Fear can even repel when it’s handy.”

Nigel gave a small, considering nod. “Perhaps, my dear. Your mother would certainly agree with that tactic on some level and it should not be ignored. But which would you cherish more? A leader you feared and reviled or a leader you could truly count upon?”

Angelia frowned thoughtfully. Nigel continued. “Yes, fear can be useful against an adversary. But on those with which we should work?—no. It breeds mistrust and mutiny, Annie.” He rose, towering over her, but not by much in those heels she wore. “Charm them. Regard them with the respect they deserve.” Something flickered in Angelia’s eyes—indignation, if knew his eldest. “But at the end of the day, the biggest weapon you have is your authority. By the law of the land and the blood of our ancestors coursing through your veins, you have it. Use it.”

As his words fortified her, John Larson, the head of Palace security, came into the study. He was a dark suit and a comm. piece in his ear. He was accompanied by Queen Katharine and Princess Aurora. Aurora wore a gray suit while padparadsha earrings glittered at her ears. Katharine was dressed in an identical robe as her daughter. When she saw her daughter, she lifted her chin, assessing, then nodded in approval.

“I think we are ready to depart,” Katharine announced.

“Very well, Your Majesty,” Larson demurred. “I will alert the rest of the detail.”

Katharine thanked him. She turned to her eldest daughter, her successor. Something like pride gleamed in her eyes. She placed a hand on Angelia’s shoulder.

“I know we may not always see eye-to-eye—”

“Huge understatement, Mother.” Angelia couldn’t help it. Nigel coughed to conceal a laugh.

“But I always want you to know,” Katharine continued, “that I am proud of you. And that if your grandfather were still alive, he would be very, very proud of you, too.”

Years of battling vanished momentarily. They were just mother and daughter, and Angelia felt love blooming in her heart. Fighting tears, she embraced her mother.

At that moment, Larson entered the room. He paused respectfully for the scene before him. Angelia and Katharine disentangled themselves and straightened their garb.

“The cars are here,” he announced.

“Thank you, Larson,” Nigel said.

The family left, departing with their full security detail. Nigel and Katharine took the first while the twins (Bennett was on a diplomatic trip to Russia) took the second one. The women sat in the backseat jittery with nerves.

Larson nodded, and spoke into his comm. piece. “The hummingbird is coming for the flower patch.” He paused for a moment, listening to the answering call. Then he looked over his shoulder at the blonde behind him. “Everything’s in place, Your Highness. Never to fear.”

Never to fear. Angelia grinned to herself when Larson faced forward. She? Scared?

Not in a million light years.

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Poetry Corner – “Twelve [The End]”

On October 10, 2011, I came face to face with someone who changed my world. I am a firm believer in the effect we have on the lives of the people we cross; you can choose to be a good influence or a bad one. I hope that I have affected or will affect anyone the way he affected me.

I wrote a companion piece but…some other day.

______

“Twelve [The End]”

Count backwards, see where you land–
A candle burning soft, wineglass in hand.
The whirlwind that ensued left marks unseen,
Witches and mummies and fairies roaming in a dream–
Silly me–you believe I’m prone to romantize?
No silly you, with no chance to see through my eyes.

A student I–and learned I did lessons myriad,
Vexed was I when your tutelage paused on a period!
And you wouldn’t know that failed flower,
Waiting for a blooming chance when she had power
To dazzle all along–ah, for the trickier is heartsight
Steering when Reason should have the might;
Quiet is she now, her fiery voice I cannot hear
With the knowledge that the future lingers near.

Mon ami, never be lonely or wade in nostalgia too Long
For Life is better when it hums progressively along–
Nothing forever lasts but savor the brevity of the make
Like a favored song that doesn’t stop, just fades.

The Payback List – I: Della

In late 2010, I had the unfortunate experience of dating a young man…well, I won’t start of the explanation that way because honestly,  that part is no divertido! I started this story as sort of payback in my own nerdy girl manner, hoping it would spread among avid readers who would recognize and sneer at his inappropriate cockiness…but I ended up liking the character development more. Each of the five female protagonists will have a chance at telling the story. At the moment, speaking in Della’s voice is rather cathartic; she is another flavor of Inner Bitch that sort of reminds me of my brother, and his candor, while brutal at times, can be entertaining.

I can’t wait to finish “Man Candy” inspired by Mr. Adam Martin. It’s cheeky fun. 😉

______

I

Della

Our tale of heartbreak and vengeance begins in the house of flying noodles.

And—what do you know?—it’ll end here, too.

Shit, forgive me—I’m giving some of the ending away like a horrible storyteller. I might as well start it off correctly so I don’t lose you in all of this opening madness.

The name’s Adelaide Henderson, but I’ll punch anyone in the gonads if they don’t call me Della. I think my mother sought to punish me right from the beginning for all of the gray hairs I was going to give her and gave me that horrendous name. I’m the youngest in the Henderson family, which automatically designates me as the butt of all pranks, teasing, and jokes. (The only one who may have it just as bad is Laine, and being the middle child isn’t a picnic either.) The short of it is—and that isn’t a self-deprecating crack about my height I assure you—I make the best of it. I try to make the best of everything.

Right at the moment, I am in the middle of carrying a big tray of entrée plates out to a table of soccer moms who are on their second bottle of wine. I don’t begrudge them their loud laughter and girlish banter; after all, how often are they free of their shackles—ahem, I mean, kids? Besides, if I can touch their lives with a bit of delight, I will—and not only because it’s my job. I wait tables to keep the lights on, and on weekend nights, I perform in a band with my cousin Margaret (better known as Margo and another victim of Masochistic Nomenclature) and our friend Nicholas Barton. We don’t believe ourselves to be the next big thing, but we have enough fans that I am constantly stopped at work. ‘Tis a small world after all—

Ouch. Dammit… I catch myself before I stumble and whip my head around quickly to find some bungling coworker’s retreating back. Small world, yeah, but a warning would have been nice. Being on the Saturday night shift at Corrigan’s, I’m convinced, is like being a part of a circus. There’s a great deal of trickery, acrobatics involving concave or sharp objects, fire showing itself at random moments, and enough animals to make your head spin.

My co-workers are a rowdy, wayward bunch, for the most part. There are a few exceptions (me, for one, my cousin Margo—she’s the blonde with the bottle of Zinfandel—and my big sis Elizabeth, whom you will meet later). They can feign refinement for their tables, but when the doors click shut and the building’s closed for the evening, my waiters-in-arms turn into cast member rejects from the Real World. Behind the wall that separates sophistication from the chaos, conversations ensue about various acts of drug use, nefarious shenanigans, and feats of sexual excess. Animals, indeed.

And then, of course, there’s the ringleader.

My cousin Vanessa should have stuck to her career in show business. Don’t get me wrong; she isn’t awful at this whole restaurant management thing. She can handle a party of thirty from some lofty locale while wooing a throng of rowdy college boys from Texas at the same time. She can cajole anyone into anything, and she has enough class and spine to earn respect from everyone on staff. She has known how to schmooze from birth, Aunt Sally would say to that, with that hint of pride that either makes you preen or flinch. (In Ness’s case, she would flinch.) However, she is way too beautiful (again my opinion) and talented to be touting some stupid pasta amid Neanderthals when there’s an Academy Award on her mantle. She only does it for love.

Love? you say. Well, of course it’s love. It’s the only thing that would drive a gorgeous woman to lower her standards and endure utter nonsense. Well, yeah, some would do it for shoes or something, too, but they’re just stupid. Do I sound pessimistic? I apologize, but I’m telling you—you would too if you knew what was going on—or rather who.

Silly me—I guess I’d better explain.

The who in question smoothly strides onto the dining room floor in his signature black suit, earning speculative stares from most of the females. My soccer mom table can barely keep themselves from salivating on their chicken and fish. His movements are as slight and slick as the silk on his back, and, if you were unaware of his true nature, you would definitely admire it. (I, for one, do not admire it. But I digress, because I am supposed to be sharing my knowledge.)

The object of our temporary attention is named Cameron Byrne. Hailing from the good ol’ UK, he is the owner of Corrigan’s and a world-class skeeze. He eerily resembles an Alfie-esque Jude Law, right down to the designer shoes. Now, lest you think I am judging him too harshly, let me reveal that he is the reason that my illustrious cousin Ness is peddling pasta. Under normal circumstances, I would just shake my head with slight disbelief and move on. However, in this case, Vanessa’s other half exploits her celebrity and wealth and I greatly disapprove. When they had met three years ago, Corrigan’s had been fledgling; the food had been sub par and the service even worse. Cameron sneakily slid Vanessa into the manager position, and she was too enthralled with him to protest. Word got out that an Oscar-winning actress was managing a restaurant and the people started coming in droves.

Then Ness hired Elizabeth, and Corrigan’s salvation was assured.

I sense Margo at my elbow without even looking to see that she’s there. We are well out of everyone’s way just short of the doorway into the dining room. “Well, there he is, making his grand appearance to spread sexiness on everyone’s dinner.” I snicker as she tilts her head in mock pensiveness. “I wonder if it sprinkles on like the salt and pepper.”

I smirk. “Oh, that was sexiness? I thought it was pubic lice.”

It’s Margo’s turn to snicker, and she covers her mouth to conceal her mirth as Vanessa breezes by with a piece of red velvet cake, staring at us. Suspicion has her eyes narrowed, but we give her innocuous smiles.

She knows us too well. A brow arch gives away her perception.

“Don’t you have work to do, ladies?” Vanessa asks.

Margo offers up a mock salute. “Yes, whatever you say, Captain McBeth. We’ll get right back to it.”

To our impertinence, Vanessa warns, “You had better…or you’re on dressing duty for a month.”

We waste no time getting back to our tables to check on our customers. Some minutes later, Margo and I meet on the servers’ line where we pretend to look busy. If you didn’t catch that, dressing duty is equivalent of going dumpster diving, and Margo and I do not want to be subjected to that again. We both stank of balsamic vingarette for three weeks after the first time, and once bitten is my stance on dressing duty.

On the servers’ line, behind the aforementioned wall, the clamor changes volume and pitch; in the dining room, the sound is an understated din, a discreet bumbling. Back here, the volume increases and comparatively sounds like war. In the midst of it all there is a woman yelling out orders and arranging dishes to be taken out to tables.

I have to take a moment to speak to you about my big sister. You see her? She’s the redhead in white arguing with that tall guy with the tray. Arguments around Liz are pretty commonplace because she takes no shit. As the oldest in a family of all girls, she grew up that way; her buxom figure (a gift from our paternal grandmother) has been a curse all her life and people often assume the wrong thing about her. She is tough without being hard; she knows when she’s gotta throw that iron fist around and at whom. You can’t be a good big sister without that skill.

Margo shakes her head. “Go Liz. Kicking ass and taking names.”

I shrug as her opponent tells her she needs to lighten up and Elizabeth vehemently disagrees with a rather painful threat. “Well she has to or else they’d walk all over her. Remember how Pierre used to puss out all the time if anyone disagreed with him? His food was crappy because he didn’t stand up for his dishes.”

Margo picks up a midnight-blue linen (one of Ness’s more likeable tweaks) and folds it into fourths diagonally. “I just thought it was because his real name was Louie and he never set foot in Paris and we all knew it.”

I chuckle. Cameron’s former cook had some less-than-reputable credentials, and Cameron had been too desperate to check them. Another one of his many blunders that Vanessa had to rectify.

The argument ends with Elizabeth going back to her work and dismissing the server with a wave of her hand and a turn of her back. The server turns and notices Margo and me.

Something like revulsion turns my stomach when we lock eyes.

Why this reaction? you wonder. Because it’s Adam.

If there is another male underneath this roof that causes me excessive vexation, it is Adam Martin. With Cameron Byrne, there at least is this air of urbanity that surrounds him; when he feigns refinement, you can almost believe that he cracks open champagne with high rollers and eats caviar every night. Adam? Oh no. He is all Bud Light and football games and random bouts of flatulence that can clear a room.

And even worse, he is dating my best friend.

Emily Spence is Adam’s polar opposite; she drinks Vitamin Water and watches BBC America, and the thought of passing gas in front of anyone, even her mother, would absolutely chafe her. To her, Adam is a version of Prince Charming, and he is supposed to save her from all of the other jerks she has had to deal with. Needless to say, she is a bit naïve about Adam. While she is achingly faithful to him, he flirts with all the females within a two-mile radius of wherever he is at a time (hey—in the age of texting, anything is possible), and I know it bothers her, but she has yet to tell him. She assures me he “takes care” of her when they are alone. Whatever that means. I just know what I see when we have to work together, and it’s not encouraging.

“She’s just mad because she still wants to screw me,” Adam says aside to me and Margo.

Uh huh. Like that.

Margo chokes on her own spit so I am left to address this boldfaced display of revolting chauvinism. “Oh, she’s mad because she wants a mediocre bout of sex with Monday Night Football going on in the background and you won’t give it to her? Wow. I have clearly misjudged my sister all these years. I thought she had good taste.”

Anyone within earshot laughs, including my cousin, and Adam tries to counter with his usual arrogance: “Haven’t heard any complaints so far.”

“Probably because they shut up and just smirk at you when you enter the room,” Margo contests. She folds another linen while shaking her head in dismay. “It’s a shame when you’re so bad at it that they don’t even have the respect to tell you to your face.”

I can’t help it; that comment sends me into peals of laughter. Adam leans in as if he is about to tell me something private. I try not to cringe.

“Don’t feel left out, Dell. You’re more than welcome to join in and find out for yourself.”

My eyes widen. Dell?! I oughta punch him in the gonads.

As you might have already noticed (and hopefully it didn’t make you want to throw up), Adam is of the ilk who believes he has a ten-inch penis when he hasn’t bothered to look down and realize it’s only four. I deplore the type because they are the cockiest (no pun intended) without reason. They are full of nothing but artificial swagger and don’t care about anything but the pleasure of the conquest so they turn out to be the worst lovers you ever had. (Emily has yet to dish about Adam’s sexual prowess no matter how much we press her on it, but I have a feeling that she is far from satisfied. Only likes the intimacy, my ass.)

As for his looks, I have to say, Adam is fairly good-looking. Sigh. All right fine—if you can overlook his personality, he is one fine piece of man candy. (Wait…but then again, he is merely man candy because of his personality…aw hell, I’ll let Margo and Michelle tell you properly. They coined the phrase and predictably will have a portion of this tale to tell.) He possesses that tall, toned stature of an athlete with dark hair threaded with random strands of gray. Apparently it runs in the family and he will be completely silver haired by thirty-five. Emily gushes that her favorite feature are his eyes, which are a lovely (ech) cornflower blue.

I had a cat with gray eyes once. Beautiful kitty Oscar was—but you didn’t see me turning a blind eye when Ozzy pissed on my favorite boots now did you? Just saying.

I suppress an eyeroll and return to my linen-folding. “Martin, I think it goes without saying that not every woman that claps eyes on your loathsome figure finds you appealing. Present company included.”

His mouth curves up on one side in a smug grin and he delivers this killshot: “Emily likes me well enough.”

The heat comes from my eyes unbidden. If looks could burn, Adam would be a charcoal briquette. It would be a welcome change from the current (and more convenient than having to deal with him socially), I tell you, but humans weren’t blessed with that ability. Where is Scott Summers when you need him?

He swaggers off the line triumphantly, leaving me to smolder.

“Asshole,” I mutter.

“Remind me again what it is that Em sees in him,” Margo says.

“She got caught up in his eyes,” I respond dryly.

“Then she oughta take a picture and save herself the trouble.” She raises an eyebrow. “I wish you would have done that with Adrian.”

I press my lips together and exhale through my nose, wishing she wouldn’t have brought Adrian up. The thing about family? While they are the foundation of our well-being and existence, they have a knack for bringing up stuff that you wish you could forget. And Adrian Santos falls under that category for me.

Sigh. Adrian

Margo punches me in the arm and I crash back to the moment.

“Ow, dammit!” I bellow.

“Jesus, Della—snap out of it. You look all glassy like the time you overdosed on Nyquil and tried to work the Friday lunch rush.”

I rub my throbbing arm. Margo took a kickboxing class with me when we were eighteen, and she developed one hell of a right cross. “A nudge would’ve worked. You didn’t have to hit me so hard.”

Margo gives me a look. “You were over there about to start drooling over Adrian Santos. I think that’s a health code violation.”

“I was not drooling!”

“Oh yeah right. You still got some spit on your chin.”

“I do not!” I protest, but I wipe at my chin anyway.

“You were totally drooling…”

I growl under my breath. If you knew what Adrian was like…

Margo shoves me again. “Della!”

All right, fine. I’ll explain Adrian later.

*      *              *

The end of the night comes, and I’ve never been happier to see it in my life. I have a fistful of bills in my pocket and my celebratory licorice stick. When I was a little girl I would get candy when I was especially good; nowadays, if I can get through the shift without maiming or killing anyone (as you have seen, that is a feat all in itself), I allow myself a special treat. Hey, gotta reward big people for good behavior, too.

Margo joins me at the bar where I sit counting out the night’s haul and chewing on a grape licorice stick. Tonight’s indulgence comes from a pack of rainbow Twizzlers. She automatically slides out a watermelon one—her favorite flavor—and takes a bite out of it while holding her cell in her free hand.

“Just talked to Nick. He’s gonna meet us there,” Margo informs me as she settles onto the bar stool. “How much did you make?”

“Enough to pay my portion of the rent and buy that leather skirt,” I respond triumphantly. Margo shakes her head. There is this leather skirt I have been eyeing for weeks, but it is ridiculously expensive.

“You could also be saving up money to get a new guitar,” Margo prods me, as she does once a week. “That Fender is not cheap…”

I send a puff of air through my nose. While window shopping one day with Nick and Margo, I had let it slip that I wanted this badass turquoise Fender electric guitar—but it’s about two thousand dollars. If there is one thing you’d better understand about me up front, it’s that I don’t do long shots. Why waste the time? This leather skirt is far more accessible. Maybe someday I’ll take the plunge and get the Fender. But not now. Baby steps, right?

I say this much to Margo. She peers at me sidelong, shakes her head.

“What?” I inquire.

Margo fiddles with the edge of the Twizzler package as if she can’t commit to grabbing another one. “It just seems that you’ve been holding yourself back in strange ways since Adrian left…”

Remember that rot about family again? “What the hell, Margo?”

“I’m just saying,” Margo responds. “Before, you would have been all but selling your plasma for that Fender. Now all you can say is, ‘Baby steps, right?’ I’m the one who should be going what the hell, Della.”

I shake my head. “We shouldn’t be talking about this right now…”

“Trouble, ladies?”

The male voice makes me look up. A tall, dark-skinned young man stands in our midst, mirthfully puzzled.  Bennett Kyle is one of the bartenders at the restaurant and a good friend of ours. He is one of those former nerds who had the foresight to pick up a pair of dumbbells and anything else that would make him cooler. And he is cool, right down to his very core. Well, for a nerd.

My eyes narrow at the cozy scene. Ben sees my look and shakes his head. “Looks like the great Adam Martin strikes again,” he remarks.

I slide my gaze in his direction. “Bennett Kyle, what do you know about this?” I gesture with a blue raspberry licorice stick to Ginger smiling flirtatiously down at Adam in the group of servers.

Ben chuckles and stashes a bottle of Absolut. “Now ladies, you know it is a violation of the man code for me to reveal that sort of information to non-males.”

Margo scoffs. “Really, Ben?”

Ben puts his hands up. “What? I could lose my playa card.”

I throw a linen at him as Margo chokes on her watermelon Twizzler. “Shut up, Kyle. You’re a nerd with a predilection for chemistry and computer technology and would know how to make a stink bomb or hack into the Pentagon before you could get a chick out of her panties. Those so-called playas made your early adolescence hell. Fuck them. You’re on our side. So spill.”

I had him there. “All right, fine.” Ben leans in, forearms on the bar top. We mirror the action as Margo regains her composure. “Word on the street is that Martin and Miss Ginger Snap”—he snaps his fingers for emphasis in a manner reminiscent of Damon Wayans in Men on Film—“have been skulking around here trying to rekindle their old flame.”

Margo’s eyebrows shoot up a full inch. “Say what?” I manage.

“They had an old flame?” Margo asks.

“Before your time,” Ben explains. Which means it occurs before Margo and I started working at Corrigan’s. “Passion, drama—it was like watching Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. They kept going back and forth and back and forth…”

I turn around as Ben trails off. Adam and Ginger break away from the group, talking in tones under the bumble of conversation from the other servers. Something inside of me clutches.

“Think they could be on the back part of the cycle?” Margo inquires.

Ben lifts a shoulder. “I mean, that’s open to interpretation…” Margo eyes him as he picks up his towel. “Look, I’m just on the fringes. Don’t know the inside scoop on that one.” Brow lift from Margo. “Nerd, remember?”

“Doesn’t surprise me that the social hierarchy of hospitality resembles high school bullshit,” I mutter, rolling my eyes. As my eyes roll toward Adam and Ginger, Adam turns toward the door, beckoning Ginger with a crooked finger. My eyes narrow.

I tug on Margo’s sleeve. She frowns at me. “What?”

“Let’s follow them,” I suggest.

Ben, polishing a wineglass, cocks an eyebrow. “Whoa, whoa. Wait. Pause before you get all Sydney Bristow up in this piece. Don’t you realize that eavesdropping is wrong on so many levels? Not to mention, you know this is going to turn to shit. This is gonna get ugly, like Gigli-ugly.”

“Look,” I begin, “do you think that assholes like that”—I jerk my thumb in Adam Martin’s direction—“deserve to make ripples in the fabric of our lives without reproach?”

Ben appears flustered. “Now I didn’t say that. What I had said was—”

Margo crosses her arms over her chest. “I think that means Ben isn’t gonna stop us.”

“Good. I’d hate to hurt a friend.” Satisfied, I slide off the stool and head toward the door. I sense Margo behind me.

“Fight on, Charlie’s Angels!” Ben exclaims to our backs. I fight a grin.

Outside, cool November air hits me like an open palm. My pale skin flushes almost instantly. I curse myself for neglecting my coat as a gentle north wind pulls my hair into my eyes.

“You know…” Margo exhales, breath a puff of air.

I level a glare upon my cousin. “Marg, you are not backing out on me now.”

She shakes her head. “That’s not what I mean. You know I got your back. Remember the time we overflowed the toilets in the boys’ locker room senior year? Who dug her hand in with the turd the size of Alaska?”

I fume. “Never gonna let me live that down, will you?”

“I’m just saying. Even if we catch Adam doing something—and the odds of that are pretty good considering—how are we going to tell Emily?”

Emily. I inhale, cold air prickling my lungs like tiny needles. I imagine Emily’s face in my mind, heartbreak in her eyes. Before I can speak, a rustle catches my attention. My gaze, adjusted to the dark, rests on a pair of figures some yards away.

“See?” Margo whispers. “They’re just standing there.”

“You can screw standing up. Some say it’s more fun that way.”

It’s Margo’s turn to roll her eyes. Adam removes a lighter from his pocket and ignites a cigarette.

I blow a lock of black hair out of my eyes so I can see more clearly. The cigarette passes from Adam’s mouth…oh, my jaw drops and my heart stutters…to Ginger’s curved lips.

After a moment in stupefaction, Margo mutters, “They’re sharing spit!” Her voice is laced with awe, as if she cannot believe her eyes.

Mine, meanwhile, narrow to slits. “That better be all they’re sharing.”

As if on cue, Ginger removes the cigarette and her hand falls to her side. She steps forward and up…and those curved red lips land on Adam’s. And he does not protest.

“Or not,” Margo quips to my earlier statement.

Fucking holy shit. Emily is going to have a coronary when she finds out about this…

…But first, I’m gonna kick Adam Martin’s philandering ass.

Inner Bitch Moment – “BALK!”

This is going to make me sound absolutely whacked, but, well–that’s the nature of the creative mind, right?

Circa 2006, I took an interest in Keira Knightley; I had a bad habit of creating a character based off of a pretty familiar face. I purchased Domino, and out of that experience came the character Magdalena “Maggie” Mallone. Maggie represents the edginess that Samantha Dunne could not quite capture; while they are both similar, Maggie possesses a jagged quality while Sam is merely tough. I had her in mind when I wrote this. While Danie acts like a conduit for my Gorgeous Inner Bitch, Maggie is an Inner Bitch of a different sort.

I like taking her out and taking her for a spin every now and again. 😉

“BALK!”

Don’t you try
Don’t hold me down
I’ll put up a fight
Knock you ‘round 

See how you like that?
See how you like… 

I’m not the girl they said I’d be
They were mistaken thankfully
Operating on misconception
Or planning misdirection
Whatever the case, I won’t toe the line
I’ve done no crime, won’t pay no time

Don’t you try
Don’t hold me down
I’ll put up a fight
Knock you ‘round 

All you want you can gawk
At the swagger in my walk
At the sass in my talk
As long as you don’t chafe me
I won’t balk 

See how you like that?
See how you like… 

You can hide me in the back
So no one gets a heart attack
But your logic has a setback
I’m the object of attention everywhere I go
The coolest chick I know
I am not your ordinary foe 

All you want you can gawk
At the swagger in my walk
At the sass in my talk
As long as you don’t chafe me
I won’t 

You can watch me like a hawk
Think of lining me in chalk
You can keep your salt
Don’t try and break me
And I won’t 

See how you like that?
See how you like rolling in the woes
Dodging all the stones
From fake craptastic foes
And you think I ain’t hair-trigger?
Can’t see why my sass ain’t bigger?
I should be good—how do you figure?
Tried that experiment
Putting myself in a compartment
To my detriment
I am not some animal to tame
A species with a whacked out name
And some defect to claim to fame
So love me or leave me to roam
Don’t revere me but you better watch your tone 

See how you like that?
See how you like…

When I balk
When I balk
Wipe away the spit when you gawk
Leave and four-square with your chalk

I will put up a fight
Knock you around

Sunday Snippet – “The End”

The date is July 30, 2011. I have just finished a double shift at my former job, and I am exhausted, physically, mentally, and emotionally. These words that poured out from me were not about a failed relationship–or perhaps it was, but not of the romantic sort. The woman who had stood at the helm of our little world was moving on, leaving us behind. The consensus among my coworkers was that we would feel regret but would be in some ways glad her reign was over, but my emotional composition was such that I felt both sentiments keenly.

Sadly I never finished the lyrics. Perhaps one day I will.

“The End”

Here we are, at the last page
The final chapter is almost done
But now as I peruse the take
It seems nothing great was won

Long days spent in silence
Moments waged in war
Small indecencies done to settle the score

The good times were had
Just as much as the bad
But nothing as better or worse as the end

Dawn

There comes a time in our lives when reversal occurs. It’s like a baby being born, opening its eyes to a brand new world. It’s like standing on top of a mountain, watching the top of the trees.

When you reach that summit, you can’t go back. And now I can’t either.

*dad

RSA – “Distraction”

No matter how introverted I become, the people I meet always inspire me. The experience of seeing a scene in my head on paper (or screen) makes the awkwardness of creativity seem meaningless. This entry, like most of my literary forays, was inspired by a stray thought during an errant conversation that flourished into a full-blown idea.

This–and its counterparts in random order–will be one of the few of my brainchildren that includes a character that closely resembles me: Zora Neale Scott, named after notable author Zora Neale Hurston (well of course she loves herself while laughing!).  She appeared in a couple of other works, but I dusted her off and refashioned her to be a Recon Specialist Agent. My “counterpart” (if you will) and male protagonist was modeled after someone that I know. (He probably knows who he is, that cocky you-know-what.)

If our dynamic was a story, this would be how I would tell it. Would I call these characterizations true? Not exactly, but one’s vantage point is different than another’s. I like to think of it as a caricature. Take from it what you will.

Needless to say, reading this always brings a smile to my face.

Prelude

She zipped up her favorite dark jeans and turned to gaze at him with a frown.

“J, what the hell?” The nearly naked man amid the sea of rumpled bed merely gazed back, not saying a word. His expression of dismay spoke as loud as a disgruntled black woman at a horror movie. “It’s Mother’s Day. Stop bitching and deal.” She bent to pick up her utility belt. “And you done lost your mind if you think I’m getting you out of this one.”

“But you don’t seem to understand,” the man insisted. “We’ve been through this. Sitting through church service when you don’t believe in God is as annoying as trying to get through an episode of Jersey Shore. I feel like I lose I.Q. points trying to reason with these people.”

She leveled a stern look upon him, managing to look hostile in jeans and a bra. “Look, it’s your mama, J. Don’t be foolish. You don’t have to be the incredible John Anderson Leath all the fucking time. It’s annoying.”

He smirked. He couldn’t help it. “And this from the person who was moaning my name a few minutes ago.”

Her response came flying at him at top speed.

Luckily he ducked. The nearly lethal stiletto landed in his freshly painted wall.

“Goddammit, woman!” he griped. “I just got this fucking place remodeled and now you’re putting holes in the walls?”

She remained silent. Her expression said, with as much attitude as it could muster, Mm-hmm. That’s what you get for being an arrogant ass. He could almost hear her neck working.

He sighed and stood. He retrieved his gray tailored slacks from the polished floor and decided on a new approach. “I would be indebted to you if you helped me. All I am asking is for a simple liberation maneuver. Nothing too elaborate.”

“I am not rescuing you from a church, J,” she said, pulling on her black tank top. “That’s wrong on so many levels.” She shuddered. “I’m not religious but that just gives me the chilly bumps.”

“You’re mistaken. I’m pretty sure my tongue did that.”

If looks could slay, she’d be up on her kill count by one and thus, bye, bye problem.

“Come on.” His voice was cajoling.

She strapped on her dual hip holster. “No.”

“Come on.” Adamant.

Then came the electromagnetic wrist cuffs. “Nope.”

“Come on!” Exasperated.

“You about to get backhanded, J. Settle.”

“Hey, I’ll give you a bonus. Free and clear, off the books.” He came up behind her and stood close enough to smell himself on her. He enjoyed her hastily in-drawn breath in reaction. “Would make it worth your while.”

Breaking herself from his pull, she strode around him to the bed and yanked the stiletto out of the wall. It joined the others in its sheath on her outer thigh holster. He was too agitated to notice the plaster dust. “Pretty awkward, considering the circumstances.” She raised an eyebrow. “It’s enough I’m still on your payroll amid this shit. Drake is still trying to get me outed for fraternizing with you. He thinks I’m your favorite since you let me come back.” She guffawed. “My ass.”

“My favorite part of you.” She smacked him across the back of the head as she passed. “Ow, stop abusing me, dammit. I could kick you out again for your insolence, woman.”

She waved it off. An idle threat. “Yeah, yeah.”

Frustrated, he grabbed her and held her in a vise-like grip. “Look, if I buzz you, you will help me get out of this. No questions asked. I am not requesting now. I am telling you.”

She jerked out of his grip and tossed her head insolently. “You ain’t nobody to me. Like hell I will.”

He considered this. “That’s exactly how you would do it,” he retorted. She rolled her eyes and left.

I

Two days later

So that was the dilemma. The great John Anderson Leath, the CEO of the multi-million-dollar company JAL Inc., the creator of the RSA and all-around badass boss, was reduced to occupying a pew next to his mother at church on, ironically, Mother’s Day and listening to members of the congregation prattle about that morning’s sermon. His awesomeness shrank in the presence of these followers of a god that they could not see. How delightful.

Most of his exasperation resided with the futility of the act. It wasn’t that he didn’t love his mother or loathed being around her. She bore him, gave him life, and he appreciated the gift of existence greatly. It went beyond the magnitude of his being, the idea that the world would be bereft without him; it was a simple gratitude for being alive. The idea humbled him, something he didn’t mind so much. However, in the present context…

Here in this space, the general populace knew him as Andy Leath, the mysterious, unmarried, and slightly wayward son of JAL Inc. Chairman of the Board John and homemaker Teresa Leath. No one knew his net worth almost equaled his father’s due to his various business dealings and technological prowess. No one knew that he managed a cache of dangerous spies who flaunted his inventions. And no one knew that he believed the concept behind this whole custom was bullshit.

How he wished for a vodka and Red Bull.

“You have been awfully agitated today,” Teresa Leath remarked, placing a hand on his forearm. “Is everything all right, dear?”

He smiled at his mother, cursing himself for letting his inner restlessness show. “I’m fine, Mom. It’s…work-related. Nothing for you to worry about. It’s Mother’s Day. We’re supposed to be worried about you.”

Teresa sighed, shaking her head. “I told John that letting you step into his shoes too soon at JAL would ruin your life. You’re not even thirty yet and have a whole company on your shoulders. If you need to step down—”

John tried not to laugh. Running JAL was child’s play. It was the RSA end of things that kept him up at night. “Mom, stop worrying.”

“All right, all right.” She held up a hand. “I just don’t want my baby lonely and overworked, that’s all.”

He couldn’t help but think of his $300 bar tab from two nights ago. Lonely and overworked? Not in the slightest. Eddie and Stella could attest to that end. Luckily her focus had shifted.

“Oh Emma!” John froze in his seat. He knew that tone. That oh hey why don’t I introduce you to my son so I can get some grandbabies! tone. He stifled a wince. His mother was relentless. “This is my son Anderson. He lives in the city so he doesn’t get to see us much.”

The young woman his mother addressed was a petite blonde with gray eyes. She wore a flowered dress that made her look twice her age. She beamed at him, and he already knew what she was thinking. And again with this, Mom? Ah, she meant well. Might as well play along. He wouldn’t be here for much longer.

“Hi, I’m Andy,” John greeted her. His mother had taught him manners. “Nice to meet you, Emma.”

“Thank you,” Emma said. “You know it is so encouraging to meet someone like you who has Jesus in their life.” John opened his mouth to speak, but Emma droned on. “All the guys I have met have nothing on their minds but sex and alcohol. And I am sanctified. I am a lady of the Lord and I believe in the preservation of my immortal soul.”

“Oh really now?” John prompted, feeling like he had fallen into a viper pit.

Emma nodded and smiled, and Teresa beamed expectantly at her son. Look at this lovely girl I’ve found for you. If you mess this up, you will be unforgiven for the rest of your natural life. John’s lips tightened over his teeth. Damn.

“Well…that is quite interesting,” John managed, hesitation only noticed by him. Putting his hands behind his back, John hastily pushed a button on his wrist unit. It was time for backup.

MEANWHILE…

Several miles away, in the cozy living room of Recon Specialist Agent Zora Neale Scott, the 2011 release of Mortal Kombat played on-screen. Sitting on the plush carpet, the owner of the house battled as Sonya Blade against her big brother’s pick, Jade. A fierce battle ensued that included name-calling, intermittent shoving between finger play, and a great deal of cursing. A cavernous bowl of Flamin’ Hot Funyuns between them and two glasses of orange soda nearby (and safely out of the way) completed the scene.

Winston Monroe, Zora’s self-proclaimed brother and best friend, exclaimed in triumph as Jade delivered a debilitating kick upon Sonya. Zora shoved him and moved her thumbs in quick succession to execute a response. She stuck her tongue out at him when Jade faltered.

“You little bitch,” Win said. “I’m gonna whup your ass.”

“You better be glad Mama isn’t here,” Zora said, biting her lip in concentration. “Or you would be the one getting the whuppin’.”

Win waved it off. “Mama wouldn’t care. Thanks to me, she’s getting rubbed down in baby oil by a guy who looks like Dwayne Johnson. She loves me more than you.”

A counter rested on her lips, but the sensation of being zapped by her RSA-issue wrist unit skewed her focus. “Fuck!” Zora swore. She rubbed where she had been shocked. “What the hell does he want now?”

Frowning, Win put the controller aside. Jade was frozen in mid-kick, dangerously close to Sonya’s head. “Who is it?”

Fuming she worked off the offending wrist unit. “I’ll give you a hint. He’s tall, dark, and aggravating as hell.”

Pause. 

“Leath,” Win growled, eyes narrowed. He stared at his younger sister with reproach. “Zor, I thought you were done being his bitch.” Zora looked away and said nothing. “Why would you go back to him after what he did? You nearly got yourself killed.”

“The fucker didn’t know what he was doing,” Zora burst out, instantly regretting the moment the statement crossed her lips. That was the lamest argument ever.

“Oh, so you’re working for a dumbass,” Win shot back. “How comforting to know.”

“He’s not a dumbass, Win—he just had to make a hard decision. I know it hurt, but kicking me out of the RSA happened to be the best thing at the time. How would he have known that Nathaniel Cole would betray him and rig his place to explode on the same day I stormed over to kick his ass over it?”

“Because he’s a brilliant but egocentric jackass with a set of cajones the size of marbles, that’s how,” Win countered. “Nathaniel Cole makes asylum patients look like child’s play. His rigging Leath’s house to kill him would be as obvious as Heather Locklear’s roots on old school Melrose Place.”

Zora waved an impatient hand. “Don’t have time for arguing over this.” She screeched as she was buzzed again. “Dammit, Leath!” She set her mouth in a line as she rose to her feet. “Well, if it’s a distraction he wants, he better get ready for the Mount Vesuvius of distractions.”

Win grabbed a Flamin’ Hot Funyun from the bowl in his midst. “How pathetic it is that he needs you to rescue him from some boring meeting…”

Zora shook her head as she went to the far side of the room. “Not a meeting. It’s a church service.”

Win sputtered. Funyun bits flew everywhere, even on the gigantic flat screen. Here we go. “The hell is wrong witchu, girl? You could get struck down for that shit.” Zora only sighed. “What kinda man needs rescuing from a church?” She didn’t bother to answer; after he gulped down orange soda, Win barreled on. “You goin’ to Hell. You a-goin’ to Hell. And I ain’t gonna be saving your blaspheming ass either.”

Zora purposefully went for her closet, Hell in mind. “Well, hopefully they serve Peach Nehi and parfaits.”

BACK AT CHURCH…

The congregation moved outside to where the abundant Mother’s Day banquet was laid out for their perusal. They took their spots at a long table covered in a delicate white tablecloth. Teresa sat to his left, and Emma Collins had attached herself to his right. John silently perished on the inside as Emma recounted the emotional tale of how God delivered her from the clutches of the evil scourge of drinking and partying. His mother had momentarily abandoned him for some of her friends. He felt perilously close to panic. Where the hell was Zora?

“Don’t you think?” Emma was saying, eyes wide and guileless.

Dammit. “Oh sure,” John hazarded. “God is great. Real splendid.”

Emma brightened. Ding, ding—right answer, John! He couldn’t take much more of this. How long did it take to coordinate a simple distraction? He had taken down clever foes with little more than his cell phone and a tazer. Zora Scott possessed a great deal of ingenuity as well. So why wasn’t she here?

“Oh look!” Emma cried. “They’re bringing out the pig!”

From what his mother had told him the day before, there had been significant upheaval over this pig, which had been made especially by Reverend Petrie’s wife Donna and a couple more of the elders’ wives assisting. It was the centerpiece of the banquet, and Donna Petrie beamed with pride and the congregation clapped its approval. John joined in. It was fascinatingly huge, glazed in honey with an apple in its maw. It took three strong men to get it onto the table in front of the Reverend. Reverend Petrie announced their bounty, consecrating it with a prayer to which everyone lowered their heads in reverence.

Reverend Petrie poised to cut the pig. Everyone watched in rapt interest.

Suddenly, without any warning, a fireball came whizzing toward the table. It all happened so fast that no one reacted until the special Mother’s Day offering exploded into a million fiery pork pieces.

Reverend Petrie was knocked onto his ass. Most people fell out of their seats with surprise, not injury. John just blinked at the spot where the empty platter sat. What the fuck just happened?

“Oh milord!” Emma screeched as pig meat landed on her face. “It’s Armageddon!”

Someone screamed, and chaos ensued. Reverend Petrie, scrambling to his feet, tried to calm his flock in firm, gentle tones, but the sight of the exploding pig had sent them into the throes of irrational terror. John could feel a tension headache forming in the front of his skull. He braved the teeming crowd and located his mother. That was more paramount than feeding into this madness.

He found his mother scanning the crowd worriedly. She had been looking for him. She raised a hand to her heart in relief when she spied him coming near.

“Oh Andy!” she cried. “There you are. I was starting to get worried.” He took her hands, knowing she would need the contact to soothe her worry. “Bizarre thing that just happened, wasn’t it?”

“Yeah, it was. Are you okay? Were you hurt?”

“Oh no, dear,” Teresa assured him. “Mostly startled. I suppose it wasn’t meant to be for us to have that pig. The Lord made that quite clear. But Donna Petrie must be livid. Lucky thing Anna wasn’t here. She would’ve had a coronary over that wasted pig.”

John was sure God had nothing to do with it. But he knew who did.

He spotted a familiar figure several yards away, perched on a tree branch. His eyes narrowed. Zora.

“Mom,” John began, already forming the harangue for his underling, “I’ll be back in a second.”

Teresa agreed, perplexed, and John lost himself in the crowd again. He dodged the chaos, making sure that he mother did not see him, and stopped in front of a group of trees. From the tallest, a short-haired woman clad in black stared at him from her perch, a rocket launcher in her lap.

“You smell like bacon,” Zora greeted him. She smirked. “Your little girlfriend likes pork, doesn’t she?”

John fumed. She must have seen him talking to Emma Collins. But he didn’t want to dwell on that. Instead, he demanded, “What the hell was that?”

Zora preened. “Pretty effective, don’t you think?”

John glared up at her, amber eyes blazing and hands on hips. “What was it about simple liberation maneuver did you not understand, Zora? My mother was scared shitless.”

Zora was slightly taken-aback. “I’m sorry I scared Mama Leath, but damn, I only did what you asked,” Zora pointed out, her voice taking that defensive, high-pitched tone. “It wasn’t like you drew me a freaking diagram or somethin’. Next time you want me to save your ass, be more specific. Maybe show me a YouTube tutorial.”

“You blew up a dead animal with a fucking rocket launcher in the midst of devout Christians,” John groused. “You shoulda just threw in some locusts and talking serpents to complete the lunacy.”

She peered at him with insouciance as sirens blared in the background. It seemed a small fire had broken out from the flaming apple. She hopped down and landed on her feet smoothly. “In John Leath terms, I figured a rocket launcher at the Mother’s Day banquet would be spectacularly fitting,” Zora countered, and shouldered the weapon like it was a Nerf Blaster. “So excuse me if I pegged you wrong. And you’re welcome. Ungrateful ass.” She whistled the theme to Sanford and Son as she sauntered away, hips twisting.

After a lengthy, humming moment, he could only fight a smile and flick pork bits from his silk dress shirt. Indeed, he mused.