Tag Archives: short story

A to Z Challenge: M

MPart M, in a continuing story from A to Z  [link to the beginning]

Zoey focused on the snarling wolf in front of her, trying to clear her mind of everything but the imminent attack. She didn’t stand much of a chance against the beast, armed with just a tree branch, but maybe she could injure it badly enough that it would back off. She figured her best bet was to stab it in the face or throat.

“Ms. Prescott, what are you doing?” came Sam’s panicked voice. “Climb up in the tree, hurry!”

Zoey wasn’t about to tell the girl she didn’t think the slender tree would hold the weight of both of them without bending to the ground. Unfortunately, it was the only tree nearby that could be easily climbed. “It’s okay, Sam, I’ll be fine. You hold on tight and stay where you are.”

She also wasn’t going to admit she was afraid the girl might fall, and no way was she going to be anywhere other than right there ready to defend her if that happened.


Whatever Sam had been about to say was cut off by her high-pitched scream as the wolf lunged for Zoey.

Zoey thrust the stick as the beast lunged. But it moved its head at the last second and the stick glanced off thick neck fur, deflecting the attack slightly but barely slowing it down.

The wolf snarled and lunged again. Zoey held the stick crosswise, braced herself, and pushed with all her strength to throw the wolf aside. The stick snapped in two. The beast jumped at her, snarling and clawing and biting. Zoey sacrificed one raised arm as a shield and used the other to drive her fist in hard punches to whatever sensitive areas she could reach– nose, eyes, side of the head.

The beast knocked her flat on her back, snapping at her face and throat, going for the kill. Zoey grabbed handfuls of fur at its jowls, straightening her arms to hold it at bay. She tucked her chin, guarding her neck. Got in a few good kicks to its underbelly.

But she was injured and tiring rapidly. The wolf was just too strong.

There was no warning, no sound to alert either of them to another presence. Just a sudden hurtling blur of dark fur that came flying through the air, smashing into the wolf attacking her.

Stunned by the sudden absence of weight on her chest, Zoey gulped in huge shuddering gasps of air. Warily, she watched the two wolves roll across the ground, snarling and biting in a ferocious battle for dominance. She got to her feet, trembling and shaken, and picked up both pieces of the broken branch. Preparing to defend herself against the victor.

The newcomer pinned the white wolf momentarily, jaws latched onto the creature’s neck. There was a pained yelp and a flurry of movement and then the white wolf was up and running away.

The gray wolf slowly turned to face Zoey. It was larger than the white one and somehow more menacing. It stalked closer, sniffing the air as it came. Zoey braced herself. She wouldn’t last even a minute against this one.

The wolf got to within arm’s length and stopped. Its hackles weren’t raised, it wasn’t growling or tensing as if ready to lunge. It stared at her for a long moment before lifting its head and letting out a long hair-raising howl.

A few seconds later, Zoey heard movement in the woods behind her. She whirled and saw several dark shapes moving through the shadowy undergrowth. More wolves. Oh dear god, it had called for reinforcements.

Zoey pressed her back against the trunk of the tree and prayed for rescue. But the wolves didn’t attack. They sniffed the wolf that had fought, apparently their alpha, and cautiously sniffed the air around the tree, but didn’t get close. They then arranged themselves in a rough circle around the tree with their backs to her, tense and alert.

They were . . . protecting her?

Zoey took her eyes off them long enough to check on Sam, who had been ominously silent since her first scream. The girl was clinging hard to the trunk, eyes squeezed tightly shut, face starkly pale in the dark.

“Sam? You okay up there?”

“Zoey? Y-you– you’re not d-dead?”

“No, I’m still breathing. Another wolf came and scared off the white one.”

“I-I saw that. B-but then– then it was c-coming for y-you and I c-couldn’t– watch.”

“It didn’t attack me, Sam. It’s sitting over there cleaning itself. Really, open your eyes and see for yourself.”

Sam opened her eyes and screamed. “Zoey! There are more of them!”

“Sam, stop screaming. None of them are attacking. In fact, I think they’re protecting us. Look again.”

Sam looked, but not once did she loosen her grip on the tree. “I’m not coming down until they leave.”

“Okay, that’s fine. I’m sure they’ll be going any minute now.” Zoey wasn’t sure of any such thing, but she could hope.

In the meantime, Zoey talked to Sam in an effort to keep her calm. She recited all the facts she knew about wolves, habits and habitats, what they ate and where they roamed and how many pups were in a litter. Sam sat quietly, taking it all in, not saying a word.

Long minutes passed and the wolves remained where they were. Sam refused to move, remaining where she was. As stalemates go, it was looking to be epic.

It was full dark and the temperature had dropped. Something had to give.

“Sam, I think I should go for help. Maybe Benton can scare the wolves away so we can get back to the house. Will you be okay if I leave?”

“You sure they can’t climb trees?”

“I’d never leave you if they could.”

There was a long silence before Sam spoke. “Okay, yes. Go get help.”

“Great, be right back.” Zoey took two steps away from the trunk where she’d been leaning and the alpha wolf got up and stood in front of her, growling soft and low. A warning?

“It’s all right, buddy, I’m just going for help. Easy now.”

The wolf sat down and Zoey took another step. The wolf got up and growled again. Definitely a warning.

Zoey stepped back until she bumped up against the tree again. “Sam, looks like this wolf wants me to stay put.”

“Someone will come looking for us, right, Zoey? We won’t be out here all night, will we?”

There was real fear in the girl’s voice and Zoey knew she had to do what she’d been dreading. She had so hoped it wouldn’t come to this.

She sighed, resigned. “No, Sam. We won’t have to stay here all night. Hang on.”

Zoey unclipped the fancy new phone from the waistband of her jeans and took a deep breath. She used her sleeve to wipe a smear of blood off the screen, then touched it with her finger and said the fateful words, “Call Anton.”

He answered almost immediately, his stern inscrutable face filling the screen. “Ms. Prescott.”

He probably couldn’t see her in the shadows, but she pasted a bright smile on her face anyway. The one she suspected annoyed him the most.

“Oh good, this thing works.”

“Did you expect it wouldn’t?” he asked dryly.

“You never know with phones. They only work when the person on the other end agrees to answer.”

“Ms. Prescott. You appear to be in the woods.”

“Yes, Anton. In the woods, surrounded by wolves.”

“Wolves,” he said slowly. “What colour are they?”

“I don’t know. Wolf colour. Here, have a look.” She turned the phone so he could see the wolves, dark shapes against the snow.

“Is there by chance a white one?”

How the hell had he known that? “Not anymore. The other wolves ran it off.”

He rubbed a hand across his forehead. She thought perhaps he swore, but it was too soft to hear. “Ms. Prescott, those gray wolves won’t hurt you.”

“Oh, I know that. We’ve become fast friends. But they won’t let us leave.”

“Us,” he repeated. She heard thunder in his voice when he said, “Samantha is with you?”

“Anton, she’s perfectly fine. But that’s why I’m calling. Do you happen to have a ladder?” She angled the phone so he could see Sam, perched up high on a branch, holding on for dear life.

“Don’t. Move.” And then he disconnected and the phone went black.

“So, that went well,” she mumbled to herself.

“Is Uncle Anton coming to help us?”

“Oh, yes. I don’t think anything could keep him away, Sam.”

Zoey noticed there were several dark patches of blood on the ground around the tree — hers, the wolves’, who knew — and she kicked fresh snow to cover them. Sam didn’t need to see a close-up of that.

A moment later, the wolves suddenly all stood at attention, facing the mansion, growling low. A single sharp piercing whistle cut through the night and they all relaxed.

Zoey tensed.

Ferraro and his butler came striding through the snow. He ignored Zoey, his attention completely focused on Sam. Good man, she thought. He nodded to Benton, who grabbed the tree and held it steady as Ferraro vaulted up into it, reaching Sam within seconds.

“Come here, Sammy, I’ve got you. Come on, let go.”

Sam heaved one great sob and threw her arms around her uncle’s neck. Almost instantly, they were back on the ground.

Meanwhile, the wolves had gathered around, pushing each other as if trying to see who could get closest to Ferraro. The alpha nudged the man’s free hand and it looked to Zoey as if the wolf was licking it. Ferraro patted it on the head and said something too low to hear. Suddenly all the wolves took off, yipping and running back into the dark forest.

Only then did he set his niece on the ground, keeping one arm around her shoulders.

“Ms. Prescott. I fail to see how this . . . adventure furthers my niece’s education.”

His voice was deceptively soft, the deadliest she’d ever heard it, but Zoey was too tired and in too much pain to care what he thought in that moment. The rush of fear and adrenaline was wearing off and she was cold and shaking and every single muscle felt bruised. Damn him, he could at least wait until they got inside to yell at her.

“Uncle Anton, it was a field trip. Sort of like extra credit. But then the white wolf was following us and Zoey made me climb the tree and the other wolves came and–”

“Sam, you don’t need to–” Zoey began, fully prepared to take blame where it was due.

But Sam cut her off. “Zoey was very brave. And I learned so much about wolves. Did you know they travel in packs of six to ten wolves and almost never attack people?”

Anton speared Zoey with a murderous look and started the trek back up the hill to the mansion, one strong arm around his niece as they walked side by side. Sam chattered non-stop, burning off her nerves by reciting all the wolf facts Zoey had told her.

Benton followed behind them and Zoey brought up the rear, persona non grata. She’d certainly earned that status. The thought of spending a night alone in the cold woods was the only thing motivating her to keep putting one foot in front of the other.

They entered through the front door and were met by the entire household staff, all making a fuss over Sam and reassuring themselves she was unhurt. Poor girl looked overwhelmed by the unaccustomed attention. Zoey hated to imagine how many nightmares would result from her poor judgment.

She did her best to blend into the shadows of the grand entry, standing a step or two behind Benton, hoping to avoid Ferraro’s wrath for a few more minutes. She just needed to catch her breath and stop shaking first.

She felt a tickling sensation and looked down to see a thin trail of blood running down her wrist and over the back of her hand, dripping slowly into a dark puddle on the polished marble floor. Great, she was making a mess to add to her sins.

God, she was cold. She didn’t usually drink hard liquor, but tonight might be an exception.

“Benton?” she said quietly, exhaustion in every word, “I wouldn’t turn down a shot of whisky, if you’ve got any on hand.”

Benton stepped back, looking startled to realize she was behind him. He opened his mouth and, instead of the expected terse reply, gave a loud gasp.

Zoey watched as everyone stopped talking and turned to stare at her. The scene seemed to flow in slow motion, voices distorted by the ringing in her ears.

Ferraro sounded far away. “Ms. Prescott.”

Mrs. Darby, muffled alarm. “Saints preserve us.”

Sam, like she was underwater. “Zoey, you’re bleeding.”

“Tell me that’s not your blood.” Ferraro’s voice was harsh, his face tight with some emotion. Completely out of character, she mused, feeling numb.

Two long strides and he was there, tugging at her coat, removing it. Easy enough to do as most of the buttons were missing and it hung from her shoulders by mere scraps. He grabbed the hem of her long-sleeved T-shirt, what was left of it, and pulled the shredded mess over her head. She winced as the snug neckline dragged over her face, grazing the welts on her cheek.

She stood there, dazed and defenseless, manhandled like a floppy rag doll being undressed and examined by a careless child. Stripped down to a blood stained tank top and filthy torn jeans, wounds dripping blood on the floor, vulnerable and exposed, the object of everyone’s horrified gaze.

“My god,” Ferraro growled in a low voice, “you’ve been mauled.”

“Yeah,” she said weakly, “and the wolf got in a few licks too.”

She tried for a wry smile but wasn’t sure she managed it with her aching face. She felt herself falling, spinning slowly, floating down, patterned marble moving closer . . . and then knew nothing but darkness.

M is for Mauled (or, you know, for Massively long post)

(probably tomorrow’s post will be short) (I’m almost sure of it)



Filed under A to Z Challenge, Anton and Zoey, just for fun

A to Z Challenge: L

LPart L, in a continuing story from A to Z  [link to the beginning]

Zoey ate her lunch outside on the back stoop, needing the fresh air. It was with great reluctance that she approached the sunroom and her role of temporary tutor. Sam was waiting for her, dressed in the same uniform but with the addition of military-style boots, sprawled on a small couch and looking about as thrilled to be there as Zoey felt.

Zoey sat in a chair where she could see both the door to the hall and the one leading to the back gardens and balanced the multi-page itinerary on her crossed leg. She didn’t need the papers, but figured they’d be a good visual. Provided Sam ever looked up from her sullen contemplation of the floor.

She rolled the papers and slapped them against the side of her chair, satisfied when Sam jumped and sat up a bit straighter.

Zoey smiled politely. “Stand up and walk across the room, to the door and back.”

Sam glared at her, then dragged herself off the couch. She stomped half the distance, turned and aimed an expression of deadly indifference at Zoey, and stomped back, flopping onto the couch again.

Zoey bit the inside of her cheek to stop from laughing. “Awesome. Let’s try it again, only this time pretend I’m the Queen and my entire royal court is watching and judging you.”

Sam narrowed her eyes in a display of extreme dislike. “Which Queen?”

“Whichever one you’d want to impress with your grace and poise. Go.”

Sam stood up, a bit less sulkily this time, and managed a fluid straight-shouldered gait to the end of the room, executed a smooth turn and made her way back to the couch. Where she once again flopped down in an inelegant heap.

“Perfect,” Zoey said, switching to English. She made a show of drawing a line across a page. Then drew another line, a bit lower. “Looks like we can cross both Comportment and French off this god-awful list.”

Sam sat up and blinked at her, as if just now realizing they’d both been speaking French. Sam’s mother had been French and, as Zoey had suspected, the girl was fluent. Why she’d been subjected to lessons in that language was beyond baffling.

“Next up, Etiquette. Your table manners could use a bit of improvement, but they’re adequate.” She drew a line through that as well.

Sam’s expression lightened from heavy thundercloud to merely overcast, as comprehension began to sink in.

“World History. What are you studying?”

Sam hesitated, as if still uncertain of Zoey’s motives. “Disintegration of the Western Roman Empire, A.D. 400-499.”

Sweet Jesus. “Fascinating stuff. Let’s switch to something a bit less archaic. Your uncle subscribes to several newspapers. Read this one in its entirety daily, including the comics,” she handed a paper to Sam. “Read the editorial pages of this one, and the local news here,” giving her two more.

Sam took them, staring in shocked silence.

“Oh, and pick a current topic each day to discuss with your uncle over dinner,” Zoey added with a small grin, and crossed off another item. “Literature. What are you reading?”

“We just finished The Odyssey.”

Zoey winced. “Your uncle has an extensive library. Go pick a novel that looks highly entertaining and read it. Okay, that leaves Science and Math, my personal favourites. We’ll get to those on Monday. Class adjourned.”

She stood to leave, but Sam jumped up too and said, “Wait. That’s it?”

“Sam, it’s Saturday afternoon. No one does schoolwork on the weekend.” She saw the girl’s astonished expression and added, “Not when I’m in charge, anyway. Come on, let’s go for a walk.”

They grabbed their coats — Zoey’s had been miraculously mended, cleaned and returned to her room, along with the jeans she had thought ruined — and headed out the back door.

Zoey wandered over to the cliff, curious about the apparently random tide patterns, and noticed Sam hung back a good ways from the edge.

“Not good with heights?” she asked.

Sam bristled at the implication. “I’m fine with heights. I just don’t like that beach. It’s creepy.”

Zoey nodded. “Can’t argue with that.” The tide was out, way out, causing the white rocks to tower even more menacingly over the water. It had also exposed a larger swath of the rocky beach, revealing a surprisingly smooth black sand sea floor further out.

There also appeared to be a field of debris that had washed ashore, like there might be after a massive storm. But the weather had been clear. Zoey focused on a long piece of wood that had snagged on something– was that a mast? Oh god, it was. It was the distinctive mast and rigging of a junk, like the ship she’d seen last night, with sections of sail floating in the water. No, not like it. How many could there be in the area? It had to be the same ship.

She saw more debris further down the beach, though thankfully nothing body-shaped, and resisted the urge to climb down to investigate. Something was very wrong here. But she couldn’t take the risk that Sam would follow her. She’d have to come back later and hope the evidence hadn’t washed out to sea.

She was determined to make sure Sam got some sunlight and mild exercise, so she walked away from the cliff and toward the front of the house.

“Come on, let’s walk over this way,” she said.

Sam rolled her eyes, but followed along.

Attempts at conversation were fruitless, so Zoey stopped trying. Mind wandering, she became so preoccupied with thoughts of the wrecked ship and what that might mean about the fate of its sinister cargo, she wasn’t paying close attention to their surroundings.

She knew better.

They’d made their way down the hill and were walking among the sparse trees at the edge of the forested area, between the beach and the long winding drive leading to the house. By the time she realized they were being followed, it was almost too late.

Zoey paused to pick up a stout looking fallen branch and as she stood up, she wrapped a strong hand around Sam’s arm.

“Hey!” The girl shot her an exasperated look and tried to shrug off the grip.

“Sam, I need you to be very quiet and keep walking, slowly, just the way we are.”

“What are you doing? Let go.”

Zoey kept her voice low, her tone casual. “Sam, hush. We’re being stalked by a wolf. No, don’t turn around.” She tightened her grip. “If you run, it will chase you. You don’t want that.”

“Ms. Prescott, this isn’t funny.”

“Sam, I’m not trying to be funny. You see that tree over there? The one with the low branches.” Zoey nodded her head in the general direction. “We’re going to walk over there, slowly, and I’m going to help you climb up into it.”

Sam was wide-eyed with panic, but nodded. “Yes, I see it. It’s a long way away. We should run for it.”

“No, no running. That would be a mistake. Hang on, we’re almost there.”

They kept walking, Zoey half guiding, half supporting the girl when she stumbled in the ankle-deep snow, clumsy in her fear. Sam was breathing fast now, almost panting. Zoey needed her to stay calm. “Sam, wolves almost never attack people. I’m sure it’s just curious. There’s nothing to worry about, we’re just being overly cautious here. You okay?”

Sam jerked her head in what might have been a nod. She was clearly not okay.

“All right, here’s the tree. I’m going to boost you up and you climb up to the next branch and just sit still.”

Zoey set down the stick and cupped her hands for Sam, who gamely scrambled up onto the low branch and reached for the next one. And the next one.

“Sam. Stop climbing. Those higher branches won’t support your weight.”

Sam reached for the next higher branch, climbing in a panic.

Zoey put as much authority into her voice as she could without shouting. “Samantha Leighton, stop right now. Sit down on that branch and do not move.”

Sam was shaking with fear, but finally did as she’d been told, wrapping her arms around the slim trunk of the tree.

Zoey turned around to see the wolf had moved much closer. The thing was huge, easily over a hundred pounds, dark eyes offset by a pure white coat. Beautiful and deadly. Its hackles were raised, mouth slightly open to show its teeth, a predator tracking her every move as she slowly bent to retrieve the stick.

Ferraro was going to kill her for this idiocy. Unless the wolf beat him to it.

What had she been thinking, bringing Sam out here with her? She hadn’t intended to walk this far, to be out of sight of the house. And for her to lose focus, to be even momentarily unaware of their surroundings, was inexcusable. Especially in this place, this close to dusk.

As she slowly straightened, stick in hand, never once taking her eyes off the beast, it pulled back its snout in a snarl and growled low in its throat, bunching muscles as if in preparation to lunge.

Zoey adjusted her stance and crouched slightly in response. Looked like Sam wasn’t the only one having a teachable moment today.

L is for Lessons



Filed under A to Z Challenge, Anton and Zoey, just for fun

A to Z Challenge: K

KPart K, in a continuing story from A to Z  [link to the beginning]

It was all Zoey could do to stay awake during the morning session with Ferraro, going over his backlog of correspondence. He hadn’t made further mention of her somewhat deficient filing skills and she sure wasn’t going to bring it up. He’d simply asked her to recite the various items that needed his attention.

She didn’t know whether all business matters were this boring, or just his. How did people sit in an office all day and not go stark staring mad?

She’d made a list of notes for letters he wanted her to type up — on a computer that was not connected to the internet — print out for his signature, and mail. Yes, mail. He wanted her to send physical hard copies through the mail. If she didn’t know better, she’d think he was the world’s most technophobic Luddite. A real throwback to simpler, and infinitely more irritating, times.

But she did know better.

Even so, the sooner she could get out of there and move on to more interesting pursuits, the better.

Of course, there was the small matter of a certain angry-at-the-world orphaned teenager she’d impulsively decided to take on. What had she been thinking?

“Ms. Prescott.” From his tone, she suspected he’d said her name more than once.

“Yes, Anton?”

“This is for you.” He reached over and set an object on the desk in front of her. It looked like a phone. And it didn’t. Oh, now this was interesting.

She picked it up to examine it. Slim and sleek and very lightweight, definitely a communication device of some kind. She pushed the button on the side and the screen instantly lit up in a pale blue glow. It was blank. No icons, no apps, no keyboard or status bars. She poked at it, swiped left and right, nothing happened. She’d never seen anything like it. She looked up to see him watching her closely, as if judging her reaction.

“Thank you, Anton. I don’t what it is or how it works, but it’s a lovely colour.”

For one brief moment, it almost looked like he was fighting a smile. “It’s completely voice activated. For your purposes, it’s just a phone.”

“I thought phone signals couldn’t transmit out here.”

He grew very still, his expression unreadable. “Where did you hear that?”

Oh, hell. She couldn’t believe she’d said that, and in those terms. It wasn’t common knowledge. It was, in fact, something only a few select industry insiders would know. Sure, other technology could block signals. His technology did it selectively, accurately. And no one could figure out how.

She shrugged and did her best to look mildly irritated. “Someone at the employment agency mentioned network coverage here was pretty spotty. My phone doesn’t connect, so I guess they were right.” He didn’t exactly look convinced, but it was hard to tell with him.

She held up the device. “So I just talk to it and it works?”

He appeared to relax a bit. “It’s programmed to your fingerprint. Place either index finger on the screen and say, ‘Call Mr. Ferraro.'”

How the hell had he programmed it with her fingerprint? She put her finger on the screen and said, “Call Anton.”

He scowled at her continued familiarity, but apparently the phone didn’t care. She heard his phone ringing in his jacket pocket. He reached for it, did something so the ringing stopped.

“The numbers for Benton and Mrs. Darby and Samantha are also programmed,” he said. “I’ll give Samantha her device once we’re done here.”

“Fancy,” she said. “What else does it do? Can I order a pizza? Use it to call the space station?”

“If you had their code, yes,” he said softly.

Damn, she’d been kidding about that.

He continued, “For now, it will only work to call the numbers I’ve programmed. Just remember to touch the screen to activate before speaking.”

Zoey nodded absently, examining the device while trying not to look like that’s what she was doing. There was a simple on/off switch, but no other buttons. Just a phone, my ass. This was the mysterious prototype they’d heard rumours about. It had to be. Everyone thought it was still in the design phase, a long way from production.

“There’s a clip on the back, as well as a retractable strap if you want to secure it around your arm or leg.”

She found the cleverly concealed clip, then grasped a small inset tab she’d previously overlooked and pulled out a flexible strap. She was having a tough time reining in her excitement and keeping an expression of awe off her face, given what she’d heard this thing could do.

“I expect you to keep it with you at all times, Ms. Prescott,” he said, his voice stern now. “For your safety. Please don’t lose it.”

He’d just handed her the most closely guarded piece of advanced technology in the world. She knew of people who would literally kill to get their hands on this thing. And he thought she might accidentally lose it?

She smiled as if she were humouring him, as if she weren’t aware of what she held in her hand, like it was no big deal whatsoever, and said, “I’ll do my best to keep an eye on it, Anton.”

As she excused herself to wash up for lunch, Zoey was filled with impatience, knowing she’d have to wait until later to examine the device more closely. Maybe she could even figure out how to unlock a few of its more allegedly interesting features.

Don’t lose it. She shook her head. Fat chance of that happening.

Although, she did wonder how it was that she seemed to be acquiring things she was expected to keep track of. First it was the sea glass necklace, then the chunk of white quartz, now this communications device. She had a feeling Sam was about to be included in that don’t-lose-it category as well.

Zoey had always been a minimalist when it came to possessions. She hadn’t had much of a choice, given the way she’d grown up, but she was comfortable with the independence it represented. And now suddenly she was turning into Keeper of All The Things. She wasn’t sure she liked it.

K is for Keeper



Filed under A to Z Challenge, Anton and Zoey, just for fun

A to Z Challenge: J

JPart J, in a continuing story from A to Z  [link to the beginning]

Writing a lesson plan didn’t take as long as Zoey had thought it might, mostly because she decided not to write one. She figured she could just wing it for the short time Sam would be there. How long did it take for a broken hip to heal, anyway?

But there was also the fact that she was unable to concentrate. She felt unsettled, on edge. As if she sensed something important was about to happen and didn’t know what it was. Her skin felt too tight and she couldn’t sit still.

So she paced her room. And then the hall outside her room. When that didn’t help, she collected the quartz from her nightstand and made her way down the stairs and out through the back door off the kitchen. Sometimes just being outside and breathing fresh air helped calm her. If that didn’t work, she’d have to go down to the basement gym for a full workout. And then it would be hours before she could sleep.

That was the problem, she decided. She’d worked out every day since arriving but hadn’t even so much as gone for a run since Ferraro showed up. Granted, she’d been a little busy with other things the past two days, but she needed to get back to a regular workout schedule.

She stood in the dark, taking deep breaths of cold night air, and couldn’t shake the unease. She suspected lack of exercise wasn’t the problem. This was a different kind of edginess. All her senses were on high alert, nerves strung tight.

She heard rustling in the bushes and a noise that sounded like a hiss. She dropped low and spun toward the noise, her hand going for a weapon even as she realized she didn’t have one. Damn it.

There was the hiss again, only it was more of a psssst. Like someone trying to get her attention.

She knew that hiss. Fine. Attention gotten.

She stalked over to the bushes and wasn’t surprised to see Ermie, gesturing at her to come around to the other side. She crouched down next to him, ready to read him the riot act about the dangers of sneaking up on her in the dark, and was shocked when he batted the quartz out of her hand and sat on it.

“What are ye thinking, lass? Wandering around out here in the dark, making a target of yerself. A target.”

“Excuse me? Why would I be a target? And for whom?”

He didn’t answer, just raised one paw toward the sea.

“Seriously? You think there’s someone on a ship several hundred meters out, beyond those rocks, who is going to shoot me? With what, a cannon?”

“Targets don’t always get shot. Get shot.”

But Zoey wasn’t really listening anymore, because now that her eyes had adjusted to the dark she could see there was a ship. Just beyond the rocks. Its rigging illuminated by the waning half moon.

“Good god, that’s a Chinese junk. I haven’t seen one of those since– what are the Chinese doing here?”

“Can’t rightly say. But they’re not Chinese. Not Chinese.”

“How do you know–” Zoey narrowed her eyes at him. “Can’t say? Or won’t.”

“It’s all of the same cloth, lass. Point is, Bubbie sent me to tell ye to leave off standing there like a beacon. And to offer an apology. An apology.”

“Had I known there was a ship– never mind. Point taken.” She pulled her quartz out from under him and stuffed it in her pocket. “Apology for what.”

“For the wee ghosties last night. Ghosties.”


“The wee children. They heard about ye and wanted to see for themselves. They meant no harm. No harm.”

“Why would Bubbie apologize for them? Wait. She keeps ghosts? As treasure?”

“Not ghosts the way ye’re thinking of them. It’s more that she keeps their memory safe. For the ones left behind. Left behind.”

“For . . . the parents.”

“Aye. She lets the wee dears out sometimes, to play. They all were friends, in life, and often get silly and carried away. Carried away.”

“Friends? But . . . Ermie, there were a couple dozen of them.”

“Thereabouts, aye, lass. Aye.”

As the realization sank in, Zoey swore low under her breath, her throat suddenly tight. “The world is a fucked up place, Ermie.”

“Aye. That it is, lass. That it is.”

After a long silence, Ermie continued. “She also said to tell ye that the other thing ye saw last night, the dark thing that got out– ye will nae be seeing it again. She’d have told ye herself, but is a bit preoccupied just now. Just now.”

Zoey had been watching the junk and was sure she’d seen a smaller vessel rowing out over the rocks toward it. It shouldn’t have been possible, but it slipped between the rocks like a shadow, undamaged. A dark shadow.

“What’s going on down there, Ermie?”

“Naught to concern yerself with, lass. Naught.”

“Why didn’t Bubbie want them to see me standing here? Who are they?”

“Ach, lass, ye’re going to fret about it, aren’t ye? Fret.”

Aye, Ermie, I am,” she said, fed up with secrets. “So just tell me.”

The ermine heaved a sigh that sounded more like a hiss. “Sometimes a treasure becomes a problem and needs to be relocated. Relocated.”

“What kind of problem?”

“That’s all I’ll be telling ye, lass. Go to bed, ’tis late. Ye have work to do tomorrow. Work to do.”

Zoey couldn’t argue with that. Between Ferraro and his niece, she expected the day would be trying. No doubt that prospect should have irritated her more than it did.

“Ermie,” she called softly as he made to leave. “Tell the wee ghosties–” she paused, swallowed hard. “Tell them they’re welcome to come play. Any time.”

Ermie nodded, once, and was gone.

Zoey stood in the deep shadows for several minutes after Ermie left, watching the junk slip silently away toward the horizon, and realized the unease she’d felt earlier had faded. Leaving in its place a quiet, weighty melancholy. She went back inside, locked up after herself and got ready for bed. She lay there for a very long time before she finally fell asleep, staring up at the ceiling, thinking about kept memories and dark treasures and ancient sailing ships.

J is for Junk



Filed under A to Z Challenge, Anton and Zoey, just for fun

A to Z Challenge: I

IPart I, in a continuing story from A to Z  [link to the beginning]

It was dusk when Ferraro returned with his niece. Zoey looked on from the edge of the rooftop helipad as they landed, wondering what else she had missed while exploring the house and grounds. Two obviously armed bodyguard-types jumped out and scoped the place thoroughly, giving her a more than cursory glance, before they turned and motioned for the passengers to step down. Clearly, well-trained professionals. What the hell?

Ferraro emerged next, then extended his hand in a gesture of assistance. Zoey watched as a sullen teenaged girl appeared, pointedly ignoring both the bodyguards and her uncle, and had a sinking feeling this was the niece. It had to be. And she was no child. If Zoey had to guess, she’d say 14 years old, so not an adult either. A horrible age.

She was tall and thin, almost gaunt, her skin so pale Zoey wondered whether the girl had ever spent any time outside. Her short hair might have been an expensive cut, it was impossible to determine with all the gel, but Zoey suspected it was the girl’s own hand at work. She wondered at the lack of make-up, but could imagine it had been confiscated. Repeatedly. The contrast of the black knee-length skirt, plain white blouse and gray cardigan — no doubt a uniform of some sort — was jarring and incongruous.

There was so very much wrong with this scenario, Zoey was tempted to disarm the guards and force the pilot to get her out of there, at gunpoint.

The girl looked up just then, her gaze locking with Zoey’s. It was an unexpected, unguarded moment for both of them. The raw pain and anger and disillusionment Zoey saw in those eyes destroyed her teenage self all over again.

She’s me at that age.

This girl needed her. There was not even a flicker of doubt in her mind. Seems her instincts had been right after all.

Her certainty was accompanied by the knowledge that she was in for one hell of a fight, given the way the girl quickly looked away and brushed past her on the way into the mansion without so much as acknowledging her existence. Oh yeah, this was going to be a knock-down, drag-out, last-one-standing kind of thing.

If Ferraro knew what was good for him, he’d stay out of the way. But first things first.

“I take it that was your niece,” she said as Ferraro approached where she stood.

“Indeed. Miss Samantha Leighton. I apologize for her manners.”

Zoey shook her head. “Don’t. What’s with the muscle?”

“A necessary precaution, I’m afraid.”

Well, that told her exactly nothing. “Dangerous, is she? Likely to steal the flatware? Strangle us in our sleep? Defect with state secrets?”

“They’re for her protection.” He hesitated. “She’s the sole heir to her parents’ fortune. And mine.”

Zoey searched her brain for an elusive memory. Leighton . . . why was that name familiar? Oh. Oh, damn. “Her parents were . . . Paul and Cerise?”

She saw a wave of grief and pain cloud his expression before he composed himself. “Yes. Paul was my brother, from Mother’s second marriage.” She suspected this was not going to be a topic for discussion.

However, there was still the matter of the bodyguards. “Do you feel safe here?” she asked.

“Of course.”

“Do you believe I’m safe here?”

His gaze flicked over her scorched face and scraped knuckles before returning to look her in the eye. She’d never known anyone capable of saying so much without speaking.

“Safe from intruders,” she amended.

He nodded, somewhat grudgingly.

She was well acquainted with his state-of-the-art security system and blew out an exasperated breath. “Anton, this place is a damned fortress. Your niece will be fine here. Send these guys back with the chopper.”

She was more than a little surprised when he did just that.

They entered the house to the sound of Mrs. Darby announcing dinner. Zoey expected the meal to be a bit awkward. She’d forgotten just how petulant teenage girls could be.

After a formal introduction, which Samantha interrupted to insist she preferred to be called Sam, conversation was almost non-existent. Zoey didn’t let it stop her from enjoying the meal. Mrs. Darby was an excellent cook.

After a particularly long silence, Sam spoke. “Does this mean that guy, Alistair something-or-other, is gone?”

“Was he the one who sorted and filed two entire cabinets full of junk mail?” Zoey asked.

Ferraro gave her repressive look. “Mr. Smythe took his duties seriously. Yes, Samantha, he’s gone. He accepted a position as assistant curator at a museum.”

Zoey thought she heard Sam mumble thank god under her breath, but her expression gave nothing away.

More silence. Zoey could tell Sam was examining her, looking for any weakness, any advantage. She’d often done the same. It wasn’t long before the girl said, “What happened to your face?”

Zoey shrugged. “A dragon breathed on me.”

Ferraro choked on a sip of wine and Zoey very carefully did not look at him. Sam rolled her eyes as if to say, whatever, and continued picking at her food.

“Grandmother lets me drink wine with dinner.” This was directed at her uncle.

“You forget the woman raised me, too,” his reply more wry than stern.

Zoey saw Sam rake him with a look that all but said, And look how that turned out, and stifled a smile.

Deciding to start as she meant to go on, Zoey pushed her own untouched glass of wine across the table. “Here, you can have mine.”

“Ms. Prescott.”

“Anton, she’s got to learn to handle alcohol sometime. Might as well be here in the safety of your home, instead of at some drunken frat party.”

Ferraro glared at her for a long tense moment, more unnerved by the thought of his niece at a frat party than by the idea of her drinking a small glass of wine, she suspected.

He cleared his throat. “Mrs. Darby,” he called. The woman entered the formal dining room as if she’d been hovering in the hallway in case anything was needed. No doubt she had been.

“Please see the dinner table is set with three wine glasses in future.”

“Certainly, sir. Will there be anything else?”

“No, thank you, Mrs. Darby.”

Zoey looked up to see Sam watching them with wide eyes, as if they were an exhibition of strange creatures never before seen. She noticed the girl hadn’t eaten much, if anything, on her plate. And she suddenly realized Sam hadn’t been served the same meal she and Ferraro had been given. She had a plate full of steamed vegetables.

“So, Sam, are you a vegetarian?”

The girl looked startled, whether by the question or being addressed directly wasn’t clear. Didn’t anyone ever talk to her, ask her anything?

Sam arranged her face into a blank expression before she replied. “Vegetables are an important part of a nutritious plan for maintaining weight and general health.”

Zoey exchanged a concerned look with Ferraro, who then set down his fork and focused all his formidable attention on his niece.

“Answer the question, please, Samantha.”

Sam stared down at her plate so long, Zoey was beginning to think she wouldn’t answer. Ferraro simply waited her out. “No, sir. I’m not a vegetarian.” A pause. “Not by choice.”

Ah, there was that little bite of defiance Zoey knew was right under the surface.

“Mrs. Darby.” This time there was more than a hint of command in his tone when he called her.

“Yes, sir?”

“From now on, everyone at my table will be served the same meal.”

“Of course, sir, but your mother–”

“Are there allergies involved, Mrs. Darby?”

“No, sir.”

“I thought not. There will be no exceptions.”

This time Sam did a better job of hiding it, but Zoey could tell the girl was rattled. Deciding they’d all had enough upheaval for one day, she was about to excuse herself when Sam pulled some papers out of her sweater pocket and pushed them across the table to Zoey, right past the still untouched glass of wine.

“My tutor sent this for you.”

“Oh?” Zoey took the pages.

“It’s an itinerary. A lesson plan and . . . my schedule.” It was the first time Zoey had seen even a hint of vulnerability. “She wasn’t convinced Uncle Anton would find a suitable replacement out here in the– out here.”

“She wasn’t wrong about that,” she muttered, unfolding the itinerary. What she read had her blood boiling.

“Have you seen this, Anton?”

“I have not, Ms. Prescott.”

“Just as well,” she said under her breath. Zoey carefully re-folded the papers, resisting the urge to crumple them into her fist, and stood. “If you both will excuse me, I have preparations to make for tomorrow. Sam, I work with your uncle in the morning, beginning at nine,” she emphasized for Ferraro’s benefit, “and will meet with you in the sunroom after lunch. Say, one o’clock.”

“Yes, ma’am.” But Sam’s defiant glare was a clear signal that all the girl’s prickly defenses were right back in place, stronger than ever.

That was fine, Zoey thought. For now.

After all, Sam had no way of knowing that Zoey had decided creating a new lesson plan might be slightly less complicated than arranging an assassination. But only just.

I is for Itinerary



Filed under A to Z Challenge, Anton and Zoey, just for fun