Strings

Melissa: This story stands on its own, but readers might be interested in my first encounter with Melissa, which can be found in story-form here,

Melissa arches her back, stretching bare flesh against the quilting of her lounger, the better to observe a frisbee player on the beach.   “He’s quite the Greek, isn’t he?”

I grin at her,  “Periclean?”

“A ‘First Athenian’?  More of an Achilles, wouldn’t you say?”   She lowers her Ray-Bans for a closer inspection, “Fine physical specimen, valiant in battle, but none too bright.”  Her eyes follow the arc of the beach toy as it flies to the waiting hands of Achilles’ almost equally statuesque companion, a curvaceous auburn-haired beauty in one of those white bikinis best described as’ just legal’ and held together by lots of string,  “Run him past me again?”

“Kapadopoulos, George.   Aged thirty-two, from Thessaloniki, where he’s the CEO for most of the hotels – the big ones, anyway.”

“Really?”  Melissa sounds approving,  “Wealthy family?”

“Nope!  Beach bum.  He married the money, five years ago.   His wife is heiress to the Playton Beach fortune, he runs the hospitality arm of her Companies.  Does it quite well, actually.  Turnover up twelve percent year on year.”

“Didn’t she choose well?”  Melissa says, watching the lithe redhead at unself-conscious play;  “Rare to discover such perfect judgement in one so young.”

“Oh, she’s not that young:  forty-fifth birthday next week.”

Melissa growls at me,  “That girl is not forty-five!”

“No, she isn’t.  But that girl is not George’s wife.”

“You see?”   Melissa purrs.  I am watching a moment of charming intimacy between the pair on the beach, as they laugh and they kiss, but I am more aware of Melissa’s beaming smile;  “You see, my darling, why I’m so fond of you?  You’ve been doing your homework again, haven’t you?  I uncover my Achilles, you discover his heel!”  She sits up,  “Shall I give it a dry run?”

I shrug noncommittally, or so I hope.   “No harm in it.”

If ever there is pleasure to be gained from watching another human being, it must surely be from watching Melissa.   Each step in the soft sand is carefully  placed as she walks to the seashore, hips swaying not too much, ash-blonde hair flicking like thistledown in the breeze.  I am spellbound, as I never fail to be; but my attention is as nothing compared to the organ-stop eyes of Achilles.

It will be a while before she returns, time in which I will half-sleep in the sun, and reminisce upon  the day when my good friend Jorges first introduced me to Melissa; days of cold, winter car shares, of lingering debt.  How far have I come?  How far have we come, for I owe all this to Melissa.  And where is Jorges now, I reflect?  When did we last meet? 

Shortly my Melissa will return – she will have swum, she will have responded, laughing, to a child who splashes her, or a young male who risks a pass and is instantly rebuffed.  Only when she feels she has played the tamed warmth of the waves to her full advantage will she leave the water, skipping up the white sand, to me.

She slips onto the lounger beside mine with something between a sigh and a breath, finding the straw in the Pina Colada I ordered for her.    “He was watching?”

“Of course!”  I reassure her.   “His eyes were rooted on you all the way down to the water, and all the way back.  He dropped the Frisbee three times. Now he’s looking at me.”

“Is he sizing you up?”  She stretches, letting those besotted Kapadopalous eyes feast upon every inch of leg before she crosses her right foot over her left knee, making a pretence of examining a toenail.   “Oh, sweetie, he doesn’t think you present much of a problem!”

“I wonder what Jorges is doing these days?”  (Sorry, my  love, but I am curious).

“Jorges?”  Melissa sounds surprised.  “Why do you ask about Jorges?”

“I haven’t seen him in years.  Technically he still manages you, doesn’t he?”

Melissa gives me a long look,  “He gets his ten percent, darling.  And you, my sweet, you ask for nothing!  Now; business!  Our Achilles – is he hooked?”

“I should say so,”  I tell her,  “The girlfriend’s looking worried.”

Melissa purses those delicious lips and considers this for a minute.  “Who’s the girlfriend?”

I sigh.  “Ah!  As there are ointments, so there are flies.  She is, apparently, Lavinia Defries, Larry Defries’s most adored.  She seems to have slipped the marital bridle for a day or two.”

Sighing, Melissa sucks her straw deeply,  “Indeed she has.  When we say ‘lots of money’, darling, what do we mean?”

“Awash with the stuff.  In Larry Defries’s case, about four hundred million.  At one point, he was reputed to be the richest man in Argentina.”

“Was?  What happened?”

“He moved to Italy.”

So Jorges, Jorges who has no input, Jorges-the-never-seen, gets ten percent!  I profit hugely from my  relationship with Melissa, yet I cannot help that quiet inner voice – where is my ten percent? 

Melissa is asking:  “What do you think, can you flush Lavvy out?  Look at all those strings you’d have to untie, not to mention the dozen or so others Larry’s lawyers will find for you?”

I would not refuse her:    “If you want me to, I’ll try.”

“I don’t.  It’s too late in the season for a full-scale operation, and she’s a little bit above even your vaunted league, my darling.  We’ve done well this summer.   It’s time to go home, I think.”

Yes, you’ve rumbled us – you’ve broken our cover, exposed our racket, whatever.  We perform a very valuable service for the private client.   In return for a generous fee we guarantee their wives, husbands or voters won’t learn about that night of stolen bliss, that extremely awkward business deal or the little undeclared interest which is at the foundation of every worthwhile government contract.   

‘B********l?

Alright, you can call it that, but we prefer to think of it as insurance, and the wealthy vacationers on these tropical beaches have yielded no less than fourteen very gratifying premiums this summer.  With my developing talent for research and Melissa’s unerring nose for those harbouring a personal skeleton in their closet we have been very successful, and between us become extremely rich ourselves.  But in turning down this fifteenth potential client Melissa is wise; she warns against dealings that involve the very high rollers.  Their teeth, she insists, are too sharp.

We will be leaving on the morrow, so for once we spurn the beach bar’s more extravagant temptations and head back to our hotel.  There we relax in the Ocean Lounge and watch the more determined sun-worshippers drifting in from the beach.  George and Lavinia are amongst this gaggle, but we have already excluded them from our portfolio.   They are not of interest.

At about eight, I decide to go to our room, shower the sand from between my toes, and pack ready for tomorrow’s flight.   Melissa, not disposed to move as yet, dismisses me with an airy wave:  “I’ll be up soon, darling.  It’s deliciously cool now; I might walk a little.”

The corridor to our suite is on the fifth floor.  I am strolling along it when a door to my right is opened and an elegant hand grips my wrist firmly enough to pull me inside.

“Hi!” says Lavinia, who is still wearing half her white bikini,  “I wonder if you can help me?  These strings are tied so darned tight I can’t undo them.”

This must be my night for meeting astoundingly beautiful women, because the next woman I meet, about two hours later, is astoundingly beautiful.  It is Melissa, but unlike the a.b.w of my previous encounter, she is fully clothed,

“Two hours, sweetie;”  She says, in a mildly censorious tone,  “That’s something of a record, even for you.  I take it you decided to override my decision?”

“Think of it as a little bit of private enterprise,”  I reply, emboldened by recent triumph;  “In lieu of my ten per cent.”  I produce the mini recorder from my shirt’s concealed inner pocket:  “I taped the complete transaction.”

Melissa cocks an eyebrow,  “How felicitous of you.  Who do you envisage benefiting from your discretion?”

“I thought the young lady herself:  save her the expense of a marital tiff?”

“An inspired choice, sweetie.” She turns away, so I assume the issue is closed.  She never sets any great store by my fealty to her, after all.  Business comes first.  “You’d better pack,”  She says.  “Be careful in the bathroom.”

I find this remark curious, although I do not question it then.  Five minutes later, when I do visit the bathroom, I discover the explanation for myself.  Stretched out lifeless on the floor with his neck twisted to an unnatural angle, George Kapadopoulos is not looking his best.

“My lord, Mel, what happened?   What’s he doing here?  I take it he’s dead – he certainly looks it.”

“Very dead, darling.  Such a silly boy; he tried to seduce me.  It was quite flattering and I was tempted, knowing you were humping Lavvy so inelegantly just up the corridor, but something had troubled me, and I did a little research:  your speciality, I know, but for once you missed something…”

I frown at her,  “Where are we going with this?  Melissa, we have a dead body in our bathroom!”

“We are going towards sweet little Lavinia, who I suspect has gone one better and filmed your entire ‘transaction’, because she, whose septuagenarian husband is divorcing her on the lea side of a prenup, needs money.  All that play on the beach this afternoon when we thought we were doing the assessing, our intendeds were watching us.  They have been for most of the season, apparently.  Lavinia was teaming up with Gorgeous George to offer us some ‘protection’.  Unless we pay her a certain amount which she doesn’t seem to have nominated yet, she and George will bust us on social media and back it up with a couple of criminal charges from the local fuzz, who are extremely amenable, I understand.  When George imparted their plans to me I was naturally upset.”

“So you killed him!”

“What else could I do?  Any other course of action would have resulted in considerable financial loss.”

“Well, if ever we were going to be busted, we’re busted now!   I mean, if we got lucky and managed to smuggle George out of our bathroom, what about Lavvy?  She’s very much alive and kicking, I can assure you of that, and she’s not going to be pleased!”

Melissa touches my arm, reminding me, if I needed to be reminded, of the peculiarly hypnotic effect she exerts upon me,  “It’s all being taken care of.”  She says reassuringly,  “But for both our sakes,  I think you should take your bags and check us out of this hotel now.  Do that for me, will you, sweetie?”

“What about you?   How will you manage?”

“Don’t worry, just go. I’m culpable here, darling, not you.  You needn’t be involved, as long as we keep our distance from each other for a while.   At the airport tomorrow, check in on your own.  We’ll travel separately.  Come to the Bayswater flat when you get to London.  That’ll be our rendezvous.”

Melissa is intent upon taking the blame, and who am I to argue?  In matters such as these (though none so grave before) she holds all the cards.  She is cool, level-headed and intuitively brilliant.  So leaving her, however reluctantly, I trot down to settle our account at the desk and declare our intention to check out.   And there, in the hotel foyer, like a beacon from the past, is Jorges!   I spot him as he is walking through the inner lobby towards the stairs.  I call out to him;  “Speak of the devil! Jorges!”    

My one-time car share turns to acknowledge me but doesn’t.  Instead, he silences me with a quick warning finger to his lips, then begins his ascent to the next floor.   I understand instantly.  This is a very serious matter.  Jorges is going to help Melissa to clear things up.  Jorges is earning his ten per cent!   

A lonely night spent at the airport, alternating between a bar and a hard plastic seat, allows me plenty of time for reflection.  I am grateful to Melissa for protecting me but the evening’s events do beg certain questions: did she call Jorges to help her dispose of the body or was Jorges already there?  George’s neck had been cleanly snapped and such things take great strength.  In her place, I could not have done it, whereas Jorges, who is heavily built, probably could.    Come to think of it, he had to have been nearby, obviously:  England is eight hours away.  Has he been lurking here all season; unseen but ready, should an emergency occur?  If so, what does that say about my role?

 I do not see Melissa again that night, nor is she at the airport when I check in.  The plane is crowded, making movement without drawing attention to myself quite difficult, nonetheless I check throughout the passenger accommodation at one time or another, exhaustively enough to be sure Melissa is not on board.  Now I am like an anxious swain, beside myself with worry and insecurity: has she taken a later flight, or run into trouble?  Have I left her to fate, failed her?  Has she, for that matter, left me?  Oh, why did I mention Jorges’ name, back there on the beach – and why, oh, why did I make that remark about ten percent?

So anxious do I feel for my dearest Melissa, having landed in London, that  I find it hard to maintain my composure through customs, and even harder as I take my turn for a taxi from the rank.  My decision to head straight for the Bayswater flat is a distinctly uncool one, but in my distraught state of mind it makes sense, to me, to await her return in the comfort of one of our private spaces.

I like our apartment in Bayswater, it is furnished in the style of Louis Quinze, with exquisite oriental hangings that testify to Melissa’s impeccable taste.  When I relax there I have to pinch myself to remember that the over-mortgaged house Melissa once helped me to burn down was worth less than the furnishings and textiles in its salon alone.

My taxi delivers me to the door.  My key card buzzes me through.  Our apartment is on the ground floor so it is only a short step across the hall.  I enter, hang my coat on the stand and walk the short passage which has bedrooms (four) on either side and the salon at the end.  I step into the salon…

At first I try to persuade myself I have fainted:  this is a dream – it must be a dream.   To discover that Melissa is here before me is surprising enough, but it is as nothing – nothing – to the sight of the companion who sits beside her, holding her hand!

George Kapadopoulos is holding her hand.

“You’re dead!”  I tell him, foolishly when I can find my voice.  He must already know.  He doesn’t look dead.  He does look very pale, and quite – well – friendly, I suppose.  His face is fixed in a smile of greeting.

Melissa positively beams.  “Darling, did you have a good flight?  You two haven’t been introduced yet, have you?   This is George.”

George rises, albeit slowly, to his feet.   His eyes are glassy, and he does not speak, but he does extend his hand.  I take it.  It is cold, very cold.

“You must forgive him,”  Melissa says;  “He hasn’t really recovered yet.  He’ll be right as rain in a day or two.”

“Hello George,”  my tongue is very definitely on autopilot,  “How’s your neck?”

George looks as if he might be about to fall down, so I step in to restore him to his seat.  The look I give Melissa as I do so can leave no room for doubt.   “Ask away, Sweetie,”  She says.

“Well, first of all, how did you get here before me, and a very close second, how come he isn’t as dead as he was the last time I saw him?  Oh, and a supplementary, what has Jorges got to do with it, and why isn’t he here now?”

She smiles benignly, instilling the seeds of renewed confidence in me.   George is still smiling, which disturbs me slightly:  is his head sitting a little crookedly?  “We’ll start with Jorges,”  Melissa says,  “Because that’s a simple answer.  I’ve got him safely pinned down in Hampstead.   He’s quite comfortable there.”  She takes a sip of the red wine she always has near her when we are in this apartment;  “Now I have to tell you a little story.  Get yourself a drinkie, darling you may need it.

“I am not as I appear.  Does that sound too dramatic?”

“A bit,” I concede, pouring a whisky.  “Explain?”

“I come from a very old family.”

“Ah!  I thought there was a little Slav in your blood. Those adorable gypsy eyes of yours – Esmeralda eyes.”

“Close,”  Melissa says.  “My family was not always appreciated as it should have been.  We were nobility; we were owed respect.   Instead, we were driven from our homeland, condemned to wander the world as exiles.  This makes us very cautious.”

I have stopped pouring.  Melissa has barely mentioned her family before, apart from once alluding to her mother “This family…”

 “Certain of our practices attracted criticism,” she allows herself a whimsical smile,  “And we were a touch on the primitive side at times, it’s true.  But we changed.  Yes, we changed.”

I am settling on a chaise, drink in hand and starting to think the unthinkable.  “What changed?”

“Certain appetites,”  She purses her lovely lips, “ that made us easy to trace, easy to hunt down.  It has been a tortuous road.  Even my Grandmother, the twelfth Countess, found sunlight quite injurious for a while.”

“And now?”  I say, heavily.

“Oh, she finds it easier to live below ground.  I am three hundred years younger than her and I don’t suffer from the sun at all; nor does Jorges.  Science is a wonderful thing.”

“Jorges is…?”

“Oh yes!  Really, darling, what did you think I meant when I said he gets ‘ten percent’?” And you see, we are all quite warm-blooded now.  It isn’t difficult to appear normal when you can manage to eat a little food now and then, or take a drink or two.”

I am trying to remember the last time I saw Melissa with food, “You’re still not completely…”

“Completely mortal?  Bless you no. Each of our clients this season was persuaded to donate – I still need my little ‘fix’ now and then.”  She pats George on the arm.  His head turns slowly in her direction;  “Jorges and I had quite a feast last night!”

“Yet you still beat me home?”

“Private transport, shall we call it?  Not used often, and not without risk;   The Marchioness was almost shot down once by a French hunter just outside Le Touquet, .but yesterday was an exception.     Now, about you…”

“What about me?   Did you take your percentage out of me?  I don’t remember any biting.”

“You always compliment me on the passionate depth of my kisses.  You even say they make your mouth sore, at times.  Either the tongue or the back of the upper lip is favoured.”

“I haven’t bled, Melissa!”

“We’re like mosquitos, sweetie.  We seal the wound.  Now, after your debacle with George and his pretty mistress, I’ve decided it’s time you went out on your own.”

The true horror of what is happening overcomes me.  “Stop!  Stop, please, my darling!  I made one mistake – just one!   Don’t push me away!  I love you!”

“Oh, now who’s being dramatic?  Love?  It’s hypnotic suggestion and it passes in no more than a day. But no, I’m not dispensing with you, because you’re very good.   On the contrary, the family is always growing, so we’re opening up the Heidelberg apartment for your use.  I have shared our blood with you for years now, and in the next few days you will discover how to extract your own ten percent.  You will enjoy it!” 

Melissa squeezes George’s hand,  “Meanwhile George, who  as we discovered yesterday is also very, very  good, is my new recruit.  He shall learn from me,  and you will teach a new companion your wizardry.   You must meet her.”

Melissa makes no move or any detectable kind of summons, yet there is a vibration, and I feel it, too.   In response to it the salon door opens, admitting a graceful figure in a dress of bridal white who crosses the floor and melts onto the chaise longue beside me.

“Hi again!”  Lavinia says softly:  “No strings this time, huh?”

© Frederick Anderson 2021.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

Picture Credit: Airport – Jeshoots.com

Header: QK from Pixabay

Crossing the River

They would remember how they made it to the river that night, the travellers, and how it felt, emerging from the forest, to see the silver ribbon of the waters glittering in the last of the day and the first of the moon.  Tam was much the worse by then.

“In the mornin’ we’ll cross,”  Abel decided.  “Not tonight, not now.”

Three days since, the travellers, two men and a boy, had left the ashes of their village, the morning after the Reivers came.  The border raiders had stripped them of everything, their livestock and their families, leaving no good reason to remain or any clear idea of where they were going, other than a hope they might find protection with the Prince Bishops who ruled the land to the south.   Abel, the fittest, drew a travois laden with what few belongings they had saved; Tam, the village chieftain whose leg had been badly burned in the firing of his hut limped along as best he could, with the boy to help him.  They had known the river barred their way; they also knew the Reivers would not be far behind.

 “We’ll rest here.”  Tam, exhausted and crippled by pain, dropped to his knees.  His companions understood.  The boy was only thirteen summers old, yet he knew there comes a time when a man’s blood flows too slowly, when his fingers turn black.  Tam’s beard was frozen back to his flesh, where it found no warmth to free it.

“They’ll not spare us, those bastards,”  The boy said.

Abel patted the boy’s shoulder.  “Here’ll do.  Young un’, get what ye can from the river, will ye?  We should eat well.  It’ll be raw tonight.”

There was their plan, then.  The ‘young‘un’ set off along the riverbank with his sharpened wand of willow, while  Abel gathered wood to make a fire.  And there was Tam, picking at the grass for dry kindling with numb fingers, but otherwise moving not very much at all.

The river was wide and the river was deep, which the boy supposed had a beauty to the minstrel’s eye, but he was never much for rivers.  Its waters were so cold with melt from the high tops it would eat your bones if you stayed still, even in its shallows, for long.  He had no wish to tarry here; if the choice were his he would cross the water that night, for to have the Reivers discover them so exposed on this north bank would leave little the crows could peck over, but Tam needed rest, and Tam was his Chief.  

Fortune smiled:  she permitted a fat Chub to languish where it thought itself safe, deep in a pool behind a promontory of rock.  The boy’s point struck fast enough to pierce it.  It was four hands long, food for a man, but little enough for three.

Atop the promontory the boy rested a while, drawing his prey to leave a gift for the birds and giving himself time, as Malfus his father had taught him, to learn about the land that must afford him shelter until light returned.  In this moment he remembered his parents’ charred remains as the Reivers had left them, and he swore in his heart the Reivers would pay.  Abel was his father now, if any man was. 

The silvered river had turned leaden in the departing light, flecked black where it over-ran itself, or interrupted its journey around a stone.  No other sound than its music penetrated the pall of silence.  No birds sang.

It was a howl; it was pitched high to hang, wavering, on the wind.  The howl was long, echoing and re-echoing above the dark trees, and it froze the marrow in the young one’s bones. A fox?  A hare, perhaps, in a fox’s jaws?  A primal scream, certainly, yet of madness, not of pain.   Stock still, the boy let only his eyes move as he strained to see the first visible sign of danger.

Steep forest garbed the river’s further bank, not a forest like those of his Borders home where the trees men call pines hold the land in fief and nothing can grow in their shade, but a mesh of oak and birch and a floor of briar.    Somewhere in the blackness of that tangled wood, he could be certain, the author of the howl was watching him – watching and waiting.  

And so it proved.  Two great eyes of cold fire, flame and ice, moving with slow precision through the undergrowth.  With a hunter’s skill that belied his tender years, the boy began to move, his head perfectly still, his eyes never leaving those fiery orbs.  A river stood between himself and this creature, he reasoned:  let it be an expert swimmer, he would still have time to rejoin Abel and Tam.  If a stand against a monster there must be, they would make it together.

Abel and Tam were waiting.  They had heard the cry as distinctly as he.

 “’Tis crossing the river – ‘tis coming for us!   Run!”

Abel started to his feet.  Tam did not move at all.  Could he move?  But the boy’s alarm aroused the fitter of the two men for no more than a second before Tam’s words reassured them.   “The creature will not cross the water.  It is as the legend tells it.”

Abel frowned,  “Sometimes I trust my eyes better than I trust the lore.  There are  tales told then, of a worm?”

 “Some say it’s a worm,”  Tam agreed;  “some will have it as a dragon.  Yet dragons, as I have heard it, fly.  No-one’s ever seen such a thing hereabouts.  It is his forest, and as forests go it is a bad place.”

“You knew of it?”  Abel accused him; “And still you brought us here?”

“I have heard the legend.  I did not know the legend was true.  Besides, there is no other path for us.” Tam warmed himself by the fire while Abel set about cooking the young ‘un’s catch over wood he had collected. “Dragon or worm, ‘tis said to be a monstrous creature.  And if it has seen the boy it knows we are here.”

The two men exchanged glances.  The boy could see the fear in their eyes.

Tam shifted himself uneasily.  “Tend my foot, young ‘un, will ye?  It pains me.”

Obediently, the boy knelt to untie the thongs of hide that bound Tam’s leg, releasing skins which clothed his foot in the manner of a boot.  The skins were stuck to the flesh beneath, so as he peeled them away, the flesh was lifted too.  

“Poison.”  The boy said, struggling to keep a lump from his throat as his nostrils were assailed by a too-familiar stench.

“Aye.”   Tam caught Abel’s glance.  “It’ll serve me long enough!”  He snapped.  “You’ll not be cutting my limbs from me this night, man!”

They should have taken turns to watch, perhaps, and there might have been some plan to do so, had not their weariness and the gnawing of starvation overcome the travellers, to send them into a deep sleep.   For his part the boy slept fitfully, beset by dreams of the burning of his village and the terrible blood-lust of the Reivers.  He woke long before the sky returned to light.

Given peace to think, he considered their chances with the monster across the river.  One fit man and himself.  If his crippled chieftain had been whole it might have been a more even contest, but there was only Abel.  Abel was more a weaver than a fighter.

Yet if they stayed this side of the river the Reivers would just as surely get them.  Their raiding parties were everywhere, so even if they were not specifically pursued they would be found, and very soon.   They were in no condition to run.

Propped with his back against a rock, the boy took a decision; he rose, padded softly to the travois where he knew that Tam had left his sword.  As Abel slept not three spans away, he took the sword and slipped silently away towards the river.

Did he have a clear idea of his intentions?  Beyond crossing the river probably not:  could he slay the worm?  He might have persuaded himself of that, but neither could he be blamed if his hope was to simply escape;, a boy of thirteen, struggling for survival in a world that wished him only harm.

The swim took him downstream on the current, so he made landfall out of view of his companions on the northern bank.   It also tired him, for he was unused to swimming and the weight of Tam’s sword held him back. Then there was a difficult clamber up a slick and muddy riverbank while the oak woods frowned down upon him as if entering them at his tender age was vaguely distasteful.  He began patiently exploring the few apparent chinks in the dark wood’s armour of briar, but blind alley after blind alley ended only in a wall of thorns.  The sky was already light when at last he found a gap that led somewhere.   His companions would be wakening.  They might think he had gone to fish for food, but if they discovered the missing sword…

Progress was still painfully slow.  The ground was rising, the sounds of the river dwindling behind him to be replaced by…silence.  Still there was no sound: in an oak wood at dawn, not one bird sang.

When the boy came upon the clearing he had no idea how far he had travelled or how late the hour, because the canopy of the trees had kept him from the sun.  Every step had been an agony of fear and doubt, expecting the legendary worm to pounce upon him, for he felt certain it knew of his coming.  It was watching him from behind the arras of the forest, picking its spot.  This glade could be its amphitheatre.  With fear oozing from every pore, he stepped into the sun.

“Greetings,”   Said a voice, conversationally.  “A better day than yesterday, don’t you think?  I’m sorry if that’s the wrong thing to say, but in my experience Englishmen prefer to talk about the weather.”

‘Be still!’  In the boy’s head his father’s voice reminded him. ‘Until you know your enemy you cannot decide how to engage with him!  Think before you move!’

 All in all the boy had never had much confidence in this advice, and always favoured running away as a first option.  However, this seemed quite a congenial encounter and he did not feel afraid.   Obviously this was a fellow traveller.  Obviously there was less to fear in this forest than he had thought.

“Who are you?”  He replied, scanning the surrounding undergrowth for the owner of the voice.  “Where are you?”

“Oh, over here!”   A clump of dense vegetation parted, to reveal a human head – rather grizzled, distinctly hairy, but human, nonetheless. 

The boy sighed with relief, “Us be fellow travellers, then!  I’m headed for the land of the Bishops, what’s your destination?”

“Destination?  Well, nowhere, really.  Wherever fortune takes me, I suppose.  I wonder, would you perform a small service for me?”

“Anything!”  The boy grinned broadly; “What have ye in mind?”

The face’s eyes closed and its nose inhaled deeply, as though savouring the woodland scents.  “Thank you.  I am so grateful!  Do you see the book over there in the grass?”

Now the boy had heard of books, although he had never met one personally.  This was his first.  Fortunately, as there was only one object to choose from he had no problems with identification.  It was a doughty volume, hide-bound, lying open.

“Aye, I see it”  He said, anxious to oblige.  “They told me these were dangerous woods.   I’m happy to find them otherwise?”

“You heard they were dangerous?  Oh, dear!”

“Aye, they say there’s a worm..”  The boy’s voice tailed off as his eyes drank in the beautifully illuminated manuscript of the book. “That’s beautiful!”  He breathed.

“Isn’t it?”  He heard, rather than saw, his new companion emerging from cover behind him.  “A man in a grey husk dropped it there.  Would you read from it?  That would oblige me awfully.”

“I would if I could,” The boy said earnestly, wondering exactly what was meant by a ‘grey husk’, “But I’ve no notion what the symbols mean.  I‘ve never seen the like.”

“Oh, that is a pity!”  said his new companion; almost at his shoulder now.  “I thought all humans could read books.”

“Humans?”  The boy was suddenly aware how his guard had dropped.  “You said ‘humans’?”

“I did, didn’t I?”  Replied the voice.  “I, you see, am not – well, not entirely.”

Putting his deceased father’s advice firmly to one side, the boy forced himself to turn around, and the sight that greeted him dried the words in his throat.  Standing in full view the owner of the face was a little taller than he – that he expected.  The luxuriant chestnut mane which framed the face, the lithe feline body rippling with muscle, the twitching, spine-laden tail, they were quite beyond expectation.  Terror triggered his legs to flight but his feet remained resolutely rooted to the spot.

“Oh, don’t try to run,” the face entreated him; “I’m much faster than you, as the man in the grey husk discovered.  It just wouldn’t work.”

“You’re the worm!”  The boy managed to stammer.

“Worm?  My dear child, do I look like a worm?”   The creature turned a little to one side, offering itself up for inspection; “I’m a Manticore if the name is familiar to you, but I don’t imagine it will be.  The head of a man, the body of a lion and a tail a bit like a porcupine.  You won’t know what those are, either, if you cannot even read a book.”

“Are ye going to kill me?”

“Kill you?  Yes.  Eat you?  Yes, although there’s hardly enough of you to make it worthwhile.”

“Is that what happened to the man in the grey husk?”

“Yes.  How do you think I got the book?”

“But you’re so … so…”

“Polite?  Well-mannered?  Of course.  The fact that I am going to consume you is nothing personal, so there’s no harm in a congenial conversation first, is there?”

“If I’m too small to bother with,” the boy kept a firm grip on his nerves as he tried to inject a note of reason,  “why don’t you simply let me go?”

“Why.  Why.”   The Manticore seemed to ponder this for a moment, then his eyes lit up, as if kindled by sudden inspiration.  “If I do you will spread word of me among the humans of the south, and then one of them, usually in a metal suit, will come to slay me.    I can cope with that, but the bits of metal get stuck between my teeth.  I’ve got a triple row of teeth, look!”   It gaped, exposing what did seem, indeed, to be three tiers of razor-sharp teeth.  “A dragon acquaintance of mine had just such an experience a century ago, and he didn’t handle it very well at all.  The human despatched him with a long sharp stick – most upsetting.  That was what induced me to move away from Persia.  I suppose it’s why I’m here.  ‘Why’, you see?  Your word, your word!”

It bounced up and down on its forepaws gleefully, “Well now, I think we’ve observed all the pleasantries, haven’t we?  I admit to being a little peckish…”

“No!”  The boy jumped back, Tam’s sword raised:  “Leave me alone, creature!  I don’t want to have to harm ye!”

“Harm me?”  The Manticore chortled; “Oh my dear, look at you!  A scrap of a thing, hardly worth the bother, really, but it’s a fetish of mine, isn’t it?   Do put that pointy thing down, child, before you drop it!”  It raised one paw, exposing a row of long, hooked claws which it examined professionally, before polishing then on its mane.  “I could live very adequately on the deer from this woodland, but I do like a human now and then – quite a different taste, you see?  Are you familiar with pork, at all?”

The boy was not without acumen, quick to assess his chances as very low, yet not prepared to give up; not yet.   “Suppose I could be of use to ye?  If I’m scarce worth eating, perhaps I have skills I could offer?  It’d be better to keep me alive then, surely?”

The Manticore laughed, and its laughter was not a pleasant sound.  “Do you know I can fire the spines from my tail, like arrows?  I have so many weapons, child.  What could you possibly offer that I do not already have?”

“I could collect the spines for ye, and bring them back…”

“I don’t want them back!  I simply grow another set.”  The creature stretched its leonine body and lay on the grass, its chin resting on its paws.  “But this is intriguing.  What else can you offer me?”

“I can hunt deer for ye?”

“No!  Ah, no.  I can do that for myself.  I like doing it.”

“I can catch fish!”  The boy said.  “Basically, you’re a cat.  You must like fish!”

The Manticore cocked an eyebrow.  “Now that is interesting, you are quite correct.  I adore fish!”

“Well, I can catch them for ye.”  The boy said – and as he said it a scheme of such low cunning entered his head it was all he could do to keep from laughing in the creature’s face.  “I bet yer can’t catch fish for yourself – ye don’t like water, do ye?”

“As you observe with such perspicacity, I am a cat.   I loathe the water!  I hate the water!  I despise it!”  In the ensuing shudder, a spine accidentally dislodged itself from the creature’s tail.  It flew like an arrow and embedded itself resonantly in a tree-trunk.

“Few men must pass this way,” the boy suggested, “because there’s legends told of ye in the north to make them afraid.  Suppose my companions and I were to build ye a raft from the timber in these woods?  Ye could cross the river and your paws would barely get wet. A short march north of the river there are many humans for ye to feast upon – not men in armour but wild raiders easy for ye to catch and devour.  Y’see, ye would profit greatly from letting me live!”

“Really?  Could you do that?  My dear chap, could you absolutely do that?”

“Oh, aye!”  Said the boy, “We can do that.”

So it was that the Manticore agreed to let the young ‘un’s companions cross the river.  Tam was beyond caring, but Abel’s reluctance, and his horror at his first sight of his ‘worm’ took longer to surmount.   When the boy explained how their cooperation could be ample vengeance for the razing of their village, though, he was inspired.  

The Manticore had another surprise in store for them yet, because it possessed a power of healing, which it exercised by bringing Tam back to health.  While the boy fished, the adult pair felled trees to fashion a raft, and came the day when the Manticore was able to step gingerly onto its floating transport.

By the combined efforts of men and boy their unlikely cargo was propelled across the river without incident, and after some surprisingly emotional goodbyes the Manticore confessed the smell of quarry was quite overwhelming.

The three travellers had the pleasure of seeing it vanish into the trees beyond the river, knowing what a dreadful revenge awaited their Reiver foes.

Finally, the trio released their raft into the current, lest the Manticore should ever alter its mood and try to return.  They turned to the south, and although their own legend is rarely told, it is said they made their way safely to the more secure lands ruled by the Prince Bishops.   There, the boy learned to read the book the Manticore’s poor unfortunate lunch had left behind, becoming versed in Latin and a revered scholar.   

At least, that is the legend…

© Frederick Anderson 2020.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

Continuum – Episode Seven Music Man

The story so far:   Far away from the City, a mysterious force, which will become described as a ‘wall’ takes the life of a Dometian peasant girl in front of her intended, a boy called Ripero.

Meanwhile, Alanee is questioned by the High Council, again perplexed by her immunity to their control.  Later, Alanee’s mentor Sala expresses an interest in her that implies much more than friendship.  When Alanee rejects her advances, Sala storms out.   Disgusted and a little afraid, Alanee decides she must escape the City…

Alanee has no idea how long she has been sleeping.  After Sala’s angry departure she lay upon her bed for hours, trying to plan a means of escape.  At some time those plans must have been interrupted by sleep, for now her brain is so fogged she can think of nothing clearly. Her head aches, her stomach cries for food.

Beyond the window wall of her living room, the palace is bathed in a gentle rose pink which speaks of approaching sunset.  A day – she has slept for a day?  Never in her life has she slept so long! 

She surveys herself in the mirror.  A gaunt, sleep-feathered face returns her stare.  A black fleck upon her shoulder reminds her the strange ant-like thing she had taped there the day before is still there.  The tape has gone, yet the little device sticks to her skin; the tiny wires cling.  With a hand-mirror she sees how determinedly they have buried themselves into her flesh!  Panicking, she rushes to her kitchen, pulls a knife from her drawer, tries to slither its blade beneath the body of the device, only to find its grip is too tight – what is more, as she works to prise it loose, she feels certain it begins to dig deeper, almost as though it were a real ant, intent upon burrowing into her.  Angry now, she grabs a larger, heavier knife and uses the blunt side to swipe at the thing, sending it across the kitchen to land somewhere on the floor.  Blood streams from her shoulder:  she staunches the flow with a cloth from her sink, and surveys the damage.  Her shoulder is punctured with a tiny hole which courses blood, and two of the fine metal tendrils remain in her skin, prompting a further ten minutes of probing with tweezers.

“Habbach!  What manner of demon was that?”  She demands out loud, of no-one in particular.

When at last her blood-flow has ceased, Alanee dresses the wound.  Some time is required to find the minuscule invader and when she does discover it behind a waste-bin she will not touch it with her fingers, but picks it up with the tweezers instead.  Close investigation reveals nothing.  It does look slightly broken, but there is no explanation for its apparent tenacity.  She throws it disgustedly into the sink and witnesses its satisfying little flash of electro-static protest as she flushes it away.

Time, now, to take a breath.  Her stomach reminds her once more of the necessity for food, and, obligingly, it seems someone has loaded her kitchen worktop with a fresh supply of batter for xuss-bread and tsakal leaves, together with a small platter of meats. There is also a neatly-wrapped package.   Of her two needs, hunger is more pressing than escape, so while griddling some xuss batter Alanee occupies her time, by opening the package to discover a wad of two thousand credits inside!

Two thousand credits!  Comfortably a thousand credits more money than she has ever seen in one place!   The shock is physical.  She takes her food and the package of money into her living room and slumps upon a chair, staring at it.  Is this really meant for her?  She pours herself a draught of the yellow liquor that has become her favorite drink, sipping it slowly as her head clears, letting an escape plan form once more in her mind.  The money will be useful: a browse through the bazaars will help her to work her way across the City without arousing suspicion.  Her aim, she decides, must be to find Dag, the aerotrans pilot who brought her here, and who, she is sure, she can persuade to fly her out.

Her shift is bloodied:  in her bedroom she removes it, arranging the courtier’s robe about herself then, with a wad of credits safe in her clutch-bag, quits her apartment for the wide thoroughfares of the City.

Alanee is unaware she has been watched by Councillor Portis and Lady Ellar on screens in the Mediant’s office,  Screens which have blanked, as they do each time Alanee leaves her apartment.  The street cameras will follow her now.  Ellar remarks upon Portis’s obsession with vigilance.  “She is very alluring, don’t you find?”

Portis grunts.  His enjoyment of the female form is no more than is natural, in his opinion, but he is aware of the jibes that are aimed at him.  “Very.”  He assures her.  “But we have heavier considerations:  how do we proceed now she has rejected the limiter?  Nothing will induce her to wear it again.”

“Perhaps she won’t need it?  If she does she will beg to put it on.”  Ellar rises from her chair.  “Now I have wounded egos to soothe.  Who, Sire, would be a Mediant?”

“I take it you refer to Sala-mer?  She was not a good choice, Lady Ellar.”  Portis may speak frankly.   They are alone in the room.

“Their quarrel?  It was an inevitable result.  Sala is of a…”  Ellar chooses her words… “of a passionate nature.  Yet she is a true friend.”

“Surely there are other type-matches?  Someone less partial to laskali, perhaps?”

Ellar considers: “Seil-mer, maybe?”  She smiles.  “Sala is not a devoted laska.  She has preferences in either direction.”

“You seem reconciled to the little storm we witnessed yesterday?  How so?  Did you not notice the Domo’s reaction?  Lady Ellar, he was not amused.  Of all who sit in upon this decision, the Domo must be the most convinced.  He already harbors doubt – today’s conference was not easy.”

“Really?”  Ellar has wondered why Portis has chosen to catch her alone.  For all his proclivities, it seems unlikely he is drawn here entirely by voyeurism.  “Well, Sire, I cannot be privy to the affairs of High Council.  The Domo will make the right decision I’m sure.  It’s his duty to question and his right to be afraid.

“As for Sala, a good mediator must be more than just a guide:  she must become a friend, a confidant, and yes, if necessary, a lover.  She must have the acumen to achieve this as quickly as is asked.  You think she moved too fast, I do not.   Sala has great gifts, Sire.  Trust her.”

Portis has a habit of avoiding eye contact when he speaks, but although this irritates Ellar she does not let it blind her to the significance of his words.  So when he stares at the blank screens she listens intently.  “Have you considered, Lady, where you stand in this matter?  Where might be the safest place?”

Ellar has, but she is not about to divulge those thoughts.  “I stand with the will of High Council, Sire.”

“Come now, Lady, you are versed enough in politics to know the High Council is not of one will.  There are those who dissent; always.  There are those who would advance themselves by one means, those who favor another….”

“Sire Portis, you take me where I would not wish to go.  My work is to interpret the decisions of the whole Council, not the whims of individuals.”

Portis challenges her.  “Is it?  This is meant kindly, Lady Ellar.  Do not take it ill.  Your handling of the Braillec affair, though skillful, has been questioned.”

Ellar knows it.  “I had no time to consult the High Council:  I did consult one of its members.”

“In the eyes of some you controverted Sire Hasuga’s will.  In the eyes of some that is blasphemy.”

“I averted a war.”

“Yes.  Woman, do you not hear what you say?  Your use of the word ‘I’ betrays you!”  Portis grasps her shoulders; he is looking directly at her now.  “You altered Hasuga’s will by a trick, by cunning, and that is blasphemy.  His will must not be changed.  If he wishes a war, a war must happen.  Whatever you do, and I say this as a friend, do not use those words again – to anyone, do you see?”

For all her self-possession, Ellar is affected.  “Yes Sire.  Though please understand I was following a High Councillor’s instruction.”

“What were your words; ‘My work is to interpret the decisions of the whole Council, not the whim of individuals’?.  Great Seer though he is, Cassix does not have the confidence of the whole Council, especially certain members whose relatives await preferment.  Now you have given them ammunition, and a further worry.  Those who do not thoroughly believe in this young woman mention your curious ability to ignore a limiter.”

“Indeed?  Do they?”  Ellar flares.  “And these doubting Councillors, do they like to see their people dying by thousands in an adolescent game?  Have they never thought what the effect would have been on Mother when her family was murdered?  I did not ignore the limiter, Sire, I merely resisted it a little.  As I often do – I have to.”

“The Mother is devoted to her cause.  She would not have thought of it.  That is the function of a limiter.  You instilled that thought, you vied with a system that has served us throughout the whole of our history.   That is a crime, Lady Ellar!”

Though she seethes inside, Ellar understands Portis’s argument.  She speaks levelly:  “The limiter has been with us for all of history too, has it not?  I have faith in it.  It allowed me just as much latitude as I needed, no more.  Either your judgment has to accept that, or concede that my work has no value.  Hasuga becomes increasingly impulsive and he no longer waits for meetings of High Council.  I consulted whoever I could find – in this case it was Cassix.  Perhaps the Council needs to dwell upon this.  I certainly am.”

Sire Portis nods.   His gaze is again focussed upon the darkened screens.    “Very well; I return to my fellow Councillor’s issues, then.  You have faith in your limiter.  We all share its defense.  But this new woman – this chit – won’t even wear one!”

As he wanders back towards his apartment Portis contemplates Ellar’s arguments.  He knows how capricious the newly pubescent Hasuga can be:  it is as if the chrysalis of childhood he bore for so long had become a prison, and Portis fears more than he will admit how strong Hasuga’s wings of youth will become once they are stretched and dried.  The Mediant’s task, so difficult now, may become untenable in generations to come.  How many war games will there be – must he decimate the population before his wisdom has grown?  Yet even to permit these questions in his own head is a blasphemy, is it not?  The word of the child is incontrovertible – the Third Principle.  Which is why the Inner Council, by bringing the woman Alanee  to the Consensual City, are themselves acting blasphemously.  She will not wear the limiter, and the deeply, deeply disturbing argument he must now face is the question whether she should wear it!

“We set ourselves upon a furious ride.”  The Domo had said in Council that morning.  Portis begins to believe he is right.

The High Councillor’s summoner buzzes at his hip.  “Sire, you are summoned to Council.”  Valtor the Convenor intones.  “Sire Cassix has called an emergency session.”

“Blast him!  What is it this time?”

#

Beyond its residential corridors the Consensual City at night is a sparkling pool with ripples of light and sound that flicker and dash so brilliantly Alanee is at first quite afraid.  She weaves her way through the groups of rowdy, laughing people who gather in the colonnades about the Great Square, or converse in twos and threes around doors of opalescent blue, the color, as Sala has already informed her, of nightspots – places where entertainment happens.  Extra alleyways seem to have opened up, reinventing the bland, relentless walls of the day, links between avenues shrouded in diffuse light of blue, peach, or amber.  Those who gather in these seem closer to one another, almost intimate:  but for all the vital pulse of the place, there appear to be few devoted pairings.  Many such as she walk alone, or drift from group to group.  Women walk with women, men with men.  There is a fluidity with which she might easily join, were she not so timid.

Alanee’s inhibitions are compounded by her mode of dress, for now night has fallen all formality is forgotten.  The young wear form-fitting styles in myriad shapes and colors; some flirtatious, some seductive, some quite formidably beautiful.  The more gifted girls wear tabards reminiscent of her country clothes, though expensively immodest.  Men are similarly extravagant in close-cut one-piece garments, while their elders, bedecked in robes or suits of matching hue look benevolently on, commune and mix freely, often seeming to vie playfully with one another.

There are no children: the hour is not too late – where are the children?

“Music, Lady?”

Alanee is unprepared.  This odd creature has come upon her in a crowd: singled her out, it seems.  He (is it a ‘he’?)  has exaggerated limbs that weave a peculiar, angular dance, a starved scaly body clad loosely in a shift and a wart-disfigured brown face, upon which all features are implanted on a single plane so his eyes are without sockets, his nose completely flat and wide, and his mouth as lipless as it is formless, working around his words like a thin snake wrapping itself about a rock.  Alanee gets ready to run.

“Nay, nay!”  There is a strange intoxication in that high voice that steadies her nerves.  “You should not fear me!”  The big eyes scrutinize her.  “Now I think of it, though, I have not met you before, Lady.  Are you new to the City my dear?”

To her alarm, Alanee feels those thin scaly fingers on her arm.  Yet she does not push them away – why?  Instead, she finds herself glancing guiltily about her, for in her own village acceptance of such familiar behavior without invitation would bring disgrace.  But no-one spares her, or her curious companion, a second look.

“You are sad!  So, so so sad!  Oh, my child!  Do you know I am three hundred years old?”

For the life of her she can think of no reply.

“Yes three hundred.  I have been sad lots of times, yes?”  This seems to amuse the creature immeasurably, for he flails his free arm around at everyone in the avenue and blares out:  “Sad a thousand, thousand times!  Suicidal!  Habbach I wish I was fucking dead!  But then…”  His voice drops to a conspiratorial whisper:  “I am fucking dead – have been for two hundred years!”  He shakes with mirth.  “Lucky – yes?”

“Yes.”  Alanee fervently wishes he would go away.  She wonders at whose expense that virility was lost.  Are there more of these, these things, in the City?

“One of a kind, my dear.”  Has he read her mind?  “Besides, I never could work out which side I was on!”

Before she can stop it the hand is moving, probing towards a much more intimate destination.  Outraged, she slaps it away and her eyes fly about her for help.  It seems, though, that this too has gone unnoticed.

“Don’t be offended child;” The creature croons, in that same hypnotic note.  “You are in the Consensual City, not at home in your village.  We behave more freely here.  This you will learn.”  He has resumed his odd, twitching dance.  “You are sad, my dear.  I have something to give you.  Take this from me.”  Again the hand is quick.  Before Alanee can brush it aside it has touched her temple on her left side – the imprint of three dry fingers.

“Remember me!  Seek me out if you are sad again.  I shall be your music man!”  With this, the music man’s dancing limbs whirl into rapid departure.  In seconds he has vanished in the crowds.  Oddly, as Alanee thinks, she is almost moved to try and follow him.

She is mystified, but there is nothing for it but to walk on, feeling much as before, with her destination of the aerotrans port firmly in her mind, yet with the impression of those three fingers on her head, almost as if they had not left her.  When she reaches to touch them, though, there is nothing; no indent of her skin, no physical evidence of the warmth she feels.  From nowhere and scarcely audible at first, music begins, a soft, inveigling melody that is in her and around her – a sweet, mysterious song that pours over her like a tincture of roses; with it, a scent so subtle and indefinable that her mind is emptied of all but the mystery of its presence.

Now it is much louder, so she stares around at passers-by, sure they must hear it too, wondering how they can avoid exhibiting the same stupid smile she has on her face.  But no, this music is entirely for her.   As she walks she finds herself wanting to dance:  little involuntary skips enter her pace, she even twirls – this time to the amusement of a pair of middle-aged men.  She hears their sotto-voce ‘Music Man’ as they pass.

Where was she going, now?  Alanee can’t remember; neither  knows nor cares.  The sounds in her head are so utterly her master that when at last the song has faded, it is as much by chance as anything that she finds herself outside the red and pink-lit door of an emporium specifically for women’s clothing.  She tries it, enters it with the lightest of hearts, alarming the proprietor with an impromptu dance.

“I want evening clothes!”

Some half an hour later she emerges, in a mood of illogical optimism and a short, short dress of glittering silver cut almost to her waist at the back.

“And not a credit left to my name!”  She admits to herself cheerfully, swinging the large incongruous bag that holds her robe dangerously.

All at once the delirium of her music is gone; the incessant mill-race of people and the grand proportions of the avenue close in on her.  Women with high-born looks stare disdainfully in passing; men show a kind of interest that she feels rather than sees.  The dress is a mistake – a mistake!  Suddenly afraid that exposure of so much flesh is considered vulgar in this foreign place, Alanee’s color rises.  Her discomfiture does not go unseen.

“Your pardon, Lady.  You look a little lost?”  The voice is hesitant, suppressing a nervous squeak.  “I wonder are you….I mean, may I …help?”

A deferential figure has detached from an indifferently-dressed group of both sexes engrossed in conversation at the far side of the avenue.  The other members of his group scarcely seem to notice him leave, and pay Alanee no attention at all.

“You look lost.”  The man repeats.  He is shorter than Alanee by almost half a head, pale-skinned and fair, hair as fine as powder flopping lifelessly over his high, domed forehead in a fringe.  His features are small, his chin delicate and pointed, a face altogether feminine in appearance but entirely redeemed by his eyes; black, flashing coals set in snow-clear whites that might have their own light-source, they seem so bright.  A blue tunic drapes his body.  His bare arms are slender, his feet so tiny they almost defy the act of balance.

“I am Celeris, at your service, Lady.  You seem distressed.  May I help?”

© Frederick Anderson 2019.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.