Susie was jolted awake from a deep slumber. Confused, she sought the window and confirmed the dark of night. She lay still, searching the room with her eyes. All was normal, and yet a chill ran through her. Her son mentioned a big cat in the area, a danger to everything outside. Susie froze, held her breath and strained her ears listening for sounds – animal sounds – any sounds. Through the vented window the cool night air smelled of pine trees. No noise ventured forth. The bed was warm and comfortable, and sleep called to her, even as her conscience demanded she discover what woke her. She needed to see for herself that everything was safe and secure.
She pushed back the covers when she heard it: Boom . . . boom . . . boom.
Recognizing the shots from a rifle, terror grabbed her. She jumped out of bed, grabbed yesterday’s jeans and bumped her hip into the dresser as she pulled them on.
Ten years ago that bump wouldn’t hurt as much. Ten years ago her slim, short stature would not bump the dresser. Her silk gown came off, and she struggled into her sweatshirt as she headed for the stairs. Not sure where she put her cell, she ran down to the kitchen phone. She pressed speed dial for her son’s ranch. As it dialed, Susie peeked out the window over the sink at the dark, silent shadows. The leaves on the apple tree obscured her view so she moved to the larger window. She saw nothing unusual; everything looked normal.
“What in the hell’s going on?” She could see the single pole light illuminating the barn doors. Listening intently she could hear the frantic dogs barking and bouncing against the doors.
Jerry picked up on the second ring. Susie heard the phone being dropped and retrieved, with cloth rustling on the other end. “I’m up. I heard it. Poachers?” he said, his urgent voice still groggy with sleep.
“I don’t know, but it was too damn close.” Susie’s voice shook as she huddled in the kitchen shadows, straining to catch movement outside.
“I’m on my way. Call Sheriff Hobson. And Mom, don’t go outside!” Jerry called into the phone pressing the off key.
“Hurry!” she pleaded to the silence. Susie hung up, hands cold and shaking. Trying to calm herself, she took a deep breath and laid the phone on the counter. She went to the hall closet, pulled out the shotgun and reached for the shells on the top shelf. She loaded the gun by touch and a small bit of moonlight coming in through the window.
A Gruesome Discovery
Duncan adjusted his kilt, nervous energy threatening to overtake his calm exterior. He stepped on the rubbery hose just as the thing moved, wrapping itself around his foot. Teetering, he tried to keep his balance as a wave of dread engulfed him. Without thinking, he held his breath as a means to obliterate the strong odor of wet hay and animal that permeated the air and filled his nostrils.
“Step on the tusk, Sahib!” the boy yelled, tempering his strained tone with a forced smile. The lad’s words triggered the expulsion of air from his lungs, and he gasped for breath, trying to quell his alarm and remember the instructions given to him moments before. Instead, he panicked as the beast’s trunk shifted, and he grasped the animal’s long ivory tooth, clinging for dear life. He never should have agreed to this. The creature had finished off one person already. A barrage of encouragement from others had persuaded him that he’d been given a unique opportunity, something no one present would ever forget, a welcome distraction from morbid thoughts that might taint the occasion.
The pleats on the side of his kilt flounced as the elephant boosted him higher, forcing him to bend at the waist while still clutching a tusk. Compelled to release his hold on the ivory or risk falling, he leaned into the monster and grabbed at an enormous ear. The coarse hair on its leathery hide scratched the exposed skin on his leg like steel wool as the behemoth propelled him further into the air.
There was only one witness, and he was not a good one — the busboy at a new restaurant in the nearby arts colony walking back from the bank. He heard a sudden shout and wheeled just in time to see a large black car accelerate around the corner – “kind of a big SUV, but not as big as a Hummer, maybe a Lincoln” was what he told the patrol cop who first responded to his 9-1-1 call. “It hit the old man right in the center of the front end and sent him flying.”
The old man, Roy Castor, had not been thrown far and with luck he might have survived if he’d been thrown the same direction as his hat, which flew left onto the grassy median. But the impact tossed him to the right like a broken stuffed toy and his head hit the curb with a sickening hollow thud.
“Man, I dropped a melon on the kitchen floor last week and it sounded just like that,” Arturo said, adding his view that the old man was dead when he hit the curb. In fact Roy didn’t draw his final breath for another hour, in the cold and remarkably empty emergency room of Sarasota Memorial Hospital.
“The dude went by real slow and looked at me, ” Arturo told the detective who arrived later. “I don’t think he saw me until after he hit the old man, then he just floored it and screamed around the corner to the right and he was gone. That’s when I ran down to the old man and called you guys.”
Thom Anderson, the Sarasota police detective who had drawn the case, thought it a straightforward hit-and-run. An overpaid and overeducated punk kid, Thom figured, with a job selling insurance or houses or stocks, had run over an old man crossing in the middle of the block, panicked, and fled. He would probably turn himself in the next morning, ashamed and completely lawyered up, maybe with his equally overpaid father beside him.
His moment of panic would cost him a fine and a few months of probation and might cost him the fancy job. Thom had seen it more and more often as Sarasota had gentrified, and he didn’t like it any better this time than the last.
The light summer rain that had been falling all morning ceased only moments ago, leaving everything dripping and sparkling in new sunlight. The gunmetal sky was clearing, uncovering a brilliant blue, and the imported palms whispered as a cool easterly breeze brushed their long, sensuous fronds in a tender caress. On this bright August afternoon in 1992, a Sunday, a young man and a woman were making love in a hotel room in New York City.
It was hot in the room, and clothes were strewn all over the red-carpeted floor as the couple lay naked across the double bed, his body moving rhythmically on top of hers, making her moan with pleasure. Her eyes half-closed, she ran her fingers through his hair as his mouth left hers to rain kisses on her chin, her throat, her breasts. His mouth traveled up against hers again, and as he gently caressed her breasts, he excited her more and more until she gave a loud, ecstatic cry of total satisfaction. The mutual climax seemed endless, and when they finally stopped, she lay weakly in his arms. They were both covered in sweat, and he ran his fingers through her hair. Her breath was uneven as she looked up at him and smiled, her look inviting an answering smile from him.
He reached for the half-empty bottle of champagne on the bedside table. “Would you like a glass?” he asked.
“No, thanks,” she replied. “I’ve had enough champagne for now. But a cup of tea would be lovely.”
As he nodded, she brought her lips against his, then reached over and picked up her creamy silk peignoir, wrapped it around herself, and walked across the room to sit by the large window. A minute later, having called room service for tea, he joined her. From here on the ninth floor, the view of the city stretching out before them was incredible.
Frank Dawson, a tall, muscular man with light brown eyes and dark hair that hung down across his forehead, looked to be in his early thirties, but was in fact twenty-four. He had an attractive, sophisticated face with an expression that suggested he had already seen a lot in his life.
Christine Barkley, who was nineteen, also looked older. She was tall and slender, with blue eyes and long blonde hair that framed a face of finely boned, perfectly proportioned features.
The noise of the traffic below was barely audible as they sat in silence for a moment.
“Thanks for the wonderful, romantic weekend,” he finally said. “Usually, this kind of thing comes with a small gift and a letter of apology, saying that you’re sorry for never telling me that you were actually a lesbian.”
She smiled gently at his little joke. “Very funny.”
“I’d still love you just as much even if you turned out to be a lesbian.”
She crossed her bare legs on the big couch. “Oh, stop it!”
He laughed shortly. “We can go for a ride,” he said. “The rain’s stopped.”
He looked at his watch. “It’s still early.”
“I know, but I’m having quite a good time right here.”
“Well, then, I suppose you don’t mind at all that we’ve been stuck here in this hotel room since Friday afternoon?”
“Not at all.” She moved to sit in his lap. A loose strand of hair came down over her face as she leaned closer to him and gave him a quick kiss on the mouth.
He rolled the stray lock of hair round her ear, and then wrapped his arms around her waist. “I wouldn’t mind being stuck here with you forever.”
“The feeling is mutual.” She looked at him affectionately as she stroked his face with her hand. “We hardly spend enough quality time together. I just want us to make the most of every moment we share right now. No people, no joyrides, no restaurants. Just you and I, enjoying each other’s company.”
He gave her a questioning look. “Apart from talking and all the board games we’ve been playing for the past two days, what else do you suggest we do for the rest of the afternoon?”
She gave him one of her big smiles, warm and seductive. “Well, how about we go back to bed and continue what we were doing a few minutes ago?”
“Now that sounds like a very good idea.”
“Come here.” He took her hand and they walked back to the bed. “You’re so irresistible,” he murmured against her throat as he slid her peignoir down to her waist. Then he bent to kiss her breasts. Her hands in his hair, she began to moan, but then there was a knock on the door.
He sat up. “Damn!”
“Room service,” a man’s voice called from outside.
Frank stood up while Christine hastily pulled up the peignoir. Then he picked up their clothes from the floor before he went to open the door. The waiter came in with his tray of tea and its accompaniments. Frank pointed to the bedside table.
“Put it over there.”
The smiling waiter set down the fine china teapot and cups, sliced lemon, sugar, and some cookies and slices of fruitcake. After Frank signed the bill, the waiter inclined his head and left.
Christine poured the tea. “I think I should give my father a call,” she said. “He’s been back from London since yesterday.”
Frank squeezed some lemon into his tea. “When you do, please give him my love,” he joked.
“And give him a heart attack?” She sipped her tea.
“The man who produced you must be worthy of affection…even if he doesn’t approve of me.”
“That’s not funny,” she said, her expression suddenly solemn. “My parents still think I’m nine years old and that they can bully me into submission.”
“Relax! No one has a clue where we are. Not even the paparazzi. And they seem to follow you everywhere you go.”
She frowned. “See? That’s the problem. I’m tired of the secrecy! I want my parents to know about our relationship. We can’t go on like this.”
“Hey.” He looked at her thoughtfully. “Where’s all of this coming from all of a sudden? We promised each other we wouldn’t let anything spoil our weekend.”
“I’m sorry.” She made a frustrated gesture. “It’s just that I don’t want this. We love each other and being scared about it is not right.”
“Look, I know it’s hard, but everything will be okay. Just give it some time.”
“I’m just so tired of all the sneaking and lying. I’m tired of pretending that we’re merely friends. I want my parents to know that we’re in love. Only that way can we truly be happy and get married.” Her eyes had taken on a faint sheen of tears.
The subject of her parents was a sensitive one and they had talked very little about it.
“I know that’s what you want, but we can’t lose focus now,” he said. “I haven’t said we’re going to keep our relationship a secret forever. It’s just that now isn’t the right time.”
“Sometimes I wonder if the right time will ever come.” She looked away as she wiped a tear from her eye.
“Christine, look at me.” She did, and he touched her cheek. “Do you understand? We can’t let your parents find out about us now.”
“No,” she replied in a tremulous voice, “I don’t understand. Why does this have to be so complicated for us? Why can’t we be like other couples?”
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There was a sharp slap followed by a cry. The sound of an animal echoed in my ears and my soul and my empty womb and didn’t fade.
‘4lb 3oz. Girl. Write it in the Statement Book, then take it away.’
THIRTY-FIVE YEARS LATER: ROSE
Someone took her by the arm, forcing her to sit down. Breath warmed her cheek. She was icy all over. She could see nothing, nothing except one word written in the diary.
Suddenly pain, starting at her cheek and spreading through her head. Again, and again. Each slap beat that word deeper into her unconscious.
Rose Haldane fell off the edge of the world.
It was barely seven in the morning, it was bitterly cold, the heater was broken again, and Linna’s students were talking about murder and disembowelment. More correctly, one in particular was expounding upon the most efficient way to remove a human heart while his classmates, all bundled up to their ears, vocalized their disgust in increasingly plaintive and creative ways. Linna fought the impulse to join them and took a deep, steadying breath.
“Esmine, that’s quite enough,” she announced, loudly enough to be heard over his impromptu lecture. She hoped that the combination of her presence, her volume, and her proper Imperial diction would bring the class to order. Esmine frowned slightly, but ducked his head.
“If you say so, Professor Nyx.” His Imperial was impeccable, despite the fact that he had just been monologuing in the local dialect. The dialect was Linna’s native tongue as well, but the school was Imperial and the students would learn to speak properly within its walls.
She looked the class over as she took roll. Even here, in the snowy mountains of Haz where Imperial airships couldn’t land and travelers rarely wandered, the children’s faces reflected the immense size of the Empire. The majority, like her, were Hazi to a greater or lesser extent, with skin as pale as snow and a lilac tint to their round eyes and fluffy hair. Interspersed among them were boys and girls like Esmine with caramel- colored hair and dark, angled eyes, descendants of the traders from the coast of the Yebel river, southeast of Haz’s mountainous borders. A smaller number of students had the darker complexions that indicated a lineage which originated south of the Fallim Mountains, in the area of the Imperial capital.
And that was just the ones that had made it to Haz in the last few decades. The Empire spanned three continents, and the capital, where Linna had studied, was home to immigrants from all of them: men, women, and children who had boarded Imperial ship to travel over land and sea to find a better life.
“I’ll be returning your spelling tests today,” said Linna. Half the class groaned aloud, and she laughed softly. “I promise, none of you did that badly.” Her gaze passed over Esmine and fell on the southern-looking boy to his left. “Riccio, please pass this stack back to your classmates.”
“Yes ma’am,” the boy replied, glancing through the papers quickly. He was one of the few who didn’t struggle with or squint at the flowing script citizens of the Empire were supposed to write and read. After a moment’s consideration she handed the other half of the stack to a dainty Hazi boy.
“Bel, you hand these back, alright?” Esmine made a noise of derisive amusement that was hastily disguised as a coughing fit when Linna glared at him, and Bel nodded so hard his glasses almost fell off.
In the back of the room, someone cursed loudly in Hazi, and Linna turned her glare that way.
“We do not use such language in a schoolroom!”
“The dialect or the swearing, Professor?” asked Esmine, hiding a smirk behind his perfect paper. Riccio laughed aloud. A few other giggled. Bel looked utterly confused.
“You know full well which,” she snapped, then flicked the still-smirking boy on the forehead. “And don’t talk back, either.” An unhappy Hazi girl lobbed her test across the room, and it bounced off of Bel’s head, making him yelp. It took Linna another five minutes to get her class settled, off of the topic of projectile weapons, off of the topic of weapons, off of the topic of murder, again, off of the topic of freezing to death, and onto the topic of their reading assignment. A few were missing books. A few books were missing pages. She rather missed the capital sometimes.