Wednesday, July 19, 2017


An Infinite Deal of Nothing

                                                 
            I lie on the stockroom floor between rows of bridal gowns. The concrete beneath me should be cold. It’s not. I feel nothing. I think I’m dead.

I arrived early at the salon this morning. Being manager, I usually do. The salesgirls, Mellie and Tiffany, start later. My boyfriend, Phillip, who’s also the owner, is chronically late.        I remember walking through the gowns, daydreaming about Phillip leaving his wife for me. He’s promised it will be soon.

            I sensed someone behind me, then something squeezed my throat like a vise. Burning pain cut off my breath, I woke to whatever state this is.

I stare at the moose antlers on the wall. They were there when Phillip bought the store. He pretends he shot the animal. What a crock. He’s no hunter. I am. I pursued him for three years before catching him.
 
The door opens. Mellie screams. Phillip’s face swims into view. He drops to his knees. “Denise!”

Tiffany yells, “Don’t touch her! I’m calling the police.” She sounds strangely in charge. Meek, quiet Tiffany is never in charge.

 

The officers surround me. One they refer to as Detective Murray shakes his head. “Damn shame. Beautiful woman.” He turns to another cop. “What’s that?”

            The officer holds a veil in his gloved hands. “Found it under the rack.”

            Murray grimaces. “That’s what the killer used to strangle her. There’s lace marks on her throat.” He turns to Phillip. “No sign of forced entry. Who has keys?”

            “Mellie. Me. And of course the victim.”  Phillip says.

            I feel anguish at Phillip referring to me as “victim”, but know he’s using caution. We’ve kept our affair secret.

            Mellie produces her key.

            “Mine are on my desk.” Phillip walks away.

            I rise upward and follow him. Sort of. Even without a body, I have substance, but my movements are clumsy, like I’m learning to walk again. Phillip grabs his keychain, looks confused. “Here’s my keys.” He holds them out to Murray who has tailed him, as have the others. “But the store one’s missing.”

            Murray’s eyebrows rise. “When did you last see it?”

            Phillip shrugs. “I don’t know. I rarely use it. Denise opens the salon. Mellie on occasion.”

Mellie frowns. “Denise opened this morning. The door was unlocked when I arrived.”

“Plus you found her,” Tiffany adds.

I recall my last terrifying moments. Who hated me so? Cop shows always cite motive and opportunity. Did Mellie murder me? I did hire her on a hunch even though she had a murky past. But we get along. She’s an excellent employee.

 

They carry out my body. I stay. I must find out who killed me.

Murray takes statements.

“Traffic was bad,” Phillip says. “I came in just as Mellie screamed.”

“I overslept, so I was late.” Tiffany gives Phillip a nervous glance which he appears to ignore.

Mellie rubs her forehead. “I arrived on time, but familiarized myself with today’s appointments before coming to the stockroom.”

When the police leave, Phillip closes up shop. I need answers. I follow him home. I love him so, but his embrace with his wife stuns me. He tells her about my murder. Next thing I know I hear them upstairs having hot sex. I float into their room. Phillip lies on his back while she cuddles into him. Bastard. I wish I knew how to haunt them or if that’s even possible. I linger near while they have post-coitus chatter. Damn him.

Later, Phillip goes golfing, and his wife and her friend sit together drinking bourbon.

“It’s terrible about Denise,” his wife says. “But that means Phillip’s latest fling is over.”

We were so careful. How did she know? Did she take Phillip’s key? Hide in the stockroom? She could have. Who would suspect? The security camera is broken. I hate her.

I will myself back to the stockroom. If I could cry, I would. It’s just me and the antlers for the night. I pace. It’s odd. I’ve regained my body’s outline, Eileen Fisher dress and all, although I’m transparent. That’s when I realize I’m missing the garnet ring Phillip bought me. Where did it go?

 

Murray returns often, trying to catch someone out. Mellie is red-eyed all the time. Is that for me or has her boyfriend left again? She keeps the place going. Phillip does zilch. I flatter myself he’s missing me, then I remember that bedroom scene. He jumps every time Murray catches him unawares. There’s an odd smile on the detective’s face. He reminds me of a cat stalking a bird. I spend time in the stockroom. Often Murray comes in. We search for clues together. I wonder if he feels my presence. I wish he did. I am so alone.

Phillip gives Mellie my job. She leaves her shared office with Tiffany, moves into mine. I ponder this. Is it good business sense or something else? I can’t figure it out.

The fourth day I go into Tiffany’s office. She unlocks a drawer. Why? None of us lock drawers. Intrigued, I lean in. The drawer slides open, and there are Phillip’s missing key and my ring. I’m stunned. Murray’s in the stockroom. If only I could summon him, but then there he is, in the doorway. He calmly asks her to explain.

“I never saw those before,” she shouts. Murray stares, and she breaks down. “Okay. I killed her."

Phillip and Mellie come to the door, and Tiffany points at Phillip. “It’s his fault. He said he’d leave his wife for me. Then he fell for that bitch, Denise.” She cries as Murray reads her rights.

I give Phillip one last glance. He looks neither guilty nor surprised. His expression is neutral. I realize it doesn’t matter anymore. I have to get out of there but instead of going back to the stockroom, I drift out into the beautiful summer day. I don’t know where I’m headed. I only know I’m free to go.

 

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

The River Trusts the Current



The wild boar exploded out of the brush, straight toward me. I pulled my rifle trigger. Only a click answered. Time slowed. Heaving tusks filled my vision. Then the air tore apart with an explosion. The boar dropped.

            “Irena Mann, you owe me a favor.”

            I spun. Saw Alan Tallman and his rifle.

            By force of will my shaking limbs stilled. I’d faced bear. Taken out rabid foxes. Beaten cancer at the age of 13. My life had been nothing but close escapes. No need to fall apart now.

My rescuer was tall, rangy, with stone grey hair, “I’m glad you showed up.”

            He snorted, sounding like a boar, himself. “I’ll bet you are, young lady. But I came looking for you.”

            “Me? Why?”

            “Something’s up with the river. It’s too low.”

            “There’s been no complaints.”

That probably wasn’t true. The poor, who lived furthest from The Park, had no voice. The wealthiest, who lived in the closest neighborhoods got the most water. It was the middles that fussed. Always screaming the inner dams were holding back too much. Not that they cared their own dams were making life hell for those downriver from them. When I was a newbie Park ranger I’d taken my turn reading their complaints. Being promoted to Forest Ranger meant I no longer had to.

“The River’s always rising and dropping,”

            “I feel it, Irena. I don’t see it.”

            That stopped me. The Tallmans along with the Byron family held controlling interest in The Park. Most of them were as high society as the Byrons, but Alan was different. He identified strongly with his Native American heritage, spent most of his time in The Park. There was something almost feral about him.

            He pressed on. “You have to go upriver. Find out what’s happening.”

“I can’t get permission for that,” I protested. “You know the rules. Three times a year we can invade the sanctity of The Forest. It’s not yet time.”

            He frowned. “At least they let you Forest Rangers go up there.”

            “Like that’s some cushy part of my job?”

            “Government should let you clear a path up to The River head.”

            I laughed. Government? The ongoing nationwide drought had all but destroyed central government. Power resided in local council. The wealthier the family, the more control they exerted over The Park, and The Park owned The Forest. All paths into it had long grown over. The Forest attracted rain. Rain gave us The River.

Alan had a good thirty years on me. He knew all this. Why were we arguing? “We’re lucky to live here, Alan. Not too many places have the water we do.”

I meant that. He was doubly fortunate. Only the Byrons and Tallmans roamed The Park at will. Everyone else came in by lottery. Being in The Park Service meant I lived there. I was lucky too.

“Please, Irena, I can’t go where you can. The River needs you.”

 

My boss, Keith, was not receptive. “It’s too soon. I was just up there last month. What are you even looking for, anyway?”

“Alan says the water is diminishing.”

            He frowned making his eyebrows knit. “That would be obvious at the first dam.”

            “He thinks it’s happening too slowly.”

            He tapped his foot, stared out the window. “Alan’s no fool. I respect him, but he’s asking a lot. Nose around. See if anyone else seems concerned.”

 

            I’d been in the Byron compound before. My fellow employees were impressed with their luxury. I resented the water they wasted; the private golf course, the pools. I noticed a new helicopter. Rice Byron, heir apparent to the lion’s share of family fortune liked his toys.

I hated contacting Rice, but if anyone in his family knew anything it would be him. His heavy hooded eyes were considered sexy about town. This surprised me. I found him handsome, mesmerizing, but gossip insinuated he was ruthless.

“What can I do for you Ms. Mann?” The silky way he said my name made my skin crawl.

Not wanting to bring up Alan’s name, I asked, “Are you satisfied with the water allotment coming into your family’s use?”

His eyes softened. “I’m touched. Really I am. Everybody cares about the poor, their little needs. No one has ever asked how my life is going.”

I couldn’t believe it. He thought I was concerned about his selfish world? I turned, hiding my disgust.

 

To my surprise, two mornings later found me headed upriver in my canoe. Keith had given in. The dense forest quickly walled me in. A mile in I hit the first rapids. A vicious whirlpool sent my canoe careening into a half-submerged rock. I went overboard. I kicked upward. Struggled not to breathe.

Strong hands pulled me to the surface. I came up sputtering, saw Alan’s face in front of my own. Then we were both in the canoe. I was cold, shaken, but rocked more by the implication of his presence. “What the hell are you doing here?”

“Saving your ass again.” He smirked. “I’ve been tracking you all morning. I cleared it with your boss.”

“Keith gave you an official pass?”

“No, but he’ll vouch for me if necessary.”

It was unprecedented. If anyone found Alan had entered The Forest, Alan, Keith, and me could face charges. Still, I was almost glad to have him. With both of us paddling, we would reach the River’s head before sundown. Alan stopped from time to time, peered into The Forest. He looked like a grey wolf scenting prey. It made me shiver even after the sun dried me. No one intrudes lightly on The Forest. Yet here I was with a forbidden companion. Call it conditioning. Call it superstition. It felt real.

By some miracle my gear had not fallen out or even gotten wet. My bruised knee ached, but I’d felt worse pain.

When the first of a series of three waterfalls hove into sight, we had two miles to go. I pointed toward the bank. “We beach the canoe here. Go on foot. Stay close behind me, Alan. There’s no path, but I know the way.”

We climbed steadily to the top of the first waterfall. The River narrowed. Our path rose steeply, high above the tumbling water. Alan huffed behind me reminding me of the 40-odd years difference in our ages. I felt, rather than heard, him slip. I turned to give him a hand, but he wasn’t there. My heart stopped.

“Help!”

I peered over the cliff’s edge. He hung on with both hands to a small scrub sapling embedded in rock. Below him the waterfall raged.

Dropping to my stomach, I extended a hand. He seized it, dug his feet into the rock grabbing toe holds for purchase.

At last he was lying next to me. “Blast it.” He snarled.

“Funny way to say thanks.” I fantasized slugging him.

“It’s my ankle.” He pulled off his boot and sock. We both stared at the bruising beginning to stain his skin.

“You can’t climb anymore.”

“The hell I can’t.” He rummaged in his backpack, produced an elastic bandage.”

We started out again. He had to be in pain, but other than occasional oaths, I heard only small stones we dislodged.

Just before sundown The River head cliffs rose up before us. Alan gasped. “I never expected to see this.”

Fire was forbidden in The Forest. We ate cold sandwiches, drank water. Alan watched me do my evening tai chi. “How long you been doing that?” he asked.

“Since I was a kid,” I replied. “It helped me endure chemo.”

 

Birds woke me at sunrise. Alan was up, pacing the water’s edge. “The River’s voice is stronger here. Our problem is nearby.” He strode toward a loose pile of boulders at the base of the cliff. That’s manmade.”

I put my hands on my hips. “They’ve been there ever since I started coming up.”

“Probably started out natural, but someone’s added to the pile. “Help me” he ordered, dropping to his knees, pulling rocks away.

I did, wiping sweat from my eyes within a few minutes. Alan didn’t stop until we’d uncovered a cave mouth. “Let’s go in,” he said.

I shook my head no. A huge unease had stolen over me.

“Anything in that oath you took forbid you from going into caves?”

I had to admit there wasn’t, but I’d been tasked with checking for water level changes. Nothing about going underground. He went in though so I followed him. The passage was narrow and quickly dimmed. A bend led us into what should have been total darkness, but there was a faint light coming from somewhere. Also, the unmistakable sound of a generator.

We rounded another bend and found ourselves in a large cavern. The River here was inky black in the faint light. I also saw a row of what appeared to be large metal tanks.

“What is that?” I asked.

“Alan grabbed my shoulder. “Looks to me like someone’s hoarding water.”

“Well, aren’t you smart?” Rice Byron stepped around the edge of the closest tank. He pointed a semi-automatic in our direction. “But what are you doing here?”

My breath caught hard in my chest. I slid my eyes slowly toward the opening we’d just come through. “Just checking on The River.” I didn’t like the look of Rice’s Glock. Why hadn’t Alan or I thought to grab our weapons? Really, really dumb, I thought, going unarmed into a dark cave.

            “What is all this?” Alan asked.

            “It’s my hedge against the future.”

            I felt sick. “Against what future?”

            Rice sneered. “You fools think the drought’s going to end? Sooner or later The River will dry up, but I’ll be ready.”

            Alan craned his neck. I wondered if he was counting tanks. “How’d you get this stuff up here?”

            “Stop trying to divert me with stupid questions, Alan. This entire area’s rich with caves. Lots of ways in and out. Bought some cable cars, set myself up a system. No one much cares what a rich playboy does.”

            All those toys, I thought bitterly. Large crates arriving at the Byron compound would be nothing new.

            “Let us go.” I tried but failed to sound menacing.

            “You two should have minded your own business.” He tossed a rope in Alan’s direction. Tie her up. Both her hands attached to the ring on that closest tank.”

            “But why?” I asked. “We’ll be missed.”

            “Not if you both go over the falls. It’ll look like an accident.”

            Alan apologized as he tied, especially when Rice told him to make my bonds tighter. “She won’t be tied up long enough to lose feeling.” His laugh held no humor.

            “Now you.” Rice motioned to Alan to get moving. Slightly limping, Alan did as told. Feeling impotent and enraged, I watched them head outside. I listened for a scream. Thought I heard one but I knew all I really heard was The River.

            Too soon Rice was back. Alone. “I’d like some fun with you, Ranger Girl, but no time for that.” He approached. I could have kicked him, but he had the Glock. I really believed he would use it, figure out some way to mask how I’d died.

            Seconds later I marched ahead of him, headed toward the same fate as Alan. At the waterfall’s edge, I balked.

“I’ll just bash your head in. They’ll think it was the rocks.” He rushed me, swung his gun toward my head. Without thinking, I blocked, dropped, and rolled. Rice’s momentum carried him forward over the edge. This time I heard a scream.

 

            I found Alan below the second waterfall. He’d gotten caught up in an eddy. He looked battered, but he was alive. There were no cliff walls here. It wasn’t easy, but I hauled him out. He opened his eyes. “Hot damn, I guess we’re even now.”
            I don’t remember the climb down much. We were both exhausted. Rice’s body washed up against the first dam the following day.







                                                    

Tuesday, January 31, 2017


This is my entry into the #NYCMidnight Short Story Contest. It had to be 2500 words or less. Mine came in at 2499 minus the title. I had to write a fairy tale. There had to be a pessimist and an ultimatum.

 

 

Paws Claws and a Just Cause

 
There was once a dog and a cat who lived with a young prince in an ancient castle surrounded by thick forest. The cat, Cyril, loved roaming the many neglected rooms so perfect for pouncing on unwary mice looking for stray crumbs. Augustus, the dog, rarely went anywhere Prince Nigel did not, and Nigel could without fail be found in three spots - his once sumptuous bedroom, the library, or kitchen. Other than Cook, the old woman who had served the castle for years, and the elderly retainer, who kept the prince’s sparse wardrobe in order, there were no other people.

            Long ago there had been splendidly costumed courtiers. There had also been a large village outside the castle walls. Much of that was gone now. The courtiers had died or gone to other palaces where more fun was to be had. Most of the villagers had moved far away to cities, leaving behind their crumbling cottages. Only a few families remained to grow small crops or raise cattle and sheep.

            One chilly spring evening Augustus took himself for a walk. Lately, Nigel had stopped accompanying him. The prince did little but sulk about the dreariness of life.

            “You go,” he told the dog. “I’m bored with everything.”

            Nigel’s retainer, Sir Dathan, frowned. “There’s still books to be read. You could return to fencing or throwing the lance. It’s not good to lie about in idleness.”

            “I’ve read every book in this room (this wasn’t true), and I’m no good with weapons (that was true). Stop pestering me!”

“Something exciting might happen outside,” Augustus ventured.

Cyril, nearby and washing a front paw, paused. “Yeah, right,”

Augustus glared at the feline. “You’re not helping.”

“It’s not in my nature to.” Cyril gave his white bib a swipe with his tongue.

Augustus brushed past the cat, knocking him off balance - a small pleasure. He trotted outside, crossed the moat which held more garbage than water and headed for the tree line. He was a large dog of indeterminate lineage, although wolfhound seemed to have the upper hand.

It took him awhile to find the best trees to do his duty. Also there were interesting smells. Muskrat. Maybe fox. Dusk was settling by the time Augustus realized he must be getting back. He was almost to the portcullis, when he saw movement in the shadows.

Hackles rose on the dog’s back. His legs went rigid. “Who goes there?”

“Oh nice doggie. Please don’t growl.”

It was a young woman. She was limping badly, also in need of a good scrubbing. Her fiery red hair was dotted with leaves and twigs.

How could such as she be any trouble? “Come inside.” He waved a paw toward the door. “The food isn’t good, but it is hot.”

She shrank back. Augustus realized she hadn’t understood him. He had heard of this, people forgetting the speech of animals when they moved to modern cities. He lowered his head and approached her.

She put out a hand, and after two or three false starts, tentatively patted his head. “You really are a sweetheart, aren’t you?”

With careful maneuvering he herded her toward the castle. They entered the great hall side by side. She stopped abruptly, her eyes going upward to the cobwebbed portraits of Nigel’s ancestors. Augustus, who was interested only in getting the girl, and himself, to supper, kept moving. This forced her to follow so as not to be left behind.

Cook was first to spot them as they entered the kitchen. She paused from stirring soup in a caldron suspended over the fireplace. She pointed a dripping ladle at the young woman. “And who might you be?”

            “I found her outside.” Augustus looked at his empty food dish. Being a polite dog and not wanting to chide anyone, he sat on his haunches and sighed heavily.

            “I’m Ramona,” the girl said. “I was out for a hike and got lost. I haven’t seen another soul in three days.”

            “You must be famished.” Cook pointed to the long wood table. “Come, sit down.”

            Ramona complied and at once fell upon the soup Cook set in front of her. “This is delicious,” she proclaimed, which confirmed the dog’s suspicion she was starving.

            Cook sounded the gong, summoning the prince and his retainer. Further introductions were made. Nigel ate little and spoke even less, but Sir Dathan peppered Ramona with questions about the outside world.

            “I’m from Southingtonham,” she replied when asked.

            Augustus had never heard of the place, but since the prince had filled his food bowl, he didn’t care about conversation. Still, snatches came through to him.

“It’s a great distance.” Ramona laid down her spoon. “I was warned not to go into the forest, but I thought it would be great fun. It hasn’t been. Not at all.”

“It’s a lonely place.” Sir Dathan rubbed his bristly white mustache.

“Very few people about these days.” Nigel broke his silence. “Or so I’ve been told.”

“Don’t you get out?” Ramona asked.

“Not much.” Nigel admitted.

“Not at all,” said Cyril breezing into the kitchen and rubbing against Cook’s legs in a beguiling way until she went in search of fresh cream to fill his dish.

“Oh a cat,” Ramona exclaimed, jumping up. “I love cats, and they love me.” She attempted to scoop up Cyril which gained her nothing save a nasty gash on her forearm. “Ouch. It scratched me.”

“I certainly did,” Cyril bellowed. “And I will again if you go grabbing at me.”

“Why is it hissing?” Ramona sounded aggrieved.

“Because it has no manners,” Augustus replied, mouth half-full of food.

“And furthermore I’m not an ‘it’.” Cyril gave his bushed tail a good shake and glared first at Ramona, then at Augustus.

“The dog barked.” Ramona clapped her hands. “It’s like they understood each other.”

“They do.” Sir Dathan gave his mustache a tug. “They argue a lot. Quite funny, actually.”

Ramona’s mouth formed an O, then she giggled. “You’re putting me on.”

Nigel favored her with a rare smile, which was not lost on Augustus. “It’s true. Not a joke at all.”

She sighed. “I’m so exhausted it sounded to me like you said you understand animal growls and hisses.” She turned to Cook. “Would it be possible for me to take a bath? Perhaps be given a place to sleep tonight?”

“But of course, dearie. You look done in.” Cook took her arm and the two left.

Augustus watched Nigel’s eyes follow Ramona. He also noted his master’s dreamy expression and the way Nigel allowed Sir Dathan to ramble on about the old days when the castle always had visitors. Nigel didn’t answer. But nor did he roll his eyes and turn away.

Cyril had gone to sleep near the fireplace. Once in a while a whisker twitched, but that was it.

            Augustus was glad when Sir Dathan wound down and the three of them trooped off to bed. After seeing the prince lie down, Augustus went to his pallet. He turned around three times, as all well-bred dogs do, settled down with his nose between his paws, and drifted off to sleep.

           

            It was the blinding light that woke Augustus. He blinked. In the center of that brightness stood a large dog. Every hair on Augustus’ body bristled. He tried to stand. He tried to bark. Neither happened. What was this?

            The intruder canine shook his massive coat. “Always a bit hard. Coming through like this. But no matter. Had to be done.”

            “Why can’t I move?” Augustus had found his voice.

            “Not to worry. I need you immobile.”

            “Am I dreaming?”

            The other dog twitched its nose. “No. I’m real enough, I’m your fairy dog father.”

            Augustus stared. “Now I know I’m dreaming. There’s no such thing.”

            “No time to quibble about what’s real and what isn’t. I can’t stay long so listen carefully.” He nodded toward Nigel who was sleeping on his back with his mouth open, not looking particularly princely. “That one’s clinically depressed. I’m sure that hasn’t escaped your attention.”

            “Clinically what?”

“Foolish of me. Of course you wouldn’t understand that term, stuck here in the back of nowhere. Quite simply put, your prince is sad. He’s stopped believing anything good can happen. You must get that young woman to stay around a bit. It’s the first time he’s shown interest in anything for far too long.”

            “How can I do that?”

            “I’ll help with the weather, maybe a little magic, but not indefinitely. So get cracking. I must go now.”

            The apparition began fading, and Augustus rose to all four feet. “Please. If you’re really my fairy dog father, give me a clue.”

            The apparition glowed a bit brighter. “I might just be your subconscious.”

            Augustus sprang forward. “What? I don’t understand.”

            “There’s that backward thing again.” The apparition blinked out with a “Just kidding. I’m real.”

           

The next thing Augustus knew it was morning, and the room was empty. He shook himself. Stretched into a downward dog. Then he hustled down to the kitchen only to be met at the door by Cook.

            “Walk first, then breakfast. And make sure you go. It’s raining, but you be sure to take care of business.”

            Augustus sighed. It was pointless to argue with the old woman so he did as told. He found Cyril standing just inside the castle doorway and looking out. The cat smirked. “It’s good to be me. I have indoor facilities.”

            Augustus’ dream, or whatever it had been, came back to him. He also remembered Cyril’s behavior the night before. He glared at the cat. “You be nice to Ramona today.”

            The cat gave an infuriating slow blink. “Why ever would I want to do that?”

            “Because Prince Nigel likes her and he hasn’t liked anything much for too long.”

            “Not my problem, pup.”

            “I’ll make it your problem. Consider this a warning.”

            Cyril sneered. “I’m shaking in my boots.”

            “You will be,” Augustus passed the cat, giving its behind a good sniff, something he knew Cyril loathed.

            When he came back in, he delayed shaking the water off his fur. He found the humans all pushing their cornmeal mush around on their plates. Both Nigel and Ramona stared out at the wet, grey sky. Augustus casually strolled over to where Cyril was finishing off a bowl of minced fish. He shook his dripping fur all over the cat.

            Cyril jumped. “Watch it.”

            “Be nice to the girl.”

            “I will not, you filthy cur.”

            “Then that’s just the beginning.” Augustus went to his own bowl and began wolfing down his breakfast.

            Ramona sneezed delicately, “I had planned to start for home today.”

            “You can’t leave in this storm,” Cook protested.

            “I know.” She looked at Cyril who was now scrubbing up. “He’s such a beautiful animal. I wish he would let me pet him. I can’t have a cat. Not in my apartment.”

            “What’s an apartment?” asked Nigel.

            “It’s a building that gets divided into small living places.”

            “We have lots of room here.” Sir Dathan spoke, and Nigel echoed him. “More than we need.”

            “But it’s so…..”

            “Dingy? Old fashioned? Boring?” With that, Nigel flung himself away from the table and stalked off.

            “Oh dear, did I hurt his feelings?”

            Sir Dathan sighed. “Yes. But that’s easy these days.” He stood. “Would you like a tour of the castle?”

            “Why not,” Ramona agreed.

            Augustus waited until they had left and Cook stepped out to gather eggs from the henhouse, before he tiptoed over to where Cyril had curled up in front of the fire. He flung himself on the sleeping cat, and very carefully pinning down its deadly claws, began to quickly wash Cyril’s s fur with huge wet slurps.

            “Mmmmmrrrrrow Cyril came awake and thrashed about but was unable to escape the dog’s giant slobbering tongue. “Help,” he screeched. “Stop!”

            Augustus sprang back and Cyril came at him. The dog slapped him back with a huge paw. “Be nice to Ramona.”

            “Why should I?” The cat shook himself, but his wet fur, plastered with dog saliva, didn’t move much. “You’ve done your worst.”

            “I haven’t even begun to do my worst.”

            The cat eyed him malevolently. “Say I’m convinced. What do I have to do?”

            “You play up to her like you do Cook when you want something. You let her pick you up and cuddle you.”

            “Okay. Just no more baths.” The cat grimaced.

            “Deal.” Augustus told him. “But you have to make her want to stay.”

 

            After Cyril’s pink tongue had done its work and his fur once again ran in the right directions, Augustus reminded him it was almost time for the midday meal. He had best prepare himself for cuteness.

            Sir Dathan arrived first, gave a shudder when he saw the greasy beef and vegetables on his plate, and tentatively pushed them around with his knife. Next Ramona entered, trailed by the prince. Before she could sit down, Cyril walked over and wound himself around her ankles.

            Her eyebrows rose. “Now, you’re going to be friendly?”

            “Yes. Pretty lady.”

            “That’s funny.” She sat down and Cyril leapt into her lap.

            “What’s funny?” asked Nigel.

            Ramona scratched Cyril’s ears. “It almost sounded to me as if this cat said ‘pretty lady’.”

            That brought Augustus up short. Was this the promised magic? Ramona understanding Cyril?”

            “He did say that,” the prince replied.

            “He’s not given to complements,” added Cook.

            “You’re all such jokesters.” Augustus felt though that Ramona sounded less insistent than she had the night before. She stroked Cyril’s fur. “You poor thing. You’re damp. Have you been out in the rain?”

            Cyril gave Augustus the evil eye, but he stayed on Ramona’s lap and let her pull him to her bosom. “I do wish I could take you with me, sweet cat.”

            “Must you go?” the prince asked. “You could live here. We’ve plenty of room, and that cat has never been so nice to anyone before.”

            “I suppose there’s no big hurry, but I need to get word to my family.” Ramona turned to Cook. “If I’m going to stay, I must help. How about you take the afternoon off, and Nigel and I make dinner?”

            “I’m in,” Nigel echoed.

 

            Dinner was lovely. A chicken pie with a nice Red wine which Sir Dathan had been saving for a special occasion. Nigel and Ramona did most of the talking, and Augustus noticed some hand holding under the table.

Later that evening, in checking on the household before he bedded down, the dog found Cyril snuggled up on Ramona’s bed. “It’s just for tonight,” but the canine thought Cyril’s hiss lacked conviction.

Augustus drifted off to sleep listening to Nigel animatedly discussing with Sir Dathan Ramona’s idea about turning the castle into a Bed and Breakfast.

            And so, with a few false starts, the good times returned. Cook retired, and Ramona found an excellent chef. They all lived happily ever after. Even Cyril.