Splinter: The Cards of Fortunate Destiny

The Cards of Fortunate Destiny
by Sharon Lee
©2003 by Sharon Lee

Chapter One

He dreamt of cards – he often did so now, though he had little enough to do with such things, waking, nor ever had.

The cards he dreamt were no mere lordling’s favored gambling deck, painted and illuminated by the skilled hand of the court’s current darling. Nay, these – these cards were …alive…. aware. As if each scene were a window cut into a living world, each different, alluring – each dangerous, as the world is, dangerous; each realized in fey perfection.

In the dream, he saw the deck, and saw each card in the deck. He saw – ah, no, he felt – their beauty, and their treachery, seductive in equal measure. His hands ached to hold them, each and all – to fondle them, to deal them out into patterns wonderful and daring.

Powerful. Aye, they were powerful, those cards, and he cursed their unknown fool of a maker even as they drew him, unwilling, deeper into their influence.

He took a step – only one. The air was lighter, crisp with promise, and he could hear music, and sweet silken voices, calling him – calling his name.

He was at once moved and horrified. Such a work was not for the likes of him, and well he knew it.

Just as he knew that he would, in only a heartbeat, put forth his hand – his coarse, unjewelled, and sun-browned hand – he would, O, yes, he would.

He would pick them up.

And he would change the world.

* * *

Chapter Two

Baltimore in mid-July, Sarah thought, humping her backpack into a more comfortable – scratch that – into a less irritating position on her back. I must be nuts.

She wasn’t of course – nuts. What she was, was broke, and here in Baltimore, the unlamented city of her birth, there was a job. Not only a job, but a job in her field; a job for which someone had been willing to hire her despite the breath of scandal, a job the performance of which would net her actual money – or a reasonable facsimile of actual money, and, more importantly, real-world, resume-building experience.

That it was not exactly to her taste to pursue work in her chosen field in the hot and humid deeps of a city, was – just too bad.

Who died and left you Queen of the Universe? Aunt Bett’s sardonic and oft-asked question rose from the back of her brain, and, unwillingly, she grinned.

If I was the Queen of the Universe, Aunt Bett, you better believe I’d make some changes…

Her grin faded. Foremost among those changes would be the resurrection of Betty Anne Demchek, killed by a hit-and-run driver. Aunt Bett had loved the city, but the city didn’t care about love. Sarah had loved the feisty and sarcastic woman who had raised her – but the city cared even less about Sarah than it did about love.

Back atcha, City….

She sighed and hiked the pack again, grumbling at herself for a bad placement. All those years in the mountains, chasing after wolves, you’d think she’d have the knack of balancing a pack.

The light went from green to red as she approached the corner of Mulberry Street, and the Don’t Walk signal blazed bright orange in the thick, humid air.

Six more blocks, Sarah consoled herself, glancing at her watch. Just past two. Plenty of time to make the three o’clock meeting with her new boss.

She sighed and looked up, watching the mid-afternoon traffic grumble irritably by.

The light changed and the blue Pontiac obediently stopped across the intersection. Sarah shifted forward – and shifted back.

A dark green Cadillac, moving ‘way too fast for summer city streets, flashed around the stopped Pontiac, and whipped through the intersection, narrowly missing the Volkswagen which had begun its legal turn into Mulberry. The Volksie’s driver hit the brakes, raw shock on his face. The Cadillac, its driver invisible behind heavily smoked windows, never slowed down.

Sarah leaned out, cautiously, from the curb, and watched the Caddy, speed undiminished, racing toward the knot of traffic stopped at the next light down. Just when it seemed it would rear-end the last car in line, it cut across two lanes and disappeared into the entrance of an underground parking lot.

The Volkswagen was hesitating, its driver clearly visible, and looking somewhat shaken. He raised a dark hand and waved her on. Sarah nodded and jogged across the street, ignoring the swing of the pack.

Gaining the opposite sidewalk, she slowed to a walk, took a long hard breath and pushed it all out in a rush.

Idiot, she thought at the Caddy’s invisible driver, and sighed. The mountains had taught her to use all her senses and to listen to her hunches. Aunt Bett might – and did – poo-poo the family talents, but Sarah knew that those very talents had more than once saved her from a tight spot – or worse – during her wilderness treks.

ESP, indeed, Aunt Bett grumped from memory. Her niece shook her head, hitched the pack up and resumed her walk.

If I was Queen of the Universe, she thought. I’d outlaw idiots.

Uh-huh, she answered herself. Then who would do the profs’ work for them?

Which thought unfortunately led to another thing she’d change, as soon as the scepter was in her hand. She made a mental note to call Sue James this evening, to see how …everything… was coming along.

#

The offices of the Elsphet P. Mason Feral Feline Relief Project were on Hollins Street, a painfully tidy rowhouse in the so-called “Italianate” style that had been all the rage among the wealthy of the last century, with six white marble steps leading up to a white wooden door, shaded by the combined efforts of two drooping crab apple trees.

A blue-and-gold sign, inscribed with the organization’s name and office hours was affixed to the brick wall. A smaller, humbler sign below directed the attention of visitors to the intercom button in the door frame.

Sarah pushed the button, and listened to the device crackle and wheeze. When several minutes had passed and no voice had emerged from the speaker, asking her name and business, she released the button, frowned at the signs and reached for the knob.

The door was locked, which was only common sense. But still…

She glanced down at her wrist – she was on time, just. She pushed the intercom button again.

Crackle and wheeze. Wheeze and crackle.

An unsettling thought crossed Sarah’s mind. Biting her lip, she reached into her back jeans pocket and pulled out a much-folded piece of paper. If she’d gotten the wrong address –

She unfolded the paper, revealing the blue-and-gold letterhead with the graphic of the cute kitty stretched comfortably out over the words “feral feline,” scanned past the salutation and the obligatory “delighted-to-have-you-on-board” to the paragraph requiring her presence at an orientation interview with Project Director Elaine Norbertson at 3 p.m. on July 24 at the Center’s offices at 1524 Hollins Street, Baltimore, Maryland.

Sarah closed her eyes in relief. She hadn’t made an idiot mistake. Yet. But it looked like her boss had forgotten about her.

For the third time, she had recourse to the intercom, netting the same results, and stepped back from the door, frowning. There was a phone number on the letterhead, too. Sarah reached ’round and fingered her basic Nokia candy-bar out of the pack’s zippered side pocket.

Carefully, she punched in the number, hit ‘send’ – and listened to the phone on the other end ring empty – three, five, eight times, before she thumbed ‘end’ and turned the little phone off.

“Well, how ’bout that?” she muttered, tucking the phone away. “Your boss stood you up.” Awkwardly, she tugged on the pocket’s zipper, inching it closed. “How come no answering machine, I wonder?”

She bit her lip, considering what she ought to do now. Glenda Speil, the friend responsible for getting her the interview that had resulted in her landing the job – if you still have a job, her mind offered, helpfully – was expecting to meet her in the lobby of the Radisson at six, after which the two of them would grab something to eat and repair to Glenda’s apartment, where Sarah had leave to spread her sleeping bag on the living room floor until she had a paycheck and could rent her own place.

“Dammit,” she said, softly, watching the paycheck flutter away in her mind’s eye. Well.

Shoulders sagging slightly under the pack, she turned and started down the marble steps, eyes pointed down. Somebody had taken care of the steps – they glowed a creamy white, as if they’d been scrubbed that very morning. The sight of them woke an unexpected and curiously painful stab of homesickness.

Her feet hit the brick walk, and she paused, wondering what to do now. It was cooler in the thin shade of the crab apples, and a soft breeze had worked its way over from Union Square park, across the street.

She supposed she could take up a position in the park, or sit herself down on the marble steps to wait for her boss, or somebody else attached to the Project to show up. Might be Elaine had been called away on an emergency, or was running late at an off-site meeting, or –

“Miss! Excuse me – Miss?”

The voice was high, almost too thin to be heard through the city’s ambient growl. Sarah turned on her heel, scanning.

Two houses down, a woman stood on the top step, waving so energetically that the placement of her bright yellow tube top was in peril. Sarah looked around, deduced that she was the only “Miss” on the sidewalk and strolled down.

“Excuse me, Miss,” the woman called, “but are you the girl come about the job with the cats?”

Sarah stopped at the bottom of the stairs and looked up. Her interlocutor wore tight blue short-shorts, the tube, and a pair of hot pink platform sandals. She looked every day of eighteen – certainly in no position to address an established woman ten years her senior as “girl.” On the other hand – Baltimore, Sarah remembered, and dredged up a slightly wry grin.

“That’d be me. Sarah Butler’s my name.”

“Pleased to meet you,” the young woman said politely. “I’m Latasha Moore. Miz Norberton, she had to leave town? She asked me to hold the key and watch out for the young lady who was comin’ for the job.”

Had to leave town? Sarah frowned –

“I know it seems rude,” Latasha said, soothingly, “and she said I was to make sure to express her apologies.” She nodded and proceeded to do just that. “Miz Norberton’s a real nice lady, Miss Butler, and she wouldn’t’ve left you hangin’ like this if she could’ve had a choice. You hold on just one minute and let me get you that key.”

She vanished into the house. Sarah sighed and shrugged her pack up.

Latasha appeared at the door, keychain dangling from her hand, and came down the steps, awkward on the high shoes.

“Here you are.” She held out the chain – silver, with three keys dependent, and a gilt cat charm.

“Thanks.” The keys were cool in her hot palm. “I appreciate it.”

Sarah hesitated, because she didn’t like to gossip – another bad trait in a hopeful doctoral student – and then said, delicately, “I hope Ms. Norberton’s problem wasn’t too serious?”

Latasha, it appeared, had been waiting for just such a question. Her narrow face lit and her big brown eyes widened.

“Would you believe, here’s Miz Norberton just living her life and working hard like she does, and then she gets this letter from a man she knew, I dunno – a long time ago, back when she was a girl. And he’s got cancer and he wants to make it right between them, being as they didn’t part on terms. And Miz Norberton, she figures she got to go, and help ease his mind, see? So she went right out to California, like that.” Latasha snapped her fingers, then sighed. “Romantic, kind of, isn’t it?”

“Kind of,” Sarah agreed, as sincerely as a prosaic and unromantical soul allowed. “Did she say when she’d be back?”

“Didn’t think she’d been gone more’n a couple days,” Latasha answered. “She said she left you a letter on the desk – and a schedule, and all.”

“Well, then I guess I better go over and she what she has to say to me.” Sarah grinned and held out her hand. “Thanks, Latasha.”

The girl put a cool, slim hand into hers and gave her a firm shake. “No problem at all. You need anything, you just come on down. I’m almost always home.”

“Thanks,” Sarah said again, hitched the pack up and turned back up the street.

She went up the scrubbed white steps, inspected the keys and chose the most likely. It slid into the keyhole, turned easily – and the lock went over with a satisfying snap. Withdrawing the key, she turned the knob, and pushed the door open. Relief washed over her, making her momentarily dizzy. She paused on the threshold and looked down the street.

Latasha waved jauntily to her, then stepped into her house, door closing firmly behind her.

Sarah sighed, and stepped inside, sliding the keychain into her jeans pocket. She closed the door, twisted the lock shut, and stood in the cool dim foyer for a moment or two, eyes closed, listening to the house.

She heard the distant hum of an air conditioner – in back or upstairs, maybe – and the muted voice of the city through the door behind her. The smells were dust, and paper, toner and plastic.

It had the feel, to those senses which her aunt had ridiculed, and the deep woods had taught her to depend upon, of a place more often empty than peopled – and positively, absolutely, mournfully abandoned at the moment.

Sarah sighed out the breath she had been holding, opened her eyes and looked around.

The foyer was large enough to accommodate a small clothes tree, currently supporting a black umbrella, a plastic rain hat and a pink sweater. A framed mirror hung behind it and to the right. It gave back a dim reflection of a wiry woman with a wilderness pack on her back, her hair cut sensibly short. Sarah turned away.

To her immediate right, an oak staircase rose sternly to the upper floor. Directly before her, the foyer narrowed into a dim hallway, with a glow at the very end, which Sarah guessed would be sunlight coming in the kitchen window.

She hesitated, wondering if the main office were down the hallway, or in one of the rooms that must be off the hall –

A phone rang, loud and shocking.

Sarah jumped. The phone rang again – upstairs, that was – she leapt up the staircase, the pack dragging at her shoulders.

The phone rang twice more before she hit the landing and paused, head cocked.

Fourth ring, and she had it located – rushed down the hall to the first door, turned in, hand slapping the empty wall were the light switch should have been, and continuing into the dark room, swearing absent-mindedly when her knee hit a hard surface.

The phone rang again; she could see the illuminated face-plate flashing, and moved cautiously to the desk, got her hand on the receiver and picked it up.

“Feline Research Center,” she said, trying not to sound breathless, “Sarah Butler speaking.”

The line hummed empty.

“Damn.” She cradled the phone, decided that the larger edifice to one side was a desk lamp and groped around the base until she found the switch and pressed it.

Light puddled on the desk top, illuminating a manilla folder with her name over-ornately handwritten in electric pink ink. Other forms took shape from the nearer desk shadows – the phone, electronic, with a built-in digital answering machine, message light blinking frantically, a panicked “voice mail FULL” displayed on the screen – a fake wood-grain stapler, a tape dispenser, a clear plastic box of pop-up sticky notes in electric shades of blue, green, yellow, and pink, a lopsided pottery tea cup filled with paperclips, a scattering of ballpoint pens in various colors. Further out, the shadows still shrouded the room’s realities, though she thought she made out the tall form of a bookshelf against the back wall, and the gnomish huddle of a computer screen, on a table against the right wall.

“Well, she can’t have spent all her time in the dark,” Sarah grumbled aloud and went back to the door way, finally locating the missing light switch on the wrong side of the door and set somewhat lower than she considered normal. Sighing, she flicked the switch up, and flourescent ceiling lights hummed loudly to life.

“Better,” she approved, and, careful of her back and shoulders, slipped the pack down and off, sighing hugely.

Much better.”

She leaned the pack against the wall by the door, pulled the water bottle out of its pocket, went back to the desk, spun out the chair and sat down with a heartfelt sigh.

There was a yellow mini-legal pad by the phone. Sarah pulled it to her, frowned at the clutter of varicolored ballpoints and chose a slightly-less-than-electric blue. Reaching across the desk, she pushed the answering machine’s ‘play’ button.

“Hi, Elaine!” came a perky feminine voice. “It’s Julie. Are we still on for lunch tomorrow? Let me know!”

The date-stamp was two o’clock yesterday afternoon, so presumably Julie knew by now that Elaine hadn’t met her for lunch. Sarah wrote the name down on the pad.

“Good afternoon, Ms. Norberton,” this was a male voice, formal and, to Sarah’s ear, more than a little annoyed. “This is Gerald Pickersgill. You were to have met me in my office today at three-forty-five to discuss the proper …arrangements… for the wild felines who are occupying my property on Stricker Street. It is now four-twenty-five and you have neither arrived nor called, by which I gather that you have experienced another ’emergency.’ I will remind you that I plan to be beginning extensive renovations of my property within the next three weeks and if your agency has not made good on your promise to relocate those …animals… by the time we are ready to begin, we will employ other measures. Please call me back at your earliest convenience.” The receiver went down hard.

Sarah scribbled, teeth indenting her lower lip. ‘Pickersgill’ sounded not at all familiar, but she was way out of touch with the Who’s Who of Baltimore businessfolk – she’d have to ask Glenda. Whoever he was, he certainly sounded angry. He hadn’t left a number; she hoped she’d find it in the Rolodex, but first –

“Hello?” This voice was elderly, and uncertain. “Hello? Must be a tape… My name’s Ernestine Brown. I’m up here on Lemmon and I been feedin’ some of them little fellars been livin’ behind the Dumpster? Just a little cat food and some water and all. Anyways, my sister says there’s a program to fix ’em so they won’t have kittens, and I’m wondering if you can give me a hand with that? I’m at six-eight-five-nine-two-six-five. Call anytime. Thank you.”

Date stamp on that one was eight o’clock this morning.

The next two calls were junk calls – one promising cheap long-distance rates and another announcing that Elaine Norberton was the winner of a two-week vacation in Disney World. Sarah didn’t bother writing either of those down.

The last recorded word faded, the machine emitted a series of beeps, and subsided into silence, message waiting light flashing. Sarah frowned at the keypad, found the delete button and pushed it to clear the cache.

Pickersgill ought to be dealt with, she thought. A quick call, an apology and an explanation… She bit her lip. The man had sounded angry – justly so, if this wasn’t the first time Elaine had stood him up – and none too fond of cats.

Better find the file first, before you explode something, Butler….

Wake up,” she said loudly, then, pushing the pad aside. “There’s a file right here.”

She had a swallow of warm water from her bottle, made a face, and flipped open the folder.

#

Whatever else Elaine Norberton might be, she had an extremely orderly mind. The contents of the file were a letter addressed to Sarah, regretting the emergency which had called Elaine away, a status-sheet, on which the meeting with G. Pickersgill was noted, with a red line drawn through it; a list of files for immediate review, including one for Pickersgill Development; a separate list of computer passcodes, and a number ten envelope inscribed with her name in the same over-ornate electric pink handwriting.

First things first. List in hand, Sarah raided the five-drawer file cabinet in the back of the office, brought her booty back to the desk, pulled out the alarmingly thick Pickersgill Development file, and quickly become immersed.

Explosive didn’t begin to describe the situation. Pickersgill Development had purchased a surplused museum on the Stricker Street side of Union Square, with the intention of turning it into upscale condominiums. They had paid a fair price for the property and the city wished them well in their project.

Unfortunately, a colony of feral cats – specifically the Feral Feline Study Project, affiliated with Stanford University, and the reason that Sarah had been hired – was established on Hob Alley, a one-block sin against city planning. The colony occupied a vacant lot and the remains of an old warehouse. Pickersgill Development’s recent acquisition overlooked, and its garden gate opened directly onto, the alley. Mr. Gerald Pickersgill had taken it into his head that the cats were bad for business, and he wanted them gone.

The file held copies of correspondence between Pickersgill and Elaine Norberton, and notes of a meeting held at the property. That the colony had been stable for a dozen years, that it was part of an on-going nationwide study, that cats did not commute hideous diseases to humans – these facts fell on deaf ears.

Nowhere in the files was a promise from the Feral Feline Relief Project to relocate the colony, though Pickersgill had demanded that this be done, twice. Clearly, Mr. Pickersgill had no idea of the slim success rate of feral colonies relocation – and cared even less. Sarah’s sympathy for the angry caller began to evaporate.

A week ago, Elaine Norberton had contacted Monumental City Works, a co-op of lawyers who donated their expertise to non-profits, and met with one Jeremy Fine. Mr. Fine had promised a preliminary report before yesterday’s scheduled meeting with Pickersgill, but if it had arrived, it wasn’t in the file.

Sighing, Sarah turned the last page, closed the file and leaned back in the chair. God, what a mess. You have a Gift, Butler.

Closing her eyes, she recalled her interview with Elaine – “I’ll need someone who can jump right in and learn on the run…”

Right.

First order of business, she thought, was to call this Jeremy Fine and get the legal scoop. Mr. Pickersgill could sit on the back burner and fume a little while longer. If the man was prone to misrepresenting his facts, then he could wait until she had her own set in order.

“Arrrgh,” she said, matter-of-factly, and opened her eyes.

Jeremy Fine’s number was in the folder; she riffled the pages with one hand and reached across the desk, groping for the phone.

Her hand connected with the receiver just as she found the right page, and she punched the number in, listening to the phone on the other end ring.

“Monumental City Works!” a man’s voice told her cheerfully. “Our office is staffed from nine to four Monday through Friday. Please leave a message after the tone and someone will call you back during office hours.”

Office hours? Startled, Sarah looked down at her wrist – Oh, he –

A tone sounded in her ear, calling her attention back to the phone. She cleared her throat.

“My name’s Sarah Butler. I’m filling in for Elaine Norberton at the Mason Feral Feline Relief Project. I’d appreciate it if Jeremy Fine would call me at his earliest convenience to fill me in about the Pickersgill situation. The number’s six-eight-five-three-two-nine-nine. Thanks.”

She cradled the phone briefly, then dialed Glenda’s cell.

Tinny trills sounded, then a break and a breathless, “You better be dead, Butler, because if you’re not, I’m going to kill you.”

“How’d you know it was me?” Sarah asked, with real curiosity.

“Who else would it be?” Glenda returned logically. “I’m at the Radisson. It’s six-forty-five. It’s raining cats and dogs. I’m starving. Until seconds ago, I was worried out of my mind. Anything you’d like to say here?”

“I’m sorry I worried you, Glen.”

“Sure you are. Like you were sorry to worry me when you were in Montana, running with the wolves.”

“That was my job,” Sarah pointed out, with a grin for the well-worn dialogue. “You had a job.”

“Right here at home I had a job. I was safe.”

“Uh-huh.” Robbed twice at knife-point. The wolves never gave anybody that kind of grief.

“Listen, Glen, I really am sorry, but the weirdest thing – I showed up for the first day here at the cathouse and my boss is gone.”

“Gone? Like, she quit?”

“Gone, like, she had some personal business and left to take care of it. Back in a week, I guess. In the meantime, though, there’s the damnedest mess. I got caught up reading the background and lost track of the time.”

“This story sounds familiar to me – especially the mess. Have we done this before?”

“We did something similar a couple months ago,” Sarah told her. “This one’s new, though – it has cats, and a guy name Gerald Pickersgill – ”

“Gerald Pickersgill?” Glenda interrupted, suddenly and rock-bottom serious. “Am I hearing Gerald Pickersgill, the development guy?”

“That’d be him.”

“Butler, you have a Gift. Listen to me: Do not – that’s do not – get on the wrong side of Gerald Pickersgill. He is not a nice man. Am I getting through here, Sarah? Tell me you understand what I’m telling you.”

“I understand. Trouble is, it looks like Elaine has already gotten on his bad side, and the Project’s hired a lawyer to – ”

“Good. Excellent. Elaine is a very, very smart lady. Let the lawyer handle it – he understands lawyers, and business, and lawsuits. Especially lawsuits. Be real bad PR for him to sue the nice kitty cats. He understands about PR, too.” She paused, then added, as one being completely fair, “At least, he understands that he doesn’t want any bad PR. Not quite the same, but you can work with it.”

“I guess….”

“Listen, Butler,” her friend interrupted again. “What’re we gonna do about hooking up? The rain’s still coming down – look out the window.”

“It’s a rowhouse,” Sarah said apologetically. “Windows back and front, and I’m in a side room. I believe you, though.”

“Great. You got enough for cab fare? Or, hell – get the cab and come pick me up. We’ll go to my place and call in pizza. Deal?”

“De – Hey, hang on a sec. I might actually have a paycheck….”

“You don’t know?”

“I didn’t open it – go ahead,” she said to her friend’s stifled giggle, “laugh. I had other things to do.”

She put the phone on her shoulder and tore open the white envelope. A key fell out.

“Looks like a house key,” she said into the phone, slipping two fingers into the envelope and working out a slip of paper.

“OK – here’s a check – ” She let out a low whistle. “A month’s pay in advance.”

“Knows how to bribe someone who’s dead broke,” Glenda commented. “I like that in a woman.”

“Sure you do. And – hold it, there’s a letter.”

It was a brief letter, printed out on plain white bond:

Sarah – I understand that your circumstances are straitened and I offer you the use of the Project’s guest room on the third floor. The key is enclosed, and a check for one month’s pay. I hope to return before your next check is due.

I look forward to seeing you when I return.

Elaine

She read this out to Glenda, who was quiet for a couple of heartbeats, then said. “You really do have a Gift, Butler.”

“Yeah, I do. I just wish I could decide if it’s a good thing or a bad thing.”

“Maybe it’s just a Sarah thing,” her friend said, and sighed. “So, you got food?”

Trail mix is food, Sarah thought. “I’m fine for the night,” she said into the phone. “Tomorrow, I’ll cash my check.”

“It’s a plan. I’ll get myself home and order in that pizza. Tell me when we’re catching up in person – I want a good long look at you.”

Sarah turned her head and found the calendar on the wall. Today was Wednesday….

“Friday night? Radisson still good?”

“It’ll do for a meet-spot.” There was a slight pause. “OK, I’m outta here. You run into any trouble, you call me, Sarah. Promise.”

“I promise,” she said, sincerely, while not much believing in trouble.

“I’m gonna hold you to it,” Glenda said ominously. “Call me tomorrow night and confirm, yes?”

“I’ll call you tomorrow and confirm – yes. ‘Night Glen. I really am sorry.”

“So you’re sorry, already. Don’t let it happen again.” The phone clicked – Glenda out.

Half-smiling, Sarah cradled her the desk phone, picked up the check and looked at it. A respectable number of figures, of an appropriately high denomination. Drawn on Union Trust Bank, a branch of which she had passed on her cross-city hike. Cool.

She stood, slipped her wallet out of the back pocket of her jeans, folded the check and put it into the empty bill compartment, then picked up the key.

It was an ornate thing, with deeply notched teeth, and a thin lilac-colored ribbon threaded through the intricate iron curlicues of the bow. Sarah smiled, liking the weight and the age of it.

“Well,” she said to the office at large. “Guess I ought to see what the guest room is like.”

#

Sharon Lee & Steve Miller present rare genre moments for readers looking for a fiction fix