Mid-Month Novel Excerpt: Utterly Charming

Once per month, I’ll publish an excerpt of one of my novels, and I hope you’ll be intrigued enough to buy the rest of the book.  I began this practice in February. Unlike the free fiction I put up every Monday, the novel excerpts will remain on the site.  If you want to read the opening to the previous seven novels, click here.

This month, I’ve excerpted Utterly Charming, my most recent Kristine Grayson novel which Sourcebooks will publish in early October. The Grayson novels are marketed as romance, but in truth, they’re light fantasy.  This book is a reissue. It was first published in 2000, and won the Romantic Times Reviewers Choice Award for Best Paranormal Romance. Since paranormal romance has skewed darker in the past decade, Sourcebooks decided to leave that information off the cover copy.

I hope it will wet your appetite, not just for this book, but for my other Grayson novels as well. You’ll find ordering information at the end of this post.

Here’s the back cover copy, followed by the excerpt and the ordering information:

Bestselling author Kristine Grayson’s fairy tale romances bring the classic stories into the present day, where fairy tale characters must grapple with the complexities of modern life as well as their own destinies.

This time when Sleeping Beauty wakes up, she wants nothing to do with the man who kissed her. Consoling Alex Blackstone, the rejected suitor who is a brilliant magician but inept when it comes to women, falls to modern career woman and lawyer, Nora Barr. Nora now has to deal with Beauty’s evil stepmother, and the discovery that Alex just might be her own personal Prince Charming…


Utterly Charming

Kristine Grayson

Copyright © 2011 by Kristine K. Rusch

Published by Sourcebooks

First published in 2000 by Zebra Books

 

Ten Years Ago


One

Her father used to tell her, Never lose your sense of humor, Nora. Sometimes it’s all you need.

And sometimes, it was all you had left.  She hadn’t lost everything, not yet, but she would, if she didn’t get another client, if she didn’t find a way to earn some real money fast, if she didn’t find a way to turn everything around.

Served her right for listening to her mother.  A girl needs to follow her dreams, honey.  Nora was following them.  All the way to bankruptcy.

Still, she had to laugh as she left her office on the third floor of one of Portland’s most exclusive buildings.  The lower floors rented cheap because the offices hadn’t been converted and the remodeling was shoddy.  The carpet caught and bunched in places, and the ceiling tiles looked as if they might fall down at any moment.  But that wasn’t what made her smile.

It was the fact that the travel agency two doors down had picked that very morning — the morning she had received four final, final, final! bills, the morning her landlord had called and threatened her with eviction if she didn’t pay the last two months rent, the morning her most promising client’s retainer check bounced — to decorate the hallway with beautiful 12 x 20 travel posters of exotic places that Nora would never see.  As she stepped out of her office, she found herself facing a bright blue ocean, a pristine beach, and a clearly exclusive resort in the distance.  Searching for Romance? the poster read.  Try Hawaii.

She smiled.  Romance.  She didn’t have time for romance.  Even if she could afford to go to Hawaii.

She clutched her battered briefcase to her side, and hurried toward the elevator. The upper floors of the building had an express elevator, done tastefully in polished wood and brass.  The elevator that served the first five floors was an ancient Otis with a cracked mirror that covered the walls.  Every time she stepped inside, she was startled at the girl who looked back at her.

She wasn’t a girl.  She was a twenty-five-year-old woman who had graduated with honors from the University of Oregon Law School.  She was the twenty-five-year-old crazy woman who had decided to open her own practice despite all the offers she had received from prestigious law firms around the state.  She was the twenty-five-year-old crazy and unrealistic woman who believed she could make a living in Portland, Oregon’s largest city, a city so full of experienced lawyers that no one with any sense would go to an inexperienced one, let alone one who had only recently received her J.D.

And who happened to look like the head of the high school cheerleading squad.  It wasn’t her fault that she was only five-two, petite and blond.  It wasn’t her fault that her nose turned up (“like a little ski-jump” her father used to say) or that her eyes were wide and blue, making her seem at first glance like an innocent adrift in the large, complicated world.  The only asset she had was her voice, strong and strident and able to silence a room with a single word.

Her favorite law professor had told her that she had to learn to use her appearance to her advantage.

Obviously, she hadn’t yet, not if the way she looked still surprised herself.

She got into the elevator, let the creaky doors close and leaned against the mirror’s crack.  The only reason she was going to see this client — a doctor who had more malpractice suits filed against him than any other doctor in the state, a doctor who had gone through lawyer after lawyer — was because she needed the money.  She knew it, and he knew it, which was why he could command her to come to his office instead of having him come to hers.

So much for her vaunted ethics.  So much for not handling cases she didn’t believe in.

Did all lawyers throw out morality in exchange for food?  She didn’t know.  She suspected they did, though, which was why so many elderly senior partners were fat.

To give herself credit, though, she wasn’t completely sure she was going to see him.  She was going to treat herself to a cheap lunch at the nearby all-natural low-fat Mexican food place (which was as tasty as treating herself to a sugarless ice cream cone) and she was going to decide on a full stomach.  She couldn’t make the decision in her office, not with the phone ringing, and bills piled up on her desk.

The elevator clanked its way down to the bowels of the building, which hadn’t been remodeled at all.  She never told her clients — what few of them there were — to use the parking garage because she was afraid it would scare them.  It used to scare her, until she badgered the landlord into putting in an extra bank of florescent lights.  She had been cantankerous about it too (“Women alone don’t like dark places, Stan,” she had snapped at him one afternoon), which was probably why he was pressing her so hard for the rent.  The florescent lights did banish the darkness, but they also revealed spiders the size of mice and a crumbling concrete foundation completely at odds with the BMWs and Porsches parked beside the columns.

BMWs, Porsches, and of course, her mighty steed, an ancient Rabbit that belched blue smoke every time she put it into reverse.  She parked it toward the back corner of the garage after one of the lawyers from the huge firm upstairs (the one that had tried to hire her out of law school and who had continued to belittle her dream of independence ever since) requested that she “Do Something about her car so that people knew this was a Reputable Building.”  She couldn’t Do Something about the car, but she could hide it so that the snobbish people who worked in this Reputable Building didn’t have to see the rust, dented fenders, and blue smoke.

Inside the garage, the cars were lined up like little soldiers, the most expensive closest to the express elevator, and the rest scattered throughout the remaining spots.  Despite the new lights, the place had an air of perpetual grayness, like an overcast day that kept promising, but never delivering, rain.   It also echoed like crazy, and she was glad she had taken off her high heels and stuffed them into her briefcase before coming down.  Her tennis shoes handled the concrete and the oil slicks much better, and they didn’t make it sound as if she were an army of women on mission.

But there were already people in the garage, and their voices were echoing.

“…still don’t see why you’ve dragged me here,” said the first voice.  It was low and musical and sexy.  She had always loved voices like that.  The kind that had a faint English accent, the kind that made her think that a man could seduce her without her ever seeing him, just listening to his warm mellifluous voice speaking softly in a dark room.

“You won’t find out unless you go upstairs.”  The second voice was nasal and harsh. It was the complete opposite of the voice she had first heard.

“I really don’t want to. I have a lot of other things to do, things that have nothing to do with Eals—”

“Really?” asked the second voice. “Is that why you were in Beaverton?”

“I’d heard she was there.”

“She is there, but I don’t know the exact address.  There’s all those little houses, you know, that go on like rabbit’s warrens —”

The other voice interrupted, still speaking too low for Nora to hear.  She rounded a corner, and as she did, her foot hit a loose piece of metal.  It clanged, and the sound resounded off the thick concrete walls.

A man appeared on the back of a blue 1974 Lincoln — at least, it seemed as if he had appeared.  One minute the car had been there — alone and slightly out of place — and one minute later, he was standing beside it. She would have sworn to that in a court of law.

Well, maybe not.  After all, people didn’t just appear.  She could almost hear herself cross-examining herself.  Perhaps she hadn’t noticed him in her haste to get to her car.  Perhaps —

But the hadn’t-noticed thought stopped her.  How could she not have noticed this man?  He was tall and slim with broad shoulders and narrow hips, and legs that went on forever.  He had black hair in need of a cut, gray — or were they silver? — eyes, and smooth skin the color of toffee.  His features were an odd mix of harsh angles and soft lines — an angular nose, high cheek bones, and sensitive lips — none of which should have gone together, but which did in a way that made her heart beat faster.  She couldn’t tell how old he was; his face was unblemished, but his eyes held an wisdom most young men did not have.  He wore a shimmery gray silk suit that accented his broad shoulders, and on his feet, he wore cowboy boots trimmed in real silver.

He was the most gorgeous man she had ever seen.  He literally made her stop breathing, although her heart kept beating — so hard he could probably hear it.  Color rushed to her cheeks, and she almost put her hands to them, until she realized it would draw attention.  He would think her an actual cheerleader, blushing and stammering and completely out of her league.

The man turned, saw her, and his eyes met hers, holding her.  She had never felt such intensity in a man’s gaze before.  He tilted his head slightly, as if in recognition, and she nodded back.

It took her a moment to notice the snake he held in his left hand.  In fact, she probably wouldn’t have noticed if the creature hadn’t turned toward her, and hissed.

“Who’s that?” the nasal voice asked.  She couldn’t see where it came from.

The man smiled at her, a small apologetic smile, as if to say that he had more manners than his nasal-voiced friend.  “Probably someone on the way to her car.”

He was the one with the beautiful voice.  It suited him, so rich and warm, deep and smooth. She had been right.  It was a musician’s voice.

“Oops,” the nasal voice responded, and suddenly a tiny man stood on the Lincoln’s bumper. Nora would have used the word “appeared” to describe him too, but she didn’t want to. That meant that he had been invisible one moment and visible the next. People didn’t simply pop in.  And people who saw people pop in, well, they were considered crazy.

The little guy grinned at her.  He was perfectly proportioned, square with a pugnacious face, a chin that curved outward and a nose that obviously had been broken several times.  He wore dark blue jeans and a T-shirt with a pack of cigarettes rolled up in the sleeves.

He raised his eyebrows, making him look like the inspiration for Puck from A Midsummer’s Night Dream.  “It’d be nice to have a woman,” he said, ruining the image.

She shook herself.  What had she expected?  Him to leap on the back of the car and intone, What fools these mortals be?

His companion rolled his eyes, almost as if he’d heard Nora’s thoughts.  Then she realized he was responding to the little man. “Things are different now,” he said.  “You can’t just have any woman.”

His gaze remained on Nora’s, his silver eyes sparkling as if he knew that she understood the joke.

She didn’t.

“Excuse me,” she said, and shifted her briefcase again. The thing weighed more than a small child.  She walked toward the Lincoln, not really sure if she wanted the attention of these two men. The tall one was spectacular, but his friend was unnerving.  Still, she had to go by them to get to her car.

The snake wrapped itself around the tall man’s wrist.

The little man watched.  So did the tall one.  In fact, he didn’t seem willing to take his gaze off her.  She wasn’t really willing to take her gaze off him, but she did, just to prove to herself that she could do it.  Besides, that blush had moved from her cheeks into her neck and down her fake silk blouse.  She probably looked like a little blond tomato.

She was just past the car when the little man scurried in front of her.  She stopped.  He moved quickly.  If she tried to go around, he would get in front of her again.  She didn’t like this game (although she might have if his friend had been playing it).

“Who are you?” the little man asked.

She had had enough.  She rose to her full five feet two inches, and said, “My name is Nora Barr.  I’m a lawyer.”

She added that last so that they wouldn’t mess with her.

The tall man raised his eyebrows and looked at the little man. The little man shrugged.  “Told you we needed a woman,” he said.  Then he grinned.  It looked like a triumphant grin.  “And I had a hunch we’d find one here.”

***

It wasn’t that hard for them to talk her out of lunch.  They needed an attorney, they claimed, and they had money to burn.  Actually, the little guy said that and the gorgeous guy shushed him, but the little guy said that Nora needed to know that, which she did. It allowed her to forget the malpractice doctor, and to hang onto her ethics for at least one more day.

Besides, she wasn’t really going to sell out for a single retainer, was she?

She didn’t want to think about that question.

Instead, she found herself daydreaming about the gorgeous man as they rode the elevator to her floor.  He was even better looking up close and he smelled wonderful, a mixture of leather and something intoxicating, something exotic.  She took several deep breaths and would have continued until she saw the little guy staring at her with that knowing grin on his face.

“Feeling faint?” he asked.

“Just practicing my calming techniques,” she said.  “I have a hunch I’ll need them.”

The tall man laughed, a deep pleasant sound.  “She’s got you pegged,” he said to his companion.

“It wasn’t hard,” she said, as the elevator doors creaked open.

The travel agency had added some potted palm trees to the foyer, such as it was, and so cramped the space that Nora and her would-be clients had to file out of the elevator one at a time.  She had to admit that the travel posters gave the corridor a professional appearance which dissipated, of course, the moment she opened her office door.

Ruthie, her secretary, was sitting at the old metal desk, the telephone plastered to her ear.  Several law books sat on the edge of the wall-to-wall bookshelves, waiting to be refiled.  Four separate files were open before her, and behind her, the cursor on the old PC screen blinked orange.  When she saw Nora, she murmured an excuse into the phone and hung up.

“When does Bryan go back to work?” Nora asked, knowing the others hadn’t quite gotten to the door yet.  She wanted Ruthie to be as professional as Ruthie could be when they arrived, and usually Nora had to knock Ruthie off-balance to make that happen.

Ruthie swallowed.  “He — ah — doesn’t.  He wants to be a househusband.”

“I thought you don’t have children.”

“We don’t, not yet. But he says with my salary, and his planning, we could do real well.”

If Ruthie continued to get her salary. She was the only one who got paid regularly around here, and that probably wouldn’t be happening for much longer.

The men had appeared in the door behind her. Nora could tell from Ruthie’s gape-mouthed stare. She was looking up of course, and behind Nora the tall man chuckled softly.

For some reason, that small chuckle annoyed Nora almost as much as Ruthie’s stare did.  “Clients,” Nora said, and marched through the door into her office.

It was the larger of the two rooms, and it actually had a window, even though the view was of the roof of the building next door.  Her desk was hand-carved oak, a gift from her father when she graduated from law school, given to her a few weeks before he died.  She kept it highly polished and spotless.  Everything had its place, from the phone to the blotter to current cases (all three of them).  Two mismatched chairs sat in front of the desk, and to the side, next to the small file room, was a ratty blue couch.

Certainly not the office of a prosperous attorney.  But they probably knew that from the parking garage. She was willing to bet that the little man had her in mind from the very start.  He had said something about going upstairs in the parking garage, before he had known she was there.

So they wanted an inexperienced attorney. That almost made them suspect.  In fact, it would have made all of her clients suspect if it weren’t for the fact that her last name began with “B” and was listed as the fifth attorney in the Yellow Pages.  (And she was the first whose ad claimed reasonable rates.)

She slid around the desk and into the plush brown chair she had found at an estate sale.  The men had followed her inside.  The tall one was looking at her degrees, prominently displayed on the walls.  The short one was staring up at the chairs with something like dismay.

“Have a seat,” she said, somewhat perversely.  She knew the little man would have trouble getting into the chair, and she didn’t really care, not after his introductory remarks.  The little man put his hands on the seat, and boosted himself up.  Then he settled in, looking for all the world like a particularly ugly child.  His stubby legs extended over the seat and didn’t pretend to try for the ground.  Like a little boy, he put his hands on the armrests as if he were trying to hold himself in place.

The other man left her degrees, and slid into the remaining chair as if it had been built for him.  He pushed the chair back so that he could extend his long legs.  His booted feet hit the edge of her desk, rattling it.  The snake had disappeared, probably hiding in his suit.  The jacket was open, revealing a white shirt of the same material.  He folded his elegant, ringless hands over his flat stomach and watched her with those sharp silver eyes.

That fluttery feeling was back. Was it ethical to have a client who attracted her like this, just from the way he looked?

Probably not.  Although it was more ethical than working for the malpractice doctor.  Of that she was convinced.

“All right,” she said, leaning forward and folding her own hands into what she hoped was a business-like position.  “What can I do for you?”

To her surprise, the little man answered.  “Can you have someone tested for a witch?”

“That never worked,” the other man said.

“Exactly,” the little man said.

Nora leaned back.  Whatever she had expected, it hadn’t been this.

“If she can’t be tested for a witch,” the little man said, “perhaps tarred and feathered —?”

“Wrong century.”

“Hung from a tree until she’s dead?”

“Wrong century.”

“Boiled in oil?”

“You know no one did that.”

Nora sighed.  “Gentlemen, please.  You only get one free hour before I must begin to charge you, so unless there’s a realistic way I can help you —”

“I’m sorry.”  The tall man smiled faintly again.  She wondered how powerful his smile would be at full wattage.  On low, it was pretty strong stuff.  She fought the urge to smile back.  “I get so preoccupied that I forget the rest of the world doesn’t work the way I do.”  He stood just enough so that he could extend his hand.  “I’m Blackstone.”

She looked at the hand with its long fingers, and did not take it.  She was afraid that if she did, she wouldn’t let it go.  Instead, she said with just a trace of sarcasm in her voice, “The Blackstone?”

“Well, actually, yes, but not the one you’re thinking of.  He, in fact, was the impostor, but that’s a long story which ended rather nastily for all concerned. He —”

“Blackstone.” She shook her head.  She should have known better than to take clients from the parking garage.  “Is that a first or last name?”

“It’s a surname,” he said, easing his hand back to his side as if he didn’t want anyone else to notice her obvious snub.  “My given name is Aethelstan.”

“Aethelstan?”  She’d never heard a name like that.

He shrugged prettily.  “It was in style once.”

“A long, long time ago,” the little man added.

“And you are?” she asked.

“Let’s just call me Panza,” the little man said.

“Let’s not,” she said.  “Try again.”

The little man crossed his arms.  The cigarette pack slid under his sleeve until it hung beneath his right bicep.  “My name is Sancho Panza.”

She shot an exasperated look at Blackstone.  His eyes were twinkling again.  He looked even better when he was amused, not that it helped any.  She would have to deal with the little guy on her own.  “If you want me to do something for you in a court of law, I’ll need your legal name.”

The little guy leaned back in his chair.  “It’s not me you’re helping,” he said.  “It’s Blackstone.”

She crossed her arms.  She had the odd feeling they were playing a game, and she didn’t know why.  Did they have some sort of scheme?  If so, why all the subterfuge?

“All right, Mr. Blackstone,” she said in her most haughty voice, “what can I help you with?”

For a moment, the mask dropped, and she saw something in his eyes, a vulnerability, almost a fear mixed with sadness.  Then he seemed to notice her watching him, and the expression disappeared.  He cleared his throat, glanced at his companion who was watching both of them, and said, “You charge what?”

The question was clearly meant to be rude, obviously because she had seen behind his facade.  And the question was rude, at least the way he asked it.  As he spoke, the snake stuck its head out of his shirt and looked at her as if it too expected an answer.

“One hundred dollars an hour, plus a —” she almost quoted her regular rate, then decided to double it because these two were proving to be so much trouble (not to mention the fact that she needed the money) — “plus a thousand dollar retainer.”

“A thousand dollar retainer?” The little man strangled on the last word.  “In my day, you could run a country on a thousand dollars.”

“In your day, there was no such thing as dollars,” Blackstone muttered.  He hadn’t taken his gaze off her.  “What do you prefer? A check or cash?”

“Or gold,” the little man added. She would be damned if she would think of him as Sancho Panza.

“A check is fine,” she said.  No sense in taking currency.  With these two, it could just as easily be forged, and then where would she be?  The worst thing a check could do was bounce.

Blackstone put a hand inside his shimmery jacket, and brought out a checkbook.  A pen appeared in his other hand — just as Blackstone had appeared initially.  Just as the little man had appeared.  Out of thin air.

She felt the muscles in her shoulders tighten.  More games.

He poised the pen over his checkbook.  “Do I write this check to you or to the law firm?”

“I am the law firm,” she said.  “Either is fine.”

She was telling him that so that he could pull out.  But he didn’t quiz her about her background, or the types of cases she handled, or her past successes, of which there were quite a few, given the scant months she’d been in business.  Not that those wins had brought more clients.  It took time to build a business.  But time was what she didn’t have.

She watched him write the check.

He signed it with a flourish, and then handed it to her.  She glanced at it, noting his name in bold and only a post office box for an address.  Her hand shook.  She needed the money so badly.  But she couldn’t let that get in the way of her judgment.  It was time to get serious.

With her left hand, she pulled open a draw and removed a legal pad.  Then she took her pen out of its holder.  “Let’s get your street address and phone, starting with you, Mr. Blackstone, and then going onto your friend here.”

“You don’t need me,” the little man said.  “I already told you.”

She stared at him for a moment.  He had just given her the opportunity she had been waiting for.

“Then I’ll have to ask you to leave,” she said.

“I don’t mind him staying.” Blackstone leaned back in his chair. The pen was gone.  So was the checkbook. She hadn’t seen him put either away.

The snake had disappeared as well.

“I mind,” she said.

Blackstone raised an eyebrow.  The little man scowled.  “You got books in the waiting area?”

“Law books,” Nora said.

“Good enough,” the little man said, and scooted off the chair.  Blackstone held the back so that the chair didn’t tip. As the little man’s feet hit the floor, he brushed off his backside, and adjusted his cigarettes. Then he let himself out the door.

The room felt three times larger without him.  Nora wasn’t certain how a person that tiny could fill such a big space.

“Mr. Blackstone,” she said, keeping the businesslike tone to her voice, “street address and phone number?”

He gave her an address in the west side suburbs, in a new development that was only partially finished. The address surprised her; she would have thought a man like him belonged in one of Portland’s older homes, filled with history and charm.  Instead, he chose a cookie cutter neighborhood without any class at all.

She must have paused long enough to catch his notice.  He raised an eyebrow again — an expression which, on most people, would seem like an affectation, but on him seemed completely natural.

“Something wrong with my address, Miss Barr?”

The “miss” also surprised her, but she let it go.  Unlike her mother, she did not make a federal case out of the misuse of the female honorific.  It simply told her what sort of man she was dealing with.

She already knew he was strange; that he was also old-fashioned in some ways didn’t surprise her much.

“No,” she said.  “I simply hadn’t spoken to anyone who lives in Lakewood Development.  It’s fairly new.”

His eyes narrowed a bit as if he knew she were lying, but didn’t know why.

“So,” she said, before he could speak again, “how can I help you?”

He flushed. The faint redness ran from his high cheekbones, down his neck, and beneath the shimmering collar of his shirt.  It was attractive and boyish, and made her feel as if she’d found a kindred soul.  She blushed more than she wanted, more than was seemly for a woman her age, and for a woman in her profession.  His blush made him seem more approachable. It also made her wonder if he looked that way in bed.  That thought made her uncomfortable and she made herself look at the legal pad while she waited for his response.

He threaded his fingers together, glanced nervously at the door, and then said, “A — dear friend of mine — had, um, been in a, for lack of a better word, a coma — for, um, some time.  Her, um, guardian won’t — let me near her, and although I’ve fought for that right for, um, some time, I haven’t made any progress.”

For an articulate man, he suddenly had a great deal of trouble choosing his words.  She didn’t write anything down.  Instead, she placed her pen across the page with his name and address on it.

“And you want me to — what?  Contact the guardian?”

“Isn’t there anything legal you can do?”

“Depends,” she said.  “What’s your exact relationship to this woman?”

His flush grew deeper.  She sighed inwardly.  Girlfriend. Of course.  A man who looked like that had to have a thousand of them.

“She’s — ah — someone special to me.”

Nora resisted the urge to pick up her pen and tap it against the desktop.  “Special.”  She let her tone go dry.  “As in fiancé? Lover?”

“No,” he said.  “But she will be.”

Nora closed her eyes.  Will be. He had hopes, but the girl probably didn’t.  Which meant he was some kind of stalker.  Why were all the gorgeous ones also crazy?  She opened her eyes.  He was watching her, obviously puzzled.

She sighed again.  So much money and it was now going to disappear.  Apparently she had ethics after all.

“Look, Mr. Blackstone,” she said.  “I can’t help you in any legal way unless the woman in question is in some way a relative.  I’m sorry, but that’s just the law.  You’ll have to accept the situation for what it is and move on.”

She pushed his check back toward him.

“You can’t help me?” he asked, sounding a bit astonished.

“Not me, not any lawyer,” she said.  “You have no rights with someone who is just a friend. I’m sorry.  The guardian has legal control.”

The snake poked its head out of Blackstone’s sleeve and hissed softly.  Its long forked tongue curled as it did so.  He absently petted its flat head, and then pushed it under his sleeve.

“This is becoming untenable,” he said.

“I’m sorry,” she said again.  He had no idea how sorry she was.  Sorry that she wouldn’t get to look at him any longer.  Sorry that she wouldn’t be able to use his money to save her law practice.

He took the check, stood, and held out his hand. “Sorry to take all of your time.”

His mimicry of the pattern of her thoughts startled her.  She wasn’t sorry he had taken her time.  He had shown her that she was thinking of walking the wrong path.

“I’m sorry that I couldn’t have been of help to you,” she said as she stood.  This time, she took his hand.  His skin was smooth and warmer than she expected.  His touch sent a little shiver of pleasure through her, and it took all of her strength to keep from pulling away in surprise.

“Nonetheless,” he said.  “I appreciate your candor.”

He bowed slightly, a courtly move that somehow seemed appropriate to him.  Then he slipped out the door.  She continued to stand for a moment, looking at the closed door, feeling vaguely unsettled.  He seemed like a man who, despite his charming surface, was a bit lost.

Then she shook herself as if she were waking from a long, strange dream.  It wasn’t often she let good looks influence her that much.  She sank into her chair and picked up her pen, pausing over his name and address.

After a moment, she reached for her phone, and dialed the number of Abercrombie, Hazelton, Finch and Goldberg. The receptionist answered, and Nora hung up.  What had she been thinking, dialing up Max?  Max had interesting cases and interesting clients, thanks to his accidental success shortly after he had joined Portland’s largest firm.  Max had been out of law school as long as she had, but already he had a buzz.  Everyone was saying that Max would be the state’s best defense attorney, and she had a hunch everyone was right.

Max wouldn’t want to talk about this.  Max would humor her, of course — he was nothing but polite — but he would think that she was even more marginalized than she already was.

Nora sighed and picked up her mini tape recorder. She would  dictate a few notes about Blackstone and his little friend, just so that she had a completed file in case Blackstone did turn out to be a stalker and claimed he had done something on her advice.

Then she would close the file forever.

When she finished, she handed the entire mess to Ruthie, and took off for her long-over due lunch.  When she got into the elevator, which still smelled faintly of leather and something intoxicating, she let herself dream a little.  It would be nice to have a man who looked like that be interested in her.  A sane man.

But that would never happen, and she was smart enough to know it.  Men always found her attractive at first — so little, so cute — and then she would open her mouth.  So few men appreciated her blunt style, and even fewer of them appreciated her opinions.  She didn’t know how many men she had scared away.  The ones who liked her mouth and her brains only saw her as a friend.

She sighed.  She hated being practical.  Her father used to say that it stole the magic from her life.

And he was probably right.

Of course, if she were really practical, she would have taken Blackstone’s money.  She had enough, if she were cautious, to pay one month’s rent and hope her landlord would be satisfied.  If she didn’t have anything new on her desk in two weeks, she would have to apply at the law firms that had turned her down.

She would have to admit defeat.

And it was looking more and more like she would have no choice.

 

Two

Two weeks later, nothing had changed, except that Nora had gotten a bit more desperate.  She actually thought of calling her mother for a loan.  But her mother would have given her a long lecture about responsibility, forgetting the admonition she had often given about following dreams, and then would write a check for three times the amount that Nora wanted to borrow.  Nora hated going into debt. She hated it worse when it was accompanied by a lecture followed by kindness.

Fortunately, Ruthie had managed to get that client who bounced the retainer check to pay cash instead.  Ruthie used to work for a collection agency, and for once her strange skills had proven useful. Privately, Nora believed Ruthie knew the end was near, and with her strange boyfriend Bryan to support, Ruthie would do anything to keep the office open.

Even with the lost retainer restored, Nora was still on the edge.  She was sitting at her desk, checkbook beside her, a stack of bills on the other side, trying to see which ones she could skip and which ones she absolutely had to pay.  No new clients had come in the door in over a week, and none had called. She was beginning to think she was going to have to chase ambulances to find work.  At least then, she might have a chance of finding someone truly in need of her help, unlike the malpractice doctor who was the only person burning her phone lines these days.

As if on cue, Ruthie buzzed the intercom.

“Mr. Blackstone is on the line.”

Nora felt her heart jump, and then frowned at herself in annoyance.  Blackstone had been a difficult man who would prove to be a more difficult client.  She wasn’t doing him or herself a favor by swooning over his looks.

Even if they were spectacular.

She thanked Ruthie and picked up the phone.

“’Bout time,” said a nasal voice that clearly didn’t belong to Blackstone.

Nora sighed.  “Yes?” she said, pretending not to recognize the voice of the little man who called himself Sancho Panza, just so that she wouldn’t have to use his name.

“Blackstone’s in a lot of trouble.  I think he needs an attorney.”

“If he needs an attorney,” Nora said, “why doesn’t he call me himself?”

“He can’t,” the little man said.  “The police are just arriving, and he’s otherwise engaged.”

“Police?”  She felt a chill run through her.   “I’m not a criminal attorney.”

“Doesn’t matter.  You’re the only attorney we know.  Can you come?”

“You haven’t told me where,” she said, mentally kicking herself for the curiosity that made her ask the question.

He listed an address in Beaverton near the Washington Square Mall.  She recognized the neighborhood; it was one of the older developments in what had once been a bedroom community for Portland, instead of an indistinguishable suburb.

“All right,” she said.  “I’ll be there.  But I may have to —”

She heard a click on the other line before she finished the sentence.  She stared at the receiver for a moment.

“— find him a new attorney,” she finished, softly, to herself.

Then she sighed and slipped on her trusty black shoes. She was glad she had worn a blazer, even though the shoulder pads made her look like a linebacker.  Actually, they made her look like a cheerleader dressed in a linebacker’s suit coat.  She grabbed her cheap briefcase and her oversized purse, and headed out the door.

“I don’t know when I’ll be back,” she said to Ruthie.  “Tell anyone who calls that I’m on an emergency, and will talk to them later tonight or tomorrow.”

Ruthie nodded, pretending, like Nora was, that someone would call,  and Nora hurried out of the office, wishing she were busy enough to tell Ruthie to cancel her afternoon appointments.

When Nora reached the elevator, she wondered exactly what she was doing.  She didn’t have a criminal specialty.  She should have called someone else.  But she felt a need to see Blackstone, a need that she didn’t want to analyze to closely.  A need she suspected had nothing to do with her work.

***

Her drive from downtown to Beaverton took nearly twenty minutes in the hot afternoon sunshine.  She spent most of the drive worrying about how she could get a retainer out of Blackstone and keep it while she found him a good defense attorney.  It wasn’t until she had reached 217 that she actually realized she had tried and convicted the man in her mind. Just because he was in trouble didn’t mean that he didn’t need a civil attorney.  Just because the police were involved didn’t mean she couldn’t help.  Just because he needed help didn’t mean he was a criminal.

Gorgeous men shouldn’t be criminals.  In the world of her imagination, they couldn’t be.  Criminals looked like — well, criminals looked like Blackstone’s little friend, Sancho Panza.  Not that criminals were short (she thought most of them were tall) but in the world of her imagination, they all had improperly set noses and they all rolled cigarettes up in their sleeves.

Maybe the little guy had gotten Blackstone in trouble. Maybe that was why he was trying to get Blackstone off the hook.

As she took the Tigard exit off Interstate Five, she frowned at the cloud of inky black smoke that covered the horizon.  It was field burning season — when the Willamette Valley’s grass farmers burned their fields to prepare it for the next crop — but regulations required them to wait until the winds would take the smoke away from the city, not toward it.  Besides, they would have to be burning fairly close to the west side suburbs for that much smoke, wouldn’t they?

She frowned and rolled up her windows, wishing that she could afford to fix the air-conditioning in her ancient Rabbit.  Immediately the air grew stuffy, but that was better than the smoke that she was driving into.

With a flick of her right hand, she turned on the radio. The local talk station had a single helicopter that was just going toward the site. The news stated what she already knew: something was happening ahead of her.

A prickly feeling grew along her back.  She hoped that the smoke wasn’t related to Blackstone, but that prickly feeling said it was.

Maybe she should stop at a pay phone and call another attorney now.  But she was curious.  She was broke.  And she really, really wanted to see Blackstone again.

She rolled her eyes at her own thoughts.  Maybe she deserved to look like a cheerleader. Only teenagers got crushes like this.  Or, more accurately, only teenagers acted upon them.

She decided to take a back route to the address that the little man had given her.  She took a side road, and then another, sweat running down the back of her cotton shirt beneath the blazer. The car was stuffy and smelled of smoke.  The sky was so black here that she could barely see in front of her car, and what she did see was oily smoke and flaky ash.

There was no way one person could cause all of this.  Maybe Blackstone wanted her to sue someone for burning his house down.  Maybe.  But then why had the little guy mentioned the police?

She bit her lower lip and turned into the neighborhood that the little man had told her about.  Immediately she slammed on the brakes. Directly in front of her was a police barricade, and around that, fire hoses, emergency equipment, and more flashing red lights than she had ever seen in one place.  She still couldn’t tell what was causing the smoke, but she knew it was just ahead.

A cop rapped on her window.  His beefy face was red and streaked with soot.

She shut off the radio and rolled down the window.  “I’m Mr. Blackstone’s attorney,” she said, wondering if that would mean anything to the cop.

Apparently it did.  He waved her forward. She had to drive slowly to avoid the hoses and the emergency personnel.  Burning bits of wood littered the road, and she constantly had to swerve to avoid them.  Several homes were on fire. The fire leapt out like a live thing, not responding to the water at all.

The smoke had gotten in the Nora’s throat, making it feel swollen. She had forgotten to roll up the window, and the stench was overpowering.  She didn’t see Blackstone anywhere.

She kept driving, cautiously. The address the little man had given her was right in the middle of the devastation.  Police cars blocked the entire road.  She couldn’t drive any farther.  She really didn’t want to get out, but she felt she had no choice.

She grabbed her purse but left her briefcase, thinking that she didn’t want to be too encumbered but she needed her identification.  She opened the car door and slid out, gingerly putting her feet between fire hoses and charred debris.

It was worse outside. The stench permeated everything. Bits of charred wood and flame floated down with the ash.  The sky was so dark, it seemed as if a severe storm were about to break overhead.  Her eyes watered.  Police band radios were crackling voices and static, and firemen were yelling directions at each other.  Strangely enough, she didn’t see any residents.  Maybe they had been evacuated.  But she would have expected at least one, screaming and shouting and defending his house.  Instead there was no one.  Other than emergency vehicles, there weren’t even cars parked along the street.

For some reason that unnerved her more than anything.  She walked around a parked police car, its flashing red lights a dramatic counterpoint to the artificial darkness.

There was a brown and orange Volkswagen microbus parked at the curb in front of the house that the little man had told her about.  She walked around it, and then she saw Blackstone.

He was on a green lawn untouched by flames, its flowers a reminder of what the neighborhood had been just a short time before.  He had not a speck of dirt on him.  He wore the cowboy boots, and a tight pair of jeans, and a T-shirt so white, so clean, that it flared like a neon sign.

His hair was slightly mussed, but he seemed calm.  And he was even more gorgeous than she remembered.

Five policemen stood around him — not protecting him so much as guarding him.  Another group was on the driveway, including a man who was taking pictures.  From her position on the street, Nora looked at what he was shooting, and the sensation that she was out of her league grew from a feeling to a certainty.

There was a woman on the concrete.  She was sprawled, face down.  With all the commotion around, Nora could only assume that the woman was dead.

Nora swallowed, then smoothed her skirt in a nervous gesture.  Just as she had suspected, Blackstone needed a criminal attorney.  But all he had at the moment was her.  She would do what she could to get him out of here, and call Max to defend him as soon as she was able.

Beside, her the microbus rocked slightly.  She looked up.  Sancho Panza or whoever he was moved by the window. She was about to call up to him, when he disappeared into the bus’s interior.

How had he called from the bus?  Did he have one of those expensive mobile phones?  He didn’t look like the gadget type.

She swallowed against the smoke-ravaged dryness of her throat.  She had to stay focused. She had to get through these next few moments and then get out of here.

She stepped onto the lawn, and her movement caught Blackstone’s attention.  His face softened when he saw her.  It had been all hard lines and angles before.  Now it was gentle, rounded, as if someone had changed the lighting or he had become a different person somehow.

He looked at her as if she were a lifeline.  She went to him like the schoolgirl whose crush she had appropriated.  Only when she was halfway across the yard did she remember she was supposed to be his attorney.

She squared her shoulders, and prepared to sound tough.  Heaven knew, she couldn’t look it.

She stopped beside one of the police officers, a middle-aged man whose soft stomach edged over his belt.  His face was soot-streaked and his eyes were red from the smoke.

“I’m Mr. Blackstone’s attorney,” Nora said in her best don’t-screw-with-me voice.  “What’s going on here?”

“Honey,” the officer said, “you don’t belong here.”

She raised her chin as if it would give her more height.  She hated being called “honey” and she hated even more being called “honey” in that tone of voice.

“I have every right to be here,” she said, louder and even more stridently than before.  “I am Mr. Blackstone’s attorney.  I demand that you tell me what’s going on.”

“Nora,” Blackstone said, and on his lips, the use of her name sounded like a poem. “What are you doing here?  I don’t need you.  It’s not safe.”

“What’s going on?” she asked again, this time to both Blackstone and the cop.

The cop stared at her as if she were a cat who had suddenly spoken.  Then he looked around as if what she saw explained everything.  “Your client destroyed this neighborhood.”

She raised her brows, skeptical. “This doesn’t look like the work of one person.”

“Believe me, lady,” the cop said.  “It is.”

“Nora,” Blackstone said again.

She held up a finger, a silent command ordering him to wait.  “I don’t believe you,” she said to the cop.

“We have witnesses,” he said.

“Nora —”

“Just a moment,” she snapped.  Blackstone closed his mouth, obviously stunned at her curtness.

“And,” the cop said, “those witnesses put that woman alive not fifteen minutes ago.”

After the little man had called her.  So he had called her while this — whatever it was — was going on.

She straightened.  She had to take charge of this situation.  “Are you charging my client with anything?”

It was the cop’s turn to raise his eyebrows, as if he couldn’t believe the stupidity of her question.   “What aren’t we charging him with? Carrying incendiary devices.  Arson.  Murder, and Attempted Murder.  And that’s just for starters.”

Blackstone rolled his eyes, and then shook his head, as if he couldn’t believe what was going on.  Nora’s hands were trembling.  She clasped them together to maintain her illusion of calm.

“Nora,” Blackstone said.  “Since you’re here, find Sancho.  Make sure he has secured the case.”

“I can’t believe you’re speaking,” she said, turning on him.  “You’re being charged with damn near every felony in the criminal code.  Don’t say another word.”

“Nora —”

“I mean it.”

He closed his mouth as if she had pushed it closed.  The cop watched them.  He hadn’t called her honey since she got strident.  And now he was looking at her as if she were someone to be reckoned with.  The other officers who had been crowding around watched as well.  One of them finally took out handcuffs.

“Are those necessary?” Nora asked in the same tone she had used with Blackstone.

The cop visibly flinched, but nodded.  He snapped them on Blackstone’s wrists.

“Where are you taking him?” she asked.

“Downtown,” the first cop said.

“Not the Beaverton station?”

“We’re better equipped for this kind of criminal downtown, ma’am,” the cop said.

This kind of criminal.  She shook her head.  “My client is not a criminal.”

“All right,” the cop said.  “We’re better equipped to handle this kind of alleged criminal downtown.”

Now she remembered why she had avoided criminal work.  It was so that she wouldn’t have to deal with cops.  “I’m coming with you.”

“No!” Blackstone said.

“I told you to be quiet,” she said.

“And I need you to find Sancho.  We need —”

“One more word,” she said, “and I’ll gag you myself.  You will not speak unless told to by an attorney.”

“I promise,” he said, “I won’t say another word, if you promise you’ll find Sancho.”

“I’m going with you to the station,” she said.

He shook his head.  “You’re my attorney, aren’t you?” he asked.  “You have to do what I ask.”

Technically that was correct, but it was also her job to save her clients from themselves.  The cops were watching the entire interaction with great interest.

“I promise to say nothing at all until you tell me when I can speak again, if you find Sancho and secure the case.”

She didn’t know what he meant by “secure the case” but she was sure she would find out.   “All right,” she said, wishing she had another choice.  She probably did, but damned if she knew what it was.  If he chose to speak without an attorney present, that wouldn’t be her problem. She didn’t do defense work.  “But I won’t meet you at the station.  I’ll be sending one of my colleagues.”

No sense in using Max’s name since she hadn’t yet spoken to him.  Blackstone smiled, full wattage.  It hit her like a beam of light in the darkness.  That smile was as powerful as she had fantasized it would be.  She almost had to take a step backwards.

“Thank you,” he said, then he let the cops lead him away.

She watched.  He was taller than the cops, but not by much.  He only seemed taller because he stood so straight, even handcuffed when most people would be humiliated.

Amazing how she could find him attractive, even now.

She brushed a strand of hair out of her face.  The smoke was making her woozy.  She adjusted her purse strap, and walked across the green lawn.  Amazingly, none of the ash and burning debris had fallen here.  The cops were still bent over the corpse, and as Nora passed, she paused to look.

The corpse was of a slender older woman, with jet black hair, and a streak of white off the right temple.  Her face, which might have been beautiful in life, was frozen in an expression of such malevolence that it took Nora’s breath away.  The woman’s hands were splayed at her side, her legs bent, and her expensive dress torn.  She didn’t look like the kind of woman who normally frequented the suburbs.

She also didn’t look dead.  She looked more like she had — stopped — freeze frame, the way someone would stop a film in a VCR.

One of the cops moved in front of Nora, blocking her view.  And she let him, feeling a bit odd lingering here. The fires were not spreading any more, but it would take a long time for them to burn out — at least that was what one of the firefighters said as he passed behind her.

She walked across the sidewalk and down the curb.  As she passed the microbus, the passenger window rolled down a crack.  A tiny face pressed against it.  Sancho.

“I’m going to your office,” he whispered.

She suppressed a sigh and didn’t even nod as she passed him. The last thing she wanted was for the cops to investigate the microbus.  Who knew what they would find inside?  She couldn’t believe they hadn’t cordoned it off as part of the crime scene.  It was as if no one seemed to notice it.  No one but her.

She climbed over hoses and returned to her own car. It was covered in a film of ash.  As she settled into the driver’s side, she turned on the wipers. The ash smeared all over the glass.

The cops said Blackstone had destroyed a neighborhood and maybe killed a woman.  She didn’t believe it. Was that because she had spent the last two weeks fantasizing about him?  Or was it because she had some innate belief in the goodness of people?  Or was it because this feeling that she had — that she had had from the beginning — that this was a decent man was growing stronger instead of weaker?

She started the car, and executed a series of small Y-turns in the tiny space, careful not to run over any hoses.  Why didn’t she see this destruction as something awful?  It looked as make-believe as the dead woman, the one who looked as if she had been a video stopped mid-frame.

Whew.  Nora had never thought she was one who practiced denial. At least, she hadn’t thought it — until now.

***

Before she drove to her office, she stopped at a pay phone just off 217 and called Ruthie.  Ruthie asked if Nora had heard about the disaster in the west side suburbs, and Nora said, yep, she’d heard.  No sense telling Ruthie Nora had been in the middle of it.  Ruthie would panic and Nora would spend the next few minutes calming her instead of getting business done.

And she suddenly had a lot of business, although she doubted she’d be paid for it.

Not that it mattered.  Some part of her really thought Blackstone was being framed.  By whom and for what she didn’t know, but she was convinced of it.

She had Ruthie set up a conference call with Max, and while she waited on hold, she brushed the ash off her blazer.  There was a lot of ash, and as she brushed, she changed the color from a faded blue to a dusty gray.

When Max came on, she told him about Blackstone (“You’re kidding about the name, right?”) and asked him to go to the police station. Max sniffed money immediately and all the fame and publicity a good local defense attorney wanted.  He agreed to go the police station before Nora had told him about the dead woman.  She was left holding the receiver, Ruthie on the other end, asking her if she was all right.

Nora lied and said she was.

She was shaking as she drove back to her office, shaking and slightly woozy from the smoke.  Her nylons were ripped and she didn’t know how she had done that.  She smelled like charred wood, and she doubted the smell would ever come off.

The traffic was horrible — backed up for miles as people gawked at the smoke and pulled aside for the emergency vehicles.  Nora ran a hand through her hair, and her fingers came away covered with dirt.  She was filthy, but she couldn’t go home.  This might be her only chance to meet Sancho.

She was a bit amazed she hadn’t told Max about him.  The police would be looking for Sancho, particularly after Blackstone’s three requests that she find him.  The little man would prove important to all of this, she knew that somehow. But she didn’t know exactly how.  And she didn’t relish meeting with the man without Blackstone around.

Still, she couldn’t stay away either.  She was too involved.  If Sancho told her something pertinent, she would send him to Max.  It was the least she could do.

So, after this meeting, the problems would no longer be hers.  She would bill for these few hours — any attorney would, right? — and then she would get on with her life and not think about the case at all, except maybe a few phone calls to Max, and those would be an excuse to talk to him, not necessarily to find out about Blackstone.  She would act as if nothing unusual happened.  Not that she would succeed, of course.  She knew, deep down, that this afternoon had changed her life.

But, in the spirit of pretense, she flicked on the radio to focus her mind on something else.

Instantly a shrill female voice, filtered through a phone line, grated on her nerves.  She was about to flip away when a professional radio voice broke in and clearly hung up on the caller.

“Crackpots,” the announcer said.  “We have a situation and all we get are crank calls.”

“Several dozen of them, though, Dave,” said a professional female voice.  “Don’t you think we should pay attention to them?”

“No,” Dave said.  “To recap, there’s been an incident…”

He started to describe the neighborhood she had just left, adding nothing to what she already knew.  Fortunately he didn’t have Blackstone’s name and he didn’t seem to know about the dead woman. At that moment, the radio was reporting that no one had died.  In fact, it said that no one had even been injured, and that all of the residents had seen the trouble brewing and had been able to leave as the fires started.

“…another caller from the neighborhood,” the female announcer was saying.  “And this one we both happen to know.  It’s Rick Ayers, our morning news announcer. Rick?”

Traffic had slowed to a crawl.  Nora had turned on 99, but it seemed as if all of Tigard was at a standstill.  In the westbound lanes, traffic had completely stopped as the police tried to prevent anyone from heading to Beaverton.  She didn’t know what was causing the tie-ups in her eastbound lanes. She just wished it would end.  She wanted to get out of here.

“Stephanie.”  Rick-the-Morning-News-Announcer’s voice crackled over the phone lines and through Nora’s radio.  “Even though Dave thinks the other callers are cranks, they aren’t.”

Nora felt a shiver run down her back.  It was a warning shiver.  She turned up the volume.

“Come on, Rick,” Dave said.  “Two people fighting with fire that gets out of control?  A big wild fireball battle like something out of Tolkien?  We’re supposed to believe that?”

Now they really had her attention.  Nora glanced at the radio as if she could gauge its truthfulness just by looking at it.

“’Fraid so,” Rick said.  “I was across the street.  I got the kids out and down the block as fast as possible.  There were two people involved — a man and a woman.  The man had been coming out of the woman’s garage.  He had a glass case shaped like a coffin in front of him, and there was something inside it.  That’s what caught my attention.  He wasn’t carrying the case.  It was floating in front of him.”

Glass case.  Nora gripped the wheel tightly.  Blackstone wanted her to talk to Sancho about the case.  Not his court case.  A glass case.

“And what were you drinking this afternoon?” Dave asked.  It didn’t sound like banter.

“I wasn’t drinking anything,” Rick said.

Behind Nora, a horn honked.  She glanced in her rearview mirror, saw a red pickup and its driver waving his fist. Then she looked forward, and realized the traffic had started to move again.  She drove, the muscles in her shoulders so tight that it actually hurt to move the wheel.

“The guy put this case in an orange and brown Volkswagen bus,” Rick was saying.  Nora resisted the urge to close her eyes. “And then this woman comes out of her house and lobs a ball of fire at him.”

“A ball of fire, Rick?” Dave asked.

“The size of a basketball,” Rick said, unperturbed.  “The guy deflects it and it lands on a neighbor’s house.  That’s when I got the kids and sent them down the block, knocking on doors.”

“You sent your kids into that mess?” the woman, Stephanie, asked.

“It was smarter than staying inside,” Rick said.  “Believe me.  The entire neighborhood fanned out.  I think we got the place evacuated by the time the firefight started in earnest.”

“According to the police, you did,” Stephanie said.

“What does ‘started in earnest’ mean?” Dave asked.  The man was a bulldog.  Nothing could sidetrack him.  Maybe he saw the morning news anchor slot opening up.  He had to be thinking: If I can discredit old Rick here, I’ll be getting drive time.

Nora was finally at full speed, heading toward downtown.  She drove like a madwoman, not sure if she wanted to see Sancho now or not.

“They were throwing fire at each other like kids throw water balloons,” Rick said, “and the fire was landing everywhere but on them.  It was ugly and scary and —”

“I hope you were hiding somewhere,” Stephanie said.

“There was nowhere to hide,” Rick said.  “Most of us had moved to the far side of the block, but the way that fire was flying, we were no safer than we had been up close.”

Nora took her usual exit.  It was dark, even here. The smoke had settled over the valley.

“So, what?” Dave said.  “Someone was passing hallucinogens through your neighborhood this afternoon and everyone had the same bad trip?”

“No —”

“It sounds more like David Copperfield came to visit,” Stephanie said, and laughed.

“Really,” Rick said.  “It happened.  I’m not lying to you.  My neighbor Alex, he took out one of those camcorders and…”

Nora pulled into the underground parking garage near her building and lost the radio signal, just like usual.  Another thing she didn’t like about the garage.

The fluorescents glowed as brightly as they did at night.  It felt like night here, with the overcast caused by the smoke.  She drove past the usual decrepit cars to her parking space.  There she shut off the car and leaned her head against the steering wheel.

The thing was, she believed this Rick, this voice on the radio who claimed he had seen two people hurling fireballs at each other. She believed him, and she knew, without a doubt, that one of those people had been Blackstone, and that somehow, Blackstone had killed his opponent after he had stolen a glass case from her, a glass case that he wanted Nora, somehow, to help Sancho with.

What she didn’t know was whether believing all of that made her as crazy as she was afraid it did.

She sighed, and sat back up.  Her eyes were swollen, her throat scratchy, and the entire car smelled of smoke. Those were the facts.  That was all she could know. From there on, she would have to see what happened.  No supposing, no guessing, no relying on disembodied radio voices for her information.

Her father used to call her ability to set aside her beliefs as great a magic trick as the ones he used to perform.  She still missed him, more than she wanted to admit. The Great Maestro, Portland’s best birthday entertainer, who had always wanted to be something more, who had always wanted, in his heart of hearts, for the magic to be real. That was why her mother left him, not the lack of money or the hand-to-mouth existence, but her father’s stubborn belief that, beneath the tricks and the sleight of hand, real magic did exist.

He also believed that he had the ability to do real magic, if only someone would teach him how.

She still couldn’t believe how much she missed him.  He’d only been dead a year, and sometimes she still felt him beside her, laughing and pointing out the beauty in the world.  He was the one who taught her to look at sunsets.  He used to drive toward the end of rainbows, searching for gold.  All his life, he never lost that belief, that child-like belief, that there was more to the world than most people could see.

Oh, how she needed him now.  He would have listened to her stories about this afternoon.  He would have had suggestions.

But she was on her own, with only his memory for company.  Somehow that had to be enough.

Nora opened the car door and heard a clang. She frowned, wondering if she had hit the car next to her.  She looked over and saw that it wasn’t a car.  It was a brown and orange VW microbus.

Sancho, or whatever his name was, crawled from under her door.  “Man, am I going to have a headache,” he said, one hand cradling the side of his face.

“What’s going on?” she asked, wishing he hadn’t come, wishing he had taken that damn vehicle somewhere else.

“You don’t want to know,” he said, then murmured something in a language she didn’t understand, rubbed his temple and added, “Better.”

The bruise that had been forming in the side of his face had completely disappeared.

“I’m supposed to know,” she said, gathering her purse and her briefcase, and pretending she hadn’t seen anything unusual.  “Blackstone said I’m supposed to help you.”

“Let’s go to your office,” Sancho said.

She wriggled out of her car, nearly beaned Sancho again with her briefcase, and then used a hand to wave him forward.  He wasn’t covered with anything.  His T-shirt, the cigarettes missing, was as white as Blackstone’s had been, and his tiny jeans looked new.  Only his shoes seemed out of place. When she really looked at them, she realized he was wearing cracked leather shoes that buttoned instead of tied.

He walked through the garage, his arms swinging fiercely like he was punching imaginary (short) opponents.  She kicked her door closed with one foot, and followed him, feeling dirty and short of breath.

When they got into the elevator, she concentrated on the door instead of looking at her reflection in the mirror. Even then, she saw, through the corner of her eye, that her blond hair had gone streaky brown, her normally clear skin looked like it had been finger-painted by five-year-olds, and her clothing was coated with gray ash.  She tried to brush some of it off, raising a dust cloud. Sancho began coughing and only just managed to croak out an offended “Hey!” before she stopped.

The ash was still billowing when the elevator door opened and, for the first time since she had taken the office, there were people in the corridor.  They stared at her as she led Sancho down the hall, most of them shrinking back as if getting close to her would contaminate them as well — which, if she were being fair, it probably would.

She opened her office door and Ruthie shrieked.

“Ms. Barr! Ms. Barr!  Are you all right? When you said you knew about that mess on the west side, I didn’t know you meant you really were there.  I mean, actually.  You know, I —”

“You mean literally,” Sancho said.  “That’s what you mean.”

Ruthie looked at him as if she had seen him for the first time.  “All right,” she said, her voice as cool as his.  “I mean literally, whatever that means.”

“It means —”

“Ruthie,” Nora said, not wanting to hear any more of this discussion.  “Can you get me a Coke? Would you like anything, Mr.—?”

“Pan-za,” he said slowly, as if he were speaking to a particularly dumb child.  He waited.  She didn’t repeat the name.  “And no, I’m not thirsty.”

Nora rolled her very dry eyes, and walked into her office.  It looked like she had left it, cluttered, but clean. She turned. She was tracking gray dust behind her.  Sancho was avoiding it as he followed her.

She went to her desk and sat down, knowing she would have to clean the chair afterward. She didn’t touch the desk’s surface, or anything else.  Sancho climbed into the chair he had used before.

“I won’t do anything for you,” she said, “until I know your real name.”

He stared at her for a moment, his eyes an icy blue.  Then he rolled to one side, and pulled a swath of paper from his back jeans pocket.  Until that moment, she had thought the pocket empty.

He placed a birth certificate, a social security card, a passport, and a driver’s license on her blotter.  She leaned forward, careful not to brush the desk, and stared at the papers. They all showed his name to be Sancho Panza, and the driver’s license and passport photos confirmed that the name belonged to him.

She put her index finger against the edge of the blotter and shoved it toward him.  ‘I don’t deal in fake I.D.,” she said.

“Neither do I,” he said, shoving the blotter back toward her.

She looked at the papers again. She couldn’t tell if the birth certificate and social security card were real, but the driver’s license had been done on the special paper that the DMV used to discourage forgers. She picked up the passport, getting gray fingerprints all over the blue leather.  It was four years old, with several stamps inside, as well as the raised stamp specially done by the State Department.  If his identification was good enough for several governments, including this one, it was good enough for her.

“I still don’t believe it,” she said, because she didn’t.

“You don’t have to.”  He settled in his chair.  “Just help us.”

“I already got a defense attorney for Blackstone.”

“Fine,” Sancho said as if he didn’t care.  “The most important thing is the glass case.”

“Yes.”  Nora was amazed at how calm she sounded.  So Rick the Morning News Anchor had been right.  There had been a glass case.  “I understand it levitated out of someone’s garage.”

“How he got it isn’t your concern,” Panza said.  “Helping him with it is.”

“I don’t deal in stolen property,” Nora said.

“It’s not stolen,” Panza said, and stopped as someone knocked on the door.

“Come in,” Nora said.

Ruthie entered, carrying two cans of Coke.  She too avoided Nora’s gray footprints.  “Want a glass?” she asked.

Nora shook her head.

“I suppose you want me to call the cleaning service.”

Nora smiled.  At last, Ruthie was thinking on her own.  “Please.”

“Good,” Ruthie said, “because I sure as hell don’t want to clean up this mess.”  And with that, she let herself out.

“Nice secretary you got,” Panza said.

“You get what you pay for.”  Nora grabbed a can, and pulled the ringtop.  “Sure you don’t want one?”

He wrinkled his nose.  “Ever since they removed the cocaine, it hasn’t been the same.”

She gave him a flat level look.  “I don’t appreciate drug jokes in my office.”

“You don’t appreciate much, do you?” Panza said.  “I thought you had more sense than that.  Maybe I misjudged you.”

“Maybe,” Nora said.  She crossed her arms.  “Your choice.”

He stared at her a moment.  “You’re not that ruffled by the events of this afternoon.”

“I’m a good actress.”

“Not that good.”  He nodded.  “We can proceed.”

She wasn’t sure she wanted to.  “I don’t mind if you find another attorney.”

He grinned.  The expression made him seem like a ferocious twelve-year-old.  “Naw.  You’re perfect.”

“Have you checked my credentials?”

“Enough,” he said.

She took a long, long drink from the can of Coke. The sweetness helped bring up her blood sugar, and the liquid felt cool against her dry throat.  She would eventually need water — she was probably dehydrated — but this would do for now.

The movement gave her a chance to plan and take control of this interview.

“Why did Blackstone destroy that neighborhood?” she asked.

“He didn’t.”

“Someone did.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Panza said.

“I have to worry about it.” She ran a hand over her face, felt the soot flake off.  “People make jokes about lawyers having no ethics, but that’s not true.  I can’t help him and stay true to myself if I know he destroyed a neighborhood.”

“It was a diversion.”

“Really?”

Panza nodded.

“Blackstone would destroy people’s homes and kill a woman just to divert attention from — what?”

“He didn’t kill her,” Panza said.

“She looked dead to me.”

His eyes narrowed.  “Well, she wasn’t.  He just knocked her out.”

“The EMTs thought she was dead.”

Panza shrugged.  “It’s amazing how susceptible some people are to the power of suggestion.”

“I’m not,” Nora said.  “And I am not sure I want to represent someone who performs wholesale destruction as a means to an end.”

Panza clenched a fist, hit the arm of the chair softly, and then shook his head.  “What if I told you everything would be fixed?”

She laughed and felt its bitterness. “That can’t be fixed.  Not in the way I would want.”

“And that is?”

“To make it seem as if today never happened.  But people don’t forget.  Even if everything were made better, people would remember and —”

“Say no more.”  Panza stood in the chair. She was constantly amazed at how small he was.  “We can do that.”

“Sure,” she said.  “And pigs fly.”

“Not without help,” he said, and he seemed perfectly serious.  “Now.  Assist us.”

He wouldn’t go away.  And no matter how ethical she got, the images wouldn’t go away.  She might as well see what Panza wanted. “Tell me what you need.”

“I need you to store the microbus,” he said.

“You can do that.”

He shook his head.  “We can’t know where it is.  Only you can know.  You’ll store it for us, and then when we come and get it everything will be safe.”

“It doesn’t sound legal.”

“It is.  All you have to do is find a garage, rent it, and keep the microbus there.  We might not come for it for years.”

“Years?” Nora asked.

“Years.”  Sancho reached inside the breast pocket of his T-shirt (she hadn’t realized there was a breast pocket until he did that.  Didn’t most t-shirts come without breast pockets?) and removed an envelope.  The envelope was four times the size of the pocket.  “This should cover rent for the next fifteen years, plus your fees and time, based on the estimate you gave Blackstone when we first met.  There is also a periodic cost of living adjustment factored into the amount.  I’ve included a worksheet so that you can see how I came to the enclosed figure.”

She took the envelope.  It was too thin to be holding cash.

“Of course,” he said, “if it takes us longer to come for the van, we will send more money.”

“Of course,” she murmured as she used one short fingernail to slit the envelope open.  Inside she found a very ornate check made out for a huge amount of money.  More money, in fact, than she had ever seen in one place in her entire life.  If she thought about that, she would start trembling again, and lose any advantage she might have in this interview.

Sancho was watching her, a bemused expression on his face.

“I’ll have to verify funds,” she said, using the primmest tone she could muster.

“Of course,” he said, echoing her earlier words.

She took the check, and walked to the front office.  After the door closed behind her, she let out a deep shaky breath.  Please let the check be genuine, she prayed to any god that would listen.  Please.

Ruthie was watching her as if she had grown a new head.  She probably did look strange, still covered in soot and ash, carrying a check and shaking as if she had won the lottery. Which, if this check were valid, she had.

She made herself swallow and focus on the piece of paper in front of her. The check was issued by Quixotic Inc. and signed by Sancho Panza.  His signature was as ornate as the check.

“Ms. Barr?” Ruthie asked.

Nora shoved the check toward her.  “Verify this,” she said.

Ruthie took the check and her eyes grew wide.  “Holy Shmoly,” she said.  “What does he want you to do?”

“Not much,” she said, and sat down because she was shaking so badly.

“This is a lot of cash for not much,” Ruthie said.  “What’d you do?  Quote him the rate for billionaires?”

“No, actually,” Nora said.  “Just the standard fees.”  Then she grinned.  “The standard fees for troublemakers.”

Ruthie held up a well manicured hand.  “All right.  I don’t want to know.”  She shoved the phone between her ear and her shoulder, and dialed with a pen.  Nora took several calming breaths while Ruthie verified that the check was valid.  Then, for good measure, she asked about another check, making up the number, for an equal amount of money.

When she was finished, she hung up and whistled.  “These guys are loaded,” she said.

“You didn’t have to do the second,” Nora said.

“Actually,” Ruthie said.  “I used to work for a debt collection agency —”

“I know,” Nora said.

“— and they always made you do that,” Ruthie continued, “so that the check you had wouldn’t bounce if someone took $5 out of the account.  It also gives you a sense of how much a person is worth, you know, by how much he keeps in his checking.”

For the first time, Nora didn’t regret hiring Ruthie.  “Thanks,” she said as she stood and took the check.

“Does this mean I get a bonus?” Ruthie asked.

“The money goes in escrow,” Nora said.  “This isn’t a debt collection agency.”

“Obviously,” Ruthie muttered.

Nora ignored her, and went back into the office, tapping the check against her hand.  The little man was still standing on the chair.  He was watching her.  She closed the door and leaned on it, thinking only a second too late of the smudge she was making against the presswood’s veneer.

“Here’s what I’m willing to do,” she said.  “I’ll take your money and put it in a special account.  I will have the rental for the garage removed from that account, as well as my monthly fee.  I will keep the keys here, and I will not inspect the microbus.  I will not touch the microbus after I take it to the garage, and I will not relinquish the keys to anyone but you.  Ever. Is that clear?”

He nodded.  Then he tilted his head.  “Will the account bear interest?”

“Yes,” she said.

“And who gets the interest?”

“Probably the person who owns the garage, when you don’t show up in fifteen years,” she said.

The little man smiled.  “I like you,” he said.  “If Blackstone’s heart weren’t imprisoned, I bet he would too.”

Here’s how you order the rest of the book.  You can get the mass market edition through your favorite bookstore or order it here. The ebook will be widely available.  Here are the links to Kindle and Barnes & Noble. Other ebookstores should have it as well.


 

 


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