Gladys the Guard Episode One
Gladys sneered. She redoubled her grip on her gun, pressing herself further into the unyielding, wooden wall behind her.
Great, this was just great. Not only was this bloody building soon to be full of fiends of the underworld, but she wasn’t alone either.
She wasn’t talking about the horde of zombie-esque lords of death that were winding their shadowy way toward this rundown farmhouse. No. They couldn’t technically be classed as company. Rather the heavily armed incursion team that was very noisily making their way through the front door was definitely company. But they were very unwelcome. The little situation developing here – a very dangerous, very terrifying situation – was just about to hit boiling point. And five heavily armed, steel-capped scouts would be the match to the gas-filled oven.
Gladys heard the silent patter of feet behind her. She heard the silent patter because she could feel it reverberating down each of her vertebrae. She twisted on the spot. Dropping to her feet and punching the gun to the left, she fired off two shots in one smooth move. The familiar hush of sand cascaded into a pile on the floor.
Oh, this was even better. Now those machine-gun-toting ballerinas would know she was here. She could see them in her mind’s eye, frozen on the stairs waving their hands about in a silent “holy crap, boys, we are not alone” sort of way.
Now what was she going to do? She could have played the innocent little “who me?” game if they’d caught her. “Oh, hi there, I just wandered into this deserted farmhouse in the middle of a military training ground… yeah, I was looking for the bathroom… got a bit lost… no, I can’t read signs….”
That clever plan could no longer work. They would see straight through it and to the shiny gun in her hand. Whoopee, now she had to think of something else.
Gladys put one finger to her chapped lips and let the other hand drop to her waist, the firm butt of the gun brushing lightly against her worn cargo pants. Practiced footfall avoided the creaks in the wooden stairs, the almost imperceptible shake in the floor beneath her the only indication she had that her new visitors were moving up.
This room was blocked off, no windows, only one door that led out onto the landing beyond. That’s why she’d picked it – only one entry… only one entry?
She turned quickly to survey the rest of the room. She hadn’t been thinking clearly. How the hell had that Sand Jackal found its way in here? She’d been guarding the door, and no seven-foot gray shadow of a man with the head of a jackal had slipped past her.
“Righty-oh.” Gladys parted her lips to form the words, careful not to give her exact position away with a flippant one-liner.
There was a hole in the ceiling that led to the rafters, rat-eaten insulation, and wiring of this decrepit house. Gladys stared at it. She really shouldn’t have missed that. So what if she’d had other things to think of? If she wanted to stay alive in this game, she had to play with her eyes wide open.
This did, however, present an opportunity. She knew the incursion team was seconds from bursting in on her – time to get rid of the gun.
She took one quick stride into the middle of the room and, clipping the safety on the gun, threw it up into the small opening above her. It landed with a dull thud above.
She quickly threw herself against the far wall in direct sight of the door.
She watched it open as she dropped to her feet and huddled against the wall.
“Stay where you are.” Five guns pointed at her.
They’d filed into the room in classic action-movie style: two crouching by the door as the others followed the leader in. It was a small room, though. She hoped they’d appreciate how cramped they’d made it.
“Lie down on the floor, hands behind your head.”
Sheesh, did they really have to shout so loudly? She was right here, for crying out loud! Gladys slowly uncurled herself and made to lie on the dusty floor.
“Hold on,” said the soldier in the lead.
“Captain?” asked Mr. Shouty McShouty.
“Gladys?” the Captain’s voice, though strong and determined, wavered slightly.
She knew that clipped Scottish brogue. How could she possibly not know it?
She lifted her head slowly and looked up at the hulk in shades of navy blue and black above her.
“Max?” she responded, her voice shaking with the smallest hint of amusement. This was totally ridiculous.
“What are you doing here?” his question was a command, a snapped demand for her to explain very quickly how she had found herself in such a very compromising situation.
Gladys ground her teeth, maintaining eye contact – or goggle contact, at least – with the heavily armored bulk of Captain Max Angus Cook. She knew better than to get up; Max may know her, but the very angry and confused soldiers beside him would be happy to shoot and ask questions later.
“Well…” she managed, blowing a thick cloud of dust off the ancient timber floor with every breath. “You’re not going to believe—” she paused.
“Yes?” he prompted.
But Gladys wasn’t listening. Her eyes widened slightly, her brow furrowed, and her arms and legs tensed. There was something moving above her – and no, it wasn’t a rat or a rowdy cockroach.
A little cloud of dust fell from the attic opening in the ceiling. She watched, almost in still frame, as Max slowly lifted his head and looked up.
Gladys blinked once then quickly rolled to the side as a huge, sinewy guard of the underworld flung itself from the rafters above. A giant, gold scimitar sliced into the floor where she’d been lying. The wave from the sudden action blew her tangled, dull brown fringe into her eyes as she walked her feet quickly up the wall in front of her, using the traction to push herself into a backward roll and onto her feet.
The three soldiers in the room had all taken a collective step back at the sight of a 7ft giant dog-headed man jumping from the ceiling.
“What the hell?” Mr. Shouty McShouty offered.
These highly trained men may have been prepared for anything – but they weren’t prepared for a dusty Sand Jackal of underworld doom. In fact, the tensed, obviously frightened stances of their bodies – their guns raised in automatic freak-out – would’ve made her laugh if she’d had a gun herself. To their credit, though, barely a moment passed before they composed themselves, but that was all the Sand Jackal needed.
Gladys pivoted on the ball of her foot and faced the beast, which was now between her and the wall. The soldiers behind her wouldn’t shoot… well, she hoped they wouldn’t shoot. So it was up to her to bring this one down.
She watched and waited as the thing grabbed the scimitar, which it had driven deep into the floor, one contraction of its long arm muscles plucking it up with ease. It lunged at her, the glint of gold held at head height. Gladys brought an arm up to meet the hilt of the blade clutched tight in the beast’s viselike grip. She pivoted again, dropping quickly and curling her back. The momentum of the monster brought it over her, and she sharply kicked up with both legs, landing a hard blow to its stomach and catapulting it behind her.
If Gladys had been wearing a tiny slit dress and a studded collar with her hair in two side buns, she could have put Street Fighter to shame. Though she doubted whether she could do a handstand on the spot and twist-kick her assailant repeatedly, a little judo flip was still pretty impressive against a creature not even H. P. Lovecraft could have imagined.
As she jumped back to her feet, she noticed with half an eye that she had accidentally hurled her assailant into the equally foreboding form of Mr. Shouty McShouty. The two lay sprawled near the far wall, a tangle of gray and black.
Gladys seized the opportunity and seized a gun. The force of a giant muscle-bound dog of death slamming into him had separated Mr Shouty from his assault rifle. The other soldiers, though they were now coming to terms with the situation, would not risk shooting at the creature when their comrade lay firmly entangled in its bulk. She didn’t have the same qualms.
She could see Max finally catch up to the situation. To be fair, it was a pretty odd situation. Someone he held to be a very pathetic, weak, total geek had just thrown the hulking form of a mythical creature across the room and was now going to shoot its monstrous form for good measure. It must be quite challenging for him, Gladys reasoned, as she darted clear out of his reach.
She aimed the gun at the creature’s chest as it quickly untangled itself and rose to its feet. Perfect chance, she squeezed off two rounds….
Except nothing happened. The gun did not fire.
Gladys’ face snapped to deathly white. This was not supposed to happen. She was not prepared for any countermove. She was too close to use the creature’s momentum against it. She didn’t even have time to squeeze her eyes shut.
Someone slammed into her back, knocking her out of the creature’s path and heavily to the wooden floor below. She felt the person twist around and fire off two quick, sharp shots. A waterfall of sand exploded over her back.
Near fatal situation averted… almost. Now she was going to have to explain herself to Captain Max Angus Cook.
Several months earlier
Gladys pushed her glasses further up her nose as she idly shot at the zombies with the gun in her other hand. This was a very cool move – she would have looked very swanky indeed if it weren’t for the fact she was a short, stumpy 23-year-old in her moccasins, threadbare t-shirt, and trackie dacks, standing in an arcade full of weedy teenagers. Yeah, check her out – hell she could even twist the gun around in her grip and blow the smoke away… well, she could if it wasn’t attached to the game by a cord.
Gladys sighed. Yep, another day drawing to a close. Another day spent at her boring, lifeless, dead-end job topped off with a half-hour on the machines. The arcade machines, not the gaming machines – no, she was way sadder than that. She didn’t throw her money away on the slim chance of a windfall. She threw it away so she could shoot the same old crappy, pixelated monsters on the same old crappy arcade machines. Monsters was a generous term – they looked like brown blocks with vaguely angry faces. Still, it wasn’t the graphics that kept her coming back, she just… well… there wasn’t anything else to do. She didn’t have a boyfriend, she didn’t have a cool gang of buddies, she didn’t even have a dog. In fact, Barney the 60-something guy who owned this fine, terribly smelly and aging establishment was probably the closest thing she had to a friend. Wait, no, back up – that sounded really sad. She had friends, they just weren’t here in this stupid little coastal village in the middle-of-friggin-nowhere England. Why would they be? There was nothing here for a self-respecting 20-something except for an arcade. Okay, technically there were several pubs and some sort of seafood restaurant. But they only constituted a good time if drunk, 6ft, beefy, ye-old fishermen were your idea of fun – it certainly wasn’t hers. In fact, the only men here who were vaguely her age looked like they could nut a crab clean open. There were no women her age, well none she’d care to mention. They had no doubt wised up and moved to the big smoke – not much in this village that didn’t have scales and smell of ammonia, after all.
Gladys rammed the worn, blue, plastic gun back into the holster attached to the side of the game machine.
Great, now all she had to look forward to was a short walk home, toast, and a bit of Eastenders. Or just bread; the toaster was broken, wasn’t it? She’d have to tell Myrtle to get that fixed, or rather, she’d have to ring the repair guy and get it fixed herself. Her grandmother would likely poke it with a screwdriver until it erupted in sparks and smoke. She was sweet enough, but for crying out loud, how many grannies had a workshop full of electronic equipment and a PhD in physics? It was frankly terrifying to think of her in her soldering helmet, a purple-rinsed curl slipping free as she played with fire.
Myrtle tried to fix everything, Gladys noted as she nodded to Barney and, hands thrust firmly in her pockets, walked out the door. Hell, Myrtle had even tried to fix Gladys. Fix her up, that was. Myrtle would constantly insist that a nice walk by the nice pier in a nice dress would be nice. Damn, if her granny actually thought she’d consider tarting up for a walk along the pier, then Myrtle’s ship had well and truly sailed.
A cold blast of salty sea air whipped the ends of Gladys’ long plait over her shoulder. She’d always been a bit of a no-hoper – she didn’t have a life plan, wasn’t terribly good at anything (other than Zombie Master 3000) and wasn’t anything much to look at. She didn’t have charisma, long legs, or a winning smile. Her hair was long and dark brown, her eyes a dull hazel, her face too round. She could touch her toes, though, and shoot a zombie at 40 paces. But that didn’t count.
Regardless of her lack of potential, she hadn’t exactly helped herself. She could have gone to uni – could have made something of her life. Instead, she’d just stayed in Sunny Bay.
Gladys jammed her hands further into her pockets as she tried to recede into her t-shirt. The sea breeze was blowing a cold one tonight. She quickly marched along the cobblestones that lead out onto the pier with its view of the blue-gray ocean beyond.
“Morning,” chirped the 70-something, curly-haired blur invading Gladys’ morning fog.
“Hi,” she mumbled in reply. “What’s for breakfast?”
“Toast!” Myrtle declared as if she were proclaiming the freedom of the enslaved.
“Nice…. Very nice.” Gladys shifted herself on the hard wood of the kitchen chair, its legs grating against the worn lino in protest.
“So, what are you going to do today?” chirped Myrtle as she pottered around the kitchen bench, shoving very stale bread into the dangerously hot toaster.
Gladys could have shouted at her: “the same thing I do every day, Granny M: absolutely bloody nothing!” but her grandmother was making her toast, and that would be rude.
“Not much,” Gladys said, “just going to work.”
“Oh, tell Matilda I adored that mint jelly.” Myrtle flourished the knife she was using to butter her toast, adding more enthusiasm to the phrase “mint jelly” than it justly deserved.
“Will do.” Gladys blinked, letting her eyes wander around the small kitchen. It was poky, dark, and musty. Its only feature – in the same way lava was a notable feature in a volcanic eruption – was the collection of brown and orange tiles above the bench. The ‘70s had a lot to answer for in terms of kitchen design.
“Oh dear,” Myrtle interrupted, looking at Gladys as though her face had suddenly exploded in a poxy rash.
“You’re being cynical again, aren’t you?” Myrtle clucked her tongue. “Chin up, dear; you’ll find Sunny Bay isn’t such a bad place after all!”
“I’ve practically lived here my whole life.” Gladys smiled wanly. She may be totally insane, but Grandma Myrtle was still as sweet as sugar. “I reckon that’s enough time for Sunny Bay to deliver all it can.”
“Oh pluck up, dear. You’ll have an adventure soon.” Myrtle passed her a plate of toast and marmite.
“An adventure? I don’t want an adventure, Gran – I just want something to happen!” Which wasn’t entirely true; if said adventure involved aliens and spaceship captains, she was well up for it.
“Well, anything’s possible dear. You’ll see. Speaking of which, your cousin Brittany rang for you last night.”
Gladys furrowed her brow. Myrtle may as well have told her that Flash Gordon had called and had left a message that he’d be getting around to kicking her butt later that day. “Oh good,” she managed after a large bite of toast. “Whash did she wansh?” she managed through a mouthful.
“She’s taking you somewhere next Saturday, didn’t say where, though. I’m sure it’ll be fun!” Myrtle added with a virtual thumbs-up sign ringing in her voice.
“Gran, the last time Brittany took me somewhere, she treated me like her backward, freakishly geeky cousin who she was doing the charity of introducing to the real world.”
“Oh yes, she can be a bit of a chump.”
Gladys spluttered as she choked back her laughter.
“But she is your cousin, dear. And you never know, she might take you someplace exciting.”
Gladys grinned a Mr-Sheen-esque smile over her toast. “Quite an imagination you’ve got there, Gran.”
“Ever hopeful, dear. Oh! You better be off!” Myrtle cried with one look at the oven clock. “You’ll miss your early morning entertainment.”
Entertainment? Gladys thought. Then she felt a blush warm her cheeks. “Gran,” she rebuked.
“Go on, lass.” Myrtle gave a stage wink. “He should be jogging by any moment now.”
Gladys rolled her eyes and made a point of slowly putting down her plate. However, with one glance at the clock, she realized she really did have somewhere to be. With half a smile and the kind of speed available to only the most dedicated arcader, Gladys grabbed her toast and ran.
Today was not going to be a good day, Gladys noted as she placed another label on another rhubarb jam jar. Not only had she missed the aptly named Jogging Man through her feigned ambivalence, but it was Thursday. Thursday was alarmingly close to Friday. And Friday was far, far too close to Saturday. And on Saturday she would likely die of boredom and/or embarrassment from whatever hellish play-date Brittany had organized.
Gladys took a deep, belly-shaking sigh as she scooted the labeled jar over to join its friends at the other end of the counter. She had all the evidence she needed right here that nothing ever happened in Sunny Bay. Nothing but boredom, fish, and rhubarb jam – which was an utterly unappealing combination. Her Grandma was well and truly bonkers if she thought an adventure could happen to anyone originating from or inhabiting this locale. The people in this sleepy village were imbued with the kind of lethargy that defined clinical catatonia. Well… her sample size was a little skewed, wasn’t it? Gladys conceded as another old dear walked in.
“Hello dear!” Mrs. Arnold piped up as she shuffled into the store.
Gladys managed what she hoped was a cute smile. “Nice to see you, Claire.”
“And you, dear. Patsy told me Doris has just finished another batch of rhubarb.”
“Well, Patsy sure as heck wasn’t lying, Claire.” Gladys held up the freshly labeled jar in her hands as if it were the Holy Grail.
“Ooh!” Claire chirped.
Yep. This was about as exciting as it got in Sunny Bay, Gladys accepted as the door closed behind a contented Claire Arnold.
All Gladys had to look forward to in this tiny little fishing village was an arcade… that smelled like fish.
She stared blankly out of the window of Vera’s Haberdashery. It offered a great view of the town slipping away to the port and the vast ocean beyond. One thing she was happy to concede was that this town was quite picturesque. If she were 70 and wanting to retire, she may consider one of the little bungalows on the hill overlooking the bay. But she wasn’t 70; she was 23, for god’s sake. She shouldn’t be anywhere near this place.
The only reason she hadn’t moved away to make something of herself yet was she had to look after her grandmother.
Gladys reached a hand forward and parted several stray strands of lavender fastened on a drying string across the ceiling. They were obstructing her view of the window – of the port and the ocean beyond. Not that anything was going on, of course. She would have to have mutant powers to see anything other than the tiny black dots milling around the port. Still, she was trying to maintain a convincingly brooding position as she stared sullenly at the boredom that was Sunny Bay.
In many ways, her grandmother was right: Gladys would give anything, anything at all, if only something would happen to her.
Unbeknownst to Gladys as she stared down at the port, something was happening. Though it didn’t involve her at this point, the large oblong case being unloaded from the recently docked Cleopatra would eventually change her entire world. More importantly, the strange, tall, dark, gaunt figure that stood at the side of the dock watching as the package was loaded into a truck would be the catalyst for it all.
They say be careful what you wish for.
She was not looking forward to tomorrow, she noted with a little shiver as she made her way along the cold, uneven cobbles. Gladys was heading home later than usual today. And no, it wasn’t because she’d had to negotiate the amazing Friday night haberdashery rush. Mrs. Arnold had come in on closing time and, Gladys reading the need in her eyes, had let her pick through the embroidery threads for a good half-hour.
It was odd to come back this late, though, Gladys noted as she made her way through the tight matrix of back alleys and side streets that constituted the quickest route to her front door. Things were that little bit darker. So it was only 6 o’clock. Still, it was late enough to lengthen the shadows and increase the cold damp rising from the sea. Also, it was that odd time just between everyone getting home from work (by everyone, she meant the very small portion of the population that weren’t retired or currently sailing the high seas) and then going out for a night on the town. Well, she thought, there must be some kind of night scene somewhere in Sunny Bay. It depended on your definition of night scene. And no, Gladys didn’t think the Barnsley Arms was a great night out.
Gladys idly ran the fingers of an outstretched hand along the large box hedge to her left. She could probably feign some sort of illness tomorrow, come down with a touch of the “hell-no-I won’t-go’s.” But it had about as much chance of washing with Brittany as…. Ha, she couldn’t actually find an analogy. The statistical likelihood was so astronomically small that any other occurrence had a higher proportion of probability. Come rain, hail, sun, or pink flying toasters, her cousin would be dragging Gladys somewhere terrible tomorrow.
When she’d wished for something to happen, she hadn’t meant Brittany taking her on some boring, potentially embarrassing field trip.
Gladys gripped the hem of her pocket. With thumb and forefinger, she twisted the material. It was a nervous habit she had. She chewed on her lip and stared at the ground, too. She had a lot in her arsenal of social avoidance skills. Well, when the actual avoidance didn’t work, keep your eyes low and appear distracted.
She allowed a rather miserable sense of foreboding to wash over her; at that moment, Gladys knew that whatever would happen to her tomorrow, it would not be pleasant.
The gravel crunched underfoot as she shifted herself further into the cubicle. She really didn’t want to be here. She really, really didn’t want to be here. But her cousin had insisted. Brittany had also lied, but it had been an insistent lie.
And now Gladys stood there in a cramped cubicle of the gun club, trying to meld with the inconspicuous, worn, brown paint of the walls around her. Anything rather than look in their direction.
Brittany had dragged Gladys along just so she could have an excuse to peruse the army’s finest.
“My cousin hardly ever gets out. I figured this would be good for her.” Brittany had actually said that. To a room full of quite stunningly handsome men. Which had been the only thing she hadn’t lied about; the gun club was where it was at, re eligible eye-candy in Sunny Bay. But if Gladys could have beamed herself away, become invisible, or even just walked off in a cool and nonchalant way, she would have. Instead, she’d let her eyes drop to the well-trodden gravel floor and blushed pigeon-blood red.
Well, hell, standing around and watching other people shoot – now this was getting out. Luckily, she’d quickly found a cubicle to hide in. She was ashamed to note, as she twisted her pocket that little bit harder, that her cousin’s plan was not unique. Not to say that it was bring-your-socially-awkward-cousin Saturday at the gun club – Gladys had the utter pleasure of being the only one in that group. But there was a clique of perving, Watchful Wandas standing by and cooing admiringly at the amazing accuracy of the strapping shooters. It was frankly creepy and annoyingly alliterative.
Gladys chewed on her lip industriously. How the hell was she going to get out of here? She surreptitiously peered her head around the edge of the wall to get a fix on her cousin. Brittany was still standing around with the other peahens.
“Excuse me,” a baritone Scottish/British mix reverberated from behind her.
She turned quickly to see none other than Jogging Man… holding a gun. Gladys yelped and jumped back at the sight of the large air rifle in his hand.
“Sorry,” he replied genuinely.
“It’s a gun club,” Gladys quickly babbled, “I should have expected… guns.” But not the Jogging Man! How dare he do that to her? Damn, there should be warnings on things like that; her heart was fluttering like the chaos butterfly.
There was a moment.
“Are you using this cubicle?” he eventually asked. To his credit, he was trying to hide the rifle behind his leg.
“I’m hiding here,” she blurted, “so I guess I am… but I can hide someplace else… sorry,” she practically whimpered as she realized what she was saying and to whom.
She quickly dodged past him.
“There’s a back door over there.” He motioned with a small jerk of his head.
Gladys grinned nervously. Hell, Jogging Man looked like the Universal Soldier. His short, black hair was messy, a slight ray of stubble over his chiseled chin. His rugged eyebrows met in a peak of collusion over his yellow-tinted wraparound safety glasses. He was wearing plain, dark beige cargo pants and a simple gray t-shirt.
“Thanks,” she whispered.
She made to follow his advice and slip out the back door. But halfway across the room, picking through the various gun-club goers, her plan was interrupted.
“There you are.”
Gladys froze; it was like being picked out of a line-up. She was about to get sent down for life, or worse – shot.
“Come over here, Gladys.” Her cousin gave a small laugh.
Well, that was ominous, Gladys thought as she turned to face her executioner. Brittany was smiling, standing in a small group of equally gorgeous girls, and directing her lash-batting attention at a tall, well-built man.
“That’s my cousin.” A little smile here, a little bat of those augmented lashes there, “she can shoot.”
Gladys’ eyes widened, and she whimpered slightly. Oh holy crap, what was she doing?
“Come on over here, Gladys!” Brittany waved with a chirp.
The attention of a small group of annoyed peahens and several strapping men fixed on her. In fact, Gladys realized as her heart turned up the bass, it looked like the whole gun club was staring at her. Her breath caught in her chest, and a stinging blush engulfed her cheeks.
“Come on! We don’t have all day,” Brit called.
Even Jogging Man had turned to see what was going on. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see him leaning against the partition wall in his cubicle, casually looking her way.
If only they were all zombies – then she could take them on. But they weren’t. And she was frozen to the spot. She saw her cousin roll her eyes.
“God, don’t freak out on me.”
“But,” Gladys barely managed.
“She can’t shoot until she’s registered,” came that low Scottish drawl from by her side.
For a moment, for the briefest, sweetest of moments Gladys entertained hope. She was still stuck to the spot, the glue of fear more adhesive than Araldite. But her eyebrows managed to twitch a little, which was obviously a good sign.
“Just relax, Max,” said the object of Brittany’s desire, “give her a Glock, point her in the right direction – what’s the worst that can happen?” He grinned at Gladys. “Plus, I imagine she’d just get bored watching you.” There was a smile in the man’s words – the well-meant jibe of a friend rather than a barbed insult.
Gladys watched, totally mortified as her only ally caved. With a shrug of his broad, well-muscled shoulders, he conceded. “I guess I’ll get her the gun, then, Frank.”
What’s the worst that could happen? Gladys replayed Frank’s words in her mind. What the hell kind of security did this gun club have? Give an unregistered, frankly untrained (excluding plastic guns) woman a gun and wait to see what happened?
“Yes!” Brittany exclaimed. “This should be great.”
Gladys just shook her head ever so slightly. Obviously, the salty sea air and all the plumped-up peahens were cause enough to throw caution to the wind.
Her breath was coming in short, sharp gasps, as she realized what would happen next. It sounded like she was practicing for an experimental percussion group. All attention was on her – and by all, she meant everyone. Every bloody good-looking soldier boy/just creepily-interested-in-guns guy had their eyes on her. Seriously, here was this little geeky-looking freak, and apparently she was going to shoot. Most people can recognize entertainment before they give it a gun.
Was now a good time to point out she’d never fired a gun before? Okay, yes, she’d played an arcade game, and yes, it had a gun – but it was plastic!
Gladys’ eyes widened with genuine horror as she tracked Max across the room, small handgun grasped in one of his large hands. Slowly, with the kind of tight-backed stride that befitted an action hero of a film, he walked toward her. With his chiseled features, Universal-Soldier outfit, and general presence, she should really have been concentrating on how fit he was. Some part of her was aware of this. Unfortunately though, due to impending doom, most of her brainpower was assigned to getting her the hell out of here.
Before she knew it, he was standing right next to her. He must have been able to see how utterly freaked out she was. Beads, actual beads of sweat had formed on her brow. Her hands were clenched, fingernails digging into her palms. At least she wasn’t shaking, though.
Then there was a gun in her face. Or, more accurately, Max handed her the Glock, butt first.
“You okay?” he whispered, leaning down and placing a broad hand on her shoulder as he passed her the gun with the other.
She may have been on DEFCON 1, but that little gesture was enough to send shivers down her spine. These, mixing with her existing fear, coalesced to make a strange cocktail of panic and phwoar!
Gladys tried for a grin. What she got was a manic, tight-lipped grimace. This did not have the desired effect on Max.
“Are you sure you’re okay? You seemed a little… scared of guns before,” he added with a small reassuring smile.
Of course, what Max intended as reassuring was almost enough to melt Gladys on the spot. Which could have been a plus; as a puddle of viscous liquid she would be quite unable to shoot.
Realizing she should respond before she left the impression she was mute and deaf, as well as socially inept, she nodded.
He patted her twice on the shoulder, and with a smile, motioned her into the cubicle. “Happy hunting.”
Silence. No one was saying anything, they were just watching expectantly, waiting for whatever it was that would happen next.
She took a deep breath. Okay, so she wasn’t going to get out of this. Her heart was telling her to run like the wind, but if she pelted out of a gun club packing heat, it wouldn’t end well. She was just going to have to do it. Even though she had never fired a real weapon, she was just going to have to try. How different could it be? Point and shoot, right?
“Get on with it, Gladys!” Brittany called from behind her. Probably unused to all attention being diverted to her geeky cousin, she was getting quite tetchy.
So Gladys did it. She fired. Rather, she tried to.
Click, click. Nothing happened.
“Wow, this should be good,” someone said from behind her, “she can’t even flick the safety off.”
“Great.” She’d seen enough movies to know where the safety was. So before Max had to come in and save her, she smoothly clicked it off.
Right. Time to get into the zone. And it happened. She was so shocked to feel her attention rivet to the target before her, the fear of social death melted away. It always happened like this. Whenever she was at the arcade, the second she picked up the gun, she was somewhere else entirely.
She raised her arms, locked her shoulders, and fired off several rounds. They slammed into the target, dead on. But rather than lowering her weapon, instinctively she shifted, aiming several tight shots at the other targets. Regardless of her orientation to them, she managed a perfect bull’s eye. Every single bullet sailed home with perfect accuracy, all fired in the blink of an eye.
“Christ!” someone said from behind her. It was Frank, Brittany’s demigod.
Gladys turned to see a wide-eyed, gobsmacked look on Frank’s face. “I have never seen anyone shoot like that!” Turning to Brittany, he added: “you didn’t tell me your cousin was Annie Oakley!”
With her long, brown, messy bangs partially covering her eyes, Gladys surveyed the room. From the looks on the men’s’ faces, it was as if she had just wrestled a bear in a bikini. Somewhat impressed, but mostly horrified. Brittany’s friends, on the other hand, looked mutinous.
Regardless of everyone else, it was fair to say Gladys was feeling a little impressed. Perhaps for the first time in her life she had actually not totally stuffed up when the pressure was applied. Of course, that was about to come crashing down.
Before she could turn to Max, to gauge any sort of reaction, one little quip ruined it all.
“Wow, you were right – she really is a freak.” It was the same voice from before – the man who had noted she couldn’t even turn the safety off. It carried down the wide corridor straight to Gladys’ stomach.
“Shut up, you little shit – she shoots better than you,” came Brittany’s instant, roaring reply. Gladys was family, after all.
Though a part of Gladys felt gladdened by Brittany’s unflinching defense of her, it was too late. That idiot’s flippant comment had already hurt her, already emphasized just how different she was. It’s not like she had fabulous self-esteem to begin with. Then, the one time she was actually feeling pretty good about herself – some prick had to go ruin it.
She let the gun drop to her side and set her jaw against the tears welling from within.
“Whoa,” came Max’s brogue from beside her. She felt him quickly lean down and, large hand covering her own, grab the gun and flick the safety on.
She flinched at this sudden touch. Then it hit her. What a freaking idiot – she’d pointed a loaded gun at her foot.
Well, that was something for the books, Max admitted as his brow knotted in concentration. Fully expecting it to end in tears, not only had this strange girl managed a bull’s eye – she’d done it on every target in the range, regardless of the angle, all with a speed that would put an automated turret to shame.
He watched her as she relaxed her shoulders.
Frank took that exact moment to vocalize a mutual feeling: “Christ.”
She turned to look at Frank. Stunned mullet wasn’t an expression Max usually used, but if everyone else was surprised at this girl’s skill – it was fair to say she was absolutely gobsmacked.
She entertained the smallest of smiles as she surveyed the room’s occupants. And Max noted, with a little grin of his own, that even the men of his own squadron looked impressed.
Max crossed his arms. He’d hardly expected such an odd show when he’d accepted Frank’s invitation to come down to the civilian shooting range. It wasn’t as if Max was hard up for target practice. Frank had wanted to compare skills: the army vs. the police. Frank was on the police force, see. Max had felt compelled to point out that a homicide detective had a slim chance of out-shooting a Special Ops captain. But Frank had insisted, and he’d wagered a curry to boot. And now they’d both been upstaged by a slightly bedraggled, totally frazzled, 5’2 contender.
He’d felt genuinely sorry for the girl when her cousin had dobbed her in. That look of absolute pleading on her face had tugged at Max’s chivalrous side. He’d been willing to step in and give her a hand if things had come to that. But when she’d finally lined up the target, her face had changed. Thinking back, she’d looked in complete control for the few seconds it had taken her to clear the range.
“Wow, you were right – she really is a freak.”
Max looked up to see Jimmy Ford shooting his mouth off. The guy was an idiot. Max wasn’t quite sure what he did, but on reputation alone, he deserved to be buried up to his neck in sand. Max made a mental note at that point to kick his ass, should the opportunity ever arise. She may be a little awkward, but the girl was sweet as hell and didn’t deserve to be badmouthed by such a little shit.
Max shifted his eyes back to the girl just in time to see her shoulders deflate.
“Shut up, you little shit – she shoots better than you!” Brittany Cavendish spat. Though on the surface a fairly vapid, self-engaged individual, Sunny Bay’s own beauty therapist could hold her own when she needed to.
Apparently trying to hide beneath her fringe, Brittany’s cousin let her shoulders drop, the still-loaded gun brushing her side.
In an instant, Max acted. He should really have been paying more attention. She hadn’t flicked the safety back on. For all this time, he’d just been watching her – and she had a loaded gun.
“Whoa,” he managed as he went for the gun before she shot her foot off. This, he reminded himself, was why you have to register people at a gun club. Make sure they know how not to shoot themselves before you give them a loaded gun.
He quickly closed his hand around hers, shifting the gun away from them both as he flicked the safety on. She flinched. It translated through her warm, soft hand as he gently pried the gun free. She turned to face him fully, her eyes fixed and wide. It was one of those rare moments when you can see straight through someone.
“Oh,” she managed after a moment. “I’m so sorry!” her voice was a shaky, desperate plea.
“She got lucky, Brittany.” Jimmy chuckled, his annoyingly smug tone grating on Max’s nerves. “On two accounts – if the soldier boy hadn’t stepped in, Annie over there would have shot herself in the foot.”
Max wasn’t sure what was more idiotic at that point. The fact Jimmy had actually back-chatted Brittany Cavendish, or the fact he’d referred to Max as a soldier boy when half of his squad were in the room.
“Right,” Brittany spat, “you, Jimmy, are the world’s biggest-”
Max listened with half an ear as Brittany listed Jimmy Ford’s deplorable characteristics. He watched as Brittany’s cousin, her face a deep red, eyes brimming with tears, scuttled past him to the back door. He half considered putting a hand out to stop her, but he realized she just wanted to get the hell out of here.
So off she went, her long brown plait swinging from side-to-side as she ran for the door.
Gladys flew out the door, the tears bursting forth as it swung shut behind her. Her cousin would be too involved berating Jimmy to come after her. Still, she decided, heading for the woods to the side of the club, she should really take an alternate route home. Battling through the scrub, she could cry to her heart’s content without being disturbed.
When she finally made it home, the tears had dried somewhat. Just enough to walk past Myrtle, up the stairs, and to her bed.
“No,” Max shook his head with fervor, “absolutely not,” he added to be sure.
“Oh, come on!” Frank pleaded, waving his coffee cup around with determination. “Not even for me?”
Max chuckled. “Especially not for you – not after the last time you asked me to do something like this.”
“What?” Frank exclaimed, indignation making it a little louder than he had probably intended.
Several old couples turned in their chairs to face the duo arguing in the far corner of the room.
“Last time was great!” Frank continued a little quieter.
“Great,” Max repeated with a shake of his head, “it was a fucking nightmare!”
“Nonsense!” Frank declared with the commanding tone of a magistrate. “You had a great time. And I know for a fact,” he leaned in close, a cheeky schoolboy grin spreading across his face, “she had a great time, too.”
Max blinked deliberately and made a show of slowly massaging his brow. “Aye, she was a nice lass.”
“See!” Frank interrupted with a triumphant cry.
“But she wasn’t my type.” Max cocked his head to the side and smiled wanly.
“Oh come off it, Max – what wasn’t there to like? Great figure, great smile, really friendly. She seemed perfect.”
“Aye, she was a nice girl—”
“But she wasn’t my type,” Max repeated, narrowing his eyes as he took a slow sip of his coffee, daring Frank to challenge him again.
“Oh come on, Max. She’s just what you need.” Frank pushed on in desperation.
“What I need,” Max cleared his throat, “is for you to leave off-”
“Like hell I’m going to do that. You need a girl that’s going to make you forget about your big important job for half a second. You’re not on duty all the time, you know.”
“I don’t need-”
“I mean, Christ, even James Bond had off-time, in between saving the world, to pursue a relationship.”
Max had to swallow hard to prevent himself from choking on his mouthful of coffee. “What the hell?” his brogue made the words connect together. “Are you suggesting James Bond had relationships?” He put his hand flat on the table before him. “He took women into compromising situations and slept with them. That’s not really a relationship, Frank.”
“Yesss,” Frank conceded, “but he slept with a lot of women.”
Max let out a low chuckle. He knew Frank didn’t really think like this – he was just trying to get a reaction. “Aye – I’ll grant you that.”
“Good.” Frank banged his coffee cup down. “So we’ve all agreed that you should be more like James Bond.”
Max shook his head as he chuckled quietly. “Okay, I’ll try to be more like James Bond.”
“Right – so you’re coming this weekend then?” Frank asked, a twinkle in his eye.
“I don’t think James Bond would go on a blind date – do you?”
Frank paused, appearing to think hard for a moment, he replied: “not sure on that one….”
“Look, I’m only asking this because I want you to leave me alone – what’s she like then?” Max leaned back in his chair, crossing his arms to look totally disinterested. In all truth, he hadn’t hated the last blind date as much as he’d made out. She really was a nice girl, and they did have a nice time. They just hadn’t had much to talk about. She was a secretary, and he was an SAS Captain – what exactly would they have in common? Paperwork? Aye, that would’ve been a fantastic relationship.
Max listened with half an ear as Frank extolled the wondrous, infinitely attractive virtues of this latest catch. It wasn’t that he wasn’t interested in finding the right girl, it’s just he doubted she existed. The defining aspect of a relationship was the ability to relate to another person. It wasn’t that Max was socially disaffected, he simply lived a very specific kind of life. As a Special Forces captain, he was hardly comparable to your average run-of-the-mill fisherman from this village.
“Are you even listening?” Frank suddenly raised his voice then narrowed his eyebrows at the shocked expression on Max’s face. “You weren’t, were you?”
Max paused for a second. “Umm, this… lass,” he managed, “she sounds very nice. I look forward to meeting her,” he lied.
Frank blinked. “But you’ve already met her,” he said in a matter-of-fact way, “you really weren’t listening were you-”
“But I thought you said this was a blind date?” Max tried to rally, not wanting to appear like he’d been totally ignoring Frank.
“Semantics,” Frank supplied with a little off-hand gesture.
“So, who is she then? It better not be-” Max’s face dropped as some horrid image turned in his mind.
“God, no!” Frank supplied quickly. “Look, she was at the gun club the week before last-”
Max felt an unmistakable click of recognition. He leaned forward in his chair. “What – Gladys?” Max kept his voice even.
Frank looked momentarily confused. “Who?”
“Brittany’s cousin,” Max supplied quickly. “The one that could out-shoot you at 40 paces.”
“Oh, Annie Oakley! No, not her… I think her name’s Telisha or something.”
“Oh.” the smallest hint of disappointment reverberated in Max’s deep voice. “Right… alright, then.”
“So you’ll show up then?”
Earlier that day
“Why not, Gladys!” Brittany shrieked down the receiver.
“Oh man – do we have to have this conversation while I’m at work?” Gladys sighed into the phone as she turned closer to it to muffle their voices.
“Well, you’re never at home anymore. Every time I’ve called you in the past week you’ve always been out. Where the hell have you been, anyway?”
Gladys bit her lip. Chewing it lightly she replied, “Guam.”
“Why do you always say that? It’s such a stupid response. Anyway, if you weren’t you, I’d half suspect there was some boy out there.”
Gladys blinked and let her gaze drift out of the window before her. There were big, white clouds rolling in from the ocean, gently drifting over the waves, bound for the shore.
“Of course there isn’t-” Brittany continued.
There was a speck of red paint lifting off the windowsill where Gladys rested one hand. Probably water damage, she reasoned as she tried her hardest to ignore Brittany.
“And that’s why you are so annoying sometimes! I give you all these fantastic opportunities to meet great guys, and you just shoot me down.”
“Fantastic opportunities?” Gladys repeated dryly. She half considered making some quip about last week’s fantastic opportunity, but even thinking about it made her stomach turn. Plus, that was why she was avoiding Brittany, after all.
“Really fantastic opportunities!” Brittany qualified with enthusiasm. “I mean really – how hot were those guys at the gun club last week?”
Gladys took a deep breath. She couldn’t avoid it forever.
“Okay, so Jimmy was a total bloody jerk. And you walking off like that – what was that all about, ha? But my god you were good.”
Gladys felt a blush warm her cheeks. This wasn’t going quite as she’d expected it would.
“I swear, Gladys, you were better than everyone there that day. You should be proud, honey.”
Gladys twisted the phone cord idly. Leaning back against the counter behind her, she let a small smile spread across her lips. “No way, Brittany.”
“Yes way, Gladys. And that’s why you have to come! Because you are not going to believe who I got you a date with!” There was a curious giddiness in Brittany’s tone.
“Look, Brittany, I can’t come. I’ve already got plans,” Gladys lied, “oh no, and I’ve got a customer,” she lied again, “got to go. Bye!”
She quickly hung up before Brittany could protest further.
Gladys took a deep sigh and, turning to the counter, collapsed onto her crossed arms. She eventually twisted her head up to stare back out the window at those impressive clouds.
Several days later
Max clutched his beer and tried not to grimace. She was laughing again, and it felt like someone sticking nails in his ears.
“Aye,” he almost croaked, “I guess I didn’t think it was that funny.”
“Oh but it is!” she cried between helium giggles. “You are really funny, Max!” she proclaimed with a little shrug of her barely clad shoulders.
Max shook his head slightly but managed a small smile. He thought he was safe with that one – but no, it appeared anything would make her laugh like a rabid hyena.
He dearly wanted to ask her if she was cold, sitting across from him in that itty-bitty top and skirt. Instead, he took a long draft of his beer, watching her warily over the bottom of the bottle.
The one thing that grated on his nerves more than anything else, even more than the laugh, was the pretense. Max knew he wasn’t that funny – and he dearly hoped never to elicit a laugh like that again. Maybe he was being too serious, but was it too much to ask for a genuine reaction?
“So,” she leaned forward, placing a well-manicured hand on the table before them, “tell me, what’s it like-”
Max set his jaw. Here it comes. That stupid bloody question. Every single woman he’d ever been with had always asked The Question.
Gladys gulped. She tried to hug herself against the bone-shuddering cold. She was soaking from head to foot. As she walked along the pavement, her every step was met with a wet swoosh. Heads turned as she passed. Gray beards and purple rinses watched as she dripped along the street.
“Oh, got a wee bit wet then, dear?” some old woman pointed out.
“Yeah,” Gladys agreed quietly, pulling her crossed arms closer to ward off the chill.
This is exactly what she didn’t need: another Saturday and another embarrassing shenanigan. It was supposed to be a peaceful, quiet day.
“Oh my word, Gladys – what happened?” Mrs. Gordon, Sunny Bay’s legendary preserver, called from the other side of the street.
“Fell in the ocean,” Gladys called out.
“You poor, dear!” Mrs. Gordon exclaimed. “You aren’t very lucky, are you? Now go home before you catch a cold.”
Gladys nodded, lifting her hand to wave.
She continued down the road feeling genuinely sorry for herself. Cold water dripped off her fringe and down her nose. She sniffed loudly and tried to wipe it off with an even wetter sleeve.
His eyes clearly said, “shoot me now.” Max cleared his throat and tried another smile. He didn’t want to appear too bored. If his mother ever caught him being rude to a girl, she’d thwack him with a frying pan. “Show your manners, laddie.” That was her rule, and it reverberated in his head as he tried to sink further into his chair.
“What is that?” she suddenly asked, turning her head to face the window at the far end of the cafe.
Max raised an eyebrow as he let the sound of a car alarm grab his attention. Oh blessed, blessed relief. It was his damn car alarm – or at least he very much fucking hoped it was.
“Oh no,” he said, quickly rising from his chair, “I think that’s my car alarm.”
“Oh,” she said, beginning to get up, “do you want me to come?”
“Oh no, love,” he said genuinely, “you stay here – I’ll go check it out.”
As he made his way to the door, he let a grin spread across his face. Whoever set that alarm off… well, he could bloody kiss them.
Oh my god! Everything was going wrong today. She’d just leaned against the damn thing while she shook some sand from her trouser leg. She hadn’t known it would set off the damn alarm!
She waved at it pathetically, wet sleeves spraying droplets everywhere. “Shhhh,” she pleaded, “please be quiet, car!”
Suddenly, there came a beep and, head lights flicking on and off, the infernal alarm stopped.
“You’ve got to push the button, love – she can’t be reasoned with.” Max returned the keys to his pocket as he walked up to the sodden figure before him.
She turned to him, a very flustered look on her face. And for the second time in a week he saw straight through someone.
“Gladys?” he asked, tone high with interest.
A blush warmed her already rosy cheeks as a spark of recognition flickered in her large brown eyes.
“Yes,” she answered, voice high. “Umm, you’re that guy from the gun club…” her voice trailed off as she gave a small nervous grin, her eyes looking everywhere but at him.
Impulsively he stuck out his hand. “We weren’t introduced were we? Max.”
She looked at his hand and bit her lip.
“Oh,” she breathed. She raised her hand and, appearing to notice how wet it was, tried to wipe it on her even more sodden pants. “Ummm, sorry. My hand’s a bit wet,” she exclaimed quietly with a shrug of her small shoulders.
Max let out a low chuckle. “Aye, love, I imagine it is,” he said with a smile. “You alright?”
“I’m wet,” she said, stating the obvious.
“And covered in sand apparently,” Max noted with a brief look at the sandy handprint on his khaki jeep.
She blushed even more at this comment. “I’m so sorry,” she said, her brow furrowing with concern. “I only leaned on it-”
“It’s just sand,” Max countered quickly, “you okay, though? You must be-”
“Freezing,” she supplied with a little shiver that made the long messy plait over her shoulder shake.
“Right, let’s see what we can do about that.” Max quickly took off his jacket, but before he could drape it around her shoulders, she took a step back.
“Oh no, you don’t have to do that! You might get cold.” She put both hands up to ward him off.
“I might get cold, but you’re already freezing.” Max quickly stepped in and draped the large jacket over her shoulders before she could protest further.
“Thank you,” she said softly, clutching at the jacket.
“Okay then, better take you home.” Max nodded toward the car.
Her expression froze, one eyebrow raised in a look of disbelief. “You don’t have to do that; you hardly know me,” she exclaimed, little droplets of water flicking off her messy fringe.
“Aye, but you are a friend of a friend, and I can’t just leave such a close acquaintance dripping in the street, now can I?” He clapped his hands together to further emphasize his point.
“But you hardly know Brittany,” she countered, trying to back away.
“Mmm, but she’s dating my best mate – so that’s good enough for me.”
“She is?” Gladys asked in surprise.
“Aye, they’re in there,” Max shrugged in the direction of the café, “sharing a coffee and a wee pastry as we speak.”
“She’s in there?” Gladys’ voice broke as a cloud seemed to pass over her round, freckle-covered face.
“Is that not good?” he asked diplomatically.
“It’s terrible!” she said at once. “I told her I was away this weekend!”
“Oh well – just tell her you came home early…. Because it was raining,” he added with a little grin.
“I can’t – I told her I was in Guam!”
It was Max’s turn to pause. “I’m sorry, Guam?”
If she’d been blushing before, it was absolutely nothing compared to the almost incandescent glow she now emitted.
“Did you swim?”
“No,” Gladys managed between a half-suppressed laugh, “it’s an in-joke… still, I don’t want to run into Brittany.”
Max nodded. “Okay then,” he tilted his head and looked at her questioningly, “I guess I’ll be taking you home then?”
She smiled. Seeming slightly more at ease, she shook her head and replied: “but I can just walk.”
“And have old people heckle you? No, get in the car, love.”
Gladys screwed up her nose and made a strange face.
“Oh no – they’ve already heckled you, haven’t they?”
She gave a small nod.
The laugh she was trying to stifle burst its banks, bubbling over like the froth from a wave. He found himself joining in.
Gladys wanted to grab a pillow and scream into it. Instead, she put her hands up to her face to stifle her most embarrassing laugh. Here she was actually properly chatting to Max the Jogging Man. And to top it off he was really nice. She knew her face was burning like the Olympic torch, but she just couldn’t help it.
“So,” he prompted. His eyebrows were raised, his brow furrowed, and the most magical smile played across his lips.
She opened her mouth to protest further but bit her lip instead. She didn’t actually want to protest anymore.
“Look, you would be doing me a huge favor.”
“I would?” Gladys asked, totally confused.
“I really don’t want to-” Max began.
Gladys cringed at the sight of Brittany stalking toward her.
“What the hell are you doing here?” she snarled, nostrils flaring.
Gladys gritted her teeth and tried to look innocent.
“I thought you were in Guam?” Brittany put both her hands on her hips.
Gladys tried to shift back against the car.
“Hey, hold on – isn’t that Max’s jacket?”
Gladys parted her lips, but no words seemed willing to come forth.
“Wait,” Brittany took another step toward her, “why are you dripping?”
“Because I’m wet,” Gladys offered meekly.
“Oh my god, you’re totally wet – what the hell happened?”
“You fell into the sea again, didn’t you?” Brittany shook her head. She took another step toward Gladys and lightly clipped her around the ears. “Bloody idiot. If you’re going to avoid me, don’t walk past my favorite bloody cafe dripping everywhere!”
There was a pause in the conversation, in which Gladys tried to master human invisibility. Not only had she run into the truly wonderful Max while looking like a half-drowned rat, but Brittany had to put the boot in while he was standing right there.
“Well, I guess I better take you home then,” Brittany proclaimed, still shaking her head lightly.
“Gran is in visiting Mrs. Bryson – it’s just around the corner,” Gladys mumbled quickly, her brain whirring like a twist top.
“You, Gladys,” Brittany pointed at her, “are lying.” Her mouth slowly formed each word. “You just want me to leave off.”
Gladys cringed as her plan was shot down.
“Look, I can take her home,” Max offered, his brogue making home sound more inviting than it usually did.
She looked up to meet his eyes. Her stomach was churning like the sea before a storm. She was just so damn conflicted! On the one hand, she would give anything to jump in a car with Jogging Man and get the hell away from her cousin… but with that option rapidly approaching reality it seemed way too confronting. What on Earth did she think would happen? The second she got in that car she would a) freeze up and make a total idiot of herself, or b) babble at him for the entire time making a total idiot of herself…. Neither of these options was attractive, but neither was hanging around outside while Brittany listed her flaws.
But… but… he was just so damn nice! Gladys regained her slippery grip on the collar of Max’s large jacket. He had been fairly insistent. Couldn’t it be possible that… okay so it was really unlikely, but couldn’t he….
Gladys raised her gaze to meet Max’s.
“Look I can take her home.” Max had decided to step in before things turned too ugly. Gladys was right on that account – Brittany Cavendish sure could make a scene. For Christ’s sake, cut her some slack, the girl was virtually standing in a lake.
“Oh, that’s so sweet,” said Brittany, her tone changing to sugar and light, “but I don’t want you to have to ditch your date with Telisha.”
Gladys turned her eyes to the pavement. She had been fixing him with a puppy-pleading gaze moments before… but had that changed into disappointment?
“You two looked like you were having so much fun!” Brittany added as an afterthought.
Fun. Yeah, fun. Max would have snorted out loud were it not for the ever-present fear of a frying pan to the face.
“Look,” Gladys said, her voice high with strain, “the house is like five minutes away – I’ll just walk!”
“Like hell – oh,” Brittany was interrupted, mid vitriol, as her phone rang. “Oh hi!” she instantly changed track as she flipped it open.
Max watched Gladys as she slowly shifted her eyes from Brittany to the other end of the street.
Brittany shifted around as she chatted away on the phone.
Max nodded at Gladys. She eventually made eye contact. “Get in the car,” he mouthed, as he watched Brittany walk up the pavement.
“What?” she whispered.
Motioning with his head he repeated, “get in the car,” as softly as he could manage.
After another moment of indecision, she crept toward the passenger door.
Within moments they were both secured within the khaki jeep, ready for a getaway. By now Brittany had cottoned on.
“Hey!” she called. “What are you doing?”
“She was sneezing!” Max lied. “I can’t have the girl sneezing in the street. My car is closer,” a moot point considering they were already in it, “so I’ll take her home.”
He started the engine to drown out Brittany’s response.
Several minutes passed as the jeep slowly gathered speed, as much speed as was possible in this giant seaside retirement village.
“So,” he eventually tried, “I actually don’t know where you live.”
She turned to face him, mouth open. “Oh, of course.”
After several mumbled instructions Max got a rough idea where he was going. Gladys, for her part, seemed withdrawn, the ease of their former repartee forgotten. Appearing to be lost in some thought, she turned to the window and stared out.
How could she have been so stupid? Not only had she actually thought he was interested in her – something she would have to kick herself for later – but she had climbed in the car with him regardless. Seriously, of course he was on a date. Just look at him! This man was NOT single. In entertaining that smallest glimmer of hope she had directly contravened a universal law: no incredibly hot, incredibly nice man is single. They are all dating models. So don’t even think about it.
She stared out of the window, watching the brick walls flit past, noticing just how uneven her breath was and just how much of a freak she must seem.
“You want me to put the heater on?” his deep baritone interrupted her reverie.
“I’m okay,” she mumbled quickly, without turning to him.
“So,” he took his eyes off the road for a moment to give her a little wink, “thank you.”
“Sorry?” She couldn’t help herself, she turned to him fully, knowing her face was still as hot as lava. “For what?”
“For saving me back there.”
“I don’t think I could have handled another one of Telisha’s laughs.”
“Frank set me up on a date… wasn’t quite going according to plan,” he admitted as he smoothly changed gears.
“Laugh like Jabba the Hutt on helium?” The words came out before she could stop them. Gladys reflexively put a hand up to her mouth – but it was too late. It was just a mental image she always had around Telisha… and now she had just insulted his date… his blind date.
It was like connecting dots, very slowly Gladys began to realize what Max had just said. He was on a blind date, one which he was thankful to be pulled away from. This meant two things: 1) he was single, 2) he was immune to the charms of a 5’10 blonde goddess (even if said charms would have to be enjoyed with sufficient ear protection).
Max burst into laughter. “Aye, that’s her.”
Gladys gave her own laugh, thankfully seeming much more at ease. “So, you were on a blind date then?” she asked after a pause.
“Steady!” Max warned jovially.
She quickly waved her hands and exclaimed. “No! I wasn’t laughing at that!”
“Of course,” Max said sarcastically.
“No, I wasn’t! I just thought it was funny that Frank sets you up on blind dates,” she pointed at Max, odd considering he was the only one in the car with her, “because my cousin’s always trying to do that to me too!”
“Ahh,” Max said knowingly.
“In fact, she tried to set me up on one this weekend… that’s why I said I was going to Guam. I don’t want to go on some date with some weird guy Brittany’s dragged up from god knows where.”
Max shrugged, deflating somewhat. That would be him. What were the chances Brittany Cavendish had set up two blind dates this weekend? Probably quite slim. No, Telisha was obviously a backup plan. He looked at Gladys briefly. She didn’t seem to be taking the piss. In fact, she seemed totally oblivious.
“I’m not actually that weird,” he tried, “and I have a documented background, so there’s no need to bring God into this.”
A penny dropped. It must have been made of super dense iron because it made one hell of a clang.
“Oh my god!” she put a hand up to her mouth, “I-”
“Don’t worry about it, love, I’m not sure I like blind dates either.”
Later that night
Gladys buried her head in her pillow and screamed. She screamed until her voice hurt. Then she punched the pillow some more. She wasn’t sure exactly what she was feeling, all she knew was that taking it out on the pillow sure did help.
If Gladys had been in a state that was more conducive to meteorological observations, she would have noticed the massive bank of gray clouds through her bedroom window. The clouds that had been building for a week were now beginning to form into a storm.
Later that week
Somewhere high above Sunny Bay, amongst the gathering clouds, a great electrical charge was building. From the ground, the massive cloudbank looked impossibly laden with rain; its billowing form a deep navy blue. From the ocean, a cold, bitter wind blew through the streets. It brought with it the sharp smell of the sea as it rustled the trees and shook the shutters.
“Ohhhhh,” Myrtle managed with a sniff as she firmly secured the lock of a window shutter. Turning to Gladys, she shook her head. “Haven’t seen a storm like this…” she let her voice trail off as she stared at the racing clouds.
“Since,” Gladys eventually prompted as she gently cleaned the lenses of her glasses. She couldn’t see jack when she had them off, so she didn’t even bother to face her Grandmother.
“Ever,” Myrtle supplied with a sharp nod. “I would not like to be out there today…. Those poor fishermen,” she added as she checked the window latch once more.
Gladys returned her glasses to their rightful place and blinked at her Grandmother. “They’d have gotten a storm warning. It’s been building for a couple of days,” Gladys noted as she pushed against the kitchen chair and stood up. “And as for going out today – you don’t have to, but I do.” Gladys raised her eyebrows in a half-salute and gave her Grandma a wink. “But don’t worry, I’ll take the umbrella.”
“You do realize it’s practically blowing a gale out there?” Myrtle said as she grabbed a slice of freshly cooked toast from the reluctant toaster, buttered it, and handed it to Gladys.
“Cheers.” She acknowledged as she accepted the toast. “It’s just a bit of wind.”
“Hmm… oh dear.” Myrtle motioned toward the kitchen clock with her nose. “Aren’t you missing someone?”
Gladys bit her lip and turned away, trying to hide her grin. “I’m not missing anyone,” she said in a forced calm voice. “But I better go before it rains,” she added as she stuck the toast in her mouth. Grabbing her bag and an umbrella off the hooks by the door, she mumbled a goodbye and headed out.
Her Grandma was right, Gladys noted, battling with her fringe as it whipped frantically around in the wind. She made little spitting noises as she tried to pull it from her mouth, holding her toast clear in one hand. If she opened her umbrella in this wind, she’d end up in the Land of Oz. And, lacking the requisite red shoes, she’d never find her way back. She had to work today, so that was seriously not an option.
Gladys walked out onto the deserted cobbled street. Leaves and small branches littered it in all directions. Eyes narrowed, she took in the scene, and eventually raised her gaze to the sky above. She almost dropped her bag at the sight of the evil clouds above her. If she were in a movie or if this were a comic book, those clouds would not be a good sign. If she were on a ship, she’d batten down the hatches and lash herself to the mast. If she were at home, she’d just go back to bed.
“Are you sure you want to continue, buddy?” Frank blinked through the wind. “Only I’m not sure I’m having much fun.”
Max let out a low chuckle. “When has jogging with me ever been fun?”
Frank made a point of opening his mouth and looking thoughtful. “You know, I think you’re right. Jogging with you is torture—”
Max laughed a little louder as he turned the bulk of his form away from the whipping gale.
“It’s just,” Frank raised his voice as the wind grew stronger, “I’m not sure this is safe. We might get hit by a cow or something. I’ve seen Twister, Max – people don’t walk away from that.”
“Tell you what.” Max pushed himself up from leaning against the cold stone wall behind him. “If we get hit by a cow, I’ll buy you a beer.”
Frank nodded in appreciation. “You’re on,” he said with a grin. “Right, come on, pansy,” he shouted over his shoulder as he took off down the street.
Max shook his head and followed in quick time.
Gladys tried to hold her toast as far away from her whirling fringe as possible. Every time she went in for a bite, she’d end up with a mouthful of buttery hair. Not very smooth.
This was turning out to be a very bad idea. Gladys clutched at her bag and umbrella as she tried to flip her plait back over her shoulder. She should have just talked Gran into giving her a lift; this was madness. She was sacrificing life, limb, and toast for a glimpse of the wonderful Jogging Man. Ever since that awful Saturday she’d been practicing her comeback speech should she happen to run into him. She would start off with how darn sorry she was, she’d go on to explain that she wasn’t an idiot and that she was enormously thankful for his assistance. Then, Gladys grabbed her face with her free hand to stifle a giggle, he’d kiss her right then and there!
Seriously, though. She’d managed to just miss him all week. It was Friday now, and she hadn’t seen any sign of him. Either she had fallen out of synch with his jogging schedule, or he had given up jogging entirely. Which was an absolutely horrid thought.
So, walking in dreamland, Gladys continued along the street.
“So,” Frank managed through a gulped breath as he paused for air, “Telisha asked after you.”
Max raised an eyebrow in reply as he came to a stop next to Frank.
“Oh, don’t look like that! She was—” Frank began.
“If you say ‘a nice girl’ so help me,” Max replied coldly.
“What? She was! Okay, so you left the date early, but,” Frank nodded suggestively, “you didn’t completely blow it. Because she asked after you,” he said with several waggles of his eyebrows.
Max shook his head. “W-o-w,” Max let the word drag out. “I must be a lucky guy.”
“That’s the spirit.” Frank patted Max on the shoulder enthusiastically. “Things are looking up for you, buddy!”
“You are an idiot, Frank,” Max replied over his shoulder as he set off around the corner.
Something rounded the corner just as Gladys did. She tried to pull to the side, but it was too late, she realized with a jolt as something solid smacked into her side. It sent her flying heavily to the pavement; its effect like a rugby tackle. Whoever it was tried to grab her, but it was too late as she landed on the cold, cobbled street below.
“Oh my god,” he said quickly.
“Oh shit, Max – really smooth,” someone else supplied. “I’m so sorry, ma’am,” the same voice replied. “You’re not dead, though,” he offered as he knelt down to help her up, “trust me. I’m a homicide detective.”
Gladys slowly drew herself up onto her elbows. Even though she was a little shocked and quite confused, one of those voices sounded strangely familiar. Her heart almost jumped out of her chest as she realized who it was. There he was, her Jogging Man, looking absolutely mortified.
She turned her head to see Frank grinning at her.
“Give us your hand, dear.”
She reached out her hand compliantly. With a grunt, he had her on her feet.
Max’s sharp, topaz-blue eyes were still wide with shock, and the pattern of worry lines across his brow was all too apparent. “I’m so sorry, love. Are you alright?” he asked after another moment.
Gladys was still in too much shock to fully comprehend her situation. Instead of reassuring him, she put a hand up to her hair. There was a strangely damp and sticky sensation on her head. She made a face when she realized her toast was stuck at the top of her French-plait.
“Ohh,” Frank agreed with an empathetic face, “that’s not good.”
“I’m really sorry, love,” Max repeated as he made an effort to quickly retrieve Gladys’ bag and umbrella.
Gladys slowly pried the piece of buttery toast off her head. This was not exactly how she’d hoped to run into Max, she noted as her brain caught up to her situation.
She suddenly realized with a little jolt that she hadn’t actually replied to Max yet. “Oh,” she managed over the wind, “it’s okay!”
She tried to make her voice as sweet and reassuring as possible, but he still looked mortified.
“See, Max,” Frank turned to him, “this is what happens when you run around corners. And you call me an idiot,” he added with a friendly punch to Max’s shoulder.
Max cleared his throat. “Aye, it was stupid,” he said emphatically, “you sure you’re okay, love?”
“Yes,” Gladys said immediately, one hand idly patting her buttery hair. “It’s not so bad,” she added trying to rub the butter in, “I guess it can be classed as conditioner… and it might be good for the scalp as well.”
Both men shared a look.
“Okay,” Frank said politely.
Gladys almost gave a little laugh as she realized she was talking about her hair in front of two very manly fellows. They’d probably never heard of conditioner, let alone had a conversation about it. They probably washed their very short hair with grease and spit. Gladys couldn’t help but make a face at that mental image.
“Max!” Frank commanded. “What are you going to do to fix this?”
“Frank,” Max replied, his tone a pointed warning. He could handle his flippant, off-hand nature most days. Hell, they were best mates. But sometimes Frank could go too far.
Frank put up his hands and made a face that clearly said he was backing off.
Max turned his attention once more to Gladys. Her long chestnut hair was covered in butter. And, her glasses askew, she held her toast, not sure what to do with it.
It would be a lie to say that he hadn’t thought of her since last Saturday. He’d thought of her when he’d put his jacket out to dry and when he’d brushed the sand off his passenger seat. He’d especially thought of her as Frank had grilled him over leaving his disastrous date early.
And now here she was totally frazzled because he had pushed her over. To say that he felt like he was in kindergarten was an understatement. He felt like a total and complete daft git. “Hi, I’m an SAS Captain. I’ve gone through years of the toughest training known to man… and I push women over in the street.” He was very thankful Frank was the only witness to this monumental cock-up.
Max put a hand up to pat the back of his head and took a steadying breath. How was he going to fix this?
He opened his mouth to suggest he buy her coffee when a particularly ferocious gust of wind blasted past them. Max instinctively braced himself, facing the brunt of the wind with the tip of his shoulder to minimize resistance. Gladys was not so lucky, her hair whipping around like a helicopter rotor, she staggered against it.
“Holy crap!” Frank called over the blast as it began to abate. “I think we should move!”
“My shop is just around the corner,” Gladys screamed, her words barely audible.
“Lead the way!” Frank mouthed, motioning with his hands to be sure he was understood.
After a treacherous walk, Gladys reached the large red door of Vera’s Haberdashery, her curious team in tow. With her umbrella tucked under her arm, she rooted around in her bag for the keys. She finally found them, the whistling wind not exactly helping.
Carefully, she opened the door, not wanting it to blow off its hinges in one of the almighty gusts. The bell above the door, designed to signal the entry and exit of a customer, whizzed around as the wind thrust through instead.
“Bloody hell,” Frank offered as Gladys closed the door firmly behind him, “I am more than glad to be out of that!”
Gladys nodded. “It’s pretty bad.”
“What? Have you been in a hurricane or something? It’s terrible,” Frank replied as his gaze wandered around the store.
She breathed through a laugh. “Do you want a cup of tea or something?” She wasn’t sure what else to offer them; this was a haberdashery store.
Frank looked at Max and shrugged. “Sure. But we won’t be in your way?”
She grinned as she grabbed her apron from a hook by the door. As she reached around her back and tied it, she replied: “I don’t actually think I’m going to get many customers today.”
Max stood, his hands in the pockets of his jogging kit, slowly surveying the store. His aunt once owned a store like this. From the pastel-colored knitting yarn to the rows of jam, it was all practically the same. It was strangely nostalgic standing here. Even the lavender hanging above the windowsill brought back memories.
He was vaguely aware of the conversation going on behind him. Frank, in his usual form, was playing the super-personable charmer. Always trying to put people at ease. It was something to do with being a detective, Max reasoned.
He picked up a caramel and pink knitted tea cozy. He instinctively shrugged his head back as he realized just how ugly it was.
“It’s disgusting, isn’t it?” Gladys said from behind him.
“Aye,” Max replied as he returned it to its equally diabolical companions.
“How would you like it?” she said with a small smile, her cheeks still rosy from the wind.
“I’m sorry?” Max replied quickly.
“Your tea? How would you like your tea?” she repeated.
“Black, no sugar, no milk,” he said with a little cough.
Gladys turned from them and walked toward the door at the back of the store. In moments, the sound of a kettle boiling and the clinking of cups filtered through.
“So,” Frank turned to him, “that wasn’t very smooth.” There was an odd twinkle in his eye.
“Why are you looking at me like that?” Max said warily as he shifted his weight on the well-trodden wooden floor.
“Nothing,” Frank snapped back, turning his head toward the shop window as a distraction. “I can’t believe you convinced me to go jogging in this weather.”
“Buck up, Frank,” Max said as he idly surveyed the various cakes and biscuits visible through the glass of the front counter. “Ha,” he exclaimed after a moment.
“Finally found a pair of booties that will fit your fuck-off large feet?” Frank asked off-handedly.
“I haven’t seen a packet of those for a long time,” Max said wistfully as he pointed at a packet of biscuits through the counter.
“Kiss biscuits,” Max supplied, remembering the long forgotten name, his Scottish drawl emphasizing the ssss.
“They’re called what? Kiss biscuits? They better be an homage to Gene Simmons – don’t go soppy on me, Max.”
Max shook his head as he quickly surveyed the state of the storm through the small window behind the counter. It wasn’t getting any better.
“Seriously, Max – you are in the army, you do know that, don’t you?” Frank jibed as he leaned against the counter at the far end.
“I’m in the what?” Max played along. “I’m technically on leave at the moment, princess,” he allowed his voice to slip oh so easily into his commanding, low, official growl. The effect was always immediate. Frank would snap up, looking mutinous. “Plus,” he added, toning it down slightly, “a real man can jog through a hurricane, have a cup of tea, and have a bloody kiss biscuit if he wants to.”
“He can?” Gladys said as she quietly entered the room, two steaming mugs held before her.
“Sprung,” Frank sounded like a high-tension spring flicking back into place.
“I’ll have to put that on the sign.” Gladys handed them their mugs before walking behind the counter.
“Aye,” Max said slowly, trying to ignore Frank’s stifled laugh.
“Pink or blue?” without waiting for a reply, Gladys added. “Personally I prefer pink.” She reached under the counter, quickly producing a packet of pink heart-shaped kiss biscuits.
“Oh no, love, you don’t have to do that—”
She had the cover ripped off and the biscuits on the counter before he could protest any further.
“I haven’t actually had any breakfast,” she said with a cute smile, “because it ended up in my hair.” Grabbing a biscuit, she pushed the packet toward him.
“Ah…. oh alright, then.” Against his better judgment, Max reached out and grabbed a biscuit.
“Plus,” Gladys turned to the window, “I really don’t think the weather is going to let up for a while.”
There was a pause as they all turned to the window, confirming her prediction.
“So,” Frank managed through a sip of tea, “tell us, Gladys, about you.”
Her cheeks became a shade rosier as she twisted the ends of her long plait through her fingers. “Umm….”
“You can start,” Frank leaned in as he took another sip of his tea, “by telling us where on Earth you learned to shoot like that.”
She bit her bottom lip, her face a picture of worry. “Ohhh… I… umm… ohh…. I….”
Max recognized that familiar look of doe-eyed terror. Wanting to run but nowhere to go. For all his social finesse, Frank was clueless at times. As a detective, he surely had his fair share of sensitivity when it came to watching people’s reactions. But one distinct advantage of being in the army was recognizing fear.
“I… I….” She took a short, sharp breath.
Max blinked. To be honest, he had almost forgotten their first meeting. The way her fear had slipped from her as she’d lined up those targets. It was a familiar feeling. That’s probably why he’d noticed it. The thing was, though, it had taken Max years of training to get to that stage – the stage where you turn off and melt into the task before you. How had she learned that?
Max looked up, sure to watch Gladys’ large, doe eyes as she finally spoke.
“Learned it at the arcade,” she said quickly, blushing from ear to ear.
Max had to bite down hard on his lip to subdue a laugh. Whatever he had expected – that was not it.
“The arcade?” Frank repeated, clearly impressed.
She nodded with enthusiasm, her fringe bobbing up and down over her glasses.
“I’ve trained for years at the police academy – are you telling me I should have gone to the arcade instead?” Frank gestured with his free hand.
She pursed her lips, as if afraid to trust her mouth to speak properly.
“And as for him,” Frank pointed at Max, “you outshone him, and he does that for a living.”
“Hmmm,” Gladys managed, her face almost burning. She picked up another biscuit, trying to distract them.
“The arcade,” Frank repeated, apparently for his own benefit. He shook his head then stopped. He put his cup down carefully. “That doesn’t mean you had never used a gun before, does it?”
Gladys nodded. “No… not unless you count plastic ones.”
Max was not the kind to say I told you so, but he couldn’t resist shooting Frank a look. It didn’t really matter; Frank would be kicking himself on the inside. He may be irreverent, but irresponsible he was not. If he had suspected Gladys had never used a gun in her life, he would not have placed her in such a compromising situation.
“I am so sorry,” Frank said genuinely, “when your cousin had said you could shoot….”
Max watched Gladys as she blinked. It was the same blink she had given just before she’d climbed into his car on Saturday. That same look of withdrawal.
“So, you probably want to know who the hell we are,” Max offered in an effort to change the conversation.
Frank looked at Max surprised. “Hey – you’re right.” He turned to Gladys. “We haven’t actually been introduced, have we?”
She managed a little shake of her head.
“Frank Hunter, homicide detective.” Frank shook her hand enthusiastically.
“Gosh,” she replied, “a homicide detective…. But what are you doing in Sunny Bay?”
“Don’t worry, I’m on leave. No homicides in this,” he looked pointedly at the storm through the window, “Sunny Bay.”
Max brushed some crumbs from his fingers before offering his own hand. This time she accepted it. “Captain Max Angus Cook, SAS.”
Was she melting? Because it felt like she was melting. From his warm, firm grip, to his low, melodious brogue. She wasn’t sure how much more she could take. The whole captain in the SAS thing didn’t help either. A general symptom of watching way too many action films was the propensity to go weak at the knees at the possibility of a hot man in uniform.
Gladys tried oh so hard not to break into an explosive grin. She resorted to curling her toes instead. Even the way he bloody said it was hot.
“So,” Frank said as he pushed himself up from the counter, “where’s the bathroom?”
Glad of the distraction, she gestured toward the back room. “Through there and on your left.”
Frank nodded a thank you as he walked toward the back of the store.
It took several moments of silence, broken only by the screaming gale outside, for Gladys to realize she was alone with Max.
“There’s one thing I’ve got to know,” he said, cocking his head, one eyebrow raised in a picture of curiosity. “How did you fall in the ocean the other day?”
Though Gladys had been practicing the answer to that question over and over in her head since Saturday, she still wasn’t prepared for it. A heavy, unsettling feeling spread through her stomach as she tried valiantly to regain control over her breathing.
“Well….” She stalled for time. “I…” her shoulders deflated as she realized this wasn’t going to be easy, “was walking along the pier—”
“The one by Mathew’s Point?” Max asked through a mouthful of biscuit.
“No – the one on the other side of the esplanade—”
“Near the Barnsley Arms?” Max interrupted again as he swallowed.
“Yes, that’s the one,” Gladys managed with a little shake in her voice, “anyhow, I quite like to walk—”
“Hold on,” this time Max put one large hand up to silence her, “isn’t that dangerous? Boards are rotting or something.”
She let her teeth run over her top lip. “Well, I didn’t know—”
“There’s a giant red warning sign – how did you miss that?”
Her shoulders deflated even further as she realized that, far from explaining herself out of Saturday’s embarrassment, she was just digging a far more impressive hole. “Well… I guess I just walked past it….”
Max looked up at her from under his eyebrows. “Okay,” he managed after a pause.
Gladys could feel the capillaries in her face filling with warm blood. She dropped her eyes to the packet of biscuits before her and drew a deep breath. “Well, I like to watch the clouds coming in off the sea sometimes… and you get a pretty good view from the end of the pier.”
“That’s pretty extreme cloud watching – do you climb trees during thunderstorms, too?” he goaded.
“No but I have been known to stick forks in the toaster,” she added with a little nervous laugh.
The joke was lost on Max as he blinked hard.
“I don’t, really.” Gladys took a deep breath and decided it was time to get on with it. “Look, I walked to the edge of the pier – clearly ignoring the giant warning sign – and lo, the boards on the end really were rotting. So I slipped, and I fell off the end,” the words seemed to gush out of her, “I managed to swim back to shore as the tide was pretty low. Then I tried to walk home,” she ended with a little sniff and a look that clearly read “are you happy now?”
Max nodded quietly. “Alright then,” he bobbed his head slightly, “I guess it could happen to anybody,” he added with a shrug of his shoulders as he turned to the window once more.
“Ha!” Gladys let out a gruff laugh. “Yeah,” she agreed sarcastically as she pushed her glasses further up her nose, “it could happen to anybody.”
“What could happen?” Frank asked as he entered the room, his sneakers scuffing along the floor.
“Never mind,” Gladys chirped, quickly turning her back with the pretense of checking the window catch.
“Hey, Max—” the sound of the shop phone cut through Frank’s words.
Glad for the distraction, Gladys practically threw herself on top of it in her haste to snatch up the receiver. “Hello,” she managed through a breath, “Vera’s Haberdashery.”
“Helllllllo dear,” somebody drawled from the other end, “I was wondering if you had any teacakes and purple mohair left?”
Gladys took a moment, her brow furrowed, as she registered what the woman was asking. “Yes,” she supplied, “there are tea cakes, and there is purple mohair.”
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Max and Frank exchange an amused look.
“Oh, that’s good!” the woman exclaimed, showing exceptional enthusiasm at the prospect of a tea cake accompanied by mohair, “well, considering the weather, dear, I was wondering if you could bring me around two teacakes and 3 skeins of purple mohair?”
Gladys’ eyes twitched. Screwing up her nose, she took one look out the window then replied: “of course. When would you like it delivered?”
“Oh now, dear! I’m having some friends over,” the woman replied sweetly.
Gladys stopped herself from asking how the hell her friends were planning on going anywhere in this weather. “Now?” she repeated diplomatically. “Okay,” she groaned a little, “that’s fine! And where do you live?”
“Mrs. Charleston,” the woman prompted.
“Oh yes, Mrs. Charleston – sorry, I didn’t recognize your voice,” Gladys backtracked quickly.
“Oh, dear, that’s okay.”
“So the sandstone house next to the beauty parlor then,” Gladys tried to inject a dose of sunshine into her voice, “I’ll get there as soon as I can!”
“Goodbye, dear!” the woman chirped.
Gladys slowly hung up the receiver, shaking her head at the stupidity of delivering teacakes in a hurricane.
She turned to see the sympathetic faces of her impromptu guests.
“You’re not very lucky, are you?” Max said, his goading tone replaced with genuine compassion.
She opened her mouth to agree with him, but raised her hands and shrugged instead.
“The beauty parlor?” Frank’s voice peaked with interest.
“You know,” Max turned to him, “you do need a wax.”
Frank ignored him. “Brittany works there, yeah?”
Gladys nodded mutely. This was hardly news to her.
“Well—” he began.
Max let out a small snigger through a broad grin. “Gonna go check to see that the wind hasn’t ruined her hair?”
“Something like that,” Frank responded, still ignoring him, “I could take those teacakes and blue angora—”
“Purple mohair,” Max quickly corrected.
“Purple mohair,” Frank spat back at Max, “if you want?”
Gladys looked at them both, unsure of whether to be amused or shocked. She settled on unbelievably grateful. “Are you sure? Because that would be absolutely fantastic!” She put one hand to her chest as if to hold back the tide of emotion.
“Yeah!” Frank responded enthusiastically.
“Okay,” Gladys hazarded, “well, I guess I’ll just get the things together, then.”
She busied herself grabbing Mrs. Charleston’s order and packing it in a box as Max continued to goad Frank.
“You sure you’re okay, Frank – you might get wet, princess,” Max’s voice seemed to take on a commanding tone. Not unlike the snap of a drill sergeant.
Gladys turned from rooting amongst the mohair to see Max laughing as Frank looked at him, daggers in his gaze.
She smiled to herself at the ease of their interaction. There was something very cute about it. In a way, the two of them weren’t that different. However, underneath the constant, friendly jibes, there appeared to be genuine respect between Max and Frank. She wasn’t sure anything similar existed between her and Brittany. To be fair, though, it wasn’t as if she really deserved that respect. She was hardly amazing in any way.
She quickly returned to the counter and placed the purple mohair in a box with the two teacakes. She grabbed a plastic bag from behind the counter and tucked it around the bounty, to ensure it arrived safe and dry.
“Okay,” she said after a pause as she waited for Max to stop sniggering, “it’s good to go.”
“Right.” Frank unceremoniously brushed past Max. “Wish me luck!” He nodded at Gladys and, with a smile, grabbed the box and headed for the door.
She quickly rushed to the door to open it for him. The force of the wind, as it caught the large surface area, was enough to make her stumble backward.
“Ha,” Frank managed as he headed out.
Gladys held the door open, fighting with all her might against the howling gale until he was safely outside. With a hefty grunt, she managed to close it after him. She turned to look at the store behind her. Fortunately, nothing was broken. But the lavender above the windowsill had shed their flowers all over the counter. Several embroidery threads had also flown from their racks and were scattered across the floor. She sighed as she quickly picked them up on her way to the counter. She deposited them near the cash register as she gave Max an awkward smile.
“So,” Max said as he pushed himself away from the counter, “how much do I owe you for the biscuits?”
“Hmm?” She said, her attention elsewhere.
Max repeated the question, but this time she didn’t even register his voice. It was like her whole body had paused. Her back stiffened, her chest filled with air and, instinctively, she turned to the window. Gladys had never felt quite like it.
She had never had a premonition in her life, she barely even suffered from déjà vu. But she was certain, every inch of her knew… that something was about to happen.
“Gladys,” Max repeated louder, “are you—” Max did not have time to finish his sentence, as a loud noise from outside cut in. A blood-curdling low howl carried along the wind. It was the kind of low, spine-tingling cry you would expect in a horror movie… not a peaceful seaside village.
She watched as Max stiffened at the noise. His eyes darted toward the door as his large arms tensed. It took a moment for Gladys to realize she still hadn’t moved. Her heart wasn’t in her mouth, she wasn’t screaming. She was still in that state of… well… almost calm alertness. Her body seemed to be ready, and her mind wasn’t full of fear. It was quiet.
“What the hell was that?” Max asked eventually, waiting for the long cry to abate. This time his voice completely replicated the cold, sharp authority of a commander.
Gladys blinked, her body suddenly releasing. Disconcerted, she pushed her glasses up her nose. Eyes blank, she twisted her head to face Max. “The wind?” she offered, her voice seeming far away.
“I doubt that,” he said coolly.
“Wild dog then?” Gladys suggested, her voice slowly returning to her normal, nervous twitter around him.
“Maybe,” he conceded with a small shrug of his broad shoulders.
“You okay?” he asked after another pause as the wind outside picked up for another gust.
Gladys almost shook her head at his tone. Was she really being that much of a freak? “Fine.” She shot back quickly. “Though I don’t like that noise,” she inclined her head to the back of the shop, “I think something must have come loose at the back. I should go and check it out.” She made to move past Max, but he quickly stepped in front of her.
“I’ll check it out, you stay here,” Max commanded.
The tone of his voice left her in no doubt that politely refusing his offer was completely out of the question. Instead, he strode toward the back of the shop.
Gladys took her glasses off and slowly massaged her temples. There must be a problem with her brain. Maybe she was coming down with some bizarre disease. Try as she might, she couldn’t shake this strange, unsettling feeling. She wasn’t afraid; she was uneasy.
Well, she took a brief glance toward the back of the shop, that might have something to do with Max being here, she reasoned. Having an SAS captain in your shop was surely a big tick for security.
Still, it was with trepidation and surprise that she watched the front door of the shop open gently. Completely broken from her internal dialogue, she looked up with shock to see a gnarled old woman walk in. Gladys stared, gobsmacked, at the sight of the small, hunched-over figure. Her gray hair was mostly hidden beneath a dull white scarf. If Gladys had been more aware, less drawn in by her new customer, she would have noticed that no wind accompanied the woman as she entered. Not even a slight breeze entered the shop as she slowly closed the door behind her.
The woman walked toward the counter. Even though each step was slow, and she seemed uncomfortably hunched, Gladys watched her warily. Though on the surface she looked like a simple old woman, she had the presence of something… wilder.
The woman stopped as she reached the counter. Placing one gnarled hand on the glass, she looked straight up into Gladys’ eyes. “Can-you-help-me-dear?”
Gladys instinctively pulled away from the counter, the hairs literally standing up on the back of her neck. She had never heard a voice like this. It echoed in her head.
“D-d-do do you want jam?” Gladys stuttered. Most new customers into the shop were looking for a jar of Vera’s famous rhubarb jam. She very much doubted that was the case here, but she didn’t have very much control over her mouth right now.
Gladys nodded meekly.
How did this woman know her name?
Gladys felt her hands begin to shake. She hid them behind her back as she took another step away from the woman. “Th-the j-j-jam is over there,” Gladys stuttered, motioning toward the jam shelf with a tight tick of her head.
The woman reached across the counter toward Gladys. “I-need-your-help,” she repeated.
Gladys let out a little yelp, ramming into the shelf behind her in her enthusiasm to get away from the decrepit hand. “No! Go away!” Gladys squealed.
“I-can-not. The-curse-has-awoken. You-are-the-only-one-that-can-help. Please,” the woman’s voice took on the same officious tone Max had done minutes before. But something in it sounded… well, it sounded like a plea.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Gladys managed as she shook her head vigorously.
“Please. The-Animals,” her eyes became hooded in an impossibly dark shadow. “They-are-already-here.”
As if in confirmation, another low, haunting howl filtered in through the cracks in the building. If Gladys had been alert but not alarmed before, she was almost shitting herself now. It seemed she couldn’t even raise her chest to suck in a breath. She was totally frozen: riveted to the spot.
The woman reached out her hand further. “Please,” she repeated once more, her hand finally wrapping around Gladys’ arm.
Gladys tried to wrench herself free, but for a senior citizen, this woman had a death grip. Gladys tried to scream, to plead, but she could not make a sound.
“You-are-the-only-warrior-capable-of-this,” the woman’s lips moved slowly as her grip became even stronger.
Gladys would have laughed at the ridiculousness of the woman’s claim, if she hadn’t had a much more urgent list of things to do once she gained control of her voice.
The woman’s grip became even stronger as Gladys almost fell to her knees from the excruciating throbbing. Her whole body was abuzz with an intense, overpowering energy.
Everything began to go black around Gladys as she sank to her knees and fell into unconsciousness.
Max wiped his hands on his pants, trying to dislodge the grime and grit. He’d walked outside, not entirely sure what he’d find. Aye, there would be whatever was producing that terrible clang – which turned out to be a loose sheet of metal from the lean-to. He’d managed to tie it down with a piece of rope, Jerry-rigging a temporary solution. But all the while… well, he was expecting something else entirely. Whatever had made that noise, that low, terrible howl, Max would bet his career that wasn’t the wind.
And then he’d heard it again, just as he was finishing tying the rope down. Carried on the wind as it raced off the headland came an eerie, grating cry. Now Max had been in his fair share of hairy situations, times when the immediate stench of fear was so strong that the air buzzed with it. He’d been in veritable battles, after all. But that cry set his teeth on edge.
He’d quickened his pace at that point, keen to finish the job and head back inside. Not for his own safety, but to check on Gladys. She had acted so strangely after the first howl.
Max carefully opened the door, holding onto the handle tightly so the wind didn’t whip it away. As he closed it behind him, he frowned. The bell from the front shop was very loud. The noise was invasive – why hadn’t she closed the door yet?
He walked cautiously into the shop and was met with quite a sight. Several of the racks carrying embroidery yarns had fallen over, colorful threads scattered everywhere. Max frowned again, pulling the racks upright as he passed. He walked over to the door and caught it in one large hand as it buffeted forward.
“Gladys?” he called into the wind. He peered down the gale-blown street in both directions. There was nothing. He closed the door. Something wasn’t right. Max turned his head back to survey the shop. His eyes skipped over the general mayhem and settled on the counter. Something dark was reflecting from the underneath. He knew what it was before he rounded the corner and picked her up in his arms.
“Gladys!” she heard the words before she could respond to them. “Come on, Gladys, I know you’re there!”
Slowly, she returned to consciousness. It felt like she was asleep – or just between sleep. That strange state when your attention wavers so easily. When thoughts arise and pass away. Some part of her was aware that something was not right, though. She could feel the wooden floor beneath her, its cold rising through her impossibly heavy limbs.
“Gladys! Come on, honey!”
Gladys registered the voice once more. This time it felt so much closer.
Her eyes, as if carrying out their own directive, began to flutter open. She parted her lips. Swallowing slowly she managed to make a sound, “ah.”
The voice apparently took this as a good sign. “Gladys!”
Her eyes began sending recognizable shapes to her brain – but she couldn’t quite make them out… they were fuzzy. She blinked hard, but the blur remained.
“You’re alright, Gladys,” the voice supplied.
“Wha?” She found herself saying. All the lights in her brain were slowly turning on. They illuminated the fact she was lying on the floor of her shop. But not entirely – she was cradled in someone’s arms.
“Gladys? Can you see me properly, love?”
This time Gladys felt the voice reverberate down the arms that held her.
“Max?” Her lips quivered around the words.
“Aye, love, it’s me.”
“W-w-hh-why am I,” she took a sharp breath, “on the floor?”
“You must have fainted, love,” Max explained gently.
“I can’t see—” Gladys began as she instinctively placed a hand up to check that her glasses were there. Her hand closed around them. They must be dirty, she reasoned as she slowly pulled them off.
With a shudder, she recoiled at what she saw. Everything came into sharp, vivid focus. From the high, white, plaster ceiling, to the edge of the glass counter, to the flowers on the lavender strung above her. And amongst them was Max. She could see every detail of his face. The depth of his light, topaz-blue eyes with their flecks of gray. The angled edges of his jawline softened by a dark ray of stubble. His dark eyebrows peaking at the end, drawn up by the worry in his brow. His skin, here and there marked by lines, had a soft bronze tinge to it.
“Gladys?” This time she saw every muscle in his mouth and lips contract and fire as they formed the word.
She found herself blinking slowly, mesmerized by the sight.
“Gladys – don’t you need your glasses to see?”
It was amazing, almost intoxicating, to watch him speak. Everything was so impossibly clear.
“Glasses?” she repeated out loud, as if unsure of what the word meant.
In a snap, she realized she was lying in Max’s arms.
She may have been knocked out but that, apparently, did not preclude a tremendous blush from rising up her cheeks. And, with Max literally centimeters from her, it would be hard not to notice.
“I’m okay!” she tried to reassure him with a high-pitched twitter.
She had to get out of his arms in case her blush became anymore incandescent. And that was a certainty as she began to notice the warmth and reassuring weight from his gentle but firm hold.
“I think I’m fine,” she tried again.
“Gladys, you just blacked out, honey. You’ll be alright.” He smiled reassuringly.
She shifted her arms, trying to find enough traction to push herself up. This was quite foolish considering her glasses were still clutched in one hand. She heard them crunch against the floor.
“Oh f—” Gladys began. She was interrupted when she felt Max quickly grab her hand, opening it gently to check that it was okay.
Max felt a jolt when he saw her lying on the floor. She lay face down, her plait limp on the floor beside her, one arm outstretched, the other tucked uncomfortably beneath her. For a horrid moment, he’d imagined the worst.
As he gently picked her up, her body still reassuringly warm and her breath steady, he hardly registered his own breath catching in his chest. He quickly ran one hand over her head, looking for a wound. There was nothing. He cast around trying to find an object that may have struck her on the head, something that may have caught in the wind from the open door and knocked her out. But again he could find nothing. She had no other sign of injury, and he hadn’t heard a scream – there was nothing to suggest something untoward had transpired.
In fact, Max reassured himself as he felt her move, she’d likely fainted.
When she opened her eyes and started to respond to his voice, Max let himself relax. She may be disconcerted, which was understandable, but the color in her large, freckled cheeks was returning to its usual rosy hue.
He hadn’t expected the look she gave him, though. As she took off her glasses, she fixed him with the strangest look. She angled her head in his arms and gazed up at him. It was as if she had never seen him before. Which was strange, not only because of the innocent intensity with which she watched him, but because she no longer had her glasses on. From the look of the lenses, they were clearly to compensate for quite poor vision. How could she even see him? When he pointed this out to her, she appeared momentarily confused. Then, with a rush of blood to her cheeks, her eyes widened with alarm.
“I’m okay! I think I’m fine,” she added after a pause.
Though on the face of it, it looked as if normal Gladys had returned, there was something about the way she’d looked at him that told Max things weren’t entirely normal.
“Gladys, you just blacked out, honey. You’ll be alright. You’ll be alright,” he said, more for his own benefit than hers.
At that point, she tried to get up. But as she shifted her arms to pull herself up, she crushed the glasses in her hand.
Instinctively, he reached for her hand, to check it was okay. As he pried it open, he was surprised to see it wasn’t cut. “You’re pretty lucky,” he said under his breath.
“I think I fainted,” Gladys offered, her voice high-pitched, and by the sounds of it, very, very nervous.
“Aye, well not that lucky then,” Max quickly conceded. Then he realized, almost with a little blush of his own, that he had no reason to be still holding onto her. On all accounts she was responding normally – she looked fine… and yet he was still holding her.
He quickly, though not too quickly, lifted her up into a seated position. With one hand still on her back for firm support, he shifted away from her.
“You okay?” he asked.
She opened her mouth, her bottom lip dropping forward as she appeared to think hard. “I haven’t fainted,” her words were quiet but pointed, “for… for a long time.” She moved to get up.
“Hey. In your own time,” Max cautioned.
Ignoring him, she shifted and got to her feet. He mirrored her move, sure to keep close in case she fell again.
She put one hand up to her face and, rubbing the side of her temple, sighed heavily. “Look,” she put one hand to her chest, in that way she did when she wanted to emphasize something, “I am so sorry.”
“Well, you gave me a bit of a fright there,” he admitted. “You sure you’re okay?”
She bit down hard on both her lips and sniffed. “I just fainted.” She gestured weakly. “It hasn’t happened for a while, but it’s not serious.”
“Aye.” Max nodded. “Aye,” he repeated mostly to himself. “Right, then.” He cast his eyes around the room. “Do you have a chair?”
“Sorry?” she looked at him blankly.
“You need to sit down, Gladys – do you have a chair?”
“Oh, um, yeah. There are chairs out the back.”
“Alright, then. You should sit on the floor until I get back, though.” Max turned to head for the back when the front door opened letting a tremendous gust of air through.
An old woman walked into the shop, her purple-rinsed curls buffeting against her head as she closed the door with a grunt. Rather than wearing the ubiquitous cardigan and long floral skirt of most of the senior women he saw around Sunny Bay, she wore jeans and a t-shirt. Max half frowned at this.
“Hello,” she said to him as she gave him a cursory nod and turned to face Gladys. “There you are, dear. I’ve come to fetch you home from this terrible storm.” She appeared to peer more closely at Gladys. “What on Earth is wrong with you? You look positively peaky.”
Gladys gulped before replying, “I fainted, Gran.” Her shoulders dropped. “Hasn’t happened for so long.”
“It’s all this wind,” the woman replied as she placed a hand firmly on the counter, “it isn’t good for your balance! Alright then – better take you home and put you to bed.”
The woman walked around the counter and grabbed Gladys’ bag off the hook. “I’m very sorry,” she said, turning to Max, “but you will have to buy your knitting yarn another day, young man.”
Max frowned. With a sideways glance, he realized he was standing next to the yarn rack. “Oh I,” he gave a nervous chuckle, “wasn’t buying knitting yarn.”
“Oh, Gran, no – that’s Max, he’s a friend. He helped me after I fainted,” Gladys said quickly, her voice stumbling over the word friend.
“Oh!” the woman’s voice shot up with interest. “Well, thank you very much, young man! I better get her home now, though.” She began shepherding Gladys toward the door. “But if you ever need your toaster fixed – I would be happy to oblige.”
“I’m sorry?” Max looked quickly at Gladys for an answer.
Gladys smiled and through a giggle replied: “never mind, Max.” She leaned to one side as she paused by the door. “Thank you for helping me.”
The old woman held the door open for Gladys as she stumbled out into the whirling wind.
“Get in the car, love – it’s open.” She opened Gladys’ bag. “I’ll lock up.”
With Gladys out of the shop, her grandmother paused to appraise Max. She looked him over from head to foot, her eyes somewhat narrowed.
Max gave a cough, feeling more than a little uncomfortable.
“Whell,” she said after a pause, pronouncing an invisible h. “Thank you again.”
“Don’t-mention-it,” Max said so quickly his words melded together. Without a moment’s pause, he headed for the door. “Goodbye then,” he managed as he leaped through it and into the comparative safety of the storm beyond.
Later that day
Gladys put one hand up to the window-pane. It separated her bedroom from the blustering storm outside. She watched as channels and rivulets of water tracked quickly down the pane. The storm had broken almost immediately after she’d got home. With a great clap of thunder, the clouds had opened up to dump their hefty load over Sunny Bay.
Her Grandma had been insistent in sending her to bed. After a quick cup of tea and a small bowl of porridge, Gladys had been sent straight to her room. If she were in any other state of mind, she would have found that matron-like behavior odd. Granny M was hardly one to bluster about things like this. A glass of water and an episode of MacGyver was her usual panacea. But today she wouldn’t hear a word of it.
“You are not well, Gladys,” she’d remarked before pointing toward the stairs. “Please, dear – just go to bed.”
Gladys hadn’t known how to react to this. It was as if body snatchers had kidnapped the happy-go-lucky Grandma M and replaced her with the new improved fussy Grandma Myrtle.
To be honest, she didn’t need that right now.
She let the fingers of one hand rest on the window ledge. She didn’t want Gran to be taking this so seriously. She wanted her to brush it off. To tell her that everything was fine. Gladys hadn’t fainted in years – it wasn’t serious then, so why would it be serious now?
She sighed loudly and, turning to her bed, flopped down onto it with a thud. Grabbing the duvet in both hands, she buried her face into it and groaned a little louder. The last thing she needed was this. If turning up in front of him completely wet wasn’t enough, she had to go faint in front of Captain Max Angus Cook to top it all off.
And that wasn’t everything. Gladys rolled onto her back and gazed out the window once more. She just… well, she felt really weird. It wasn’t because she had fainted – it wasn’t that kind of weird. It was this strange distant sense that she knew something was going to happen. She couldn’t quite explain it, not even to herself, but she’d never felt this way before.
It didn’t help that she had an absolutely pounding headache. Ever since she’d put her spare glasses on when she’d returned home, her eyes had stung. It was as if the prescription was wrong. And indeed, when she had put them on, it had taken literally minutes before her eyes had adjusted to the blur. In fact, she could almost see better without them.
A sudden image of Max’s blue eyes came to mind, and Gladys quickly bit down on her bottom lip. But that couldn’t be the case, she reminded herself as she massaged her temples once more because she needed glasses. She could not see without them.
Another gust of wind drove the fat rain against the window. It shuddered backward at the flurry with a dull clunk. She shifted on the bed. Her long, loose hair was pinned beneath her. She gathered it in one hand and dumped it over the pillow behind her. What bothered her more than anything was not this uneasy feeling, it wasn’t that Myrtle was acting strangely, it wasn’t even that she’d fainted in front of Max. What made her stomach tight with knots was the fact she couldn’t remember why she’d fainted. The last thing she could remember was Max leaving to check on the noise out back. She had no memory of anything that had transpired after that. And that made her truly uneasy.
Gladys gently allowed her eyes to close. With one hand, she removed her glasses and placed them on the bedside table beside her. It was the middle of the day, but it had already been a long one. With a drawn-out yawn, Gladys turned over and, hugging her pillow close, allowed herself to fall asleep.
“I’m sure you’re overreacting,” Brittany said. “Now have I told you what Telisha did the other day?”
“Brit? Are you even listening to me, because this is really serious.” Gladys drummed her fingers against the rough grain of the cafe table. “I’m telling you – I feel terrible, I’ve felt terrible for days.”
“You should feel terrible!” Brittany’s eyes widened with sudden passion. She jabbed a long, manicured finger at Gladys. “You should feel just horrible. You know what she did, you know what that little cow did?”
“What? What are you talking about? I’m trying to tell you—”
“Telisha, I’m talking about what that little backstabbing cow did the other day.” Brittany leaned back on her chair and flicked her blond hair over a shoulder. “You just aren’t going to believe it.”
Gladys flexed one fist as Brittany went off topic for the 1000th time. She always did that, always when you needed her the most she’d find some sudden miscarriage of justice and talk it to death.
Gladys bit down on her lip and shifted her coffee cup around its saucer. She’d have to shut up and listen; there was nothing else for it. She had come here with the express intention of telling Brittany how absolutely horrid and bizarre the last several days had been. How she’d had this constant, gut-gripping dread that she couldn’t shake. Even how she’d had this dull, throbbing headache. But she wasn’t going to get a word in until Brittany had finished verbally destroying whatever the hell had annoyed her this week.
“Go on, then.” Gladys put a hand up to massage her aching temples.
“Well.” Brittany leaned in for effect. “It all started when I set her up on that blind date with Max, I should have bloody known it was a mistake. And you shouldn’t have bloody canceled – it’s all your fault, really.”
Gladys nodded silently. She wasn’t surprised that Brittany had found a way to shift the blame. But that little revelation wasn’t what made Gladys hold her tongue – Brittany had mentioned Max. She hadn’t seen him since her accident.
“I knew he was your type – but you wouldn’t listen to me, you never listen to me.”
“Okay, I get the picture. What exactly did she do?”
“She’s just giddy over him – absolutely and totally taken. I mean seriously, who wouldn’t be?”
Gladys massaged her temples harder, digging further into the aching muscles as Brittany slowly wound her way to the point. “And?”
“Well, she’s a wily one, I’ll give her that.”
“Probably learned that from—” Gladys began.
“Taught her everything I know. But to use it against me?” Brittany quickly crossed her arms. “And I told her that Max wasn’t interested, and that you had first dibs.”
“Can we get to the point?”
“Well, she’s just gone and got another boyfriend hasn’t she,” Brittany concluded with a massive breath.
Gladys frowned. Only Brittany could change the topic so radically and still expect people to understand what on Earth she was talking about. “I’m sorry? This is a bad thing? It’s not Max, is it?”
Brittany’s vibrant red lips curled into a smile. “I heard that, Gladys. I knew you liked him.” She leaned forward and tugged on Gladys’ sleeve. “And as I said before – who wouldn’t?”
Gladys pulled her arm away and continued to massage her head. “I don’t understand how this is a problem,” she said slowly.
Brittany shook her head gravely; she had a talent for theatrics. “Oh but, Gladys, that’s the problem. His name’s Smythe, on Max’s team I think.”
“Okay, and this is bad because?”
“She’s only using Smythe to get to Max. Think about it. They go to the same base, are on the same team, go to the same pub, same parties—”
“What, are they twins?”
“No, they’re boys! I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but boys have a limited range of social activities, and it usually involves ogling and drinking beer.” Brittany rolled her eyes, mascara-clad lashes accentuating the move all the more.
“She’ll be there every time Max goes to the pub – hanging off Smythe’s arm, looking fabulous and doing all she can to make him jealous.”
“But I thought you said Max didn’t like her.” Gladys ran her teeth over her bottom lip, something she always did when she was nervous. But dammit, she couldn’t let Brittany know that just talking about him made her toes curl.
“That’s not the point.” Brittany’s voice became hollow. “He’s a boy. If there’s something they can’t have, they suddenly get very itchy.”
“Believe me, Gladys – this is bad. Look, why do you keep on massaging your head like that? You should be paying attention!”
“I have a headache. I was trying to tell you—”
“Why do you have a headache?”
“I’ve had one for days, ever since—” Gladys swallowed. She hadn’t told Brittany about her little fainting spell. “Well, a couple of days now.”
“Oh, you poor dear. It’s probably your glasses.” Brittany reached out and quickly pulled the offending glasses off. “They’re bloody ugly. Where are your normal ones?”
Gladys blinked hard as everything around her came into vivid, sharp focus. Every object, every shadow, every color.
“These aren’t your prescription glasses, though, are they?” Brittany turned the wide, brown-rimmed glasses over in her hand. “That’s probably why they’re giving you a headache. They’re giving me a headache too – they’re just hideous. Gladys? Are you paying attention?”
Gladys shook her head to try to dislodge the intense, overpowering clarity.
“Hey!” Brittany kicked her lightly under the table.
“Sorry.” Gladys rubbed her eyes. She was starting to worry that there was something seriously wrong with them. That and all the other weird stuff that was happening. Still, her headache was subsiding a little.
“You know?” Brittany cocked her head to the side. “You always did look better without your glasses, you should so get contacts.”
Brittany’s phone rang, and she quickly delved into her pink vinyl bag and plucked it out. “Hi, Carol! What’s up, sweetie?”
Gladys turned her face toward the window and watched the clouds roll over the bay. There were still gray wisps visible over the ocean, remnants from the storm. It looked like it was building again, though.
She put a hand up to the glass and rested the tips of her fingers against it. Even from in the cafe, behind half a centimeter of glass, she could make out the depth of blue-gray in the clouds. She could see them pushing forward, slowly making their way toward the bay.
Gladys snapped her head around as Brittany’s sharp voice blared in her ear.
“This afternoon? But that cow!” She slammed her hand down on the table, making the coffee cups jump and the other patrons stare. “I won’t let her get away with this! Thanks for the info, Carol – see you at the pub tonight.”
Gladys swallowed a smile as Brittany snapped her phone closed with a flourish. She’d certainly missed her calling – she would have made a wonderful actress.
“You and me – we are going jogging this afternoon.” Brittany grabbed her bag from behind her chair and rose sharply. “And then we are going to the pub.”
“No, I’m really not. I got a video out for tonight, and I’ve got to go back to work—”
“It’s Friday afternoon – no one buys knitting yarn on Friday afternoon. You can close the shop whenever you want to – and this is serious, I need your help, we have to stop her before she goes too far!”
“What are you talking about?”
“She’s going jogging, so we’re going jogging.”
“No, we’re not, Brittany – I feel horrible. I’ve been trying to tell you I’ve felt terrible for days.”
“You look fine.” Brittany waved away Gladys’ plea with a quick swish of her hand. “The only thing wrong with you is that Telisha is moving in on your man.”
Gladys tugged on her top again. It seemed, no matter how often she pulled it down, it always rode right back up. Exercise clothes were so annoying. That’s why she didn’t own any.
“Hey, don’t tug on my top like that – you’ll stretch it.” Brittany patted Gladys’ offending hand away.
“Stretch it, ha?” Gladys looked pointedly at the top. “I’m practically bursting out of this thing.”
“Well, it’s very flattering.” Brittany didn’t even bother turning around.
“You’re right – I’m sure it makes you look very good in comparison.”
“Oh don’t be like that, your boobs look fantastic in that top.”
Gladys snorted. “And what about my massive hips and all the rest of my paunch, does that look—”
“Oh shut up; you look fantastic, trust me.” This time Brittany placed a hand on Gladys’ shoulder and squeezed. “I wouldn’t let you come out if you looked anything less than gorgeous. Granted, if you’d let me put a little makeup on you—”
“It would melt off and cake at the bottom of my face. We are going jogging, Brittany.”
“Well, hopefully we won’t actually have to jog.”
Gladys shook her head and deliberately turned from Brittany to the path behind them. Very occasionally she came walking up here, it was pretty nice. A small rough track that wound up around the back of town and out toward the headland. It delineated the cusp between the coastline cliffs and the encroaching forest. It was certainly a lot nicer than walking along the slippery, uneven cobbles of town.
A slight breeze was picking up off the ocean. It had an early hint of winter. On a day like this, rather than swanning around in hideously tight clothes, she should be stocktaking or running errands. Instead, she crossed her arms and stared stonily at her cousin’s back as she walked up the path.
“Come on.” Brittany waved her forward. “I’m sure they’re just along here.”
She rolled her eyes and trotted up to her cousin. “You don’t know that – there are tons of jogging tracks around here. They could be on the beach for all we know.”
Brittany’s lower jaw dropped as she contemplated that thought. “God, she probably is on the beach. I wouldn’t put it past her, even in this weather.”
“So can we go then?”
“Of course not, we’ll continue on along the path just in case. I know Frank jogs along here.” Brittany picked up the pace. “And I’m pretty sure some of the army boys jog up here, too.”
“Ha – that’s so weird. Does that even make any sense to you? I mean the base is pretty far off. Why on Earth would they go all the way out here to jog?”
“Well, a lot of the boys live around here when they’re having a holiday, or whatever they do in the army.”
“Right, whatever. The ones that grew up here especially, and the ones that have to be on call or something. I don’t really know. And to answer the question you really wanted to ask – Max’s got a place on the edge of town. It’s small but nice. Frank’s staying there at the moment.”
Gladys patted her fringe from her face and kept up the brisk pace, completely ignoring her cousin. She hadn’t actually thought of where Max was living, to be honest. Well, not to say she hadn’t in the past, but to her credit, she’d only wanted to know where all these supposed army boys were coming from. When had this village changed from a lazy fishing town to a magnet for buff, fit action men?
“Of course you’d know this if you ever went out.”
“Hey, I go out—” Gladys tried.
“To anywhere other than the video store.”
Gladys bit her tongue. Her cousin had a point, not that she’d admit it to her, of course. Working in a haberdashery store and avoiding social outings like the plague really did give her a skewed vision of Sunny Bay.
“But that will all change.”
“That sounds like a threat.” The gravel crunched under Gladys’ sneakers as they continued along the path, coming to a large bend in the road.
“Threat, no – pub. We’re going to the pub tonight, and don’t even think of complaining, it’s all part of Operation Stop-Telisha-From-Stealing-Max.”
“But, Brit, I really don’t think I’m up to going out; my headache has come back.”
“That’s because you’ve got your stupid bloody glasses on again. Take them off for god’s sake. Surely, your vision isn’t that bad without them, just a bit blurry or whatever.”
“Blurry, yeah just a bit blurry.”
“Solved, whip ‘em off, then.”
Yeah, just take them off – that was a great plan. It’s not like she needed them to see or anything. Well, she wasn’t sure about that anymore. Far from reducing blur, they practically frosted her vision these days. And Brittany was wrong, they were exactly the same prescription as her broken glasses. It didn’t make any sense. It was like her vision had changed overnight, and that scared the hell out of her. But it was only one of the things that had her on edge. The past several days since the storm had been totally unsettling. Not only did she have to wake up with the realization she’d fainted in front of Max, but she’d had this unnerving sense that something was about to go terribly, terribly wrong. It was doing her head in. This little outing with Brittany may be a tad distracting, but she still felt awful.
“No!” Brittany pointed to a group of receding figures, visible in the distance as she rounded the bend. “They’re way ahead of us – we’ll never catch them up!”
Instinctively Gladys pulled off her glasses and peered at the group. It wasn’t them. Firstly, there was no female amongst the four figures. And judging by the way they ran – the weight distribution and ungainly gait – they were old. They looked like four seniors out for a little jog. “It’s not them.”
Brittany ground to a halt, her shoes skidding against the gravel. “Oh, and how the hell do you know that?” She pointed at the tiny dots. “I can hardly make them out.”
Gladys frowned, pushing her glasses back up her nose. “Look, trust me—”
A sudden, sharp, crushing, grating sound met her ears. It was like two bricks rubbing together. She snapped her head in the direction of the sound. It was getting closer.
“What, what are you doing now?”
“I think there’s someone coming.” Gladys shifted back toward the bend.
“What are you talking about? I don’t hear a thing. Stop being so freaky. We have to catch up to them – they’ve already got a massive head start.”
Gladys slowly put a hand up to her head. Not only was her vision crazy, but her ears were buzzing. It was like tinnitus but a million times worse; she could hear the snapping of twigs, the crunch of gravel, even the bubbling of the froth from the waves far below.
“Gladys, honey, are you alright?”
“Yeah, I just, I think I need to sit down for a bit.”
Brittany instantly changed her demeanor, putting a supportive hand on Gladys’ back and guiding her to a patch of grass. “I didn’t realize your head was so bad, I’d have never brought you out if I’d known.”
Gladys sat heavily on the damp grass, her shoulders deflating against her roaring headache. “It’s alright, really, I’ll be fine in a minute.”
Brittany put a hand up and brushed Gladys’ fringe from her eyes. “You don’t have much luck, do you? Just when we need you to be raring, you come down with a nasty migraine. Pity.” She jabbed Gladys lightly in the arm. “You would have been fun at the pub; you’re the only one of my friends who can have a decent conversation, even if I don’t understand what you’re talking about most of the time.”
A half-smile warmed Gladys’ lips, and she returned the jab. “Don’t worry, I never have any idea what you’re talking about either.”
Even against the backdrop of her pounding headache, Gladys couldn’t help but be touched by Brittany’s little gesture. Okay, so Gladys spent most of her time blaming Brittany for every social disaster she’d ever had, but she knew she meant well. Brit just had a funny way of showing it.
“In fact, why don’t we call off the pub tonight and get a video together.”
“Brit, you don’t have to do that; I know you want to see Frank.”
“I’ve been pretty hard on you recently. I think a video and pizza are in order.”
“You know, I think you’re right.” Gladys pushed herself up, brushing the dirt off her sweaty pants. “I think I’m feeling better now, anyway.”
Max could have throttled him. Why on Earth had that idiot brought his girlfriend along? This was supposed to be a nice jog. He had planned on taking Frank up around the headlands, a good jogging track where you were guaranteed a bit of peace. When Frank had suggested Max invite along some of the boys, he’d thought nothing of it; they often trained up here when they were not on duty, anyway. Smythe was the only one interested, but Max hadn’t thought for one moment he’d bring his girlfriend along. Hell, he didn’t even know he had a girlfriend.
Her unnerving, high-pitched laugh grated down his back once more.
Frank caught his eye and mouthed a “sorry.”
Max shook his head.
“So, Telisha, what exactly do you do?” Frank could always be trusted to fill in an awkward silence.
“I’m a secretary at the Clark & Sheridan.”
Max could feel his eyes glazing over. If it wasn’t her inane conversation, it was her damn fruity perfume. It smelt like she’d bathed in a cocktail. The only thing for it was to pick up the pace and get home before his head exploded.
He thrust hard off his back foot and pushed himself into a sprint. His runners gripped the gravel as he leaned into a sharp bend at full pelt. By the time he rounded the bend and saw a person, he’d already crashed into them.
With a thud, Max fell heavily to the ground. It was like impacting with a brick wall. Totally unyielding, it absorbed none of the force, and he ricocheted off.
He looked up to see none other than Gladys standing over him, her face plastered with shock.
“Max! Oh my god, I’m so sorry!”
In a flash, Gladys leaned down, grabbed his arm and pulled him to his feet. It was like he was a kid again, and his dad was literally picking him up after a fall; she pulled on his arm with enough force to send him skidding forward. He took several automatic steps backward when he realized he was practically standing on top of her.
The look on her face probably mirrored his own. He was a large man – now she may not have been a stick insect, but she wasn’t a pro wrestler either – how on Earth had he ended up on his butt? Was it the angle at which he’d hit her, had his shoes not gripped?
“You alright, sir?” Smythe said from behind him.
Max gave a sharp nod. “Fine. I just slipped, I guess.”
He looked up to see Frank, who had the beginning of a grin tugging at the corner of his mouth. He had, no doubt, seen the entire thing. He raised one eyebrow and shook his head. He probably had a thousand comebacks to this – but he wasn’t fool enough to undermine Max in front of one of his teammates.
“Frank, Max, Telisha, fancy seeing you here!” Brittany Cavendish flicked her blond ponytail over one shoulder and walked up to Frank.
“Brittany, I didn’t know you jogged.” Frank grinned.
Max turned back to Gladys as Frank turned on the charm. Her face was frozen in abject horror, her glasses slipping down her nose. He would have found it cute if it weren’t for the fact he’d just fallen over in front of her.
He put a hand up to his head and patted his hair, something he always did when he was nervous. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Frank smile at this; the little bugger had known him long enough to know this gesture meant Max was out of his depth.
“Sorry.” They both said at once.
“Shouldn’t have been running around a corner… again. Not your fault, love.” Max tried for a reassuring smile.
In a rush, he realized this was the first time he’d seen Gladys since the storm. He’d been meaning to go up to her store and find some reason to check on her, but something odd had come up at the base. In fact, he’d half-planned on going and buying a couple of packets of kiss biscuits after they’d finished jogging. He hadn’t factored in literally running into her, though.
“I shouldn’t have been standing around on a blind corner,” her voice was still quick with nerves, but her usual sweet smile was returning.
“I’ve been meaning to ask how you were since you fai—”
Gladys’ eyes went wide, and she shook her head vigorously.
“That storm was pretty bad on Monday…. Is your shop alright?” It was a half-assed save, but Gladys obviously didn’t want him to mention her fainting spell.
“Fine. It was just a little storm. We use to get them bad – but nothing to take seriously.”
Max slowly nodded his head. “Just as long as the shop’s alright, no one got hurt or anything?”
“Fine, just a little storm.”
A high, wailing laugh rang out from behind him. He winced against it. Telisha took several steps toward them, her hideous rotten-fruit perfume masking the subtle smell of quinces and cookies that Gladys always smelt of.
“Are you serious? Were you in the same storm? It was horrible, I was really frightened.” Telisha looked pointedly at Max.
And was he mistaken or was she batting her eyelashes?
“Oh, babe – just a bit of a storm.” Smythe put a hand on Telisha’s shoulder. She seemed to ignore it as she pouted at Max.
“Well, I’d say we probably were in the same storm.” Gladys cocked her head and appeared to sniff the air. “Does anyone else smell rotten fruit?”
Max had to cough through a laugh.
“Ha, I had Mexican for lunch,” Frank said. “You have a fantastic sense of smell, Gladys. Can’t help you with the rotten fruit, though – I tend to avoid that.”
“So, are you jogging then?” Max hoped his voice was even.
Gladys shrugged her shoulders and gave an awkward shrug. “I think I am.”
He couldn’t help but laugh at that. “So you aren’t sure then?”
“Nope, I think I might be stumbling.”
A phone rang behind him, but he ignored it. “Stumbling?”
“I’m not built for jogging.”
Telisha sniggered, causing Gladys’ smile to wilt.
“Um, sir.” Smythe handed his phone to Max. “It’s the base.”
He frowned as he put the phone to his ear. He was supposedly on leave, what did they want now?
“I assure you.” He walked around the cage, one rough hand playing with the bars. “There’s no way it can escape.”
“No way? What if I were to open the door, General?”
The General chuckled lightly. “Then it would have to get past several armed guards, scale a sheer concrete wall, and penetrate a security fence. There is no way—”
“There is every way, trust me, General. Don’t underestimate this creature.” The man paused, his eyes still riveted on the thing behind the bars. Was it his imagination, or were those giant bloodshot eyes tracking him? “They have a talent for doing the unbelievable.”
“Yes, I’ve read the reports, quite remarkable really.”
“How on Earth did you get clearance to bring—”
“Don’t worry about that.” The General waved away the comment. “You are here to help with the preparations.”
“And what exactly does that entail?”
“Captain Patreli, you are one of the only serving soldiers in the British Army to have ever fought one of these—”
“I’m the only one who is still alive you mean.” Patreli shook his head, his eyes still fixed on the cage.
“Precisely. So as you can appreciate, you have unique knowledge that could be of some use to us.”
“Put a bullet between its eyes – that’s all you need to know.”
The General let out a low, frustrated sigh. “I had hoped you would be more useful than that.”
For the first time, Captain Patreli allowed his gaze to flick away from the creature. “And I’d hoped I would never have to see another one of those things for as long as I live.”
“Surely, you must comprehend what we could do with—”
“It took only one of them to kill my entire team, that’s all I need to know.”
“Precisely, think of all the lives we could save if we could harness it.” The General clenched a large hand. “Think of all the soldiers that needlessly die in combat, think of the edge we could have if we could send one of these behind enemy lines. It would be a super weapon.”
“It would be genocide.”
The creature let out a low, rasping breath and slowly shifted forward in the cage until it was pressed against the bars. Its large, red-rimmed eyes swiveled to fix on Captain Patreli. It extended its long, veined neck and let out a shuddering howl.
Both men tensed at the noise. It chilled them to their bones.
The General rushed backward, banging into the low table behind him. Patreli stood his ground, barely a meter from the cage, his hand covering his holster.
“How did you get it here? Do you have any idea what you are doing?” Patreli may be talking to a superior, but this was insanity.
“You should listen to the General, Patreli.” From out of the darkness of the far corner, a tall, sinewy, gaunt man stepped into the light.
How long had he been standing there? Patreli’s hand slipped in behind his handgun. “What’s going on here, sir?”
“Ah, quite alright, Captain, this is… ah, an associate.”
Patreli kept his hand on the gun. As the man walked toward them, the creature let out a low whine and receded back into the cage. The man let a long, bony hand run through the bars as he passed.
“As you can see, Captain,” the General straightened up, shifting his neck from side-to-side, “we have everything under control.”
“Then you don’t need me.”
“I have been very patient with your tone, Captain, but remember that I am your superior. You have been deployed under my command; you will follow my orders.”
Patreli let his eyes dart between the man and the General, then back to the creature. Letting his hand relax slightly, he nodded curtly.
Gladys stared out to sea as she walked along the esplanade. She was supposed to meet Brittany at Roma’s for a pizza, but she was running a little late. Peering over her glasses, she watched the billowing gray clouds forming out over the bay. The last storm had only barely dissipated and already another was forming – this was strange weather indeed.
She picked up the pace as her muddy sneakers slapped against the boards. Quite a few people were out tonight, despite the growing storm and the bitter bite of the wind. She darted deftly between them as she picked her way to Roma’s. She peered over her glasses again. She could see Brittany sitting in the front window, even from far away, and in this low light she could make out her hoop earrings and embroidered white top.
Signs flapped in the wind as it rushed up off the coast. Gladys barely noted it as she started her final dash to the restaurant. But carried by the wind, just as she passed the steps leading down to the port, she heard several voices.
“Again,” a man said, “but the last storm was unbearable!”
Gladys paused, turning her head toward the voices.
“This is not normal, it ain’t right – storms as bad as this all in a row.”
“Aye. I don’t believe in curses but—”
The sound of a large rope being dragged across concrete met her ears.
“Bring it closer, Stan – that’s it. You hear what the fellas down at the wharf have been saying?”
“About that ship what was in?”
“Aye, the Cleopatra. Apparently, she was hounded by vicious storms all across the Atlantic.”
“She looked pretty battered.”
“That she did. You hear she only unloaded one consignment?”
“I thought she was just refueling?”
“No, something for the base apparently.”
“Now, do you think it’s any coincidence that it unloads something here and suddenly we get all these terrible storms? Now, I’m not saying I believe in curses, but I ain’t ever seen anything the likes of those clouds.”
There was a long pause.
Looking up, she saw Brittany waving at her from Roma’s. She nodded back and, straining her ears to pick up any last threads of conversation, slowly walked toward the restaurant.
The bell tinkled gently as she entered, closing the door quickly against the breeze. What had those men been talking about? Were the storms really that bad? And what was the Cleopatra? Apart from a woman that was fond of hiding in rugs?
“There you are.” Brittany turned to face her. “What were you doing, anyway?”
Gladys shrugged her shoulders and grabbed a chair. “Thought I heard something.” She quickly pushed her whirling thoughts from her mind.
“Right, well, let’s order.” Brittany snatched up the laminated menu. “I don’t much fancy getting wet on the way home.”
The food came quickly and was, as usual, delicious. For the first time in a long while, she relaxed completely in Brittany’s company. In some ways, her cousin really was her best friend now.
“So, are you going to ask him out?” Brittany paused with a slice of pizza halfway to her mouth and grinned. “He seems to really like you.”
“I can’t ask him out!”
Her cousin screwed up a paper napkin and threw it at her. It sailed past Gladys’ ear.
“Oh come on, why not?” Brittany paused with an extra cheesy slice of pizza halfway to her mouth.
Gladys’ glasses slipped all the way down her nose as she shook her head vehemently.
“I see you’re feeling better, then. Your color’s back and everything,” Brittany finally changed the topic.
Gladys shrugged, her glasses now practically falling off. “I feel fine, to tell you the truth.”
“Good. So what video are we going to get tonight? I’m willing to get action, so long as there’s no blood and the lead is cute.”
The meal was quickly over, and the girls rose and paid the bill. Brittany huddled against the wind as they walked out the door, pulling her cardigan close. Gladys was surprised that Brittany owned anything so frumpy, but could hardly complain considering she herself was decked out in sweatpants and a woolen jumper.
As they walked along the boardwalk, the waves splashing against the rocks below, Gladys strained her head toward the docks. She heard nothing; the men from before had obviously secured their boat and gone in to shelter from the coming storm.
Max grabbed his beer bottle in one hand and let the other hand beat against his leg. He had only just got back from the base. He was supposed to be on holiday, and what had he been called in for? A bloody introduction. Some Captain was up from London or something, and they had deemed fit to haul Max in just to show him around. Was that really what he had joined the army for – meet and greet?
“Quick, Max, the wind’s changing, last chance to smile,” Frank said.
He banged his beer down on the table a little harder than he’d intended.
“Right, you’re not in the mood, are you?”
“What the hell were they thinking? I’m on bloody leave.”
“Bad day at the office? Come on, it’s not like you need another job.”
“What I need is to be taken seriously. They don’t bloody need me to run rudimentary security tests and shepherd guests around. Incursions behind enemy lines, aye, I can do that, but checking on security when I’m on holiday? I know this is a small base, but there are a hundred guys that could have done that. And showing some VIP around? He’s not even here to train with us, what the hell does it have to do with me?”
Frank pointed to Max’s beer and made drinking motions. “That’s what alcohol is for – it can answer any unsolved question.”
“That’s a very responsible attitude, Detective.”
“I thought you’d be impressed. Seriously, though, if you are going to be like this all night, I’m going to have to avoid you.”
“Thanks for being such a good friend.” Max nodded.
“Oh no, you lost the right to call me a friend when you took me on my millionth jog.”
“I’m just doing my bit for the Met.” Max shifted back on the uncomfortable bench.
“Of course you are. I’m afraid we’re out of medals, though.”
“The look on your face is rewarding enough.”
“Are you smiling, Max?”
He shook his head and took a gulp of his beer. Frank rolled his eyes.
The door to the crowded pub opened, the bell overhead clanging in the wind. A large, heavyset man walked in. He picked his way through the noisy patrons and walked toward the bar.
“Gosh, friend of yours? Or should we call Arnie and tell him the Terminator is back.”
Max looked up to see the familiar but unwelcome face of Captain Mark Patreli.
“Oh Christ, what’s he doing here?” He was sure Patreli was nice enough socially, but the man was the coldest captain he’d ever met. He had the booming voice of a drill sergeant, but hardly ever spoke. He was reserved, but not in a shy way; he appeared to be constantly watching, calculating. They were the same rank, and while Max may not have expected to be friends at first sight, Patreli hadn’t relaxed one bit around him. And as the hulk of a man made his way up to their table, the Captain looked incapable of camaraderie, full stop.
Max pushed himself forward on the bench and sat up straight. “Captain, care to join us?”
Patreli nodded at Frank, who returned it.
“I was wondering if I could have a second of your time.”
“It’s a Friday night – why don’t you sit down and have a drink with us?” Frank took a swig of his beer and gestured to the table.
“I can’t, I have Gladys tied up outside.”
Frank spat his beer all over Max. “What?”
Max wiped his face with one sleeve. “It’s his dog.”
Frank’s eyebrows shot up. “Right, right okay. Sorry.” He turned to Patreli. “I know a Gladys.”
Patreli motioned toward the door of the pub with a flick of his head. Max quickly rose to follow him. When they both reached the icy street beyond, Patreli turned to him.
“This is quite a small town.” He walked over to a large German Shepherd tied to a park bench. The dog sat ramrod straight and watched Max warily.
“I guess.” Where exactly was this going?
“What security measures does it have in place?”
“I’m sorry?” Max gave Patreli a sideways glance.
Patreli leaned down and gave the dog a quick pat, untying her leash from the bench leg. “In your opinion, what kind of disaster measures could be effectively enacted?”
“Captain, I am interested in the security of this town, what contingency plans are in place should a disaster arise?”
Max cocked his head and narrowed his eyes. “I—”
“You are an SAS Captain, I’m only asking for your opinion.”
His opinion? Why on Earth would Patreli want his opinion on the security capability, or lack thereof, of Sunny Bay? Sure, there were plans in place, just as there would be with any town close to a military base – but these were all as per regulation. What was he actually asking?
“Do you mean what do I actually think would happen, regardless of the measures?”
Patreli nodded sharply, sitting heavily on the bench.
“It depends on the nature of the disaster, but honestly, due to its isolation—”
“How long have you worked under General Hunter?”
Max shook his head at the sudden change in topic. Why was Patreli asking all these questions? Was this some kind of investigation?
“Not that long, he only just transferred.”
Patreli’s expression didn’t change. He sat there with his arms crossed, the leash hanging loosely in one large, rough hand.
Patreli was obviously waiting for some sort of character assessment, for Max to spell out what he really thought of Hunter, but there was no way he was going to do that. He’d just met Patreli, granted he’d never really trusted the General, but he wasn’t going to blurt that out now.
All of a sudden, Gladys the dog leaped to all fours, her sleek fur puffed along her long back. Before Patreli could snap his hand around the leash, she sped off along the esplanade, barking wildly.
“Gladys!” Patreli jumped to his feet and ran after her.
Max sat there for a moment before he decided to go help. He had intended on spending the night in the pub annoying Frank. No part of him wanted to chase an errant dog across the countryside.
What was Patreli doing with such a badly trained dog, anyway? When he’d first clapped eyes on the giant Shepherd, he would have sworn it was a military dog. A military-trained dog would never give chase without command, though.
Max sighed heavily as he leaped to his feet and launched into a sprint after the fleeing Gladys… the dog.
Gladys chuckled lightly as she walked along the road. Brittany had decided it was much more efficient to split up, sending Gladys to the video store while she went to the shops to buy snacks. Of course this meant she was free to pick any DVD she wanted.
She pounded along the pavement in the direction of the video store. For some unknown reason, it wasn’t on the esplanade. The breeze had really picked up from before; it blew hard against her face as she pressed forward. Surprisingly, she didn’t feel that cold.
Suddenly, she hesitated. There was a muted scampering noise from the other end of the street and far off she could hear shouts. She couldn’t make out the exact words, the wind blowing in the other direction, but there was an insistence to the voice. It was the strangest feeling, but her chest and shoulders seized with a sudden contraction and her arms and legs tensed.
Without consciously thinking about it, she snatched her glasses from her face and tucked them into a pocket. Through the darkness, she could see a low shadow shooting toward her. She leaped to the side just as the giant German Shepherd skidded to a halt centimeters from where she’d been standing. Gladys landed deftly a meter away, her brain eventually realizing that had been no ordinary leap. She hadn’t just dodged to the side. Somehow, impossibly, she had actually flipped! She’d done a side somersault and had landed perfectly balanced on the balls of her feet.
Rather than attacking, the dog looked at her expectantly. It kinda looked surprised, but it wasn’t a patch on what Gladys felt. Still, the dog didn’t launch itself at her jugular. It tilted its head and sniffed the air. It gave a light bark and moved slowly toward her.
Gladys’ heart was pounding with a ferocity she had never felt before. Every centimeter of her body tingled with a frantic intensity, and her breath came hard and fast. What the hell was that? She had flipped like Spider-Man! She’d never done gymnastics – how on Earth had she done that?
The dog gently padded toward her, still sniffing the air. She was so caught up with her sudden acrobatics that she didn’t notice when it affectionately nudged her hand, its wet nose playing along her skin. She looked down at it, eyes wide.
It was a bloody giant German Shepherd. It looked like the kind of dog that would guard a bank vault and tear to pieces any aspiring thieves. What the hell was it doing? It had rushed up to her like a bat out of hell only to nuzzle her hand, was it chemically unstable?
The dog let out a soft yelp and looked up at her expectantly.
“What? What do you want?”
The dog took several steps back the way it had come, then stopped suddenly and turned to bark again.
It took several more short steps, its leash dragging along the cobbles. Gladys looked down at it. So it was some kind of escapee then, she thought as she walked up to it.
She’d always had an ambivalent relationship with dogs, especially big ones. And they’d usually returned the favor, but not this one. What did it want with her? Where had it escaped from?
The dog yelped again, this time more insistently – raising its gracious neck and snapping at the air.
It certainly didn’t look like it wanted to kill her. It looked, well, like it wanted to show her something…. Was this some kind of Lassie moment? What was she going to do? She was supposed to meet up with Brittany, she couldn’t amuse herself with following some lost dog around the dark streets of Sunny Bay. But she couldn’t leave it here either.
Gladys leaned down very slowly and picked up the leash. Thankfully the dog didn’t start mauling her, rather it turned and licked her face affectionately.
“Okay, boy, down!” Giggling, she rose, the leash firmly held in one hand.
The dog licked her hand one last time for good measure, then set off back down the street. She walked along behind it, not knowing where she was going to end up. Several times the leash pulled tight, and the poor dog was snapped back with a yelp. Rather than dragging her along, Gladys found she had to be very careful to maintain enough slack so the poor creature didn’t garrote itself.
They maintained an impressive speed as they dashed along the side streets and darted through the back alleys. They seemed to be heading back toward the esplanade and the residential properties around it. Perhaps that’s where its owner was, that or a burning barn full of children and kittens.
“So where exactly are we going, boy?” She asked a couple of times. All she ever got in reply was a sharp bark.
On several occasions the dog stopped suddenly, causing Gladys to almost barrel into its back, and it sniffed the air earnestly. Then it would set off again with a slight directional change. It took her several minutes to realize the dog was following the shouts. Indeed, they grew louder as they neared the boardwalk.
“Gladys!” She snapped her head in the direction of the shout. She hadn’t been able to make out the exact word through the driving wind. Why was someone calling her? It was a low, booming tone, and she was quite sure she did not recognize it.
The dog responded, though, barking louder and straining against its leash.
“Gladys!” A large, hulking figure appeared out of the shadows of a dimly lit alley at the beginning of the esplanade.
“Ah!” Gladys gave a little yelp of her own.
The figure ignored her cry and rushed up to them. As it emerged from the half-light, she could make out a tall man, probably in his early thirties, heavy set with dark eyes and close-cropped dark hair.
She took several shuddering steps backward as the man barreled toward her.
“What the hell do you think you are doing, Gladys? You shouldn’t run away from me.”
Her breath caught in her throat, and her stomach kicked at his words.
Who the hell was this guy, and how did he know her? What was he talking about?
He stopped in front of them, a stern expression on his face.
Gladys tried to do something, to say something, but she found herself riveted to the spot.
“Gladys!” She turned her head to see yet another imposing figure emerge from the dark alley.
She knew that voice. “Max!” she couldn’t keep the pathetic waver from her voice.
He half-jogged toward them. “So you found her then?”
Her jaw dropped at his words, Max knew this guy? What the hell was going on here?
As if picking up on her surge of emotion, the dog shifted back toward her and gave a sharp bark. Her hand tightened around the leash.
“Apparently.” The large man nodded at her. “I think I’ll have to tie you up when I get home, Gladys.”
Gladys yelped in fear and barreled backward.
“Whoa! No, no, no, no, no – he’s talking about the dog. The dog’s called Gladys, too.” Max put both hands up as if to underline the innocence of the mistake.
Her whole body deflated, and she shook her head. The dog was called Gladys, she thought as she tried to smile, of course it was called Gladys. What was she thinking? That she was going to be attacked and tied up? Ha, now she’d made a bloody idiot out of herself yet again in front of the wonderful Max Cook.
“Right, sorry – of course it is.”
The man with Max held out a large, rough hand. “Sorry for the mistake, ma’am, if I had known—”
“No, no, of course not.” She quickly handed the leash over.
An awkward silence descended over the group.
“Where did you find her?” Max took several steps toward her. He lifted a hand up as if to pat her on the back, but evidently decided against it and it dropped to his side instead.
“Umm, up Goat’s Hill. It—” She ground to a halt. What was she going to tell them? It came barreling out of the darkness at her, and she’d somersaulted to the side? Then it had led her like Lassie back to the boardwalk? They’d think she was mad. “Was just sitting there whining so I, umm, grabbed the leash and thought I’d take it… to the police station.” She desperately hoped they’d believe her pathetic story even though her voice wavered like a leaf in the wind.
The man’s eyes didn’t move. In fact, his face remained stony and cold. He appeared to be watching her, probably trying to catch her out in her lie. She blushed at his piercing gaze.
He was really quite attractive, or would have been, were it not for his calculating demeanor. He seemed to exude an aura of preparedness; his back straight and jaw stiff. It was exhausting just to watch and more than a little threatening. If Max hadn’t come along and sorted out this little mix-up, she would probably be babbling like a little girl.
“I see.” The man twisted the leash several times around his hand. “Well, thank you very much for finding her.”
She found herself nodding meekly.
“Yeah, saved us running around the countryside.” Max smiled warmly. “What were you doing, anyway?”
“Oh shit.” She suddenly remembered that Brittany was waiting for her. “I was supposed to meet Brittany. I’m probably really late now.” She looked at her watch, her stomach sinking. Her little doggy adventure had taken almost 10 minutes – Brittany was going to kill her. It would take her another 20 minutes to get the DVD and go back to Brit’s, and by that time she would be well and truly late.
“Thank you again, ma’am.” The man didn’t wait for a reply and, tugging on the leash, turned to walk away. The dog had other ideas though and planted its powerful legs to the ground. “Gladys, get a move on.”
Gladys the dog yelped and pulled against her leash, straining toward the real Gladys. The man planted his own legs against the dog’s considerable power.
“Wow, I think she likes you, Gladys.” Max frowned at the dog.
“Gladys, come on.”
The dog strained toward her, its front feet scrabbling against the smooth boards. What on Earth was it doing? It had only just met her, and yet it was acting like she was its owner.
“Ummm…” what was she supposed to do?
The man tugged harder on the leash, wrenching the insistent dog backward. “Gladys,” his voice was a very low growl.
The dog reacted, whining at the reprimand and slackening off the leash.
Max turned to her as the man dragged Gladys the German Shepherd back along the esplanade. Her Jogging Man looked completely confused.
“Thank you.” She had no idea why she’d just said that – what exactly was she supposed to be thankful for?
“Who was that?”
“Ah, it was just one of the captains from the base. Visiting captains,” Max corrected himself.
“Oh.” She stared at her feet.
“Where are your glasses?”
Her eyes widened at the question. Where were her glasses? She’d taken them off when the dog had sped toward her, and she’d never put them back on. She hadn’t even noticed. “I, ah, got contacts.”
“Oh… looks good.”
She felt her cheeks erupt into a blush. “Thanks.”
“I left Frank in the pub.” He pointed back down the boardwalk.
“And I should probably be getting back to Brittany.”
There was an awkward moment as they both looked at each other. Max eventually nodded at her and set off toward the pub.
“Bye,” he called over a shoulder.
“Bye,” Gladys replied.
The ocean churned, slapping the sea wall with a vicious ferocity. White froth bubbled along the rocks as wave after wave crashed against them. A swirling wind drove through the pitch-black night pushing the billowing clouds closer and closer to shore.
The dim lights of the houses and shops of Sunny Bay barely broke through the encompassing darkness. Even the lightning strikes out to sea could not penetrate the gloom.
Along the wet sand, silent footfall fell. Large, long, clawed footprints were quickly washed away by the lapping waves.
As the lightning strikes grew closer, little flashes illuminated the thin strip of sand below the pier in shades of gray, dark blue and glints of gold.
Bob McGetty grabbed at the rope securing his boat and tugged once more, it dragged along the soaked boards sounding like a bread knife through cardboard. In all his 40 years of fishing, he had never seen a storm quite like this.
Not another soul was out tonight. They were all holed up inside against the bitter cold and wind. Bob intended to join them directly. But as he trudged back along the port, his black mackintosh barely protecting him from the driving sheets of rain, something caught his eye. He paused and strained his neck toward the wall, freezing drops of water gushing off his hat and down his exposed neck.
Amongst the flashes of lightning, it looked as though something was climbing the sea wall. Bob took several steps closer to the edge of the port, his eyes widening to let in what little light there was. Indeed, it looked as though several dark shapes were scampering up the side of the sea wall. But it was a sheer, wet wall. No creature would be able to gain purchase on its slimy surface.
Still, Bob stood entranced, waiting for the next flash of lightning. His hands, which were jammed into the large pockets of his coat, grew wet with sweat as his eyes fixed on the wall. When another flash came, there was nothing, save for the same sea wall that there had always been.
Shaking his head and turning away, Bob made good on his promise to return home. But as he did, his galoshes slapping against the pooling puddles, he was ashamed to say his pace was sharp and quick. It may have been a trick of the light, but one thing was for sure, he did not want to wait around in this storm to find out.
Gladys thrust herself against the sandstone wall behind her. She wanted to melt through it and pass into the safety beyond. But the scratching sound of claws scampering on stone cut through the air.
Her breathing faltered, and she pushed herself off the wall again, diving into a mad run away from that terrible sound. How long had she been running? How long had that thing been chasing her?
She pelted around another dark corner, not knowing what she would encounter. Dark passages and rooms led off this never-ending corridor, and it seemed no matter how long she ran, she could not reach its end.
The thing behind her gave a grating howl which was met by another further behind.
Beads of sweat fell from her brow, trickling down her ruddy face with an icy sting. The imposing walls of the tunnel seemed to press against her as she rushed between them. The sandy cream-colored walls were barely lit by the weak flicker of torches. The torches cast dancing shadows along the passage, playing against the strange paintings that lined the cracked walls.
The floor beneath her was cold and dusted with sand and chunks of fallen rock and mortar, they grated against her bare feet, and she ran on paying no heed to the pain.
Somewhere, deep within the belly of this structure, a low mumbling chant penetrated through the thick walls. Its deep rumble and the pounding of a drum shook the floor below her. She couldn’t make out what the voices chanted, but steadily it grew louder and more fervent.
Somewhere inside her head a voice told her to stop running, to turn and put up a fight. She ignored it and strove on, her heart beating wildly.
She had to stop and turn around, she couldn’t run anymore; she wouldn’t get anywhere. Turn and fight. Turn and fight. For god’s sake, turn and fight.
The scrabbling grew louder, and a low growl erupted from the far end of the tunnel.
Her legs were becoming heavy with overuse, just as the growls grew closer.
Just turn and fight! Stop running, you can’t get away from them! For crying out loud – fight!
From behind her, she could hear the ragged breath of one of the creatures and the low cry as it leaped for her.
With a start, Gladys woke, snapping forward in her bed. She placed a hand over her beating heart and sucked in a breath.
What an awful nightmare! What a hideous, terrible, awful dream.
She grabbed at the glass on her bedside table and gulped down several mouthfuls of water. Her body was still on high alert, her hands and feet tingling with unused energy.
The clock, impossibly, read 7:29. It felt like she had only just gone to bed, how could it already be the morning? But the dim sunlight streaming through the gap in her curtains confirmed that it was indeed time to get up. As the clock flicked to 7:30, the radio clicked on with a buzz. She barely noted it as she shakily threw back the covers.
It really wasn’t a good way to start the day, Gladys reflected as she stared out of the shop window. It was always draining to wake up from a dream, but to snap awake from a nightmare was horrible. She’d begun the day with a terrible, unmovable feeling that someone, or something, was chasing her. She kept on checking over her shoulder as she’d walked to work and even now, safely inside the shop, she wanted to plant her back against the wall and collapse into her arms.
Her grandmother had shaken her head silently when Gladys had appeared in the kitchen, face pale and sweaty. In fact, the crazy old dear had been acting fairly oddly since Gladys had fainted, always peering at her and tutting. But then again, Grandma Myrtle had never been normal.
Gladys sighed again, pushing herself closer to the window, a slight cold breeze blowing through the cracks and chilling her face. The storm that had built over the weekend had finally broken last night, sending a deluge of water and ferocious wind through Sunny Bay. At several points through the night, she’d been sure her window would blow in.
The day was turning out to be, surprisingly, slow. No one in his or her right mind would come out on this blustery morning. The roads were still glistening from last night’s rain, and the pavement was drowned under massive puddles. It was a good thing, really; she was in no mind to deal with people. Every time she closed her eyes, last night’s dream flashed before her. It was as if it were literally burnt onto the back of her eyelids. Every turn in that never-ending stone tunnel, every flicker of light and every terrifying growl. But that wasn’t all, for some reason, clear as day, she could recall one of the glyphs painted on the tunnel walls. Room after room, corridor after corridor, the same image appeared painted onto the stone. It was a dark black symbol with twisted jutting lines. She’d never seen it before, she was quite sure of that.
The shop was strangely silent, the lavender bunches overhead were completely still as if there was no airflow whatsoever, and the pale autumn sun cast the shop in a gentle but cold light.
Of its own accord, her hand began tracing a pattern on the counter before her. It took her a moment to realize that the pattern was the very same symbol from her dream. She quickly pulled her arm away, busying herself with straightening the already neat papers by the cash register.
By lunchtime, she was well and truly ready to go home. Not only had no one showed up all morning, but the wind was setting in again, and every crack in the floor let in a fell draft.
Gladys pulled at her cardigan as she flipped the shop sign to closed. She usually went for a walk to the arcade at lunch, but there was no way in hell she was going out there today. No problem really, there was a computer upstairs with the internet, however slow it may be.
She grabbed a quilt from the display and headed upstairs with a hot chocolate and her bag of sandwiches. She soon found herself huddled in a wicker chair staring at the tiny flickering screen, one sandwich in her mouth, her hands pressed against her mug for warmth.
After she’d checked the usual sites for news of her favorite TV shows and games, she found herself at a loss. It was only 12:30, she still had half-an-hour before she had to open up again. She could always open up early, but that would be a lot more boring than wasting time on the net.
Without realizing it, she typed symbols into the search engine, hitting the search key before she knew what she was doing. A list of entries popped up, all of which looked useless.
She went to close the page but stopped herself. Why shouldn’t she look it up? A lot of really weird stuff had been happening to her recently, what if the dream had something to do with it? She didn’t need her bloody glasses for god’s sake, not to mention she could produce perfect flips on demand – this was not normal behavior. She could package it up and push it to the side as much as she’d like, but at some point she was going to have to deal with this.
She sat up straight and typed several more variants of symbols into the browser. Following various links, she was eventually directed to a page on occult symbols. From the ghoulish fantasy-art banner, to the hackneyed turn of phrase, she didn’t hold any hope for what the site had to offer.
She was wrong, though. Tucked down the bottom, after a lengthy discussion on Hitler’s fascination with the occult and desire to harness dark power to push the Nazi’s to victory, was a short exposition of the occult symbols of Egypt. A brief passage described the various common magical symbols and their meanings. Several pictures accompanied the paragraph, including her mysterious glyph. Her hand tightened around the mouse as she clicked on the symbol.
She was redirected to another page entirely. The domain name read Paranormal Conspiracies. What followed, with a picture of her symbol, was an article on some mysterious Old-Kingdom Pharaoh called Parakesh. Not only did his name not even sound Egyptian, she soon doubted he had ever existed at all. Apparently, if the Paranormal Conspiracy site could be trusted, which was unlikely, he was an evil pharaoh, consumed by the dark arts, who was deliberately wiped from all historical records. The site detailed the destruction of every monument he built during his reign, and the systematic erasure of any mention of him on tablet or papyrus. It seemed every effort had been employed by his descendants to ensure that his name was never spoken of again.
Even though she read with a critical mind, Gladys couldn’t help but be drawn in by the text. Not only had the symbol – which she had never seen before last night – actually appeared to be real, but for some reason the strange exposition was starting to sound plausible.
The site went on to claim that after every record of the Dark Pharaoh was destroyed, a secret band of guards was created to protect the tombs. It seemed that the Egyptians, while having no problem in destroying monuments, could not bear the thought of destroying the several tombs of Parakesh. Not out of fear of sacrilege, but because of the legendary powers that protected them. The Dark Pharaoh had dedicated his life to raising an army of the sand. When the Pharaoh had died, his powers, and apparently his army, had been entombed with him, there to awake should he ever be disturbed.
A chill seized her spine as she read over the sentence about the army of the sand. Were those creatures the same ones in her nightmare? Was she being chased through the tomb of the Dark Pharaoh by his army?
Just as it piqued her interest, the article ended. In typical paranormal form, it played up the terrible dark arts of the Pharaoh, but it didn’t tell her what she wanted. Had anyone ever seen one of these Sand Warriors? What about the Pharaoh, had his tomb ever been found?
There were several links at the bottom of the page about related articles. They were all fairly benign, save for one. Right at the bottom of the list was something called the Patreli Incident. Expecting some strange article on a half-bear half-man, she clicked on it.
At the top of the page was a photo. It depicted a band of soldiers, dressed in desert fatigues, smiling at the camera against a backdrop of sand dunes. She casually scanned the faces, almost crying out loud when she came to the face of Lieutenant Patreli. It was the same man from Friday night. He had that same jutting chin and deep brown eyes. Though his expression lacked the edge she remembered, it was still definitely him.
Her eyes widened as she read the article. Of the people in the photo, Patreli was the only man still alive. Every other soldier depicted had died. Several years ago, while on a training mission in eastern Egypt, a whole platoon had somehow been wiped out. The page suggested that the platoon had foolishly uncovered one of the tombs of the Dark Pharaoh and had awakened the denizens of the sand.
It was a stub more than a fully fledged description, but it still left Gladys with a dry mouth. Things were starting to spin out of control. First her strange new abilities, now this bizarre coincidence?
A scratching noise filtered in the window. Something appeared to be trying to dig its way through the front door. Every hair stood up on the back of her neck as last night’s dream came flooding back again. With her knuckles going white as she clutched at her quilt, she rose to check out the window.
Trying to keep her breath as silent as possible, she peered down into the street below, just as the animal gave a sharp bark.
Gladys, the dog, was industriously trying to scratch through the door. The real Gladys could have fainted with relief as she watched its brown and black tail beat enthusiastically.
What on Earth was she doing here? And why was she trying to beat down the door? Did Patreli never tie her up?
By the time she reached the door and opened it, Gladys the dog barreled in barking loudly. With one look at the real Gladys, she barked affectionately and over-enthusiastically nuzzled her hand.
Once again, Gladys was taken aback by the dog’s affection. She’d only met it once before; why was it acting like this?
When the dog had seemingly secured her attention, it went back to the now-closed door and scratched to be let out.
“You must be joking – I only just let you in!”
The dog barked loudly in reply and continued to scratch.
Rolling her eyes, she grabbed the handle and flung it open, the dog shooting through it. She followed it outside, only for it to play the same strange darting Lassie game it had on Friday night. With a beleaguered sigh, Gladys locked the door with the keys from her pocket, having decided to follow it.
She’d just been reading an article on him then, out of nowhere, his dog tries to break down her door. Who the hell was this Patreli and what had really happened in Egypt? Had it been a harmless accident or was it more sinister than that?
The questions whirled through her head as she followed the scampering dog up the hill. It led her at a phenomenal pace, but for someone who had never run in her life, Gladys found no problem in matching its speed. It appeared to be leading her, if that’s what it was actually doing, further up the coast to the walking track that hugged the forest.
Fortunately, the streets were deserted on this freezing, wet day. There was no one to witness the strange sight of Gladys in her skirt, cardigan, and apron madly following a sprinting dog up the hill.
When they both reached the lip of the forest, Gladys realized she wasn’t out of breath. She had just pelted up a significant hill, and she didn’t even have a bead of sweat to show for it. But any thought of how extraordinary that was, was quickly wiped from her mind as the dog skidded to a halt ahead of her.
The giant German Shepherd paced warily at the edge of the forest, her head bobbing up and down as she seemingly tried to track something through the trees. She let out a low, warning growl, sniffing the air quickly.
Gladys took several steps forward, peering through the thick foliage of the oaks and elms, trying to get a hold on what was spooking the dog.
She opened her mouth to offer reassuring words to the dog, and to herself, but she couldn’t speak. Her stomach was heavy with intense fear, and the small of her back tingled with energy.
A dark shape flitted through trees. Darting this way and that, it was never in sight long enough for her to be sure it wasn’t a trick of the light. But her own gut-wrenching feeling and the alert, wary stance of the dog was enough to tell her something was there.
Pushing herself onto the balls of her feet, she darted forward, matching the shadow’s direction and velocity for just long enough to catch a glimpse. It chilled her to her toes. A tall, sinewy creature with pale golden skin and the head of some kind of dog.
There was a moment where Gladys didn’t understand what she was seeing, because whatever she thought she was seeing was frankly impossible.
But then the thing gave a hideous, bone-shaking cry.
It was real.
Emotions spiraled through Gladys quicker than a twister recycling the wind. Abject, life-threatening fear twisted around her, coiling tighter and tighter. Before it could bring her to her knees or send her stumbling back, foggy from disbelief, something happened. Somewhere deep within Gladys, she felt… a kick of something.
With more control than she knew she had, she swallowed her scream and dived toward Gladys the dog. She had to get them out of here before that thing came upon them. But just as she reached the dog, it sped off into the forest.
“Gladys!” A chilling moment passed as she teetered on the edge of the woods, her ears picking up the crushing of twigs and leaves as the creature scampered forward. “Get back here!”
For a moment, for one terrible moment, she considered turning around and running. But she couldn’t. Not only had she watched enough action movies to know that the runner was always the first to die, she just couldn’t do it. She couldn’t run from this thing.
As the dog barked wildly, the creature getting ever closer, Gladys flung herself into the forest.
As Gladys flew over the forest floor, her legs and arms pumping wildly, she tracked the sinewy creature’s advance. It loped toward the madly barking dog, its center of gravity low despite its considerable height. It crouched close to the ground, its long venous, sand-colored legs darting forward in long bounds.
The dog, apparently oblivious, or uncaring of the hideous creature’s intentions, pelted toward it barking excitedly.
“Gladys!” she screamed, the situation far too gone to bother whether the creature heard her or not. “Gladys!”
There was no way imaginable the dog could survive an attack from the monster. She would be sliced in two by its long golden scimitar, or worse, ripped to shreds by those talon-like claws. “Gladys!”
The creature was almost upon the manic dog, its wide, bloodshot eyes fixing on the point where they would meet. With a burst of energy, the real Gladys flung herself forward. Somehow, impossibly, she grabbed hold of a low-lying branch overhead and, using it swing with, threw herself at the creature, feet first.
Her sweet black shoes impacted with its chest, eating into the strangely soft flesh with a loud thump. Caught off guard, the blow sent the creature spinning back toward the forest floor, Gladys pitching off it and rolling to the side just in time.
The dog came to a scuttling halt several meters away, growling wildly.
She didn’t have time to think, everything was happening automatically. Somewhere, back in the dark recesses of her mind, Gladys knew this was a very good thing. She may have been an expert geek, but that would not prepare her for whatever the hell this was.
The creature quickly snapped to its feet. Barely a moment had passed – its long, jackal-shaped snout lay motionless on the bracken-covered ground – then it twisted its head to look at her. With lightning speed it snapped its body into a roll – back feet hitting the ground like a drumbeat, and then it flung itself at her.
She pirouetted deftly to the side, just as it came within slicing distance. Instantly, the creature regained what little balance and momentum it had lost from her last-minute dodge, bringing the sword down toward her head.
Her face was covered in dirt from her rolls, and her apron was ripped at the top. Just as the sword came whistling by her ear, she brought both hands up and caught the hilt firmly. She cushioned the impact by bringing her hands down, matching the speed, then jerking them to the right just as the sword shaved past her face. Using the creature’s continuing momentum, she let go of the sword and drove her shoulder into its long snout, hitting it with a resounding crack.
It howled with pain, its low, grating tone much louder than that of the dog. Using this slight pause, Gladys went on the offensive and dropped to the ground, driving a foot sideways into its ankle. There was a snap of tendon or bone, and the monster yelping with pain fell heavily to its knees.
It twisted its head and opened its wide jaw letting out a ferocious cry. 10 times louder than anything that had come before, the bellow carried through the forest like a foghorn.
Gladys stumbled back, clutching at her throbbing ears. Gladys the dog jerked backward like its leash had been pulled tight and whined loudly.
The creature’s dark, beady, pupils seemed to dance about like a reflection in a pond, its snout twitching as it angled its head her way.
Gladys watched the beast’s eyes fix on her form, its murderous intention crystal clear. For the first time since she’d flung herself into the forest, fear threatened to overcome her again. Her hands and back were drenched with sweat, and her breathing was so strained that it wheezed through her throat. With one look at those small slanted pupils, Gladys’ heart threatened to tumble from her chest.
What the hell was happening? What the hell was this thing? How had she made all of those fancy moves, how had she ever thought she could fight this thing?
The creature seemed to smell her fear and rose with a drawn-out howl. An icy coldness spread across her chest as she watched, riveted to the spot, while the thing took a sharp step toward her its head cocked to the side with renewed interest.
Just as the creature came upon her, just as its hulking form cast her into shadow, the dog barreled into its side. Teeth bared and growling ferociously, Gladys the dog latched onto the creature’s hand.
Long tendrils of ice-blue liquid leaked out of the wound as the creature screamed in pain. Through surprise, or the strength of the German Shepherd’s jaws, it dropped its sword with a shudder.
Darting forward, before she even registered she was moving, Gladys grabbed the sword and raised it past her shoulder, slashing wildly before her.
There was a hush as the creature melted away. Almost instantly, as she had connected her frenzied blow with its powerful torso, it exploded into a million grains of fine sand.
For the first time, Gladys allowed herself to scream. She closed her eyes and let out a terrified cry as wave after wave of suppressed fear crashed against her. Her mind was numb and her body way too filled with adrenaline to even comprehend the rapidly abating situation.
The dog, momentarily ignoring her, bent low and sniffed the pile of golden sand, her nose darting all over the mound. After several sniffs, she appeared to be satisfied. She trotted up to Gladys and licked her hand gently.
Gladys couldn’t stop herself from shaking. Her whole body rocked from side-to-side as her shoulders twitched.
What the hell had just happened?
By the time Gladys stumbled through the front door of her home, her massive adrenaline rush had reduced to a small twitch at the back of her spine and the cold taste of metal on her palate. The dog trotted in beside her, its tail wagging madly at the prospect of a new house and new smells.
She let the door swing shut as she kicked off her mud-encrusted shoes and pulled off the tatters of her shop apron. The dog set about sniffing every nook and cranny it could find. Even though it looked suspiciously like a military-trained dog, especially considering the move it had pulled off in the forest, Gladys the dog seemed quite undisciplined.
The dog turned to look at her, probably sensing it was the subject of her thoughts, and gave a happy bark.
“Maybe you’re just like that with me.” She patted its head as she plodded past. Her socks, soaked with sweat, left small wet patches on the hall carpet.
Even though she had just been in a fight to the death with some mythical creature, she was surprisingly uninjured. There wasn’t a scratch or bruise, as far as she could tell, in fact, the only thing worse for wear were her work clothes.
Gladys pulled off the remnants of her black blouse, with its grass stains and loose buttons from her commando adventure, and threw them to the floor as she entered the kitchen. Luckily, the singlet underneath wasn’t completely ruined, she noted as she patted it down with the idlest, most detached of moves. There were dishes in the sink, and the window was firmly closed against the wind.
Not really knowing what else to do, she flicked the kettle on and grabbed a mug. With the empty mug still clutched in a hand, she sat heavily on a chair. Her eyes stared blankly at the dog as it trotted around her.
What on Earth was happening to her? How had she done that? How had she managed to kill that creature? And it had burst into sand! Right in front of her eyes, it had disappeared into an innocuous pile of sand.
Unconsciously her hand re-gripped the mug handle, the skin over her knuckles becoming taut. It shattered under her grip like an eggshell. Blankly, she looked down at the remnants of the cup brushing them off the table automatically.
“You are going to pick that up, I hope.”
She turned to see her grandmother standing in the doorway, her welding mask lifted over her curly purple hair. Pulling off her large, black welding gloves, Myrtle walked over to the table, a little trail of acrid, burnt steel breaking in her wake.
Gladys hardly noticed as Myrtle grabbed the base of the mug and pushed it into the bin. Her lips pursed and her eyes narrowed, Granny M pulled up the other kitchen chair and sat down.
“You alright, dear? You look… tired.”
Gladys flicked her eyes up and shook her head, a dislodged leaf falling over her shoulder. “Not tired.”
“You’re home early,” Myrtle said.
Gladys glanced at the cooker clock. “Suppose I am.”
“And you brought a dog.”
“That’s her name, she’s called Gladys.”
“Oh, that’s a nice name, I guess.”
Gladys began giggling. It started as a low set of strung-together hiccups but quickly grew into a manic cackle. It welled up inside her, and she was powerless to stop it. She’d been in a fight, an actual fight with a real monster! She hadn’t been watching TV – it had been real. Every second of it had been so real.
Her belly-shaking laughs quickly turned, tainted with a real edge of frenzy. Hot tears trickled down her cheeks like rain down a window pane, and her breath grew sharp and uneven.
“Gladys.” Her grandmother reached out and grabbed one of her hands in a firm, but warm grip. Holding onto it tightly, Myrtle shook her head. “It’s okay.”
“It’s not okay! It’s not okay.” The tears came thick and fast, and Gladys’ body shuddered with the effort.
“You were in a fight.” Myrtle’s gaze didn’t flicker once. They fixed on Gladys as she continued to sob violently.
“What? How did you know?”
“Gladys, you don’t have to be a genius to work out that something unusual has been happening lately. You really have not been yourself, and I’m not talking about the fact you haven’t even been to the arcade once in the past several weeks.” She squeezed her hand. “Those storms were another thing entirely, never seen anything like it. Then you faint and the next day you don’t need your glasses. Not to mention all the broken crockery I’ve been finding – damn it, girl, you even broke off the taps in the bathroom.”
Gladys opened her mouth to babble her apology but was silenced by a shake of her grandmother’s head. “I have seen enough films, as I’m sure you have, to know what’s been going on here.”
The wrenching sobs began to abate as Gladys realized she had absolutely no idea what her grandmother was talking about. “Wha—”
“Just tell me, honey; whatever it is I promise I’ll believe you.”
Gladys explained everything.
After several cups of tea and more than a couple of biscuits later, she had shared exactly what had happened to her leading up to, and including, her little forest encounter. To her grandmother’s credit, she took it all in her stride. Not that the woman was ever a conservative thinker. In fact, mythical-ancient-Egyptian sand-warriors were right up her alley. She had always been a terribly odd woman, but right now, Gladys wouldn’t change her for the world.
“Right, well that’s that sorted. You better have a bath now, dear, and I’ll find something for the wee doggy to eat.”
“No buts, just hot water and a lie down. We can talk strategy when you get out.”
“Sorry – strategy? What are you talking about?”
“We’re going to find out exactly what’s happening to you, dear, and what to do should you come across another one of the little beasties.”
Gladys’ jaw dropped open at her grandmother’s words.
“Now don’t hang about, get in the bath.”
Gladys turned to head for the stairs, unwilling to disobey her grandmother’s order even though her mind was still racing. “Hold on.” She paused in the doorway. “Shouldn’t we return the dog?”
“I don’t see why; it found you. Plus, it’s the only lead we have at the moment. You said she took you to the creature, so she can probably root them out. She stays until we know what’s going on.” Myrtle bent down and patted the dog as it settled by her feet. “An early warning system if you will. Now get in the bath.”
Within minutes Gladys was sinking below the bubbles. Her body pleasantly hot, she finally relaxed a little.
She stared at the ceiling with its cracks and patches of mold. Several hours had passed, and she still didn’t want to get out of the bath. It was getting a touch cold again, she realized as she twisted on the hot water tap. As a stream of hot water rushed into the bath, she let out another sigh.
She was confused, that was for sure. In the times she wasn’t replaying her fight with the creature, she was desperately wondering about where in the world her powers came from, if that’s what they were.
Not surprisingly, after fighting off a seven-foot killing machine, she was starting to accept she had abilities that were somewhat unique. There was the vision and hearing for one, not to mention the obvious increase in agility and speed. No matter how much she tried to reason them away, they still remained.
Her grandma was right: this was not normal. She had, for all intents and purposes, super powers! And no, this was not a film; this was really happening to her.
She sunk lower into the steaming tub, the water sloshing against her ruddy face. It was nearing five o’clock, or it should be judging by the sunlight outside the bathroom window.
How was she supposed to react to this, what was she supposed to do? She had seen this scenario, or variants of it, so many times in films and TV shows, so it was hardly a new concept. But it was really happening to her, and it frightened the hell out of her. Okay, so she may have often thought how cool it would be to have superpowers, to fly around, to be a hero – but she’d never thought it was actually possible!
Various noises filtered in from outside: the waves crashing on the rocks far below, birds chirping in the late afternoon sun, a car putt, putt, putting to a stop on the street outside. The smell of baking wafted in from downstairs, and she could feel the vibrations traveling through the water that told her Myrtle was busy concocting some dish.
In reality, having super powers wasn’t fun – it was terrifying. Where had they come from, what did they mean, how had she received them? There didn’t appear to be any answers available to her, nothing to help her out. It wasn’t this way in the movies; it wasn’t this real. When unsuspecting geeks were suddenly gifted with superhuman abilities, there was only ever the briefest period of apprehension, if any at all. No, suddenly being able to jump from tall buildings was usually met with joy; finally, their lives would be different, and they could stand up for themselves, and so on. But that’s not what it really felt like. So what if she could suddenly defend herself in hand-to-hand combat, it didn’t make her in control. In fact, she’d never felt more helpless in her life.
The water sloshed around her as she set about the task of washing her extremely long hair. It wafted around her like a halo. It was never an easy task to wash this amount of hair, but after her sortie into the woods, it was in desperate need of a clean.
It was all so confronting. She wanted to close her eyes until her old life returned. She may have never had an exciting life, but it had been comfortable, and she had known where it was going, even if it was ostensibly nowhere.
Even with her ears submerged underneath the warm water, Gladys could hear the front door open. She turned her head, her neck becoming exposed to the cool air as she directed one ear to the bottom of the tub. Though she could have heard much better had she sat up, she didn’t want to get cold. Even through the insulation of gallons of water, she could still make out the voices clear enough.
Her heart sank as she recognized the higher pitch of her cousin Brittany. She really didn’t want to see her right now. Convincing her grandmother that something altogether supernatural was afoot was one thing; her cousin would never believe her. And she wasn’t exactly in the mood to pretend everything was peachy either.
She frowned, two car doors slammed in quick succession down on the street, and the heavy footfall of two men trundled up the garden path.
“Guests?” her grandmother’s voice became high with strain, her tension clear even through the bathroom floor.
“Well, it’s a surprise visit really, is she in?”
Gladys’ heart fluttered, and she had to snap her mouth shut to save from choking on the bathtub water as she pressed her ear further down.
“And who are these young men then?”
“Oh, umm this is Frank, and behind him – that’s Max.”
Gladys snapped forward in the bath, the water sloshing over the edge in a sudden tidal wave.
“Oh yes, no, I think we’ve met already,” Myrtle replied with a sniff.
“You have?” Brittany’s voice trilled with surprise. Perhaps she was worried the army had been called in to contain one of Myrtle’s wild physics experiments.
“At the shop, very nice gentleman, helped Gladys when she—” Myrtle began.
There was a gruff cough.
“During the storm a while ago,” Myrtle finished, voice hurried.
Gladys could feel her heartbeat reverberating through her throat as she tried to pat down her wet, cold hair. What was she going to do? He was downstairs – the one person she absolutely couldn’t see right now. What was he doing here?
“Really? She didn’t tell me you were at the shop.” There was a definite sense that Brittany was intrigued. “And what happened – actually, wait, where is she?”
Gladys teetered on the edge of the bath, not sure whether to silently pull herself out and get dressed, or to stay exactly where she was, in the locked bathroom.
“I’m afraid she’s ill, upstairs in bed, certainly can’t have any visitors.”
She let out a silent sigh and smiled broadly. Her grandmother could certainly put her foot down sometimes.
“Ill? You aren’t serious are you – I’ve made fantastic plans.”
“Well. I’m sorry, but she just can’t get out of bed,” Myrtle’s voice was firm.
“Well, what has she got? The flu or something?”
“Okay, the flu.”
Okay? Okay? What kind of an answer was that? There was a detective downstairs; it wouldn’t take a bloody genius to know Myrtle was hiding something. Though, even if he was the world’s best detective, he probably wouldn’t be able to guess the true extent of the situation.
There was a pause. It stretched on and on as the cold bathroom air ate into her wet, exposed back. She shivered, not knowing which bothered her more, the chill or the pause.
“Right, well, can I at least come in and use the loo?” Brittany finally supplied.
Dammit! Brittany had punched right through Myrtle’s ploy. She could hardly tell her to sod off and find her own toilet; her grandmother was pressed into a corner. She had to acquiesce or come across as bizarrely rude.
“Of course, why don’t you all come in and have a cup of tea.”
For the second time that day her heart felt like it had stopped. How could things go so horribly wrong? Somehow, fighting off Sand Warriors on her lunch break was so much easier than having Max appear, with no warning, at her front door.
Out of the frying pan and into the red-hot center of a white dwarf star. Today seemed determined to throw Gladys every curve ball it could find, and then some more. Not only had Myrtle gone and invited a certain someone in, but unless she was very much mistaken, that certain someone was now climbing the stairs.
She’d quickly decided after hearing her cousin enter that the time was ripe to get out of the bath and get dressed. Nothing good could come of this situation, and being naked was not going to help things. So she quickly patted herself dry and pulled on her knickers and bra, the only clothes she’d brought into the bathroom with her. She fully intended to then silently sneak into her bedroom and climb into bed. She couldn’t do anything about her sopping hair, though. But with her current level of brainpower, if Brittany questioned her, she’d probably just blame it on a very bad fever.
Gladys had totally resigned herself to the fact Brittany would ignore her grandmother’s orders and come and annoy her. But those weren’t Brittany’s military-issue boots climbing the old stairs. Of course Brittany had never needed to go to the loo; it was merely a ploy. But apparently one in their company really did need to use the facilities. It just so happened that led him straight to her, or the bathroom, rather.
Gladys was frozen. Max marched up the stairs quickly until his heavy footfall reached the plush carpet of the landing. She could hardly open the door and dart across the hallway to her room. She might be quick on her feet these days, but darting in front of him half-nude was not on the cards.
She took several steps away from the door as her mind whirled around, her heartbeat steadily growing harder.
What was she doing still thinking? He was almost at the door! She could make out his steady breathing and the rustling of his cargo pants. She had to act.
But what was she supposed to do? Bloody hell, why was she even freaking out about this so much? The door was locked, for Pete’s sake, and there’s nothing wrong with being in the bathroom when you’re ill. It was just her day. She was still so razzed up after the Sand Jackal incident that she wasn’t thinking straight. So what if Max was on the other side of the door, it was still locked. Okay so she was in her knickers, but he was hardly going to barge his way in.
The old brass door handle twisted before her with the same metal click as a loaded gun. Twisting on her foot, her wet hair slapping against her back, she flew toward the back of the bathroom. A gentle breeze pushed in through the open window as she dived toward it. Just as the door began to open, its hinges whining with age and wear, Gladys pitched herself into a dive roll right through the open window.
She saw a flash of street and the ground below before she curled sideways, grabbing the window ledge with one hand. She quickly brought her feet up against the side of the house to dull the sound of the impact and to release the pressure from her grip.
Max’s heavy footfall slapped against the tiles but stopped. There was a long drawn-out moment where he didn’t seem to make a noise at all, his breath suddenly becoming low and soft, but then it passed. There was a rustle of fabric and the squeak of his rubber soles against the floor as he seemed to lean down.
“Looks like the bathrooms at the base, but even my boys pick up their towels.” There was a dull thud as something soft was lightly thrown onto the dresser.
Even hanging there, with one hand on the very edge of a rotting window ledge, she still blushed. It may have been only half a blush that quickly dissipated in the cool early evening air, but she still felt a twinge of embarrassment. The bathroom really did look like a tip. Not that it always did – she was usually very clean and always picked up her towel. But he wouldn’t know that standing there, glancing from the sopping floor to the full bath and the piles of ripped clothes. She couldn’t exactly make a case for herself while hanging, half-dressed, from the bathroom window either.
Max sighed deeply, almost wearily, as he walked over to the door, pushing it closed and locking it with a click.
Gladys planted her feet against the damp weatherboards, splaying her toes to increase her grip. Her unkempt hair lay in a dripping clump down her back, sending little rivulets of water running over her shoulders and arms. The evening air ate into her exposed skin, and every drop of water from her sodden hair sent a shiver down her back. She was cold alright, but still, somewhere inside her she seemed to be producing heat. It was almost as if her cold skin was a mere detail, something to note about her environment, but something that she could still ignore. Even though her body did feel icy, she knew, should she need it, every muscle was warmed up and good to go.
There was a clunk as the toilet seat hit the cistern.
Now she froze. He was going to the toilet, wasn’t he? She was hanging outside the window while he was going to the loo. This wasn’t just yucky, this bordered on perverse. She couldn’t listen to him go to the toilet!
In an instant, she spied the edge of the windowsill to the adjoining room. It was her bedroom. All she had to do was fling herself over the almost two-and-a-half meter gap. From there she could grab the guttering and pull herself up to the safety, and silence, of the roof.
Some part of her started to question whether this was a good idea, whether she could really jump that distance, whether the decaying sills could hold her weight.
The sound of a zip being pulled down filtered through the window, and she jumped. Pushing off with both feet she let go of the sill and swung herself toward her window. Her eyes riveted to the ledge, she managed to just grab hold of it. Her legs quickly ran up the side of the house as her grip began to falter against the flaking wood, and she hauled herself upwards, both feet thumping against the sill and pushing her higher until she caught the edge of the guttering.
The ancient, rusted guttering let out a sudden groan at having to bear the weight of a semi-naked Gladys. With an audible gasp, she felt it buckle under her grip. One more time she instinctively ran her feet up the wall as the guttering gave way, and kicked herself into a handstand, finally rolling onto the semi-safety of the sloped roof.
She lay there for a moment, naked skin pressed against the rough, moss -covered slate, her chest thrusting up and down as she sucked in air.
That had been completely and utterly insane. She had to get a handle on these powers; she could have just killed herself, for crying out loud!
“Ahh, is anybody there?”
She instantly swallowed her breath, trying not to make the slightest noise to alert him of her presence.
“Gladys, is that you? Because I can see your feet.”
Her heart jumped out of her chest, off the roof, and crashed onto the street below. How the hell could things have gotten this bad? How could she have gotten herself from a nice warm bath onto the bloody roof, in her bra and knickers, in less than two minutes? This was hardly dealing with the situation. As far as not embarrassing herself in front of Max went, she now deserved to be bloody shot.
She hesitated for the barest moment but quickly decided that not fessing up would be a whole lot worse. She wouldn’t want Max to think there was a body on the roof, especially when there was a homicide detective downstairs. No, she needed damage control. “Umm… Max?”
“Gladys? What are you doing on the roof?”
She twiddled her toes and quickly pulled them over the lip of the gutter. “I…. Ah… I… the cat got stuck, and I… had to… well, she was stuck, and I had to get her down.” Her fingers dug into the cold surface of the roofing slate as the lie clunked through her throat.
“On the roof?”
“She was meowing.”
Gladys blinked and stared up at the darkening sky, the barest twinkle of stars visible through the haze of dusk.
“Are you alright then?” Max’s tone was half-concern, half-epic-disbelief.
“Fine. The cat’s fine too….”
“Aye, that’s good.” There was a creak as the bathroom window was pushed further open. “How did you get up there?”
“It’s alright; I don’t need any help to come down. Everything is under control.”
If everything were under control, she wouldn’t be lying semi-naked on the roof.
“You sure? Your grandmother said you were really sick.”
What was she going to do now? This was a Catch-22; she either admitted to lying about being sick, or attempt to imply – through some drunken babble – that she was delirious and had climbed on the frigging roof.
“I’m feeling a little better.” She winced at the pathetic waver in her voice. Way to go to assure him she had it all sorted.
“Aye, love, better get you down from there.”
Why did he always have to meet her when something was going wrong? Inevitably, she would always be stuck in some bizarre situation. Whether it was falling in the ocean, or fainting in his arms, they never had a chance to chat. There was just something about this girl that every time they met the situation would go balls up.
He had come here with mixed feelings, mostly because Frank had dragged him along. Really, he hadn’t put up too much of a fight, though. Gladys was one of the only girls in this village that seemed… real, even if her realness was very strange indeed. A chat, that’s what he’d wanted, preferably where he could leave at the end without saying something stupid.
He hadn’t expected to find her allegedly in bed but actually on the roof on a cold autumn evening. There were oh so many reasons why this was wrong. Notwithstanding the fact she was obviously wearing no shoes on the notoriously slippery slate-roofing they used in these parts, but if she was sick, then there was every chance she was delusional.
Whatever he was going to do, he had to do it quickly. His cheeks were starting to smart in the frosty breeze, and it would only be worse on the roof; she would be totally frigid.
Grabbing the lip of the open window, he pushed it up as far as it would go. Repositioning his body against the sill, he gripped the edges and leaned out. Eyeballing the roof, he tried to track a path up. It was at least a meter to the guttering, though. Even if this rotting ledge supported his weight, the ancient guttering would give out as soon as look at him.
Determined, he twisted around and spied the trunk of a large oak whose broad branches easily spanned the gap to the roof above. This must have been how said cat had ascended. He was confident he could haul himself far enough out to grab one of the robust-looking branches.
He pushed himself through the window, his gray polo shirt snagging on the wood as he sprang forward and grabbed the branch. His feet dangling in the air, he wrapped both hands around the rough branch and, swinging his feet up, hauled his body onto its girth. From there it was a simple task of straddling the branch and shimmying upwards until he could drop onto the roof.
The word simple quickly fell from his mind when he lost his footing. It happened fast, but as he dropped down, the cold slate under his boots and the sight of a very shocked Gladys in her bra and panties sent him tumbling backward.
He didn’t even have time to utter a cry as he felt his center of gravity tilt backward, his arms trying desperately to realign him. But just as the adrenaline drove through his torso, she grabbed his arm and pulled. Somehow she had reached him in time and with a considerable tug, dragged him back from the edge.
All balance gone, he pitched forward, the momentum from her tug unstoppable. He crashed into her, sending them both to the gray slate underfoot. Managing to thrust out an arm, he absorbed the impact of the fall without crushing her.
It took him a second of staring into her stunned eyes to realize he was lying on top of her. Even though his arm was propping him up, they were still torso-to-torso, face-to-face.
Her hair was wet, and it lay in a matted mess over her face and shoulders. Her confused hazel eyes were so wide he could see the whites of the eyeballs. Her body seemed totally paralyzed.
It took him another moment to realize he really needed to get off her.
“S-s-sorry,” he managed.
Her fringe moved as his breath brushed against her face.
He pushed himself off her, rolling to the side, trying to keep his torso low enough not to pitch backward again but not so low as to brush past her ample bosom. This was already unequivocally bad, he didn’t need to add sexual assault to the situation. Army Captain accosts semi-naked women on roof – brilliant career move.
She sat up slowly, her bottom lip jutting forward and her cheeks blooming red even in the half-light.
There was nothing he wanted to do more than shoot himself right now. Well, that wasn’t top of his bucket list, but he had to push that right to the back of his mind.
She took a breath, eyes darting around. “I can explain.”
“I-am-so-sorry-love,” his words ran together in an incoherent mumble. He tried to look at her but quickly averted his eyes when he found them leveling at chest height.
“You must be thinking I’m such an idiot,” she tried.
“That’s not what I was thinking—” Max managed to stop himself just in time. For god’s sake, man, just be cool.
“I…. Christ I…. You must think I am so stupid! I am stupid.” She wrapped her arms around herself as a shiver ran down her back.
He would take the shirt off his back to keep her warm, but that would look pretty bad right now.
“Had a hard day and… had a bath… and all my clothes were… in the wash… and….”
“Your cat got stuck on the roof?”
“Yes.” She latched onto the suggestion with an emphatic nod. “Yes, she did. She was meowing pretty bad, and I just didn’t have a thing to wear… so I uh climbed onto the roof—” her eyes darted from side-to-side, “using the ladder that comes out off the veranda from Gran’s room and… ah climbed up to get the cat.”
He licked his lips. He had no idea what to make of this, but just somehow, insanely, it sounded plausible. “And… did you find it?”
She nodded, her hair sending flicks of water against his shirt. “Just before you came up. Put her on the porch… she’s fine now.”
“Okay.” That was all he could think of.
Her breath caught white in the rapidly freezing air.
“I think we should probably get down from the roof now.” He reached up and patted his cold head with one hand.
“Yeah, that’s probably a good idea.”
“So, where’s this porch? I think it might be safer than my route.” He tried for a light chuckle, but it turned into a gruff hack as she bit her bottom lip hard.
“Oh ah, yes! The porch…. This way.”
She stood up quickly, deftly jumping to her feet despite the steeply angled roof. Max balked at her speed; he’d already slipped once.
“Be careful!” He snapped up, instinctively bringing a hand against her back for balance. The skin was icy to touch, the barest hint of warmth playing against his palm. She shuddered at the sudden contact. “These roofs are really slippery.”
She hesitated a moment, but he wasn’t going to move his hand. Sexual assault or not, he wasn’t going to let her fall.
Pulling away from him she walked up the roof’s incline, trudging to the back end of the house. He earnestly tried to keep his eyes on where she was headed and not on her behind.
“It’s just down here.” She pointed to a tiny little balcony jutting off the side of the house. It was barely one meter by two and could hardly be referred to as anything other than a ledge.
“That? It’s tiny?”
“Umm, yeah I guess.” She pulled her arms around her, clearly trying to cover what flesh she could.
Snapping his eyes back to the balcony, Max decided enough was enough. He quickly leaned down and vaulted off the edge of the roof, landing firmly on the stone below.
“I’ll give you a hand.” He reached his arms up toward Gladys.
She pushed off the roof and landed beside him with barely a sound. She bent her knees low, absorbing the force through her joints and making her landing graceful and cat-like.
“Thanks.” She smiled awkwardly and practically leaped for the door.
He wasn’t sure exactly what she should be thanking him for – she’d nailed that landing like a gymnast.
There was a pleasant rush of warm air as they trundled into her grandmother’s room. Instantly, Gladys grabbed the dressing gown off the corner of the bed and dived into it, wrapping it tightly around her middle.
He reached up to pat his cold head again. What exactly was he supposed to say now?
“I… umm… should probably put some clothes on.”
“Yeah, you should.” He replied.
Her eyes flickered, and she snapped her mouth shut. Looking at her feet, she shrugged and made for the door.
Oh great, just great. Foot, mouth, he had put one in the other with great accomplishment. Honestly, it’s not that I wasn’t enjoying the view, he thought then mentally slapped himself. God, he sounded like a wanker. She must have already been feeling utterly vulnerable, and then he’d gone and basically said her nakedness was scaring him. Eww, lady, spare the eyes!
“I um… you must be cold,” he tried.
She didn’t turn to him, shrugging her shoulders instead as she yanked open the door.
Why was it that every time he saw her, he always ended up wanting to kick himself?
Thank you for reading Gladys the Guard Episode One. This story is completed in Gladys the Guard Episode Two, which is currently available.