What if the main characters of four separate stories convened in one peculiar place? Find out in this little something I whipped up as we wait for next week’s release of “Our Hungering Hearts”…
The dark man in the diner booth watched the younger man’s approach. Voice smooth as glass, gaze sharp as the same, he said, “You are not my server.”
The younger man laughed cheerlessly. “Don’t I wish!” he said, his accent from either across the pond or a world away. “I came in to apply for a job, but of course they’re not hiring. I don’t suppose you are, for anything?”
“Just thought I’d ask,” the young one sighed, sinking to a seat on the booth’s opposite edge. “Your suit was so nice, it gave me the ghost of hope.”
“Hope can’t be a ghost ‘til it’s died,” came a female voice, clipped and cool. “I don’t believe that yours has, yet.”
The younger man turned (the dark man didn’t) toward the source of the sound – a fair woman of perhaps his own age, nursing a coffee at a nearby table. Her opulent gown suggested the proximity of a Steampunk convention.
“We can hope not,” he said soberly. “Goodness knows there’s death enough without that.”
“Yes and no.” The gowned woman’s pale brows drew down. More to herself than anyone, it seemed, she said grimly, “There’s at least one death to go before I can call things finished.”
Now the dark man’s head swiveled her way. “Oh, yes?” he said – too pleasant. Too interested. “Whose?”
She said only, “An enemy’s.”
The young man glanced between them, disturbed. The dark man half-smiled at him. “You should offer the lady your services, Row.”
“Entirely unnecessary,” said the woman, before the young man could reply or begin to wonder whether he’d told the dark man his name. “We’ve got it handled.”
“You hope you do,” said the dark man, quietly. “You fear you don’t. What’s the harm in accepting his help? He’s even less of a woman than your substitute sister.”
The woman sat still as an ice sculpture. The young man blinked, wholly confused.
Voice tight enough to strangle, she asked, “What do you know of anything?”
The dark man’s half-smile cut wider. “Everything you do.”
“Should I go?” the young man wondered aloud.
The dark man said, “Oh, stay, Rowan Charles.”
The woman’s gaze whipped toward the young man. “Is that your name?”
He frowned helplessly. “I never said it.”
Hand placed rather ominously over her place setting’s steak knife, she demanded, “Just who are you people?”
The young man spread his hands in a shrug. “I’m just a guy desperate to make a living wage.”
The dark man sipped leisurely at a glass of red wine. “And I, just a provocateur.”
“Mmm,” came a savoring sound from yet another table – this one seating an older woman, a book in one hand, cup of tea in the other. “Oh, don’t mind me,” she said, when the three others minded her. “It’s just that word. Provocateur. Delicious. One doesn’t read it enough. But do please pretend I’m not here.”
“But you are,” the young woman said coldly.
An imperturbable smile from the older woman. “As a mere observer, I assure you.”
The young man and young woman traded a look. There was something decidedly off about the dining room’s elder demographic.
Downing the rest of her coffee in a concentrated gulp, the young woman rose from her table. “I think I’d best be on my way.”
“Should I… come with you?” the young man asked. If his name meant something to her, he imagined there must be an interesting reason.
She eyed him, expression closed. “Perhaps she’d want you to.”
He glanced at the older woman. “Her?”
“No,” dark man and older woman said together.
“Try to go with her,” the former suggested. “See if you can.”
“If any of us can,” said the latter, nodding, “it’s him.”
“You say that as if you don’t know for certain.”
“I don’t,” she said, irritated. “Of course I don’t, and you’ll know why. The more you drag me into this—”
“—The less of a mere observer you are.” The dark man’s half-smile had become a full, wicked grin. “Keep talking, reader, and lose yourself wholly to the story. Isn’t that what you’ve always wanted most?”
“Definitely leaving,” said the young woman, striding for the door. The bell heralding her exit almost drowned out the dark man’s farewell: “Happy homicide, Your Highness.”
A princess, who knew the name Rowan Charles. A dark man, who knew the thoughts in others’ heads. A reader, he’d called the older woman… what more did that mean?
The young man’s dizzying spin of questions scattered at the touch of a small hand, coming to rest on his knee. He looked down into the solemn stare of a little girl, a menu tucked under her arm. She asked, “Do you know what you want?”
“I think…” he started. Stopped. Said slowly, “More than anything, now, I’m hungry for the whole story.”
“Stories,” said the older woman. “And you’ll not find them here.”
“No,” the dark man agreed. “Not in the overlap. This is a Venn diagram best read one circle at a time.”
“My Library has a copy,” the older woman said. A sneer darted across her face. “For now. You’re welcome to read it while you can.”
A silky voice not the young man’s own warned in his head, I wouldn’t.
“I should… get home,” the young man decided.
The dark man nodded amiably. “While you have one.”
The older woman tsked. “Cruel.”
“Here,” said the little girl. She handed the young man a name tag.
“Thank you,” he said, puzzled. The name was not his.
The dark man’s expression softened at the little girl’s logic. “People with name tags have jobs, you see.”
Tears pricked at the young man’s smile. “Thank you,” he said again, and departed.
The dark man’s thoughts snaked toward the woman. Nobody left but us monsters. Can you find your way out?
She silently sipped at her tea, reply unspoken. There is only ever one way out, Black Man.
On the Menu:
“Two Spoons, the Devil’s Son” = A little girl’s soul meets its match in the family diner’s most mysterious patron…
“A Mind Prone to Wander” = An assassin princess and an incognito madman brave a monster’s mechanized fortress and the pasts that left them broken…
“Reality As We Know It” = Where otherworldly magic fails, is Row’s friendship enough to mend Singer’s grieving heart?
“Date Due” = A magic library’s guardian determines to protect her treasured books, whether their authors elect to do things the easy way … or the fatal one.
Two servings of paranormal, a taste of fantasy, and a side order of steampunk – first released in various anthologies, now served up all together in one delicious combo deal. Bon appétit!