Monday, July 28, 2014

The Curse of the Ladybug

Languid guests lounged, draped, and otherwise arranged themselves in poses that were meant to be relaxed, nonchalant. They were, nonetheless, posed. Everyone was too self-important to notice their own mirrored images in the other posers.

All the men wore penguin suits, most in black and white, a few in all  black, and a couple of men in all white. The men in white regretted their choice of white every time a drop of wine was spilled. These men were clearly too new to the social scene to have known better; there was a reason black jackets were worn to meals and cocktail hours. Tipsy ladies needed an arm to hold themselves up. The ladies were slightly more daring in their sequined cocktail dresses with plunging backs and sides slit up one thigh or the other almost to the top of their stockings. Some of the women stayed in one place throughout the evening, smiling at the eager men whenever she wanted another drink. The reason the ladies didn't lift a finger to summon a waiter was because they feared the movement would unbalance their carefully balanced body on high heels that were so uncomfortable that only a sadistic man could have invented them.

The evening's entertainment was not the pianist and his svelte lounge singer who was attempting to be sultry as she warbled  high notes while draped across the grand; no, the evening's entertainment was the undercurrent of gossip by the rest of the ladies in the room as they made mental notes of everyone 's jewelery and whether or not they could remember said jewelery being worn the previous season. There was tittering and tisking at the prominent display of Mildred Highcup's diamond tiara, not because it was more ostentatious than the hostess's tiara, but because Mrs Highcup was seen just the month before in a lower east side jeweler's abode, a jeweler who had a reputation for making exacting copies of whatever someone brought in, the original of which was then sold at a pawn shop next door to the jeweler's. What no one had caught onto, yet, was the fact that Mr Harvey, the jeweler, over-charged the price of the duplicate, and Mr McKinney, the pawn shop owner, under-bid on the original, and thus kept themselves quite comfortable in their shared duplex. About every six months, they raised a toast to dear Mrs Highcup.

Mrs Oh, (her first name is Jackie), kept herself in new and imaginative jewelery which was gifted to her by Mr Oh, a droopy-faced middle-aged man with watery eyes, every time she had to claim him from the police after he had gotten himself picked up at a park. He felt he had done nothing wrong at any of those twenty-five plus citations and arrests. It wasn't his fault that women walking their dogs made him shove his hands into his pant pockets or into the deep front pockets of  his London Fog and rub furiously. The bus stop, which happened to be next to a sidewalk cafe he frequented, was even less his fault, he stressed; that beautiful, doe-eyed Basset Hound kept licking his shoes. What was a man supposed to do in such situations? Thankfully, he managed to stay away from dogs who were playing with their child guardians. He wasn't THAT kind of man!

Mrs Carpenter, a white hat with netting hanging over half her face, was the talk of the evening. She came not in a cocktail dress, but in a white pantsuit. From the way Mr Carpenter kept plucking at his upper thighs, everyone was fairly sure who was wearing the stockings that evening. Every once in a while, Mrs Carpenter would take out a pen to make a note in a tiny notebook. Mr Carpenter would flinch and then resign himself. She would flick the pen, he would jump, his eyes gazing over, she would flick the pen closed, and he relaxed. A few people had asked to use her pen, which she gave with a gentle smile, and they, too, would flick the pen to make a note, usually of a phone number or some such thing. Mr Carpenter would squeak and jump, the pen borrower would frown at him, take a step away, flick the pen closed, and hand it back to Mrs Carpenter. Each person took their cell phones from their pockets, checking for messages; they were sure they had heard a faint humming sound.

When the doors opened to admit Ms Coccinelle, in a sparkling, sequined black evening gown, the ladies had to converge on her to see the new hair pin up close. It was a beautiful ladybug made of rubies and black onyx. It was quite lovely, they all exclaimed. Unfortunately for everyone, including, to the regret of Misters Harvey and McKinney, the pin was recognized by Mrs Highcup who immediately pronounced Ms Coccinelle a thief.

Ohhhh, this was better than anything the evening had offered so far! The surrounding women didn't move an inch.

Ms Coccinelle said, quite casually, that the pin had been in her family for generations. She had photos of her great-grandmother wearing the pin almost 100 years ago. Everyone looked at Mrs Highcup.

Mrs Highcup declared her a liar; she had photos of herself wearing the pin at last winter's Christmas party. People gasped. Who would wear such a thing during the winter season?! They looked at Ms Coccinelle.

Someone suggested that maybe more than one pin of that design existed. Both women stopped the person from uttering another sound by looking at the man, Mr Wishwell, a man old enough to know better. He apparently did, as evidenced by the snapping of his jaw as it closed.

Mrs Highcup declared she had proof of sale. She bought the pin at the Clamsted Estate Sale after the unfortunate incident of a fire which left the home in ruins. People exclaimed at her generosity.

A second unfortunate thing happened at this exact time. The monstrous teenagers of the hosts, Mr and Mrs Gadfly, ran into the parlor with several of their friends who were spending the night. The teenagers were all dressed in Halloween costumes. They ran through the crowd of people, confusing guests and wait staff alike, and plucked jewelery from wherever they could, and dropped it all into the tinkling fountain of pink champagne. The evil-doers immediately ran back up the stairs, locked themselves into the large playroom, and shucked off their costumes which they then dropped out the window to drape over the hedges that grew against the stone wall.

One of the boys complained of a pricked finger as he sucked the tiny blood drop on his way to the bathroom. When he didn't return to the taunts of babyhood, another boy poked his head into the bathroom. Shocked, he called the others over. The whiner lay passed out on the floor. They all laughed at his having fainted from a tiny drop of blood.

Downstairs, the annoyed guests retrieved their jewelery as it was all gently rinsed, patted dry, and handed back to the owners. One of the waiters jumped, shook his hand, and glared at the offending drop of blood that had been rudely forced from his body by an evil pin. A moment later, he fell to the floor. 

Mrs Highcup stepped over the downed man, mashing fingers of the people trying to help the man up, and snatched the ruby ladybug pin from the floor. She, too, immediately fell to the floor when she pricked her skin in her haste to secure the pin deep down between her generous bosom. Unfortunately for the wounded waiter, she fell on him. Ms Coccinelle clicked her teeth in disapproval as she leaned down to take her pin. She carefully reattached it to her hairdo which was now slightly askew.

Upstairs, the fallen boy was waking from his faint. There was more laughter from the other teens as the boy, clearly in a state of confusion, found a red sheet, tossed it around his shoulders, and made buzzing sounds as he ran around the room. He jumped to the ledge of the open window, and, much to the shock of the other teens, he jumped out. They ran to the window and looked down. The boy had landed safely on the pile of Halloween clothes, got up, spread his 'red wings' and 'flew' away across the lawn. The teens watched for a moment, looked at each other, and laughed.



Sunday, July 27, 2014

In Plain Sight (Prologue and Chapter 1)

Prologue


In the Gamma Quadrant of the spiral galaxy, an ancient bridge that connected the empty space between the Udug Conglomerate and the Thayan Empire once more hiccupped, causing an Udug ship in transit to be abruptly spit out of the wormhole, sending the ship on a crash course to the nearest Thayan world, Rostau, where it was dumped into the oceans of the watery world. The security guard on duty at Station 9, a security station that hung in space just minutes from Rostau’s yellow star, shook his head and reported the latest wrong turn. After centuries of that bridge not working right, one would think the Udug would get a clue and not use that bridge.
On the other side of the bridge, in the Udug sector of Gamma, a tiny particle from deep space was spit out and sent careening on its own crash trajectory with a planet that orbited another yellow star. That planet’s inhabitants had not yet developed the tools to track a particle that they didn’t even know even know existed, yet, and so didn’t realize that the odd hole found in the woods on a northern continent was the product of deep space.
In the woods around that new twenty-foot hole, plants began to whither. By the time the particle had reached the world, much of it had already decayed. If the particle had been in full power, the planet would have been obliterated on contact.
The cloaked ship hiding in the rings of the sixth planet reported the incident and watched the third planet. The humans did nothing, not even noticing the new hole in the woods. Nor did they notice the small black spec of sludge that had begun to grow at the bottom of the hole. The creatures in the ship, however, dutifully reported the contamination and waited for further instructions. Not even they could get rid of the sludge. It would be many centuries before the planet became uninhabitable, though, so there was plenty of time to complete the culling.

*

Deep in the Nevada desert, five men sat at a table and watched two ships chasing each other around Jupiter. The men were silent as they watched the fight which wasn’t in real-time due not only to the distance from Earth but because it was a fight that had been recorded from the ISS several months earlier. The dog fight had been replayed on the screen over and over as scientists and military advisors looked for clues as to who they were and why they were fighting. Demands had gone out for identification, but there was no response. Once the worst of the damaged ships had gone down, crashing onto Jupiter and exploding so brilliantly that even watchers on Earth saw it (attributing it to an asteroid crash), the few people on the planet who knew the reality were disgruntled when the other ship left the solar system without even hesitating at the contact demands from the noisy third planet.
In the meeting room, the men stared at a video image of the occupants in the cryo-tanks several floors below. The small gray creatures with large black eyes were dead, had been for several decades, and yet their tiny forms elicited an atavistic shiver in the men, something which none of them would ever admit to.
“Do you think it was them?” one of the men asked quietly.
“Who else?” another responded.
“We have no defenses against ships that large and with the power to explode so spectacularly that if it had been here on Earth, we would probably be in a worldwide nuclear winter by now.”
“Never mind that; I think the more important question is who were they fighting? Do they fight amongst themselves? Inner conflicts such as we have here?”
One of the men was slowly twirling a pen between two fingers. “We have no evidence of violence from the Grays on previous instances of contact,” he said thoughtfully. “If one of those ships belonged to them, and the other ship was of another race, would the enemy of our enemy be our friend?”
Pens were tossed down impatiently.
“Don’t get into that again,” he was snapped at.
            The man raised his eyes from the faraway thoughts in his head. “It needs to be considered,” he told them once more. “Granted, it may be that neither of their races, if they are indeed two different races, think as we do. We know the Grays don’t. So how do we contact them? Our long range messages are clearly not reaching anyone out there. At least not that we have noticed. But if we can find them, will they help us fight those Grays? They have been picking at this planet for centuries and we have yet to find a way to stop them.”
“We need to catch those damned Grays in the act and take their ship intact,” the General insisted, a finger pounding on the wooden table. “We need that technology, and we need it in working order. Preferably with a living Gray to show us how to use the goddamned stuff. We get one of those ships, just one, and America wins all current AND future wars!”
“And how do you propose we get it? So far, for the past fifty years, they have completely ignored us. And what if we do get a living Gray? The autopsies show they have no vocal cords. How do we catch them in the act, General? Space ships were painted by cavemen on cave walls, and in all these thousands of years not once has anyone been able to ‘catch them’, as you say.”
Four of the men scowled at the fifth, the voice of reason that no one wanted to hear.


Chapter


Heading toward Vancouver, BC, in a general, round-about way, it wasn't until she was just north of Seattle that the universe shifted and the car died. Since it was a fairly new car she was test driving, and there were no previous issues with it, Ninah took it as a sign that the gods were about to have Their way whether she liked it or not.
Having the universe shift was a disconcerting experience; Ninah grabbed the wheel of the car while her equilibrium balanced. She had heard about the world spinning, tunneled vision, and double vision, but had never experienced it before. She never wanted to again. After shaking her head and noting the swirling colors on everything, she waited for her eyes to refocus. The knot at the back of her neck made her a little nauseous, so she got out of the car to walk it off.
The cool, early evening air had a dampness to it that was normal for the Pacific Northwest and it soothed her aching head, blowing the cobwebs from the corners of her mind. Contrary to popular opinion, it was usually just the fall and winter that was one continuous drizzle; spring and summer were pretty dry and warm, and this June night was certainly pleasant for the soul.
Everything was green, the earth smelled fresh and clean, the birds happily discussed the day’s events, and…… she looked again: there was a seagull walking across the street at the crosswalk, waddling behind three teenagers who had no idea he was following them. Ninah smiled and continued her walk. The silly birds were addicted to French fries, which one of the boys walking ahead was munching on.
Many of the houses sat at the top of a small incline. When it rained for half a year straight, the water needed to somewhere other than basements, so the inclines provided a way to drain excess water from the lush, green lawns. A few of the lawns had signs advertising the house for sale or rent, some had upcoming garage sales, and one two-story family home had a baby-gate across the top of the steps. High-pitched yapping indicated fat, happy puppies playing on the porch which had a ‘puppy sale’ sign hanging from the left column at the top of the porch.
Residential gave way to stores and offices. Hardware stores, paint stores, lawyers, and the inevitable coffee shops that seemed to have taken out stock on every corner in the state, and several restaurants. People walking by, jogging, and biking were friendly, smiling at her and saying hi. Dogs wagged their tails in greeting.
Main Street was split up ahead, with Main continuing on in the right lane, and changing to Commerce at the fork in the street on the left. Sitting on the triangular corner of Main and Commerce was an old fashioned diner. Something smelled good, and she suspected it was coming from that diner.
She paused in front of an empty storefront at the front of a block of six stores right across the street from that diner which she had every intention of experiencing. The stores that were open didn't have much life in them; store owners sat reading the paper, barely looking up as she walked by. The first store, the empty one, caused a bell to ring in her head.
“Crap,” she swore softly. She had a feeling that the gods weren’t going to let her go anywhere until she accepted her new home.
Against her will, she rubbed a circle of dust off the front window and looked inside the store. Directly inside the front windows were small staging areas to showcase goods. A desk and chair sat nearby, covered in dust, and toward the back of the store there was a staircase going up along the wall to a second floor.
She wasn't sure, but it looked as though there was also a stairway behind the first which led downstairs; probably to a basement, which was common in the north.
A vision of a fully functioning bookstore with a couple of meeting rooms, along with a town coming back to life, entered her mind. A small shadow scurried around the corners inside the empty store. Ninah zapped it with a whispered incantation to the earth and air spirits in residence, and it disappeared: there was active energy in the area.
 After her lawyer Mel was done having a fit over the money she was spending, and in a town called New Babylon no less, Ninah quietly became the new owner of a building which housed six storefronts on the ground and six small apartments on the second floor of the building. The moment she signed the papers, her car started again. She then called the rental agency and told them to come and get their traitor of a car.
It took four weeks to get all the paperwork through, and when everything was signed and paid for, the first thing she did was to wash the front windows of the store, and hang a nice, lapis-colored pentacle to declare her allegiance.
Through the buzz of the grape vine, the news got out that a new store was opening; a pagan store, not a new-age store. That afternoon, a group of druids from Seattle showed up to bless the place for her, all unasked. They were decked out in green, leafy robes and waving staves. Her totem was scratching dirt; he has no patience for people who didn’t do their homework. Druid was a caste among the old Celts, called sages and prophets, and the caste included royalty, teachers, law givers, and healers. And there was no evidence of temples, only sacred groves, all of which pointed to animistic worship. No temples, no priests. Not one artifact from them existed. But as with everything, spirituality evolves.
They meant well, their energy was peaceful and friendly, so Ninah thanked them and invited them back. She had met a few animists hiding in neo-Druid groves, and a couple from this group had energy that told her they’d be back. One of them mentioned a local clan, and they were always around for Full Moons with the clan.
‘The clan’? What kind of a name was that for a pagan group?
Of course, the local Christian priests showed up wanting to discuss the casting out of her demons. They also meant well, so Ninah thanked them, too. She then called Mel and instructed him to buy the old, empty church across the street one block down. There was a tall pole out front, brass, with a quarter moon sitting points up at the top; a strange thing for a Christian church to have, but not so strange for a pagan temple with an active moon god. She made a mental note to make sure the brass pole was grounded; having lightening strike in the middle of a ritual just wouldn’t do.
Cleaning shelves while she thought about paint for the new temple, a sweet, twenty-year old man with shaggy blond hair showed up and started to scrub the dusty, hard-wood floors of the store without a word. Ninah wasn't about to turn down a cute slave-boy, so she let him scrub. He had a soothing aura. His name was Thayer. Thayer was a vegetarian. No one was perfect.
Watching the curious example of fixing the store and cleaning it spurred the other store owners to do a little cleaning, too. The arrival of painters caused a small stir, and new management received several emails and letters from concerned store owners who declared that they weren't going to pay extra, since they didn't have a say in the goings-on. Management wrote back, letting them know that it was all in good-will; no one was getting their rent raised. The entire building got repairs and a new coat of paint. The store owners didn’t seem to notice that the envelopes that their letters came in didn’t have postage on them.
Bushes and lawns were trimmed, flower beds primped, and fences were repaired and painted. Behind the row of store-fronts was an open field that stretched a good mile to the tree line; the field was lush and over-grown from the rich soil and continual moisture that dropped from the sky during half the year. Wild berry vines grew everywhere, keeping the birds happy.
Sometimes deer would walk through the field to munch on greenery before wandering off. They never went directly into the forest, Ninah noticed; they’d walk along the tree line but never into it, not until they were well beyond the old house she could barely see. It was at the edge of the field, just before the trees: an old, rundown house which didn’t seem to have any occupants. It would need to be explored, she decided, knowing that inner pull she was feeling.
While cleaning the store, she more than once had to jump away from spiders startled from their quiet home. She called a bug-man to deal with the spiders; she didn’t know what was poisonous and what wasn’t. The bug-man was an old hippy that was happy to catch the critters and take them out of town before releasing them. Spiders had their place, just like everything else in the world, only not in Ninah’s store.
Putting it out of her mind, she explored the empty apartments above the stores, were a few field mice were chased out with a stern finger-waving to stay in the field, not the buildings. The grass snake in the basement could stay; he’d earn his keep by catching the mice that disobeyed the order to stay out. Ninah named the snake Giuseppe.
The second floor of the building really needed to be opened up, if she planned on renting out the space; those apartments were cramped and suffocating. So she bought a blue pencil from the hardware store next door and began drawing out her thoughts on the wall of the store while Thayer unboxed books, music, and knick-knacks and priced them according to Ninah’s list.
Since the gods were in an accommodating mood, she informed Them that she needed an architect.
Two days later, an expensive looking car broke down in front of the store and the owner got out, heels and a perfectly tailored pant suit, speaking scathingly on her cell phone to someone about the idiot who had supposedly fixed her car. Ms Thing looked around, raised her nose, and put her newspaper on a chair before sitting down with her latte while she waited for her ride.
Two boys, identical twins that had been playing hide and seek up and down the street, ran up to her, pestering her with friendly pup playfulness. The woman dug into her purse, found candy, and sent the boys away with a wave of her hand. Ninah had the impression that the three were acquainted.
The sight of Ninah drawing on the wall in the store caught her attention after a while. Not able to take it anymore, Ms Thing went in and took the blue pencil from Ninah and began making corrections to the drawing. Before she left with her ride, a man with wild, dark auburn hair, a black leather jacket and a jeep, Ms Thing handed Ninah her business card. Karrin Cooper, Architect.
Ms Cooper would make the necessary drawings, send them back for approval, and round up her crew of designers. The entire top floor of the building would be converted to one large flat.
It wasn’t the strange image of the impeccable Ms Cooper getting into an old jeep that took Ninah’s attention as much as the fact that the man driving it had a shimmer about him. It wasn’t the same shimmer as one could see on a hot day rising above the ground, but an aura with strange, silver sparks. She had never seen such a thing before in her life. Since she saw it on no one else, she was going to assume her eyes were okay and hold off on making an appointment with an ophthalmologist.
They drove off before Ninah could find an excuse to introduce herself to the man. She made a mental note to ask someone about him. Maybe she could con the twins into talking – it didn’t appear that they ever stopped talking.
Through it all, the sheriff, Rick Myles, Thayer told her, sat on the porch of his office, sipping his iced coffee, and keeping an eye on everyone's kids including his own twin terrors who were frequently out and about and getting into everyone's hair, not just Ms Cooper’s.
The two boys seemed to have the run of the town. Everyone knew them, including the dogs and cats that would take one look at the boys and run in the opposite direction. Living across the street, two houses away from the old church and with the sheriff's office a block away in the opposite direction, the boys were always around. Their names, Ninah learned, were Ivan and Pavel. That was EE-vaughn, not eye-Van, she was told. The twins would be the first to correct her, although they were known to play games on people by insisting that each was the other.
Ninah's first official meeting with the boys went like this:
Forgoing the typical checkout counter for her store, Ninah replaced the old, worn out desk with a new desk. She wanted to relax and chat with her customers, not look down her nose at them. One day, while sitting at her desk and working on inventory on her computer while boxes were being unpacked and items shelved by Thayer and a couple of temp workers she hired from a nearby VA rehab center, she noticed two pair of moss-green eyes peering at her from over the top of the desk. The boys were shorter for their age than she expected. She thought they were supposed to be about six or so. Then they stood up straight, having snuck in. Okay, about six it was.
"May I help you, gentlemen?" she asked the boys. They must look like their mother, she thought, not seeing an ounce of the sheriff's dark blond Scandinavian features on the boys; their hair was even blacker than her own Welsh mop. Come to think of it, she had yet to see a mother….
"We want a magic wand," one of them said.
"I see," she said with a grave nod. "Well, there are different wands for different things; if you'll tell me what you want it for, I can better help you with that decision."
"We want to grow tall and strong and beat up Billy and read and write and be sheriffs and firemans and fighter pilots and umis and make our own peanut butter sammiches and…..!" It was the second twin who was spouting; his brother was quieter and spoke in short, succinct sentences.
"Whoa!" Ninah called a halt, holding up a hand. The boy's mouth snapped shut. "Sentence structure," she informed him. She understood everything except ‘umis’; it was probably something she wasn’t hearing correctly. They did have a slight lisping accent that she couldn’t place, which might explain the odd word. "I'm afraid we are all out of those kinds of wands. How about I let you know when they come in?"
The boys considered it, glancing at each other with the eerie twin-speak that some twins use, and agreed to it.
“How about swords?” the quieter one asked.
“No swords for sale here, guys, sorry,” she told them. A faint sound of battle, swords clanging, came from behind her; someone’s television on fairly loud. That didn’t explain the smell of iron in her nose, though. A mental image of swords spitting blue laser beams came to her and she rubbed her head: no more of those images, please, she told her head. She hadn’t seen one of those strange scenes for a while, and had put it down to stress.
The boys considered her statement and looked around at the knick-knacks for verification.
"Okay. Bye!" they called out as they ran out the door. They both had a hint of more to come, so the last thing Ninah wanted was two Talented boys running around with wands. Or swords. Gods, wands and swords….. Maybe she’d make a couple of psi-null wands for them; they couldn’t get into trouble with those unless they poked an eye out. On second thought….
Thayer was chuckling from his position at the top of a ladder where he was carefully arranging statues of various deities that were handed up to him by one of the Marines who was learning to use his new prosthetics. An Army captain was out back, learning to use his new arm by digging up weeds, picking up wind-blown trash, and generally cleaning up.
Ninah had already made plans on having a few more soldiers from the rehab clinic come and paint the exterior. The local Painter’s Union wasn’t happy with her. Karrin Cooper had already warned Ninah about the union after the architect’s painting crew finished the inside of the store. Ninah didn’t care; she’d hire whomever she damned well pleased, and it pleased her to hire people who most needed the work.
“Be careful with those two,” Thayer warned with a smile. “They’re smarter than your average bear.”
More and more she was noticing people that seemed to have a sense of magical talent about them, something she hadn’t noticed before. While she had always had a way with finding lost things or knowing when to go and visit someone who needed to see her, this whole business of zapping motes of energy and following instincts that were stronger than before was enough to make even her totem stretch his whiskers and ears in a tight quiver. Totems weren’t permanent; they showed up when they had something to teach. Her current totem hadn’t been his usual superior self; she had a feeling she’d be getting a new totem soon.
Ninah looked at the statue of a thin man with a beard and conical hat standing in the center of a small water pond, streams of water trickling from his shoulders. It was placed on a countertop, back against a wall, overlooking one of the jewelry cases. “Enki, I could use a little advice, please. I really don’t have time to go walking around town and poking my nose into everyone’s aura.” The great god continued to spill water into the small fish pond in the window, the sound somehow reassuring and relaxing.
In the morning, she woke up with an image in her mind. She stopped by an arts and crafts store, made some purchases, and took it all back to her store. After putting a sign on the front door telling people to enter from the back door, she drew a sun and moon sigil on the hardwood floor in front of the door, painted it, all the while chanting under her breath,
O  Suen, sage, majestic lord throughout heaven and earth, your crown is a majestic crown! O AĊĦimbabbar who puts a terrifying radiance in heaven and earth! Lion uttering hostile words to the enemy, supplying evening light to dark places! Lord Nanna, watch over us!
“Lord Utu thunders over the mountains like a storm. He has lifted his head over the Land. My king Utu, you cross the shining mountains, the shining mountains like an eagle! Utu who renders decisions for all, who is highly skilled at verdicts, Lord Utu, watch over us!”
When the sigil was complete, she sat back on her heels. In her mind, she constructed a matrix, a glowing brand of an eight-point star, “Neti, Gatekeeper of the Underworld, keep shut the door on those who are not worthy to enter,” and sent the star, glowing in mid-air, into the sigil on the floor. When the paint was dry, she carefully laid a sheet of clear acrylic over it, gluing it to the wood floor and then sealing the edges.
After that, it lit up to her inner-eye every time someone with a little more going on inside of them entered the store. She then covered the front desk with a drop cloth and began to work on the sign for the store –The Gatekeeper.
One or two people stopped after entering the store, startled by the glowing sigil under their feet which most others didn’t see, and those were the people Ninah took note of and began to cultivate. The new store began to have a reputation of being the pagan store she wanted it to be, not the typical new-age wands and wizards and crystals store.
When the clay cones were done, she placed them around the store to dry. The noise of the world was shut out, making the store a haven for magicians and others sensitive to aural and mental dissonance. A few of the more solitary types would come and hang out, happy with the peaceful and protected atmosphere of the store. People who were sensitive to energy tend to have a hard time in crowds, even if those crowds were groups of other pagans. The unfocused energy of a chaotic crowd, large or small, was like nails on a chalk board to those who could hear, see or otherwise sense it.
A few people even began to bring a wiggling treat for Giuseppe once in a while. Ninah did warn them not to make the snake fat.
When the sheriff made no move to roust the witch that was moving in, Ninah relaxed. He had, in fact, smacked the wrists of a couple of self-righteous teenagers who felt it their duty to soap Ninah's store windows with crosses and Biblical quotes.
The first time he came in for an official meet-n-greet (Rick Myles, Ma’am, just call me Rick), she knew what was on his mind. He poked at statues of horned gods which spoke to his intent. The sigil remained quiet, though. She thought it sparked for a moment, but it remained just a pretty painting on the floor.
"No demons here, Sheriff," she said, not waiting for him to figure out how to ask without being rude. He seemed to appreciate it. Hat in hand, he wandered around. Handsome, in a rugged way, tall and streamlined, around late 40’s, she guessed, baritone in the high range. His tanned, slightly weathered skin declared his love of the outdoors.
"And the church?" he asked, tipping his chin toward the building across the street. A small crew, a combination of local pagans and a few more vets, had begun to clean the small, white building, dragging furniture onto the front lawn. Anything Ninah didn’t want was given to needy families. Mel needed his heart pills when he discovered she was giving the stuff away for free. When the local priests and pastors realized that the stuff was going away, they quickly swooped in and begged for the church bell and Christian idols and icons. Ninah gave freely to them, too.
"Even Pagans deserve the right to worship," she told Rick. "At least we don't go knocking on doors, invading the privacy of others." She was looking out the window at the pair of twenty-something young men dressed in black and white, walking their bikes as they handed out pamphlets to people. The sheriff pursed his lips thoughtfully, gave a nod, paid for a history book he found interesting, and bid her good day.
He seemed to decide that she was okay, enough so that he stopped by one day asking if she would mind helping a family in need: Dad was sick, the rent was due and the kids needed to be fed. Ninah unlocked a small safe below the desk, reached in, and brought out a wad of cash, counted bills, and handed him enough money to get the family by for the month. He didn't blink at the cash in hand. Rick tipped two fingers from his forehead and went to present the money to the family; no, he didn't know where it came from, only that it was left at his office with their name on it.
New Babylon was a small town just north of Seattle. Population 9,341. There was one set of public schools and one set of private schools; a few kids were home-schooled. The fire department was manned by volunteers, with only the chief and the janitor as paid employees. There were a few fast-food chain restaurants, as well as the local diners. The food was pretty good; produce and meat were bought locally. The outskirts of town had a lot of farmland and cattle pastures.
Most of the official government-type offices were in the center of the one stop-light town. The sheriff’s office shared space in the town hall along with the DMV, the town council, and a small donut shop that served kick-ass breakfast sandwiches between 6am and 5pm.
During Ninah’s sixth week in New Babylon, Rick showed up in the middle of the night, knocking urgently at her door; she assumed it was important. It was. There was furniture flying around someone's house. Ninah got dressed and followed him. Was someone filming a bad possession movie? She hadn’t noticed a film crew in town. Possessions only happened to those who believed in it, which said a great deal about the susceptibility of the human imagination.
Five minutes into a residential area of town, there was indeed furniture flying around a home while neighbors were all standing out on the lawn, crying and shivering as they stared at the house that had taken leave of its senses. Lights flickered through the windows and open front door, and once in a while some small piece of furniture or nick-nack would be flung out the door to crash onto the lawn or the street.
Ninah almost had to shade her eyes from the glow coming off the modest, two-story house, and then noted that no one else seemed to have noticed the light. They saw the lights from inside the house, not the aura, and the house with aura didn’t look happy. She had cleansed houses before of their negative energy, but had never seen such a bright aura around them. It had nothing to do with a possession, though, and everything to do with a disturbed person.
A force took over Ninah and she found herself marching into the house. She didn't even hear Rick yelling at her to stop. Inside the house, an ordinary, lower-middle income home in need of a lawn mower, a chair came flying at her. Startled, she ducked. Ninah raised her arms and reached out, grabbed the insane energies and, "Enough!" she shouted. She pulled down. Everything in the air crashed to the floor.
Going out of body was not something she had done before, yet her consciousness left leapt from her and she stared down at herself, the periphery of her vision blurred leaving the center of focus clear. She looked around, noting spots of the home that glowed blue, orange, pale violet, the colors somehow gaining a sense of depth to them. The aether pulsed with a blackness that swallowed light instead of being illuminated beckoned her and she spiraled around the house until she focused on a room in the far end of the second floor. The source of the bad chi was there, its inky resonance pulsing.
She ran through the house, knowing where she was going although never having been there before, and slammed open a door that crawled with dark, fuzzy energy. Inside the room was what seemed to be a normal teenager's room; posters on the wall, computer and desk, and a bed. The teenager, a girl of about sixteen, was huddled on the floor at the foot of the bed. The girl saw Ninah and screeched at her, a hysterical, insane screeching, outrage at the disruption of her will.
The quick image in her mind was much like the one she had created for the sigil on her floor, only this one was more powerful. Although never having seen it before, it made perfect sense to her, so she reached out again, gathered the raw energy of the earth and air, curling it around and around until it was a tightly woven ball. Energy balls, a favorite astral play toy of magicians, were familiar and a good way to keep the mind in practice for when they were needed for more than just astral volleyball; this one had more than pretty colors woven into it.
When it felt ready, Ninah threw it at the girl. The girl battled it, swinging at it as she continued to screech. Ninah held firm, but could feel herself weakening under the strength of the teenager's shredded mind.
What could have happened to the girl that her mind would fall apart? There were no signs in the house that a sick child lived there; she thought it unlikely that anyone so mentally damaged would live in such clean surroundings.
The neighbors gathered on the sidewalk, street, and lawn had been staring at the house in confusion and concern; none of their expressions had been those of recognition: this hadn’t happened before.
Someone ran into the room, skidding to a halt beside her. Startled at the sight of the tall, darkly handsome man, Ninah wavered. He was shimmering with the same silvery spikes in his aura as did the man in the jeep.
"Hold her!" the man shouted. The order caused an immediate reaction in Ninah: she hated orders. Her mind turned to steel, clamping down on the faltering energy trap.
An inner door was opened deep in her mind, one she hadn't known existed. Always able to see things like aura colors, totems, and ley lines, this was something completely different, as was the out of body travel around the house. Ninah not only felt the earth, she became part of it, feeling the weight of it, gravity itself. That sense was normal in her meditations and grounding exercises, so it wasn’t a surprise; the surprise was that this time she knew how to use the earth energy for more than a simple grounding and centering, or making nifty, glowing matrixes and wards.
The man drew in more energy, feeding it into the matrix, strengthening it until it began to over-power the girl. Normally, it took practice for two magicians to work together, to learn to blend their energies into something useful, and yet this stranger immediately meshed with her.
 Hearing instructions from deeper within, Ninah sent a tendril into the mix. Like a heat-seeking serpent, it wiggled its way through the matrix to the girl. Ninah watched in fascination as it disappeared into the girl's head. Sound was abruptly shut off in mid-screech and the girl collapsed to the floor.
She took the energy matrix away from the girl, centered it within the house, and slowly enlarged it, pushing out anything that didn't belong until it enveloped the entire building and beyond. Once she was sure the house was glowing healthy, she sent the contaminated energy into the earth, dissipating it into the ground until it was neutralized. Ninah's knees began to buckle; her entire body was tingling and ready to burst.
"Not all of it," the strange man said, catching her by the elbows. "Keep a little for yourself. Just a drop to sustain you and replenish what you used. Imagine fresh air, a sweet spring breeze blowing in your face, and breathe it in."
An image of camping in Colorado in April came to mind, the smell of a rich, green forest, of a spring breeze making leaves rustle refreshed her mind and spirit. Ninah sipped from the clean energy whirling around them. Her energy levels began to level out. She had never in her life used energy that way, or had so much of it channeled through her.
"Well done," the man said with approval. Ninah felt she should know him; even his scent was familiar and yet she had never seen him before in her life. He made sure she was standing before he left her side to check on the girl.
He was older by about ten years; his thick, wavy brown hair, just long enough to brush against the collar of his shirt, contained streaks of gray at the temples, drawing attention to the crinkles at the corners of his brown eyes. Wide shoulders and chest, and long, strong arms filled the dark blue, flannel shirt he wore. Blue denim hugged his trim waist and long leg.
The man dropped to one knee and put two fingers to the neck of the young girl for a moment. "She's alive," he said, taking her wrist between his fingers and looking at his watch. He frowned in thought and shook his head. Her inner self was very distant; he could barely sense her life-force. "I'll be surprised if she ever wakes up, though."
He pulled out his cell phone and dialed. "This is Doctor Severance Allen," he said into it. "I need an ambulance." He rattled off the address and medical jargon before hanging up.
"You're a doctor?" Ninah asked, immediately feeling stupid for it. He knew his way around all sorts of knives….. how did she know that?
The sudden quiet must have triggered a few of the brave souls to come in and see how many bodies there were.
"What the hell happened?" The home owners, a man and woman who looked to be in their 80's, came in, both of them pale and shaking. They pushed past Rick who had followed them, not listening to his protests that they remain outside. He looked at Ninah, and she gave him a nod indicating that everything was over. He started taking notes on the room and the people, recording the room on his cell phone. She still couldn’t figure out how he knew what was going on and yet wasn’t a magician himself. A magician wouldn’t have had to ask about the store or the temple, and wouldn’t have had a ‘what is this stuff’ look in his eyes as he wandered around her store.
"Who is the girl?" Dr Allen asked the scared couple.
"Our granddaughter," the man said. He hesitated before going to the girl and kneeling next to her while his wife cried silently behind her hands. "She…. is she….?" He hesitantly put his shaking hand to her short brown hair.
"No," the doctor said, "but it might be a long time before she is well enough to leave a hospital."
The old man was in shock, pale and looking his age. Dr Allen gently took him and sat him on the bed, squatting down and putting fingers on the old man's inner wrist as he looked at his watch again. The man’s wife sat next to him, took a tissue from her sleeve and dabbed at the beads of sweat on her face and neck. The doctor checked her pulse, also; he wasn’t happy with either one of them, and would insist that they get checked out while at the hospital with the girl.
"I'm very sorry, Sir, Ma'am, but I need to ask: was your granddaughter having problems? Has this happened before?" the doctor asked them. The doctor didn’t seem to have a problem with the sheriff witnessing anything, so Ninah didn’t either.
A doctor and a magician. Why hadn’t she met him, or at least seen him around town, during the first month of her residency? He was kind, she saw, generous with the empathy he showed to not only the elderly couple, but also to the girl on the floor who was still unconscious.
"She… was always troubled," the woman said after a moment.
The doctor stood, his arms crossed as he carefully watched the old man. "Was she on medication? Under any treatment?"
Still dazed, the old man stared at his granddaughter on the floor. Her eyes were open, staring at nothing. "The… the furniture….," he muttered.
"I know," Severance nodded in understanding. "This lady put everything to right. I came in as your granddaughter collapsed. She's still breathing because of this woman. And if I may, your house is still in one piece because of her. She was quite remarkable." Ninah didn’t need the unspoken warning that came from his direction.
"Yes….." The man shuddered for a moment and then shook his head when Severance stepped forward. "I never… believed in things like that, before. All that… hocus-pocus, mumbo-jumbo on television…. What is your name, girl?" he asked, a hoarse demand.
"Ninah, Sir," she said. "Ninah Adams."
Sirens were heard coming up the road. Dr Allen looked around the room; Ninah saw with her inner eye that he was cleaning up any excess magics that still hung around.
"Mr Williams, no one is going to believe a word of the truth," Severance told the old man. Mr Williams lifted his head, shocked and yet a hard glint of strength in his eyes.
"Boy, I'm old, not senile."
Thus was Ninah’s first six weeks in New Babylon.