Catrin walked along the trail into the wooded section of Weatherly Park. The path was paved and an easy walk. In some ways, it felt too easy. Getting here should be harder. There should be a barrier.
The first thing she saw was the flowers. There were so many flowers, even today. They surrounded the shrine, making it feel much larger than it was. Who still brings the flowers? Why do people still come? It’s like he was a rock star. Why do I still have to share him?
Reece Pritchard hadn’t been a rock star, but he had been something. He had been handsome, that’s for sure. Just shy of his eighteenth birthday, he had been tall and slim, but strong. He had been popular, but in an easygoing way, with friends in every group. Reece had been good at sports, especially baseball. Three schools offered scholarships and was a probable draft pick, not at the top, but even playing minor league ball would make you a big deal in Santa Creda. In five months it would be the fifteen year anniversary of his death.
There was a bench near the shrine, and Catrin sat down. There were so many little things, faded pictures, burned candles, envelopes, and trinkets that had no clear meaning except to whoever left them. It was late in the day, and the sun was low, casting shadows as a light haze started its journey into fog.
Catrin could see Reece standing there by his shrine. This was the best time of day to see him, when there was light, but only indirect light. Some days it seemed like he could see her too, but this was not one of those days. There were butterflies, four or five of them, moving among cut flowers that could no longer benefit from their attentions. They were pretty, and one flew right through Reece, creating this brief streak of color that lit up the area, then was gone.
“Mom and Dad moved a month ago,” she said in a voice just above a whisper. “Did they come to see you? They probably didn’t. Maybe they went to the cemetery. They must have, right?”
Catrin heard footsteps approach, so she stopped talking. A boy and a girl, teenagers, walked by holding hands. The girl asked the boy who the shrine was for, and the boy said, “Some kid years ago. I think he committed suicide.” The two of them never slowed their pace, and if they saw Catrin, they didn’t acknowledge her. Soon they were out of sight again. She wanted to tell them that he didn’t commit suicide, that nobody knows what happened, but she said nothing. They were kids. Catrin wondered if they were born before or after he died.
Catrin sat and looked at the shrine for a long time. She listened to the wind in the trees and the birds chirping at the sunset. Somewhere in the distance, a radio was playing The Moss. Catrin smiled for just a moment, a genuine feeling of goodwill came over her. These rarely lasted, so she allowed the feeling to stay as long as it could. She breathed in the evening air and allowed herself hope. Catrin even felt grateful for a moment that there were still people out there who cared.
A throat cleared quietly behind her and she turned to see a handsome man in a white linen shirt and tan slacks. As always, they were immaculate. “Hello Jack.”
Jack smiled. “Hello Catrin, may I sit?”
Jack sat next to her. For a minute, he said nothing, but then he asked, “Can you see him?”
“Yes,” Catrin said.
“Does it bring you comfort?” Jack asked.
“Some,” Catrin said. After some time she asked, “It isn’t really him though, is it?”
Jack nodded sympathetically “I found Reece’s spirit shortly after coming here. He was one of my first steps into this mystery. I had hoped he would have answers for me. He wanted to move on, he just didn’t know how. I opened the door for him.”
“Thank you for that.”
“It’s my job.” Jack made a small helpless gesture with his hands. “I open the door.”
“Still, thank you.”
They sat quietly again. It was getting darker now, and the haze was thickening into a fog. The lights at the nearby baseball field flipped on. There were happy shouts from somewhere in the park.
“What is this then, if not Reece?”
“An excellent question,” Jack said. “That Reece is the culmination of collective desire. Sure, some spirit latched onto it, felt it, wanted it to be them. It’s complicated. This doesn’t happen most places. There are very few places like Santa Creda.”
“Few, but not none?”
Jack nodded. After a moment he said, “I have a request… a quest for you. It’s not dangerous, but you may find it difficult nonetheless.”
“Difficult, but not dangerous.” Catrin said. “It sounds like you want me to do your taxes.”
Jack chuckled. “Nothing as messy as that. I need you to spend an afternoon looking at real estate with Tilly August and Benton Noro.”
“Why would I do that?”
Jack reached into the pocket in his slacks and extracted a gold coin. He held it up. “Payment in advance,” he said, “For your book.”
“Right, for my book.” She made no attempt to take the coin. “Going back to my question, why do you want me to do this?”
“I can’t tell you everything,” Jack said, “But I can tell you that Benton has a role to play in figuring out what happened to your brother. It will do you good to be in her orbit. Also, Tilly needs a friend and I really think you do too.”
Catrin considered this for a moment, then asked. “Are you giving the others little tasks like this?”
Jack shook his head. “Not so far.” He smiled, “The others have their own missions and needs, but you and I, we both want to solve the same mystery. Also, I like you.”
Catrin thought about that. She reached over and took the coin, then asked, “Since we’re both trying to solve the same mystery, what did my brother tell you?”
Jack took a breath. “Reece told me he remembered playing baseball, and leaving the field after. He said he decided to go for a walk instead of riding home with his friends. He was happy because the team had won. He was going to meet a girl, but he didn’t remember her name. Reece said he had gotten lost. He was wandering. He said he eventually found the park again, but he felt very tired, more tired than he had ever been.” Jack paused, thinking.
“Reece remembered being on the ground and staring at the sun. He said he remembered someone talking to him. They said, “I’m sorry for this. You weren’t the guilty one.” Reece couldn’t describe the voice. He thought it was female though. He said he never felt pain, but at some point he was staring at himself. He was watching himself, and then he was wandering in the park again, only this time he knew he was dead. He knew he had left his body behind. I wish there was more to tell you, but he had been wandering for a while when I found him. It took him a moment to even remember who he was.”
Catrin nodded. “Clear as mud,” she said, “but if my brother was looking to meet a girl, it was probably Delia Cordero. They were together a lot.”
“I’ll check on that,” Jack said.
“I should go,” Catrin told him, “I didn’t mean to be here this long. I’ve got the closing shift at the bar.”
“I’ll walk with you,” Jack said. The two of them started along the path out of the park.
“Have you ever been in love?” Catrin asked, “With a human, or um, one of your kind?”
“No,” Jack answered. He then added, “I don’t feel that sort of thing. I feel a fondness for people, but I don’t have romantic feelings or sexual ones for that matter. That’s not me.”
“Is it because you’re a… reaper?”
Jack laughed. “Oh no. I can’t say much about love, but there are some very horny reapers out there. No, this is who I am.”
“That’s a little sad,” Catrin said.
“I really don’t think it is.” Jack replied. “I am content with who I am, most days.” When they reached her car, Jack said, “Do you know what the secret to undercover work is?”
Catrin said, “I can’t say I do.”
“The secret to undercover work is to be patient, helpful, and observant. Don’t go in asking questions. Just be there when they do want to talk.”
“Is that what I am now? An undercover spy?”
“A seeker,” Jack said.
Catrin checked her watch as she walked into her studio apartment. It was 11:47, which meant she had less than fifteen minutes to wash up and dress before Tilly came to pick her up. She cursed herself for lingering too long with Han at the hotel, but it was the one time each month that she could feel like she wasn’t dead broke.
Han managed a chain of yogurt shops owned by his father. Han was sweet. He was in his late forties and acted like an adult, which was what she wanted most in a date. Han had his flaws. If anything, he was overly serious and not very exciting, but it was easy to overlook these things once a month when he came to town and took her to restaurants and bars she couldn’t otherwise afford. More importantly, the only things he knew about her were the things she chose to share, and that was refreshing.
In twelve minutes, Catrin managed to take a quick shower, blow-dry her hair, then put on lipstick and a clean blue outfit of matching blouse and capris. Having worn her contacts for too long, she took them out and put on her blue-gray wireframes. She mostly avoided them when she went out, her concession to vanity, but she could only handle it for so long. Catrin locked up her apartment and walked through the courtyard past the big stone fountain that had stopped working a week after she moved in. She walked out to the street. Her timing was nearly perfect, and she saw Tilly’s car approach.
Tilly drove a cute little blue Audi that would have cost Catrin over a year’s pay, and that was before her parents had closed up the insurance office and fled to Mesquite for the desert air, low real estate prices, and an absurd number of golf courses. They had tried to convince her to go, but a ninety-degree day made her feel sick and listless. She couldn’t imagine living somewhere that hit 110. Now Catrin was getting by with bartending and waitressing and getting by was a kind way to put it.
“Thank you so much for doing this with me,” Tilly said. “I’ve been putting off moving, but the time is close, and this Benton woman seems determined to find me a place.”
“Benton is nothing if not persistent,” Catrin said.
“So, are you guys friends?” Tilly asked.
Catrin stared forward so Tilly wouldn’t see her face. “She’s Marshall’s baby-mama so I see her sometimes. She’s rich as all get out though, so we don’t exactly run in the same circles. I’m not sure how my name even came up, but I’m happy to help.”
“I just don’t want to get roped into something. Thanks again. I don’t want to cut into your social life.” Tilly said.
Catrin laughed. “That’s not a problem. The only thing waiting on me is two loads of laundry, and I’d have to fight for a machine this time of day anyway. This way, I get a free lunch.” Catrin regretted adding that last part, but it was out there so she let it be.
“You and Marshall used to be a couple, right?”
“Yes. He’s a good guy.”
“But it didn’t work out?”
“I don’t share well.”
“So, he went out with Benton?”
“Went out? No. Benton has a girlfriend. They’ve been together for years. All Marshall did was make a baby with her. It’s all very complicated and very Santa Creda. It boils down to she wanted a kid, and he wanted a kid, and there you go.”
Tilly nodded. “Sorry.”
“It was a long time ago,” Catrin said. “Bean is almost four now. Marshall and I stayed friends for the most part. He’s a pretty lonely guy, or at least he used to be, and he was very upfront about the whole thing. I just…” Catrin’s voice tried off.
They pulled into the parking lot of Chart Station. Chart Station was big with people who liked to dine outside without the bother of having to deal with real nature. It had wide porches with screens to keep out the bugs, birds, and other undesirables. The tables were made with thick, solid oak and the menu was heavy on seafood, steaks, and promoted their freshly baked sourdough bread. Benton met them out front.
“Good afternoon ladies,” she said, “I’m so glad you could make it.” Catrin shook Benton’s hand and did her best to manufacture a smile. Benton was dressed in a red and white pantsuit. As far as Catrin could tell, red had always been Benton’s color. She actually knew quite a bit about Benton, most of it was information she had learned without wanting to, but she supposed it came in handy now. Benton’s parents were both born in Japan, but to parents with American spouses. Benton had an Italian American grandmother on one side and an Irish American grandfather on the other. Benton had been born in Los Angeles but had spent much of her teenage years in Japan before returning to America for college and then settling in Santa Creda to live with her Aunt. Since then she had slowly but surely made a name for herself here.
They sat down and ordered. Catrin had a poke bowl. Tilly ordered a sandwich. Benton ordered a salad.
“How’s June?” Catrin asked.
Benton’s face lit up. “June is doing wonderfully, thanks for asking. She’s deciding between Stanford and NYU. I hope she goes with Stanford, but I’m not trying to push… too much. Jimmy wants her to go to NYU. He says she should find out what the other coast is like.” Benton had once been married to Jimmy Green, the former mayor of Santa Creda who now was now a judge in the county court. “How have you been? I was so sad to hear your parents were moving. They were a fixture in this town.”
Catrin shrugged. “People buy their insurance online now, and then Reformist moved into town and kind of forced them out. You can’t run a company on goodwill alone, at least not anymore.”
“Have you applied at Reformist?”
“Never,” Catrin said with a bit too much anger in her voice. “No, I’m still tending bar over at the Grande.”
“Really. That seems a waste. You didn’t get a degree in business to tend bar.”
“It is what it is,” Catrin said. She resisted the urge to add that she also had a degree in public administration, so it was two degrees she was wasting.
Benton took out a business card and handed it to Catrin. “I know what it’s like to try and establish yourself in this town. If you want my help, give me a call.” Catrin thanked her and took the card, quickly putting it in her purse without looking at it.
The food came and they were quiet for a few minutes as they ate, but eventually, Benton said. “Tilly,” Benton said, “Let’s figure out what you’re looking for. Do you have a part of town you’d prefer to live in?”
Tilly seemed to think about it for a moment, then said, “I’m not sure. My mother lives on the Cliffs, but I feel like that’s too remote for me. I’ve been on the north side, of course, in the cottage behind August House. I don’t think I really want to live in that area either. I want to be somewhere where I can walk to restaurants and bookstores and such.”
“That’s a start,” Benton said. “There are really three areas in town that offer something like that. You can live near the beach, especially in the area around the pier. There are lots of restaurants down there, art galleries too, though not much by way of bookstores. Do you consider yourself a beach person?”
Tilly seemed to think about that for a moment, then said, “Honestly no. I thought about living there when I came back here, but I haven’t put on a swimsuit in three years at least. I mean, if I lived there maybe, but I can’t picture it.”
Catrin smiled. “Yeah, that doesn’t seem like you.”
Benton nodded. “I had the same thought. You can also move to midtown where the mall is. If you’re looking for the comfort of chain stores, that’s about the only place they’ve managed to get a foothold.
Tilly shrugged. “Maybe,” she said without much enthusiasm.
“We can always go back to that one, but talking at you, I think Downtown may be more your style. There’s been a lot of great new construction. There are definitely bookstores downtown, and restaurants. Do you think you want a house or a condo?
“It would be nice to have a garden,” Tilly said. “I’m going to miss that about August House.”
Benton paused, looked at something on her phone, then said, “I have an idea. What would you think of a rooftop garden? I recently bought a place and refurbished it top to bottom. It’s the top floor of a five-story building. The building itself dates back to the forties, but I completely redid the space with new appliances and such. You’d have exclusive access to the roof, where there’s already a garden.”
Catrin looked at Tilly’s face and saw her interest. In her head, Catrin calculated how much something like that would be and felt a twinge of jealousy that Tilly seemed unconcerned. Catrin wondered just how rich she was.
After lunch, Tilly and Catrin followed Benton over to the condo. In the car, Tilly asked, “Are you going to call Benton?”
“No,” Catrin said. “Probably not.”
“Why?” Tilly asked.
“Just my damned, dirty pride,” Catrin said.
“I don’t think she considers you a rival,” Tilly said. “I think she just wants to help.”
Catrin scowled. “That’s the problem,” Catrin said. “I don’t even rate as her rival.”
“She’s the one selling August House,” Tilly said. “Carl Weatherly made a huge offer. I don’t know if he wants to live there for bragging rights or plow under the whole thing and build condos. Neither answer would surprise me.”
“What does Nick think about that?”
“I haven’t talked to Nick,” Tilly said. “I doubt he even knows. He’s not exactly at the top of their ladder.”
“You know, I’ve helped cater a lot of Weatherly events. Most of them are just plain awful. Nick is nicer than any of them. Maybe it’s for the best that he isn’t at the top of their ladder.”
They drove in silence for a bit. It was a beautiful day with just a few fluffy white clouds in the sky.
“Did you know him in high school?” Tilly asked after a bit. “You were in the same grade, weren’t you?”
Catrin nodded. “I knew him a little,” she said. “We weren’t just in high school together. I remember when he first came here in the fifth grade. He had a New York accent back then. I think he was embarrassed about it. Some of the girls liked it though. He got kissed a lot in middle school. By high school though, he spoke like everyone else. I wonder if he made a conscious effort to do that?”
“Did you ever kiss him?” Tilly asked.
Catrin laughed. “I’ve never kissed a local boy in my life.”
“He wasn’t a local boy though,” Tilly said.
“Well, close enough for me,” Catrin said. “He was here when it mattered.”
“Oh,” Tilly said. “I understand.” Catrin tensed, figuring Tilly was about to bring up her brother, but Tilly said nothing. In a few more minutes, they arrived at the building.
The location truly was at the heart of downtown. The fifteen-story Carson Plaza was just a half-block away. It was the tallest building in town. There were shops and restaurants across the street, including The Blue Heron Sandwich Shop, Tino’s Coffee Lab, and the Lost in Time vintage clothing store. “I think there’s a bookstore on the next block,” Catrin said.
“There is,” Tilly said, “And Mythic Battles is about a block north.”
“Mythic Battles?” Catrin asked.
“Um, yeah,” Tilly said. “I went there and got some books on Dungeons & Dragons when I first found out about the guild. I wanted to learn.” Catrin smiled.
The building itself was a mixture of concrete and reddish-yellow brick on the outside. The first four floors had big rectangular windows, but the fifth-floor windows were a little smaller and arched. Catrin could see that there was more modern plexiglass around the rooftop, although she couldn’t see any evidence of the garden from the street.
They went inside and Catrin was happy to see there was an elevator. Benton took out a card and waved it by a sensor. “The fourth and fifth floors are key access,” Benton explained. “You can also buzz them up from the apartment. The fifth floor has direct access to the roof, but the elevator can also get there, for the maintenance people and in case you’re hauling something up there. It’s pretty secure. You also get three parking spots with the apartment.
The elevator doors opened into a small anteroom with big double doors. The condo itself was big, way bigger than Tilly probably needed, Catrin thought. There were only two bedrooms, but even the smaller bedroom was bigger than Catrin’s apartment, and the great room was enormous, as was the kitchen.
“When I bought this,” Benton said, “The great room was actually two different rooms, but the angles were very odd, and it just made the place look awkward, so we took out the wall and opened the space up. There’s the main support beam.” Benton pointed at a thick wooden column near the center of the great room.
They toured the apartment. All the appliances were new and high-end, and the view was spectacular, with windows in every direction, including a view of the ocean, even though it was two miles off. Catrin tried to picture a life in which this was her place, but there was no point in dreaming that big, she told herself. Her biggest goal was a place with its own washer and dryer. That seemed like paradise to her at this point. A little voice in her head told her that she could have already had that with Marshall. If she had been able to accept. He made a pretty good living, and people always seemed to like him. There would have been opportunities. Catrin forced herself to shut down that line of thinking.
Tilly spoke up. “It’s really nice and I like the location,” she said, “but I don’t really need this much space.”
Benton nodded. “Maybe not right away,” she said, “But this leaves you to grow. I understand though. Why don’t we take a look at the rooftop, before you make any decisions?”
There was a doorway that looked like a closet. Benton opened it to reveal stairs heading upward. They climbed up the stairs to another door and walked out onto the roof. Catrin had to admit, it was gorgeous. There was a gazebo in the center, made of what looked like cedar. Two all-weather couches and three chairs were under the wide, slatted roof of the gazebo. The same wood was used for a deck that covered most of the roof and was used for the large rectangular planters that housed a variety of flowers and other plants. There were also three half-barrels with miniature citrus trees, one lime, one lemon, and one orange. There was a brick area with a built-in grill and a little refrigerator. Catrin wondered if Tilly had ever grilled in her life.
The view was incredible. As nice as it had been on the inside, the outside made you feel like you were on top of Santa Creda looking down. Sure, Carson Plaza was taller, as were five other buildings, but they were all to the north, where the mountain still managed to put them in perspective. Catrin indulged in the idea of late afternoons spent out on the terrace watching the sun setting over the ocean. She sighed. Tilly looked at her and asked, “Is everything all right?”
Catrin looked at Tilly and said, “If I could afford it, I’d certainly take it.”
Tilly turned around in a slow circle, taking in the view, but then she turned to Benton. “I’m going to need to think about it,” she said.
Benton smiled. “Of course. If this is a bit much, we can try something else. I can show you a house about three blocks away. We’re still in the middle of renovations, but it will be a nice little place. It just isn’t right in the middle of things like this is.”
“Sure,” Tilly said. The three of them went to that house, then another two places before calling it a day. All the places had good points and bad points, but Catrin was pretty sure Tilly was going to go with the apartment. Finally, at about four o’clock, they called it a day.
Once they had parted ways with Benton, Tilly asked. “Do you want to get some ice cream or just head home?”
Catrin was tired, but she was pretty sure Tilly wanted to discuss things, so she agreed. Tilly drove them to a little coffee and dessert place across from the mall. Tilly ordered a vanilla shake, and Catrin followed suit with a chocolate-cherry shake. They sat down at one of the little red tables on the inside.
“I really appreciate you coming with me,” Tilly said. “I know you don’t know me that well,” she added, “but Benton kind of intimidates me, and I appreciate you being there.”
“Benton can be intimidating,” Catrin answered. “I’m glad I could help.”
Tilly breathed out a long breath and took a sip of milkshake. “I really didn’t want to move at all. I liked my little cottage. I liked my life. Now I have to change everything.”
“I get it,” Catrin said. “I lived with my parents for too long, and I worked for them for too long. Now I don’t really know what to do. Maybe that’s a good thing. I turned thirty last week, and I feel like I should have done more by now.”
“Last week?” Tilly said. “Just last week? Did you have a party?”
“No,” Catrin said. “Marshall came by with a cake and we watched The Hunger Games together. That’s about it. I don’t have a lot of friends.”
“Me either,” said Tilly. “I’ve got a work friend, but not really anymore since yesterday was my last day. My main high school friend Sherry didn’t come back here after college. She lives in Bellingham now, working as a real estate agent, coincidentally. She’s married and has a two-year-old daughter.”
“I used to hang out with this guy we called Rainman. He was a harpist. He was fun, but he landed a real gig in Chicago.”
The conversation drifted off and they both concentrated on their milkshakes. After they were finished Tilly drove Catrin home. “I hope we can hang out sometimes,” Tilly said. “If you want.”
Catrin nodded and made herself smile. “A word of advice,” she said, “Unless you’ve got some reason you aren’t telling me, I’d take the condo. Yes, it’s a bit much, but seriously, I’d live there if I could.”
Tilly smiled. “I have to live somewhere,” she said, “I guess it might as well be nice.”
Once Tilly had left, Catrin walked back to her apartment, gathered her clothes, and walked to the little laundry room. She counted herself lucky that there were two empty machines, which meant she could sort light from dark. She shoved two dollars in quarters into each slot and dumped in her detergent. The washing machines whined, then water slowly started to pour in. She kept an eye on them for a minute, until she was satisfied they were both going to work.
Catrin walked to the courtyard and sat on a bench next to the dry fountain. From there she could keep an eye on the laundry room door. She brought up an apartment app and looked at the listings. She couldn’t actually afford a better apartment, but it was nice to dream. There was one just a block away. It was a one-bedroom with a half-sized washer/dryer in the apartment. She’d only have to come up with another two hundred dollars a month. Catrin laughed.
A text came in from Marshall.
Benton wants to talk to you about a job. She says you have her number. You should call her.
Catrin looked at the phone. She cursed herself and her pride. What has pride ever gotten me? A tear escaped from one of her eyes and she brushed it away. She looked around to see if anyone saw that, but she was alone. She took the business card out of her wallet and looked at it. Her hand was shaking. She cursed herself but entered the number. It took her even longer to convince herself to hit the call button, but eventually, she did.
Opening passage from Mistress Stacy Versus the Golden Pride.
Stacy, mistress no longer, fled through the woods as fast as her paws could take her. It hurt to flee. Her bleeding side hurt. Her heart hurt. Stacy had been the Alpha and Omega. How had she let this happen? How had she let herself be collared like a common dog? Lady Maya with her beautiful golden hair… how easy had it been to fall to her pretty words? Her beautiful eyes? How had she not seen it? She had been so stupid. No, not stupid, worse than stupid… curious. Now her pack was gone and her beloved… served her now. Stacy was a lone wolf again: no pack, no comfort, no beloved. She could live with that. She’d been alone before. She had built herself up from nothing before. What she couldn’t live with was that nagging, gnawing, heartsick thought. I liked it. I called her… Mistress Maya. Even now, I wear her collar. How will I get it off? As long as I wear it I cannot turn back, not without… permission. Mistress Stacy raced through the woods, knowing she was being followed. They must be following her. They must be desperate to bring her back. How sad would it be if they weren’t following her?