Matilda “Tilly” August’s alarm went off at seven in the morning. She pressed snooze a few times, and eventually woke up at seven-forty. Tilly had been up late the night before, having gotten overly involved in reading Samuel Johnson’s, A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland. She got up, stretched, and took a hot, “wake me up” shower. Afterwards, Tilly went to her closet and picked out the day’s outfit. Tilly’s work outfits were all similar. Tilly always wore a plain white blouse, accompanied by grey, blue, or brown slacks, and matching cardigans. her shoes were always brown leather flats. The look did a bit to minimize what she thought of as her “too substantial” curves. Tilly had always been sensitive about her weight, and her curves, although she had been told more times than she could count that she was pretty. Never beautiful, but pretty. Tilly was aware of the difference.
Once she was dressed, Tilly made herself a breakfast of eggs, toast, and a slice of ham, accompanied by an espresso. Tilly was very fond of her espresso machine and had nicknamed it Charlotte. Tilly took the breakfast out to her front porch, overlooking the August House gardens. It was still technically winter in Santa Creda, but the consistent temperatures here ensured much of the garden was in bloom. Lawrence, the aging gardener, was already out watering and pruning plants. He waved to Tilly and she waved back. Lawrence, silver haired, rail thin, and seventy if he was a day, still maintained the entirety of the gardens with only a bit of help from Bobby, a teenaged assistant Tilly had insisted on hiring to make sure Lawrence took the occasional day off.
When she finished her breakfast, Tilly went back in the house and cleaned off her dishes. She then set a twenty-minute timer on her watch and started cleaning the cottage. It wasn’t a particularly big place, just a bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, and living room. Tilly had made an agreement with herself that she would spend twenty minutes every morning cleaning it up. She had found that if she was intense about this for just twenty minutes a day, the cottage stayed reasonably tidy. It would never be spotless, but it was always manageable.
Once the timer went off, Tilly quickly went into the bathroom, checked her clothes, added a bit of makeup, and headed to August House to open the library. The August House Library had evolved somewhat under the Tilly’s guidance. When she had taken it over, it had been neglected for several years as her uncle’s health had declined. The mansion itself had also been starting to deteriorate. While her uncle had designated that he wished the library to remain open after his death, his money and its management had been left under the discretion of Tilly’s mother, Anne. Anne August had no love for libraries or for August House. Tilly had been the one who had stepped up and offered to run the place.
The first thing Tilly did when she took over the library was replace the furniture. The furniture had been antique, and some of it valuable, but it was neither comfortable nor homey. Tilly ditched the dark colors, sharp corners, straight backed chairs, and imposing artwork for a cottagecore, farmhouse look, with light colors, curves, and patterned cushions everywhere. She’d swapped out the portraits of stodgy looking August men for work by local artists, mainly landscapes, but with a mix of other styles for variety. She’d had the walls painted baby blue with turquoise accents. She’d also had August House rewired for modern technology, replaced the aging roof, and partially enclosed the enormous back porch to provide a place to read that overlooked the garden.
Running the actual library had been more challenging than fixing up August House. Tilly had known nothing about running a library, and had been reminded about that often, by many people. Even harder had been revamping the collection. The real librarians had resisted her insistence that any standard circulation book that hadn’t been checked out in three years be sold or given away. There had been a near revolt, and she had compromised more than she wanted to, but she eventually dragged the library into the current century.
On normal mornings, Tilly was leisurely about opening, taking a few minutes to enjoy the quiet. Sleeping late had left her a bit behind, so she quickly turned the lights and the computers on and ran a damp cloth over the tables. She grabbed the books from the drop-off, set them in the cart by the front desk, and then unlocked the front door. Several people were waiting, including Mr. Farmer, an older man who walked with a cane. He was sitting on the bench out front. Tilly went out, helped him up, and walked him in, wishing him a good morning.
Once inside, Mr. Farmer headed straight for the poetry room, as he always did. August House had the largest poetry collection in the city, especially Spanish language poetry, which Mr. Farmer would often spend the day reading. Tilly returned to the front desk, sat down, and started checking in the overnight returns. At ten, Marigold, one of the librarians, came in. Marigold was in her fifties and had an actual degree in Library Science. There had been tension between them at first, due to Tilly’s youth and lack of experience or training. Once it had become clear that the choice was either let Tilly run the library or watch as the library was closed, Marigold had changed her approach and now the two were friendly. This was better than with the other two full-time librarians, who had ceased being hostile, but maintained a formality that made it clear how they felt about her. Tilly and Marigold chatted for a few minutes, then Marigold went to process the new arrivals. Tilly didn’t have to work the front desk. As head of the library, she could just retreat to her office most of the day, but she liked to interact with the people. Tilly was an introvert by nature, but people speaking to her in hushed tones was a reasonable enough way to keep her from retreating too far into her comfort zone.
Sometime around ten, she got a text from her mother.
I want to talk about some things. Let’s have lunch at the Grotto. One.
“The other shoe,” Tilly said quietly to nobody. She texted back that she would be there.
When Nick Weatherly walked in, Tilly straightened up a bit in her chair. She watched as he placed first a broom, then some sort of pole against a wall in the entranceway before walking over. Tilly had known of Nick since long before he knew her. She had been a freshman in high school when he was a senior, and she had gone to swim meets that year only to watch him in his speedo, zipping down the lane. There had been better swimmers on the team, but Nick had been her favorite. He had never even known about this though. When his parents went missing, Tilly had cried, but she still hadn’t thought to introduce herself. They hadn’t exchanged words of any sort until she’d taken over the library.
Now, they sometimes talked for a couple minutes when she checked books out to him. She always asked about the last book he’d read and depending on the book, there might be some discussion. She had looked at his check out records a few times. He tended toward literature by popular writers such as John Irving, Anne Tyler, W. Somerset Maugham, Haruki Murakami, Rick Moody, and Tom Perrotta. Occasionally he checked out non-fiction, mostly about psychology or self-help.
Tilly had maintained a fondness for him, even though he’d gotten a bit puffier since high school. Nick came in regularly. He was always very nice, but in a slightly lost way. That had changed a bit over the past six months though, ever since he’d started the sidewalk sweeping job. At first Tilly had struggled with the idea that Nick Weatherly was working at such a menial job, but he had seemed happier, and much healthier. He was no longer puffy and sported the upper body shape that he’d had when he was a swimmer.
“You’re just who I was looking for,” Nick told her.
“Am I?” Tilly asked. She smiled, the closest thing to flirting she knew how to do.
“I was asked to give you this,” Nick said. He handed her a white card the size of a business card. It read:
You have been selected
Santa Creda Adventurer’s Guild
Friday February 26th
1007 Seaside Avenue
Tilly looked it over for a moment, then looked at him. “Selected by whom?”
“My friend Jack. You’ve talked to him before, but you probably don’t remember him. He’s kind of tall, slim but not skinny, handsome, looks a lot like a 1950s movie star. He dresses like one too.”
“I’m sure I would remember someone like that if I met him,” Tilly said.
Nick nodded. “It’s just this weird thing about him. People almost never remember him. I know he’s checked books out here before. Check your records. See if there’s a Jack Kuolema.”
Tilly typed into the front desk computer, asked him to repeat the name, then brought up the records. “Oh my,” she said. There was a list of over 200 books checked out, dating back at least ten years. “How do I not know this guy?”
Nick shrugged. “Perhaps you can solve that mystery by attending.” Nick said.
“And what exactly is the Santa Creda Adventurer’s Guild?” Tilly asked. “Some sort of social club?”
“Hmmm,” Nick thought about it for a moment, “That’s one description, but not really. Have you ever played D&D?”
Tilly shook her head. She was not entirely opposed to this idea, but it seemed like an odd thing to get a white card invitation to. “Is this a gamer’s club?”
“No… I don’t think I’m going to explain it well. It is what it says it is, an adventurer’s guild. I don’t want to sound like a crazy person, but Santa Creda needs us. That’s why you were selected. Jack thinks you’re important. On the flip side, it is also a social club in its own way, or it can be. I’m hoping to make some friends.”
Tilly looked at the card again. “You’re going to be there then?” Tilly asked.
Nick nodded. “There’s going to be about eight of us,” he said, “That is, if everyone shows up.”
Tilly turned the card over in her hand. “I don’t think I’d be comfortable going to something like that alone.”
“I could pick you up if you like,” Nick said. “I know you don’t know me that well, and I’d tell you how trustworthy I am, except any creep would say that. I’m not a creep though, at least, I don’t think I am.”
Tilly felt a little twinge in her hand. “I guess I can do that,” Tilly said, then added before she could talk herself out of it, “Maybe we could go for ice cream after?”
She waited to see a look of panic or hesitation on his face, but he just half-smiled and said, “Sure. It’s not too far from the boardwalk. We can walk down to Honeybee if you like.”
“Great. I’ll be ready at 6:30.” Tilly tried another casual smile. They did not come naturally to her.
It has been a while since she had been on a date, and there hadn’t been many. Nick wasn’t the only guy that Tilly had quietly kept an eye on, but the ones she was interested in never seemed to approach, and the ones who approached were never of much interest to her. She’d had a near-boyfriend in college, but that had turned out badly, and was one of the reasons she had been anxious to leave when the opportunity to run the library dropped on top of her.
Once Nick had left, Tilly checked her watch. It was just past noon. Tilly passed off her desk duties to Jayne, one of the volunteers, and got ready to meet her mother for lunch. This mainly involved telling herself to calm down, but her sense of dread grew as the time got closer.
Tilly arrived at the Salt Grotto fifteen minutes early and sat listening to Perfect Day on repeat in her car until she saw her mother Anne pull up. Tilly turned off the music, then the car, and got out. Tilly and her mother did not look a lot alike. Where Tilly was short and curvy, her mother was much taller, and always slim. Tilly had short, dullish brown hair, which may have matched her mother’s initial shade, but her mother had dyed her hair blond and curled it for as long as Tilly remembered. Tilly was dressed in her work clothes, a white blouse with brown slacks and a matching cardigan. Her mother wore a long, flower-print dress.
Tilly’s mother gave her a big hug, which Tilly did her best to reciprocate, even though she was nervous. The two of them were led to a table with a view of the Koi pond. They took a couple minutes to order. Tilly ordered grilled halibut, while her mother had the chef’s choice sushi plate. They made small talk for a couple of minutes before her mother tackled the subject.
“Matilda,” she said, “I think it is time we discussed the future of August House.”
Tilly nodded. “I assumed as much,” she said, “I heard about your meeting with Mayor Carson.”
Her mother gave her a pointed stare. “I wish you hadn’t heard about that.”
“Just as I wish you had involved me,” Tilly said, “Since I’m the one who runs August House.”
Her mother tapped the table with her finger a couple times. “I’ll get to it then. The city is offering to take over the library. We gift them the collection, and they move it to the new government complex downtown. It will be called the August Memorial Library. They are even willing to hire most of the staff. It is a generous offer.”
“Generous for who?” Tilly asked. “We’re the ones giving them the books.”
“True, but we are relieved of all the expenses of running the library without the city losing a library. Plus, we can finally sell August House. It’s worth a small fortune.”
“Are we hurting for money?” Tilly asked, “because Uncle Fred left quite a bit for the library, and I’ve done my best to keep the budget in line.”
“Honey,” her mother said, “This isn’t about you doing a bad job. You’ve worked hard, I know that. The library has done as well as can be expected, but a private library and a garden are indulgences we don’t need to maintain, especially if the city is willing to do the job. Plus, it will be in a much better location, where all the people are, rather than stuck on a side street. Our neighbors will thank us.”
“They won’t be our neighbors,” Tilly said.
“You know what I mean.”
“I know that this is all about what you want, not about making the neighbors or the city happy.” Tilly’s voice cracked slightly. She felt like crying but she willed herself to stay strong.
“That’s unfair,” her mother said.
“Your taking away something I’ve worked my hardest to keep, and you’re telling me that I’m being unfair.”
Her mother sighed. “I don’t want you to see this as a bad thing. I want you to see this as an opportunity to be free and be young. I want to take this burden off you.”
“You keep wanting to come out of this like you’re the good guy. You always want that. You want to make a decision that is in your interests and act like you’re doing it for me. You aren’t doing this for me. I don’t want this. You want this.”
“Before you paint me as the bad guy, can I at least tell you what is in it for you?”
“Besides lifting my burden?”
“Yes. Besides lifting your burden, I am prepared to give you half the proceeds from the sale of August House.” Silence hung in the air for a moment as Tilly looked at her mother. “I can’t say exactly how much it will go for, but it may well be the highest residential sale in the history of the city. You’ll be free to do whatever you want. If you want to go back to school, travel, or even start your own damned library, you can.”
Tilly sighed. “You really want to be rid of August House, don’t you?”
“My love,” her mother said, “You have some fond memories of that place. Mine are not as good. More importantly, and selfishly, I am tired of it being on my list. Yes, you run it, but it is on my shoulders too, and I don’t need it there. To be honest, I’m ready to leave Santa Creda. This place is small and kind of cramped for me. I’d encourage you to move too. You need a place with more to offer, especially socially. When was the last time you even went on a date?”
“Not in a while,” Tilly said. She paused. “But I have one on Friday if that makes you feel better.” Tilly knew that date was a bit strong of a word for what was involved, but any positive answer was better than none with her mother.
“Really?” her mother said. “Anyone special?”
Tilly paused again, then said, “Nick Weatherly.”
“Weatherly? Wait, wasn’t that Francisco and Elisa’s son? The one you had a picture of?”
Tilly blushed slightly. “You have a good memory mom.”
“Did they ever figure out what happened to them?”
“Not that I know of.”
“Poor Francisco. He should never have come back here. He was doing well in New York. I assume Nick is the new golden boy. They must be grooming somebody now that Dwight is gone.”
“Somebody, maybe, but I doubt it’s Nick.”
“Oh, that’s too bad.”
“It’s not like I’m being groomed for anything either,” Tilly said. “I’m being set free.”
“Don’t be that way,” Her mother said, “The Weatherly family is different. They won’t be happy until this town is named Weatherly.”
“And we have no ambitions,” Tilly said. “Not anymore.”
“I’m sorry my love. I know this is hard, but it is for the best.”
“In your opinion.” Tilly said.
“Yes, in my opinion.”
A tear finally managed to make its way down her cheek, and she rubbed it away with the sleeve of her cardigan. She thought about arguments for a moment, but then the part of her that wanted to keep dreaming broke, leaving just Tilly. “I guess it’s time to get practical. I’ll start looking for a place to live.”
“There’s no rush honey. You can wait. Maybe you can put your things in storage and travel a bit?”
“No Mother,” Tilly said, “You may not want to live in Santa Creda anymore, but this is my home. Besides, it’s always better to do something than wait for everything to just end.”
Her mother nodded. “If that’s the case,” she said, “I won’t drag things out. I’ll let the Mayor know we want to move on this. It’s still going to take some time. This is the city we’re talking about.”
“They can have the time they need,” Tilly said, “But I’ll be moving on. Not today or tomorrow but I can’t just sit there and watch it die. We should transition Marigold to head librarian. She could use the title before the switch, so they know who to put in charge, if they’re willing.”
Her mother nodded. “You give her the news, and a raise. The city will have to match. I’ll make sure of that. Everyone keeps their jobs.”
Tilly knew that not everyone, was keeping their jobs, but there was no point in fighting. Their food came. Tilly was in no mood to eat but worked her way through a bit of it. Her mother had no trouble finishing. At the end of the meal Anne August pulled out a checkbook and wrote a check out to Tilly. “A gift,” she said, “To help you move.”
Tilly took it without looking at the numbers, folded it in half, and put it in her clutch. There were rules about these things in her family. You never looked at the amount of a check in front of other people. Tilly walked her mother to her car, watched her get in, and then walked to her own car. She turned it on and watched as her mother drove off. Tilly took out the check, stared at it for a moment, then put it back in her clutch. “To the bank I guess,” she said out loud to nobody.
Maximillian “Max” August had arrived in Santa Creda in 1890, a full fifteen years before Joseph Weatherly. Max had come from San Francisco, where his father had done very well importing and exporting goods to and from Asia. The family had dropped the “o” off of the end of the original last name, Augusto upon arriving in America thirty years earlier. Max was the second son. His brother Emilio was groomed to take over the family business, and Max had gone off to seek his fortune. Like many people who arrived in Santa Creda, he had not intended to go there. He had not even heard of it, but when the ship he was on landed there for repairs after a storm, Max felt like he was home the moment he stepped foot on the land. Santa Creda was small then, only about a thousand people, but the views were beautiful and the weather was gorgeous. More importantly, the town had both a port and a railroad stop, which meant that importing and exporting from here could be quite lucrative, and there was next to no competition.
After a moderately successful first few years, the business had jumped dramatically when the San Francisco fires had left his family’s San Francisco operations severely hampered and they had begun diverting ships to Santa Creda. Max soon found himself the richest man in town, and with a wife and four sons, the next ten years had seen the rapid expansion of the August family businesses and fortunes. It also saw the building of August House. Misfortune, however, had begun to pay attention to the August family as well. Max Jr, the oldest August son, was killed in World War One, and then the Spanish Flu took both Max’s wife Emily and Marcus, his youngest son. A dispute with his second son Gerald resulted in Gerald leaving Santa Creda and joining the family business in San Francisco.
By the time August house was finished in 1921, only Leo, the third son, remained. The huge family estate had almost no one to fill it. Leo, however, proved to be both capable and hard-working. He took over the family businesses over the next few years, and ran them, if anything, better than his father had. Leo married a woman he met in college, Alisa, and they had one son, Federico “Fred” August. Alisa and Leo did not have a happy marriage, and Alisa left Leo while Fred was in college. Leo remarried in his sixties to a much younger local woman, Elizabeth, and they had one daughter, Anne. Anne was twenty-five years younger than her brother Fred. Fred worked diligently for his father while he was alive, but when Leo’s health started to fail, a solid offer to take over came in from the Weatherly family. Leo sold, and within another year died. Fred, Anne, and Elizabeth each received a substantial inheritance.
Fred used a good portion of his share to turn August House into a museum and garden, which he continued to run until his death. Fred never married. The small town rumors were that Fred was homosexual, but no one ever saw a companion of any sort. Fred shared with Tilly at one point that he was, in fact, asexual, with zero interest in sex or romance. “It just never appealed to me,” he told her. “I like to read, snack, and look at the garden. I do other things, but those are the only things I really enjoy.”
Anne’s mother was only twenty-four when her father died. Anne came out shortly after the death of her father. She’d had a series of girlfriends over the years, but as she approached thirty, Anne decided she had both the means and the desire to have children without a partner, and through artificial insemination had given birth to first Clinton, Tilly’s older brother, and then Tilly. Clinton was literally the most relaxed dude in the world. He ran a small hydroponics shop near the beach. It didn’t make much of a profit, but it gave him a place to hang out and smoke weed with his friends. Tilly had no idea what money her mother might have given him over the years, and would never ask, just as Clinton would never know about the check Tilly was depositing. That was the way things worked in her family.
After she deposited her mother’s check, Tilly got on the road, but couldn’t bring herself to head back to the library. She texted Marigold that she wouldn’t be back that day. Once that was done, she drove aimlessly for a few minutes, not sure where to go. She found herself downtown, where she spotted a shop called Mystic Battles.
Mythic Battles was in an aging building with stained walls. The front room was filled with books and game pieces, and the back room had several tables, one of which was occupied by four teenaged girls crouched over what looked like a small castle. A man came over and introduced himself. “Hi, I’m Hugo. How can I help you?”
Hugo was a small man, only an inch or two taller than Tilly. He had hair dyed pink and wore black jeans and a matching t-shirt. He was cute, and it was hard to place his age. Maybe late twenties, maybe in his forties. She couldn’t be sure.
“I’d like a player guide,” she said, “Dungeons and Dragons.”
“Of course, Milady,” he said, and lead her to a shelf on the left wall. He pulled out a big book with a glossy cardboard cover. “We have a sale going on the set. Fifteen percent off if you get the Player’s Guide, Dungeon Master’s Guide and the Monster Manual.”
“Sure,” Tilly said, “Why not?”
“Will you be needing dice?” He gestured toward a huge display of dice, ranging from simple plastic, to neon colors, to pewter and other metallic dice. Tilly picked up two sets of dichroic dice.
As she checked out, Hugo handed her a flyer. “Here’s a list of our organized sessions. We have a beginner’s class Saturday mornings at ten. It’s a good place to start if you want to learn. You can can also reserve a table for games.”
Tilly smiled. “I’ll keep that in mind,” she said.
Tilly went out to her car. She spent a couple minutes browsing the Player’s Guide. She looked at the picture of various characters until she came upon a woman dressed in blue and gold cloth armor with a cape. The woman was small, like Tilly, but strong and determined looking. “I could be her,” Tilly said to nobody.
This time she felt like nobody answered. “You can.”
Tilly looked at herself in the rear-view mirror. She pulled out her phone and checked the listing for Ilse’s Salon & Day Spa and called. “Do you have any openings today?” she asked.
The morning after the meeting with her mother, Tilly spoke first with Marigold, then the rest of the staff, letting them know that the library was transitioning to the city. The same librarians who has been incredulous at the idea of working for Tilly were now incredulous at the idea of working for the city. Tilly took their questions and answered the ones she could, letting them know that she would be transitioning out, and Marigold would be taking over within the next few weeks. Tilly once again had to hold back tears, but she bore through it. She then spent much of the day working with Marigold, giving her access to the budget program, the list of contractors and providers, and the payroll program. The next day they went to the bank and added Marigold as a signatory on the August House account. For the most part though, it was agreed that there would be no unnecessary purchases. The books on order would not be canceled, but no new books or equipment were to be ordered unless it needed to be replaced to continue operation. They also agreed to cut the hours of operation, trimming an hour off opening and close, so that it would be easier to absorb Tilly’s eventual absence.
As the days passed, Tilly found herself dreading walking through the library doors. The place didn’t feel like hers anymore. The cottage wasn’t much better, but at least it was a situation she could deal with herself. She had picked up some boxes and started packing her belongings. She quickly discovered she had far more things than she thought. She had always kept the cottage well-organized and free of clutter but being organized was an excellent way to hide how many things you really had. She had a collection of almost 500 books in the house, despite it being only two hundred feet from a vast library. She sorted them into books she’d read again, books she liked to have, and books that were never going to get read (or read again). The last set she moved into the library storage early in the morning before anyone else was there. She knew if she went through official channels, they would probably be rejected, but once they were the city’s property, who knows what they would do with them. Either way they were out of her life.
Tilly determined at that point that she should get rid of as much as she could. She took over a dozen boxes of things to local thrift stores and made several trips to the big dumpster behind the library to throw things away. All of this she did without even being sure of where she was going to move. In the back of her mind, her mother’s suggestion that she travel echoed. Maybe it was time to leave.
When she wasn’t thinking about leaving, she was thinking about the Santa Creda Adventurers Guild. She had taken the card out and looked at it several times and she read through both the Player’s Guide and the Dungeon Master’s Guide. The beauty of the guild at this point was that it was purely in her head. Since she knew so little, it could be anything, and even if it came to nothing, there was still the backup thought of Mythic Battles, where she could play games. A week ago, she had given exactly zero thought to this, but now it was the one distraction she could focus on to get through the days. After reviewing the manuals, she decided she wanted to be a Cleric. Her reasoning was simple. She had spent the past five years running a sort of abbey devoted to learning. Now she was forced out into the world. She had considered a couple other classes, mainly wizard and druid, but she liked the idea of Cleric. She would need to learn something about healing but having an skill to work on wasn’t a bad thing.
Having picked her class, she wanted to dress appropriately. She wasn’t looking for full on cosplay, just something that would feel representative. She haunted some of the resale places on Barnett street, eventually finding a dress shop that seemed to specialize in these sorts of clothes. After a couple dozen fails, she picked out a black dress with a royal blue vest and tailcoat with gold trim. It was a little more steampunk than middle ages, but it had the important quality of fitting her. The dress, which might have been meant to be short and sexy on a taller woman, came down to just above her knees. It was nothing like her work uniform. It was a little tighter and lower cut than she was normally comfortable with, though still tasteful enough, and she decided it was just what she needed.
Her trip to the salon had also been beneficial. Her hair was too short for any fancy styles, but she had them add some blond highlights to her normally dull brown and curl it in front. She’d made them show her how to maintain it herself and had done a pretty good job throughout the week. Once she was fully dressed, she stared at herself in the mirror for several minutes, getting used to the sight of Tilly the Cleric.
Tilly was getting ready to head to the library, where she assumed Nick would pick her up, when she heard a light knock at her front door. She took a moment to smooth down her dress, then opened it to find Nick standing there. While Nick did not appear to be dressed in character, Tilly was happy to see that he looked like he had put in some effort. He was wearing tan slacks, a button-up shirt, and a matching sport coat. He was freshly shaved, and his wavy blond hair looked neater and shorter than usual.
“Hi Nick,” she said, “You look nice.”
“You look nicer,” he said. “I tried to dress to match your normal outfit, and here you come up with something better.”
“I was trying to look like a cleric, but I don’t think I pulled it off.”
Nick smiled. “A cleric,” he said, “Good choice. The world needs more clerics.”
“I’m sorry. I spent the week reading D&D books. I know you said it wasn’t a gaming club exactly, but it was the only thing I had to go on.”
Nick thought for a moment. “If you’re a cleric, then I’ll be a paladin,” he said. “That way we’re compatible.”
“If you’re a paladin, don’t you need a mission or a code or something?”
“That’s easy,” Nock said, “My mission is Urban Walkway Preservation, and my code is Keep Santa Creda beautiful.”
“Isn’t that more of a job description?” Tilly asked.
‘I chose my job. It wouldn’t exist without me.”
“Really? Of all the jobs available, you chose sweeping sidewalks?”
“Yes, and I have zero regrets,” Nick said.
“Nice,” Tilly said.
“I assume your mission is to protect the library?”
“Not so much,” Tilly said. “My time as a librarian is nearly done.”
“The city is taking over the library and August House is going on the market.”
“I wish.” Tilly said. “My mission is done, for better or for worse, and it is time to embrace adventure.”
“There we go. We know where we stand. That’s a good way to walk into the room.”
With that thought they began walking through the garden towards his car. The August House garden had a variety of flowers and topiaries, but it was best known for its rose pavilion, which boasted forty species or roses. It was far from a record, but quite substantial for a city of 16,000. “It would be a shame if August House closed,” Nick said, “I like to hang out here. I used to come during the day and read in the garden, back when I had less to do.”
“I remember,” Tilly said, then quickly added, “It was only a matter of time. My mother never wanted this. She just wants to live her life, travel with her girlfriend, and go out on her boat.”
“Yes, we love our boats around here.”
“Sorry,” she said, ‘I didn’t mean to.”
“Don’t worry about it. You can’t live in this town without hearing about boats.”
“Still,” Tilly said, but didn’t have anything to add.
They reached Nick’s car, and she was surprised how nice it was. It was a Lexus, a little older but it looked well cared for. “Not bad for a sidewalk sweeper,” Tilly said, then immediately felt bad.
“It was my parent’s car. Pretty much everything I have was my parent’s. My car, my house, my non-voting shares in Weatherly Finance. Not my job though.” He raised a finger as if making an important point, “My uncle got me that.”
“My uncle got me August house, at least for as long as it lasted. Of course, he had to die to do it.”
“Jack would find that funny,” Nick said,
“Who’s Jack?” Tilly asked.
Nick looked at her. “He already slipped your mind. Think about our last conversation. Who invited you?”
“You did,” Tilly answered. “No wait. I looked somebody up, didn’t I?”
“And why would Jack find that funny?”
“Because Jack is Death, or at least the local personification of Death.”
“No, but don’t worry, you’ll probably forget this soon enough, except you will be meeting him… again.”
“Jack Death, Jack Death, Jack Death,” Tilly repeated. She continued for over a minute.
Finally, Nick added, “Technically his last name is Kuolema.”
“That’s just another word for death,” Tilly said.
“Really? I did not know that.”
Tilly wasn’t so sure about the evening now. Meeting Death, or someone who thinks they are death, was never one of her goals in life. There weren’t many goths in Santa Creda, and she was not one of them. Nick was pulling up to their destination though, so she resolved to keep an open mind. It was only an hour or two of her time, followed by ice cream.
Tilly was familiar with the building they pulled up to. It was two stories, residing on Seaside Avenue, just a half-block away from the boardwalk. Tilly remembered that for most of her life it had sported a sign that said Psychic Readings. Over the past few years though, it had housed a variety of businesses. She remembered a candy store, a surf shop, and even an art gallery. Nothing had lasted for more than a few months. Tilly knew the second floor had a pair of apartments. She had looked at one once when she had still been living with her mother, but when she moved out, she had opted for the rent-free cottage on the grounds of August House.
Tilly had been happy to save the money, but part of her wished she had moved to a more trafficked place where she could be close to stores, restaurants, and the beach. From August House, everything was a car drive. She rarely went somewhere just because she felt like it. She usually bundled her day off into a trip to the grocery store, the pharmacy, the therapist, and if she was willing to treat herself, dinner out. Every trip had a plan. If she had moved into the apartment, she would have been a five-minute walk away from the beach, the boardwalk, and a dozen bars and restaurants. Of course, she’d have to drive to work every day, so there are always trade-offs. Now though, she was unburdened. She wondered idly if there was an apartment available now.
The front windows of the building had been painted over recently with a mural depicting Santa Creda as seen from about a half-mile out in the ocean. The mural was impressionistic, with the look of a Monet painting. It covered all three of the plate-glass windows. The entrance door was unpainted, except for gold lettering which read:
Santa Creda Adventurer’s Guild
Nick opened the door for Tilly, following her inside. The interior was much nicer than she had expected. She had pictured folding chairs around a couple of tables. There was a table in the center of the room, but it was big, round, at least eight feet across, and made of walnut. There were eight seats around it, but it looked like it could fit twelve with relative ease. The wood of the chairs matched the table, with the leather cushioning a brown close to black. There was a raised section in the middle filled with both electrical outlets and USB outlets.
The big table wasn’t the only feature of the main room though. On one wall was a long black counter with a nice coffeemaker, and a couple shelves of snacks. There were also smaller tables, with just two chairs around them. On three of the walls were art, all also from the impressionist school. The remaining wall was an eighty-inch monitor. Right now, in royal blue text on a black background read the words.
Santa Creda Adventurers Guild
Tilly noted that the colors of the text matched her outfit. She smiled.
“What do you think?” Nick asked.
“It was definitely designed by a man,” she said, “but at least that man has taste.”
“Jack has an aesthetic,” he said, “But it isn’t meant to be a boys club.”
Three people came out of the back room then, two men and a woman. Tilly recognized the woman. It was Catrin Prichard, another person from high school. She wasn’t sure what year Catrin graduated, but it was probably the same as Nick. Catrin had a weird sort of fame in Santa Creda. Her older brother, due to be class valedictorian, had disappeared the morning before the graduation ceremony, and had been missing for three months. Santa Creda had a reputation for people going missing, but that one had truly hit the community hard. He had been gone for three months when his body showed up in Weatherly Park, dead for only hours at most, and with no visible signs of trauma. Clearly something had killed him, but they were never able to determine a clear cause of death or account for where he had been. Catrin’s whole family had been under the spotlight during those three months, and well after. Catrin had only been thirteen or so when it happened, but it marked her.
Catrin was tall, blond, and in Tilly’s opinion, beautiful. She had actual muscle tone too, nothing distracting, but clearly Catrin had kept herself in shape. Tilly reminded herself, as she did a hundred times a week, that she needed to excersize more.
Of the two men, Catrin had seen the first at the library more than once. He was in his forties or maybe fifties. He had long hair but was otherwise was clean shaven and well-dressed. She wasn’t quite sure of his name, but he had always been pleasant. The other was a very handsome man, and she knew right away that she was supposed to know who he was, but his name slipped her mind. Nick, looking at Tilly, asked, “Now do you remember him?”
“Death,” she said quietly.
“Jack,” Nick reminded her.
“Right,” she said. “Jack Death, Jack… Kuolema.”
“You got it,” he whispered to her. Louder, he said, “Hey Jack. Hi Marshall. Hi Catrin. This is Tilly… our cleric.”
“I didn’t know we were picking classes for ourselves,” Marshall said, “That’s a good idea.”
“We talked about it on the way over,” Nick said. “She’s a cleric, I’m a paladin. With luck we can fill out our party nicely.”
The other man, Tilly reminded herself he was Jack, said, “I did try to recruit people with a variety of abilities. I wonder what I would be?”
“Sorcerer or wizard, you pick.” Nick said.
“I’d never be a wizard,” Jack said, “Too much paperwork. I do like the sound of sorcerer.” Jack said. “How about you Marshall?”
Marshall seemed to think about it for a moment, then said, “Monk would work. How about you Catrin?”
“No clue,” Catrin said. “I’ll have to get an idea of the classes. I’m not much of a gamer.”
“I’ll take ranger,” said a voice behind Tilly. She turned to see a broad-chested man with dark skin and hair with a hint of gray. He was wearing a jeans and flannel shirt that made him look every inch the mountain man.
“Happy!” Marshall said with enthusiasm. “I’m glad you made it.”
“I had nothing pressing,” Happy said with a smile, “I never do.”
Next to arrive was an extremely slim, tiny, young looking person who introduced themselves as Aadi. “Aadi is most definitely our Bard,” Jack said. “They can play any wind instrument and draw anything.”
Aadi looked confused, but not in a panicky way, as if they were used to not being a full part of the loop and had ceased trying. “Do you want me to play?” they asked.
“Maybe later,” Jack said, “I do enjoy your music.”
The final guest was a woman in her forties. She was short, even to Tilly, and round. She wore black slacks and matching blouse, with a turquoise jacket. She wore thick glasses, had long curly blond hair, and carried a big purse with a color that matched her jacket. “Greetings Agnes,” Jack said, “It is good to put a face to your voice. We were just discussing classes. He pointed to each of the people, giving their name and class. Agnes took it in quietly. When asked what class she wanted to be she smiled a very brief smile and said, “I’m the rogue.”
“I would not have expected that one,” Marshall said.
“That’s what makes me so good at it,” Agnes said without a hint of humor in her voice.
Eventually, everyone took a seat at the big table and Marshall stood up and began to speak. Tilly noticed something odd about the way he talked, she wasn’t sure what it was. There wasn’t a particular accent, but he spoke very deliberately, as if each word was produced with care.”
“Welcome everyone, to the first meeting of the Santa Creda Adventurers Guild. I appreciate that you all came. My name is Marshall Cooper, and at least for the moment, I am the guild leader. Nonetheless, I need to acknowledge that,” he hesitated for a moment, “Jack here is the true founder, and was the one who came up with the money to build this location out. Without him, this would not exist.”
Jack nodded to everyone. “Trust me,” he said, “Marshall will do better at this than I would.”
Marshall continued. “Everyone in this guild was chosen for a reason. Each of you brings something important to the table… different skills, different approaches, different experiences. More importantly, you are all here because Santa Creda needs you.”
Marshall paused for a moment, as if trying to remember something, then continued. “I first came to Santa Creda a few years ago. I was recovering from a bad accident and needed a change of scenery. Almost as soon as I came here, I made friends with the late, much missed, Sheriff Dwight Weatherly. I never quite understood why he took an interest in me, but one night we had a long conversation about Santa Creda. Santa Creda, he explained to me, is a superorganism. It has a sort of collective consciousness, and it acts in its own interests. He was convinced that Santa Creda had brought me here and was trying to figure out exactly where I fit in, when he passed on.”
Marshall looked down for a moment, then continued. “I’ve had a lot of time to think about that since then, and I’ve come to believe he was right. Santa Creda is a magical place, quite literally. Some of you have more experience with that than others, but I think everyone has felt it. You’ve seen light where none should be, darkness on a bright day, and you’ve felt the eyes of someone watching you. There’s a presence in this town. You may think of it as ghosts, spirits, sprites, yokai, or maybe even monsters. Beyond that, there is always the day-to-day rot that sets in with a town as it ages. Things people learn to ignore. Santa Creda has all of these things, and it needs a group dedicated to resolving issues, both large and small.”
Tilly listened patiently but somewhat dubiously. She’d heard about ghosts in Santa Creda, and she’d passed many a yard-shrine in her time, but she’d always written it off as the typical ghost stories and keep Santa Creda weird, sentiment that infiltrates a lot of towns. She remembered Sheriff Weatherly’s death. He’d been found sitting in his car at the Wayfarer Hotel, no sign of trauma, just gone. They wrote it off as a heart attack, but that had not set right with most people. There were a lot of questions at the time, especially about what he was doing at the hotel, but in the end, it had faded the way most stories fade. Tilly had never seen a ghost or a spirit, but she knew plenty of people who made the claim. People even claimed August House was haunted, but tricks of the light and a few creaking noises aren’t proof of ghosts, just an old building with a lot of fixtures.
“To be clear, SCAG is supposed to be fun. Not everything we do has to save the world, or Santa Creda for that matter. I want people to have fun. The idea is that there is no mission to big or too small. As members of the guild, you have access to the board.” Marshall pointed to a large bulletin board Tilly could just see though the door to the next room. “If you have a mission you add it to the board. Of course, just because you put something up, doesn’t mean anyone will come. Just like in any other adventurer’s guild, there should be a reward – loot, prestige, free pizza… Just remember that if you want people to join you on a quest, you need to make it worthwhile. Also, nothing says a quest can’t be margaritas at El Raquero. In the beginning especially, I think we need to bond…”
The meeting continued for a while. After Marshall got through with his initial pitch, people began asking questions, and then there was a round when people introduced themselves. Tilly took notes:
Marshall – Guild leader. Monk. Remote worker. Programmer. Car Accident. Relearned walking and speaking. Occasional memory issues.
Jack – Jack, Jack Koulema. Something like a reaper? Looks like William Powell. Sorcerer. Says he can come up with lots of missions.
Aadi – They/Them… busker. Homeless? Bard.
Happy/Harvey Trail- Outdoorsy, lives in the woods, acre of land on Soledad Creek. Trailer. Ranger. Fifty something. Cuban, African… Collects and sells things online.
Catrin Prichard – Still pretty. No class chosen. Relationship with Marshall? Self publishes werewolf stories, erotica?
Agnes Hearth – Looks like she could be one of our librarians. Rogue??? Researcher for insurance company. Seems normal enough.
After the talk, there was a tour of the rest of the SCAG headquarters. There were three rooms on the main floor, each progressively smaller. The middle room was what Marshall called the Map Room. It was indeed covered with maps, mostly of Santa Creda and the surrounding area. There was a map of shrines, a map of sightings, and several more. The pushpins, photos, and other markings made her think of the maps you see in some detective shows, or ones about conspiracy theories. This was also where the Call to Adventure board was. There was one item on it, a nicely printed flyer asking for recruits to visit Herald Rock. Herald Rock was a ghost town. It was about fifteen miles away from Santa Creda, and the only easy way to get there was to follow the railroad tracks. The railroad itself had long since stopped coming to Santa Creda, after a major rockslide had put the tracks out of commission and the railway had declined to rebuild. That had been the final blow that killed Herald Rock, although she had heard that there were a few people up there, mostly squatters. The flyer promised a gold coin, to anyone who made the trip, plus the opportunity for “interesting loot”. The goal was to seek out spirit activity and rescue lost souls.
While they were in the room, she saw Agnes post a second item on the board. It was handwritten, although the handwriting was so small and neat that it might as well have been typed. “Looking for hardy people to clear out a house Saturday March 4th. Previous inhabitant was a hermit/hoarder. Lots of possible loot. Free Pizza and Soda.” Happy walked up, read it, then turned to Agnes “Is there much by way of clothes?” he asked.
“At least two closets full,” she said. Probably more. I’ll have a giant dumpster out front, but if you find something you want, you can have it, within reason.”
Happy nodded and put his signature on the form. “I’ll be there.”
Nick went up next and signed on, “I pledge my broom and spear,” he said with mock seriousness.
Tilly was torn. Helping someone else clean out their house when she had her own things to pack up seemed a bit depressing, but if Nick was there, then it was worth considering. Besides, she was anxious to see what made Agnes the rogue. She also needed to be more social. Tilly took the pen and signed her name.
The third room was a small kitchen / pantry. There was a sink, stove, and microwave. The pantry was loaded with snacks and other supplies. There was also a small bathroom.
After viewing that, they went into the basement. The basement was very large, and all one room. It had been converted into a training area of sorts. There was a variety of athletic equipment, including weights, a treadmill, a low balance beam, and a climbing wall. There were also a variety of hand-held weapons and a circled area that Tilly assumed was there for sparring. That was just part of the room, however. There was also what appeared to be a crafting area of sorts, with a variety of cloth, leather, and other materials. Another area seemed to be devoted to rogue and other skills. There were locks for picking, traps to disarm, and more modern tools such as a night goggles and listening devices. Finally, there was an area that seemed devoted to all sorts of random skills from juggling to puzzle solving to marksmanship.
Marshall noticed Tilly looking around and asked, “What do you think?”
Tilly circled around then looked at him. “There’s no library.” she said.
“No,” Marshall agreed. “We plan to put some bookshelves in the meeting room upstairs,” he said, “But we were really hoping that was something you could help with.”
“Is that the skill you brought me in for?” she asked.
“It’s one of many,” Marshall said. “Jack speaks very highly of you.”
Tilly put up a finger, then glanced at her notes. “Jack,” she said, “If he is so hard to remember, then why does it seem easy for you.”
Marshall smiled. “That is an excellent question. There are a couple of possibilities. One is that the accident,” He pulled back his hair to show a couple ugly scars near his right temple, “Changed the way I think. It also might be because I’ve had close encounters with death. It’s hard to say. It just came easy for me, and for Nick as well. Catrin still has trouble remembering his name. You seem to be thinking your way around the problem though.” Marshall pointed to the notepad. “I don’t remember a single person who came here thought to take notes… except you.”
Tilly looked Marshall in the eyes. “I’m not so sure I’m right for this group. I’ve lived in Santa Creda my whole life, and I’ve never seen a ghost, spirit, or whatever. Apart from Jack over there, and his amazing ability to be forgotten, I’ve never encountered anything like what you guys are talking about.”
Marshall nodded. “I think that will change,” he told her, “But trust me when I say we have that area covered.”
“I also have no intention of carrying a sword or a dagger, or anything like that. I’m not interested in hurting people.”
“Me either,” Marshall confided. “You’ll notice when we were talking about classes, not one person said fighter or warrior or something like that. That’s not an accident. We aren’t looking for bloody battles. When it comes to the spirits, Jack’s goal is to help them move to the next phase, whatever that is. Still, it doesn’t hurt to be able to defend yourself. I don’t carry weapons, but I have taken martial arts, which is why I chose monk. That, and I seek balance, spiritually and physically. After my accident I had to retrain myself to walk. Since then I work on my balance every day, and I can do some amazing things that I certainly couldn’t do before my accident, but every once in a while, and it is rarer and rarer, I just fall over. Something in my brain short circuits and I lose balance completely. It sucks, but it is a reminder that I must work on it every day. That’s why this stuff is here. It isn’t to teach you how to hurt someone. It’s to help you become better. For me, it’s something I’ll be working on my whole life, because the alternative sucks.”
Tilly nodded. “That sounds rough.”
Marshall laughed. “I don’t really think of it that way. Before the accident I was deeply unhappy and unhealthy. I’m sad about what happened, and I grieve for who I used to be. It made me change though, and who I am now is better than who I was.”
“That’s good to know.” Tilly said. She looked around again. “I’m getting out of the library business, but sure. I can help out.”
Music started playing upstairs. She couldn’t place the instrument at first, but then she realized it was a harmonica. It just wasn’t being played in a way she expected. It was hard to place. Haunting, with a melody that seemed familiar, but she couldn’t place.
Marshall smiled. “I believe our bard has decided to perform. Do you want to go up and listen?”
Tilly shook her head. “In a minute,” she said. Tilly walked over to the rack of weapons on the wall. There was a set of swords and daggers, but she walked right past those. The one that caught her eye was simple, brown leather with one fat side, and one slim side that she assumed was the handle. She picked it up. It was heavier than she thought. A female voice behind her said, “That’s a sap. A highly underrated weapon, especially in close quarters.”
Tilly turned to see the round little woman, Agnes, just behind her. “I used to keep one in my purse, but I eventually got higher tech.” Agnes pulled out what looked like a flashlight except that it had four sharp prongs in front. “This will knock a 300-pound man on his ass in the blink of an eye. It’s a pretty good flashlight too.”
Tilly looked at it for a moment. “I suppose it would be effective.”
“It makes for a lighter purse than a sap, but you do you. Sometimes it’s nice to feel like you have something substantial at your disposal.”
Tilly smiled. “You’ve given this some thought I see,” she said.
Agnes nodded. “I do my research,” she said. “It appears to be the thing we have in common. That and a low center of gravity.”
“It that all we have?”
Agnes smiled. Tilly noted that she had perfect teeth. “It’s a start. I’ve got to go, but I see you signed up to help with the house. I’ll being you my sap. Consider it a starter weapon. Every girl should have one.”
Agnes walked back up the stairs, and Tilly realized she was now alone in the basement. She closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and let it out slowly. The music was still paying upstairs, but Tilly felt no urge to go up. Instead, she found a chair and sat down. She felt very tired and was wondering what she was doing here. She had boxes to pack, and she needed to find a place to live. She felt like crying again. She felt like going to bed and staying there the whole weekend. She felt like going for a walk that never stopped. Instead, she said to nobody, “I can do this.”
Tilly got back up. As she was heading to the stairs, she heard Nick come down. “Hey, Hi,” he said, “Sorry I got caught up talking to Happy. He’s all in on that walk to Herald Rock. He says the place is incredible, spooky but also beautiful, especially in spring when the wildflowers are in bloom.
“No problem,” Tilly said, “You know, I think I’m ready to…”
Before Tilly could finish, the lights blinked once, then went out, leaving them in complete darkness. She heard a shout upstairs, and the music stopped. For a moment, the hair hung still, then Tilly thought and reached into her purse, pulling her phone out of the side pocket. She pressed the front and lit up her face. A split second later, Nick’s was on. Tilly tuned on flashlight mode, cutting a swath of light through the darkness. “We should go upstairs,” she said.
The two of them walked up the stairs, the light hopping through the darkness. When they got up the stairs, Marshall, Catrin, Jack, and Aadi were standing around, their own devices providing light. Jack looked over at them and said, “Are you folks all right? Anyone else in the basement?”
“I’m pretty sure it was just us.” Nick said.
“Happy and Agnes already left,” Marshall added. This should be all of us.”
Aadi lifted their head slightly. “Something big is coming,” they said, then started walking toward the exit.
Jack followed, and the rest of them took his lead and went outside. They stood on the sidewalk looking around. The entire block was dark, with only the light of a couple people with phones like theirs, about three buildings down.
“What’s coming Aadi?” Jack asked. A second later they heard it, the high-pitched whine of jet engines being asked to do something jet engines don’t normally do. The sound was deafening, and then Tilly saw it, a huge jet airplane came barreling at them from over the ocean. Several of them dove to the ground. Only Tilly and Aadi stood there watching. It passed directly overhead, maybe ten feet above the rooftop. Tilly felt a sudden hot wind as air parted. She heard windows shatter and car alarms start to go off, all as background to the deafening whine of angry jet engines. A moment later the jet noise was gone. Tilly waited for the sound of a crash or an explosion, but none came. it was a moment before she felt pain and noticed that her neck was bleeding. There was glass everywhere. The beautifully painted murals of the Santa Creda Adventures Guild were now just pieces of glass on the ground. Much of it had blown inward, but a some shards had blown out, her long sleeved outfit had saved her from much of the flying glass, but the back of her neck had been exposed, and the glass had left a three inch cut. It wasn’t deep, but it stung.
Aadi, whose arms were bare, had several small cuts on them. They took the time to calmly pick several small shards out of their arm. The rest of the party, who had dived onto the ground, seemed to have been spared the glass damage, although Catrin had some road rash on a bare arm. Nick got back up off the ground. He rushed over to her. “Are you ok? You’re bleeding.”
Tilly felt surprisingly calm. She opened her purse and took out a first aid kit. “Is there anything besides my neck?” she asked.
Nick looked her over and brushed some glass off her back. “No, I think that’s it.”
Tilly took out a packet of bacitracin and handed it to him. “I can’t really reach,” she said, “Can you put that on my neck and then this bandage?” She handed him a wide adhesive bandage. “Aadi, do you want some?”
Aadi looked at her and smiled. “I have my own stuff,” They pulled out a small can from a belt pouch and began applying the brown, thick paste inside to the small cuts on their arm.
Nick finished bandaging Tilly’s neck. Next, Tilly offered to clean up Catrin’s arm. She nodded, still looking a little numb, and allowed Tilly to clean the wound and put a bandage on the worst part.
Once everyone was patched up, they began to look at the damage to the windows. Marshall said, “I’m going to go upstairs and check on my apartment. Fingers crossed.” he walked around to the side of the building and started climbing the stairs.
“I didn’t know he lived here.” Tilly said.
“Indeed,” Jack said, “That’s how we got the ground floor. He’s friends with the landlord.”
“Friends,” Catrin repeated, as if finding the term ironic.
Jack smiled and looked at Tilly. “They have a child together,” Jack said to Tilly by way of explanation.
“Oh,” Tilly said, “I though the two of you were together,” she said to Catrin.
“Once upon a time,” Catrin said, “but we still hang out. There’s not that many people in this town I can deal with.” Tilly nodded, not wanting to pick at that thread. Catrin added though, “I’m seeing someone, sort of. He doesn’t live here though. He just comes to town on business once or twice a month. He has an export business…” Catrin’s voice trailed off and she looked at her arm. “I’m going to go sit down.” Catrin walked back into the building, opening, and closing the door, whose glass was still intact.
Aadi looked over at Jack and said, “I’m ready to go now. May I please have my payment?”
“Of course,” Jack said. He reached into the inside pocket of his sport coat and pulled out a handmade envelope about half the size of a business card. Aadi took it, carefully unfolded the flap, then looked inside. “There are 32 grains,” Aadi said.
“Keep the extra,” Jack said, “And find somewhere safe to sleep tonight, please.”
“I know how to stay safe,” Aadi replied. Tilly watched as Aadi took a small leather pouch from around their neck and carefully poured what looked to be reddish grains of sand from the envelope to the pouch. They then put the pouch back around their neck.
“The worries are already starting Mr. Death.” Aadi said.
“My apologies, but we don’t know if this is related to anything.” Jack said.
“Yet Missalia left early,” Aadi said. “My cousin is smart, and observant.”
“I understand Aadi. I hope you’ll come back though.”
Aadi made no answer. They simply walked toward the pier without saying goodbye.
“I don’t remember meeting a Missalia,” Tilly said. “Is this another person who I won’t be able to remember?”
Jack laughed. “No. If you met Agnes you met Missalia, or at least, Missalia met you.”
“I don’t understand,” Tilly said.
Jack nodded. “I don’t want to overcomplicate things. Let’s just say that Agnes has two names, and I’ll explain the rest another time.”
“How is your neck feeling?” Nick asked.
Tilly raised her hand to her neck. “It’s fine, I think. It wasn’t that deep.”
“I should have protected you,” Nick said. “I just dove out of the way. I’m not much of a paladin I guess.”
“You’ll learn,” Tilly said. She turned to Jack. “We need to get some plywood and cover these windows. You’ve got some nice stuff in there. We have some wood over at August house, but we’ll need a pickup truck or something.”
“Do you think August house is ok?” Nick asked.
Tilly thought about it for a moment. “It’s two miles east of here. Chances are they barely noticed the plane. I don’t know about the power, but that’s not a major issue so long as it’s back up by morning.”
“I wonder what happened to the plane,” Nick said. “It was heading straight for the mountain.”
“That’s a problem for another time.” Tilly said. She took out her phone and looked up Bobby, Lawrence’s gardening assistant. She arranged for him to go to August house and bring them six sheets of plywood. Nick went to the trunk of his car, extracted his broom, and began to sweep up.
Marshall came back down with his toolkit, reporting that his upstairs windows were fine. “Smaller panes,” he said, “less fragile.”
The next few hours were spent making makeshift repairs to the front building. It was past midnight when the work was finally done and the little group broke up for the night. Nick drove Tilly home and walked her to her door.
“I’m sorry we didn’t get to go for ice cream,” he said.
Tilly shrugged. “There was work to be done.”
“Are you going to join SCAG?” Nick asked.
“Probably… maybe… I’m thinking of getting out of town. I have to find a new place to live. I don’t know. I need to get some sleep.” Tilly said.
“Well I hope you do,” Nick said. “I’d like to see you again.”
Tilly smiled a tired smile. “Maybe,” she said, “Text me sometime.”
Tilly went into her house. She made herself snack, undressed, took the bandage off her neck, then took a long a long shower and put on the extra-large t-shirt she generally wore to bed. She felt exhausted, but sleep did not come. Everything was quiet with the power out. She could hear the wind blowing through the garden and batting up against the small cottage. Her brain tried to work through the various puzzles of the day, but there were no available answers. “I think they need me,” Tilly said to nobody.
At just past two, Tilly heard the refrigerator start up, as well as the fan she had left on in the living room. After a few more minutes of attempted sleep, Tilly got up and turned on a light. She restarted her computer and made herself a bag of popcorn while she waited for it to boot up. She sat down, launched her browser, and typed in a search for superorganisms. It was dawn before she finally went to sleep.