Artifact Angst

One didn’t lose a key to Hell, Hades didn’t want anyone getting out.

Natalie didn’t have time to waste. Child of an incubus and a human nymphomaniac  — if she didn’t find the key her soul belonged to Hades.

Unless she found it soon, among a antique hoarder’s collection of junk, before the hunky nephilim upstairs got his hands on it.

For readers that love paranormal stories of the less-than-divine walking the Earth.

Snatch and grab. Natalie shoved open the door to the Golden Anchor Inn. That was the plan. Snatch and grab. Be gone before anyone knew different. The bell above the door clanked. Natalie stopped moving when she saw the inside of the place.

The plan had to change. She bit her lip, a bad habit that showed her fangs. That damn little sprite!

Organized clutter. A mechanical toy with looping metal tubes sat beside a glass reception area that looked like a repurposed display case, and that was only the start. Everywhere she looked she saw something else. A painting, a sign nailed to the wall and behind the desk, a hutch held a whole collection that would take her hours to sort through all by itself. And this was just the entryway. She found it doubtful that the rest of the place would suddenly turn into sterile empty hallways like a lot of hotels.

Heavy footsteps echoed on the floor as someone approached the desk, no doubt alerted by the bell. Natalie quickly stopped biting her lip, hopefully her lipstick didn’t look too bad, gave her hair a quick shake to make sure her ears weren’t poking through and then the man appeared.

Human, hardly a surprise there, almost as tall as her with dark hair. On the younger side of thirty. He flushed like so many men did when they saw her and smiled widely. “Hi there, can I help you?”

Natalie walked towards the desk. Her heels made sharp taps on the worn tile floor. “Your sign said you had a vacancy?”

He coughed. “Uh, we do, but um, the Anchor isn’t like a lot of places.”

“I’m not like a lot of women, either,” she said quickly. “I think it looks absolutely charming.”

“Well, um, okay then. Let’s just take a look here.” He fumbled with the computer sitting on the registration desk. “Yes, I can get you that room. How long do you plan on?”

Natalie leaned forward on the counter. “I think a week, if that’s not too much trouble?”

He chuckled. “Not at all. Okay, if I could just see a driver’s license and credit card?”

Natalie handed them over and relaxed. This could work. She’d just spend a few days, hopefully not a week, and get to know the place and the people. This man, for instance. With a little conversation she would probably be able to find out what new acquisitions had been added to the collection. Not quite a snatch and grab but close enough. She had to get the artifact back before the week was out or there would be Hell to pay.

Literally. One didn’t let a Hell key disappear. Hades didn’t like the idea that anyone might get out.

 

She gazed at the man as he finished checking her in. “What’s your name?”

“Kane.” He held up actual keys on a plastic key chain. How quaint. “Here are your keys. Have you stayed with us before?”

“I haven’t had the pleasure.” She straightened as he opened the swinging door to the reception area. “I’m looking forward to it.”

“Well, let me show you around.” Kane eased around her with charming nervousness. Most men reacted but he was positively blushing. So cute. This might be fun. He glanced at her small purse. “Do you have any bags?”

“I’ll bring them in later.” Safer for everyone concerned that way. Kane walked a few steps ahead and gestured at the shelves of DVDs in the corner before the hallway turned. “If you want to watch anything just let us know.”

A movie-theater style popcorn maker sat between two shelves of DVDs. She inhaled deeply. Butter and salted popcorn, but nothing else. It didn’t seem likely that the artifact would be disguised as a popcorn maker but she couldn’t be too careful.

“That sounds lovely,” she said. “Maybe you’d like to watch something with me while I’m here?”

Kane blushed deeper. “I’d better show you to your room.”

He hurried around the corner. Natalie smiled. She’d actually managed to scare the poor man. Maybe she’d better turn it down a notch. Then she saw the large room at the end of the hallway and nearly snarled. Kane turned into a side hallway with a glass-paned door but she kept going.

“What. Is. This?”

“That’s the dining room. Complimentary breakfast at nine. It’s very good. Um, your room is back here?”

Natalie didn’t move. Objects covered every space surface of the dining room. A whole entire boat hung upside down from the ceiling. A bicycle, flags and a propeller and that was only for starters. More items hung on the walls and any one of them could be the artifact she sought. That damn sprite must be laughing in his grave right now at the thought of it. The truth stone had worked before it drained the sprite of his life, the artifact had to be here somewhere, but damn him again! If she had time to track down a necromancer and rip the sprite out of his grave she’d do it, but there wasn’t time. A few days, no more than that.

“Ma’am?”

Natalie forced her brightest smile onto her face, the one that went all the way to her jade eyes and turned to face Kane. “You didn’t just call me ma’am, did you?”

“Um, sorry?”

She reached out and ran her long red nails down his arm. “Really, dear. Natalie, please.”

He nodded and stepped back into the adjoining hallway. “Your room is this way.”

Natalie sighed and followed him. The hallway continued the yard sale decor that she’d already seen. A bookcase filled with books cluttered the hallway. Books! Did she have to look at each one?

Kane stopped in front of one of the doors. He pointed up at a small brass plaque. “This is the Sick Bay, that’s just what we call it. All the rooms have names.”

“Charming.”

He held up keys. “The rounded one opens the back door, if you’re out after eight we lock the front. The triangle one opens this door. “

Kane used the door and pushed it open, walked in and held the door for her. Natalie walked in. Boats. Paintings of boats hung on each wall along with an obnoxiously large pelican and a psychedelic crab. More books, enough to make her weep, and an enormously tacky sea-shell framed mirror above a small sink and microwave.

“The bathroom is through there, and the bedroom on the other side. They used to be shared —”

“Are all the rooms like this?”

“Yes? If you don’t like —”

Natalie held out her hand and made herself smile again even though she really wanted to break something. Maybe that model 18th century ship? “It’s fine. Really. Thank you so much.”

He dropped the keys into her palm. A brief push of power and no answering surge from the keys. That would have been two easy. Natalie curled her fingers around the keys and resisted the urge to melt them on the spot. Two objects down, who knew how many to go?

Kane rubbed his hands on his jeans and looked around the room like he’d forgotten something. Cute, too bad she was working right now.

“Thank you, Kane.” Natalie curved her lips into a smile. “You’ve been very helpful.”

He nodded and edged past her towards the door. “No problem. Sure you don’t need a hand with any luggage?”

“No thanks.” Natalie slid a hand into her small red purse and came out with a folded five between two fingers. She held it out. “Thanks again.”

Kane shook his head and held up his hands. “That’s not necessary here.”

“I insist.”

He blushed. Natalie waited. He reached out, hesitated, and then took the five. “Thanks.”

He left the room and she gave him points for not breaking into a run immediately. Natalie shut the door and turned around, leaning back against the wood. She looked around the room again. There wasn’t even a theme to the place, except an overall nautical feel. But a seashell mirror frame? And then one of the paintings on the wall was of two penguins in a snowstorm. At least it looked like that to her and the smaller of the two penguins looked pissed. The other looked scared. It brought to mind a movie she’d seen once, or television miniseries, by that man that always made Hades laugh. She could just hear the smaller penguin.

If you give me your egg, I’ll go away.

Natalie sighed. Best get started. Clear this room and then, assuming it wasn’t that easy, she could get settled in and start checking out the rest of the place. She reached out and ran red fingernails across the seashell mirror frame. A brief push of power and nothing. One more object down. She skipped the microwave. The sprite could have disguised the Hell key as any object but not functioning machines. The first painting of a fishing boat at dock? No.

After a tedious inventory — particularly going through the three shelves of books — of the Sick Bay Natalie felt like breaking something so she went out into the hall and out the back door. She stalked out onto the wood porch and out into the gravel parking lot at the back of the hotel. The cool ocean air helped. She bit her lip again almost hard enough to draw blood with her fangs. She took a deep breath and pressed her lips together. She had to be patient, this was going to take time. Hopefully she’d have the time, as far as she knew Hades might not even know yet about the key. If she had her way he never would.

She walked across the lot to her cherry red VW New Beetle to get her luggage out. She flipped up the logo on the back, unlocked the hatch and pulled out her single black suitcase. She shut the hatch and turned around.

A man stood up on the second floor balcony, leaning on the rail watching her. Handsome, with a strong jaw line and longish dirty brown hair hanging around his face. Nice broad, muscular shoulders and large hands loosely folded together. He wore jeans and a flannel shirt like any Northwest woodsman, but with his looks he’d be better in a tux. Very James Bond. Of course James Bond didn’t normally go around barefoot either, and this guy was. He didn’t look away when she saw him but continued gazing at her. Was that a bit of a smile on his lips? Of course from that angle he was getting a good look at her cleavage. Natalie titled her head.

“Is there something I can help you with?”

He laughed and in the sound of his laughter she head the faint echo of thunder cracking. He straightened up and placed his hands on the rail.

“I can help you,” he said. “A bit of advice?”

“Oh?”

“It’d be best if you gave up looking for the key.”

Natalie shifted her focus and really looked. He still looked as handsome as ever but his hair moved as if blown by a never-ending wind and from his massive shoulders wide white wings flexed and settled against his back. Nephilim!

She dropped the bag to the ground.

He laughed again and once more she heard the sound of thunder in his laugh. “If we fight here, succubus, it will make it more difficult to find what you seek. It will draw attention.”

Natalie answered his laugh with one of her own. Did he hear the echoes in her voice? People moaning? Crying out in pleasure and pain? “A minor inconvenience if it means getting rid of you!”

“And if the battle doesn’t go your way? What then? I suppose you’ll just be forgiven?”

“Oh, I don’t think I have to worry about that.”

He shrugged. “Maybe not. It seems counter-productive for us to fight when we could work together to get the key.”

“Work together?” Natalie chuckled, this nephilim had guts. “And how would we determine who keeps the key?”

He vaulted over the railing in one instant smooth motion. He fell to Earth and landed lightly on his bare feet as if the gravel didn’t bother him at all. Natalie raised her hands, falling back into a fighting stance. He shook his head and walked towards her with one hand outstretched.

“I’m called Peter.”

Natalie relaxed just slightly. She took his hand. His grip was strong, warm, and firm. He shook without squeezing too hard or holding her hand as if it would break. He held her hand just a second longer than necessary before letting go.

“Natalie.”

Peter smiled. “Okay, so whoever finds the key keeps it.”

“That’s hardly a good bargain.”

“It’s better than exposure if we fight and this way we cover the place twice as fast. Have you seen the inside? With two of us clearing objects —”

“I get it.” Natalie looked up into his eyes colored like storm clouds. “Okay. I’ll take everything on the first floor including the cabins.”

Peter shook his head. “We split those too. You can have this row, on this side of the lot, I’ll take the other and the second floor of the main building. All we have to do is stay out of the other’s area and we won’t have a problem. If the key is in your section you take it.”

“And if you find it I’m just supposed to let you go?”

“That’s the deal.”

Or she could always take it from him after he left the hotel. Technically that wouldn’t be breaking the deal. He had to know that, which meant he’d be planning the same thing.

“Okay.” Natalie held out her hand. Peter took her hand again. Natalie brought up her left and lightly stroked the back of his hand. “This is going to be so great!”

Peter grinned. “Oh, I thinks so too.”

Natalie let go. She made a shooing motion with her hands. “Go on then, you stay on your side of the hotel, and I’ll stay on mine.”

“Right. Oh, except I do get to come down to the dining room for breakfast. I’ve heard that they make a fabulous breakfast here.”

“All of the objects in that room are mine. No touching!”

“I’ll stick to eating breakfast.”

“You’d better or all bargains are off!”

“Of course.” Peter backed away. “I guess I’ll see you at breakfast, then?”

“I don’t eat breakfast.”

“Right. Well, then good luck!”

Natalie gave him her sweetest smile. He answered with a small wave then turned and walked away underneath the balcony above, turned and started up the wood stairs leading up. Natalie picked up her bag and headed back to her room. Once back in the Sick Bay she carried her bag to the bedroom and dropped her bag on the queen-sized bed. There was a second door leading out of the bedroom into the hallway.

How had she made a deal with a nephilim? If word got back to Hades, well, that wouldn’t help her chances of getting rid of her contract.

She unzipped the bag and flipped the heavy lid open. Silver blades caught the light as the lid dropped down to the bed. She ran her finger along the biggest of the knives, one that almost qualified as a short sword with an elegant blade that widened out before narrowing down to a point. There was a clutch of throwing knives, and four narrow forearm blades. With a nephilim in the hotel it was time to change. If she found the artifact Peter would try to take it, and in all fairness, she’d already decided to take it back from him if he found it. She needed to be ready.

Natalie reached back, undid the short zipper at the small of her back and then pulled the red dress off her shoulders. It slid down her skin into a puddle around her feet. She stepped out and took off her heels. She glanced at the curtains just to make sure they were open and stretched her arms above her head, arching her back. Kane was walking past through the garden outside. He glanced at the window and stopped as if she’d put up a wall. Not looking at him, she lowered hands and ran them down across her bare breasts and down her stomach until her nails slid just beneath the top of her red lace panties. In the corner of her eye she saw a blushing Kane hurry away.

Chuckling softly, Natalie bent over and picked up the dress. She shook it straight and carefully folded it. After this Kane would tell her anything she wanted to know. She wasn’t heartless. She didn’t need to take it any farther. She had a job to do and didn’t mind using her charms to get it done but she wasn’t entirely her father’s daughter. She had no interest in Kane’s destruction. The worst thing she’d leave him with was an image he could fantasize about on lonely nights.

She put the red dress down on the bed. She took out a black polyamide top with a very low black lace V across the front and a back slit and pulled that on. Then she took out custom black leather wrist sheaths and strapped those to her arms. She added two of the long forearm knives. Black lace stockings, garters and then a pleated black skirt that hung just above her knee and gave her plenty of freedom to move. The skirt also had small hidden sheaths on the back to hold two throwing knives on each side. Over the top she put on a black double front evening coat that covered the wrist sheaths but with enough room at the wrists to give her easy access. The sleeves ended in black lace cuffs. Last of all she took out her black knee-high boots and pulled those on.

Better. She took her cosmetics bag over to the sink and wash area and turned on the light. Not too bad. She switched to a darker, blood red lipstick and a few touch ups. The tip of her left ear stuck out of her hair. A little shake hid the tip again.

Natalie smiled. Much better. She preferred having the knives with her instead of sitting in her suitcase. She put away the red dress and heels then zipped up the bag. The charm promised a nasty jolt for anyone, except her, trying to open it.

Now she could start taking a look for the artifact. No time to waste. She picked up her purse, dropped in her room keys, and headed out of the Sick Bay.

When she got out of the room she started right at the back door. A small round painting of a pelican hung on the wall. One finger and a brief push, that’s all it took to confirm it wasn’t the artifact. Another one down. The long dark hallway of tedium stretched out before her. Nothing to do but take them one at a time. The sprite’s spell hid the artifact too well for her to sense it any other way. Natalie stretched up on her tiptoes trying to reach the canoe hanging from the hallway ceiling. Too high. She didn’t sense anyone close, glanced behind her to make sure there wasn’t someone outside the door, and jumped up. Her fingers brushed the worn wood frame of the canoe. Nothing. She landed lightly.

Two down. Natalie bit her lip and turned to a boat lifesaver hanging on the wall.

She’d gotten through two thirds of the hallway when she reached the first book case. Five shelves, full of books. She’d never been in a hotel with so many books! She was on her fourth book when she heard footsteps and the door nearest the book case opened.

A woman stepped out, middle-aged, a bit heavy, with graying hair. She wore bright blue sweats with white pin stripes and sneakers. She stopped when she saw Natalie standing in the hall and her eyes widened. “Oh, hello?”

Natalie gave her a friendly smile. “Hi. How are you?”

“Fine.” The woman laughed nervously and gestured at the book shelves. “Looking for something to read? The Anchor has so many great books. A lot of them are from other writers that stay here, they leave copies.”

“Really? Are you a writer then?”

The woman smiled, held out a hand, “Michelle Ward, I write romances.”

Natalie took her hand. “Natalie, romances are my favorite. I’ve just been looking around, taking it all in. There’s so many fascinating things here.”

Michelle beamed. “I know! Isn’t it great? I love it here. I usually try to come down the last week or so that when I’m going to finish a novel. I get the one done and then start the next before I go home.”

“That’s impressive. Are you going out for a run?”

“Oh, um, no.” Michelle rubbed her palms on the sweats. “These are just comfortable. Your outfit, that’s beautiful.”

“Thank you.”

Michelle fidgeted. “I was going to go for a walk down on the beach.”

“Okay. Have a nice walk, maybe I’ll see you around.”

“Sure, yes. Oh, and you have to come for breakfast. It’s wonderful.”

“I’ve heard that. I think I just might.”

Michelle nodded, gave a little wave and then turned and walked down the hallway. Natalie waited until she went out the back door and then she walked over to Michelle’s room. She gripped the knob and gave a push to the lock. It clicked free. She opened the door and walked in.

No time to be shy. The room had just as many possible artifacts as the Sick Bay. She probably wouldn’t get a better chance to clear a room. She went to work.

 

2

 

Natalie left Michelle’s room, easing the door closed behind her as she checked the hallway. Nobody around to see her coming out of the wrong room. Michelle’s room had proved just as fruitless as her own. The same sort of decor, all unique items, but a general aquatic theme. Seascape paintings on the walls, another model ship and a boat wheel with rich dark wood and a clock in the center. A second clock in the bedroom was embedded in the heart of a gray piece of driftwood. And of course there were books. Three more shelves of books that Natalie had to go through, one at a time. It wasn’t as easy as it might have sounded to go through a room, touch and push each object. The sprite could have hidden the artifact anywhere, as anything.

She returned to the bookshelf outside Michelle’s room and touched the next spine. No. The next. No. At this rate she’d need a tall latte soon just to ward off the headache.

She finished checking the books before Michelle returned and continued down the hall. An oar strapped to the wall, no. A painting of a 1940’s nurse pin-up, no.

Natalie reached the end of the hall. Nothing in this wing, unless it was in one of the other two rooms on the ground floor. She turned right — no way was she going to face that dining room now — and ran her fingers across a picture of Marilyn Monroe. Not the artifact. The DVD shelves were just ahead and she couldn’t stand the thought of having to touch every one. The popcorn machine gave off a rich, warm, salty buttered popcorn smell. Someone had just made a new batch. She needed an edge. Something to give her a step up over Peter.

No one was down by the service desk. Just past the desk the stairs went up four steps and then turned and went up towards the back of the building. The hallway between the DVDs and the desk was full of potential artifacts. Chairs, a lamp, pictures and objects on the wall, an aquarium with a bamboo stand — all of it taunting her. If she could only look and see the truth, but she couldn’t.

Natalie walked to the service desk and tapped her fingernails on the top of the glass case. On the left, behind the counter a beaded curtain hung in the entrance. Not at all like other hotels, but she’d grant it a certain charm. More if she wasn’t trying to find the artifact among all of this stuff. She noticed a small plastic box with a button in the center sitting on top a scrap of paper with the words scrawled, “Press for service.”

She pushed the button. A loud electronic bell tolled. Natalie smiled and touched a glass paperweight with an embedded bit of seaweed. Push. Nope.

She heard footsteps behind the beaded curtain. A large green vase on the case was filled with peppermints. She picked one out, touching the vase with her other hand. Nope. Not that either. A woman appeared on the other side of the curtain. Not a pretty woman, with limp brown hair tied back in a pony-tail. She smiled and that brightened up her face considerably. Not pretty, but not unattractive either. She looked up at Natalie.

“Hi there, I’m Paige. What can I do for you?”

Natalie had hoped that Kane would be around but the poor man was probably hiding out somewhere. “I’ve been admiring the decor. I’ve never been here before. There’s so much to see.”

Paige glanced around. “I guess so. I’ve gotten used to it, working here.”

“I found out about the place from a friend of mind that stayed here a couple weeks back. Short, dark hair, thin? He’s kind of a nervous guy but very clever.”

“Oh, you mean Mark?”

Natalie smiled, careful not to show bare her fangs. She hadn’t known what name the sprite used when he stayed here. “Yes. He said I should come check out the place.”

“That’s nice of him. He seemed sweet, quiet. Sat alone at breakfast but then we had a bunch of writers here that week. He might have felt out of place.”

“He’s shy,” Natalie said. She leaned forward slightly. “He said that he left a piece here, something for your collection. Have you seen it?”

The woman shook her head. “If he did I didn’t know about it. The boss takes care of all new acquisitions.”

“Is that Kane?”

Paige laughed. “No, Kane helps out but no way is he the boss. No, that’d be Brian. But he’s not around right now.”

“That’s too bad. I was hoping that he could show me what Mark left. Sometimes Mark borrows things that don’t belong to him, a bad habit, and I’d hate to think that the hotel’s reputation might be tarnished by buying stolen property.”

“You’re in Sick Bay, right?”

“Yes, I’m Natalie. How did you know?”

“You flustered Kane, a bit,” Paige said. “He doesn’t usually stutter when he tells us about a new guest.”

Natalie smiled. “Isn’t that sweet?”

“Yep. I’ll tell Brian about your concern. I’m sure he’ll be happy to talk to you about anything Mark might have left.”

“Thanks.”

“Don’t mention it.” Page started to take a step back and hesitated. “Was there anything else?”

“Sorry, you probably have a lot to do. Just one thing, you’ve been so helpful. Where can a girl go for good coffee around here?”

“Just down the hill a bit there’s a cafe, coffee is pretty good. Not far to walk.”

“Great, thanks!”

Paige nodded and ducked back through the beaded curtain. Her footsteps receded away.

Natalie looked around at the front hallway. Later. She’d come back and check everything here after she had a decent latte. And who knew? Maybe Brian would be around and could take her straight to the artifact.

 

3

 

The Country Cup turned out to be farther down the hill than Natalie had expected to walk in heels but the tall latte made it all worthwhile. She walked back up the hill towards the Anchor enjoying the hot beverage. Chilly wind blew her hair around in her face. The whole city stretched along highway 101, sandwiched between the highway and the ocean on one side and trees and hills on the other. There was probably more to the city back away from the highway but clearly the whole place centered on that stretch of blacktop. Traffic rushed past in both directions full of fat vacationers in RVs. A bicyclist with bright red panniers shot down the hill past her. She approved of his color choice but why would anyone choose to travel like that and arrive everywhere dirty and sweaty?

Natalie made it back to the Anchor with her latte still half full. She took her time coming across the parking lot to the main building. There were plenty of decorations out along the rows of cabins that needed to be checked. Oars, ropes, floats and life preservers, and not one of them was the artifact. Not the wood cutouts of crabs and dolphins painted like they belonged in a nursery school. Or the bicycle chained up front. Not the mannequin holding the welcome sign on one side of the porch. Above the entryway hung a golden anchor, out of reach for the moment, but she’d check it later.

Nothing she touched responded. She went through the door again and reached up to touch the bell above the door. Nope. No one was around in the front area. Natalie didn’t hesitate. She went to the swinging door to the area behind the welcome desk and reached over to flip the latch up and step through.

The hutch behind the case was full of objects. Plates painted with images of lighthouses, someone’s lost key ring, a tall silver and black thermos. Natalie ran her fingers across each of them. Push after push and nothing. She heard footsteps upstairs but it didn’t sound like anyone coming down the stairs. She kept going.

It didn’t take hours to check everything in and on the hutch but it felt like hours had passed. She sipped her latte and wished she had another. Her head pounded. She didn’t normally have to use her power so much. All of those little pushes were building up to a really annoying headache.

“No luck then?”

Natalie felt a little jolt in her nerves but it never so much as reached her little finger. Nothing to let Peter know that he had startled her. She turned around smoothly.

Peter stood on the other side of the swinging door as if he’d just come downstairs. Without making a single one of the wooden steps squeak. Damn angel-spawn, he’d done it just to sneak up on her.

“It’s not as if I’d share if I had found it.”

He looked fantastic if you liked the whole broad shoulders and perfect jaw-line sort of thing, which as much as she hated it, did work for her. He was still dressed the same as when she’d seen him earlier, complete with bare feet.

“Do you always go around bare foot?”

“Sure beats the alternative,” Peter said. He walked around to the front of the counter. Natalie rotated to keep facing him. “You know if the staff see you back there, they might not be too happy.”

Natalie smiled slowly and put a hand on her hip. “Oh, I think I can manage that.”

Peter chuckled. “I’m sure you can. Listen, Natalie, you know you don’t actually have to do this whole thing? I mean working for Hades.”

“What do you know about it?”

“You’re like me, you’ve got a parent from Hell. Literally in your case, but you’ve also got a human parent. You’re just as free as any person that walks the face of this planet to make your own choices. You can fight back.”

“Right, like you?”

“I’m not above earning a few favors,” Peter said. “Getting this key would be like getting a get out of jail free card. I could use that.”

“Yeah, well, you don’t know anything. I don’t have a choice. I’m not free and I suggest that you get out of my way and stay away.”

“How about dinner?”

“What?”

“Dinner. You do eat, so why don’t we go have dinner? Get out of this place with me for an hour or two. Have something to eat and just take a break.”

Natalie laughed. “Oh, you’re hilarious. Did you actually think that’d work? What? You get me out of the here and then have some of your friends scout out the first floor? I don’t think so.”

Peter straightened. “That wasn’t it at all. I thought we might have a nice time. You might find we have a lot in common.”

Gutsy, she’d give him that much. “Thanks, but I’ll pass.”

“Okay.” Peter rapped his knuckles on the top of the case. “I’ll see you at breakfast tomorrow then.”

He walked back around the counter, reached the steps and bounded up the first three steps. Then he was gone. Natalie heard someone coming from the other side of the beaded curtain. She opened the swinging door and stepped through. She was around the counter when Paige pushed through the beaded curtain.

“Oh, hi! Did you ring the bell?”

Natalie shook her head. “No, didn’t even have a chance. Hey, about the DVDs, how does that work?”

“Just let me know which one you have and then you can take it back to your room. We’d prefer that you only take one at a time. If we’re not around, just leave a note.”

“Okay. Thanks, I’ll check them out, see if there’s anything I want to watch.”

Paige motioned towards the shelves. “Knock yourself out.”

Right. Natalie turned around and walked down to the shelves. She drained the last of her latte. She should have bought two. Oh well, best get it over with.

 

4

 

Natalie shut the Sick Bay door and peeled off her boots. She dropped them beside the door. She still had her stockings on but the feel of the floor against her mostly bare feet made her think of Peter. The nephilim was taunting her. Asking he out to dinner, who does that? He was the offspring of an angel and a human woman, and her father was an incubus. It wasn’t as if she had a choice in any of this.

She lay down on the brass-studded leather couch and found it surprisingly comfortable for something that looked like it belonged in a Goodwill. On the wall above her feet was the painting of the penguins.

Give me your egg, and I’ll go away.

Natalie grinned. Right, if she could talk to Brian then she’d be asking essentially the same thing. Give me the artifact and I’ll go away. Natalie put her right arm over her eyes. Yet when she did she saw Peter jumping down from the balcony, all that power, casually showing off. His bare feet landing so lightly on the ground. The way he left the top buttons of his shirt undone, just giving a hint of a smooth muscled chest.

She ran her left hand down across her stomach, grazing the smooth fabric of her top. She pressed gently and moved her hand in a slow circle, dipping lower, imagining Peter’s warm hand —

Natalie sat up. She clenched her hands, fingers pressing into the smooth leather couch. She was just frustrated, in part because of the fruitless search. Going through the DVDs had been like one of Hades’ tortures. Touch and push, over and over again and not in a good way. And that was the other problem. She hadn’t had a good touch and push in days. Her father was an incubus and her mother a nymphomaniac, she had needs that demanded a certain satisfaction.

But she’d promised herself not to let that drive her. She was in control and right now she didn’t have time to go mess around. She’d cleared the main hallways but that left the dining room, full of artifacts, the rest of the rooms on this floor and the cabins outside. She just needed to make friends and influence people. After she took a short cat nap. She didn’t like sleeping long stretches, naps worked for her. She got up from the couch and headed into the bedroom. She shucked the evening coat and draped it over the foot board.

She laid down and closed her eyes. Her hand reached down and ran along the edge of the skirt. A little solo touch and push might not be a bad idea, it’d help calm her nerves and make it easier to nap. Her nails slid beneath the edge of the skirt when a reddish light appeared through her eyelids. She heard a rough, familiar chuckle.

Natalie opened her eyes and rolled over up onto one elbow to look at the mirror above the wash area. Not a mirror at the moment, but what looked like a window into a dark room of polished black stone and dark chains. The light looked like moonlight but had no definable source. It came from everywhere and nowhere. Right on the other side of the mirror-window stood a man with a handsome, if cruel face. He sneered at her and reached up to finger a nipple pierced by six silver barbs.

“Natalie, you don’t need to stop the show on my account.”

Natalie held very still. “Abaddon.”

“Hades is getting impatient, child. He wonders why it is taking so long to retrieve a simple artifact.”

“And he asked you to check up on me?”

Abaddon smiled, just enough to show a hint of the fangs filling his mouth. “I have my own interest in this. If you were to hand the artifact over to me I’d be very grateful.”

The last thing, the very last thing she needed right now was to piss off Abaddon, angel of death. “Perhaps if I didn’t have explicit orders from Hades, but he was extremely clear in describing what would happen to me if I didn’t put the artifact directly into his hand.”

“And if I am displeased? Does that not distress you as well?”

Natalie ran her hand down her hip and tugged at the skirt, pulling it slightly up her hip. “The last thing I’d want to do is distress you.”

A familiar look entered Abaddon’s eyes, that look that said you had a man’s attention. It was like hunger but fiercer. Natalie ran her hand past the end of the skirt and toyed with her garter belt, running a finger under the black lace edges.

Abaddon laughed. “Wench! You dare to try your charms on me?”

Natalie locked her eyes with his and smiled enough to show the tips of her fangs. “I want us to be on good terms, Abaddon, but I’m bound to follow Hades’ orders in this.”

“Fine.” Abaddon waved his hand in dismissal. “I’ll seek my entertainment elsewhere.”

The light in the mirror started to dim. Abaddon turned away, then paused. He didn’t look back when he spoke. “We’ll pick this up another time.”

Then the mirror was just a mirror and Natalie sat up and swung her legs off the bed. If Abaddon spoke the truth, and Hades was getting impatient — not something that stretched the imagination — then she needed to hurry up. It didn’t sound like she’d have another week to wrap this up after all. No matter what deadlines Hades originally set.

She grabbed her coat and pulled it on as she headed back to the sitting room. She picked up her boots and pulled them back on before heading out of the Sick Bay. It was time to stop being shy.

In the hall she knocked on the door across the hall from her room. She listened and didn’t hear any sounds coming from the room. She knocked again and still didn’t get an answer.

Fine. She pushed at the lock and was rewarded by the door opening. Natalie stepped inside and quickly closed the door behind her. A quick glance suggested that the room was vacant. Nothing in the sitting room looked like it was left by a guest. She went to work despite the headache and the monotony of checking each object in the room. She’d just finished the sitting room when she heard a key in the lock. Natalie crossed quickly to the door and turned the nob, opening it up.

Kane stepped back, blinking in surprise. An older gray-haired couple was with him. Natalie stepped out close to Kane. She reached out and tapped a nail on one of the buttons on his shirt.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you folks. Can you believe it? I got all turned around and went into the wrong room!” Natalie gave them all a bright smile and locked eyes with the older gentleman. His pale skin flushed. “I’m right over there, across the hall. If you’ll excuse me?”

Natalie walked past, her fingers grazing Kane’s arm, and went to her room. She pulled out her key and used it to open the door. She went on in but left the door open so that she could see out into the hallway. She heard Kane stammering as he showed the couple their room. She picked a book at random off the shelf and sat down on the leather couch. She stretched her legs out and crossed them at the ankle as she opened the book, a novel called Family, Pack. Werewolves. Cute.

Across the hall Kane finished up answering the couples’ questions and then came out the door, pulling it closed behind him. Natalie closed the book, keeping her finger in to mark her page. “I’m so sorry, Kane. I don’t know how I got turned around.”

Kane came to the door. He grinned at her. “It’s an unfamiliar place.”

Natalie leaned forward. “It’s wonderful! I’ve been going around looking at everything. I’ll admit, I was confused how things had changed in my room, and my stuff was gone, but then I figured it out. I felt so stupid!”

“I’m sure you’re not stupid.”

“You’re sweet.” Natalie tilted her head. “I don’t suppose you have any recommendations on where a girl might get something to eat for dinner around here?”

“Um, well, there’s a seafood place down by the beach that is nice.”

“Does it have cozy, semi-private booths?”

Kane swallowed. He opened his mouth as if he was going to say something, then nodded instead.

Natalie set the book down and rose smoothly from the couch. She walked right up to Kane. He was already blushing again but he also didn’t move away. Points for that.

She leaned deeply into his space, looking right into his eyes. “Paige told me that Brian might have gotten something from my friend Mark. But I haven’t seen Brian around today. Do you have any idea what it was? Knowing Mark, he might have stolen it and I wouldn’t want to see this wonderful place get in trouble.”

Kane shook his head quickly. “I d-don’t know. Brian handles all of that stuff. B-but he does have a guy doing appraisals upstairs.”

“Guy?” Natalie took Kane’s hands in hers and leaned in very close so that her breath caressed his face. “What guy?”

“Ah, Peter? His n-name is Peter.”

Natalie leaned in and just barely brushed Kane’s lips with hers in the barest of kisses. She stepped back from him and slowly let his hands slide out of hers.

“I see. I think I’ll go up and talk to him. When are you off work?”

“S-seven.”

“Okay, then I’ll meet you out front at seven. Okay?”

“Sure.” Kane laughed and took a step back. “Right. Seven. For dinner.”

Natalie waved her fingers at him.

Kane lifted a hand and then headed away down the hall. The door across the hallway opened up and the older man looked out into the hall. Natalie looked at him and gave the tiniest pout. He ducked back into the room and shut the door. Natalie laughed and walked out into the hall, closing her door behind her.

Peter, no wonder that sneaky nephilim had suggested the bargain. He already had the artifact, he just had to identify it and stash it until her time ran out. With her out of the picture then he could take the key and be gone. No one would be the wiser.

Except that now she knew. She headed out the back door. From there she went up the wide wood steps. She stepped lightly, glad for the leather boots instead of her heels. She could move silently in this outfit. The wind caught her hair and the evening jacket and blew them out behind her. Dark gray clouds filled the sky in all directions. A real storm was brewing. Tiny drops misted her cheeks and clung to her eyelashes.

She reached the deck and moved quickly around the corner to the second floor back door. It wasn’t closed entirely. She pulled it open and stepped inside. Another long hallway with throw rugs on the floor and a couple book cases on the walls. It was poorly lit, but she saw easily in the dark, preferred it to bright artificial lights. Two rooms down the hallway was an open room and a few lamps that cast golden light on the wood paneled walls. From this end she could see some rundown couches and chairs that would have looked at home on a curb with a cardboard “Free” sign.

Natalie shook her head and started walking down the hallway. All of her senses were alert. The first two rooms were closed. She heard muffled music coming from one and some sexy giggles. She felt the energy through the door. Illicit and tempting, just the sort of thing that appealed to her. Two people who probably shouldn’t be hooking up were together in that room.

Intriguing, but not her business right now. She kept going until she reached the room ahead. Furniture all around the sides of the room. A young woman sat back in an over-stuffed leather chair with a netbook on her lap. Her fingers flew along the keys. Nice bone structure, bleached blond hair, and a body thin from not eating enough. She looked up and her eyes widened when she saw Natalie.

“Oh, uh, hi? Are you here for the workshop?”

“No. Have you seen Peter?”

A hint of color came to the woman’s cheeks. She pointed down the hallway past the room. “Last I saw he was down there, across from the kitchen.”

“Thanks.”

Natalie walked on, feeling the woman’s eyes on her as she left. She passed an open door to a meeting room with a long table at the center, then the stairs leading back down to the first floor and the reception desk. On the other side an open doorway led to a kitchen area with a bar and a seating booth and across from that was another room with a table piled high with all sorts of objects. Lamps and paintings and sculptures and other things and sitting at the head of the table was Peter turning an orange glass float ball in his hands.

He looked up as she entered the room and smiled warmly. “Natalie, you’re out of bounds!”

She wanted to draw one of the long knives from her wrist sheaths and cut the smile from his face. She wanted him afraid and in pain, or begging her for a touch. Either would work but right now he didn’t have either of those expressions on his face. He looked smug.

“Bastard! You’ve already got the artifact, don’t you?”

Peter gentle sat down the float. He didn’t try to get up. He just put his hands on the arms of the chair. “Why would you think that?”

“You’re just stalling, waiting until I’m out of time.”

Now Peter did rise, slowly, and slid the chair back. He stood relaxed with his hands at his sides. “And if I tell you I don’t have it?”

She could taste the lie on her lips like kissing someone who hadn’t brushed their teeth recently. She shook her head. “I know you’re lying. It doesn’t belong to you, just hand it over now.”

“Natalie, before we go down this road, just listen to me. We don’t have to turn it over. If we keep it we can use it to bargain for our freedom.”

“No, Peter, we can’t. If I don’t turn it over they’re going to send Abaddon to drag me to Hell. Thank you, but I’d rather serve on Earth. I’ve worked hard to get this position and I’m not about to risk it. I do what they tell me.”

“And if I don’t turn it over they’re going to take me to Heaven.”

“Oh, poor baby. That must be tough.”

Peter shook his head. “I’d like a chance at a life on Earth first. I can do so much good here and that’s not possible in Heaven. It sounds great, it is great, but I can’t make a difference there. We could make a difference together.”

Natalie felt a cool calm spread throughout her mind. She couldn’t solve Peter’s problems. She could stay out of Abaddon’s dark room. She reached into her sleeves and drew the knives.

“I really, really think you should give me the key now,” she said. “I’d rather not hurt you —”

Peter moved so fast he was a blur. She moved too and slashed out with her knives. He blocked with his arm and the blow almost numbed her wrist. She kept the knife and pressed her attack. Peter was faster. He stayed away from the blades and one of his long legs swept up to kick at her side.

She barely got her arm down in time to block the kick. The force knocked her off balance.

He got behind her in that second. His hands grabbed her coat and he spun, throwing her up across the table. Natalie hit the wall and the impact stunned her. She fell to the floor just managing not to land on her own blades.

Peter grabbed the table and tipped it over. She covered her head as everything on the table rained down on her and the table hit with a loud bang right in front of her face. The glass float shattered around her, a lamp broke on her left. A heavy iron-work sign hit her shoulder hard enough to cause an ache.

Natalie shook off everything and rose up still holding her knives. Peter wasn’t in the room. She jumped the table and ran out of the room just in time to see Peter disappearing down the stairs.

She ran after him. As she skipped down the stairs three at a time she heard the front door bell ring. She hit the landing before the stairs turned and then jumped the rest of the way down. The front door was swinging shut.

She slipped out onto the porch. Peter was in the parking lot, facing her. He looked as handsome as ever. He smiled at her.

“Last chance, Natalie. Join me. We don’t have to be slaves to them. We work together, use it to bargain our freedom on Earth.”

Natalie shook her head. “No. Give it to me.”

“That’s it?”

She tensed. “That’s it.”

Peter ran at her. She ran at him and she was armed. Before they came together Peter jumped. No, he flew. She looked and saw those massive wings sweep down. The wind blew her hair back. He flew straight at the golden anchor hanging above the entryway.

“No!” Natalie flipped one of the long knives in her hand and caught the blade.

Peter ripped the golden anchor free from the building. The wind from his wings blew all around her. A light flared and she smelled sulfur and the anchor melted away until all he held was a twisted black iron key. It hurt to even look at the key, like looking into a bright light, but this was dark. Foul, and covered with barbs.

Natalie threw the knife. It wasn’t weighted for throwing. It was too big. But Peter was so close and her aim was true.

The knife sunk into his forearm. Peter gasped. The key fell from fingers bloodied by the barbs. More blood dripped from the wound. Then he fell. He landed heavily and rolled.

Natalie picked up the key, gingerly, hating the feel of it. She dropped it into her coat pocket and held her remaining knife ready.

Peter grimaced and pulled her other knife from his arm. He cast it aside at her feet. Then he pressed his good hand over the wound. He looked at her with sad eyes.

“We could have done so much good on Earth. Now I’m going to have to go back, why?”

Natalie crouched and picked up her bloodied knife. “I don’t date angels. And I do get to stay on Earth.”

Peter smiled. “That’s something, then. You should go. Before they come for me.”

Above them a bright light appeared behind the clouds, like the sun breaking through, but Peter was right. It wasn’t the sun. Natalie backed away from him up onto the Anchor’s porch. She reached the door and sunlight shone down from the sky all around him. He shielded his eyes and looked up. The light brightened.

She looked away, shield her eyes with her arm. Then the light vanished. Natalie lowered her arm and Peter was just gone. The parking lot was empty and a faint drizzle was falling from the sky.

Natalie turned and went back to her room. She cleaned her knife and put it back in the wrist sheath. From her bag she took out an iron box. She opened it up and laid the key inside. The lid closed with a click. The whole box started glowing as if red hot and heated from within. Tendrils of sulfur-smelling smoke rose into the air and then the whole box flared brighter. She heard a pop and it was just gone. The smoke faded.

Abaddon wasn’t going to get her this time, not that it’d stop him from trying again.

Natalie looked in the mirror that was only a mirror right now and fixed her lipstick and hair. Then she went into the other room and settled back onto the couch. She picked up the book she’d looked at earlier. Her muscles ached from the fight, but that would pass. She still had time until seven. She didn’t need to keep the date with Kane, but a nice dinner, with a nice man? That sounded like Heaven on Earth right now.

9,166 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 29th weekly short story release, written in September 2010. I originally released this that December as an e-book under my pen name “Tennessee Hicks,” until I took it down to consolidate everything under my name. My fellow Oregon coast workshop attendees may recognize the setting for this story.

Eventually I’ll do standard e-book releases when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the books. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases. Stories will remain until I get up the new  e-book versions and at that point I’ll take the story down.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Check back next week for another story. Next up is a science fiction story, People Love Rocketships.

Author: Ryan M. Williams

Writer and artist, Ryan M. Williams, author of more than twenty novels, writes across a range of genres including fantasy, science fiction, romance, paranormal, and mystery. He holds a Master of Arts from Seton Hill University in writing popular fiction. His short fiction has appeared in anthologies from Pocket Books, WMG Publishing, and in On Spec Magazine. He currently attends San Jose State University, pursuing a Master of Information and Library Science degree.