18 – CHRIS & FREDDY – ZARGER’S MALT SHOPPE – AND STILL 22 JUNE, 2013, ABOUT 8:30 P.M.

“I’m telling you, it was the same girl!” Chris said for the seventeenth time. Freddy just smirked.

“Look, Dude, that image was so fuzzy there’s no way you could…”

“Whatever! All I know is that a girl with black hair got strangled less than a block from my house, and then a ghostly girl with black hair shows up in a skate photo taken with the house she was strangled in right there in the background. Seems pretty straight forward to me.” Chris was tired of arguing about it. Either his friend believed him or he didn’t.

“Straight forward if you’re bat-shit…” Freddy mumbled, then killed the last of his shake.

“I’m going to figure out some way to communicate with her. If I can…” Chris trailed off, but as he did, the sound of loud techno music started to drift into the shop with bass so heavy it shook the windows with each bump.

“Whoa, Dude. Check it! Convertible Lotus!” Freddy slapped Chris’s shoulder and pointed at a radically sculpted sports car that had just pulled up and parked in front of the malt shop. “And get a load of the cargo! She looks like Morticia Addams!”

A petite woman with long, black hair and a black dress with a low cut top got out of the car wearing dark, wrap-around shades—even though the sun had already gone down. A thin, spiky haired man in a dark sport suit, also wearing shades, hopped from the car and bopped over to the woman. He seemed to be moving with the beat of the techno music his car had been spewing, even though the music was off now. He reached for her hand, and they headed towards the door to Zarger’s.

There were only a half dozen people in the shop, counting Curtis, the twenty something behind the malt shop’s bar in his paper hat, but all conversation stopped as soon as the car pulled up and parked. The strange couple came through the door, the man dancing to some unheard rhythm, the woman gliding on little, unseen feet. The man pulled his shades off and slipped them into the pocket of his jacket. The women kept hers on.

“I hef nevair seen a true American malt store bifore,” she said in a thick, eastern European accent.

“Jah,” the man said. “It’s dis small town feel dat I wanted. As eef I walked into a 1950’s Hollywood film.” The man smiled a perfectly white smile.

The woman scanned the room, and Chris had the feeling that she took everything in, the décor, the posters, the hat on Curtis’s head, the people—all just scenery to her.

“Is all so deelishuus,” the woman said, and then froze with her head facing towards Chris and Freddy.

The man bopped up to the bar and dropped a hundred dollar bill on the counter. “Two of de chocolate malts!” Curtis shook himself, spotted the bill on the counter, and nodded, then headed off to the blender.

Though he couldn’t see her eyes, Chris felt as if the woman was staring at him. She seemed supernaturally beautiful, but so pale and so unreal that she almost looked like marble brought to life. The man rubbed her shoulder and continued to smile as he looked around the room. She seemed to ignore him and remained motionless, perhaps looking at Chris, perhaps not. Other than the sound of Curtis’s blender, the room was silent for several minutes.

“Ummm, here’s your shakes,” Curtis said, “but I don’t think I have change to break this…”

“Is nossink. Keep it,” the man said. He grabbed the drinks and slipped an arm around the woman, guiding her to the door. After they left, and the loud techno came blaring back on, the shop remained quiet for a few more seconds, everyone processing what they’d just seen.

Finally, Freddy nudged Chris. “You know who that was? That’s the dude that bought Wrenn Place.”

Chris shivered. He looked at Freddy with eyes that were a bit too wide. “Did you see the necklace she was wearing? The pendant on her choker?” he asked.

“Gotta admit, that wasn’t where I was looking,” Freddy laughed.

“It was a pentagram,” Chris said.

“Dude, if she’s not a witch, I don’t ride a skateboard, but if she’s gonna run around town looking like that, she can put any spell she wants on me.”

“I don’t think she’s a witch—well maybe… But she’s going to be right down the street from me,” Chris’s voice was quiet, like he was taking mostly to himself.

“Yeah, about that. Can I stay over?” Freddy snickered.

“Sure, but I don’t think we’re sleeping until dawn.”

“Same as always!” Freddy said, and pulled his friend out of his seat. “And what happened to your whole ‘I’d make friends with the monster’ bit? Not feeling so friendly now, are ya?”

17 – Gertie Silvers – still 22 June 2013, just before noon

Gertie sat at the little table in her hotel room reading the most recent story in The Daily Small Point about a fifth missing girl. After she finished the article, she slammed the paper down onto the table then leaned back in her chair. She cursed under her breath.

Gertie had been in town for five days already, but had nothing to show for her investigations. Katie was still missing, another girl had been taken, and the bodies of a pair of hunters had been discovered in the woods. Her only lead, given to her by a skater-punk in a malt shoppe, had turned out to be a dead end. The newest owner of Wrenn Place was the son of a baron with no criminal record that she could uncover. In addition, he had apparently been out of the country for the last few months touring China and the Far East with a Swedish super-model, if the gossip column stories Gertie had found on the internet were reliable. And she had no reason to doubt them.

Frustrated at herself, Gertie opened her laptop to check her messages, hoping that one of her runners might have found something, when there was a knock at the door.

“Roooooom service!” a male voice said.

“I didn’t order any thing. You’ve got the wrong room!” she yelled, irritated at the intruder’s silly tone.

“I think you’ll want this!” the voice said.

Gertie froze. She got up, quickly, and walked to her purse, pulling out a small, silver pistol. She walked over to the door and looked through the peep hole. She suddenly got very cold. It was Connors.

She opened the door, carefully, and Connors, smiling a wide, genuine smile, opened his arms for a hug.

“It’s good to see you, Gert! You look great!” he said. Gertie crossed her arms in front of her chest, prominently displaying the pistol. She smiled, a half disapproving smile, and shook her head.

“Oh, please. You’re not still mad about…” Connors cocked his head to one side, trying to remember how he had displeased her three decades ago. “What was it that I did again?”

“You were a selfish, exploitative, manipulative, egotistical bastard,” Gertie said. Her smile widened.

“Is that all? God, then I’m not sorry. I’m still all of those things,” he opened his arms again.

After a second, Gertie consented to a half-hearted hug, patting his back with the hand holding the gun.

“Well, you better come into the room before someone sees me talking to you,” Gertie said and walked back into the room. Connors laughed and followed.

Gertie put her gun back into her purse, then sat in the office chair at the table. Connors flopped onto the couch and kicked his feet up.

“Actually, even though you’re an ass, I’m glad you came by,” Gertie said. “I need your help, but I was a little afraid to ask for it.”

“Why would you possibly be afraid to ask me for help? You know I love you,” Connors said, and batted his eyelashes in a playful way.

Without a hint of humor, Gertie replied, “Because I know how your friends work, and I’m half worried that the problem I have might be because of one of them. That psycho, Hunz, for instance…”

Gertie thought she spotted a touch of color in Connors’s cheeks.

Connors lowered his head, scratched his nose, then resumed eye contact. “I know why you’re in town. You’re looking for your niece. And it just so happens that I have some information for you!”

Gertie stood up, “Where is she? Is she still alive?”

“My source said that all four of the girls are still alive,” Connors replied.

“Oh, thank the gods!” Gertie sat back down. She realized she was nearly hyperventilating and calmed herself. Took a couple of deep breaths, then continued. “Five girls. There are five missing now.”

“Right,” Connors said. “Five—but there is some potentially bad news.”

“What do you mean?”

“My source says the girls are alive, but they’ve been taken into the woods by something—something Old World, as he put it. And…I don’t think you’re going to like this…”

“What, god damn it! Just tell me!”

“They’ve been—changed.” Connors raised his hand and made a gesture by the side of his head that he hoped would indicate “in the brain.”

“What do you mean ‘changed?'” Gertie was breathing hard again, “And how did you get this information?”

“I’d rather not say who my informant is,” Connors said, his tone far from playful.

“Oh, fuck…” Gertie said, her eyes widening.

They sat in silence for a few moments, Gertie’s mind buzzing, Connors staring at a spot on the carpet.

“There are only four girls still alive, aren’t there,” Gertie said.

Connors shrugged but wouldn’t look at her.

“Oh, fuck…” Gertie put her hand over her mouth.

Another minute passed. Gertie wiped a tear from beside her nose, then tried to compose herself.

“So did your informant say what I can do to get my niece back from whatever it is that’s taken her?”

Connors nodded in a non-committal sort of way, then finally looked up. “It’s a forest spirit. Something like Pan or a Wendigo. You can’t kill it—nothing can—but you might be able to break it’s hold on her, at least enough to bring her home. But, Gertie—she won’t be the same. None of them will ever be completely—human—again.”

Gertie swallowed hard. Worked on breathing deeply again.

“So what do have I do?” Gertie said…

16 – Front page article from THE DAILY SMALL POINT newspaper, dated Saturday, June 22, 2013

FIFTH GIRL MISSING

Another teenage girl, Rebecca Talbot of Small Point, has gone missing, bringing the total to five girls that have disappeared since March.

When Talbot, 18, a recent graduate from Small Point High, failed to return home from a movie she went to with some friends, and Talbot would not answer her phone, her parents called the police. Dozens of people, including the girl’s father, Alexander Talbot, began to search the town and popular nighttime spots along the Columbia River, like County Line Park, just after midnight. As of press time, however, no information on the girl’s whereabouts had been found.

Again, Police Chief Chesnut is asking that anyone with information that could help police locate the missing girls contacts the Small Point Police immediately. In the meantime, Chief Chesnut is imposing a 9:00 P.M. curfew and recommending that no one travels the city alone, especially after dark, until the perpetrator or perpetrators have been caught.

15 – Small Point City Center, Just Outside Hanson Lodge – 9:30 A.M.

Alexander Talbot, a wiry, sandy-blond man in his 40s, walked down Commercial Street, moving erratically and swaying slightly with the breeze. His eyes were red and surrounded by dark flesh. He looked half crazed and like he hadn’t slept for days.

As a fresh breeze kicked up, his eyes widened, and Talbot increased his speed and began breathing heavily. He ran to the unmarked door of Hanson Lodge and knocked. He moved his head all around the door, sniffing, then banged frantically on the door again.

A buzzer sounded, and Alfred, reserved in his grey suit and professional frown, opened the door, but blocked the entrance with this body.

“Can I help you, sir? This is a private club,” Alfred said.

Talbot breathed in, deeply, his eyes suddenly blazing. He pushed past Alfred and rushed into the lodge.

“Sir! This is private property. If you don’t have an appointment, I’m going to have to ask you to leave!” Alfred shouted.

Sheb, his throat still purple from the punch delivered by Gertie Silvers, appeared from behind a door down the hall from the lobby and began moving towards the wild eyed intruder.

Talbot whirled on Alfred, his face contorted with anger and his teeth bared. “Where’s my daughter!?” he screamed.

Sheb, grabbing Alfred by the shoulder, pushed him across the lobby and out of the way, then he reached out with his huge hand and grabbed Talbot, who was at least eight inches shorter than him, by the throat. Talbot growled, a low grumble, which escalated into a howling roar, and Sheb felt the muscles and tendons beneath his fingers tighten, then begin to flex and shift.

With a surge of strength that seemed impossible considering Talbot’s slight frame, he shoved Sheb, lifting him off the floor and throwing him backwards down the hallway he’d just come from. As Talbot’s skin sprouted thick, light brown hair and his face stretched and contorted, Alfred slipped through a doorway and dashed towards Connors’s office.

Sheb, dazed, shook his head and pulled himself to his feet. Talbot roared again and, dropping onto all fours, charged down the hall towards Sheb.

Sheb managed to draw his gun and fire one ineffective shot into Talbot’s chest before he was smashed back to the floor, and the purple bruises on his throat were slashed red. Talbot tore into his chest and face, and Sheb fought, for a few seconds, before laying back, eyes wide, while Talbot mauled him.

Connors appeared in the hallway, carrying a large, silver dagger and followed by Alfred and Balwig Hunz. As Talbot continued to tear at Sheb’s lifeless body, Connors lifted the dagger, lunged at Talbot, and drove the blade into the werewolf’s back.

Talbot yelped and howled, twisting around to snap at Connors. Hunz fired a large black pistol into Talbot’s face, cracking teeth and jawbone. The werewolf staggered toward the trio, slowly growing paler and melting back into his sandy-haired human form before collapsing to the floor at their feet.

“You know, sir,” Alfred said to Hunz, “normal bullets have no effect on a werewolf.”

“I know,” Hunz said, “but it’s still fun.”

“What the fuck was that about, anyway?” Connors said.

Alfred, kneeling by the body, took the man’s wallet out. “He claimed,” Alfred said, “that he was here for his daughter. He seemed to have—smelled her.”

Connors looked at Hunz. “Balwig—did you grab a WEREWOLF’s daughter last night? Are you shitting me?” he said.

Hunz, shrugging his shoulders, said, “How could I have known?”

“Who was he, Al?” Connors said.

“It says his name was Alexander Talbot. Appears to have been a millwright at the lumber plant.” Alfred said this as he examined the materials in the man’s wallet.

“Falworth’s lumber mill? Shit. He’s going to be pissed,” Connors said. “Couldn’t be helped, though.”

Connors stepped over Talbot and looked at the remains of Sheb. He shook his head. “Damn, Sheb. You had a terrible week. Al, can you tell Billy that his partner is—in pieces. Then call Feinstein. We need some serious clean up.”

“Of course,” Alfred said.

“A werewolf’s daughter,” Connors said. “Jee-zus! I wonder if Azazel even noticed. Ah well. Come on, Bal. Let’s go finish breakfast.”

14 – Small Point Police Station – 22 June 2013, 9:08 A.M.

Chief Walter Chesnut walked to the front of the small meeting room with a bundle of papers in his hand. Six officers, five male and one female, sat at four desks.

“Okay. We got some bad shit to tackle today. Got the results back from forensics on Charleston and Parr. Weren’t no cougar D.N.A., nor no bear neither.”

“What’s that mean?” Randy Todd said. “Somethin’ tore them apart.”

Chesnut rubbed the gray stubble on his chin. “That’s the problem,” he said. “Only D.N.A. they found at the scene was human. Not only that, but Doc Casey says the bite marks fits human teeth, not no animal.”

Everyone looked at each other, their faces pale and mouths open, but nobody spoke.

After a few seconds, Chesnut said, “Looks like we got a maniac loose in them woods.”

“Do you think it’s the same person who killed them girls?” Artie Comb asked.

“Don’t know. Prob’ly. The real question is, how do we find a crazy sum-bitch that’ll eat humans, and is strong ‘n quick enough to take down Ed and Kleet when they got their guns with ‘um?” Chesnut said.

Again, no one could think of anything to say.

“So, what do we do?” Kimberly Templeton eventually squeaked.

Chief Chesnut looked at her, then looked at the rest of his police force. He shook his head and shrugged his shoulders.

13 – Chris – His Bedroom, House on Wrenn Loop – 21 June 2013, 2:38 A.M.

With his laptop on his lap, Chris sat up in bed. His eyes were tired and the dark circles under them had started to worry his mother, who of course assumed he was on drugs. Unfortunately, he wasn’t—although they might have helped with his anxiety. Every few minutes he glanced towards his bedroom window, expecting to see a pale female face looking back in at him. He was terrified of the possibility, but refused to close the curtains. He didn’t want to miss her if she did appear.

He’d decided to search the internet for any information on who the girl they saw might be. Maybe the guy who bought Wrenn Place had a daughter? He didn’t know the name of the man who’d bought the mansion, so he’d begun his search by typing in the address:

“1 Wrenn Place, Small Point, WA”

All that had come up were real estate sites which listed the size and value of the home and when it had sold:

“18 bedroom, 3.5 bath, 9,880 sq. ft. house. Last sold for $1.8 million on Jan 4, 2013…”

After looking through five pages of similar information, Chris had remembered the newspaper archives he used in history class to write a report on the Small Point Cannery, which had burned to the ground back in 1904. With some trepidation (although he wouldn’t have understood it as that) Chris logged in to the archive and typed

“Wrenn Place, Small Point, WA, Daily Small Point”

514 articles. He started to scroll. The articles ranged from as early as the 1920s (“Millionaire Edward Wrenn Builds Mansion in Small Point”) to very recent (“Wrenn Place Sells to Son of European Baron”). Chris clicked through page after page of entries, each of which made him shudder a tiny bit—he’d never realized how close he lived to an actual piece of history, but, after a few minutes, he began to get bored, had almost decided to give up, then spotted an article from Sept. 1988:

“Body of Missing Girl Found at Wrenn Manor House”

His body began to shake. He clicked on the link to the article—and froze.

There, in a grainy, black and white picture was the face of the girl who had been in the image taken by Freddy’s cell phone. Chris tried to swallow, but couldn’t. It hurt to breathe, but he worked to calm himself. He read the first few lines of the article:

“The body of Patricia Henley, missing since June, was found this morning inside the gated yard at Wrenn Place, the large manor house originally built by Edward Fredrick Wrenn in 1921. Though no one has lived in the house since 1986, city Parks and Recreation staff maintain the property, and Henley’s body was discovered by Parks and Rec employees who had entered the property to perform their weekly duties.

Though details of Henley’s death have yet to be released, an anonymous informant said that bruising on Henley’s throat suggest she was probably strangled.”

Chris closed his laptop, glanced at his window, and then rubbed his eyes. They were so dry from reading his screen too long that they hurt. He glanced at the window again, then he got up and closed the curtains. He walked to his t.v. set, turned it on and lay down on his bed. He knew he wasn’t going to sleep, but he decided not to send a note to Freddy yet, who was certainly still playing video games. He’d tell him in the morning. They’d caught a ghost on Freddy’s phone. The ghost of a girl who’d been strangled, just down the street. He glanced once more at the window, and told himself the eye he thought he saw peering through the tiny crack in the curtains was just his imagination.

12 – Hanson Lodge, Secret Chamber – 21 June 2013, Midnight

Connors, wearing a black cloak, carried a dark red candle to the center of the circle and placed the candle in the uplifted, humanoid hands of a three foot tall silver statue, a horned goat-man with ruby red eyes. He then walked to the tip of the star painted on the floor that was closest to the stage and kneeled on a black silk pillow. The stage was a black and red affair with thick, ancient, red velvet curtains to the sides. On the stage was another circle, painted in white, with strange and cryptic symbols drawn around the edge.

Jean Du Lac, Terence Falworth, Chip Turner, and Balwig Hunz, also wearing black cloaks, each took a point of the star below the stage, kneeling with their heads bowed. You could have sworn there was solemn organ music, possible a recording of Anton LaVey Plays The Hammond Classics, drifting through the air.

The five men in that circle represented over 70% of the wealth in Small Point, each having international business dealings and remarkably good medical insurance. Before the coming of the new tenant at Wrenn Place, the men gathered around the silver goat-man had owned 95% of the wealth in the area.

“Oh, Azazel! Hear our call!” Connors said, raising his hands, palms up. “We wish your advice! We wish your guidance! Azazel, hear our call!”

There was a moment of tense silence. The flame of the candle in the uplifted goat-man’s hands flickered, then flared a hideous red. The air in the room grew thicker, electric, and the hair on the mens’ bodies began to dance.

The circle on the stage flared into life, burning almost like neon, then a hazy figure, a skinny humanoid, but far too tall, swirled into view. He was nearly white, with black, black eyes and incredibly dark, and very messy, hair. Two thin horns growing from the back of his head curled upwards until they were pointed forward, threatening to THREE STOOGES-jab anyone foolish enough to look Azazel in the eyes.

The creature yawned and stretched his arms above his head, almost touching the ten foot high ceiling.

“Jesus… Don’t you guys ever sleep? It’s got to be after midnight…” he said, rubbing his eyes with the back of his hands.

“Lord Azazel! We seek your counsel!” Connors said, keeping his eyes to the ground.

“I really wish you’d look at me when you talk, Connors. I can never tell if you’re fucking with me with all that ‘My Lord’ shit.”

“Sorry, Lord. We are trying to follow proper etiquette.”

“I always hated that crap. Wastes so much time,” Azazel said. His gaze moved from man to man, all of whom were still staring at the floor.

“Well? What the hell did you get me out of bed for?” Azazel folded his arms across his chest, and somehow his black, black eyes sparkled with either anger or humor—whichever, it was terrifying to witness.

“Lord, we seek your advice! My old partner, Gertie Silvers, is back in town, and she is seeking her lost niece. I have tried to speak with her, but she—she clobbered the men I sent to bring her to me.”

Azazel laughed and shook his long, thin, terrifying, horned head.

“How should we proceed?” Connors asked, then went back to staring at the floor.

“Well—that depends on what you want? Do you want to help her find her niece? Do you want to initiate her into the group? It would be nice to have a woman around for a change. Or do you just want to sleep with her?” Azazel’s hideous smile appeared—thousands of needle-like teeth just visible behind his thin, pale lips.

Balwig Hunz snickered, and Connors shot him a withering look.

“Lord, I wish to help her find her niece,” Connors said.

Azazel’s black eyes narrowed, suspiciously.

“There have actually been four young women taken lately, Lord,” Chip Turner said. The others nodded.

“And they weren’t taken by any of you?” Azazel said, and laughed—a dry, cold sound.

The men looked at each other, considering the possibility for the first time. They each shook their heads.

“No, Lord,” Connors said, although some of the confidence was gone from his voice.

Azazel smiled. “I’ll help you,” he said, “but since we’re looking for missing girls, I can’t imagine that one more missing girl will be noticed. Bring me a pretty, young thing, tomorrow night, and I’ll tell you what I’ve discovered.” His smile chilled them, and he faded into mist.

11 – Front page article from THE DAILY SMALL POINT newspaper, dated Thursday, June 20, 2013

BODIES OF TWO HUNTERS FOUND

Wahkiakum County – The mauled bodies of two local hunters, Ed “Checkers” Charleston and Kleet Parr, were found near Wilson Creek yesterday evening by Wahkiakum County Fish and Wildlife officers after a search initiated by Parr’s wife, Alicia Wilson Parr. According to her, Charleston and Parr left early the morning of the 18th for a day trip to hunt small game along Wilson Creek, a trip the pair had made dozens of times and which had never before kept them overnight. Alicia Parr says she received a text message from her husband at around 3:00 P.M, but that cell reception in that area is often unreliable.

When her husband failed to respond to numerous messages or to return home before dark, as he typically would have for this type of trip, she became concerned and phoned the police.

At first light on Wednesday the 19th, Small Point Police and Washington State Fish and Wildlife officials began a search of the area, finally discovering the bodies of the two hunters around 5:00 P.M. Officials at the scene speculated that the pair must have been killed by a cougar or possibly a black bear, though there will be no official statement on the cause of death until further investigation has been completed.

A celebration of life for Charleston and Parr, who were life-long best friends, will be held Saturday at the Small Point Grange Hall at 3:00 P.M. Donations to help cover burial costs can be made at the hall.

10 – Chris & Freddy – Wrenn Loop – Just before sunset

Freddy lay on the ground, scrunched up against the plywood quarter-pipe that he and Chris had drug into the road. He was staring at his cellphone screen, which showed a sky going cobalt, a few wisps of dark orange cloud hovering, confused, here and there in the shot. He heard the clatter of Chris’s wheels on pavement.

Then Chris hit the ramp. As soon as Freddy heard wheels on wood he snapped a photo, and Chris, hunched with a hand gripping the skateboard, flew over Freddy, landed with his wheels slightly too far askew from the trajectory of his travel, and he splatted, hands first onto the ground.

“Oh, shit! You okay?” Freddy said and sat up.

“Dude, look! Serious road rash!” Chris, smiling, raised his palms and showed a gruesome pair of bleeding slabs of hamburger, little black pebbles stuck into the flesh here and there.

“Whoa! Wait, don’t move!” Freddy stood and ran towards his downed buddy. He squared his cellphone and clicked a shot of the carnage. “Faceboot, dude!”

“Awesome. How did the launch look?” Chris stood and smeared the blood onto his t-shirt. He hoped it would stain.

“Pretty cool. Take a look.” Freddy held up his phone and Chris tried to grab for it. “Dude! I don’t want blood all over my phone.”

“Sorry. Yeah, the shot looks good! Let me see the other one.”

“Yeah, it’s pretty sick.” Freddy turned the phone and flicked the screen, then instead of showing it to his friend he just stared at it. His face went blank, and his jaw hung too loose.

“What? Does it look stupid? Blurry?” Chris stepped beside him to look over his shoulder at the screen.

“What the fuck is that?” Next to the image of his friend, smiling and holding up two hamburger hands, barely in frame was what looked like a very pale woman with long, black hair, wearing a black turtleneck shirt and jeans. Her eyes looked very dark, almost black, and the image itself was somewhat blurry or hazy.

Both boys, in unison, looked up from the screen towards the spot in the street where the figure had been standing in the photo. The street was empty.

At the end of the street, safely protected behind an eight foot tall steel gate, sat Wrenn Place. High up on the third floor of the manor a light flickered, on—off, on—off, then stayed off.

9 – Hanson Lodge, Connors’s Office – still 18 June 2013, around 6:00 P.M.

Connors wiped another tear from his cheek. His face was red, and he struggled to catch his breath; the laughing fit had almost caused him to have an asthma attack—and he didn’t even have asthma. Standing in front of his desk were Billy and Sheb. Sheb’s throat was purple. Billy was cradling his left hand, which was now in a bright green cast.

“So one more time,” Connors said once he’d stopped giggling, “my two toughest bruisers got their asses handed to them by a 65 year old woman—who could have been a grandma by now, if things had gone my way.” His zinger, meant to sting the two men standing in front of him, instead caused Connors himself to frown.

Billy continued to stare at the floor. Sheb, in a horse whisper, said, “Yes.”

Connors shook his head, and his smile returned.

“I suppose it’s my fault,” Connors said. “I should have told you not to touch her. She hates that. It’s the reason my own nose isn’t straight.” He lifted his head to the light so the two men could get a good look. “Of course she was only 35 when she kicked my ass. GOD! She was hot.”

Connors seemed to lose focus for a few seconds. The two men in front of him shuffled their feet when the silence started to get uncomfortable.

“Still, I didn’t expect you to try to get physical with a grey haired lady. And in front of an entire restaurant full of customers. Jeezus…”

“So what do we do now? Do you want us to try and talk to her again?” Billy said, though he refused to make eye contact.

“Again? When did you try to talk to her in the first place?” Connors said. “No. Now that she’s pissed there isn’t much chance that you’ll get close enough to say anything to her. I’ll have to go myself.” He looked around the room, spotted the clock, and sighed. “But not tonight. It’s already been a long day. I can wait ‘til tomorrow to try and chat with my old flame. You guys just go get a bite to eat then get some rest.”

The two men grumbled something that Connors couldn’t make out then turned and made for the door. Before they were completely out of the room, Connors started to laugh again.