Chapter 3 The Meeting
Indeed, if one were to see Alathea Winters now, one would not recognize her as the same red-headed girl from Tuscan. The strange event not only altered her mind, but her appearance as well. Color, by definition, was purged from her body, making her a rather gaunt albino. The shock of the whole situation left her somewhat depressed, untrusting, and lonesome. Such was her mood as she locked the door of the business later that night.
She muttered unintelligibly to herself and brushed a few loose strands of white hair from her face as she sauntered warily down the covered staircase of the old brick building. It was the end of a very long day, and she wanted nothing more to collapse in bed. At the same time, she was not eager to go home. Ron Revilo’s words still echoed in her ears. ‘If you can’t control your tongue, then you’re not going to work here at all!’ Thankfully, she had managed withhold the sharp retort she wanted to give her brother-in-law.
Ron’s remark was a result of her perceived rudeness to one of their potential customers, Mr. McGunn. He was a well-to-do, shrewd businessman who wanted one of his facilities cleaned. However, Alathea disliked him the moment she saw him, and tried to convince Ron to not give him a contract. When she was unable to explain the reason behind her distrust, she tried to trick Mr. McGunn into admitting he was going to cheat them. Instead, she accidentally discovered and revealed that he had been cheating on his wife. He stormed out of the building a moment later, and Ron was furious at the lost opportunity.
Alathea was proud of her useful ability to discover secrets, but at the same time she was terrified. Before the strange event at the Sandstone Caverns, she had been a normal, artistic, but slightly stupid girl. She was barely passing high school, and she never observed people close enough to discover their secrets. Now it was as if a veil had been lifted. She could see everything, and she did not know why.
Perhaps ‘seeing everything’ was an overstatement. It was probably more accurate to say she saw things nobody else could see, or that she was ‘seeing things’. The things, which she called fractals, were little stars and crystals that floated through the air and moved and changed with life. She knew it sounded crazy, but that was how she knew Mr. McGunn could not be trusted. The fractals dimmed and darkened when he came near them, and when he said he would pay their stated price, they shattered like glass. She concluded that he was a liar and he was going to cheat them.
It seemed to hardly matter anyhow. Just about everyone she knew, including her own family, thought she was insane or called her the liar.
Her home was exactly thirty blocks away. It was a long walk, but she didn’t mind. Though she did not always enjoy the scenery, there was something exciting about the darkened heart of the city. The historic brick buildings loomed gloomily, reminding her of tired old men with many stories to tell. Colorful lights from late-night stores and neon signs of pubs flooded the streets, making it easy for her to see. She observed one man in shabby attire stagger drunkenly from one such tavern and wave his arms wildly towards an unseen antagonist. He slurred unprintable words that made his surrounding fractals transform into disorganized lumps that looked like vomit. She shook her head in disgust.
Though she knew it was dangerous to walk alone at this time of night, she felt oddly safe. It was not common for her to be approached by anyone, and she sometimes had the sense people were more afraid of her than she was of them. As if to support her observation, a middle-aged, business woman with her eyes focused straight ahead made a rather wide arc as she passed by. No rhyme or reason, but it was a common occurrence Alathea had grown used to. As result, she believed she had no reason to fear even the deepest of Downtown.
That changed when she walked under the Marion Bridge, which served as the entrance to her urban neighborhood.
An elderly, gruff-looking fellow stepped into her path and walked straight towards her. His hovering fractals darkened, but before she could interpret their meaning, he reached out and snatched her purse from her shoulder. “Hey!” She cried out, reaching her hand to hook her finger on the strap, but he jerked it away. “Give that back!” He broke into a quick sprint, holding her belonging high over his head.
She huffed as she chased him through the bridge and back towards the city center. Even when he disappeared into a dark alley, she didn't hesitate in continuing the pursuit. "Give that back!" Her voice bounced against the brick walls, but the man increased his speed and turned another corner. When she tried to duplicate the sharp turn, she lost her balance and fell on her side.
Without warning, a young man emerged from the shadowy streets and tackled the thief like a bear. Alathea struggled to her feet as she watched them tussle for possession of her purse. Though the thief was undoubtedly fit, his attacker was young and with the element of surprise. It did not take him long to win the fight. The thief ran away, leaving a line of vomit-like fractals behind him.
The young man turned towards her. “You all right?”
He was so incredibly handsome, she could not respond at first. His angular, close-shaven face and hazel eyes were appealing, and there was not a hint of the slack-jaw stupidity in his countenance she sometime saw in men around his age, but a boyish gleam she liked. “Yes.” She breathed, her heart picking up in rhythm.
However, as he approached her, her sudden infatuation slipped away as fast as it came. His fractals dimmed and the darkness overshadowed his gleaming smile as he handed over her purse.
He waited, obviously expecting her to give a response. Not sure what else to say, she muttered, “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome.” His smile faltered a little as she began to walk away. “Is that it?” He asked.
She paused. “Is what it?”
“No questions, no name exchange…”
“I don’t usually talk to strangers.” She stated nervously.
“I thought I just helped you out.”
“You…” she stopped as his fractals shattered. He didn’t just help her out. This had been a set up. Why? How? Who was he?
“Hey,” he said soothingly, as if he read her mind. “It’s okay. I’m not going to hurt or anything.”
“You look panicked.”
“Odd.” He interrupted.
“You’re panicked, but you seemed to have no problem walking alone at night. In fact, you looked pretty comfortable.”
“You were watching me?”
“I noticed you. You stand out.” He smiled. “I’m curious, why not drive?”
“I don’t drive.” As smooth as a viper, he stepped close to her, slipped his hand into her purse and pulled out her wallet. “Now wait a minute…” 'Why did I let that happen?' Embarrassing memories of moments when she froze in front of cute, flirtatious boys flashed through her mind. Apparently, she had not yet recovered from that flaw.
“Alathea Opal Winters.” He read her driver’s license. “Current. You have a license. Why not?”
“It’s only for identification purposes.” She snatched it out of his hands.
“Very strange. You can drive, but you walk.”
“My choice. End of discussion.” She said, once again attempting to put some distance between herself and him. When he closed the distance with a few short strides, she gave up. The cold shoulder was not going to shake him. “Okay...thank you for saving my purse. But…”
“Can I walk you home?” He interrupted.
“And find out where I live? I’d rather you didn’t.”
“Forty-one fifty, Sycamore Street. It was on your license.”
“I don’t know you.” She said with some force.
“Let’s change that.” He stepped forward and jutted out his hand, which she didn't take. “Tom Wayword. I am twenty-five years old, drive, never used pepper spray in my life, hate Snickers, and passed my SAT when I was thirteen.”
Startled, she jerked back. “Hey!” He had listed the exact contents of her purse. “You just pulled out my wallet. How did you know about the SAT?”
He lifted up his other hand to reveal her wrinkled College Board letter, something she had been rather reluctant to open. With one motion of his finger, he ripped the edge like a clean-cut knife. He raised his eyebrows as he read the contents. “Wow, I think you’re going to need to go back for another try. That's awful.”
“How on Earth are you doing that?” She slipped the letter from his fingers. “What are you trying to do anyway?”
He shrugged. “Showing off.”
“Lovely, so you have photographic memory and slide of hand.” She muttered sarcastically. “Is there anything else I should know?”
“Can I walk you home?” He repeated.
“Why do you even want to?”
“It's considered chivalry. It’s not safe for a young woman to walk alone at night. Hence…” He pointed in the direction of the runaway thief.
“And why I should not…” A loud bang interrupted her statement. She gasped and jumped behind him unthinkingly as he turned around.
He smirked as he glanced back at her. “Sounded a like a gunshot.”
“I hate guns.” She took a step back.
“I can tell. You still want to walk alone?”
It seemed she didn’t have any choice in the matter. Annoyed, she sighed. "Are you intending to do me harm?"
The fractals remained solid, so she knew he was telling the truth. "Okay, sure, but who are you?" She placed her hands on her hips.
“Just a concerned knight in shining armor.”
That was a lie. “Very funny.” She stated sarcastically.
“Apparently not. Shall we?”
“Fine, I guess.” She turned her back and marched away, not caring if he stayed or followed.
“Wasn’t it that way?” Tom asked, pointing the other direction.
“No…” Her fractals shattered. “Yes!” She turned around and passed him briskly.
“You’re not very friendly are you.” He said as he matched her pace.
“Sorry…it’s not been the best of days…though that’s no excuse.”
“Seems legitimate to me.”
“It can make friendliness more of an effort.”
“That it could.”
“I am usually friendly.”
“I’ll take your word for it.”
“Who are you?” She asked again. “I mean, who are you? What do you do?”
"Currently unemployed." That was another lie. "What about you?"
Glaring at him suspiciously, she asked, “Why don’t you guess?”
He smirked. “Give me your hand.”
“You’re being funny.”
“Unless we want to find light so I can actually see you. I can’t make a real good guess in the dark.”
“I still think you’re being funny.” She stated as she reached out her pale hand. “Are you palm reader or something?” She resisted the urge to shudder as his fingers touched hers.
He didn’t respond as he felt her hand, almost massaging it. Blood rushed to her cheeks, but she kept her face stern. More than once, she wanted to jerk away from his grasp. What was this guy trying to do? Again she tried to interpret the fractals, but she couldn’t make out anything definite, except that he was a liar and untrustworthy.
"Fairly calloused...manual labor...this here…” he rubbed a sore spot below her thumb, and she winced. “Yikes...chemical burn? My guess is you do a lot of cleaning...a bit of janitor work. Am I right?”
“Yeah, right.” She finally snapped her hand back. “You couldn’t tell that from feeling my hand.”
“What chemical caused that burn?”
“You don’t know that.”
“Just answer the question.”
She hesitated. “Fine, it was bleach. My glove had a hole in it.”
She shook her head and continued walking. That was the end of their conversation for some time. All the while she glanced at him nervously. He was handsome, but his fractals were just as dark as Mr. McGunn’s. “I won’t be letting you in.” She stated abruptly as they drew close to her home.
“I’m not inviting you inside.”
He smiled. “You need to be a little more trusting.”
'That is exactly what I have learned to not be.' She thought irritably, but she managed to hold her tongue.
“This is your street, isn’t it?” He pointed to the string of old houses, which ranged from cute and dainty cottages to bulky and clumsy town houses. Her home was probably the clumsiness of them all, having an odd, stair step structure with an over-sized roof. She nodded mutely. “I’ll let you go from here, but listen, I honestly just wanted to help. I didn’t mean to...scare you.”
Half of that statement was true. He didn’t mean to scare her. “I just don’t understand what you want.” She said.
"Will you meet me for lunch tomorrow?"
"You...really?" She didn’t see any romantic interest, but the last time anybody had asked her out was when she was sixteen.
He nodded. "Barty's Cafe, you know where it is?”
“Can you meet me there tomorrow at one?"
Horrified, she heard herself blurt one word. "Okay.”
A self-pleased smile spread across his face, and he gave her a sly wink. “I’ll see you then.”
Why did I say yes? Why! It took all her self control to not kick something as he walked away. For reasons she could not explain, she was more frightened than ever. Who was this guy?
She watched him as he disappeared into the night, hoping to see a more physical indication that he was not trustworthy, like meeting with a shadowy figure or immediately pulling out his phone. He merely swaggered casually, appearing to not have a care in the world.
After a few minutes, she moaned, “Whatever,” in utter acceptance and headed towards her house. Though she could hardly believe the thought, she had an unwanted date.
I have some quick news about Traitor of Tipharah. Sadly, things didn't work out with my editor. I am currently looking for another one, but it looks like publishing is going to be delayed for a little bit longer. I'm still hoping to get it out soon. : )