Friday, March 3, 2017

A Jillian Nightingale short story: "Lonely Hill"

This short story stars Jillian Nightingale, the human nurse who tends to supernatural patients in her job at the Agency for the Betterment of Cryptohumanoid Kind. You're familiar with her if you've frequented my blog in the past; if not, you might want to check out her other adventures. Here they are, in sequentially.

The Best Medicine 
Sometimes I Feel Like I'm Being Watched...
Open Enrollment 
In Sheep's Clothing 
Human Women 


"Lonely Hill"

I knew Max wouldn't have asked me to be there unless he genuinely needed me. Which was why I hadn't declined when he'd asked. Max Bartrom was a proud man, and in the time I had known him he had barely shown even a moment of weakness.

He truly didn't want to face this alone.

Then again, I didn't want to face it, either. Hell, I barely liked doing it when I was legally required to, much less willingly walking into it with someone else. But Max was my friend; what choice did I have? Lord knows I'd been in his position many times. 

The child exchange was never an easy process with Jim, my ex. He only kept Hope, our four-year-old daughter, two weekends out of the month, and he was constantly trying to barter those away for weekdays. He always claimed he was trying to do me a favor, so I'd have my weeknights free to catch up on my medical charts. But I knew what he was really up to. When he had her on weekdays he only had to spend minimal time with her. By the time each of us was off work and I'd driven to his apartment (and yes, it was always me who had to drive Hope to him), it was time to put her in bed so he could wake her up early the next morning and whisk her off to daycare. And with his no-obligation weekends he was free to get plastered for three straight nights and bring home whatever little barely-able-to-drink tartlet he happened to pick up at a bar. 

The worst times where when he brought his tart-of-week to the kid exchanges. And I had to smile and say hello while clawing her eyes out in my mind. 


Saturday, September 10, 2016

"Plowshares to Swords"

Fargold had tended fields for far too long.

He had convinced himself years ago that the work he was doing was important. And it had been and easy lie to believe. There was, after all, no more practical crop to farm that beluga tubers. They were  naturally repellent to pests as they grew underground, and they thrived in nearly any weather. They sometimes grew large enough to feel a medium-sized man for an entire day, and were rich enough in nutrition that the same medium-sized man would need little else in his diet to live a life relatively free of any major vitamin deficiencies.

The famine had been enough reason, for many a year, to convince Fargold that the work he spent his fourteen waking hours of the day devoted to was worthwhile. And then, it had been most worthwhile; without his crops, his tiny village would have probably disappeared off the face of the map. Most maps of the realm of Jolk already didn't include the village of Barker; succumbing to famine would have been the last straw to ensure that all memory of Barker was blown away like a wisp of smoke, without a single landmark left to represent it or its people.

Of course, it would have been pride for Fargold to take complete credit for the survival of Barker during the Great Famine. All recognition he gave to Orrumatar.

Fargold had been raised with the stories of the Divinity On High, of the battles of the Powers That Be and what had been won for mankind. He knew the tales well, even if he hadn't personally read them for many years. During the battles, Orromatar, the Horseman, had rode into battle as the as many of the lesser Powers retreated, rallying their spirits for final victory. These days, Orromatar represented strength and honor and, most importantly, duty. Orromatar taught that a man always did his duty, no matter the cost to himself. And that was what Fargold did during the famine.

It was good work. It had meant something. It hadn't been a lie, then.


Monday, August 1, 2016

Snoop Private Investigation... on the move!

Carlotta had never been one for accepting sympathy.

She had grown up in an era where women weren't expected to show weakness. In fact, women hadn't been expected to show much of anything at all, as far as she had been able to tell from her mother. It was the bottles of Old Granddad that she'd kept hidden from from her husband, Carlotta's father, that had told her the true story.

When she'd burned her bra one semester at Stanford and spent the night in the police lock-up with the rest of her sorority sisters, she'd felt truly free for the first time. Of course, it had nothing to do with the lack of support of her breasts, but with the feeling of fighting convention, kicking the status quo right in the balls.

When she'd married Louis, everyone had assumed that she'd married for money. There was no doubt that success was attractive, but Louis' money had been the farthest thing from her mind when she'd accepted his proposal. It wasn't his fault that the world had been so in need of the cream he'd developed to cure hemorrhoids. He's simply "seen a gap in the market that needed filling", as he'd put it.

But it was in these moments, while Louis was working in the asshole lab (his name for it), without the need for her to find a job of her own, when Carlotta had discovered her true passion.

Carlotta had a nose for snooping.


Tuesday, June 28, 2016

"Diamond in the Rough, Part 3" - a Winters/Casey case file.

I've not done as well as I would have liked, keeping with my 'one new blog post every week' New Years resolution. But even though it's been a month coming, here's the final installment in "Diamond in the Rough"!

If you haven't checked them out, Diamond in the Rough parts One and Two are necessary reading for this installment. Be sure to check them out!

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"Michael Powers and Bahir Al-Alakari," Casey repeated as she frantically filled out the report of what Horatio Younger had told us.

I would have volunteered to help her write the report, but I still had no idea how to use most of the new electronic gadgetry that ruled life in 2076. I was barely able to operate my cell phone. Which, lucky me, had been enough. Minutes after we'd left the interrogation room with Younger I'd placed a call to Homeland Security and told them the situation with Scour.

If what Younger told us was true, Scour had the potential to do far greater things than removing nude selfies from the internet. With the ability to permanently delete nearly anything from the internet, Scour was nearly priceless. But something told me that at least one of the developers had already placed a price on it, and for all we knew it could be headed for the hands of the highest bidder at that moment.

Any government could become an oppressive regime, when those in power had the ability to silence the common people. An already oppressive regime could become a totalitarian state virtually overnight.

So part of this case was now officially above our pay grade. But the nearest Homeland Security office was halfway across town, and the afternoon traffic rush would slow them down getting to the precinct. Until they coordinated their efforts and sent an agent over to work with us, NYPD had jurisdiction.

Homeland Security was already in the process of putting some of their top people from the cyber crimes division on locating the remaining Scour app, as well as locating the hardware that had been used to create it. As far as we knew, Scour only had the power to delete any form of media. There was no guarantee that the app itself wasn't leaving some kind of data trail, and that was apparently the angle they were going to work.

As for me and Casey, we had two suspects to find.

Once we had their names, it didn't take long for me and Casey to find workplaces, finger prints, DMV records, and even birth certificates of our two suspects. Or, at least, it didn't take long for us to find the information on Bahir Al-Akari.

As far as out databases were concerned, Michael Powers didn't exist.


Saturday, May 14, 2016

"Diamond in the Rough, Part 2" - a Winters/Casey case file

I'm a few weeks behind the cuff on this one, but part two is finally complete! If you haven't read 'Diamond in the Rough, Part 1' yet, be sure to check it out before reading this one.

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The bell on the door of Diamond Brothers Coffee nearly flew off its chain as Casey and I whipped it open and charged inside. The two men we were after were pushing their way into the back of the store. One of them grabbed the edge of a wooden table and threw it behind them, blocking their path and sending coffee cups cascading across the floor. Patrons screamed.

"Around the back. Head them off," Casey commanded, hooking her thumb out the door. She sprinted after them, narrowly dodging a puddle of mocha latte.

Most people in New York simply want to be left alone; they want no business of yours, and want you to keep out of theirs. So most people will get out of your way if you're running down the street with a total hard-ass look on your face. That goes double if you have a badge.

No one stepped in my path as I darted back out the door and into the chilly March air. My coat whipped at my ankles as I ran past confused people on the sidewalk. At the end of the block I turned left down the nearest alley, where the service and delivery door to the coffee shop would be. Sure enough, as I started down the dingy corridor, a grey metal door a few dozen yards down the alley flew open and two men stumbled out, frantically trying to get away from a crazed lady copy hot on their heals.

I turned my running gate into a cautious sidle. My gun whipped up on instinct, but I didn't remove the safety. "Don't do it," I called, my voice steady. "You're under arrest for vandalism and disturbing the peace. Resisting arrest won't make it any better."

At that moment, Casey emerged from the back of the restaurant. She had her hand on her gun, too, but it hadn't yet left its holster. "You didn't even give us a chance to talk, guys. Don't you know that running is pretty much the most guilty-looking thing you can do?"

"We didn't do anything," Horatio Younger, the second victim in a series of break-ins Casey and I were investigating, stammered. He raised his pale, fish belly-colored hands. He was shaking so hard that it made his double chin tremble.

"Shut up," Frederick Watson, the other man, said. "They haven't even read us our rights yet."

"Come on, Fred, don't be like that," I said. "You and I shared a beer at last summer's community party. No sense on being uncivil."

My downstair's neighbor pressed his mouth into a thin line. "I'm not saying anything without a lawyer," he replied.

Casey and I gave each other a look. Then she whipped out her cuffs and shackled the two men together as I read them their rights.



Monday, April 11, 2016

"Diamond in the Rough, Part 1" - a Winters/Casey case file

My brother, Aaron is a great writer and a creative sonofagun. I've linked to many of his creative endeavors in earlier posts, so you know what I mean if you've check them out. If not, be sure to visit his Tumblr page  and also check out his creative blog, because he posts great stories and cartoons. They're worth sharing.

Anyhow, this story actually starts Toby Winters and Sandra Casey, two detectives he created. I got an idea for a short story, and he was nice enough to loan me his characters for this post.


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My cell phone alarm woke me, but not at first. I managed to tune out what I'm pretty certain was three or four minutes of ringing before my brain couldn't stand it any longer. I slapped blindly on the nightstand for my phone, searching for the 'snooze' button. Ten seconds after squinting at the screen, I realized that my phone was actually ringing. It was fifteen minutes before my alarm was scheduled to go off.

The screen said, "Sandra Casey," and was accompanied by a picture of a woman with curly brown hair, caught in a rare smile that graced her normally no-nonsense countenance. 

I swiped the phone with my finger and tapped the phone to speaker mode. "You know, my alarm isn't supposed to go off for another fifteen minutes." 

"Your lazy ass is still in bed, Toby?" Casey snarked in reply. A siren wailed in the distant background of the call. 

"Didn't get to sleep until after one o'clock," I grumbled in reply. "The people in the room next to mine wouldn't shut up." 

"Knockin' boots all night, huh?" Casey laughed. She sipped what sounded like a cup of coffee. Not that a cup of coffee sounded a certain way; it's just that I knew Casey always had a cup of coffee in her hand at this time of morning. 

"I wish," I grumbled. "Then they might have at least given it a rest after forty-five minutes. These idiots just had their TV up too loud and wouldn't shut the hell up about the show's storyline. Spoiler alert, if you're a fan of Seattle Mercy Hospital: Jonathan Mercy is in a coma." 

"Oh my god, spoilers!" Casey yelled, her tone dead serious. "I am going to kill you when I see you! And that had better be soon, by the way. There's been another break in, and the chief wants us to check it out. I'm already here." 

I pulled myself into a sitting position. Dim morning light snuck into the room beneath the hotel room's thick curtain, changing the furniture into indistinct gray blurs. "How did you get there so early? Did the chief call you first without calling me?" 

"He knows you've been having a rough time, since you had to move into Chez Shady," Casey went on. "Chief told me to call you a little later, to make sure you were one-hundred percent before coming in." 

I kicked free of the hotel's thick comforter and placed my feet on the floor. "Thanks to Seattle Mercy Hospital, I'm only around eighty-five or ninety. But if you can have another cup of coffee there waiting on me, I'll give you one-hundred and ten." 

"Done," Casey replied, another rare smile in her words. "I'l send the GPS to your phone. See you in thirty?" 

"Thirty," I replied, and she ended the call.




Tossing my phone on the bed, I yawned, stretched, and raked my fingers through my blonde hair. I said, "Room, on," and the lights warmed to life, slowly growing until they filled the room. Thirty seconds later the television came on, automatically tuned to the channel I selected when I booked the room. 

"That's still weird," I mumbled as I headed for the shower, which was already running. 

There were a lot of things I wasn't used to about 2076. Mostly because I missed the last sixty years, cryogenically frozen. It'd been the better part of two years since I'd woken up. In that time, I'd managed to land a steady job as a detective, a fairly nice apartment in a fairly nice part of town, and was hopefully on deck for a promotion pretty soon. There were a lot of things from my previous life, though, that I hadn't been able to recreate. 

Like my name. Or who I was. Or where I grew up. Or who my family was. Hell, if I even had a family. 

I'd been christened Toby, or October, by the people who found me frozen in some secret government project. They'd given me the last name 'Winters', because it had been an unusually cold October that year. So, like it or not, Toby Winters I became. 

It was only by a series of lucky coincidences that I was able to land the job as detective. If I screwed it up, I'd be lucky to find a position washing dishes somewhere, what with no official education or credentials, since none of those things seemed to survive the freezing process with me. 

So when I told Casey I'd met her in thirty, it had to be thirty. 

When I climbed out of the shower I looked for the hotel's phone, to call the front desk and tell them I'd be stepping out early so they could send the maid. Then I remembered my 2076 hotel room didn't have a phone. So, as I pulled on my pants and buttoned my shirt, I opened the hotel chain's app, logged in with my thumb print, and punched the screen a few times to let them know. 

Four days ago there was a fire in the apartment beneath mine. It damaged a dozen apartments in the building, mine included, so the super had put us up in hotel rooms until the damage could be repaired.  For all the advancements the world had made since I had been frozen, no one had though to make hotel beds any more comfortable. 

I couldn't wait to get back to my apartment. 

Twenty-eight-minutes and change later, I stepped out of an automated taxi which had read the GPS coordinates from my phone the moment I'd stepped inside it (weird) and approached a wall of yellow police tape. The uniformed guy working the tape was Parker, a young guy I recognized from the precinct. I nodded to him and he waved me through. 

Casey's GPS has led me to a neighborhood not unlike my own. It wasn't in the best part of town, but not a bad neighborhood by comparison to a lot of New York City's boroughs. I stepped past the threshold of a house that was one of the larger on the street, but not extravagant. The inside of the place looked like a bomb had gone off. Drawers were emptied. Furniture, smashed. Couch cushions, shredded. They'd even emptied everything from the fridge onto the kitchen floor. It was a masterpiece of mayhem. 

I found Casey in the living room, speaking to two very shaken-looking homeowners. She tapped rapidly on a screen so thin it defied imagination, taking notes. She looked up long enough to notice me, and then gestured behind her with her eyes. I followed her gaze and found a coffee cup and paper bag sitting on the mantle. They were the only objects in sight; everything else, it seemed, had been flung from the mantle onto the floor. 

I attacked the coffee cup with what I hoped was some moniker of dignity, in front of the homeowners. Inside the bag I found a jalapeƱo-and-cheese bagel, and I almost made a fool of myself by crying while on duty. 

A few minutes later, Casey stepped away from the homeowners and toward me. Half of the coffee was gone, and I had nearly finished the bagel. 

"You're too good to me, you know that?" I said with a full mouth. 

"I know," she replied. "You can listen and eat at the same time, right?" 

With one hand I mimed a 'probably' motion. She jabbed me in the shoulder with the stylus for her screen. "Alfonzo and Millie Montgomery, ages 42 and 37. Regional manager of four Diamond Brothers Coffee franchises, and professor at Empire University, respectively. They've lived in the neighborhood for twelve years and never experienced anything like this before. Two kids, both staying with grandparents while the whole this is sorted out."

I chewed by bite of bagel a little slower as I surveyed the scene. After a few speculative seconds I swallowed and said, "This makes, what? The sixth?" 

"The sixth," Casey confirmed. "All different neighborhoods. People from different walks of life. Of different ages, races, and nationalities. Nothing apparently stolen: jewelry, electronics, cards, cash, all untouched. The only thing that ties these break-ins together is the MO." 

"Smash and shred everything in sight," I confirmed. "Do I need to say it again? I already said it on the first five." 

"I'm already thinking it. Looks like they were looking for something. Exactly the same as the last five. But whatever they were looking for, they didn't find it." 

I turned to Casey. She met my gaze. "Unless they did, this time." 

Casey scrolled down her screen. "I've asked the homeowners if anything is missing. They said they're not sure, because they haven't sifted through the chaos. But it doesn't look like it." 

I drained the coffee cup. "We're missing something. Something that ties these people together. Something that someone thought each of them had." I took a bite of the bagel. "If you wanted something really badly, and you weren't sure where it was, where would you look first?" 

"Whoever I thought had the greatest likelihood to have it," Casey replied instantly. 

"But they don't have it. So where do you look next?" 

"Whoever is next in line. And then next after that, and next after that." 

"How do you feel by the time you're down to number six on your list?" 

Casey scratched her chin. "Pretty desperate. In fact, I'm pretty sure I would have stopped looking after like three or four. If I'm down to the sixth person on my list, the likelihood of them having it has got to be pretty low." 

"So why do you keep looking? Why don't you throw in the towel?" 

"Because it's something I've got to have," Casey went on. "Maybe something life-or-death. Which means I'm going to keep looking, even if it means searching seven houses. Or more." She lowered her eyes, coming out of deep though. "We need everything we can get on the Montgomerys. And we need more on the other break-in cases." 

I scratched my head. "But we grilled the last five homeowners. We probably have their shoe sizes." 

"Doesn't matter," Casey went on. "We've missed something. So we get it all. Family histories. Relatives, back to their great-grandmothers. Shoe size. Favorite pizza place. Everything, until we find something that links these cases." 

The bagel and coffee now long gone, I nodded. Since I still wasn't great with them, Casey unrolled her screen again, to take more notes, and the two of us returned to the homeowners. 

More than two hours later, Casey and I found ourselves back at the precinct, comparing notes from each of the cases. They were displayed on a screen that took up most of one wall of the Investigation Room #1. She and I poured over seemingly meaningless details of the homes, neighborhoods, and victims, hoping desperately for something we'd missed. 

After standing so close to a screen for so long that my eyes were beginning to throb, I stepped back, rubbed my fists into them and groaned. "Am I the only one who feels like we're looking for a red herring?" I asked. 

"A what?" Casey asked, fatigue apparent in her voice, too. 

"Never mind," I muttered. "I need a break. And another cup of coffee. Or maybe a beer. Care to talk a walk down the block?" 

"You can't have a beer. You're on duty," she said humorlessly, though she was already shouldering into her coat. "And besides, it's not even noon." 

"Coffee it is." 

The two of us strode out of the precinct and onto the street. The sky overhead was gray, as it was most of the time in March, and a chilly breeze whipped through the air. 

"Let's review the ideas we've produced," Casey offered as we strode briskly toward the coffee shop around the corner. 

"I don't know if I'd call them ideas, strictly speaking," I muttered. "They all shopped at a particular chain supermarket. Along with a quarter million other New Yorkers. All the women in the families have type A positive blood. Also, along with another quarter million New Yorkers. And a half-dozen other connections, each one equally as hair-brained."

"Don't forget the one about them all taking the subway to work. That one's a..." Casey's voice trailed off, her gazed fixed ahead of her. She placed her hand on my chest, and I stopped in my tracks. "Do you remember, off the top of your head, the name of the coffee shop at the corner?"

"The one we've been going to every day for the past two years?" I asked blearily. "I know we've been staring at that screen for hours and I didn't get much sleep last night, but I still remember..."

Had I really gotten so little sleep last night? Had I really been looking at the screen in IR #1 for so long that I hasn't noticed it?

I found myself staring at a yellow-and-red neon sign that proclaimed Diamond Brothers Coffee. The same coffee chain for which Alfonzo Montgomery, latest victim of an apparent break-in, was regional manager.

"Coincidence?" Casey asked.

"Could be," I replied. I rubbed my eyes and squinted into the window. "Or maybe it would be, if I didn't recognize the two guys sitting at that table." I pointed, and Casey followed my gesture. She would have only recognized one of the men: Horatio Younger, victim of break-in number two. His large, watery eyes seemed even more so behind his glasses, and he wrung his hands nervously in the same manner he'd done when describing the break-in to the police.

The other man at the table was Frederick Watson. The guy who lived one floor beneath mine, whose apartment had caught fire, and whose fault it was that I was sleeping in a hotel room instead of my own bed.

And apparently Mom was right when she said it was rude to point, because both men looked out the window, at me, at exactly the same time. And then they both stood and ran for the back of the store.

"Still think it might be a coincidence?" Casey said, before dashing ahead of me and wrenching open the door of Diamond Brothers Coffee.

"No, I think it's a conspiracy," I breathed, diving after her and unclipping the snap that held my gun in place, on reflex. "Everyone wants Toby to feel like crap. Make him sleep in a hotel bed. Keep him up all night. And now stop him from getting coffee."

Casey and I charged after the men, amid the shouts and cries of startled customers.


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CHECK BACK NEXT WEEK FOR PART TWO, TRUE BELIEVERS! 

Sunday, April 3, 2016

"Human Women"

Another week, another short story.

I'm a week behind, because last weekend my wife and took our two daughters to Disney World for the first time. It was an amazing, exciting, and very tiring trip. We were glad to get back, and I was glad to have a few relaxing days before heading back to school at the end of spring break.

This is another story of Jillian Nightingale, nurse practitioner to supernatural creatures and cryptohumanoids. Her other adventures, while not being necessary to follow this story, can be found in the links below.

"In Sheep's Clothing" 

"Sometimes I Feel Like I'm Being Watched"

"The Best Medicine"  - Jillian's inaugural story

"Open Enrollment"  - this story takes place in Jillian's world, although it doesn't explicitly star her.


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"I don't know if I can do this."

Max Bartrom, bartender of The Scabbard, looked up at me. "What? What're you talking about?"

I swallowed hard. A chilly breeze blew through the gravel parking lot behind the bar. Shifting uneasily, I ground gravel beneath my tennis shoes and wrapped my jacket a little tighter around myself. "Look, I... I don't want to put you out any more than I already have. I'll just call the Agency and have them move the patient from my caseload."

Max dropped the large wooden box he'd carried out to the parking lot at his feet. "What's the matter? You're not scared, are you?"

I dropped my jaw and tried to act surprised by his insinuation. "Scared? Are you kidding me? You should see what I've already dealt with this week. I've talked a ghost out of an existential crisis, successfully gotten three vampires on artificial iron supplements, and diagnosed a mermaid with a gill infection. And it's only Tuesday."

Max smiled. "So, you're not at all concerned about seeing Mister Mephiblasheph today?"

"Of course not," I lied. The fact that my voice leapt an octave did nothing to sell the illusion. "It's just that I know you've already done so much for the Agency this week. I hate to trouble you any more than necessary."

Max cracked his knuckles and sifted through the contents of the box. Despite the cold, stiff wind, he wore nothing thicker than his usual jeans and black t-shirt. "The Agency subcontracts out to me: the more jobs I do for them, the more they pay me. By no means are you inconveniencing me for bringing me more work. In fact, I wish you'd see more dangerous patients every week. I might finally be able to afford that boat I've had my eye on."

The non-cowardly way out of seeing this patient was starting to erode under my feet. "No, seriously, its not a big deal. Providers change patients all the time."

Max stood, something from the box in his hands. "Catch."

He tossed something to me in a slow, underhanded arc. On instinct along I caught it. It was a black, porous rock, about the size of a tennis ball.

Confused, I raised my eyes to Max in time to see him aim a thin, wooden rod, tipped with a white pearl, at me.

And then my world was swallowed in a blinding, howling torrent of fire.

"Oh my god! Oh my god! OH MY GOD!" I screamed, even though I couldn't hear myself. I felt the vibrations in my throat, so I knew I was speaking, but all sound was swallowed in the roar of flames all around me.

I stood, silent in the blinding inferno, for what felt like years. Then the flames disappeared as quickly as they had come, and I slowly blinked my eyes open. Purple spots danced in front of my vision, and I rubbed them in an effort to see more clearly.

I could still feel the warmth of the fire clinging to my jacket, like it had just come out of the dryer. The gravel around my feet was blackened like soot. But I was completely unharmed.

"Huh. How about that," Max said, crossing his arms in front of his chest. "Looks like you can do it, after all."

Gagging on a response, I was suddenly aware of heavy warmth in my hands. My eyes traveled down to the black, porous rock that Max had thrown to me. It was smoking slightly.

My eyes shot up to him. "What in the ever-loving crap was THAT all about?" I screamed at him, heaving the rock at him with all my might. He easily caught it with one hand. The smug jerk.

"You seemed like you needed convincing that I could make you fireproof for your visit to Mephiblasheph today. He is a dragon, in case you forgot. And he has the flu. He's the sort of patient for whom you'd want to be fireproof."

I squeezed my fingers together into white-knuckled fists. Anger grew like an inflating balloon in my chest. "Yeah, I got the general idea of what you were doing, thanks!" I hollered. "I really meant, why the ever-loving crap would you do that to me? Do you get your jollies freaking people out or something?"

Max looked hurt by my words. Which was strange, because in the months I had been working with him, I had never seen him looking so vulnerable. "You just seemed like you needed a little convincing. That's all. Dragonfire is pretty horrible, believe me, even when you only get sneezed on."

I jabbed my index finger at Max. "Look. I told you that I didn't want to do it. That I was content to change my schedule. Did that sound like it had any coded messages of, 'please toss me a fireproof rock and then blast me with a magic flamethrower' hidden in it?"

Max seemed taken aback. He opened his mouth to reply, but I cut him off.

"I am not scared of dragons. Or ghouls. Or vampires. Or any other kind of patient I have to see. And even if I was, I don't need you stepping in to help me be brave. I can be brave on my own." Though my clothes were still warm from the fire, I crossed my arms over my chest and stalked past Max, toward the bar's back door.

"Jillian," came his voice from over my shoulder. I froze with my hand on the door. I didn't want to turn around, because it would certainly ruin the effect of my storming away. But, darn it, my parents raised me better than to be rude. Even to people who had pissed me off. So I turned, and I found Max's face apologetic. "I shouldn't have done that. I'm sorry." He gathered the box from the ground, tossing the wand and rock into it. "And I know you don't need my help being brave. I didn't mean to imply that."

A knot of anger that had developed between my shoulder blades loosened. My spine relaxed slightly. "It's just, that... dammit, Max. I'm the first human provider The Agency has ever hired. I've seen a lot, since taking this job. You know that. Hell, I've been here every day since I started this job, picking up magical equipment without which it would be impossible for me to do my job."

Max knew that. He also knew I was getting to the point. Which I assume is why he stayed silent and simply nodded.

"Yes. I was scared about visiting a dragon today. Okay?" I growled. "And, you know what? I've been scared on many occasions, as a normal human entering the homes of cryptohumaoids. But, see, the thing is, I don't think there's anything wrong with that. There's something to be said for having a healthy amount of fear for things that could literally rip me limb from limb if they chose." I raised my eyes to his. He was still watching me speculatively with the box of magical supplies in his arms. "But one thing I haven't done it let that fear control me. Yes, There were patients I would have rather not seen. But I went anyway. Do you know why?"

"Yes," Max said softly. "For Hope."

Hope was my four-year-old daughter. She was my sole motivation for taking the job with The Agency for the Betterment of Cryptohumanoid Kind. More specifically, it was The Agency's paycheck, which paid for Hope's treatments and kept us out of poverty.

I nodded sharply.

"I'm sorry," Max replied. "It was out of line for me to force-demonstrate the firestone. I should have respected your wishes."

"Thank you. I forgive you," I replied. I then lowered my eyes and held out a hand to Max. "Now give it back, please."

Max looked confused.

I gestured with my outstretched hand. "Come on. Please don't make this harder on me."

"Wait a minute," Max stammered. "You mean you're going? You're actually going to visit the sick dragon? I thought we just had an emotional conversation about how I should respect your wishes and let you make your decisions."

"We did," I replied. "And now I'm deciding to visit Mephiblasheph. So I'll need the firestone."

Max's words seemed trapped in his throat. For a few minutes he simply gestured silently with his mouth open. "Are all human women this confusing, or is it just you?"

"The choice to see Mephiblasheph or not is mine alone. I am an independent woman," I said, ignoring his question. "But, that being said, sometimes an independent woman needs a friend to remind her when she's being a scaredycat, and when she needs to woman up and do what needs to be done." I raised my eyes. "And when to trust that her wizard friend is going to supply her with the tools necessary to do her job, like he always has."

Though he looked like he wanted to say more, Max simply shook his head and handed over the firestone. It was still warm.

"And to answer your question, it's not just me. And it's not just human women. If you dated a little more, you'd realize that."

Max had held the box awkwardly on his hip while digging out the firestone, but he'd repositioned the box in his arms and now approached the back door of the bar. I held it open for him. "Oh, please," he scoffed. "I'm one-hundred and eighty-one years old. And, of all the species I've dated, I've never met a woman as complicated as you."

"Sounds more like a problem with the women you've dated than with me," I said over my shoulder. I crossed back through the bar, nodding to the regulars that sat on their usual stools, even though it was barely past nine in the morning. From the bar I picked up my medical bag where I'd left it, and dropped the firestone inside.

Max stepped behind the bar and set to polishing pint glasses, what he'd been doing before I'd come in for my daily supplies. "Same time tomorrow, then?" He asked, an amused twinkle in his eye.

Slinging my medical bag over my shoulder, I replied, "Same time. As long as you promise to get my permission next time before immolating me."

Max draped his bar rag over his arm like a waiter. "I shall be a perfect gentlemen."

"Don't hurt yourself," Rolf, a regular at the bar, mumbled with a laugh.

Max plucked a lime from the bar caddy and flung it at Rolf's head. It bounced harmlessly off his forehead and onto the floor.

"Be good, boys," I called as I opened the door. "See you both tomorrow."

As the door shut behind me, I heard the wizard bartender tell the werewolf on the bar stool, "I'm telling ya, man... human woman. Watch out."

Now fully equipped, mentally and physically, to see my full caseload of fantastic magic and supernatural patients, I simply smiled.