Copyright © 2012 Emma Lang
All rights reserved — a Samhain Publishing, Ltd. publication
Lettie Brown stared down at the man at her feet and resisted the urge to kick him. The stench of vomit wafted up, and she felt the vile liquid seeping into her shoes.
“Mister, wake up.” She pushed at his shoulder with her shin. It was the best she could do considering he’d landed smack-dab on her feet just inside the door of the restaurant.
The man with the snarled, dirty, molasses-colored hair didn’t move an inch. Lettie looked behind her into the shadowed building. At five in the morning, the Blue Plate was empty of customers and staff. She had arrived early to meet the freight wagon and instead it had brought her a filthy vagabond who puked on her.
“Wake up.” She reached down and shook his shoulder. “I ain’t gonna stand here all day while you ruin my only pair of shoes.”
Still no response. She hitched up her skirt and bent down, loathe to put her hands on the man, but there wasn’t any other choice. His hair was crusted with something she didn’t want to be privy to, and it was too long and shaggy. All over his cheeks he had bruises and cuts, which looked like they would fester soon. A gash on his forehead bled profusely.
She lightly tapped his face, her gut telling her no one with that many wounds needed to be hit again. Lettie knew that firsthand.
His eyes popped open, startling a yelp out of her. They were the color of smoke and ashes. She’d never seen such a thing before.
“Violet?” He sounded as though he’d been chewing on rocks. His eyes fluttered closed, and he went limp.
Lettie almost exploded right then and there. He’d called her by her given name, one she hadn’t used since she was ten years old. Who was this man? And how did he know who she was? Josiah was dead, no longer able to hurt her, but someone must have sent this man here to find her. Her heart pounded hard enough to make her teeth rattle. “Damn.”
“Lettie, what is happening?” Marta Gunderson appeared on the stairs that led to the rooms above the restaurant. She wore her nightclothes and a cap with her blonde and gray hair sticking out every which way beneath it. She and her husband Pieter, both German immigrants, ran the restaurant together.
“I was heading outside to ask the freight wagon driver to pull around the back when this man fell inside and landed on my feet.” Lettie frowned at the stranger who had turned her life inside out with one word, not to mention ruined her shoes.
Marta peered at the stranger and tsked. “Ah, liebchen, we must be kind to strangers, ya? Let me get Pieter and we bring him upstairs. The poor man has wounds to be tended to.” She turned and went back upstairs much quicker than a sixty-year-old woman should then called back downstairs. “Heat some water, Lettie.”
Lettie pushed at the stranger’s shoulder until he rolled onto his back, freeing her feet. The puddle of vomit was more like bile, telling her the man hadn’t had a real meal in some time. Judging by the smell his meals had been liquid, a cheap rotgut no doubt.
She pulled off her shoes and padded in her stocking feet to the kitchen, leaving the man lying in the doorway alone. Certainly nothing worse could happen to him there. She stoked up the embers in the big stove until they glowed brightly, then put in kindling to get the fire going. After pumping a bucketful of water and putting it on the stove, she set to work cleaning her shoes. The chore gave her a few minutes to calm her racing heart. She was jumping to conclusions. There were plenty of women named Violet. The man probably had a wife with the same name, or maybe a sister.
He was no threat to her, couldn’t possibly be.
“Who’s the dead man?” Eleven-year-old Dennis Fox peeked in the kitchen door, his brown hair tousled and expression wary. His mother, Karen, was a waitress at the restaurant while he did odd jobs for extra coin each week.
“He’s not dead.”
“Are you sure? He smells like he’s dead.”
Lettie hid a shaky smirk at the boy’s bald honesty. “Nah, he’s just hurt.”
“Mrs. Gunderson upstairs?” He glanced around the kitchen. “She wanted me to sweep the porch before school.”
“Go ahead and get to sweeping then. She’ll be nursing the dead man and won’t have time to jaw about your chores.” Lettie watched the boy’s face as he swallowed, his eyes wide. She never could speak to children proper, so she kept to her usual blunt way. Unfortunately, her way didn’t work, but she didn’t know what else to do.
Dennis opened his mouth then closed it without speaking and disappeared back through the door with only a whisper of sound. She didn’t mean to be abrupt or scare him, but she also didn’t want him to stay in the kitchen. Lettie knew what was coming, and she was helpless to prevent it. She needed to be alone to gather her wits.
Life hadn’t been kind to her. After the monster she’d married was killed, Lettie allowed herself to pursue what she thought was a normal life. The last six months were the only time she could remember feeling content. Not happy, but definitely content. Forestville had given her a chance, and she was finally taking advantage of it. Her work at the restaurant helped her survive, and her work at the newspaper gave her a purpose. Life was almost normal.
Until this morning. Until the dirty stranger crashed into the restaurant. He had brought an element of pain and a crush of memories she had locked away last year.
Against her will, her hands shook and a buzzing sounded in her head. She hung on to the edge of the wooden sink, gripping it tight enough to make her knuckles pop. Dark memories crowded her thoughts, stealing her control. She bent at the waist until her head was level with the sink. It had been so long since she’d had an attack, she had tried to forget about them. Yet here one was, ready to send her into a tailspin of shadows.
Lettie slid to the floor and crawled to the corner, heart galloping, eyes burning and stomach churning. She couldn’t catch her breath. Squeezing into the niche, she pulled up her knees and pressed her head down.
I’m safe. I’m safe. No one is here to hurt me. I’m safe. I’m safe.
She started rocking, desperately trying to get hold of herself. If she didn’t, the screaming, the howling and the weeping would commence. It would take days to shake off the darkness. Coldness seeped through her, raising gooseflesh and shivers.
“Lettie?” A soft, cool hand pressed against her neck. “Oh, sweetheart, I’m sorry.” Her best friend, Angeline Carver, squatted beside her. “Dennis came and got me. Told me about the dead man. I came over as fast as I could.”
Lettie didn’t open her eyes, her hands balled into fists while she fought against her demons. Any second, something was going to explode from her chest.
Be strong, Lettie. Be strong.
Angeline squeezed in beside her and put her arm around Lettie’s shoulders. “It’s okay, I’m here.” Her presence, the warmth and kindness she had in abundance, threw its cloak around Lettie like a blanket. “I won’t let anyone hurt you.”
Tears stung Lettie’s eyes, but she would not open them. She would not let them fall from her eyes no matter how long it took for them to go away. After that bastard Josiah died last year, she’d promised herself she would never cry over a man again. Ever. Lettie aimed to keep that promise come hell or high water.
Angeline murmured to her while she rubbed Lettie’s back. By the time burbling noises echoed from the water on the stove, the panic had begun to subside, and she opened her eyes. She was able to unlock her hands, glad to see her nails hadn’t cut into her palms this time. The tiny crescent scars there spoke of darker times.
“What happened?” Angeline whispered.
Lettie shook her head. “Nothing. It’s stupid.”
“No, it’s not. Something set you down, and I want to know what.” Angeline was truly angelic looking with her blonde hair and blue eyes, but she was fierce beneath the sweet exterior. “Sam and I told you when we married you are part of our family. We protect each other, remember?”
Blissfully happy in their new marriage, the couple had taken Lettie in, giving her the first real home she’d ever had. The house was large enough for three and had all the room she needed to be comfortable. Then the couple had moved into a big house by the lake, leaving Lettie alone in a house that wasn’t hers.
Angeline had never stopped taking care of Lettie even when they weren’t living together. Folks may have thought it was the other way around, that Lettie was the caretaker, but they’d be wrong. Angeline was the reason they had left Utah, escaped the monster and embarked on a new life. After five years of living hell, Lettie hadn’t had the courage to break free.
Angeline had helped to loosen the knot of fear and panic that lived inside Lettie. She was truly blessed to have such a friend in her life. She had so much to be grateful for. If only she could find the strength to stop being afraid of everything.
“There is a man in the restaurant.”
“Did he hurt you?” A pinch of anger colored Angeline’s question.
“No, nothing like that. He’s been hurt, beat all to hell and back. He stumbled in off the freight wagon, fell onto my feet and puked on my shoes.” Saying it out loud made it sound silly, not worthy of what she had gone through. However, nothing would make the experience disappear. The tang of fear and self-loathing coated her tongue. She couldn’t tell her friend about the man saying her name. Maybe Lettie had dreamed it and it wasn’t worth mentioning.
“I wondered why your shoes were in the sink.” Angeline squeezed her shoulders. “I’m sorry that happened.”
“It was bad luck I was there.”
“No, that’s not what I meant.” Angeline leaned closer. “I’m sorry it made you remember and get scared. I’m sorry you had to go through it again.”
Lettie took a deep breath and looked at her friend. Angeline’s expression of worry and love chased away the last of the demons clawing at Lettie’s soul. She took Angeline’s hand and gripped it tight. Words crowded in Lettie’s throat.
“I, um… That is, I—”
“You’re welcome.” Angeline got to her feet and shook her blue skirt. She held out her hand to Lettie. “I’m guessing Mrs. Gunderson is waiting on the water?”
Lettie accepted the help up although she was twice her friend’s size. When she stood, the heat from the stove warmed her back. She would be okay, thanks to Angeline.
“Yep. She’s got it in her head to heal the stranger. Did I mention he also smells like cheap whiskey?”
Shane Murphy was no longer a man. He accepted it even if it tasted like poison on his tongue. The bald truth was always bitter, or in this case, deadly. He’d been too much of a coward to find a way not to live his miserable existence.
“For pity’s sake, mister, would you stop fighting me?” The bottom of the worst pit in hell was apparently inhabited by a witch who liked to beat him. Her voice cut through the fading haze of drink. She sounded almost human, although she screeched and howled at him, kicking and slapping him. He tried to hide from her but couldn’t make his legs move. To his shame, tears burned his eyes and his throat ached with a pitiful helplessness.
Ten years ago when he’d been a twenty-year-old fool, he would have fought harder. Today he gave in quickly, cowered, beaten and shamed by his own inaction.
Shane managed to pull open his eyes although he would swear ten-pound weights sat on his lids. The brightness of the room slammed into his naked eyeballs, and he cringed in agony. A brown-haired witch hovered over him, her wings scaly masses of dark feathers. His skull pounded with a whooshing sound, each pulse pure pain. Perhaps the witch had been kicking him in the head. Of course, the tiny bit of him that still functioned recognized that ache as lack of whiskey, a condition he avoided for as long as possible. Lately, that had included two months of continuous drink with nary a pause between bottles. Until now.
“I swear to you if you don’t stop, I will smack you.” The witch grabbed at his arms, and he pulled away from her grip. “Dammit!”
“Language, liebchen.” The second voice sounded like an angel or a grandmother, someone safe and sweet. “He does not know what he is doing. He is hurt.”
The witch snorted. “He ain’t hurt, Marta. He’s coming off the drink and being ornery.”
Oh the witch was smart, very smart indeed. She knew his secret already, although it wasn’t much of a secret. Her kind probably knew things without asking a question. Shane was leery about looking at her, not that his eyes were working proper anyway.
“Still we should be kind. The world depends on kindness.” The angel grandmother was the voice of reason. She would protect him from the witch.
“If you want me to doctor his wounds, I need to be able to clean them first. If he keeps fighting me, I’m going back downstairs.”
Shane realized two things at once. The warmth he’d attributed to her breath was actually a cloth on his forehead, which was currently dripping water down his cheek. The second was that he was lying in a soft bed for the first time in at least three years.
The fight went out of him in a blink. His whiskey-induced haze had reduced him to a blathering fool, a wounded one who pushed away the people who were trying to help him. Shane didn’t deserve their kindness, but they couldn’t know that.
He managed to keep one eye open and saw the outlines of two women, one on either side of him. The witch did have brown hair and brown clothes, like a bird of prey. The other one shone like a white light in the sunshine, too bright to focus on. They were women, not strange things like witches and angels. Whiskey had destroyed more than his stomach, it had pickled his mind too.
“Sorry,” he mumbled, his voice rusty and thick.
“Did he say something?” The witch squeezed the rag, and water sluiced into his eye.
“Ow, that hurts.”
“Mister, you got a lot more problems than water in your eye.” She was ruthless, this witch, wiping his face with a rag that seemed to be made of scrub brush. It scraped his skin, sending shards of pain through him, joining the already excruciating agony of his head. He closed his eyes, trying to keep the roar down to a minimum.
“I think he fell back to sleep,” the angel said.
“Or he’s unconscious again.” The witch kept wiping his face, this time with more vigor, as though she had free rein to abuse him while he slept. He didn’t have the wherewithal to do anything but endure. “This one needs stitches. It won’t stop bleeding.”
He was bleeding? Why was he bleeding?
“Does that look like a boot mark to you?” The witch’s voice had changed, sliding lower. He heard a new tone, something that sounded suspiciously like anger.
“The poor man. Someone has shown him nothing but unkindness.” The angel grandmother’s cool touch skimmed across his skin. “And his hands are, ach. His fingers are broken.”
Shock rippled through him. It appeared someone, not likely these two women even if one of them was a witch, had beaten him. The truly sad thing was he had no idea who had done it or how it had happened.
He hoped they didn’t ask him.
“It’s good he’s asleep. The pain won’t be as bad.” The witch’s murmur was nearly tender, and he almost forgot what she’d done to hurt him under the guise of helping him.
Then she yanked on his fingers, which was followed by a sickening crunch of bone on bone. He howled in agony as the pain radiated up his arm. The last thing he remembered was swinging wildly with his other hand, and everything went black.