The thought ran through my head as I peered over the castle wall, staring into a thick fog blanketing the snowy ground below. Gray clouds acted as a ceiling in the late night hours, blurring the silver moon and turning the pinprick stars into fireflies. Dusty snow flurried in the mountain breeze, adding to the six inches accumulated on the crenellations. When will it happen?
The exact moment played out a dozen times in my head though I often struggled against it. I’d long been an eternal cynic regarding fate and like all classic figures of the past, I swore I’d defy destiny. My younger self enjoyed incredible bravado, enough to bathe me in nostalgia years later. Acceptance dashed the last vestiges of hope from my soul.
“Good evening.” A familiar male voice chimed from the glass doors leading to my bedroom. His presence should’ve surprised me but it was my birthday. Considering my family’s history, anything short of an alien invasion would’ve washed over me without a second thought. “This will be easier than I thought.”
“I suppose it will.” My voice sounded foreign as if I hadn’t spoken in ages. I barely recognized myself. What happened? It didn’t matter. I shrugged off curiosity and drew a deep breath of frigid air, the same air my ancestors consumed for over a thousand years. I collected my thoughts as heavy footsteps rushed toward me.
Two hands slammed hard into my back, sending me several feet from the safety of the wall. I became weightless, floating in a blurry world of gray, white and black. My robe flapped open, exposing naked flesh to the night’s chill. My chest burned as I panted and my eyes watered, the tears freezing on my cheeks.
I clawed at the air instinctively but even as my body desperately struggled for survival, I embraced the inevitable. Somehow, I found myself falling backward, staring at the cloudy sky. Peace consumed my senses. I felt more alive than ever before. The final moments of my passing made every nerve ending surge and my heart raced. Death is my road to freedom.
These final thoughts flowed through in less than ten seconds. The wall wasn’t high enough on that wing for me to reach terminal velocity but it didn’t matter. My spine popped when I hit the ground. Both legs shattered and organs ruptured. Blood bubbled from my mouth, enough to make a horror movie seem tame.
Blessedly, the snow numbed the pain almost instantly but I became externally aware of every injury. I peered up at the wall, watching the silhouette of my killer. He peered down, probably ensuring he completed the job. He didn’t need to worry. I’d be gone soon enough. The icy fingers of death took the form of blissful sleep.
Emptiness clawed my senses. I drifted. Gone.
Chapter 1 Requiem aeternam dona ets, Domine!
My ring tone left something to be desired when it came to rousing me from nightmares, especially ones about dying. It tickled my awareness with all the annoyance of a team of flies, operating in tandem to mess with me. I grumped and opened my eyes, glaring at the device as it solemnly blared out Mozart’s Requiem Mass. Great, bad dreams punctuated by one of the most tragic pieces of music ever written. Why did I pick that again?
I grabbed the phone and groaned when I didn’t recognize the number. It meant one of three things, none of them good. Bill collector, telemarketer or my step mom found a new number to sneak around the block I put on her before. Whichever it was, I’d give them a piece of my mind for calling at…the clock read nine AM. Oh…normal people get up before eleven, Miranda. Duh.
I tapped the answer button and rolled on my back. “Hello?”
“Good morning!” the woman’s voice held an official tone different than people who wanted money, either collecting or selling. “Is this Miss Aldridge?”
“Uh…yeah?” Jesus, I hope no one died.
“Excellent, my name is Cindy Paulson. I work for McCray, Halsey and Schultz, a law firm here in Boston. I’d love to know if there’d be a good time—”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa, slow down there, Ms. Paulson,” I interrupted. “What’s this all about? Am I in some kind of trouble?”
“Oh, no trouble, I assure you.” Cindy’s chuckle felt condescending. I tried not to be sensitive, having just woken up. “This is about an inheritance. Mister McCray has a few questions and a stack of papers for you to sign.”
“I think there’s been a mistake.” I sat up, nervously smoothing the wrinkles on my fleece blanket. “I already received the inheritance from my grandmother.”
“I’m not at liberty to discuss the details but I can tell you this has nothing to do with your grandmother’s assets. When is the earliest you can come down?” I don’t even know if I should be coming! I wanted to yell it at her but shooting the messenger wouldn’t help. I rubbed my eyes. “I guess this morning…what about forty-five minutes?”
“I’ll clear Mister McCray’s schedule and let him know you’re on the way.” Cindy sounded like she just won the lottery. “Let me give you directions.”
“The address will be fine,” I replied. “I’ve got a GPS.”
My room looked like a disaster area. I hadn’t made the bed in over a week and school work littered the floor among clothes I discarded without thought. It needed a thorough cleaning, which I promised myself I’d do after class. Then again, I’d made the same vow every day for a week so I couldn’t really blame the lawyer call if it didn’t get done.
I crawled out of bed and stumbled to the bathroom, peering into the mirror. Dark circles surrounded my green eyes, which would be cool if I’d applied some makeup for the effect. Sleepy bruises didn’t look pretty. My sable hair stood up in a mass of crazy knots in a parody of eighties style. Did I writhe around like a cat when I slept? What the hell!
The spooky ass dream hovered in the back of my mind, bouncing around like a child waiting for acknowledgement. I’d experienced plenty of bizarre nightmares in my time. Some might even be called night terrors. A therapist chalked them up to the wide variety of tragic experiences in my past. I figured my head just hated me.
Some of my dreams were even recurring. One involved a dark haired man with blue eyes and impeccable taste in fashion. We met in different eras, here and there, lovers who rarely touched, soulmates just on the verge of revealing ourselves but not quite. I’d held his hand, stared out over the Nile as we puttered along in a steamship and chased after him on horseback.
Those rarely bothered me. They didn’t come off as frightening, just surreal. When I went a few days without even a glimpse of the man, I found myself missing him. He’d become safe and someone I could look forward to seeing. Many of my other dreams left me covered in cold sweat and fear so I welcomed a little good sprinkled among all the bad.
Last night’s unconscious soiree made my regular night terrors look like Saturday morning cartoons. I felt the freezing snow on my back, the biting chill of the mountain wind caressing my stomach. For whatever reason, I often adopted the role of a man in my scariest night excursions.
My clinical opinion of the situation remained simple: my subconscious mind sucked.
I threw myself through a shower in the hopes I might emerge a presentable woman. Ten minutes of hot water, a fair handful of hair goo and a judicious application of concealer later, I almost achieved the goal. Or…at least I didn’t look completely homeless. Struggling music student? Shabby chic?
Never mind. One could only hope for so much.
Allan McCray seemed to be a legal heavy hitter, not some small time ambulance chaser hanging out in a rough office on a street people forgot the name of. Based on the size of his firm’s building, I estimated he called the shots on some big cases. I’d call them the law elite but then, I was but a humble musician.
My friend Neil, an aspiring lawyer himself, might’ve been able to shed some light on the subject. I should’ve called him before leaving the dorm. Then again, he might’ve been in class. I represented the only night owl in our group. The others claimed to love mornings but when I heard them bitch about needing coffee, I didn’t necessarily believe in their dawn devotion.
I drove past the high rise, mostly because I didn’t believe I found the right place and had to loop the block. A beefy security guard manned a booth by the garage, taking stereotypical meat head to a new level. Flat top, shoulders wide enough to need a sign when he backed up and eyes which knew no feeling but duty, I definitely would not mess with him.
He scrutinized my ID for a good two minutes before returning it to me. Had I not been invited, I suspected he might’ve tossed me out of my own car and told me to walk home for wasting his time. I tried to be pleasant, smiling and thanking him for his help but his programming wouldn’t allow him to show emotion.
For him, there was only security.
I drove six floors down, passing by row after row of cars glistening with wealth. By the time I found an empty space, I felt like I should catch my vehicle on fire as an example to other cheap ass four-doors who might tread into the lair of the mobile elite. Upper class luxury made me nervous enough but if anyone saw me, they’d probably think I pulled one over on beef man.
The elevator sat to the left of a cozy area decorated with a bench and table. Did people actually hang out in the garage? I hit the button and contemplated the mahogany wood of both pieces of furniture, the wrought iron holding them together. Were they on every floor? Frivolity knew no bounds at McCray, Halsey and Schultz.
A ding brought me back to reality and I climbed aboard, hitting the button for the first floor. The polished steel walls gave me a good look at myself and though I felt entirely out of place, I didn’t look too bad. Meeting law people meant I decided to put myself together and I chose one of my performance outfits.
Slacks, blouse and flat boots made up the ensemble and though it lacked color creativity, being all black, I at least seemed like an adult. Maybe the clothes wouldn’t impress anyone, lord knows I didn’t consider myself a high roller. But at least they’d think I cared and that counted for something... I guess.
I got off in the lobby, decorated in a bland, expensive manner. Floral portraits hung here and there over taupe walls and leather furniture. A fountain bubbled ten feet from the glass doors and some kind of muzak atrocity butchered Beethoven. A friend told me lawyers either exhibited fantastic taste or none at all.
This place definitely fit into the latter.
The receptionist screamed this is why movies always have blonde chicks in skirt suitsanswering phones and greeting people. She looked tiny behind the massive desk with a movie quality makeup job and meticulously formed bun. Blue eyes flashed behind wire-frame glasses I figured she didn’t need. They just finished off the secretary look. The stereotype is strong with this one.
She smiled as I approached, an expression which never touched her eyes and the frightening sort of Stepford quality in her motions made me cringe.
“Can I help you?” Her bubbly tone didn’t seem genuine, especially considering the hour. Even people who liked the morning rarely sounded so pleased.
“I’m here to see Allan McCray. I’m Miranda Aldridge.”
“One moment please.” She maintained her creepy ass smile while picking up the phone and dialing. “Hi Cindy, Miranda Aldridge is here… Okay, I’ll send her up.”
“Sounds promising.” I tried to joke but she didn’t even acknowledge it.
“You’re looking for the twenty-first floor. Take a left off the elevator and you’ll see the door. Have a nice day!”
For her, there was only secretary.
Thus dismissed, I boarded another elevator and headed up. The numbers ticked by, each one making my stomach tighten until I thought I might throw up from nerves. Who left me something? Why didn’t the lawyer authorize Cindy to tell me…oh, anything at all? Asking a college student to visit a classy high rise in downtown seemed like telling an ex con to visit their parole officer.
Maybe they didn’t do anything wrong but without context, they wouldn’t believe it.
By the time I reached the twenty-first floor, I knew what was going on. The whole scenario played out in my head. I’d walk in and he’d throw on a big smile, gesturing to the seat across from his desk. After a little small talk involving the weather and bad traffic, he’d lean back, putting his ankle on his knee and start his spiel.
“So, you love your family, right?” It would suck for him when I said I didn’t have any but it wouldn’t deter him. “Well, think about your friends! You want them to be healthy, to live the best life they can. Think about nutrition and how terrible it is these days. Everyone’s too busy to eat well so we end up at fast food places or worse. What’s that mean?”
“That McDonald’s stock prices make sense?”
“Well, yes…but we need vitamins! Supplements to make up what we’re missing. That’s where you come in. You want out of your day to day life, your horrible grind of work and I’m here to help. If you sit in on this seminar in a few minutes, we’ll get you a free trip to Canada. Think about it. You learn how to keep the people you love healthy and you can visit the Great White North. How’s that for awesome?”
The mere thought nearly convinced me to leave.
Sadly, someone was waiting for me when the elevator opened, another Stepford chick, this time with black hair. Her suit looked darker than the last lady’s but the cut must’ve been the same. I wanted to ask if she was Evil Secretary but decided to keep my mouth shut. She smiled at me as I disembarked.
“Good morning! I’m Cindy!” She shook my hand. “You must be Miranda. A pleasure to meet you.”
“Likewise.” I clutched my purse tighter to my body. Hugging it gave me courage, offering a form of security which didn’t exist.
“Okay, let’s head on over to the office.” She gestured and sauntered off on her four inch heels like a real pro. Two types of women moved so confidently in shoes like hers: strippers and high class snooty chicks. I had proof since a friend of mine fit the latter bill. For my part, if I put on anything with more than half an inch, I’d be flat on my face or nursing a sprained ankle.
“Allan’s thrilled you could come on such short notice. Thank you again for being so flexible.”
“No problem,” I replied, “but I really need to know what the heck’s going on.”
“Trust me, you’ll know soon.” Cindy grinned over her shoulder. “Do you want anything? Tea? Coffee?”
“Coffee would be great. One sugar, a little cream?”
“No problem.” We walked into a massive office with more bland decor and crappy paint. Decent leather furniture filled up the space among fake plants and a big ass window looking out over downtown. A plaque hung on a door to the left with Allan McCray etched in gold. Not at all pretentious, Al. “Head on in. Mister McCray is waiting for you.”
I should’ve looked up Allan on the internet before I came. This place intimidated me. When Grandma passed away, the family attorney looked like a TV parody. The portly kind with no hair and thick glasses, leaving the suspect in dread for their lives. He spoke slowly and didn’t know how to button his shirt.
Bungling felt safe, even if it might’ve been an act. He worked out of his apartment in California and flew to Boston for our meeting. Now I found myself in a big time firm, one where they may’ve started out benevolent and friendly but eventually turned into a politically correct melting pot of policies, bureaucracy and raw ambition.
Such lawyers became soulless, driven by fiscal reports and diminishing returns, billable hours and risk management.
I never trusted anything bigger than a locally owned coffee shop and while I may have seemed paranoid, I didn’t really care. The root of all problems came from greed and standing in that glistening tower dedicated to protecting such a vice did not make me comfortable.
Besides, something else bothered me beyond corporatized ass-hattery. I didn’t know what to be more nervous about: the inheritance or where it came from.
A man emerged from the office, looking movie star hot. Black hair, chiseled features and gorgeous brown eyes, if he hadn’t been in that office, I wouldn’t have thought he worked there. He was the TV show lawyer who replaced my previous one, giving the viewers a sense of relief. He won every case in a tight sixty minute block and looked like a boss the whole time. Hollywood thinks hot people are either brilliant or dumb, I guess.
“Ms. Aldridge!” He shook my hand firmly but not with the vice like grip most men employed. He scored major points for not bruising my bones. “My name’s Allan and I’m glad to see you. This matter is a top priority for our firm.” Top priority? The entire firm? Jesus Christ.
“This is the first I’ve heard about it.” I throttled back on my usual snarky tone, mostly because his appearance cowed me. As I gazed into his dark eyes, my anxiety seemed to lessen. I felt a sense of ease in his presence, like he’d make everything cool somehow. I doubted the possibility but went along with the temporary self-delusion.
“Have a seat.” Allan motioned toward a plush armchair, “and I’ll tell you all about it.”
How could I refuse such a well-dressed, drop dead sexy man? Focus, Miranda! Focus!