Usually in her studio.
Or spending time with family. Or any number of places.
If those have to do with writing, they'll be listed





















The witch is missing three teeth.

She grins uncertainly, revealing the vacancies alongside two huge front teeth that she'll grow into. The hairy wart attached to her button nose, likely with spirit gum from a Halloween makeup kit, threatens to let loose. She worries it and, apparently satisfied that it's intact, holds open an orange plastic bag printed all over with cats, bats, and tombstones. "Trick or treat?" she says softly.

Shy, Jeff Talbot thinks as he studies her, dressed all in black with a witch's hat nearly as tall as she is. He tries to remember what grade he was in when baby teeth gave way to permanent ones, but it's been too long.

"Treat, for being the prettiest witch in Seattle." He hopes he can help her relax a little, enjoy the holiday. It's one thing to be afraid in front of your class at school, another thing altogether to carry your insecurities into every facet of your childhood. She looks familiar, something about her large, sad eyes. But he realizes that it's the shyness that gives her the wide-eyed, anticipatory gaze.

With each costumed child, Jeff searches for one telling characteristic-something that isn't part of a packaged costume. The boy who preceded the witch in line sported a black right eye. He wore red satin prizefighter shorts and matching red boxing gloves. He didn't need the makeup kit.

"Did that shiner inspire your costume," Jeff asked him, "or did you get in the ring with another guy because of the costume?"

"I got the black eye playing football," the boy said, "so Dad-" he jerked his head toward the man standing behind him- "came up with the idea."

The man, dressed in a white shirt and black trousers, had a towel draped around his neck, probably replacing the necktie from his day at some downtown office. He slapped the kid on the back a couple of times. "It'll make him tough."

Jeff winced slightly, as acutely aware as the boy that the father has a heavy hand. Jeff's own childhood was a series of those backslaps-both physical and psychological-from the stern grandfather who raised him. He hoped the kid who stood in front of him would grow fast and strong, and put to good use a sports scholarship to college.
Jeff threw an extra handful of treats into the prizefighter's sack.

He focuses on the witch poised before him, waits for her to ascend the stairs. It's a banner year for little ghosts and goblins, and kids dressed as their favorite superheroes and hip-hop stars. Jeff reaches into the large stainless-steel bowl full of candy that his butler, Greer, found to replace the huge yet now-empty plastic jack-o'-lantern, and withdraws a large clump of individually wrapped bubble gum, jawbreakers, and miniature candy bars. While he's doing this, he wonders again about the girl's missing teeth and whether her parents consider the effect that the sugar will have on the remaining molars and bicuspids. (Her father, standing two stair steps below his daughter, is dressed like Darth Vader right down to the mask and boots, and sporting a lightsaber that looks more like a mop handle in a nylon sheath.)

"Go on," Darth Vader growls as he nudges the girl-witch.

Jeff's chest tightens. Impatience will be the downfall of America.

The witch advances to the next step.

For years after that fateful night, Jeff Talbot would ponder the details, waffling between his own shortcomings (I should've been studying the characteristics of the adults, not the kids) and the use and abuse of children in this screwed-up world.

There would be no memory blackout, and he would recall every movement as if he'd been outside himself, watching it play out on the front porch of someone else's home.

He reaches toward the witch's bag, holding the fistful of sweets in one hand and cradling the bowl against his torso with the other, when two things happen simultaneously: Poe, released from his birdcage on the porch by a kid who sneaks up and swings open the door, flies screeching and flailing toward Jeff as Darth Vader scoops up the girl-witch with his left arm and points the object in the nylon scabbard in his right hand at Jeff's chest.

Instinctively, Jeff lifts the bowl as he twists to avoid the panicked crow. Too late he sees a flash, followed by a puff of smoke, then a spurt of flames licking the tip of the cheap nylon sheath. Not a lightsaber, not a saber at all. A gun. The bullet cuts through the stainless steel bowl with a resonating ping and strikes him in the chest.

The large bowl flips into the air and showers the steps with bright candies as the villain and his little witch flee. Two boys dressed in Spider-Man costumes waiting behind the pair in black, squeal and hit the floor, snatching up the goodies.

Jeff struggles against the catapulting force, watches the stainless-steel bowl strike the porch boards-gong-then clang and warp its way toward the pair of superheroes. Startled, they run screaming down the steep stairs, followed by a string of frightened children. It puts Jeff in mind of ribbons on a kite's tail, and the kite disappears as he falls backward and for one light headed second he thinks he's watching it fall from the sky.

He lands deadweight across the threshold. He tries to blink, but his eyelids won't respond. Staring, he first sees Greer's face, then the face of his wife, Sheila. An angel. He starts to speak, but he can't breathe, he can't breathe....


Chapter One

Sheila sucked in air. "What are you doing here?"

Jeff Talbot finished jotting "Oct 11" in its appropriate space on the blank check. He'd hoped his wife wouldn't walk past the library he also used as his home office. He looked up from the checkbook. "I live here, remember?"

"But you're not supposed to be back till six. And, even then, you're under strict orders to go straight up the front stairs and get ready. I've got all sorts of...things going on for your birthday party tonight, and I don't want it spoiled."

Jeff looked up at his wife and faked a blank look. "Today's my birthday?"

"Jeff Talbot, don't toy with me."

Sheila had been working on the plans for his official Over-The-Hill Birthday Dinner for months, planning a gourmet meal for a small group of friends, ordering decorations for the all-black theme to commemorate Jeff's Big Four-Oh, even hinting that she'd ordered a formal black gown to wear. More important, though, she'd given him strict rules for the day, and he'd broken Rule Number One: Don't.

He grinned. "Sorry, hon. Forgot my checkbook."

As Jeff finished speaking, Lanny leaned around the wing of the large Queen Anne chair that faced Jeff's desk, and gave Sheila a timid wave.

She started slightly. "Oh. Hi, Lanny. I didn't know you were here."

"Sorry, Mrs. Talbot. I thought you could see me." Lanny-who might just as well have been named Lanky-was, like Jeff, an antiques picker. The similarities stopped there. While Jeff still looked like an FBI agent much of the time (despite his attempts to dress down and lighten up), Lanny looked like someone who slept in a refrigerator box and warmed his hands over fires banked in rusty barrels. His long brown ponytail splayed out from under a well-worn black knit sock cap, and his scruffy beard helped to offset his thinness and leave one guessing at his age. He wore tightly woven gloves with the fingers cut out, and a pea coat-vintage forties. His vacant gaze seemed to dissipate only a little when he addressed Sheila, and Jeff realized that he'd rarely seen it completely lift.

Jeff smiled at his wife. "Lanny found something I've been interested in for awhile. His contact's holding it till the end of the day. So you see, I had no choice."

Sheila gave him a look, which said everything, then turned her attention to Lanny. "I wish you'd reconsider tonight's party."

Lanny looked down. "Thanks, but I'm not into crowds."

It was Jeff's turn. He gave Sheila a look, warning her not to push it.

She said, "Well, come on by if you change your mind. Blanche and Trudy will be here."

"Yes, ma'am. Thank you."

Somewhere along the way, Lanny had learned manners. Jeff had witnessed this for years. But as for a social life, Jeff suspected that he didn't have much of one. Even as Jeff thought this, he realized that he was stereotyping. Of course, everything he thought about Lanny's appearance would be construed as stereotyping by most. Jeff would argue, though, that he truly saw the advantage of the look, having done a little undercover work during his years with the Bureau. Likely, many stood in judgment of the man, but Jeff considered his appearance useful. With the look, Lanny could pass for any number of people: a fisherman down at the piers that embroidered Puget Sound, an outpatient of a ward for the terminally ill, one of the city's growing number of homeless. Still, Jeff had to admit he wouldn't be surprised to learn that Lanny had celebrated his latest birthday with a package of Twinkies and a can of Coke in the shadows beside a convenience store.

Jeff didn't know the man's birthday, let alone his age, but he guessed him to be in his early thirties. He also didn't know the young man's last name or, actually, much at all about him. The one thing he knew for sure, the only thing he'd ever needed to know, was that he could trust the guy completely.

Lanny had been one of Jeff's informants back when he was an agent. Jeff had marveled at Lanny's streetwise nature and wondered whether the man had been on the streets most of his life. He seemed to know how to disappear into the shadows, blend into the woodwork, hide in a space no larger than a shoebox.

Jeff knew that Lanny wouldn't show for the party, and he knew that Sheila knew it, too.

"Oh!" Sheila said. "Did Jeff show you the conservatory?"

"He did. It's astounding-the architecture, the size, the stained glass. I couldn't believe it was there. I mean, from the outside you can't even tell."

Jeff thought, He doesn't know how much it helps that he said that.

"Did Jeff put you up to saying that?"

"No, ma'am." Lanny looked bewildered. "I-it's just-well, it's huge when you're standing in it, but, well, like I said, it's totally hidden from the street."

Sheila shot Jeff a look. He raised his hands in defense. "I didn't say a word, Sheila, I swear."

She arched a brow, accompanied by an expression that belied complete relief, then sat kitty-cornered from Lanny and clasped her hands at her knees. "It's great, it isn't? I just have a few more things to do to it, a few more pieces I want to add."

Opening the Victorian home's conservatory had come about by circumstance. Sheila, an accomplished chef, had become so irritated when she couldn't lay hands on a particular fresh herb for a new dish she wanted to try, that she had blurted out, "I wish there were some way I could grow my own!" Seattle's climate didn't offer much hope for indoor plants that required a fair amount of sun, and, although Sheila was gaining ground in her struggle with agoraphobia, she hadn't yet advanced to the stage of leaving her home.

Quite by accident, Greer had found a solution. While reviewing old ledgers on the home itself, in order to check early records of maintenance, the butler had located the original architectural plans and had suggested opening up the old conservatory.

Jeff had forgotten all about that segment of the Queen Anne home. The glass walls were obscured on the outside by walls of ivy, evergreens, and hearty antique roses that had somehow survived Jeff's bachelor years without attention. The French doors leading from the drawing room to the anteroom and subsequent beveled- and stained-glass conservatory had been totally concealed by a massive Rococo armoire pressed into service as a coat closet.

Jeff glanced from Lanny to Sheila and back. Fortunately, Lanny gave no indication that he was in on acquiring one of the special pieces Sheila wanted for her new decorating project. Even if he had, though, she was clearly too excited to notice.

"What do you think of my feathered friends?" Sheila asked.

Lanny said, "They're cool. Did you have them before?"

"No, but they seemed like a logical addition. The crow is named Edgar Allan Poe-Poe for short-the African Grey is Bargain Basement, and the Amazon parrot-that's the multi-colored one-is Morty."

Jeff made no secret of how he felt about the birds. "The squawking at night is keeping me awake. I feel like I'm living in the boarding house in The Ladykillers-the original, not the remake. You ever see that one?"

Lanny nodded. "That's why you drape their cages in the evening, to tell them it's bedtime."

Sheila grinned sheepishly. "I know I'm supposed to, but that seems cruel, somehow."

"Look at it this way," Lanny said. "They need their sleep, just like you do. You'd be doing them a favor."

"I hadn't thought about it like that. Thanks." She turned to Jeff. "Patience, okay? While I give that a try?"

"Sure, as long as you don't get a bird large enough to fit the Jurassic Park terrarium." That was Jeff's nickname for the long-empty Wardian case they'd found in the center of the conservatory's floor.

Sheila responded, "That's for plants, and I almost have enough now to fill it."

When they'd first gained access to the conservatory, they found that it contained several Victorian birdcages in various sizes, and an assortment of rusty cast-iron urns, fountains, and garden furniture. Along the edges of the large, octagonal room with its domed ceiling topping out at two stories high, was a jumble of stacked jardinieres, and when Sheila first discovered them, she set about ordering aspidistras (because they could survive with very little light), along with ferns, fuschia, heliotrope, fragrant orange trees, white jasmine, poppies, and Jeff wasn't sure what else.

"My culinary studies included plants and flowers," Sheila said. "You don't want the perfumes of your centerpieces to overwhelm the aromas and tastes of the meals you've prepared."

"And," Jeff said, "you don't want to poison your guests by mistaking edible flowers for inedible ones in your recipes."

Doctor Jen had been right, convincing Sheila that the light would help lift her spirits by increasing her seratonin levels-hard enough to obtain during fall and winter in Seattle. The conservatory, which was on the west side of the home (clearly to take advantage of any afternoon light), was separated from the drawing room by an anteroom. Nothing more than a glass-walled corridor, it posed one of the biggest challenges for Sheila. But Greer had arranged for gardeners to come in and strategically sculpt the vintage plants that had overtaken the exterior, making sure to leave plenty of foliage so that Sheila didn't feel exposed.

It had taken a solid week for five of them (Jeff and Sheila, along with Greer and their twice-a-week housekeepers-spinster sisters Lucy and Polly Wing) to scrub down its interior, rid it of the dank smell, and make the glass sparkle.

That's when Sheila discovered the Wing sisters' talents as designers and seamstresses. She hired them to cover cushions for the wicker and bamboo furniture in barkcloth depicting palm fronds and tropical colors.

Sheila said, "The Wing sisters helped me decorate. Do you know them, Lanny?"

"No, ma'am."

"They're the ones who suggested acquiring the birds from Liem's Pet Shop in the International District-as long as I didn't get one named Polly."

"It's a good place," Lanny said.

Jeff sensed that Lanny had reached his saturation point for socializing. He said, "We'd better go, if you're going to close that deal today."

Sheila stood, and Lanny followed suit. "Good luck with...everything," he said.

"Thanks. I'm afraid I tend to get carried away. I hope I didn't keep you too long."

"Not at all." He bowed slightly.

Jeff looked at Sheila. "I'm giving Lanny a lift back downtown."

"Just make sure you leave through the front door. I've got your party decorations all over the kitchen and dining room." She pointed a warning finger at him, told Lanny good-bye, then disappeared down the corridor.

When she was gone, Lanny said, "She seems okay now."

"Yeah." Jeff let out a deep sigh. "It was rough going after she was kidnapped, and I was afraid her agoraphobia would get the better of her for the rest of her life. But she's gained a lot of ground since then, found a doctor who's done wonders-obviously-or she'd never have been able to tackle the conservatory. It's been a big step for her."

"Hard to believe that was two years ago. The kidnapping."

"Yeah, but thanks to you, we got to her before...Well, I don't want to think about what would've happened if you hadn't helped find her."

"Don't go advertising it. I like to stay under the radar."

This Jeff knew, and had never pried. But a window had been opened a couple of inches, so he reached inside. "Any particular reason?"

Lanny scratched his neck. "Keep people guessing, I suppose. I've always liked my privacy. Now, with all the trouble over identity theft and credit-card scams, I'm glad I've kept things close to the vest."

"It's getting harder to do, though, isn't it?"

"Nah. I've got my systems and sources. And, a mattress stuffed with cash, of course."

Jeff caught the slight, and rare, glint in Lanny's eye when he smiled noncommittally, but Jeff couldn't read whether or not the guy was telling the truth. No matter. Lanny could have a mattress stuffed with nothing but cash, and Jeff wouldn't care. The picker/informant had always played fair, always been reliable, and Jeff owed him his life. He had been instrumental in finding Sheila after her kidnapping, and had provided valuable information about Seattle's underbelly several times over.

Jeff said, "Are you sure a check won't be a problem? We can swing past my bank, get cash instead." Although the two men had worked this sort of deal many times before, the amount had been smaller and Jeff had always given Lanny cash.

"I don't live that far under the radar." Lanny waggled a finger at the checkbook. "Make it out to John Smith."

John Smith? Why hadn't Lanny mentioned that before? Perhaps, because it sounded so...alias?

"What?" Lanny said innocently, in response to Jeff's raised brow. "I've even got an ID that says so."

Jeff thought he detected Lanny's mouth twitch slightly but he did as asked and scribbled "John Smith" on the pay-to-order-of line. He didn't care if the guy's ID read "Lanny Shmanny." He wasn't going to quibble.

Jeff ripped out the check and led the way out of the house.

After they'd gotten on the road, Jeff said, "Where to from here?"

"Just head toward Pioneer Square." Lanny brushed his fingers along the wood-paneled door. "You sure keep this car in good shape."

Jeff started to bemoan the bucks he'd poured into the '48 Chevy woodie but guilt stopped him. Last he knew, Lanny's ride was held together with wire and wishes. He said, "She's built tough, I suppose."

Lanny nodded.

"Still got your pickup?" Jeff said.

"Sure, but she needs a lot of work. I'll be able to get new tires, stuff like that, after today." He stole a glance at Jeff, then added, "Thanks."

"What for? You're doing me a big favor."

"Yeah, but you could've just as easily found this set."

"Not true. I've been working a lot over around Spokane, Moses Lake, that area. I'm usually gone three or four days at a time. Good majolica's not that easy to find." Jeff didn't tell Lanny-and hoped he didn't suspect-that he left the local trade for the young picker, assuming that it was more of a challenge for him to finance the farther jaunts.

"Having much luck?"

"Oh, some. I don't like the early mornings at the estate sales, though." Jeff drove down Second Avenue, watched the stale green light at the corner, and anticipated its change to yellow by letting up on the accelerator. A couple of girls, chatting as they walked, stepped into the street without looking.

Jeff squashed the brakes. The woodie's tires squealed, echoed by the girls, who froze.
The light turned yellow, then red, and the tide of pedestrians carried the stunned pair across the intersection.

"Here's good." Lanny extended his hand. "Thanks, man."

Jeff shook it. The fingerless glove's palm was well-worn, the fabric pilled and nubby.
Lanny opened the door and crawled from the car as he said, "I'll call you when I've got it." He didn't look back.

Jeff watched Lanny brace himself against the raw wind that blew from the Sound and glued baggy, threadbare carpenter jeans against his stick legs. Lanny drew his shoulders up around his ears and disappeared around a corner. Jeff hoped the profit Lanny would make from this deal might do more for the young man than simply buy tires. Much more.

(End of Chapter One)



Greer will be happy to help you contact the author.  Just click the letter on the silver tray.
Who's Greer?

© 2001-2009 Deborah Morgan.  All rights reserved.
Web site and banner design by Deborah Morgan