This story is based on the grossly overdone, but nonetheless really fun to manipulate Dickens classic, "A Christmas Carol". I hope you enjoy this uber version. I had fun writing it, and cant thank TPTB enough for including a squid and a sand spider on the list of "elements" to be included in the story. <smirk>
As for a rating. Theres naughty language, alt romance, and some violence, but no graphic sex.
BARD CHALLENGE III
"Corinne! Get in here." The tall brunette allowed her finger to slide off the intercom button as she reclined in a large, black leather chair. She looked out the floor-to-ceiling windows of her corner office and watched with veiled interest as snow began to fall on the city 40 stories below. The down time agitated her and she wondered why her assistant hadnt immediately responded to the call. The woman slammed her hand down on the intercom box. "Corinne! Where the hell "
Before she could finish the sentence, the door opened and a blond head popped in. "You called, Ms. Kreig?"
"Where the hell have you been?"
The smaller woman entered the room and happily deposited a gift basket full of Christmas cookies onto her bosss desk. "I was accepting a delivery. The executive staff got together and bought this for you for Christmas. We thought "
"Well, you thought wrong. Get rid of it." She waived her hand in dismissal. "I dont have time for pleasantries and you cant buy my favor with a few sweets shaped like Santa and his god damned elves."
Corinne allowed the sting of the words to wash over her. "I assure you, nobody was trying to buy your favor. We were just "
"I said, get rid of them and meet me back here in fifteen minutes. We have work to do."
"But Ms. Kreig, its Christmas Eve."
"Whats your point?" The CEO leaned forward and began shuffling through some papers on her desk.
"I just thought that maybe I could have the evening off?" Even as she posed the request, Corinne braced for the angry barrage that was sure to follow. It came quickly.
Krieg stood up at her desk and leaned hard on her fingers. Ice blue eyes radiated contempt. "Let me get this straight. You think because tomorrow is a god damn holiday that you should have this evening off?"
The blond looked down and fiddled with her fingers. "Well, a lot of people "
"I dont give a flying fuck about a lot of people. Its bad enough that I have to shut the department store down for an entire day tomorrow. At least I have the small consolation that the so called Christians who celebrate the holiday have turned it into such a buying frenzy that it helps to fill the companys black ink well. Sentimental fools." Kreig uttered the last sentence under her breath as she walked to the window overlooking the Monongahela River. Barges inched their way down the slate gray waterway, their captains using instinct and years of experience to navigate through the now heavy snow. Unconsciously, the brunette pressed her forehead against the cold glass and exhaled audibly.
Watching the subtle display Corinne felt a sudden surge of something. What was it? She quietly approached her boss from behind and lay a warm hand on her shoulder. Krieg wheeled around, hand balled into a fist. The horror she saw reflected in the green eyes before her stopped her from swinging. "What the hell are you still doing here?"
"I wasnt sure you were finished with me."
"Well, I was. Now go get rid of those cookies and meet me back her by 5:30." Her voice softened a little and she managed to grumble, "Please."
Corinne hesitated for a moment, then turned to leave the room.
"Oh, and Corinne."
"Dont ever surprise me from behind again. It could be the last mistake you ever make."
< > < > < > < > < > < > < > < > < >
Katherine Krieg snapped her briefcase shut and headed for the door, nearly knocking over the smaller woman as she entered.
"Good, youre finally back." She grabbed an overcoat from the corner rack and shrugged it on. Corinne watched, confused.
"I took the cookies to the kids over at the Salvation Army. I thought they might appreciate a Christmas Eve treat."
"Save your good Samaritan stories for somebody who might be moved by them and get ready to go."
Corinne turned to comply then looked back at her boss. "Where are we going?"
"My place. The maintenance crew is coming in tonight to spray for roaches and I dont want to be here when they do."
The blond turned and mumbled under her breath on the way out of the room, "Why not? Afraid the poison might do its job and kill you?"
< > < > < > < > < > < > < > < > < >
With the Pittsburgh skyline winking at her back, Corinne tried desperately not to lose control of her car in the snow as she followed Kreigs black Lincoln Navigator into the North Hills. Shed never been to her bosss house and knew if she didnt keep up, shed never find it.
After white knuckled, forty-minute drive, the women pulled onto a snow covered, wooded lane. It ended about two hundred yards up a hill in front of a large log home. Motion sensor lights sprung to life to greet them. Corinne wasnt sure what she expected Kreigs house to look like, but this wasnt it. With a few homey touches, this place might actually be made to feel cozy. "A few Christmas lights here, a wreath there. Yeah. This could be nice if she put some effort into it." Corinne chuckled to herself. "Fat chance thatll happen." She was snapped out of her musings by a knock on the passenger side window, and looked out to see a dark eyebrow arched in annoyance over breathtaking blue. The blond cleared her throat and reached for the purse on the car floor. "Okay, Flaherty. Breathe. Its just for a few hours, then you can go home and enjoy whats left of the evening."
Corinne opened the car door and stepped into ankle deep snow. There mustve been a patch of ice underneath, because before she knew what had happened, her foot slid out from under her and the loud crunch of bone slamming into the side of the car reverberated through her body. "Shit!" Corinne struggled to stay conscious as the searing pain radiated from her shoulder.
"Sit up." Kreig had her by the good shoulder and was probing the other. "Youve dislocated your shoulder. Hold still, this is going to hurt like hell, but it should take care of the problem."
"I dont think I can "
The taller woman didnt wait for consent. She gave the injured shoulder a good yank, then drove it back into place.
"OWWWW! God! Did you have to do it so hard?" The blond massaged the joint protectively.
"It feels better doesnt it?"
Corinne had to admit it did. "Well, yeah, but "
"Then stop complaining and lets get inside."
The women walked onto the covered porch and Corinne noticed a horseshoe tacked above the door. It was the only decoration shed seen on the property. Not even a chair adorned the rustic porch. The blond guessed that might appear to invite visitors, something the hostess didnt seem very interested in.
"For luck, right?"
"Hm?" Kreig looked perplexed.
"The horseshoe above the door. For luck." She was hoping there was a story behind it.
"Oh yeah. For luck." The older woman smirked.
"Do you ride?" It was obvious Kreig wasnt going to offer anything without prompting, and even then probably very little.
"No. It was a gift from my mother when I bought the cabin."
"Does she ride?"
Now the taller woman was getting annoyed. "No. Its just a horseshoe. Leave it at that."
The two entered a small foyer where several pairs of shoes were lined neatly along the wall. "Take your shoes off. I dont want wet snow tracked all over the house."
Corinne complied and also handed her coat to the CEO who started off down the hall toward a closet. She noticed the pain in her shoulder was almost completely gone with the exception of what felt like some mild bruising.
"How did you know how to fix my shoulder?"
Krieg stopped in the darkened hallway and without turning around answered, "I have many skills." She stood like that for a moment seeming to contemplate something before continuing toward the closet.
A doorway in the hall opened into a large great room with an enormous stone fireplace in the middle. A brown leather sofa rested against the near wall. Matching overstuffed chairs framed the fireplace. A bearskin rug with the head still attached lay on the floor between them. Corinne was mildly repelled by it. "Nice rug."
Kreig tossed a pile of papers onto a large wooden table in front of the sofa before looking at the object of her assistants attention. "Thanks."
"Where did it come from?
Corinne rolled her eyes. "I kinda figured that. What I meant was, how did it get from the forest onto your living room floor?"
The brunette plopped herself down on the sofa, visibly annoyed by the ongoing questions. "I shot it. My father used to take me and my brothers hunting when we were young, and during a trip to the Rockies for my 16th birthday, I bagged that bear."
Corinne squatted close to the rug and gingerly poked at the exposed teeth. "Good thing you got him before he got you, huh?"
"Yeah good thing. Why dont we get to wor "
"Do you still hunt with your father?"
Kriegs face turned to stone and the younger woman immediately regretted asking the question. "My fathers dead and this conversation is over. Now, lets get to these spread sheets before you get snowed in here and Im forced to play happy hostess all damned night."
If this was happy, Corinne thought to herself, shed hate to see disgruntled.
The duo poured over figures and formulated after Christmas sale plans til half past eight when Krieg finished off the glass of milk she was drinking and abruptly put away the reports. "Okay. Thats enough for tonight. Time for you to leave."
"Dont you want me to finish "
"No. The snows getting deep and if you dont leave now, you wont get out of here. Ill get your coat."
In her bosss absence, Corinne took the opportunity to look around the room some more. She was especially curious about an ornately engraved gold urn on the mantle. A black leather whip hung from the stone chimney just above it. The blond reached up to run a finger over its braded surface.
"Dont touch that." It wasnt a polite request.
"I was just admiring the workmanship. Its incredible."
"Has anyone ever told you, youre incredibly nosey?"
Corinne felt a blush creep up her neck. "Well, now that you mentioned it, I have heard it a few times."
"You should learn to mind your own business. Poking your nose where it doesnt belong could lead to trouble. Have a good night." She laid the young womans coat over the arm of the chair and turned to leave the room. "I assume you can find your way out?"
Corinne knew she was being dismissed. "Oh. Sure. No problem. Ill just be going then." She retrieved her boots from next to the door and tramped through now knee-deep snow toward her car.
The living room lights went out, but inside a pair of curious eyes watched the young woman struggle to dig her VW Bug out of its snow lock. After about half an hour, she finally managed to get the windows and tail pipe area cleared and, tired and wet, crawled behind the wheel. Corinne had no problem getting the vehicle started, but shed only backed up about a foot when she heard the dull thump, which indicated she was stuck on another pile of snow. She remembered being told to rock out of situations like this, so forward and back she went for several minutes to no avail. The car was too low and the snow was too high. In frustration, Corinne pounded her forehead on the steering wheel and yelled at the top of her lungs. "Great! Its Christmas Eve, and Im stuck here in the middle of nowhere with the most miserable person I know!" She contemplated spending the night in the car, but thought better of it, recalling stories of people freezing to death in drifts of snow. It was with great regret that Corinne walked back toward her bosss front door. It opened as she raised her hand to knock.
"Yes?" Krieg had changed out of her stodgy work suit and Corinne was momentarily taken aback by the woman who stood before her. She looked at least a decade younger than her thirty-five years in faded Levis and a blue hooded sweatshirt with "Navy" printed across the chest in white. The street clothes also helped to ease the Krieg intimidation factor a bit. Her long, black hair was pulled back into a ponytail. The taller woman stood leaning on the doorjamb, one hand on her hip, obviously awaiting an answer.
"I uh I My cars stuck."
Krieg let out an exasperated sigh, grabbed a black leather coat from the tree just inside the door, and slipped into what looked like a pair of army combat boots. She dug a set of car keys out of her pocket and handed Corinne a shovel. "Guess Ill have to take you home then. You start digging. Ill clean off the windows."
< > < > < > < > < > < > < > < > < >
About an hour later the mammoth Navigator was pulling up in front of Corinnes North Side home. It was a modest row house in the middle of some severe urban blight, and Krieg couldnt help but notice how neatly it was maintained. Bars on windows cast a sharp contrast to the lacy curtains and small electric candles visible in the on the sills. What appeared to be a hand made wreath hung inside the storm door.
The women had barely spoken two words to one another on the drive home. Any time Corinne tried to make small talk, her boss derailed her with curt yes and no answers. Now the blond dug through her purse for her house keys, eager to get out of the SUV and into her own home.
"I know they have to be in here somewhere."
Krieg tapped her foot impatiently on the floor.
"Maybe theyre in my
pockets." Corinne began rummaging through her coat, listening for the tell
tale jingle. "I know I had them at your house when I left, because I used
them to start my car. When I got stuck in the snow, I remember getting out of
the car, walking up to your house and
"Do you remember taking the keys out of the ignition when you got out of the car? Or did you simply turn it off and bang your head against the steering wheel, leaving the keys inside when you got out?"
It didnt even dawn on Corinne to ask how her boss knew about the head banging. "Oh no!" She groaned and buried her face in her hands. "Youre right. My keys are still in my car. Damn it!"
"I said, Get out." She over enunciated the words this time.
"But I dont have my
"Dont worry, Im not going to leave you to freeze." Krieg reached across her assistants lap and started blindly digging through the glove compartment. For the first time that evening, Corinne noticed how good the taller woman smelled. Her cologne mingled with the natural heat of her body to produce a rich, spicy aroma, that, Corinne decided was a cross between patchouli and sandalwood. She leaned in a little closer and closed her eyes, getting to within inches of her bosss, shiny, black hair, enjoying the weight of the larger womans torso on her lap. Oblivious to the attention, Krieg eventually pulled a small, oddly shaped, piece of metal out of the glove box, promptly exited the vehicle and trudged toward Corinnes front door. She opened the screen door and proceeded to dig at the deadbolt with her little lock pick.
Kriegs passenger grabbed her purse and ran up her front steps. "What are you doing? Youre going to wreck the lock."
Her question went unanswered as the taller woman continued to work. Corinne had turned her back on the action and was retiring to the top porch step for a good pout, when she heard the lock click. Krieg pushed the front door open and gestured for her assistant to go inside. "Dont say I never did anything for you." She turned to leave. "Goodnight."
Corinne grabbed the taller womans arm as she tried to walk past. "Wait. Where did you learn how to do that?"
Krieg turned to face her. "I told you. I have many skills."
"Yes, you did. But that wasnt the question. Where did you acquire these many skills?"
"Its amazing the things you pick up when you travel. Now, if youll excuse me." She again turned to leave, and again, her assistant stopped her.
"Dont you want to come in for a cup of cocoa or something? Youve got a long, cold drive home ahead of you."
"No thank you. The Navigators heater works just fine and Ive never been very fond of hot chocolate. Its a childs drink. I much prefer scotch."
Corinne turned and pointed over her shoulder into the house. "Well, I think I could probably find some scotch for you if youd like to come in."
"No. Really. Im not thirsty. But I could stand to visit your head if you dont mind."
"My head? Oh! You mean the bathroom. Sure. Go ahead in. Its up the steps. First door on the left." Corinne walked into the entryway and stomped the snow off her boots. "Watch out for the step into the bathroom." She called after Krieg just before she heard the thud on the floor overhead. The blond raced up the steps in time to find her boss gathering herself up off the lavatory tile.
"Oh my god! Are you okay?" She tried to help the taller woman up.
Krieg swatted her away. "Im fine. I just want to take a piss and go home. How difficult should that be? Now if you dont mind." She roughly shepherded Corinne into the hall and closed the door behind her.
Corinne went downstairs and sat in the living room, waiting for her guest to reappear. Krieg came down the steps a moment later and headed for the front door. "Well, Flaherty. Its been a little slice of heaven. Have a good night."
Corinne lightly grasped her bosss shoulder. "Wait. I um.. well, I made you a little something for Christmas and I dont expect anything in return, but I really want you to have it. Please wait here for just a minute."
"I told you I dont want anything for "
"Please. I dont care what you do with it, but I really want to give it to you."
Krieg let out an exasperated sigh and decided it would be quicker and easier to just give in and accept the gift than it would be to argue with a woman who didnt seem to take no for an answer. "Fine. Just hurry it up."
Corinne disappeared for a moment and returned with a long, flat box, neatly wrapped in red and gold paper. "Here."
The brunette accepted the package. "Thanks. Now goodnight."
"Are.. arent you going to open it?"
"Ill open it when I get home. Thanks for whatever it is." She turned to leave and, this time, Corinne didnt stop her.
"Merry Christmas, Ms. Krieg."
"Yeah. Whatever. Goodnight."
Corinne watched through a breath frosted window as the Navigator pulled away.
< > < > < > < > < > < > < > < > < >
Krieg slipped out of her jeans and into a pair of old sweat pants. She eyed the lone Christmas present in the corner. Slowly, she walked over and picked it up. One shake, then two as she lifted the box to her ear. At least its not ticking. I suppose thats a good sign. She gently placed the gift on the bed and crawled under the covers next to it. When it got too difficult to ignore Krieg gingerly tore away the paper on one end, imaging marking on the box might give away what was inside. They didnt. This is ridiculous, Katherine. Just open the damn package and get it over with. Annoyed with herself for playing the game, Krieg ripped off the rest of the wrappings and retrieved a long knife from the bedside table to deal with the tape that sealed the box. Once opened, it revealed a rainbow of colorful nylon material, neatly stitched together in square panels, and several long, lightweight dowel rods. Closer inspection made Krieg aware that she was looking at a hand made, double-decker kite.
Almost as if on cue, the phone rang and Katherine Krieg put down her only Christmas present.
"Thats who you called, isnt it?"
"Its Corinne. I just wanted to make sure you got home in one piece. Its pretty nasty out there, and I didnt want you to be lying at the bottom of a snow covered hill somewhere without anybody noticing that you were missing." She ended the sentence with a nervous chuckle.
"I got behind a snow plow most of the way home, so it wasnt a problem. Now I would like to go to sleep. Goodnight Corinne."
Krieg heard silence on the other end of the phone before a small voice spoke up. "Um. Did you open your present?"
"Yes. Thank you. A kite will come in very handy this time of year."
"Its not for now. Its for when the weather gets nicer. My father was an airline mechanic, and Ive always been interested in aerodynamics. He showed me how to make kites when I was a kid, and Ive been improving upon my designs every year since then. I like to go down to The Point where the three rivers meet and fly them on warm days. Maybe this spring we could "
"Ive lived here all my life and Im well aware that the Point is where the three rivers meet. Kite flying there sounds like loads of fun." Corinne knew, by the bored tone, that her boss was humoring her. "Now, I really need to get some sleep. While you have Christmas off to play with your family and friends, Ill be going into the store to do some work. So, thanks for the kite and goodnight."
"Oh. Right. Goodnight, Ms. Krieg." The dial tone on the other end of the line alerted her to the fact that her boss hadnt waited for her to say goodbye before hanging up.
Krieg put the kite on a chest at the foot of the bed, crawled under the covers and turned out the light. It didnt take long before she was fast asleep.
< > < > < > < > < > < > < > < > < >
The bongs of the mantle clock announcing the eleven oclock hour, resonated through the log home. But it was the cold winter wind coming in through the open window that woke Katherine Krieg. She rubbed the sleep from her eyes and threw back the covers. How the hell did that get opened? As she secured the lock, she thought it unusual that the alarm wasnt going off. Then she heard what sounded like two gunshots coming from downstairs. Krieg retrieved the Sig from her bedside table and carefully made her way to the top of the stairs. Her ears strained for more clues about what might be going on. She heard nothing but the sound of the winter wind battering the trees around her house. Creeping downstairs, she entered the living room, then the dining room. Nothing there. A sweep of the kitchen and den revealed the same thing. All the doors and windows were locked, and there was no sign of forced entry.
Still gripping the nine millimeter tightly in her right hand, Krieg, mounted the stairs and headed back toward her bedroom. An icy gust welcomed her. The window she had just closed and locked, was again wide open. She went to it immediately, brushed away the snow that was accumulating on the sill, and locked it down again.
Krieg spun around on her heels, gun trained on the chair in the dark corner to the left of the bed.
"Whos there?" She tried to make out the shape of the person talking to her.
"It has been a long time, hasnt it darlin? Still, I thought youd recognize your own brother."
"Jamie? No. How "
"How what? I know, I know. Im supposed to be dead."
"Who the hell are you?" A long, slender finger rested on the guns trigger. "Is this some kind of sick joke? My brother is dead. I saw him die and I buried him myself. Now who the fuck are you!?" Here hands were starting to shake.
"Always the hot head, werent you, sis?" He stood up and walked into the moonlight that was cascading through the window.
"Take one step closer and Ill blow your head off." She wasnt bluffing.
"Aw. Cmon, Katie. Is that any way to treat your long lost brother?" He opened his arms and walked forward."
The concussion of the gunshot in the small room sounded like a cannon going off. The slug passed right through its intended target.
The unwelcome visitor turned and looked over his shoulder at the log wall that had stopped the bullet. "Ew. Thats going to be hard to get out of there."
"How did ?" Kriegs arm fell to her side and she stared at the man in disbelief. "I didnt miss. You should be lying on the floor right now."
"You never were one to miss, Sis. One of the best sharpshooters in all of special ops, they used to say. Pity you wasted that skill by going into crypto." The man took a few more steps forward and was now nearly nose-to-nose with his sibling. "To answer your how question. Its pretty simple. Im a ghost."
The brunette stood there for a moment searching the clear blue eyes that mirrored her own. The face could have been created by the agencys plastic surgeons, but not those eyes. "A ghost? Do I look stupid?" She sat down on the edge of the bed, now visibly shaken.
"You dont believe me? Watch this." He gestured with his hand and the bedroom window flew open again. This time Katherine didnt move to close it. She stared straight ahead in disbelief and allowed the sting of the cold night air to blow against her face. Another gesture and she felt herself being lifted up off the bed by some unseen force.
"All right already. Put me down."
"Believe me now?"
"Do I have any choice?" Krieg had decided she was in the middle of a nightmare and opted to play along to see if the creations of her subconscious had anything to tell her.
"We all have choices, Katie. Tonight youll discover whether the ones youve made since that fateful day in Egypt have been the right ones. Im here to tell you that youll be visited by three spirits before midnight. Listen to what they say, Katie. Learn from your past."
"The only thing Ive learned from my past is that it never pays to trust anyone."
The man took his sister by the hands and pulled her to her feet. Again, they stood face to face. "I dont blame you for what happened Katie. There was nothing else you couldve done." She found herself wrapped in a warm hug, fighting back the tears that stung her eyes. When she woke up in bed five minutes later, the window was closed and she was clutching a pillow to her chest. She reached into the bedside drawer for her gun. Still there. She let out a small sigh of relief. Damn nightmares. Krieg rolled over and wiped the wetness from her cheeks.
< > < > < > < > < > < > < > < > < >
The clock struck the quarter hour and Katherine was awakened by warm breath on the nape of her neck. She froze in place as she made out the shape of a fairly large body pressed against her back. She reached for the hunting knife she kept under her pillow and, in a snap, was on the strangers chest, blade to his neck. "Who are you and what are you doing in my bed?" she hissed.
He lay there calm as could be. Krieg had to admit, under better circumstances she might not have been protesting his presence. This wasnt the kind of guy one would normally kick out of bed. He had wavy dark hair, a nicely trimmed goatee and muscles that went on for days. Despite the temperature, he wore black leather pants and a matching sleeveless vest that hung open over a well-defined chest.
"Is this the way you welcome all you guests?"
"Only the ones who show up uninvited in my bed. How did you get in here?" She pressed the blade tighter against the mans neck.
"Katherine. Im hurt that you dont recognize me! Im the spirit of Christmas Past. All your deep, dark secrets rest with me. Your brother shouldve told you I was coming."
"Youre a phantom, nothing more .a figment of my imagination. Im going back to sleep."
"Suit yourself, Katherine. But you cant get rid of me that easily. Im in your soul. I course through your veins, and there are a few things you need to take a look at."
The CEO crawled to the other side of the bed and pulled the covers over her head. "Well, maybe you want to get back into my soul or wherever you came from, because, right now, Im not in the mood."
Katherine had just begun to doze when she was awakened by the sound of her alarm clock. Eyes still closed, she reached toward her bedside table to turn it off, only to discover that the table wasnt where it had been when she went to sleep. Nothing was. Sunlight streamed into her old apartment near the Joint Special Operations Command at Ft. Bragg. Then something really bizarre happened. Katherine watched her 25-year-old self get out of bed and walk into the bathroom to take a shower.
"Look familiar, Katherine?" It was the spirit, lying next to her on the bed.
"Where are we?" She got up and looked out the window.
"Were in your past. Dont you remember? You were working for Naval Intelligence in the Special Ops. Command as a code translator, I believe?"
"Of course I remember that. What I mean is how can we be here?" She walked into the bathroom and watched her younger self undress. The Katherine of the past didnt notice her presence. "God, look at that six pack." She shook her head. "Its amazing what ten years can do to the body."
"Oh, I dont know." The spirit walked up behind her and began to massage her shoulders. "I wouldnt mind pressing myself up against this body every night."
"What are you, some kind of ethereal pervert? Get your god damn hands off of me!"
He raised his hands in submission. "Sorry. I got the feeling that you might be looking for a warm body to hold. How long has it been, Katherine?"
"Shut up! Thats none of your business." She tried to slap his face, but he vanished and reappeared behind her.
"Ah, ah, ah. Temper, temper."
"Listen you prick, I dont need this kind of crap. Take me home now!"
"Im sorry, I cant do that. There are some things you need to face."
"Yeah? Like what?"
Before the spirit could answer, their conversation was interrupted by the sound of the phone ringing in the bedroom.
Young Katherine jumped out of the shower, grabbed an oversized bath towel from behind the door, and raced for the receiver.
"Jamie! Whats up? How are those Egyptian women treating you?"
Things arent good here, Katie. I think Dads in some sort of trouble.
"Trouble? What kind of trouble?"
Im not sure. But his name and those of two close Egyptian contacts showed up on the latest FBI watch list.
"What? Why would the FBI be concerned with what the Director of Protocol at the embassy is doing? The man tells the powers that be how many forks to use on a table and when to bow or shake hands with visiting diplomats. Its not like hes got access to top- secret information. Youre a diplomatic security officer, Jamie, you should know that."
Of course I know that. But hes been asking me to drive him to a lot of early morning meetings lately, in not so great parts of town.
"Come on, Jamie! Its got to be some sort of a mistake. His names probably just on there because theyre watching one of his acquaintances. Theres no way Dads dirty. Hes the most patriotic guy I know. You dont serve with the Seals for thirty years if you dont love your country. This is his cushy government retirement job. You know he loves people. He probably doesnt even know his buddies are being watched."
"Yeah. Youre probably right."
"I know Im right. If youre so worried about it, why dont you just ask him?"
"You know I cant do that. It would compromise the security of the men conducting the investigations of the people on the list."
"Cmon, Jamie! This is Dad were talking about here. Ask him to keep it confidential and he will. The mans got the most selective memory I know."
"Okay, sis. Ill check it out and get back to you. Im sure its just some misunderstanding. Ive gotta run. The Ambassador needs a lift somewhere."
"No problem, Im running late myself. Talk to you soon."
"Sure. Love you."
"I love you too, Jamie. Bye"
"Look at that, Katherine. You were so trusting then." The spirit grinned and sentimentally placed a hand over his heart.
"Why are you doing this?" Blue eyes radiated contempt.
"Why? Thats such an interesting word, isnt it? Why. Let me ask you this. You think Im a figment of your imagination. Why do YOU think youre here?"
"Good point. This is my dream. So, Im leaving. Have a nice fucking life." She took several long strides across the room and out the front door, making sure to slam it behind her for effect. To her great surprise the door opened into her old office on the base.
"Oh good, glad you could make it Katherine. A quick glance at the calendar on the wall tells us two months have passed since your last visit with your old self." It was the ghost again.
"What am I doing here?"
"Well, from the looks of things, it appears your sitting over there at your desk trying to decipher some sort of bad guy code."
"I dont mean what is the old me doing here. I mean what am "I" doing here?"
"Gee. I dont know. Watching?"
Somebody knocked on the door behind them. The woman at the desk turned her attention away from her computer screen. "Come."
An officer walked in, and Katherine snapped to attention.
"At ease, Krieg." He walked over and sat on the corner of her desk. "Krieg. Were having a problem at our Cairo office. Seems our counter intelligence people keep turning up dead and we think whoever is doing it is getting help from inside the embassy. Weve intercepted some electronic correspondence, but its all in code and we need help deciphering it. Your brothers stationed over there, isnt he?"
"Well, how would you like to spend some time in the Middle East?"
"But sir, surely I could translate the code here."
"I know you could, but youve done a lot of good work for us, Krieg, and I think you could use some time with family. Look at it as a working vacation." He stood to leave, and placed his hat back on his head. "Youll leave tomorrow at oh eight hundred. Our guys will brief you when you get there."
The officer walked across the room and grabbed the doorknob. He briefly turned and looked at the woman behind the desk as if he were about to say something else, but didnt.
The spirit grabbed Katherines hand and the room dissolved around them. Krieg was soon looking at her former self hunkered down behind some large crates in a dark shipping yard. She was taking inventory of the small arsenal of weapons strapped to various parts of her body.
"Well, look at you, playing brave little soldier." The ghost stood over the younger woman. "Youve got quite a bit of firepower there."
"Shut up. I dont need to see this." Her heart pounded in her rib cage.
"Aw cmon, Katie. Its just about to get good. You should be proud of yourself. Little old you, pouring over all that code for only a few hours before you figured out daddy was up to no good. Of course, you thought the bad guys were using him, and here you are trying to save his honor." The spirit pointed toward approaching headlights. "I think thats dear old dad now."
The woman behind the crates, held the night vision goggles up to her eyes and flinched slightly as a large sand spider crawled off of them and bit her on the finger. "Ouch! Damn it!" She knew it would only be a matter of time before its venom started to take its toll. Hopefully, shed be able to get to a hospital before the effects were irreversible. The bug met its end with a crunch under Katherines combat boot and she got back to the business at hand. She watched her father get out of a black Mercedes and approach two Middle Eastern men. They directed him into a large warehouse.
Young Katherine was just about to move in for a closer look, when three large men appeared from a side door and walked toward the idling car. The thugs dragged the driver from behind the wheel and through the same door shed just seen her father use.
What she didnt see were the CIA agents watching her through the scopes of high-powered rifles.
"End this, spirit!" Katherine put her fingers to her temples to try to calm the throbbing in her head. "Now!"
The ghost approached and brushed Kriegs hair back from her face. "You are so sexy when youre angry. Your face flushes a lovely shade of red, and I just love the way that vein in your neck bulges."
Katherine balled her hand into a fist and swung at the specter before her. It again went right through him, and the momentum of the swing caused her to spin completely around.
When she regained her bearings, she was inside the warehouse, standing next to her former self behind some large boxes of ammunition. Three thugs held her brother upright. He had been blindfolded and badly beaten. Her father stood talking to the two men who had escorted him into the building. Katherine was just close enough to make out what he was saying.
"Youre being watched. If youre not careful, theyre gonna find out what weve been up to and this whole damn house of cards is gonna come tumbling down."
The taller of the two Middle Eastern men spoke next. "What about that driver of yours? We saw him making a call from the car. He could have been tipping somebody off."
"The driver is fine. Hes been with me for years. I can trust him with my life. Isnt that right, Jamie?"
The younger man practically spat venom. "Fuck you! I cant believe you sold out your country and your family. Im ashamed to have your blood in my veins. Whats mom going to say when she finds out about this?"
Krieg took several deliberate strides toward his son and slapped him across the face. "Dont you EVER talk to me like that! I raised you, you ungrateful bastard! I worked counter intelligence for twenty years and did things you can only have nightmares about, just to put clothes on your sorry ass, and this is the way you repay me. Who were you calling on the phone?"
"Nobody. I was checking my messages."
"Look me in the eye and say that." He forcibly lifted Jamies chin. The younger man shot daggers of hatred through his father.
"I SAID, I was checking my messages."
"You better not be lying to me boy."
Now one of the Middle Eastern men was standing next to the older Krieg. "I am afraid we can not take that chance." He pulled out a forty caliber handgun and shot Jamie in the forehead. Frank Krieg barely blinked. "Why did you have to do that? How the hell am I supposed to make the guys at the embassy believe that my driver accidentally got shot in the head?"
Young Katherine swallowed hard to keep down the bile that was working its way up her throat. She surveyed her surroundings and saw an open bottle of scotch sitting on what appeared to be a barrel of black powder. An open-flamed kerosene lamp sat dangerously close on a nearby stool. One of the Egyptian thugs stood in front of it.
Katherine crept, undetected behind the barrel and took a swig from the bottle. She now had a loaded gun in one hand and, as quietly as she could, crawled up behind the stool holding the lamp. A large breath through the nose, and she spat the scotch through the flame, creating a blow torch effect. The thug, whose back was now on fire, danced around frantically trying to put himself out. Eventually, he collapsed onto the floor.
The spirit took the opportunity to chime in. "And she spits fire, too! Truly a woman of many skills!"
The ghost noticed that Katherine had turned her back on the scene. "Now come on Katie, this is where you really get into it. Youve gotta see this." The entire scene pivoted and each time Krieg turned away, she was again somehow facing the events that had played out that terrible night long ago.
The two men who had been holding Jamie, drew their AK 47s and got ready to fire. "Wait, you fools!" One of the ring-leaders called out, "Youll be firing into an entire wall of black powder! Krieg! Who is that woman?"
Katherines father looked at her with contempt. "I have no idea. Must be somebody the agency sent to break up our party. Kill her."
The two remaining thugs unsheathed long knives and ran at the tall woman whod killed their friend. Years of martial arts and defensive tactics training paid off. She easily dispatched her attackers and slit their throats with their own weapons. Next, Katherine set her sights on the man who had shot her brother. She pulled out her trusty Sig and put a bullet between his eyes. There was one man left, other than her father, and he opened fire missing her and, somehow, the black powder as well. Katherine used some empty crates as cover and fired five rounds into the mans midsection. He immediately collapsed from the loss of blood.
"Well, Katie, I guess that leaves just you and me. Arent you gonna come out and give your old dad a hug?" His voice dripped sarcasm and he had his gun trained on the crates where Katherine had just been. "Come on. Itll be just like old times. Well walk away from here and go grab a hamburger."
"Somehow, I dont have much of an appetite right now. The stench of something foul is turning my stomach. Why did you do it, dad?"
"Why? These guys had some of their contacts in the States do me a favor about a year ago and I needed to pay them back. Remember Frankie Esposito?"
"What about him?"
"He was having an affair with your mother. I had to find out about it from one of my buddies back home who knows him. Apparently Frankie was bragging about it all over town. That asshole. Anyway, that car accident that killed him was no accident."
"What about, Jamie, dad?
Hes dead, and you might as well have pulled the trigger yourself. Hes
your son, for Christs sake!"
"He didnt understand the system. He betrayed me. I dont believe it was messages he was checking on that phone. Do you, Katie?" He tilted his head toward the door. "As a matter of fact, Ill bet that right now there are at least two snipers waiting for me to come out of this building. But you should know that, right? They sent you in."
"No they didnt. I decoded your communications. I figured it out for myself and had to come here and see if it was really true. Youre gonna have to pay for this, Dad."
"Oh yeah? Whos gonna make me? You? I dont think so. Nobody will ever know what happened here tonight, because Im going to take care of all the witnesses." He picked up one of the dead mens guns and fired in the direction of his daughters voice.
The spider venom was beginning to do its job. Katherine could no longer feel her left arm. "Nice touch dad. Use the bad guys guns, so it looks like they killed me. I hate to disappoint you, but you missed." More rounds flew in her direction, but she managed to stay beneath them by crawling on her belly.
"Its just a matter of time, Katie. Ive got lots of ammo here and youre going to have to come out sooner or later. Besides, Im not worried. I know you dont have the guts to kill me. Remember when you were little and that mouse was getting into Kittys food all the time? We finally caught it in a trap and you felt so sorry for the damned thing that you tried to nurse it back to health." He was trying to distract her, as he walked toward the area where she was hiding. "You couldnt even bear the thought of killing a god damned rodent. You wont hurt me. Imagine having to tell your mother that you murdered your own dad. Shed certainly hate you for that. Im sure you wouldnt want your only living relative to hate your guts, would you honey?"
Before he knew what hit him, Katherine had taken action. A straight legged kick to the side of his knee as he walked past her hiding place, and then a blow to the side of the neck sent him reeling. As Frank Krieg fell backwards, his daughter lifted her Sig and fired. She didnt have to do it a second time. The first bullet pierced her fathers heart and he slumped to the ground. She walked over to where he lay and checked his neck for a pulse. Finding none, she collapsed on the floor next to him and wept.
"Damn you!" The older Katherine pounded on the spirits chest and this time he let her. "Get me the fuck out of here!"
"Soon, darlin. The shows almost over but not quite."
Half a dozen federal agents burst into the room and ran over to the weeping woman. "Maam. You need to come with us."
The spider venom was now working its way through her system, and Katherine was hoping death would come soon. The last thing she remembered of that night was being carried out of the building and hearing a very loud explosion as she rode away in the back of a large SUV.
"I should have died that night." Katherine spoke to nobody in particular as she and the spirit watched the vehicle drive away. "We would have all been better off."
"Dont talk like that, Katie. If youd have died you wouldnt be able to enjoy the exquisite agony of day to day living." He wrapped his arms around her from behind and transported them both to a snowy hilltop in Pittsburghs Squirrel Hill section.
"No! Not here. I cant bear to go through this again." Krieg was on her knees at the spirits feet. "Please, dont make me watch this."
This time the spirit vanished, leaving Katherine to watch her father and brother be buried side by side in the family plot.
"Ashes to ashes dust to dust." The priest threw dirt into the open gashes in the earth, which would soon be the dead mens eternal home.
Young Katherine, dressed in a black Armani pants suit stood next to her grieving mother as she was given the two neatly folded American flags that had adorned the mens coffins. "Its okay, mom." She wrapped her arm around the older womans shoulder to offer comfort, but her voice conveyed little emotion.
The official cause of death was ruled to be asphyxiation and severe burns. The CIAs public take on the deaths was that they were accidental. It seems the Krieg men were involved in a fatal traffic accident with a tanker truck that exploded, burning them both beyond recognition. Katherine knew better than to contradict the explanation. She also knew that shed have to carry her terrible secret to her own grave.
"Spirit! Where are you? You cant leave me here like this!" Krieg leaned against a large, old oak tree, desperate to be rescued from her private hell. "Please show yourself again."
The ghost appeared on the opposite side of the tree, and Katherine heard him before she saw him. "Did ya miss me?" He walked around to face her and tried to lean in for a kiss. "You know what they say about absence making the heart grow fonder."
"Leave me alone." Her voice was rough with anguish and she half-heartedly pushed him away.
"Leave me alone Show your self, Spirit. Which is it going to be? You cant have it both ways, you know."
"Just take me home, please." She started to walk toward the cemetery exit and the spirit easily caught up, taking her hand in his.
"Soon, my love. We have just two more stops to make."
The scene faded to the inside of Corinnes house. A small, blond girl sat on a bed covered in Star Wars sheets. A muscular man in his 30s sat next to her folding paper airplanes. "You see this, Corinne? If you turn the tip of one wing up and the other one down, itll make it fly in circles." He gave the small paper masterpiece a push through the air to demonstrate.
"Wow, daddy! Do it again!" The utter joy and delight in the little girls eyes made Katherines heart ache. She recognized that same look as the one shed seen when her assistant dropped the basket full of Christmas cookies onto her desk earlier that evening. The same joy she had momentarily crushed by being such an ungrateful bitch. She wondered how the woman had been able to hold onto it for so many years.
The spirit lead Katherine out of the bedroom and into a small, basement workshop, where a slightly older Corinne was working to stitch together some brightly colored material. Kites hung from the ceiling and the walls. "Hey mom!" She yelled loudly enough so that anyone on the first floor could hear her.
A petite, blond woman appeared in the doorway. "Mom, look at this one. I modeled it after a hydrofoil. I think itll look really cool in the air."
The woman walked over to the bench and gently rubbed her daughters back. "Thats beautiful sweetheart. Maybe you should give that one to your daddy for his birthday. You know how he loves getting special presents from you."
"Actually, this ones for you. I thought maybe the three of us could go down to The Point and fly it next Saturday."
The woman looked at her feet. "Maybe honey. You know, with my condition, I have a hard time doing much these days, but Im sure your daddy will be happy to go with you."
Corinne looked disappointed for a moment, but quickly perked back up again. "Sure mommy. Maybe we can take a camera along and take some pictures for you while were there."
"That sounds wonderful, honey." She kissed the top of her daughters head and slowly made her way back upstairs.
Katherine leaned closer to the spirit and whispered as if trying to keep Corinne from hearing her. "Whats wrong with her mother?"
"Lung cancer. She died six months after this scene that youre watching."
Katherine walked closer to the little girl and listened as she hummed quietly to herself while putting the finishing touches on her kite. "How old is she?"
"Who, Corinne or her mother?"
"What happened to her father? By the time I hired her he was dead too, right?"
"Wrong, Katherine. He died earlier this year. Dont you remember? Corinne asked for a week off to take care of some personal business and you told her a week was too long, she could have three days to address whatever was ailing her."
"She didnt tell me her father had died."
"She didnt think youd care."
< > < > < > < > < > < > < > < > < >
Katherine awoke in her own bed to the feeling of someone tugging at the back of her head. Afraid of what she might find waiting for her this time, she slowly turned and looked out of the corner of her eye. Sitting there, with a wide, dimpled grin on her face was a big busted, bottle blond, wearing a lacy pink nightie and matching underpants. She was attempting to braid her hostesss hair.
"Arent you a little old for slumber parties?"
"Hey, why the sarcasm Miss tall, dark and moody. Im the spirit of Christmas present, and Im here to "
"Yeah. Yeah. I know, youre here to take me around and show me how Ive fucked up my life. Lets just get it over with."
"Like, what crawled up your nightie and died? How bout a little uplitude?"
"Uplitude? What the hell is that?"
"You know, uplitude. Its an up attitude. Get it?"
Katherine sat up and rested her head in her hands. "Charming."
"I thought so." The spirit giggled and yanked at the covers. "Now rise and shine, beautiful. Weve got some totally gnarly things to see."
"Thats what I was afraid of."
"Oh, come on." The spirit looked slightly hurt. "I wont let anything bad happen to an awesome babe like yourself. Ive braided your hair. I feel like were bonded now." She slid her hands around the waist of the now-standing Katherine and rested her head on the taller womans chest. "Like cant you just feel the love?"
Krieg didnt quite know
what to do with this spirit, but she had to admit she was an improvement over
her last visitor. The brunette hesitantly patted the smaller woman on the back.
"Yeah. Its great. Now can we please just get on with it?"
"Sure, babe. Hang on!" The spirit squeezed a little tighter and the room around them dissolved into Corinnes house again. This time though, Katherine was set down face to face with the adult version who was petting a small, gray kitten.
"Hey there, Tobias. Where have you been? Did Ms. Krieg scare you into hiding?" She scratched under his chin and his always running motor got even louder. "Yeah? Thats okay. Sometimes she scares me a little, too. But you know what? I think buried under that nasty exterior is a kind, sensitive person. Its just going to take some major digging to find her." She held the kitten in front of her face and touched her nose to his. "Ill bet youre hungry, arent you? Im sorry I was so late tonight. Cmon."
Corinne put Tobias down and the little ball of fur happily tagged along into the kitchen. He made a point to stay underfoot the entire time his owner was preparing his evening meal. She finally placed a plate of kitten chow on the floor and headed for the door. "You finish dinner little man, then come on up to bed."
Before climbing the stairs, Corinne made one more stop in the living room. There, she dug a few catnip mice out of her purse and added them to the small stocking hanging from the wooden fireplace mantle. They were the only Christmas presents in the house.
Corinne stepped out of the shower and toweled off her short, blond hair. She had just slipped into her favorite flannel pajamas when she heard the phone ringing through the closed door. She got to it just as the answering machine picked up. Hello. Youve reached 555-6028. I cant get to the phone right now
"Hello! Im here."
"Yeah. The machine picked up. Just give it a second to get through the message."
message at the sound of the beep. Beeeep.
"Hey Corinne, its Natalie."
"Oh. Hi Nat. Merry Christmas Eve."
"Thanks. Right back atcha." Nats raspy voice always reminded Corinne of Tommy from the Rugrats. "I was wondering if youre still planning to serve Christmas dinner at the mission this year."
"You couldnt keep me away with a stun gun. Now that mom and dad are gone, you guys are pretty much the only family I have. I cant think of anybody Id rather spend Christmas with."
"Well, everybody at the mission certainly loves you, too. Youve got to be a pretty special person to win the Golden Apple award five years in a row. I cant believe how well youre able to relate to those people."
"Its really not that difficult. People are people. The ones who come to the mission just have a few more hurdles to overcome than most. I just try to talk to them respectfully and let them know how special they all are."
Natalie chuckled at her friends modesty. "You make it sound so easy, woman. I wish you could bottle that positive attitude of yours and sell it over the counter. The world would be a much happier place."
"You give me way too much credit, Nat."
"I dont think so. Only someone with saintly blood could work for that bitch Krieg and still come home smiling. Im surprised shes even given you tomorrow off.
"Shes not a bitch, Nat. Im sure theres something in her life that makes her the way she is. I think she just needs some TLC to get over that perpetual bad mood of hers."
"Oh god, Corinne. You actually like her?"
"Sure. Shes just I dont know how to describe my feelings for her exactly. Sometimes I hate her guts, but usually I feel like shes being the way she is because shes trying to cover up some hurt of her own. I think she needs me."
"Please. Please, tell me you dont think you can change her with love."
"Come on, Nat. Why not? Love is a very powerful thing."
"Yes, but it helps if
its reciprocal. Has she given you any indication that she has anything
but contempt for you?
"No, not really, well, come to think of it, she did take the time to pick my lock tonight after I left my keys at her house. She could have just left me out in the cold. I think with some more time together "
"Corinne!!! You sound like an abused wife. Stay away from this woman. Shes bad news and will bring you nothing but heartache."
"Youve at least got to admit, shes gorgeous. I saw her in jeans and a sweatshirt for the first time earlier tonight and I nearly choked on my tongue. Shes got the cutest little butt and "
The spirit leaned over and patted Katherine on the behind. "Did you hear that? She likes your butt! Oh mgod, that is sooo cute!"
Krieg felt a little smile play at the corners of her lips despite herself.
"You cant base a relationship on a cute butt. Shell chew you up and spit you out, Corinne. Just be careful."
"Dont worry about me. Everything will be fine. One of these days Ill persuade her to come down to the mission and meet everybody."
"Yeah. Ill believe that, when I see it. In the meantime, I guess well see you tomorrow morning around ten? Oh, and Corinne?"
"Dont forget to bring that lyre of yours. The clients loved listening to it last year. I didnt realize anyone actually played those things anymore."
"Its just something I do for fun. My grandmother was a concert lyrist and taught me to play when I was very young. Im actually glad you reminded me. Ill have to go down in the basement and dig out my "Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Lyre" book of Christmas carols."
Natalie groaned, but couldnt help but giggle. "That was bad, Corinne."
"Yeah. It was. But you laughed anyway."
"Im easily amused. But, now I need to go take a shower and hit the sack. Tomorrow is going to be a big day. Goodnight, Corinne."
"Night, Nat. See you in the morning."
During the phone conversation, Corinne had noticed a small lump under the covers on the right side of her bed. She lifted the down comforter and peeked underneath. Green eyes stared back at her. "Well, hello there, Tobias. I see youve decided to retire for the evening." He stretched his front legs and yawned an apparent affirmative. "All right then. I wont disturb you any further. Goodnight, boy." Corinne gently lay the comforter back over his head. As her own head sunk into her favorite pillow, it dawned on her that she had forgotten to unplug the electric candles in the windows. Oh well, they dont use that much electricity and theyll make at least one house on the block look festive for Christmas Eve.
"She likes you, you know." The spirit sat on the edge of the bed and looked at Corinne. "Pity she may never get to tell you in person. Sad love stories just break my heart."
Katherine looked concerned. "Whats that supposed to mean?"
The spirit snapped her fingers and the two women popped into the front bedroom next to Corinnes.
"Take a look at the wire on that electric candle. Your girlfriends cute little bundle of fur has been nibbling on it." The spirit crossed her arms and stamped her foot. "God, I hate this part of my job. Its just totally bogus."
"Shes not my girlfriend." Katherine was now kneeling next to the aforementioned wire. "It looks like a section of the copper wiring is resting against the carpet here. The polyester fibers have begun to melt. Spirit, help me unplug this."
"Im sorry sweet cheeks, no can do. I cant interfere with what is destined to happen."
"Destined by whom? Come on, this is no joke! Corinne could be hurt." She tried desperately to grab hold of the plug in the wall, but to no avail. Her hands passed right through it. "Damn it!"
"Come on, Katherine. Its time to go." Krieg felt the spirit lifting her by her shoulders.
"We cant just go!"
"We have to. Times up. I have to get you back in time to meet the next spirit. Trust me, you dont want to be late and piss her off. She is one totally messed up bitch on wheels."
"I dont give a flying fuck about what the next spirit thinks. Why did you show me this if you knew I wouldnt be able to help? Its cruel." Katherine felt the scene beginning to melt away around her. "No. Wait! Spirit!!!"
< > < > < > < > < > < > < > < > < >
Krieg awoke to the sound of the clock striking eleven forty-five. She looked around the darkened room for any trace of the third spirit. Nothing. Katherine lay there for several long minutes, just waiting, and listening. Still no sigh of anything unusual. "It was all a dream. Thank god." She exhaled audibly. Still, it was real enough to compel her to get out of bed and pick up the phone to call her assistant to be sure she was okay. Just as she was about to dial the last digit, a long thin finger pressed the button on the base of the phone and broke the connection.
"Sorry, dearie. We cant have you calling your friend at this hour of the night. Youre liable to wake her out of a dead sleep." The woman squealed at her own sick joke. "Im guessing you already know who I am, so lets just cut to the chase, shall we, and get to the good stuff."
Katherine towered over the small blond woman now standing in her room, but she also noticed something in the brown eyes before her that put her more than a little on edge.
"Let me guess, the ghost of Christmas Future?"
The spirit reached up and pinched Katherines cheek patronizingly. "Oh, you are a clever one, arent you?"
"I manage." Krieg eyed the spirit. "What is it with you ghosts and skimpy clothes? Dont you get cold prancing around in that two piece leather thing?"
"Actually, I rather like the way it accentuates my girlish figure. Dont you?" The spirit took Katherines and in hers and ran it seductively over her smooth stomach. "Feels nice, doesnt it Katherine? When was the last time you let yourself feel desire for someone?"
Krieg pulled her hand away. "Shut up. Lets just go wherever youre supposed to take me and get this over with."
"Patience, my love. Patience. This isnt all about you, you know. I have my own needs, and watching you suffer is one of them."
"What are you, some kind of psycho? You dont even know me."
Now the spirit spoke in a low voice and ran her index finger lightly over Katherines lower lip. "Oh you are so wrong about that. I know you better than you know yourself. Im a part of you Katherine, and youre going to have an awfully hard time getting rid of me."
The spirit slapped her reluctant charge lightly on the face and the two women were transported to the street outside Corinnes North Side home. Flames shot through the roof and windows on the upper floors. Krieg ran around the fire trucks looking for her assistant.
"Spirit, where is she?"
The ghost shrugged her shoulders and looked generally bored. "Well, it certainly doesnt look like shes out here."
"I can see that! Weve gotta get inside and help her" Katherine sprinted toward the open front door and entered the home. The flames hadnt made it down to the entry way yet. "Corinne? Corinne! Where are you?"
"She cant hear you, Silly." The spirit began to twirl her hair between her fingers. "Youre a ghost to her. Just like me."
The smoke alarms were blaring in the background and over the roar of the fire, Krieg thought she heard something coming from upstairs. As she got closer to it, it became clearer. It was Corinne, shouting something.
"Tobias! Tobias! Here kitty, kitty." The blond woman was on her hands and knees looking under the bed. "Come on, Tobias. Come out of there. We need to go!" The kitten lay terrified and curled in a ball against the far wall. Corinne pulled her shirt over her nose and mouth to try to filter the thick, black smoke she was inhaling. "Tobias get.." She inched under the bed on her stomach and grabbed the kitten by the scruff of the neck. " out here." Dragging both herself and Tobias out from under the bed, the blond woman put the kitten down the front of her shirt and started to crawl toward the staircase.
Katherine heard the thunder of rubber boots and mens voices coming through the front door.
"Check upstairs! The neighbors say a young woman lives here alone." As three firefighters started for the second floor, something in the staircase gave way and both it and the landing above fell to the first floor. Two of the men were killed by the impact. The other lay injured, but was able to reach his radio. "The stairs collapsed! Franklin and Borkowsky are down, and I think I broke my leg. I saw the girl near the top of the steps. Shes probably down in this mess too. We need back up in here stat! This whole place is about to come down."
Katherine and the spirit were now back outside, watching the events unfold with the rest of the neighborhood.
"Spirit, weve got to go in there and get her out!"
The ghost looked annoyed. "You
just dont give up, do you?" She cupped her hands around her mouth
to mimic a bullhorn. "Hear this, Katherine Krieg! Theres NOTHING
you can do to help her. Now you get to watch your little whipping girl die a
horrible death. Popcorn?" The spirit tilted a bag toward the taller woman
and popped a kernel into her own mouth. "I just love a good show."
The blond woman squealed happily. "Besides, why should you care what happens
to her. Its not like you give a shit any other time."
Krieg was seething. "Its not like I ever wanted her to get hurt!"
The spirit tilted her head and responded in a voice that dripped with condescension. "No? Yet oddly enough all youve ever done is hurt her. The biggest kindness youve ever shown this girl is picking the lock of her house so she wouldnt have to sleep in the cold. You know, Katherine, physically attacks arent always the most painful."
Krieg was about to answer when she noticed some frantic activity around Corinnes house. The firefighters were bringing out a stretcher. On it lay a badly burned woman and an obviously injured kitten. A kindly looking woman grabbed the kitten and put an oxygen mask over its small face. Several EMTs began tending to Corinne and loaded her into an ambulance to make the short trip to Allegheny General.
Katherine raced over to the fire chief. "Is she going to be okay?" He looked right through her and continued with his work. "Okay boys, get the hoses on those eaves up there on the right!"
"Katherine, Katherine. Dear, dear, Katherine." The spirit patted the taller woman on the back. "Dont worry. Your little plaything survives. Of course, it wont be easy for her without any health insurance, and no place to live. On what you pay her she certainly couldnt afford fire insurance for the house." The ghost threw her bag of popcorn in to the air and before it reached the ground, they had been transported into another house.
A pudgy, middle-aged, black woman was making something in the kitchen. "Hey Corinne! What do you want for lunch?"
The raspy response came back from the living room. "Nothing, Nat. Thanks. Im not very hungry."
Katherine followed the sound of the voice to a woman in a wheelchair sitting in front of a dark television set. Krieg hardly recognized her. Years, and scarring from the fire had taken a terrible toll. The flames had burned her hands beyond use and the fall had apparently broken her back, leaving her partially paralyzed below the waist. A geriatric, gray cat lay in her lap.
"Corinne?" Krieg knelt next to the wheelchair and tried to touch the womans cheek. "Corinne, Im so sorry. If only "
"If, if, if. If only youd have let her stay at your house last night rather than driving her back into the city in that awful snow storm, she wouldnt have been home when the fire started. If only youd have called her to warn her about the frayed wire, she could have gotten out in time. But, alas, it wasnt meant to be. She was totally loyal to you, even though you constantly treated her like shit. Corinne was probably the best friend you had, but you were too stubborn and blind to see it and you kept her at arms length so you wouldnt become too attached to her. But you did anyway, didnt you? Now look at her." The spirit waved her arm and caused the blanket covering Corinnes feel to fall onto the floor. The woman in the wheel chair strained to reach down and pick it up. "Oh. So sad. Kinda hurts, doesnt it, Katie?"
Katherine clenched her teeth. "Why is she here?"
"Where else is she to go? You fired he when you found out she wasnt useful to you anymore and her good friend, Natalie was kind enough to take her in as a charity case. They dont have much. Nat works at the mission for next to nothing, and the state pays for only the bare minimums for Corinnes care, but they seem to be managing. The really crazy thing is that they could have so much more, but blondie resisted Natalies suggestion that she sue you for your flagrant violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act. She said she couldnt sue someone she cares about. Can you believe that? After all the shit you fed her, she still cares about you. What an idiot!" The spirit howled with laughter.
"Shut up! Just shut up." Katherine connected with a kick to the chest before the ghost saw it coming. It propelled her across the room and into the front door. Tobiass ears perked up.
"Nat!" Corinne called toward the kitchen. "I think theres somebody at the door."
"Coming!" Natalie peered through the peephole. "Nope. Nobody there."
"Thats odd. Sorry to run you all the way in here for nothing." The blond ran the better of her two hands over the old cat. "Tobias and I must be hearing things again."
Katherine was back at her assistants side. "You heard that?" Tobias looked right at her and meowed.
Corinne lovingly stroked her old friend. "Its okay boy. We all hear things sometimes."
Katherine touched the blonds arm. "Corinne, I am SO sorry this happened to you. If there were any way I could go back and change it all, I would. Please believe me."
Corinne looked thoughtfully at the spot on her arm where her former bosss hand rested.
Natalie came into the room with two cold turkey sandwiches and sat down on the couch to eat hers. "I brought you a sandwich anyway. I figured youd eventually get hungry. You always do when you see me eating something."
Corinne didnt appear to have heard a word that her friend said to her.
"Do you ever get the feeling like someone is still with you even after they died?"
The woman on the sofa thought
about the question for a moment. "Well, when I was a little girl, I used
to imagine that my grandmother was watching out for me. Kind of like my guardian
angel. It gave me courage to go out into my neighborhood. Why do you ask?
Corinne shook her head. "Its silly."
"No, come on. You asked me about my imaginary friends and I told you. Now its your turn to spill. Whats up?"
"Its just that sometimes I think I can still feel her around me. Even though shes been dead for nearly ten years now."
"Krieg? God, why would you want to feel that bitch around you? Shes probably some sort of head demon in hell by now."
"I know. Its stupid. I guess I just wish I would have gotten to know her the real her a little bit better before she died."
"Why, so she could have hurt your even more? Let it go, Corinne. Shes dead and the world is a better place for it."
Katherine looked around, confused. "Im dead?"
The spirit had since recovered from her abrupt meeting with the door, but it certainly hadnt improved her mood. "Oh," She demurred. "Didnt I mention that? Forgetful me."
The spirit spun around and the women were transported back to Kriegs cabin in the woods. In the bedroom, Katherine watched herself be awakened by the blaring siren of her burglar alarm. Before she could get out of bed to investigate, the intruder got off a shot that struck her in the right shoulder. Katherine tried to reach for her trusty Sig in the bedside table, but the man standing over her would have none of it. He waved her own gun in her face and another bullet ripped through her left shoulder.
"Hello, Ms. Krieg."
"Brushfeld? What are you doing here?"
The company accountant pushed the glasses up on the bridge of his nose. "Ive come to kill you, Ms. Krieg. You destroyed a young girls life and you need to pay."
"What the hell are you talking
about?" She knew she was losing a good deal of blood out of the right shoulder
wound and needed to do something to staunch the flow. The bullet had just grazed
the surface on the left shoulder.
"Of course it wouldnt occur to you that Im talking about Miss Flaherty, you self centered bitch." He slapped her across the face and despite her best efforts, Krieg couldnt raise her arms to stop him.
"Corinne, the assistant that you fired last month? Come now, you couldnt have forgotten her already."
The truth was, Corinne was all Krieg could think about these days. She missed her smiling face and was considering hiring the young woman back on as a consultant of some sort. "Of course I havent forgotten her."
"Well, you might as well have for the condition that you left her in. I love her, you know! "I" truly love her, and all she can do is talk about you. YOU! The woman whos brought nothing but misery to her life. Ive decided to eliminate the competition tonight."
Katherine could smell alcohol on the mans breath. No doubt the only way the little coward could work up the courage to do what hed come to do.
" and you know what, Krieg? Im actually going to enjoy this!" He put the Sig to her temple...the same gun that had killed her father and pulled the trigger.
The Katherine of the past turned to the spirit. "Theres no way I would have given up that easily."
The ghost smirked. "Not unless you thought you deserved what hed come to give you and wanted to die."
The scene faded to the same cemetery where, just a decade earlier, Katherine had come to bury her father and brother. This time, just a priest and one other person were present. Corinne wept silently as the coffin was lowered into the earth.
Katherine stared into the hole and then at her former assistant. She could hardly bear to look at the pain reflected on the womans face.
"Why is she the only one here?"
The spirit made a point of looking behind a few trees. "Oh, is she? Yeah. I guess she is. Must be because nobody else cared that you died. You would think that at least a few people wouldve come to celebrate."
"Wheres my mother?" Katherine, trying to hold back tears, spoke through clenched teeth.
"Seems that mommy dearest couldnt handle the idea that her daughter had been brutally murdered and that everyone in her family was now dead. She had a bit of an, oh, what shall we call it emotional upset? Shell be spending a few weeks in a facility designed to take care of people in her state."
Katherine noticed that the priest had walked away from the grave and now Corinne was left by herself. A rusty, old car, presumably with Natalie at the wheel, waited at a respectful distance on a nearby access road. Krieg again approached her former assistant who appeared to be saying something. She came in part way through a sentence.
" you know that right? Ive always loved you. I know, in your own screwed up way that you cared about me too. You were just too scared to let me know. If I had only gotten up that night to unplug those damn candles none of this would have ever happened. Im so sorry." The blond began to weep again. "Why would you ever want to be around someone as hideous as I am now? I dont blame you for firing me."
"No." Katherine tried to stroke the younger womans hair. "This wasnt your fault. This is all me. I never showed you the respect you deserved. And youre absolutely right. I do care about you. Youre all I ever think about." The blond continued to sob. "Corinne, please. Ill find some way to make this right."
"Spirit. Take me home." Before Katherine could turn around to look for her late night escort, she felt a boot land squarely in the middle of her back, propelling her directly into her own grave. The gleeful, girlish cackle left no doubt in her mind about who had put her there. "Spirit! Get me out of here!"
The ghost stood at the edge of the hole and peered down on the woman lying atop the expensive wooden coffin. "Oh, youd like that wouldnt you? Let you out, so you can spread more of your misery. Let me think about it for a moment. Hmmm." The spirit put her finger to her lips and appeared to contemplate her options for about two second. "Nope."
The sound of heavy equipment was Katherines first hint that she was in trouble. Soon, large bulldozer loads full of dirt began to fall on her. "Wait! Stop!" She felt the crushing weight of the earth on her chest and, in a matter of minutes, she had been completely buried alive.
< > < > < > < > < > < > < > < > < >
At the stroke of midnight, Katherine Krieg awoke, gasping for air, in her own bed.
Sweat flowed from every pour in her body and she pushed herself into an upright sitting position. The only sounds in the house were that of her own, rapid, breathing and the quiet hum of the furnace. "Hello? Is there anybody here?" Katherine was dreading the response. When none came, she eased out of bed and cautiously searched her room. Nothing out of place. Her Sig lay in its drawer, fully loaded. She examined the wall where the bullet shed fired at the first spirit had struck. Nothing there. A more detailed search revealed that all the windows and doors in the house were locked. Then Krieg turned on the front porch light and looked outside. Nobody. Only her Navigator and Corinnes VW in front of it. "Corinne! Oh my god!"
Katherine raced to the closest phone and dialed her assistants number. It rang at least ten times with no answer. "Come on, Corinne. Pick up, damn it!" She got increasingly worried when the answering machine didnt kick on. Maybe she dialed the wrong number, so she tried again. Still no answer.
Not even bothering to change out of her sweats, Krieg slipped on her boots and tossed a heavy, winter coat over her shoulder. She then trudged out into knee-deep snow, cleaned off her SUV and headed toward the city.
She pulled onto Corinnes street at the same time the first fire trucks were arriving. Katherine jumped out of the Navigator and ran to the first firefighter she could find. "Wheres your battering ram?"
"Im sorry, maam, youre going to have to step aside. We have work to do here."
Undeterred, Katherine jumped into the cab of one of the fire trucks and helped herself. She wasnt spotted until she was on the front porch of the house. At that point a very large man approached her from behind. "Lady, what the hell do you think youre doing? That thing weighs fifty pounds!"
"Which is why you need to get the fuck out of my way. Im not going to be able to hold this damn thing for ever." She took a swing at the lock on the front door. "Normally, I like to use something a little less dramatic, but this is the quickest way in." Katherine looked at the fireman, who was now staring at her with a combination of awe and consternation. "Well, are you just going to stand there or can you help me with this? We dont have time to stand here and argue. Theres a woman sleeping on the second floor."
"Uh. Yeah. Sure. But then youre going to have to stand back. This isnt safe." The fireman grabbed one of the metal handles on the battering ram and helped to swing it against the lock a second and third time before the door finally let go. "Okay now, maam. If youll just go over there and wait while "
He might as well have been talking to the wall. Katherine had run into the burning home and up to the second floor. She found a disoriented Corinne just getting out of bed and trying to make out through the thick smoke what was going on.
"Corinne!" Katherine threw her arms around the smaller woman.
"Ms. Krieg? Whats going on?"
"The house is on fire. You need to get out now."
"Its okay. Ill get Tobias. Just go." She pushed her assistant toward the steps. "GO!"
Katherine dropped to the floor and scrambled under the bed where the terrified kitten was hiding. She grabbed him and put him in the front pocket of her ski jacket. "There you go, little fellow. You should be cozy in there." The smoke was starting to get unbearably thick now and she headed into the hallway. Near the top of the stairs, the tip of her boot hit something soft. Katherine felt along the floor and quickly realized it was the body of her assistant. "Corinne? Corinne!!!" No response. Krieg pulled her sweatshirt up over her nose and mouth and hoisted the smaller woman over her shoulder. She heard the firefighters entering the house below and knew now that she had only moments to get them all out of there before the stairs would collapse.
"No! Get back!" Katherine came bounding down the steps with her precious cargo. "Get back! The stairs are going to collapse." She pushed two men out the front door backwards and carried Corinne to the awaiting ambulance. "She needs oxygen! Shes inhaled a lot of smoke. Please help her." Krieg looked pleadingly at the attending EMTs.
"Dont worry, maam. Well do our best."
"Just make sure your best is good enough. Shes too important to lose. And spare no expense. I want her taken to UPMC Oakland. Ill pay for any treatment she needs." Krieg handed the paramedic a business card.
"Yes maam, Ms. Krieg. Well take care of her."
"Good. Give her doctors my contact information and tell them that Ill be over to check on her shortly. I have a few errands to run first." She pulled her wallet out of her coat pocket and slipped a hundred dollar bill into the mans hand. "For your trouble. Merry Christmas."
"Oh, no. I couldnt take this "
"You dont want to piss me off, do you?"
"No maam " The man stammered. "It just that Im only doing "
"Then take the damn money and have a nice night." Krieg turned on her heels and walked away, ending the conversation.
< > < > < > < > < > < > < > < > < >
Natalie rubbed her eyes and peered out the peephole in her front door. She wondered who could be ringing her doorbell at this hour of the morning.
"Ms. Krieg!" She opened the door as far as the security chain would allow and peered out. "What are you doing here?"
"Theres been a fire. Corinnes in the hospital."
"What?!" She quickly unfastened the chain and let the late night visitor in. "When? What happened?"
Krieg kicked the snow off of her boots and stepped into the house. "Before we get to that, I thought that maybe you could watch a friend of hers for her while shes recovering." She pulled a sleepy Tobias out of her warm pocket. "Hes had a pretty rough night."
"Tobias! Oh my goodness, look at you. Youre all covered in soot." She took the kitten and hugged him close to her chest.
"Yeah, well. Sorry, I didnt have time to give him a bath." Katherine looked around uncomfortably, knowing how much Natalie despised her, but also knowing the woman was too polite to say anything.
"Um. Here. Let me take your coat. Please, come in. Sit down." She directed her guest toward the living room sofa.
"Thank you. I cant stay long, but I wanted to drop the cat off and let you know what happened. As far as we can tell, the fire was started by a faulty wire on one of those electric candles that Corinne had in her window. She wasnt burned, but did inhale quite a bit of smoke. Theyre treating her now at UPMC."
"Is she going to be okay?" Natalie sat forward in her seat, worry etched in lines across her face.
"I think so. But I really dont know. Im heading over to the hospital after I leave here."
"Ill go too." Nat stood up to go get changed. Katherine grabbed her by the shoulders.
"No. You stay here and get some sleep. I understand that youre going to be a busy lady tomorrow morning. I promise Ill call you if there are any complications."
"But I think "
"Please, Natalie. Let me be there for her."
Corinnes friend was about to protest, but when she saw the look of almost desperate sincerity on Katherine Kriegs face, she held her tongue. "Okay. Just, please, call me if there are problems."
Katherine reached out and stroked Tobiass head. "I will, and be sure to take care of this little guy. She was ready to die to save him."
"Dont worry. Tobias and I get along great." Nat tickled under his chin. "Dont we little guy?" The kitten responded with a sleepy yawn.
"Oh, Natalie. One more thing. I want you to have this." She handed the woman a check.
"Its for the mission. I know you people do good work down there and I want to help."
Nats eyes just about popped out of her head when she read the amount line. "Fifty-thousand dollars! I I dont know what to say."
"Say, thank you, and use the money to make people happy. Ill be making the same donation every Christmas from this year forward. Count on it when youre planning your holiday events. Use anything thats left over for general improvements and upkeep to the building." Katherine turned to let herself out as her hostess stared after her, dumbfounded.
"Thank you." She was barely able to articulate the words.
"Goodnight, Nat." Katherine pulled on her coat and closed the door behind herself.
< > < > < > < > < > < > < > < > < >
Corinne blinked awake to and found herself staring into clear blue eyes.
"Hey. Glad to see youre coming around. The doctors tell me it was kind of touch and go there for a few minutes."
"Ms. Krieg? What are you doing here?" She looked down her side and found her bosss warm hand covering her own.
"I was worried about you."
"You saved me." The young woman struggled to sit up. "Oh my god! Tobias!"
Katherine pressed firmly on her assistants shoulder. "Lie down and rest. Tobias is fine. Hes visiting his Aunt Natalie."
"Oh thank god." Corinne let out a relieved breath and lay back in the bed. She stared at the white panels on the ceiling, contemplating something. "Ms. Krieg?"
"What were you doing at my house at one oclock in the morning?"
It was the question Krieg had been waiting for. "Youre not gonna believe me when I tell you."
"Try me." She gave Katherines hand a little squeeze, delighted and more than a little surprised that her boss hadnt let go yet.
"Well, to be perfectly honest, it came to me in a dream. When I woke up, I tried to call your house to be sure you were okay, and nobody answered. Thats when I got into the Navigator and drove into town."
"You did that for me? I wouldnt have thought youd care what happens to me."
The words stung, but Krieg knew she deserved them. "Corinne. Ive treated you badly over the years, and Im sorry. You deserve much better. I cant take back the damage Ive done, but I can change the way I behave in the future starting today."
"You dont owe me any apologies. You saved my life. How can I ever repay you?"
Katherine leaned closer and held her assistant with her eyes. "Youve already given me so much, Corinne. More than I ever deserved. Its my turn. The doctors say you can get out of here in a few hours. Why dont you try to get some rest? Im going to go into the store, grab a shower and get some decent clothes for both of us. Then I though maybe we could swing by the mission and say hi to a few of your friends. Hows that sound?"
The blond woman was beaming. "That sound great, but I dont have any money or anything "
"Dont be silly. Ill take care of everything and youll stay with me while your house is being repaired."
Corinne looked startled by that pronouncement and her boss quickly backpedaled. "Um. That is if you want to stay with me, youre more than welcome. I have plenty of room. I could see why you wouldnt though." She started to let go of her assistants hand and stand up to leave. But Corinne wasnt anxious to let go. She jerked Krieg back into the chair next to the bed.
"Do you mean it? Really mean it? I could stay with you in your house?"
"Sure. I really mean it. How often have you known me to propose something and not mean it?"
"Good point. That would be great! I mean if you really mean it."
Katherine chuckled at assistants polite hesitancy. "I really mean it. Honest. Listen, you get some rest and Ill be back in a few hours to pick you up. Okay?"
This time when Katherine rose to go, Corinne was too overwhelmed to stop her.
< > < > < > < > < > < > < > < > < >
"I hope you like what I picked out for you." Krieg plopped two shopping bags full of clothing onto the hospital bed. "I uh. I wasnt sure what size you wore, so I go the same outfit in five, six and seven. I figured one of them would fit."
Corinne was busy digging through the bags. "Im a six. Thank you." She held a dark green, baggy wool sweater up to her chest, and then pulled out a pair of cargo pants. "Thanks. These are really great."
"Theres more. I, uh. I picked up some underwear for you too." Krieg could feel the blush creeping up her neck. "I wasnt sure what kind you wore, so I just got some cotton Jockey bikinis for you. I guessed at the bra size."
"Well, you have a good eye." Corinne had noticed the blush and decided to play with her boss a little. "Thirty-four B. Right on the money. Are you sure you havent done this sort of work before? Katherine Krieg- personal shopper?"
"When I was a kid I used to help my grandmother in the department stores lingerie department. They thought I should experience all aspects of the business, so when I inherited it, Id know what I was doing." She handed Corinne a shoebox and another large bag. "Heres a winter coat for you and some warm boots. I saw what size you wear when you took your other ones off in my hallway."
"Thank you, Ms. Krieg. I dont know what to say."
"No thanks are necessary. Just get dressed so we can go see your friends."
Corinne slipped out of bed and eyed the tall woman standing in her hospital room. She had changed into a pair of army green chinos and a cream colored, ribbed turtle neck sweater. A navy pea coat completed the outfit and the young woman had to admit her boss did wear the clothes well. As her eyes roamed up the taller womans body she was startled to find her looking back, a dark eyebrow raised. "Do I have something hanging from my nose, or have you just never seen a woman in a pea coat before?"
Now it was Corinnes turn to blush. "I.. Im just not used to seeing you in street clothes. You look great."
Katherine was unable to suppress a flattered grin. "Thanks. Now go get ready!"
While Corinne was in the bathroom, changing, Katherine walked out to the nurses station to begin checkout proceedings. She instructed that all of her assistants medical bills be sent to her home address.
< > < > < > < > < > < > < > < > < >
When the women walked into the mission, they were greeted by a kindly old woman at a table just inside the door. "Raffle ticket? Theyre only fifty cents and you could win a nice, warm, quilt."
"Hi Mrs. Elmsworth." Corinne leaned over and gave the woman a kiss on the cheek.
"Oh, Corinne! Im sorry dear. I didnt recognize you. My vision isnt what it used to be. Whos your gentleman friend?"
The blond was barely able to stifle a chuckle. "This is Katherine Krieg, my boss at the department store. Ms. Krieg, this is Mrs. Elmsworth. She volunteers here at the mission."
Katherine held out her hand. "Pleased to meet you, Mrs. Elmsworth."
"Hello Katherine. You be sure to take care of our Corinne, here. Shes a very special girl."
Krieg looked at her assistant who was rolling her eyes in embarrassment. "So Im discovering."
A young boy, probably about six, appeared in the entryway and asked the women for their names. Satisfied that hed gotten what hed come for, he ran back into the main dining hall and whispered to a heavy set man who was dressed up like a town crier. When Katherine and Corinne walked in, the man unrolled a large, parchment scroll and read their names aloud from it.
"Announcing, Katherine Cream and Corinne Flowery."
Both women looked at one another and burst out laughing. Corinne was the first to regain her composure and speak. "Well, Ms. Cream. Perhaps we should find Natalie and start serving the guests."
"As you wish, Miss Flowery. Please, lead on." Katherine gestured toward the cafeteria line.
Natalie saw them before they saw here and she launched herself at Corrine. "Oh my god! Im so glad youre all right. Girl, I have been worried sick about you."
Corinne returned the warm hug. "Im fine, Nat. Hows Tobias?"
"Hes a trouble maker, thats how he is. When Ms. Krieg dropped him off at one thirty this morning he was just the cutest little sleepy thing, but about half an hour later he woke up and spent most of the night attacking my feet through the covers.
"Thats one of his favorite things to do. Isnt it cute?"
"Oh. Yeah." Nat answered dryly, "Adorable."
"I really appreciate you watching him, Nat. I was wondering if you could keep an eye on him for a little while longer, until I get my house back in order."
"Honey, have you seen your house since the fire?"
"No, we havent been back yet. There are a few things that Id like to get out, though. I thought wed stop by when we were done here."
Natalie face turned serious and
she looked at Katherine. "Maybe you should sit down, Corinne."
Krieg picked up the explanation. "Because you might not find quite what you were expecting when you go home. The fire did a lot of damage. Theres not much left to pick up."
Corinne hadnt considered that her house might be a total loss. All of her things gone. "Oh my god. What am I going to do? I dont have insurance. Im going to have to start from square one again. And all of the family heirlooms. My photographs. I just I dont " She threw her arms around her bosss waist and wept into her chest.
Katherine, unused to physical contact, wasnt quite sure how to handle the emotional woman in her arms. So, she did what felt right, and that was to hold Corinne close to her and tell her everything was going to be okay. "Listen, Corinne. Its not the end of the world. Dont worry about anything. Ill take care of it. Ive got more money than I know what to do with and Ive finally got something worthwhile to spend it on. At least you and Tobias escaped with your lives. Try to focus on that."
The blond pulled away and wiped her eyes. "Youre right," she sniffled. "I should be grateful for what I have. Even now, I have more than a lot of the people around us today. Im sorry for whining."
"Dont apologize. It was a traumatic event. Lets just make a point of moving forward from here. Okay?" Katherine gently rubbed her assistants back.
"Yeah. Okay. I suppose wed better start by getting behind the counter and serving these hungry people."
Natalie gave her friend another hug. "Now youre talking. I really didnt expect you to be here today, but we can sure use some extra help on the turkey and mashed potato end of the line."
"Okay, Nat. Ill take the turkey and Ms. Krieg will take the mashed potatoes." Corinne hesitated for a moment and looked at her boss for affirmation. "That is if thats all right with you."
Katherine rolled up her sleeves. "Absolutely! Give me a spoon."
Their first customer was a teenaged girl with a large, purple hickey on the side of her neck. Her boyfriend, a man in his twenties, followed close behind, barely able to keep his hands off of her long enough to get some food.
"Hey sparky." Katherine piped up. "What some mashed potatoes?"
He looked up and was obviously taken with the woman asking the question. "Well, hello there. I havent seen you at the mission before."
The teenaged girl glanced at the object of her boyfriends attention, then looked at her shoes, defeated.
"Yeah. Im new here, and the question still stands. Do you want some mashed potatoes?"
"Ill take anything youre dishing out, sweet knees."
"Oh. Good." A devilish smile inched across her face. "Here ya go then." Krieg unleashed a pile of mashed potatoes so fast that it would have made any major league pitcher green with envy. The delivery hit its mark and splashed a starchy pool of gravy all over Mr. Sweet talker.
"Oh my goodness! Im so sorry! How clumsy of me. Here, let me help you with that." She followed up with a pitcher of ice water.
"Hey, you stupid bitch! What the hell do you think youre doing?" The man stood there, incensed.
"I said, I was sorry. Accidents happen." She threw a dishtowel at him. "Here ya go. This should help you dry off. Merry Christmas and thanks for stopping."
The man stomped off to clean up. He didnt come back for seconds.
Next in line was an old Italian man wearing hearing aids in both ears. Corinne greeted him. "Merry Christmas Mr. Borelli. What can we get for you today?"
The man squinted through thick bifocals. "Huh?"
Corinne spoke louder, "I SAID, MERRY CHRISTMAS. WHAT CAN I GET FOR YOU TODAY?"
"Hows the calamari tonight?"
"NO CALAMARI TONIGHT, MR. BORELLI. I KNOW THEYRE YOUR FAVORITES BUT NEITHER OCTOPUS NOR SQUID ARE IN SEASON RIGHT NOW."
The old man shrugged. "Then Ill just have some of the chicken parmigiana."
"WE HAVE TURKEY OR HAM, MR. BORELLI."
"No. I dont care for Spam, thank you."
"TURKEY OR HAM . HAM NOT SPAM."
"Oh. Okay. Then Ill have the ham please." Not wanting to go through the same thing with each item on the menu, Corinne took Mr. Borellis plate, loaded it with ham and about half a dozen side dishes and had one of the other volunteers help him to a table.
The rest of the lunch hour was mostly incident-free and by two oclock everybody had eaten and the cleanup was pretty much complete. Corinne finished with the last load of dishes and wiped her brow. She turned to find her boss mopping the floor. "I cant thank you enough for everything youve done for me and for all of us today. I must admit, though, Im a little surprised by it."
Krieg stopped and leaned on the mop handle. "Yeah, well, Im just full of surprises. Lets get out of here and Ill show you what else I have up my sleeve."
< > < > < > < > < > < > < > < > < >
Katherine started up the Navigator. "Flip this switch there and itll heat your seat for you." Krieg reached in front of her assistant and pointed to the switch she was referring to. "All the modern conveniences. Its even got a TV and VCR for back seat passengers. Maybe one day Ill actually have some." She laughed at her own joke.
Corinne was preoccupied. "Ms. Krieg "
"Please, cut the Ms. Krieg stuff and just call me Katherine, or Kate, or even Katie if you like that better. Thats what my brother used to call me. Ms. Krieg sounds so stuffy."
Corinne was slightly taken aback by the new informality. "Okaay. Kate seems to be somewhere in between the formal Katherine and the informal, Katie, so why dont I stick with that?"
"Whatever you like." Katherine smiled contentedly and pulled onto the snowy street.
"Anyway Kate I was wondering if we could swing by my house for a minute. Id like to survey the damage."
Kreig hesitated for a moment. "Are you sure you want to do that right now? It is Christmas, and theres really nothing you can do about it right now."
"No, really. I think I need to see it. Otherwise Ill spend the day wondering about it."
"Okay. I understand."
The black SUV pulled onto Beech Avenue and parked in front of what was left of Corinnes house. She got out and stared at the three brick walls and large, gaping hole where the rest of the house used to be.
"The whole things gone. Everything."
Katherine walked around the vehicle and put her arm around the smaller womans shoulders. "Not everything." She gave Corinne a little squeeze. "The most important thing is still here, and so are your memories. Come Monday, morning Ill call a contractor to come in and give an estimate on what its going to take to get things back in order. Well have it rebuilt just like it was, only brand new. Okay?
Corinne looked up at her boss. "Why are you doing this for me?"
"Because I want to, and because you deserve it. Now, if youre done here, lets go get you some goodies to replace some of the things you lost."
"Really, I dont need much. Just some clothes and basic toiletry items."
Katherine opened the passengers door and gestured for her assistant to climb inside. "Your wish is my command, mademoiselle."
The duo spent the next three hours running around the closed department store, restocking Corinnes wardrobe. When they were finished they piled themselves and their booty into the SUV and headed North away from the city.
Some friends of my mothers run an inn up in Saxonburg. I called ahead while you were trying on clothes and it just so happens that they have an extra room available tonight. Because of the storm, some of the regulars who book for Christmas Eve, had to cancel. I really think youll like it. They put on a big spread every year, with Christmas dinner, a big campfire out back and even a visit from Santa."
"Isnt it a little cold for a campfire?"
"Nah. Its great! My folks used to bring me and my brother up here when we were kids. They set up logs around the fire and you just sit around drinking hot, mulled cider, singing Christmas carols and talking."
"That sounds wonderful!"
"Maybe theyll even have a lyre for you to play."
Corinne frowned and looked at her boss. "How do you know I can play the lyre?"
"Oh. Um. I heard someone at the mission talking about it. Id really like to hear it sometime. You dont find too many lyrists these days. As a matter of fact, youre the first one Ive ever met." She winked at her passenger.
"Yeah. Well, its a dying art. My grandmothers lyre was lost in the fire and I think were going to be hard pressed to find another one before this evening."
"Youre probably right, but you never know what Santa might have up his sleeve."
The women pulled into Katherines driveway and unloaded their packages. "Lets get you set up in the guest room, then we can pack and head up to the Inn."
Katherine led the way into a cozy bedroom. "As you can see, theres the bed. Thats a down comforter on there, so you should be plenty warm. The dresser drawers and the closet are both empty and that door over there on the right leads into your own bathroom. Oh. Wait right here." Katherine left the room and reappeared a moment later with a small military duffle bag. "Here, use this to pack stuff for tonight. Ill let you get settled. Give a holler when youre ready to go." She turned and left Corinne to survey her new surroundings, which just twenty-four hours ago had been totally off limits to her. She wondered to herself about her bosss sudden and dramatic turnaround. Then she figured, it was best not to look a gift horse in the mouth and decided to just follow the new road wherever it would lead her.
< > < > < > < > < > < > < > < > < >
They pulled onto a country lane, which led past a frozen pond and up to a large, colonial manor house, decorated in pine boughs and red ribbons for the Christmas season. Corinnes eyes widened. "This place is gorgeous, Ms. Kr.. er.. Kate."
"Yeah. Its just like I remember it as a kid." Two collies bounded out of the house and greeted the women as they go out of the Navigator. A white haired woman who looked like shed just stepped out of an LL Bean catalogue followed close behind. "Katie! How good to see you again. My goodness, how youve grown! The last time we saw you, I believe you were still in high school."
"Hello Mrs. Clark." Katherine gave the woman an affectionate hug and then turned to Corinne. "This is my assistant, Corinne Flaherty."
"Hello, Corinne. So nice to meet you. Any friend of Katies is a friend of ours. I hope youll find your stay to be comfortable. Weve put you in the Saxon suite. Its quite large, and youll have your own fireplace, but Im afraid theres only one, queen-sized bed in it. We could always bring up a cot, if youd like."
Katherine answered for them both. "I dont think that will be necessary, thank you. We really dont want to be any trouble."
"It wouldnt be any trouble, really. But if you two dont mind sharing a bed, I think youll find it to be very cozy. Its got a down mattress cover on it and you just sink into it."
This time, Corinne answered. "Thatll be, fine, thank you." She had to admit to herself, the thought of sharing a bed with her until very recently unavailable boss was kind of thrilling, even if it was only platonically.
"Very well, then. The room is at the end of the hallway to the right, when you get to the top of the stairs. Heres the key. Do you need Charlie to help you with your luggage?"
Katherine grabbed both duffle bags out of the back of the SUV. "No thanks, well be fine."
"Okay dear. Be down in the main dining hall by seven. Thats when were going to eat. Well start the fire around eight thirty, then Santa arrives at ten. I think youll find hes bringing some special treats this year." She winked and walked away, leaving the women to their own devices.
Katherine opened the door to the suite and the minute Corinne saw the bed, she lunged for it. "Cool! Its a canopy! Ive always wanted one of these. And look! Its got a cute little set of step leading up to it." She put her hands behind her head and allowed herself to sink into the thick down.
Corinne was nearly thrown off the bed when her boss took a flying leap and landed next to her. "Hiya." She had that Cheshire Cat grin on her face that the younger woman always loved to see. Shed never seen anyone with teeth quite as perfect as Katherine Kriegs.
"Hey there, stranger. Come her often?"
"Nope. Not nearly enough, actually." She was on her elbows looking down into Corinnes smiling face.
"Well, you should. Its quite nice this time of year."
"So Im discovering." There was a light and gentleness in those green eyes that shed tried desperately to ignore for three years. Now, recognizing it, made her heart hammer in her chest. "Corinne, Im so sorry about the way Ive treated you. I have some issues from my past that make it difficult for me to trust people."
The blond reached up and cupped her bosss cheek in her hand. "No need to apologize. I always knew that under that tough exterior, you were a good person, and if you ever want to talk about those issues, Id be happy to listen."
"Thank you. Youre a good friend." Katherine leaned down and kissed Corinne on the cheek. Her lips lingered on the soft skin and she closed her eyes, enjoying the warmth.
"Its really my pleasure." Corinne still had her hand on her bosss cheek, and she gently guided her toward her own lips.
Neither woman could be sure exactly how long that first kiss lasted, but both were out of breath by the time they were snapped to attention by the dinner bell.
Katherine rolled onto her back and groaned. "Guess that means its time to go eat." She turned back to Corinne. "You hungry?"
"Absolutely ravenous." The look in her friends eyes told Katherine she wasnt talking about turkey. Somehow they managed to get up anyway and make an appearance at dinner.
After the dishes had been cleared away, the guests were invited to go outback for the annual Christmas campfire. Everybody took their places in the large circle and Charlie doled out the mulled cider and led them in several choruses of various carols.
After quite a few refills and a particularly rousing rendition of "Jingle Bells", the host approached Katherine. "Hey Katie. Remember the way you used to sing when youd come up here as a kid? How bout one of your famous solos?"
Katherine shook her head. Nah, I couldnt. I havent sung in public for years."
Corinne looked at her with surprise. "You sing?"
"Of course she sings!" Charlie patted the brunette on the back. "Shes got one of those voices that will bring tears to your eyes."
Corinne laughed. "So do I, but thats precisely why I dont sing."
"No, its the happy, moved, kind of tears that Im talking about, dear. Katie has a beautiful voice."
Katherine was obviously uncomfortable with the conversation. "I cant, Charlie."
Corinne took her hand. "Oh, come on Kate. She looked pleadingly into her bosss eyes. Id love to hear you sing." Katherine was about to decline for the third time, when Corinne drove the final nail in the coffin by whispering into her ear. "Please? I think women who can sing are incredibly sexy."
Katherine stood up and sang a heart-breaking rendition of "Oh Holy Night" that left nary a dry eye in the place.
Corinne was momentarily speechless and just looked at her boss in awe. "Wow. Charlie wasnt kidding. That was beautiful. Do you take requests?"
Katherine sat back down on the log and put her arm around Corinnes waist. "Later." She said it just loud enough for the blond woman to hear.
The sound of sleigh bells heralded the arrival of Old St. Nick, who looked curiously like the guy in charge of the Clarks horse stable. He pulled up in a one horse open sleigh with a bag full of presents, and quickly got busy handing them out to the guests. Everyone got a hand made ornament with the date on it and a scented holiday candle. Some got gifts that had obviously been prearranged by their loved ones. One man even had Santa deliver to his wife the keys to a brand new Jaguar that was parked in the Clarks garage.
When all the presents had been opened, St. Nick bid every one a Merry Christmas and was about to get back into his sleigh, when he remembered one last gift. He rummaged in the horses saddlebag and pulled out an item that looked like it had been hastily wrapped in some gold foil. He walked back into the circle of guests and stopped in front of Corinne. "I believe this is for you, young lady. A last minute order."
Corinne tried to imagine what the gift could be. "Thank you."
Katherine was beaming. "Well, open it!"
"I will! Gosh, its like youre even more excited than I am." She tore open the paper to reveal her grandmothers lyre.
"How did you..? When " Corinnes eyes brimmed with tears.
"The night of the fire, I saw it on the mantle as I was leaving your bedroom and thought you might like to have it. So, I stuck it in my coat on the way out."
"Thank you so much!" She threw her arms around Katherines neck and held on for a long enough time that the other guest began to shift uncomfortably in their seats.
Charlie cleared his throat. "Perhaps, Corinne could play something for us?"
The blond women released her grip on her bosss neck. "Oh. Yeah, sure. But, Im afraid the only song I know without my music book, is Deck the Halls."
"Then Deck the Halls it is! Everybody sing!" Charlie led the chorus and Corinne played. After that song, she even managed to fake her way through a few more, with no complaints from the other guests.
By eleven oclock everybody was pretty much warn our from the evenings festivities or too drunk to be much good to anyone. Katherine and Corinne were more the former than the latter, but the cider had taken the edge off of their inhibitions.
The taller woman stood up and extended her hand to Corinne. "Shall we retire to our chambers, my dear?"
"Why that sounds absolutely delightful, love." The blond took the offered hand and followed her boss back into the house.
Love? Had Katherine heard that right? Corinne called her, Love. The "L" word. A bolt of excitement shot through her body. Could she actually love me? She turned to look at the beaming woman on the other end of her arm. She supposed it wasnt totally out of the question. But it certainly was surprising, given their history. Then again, she had only called her love, which could simply be a term of endearment. It wasnt like she had actually said I love you or anything like that. "Snap out of it, Krieg. Youre behaving like a love sick school girl." She would have walked right past their bedroom door, had Corinne not tugged on her arm.
"Were here." The blond woman looked expectantly at her companion, waiting for her to produce the key and unlock the door.
"Oh. Yes. So we are." Katherine dug in her pockets, her hand eventually emerging with the key. The two were delighted to find a cozy fire had been started in the stone fireplace while they were outside. The perfect environment for warming cold hands and feet.
Corinne, slipped out of her coat and boots. "You know, theres a hot tub in our bathroom. I was thinking that might feel pretty good right about now. Care to join me?"
There was that strange bolt of excitement again. Krieg wasnt sure what it was, but there was not doubt in her mind about who was the catalyst for it. "Uh. Sure. That sounds great. I didnt pack my swimming suit, though."
A mischievous grin traversed Corinnes face. "Good. Neither did I." She turned for the bathroom and started removing articles of clothing along the way. "Last one in is a rotten egg."
Katherine sprinted after her. "No fair. You got a head start!"
Corinne ran the washcloth across her bosss broad shoulders. "Youve got the most incredible body. How do you stay in such great shape?"
"Oh, you know. A couple of miles a day on the jogging trail and a few hundred sit ups will do wonders." She was kidding and Corinne knew it and swatted her playfully.
"Come on, seriously."
"Im just blessed with good genes. I do yoga a couple of times a week and work out on the Soloflex, but thats about it these days. How bout you? Youre obviously no couch potato either."
Corinne poo pooed the compliment. "This is nothing. I was in much better shape when I ran track in high school. Now days, I swim at the Y on North Avenue three times a week. Thats all I really have time for with work and volunteering at the mission."
Katherine turned around to face her companion. "You know, thats one of the things I love most about you. Your selfless dedication to others." She leaned in and kissed Corinne on the neck, licking off the droplets of water as she worked her way up to the smaller womans ear where she whispered. "I do love you, you know. All those years, I did everything I could to convince both you and myself that I didnt, but I do. I was afraid to let you get to close to me, because I knew that once you did, Id never want to let you go and thats a terrifying thought for me."
Corinne turned to look into the blue eyes she loved so much. Right now they looked like those of a helpless child. "What changed your mind?"
"The thought that I might lose you forever, and youd never know how I truly felt. I didnt want to go to my grave thinking that you might hate me, or worse yet, thinking that I hated you."
Corinne leaned over and placed a tender kiss on Katherines lips. "I never thought you hated me, and I only hated you on certain occasions. But then I tried to imagine what must be motivating you and I got over it."
"What did you think was motivating me?" Katherine was curious to learn more about what her assistant saw in her.
"I thought fear was motivating you. Just like you said. Fear to get too close. I just didnt know what was causing it. Care to enlighten me?"
"Ill tell you what I can. But can we get out of the tub and get into bed first? Im starting to shrivel."
Corinne giggled. "Well, we cant have you turning into a prune. Here." She threw Katherine a towel.
The duo dried off, slipped into some warm flannel and crawled into that oh so inviting down bed.
By the firelight, the conversation that had started in the tub continued. Corinne propped herself up on her right side waiting to hear more.
"Corinne, I used to work for the Special Operations Command of the military. Its an organization that coordinates and controls all the special operations of each branch. You know Delta Force, the Seals, all of the elite forces." Katherine paused for a moment to gauge her companions reaction. Corinne appeared to be fascinated by the revelation, but said nothing. "I was a cryptographer. I deciphered the secret codes that various intelligence agencies would intercept from other countries, and in some cases, from our own crooked agents. I was also a highly skilled sniper, but chose to focus more on the cryptography end of things." She again looked at Corinne for a reaction. "Do you have any questions, so far?"
"No, but I definitely know who Ill be coming to next time I get stuck on one of those word scramble puzzles." Katherine was grateful for the tension relieving joke.
"Okay. If you do have any questions, or if this starts to freak you out, just tell me and Ill stop. Deal?"
"When my father was alive, he spent most of his military career working counter intelligence. He was a spy. He retired, or at least we thought he did, to a job providing protocol services to the diplomats at the American Embassy in Cairo, Egypt. Without getting into too much details, I ended up being sent over there in 1991, to help investigate a corruption scandal that involved someone revealing the names of our agents to the bad guys. I decoded several intercepted messages and discovered it was my father who was selling us out."
"I decided to take matters into my own hands, which is a serious breach of protocol, and followed him one night. I watched my brother die at the hands of the men my father was helping. I moved in to respond and ended up killing half a dozen men, my father among them. SOCOM kicked me out of the service and concocted some story about the Krieg men dying in a big car crash."
"So, six months later, when my grandfather died and grandma asked me if I wanted to take over control of the department store, it seemed like the smart thing to do, to ensure that Id still have an income. And that pretty much brings us to where we are now."
Corinne looked like someone had hit her on the back of the head. "You killed your father?"
"Yes, Im afraid so. It was either him or me. He was going to kill me, Corinne," her voice was beginning to crack. "and he wouldnt have even blinked. It seemed like he was actually looking forward to it. His own daughter. I never did anything but love him, and he was going to murder me in cold blood. I had no choice." Katherine Krieg broke down in tears for the first time in more than a decade. Her assistant pulled her into a warm hug.
"My god, Kate. I am so sorry youve had to carry that burden around all these years. No wonder you didnt want anyone to get close to you." She gently rubbed her companions back as the older woman wept uncontrollably. "Thats right. Let it out. Youll feel better. Know that its not your fault. You had no choice but to do what you did."
Long minutes passed before Katherine was able to speak again. "Even my mother doesnt know."
"Do you think you should tell her?"
"No. Shes had enough heartache in her life. Telling her that her husband was a traitor who killed their son, certainly wouldnt help matters. Im also sure she wouldnt be too keen on hearing that I killed my father."
"Why did he do it?"
"Thats a long story, but it involves an affair and some payback for favors owed. Ill tell you about it some time, but not tonight. Im beat, how bout you?"
"Yeah. Ill be you are. You really havent slept for two days, have you?"
"No, come to think of it, I guess I havent."
"Its all that hero mongering you do in the middle of the night." Corinne leaned over and kissed her boss on the nose.
"You know, kicking down the doors of burning homes and rescuing fair maidens in distress. Thank you again for that, by the way."
"It was purely for selfish reasons. I didnt want to lose a damn good assistant."
Corinne puffed out her chest. "I am pretty good, arent I?"
Katherine poked her in the ribs forcing her to suck her chest back in. "Yes, you are, and as a reward, Id like to give you a raise. Youre an indispensable part of the executive staff, and I think youre worth at least seventy-five thousand dollars a year to the company."
"Are you serious?"
"As a heart attack."
"Thats three times what Im making now."
"I know. I sign the checks. Youll also be receiving full health benefits, as will all full-time employees with the company. And I thought, in your honor, one day every spring, well have a company picnic down at the point, where people can hang out and fly kites."
Corinne jumped on top of her boss and planted a lingering kiss on her lips. "I love you Katherine Krieg."
"Youre just saying that because I gave you a big raise."
"No, Im saying it because its true. You can keep the raise. Just give me yourself. Thats the best Christmas present I could ever wish for."
"I love you too, Corinne. Merry Christmas."
Return to Contest Page