Happy Valentine’s Day, dear readers! I know it’s been a while since I last posted here on the old blog. While my editor works her magic on When We Were Forgotten, I thought I’d take a little break from writing to refresh my head space. It’s been a couple of months of reading, relaxing, playing, and sewing, but now, break time’s over.
As I’ve been promising over the past year so, I’m going to post the six short stories I wrote back in 2014 — the prequels to The Golden Orb — as serialized installments here on the blog. As a Valentine’s gift to all of you, here is the first part of the first short story, entitled “The Harp Job,” in which Gabby takes her first job as a Fae Agent for her Fae Realms employer, Top Hat.
The Harp Job: Part One
Copyright © Amanda Cook 2016
Gabby stood awkwardly in the dark-paneled room. The walls were lined with clocks of all shapes and sizes—tiny alarm clocks on high shelves, tall grandfathers guarding the doors—all of them ready to strike midnight. A large cherry wood desk anchored the room, and behind it sat a small black-haired man in a purple suit and top hat. He smirked as he finished his short speech.
“But fairy tales aren’t real,” Gabby protested. “They’re just stories. Myths and legends written by old men hundreds of years ago. They’re just morality tales, entertainment for little kids. They’re no more real than the magic they’re written about.”
“Ah, m’dear.” Top Hat smiled and adjusted his spectacles on his nose. “But you see, they are real. The ‘old men’ you speak of wrote those tales because they could see the magic. They could touch it and smell it—and taste it. They wanted to share its joy with their world. With your world. The magic within those stories was very real indeed. And it exists even to this day.” He stood up and walked around the desk, his black eyes twinkling. “Allow me to show you.”
He grabbed her right arm and pulled back the sleeve of her hoodie, revealing her pale inner wrist. Taking a peacock feather quill from an inkstand on his desk, he touched its point to her skin. It pinched like a hypodermic needle.
He released her but kept his mad eyes glued to her wrist. Her skin tingled around the blood that bubbled up from where the quill had touched her. The bubble then oozed into a thin, crimson line, which snaked and swerved along her wrist until it resembled the shape of a full-blown rose. Once finished, it seeped back into her veins, leaving a black-red stain behind.
The stain burned itself into her skin, its fire freezing her bloodstream and filling her with a wonderful euphoria. When the fire died out, an unfamiliar sensation remained, a feeling that thrilled her even more than the euphoria. Magic. Power. All those mysterious and beautiful things she’d read about but never quite believed in.
Weighty words buzzed in her ears, then wound their way onto her tongue:
“From sunlit day
To starlit night,
Rose’s thorn seeks blood,
Hides my face from sight.”
The charm echoed in the dim room as she moved her hands instinctively over her face. When she opened her eyes, another woman stared back at her in the glass of a grandfather clock, a woman with short blonde hair and blue eyes. Gabby smiled. The blue-eyed woman smiled back.
And for the first time, Gabby believed.
“Bravo!” Top Hat clapped with glee. “Well done!” His wide grin almost divided his face in two. “And now, m’dear,” he said, his eyes sparkling with pride and greed, “I have a little job for you.” (Excerpt from The Golden Orb, Copyright (c) Amanda Cook 2014)
“What job?” Gabby asked absently, still entranced by her new reflection. Where had her long, brown hair and gray eyes gone? Then, as if hearing Top Hat’s words for the first time, she blinked and shot a confused look over her shoulder at the impish man behind her. “What do you mean, ‘a job’? I already have a job.”
“Yes, a job on the Earthplane. A rather boring one, from what I hear. Computers and the like? I honestly do not understand that sort of thing.” He grimaced and shook his head as though the very thought of IT work was disgusting and beneath him.
Gabby whipped around, her new blue eyes wide. “Wait, how do you know what I do? Have you been spying on me? Are you a hacker?”
“Please, Gabriela, dear. There is no need to be so dramatic,” Top Hat replied, his tone gentle and reassuring. “I have some interest in your … shall I say … family tree, or at the very least, in one or two of its branches.” His small grin was polite, but his dark eyes flashed with some private secret. “It is my interest in those branches that eventually led me to you. After discovering your particular … talents were being wasted daily in that mundane world of yours, I asked my dear Viktor to bring you here. I thought perhaps you would like to try something more … challenging.” Top Hat paused, his smile widening until his pearly teeth shone behind pale lips. “And possibly more dangerous.”
“Dangerous, huh?” Gabby glanced at her reflection again, fingering her new blonde bob. “I don’t know,” she murmured. “Doesn’t sound like any job I’d do.”
“Ah, I thought you might say something like that. But please, hear me out.” The little man bounced on his toes to peer around her at her reflection, his spectacles gleaming in the room’s soft candlelight, hiding his eyes from view. “This particular job requires some finesse while acquiring a number of special … items for me, if you will. And I know for a fact that you are very good at finding things.”
Gabby smiled in spite of herself, remembering all the times her flighty mother would lose something important, like her keys or wallet. She’d ask her daughter to search the house for her instead of attempting it herself, because Gabby never failed once she was on the case. She had an almost scary memory and sharp eyes and loved solving a good mystery whenever the opportunity arose. Her peculiarities sometimes frightened her harried mother and alienated twenty-three-year-old Gabby from others her own age, but she didn’t mind anymore. Being a little quirky meant more quiet time to finish a good book while cuddling with her cat.
“So, um, what’s this interesting and possibly dangerous job you want me to do, then?” she asked.
“Oh, nothing too difficult.” Top Hat waved his hand dismissively, spectacles still shining. “I just need a tiny golden harp from a not-so-tiny giant.”
“A giant!” Gabby spun, almost knocking Top Hot over in the process. He had to be kidding, right? And yet, the ache of the tattoo on her wrist and the soothing hum of the magic flowing through her veins were not a lie. If they could exist, why couldn’t a giant? “I’ve never seen a giant before in my life.” Her eyes suddenly widened in horror, remembering the fairy tales. “But don’t they eat humans?”
Top Hat barked out a high-pitched laugh. “Nonsense. That is just a myth.”
“Um, okay.” She drew the words out slowly, still dubious. Didn’t he just say myths were actually real? “Well, then. How am I supposed to steal a harp from a giant? I’ve never done anything remotely like that before.”
“Not steal, my dear,” Top Hat clarified with another irritated twist of his mouth. He took up the carved ivory pipe laying on his desk and puffed on it thoughtfully, the musky smoke encircling his hat and glowing like a halo made of clouds. “Such an ugly word, that. No, no, no. I merely want to borrow the item in question. It has a few magical properties I would like to … experiment with, so to speak.”
Gabby’s piercing blue eyes narrowed as she wondered what types of experiments could be done with magic. Helpful, productive ones, she hoped. She almost asked Top Hat to explain himself, but the way he glared at her through his pipe smoke told her that maybe it would be best not to know too much at first. Everyone has their secrets, and the job he was offering sounded so exciting and weird and impossible. She didn’t want to screw up her chance to take it—and possibly get herself whisked back to that snowy sidewalk in Blossom, back to her boring life—by asking the wrong kind of questions.
“Okay. Not steal, then. So how am I supposed to find this giant?” she asked, trying her best to look and sound professional, whatever that meant for this strange employer in this even stranger office. “Up a beanstalk?” she added with smirk.
Top Hat’s pale grin split his face, reminding her of a Cheshire cat. “Very perceptive, my dear. See, Viktor? Did I not tell you she had a brilliant mind, this one?”
Viktor, who had sat down in one of the wingback chairs facing Top Hat’s desk, rolled his golden eyes before turning his attention on the pulsing ruby ring enveloping one of his skeletal fingers. Gabby shuddered at the blood-like gem and returned to staring at herself in the grandfather clock.
“Where is this beanstalk I’m supposed to climb, then?”
“Ah, straight to the point. I do like that about a fresh Agent.” Top Hat chittered gleefully to himself before clearing his throat and straightening the mother-of-pearl pin in his ascot. “There is a young man waiting for you just outside the mansion doors. He has some experience with the giant in question and can lead you to the beanstalk portal.”
Gabby paused in her preening. “Wait, if he has so much experience, why doesn’t he get the harp himself? Why have me do it?”
“Well, Miss Gabriela,” Top Hat said as he laid his pipe on the polished surface of his desk, “let us just say that Jack … disappointed me. He used to be one of my finest Agents, but … well, he has not been himself of late.”
“Jack?” Gabby snorted. “His name is Jack?”
The minuscule man blinked in surprise. “Why, yes. Do you take issue with his name?”
“No,” she replied hastily. “No, of course not.” She combed her fingers through the short strands of her new hairstyle and gasped in delight. Her longer, heavier, brown locks were still there, but she could not see them, only feel their heft in her hands.
“Excellent.” Top Hat nodded in satisfaction, the feather in his hat bobbing with his head. “Now, before I set you off on your new adventure, there is one more matter of business to which we must attend. Would you please have a seat, my dear?”
Viktor shot up from his chair and stepped to the side, allowing Gabby to sit down. The chair cushion was cold, as though it had been empty all evening, and the scents of cinnamon and cardamom clung faintly to the velvet fabric. As Gabby settled into a more comfortable position, her feet left the floor and dangled over the plush rug covering the floorboards. She was struck with a sudden memory from childhood, of climbing and nestling into the corner of her father’s overstuffed easy chair, as chilled and vacant as Top Hat’s was before she sat down.
Her new, little employer took his place behind the desk in a leather rollaway chair. He laid his arms across the desk’s glossy surface, his palms up and waiting.
“Take my hands, please.” It was more a command than a request, but gentle, subtle.
Gabby stared back at him as a chill slithered down her spine, warning her of something she couldn’t quite put her finger on. “Why?”
“Oh, there is no need to be alarmed, my dear.” Top Hat’s soft tenor voice was cloyingly sweet. “This is just a part of the contract process. A way for me to gain your signature. So to speak.” The corners of his mouth twitched in amusement.
Gabby glanced over at Viktor next to her, suddenly tall and looming in the dim room. His eyes remained on his ring, casually inspecting it, but he stood too close to the chair for her comfort.
“Come, now, my dear,” Top hat encouraged. “Time is wasting away as we sit here.”
With a shuddering sigh and a lingering doubt, Gabby leaned forward and dropped her clammy palms into Top Hat’s gloved ones.
“Now, gaze into my eyes.”
She stared back at him and, almost immediately, felt herself slip away into darkness as a thick, black fog clouded her mind. Yanking hard, she tried to free herself from Top Hat’s grip, but strong hands grasped her shoulders from behind, and she lost herself to the void.
That’s it for today. Come back in about a week for Part Two. And if you like what you’ve read so far, you can read more of Gabby’s later adventures as a Fae Agent in The Golden Orb.
Thanks for reading.