by R. Christophe Ryber
Shannon ignored the drunken hoots from the rusty pickup and waited for it to roar through the blinking stoplight before she trotted across the snowy street. She stood there in the falling snow, in the bare spot by the curb where she had parked her Kia. The tow truck's deep treaded tires had left sharp grooves in the fresh blanket of snow.
Shannon stomped onto the sidewalk and glared at the letters on the large glass pane -- Shambala Yoga. An OPEN sign dangled in the window, but the studio was dark. She craned her neck upward and frowned at the light spilling from the apartment window above the studio. Heather had let herself in.
Shannon wasn't quite ready to deal with Heather yet. She looked back at the OPEN sign in the dark window, and gave the door handle a nudge. The door swung open.
Shannon stood there in the darkened studio, her back pressed up against the frosted glass door. The furnace thrummed somewhere in the basement, and the snow trickled off her boots into puddles on the waxed hardwood floor. Beads of sweat began to cluster under her matted red hair.
A yellow flame flickered through a curtain of beads at the back of the studio. Shannon kicked her boots off onto a rubber mat under a row of empty coat hooks. Her sweaty feet slapped on the wooden floor as she padded toward the dancing light. Her outstretched fingers parted the rows of glistening black beads. A low droning chant filled the void beyond the curtain. She pushed on through. The strands of beads clacked together behind her as they slid off her fleece.
The claustrophobic heat, perfumed with musk and sage, was more than she could bear. Shannon tugged at the sleeves of her fleece and ripped the jacket off. She blinked in the dark as she brushed the strands of red from her eyes. She choked on a scream.
A gleaming black face leered at her out of the shadows. The yellow candlelight jumped and danced over its red eyes and ivory fangs. Wisps of smoke curled before the grinning red lips, and then swirled away in the jets of hot, dry air blasted from unseen vents somewhere in the dark corners of the room. Eight arms ringed the naked porcelain body, which sat on a throne adorned with a grinning skull. Six pairs of eyeless sockets pleaded silently at Shannon from the white skulls cradled in the upturned, elegant hands.
Shannon lowered her eyes from the nightmarish idol, and the feeble candlelight revealed a head of long black hair atop bare brown shoulders. The naked body rocked back and forth in rhythm to a low droning chant, a counterpoint to the growling of the boiler in the basement. The candle flame flared up for a moment, and a sharp breath passed Shannon's lips as the shadows slipped down the sweaty, glistening back to pool under the bare buttocks resting on the kneeling man's feet.
The silhouetted head whirled around, and a pair of brown, almond shaped eyes gleamed at Shannon.
Shannon threw a hand before her eyes and turned back toward the beaded curtain. She lifted her fleece jacket in front of her as if to ward off the man's nakedness.
"Holy shit, I am so sorry. I thought this was part of the studio."
The man's feet slapped unhurriedly over to a far corner, and silk rustled against bare skin.
"Please, come in. I apologize. It's late, and customers haven't exactly been beating down my door."
Shannon turned away from the beaded curtain and lowered her jacket. The man had just finished knotting the strand of silk at the waist of the dark green robe. His brown eyes followed hers to the ebony statue behind him. He smiled.
"Do not be alarmed, it is only Kali."
"You should be over in Greenfield."
The smile faded, and the long black hair rustled on the silk covered shoulders.
Shannon nodded. "On the other side of the mountain. The crunchies and college kids would eat this stuff up."
"But not in Harden?"
Shannon smiled and shook her head at the slender man in his green silk robe.
"Rednecks don't do yoga."
Brown, manicured hands rolled up the mat the robed man had been kneeling on.
"Clients have indeed been sparse. The only car I've had in front of my studio is some broken down Kia."
Shannon swallowed. "That's my Kia."
The brown hands froze and the almond eyes widened.
"Oh, my. I am terribly sorry. You must be -- "
"Shannon Healy. I live upstairs."
"Yes, Miss DeLafleur mentioned you. I'm Daniel Singh."
Shannon couldn't help smiling at hearing Heather called 'Miss DeLafleur'.
"Yeah, Heather said that parking spot was yours. Look, I'm sorry I was in your spot, but if you park out back they plow you in." Shannon swallowed her pride and took a deep breath. "The thing is, I kind of need my car tomorrow and I don't have tow charges in my budget this week."
Daniel stared blankly for a moment, and then nodded. "Oh. Of course. I understand."
Shannon pictured her hot cheeks turning pink. "I would pay you back, you know."
Daniel was already pulling a strongbox out of the cabinet that housed the leering, multi-armed statue. He fumbled with the lock, and then pulled out a bank envelope.
"How much do you think -- "
Shannon stared at her bare toes. "Fifty." She took the bills without looking up and stuffed them in her front pocket. "I'll have it back to you on Friday."
"Perhaps you could help another way."
Daniel put a hand on her arm, and then drew back as Shannon flinched and pulled her fleece closer. He held up his hands.
"As I said, clients are rather scarce here. It's been my experience that people walk by a yoga studio and look inside several times before deciding to take the plunge. If they never see any yoga going on -- "
Shannon nodded. "They keep walking."
"If I had a regular yoga session every day, however, people would be more inclined to stop and come inside."
Shannon looked sideways at Daniel. "You want me to take a yoga class?"
Daniel shrugged his shoulders under the robe. "There would be no charge, of course. It would be well worth any new business."
Shannon slumped. There had already been fireworks over scheduling with both her manager and her advisor since she had gone back to school. She looked at Daniel, felt the bills in her front pocket, and then nodded.
"I can be here at ten. But I have to be at work by noon."
Heather's airheaded laugh echoed from the open door as Shannon trudged up the narrow stairs. A deep, gravelly voice muttered in reply.
Shannon pushed her door open the rest of the way and glared at the dreadlocked woman with a ring through one nostril sitting on her kitchen counter. A man slouched on her futon watching the weather channel. He sat up and pulled his work boots off the coffee table as Shannon stomped the snow off her feet. Heather played with her nose ring as she looked at her watch.
"What'd you do, Shannon, get lost?"
Shannon threw her fleece on the kitchen table and glared at Heather. "Thanks for telling them to wait."
Heather spread her hands. "I can't be makin' a scene. I'm doin' deliveries tonight." She pointed a ringed finger at her boyfriend as he fumbled to work the remote through his knit gloves. "I hate walking around Harden with all that cash, so Travis is running protection."
Travis lit up at the mention of his name and shoved a hand inside his Carhart jacket. He pulled out a gleaming revolver and pointed it at the weatherman on the television.
"Got it this afternoon at the Rod & Gun shop. Pretty slick, huh?" Shannon shot Heather a dark look before growling at Travis.
"You blow a hole in my TV and I'm gonna be pissed."
Heather jumped down off the kitchen counter and swung her hemp handbag, knocking Travis' Skoal cap sideways.
"You retard! You're in front of a window and it's dark outside. Every idiot in Harden can see you."
Travis glared at Heather and set the gun down on top of the television. Shannon fidgeted with her keys.
"Look guys, I've gotta get back to work. Jeff is pissed as it is."
Heather patted Shannon's shoulder. "Don't you worry, honey." She snapped her fingers at Travis. "Go start the truck and bring it around front."
Travis adjusted his cap. He blew a sarcastic kiss at Heather, nodded at Shannon, and then clomped down the stairs. Shannon closed the door and shook her head.
"You let him carry a gun?"
Heather shrugged. "It makes him feel important. But yeah, maybe you're right." Heather's eyes narrowed and she took a step closer to Shannon. "So what's up, girl? You on a health kick or something? You haven't needed any in quite a while."
Shannon backed up and found herself against the kitchen counter. She glanced over at the girl who stared at her out of the oil painting on the kitchen table.
"It's about Erin. I was thinking about going for custody."
Heather's hazel eyes lit up. "That guy found her?"
Shannon nodded. "The P.I. said she's living in Syracuse with her father."
"She must be what, ten or eleven?"
"Eric's got a good job and a house, so I figured I'd better lay off the weed and start doing something with myself."
Heather walked over to the painting. She ran a finger over the paint splatters on the laptop that sat under a pile of dried paint brushes. "So that explains the night classes. Are you an art major?"
Shannon sat down at the table and smiled at the dimple on Erin's cheek, just like her own. "I'm taking business courses so I can get promoted at work. I haven't done anything since I got to Harden but run a register and get high. That won't look good in family court."
Heather sat down next to her and put a hand on her knee. "I'm happy for you, Shannon. So, I hate to be a bitch-"
Heather nodded. "This landlord thing sucks. It's draining me dry -- taxes, maintenance, insurance. If my old man weren't dead, I'd kill him for leaving the apartment building to me." Heather squeezed Shannon's leg. "It gets worse, girl. You weren't the only one to dump me. The weed business is drying up around here. I'm gonna have to -- "
Shannon's eyes flared and she slapped Heather's hand away.
"Oh, bullshit, Heather! You are not raising my rent."
Heather shrugged her shoulders. "I have to make up the revenue somewhere, and if you're not going to buy from me anymore, well -- "
Shannon folded her arms and sank back into the chair. "I don't have any extra cash. I'm using my weed money to pay for classes."
Heather's gaze narrowed. Her ringed fingers rubbed Shannon's thigh. "Maybe we could work something out. What's that saying? Cash, grass or -- "
Shannon crossed her legs. "I told you before, Heather. No."
Heather sighed. "What's a girl to think? You walk around in flannel shirts and work boots -- "
"Heather, it's winter eight months out of the year here."
"-- putting on this sexy tough girl act -- "
"Okay, whatever." Heather stood up and grabbed her hemp satchel. She fished inside it and dropped a plastic bag on the table. "On me."
A horn honked three times. Shannon pulled her eyes away from the bag and walked over to the door. She turned the handle and rested her head on the door frame. "I've got to get back to work, Heather."
Heather flicked the keychain in Shannon's hand, making the black KIA key jangle against the others. "You gonna rip the yoga dude a new one?"
Shannon slapped her front pocket. "I was just there. I shook him down for the tow money."
Heather smiled wickedly. Shannon flinched as Heather smacked her bottom. "Sign up for some yoga classes next time you're there. You're getting quite a spread there, girl."
Shannon pointed down the staircase. Heather shrugged and stepped into the hallway. Shannon grabbed her arm.
Heather melted into her grip and whispered in her ear.
"Change your mind?"
Shannon nodded at the revolver on top of the television. "Travis's new toy."
Heather waved at it dismissively. "Travis is too stupid to carry a gun. Rob a bank with it and get me my rent money."
The horn honked again and Heather rolled her eyes. "Why don't you come with me? I'll get rid of Travis for the night. I feel ten times safer around you."
Shannon shook her head. "I'm head cashier, Heather. I can't just call out."
"So responsible, girl. Don't work too hard."
Shannon closed the door behind Heather. She looked from the gun, to the plastic bag, to the oil painting.
What the hell am I doing? I don't deserve Erin yet.
Shannon grabbed her handbag and stuffed the gun and the plastic bag into it. She collapsed back into her chair in front of the oil painting.
I'm sorry, Erin. I should never have left you like that.
The phone rang, and Shannon wiped at her eyes. She sighed at the caller ID and picked up the handset.
"What is it, Jeff?"
"Are you coming back, or what?"
Shannon looked at her watch and groaned. "Sorry, Jeff. I'm on my way."
Shannon winced and rubbed her back as she rolled over on the futon. She blinked at the blonde on the television caressing the 36 piece cutlery set that was only $29.95 and tried to make sense of the white letters scrolling across the red bar on the bottom of the screen. She sat up and grimaced as fire lanced down her back and into her thigh. She wriggled her numb toes and squinted at the window.
Just how much snow had they gotten last night?
The weather advisory looked serious -- schools closed everywhere, the highway shut down. Shannon shuffled over to the frosted window. Instead of Main Street, there was a suffocating white blanket over two feet deep. The heavy flakes were still falling.
So much for getting her car out today.
Shannon's stomach grumbled and her nose twitched at the heavy aroma rising through the vents from Daniel's apartment, fainter now than it had been last night. Shannon had returned from work to the apartment smelling like stew, but it had been late and Heather's smart remark rang in her ears. After frowning at her ample bottom in the full length hall mirror, Shannon had gone to bed hungry.
Now she was starving.
The handset on the kitchen table trilled, and Shannon's stomach sank. She grabbed the phone and shook her head as the orange LED screen flashed Super Circle Mkt. She tossed the phone back onto the table unanswered and stumbled into the kitchen toward the coffee pot. Shannon had just spooned the last of the grounds into the filter when the handset chirped again.
What the hell, Jeff!
Shannon grabbed the phone, and then raised an eyebrow when she saw the name on the screen. She thumbed the TALK button.
"Were you still coming down? I know there was a storm -- "
Shannon slumped into the folding chair as she looked at the clock, last night's promise ringing accusingly in her ears. She racked her brain for a way out.
"Daniel -- "
The handset chirped and the caller ID flashed the call waiting -- Super Circle Mkt. Shannon rolled her eyes.
"I was just on my way down."
Shannon's stomach grumbled again as she kicked her work boots off onto the rubber mat. She hadn't bothered to lace them, which had been a mistake. When she stepped out onto the sidewalk she had plunged knee deep into the snow and it had worked its way into her boots. They would be soaked by the time she went to work.
Daniel looked up from where he was laying out the mats and smiled at Shannon. She waved, sighing as she looked first at Daniel's tight shorts and bare chest and then at her bulky gray sweatpants and hoodie.
"Sorry, it's all I've got. You wouldn't want to see me in tights."
Daniel took her hand and led her over to the mats. "You're fine. In India, skinny women aren't considered all that attractive."
"How long has it been?" Shannon smiled at Daniel's look. "Since you've been to India, I mean."
Daniel left Shannon on her mat and stepped over to his own. "Actually, I'm from Cleveland." He turned to face the wall length mirror in front of them.
Shannon raised an eyebrow at his reflection. "How exotic."
Daniel bent forward and motioned for Shannon to do the same. "My grandfather emigrated from India. I inherited my brown skin and devotion to Kali from him."
Shannon eased into the forward bend and tried to ignore the disturbing way the room began to spin. The dull burning ache in her lower back flared into a searing pain as she bent over. She gritted her teeth and fought through it.
"Kali? Oh, right. The scary lady with all the arms. How do you sleep with that thing in the room?"
Shannon flailed at the dull red polish on her toes and missed. She winced as a bolt of fire lanced into the back of her thigh. Daniel's voice echoed in the empty studio.
"Don't strain. Relax into the pose."
The room tilted, and then faded to black. Shannon opened her eyes and found herself lying flat on the mat. Daniel stood over her, his eyes wide.
"I said, are you alright, Shannon?"
Shannon pushed herself up off the mat. "Sorry. I should've eaten something this morning. It's happened before." She took Daniel's hand and winced as she stood up. He frowned.
"Did you hurt yourself?"
"No, I've got sciatica. Too many years of walking on tiles at the supermarket." Shannon glanced out the window at the street. "I guess this isn't helping your business."
Daniel smiled. "I don't think the snowplows have even been through yet." He motioned toward the beaded curtain in the back of the studio. "Come sit down. You need to eat something. After, if you like, I will show you how to take care of your back."
Shannon gripped Daniel's arm as the wooden floor threatened to become the ceiling again.
"Lead the way."
Shannon settled onto the bench and shrank back into the breakfast nook, away from the idol on the opposite wall. The catlike eyes seemed to laugh at her, and the skulls in the black hands seemed even more wretched in the morning light. Daniel set a plate of toast in front of her. Shannon's stomach growled.
"What was that stew that I had to smell all last night through my vents?"
Daniel smiled. "I'm afraid I already disposed of the leftovers." He bowed to the idol before sitting down across from Shannon. She pointed at Kali's morbid trophies.
"Are those real?"
"Why, yes, they are."
Shannon tilted her head and gave Daniel her "you're full of shit" look. He laughed.
"No, really. It's amazing what you can buy on the internet."
Shannon nodded at the single empty hand.
"Well, you're one short. Of all the hobbies in the world -- "
Daniel sat down across from Shannon and gazed at the eight armed goddess. "I said you can buy almost anything on the internet, but I didn't say it was cheap. It's been a long, slow process, collecting them all, and I'm almost finished."
Shannon ripped her eyes away from the idol and munched on her toast. Real butter. Damn, I was hungry.
"Is it part of your religion or something? I mean, why go to all the trouble?"
Shannon looked over at Daniel. He sipped from his teacup as he gazed at the empty hand.
"Kali will bless me."
The silence in the room was broken only by the crunching of toast. Daniel took another sip of tea.
"Let me show you something." He stood up and took Shannon's hand. They walked over in front of the idol. "Look down."
Shannon's gaze dropped to the mat under her bare feet. There was Kali again, except this time she held a severed head in one hand. A bloody sword dripped in another. Her black feet danced on the chest of a headless male corpse. Shannon's gorge rose and she looked up at Daniel.
"You're not helping my appetite."
Daniel flashed his white teeth. "The poor chap on the ground is Shiva, the lord of creation and destruction. Kali takes his life, but he returns. Kali loves him." Daniel's voice lowered as he stared down at the thick woven mat. "I would give anything to be him."
Shannon stepped back and folded her arms.
"Please don't be crazy. My only other friend in this town is a bisexual drug dealer. I could use some normal."
Daniel laughed over his tea. "Is it so crazy? Are not Christians urged to become Christ?"
"Christians don't collect skulls."
Daniel took Shannon's hand, the one without the toast, and held it in his. He nodded at the idol on its wooden case. "This is all I have of my grandfather, of my heritage. It is my wish someday to fulfill the family legend and fill all of Kali's hands as she demands." Daniel's smile faded as his eyes flickered over to the outstretched hand. "I must honor my grandfather's wish."
Shannon munched on her toast and stared at Daniel. "My bisexual drug dealer just gave me a gun."
Daniel smiled and let her hand slip through his fingers. "Then perhaps it is I who should be wary." He frowned as Shannon winced again. "Let's do something about that sciatica."
Daniel walked over to a closet and pulled out a padded folding table. With a practiced flourish, he opened it and locked the legs into place.
"From time to time, I have practiced healing arts, though I am not licensed in this state. You must promise not to sue me."
Shannon hesitated, then climbed onto the table and lay face down. "You haven't been listening. If you mess up my back, I'll shoot you."
Shannon lowered her head into the padded ring and tried to relax as much as she could while staring at the weaving of the dancing Kali and headless Shiva. She flinched as Daniel pulled up her gray hoodie and lowered the elastic waist on her sweatpants. The warm air from the vent blew across the tops of her bare buttocks.
What the --
Shannon moved to get up, but Daniel's hand pressed into the small of her back. His soft voice resonated in her ears.
"Easy. I'm scared of you, remember?"
Shannon took a deep breath and relaxed onto the table. Daniel's hands were surprisingly warm. Strong fingers probed deep into the muscle tissue, and Shannon lost herself in the rhythmic pressure. Her eyes had just closed when Daniel's fingers wrapped around her ankle. Shannon's legs separated and Daniel planted a hand between her thighs. She craned her neck, but Daniel pushed her back onto the padding.
Daniel twisted her leg and shoved on her left cheek. Something popped. Shannon quivered and her eyes rolled back as her buttocks and thighs tingled. The toes on her left foot came back to life.
"Did I hurt you?"
Shannon sighed and melted into the padding. She let her thighs fall open and gave into the penetrating fingers on her glutes.
"That was freaking amazing."
They both jumped as the front door jingled. Several deep voices echoed in the studio. Shannon looked over her shoulder at Daniel. He patted her bare back.
"Wait here. I won't be long."
Daniel disappeared through the beaded curtain. Shannon craned her neck over her shoulder. A loud voice reverberated through the studio.
"Yes. How can I help you?"
"Do you know where your upstairs neighbor might be?"
"Why? Is there some problem?"
"It's fairly obvious, Mr. Singh, from the tracks in the snow out front that she came in here. Please cooperate."
"One moment please."
Shannon pulled her sweats up and sat up on the table, her heart pounding in time with Daniel's bare feet as they padded back across the wooden floor. A ball of ice congealed in her stomach as Daniel stuck his head through the beads. The color had drained from his face.
"Shannon, the police are here."
Shannon slid off the table. She walked over to Daniel, her pulse pounding in her ears. He opened the curtain and Shannon felt the cold spike of adrenalin in her veins.
The two uniformed officers exchanged knowing glances as Shannon stepped out into the studio.
"Could we go up to your apartment, please?"
For a moment, the two men in their heavy blue jackets were blocked out by the image of the plastic bag sitting on top of her refrigerator.
"You're a friend of -- "the officer paused to look at his notepad. "Heather DeLafleur. Is she staying with you?"
Shannon shook her head. "No. She's my landlord, but she has her own place."
"Yes, we tried there already. Is she upstairs now?"
Shannon fought to breathe steady. She looked the officer in the eye. "I haven't seen her since yesterday. She left my place around six."
"Could we check anyway? She's your landlord, so she has a key to your apartment, and if you were here -- "
Shannon stared at the man with blank eyes. Her lips moved, but nothing came out. Daniel stepped forward and placed a hand on her shoulder.
"Don't say anything else, Shannon." He turned to the policemen. "Shannon arrived here around nine this morning. As you said yourself, officer, it was very easy to tell that Shannon had come downstairs. She already told you that Miss DeLafleur left last night around six. If she had tried to enter Miss Healy's apartment this morning, she would have left tracks in the new snow."
The policeman frowned at Daniel, and then turned back to Shannon. "Miss Healy, a young woman went missing last night. She was a tourist staying at the ski resort over in Waterville. We know that she came to Harden to purchase some narcotics." The man took off his hat and rubbed at his blond crew cut. "She never made it back."
Daniel kept his grip on Shannon's arm. "That was quite a storm we had last night, officer. Are you sure this woman isn't stranded off the road somewhere?"
The officer's gaze narrowed and he stepped over to the window. He crooked a finger at Daniel and Shannon. The ice ball in Shannon's stomach had spread to her limbs, and she felt as if the room might upend again. Shannon leaned on Daniel as she pressed her nose to the cold glass. A chill chased away the warmth in her legs as she spotted the flashing blue and amber lights at the end of Main Street. The officer's gloved finger tapped on the glass.
"That's her car down there."
As Shannon stared at the man's gloved hand, her mind replayed the scene in her apartment in slow motion. Shannon watched helplessly as Travis pulled the gun out of his jacket with his gloved hand, and then set it down on the television. She saw Heather wave jokingly at it. She watched herself pick up the gun and stuff it into her handbag.
Shannon looked up. From the look in the officer's eyes, Shannon guessed he must have said her name several times.
"We'd very much like to speak with Heather DeLafleur. Call us if you see her."
Shannon nodded. "I will."
The gun weighed heavily in Shannon's handbag as she pushed open the front door of the Super Circle, her cell phone glued to her ear. Heather's number had rung for the twentieth time when Shannon stomped into the break room. She mashed the OFF button with her thumb. She slipped the phone into her front pocket and cast a glance at the clock. The hour hand pointed accusingly between 1 and 2. She fumbled with the zipper on her fleece.
"Where have you been?"
Shannon put the handbag in her locker and slammed it shut. She took a deep but shaky breath and turned around to face the potbellied man in the doorway.
"I'm really sorry, Jeff. It's been a shitty morning."
Shannon moved to skirt through the break room door but a hairy arm barred her way.
"The cops called here this morning, Shannon. And now you're two hours late. What the hell is going on?"
They both looked down as the bulge in Shannon's front pocket buzzed. Shannon slid the phone out. Her chest tightened when she saw the number. She ignored Jeff's look and turned away.
"I have to take this."
She hit the TALK button and hissed into the phone.
"You better start talking, Heather. And no bullshit."
Heather's voice shook despite the cheerful tone.
"Hey girl. You don't happen to have what I left you last night, do you?"
Shannon glanced over her shoulder at Jeff, who still blocked the doorway, and squeezed further into the corner.
"It's in my handbag."
"Oh, good. 'Cause the cops are tossing your apartment right now."
Shannon's knees gave out and she grabbed at a metal folding chair. Her eyes began to water as she curled up on the hard metal seat.
"How could you screw me like this, Heather?"
"Please. Like I knew this would happen."
A hysterical laugh escaped Shannon's lips. She wiped at her wet cheeks.
"What did you think would happen, Heather? I was trying to get my life back together. Now what am I supposed to do?"
Shannon bit her lip. She could see Jeff's frown in the metal hand towel dispenser by the sink. Heather's voice was surrealistically calm in her ear.
"Does anyone else know that you have it?"
Shannon nodded, and then realized how ridiculous that was.
There was a pause at the other end.
"The guy downstairs? Yoga dude?"
Shannon nodded again.
"Yeah. I mentioned you gave it to me."
Shannon's blood pounded in her ears for a long moment.
"Shit. Will he talk to the cops?"
Shannon wiped her cheeks and looked over her shoulder. Jeff was still there, arms folded.
"When I was there with him, this morning, they showed up. He was quite helpful, actually. Very protective."
The cell phone erupted into harsh laughter.
"That didn't take long. So he wouldn't think twice about throwing me under the bus if it took the heat off you, huh?"
A cold thrill went down Shannon's back and she sat up in the chair, her eyes glaring off into space as she hissed into the phone.
"Leave him alone, Heather. He was just being helpful."
"Yeah. Regular white knight. I better go see him, after the cops get done with your place. I'd bring Travis, but he's disappeared."
"Heather! What the hell is going on with you? You're talking crazy."
The connection dropped and Shannon slammed her fist on the table. She had been so stupid, getting involved with Heather. After ten years, how could she have not seen this coming? Shannon looked at her reflection in the towel dispenser.
She's a drug dealer, you idiot.
Jeff coughed. Shannon shifted in the metal chair and mumbled at the muddy tile.
"I've gotta go."
She looked up and Jeff folded his arms over his potbelly.
"Yeah, about that Shannon. Why don't you leave me your store keys on the way out."
Shannon adjusted the handbag on her shoulder as she waded through the snow with numb feet. Her soaked boots had frozen on the walk over to the store, and now they clung to her wet socks, wicking the heat out of her. A shiver wracked her body as she neared the intersection with Main Street, but she wasn't sure how much it had to do with the cold.
Shannon edged closer to the corner, until the apartment building slid into view. No flashing blue lights awaited her, and a relieved puff of air escaped her chapped lips. She cast guilty looks up and down the street before she rushed across the intersection.
She leaned on the glass door to the yoga studio and ducked her head inside. The studio was empty, but light spilled out from under the beaded curtain in the back. Shannon slipped inside and turned the deadbolt, though she knew that Heather would probably have her landlord's key.
Shannon paused just long enough to kick her frozen boots off and skittered across the polished wood floor. She froze at the sound of Heather's voice from behind the rows of beads.
She swallowed hard and pushed through the curtain.
Heather fell silent as Shannon stepped into the room. Daniel stood there, on the woven mat before the hideous idol. Heather glared at her, wide-eyed. She kept her hands behind her back as she leaned against the table in the breakfast nook.
Daniel swallowed hard and glanced from Heather to Shannon. The rasp in his voice confirmed Shannon's worst fears.
"Shannon. This is not a good time. Perhaps you should come back."
Heather's eyes narrowed as they studied Shannon. "No, I think she should stay."
Shannon's jaw hardened. Heather nodded at Daniel, who seemed deep in thought. "I came to talk to your new friend here. Girl, you sure have a shitty sense of who to trust."
Daniel's voice took on an edge. "Get out now, Shannon. While you still can."
Shannon shook her head. "I won't let her hurt you."
Heather laughed hysterically. "You are so fucking na´ve, Shannon."
Shannon swallowed back the bile in her throat. "Show me your hands, Heather."
Heather shook her head. Her laughs were becoming shrieks, and a tear ran down her cheek. "I can't, you stupid bitch."
Shannon let the handbag, so heavy now, slip off her shoulder and edged her hand toward the opening. "Show me your hands."
Heather lunged toward Shannon. Daniel's arm lashed out, connected with her face, and Heather crashed at Shannon's feet, face down. Shannon stared down at her friend, her eyes wide.
Heather's hands were duct taped behind her back.
Shannon looked up at Daniel. He shrugged apologetically. Shannon watched, numb, as he knelt in front of the idol of Kali and opened the cabinet. She gasped and took a step back away from the machete that Daniel now hefted in his hand.
"Miss DeLafleur stopped by because she was concerned I might have mentioned the narcotics she had left with you to the police."
Shannon shook her head, her eyes fixed on the heavy blade. "The pot? That's what she came to talk to you about? What about the girl she shot?"
Daniel passed the blade through the smoky tendrils rising from the incense burner at Kali's feet.
"Oh yes, the girl. Miss DeLafleur was worried that with the missing person investigation the police might uncover her narcotics ring, since she had sold the girl drugs shortly before she disappeared."
Shannon ran through the phone conversation at the Super Circle. Nothing seemed real anymore.
"Heather didn't shoot anyone?"
Daniel shook his head. "The police, however, seem to think so. If Miss DeLafleur were to disappear, they would assume she had fled out of guilt." He looked down at Heather's unconscious body. "Quite a stroke of luck, actually. I feared I would have to wait quite a while to finish my collection."
Shannon's eyes flickered over to the idol. Daniel smiled as the realization spread across her face. He tapped the bottom most skull with the machete. "Yes, Shannon. Here is the missing girl."
Shannon took a step back. "I guess that wasn't stew I smelled. Heather's right. I am na´ve. I should have known you couldn't buy skulls on the internet."
Daniel strode casually toward the beaded curtain, and Shannon retreated further into the room. "Actually, you can. Reluctant to shed blood, I tried that first. I filled all eight hands with thousands of dollars' worth of perfectly legal skulls. And absolutely nothing happened."
Shannon held the handbag in front of her like a shield and continued to back away from Daniel, almost tripping on the macabre mat in front of Kali.
"That's because it's a statue, you crazy fuck."
Daniel shook his head. "Oh, no. It is much more than that. The thuggee my grandfather purchased the idol from was deadly serious. Kali's blessing awaits the one who will make the proper offering. My grandfather brought the idol with him to America, but he could never bring himself to attempt the offering." Daniel's face grew dark. "My father, a product of American suburbia, had nothing but contempt for the legend, but as for me -- my grandfather sensed in me a spirit worthy of Kali's blessing."
Daniel looked down at Heather. "It is not enough to offer a skull. The kill is what's important. You must kill for Kali. It is the death, I realized, not the skull, which makes you worthy."
Shannon choked back a sob and clutched her handbag with both arms.
A sad smile twisted Daniel's lips. "I am not crazy, Shannon. I wish you could see that. Then we could leave this dreadful backwater town together." He lifted the machete and rested it on his shoulder. "I'm afraid though, that you must have fled with Heather, a guilty accomplice to her crime."
As Daniel took a step forward onto the mat, Shannon pulled her hand out of the bag. The revolver's heavy barrel bobbed and weaved in Daniel's direction. Daniel's eyes narrowed as Shannon pulled back the hammer. Shannon swallowed hard.
"I warned you not to be crazy."
The machete blade sliced through the air and Shannon screamed. The gun roared in Shannon's hand, and something hit her in the face, hard. She blinked and found herself sprawled on the floor, blood streaming down the side of her face. Her fingers found the gash in her forehead just as she spotted the blood stained revolver lying on the floor. Shannon scrambled to her feet, still staggering from the recoil.
Daniel lay on the woven mat, a pool of blood spreading out from under him. A strange whistling sound escaped the jagged hole in his bare chest. He flailed for the machete with his bloody fingertips, but Shannon grabbed the blade. She planted a bare foot on his chest and forced him back down onto the mat.
As Shannon put more weight on Daniel's chest, the horrific scene on the woven mat caught her eye. She looked from the dancing, sword wielding goddess in the weaving to the machete she held in her hand, to Daniel's body writhing under her bare foot.
Daniel's bloody fingers clawed her ankle.
"Kali, is it you?" The fingers wrapped tighter around Shannon's leg. "Complete me, Kali. Make me your Shiva."
Shannon tried to pull away, but Daniel's grip held her fast. "Daniel -- "
Daniel's eyes cleared for a moment. "It's all true, Shannon. I'm dying anyway, and you've got what it takes. Make me Shiva, and claim the blessing."
Shannon shook her head. She struggled, but her leg was locked in Daniel's grip. Daniel took a deep ragged breath and reared up, a gurgling roar rushing past his twisted lips. Shannon screamed and the blade fell. The hands slid off her foot.
Shannon stood there for a moment, shivering. The machete slipped from her numb fingers and clattered to the floor. She knelt down and twisted her bloody fingers into Daniel's long black locks and stood up, trying to ignore the warm wet drops splashing onto her bare feet. She turned to the ebony statue and set the grisly offering in the upturned hand.
Shannon stared into the red cat eyes for a long moment, and then flinched as all eight arms shifted downwards. She froze as the offerings rolled out of the ebony hands with seven sharp bony cracks and one dull thud. The tiniest of clicks broke the silence, and the skull emblem on Kali's throne swung open. Shannon's bloody fingers reached into the base of the idol. Her lips twisted as she turned the red faceted crystal in her fingers.
Glass shattered in the studio out front, and her smile faded. She slipped the ruby into her flannel shirt and sat down in the breakfast nook.
The flashlight beams danced wildly toward the beaded curtain then blazed in Shannon's direction. The deep, harsh voices barked at her.
"On the floor!"
Shannon sank to her knees, hands behind her head.
"What the hell happened in here?"
A laugh escaped Shannon's lips as rough hands bent her over and cuffed her wrists. "Self-defense."
More footsteps pounded into the room. Then Heather's voice rose above the curses of astonishment.
"Ow! Get off me, you fuck! And let her go. She saved my life."
Shannon smiled at the string of zeros one more time before she logged out of her account and closed her laptop. She had piled the last of her bags by the door the night before, and all that remained of her ten year stay in the apartment was the oil painting on the kitchen table. Shannon traced the auburn curls on the girl's forehead. She didn't look up when the door banged open.
"So you're serious."
Shannon dug into her pocket and fished out the first check from her new account. She turned and handed it to Heather. Heather whistled and folded the check up before she tucked it in her bra.
"You've been holding out on me, girl."
Shannon slipped her laptop into its case. "Consider it a contribution to the Heather DeLafleur Defense Fund." She shrugged the case onto her shoulder and slipped her hand into Heather's. "Thanks for saying the weed in the bag was yours."
Heather waved dismissively. "Thanks for saving my head. You're really headed to Syracuse?"
Shannon nodded. "My lawyer's already filed the papers with the family court."
Heather looked at the bags piled by the door, then ran a hand over the large wooden crate by the sofa. "When the police were done with Daniel's apartment, I thought I would have a hard time getting rid of this. You're really keeping it? Damn, how creepy. Why?"
Shannon patted the crate and smiled to herself. "For luck."
© 2011 R. Christophe Ryber
Bio: R. Christophe Ryber writes sci-fi, fantasy and gothic stories in Hardwick, VT, where he lives with his wife and children. His stories have appeared in Foliate Oak Literary Journal and Absent Willow Review.
E-mail: R. Christophe Ryber
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