Chapter Three: It’s complicated
Copyright © 2016 by Brian Bixby
Florence Thursby, known to everyone as “Flo,” was a young woman, pleasing to the eye, who would have been more popular if she were more outgoing. Truth be told, she found many of her friends a bit shallow. That was even more true of her various former boyfriends. And it showed. Everyone wanted to be her friend, at first. But over time, they tended to drop her, without quite knowing why. This left Flo perplexed, and for much of her life she’d wondered if there was something a bit wrong about herself.
But this evening, as she worked in her apartment’s kitchen, she had no doubts at all about herself. She felt like a teenager in love, and sang as she bustled around the kitchen. Already she had cooked up a ham and a nice thick steak. The lamb shank and the whole chicken were roasting in the oven.
Flo sniffed the air and smiled. She enjoyed cooking, especially now for the new guy in her life. The only problem she had was that she didn’t know what kind of food he liked. Hence the reason for preparing so many meat dishes.
She glanced at the timer on the oven, and then examined herself in the mirror on her refrigerator door. You are one lucky gal, she thought to herself. It wasn’t every woman who could say she was in love with a godlike creature that could wipe out cities.
At almost exactly the same time, Jacintha e-mailed her magical superior in the United States to tell her about seeing Jeremy McAppin in Great Yarmouth. Unfortunately, Jacintha had resorted to an unfamiliar public computer to send this message, and in her haste failed to properly attach the photograph of Geoff and Calpurnia that she’d intended to accompany the message.
Meanwhile, Geoff was sleeping the sleep of the just. Or, to be more prosaic, he was having an afternoon nap. He’d been in enough scrapes over the years not to let a little thing like the potential spawning of hundreds of wyrms bother him much.
And then his phone rang.
Geoff was inclined to sleep. But he picked up his phone and opened one eye to see who was calling. And then he groaned, sat up, and answered the call. “Yes, Donald, what is it?”
Donald Chisholm was the Secretary of the Scots Council of magicians. As such, he was technically Geoff’s boss on the Great Yarmouth wyrm assignment. This was an arrangement neither man had desired. So Geoff was not surprised when Donald answered by complaining, “Your cover’s been blown.”
Geoff could hardly prevent himself from smiling. “What cover? I’m here under my own name.”
“You’re supposed to be keeping a low profile.”
“I was just napping, Donald. Can’t keep a much lower profile than that.”
“Then how do the Americans know about you?”
Geoff took a moment to curse a certain American photographer before replying, “Considering I’ve been consulted by both Olivia Patterson and Frank McCarthy, of course the Americans know about me.” Geoff let Donald emit a grunt of annoyance before continuing, “But you mean now. So who knows and what do they know?”
Donald took several seconds to answer. “Well, a friendly informant told us the American Office knows you’re there. We don’t know if they know why.”
So it’s Olivia’s people, Geoff thought, though knowing Frank, he’ll have it soon enough. To Donald he said, “Well, if they don’t know why, then they’re not going to come chasing me down anytime soon. They’re probably just collecting intel. Nothing to worry about. If worse comes to worse, I’ll call up Olivia myself and ask her to pitch in to help.”
As he knew it would, that almost sent Donald into hysterics. “You will do nothing of the kind! Geoff, what the . . .” And then Donald’s tone reverted to normal. “Try to be serious about this, Geoff.”
Geoff thought about saying that he had meant it seriously, but decided he’d had enough fun goading Donald today. “I’ll do my best, Donald. Have I ever let the Council down yet?”
Relieved, Donald replied, “Thanks, Geoff. So, who did the English send you as a partner?”
To Geoff’s surprise, his words were met with absolute silence for several seconds. And then Donald said, “Calpurnia Kingsley? I thought she was dead.”
A thin smile crossed Geoff’s face. “I’ll ask her about that over dinner.”
“No, no, no . . . Wait, that’s right, you wouldn’t know about her.”
“But you do.” Geoff wasn’t surprised: Donald had spent many years living in London.
“Yes, she was famous for having lousy luck with her husbands. You’ve even heard about her first one: Marcus Satterthwaite.”
“Yikes!” Geoff was astounded. Marcus was famous for being a ruthless sadist. And he sat on the English Council, too. By reputation, he was not a man you crossed. “No wonder you thought she was dead.”
“Oh, that was just for starters. Her second husband was some milquetoast who was turned into a hydra by one of her enemies. She had to kill him. And her third husband was a demon, and I thought he’d killed her.”
Calpurnia had grown up being told that ladies carried purses. She had decided that the purse was a remarkably inefficient way to carry things, and since she wasn’t going to carry one, she did not need to try to be ladylike. So she came into the restaurant to meet Geoff carrying an attaché case instead. Which is not to say she hadn’t put on a slight touch of perfume. She was pleased to see that Geoff had also spruced up a bit from earlier, and was actually wearing a jacket and tie.
Still, Geoff was looking at her a bit oddly, and there was something different in his demeanor. Calpurnia was no empath, but she couldn’t help noting the vibrations he was giving off. So once they were seated, she looked him square in the face and asked, “Is there some reason you are looking at me as if you’ve seen me cavorting in a field with a herd of cows?”
Geoff laughed and leaned back in his chair. Smiling at Calpurnia, he replied, “That’s more amusing than what I was thinking of. You see, Cal, I was talking with someone on the Scots Council this afternoon, and he told me you were dead, slain by your third husband, in fact. And that poses great obstacles to you cavorting with cows.”
Geoff immediately checked his amusement, because Calpurnia was turning very red in the face. In a lower tone of voice, he apologized, “Forgive me. I didn’t mean to stir up bitter memories or stale rumors.”
Calpurnia took a bit of time to let herself recover. It had been far enough back in the past that she no longer felt pained by the memories, but she was still annoyed. Finally, she took a deep breath and said to Geoff, “I just thought that after being out of commission for so long that the old stories would have died out by now. Guess not. You want to hear the real story?”
Geoff made a face. “I think after that, I’m not entitled.”
“I’ll tell you anyhow. Better you hear it from me than anyone else. They’re likely to get it wrong.” Calpurnia took another deep breath. “It’s like this: my third husband was an incubus.”
Geoff raised an eyebrow. This was not the sort of thing a wise magician did, for a whole lot of reasons. Still, he kept quiet. Calpurnia was explaining; he would hear her out.
Calpurnia continued, “Hadn’t meant to marry him. He was just supposed to be a fling, because I didn’t want a relationship right then. Having to chop off all of my previous husband’s heads when he attacked me had kind of soured me on marriage, or men for that matter. And if all you want is a fling, an incubus is definitely fling material. They have no loyalty themselves, so when you want to end the relationship, there’s no guilt.
“And then I found out I was pregnant. Turns out the magic of an incubus trumps the science of birth control, and I was going to bear a cambion. Well, I wasn’t going to give it to the incubus to raise, but he wouldn’t go away once he found out. So I married him. Civil ceremony, in case you wanted to know. The incubus was definitely not Church of England.
“The NHS wasn’t ready for this, and I had all sorts of difficulties after my pregnancy passed the one year mark. And my husband was no help at all. Oh, great fun for the first few months, but he had a wandering eye. He was an incubus, after all. So I imprisoned him in an early PC, which wouldn’t run anything except Internet porn thereafter.
“And then on the day I delivered Ursula, he broke out of the PC and came into the delivery room to try to take her from me. Here I am in a maternity gown, one arm holding Ursula for her feeding, the other trying to banish my husband from this plane, and all the while I’m yelling at the medical staff to get out of the room before they get hurt. I finally succeeded, not before we’d trashed the room, though.
“It was a fiasco, and the English Council had to do a lot of covering up. It was decided I should lay low, and the rumor was circulated I’d been killed. So that’s how that story got started.”
Geoff didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, the story was so weird. And then with a laugh, Calpurnia added, “And you know what? After the staff found me a new room and I got settled, I could hear the nurses talking about how hot my husband was. One of them finally got up the nerve to ask me for his phone number!”
Having purged her soul of that story, and seeing that Geoff hadn’t run off screaming into the night, Calpurnia set herself to enjoying dinner while explaining to Geoff the arrangements she had made to put their plans into action. Maps, equipment rentals, tide tables: Calpurnia had them all in her attaché case, and brought them out as needed. She could see that he was impressed with her thoroughness. She only regretted that he had no idea how strenuous this had been for her, after years of inactivity. However, we’re supposed to do our duty and not complain, she thought to herself, and I have no idea what Geoff’s had to do for this assignment, so no self-pity, Calpurnia.
But there was one arrangement she was so proud she’d pulled off that she had to mention it to Geoff. “It’s good fortune I headed over to rent a boat as quickly as I did. The manager told me that thanks to the royal visit, this was the last boat he had available.”
Geoff had been smiling and nodding, but abruptly he fell back into his chair, thunderstruck. “Royal visit?”
Calpurnia wondered just what was wrong with Geoff. “Sure, the royal visit. The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge are coming to visit in four days. It just got announced early this afternoon.” And then, to borrow an American expression, the dime dropped. Calpurnia turned pale. “What if they go sailing on Breydon Water?”
Geoff weakly echoed her tone. “What if the wyrm decides to come out and eat them for a light snack?”
All Calpurnia could think to wail was, “Oh, why couldn’t they have sent Charles and Camilla?”
We’re hoping Calpurnia meant that Charles and Camilla would be formidable opponents for the wyrm. The only way to find out is to come back next week for chapter four.