Art by Jason C. Eckhardt
by Liza Cody
It was a warm August afternoon and the sun fell like a lover’s hand on the back of my neck. I was walking away from the kitchen of a party house, hoping for a couple of hours’ rest before a flock of bridesmaids showed up to make life hell.
My backpack was heavy because I carry all my kit with me. You can’t trust hens even with a second-class stamp. After a few cocktails they’re all thieves and vandals.
I cannot tell you how much I hate chief bridesmaids. They are anxious and peppy. They try to force booze into the others as quickly as possible, ensuring that their judgement will vanish along with their inhibitions. They are the ones who ring me in the middle of the night because they “forgot” to tell me that two of the hens are gluten intolerant, one is sensitive to lactose, and the bride’s little sister will die if she so much as sniffs a nut. Everything, in fact, she should’ve told me at the planning stage.
I ask up front if any of the party has food allergies or religious prohibitions. There’s even a form to fill in and sign. But does she? Oh no. She’s so keen to acquire the services of a reasonably priced personal caterer that she keeps information about difficult eaters to herself.
“No problems,” she’ll say, all perky and peppy.
I can’t tell you how much of a problem the “no problems” people are.
I am a professional. It’s my job to deal with food allergies. But tell me about them while discussing menus, not at two in the morning when you’ve woken up depressed and anxious about a party for ten beginning in three days’ time.
So, I was thinking about Margie “No Problems” Dawson in a mood of simmering fury while walking away from the hated henhouse. To distract myself, I watched my own shadow. The low afternoon sun stretched it out ahead of me, and for a while I could kid myself that I was super-model tall and thin. I fantasised that there was a companion shadow walking beside mine—a broad-shouldered shadow so close to me that our hips merged.
My companion shadow’s name was Axel—which distressed me in a different way: Axel had departed with most of my client list and my whole heart only three months ago. That was why I couldn’t afford to give Margie “No Problems” Dawson the push for lying to me.
No, there was only one shadow—mine. And there was only the illusion of height and a slender shape.
And then, out of nowhere, another shadow suddenly appeared to join mine. I heard nothing—no footsteps behind me. I felt nothing—no touch, no jostling. But I saw clearly on the pavement in front of me the shadow of someone seeming to interfere with my backpack.
I swung round fast, letting the backpack fall from one shoulder. I saw a woman. No. All I focussed on was a skinny hand, a claw, grasping my wallet and my phone.
The front flap of my pack gaped wide. Without thinking, my hand flew to my most precious possession—my set of Damascus knives. READ MORE
Art by Laurie Harden
by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
The smell of coffee woke her. Serena stretched her arm across the soft sheets to find Dylan’s side of the bed cold. She eased her eyes open. He’d actually pulled the covers up and placed them under the pillow.
She smiled. In the five days they’d been married, he hadn’t done that before. She had teased him a lot about leaving the bed unmade.
His answer was serious at first: We’re in a hotel, babe. They make the bed for us.
Then he slowly realized she was joking. They’ll make the bed, babe, he said, if we ever leave it.
And finally, he said, I’ll make the bed the minute I know we’re not going to use it.
Oddly, that last memory stabbed her heart. She sat up, covers pulled to her chest. The room wasn’t as dark as it had been; light filtered in around the thick curtains.
She blinked. The smell of coffee was strong. She made herself take a deep breath and smile. Dylan was in the other room, with room service waiting for her. He probably hadn’t wanted to wake her. He’d done that the last two days, telling her that she needed her strength.
And then he leered.
He had a good leer. She loved that leer, because of the twinkle in his eyes. He was the most handsome man she had ever seen—even after she had taken her beer goggles off.
She hadn’t been drunk when she met him, but she hadn’t been sober either. She’d been standing in one of the casino’s beautifully decorated hallways, just outside the etched-glass windows of the most popular nightclub in the place. She was wearing a slinky silver dress she had bought with her surprise slot winnings.
At the behest of the desk clerk when she checked in, she had taken one free pull on the gigantic slot machine in the lobby—and she’d won $10,000 instantly.
She was cautious with her cash, always had been. She had put five thousand in an account in a major bank here in Vegas, planning to transfer all of it and close the account when she got home. The remaining money was found money that she added to her vacation stash.
And the first thing she had purchased had been a dress so slinky, she felt like another woman.
She drank like one too, a little something every night, hoping it would give her courage—or at least, make this two-week trip a bit more fun. The trip hadn’t started as a single-woman adventure. Initially, she had booked it for herself and her boyfriend of long standing, Charles. When Charles ended their relationship three months before, she had kept the trip on the schedule because she felt she had something to prove.
She called this trip the Liberation Vacation. READ MORE