A deleted scene from SAPPHIRE FLAMES that became a short story for you.
Some days just suck.
First, I found a stain on the cute dress I planned to wear today. Then I spilled my coffee. Then I hit my toe on the door frame to the office. I really wanted to kick the door, but the last time I hit the back of my head and then punched the offending surface, I had to lie to Catalina and claim that a support beam in the abandoned building spontaneously collapsed. If it was my oldest sister instead of my second oldest sister, I wouldn’t get away with it. Nevada knew when you lied to her. Catalina totally believed me.
Lying to Catalina wasn’t a habit I cultivated. Oh, I lied casually all the time and never got caught but lying to Catalina was like kicking a baby deer. It made me feel guilty and I avoided feeling guilty whenever possible. But my family just now relaxed enough to stop continuously worrying I would change my shape and be killed because of it. I didn’t want to heap more onto the worry pile.
I was supposed to be working on the case Catalina took for her friend and I was making good progress when Leon called. Leon was my younger cousin. Mom had adopted him and my older cousin, Bern, on account of my aunt being a heinous bitch, and they were more like my brothers. One time I called Bern brother-cousin in public and then we had to leave the wedding reception for Mom’s friend because everyone kept giving us weird looks. It was hilarious.
Leon kept the call short. “I fucked up. Come help me and Grandma. Don’t tell Catalina.”
I wasn’t planning on telling Catalina. She had her hands full.
A quick investigation revealed that Grandma Frida was gone and so was the Brick. The armored vehicle was her new baby. She took one of the Humvees we claimed when some idiots attacked our warehouse and spent the last three years turning it into an indestructible monstrosity. She never let any of us drive it, which meant that Leon must’ve called her first and she took the Brick and went to help him.
Leon had been working the Yarrow case, named so because of the subdivision where the woman he was investigating lived. I didn’t know much about it except that the woman worked as an accountant and apparently embezzled money from her friends’ businesses. None of that required either Grandma Frida or the Brick.
I jumped into my car and drove to the address he texted.
Yarrow Northwest was a master-planned community in Katy, which was technically its own city west of Houston. In reality, Houston sprawled in all directions, like some giant amoeba that gobbled up the neighboring municipalities. It swallowed Katy a while ago and now there was no way to tell where Houston ended, and Katy began.
The Yarrow boasted about seventy homesites, all featuring EcoSmart technology, large yards, amenities like tennis courts and an onsite waterpark with slides and a lazy river, and prices of a million and a half and up. According to Leon, they actually measured the grass on each lawn with a ruler. It was so trendy, it made me want to spray paint unicorns pooping rainbows in their driveways just to add some life to the place. Buying a house in Yarrow made a statement. I am successful. Look at my house, look at my beautiful family, look at our lazy river and our precision trimmed lawn and perfect little flowers and despair, for we are better than you.
Who would want to float in their lazy river anyway?
Logically I could think of some reasons why someone would want to live in a place like that, but it wasn’t for me. We worked too hard for our money. When we bought a house, nobody would tell us how long our grass could be, what color we could paint the walls, or where we could park out cars. If I wanted a turret on my roof, I would get a damn turret…
When we bought a house… All of us had been working very hard toward that magical house, but so far we hadn’t found a good one. A house would solve a lot of our security problems. The warehouse wasn’t defensible, and we were all too old to live together. Bern had to be dying for his own place. Leon, too. Trouble was we needed something large enough for all of us and secure, and while there was plenty of mansions and compound around Houston, there wasn’t much available in our price range. Catalina had gone a little crazy trying to get this taken care of and I watched her closely. We didn’t need the repeat of the other incident.
I took the exit, drove up the road to the side street, and took a short picturesque drive to the gated entrance of Yarrow. I smiled at the guard in the booth and punched a code into the digital display. The heavy iron gates parted, and I steered the Mercedes through. The guard smiled back as I drove in. The car was fancy enough and I looked the part – a pretty nineteen year old blonde in a designer grey dress driving a Mercedes.
The phone rang, and my cousin answered through the car’s speaker. “Are you almost here?”
“I’m in the neighborhood. Which house is it?”
“Keep going. You’ll see it.” He hung up.
And that wasn’t ominous. At all.
I guided the car down the lane. To the left of me, a beautifully landscaped median offered flowerbeds and picturesque shrubs. To the right, driveways peeled off, each leading to a walled estate secured by an identical gate.
You’ll see it.
All houses looked the same. Some had stucco, some were brick but at the core, they were all the same, slightly modified version of a McMansion…
The house on my right was missing the gate. That fact took a second for register, and I drove right past it. I reversed and backed up. The gate lay in the inner yard, twisted. Past it, a large vehicle-shaped hole gaped where the front door should have been.
Damn it, Leon.
I turned into the driveway, leaned forward as drove up to the hole, and peered through the windshield. The interior of the house was darker than the outside, but I saw the unmistakable blocky outline of Brick’s rear. The Humvee was in the house. The damages. So many damages.
Catalina would kill him. And I would hold him while she bashed his head in.
I shut off the engine and went inside. The place had a wide foyer. Twin staircases hugged the opposite walls, leading upstairs to a unified landing. Two black tire marks stretched from the front door, across the shiny grey marble floor, across a beige oriental rug, all the way to where Brick now waited in front of a steel door. The door looked really out of place in the upscale house and sported a big dent. A panic room. Great.
They had driven the Humvee through the front door, through the foyer, through the sitting room and half of the damn house, and then they rammed it into the steel door.
Damn it. Damn it with sprinkles on top.
Grandma Frida sat on top of Brick looking bored. To the right, shirtless Leon rested on the floor, leaning against a coffee table that had somehow survived the vehicular assault. His T-shirt, once white and now bloodstained, was wrapped around his head. A white man in his mid-thirties frantically paced back and forth around a white couch as if trying to wear a hole in the rug.
“Have you all lost your minds?” It seemed like a fair question.
Leon pointed to the man. “His fault.”
I looked at the man. “Who are you?”
The man stopped pacing and looked at me for the first time. “I’m Kent. Kent Mills. I live here. This is my house.”
He was the suspect’s spouse.
Leon gave me an exhausted look. “This is Kent Mills. He works as a registered nurse. This is his house, except it’s actually being foreclosed on because his wife, Sandra Mills, who is our suspect, failed to pay the mortgage. For six months.”
“I did pay the mortgage!” a woman’s voice shrieked through the speaker above the steel door. “It’s a misunderstanding!”
Kent spun toward the door. “Oh yes, another one of your famous ‘misunderstandings.’ It’s a clerical error, it’s a computer glitch, and you’ll call them tomorrow and straighten this right out.”
“You’re a bastard, Kent. A stupid, selfish bastard!”
Kent sucked in a lung full of air.
I used my best impersonation of Mom’s voice. “Shut it.”
He clicked his mouth closed.
I turned to Leon. “How did Brick get in the house?”
“I’m getting to that. We were hired by The Shaw Distillery to investigate possible embezzlement. I determined that their bookkeeper, Sandra, was robbing them blind.”
“That’s a lie and I’ll sue you for libel,” Sandra screamed through the speaker.
“That suit will be thrown out, because it should be slander, not libel,” I said. “If you’re going to threaten someone, at least do it correctly.”
“I looked into the other businesses she did the books for,” Leon said. “She befriended people, convinced them to let her handle their books, at a friend discount, and then stole everything they had.”
“That’s another lie. I’m telling you, it’s a misunderstanding.”
Leon rolled his eyes. “A lie the way your MBA is a lie?”
Kent blinked. “Wait, what? I saw the diploma from UT. It’s in the office.”
“Fake,” Leon said. “She has an Accounting Certificate from Houston Community College. UT has no record of her ever attending.”
“It’s a –”
“A misunderstanding!” Grandma Frida, Leon, and Kent finished in unison.
“Get to the part where the two of you drove the car into the house.”
Grandma Frida drew herself straight. “It’s not a car. It’s an armored assault vehicle.” She petted Brick’s roof. “You don’t listen to her. You are a magnificent beast.”
I had to strain to not shake my fists at them.
“I found nine businesses she defrauded for a total of eight million dollars,” Leon said.
“Eight million?” Really?
“She’s been doing it for years.”
“Eight million, Sandy, and you couldn’t pay the mortgage?!” Kent roared.
“It was fine! It was all fine until you ruined it!”
“Where did the money go?” Kent demanded.
“She bought a winery,” Leon said. “Seriously, who does that?”
“Sandy! What the hell do you know about wine?”
“You never believed in me, Kent.”
My head began to throb. I rubbed my temples.
Leon heaved a sigh. “I came here to talk to give her a chance to come clean. At that point, Mr. Mills ran out, hysterically screaming that his wife had locked herself in the panic room with his little girl.”
A child? These two had a child?
“So you called Grandma, talked her into driving Brick here, and rammed it through the house into the panic room? Do you have any idea the conversation Catalina will have to have with our insurance company?”
Leon waved his arms. “I did my due diligence. First, I had him formally hire us. He signed a waiver absolving us from any liability resulting from damages to the property. Second, I called Grandma. I wanted to go with a blow torch. She decided that, and I quote, ‘ramming it is faster.’”
She shrugged. “The angle of approach wasn’t good. The Brick is wider than the door, so it’s hard to hit it right.”
“You drove the Brick into the house! And you didn’t even break the door.”
“How was I supposed to know she’d spent the money on ballistic resistant plate steel?”
“I deserve to have nice things, I work hard, and safety is important to me!”
“I was not consulted about said ramming,” Leon said. “I had to dive out of the way and hit my head on this stupid coffee table.”
Argh! I wished I could growl but it would just freak everyone out.
“Where is the child now?”
“It’s not a child,” Grandma Frida said.
Leon passed me a framed photograph. In it, Kent and Sandra held a white Persian cat.
“That’s the name of the cat,” Leon informed me. “Little Girl.”
I turned to Kent. “Why did your wife hide in the panic room?”
Kent waved his arms. “Clint called and screamed at me that Sandra is a scammer and she bankrupted his bakery. Patrick from the winery had called him and Clint checked his accounts. I logged into our bank to see if there were any weird deposits and I found that we are broke. It’s worse than broke, we are in debt! Our personal credit lines are maxed out. Our mortgage hasn’t been paid since August. When I confronted her, she kidnapped my baby and ran into the panic room and now she’s threatening to hurt her!”
“Everything was fine until you decided to go digging! I gave you everything, and you just couldn’t leave it alone. Why can’t you believe me, Kent?”
“You stole from our friends! Everyone knows. Clint and Patrick called everybody! Everyone hates us.”
“I made their businesses. Every single one of them was failing until I helped them. They owe me.”
Kent looked at me. “I just want my cat back.”
“Okay.” I walked up to the door. “Mrs. Mills, this is silly. You can’t stay in the panic room forever.”
“Yes, I can.”
“What would you like to happen?” I asked. “What would it take to get you to come out?”
“I want you all to go away. And I want everyone to apologize to me for lying about me. I want Patrick to come here and tell me how sorry he is that he made everyone mad at me.”
Denial was a terrible thing.
I tried for my business voice. “Mrs. Mills, that’s not realistic. You embezzled a significant amount of money. That’s an irrefutable fact provable by financial records and bank statements. No amount of apologies will make it go away.”
“What do you people want from me? I do everything. Do you want my blood, is that it? Do you want blood sacrifice?”
“Nobody wants that. We want you to be healthy and uninjured. Why don’t you come out and we can talk about it? I’m sure you were under a great deal of stress. We all make mistakes. As you said, maybe it is all a misunderstanding.”
Kent rolled his eyes. Leon made money counting gestures.
“You know what I think?” Sandra asked, a vicious note in her voice. “I think you’re a conniving little bitch. You can tell that bastard that I will break every bone in his piece of shit cat’s body. He loves her more than me anyway.”
Who wouldn’t? I looked at the door. It seemed standard: solid, with a wheel that rotated, and probably multiple steel bars that secured it when the wheel was turned. Once she locked it from the inside, the wheel wouldn’t move.
“Leon, call Sgt. Munoz and let him know that we are about to have an incident. I need all of you to leave the building and not peek. I want to have a private conversation with Sandra.”
They looked at me.
“Do you want her out of that room or not?” I made shooing motions with my hands. “Go on.”
“I want to…” Kent started.
“Please leave. Your baby is counting on you.”
I watched the three of them walk out of the building. The thing about metamorphosis mages was that everyone thought we were one trick ponies. We turned into monsters and sometimes went nuts. But there was more to it. So much more.
I pulled on my magic. It tried to bury me like an avalanche, a glowing mess of rainbow colors, churning together. I picked just one, the dark red one, and let it fill me. The blood-red shadow of the Beast that was my other form filled my mind, colossal, shaggy, with eyes that glowed pure white.
“You wouldn’t really hurt a little cat, would you?” I stretched my shoulders.
“Have it your way.”
I gripped the wheel and strained. In my head the Beast roared. Metal snapped with a sharp clang inside the door. The wheel gave with a grinding noise, the bars slid back, and I yanked the door open.
Sandra Mills stared at me with freaked out eyes. She was white and thin, in her early thirties, with salon-dyed blonde hair and too much foundation that was two shades too yellow for her skin tone. Her sweatpants and an over-sized T-shirt hung on her bony shoulders. She clutched a white cat to her.
She opened her mouth. Nothing came out.
I reached over, grabbed the wheel, and snapped it off the door.
Sandra jerked back.
“I talked to you, and you came out on your own,” I told her. “If you say anything different…” I bent the wheel’s spokes with my hands.
She nodded frantically.
In the distance police siren wailed, getting closer.
The Beast evaporated from my mind, as if swept by a wind. Fatigue took over. I winked at Sandra, took the cat, from her arms, and headed outside. I would have to spin a cute story for the cops, convince Leon and Grandma that the door must’ve been damaged by the Brick, and then I would have to call the insurance company. Catalina didn’t need one more headache.
I was the youngest kid in my family, but I was a Baylor. We always pulled our weight.