The Second Chance Club – Ep 08 – Act 3

Surprising a horse is unfortunately easy. Despite their size, horses can be skittish creatures, and startling one is generally a bad idea for all involved.

Talking horses, it turned out, were less anxious than the standard variety and had, Anna decided, the most adorable expressions when they were met with a circumstance they weren’t expecting.

“You are very composed,” the tan horse said, her words slow and considered.

“Are you in fact human?” the dark brown horse asked.

They were gazing at her with their heads twisted slightly to the side, the easier for an animal with side mounted eyes to view someone.

“You are not the first ones to ask that question,” Anna said, declining to answer further as a negotiating tactic. They hadn’t answered her question and until they did she didn’t intend to be overly forthcoming with information.

“Our apologies,” the tan horse said. “Introductions! I am Duchess Luq and my companion is Duke Wellbagun.”

“Our missive arrived successfully?” Duke Wellbagun asked.

“Yes, your courier accomplished their aim precisely,” Anna said. “Both in delivering your letter and piquing our interest. I must confess that I expected to find a rather different layout for your estate though.”

“This is not our estate,” Duchess Luq said. “Our lands are beyond this abode. They begin at the line of the trees you see behind us.”

“Can we discuss your situation freely here or do we need to adjourn to where Ms. Royal cannot see us?” Anna asked, nodding to the farmhouse where the farm’s owner, Teri Royal, Tam and Val had retired to search for a letter from the Sunset Isle.

“Teri knows we are not what we appear to be, but she is not fully informed as to our nature and purpose,” Duke Wellbagun said. “It is easiest for all if we ensure circumstances remain as such.”

“What we have to request will require some delicacy as well,” Duchess Luq said. “If you ask to take us for a walk along the brook path, Teri will understand and we may welcome you properly.”

“While we await her return, perhaps you can describe the general scope of the issues you wish our help with,” Anna said. “Your letter requested aid in political negotiations but the Sunset Isles are not a sovereignty I am familiar with.”

That was a partial truth. James had briefed them on a number of mythical realms that had been referred to as the Sunset Isles but whether any of them were the ones the talking horses hailed from remained an open question.

“Our King and Queen will be arriving here shortly,” Duchess Luq said. “Within a few days. We are their advance guard, and have preceded them by several years. They expect us to have answer to the problem which besets our homeland, but despite our years of research we have made no headway on the issue.”

“We have not been idle though,” Duke Wellbagun said. “We have sought after parties and personages who could aid us since we first set our hooves on this shore. We believed we had made an ally in a human financier but within the last week, just when time became the most essential, he vanished, taking the funds we had developed with him.”

Anna shook her head. Years of planning ruined and only a few days to make up for it? That certainly sounded like a scenario the Second Chance Club would be called in for.

Before she could reply however, she saw Teri leading her two friends back from the main house.

“She was right,” Val said. “The Sunset Isle’s letters are very pretty.” She showed Val a note written in beautiful calligraphy and golden ink.

“The writing is similar to the one we received,” Tam said.

“I see you’ve been making friends,” Teri said, glancing at the horses with a smile.

“Yes, they are finely built,” Anna said. “I see you have some riding trails in the woods. Would we be able to take them out?”

Teri exchange another look with the horses, who both nodded in a very human-like manner.

“If you’re willing to give them some exercise, you’d be saving me a load of work,” Teri said.

Tam and Val exchanged puzzled glances but kept silent, trusting that Anna had her reasons for the request she’d made.

In short order, the two horses were fitted with riding gear and Tam and Val were mounted on them. Teri offered a third horse but Anna protested that she needed to get some walking in herself and instead chose to lead the two horses and their riders back into the ‘brook path’ which Duchess Luq had spoken of.

“You’re lands begin here?” she asked as the party crossed the boundary into the forest.

“Yes,” Duchess Luq said. “Though we will not be upon our own soil for another quarter mile from here.”

Tam simply blinked at the revelation that she was riding a talking horse, where Val’s jaw dropped open in astonishment.

“You mentioned a problem which is afflicting your homeland,” Anna said, confident the other two would be able to catch up to what was going on from the context of what was being said.

“Yes, the Sunset Isles are dying,” Duchess Luq said.

“It is a slow, withering condition, but one which must be addressed,” Duke Wellbagun said.

“Please forgive my manners,” Anna said. “Duchess Luq, and Duke Wellbagun, please meet my associates Ms Le Li Tam, and Ms. Valentina Perez. Tam, Val, Their Graces, the representatives of the Sunset Isles.”

“A pleasure to meet you,” Tam said, replacing a formal bow with a deep nod, which Val copied.

“The pleasure is all ours,” Duchess Luq said.

Typically when one met a personage of note, one was not riding on that person’s back, but any awkwardness in the situation didn’t seem to register on the Duchess or Duke’s consciousness. Each seemed more concerned about the matter at hand than following the proper formalities of rank, whatever those might have been.

“You said that you were working with a financier?” Anna said. “And that he has disappeared with the funds you entrusted to him?”

“Indeed,” Duke Wellbagun said. “We are less concerned with the funds however and more focused on the plans they were meant to support.”

“What purpose was the money supposed to be put towards?” Anna asked.

The brook path was a lovely sun dappled lane, less overgrown that it should have been given the lack of visible pruning or other human maintenance it showed.

“Mr. Steele, our financier, had proposed building an amusement park with the wealth we provided to him,” Duchess Luq said.

Anna was silent for a moment, calculating the scale of the funds involved and the various methods of embezzlement that might have been employed to prevent the money from being reclaimed the instant the theft was noticed.

“Pardon me,” Val asked, taking pains to be clear and polite, “Why were you building an amusement park. What sort of crisis is your home country facing?”

“It will be easier to show you, I believe,” Duchess Luq said. “Around that bend in the path, if you willing travel with us that far, and are willing to step onto our land for a time, we can make our needs much clearer.”

Tam’s gaze instantly shot to Anna, who met her eyes and nodded. Things that led you into the woods were far from always being safe, or sensible, to follow but there was a case to resolve and running away was not going to get the job done.

“We would be delighted to join you as your guests,” Tam said. It wasn’t precisely a magic spell, but the Laws of Hospitality were shared across many cultures and were sometimes stronger and more binding than the most powerful enchantment.

“Thank you,” Duke Wellbagun said.

“As you have no doubt guessed,” Duches Luq said as they approached the bend. “We are not quite as we might appear to you.”

On the far side of the path, the sun fell through the treetops in great gold shafts. The air took on an electric tingle and gained the scents of a thousand distant flowers. Birds with wings splashed in a kaleidoscope of colors flitted from the tree limbs to the bushes and back again. And the horses Tam and Val rode on were horses no more.

Duchess Luq and Duke Wellbagun were still equine in form, but from the center of their foreheads long spiral horns rose, shining with an iridescent light.

Anna wasn’t entirely surprised by the reveal. Once she’d accepted that there were talking horses, making the leap to believe in unicorns required a comparatively small effort. Val’s struggles with comprehending what she was seeing were more difficult, in part perhaps because she’d had less time to assimilate the idea of the Duchess and Duke as being intelligent beings.

Tam, on the other hand, didn’t seem to notice the change in her steed at all.

“We’re not on Earth anymore are we?” she asked, point up to a large hole in the canopy where two suns hung in the sky.

“These lands are a shared realm,” Duchess Luq said, her voice all liquid joy and soft light.

“We established an embassy in this domain,” Duke Wallbagun said, his voice as deep as the rolling ocean and as gentle as a warm blanket. “The sky above us is a shared heaven, just as the ground we walk upon is mixed from parts of your world and parts of ours.”

“How is that possible?” Val asked.

“We are creatures of many worlds, and many forms,” Duchess Luq said. “It is part of our nature to exist in Wonder, and so we shaped this tiny island of home to reflect who we are.”

“This mixed realm is tiny you say?” Anna asked. “Is it the extent of the changes you can make, or can you work an effect like this on a grander scale?”

“If we were illusion casters, the magic spent on this embassy could have covered your world, but that is not our way,” Duke Wellbagun said. “This small piece of home cost us dearly, but has also provided for us well. We can expand it not even a single pace in any direction though.”

“Is that why you wanted to build an amusement park?” Tam asked. “As a spot where you could foster wonder in the world?”

“That was related to our aim,” Duchess Luq said. “The Sunset Isles were a refuge of delight and amazement for ages, but something has been eating away at them, slowing draining the color from their borders and leaving both the living and the inanimate brittle in its wake.”

“We paid no attention to the change at first,” Duke Wellbagun said. “The borders of our realm were so broad and far flung that we rarely visited them, and never concerned ourselves with what might lay beyond. Not until the Great Feasting Hall at Moon’s Landing crumbled and fell into the sea did we perceive the peril that was encroaching upon us.”

“We are not the only ones our King and Queen dispatched to search for a solution,” Duchess Luq said. “All of the nobility were sent out to search the worlds we had left behind. We hoped this Earth might hold the key to breathing new life into ours, but it seems that we have misplayed our one chance.”

“I thought you said the blight was progressing slowly?” Val asked.

“It was growing more pervasive every day when we left,” Duke Wellbagun said.

“More urgently though, with the failure of this enterprise, our King and Queen will never wish to invest time and resources into pursuing a plan here which isn’t guaranteed to work,” Duchess Luq said. “Not after the reports we provided which spoke so glowingly of our chances and the kindness of those we had met.”

“That is what we must request of you,” Duke Wellbagun said. “Will you be our go between and can you find other sponsors who would be willing to support our endeavor?”

“Oh, I believe we can do a good deal more than that,” Anna said, plans and schemes percolating furiously in her mind.

The Second Chance Club – Ep 08 – Act 2

Meeting with foreign dignitaries was a common occurrence for Anna when she worked in high finance. It was always supposed to be a high stakes, high stress affair, but she’d never found the encounters to be particularly challenging or worrisome. Whether they were senior management from a multinational conglomerate or high level government ministers, the wealthy and powerful were still as predictably human as a deli shop manager or a town hall clerk.

Part of her wished she could explain that to her compatriots. Both Tam and Val were trying to appear relaxed but were holding themselves with a subtle rigidity that spoke of a deep seated nervousness. Neither the magically adept stage magician nor the physically superb fighter were in their comfort zone when it came to dealing with diplomatic maneuverings and political deal making.

Fortunately, they both knew they could look to her for guidance and support. It was how they operated, each handling the matters they were best suited for dealing with and trusting that the others wouldn’t cover them for the rest.

Generally the presence of the rest of their team was all the comfort that any of them needed but in this circumstance Anna didn’t fault the other two women for their nerves. The briefing given to them for the case had been sparse to the point of mystery. All Charlene or James had been able to tell them was that a letter had arrived carried in the talons of a pitch black owl.

The letter had requested “the aid of delegates from the Second Chance Club in conducting delicate political negotiations with powers and interests which  have been for an extended time estranged from the common avenues of political discourse”.

Even to Anna’s ears that had sounded overblown, more like something she’d expect to find in a Regency era romance novel than a modern political communique.

Subsequent paragraphs revealed that the Second Chance Club had been recommended to the High King and Celestial Queen of the Sunset Isles, and they were the “powers and interests” who were primarily looking to renew ties with the rest of the world.

Val had been the first to question where “the Sunset Isles” were, but Anna had guessed the answer even before James supplied it. There was no kingdom on Earth named “the Sunset Isles”. That didn’t come as a surprise mostly because Anna was also certain that there were no countries on Earth which relied on magical owls to deliver their correspondence.

James had promised to begin researching the Sunset Isles, with a view to lands of myth and legend, but had warned that the search was likely to turn up too many many potential candidates where the Earth held too few.

Wherever their country lay, and however real their claim on royalty was, after many years of isolation “Their Majesties” were intent on establishing fresh relations in “the New World” (which suggested a European origin, or more likely the affectation of a outdated view of the American continents).

“So this is probably a bunch of people who are pretending to be ‘Ye Olde Fashion Nobles’ from Camelot or something right?” Val had asked. “Should we really be encouraging them?”

“They might be pretending to be nobles, but that owl was as real as it gets,” Tam had pointed out.

And that had been the point which had moved Charlene to send them on the mission to meet with the Duke of Wellbagun and the Duchess of Luq, the two emissaries of the crown who had experience in dealing with the world outside the Sunset Isles.

The Duke and Duchess had a residence to the north of Vancouver. One which had no telephone or internet connection. When Tam looked for it, the closest she was able to find a small farm off the Sea-to-Sky highway that was a neighbor of the Duke and Duchess’s estate.

One plane flight, a small side diversion for Kelly Mashawalaran’s sake, and a car ride in a limousine Jimmy B procured and drove for them, brought the Second Chance team to an odd sight.

The address of the Sunset Isle’s embassy was down a long dirt road, which to all appearance ended at a horse farm.

“Is horse farming common up here?” Tam asked as they got out of the car.

“Not that I was aware of,” Anna said, furrowing her brow in confusion.

“Could our royal friends just be trying to get away from it all?” Val asked, looking at the wilderness around them.

“I do not think so,” Anna said, smelling the familiar farm scents that lay heavy on the air.

“Some rich people like to live far from civilization though right?” Tam asked. “Bill Gates bought an island for himself if I remember correctly.”

“It is not uncommon for the rich and powerful to seek solitude and seclusion,” Anna said. “Especially for homes which are meant to be a sanctuary from the world. The road which leads here though is out of place for one used by a wealthy land holder.”

“Maybe they fly in and out?” Val asked. “This is far enough north that depending on the roads might be a bad idea in the winter.”

“That’s not as much of a problem here,” Tam said. “Vancouver doesn’t get much snow at all. It has the third lowest snowfall of the major cities in Canada.”

“It is not the snow which troubles me about the roads,” Anna said. “As you suggest, it would not be uncommon for someone of sufficient wealth to use private air service, but if that were the case, they would have given us the address of their helicopter’s launching point.”

“Yeah, that would be a more impressive introduction to their place than coming to it like this,” Tam said, gesturing to the farm.

It wasn’t run down or poorly setup, but there was a problem of scale.

Most farms cover sprawling tracts of land, “The Royal Acres Horse Farm” however was a relatively small patch of land which had been carved out of the surrounding forest. There was a decently sized coral and a pair of large barns with a two story house behind them. The house drew their attention as an elderly woman exited just as Tam finished speaking.

“Two questions,” Val said. “First, what’s the chance that someone was playing a prank on us when they brought us here?”

“Very low,” Anna said. “Charlene would not have sent us if it wasn’t a serious matter in some sense. What is your second question?”

“What’s the chance that this is trap?” Val said, shifting her weight just enough for Anna to see how ready she was for trouble to break out at any instant.

“Unknown,” Anna said, watching the old woman approach.

Anna didn’t consider herself an old woman, but she did consider herself dangerous, and she had no intention of losing that trait as she aged. As a result she wasn’t inclined to assume that the old woman approaching them was anything like harmless.

“Welcome friends!” the old woman said. “I’m Teri Royal. How can I help you?”

“Hello,” Anna said, showing a warm smile and a friendly face to match the old woman’s greeting. She felt neither warm, nor friendly, not yet at least, but very little was ever gained from open displays of suspicion or hostility.

People generally showed strangers distrustful expressions out of fear and a desire to have the strangers prove their good intentions. Anna had learned to form her own judgements on people’s intentions and knew that one’s fear could easily become a weapon in an enemies hands.

“We are trying to find the Sunset Isle estates,” she said, switching to a midwestern American accent. Foreign, but also so commonly heard in movies and TV that it was unlikely to arouse concern.

“The Sunset Isle estates? Is that a new development project? I heard we might be getting some condominiums put in this year,” Teri said, looking from one visitor to the next.

“It’s supposed to be a house owned by some foreign dignitaries,” Tam said, and passed Teri a copy of the address they’d been given. Rather than a standard postal code, it had the estate name and a land lot number.

“Well now isn’t that interesting,” Teri said. “We don’t have any place called the Sunset Isle estates around here, but that lot number is real enough.”

“You recognize it?” Val asked.

“I certainly do,” Teri said. “That’s the land back over there.”

She gestured towards the trees at the edge of the Royal Acres clearing.

“I’ve been trying to buy that land for years now, to expand the farm,” Teri said. “The owners have never been willing to sell though. Good market, bad market, doesn’t matter to them. They don’t even do anything with it. No lumbering, no building, I don’t think they even use it for hunting or hiking.”

“How much land do they own?” Anna asked.

“I don’t know,” Teri said. “Quite a lot I guess. I’ve only been interested in the parcel that abuts our land but I think they must be a big land owner or something.”

“Why’s that?” Val asked.

“I’ve never been able to talk to them,” Teri said. “All I ever get are these really fancy notes.”

All three woman just barely managed to stop themselves from asking how the notes were delivered. It was too odd a question to pose, and while the Sunset Isle royalty may have chosen the extravagance of a magic owl for delivery to the Second Chance Club, there was no reason to think they wouldn’t have used the regular mail to deliver more mundane correspondence.

“Do you still have any of those letters?” Tam asked. “I’m just curious if it’s the same kind of stationary we received.”

“Sure, come on into the house and I’ll hunt them up,” Teri said. “I hung on to all of them because they’re so pretty.”

Val looked at Tam and Anna who each exchanged nods.

“Thank you!” Tam said, and Val fell into step beside her.

“I’ll wait out here,” Anna said. “I could use some fresh air after spending all that time cooped up in a plane.”

Fresh farm air wasn’t particularly to Anna’s liking but something was tickling at the back of her head. Something was off about the farm and she knew she needed at least a few moments of observation to work out what it was.

The layout of the farm was reasonably standard, at least as far as Anna’s limited experience with farms went. The fencing around the coral was made of stout wooden posts and beams, some of which showed traces of age but were still in good shape. The bails of hay were similar to what Anna would have expected to see.

And then there were the horses.

The ones who were staring directly at her.

And walking directly towards her with a slow and purposeful gait.

Anna was ready for them to charge the fence. She was conscious that they could also jump it if they were sufficiently motivated. What she did not see coming however was that they would speak to her.

“Hello,” the dark brown horse said. “You must be from the Second Chance Club?”

“We’ve been expecting you,” the light tan horse said. “Thank you for accepting our invitation.”

A million possibilities ran through Anna’s mind, from the horses being extremely clever animatronics to their “voices” being a trick engineered with hidden speaks. In the end however, none of that mattered. Someone was speaking to her, and it would have been both rude and counterproductive not to respond.

“Greetings,” she said. “I am Anna Ilyina. To whom do I have pleasure of speaking?”

If Anna were a younger woman, she might have been thrown off her stride, but with her years came a certain awareness of self. If talking royal horses wished to negotiate with her, then they would find Anna either as gracious or as fierce as their intentions warranted. Rich or poor, human or not, Anna believed there was an equality which all thinking beings shared and she intended to cleave to that belief no matter how peculiar the person she was speaking with appeared to be.

The Second Chance Club – Ep 08 – Act 1

Finding runaways was always a tricky thing. Some kids run away for very good reasons, and others run but not of their own accord. Val was keenly aware of both possibilities as she raced down a dark, rain slicked alley following the last person who’d seen Kelly Mashawalaran before her disappearance.

Her target was fast. All Val could see were long legs and a runner’s physique that despite Val’s fitness training she couldn’t quite match.

“How’s it going?” Tam asked over their earbud phone, crunching on a handful of tortilla chips as she sat warm and dry in the hotel suite they’d setup as their base of operations.

“Peachy,” Val said, conserving breath as best she could.

“Looks like you’re moving at quite a clip. I’ve got a map of Vancouver pulled up here if you need some help navigating?” Tam asked.

“Target’s in sight,” Val said. Unfortunately the target heard that and adrenaline apparently kicked in because she started to leave Val behind.

“Can you track the target with a spell?” Anna asked.

“Not with the ones I have available at the moment,” Tam said. “My current repertoire only has ones where I need to either physically tag the subject myself, or trick them into accepting an item or bit of food from me.”

“That sucks,” Val huffed out.

She didn’t feel ashamed at falling behind, just aggravated. The girl she was chasing, Lily Chen, was a champion track and field star for her school. Val had years of experience on the teenager but Lily’s experience as a runner was all directly relevant to moving quickly, while Val’s fitness routine was focused on producing the kind of all around strength and flexibility a fighter needed.

“Lily! Hold up! We just want to help!” Val called out, for the third time. As with both the first and second time’s she’d tried to reassure the fleet footed girl though Val’s words did nothing to slow Lily’s flight.

In a display that would have seemed like magic if Val wasn’t familiar with what serious athletes could do when motivated, Lily sailed over a chest high fence, vaulting it without slowing her pace noticeably.

“This kid is going to kill me,” Val whispered as she hurled herself over the fence in the middle of the alley. She ran as part of her training program. It was a solid method for building endurance. Endurance running was one thing however. The sort of long distance, flat out, sprinting that Lily was demonstrably capable of was quite another.

Val landed on the other side of the fence just in time to see Lily vanish around the far end of the alley. That was both good and bad.

On the upside, the road on the far end of the alley was fairly empty. There wouldn’t be many places to hide, so Lily would have to keep running if she wanted to stay away from Val.

The downside was that Lily seemed very determined to stay away from Val, and more than willing to run absurdly long distances to make that happen.

Val didn’t want to blame her for that, despite how much running herself out of breath sucked. Lily thought she was protecting her friend and herself.

“Hi, I’d like to talk to you about Kelly Mashawalaran,” Val had said what seemed like hours ago but was closer to twenty minutes if her watch was to be believed.

“What do you want to know about her?” Lily had asked, with the kind of defensive wariness in her eyes that had promised Val it wasn’t going to be an easy night. Val had found her coming out of a McDonalds with a bag of food in one hand and a large Coke in the other.

“She’s missing, and her parents have asked us to help find her,” Val had said, trying to take as gentle and reassuring a tone as she could.

“I don’t know where she is,” Lily had said and tried to walk past Val.

Reaching for Lily’s arm to slow her down had been Val’s first mistake. Her second was revealing exactly why she was asking Lily in particular for Kelly’s whereabouts.

“We have footage of you buying a bus ticket for her,” Val had said and regretted both the words and how she said them the moment they left her mouth.

Lily’s aim with her drink was good. A big splash of Coke in Val’s eyes and nose was enough to buy Lily the precious seconds she needed to put her track and field training to use.

Where Lily was outfitted in sweats and sneakers, Val was faced with the challenge of keeping up in a smartly tailored black business suit and flat heeled shoes.  In retrospect, Val considered how much she looked like an operative from a shadowy government organization and decided that had probably been a strike against her too.

She turned the corner onto the street Lily had fled down and was greeted with the site of a nearly empty thoroughfare. No cars traveling down the street. No one walking along the sidewalks. No teenage girl fleeing faster than the wind.

“I lost her,” Val said, panting and putting her hands on her knees.

“Not at all,” Anna said. “You got her exactly where she needed to be.”

Anna and Lily stepped out of a doorway from an apartment building that was much farther away than Val would have guessed Lily could have traveled in the brief time she was out of sight. Damn she was fast.

Lily was panting and looked about forty percent as miserable as Val felt from the run. Her glare at Anna, who was simply standing beside her, not restraining Lily in any way, spoke of a far greater degree of unhappiness though.

“I don’t know where she is,” Lily repeated when Val walked over to join them.

“Yes, but you know where she is going,” Anna said, without reproach in her voice.

“You saw her get on the bus to Florida didn’t you?” Lily said, scowling.

“That is one possible destination she could have gone to,” Anna said. “There are however no direct busses from Vancouver to Florida. Busses make stops, and when we checked, Lily did not disembark in Orlando when the earliest bus arrived there.”

“From what I can tell, she didn’t even pass through customs getting into the U.S.,” Tam said, though Lily couldn’t hear that.

“Seriously, we are here to help her,” Val said, mostly succeeding in catching her breath.

“Yeah, right,” Lily said.

“Ms. Mashawalaran did not enjoy the best relationship with her parents?” Anna said, more a statement asking for confirmation than an actual question.

“Why don’t you ask them?” Lily said.

“We did,” Val said. “They regret the blow up they had when she told them she was pregnant.”

“They regret it now that she’s out of their control,” Lily said. “That’ll last about five minutes after she comes back though.”

“We are aware of that,” Anna said.

Lily blinked and looked at her with disgust. “And you’re still going to bring her back to them?”

“No,” Val said. “I’m sorry, you didn’t give me time to finish explaining.”

“Ms. Mashawalaran’s parents asked us to find their daughter. We made it clear however that she would only be returning home is that was what she desired,” Anna said.

“Wait, so you just want to know where she is?” Lily asked. “But that’s so you can tell her parents so they can go get her themselves.”

“Nope,” Val said. “We know Kelly’s father threatened to kill her and the baby. That is something we take very seriously. Whether he’s apologetic now or not doesn’t matter. What’s important is that she be healthy, safe, and supported.”

Lily laughed.

“Shame her stupid boyfriend doesn’t feel like that.”

“He has waived all parental rights,” Anna said. “Which I gather will come as a relief to Ms. Mashawalaran?”

“I thought his mother wanted to keep the baby for herself?” Lily said. “She was going to fight Lily for custody of it.”

“That was not his mother’s decision to make,” Val said. “Also, we had a conversation with her so she’s clear on where her rights in this end. If Lily wants to keep the baby and introduce them to their paternal grandparents, that’s fully within her rights. If she wants to flee Vancouver and never look back, that’s also something we can arrange.”

“What do you mean?” Lily asked.

“Kelly’s parents called us in, but we’re not the police, or human services,” Val said. “We took this case because Kelly needed help, and we want to make sure she gets it.”

“I don’t get it, what’s so special about Kelly?” Lily asked.

“Apart from the fact that you love her?” Anna asked. “Her mother wrote us a very compelling letter. She knew what she was asking for, and that our support might very well take her daughter away from her forever. What was important to her though was that her daughter not suffer the same trials that she had.”

“She wanted her daughter to have the second chance that she never got,” Val said.

***

Val stripped out of the sticky, Coke covered suit and made a beeline for the showers as soon as she was back in their suite.

“Sorry about that,” JB said from their room without looking out. “Arranging a side mission for you while you were in diplomatic clothes may not have been the best idea I ever had.”

“It’s fine,” Val said. “I can’t believe how quick her reflexes were though. One second it was simple conversation, the next it was all bubbly soda up in my nose.”

“Kind of my bad too,” Tam said. “I knew she’d bought Kelly the bus ticket. That probably should have been a clue for me to hack Lily’s email too.”

“How would that have helped?” Val asked, leaving the door to the shower room open so she could continue the conversation while she washed off.

“I only checked on Lily’s emails after she took off,”  Tam said, leaning against the outside of the doorway and speaking over the rushing water. “If I’d done that I would have noticed the one where she said she’d do anything to help Kelly and then confessed her feelings. That would have been a tip off that she wasn’t going to react well to questions about where Kelly was.”

“Anna mentioned that too, about Lily being in love with Kelly,” Val asked as she turned the shower off. “What’s the story there?”

“Fairly normal I think. I’m guessing about this from some later emails because I think they actually got together and talked it out – but it looks like there’s no romance there, Kelly’s not interested, but still a damn strong bond on both sides.”

“Good for them,” Val said, toweling herself off. “Anna should be collecting Kelly about now, and she’s going to need some solid people in her corner.”

“Yeah, I wish we could stay around longer and see how this all turns out for her,” Tam said.

“Alas, duty calls,” JB said. “I’ve got another formal suit in your size coming up in a few minutes.”

“Thanks,” Val said. “I’m amazed you were able to find someone at this time of day.”

“I’ll be buying the drinks tonight for my local friend but I think it’s worth it,” JB said. “Charlene gave us an important assignment but that doesn’t mean people like Kelly are unimportant.”

“Charlene said this was bigger than looking into PrimaLux?” Val asked.

“Yeah, I’m going to bet that’s only partially true though,” Tam said. “I get the feeling that PrimaLux is all kinds of dangerous.”

“Wouldn’t that be an even better reason for us to look into them?” Val asked.

“In Charlene’s view? Maybe not,” JB said. “For as long as I’ve worked with her, Charlene has been very aware of the things she asks the club’s associates to do. We take risks for her but she’s dead set against us taking unnecessary ones, or attempting anything suicidally difficult.”

“PrimaLux is that bad?” Val asked.

“Maybe,” Tam said. “Or maybe Charlene just wants to look into them and make sure that they’re not before she asks us to take them down.”

“It’s also possible that she honestly believes this meeting is more important,” JB said. “I mean how often is it that you get a chance to open diplomatic relations between the Second Chance Club and foreign royalty?”

The Second Chance Club – Ep 07 – Act 4

The body that hung before the window was clearly dead. The angle of the neck was one no living person’s spine could support. Also, and perhaps more tellingly, the body was transparent.

“That’s not an illusion is it?” Val asked, each word slower than the last as denial crumbled away despite how tightly she clutched it.

“No, it’s not,” Tam said. She stepped into the room with calm and measured footsteps.

Outside, every door in the hallway slammed open.

There was a rush of children’s laughter and then the lights were blown out like candle flames.

In the ensuing darkness, only the beam from Val’s flashlight remained to illuminate their surroundings. It cast a flickering circle of light on a room that had been long emptied of its contents.

The wind outside gave one last calamitous moan, the voices in it screaming for release audibly human and yet strangled and despairing.

Bring them back to me.

The words blossomed in pulsing red light on the room’s wall, and oozed downwards like they’d been cut into living tissue.

Anna flipped the switch on the wall and the room’s normal lights came back on, dispelling the writing on the wall and the last of the moaning wind.

“So we have a ghost to lay to rest?” she said. “Why did it manifest here?”

“This is probably the room where they died,” Tam said.

“Think JB can find out who died here?” Val asked.

“Probably,” Tam said. “Let’s hope it was only one person though.”

“JB may have trouble turning up the victim’s identity,” Anna said, She was searching around the room, inspecting the walls and the edge of the old carpeting in the room.

“Victim?” Tam asked.

“Yes, his hands were tied together,” Anna said. “What we saw was how he looked when he died, not how he was found.”

“Wow, I didn’t even notice that,” Tam said. “I wasn’t even sure if he was a guy. He was wearing was a nursing uniform.”

“You two were doing better than I was,” Val said. “I only noticed that he was see through and that someone had killed him before they hung him up there.”

“What do you mean?” Anna asked.

“You saw how his neck was broken right? That takes a lot of force. The ceiling in here isn’t that high. There’s not enough room for a fall to a snap a neck like that. Someone broke it first and then strung him up.”

“There’s also the fact that he left a ghost behind I guess,” Tam said. “That’s generally only the result of malice or a grievous accident.”

“So he’s hanging around for revenge then?” Val asked.

“I do not think so,” Anna said. “He spoke to us again, and for the second time he asked for something to be brought back to him.”

“Something or someone,” Tam said.

“His killers?” Val asked. “Does he want us to bring them here so that he can devour their souls or something?”

“It doesn’t work like that exactly,” Tam said. “A part of him would want justice, but I don’t think that’s the part we’re seeing here. He’s not saying ‘Bring me them’, or even ‘Bring them to me’. He’s asking us to bring someone back to him. Rage can fuel a spirit but so can compassion and love. I think he wants to bring someone who was important to him in life here.”

“Hmm, maybe we know who that is? The ghost was calling out to Derrick before right?” Val asked. “Should we have Jimmy B arrange for transportation to get him over here?”

“Not until we understand what the ghost wants with him,” Anna said. “And what happened to his friend Kyle and Rakeem.”

The voices of two men, out of synch with one another, and far distant, echoed up the stairs. They sounded bewildered. Each was asking questions. What was going on? Who had invited them here? What were they supposed to do? What did the house want with them? Both tracks of spectral dialog ended with the same words though, the two voices coming together in perfect harmony.

“Ok. I’ll go.” they said in unison.

“Wait, the ghost is bringing them back so they can go?” Val asked. “What kind of sense does that make?”

The house’s foundations groaned.

“Go where I wonder?” Anna asked.

“They sounded pretty happy to be going, so I’m going to guess it was anywhere but here,” Val said.

“Were they happy, or were they unafraid?” Tam asked.

“They sounded relieved to me,” Anna said. “Like they’d received an instruction or an answer.”

“Answers would be nice to get about now,” Val said.

“Kyle, Rakeem, and Derrick were all a part of the same trial group,” Anna said. “Perhaps it was related to that?”

“Our next step is to find them then,” Tam said. “And I think I know where to start looking.”

***

It was midnight on the following night when people once again gathered in the empty house at 32 Willow St. This time however, Anna, Tam, and Val were not alone.

“This seems like a weird place to meet Ms. Le,” Derrick said. He had a plate of food and a glass of ice tea from the refreshments Jimmy B had arranged for a catering company to bring in.

“You don’t recognize it, do you?” Tam asked. “Do any of you?”

The dozen young men who’d gathered at the house looked every bit as mystified as Derrick.

“I don’t blame you,” Tam said. “The last time you were here, the layout was a bit different and the decorations were a bit more kid friendly.”

“Also, the psychoactive cocktail they fed you here wasn’t that great for long term memory retention,” Val said.

“The what now?” Angelo Garcia, one of the other men, asked.

“You were all a part of a pharmacology study fifteen years ago,” Anna said. “The study lasted for almost two years, but your participation in it varied. Some of you only came once a month, others were here on a weekly basis.”

“Yeah, that’s how I know a lot of the guys here,” Derrick said. “What do you mean about our memory though?”

“The study was focused on finding a ‘cure’ for ADHD,” Tam said. “Or at least that was the reported goal of the study.”

“The real experiment they were running was whether the hyper-focusing aspect of ADHD could be weaponized,” Val said.

“They gave you tests that were a cover for the treatments and exercises they had you perform,” Anna said.

“What kind of treatments?” Derrick asked. “I don’t remember much of what we did, just that I’d get these great raspberry truffles when I did well on a test.”

“Oh yeah! Those were the best!” Angelo said. The rest were nodding their heads in agreement.

“They were also laced with a chemical cousin to LCD,” Tam said. “The idea wasn’t to get you tripping, it was to open your mind up to certain suggestable states. The plan was to build some trigger keys into your psyches they could use whenever they wanted to make you obey their commands without question.”

“Think of it like getting a song stuck in your head, except this one is stuck in your subconscious and because you can hyper focus and it’s stuck in there so deep, it never goes away,” Val said. “Somebody who knows the song can sing a verse and then you can’t hear anything but them, and you’re basically hypnotized at the same time.”

“So what does that mean?” Derrick asked.

“The procedure wasn’t reliable in most of you,” Anna said. “Even for the subjects who didn’t retain the suggestions though, the procedure intensified their attention deficit issues.”

“Great, I’m a space case because the doctors messed me up?” Angelo asked.

“No,” Tam said. “Your ADHD is a natural part of you, but any struggles you’ve had because of your neuropsychology have been exacerbated needlessly for years now. You’ve been working with both the ADHD and a constant subconscious loop that you’ve had to build extra coping mechanisms around, and that’s slowed you down, tired you out, and made you more susceptible to illness and other disorders.”

“And it’s not the doctors who did it,” Val said. “It’s one doctor in particular. Neil Cartman. He was in charge of the hidden part of the research project. The nurses who were part of the program weren’t brought in on the fact that psychotropics were being used, or what Cartman’s personal evaluation sessions entailed.”

“Why would they do that though?” Derrick asked. “I mean, we were just a bunch of kids. What’s the point of weaponizing kids?”

“You were step one in their plan,” Anna said. “If the treatments had worked on you, they would have moved on to developing variations that worked on people with other neuropsychological profiles.”

“Also, children grow up,” Tam said.

“Why’d they stop?” Angelo asked.

“Because one of the nurses, a man named Gary Barts, found out the truth of what was happening and threatened to blow the whistle on them,” Tam said.

“So they just stopped everything?” Derrick asked.

“Only after they killed me,” the ghost of Gary Barts said.

“Oh! What?” Angelo was the first one to speak but not the first out of his chair. Twelve young men leaped up and scrambled backwards, pausing only when they saw the three women who were with them were standing calm and still.

“Hi boys,” Gary said. “Sorry to scare you.”

He was still translucent, but the pale of death was absent. And his neck was straightened out, appearing like it did when he was still using it to breathe.

“Nurse G?” Derrick asked, blinking in shock.

“Derrick, it’s good to see you again slugger,” Gary said.

He held out a closed hand for Derrick to fistbump against but when Derrick tried he passed right through Gary’s fist.

“Oh damn, you really are dead?” Derrick said.

“Yeah, but a bit less so thanks to Ms. Le over there,” Gary said.

“How can you be a bit less dead?” Angelo asked.

“I was kind of scattered,” Gary said. “She helped me pull myself together.”

“Why? Derrick asked.

“So I could talk to you boys,” Gary said. “I had to tell you how sorry I was. I didn’t know what we were really doing to you. And I had to make sure you would get the real help that you needed.”

“That’s where Kyle and Rakeem are by the way,” Val said. “They’re both checked into an in-patient health care facility, where they are doing great, at least from what they said earlier today. Gary managed to get them to come here and then talked them into seeking out some real treatment.”

“I wish I could apologize to them too,” Gary said. “I wasn’t quite as…clear with them as I am now.”

“So does this mean we’ve got our own Casper now?” Angelo asked. “Cause that would be kind of cool.”

“Yeah Nurse G,” Derrick said. “You were always pretty awesome. I don’t remember much of what all happened, but I remember you sitting with me while we waited for some test or other and you read me a book on the birth of Hollywood. I think that’s why I’m a set designer now.”

“I’m sorry boys,” Gary said. “I can’t stay though. I can feel myself drifting away already.”

“Why do you gotta go?” Angelo asked.

“His purpose,” Tam said. “The reason he hung on here, it’s being fulfilled right now.”

“I just had to know you were going to be okay,” Gary said, his voice growing distant as his outline became fuzzy and indistinct.

“What about you though?” Derrick asked, tears freely filling his eyes.

“Me?”Gary asked, his voice almost a whisper. “I’m going to be fine.”

And then he was gone.

***

It was a much later that night before Anna, Tam, and Val were back in the Second Chance Club.

“Jimmy B will arrange for their medical appointments and make arrangements for any in-patient stays which they need,” Charlene said. She was calling in from an aid station in the Middle East, but the connection was remarkably clear.

“Gary’s life insurance spent the last fifteen years in an account gathering interest for those guys,” Val said. “Why didn’t anyone reach out to them sooner?”

“Bureaucratic snafus,” Anna said.

“Yes, very intentional ones,” Tam said. “I poked around a bit and found some familiar faces waiting for us. Or maybe I should say a familiar logo.”

She tapped a button on her laptop and brought up the deed to the research building that JB had uncovered.  The original owner was a shell company whose parent company bore the unmistakable logo of PrimaLux.

“These guys again?” Val asked.

“Yep,” Tam said. “They were the ones who were conducting the trials, and they were the ones who put out the hit on Gary when he uncovered what they were doing.”

“We should perhaps make them something of a priority,” Anna said, her eyes narrowing.

“No,” Charlene said. “Let me worry about PrimaLux for now. This year isn’t the first time I’ve encountered their work. I have another project I need you to work on. One that’s a little bigger than what I’ve given you so far.”

Anna, Tam, and Val settled into their seats, wondering what Charlene could possibly have in mind.

The Second Chance Club – Ep 07 – Act 3

The house at 32 Willow St. was haunted. Tam didn’t need to walk in the door, or cast any spells to figure that out. Just looking inside its empty rooms and feeling the shiver that ran down to the base of her spine was enough to tell her that.

“This is the place that Derrick gave us, right?” Val asked. She was holding a lit flashlight despite the fact that the power was still on to the building and the lights inside were functional.

“It seems to be in better shape than he described,” Anna said. She ran her hand along the trim on the living room’s doorway. Only a thin layer of dust came away on her fingers.

“Yeah, I asked JB to look into that,” Tam said as she stepped inside the building which had once been a home and looked ready to serve that function again with only minimal changes.

“I’m surprised you can’t hack into the town archives and find the info we need?” Val asked.

“Housing deeds are public records,” Tam said. “In theory there’s no need to break into a system that we’re supposed to have access to already. In practice, it would be faster, but there’s the problem that ‘publicly accessible’ doesn’t mean that anyone’s bothered to scan the documents into a central system. A lot of cities are pretty low-tech in how they manage their property records.”

“JB may also be able to find more than is listed in the official forms,” Anna said. “Granted it is well after hours, and the town hall is officially closed, but that’s never slowed them down before.”

“They are pretty talented,” Tam agreed.

“Yeah, I’ll put fifty bucks on JB winding up with the information we need and a date for the weekend in less than an hour,” Val said.

“No bet,” Anna said.

“If their date can help us get to the bottom of this, I’ll pay for dinner for the two of them,” Tam said. “I mean our ghost was polite enough to wait until after my show was done to pull that poltergeist act but I’d rather not chance it for a second night if I didn’t have to.”

“I thought ticket sales went up after the news got out though?” Val asked.

“Sure, because people like the idea of seeing the uncanny and otherworldly,” Tam said. “Actually seeing dead people, or being slashed to ribbons by a glassnado, on the other hand? That tends to drive attendance down just a little bit.”

“I guess I could see that,” Val said. “So, just how bad of a dead person are we talking about here? I take it most ghosts can’t pull off what this one did? Is there a limit to how often they can manage a stunt like that?”

“There is, but it’s wildly different for each spirit,” Tam said.

“Do most people leave ghosts, or is it only the strong ones who do?” Anna asked.

“It’s not about strength entirely,” Tam said. “It more about purpose, if that makes sense?”

“I think I could use more of an explanation,” Val said.

“Ok, well, take what I’m about to say with a grain of salt the size of bus because I’m not an expert on the afterlife,” Tam said. “From what I’ve read and been taught though, a ghost isn’t a person. Think of it like an after-impression that a person leaves behind when they die.”

“So a picture of who they were when they passed?” Val asked.

“Sort of, or more precisely a picture of part of who they were,” Tam said. “In the case of a Haunt, it’s the part of the person which was called to perform some specific task. Or, not even called, that’s not strong enough, maybe ‘consumed’ would be a better description. If there’s something that you’re supposed to do, and expected to do by people who matter to you, and that you deeply want to do, but death interrupts you before you can finish, a Haunt can be the result.”

“But not all the time?” Anna said.

“No, definitely not all the time,” Tam said. “There are people who leave behind tasks and people they were incredibly passionate about and there’s no Haunt that remains.”

“Because they lack the ability to cross back over to the mortal world?” Anna asked, leading them away from the front door and deeper into the house.

“I don’t think that’s the case,” Tam said. “If it was then mystics would leave ghosts of different sorts all the time. I think there’s more happening on the other side of death than any living person is aware of. People with deep family heritages, for example, rarely leave ghosts of any sort behind, except for the families who collect ghosts like other families collect fine china or paintings.”

“So the ghosts are rare,” Val said, shining her flashlight into every corner and shadowed area of the rooms they entered. “That’s good to know, but what can they do?”

The house wasn’t a large one. At least not from the outside. It’s inner dimensions felt somehow distorted, like the rooms were burgeoning outwards, straining to hold in a presence that threatened to shatter barriers far more solid than mere plywood and sheetrock.

“Basically anything,” Tam said. “But it has to be something in the service of the purpose they’ve remained behind to complete. There’s other rules too, I think, because it doesn’t seem like they have completely free reign in the sort of powers they can manifest, or even when or where they can choose to manifest themselves. A ghost bent on revenge, for example, can’t turn their killer into corn chowder, or ground sirloin. Except in the cases where they can. It’s pretty confusing really.”

“So when Sun Tzu said ‘Know Your Enemy’, he obviously hadn’t ever thought about fighting ghosts then I guess,” Val said.

“It’s good advice with ghosts too,” Tam said. “What any particular ghost can do is going to be much more limited than the full range of powers that ghosts in general can manifest. Knowing exactly who they were can help a lot in terms of figuring out what they’re actually likely to do, which is a lot more important than what they could possibly do.”

“Our ghost can cause words to appear, briefly, and can move significant amounts of material around with deadly force,” Anna said.

“Those are both fairly typical abilities,” Tam said. “It’s likely this ghost can do more than that, especially if we make any efforts to contain or disrupt it.”

“Do the powers manifested so far tell us anything special about who we’re dealing with?” Anna asked.

“Manifesting written words, suggests they were a devout reader in life. Likely someone with a lot of formal education, to where they could interact with the written word without conscious awareness,” Tam said. “The telekinesis suggests they were involved in physical work a lot too though. The ghost of an accountant wouldn’t usually manifest poltergeist type abilities unless they were also a devout marathon runner or something similarly physical and all consuming.”

“So they’re someone who used both their mind and body, and they have powers they’re still keeping hidden from us?” Val asked. “Why are we here after midnight again?”

“Because waiting till morning would make it less likely that we would encounter the ghost of this place,” Anna said, leading them to the stairs up to the second floor.

“And this is a bad thing?” Val asked, her flashlight held resolutely in her grip. “You did say they would probably manifest even more powers if we backed them into a corner, right?”

Despite the lights they had turned on, the stairs seemed to darken as they walked up to the next landing.

“Yep,” Tam said. “Which is why we’re not here in the day. In the day the spirit would be more distant, and weaker. If we could find their hiding spot at all, they would be much more likely to lash out at us.”

“They seemed pretty happy to lash out at us while we were in the theater,” Val said.

“I think that’s because they were so far from their primary tether,” Tam said. “This house feels like it’s spent a long time being haunted. It’s probably the spot where the ghost lived when they were alive, and maybe the spot where they died too. If that’s true, the ghost should be strong and secure here. If there’s anywhere that we can talk to it, this should be the place. Anywhere else and they’ll be weak and more likely to flee.”

They reached the top of the landing and where the first floor had seemed like a normal, if empty home, the second was something else entirely.

The stairs rose into the middle of a long hallway. To the left, the hallway ran down past nine doors and to the right there were another nine, with all of the doors closed slabs of dark brown wood in matching wooden frames.

Across the floor, and up the walls, almost reaching the ceiling, there was chipped and cracking paint, and it was covered in words.

Black lines of varying sizes from thick marker tip strokes, to fine ballpoint pen marks spread out like a tattoo run amuck. The phrase “Come Back to Me!” was repeated over and over but there were other words too. “Olanzapine” and “Risperidone” showed up in many places, each one crossed out and each one followed by “2mg” and “4mg” and “16mg”.

The mural of words wasn’t what bothered Val though.

“What the hell are those,” she said, pointing her flashlight’s beam at the runner that ran horizontally down the middle of the wall at waist height.

All along the runner, there were handprints. Small handprints.

“A warning,” Anna said. The house was quiet as her words faded, even the noise of the city outside its walls dropping away to an unbroken stillness.

“And a message,” Tam said, approaching the wall. She reached out for it and the wall seemed to flex outwards trying to meet her touch.

“How do you tell the harmful ghosts from the benign ones?” Anna asked, putting a hand on Tam’s shoulder to hold her back.

“Look for the same things as you do with harmful people and benign ones,” Tam said.

She reached out to touch the wall and the laughter of a child ran past them down the hall to until it reached the sound of a door slamming shut.

The door that it reached was the only door open on the whole floor. It was at the distant end of the hallway.

“That was closed just a second ago,” Val said, taking an involuntary step back down the stairs.

“Maybe the wind blew it open,” Anna said. Her tone left no doubt as to how unlikely she thought that was.

From outside the house, a low moaning picked up. It could have been the wind, or could have been mistaken for the wind, except for the faint echoes of little voices that it carried with it.

“I think we’re being invited somewhere,” Tam said, and took a step towards the room.

As she trailed her fingers along the handprints, more laughter came from other areas of the house. It was distant and distorted though, and not all of it sounded like it came from human throats.

Another few steps and not all of it sounded like laughter anymore either.

“Is this wise?” Val asked, her voice tight and controlled.

The stairs below them creaked, one after the other.

Val turned the flashlight on the steps to reveal the person climbing them.

The creaking stopped the moment the light touched the stairs. Of course no one was there. They were the only living bodies in the house.

“Wisdom comes from experience,” Anna said. “I don’t believe any of us have experienced anything like this before, so come, let us grow wiser.”

Her words carried the icy fatalism of the Russian steppes but they served their purpose of moving everyone forward.

As they walked past the doors to the other rooms, each one in turn cracked open a tiny bit.

“Don’t go into any of those,” Tam said. “Getting sidetracked could be bad.”

“They’re supposed to be empty aren’t they?” Val asked.

“Things aren’t always what they are supposed to be,” Tam replied, her voice sounding like it had traveled a hundred miles as it crossed the half dozen feet between them.

Tam reached inside the room at the end of the hall and flicked on the light within.

Where Val’s flashlight illuminated an empty room though, the lights overhead shown on a fully appointed child’s playroom. It had blocks, and story books, and stuffed animals.

And in the back, a man hung from an overhead pipe, his feet dangling well off the floor.

 

The Second Chance Club – Ep 07 – Act 2

The show had to go on.

Even with falling lighting fixtures and a glass whirlwind, the stage techs were back at work within a few minutes of the “technical malfunction”. The next performance wasn’t till the following day but cleanup and prep was better done sooner than later. No one asked how Tam had pulled a globe of light too bright to look at from between the palms of her hands. She was a magician, and magicians didn’t tell you how they did their tricks.

“So, what was that, exactly?” Val asked, as the tech who’d passed out was taken away by the ambulance crew that showed up in response to the accident.

“That was a spirit of some kind,” Tam said. Her attention was focused on the tube of water that featured in the final effect of her performance. It hadn’t been hit by the whirling debris but she was probing it’s circuit board with a voltage meter anyways.

“An unhappy one it would appear,” Anna said. She dabbed her suit with a piece of duct tape, drawing off a few small flecks of glass dust that had landed on her.

“Unfortunately many spirits are,” James said. He had borrowed Val and Anna’s cell phone, loaded an app on them and then set the two phones plus his own up to form a triangle around the area where the storm had raged. Val and Anna watched as he adjusted the settings on one of the phones and then checked the readings on the other two, moving in a circle around the phones and repeating the process several times.

“It’d be nice to have some info on what we’re facing here,” Val said. “I haven’t punched many dead people in the face but I’m guessing there’s going to be a trick to it that I’ll need to look into.”

“I’m afraid answering that question will require a great deal of research,” James said.

“The phone arrangement you have there will not tell you?” Anna asked.

“This will tell us if the spirit is still present,” James said. “It may lack a physical form, but it’s quite possible for for an unseen force to remain active in a locale without manifesting in any tangible manner.”

“I spoke with the stage manager,” Anna said. “This is the first time an inexplicable incident has happened in this building since it was built five years ago.”

“Is today the anniversary of the date they started excavating? Or of the first day they opened up?” Val asked.

“No,” Anna said. “From the building’s history that Aly, the manager, could recall, there’s nothing noteworthy about this date. There were no warnings or threats that lead up to it either.”

“So we have no idea what we’re dealing with?” Val asked, wandering around the circle James had drawn to connect the three phones.

“It was a Haunt,” Tam said, stepping away from her death trap. “And I need a new control board by tomorrow night.”

“You found evidence of ectoplasmic residue?” James asked. He turned away from his phone array went over to look at the circuit board in Tam’s hands.

“Very faint, and only on the charged leads,” she said. She held the board out for all of them to see and indicated a few spots on it. At first, they looked no different to Val than any of the other part of the green board but when she leaned in she saw tiny bits of ash around the miniature components which was generally a bad sign.

“And that tells us what was responsible for what we saw?” Val asked.

“Not directly,” Tam said. “A Haunt is basically a type of ghost. They’re what’s left over when someone passes but can’t stop doing the job they were trying to finish in life.”

“And they are the one sort of spirit which leaves the residue you see on your device?” Anna asked.

“Most ghosts can leave a residue behind,” Tam said. “A Haunt is so focused though that they tend to manifest more precisely than other types of supernatural entities. So the clue is less that there’s ectoplasm around and more that there is very little of it.”

“Other sorts of spirits would not leave such residue I presume?” Anna asked.

“Not generally,” Tam said, “I’m not that good in the spirit arts, but from what I understand spirits of the natural world tend to form bodies, if they need them, from the elements they are more familiar with.”

“So we’d be looking for, what, mud if we were hunting a spirit of the earth?” Val asked.

“That, or roots and branches, or stones,” Tam said. “Unless I’m forgetting a class of spirits, I think the rule is that spirits which derive from animals and places generally use aspects of the world for their bodies, while humans and other sapient beings conjure their own spirit matter, or ectoplasm, directly.”

“You are a quick study,” James said. “That is precisely correct.”

“It leaves us with a more pressing concern though,” Anna said. “If this is the work of a deceased human’s spirit, then what did they want on the stage?”

“Also, who killed them?” Val asked.

“No idea on the second question, but I’m willing to bet the first is something we can ask Derrick about,” Tam said.

“Derrick? The guy who passed out?” Val asked.

“Yeah,” Tam said. “He’s one of the regulars here. Nice guy. Fairly quite. A little odd, but then that’s theater for you.”

“Nice, quiet, and odd? So, he’s a serial killer then?” Val asked.

“I do not think so,” Anna said. “Consider the words our ghost chose.”

“It was ‘come back to me’, wasn’t it?” Val asked.

“Yes,” James said. “Which would be an odd message for the victim of a serial killer to choose to convey.”

“Let us see if this Mr. Derrick can recall anyone who passed and had unfinished business with him,” Anna said.

***

Derrick had recovered by the time Tam and the rest found him, or at least he had recovered in the sense of being conscious and relatively coherent. Looking into his eyes, Tam could see hard walls shut down around his emotions in a desperate attempt to hold in the fear that had overwhelmed him and the shame that lingered from losing control.

“Hey Derrick, how are you feeling?” Tam asked.

“I’m ok Ms. Le,” Derrick said. He was sipping from a small bottle of apple juice, the third one since he’d brought into the theater’s office by the paramedics.

“Low blood sugar sucks doesn’t it?” Val asked, nodding at the empty apple juice containers on the counter beside Derrick.

“Yeah,” he forced out a laugh.

“If you need a bit of time, that’s ok,” Tam said. “If you’re up for it though, we’ve got a few questions we were hoping you could help us with.”

“Oh, uh, sure,” Derrick said, taking in the unfamiliar people who were with Tam.

“We’ll get the obvious one out first,” Anna said. “Do you know who that was on the stage?”

“Who? What do you mean?” Derrick asked.

“You saw the words on the curtain, right?” Tam asked. Derrick nodded. “Do you have any idea who could have written them?”

Derrick’s gaze flickered around the room, focusing on the empty spaces rather than the people in front of him.

“I don’t know,” he said, his shoulders scrunched in and both hands clasped on the tiny juice bottle. “It was really weird.”

“You are not wrong about that,” Val said, dropping into one of the seats around the wall of the office waiting area.

“Have you heard that phrase before?” James asked.

“No, I mean not exactly,” Derrick said. “Listen, I’m sorry for losing it like that. I don’t know what happened.”

“It’s not your fault,” Tam said and at his frown of self recrimination and disbelief added, “Anyone mind if I show him some proof?”

Anna nodded at the idea, her expression indicating her acceptance, while Val simply shrugged.

“What do you mean proof?” Derrick asked, concern written all over his face.

“What you saw on the stage curtain wasn’t normal writing,” Tam said. “It was a manifestation of something that shouldn’t have been able to appear here.”

“What does that mean?” Derrick asked.

“Well, there’s magic,” Tam said and reached over to pull a silver dollar from Derrick’s ear. “And then there’s magic”.

In her hands the silver dollar began to glow with a warm, yellow radiance.

“Wow,” Derrick said, entranced by the glowing coin.

“Take this coin,” Tam said. “The glow will fade pretty soon, but it will come back if you need it to.”

“Why would I need it to?” Derrick asked, taking the coin without waiting for the answer.

“I think you passed out because a spirit of the dark was reaching out for you, and the human mind can kind of short circuit when things outside our world start screaming for our attention,” Tam said.

“Oh my god, I’m possessed?” Derrick asked.

“No,” Tam said. “You wouldn’t be able to hold the coin if you were, and I don’t think the spirit we saw is interested in possessing anyone.”

“So what? It wants to drag me to hell or something? Oh my god that’s what happened to Kyle and Rackeem!”

“No, I don’t think this spirit is evil either,” Tam said.

“But you said it was a spirit of the dark?” Derrick said.

“Yeah, sorry, it’s a technical term I guess,” Tam said. “A spirit of the dark is just one whose natural state is to be hidden from sight, rather than disguised, or bound as a part of something like a river or a mountain or a fox. It’s not necessarily bad. For some things ‘dark’ is really good.”

“Our internal organs, for example, sort of enjoy being in the dark,” Val said. “Expose your spleen to the light and it get all kinds of cranky.”

“You mentioned a Kevin and a Rakeem?” Anna asked.

“Yeah,” Derrick said. “They’re some people I know, but they went missing and nobody knows where to find them.”

“That doesn’t sound good,” Val said. “Have you talked to the cops?”

“No, we’ve had enough trouble with them,” Derrick said.

“I understand,” Anna said. “If Kevin and Rakeem are related to this, we will try to find them for you.”

“And if they’re not related to this, we’ll still try to find them just to make sure they’re ok,” Val said.

“Thanks, they’re good guys,” Derrick said, looking up from the coin to show a small, grateful smile.

“Where did you meet you them?” Anna asked.

“We were in a program together when we were kids,” Derrick said. “Some of us kept in touch after it was done.”

“What kind of program?” Tam asked.

“A medical thing,” Derrick said. “It was for kids who had problems. You know, like behavior problems.”

“A drug study? Or were they focused on therapy sessions?” Val asked.

“Drugs, and tests,” Derrick said. “It didn’t go anywhere though. Just ran for a while and then got shut down, so we were back out on our own.”

“You mentioned that you hadn’t heard words exactly like the ones on the curtain,” Tam said. “Have you run across anything close to that? Especially with Kevin and Rakeem?”

“Not with those guys, no,” Derrick said. “I did get a card at my house though. It just had an address on it and it said ‘Come back’ written in kind of sloppy handwriting. But not blood or anything weird though.”

“Do you still have the card?” Tam asked.

“Yeah, it’s back at my apartment,” Derrick said. “Is that why I’m being haunted?”

“I don’t think it’s the reason, but it could be related,” Tam said. “What was the address on the card?”

“Well, that’s the thing,” Derrick said. “I didn’t recognize it, but I was kind of curious so I looked it up online and it’s just a house. I tried taking a ride by it on the bus and the place is old. Like broken down and empty old. I don’t think anyone lives there. I don’t even know if anyone ever lived there.”

“There may be no one alive there, but I bet if we drop by, there’ll be someone to greet us once we walk in the door,” Tam said.

The Second Chance Club – Ep 7 – Act 1

Tam was fully submerged, dangling upside down, bound hand and foot for execution and, according to the clock that ticked nearby, her air had run out thirty seconds ago.

Darkness descended, the light dwindling away as her feet twitched their last frantic spasms until only a flickering, choked pool of illumination remained.

Then the first sparkler light, followed by another, and then dozens more, bathing the stage with a brilliant showering of radiance.

Before the audience’s eyes, the dark cloak that lay discarded on the stage began to rise.

The form below the cloak stood slowly, by inches, as a drumroll built to a crescendo. A constellation of small fireworks bloomed across the stage as the music reached its highpoint and the Tam whirled the cloak off herself, no longer chained in the Tank of Inescapable Doom but instead clad in the sparkling green and gold armor the Sovereign of the Seven Seas.

With stabs of her trident, she sent pyrotechnics out over the audience to burst at the edges of the theater, each flash of light revealing one of the pirate crew members she’d managed to “misplace” through the course of the show. Gone were their billowing shirts and cutlasses, replaced instead with iridescent sea fairy costumes.

At her behest, the Sea Fairies then scattered “golden doubloons” in the audience’s outstretched hands, returning the Pirate Booty the show had been themed around to the guests so they could carry its magic out into the world with them.

***

Tam was In her dressing room, scrubbing off the layers of stage make-up when Anna and Val arrived.

“There is no way you weren’t cheating out there,” Val said. “James totally hooked you up with some special glamour for this one didn’t he?”

Tam just shook her head and smiled.

“This is the same show I’ve practiced every night for the past two weeks,” she said. “Do you really think James would let me fritter away the real stuff that much?”

“This is what you’ve been working on for the last year isn’t it?” Anna asked. “I recognized some of the effects from your last show but it seemed like most of the work up there was new.”

“I’ve been trying out bits and pieces of it in the smaller theaters,” Tam said, putting away her costume and changing into her more usual street clothes. “With the small shows there’s usually there’s only time for one significant effect and some lead up to it.”

“I’m impressed with the overall narrative flow you achieved,” Anna said, hanging Tam’s costume on a hanger for her.

“Yeah, you had the audience in the palm of your hand from the first effect,” Val said, packing away the trident Tam had carried as her final prop. It still had the smell of gunpowder on it from the pyro she’d shot off.

“Your assistants seemed well trained too,” Anna said. “Some of the later sequences couldn’t have been easy to coordinate.”

“Thanks, we worked pretty hard on the lead up to this one,” Tam said, locking down the last of her specialized gear. “It’s a larger cast than I normally get to use, but I think they really came together.”

“Are you going out with them for an after party?” Anna asked.

“Normally yes, but a bunch of them are heading off to work a few other shows,” Tam said. “We’ll all catch up after the last show next weekend and have a big bash then.”

“Cool! That means we can take you out!” Val said, offering Tam her coat.

“Indeed. We must thank you for the tickets to your opening night somehow,” Anna said.

“Aww, you folks don’t need to do that,” Tam said. “It’s nice just knowing there’s some friendly faces in the house.”

“With the kind of applause you were getting, I don’t think that’s something you ever need to worry about,” Val said.

“You know, the funny thing is it’s still really hard to take that first step onto the stage,” Tam said.

“For big shows like this?” Val asked.

“Nope. All of them,” Tam said. “You’d think after a few successful shows the stage fright would go away, but that’s not a thing that happens. At least not for me.”

“It is very common, what you describe,” Anna said. “But you manage to perform anyways.”

“There’s all the other people counting on me,” Tam said. “That’s what usually gets me behind the curtain before it rises. If I don’t go out, there’s a ton of people who don’t get paid, and in entertainment that can mean they don’t eat.”

“Wow, that’s pretty harsh,” Val said. “How about for the smaller shows where it’s just you?”

“For those I usually try to talk to the crowd beforehand,” Tam said. “If I can find someone who’s eager to see the show, I look for them in the audience as an excuse to force myself on stage. If not, I think about whoever’s running the venue. Or the next magician who’s going to have to play that spot after me, and how hard it would be on them if I bailed. I know this all probably sounds ridiculous, because I really do like performing, it’s just a weird thing I go through.”

“I think it’s amazing,” James Baughsley said, joining them outside Tam’s dressing room with a bundle of show merchandise in his arms.

“Did you leave any for the rest of the patrons James?” Val asked with a chuckle.

He looked at her in confusion.

“Why would I do that?”

“Thank you James,” Tam said. “But you didn’t have to buy all that. I could have picked you up some swag from whatever was leftover once the shows ends.”

“I think not,” James said. “I collect opening night posters. Waiting for yours would be an insult I have no intention of ever giving.”

“You collect posters?” Val asked, trying to reconcile the very proper British gentleman James always comported himself to be with the notion of someone who collected something as lowbrow as a poster.

“Yes, from any concert I go to, particularly on opening night,” James said.

“Is there something especially magical about opening night posters?” Anna asked. James was their resident arcane scholar, and organized most of the magical support they required or requested.

“Not in a mystical sense,” James said. “I just find them charming.”

“What kind of posters do you have? I’ve never seen any hanging in your room?” Val said.

“They’re not meant for a work environment,” James said. “I keep them in my apartment and rotate the ones I have up occasionally.”

“Now I want to see your apartment,” Anna said.

“You are welcome anytime Ms. Ilyina,” James said, which was met with an answering smile from Anna. “Though I must temper your expectations. I feel my workspace in the Club’s aerie more accurately reflects who I am overall. I am at my apartment rarely enough that it is somewhat disheveled on most occasions.”

“God, now I want to tag along too,” Val said. “I can’t imagine you and disheveled in the same state, never mind the same room.”

“I assure you, I am no better than any other man in that regards,” James said.

“What did you think of the show?” Tam asked.

“It was spectacular,” James said. “I am at a loss for how you pulled off the vanishing escape at the end, especially since there was no hint of actual teleportation magic involved.”

“Thank you,” Tam said. “That one took a while to work out.”

“I must confess though I am somewhat puzzled by the closing effect,” James said.

“The Sea Faeries?” Tam asked.

“No, the glowing letters on the curtain,” James said.

“What glowing letters?” Val asked.

“The ones which read ‘Come Back to Me’. I thought they were an odd addition to the parting message with the doubloons,” James said, his words growing slower as he spoke and watched Tam’s confusion grow. “But none of you saw them, did you?”

He looked around between the Val, Anna, and Tam, searching for recognition in their eyes. There was none to find.

“That wasn’t part of the show,” Tam said, her eyes narrowing. “Where did you see these words?”

“On the curtains after they fell,” James said. “They were just a faint shimmer at first but the letters grew in clarity and brightness as the audience diminished.”

“I wasn’t looking at the stage once the show ended,” Anna said. “I was searching for a gap in the crowds to get back here.”

“Me too,” Val said. “Did anyone else notice the words?”

“No one mentioned them, but the flow of the crowd was out of the theater at that point. I was looking back towards the stage to see if I could see any of the setup work for the next performance. I thought it would help me puzzle out how the effects were accomplished.”

“Could the curtain words be something from the next act?” Val asked.

“No one else is going on tonight, and that doesn’t sound like the sort of thing you’d setup early,” Tam said.

“We should go and have a look at these words,” Anna said.

The other nodded, and they moved as a group back to the stage. When they arrived there though, no glowing words were in evidence on the curtain. Only the stage techs were around, tidying up and putting away the electronics that had been used during the performance.

“I was standing over there when I saw the phrase appear,” James said, indicating the middle of one of the rows near the stage.

Val hopped down and walked to the spot James had pointed to.

“Nothing on the curtains anymore,” she said.

As she turned to look down at the chairs however, the lights in the theater died completely.

For an instant the dark was absolute and empty, but then the silence was broken by the moaning of the wind.

Except no wind was blowing in the theater.

Then the screaming began.

One of the techs started to freak out as words scrawled in pulsing red light were ripped into the curtain on the main stage.

“MINE” the first words read and, as it bled off the curtain, it was replaced with “cOme bACk to mE”.

That was more than the tech could handle. He turned and fled. Straight off the stage.

Val was too far away to save him from the fall.

Anna however was not.

Before he could reach the edge of the stage, she was beside him and managed to knock his feet out from under him so that he skidded to a stop before tumbling off onto either the first row of seats or the concrete in front of them.

That was good for the tech, but seemed to rouse the ire of whatever force had killed the lights and was fingerpainting on the curtains in glowing blood.

A light fell on the stage.

And then another.

Tam had to dodge the second one, and managed to pull James to safety before a third on crashed down on the spot where he’d been standing.

The shattered lights weren’t content to lay on the stage though. The wind which was roaring through the theater without any discernible physical presence was nonetheless able to send the broken shards of the lights swirling into the air.

The tech screamed louder as the hurricane of glass and steel whirled over them all, and Anna covered him with her body.

The intensity of the storm built higher until the darkness was split by a piercing light.

Standing at the center of the storm, Tam held her hands spread before her body, a ball of dazzling sunshine caught between her outstretched fingers.

The storm of glass diminished under the glare of the light and with a final howl, the winds rushed out of the building, and the theater’s remaining lights flooded the room with illumination.

“Sometimes you need more than just special effects,” Tam said, calling the raw magic she held back into her palms.

“Yes, and I believe we have our next case,” Anna said, rising from where the tech had curled into an unconscious fetal ball.

The Second Chance Club – Ep 06 – Act 4

When Val stepped into the ring it felt like coming home. All at once she was thirteen again, the roar of the women who’d gathered for Lara and Sam’s bachelorette party the same as the roar of the first crowd she’d fought in front of.

Fighting was something that was in Val’s blood. It had been since before she’d even started training in martial arts. Fighting in an arena was different though. She could be a showman. She could play to the crowd and sell hits that hadn’t landed with anywhere near enough force to knock her down. Performing was an art however, one that distanced her from the honest clarity a good fight offered.

The trouble was, no one wanted to see an honest brawl. They wanted exciting moments. They wanted a good back and forth between the fighters. If it looked like an even contest, a good pair of performers could send the audiences’ emotions on a rollercoaster like no other. A one sided slaughter though was boring for everyone involved.

From her corner, Val watched as Nike, her opponent, entered the ring. Val tried to judge from how the woman carried herself and how she approached the fight whether she was going to play along with a more theatrical bout for the crowd’s sake.

Nike climbed through the ropes and locked eyes with Val, sizing her up with a fire in gaze that told Val Nike was taking the fight seriously.

They had a few moments to prepare in their corners before the bell rang, and Val breathed, settling her mind into the state of relaxed awareness that a really good battle required.

That turned out to be the right tact to take as Nike came out swinging the instant the bell sounded.

She was taller than Val, but for as furious as her initial flurry of blows was, Nike didn’t commit herself to any of them. They were questions, asked in a language Val spoke fluently.

How far can you reach? the first punch asked.

How fast can you react? the second punch inquired.

Val responded with the standard Muay Thai answer of attacking the attacks, meeting Nike’s punches with ones of her own.

I can’t reach as far as you, but I’m faster, Val said with well timed blows to Nike’s arms.

The two danced apart after the initial fray.

You think you’re good enough to hang with me? Val’s posture and footwork asked, playful and taunting.

Try me, Nike responded with a posture that was all business and focus.

Ok, I will, Val said by lunging forward with a low kick to Nike’s legs. Val didn’t want to cripple her or end the fight early, so she pulled the force from the blow. That was a mistake.

No respect? Nike caught Val with a hard knee to the midsection, anger driving it in deeper as an exclamation point.

Oh, you want to play for real? Val’s smirk asked, after she recovered from the blow.

Prove you’re in my league or I don’t have any time for you, Nike said by unleashing a hail of close in blows.

She wasn’t holding back or going for theatrics. She threw her shots with enough force that if they landed they would have put Val on the mat. Even being able to defend against them required having the a well honed fighting mindset.

Where the pain from the first punch to connect would have rattled a new fighter and left them wide open to be obliterated, Val knew the right answer without thinking. She turtled up catching two blows on her arms and leaned into the assault, reducing Nike’s range of motion and opening the taller women up for a series of counter attacks that pushed the two of them apart.

Ok, let’s do this then, Val said with a series of short, hard strikes, not committing herself fully to any of them but rather using each one to bait out a response from her foe.

Nike was too cagey of a fighter to fall for that trap. She ranged outside Val’s reach, wary and ready for their next engagement.

They’d agreed on the terms of the battle in their first few exchanges, and demonstrated a little of their prowess to convince the other they were serious. Despite that, Nike still looked unconvinced that Val was really much of a threat.

You’ve got nothing, Nike said with a series of hard punches that brought her in close enough to unleash a brutally fast knee strike to Val’s ribs. The hits weren’t taunts, they weren’t focused on making Val mad or humiliating her. They were an assertion. Nike didn’t feel like playing around more than she had to, so she threw her blows to end the fight immediately.

Val blocked each of the attacks with counterstrikes targeting the limbs Nike extended.

Punch. Counter to the forearm.

Punch. Counter to the wrist.

Kick. Counter to the knee.

Val had been playing before, but in the face of Nike’s attacks, she got serious. Not deadly serious, and certainly not “call on magical aid” serious. The fight wasn’t a joke though, and it wasn’t about pretending. Nike demanded a real battle, and so Val honored that desire.

You’re fast, she said with a series of rapid strike that flashed around Nike’s body, targeting head, groin, and ribs. They weren’t individually decisive but even with Nike blocking them, the cumulative effect was considerable.

Out of respect for Nike’s strength and speed each of Val’s attacks snapped back to a defensive guard the instant after landing. She was fighting with the caution that someone who was facing a skilled foe would employ, landing hits that drove towards victory while at the same time foregoing risky openings, even when they were ones Nike hadn’t intended to leave.

For her part, Nike answered in kind.

You’re stronger than you look, she said, dancing away from Val’s blows rather than muscling through them.

You’re not afraid to take hits, Val said by giving Nike an opening that Nike had to pay for by absorbing a shot right across her temple.

Neither are you, Nike said with a trio of knee strikes that Val was able to diminish the force of by moving into them rather than trying to get away.

Good form, Val said.

Good balance, Nike said.

You’re looser than I expected, Val said.

I’m always loose when I’m fighting, Nike said. I love this stuff.

It’s the only time everything drops away and things just feel right isn’t it? Val asked.

Exactly, Nike said.

That’s why you don’t like fooling around in a fight isn’t it? Val asked

Yeah, I hate when people don’t take it seriously.

Because they’re not taking you seriously?

Nah, I don’t care what anybody thinks about me, Nike’s footwork and gaze said.

That’s tough to do, Val said.

I’m pretty tough.

Pretty and tough you mean, Val’s smile said.

You ain’t so bad either for a latina girl, Nike said with an answering smile.

Thanks, Val said, I’m not quite as tough as you, I guess. People can really bum me out.

Well, yeah, that can suck.

Whether it’s in and out of the ring right?

Definitely.

How are the folks here? You get many good matches? Val asked.

I got a good match going now, Nike said.

Folks here ain’t on your level though, are they? Val asked.

Nah, Nike said. I mean some are ok, but they ain’t really where I need to be.

You ever try teaching? Val asked.

I’m not a good teacher, Nike said.

Now that ain’t true, Val said. You’re showing me some nice footwork and that knee jab combo? I’m already stealing that.

Yeah, but you listen to me. You get it. The normal girls here, they just don’t.

I’ve had a lot of practice being a student, Val said.

Not me, Nike said. I just pick stuff up, you know?

I do, Val said. When you’re gifted, it’s hard to find any teachers that can keep up with you.

Yeah, I don’t want to play around and get sloppy, but when I take a fight seriously suddenly people get all mad at me, Nike said.

Because they think you’re mad at them, Val said.

Nah, I’m never mad when I get in the ring, Nike said. This is where the fun happens.

It’s the intensity, Val said. What you bring to the ring is so much more than what they’re used to that they think you’re holding back a ton of rage.

So what, I’m supposed to be nice and smile more?

Nah, you be you, and anybody tells you to smile more? That’s when you get mad, Val said. We just need to get you fighting with the right crowd.

You got some Warrior Princess friends? Nike asked.

Yeah and I think I’m making a new one now, Val said.

***

The wedding was a simple affair, with family and friends close enough to be family in attendance. There were only a few important seats empty and despite that Sam looked radiant, and Lara’s gown gave Val a brief thrill and regret that things hadn’t turned out differently between them.

The art gallery where they held the ceremony felt like both a distant land to Val and also the natural milieu where the two brides belonged.

Lara had always been a gym rat, more comfortable in sweats and a t-shirt than anything else. Seeing her in a formal gown, hand in hand with the woman she loved, though Val felt like she was at last seeing the complete picture of her oldest and dearest friend.

There’d always been an elegance and serenity inside Lara just biding its time, and with Sam she’d found someone who could draw that part of her out and allow her to be everything she could be.

A tear creased Val’s eye. Whether it was from knowing that she couldn’t have been that person for Lara, or happiness for her friend, or even the distant hope of finding someone like that for herself, Val couldn’t decide.

“You know, technically, you didn’t win that bet,” Lara said later as Val swept her onto the dance floor.

“And yet, here I am dancing with you, so I’d say technically I did,” Val said, spinning Lara out before pulling her back in for a deep dip.

“Tell me the truth,” Lara said. “You threw that fight didn’t you?”

“Throwing the fight would suggest that I Iost it, and I point out, that I did not lose,” Val said.

“Yeah, but a tie? Really? Come on, when have you ever tied before?” Lara asked.

“All the times I didn’t win or lose,” Val said, smiling. “Seriously though, Oyenike is that good. She’s a prodigy.”

“It’s nice what you’re doing for her,” Lara said.

“The Nationals trip?” Val said. “That’s only part of what she needs. I’m going to see if I can hook her up with some of the people I’ve trained under. She’s so damn gifted, but a lot of what she knows she’s had to pick up and work out for herself.”

“I thought that’s what all the great masters did?” Lara asked.

“To some extent, but it’s always nice to have someone who knows what they’re talking about there to provide another perspective.”

“To see the mistakes you’re making?” Lara asked.

“Or the things you’re doing right that you don’t want to lose,” Val said.

“So what kind of external perspective can you give me?” Lara asked.

“Today? You are doing everything right today,” Val said.

“I couldn’t believe I was going through with it this morning,” Lara said. “I never thought this day would ever really happen.”

“I’m glad it did,” Val said. “Sam’s put a smile on your face that I never could.”

“You put plenty of smiles on my face,” Lara said.

“Yeah, but not like this one,” Val said. “We had crazy, wild times, and I hope we’ll still have them again, but this? What I see today? You look…peaceful. Like your soul is in harmony with all of the rest of you. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen you looking like that.”

“I think that’s what scares me,” Lara said. “What I’ve got here is so good.”

“For what it’s worth, Sam looks exactly the same,” Val said.

“Thank you,” Lara said, tears sparkling in her eyes.

“For what?” Val asked. “I’m only saying what everyone here can see.”

“For more than that,” Lara said. “For being you. For this dance. Everyone knows it was supposed to be my Dad who had the first dance, but he…”

“He should have been here sooner,” her father said and asked, “may I cut in?”

Lara blinked back the tears as surprise and amazement stole over her features. Her father had been the last hold out, the last one resisting the idea of his daughter marrying another woman, but here he was, in a perfectly fitted tuxedo, looking as dapper and suave as he’d ever been.

Lara looked at Val, who nodded in confirmation. It had taken only a few words from Val and a small intervention on Jimmy B’s part to get the tuxedo, but her father wasn’t going to miss one of the best days in his daughter’s life.

Sometimes rifts are too deep to mend but sometimes all people need is a second chance to do the right thing.

The Second Chance Club – Ep 06 – Act 3

As a teenager, Val had always relished a good fight, whether it was in or out of the ring. Walking into the “Pathways to Health Fitness Center”, she felt a tingle of nerves dance along her fingertips. She wasn’t there for a fight, not yet, but the anticipation was starting to sing within her.

“It’s been awhile since I’ve been in the ring,” she said, glancing over at Lara who was holding the main door open for her.

“Don’t worry, it’s like falling off a bike,” Lara said, smirking at Val’s unaccustomed nervousness.

“Got it. Break her fists with my face. I can do that.”

A call to James for some mystical assistance would allow Val to do exactly that, but this was absolutely not a scenario where the Second Chance Club’s arcane resources were appropriate, or even desired.

“Just put on a good show,” Lara said, leading them past the reception desk with a wave at the woman behind the counter. “This is supposed to be a fun night for the girls who’ve been supporting us.”

“So knocking Sam’s champion out in the first thirty seconds isn’t the game plan then?” Val asked. Against most opponents, Val wouldn’t need even the weakest of the Club’s enchantments to make good on that boast. Sam was putting forward her best fighter though, so Val figured the fight would last at least a minute or so.

Her confidence would have been unusual in someone who’d been as injured as she was, as recently as she’d been. Physical therapy wasn’t a fast process, and there were often complications or long term effects that took years to sort out. Even just the loss of six months worth of muscle development would have held a lot of people back from thinking they could compete at the level they had previously. Her physical state wasn’t a problem for Val though.

“You know, I didn’t think to ask, but you are cleared for this right?” Lara said. “I mean, you look fine…”

“Thank you,” Val said with a smile.

“But I know you lie about that kind of thing all the time, Ms ‘I’ll go to the prom with a fractured rib’.”

“That was a one time thing,” Val said. “And yes, I passed my last physical with flying colors. I’m probably in better shape now than I was when I was kid.”

Lara led her past a room with high tech exercise bikes, and another where a spinning class was in session.

“You must have been working with a great medical team,” Lara said.

“I was. Still wasn’t fun mind you, but they were some of the best people in the country.”

The Club’s medical benefits were impressive by any measure, and that was before accounting for the magical treatment options they had occasional access to.

“How did you afford all that? I thought the Army kicked you out?” Lara asked.

“Honorably discharged.” Val correct her. “The costs were all part of my signing bonus with the Second Chance Club.”

“That’s a pretty sweet deal then,” Lara said. “What do they have you doing for it though?”

“Investigation, troubleshooting, and problem resolution for a diverse mix of clientele,” Val said. “Or at least that’s what the official job description says. Mostly, we just find ways to help people who are in trouble.”

“That sounds nice. Vague, but nice. How’d you find them?” Lara stopped before a door with the words “Employees Only” on it.

“They found me,” Val said, following Lara into the health center’s back office. “I was still in a coma at the time and they arranged for my transfer to the facility where I woke up.”

“Wait, so they hired you before you were even conscious enough to interview?”

“Better than that, I was on the payroll from the first week I was in therapy,” Val said. “Charlene, that’s our boss, came to see me once I was conscious for more than a few minutes at a time and made the job offer.”

“Like there was some chance that you’d turn it down?” Lara asked.

“Yeah, I was kind of scrambled at that point,” Val said. “Part of me was thinking that if I could just get better fast enough that the Army would take me back. The more I worked at it though, the more I found I didn’t really want to go back. Of course part of that was Charlene cheating too.”

“How did she cheat?” Lara asked.

“She wouldn’t let me answer yes or no until my neural exams came back with a clean bill of health. Coming out of the coma I had a bit of impairment in my speech and attention. While I was recuperating though, she sent over some of the casefiles that Anna and Tam were working on.”

“Anna and Tam are your coworkers?”

“Yeah, we’re the field team,” Val said. “JB kept filling me in on these great things they were doing though. Stuff like locating a lost boat that was carrying a major supply shipment meant for refugees in Jordan, or the one where they ran witness protection for someone testifying against a corrupt police chief. It was like every day JB would drop by with some awesome adventure the their team was working on.”

“Who’s JB?” Lara asked, leading Val to a door labeled ‘Samantha Cruz’. The door was open but the woman inside was on the phone so Lara paused outside and indicated to Val to wait.

“They’re our public liaison,” Val said. “They handle dealing with the people on the periphery of our cases. Law enforcement, caterers, supply clerks. I don’t know if JB has an endless pool of contacts or if they’re just phenomenal at making friends in an eyeblink but they save us about ten million headaches every time we go out to deal with a crisis of some sort.”

“Are they looking for a new job?” the woman behind the head desk, Sam, asked, putting her phone on the desk. “Cause god I could use someone like that today.”

“City inspector’s still making excuses to not come by?” Lara asked, leading Val into Sam’s office.

“What needs inspection?” Val asked.

“We had our new pool building put up two months ago, but the inspector won’t get out here and give us the CO that we need to open it up for public use,” Sam said.

“What’s his excuse this time?” Lara asked, picking up a pamphlet of papers from Sam’s desk.

“He says it’s against his values,” Sam said. “He’s claiming he shouldn’t have to authorize buildings for a use that he finds offensive.”

“It’s a pool,” Lara said, frowning.

“Yeah, but it’s about who owns the pool, and who would be using the pool,” Sam said, massaging her temples.

“Given me one second,” Val said and tapped out a quick text to JB.

A reply appeared a few seconds later. Anna and Tam were enjoying some time off too so things were slow at the Club.

Sam and Lara watched curiously as a few more texts went back and forth before Val looked up.

“Ok, looks like Brad Cosgrave, your previously assigned inspector is going to be sent for some diversity training which he was overdue for, and Inspector Sara Meltzer will be out tomorrow to verify your pool installation.”

“What? Really?” Sam asked.

“Yeah. I wasn’t kidding when I said JB knows everybody.” She smiled. Sometimes wins were easy to come by but it didn’t make them feel any less awesome.

“I would kiss you but my fiance is right here,” Sam said.

“Get in line, I might kiss her first!” Lara said.

“I have sworn off kissing engaged people,” Val said with a laugh. “Too many things get thrown at me when I do that.”

“Lara told me about that,” Sam said. “But that was more of a ‘failed to get engaged’ scenario wasn’t it?”

“I think we’re filing that under ‘it was messy’,” Val said. “But it’s nice to see that it seems to have worked out for the best.” She gestured to the two of them and the picture of domestic harmony they were already radiating, noting in particular the engagement rings that Lara and Sam both wore. Sam smiled broadly and stretched her hand out to give Val a better look at it.

“I  suspect I don’t have to tell you how lucky I am to be wearing this?” she said.

“Your wife-to-be said pretty much the same thing about the one she’s got,” Val said, leaning back with a smile and taking the two women in. “So of course you’re going to start things out with a proxy war.”

“This surprises you?” Lara asked. “You’ve known me how long?”

“I have to confess, I have plans within plans here,” Sam said.

“Have a I mentioned that she’s really smart?” Lara said.

“What are you scheming?” Val asked.

She’d wondered if meeting Sam would be awkward, a fiance and an ex-lover don’t always make the best of impressions on each other, but Sam seemed secure enough in Lara’s affection and Val secure enough in having moved on that no cloud of jealousy boiled up between them. They were just two women who happened to care about the same person but in different ways.

“Lara says you’re good. After the fight, I need to hear what you think about the girl who’s getting into the ring for me,” Sam said.

“That sounds reasonable enough. What’s the catch?” Val asked.

“Oyenike Ladipo, have you heard of her?” Sam asked.

“Doesn’t ring a bell,” Val said, looking to Lara for a clue. Lara rolled her eyes in whatever the opposite of surprise was at Sam’s choice.

“Nike is going to be my champion for our bet,” Sam said. “She’s good. Really good. I want to encourage her to go for the nationals this year.”

“If she’s good shouldn’t she be shooting for that on her own?” Val asked.

“She’s got a few issues,” Sam said.

“Issues like what?”

“Like she’s never lost, so she’s got a huge chip on her shoulder and a terrible attitude towards competition,” Lara said.

“Maybe,” Sam said. “I think she’s got the makings of a great fighter, but I’m not a coach, and I’m certainly not a prize winning fighter myself.”

“So you’d like an expert opinion on whether she’ll be able to cope with the stress or wind up getting hurt?” Val asked.

“I’m more concerned whether she’ll hurt anyone else,” Sam said. “I don’t want to encourage her to go for something if she’s going to completely lose control.”

Val glanced over at Lara.

“And this is who I’m getting into the ring with?”

“She’ll be fine for this,” Sam said. “She knows this is a friendly bout, and that she’s supposed to put on a good show more than just knock you out.”

“Wait, she thinks she’s going to win this one?” Val asked.

“She’s in top shape, and she practices daily. No offense, but this will be your first time fighting since you recovered right? I know you were good back in the day but it sounds like you’re at least a little out of practice at the moment.”

Val laughed.

“Yeah, this will be the first time I’ll be back in the ring,” she said with a smile that lingered from her laughter.

“If you’re not sure about it, I can ask one of the other girls,” Lara said. “If you get hurt, you know that your mother will kill me so damn hard, and I don’t really want to miss my wedding on account of being dead.”

“I’ll be fine,” Val said, still amused.

She hadn’t been in a ring since before she joined the Army. That was true. Fighting however? That was something she was in better shape for than she’d ever been. Her daily workout routine would put most heavy weights to shame, and she’d had the chance to work with some very gifted teachers as part of her rehabilitation. Charlene had seen potential in her and hadn’t been lax about providing opportunities for Val to develop that potential, both in the areas she was strong in and the ones where she was weak.

“So, how about a side wager,” Val suggested.

“What did you have in mind?” Lara asked, eyes narrowing in suspicion. She knew Val far too well to trust what was going to come next.

“If I lose, I’ll make sure Nike has travel and lodging accommodations all set up for the nationals,” Val said.

“And if you win?” Sam asked.

“I get the first dance with my-friend-the-bride at the reception.”

The Second Chance Club – Ep 06 – Act 2

Two years. It wasn’t a long time, but Val could recount almost every day of them. From the moment when the Jeep she was riding in was struck broadside by a minivan, to the agony and strain of just staying alive in the ambulance, and then the long months of rehab. Each tiring, terrifying days she spent stitching her shattered body back together was etched into her memory with perfect clarity. The only days she couldn’t recall were the six months when she’d been lost to the world entirely. Comatose, with no signs of possible recovery.

“But you remember the accident?” Lara asked. They’d managed to meet up on the day after the fitting, choosing a Starbucks near Lara’s gym for old times sake.

“Every bone crunching moment of it,” Val said. “One second we were heading back from a supply run laughing and joking and the next we got T-boned. Found out later the guy driving the other car had a heart attack, so, you know, not exactly his fault entirely.”

“Damn, that is bad luck,” Lara said. “I’m surprised you remember it though. I thought coma victims usually lost a lot of their memories?”

“It differs,” Val said. “I was out for a lot longer than most, but I had a great team helping with my recovery so it kind of balanced out.”

“That’s who you’re working for now right?” Lara asked.

“Yeah. Three months into my coma, the Army decided I wasn’t fit to serve, which was true,” Val said. “I can’t blame them. At that point there was no sign when, or if, I was going to wake up. And if I did wake up there was no guarantee that what was left of me would be able to serve in any capacity. My current team picked me up sometime after that.”

“Well, the Army’s loss right?” Lara said. “You’re looking pretty good from what I can see.”

“Says the evil woman who’s marrying someone else,” Val words would have held pain and recrimination half a decade earlier but that was a lifetime ago, and even before the accident she and Lara had made peace with what seemed like the insurmountable mountain of drama between them at the time.

“You had your chance girl,” Lara said shaking her forefinger back and forth.

“Hey, I tried to give you a ring,” Val objected. “You threw it back at me! No, I correct myself, you pitched it at me like a fastball! Overhand!”

“Yeah, whatever happened with you two?” Elena asked. “You got in some big fight didn’t you? Right before Val left for the Army?”

“She cheated on me,” Lara said.

“Now wait, that’s technically true, but there was a whole lot of cheating and miscommunication going on there, you’ve got to own up to that,” Val said.

Lara bowed her head and shrugged.

“Yeah, we were young and stupid,” she said. “I mean that wasn’t even that long ago but I look back now and I want to slap my teenage self. She was such an idiot.”

“At least you didn’t sleep with Kevin Louganis,” Val said. “God why? What was I thinking?”

“That you needed to get back at me,” Lara said.

“For something you hadn’t even done!” Val groaned.

“So you two were dating, then you broke up and slept around, and now she’s your Maid of Honor?” Elena asked. “How does that work?”

“Lara is a very forgiving person,” Val said.

“And Val’s good at apologizing sincerely,” Lara said. “After I returned her ring, I started feeling a bit bad about, you know, hurling it at her face.”

“Wait, back up, why was there a ring involved at all here?” Elena asked.

“The usual reason,” Val said. “I asked her to marry me.”

“You did what?” Elena jumped in her seat. “Did Mom and Dad know?”

“Not exactly,” Val said.

“She wanted to elope,” Lara said. “What did you say? ‘I was stupid, here you wanted this, let’s grab a bus to Vegas’?”

“In my defense, it seemed like a great plan at the time, but I did come to see that there would have been a few problems with it,” Val said.

“Yeah, the first one being that your mother wouldn’t have had time to kill us, because we would have killed each other first,” Lara said.

“We might have made it as far as Philly before that though,” Val said. “That would have been a nice long engagement right?”

“So how did you get from ‘murder each other on a bus’ to here?” Elena asked.

“Step one was throwing the ring back at her,” Lara said.

“Step two was going away and thinking about what I really wanted,” Val said. “The ring and the proposal weren’t really honest. I felt bad, and I thought I could buy forgiveness by making a giant gesture.”

“I didn’t want a huge thing though,” Lara said.

“Yeah, I didn’t either it turned out,” Val said. “I just wanted my friend back.”

“So did you two never…?” Elena asked.

“Sleep together? Oh that wasn’t problem,” Lara said. “That part was fantastic. It was what it did to the rest of our relationship that sucked.”

“I don’t know if either of us were ready for a relationship like that,” Val said. “I know I wasn’t, and I think I kind of went overboard.”

“Oh, I was out of my mind too,” Lara said. “I remember being livid – like burst a blood vessel enraged – when you gave me that ring. When I look back now though, I don’t get it. I mean I know what I was thinking at the time, that you weren’t taking me serious and were just mocking my feelings,  but how the hell couldn’t I see where you were coming from? That you were just so hurting and trying to make things right?”

“The same way I couldn’t see just how bad stabbing you in the back had hurt you. It’s easy to get lost in our own pain.”

“You were leaving too,” Lara said. “I think that’s where everything started for me. I knew I was going to lose you to the Army after school ended and then all the stupid drama happened and suddenly I was losing you right away. I had a dump truck full of sadness and anger inside me and it had to come out somewhere and make an ugly mess.”

“The funny thing is? I wasn’t even thinking of the Army as being a big deal for us,” Val said. “I thought, ‘I’ll go to the Army, and Lara will be there when I get out and we’ll make some kind of awesome life for ourselves’.”

“So why didn’t you?” Elena asked. “No offense to Sam, but if you two made up after your big fight, why not get back together?”

“We talked about it,” Lara said.

“I was still leaving for the Army though,” Val said. “And once we were broken up, it was easier to go back to being friends. Right?”

“Definitely,” Lara said. “I’ve loved you since second grade, but we were just not meant to be in love with each other. Not like that at least.”

“Sam’s the one though is she?” Val asked, stirring her coffee and watching it swirl.

“I think so,” Lara said with a happy sigh.

“What’s the she like?” Val asked, looking up to take in the contentment in her best friends eyes.

“She’s grounded, like a rock I can hold onto,” Lara said.

“And then there are the parts of her that aren’t her abs,” Elena said and ducked a playful swat from Lara.

“No, seriously, I know I can be a bit over the top sometimes. It doesn’t take much to drive me up a wall. Sam though? She’s able to bring me back down.”

“That sounds a lot healthier than what we had,” Val said. “You’d go off on something and I’d be there going off twice as loud.”

“I think that’s why you were always my best friend,” Lara said. “No matter what, you always had my back.”

“Damn straight,” Val said and held up her fist.

“Straight as a rainbow,” Lara said completing the fist bump.

“Oh my god you two!” Elena said, mocking a scandalized expression. “If you’re like this now, you must have been disasters when you were in school.”

“Yeah.”

“We were.”

“Why did Mom ever let you out of the house?” Elena asked, turning to Val.

“It was either let me out or I’d sneak out,” Val said. “Plus she knew Lara had enough sense to keep me from getting in too much trouble.”

“What’s hysterical is that my mother though the same thing about you,” Lara said.

“If they only knew,” Val said.

“I used to think we were clever, but you know, I think they had a good idea the kind of things we got up to. I mean they were teenagers once too, and from the stories I’ve heard they raised all kinds of hell before they settled down.”

“Probably best if we never dig too deep into that, but now that you’ve said it, I’ve got to admit I am damn curious to know what Teen Sophia was like,” Val said.

“Picture us I guess, but in the 70s and 80s,” Lara said.

“And now I regret my curiosity,” Val said with a chuckle. She drained her coffee before adding, “You said you had a special request to make though didn’t you? Some unusual part of the wedding?”

“Not the wedding, the bachelorette party,” Lara said.

“I could swear you once said you had no interest in having one of those?” Val said.

“That’s when my mother was talking about marrying me off to some guy,” Lara said. “And anyways, this is more than a bachelorette party. It’s an affair of honor.”

Val drew back and cocked her head to the side.

“A what now?”

“Sam owns a women’s fitness club,” Lara said. “It’s how we met. She came by my gym to see if she could expand by buying me out.”

“And you told her to go to hell because you’d never sell your grandad’s place,” Val said.

“I could have done that, but instead I asked her out to dinner to talk about it,” Lara said.

“Were you seriously considering selling?” Val asked. Lara had been unimaginably proud when she’d inherited the gym. Unless the business was in deep distress, Val couldn’t imagine Lara parting with it.

“No. Never. But as Elena said; Abs. My god, they were hypnotic.”

“Okay then,” Val said with an appreciative laugh. “Did you propose that night?”

“No, we just had a nice meal,” Lara said. “I didn’t know she was even into me at all until the third time we went out.”

“Oh that is typical Lara,” Val said. “Tell me she didn’t throw you onto a bed and just smooch you?”

“Wait, is that what you did to her?” Elena asked.

“Yes, it is,” Lara said. “And no, Sam was much more polite about it.”

“You dared me to do it!” Val said.

“I believe I mentioned we were stupid when we were kids,” Lara said as an aside to Elena.

“Ok, but tell her about your bet!” Elena said.

“I was getting to that,” Lara said. “When we decided to get married, we went back to the idea of combining our businesses. Sam’s place is more of a health club with a decent set of speciality courses, and mine’s more of a boxing gym with a smaller number of general fitness programs.”

“Sounds like an excellent match then,” Val said.

“It is. What we’re trying to decide is which of our business names we want to consolidate under,” Lara said.

“And this is something special you’re planning to work out at your Bachelorette?” Val asked in disbelief. “Is the honeymoon going to be a trip to the tax assessor’s office?”

“Oh, we’re not talking this one out,” Lara said. “We going to mats over it.”

“What?” Val asked, perplexed.

“The girls from our places wanted to help us celebrate, and so we wanted to put on a bit of a show for them,” Lara said. “Sam had the idea to make a wager for the naming of our combined businesses, and then we’d have a Champion’s Battle between our best fighters to see whose honor would reign supreme!”

“That sounds like the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard,” Val said try to hold back the grin from her lips.

“Aww, you don’t want to be part of it?” Lara asked, her bottom lip dropping into a pout.

“Are you kidding? I wouldn’t miss this for world!”