Archive for Val

Counting Cards

Posted in Enthralled, Private Thoughts, Up Street and Down Alley with tags , , , , , , , on July 23, 2010 by Author Jennifer Quail

It’s been a long time since I’ve resorted to reading cards. It’s been a long time since I’ve had to rely on fortune-telling for much of anything, be it earning a living or getting some glimpse of things to come. Val can say what he likes about my prognosticative skills but I don’t always get more than vague hints. If I had more natural Talent–but then if I did I wouldn’t be who I am, and we wouldn’t be here, would we?

I sat down tonight with my old deck and considered our problem. Matters in the store are getting worse, not better. Practically every item we have with the Capitol on it has fallen or been taken off the shelves (and considering where we’re located that is quite a few) and then what had to be the last straw.

“Honey-sweet,” and though Val often uses that endearment sincerely, this evening I could hear the edge to it, “did you happen to look in the back room today?”

The back room of the shop was, at some point, probably a study or a pantry or some other tiny room when this house was simply a house. We use it as a catch-all space for items that don’t really fit a particular category, such as kitchenware, books, or clothes. As such it’s filled with all the sorts of flotsam you expect in a thrift shop or the kind of antiques store that’s more a junk heap. To be fair, Antiquitas Veritas is somewhat our personal attic, filled more with things we find amusing or which we’ve inherited than objects we actually expect to sell. But at our ages, what do you expect?

There had only been four or five customers in the store today, and with Val spending part of his time manning the counter instead of stalking our visitor Elaine, nothing could really have escaped our notice. His hearing’s exceptionally acute, naturally, and between that and Val’s chronic boredom it makes shoplifting from us an interesting sport (for us, at any rate.) So the chances of someone sucessfuly rearranging anything without our knowing are slim at best. Which is why I found it quite surprising when Val walked me into the back room, and I saw what had been done.

Every piece of glass or mirror or shining reflective surface was turned out, dangling off shelves, propped against cases, anything so it might catch the light. It was like a bizarre display of fairy lights, reflections glittering over every surface, bouncing back at each other, and in the middle whoever had arranged the room had made a neat platform, almost an altar, out of our display cases, and placed a blue glass bowl in the center. The bowl was half-filled with water, or at least a clear liquid that looked like water, and there were leaves and petals of some sort in it.

“This isn’t some sort of bizarre pagan ritual of yours, is it?” I knew it wasn’t, as Val was superstitious but not observant by any stretch when it came to that sort of thing. “Some appeal to the Good Goddess to get whatever’s haunting the place out?”

“Don’t be silly, darling. For starters I can afford a few doves or a lamb if I wanted to try that.” He was only joking, for the most part. I think in all our years together I’ve seen him actually make an offering once, though he does like to talk about it to disturb the Christians. “Books leaving notes for us and pictures scattered all over the shop are one thing, but apparently it believes we aren’t getting the message.”

“It really ought to be clearer about what the message is, then.”

You would think, as long as we’ve been at this, I would know better than to say things like that. The scattered lights were suddenly moving, as if all the mirrors and glass were being turned by a breeze. On that breeze, I caught the faintest scent of ocean and marsh-grass and sun-heated rocks. Then I realized the surface of the water in the bowl was trembling. That quickly changed to tiny whitecaps as the water grew wilder, darker, flinging the leaves and petals over the edges and sticking to the sides. Something was flickering in the water, a red and gold glow drawing up into a miniature cyclone. I started to hear a fine, faint ringing sound, and if it was just audible to me it had to be a shout to Val–

His arms were around me and he was crushing me against him, one hand pressing my face against his chest. I squeezed my eyes shut at the unspoken warning and felt the stinging shards of glass and ceramic spattering against my back. I felt a rush of heat, too, not hot enough to burn but enough to grab my attention. Val held me a minute longer, until the noise subsided and we dared to look up. The bowl had shattered, spraying water and glass across the room, but at the center, there was a charred mark on the wood floor and a few curled wisps of charred leaves, swirled by a faint breeze.

Val stepped away, and we both looked carefully at the disaster area. He wasn’t shaking like I was, naturally, but from the way his lips pressed together and his fists clenched he was just as rattled.

Finally, he looked up at me. “Wind, Water, Earth, and Fire.”

I stared down at the debris again, and saw what he meant.

Venitias.They come.

“It can’t be.” I looked up at him. His expression was impassive, neither unconvinced nor unnerved. “They’re dead.”

They have died before. Replacements always came along then. Why not now? What else could the books and the . . . messengers . . . be trying to tell us? What else could be worth this kind of fireworks?” Val picked up a razor-thin sliver of glass. “And there’s your boy.”

“And your girl.” I closed my eyes, and recalled Val’s shared memory of this Elaine, surrounded by the rich blues and soft golds of the Peacock Room. Had all that brilliant color simply been the antique paint? And ‘my boy’, Alan, bathed in what might not be sunlight after all, with the very stones of the Capitol practically singing around him? “They certainly don’t appear to be Mages.”

“Unless there’s some secret pool of survivors holed up training potentials somewhere, they’re certainly not.” Val studied the miniature rainbow the broken glass cast on the floor. “But there’s no reason they can’t be . . . what this seems to be saying.”

I felt a sick, sinking feeling at the pit of my stomach. “If they are . . . ye gods, they’re all alone.”

“If they are, hardly.” Val tossed the broken bit back into the pile of debris. “They’ll have us, won’t they? Gods help them.” He looked around a bit more pragmatically. “Well, one thing we have to do is clean this up. And then, hie I back to my computer. There must be something in their backgrounds I’m missing. As for you . . . have you thought about seeing what the cards say?”

Which is how I came to be sitting with the elderly deck, one of the few things I have that predates Val arriving in my life, shuffling and cutting as I tried to find the quiet mental place I need to be for them to work. Finally, I managed to clear the last cobwebs, and thought of Alan while I flipped the top card. King of Hearts. Elaine. Queen of Spades. I shuffled again, and this time laid out a short version of my own, personally-created spread. Two at the top, three beneath, and a single card at the middle. Nothing complex.

The bottom cards came out King of Diamonds, Queen of Diamonds, Jack of Diamonds. In every reading I’ve done since we met, these have always been Val, me, and Nicodemus (who argues that he really ought to be the Ace, but I told him to take it up with the powers that guide the cards, not me.) “Together again, eh?” I murmured.

The top cards were the King of Hearts and the Queen of Spades. In one respect, no surprise. Whoever they were Alan and Elaine were obviously deeply involved in whatever was happening. In another, how? Neither had ever set foot in our shop, so why was the inventory so determined to grab our attention? My mind wandered to Sophia’s bookcase, and David’s long-forgotten astrolabe. How would they know they’d found new owners when those new owners had yet to come within a mile of them?

And, more worrisome, if they were what today’s tantrum suggested, why now? What else was coming?

The last card’s chequered back glared up at me, and I shook away the wandering thoughts and flipped it.

“Oh, now you’re just having me on,” I said to the darkening room and whatever was lurking invisibly in its corners, as the caricature of a Joker winked up at me from the table.


Out of Options

Posted in In Harm's Way, Private Thoughts with tags , , , , , on July 14, 2010 by Author Jennifer Quail

Hey, Dad,

Please don’t show this to Mom. If she asks, you didn’t get an e-mail from me. You know what she’s like and I’ll never hear the end of it.

I appreciate your both wanted me to have a vacation to someplace I’d like and where I could relax, and I am trying, I really am. I’ve visited museums and I saw Arlington Cemetery and tomorrow I’m going to go look at the World War II and Korea memorials and depending on how my leg feels, the Vietnam Wall. I also visited the Navy Yard, and I did make calls to the Academy and the War College in Newport, and I visited both our Senators and our Rep. Tomorrow I’m going to see if I can get in touch with Pete Congreve at Pax River and find out how things stand with the brass there, if there’s someone who’ll listen.

I know what you said. I know what the doctors at Bethesda and in Ann Arbor have all said. I realize that I don’t HAVE to have my commission and active duty status to work for the Navy in some capacity. But if I want to fly, I need them back. If I can’t have them back, I can’t fly, and if I can’t fly, I won’t be in flight test operations. I have thought this through and I am prefectly rational. The entire point of all the operations was so I could live a normal life, wasn’t it? All that therapy and PT and everything is supposed to let me be normal, right? Well, normal is flying. Normal is creating the best planes and the best pilots and going higher and faster and farther. If I can’t do that I’m not normal and they didn’t fix anything. I would understand if they’d cut my leg off (and after how my hip felt walking around Arlington I almost cut it off myself) or if I were in a wheelchair or I’d lost an eye, but they’ll let me drive a car. My anthropometrics are the same. I can still see, hear, think, react but they won’t let me do it in a plane. If I get more no’s I’m ready to ask the Russians or the Chinese if they’re less picky. (I know, I know. Don’t work for Russians or Baba Helena will never speak to me again.)

Don’t tell me I’m supposed to relax. I can’t relax when people tell me to relax.

I suppose I should write to Mom, too. I’ll do it later. There’s a sushi place up the street from the hotel I want to try. Remind me to tell her, though, stay out of my closet. And my dress blues aren’t missing, I have them here.


PS-If you’re only doing tourist things, it’s not odd to see the same person on more than one day in different places, right?

Absit Omen

Posted in On Guard, Private Thoughts with tags , , , , , , , on July 8, 2010 by Author Jennifer Quail

For clarification: I am not stalking this woman (her name is Elaine, I’ve determined.) I’m simply curious.

I don’t have special senses, you see. At least not beyond what you’d expect, all things considered. Nadia is the psychic of the family, prone to dreams and visions and those portentous feelings. I’ve suggested more than once she start paying better attention to the flocks of sparrows and doves that are common to any city park, as I’m sure an auguries she drew from them would be far more accurate than those of the political, paid-off priests were. I don’t have any abilities in that regard. I don’t sense things like power, either, and I’m not even all that subject to sudden drafts, which is why that moment in the galleries is utterly nonsensical.

This Elaine isn’t especially pretty. A bit of work with the computer shows she’s Navy, graduated near the top of her class at the Academy, aviator, test engineer, decorated with some very high honors for reasons kept behind encryptions even I can’t break, and discharged for medical reasons with a small service pension. Her family is what I would call middle class–all self-made money and only recent Americans. More than comfortable, even if their eldest chose a university that paid her and committed her to a career the upper classes of today have come to look down on. Not that the army was any great honor in my day, but even among my sort a commission was nothing to be ashamed of. Unmarried, no children, no paramour in evidence, traveling alone with no apparent schedule and wandering past the normal tourist traps as if she doesn’t even see them. Exactly as the cliche says, no visible means of support.

The only surprise thus far is, besides wandering in cemeteries, she seems to have a taste for Asian art. After Arlington, she went back to the Freer and Sackler Galleries and this time spent an inordinate amount of time in the Peacock Room. It’s the entirely too-ostentatious dining room from Charles Freer’s home, paneled floor to ceiling in peacock green-blues and gold filigrees. She’s a very pale person, this Elaine Gates, but to my eye in that room something about her seemed to glow.

Every instinct I have says to follow her. Not in any perverted sense (again, I’m quite a contented man in carnal matters) but since I saw her, so soon after Sophia’s book told me someone is coming, I’ve felt as if I’ve been given a message. This is the one. The one who is coming. Prepare. Protect her. From what, I don’t know, though in the bowels of the Sackler (one of one only Mall museums that’s in fact underground) I thought I saw a shadow, though whether it was attached to her or to me I can’t say. It’s not a good thing. Our lives have a bit dull, I suppose, and if it’s her, if I’m not all who’s following, then it’s starting again and it will not be dull. We’ll be back to worrying again and that nagging sense every parting is a final one. Some part of me hopes I’m wrong.

But some part of me very much hopes I’m right. Danger or not, there’ll be a purpose. All of a sudden, after all these years, I have a job again.

Of course, the book said venitias. Plural.

I suppose I’ll have to ask Nadia where she’s been all day.

My Partner Has Taken Up Lurking

Posted in Enthralled, Private Thoughts with tags , , , , , , on June 29, 2010 by Author Jennifer Quail

I know that I mentioned there are odd things going on in the shop. And that my partner has developed an unusal taste for walking. I think I prefer books taking themselves off the shelves to yesterday afternoon, though. Odd behavior in inanimate objects is one thing. Odd behavior in someone as set in his ways as Val is quite another.

Yesterday evening I went upstairs after closing, and Val was gone. I have lived with his habits for a while now, and disappearing in the middle of the day is not one of them. Especially not in the scalding weather we have here–even on overcast days it’s usually too bright for his eyes and too humid for anyone’s tolerance. (And if the next time I mention that to Val I hear one more time about Octobers in Rome . . . well, I don’t know what I’ll do but it will probably involve his sleeping in the storage room.)

As I didn’t sense any danger or other reasons to worry, I decided to make myself dinner and wait for a bit. True to form, he returned as if he routinely took midday strolls and I ought to feel sorry for him being tired and stressed by the sun!

And of course when I asked where he’d been for so long, he decided today was a day for non sequiturs.

“Did you know,” he said, “for it not being summer yet, there are quite a few tourists around?”

“It’s Washington,” I said, ignoring the space he left for me beside him on the chaise. “There are always tourists, or hadn’t you noticed by now? In any case, what are you doing stalking tourists? Bored with me already?”

“Never, honey-sweet.” He’s disgustingly sincere when he wants to be. “But I was taking a turn around the Mall–”

“No wonder you’re sun-parched.”

“–and I had an unusually strong urge to step into the Freer Gallery.” He was lucky he hadn’t fallen on the steps, given how blind the day’s sun should have rendered him, glasses or not. “Tell me, love . . . have you given any thought to who ‘they’ that are coming might be?”

I had. None of it good. There were too many “theys” in our past that might be less than welcome visitors now. “A little.”

He didn’t say anything for a moment, but I didn’t rise to the bait and ask for his thoughts. “There was a woman in the Japanese gallery looking at the screens. Well, superficially. She was on one of the benches looking at a screen of a storm at sea, or pretending to. Now, I realize that I am not the one here who has any line on the future, but . . . Nadia, if you’d only seen her.”

In spite of myself, he had my attention. I settled beside him (standing for this could be disorienting) and said, “Show me?”

I recognized the gallery, with its frosted skylights and muted gray walls. The glass cases down the long walls held painted screens, not unlike one I had in the back room of the shop, but in far better condition. I didn’t recognize the particular screens on display, but the museum rotates its displays often to protect the delicate materials. The focus of Val’s memory was an eight-panel screen I would guess dated to the seventeenth or eighteenth century and it depicted a long, multi-panel scene of a storm at sea. It had obviously been well-preserved; even in the half-light of memory the blues and golds of the water and the colored tunics of the tiny fishermen being tossed by the waves were still brilliant. Val was standing back from it, though, I suspected making an effort to be inconspicuous, and his attention was on the woman on the bench. If she knew she was being watched, she gave no indication. In fact beyond the rise and fall of her chest and the flexing of her fingers around the grip of her cane.


Look at her face, Val told me. Not the scars. See what I saw.

Not the scars? It was hard to ignore the right side of her face and neck, crazed with white and red scars. Val, though, was focused on her eyes. They were dark, made more so by her pale features, but the look in them . . . I had seen eyes like that in the war. Mostly on those who’d been in it too long and seen far too many terrible things. She wasn’t nearly old enough to have been there; her parents probably weren’t, either. And there was something else there, beyond pain or disinterest.

Whoever she was and whatever had burned her, she hadn’t quite given up yet.

I felt a cold rush down my spine and in my gut and the gooseflesh came out on my skin. A blink and I was looking at Val again, and realized . . . . “That was you? You felt that?”

“Strange, isn’t it?” Considering he usually didn’t feel chills of any kind, more than strange.

“You think she is one of . . . ‘they’? Whoever is coming?” The strange-sick feeling was subsiding, but I still could feel the hairs of my neck on end. “Who is she?”

“A tourist, as far as I could tell. I followed her to a hotel here in Alexandria.”

“Now you’ve taken to stalking other women? I’m hurt.” My heart wasn’t in the teasing. “Do you think–could she have power? Even untapped?”

“I wouldn’t know, remember?” he said dryly. “And since that was my memory I assume you couldn’t tell anything.”

I couldn’t. I could only see what he’d seen, and even that was more than it should have been. “If we could ask someone . . . .”

“Even I can’t speak to spirits, love.”

He was right. And gentler than he needed to be. “How can we tell, then?”

Val smiled. “I thought tomorrow, when she sets off for the day, I might follow after.”

And of course, I didn’t have any better suggestions. In fairness, he is, as a rule, right about these things.

Later that night when I went to check the locks I found another message in the shop. This time, our old photos and postcards of Washington were scattered across my counter. The most disturbed seemed to be pictures of the Capitol dome. What’s so exciting about that, I don’t know. But perhaps while Val is out lurking in doorways and stalking our lady with the cane, I’ll take a walk of my own.

The Inventory is Taking on a Life of Its Own

Posted in Enthralled, Private Thoughts, Up Street and Down Alley with tags , , , , , , on June 26, 2010 by Author Jennifer Quail

If our stock is going to start talking to us, I wish it would be more specific.

This morning when I came downstairs to open the store, Sophia’s bookcase was hanging open for the third day in a row. The case itself is at least two hundred years old, so I had (perhaps naively) been thinking that it was finally starting to show its age. Woodworms in the latches or some such. Today, though, one of the books was out and open on the shelf.

Our security here has always been good, as one might expect. I think some days Val wishes for a break-in, because it would give him something to do at night. For all he says he’s earned his retirement, and at his age who hasn’t, I think he’s hoping for a little excitement beyond wandering through estate sales to see if a treasure has slipped through the cracks. At this point we’d even welcome a visit from Nicodemus, with all the attendant bickering and old stories, just to break the monotony. Peace and quiet isn’t all it was cracked up to be.

I may yet live to regret those words. There was no intruder who left that book open–none who could even have opened the shelf. Since Sohpia left it, it’s stayed locked, waiting for her or someone like her I suppose, only now the books seem to have other ideas. It was one of the oldest that was open and for once, the pages weren’t blank. Neither of us has ever been able to read one until now, but we both saw it, a word on one leaf:


I saw it, as well as Val, but either the book is so old that’s the only language it knows, or the message was meant primarily for him.

They come.

I had to leave off a minute there. More falling shelves and strange rattles. This time the back room, where a ship in a bottle we found at an Annapolis estate sale a few years back seems to have tried to set sail of its own accord. The bottle managed to land unbroken, at least, and whatever has decided to rearrange our stock at least appears to wait until there are no customers in the store. I wouldn’t think much of it, but when I was putting the bottle back I found something of David’s on that shelf. I don’t remember putting the astrolabe out, or even having seen it in years, but it was tucked away behind a tacky little carving (a souvenier of the Redwoods that I never expect we’ll sell, but one never knows.)

I don’t believe in ghosts, strange as that sounds coming from me, but I can’t help thinking David and Sophia are trying to tell us something.

Evening’s coming, and it’s time to close. Val’s taken it into his head we should go for a walk tonight, not that I expect anything interesting to come of it. He’s been rather pensive lately, but not the old wartime restless. Not yet. As for me, I can’t help but feel uneasily. Something is coming. Venitias. They are coming. Perhaps once the store is locked and before the sun settles far enough to make the light comfortable, I’ll take a minute and play the cards.