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   Chapter 4 Brownie Oxford and the Ashland Affair

Brownie Oxford and the Ashland Affair: Brownie Bk1 By Valerie Gaumont Characters: 20617

Updated: 2018-03-07 14:20

Chapter 4

The damage wasn't as bad as I expected. The amount of rusty looking water flowing down the shower drain alarmed me at first and the shampoo stung like a swarm of bees, but once I was washed and able to get a good look in the mirror, it didn't look that bad. The cut had not started bleeding again, which made me feel better. Now that my hair was clean and not matted with blood, the curls hid the gash from sight.

The tender flesh along my ribcage made me think that my abductors were none too careful in placing me in the trunk. Apparently once unconscious, I had been tossed into the car like a sack of potatoes. I had the sneaking suspicion the tender flesh would start showing bruising by morning. Sadly, the blisters hurt the worst out of the lot, but I couldn't really blame anyone else for my choice of footwear.

The water from the shower hitting my heels felt like acid and I tried to walk on my toes to keep my feet out of the water pooling in the slow draining tub. Once dried and in pajamas, I took my anti bacterial cream, smeared it on the band aids and delicately applied them to my heels.

"They would have to kidnap me when I'm wearing heels, " I muttered to myself. "Figures." I spent most of my time in sneakers, of course no one tried to kidnap me then. "Probably against the bad guy rule book. They are only allowed to take you when you are wearing heels." I wondered if they lost bad guy points for allowing a woman to hike across a field in sneakers.

"What would the other men think?" I asked myself, widening my eyes in mock surprise. "You kidnapped a girl wearing comfortable shoes? Oh my. I'm afraid we will have to deduct eight menace points for that. In order to get them back you'll have to threaten the local garden club or terrorize a quilting bee."

I paused in my mocking, wondering if people still held quilting bees. Lydia, who was buried two rows over from Mrs. Ellison had told me of them when she taught me how to sew. She liked to chat as she worked. The clothes at Riverdale were always slightly too large as the matron expected us to grow into them and therefore keep them longer. As the smallest of the lot I was constantly swimming in extra fabric, at least until Lydia took pity on me. She had even helped me make the little black dress that was now in a ruined heap. I shrugged the thought away and threw away the paper backing from the band aids and made sure the cap was tightly screwed on the ointment.

Clean and bandaged with no further blood loss eminent, I realized how tired I was. I yawned and my jaw popped. Taking it as a sign, I pulled back the covers and slipped between the crisp white sheets. The television was still playing cartoons although Buggs and Daffy had been replaced by more recent creations. I turned down the volume but left the television on, hoping the primary colored zaniness would keep the nightmares at bay. With any luck, I wouldn't dream at all.

The dream started out calmly. I was walking across a field of flowers moving towards a square stone tower. The heavy red poppies shivered and bobbed in the light breeze as though agreeing with my choice to walk forward. The tower looked like it had once been part of a fortress. The stones were light gray with flashing bits of mica and quartz that caught the sunlight and winked back at me. Each stone that comprised the walls of the tower was almost as big as I was. I looked up and saw the tower stretched impossibly high into the sky. Instead of a door, there was merely an opening in the gray wall. I took a deep breath and stepped inside.

Once inside, the temperature plummeted. I could see my breath puff around my face and I rubbed the goose bumps that had arisen on my arms. Sunlight still streamed from windows set high in the tower walls, but none of the sun's warmth reached me. The entire far wall was taken up with shelving and each shelf was crammed full of leather bound books. Most of the books had no titles on their spines, but I could make out a few of the titles embossed in faded gold lettering. The titles I could read were intriguing. One read Houses of the Nekyia, another Chaldean Diviners of the Dead and a third The Sha'etemmu of the Babylonians.

I continued to look over the books. I saw another book called Bone Conjurers which made me frown as it sounded like a term I had heard before. I could make out one more title, Metamorphoses by Ovid.

"At least I know I've heard of Ovid, " I said to myself. My voice sounded strange in the large tower room. There was no furniture in the room, no rugs or curtains, just the wall of books, yet my voice did not bounce off the hard surfaces, it sounded muffled swallowed up as though I had yelled into a pillow. I shivered from more than the cold.

The floor was composed of white marble squares, each about two feet square and bound together with white mortar. The stone made the dark wood of the shelves and the old leather of the books stand out sharply as though everything was just a backdrop for the books. I took a step forward, intending to take a closer look at the library.

Something crunched beneath my foot and I felt a sharp pain, realizing my feet were bare. I looked down as I picked my foot up. I had somehow stepped on a piece of glass imbedded in the mortar between the floor stones. I scanned the floor and saw many other sharp shards of clear glass standing like spears, looking wickedly sharp in the sunlight.

I looked at the bottom of my foot and saw the blood pooling on my skin. Oddly, the glass had cut in exactly the same place as a scar I already had on my foot. I set my foot down gently on the floor, avoiding the glass. The mortar around the stones began to turn crimson with my blood. The white stones seemed unaffected. The color extended outward, moving far faster than my blood could flow. Soon all of the stones near me were outlined in blood, the color continuing to spread, even though when I looked at my foot, the blood had stopped, the cut closing and returning to the familiar scar without even a smear to stain my skin.

The stones began to shift slightly as though they were not mortared into place, but merely floating on the surface of a great lake. I stepped onto of one of the stone tiles, planting my feet firmly in the center. My blood had outlined all of the stones I could see now. The spikes of glass slid down as though sinking beneath the surface. I did not want to join them in the dark ocean of blood. The tile rocked slightly as my weight shifted it and like a raft it drifted a little, the mortar lines between it and its neighbors no longer a tightly formed grid pattern. The stone clinked as it touched the one next to it like boats too closely moored during a wind storm.

I took a step forward onto the next tile on my path to the book cases. To my relief, the book cases had not altered. I had the vague notion I should reach the safety of the shelved harbor before a wave crashed into the stones or they began to sink. As if called by my thoughts, the stone I had just left began to sink.

Waves of red washed over it, staining the white marble pink, like an Easter egg when it is first dipped in the dye. My heart beating loudly, I continued forward. Each stone tile started to sink as soon as my foot left its surface. I was terrified I wouldn't make it to the shelves on time. I did not want to sink into the crimson froth. There was something that felt hungry about the lake beneath me. I knew there was something beneath the waves that wanted to devour me whole. Cold sweat stuck my shirt to my skin.

I began moving faster. Out of the corner of my eyes I saw stones that I had not stepped on start to sink. I concentrated on my path, but the bookcases looked no nearer. The stones grew further apart and my steps grew wider until I was leaping from square to square. The bookcases grew no nearer and the stones began to sink faster. I leapt and almost lost my footing as the stones shifted, tilting with my unbalanced weight. I moved my feet to help the surface level.

I took a deep shuttering breath. I wasn't going to make it. I glanced backwards and saw the door had disappeared and the wall was a smooth gray face. All of the stones behind me were gone, the crimson water lapped at the solid wall of the tower with heavy slapping sounds. I turned to face the bookcase. The stone I was on started to sink. I leapt for the next stone.

I looked around for my next jump, but found no other stones to jump to. The stone I had just left was merely a lighter square beneath the surface as it drifted downward. The bookcases were too far away, but as the red began to lap over the edges of my perch, I knew I would have to risk it. I took a deep breath and leapt as my stone sank beneath the blood.

I sailed through the air and for a moment, thought I would make it. I reached out, fingers clawing at the air, desperate for purchase on the wooden shelves. I fell short, body plunging into the crimson. It was thicker than water and felt meatier, more solid than liquid should be. It was also as warm as my skin. I started to swim as things beneath the surface began to move. I caught the movement of long sinewy lines just beneath the surface and my mind screamed snake. I hated snakes.

My personal phobia kicked in and I thrashed in the liquid, desperate to escape. I pushed myself hard, hoping to outrun the snakes. My questing fingers found purchase on the lower shelves and I hauled myself out of the lake, climbing as fast as I could and hoping the snakes couldn't follow. As soon as my body was clear of the surface, the movement stopped, as though whatever lived beneath the surface couldn't sense me when I wasn't touching it. I continued to climb, putting distance between me and whatever it was.

My arms began to shake and my thighs to burn as I climbed, looking for a place to rest, a place to stop. My hands were sticky with the drying blood and picked up dust from the shelves as I climbed. I wanted desperately to be washed clean.

The shelves rose higher and higher. I couldn't see the top. I cried softly to myself from fatigue and fear, my tears washing clear lines through the red staining my

skin. I didn't know how long I could continue to climb. My foot slipped and my tired arms tried to hold me, but my body could take no more. My hands slipped and I felt myself falling. I screamed.

I sat up in bed, the hotel sheets wrapped around my legs. For a moment I could only sit and gasp for air. Slowly my heart rate returned to normal and the dream started to fade. Sunlight streamed through the open curtains and I winced at the thick bands of light, realizing I had forgotten to close the curtains before falling asleep.

I had also forgotten to turn off the television and a strange Japanese cartoon was playing. It looked vaguely pornographic and I wondered if they were aiming it at kids or an older crowd. I turned off the television and the silence was almost deafening. Either the rooms were well insulated or there was no one staying to either side of me. Somehow I wouldn't put it past Swift to book three rooms so there would be empty rooms to either side.

I checked my hands and saw the dusty, bloody fuzz of my dreams was gone. Relieved, I pulled the covers from my body and looked at my foot. The crescent shaped scar on my left foot looked no different than it did on the day I discovered it. I had no idea where the scar came from and had no memory of cutting my foot. As the scar was a thick band of hard tissue, I knew the injury and resulting reaction should have been memorable.

I let my foot go, lay back down on the bed and sighed. I had expected to dream of Mr. Salesman. Usually Swift's last minute saves left me with several nights mentally repeating the situation, my brain changing the outcome so Swift didn't arrive in the nick of time. This dream was strange.

"Although the running and getting nowhere sound familiar." I didn't really need a shrink to analyze that aspect.

What had started as a part time, once in a blue moon thing had expanded, taking over my life. I was once again about to lose the normal job I held, if I hadn't already. Swift had morphed into over-protection mode and I wasn't allowed to go back to my apartment. While I appreciated Swift's protection, this was not what I signed on for.

I rolled out of bed and went to use the bathroom. I then ran a brush through my hair and pulled it back into a ponytail so it would be out of the way. As soon as the brush left my curls, they sprang back making the ponytail look bushier than usual. Still in my pajamas, I picked up my laptop bag and settled back on the bed. Leaving the other electronics alone, I pulled out the laptop and booted it up making sure the wireless router was turned off even though I wanted to look up some of the terms I had seen on the bookshelves. I knew it would have to wait though.

I had promised Swift that I wouldn't go on-line for a while and I knew keeping my promise would keep me safe. I had seen Swift track enough people down by their electronic connections to know it could be done, even if it wasn't as easy as the television shows and movies made it seem. And even if I did have comfortable shoes around, I didn't want to be kidnapped again.

Besides, although my e-mail and chat rooms were tempting, I had already downloaded the information I was most interested in viewing. After making a list of the new terms I had found, I saved and closed the list for later contemplation. I felt a little bit guilty as I pulled up a different file and clicked on one of the documents it contained. I hadn't told Swift what I was doing and didn't know how he would react.

Well, that's not entirely true. I knew that no matter what I did, he would react with a blank face and stoic demeanor. I just didn't know if he would approve or not. His disapproval, I knew would set several processes in motion and I was not ready for that eventuality.

Six months prior, I had been sent to Dr. Harding to be stitched up. Again. This time, a large man with a large knife tried to prevent me from getting the information Swift sent me to get. Dr. Harding ignored my wincing and gave me a shot to numb my arm. As I watched the needle put me back together again as though I were a torn rag doll, feeling the slightly rubbery tug of each stitch, I realized that this was becoming a little more routine than I cared for.

When my arm healed I would be left with a scar that would match one on my right leg, one on my left thigh and one on my back. When Swift dropped me off at my apartment with orders to rest and heal for a few days, I found I had once again been fired from my current job, a coffee shop that time. Swift promised to arrange something else once I was better. It was all very routine.

I knew then that something had to change and that I was the one who would have to change it. If I didn't then Swift would find me another job and continue using me as an asset until Dr. Harding had nothing left to stitch together. I was too tired to be mad at him for it; after all I was the one letting him do it in the first place. Therefore, I was the one who needed to fix things. I somehow doubted other assets were treated the same way.

Admittedly, knowing things needed to change and actually changing them were two different things. I clicked on the first of the documents and opened it. It was the catalog for a local community college. My first difficulty was in finding something else to do. I had a high school diploma and seven years experience doing work I was not allowed to talk about. It sort of limited my field of applicable talents.

So I had begun downloading all sorts of catalogs. Filed away on my laptop were catalogs for community colleges and universities, as well as more specific training like culinary institutes and trade skills. I had even downloaded the on-line brochure from a local school that taught people how to drive eighteen wheelers. Not that I could see myself driving a truck, for one thing I was pretty sure that I would need to strap blocks on my feet to reach the pedals and maybe put a pillow on the seat so I could see over the wheel. At five foot two, I was not built on the same scale as an eighteen wheeler.

But I didn't want to eliminate anything. After all, at the moment I couldn't really see myself doing anything. I scrolled through the course offerings trying to find something that looked interesting. Even though my employment was spotty, I usually made enough from it to pay my rent and what little bills I had. Since most of my free time was spent with Swift, I didn't tend to go out much. That meant that the stipend Swift made sure I got for each job went directly into my savings. At this point I actually had enough saved up that I could afford to go to school.

"But if I'm paying for classes, I want to actually go to them, " I muttered to myself. That would be the problem. Could I actually manage to attend enough classes to pass a course or would chronic absences get me kicked out the way I had lost so many jobs? I closed the file and powered down the laptop after making it through the list of courses. Thus far I had eliminated engineering, computer science, and auto mechanics.

I sighed, feeling a stress headache building. Deciding worrying about being able to train for something before I decided what I wanted to train for was getting me nowhere and putting me in a foul mood, I pulled on my exercise clothes and went in search of the fitness center.

I found it on the second floor and was pleased to see it unoccupied. Evidently everyone traveling on business had gone off to their meetings. I stepped over to the treadmill and got on. I started at a low speed to warm up and gradually increased the pace. Every time my thoughts started to circle back to darker topics, I increased the pace and soon I was running, concentrating on nothing but my body moving. I ran until I couldn't run anymore. Satisfied that a lot of my fear and anger had drained out with my sweat, I slowed the pace and began to cool down. I slowed the treadmill's speed until it finally rolled to a stop.

My breathing was back to normal and my head was clear. I felt like an empty glass. Admittedly, I looked like a drowned rat. My clothing was soaked with sweat and my hair looked like I had just stepped out of the shower, the curls seeming to double in volume from the dousing. I winced as I stepped off the treadmill, realizing the band aids covering my blisters had come loose during my run and even though my sneakers didn't hit exactly the same spot as the heels did, my feet were still not happy. Deciding a shower was in order, I returned to my room.

I opened the door to my room and nearly jumped out of my skin when I caught sight of Swift. He was sitting on the freshly made bed and I wondered if he had followed the hotel staff in when they came to tidy or if he had kept a key. He watched me as I tried to return my heart rate to normal.

"Running or swimming, " he asked. I smiled and shook my head. I used running to shut down my thoughts and swimming to think. Sometimes, I thought Swift knew me too well.

"Running, " I told him. He nodded.

"Bad dreams?"

"Strange ones, " I replied, not yet ready to talk about them. He looked at me, waiting to see if I would continue. When I didn't he nodded. Not prying when it wasn't part of the job was one of Swift's better attributes.

Swift stood. "Shower and put on something inconspicuous. We need to go to see the Doc. I'll be in the lobby when you are ready." I nodded and Swift moved past me to the door, letting himself out. I let out a deep sigh as the door shut. Apparently they found something. If I was going to Dr. Harding's office, there was a good chance it involved a dead body.

I kicked off my sneakers, noticing my socks had red blood stains on the heels from the rubbing of my blisters. I peeled them off and dropped them in the drawer with my torn and dirty black dress. While there was no hope for the dress, a good washing might yet save the socks.

I went to take my shower. As I peeled my sweat soaked clothes off, my stomach growled. I turned on the spray and let the water heat up, wondering if I should get Swift to stop for something to eat before or after I saw the dead bodies.

"Decisions, decisions, " I muttered stepping into the shower.

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