It's about the zillionth time I've asked Melody to marry me. Each time, she's said "Not yet." I'm so used to hearing it that . . .
"Yes, Gavy, I'll marry you," she says. "It's time enough."
Several kisses later, I gaze into her sweet eyes and ask:
"Yes, when. Pick a date,"
A small frown crinkles the skin above her nose. This means she's thinking--not that she's angry. Her nose squinches when she's angry. Suddenly, another smile:
"Halloween," she says.
"I need to see a doctor," I say.
"Have to get my hearing checked. I could have sworn you said 'Halloween.'"
"I did say Halloween," she responds, pulling me toward a sofa. We're in her apartment just back from a date. We'd just seen a romantic movie and enjoyed a candle-lit dinner. On the way to her place, I'd decided--for the Umpteenth time--to try to ruin our friendship by proposing marriage. This time, I'd lucked out.
"Melody," I say, sitting with her, "Why on earth would you want Halloween?"
"Think about it, Gavy. You peep for supernaturals for a living. Almost every thing you know is mystical, magical, or otherwise odd. You'll want them to be comfortable at our wedding and what better day than Halloween?"
I see her point--I just hadn't thought about it. Probably because I hadn't thought about inviting anyone I knew to the wedding.
"But what about your family?" I ask.
She flips a hand, "My folks are more flexible than you think. Besides," she adds, throwing her arms around my neck, "They need to expand their horizons."
Melody's folks have charter membership in the gotbux society. They're about as flexible as adamantine and myopic in their horizons. I kiss her adorable nose.
"OK sweetie," I say, "Halloween it is. Where do we tie the knot?"
"How about the Inter D?"
"The Interdenominational Chapel," she says,. "With all the different types of client you attract, it’s the best choice. And for the reception, we'll book the Manse?"
The Manse is a cross-dimensional monolith approximately the size of Passaic. I couldn't afford it if I quadrupled my lifetime salary. I mention this.
"Silly," she says, "The bride's family pays the wedding bills. You just do the ritual."
I am, I think understandably, nonplussed.
"Yes, the Drummond wedding ritual. My family has been doing it since forever. The person coming into the family completes it the day before the wedding."
"What is it?"
"October 30th, silly. Halloween's the 31st and . . ."
I count to five. I love this girl, but talking to her is often an exercise in confusion.
"Let me rephrase: what is the ritual?"
"Oh, that. I don't know."
"You don't . . ."
"Daddy's the only one who knows. After all, he's the eldest of the Drummonds."
"Terrific," I say. "Melody, I don't know if you noticed, but your dad doesn't like me."
"But he loves me," she replies, "And he'll love you, too, once he gets to know you."
I remember my last meeting with Melody's dad. In it, I'd buried my fist in his stomach and threatened him with dire bodily harm. Not exactly a warm family moment.
"Can't we just run to Vegas and get married without this ritual business?" I ask. Melody places her hands on her hips.
"Been there, done that. Remember? And look what happened! No." she says. "The Drummond family ritual is important to me, Gavy. It'll help me forget that mess with Gremmy."
I nod. That mess with Gremmy involved a fake marriage, sorcerous quests, a trek to Jersey, and an excursion into poetry. It'd also put Mel's life in danger -- that's what provoked my fist in Mel's dad's gut. He'd unwittingly nearly gotten Melody killed -- something Mel didn't know.
"All right," I say to get her hands off her hips. She smiles. "Can I ask Duck to help?"
"Don't see why not," she says, moving toward the door. "Nothing in the rules against it."
"There's rules?" I ask, but she's out the door and I'm left to call Peter Drummond. Joy.
It's two days later and I'm cooling my heels outside Drummond's office. I've been sitting here for two hours beyond my appointment time and his secretary is eyeing me askance. I hate it when they do that. Suddenly her intercom squawks.
"Is he still here?" comes a voice I could happily never hear again.
"Yes Mr. Drummond."
"Too bad," he says. "All right, send him in."
She clicks off the squawker. "Mr. Drummond will see you now."
At a loss for a smart-ass remark, I stand creakily (two hours in an office chair is about an hour too much) and stagger through the great man's door. He's seated behind the kind of desk you see in old movies. I'm reminded of Jimmy Stewart's boss's office in It's a Wonderful Life. Drummond's probably meaner, though.
"Sit McQue," he says, nodding at another office chair.
"Mind if I stand, Mr. Drummond? Been sitting a long time."
If he catches my sarcasm he doesn't show it. "Sit, stand, what's the difference? You're here for the ritual."
"And the rules say I have to set the ritual for you," he stands and leans over the desk. "But that doesn't mean I have to like doing it. I don't. Get this straight, McQue, I think you're an opportunistic little nobody who wants to glom onto a rich bimbo's money. Melody's besotted with you for some ungodly reason and that besotment won't last. I've taken steps to make sure that, once that besotment ends, you don't get a penny in spousal support. Nada. Not a cent. Capish?"
"Need me to sign something to that effect, Drummond? Got a contract so I can stipulate it?" I shift forward and lean toward the man. "You've been straight with me, I'll be straight with you. I'm marrying Melody, not her dad's money. I'd marry her if she was penniless. I'd even marry her if her father was a control freak jerk who almost got her killed. Oh, wait, I am doing that, aren't I?"
Drummond pulls back, a nasty smile on his face. "Maybe, McQue. First, you have to complete the ritual."
"And you're gonna tell me what that is when?"
"Now," his smile gets nastier. He opens a drawer in his desk and removes an old-looking sheet of parchment. "Here's the quote from the ritual document," he reads: "The Drummond wedding ritual differs for each supplicant. The eldest Drummond makes a request; the supplicant to be tries to satisfy it. If he or she do so, he or she weds. If not, they must abandon all hope for nuptials."
I wait. Wait some more. Finally . . .
"That's it?" I ask.
"That's it," he says.
"No request written on the ritual document?"
"So that means . . ."
"It means I get to name the request," his nasty smile again. "And I have a lu-lu."
"A lu-lu, McQue. Hah! Rhymes. Love it. Your task: bring me the horn of a Unicorn."
I shake my head. "Excuse me?"
"You heard me."
"The Unicorn," I say, "is a mythical beast."
"So says James Thurber, yes, I read it too. And that Unicorn was in a Garden. You live in a fantasy land, McQue. Look around those Seven Counties you're so fond of. Cast bones. Gut a chicken and look at the entrails. Consult a crystal ball. Hire a seer. Must be a garden with a Unicorn in it somewhere." He stifles a snicker.
I hold up a hand. "Ignoring the utter impossibility of finding something that doesn't exist," I say. "Why on earth . . . "
"Would I want a Unicorn's horn? That's need to know, McQue, and you don't need to know. Besides," he settles onto his office chair, "as you said, the Unicorn doesn't exist. So why I want one is irrelevant, hmmmm? Why you want one, now, that's very relevant. Without it, you can forget about Melody. Now get out," he turns to the paperwork on his desk, "I have eviction notices to sign."
I stand there for a minute, too stunned to move, but there's little I can do. And it seems I have a mythical beast to find. I turn to go.
"Oh, McQue, one other thing." he says, not looking up from his papers.
I turn back.
"Taking a Unicorn's horn is fatal to the Unicorn. So anyone who takes the horn is guilty of a heinous deed. You'll kill a beautiful creature noted for innocence and goodness--all to satisfy your own, selfish desires. Despicable." He looks up, "So you see, McQue, this is sort of a win-win for me. If you do manage the impossible: find the Unicorn and bring me its horn, Melody will never forgive you. She'll drop you like the inexcrable piece of human detritus you are. If you don't find a Unicorn--far more likely--you can't complete the ritual and can't marry Melody." He smiles. "Have a nice day." He lowers his head to his work again.
No snappy comeback, no parting shot, I'm speechless for one of the few times I can remember. I open the office door to leave . . .
"And McQue," he sings in that sneering, superior voice of his. I stop halfway through the door. "It's October 29th. You have 24 hours to complete the ritual." He starts to laugh. "I guess you won't have a nice day, after all."
I leave his office and close the door on his merriment. I gotta get to Duck.
"The unicorn," Duck says, "is a mythical beast."
"What is this? Thurber appreciation week? I know, I know, already." I'm in Duck's "office"--a pawn shop just off the Treegreen town round. I've run my ritual assignment by him in the hopes he could help me. So far, uh-uh.
"So whaddya want from me?"
"Call in some favors from a coupla your contacts," I say. "You know a beast or two--a lot of them mythical."
"Lemme get this strait, McQue, you gotta find a unicorn and deliver its horn to Peter Drummond by midnight tomorrow. Otherwise, you can't marry Melody."
"Ordinarily," he muses, "I'd say that was a good thing. Marriage and me ain't exactly sympatico."
"Listen Duck . . ."
He holds up a hand. "But I like Melody and I know she loves you. Can't say much for her taste . . ."
"But I like her, anyway. She'd be unhappy if she had to look for a new hubby." He turns to his laptop and arpeggios its keyboard. "So, we gotta get you a Unicorn and . . ." He hits "Enter" "We got one." He turns the laptop to me and I view a Unicorn--sure enough--in a garden cropping roses. "Looks like Jimmy the T wasn't just making things up. Must've seen this Unicorn before he wrote his story."
"But Thurber wrote that tale a long time ago," I protest. "Can't be the same Unicorn."
Duck looks exasperated. "Unicorns are immortal, McQue. They don't age or die . . . unless of course, you take their horn. This one," he taps a few more keys, "'sbeen around for a couple hunnert years, looks like. Too bad it won't be around much longer. Let's see," he calls up Google maps, "Columbus, Ohio. Figures. Thurber was a reporter for the Dispatch. Well," he opens a drawer and pulls out a hacksaw. "Let's go. If we leave now we should get back just in time for . . ."
"Wait . . . wait" I stop him. "We can't cut off the thing's horn. It'll kill him and Melody'll never forgive me."
"And if you don't," Duck says, "You lose your chance to marry Melody." He sighs. "It's a poser, for sure, McQue. Whaddya wanna do?"
I think about my meeting with Drummond, about the way he sneered when he gave me the rules of the ritual, about what he said. About everything he said. A tickle. Stronger.
"Time's wastin', McQue. Are we goin or not?"
"Oh yeah," I say. "I haven't waited this long for Melody to quit now." I open Duck's door. "Let's go get us a horn."
It's October 30th and I'm back in Drummond's waiting room. His receptionist is gone for the day. I got there just after business hours but I figured the old workaholic would still be in. The ritual gave me until midnight to complete my task, after all, and he'd want to be able to tell Melody he'd kept to his end of the deal. Drummond opens his office door to my knock. He looks surprised to see me.
"McQue!" he says, "You're here. You got the horn?"
"Sure do," I say.
"Well, that's surprising, but not an issue. Melody will despise you for taking it. She'll never marry you, now. Where is it?"
"My friend Duck's bringing it in," a knock sounds at the door to Drummond's office suite, "And there he is now."
The suite's door swings wide and Duck enters leading a Unicorn. The beast happily munches on the 3 dozen or so roses Duck's using to entice it.
"What is this, McQue?" Drummond sputters, "You were supposed to bring me the horn!"
"And I did," I say, gesturing at the nibbling beast. "There it is."
"But, it's still on . . . you were supposed to . . . you didn't . . ."
A babbling tycoon! Almost as common as a Unicorn is rare! I speak over his blah: "That's right, I didn't. I didn't have to. You told me to bring you a Unicorn's horn. You didn't say it couldn't still be attached to the Unicorn."
Drummond is an interesting shade of mauve. His breathing is harsh and his eyes enormous. He grits his teeth and tries to compose himself. "Very well," he snarls, You've completed the ritual and you'll marry my daughter. But don't expect to get anything from the marriage, McQue. I've changed my will and Melody gets nothing as long as she stays with you." he smirks, "I don't think that'll be very long."
"Never can tell," I say. I turn to Duck. "Let's go. Bring the Unicorn."
Drummond shrieks. "What! What! You can't take the Unicorn! It's mine! You brought it to me!"
"Sure I can, Pete," I say, patiently. "You never told me that the ritual said you got to keep the horn. You just told me to bring it to you. I did. We're done. " I turn to go; turn back. "And if you thought I was gonna leave the Unicorn here for you to harvest its horn, you thought wrong."
"See," Duck says, smiling his nastiest smile, "McQue and me wondered why you specified a Unicorn's horn. Looked up the Drummond ritual's history. You weren't lying when you said that the eldest Drummond sets the task, but you weren't telling the whole truth either."
I nod. "Most of the past rituals involved some innocuous activity. Grooms had to learn and sing a love song outside the bride-to-be's window. Brides had to cook the groom's favorite meal. Found nothing about quests or derring-do in the Drummond family archives. You shouldn't keep them on the internet, by the way. Too easy to research."
"Yeah and other stuff's easy to research, too," Duck pulls some papers from his pocket, "For example, did you know that a Unicorn's horn is a cure all for every known disease?"
"The Unicorn just touches the sickee with its horn and instant miracle," I point to Duck's papers, "Page three, paragraph 6."
"So we figured a big business guy like you would see the profit potential in that," Duck says, "Of course, you didn't know if McQue could actually get a Unicorn's horn, but you figured it as a win-win. If he didn't get it, you win. If he did, you also win."
"But it went further than that," I add, "'You planned to have your tech guys analyze the horn and come up with some kind of panacea drug. Easier to package and sell than running thither and yon tapping sickos with a horn . . ."
"Hither and yon?" Duck says.
"And round about, " I embellish, "Failing that, you figured to grind up the horn and sell it a particle at a time to suckers suffering from incurable illnesses. Rich suckers, that is."
"Gotta hand it to ya," Duck opens the office door, leads the Unicorn out. "When you found out McQue hadn't harvested the horn and killed the Unicorn, you didn't miss a beat. You figured you could do it just as easy so no big deal. Too bad that ain't gonna happen."
"Too bad for you," I smile and follow Duck and the Unicorn out. "Wedding's tomorrow at 4. Melody's looking forward to you giving her away." I turn and ease the door shut. Just before it closes: "See you tomorrow . . . dad."
It's tomorrow and I'm at the Treegreen Interdenominational Chapel. This pan-religious edifice squats just across the street from my office/apartment in Treegreen's town round. Melody and me decided to hold the ceremony there and move everyone to the Manse for the reception after. Lucky we did. The crowd's kinda odd for this one. I got a bunch of my clients and their families and familiars milling about outside. Melody's people haven't shown up yet. I'm getting a bit antsy. Stan being there doesn't help. The brimstone smell is mixing with the scent of the lilies.
"Gonna tie the knot, eh McQue?" he grins, extending his--sort of--hand. I shake it out of habit and desperation, pulling him close.
"What are you doing here?" I hiss. "We didn't invite you. And how come you can be so close to that?" I wave at the Chapel.
"I figured that the missing invitation was an oversight," he smiles toothily. "And I like you, McQue . . . you and that goody two-shoes broad you're gonna marry. I wouldn't miss this for the world. As for that," He waves a dismissive hand, "It's Interdenominational, remember? Probably got a few of my acolytes hangin' around."
"Great," I say, looking about, "You're here and Heather isn't," I frown. "Any idea why?"
"She's the Angel of Death, remember?" he says, "real busy right now. Lots of stuff goin' on in the Mundane Plain. Besides," he poses, "For angels, you got me. Top of the world, ma . . . or the bottom, depends on your perspective!" He walks off, laughing. I feel a tap on my shoulder and turn to see Melody.
"Nice of Stan to come," she says.
"Yeah, nice," I grouse. "Hey, I shouldn't be seeing you, should I?"
"Not after I get into my gown," she smiles. "And that's at mom and dad's. I was on my way over there when my car refused to start."
"I'm not surprised," I respond. "That ancient buggy of yours should have stopped running long ago."
"Don't bad mouth Gwendolyn," she protests. Melody names her vehicles--one of the reasons I love her. "She's been a good friend. Anyway, I was wondering if I could borrow your car to get my gown."
I hand her the keys. "It's parked in front of my office," I gesture across the street to it. "I'll walk over with you . . . "
And we cross the way to my car. I open the door and watch her slide behind the wheel.
"You go right back there and shmooze the guests," she says.
"Grumble, grumble," I grumble, closing the car door.
"Be nice," she smiles coyly. "Think about later this evening. That should perk you up."
“Hubba, hubba,” I say, step back from the car, and wave. She winds up the window; blows me a kiss, She puts the car in gear and turns the ig . . .
Eyes struggle open. Overhead light shines painful. Can't turn head easy. Pokie things in arms. Stiff. Numb. Pain and lots of it just beneath numb.
"Sort of . . ."
"Yeah but he probably won't want to . . ."
Eyes open again.
More pain now; all over. Less numb. Small mewing sounds; moans, grunts. Seem to be coming from me.
"Heart rate up; BP rising."
"That's the pain."
"Get some Demerol in the IV stat."
"That'll put him back to . . ."
Eyes pop open this time. Third time's a charm, they say. I garble:
"Melody . . ."
"Back with us, McQue," Duck's voice. "Good. Just take it easy."
Try to sit up. Can't. Pain surges. Garble again. "Melody . . . where's . . .how . . ."
"Slow and easy, buddy," Duck's at my right. "You can't sit up yet."
"Melody . . . the car . . . an explosion!"
"Gavin," Heather's voice, she sounds like she's next to Duck."Dear. Melody's . . . gone."
"Vaporized," Duck growls, "It's just lucky she closed that window or you woulda gone up with her. As it was, the whole inside of the car was ash. You got hit by the door when it blew open. Also caught some of the concussion."
"Gone? You mean . . ."
"Dead, Gavin." Heather whispers. "Melody is dead. I'm so sorry."
"No. No. She isn't dead. She can't be dead. We're getting married." Somehow I'm sitting up, the agony ripping through me isn't from the bruises and breaks. "We're using the Manse. We got all kinds of guests coming . . ."
"Everyone's gone home, Gavin," Heather soothes. "The wedding was set for three days ago. You've been unconscious since then."
"But Melody can't be dead." I groan, "She can't be." I turn to Heather. "You. You're the Angel of Death. Do something. Make her not be dead."
"Gavin, I . . . I can't."
Dawning on me: "That's why you weren't at the wedding. You knew!"
She turns away.
"You knew and you let it happen! You knew and you did nothing!"
Her body begins to shake. "I couldn't" she's sobbing. "I couldn't. It was her time."
"Couldn't? Her time? What does that mean? What good are you?"' I'm shouting now, as much as it hurts. "Get out of my sight. You can't help, get lost." She flees the room. Duck starts after her. Turns back.
"Gonna let it go for now," he says. "You're not responsible. But settle down. You don't know everything."
"So tell me," I say settling into a position that hurts marginally less. "Who rigged the car?"
"Drummond," he says, "Or actually somebody he hired. He was going after you, of course. He planned to invite you over to his house after the wedding for a little one-on-one chat--just you and him. He was gonna tell you he wanted to let bygones be bygones and that he wanted to give you a special wedding gift. He never thought you'd let Melody use the car. Stupid amateur."
"We gotta get to the cops," I say. "Get them to investi . . ." But Duck's shaking his head.
"You been out three days and you're still not totally with it," he takes a cell phone out of his pocket and presses some keys, "So I'll let it slide, but did you really think I'd let this go to the cops?" He holds up his phone and Stan's face is on the screen. It's backlit in a reddish-orange glow that looks both hot and painful.
"Almost gotcha this time, McQue, although you might notta been headin' my way. Duck sent me a substitute or two. That Drummond character screams real good. Wanna hear?" His face vanishes and Drummond appears. At least, I guess it's Drummond. He doesn't look completely whole and his face twists and writhes in macabre gavotte. Stan's right. He screams real good. Stan returns--all toothy grin.
"Tell Duck he did a good job on the guy before he sent him to me," Stan snickers. "I got a post for Duck when he transitions. Got real potential, he does. Gotta go for now, McQue. Guy Drummond hired is broiling nicely over next to the Lethe. Drummond's over there, too. Kinda neat the way that works: they forget how much it hurts and get to feel it for the first time all over again. And again. And again." He's still laughing as Duck closes his phone.
"Nothin' left for you to do, McQue," Duck says, pushing me down gently. "Nothin' to do but recover. You got a ways to go for that buddy. And some of it, well, some of it'll take longer than others." He turns a valve next to one of my IVs. "Doc told me to do this if you started hurtin'. I don't think you ever stopped hurtin'."
"Don't think I ever will," I say, but the stuff entering my veins is dulling most of the physical pain. And sleep is coming on strong, now. Maybe that will help with the other hurt . . . depending on the dreams . . .
It's a few weeks later and I'm sitting in my office. Well after midnight, I oughta be asleep. Haven't been able to sleep much since I got out of the hospital. Haven't taken any cases either. Don't seem interested. Don't seem to care. Nothing to care about. My door opens. It's Heather. I turn away; mumble:
"Hey, you know I'm sorry about what I said at the hospital, but I really don't want to see you right now. Maybe in a couple months."
"Gavin I know you were upset at the hospital but I've got something that might make you feel a little better."
I laugh ruefully, "Don't think so, babe. Don't think anything'll do that."
Another voice: "Don't be too sure, Gavy-pooh."
I turn and see her.
"Melody!" I cry, too overjoyed to be astonished. "Melody sweetheart!" I rush toward her and throw my arms around . . . nothing. I pass right through. It's only then that I notice she's floating about 3 feet above the floor and not entirely here--a glimmer-wraith, a shade, a . . .
"A ghost, Gavin," Heather says, "She's a ghost."
"I . . . I don't . . . don't under. . . "
"The Boss got this weird idea that love's more important than death," the Angel of Death shrugs, "go figure. Anyway, He gave Melody a choice and she . . . well, I'll let her tell you . . ."
"I had a choice to stay in heaven," Melody's ghost says, "Or to spend my time with you. I chose you." She bends and kisses me on my forehead and, mirabile dictu, I feel a feather light brush of ethereal lips.
"You chose me," I stammer, "Me over Paradise?"
"Paradise can wait," Melody says. "And it wouldn't be any fun without you there with me," She puts her fists on her hips and scrunches her nose: "You got a lot of living to do yet and no guarantees. I want to be here to make sure you join me when the time comes."
"And that's gonna be when?" I ask, not really expecting an answer.
"Never you mind," Heather interupts. "You have more important things to think about."
"More important than that? This from the Angel of Death, yet!" I'm teasing and giddy and gonzo with joy. "OK, what's so important?"
"Rescheduling the wedding, of course," Melody says.
"Yes, the wedding. You asked me to marry you, remember? I remember saying yes."
I'm confused. "But Mel . . ." I start.
"But me no buts, buster. You're not getting out of marrying me just because I'm dead."
"It is a bit unusual," Heather muses, "but then, so are you Gavin. I know the Boss has no problem with such a union."
"If it's OK with Him," I say, "It's OK with me."
It's a week later and the wedding is history. The ceremony went without a hitch until the very end when the preacher had to modify our vows a bit. "'Til death do you part" became "'Til death do you join." Took a bit of convincing, but Heather helped there. She has an in with the preacher's Boss.
Mel and I are on our Honeymoon. We changed no plans; she always wanted to go to Disneyland (not DisneyWorld; Disneyland--the original Magic Kingdom). She's like a little kid floating about through the various "lands" and sitting next to me on the rides. That's earned us some funny looks. See, Heather fixed it so nobody can see Melody but me on our trip to this kid's paradise. Keeps the little momsers from having nightmares about "ghostie ladies." People just sort of naturally avoid her space anyway. Makes for unusual empty spots on the crowded Disneyland rides.
We're staying in a nice hotel in Anaheim and we keep in touch with all of our buds. Duck, Heather, and even Stan called to wish us well. Melody's mom, still technically in mourning, phoned several times to shmooze her daughter. We disconnected the room's phone after the 12th call. We have two more days here before we return to the Seven Counties. Duck tells me I have a couple of lucrative cases waiting for me.
Let 'em wait. I'm having the time of my life with the girl I love. Our days are spent in joyous celebration and our nights are . . .
Our nights are none of your business.
x x x
Don’t say I didn’t warn you. I told you I had a surprise or two in store for you with this latest Gavin McQue tale. I never said it would be a pleasant surprise. If it’s any consolation, it was a surprise to me as well. Stories often tell themselves and this one screamed its way through me early last year. It took me this long to finalize it in such a way to be sure Gavin could keep peeping. He wouldn’t have been able to do so if Melody was entirely gone. So I gave him a partner—in spades. Let me know what you think of the partnership on our BBS.
And another year has gone by at dear old anotherealm. Hope you’ve liked it as much as I. See you next month as we start over again. GM