“You look like crap.” Nicole leaned against the bookshop’s counter, eyeing Cassie up and down. “Either you and Derrick spent the night celebrating—” Nicole paused, then said. “Or you completely lost your mind and turned down the poor man’s proposal. Please don’t tell me it’s the latter.”
“Uh . . .” Cassie watched a frown form on Nicole’s face and knew she was about to be chewed out. “It didn’t quite go as planned. I think I messed up.”
Nicole did not say anything. She stared at Cassie for a moment, then said, “Okay, what happened?”
Cassie ran a hand through her hair. “It was all my fault, not Derrick’s. I feel like a piece of shit.” She looked toward the floor without actually looking at it.
“Let me get this straight. Derrick proposed and you said no. Why?”
Cassie shrugged; she did not want to answer the question. “That’s not the only thing. He said we should see other people.”
“No way.” Nicole’s eyes widened. “Derrick loves you more than life itself. He probably just said it to hurt you back.”
“Well, mission accomplished then.”
“I’m calling him.” Nicole picked up the phone’s handset. “This whole thing is one big mistake and it needs fixing before someone does something they’ll regret.”
Cassie reached for the dial, blocking Nicole from calling Derrick. “Can you wait?”
Shocked by Cassie’s response, Nicole did not loosen her grip on the handset. “You really do have a thing for Ringman. Please tell me it’s not so.”
“I don’t have a thing for Ringman. It’s just that for some reason I’m curious about him.” Cassie could not explain the attraction; she had never felt such a strong pull toward a man. It was almost magnetic.
“I’m disappointed in you, Cassie.” Nicole did not hide her scorn.
“Me too.” Cassie hung her head.
“Fortunately, I know you,” Nicole said, hanging up the phone. “You don’t have a mean bone in your body. You and Derrick are perfect for each other and you know that too. You must be going through one of those midlife crisis things. I’ll give you one day to get your head straight and if you can’t seem to do it, I’m going to be forced to do some kind of intervention.”
Cassie laughed. “Yes, Doctor Kent. Just be careful of the diagnosis you come up with, I am a little sensitive you know. Now, can we change the subject, please? Have the books we need been confirmed with The Antiquarian Bookseller?”
Nicole handed Cassie a sheet of paper with both Professor Brunswick’s Gems from Longfellow and Gustave’s An Impartial Account of the Trial of Lord Conwallis written on it, along with the authors and item numbers. “Harry has them and he's expecting you today.”
“I’ll head out now, then.” Cassie folded the paper in half and slid it into her purse. I'll stop at the college last or maybe wait until Monday if it's too late.
Nicole rested her arms on the counter, her bracelet tinked on the granite. “I suggest you take your time, clear your head, and when you get back call Derrick and get this mess straightened out.”
“Or you will, right?”
“You read my mind.” Nicole’s smile faded and her voice lowered. “Just don’t get entangled with Ringman. My gut tells me that nothing good will come from him. Nothing. I can’t believe you don’t see it.”
“Well, your gut is usually right, so I’ll take it into consideration.”
“Oh, I almost forgot,” Nicole said. “We need to give that guy back his ring. I’ll get it from the safe.”
“Ah, don’t bother.”
“What? Why not?”
Cassie held up her hand where the skull still held tight to her ring finger. “I can’t get it off.”
“I thought you put it in the safe. What’s it doing on your finger?”
“Well, I forgot it was in my pocket.” Cassie hated to lie. “When I found it, I tried it on and now it’s stuck.”
“How is that possible?” Nicole said, reaching for Cassie’s hand. She began twisting and pulling on the ring.
“Ouch. It’s sore because I’ve been trying to get it off. I’ve tried everything.”
Nicole turned Cassie’s hand to get a better look at her finger. “He had this ring on his finger, didn’t he? It should be too big, if anything.”
“Yeah, I watched him take it off to show it to me.”
“His fingers are bigger than yours, so I still don’t see why it’s not coming off. There are no signs of it being adjustable and your finger doesn’t look swollen.” Nicole shook her head. “So what are you going to do when you get there? This is unprofessional, you know, showing up with his ring on your finger. Maybe he’ll have to cut your finger off.”
“Not funny.” Cassie tugged on the ring some more, it was like it had a mind of its own. “I’ll keep working on it; maybe it’ll slide off before I get there.”
“This is just more proof that you need to stay away from that man. You’ve only just met him when he came into the shop and now you and Derrick are breaking up and this stranger’s ring is on the finger that should be holding Derrick’s engagement ring. It’s too much of a coincidence.”
Cassie waved goodbye and walked out to her car parked at the curb. She put the address to The Antiquarian Bookseller, Gustave’s home, and Professor Brunswick’s office at the college into the map program on her cellphone, opting for the leisurely route that followed the Lake Michigan shoreline. Lolly was an hour away and Anisteem a couple of hours more. It was going to be a pleasant drive;, the sun was above the horizon and the air was warm.
Coffee on the Water’s drive-through moved quickly and she was up to the window in no time.
“Hi, Cassie, you look happy today. Would you like your usual Americano?” The young woman asked with a smile.
“You know me well, Jen.” Actually, looks were deceiving. Cassie might look happy on the outside, but on the inside, she was conflicted. Cassie looked at her phone; maybe she should pull over and call Derrick but on the other hand how could he so quickly suggest that they see other people. Had he been thinking about it all along? She had not thought of it that way until just now. A bit of anger was added to her mix of emotions—guilt, sadness, regret, anticipation, and a few more that she was sure she was forgetting about.
“Here’s your Americano.”
Cassie sat the—too hot to hold—paper cup in a holder and thanked Jen before driving away. And driving away was what she wanted to do. Drive far away. Far, far away. How could Derrick suggest seeing other people so easily?
“Happy thoughts. Happy thoughts,” Cassie repeated to herself. There was no sense ruining the day; after all, she still had Gustave to see.
It was a gorgeous day. The daffodil yellow sun rose higher in the eastern sky. The secondary road she traveled gave glimpses of the sparkling blue water between patches of leafy green trees. And the kick of caffeine was peaking. Cassie could drive like this all day.
By the time Cassie drove into the small town of Lolly she was drinking the last swallow of now cold coffee as she drove up to The Antiquarian Bookseller. Housed in a quaint brick building, it looked as old as many of its books. Green vining ivy clung to the varying shades of rust-colored bricks, and old-fashioned roses and poppies flanked the small lawn. The building seemed more like a learned scholar’s home than a bookstore.
Cassie got out of the car and stretched, being a little stiff from sitting in the same spot for so long. A plump yellow and black bumble bee buzzed by on its way to a flower garden as Cassie walked down the cobblestone path to the entrance. Same as at C & N Rare Books, a bell jingled as she opened the door.
An aged man, an antique himself, eagerly approached. “Cassie, good to see you. Nicole said you were on your way.” The short, portly man held out his arms for a hug.
“Hello, Harry,” Cassie said, allowing the antiquarian's short embrace. “You always greet me like I’m a long-lost friend. Not that I’m complaining, of course.”
“Of course not,” Harry said, smiling so wide his yellow teeth became prominent on his round face. “Anyone who has a love for venerable books, as you do, deserves attention. There’s not many of us left. People nowadays read pulp fiction on those electronic tablet things and are completely happy doing so, rather than reading words written by the masters.”
“Words by the masters can be read on the same devices.”
“Yes, but paper—,” Harry said, directing Cassie to the office, “but paper is special. The soft dry texture, the musty aroma, and the weight which varies between titles. Each one unique and special.”
“You’re not going to get an argument from me,” Cassie said, walking up to the desk where Harry had two books wrapped in archival tissue.
“Feel free to inspect them.”
“Thank you.” Cassie donned a pair of cotton inspection gloves and with a delicate touch unwrapped the protective tissue, then compared the numbers and names that Nicole had written on the paper she had given her. “These are exactly what I need.”
Harry rewrapped and placed them with care into their own archival boxes before handing them to Cassie. They settled upon the payment and, after another hug, Cassie walked out to her car. Now she had to drive farther north and deliver one of them to the man who was already causing trouble in her life.
The hopeful drive north soon developed a sense of doom. Cassie was unsure why. Maybe it was the darkening sky and the isolation of the towering oak and pine trees enveloping the road. She looked at the GPS, making sure it was still directing her to Anisteem. It was. She had only been to Anisteem a few times, and those were times when she was on vacation but she didn’t remember the trip being so gloomy, but she probably took a different route. She was driving through the Anisteem National Forest, so it did make sense that the trees were dimming the sun.
Hunger was strong-arming Cassie’s thoughts, pushing aside both Derrick and Gustave as she drove into the outskirts of a town with a timeworn wooden sign engraved with Coopersville, Established 1846. Then with the same faded red paint, it said, Home of Coopers Creatures. A carved picture of a barrel was on one side and what appeared to be a casket on the other.
“Coopers Creatures? What’s that? And why is there a picture of a coffin on the town’s welcome sign?” Cassie turned off the radio. She knew that coopers made wooden containers, but coffins? Was there really that great of a need for them in this area?
Cassie looked at her watch, it was still early, she had time to grab a burger and then continue on to Gustave’s. She drove into the village, first noticing a dilapidated lumber mill along a river to her left where a water wheel, now a pile of wood and metal, once powered a whipsaw.
The depressed homes leading into town spoke of a time when Coopersville once thrived. Now the American Gothic Revival style—pointed window arches, steep center gables, and lacy trim along the rooflines—made the town seem more like the home for the wicked witch in the fairy tale Hansel and Gretel. The main street was not much better, but it did have several active businesses. A barbershop with gargoyle waterspouts and a spinning barber’s pole of red, blue, and white stripes left Cassie feeling that it still practiced bloodletting. A five-and-dime displayed various household items such as t-shirts, toys, and books in its front windows. And the Bank of Anisteem County constructed of brick rather than lumber sat on the corner. Then she noticed a park with what appeared to be a flea market that looked like some vendors could be selling food. Not seeing a fast-food joint, she decided to stop and see what the street market had to offer.
There was a parking spot underneath the shade of a towering sycamore tree. Its massive trunk and branches reminded Cassie of a Halloween picture with a witch flying in the night sky on its broom in front of a full moon.
When Cassie got out of the car, the first thing that struck her was the smell of damp soil and grilled meat. Not so unusual because she had made burgers on the grill after a rain shower before, but for some reason, it seemed a little—off. But no matter, she needed something to eat. With a smile on her face, she followed the scent of food wafting from distant rising smoke.
Tables of plump red tomatoes, green peppers, and other fruits must be the farmers' section of the outdoor market. Cassie continued on past people selling old tools, knickknacks, and clothes. Finally she made it to the source of the meaty aroma. Smoke rolled from what appeared to be a homemade drum smoker. Next to it was a food truck like the kind found at county fairs selling chili dogs, elephant ears, and cotton candy.
“What can I getcha, ma’am?” the middle-aged man barked from the window. His long salt and pepper hair was tied back in a ponytail. “Pulled pork sandwiches are our specialty. It’s slow-smoked over wood and made with our special sauce. You’ll love it.”
Cassie looked at the menu posted on the side of the truck. There was a picture of a boy eating a pulled pork sandwich as big as his head—almost. “Okay, I'll have that.”
The man tried to talk her into adding fries and a drink, but she knew the bun would require two hands. “Just the sandwich for right now.”
With napkins and the wrapped sandwich in hand, Cassie meandered past the sellers' tables on her way back to the car, dripping sauce along the way. She had eaten the last bite and put the wrappings in a trash can when an old woman with a pipe in her mouth caught Cassie's attention. She was sitting in a lawn chair behind a display of tobacco pipes.
Cassie walked toward the table, intrigued by the wrinkly woman who obviously enjoyed smoking the wooden device, even though the tobacco did not appear to be lit. A blue babushka was wrapped around her head and two long gray braids were pulled forward along her neck, over a blue and white beaded necklace.
The gypsy woman stared at Cassie as she approached the table. There were various shaped wooden pipes laid out on a white linen sheet. Chambers and stems ranged from short and stout to long and curvy. Round pipe racks sat to the side.
“Hi,” Cassie said, wondering what the old woman was thinking. The woman was studying her as though they had met before.
The woman didn't say anything at first, then she took the pipe from her mouth and said, “I don't believe I've seen you before. My name is Kriska.” Her voice was rough, probably scarred from tobacco smoke.
“I’m Cassie, I don't think I've ever been to Coopersville.”
“Welcome to our little town. You’ve probably surmised from the name that coopers founded our village. They made wooden casks that held water and wine for long ship voyages, as well as other things.” Kriska placed the pipe back in her mouth. “If you don’t mind my asking, what exactly brings you to Coopersville?”
“I’m just passing through.” Cassie thought about the village sign, and since the old woman already provided a little town history, she asked, “I was wondering if you know what Coopers Creatures are, I saw it on the sign as I drove into town.”
Kriska puffed on the curved unlit pipe. “Ah, that. It’s said that long before Coopersville was founded there were creatures that fly through the night sky.”
“Like a bird?”
“Like creatures from Hell,” Kriska said matter-of-factly as her pipe hand trembled.
Cassie tried to think about what kind of animal would be confused with a hellish creature. “Great Gray Owls can get over two feet long. Could it be something like that?”
Kriska looked annoyed. “My dear, I know what owls look like and they are not creatures from Hell. I’m talking about grotesque demon type monsters that walk on the ground like goblins and take flight like dragons. Their ugly faces and horned heads watch us and wait for us. Many townsfolk have been caught off guard on a full moon night and taken away. Taken to the others to feed on. That is, until the coopers made a pact with the others; creating for them the perfect container in which to rest in exchange for keeping the—gargoyles away from Coopersville.”
Cassie was stunned. She looked at the woman who seemed to believe what she was telling her. “Are you talking about—vampires?”
“I know what you’re thinking. A senile old lady is spewing delusions of bloodsuckers and gargoyles.” She puffed the pipe. “Believe me or don’t believe, it’s your choice. All I can say is that I told you what I know.”
Cassie could not believe such nonsense, but she played along just to see where the crazy story led. “Have you ever seen them?”
Kriska shrugged. “I don’t go out at night, if that tells you anything. But years ago, when I was a young woman, I saw them. Bernard, my first love, and I were walking along the shore of the Anisteem River one summer evening when we saw these things flying in the sky. We knew what they were as they flew right toward us. They came on us fast. We ran to the old mill. Bernard pushed me into a small room and closed the door. He fought them so that they would not get to me.” Sadness came over Kriska’s sagging face. “I could hear him yelling and the creatures growling and shrieking. That is, until the sounds faded. I opened the door, blood was sprayed all over the ground and the wall. When I looked up, I saw the bunch of them carrying him into the sky. I told the authorities. I never saw poor Bernard again.”
It told Cassie that the old woman believed in the illusions her mentally ill mind showed her.
Clearing her phlegm filled throat, Kriska changed the subject by asking, “Where are you headed?”
Cassie couldn't tell if the woman was curious about her or thought she was an intruder and needed to be kept an eye on. “I'm on my way to Anisteem”
The woman gasped when she saw the skull ring on Cassie’s finger. She grabbed Cassie's hand, staring at the ring. Cassie pulled her hand back, but the gypsy held tight.
Trembling, Kriska said, “Where did you get this ring?”
Cassie did not want to tell her it was another person's ring and that it would not come off her finger. “Ah . . .”
Kriska would not release Cassie's hand. “You are in danger.”
“Are you going to Bitter Castle?”
Cassie didn't know there was a castle in Anisteem. She knew there was a mansion on Shadow Island, but a castle? “I have a delivery for a person in Anisteem. I doubt he lives in a castle.” Actually, Cassie wouldn't be surprised if Gustave did live in a castle, he was quite an unusual character. “I didn't even know there was a castle in Anisteem.”
“Bitter Castle is deep in the woods, along Lake Michigan. It was built long ago before America was even a country.”
The skull must be disturbing the poor woman. “But what difference does it make if I'm going to a castle?”
Kriska hesitated only a moment, then with scorn, she said, “The castle was not built for the living, but for the dead.”
“I don't understand.” The gypsy finally released Cassie's hand. “Are you some kind of clairvoyant?”
The woman turned and rummaged through some bags inside a foldable shopping cart. First, she pulled out a butter knife, studied it, groaned, and then shoved it back where she had gotten it. Then an unsatisfactory plastic thing was removed and replaced. Finally—coughing into her hand—she took out a brooch and mumbled that it was good enough.
“Here, take this.” The woman turned back toward Cassie and handed her the pin.
Cassie took the tarnished silver owl brooch. It was a few inches long and looked like an antique. “It's lovely but I don't need a pin.”
“It's my gift to you. And yes, I sense things and I sense you are in danger. You should turn around and go back to where you came from.”
Cassie did not know what to do with the gift, but she did not want to offend the old woman by refusing it. She reached into her purse hoping to find some cash to give the impoverished looking woman. “I want to pay for it.”
“It's not for sale.”
“I can't just take it, you don't even know me.”
The gypsy woman's tone softened slightly. “I know your heart and I believe you were sent here to help us.”
“Help you? I'm just a bookseller.” Cassie tried handing the brooch back, but the woman crossed her arms and would not take it.
“Do an old woman a favor, my dear, and wear the brooch. It would make me happy. You can return it to me at a later time. Deal?”
Cassie looked at the pin, there was nothing special about it. Just a big old brooch in the shape of an owl with pointed ear tufts. There was no sense arguing with the gypsy. Cassie pinned it to her shirt, causing it to sag. There was no doubt the woman was going senile. “I'll bring the pin back.”
The gypsy struck a match and lit the tobacco in the bowl, took a few puffs, causing the leaves to glow red. “I hope so,” the old woman mumbled.
Cassie didn't know what to think. The woman turned sideways as if she was done talking, so Cassie walked away. That was weird.
When Cassie got back to her car, she considered removing the pin. It was too heavy, and the ear feathers of the owl were sharp. But instead of taking it off, she made sure her scarf draped over the brooch to hide it and the drooping neckline. The pin was not very attractive and did not go with her outfit, but her gut told her to do what the demented old lady said—except turn around and go back home.
“Maybe I should go back and ask the gypsy more questions.” Cassie rested a finger on the start engine button, then she looked at the boxes of books in the seat next to her. No, there was no time and it would be pointless to go back and question the confused woman. She had to deliver Gustave's book—and the ring if she could get it off her finger.
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