Authors: Annette Brownlee
Tags: #Adventure, #Paranormal
A large black crow landed atop a mound of dirt in the yard. The sun caught its stretched out wings, making the blue black feathers shimmer. The crow let loose its raucous call, took flight and circled her head before flying off.
Paolo watched the bird fly away. Taking the straw hat off of his head, he tugged an old red bandanna from his back pocket and wiped it across his brow. “If you can’t go home, then come out with us tonight. You shouldn’t be alone. We’re meeting at El Paseo.”
“Who’s playing tonight?” she asked, grateful for the invitation. She didn’t go out often, hell she didn’t really have any friends to go out with. Her choice. It was better that way. But she’d take any opportunity she could to avoid spending the evening alone in her home.
“Don’t know who is playing. Doesn’t matter. Good food. Good beer.”
“Good company,” she finished for him. “I’ll meet you there. Thanks. All right, guys,” she said, turning her attention to the crew still hard at work. She had to admit, they did a good job bringing her vision to light. The cactus garden alone was a piece of pure inspiration. Her client was going to be thrilled. At least she hoped so. Each happy client helped her build this aspect of her business. Sure, fertilizing, mowing, and sprinkler blow outs were fine and she’d built a great business, but she really enjoyed the design part. Each client’s garden was like a puzzle. The process of finding the right pieces was the only thing that gave her any pride or sense of accomplishment. “I think we’ll get this finished up tomorrow, don’t you?”
“Si. Yes. Probably early. Especially if you’re not here,” he said the hint of a kindly tease in his voice.
“I know I’m getting in the way. I just can’t sit still lately.”
“Then tonight will help. We’ll get you so drunk you’ll be passed out for days. It’ll be good for us, too. We can work in peace.” Paolo chuckled at his joke and winked at her. “Go home.”
Instead, she went back to the office. Chaos kept a change of clothing in her desk so there was need to go home. No need to be reminded of Dead Bill. After a quick wash in the bathroom, Chaos changed into a clean pair of jeans and a navy blue V-neck sweater. Her black eye was starting to look less intense now. Instead of being an angry purple, it was a discontent green and yellow. Makeup wasn’t her thing so she just had to endure the curious looks until it went away. Her wrist was another story. It still hurt like hell and she refused to take any more painkillers. They numbed her brain enough to make her dizzy but not enough to make the memories fade. Plus, they made her sick to her stomach. She couldn’t exactly go to the doctor to get a different prescription; they’d want an explanation and she sucked at lying, so she was left feeling the pain.
Ignoring the twinge in her wrist, she tried to braid her hair in the mirror. She’d worn her hair in braids for as long as she could remember and cut it herself when it needed a trim. It wasn’t working. Her wrist hurt too much. She’d have to wear it down until her arm healed. Examining the ends she realized it was past time for a trim. Paying attention to her appearance was last on her list. It wasn’t like she needed to impress anyone. There was no one who cared how she looked. No one to look good for. Hell, most of the time she worked alone and no one saw her for days. Looking good wouldn’t do her any good since romance wasn’t on her to do list. She’d tried it a few times and it always ended up in tragedy. The last time she’d had a date the poor guy had been arrested for armed robbery. A mistake to be sure and entirely her fault - and her bad luck. It affected everyone around her. She’d broken it off immediately for fear he’d wind up dead the next time they went out. If she cared about someone, they would inevitably wind up dead or injured. Her solution, stop caring about people. Don’t let them close. It wasn’t a great life but it was better than leaving bodies in her wake.
Straightening her dead mother’s necklace so that the winged goddess, Nike, sat centered on her chest, Chaos shrugged and headed for her desk. She had thirty minutes before meeting her crew at the bar; she could get a few things done before she left. She’d started this business at thirteen. She remembered the day vividly. A new girl had come to school and approached Chaos for help. Chaos had shunned her. Even at that early age she’d learned that her bad luck hurt people. But she was lonely. She’d gone home, cried, then dried her tears and headed outside. Nature always made her feel better. Sitting on the back porch she noticed that the lawn needed mowing. Her dad got home from work late and he’d do it after dark. He worked too hard. Chaos headed to the garage and mowed the lawn herself. It felt good to be outside accomplishing something and it had given her an idea. The next day she went door to door offering her services. She’d gotten three clients right away. Her dad had been supportive. She’d been lucky to have such a wonderful father. Though her life wasn’t easy, he was always there for her. Chaos wondered about Bill’s father.
Though she was comfortable in the fact that she’d killed Bill in self-defense, guilt nibbled at her. Paolo had said he lived alone but surely Bill had a family. Everyone had a family, everyone except her. By now someone was probably looking for him. She entered his name into her browser and scanned the results. There first three were the same. They were links to a news clipping about ten years old. Apparently, Bill had beaten his girlfriend and been charged with assault. Didn’t surprise her. He clearly had violent tendencies with women. She scanned the article looking for mention of family. Near the bottom the reporter cited that Bill himself had been a victim of domestic abuse and his family had perished in a fire set by his mother. Bill, the only survivor, had finished his childhood in foster care.
No one was looking for him. She hadn’t been able to find any missing persons reports at the state police website either. Exhaling, Chaos forced herself to stop digging. Bill had had a sucky life and he’d lived a violent adulthood. She’d done the best she could in the situation and was doing her best now. The guilt started to ebb away. Chaos turned off the computer and looked at her watch. The research had taken a little longer than she thought. The crew was likely already at the grill. Snagging her keys from the hook by the door, she headed out for a rare evening of socializing. She just prayed that no one would get hurt.
Chaos pulled into the already full parking lot. Outdoor lights twinkled in the trees. Music filled the air and reached her ears over the deep vibration of her Jeep’s engine. Knowing there was parking in the back, she pulled through the alley and grinned. “One spot left.” Fate, for once, smiled on her. Maybe tonight would be just what she needed. Easing her Jeep into the parking spot she killed the engine and slipped the key into her front pocket. Double checking that she had her ID and cash she jumped out and headed for the back door of El Paseo.
The door entered a short hallway and spit out next to the stage. A band was on playing rockabilly music. Not her style but it filled the room with a sense of celebration. The thought instantly sobered her. She didn’t have anything to celebrate. She’d killed a man. Chastising herself for ruining a barely there effort to feel better, she pasted a smile on her face and scanned the room for a familiar somebody.
She spotted Paolo immediately.
Standing, he waved her over. “Welcome! You came. I wasn’t sure.”
Chaos asked a neighboring table if she could use their free chair and dragged it over next to Paolo and his wife. “What’s everyone drinking?”
“Margaritas,” the table announced in unison.
“Beer,” Paolo said.
“I think I’ll have one of those,” she said, gesturing toward the beer.
“Dos cervezas, por favor,” Paolo said to a passing waitress.
“Gracias,” Chaos said. “I think I’ll need some food with that. Maybe a plate of nachos?”Chaos didn’t notice, or pay attention, to the refills of her beer. She ate and tried to focus on the conversations around her. It worked, for the most part, to keep her mind off of the events of last week. But every once in a while a random thought or trigger would remind her. A man would walk by wearing a dark t-shirt or too much cologne and she’d shiver. As the night progressed, she’d washed each dark thought away with a gulp or two of beer. The result? She was very nearly drunk.
The waitress approached with a pitcher of beer, ready to refill her half empty glass. “No, thank you,” Chaos said. She covered her glass with her hand. “I’ve had more than enough.”
Paolo grabbed her hand. “Dance with me.”
“Where’s your wife?” Chaos asked.
Paolo laughed. “She’s dancing with Jones, the new guy.” Chaos looked to where Paolo pointed and saw a smiling woman dancing with a giant of a man. That must be Jones, she thought. Paolo did most of the hiring lately and she didn’t recognize him. Connie, Paolo’s wife, was lovely and looked almost fragile next to Jones who towered over her. Connie wore a bright turquoise sundress and it swirled around her knees as he twirled her around the dance floor. The bangles on her wrist sparkled when they caught the overhead light. She was a beautiful dancer. Her black high heeled shoes moved quickly to the rhythm. Looking down at her dusty brown work boots, Chaos felt a pang of envy. She squashed it by downing the rest of her beer.
“Thanks, Paolo,” Chaos said, taking his hand. “You wearing your protection charm?” He held up his wrist, showing her the skull. She didn’t know if it would keep him safe but she was drunk and lonely enough to hope. She let him lead her to the dance floor, arriving just in time for a slow song. He wrapped one arm loosely around her waist and held the other hand up. The man was a good dancer but Chaos was in no condition to follow so he took it easy on her, moving them in a box step around the dance floor. “I haven’t been out in a long time. It was nice of you to invite me.”
“Why don’t you go out?”
“You know why. Bad things always happen when I mingle too much with normal life.” She hadn’t meant to share that but the beer had loosened her tongue. He tried to spin her and she stepped on his foot. “I’m sorry. I’m not very graceful.”
“Dancing in work boots is tough,” he laughed. “Bad luck is just in your imagination. You make your own luck, mija.”
“I wish that were true. Bad luck is my middle name, Paolo.”
Paolo laughed. “Annie Bad Luck Carlene Emmons? That has a nice ring to it. Why don’t you go by your real name?”
“Annie? No one has ever called me that.”
Because she’d always caused it. From the moment of her birth mayhem and tragedy followed her like flies followed garbage. “Just a trouble-causing toddler who had a dad who thought he was funny. The name stuck.”
“Your daddy gave you the nickname?”
“Yep.” Chaos didn’t want to continue the conversation. She didn’t want to think about her name, her childhood, or the past. Her dad had died a few years ago and she missed him terribly. He’d been the only one she loved that hadn’t died because of her. Her mom had died due to complications in childbirth. It’d been just the two of them until a few years ago. Now she was alone. “I think I’ll head back to the table.” She started to let go of Paolo’s hand and found herself face to face with Jones.
“Perfect timing, boss,” he bellowed. Apparently, he was the type to get loud when he’d had too much to drink.
Connie slipped into her husband’s arms and Jones pulled Chaos to him. He smelled like cologne, the same cologne Bill had worn. Chaos panicked. Bile rose into her throat. She choked it back and tried to remain calm. She didn’t want to dance anymore. “No thanks,” she said, pulling away. His hand was rough on hers. He towered over her. The room started to spin. She could feel Dead Bill’s breath on her face.
“Oh, come on,” Jones said. Wrapping an arm around her he started moving her around the dance floor. “Just one dance.”
She jerked her hand from his grasp and shoved him away with her uninjured arm.
“Hey! I’m just trying to have a good time here. I’m trying to be nice.”
I tried to be nice. That’s what Bill had said before he attacked her. Not again, she thought. Chaos swung and nailed Jones in the nose. Blood spurted. An image of Bill clutching his throat and spraying blood assaulted her. “Get away, get away from me,” she yelled. Hands grabbed her shoulders. She fought to get away.
“Chaos, honey. Chaos.”
Paolo was in her face. She blinked. It’s not Bill. His hands braced on her shoulders, he pulled her into him. “It’s okay. It’s okay. Jones is drunk. He just wanted to dance.”
“I’m sorry, boss. I didn’t mean to scare you. I’m sorry.”
Jones was in her face. Dripping blood and holding his nose, he was apologizing to her. Chaos shook her head. She should have known better. She didn’t get to live a normal life. When she was around, people got hurt. “I need to get out of here.”
“I’ll drive you home.”
“No, Paolo. You stay with your wife. I’ll be fine. I promise I’ll be fine. You’ve done enough. You’ve done more than enough.” Chaos was fighting back tears. She felt humiliated, frustrated and downright horrified that she’d hit Jones. She’d deserve it if he sued her. “Damn.” She turned her attention to Connie who stood next to Paolo. Chaos had expected judgment, recrimination. Connie looked concerned and sympathetic. Double damn. “Lo siento, Connie. I’m so sorry.” Chaos turned and practically ran for the back door. She caught the stares of others from the corner of her eyes. She couldn’t blame them for staring. Pushing through the door she ran across the parking lot. She heard the screech of brakes and turned to see headlights bearing down on her. The car swerved to avoid hitting her and smashed into a parked car. More damage. More trouble caused by her. “I’m sorry!” she yelled. She didn’t stop. Chaos jumped into her Jeep, started it up and headed west toward the mountains and the back roads. She was too messed up to drive, she knew that. She just needed to get far enough away from the bar that she could park the car on the side of the road and sleep it off.
One mile away, on a dirt road, Chaos pulled over. Confident she could get out in the morning, she maneuvered the Jeep into a ditch far off the road and hopefully out of sight of anyone that might drive by. She snagged an old orange and blue Mexican blanket from the back and leaned the front seat back as far as it could go. Closing her eyes, Chaos listened to the sound of the crickets and the whirring of the highway a few miles away. Why did everything always go wrong? Why couldn’t she live a normal life with friends, boyfriends? She couldn’t even keep a damn dog alive for more than a few days. Everything she cared about died. She didn’t cry. The tears had dried up years ago. This was her life. She glanced out the window. The full harvest moon smiled down on her. “At least I have you.” Cracking the window, Chaos let the continuous sounds of the frogs and the crickets lull her to sleep.