Carla warmed her hands on the hot mug. Tea was cheap, but still a splurge. She felt almost human after washing up in the coffeehouse rest room. Dressed in her least dirty clothing, she told herself she fit in. She had peace, heat and a roof over her head. No one would find her here. The knot between her shoulder blades unraveled a bit.
A pale little man sat at her table. “Do I know you?” Carla snapped.
“I am the bringer of your doom,” he responded cheerfully.
“Take a number,” she muttered. Great. Another bill collector, this one all dramatic. “You can see I don’t have a cent to give you. My grandfather’s estate took everything, including my home. I’ve told all of you a million times.”
“I’m not a collector, Carla. At least, not that kind. No money required, no financial burden.” He smiled, blue eyes twinkling. She blinked at him. He didn’t want money? Then what? A nasty idea came to mind and she narrowed his eyes.
The man laughed. “Nothing like that, I assure you. Well, not really. Look, I’m Alfryd. Only fair you know my name, too.”
Her silence didn’t seem to bother him. Finally, she said, “Okay, Alfryd. Spill.” He nodded and leaned forward.
“This will be hard for you to take in. Pity, it used to be easier. I ask you to listen and save your questions till I’m done.” Intrigued, Carla found herself leaning over her cooling mug.
“Deal. Go ahead,” she nodded.
“Your grandfather, recently deceased, lived to nearly one hundred years old. He was healthy despite his advanced age, finally passing in his sleep. So far, nothing you don’t know.” Carla frowned and gestured for him to continue.
“You may wonder at his extended good health and long life. The truth is he entered into an agreement with my Master years ago. Diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, he had nothing to lose. Nothing but you, Carla. Master knew you were special to him beyond all reason.” Carla closed her eyes. Great. A nutjob spoiling her peaceful day.
Alfryd looked sympathetic. “I understand. The current world sees such things with derision. Before long, my Master will demonstrate if necessary. It annoys him, but he will if it’s necessary for you.” Alfryd hesitated, reaching a hand halfway across the table. “You must understand how he prizes you already to consider doing it,” he implored.
“Is there more?” Carla tapped her fingers on the tabletop.
“More? Yes, of course. More. Quite simply, your grandfather was persuaded by Master to pledge you to him in order to be healed and live a long, healthy life.” As crazy as this guy was, the thought Grandpa would offer Carla up like that was repulsive.
“Grandpa loved me. Proof you’re nuts. He’d never do that.” Carla looked around the coffeehouse. Anywhere but Alfryd.
“You’re right, he did love you. As he so valued you, you became his price.”
Exasperated, Carla countered, “So who is this ridiculous Master of yours?” Alfryd winced.
“He gave me leave to use his name to introduce him. Although a demon, Baeleric requires human mates at times. They are revered and live in relative comfort.” A mate. To a demon. Right, sure. “He is prepared to meet with you immediately.”
“What, here in the coffeehouse?” Carla laughed.
“He has no care for the human world’s niceties, Carla. Prepare yourself, he comes.” This Alfryd sounded serious. Carla had no idea how to prepare herself other than to back away slowly from this guy. Her chair whispered a high note against the tile floor.
Abruptly, a circular wall of fire sprang up next to the table. Customers streamed out the doors, screaming and pushing. Carla stared at the fire, eyes showing the whites, all color leaving her face. In the center of the circle appeared a huge, dark creature with long, jagged teeth and curled horns.
“Master, perhaps your other form?” Only then did Carla see Alfryd was on the floor, forehead resting upon it.
“Yes, minion. Your suggestion has merit,” the creature’s voice boomed. The wall of fire dropped to nothingness. A shimmer surrounded the beast. When the strange light dissipated, a man with long, dark hair, as dark as his eyes, remained. His smile widened as he examined her, reaching out to pluck her from the chair and turn her around before him. Carla trembled so badly she couldn’t resist and nearly stumbled under his strength.
In a deep voice of normal human volume, the man spoke with a gentle smile. “Perhaps your current circumstances would allow you to consider an unconventional life of luxury and pleasure?
Luxury and pleasure sure sounded good. Winter fast approached and she feared she’d freeze to death one night in her little tent. “Can I leave if it doesn’t work out?” Even as the words came out, Carla worried she was snapping under her life’s pressures. Did playing along with hallucinations make her even crazier than just seeing them?
Baeleric appeared to think. “Possible, perhaps, but extremely unadvisable.” He smiled, showing white, even teeth. He stroked her hair. “You are such a pretty little thing, girl. Fiery spirit and hair. It is well you became so pleasing.” He held out his hand. Carla swallowed hard, glancing down at Alfryd. Might as well, she decided. Crazy was better than freezing while sane. Tentatively, she reached out and placed her hand upon Baeleric’s. It sure felt real.
“If this is my doom, bring it on.”
© 2011 JC Rosen