Saturday, 16 November 2019

The Honey Trap. A Short story by allan hudson

Honey Trap - a stratagem in which irresistible bait is used to lure a victim.

This short story was originally written as a basis for a novel with a heroine that has only one arm. An undercover agent for CSIS, Canada's spy agency.

Former decorated soldier.

Not only  trained to kill, she is multi-lingual, a vixen, a genius and committed to revenge for the lose of her right arm.

This story was originally published on the Scribbler and is now part of my Short Story collection - A Box of Memories.

The Honey Trap

Bella Maggs weighed forty pounds when she was four years old. Her mother passed away from cervical cancer when Bella was eight and as big as a teenager. By the time she was twelve, she would be mistaken for an adult. Four days and two and a half hours after she received her high school diploma, her father was killed in a car accident. She was one day away from her eighteenth birthday. To suggest her childhood had not been propitious is akin to suggesting the Marianas Trench is under a lot of water.

The family doctor had diagnosed her immense girth as an eating disorder, prescribed exercise and a healthier diet. Her single-parent father spoiled her and couldn’t say no. Schoolkids bullied her in elementary school, but that stopped by the time she reached junior high. By then she’d stopped feeling sorry for herself and toughened up. Bella Maggs was not stupid. In fact, her Intelligence Quotient at 161 is considered exceptionally gifted; in everyday talk, she is a genius.

In high school she was not without a few close friends, all smaller than her. Possessing a round pretty face of the fairest skin, ruddy checks, and a pleasing smile, she tried hard to be liked but people still teased her. Standing at five foot ten, she weighed two hundred and twenty-five pounds when she entered Grade 10. Boys were scared of her, and she was rarely asked out. The only boy who wanted to take her to the prom was Kelvin Van Grut, the only other genius in her school. At six four and a hundred and nineteen pounds, loose limbed and bony jointed, he reminded people of a marionette. Everybody called him Pinocchio.

June 25, 1991, Bella and Kelvin arrived at the prom twenty minutes late at 7:20 p.m. The heckling began at 7:21. The snickers and whispers at the odd pair were not disguised. Mean-spirited teenagers openly taunted them. At 7:42 pm, Bella Maggs ran tearfully from the gymnasium. No one who knew her then ever saw her again. Her father’s funeral was handled by his only sibling, a younger sister. Bella managed the disposition of all her father’s assets from an undisclosed location. What couldn’t be sold was given to his sister to dispose of. Bella refused to surface.


In 2010, Rosa Vartanian moved to Treasure Island near the picturesque seaside community of Cocagne. She bought a rundown cottage on the perimeter of the island, facing east. During the first twelve months of occupancy, she convinced her four closest neighbors to sell her their properties. Everybody had their price.

Rosa now owns one quarter of the football-field-sized landmass. All the buildings have been given away or razed, the properties graded, large majestic pines groomed, scrap trees cut down and others replanted. A modest storey-and-a-half home occupies the center of her property. A separate three-car garage holds her vehicles, with the upstairs housing her training rooms. Picket fences and clever shrubs ensure her privacy without seeming snobbish. Multi-hued sunrises shimmer across the bay.

Vartanian can speak more than a dozen languages. She has been warmly welcomed by the curious Acadian population of the hamlet. When it is discovered she can speak French, she is invited into their homes. The fact that she only has one arm doesn’t faze them a bit. The rumors of her wealth seem unreal given her humbleness. When they politely inquire where she is from or ask any questions about her background, she cleverly changes the subject. Or they get the only-child-parents-deceased line. As far as the missing arm, she tells them it’s the result of a car accident.

No one needs to know that she lost it in the state of Lower Saxony in Germany.

Thirty months ago, she’d been tracking down a group of neo-fascists who fantasized of a renewed state, demanding a separate slice of Northern Germany. From university groups chanting left wing slogans against immigrants, they grew to autonomous groups fashioned after Islamic jihadism with no one commander, no head to sever. The racists caused havoc and death mainly among black communities, Muslim neighborhoods and gay habitats. In their attempt to garner worldwide attention, they kidnapped the son of Canada’s Prime Minister, who was attending the University of Cologne, demanding an exorbitant amount of money for his release. Underneath all the law enforcement activity of both countries, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) had agents in action throughout Europe. None of them were more covert and better connected than Rosa Vartanian.

Within twenty-four hours, Vartanian uncovered a connection between the men in the security videos from the university that the Saxony State Police shared with Canada’s RCMP, and Rudolf Hoch, the slime she’d been sent there to shadow a month ago. Hoch was a skin head, a rich skin-head. He had been charged with the murder of his parents, owners of Hoch Shipping. Nine months later, Rudolph walked out of the courtroom a free man. The prosecution had been unable to prove his guilt. His mother was Canadian, well connected to the business elite and present political hierarchy. It had been suggested to CSIS that Rudolph Hoch bore watching. They sent Rosa Vartanian.

Her inquiries led her into a pit of serpents. She had been captured by the same ruthless gang. Probing for information she did not have, it was Hoch himself who removed three of her fingers with a rusty knife making the young man watch, terrorizing his very soul. Before the fourth finger went missing, she and the son were rescued by Drake Alexander and his unruly cohorts. He had been her sergeant when she was part of the Special Ops during her time with the Canadian Armed Forces as a member of their elite Task Force 2 Commandos. Now Alexander hunts criminals. Her career with CSIS was put on hold during her rehabilitation when she lost her arm to infection and eventual gangrene. Some consolation was that Alexander and his band of vigilantes killed or captured the entire terrorist cabal. Hoch, however, was not among them.

Now she’s a one-armed gardener, sun worshipper and a thirty-seven-year-old retiree always looking over her shoulder. She is consulted occasionally by CSIS but only as an advisor. She misses the espionage, the rush only danger can bestow. More desperately than that, she wants the man who took her fingers, her arm. She knows from her sources, usually reliable, that Hoch was seen in Istanbul less than ten days ago. CSIS has agents searching for him.

In her training room over the garage, she studies her unclothed body in the mirrors on the gable end that has no windows. One of the dormer windows to her left admits the first stream of early morning light to paint her upper body the color of butter. The window is open and summer scents of pine sap and saltwater drift in. Bright blue workout pants, a white spandex top and red cotton panties are scattered around her feet like lost thoughts. After an intense workout, every square inch of the smooth skin that covers her big boned frame is taut, and beaded with perspiration. Her limbs are rippled with girlish muscle, flexible as a whip. All seventy inches of her physique is sensuously proportioned.

The only blemish is the missing arm. Turning to her right side, the faint scars around the flap of skin used to cover the amputation site causes her to yearn for her other hand. Not wanting to think of the ordeal that brought her here, she shakes her head, staring defiantly into her image’s bold eyes. The blue is the color of cold morning seas. Short curls, brown and loose, collapse on her wide forehead. Her square face is Slavic, making her an ideal agent for most of Europe. Again her thoughts turn to her former trade, the lure of intrigue.

Rosa kicks the panties away with her foot and strides toward the bathroom at the other end of the exercise room, bypassing the weight machine, the treadmill, a stair climber that is on the rim of “worn out.” An antique teacher’s desk sits against the guard rail for the stairway that separates the large room. Bella’s laptop is in the center, open and always powered up. On the edge is one of her throwing knifes. A nine-inch, double-edged sticker made of 440 Stainless Steel. Bella likes it because it’s easier to sharpen than the high carbon steel and it doesn’t rust.

She picks it up, caressing the sleek handle. Her index, middle and ring fingers grip the handle opposite the thumb. Arching her arm, she stares at the outline of a used dartboard on the far wall twenty feet away and throws. The knife spins perfectly vertical, striking the pockmarked board an eyelash away from the center dot. She doesn’t check where it struck, its close enough. She’s thrown the knife a thousand times since she lost her other arm. She was right-handed. Turns out she’s even better with her left.

The shower is hot, steam filling the small bathroom. The shower stall is brightly tiled in whites and blues, the glass door runs with beads of soap when she rinses the shampoo from her short hair. She lets her mind go blank while the water cascades over her. Her arm outstretched, hand against the tile, head directly under the stream. She’s feeling sorry for herself. She’s tried to make a life here, she wants for nothing financially. Her neighbors are kind and honest. She rarely locks her door. The waters where she lives are much like her temperament, at times calm and lazy as if on canvas and other times reckless and driven with passion. The owner of the gas bar in the village center has expressed an interest. She likes his smile and silly jokes. Raising her face to the streaming water she can’t understand why she isn’t happy here.

She reaches down to close the taps. The shower head sputters and drips. Shaking her curls, she grabs a thick black and white striped towel from the bar and begins drying herself off. While frisking her hair with the towel she vows not to give up. Not to give in to the sense of being unfit. She’ll prove to her superiors that she deserves to work again. Later that morning, after she plants the root cuttings she has been cultivating, she will practice with her gun again.

 Slipping into a short purple robe decorated with silver dragons, she hastens downstairs to the mud room connecting the house and the garage. The walls are mostly glass and the warm sun glows, turning the water to the north a shimmering orange. Pausing only for a moment to admire her property, she thinks how peaceful it is, how unlike her spirit. She trots off to get dressed before breakfast, thinking about the adjustment needed on the front sights on her Beretta Tomcat.


Nelson Cartwright’s stance is severe like a steel beam, rigid and unbent even though he is seventy-four. His six-foot frame is clad in cargo pants tucked into paratrooper boots. A crisp white T-shirt is covered by a dark gray fleece. His narrow waist and barrel chest are echoes of his military past. He is the Defense Minister of Canada. The whole of the Canadian Armed Forces is at his command, including CSIS and all its assets. Activating one of their deepest agents is the reason he is meeting his boss outside the office, very late at night. Off hours, one might say.

Chief Warrant Officer T. Beers Jr. owns the house he waits in, on the outskirts of Ottawa. The man is Cartwright’s nephew. The couple and their two children went for dinner and a movie, a night at the Sheraton on Parliament’s expense account. They left four hours ago, running late for a 6:30 dinner reservation. The politician stands to the side of the picture window, shaded by the long drapes. The roadway is slick from a brief spring rain. The sodium glow of the streetlights makes it shine like a skin. Cartwright’s bald head gleams in the low light as if just polished. Deep set eyes are impossible to read. A jutted chin proclaims pride of an untainted past. The man he works for demanded an emergency rendezvous at a secure location where there is no possible chance of anyone eavesdropping on them. The Prime Minister of Canada said he would meet him at 10:45. 

Cartwright steps away from the window when an unfamiliar light-colored cargo van wheels into the driveway, rocking from haste. Spray from the wet street swirls about the tires like pinwheels. The skidding of the heavy vehicle when it comes to an abrupt stop can be heard from the open side door of the house, the exit, which faces the driveway. Cartwright hastens through the living room, glancing at his watch. 10:44. It has to be the PM; he is never late. Dropping to the next level with six steps, he moves in long hurried strides along the dim hallway that leads to the garage and egress. The van has stopped right at the short walkway outside the door. The side light has been left off so Cartwright doesn’t recognize the stooped over figure wearing torn jeans and a black hoodie that opens the screen door. For a moment he is unnerved. Dropping his hands to his side, he steps back, his defenses instinctive.

The person stands erect and slips off the hood. Robert Mahovlich is a good head taller than Cartwright, slighter. His normally slicked down hair is disheveled from the head covering, the eyes are red veined, the skin frightfully pale. Cartwright takes the PM by the forearm, moving him inside to shut the door. The Prime Minister says, “The doctors committed my son today, Nelson. They took my boy away.”

“I’m sorry, Bob. Really, I am. I know how much you love him. You’ve done all you can.”

Mahovlich appears utterly defeated, chin sagging, lips slack. There is no gleam in his eyes, only sorrow. A spark ignites within his deepest psyche, instilling him with a need for completion. He raises a fist to his advisor, grits his teeth before he says, “I haven’t done everything. We can destroy the man responsible for this.”

 “Follow me. We can talk safely here.”

Straightening his shoulders, the PM follows Cartwright into what looks like an open rec room. Toys, a large TV, pool table, stuffed couches, and brightly colored bean bags fill the room. The wall on the right has a simple bar area. Pointing to one of the chrome barstools for Mahovlich, Cartwright walks behind the pine counter to where a bottle of Glenfiddich sixteen-year-old scotch rests beside two glasses. He pours a measure for each of them.

“How did you get here?”

“Hunter is driving.”

The hand that Carter is not pouring golden booze with is raised.

“I don’t want to know anymore. Not when it comes to Hunter.”

He slides the thick-bottomed glass holding two inches of perfection toward the PM.

“I think I know why we’re here, Bob, but let’s cut to the chase. What’s going on?”

Mahovlich maintains a bit more grit in his demeanor. The politician is replaced by a father, a parent with a vast array of assets at his disposal. Swishing the liquid, he gulps down a good swallow. The bite makes him draw in his breath.


Looking directly at Cartwright, obvious distaste in his voice.

“What’s the latest on Hoch?”

“We knew where he was up until last Saturday, three days ago. We had our sights on him when he returned from Turkey but lost him…”

The men argue, scheme and banter for over an hour, until the bottle is half gone. With a thump of his fist on the bar, the PM says with finality, “I want that bastard behind bars or…or…”

Cartwright knows when to back down. He nods at the PM.

“I understand.”

Mahovlich reaches for his hood, satisfied that more aggressive action against Hoch will begin. He eyes the Defense Minister.

“You have absolute authority to do as you see fit to make this happen.”

Cartwright frowns.

“And the responsibility if this goes sour.”

The silence is answer enough. Cartwright watches the man make to leave. The van waiting outside. Only one last thing to authorize.

“You want Hunter on this?”

“No. Vartanian.

“Vartanian? One-armed Vartanian?”

The Prime Minister meets Cartwrights questioning look with a stern nod.

“Definitely. Do you know where she is and what name she’s going by now?”

“Uh-huh. She bought a place in New Brunswick and she goes by Bella Maggs. Why her?’

The PM pulls up his hood and stares Cartwright in the eyes.

 “She wants the bastard as badly as I do.”

Thanks for visiting the Scribbler today. I hope you enjoyed the short story. I'd like to know you're thoughts about turning this into a novel.

Saturday, 9 November 2019

Author & Poet John E. O'Hara aka John E. WordSlinger of Chicago, Illinois U.S.A.

The Scribbler is most fortunate to have John as our guest this week. A multi-talented writer, artist and musician. He has agreed to a 4Q Interview and is sharing some of his work.

My internet writing life motto be

Keep it poetry and poetry shall keep you.

Short Bio Hazard:

I have to take the road that Bruce Lee
took towards the Martial Arts, as an
analog “Like water”.
I take the Literature Arts of Poetry.
In the beginning I used free verse,
swift rhyming, lyrical, metal-rap-groove verse
with definition and aggression.
Now, I try different systems,
in all genres, as always,
and put them to my personal use.
Furthermore, put to use what is useful
when needed, and reject what I don’t need
at the time for a specific write.
Using no specific way, is the way,
I am the way I write, but keeping in mind,
the tools at hand. No limitations as the limitation.
With all poetry styles ( trapping, and grabbing)-
(mind locks-heart locks-spiritual locks-)
Honestly expressing oneself is difficult to do:
The poet, the creating individual is always
more important than any style or system.
Absorb what is useful, discard what is useless,
and add to what is your own.
I write my own interpretation of poetry.
Concepts behind concepts.
Dedicating to creating
creative new-original thoughts, and poetry.
I write with one hand,
but if I could write with the other,
at the same time, a different poem,
that would be to break boundaries.
As asking multi-tasking: Poetry styles separate poets.
Style is a continuous growth.
Poetry skills/tools are weapons and you have
to use all of them, to incorporate all styles.
(Move all parts of your poetry)
Put everything into it, all energy.
Rest then progress.
A true poet is constantly growing,
and when he or she are bound by a set of styles,
or a way of doing things, that’s when he,
or she stops growing.
To reach a reader you have to move
to them, advance, and retreat- advance retreat,
furthermore slide and step back, push,
and push back, circle them
( put the reader on defense),
and close them in, and hit them
with the best closure.

Poetry is like water, flexible, it has to go somewhere...

4Q: First, tell us about John E. Wordslinger.

JO: I have always wanted a writers last name, because there is a writer that be well known, named John O'Hara, and my creative identity be songwriter with Begets of Autumn, a musical performance group. We have written 400 songs together since, 1987.

I moved to Seattle from Nashville in 2008, for many reasons, but main one be, since 1981, I have been a Seattle Seahawks fan, because I was in Michael Reese Hospital for a year, and I always loved football, the Bears, and Walter Payton, but the Seahawks touched me, the team did, and well the helmet, the Seahawk, so I became a 12th man. I was there because I was ran over by an 18 wheeler, and lived through numerous surgeries and such.
In Seattle, many people liked my poetry. The Pastors where I went to church, and helpers there. One day going home from work in the downtown, a street musician from the shelter was playing music, and I listened and waited until he was done, and asked him if he’d like to go to get something to eat for lunch. He accepted. I had my poetry, and he read it there. He read all of them, the faith based poetry. He looked at me and said you man are the ultimate WordSlinger, that meant so much to me. I was looking for a last name to use for writing, and he named me that. I have used that ever since.

4Q: You have a large body of work. Where does your inspiration come from?

JO: Nice question... that be like letting the animals out of the zoo, and creating their own circus, lol... wow, many things.
To start music, music and great lyrics aka poetry, and life, all life... Experiences. Events. Feelings. All emotions, love, anger, fear, and for sure Wisdom. The Alphabet and Words have their own unique soul mayhaps-perhaps. Have to add memory and memories too, they are rivers of life, lakes too. For many years I learned other musicians to become a great one, and vice the versa the literary arts, now it be the opposite. 17 in fact from 1987 to 2004... I try to block out modern music, and music I used to love, so I can say have a free colorless/toneless palette same with writing, now I read many writers, since 2010 All of Americas Poets and Railroad history since 1776, to currents, and same for Canada and now Africa. It's not to hard to decipher if there be bleeding together in my writing, because since I created the stories of Poetry Train America, I have learned a lot... I see through time, and find the gaps... Learned this from Roofing all my life, and street football when I was younger. I am fascinated by time travel, and the souls that carved their marks in time, as in all arts, photography, and film, but the Poet be the real human camera. I could have many more inspirations in my life if it was not so chaotic but chaos too, has made me who I am, one organized mental octopus... Although I have lost many ideas from not noting, because somethings regardless of ones memory wipes out the spark and fires. Trauma does that too, but they say it's all there, as in a writer should use CSI tactics also with self and their creations. To be inspired I believe also one has to have a beautiful soul.

4Q: Please share a childhood memory or anecdote.

JO: lol you all will love this, 1975 and 1977.
I was fishing with my Grandfather Max a Million Huffman, in Indiana USA. this be an excerpt from Speak of the Poet and the Poem.

The bird that twacked in the cat tails, really caught my attention. Distinct forever in my manhood mind now, oh but then in my youth is when I truly first felt sadness. The fish in the pond, was the object of the day. I learned to bait a hook, and cast. My mothers dad, Grandpa, with his big blue eyes, and smile, he’d chuckle as he explained it all. The sun was bright, and right in front of me as my first attempt to cast out my fishing line. I wanted to go all the way across the big pond, near the back bank. I let it loose, and I couldn’t see it. I did cast into the sun. Then a big black bird suddenly as it seemed fell out of the sun, and into the water, and splashed. My Grandpa had his hands in the tackle box, and that splash caught his attention, and asked me what it was. I said, 'A big black bird fell into the water.” “A raven? he asked. I said, “I guess so,” then bamm, I got a fish, pulling my pole. He said you got a big one, reel him in. So I did, and it was hard. My wrists hurt, and my hand kept falling off the finger wrest crank thingy. My Grandpa raised up, and walked very close to the water. He looked at me and said, '”You caught the raven.” I said, 'The blackbird,” and there it was, flapping in the water. My grandfather, was laughing as he picked it up. He said, “You hooked him behind his wing.” He was huge. The raven was screaming and carrying on. Grandpa, took the hook off of the birds wing, and with two hands lifted him back into the air, and the raven flew away. Gramps, looked at me, and smiled, and said 'Never forget this because that will never happen again.” For a seven year old that was fun. I went fishing with him at a later time, and we seen a pre-historic bird flying over the river where we fished at, and he said,‘Remember this, because no one is going to believe you.' (That was in Indiana, and I seen on the history channel Monster quest, in 2010 that there has been reports of giant birds in that area in the 1970's) I seen it first but Grandpa and I seen a pterodactyl WordSlingers' Believe it or Not. It was the color of dark purple-brown and smooth skinned. Youtube now has or did have info on this too, people post and erase, and they people online with big erasers come too, if you make big enough waves.

4Q: Tell us about the Poetry E Train.

JO: That be a long long story, the Poetry Train its self. The story begins in the first book and beginning of the chapters, so one would have to read the book to answer that. To much to carry here. I can say this. I am glad it fell upon my lap. I never dreamed of writing a novel like this. Historical fiction blended with non-fiction, and written documentation.  Poetry History, Railroad history, and Publishing History, Writing and Copyright history, all braided, and I love that term braided, braiding all that and time. I am happy it came upon me, because it gives me more purpose in life. Important purpose. I believe in God and God answered my prayers, so I can say that for sure. What I love about most be, the each and every Poet and Persons soul and wisdom that gave and give to this world. The rising chapters creates a realm I call it, a world many Poets know that should be, not the world as we know it. Each Poet and Person bring life to it and much more... Many Poets understand the Poetry Train, and they know we are on a literary rescue mission of sorts. The books are at the Library of Congress, and all data is on the net. This way future generations get to ride the Poetry Train. My goal is to keep it rolling, currently in E- Africa, and also Poetry Train movies, film, series etc &c. Because the world needs it, seriously needs it... One day it shall come to be too.

4Q: Most creative folks have that favorite writing spot or habits. What’s yours like?

JO: Love this question because I read about others and theirs. Me I write 24/7, and in my sleep. The Muse I call Scratch be on me all the time... I love it too. We feed each other you can say...

Thank you Author Allan Hudson and the South Branch Scribbler. Love what you do for Writers. Also Poetry Train Canada be to me one of the best things I have written and done. All of writers are beautiful, and so are your lands. May peace, love and light remain there...
Appreciated & Charm'd John E. O'Hara aka John E. WordSlinger... 

Thank you, John, for being our guest this week on the Scribbler. For you readers wanting to discover more from the Wordslinger, please follow these links:

Saturday, 2 November 2019

Guest Author Kathleen Cranidge of Western Canada

I met Kathleen through a mutual author friend and was offered the opportunity to read and review her cozy mystery. I did and I liked it very much. She has accepted an invitation to be this week's guest and share her bio and an excerpt from her delightful story.

Kathleen enjoyed a varied work history, including gymnastics coach, server at an all-night bagel shop, park supervisor, telephone operator, manager with Canada Revenue Agency, and a correctional officer at a maximum-security prison. 

The youngest of four, she lived most of her life in Ottawa, two years in Saudi Arabia, and a tent in Baja for a month for the love of yoga and the ocean. She and her husband spend most of their time near the Rocky Mountains with their fish BOO II (named after the character in her favorite book).

Kathleen loves Anne of Green Gables, trekking through new fallen snow, making snow angels—everything snowy and Christmassy—hot chocolate, holiday music, watching old-time classics.

Christmas on Union Street is the first in the Union Street Mystery series. Book two is on its way, and Kathleen’s novel Claire’s Cell, a fiction prison story, inspired by her time working inside the notorious Prison for Women in Kingston, is in its final edits.

Follow her on twitter at: @CranidgeK or connect with her via her website:

Excerpt: Christmas on Union Street

“Will you be here for Christmas, Ali?” 

Here? I watched her move to the sink. She didn’t look like she was into Christmas. Maybe she was being polite. I wanted to tell her I wasn’t into Christmas, either. Not this year, anyway. Water surged out from the high faucet. She looked over her shoulder at me, waiting for my response as she rinsed our bowls. 

“I hadn’t really thought of it.” It was a week away. I had thought of avoiding it, if I were to be honest. No one wants to hear that, though—not a week before Christmas. I was sure she would have been an ally.

 “You’re welcome here, of course.” She turned off the tap and wiped her hands down the front of her dress, her smock? Is that what you called a muumuu? 

I wanted to ask her what Christmas meant to someone whose first question had been, “What’s your sign?” A Christmas Boho. Ho, ho. 

“I’ll show you the rest of the place,” she said, saving me from answering. She led the way out of the kitchen.

 I chewed on the question as I followed. Where would I be for Christmas this year? I didn’t want to think about it.

We moved into the adjoining dining room. It dwarfed the kitchen with its long, mahogany table…buffet, sideboard, and hutch. Was she someone who couldn’t let go of things, or did she just like to be surrounded by things? Lots of things. I quickly counted the place settings, each with a vintage looking silver plate with scrolled trim. Twelve. How many people lived here? It was an outstanding table. I kept wanting to peek at Gina. This table seemed too formal for her. I imagined the English royal family might have something just like it at a cottage—they would probably call a summer house. On top of the buffet was a blanket of cotton snow grounding a magnificent Christmas village. Warm lights glowed from the windows of the houses and shops. I stole a glance sideways at Gina, intrigued by this woman who seemed so opposite of Christmas. If I took the room, Christmas would be surround-sound.

Behind her, I glimpsed the living room. She motioned an arm in that direction, and we moved in. I could feel her studying me. A Douglas fir towered in the corner, encroaching on a bulky burgundy wingback chair with the beautiful complement of an ottoman in rich shades of gold and deep maroon paisley woven into the fabric. On the opposite wall, a huge brick fireplace extended to the ceiling. Large logs were neatly set in the hearth, which measured at least three feet by three feet. There were ample places to sit for a cozy dozen in that room, including a well-cushioned sofa in front of the window. Although it was the middle of the day, the December light coming in was minimal, but the lamps gave the room a warm glow.

We walked across the front hallway into the den. Books and books on thick wood cases ran from floor to ceiling on two of the walls. Next to a pecan-colored leather armchair, I noticed a tall side table with a pipe in a brass ashtray. Again, I wondered, who lived here? She caught me looking at the pipe.

“It was my dad’s,” she said. “After he died, I missed the smell of it. I started to light some of his tobacco and burn it, inhaling the sweet familiar aroma.” She shook her head and paused. “After a few weeks, this little ritual satisfied me less and less.” She gave me a funny look, as though she was sizing me up for the first time. “Then I savored some on my tongue for a few days. But I felt I was bordering on chewing the tobacco and I didn’t think Dad would like that.” She laughed. “One night, I filled the damn thing and took a few puffs.” She shook her head then picked up the carved wood and inhaled deeply. “I know. It’s the craziest thing. It’s now a wretched habit.” She said wretched, like my favorite great uncle used to say. Almost like it was something good. “Every evening, after the dishes are done, I come in here and have a little puff-puff.” She laughed and brought it to her nose again then returned it to the ashtray and shrugged at me. She looked like she wanted more than a sniff. What a character. Everything about her was unique, easy-going…and intriguing. I knew then I would take the room.

Gina led the way up the stairs. Rich red runners softened our steps, but the wood beneath still creaked and groaned.  “Don’t mind the noise. This house likes to talk.” She smiled. “Your room is at the top. If you decide to take it.” She paused on the large landing and pointed to two bedrooms on either side of the washroom at the head of the stairs.

“My room.” One thumb jutted to the left. “And Harry’s room.” Her other thumb to the right. “Harry works a lot. Sometimes I think I could get away with having two tenants in there.” She laughed. “It could be days before you meet. I know he’ll be here Christmas Eve.”

We continued up another flight of stairs. The next story held the same floor plan. She splayed her crooked thumbs to both sides again. “The door on the left is Nathalie’s. Kiki’s here on the right. You will hear her before you see her. A ball of energy, that one. She’s visiting from South Korea to learn English. She’s been here five months. She’s determined to make every second count. Not even the cold Vermont weather can stop that one.” She smiled at me. “I like to knit her things.” She turned that smile to me. “Which reminds me. I love that sweater you have on. Such a lovely pink. Is it cashmere?”

I touched my neckline. “It is. My dad gave it to me last year for… Christmas.” This time last year. I needed to get out of this subject. “How about Nathalie. Will I meet her soon?”

“Nathalie?” Gina looked surprised. Then the outer corners of her eyes turned down. “Oh, dear. Sorry.” She raised an arm weakly toward the room that she said was Nathalie’s.

“Nathalie died. Around this time last year.” She leaned her hand on the doorframe and looked into the room. I wanted to inch closer to give form to the mass of shadows. I caught a sliver of a white duvet on a brass bed, a stack of suitcases facing the door, with a floppy hat on one and a stuffed lamb on top of another. “I haven’t had the heart to clear it out. I guess I should. Well...” She sighed and touched my arm.

We continued up. I turned and stretched my gaze back to Nathalie’s room. I pictured my mom’s narrowed look she’d give me when we were invited to one of our new neighbor’s house. I sometimes wandered off into the rooms and then asked too many questions. I liked empty rooms—I always made up a mystery. Maybe I wouldn’t have to make one up here. Gina’s breath filled the hallway, labored from the two flights of stairs. I thought back to the pipe in the brass ashtray. She held the banister and pointed upstairs. “That brings us to your room.”

The runner on the oak stairs was almost plush, its deep reds more vibrant as we moved up, obviously less traffic to the fourth floor. She caught her breath and paused near the top. “Haven’t had anyone up here in years.” 

I looked beyond Gina at the rich oak door. The final level, the attic, offered no landing. I pulled my sweater tighter. It was chillier up here. I hadn’t signed a lease. As much as I already liked Gina, I wouldn’t freeze for anyone or anything. And why hadn’t there been anyone up here? I looked down the staircase—the rest of the house seemed to fall away…

“I put the heat on this morning,” Gina said as if reading my mind. “I promise you one thing, I don’t scrimp on heat.”

I didn’t doubt her. It was hard to forget the warmth the rest of the house held.

“Now.” Gina hesitated. “As you can see, there is no bathroom on this level.” She looked at me, apparently waiting for a protest. “You’ll have to share the one below.”

“Of course.” An ensuite wasn’t expected. I did want to see my potential room, though. 

“And remember, there’s no landing. So, if you do get up in the middle of the night, the stairs are right outside your door.” Her hand held the doorknob, but she continued to pause. “It is an attic, but it’s a pretty good size.” 

I smiled and nodded to encourage, my eyes on her crooked knuckles wrapped around the doorknob. Finally, she resumed the twist of the brass. She seemed to enjoy building suspense. She was good at it. It would be interesting for sure to hang out with her and that pipe. I imagined being curled up in the den some evenings after dinner. I’d even let her read my palm for fun. I felt that little giggle, wiggle in my chest.

“Oh.” Gina slightly moved back.

I clung to the banister, leaning into her, my breath caught and held in my chest, giggle de-wiggled.

“Sorry, Ali.” 

I tried to see over her. But was she ever tall. I was pressed up against her, blocking the momentum of her reaction, but couldn’t get my eyes around her. What was in there for God’s sake?

“Huh,” she said with subdued surprise, but she didn’t move.

She was good. “What is it?” I asked, my voice a hoarse whisper. 

“The tree.” She finally fully opened the door and moved in.

Now I could get my eyes on the room. There was a tree, about four feet tall, in one corner, aglow with colored lights. Straight ahead in line with the door was a window with heavy brocade panels gathered to each side, creating a bulky frame. Through those drapes, the sky was white, thick with snow. A king-sized bed with a substantial duvet and large pillows took position on an angle looking out at the room. I imagined my feet sinking into the luxurious shag rug beside the bed. The coolness from the stairway fell away. There was instant warmth from every slope and corner that lured me, starting right from its root of wide planked golden pine. As I took in the room, Gina continued to stare at the tree.

“Is there something wrong?” I asked. I had almost forgotten her lead up to this as I collided with magic. The beauty gripped me. The perfection of the room expanded my senses. I let go of my tour of the space and focused on the tree that had stopped her in her tracks. It didn’t look like there was a bird or a mouse in the tree—I hadn’t seen any of the branches move. I hoped there weren’t any mice up here…I scanned the pine floors. 

“No, no, it’s just…the tree…um…” She looked over at me. Then she shook her head. “Oh, it’s nothing. Sometimes I can be a bit forgetful.” She shook her head again, but I saw her look at the tree and scan the room as if searching for something. 

More intrigued than scared, I signed on. 

Thank you Kathleen, for being our guest this week.

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