The storm raged dark outside, the light in the hallway flickered, and Lincoln Blaise cast a broad shadow over the mailboxes, but it didn’t matter that he couldn’t see them. He knew by heart what the card on the box above his said:
Stories Told, Ideas Illuminated
Unreal But Not Untrue
Linc frowned at the card, positive it didn’t belong on a mailbox in the dignified old house he shared with three other tenants. That was why he’d rented the apartment in the first place: it had dignity. Linc liked dignity the way he liked calm and control and quiet. It had taken him a long time to get all of those things into his life and into one apartment. Then he’d met his downstairs neighbor.
His frown deepened as he remembered the first time he’d seen Daisy Flattery in the flesh, practically hissing at him as he shooed a cat away from his black rebuilt Porsche, her dark frizzy hair crackling around her face like lightning. Later sightings hadn’t improved his first impression, and the memory of them didn’t improve his mood now. She wore long dresses in electric colors, and since she was tall they were very long, and she was always scowling at him, her heavy brows drawn together under that dumb blue velvet hat she wore pulled down around her ears even in the summer. She looked like somebody from Little House On The Prairie on acid, which was why he usually took care to ignore her.
But now, staring down at the card on her mailbox, appropriately back lit by the apocalyptic storm, he knew there was a possibility he might actually have to get to know her. And it was his own damn fault.
The thought gave him a headache, so he shoved his mail in his jacket pocket and went up the stairs to his apartment and his aspirin.
Downstairs, Daisy Flattery frowned, too, and cocked her head to try to catch again the sound she’d heard. It had been something between a creaking door and a cat in trouble. She looked over at Liz to see if she was showing signs of life, but Liz was, as usual, a black velvet blob, stretched out on the end table Daisy had rescued from a trash heap two streets over, basking in the warmth from the cracked crystal lamp Daisy had found at Goodwill for a dollar. The three made a lovely picture, light and texture and color, silky cat and smooth wood and warm lamp glow. Unbelievably, fools had thrown away all three; sometimes the blindness of people just amazed Daisy.
"Hello?" The petite blonde across the chipped oak table from Daisy waved her hand. "You there? You have the gooniest look on your face."
"I thought I heard something," Daisy told her best friend. "Never mind. Where was I? Oh, yeah. I’m broke." She shrugged at Julia. "Nothing new."
"Well, you’re depressed about it. That’s new." Julia took a sugar cookie from the plate in front of her and shoved the rest toward Daisy with one manicured hand, narrowly missing Daisy’s stained glass lamp. The lamp was another find: blue, green, and yellow Tiffany pieces with a crack in one that had made it just possible for her to buy it. The crack had been the clincher for Daisy: with the crack, the lamp had a history, a story; it was real. Sort of like her hands, she tried to tell herself as she compared them to Julia’s. Blunt, paint-stained, no two nails the same length.Interesting. Real.
Julia, as usual, had missed color and pattern completely and was still on words. "Also, you’re the one who has to come up with the bucks for the feline senior cat chow. I should eat so good."
"Right." Daisy scrunched up her face. She hated thinking about money which was probably why she hadn’t had much for the past four years. "Maybe leaving teaching wasn’t such a good idea."
Julia straightened so fast Liz opened an eye again. "Are you kidding? This is new. I can’t believe you’re doubting yourself." She leaned across the table to stare into Daisy’s eyes. "Get a grip. Make some tea to go with these cookies. Tell me a story. Do something weird and unpractical so I’ll know you’re Daisy Flattery."
"Very funny." Daisy pushed her chair back and went to find tea bags and her beat-up copper tea kettle. She was pretty sure the tea bags were in one of the canisters on the shelf, but the kettle could be anywhere. She opened the bottom cupboard and started pawing through the pans, books, and paintbrushes that had somehow taken up housekeeping together.
"I’m not kidding." Julia followed her to the sink. "I’ve known you for twelve years, and this is the first time I’ve heard you say you can’t do something."
Daisy was so outraged at the thought that she pulled her head out of the cupboard without giving herself enough clearance and smacked herself hard. "Ouch." She rubbed her head through her springy curls. "I’m not saying I can’t make it as an artist." Daisy stuck her head back into the cabinet and shoved aside her cookie sheets long enough to find her tea kettle and yank it out. "I believe in myself. I just may have moved too fast." She got up and filled the kettle from the faucet.
"Well, it’s not like you ever move slow." Julia took down canisters one by one, finally finding the tea in a brown and silver square can. "Why did you put the tea in the can that says ‘cocoa’? Never mind. Constant Comment or Earl Gray?"
"Earl Gray." Daisy put the kettle on the stove and turned up the heat. "This is a serious moment, and I need a serious tea."
"Which is why I’m drinking Constant Comment." Julia waggled her long fingers inside the canister and fished out two tea bags. "I have no serious moments."
"Well, pretend you’re having one for me." Daisy sighed, envying Julia’s optimism. Of course, Julia hadn’t quit a safe and solid teaching job to become a painter, or spent the last four years living on her savings until she didn’t have any. Daisy felt her head pound. "Julia, I don’t think I can do this anymore. I’m tired of scraping to pay my bills, and I’m tired of trying to sell my paintings to people who don’t understand what I’m doing, and I’m tired . . ." She bit her lip. "I’m so tired of worrying about everything." That was the thing really; she was worn down from the uncertainty. Like water on a rock; that was what the edge of poverty did to you.
"So what are you going to do?" Julia asked, but somewhere there was a faint sound, half screech and half meow, and Daisy cocked her head again instead of answering.
"I swear I hear a cat crying," she told Julia. "Listen. Do you hear anything?"
Julia paused and then shook her head. "Uh uh. Your water’s starting to boil. Maybe that’s it."
Daisy took the kettle off while Julia took down two mismatched cups and saucers, plunking her Constant Comment teabag in a Blue Willow cup and Daisy’s Earl Gray in the bright orange Fiestaware. Daisy poured the hot water over the bags and said, "Pretty," as the tea color spread through the cups.
"Forget the pretty tea." Julia picked up her cup and carried it back to the table. "You’re in crisis here. You’re out of money and you can’t sell your paintings. How’s the storytelling going?"
"Budget cuts." Daisy sat down across from her with her own cup and saucer. "Most libraries can’t afford me, and it’s a slow time for bookstores, and forget schools entirely. They all say I’m very popular and they’ll use me again as soon as possible, but in the meantime, I’m out of luck."
"Okay." Julia crinkled her nose as she thought. "How else were you making money? Oh, the jewelry. What about the jewelry?"
Daisy winced with guilt. "That’s selling, but Howard won’t give me the money until the end of the month. And he owes me money from the end of last month, but he’s holding onto that, too. It’s not that much, about a hundred, but it would help." She knew she should go in and demand her jewelry money, but the thought of Howard sneering at her wasn’t appealing. He looked so much like her father that it was like every summer she’d ever spent with him condensed into two minutes.
Julia frowned at her. "So how much do you need? To keep the wolf from the door, I mean."
Daisy sighed. "About a thousand. Last month’s rent, this month’s rent, and expenses. That would get me to the jewelry money and then maybe something else would turn up." That sounded pathetic so she took a deep breath and started again. "The thing is, I quit so I could paint, but I’m spending all my time trying to support myself instead of concentrating on my work. I thought I’d have a show by now, but nobody understands what I’m doing. And even though I almost have enough paintings for a show, I’m not sure what I’m doing is right for who am I now anyway."
Julia sipped her tea. "Ouch. Hot. Blow on yours first. What do you mean, you’re not sure what you’re doing is right? I love your paintings. All those details."
"Well, that’s it." Daisy shoved her tea away to lean closer. "I like the details, too, but I’ve done them. I think I need to stretch, to try things that are harder for me, but I can’t afford to. I’m building my reputation on primitive narrative paintings; I can’t suddenly become an abstract expressionist."
Julia made a face. "That’s what you want to do?"
"No." Daisy shut her eyes, trying to see the paintings she wanted to do, paintings with the emotions in the brushstrokes instead of in the tiny painted details, thick slashes of paint instead of small, rich dots. "I need to work larger. I need . . ."
The mewling cry that had teased her earlier came again, louder. "That is definitely a cat," Daisy said, and went to open the window.
The wind exploded in and stirred Daisy’s apartment into even more chaos than usual. Liz rolled to her feet and meowed her annoyance, but Daisy ignored her and leaned out into the storm.
Two bright eyes stared up at her from under the bush beneath her window.
"You stay right there," she told them and ran for the apartment door.
"Daisy?" Julia called after her, but she let the door bang behind her and ran out into the rain. Whatever it was had vanished, and Daisy got down on her hands and knees in the mud to peer under the bush.
A kitten peered back, soaked and mangy and not at all happy to see her. Daisy reached for it and got clawed for her pains. "I’m rescuing you, dummy," she told it when she’d hauled it out from under the bush and it was squirming against her. "Stop fighting me."
Once inside, she wrapped the soaked little body in a dishtowel while Julia and Liz looked at it with equal distaste.
"It looks like a rat," Julia said. "I can’t believe it. You rescued a rat."
Liz hissed, and when Daisy toweled the kitten dry, it hissed, too.
"It’s a calico kitten." Daisy got down on her knees so she could go eye to eye with the towel-wrapped little animal on the table. "You’re okay now."
The mottled kitten glared at her and screeched its meow with all the melody of a fingernail down a blackboard.
"Just what you needed. Another mouth to feed," Julia said, and the kitten screeched at her, too. "And what a mouth it is." Julia shot a sympathetic look at Liz. "If you want to come live with me, I understand," she told the cat. "I know you’re legally dead, but even you must draw the line at living with a rat."
Liz glared at the kitten one more time and then curled up under the light and went back to sleep.
"A kitten doesn’t eat much," Daisy said and went to get food. She found a can of tuna on the shelf over the stove, stuck behind her copy of Grimm’s fairy tales, a jar of alizarin crimson acrylic paint, and her cinnamon. She took down the can and called back to Julia. "Want some tuna?"
"No. I just came over to bring you the cookies, and then I got distracted." Julia and the kitten looked at each other with equal distaste. "You know, this is not a happy rat."
"Stop it, Julia." Daisy dumped the tuna onto a china plate covered with violets, scooped a third of it into a half round of pita bread, and divided the remaining two thirds between Liz’s red cat dish and a yellow Fiestaware saucer. She took the dishes back to her round oak table, dropping Liz’s red bowl in front of her as she went. Liz was so enthusiastic about the tuna, she sat up. Daisy put the yellow saucer in front of the kitten and stopped to admire the violets on her plate next to the complementary color of the Fiesta ware. Color and contrast, she thought. Clash. That’s what life is about.
"Daisy," Julia said. "I know you’re going to freak when I say this, but I can loan you a thousand dollars. I want to loan you a thousand dollars. Please."
Daisy froze and then turned to face her friend. Julia stood beside the table in the light from the stained glass lamp looking fragile and cautious and sympathetic, and Daisy loved her for the offer as much as she was angry that the offer had been made. "No. I can make it."
Julia bit her lip. "Then let me buy a painting. You know how I feel about the Lizzie Borden painting. Let me–"
"Julia, you already own three of my paintings." Daisy turned back to the cat. "Enough charity already."
"It’s not charity." Julia’s voice was intense. "I bought those paintings because I loved them. And I–"
"No." Daisy picked up the plate with her pita on it. "Want some tuna? I can cut this in half."
"No." Julia sighed. "No, I have papers to grade." She shoved her chair under the table and looked at Daisy regretfully. "If you ever need my help, you know it’s there."
"I know." Daisy sat down next to the kitten, trying to concentrate on it instead of on Julia’s offer. "If you come across an easy way to make a thousand bucks, let me know."
Julia nodded. "I’ll try to remember that." The kitten screeched again, and she retreated to the door. "Teach that cat to shut up, will you? Guthrie is not going to be amused if he finds out you’re keeping a cat in his apartment building. The only reason Liz gets by is that she’s ninety-eight per cent potted plant."
Once Julia had gone, Daisy got down on her knees next to the table so she could look the kitten in the eyes. "Look, I know we just met," she told the cat. "But trust me on this, you have to eat. I know you’ve had a rough childhood, but so did I, and I eat. Besides, from now on, you’re a Flattery cat. And Flattery’s don’t quit. Eat the tuna, and you can stay."
Daisy picked up a tiny piece of tuna and held it under the kitten’s nose. The kitten licked the tuna and then took it carefully in its mouth.
"See?" Daisy scratched gently behind the kitten’s ears. "Poor baby. You’re just an orphan of the storm. Little Orphan Annie. But now you’re with me."
Little Orphan Annie struggled further out of the towel and began to eat, slowly at first and then ravenously. Daisy pushed her the unruly fuzz of her hair back behind her ears as she watched the kitten, and then she began to eat her pita.
"You’re going to have to lie low," she told the kitten. "I’m not allowed to have pets, so we’ll have to hide you from the landlord. And from the guy upstairs, too. Big dark-haired guy in a suit. No sense of humor. Flares his nostrils a lot. You can’t miss him. He kicked Liz once. He looks like he has cats like you for breakfast."
The kitten finished the tuna and licked its chops, its orange and brown fur finally a little drier but still spiky.
"Maybe you’re an omen." Daisy stroked her fingers lightly down the kitten’s back while it moved on to cleaning the plate. "Maybe this means things will be better. Maybe . . ."
She began to tell herself the story again, the story of her new life, the one she’d been building for the last four years. She’d given up security to follow her dream, so of course she had to face years of adversity first–four was about right–because without adversity and struggle no story was really a story. Now the next chapter would be her paintings finally selling, and maybe her story-telling career suddenly taking off, too. And a prince would be good. Somebody big and warm to keep her company. It had been seven months since Derek had moved out–taking her stereo, the creep–and she was about ready to trust somebody with a Y chromosome again. Not marry anyone certainly; she’d already seen what that part of the fairy tale could do to women. Look at her mother. The thought of her mother depressed her, but Annie abandoned the empty plate and began to lick the dampness from her fur, and the scratchy sound brought Daisy back to earth.
Forget the prince. Stories were all well and good, but princes weren’t stories, they were impossible. Daisy had known that from the time she’d realized that her mother’s promises that her father would be back were a bigger fairy tale than anything the Brothers Grimm had ever spun out. Nobody was ever there when you needed someone. You’re born alone and you die alone, Daisy told herself. Remember that. Now think of something to get yourself out of this.
Annie curled up and went to sleep. Liz licked up the last of the tuna and fell unconscious with pleasure. Daisy sat silently for a long time, staring at the patterns in her stained glass lamp.
Upstairs, Linc stretched out on his chrome and black leather couch, bathed in the cool light from his white enameled track lighting, his headache receding but his troubles intact. It didn’t help that the mess he was in was his own fault.
Linc winced. He wasn’t a liar; he couldn’t ever remember lying before. But he also couldn’t remember anything he’d ever wanted as much as he wanted to teach history at quiet, private Prescott College. And he hadn’t lied about anything important in his interview for the job: his credentials were all real and impressive, and his goals were honest and good.
Linc closed his eyes. Rationalization. None of that mattered. He’d lied. The memory of his interview came back in painful detail. Dr. Crawford, dean of humanities, and Dr. Booker, head of the history department, had interviewed him. Dr. Crawford looked like a retired Southern cop: big, beery, genial, with a overall air of stupidity. He wore a bow tie in what Linc thought of as a feeble attempt at an academic look. Dr. Booker needed no such camouflage. He looked as if the moisture had slowly seeped out of him over the years, leaving only a dried-up little shell behind horn-rimmed glasses. Linc’s dreams of a department headship had begun when he saw that Booker was older than God.
And things had gone well at first. They’d been impressed with his credentials, impressed with his first book (published four years before), impressed with his demeanor, and just impressed with him in general. He knew he was good; he’d sacrificed for years to make sure that he was good, that he’d published in the right places and presented at the right conferences, that his background was above reproach, that he always did and said the right thing. And now the only question was, would they think he was good enough? But that hadn’t been the question. The question that Dr. Crawford, his fat lips pursing, had asked was, "Are you married, Dr. Blaise?"
"No." And then he’d seen the look on Crawford’s face: regret. Linc hadn’t made it as far as he had in a very competitive profession by being slow. "But I’m engaged," he’d finished. Then he’d had a stroke of what at the time had seemed like genius. "Prescott would be the perfect place for us. We’ve been waiting to get married until I was established so we could raise our children the old-fashioned way."
Crawford didn’t just thaw, he blossomed. "Excellent, excellent. Old-fashioned values. You’ll definitely be hearing from us again, Dr. Blaise."
Dr. Booker had sniffed.
And Linc had wondered if he was losing his mind. It was bad enough that he’d created a fiancée; he’d really sent himself to hell when he’d babbled about mythical children. And the weird part was, it seemed so true while he’d been saying it. Not the fiancée part, but the idea of settling down with some elegant little woman and reproducing in a small town. The pictures had been there in his head, sunny scenes of neat lawns and well-behaved children in well-ironed shorts. You’re pathetic, Blaise, he’d told himself at the time. And you lied. God’s going to make you pay for that. You’ll probably get struck by lightning.
But as it turned out, it wasn’t lightning that slugged him from behind but Crawford. He’d been invited to speak to the faculty on his research, the standard jobtalk audition for a college position. And, Crawford had written, make sure you bring your fiancée.
Right. Linc punished himself with the thought of it and drank more beer. He deserved this. If Prescott wouldn’t take him on his own very considerable merits, he should have just let them go. There were other schools. And once he finished the book he was working on . . .
But he couldn’t finish the book. Not at the city university where he was now, not while teaching three awful, mind-numbing classes. To finish the book he needed someplace like Prescott. And to get Prescott he needed a plan.
Linc shifted on the couch. He actually had two plans. One was to show up without a fiancée and probably not get the job. That one had the benefit of honesty and not much else. The other was to convince somebody to pose as his fiancée, and then if he got the job, he could tell the people at Prescott that the engagement was off. They couldn’t take the appointment back. As a plan it wasn’t great, which was why he’d put it out of his mind until three days before the interview, but as the deadline approached, it became more attractive. It beat not getting Prescott.
All he needed was a woman who was reasonably bright and reasonably attractive in a sedate sort of way who was willing to lie in her teeth and then quietly disappear. His first thought had been Julia in the apartment downstairs. They’d had a brief affair and parted friends. She would probably do it, he knew, but she’d make a mess of it. Julia was too sharp-looking and too sharp-tongued. He needed a . . . a wifely looking woman. A Little House On The Prairie kind of woman. A woman who could lie without batting an eye.
No, he thought, but logically, she was his best hope. Stories told, her card said, so truth was not one of her virtues. And Julia had said she was straight as an arrow, and he trusted Julia’s judgment if not her restraint. She was about six inches shorter than he was with a round mid-western body; if he put her in once of those old-fashioned flowered dresses and Crawford might go for it. Since she seemed to hate him for some reason, she’d probably have to be in desperate need of money before she’d agree to spend any amount of time with him, but she didn’t look rich. Desperation could drive a person to do things he or she would never contemplate ordinarily.
I should know, Linc thought gloomily and stared at the ceiling. Make a note to call Julia about the Flattery woman, he told himself and then realized that he didn’t have time to make notes. It was Tuesday. He was due in Prescott on Friday. He felt dizzy for a moment and realized it was because he was holding his breath, his response to tension for as far back as he could remember. "Breathe, Blaise," his football coach had yelled at him in high school the first time he’d passed out during a game. "You gotta keep breathing if you want to play the game."
He inhaled sharply through his nose and then stretched out his hand for the phone and punched in Julia’s number.
Five minutes later, Linc was listening to Julia laugh herself sick. "You told them what?" she gasped at him when she could talk. "I can’t believe it."
"Knock it off," Linc said. "It’s not funny. This is my career at stake here."
"And we all know that’s more important to you than any of your body parts." Julia snickered. "I love this. You want me to be the little woman? No problem. I’ll get one of those dweeby little dresses–"
"No." Linc broke in before Julia could get too attached to the idea. "I need a professional liar, somebody who won’t start giggling when the chips are down."
"Daisy." Julia’s voice went up a notch in approval. "She’s wonderful, absolutely trustworthy."
"Except she tell lies for a living."
"She tells stories," Julia corrected with some heat. "Unreal but not untrue, that’s what Daisy says. And anyway, it’s not like you’re lily white here, bud. You’re the one who created the Little Woman Who Could."
Linc exhaled through his teeth in frustration.
"I can’t believe you lied in the first place," Julia went on. "I would have said it wasn’t possible. You really are a stick-in-the-mud, but maybe this will break you out of that rut . . ."
Linc glared at the phone. "I like my rut. I have to go. Good-bye."
"Because you really are solidifying before my eyes–" Julia said and he hung up.
Oh, God. He let his head fall back against the leather chair back. Three days and no fiancée. He was in big trouble, and his only hope was a nutcake. There had to be a better way. The last thing he needed was to pin all his hopes for the future on Daisy Flattery.
He got up and got himself another beer.
Daisy spent the next morning trying to drum up work and failing miserably. When she got home, the kitten had escaped and was sitting on the doorstep waiting for her. So was the landlord, a man Julia called Grumpy Guthrie. Oh, no, Daisy thought, and then straightened her shoulders and went to save her cat, marching past the dark-haired thug from upstairs who was washing his nasty black car. She disliked his car almost as much as she disliked him; it looked like something Darth Vader would drive.
Guthrie pointed at the kitten as if it were a cockroach. "That’s a cat."
"Yes, I know." Daisy took a deep breath and then smiled at him. Daisy knew she wasn’t beautiful, but God had given her something better than beauty: a glowing, wide-mouthed, man-melting smile, courtesy of her mother and a long line of Southern belles who’d dazzled their way through history. It was her only physical weapon, but it never failed her. It didn’t now.
Guthrie smirked at her.
Behind her, she heard the cat-kicker turn off the water just in time for Annie to tear out one of her ungodly meows.
Guthrie flinched. "Daisy, you’re a month behind on the rent, and you’re not allowed to have pets."
"I know." Daisy pumped out more wattage on her smile. "You know I’ll pay the rent. I’ve lived here for eight years, and I’ve never let you down, have I?"
Guthrie closed his eyes. "No, but the cat–"
"I’m just keeping the cat until its owners get back," Daisy said, truthfully, since she was sure Annie’s owner would never get back to this apartment house. "It’s a very valuable cat, you know." She dropped her voice to make Guthrie a conspirator with her. "One of a kind. An Alizarin Crimson. Very unusual voice. Don’t tell anyone or there’ll be catnappers all over the place." Guthrie blinked and she let her voice go back up to its natural register. "I’m sure Julia won’t mind, and the people upstairs will never know. It’s such a little cat."
"But they do know," Guthrie said. "Dr. Blaise knows. He’s right here."
Daisy turned to look at the cat-kicker. He was as tall and broad and threatening as she’d told Annie, his hair thick and blue-black and his eyes dark and intense. He leaned on the car watching them, and he didn’t look angry, he looked calculating.
Daisy went for it. "Do you mind, Dr. Blaise?" She hit him with her smile in the best tradition of her ancestresses.
He blinked. And then he grinned at her. It wasn’t the usual feeble smirk that men gave her after she’d blasted them, it was a wide awake grin. He had a great mouth for a thug. "I don’t mind at all, Miss Flattery. It’s an honor to have an Alizarin Crimson in the building."
Daisy felt uneasy, but she wasn’t about to look a gift-jerk in the mouth, even if he did kick cats. "Thank you, Dr. Blaise. That’s very sweet of you." She smiled at him again, and his own smile widened.
"I’ll have the rent for you soon," she promised Guthrie, and he went off shaking his head.
Daisy scooped up the kitten and turned to go, but the cat-kicker called her back. "Could I have a word with you, Miss Flattery?"
I knew it, Daisy told herself. It was too good to be true. She took a deep breath and turned back, smiling her brains out, prepared to do whatever she had to do to keep Annie from becoming an orphan again.