Dark Fire, Chapter one

              The corkscrew jumped out of my hand again, and I just barely caught the bottle of Vampire Chardonnay before it spilled across the bar. Trying not to curse I poured out a third round for party of six on the deck who were reliving their summer vacations while munching on their second plate of tapas. This would not that unusual for a summer night, but we were well into fall, though the weather in Denver was unusually warm. Perhaps Colorado was revisiting summer just like the people on the deck.

              As I stretched my arms over my head and leaned from side to side, getting the kinks out, I looked around this small restaurant and bar that I had opened three and a half years ago after I graduated with a Masters in Psychology and could not find a job. Well, at least not a job a wanted. I had been driving through this older slightly run-down west-side of Denver neighborhood, saw the for-sale sign and had a sudden vision of a successful business in the middle of a new condominiums, boutique stores , parks and bike paths. The entire picture took form in my mind, complete with the sound of people laughing, the smell of food and the feel of the smooth polished wood bar under my hands. It took a few months, but almost magically I found the funds, remodelers and staff to transform this tired space into a warm and welcoming restaurant and bar. Over the next couple years the neighborhood took shape around us and grew into a dynamic diverse community. It is wonderful to think that this place, that I had named Embers, added to the village feel of this neighborhood.

              Why Embers? It was a bit of a play off of my name, Tamra Adara Cherney. Tamra is Hebrew for dates, which are golden in color, Adara roughly means something like beautiful fire, and Cherney means black in Russia. A beautiful dark golden fire is an Ember. And I loved the image of a small ember warming the neighborhood in good times and bad. In the summer the outside decks were full, with people warm in the sun, and in the winter we used outdoor heaters to keep the spaces open. I loved this place

              However, now that Embers was successful and I had built some financial security, I was feeling bored, and if I was honest, lonely. There is something about a woman owning her own successful business that seems to scare men away. And I had more than my share of men who had said they were different, denied being intimidated, and then broke my heart on the way out of my life.             

To deal with the boredom, after a very vivid dream about helping someone in a haunted house, I started a private investigation firm focused on paranormal problems. Combining my degree in psychology with a lifetime interest in all things mystical gave me a distinct niche. Embers gave me an added advantage in tracking people down. Several years ago, just as the internet was becoming a living force, I dreamed up a way to trace people through their drinking patterns with an app attached to restaurant and bar cash registers, since almost all of them were now computerized. Drink orders were automatically entered into the system and immediately matched with similar patterns. Luckily most of the alcohol establishments across metro Denver were using this app, and many across Colorado. Again, both the investigation firm and the tracking app were based on vivid dreams suggesting these new directions.  It made me nervous to admit that my dreams were becoming more vivid and often even coming true, but I was still willing to follow them

I turned to fill an order of Prosecco and Campari, another unusual drink for a Denver fall evening. Something odd was going on. Maybe the moon was full or some planet was retrograde, which would explain why so many odd things were happening in the bar. I promised myself to check the daily astrologic chart once I made it home, and perhaps take time to look at some of the astrology books I had inherited from one of my aunts. She had been an “under-cover” astrologer and psychic, working as a professor in a small university during the day and running charts at night. She had taught me a great deal, but I had forgotten many of her lessons. Perhaps it was time to refresh my memory.

At least some people were drinking the house red wine, Vampire Cabernet. I managed to open the bottle and pour out several glasses without spilling any. And right on cue, in walked my favorite vampire. Well, actually I do not know if Count is a vampire, or if I even believe in vampires, or if his real name is Count. But if Vampires are real, he would be perfect for the part. He walked in, moving his body like a cougar, lithe as a dancer and with a sense of power waiting to explode. He skin was a bit pale, but of course he probably had to hide from the sun. He had thick black hair laced with silver strands, and a perfectly strokeable well-trimmed black and silver beard and moustache that seemed to come and go in response to the weather. His eyes were a startling light grey that reflected light, and matched his fashionable silver-grey and black clothing. And then there were his hands, square and strong, and attached to long muscular arms that I, only at times, dreamed of crawling into. I am fairly sure he would be willing, but I really want to determine whether he is undead before I sleep with him. Otherwise it could be awkward having him kiss and nibble my neck with those full lips and perfect white teeth, and slightly larger canines. Especially if I awoke in the morning and was still asleep in a coffin.  I let that day dream go just a bit too far and had to shake myself to break the spell.

I looked around the bar as I poured Count a glass of the blood red Vampire wine. I kept trying to find out his real name but he only smiled and told me to call him Count. He walked towards his regular seat and this time I was ready. There was a new mirror on the wall behind his chair so I could catch his reflection in the glass, sure proof that he was not a vampire, or that he was. Last week I had tried serving him garlic bread, but he said he had already eaten, which proved nothing. He walked through the bar with the rhythm of a Spanish tango, his eyes locked solidly on mine. Honestly, concentrating on pouring wine was so very difficult with those very distracting eyes staring at mine.

Of course the wine started to spill and I looked down just in time to save the most of the bottle. Grabbing a towel I wiped off the glass and turned to put it on a coaster in front of Count, but he was not sitting in his regular seat. Seeing myself in the mirror was disorienting, until I heard him call my name from the corner of the bar.

“You moved from your regular chair” I stuttered.

“It seemed like a night for change” he said in a voice that echoed with rich New Orleans espresso. The man was pure seduction, now if I could just figure out if he is alive. His eyes never left me as I continued to field odd orders and enter each one into the restaurant computer app. There was a Blue Ghost, a Werewolves-of-London and a round of Dark-and Stormy-Nights, which perfectly described how I felt. I laughed to myself as I thought about a Dark-and-Stormy night at the bar complete with ghosts, werewolves and vampires.

The Count was watching me closely as I worked and at some point reached out, touched my arm, and leaned toward me. The touch was slightly electric, OK, quite electric, and so very distracting. “Take a break for a few minutes. I have something I want to talk with you about.”

The bar orders had slowed down for the moment, so I signaled to my bar-back to take over and walked around the bar to Count’s chair. It must have been something in the air that made the hairs on the back of my neck start to rise up. Maybe the air-flow was set too cold, or maybe I had a sense, a premonition that this conversation would change my life. Or maybe not.

I leaned against the bar, a bit leery of getting too close to those eyes and that scent. “What do you want to talk about?” I gazed at the top of his shirt where the first few buttons were undone showing just a bit of tantalizing skin. Really, I had to concentrate, and maybe see if he was allergic to silver. Perhaps he was hypnotizing me like all powerful vampires.

“Have you noticed that something is not quite right in the world?”

“You’re kidding right? Corkscrews have jumped out of my hand, everyone is ordering odd drinks, the weather feels like we are moving backwards in time, and I had to reboot the computer twice today. Yeah, I have noticed.”

Rather than laugh at my outburst Count nodded and stroked his beard, a move that tempted me to reach out and help. I restrained myself and thought about asking him about any food odd predilections…like blood.

“I need to hire you. The problems you are dealing with are occurring due to Mercury going permanently retrograde.”

The words ‘hire you’ gave me a lovely jolt of energy. This was just what I was craving something new, something challenging, perhaps laced with just a touch of Vampire. Then the ‘permanently retrograde’ part of the sentence registered and I shook my head to clear it.  “Wait, how can that happen? I mean, there are some basic laws of astrophysics that would have to be broken, like the gravity Or maybe I do not understand what retrograde means.”

“You are right to be confused, so let me start with the basics. When a planet ‘goes retrograde’ its orbit appears to be moving backwards in relationship to earth because of the speed and shape of its orbit. It happens to every planet except the sun obviously. So when a planet is retrograde whatever it governs stops moving forward. We find ourselves focused inward rather than outward which is frustrating. When Mercury is retrograde everything to do with communication goes haywire, including our phones and computers and arrangements, and of course our tempers.”

This sounded very familiar. I remembered my aunt telling me about what happened when each planet took a turn at being retrograde and how it would affect us. I nodded at Count and gestured for him to continue.

“You are right that it is impossible for a planet to stay permanently retrograde, however when magic is involved anything is possible. And before you interrupt me, let me explain. You might have guessed that I have a bit of an unusual background, one that we can talk about later in greater detail. For now, just trust that I am involved with a group that protects a unique collection of ancient books has been entrusted to us. Some of them are tomes of magic, books of spells and incantations that would be dangerous in the wrong hands. One of those was stolen. I have been able to gather a bit of information to lead me to the thief or thieves, but not enough to track them down. I need someone who can move about more freely during the day to help me.”

There were so many questions running through my mind that my mouth did not know where to start. A job was always welcome, but I was more interested in just how ancient these books were and how he had acquired them. Where did the idea of ‘magic’ come from? How was I supposed to find an ancient astrology book? And why could he not move around freely during the day? The story was a fascinating, but somehow I was continually distracted by thoughts of sinking into his arms. Wasn’t that part of the legend, that vampires were seductive? He definitely checked that box.

“So you want to hire me to find the book?” was about all I could say, hoping that I was not drooling while looking at him. Damn he was delicious looking.

“Yes. Are you interested?”

Just then one of the staff came over and grabbed my arm. “That table in the corner asked if you could come say hello. They are regulars and want to chat.” I nodded. This was part of the appeal of Embers, we treat our patrons, and staff, like family.

 I turned back to Count and told him I would be back in a few minutes as I set off on a stroll around the restaurant, starting with the large corner table. After saying hello to everyone, they updated me on the family including the news that their eldest daughter had just passed the bar exam. I hugged the young woman and asked one of the wait staff to bring over a bottle of Prosecco, on the house. They cheered and I moved on, checking on each guest, some briefly and some with longer conversations. I was rewarded with compliments from new patrons and regulars on both the service and the food

 We have an interesting tapas menu that is always changing thanks to my wonderful chef, and the air tonight was full of Spanish spices. Both my parents were Sephardic Jews with a seasoning of Jicarilla Apache mixed in on both sides. I grew up inhaling the rich spices smells in the kitchens of my many family members. The feeling of turmeric in the back of my throat with a hint of cardamom drifting through the air grounded me. In my mind I was back in a warm safe kitchen hearing the myths and legends of my different lineages from the powerful women of my youth.

The story of magic books and spells and astrology gone wrong fit well with the myths I grew up with. My father taught me how to walk in the wilderness and talk with the wind. He told me Chasidic and Shamanic tales from his two lineages in ways that linked them in a sacred dance. When I was very young, before she died, my mother taught me the secret wisdom of women interlacing her native and Jewish stories with a mixture of spices and rituals. The mystic world was part of my earliest memories and my deepest dreams.

My mind filled with memories as I my looped around the restaurant, stopping to check in with each staff member, from my assistant manager to the bus-girl, and everyone in between. The people who work in and frequented Embers are important to me, and I always checked on the status of everyone before I took on a big case. But I had to admit that I was worried about how diving deep into the world of magic would affect me. Yes, I had grown up with it, but had been more of an observer then an active participant. My many aunts used astrology and divination tools and even had the power to channel, but I had never walked those pathways alone. Frankly, never sure I wanted to since even my dreams scared me at times. In fact I often wondered if the true mystical and psychic gifts had just skipped on past me. The women in my life assured me over and over that these gifts would blossom in me one day when I was ready, but perhaps they were wrong.

A quick jaunt through the kitchen finished my rounds. All was well, so I headed back to the bar and filled another order of odd drinks and several glasses of Vampire Red. Of course I wanted the job. Of course I wanted to learn the secrets of the Mercury retrograde. And of course I wanted to say yes to the mysterious and sensual Count, but I was beyond nervous. For some reason this job, this story, spoke to something deeper in me, something I could not define.

 For a moment the bar was eerily quiet, as if I was the only one in an empty room. For no good reason at all I tried something my grandmothers had taught me many years ago, a meditation technique to use when I came to a crossroad, or was unsure of my next steps. Like many things mystical, it did not always work, but tonight I felt the need to try to connect with my mystic lineage for an answer. Grabbing one of crystal goblets I kept tuck safely behind the bar, I filled it with the dark red Vampire Nights, lifted it and gazed through it to one of the candles on the bar. My bubbe, which is Hebrew for grandmother, said that this was much like reading a crystal ball. It was something she taught me at a Friday night Shabbat table, after the dishes had been cleared and the women in my family were gathered around the table watching the candles burn down. She filled the crystal goblets with red wind and told us to lift our glasses and look at the candle flames, think about a problem we were facing, or an answer we needed and open our minds to pictures in the glass. In the past I had seen the light in the wine, but rarely a clear picture, and never a vision.

I took a deep breath and let the light dance through the dark wine and crystal glass. What I wanted was a clear answer, what I expected was vague dancing lights. But tonight was different.  From the depths of the deep red a picture formed and I saw a book lying open on an old wooden table. A wind blew across the room, the wine swirled and pages in my vision stirred and shimmered, a few of them flipping over in the breeze. Behind the book I saw a dirt path snaking through sage bushes. Startled, I put the glass down with a bit too much force, and then picked it up back up and took a rather large drink. For the first time in my life the wine glass had spoken clearly.  Was this excitement or fear I was feeling?

Either way, the message was clear, I was to take this job, find the magic book, and perhaps more. When I told Count that I accepted the case he smiled a slow smile that barely touched his eyes and nodded once. “I have some of information acquired through….special…means. I discovered that the thieves have a horse, probably an Arabian based on the horse hairs and hay that I found.

“This is Colorado, so an Arabian horse is not much to go on. Do you have anything else?”

“Possibly. One of my contacts told me that they overheard a few men boasting loudly at a local club about acquiring a book such as mine. They were drinking and perhaps that will help you. One man was drinking Red Amber ale, the second was drinking Scottish ale, and the third was ordering Port on the rocks. That must be a unique combination.”

It was probably enough to track down the group of three if they were drinking together, though it would be rough to catch just one of them. I put the information into the system and asked all the connected bars and restaurants for reports. It would take a bit of time, but if these three men ordered these drinks again and someone entered them in to the system, I would know where to find them.

The rest of the evening passed quickly between filling drink orders, flirting with Count and checking the computer for any responses. I tried to broach the subject of age and how the books were obtained, thinking that someone over 200 years old might be too old for me. He evaded all my questions and spent the evening entertaining me about New Orleans history, making it come alive, as if he had lived there. Perhaps he had.

After the bar closed I checked the computer one last time and cashed out. Count walked me to my red SUV and offered to follow me home assuring my safe arrival. It was so very tempted to say yes and then ask him to in for a nightcap, but I really do not trust myself alone with him. He smiled slowly as I stuttered a little, rejecting his offer. The smile filled his icy eyes with just a touch of fire, and softened his face’s craggy edges. He looked even more seductive.

After sliding into the car and starting the engine, I took a deep relaxing breath, and pulled out of the lot, trying to catch a view of Count in the mirrors. But he had already slipped into his own vehicle, a silver Rolls-Royce Dawn, an odd choice for a vampire who could never watch the sun rise.

Heading home through the empty Denver streets I kept checking the rear view mirror for a flash of silver. I really did not want him to follow me home, but thinking of being watched over by a vampire did sound appealing. I did not spot him until I pulled into the garage of my tidy west-side home. After I turned off the car, got out and opened the passenger door to pull some groceries from the back seat, I noticed his car drifting past and turning the corner. Feeling unreasonably happy I grabbed the bags and headed into my lovely remodeled cottage, making sure to close the garage door.

The outside looked original but the inside was updated with clean lines, a light pine floor, rich sea blues and everything beach on the main floor. There was an open loft that served as my office and my bedroom. My collection of mermaids was scattered throughout, including paintings, pillows and wall hangings. Mermaids could be encountered in every space, including the mermaid towels in the bathroom. The loft was surrounded by trees outside every window and each night I felt held in the arms of the wind blowing through the trees. On the first floor was a state of the art salt water fish tank, the home of Lenore who was obviously waiting for company. Lenore is a young Bimac octopus I rescued at the end of a recent case. She was a perfect match for my life, being mostly nocturnal and very intelligent.

She had been confined to small dark aquarium when I found her, listless and depressed, barely eating, in the home of a young man with dreams of glory. Perhaps all young men have such dreams, but in this case his dreams led him to try and raise exotic animals. He did it poorly and I was lucky enough to help rescue several. The rest of the animals were adapting to new homes in various wonderful rescues, and after a bit of negotiation with the Denver aquarium, Lenore came home with me. That of course would probably change at some point in the future since Bimacs have short life-spans and the Aquarium would want her back soon.

Lenore was turning a warm red, the color she used to say she was happy and I could see the two distinct spots that all Bimacs have. They are roughly above her eyes, and can be startling the first time you see them. My first stop was a check of the water temperature, salt levels and other residences of the tank. It appeared that the tiny octopus had helped herself to dinner based on the number of fish who were no longer swimming in the tank. I do not have time for a dog, though I do love giant breeds. There was something magical about having a four-legged partner that was larger than me, or a large and luscious two legged partner for that matter. But for now a small 8-legged housemate would do just fine.

After putting the groceries away and getting ready for bed I curled up in a soft slightly oversized sea blue chair next to Lenore’s tank and booted up my laptop to check for results on the odd drinking trio. All the while I regaled Lenore with stories about the day, especially about Count. However when I asked Lenore if she had any experience with Vampires, she changed colors and retreated under a rock. Not a good sign. Maybe it reminded her of a bad blind date with a vampire squid.

Shaking my mostly untamable long brown hair out of my eyes I returned to the screen, taking one more look before heading to bed. And there is was, the three drinks ordered by three men during last call at a bar northeast of the Denver airport, an area with plenty of horse stables. I sent a message to the bar asking for any other information they had and to send out an alert if the men returned. There was nothing more to do, so I shut off the lights, took off my clothes and crawled into bed. In just a few moments I was dreaming about grey eyes and strong arms and perhaps lips nibbling my neck.

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