Tuesday, May 30th, 2017

In the Eye of the Beholder

A Charm City Darkness Novel #3.5

Available in August 2017!


In the Eye of the Beholder

A Charm City Darkness Novel

Chapter 1

The demon Pournelle materialized into Jo Byrne's Turning Wheel pagan shop after closing hours, as Jo was restocking the candles. He took a deep breath, savoring the heady mixed odor of loose herbs and scented candles. A cone of strawberry incense burned in a brass dish near the door.

It must be her favorite, he thought, remembering the same scent was burning the last time he’d been here.

The flotilla of fairies, with their tulle wings and feathered skirts—along with a dragon armada—hung still and silent from the ceiling. Since he hadn’t entered through the door, no breeze served to move them. A small radio played an old grunge band softly somewhere near the cash register. He’d met the lead singer in Hell. Shame, that. The band could have made millions.


Pournelle pointed a finger at the bell on the door and waggled it. The bell rang as if a customer had just entered the shop.

“We’re closed,” Jo said, turning to face the latecomer. “I’m sorry, I thought I’d locked— She felt the blood drain from her face, and she dropped the box of slender, white candles she’d been holding. They clattered to the floor, breaking the seal, and candles rolled in all directions. Heart thumping, she stood still, cursed herself for three kinds of fool for her deer-in-the-headlights reaction.

“It’s not what you think,” Pournelle said, holding up a hand. The starched, white cuff of his dress shirt was in direct contrast with the smooth, black skin of his forearm, and stuck out far enough as he bent his arm, for Jo to notice the black and silver cuff links fastening the cuff together.

She cleared her throat, and said, “I think there’s a very powerful—uninvited—demon in my store.”

“Well, if that’s as far as you’ve gotten,” Pournelle said, dryly, “you’d be right. But there’s more to it than that, I’m afraid.”

I’m certain there is,” Jo said, taking a step backward. She turned her head to the left, glimpsing over her shoulder. Was there nothing within reach she could protect herself with?

“You have nothing to fear, I assure you,” Pournelle said.

He remained standing where he was, so that reassured her, but not much. “I’m not so certain of that.”

The demon nodded, and a look that passed for sorrow flitted across his mocha-colored face and was gone.

Sorrow? Why did that make her want to hear more from him. Was this a trick?

“Why are you here?” she asked.

He smiled—was that hope on his face?—and snapped his fingers. The electric tea kettle Jo kept behind the front counter clicked on and started to warm the water inside. “We need to talk,” he said. “Could you spare a cup of tea?”

Pournelle knew he had to take this slowly. There were half a dozen things within reach that Jo could use to send him straight back to Hell. Was she even aware of that fact? One of them would send him back as an amorphous puddle of goo. He couldn’t have that, even if he was trying to mend his ways.

Turning the other cheek only went so far in his book. He wouldn’t turn it so far as to sacrifice himself. If he were willing to die for what he believed in, he could have done that a thousand times over in the last century. This was about living, and escaping Hell.

But first, he needed an ally. Or at least a friend. Someone who might be willing to help him, should he ask.

He’d start with someone who would listen.

Jo moved behind the front counter and switched off the radio. She pulled two tea cups from beneath the glass case.

“Lapsang Souchong?” she asked.

He pulled a face. “Much too smoky. Do you mean to be insulting?” That since I’m a creature of Hell, I must enjoy the taste of smoke? That’s not the way it works. He tsked. “I was hoping for a friendship tea.” He smiled to let he know he wasn’t kidding. Jo laughed anyway.

“You have a lot of nerve asking for friendship tea, Mr. Demon—”


She nodded. “You have a lot of nerve, Mr. Pournelle.”

“Just Pournelle.” He smiled, hoping it looked more genuine than feral. “I would like to be your friend.”

“Coming from any other guy, that statement would come off creepy, and maybe a little insane,” Jo said. She rummaged below the cabinet, found a bright yellow cylindrical cardboard container way in the back, and plunked it onto the counter. She peeled the plastic lid off and peered inside. “You’re just scary, but I think I’m holding it together pretty well. You’ve piqued my curiosity. I can only hope that doesn’t get me killed.”

Instant tea mix, Pournelle noticed. Crystalized into a single rocky lump. There was no way that stuff was coming out of the container.

Frowning, Jo grabbed the letter opener near the cash register and jammed it into the solidified crystals over and over again. Bean-sized pellets of instant tea broke off away from the main lump.

It was Pournelle’s turn to frown. “You’re not actually going to serve me instant tea?” he asked, a note of disdain in his voice. “Especially that instant tea.” He frowned more. “Serving me instant tea might get you killed yet.”

“You’re the one who’s kidding now, right?” she asked, sparing him a brief glance.

As if she hadn’t heard him, she spooned three teaspoons of rock-hard mix into each mug, poured boiling water over them, and stirred. She pushed a cup in his direction. Their fingers brushed.

“Really?” He was highly offended.

Jo looked up at him and smiled, the fake kind of smile you offer to unwanted guests and insulting mothers-in-law. “The polite thing for you to do would be to accept this cup, take a sip, and tell me how good it is. And then you can tell me why you’re really here.”

“But the right thing for me to do is to tell you how much I’ll hate tasting that, let alone drinking it gone. Isn’t that what friends do? Tell the unvarnished truth, even though it hurts? I’ve expressed my displeasure at the idea of drinking instant tea. How can you stand there smiling and still feel obliged to serve it to me?”

She sighed and sat down on her stool, appearing to consider what he said. Finally, she said, “You’re right in many ways, but that doesn’t apply here. After all, I’m giving you what you asked for.”

“Instant does not qualify as anything better than swill.” He snapped his fingers.

In less than a trice, a tall, narrow, tea samovar appeared at the end of the counter on a large silver platter. A hand-painted tea pot—small blue and orange flowers on the creamy china background—sat on top of it. Two porcelain tea cups, filled to their golden rims with steaming black tea, rested on the platter next to a silver dish of lemon slices. The tart, citrus aroma of lemon, freshly sliced, pervaded the strawberry scent of the shop. The fragrant odor of fresh tea wafted in Jo’s direction.

Pournelle smiled and reached for a cup, and placed it directly in front of Jo.“Tea, in friendship,” he intoned.

She frowned, then turned her colorful, yellow tea cannister to face him. The label read, Friendship Tea.

She quirked an eyebrow at him. “You asked for friendship tea. I gave it. That’s what friends are for.”


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