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    Volume 11, Issue 1, February 29, 2016
    Message from the Editors
 Where Everybody Knows Your Name by Kate Sheeran Swed
 The Wish of a Child of Wishes by Patricia Russo
 Gifts from a Newlywed Husband to His Wife by Nina Shepardson
 Catch and Release by Tiffany Michelle Brown
 Posthumous by Daniel Brock
 Editors Corner: Story Endings, How They TOrture Me by Nikki Baird
  Special Feature: Author Interview with Bonnie Ramthun


         

Catch and Release

Tiffany Michelle Brown

          Theron never grew tired of walking into crowded bars. His presence within the threshold of any establishment, be it decrepit or sumptuous, caused a veritable hitch in the evening's festivities. Time grew lethargic and stretched long like a woozy debutante across a chaise. Women and men alike turned to marvel at Theron's dark, brooding eyes, olive skin, and the breadth of his shoulders, impressive beneath the immaculate tailoring of a crisp silk suit. Theron made it a habit to dress up when he went hunting.
          Theron would scan the bar. Conversation, libidinous desires, murder plots, depression, and merriment hung precariously in the balance. Inevitably, a single being would flare like a ruby in the sun, and Theron knew where he would sit for the evening.
          Then, the moment would collapse into itself like a hungry black hole. Patrons would turn their attention back to their gins and whiskeys, unaware anything had happened--although they did feel strangely rejuvenated, as if someone had given them the gift of an extra breath of superbly fresh air.
          Theron walked carefully through the Floridian detritus that was Beach Buzz, navigating with equal care discarded peanut shells, a bachelorette wearing a hat decorated with rhinestones and penises, and wary gazes from testosterone-filled men looking for a good old-fashioned Friday night fight. All the while he hid discomfort borne from squeezing puckered skin and sharp claws into Cole Haans. They were beautiful shoes that would last Theron quite a while--a gift from Persephone--but they were quite inflexible when new.
          When he reached his target, Theron slid onto the leather barstool beside her, smooth as a tango dancer. He reached a long-fingered hand across the scarred wooden bar top, lifted the woman's glass from her grasp, and raised it to his lips. He tasted rum, vanilla, fake banana flavoring, pineapple juice, and the tiniest hint of her life force--roses blooming after a storm, fresh honeycomb, saltwater. Theron's mouth watered.
          "I'll have what she's having," he told the bartender, little wisps of gold smoke drifting from his mouth and bee-lining for the woman on the stool beside him. He slid the glass back across the bar.
          The woman stared down at her discarded cocktail, then turned toward Theron. The single strand of black pearls about her neck reflected the light from the bar display. "Should I be offended?" Her voice was dark musk.
          "That drink would be dripping from my face if you were." Golden tendrils of vapor wafted from Theron's mouth and caressed the woman's dark hair. The opening interlude, a few long, soporific chords to set the tone for the rest of the song. A subtle beginning, the way Theron always liked to start his serenades.
          He turned and gave the woman beside him an elegant smile. "I apologize if my opening line was a bit bold."
          The woman's eyes glittered as they met his. Theron's song had found her ears. Her pupils dilated ever so slightly.
          "I'm okay with bold." The woman offered him a smirk and took a sip of her drink. "I'm Lin."
          "Theron." His cocktail arrived and he took a calculated swig before continuing his performance. When he was ready, Theron gave Lin a leisurely once-over. "It appears we're both travelers." He gestured to the black cocktail dress Lin wore, out of place amidst the neon crop tops, stone washed denim shorts, and backward baseball caps of the other patrons.
          "I'm here for a conference of sorts," Lin said. She flicked her eyes to meet his, then made a great display of uncrossing and re-crossing her slim legs. "But that's not why you're here. I would remember you if I had seen you in one of my sessions."
          Theron smiled, genuinely amused. He wasn't sure if Lin's forwardness was the result of his magic or her personality. Women these days could be so progressive, something Theron appreciated greatly.
          "You're right. I'm not here for a conference." Gold snaked from Theron's lips and slipped into Lin's pupils. Her shoulders sank leisurely in response, as if she'd just heaved a deep sigh. "I'm here visiting my sick grandmother."
          "Liar," Lin said, narrowing her eyes flirtatiously. "You're not here to console or comfort anyone." She took a sip of her drink and studied her reflection in the glass behind the bar. "I know your type."
          Theron responded with a throaty laugh. "And what type is that?"
          "The dangerous kind." Lin placed her elbow on the bar, her chin in her hand. She regarded him woozily but with undivided attention. The desperate pulse of the over-produced pop song pounding through the bar's speakers, the taste of her drink, the other men who ogled Lin as they passed--were not only inconsequential, they simply didn't exist in Lin's world, if only for a few precious minutes, thanks to Theron's song.
          It was time to progress to the verse.
          "You find me dangerous?" Theron asked. The gold haze wound about Lin's throat and floated upward to mist her face. "And why is that?"
          Lin studied him before answering. "It's something in your eyes," she said thoughtfully. Her own eyes sparkled drunkenly.
          Theron paused to watch Lin swoon, then presented her a seductive smile. "Personally, I think you are the dangerous one, drinking rum in that little black dress."
          Gold dusted Lin's shoulders and enveloped her to her waist. She took a deep, shaky breath as the song snaked about her. She leaned heavily on the bar, giggled, and took a sip of her drink. "Oh, you have no idea just how dangerous I can be."
          Theron grinned. Time for the crescendo. "Show me." He reached out and ran a finger down Lin's pronounced cheekbone to the delicate point of her chin.
          Leveraging the physical connection as a stronghold, Theron's song ensnared Lin completely, circling her from the crown of her raven-haired head to the tip of her snakeskin stilettos. Heavy, elegiac notes crashed upon the shores of Lin's consciousness. She leaned into Theron's touch, and he readied himself. Sometimes, when women grew drunk on his song, they would simply faint into his arms. As dramatic and romantic as that could be in film, in dark, dingy bars, a woman passing out was generally cause for alarm. Theron knew how to handle the security guards that would inevitably circle them, and he never had to sacrifice a lure, but it was messy and complicated.
          Lin, however, reacted rather differently than anticipated when Theron's song reached its climax. She grew incrementally more astute and alert. There was a distinct moment of cognizance and recognition that passed between Theron and Lin, palpable as sea air. Instead of shrinking in her seat, Lin sat up a little straighter. She was off-kilter, yes--her body language said so as she leaned and postured toward Theron--but she still held herself like a woman who was quite aware of what she was doing. As if she were in control, although Theron knew she most certainly was not.
          God, she was beautiful in her moment of clarity, dusted with gold. So statuesque and. . . seductive? Theron felt a twinge of longing scurry through his chest as Lin nuzzled his palm. He fleetingly thought it a pity that destiny had marked her with a crimson flare. He'd like to spend more time with this exceptionally attractive human. He held back an urge to lean forward and kiss her.
          As he gazed wondrously at Lin, Theron remembered the brief, albeit sensational taste of her life force, and a hunger pang nearly tossed him from the barstool. His heart jolted and pattered as he fought to keep control of his burgeoning appetite.
          Theron pulled his hand away from Lin's face and concealed the abrupt movement with a dark smirk. Lin's skin glowed softly in the dim light of the bar, the telltale sign she'd been serenaded. He needed to take her somewhere quickly before the song faded from her memory. More importantly, he needed to act before he changed his mind and let her go.
          Theron blinked at the thought. Why would he ever do that? He had never released a lure in his five thousand and two year existence. Why on earth would he do it now?
          Because she's so damn beautiful and you want to make love to her. It was a strange thought. He'd never been physically attracted to his prey, not really. Yes, Theron flirted and wove webs of deceit about them with his songs, but the act was purely utilitarian, a means to an end. It gave him no pleasure save the pleasure of winning, followed by the primal satisfaction of feeding.
          Besides, he had Persephone for everything he needed in a life partner. She took exquisite care of him--as she took exquisite care of all her sirens--ensuring he fed regularly, plying him with gifts, satisfying his sexual desires when he needed release. In turn, Theron was a dutiful member of her harem, doing her bidding and defending her from others when required. It was a verbal contract, one either party could break with the utterance of a word, but Theron had been quite happy with the arrangement for a few millennia. In fact, he believed he loved Persephone, though Theron had always thought love a very human, abstract concept.
          Despite his seeming feelings for Persephone, Lin was finding her way under Theron's skin, making him feel flushed and appreciated. His heart flared in his chest, and Persephone suddenly seemed . . .secondary. If he was truly satisfied, where was this bizarre, aching attraction for Lin coming from?
          Lin slid off her stool, her stilettos clicking against the floor. She was tiny when standing, a full head shorter than Theron though he remained seated. She smiled a still-golden grin. "Danger waits for no man," she said, the flutter of a butterfly's wings, then turned and meandered through the bar to the restrooms in the back.
          Theron watched her go. Her compact frame glided through the bar with an ethereal elegance. Her hair bounced and swayed, a black waterfall down her back. When she finally disappeared behind the heavy door to the unisex bathroom, Theron snapped out of a trance he didn't know he'd been in.
          He blinked heavily. This was all quite odd. Generally, Theron was the one doing the inviting, coaxing a lure to meet him somewhere they could be alone and he could feed. Even his male lures waited for him to make the first move, testosterone be damned. Everyone liked to be courted.
          But Lin had taken the initiative and gone to the precise location Theron would have suggested they rendezvous. A delicate frown muddled his forehead. Had he composed the song incorrectly? Had he hit a sour note? What had been different about this serenade to inspire his lure to act so enigmatically?
          Theron, you're overthinking this, and your lure isn't going to hear your song indefinitely.
          Theron thought of Lin's potent energy, and his shoulders twitched. As he refocused on his growing hunger, Theron felt confidence and resolution in his bones. He made a decision. He would not waste a song on his own ill-begotten insecurities. It was time to get on with it. He was hungry.
          Theron tossed back the remnants of his drink and caught his reflection in the glass behind the bar. He gave himself a wink for reassurance and waded through the sea of beach bodies to the bathroom.
          Lin was leaning sideways against the coral tile wall, her back to Theron when he entered. He bolted the lock with quick, nimble fingers and took a deep, measured breath.
          Lin's shoulders glowed in the harsh light of the fluorescents, and relief washed over Theron. Despite his delay, it wasn't too late. The song continued to play in Lin's consciousness.
          "I'm sorry I kept you waiting," Theron said, kicking off his shoes. He stretched his talons and wiggled his toes as cool air hit his scaled skin.
          Lin heaved a sigh in response, and Theron wondered if she was leaning with her hip jutted out like that because she was trying to be seductive or if without the support of the wall, she'd tumble to the floor. Perhaps the song had just now coalesced with her blood and was singing her sweetly to sleep.
          Theron shrugged the suit jacket from his shoulders, and his feathers ruffled in delight. He wished he could stretch and extend his full wingspan, but the tiny confines of the bathroom wouldn't allow for it--unless he wished to break all manner of things--mirrors, plumbing, stalls. That time in Las Vegas had been quite messy, and Persephone had given him an earful.
          Theron looked around briefly for a hook upon which to hang the jacket. When he didn't find one, he folded the material neatly and set it upon a dry section of the bathroom counter. He caught his reflection and took in the familiar sight of his wings, which were magnificent despite his hunger. Lush, white feathers plumed from his broad shoulders, their layers thick and intricate, their construction strong and immaculate. Nothing could tear Theron from the sky when he took to it.
          Despite their beauty, the white color of Theron's wings was an indication of his hunger. When his limbs were starved, the color would seep from his feathers and render him albino. But with Lin's life force in his body, Theron's wings would restore to their natural splendor and take on a deep purple color worthy of royalty. Theron could taste the impending change, and his wings pulsed in anticipation.
          He took a step toward Lin and reached for one of her gold-kissed shoulders. Before Theron could make contact, Lin whipped around, her eyes glowing red, a delicious smile upon her lips. "Hello, lover," she breathed, stepping forward and reaching up for him.
          Theron felt a burst of otherworldly attraction propel him forward. As soon as his body met Lin's, his blood boiled hot and he could think of nothing more than Lin's skin, her hair, the cruel pout of her mouth. He wrapped his arms about her waist and lifted her so her lips could meet his. He kissed Lin deeply with the fervor and passion he usually reserved for feeding. Their chests hitched in haphazard patterns as they struggled to breathe through mouths that hungered for more kisses, more skin, more of each other to ravage.
          Suddenly, Lin pulled her mouth away from Theron's, and her eyes faded from red to a deep jasper hue. She loosed her grip around Theron's neck and as she grew heavier, he bent forward to put her down. As soon as her toes hit the floor, Lin took a step back.
          Wave upon wave of adrenaline washed over Theron and threatened his balance. He stumbled backward into the bathroom counter, then focused on his talons on the turquoise floor to steady his heart.
          Lin leaned against the opposite wall, breathing hard. When Theron glanced up, she gave him a striking, lascivious smile. "I was right about you. You are dangerous."
          "I've never. . ." Theron couldn't find the words. He was flushed and felt utterly out of place. How had a simple hunt turned into something so strange and hedonistic? Even now, Theron wanted to close the gap between them, take Lin's face in his hands, and. . .
          "What the hell was that?" he finally managed.
          "A taste of what's to come," Lin said. "At least, I hope."
          Theron frowned.
          Lin sighed and rubbed her small palms together. "I've been following you."
          Theron's muscles tightened and his feathers bristled. "You've what?"
          Lin held up a hand in defense. "I first noticed you in Denver three years ago. You walked into that little wine bar near the community college in a gray suit, and I, well, I nearly fell into my glass of merlot, along with everyone else in the bar." Lin smirked at the memory. She locked eyes with Theron. "You know you have that effect on people."
          When Theron said nothing, Lin continued. "At first, I thought you'd be my next meal."
          Theron's eyes widened as he began to understand. "You're immortal."
          Lin nodded. "I hadn't preyed on anyone like you before. Of course, this was before I knew you weren't human either. . .You're dripping with sexual energy." She observed him hungrily from his perfectly coifed hair to the tips of his talons.
          Theron remembered the pangs of attraction he'd felt for Lin in the bar, the confusing emotions that had been damn near magnetic and interrupted his hunt. He'd been intoxicated, bewitched, charmed. Realization struck him. "You're a succubus."
          "I am," Lin acknowledged. "You weren't quite so easy to figure out. At first, I thought you were an incubus. Our hunting patterns are very similar--except for how they start. I'll latch on to anyone who I feel is attracted to me. But you. . ."
          "Get an indication of sorts," Theron said.
          "I started noticing the flare," Lin said. "It's very subtle, but I can see it. That's how I knew you weren't human. And then I began to sit close to you to try to figure you out. One night, I heard part of your song." A dreamy look swept over Lin's face. "It was a dirge. It swept me off my feet and threw me into the sea."
          Lin glanced down at her shoes shyly, then back up at Theron. "I've had such conflicting feelings about you, Theron. For a long time, I wasn't sure if I wanted to kiss you or kill you." She took a few steps toward the siren, and her fingers found his. "I mean you no harm, dearest. The exact opposite, in fact."
          Theron instinctively laced his fingers with Lin's. She reached up with an open palm and Theron instinctively dipped forward to allow her to touch his cheek. Something in her caress reminded him of home, the gentle pull of waves and the break of water on sharp stone outcroppings. He closed his eyes and could taste salt on his tongue.
          It was too perfect. Too contrived.
          He snapped his eyes open, suddenly wary. "Are you entrancing me right now?"
          "No," Lin said. She stared up at Theron, suddenly serious, and removed her hand from his cheek. "I bewitched you in the bar. It was the only way I could defend myself from your song. And I used it just now so you would kiss me." She blushed. "I'm sorry if my opening line was a bit bold."
          Theron took a deep breath and ran a hand through his hair.
          "I needed to meet you, Theron," Lin said, peering up at him imploringly. "And I was right about us. About what we could do together. Turn around."
          The siren narrowed his eyes at Lin, then gave in and complied. He turned and found his reflection in the glass. Theron's once-white feathers were now a brilliant purple and gleamed with renewed energy. His olive skin was supple and smooth. His eyes sparkled with mischief. And he suddenly realized he was no longer hungry. "What did you do?" he asked incredulously.
          "It's what we did. Together." Lin appeared next to him in the mirror. "You're quite handsome when you're well-fed." She ran a hand down the front of his vest, and Theron felt a tug in his groin. He shifted his weight, unused to the affection.
          "Why did you do this?" Theron asked
          "Do what?"
          "Give up your life force so I could feed."
          "I didn't give anything up," Lin said. "We participated in a fair exchange. We both fed simultaneously. And had a hell of a lot of fun while we were at it."
          Theron's mind flashed back to the kiss he'd shared with Lin and the resulting excitement of discovering someone new, someone he was drawn to for reasons other than security or hunger.
          Well, it was hunger, but a very different kind.
          Theron's song was but a memory, Lin's supernatural magnetism had abated, and he still wanted to hold her. Theron felt his pulse in his fingertips, a rather foreign sensation. He'd never felt the primal urge to simply touch Persephone. Even if he had, her skin was always cold and impersonal.
          "You feel something, too." Lin peered up at him through thick black lashes.
          "Perhaps," Theron said, trying to remain nonchalant and sort through his feelings.
          "Told you I was dangerous," Lin teased, hopping up to sit on the bathroom counter. She reached behind her and retrieved Theron's suit jacket. She brushed it off, unfolded it, and held it up. "We've been in here for a while."
          Theron gave Lin a cautious look before turning his back on her. He rolled his shoulders, tucking his wings into a compact mass on his back, then allowed Lin to guide the material onto his body. She smoothed the jacket and gave him a little pat.
          Theron turned. "What exactly are you proposing here?"
          Lin giggled. "You're all business, aren't you? But I guess I already knew that about you." She reached for his lapels and pulled him closer. "I just want some time. I've watched you for a while now. I know how I feel about you. I want you to have a chance to figure me out, too."
          Theron smiled at Lin. "Succubus, you could have anyone you want."
          "I know. So could you," Lin said. "That's what makes this so interesting. Can two monsters choose each other--without all the extra help our powers afford? I promise to never enchant you again. Unless you ask for it." She giggled, then hopped down and gathered Theron's shoes. She set them on the countertop beside him and nuzzled his arm. "I'm still not sure whether I'll kiss you or kill you, Theron, but I'd like to find out."
          Lin walked to the door of the bathroom and unlatched the lock. "Consider it. Hunting would be so much more interesting together. And I can think of plenty of other things that take two." She shook her hair and smoothed her dress. "I'm staying by the pier." With that, she disappeared as quickly as a desert mirage, leaving Theron alone in the bathroom, dumbfounded and strangely flattered.
          He peered at his double in the mirror and frowned as if expecting his reflection to make sense of what had just happened. In his periphery, Theron noticed his Cole Haans sitting on the countertop--a huge problem since Lin had unlocked the door. "Shit," Theron mumbled, grabbing the shoes and hastening to get them on before a drunk brunette or a tank-topped bro stumbled in and saw something they shouldn't. Theron grunted as his talons crunched to fit into the leather and then pulled hurriedly at the laces.
          When all inhuman features were sufficiently concealed, Theron slipped out of the bathroom and returned to the bar. He needed a drink.
          He asked the bartender for a whiskey neat and took a deep breath. He tried to piece together the night, beginning with his entrance into Beach Buzz and the ruby flare that had told him to sit by Lin. Had she orchestrated that blaze of red? Was that even possible? How presumptuous and bold if she had. He blew hot air through his nose and shook his head.
          The whiskey arrived. Theron tossed it back and relished the burn in his chest.
          A redhead in ripped denim shorts, a striped tube top, and flip flops suddenly appeared next to him. She leaned over the bar top at a dangerous angle to get the bartender's attention. She ordered two cocktails, then righted herself. As she pushed her red curls behind her ear, she caught sight of Theron and immediately began posturing in a way to attract his attention.
          Theron sighed. This was why he rarely remained in a bar after feeding. His post-meal rejuvenation never failed to attract additional lures. The admirers were flattering, but wholly unneeded. And Theron had far too much to process this evening to deal with an unintentional fan club.
          "What are you drinking...?" The girl looked him in the eyes, asking for his name with her hanging question.
          "Theron. And at the moment, nothing."
          "I'm Beverly." The girl bit her lip.
          Theron's pocket buzzed, and he flinched. He fished his cell phone out of his pants, held it up to Beverly, and shrugged.
          "As long as it's not your girlfriend," Beverly said in a cheery voice.
          Theron glanced at the phone display. It read, SEPH. "Unfortunately, it is," Theron said.
          Disappointment sank Beverly's features, and she turned back to the bar to examine the display of flavored vodka.
          Theron considered ignoring the call, but habit brought the phone to his ear. "Hello."
          "Have you fed?" Persephone's voice was cold and crisp as ocean water.
          "I have. I'm just finishing up here. How are you, Seph?"
          "It's getting late."
          Theron glanced at his watch. "It's only been an hour and a half."
          There was a beat of silence through the line. "I'm sorry, Theron. I just...got worried about you."
          Something in Persephone's voice gave Theron reason to pause. A lack of authenticity...and a hint of desperation?
          "Out with it, Seph," he whispered into the phone.
          Persephone sighed. "I know you had a female visitor. The succubus."
          "And?"
          "I don't approve."
          "Of course you don't."
          "She's a threat to you, Theron. To us."
          Theron frowned at Persephone's mention of them as a couple. She rarely referred to them as such. What they had was an arrangement, one that was rarely labeled.
          Theron caught the attention of the bartender and mimed a request for a glass of water. With a nod, the bartender set to work.
          "What exactly is this concept of us, Seph? Explain it to me. Because it's not just you and me in our little mythological clan. Why am I so important to you?"
          Silence. And then, "She got to you, didn't she? Can't you tell you're entranced? You were perfectly happy when you left to feed. And now. . ." Persephone didn't need to finish the thought.
          She was right. Theron had been content when he strolled into Beach Buzz earlier in the evening. Now, he felt unrest deep in his chest, a yearning that he couldn't quite quantify--and couldn't ignore either.
          It was as if Persephone could read his heart. "You can't be serious, Theron," she spit through the phone line. "After all I've done for you."
          "Seph."
          "You know I can make you come back." Her voice was daggers, sharpened and unsheathed.
          She was right. But she would face fierce consequences for violating their verbal agreement. Thank the gods for the mythological tribunal.
          "We both know what would happen if you tried," Theron said quietly, calmly. "I don't want anyone to get hurt, Seph." He waited a beat. "It's time. I'm appreciative of everything, but I need to go."
          "You ungrateful. . ." Persephone said. "You're going to leave me for that little succubus slut?"
          Theron's water arrived and he gave the bartender an appreciative nod. He could feel the heat of Persephone's rage build through the phone as he laid a fifty-dollar bill on the countertop. A shrill, angry scream sounded through the phone. Theron tore the device from his ear and cupped his hand over the earpiece to muffle the sound of Persephone's fury. In a moment of exasperation, Theron dropped the phone into the nearly full cup of water. He sighed and ran a hand through his hair.
          The bartender looked on with an amused expression. "That's one way to get rid of your woman troubles."
          Theron nodded. "Quite effective. For now."
          The bartender chuckled as Theron stood and buttoned his suit jacket. As he walked away, the bartender called out, "Have a good night. Be safe out there."
          Theron raised a hand in a gesture of thanks, then laughed to himself. Be safe out there. In truth, he wasn't sure if the night held the promise of anything safe, but he did know where he needed to go.
          No one noticed Theron as he exited the bar and glided down the boardwalk toward the pier.
         




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