Mrs. Rigsby always sent the spaghetti over in Tupperware because she was afraid that a paper plate screamed poverty. She didn't seem to mind, either, when they were returned to her without lids or occasionally still coated in a layer of dried sauce. Every Sunday morning after the 9 AM mass she'd drive to the store at the end of the lane, wrinkle her nose at the uncut grass, and ring the bell three times. She never knew what Cassie was doing in the depths of a bookshop on a holy day of obligation, but it always took three rings before her disheveled blonde head popped into view through the glass.
Sleepy blues eyes brightened the moment Cassie recognized her kind, if not overtly religious, neighbor. "Good morning to ya, Mrs. Rigsby!" The Tupperware, lidless but clean, was already in her hands. "Thank you so much. I just love your sauce. It tastes exactly like the kind my mamma used to make."
"It's the least I could do, considering." She eyed the one-pipe windchime dangling off the corner of the shop's faded awning.
Cassie bowed her head and let an Orchard Oriole do the talking for a long half minute. "And I love you for this act of kindness, bless your soul!" Resting a hand on her hip and the other high on a door frame of flaking cream paint, she regarded Mrs. Rigsby with a critical stare. "You and the mister getting on well? I hear you ran into a bit of trouble Thursday night down at the Gopher Hole."
"Jesse didn't mean no harm, but Frank's been gone too long to know that. He's been traveling too much to those conferences." She caught a whiff of syrupy air through the door and eagar to change the subject to something God hadn't forgiven yet said, "You making pancakes? Emmaline serves them for brunch on the first Sunday of each month." Cassie was a good child, but she'd strayed just far enough beyond Valley Church's white picket fence to invoke the herding instinct of the preacher's wife.
Despite her neighbor's insistence, she had no intention of returning to the fold. "Yes, ma'am. I finally worked up enough courage to open the recipe book again." Cassie turned the inside light off and closed the door just enough to make it impossible to peer inside without being obvious, not that Mrs. Rigsby ever thought to be shy about her investigations. "When those feet want to walk there's little you can do about it. Sorry to say sometimes it takes a tragedy to bring you back home." With the sole of her boot she forced a warped stair board back into place. "Wished I spent more time with my parents, I do. I can have a talk with your husband if you'd like."
"No, no." Mrs. Rigsby was a proud woman, matriarch of a large family, and president of the town's council. A seventeen year old correcting private marital problems was preposteriously scandelous. "How are you getting on? You were such a pudgy child. Now it seems like every time I see you, a pound of you has up and disappeared."
"I was five the last time you saw me; I grew out of that stage right quick. I can't have dropped more than a couple pounds since the funeral, and that's mostly because I've been taking care of my figure down at the gym. It doesn't last forever."
Mrs. Rigsby laughed but sucked her gut in and stood a little straighter. "It certainly does not!"
Cassie glanced over her shoulder. "I hate to be a bother, but I think that smell is the pancakes burning. Come back here for tea tomorrow. I'll have an extra sandwich just for you."
"Go on then, darling, wouldn't want you to lose the house, too!" About to head down the stairs, Mrs. Rigsby recalled one final question and turned back around. "Father Raskin arranged for a mass to be said in honor of your parents next Sunday. Will you go?"
The door was already shut.
"Wear your best!" Mrs. Rigsby shouted in a tone that blasted straight through the thin pine door.
Cassie watched her walk across the lawn and squeeze herself into the driver's seat of an old daffodil colored Volkswagen. As it puttered out of sight she locked the door, flipped the sign beside it to "Sorry, we're closed!" and headed to the desk on the back wall. The book shop was small with a cozy apartment (two closets passed off as bedrooms, a galley kitchen, one bath) situated up above. There were pancakes up on the kitchen table, but they were already cooked, the plates washed, and the batter stored in a tepid refrigerator.
Even though the shop was small and the books never more recent than five years back, she loved every inch of it. It was pleasant and quiet and the visitors, stay at home mothers mostly, came less for reading and more for late afternoon sweet tea and a chance to gossip. Kids didn't like it much. The faint decay of rotting knowledge hovered in the dry air, something they feared even in its freshest state.
The typical hours on any given Sunday were from 9AM to 4:30PM, but today the only reason the shop was open was to enable the return of Tupperware. The last thing she needed was for Mrs. Rigsby to take note of anything unusual.
And there was a very unusual man with his boots up on the old roll top desk and spurs dug into the latest edition of Bear Skin. Some might even call him unsavory if they knew he had spent the night upstairs with a minor.
"This isn't the nineteenth century Old West, Cyril." She shoved his legs off, then snatched a ten gallon hat from his head and shook the dust out of it. "This is Abrasca, Texas. We've got manners."
"I'm just getting into character, Cass." Running a hand through short red curls, he observed her through wonderfully curious green eyes, eyes that she could never stay mad at no matter how hard she tried, because they always made her feel like she was punching a kitten. "Listen, I just came to check in on you, see how you were fitting in. Bruce and Lynn died a little too close to home."
"I'm fine, really. I studied for this position." She lifted a hand to slap the next foot that dared drop back onto the antique desk. "Although, I wasn't aware that I was playing a pudgy child. Do I even look at all like their daughter?"
"About that," his phone rang and he answered it. "This is Cyril. Yes, everything appears to be fine." He put his fingers up in quotations for Cassie's benefit.
She rolled her eyes and checked out the damage to the book cover. "You owe me a new copy."
He hung up. "And you owe Big Brother one artifact dating back to 1804, give or take ten years."
"You aren't involved in active missions any more, Cass. That information is awarded on a need-to-know basis. You accepted that stipulation when you filled this position."
"Cy, it's me. We've been partners for years." She kicked back a tattered rug behind the desk and pulled open the trap door beneath.
"That's what makes me nervous," he said, ducking down as he followed her into the dark. At the bottom he had to stoop; unfortunately being very tall often created problems in spaces fit for smaller generations of human beings. Cassie was little more than five foot four the last time they'd measured and even she could see over the tops of these narrow shelves.
There was nothing down in the cellar that any other cellar wouldn't have. There were a fair share of spiders, children's toys, and a faint sprinkling of mice droppings. Everything was perfectly normal except for the far wall, where shoved behind three totes of Christmas decorations was a door half the size of a regular one.
Crawling through wasn't a problem, not when the the other side contained eight foot ceilings that gave him some breathing room. Abrasca County consisted of several cattle ranches and a one-lane town. The bookshop was stationed at the very end of it. The property beyond was a protected wildlife sanctuary filled with little more than dirt, cacti, and road runners, but it was the perfect location for what he considered to be an endless series of adjoining underground storage units. Cassie was trained to know it better than the back of her hand, and zipped through rows and rows of objects, navigating the tunnels like an experienced rat.
And she had to be one, to acquire some of things stored down here. Not everything was from her, of course. Over the years hundreds of travelers contributed to the vast collection of relics, but some of the rarest and most prized were the ones she'd stolen straight out of high level security facilities. How he wished Paul was even half as competent! His current partner couldn't steal a kiss from a baby.
"This should do it. One silver dollar circa 1803." Of all the places to appear, she came from behind him, holding up a small coin in a sealed plastic envelope.
"Mother of God, Cass! You've got to stop doing that!" He clutched at his heart mostly for dramatic effect, although the way she moved always unnerved him a bit when they weren't on a mission. He suspected that her stealth arose from growing up a peasant woman in times where getting noticed got you killed.
"There aren't ever any visitors down here. I have to practice staying sharp at every opportunity." Backgrounds always made her feel free, and not just because when nobody cared it was easier to work. Being a wallflower meant living a quiet, peaceful exisistence that ocassionally made you feel like you were outside the system and exempt from the rules. Although recent years forced a change favoring leadership under the public eye, she always felt most at home when the focus was on somebody else.
"Don't you have friends in the upstairs world to practice on?"
"Their idea of an adventure is getting drunk down at Reynold's Creek after hours. I miss going places, seeing things. They don't do anything in this town." There was a certain wistfulness in the way she turned the coin over in her hands.
Cyril wished he had the authority to transfer her back to his unit. "You mean you miss stealing things for Bruce and Lynn."
She shrugged, but the Cheshire cat grin said it all. "I'm not helping anyone here. I want one rescue, just one more."
"You've only been at this for eight months. Give this life a chance. A lot of blood's been spilt lately. Be thankful it's not yours." He put a hand on her shoulder and tried for the first time in a long while to resemble the serious senior traveler he was supposed to be.
She shrugged him off. "I'm surprised it isn't yours, with the help they have these days."
He didn't laugh because it was disrespectful to Paul, although he very much agreed. "It's dangerous out there. Ricardo doesn't want to risk an asset like you getting killed."
Before he realized he'd struck a nerve Cassie was already standing toe-to-toe with him. "Dangerous was the barn fire. Dangerous was hiding under my brother's body while our village was slaughtered. Dangerous was becoming a knight's whore." Her eyes turned red, her cheeks flushed, and she had to take a deep breath to regain control. "I can handle twenty first century danger."
Cyril pried the coin gently out of her hands. "Don't be so quick to discredit the present. In the past week we've lost six travelers: Dipti and five of the new recruits."
She retreated to the shadows of the nearest shelf. Every time you stepped back in the Timeline there was a possibility of dying, but losing six in one week was unheard of. "That's what you need the coin for, to collect their bodies."
"It may or may not be for damage control, yes."
"In that case, why don't you come upstairs for some tea?" She ushered him back up to the comforts of the apartment kitchen. Even though most of the town was polite enough not to barge into a closed store, there was always a chance that some circumstance would leave to discovery of the opened trap door. As it was her job to guard and maintain the secrets below the shop, Cassie couldn't afford to let that happen.
Once a glass of tea was tight in his hands and the coin tucked away in his shirt pocket, Cyril confided in his former partner. "Dipti's husband is a wreck."
"I did not realize she was married." Had she known him, she might have harbored some sympathy for the man. The keeper of artifacts knew the secrets of items. By law most of her relationships were cut off after she arrived in the little Texas county. A keeper couldn't have friends lest they accidentally acquire an enemy. In an otherwise comfortable life, it was this she hated most. "Who would have done such a thing?"
"A man called Sullivan recently organized the exploratory group Eternite. We do not yet know how he is funded or what country he works for, but we do know that his men have been showing up in the Timeline and murdering our people."
"Do they take anything?"
"Only tomes and documents. Given the theme of stolen works, I'd wager Sullivan has a keen fascination with the pre-Christian gods."
She drew her lips together into a soft frown. "Why would they do that?"
"We haven't got any leads, but keep an eye on any old artifacts of that time period."
"Tomorrow morning I'll contact Fred and talk about transferring them to a safer unit in the capital."
"Thank you, Cass." He set down his glass and got to his feet. "Is there anything I can do for you?"
She had to think hard to come up with something; life in a small town wasn't too difficult, and playing the part of a tender-hearted bookworm was predictable if not boring. "There's been talk between some of the mothers about getting me into school."
"Well, that shouldn't be a problem. The department will mail out a high school diploma in a few weeks." He winked. "Seems to me that a smart thing like you skipped a grade or two."
"That'd be wonderful." Staring out the window at the people headed to the grocery store across the street, she added in "And I think one of the Farmington brothers has a crush on me. He's the only footballer in the state of Texas who visits a bookshop twice a week and actually picks up a book. Sometimes I think he actually reads them!"
This brought a deep frown to Cyril's otherwise happy appearance. "Never let him closer than arm's length."
"Why not, you jealous?" She elbowed him playfully.
"Just looking out for my partner." Cassie never liked him in that way, never had, and he felt the same, but lately with all the deaths he'd been reconsidering the important things in life. Even though he was 25 to her 17, time was of little issue. If she wanted to she could catch him in the blink of an eye. When you're taken out of the Timeline you stop aging. To begin again you need only to return to the moment in time you left. You could never grow younger, but aging was a smart lifestyle choice depending on when you first got pulled. It was about time Cassie put on a few years.
Convincing her to return to the dark age of blood and sacrifice would be almost impossible, and just thinking of it made him feel a little guilty. He knew every nightmare that haunted her, every torturous detail of the beatings, and the location of every scar. How many times he'd seen her sobbing in the bedroom, arms flung around an ageless red brindle greyhound?
"You're doing a great job of it."
He drummed his fingers on the doorframe, shaking himself out of the somber thoughts. "Hey, have a great eightieth! Don't turn into an old lady yet. I'm not ready for that level of crankiness."
Last night he stopped by for a visit bearing an ice cream cake. The other half of it was slowly melting in her sorry excuse of a freezer. "Stay safe." She pushed him out the door with a smile.
"I promise. Be on the lookout for a small birthday present." As a senior traveler Cyril was a busy man. He didn't come to check up on her; he came because he felt bad that after sixty-three years of government work the agency couldn't be bothered to send her a card.