crowded
Crowded Magazine, April 2014: Theobromancy by A. E. Decker
Theobromancy by A. E. Decker

A shaft of early sunlight squeezed through the open door, falling over the chocolate Chinese dragon that dominated Zach's kitchen. Five feet tall and ten feet long, the dragon shimmered with the iridescent green, gold, and rose hues he'd worked into its brown scales. Its delicately ribbed wings unfurled like the folds of an antique parasol.

Not even Master Terrence can match me in carving, thought Zach; a sentiment best spoken in the privacy of his own mind. Or at least not in front of Master Terrence.

"Hi, honey. I'm home," he said, opening The Cocoa Dragon's back door a little wider. The rich, heavy scent of chocolate wrapped him in a warm embrace. He sucked it deep into his lungs. "I've been away from this too long."

The dragon seemed to cast him a jaundiced eye.

"Okay, one week," admitted Zach, stepping into the kitchen. His bare arms goose-pimpled at the transition from Baltimore humidity to air-conditioned coolness. "Long for me."

He threw his keys onto the counter by the sink then started towards the dragon, sitting in a splendor of brown coils atop his worktable. Just a little work on its scales and wings and it'll be ready to move into the showroom.

He paused. What was that dark splotch on the floor between his worktable and the main counter? Spilled chocolate he'd forgotten to clean up? Frowning, Zach flipped the light switch.

A round, bristly body the size of a fist. Eight spindly legs. The overhead lights illuminated every hideous detail of the chocolate spider squatting in the middle of the Cocoa Dragon's kitchen tiles.

Big, brown, hairy spider! Oh god, oh god. Big, brown, oh god, hairy spider! Big--

"Zach?" said a voice.

Oh god, oh god--

"Yo, Zach?" The pungent scent of coffee wafted by.

Zach blinked. Coffee? "Casey?" he asked.

"Yep," replied his friend's voice from the open doorway. More coffee fumes wafted inside to war with the chocolate odor. "How'd you get up there?"

"Up where?" asked Zach. The last minute had passed in a panicked haze. He looked around. "Oh." Up on one of the shelves attached to the north wall. The cool smoothness of a jar of Peruvian beans pressed against one arm; he was hugging it like a child snuggling a teddy bear.

Zach risked a glance down. The hairy brown horror still squatted on the tiles, only three feet below his dangling toe-tips.

Asphalt crunched under Casey's feet as he shifted position to lounge against the doorframe. "It's a spider, isn't it? You big chicken."

"Yes, yes." The shelf--a big, sturdy thing, custom-built to hold thick glass canisters--groaned. Not meant to take this much weight. Zach shuddered, picturing it coming unmoored, dropping him to meet his bristly, eight-legged fate. "Think you could squash it for me?" he asked, clutching the jar a bit tighter.

Heaving a sigh, Casey pushed off the doorframe. "All right, I'll kill your nasty spider for you." He ambled inside, the two thermal mugs he carried clinking in time to his stride.

He spotted the spider. Stopped dead, his eyes widening until the whites gleamed all around his brown irises. "Shit."

"Shit," Zach agreed. The shelf creaked; it was definitely tilting. "Hurry up and squash it."

"Hell, no." Casey planted himself. "That bastard's magical. I just came to bring you coffee. Squashing magical spiders wasn't part of the bargain."

Fresh groans from the shelf. Zach forced himself to concentrate. "Fetch my mortar and pestle. They're on the shelf over the sink."

The spider clicked its mandibles, a nasty metallic sound reminiscent of an afternoon in the dentist's chair. Shivering, Zach uncoiled his arm from around the jar of Peruvian beans and lifted the lid. Taking out a handful, he rolled them between his palms. The savory-sweet-floral fragrance of raw cocoa clung to his skin.

"Here," said Casey, handing up the mortar and pestle. The spider chittered again, as if sensing a change in its fortune. Casey danced back, nearly tripping over the laces on his battered Converse high tops. Setting his jaw, Zach dropped the beans into the mortar. A few brisk strokes of the pestle reduced them to a coarse brown powder. The spider reared up, boxing the air with its hairy front legs.

Any moment now the bastard's going to jump at me, thought Zach. Cold sweat ran down his spine. Hastily, he scooped up a handful of pulverized beans and sifted it through his fingers. The powder spiraled down onto the white tiles, settling in a perfect circle around the spider. With a furious click, it dashed itself against the barrier--and was thrown back.

Releasing the breath that had been congealing in his lungs ever since he'd first spotted the thing, Zach slid off the shelf. The spider, all bitter Nigerian cocoa and malice, hurled itself against the barrier again and Zach leapt back, jostling against the worktable. Spiders. Magical creatures, even when they weren't made of chocolate. Every time he saw one, he discovered how to teleport. At least he shortly thereafter found himself perched on something high, several feet away.

"Right," he said. He ran a hand through his hair, straightened his shirt, then knelt down next to the circle of crushed beans. The spider hissed. "Who sent you?"

"Has to be one of your Theobromancer buddies, right?" said Casey, crouching beside him. Under the florescent lights, Casey's features resolved into the pallor of the night owl and the dark-circled eyes of the near-terminal caffeine addict.

"Yes." Zach reached under his shirt, to where a gilded flower hung from a cord around his neck. "Except for the part about them being my buddy."

Pulling out the flower, he studied it. Ten golden petals gleamed with a buttery shine. The five outer ones formed a pointed star while the rounded interior ones shaped a central pentagon from which half a dozen long stamens sprouted. A gilded theobroma cacao blossom: the emblem of a Theobromancer. Less than a hundred aspiring chocolate wizards had been deemed worthy of wearing it.

"Has to be one who knows about your spider thing," said Casey.

"Arachnophobia."

"Gesundheit."

Zach winced but let it pass. "There's James."

"And Alice, of course," said Casey.

"Of course." Zach pretended his heart hadn't just made a little leap at his estranged wife's name. "Lucy knows too, unfortunately." He'd never got on with his sister-in-law. "And Master Terrence."

"Anyone else?" asked Casey.

"One more. Marcel."

Marcel. Master Terrence's other apprentice. Zach nibbled a nail. Could he still be sore over that prank I pulled at the last Guild meeting? Come on; everyone knows Boy Wonder would never use margarine instead of butter in his truffles. But of course the snooty little shit had no sense of humor.

"You think it's Marcel?" asked Casey.

"Makes sense," said Zach, studying the spider. "This smacks of a challenge. If he beat me in a chocolate duel, he could claim one of my special recipes as a prize."

His jaw tightened. "I always suspected the little bastard was trying to weasel the secrets of my Tallar Vida recipe from me. Looks like he's moved on to more direct means of acquiring it."

His Tallar Vida recipe. His signature spell, which had earned him a promotion in the Theobromancer's ranks. The very thought of handing it over to Master Terrence's boy-prodigy made his blood boil. Tucking the golden theobroma back in his shirt, he rose. "I'll need evidence to prove it's Marcel."

Casey bent closer to the spider. "Hey, there's a mark on its back." His hand lifted to point.

"No!" Zach grabbed for his wrist.

Too late. Casey's fingertip crossed the air above the circle. The barrier broke. Quick as a blink, the spider leapt onto the back of Zach's right hand and bit.

OH, GOD!!! He flung it across the room, shivering with the after-effects of its hairy, prickling touch. And now comes the agony, he thought, shuddering down to his very bones. Please don't hurt as much as the Brazilian wandering spider's bite. He'd never imagined that shopping for bananas in Rio could lead to a week of agony until it happened. Of course the black widow's bite had been awful too. And the brown recluse's.

He braced himself, jaw clenched rictus-tight. Ten heartbeats passed.

The back of his hand itched once.

Ten heartbeats more.

He opened his eyes. "That's all?"

"No," said a new voice.

Both Zach and Casey jumped as the spider stood on its hind legs and grinned--an expression never designed to grace the face of an arachnid, even one made of chocolate.

"You have eight hours to defeat me, Zach," it grated, the words rolling over each other like beans in a grinder. "When that mark turns violet, I'll claim my reward."

Bang. The spider erupted in a puff of brown dust. Zach flung up an arm to shield his face from the acrid waft of burnt cocoa. When the red-tinged fumes parted, nothing remained of the spider save a crusty stain on the white tiles.

"That was my fault, wasn't it?" coughed Casey, fanning the air.

"Yeah." Zach studied the small, almost heart-shaped, pink pucker now marking the back of his hand. "Eight hours." He opened a drawer and took out a knife. Dropping to his knees, he scraped spider residue off the floor.

"What are you doing?"

"I need to find out who's behind this," said Zach, brushing residue into a dish. "Marcel might not be the culprit. It could be Lucy trying to humiliate me or one of Master Terrence's crazy tests."

"Slow down." Casey grabbed his arm as he dashed for the pantry. "What about the bite?"

Zach rubbed his chin. "It's not fatal; just a way of putting a timer on the challenge." He looked at the puckers on his hand again. If his time ran out, if he lost--which was not going to happen--the theobromancy now coursing through his veins might make him lose his powers for a month. Or turn his skin neon green. Something to add an extra little cherry of shame on top of surrendering his Tallar Vida recipe.

"You're right," said Zach. "Nullifying the bite's just as important as finding the culprit." Reaching out, he stroked the dragon's nose. "Sorry, pal. Your scales have to wait."

Plucking a leathery pod of vanilla off an overhead rafter, he turned to Casey. "I'll test the residue while you tend to the antidote."

"Whatdaya mean, 'we'?" Casey drew himself up. "I have my own business to run, you know."

Busy splitting the pod and dropping it into a pot of cream, Zach snorted. Casey opened his coffee shop whenever the whim struck him, closed it likewise, wandered off and left it in the hands of his baristas for hours on end, and lost the keys to the till more often than he ate a hot meal.

"Besides, I don't know how to do your chocolate magic stuff," Casey added.

"Who's the reason I got bitten in the first place?" Zach handed him a wooden spoon.

"Oh, all right." Casey took the spoon. Slouching against the counter, he sucked the last drops of coffee out of his mug.

"All you have to do is stir." Zach set the pot on the stove and added a pinch of dried chilies to the mixture. "Venezuelan trinitario chocolate," he said, chopping up a dark brown block. "When sweetened with Hawaiian white honey, it'll neutralize any spell." He grinned smugly. "It's my own special mixture."

"Yeah, yeah, you're a genius." Casey slouched lower, his body practically forming an s curve. "Don't you want your coffee?" he asked, pointing the spoon at the red mug still sitting on the worktable.

"No." Zach dropped the chocolate into the cream. "Coffee contains theobromine, you know. It has its own power. You need to be careful about mixing the two."

"That's mine then." Stepping forward, Casey appropriated the red mug. Zach couldn't help casting it a regretful look. The beginnings of a caffeine headache pounded at his temples. Casey made coffee almost thick enough to cut and chew.

I'll take it out of Marcel's hide later, Zach promised himself. "Okay," he said, stepping aside. "Just stir slowly so it doesn't burn. It'll take about an hour."

"An hour? What if I have to piss?"

"Cross your legs." Zach scraped spider residue onto a block of white chocolate.

Casey flipped him off. Zach reciprocated.

"You're never going to grow up, are you?" said a voice in his head. Alice's voice, an echo of that last, dreadful night. He, James, and Casey clutching their video game controllers. She, standing in the den's doorway, tears pouring down her cheeks, fists trembling on her hips.

I thought you were asleep. I thought you'd cried yourself to--

Focus. Zach banished the memory, but a whiff of rose oil seemed to linger in his nostrils as he heated a silver knife in the flame of a beeswax candle. He used its edge to melt a second slab of white chocolate over the first. Step one, he thought, setting the fused slab on the counter.

It took the better part of an hour to draw a ten-pointed star out of cocoa on the floor near the sink. At last, knees throbbing, the whorls of his fingertips caked brown, Zach sat back to gauge his handiwork. Pretty good, he decided. The symmetrical dark lines contrasted beautifully with the pale kitchen tiles.

"How much longer do I have to do this?" called Casey from the stove.

"Just a few minutes," said Zach, going to retrieve the spider-infused white chocolate slab. Returning to the star, he set it in the center, turned it three times clockwise and once counterclockwise, then hefted the small steel mallet he used for cracking toffee.

"Let's find out who's behind this," he said, and let the heavy head fall. The dull crack of impact brought a smile to his lips. A wisp of reddish-purple smoke curled out of the shards of stained white chocolate. Before Zach could make any sense of the pattern, it dissipated.

"Dammit!"

"What?" asked Casey.

Zach stood, knees popping. "I couldn't make out the signature." Snatching up a hunk of white chocolate, he slammed it onto the counter next to the stove. "Whoever's behind this hid their identity well. All I can make out is that the residue is too light to be Master Terrence's work."

"So your list of suspects is down to..." Casey scratched an ear. "Four. Marcel, Lucy, James, and Alice."

At the last name, Zach's stomach wriggled again. Grabbing the ladle, he dipped up a scoop of antidote. "I'd say Marcel's still candidate for Public Enemy Number One, with Lucy next in the running."

I'll have to devise some other test, he thought, blowing a wisp of steam off the surface of the melted chocolate shimmering in the ladle. Pure trinitario beans made for a particularly delectable chocolate, with a rich, lingering aftertaste that settled on the tongue like a kiss. Mouth watering, he brought the ladle to his lips.

And a shiny, bulbous shape plummeted from the rafters. Casey yelped, flinging up an arm as a second fist-sized spider swung past his face, suspended on an invisible thread. The lid popped off the red mug, splattering coffee everywhere. The ladle dropped from Zach's hand as he teleported onto the worktable.

Settling on the counter's edge, the new spider folded its front legs under its chin. "Not so easy, Zach," it rasped, favoring him with another of those hideous arachnid-inappropriate grins. "Not so easy."

Then it exploded. A chunk of burnt chocolate spider, a leg still attached, grazed Zach's cheek. Somehow, he managed to control his bladder.

"Much more of this and I'm going to develop a spider complex too," said Casey, fanning smoke out the window.

Zach climbed off the table. "I'm beginning to think it might be Lucy after all," he said. "She always found my arachnophobia hilarious." Fetching a clean ladle, he dipped up another scoop of antidote. He sipped. Silky bitterness mellowed by lush cream--

--with a slightly sour, aromatic aftertaste.

A cramp seized his bitten hand. "Ooh," he grunted, grabbing his wrist. His fingers flexed and stiffened. The ladle pinged across the floor, dappling the white tiles with brown Dalmatian spots.

Casey whirled around. "What happened?"

"You got coffee in my antidote," Zach snarled as the small pink pucker on the back of his hand darkened to red.

"I did not--oh." Casey scratched his head. "Some might've fallen in when that spider came down." He sniffed the pot of antidote. "Yep. I could smell coffee in a perfume factory."

"What a talent." Zach's hand stopped spasming. Wiping sweat off his brow, he went to the refrigerator, took out a bottle of water, and drank several long swallows.

"Personally, I think coffee improves the taste." Casey dipped a finger in the pot.

Zach refrained from beating his head against the stainless steel refrigerator door. "Remember what I said about mixing coffee and chocolate?"

"Sort of," said Casey, licking his finger.

"Well, one of coffee's properties is to speed things up." He let that piece of information sink in then held up his hand. "See this? Judging by how much the color's darkened, I'd say the addition of coffee to my antidote has cut my time in half!"

"Oh." Casey stopped sucking on his finger. "Can't you just make more?"

"No antidote's going to work so long as I have your blasted nuclear-strength coffee in my system." Zach scowled at the mark. "At least that second spider--"

"The black widow," said Casey.

"Huh?"

"The second one was a black widow. They're the round ones with the hourglass on their bellies, right?" Casey traced the shape in the air. "Well, the first spider was something else."

That's right; Casey had mentioned seeing something on its back right before the barrier broke. "Was the mark kind of violin-shaped?" he asked.

"Yeah, I guess."

Black widow, brown recluse, and...

Brazilian wanderer. Zach swallowed bile. No, his mystery attacker wouldn't forget that one. So, somewhere out there, waiting--oh, god. If he'd known what this day held in store for him, he'd have taken another week off. Now, of course--

The mark itched.

--too late.

He rolled his hand into a fist. "That's a clue. Whoever's sending the spiders must know the order in which they bit me."

"Hey, great," said Casey. He held up his hand for a high five.

Zach didn't slap it. "No," he said. "Not great at all."

Because only three Theobromancers knew the order in which the poisonous spiders had bitten him. Having already eliminated Master Terrence, that left--

Alice or James. His wife or his best friend.

Why? He squeezed his eyes shut. Why would either of them--?

Unless...his eyes flew open. One glance at the calendar clarified everything. "Oh, shit!"

Casey jumped. "What now?"

Pushing off the refrigerator, Zach took down a canister of beans. "Now you're going to go buy some roses."

He may as well have said: "you're going to go stick your balls in a vise." Casey screwed up his face. "Flowers?" he wailed. "No!"

Zach took up his largest mortar and pestle. "Make sure they're yellow," he said as he started to grind.

#

Fifteen pounds of hand-ground cocoa beans. That, plus one hell of a magical effort, was what it would take to transport himself to London.

"Did you have to move so far away, Alice?" asked Zach, dumping another half-pound of beans into his mortar. Gee, only seven more pounds to go. He didn't even want to contemplate how much his shoulder would ache tomorrow.

His ire abated as the pile of uncrushed beans dwindled. Of course she'd moved back home after the mis--the separation. And at least she hadn't cut him off entirely; Theobromancers needed permission to use their fellow chocolate wizards' ports.

The back door smacked open hard to leave a black mark on the wall. Casey slouched in, a mug in one hand and a bouquet of yellow roses in the other, managing to suggest through posture alone that being forced to carry flowers lowered his masculinity by 17.4%.

"Here," he said, thrusting them at Zach.

Zach poked his chin towards the table. "Put them there," he said, dumping the last of the beans into the mortar. Setting his jaw, he picked up the pestle for the last, agonizing effort.

Casey tossed the roses onto the table and wiped his hand on his jeans. "Man, you're making a mess," he said. A thin brown layer of cocoa dust coated nearly every surface.

Zach grunted. He didn't want to contemplate the cleaning job he'd have tomorrow--before opening the shop--either.

Assuming his skin wasn't glowing neon green by then, that is.

There. The last of the beans, ground. Picking up the roses, he rubbed a bright petal between his fingers. Their dusty-spice fragrance tickled his nose. "Hope these do the trick," he said, stepping into the pile of crushed beans. The brown dust puffed up over his ankles then began slowly sliding into his shoes like a horde of curious insects.

Casey sniggered. "Shut up," said Zach, making the necessary passages to transport himself to London. The spell took effect with a faint sizzle, reminiscent of frying bacon.

"Good luck," Casey called. Then The Cocoa Dragon's kitchen melted into streaks of bleary color. A bitter-tasting wind ruffled Zach's hair. A hundred tiny hands, smelling of burnt caramel, slapped the space behind his eyeballs. The world burbled quietly to itself, like a child preoccupied with a lollipop, before re-settling under his feet: a quiet gray London street, a damp gray London afternoon. Staggering, Zach might have fallen if he hadn't caught hold of the edge of a window box. Pink geraniums nodded back at him.

"Hi, guys," he said. His stomach settled enough for him to cautiously raise his head. A disheveled man in a red shirt stared back at him. It took a moment for him to recognize his own reflection in the shop window. Alice's shop? He straightened further. Indeed, it was The Candy Doll, blue-and-white as a Delft teacup. A silver dish of Opera creams sat amongst curls of frothy lace in the display window.

"Here we go." Zach smoothed down his hair and tugged the wrinkles out of his shirt. He assembled a winning smile. A middle-aged woman came out of the grocer's shop next door. Her puzzled glance turned to disdain as it took in first his ponytail, then his earring, and finally the tattoo of a Chinese dragon peeking out of his collar.

"Hello," he said, trying out his winning smile. She ducked her head and hurried away.

"Your loss, lady," he shrugged, and pushed open The Candy Doll's door. A little bell chirped. The aroma of melted chocolate, somehow brighter and fruitier than the fragrance that permeated his own shop, wreathed him in a warm cloud.

"Be with you in a moment," called a voice from the kitchen. Alice's voice. His heart tipped over.

"Behave," he told it. Adopting what he hoped would pass for a casual pose next to a basket of pralines, he gazed around the shop. Not bad. Little round tables for patrons to drink cocoa and a blue-and-white patterned floor. Too many doilies and scraps of lace, however. She should get rid of those, maybe paint the walls--

Alice emerged from the kitchen carrying a tray of--oh, not good--those white-tipped, rum-filled confections known as nipples of Venus. The soft swell of her own truffles just peeked above the "v" neck of her blouse, her gilded theobroma glinting between them.

She halted so abruptly it was a wonder the chocolates didn't slide right off the tray. Her already big blue eyes widened. With her petite stature and honey-blonde hair, she bore a resemblance to a doll. An edible one, at that.

Bad thought. No, no! "Hello, Allie," said Zach.

No hint of reproach showed in her face as she set the tray down on the counter. "Zach," she said, cheeks cotton-candy pink, "how nice to see you."

Maybe she wasn't as angry as he feared. The knot between his shoulders loosened. "Nice to see you too, Allie. And I'm sorry."

Her brows drew together.

"I didn't mean to forget, especially after all those promises that I wouldn't."

A little crease appeared between her eyes. Taking it as a bad sign, Zach hurried on.

"You have every reason to be angry, but please call off your spiders." Dropping to one knee, he extended the roses with a flourish.

"Spiders?" she asked.

The word hung in the air. So, for a moment, did his jaw. "You know, the spiders you set on me this morning?"

The line between her brows smoothed to mask-like blankness.

"In punishment for my forgetting our anniversary?" he prompted.

Her face came back to life. Clapping a hand over her mouth, she turned away, muffled giggles squeaking out between her fingers. "Did you forget to change your calendar again?" she asked.

What did that have to do with anything? Then an image of his calendar, hanging on the wall beside his copper pots, popped into his head. The album cover of Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon.

But that was the picture for June, wasn't it? He vaguely remembered July being Nirvana's Nevermind.

Zach shook his head. He'd glimpsed the "Ju" and assumed he was looking at the right month.

Meanwhile, Alice composed herself. "You never could ask for directions. Or dates." She cupped his face. "Today's July the tenth. You're six days early, not three days late."

Her fingers caressed his jaw. He stared into her cleavage, mind blank of all thoughts save one.

"You didn't send the spiders? But--"

His list of candidates fell away to one. James? Why?

"You may as well take these," he said, dragging himself to his feet and pushing the roses into her arms. "Happy pre-emptive anniversary." He slumped into a chair next to one of the round tables.

"Zach?" Alice touched his shoulder. "What's wrong?"

"The spiders, the chocolate spiders, weren't you listening?" He flapped his right hand through the air. "Someone's issued a challenge. I've been bitten. See?"

Catching hold of his wrist, she studied the red mark. "I've never seen a spell like this. Any idea who's responsible?"

"James," he said.

She gasped. "James? Never."

He shrugged miserably.

"Never," she said. "If he sent a spider, it would've been on roller skates or wearing a clown suit."

That wrung a smile from him. Yeah, that sounded exactly like something James would do. But his smile faded all too quickly. "James must blame me for what happened last--"

Her face tightened. Zach ended the sentence before the old pain grew too sharp. "Anyway, my challenger has to be a Theobromancer of my level who knows I was bitten by a brown recluse, a black widow, and a Brazilian wanderer, in that order," he continued. "You and James--"

The pink in her cheeks darkened to a less attractive red. "So your first thought was that I was throwing a tantrum over you forgetting our anniversary again."

He shrugged. "You did say you'd shave me bald and tattoo 'idiot' across my scalp if I forgot it again."

Rising in one sharp movement, Alice stalked to the counter and began arranging her nipples of Venus on a doily-covered plate.

"What?" asked Zach.

She slammed a truffle down hard enough to crack its shell. "That was a joke." She looked up and Zach caught the full force of three married years' worth of frustration between the eyes. "Hyperbole. I thought humor might get through to you. God knows it worked for your friends."

Zach jumped up, knocking over his chair. "Are you accusing me of neglecting you, Alice?" he demanded, pressing his fists against the counter. "Because I tried, I really did. And I was hurting too, not that anyone seemed to care."

She glared back. "James and I both care deeply for you, and you know it."

"Until you both deserted me in the same month!"

His shout rang echoes off the bell suspended over the door.

Alice cracked another truffle. The small sound might as well have been gunfire in the sudden quiet.

Zach's ears caught up with his mouth. He would have gladly throttled himself to take back those last words.

Alice delicately arranged one last truffle on top of the pyramid then spread her hands to either side of the plate. "You know why I left."

All the burning rage of a moment earlier turned to mush in his gut. "Yes, I do."

She looked away. He swallowed, a "sorry" hovering on his lips like an uncertain butterfly. "You shouldn't sell the cracked ones," he said instead, taking one of the broken truffles off the plate. He reached for the other the same second she did. Their fingers collided. Her wet blue eyes lanced him and he drew back, stuffing his hands into his pockets.

"Idiot!" Alice swung away from him, grabbing for a tissue. Some wet, insanitary sounds followed before she turned back, pale but composed. "Black widows are more poisonous than brown recluses, and Brazilian wanderers are worse than black widows," she said. "Have you considered that whoever's attacking you is saving the worst for last and it's only coincidence that you were bitten in that order?"

"A coincidence?" The idea spun through his head, sparkling prettily from every angle. "You're right!" he cried, seizing her up in a rough hug and dancing her around the shop. "So it's Marcel or Lucy, then," he said.

"You're accusing my sister?" She pulled free, brushing at her hair.

Zach smiled. "Does she still refer to me as Satan's bastard stepchild?" he asked, knowing he could checkmate her where her twin was concerned. "You know she'd relish winning my Tallar Vida recipe off me."

Her lips pursed. "Sounds like you're convinced it's Lucy."

"Her or Marcel," said Zach, pressing his brow to hers.

He hadn't been so close to her in months. She gazed up at him, smelling of roses, eyes wide and wondering. It would be such a simple thing to lean in for a kiss, make it a long one--

He caught sight of his own hand, clasping her shoulder. From apple-red, the bite mark had darkened to pomegranate.

No time for kisses. There were still some bits of the chocolate black widow lying around The Cocoa Dragon's kitchen; perhaps he could get an identification off those. "Mind if I borrow some chocolate?" he asked.

"No, but Zach--"

"Thanks," he said, grabbing five bars of dark chocolate off a shelf. Enough to get him home; traveling to one's own port was a simpler matter. "Bye, Allie."

"Wait." Going to the door, she flipped the sign to closed and turned the lock.

"What are you doing?"

"Helping you," she replied, then muttered: "Before you do something really stupid." But she said it quietly enough that he could ignore it. She disappeared into the back room. Something fell with a crash and she swore discreetly. A little more rattling, then she emerged, carrying a sack.

"You have fifteen pounds of ground beans ready?" he asked as she dumped its contents onto the floor.

"Unlike you, I believe in being prepared," she said, stepping into the pile of powder. "See you in Baltimore, darling."

She blurred and vanished. Alice. Back in Baltimore, after nearly a year's absence. Zach wasted nearly a minute staring at the space where she'd been before a tingle from his hand recalled him to his purpose.

#

"Hi, Zach." Casey waved. He'd fetched his portable espresso machine. He bent over it like a mad scientist tinkering with his chemistry set and an ungodly roar filled the air. Steam rose and white foam dribbled over Zach's marble countertop. The smell of coffee had temporarily won the battle over the aroma of chocolate.

What a homecoming. Zach glanced at his calendar. Nirvana's Nevermind. But surely it had been Pink Floyd when he left...?

No; he couldn't remember. The images blurred together. "Where's Alice?" he called over the mechanical whines, growls, and rumbles.

"Over there." Casey jerked his head in some vague direction.

"Where?" shouted Zach at the exact the same moment that Casey flipped some lever and the awful noise died. Of course.

"I'm here," said Alice. She stepped out from behind the dragon, her eyes sparkling like colored sugar. "Did you carve this? All of it?"

She's really here. Here, in my kitchen.

He forced himself to concentrate. "Of course." He scanned the floor for a chunk of the chocolate widow.

"Wow!" Her fingertips hovered over the curve of the dragon's neck. "Are you going to show this to Master Terrence? He'd be so impressed."

Zach laughed shortly and squatted for a closer inspection of the tiles. "Yeah right. He'd say, 'Yes, nice whatsit, but just look at those lopsided truffles. What did you fill them with, gravel? Shape up, boy!'"

"Oh, nonsense," Alice said, pulling out a stool next to Casey. "He's tremendously proud of you."

"Proud of me?" said Zach. "When he has Marcel Lepret, boy-genius extraordinaire?" He slammed a fist against his thigh. "Where the hell is it?"

"What are you looking for?" asked Alice.

Zach stood. "I know the black widow exploded around here some--"

He stopped. The antidote pot had been cleared away, the counters wiped clean of cocoa powder. He spun around. Even his ten-pointed star had been mopped up. "The hell?" he said, staring about his sparkling kitchen.

"I cleaned," said Casey, glancing up from a steel pitcher containing enough woolly milk foam to clothe an entire flock of sheep. "To make up for getting coffee in your antidote."

Cleaned? Casey chose now, of all times, to suffer a fit of conscience? "And the black widow pieces?" Zach asked, holding his breath.

Casey inverted his thumb. "Down the drain."

"Oh, shit." Zach slumped against the counter. The mark on his hand was taking on rich wine hues. Maybe two hours before it turned violet.

"Did I do something wrong?" asked Casey.

There has to be something I can do. Zach scanned the kitchen. Copper pots, bins of nuts, canisters of beans, ingots of chocolate...

And the dragon, lording over its worktable, as if it were the guardian of it all.

The dragon. An idea formed in Zach's head; a mad, desperate, but just-feasible idea. Darting to a drawer, he pulled out his carving tools and a pair of vinyl gloves. Snapping on the gloves, he studied the dragon's unfinished scales.

He didn't have to look to know astonished glances were being exchanged behind his back. "What are you doing?" asked Alice.

"I can't transport directly to Marcel's shop; he locked me out of his portal," said Zach, setting a chisel to the dragon's tail. A tiny curl of chocolate appeared.

Alice sucked in a breath. "You're not...you're mad!"

Zach's lips tightened against his teeth. "If he wants my Tallar Vida spell he'll get it. In spades."

"What if it's Lucy?" asked Casey, an edge in his voice. Alice swung round on him.

"It isn't," she said. The tension between them could've melted the whole of Zach's stock.

"I'm locked out of Lucy's portal too," said Zach, overriding the impending quarrel. "I don't have time to confront them both."

Silence fell over the kitchen, save for the grating tick, tick of the wall clock chopping down the minutes. Zach switched to a curved blade to work on the dragon's wings.

Alice cleared her throat. "Might I borrow fifteen pounds of beans?" she asked.

Zach looked up, blinking. She stared down at her hands, folding and unfolding themselves on her lap. "I'm not locked out of Lucy's portal. I could go ask her--not that I believe she's the culprit, mind."

Casey scoffed and she shot him a glower.

"You'd do that for me?" asked Zach.

"Of course." Alice's lips thinned. "All you had to do was ask."

Zach winced. It was his turn to stare at his hands. He never did ask, did he? Always assumed he knew best and went from there. But I often do know best, he protested internally. The voice sounded tiny and petulant.

Alice was waiting. Clearing his throat, Zach nodded to his pantry. "There are some five pound sacks in there. Take what you need."

"I'll gather some chocolate for you," said Casey, standing.

After an hour of carving, Zach's right shoulder started clicking in its socket. Never mind, he thought, I'll just cut my arm off tomorrow. He bit back a laugh of pure weariness. His head swam and his eyes burned, filled with grit.

On the floor next to the worktable, Alice ground beans, her sleeves rolled past her elbows. Several strands of butter-yellow hair had worked loose from her clip and stuck to her cheeks. Watching her out of the corner of an eye, he remembered falling asleep with his ear pressed to her arm, her pulse singing a lullaby.

"You could say 'thank you,'" she said.

He jumped--fortunately not while carving. He didn't think she'd noticed him watching her.

"Thank you," he said after a moment. "I know you don't want to believe Lucy's behind it."

She dumped another handful of beans into the pestle. "I can't think of a reason why she'd challenge you."

"Except that she's a bitch," said Casey, emerging from the pantry with a stack of white chocolate.

Alice stopped grinding to glare.

"Sorry, Allie." Zach moved around the worktable to start on the dragon's other side. "After what she did to James, I feel the same way."

"What did she do to James?" asked Alice, making every syllable ring in her crisp, British way.

Zach bit his lip.

"It was more what she did to those five or six other guys," said Casey, and stalked back to the pantry.

Alice turned wide eyes and an "o" of a mouth on Zach.

He ran a hand over his scalp. "Yeah." Shit; he'd forgotten about the gloves. Now he had chocolate in his hair. Well, wasn't the first time. "James was about to propose when he found out," he continued, fetching a fresh glove. "Bought the ring and everything. That's why he moved to Australia, to get as far away from her as possible."

He couldn't keep the bitterness out of his voice. "Australia. I was going to visit him there this week. But I couldn't do it. I just knew every funnel web spider in the country would be waiting to greet me. Ended up cleaning the house instead--what a great vacation." He held up his marked hand. "And then I come back here and get bitten anyway. That's irony for you."

"Oh, Zach." Alice's arms encircled him from behind. "I'm sorry. I didn't know."

"James didn't want you to know." He glowered at Casey, who responded with an unrepentant shrug.

"Still sure she didn't send the spiders?" Casey asked.

Zach could have choked him when Alice took her arms from around his waist and set her fists on her hips. "Yes."

"It doesn't matter," said Zach. "You'll confront Lucy, and if she's innocent, no harm, no foul." He checked the mark. Definitely shading more into purple now. I can't spare more than half an hour, he decided, selecting another tool.

Beside him, Alice bent back to her grinding. "I'm not convinced it's Marcel either," she said, sotto voce.

Zach grunted.

"I know you don't get on, but he's a sweet boy, really," she continued.

Zach's lips curled as he sliced tiny "V" shapes into the dragon's fringe. Alice's fondness for Marcel was another mark in the twit's disfavor, as far as he was concerned.

"He can't help that he's bright."

"Someone has to be responsible," snapped Zach, selecting a gouge. "If it isn't Marcel or Lucy, then who?"

Her sigh blew a damp strand of hair off her forehead. "Well, I see you have it all worked out, as usual." She dropped another handful of beans into the mortar.

His gut twisted. "I didn't mean to--" He done it again, hadn't he? But who could it be aside from Marcel or Lucy?

The clock ticked impassively on. A quarter of an hour struck down, gone in an eye-blink. Zach willed his tiring hand not to shake.

Five minutes later, the tool slipped from his numb fingers and gashed three scales. Fighting back an expletive, he smoothed the damage away.

Ten. Taking up a brush, he highlighted the scales with edible gold.

Fifteen. Zach folded up his tools and threw off his gloves. The dragon virtually glowed on the worktable.

Was it good enough?

It had to be. He'd be damned before he let Marcel Lepret claim his signature recipe.

"Wish me luck," he said, opening the back door.

"Call me a little slow here," said Casey, watching as Zach tucked the sack of ground cocoa under his belt and slipped bars of chocolate into his pockets. "But what exactly are you intending to do here?"

"Something utterly mad," said Alice, her mouth tightening into a rosebud.

Casey still looked puzzled as Zach dragged a chair next to the worktable. His eyes only widened when Zach straddled the dragon. "You are mad," he breathed.

"That's what the Guild's always thought." Zach grinned then looked across the floor to Alice. "Thanks, Allie. And..." He hesitated, unable to think of the words.

She smiled. "Come back and tell me when your brain's working." Her smile wobbled only slightly as she stepped into her pile of crushed beans and vanished.

I should have kissed her, thought Zach. Too late now. Stroking his hands down each side of the dragon's jaw, he invoked the Tallar Vida spell. A wash of golden light followed his fingertips.

"Rise," he commanded.

#

The wind blew cold above the clouds, numbing his face until he couldn't feel the sting of his hair whipping against his cheeks. The warm glow of revelry kept him from minding it. None of you Guild bastards could manage this, he exulted as the dragon caught an updraft and rose like a bubble.

He managed not to shout: "I'm the king of the world." He'd have hated himself later.

Roads, trees, and houses lay spread out far below him, as insignificant as the toy scenery laid out around a model train. Even the gray fortress of New York City looming ahead seemed no more than a collection of shoe boxes placed on end. The dragon bore him above it all, its sides rippling gently. Its wings didn't creak; they purred with the silken gurgle of melted chocolate being poured into a mold. Strange, how he could hear that sound but not the shouts of pedestrians below as he directed the dragon into the canyons of New York's streets. Times Square passed in a blink of neon lights. He caught a whiff of roses, lilies, and other crushed greenery as he whisked over the flower district. The streets grew wider and less crowded as he neared Greenwich Village. A moment later, he crossed Bleecker Street, homing in on Marcel's trendy shop, Doux-Amer.

"There!" he cried, spotting its red brick and glass facade. The dragon swooped, folding its wings to arrow straight through the open front door. The crown of Zach's head just brushed the lintel as they passed inside. The dragon's momentum carried it across the floor, chocolate claws scrabbling for purchase on the ceramic tiles. It finally fetched up against the far wall, toppling an array of decorative boxes.

Zach rolled off the dragon and landed on his back. He lay staring up at the ceiling fan, still gasping with the thrill of the flight. Gradually he became aware of a disapproving gaze. He turned his head. A six-foot-tall white chocolate Statue of Liberty loomed over him, staring disdainfully down her nose.

His wits cleared. "Marcel!" he cried, pushing himself up. The word scraped his dry throat, so he gathered some spit, swallowed, and shouted again. "Marcel!" Where was the little bastard? He glared around the shop. What a poser's paradise: black-and-white checkered floor, scalloped brass fixtures, art Nuevo on the walls, and--gah!--modern jazz playing over the speakers. All tarted up in burgundy and gold, like some overblown wine cellar, and stocked with high tables and those tall, tippy stools no one could sit on comfortably.

At the moment, those tall, tippy stools were doing their job of tipping over as the patrons rushed screaming for the front door. The freckled counter boy tossed his cap and apron aside and fled. Through it all, the insipid jazz kept playing. Zach was looking for a way to smash the speakers when the kitchen door banged open.

"What is going on?" cried Marcel, framed in the center of it, his pale blonde hair ruffled, his preppy tie askew.

"Ah, the master of the sneak attack appears." Zach brought out a handful of beans. "Ready for a real fight?"

Marcel puffed out his cheeks. "Have you gone crazy?" He blanched as the dragon poked its head over the counter and breathed two plumes of cocoa powder.

Zach grinned. "Feeling a little outclassed, junior?"

Marcel's jaw tightened. "So it's a challenge? Very well." He curled his fingers and two pounds of bittersweet chips swirled into the air and merged to form a dog, a shaggy brown Briard, which pounced on the dragon, biting at its throat. The dragon contemptuously swatted it aside with one lash of a claw. It smashed into the wall, leaving a brown smear on the cream-colored paint. Marcel staggered. Zach leaned over the counter, rolling his handful of beans in his palm.

"What's wrong?" he taunted. "Lose the Brazilian wanderer? Bring it out. No mere shadow-beast will beat my dragon."

Give the kid credit; he glared up with no hint of surrender on his face. "I don't need to beat your dragon," he said.

And a perfect circle of agony exploded on the back of Zach's head. He reeled about just as the white chocolate Statue of Liberty lifted her torch for a second blow, her movements stiff and jerky.

"Nothing like my Tallar Vida," croaked Zach. That gave life; not mere animation. He raised his hand. Cocoa beans shot out between his fingers like bullets. Ping, ping, ping! Splashes of green-tinted white chocolate spattered the wall behind the statue. The arm holding the torch broke off at the elbow. The statue, never losing her expression of placid constipation, wavered a moment then toppled.

But while he was occupied with the statue, Marcel darted to place behind the counter where a pot of melted chocolate steamed over a range. As Zach turned, he dipped his fingers into the pot and flung the clinging drops at him. Brown streaks arced through the air, transforming into small daggers in mid-flight.

Thinks on his feet, thought Zach begrudgingly, pulling a slab of white chocolate out of his arsenal. It shuddered under the daggers' impact. One slipped past, touched his forefinger, and immediately clung, immobilizing the joint. Zach deflected the remainder, but Marcel had already spilled a bag of cocoa across the counter. One twist of his wrist, and it shaped itself into a swarm of angry wasps.

Damned home turf advantage, Zach had time to grouse before the wasps surrounded him, buzzing like a thousand tiny drills. Cocoa clogged his nostrils, choked his lungs and prickled his flesh. He could hardly think for the droning of the swarm. Need to throw Marcel off balance. He scrabbled in his pocket. His fingers touched something smooth and conical.

Well, why not?

Tossing the cracked nipple of Venus into the air, he concentrated. It melted, remolding itself into the figure of a nude woman, her skin smooth as molten chocolate. Throwing back her hair, she winked at Marcel.

She had Alice's face.

Marcel gaped, his cheeks flaming cherry-red. The wasp horde pattered to the floor, its magic undone in an instant.

"Hey," said Zach, pulling one of the sacks off his belt, "that's my wife you're ogling."

As Marcel's face swung round, slack and uncomprehending, Zach threw the sack of pure baker's chocolate at him. It erupted in mid-air, raining jagged brown shards that slammed down around Marcel then expanded rapidly, growing to form a cage. Marcel touched one of the bars, as if unable to believe he'd been defeated so suddenly.

"Checkmate," said Zach. Chocolate Alice winked again and he hastily disenchanted the nipple of Venus. Some distractions were, well, distracting. "Now--"

A shadow fell over his shoulder. "What's going on here?" boomed a new voice. New, but not unknown. Zach's freshly kindled glow of triumph fizzled. He hardly dared turn around--but he knew it would be worse it he didn't.

He turned. "Master Terrence," he said, staring up into his teacher's impassive ebony face. "I didn't know you--"

The crack to his jaw spun his head around. He couldn't say it surprised him.

"That was for using magic in public view." Folding his arms across his chest, Master Terrence strolled over to the dragon. It ducked its head under a wing.

"Master Terrence!" cried Marcel from his cage. "That madman burst in--"

Master Terrence cast him a single look and he wilted, slumping against the bars.

"Impressive," said Master Terence, returning his attention to the dragon. The dragon peeped out from under its wing; Master Terrence studied its ears then nodded. "Most impressive." He pivoted on a heel and stared Zach down. "Completely irresponsible, but impressive."

"Thank you, Master Terrence. I realize I broke protocol--"

"Again."

"--but Mr. Lepret challenged me. With spiders." Zach held out his hand, the mark now only slightly redder than grape soda.

"I don't know what he's talking about." This time Marcel returned Master Terrence's gaze steadily.

"Can you prove it?" asked Master Terrence.

"Certainement." Marcel pulled his gilded theobroma out of his collar and touched it to a trickle of blood dribbling out of a fresh scratch. "Let the symbol of our craft witness that I did not challenge Zachary Marten," he said.

Zach held his breath. The flower did not wither. Which meant--

Zach released the breath, aching all over. "It must have been Lucy after all."

Thank goodness Alice had gone to confront her. He only hoped she could talk Lucy into ending the challenge.

Of course Alice didn't think Lucy was responsible. And Alice had been right about Marcel--

Marcel! Zach gestured and the bars of the cage shivered and cracked. "Sorry," he said, abruptly aware of the state of Marcel's shop; the tipped chairs, chocolate-smeared walls, and shattered Statue of Liberty. "Someone issued me a challenge. With spiders. I thought it was you." He summoned a sheepish grin. Marcel could press charges for an unprovoked assault if he chose.

Marcel rubbed his chin, smearing chocolate across his face. "Spiders, you said? Yes, I remember how you always screamed at the sight of one."

Just name your punishment, boy genius, thought Zach, teeth grinding.

Marcel dropped his hand. "In light of your phobia, I forgive you," he said.

Zach's mouth fell open.

"Forgive you. Entirely." Marcel gave a sphinx's grin. Tugging his tie, he walked behind the counter and began setting things aright.

Of all the bitter punishments Marcel could have devised, he had to come up with one where Zach had to live with his guilt.

The clever little bastard.

Inhaling slowly, Zach turned to Master Terrence, who leaned back against the counter, arms folded. "You may have need of more forgiveness before this day's out," he said.

"Why?" asked Zach.

"You mentioned Lucy Cairfax. She recently accepted an invitation to tour cocoa plantations in South America. I suspect she's too busy preparing for the trip to waste time challenging you."

It wasn't Lucy? Or Marcel? But, but, but--

Then it had to be James.

Except Alice had insisted it wasn't James either. And his white chocolate test proved it couldn't be Master Terrence. So who could it--?

Zach closed his eyes as the truth socked him smack on the jaw. "I am an utter idiot," he said.

"Yes." Master Terrence patted the dragon's head. "One day I must stop taking on stupid apprentices."

The mark on his hand needed only a little more blue to be termed a proper violet, but Zach figured he could spare a few seconds to glare. Behind the counter, Marcel did the same.

Master Terrence, still petting the dragon, raised an eyebrow. Zach took in a breath--

--and let it all out. "No. I'm not stupid," he said. "But I need to stop acting as if I am."

Master Terrence's lips twitched before settling back into their customary stern line. "I would appreciate it."

Zach nodded. "Look after the dragon for me," he said, digging through his pockets for the five pounds of chocolate necessary to transport him back home. Quicker than flying, and every second counted now.

A tap on his shoulder distracted him. "What?" he asked, looking up. Marcel stood before him, holding out a dark chocolate medallion with a layer of pink filling.

"Use this instead," said Marcel. "Galette des Voyages. I perfected them recently."

Zach weighed the tiny wafer in his hand. "I can get back home with this?" he asked, more than a little appalled. Even Master Terrence quickly feigned a cough.

"I am a prodigy," said Marcel, lifting his chin.

"You're insufferable." Zach popped the wafer into his mouth and his surroundings started to melt around him.

Just before he vanished, Marcel smiled. "But I do not use margarine in my truffles, Zachary Marten."

#

The Cocoa Dragon's kitchen reformed around him, dark and silent. Lingering flavors of bitter chocolate and raspberry wine coated his tongue.

"Hello?" called Zach switching on the lights.

Footsteps. The scent of rose oil mingled with the coffee smells still permeating the kitchen as Alice pushed through the swinging door that led to his showroom. Casey shuffled after her, mug in hand.

"Sorry, Zach," Alice embraced him. "Lucy didn't send the spiders."

He buried his nose in her hair. "It wasn't Marcel either. Or Master Terrence."

"So you're accusing James?" asked Casey, leaning in the doorway.

"No," said Zach. Alice stiffened in his arms and he drew back just enough to look her in the eyes. The mark on his hand gleamed deep purple. "You're not responsible either, Allie. You were too angry when I accused you the first time." He tweaked her nose. "I know when you're trying to fool me."

A crinkle deepened between her brows. "Then who?"

He looked over her shoulder. "Casey."

"Hey," said Casey, whisking a hand from his pockets and waved it through the air. "I don't know anything about your--"

"Oh, I have no doubt James was your accomplice," said Zach. Releasing Alice, he faced Casey. "But only one person could've switched my calendar. Gotten coffee in my antidote. Cleaned up evidence. Do you deny that this was your plan all along?"

The clock clicked stolidly on for thirty beats. Then Casey smiled and stuffed his hand back into his pocket. "Hey, Zach."

"Yeah?"

"Too late."

"What do you mean--" Zach began. Then the mark on his tingled. Zach tensed as the sensation quickly grew in intensity. His breath caught in his chest. "Hah...ohh, stop!" A thousand tiny, invisible legs scurried up his arm.

"Zach!" Alice gripped his shoulders.

"Nyuk, nyuk, nyuk!" A third dark, eight-legged shape plummeted from the rafters. Zach amazed himself by not flinching.

It settled onto a corner of the worktable.

Then stood on its hind legs and bowed.

It was wearing a little clown suit.

"Surprise!" said the chocolate Brazilian wandering spider in a shrill cartoon of a voice.

"That," said Alice, as the spider performed a backflip, "is definitely James' handiwork."

Zach collected his jaw as the tickling in his hand faded. "All this--a practical joke?"

Casey's smile faded. "No joke. I set up this scheme because what happened last year was my fault."

"Your fault?" Zach exchanged a glance with Alice. "But you weren't even involved."

"Oh, no?" said Casey. He set down his coffee mug. The spider leapt onto his shoulder. "I was in the middle of the whole mess. I knew about Lucy's infidelity and Alice's--"

Alice sucked in a breath, her face clenching. Even now, almost a year later, she couldn't bear to hear the word "miscarriage." Casey glanced at her and went on.

"And I knew that trying to keep James' and Alice's respective secrets from one another, trying to pretend everything was okay, was hurting Zach." His shoulders sagged. "I kept telling myself I should sit you all down for a talk. But I didn't, and you two separated. James left."

Zach cleared his throat. "So you arranged this bizarre spider escapade a year later instead of just getting us together for a meal or something?"

Casey shrugged. "You might have refused. Besides, this was more fun." His grin reappeared. "Now. Your forfeit."

Zach's stomach clenched as he braced himself. He'd almost forgotten about the penalty. Surely Casey doesn't want my Tallar Vida recipe?

Funny, how insignificant the recipe seemed in view of the day's happenings. Alice took his hand, and suddenly he didn't care if Casey demanded every recipe in his inventory.

"What is it?" he asked.

Casey's grin sharpened. "Tell Alice you're sorry for being an ass."

This one was easy. Zach faced Alice. "I'm sorry."

"Promise her you'll listen to her from now on."

Zach hesitated. Alice's face was red, her shoulders shaking. "I'll try," he said.

"Now kiss her. If she's agreeable," Casey amended quickly, holding up a finger.

Zach looked down at her. Reaching up, she hooked her hands behind his neck and pulled his lips down to hers. Sugared rose petals, honey, and--of course--chocolate, flowed across his tongue as a host of silvery bells chimed in his head.

"That works too," said Casey.

At last, perhaps several perfect decades later, the kiss ended. "Is my debt paid?" asked Zach.

Casey scratched his head. "I suppose."

"Actually," Alice slipped her arm through Zach's, "I quite liked that 'getting together for a meal' idea you mentioned earlier. Does The Fat Abbot still make that heavenly crab chowder and cheddar biscuits?"

He squeezed her hand. "Shall we check it out?"

"Let's."

Arm-in-arm, they walked towards the doorway. Zach paused on the threshold. Casey still slouched against the counter, his mop of black hair shadowing his face.

"Want to come along?" Zach asked.

"You kids have fun." Casey waved then lifted the chocolate spider off his shoulder. "You could take James along, however."

"No thanks," said Zach hastily. "I'll call him later. You're right. We need to talk."

"All of us," added Alice softly. "Thank you, Casey."

Picking up his mug, Casey saluted her.

As Zach and Alice walked into the hot Baltimore sunshine, Zach glanced back into the kitchen. Casey stood rubbing a thumb over something attached to a thong hanging around his neck. Zach peered closer. A ray of light caught a buttery glint off the object. Smiling, Casey slipped the gilded Coffea flower back under his shirt.

Smiling as well, Zach closed the kitchen door.


A.E. Decker is a former ESL tutor with a degree in Colonial American history. A graduate of the Odyssey Writers' Workshop, her stories have appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Fireside Magazine, and the Australian anthology In Fabula-divino. She also works as an editor for the Bethlehem Writers Group, found at: bwgwritersroundtable.com Like all writers, she is owned by two cats.

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