Welcome to the second installment of the suspenseful serial novel, Hold Gently the Shadows. You may wish to refresh your memory with a re-read of the Preface introduced on this blog two weeks ago:

Preface Long shadows of evening crept into the forest, heightening her terror. Panting from exertion and fear, she stumbled through the undergrowth, tripping over fallen tree limbs, gasping in alarm when vines grasped her ankles.

Her exhausted, aching body longed for rest, but she pushed onward, knowing she must distance herself from the lodge before they discovered she was gone. When at last she reached a cleared stretch of the Bruce Trail, she allowed herself to lean against a tree to catch her breath.

But her respite was all too brief. A raven landing on an overhead branch startled her with a gurgling croak that rose in pitch and volume. As if in response, a wolf howled from afar and was answered by another.

Panicked that Ravensglen wildlife would reveal her whereabouts before she reached safety, she set off quickly along the trail. With her energy flagging, she rounded a bend and almost collided with a young man accompanied by two large dogs.

“Are you alright, Mrs. Wolfe?” asked the man.

“I’m Carmen Blackmoor,” she said, eyeing him cautiously.

His face registered puzzlement, but he said nothing.

“Please, I must go home at once,” she said.

“Back to the lodge?”                                                                                            

“No! To Creekside before they find me.”

“Before who finds you?”

“I’m not sure,” she said, tears springing to her eyes, “but they want my baby.”

His eyes flickered to her rounded belly. “Better come with me so my mom can help,” he said.

It took all of her remaining strength to keep pace with the young man’s loping stride as he retraced his steps in the direction from which he had come. When they left the trail to follow a path through dense bush, he told her they were now on Saugeen First Nations territory, home of the Ojibway.

“They’ll still come after me,” she said, glancing over her shoulder as if she expected to see pursuers at any moment.

“You’re safe with me,” he said. “You mightn’t remember, but I’m Nate. I kept your niece and nephew hidden in the woods while the three of you were waiting to be rescued from Ravensglen the last time.”

“I remember you being younger,” she said after a moment’s consideration.

“Four years ago I was,” he said.

“Four years ago?” she asked bewildered. “That can’t be.”

Soon they reached a log cabin surrounded by well-tended gardens. Nate’s mother, Karen Greyfoot, outside gathering herbs took one look at the pale, breathless woman and invited her inside.

“It’s Sasha, right?”

“I prefer Carmen.”

“Oh, your author name,” said Karen. “Come sit down and put your feet up.”

“First I need to phone the Galvinstons in Creekside to see if they’ve held my apartment for me,” said Carmen.

Karen assisted her in putting through the call, then busied herself making tea. Mavis Galvinston answered her phone on the third ring.

“I’ve waited a long time to hear from you, dear,” said Mavis. “Of course your apartment’s here for you. I’d have held it even if your mother hadn’t covered the rent.”

“Mother did that?” asked Carmen, dissolving in fresh tears.

Mavis told her to hang on while she found someone in the manor to drive north for her. Carmen waited anxiously, listening as her landlady ran up the stairs, cellphone in hand. She could hear Mavis talking to someone, and in the background a young woman’s voice calling out a greeting to her.

“Paola says she’ll come at once. She’s going to see if Owen can leave the station and accompany her,” said Mavis into the phone. “Where shall they meet you?”

Carmen redirected the query to Karen, who suggested they meet at Kincardine. When the call ended, Carmen followed Karen into the living room, sank into a chair, and gratefully accepted refreshments. She told her host that, thanks to her mother, her apartment at Briarfeldy Manor was still hers.

“I attended your mother’s funeral at St. Mark’s in Coltsfoot,” said Karen.

“My mother died?” asked Carmen, shocked.

Karen immediately regretted her words, but unable to retract them, she nodded sympathetically.

“Where was she buried?” asked Carmen.

“It’s my understanding that after the funeral Mass, your mother’s cremated remains were interred in the family plot in London.”

“Was I at the funeral?” asked Carmen.

“You were there with Bartholomew and his sister, Emily. Most of the Ravensglen community were also present.”

“Why can’t I remember anything?” asked Carmen in a whisper. “What happened to my poor mother? Have I really been away from Creekside four years?”

“You’re exhausted,” said Karen. “As soon as you finish your tea and freshen up, we’ll be leaving and you can rest in the car.”

A short time later, Carmen, Karen and Nate left Ojibway territory in Karen’s car and sped past the road leading to the Ravensglen lodge. The women sat in the back and Nate drove. Their destination was Kincardine, not quite the half-way point to Creekside. There Carmen would meet Paola and Owen for the final lap of her journey.

“Are the ones coming for you the same ones I met four years ago?” asked Nate.

“You probably met Detective Owen Whelan then,” said Carmen, “but not Paola Crispo. They both live at Briarfeldy Manor, Paola across from me on the third floor, and Owen in an apartment on the first floor with his son, Colin.”

“What about Mom’s friend, Azur?” asked Nate.

“Azur lives at Black Springs Abbey,” said Carmen.

“As you may both remember, she and I became good friends at university when we discovered we were both healers,” said Karen. “Azur became a nurse practitioner. I became a physician in your world, a medicine woman in mine.”

Carmen nodded, though she seemed far away. During the drive, Karen was a supportive listener to her bewildered account of fragmented memories. Carmen didn’t know when the baby was due or from whom she was running. She remembered being rescued from Ravensglen previously when a younger version of Nate played a part. She recalled returning to Creekside at that time and moving into a new apartment on the upper floor of Briarfeldy Manor.

She knew she was once known as Dr. Sasha Deleaney, clinical psychologist, and that for a complexity of reasons she’d grown more comfortable living as Carmen Blackmoor, author of psychological thrillers.

“That’s why you caught me off guard on the trail by introducing yourself as Carmen Blackmoor,” said Nate.

“You were nicely discreet about it, Nate,” said Carmen.

“You don’t remember returning to Ravensglen shortly after you were rescued from there, or why you did so?” asked Karen.

“No. Were Paisley and Dorrian with me?”

“I don’t believe so. At least, they weren’t ever seen by anyone. And they would have had to attend school, I’d think.”

“I can’t wait to see if they’re alright.”

“Do you remember being married to Bartholomew Wolfe?”

“Bartholomew and I were friends,” said Carmen, “and I recall a strange welcome ceremony preceding the original rescue. The theaghlach were there.”

“The ha eye lock?”

“Yes, pronounced with more of a guttural sound though. I remember Thol calling them muh ha-eye-lockh, Irish for my family.”

“And is it the theaghlach who want your baby?”

“I’m not sure,” said Carmen.

Chapter One

There is a troubling place between dreaming and wakefulness where certainty is blurred by haunting imagery and silent sound.

Paola Crispo found herself trapped in this twilight zone, moving with leaden limbs in slow motion down dimly-lit town streets. Ahead of her strode a woman clothed in black accompanied by a leashed Doberman. Woman and dog then stepped from the road into the shadows of manicured lawns.

Paola felt that the woman was deliberately seeking the darkness between street lights on one side and home sensor lights on the other. In an unfathomable way, she also knew that the woman walked at night to escape the misery awaiting her at home.

The dog growled low in its throat, issuing a warning to another stealthy walker of the night. Someone other than Paola.

Jarred awake by the alarm clock, Paola pressed the off button and rolled over. Sleep, however, eluded her, until nature compelled her to crawl from bed and shuffle to the bathroom.

It wasn’t especially strange that she should dream about the woman and dog she and Carmen had noticed on last night’s walk. However, she wondered how she had been able to read the woman’s thoughts before reminding herself that it was, after all, just a dream.

After a breakfast of toast and lightly-creamed coffee, Paola took out her notebook and settled into her favorite chair. She began to jot down impressions from the weird dream state before they disappeared from memory.

The mystery woman walks by night … her thoughts as dark as her attire … the dog at her side is companion, protector and partner in disguise … unwillingly drawn into the turmoil of her mind, I sense the miseries of the life from which she flees.

Paola’s concentration was interrupted by a soft knock upon her door. She shook her head in mild annoyance but remained seated until she heard a second knock.

“I knocked soft so I wouldn’t disturb you,” said the boy at her door.

“You disturbed me all the same, Colin,” said Paola. “And you knocked softly,” she corrected.

“Yes, I knocked softly,” he agreed. “But Carmen’s at the abbey with her baby and I have no one else to visit.”

“Why aren’t you at school?”

“PD Day, so I’m with Bram and Mavis.”

Mavis and Bram Galvinston, owners of Briarfeldy Manor, lived below Paola on the second floor. Quinn Crawford, widower and retired teacher, occupied a studio apartment on that same level. Five-year-old Colin lived with his father, Detective Owen Whelan, on the main floor across from the manor’s original library.

While Creekside was still known as Prosper Station, Paola’s lofty level of the gothic manor had been servants’ quarters connected by a narrow stairway to the floors below. Now it housed Paola’s apartment and that of author, Carmen Blackmoor, who lived across from her.

“You know I need peace and quiet while I’m working,” Paola told Colin.

“Yes, but I’m bored,” said the child.

Paola sighed, no longer feeling the slightest inclination to work.

An industrious young woman, she had recently accepted a position as Carmen’s research assistant, while continuing to do off-site proofreading and editing for Walker Crispo Press, her father’s publishing house. From early morning until well into the afternoon, she could be found working at her computer or bent over books and papers at her desk.

“Colin! Where are you, Colin?” called a voice from the back stairs.

“Shhh, I’m hiding,” whispered the boy conspiratorially.

“You’re hiding from Mavis?” asked Paola.

Colin nodded.

“Mavis will be worried,” said Paola. “You don’t want that, do you?”

The boy eyed her solemnly, considering.

“Better tell Mavis you’re here,” urged Paola.

At that moment, the landlady-babysitter reached the top of the stairs. “Colin!” she said, “what are you doing up here bothering Paola?”

“But it’s okay, Mavis,” said the child. “Paola doesn’t mind.”

“Downstairs now, young man,” insisted Mavis. “What would your dad do if he thought I wasn’t minding you.”

“I won’t tell him,” said Colin.

Mavis and Paola exchanged amused glances before Mavis took the child’s hand and led him away. As an afterthought, she invited Paola to join them for freshly baked cookies.

“Colin and I put cookies in the oven before he wandered off. I believe Bram has put on a fresh pot of coffee too,” she said.

“Enough arm twisting,” said Paola, closing her apartment door and following woman and boy toward the stairs.

“We could take the elevator,” said Colin.

“But we won’t, since we’re only going one floor down,” said Mavis as they descended to her apartment.

The elevator, adjacent to the servant stairs at the back of the building, had been installed early in the renovation process, and was a bonus to life in the mansion.

Stretched out in his favorite lounge chair, Bram was dozing before the television when they entered his domain. With morning news long over, he was oblivious to the programs which continued to provide background resonance. Bleu, purring contentedly on his lap, was first to notice the arriving trio.

“I’ve invited Paola over for coffee,” said Mavis, speaking loudly for her husband’s benefit.

“Coffee?” asked Bram, coming fully awake. “Sorry, guess I didn’t put it on. Must have nodded off.”

“Well, how be you make it now while I take the cookies from the oven?” said his wife dryly.

“Anything you say, my dear,” he said, winking at Paola.

“Let me help with the cookies,” said Colin, eagerly watching the cookie trays emerge.

“You were supposed to be helping me earlier when you disappeared,” Mavis reminded him.

“I got bored,” said the boy.

“What did I tell you about bored?” roared Bram.

“You didn’t have time to get bored when you were my age,” said Colin, laughing.

Paola knew this was a running joke between the pair. Retired midwife, Mavis, and professor emeritus, Bram, minded Colin when he wasn’t at school while his dad was working.

“I can find lots for you to do around here,” said the landlord, continuing the routine.

Colin, however, chose to go off script. “Talk about how you got Bleu,” he said.

Paola knew from past recitations that Colin loved hearing this story over and over again. So, while Mavis put cookies on a plate and poured the boy a glass of milk, Bram began the tale of the cat’s arrival.

“It was Halloween and our granddaughters had just returned from trick-or-treating. Azur was about seven at the time and Hilma, five. Lo and behold, there was a cat sitting at the front door,” said Bram.

“Azur and Hilma wanted to keep her but you told them she must belong to someone,” recited Colin. “Hilma said it must have come on the ghost train.”

“In the end, no one came for the cat,” said Bram.

“So, you called her Bleu, because her fur is bluish silver,” said Colin, finishing the story. “And now she’s very, very old just like you.”

“Therefore, worthy of respect,” said Mavis.

With the cat story coming to its known conclusion, Paola took a last sip of coffee, thanked the Galvinstons for their hospitality and took her leave.

In late evening of that same day, Paola waited for Carmen to return from the abbey and accompany her on their daily walk. With the reclusive author again  residing in Creekside, the two had become close friends.

The weather was unseasonably warm for late October and both were wearing shorts, tees and running shoes as they set off at a brisk pace. Committed walkers, the women were accustomed to sticking to a daily evening schedule unless the weather was truly terrible.

“How’s Noah?” Paola asked.

“Totally precious. He’s so bright and happy,” said Carmen, the awe of new motherhood softening her voice.

“It must be a relief knowing Eula takes such good care of him.”

“I wouldn’t be able to bear leaving him there if I didn’t see how she loves him. Another good thing is the health team now thinks his spina bifida is mild.”

“He’s perfect anyway,” said Paola.

“Did I tell you what Mavis said after he was born and I was concerned about his condition? ‘Hold gently the shadows…”

“…for they filter life-sustaining light,” recited Paola softly, in unison with her friend.

“Oh, I did tell you.”

“Maybe a time or two,” said Paola, “but I love it every time because it speaks to me too. Mavis is a font of wisdom.”

“Speaking of wisdom, are you ready to share yours with the Station Scribes tomorrow morning?”

“As ready as I’ll ever be. To tell the truth, I’m more nervous about you being there than I am about them.”

“Would you rather I not come?” asked Carmen.

“No, no. I want you there, and the scribes love seeing you up close and personal. You’re their idol.”

After covering several streets in their neighborhood, they strolled the length of the town’s business section, passing stores locked and silent. With moonless darkness closing in, the women left the lights of downtown for the shadows of residential streets on the other end of town. Apart from a few late dog walkers, the sidewalks were vacant.

On a street on the north side of town, they spotted a solitary figure walking a large dog across manicured lawns. In the past couple of weeks, they had noticed her a few times.

“A bit overdressed, don’t you think,” murmured Carmen, perspiring in the evening heat.

“Just like in my dream last night,” said Paola.

“You saw them in a dream?” asked Carmen.

“Yes, the woman was dressed just like that in dark clothes and a baseball cap. And she had a Doberman at her side. The strangest part was that I felt swept into the woman’s bleakness.”

Carmen and Paola continued down the dim street, hardly surprised when the dog walker disappeared around the side of a house.

“Did you see her face?” asked Carmen.

“In the dream, you mean?”

“Yes.”

“No, she kept to the shadows like always.”

“Too bad,” said Carmen.

“There was someone else in the dream,” said Paola. “Someone following the woman.”

“Do you see anyone now?” asked Carmen, checking over her shoulder nervously.

“No, but I can feel a presence just as I could in the dream when the dog growled.”


Chapter Two

Robin unpacked her suitcase and dispersed its contents between closet, bureau and bathroom of her room at the Creekside Hotel. Weary from the long drive, she closed the drapes and lay down for a nap.

An hour later, she awakened and studied her disguise in the bathroom mirror. There was only so much one could do with a thick-waisted older woman. Still, the brown wig and oversized tortoiseshell-framed glasses created a remarkable difference in her appearance.

Raven had insisted she needed a new wardrobe as well, one that Sasha wouldn’t recognize. During a hasty shopping trip, the younger woman had helped her select dark slacks, long sleeved turtleneck sweaters and a black mid-length coat. They had argued over shoes, Raven selecting black dress boots for her with a low chunky heel. But Robin would only compromise with black running shoes.

“They’ll be better for sleuthing,” she said. “Plus, I’ll be able to get around without maiming myself.”

Robin knew that, in the end, she had the upper hand. She had looked out for Raven since she was a child, comforting her, spoiling her, teaching her everything she knew about herbs. Now Raven and Bartholomew wanted more from her, and her an old woman.

Her assignment was to shadow Sasha and report back to Raven and the theaghlach. As soon as Robin located Sasha and determined her schedule, they would come for her and return her and the infant to their rightful place.

“You make it sound simple,” said Robin.

“We brought her back from Creekside once. We can do it again,” they told her.

So here she was in a strange town, well outside her comfort zone, ready to do their bidding. Robin opened the window drapes to look down upon the main street of the business section. Cars lined the curbs and a few shoppers were about. She noticed a chunky woman, brassy-blond hair worn in a sixties updo, entering a clothing store across the street.

Robin gasped, took a longer look and became certain that, even after all these years, she recognized the woman. She couldn’t believe her good fortune. Now she had an additional quarry, making her mission doubly worthwhile. She rushed out into the hall, took the elevator down to the hotel lobby and hurried across the street.

The store was actually three elegant shops in one, and although she walked quickly through each section, the person of interest had disappeared. A salesperson asked if she could help, and Robin told her she was browsing. She then asked her if she happened to know where Mrs. Sasha Wolfe lived.

“Sorry, that name doesn’t sound familiar,” said the salesperson.

A customer, overhearing Robin’s question, spoke up. “The author, Carmen Blackmoor, lived here for a while, and I believe her real name was Sasha something,” she said.

“Actually, Carmen’s back in town,” said another customer, joining the conversation.

“Do you know where I might find her?” asked Robin.

“She has an apartment in Briarfeldy Manor, but she’s a very private person,” said the second customer.

“Would you know if she lives alone?” asked Robin, hoping for news of a baby.

“I would think so,” said the second customer.

“You might stop by the library,” said the salesperson. “I saw a poster in there noting that Carmen Blackmoor will be attending the writers’ group on Thursday morning.”  

 

Chapter Three

When Carmen and Paola arrived mid-morning at the Creekside Library, Janine Brown, assistant librarian, hastened over to welcome them. She led them to a long table where the Station Scribes, already engaged in animated conversation, welcomed their guests enthusiastically. Paola and Carmen took seats at the front of the table.

“The librarian called in sick today, so I’ve asked my grandmother to give the introductions,” said Janine timidly.

“Oh, I’m sure you could have done it yourself,” said a plump blonde woman. She rose from her chair and moved to stand beside Janine, who visibly shrunk in the presence of her gregarious grandparent.

“Well, I’m Maggie Crosby, retired, though never idle,” she said, glancing around for approval of her witticism. Seeing none, she read from a memo prepared by the librarian. “It’s my pleasure to introduce Paola Crispo who’s taken time from her busy schedule to provide today’s workshop. Miss Crispo works from home as an assistant editor for Walker Crispo Press, her father’s Toronto publishing house. As well, she does research for author, Carmen Blackmoor, and plays bit parts at our own Victoria Playhouse.”

Setting aside the paper, Maggie said, “Miss Blackmoor is also here today, just to listen I’m told, but who knows? She may be moved to recommend someone here to a publisher.”

Maggie paused until she was rewarded with a few chuckles. She seemed on the verge of introducing Scribe members too, then thought better of it and requested they present themselves.

“Well, everyone here knows me,” said a man in his late seventies. “Quinn Crawford, retired teacher, and privileged to live at Briarfeldy Manor with both of our guests.”

Paola and Carmen nodded and smiled at the man who lived in apartment 3 of their building.

“I’m Alistair Crawford, Quinn’s son,” said a bearded young man. “I attended high school here, and moved back from Toronto about six months ago. I’ve been fairly lucky picking up supply teaching. Whenever I can make time, I’ve been plodding away at a novel which is why Dad invited me here today.”

“Keep at it,” said Paola. “Writing is hard work.”

“Marcel Greyson, pharmacist,” said a middle-aged man who Paola recognized from a local drug store.

“Genevieve Brown, nurse,” said a pale, thin woman across the table from Alistair. “I’m Janine’s mother.”

“Since you’re introducing family, didn’t you forget to mention your mother?” asked Maggie reprovingly.

“I don’t remember you including me in your introduction,” said Genevieve.

Paola was unable to determine if the mother-daughter exchange was banter or spat. “So, you’re both related to the librarian,” she noted smoothly.

“The unholy trinity,” said Alistair, receiving no reaction from the women he so designated.

The young woman to Genevieve’s left stated she was Nola Grady, set and costume designer for the local playhouse.

“Two demanding positions in one,” said Paola.

Nola laughed. “It’s part-time,” she said, somewhat apologetically. “I’m the typical starving artist, supplementing my income by teaching art and selling some of my own paintings. As for the playhouse, I’m strictly into design. When summer season opens, they hire a costume maker as well as a set builder to bring my sketches to life.”

When the introductions concluded, Janine excused herself. “I’d love to listen to the guest speaker, but I’m alone this morning with Pre-school Story Hour,” she said.

“I was hoping you’d stay,” said Alistair.

“Another time,” said Janine.

On her way to the children’s section, Janine passed a woman sitting by herself in the computer section. She asked the woman if she’d like to sit in on the workshop.

“Thanks, but I can hear fine from here,” said Robin.

Paola began her presentation by telling the scribes she was at their disposal for the morning, but unless they objected, she would discuss poetry. When they nodded agreement, she left her seat and moved toward a whiteboard set up at one end of the table. Taking a marker, she listed several examples of poetic style: acrostic, alphabet, anagrammatic, blackout, chant, elegy, epitaph, sonnet, haiku, free verse.

Her attentive audience took notes as Paola pointed out that in acrostic poetry, the letters down the left-hand margin spell a word and similarly, in alphabet poetry, the margin letters are in alphabetical order. For anagrammatic poetry, she told them, one selects a word and uses only the letters within that word for the entire poem. A song of sorrow or mourning is called an elegy, and a poem on a tombstone, an epitaph.

“You’re probably already familiar with those,” she said. “How about blackout poetry?”

They shook their heads.

“Well, you select a magazine or newspaper article, then you use a marker to black out everything but certain words,” said Paola, earning puzzled looks.

“Here, I’ll show you an example,” she said, passing around a page torn from a magazine. In the center of the page, she had drawn a rough square and blacked out everything in it except scattered words spiraling downward to read, ‘you make every day worth living’.

“Cool,” said Alistair.

“We should try this sometime soon,” said Marcel.

The others agreed.

“Now, writers,” said Paola, challengingly, “perhaps you can help me with the rest of the list before we move on to composing some free verse.”

“Oh, no!” said Maggie, glancing around at the others in mock horror. “She’s going to make us work!”

“What kind of help do you have in mind?” asked Nola.

“Not to worry,” Paola assured them. “I’ll call out a poetry type, and you’ll throw back an answer. First one, sonnet.”

“English, fourteen lines, ten syllables per line,” said Crawford.

“Haiku.”

“Japanese, three phrases, set rules about the number of syllables per line, although I can’t remember what these numbers are,” said Genevieve.

“Good enough,” said Paola amiably. “And lastly, free verse.”

“No rhyme, no meter,” said Nola.

“Well done, all of you,” said Paola. “Okay, I’ll give you fifteen minutes to create an example of free verse using the theme, darkness. Some of you may then wish to share what you’ve written.”

The presenter sat down to rest her feet while the scribes picked up their pencils and commenced to scribble in fits and starts. When the allotted time had passed, she invited them to read out what they’d written.

Crawford was the first to read: “The darkness is not dark to you; /the night as bright as day, /for darkness is as light to you, /and thy word a lamp unto my feet.”

“Isn’t that from scripture?” asked Maggie.

“I might have borrowed a phrase or two from the psalms,” said Crawford with a wink at the others.

Maggie shrugged and volunteered to go next. “We had little opportunity /to stay out after dark when I was young. /Glowing streetlights signaled us to go home – fast! /It was an era of innocence, /a time when the milkman brought milk to every door /and the breadman delivered bread daily. /Once a week, the ice man carried ice /straight from his horse-drawn wagon to kitchen ice boxes.”

“Very nice, Mama,” said Genevieve.

Maggie nodded as if accepting her due. She looked around for further accolades, and sighed on receiving none. The others, it seemed were intent on jotting down their own last-minute insights.

Unnoticed by the workshop participants, Robin had heard enough. “Charming,” she muttered sarcastically in response to Maggie’s contribution. Barely controlling her urge to accost the woman, she quietly exited the library. If she were to learn more about the drama queen falsely calling herself Maggie Crosby, she would have to tread carefully.

At least she now knew with certainty that Lady Wolfe was back in Creekside. No word on an heir though. She would hold off alerting Ravensglen until she could verify a baby’s existence as well as deal with her newly discovered personal target.

Inside the library, the sharing continued.

“Mine is short,” said Genevieve, reading her verse. “I associate darkness with young lovers /holding hands and kissing /beneath starlit skies.”

Her mother cast a deprecatory look in her daughter’s direction.

“I enjoyed that, Genevieve,” said Paola, gifting the younger woman with deliberate approval to neutralize her mother’s puzzling rebuff.

Genevieve smiled silent gratitude.

Alistair Quinn kept his finger slightly raised until Paola gave him a nod to proceed. “Behind a bar called Lucky Duck, /three children spot a puke-green truck. /When drawing near to peek inside, /they witness, shocked, a hot embrace. /An angry face, a frightening chase /through fields and bush /but no safe place. /A cry for help where chickens cluck, /and for one child no saving luck. /for he lies buried in the muck. /For such disgrace, expect no grace.”

As Alistair read, Paola’s pulse began to race and she became lightheaded. She felt present to the imagery in a visceral way – a green truck, the children’s fear, running, running, a chicken coop, a swamp, fog…

“Are you alright?” asked Nola, her voice bringing Paola back to the library presentation.

“Fine, I’m fine,” said Paola faintly.

Alistair, she noticed, was watching her intently.

“Was there fog?” she asked him.

“There was,” he said. “Why?”

Paola collected her thoughts. “Just wondering,” she said.

“Great thriller,” said Nola, to which there were murmurs of agreement.

“Though it wasn’t free verse,” said the ever-critical Maggie.

“I was more interested in conveying a message,” said Alistair.

“Are we to guess what the message was?” asked Crawford.

“Someone here should be able to get it,” said Alistair.

When no one spoke and Alistair seemed to have nothing further to say, Marcel offered his contribution. “Darkness followed me, /smothering my teenage years /with my differentness, /stifling young manhood, /stalking me into maturity. /Yet fleeting rays of sunlight /sustained hope.”

“Well done,” said Crawford.

“We’re here for you, man,” said Alistair.

Others agreed with approving nods and comments, the exception being a scowling Maggie.

“Your turn, Nola,” said Marcel, deflecting attention away from himself with affected modesty.

Nola picked up her notes. “I have seen in nature, art and prose, /how darkness enhances /line and form, /colour and light, /taste and smell, /perception, /sensation, /texture and depth. /I love darkness /And fear it too.”

“I must say I’m impressed with the talent here,” said Paola.

“Which one of us will you be recommending to a publisher, Miss Blackmoor?” asked Alistair, earning a round of chuckles.

“It will be hard to choose,” said Carmen, smiling.

“What about you, Paola? Do you have a verse or two for us?” asked Nola.

“I do,” said Paola, picking out a sheet from the papers before her. She hesitated, then read. “The mystery woman walks by night, /her thoughts as dark as her attire. /A dog on leash stays at her side, /Its colouration, apt disguise. /Drawn into the walker’s inner turmoil, /I sense the ghosts of miseries past /from which she seeks to flee. /But it seems her nights, like mine, /are ever masked in dreams.”

“I can picture it, moody and suspenseful” said Nola admiringly.

“Cryptic,” said Alistair thoughtfully.

“Are you describing a real person?” asked Genevieve.

“It’s the unknowing that creates suspense,” said Marcel.

“But could she be real?” asked Maggie.

“Fiction often reveals truth,” said the presenter, unwilling to comment further.