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The Messenger

August 30, 2022 by in category Quill and Moss by Dianna Sinovic tagged as , ,
Photo by Zakaria Zayane on Unsplash

The folded paper extended no more than two millimeters from beneath the ornate cup and saucer, just enough that Lev noted it as he passed through the main dining room at Bellini’s. The table for two was not occupied, nor would it be for the rest of the evening. He’d made sure of that. Lev paused briefly on his way back from taking the Nelsons’ order to remove the paper, slipping it into a pants pocket.

In the supply closet, he shut the door and turned his back to it. Keeping the paper out of the shadow his head cast from the overhead light, he quickly unfolded the slip. Lev had only moments before someone barged in for fresh linens. 

The penciled note was underlined twice: 2xM=cube.

Crumpling the paper tightly in his fist, Lev put it in his mouth and swallowed it. Eluding the feds was crucial for this to work. No evidence, he’d been told. Leave nothing behind.

Back in the dining room, he delivered the plates to the Nelson party and took several more orders. At the table in the corner, the two lanky men in business suits stood to leave. When Lev swept by three minutes later to pick up the payment book, a square wooden top lay on it. Small enough to fit in the palm of his hand. He turned the top to look at each of the four sides: q 7 n 3.

 “Waiter!” Judge Samuel Nelson called out. When a Nelson summoned, you responded on the run. 

“Sir,” Lev said, standing at the judge’s elbow. 

“Another martini.” The older man raised an eyebrow at the top that Lev still held. “A teetotum,” he pronounced. 

The chatter around the table hushed. The five other Nelsons waited for the judge to continue. 

“A top for those who don’t know,” the judge said, his tone implying that very few aside from him would know. “And why are you carrying a top, Lev?”

No evidence. Lev swallowed, sweat popping out beneath his slicked-back hair. He felt like a rabbit caught in the headlights of an oncoming car. “Someone left their child’s toy behind,” he lied. He inched away from the table, eager to be gone.

The judge held out his hand. “My grandson Palmer will love it.”

Lev froze. His job was on the line if he didn’t relinquish the top to this patron. His life was on the line if he did. 

Toy gave him the answer. “I’m sorry, sir, but I’ll need to place this in our lost and found,” he said, hoping his voice carried enough authority to override the entitled old man’s intention. “You know how children are; they can be very attached to a favorite plaything. Once the parents realize they’ve left it behind—” 

The judge folded away his outstretched hand, nodding. “Astute argument, Lev. Well said.”

The other Nelsons nodded in agreement and turned back to their dinner conversations.

Lev exhaled in relief. “I’ll be back with your cocktail in just a moment.” 

At the bar, he placed the drink order. Every stool was taken, the din almost deafening. Lev remained at the bar—the judge was too important a patron to keep his drink waiting once it was ready—and carefully studied the crowd. At the far end of the polished wooden expanse sat a woman in a simple burgundy dress, hair in an elegant twist. 

He made his way purposefully through the throng, and when he was near her, bent to pick up a black silk scarf from the floor. 

“So sorry to disturb you, miss.” He stood next to her. “You must have dropped this.”

She smiled. “Thank you so much.” With both hands, she took the scarf—and the small, four-sided top now wrapped within it, and turned back to the bar.

Done. Lev’s shoulders relaxed and his brow smoothed. Despite a close call, another message delivered. He maneuvered back through the thicket of bar guests and retrieved the judge’s martini. 

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Striking Distance

July 30, 2022 by in category Quill and Moss by Dianna Sinovic tagged as , ,
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Photo by Sagar Kulkarni on Unsplash

It’s about noon, my eleventh day on the trail. My feet hurt, and the blisters have begot more blisters. So much for the overpriced, cushioned socks I thought I had to have. I’m tempted to walk barefoot, but that would last maybe a quarter mile and then I’d have to put these blasted boots on again. 

I’m tired of the crowds. I stopped counting this morning after logging twenty other hikers. The one person I wish was here can’t be—ever again. Josh would have found a way to love this. Yet his absence is the reason I’m hiking, to prove that I can make it solo from here on out.

Actually, I’m not positive it’s noon. I’m not wearing a watch and my phone is turned off—I’m doing the back-to-nature thing. But it’s July, and the sun is overhead. And I’m hungry—although I seem to be perpetually hungry on this trek. It’s an emptiness I just can’t fill.

Ahead lies a boulder field. Whoever said the AT was a walk in the woods was lying. At least in Pennsylvania, it’s loaded with rocks. Behind me, before me, I’m alone with the boulders, not a soul around for once, and I see a snake. Timber rattler; I’ve done my research. It’s coiled in a pocket of rock. I look at it, and it looks at me. I am about 1,500 feet up the mountain—glorious view if I wasn’t so frozen with fear. 

Don’t look down, the snake says. 

I’m not imagining this, as ridiculous as it seems. The snake spoke to me. Not out loud; in my head. And sarcastically.

“I’m not afraid of heights,” I shoot back. “But I am terrified of you.”

Its unblinking eyes hold me. Don’t rattle me, and I’ll leave you alone.

Who knew snakes were comedians? But, I think, you don’t know why I’m panicked. 

When I was growing up, a boy named Robert lived next door. One day, with a crazy giggle, he threw a milk snake around my neck. I was nine, and he was the bully of the block. That innocent, orange-and-white snake gave me nightmares for months afterward. 

And each old Western I watched where a character dies from snakebite increased my ophidiophobia. I am deathly afraid of any snake. And this one is a pit viper.

If I could persuade my feet to move, I would backpedal my way back down the mountain. But minutes tick past. Sweat dampens my shirt and drips from my forehead. 

If only I were Harry Potter, I think. He was most unafraid of snakes, even giant basilisks. 

What would Josh do? The snake’s tongue flickers.

“Leave Josh out of this,” I shout. My eyes smart, but I will not cry in front of a smart-ass snake. 

Still, part of me calls out to my partner. His ashes are scattered to the winds, but I want desperately to believe that I still have his ear—wherever cosmically it now is. So, I think, what would Josh have counseled?

Wait out the snake. The answer seems to rise on the breeze. He’s right: I’m not in any hurry, no deadline to meet, and the valley below is breathtaking. 

And so I sit on a chunk of granite overlooking a leafy wilderness in the Poconos. I focus on the scent of pine and the kettle of vultures spiraling in an afternoon thermal, and I feel myself relax. 

It may be five minutes or fifteen when I glance back to the rattler.

You’re tougher than you look. The snake uncoils and slips out of its rocky hollow. The trail’s all yours. It vanishes into another crevice.

Hoisting my pack, I set off once again over the rocks. But my feet hurt a bit less and there is a spring in my step.

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Puppy Love

May 30, 2022 by in category Quill and Moss by Dianna Sinovic tagged as , , ,
Photo by Jametlene Reskp on Unsplash

The slip of paper you draw from the basket has a 4 written on it, black ink on a white scrap. This is stupid, you tell yourself, but it’s not really. You want to be here, one of six lucky people who will choose which of the littermates they’ll take home with them. 

You have your eye on the puppy with the black patch over its right eye, the brown and white pattern blending over the rest of its face. You’re in love with that dog, and you are disappointed that at fourth in line, you will lose out. The Australian shepherd you picture jogging with you in the park will belong to someone else instead.

A friend tipped you to this giveaway. “They don’t want a dime, just good homes for the pups,” he told you last week. 

You’ve been wanting a dog for months, since the new apartment you found allows pets, especially dogs. Done your research, talked to any dog owner you’ve run across, and settled on the shepherd as your dream breed. And now this stroke of luck—to get one for free.

And so you stand with the five other people who hold their slips of paper. Three men, three women, and you think that’s a nice balance. The guy with #1 on his slip has a boy of about eight with him, and the boy has his favorite picked out. It’s not yours. Thank god.

“Taco,” the boy calls to one of the pups. He’s already named him. 

But you have too, not that you’ll admit it to anyone. You don’t want to jinx your chances by saying the name aloud, even in a whisper to yourself. Still, you know it’s perfect. So you stand with the others, bouncing on your toes because you are so anxious.

“We’re ready,” the owner of the litter finally calls. She’s standing in the pen where the pups are rolling and wrestling, full of the energy that only young dogs can possess. She smiles, but you can see the glisten in her eyes. This must be hard, to part with these babies.

The boy has Taco wrapped in his arms and then he and his father are gone. The older couple with matching gray in their hair step forward for #2. They reach for the black patch, but that’s a feint, passing the pup by for another. A couple who you guess are in their forties are next. They hem and haw, talking with the kennel owner, pointing at one then another of the youngsters.

Hurry up, you want to shout. At last they make their selection—yes! Not the black patch.

Now it’s your turn. You hand your slip to the kennel owner, who looks younger now that you’re standing next to her in the pen, with three puppies left. The energy of all six has dissipated, but a trio still romps around your feet.

“Why are you giving them away?” you say. You guess at the answer. 

She looks at you, at the two other people waiting outside the pen, then down at the squirm of dog flesh. “Someone stole the bitch—the mom—shortly after she gave birth. She’s not a high-priced dog, so we’re puzzled. We nursed these guys after that.” She runs a hand through her hair and sighs. “I love ‘em but need a break.” She leans over the pups. “Which one?” she asks, back to business.

You almost blurt, the black patch, but another pup catches your eye. You squat down to the pup’s level and reach for it. The brindle colors are less striking than on the one you’d chosen, but there’s something in the pup’s gaze that draws you. The dog scampers to you and licks your nose. You sit back with a laugh, and the dog is in your lap.

“She chose me,” you say. “Guess this is the one.”

And as you hug the youngster, you whisper in her ear. “Roo, let’s go home.”

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April 30, 2022 by in category Quill and Moss by Dianna Sinovic tagged as , , ,
Photo by Bundo Kim on Unsplash

Darci waved the embossed certificate under her sister’s nose. “Don’t you realize it’s a red-letter day? I’m not letting you mess this up.”

Grabbing at the cream-colored document, Kara tried to take it from Darci, and in the brief tug, the paper ripped in two.

“No!” Darci shouted.

Startled at her sister’s vehemence, Kara dropped her half, and Darci snatched it.

“I didn’t mean for it to tear.” Kara regretted that she’d reacted in anger. “But I still don’t like it.”

Darci breathed out slowly. She set the two torn halves on the coffee table, fetched the roll of clear tape, and knelt to patch the rift, all the time ignoring Kara. When she was done, she sat back on her heels and held the certificate up to inspect it.

“It’s still ruined, but that doesn’t change the fact that I’m going. You can’t stop me.”

No, she couldn’t, Kara knew. “I just wish you would reconsider.”

“Never,” Darci said, underlining the word with a scowl. 

“Ever since Mom died, you’ve been . . . ” Kara tried to put words to her observation. “It’s almost like you have a death wish.”

With her scowl deepening, Darci stood up. She hugged the patched paper, wrapping her arms tightly across it. “Mom would have wanted me to do this. She trusted me—she trusted both of us to do what we were meant to do. For me, this is it.”

Kara pushed away the memories of those last days of their mother’s life, the IV drip of pain medicine, the odor of bleach, the gaunt frame of the woman who’d brought them into the world. What was it Kara was meant to do? She still had no idea at twenty-five, but Darci was different. Three years younger, she burned with a mission. 

And to be accepted into the Gloved Force was an achievement few people earned. Kara had been astonished when Darci broke the news. Her sister, a Glover. To learn those secrets . . . 

“It’s dangerous.” Kara tried not to sound pathetic. “You’re so young.”

Darci’s face softened. “Life is dangerous. Every single day. You never know which hour will hold your last breath.” She moved across the room to sit next to Kara. Laying the certificate to one side, she picked up Kara’s hand and held it between her own. “If I can do this thing, and I know that I will, and I should die as a consequence, I’ll still be fulfilled.”

Kara saw the steeliness in her sister’s eyes. When did my kid sister grow up? “When do you leave?” 

Darci smiled then, accepting Kara’s olive branch. “Monday.”

In five days. 

“Let me give you something.” Kara brought back from her bedroom a maroon ring box. She ran a finger over the crushed velvet. “This was Mom’s.”

Darci opened the lid and sucked in a gasp. A slim gold band inlaid with three red sparks. 

“Rubies,” Kara said. “‘One for each of us,’ she told me.”

Her sister removed the ring and held it to the light of a lamp, her eyes glistening.

“Mom said to give this to you when you were ready to fledge,” Kara said. “Go fly.”

Some of Dianna’s Books

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A Change of Plans

January 30, 2022 by in category Quill and Moss by Dianna Sinovic
Photo by Linus Sandvide on Unsplash

Malcolm Treadwell stood on the steps outside Saint Dominic’s Church—or rather, what had been Saint Dominic’s—hands in his pockets, rehearsing the words he needed to say. The massive but rotting oak doors weren’t keeping anyone out, least of all the squatters who now occupied the vacant building. But as of Tuesday afternoon, Malcolm owned the property, a landmark structure on the promontory overlooking Keepers Bay.

“Showtime,” he said aloud, nodding at the three security men who waited at the bottom of the steps. With Malcolm in the lead, the four slipped between the doors into the former sanctuary. He had been warned what to expect, but the interior still startled him. 

The grandeur of the soaring roof no longer held anyone spellbound. Sections had fallen away, leaving gaps open to the sky. At eye level, many of the pews in the nave had been removed, and floorboards buckled in places. If stained glass had decorated the tall, arched windows, it must have been taken out with the pews, leaving behind dimness from the plywood hammered into place to keep out the weather. The air reeked of campfire smoke overlaid with roasted meat, sweat, and something less welcome. God had left the space to the pigeons and bats—and the squatters, whose make-shift community filled the areas not directly beneath the collapsed roof.

No one had taken up residence in the apse, and Malcolm was glad for that. Not because of any feelings about its sacredness, but because he could stand at the pulpit—assuming it didn’t crumble under his modest weight—and address the throng. Striding purposefully toward the front of the church, he smiled at the few squatters who noticed him. 

Malcolm bounded with a short leap into the altar area, and climbed the three steps to the pulpit. The wooden platform held him with only a few groans, sturdy enough that he could turn his attention to the people scattered below. 

“Hello, folks,” he called. His words echoed against the far walls where his security men stood, giving him confidence. “I am Mr. Treadwell, the new owner of this property.” He paused, but no one responded. In fact, aside from several people who stopped what they were doing to listen, the rest of the quasi-residents ignored him. 

“We have plans for this old church,” he continued. “It’s to be converted into condos.” Malcolm was proud of the blueprints he’d approved, if not ecstatic about the sizable sum the conversion would cost him. He was especially pleased at the name he had come up with: The Abbey at Dominic’s.

“The work on the structure will begin one month from today.” Again, he paused, waiting for someone, anyone to comment. “That means—” 

He was interrupted by several shouts. “We aren’t leaving.” “You’ll have to drag us out.” “This is ours, not yours.”

Malcolm held up a hand for silence, and then plunged ahead, despite continued grumbling. “Ah, no, you see, this property really is mine now. But I can understand that this news is upsetting.” You are squatters, he wanted to say. You have no rights; you are trespassers. 

The Realtor had laid out the history of the land, warning that Malcolm might need to bring in law enforcement to evict them. “They’ve set down roots, as odd as that sounds. I’ve heard children have been born there, and even grown up in the time the building has sat idle.”

But Malcolm was a bit of a hotspur at thirty-three. His vision for the old church would prevail, he vowed. In the pulpit, he took a deep breath. He’d always considered himself an unflappable sort, cool as a cucumber, was the saying. That was him. 

A man roughly Malcolm’s age hopped into the apse and waited at the base of the pulpit. “Four against fifty; I know which side I’m betting on.” Except for their ages, Malcolm and the man appeared to have nothing in common. Worn, baggy jeans and a flannel shirt, a buzz cut, a broad, clean-shaven face, versus Malcolm in his tan khakis and button-down shirt, trimmed beard, and wavy hair. 

Malcolm looked down at the man and then at the far wall, checking that his men were still in place. “You’re the leader here?”

“Maybe.” The man folded his arms. “I’d come down here if I were you. Talk face to face instead of lording it over us all like some rich bastard.” The man chuckled. “But I guess that’s what you are.”

With slow steps, Malcolm descended to the apse and faced the man, who he now realized stood a head taller than himself. He extended his hand. “I’m Malcolm Treadwell.”

“Joshua,” the man said, and surprised Malcolm by accepting the handshake.

“Was that a threat?” Malcolm said, eyeing Joshua now that they were on the same footing. “Before; what you said.”

“You can’t always get your way,” Joshua said. But his words held no malice. 

“I call that lose-lose. Your community keeps living in squalor, and I have nothing to rehab.”

Joshua smiled. “We have our principles.” 

Malcolm liked Joshua even though his gut advised caution. He didn’t know why exactly, but he trusted him. “So, what do we do? I’ve already spent a lot of money on this rat hole.”

“My house shall be called the house of prayer; but ye have made it a den of thieves,” Joshua quoted without hesitation.

“From Matthew, is it not?” Malcolm said. “Don’t ask me for the chapter and verse, but well said, in any case. This was once a house of prayer, but that was long ago.”

“Did your real estate agent tell you about the crypt?” Joshua pointed down at the floor of the apse. “Below us lie the remains of five priests, one of them Old Dominic himself.”

Malcolm mentally flipped through the historical details the Realtor had shared. He didn’t recall any mention of subterranean burial plots. A small graveyard lay adjacent to the church, but Malcolm fully intended to preserve that, even make a short exercise loop around it for those who lived in the condos.

“Dominic was Spanish, I believe,” Malcolm said. “I hardly think the saint would be entombed here, so far from his homeland.”

With a shrug, Joshua turned away. “Believe what you want to believe. But the fact that priests are buried here makes this place sacred even if it’s no longer used as a church.”

“Show me,” Malcolm demanded. His trust in Joshua had evaporated. The money changer accusation hadn’t worked to make him alter his plans, so the next tactic was to scare him with thoughts of vengeful spirits. That wouldn’t work either.

He followed Joshua through a narrow door alongside the apse and down a steep flight of steps. By the glow of Joshua’s flashlight and Malcolm’s slim phone, they entered a cramped passageway that smelled of moldering earth and that lay deeply silent.

“They’re here?” Malcolm asked. In this tiny space, the bones of those who had brought spiritual comfort to their flock?

“Yes, they’re all here,” Joshua said. “I’m going to switch off the light. You do the same.”

Malcolm’s men could provide no assistance if this were a trap. His hands became damp with the thought. “I think I’ve seen enough.”

Joshua turned to Malcolm. “If I wanted to hurt you, we would have stopped you upside before you’d gone fifty yards.” His flashlight blinked off.

Malcolm fumbled with his phone, almost dropping it, and also shut off its beam. 

The sudden blackness made the space in which they stood shrink until Malcolm felt smothered. The wheezing sound he heard was himself. And just like that he was six years old, locked in his aunt’s closet, punishment for breaking her prized, blown-glass owl on purpose when she wouldn’t let him watch Heroes. It had been just as dark and stifling, at least to his childhood self. 

You can’t always get your way, she’d yelled through closet door as he howled in rage.

“She hated me,” Malcolm said. “Because she had to babysit me while my mother worked.”

That was well before he’d raised himself up, far beyond his aunt’s meager station. Until he was finally a rich bastard lording it over them all.

Joshua flicked his flashlight on again. “Sometimes I see a faint glimmer in here, and I think it’s Old Dom himself. Doesn’t look like he’s going to show today. We can go back upside.”

As the two men climbed the steps to the main church floor, Malcolm revised the blueprints in his head. He stopped Joshua when they emerged from the doorway. 

“The condos,” he said. “I’ve been thinking. Let’s talk about making sure everyone here has a unit, if they want one. We’ll figure out a way to deal with the rent.”

And deep in the crypt a glimmer of light—maybe Old Dominic and maybe not—flickered and fluttered in the earthy darkness. 

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