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The Beguiling Baron

A. C. Spahn wanted to be an interstellar starship captain when she grew up. Since nobody was hiring, she became a writer instead. She enjoys training in martial arts, organizing messy rooms, and researching a hobby-of-the-month. When not commanding imaginary starships, she lives in Pennsylvania with her husband, son, and feline overlord. She is the author of the Endurance series of comedic sci-fi novellas and short stories appearing in Outposts of Beyond, Disturbed Digest, and other publications.

"We're going to die here, aren't we?" Detective Derek Faraday glanced over his shoulder at Cara Watt, paranormal investigator. The two were tied back to back on folding chairs in the center of a hall straight out of the 17th century, complete with full-size statuary lining the walls and wide pillars supporting a pastoral-painted ceiling. The marble floor looked like it had dirt from the 17th century as well, and was so scuffed it barely reflected the two captives.
Cara had her eyes closed and her chin down. "Quiet. I'm thinking."
Faraday wriggled his hands, bound in front of him. "I know you don't want to reveal what kind of paranormal creature you are, but this would be a really good time for you to manifest some powers to get us free."
She didn't respond.
"We're not going to die. Can you reach my purse?"
Faraday strained toward where their belongings lay piled beside the chairs. "No. It's out of reach."
"Who do you suppose has us?"
"The Baron, I assume. He has been behind most of the recent crime in the city."
"Wish we knew why."
"All shall be revealed!" A high voice rasped. Cara and Faraday both jumped. A monstrous figure appeared framed by the double doors at the end of the hall. Feathers rose from the neck, and light glinted off a lethal beak. Leathery wings unfolded from the serpentine body that slithered across the marble floor.
"Close your eyes," Cara hissed.
Faraday quickly obeyed. "What is it?"
"Cockatrice. Body of a dragon, head of a rooster. Everything that looks into its eyes turns to stone."
"Guess that explains the statues everywhere."
"Poor souls." The cockatrice's voice grated like he had rocks in his gullet. "Paranormals who refused to see the wisdom of my plan. Who refused to be part of the future. You can open your eyes, my guests. I will not harm you until you hear my proposal."
Faraday cracked an eye open, making sure to keep his gaze on the creature's claws. "I take it you're the Baron?"
"I am."
"Not a Duke, or at least an Earl?"
"Never mind. What's your proposal?"
"The eradication of humankind and the ascendance of paranormals as the rightful apex predators of this world."
"No thanks," said Faraday, and shut his eyes again.
"We like humans," said Cara.
"We are humans," said Faraday. "Or at least, I am."
"Impossible," growled the Baron. "You found my lair, here in a magical demesne."
"It wasn't that hard," said Cara.
"I will find out what you are, and your powers will serve me!" Quick wing flaps carried the Baron up to the lip of one of the pillars. "Accept these terms, or become another artistic relic. You have one minute to decide."
"Seriously," Faraday whispered to Cara. "We could use some magic about now. Whatever you are, I promise I won't judge you, so long as it lets us live."
Cara felt unnaturally still behind him. "I'm human, Derek."
"This is no time to joke--"
"I'm serious."
"But you've talked about the paranormal community like you're part of it."
"My parents were wizards. But the magic skipped me. I'm just human. No powers."
"Thirty seconds," squawked the Baron.
"Okay," said Derek, sweat pouring down his face. "No powers. We need another solution. How do you fight a cockatrice?"
"Weasels are immune to its stone gaze."
"I'm not a weasel."
"And the crow of a rooster will kill it."
"Do you have a rooster in your purse?"
Cara straightened. "No, but I do have something that will help. Try again to get my bag!"
Faraday complied. The ropes burned against his skin, but he gritted his teeth, stretching as far as his bound arms could go. "It's too far."
"Time's up." The Baron soared down from the pillar, landing alongside the chairs. "How do you decide?"
"Sure, we'll join you," said Cara. "We make a great team." Then she threw herself sideways, toppling the chairs and herself and Faraday with them. The detective's eyes popped open in shock. The fall upended Cara's purse, spilling a green leather wallet, a tiny pocketknife, a bottle of red nail polish and another of acetone polish remover, a tube of mascara, a soft pair of knitted gloves, a paperback novel, and a refrigerator magnet. The items were out of Cara's reach, but within Faraday's.
Instantly he knew what Cara wanted him to do.
As the Baron slithered forward, Faraday grabbed the nail polish remover and twisted its cap open. Then he dumped the chemical all over the marble floor.
The Baron slipped on the sudden slickness and let out a warbling growl. "You'll not stop me that way!"
Faraday was busy rubbing the polish remover into the stone with one of the knit gloves.
As the Baron loomed over them, Cara said, "Baron, stop. Look at yourself."
Faraday pulled his hands away from the floor. The cockatrice's reflection gleamed back up at him from the now-polished marble. The Baron gave a strangled cry, just before his lizard limbs and sinewy wings went completely still. Dark stone erupted from his body, engulfing him from claws to beak. In seconds, the Baron was no more.
Faraday let out the breath he'd been holding. "I can't believe that worked."
Cara captured the pocketknife with her foot, passed it to her hands, and began using it to cut their restraints. "I actually thought I had a compact mirror in there. Well done, thinking to use the polish remover to buff the floor."
"All this marble, and he didn't polish it. There had to be a reason. When you said the gaze of a cockatrice turns anyone to stone...."
"That's why I like you." Cara flicked the knife once more. Rope tumbled to the floor. Faraday rolled to his feet and fished his phone from their piled gear. As he waited for the police department to pick up, he massaged his aching arms.
A few minutes later he shoved the phone in his pocket. "Backup is on the way. I told them how to find this place. Don't know if anything can be done for those already stone gazed, but if the Baron has other captives, they'll be rescued."
Cara dropped her gaze. "I'm sorry I'm not what you thought. I-- I hope you're not too disappointed."
Faraday placed his hands on her shoulders. "You could never disappoint me." Gently he pressed his lips to hers.
Lightning flashed outside the windows, and thunder shook the building's roots. Faraday startled. He peered suspiciously at Cara. "Are you really just human?"
"Hush," she said, and kissed him again.
The End
This story was first published on Wednesday, May 16th, 2018

Author Comments

The Cara Watt stories were inspired by the two-minute mysteries by Donald J. Sobol, featuring Dr. Haledijan the sleuth solving various cases alongside the reader. My husband and I enjoyed reading Dr. Haledjian's adventures aloud together, and the pairing of the interactive mystery with a paranormal setting seemed like a perfect fit.

- A C Spahn
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