Snake by Stephanie Burke

Snake by Stephanie Burke

Snake

Angel Falls, Book 2
by Stephanie Burke

Changeling Press

eBook ISBN: 06244-02006

Snake is old. She’s lived a good, long life and is comfortable doing tattoos and body modifications in her shop. But when young Ethan comes to her, he opens more than memories to her past. He unleashes a love she could never have anticipated. A May/December relationship will never work, but with a little magic and the secrets held in the town of Angel Falls, maybe together they can give love a second chance.

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Chapter One

“Angel Falls is one hell of a town. I’m surprised more anthropologists haven’t flocked here just for the folklore.”
Ethan Saunders looked up through a fall of dark, curly hair and stared at the beautiful black woman who placed a cup of coffee in front of him.
“How –?” he asked, wrinkling his nose as his gold-framed glasses began to slip down. He shoved them back up impatiently and blinked at the beauty, who was dressed in some sort of costume-play outfit.
“This is a small town, doll.” She smiled at him. “Nothing happens around here without the locals taking notice. Especially after recent events…” She trailed off, shaking her head. “That was a mess and a crying shame, but everything worked out in the end.”
“The Angel Falls kidnapping?” he asked. “Ethan, by the way. Ethan Saunders.”
“Amber Graves.” She shook his hand and carefully studied him for a moment. “So what exactly are you here to research? You really don’t have the look of an investigative reporter so the anthropology angle fits.”
“Wasn’t it a reporter who caused all the problems in the first place?” he asked, curious about how strangers would be treated here. This place was very much and had always been a closed community. And after the recent troubles, he expected them to circle the wagons and not take a shine to anyone. “And I’m a cultural anthropologist. I’m interested in local lore and especially any stories about the falls.”
“Jonathon Greely.” Amber wrinkled her nose at the name. “At last accounting, he had crawled back under a rock. It can’t be easy for a writer to get work when the whole world looks at him as the reason behind such a violent kidnapping and torture.”
He nodded in agreement. “Integrity seems to be just a word in the dictionary nowadays.”
“But that’s a hard past the town is slowly moving away from.” She leaned against the counter and looked him over one last time. “But if it’s history of the falls you’re after, you’d better talk to Snake.”
“Sna — pardon me, but did you say snake?”
Amber began to laugh at his confused state, and he knew he had to be a sight. It wasn’t a terribly long drive from Atlanta where he was based for the moment, but he was sure he looked a fright. He was still wearing a crumpled suit that he’d worn when he presented his case to the university to get funding for his project. He had grabbed his packed go-bag and was out the door before the ink finished drying on the proposal agreement. He had only stopped for gas and the occasional bathroom break before making his way to this remarkable town.
Angel Falls — the town, not the football player — was one of those strange places that had undergone a complete personality shift. Back in the early seventies, the town had been the bastion for the right-wing Republican. In a matter of some fifteen years the town had experienced a facelift, becoming more liberal and frankly strange until it almost rivaled Austin, Texas for weirdness.
So unlike in the photos of the past that lined the post office, the town was no longer a row of identical houses and manicured lawns. The place was now an explosion of color and characters, a veritable cult of personality that defied societal standards and served as a haven to artists, dancers and creative people of all types.
And then there were the strange readings from the falls that had started some fifteen years ago. Rumor had it the power emanating from the falls had driven away the closed-minded and beckoned to the more diverse people in the area.
So a character named Snake was not out of the realm of possibility.
“Yeah, she has been in this town for years. She and her husband, from what I can recall, personally made up the wrong side of the tracks for many years. It seems the town finally caught up with them.”
“Snake is a woman?” He’d been picturing a bearded leather biker complete with beer gut and tattoos. “Not the husband?
“Oh, her husband passed many years ago. Ethan. From what I gather he gave her the name Snake, named his tattoo shop after her and made her a famous pin up girl for the locals. It’s touching that she runs the shop now –”
“How old is she?” He picked up his coffee cup, the smell of the rich French roast too good to let get cold even for this important information.
“She’ll admit to seventy-two, though we think she’s a lot older.”
He choked and nearly spit his coffee across the counter. “Seventy-two? And she runs a tattoo shop?” Amber’s laugher was infectious, and he even found himself grinning after he cleared the coffee from his lungs.
“Snake’s Tattoo, Scarification, and Piercing Emporium. Best tats around.” Amber nodded. “I’m considering a Planet Quest –”
That’s the uniform.” He snapped his fingers, startling Amber into a huge smile.
“You’re familiar with the series?”
“I’m a fan.” He blushed a little as he spoke. “It’s all part of the geek package. You have to love Planet Quest and cult rock operas.”
“And you didn’t notice the name of this place… or the décor?” she asked, pointing to several iconic items, like the hand comms that a lot of cell phones were based on.
“And the counter is shaped like the cockpit of the bridge on the UFP — United Federal Planets — Nimitz.”
“Very good.” Amber beamed.
“I can only blame my lack of attention on the fact I’m so tired. But I just got in, checked in to the hotel, and came for coffee. I was supposed to be at the historical society but — um — it seems to have vanished.”
“Oh, we no longer have a historical society.” Amber twinkled at him. “Our past is important, but the ostentatious building they had set up was more of a DC-style tourist monument than anything that would do our town justice. So it was taken over by the police department, and the archives moved to the library where they’re accessible to everyone.”
He frowned. “The tourist brochure –”
“Was probably the same one printed before I moved here a few years ago. The newer ones are being argued over. Have been for the past five years.”
“So I rushed over for nothing.” He sighed, then offered Amber a smile. “Well, not exactly nothing. This place is amazing.”
She grinned in return. “If you stick around long enough, you need to come to our Wednesday night meetings. We do the full role-playing experience, complete with dastardly aliens and know-it-all, scheming admirals. It’s awesome.”
“Thank you,” he answered sincerely, knowing this wasn’t an offer lightly made.
“Finish your cup and go see Snake,” she said over her shoulder as she made her way to some new customers bellying up to the bar, as it were. “She is way better than the historical society… and more entertaining.”
So a few moments later, Ethan found himself walking down Main Street, past a clothing store and a honest-to-God soda fountain pharmacy, to the building that said, in bright blue and pink letters, Snake’s Tattoo, Scarification, and Piercing Emporium. It looked like something PT Barnum would have endorsed with its sign painted with oversized and outlined fonts.
He checked to see that the Open sign was facing out and entered, noting the tinkling bells on the door as he stepped inside.
The décor was as outrageous as he’d suspected. The walls were covered in hundreds of brilliant tattoo flashes and old photos.
There was a waiting room to his left that sported a couch and coffee table that reminded him of something out of the sixties’ atomic family poster. To the right was a glass display showcasing some of the most outrageous body jewelry and piercing equipment he had ever seen. Ahead of him was a long, beaded curtain that obscured the view to the back. It was from here that a voice called out, “Hold your horses. I’m coming. And you better have some cash on you or a really interesting piece in mind to get me away from my soaps.” The voice sounded amused and aged, but still strident.
He was a bit tired and lethargic from his trip, despite the caffeine at the café, but wanted to at least make an introduction and schedule a time to come back and ask questions later. But as he turned to explain himself, something on a far wall of old photographs grabbed his attention.
Almost as if he were being pulled, Ethan found himself walking the few feet that separated him from this fascination, drawn to one photograph in particular. It was a headshot, in a rosy color that told of its age. But, this photo — the image it captured — was sheer perfection.
There was a young woman, and even with the pink tint that threatened to overtake every other color, he could tell she was dusky-skinned and possessed of a river of flowing black hair. She was lying on her back, her hair a waterfall that flowed over the pillows and the platform on which she lay. Her head was tilted back, staring defiantly into the camera, a seductive and amused smile curving her lips.
But there was something about her eyes… They fairly glinted in the flat, two-dimensional photo, almost daring him to peer into their dark depths and learn all her secrets.
“Well, hello.” The soft voice pulled him from his contemplation of the photo that had so captured his imagination, yet still he couldn’t pull his eyes away.
“Hello,” he responded, as if in a trance. The absolute beauty of the woman still called to him.
A throat clearing made him jump and flush in embarrassment. Ethan spun around, apologies on his lips when he froze again. Those eyes, those lips —
He looked from the old woman standing before him and then back to the photograph. They were the same. He turned back to the woman, this time giving her more than a quick once-over, and couldn’t hold back his smile. “That’s you.”
Those lush, pouty lips smiled in a face that was careworn with age but still absolutely gorgeous. Her hair was snowy white with a slight blue tint, and her golden-brown skin glowed with health, despite the wrinkles at the corners of her eyes and lips. And her bright, black eyes glowed with vitality and good humor.
“Of course.” She snickered, adjusting the loose leather pants she wore on her tall frame. She patted the liberty rolls in her hair, the old fifties pinup hairstyle fitting her perfectly. She wore a long sleeved T-shirt that proclaimed, It’s all about the pain. The body jewelry is a souvenir, and stood proudly before him, staring him straight in the eyes. “Why would I have photos of anyone else surrounding me, young man?”
“I’m not that young –”
“Long hair pulled back into a rough pony tail.” She walked around him. “I would say it’s a matter of style or that you’re rebelling, but that’s not the case. You were probably too busy to get it cut so you let it grow…” She trailed off as she stood before him again, resting one hand under an ample bust line, the other bent and tapping on her lip. He could feel himself flush bright red.
“That dark skin is a matter of genetics,” she decided. “You’re much too wrapped up in your work to get out much, though it looks like you can manage in the wilderness. The evenness of your skin tone gives you away, my dear.”
“I –”
“Shh,” she admonished. “I’m reading you like a library, and I find myself fascinated.”
He reached up to press his glasses back against his nose but after tapping the bridge of his bare nose realized he wasn’t wearing them.
“You wear glasses — probably nearsighted from how close your nose was to my pin-up pose. And that suit is cute, but off the rack and cheap. But you’re comfortable wearing it, so you must spend a lot of time in one. Your shoes are by Penney’s, probably like the suit because you look like the type for convenience. So that makes you a student or a professional student.”
“That’s… right.” Was he that easy to read?
“No relationship because no woman would let you hide that body under unnecessary clothes.” She pursed her lips, looking very amused as he flushed further. “So that means you’re after either a tattoo or a piercing because you feel the need to change yourself — though I suspect you already have some ink buried under all that.” She waved her hands at his jacket. “There’s a wild streak in you, and I mean other than that curly hair. You’re too relaxed to be a reporter, and our small town doesn’t take too well to the media after the last sordid event, so that leaves historian or someone researching our history or our falls. I’m betting falls.”
She turned away, leaving him standing there with his mouth hanging open as he watched her move beyond the beaded curtain.
“Well, come on. I don’t have all day. I have some beads to install on a forehead in about an hour. Angel and Klintic may be our newest celebrity recluses and hiding from the public at large, but the pair of them are good for business. People want eye tattoos and metallic ink and all sorts of crap from those damn books. Everyone wants to be a fairy now, or at least look like one. I hear blue hair dye is going for a premium.”
Shaking off his stupor, Ethan silently followed the canny old woman who was swiftly moving away from him.
* * *
Snake watched as the young man pulled his attention away from the photos posted on the walls and walked into her back parlor. There was something familiar about the young man… something…
“Historian?” she asked again.
He blushed brightly and shook his head. “Cultural anthropologist,” he corrected. “But I’m here to study the falls and the town that sprang up around them.”
“And someone told you to talk to me?”
“Amber over at the café. She said you had a lot of information because of — um… disagreements –”
“Because the farts who run the Historical Society can’t find their asses with a mirror and a full moon backing them up.” She took a moment to laugh at the shocked look on his face.
“They need help, and I have a lot of old things here. I, and my late husband Mr. Snake, rest his old bones, have been here it seems almost since the first street light was put in. And boy, the yahoos over on Main Street had a field day with that, wanting people to redo the store fronts to keep up the tone of the neighborhood.” She snorted at the memory and turned her smile on the young man who tentatively took the seat she motioned to.
He was a fine-looking thing, and she felt she was correct in her assessment. He was cute and outgoing, kind of bookish but she doubted he was very shy.
“That’s the kind of stuff I need to talk to you about,” he said as he made himself comfortable on the couch next to her low coffee table. This wasn’t the room she allowed her customers to wait in; this was her personal room, so it didn’t have the same atmosphere as the rest of the shop. Instead of tattoo flash decorating the walls, there were personal photographs and painted landscapes of her favorite places on Earth. The couch was comfortable for Angel and Klintic, the two boys she loved like sons and who were known to drop in to visit from time to time, so she knew it would fit this young man. There was something about this kid that made her… It was an odd feeling.
“Your name?” she asked politely, taking a seat across from him.
“Oh, I’m so sorry.” He stood and offered her a small bow. “My name is Ethan Saunders, and I’m a cultural anthropologist for –”
“Old cultures, huh?” She snickered.
“Not just old ones.” He gave her a smile, taking a seat again. “Changing ones. And Angel Falls has changed a lot from what the records have shown. Its latest trip through the media circus emphasized that. The world is still questioning Angel Falls, and not the football player. So many things about this town are odd.”
“Like the robotic post master?” Snake joked and watched as Ethan did a double take.
“Robotic –”
“More like he has cybernetic parts.” She laughed. “Only the arm, but he has hopes for more in the future.”
“More –”
“He’s a bang-up engineer and biologist. He does good work.”
Ethan blinked hard before a smile settled across his handsome features. “It’s things like that I’m speaking of, Miss Snake…
“Just Snake.” She snorted. “Miss Snake sounds like you’re choking on the word mistake and believe me, I’m no one’s error.”
“I would never –”
She cut off his passionate defense of himself. “Joke, young blood. You need to lighten up a little.”
“Sorry.” He blushed, looking around at the photos. “Those are you?”
“A lot of them.” She nodded. “I have a lot more, and scrapbooks if that’s what you’re interested in. I keep a lot of my own history books and photographs.”
“Can I –” He almost danced in his seat. So easy to keep these young ones happy, Snake decided before she cut him off again.
“Tomorrow,” she promised him. “I have business today. You seem like a good kid so come on back tomorrow and I’ll share.”
She rose to her feet and nodded in approval as he quickly followed suit. It was nice that he had manners to go with the handsome face.
“Thank you, Snake.” He was still nearly dancing despite the exhaustion she could see on his face.
“Maybe you need to get some rest and then come back around noon tomorrow. That sound good, Young Blood?”
“Sounds great, ma’am.”
“And don’t ma’am me. My name is Snake. I work for a living.”
“Yes, ma — Snake,” he corrected before he offered her his hand for a quick shake. He paused, his eyes widening as a frisson of something ran through her. Ethan must have felt it too because he paused, staring down at her hand for a moment before she began to speak again.
“Tomorrow.” She watched as he nearly danced out of the room.
“Cute kid.” She spoke to the room at large when she heard the bells ring, signaling he had left the premises. “Some poor girl is missing out on that.”
She absently rubbed at her wrist as she forced Ethan Saunders from her mind and made her way back to the tattoo room to prepare for the minor modification she would perform. She hadn’t been lying about implanting beads in someone’s head.
People today were strange, she thought as she ran her fingers over the small tribal band tattooed on her wrist, her name written in small script over the black markings. It was the first tattoo her husband had placed on her, the first sign he’d accepted her and what she was.
A strange feeling went through her heart again, like someone tiptoeing over her soul — like when Ethan Saunders had touched her hand — but she shook it off, deciding to forgo the next round of hot wings and beer her boys Angel and Klintic had promised to bring. Heartburn was no joke at her age. Getting old sucked.

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