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The Gravedigger's Brawl
By Abigail Roux, Tiffany Maxwell, Rachel Haimowitz
Riptide PublishingCopyright © 2012 Abigail Roux
All rights reserved.
Dr. Wyatt Case sat at his desk with his eyes closed, listening for the sound of footsteps in the outer office. His assistant had orders to stop anyone trying to see him with as much fanfare as possible so he'd have time to prepare for the confrontation. Or hide. But she was on her lunch hour and Wyatt was on his own for the moment.
The outer door creaked open and his entire body began to tense as if anticipating a physical blow. There were two voices—one male, one female—discussing his whereabouts. Wyatt slid out of his chair to his knees and crawled into the kick space beneath his antique desk.
He wasn't ashamed, either.
It had been a stressful week and Wyatt wasn't used to that kind of thing. His mind wasn't built for strain, and his museum ran smoothly for the most part. But the trustees had been at him all week, jabbering about how the construction of the museum's new wing was hurting attendance and they needed a fresh exhibit to draw in the crowds.
Wyatt hated to tell them, but the only crowds the Virginia Historical Society would be drawing this time of year were screaming schoolchildren and die-hard history buffs who would come to the museum regardless of construction or new exhibits. In late September, the summer crowds were all gone, and the weather was nice enough that people were still trying to squeeze life and fresh air from the outdoors.
There was a curt knock, and the door to his office opened.
"Now where in the world could he be?" Edgar Reth, the acting president of the society grumbled.
Wyatt closed his eyes, putting his hand over his mouth. One snicker and he was done for.
"It is almost lunchtime," a woman said. Emelda Ramsay had sat on the board since before Wyatt was born. She was old Virginia money, concerned with nothing but the welfare of the museum and the historical society, rising above the politics and financial pressures that many trustees had fallen to over the years. She had been a key proponent of Wyatt's when he'd been brought to Richmond to take over the museum and Wyatt considered her a friend and mentor. It was certainly bad form to be hiding from her beneath the very desk her grandfather had donated, but that was life. He was tired of her having to defend him from Reth, who was a pompous ass, but had clout. If Wyatt couldn't please the trustees, not even Emelda could save him.
Emelda's sensible flats echoed on the hardwood floors as she walked toward the desk. "I'll just leave him a note," she said as her feet came into view.
Wyatt rolled his eyes. This was ridiculous. He crawled out from under the desk, and Emelda gasped as he appeared at her feet.
"Dr. Case!" She pressed her hand to her chest.
Wyatt stood, dusting off his sleeves. "My apologies, Emelda, I didn't mean to frighten you."
"Dr. Case, what in the world were you doing under there?" Reth demanded.
Wyatt glanced at him, schooling his features into innocence. "Pilates."
"You do Pilates under your desk?"
"You don't?" Wyatt asked, eyes going wide.
Emelda cleared her throat and smoothed a hand over her smart blazer. "Indeed."
"What can I do for you?" Wyatt asked as he looked between them.
Reth waved a file folder at him. "Have you seen the most recent numbers?"
"Why yes, Dr. Reth, I believe you emailed them to me. Three times. And had a courier deliver them to me. At my home. Which ... wasn't creepy at all."
"Dr. Case, do you realize that we're talking about your future here at the museum?" Reth asked. Wyatt could practically see the steam rising from his head.
Wyatt rubbed a finger across his eyebrow and nodded. He'd given them idea after idea, exhausting his mental stores as he laid out plans for all the possible exhibits they could create with the artifacts they had on hand. They couldn't get any artifacts of significance on loan in the short period of time before the new exhibit was due, they couldn't purchase or barter anything new, and they couldn't pull magic out of their asses.
If they had listened to Wyatt and his subordinates when the plans for the new wing had been pushed through, they could have been prepared. Wyatt had tried to show them the cost of the remodel, and not just the monetary cost. He'd been overruled, though, and now they seemed shocked by the drop in attendance.
Reth tossed the file onto the desk. "If a solution is not presented to the board by the end of the week, you're done here, Case. Is that clear enough?"
"Crystal," Wyatt said through gritted teeth.
Reth turned on his heel and stormed out of the office. Wyatt sighed and turned to Emelda, who was shaking her head and frowning.
"He's going to ask for your dismissal next month if we don't have something spectacular to show the trustees."
Emelda patted his arm and smiled encouragingly. "I have faith."
Wyatt couldn't help but laugh. "In what?"
She raised her eyebrows and cocked her head, surprised. "In you, Dr. Case."
Wyatt smiled weakly as she walked away. She shut the office door behind her, and Wyatt sank to his chair and held his head in his hands. After a few minutes to compose himself, he glanced up at one of the framed posters on his wall, a copy of an original Thurston show marquee. It advertised "the Great Magician" and pictured Thurston at a desk, bent over a large tome being held up by red imps. The Devil leaned over him, reading over his shoulder and holding his oil lamp for him.
Wyatt glared balefully at the imps. He kind of knew how the man in the poster felt, his work aided and encouraged by evil.
What he needed was inspiration. Or somewhere better to hide than under his desk. As the head curator, such nebulous things as new exhibits, attendance, and public interest were Wyatt's responsibility, and he would take the fall when the numbers showed hard losses over the construction. But every single suggestion he'd brought forth had been shot down as being too staid or not capable of drawing in the younger crowd. Virginia at War. Lincoln's Private War. The World at War! The only one the trustees had really liked was How to Tell Your Curator to Stick It up His Ass.
Wyatt was prepared to tell them that if they wanted a younger crowd, they were going to need a younger curator. At thirty-eight, he didn't consider himself old, but he was out of ideas and out of touch with the target audience.
That was one good thing about his line of work, though; historians never went out of style. In theory. But Wyatt knew you couldn't force an interest in history on people. You couldn't manufacture a love for it out of a few interesting baubles and trinkets being put on display, no matter how cleverly they were presented. It had to be organic, a spark of knowledge put into the mind. All you could do was offer the truth to the masses and hope they found it as fascinating as it was.
Another knock at his door made him wince, but he didn't have time to duck beneath his desk before the door opened.
To his eternal relief, Noah Drake stuck his head in and grinned at him. "You're hiding from the suits, aren't you?"
Wyatt sighed. "They caught me even though I just spent two minutes crouching under my desk."
"There's a disturbing amount of head room under there."
Noah grinned wider and nodded as he stepped inside. "Some people pay big money for that."
Noah laughed. "Come on. We're going to lunch."
"We are?" Wyatt asked with a hint of dread.
The last time he had let Noah drag him somewhere, he'd wound up in Virginia Beach without a car and mysteriously missing his socks and boxers. Noah rode a motorcycle to work and his long hair was often pulled into a ponytail as he lectured. Like Wyatt, he was openly gay. And God help the poor soul who made a derogatory comment, because while Noah may have had an Ivy League degree, he also had several Krav Maga belts at home.
Noah laughed as Wyatt frowned at him. "Don't look at me like I'm about to eat your canary. Come on, I promise nothing untoward will happen."
Wyatt sighed and then allowed himself a small smile as he stood and grabbed his coat. He was already placing bets on whether or not the bartender was going to have sleeves. "I assume I'm driving?"
"Actually, we're walking. I heard about this great place in the Fan last weekend." They stepped out into the hall and Wyatt turned to lock his office door.
The Fan District was an aptly named neighborhood nestled across the street from the museum, called that because of the way its streets fanned out from its center. The Fan District was one of Richmond, Virginia's lovingly restored historic districts, full of converted condos, restaurants, and used books stores. It was a history buff's dream, an emo kid's hunting ground, and getting trendier and therefore less authentic all the time. He thought they'd hit every restaurant in the Fan, but it seemed like new ones popped up every week. Wyatt had no problem wandering into the area for a little lunch.
He did have a problem with the mischievous glint in Noah's eyes, however.
"What's the catch?" he asked.
Wyatt stopped at the outer door and gestured for Noah to peer around the corner.
"This is escalating quickly," Noah said, but he humored Wyatt and looked around the corner for any trustees on the prowl.
Once he gave the all clear, they made their way to the employee exit. Lately, Wyatt felt like he was in a live action version of Spy vs. Spy, and it was only getting worse.
"This is some dive that serves heart attacks, isn't it?" Wyatt asked.
"Wyatt, I promise, there's no catch. Just a nice walk and some lunch. Why," Noah asked with a narrowing of his eyes that didn't camouflage the mischief. "What have you heard?"
"They have a hot bartender or waiter or something and you're dragging me there as cannon fodder so you can flirt with some buff guy in cutoffs."
"Hardly!" They nodded to the security guard at the staff entrance and stepped out into the chilly autumn afternoon. "He's not really buff."
"And I doubt he wears cutoffs. I like them a little more—"
"Please, spare me any details."
They stopped at the streetlight and waited to cross the busy street named simply Boulevard. The boundary between the Fan and the boutiques of Carytown, Boulevard was lined on each side with turn-of-the-century houses, most restored, others still languishing as rundown condos with bikes and Christmas lights hanging off their once-splendid balconies. It wasn't hard to imagine it as it had been in its glory days, though.
Wyatt grinned and shook his head as they crossed the four lanes and wide grassy median at a jog. The wind whipped at them and sent dried leaves skittering across the road at their feet. It had been a mild mid-Atlantic summer and was cold now at the end of September. Wyatt wasn't complaining, though. He would much rather bundle himself up in a jacket than suffer through the sweltering summers and warm falls the Eastern seaboard was accustomed to.
They walked down the sidewalk, shoulders brushing. "So, tell me about your latest conquest. And then tell me why you need to drag me along."
"I figured you'd do anything to avoid Reth," Noah said wryly.
"A fair assumption."
"So play wingman for me and stop complaining. I met this guy at the shop. He's got this great World War-era bike," Noah said.
"I see." Wyatt pulled the collar of his coat up against the chill. "One or two?"
"He's only got the one."
"World War I or II," Wyatt asked.
"Oh. Irrelevant to the story, but II," Noah answered. He was wearing a stupid grin, not going into further detail about the bike because he knew Wyatt neither understood nor cared about any more of the particulars. Noah spent a lot of his spare time at the motorcycle shop on the seedier end of Boulevard, the one right next to the tattoo parlor with the checkered floor. Wyatt sometimes suspected he owned part of the place.
"He told me he tended bar at this place in the Fan and that I'd like it, so I checked it out this weekend. It's got great ambience." Noah gave a dramatic flip of his hand.
"Ambience. People only talk about ambience when there's nothing else good to say, Noah."
"No, Wy, you're gonna love it. The food's pretty good too."
"Uh-huh. And since you've already got an in with this guy, you need me why?"
"Because I think you'd really like the place."
Wyatt stopped short and turned to glare at his companion. "This guy doesn't have a friend, does he? Are you trying to set me up?"
"I'm sure he's got no friends. No friends at all."
"No friends, I swear!"
Wyatt narrowed his eyes and glared for another moment, but Noah's innocuous stare never wavered, so Wyatt turned and began walking again, smiling grudgingly. He had the very distinct feeling that he was being set up with some random guy Noah had found at a bike rally or something. But there wasn't much he could do about it if he wanted to duck the trustees, which seemed the greater of two evils just now.
Wyatt didn't date seriously; he just didn't have the time or interest in it. He had always been happy on his own. But he would have fucked a polar bear if it meant not being bothered by Edgar Reth today.
When they got to the bar, Wyatt found a beautifully restored Victorian with a carved wooden sign hanging outside that read Gravedigger's Tavern. A chalk marquee on the sidewalk indicated the day's specials in a pleasant scrawl, and below that, Olde Richmond Towne Ghost Tours was permanently advertised in paint.
"Fun," Wyatt drawled. "Do you have to be wearing eyeliner to get in?"
"Don't read too much into the façade," Noah said as he took Wyatt's elbow and pulled him to the door.
It wasn't all that crowded because they were behind the lunch crowd, and it looked like the few patrons inside the tavern were regulars. No one sat at the tiny booths that lined the walls of the long, narrow room. Instead, the four people in the establishment were all leaning against the bar that covered the length of one wall, talking with each other and the man serving. One patron wore a long black trench coat. A young woman wore red and black striped tights under a leather miniskirt. Two others wore work vests and had orange hard hats on the stools beside them. An eclectic assortment, to say the least.
Wyatt gave the surroundings a wary glance. It wasn't dirty or greasy like he had expected from a place an acquaintance of Noah's worked, but it looked ... well-used. In fact, Wyatt liked the vintage feel of the place. The walls were dark and rich, covered with black and wine-colored brocade fabric, and there were antique sconces along the walls that filtered soft light into the room. The ceiling sported tin tiles, and all the woodwork in the place seemed to be original to the old Victorian structure. At night it would probably be quite intimate. The dark wooden floor appeared to be original as well; it was smooth and dull from years of use, any wax or lacquer long worn away.
Noah waved to the bartender and slid into the nearest booth. The man nodded at Noah and smiled as he wiped out a glass with a dishrag.
"Is that the guy?" Wyatt asked as he sat across from Noah and shifted on the leather seat. It was real leather, he was surprised to find, worn and smooth from age and use.
"That's Ash. He's hot, right?"
Ash was a good-looking guy: dark curls, darker eyes, tall and wiry. Wyatt tried not to smile. "Not what I was expecting."
Noah raised an eyebrow.
"Big muscles, braided ponytail, goatee with beads in it."
Noah snorted and rolled his eyes, looking away with a smile and shake of his head.
"Sleeveless leather vest and patches that say 'The bitch fell off' on the back."
Noah laughed, holding out his hand to make Wyatt stop. "You have a low opinion of my taste in men."
"Not low. Just ... you know, leather-bound and hairy."
"You suck," Noah said as a woman with purple hair came up to take their orders.
She must've caught Noah's words, because she grinned at Wyatt and said, "You'll be popular in certain circles then."
Noah threw his head back and cackled. Wyatt could feel himself blushing, thankful for the low light and the heavy curtains on the windows.
Excerpted from The Gravedigger's Brawl by Abigail Roux, Tiffany Maxwell, Rachel Haimowitz. Copyright © 2012 Abigail Roux. Excerpted by permission of Riptide Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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