A Deadly Angels Book #7
Avon Books
June 2016 (05-31-16)
ISBN-10: 0062356542
ISBN-13: 978062356543

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Spit-roasted wild suckling boar
Sliced cold hákarl (rotten shark)
Eel in dill cream sauce
Sviâ (boiled sheep’s head)
Mutton with mustard chestnut dressing
Brútspungur (pickled ram testicles in whey-pressed cakes)

Manchet bread, Butter

Gammelost (stinky cheese)

Fennel sallat
Nettle soup with hard-cooked gulls’ eggs
Parsnips and cabbage porridge

Stewed lingonberries
Dried apple oat crumbles

Mead, ale
Imported grape wine from Francia (while supply lasts)
Reindeer (venison) steaks
Oat-crisped herring
Pigeon pie
Pickled boars’ feet

Horseradish, Pickles


Pea and ham hock stew
Boiled onions in venison gravy

Honey and hazelnut oat cakes
Gingered pears with red currents


Weight Watchers, where art thou?...

Cnut Sigurdsson was a big man. A really big man! He was taller than the average man, of course, being a Viking, but more than that, he was…well…truth to tell…fat.

Obesity was a highly unusual condition for Men of the North, Cnut had to admit, because Norsemen were normally vain of appearance, sometimes to a ridiculous extent. Long hair, combed to a high sheen. Braided beards. Clean teeth. Gold and silver arm rings to show off muscles. Tight braies delineating buttocks and ballocks.

But not him.

Cnut did not care.

Even now, when three of his six brothers, who’d come (uninvited, by the by) to his Frigg’s Day feast here at Hoggstead in the Norselands, were having great fun making jests about just that.

Cnut cared not one whit what the lackwits said.

Not even when Trond made oinking noises, as if Cnut’s estate were named for a porcine animal when he knew good and well it was the name of the original owner decades ago, Bjorn Hoggson. Besides, Trond had no room to make mock of others when he was known to be the laziest Viking to ever ride a longship. Some said he did not even have the energy to lift his cock for pissing, that he sat like a wench on the privy hole. That was probably not true, but it made a good story.

Nor did Cnut bother to rise and clout his eldest brother Vikar when he asked the skald to make a rhyme of Cnut’s name:

Cnut is a brute

And a glutton, of some repute.

He is so fat that, when he goes a-Viking for loot,

He can scarce lift a bow with an arrow to shoot.

But, when it comes to woman-pursuit,

None can refute

That Cnut can “salute” with the best of them.

Thus and therefore, let it be known

And this is a truth absolute,

Size matters.

Ha, ha, ha!” Cnut commented, while everyone in the great hall howled with laughter, and Vikar was bent over, gasping with mirth.

Cnut did not care, especially since Vikar was known to be such a prideful man he fair reeked of self-love. At least the skald had not told the poem about how, if Cnut spelled his name with a slight exchange of letters, he would be a vulgar woman-part. That was one joke Cnut did not appreciate.

But mockery was a game to Norsemen. And, alas and alak, Cnut was often the butt of the jests.

He. Did. Not. Care.

Yea, some said he resembled a walking tree with a massive trunk, limbs like hairy battering rams, and fingers so chubby he could scarce make a fist. Even his face was bloated, surrounded by a mass of wild, tangled hair on head and beard, which was dark blond, though its color was indiscernible most times since it was usually greasy and teeming with lice. Unlike most Vikings, he rarely bathed. In his defense, what tub would hold him? And the water in the fjords was frigid except for summer months. What man in his right mind wanted to turn his cock into an icicle?

A disgrace to the ideal of handsome, virile Vikinghood, he overheard some fellow jarls say about him on more than one occasion.

And as for his brother Harek, who considered himself smarter than the average Viking, Cnut glared his way and spoke loud enough for all to hear, “Methinks your first wife Dagne has put on a bit of blubber herself in recent years. Last time I saw her in Kaupang, she was as wide as she was tall. And she farted as she walked, rather waddled. Phhhttt, phhhttt, phhhttt! Now, there is something to make mock of!”

“You got me there,” Harek agreed with a smile, raising his horn of mead high in salute.

One of the good things about Vikings is that they could laugh at themselves. The sagas were great evidence of that fact.

At least Cnut was smart enough not to take on any wives of his own, despite his twenty and eight years. Concubines and the odd wench here and there served him well. Truly, as long as Cnut’s voracious hunger for all bodily appetites—food, drink, sex—was being met, he cared little what others thought of him

When his brothers were departing two days later (he thought they’d never leave), Vikar warned him, “Jesting aside, Cnut, be careful. One of these days your excesses are going to be your downfall.”

“Not one of these days. Now,” Cnut proclaimed jovially as he crooked a chubby forefinger at Inga, a passing chambermaid with a bosom not unlike the figurehead of his favorite longship, Sea Nymph. “Wait for me in the bed furs,” he called out to her. “I plan to fall down with you for a bit of bedplay.”

Vikar, Trond, and Harek just shook their heads at him, as if he were a hopeless case.

Cnut did not care.

But Vikar’s words came back to haunt Cnut several months later when he was riding Hugo, one of his two war horses, across his vast estate. A normal-sized palfrey could not handle his weight; he would squash it like an oatcake. Besides, his long legs dragged on the ground. So, he had purchased two Percherons from Le Perche, a province north of Norsemandy in the Franklands known for breeding the huge beasts. They’d cost him a fortune.

But even with the sturdy destrier and his well-padded arse, not to mention the warm, sunny weather, Cnut was ready to return to the keep where a midday repast. Most Vikings had only two meals a day. The first, dagmál or “day-meal, breaking of fast, was held two hours after morning work was started, and the second, náttmál or “night meal.” was held in the evening when the day’s work was completed. But Cnut needed a midday meal, as well. And right now, a long draught of mead and an afternoon nap would not come amiss. But he could not go back yet. His steward, Finngeir the Frugal (whom he was coming to regard as Finn the Bothersome Worrier), insisted that he see the extent of the dry season on the Hoggstead cotters’ lands.

Ho-hum. Cnut didn’t even bother to stifle his yawn.

“Even in the best of times, the gods have not blessed the Norselands with much arable land, being too mountainous and rocky. Why else would we go a-Viking but to settle new, more fertile lands?”

“And women,” Cnut muttered. “Fertile or not.”

Finn ignored his sarcasm and went on. Endlessly. “One year of bad crops is crippling, but two years, and it will be a disaster, I tell you. Look at the fields. The grains are half as high as they should be by this time of year. If it does not rain soon—”

Blather, blather, blather. I should have brought a horn of ale with me. And an oatcake, or five. Cnut did not like Finn’s lecturing tone, but he was a good and loyal subject, and he would hate the thought of replacing him. So, Cnut bit back a snide retort. “What would you have me do? A rain dance? I can scarce walk, let alone dance. Ha, ha, ha.”

Finn did not smile.

The humorless wretch.

“Dost think I have a magic wand to open the clouds? The only wand I have is betwixt my legs. Ha, ha, ha.”

No reaction, except for a continuing frown, and a resumption of his tirade. “You must forgive the taxes for this year. Then, you must open your storerooms to feed the masses. That is what you must do.”

“Are you barmy? I cannot do that! I need the taxes for upkeep of my household and to maintain a fighting troop of housecarls. As for my giving away foodstuffs, forget about that, too. Last harvest did not nearly fill my oat and barley bins. No, ’tis impossible!”

“There is more. Look about you, my jarl. Notice how the people regard you. You will have an uprising on your own lands, if you are not careful.”

“What? Where? I do not know—” Cnut’s words cut off as he glanced to his right and left, passing through a narrow lane that traversed through his crofters’ huts. Here and there, he saw men leaning on rakes or hauling manure to the fields. They were gaunt-faced and grimy, glaring at him through angry eyes. One man even spat on the ground, narrowly missing Hugo’s hoof. And the women were no better, raising their skinny children up for him to see.

“That horse would feed a family of five for a month,” one toothless old graybeard yelled.

His wife—Cnut assumed it was his wife, being equally aged and toothless—cackled and said, “Forget that. If the master skipped one meal a month, the whole village could feast.”

Many of those standing about laughed.

Cnut did not.

Good thing they did not know how many mancuses it had taken to purchase Hugo and the other Percheron. It was none of their concern! Cnut had a right to spend his wealth as he chose. Leastways, that’s what he told himself.

Now, instead of being softened by what he saw, Cnut hardened his heart. “If they think to threaten me, they are in for a surprise,” he said to Finn once they’d left the village behind and were returning to the castle keep. “Tell the tax man to evict those who do not pay their rents this year.”

By late autumn, when the last of the meager crops was harvested, Cnut had reason to reconsider. Already, he’d had to buy extra grains and vegetables from the markets in Birka and Hedeby, just for his keep. Funerals were held back to back in the village. And he was not convinced that Hugo had died of natural causes last sennight, especially when his carcass had disappeared overnight. Cnut had been forced to post guards about his stables and storage shed since then. Everywhere he turned, people were grumbling, if not outright complaining.

That night. in a drukkinn fit of rage, he left his great hall midway through the dinner meal. Highly unusual for him. But then, who wouldn’t lose their appetite with all those sour faces silently accusing him? It wasn’t Cnut who’d brought the drought, even the most sane-minded creature must know that. Blame the gods, or lazy field hands who should have worked harder, or bad seed.

As he was leaving, he declined an invitation from some of his hersirs who were engaged in a game of hneftafl. Even his favorite board game with its military strategies and rousing side bets held no interest tonight. Bodil, a chambermaid, gave him a sultry wink of invitation in passing, but he was not in the mood for bedplay tonight, either.

He decided to visit the garderobe before taking to his bed, alone, and nigh froze his balls when he sat on the privy hole. He was further annoyed to find that someone had forgotten to replenish the supply of moss and grape leaves for wiping.

When Cnut thought things could not get any worse, he opened the garderobe door and almost tripped over the threshold at what he saw. A man stood across the corridor, arms crossed over his chest. A stranger. Could it be one of his desperate, starving tenants come to seek revenge on him, as Finn had warned?

No. Despite the darkness, the only light coming from a sputtering wall torch, Cnut could see that this man was handsome in appearance, noble in bearing. Long, black hair. Tall and lean, though well-muscled, like a warrior. And oddly, he wore a long white robe with a twisted rope belt, and a gold crucifix hung from a chain about his neck. Even odder, there appeared to be wings half-folded behind his back.

Was it a man or something else?

I must be more drukkinn than I thought. “Who are you?”

“St. Michael the Archangel.”

One of those flying creatures the Christian believe in? This is some alehead madness I am imagining! A walking dream.

“’Tis no dream, fool,” the stranger said, as if he’d read Cnut’s thoughts.

“What do you want?” Cnut demanded.

“Not you, if I had a choice, that is for certain,” the man/creature/angel said with a tone of disgust. “Thou art a dire sinner, Cnut Sigurdsson, and God is not pleased with you.”

“Which god would that be? Odin? Thor?”

“For shame! There is only one God.”

Ah! Of course. He referred to the Christian One-God. Vikings might follow the Old Norse religions, but they were well aware of the Christian dogma, and, in truth, many of them allowed themselves to be baptized, just for the sake of expediency.

“So, your God is not pleased with me. And I should care about that…why?” Cnut inquired, holding onto the door jamb to straighten himself with authority. He was a high jarl, after all, and this person was trespassing. Cnut glanced about for help, but none of his guardsmen were about. Surprise, surprise. They are probably still scowling and complaining about the lack of meat back in the hall. I am going to kick some arse for this neglect.

“Attend me well, Viking, you should care because thou are about to meet your maker.” He said Viking as if it were a foul word. “As are your brothers. Sinners, all of you!”


“Seven brothers, each guilty of one of the Seven Deadly Sins. Pride. Lust. Sloth. Wrath. Gluttony. Envy. Greed.” He gave Cnut a pointed look. “Wouldst care to guess which one is yours?”

No, he would not. “So, I eat and drink overmuch. I can afford the excess. What sin is that?”

“Fool!” the angel said, and immediately a strange fog swirled in the air. In its mist, Cnut saw flashing images:

—Starving and dead children.

—Him gnawing on a boar shank so voraciously that a greasy drool slipped down his chin. Not at all attractive.

—One of his housecarls being beaten to a bloody pulp for stealing bread for his family.

—Honey being spread on slice after slice of manchet bread on his high table.

—A young Cnut, no more than eight years old, slim and sprightly, chasing his older brothers about their father’s courtyard.

—A naked, adult Cnut, gross and ugly with folds of fat and swollen limbs. He could not run now, if he’d wanted to.

—A family, wearing only threadbare garb and carrying cloth bundles of its meagre belongings, being evicted from its home with no place to go in the snowy weather.

—Warm hearths and roofs overhead on the Hoggstead keep.

—A big-bosomed concubine riding Cnut in the bed furs, not an easy task with his big belly.

—The same woman weeping as she unwrapped a linen cloth holding scraps of bread and meat, half-eaten oat cakes, and several shrunken apples, before her three young children.

Cnut had seen enough. “This farce has gone on long enough! You say I am going to die? Now? And all my brothers, too? Excuse me if I find that hard to believe.”

“Not all at once. Some have already passed. Others will go shortly.”

Really? Three of his brothers had been here just two months past, and he had not received news of any deaths in his family since, but then their estates were distant and the roads were nigh impassable this time of year. The fjords were no better, already icing over, making passage difficult for longships.

“I should toss you down the privy hole and let you die in the filth,” the angel said, “but you would not fit. Better yet, I should lock you in the garderobe and let you starve to death, like your serfs do.”

Ah, so that’s what this was about. “You cannot blame me for lack of rain or poor harvests. In fact, your God—”

Before he could finish the thought, the angel pointed a forefinger at him, and a flash of light passed forth, hitting Cnut right in the chest, like a bolt of lightning. Cnut found himself dangling off the floor. He clutched his heart which felt as if a giant stake had passed through his body, securing him to the wall.

“Let it be known hither and yon, the Viking race has become too arrogant and brutish, and it is God’s will that it should die out. But you and your brothers are being given a second chance, though why, only God knows.”

What? Wait. Did he say I won’t be dying, after all?

“This is thy choice. Repent and agree to become a vangel in God’s army for seven hundred years, and thou wilt have a chance to make up for your mortal sins. Otherwise, die and spend eternity at Satan’s hearth.”

A sudden smell of rotten eggs filled the air. Brimstone, Cnut guessed, which was said to be a characteristic of the Christian afterlife for those who had offended their god. At the same time, he could swear his toes felt a mite warm. Yea, fire and brimstone, for a certainty.

So, I am being given a choice between seven hundred years in God’s army or forever roasting in Hell. Some choice! Still, he should not be too quick to agree. “Vangel? What in bloody hell is a vangel?” Cnut gasped out.

“A Viking vampire angel who will fight the forces of Satan’s Lucipires, demon vampires who roam the world spreading evil.”

That was clear as fjord mud. Cnut was still pinned high on the wall, and he figured he was in no position to negotiate. Besides, seven hundred years didn’t sound too bad.

But he forgot to ask what exactly a vampire was.

He soon found out.

With a wave of his hand, the angel loosened Cnut’s invisible ties, and he fell to the floor. If he’d thought the heart pain was bad, it was nothing compared to the excruciating feel of bones being crushed and reformed. If that wasn’t bad enough, he could swear he felt fangs forming on each side of his mouth, like a wolf. And his shoulders were being ripped apart, literally, and replaced with what, Cnut could not be sure, as he writhed about the rush-covered floor.

“First things first,” the angel said then, leaning over him with a menacing smile. “You are going on a diet.”



Salted caramel crème brulee –rich cream and imported toffee, chef’s specialty

Opera Cake—an elegant gateau of mocha buttercream spread over thin layers of pound cake soaked in coffee syrup, topped with ganache

Assorted cookies: Chocolate-dipped Madelines, almond merinque macarons, small in size but sinfully satisfying

Dacquoise à la Framboise—almond merinque filled with pastry cream and fresh berries, a seasonal delight

Napoleons—traditonal flaky pastry layered with chocolate mousse, vanilla or coffee cream and covered with ganache, one is never enough

Bourdaloue Peach Tart—fresh peaches and almond cream in a generous-sized sugar tart shell, can be shared

Petit Fours—assorted, including LeCygne, a miniature cake filled with vanilla hazelnut cream and Hill Farm natural strawberry preserves.

Crepes filled with fresh fruit of choice, topped with thick whipped cream and dark chocolate shavings, light and decadent


Sister, where art thou?…

“ISIS? Why would any woman in her right mind join that militant group?” Andrea Stewart remarked skeptically into the cell phone she had propped between the crook of her ear and raised shoulder. Her hands were free to stir the chocolate ganache to be spread atop the Opera Cake she was preparing for tonight’s dessert menu at La Chic Sardine.

The elegant gateâu was comprised of mocha buttercream spread over thin layers of cake that had been soaked in coffee syrup, topped with the ganache, then sliced into bars. One of her many specialties at this Philadelphia restaurant. As far removed from ISIS as, well, the Liberty Bell.

“How do I know why your sister does the things she does?” her stepmother, Darla, whined into the phone. “All I know is, I have a picture here in front of me, and she’s wearing some kind of robe that covers her from head to toe with only her eyes peeking out.”

“A burqa?” That was a switch for her sister who was more inclined toward tight jeans and skimpy shirts.

“I don’t know what they call those things. They look like tents, if you ask me. I get a hot flash just thinking about how uncomfortable they must be in this heat. Thank God I’m not an A-rab.”

It was summer, and the city was in the midst of an unusual heat wave…unusual for Pennsylvania…but Darla would have the AC on full blast? Is she in menopause? At forty-five? Andrea did a mental Snoopy dance of glee. There is a God! But that was mean. Darla didn’t mean to be such an insensitive dingbat. She was just clueless.

Andrea set aside her whisk and adjusted the phone at her ear. Sitting down on a high stool at the kitchen prep table, she sighed and said, “Celie is going purdah? That’s a new one. How is she going to show off all her tattoos? And her body piercings will set off airport alarms if she tries to leave the country.”

“Andy! That’s not funny.”

Actually, it was. Celie’s ink, seventeen at last count, had started with a tramp stamp when she was only thirteen. Winnie the Pooh giving the finger. As for piercings, Andrea had personally witnessed a belly button ring, as well as multiple holes in her ears, eyebrows, tongue and God only knew where else. Ouch!

To her credit, Celie had let some of the piercings grow back, but still, What was she thinking?

She wasn’t, that was the point with her sister who was on a continual quest to find herself.

“Honestly, Andy, this is going to kill your father. How much more of this crap can he take?”

Andrea rolled her eyes. Darla had been saying the same thing ever since she, a mere thirty-year-old, married fifty-year-old widower Howard Stewart fifteen years ago, when Andrea had been fourteen years old and her sister Cecilia a mere four. “Crap” was her universal word for anything the two children did to “ruin her life.” On Andrea’s part, it encompassed everything from strep throat to a dirty kitchen due to one of her latest culinary experiments. When it came to her sister, it could be bed wetting, a low grade on a math test, or promiscuous behavior as a preteen.

Darla, a former Zuma instructor, did not have a maternal bone in her well-toned body. She’d no doubt thought she’d landed a Sugar Daddy when she met their father, a successful stockbroker, who was brilliant when it came to the market and dumb as a Dow Jones klunker when it came to women. Little had Darla known that the Wall Street gravy train also carried some irritating baggage in the form of two kids, who hadn’t been as sweet and invisible as she’d probably expected.

It was only nine a.m., and the kitchen was empty except for Andrea at this early hour. The restaurant didn’t begin serving until five p.m., but employees would be trailing in soon. Andrea needed to get off the phone and get back to work. “Darla, how do you know it’s Celie?”

“Because it’s a video. Celie sent it to us. At least, I think it came from her. Didn’t I tell you that?”

“No, you didn’t.”

“Oh, well, I’m looking at it on my laptop right now. Celie is talking about Allah and the evil United States and that kind of crap. She has black eyebrows. What is her natural hair color anyway? Oh, that’s right. Blonde, like yours.”

Andrea hadn’t seen her sister for months…in fact, almost a year. Not for any particular reason. There was a ten-year difference in their ages, and that wasn’t the only difference. Celie was of average height, with curves out the wazoo. Andrea was genetically thin, rarely gained an ounce, and thank God for that with her calorie-laden occupation. Celie’s hair could be any color under the rainbow, from bright purple to an actual rainbow, and styled short, long, or half-long/half-short. Once she even shaved her head. Andrea had sported the same long, blonde ponytail since she was a teenager. It suited her and her work.

Celie was the adventurous one. Always looking for thrills (Can anyone say zip line off a cliff?), while Andrea didn’t even like roller coasters. As for men, forget about it! Celie drew men, like flies or bees or whatever. Boys had been chasing her since she was ten years old. Andrea didn’t even want to guess how many lovers Celie had gone through in her nineteen years, while Andrea, at twenty-nine-almost thirty, had had two real relationships. Three, if you counted Peter Townsend. Pete the Pervert. He had the weirdest fetish involving…never mind.

Back to Celie. Despite their clashes in personalities and interests, they were still fairly close sisters. They had to be during those early years of their mother’s death, and their father’s grieving. It was just the two of them against the world. Until he married Darla. And then, it was the two of them against Darla. Poor Darla!

They just never seemed to be in the same place at the same time these days. Celie was always traveling somewhere or other. Andrea was an ambitious workaholic with hopes of one day opening her own upscale pastry shop.

While Andrea’s mind had been wandering, she just realized that Darla was still talking. She interrupted her by saying, “I thought Celie was spending the summer with that cult in Jamaica, where they run around half-naked and sell sun catchers to tourists. Led by that whack job swami person who believes that world peace will come with global warming, or some such nonsense.”

“That was last year.”

Celie was a great one for joining cults, not that she called them cults, and mostly they were harmless. Modern day hippies looking for the light, usually via some weed. Heaven’s Love Shack. Serenity. Free Birds. Pot for People.

“Remember, I told you about her boyfriend. He’s an A-rab or a Mexican, or something. Maybe Egyptian. They all look alike.”

That narrows it down a lot. Darla was no dummy, but sometimes she revealed a little inner Archie Bunkerism. And Edith, too.

“His name is Kahlil, you know, like that poet guy.”

“Kahlil Gibran?”

“Yes! Don’t you just love his poems? They’re so deep.”

Talking to Darla was like trying to catch popcorn from an unlidded pot. Here, there, all over the place.

“About Celie’s boyfriend?”

“Oh, right. He came to a dinner party your Daddy hosted last month for one of his big clients. You were at that food convention in Las Vegas. Anyhow, Kahlil Ajam…that was his last name, I remember now because his last name reminded me of jelly. Do you still make that honey mint jelly to serve with lamb chops? That reminds me. Maybe I should make lamb chops for your Daddy and me tonight. With those fingerling potatoes and little Brussel sprouts. I wonder—”



“Stop getting sidetracked.”

“Stop being so impatient.” Darla sighed, as if Andrea were the one who was irritating. “Anyhow, Kahlil just frowned the whole time he was here because we served alcohol. So rude! Honestly! Who doesn’t drink red wine with Beef Wellington? And he had this dish towel thingee on his head. By the way, your raspberry torte was a huge success. Did I tell you that?”

Can anyone say Orville Redenbacher? “Yes, you told me.” About the dessert, not the boyfriend. “Thanks.”

“Anyhow, this Kahlil fella talked the silly girl into going with him to a dude ranch in Montana run by some Muslim Church. Circle of Light.”

“What? That’s crazy!”

“You’re telling me, honey. I’ve been saying for years that your sister is two bricks short of a wall. You must admit, Andy—”

“I didn’t mean that Celie…never mind. What has any of this to do with ISIS?”

“The detective says that—”

“Whoa, whoa, whoa! You hired a detective?”

Just then, Sonja Fournet, owner of the restaurant, walked in through the swinging doors that separated the kitchen from the dining room. Hearing her last words, Sonja grinned and mouthed silently, “Darla?”

Andrea nodded and raised five fingers indicating she would be off the phone shortly. Andrea was an experienced pastry chef, but even her skills were not going to save her job if she kept engaging in these personal phone conversations while on the job, almost all of them from her stepmother. Darla thought nothing of calling up to a dozen times a day, usually about the most innocuous things, like, “What’s the best way to cook lamb?” Or, “How do I clean the gravy stain off your mother’s lace tablecloth?” Or, “Why does asparagus turn my pee green?” Real important stuff.

That wasn’t quite true about Andrea losing her job, though. Sonja had attended the Cordon Bleu cooking school in Paris with Andrea eight years ago and was one of her closest friends.

“Listen, Darla, I can’t talk right now. Why don’t I come over tonight and we can discuss this, without interruption?” Fortunately, or unfortunately, her father and Darla lived in a Main Line community only a half hour from the condo Andrea had bought two years ago.

I must have been under the influence of cooking wine when I moved back to Pennsylvania. Couldn’t I find a job in…oh, say…Alaska? Or at the least, a chef opening on the other side of Philly? Like maybe New Jersey? Or London?

“Okay,” Darla said. “Could you bring some of those yummy Napoleons with you? Oh, and a few of the chocolate croissants for your Daddy’s breakfast?”

“Sure.” She clicked off the phone and looked at Sonja who was grinning at her over a steaming cup of coffee. “Okay, spill. What has the wicked stepmother’s thong in a twist now? I swear, girl, I wouldn’t have a life if it weren’t for you.”

“She says Celie has joined a cult on a dude ranch in Montana that has ties to ISIS and claims she’s gone all sharia complete with burqa, mainlining the usual extremist Muslim propaganda. Though, how she would ride a horse in a robe, I have no idea. I didn’t even know Celie could ride a horse. And, yeah, before you ask, isn’t it strange that a terrorist organization would recruit from a dude ranch? Better that than the mall, I suppose. Bottom line, as usual when it involves my sister, Darla probably wants me fix things.”



“What does she expect you to do?”

Andrea shrugged. “Lone ranger to the rescue, I guess, though I don’t ride a horse, either. Or is it Julia Child to the rescue?”

“Warrior with a whisk,” Sonja concluded.




Liver mush
Amish sausages
Smoked boar steaks (ham)
Pennsylvania Dutch home fries
Souse or head cheese (meat jelly)

Eggs, scrambled with cream or fried in bacon fat

Toasted muffins or fresh-baked bread
Skyr (homemade cheese curds, similar to cottage cheese)
Farmer’s Market fresh jams—strawberry, rhubarb, huckleberry

Fresh-squeezed blood oranges
Blood pudding
Pan Haus (Scrapple)
Buttermilk pancakes
Corn meal mush

Sweet butter
Apple butter


Home, Sweet Home…or, rather, Home Sweet Castle…

In the early morning hours of July 9, Cnut was riding his Harley up the Pennsylvania Turnpike. The black and chrome Road King, a recent purchase, was a modest model, but it had so many bells and whistles, it could do everything but fly a jet plane. He loved it. In fact, he’d named it Hugo.

Most important, the motorcycle could accommodate his size, thanks to some tweaks. His height, that was, at six-foot-four. Cnut was no longer big in other regards, hadn’t been for a long, long time. A careful diet and a rigid exercise routine kept him at a lean, mean two-twenty-five.

Funny thing, though. Cnut still felt fat. Maybe it was like those people who lost a leg but still sensed a phantom limb. Phantom fat. How cool was that? But then, that was him. Cool hand Cnut.

He should have bought a Fat Boy, instead of a Road King, but that was cutting too close to the bone in terms of description. He could only imagine his brothers’ reaction. As if he cared!

Cnut stretched and wondered if he should pull over at the next rest stop for a cup of black coffee. The sun was just coming up over the mountains, but he was only halfway there. He’d wanted to avoid the capitol traffic as he passed Harrisburg, but then this was Saturday, the legislature wouldn’t be in session. Sane people would be headed north in this heat, like to the Poconos. No, he’d rather get this over with. No stopping. The annual Reckoning was serious business.

Perhaps he should be examining his conscience in preparation for the meeting, but then he figured he would find out soon enough what transgressions he’d tallied up this past year. Michael kept meticulous records.

The three-hour trip from his Center City apartment in Philadelphia should put him at the old homestead in Transylvania before eight. Old being the keyword. The vangel headquarters that his brother Vikar had bought four years ago was a rundown castle built by some wackjob lumber baron a century or so ago. The hokey, tourist trap of a town, once on the skids, had been renamed a few years back to profit from the vampire craze still hitting the country.

Hah! Little do folks know, being a vampire isn’t all that fun. Cnut ran his tongue over his own set of fangs, which were retracted at the moment. Otherwise, they’d probably have dead bugs on them, like windshields. Fat and buggy, that’s all he needed! Truly, one thousand, one hundred and sixty-six years, and he still wasn’t used to the things. Like a cock, they sometimes had a mind of their own. Popping out with the least provocation. Even with his improved physical condition, Cnut wasn’t a vain man, like some of his brothers…hell, like Vikings in general…but the wolfish teeth did embarrass him, on occasion. Which was probably the point, from Michael’s perspective, since he’d never been particularly fond of Vikings to begin with, and his affection had failed to grow over the years due to their irksome ways, irksome to an angel leastways.

He soon climbed the first of the Seven Mountains, sped through the scenic narrows, but then had to slow down when he got behind an Amish buggy on the way to one of the numerous roadside fruit and vegetable stands. The region was dotted with the neat farms of these “plain people,” an odd contrast to a town of vampire wannabes, but somehow they worked well together. Farms and fangs. Go figure.

On the outskirts of town he had to slow down to accommodate a number of Amish buggies. On their way to one of the local farmer’s markets, no doubt. There were quite a few Amish farms in this region, but the plain folks kept mostly to themselves.

Soon, Cnut approached the town itself where a billboard announced:



(themed restaurants, lodging, and entertainment)

The poster was illustrated with a picture of Ben Franklin sporting fangs and a black cloak, leaning against a Liberty Bell, bats flying overhead. The usual, kitchy caricature of vampires.

Cnut had left his black cloak at home, but he did have an ample supply of specially treated knives, a switchblade sword, a pistol, and the like under his black leather jacket. You never knew when you might run into a demon vampire. The castle here in the Pennsylvania mountains being a vangel headquarters had remained a secret so far from the Lucipires. The townsfolks thought they were vampire wannabes planning to open a castle hotel eventually once the building restoration was complete, which might be never. Vikar further played on this idea by self-proclaiming himself Lord Vikar, as if he were some friggin’ royalty just slumming it in the Pennsylvania hills.

In any case, Cnut fully expected Jasper, fallen angel and king of the Lucipires, to show up with his cohorts any day. The VIK, comprised of Cnut and his brothers, were prepared for that eventuality, and, in fact, were already spreading themselves out into secondary command centers in Louisiana, Key West, and a Caribbean island, taking with them the more than five hundred vangels working under them.

Cnut drove slowly through the main street of Transylvania where most of the businesses were still asleep. They would be teeming with visitors in an hour or two, this being the summer tourist season.

He always smiled when he saw what the town had to offer in terms of vampire-abilia. Shops sold an array of black cloaks, fake fangs, vampire stakes that did double duty as tomato plant supports, bottled blood aka red Kool-Aid, and t-shirts with logos that were sometimes creative, to say the least. “Fangs For the Memories” was one of his favorites, along with “Bitten But Not Beaten.”

Garlic was sold everywhere, lots of garlic, which was known in these parts as Smelly Roses. Though where anyone got the idea that garlic repelled vampires, Cnut had no idea. Probably some medieval farmer with a surplus of the crop and a vivid imagination for marketing. Cnut personally liked a good garlic pesto on his pasta. Or Garlic Lime Chicken. Garlic Mashed Potatoes. Garlic Marinated Filet Mignon. Garlic Shrimp Linguine. Who was he fooling? He liked food, period, and while he didn’t overindulge these days (well, hardly ever), he had become a Food Network fanatic. His secret pleasure. Other men glommed porn or ESPN. He glommed Iron Chef and Chopped and Barefoot Contessa. It was like those priests who self-flagellate as a penance, such as the nutcase cleric in the DaVinci Code. Yes, I watch way too much TV. Cnut tortured himself watching Bobbly Flay barbecue ribs (pun intended) or Ina Garten whip up a crème brulee (another pun intended).

Not to be outdone by the shops, the restaurants and bars in Transylvania displayed names like Good Bites, Blood and Guts, Vlad’s Vittles, Fangy Foods, Suck and Suds, Drac’s Hideout. He noticed a new one which must have opened since he was here last, called Whips and Cuffs, offering Fifty Shades of Blood (Cocktails).

He stopped at a red light, and his bike idled with a va-room, va-room that seemed overloud in the quiet street. Two young women in waitress uniforms glanced his way, then gaped. Leather did that to some women, or motorcycles. Then again, it might be the Ragnor Lothbrok hair style he’d adopted the last year or so, worn by that character in that History Channel show “The Vikings” during the first few seasons. Shaved on the sides, and triple, dark blond braids interwoven together from his forehead to his nape, then tied off with a leather thong to hang down his back. His brothers mocked the fashion as some weird form of vanity, but it was more a case of efficiency on his part. It kept the hair out of his face, always a good thing for a fighting man, which he was, and, frankly, it suited him, dammit. No different than the war braids Viking men of old wore, framing either sides of their faces, ofttimes intertwined with crystal beads or fine jewels. Leastways, that’s what he told himself.

He gave a little nod of acknowledgement to the women, no more than twenty. Practically children to this old man. One of them giggled. The other pointed a forefinger at him, then herself, then crossed that forefinger with the one of her other hand and raised her eyebrows at him in invitation. No way when he was about to be raked over the coals by Michael! He just smiled and eased off as the light changed.

He drove out of town, then up the mountain road that led to the castle. New electronic gates had been installed, and he tapped in the code on a secure app he’d downloaded onto his cell phone. Soon he was approaching the castle itself which was, as always, a work-in-progress. It appeared as if something was being done on the fourth floor windows, maybe re-glazing of the old glass. He drove around the side of the massive structure to the back courtyard where he could have entered the underground garage, but a note had been tacked on the door, “Lot Full, Park Outside.”

So, everyone must be here already. Probably arrived last night. His own dozen vangels who were stationed with him in Philadelphia would be here by noon, their presence not required until after the morning session.

He glanced around the back area of the castle, which at one time had been nothing but a cobbled courtyard but now held an in-ground swimming pool, bath house, gazebo, patio, and other luxuries that Cnut found hard to believe Michael had approved. Vikar, at least, was living the good life, or so it seemed. Unlike Cnut who lived in a Philadelphia row house, the first floor of which housed his company, Wings International Security, the second floor, his austere two-bedroom apartment, and the attic converted into dorm-style living for his vangels.

The first person he saw when he went inside was Lizzie Borden…yes, that Lizzie Borden…who gave him a fangy smile of welcome as she bustled about, beginning to prepare the morning meal for what must be a virtual army in residence at the moment. A half-dozen, sleepy-eyed young vangel women did her bidding, pulling hams, eggs, bacon and such from the commercial size fridge. It was going to be a banquet by the looks of the two commercial size gas ranges, where various meats and potatoes sizzled, including some of the Amish or Pennsylvania Dutch specialties of this region, like scrapple and blood sausage. A feast fit for a king, or at least an archangel, right hand of the King.

Cnut grabbed a carton of Fake-O while the door was open. The synthetic blood invented by his brother Sigurd tasted like curdled horse piss, but it sufficed to satisfy the vangel need for the real thing in between missions. He chugged it down with a shiver of distaste, followed by long swig of bottled water, then tossed both empty containers into a trash bin. When Lizzie’s back was turned, he grabbed several crisp bacon strips that were draining on a paper towel-covered platter and popped them into his mouth. Delicious. Before he realized what he was doing, the plate was half-empty. He reached for more, then caught himself. No, no, no. Must resist temptation.

He made his way toward the family room where he could hear a television playing. Cartoons. The children must be up. You’d never know vangels were sterile by the sounds of youthling chatter. Actually, most everyone was up by now, he realized, as he passed and spoke briefly to vangels in the dining room, the chapel, the front and side parlors, the computer room, and Vikar’s office. Obviously, Michael was not yet here.

He was shrugging out of his leather jacket in the hallway when he noticed Regina leaning against the wall, arms crossed over the bosom of a loose, floor-length gown which failed to hide her voluptuous form. Her silver blue eyes, same as all the vangels, gave him a quick head-to-toe survey. “Holy freakin’ Fangs, Cnut! I can’t decide whether you look like a rock star or a lackwit vain Viking compensating for a wee wick. Just because you can now fit into leather braies does not mean you should.”

“They’re not leather. They’re black denim.”

“You may as well tattoo BADASS on your forehead. I could do the job for you with my trusty rusty needle,” she offered.

A low growling noise escaped his throat.

She sneered with satisfaction, having annoyed him as she’d no doubt intended.

Cnut flashed his fangs at her.

Regina flashed hers back at him.

“And who do you think you’re fooling in that nun garb?” he countered. “Everyone knows you’re more slut than saint.”

“Everyone knows nothing,” she snapped back.

Cnut deliberately banked his temper. Best not to rile Regina too much. She was, or had been, a witch in her human life and she’d been known to throw a curse out with less provocation than the foolish insult he’d just hurled at her, ofttimes at a Viking’s “wee wick.” With exaggerated politeness, and one hand placed discretely over his crotch, he said, “My apologies, m’lady.”

“Bullshit, m’lord,” she replied succinctly.

“Witchy wench!” he muttered.

He heard laughter behind him and saw that Vikar had emerged from the office and overheard his conversation.

Regina laughed, too, his “wee wick” was relieved to note, and walked away, hips swaying.

Vikar shook his head at Cnut. “You know she just loves to bait you.”

“And succeeds,” Cnut agreed.

Vikar motioned him into his office where Trond was sitting in a side chair, wearing a U.S. Navy t-shirt and jeans, his long legs extended and crossed at the ankles. He cradled a mug of what Cnut assumed was coffee in his hands. Cnut should have grabbed one himself while he’d been in the kitchen scarfing up smoked boar strips. Trond grinned and said, “Hey, Bro! Still channeling Ragnor Lothbrok, I see.”

“Definitely.” He was not going to rise to another bait. Still he remarked, “Still channeling Rambo, I see.”

“Definitely,” Trond said with a grin. He was a Navy SEAL.

“I noticed that Ragnor shaved his head in later seasons of ‘The Vikings’.” Vikar arched his brows at Cnut.

“No, I am not going to shave my head.” Bloody hell! Did his brothers have naught to do but discuss his hair? Cnut sat down in the other chair. “So what’s new?” he asked both of them. “Any word on what Mike has on the agenda for today?” Mike was the rude name the vangels had adopted for Michael. Not to his face, of course.

“Not a clue,” Trond said.

The annual Reckonings were held to keep all the vangels in line, to tally up all their good deeds and bad ones, and reevaluate their penances. Usually, that meant more years added onto their original sentences. Being Vikings, it was hard to be good all the time. Thus, it was no surprise that the original seven hundred years was now well over a thousand for all of them. They’d probably be vangels until the Apocalypse.

But, in addition to the individual evaluations, there was usually some big announcement. It started four years ago when Michael revealed they would be staying in the present, not bouncing back and forth through time, like they had in the past. One day a gladiator, another they could be a Regency gentleman, or a Civil War soldier, even a Greek Olympian. Once Cnut had even ridden with William the Conqueror. And Mordr, guilty of the sin of wrath, had fought against Genghis Khan. Now, there was a Rambo, if there ever was one!

Last year, Michael told them that more new vangels would be created and trained in light of the increasing evil in the world, aka Lucies, the vangel nickname for Lucipires. Cnut had no idea what the exact number was by now. He would have to ask Vikar, later.

“Mayhap Mike will bring Gabriel and Rafael or some of the other archangels to help, and mayhap it will be just a cursory review of our sins, and mayhap this will an unusual Reckoning. Fun.” It was Trond offering this optimistic view.

Cnut and Vikar looked at him as if he was barmy.

“Or mayhap not,” Trond conceded.

Just then, there was a strange, flapping sound outside, overhead in the skies, like thousands of geese flying north for the winter. Except this was July. And there was no honking. Just an ethereal silence and an incredible…you could say, heavenly…fragrance filling the air.

It was Michael and he must have brought an entourage to help with the reckonings. He walked in, leading a procession of white-robed angels, wings closed but stray feathers fluttering in their wake. Not Gabriel and Rafael this time, but other archangels of equal stature. They were an impressive sight, but none had the presence of authority that Michael had. With a mere lift of his hand, the angels scattered in different directions to set up “confessionals,” or rather private spaces where they could interview each of the vangels individually.

At least it was not being done in a communal setting, like it had been in the old days, but then their numbers had been much smaller. The brothers had learned a whole lot more about each other than they ever wanted to know when their sins were disclosed in front of one and all. In fact, that was the first time that Cnut had learned that his brother Ivak, the lustsome one, could…well, never mind.

Michael nodded to Cnut and the others in greeting as he passed. Suddenly, he paused and sniffed the air, “Do I smell bacon?” The archangel gave Cnut a head to toe survey, as if checking for extra poundage.

Cnut sucked in his stomach.

“Busted!” Trond whispered to him, under his breath.

“Bite me!” he muttered back.

Michael heard and gave Trond a full body examination, as well, checking to see if his laziness had come back and he might not be working as hard as he should. As if that were possible in SEALs training where the motto was, “Pain is your friend.”

Trond blushed, and his body went military straight under the saintly perusal.

Cnut felt his own face heat up, as well. Being singled out at a Reckoning was not a good thing.

With a grunt of disgust…everyone knew Michael was not overfond of Vikings…the archangel went directly to the front salon where folding chairs had been set up in a circle with a wingback chair at one side, much like a throne. Michael sat and waited for each of them to be seated. Idiots that they were, they all scrambled to be farthest away. All seven were there, the leadership of brothers known as the VIK: Vikar, Trond, Ivak, Mordr, Sigurd, Harek, and himself.

Then, Michael said, “Greetings from the Lord.”

They bowed their heads at that gift.

Vikar spoke up then, “Would you like coffee or refreshments before we start? Lizzie is cooking up a storm. Even those buttermilk biscuits you favored last time you were here.”

“They were heavenly. Manna, truth to tell. But no, thank you. We can partake at the mid-morning break.” He looked at each of them, individually, and it was as if he could read their souls. Not a comfortable feeling. They all squirmed in their seats.

“Let us start with a prayer.”

Seven heads bowed.

“God bless this gathering of thy loyal subjects. Help us to know Thy path in fighting the evil Lucipires and in curing our own sinful natures. Thou art truly the light in a world of darkness. Enlighten and strengthen us. Amen.”

“Amen,” they repeated after him.

“Now, let us start with you, Vikar. How is your family? Have you finished training those last vangels I sent you? How is the castle restoration coming?”

“My family is fine,” Vikar answered. “My wife, Alex, is a writer, as you know. She wants to write a children’s book about a naughty Viking angel, if you approve.”

Michael raised his eyebrows at that. “I will discuss the project with her later today.”

“Gunnar and Gunnora are thriving. Both of them can read now, and they have prepared a special song for you, if you have time to listen this afternoon.”

“I will make time.”

“Our numbers of vangels is now up to 750, spread across the world, and twenty still in training. Sadly, that is not nearly enough. Jasper’s minion troops are growing. According to Zeb, they are flourishing with the rise in terrorism, perhaps even causing it. And he is about to appoint several more haakai to his high command, replacing Dominique and Haroun who were sent to their final hellish rewards. Zeb says these replacements are a most evil lot.” The Zeb referred to was Zebulan the Hebrew, a Lucipire double agent who had hopes of one day becoming a vangel.

Trond was next. He and his wife Nicole were Navy SEALs in Coronado, California. Well, Nicole was in WEALS, Women on Earth, Land and Sea, a female equivalent of SEALs. Trond spoke of the special forces’ efforts to combat terrorism. In many ways, the vangels and SEALs were the same, increasing their ranks in a seemingly endless fight against tangos, or bad guys.

“And how is our Southern headquarters coming?” Michael asked Ivak.

Ivak, who was stationed as a chaplain at Angola prison…an irony since he was guilty of the sin of lust…was married to lawyer Gabrielle Sonnier, and they had a son, named Michael. Something that was never supposed to happen since vangels were sterile. (Yes, Ivak…the world class suck-uphad named his son after the archangel.) Vikar and Alex’s children were “adopted,” so to speak. Like Vikar with the endless renovations to the Pennsylvania castle, Ivak was restoring a rundown plantation in Louisiana.

“Can anyone say ‘snakes’?” Ivak said. “The snake problem halted our progress for awhile, but I hired a snake catcher, and we are moving along now. Some people down there claim there are 1,000 species of snakes in the world, and 999 of them live in Louisiana,” he joked.

No one laughed, having heard that exact complaint hundreds of times already.

“Anyhow, the former slave quarters are now remodeled into apartments, and I should be able to house a hundred more vangels by the end of summer,” Ivak went on.

“And not soon enough,” Sigurd exclaimed. Their physician brother was retrofitting a Key West island hotel into a hospital for sick children, a front for another vangel headquarters. “We are so crowded on Grand Key Island, some of the vangels are having to sleep on boats.”

“Spoiled! You Vikings are spoiled.” If Michael had his way, they would probably be wearing hair shirts and sleeping on thorn bushes. “Was a time, if you recall, when sleeping on the ground was good enough.”

Cnut remembered. They all did. Those first years as a vangel had been rough, to say the least. When they’d been lucky enough to find a cave, they’d considered it a luxury comparable to a Hilton suite today.

Harek, the smartest of all the VIK, told them then about the Caribbean island he was converting into an electronic center which would bring vangels into the computer age. Really, to fight modern day Lucies, they had to become modern day vangels, or so Harek contended. Harek was the last of his brothers to be wed, and that despite Michael’s initial warning that none of them were to be involved with women. He’d married Camille Dumaine, also a member of WEALs, last year.

“And when will my archangel website be ready?” Michael asked Harek.

Michael had been badgering Harek for years to set up an Internet site for archangels to help humans.

“Um,” Harek said, his faced red with embarrassment. It wasn’t Harek’s fault that he’d failed to create a Cyberspace home for the archangel. In fact, with his skills, Harek could probably build a website in an hour, but Michael kept changing his mind about what he wanted.

In quick order, Michael got updates from all the VIK. He turned to Cnut then and asked, “What art thou doing about ISIS?”

“ISIS?” he said dumbly.

“Do you not know of this ISIS?”

“The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham. Formerly aligned with al-Qaeda. A worldwide terrorist threat,” Cnut regurgitated a Wikipedia-like definition. That’s about all he knew.

Michael nodded. “Destroy it.”

“Huh? What? Me?”

“Are you not our security expert?”

“I am.”

“Is ISIS not the greatest threat, equal only to the Nazi Holocaust or the evil Roman empire?”

Cnut nodded, hesitantly, not sure what this had to do with him.

“That will be your goal for this year. Destroy ISIS.”

“Me? Alone? How will I do that?”

Michael shrugged. “That is not for me to say.”

Aaarrgh! That is Mike-speak for “Figure it out, Viking.”

“Did you say something?” Michael inquired, too sweetly.

“You do realize that armies from around the world, not just the United States, have been fighting ISIS for years, and they just keep growing,” Trond pointed out to the archangel.

Thanks for intervening on my behalf, brother. Cnut gave a nod to Trond.

“Jasper’s influence, no doubt,” Michael agreed.

How can I do what thousands have failed to do?” Cnut asked.

“Not just you. All of you.”

His brothers sat up straighter, no longer complacent that Cnut was the only target of Michael’s outrageous demand.

“Jasper’s evil hordes, and ISIS because of the Lucipire evil influence on some of its members, will be the mission of all vangels this year, and possibly years to come. That is not to say that there will not be smaller operations wherever Lucipires settle in, but mainly you all must concentrate on this most abomination. Mass murders. Beheadings. Rapes. All in the name of some distorted religious belief. The Lord weeps at the atrocities.” For a moment, Michael’s head was bowed. Then he straightened and said, “But it will all start with you, Cnut.”

“Thy will be done,” Cnut agreed, but he had no idea where to start.

As if reading his mind, because of course he could read minds, Michael explained, “ISIS is no more than a glorified cult, much like those started by David Koresh and Jim Jones in the past. Yea, the numbers are much larger, but the principles are the much the same. Blind worship of a false ideology. Start small with one of the cults, Cnut. Then your brothers, and other military operations, will aid you from there.”

“One of the cults?” he murmured.

“There is a modern expression that applies here, Cnut. Nibbling away like ducks. That is what thou must do. Start nibbling.”

Under his breath, Cnut said, “Quack, quack.”

“Death by a thousand paper cuts,” Ivak said, agreeing with Michael.

Cnut glanced at his other brothers and saw that they came to the same communal opinion of Ivak. Suck up!

“If enough people around the world begin nibbling, they can eat away at the core of ISIS,” Michael contended. “And keep in mind, it is the goal of vangels to destroy Lucipires and save dreadful sinners, not to ensure world peace.”

That’s a relief! Not! Cnut was doubtful of his abilities for such a huge mission, and he didn’t know what he was expected to do, exactly, or where to start.

“You will know when you will know,” Michael told him.

You will know when you will know, Cnut mimicked in his head. Another Mike-ism! Clear as celestial clouds on a dark Norse fjord.

“By the by, Cnut, your hair has become a favorite topic Up Above. Angels far and wide have adopted the style. In fact, legions of them look like dimwitted Vikings.”

The archangel was not pleased.

Neither was Cnut.

He was even less pleased when he got text messages from his brothers over the next few days:

Actually, Cnut didn’t mind his brothers’ lame attempts at humor. Vikings appreciated a good jest.

Still, he responded to each of them,

Then he prepared to get all his ducks in a row back at his office so he would be ready for Michael’s mysterious moment when he “would know when he would know.”

For some reason, Cnut had a sudden and fierce craving for turducken. And that night, on the Food Network, the host of “Everyday Gourmet” made a duck cassoulet. And wasn’t it a sad commentary on his life that Cnut, once a fierce Viking warrior (when he had been so inclined and/or able to get off his fat arse) actually knew what a cassoulet was? But hadn’t a clue how to save the world from ISIS.

Were the fates conspiring against Cnut, or just Michael?



Sweet tempatation!…

It was Andrea’s third pass by the agency door as she gathered her nerve to go in. Her lunch hour would soon be over if she dawdled around much longer. It wasn’t as if she didn’t have an appointment.

Still, she peered dubiously through the shaded windows of Wings International Security, located just down the street from La Chic Sardine, trying to see inside. What kind of legitimate business had shaded windows? And a single metal desk and filing cabinet with two folding chairs? But she’d looked up the firm on the Internet, and the office appeared to be a reliable agency for tracking and protecting individuals or groups, with a special emphasis on terrorists. She’d done her due diligence. So, what was the problem?

—A creepy feeling she got up the back of her neck?

—A sense that something wasn’t quite right?

—Her first time seeking outside help for her sister’s shenanigans?

—Her family expecting her to drop everything and clean up another of Celie’s messes?

Pick any one of those. Or all of them.

Or maybe it was just plain exasperation. Why do I have to be my sister’s keeper? No, that’s selfish. I don’t really mean that. I love my sister. It’s just…just…frustrating. And, frankly, a little bit scary this time.

“Oh, hell!” she muttered and opened the door. Then stopped dead in her tracks. “Holy freakin’ sex on a stick!” she said in an undertone, before she had a chance to curb her tongue.

Andrea was almost thirty years old, and while she wouldn’t describe herself as having been around the block, she’d had several relationships, three if you counted Pete the Perv. More important, she’d never been attracted to muscle men. But son of a biscotti!

Standing beside the desk was a man, dressed in a plain blue, tapered, Oxford collared dress shirt, untucked, over black jeans and black athletic shoes. But that was the only thing plain about him. He had to be six-foot-three or –four of lean muscles from wide shoulders to narrow waist and hips and mile-long legs. His lightly tanned face was a masterpiece of sculpted Nordic features, topped by a unique hairstyle, shaved on the sides and sort of French braided from his forehead to the back of his neck where the remainder of dark blond hair was tied off with a leather shoelace, or something.

“Are you a Viking?” she asked.

At the same time, he asked, “Are you a doctor?”

He said yes, and she said no. Then they both laughed.

And, Lordy, even his laugh was sexy. Low and husky and masculinity personified.

She glanced down at her white linen chef jacket worn over white skinny jeans and comfortable Crocs. “No, I’m a chef. A pastry chef.”

“Ah, that explains it.”

She raised her eyebrows. “The scent of vanilla and fresh baked bread. And coconut. Lots of coconut”

“I was making vanilla bean crème brulees and artisan breads this morning,” she said. “But nothing with coconut.” She frowned, trying to recall if she’d been handling any coconut. “Nope. Not today.”

She had to stop gaping at the guy; so, she sank down into one of the folding chairs, without being invited. It was either that or faint into a swoon, or something equally objectionable, like jump his bones.

In her defense, he was staring at her, too, but it was unclear whether he found her presence objectionable or whether he was as magnetically attracted as she was. That soon became clear when he sat down, as well, behind the desk, which was oddly empty of paperwork or any kind of personal objects, except for an open laptop computer. “What do you want?” he asked rudely.

“Uh, I have an appointment.”

“No, you do not have an appointment. I would know if…wait. You’re Andy Stewart? My twelve o’clock?”

“Yes. Andrea Stewart.”

“Blessed clouds!” he swore, as if that were a foul expletive. “Why would a woman like you use such an unfeminine name?”

“Like me?”

“Sex-on-a-fucking-stick,” he explained, repeating her own words back at her, though more graphically.

She was embarrassed that he’d overheard her original assessment of him and that he was viewing her in the same sexist way she’d viewed him. Not that she could ever be considered sex on anything. Not even a popsicle stick. Her sister, maybe. Not her, even on a good day. Anyhow, she was beginning to reassess him to something more like “Jerk-on-a-stick.”

He must have recognized the change of expression on her face because he apologized, “I’m sorry. Let’s start over. I’m Cnut Sigurdsson, owner of Wings International.”

Stretching a long arm across the desk, he shook her hand. At that mere touch of palm against palm, she felt the oddest shock wave pass through her body, ripples of warm heat going to all her extremities, but mostly girl central.

Cnut caught himself gaping at the woman as the oddest shock wave passed over his body, causing warm heat to slingshot to all his extremities, especially one particular extremity. Sizzle ensued along with the scent of sweet, delicious coconut, and he didn’t even like coconut, or leastways he hadn’t up till now. He didn’t love coconut now; he was ambivalent about the stuff. He much preferred chocolate or fruit on his pastries. Sometimes nuts, but not pine nuts, unless they were toasted. He’d had a chicken orzo salad one time with toasted pine nuts that was delicious, except for an overload of basil.

Can anyone say food addict?

Thank God, the woman didn’t smell like lemons, too. That was a sure sign of a dreadful sinner, in need of a vangel intervention or on a fast track to hell. Lucipires were lured by that scent, catnip to a demon soul. But coconut? That was a new one.

What in bloody hell is going on here? He dropped her hand and sank back in his desk chair. I’m. Losing. My. Fucking. Mind.

He’d been hanging around the Wings office for several days now, waiting for clues to Michael’s mysterious mission. Although he sometimes took on private clients, providing all kinds of expert security services, this Philadelphia office mostly served as a front for his vangel activities.

“What can I do for you, Miss Stewart?” He assumed she was Miss since there was no ring on her fingers. Not that it mattered. Much. Or at all.

She was wringing her hands in her lap, eyes darting around the barren room, clearly as nervous as he was, and stalling for time. “Cnut like a newt lizard?” she asked, irrelevantly.

He winced and said, “Yes, but spelled C-N-U-T.” He said the letters carefully in case he mixed them up and offended her even more.

She nodded, inhaled for courage and revealed, “I’m here because I need help finding my missing sister and bringing her home.”

There is no way I am getting involved in some domestic dispute. Especially with someone who smells like a sweet macaroon. But I should at least sound interested. Be polite. “Missing? How do you misplace a person? Ha, ha.”

She didn’t smile at his humor. So much for being polite! “Missing from where? Did she run away?”

“I don’t mean missing in that way. I know where she is, I think.”

“Why don’t you just go and get her yourself. Or your parents. Why aren’t they here, by the way?”

Her face pinkened. “They’re getting ready to go on a cruise.”

“Lady, you’re wasting my time. I run a serious business.”

“This is dead serious,” she persisted. “My sister is in grave danger.”

“Was she kidnapped?”

“Noooo, not exactly.”

“Is she being held against her will?”

“No. Yes. Maybe.”

He rolled his eyes. “How old is she?”

“Nineteen, but—”

“Oh, good Lord! I mean, oh, good gourd! Miss Stewart, your sister is an adult.”

“That’s questionable, but age has nothing to do with it. Celie needs help, no question about that. Her boyfriend—”

Uh-oh! The boyfriend crap! Parents don’t like the boyfriend, daughter runs away. Parents hire detective to bring spoiled child home. He put up a halting hand. “I don’t get involved in domestic disputes. I got the impression from the message left with my answering service that there was terrorism involved. Otherwise, an appointment wouldn’t have been scheduled.”

“There is, there is!” Quickly, she lifted a carry bag onto the desk and pulled out a thick folder, shoving it toward him.

Oh, no! Not a folder. Do not open it, Cnut. She’ll think there’s a chance that I will take her case.

“This is the material that the private detective gathered about my sister, Cecilia Stewart. Celie, we call her.” Her voiced wobbled as she spoke, and she took out a tissue, dabbing at her golden brown eyes, which were now misted over with tears.

Oh, no! Not tears. That is so predictable. “A detective?”

“Frank Randolph from West Chester. Do you know him?”

He shook his head. I think I’ll have Mexican for lunch today. That new take-out place on Chestnut Street. Maybe tacos and enchiladas.

“He’s supposed to be a really good detective.”

“And he located your sister?” With a side of rice and refried beans.


“Then why isn’t he rescuing your sister?” Might as well have some tiramisu, too. Is it too early for a Margarhita? Naw, I’d rather have a beer, or three, anyhow.

“His exact words to my parents were, ‘I don’t get involved with terrorists. Especially ISIS. I value my head too much.’”

That got his attention. Looks like no lunch today. He sighed and flipped open the folder and examined some of the photographs. An attractive blonde woman, shorter and curvier than her sister. He could tell, even with the chef jacket hiding her assets, that Andrea Stewart was one of those skinny women with no breasts to speak of. Probably anorexic. Which made it doubly odd that he would be attracted to her. And he was, dammit. That would be really ironical. Him with a love of food and her with a hatred of food, if that was the case. But how could she be a chef and hate food? Nope. Must be something else.

In one of the photographs, Cnut saw the sister…Celie…wearing cut-off denims and a Grateful Dead t-shirt. In another, she wore a bikini, displaying an amazing number of tattoos. Then she was covered by a burqa with black eyebrows. He also skimmed over some of the detective’s findings.

“Here’s the deal, Miss Stewart—”

“Call me Andy.”

Never. “Andrea,” he conceded, “here’s the deal. Your sister is legally an adult. If she wants to run off with her boyfriend, Arab or otherwise, there’s nothing you can do. It’s her choice.”

“But it’s not,” she protested. “Not willingly. Not anymore. I don’t think.” She pulled a thin laptop out of her carry bag, set it on the desk and opened the lid. Tapping a few keys, she apparently got to the page she wanted and turned the computer so that he could see the screen. “My father got this email attachment three days ago. A video. His wife, my stepmother, forwarded it to me right away.”

A young woman in a black burqa, with a netted half-veil covering her lower face, was speaking. “Daddy, I need some money. Can you send me $50,000? It’s for a good cause. Honestly.” Suddenly, tears seemed to fill her eyes and she burst out, “Help! Help me, Daddy! I can’t get away!”

A male voice spewed out some expletives in Arabic, about the only Arabic Cnut recognized, “bitch” being the predominant one. The woman was yanked out of the picture, and the screen went black.

“We haven’t been able to contact her since then.”

“I repeat, why aren’t your parents here? I would think it was their responsibility.”

She shook her head. “No. Celie is my responsibility. She always has been. Daddy cares about her. He really does, but…” She waved a hand dismissively. “A long story.”

“I understand your concern, but this isn’t the kind of—”

Sensing that he was going to decline the job, the woman, who still reeked disconcertingly of vanilla and coconut, went on, “I know Celie must come across as a flake. She exercises bad judgment and has screwed up her life on more than one occasion,” she said, waving a hand toward the incriminating folder, “and it’s not the first time she’s become involved in a cult, but they were usually harmless in the past. Mostly. This…this ISIS connection, though, scares me to death. I mean, everyone has seen those beheading videos. Why would anyone in their right mind join them? Pfff! My sister apparently. But, really, what an anti-woman group! If anyone told me to wear a veil, I’d tell them where to stuff it, cult or not, religion or not.”

One word stood out in Andrea’s lengthy plea. Cult. Hadn’t Michael mentioned cults in connection with Cnut’s new mission?

Oh, no! Oh, no, no, no! Cnut couldn’t be involved, in any way, with this woman…this sweet-scented bit of tempting fluff…lest he start licking her up one side and down the other. Now that he thought about it…turn the woman upside down in a vat of pineapple juice with a splash or ten of rum, and she’d be a tempting Pina Colada. And, boy, was he getting a thirst on!

No, no, no! At the recent Reckoning, he had been as shocked as everyone else that for the first time ever, he’d had no new years added to his penance. In other words, he’d been a good boy, so to speak. And now this!

But “cult,” that was the key, wasn’t it?

“Did Michael send you?” he asked suddenly.

“Michael who?”

That answered that question. But not really. This was just the kind of trick the archangel was known to pull on the VIK. Give them a mission, but have it wrapped in something sorely tempting or contrary to their weaknesses. Vikar’s overblown pride was tried in a rundown castle. Trond’s laziness tested in grueling SEALs training. Ivak’s lust restrained in a male prison. And Cnut’s gluttony…?

His stomach growled suddenly.

And with a sigh of resignation, he said, “Quack, quack.”


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