Prologue: Something About Mary
Mary Rutridge was a daft old woman. At least that’s what most of her co-workers thought. The employees at Silverwood Adoption Agency were all very conservative and professional, with the exception of Mary. And Mary was quite the exception.
Mary had been an employee of Silverwood Adoption Agency for as long as anyone could remember. No one was quite sure how old she was, but some actually joked that Mary had been there on the first day the Agency opened its doors. It was impossible, of course, since the Agency had been around for over one hundred and fifty years. No one had the nerve to speak to her, so other than to make jokes about her when she wasn’t around, they never really gave much thought to her at all.
The exception to this was when a really strange adoption case was brought to the Agency. It didn’t happen often, but in over one hundred fifty years of handling the adoption details of thousands of children it was bound to happen on occasion. When it did, Mary was the first person called to handle it. This was not only because she seemed to have an uncanny knack for resolving every oddity of any strange request that came through the Agency’s doors, but mostly because when the employees of Silverwood’s Adoption Agency thought of strange, the first thing that came to mind was Mary.
So on the evening of October thirty-first, All Hallows’ Eve, when all manner of strangeness abounded through the land, it came as no surprise to Mary when she received a call to Mr. Smythe’s office.
“Umm…Mary?” Mr. Smythe’s voice came hesitantly over the speakerphone.
“Umm…yes, Mr. Smythe?” Mary tried to sound as hesitant as he did, but her feet were already sliding back into the square-toed orange shoes with the big floppy plastic pink flowers that were under the desk where she always left them once she entered her office. She knew there was only one reason that anyone in the Agency ever called her.
“Do you have a moment to come into my office?”
Mary smiled. Mr. Smythe was always so polite. Asking her a question like that. He was well aware that she had no outstanding or pending cases at the moment. Well, maybe the Murdock adoption, she frowned, but then brightened up. No, that should be resolved soon.
She cheerfully pushed the button to send her reply. “I’ll be right there, Mr. Smythe.”
Mary pushed herself back from her desk and stood to her full height of five foot one inch, straightening the wrinkles from the baggy dress around her rather round figure. Thick, dark-framed, plastic glasses were perched on a stubby nose that looked much like a cherry in size and shape, set in a round face that always appeared happy. Examining her appearance in the old fashioned, stand-up dressing mirror that leaned haphazardly in the corner, Mary gave a little pinch to her plump cheeks to add color.
“Pretty as a peach,” she told the mirror, her blue eyes twinkling with satisfaction.
An answering response from the top of her desk drew her attention, and she smiled down at a longhaired, ginger-colored cat that was almost as round as she was.
“Why, thank you, Mr. Snickers.” She curtsied to the animal. Mary reached for Mr. Snickers with her short, plump little fingers and pulled him to her chest, ruffling the fur on top of his head. “Come along now, Mr. Smythe is waiting. I suspect we have company.”
Company was just what Mary found after she navigated her way out of her overly stuffed and cluttered office and walked through the many hallways that made up the offices of the Silverwood Adoption Agency. She stopped short for only one conspicuous moment when she entered the reception room of Mr. Smythe’s suite of offices. Her breath caught in her throat and her twinkling blue eyes widened upon meeting the deep green eyes of the stranger sitting in the high backed chair across the desk from Mr. Smythe. For one single, brief instant, she saw the endlessness of time stretched out before her. The eyes retreated into the darkness of a hooded cloak pulled around the stranger’s head. Mary shook the thought away and shuffled across the office to sit in a chair as far away from the stranger as possible.
“Mary,” Mr. Smythe breathed with a sigh of relief.
Mary looked at the middle-aged, well-dressed man behind the desk and smiled, but she kept a watch on the stranger out of the corner of her eye. Mr. Snickers sat with bored, feline patience on her lap while she held him tight. Even Mary wasn’t sure whether she was using him as a shield or trying to protect him. She held him tight, regardless, or at least until he made a noise sounding something like a strangled growl. Mary let loose of Mr. Snickers then, and the portly, ginger cat jumped from her lap.
“Um…Mary?” Mr. Smythe’s hesitance was back. He looked unsure of himself at the moment, and Mr. Smythe wasn’t used to being unsure of anything. The stranger made him nervous, and Mr. Smythe’s imagination was beginning to get the best of him. He really didn’t have much of an imagination, being boxed into a daily world of suits and papers and rules and regulations. This case didn’t seem to fit into any of the rules he was used to applying to everyday situations. He could imagine perhaps some hideous face hiding deep in the shadows of the dark hooded cloak that Death himself might have worn, if you believed in fairy tales. And this was All Hallows’ Eve. Mr. Smythe shook his head. They were such fanciful thoughts for a man who wasn’t normally superstitious. Then again, this was definitely not a normal situation.
Mary watched Mr. Smythe expectantly, but still hadn’t spoken. That was something else that made Mr. Smythe nervous. Mary seemed nervous. Mary was never nervous. Mary was always brisk and to the point with a winsome, motherly smile. Mr. Smythe was hesitant in how to proceed. So he did what he felt was best.
“Mary, this is Mr.—” Mr. Smythe looked to the stranger with confusion. “I’m sorry. I seem to have forgotten your name—?”
“I didn’t give it,” the stranger’s voice came softly from within the folds of the dark hood.
Mr. Smythe stared at the man, surprised for a moment. Then he shook his head again while he stood.
“Yes, well, um…Mary? This gentleman has two children, infants—twins—that need Agency placement. There are a few conditions he would like to set on the adoption—”
“Fosterage,” the stranger corrected.
“Er, well, yes, fosterage.” Mr. Smythe did not look at either of them. Instead, he gathered a few papers from his desk and crammed them into an already-full briefcase. He snapped the clasps on the case, leaving a few white mangled corners to stick out the sides.
“Well, Mary.” He cleared his throat. “I trust that you’ll attend to the details of the matter.” Mr. Smythe walked around to the front of his desk, avoiding the stranger, and headed to the door. “I have, um…someplace to be and I am already, er, late. Please lock up when you are finished?” He left the question to hang in the air, cutting it off with a final snap of the door as he closed it behind him.
Mary blinked in disbelief...