Before she was Flame she was Amber, and before that she was Candi. Before that she was Tiffany, and before that she was plain old Mary Ellen. One thing remained constant throughout all her name changes and that was her profession, which was the world’s oldest.
Flame was getting ready for work. Unlike other women in her profession she didn’t call it a date; she was too much of a realist for that. It was work that paid the rent and kept her in Botox and body treatments. She liked it about as much as you like your work, which is to say not all that much. But at thirty-eight, Flame suspected she was too old to change careers.
Into her black nylon gym bag went her supplies: condoms, three different scented massage oils—strawberry, lavender, and peppermint—a whip, a pair of furry handcuffs, a zebra-striped bikini that was almost small enough to stuff into a shot glass, a variety of objects made of rubber, most of which were battery-operated, and her MP3 player and Bluetooth speaker.
She also packed spare batteries and slipped a can of pepper spray into the front pocket of her tight-fitting jeans. She’d been a Girl Scout back when she was called Mary Ellen and she took the motto “Be Prepared” to heart.
Her work that evening would take her to the home of a man who called himself Jack. He’d contacted her through a website on which she’d posted a ten-year-old picture of herself that had been taken at a clothing-optional resort in Jamaica. Jack said he was a chef and offered to make dinner for her. Flame had replied that she’d love to have dinner with him, fully expecting that she would be dessert.
Jack lived way out in the country. The roads were narrow and poorly lighted. Flame got lost several times and had to keep turning around. Her GPS wasn’t working and she couldn’t get a signal on her cell phone. She was just about to give up and go home when someone stepped into the road carrying a lantern. Flame slammed on the brakes.
It was a girl who looked to be about thirteen. She wore black skinny jeans and bright green high-top sneakers. Her dark brown hair was in twin ponytails. She called out, “Hi! Are you looking for Jack’s place?”
Flame said she was. “I’m Audrey Muffet, Jack’s neighbor,” the girl said. “He sent me out to look for you. He’s making dinner and he said a lady would be joining him and she might get lost. It’s hard to find our neighborhood, and we’ve had a power outage. You can park over here and we’ll walk in. It’s not far.”
Flame pulled over to the shoulder of the road and parked. She got her gym bag out of the hatchback and locked the doors. Then she followed the girl up an embankment and through an opening in a high privet hedge that rustled in the night breeze. Crickets chirped as they walked through a field. Up ahead, Flame could see lights flickering in windows.
“The power’s always going out around here,” Audrey said cheerfully. “We have candles and oil lamps for when that happens.”
They came to a neat white cottage with black shutters. A herringbone brick path with orange and yellow marigolds planted beside it led to the front door.
Audrey said, “This is Jack’s place. I’ll leave you here.”
“You’re not going in?” asked Flame.
No, she had to get home. Anyway, the last time she’d been in Jack’s house, she’d seen a spider and it had freaked her out. “I’ve got arachnophobia. Whenever I see a spider I panic. I can’t help it. Goodnight. Enjoy your dinner.”
Flame gave the brass door knocker in the shape of a flying goose a couple of raps and a man came to the door. He was nice-looking: tall and thin, casually dressed in chinos and a blue and white-striped shirt, the sleeves rolled to the elbows. His short brown hair was greying at the temples. He appeared to be around fifty. Flame was relieved to see that he didn’t give off a creepy vibe.
Smiling, he took her hand. “I’m Jack and you must be Flame. Welcome. Come on into the dining room. Dinner’s almost ready.”
She followed him down a hallway where a mobility scooter was parked. “My late wife’s,” Jack said, seeing her looking at it. “She passed away three months ago. Poor dear, she had diabetes and COPD and a terrible weight problem.”
Flame said she was sorry for his loss. Jack ushered her into the dining room, where the table was set with gold-rimmed white china and sparkling crystal on a white linen cloth. Flame was impressed. Jack (or whatever his real name was) had gone to a lot of trouble.
Jack pulled her chair out for her. “I made barbecued spare ribs and mashed potatoes and gravy and dumplings,” he said. “I’m just putting the finishing touches on the gravy. Help yourself to some wine.”
Flame poured herself a glass of red wine from the carafe on the table. She could hear Jack opening and shutting cabinets in the kitchen and humming to himself. Then, from outside came a man’s voice hoarsely calling. “Hey, Jack! What you got cooking, buddy? It sure smells good.” The voice proceeded to launch into a spirited rendition of “Oh, Susanna,” which made up in enthusiasm what it lacked in tunefulness.
Jack stuck his head into the dining room. He was grinning. “Don’t worry. That’s just Tucker. He’s a real character. He goes around the neighborhood serenading everybody and we give him something to eat. I’ll take him out a plate of ribs.”
Flame heard a door open. The singing stopped. She could hear murmured conversation and then the door shut. Jack reappeared, carrying a platter of ribs and a heaping bowl of mashed potatoes. “Eat up,” he said, spooning food onto her plate.
“Aren’t you having any?” Flame asked.
He said no; he loved to cook but unfortunately his cholesterol was high. He’d just have a salad. “I love to watch lovely ladies eat,” he said with a smile. “Go ahead, have some ribs.”
“Okay,” said Flame. “Do you want me to do anything while I eat? Like touch myself?”
Jack smiled and said no, that wouldn’t be necessary. She should just go ahead and enjoy her meal. He fetched a lettuce and tomato salad from the kitchen and sat down, watching her happily. “Have some more wine,” he urged.
Flame woke up several hours later in a strange bed. She was always waking up in strange beds, so that didn’t particularly surprise her. What surprised her was the fact that Jack, along with Audrey, the girl who’d shown her to Jack’s house, and a goofy-looking guy with red hair and freckles and an old lady who wore little round spectacles, her grey hair in a bun, were gathered around the bed, looking down at her.
Jack said, “You’re awake! I hope you had pleasant dreams. Guess what! I have a big surprise for you.”
Oh, shit, thought Flame. She fumbled for the can of pepper spray in her pocket but found she wasn’t wearing her jeans. Instead, she was wearing a voluminous blue cotton dress.
“Where are my clothes?” she demanded angrily.
Jack said she wouldn’t be needing her clothes. She had new clothes now, and a new life.
She was going to live here with him and be his wife, wasn’t that nice? He’d cook her delicious meals and she’d get nice and plump, just like his other, now sadly departed wives.
“I didn’t mention my last name,” he said. “It’s Sprat. And this young lady whom you’ve already met goes by the name of Miss Muffet.”
“Hiya,” said Audrey Muffet.
Jack continued, “This red-haired fellow with the fine singing voice is Tommy Tucker and this lady is Mother Goose. You’ll be meeting the others soon, but for now we thought it best to keep it to an intimate gathering.”
“Welcome to our little community,” said the old lady, smiling benignly.
Flame’s reply was unprintable. The gist of it was that they were all crazy and she was leaving right away. They let her go, making no attempt to try and stop her, but every time she tried to escape through the field and past the high hedge she ended up back at Jack’s front door. After a while she stopped trying to get away. It was hard to get through the field when she was riding the mobility scooter, and she’d gained too much weight by then to walk very far without becoming short of breath.
“What do you want for dinner, honey?” Jack would ask her after he cleared away the lunch dishes, lunch usually consisting of something hearty like shepherd’s pie or pierogis, or both. “How about lasagna, or pot roast, or I could make my famous meatloaf?”
“All of them,” Flame would hungrily reply. “And chocolate walnut brownies for dessert, with ice cream.”
“Certainly, my sweet,” Jack would say. “You know how I love to watch lovely ladies eat.”
Jill Hand is a former newspaper reporter and editor from New Jersey. Her work has appeared in Aphelion, Bewildering Stories, Flash Fiction Magazine, The Oddville Press, Suspense, and Weird N.J. Her novel, Rosina and the Travel Agency, is available now.