Sylvie poured Kat more chardonnay and resumed her casual lean on the wrought iron fence rail. The lake – Sylvie’s lake now – stretched out before them, dark and still except for the glittering, gaudy reflection of the house – Sylvie’s house – in the water. Shortly after Kat arrived from Studio City Sylvie had stilled the buzzing water pump that kept the small lake full. Left to its own devices the lake – an oversized pond, really – would naturally evaporate over the course of the hot summer. Now only a symphony of frogs burbled and boomed around them. “Go on,” Sylvie said. “Tell me this isn’t perfect.”

“You have owl shit on your patio.” Kat grinned as Sylvie bristled. “But aside from that, yes, it’s pretty perfect.”

“I made that owl a star.” Sylvie waved her glass at the old oak to their left. Its gnarled, illuminated arms reached into the darkness, fingers cradling the resident birds and squirrels in what remained of the night. “And this is the thanks I get.”

Kat wandered the length of the patio and back, absorbing the specially trucked in palm trees, the blazing illumination both outdoors and in, the conspicuous darkness ringing Sylvie’s house. If the lake didn’t lie between it and the road the glare would probably constitute a traffic hazard in these parts. “Did the neighbors thank you too?”

“Provincials.” Sylvie spat the word so forcefully she nearly spilled her wine.  “The lake is supposed to be seasonal. The lake is supposed to be dark. Well it’s my lake now. They can bite me.”

Kat tiptoed away from the subject. Her friend could have built a house like this in L.A. and the neighbors wouldn’t have batted an eye. But she supposed that was why Sylvie had to build it here, somewhere that it wouldn’t be one of a hundred garish gems vying for attention. Here it was unique. Here it was, no doubt, despised, but Sylvie wouldn’t care. Kat hadn’t been able to make the housewarming party last month but she’d heard about it from friends. It had been, as Sylvie’s parties always were, a smashing success – at least until some grumpy neighbor called the cops about the 3 a.m. noise.

And the place did possess a certain sparkling beauty. Especially if Kat turned her back on the house blazing like white fire, cold to the eyes and branding itself on her retina when she realized – too late – that she’d looked at it too long. The lake swallowed the brilliance and spit it back out as embers – warmer, softer, something to gather around and stare into with meditative distraction. Something about it looked more real than the house, in truth. “It’s like there’s a whole other world in there,” she said, more than half to herself.

“I just finished a story about that.” Sylvie plucked an appetizer from her Murano glass platter, smoked salmon wrapped around cream cheese sprouting a baby arugula leaf. “Mermaids and mermen living in the borrowed homes of reflections. People who insist on darkness turning them into paupers and vagrants, even killing them. There’s a thriving colony around the oil platforms in Long Beach.”

“That’s a little outré for you, isn’t it? Are you even going to be able to place it?” Sylvie’s articles ran in magazines and on web sites specializing in travel and home decorating: Kat couldn’t see much of a market for mermaids there.

“Already have.” Sylvie’s eyes sparked with the same cold fire as the house. “City folk love to feel superior to the country hicks. It’s my own little piece of revenge for my warm welcome. Not that any of them are likely to read it. More’s the pity.”

Mercifully, Kat’s phone rang before she needed to think of an answer. She excused herself to take the call and detoured to the bathroom afterward, but when she happened to look into the study on her way past she turned and went back outside. “Sylvie? Just out of curiosity, why are two frogs trying to carry off one of your SD cards?”

“Oh, those damnable things!” Sylvie rushed into the house, snatching up an empty wine glass  from the counter and a magnetic calendar from the side of the refrigerator. She rescued her card and began stalking the amphibians. “They’ve been a veritable plague the past few days.” In a stroke of great good fortune she trapped both of them at once and carefully slid the calendar beneath the glass. “I tried killing one,” she shuddered, “but I swear they have the guts of three frogs packed inside them. They just explode.”

“Do you remember biology, when our frog turned out to be pregnant and we had to fish around under all those eggs looking for the heart and – ”

“Ewww, don’t remind me!” Sylvie almost dropped the glass. The trapped frogs jumped up the sides, clinging to the base for a moment with their flat, round toes before tumbling to the calendar again. “I can’t figure out how all of these are getting in.” She headed for the door again. “Or why they want to. They can splash about in an entire lake.”

Kat scooped a bullfrog off Sylvie’s digital camera and into her hands. “Or when they developed a taste for electronics. This one managed to get the delete menu up.”

“Would you believe an owl swooped down last week when I was taking a picture of the house from the road?” Sylvie unceremoniously dumped her captives into the rosemary while Kat bent over and set hers gently on the ground. “Maybe the neighbors have set their attack wildlife on me.” She hooked her toe under a determined frog hopping back toward the house and punted it over the fence. “Well, they’re too late. I already sent the article off.”

“I admit I’m a city girl,” Kat took a thoughtful sip of wine, “but isn’t it a little odd?”

Sylvie laughed. “The last, lugubrious thing my ex said before I moved up here was, ‘You’re not used to the country, Sylvia.’” She drew out the last syllable in affected exaggeration. “’Real nature isn’t roses in pots trimmed with dainty pruning shears. You beat it back with a machete.’ I’m not going to let a few scales and feathers send me back to L.A. with my tail between my legs so he can say, ‘I told you so.’”

“I don’t think frogs have scales,” Kat said, but Sylvie had moved onto a different subject and Kat was happy to let her.

* * *

Kat had to leave at dawn so she and Sylvie said their goodbyes the night before and Sylvie slept in. When she heard sounds in the kitchen she assumed – hoped, really – that Kat had changed her mind, for her breakfasts were still the stuff of legend among their old sorority sisters. She lay in bed a few more delicious moments awaiting the aroma of brewing coffee and the whirr of the juicer, but when neither smell nor sound drifted down the hall she threw on a wrap and went to see if Kat needed help finding ingredients.

A strange man stood in her kitchen, as if it belonged to him. A little over six feet tall with a dark t-shirt and excellently tailored sport coat draping a casually powerful build, his rough-textured face looked at certain angles and in certain lights as if a sculptor had chiseled it from feldspar. A fearsome intelligence shone from his dark eyes and a streak of burgundy paced the part on the side of his shoulder length black hair, incongruous on a man well past impetuous youth. He gripped a tablet computer in one hand and balanced a bottle of wine between two loosely crooked fingers of the other. He took Sylvie’s breath away, partly but not entirely from fear. When he spoke his voice was low and rough, a little like a smoker’s – and she saw a pipe stem peeking out of a pocket – but more like the first falling pebbles before an avalanche crashes down a mountainside. “I’d like to speak with you,” he held out the tablet and on it she saw the night shot of her house the owl had tried to interrupt above the opening text of her article, “about this.”

(to be continued)