Gloria put her ledger in the secret compartment, under the false bottom of her desk drawer. She locked the drawer with a key she wore around her neck, and then set the security alarm by the door.
Lunch would be the usual: a jelly sandwich on a park bench across the street.
The butterflies were there, too, monarchs fluttering through on their annual migration to Mexico.
As she ate, they landed on her shoulder … and they began to whisper.
Gloria didn’t tell anyone, but she knew the butterflies well. They were her family: her maternal line, going back 1000 years. They were her aunts and sisters and cousins, traveling as a group, like a live bouquet of yellow and orange flower petals.
“Gloria,” one of them said. “Look up! Have you ever seen a bluer sky?”
“Gloria,” another purred. “Be a sweetheart, and give me a taste of that jelly.”
Gloria had known them all since she was a child, and she knew that someday, she would fly with them, coasting on warm breezes for eternity.
Provided, of course, that she do a good job now, while she was in charge of their money.
No one could know that the butterflies had money. No one could know that the butterfly trust guaranteed that they would always find a line of butterfly campgrounds from Manitoba to Michoacán.
And no one could know that Gloria wasn’t the woman she seemed to be.
At night, when she slipped out of her disguise, she herself was a vaporous swirl of feathery wings, free to flit around her one-bedroom apartment.
She had no furniture — just a chair for her female form and a hook for her office key. The rest of the dwelling was filled with flowering branches and leafy trees in self-watering pots.
It was lonely, living by herself in Nebraska while the rest of her kaleidoscope was free to soar. She only saw them twice a year — but it was worth it, to know that she was safeguarding their future.
The high-pitched wail of a burglar alarm interrupted Gloria’s lunchtime revelry. How long had it been sounding?
With a shock, Gloria realized that her office door across the street was open — and then she realized that it wasn’t merely open. It was hanging from its hinges, cockeyed, like a broken branch after a thunderstorm.
Gloria jumped to her feet, while a dozen butterflies swirled around her head.
“What’s wrong, Gloria? What’s wrong?”
They followed her as she ran, darting in front of a moving car. The driver stopped short and stared, open-mouthed. Gloria looked like she was being chased by a swarm of monarchs.
At the door, she came face-to-face with the intruder — and he had her ledger.
“It’s over, bug,” he sneered.
In that instant, she recognized him for the predator he truly was. She saw the eight eyes that were hidden behind his two human orbs, and the eight phantom limbs that twitched for release from his human form.
He lunged toward her, sneering, and his fangs flickered toward her neck. She stood taller, daring him to bite. Instead, he knocked her to the sidewalk and ran.
His gait was skittish, and his stride was lopsided. As he scuttled down the street, he clasped the ledger tightly to his thorax.
If he had the ledger, he would have control of the funds. Any shapeshifter could access the account. Gloria had to get it back.
She stood tall and tilted her head toward the sky, and from the depths of her soul came a song that hadn’t been heard for 1,000 years: the war cry of the butterflies. An ancient, primal scream, it shattered glass and stirred clouds of dust from the ground beneath her feet.
In an instant, the sky was dark, the sunlight blocked by the vaporous feathered wings of a million butterflies, alive and in spirit form, a mass migration of souls.
They swarmed the ledger thief.
They flew into his eyes, his mouth, and the joints between his exoskeleton and his soft internal organs.
He fell, but the swarm continued.
He gasped for breath, and choked, and when Gloria finally caught up to him, he was nothing more than a spider on his back, all eight legs clearly visible now, and wriggling.
Gloria raised one foot high, and the hard sole of her leather boot was the last thing the spider ever saw.
She stomped down hard and took back her ledger.
She still had a few bites of sandwich left to finish.