Cooler Than Blood, by Robert Lane

Cover ArtTitle: COOLER THAN BLOOD

Genre: Mystery

Author: Robert Lane

Website: www.robertlanebooks.com

Publisher: Mason Alley

Purchase on Amazon

18-year-old Jenny Spencer is missing after a violent nighttime encounter on a Florida beach. Jenny’s aunt, Susan Blake, asks wisecracking PI Jake Travis to investigate.

Susan and Jake had only spent one dinner together, but both felt an instant, overpowering attraction. Jake walked away.  After all, he was—and is—committed to Kathleen.  But having Susan in his life again could be dangerous:   dangerous in more ways than one.

As Jake and his partner, Garrett Demarcus, close in on finding Jenny, they uncover a shocking secret in Kathleen’s past.  Even more shocking is that Kathleen and Jenny’s life are strangely intertwined.

For Jake, this case may hit way too close to home—and what started as a race to find Jenny could become a fight to protect Kathleen.

As the case heats up and the danger escalates, Jake is forced to examine his moral boundaries.  How far is he willing to go for the woman he loves?   At what cost?  And what about that question that has dogged him since the beginning of the case: was there another person on the beach that night?

Chapter One

We paraded a block south to Dangelo’s condo and rode to the tenth floor. Like Kathleen’s, it had its own entrance off the elevator. The Tweedle twins didn’t enter the room—nor did my gun, which they confiscated at the door. I assumed they’d been instructed to make camp outside Dangelo’s door. Perhaps Tweedledum had brought along his music history textbook to study.

Dangelo sat at a desk that made him look big. He didn’t stir when I entered. I took a seat on a white leather couch and flipped through a magazine that told me about ten fantastic Caribbean restaurants I had to dine at before I jumped off the bus. I didn’t look at the article. I did look at the pictures of tan girls in white bikinis. The classics never go out of style. I helped myself to some salted cashews in a cut-glass bowl that rested on top of a glass-topped coffee table with a coral-reef base.

“Jacob.” It came out as he swiveled around in his chair so he could face me. “Have you found my missing funds?”

I finished my chew. “Working on it, Joe.”

“How? By going into one of my bars and informing the staff that I instructed you to talk to this missing girl whom you think I have? Such a childish game.”

“Staff?”

“Yes?”

“I just don’t see Special as staff.”

Dangelo stood. “Our arrangement, in the event that you’ve suffered short-term memory loss, is that you find my missing funds, then I do what I can to help you locate the missing girl, whom you erroneously think I possess.”

“That arrangement didn’t hold my interest. I find Jenny Spencer, and your money won’t be far behind.”

“You think?” He took a step toward me. “Then you are not thinking at all—for if that were the case, and I, as you have accused, am harboring the girl, why are we having this conversation?”

“I said, ‘far behind,’ not ‘with her.’ You didn’t bring me here for this.” I got up and dropped the magazine onto the glass table. “I’ll keep you posted.” I headed for the door.

“I did a little research.” His voice came from behind me. “You served for five years, but your trail gets cold the day you left the army.” I pivoted. He picked up the magazine from the coffee table and glanced at it. “I don’t think I even pay for this anymore. They just keep sending it.” He brought his head up. “Tell me—how does one get involved in your line of work?”

“A strange question from a man like you.”

“I’m curious…” He tossed the magazine, reached into the bowl, and grabbed a handful of cashews. “What chances did my two men have if you decided not to comply with my request for a visit?”

“None.”

Dangelo nodded as if I’d given him the answer he’d wanted, but it was the wrong answer for me to give. I saw it too late. Arrogance is the first step toward self-destruction.

“No,” he said with a tone of resignation, “I suppose not. You know”—he popped a few cashews into his mouth—“we had an incident not far from here about a year ago. We lost four employees, and the locals expressed alarming disinterest in the situation—not, of course, that we pressed them. You understand?”

“Not a clue what you’re talking about.” I started to circle the room.

“Sort of like me, when you bring up your missing Ms. Spencer.” Another cashew met its fate. “It did occur to us, however, that even if we had pressed our cause, the law just didn’t care. As if someone had hushed up the whole scene. ‘Bad for tourism,’ I believe the line was.”

“You can’t have four dead bodies in the sand in a beach town.”

“I never said they were on the beach,” Dangelo said.

“I read the papers.” I passed the front door and with my right hand turned the deadbolt. I kept circling. The distance between us shrank. Time and distance.

“They were good men. One of them was our best. They must have encountered someone who was highly trained, a professional, and not acting alone either.”

We paused. I wasn’t going to lead. At that point, I could do more harm than good—and already had. “There was a lady involved.” Dangelo said it cautiously and in a different tone, as if we had entered the demonic final movement of a musical score. My neck stiffened. My hand tightened into a fist. “Tragically she died on that beach.” His eyes rested on mine. A car honked. “Did you read that as well? In the papers?”

“I seem to recall something about that.”

“We…how shall I put this? We possibly overreacted. We thought at one time that the deceased lady might have knowledge of certain nonpublic aspects of our business. In retrospect, she probably had no knowledge at all. Our judgment was rash, but not nearly as bombastic as our adversary’s.”

Dangelo waited, but I remained silent, until the silence was self-incriminating. I asked, “Why are you telling me this?”

“After your sophomoric theatrics at the Winking Lizard, I had you followed. The car you were driving—”

I was on him in two steps and slammed him into the wall. His head snapped back with a thud then bounced forward so his forehead struck mine. A half-eaten cashew flew out and landed on my shirt. I choked his throat with my right hand. His neck was fat. I wanted to rip off a chunk and stuff it in his mouth. The door behind me rattled.

“What about the car?”

Dangelo took a second to get his breath. He smelled like cashews. The last time I smelled him, it was Swiss cheese and ham. “It’s double-parked, Mr. Travis.” His voice was tight. I loosened my grip. “Find my money, and you were never here tonight. This conversation never took place.”

I dug my fingers into his neck. “What about the car?”

“N-nothing.” I eased up even more on the pressure. “We thought—that is, my associate thought—he might have recognized it from the around the neighborhood.”

“Are you threatening me?” I was ticked that I’d been followed. I should have been more alert. Too bad for Dangelo. I swung him around and pressed his face against the window. “Because I’ll drop you through this window right now. Do you understand that?” His eyes widened in the reflection of the glass. I leaned into his ear and repeated what he’d told me at the deli. “Look elsewhere, Joe. The beach scene wasn’t me.” I gave the lie my best conviction. I like lies. Judiciously applied, they can help your cause more than a standing army. “And,” I continued, “here’s the new plan: find your own goddamned money.” I gave him a shove and stepped back.

“Certainly,” he started and then paused to catch his breath, although he tried not to show it. “Certainly you understand that if we had our money, we would be inclined to fully—no, permanently—support any decision made for the benefit of tourism. Whether or not, or not, you…um—”

“Save it. I have no idea what you’re talking about, and I’m not making any deal with you.”

“We say such things in times of—”

“The man you had lunch with the other day—he give you the script tonight?”

“No.” He regained his posture far faster than I’d thought he would. Dangelo might have been all dressed up, but he clearly had spent some of his youth on the street. “I’m not the puppet you seem to think I am, and spying on me certainly won’t advance your cause. Your reaction, Jacob, was totally uncalled for. All we’re—all I’m saying is that perhaps you can help us out. I didn’t mean to imply any threat. I apologize if you took my comments in that manner.”

But he knew. And he knew that I knew that he knew. Still, his earnest conciliatory tone caught me off guard. I couldn’t get a read on Joseph Dangelo—perhaps, though, through no fault of my own.

Regardless, I’d blown it. It wasn’t my first mistake and wouldn’t be my last. He had no way of knowing my elephant gun was loaded. I didn’t trust myself to say anything else—I’d already behaved foolishly. Dangelo called off the dogs, and I marched out of the room.

“Lewis Carroll would be proud of your career choice,” I said to Tweedledum as he handed me my gun.

“You mean Charles Dodgson?”

Screw this guy.

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Not All Americans Are Racist, by Nicole Weaver

american (4)Title: Not All Americans Are Racist

Genre:Nonfiction Essay

Author: Nicole Weaver

Website: www.nicoleweaverbooks.com

Publisher: Nicole Weaver

Purchase on Amazon

SUMMARY: In Not All Americans Are Racist, Nicole Weaver recounts her experiences with racial discrimination and the non-racist white individuals who made it possible for her to attend and finish college. As an immigrant from Port-au-Prince, Haiti, she is thankful for the opportunities America has offered her.

EXCERPT:

I hated saying goodbye to Mrs. Smith. I loved her with all of my heart. She represented all the good America had to offer to its immigrants, even if they were not white. Mrs. Smith saw potential in me that I myself did not see. Back then, I was just a black Caribbean girl thankful to have food to eat and a roof over my head. My mom at the time was single with the responsibility of working two jobs in order to feed and clothe my older siblings and me. I will never forget the day Mrs. Smith called me into her office to give me a pep talk about the importance of going to college. Honestly, I was scared to venture out on my own and go live on campus with people I had never met. Her coaching and encouragement helped me keep the fear at bay. Now, I was eager and ready to start the new chapter in my life as a college student.

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Between these Walls, by John Herrick

HerrickBTWTitle: Between these Walls

Genre: Christian/New Adult

Author: John Herrick

Websitehttp://johnherrick.net/

Publisher: Segue Blue

Purchase link: http://www.johnherrick.net/betweenthesewalls/buybook.htm

SUMMARY:

The latest release by best-selling novelist John Herrick, Between These Walls is an extraordinary tale featuring an unforgettable protagonist, Hunter Carlisle.

About Between These Walls:  At 26 years old, Hunter Carlisle has a successful sales career, a devoted girlfriend, and a rock-solid faith. But Hunter also guards a secret torment: an attraction to other men. When a career plunge causes muscle tension, Hunter seeks relief through Gabe Hellman, a handsome massage therapist. What begins as friendship takes a sudden turn and forces the two friends to reconsider the boundaries of attraction. Along the road to self-discovery, Hunter’s secret is exposed to the community. Now Hunter must face the demons of his past and confront his long-held fears about reputation, sexual identity, and matters of soul.

A story about fear and faith, grace and redemption, Between These Walls braves the crossroads of love and religion to question who we are—and who we will become.

CHAPTER 1

Had Hunter seen what he thought he’d seen? Had he given Hunter a second glance?

At twenty-six years old, after so many years, Hunter wished the temptation would release its grip on him.

Hunter’s heartbeat increased at the possibility of mutual attraction, but he steadied himself.

Surrounded on three sides by frosted glass walls, the conference room sat in an interior section on the fourth floor of a suburban professional building. Pipeline Insurance Corporation offered extensive packages for life, home and automobile coverage. Its customers ranged from individuals to small businesses to large corporations.

Hunter had pursued this potential client by phone for three months, trying to get one foot in the door to explain the benefits of his own company’s products.

Two weeks ago, he had secured an appointment for ten o’clock this morning with Jake Geyer, a manager in the technology services department.

Hunter had expected a few Pipeline staff members to attend the demo session, but at the last minute, the others had canceled. This occurred often with Hunter’s cold-call appointments and, after four years in sales, Hunter had learned not to take offense when it happened.

Side by side, Hunter and Jake sat at a large, mahogany table, facing the frosted glass walls. The polished surface of the table cast a reflection of Hunter’s laptop computer.

“So the program offers dynamic address formatting to satisfy postal standards,” Hunter explained. “The program is Internet-based and interacts live with our central server. As you know, to obtain discounted rates for bulk mail, the postal service has strict requirements that vendors must meet. Our program ensures compliance at the point of entry.”

Jake stroked the stubble beneath his chin as he examined the sample data-entry program on Hunter’s laptop screen. With one arm bent at the elbow, the sleeve of his polo shirt wrapped taut around his bicep, revealing enough shape to suggest Jake worked out. Jake wore stylish, olive-green glasses, which blended well with his dirty-blond hair and enhanced the color of his green eyes. Hunter estimated Jake was only a few years older than he. Thirty years old at best.

“I understand how meeting those standards benefits us,” Jake said, “but our data entry staff keeps a printed document of postal standards on hand. One question my director would ask is, ‘What does your product accomplish that we can’t accomplish ourselves?’”

Hunter had anticipated that question. Every prospective client asked the same question during their first meeting. But Hunter, who worked with the software every day and understood its benefits, had learned to respect his prospective clients and allow them to grasp the concept at their own paces. Moreover, Hunter had discovered that he could read between the lines. Individuals would express their own needs and desires through their comments and questions, which, in turn, helped Hunter customize a case for how his own company’s product offered a solution. For Hunter, the sales pitch focused less on convincing a client of their need than presenting his product as a hero that would save the day. Hunter believed in the product he sold. He viewed his visits as opportunities to enhance the work of others.

“That’s a good question,” Hunter said. “You mentioned on the phone that you enter a large collection of records to your database throughout each day, plus a load of address changes when people move to new apartments or buy new homes. I assume you run quality-assurance reports on those entries?”

“Yes, we deliver the reports to our data entry staff each morning.”

“Do you ever find errors in those updates?”

“Nothing major. The data entry clerk might enter a wrong digit in the street address. They might spell out ‘Street’ or ‘Post Office’ instead of using the postal abbreviations. Things like that.”

“That’s typical for my prospective clients. The benefit our program would bring is to eliminate that second step from your business process. By formatting your addresses automatically upon entry, we eliminate user errors, which increases your efficiency rate and allows your data entry staff to start its day entering new data instead of revisiting the prior day’s work.”

Hunter glanced over at Jake, who nodded. Hunter sensed Jake had absorbed and understood the details.

Shifting in his seat, Hunter scooted so his back settled flush against the back of his chair. For the last few months, he’d felt recurring soreness in his lower back. Though frequent and lasting several hours at a time, the aches didn’t occur daily. The pain level ranged from minor discomfort to occasional bursts that would stab his lower back like a knife. He could sense it wasn’t a medical issue, though, and attributed it to stress on the job.

Hunter continued his pitch to Jake Geyer.

“Plus,” Hunter added, “we receive regular updates to verify the physical existence of homes and buildings, which helps prevent a wrong digit or character in your address. Our data ensures that, yes indeed, a building actually sits at 1234 Main Street and hasn’t been torn down. That would increase your deliverability rates and eliminate the cost of mailing material to addresses that don’t exist. You can take the money that used to go down the drain in returned mail and reinvest it to increase your profit margin.”

Jake glanced over at Hunter, held his gaze for a few seconds, the way he had several minutes ago, then examined the laptop screen again. Though Hunter wasn’t sure, he thought he caught a change in Jake’s eyes during contact. Jake’s pupils had dilated a trace.

Why did he glance at me?

Sure, it’s a normal human response in a business scenario. Yet Hunter couldn’t help but wonder if Jake was focused on Hunter’s explanation of the program, or if he’d used the glance as an excuse to take a quick inventory of Hunter’s eyes.

Jake tapped the edge of the laptop. “So this is the program here?”

“Sure is. I can walk you through a demo if you want.”

Jake slid his chair toward the laptop, leaned in closer to the screen. And closer to Hunter.

Jake set his glasses aside to view the screen, so perhaps he was nearsighted. Hunter noticed Jake’s eyes were closer to olive than standard green.

Hunter picked up the scent of a fresh shower. The scent was pleasant but possessed a sharp tang. Men’s shower gel.

Hunter’s heart rate began to roll with the steady pace of a treadmill. A quiver ran up his thighs. His right arm rested on the mahogany table an inch from Jake’s.

Hunter wished he didn’t enjoy the proximity. Such simplicity would come to his life if he could free himself from the appeal he found in other men.

When in the company of others, often he wondered if he was the only one who struggled like this.

He forced himself to refocus on the screen ahead.

“Here’s a sample program for a magazine subscription company.” Hunter waved his finger over the program window. “The company isn’t real.”

“How about the colors and layout? Our software application is branded with our logos and a couple of company Intranet links. Is this what the program would look like if we purchased it?”

If we purchased it? When a client started talking about purchase scenarios, Hunter considered it a positive indicator. Hunter smiled with fresh vigor. He stretched his lower back to the left, then to the right.

“We integrate our software into yours. We’ve done it that way with all our clients. Our product is compatible across any format you throw our way.” He pointed to a small icon of a company logo beside the address line. “We incorporate that little icon into your screen in case you’d want to visit our website to research a particular address further. Other than that, you won’t notice a difference onscreen. It’s seamless; everything else gets woven in behind the scenes. We store our data on our own server, so you maintain full privacy of your data.”

Hunter paused to allow the logistics to soak in, swiped his finger along the laptop’s touchpad, then tapped it. “We’ll create a new record for Hunter Carlisle.”

As he hit the keys on the keyboard, Hunter kept his eyes glued to the screen. But in his peripheral vision, he saw Jake tilt his head and run his fingers through his hair, the way you do to make yourself appear casual. But then, as Hunter continued speaking, he noticed Jake had broken his gaze from the computer. Jake’s irises moved toward Hunter’s face and lingered there, assuming Hunter didn’t notice. Hunter felt a flutter in his chest. He could hear the soft sound of Jake’s breathing.

If Hunter could create a product, he would invent a method to read another person’s mind. In times like these, a mind-reading tool would allow him to decipher why Jake studied him with such intentness. For all Hunter knew, Jake could be trying to figure out whether Hunter was an honest sales person who believed in his own product. Yet Hunter couldn’t help but wish for a kindred spirit, someone who struggled with the same attractions he did.

For someone to find him attractive—a mutual attraction.

He wanted to ask but knew he couldn’t mix personal affairs with professional business. Not that he would dare to out himself anyway.

Hunter cleared his throat. Jake’s eyes darted back to the screen.

Okay, he didn’t want Hunter to know he’d sneaked that glance. The question for Hunter was, Why?

Statistics would render chances slim that Jake held any attraction toward Hunter. Hunter knew the percentage of those who concealed homosexual urges was small. But he also knew that percentage wasn’t zero. Hunter remained aware that, with all the people who crossed his path in a year,someone out there harbored the same secret he did.

The question was, who are those someones? For Hunter, attempting to find the answer carried, at minimum, a heavy risk. And Hunter hadn’t sharpened his senses enough to detect those someones on his own.

The what-if scenarios, like the one in which he found himself right now, felt like mental torture: a continual flow of questions never asked and never answered. After all these years, it exhausted him.

“In my mailing address, I typed the full words ‘Street’ and ‘Suite.’ Also, I typed ‘4738’ as our street number—but our address is 4739. There’s no building at 4738,” Hunter said. “Now, keep an eye on that address line when I move to the next field.”

When Hunter moved his arm, he brushed Jake’s arm by accident.

But Jake didn’t move his arm right away. Usually others did. It took Jake an extra second before he even blinked.

With a hit of the Tab key, the cursor moved to the next data field. In the address line, as Hunter had predicted, the street number changed to 4739 and abbreviations replaced the full words Hunter had mentioned.

“And that’s how it works, in real time,” Hunter said. “Without those abbreviations, a piece of mail to that address would not have qualified for a discounted mailing rate. And with a nonexistent street number, unless your postal worker delivered it on his own initiative, the piece of mail would have returned to you, with the cost of postage wasted. And with our program, your data entry staff wouldn’t have needed to correct the address in the morning, despite the address errors typed into the record. Multiply that by the thousands of addresses you enter and use per year, and it can add up to a lot of savings.”

With that, Hunter allowed his words to settle. He would let the prospective client have the next word, to which Hunter would respond.

Jake leaned back in his chair. He crossed his leg, stroked his chin.

“I can see the benefit behind it,” Jake said. “The question for us would be, ‘Does the benefit outweigh the cost?’ That’s the first thing my director would ask. Our data entry people enter 95 percent of the data in its correct format. So for those remaining cases, are we spending more money on data entry hours than we would spend on the cost of the product? Looking at the cost structure you emailed me yesterday—well, I hate to say it, but I just don’t see how we’d end up ahead.”

Hunter dreaded that response. As good as his company’s product was, and as much money as it could save a client, their current efficiency rate proved a wild card every time. Hunter had no way of knowing those efficiency rates when he entered into these initial meetings, and clients tended to avoid answering that question if he asked too early.

Jake’s reply wasn’t good. Demonstration meetings like these were uphill battles from the onset, so Hunter entered them prepared to counter a variety of possible scenarios. In each case, he would help the potential client see the long-term value his product offered. But in one sentence, perhaps without realizing it, Jake had all but shut down Hunter’s case. In one sentence, Jake had addressed not only their present situation, but also applied high-level analysis and reached a conclusion. And he also served as gatekeeper to everyone else at Pipeline Insurance Corporation.

Hunter decided to go for the next-best scenario. If he couldn’t sell the full product, he would try to sell one of his company’s smaller products.

“I understand what you’re saying,” Hunter said. “Although the solution I demonstrated for you is our top-notch, flagship product, we also offer a range of other services to help improve efficiency.”

In a halfhearted manner, Jake thumbed through a brochure Hunter had laid on the table earlier. “Do all of your services require integration into the software? Do you offer a standalone product we could use on an as-needed basis? That would reduce our cost of implementation.”

Hunter winced inside. He saw where this conversation was headed, and it wasn’t headed toward a sale. He knew he couldn’t offer a viable alternative to meet their needs. The discomfort in Hunter’s back inflamed further.

“The software-integration aspect is a foundational piece of all our products. In fact, it’s one quality that sets us apart from other data providers because it provides a seamless user experience.”

Jake shifted in his seat. “I’m afraid you’d have a tough time selling that to my director. With the upfront costs that would come with integrating the software, and the work involved by the tech staff on our end … I can tell you right now, he won’t go for it. I can pass along to him anything you’d like me to pass along, but I’ve walked through enough projects with him to tell you there won’t be a sale.” He drummed his fingers once upon the table. “To be honest, I could tell from the literature you emailed yesterday that the software wouldn’t be a good match for us, but I wanted to give you a chance to stop by anyway, in case I’d misunderstood some of the details.”

Jake glanced at Hunter. Hunter caught a twinge of disappointment in his eyes.

“Man, I’m sorry,” said Jake, one young adult to another. “Working together would’ve been good.”

Hunter appreciated the remark. He also wondered if Jake had meant his comment about working together at face value, or if he’d referred to getting to see Hunter more often, had the deal worked out. Hunter couldn’t decipher the answer. Though he would never admit it to a soul, the latter notion incited a longing inside him.

“Hey, I understand.” Hunter bit his lower lip, started shutting down his laptop, and retrieved a flash drive from his saddle bag. “I’ll leave this flash drive with you. It contains a demo of our product for you to pass along to your director. If he expresses interest, feel free to contact me, okay?”

Jake reached out to receive the flash drive. Their fingertips brushed. Jake’s eyes caught Hunter’s again, as if searching for a potential next move. Hunter wanted more time to see what, if anything, hid behind the signals—or non-signals—he’d detected from Jake.

In the end, however, professionalism disallowed either man from asking questions or taking another step. In a social context, or if they knew each other better, perhaps they would have had more flexibility.

But today they didn’t.

Hunter hoped the forlorn expression in Jake’s eyes meant what he wished it did.

Chances were, it didn’t. But the fact that someone like Jake—a peer, an equal, and a handsome one at that—might have looked at Hunter and considered something more …

It left Hunter with a surge of warmth combined with the ache of another letdown.

Whether out of courtesy or a desire to savor the final moments their paths would cross, Hunter didn’t know, but Jake walked him down to the lobby.

They shook hands. They exchanged formal smiles. And Hunter walked out the door as Jake turned back toward the elevator.

Five steps out the door, with more than enough time for Jake to have reached the elevator, Hunter glanced back.

Through the glass walls of the lobby, he noticed Jake lingering at the elevator, glancing back at him.

The elevator door opened. Jake seemed to hesitate for a split second, as if caught between options of what to do next, then turned and entered the elevator.

Hunter nodded.

Another opportunity … vanished.

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Fantastical: Tales of Bears, Beer and Hemophilia, by Marija Bulatovic

Front Cover hi resTitle: Fantastical: Tales of Bears, Beer and Hemophilia

Genre: Memoir

Author: Marija Bulatovic

Website: www.fantasticalbook.com

Publisher: SOL LLC

Purchase on Amazon.

SUMMARY:

It’s been said that the truth is stranger than fiction.  Marija Bulatovic’s dazzling debut, Fantastical: Tales of Bears, Beer and Hemophilia, certainly underscores that adage.  Fantastical, Bulatovic’s reflections on her Yugoslavian childhood, is a mesmerizing memoir that takes readers on a wild and unforgettable tour of a country that has vanished from the map, but lives on in this lively collection.

With a pitch perfect voice, and a keen eye for capturing the absurd, the outrageous, the hilarious, the touching, and the sublime, Bulatovic weaves a rich tapestry.  Bears, gypsies, quirky family members, foiled plans, unusual and unorthodox neighbors, Fantastical has it all.  Lovingly told with an unmistakable fondness and deep affection, Fantastical is resplendent with humor, magic, and whimsy.

In this colorful, captivating and clever collection of stories, Bulatovic captures the spirit of the Slavic soul—passion and melancholy with a twinkle in the eye.  Fantastical charms with its wit, keen insights, and larger-than-life stories. Part memoir, part love letter to a place and a people that lives on in memory, Fantastical is irresistible.

An exquisite assortment of stories—each more delicious than the last—Fantastical is a tale to be savored.

Introduction

The gypsy woman shuffled the cards, blew on them, and cast them down, carefully, deliberately, with the skilled hand of a weaver of life and magic: 

You will travel the world,

A child will make you proud,

You will marry a businessman, but you will still work to make your own way,

You will live a life of adventure…                                                                                                                                                                      – Kraljevo, 1993 

The Yugoslavia of my childhood was anything but dull.  A fantastical place rich in history, populated with intense people, and shot through with wonders and deep emotions, it was part of the Balkans, otherwise known as the powder keg of Europe.  It was the birthplace of diverse luminaries – from Nikola Tesla, inventor of modern alternating current, to Anjezë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu, the Albanian nun who would become Mother Teresa, to top tennis star Novak Djokovic.

Touching Austria to the North, Italy and the Adriatic to the West, Greece to the South, and Romania and Bulgaria to the East, it was the place that started World War I, that pioneered its own grand experiment in socialism, and that would later be home to the infamous ethnic cleansing of the ’90s and some of the most sought-after mass murderers on the planet.

Given its strategic location, it had been in the path of many conquerors.  Everyone from the Visigoths to the Ottomans to the Austro-Hungarians to Soviet-era Communists had traversed its beautiful lands, leaving parts of their customs, language, and DNA behind.

The Ottomans brought foods and spices, the rhythms of the East, Islam.  The Austro-Hungarians imparted Western European tastes, their own musical preferences, and industrial-age improvements.  Finally, the Communists, the great equalizers of the diverse groups of people who now called this land home, were probably most responsible for the feeling of solidarity that I most strongly associate with it.

To me it was an amusing and intriguing place.  Strange happenings, outrageous gossip, black magic – all were part of the fabric of my childhood, along with the safety and stability of home that was always there in the background, the love embodied in my parents, grandparents, and the larger circles of family and friends.

As I read back through these stories, the word “fantastical” sticks in my mind.  Its meaning ranges from “existing in fancy only” to “slightly odd or even a bit weird.”  My Yugoslavian childhood was definitely both.  These stories represent a lost world.  Not only does the Yugoslav nation no longer exist, but the sense of solidarity among its peoples, giving way in the ’80s and ’90s to ethnic divisions and nationalist tendencies, will never be the same.

These stories also represent an odd world.  In a young socialist country with pagan roots, ancient and modern worlds slammed together.  The incongruities were sometimes jarring, sometimes hilarious.  As a child, I tried continually to make sense of it all.  As an adult, I feel lucky to have taken it all in.  I feel fortunate to have had such a start in life – a strange start, perhaps, but one lived openly and in full color.

I sometimes describe my childhood as “socialist meets gypsy Woody Allen.”  When I was eleven, a nurse on her way to work one morning was stabbed in the back by a coworker.  The two women worked together at the only hospital in our town and were part of a love triangle.  In the end, no charges were filed, and the three lovers went back to work as usual.  As local gossip had it, it was fortunate the event had taken place near the steps of the blood bank, ensuring rapid transfusion.

Others died each year in horrific bus crashes, caused by the regular drinking of drivers ferrying people to their chosen vacation destinations – or, in this case, to their deaths.  Still others met their demise after eating poisonous mushrooms purchased at the local market.  Apparently, the sellers couldn’t tell the difference or just didn’t care.

Especially in more remote parts of the country, a few people each year would barely escape being buried alive.  Since no doctor was involved in validating death, the family would make the judgment on their own, sometimes mistakenly.  The deceased would then be left to their own devices, forced to bang on the coffin lid in the midst of the funeral procession to be let out.

Needless to say, all this unpredictability fueled the superstitions harbored by many.  At the same time, after more than thirty years of Communism, some things in Yugoslavia were very predictable.  In our traditional, homogenous society, before the economic crisis that was to come, no one was too rich or too poor, no one too well or shabbily dressed.  You could always count on some things to run smoothly and others not at all.  A case in point was the Yugo.  Voted one of the Fifty Worst Cars of All Time, it supposedly featured rear-window defrost so your hands wouldn’t get cold while you pushed it.

The Yugoslavia of my memory was wonderfully diverse, and in my world, at least, its various ethnic and religious groups lived together in relative harmony.  Those around me were generally happy and satisfied with life, frequently socializing with friends and coworkers.  The sense of solidarity was high.  People wanted to do good and contribute to the overall benefit of society, and they generally looked out for one another.

I also remember a strong sense of intimacy, with people deeply involved in each other’s lives.  It was common for everyone to know what you were cooking for lunch, and should the aroma leave some question as to the exact dish, it was perfectly acceptable to ask and have your suspicions validated.

Growing up, it was my grandparents’ world I was most familiar with and that colored my childhood.  While my parents worked, I spent most days with my grandparents in the large apartment complex they shared with other military families in the Serbian city of Kraljevo.  Communist-era buildings are typically presented as drab and gray, but I remember the balconies always beautifully adorned with plants and flowers, the interior walls always freshly painted in pastel colors.  I also recall the complex teeming with people coming and going, providing abundant material for the local gossip.

Other stories reflect my parents’ world, in Kraljevo and on the banks of the Adriatic where we vacationed each summer, still surrounded by family and friends.  Their world, too, was caught up in tradition, elaborate social norms, and the remnants of a more superstitious time, but it gestured toward modernity.

Some of these stories come to me solely though the gossip of neighbors, embellished in their own minds and later, in mine.  Some come through the lens of childhood, colored by my need to make sense of my own actions and an often confusing world.  Still, this place and time – the Yugoslavia of my childhood – is real.  Welcome, reader, to these tales of a time and place long gone, a world vanished from the map but not the mind.  Join me on this journey and let your own reality dissolve.

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Chapter Reveal: ‘Going From Undisciplined to Self-Mastery: Five Simple Steps to Get You There’ by Harris Kern

self-mastery-198x300Genre: Non-Fiction

Author: Harris Kern

Publisher: Koehler Books

Amazon

Going from Undisciplined to Self-Mastery is not a clone of all the other self-help books in the marketplace today. It is the proof not the hype. This book, based on hundreds of successful case studies featuring people from all walks of life, facilitated by the author’s life coaching and organization performance mentoring business to give them the discipline they needed to overcome the issues the author dubbed as The Dirty Dozen:

  • Severe procrastination
  • Failed goals
  • No motivation
  • No sense of urgency
  • Disorganized
  • Lack of structure
  • Not focused
  • Not managing sleep optimally
  • Poor performance
  • Poor time management
  • Lack of energy
  • Inconsistency

The author’s business focuses on helping people and organizations achieve self-mastery.

A key component for a successful life is acquiring discipline. The author believes that self-mastery is the defining element in your life. With it. you can achieve almost anything; without it you will struggle to exist.

To reach a level of self-mastery you first need to develop your self-discipline, by learning how to overcome The Dirty Dozen. The Five Steps you’ll need to take are:

  • Institute Structure
  • Prioritize Your Life
  • Manage Time
  • Hold Yourself Accountable
  • Seek Perfection

The author not only mentors his clients using these principles but he has actually been practicing what he preaches for more than four decades.

Foreword 

I was contacted by Roger Bengtsson after he searched the Internet using the keywords self-discipline and mentor. He sent me the following email:

“I’m not proud about my self-discipline lately. Too much television, no regular sleep rhythm, and so on. I’m ashamed. Not long ago I had self-discipline and I felt fine and I probably had my best days in life. And now, back to zero again. No goals, no hunger for a new day.”

He had other challenges:

  • Severe procrastination
  • Slept too much—nine-to-ten hours
  • Wasted two-to-three hours lounging around in bed every day
  • No motivation
  • No sense of urgency
  • Not energetic

His career was going nowhere. He was a security guard in Sweden. At the age of  forty-two his life seemed pretty dismal. His only consolation—he wasn’t alone. Most people I meet have very little, if any, self-discipline. No matter how intelligent or creative someone is, without being disciplined it is almost impossible to excel in life.  That’s why the self-help industry is a multi-billion dollar gold mine. So-called experts know that very few people become successful just by reading a book, listening to motivational audios or attending a seminar on success.

Roger was no different; he read several self-help books and was constantly listening to audios for inspiration,  everything he tried was a short-term fix. He needed more than canned advice. He needed a mentor who walks-the-talk, has a time-tested process and who could hold him accountable for his daily routines. He needed a roadmap—not a lecture.

Although we lived on different continents, I felt that I could turn his life around. This book is designed to take you on a similar journey from being an undisciplined casualty of bad habits, like Roger had been, into a master of your own fate. It will walk you through the time-proven five steps needed to become more productive and enthusiastic about life. These easy-to-follow steps you’ll take on this journey will help you develop the self-discipline you’ll need in order to live the rest of your life in a constant state of high level enthusiasm and purpose. Once you master all five of these steps, you will be able to combat the top issues affecting many people in the world today—I refer to them as The Dirty Dozen:

  • Severe procrastination
  • Failed goals
  • No motivation
  • No sense of urgency
  • Disorganized
  • Lack of structure
  • Not focused
  • Not managing sleep optimally
  • Poor performance
  • Poor time management
  • Lack of energy
  • Inconsistency

Even though this may seem like quite a list, really it’s just the tip of a very large iceberg. Individuals the world over are struggling every day to do more with less.

For your benefit, this book is divided into three major sections.

  • The first section is an Executive Overview. It highlights all Five Steps with simple flow diagrams and brief descriptions.
  • The second section describes the Five Steps in detail.
  • The third section highlights The Proof not the hype to help individuals and organizations get structured by featuring:

─   Easy to-follow process flow diagrams of the five steps.

─   Case studies from dozens of one-on-one life coaching sessions and actual organization consulting engagements from Fortune 500 companies.

─   Multiple examples and exercises to help you get proficient in time management.

─   Exercises to help you train your mind to hold yourself accountable.

In the event you are wondering just who would buy this book consider the following.

  • Every dieter, who can’t stick to a plan,
  • Everyone who wants to get into shape, but lacks the motivation,
  • Every college student going out into the world for the first time,
  • Every job seeker looking for that edge,
  • Sales managers who want to get more out of their team,
  • Real estate agents who need to remain disciplined through slow periods,
  • Companies that need to be more cost-effective,
  • Pretty much anyone or any organization that wants to be more productive.

Going from Undisciplined to Self-Mastery describes how to acquire the most important ingredient for optimal success in one’s lifetime: Discipline. Those who are willing to work hard to acquire discipline will not have aspirational roadblocks.

What does it look like? How does this system work? Here’s how we plotted a path for Roger.In the first half of the table below, I documented the actions taken to mentor Roger, and in the second half of the Table are the results attained from our one-on-one mentoring sessions.

Action Taken
1 I facilitated an assessment of Roger over SKYPE. I asked approximately one hundred questions covering every area of his personal and professional life. The first step was to understand his strengths, weaknesses and goals. Once I completed my discovery exercise, we reviewed my findings and discussed a strategy to move forward. After the evaluation we established three priorities: career, health and relationships (family and girlfriend).
2 I designed a strategy based on his goals and three new priorities. The strategy also included mentoring him to develop his self-discipline skills using the five steps highlighted in this book:

1.     Institute Structure

2.     Prioritize Your Life

3.     Manage Time

4.     Hold Yourself Accountable

5.     Seek Perfection

3 We established a new routine to help Roger be more productive. I wanted him to treat everyday equally. My objective was to eventually train his mind so he can hold himself accountable . The routine included:

  • Training seven days a week.
  • Writing thirty minutes a day.
  • Practicing English daily.
  • Following and maintaining his to-do list every day!
  • Maintaining structure throughout the day.
  • Reducing sleep time from nine hours a day to six.
  • Eliminate lounging in bed.
  • Wake up with a purpose.
  • Focus on daily milestones not his goals.
4 I continuously reminded him that it’s now or never, that the old Roger is dead and gone. He needed to quickly make up for the years of laziness. I wanted to instill a sense of urgency.
5 I made sure he created a to-do list each evening.
6 I held Roger accountable several times a day, even though he resided in Sweden, using SKYPE calls and email. We reviewed his milestones¾what worked and what didn’t work.
7 I trained him to follow the same routine, to-do list and constantly reminding him that he doesn’t want to go back to the lazy and unproductive Roger. We had many conversations throughout the week to ensure ongoing success.
Results
1 Roger is productive every day.
2 He trains each day.
3 Writes consistently, both blogs and books.
4 He holds himself accountable.
5 He makes every minute count.

·       No longer watches TV for hours at a time.

·       Doesn’t lounge around in bed.

·       Doesn’t procrastinate.

6 New goals are thoroughly planned with realistic milestones.
7 He’s always organized and clutter-free, which allows him to be creative and even more productive.

.

How it Started

My neighbor, Jim Jarman, was in his forties when I was thirteen. What a specimen: intelligent, handsome, exercised every day, great physique. I looked up to him.

On one of those typical warm summer California days, Jim was outside mowing the lawn with his shorts on and his shirt off. We would always be clowning around together, trading sarcasm. On this particular day, he said the five magic words to me that changed my life forever: “Harris, you look like shit.”  (As you can imagine, we were pretty good friends.)

I could tell immediately that he was serious. He was right; I knew it. At the time, I stood six feet tall and weighed 135 pounds.  If I turned sideways, you would not be able to see me. I was that skinny. It was a disgusting sight!

I looked at Jim and said that I knew it, but genuinely did not know what to do about it. I ate everything in sight but could never gain a pound. “Harris,” he said, “Eating massive amounts of food is not the way to approach your problem. Your body needs a major overhaul, and it doesn’t start with your mouth.” At thirteen, I did not understand what he was trying to tell me. How else do you gain weight?

“If you decide to follow my instructions to the letter than I will help you out.” I said sure, not having a clue as to what was forthcoming. “I want you here every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday after school. What time do you usually get home?” I get home at 3:45 p.m. each day. “Okay, on those three days, I want you at my house by 4:00 p.m., and don’t be a minute late. If you’re late, the deal is off—no second chances.”  This was Saturday, so we started that Monday.

I was really looking forward to my first session. Maybe, just maybe, I could obtain a body like his in no time.

What a rude awakening. He put me through hell! A very stern exercise program. What do I mean by stern? I mean three days a week of torture, always pushing me harder than the week before. There was weight training, running, swimming and most importantly lecturing me as we were exercising. He would always keep me focused on the exercise and our long–term objective. It was continuous badgering. There was no time or place for social talk.

He would also teach me not to rely on anyone for help. Why not? Is it not okay to rely on your friends occasionally? Not for acquiring Discipline. It is one hundred percent you and no one else. Athletes know that 80% is upstairs (in the mind), where it all starts, especially on those days that you’re too tired, or stressed out and not in the mood––that’s when you need to push yourself the most. He was training my mind more than my body, although I did not know it at the time.

Jim was like a drill sergeant. He was instilling me with Discipline. I figured if he was willing to give up his precious time to help me out, the least I could do was show up on time. Besides, after I agreed to do this, he actually dared me to quit or show up late. He tested me every day.

Looking back now, I realize what an illusory mind game this entire ordeal was. His tactic was very effective, scaring me into never being late. I did not know it back then, but he was training my mind, starting with the easiest form of Discipline: punctuality.

Do you realize how difficult it was for a thirteen-year old kid to pull this off? Think back in time to the number of distractions you had to constantly deal with as a young teen.  Yet I never missed a day.

Walking the Talk

There are many successful self-help gurus out there with many publications to learn from, however what sets me apart from the pack is the fact that I have walked the talk for decades and even now while in my sixties my passion to accomplish and excel is second-to-none.  For me, life ia sll about accomplishments and leaving behind a legacy.

I am highly successful and growing my legacy by leaps and bounds. My children and the love of my life Mayra are going to be the beneficiaries of more than just a hefty bank account. They will inherit prime real estate property and multiple businesses. They would also have a vast collection of books I authored in the family library and vivid photographs on the mantle to remember me by. In my mind, they would continue to abide by the morals their mother and I instilled in them. I also assumed they would adhere to the same top three priorities that I did  and continue to develop their self-discipline so they’d wake up every morning for the rest of their lives with a purpose. Just like their dear old dad, I wanted them to accomplish as much as possible every day. Faith, balance, and discipline would always be the catalyst for their own success.

Looking back over my sixty plus years of existence, there were plenty of major accomplishments to write home about. One of the things I’m most proud of is the fact that at the age of sixteen, I purchased, in cash, a brand spanking new car and paid for my own insurance. My disciplined mannerisms and tendencies manifested themselves at an early age. At the age of thirteen, I threw myself into the labor market with a vengeance.  I desired money and truckloads of it—quickly, especially after having netted approximately $700.00 in cash, checks and bonds and at my Bar Mitzvah in 1967.

To appease my never-ending hunger for money, I worked multiple jobs after school and on the weekends. There was no job big or small that I wouldn’t do; yard work, babysitting, delivering newspapers, filing brochures at a travel agency. At one time, I even worked at an auto junkyard pulling batteries from old clunkers. It was a dirty and dangerous job but someone had to do it. I’ll never forget the day that I pulled out a battery from a car right before it was being hoisted up for demolition. As I stood there and watched it being lifted by a crane, a large rattle snake fell out and scared me. That was the last straw that broke the camel’s back. I never went back after that.

These jobs were all performed between the ages of thirteen to sixteen, with one hundred percent of the income being deposited into my savings account. It was the only way I could purchase a new car by my sixteenth birthday. Growing up, I was mentored to be frugal and save money. My parents always used to tell me:“Never purchase small insignificant items like  records, beer, media paraphernalia, and knick-knacks at the mall. Forget all about the latest craze and  always eat at home.” Their sound advice has served me well throughout my entire life.

While other teen-aged boys were busy scamming for girls or getting into all kinds of trouble, I had already entered the corporate world. I was only eighteen years old when I accepted an entry level position in the Information Technology (IT) Department of a large company in the San Carlos California. Back in 1972, it was referred to as Data Processing and shortly thereafter as Management Information Systems (MIS). Removing the carbon sheets from computer generated printouts wasn’t exactly a glamorous job. Although it was a dirty job, it was the proverbial foot in the door that I needed to gain full admittance into the very exciting world of technology.

It was a full-time job, but I completed my duties in approximately five hours time. The rest of my day was spent helping out in other departments—learning, growing and striving to get on the management’s radar screen as a quick learner, efficient, and someone who had a ton of initiative. My goal was to be promoted out of that function as quickly as possible—the sooner, the better.  I had bigger fish to fry.

As long as I live, I’ll never forget what my dad said to me at an early age. “Son, if you rent an apartment or house it’s like flushing your hard-earned money down the toilet.” Needless to say, I took these words to heart. Living on my own became a goal of mine, one that turned into reality at the age of nineteen, when I purchased a home in the San Francisco Bay Area.

My life changed drastically when I bought my first home without any financial help from anyone. It was a two-bedroom townhome about fifteen minutes south of San Francisco. I was scared to death of getting tied down to a mortgage at such a young age—it was nerve-racking to say the least. However, it was a fairly conservative strategy, putting down a larger down payment of 20 percent so the monthly payments wouldn’t strap me down. Investing in property at an early age was one of my smartest undertakings.  After two years, I sold it for a nice profit and moved to a nicer neighborhood.

After dabbling in real estate, I turned my focus to muscle cars. There were millions of nice muscle cars out there but I wanted to have so much more than just another fancy hot rod. What I yearned for was something wholly unique that would win “Best of Class” at all the premier car shows in the U.S. At the age of 21, my muscle car and matching speed boat were featured on the front cover of  the July 1975 issue of Hot Rod Magazine.

The top speed boat and muscle car with a matching maroon with flames paint job, which belonged to me, were showcased at the granddaddy of all car shows in Oakland, California. They won the top prize—best of show. I named the boat Dirty Harry and the car Sano SS. Winning “Best of Show” was the ultimate honor for the combo until I received a phone call from Hot Rod Magazine a few weeks later. A representative saw the car and boat at the car show and wanted to feature them in one of the magazine’s summer issues. Wow, what a great feeling when it hit newstands and stores in July of 1975. I’ll never forget driving in my award-winning muscle car to the lakes throughout California with matching speed boat in tow to water-ski. I made quite a spectacle cruising on the streets and highways.

Early on in my career, I knew that management was the right path to take. After all this is where the big bucks were along with once-in-a-lifetime opportunities and character building challenges. Having good communication skills, always thinking strategically, possessing excellent leadership skills and being passionate about developing a highly efficient organization was my true calling. At the age of twenty-three, I was promoted to my first management position. From that point on, I climbed the corporate ladder at nearly a record-setting pace and went on to become Vice President of IT in my early thirties.

By the time I reached my 38th birthday in 1992, I was financially set—a multi-millionaire. One million dollars worth of equity in property and another cool million in cash constituted success for me, at the time. I invested wisely—mostly in property, worked hard, and never put all my eggs in one basket. I made it a point to make sure there was always a steady stream of income coming in several small consulting firms—just in case that big reduction in force happened.

In 1982, my corporate job of 10 years ended abruptly—everyone was given a pink slip, including yours truly. Being unemployed for the first time in my professional life was downright scary, but having a healthy savings account and multiple sources of income to pay the mortgage and living expenses for approximately two years eased the burden considerably. In a matter of a few months, I was recruited by a large Japanese electronics company in Silicon Valley.

Once I got back into the corporate world, my goal was for the name Harris Kern to become synonymous with IT and self-discipline.  At the time, based on my research, there were many one book wonders. But that wasn’t going to cut the mustard with me. I wanted an impressive bio that would clearly stand apart from the pack, which could also be used as my resume, one that would open up any door.

My first IT related book was published in 1994 by Prentice Hall and it quickly became a best-seller.  Shortly thereafter, the president of Prentice Hall called to congratulate me and he asked me, “When are you going to write another book?” Little did he know that my mind was already actively strategizing to write a series of IT management How-to books.

I was invited to attend a conference in 1997, which was facilitated by Prentice Hall in San Diego, California.. All of the top-level publishing executives  were in attendance, including my executive editor and his boss.  My objective was to get my own imprint of books named Harris Kern’s Enterprise Computing Institute. I presented my plan to them with conviction and they agreed. Over the next few weeks we worked out the contractual issues. The imprint published its first book in the series in 1997. It worked flawlessly with dozens of new books being published under my imprint on a regular basis. Overall, I published more than 40 books with Prentice Hall and a few other publishers as well. On the Richter scale of personal success, I considered myself to be a rock star as a management consultant, author, publisher, motivational speaker, and business/individual mentor.

What makes my recipe for life so wonderful is the way I live life as a process—with a philosophy for living.  I’ve had my share of hard times, disappointments and temporary setbacks. The way they’re handled really influence our ability to recover, move on and stay on track.  For me, Discipline is key.

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Cornered, by Linda DeFruscio

Cornered_medTitle: Cornered: Dr. Richard J. Sharpe As I Knew Him

Genre: Memoir

Author: Linda DeFruscio

Website: http://www.thecorneredbook.com

Publisher: Twilight Times Books

Amazon

SUMMARY: In the year 2000, Linda DeFruscio was forced to make an unthinkable decision. Someone whose genius she admired immensely, a business associate and dear friend, committed a terrible crime. In response, she could cut off their friendship and avoid the risk of losing friends, clients and her own peace of mind—or, she could trust her gut and try to save some aspect of her friend’s humanity.

Cornered is Linda DeFruscio’s story of her long and often complex association with Dr. Richard J. Sharpe, the millionaire dermatologist from Gloucester, MA who was convicted of killing his wife. Beautifully written and surprisingly tender, Cornered allows the reader an upfront view of the fragility of genius and the decline into madness, all while casting a second light on how one woman’s refusal to turn her back resulted in momentous changes in her own life.

CORNERED

Chapter One – Hair, Pseudonyms And Transgender Lives

My mother was an electrologist too. Before she got into the field, she worked in a factory, welding small parts for airplanes. She was good at working with small things; she was good with her hands. She liked electrolysis even more than airplane parts because along with the intricate hand work and exacting eye focus came people, different people with different personalities. When I got out of high school in 1972, she took me into her office (which was in our home) and did my eyebrows. She explained the process to me as she worked. I went into a dental studies program that same year, offered by Northeastern and Tufts, and after a year and a half I received a Dental Assistant certification. Thereafter I was accepted into a dental hygiene program, but at a school in Connecticut. (The ones in Massachusetts could only put me on a waiting list.) Instead of leaving my family to live out of state, I decided to follow in my mother’s footsteps and go to school for electrology, and cosmetology too. While I was a student, I worked as a dental assistant (as well as a McDonald’s counter person and a housecleaner) to pay my bills. I graduated from Eleanor Roberts School of Electrology in Boston in 1975.

In school, people came in off the street to get inexpensive treatments from the students. One day Bart Fish came in, our neighbor from near our home, and I worked on him. He told me that sometimes my mother worked on him too. Small world. I didn’t know. Bart was married and had three kids, one still at home. He confided that he was a cross-dresser, which was why he didn’t want facial hair (and probably why I hadn’t known my mother was working on him). By the time he came to me, I was a licensed master barber as well as an electrologist. I worked on Bart’s beard and also cut his hair and shaved him. I even practiced a few perms on him. On one occasion, his daughter freaked out. She said I’d sent him home looking like a poodle. She didn’t mind the cross-dressing, because he did that elsewhere, in a different state; it was a separate segment of his life. But she couldn’t endure seeing him every night at the dinner table looking like a priss. She made such a fuss that I went over one evening and cut off his curls.

My mother, I would come to realize, knew lots of cross-dressers, because they made up a good percentage of her clientele. But she had never talked to me about them. It was Bart who helped me to understand that some people just weren’t totally comfortable with the gender they’d been born with; or they weren’t comfortable all the time. He was lucky, he said. His wife accepted him as he was. He was her best friend and she didn’t want to lose him just because he felt the need to alter his gender presentation now and then. Bart’s job as a bra and underwear salesman provided him with the opportunity to travel to different cities, destinations where he could cross-dress without worrying about who found out. He had a friend in Manhattan, and she was okay with his cross-dressing too. He said to me once, “Cross-dressers will be some of your best clients. Don’t be afraid of them. There’s nothing to be afraid of. We’re all just people.”

Once the cat was out of the bag, my mother and I began to spend social time with Bart and his wife, chatting over lemonade on their porch or in our house. One day Bart offered to take me to an IFGE—International Foundation for Gender Education—meeting so I could learn a little more. His friend Merissa Lynn had founded the organization, in Waltham, Massachusetts. She wanted to help me to find clients. I told her I liked to write and she suggested I write an article about electrolysis for the IFGE magazine. She and Bart introduced me to other people.

Over time, Bart became my mentor and confidante. When Mom retired, he encouraged me to start my own business. Even though I was still very young, Bart and his wife were certain I would achieve success. I would inherit mom’s clients, and there would be some IFGE people too. To me, the transgender people were just regular people (perhaps a little more empathetic and more educated than other people I knew) who were conflicted about their gender identification. They lived, they died, and in between they worried about high blood pressure and paying their taxes like anyone else. My acceptance of them was automatic; after my conversations with Bart, I never gave it a second thought. As for Bart, he was a second father to me, my own father being away much of the time.

So I did it. I started my own business. At first I worked in the house, in the room that had been my mother’s office. Then, with Bart’s encouragement, I opened my office in Newton, and before I knew it I had a thriving practice. I liked being an electrologist. I liked the process. Each hair I removed gave me a surprise. One might have a big juicy black bulb at the end, and one might not. Analyzing each hair provided a clue as to what was going on under the skin. Also, I liked the people. They weren’t all transgender people either; a lot of my clients were straight men with ingrown hairs or just too much hair, or straight women who needed work on their upper lips, chins, legs, or underarms. Some wanted eyebrow shaping. Sometimes pregnancy produces unwanted hairs in unexpected places. Electrolysis is a safe way to deal with it. Menopause can create hair havoc too. All kinds of people seek to control their hair growth.

Being an electrologist is not so different from being a psychiatrist…or a bartender. If a client comes in for hundreds of hours, and you are working together in a small quiet room, eventually they will open up and tell you about their life. I’ve had many a patient cry and admit they need to work on a particular issue. I always respond, “I’m not a therapist. I’m not allowed to tell you what to do. But I can give you my opinion.” That always turns out to be what they wanted anyway, more or less.

I’ve done my share of venting too. Once, on the way into work, a crazy driver came within an inch of taking me out on the highway. I was really shaken up. I remember how happy I was when I got to the office and realized that my first patient was someone who would want to know every detail of the almost accident. The transgender clients were always the most interesting to tell your troubles to, because they are really part female and part male. If you tell them a relationship problem, for instance, they will be able to help you to look at it from both perspectives. Talking to transgender clients is as comfortable—and as comforting—as talking to my mom or best girlfriends. In fact, I count a few transgender women among my best girlfriends.

Besides my work, I continued to write skin care articles for Merissa. One day I was even contacted by the famous—well, famous to those of us who work in skin care—Dr. Peter Chives, who asked me to write an article for the Annals of Dermatology, for which he served as editor-in-chief. Dr. Chives was the author of more than a dozen books, one of which was in its sixth edition and had been translated into several foreign languages. He was also the author of over three-hundred scientific publications. I was thrilled when he contacted me and said he considered me to be outstanding in my field and wanted me to review a textbook that had been written by one of his colleagues. I accepted of course. But while I had written lots of magazine articles, I’d never written a book review on a technical book, and I had no idea how to go about it. As it happened, one of my patients, a professional writer, volunteered to give me some tips. I submitted the final piece on time and the issue appeared at the end of 1991.

* * *

When Chris Trembly first called me I was between patients and had the time to talk, which was good, because Mr. Trembly had some nice things to say. He’d read the article that I’d written for Annals of Dermatology. He liked it a lot; he thought I was a good writer. This was about the best compliment anyone could pay me. Chris Trembly said he liked to write too, but he didn’t say what he wrote and I didn’t ask. He’d called because he had ingrown hairs on his neck and he thought I would be the right person to remove them. We set up an appointment.

He came in a week later. He was a sweet, shy, soft-spoken, unassuming man. Dark eyes, longish dark hair. A combination of a young Mick Jagger and Keanu Reeves. Maybe 5’9, about 165 pounds. Mid to late thirties, which is to say about my age. He wore black pants and a white shirt and dark cranberry penny loafers with shiny pennies in the vamp inserts. I led him into the treatment room. I have a chart on the wall there featuring several graphics that define the electrolysis process. The first thing I do with a new patient is tell him or her how electrolysis works—a very fine probe inserted into a hair follicle on the surface of the skin, etc. I always enjoy this explanation. I use the chart as a prop.

Before I could get started, Chris Trembly told me, politely, that he didn’t have time for the first-visit consultation that day. If I could just work on a few of his ingrowns…. He promised the next visit he would relish the opportunity to talk about the process. In spite of the fact that he was in a hurry, he was pleasant. When our eyes met, he looked right into mine. I had him get up on the table and I examined his ingrowns under the light and removed a few. We set up another appointment.

An ingrown hair can occur when a hair is shaved and it retreats below the skin surface, causing inflammation and irritation. There are ways to reduce the number of ingrown hairs, such as running one’s razor under hot water for about thirty seconds. Shaving in one direction (the direction of the hair), and never using a blade more than three times, is also good. If  you cheat, your skin will know. I was telling all this to Chris Trembly during our third session, because during the second session, as was the case with the first, he had to be somewhere and didn’t have time for more than the removal of a few more ingrowns. I was happy to finally have the chance to impart my knowledge to him, to point to the illustrations on my trusty wall chart. He followed the movement of my finger diligently. Alternately, he looked into my eyes. His apparent interest in what I was saying stirred me to say more, to add more detail than usual. When I stopped to take a breath, he smiled a hesitant smile and said, “My name isn’t really Chris Trembly.”

I was taken aback not at all. There are those among my clients who prefer that I don’t know their real names. Like Fred, for instance. In ten years I’ve never asked him for his real name and I never plan to. Fred adores his wife and his five kids. He has a nice home. He likes his life. When he first came to me, he said, “I don’t want to change my life but I do want to be more of the real me. I want my hair thinned on my beard, knuckles and brows.”

Over time Fred told me his story. He cross-dressed once a month, always in the daytime when he could fit his excursions into his work day. Generally he went to out-of-town malls or to hotels to have lunch alone or with transgender friends. Unlike my dear friend Bart, his wife knew nothing about it, and he had no intention of letting her find out—because he suspected she wouldn’t approve. He knew he was right when she told him over dinner one night about the disgusting transsexuals she’d seen on some TV talk show. The last thing Fred wanted was for her to think of him that way and leave him. The second to last thing he wanted was to have to give up the one afternoon a month that he dressed as a woman. He came to me to find a compromise.

Money was no object for him, so we agreed that we would do very short sessions, removing only a few hairs at a time, several times a month. I said, “At this rate you’ll be with me for a long time.” “That’s fine,” he responded.

During each session I removed two or three hairs from under his nose, a few from his chin, his brows, his knuckles—so little that if anyone noticed at all, they would think he had scratched himself. While I worked, he liked to talk about politics. He had a government job, he said. During one appointment he told me a story about how he’d lost his purse while he was out. I said, “Oh my God, was your government ID in it?” No, he’d created a different ID for his excursions, for his alternate self; he even had a PO box just for his transgender mail. His interest in politics and his guile led me to suspect that he worked for an intelligence agency. But I never asked.

After eight or so years of ongoing appointments, we got to where he wanted to be; he was no longer “hairy.” But he didn’t look as though he’d had any hair removed either. We knew we had created a masterpiece when his wife said to him one day, “You know, now that you’re getting older, your hair is thinning on your face. It looks great! You’re more handsome than ever.”

I saw him once with his wife, at my favorite luncheonette. He’d asked me years before never to say hello to him if I saw him outside of my office, and I’d never forgotten. So I turned away while I waited for my to-go order. I was about to pass their table on my way out the door when he said, “Nice day, huh?” I glanced at him. He was smiling. I glanced at her. She looked at me suspiciously. I said, “Yeah, it’s beautiful,” and hurried outside.

* * *

I smiled at Chris Trembly when he said he wasn’t Chris Trembly, and I went on talking about ingrown hairs. I was explaining that you could use a tablespoon of salt and warm water, mixed together on a piece of gauze, or even in your hand, as an exfoliant to heal any irritation…just like how ocean water works to heal the skin. But a few minutes later he interrupted my lecture again to say, “Did you know that an ophthalmologist from St. Louis, Missouri was the first person to use electrolysis on someone who had ingrown eyelashes in the year 1875?”

That stopped me cold. I stared at him. He smiled his sheepish smile. Then he pulled his wallet from his pocket and extracted two loose photos and handed them to me. The first was a picture of him wearing a lab coat over a dress shirt and tie, a stethoscope draped around his neck. The second appeared to be a photo of a woman, but I recognized instantly that it was him, in drag. I handed them back. “Are you a doctor?” I asked.

He nodded. I looked him over. As always, he was wearing a fresh white shirt and penny loafers, his signature ensemble. He said, “I’m a dermatologist. My name is Richard Sharpe.”

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The Blackwell Family Secret: THE GUARDIANS OF SINS, by by Jonathan L. Ferrara

blackwell

The Blackwell Family Secret: THE GUARDIANS OF SINS
by Jonathan L. Ferrara
URBAN FANTASY, Young Adult
Publication date: December 5, 2014
Publisher: Dragonwell Publishing
www.dragonwellpublishing.com / AMAZON

Nicholas Blackwell has no idea he is supposed to fulfill a destiny. All he knows is that he draws trouble like a magnet. Orphaned at eleven when two demonic men killed his parents, he copes with the strict rules of his new home, St. Christopher’s academy, unaware that he has been the real target for the killers and that his guardian angel has saved him in the nick of time. And now, his problems are only beginning when a mysterious serpent lures him into the woods and tricks him into a demonic ritual that will unleash the Seven Deadly Sins to destroy the humankind. Nicholas has no choice but to correct his mistake–or die trying. Aided by Amy, a shy but determined girl who seems to know more about his task than she should, Nicholas’s quest is to travel into the City of Demonio and defeat the Seven Guardians of Sin. To succeed, he must confront demons, monsters, and lost souls, learn the mysteries of the Chapel of Dreams, discover the true meaning of friendship and love, and face the darkest secret of all: the Blackwell Family Secret.

“The Blackwell Family Secret: the Guardians of Sin” is a debut young adult urban fantasy adventure with a Christian theme.

////////////////////////////////////

[As I walk through the valley of the shadow of

death, I shall fear no evil, for you are with me;

your rod and your staff, they comfort me.]

Psalm 23:4

The dark night engulfed Nicholas. His sweaty palms trembled

against his thighs as he stood in the valley, knowing there was

a good chance he was about to die. His throat tightened, as he

imagined all the terrible things that could be happening to Amy.

What if she was hurt? What if she wasn’t even alive? By now,

Nicholas had an open mind to the impossible. Anything could

happen. Nothing was off limits.

Fog dripped down the valley walls and rolled past his feet.

The hazy air made it difficult to see, until a spark of ember shone

in the distance. Decrepit gravestones scattered across the dead

field, stopping at the end of the valley at a palace of white stone.

Enticed by curiosity, Nicholas made his way through the valley.

Thin brittle bones crunched under his feet as he continued on. A

group of limp, old men crept behind, dragging toward him. Their

hands and arms swayed like a rag doll’s as they lurched through the

fog. The men cried, grinding their teeth with pain, as though they

had been waiting centuries for this moment, for Nicholas’s arrival.

Nicholas halted at the entrance of the palace, eyes locked on

the elegant script etched along the front doors: Blackwell Manor.

Cold air scraped his skin and reached down his dry throat like

a claw. His breathing became harsh as he stared at his family’s

name. His trembling hand slid into his back pocket, fingers

fighting for his inhaler. Quickly he placed it against his lips.

A cold, hollow voice echoed across the valley, chilling him

to his very core. The words hung in the air: I know a secret that

could change the world.

Nicholas calmed his nerves with a puff from his inhaler.

How could he, a boy, have come this far and survived so much?

It seemed as if Nicholas had forgotten a lot in his walk through

the valley, as if his mind was erased in such a short period of

time. He had completely forgotten how he got to the Valley

of Death, why he held six random objects in his backpack and

what had happened to his friend. There wasn’t too much he

could recall, but one thing was certain: he was about to face the

greatest evil imaginable.

As he opened the front doors of the Blackwell Manor, he

stared into the most beautiful blue eyes he had ever seen. And

then he remembered…

The snowfall had stopped and thick ruby curtains fell together,

making the stage disappear like a magic act. Seven-year-old

Nicholas Blackwell followed his parents’ lead and stood between

them to applaud. He looked up at his mother, who had the

same smile on her face as when the show began. Her dark red

hair was elegantly done up, and her long black dress sparkled

as the overhead lights beamed from the stage. He then looked

to his father who towered over him, wearing an exquisite black

suit with a blue tie to match his eyes. Oliver continued to clap,

and Nicholas did the same.

It was the largest theater in New York City, and Nicholas had

a hard time weaving through the tall masses of lavishly dressed

people. He tried to keep up with his parents, but one wrong turn

lead him to an unfamiliar hall, where he halted at a ferocious

gargoyle statue. He searched frantically for his parents through

the sea of people, standing on the base of the marble statue to

get a better look. His chest tightened with every second that

went by, and as he reached for his inhaler, he completely forgot

that he had given it to his mother to hold in her purse.

An enormous gloved hand rested on Nicholas’s shoulder,

and he turned to see a giant of a man hovering over him.

“Hey there Nicholas, you alright?” the man said in a thick,

burly voice.

Nicholas tried to respond but couldn’t find words. The man

reached into his coat pocket, and Nicholas took this opportunity

to run into the crowd. The man yelled for Nicholas to return,

but as he tried to follow, his coat caught on the teeth of the

gargoyle.

Nicholas surged through the crowd, feeling as though he

could faint at any moment. His vision blurred as he felt dizzy.

Just as he felt he would topple over, he saw red hair and his

mother’s arms stretching toward him.

“Nicholas!” Kathleen shouted in relief as she pulled the

inhaler from her purse.

“Sorry,” Nicholas said from behind his inhaler.

Oliver put a hand on his shoulder. “You scared us to death.”

Nicholas looked up. “There was a man, he knew my name.”

His parents exchanged a worried glance.

After an unsettling moment, Oliver knelt down to be level

with his son. “Nicholas, I want you to promise me you will stay

by our side, alright?”

Nicholas nodded and looked to his mother, who had not

taken her eyes from him since they had found him.

In the lobby, Mr. and Mrs. Blackwell mingled with some

friends, colleagues and one of Kathleen’s old professors from

New York University. Nicholas made a round of introductions

with his parents’ friends. He counted five pinches to the cheek,

three “look how tall you’ve gotten” and two “you look just like

your father”. He quickly forgot faces as he was being introduced

to an endless stream of people and hid behind his father, arms

wrapped around Oliver’s leg.

“Oliver,” said a man with a thick mustache and a cane,

looking as though he had just stepped out of an old Hollywood

film, “How goes the Blackwell Foundation?”

“Very well, thank you,” Oliver said proudly. “This year,

the hospital is looking brighter than ever with over two dozen

volunteers for Christmas. The donations have been most

generous, the best I’ve ever seen. The children will have a truly

blessed Christmas this year.”

“Good to hear,” the man said, leaning against his cane.

“Remind me to contribute a little extra.” He winked and turned

to Oliver’s wife. “Kathleen, may I say you look enchanting this

evening?”

“Thank you, Professor Larson.”

“I hear you’ve taken over the homeless shelter down on

32nd street. How is it holding up?”

“It’ll be a Christmas to remember.” Kathleen’s contagious

smile had everyone joining in.

Professor Larson now looked to Nicholas. “Nicholas

Blackwell, I presume?”

Nicholas nodded as he came out from behind his father.

“It’s very nice to finally meet you. I’ve heard wonderful

things. Your parents just beam about you. You know, you look

just like your father.”

Three times. That was the third time Nicholas had been

compared to his father.

It was getting late when Nicholas’s parents finally said

goodbye to their friends. It was one of the only nights Nicholas

was allowed to stay up so late—a holiday treat. He loved it.

Staying up late made him feel grown up.

Out on the street Oliver waved down a taxi. Nicholas got

a glimpse of his father’s ring embedded with an amethyst

stone. A family heirloom, one that had been around for many

generations. Not too long ago, Oliver said that one day the

ring would be handed down to Nicholas. Ever since, he had

appreciated the ring much more.

The taxi made its way toward their home through the

labyrinth of a city toward the Upper East Side. The city was lit

up, busier than ever on the Christmas Eve, and the shops stayed

open long past midnight. When they arrived, Kathleen helped

Nicholas out of the car as Oliver paid the taxi driver, giving him

a generous tip that made the man beam with gratitude, thanking

him over and over again.

“Happy Holidays to you and your family. Take care,” Oliver

said.

“You as well, Mr. Blackwell. God bless.” The taxi driver

waved goodbye and drove off into the night, probably heading

back home early, now that he had made more than enough in

tips to make his shift worthwhile.

Huddled under her cozy jacket, Kathleen wrapped her arms

around Nicholas. Her warmth overpowered the bitter cold

night. “You know Nicholas, Santa Claus is probably already

delivering toys to children around the world.”

“He is, isn’t he?” Nicholas jumped with excitement. “I can

hardly wait until morning.”

“Me too.” She smiled.

Oliver joined his family at the front door and took out his

house key from his coat pocket. Just as he unlocked the door,

his cell phone rang. Kathleen’s look made him hesitate.

“It’ll just take a minute,” he assured her.

“Alright, but remember it’s our night.” She took Nicholas’s

hand and led him up the stairs to his bedroom. She helped him

change out of his suit. He took it off reluctantly. He loved

dressing up like his father.

In his pajamas, Nicholas knelt down beside his bed. He

wrapped his hands together and closed his eyes. “Now I lay me

down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I die before

I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.”

Kathleen smiled warmly as she watched her son pray.

“Dear God, I pray that everyone in the entire world has a great

Christmas and has someone to share it with. Thank you for my

mommy and daddy and everything. I love you God. Goodnight.”

Nicholas jumped into bed and crawled under his thick,

superhero-themed comforter. Kathleen gave him Dexter, his

stuffed bear, and kissed him on the cheek, then turned the

bedroom lights off, leaving a nightlight on in the corner of his

room.

“Goodnight mommy.”

“Goodnight sweetheart. I love you.” She closed the door

behind her, leaving it open just a crack. Nicholas hugged Dexter

and closed his eyes. It didn’t take long at all before he dozed off.

The sound of shattering glass awoke Nicholas. He looked at

his bedside clock. 3:33. Muffled voices echoed from downstairs.

He pushed off his comforter and crept toward the door.

Through the crack in the doorway, he could see that the light

in the living room was on. The unfamiliar voices grew louder.

Trying to move as quietly as he could, he tiptoed toward the

edge of the staircase and slipped his head between the rails of

the banister to get a better view.

His heart raced as a man came into view. The same huge

man with black gloves he’d seen by the gargoyle statue in the

theatre was now standing in his living room.

“Alright Blackwells, where are you hiding them?” The man

moved aside, revealing Oliver and Kathleen, bound to chairs.

Nicholas covered his mouth to stifle a gasp. Now that the man

faced Nicholas’s direction, he could see what the man had been

hiding under his coat. Though he looked human, his skin had

an odd green tint. Scars showed through his thick facial hair.

Nicholas also saw another man, more stout than tall, stuffing

his mouth with cookies. His jaw seemed to unhinge as he fit in

piles of cookies with ease.

“Would you stop filling your face and get over here?!” The

big man in the coat smacked his companion on the back and a

whole cookie flew from his mouth and crumbled on the floor.

“Sorry, Mr. Romulus, sir.”

Romulus turned back to face the Blackwells. “I’m only

going to ask you one more time, Mr. and Mrs. Blackwell. Where

are the sins?” He circled them in long, stalking steps.

“We have no idea what you’re talking about,” Oliver spoke

weakly.

The man swung, hitting Oliver in the face. A tooth flew out

of his mouth. The man eating cookies laughed, crumbs falling

down the front of his overalls, his enormous belly bouncing

with each menacing chuckle.

“Oliver, Oliver, Oliver,” Romulus taunted. “Why do you

make me hurt you?” He stopped his pacing and leaned into

Oliver, then glanced at Kathleen quivering in her chair, her dress

tattered, her tangled hair half-covering her face. “You think I

don’t know the famous Blackwells? You Oliver, the infamous

Seeker who had sent so many of my kind back to Hell.” He

turned sharply to Kathleen. “And your wife, Kathleen Blackwell

formerly known as Kathleen LaGuardia. Studied at New York

University where she majored in Philosophy and Religion with

a minor in Demonology,” he smirked, leaning closer. “Your

beauty could bring the Guardian of Envy to tears.”

“We do not Seek anymore,” Kathleen said, fighting to speak

through a cut lip.

“And why was that, again? Was it because you finally were

able to conceive?” He pressed his hand against her belly.

“Don’t touch her!” Oliver bellowed.

The man with the cookies laughed louder.

Again Oliver was smacked across the face. “Where are the

sins, Oliver?! Where are they?!” Romulus cut Oliver’s ropes and

forced him out of the chair, pushing him against the glossy,

wooden floorboards kicking him three times in the stomach.

“Stop it, please!” Kathleen cried.

Romulus pulled out a pistol from his side pocket and shoved

it into Oliver’s face.

Nicholas’s heart pounded so hard that he was sure his chest

would burst. Breathing became difficult.

“I’m gonna ask you one more time, Kathleen, or your

husband will die. Where are the sins?” Romulus demanded, as

he tightened his grip on the pistol.

“If I tell you the whereabouts of the sins, you’ll just kill us

anyway.” Tears fell hard down Kathleen’s face.

“Ah, Katie… Can I call you Katie?” his voice softened,

but Kathleen didn’t answer. “I am a man of my word. Tell me

where you hid them and all of this will go away.”

“Kathleen, don’t,” Oliver said.

“Shut up!” Romulus’s face reddened, distended veins pulsing

beneath his skin. He shook the pistol. “I will pull this trigger.

Now answer me, Kathleen! Where are you hiding the sins?”

“They are contained.”

“Where?”

“Sins can only be contained within… innocence.” As the

words left her lips, Oliver closed his eyes and muttered the

word ‘no’ over and over again.

“Innocence,” Romulus smirked. “A child. You brilliant

woman. Now, how come we never thought of that?” He turned

to his friend who had finished the Christmas cookies. “I love it.

Simple, yet righteous. Innocence, all a part of the great Divine.”

He looked up to the ceiling, as if it was to the Heavens.

Nicholas quickly leaned back from the banister so that he

couldn’t be spotted. Then he heard the most horrible sound. A

gun shot. Kathleen screamed.

Nicholas looked back downstairs. He couldn’t see his father

behind the couch. Kathleen hung her head and sunk into her

chair as low as the ropes would allow her.

“You evil son of a bitch!”

“Ouch, Katie. There is no need for all that.” Romulus lifted

her chin and looked straight into her eyes with a menacing

smirk.

“You said you wouldn’t hurt him.”

“Hurt him?” Romulus gave a slight chuckle. “No, I didn’t

hurt him. I freed him. You should be thanking me. I thought

the Blackwells were all about protecting the Divine. Now he is

at peace.”

Kathleen spat in his face. With the sleeve of his shirt he

mopped his face clean.

“You shouldn’t have done that,” he said, hands leaning

against the arms of her chair. “You see, Katie, we’ve been

watching your family for a very long time now. And I know for

a fact that when you and your husband fought the Guardians of

Sin and contained them, like you so honorably admit, that you

were actually… pregnant.”

Her face was now soaked with tears. She shook her head,

begging for him to stop.

“Now I can’t think of anything more innocent than a child

that hasn’t even been born. A child that hasn’t even had a chance

to sin.” He turned to the man covered in cookie crumbs. “Get

the boy.”

“No!” she screamed.

Nicholas jumped to his feet and hurried up to the third level

to his parents’ bedroom. He didn’t care how much noise he

made, he just knew he had to hurry. He hadn’t even realized he

was carrying Dexter until he ran into the bedroom. Just as he

crawled under the bed he heard the sound of another gunshot

and his mother’s screams stopped.

Categories: Fantasy, Young Adult | Tags: | Leave a comment

Nine Planets, by Greg Byrne

nine2NINE PLANETS by Greg Byrne

SCIENCE FICTION

Publication date: November 30, 2014

$16.95 trade paperback, ISBN 978-1-940076-17-1

$6.95 E-book, ISBN 978-1-940076-18-8

Publication date: November 30, 2014

Publisher: Dragonwell Publishing

Distribution: Ingram Book Company

 www.dragonwellpublishing.com 

Purchase on  AMAZON.

In the world of despair, Father Nick’s Day is the only hope…

Peter Blackwell wakes from a coma into a world he doesn’t recognize. Without memory or identity, all he has are nine random images. Nine planets. Eight he can see, although he does not understand them, but the impenetrable ninth is the secret that two opposing and hidden brotherhoods have been seeking for nearly two millennia. Pursued, betrayed, Blackwell has twelve days to unlock his Ninth Planet and prevent terminal worldwide suicide. And his only ally is a manic assassin sent to extract the secret and kill him.

NINE PLANETS is a debut Christmas-themed science fiction thriller from an Australian author. 

EXCERPT:

Father Nick’s Day minus seventeen hundred years

The harbour town of Patara

Province of Lycia

late evening

The thought comes upon Nikolas so abruptly and with such potency that he halts, astonished, panting with fright.

Take his own life? Drive steel into his own belly?

He almost laughs to drive out such mischievous wickedness, but it persists.

 

Kill yourself, Nikolas. There is no hope.

Chills crevice into the parts of his body where until now were only the delights of wine and the many pleasures of food, for the party he has just farewelled was lavish and he spent much. So was his wine cup poisoned with some venom of despair? Were thieves and slavemasters even now following him? For certainly the riches of his parents, dead only this month gone, are substantial and tempting, and now they are his.

It is then that he notices the sudden silence of the streets of Patara—so strange! If pursuers are abroad, they are making no noise of it. Only Nikolas and the wind are out this night, and it troubles him.

Still, there is only a mile to his house, and certainly the morning sun after sleep will settle such afflictions of the soul. But perhaps, he ponders as he strides, it is the same bleak despair that killed Umit his friend barely two weeks ago. For even Umit’s youth and great cheer and strength were not guard enough against hopelessness.

Nikolas is fighting the mad lust for steel and blood—his own—when he catches wind of something so wickedly foul it almost makes him retch. He turns, curious. Fish left to rot in a fisherman’s net? He knows immediately it is not.

Not even the most odorous catch could threaten to overpower him so violently.

He stops for a moment, covering his mouth, distracted from knives. This is no quirk of the wind, not the product of natural decay or ferment. Nor the acrid stink of a forge. But nothing obvious presents itself. The moon, a rich coin of promise and plenty, stands a handspan or so over the Acropolis up on the hill. The town breathes. A dog barks once, as though watchful.

Curious, Nikolas thinks, but as he turns to go, a dark figure emerges from the alley he has just passed, out past the house of Besim the leather worker.

Nikolas stares, thinking for a moment it must be an unwashed fisherman returning home. Yet the figure casts no shadow, seems instead to suck in light. And the stink surges at him in a putrid tide. This is no fisherman. Thoughts of knives vanish. He should be away from this place with all speed. The figure sees him and stops.

Nikolas draws shocked breath and his muscles lock. Neither is it human, he is sure, nor even the tormented spirit of Umit. No living thing could cast out so much smoke, a vile cloud that shudders the night and stops Nikolas’ breath.

Nikolas turns for home and hastens, very afraid.

But when he glances back at the next corner, in a blurred pounding of disbelief and panic and still half a mile from his house, the thing is following, and now it is gaining.

Nikolas rises to a sprint, though it is not much faster than he is already running. This is no common thief, that much is certain. And unless Nikolas can outrun it or hide, then he is sure his life will be forfeit as well, and he would rather take his own. He thinks of shouting, but the town seems bewitched, all too silent, dangerously so, and he doubts anyone will hear.

A hundred paces from his house, Nikolas turns the last corner, sees his house.

He is thinking how he will barricade his door and kindle fire to fight the thing off when, without any warning, his heart rises to a wild sprint, gallops at a rate he thinks must surely kill him, then slows. He stumbles, shocked, his chest swelling with space that it cannot possibly hold. His vision blurs.

The bark of a dog is cut off cleanly. Knife-clean. Without echo. The wind drops. Nikolas sucks air, stares frantically around and sees something he just doesn’t believe.

Only about thirty paces behind him, the figure has paused midway through a stride. Amid the smoke and fume, now strangely still, a single leg extends in a peculiar and quite impossible jut. It cannot balance there, surely. But it is, as though the world has halted for a moment.

Nikolas listens, more than a little afraid. Why can he move when his pursuer cannot?

And there, deep below hearing, in resonant strata he cannot even guess at, the world adjusts its stride, reconsiders its rhythm, pauses.

The world has turned aside for a moment, Nikolas thinks.

And he has turned with it.

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Wishes and Sorrows, by Cindy Lynn Speer

perf6.000x9.000.inddTitle:  Wishes and Sorrows

Genre:  Short Stories, Fantasy, Fairy Tales

Author:  Cindy Lynn Speer

Websitehttp://www.cindylynnspeer.com 

Publisher:  Dragonwell Publishing

Purchase linkhttp://publishing.dragonwell.org/

For every wish there is a sorrow…

Wishes are born from sorrows, blessings are sometimes curses, and even fairy godmothers cannot always get what they want. In this original collection, Cindy Lynn Speer, the author of “The Chocolatier’s Wife”, brings to life creatures of myths and tales, mixing them into a vibrant tapestry of stories, happy and sad, magical and real, each lovingly crafted and sure to touch the reader’s soul.

Step into the world where magic is real, and every mundane bit of reality is as magical as a true fairy tale.

Excerpt from “Every Word I Speak”

My husband is gone. I can be silent today, tomorrow, and until his return. There’s freedom in that, knowing that I can go and sew by the lake, perhaps, or take meals in my room by myself.

In my dressing table there is a secret compartment. In it I have hidden slips of paper, even though paper and ink are forbidden. They are one of my rare rebellions, a way to make my wishes known in silence.

“Please bring my dinner.”

“Please fetch my maid.”

“Please prepare a coach.”

Please. A habit, from my destitute youth when I believed sweet words were more precious than pearls.

I’ll do anything not to speak, these days. In my youth I could not speak enough.

“Your majesty?” I turn, slips ready in my hands, fingers light without jewels. I nod for her to speak.

Deirdre, my lady in waiting, gives me a sad look.

“A diplomat from Andovia is here to see you.”

I nod again, put aside my papers. Together we go to meet him.

***

“Queen Sarah,” the diplomat murmurs over my hand. I recognize him, though to my knowledge we have never been formally introduced. He is Amon, the Grand Duke of Andovia.

I look at him, his dark hair tied smoothly back, his carefully fitted clothes expensive. He smiles charmingly, and I remember what I have heard about the way he uses his handsome looks to good advantage.

“Amon,” I say, and with that one word, a pearl, perfect and creamy, iridescent, rolls from my mouth, falling from the curve of my lower lip, and into the bosom of my gown. I blush, but he is watching with such avid interest that he does not seem to notice.

“So it is true,” he whispers, amazed. “You have been enchanted by the fairies.”

“Every word I speak,” I reply, and one rose, pink as a blush, another pearl, and two diamonds cascade from my mouth.

A page hurries forward, a basket in his hand. He ignores the flower, going straight for the treasure. The diamond lands next to Amon’s feet. Before the page can pick it up, it is in his hands, being rolled thoughtfully, tested for reality. He pinches it between thumb and forefinger and peers at me through its fractured light. He laughs a little, a man playing at a boy’s mischief, and hands the jewel to the page. He smiles at me, inviting me to share in his silliness, but I do not smile back. I do not trust handsome men.

I find myself thinking in the ensuing silence of the old woman at the well. She looked so weary (as weary as I now feel, staring at this man) that I fetched a drink of the coolest, cleanest water I could find for her. In return, she confessed to be one of the Fair Folk, and granted me this gift.

This gift. I say it over and over, to remind myself, to convince myself. This is the gift that gave me my husband, who in turn saved me from my family, who has professed to love me deeply. Love me, I fear, only as long as I continue talking.

The duke knows the story well. I can see in his eyes that he has speculated long upon it, and I realize that the timing of his arrival is no coincidence.

“Your husband, I hear, is fond of Andovian cherry wine. It has come to my attention that he might wish to own some of our orchards for himself.”

My heart sinks. The negotiation for land and the rights to sell the produce from it will make for a long and tricky process. Talking makes me so hungry and my mouth so dry, and my lips cannot always form words properly, even though I have had plenty of time to learn how to talk around the jewels. I am tempted to send him away, but my husband would be ill pleased to lose such an opportunity.

“Is this of interest to you, milady?” He mocks me, I think.

“I shall be honored to discuss terms with you, sir, but perhaps you would be better pleased to speak with my husband? He will return in a few days.”

He kneels to pick up an orchid, which he tucks behind my ear. I allow my eyes to tell him how I feel about this familiarity. My skirts rustle as the page goes through them, looking for lost jewels, anxious not to miss one pearl.

He smiles a little. “You’ll do, my lady queen.”

A gentle rejoinder forms in my mind, but I smother it, the first word sounding in my throat. Something else forms, a diamond from the feel of it. I tuck it behind my teeth and smile.

“If you can’t say something nice,” my mother told me once when I was very little, “say nothing at all.” She’d told me this with a gentle slap. My sister received no such advice, nor treatment. She did not believe in the magic of kind words.

He turns and leaves without asking my permission. As I signal a guard to lead him to his chambers, I wonder if he is really so confident of his charms.

I spit the diamond at the wall.

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Jesus Jackson, by James Ryan Daley

jesusTitle:  Jesus Jackson
Genre:  Young Adult Mystery
Author: James Ryan Daley
Website: www.jamesryandaley.com
Publisher:  The Poisoned Pencil

The Poisoned Pen / Amazon Barnes & Noble

Jonathan Stiles is a 14-year-old atheist who is coping with his first day of ninth grade at the fervently religious St. Soren’s Academy when his idolized older brother Ryan is found dead at the bottom of a ravine behind the school. As his world crumbles, Jonathan meets an eccentric stranger who bears an uncanny resemblance to the Son of God (except for his white linen leisure suit and sparkling gold chains). Jesus Jackson, as he calls himself, offers to find a faith that Jonathan can believe in—with a money-back guarantee. He also encourages Jonathan in his belief that Ryan’s death may not have been an accident. Jonathan teams up with Henry, his new best friend at St. Soren’s, to investigate. The boys find footprints leading to the ravine that match Ryan’s sneakers. They are warned off their investigation by Ryan’s football friend, Alistair, but they find an ally in Ryan’s grieving girlfriend, Tristan, who also thinks the accident theory is bunk. The police, however, will not listen. But Jonathan knows something the police do not: Shortly before his death, Ryan was doing cocaine with Alistair, not far from the ravine where his body was found. An inspired Jonathan battles sanctimonious school psychologists, overzealous administrators, and a cavalry of Christian classmates on his quest to discover the truth about Ryan’s death—and about God, high school, and the meaning of life, while he’s at it. But he keeps getting distracted by Cassie, Alistair’s quirky younger sister, who holds the keys to the answers Jonathan is searching for, but who also makes him wonder if he should be searching for them at all.

Chapter 1

When I first saw Jesus, he was standing like a statue on the fifty-yard line of the high school football field, one arm pointed at the goalpost and the other cocked back—fingers curled around an imaginary pigskin, locked at the ready for a pantomimed hail-Mary in the final seconds of a make believe bowl game. It was a glorious moment to behold…at least, that is, until an invisible opponent rushed his offensive line. Jesus had to fake right, spin left, and duck around a pretend tight end to make a harrowing dash for the touchdown. He hit a few straight-arm blocks, pulled some fancy footwork, and half a second later he was jogging across the goal line, spiking the ball, and moonwalking clear from one side of the end zone to the other.
Now I know what you’re thinking, but stop right there. And trust me: This guy was totally Jesus. The long, straw-brown hair, straggly beard, gaunt frame, and clear-bright eyes; he was a dead ringer for the son of God. The only difference, as far as I could tell, between the Jesus on the football field and the one hanging on the cross in the school auditorium, was his clothes. The latter wore nearly none, of course, while this one was done up all dapper in a white linen suit, patent leather loafers, and a wide-collared, pastel pink button-down disco shirt, opened just enough to reveal a tuft of flaxen hair and a sparkling gold chain.
But before I get too far into this story, I need to stop and explain a couple things to you. First, you need to know that this little run-in with the savior was happening on a cold and dewy Saturday morning, at about nine am. It was the first of September—about fifteen weeks after my fourteenth birthday, roughly three months since my last day of junior high, and exactly two hours after my big brother’s body was found, lifeless and broken, at the bottom of a sixty-foot ravine behind St. Soren’s. I don’t want to dwell on this detail too much at the moment (we’ll get into it all later, trust me), but I just thought you ought to know. For perspective.
Oh yeah, and another thing: I don’t actually believe in Jesus. Didn’t then, don’t now. Not even a little.
So anyway, I watched the old king-of-kings run a victory lap around the track—arms raised, hair streaming behind him in the wind—but just as I was about to wander off, he stopped again on the fifty-yard line, waved his left hand high over his head, and called out, “Hey, you!”
I looked behind me to see if he was referring to someone else, but no one was there. We met eyes and I pointed to my chest with a shrug.
“Yeah, you,” he yelled. “Come on down here, would ya?”
I didn’t have anything else to do at the moment (the cops and paramedics wouldn’t let me near the ravine), and to tell you the truth, I was happy for the distraction. So I put my hands in my pockets and strolled all the way down the aisle, through the bleachers, and onto the field.
Jesus just stood there, grinning at me more like a salesman than a savior, waiting for me to reach him. And as soon as I stepped onto the grass, he hopped back and began bouncing on his toes, his hands cradling another imaginary football.
“All right,” he said, staring down the field. “Go long.”
“Excuse me?”
“Go long.”
“Why?”
He started bobbing, weaving, dodging pretend defensemen. “It’s the fourth quarter. We’ve got twelve seconds, and we’re down by five. Now go long.”
“But you don’t have a real ball.”
He shook his head, unimpressed with my logic. “And you aren’t a real wide receiver and this isn’t the real Super Bowl, and I’m not about to get sacked by areal defensive lineman named the Arkansas Annihilator. Don’t be so concerned with reality all the time. Just go long!”
I realized that I was not about to beat this guy in an argument. And seeing as how my current options were to go long with Jesus or go back to the crowd of cops and detectives and school administrators and weeping parents and one very dead older brother in a ravine behind the school, I decided on the former.
“Fine,” I said. “Fine.” And I ran.
I didn’t run very fast, but it felt good to put my body into action, to pump some blood back through all the numbness. I’d been so still and so frozen since the morning, when I first found my mother in the kitchen surrounded by pancakes and bacon and fruit salad and coffee and pastries and juice (she likes to cook when she’s upset), and learned that Ryan had apparently fallen while taking a jog after football practice the previous afternoon. But right then, on that field, I could feel my body begin to warm, the sensation returning (just a little) to my limbs.
The funny thing is, Jesus must have been hiding a real ball somewhere (though I can’t imagine where) because when I finally made it down around the ten-yard line and turned to make the imaginary catch, I got smacked clear off my feet by a solid, real, and perfectly spiraling football.
The pass hit me right beneath the rib cage, knocking the wind out of me. I fell hard and gasped for air. My eyes shut while I struggled to catch my breath and when I finally opened them, there was Jesus, standing straight over me, reaching a hand down to help me up.
“Sorry about that,” he said, hoisting me to my feet. “I was just trying to make a point.”
I rubbed my chest and winced. “I get it. You’ve got one hell of an arm. You could go pro.”
“That wasn’t exactly my point.” He extended his right hand. “I’m Jesus.”
I shook it. “I figured. It’s a good look for you. You really pull it off.”
Jesus tugged at his lapel. “Well, thank you.”
“Aren’t you supposed to wear, like…robes, though? And sandals? And, you know, do things more holy then mess around on a football field?”
“No,” he chuckled, pulling a business card from his pocket. “You’ve got me mixed up. I’m not that Jesus. I’m Jesus Jackson.”
He handed me the card. I looked it over. It read:
Jesus Jackson: Spiritual Contractor
100% faith guaranteed!
Call for a FREE ESTIMATE!
Strangely, there was no phone number on the card.
“So, are you going to try to sell me something?”
His face contorted into what can only be described as a very poor attempt at sincerity. “I’d never sell you anything you don’t need, of course. And even then, before you paid a dime I’d provide you with a—”
“Free estimate. Yeah, I got that much.” In the distance I could hear a siren making its way around the far side of the school. “So what exactly do you do?”
“I’m a contractor. I build things for people, depending on their needs…just not physical things.”
“If not physical, then what?”
“Metaphysical, of course.”
“Hmm…”
“Gods, to be precise.”
“You build gods?”
“Well, not actual gods, of course—that would be terribly difficult, and possibly illegal. I build the belief in a god. I construct faith.” Jesus Jackson put his hand on my shoulder, turning me toward the far side of the field, where a groundskeeper was laying a piece of sod over some fresh dirt. “Take this guy, Nino Taglione. I’m scouting him as possible client. Nino is fifty-seven years old, and has been working here at St. Soren’s Academy since he was twenty-five. He’s been married for thirty-five years, and just found out that his wife has been having an affair with Joe Shannon, the custodian for the athletic building, for the past twenty-eight. Obviously, this news has shaken his faith in his wife, but more importantly, it has destroyed his faith in God. After all, how could the same god he’s been praying to for fifty-seven years have let him be a such a chump for so long? Right?”
“Um…right.”
“Well, that’s where I come in.”
“You’re going to restore his faith in God?”
He shook his head. “Not exactly, that’s what priests do…or rabbis, ministers, or what-have-you…. Restoration is difficult, messy work. I’m going to give him faith in a new one.”
“A new…god?”
“Or something like a god anyway. He has lots of options.”
I was intrigued. “What kind of…options?”
“Oh, they’re endless. It could be a Pantheon of demigods, or a Divine Force, or a belief in karma and the cycle of reincarnation. He can have a warrior spirit guide, an ancestral apparition, a guardian angel…he can have a giant bunny named Harvey with twelve arms and a third eye, if he wants one…so long as he’ll have a little faith in it.”
I thought this over for a moment. “But will he ever see the god you give him faith in?”
“Ha!” Jesus laughed. “No, no. Alas, that’s the thing about gods, they tend to stay out of sight.”
“Well if he can’t see it, how will he know he’s got it?”
Jesus pointed a finger at my nose and flashed his widest salesman’s smile. “Well, you see, I guarantee—”
“One hundred percent faith. Got it.”
“Or your money back, no questions asked.”
Right then, the siren I heard before came screaming past the stadium. An image of Ryan in the back of that ambulance—ghost-white, bruised, bloody, covered in a sheet—snapped into my head. A wave of dizziness overcame me, and I struggled to keep my balance. I said, “You know, well…that all sounds…really great.”
Jesus touched his hand to my arm, steadying me. He spoke softly, “So can I interest you in a free estimate?”
And then—right at that moment, right there, right when Jesus Jackson touched my arm—it all just became too much: Jesus and Nino and free estimates for invisible gods and a dead brother and a magic football and the first real day of high school just three days away…. “No, no, I don’t think I need any god right now…I’m sort of an atheist, anyway. But…um…thanks….” And before I even knew what I was doing, I turned and stumbled toward the sirens and the screams and the crowd and the cold, hard, welcoming seat of my dad’s car.

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