Chapter Reveal: ‘Dolet,’ by Florence Byham Weinberg

Dolet_medTitle: Dolet

Genre: Nonfiction Novel; Historical Fiction

Author: Florence Byham Weinberg

Website: www.florenceweinberg.com

Publisher: Twilight Times Books

Amazon / B&N  / OmniLit / Twilight Times Books 

About the Book:

Dolet depicts the life and times of Etienne Dolet. Etienne, who told the bald truth to friend and foe alike, angered the city authorities in sixteenth-century Toulouse, fled to Lyon, and became a publisher of innovative works on language, history, and theology. His foes framed him; he was persecuted, imprisoned, and ultimately executed by the Inquisition for daring to publish the Bible in French translation.

Chapter One

The procession appeared from the opposite side of the Place de Salins, carrying banners emblazoned with holy images, a golden crucifix held high. The escort followed with the prisoner, Jean de Caturce, an iron collar around his neck attached to chains held by the men walking beside him. Hands tied behind his back, he wore a short, white chemise that exposed his calves and bare feet. His feet left bloody tracks on the cobblestones, but he was not limping. Perhaps the pain seemed trivial after worse torture.

The prisoner paused for a second as they crossed the square, staring at the place where he would be sacrificed, the heaped-up bundles of kindling and logs, a stake surrounded by a little wooden platform that poked through like a fist with accusing finger upraised. They gave him no time, jerking him forward, goading him up the rough steps onto the platform that stood almost directly below Etienne Dolet’s window.

Jean climbed doggedly, without hesitation, straining sidewise against the collar to see his way. He held his chin at a defiant angle as if he would have gone up to his death with no urging. The executioner followed him and lashed him to the stake, winding the rope around his body. Now Jean stood, looking around at the noisy crowd that swelled quickly as more witnesses trooped into the square. He was not allowed a chance to say a final word before the executioner stepped forward with the torch and touched it in several places to the fuel below. A wave of sound almost like a groan arose from the crowd as the first flames licked upward through the piled kindling. Silence as the flames spread eagerly, roaring when they caught the fat-soaked logs.

Etienne Dolet stood at his open window, unable to turn his eyes away. He knew Jean’s voice when it came, a strong tenor singing: “Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost, as it…” The singing broke off, and then, in a loud speaking voice, “Oh, God, my God, give me the strength to bear this… My God, help me!” The voice broke, the last syllables rising in volume and tone as if questioning the reality of God’s Providence before ending in a distorted cry.

Flames mounted to the base of the platform, leaping beyond it to touch the hem of the white chemise, which began to blacken as it caught. The crown of Jean’s tonsured head pressed back hard against the stake, his throat exposed to the heat. His face, clearly visible from the window, twisted beyond recognition, eyes staring and mouth wide open. His entire body writhed and convulsed, straining against the burning ropes that even now held him fast. Abruptly, he stopped moving and slumped against the pole. From then on, Etienne could no longer see him clearly, and for that, the young man gave silent thanks. Only an indistinct bundle remained among shimmering heat waves and the licking flames, a bulk that seemed ever blacker, appearing to shrink in upon itself, becoming more compact.

When the flames at last died away, workers, seeming indifferent to what had just happened, raked out the ashes and unburnt ends of logs, then loaded the debris onto carts and hauled it away. The ordeal had lasted over two hours, but Etienne still kept his vigil. He knew that Jean believed with great fervor in God, but had he believed in the end? What did he know when only the agony of the licking flames, not God, answered his cry for help? Or had He answered? Was Jean’s soul abruptly transported to heaven so he would not suffer so cruelly?

But the present moment forced itself upon his consciousness. Below, a friar in a white and black habit strolled across the Place de Salins, giving instructions to the crews who were sweeping up the remains of the execution. He stood below Etienne’s window. As he scanned the windows on that side of the square, his gaze paused, eyes riveted directly on Etienne. The young man instantly drew back into the shadows, his breathing quick and shallow, hoping that the waving ivy branch that grew halfway across the window had attracted the friar’s eye, not his own pale face.

In Toulouse, you were in danger at any moment for the slightest imaginary fault. He had been seen yesterday, passing by the statue of the Blessed Virgin without genuflecting. He slumped into a chair and buried his face in his hands, fighting nausea. Jean de Caturce’s execution would be forever imprinted upon his mind’s eye, the sequence of images that had unrolled down there in the Place de Salins, Jean’s final agony and the relief Etienne had felt despite himself when the writhing had ceased. He knew the man. Not well, but enough to respect him. Jean had been a popular young lecturer at the University of Toulouse where Etienne, a student of law, had heard him speak after that dinner on Twelfth Night.

He hadn’t been one of the invited guests, and had come in only at the end of the meal to deliver a message to another professor, Jean de Boyssoné. But of course, theyhad seen Etienne and noticed he hadn’t left before Caturce’s after-dinner remarks, as so many others had done. If only Jean had confined his speech to his own field of jurisprudence. But having read Martin Luther’s tracts-as who hadn’t by now?-Caturce was captivated; he’d also dared to study the Scriptures and insisted on speaking about both those writings, telling his guests about Luther and his reading of the Bible.

Etienne had left the dinner that night feeling he had heard something powerful, doubly so because of the danger. As was to be expected, one of the guests denounced Caturce, along with everyone who had stayed in the room, to the Inquisition. Of that, Etienne had no doubt. Why else would that Dominican brother single out his window among all the windows on this side of the square?

The inquisitors gave Jean the chance to save himself if he would recant. But he had told them he couldn’t deny the clear sense of the Word of God, a Word telling him that following the letter of their law would avail them nothing, would not prevent their damnation. Etienne had watched as they tore off Jean’s ecclesiastical robe of office, degrading him from the tonsure and stripping him of his rank as professor at the university. Then they turned him over to the secular arm, the authority in charge of public executions, where the judge pronounced the death sentence.

The solemn procession had wound through Toulouse on its way here, to the Place de Salins, where public executions had been carried out since 1235 or so, when the Albigensians were burned in that same blackened circle. They were the first to be ferreted out by the newly created Inquisition, an office entrusted to the Dominican Order by Pope Gregory IX, created to stamp out that dangerous heresy. By now, the Inquisition’s burnings in Toulouse had become a tradition “hallowed” by long and frequent exercise. And a new heresy had arisen, proclaiming that every baptized Christian was a priest before God and, as such, had a right to read the Scriptures for himself. But anyone who expressed such thoughts was in mortal danger.

Etienne had been warned to stay off the streets or risk immediate arrest. Some of his acquaintances were already taken. He’d made his way through winding back streets to his rooms overlooking the square, but he’d have been better off had he been arrested and imprisoned with his friends. At least, he’d not have to carry these images with him from now until his own death, for his imagination could never have substituted for the shock of experience. He stood again and approached the window, cautiously from the side so as not to be seen. But the square was swept clean and as empty as if nothing unusual had ever happened there.

* * *

Students spilled out of the room and into the hall outside. They clumped together in groups, arms across shoulders, some discussing a point of law or the latest books printed in Lyon or Geneva while others gossiped and laughed. The predominant colors were brown or gray-students could not afford colorful robes-and for Etienne the most interesting aspect of the scene was its constant movement. Students migrated from one group to another, shook hands or embraced, arms waved in the air as someone emphasized a weighty point of law or theology. Index fingers were raised on high or shaken under a neighbor’s nose.

He paused briefly in the doorway, scanning the group for his closest friends, Jacques Bording, Arnoul le Ferron, Claude Cotereau, Simon Finet, and Jean Voulté. They were the cream of the “French Nation,” a fraternity where elections would be held in a few minutes for the orator of the year. The chosen student would debate similarly elected orators of the other fraternities-the Gascon Nation, the Spanish, and the German-and the winner would gain great prestige among his fellows and perhaps win the patronage of some important jurist in the city. Etienne knew he was among the finalists and had dressed in his best: a white shirt, black doublet, and brown chausses with white silk stockings above his still-respectable black shoes. He’d added his brown student’s robe not as an afterthought but to indicate that he was humble, on a par with the others, but he left it unbuttoned so that his finery could be seen and appreciated.

This was a night when all the societies met in comitiis centuriatis, representative groups of one hundred that would make the final choice of the man who would speak for the Nation. Jacques, Claude, and Jean were Etienne’s rivals for the honored position. Etienne knew he was by far the best, but his sharp tongue might have lost him enough support to deny him the election. He knew his reputation as a razor-sharp wit, usually at the expense of the person standing nearest, and was both proud and constrained by it. He was proud because such wit implies superior intelligence, and he was pleased to have that reputation, but constrained because he must always be alert and ready-tongued, or that reputation would be called in question. A still more dominant constraint was his strict code of Christian moral standards. These often conflicted enough with his impulses to keep his witty remarks from actually wounding the target of his wit. Unless he considered that person an enemy.

“Sprezzatura” was a favorite word of his, an ideal touted by Baldassare Castiglione in his still-popular book The Courtier. Sprezzatura meant the mental agility and flexibility to turn any circumstance to one’s own advantage, to make a witty remark, to reveal a new aspect, unveil an unknown fact that would transform what had gone before, to entertain, amaze, and keep everyone else off balance. In short, to be master and director of any situation-all with apparent ease and spontaneity. He succeeded only in part, for he was too abrasive. When reactions were negative, he would mutter to himself or say aloud to his close friends, “Cretini!” for he believed at least half of humanity too slow-witted to appreciate him properly.

He approached his close friend, Claude Cotereau. “Claude, bonsoir. I see you’re here without your Lutheran mistress this evening. Perhaps I can introduce you to Madeleine Dupré; I hear she’s the Inquisitor’s niece. That would neutralize things for you, my friend, Luther on one arm, the Inquisition on the other.”

Claude’s face, marked by smallpox but still handsome, reflected exasperation, but then relaxed into a smile. “Always trying to shock and annoy, aren’t you, Etienne? Well, you won’t succeed in shocking me. Besides, you’d better keep a civil tongue if you intend to beat me and become our Nation’s orator. You’re late. We’re almost ready to vote.”

Etienne clutched the lapels of his doublet, his tone anxious. “Have you heard what’s become of Jean de Boyssoné?”

Boyssoné had been arrested along with Jean de Caturce, and was tried soon after Caturce’s condemnation. He was one of the most learned and popular of the professors of law, and one of the freest thinkers, a man who kept himself informed about all the literary and religious movements in Europe. Boyssoné had been convicted on ten counts of heresy: among others, the heretical notion that nothing should be held as a matter of faith but what was contained in or clearly implied by the Holy Scriptures, and that we are not justified by good works alone but mostly by faith in Jesus Christ. Both these opinions were declared to be irredeemably Lutheran. Unlike his unfortunate colleague Jean de Caturce, Boyssoné had chosen to abjure in a humiliating ceremony that was turned into a public circus.

“All his worldly goods were confiscated, weren’t they, Claude?”

“Yes. If you can imagine the injustice: his house, his books, everything. I suppose they were all sold and the wealth absorbed by the local church. I hear he fled to Italy, first to your former university in Padua, and he’s now in Venice. At least he’s safe there. Even though he paid a heavy price, he did the right thing and came out alive. I only wish Caturce had been that flexible.”

“He should have listened to his friend, François Rabelais, who said he’d hold to his opinions up to but excluding the stake.” Etienne grinned briefly, but shook his head at the enormity of it all.

At that moment, Georges Langlois, the president of the French Nation, called them to order. They were to vote by voice, and if there were any doubt as to outcome, there would be a count of hands.

“Our first candidate is Jacques Bording. All those in favor say aye.” Jacques shifted from foot to foot, giving Etienne and Claude a quick, apprehensive flash of brilliant green eyes that reminded Etienne of a cat.

There was a strong “aye” vote, but the “nays” audibly outweighed them. No need to count hands. Jean Voulté, short and slight, clutched the backrest of a chair with white-knuckled hands, his black eyes downcast. His vote garnered a large number of supporters, again outshouted by “nays.” Claude Cotereau’s “ayes” and “nays” were so close that a hand count was necessary. Standing next to Etienne, he,too, shifted from foot to foot as the votes were counted. Forty-eight votes in favor, fifty-two against.

“Good show, Claude!” Etienne squeezed his arm.

Then it was Etienne’s turn. He waited, sweating a little, trying to appear unconcerned. But the result came at once with an overwhelming voice vote that left no doubt in anyone’s mind. Claude, at his elbow, shook his hand with enthusiasm and a remarkable lack of envy.

“Congratulations, Etienne! I always knew you should represent us. Your Latin is impeccable, and you’ve practically memorized Cicero. You could give a ciceronian speech off the cuff that would take me a week to prepare.”

Etienne’s answering smile and handclasp expressed spontaneous gratitude for his friend’s generosity better than the most eloquent words. Jean Voulté made his way with sinuous ease through the crowd now gathering around Etienne. His black eyes sparkled as he gripped Etienne’s hand, clapping the winner on the back.

“Thank God I won’t have to sweat over Latin speeches in front of the other Nations, especially the Gascons. I’ll leave that ‘pleasure’ up to you. Truly, Etienne, I know you’ll make us proud; you’re a natural orator.”

He draped his arm over Etienne’s shoulders, and together they led Claude and Jacques, followed by Arnoul le Ferron and Simon Finet, through narrow, cobbled streets to the nearest tavern, the Chat Fourré. Soon joined by many other members of the French Nation, his comrades toasted Etienne. They were sure he, with his sharp tongue, would overwhelm any orator the Gascon Nation could produce.

Their two fraternities were the largest at the university and had been bitter rivals for some time, a rivalry that could break out in fights and the occasional riot. The Gascons now represented southwestern France, in earlier centuries a province called Gascony. They resented and scorned their northern rivals as “foreigners” and derided their inability to speak “la langue d’Oc.” In their southern language, “oc” meant “yes.” They were proud of their independent romance language, which, like northern French, descended from Latin. The Gascons also differed in their customs, cuisine, and view of the world. Their language and culture were under stress, however. They were no longer in favor ever since the royal house and retinue had decided to adopt Paris as the capital city. The northerners spoke “la langue d’Oui,” which, in itself, set them apart.

Etienne leaped on a heavy oaken table and raised his beaker of wine, careful not to collide with the iron chandelier and its eight lighted candles. An imposing figure over six feet tall, his presence and voice dominated the room.

He began in Latin to demonstrate they’d made the right choice. “I’ll do my best, my friends, to uphold the honor of our Nation, first of all to eulogize those of us who died during the past year, and then to review the most important events of the year just behind us. You may be certain that no person or organization that has slighted us, nay, not even the parliament and magistrates of this fair city who have recently questioned our right of assembly, will escape my notice. To the French Nation!”

He extended his arm and the beaker, threw back his head and drank his wine to thunderous applause and answering cries of “Hear! Hear! To the French Nation!”

Dolet Copyright © 2015. Florence Byham Weinberg. All rights reserved by the author. Please do not copy without permission.

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First Chapter Reveal: The Silver Locket, by Sophia Bar-Lev

Book Cover - The SIlver LocketTitle:  THE SILVER LOCKET

Genre:  Women’s Fiction

Author:  Sophia Bar-Lev

Website:  www.sophiabarlev.com

Purchase on Amazon

About the Book:   When The Silver Locket opens, it’s July 1941 in Boston, Massachusetts. War is raging in Europe and the Pacific. But for two young women in a small town in New England waging their own personal battles, the struggle is way too close to home.

When extraordinary circumstances bring these two women together, one decision will alter the course of their lives.  And with that one decision, their lives will be forever changed…and forever intertwined.

Were these two women thrust together by happenstance—or fate?   A tragedy. A decision. A pact. Lives irretrievably changed. A baby girl will grow up in the shadow of a secret that must be kept at all costs. But will this secret ever see the light of day?  And what happens when—or if—a promise made must be broken?

Adopting a child is not for the feint of heart—but neither is being adopted…

A sweeping and suspenseful story that unfolds in a different time and a different place, The Silver Locket explores universal themes that ring true even today. Secrets. Unbreakable bonds. The healing power of love.  Deception. Anguish.  Redemption.

In this touching and tender tale, novelist Sophia Bar-Lev weaves a confident, quietly moving story about adoption, finding hope in the face of hopelessness, and how true love can overcome any obstacle. With its brilliant juxtaposition of the wars fought both on the battlefield and internally, The Silver Locket is a poignant novel, resplendent with drama.  Featuring an exceedingly real and relatable plot, and characters that will stay with readers long after the final page is turned, The Silver Locket is a sterling new read.

 

THE SILVER LOCKET

By Sophia Bar-Lev

Chapter 1

 

July 1941

Boston, Massachusetts

It was over in less than four minutes.  She lay motionless, zombie-like.

He laughed.  He laughed…looking down his nose at her, his steel blue eyes boring into her very soul.  Snickering, he turned away, grabbed her black bag and pounded across the tarmac, disappearing into the imposing residence barely a hundred and fifty yards away.  Shadows danced grotesquely on its façade, as if paying homage to sinister forces within the darkened mansion.

She was numb, half-dead.  Night breezes stirred the leaves above her head.

They moved; she didn’t.  Shredded bits of fabric swirled about, brushing across her face, lifting off, floating back down, teasing her, nudging her to get up and walk away.

She couldn’t.  Not yet.

A full hour passed; a full hour of her life stolen by shock – by crippling, deadening, devastating shock.

Suddenly a wail pierced the quiet.  It crescendoed into a howl, and just as quickly receded into deep, forceful sobs.  Ten minutes passed, then twenty, then thirty.  Finally, drained and spent, she rolled onto her side and with difficulty, stood to her feet.  She felt pain but chose to ignore it.  Disoriented, she searched her immediate surroundings for something familiar.  The darkness gave up no clue but her mind came to the rescue.

It was coming back to her now.  The critical patient at the hospital…the Irish doctor, the kind one…the new chaplain on staff…making one last round on the ward …the new chaplain…my keys, where did I put my keys…why was he standing there…the new chaplain

 

She took a few steps.

 

“I’m so proud of you, darling,” her Dad had whispered as he led her down the aisle three years ago.  Why are such thoughts coming up in my mind now?  She shook her head violently.

 

Approaching headlights distracted her.  Startled into reality, she pulled her torn dress close, her eyes darting around for a tree, a shrub, any place to hide.

The car slowed and a kindly voice called to her. “Do you need a ride, Miss?”  The white-haired driver had rolled down the window and getting out of the car he added, “It’s awfully late for you to be out walking by yourself, isn’t it?”  He made his way to the other side and opened the passenger door.  “Where do you need to go?” he asked.

Still partially hidden by shadows, she hesitated.  “Thank you,” she answered, her voice uneven.  “I’ll be…um… fine. Thank you.”

The driver inched forward sensing her anxiety.  “Are you sure?” he asked again.  “I don’t think…well, I’d be happy to give you a lift.”

The moon broke through the clouds at that precise moment and illuminated the bloody, dress and dirt-streaked face.  He gasped.  She pulled back.  Biting her lip, she shook her head back and forth but said nothing.

He paused where he stood, uncertain, confused.

“Shall I take you to the hospital?” he asked softly.

“No! No!” she practically screamed.  “Not there. No! No!”

“I can take you home,” he persisted. “Do you want to go home?”

She stared at him for several moments, then nodded.  Pulling her dress tighter across her chest, she stumbled toward him. He guided her to the open door.  Before getting in, she turned to him, “Please, Mister, please.  Promise me you won’t tell anyone about this.  Please.”

He searched her young face and thought of his own daughter about the same age.  He sighed and nodded, “OK.  If that’s what you want, OK.  Let’s just get you home.”

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Chapter reveal: ‘Flight of the Blue Falcon’ by Jonathan Raab

flightTitle: Flight of the Blue Falcon

Genre: Fiction – Adult

Author: Jonathan Raab

Website: http://www.warwriterscampaign.org

Publisher: War Writers’ Campaign, Inc.

Watch the Trailer

Purchase on Amazon

About the Book:

In FLIGHT OF THE BLUE FALCON (War Writers’ Campaign; July 2015; PRICE), a chewed-up Army National Guard unit heads to a forgotten war in Afghanistan where three men find themselves thrust into the heart of absurdity: the post-modern American war machine. The inexperienced Private Rench, the jaded veteran Staff Sergeant Halderman, and the idealistic Lieutenant Gracie join a platoon of misfit citizen-soldiers and experience a series of alienating and bizarre events.

Private Rench is young, inexperienced, and from a poor, rural, broken home. He’s adrift in life. The early signs of alcoholism and potential substance abuse are beginning to rear their ugly heads. He wants to do right by the Army, but doesn’t quite know who he is yet.

Staff Sergeant Halderman has one previous combat tour under his belt. He got out, realized his life was going nowhere, so re-enlisted to serve with the men he knew, and to lead the inexperienced guys into combat. He is manifesting the early signs of post traumatic stress, but is too focused on the upcoming mission to deal with it. He sees the Army for what it is—a big, screwed up machine that doesn’t always do the right thing—but he doesn’t think all that highly of himself, either.

Second Lieutenant Gracie is fresh, young, excited to be in the Army, and trying to adjust to the new to the military and his life as an officer. Although he faces a steep learning curve, he is adaptable and has a good, upbeat attitude. As he tries to forge his own path, he nonetheless turns to the experienced NCOs in his unit for guidance and support. He must continually make tough decisions that have no “right” or textbook answers. Yet these decisions are catalysts enabling him to grow in maturity, experience, and wisdom.

Preparation for combat is surreal: Rench is force-fed cookies by his drill sergeants. Halderman’s “training” is to pick up garbage in the blistering heat of the California desert for four days straight. Gracie contends with a battalion commander obsessed with latrine graffiti.

Once they reach Afghanistan, things really get weird.

FLIGHT OF THE BLUE FALCON is the story of three men who volunteer to serve their country. It’s about what it means to be a soldier, to fight, to know true camaraderie—and to return home.

This is a war story. This is their story.

Only the most unbelievable parts are true.

ONE: SAND HILL

Private Zachary Rench

Rench knew there was trouble coming.

His battle buddy, Private Arturo, had come bounding into Third Platoon’s bay, a sheen of sweat on his dark forehead, a look of terror in his brown eyes.

“Anybody five-foot-four or shorter,” he gasped, holding on to the door frame for support. Hot, humid, unforgiving Georgia air flowed into the bay, shattering the illusion of comfort provided by the air conditioners. They whirred with exhausted effort.

Rench, like the other privates in the bay, stared at him with indifference. Many of them shrugged and then went back to cleaning their M-16 rifles. Arturo wasn’t a drill sergeant, so they didn’t have to listen to him.

“Uh, okay,” Arturo said, standing up straight and sounding off with his best drill sergeant imitation. “Listen up, Third Platoon! Drill Sergeant Bond wants anybody five-foot-four or under down to the company training area.”

No one moved.

Arturo’s eyes bulged with desperation. Panic and anger crept into his voice. He ran his sweating hands over his waistline, wiping his palms on his gray PT shirt. His belly held a stubborn layer of fat that managed to linger on, seven weeks into the mad animal kingdom world of Basic Combat Training.

“Seriously, this is serious,” he stammered. “Seriously guys. Five-foot-five and under. Five-foot-six! Five-foot-seven! Come on guys, no kidding!”

Some of the braver privates, realizing that this problem was not going to go away (and knowing that, even if they didn’t go downstairs to meet some terrible fate, some terrible fate would inevitably come find them) and neither was Arturo, hastily reassembled their M-16s and began to move toward the open bay door.

The heat embraced them. They walked into hell.

Arturo’s eyes fell on his battle buddy, Rench. Private Zachary Rench was white, five-foot-six (or -seven, depending on how straight he stood up), with tired, dark brown eyes, and ears that stood a little too far out from his shaved head. At nineteen years young, he blended right in with the majority of dumbass privates interned at Sand Hill.

But you couldn’t always blend in. Sometimes, the day had your number. Sometimes, your number was fucked.

Rench sighed and stood up.

Seven privates from Third Platoon jogged down the winding concrete steps to the company assembly area below. Warm wind carried the scents of Sand Hill—cut grass, sweat, and fried food from the DFAC—through the open-air square.

The concrete radiated waves of shimmering heat. A mural of the infantry combat knife against a baby blue background was painted in the center. Around the edges of the mural, the cheap paint had begun to curl in twisted little fingers of frustration.

The seven privates fell into a straight line formation in front of three drill sergeants, who stared at them with a menacing disinterest. There were three cardboard boxes on the ground before them. The shortest drill sergeant spoke up first. His sunglasses reflected the golden rays of the sun reaching through the barracks’ towers. A withering scar ran along his left cheek to the edge of his lips.

“Privates, God has not been fair to you,” he said. His voice was the sound of a truck driving over gravel. “Life has been difficult. You have been denied much. Because you are short.”

Rench, standing at parade rest with his hands behind his back, his legs spread shoulder-width apart, and his eyes straight forward, didn’t understand what the fuck this was all about.

“Today, you get a chance to grow up,” the drill sergeant continued. As Rench’s eyes adjusted to the bright light of afternoon, he recognized Drill Sergeant Bond as the man speaking. A real nasty, hateful son of a bitch, who liked to force the privates to PT until someone passed out from exhaustion and the medics had to come in.

“Today, we will help you where God failed you,” Bond said, pushing one of the boxes forward with his desert tan boot. “Eat up.”

Bubble wrap and wax paper reached up from within the open cardboard flaps. Inside were small, brown, glistening cookies tightly packed in blue and pink plastic wrap.

“Eat the cookies, privates,” Drill Sergeant Bond said.

No one moved. Bond kicked the other boxes toward the line of frozen soldiers. He kicked them like he once kicked detainees, back on his first tour, back when shit was still fun. They weren’t allowed to call them prisoners in Iraq. They were detainees. You couldn’t kick a prisoner. But you could kick the fuck out of a detainee. But these boxes didn’t have hard heads and soft stomachs.

“This isn’t a trick, privates,” Bond said. “Go ahead and eat.”

The other drill sergeants chuckled.

“Now.”

The rank broke and the privates descended on the cookies like eagles descending upon field mice. Their hands, black with carbon from cleaning their rifles, searched for delicious, sugar-laden morsels to shove into their emaciated, feral mouths.

Rench approached the cookies slowly. Arturo stood with him, looking at him for support with a What the fuck should we do here painted on his soft brown face.

When Rench glanced up to see Drill Sergeant Bond’s eyes on him, he dropped to his knees and reached for a stack of white macadamia nut cookies.

The first few bites were wonderful. Sugar, fat, carbohydrates—all things that his underfed teenage body had been denied for weeks. He practically swallowed the first two cookies whole, and saw that many of the other privates had already finished entire stacks and were searching for more.

Rench pulled himself out of his sugar-euphoria and saw Drill Sergeant Bond looking at his watch. The relief and excitement Rench experienced when he took his first bite vanished, as he thought back to Bond’s words:

“This isn’t a trick, privates.”

Which meant, of course, that it was a fucking trick.

He nibbled a chocolate chip; he chomped on a peanut butter disc. The other privates started to slow down as their stomachs began to rebel against the sudden onslaught of sweetness.

Like a voice from heaven, Drill Sergeant Bond made his doomsday pronouncement.

“You have two minutes to finish these cookies.”

Rench’s heart leapt through his rib cage. The others froze. He wasn’t surprised, not really, but the other privates—stupid bastards—suddenly realized how screwed they all were. Privates were always screwed, no matter what.

“Go ahead, privates. Finish those cookies. But if you don’t finish in two minutes…”

More snickering from the other drill sergeants. Crossed arms and flat-brim campaign hats and clean uniforms. Hard faces with predatory smiles.

“You better hurry up,” one of them said. “Time’s a-wasting, assholes.”

The privates tore into the cookies with a new fervor, desperately choking down as many as they could as fast as their bodies would allow. Arturo gagged; Rench chomped into two cookies at once.

“One minute,” Bond said.

They had managed to clear one and a half boxes’ worth, but a whole other box remained, and there were broken stragglers scattered along the ground, their colorful plastic wrap twisted and discarded along the concrete like used condoms at a Wal-Mart parking lot.

“Thirty seconds,” Bond said.

Rench’s stomach twisted into a knot of pain and acid, and he swallowed back the urge to vomit. And yet, more cookies remained. And yet and yet.

“Time!”

The privates stopped eating. One private looked around, his face smeared with chocolate and grease, wondering how something so good had gone so fucked so quickly.

“You have failed,” Drill Sergeant Bond said. “There’s a ton of cookies left. I tried to help you out, privates. I tried to give you a leg up. But you did not listen. You have failed me and failed yourselves and failed the Army by not completing your mission.”

Labored breathing, gurgling stomachs. Running cadence echoed from far away, songs of war and death.

“Position of attention, move!” Bond barked.

All of the privates stood up, ramrod straight.

“Toe the line at the end of the CTA!”

The privates scrambled over to the edge of the assembly area, next to a wilting garden, and lined up.

“Ya’ll played sports before, right privates?” Bond asked, walking smartly over to them. His shadow loomed large.

“Fuck no, they ain’t played sports,” another drill sergeant piped in. “Look at these midget motherfuckers. Gay-ass motherfuckers. Ain’t none of them ever made a team.”

Rench stared out at the lined breaks in the concrete of the assembly area, evenly spaced, ten meters apart. He felt dizzy and his stomach grumbled in pain. He would have to be careful to avoid the brick columns that supported the barracks overhead. Smashing his face wasn’t on his list of things to do while he visited the great state of Georgia.

“You better run your asses off, privates,” Bond said. “Suicides, go!”

The privates groaned as they trudged forward, stopping at each line and returning back to the garden. Rench’s legs burned with lactic acid. Cookies and bile churned up into the back of his mouth, and he burped and farted with comical volume with every labored step. No one noticed; everyone else was too busy trying not to shit their PT shorts.

“Stop!” Bond hollered out. The privates skidded to a halt. The stench of sweat and shit lingered in the air. Someone was moaning. Someone else was mewling in half-words and mumbles.

“You have sixty seconds to…” Bond started. He looked up from his watch. “What is that noise? What the fuck is that noise?”

Rench’s body was frozen at parade rest. He wouldn’t allow himself to look behind him, to look at the private who shivered despite the heat, who sputtered despite his fear, who cried despite his pride.

Drill Sergeant Bond stalked over to the shuddering private.

“What—what the hell is your malfunction?” Bond demanded, his anger echoing off columns of brick.

“Drill Sergeant… D-D-Drill Sergeant…” the private said.

“You shit your pants, didn’t you?”

“Y-y-yes, Drill Sergeant.”

Rench closed his eyes, thanking whatever god there may be that it wasn’t him. This time.

“Hole-lee fuck,” Arturo said, despite himself. Bond whirled around. He was a flash of ACU camo and fingers and fists and spittle and rage.

“You! You and all the rest! Get upstairs to the bay, right now! You have sixty seconds, sixty goddamn seconds, to get your promasks, don them, and return to the start line!” He pointed a quivering finger toward the edge of the assembly area. The finger floated in front Rench’s right eyeball, which had begun to twitch.

I could probably bite it off before they could stop me, he thought.

“Go! Go, motherfuckers! Run!”

All of them—except for the private who had shit his black (now black and brown) PT shorts—scrambled toward the staircase. They bounded up, spilling over one another in a wave of flesh and stink.

Inside the bay, the other privates were still cleaning their rifles.

Rench ran to his wall locker, Arturo panting right behind him.

He spun the combination as fast as he could. Little white numbers smearing together. Cold metal. His gray PT shirt sticking to his back.

Rench dug through his rucksack for his promask. He found the green bag, faded from years of use by stupid privates like him, and stained with mud. He threw the strap over his shoulder and clipped the string around his leg.

“How much time we got left?” he asked Arturo, who slammed his locker shut, his own promask bag hanging from his hip.

“Ten seconds.”

“We should go.”

“We’re not gonna make it.”

“Does it matter? We were never gonna make it.”

“We should go.”

They ran toward the rear stairwell, careful to keep their sneakers away from the painted line that ran in a rectangle around the open bay, just a few feet shy from the bunks. Inside that rectangle was the “kill zone”, and anything that went inside was dead fucking meat.

The privates weren’t dead meat. Not yet. For some of them that would come later, on nameless streets in Iraq or lonely stretches of road in Afghanistan. But for today, they were alive, and it was good to be alive, even if you were just cleaning your M-16 for hours at a time or force-feeding yourself cookies or shitting your shorts in front of your drill sergeants.

Arturo and Rench heard Drill Sergeant Bond scream, “Time!” when they were one flight up from the exit. Arturo cursed and they bounded down the rest of the way to the company training area.

The private who had pooped himself had disappeared. Arturo and Rench were the first ones down. They ran to the edge of the garden and lined up while the others jogged down and filed in next to them.

“You were late, dicks!” Bond’s voice rasped and broke, as it often did when he yelled.

“Gas, gas, gas!” he said.

The privates popped open their cases and pulled out their promasks, donning the black rubber masks with practiced speed. Rench pressed his palm to the canister and inhaled. Condensation from his breath began to fade away from the plastic eyelets. He had a good seal.

“Five seconds!” Drill Sergeant Bond said. Rench and Arturo had managed to don their masks; the other privates weren’t so lucky. “You two,” Bond said, pointing to the dicks who still struggled with the straps of their masks. “You’re dead. Privates, the rest of you run the sprints, but carry your buddies. They’re fucking dead because they’re stupid and you’re all stupid because you couldn’t eat the cookies in time and you had to eat the cookies because you’re fucking short and your recruiter failed you because you’re so fucking short and he let you in the Army anyway. Being in the Army doesn’t make your dick bigger, morons. Small dick is for life.”

Drill Sergeant Bond paused to stare at the privates, their insect faces black and grotesque.

“Pick up your buddies and run the suicides. Go, go, go!”

The survivors picked up the prone bodies and limp limbs of their comrades, putting them in two-man carries that dragged the casualties’ feet along the ground. They pumped their legs and dragged their dead friends toward the lines in the concrete. First line. Back. Second line. Back. Third line. Back. Last line. Back.

Repeat.

“Back to the line!” Drill Sergeant Bond said. The privates rushed back to the edge of the garden. “Your idiot friends are alive again. Stand up on your own, dicks.” The dead privates came back to life. Everyone breathed heavily into their masks, their eye ports fogged over. Rench looked at the garden and saw a sunflower growing out of a pile of woodchips. He wanted to stomp the life out of it.

“All clear!” Bond said. The privates took their masks off, carefully replacing them in their carrying cases.

“Now you know I’m serious when I give you a mission, right?” Bond asked.

“Yes, Drill Sergeant!” they answered in exhausted unison.

“Good. So when I give you a task, you’ll complete it, right privates?”

“Yes, Drill Sergeant!”

“Good.” He glanced at his watch. “You have three minutes to finish the rest of the cookies.”

The privates groaned.

“Eat up, privates. Time mother-fucking-now.”

Rench suppressed the urge to vomit. He clenched his butt cheeks tight against a suspicious fart. He stumbled over to the cookies.

Sugar, chocolate, butter, and salt. They made mockery of his determination and willpower.

The drill sergeants smiled. The privates choked back vomit. Sweat dripped onto concrete. The sun set over distant green hills, and everywhere was beauty and misery.

Rench suddenly realized that coming here had been a mistake.

Categories: Adventure | Leave a comment

Chapter reveal: Chickenhawk, by Arnaldo Lopez Jr.

arnaldo 2Title: Chickenhawk

Genre: Thriller

Author: Arnaldo Lopez Jr.

Publisher: Koehler Books/Café Con Leche books

Purchase on Amazon

About the Book:

Chickenhawk is an urban crime fiction novel that showcases New York City’s diversity, as well as the dark side of race relations, politics, sexuality, illness, madness, and infidelity. Eddie Ramos and Tommy Cucitti are Manhattan North Homicide detectives after a serial killer that manages to stay below their radar while the body count keeps climbing in a city that’s turning into a powder keg.

CHAPTER 1

ABE LOOKED AROUND the premises nervously. He didn’t like spending so much time with a customer. Earlier on, he had nearly bolted out of there when a patrol car, siren hooting and warbling, slowly moved up the street. He watched quietly as the strobed reflection of the car’s flashing lights alternately colored the facades of the surrounding buildings a vivid shade of red. Then white. Then red again. The colors bounced off the

windows of the nearby skyscrapers in blinding explosions of refracted light, spilling like spent fluid along the naked girders around him, disappearing then reappearing further away as they receded.

Abe nodded in the direction of the lights. “Don’t worry man,” he said. “That’s the last time they’re gonna come around tonight.”

The customer nodded in understanding. The police considered Abe and his fellow hustlers little more than pesky annoyances, lowlife perpetrators of victimless crimes who rarely even had the nerve to pick an occasional pocket. The well-heeled residents of this part of Midtown Manhattan, however, were not quite so forgiving. They convinced the local merchants to join them in demanding an increase in police surveillance in the area.

Not long after that, cops from the nearby precinct were assigned to make at least three nightly trips up Lexington Avenue from Fifty-First to Sixty-Eighth Streets, rousting and occasionally even arresting the young male prostitutes who worked the strip

2 C H I C K E N H A W K

and catered to the desires of the mostly suburban, married businessmen who comprised the bulk of their clientele; some of whom hailed from as far away as Connecticut.

Abe worked his hand feverishly, focusing on his customer’s now flaccid penis with disdain. Man, this is ridiculous, he thought as he gave the penis a shake, scattering droplets of semen and saliva into the night. If this guy’s dick doesn’t get hard again

in another few seconds, I’m just gonna tell ‘im to forget it. I mean, damn—I already sucked him off once! Abe again studied the expensive looking material that framed the limp penis in his hand before returning it to his mouth, This guy is gonna have to pay me something extra just for wasting my time, he thought. What made him think he could go twice anyway?

He let the still soft penis slip out of his mouth. A viscous strand of saliva, glistening like spider’s silk covered in morning dew, still connected Abe to his customer’s stubborn member.

Abe plucked the string of saliva and it collapsed into a fine mist.

He sighed agitatedly and made as if to get up. His customer stopped him by placing a strong but gentle hand on his shoulder.

“No, don’t get up,” he said.

Abe’s new denim pants creaked as he settled back down on his knees. The voice didn’t sound threatening or even particularly demanding. His customer had a deep, rich baritone voice, the kind that made you think of overstuffed leather chairs, mahogany bookcases, and giant oak desks. Clearly it was the voice of a wealthy and powerful man. Abe wished he had been blessed with a voice like that. If he had been, Abe could have

easily been an actor or a singer. Instead, he was just another homeboy giving blow jobs to rich guys from “The Island” at thirty bucks a pop. That was his reality.

“Keep doing what you’re doing,” that voice said. “It feels really good.”

Abe dismissed the thoughts he was having moments before and shrugged. “I don’t care how good it feels to you man,” he said. He winced at how high and whiney his own voice sounded.

“It’s taking you too fuckin’ long. I’m either gonna catch a cramp or the fuckin’ cops are gonna bust us.”

Abe flinched in surprise when his customer raised an immaculately manicured left hand. The gold ring on the third finger flashed cold fire as his hand settled on Abe’s head. Long, thick fingers lost themselves in the thick mat of tousled black curls, then gently extricated themselves. The man stroked Abe’s hair. It drove Abe crazy. He hated when they did that.

Finally, Abe felt the penis in his hand stiffen. “About fuckin’ time,” he muttered to himself.

“Ah yeah,” the customer groaned with a contented sigh. “I knew you could get it up for me again, you little cocksucker, and I do mean that literally.”

Abe didn’t like anyone calling him names.

“You little spic bitch,” the man with the rich voice continued softly. “You love sucking white cock, don’t you?”

That was the last straw for Abe. He sprung to his feet. “Man, fuck this shit,” he whispered harshly, his anger tempered by the prospect of being detected by the police. He’d had enough and couldn’t stomach this asshole any longer.

The man with the great voice just stood there, a bemused expression on his face, and watched Abe’s reaction and growing anger. His now fully erect penis pointed at Abe’s chin like an obscene divining rod. He crossed his arms and thrust his hips forward in an exaggerated motion. His penis bounced up and down, and swung in circles as if held up by an invisible wire.

“Come on Pancho,” he said, making that great voice ugly now. “Or do you think I should save some for your mamasita, huh? I bet she’s the one who taught you how to suck cock! Or maybe it was your papasita? Is that it Pancho?

Abe charged at the man with a roar burning in his throat.

His rage could no longer be contained, police or no police.

Then a sudden move that Abe did not see coming. It was a blur and before he had a chance to react, it was too late. Abe saw his customer pull a gun from under his jacket. So many thoughts ran through his mind at once. It’s huge. Black. A revolver. The barrel is impossibly long, it can’t be real…

Reality was a sledgehammer jolt of shock and pain as the gun’s barrel was shoved into Abe’s mouth—gouging lips and splintering teeth. Abe tried to pull his head back, but the other man gripped the back of his neck and kept feeding him the gun.

He tried to scream but nearly gagged on his own blood. The only sound he managed to make was a gurgling cough.

4 C H I C K E N H A W K

“Ah, you like that, don’t you?” It was the rich man’s voice again. “Tell you what,” he continued. “You’re going to give my friend here,” indicating the gun he was holding, “the best goddamn blow job of your miserable life.” The man moved his face closer to Abe’s, almost whispering in his ear. “Only this time,” he said. “You—better—hope—it—doesn’t—cum!

Abe squeezed his watering eyes shut, tears searing twin rivulets of molten fear down his quivering face. He could feel the gun’s barrel slide back and forth in his mouth, mimicking the act of fellatio. Ice-cold shards of pain shot through his body as the gun barrel rubbed against the newly exposed nerves of his shattered teeth.

“That’s it now. Oh-h, you’re doing a wonderful job. Good. Good.”

More tears welled up in Abe’s eyes and coursed down his cheeks. His mind was a hodgepodge of frantic thought.

This fuckin’ guy’s crazy! How can I get outta this? Who is this guy? Maybe I can snatch the gun away! Why me? What will mom and pop think when the cops tell them how I died?

Oh shit! Oh shit! OH SHIT! Oh my God, I’m gonna fuckin’ die! Abe pressed his eyes shut and felt more hot tears run down his face where they mixed with the clear mucus that was now running freely from his nose.

Then, the in and out motion of the gun barrel stopped. It was the most frightening moment of Abe’s young life. He literally wet his pants.

Abe waited. A heartbeat. Two. Three. He opened his eyes.

The crazy man with the beautiful voice was staring at him. His eyes were terrible to look at. Empty.

“I’m cumming.”

The man with the rich voice pulled the trigger on the big, old revolver. The tension of the pull. The sudden release of the hammer. The smell of burnt gunpowder. It was all familiar to him now, but he still jumped at the gun’s loud report.

The slug pierced the boy’s soft palette, drove neatly through his brain, and then flattened somewhat on impact with the inside of Abe’s skull. It exited the back of Abe’s head, compressed almost to the diameter of a nickel, and created a wound on its

way out big enough for a man to put his fist through.

The boy fell back, his knees still bent, a spray of blood and brain tissue that had erupted from his now shattered head soiled the fence behind him.

The killer slowly lowered his still smoking gun. He turned and started to walk away, then stopped.

The trembling started in his knees and worked its way up to his shoulders and arms. Soon he shivered so violently his teeth chattered. Every hair on his body stood painfully on end. His eyes watered uncontrollably and distorted his vision. Then, just as suddenly as it started, the episode ended. A monstrous headache remained in its wake.

The killer whipped around, eyes wild, face shiny with sweat. Shakily, he aimed his gun in the direction of the youth he’d just murdered.

“You sonofabitch!” He yelled. “You gave me this shit! But if I have to die, you’re going to die—all of you bastards are going to die! You hear me? Hear me?”

He thumbed back the hammer of the gun. The long, black barrel telegraphed the trembling in his hand. He stood that way for several seconds as light drizzle fell to earth and the rage melted from his eyes. He sniffed and lowered the gun, simultaneously easing the hammer back into place.

A brief coughing jag shook him then. It was a wet, roiling noise that bubbled up from the depths of his sickened lungs. He cleared his throat, hawked, and spat out a thick wad of greenish phlegm. Then, shoes crunching on broken glass and gravel, he left the construction site and the scene of the murder.

Eyes darting to and fro, he took pains not to be seen. He stayed in the shadows and mentally cursed the bright lights that almost seemed to increase in incandescence at his approach. He tucked the gun into his waistband and headed for the darkened

subway entrance at 53rd Street.

This entrance to the subway used to be closed at night, and so was a popular meeting place for the young male prostitutes who plied their trade here. Now that the entrance was open around the clock, business had to be conducted a bit more discreetly,

such as construction sites, under stairwells, the freight or delivery bays of some of the older buildings and department stores, and, of course, inside hastily parked cars.

The subway entrance remained the primary meeting place, however, where deals were made, prices quoted, and acts performed.

He walked down the subway steps and entered the station, the bright fluorescent lights hurt his eyes after the relative darkness of the night outside. He hunched down into his jacket, hands in pockets, and looked around furtively.

He walked quickly past the token booth and stole a glance in its direction, avoiding the bored glances of the workers inside, and continued walking toward the opposite stairway. He mounted the steps two at a time until he was back outside. By exiting through this stairway, he was now about a block away from where his victim’s corpse lay growing cold and stiff on the ground.

A moment later there was the soft sound of a car door being closed, an engine turning over, and a car  being driven away into the night. The sidewalk was deserted.

Categories: Crime, Mystery | Tags: , , | 1 Comment

Waiting for the Cool Kind of Crazy, by M.D. Moore

Waiting for the CoolTitle: Waiting for the Cool Kind of Crazy

Genre: Fiction/Family Drama

Author: M.D. Moore

Publisher: Black Rose Writing

Purchase on Amazon

About the Book:

An extraordinary debut novel, Waiting for the Cool Kind of Crazy introduces protagonist Harmon Burke. The son of a schizophrenic mother, Harmon is haunted by three decades of his mother’s “un-cool” craziness and the mistakes of his own past.  Caught somewhere between his past and present, Harmon is trying to navigate and survive the detritus of his life—a life littered with personal failures, strained relationships and life-threatening health issues.

When Waiting for the Cool Kind of Crazy opens, Harmon’s mother Cece is on her way back to the psychiatric hospital after another psychotic episode—an episode that nearly lands Harmon in jail for his third and final strike before lifelong incarceration.  Landing an unusual lucky break, Harmon cashes in a literal “get out of jail free card” with one caveat: in order to avoid serving jail time, he promises to seek help for his issues.

Harmon starts to see Boyd Freud, an eccentric ex-convict and unorthodox counselor with a wry sense of humor, and a penchant for strong coffee and unusual theories.  Somehow, the no-nonsense and rough-around-the-edges Boyd manages to convince Harmon to confront the trials that have dogged his past and present. But everything changes when Harmon’s high school sweetheart Emmy shows up on his doorstep. Pleading for help escaping her abusive husband Frank, Harmon’s childhood nemesis and lifelong adversary, Emmy reopens a chapter in Harmon’s life he thought long closed.  But Frank—a cruel and vindictive bully intent on righting a past wrong—will prove a dangerous and complicating force for Harmon and his family.

With Boyd’s help, Harmon begins to make sense of the past and heal. But in order to help Emmy, find peace with his mentally-deteriorating mother and discover redemption from his past and current failures, Harmon will have to return to the trials of his youth to find answers and discover truths long buried. Along the way, Harmon will realize that making sense of the past might lead him to see the possibility of a future he’d given up on long ago.

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

1984

“Hey sleepyhead, how would you like to have a birthday party?  I know someone who’s turning thirteen soon,” Mama said in song, her face only a couple inches from my own.  I had been sleeping and freaky-dreaming thanks to a too-strong-dose of Nyquil before I had gone to bed.  I fought hard to shake the sleep and cobwebs from my brain, though the medicine and the psychedelic night’s sleep made it difficult.  I rarely complained of trouble sleeping because a double dose of Nyquil was Mama’s answer to insomnia, and I couldn’t stand the taste of the nasty, radioactive looking stuff.  I used to take my dose and after the yuck-shudder, I’d pretend to turn into the Hulk that made Mama and Connie buckle with laughter.

I knew my birthday was a few weeks out, but since we had never celebrated it, at least not in any meaningful way, I had learned to tamp down any excitement about the occasion to ward off excessive disappointment.  Most years, my birthday would slip away without so much as a “Happy Birthday” from Mama.  As the idea of an actual party fought through the haze and sank in, I shot up in bed as Mama lay over my legs.

“Well, whaddya think, little man?” she asked again, her eyes as wide and blue as topaz, her open-mouth smile never fading.

I looked at Connie who was now sitting up in his bed too.  His head nodded violently, as if someone had cranked the windup key a couple notches too far.  For most children, this question would have been rhetorical.  Of course, I wanted a birthday party.  But this was Mama’s way.  She wouldn’t force anything on us, not even a birthday party.  She was asking me in earnest.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Connie now shot in rapid fire, bouncing on his bed, pillow smashed over his head.

I held my breath and watched her eyes, looking for a reason to say no.  I could read her eyes like others read tea leaves and I was waiting for the demon to rear its ugly head and spoil the moment.

Mama read my mind.  “I’m doing really good right now, sweetheart.  My meds are working and I feel great.  Don’t I seem to be doing good?”

“Yeah.  I just know you’ve been worried about stuff lately and sometimes…I don’t know, sometimes that’s not so good for you.”

Mama pulled me by my ears until our foreheads were touching and we were eye to eye.  “I love you for caring, sweetheart, but your mom’s doing good and I really think I can do this.  Can you trust me this one time?”

“Yeah, Mama,” I said as I pulled away.  What else could I say?

“Alright!” she said, clapping her hands enthusiastically.  Now she started to bounce on my bed, not as excitedly as Connie, but her excitement was clear.  “This is going to be so great!  We’ll get balloons and streamers.  I’ll make a cake and get whatever ice cream you want.  We’ll invite all your friends and it’ll be the best party any of them will have ever seen.”

My smile, though still present, had lost the sparkle that had been there a moment before.

“What’s wrong?” Mama asked, her enthusiasm fading.

“Nothing,” I said through clinched teeth, trying to hold my smile.

“He’s worried he doesn’t know any kids who’ll come,” Connie said, still hopping on his bed.  “And he’s right to be worried.”  Even as a ten-year old boy, Connie’s verbal filter had a gaping hole in it.

“Are you guys kidding?  Who’re all those boys I always see you playing with outside?  God, you guys move around the neighborhood like the Wild Bunch.”

“They’re the neighbor kids who let Harmon tag along.  They’re not his friends,” Connie said.  “They treat Harmon like he’s a mongrel dog.”

“Shut up, Constantine,” I stammered.

“Oh, boo hoo.  You’re calling me by my name.  That really hurt,” Connie said, a mean flash streaking through.

“Enough, Connie, or you won’t be invited.  Anyway, I bet they’ll be his friends that day,” she said, believing that should make me feel better.  “Who’s gonna say no to the funnest birthday party ever?”  I shrugged my shoulders.  “I almost forgot.  What do you want?”

“For what?” I asked.

“What do you want for your birthday present, retard?” Connie answered.

“Constantine.  That’s enough,” Mama said sternly.  She turned back to me.  “That’s right, sweetie.  What do you want for your birthday present?”

I knew we didn’t have money.  Even as she was asking, I was wondering how she was going to pay for just the basics of the party.  Our shortage of funds, though never a conversation between Mama and us, was well known to Connie and me through her crying and fighting with landlords and bill collectors and sometimes to no one who could be seen… at least by us.  We knew her meds cost a ‘small fortune’ and Connie and I knew we didn’t have what other kids had just so she could get them.  Since we’d seen her both on and off of them, it was a sacrifice we made without hesitation.

“The party is a great present, Mama.  I don’t need anything else,” I said.

“Ohhh, don’t be a party pooper.  C’mon Harmony, think big.  Maybe a video game player.  Or a new bike.  I saw one of the neighbor kids riding past our house a couple a days ago riding the most beautiful burgundy colored bike with a sparkly banana seat and chopper handlebars.  That’s the kind of present I’m talking about.”

I considered a video game player.  It did look cool and all the coolest kids in class had one.  But in my heart of hearts, in the small place where I still let simple dreams survive if not necessarily thrive, I knew a bike would win out.  Boys in my neighborhood rode around like a gang of bikers and Connie and I, the only kids in the area without wheels, were the omega dogs of the pack.

“I guess if I had to pick…” I said, drawing out my words.

“Yesss,” mama said, goading me on, her fingers pushing lightly in my sides.

“If I had to pick, then I’d say…” I said, my giggles starting to build.

“Yessss.”

“I’d have to say a bike.  If that’s ok?” I quickly qualified.

“Ok?  That’s great.  Now that we have that settled, how about we plan for a party?” Mama asked.  Looking back, it is hard to believe such a joyous lighting of the fuse could create such a cataclysmic explosion.

As we drove back to the hospital, Connie and me in the front, Emmy holding Cece in the back, all that could be heard were sniffles coming from the front and back seats.  I was tempted to turn on the radio to drown them out, but felt these tears had earned their stripes tonight and deserved their full respect.

“He was so nice to me,” Cece whispered after a long silence.  “Why do I hafta keep screwin’ stuff up?” she asked as she broke into full-on, heartbroken tears.

We all listened to her cry and asked ourselves the same question.  “He really seemed to like you, Cece,” Emmy said.

Cece’s cries slowly turned to hiccups as she looked at the program in her hands that she had taken from her purse.  “I think he does,” she said, her words slurring through the alcohol still residing in her system.  “He said he’d ask the hospital if he can take me out to dinner and a movie or just for a drive or whatever.  Do you think he will?”

“I’m sure he will.  He’d be lucky to have you as a friend,” Emmy said.  She sounded naive giving that clichéd advice to our acutely mentally ill mother, but she was being sweet and supportive and I figured if nothing else, it kept Cece sedated for the ride back to the hospital.  Connie must’ve felt the same as he didn’t jump in either.  I had no doubt that tonight was the last we’d ever hear or see of Ernie Vadonovich.  While I did feel sad for how the night had gone, I’d been down this road so many times before, and often times worse, I couldn’t get too worked up over what had happened.  At least tonight I was traveling down this road in a Cadillac.

As we approached the hospital, the darkened building against the cloudy backdrop welcomed us back with the warmth of a prison yard.  I couldn’t see Cece’s face for the darkness, but knew I wouldn’t want to if given the choice.  More than her sadness, it was her dying spirit that could move me, especially given the gains she’d been making recently.   The car stopped and we all sat silently, waiting for someone else to make the first move.

“I need to go,” Cece said as she slid right behind me, waiting for me to open the door for her.  We all scooted out and, with Emmy on one side and Connie on her other, we escorted Cece back into the hospital.

I watched her wither as she took each step towards the door of her ward after we’d exited the elevator until Emmy and Connie were practically carrying her.  Her shoulders began to shake as real tears took hold and the gravity of the night weighed fully on her.

“Oh, baby doll,” a kind female staff said as she opened the door to the ward.

“I screwed up so bad, Julie,” Cece said as she released her chaperones and hugged the woman.  She held her tightly as Cece began a quiet but intensifying wail.  Julie waved us off and nodded, indicating she could take it from here.  We all put a hand on Cece and said goodbye, Connie giving her a kiss as we departed.  She cried harder.  Julie began walking her to her room where she would comfort her and calm her down, with medication if necessary.  We watched as she shuffled down the hall, the flowers from her hair dropping to the floor.  She was home.

Categories: Fiction | Tags: | 1 Comment

Chapter Reveal: Trial By Fire (Schooled In Magic 7), by Christopher G. Nuttall

TrialByFire_med1Title: Trial By Fire (Schooled In Magic 7)

Genre: Fantasy

Author: Christopher G. Nuttall

Website: www.chrishanger.net

Publisher: Twilight Times Books

Sample Chapter HERE.

Purchase on Amazon / OmniLit

About the Book

Three years ago, Emily killed the Necromancer Shadye before he could sacrifice her and destroy the Allied Lands.  Now, the shadows of the past hang over Whitehall as Emily and the Grandmaster travel into the Blighted Lands to recover anything Shadye might have left behind, before returning to Whitehall to start the fourth year.  For Emily, it is a chance to stretch her mind and learn more about new and innovative forms of magic … and to prepare for the exams that will determine her future as a magician.

But as she starts her studies, it becomes clear that all is not well at Whitehall.  Master Grey, a man who disliked Emily from the moment he met her, is one of her teachers – and he seems intent on breaking her, pushing her right to her limits.  In the meantime, her friends Alassa and Imaiqah are acting oddly, Frieda seems to be having trouble talking to her and – worst of all – Caleb, her partner in a joint magical project, is intent on asking her to go out with him.

As she struggles to cope with new challenges and to overcome the demons in her past, she becomes aware of a deadly threat looming over Whitehall, a curse that threatens her very soul.  And when she makes a tiny yet fatal mistake, she finds herself facing a fight she cannot win, but dares not lose…

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Prologue

Caleb stopped outside the stone door to his father’s study and paused, feeling his heart pound inside his chest. He had few good memories of his father’s study; he and the other children had never been allowed to enter, save for long lectures and punishments when they’d disappointed their parents. Caleb had never dared to try to break the complex network of spells on the lock, knowing it would displease his mother and father.

And both of his parents were formidable indeed.

“Caleb,” his mother called. “Come in.”

Caleb bit his lip and pushed at the door. The house was small – living space was at a premium in Beneficence – and his mother had had over twenty-five years to weave protective spells and wards into the stone building. She’d always known what her children were doing while they lived in her house. Her children had rapidly learned to keep their misdeeds well away from home if they didn’t want to get caught at once. He shivered when he felt another protective ward shimmering over him as he stepped through the door, then bowed formally to his father. His father looked at him for a long moment, and nodded. Beside him, Caleb’s mother kept her face impassive.

They made an odd couple, Caleb had often thought, once he’d grown old enough to meet other soldiers and magicians. General Pollock – his father – was short, stubby and muscular, tough enough to march with the younger men instead of riding a horse to battle, while Mediator Sienna was tall, willowy and one of the most experienced combat sorcerers in the Allied Lands. She might not have been classically beautiful, her stern face edged by long black hair, but she was striking, with a trim athletic build even after giving birth to five children. And there were few people who would dare insult her to her face.

“Caleb,” his father grunted. He’d never really seen Caleb as anything other than a disappointment, once it became clear that his second son was more interested in theoretical work than fighting. “You wished to speak with us?”

“Yes, father,” Caleb said. His parents weren’t stuck-up enough to insist that their children make appointments to speak with them, but certain things had to be done formally. The little rituals of politeness, as always, kept civilization going. “I do.”

His father waved a hand, impatiently. “Then speak,” he ordered.

Caleb took a long breath. Casper – handsome Casper, confident Casper – would have found it easy to speak to their parents, he was sure. But his elder brother had basked in the approval of their father, while even their stern mother could rarely remain angry at him for long. What Casper wanted, Casper got. Their parents hadn’t really spoiled Casper, Caleb had to admit, but he’d had advantages none of the younger children shared. He’d set out to walk in their footsteps, after all.

“I ask your permission to open a Courtship,” he said, allowing his voice to slip into cool formality. “I ask for your blessings and your wisdom.”

His parents exchanged glances. A simple relationship was one thing, but a Courtship was quite another. It implied that Caleb was willing to spend the rest of his life with the girl, if she proved receptive to his advances. And his parents…they might have to welcome the girl into their family, if the Courtship worked out. Caleb was the first of the family to discuss a Courtship. Even Casper had yet to bring a girl home to meet their parents.

His mother spoke first. “Who is this girl?”

Caleb held himself steady, refusing to be swayed by the bite in her tone. “Emily,” he said, simply. “Daughter of Void.”

“I see,” General Pollack said. His voice revealed nothing. “You overreach yourself, do you not? She is a Baroness of Zangaria.”

“I am a sorcerer,” Caleb countered. He’d known his father would object on those grounds, if nothing else. General Pollack came from aristocratic stock, but his father had been a mere Knight. Grandfather Karuk had been powerful enough to buy his son a commission, yet he’d never been as wealthy and powerful as a baron. “We are social equals.”

“And her father is a Lone Power,” Mediator Sienna said, slowly. “Do you not fear his thoughts on the matter?”

Caleb hesitated, but pressed on. “That is why I have decided on a formal Courtship,” he said. He’d always had the impression that Emily was largely flying free – he didn’t think that an experienced sorcerer would have allowed the crisis in Cockatrice to get so badly out of hand – but marriage was quite another issue. “It would allow him a chance to object before matters became serious.”

“She may reject you,” General Pollack warned. “You are not a wealthy man.”

“I know,” Caleb said. The family wealth, what little there was of it, would go to Casper, once his parents passed away. General Pollack was a poor man, by the standards of their social equals. But not using his position to enrich himself had made him popular with the troops under his command. “I do, however, have excellent prospects.”

His father’s face darkened. “But not as a defender of the Allied Lands.”

Caleb bit down the response that came to mind. His father had expected his children – his male children, at least – to go into the military, to fight for the Allied Lands. Casper, whatever his flaws, was a halfway decent combat sorcerer. But Caleb? He’d always been more interested in fundamental magic research than fighting. The transfer to Whitehall had been the best thing that had ever happened to him.

“His research may prove useful,” Mediator Sienna said.

General Pollack gave her a surprised look.

Caleb couldn’t help staring at her in astonishment. His mother might be formidable, but it was rare for her to disagree with her husband in public. Caleb knew they’d had some spectacular rows, yet they’d always been held in private. They’d always put forward a united front.

His mother ignored their surprise. “Do you believe she likes you?”

Caleb swallowed. That was the question, wasn’t it? He had never been able to read a girl, to tell if she was interested in him or if she was just being polite. The lads in the barracks had bragged endlessly about how many girls they’d slept with – Caleb was privately sure most of them were lying – but he had never had a serious relationship with anyone. Stronghold had enrolled only a handful of female students, while he’d been too busy at Whitehall to consider the possibilities. He’d never had the nerve to go into a brothel when he’d been on leave.

“I think so,” he said, finally. He went on before his mother could start demanding details. “That’s why I decided on a formal Courtship. If she thinks otherwise…”

“You can back off without shame,” his mother finished. It would be embarrassing to be rejected, Caleb was sure, but better that than getting into a muddle. Courtship, if nothing else, was a ritual intended to ensure that everything was open, without even the merest hint of impropriety. “I would advise you to be careful, though. It is rare for a Lone Power to have a child.”

“And one so grossly irresponsible, at that,” General Pollack growled. “Inviting both the Ashworths and Ashfalls to the Faire. What was she thinking?”

“She shut them both down,” Caleb reminded him.

His mother met his eyes. “Yes, she did,” she agreed. “But it was still irresponsible.”

“I like her,” Caleb said, refusing to look away. “I request your blessing for the Courtship.”

General Pollack exchanged a long look with his wife. “We shall discuss it in private,” he said, finally. “Wait.”

Caleb scowled inwardly as his mother cast a privacy ward, ensuring he couldn’t hear a word of what passed between them. It galled him to have to go to his parents, but he knew they would have been furious if he’d approached someone with serious intentions without consulting them first. There were times when he wouldn’t have minded being disowned, yet – in truth – he loved his family. Even Casper…

Father has no magic, he reminded himself. And yet he rules the family with a rod of iron.

He looked down at the stone floor, then up as the privacy ward dispelled. His father looked irked, while his mother was smiling coldly to herself. Caleb schooled his face into a dispassionate expression, waiting patiently for their answer. There were strong advantages to the match, he was sure, but there were also dangers. His mother was powerful, yet she was no match for a Lone Power.

“We have considered the matter,” General Pollack said. “You may proceed with your Courtship.”

Caleb let out a sigh of relief. “Thank you, father-”

“Now we will discuss the practicalities,” his mother added, cutting him off. “And precisely how you intend to proceed. You will have to present her with flowers within the month. Choosing the right ones will be important.”

“Yes, mother,” Caleb said.

He cursed under his breath. It wasn’t something he wanted to talk about, not to his blunt, plainspoken mother, but it was clear he wasn’t being offered a choice. His father’s brief lecture on matters sexual had been bad enough, back when he’d started to realize there was something different about girls, yet this was likely to be worse. He cringed mentally, then steadied himself. At least they hadn’t said no.

And now all you have to do is go through with the Courtship, he told himself. And that won’t be easy.

 

Chapter One

…Shadye looms above her, his skull-like face crumbling as the power within him threatens to spill out. Emily stumbles backwards, clutching desperately for something – anything – she can use as a weapon, but there is nothing. The necromancer grabs her shirt, hauls her to her feet and draws a stone knife from his belt. Emily feels her entire body go limp as he holds the knife in front of her eyes, then stabs it into her chest…

Emily snapped awake, feeling sweat pouring down her back and onto the blanket. For a long moment, she was unsure where and when she was; the nightmare had been so strong that part of her half-wondered if Shadye had killed her and everything she’d experienced had been nothing more than the final flickers of life before she died. And then she forced herself to remember, somehow, that she was in a tent, in the Blighted Lands. She’d had nightmares every night since they’d crossed the Craggy Mountains and started their long walk towards the Dark Fortress.

Just a dream, she told herself, as she wiped her forehead. The prospect of returning to Shadye’s fortress, where she’d barely escaped with her life, was terrifying. If there hadn’t been a very real possibility she’d inherited Shadye’s possessions, she wouldn’t have chosen to come within a thousand miles of the place. It was just a nightmare. It wasn’t real.

She started as something slithered towards her, but smiled as Aurelius butted his head into her thigh. The Death Viper looked up at her beseechingly, his golden eyes somehow managing to convey a sense of hunger even though she’d fed him only the previous night and he should still be digesting his meal. Emily had been told, when she’d brought the snake back to Whitehall, that Death Vipers could live for weeks without eating, while their last meal was digesting in their bellies, but Aurelius seemed to disagree. Perhaps the familiar bond that tied them together demanded more energy…

Or perhaps he’s picking up on my hunger, she thought, as she sat upright and picked up the snake. I could do with something to eat too.

Aurelius slithered forward. She giggled helplessly as the snake crawled up her arm and settled around her neck. She reached into her pack, pulled out a piece of dried meat and offered it to Aurelius, then pulled her trousers on, followed by her shirt. Sleeping without her clothes hadn’t been easy, but it had just been too hot inside the tent. She knew several spells to chill the air, but the Grandmaster had forbidden her to use magic unless it was urgent. Thankfully, he’d insisted on keeping watch half the night rather than sharing a tent with her.

She crawled forward and opened the flap, then poked her head out of the tent. The Grandmaster was sitting in front of a fire, his back to her, cooking something that smelled faintly like bacon, although she had no idea if it was. It smelled good, but the stench of the Blighted Lands – a faint hint of burning that seemed to grow stronger with every breath she took – threatened to overpower it.

“Good morning, Emily,” the Grandmaster said. “I trust you slept well.”

“Well enough,” Emily lied. There was no point in complaining about the nightmares. “And yourself?”

“You know I don’t sleep,” the Grandmaster said.

I assumed it was a metaphor, Emily thought, ruefully. But it was true; the Grandmaster hadn’t slept since the day they’d walked through the mountains and into the Blighted Lands. It can’t be good for his mental health.

She pushed the thought aside as she stood and looked around. The Blighted Lands were strange, perhaps the strangest place she’d ever seen. Lands that had once been green and verdant were now covered in a thin layer of ash. There wasn’t a single living thing in sight, apart from the pair of them. A faint haze shimmered in the air, making it hard to see beyond a few dozen meters. The sky was a dull grey, the sun barely bright enough to burn through the clouds hanging in the sky; the air was unnaturally still, tinted with the faint scent of burning, and wisps of raw magic that danced across her awareness for long seconds before fading away. She could barely force herself to remain calm, even though she knew there was no real threat. The landscape spoke to her on a very primal level.

It looked very much like hell.

“I’m pleased to see your monster is taking things calmly,” the Grandmaster said, as she paced around the campsite before looking at him. He was a short, wizened man, with a dirty cloth wrapped around his eyes, but he was surrounded by an aura of power she knew to take seriously. “I was worried, but I would have preferred not to deprive you of your familiar.”

Emily nodded. If anyone else had tried to wear a Death Viper as a necklace, she knew all too well, they would have died before they could wrap it around their necks. It was hard to remember, sometimes, that Aurelius was one of the deadliest creatures known to exist, with a venom so poisonous that even a mere touch could prove fatal. Only the familiar bond protected her from the snake, allowing her to keep Aurelius as a secret weapon. He’d already saved her life twice.

“He seems to be happier here than I am,” Emily admitted. She squatted down and took the mug he offered her with a nod of thanks. The Kava tasted strong, but she knew from experience that it would jolt her awake. “Is that normal?”

“The Blighted Lands may be where the Death Vipers were spawned,” the Grandmaster said, as he ladled food onto two plates. “He may feel like he’s home.”

Emily looked up, staring at the mountains in the distance. “I hope not,” she muttered. “I wouldn’t want to live here.”

The Grandmaster laughed, and passed her a plate of food. “Eat quickly,” he urged, as Emily took it. “I want to get to the Dark Fortress before it gets dark.”

Emily swallowed. Years ago – so long ago it seemed almost like another life – Shadye had accidentally brought her to the Nameless World, seeking a Child of Destiny. It had never occurred to him that someone would be named Destiny, or that her child would be a literal Child of Destiny. Shadye had meant to kill her, to sacrifice her to something called the Harrowing, yet in some ways she was almost grateful to the mad necromancer. If she’d stayed on Earth, trapped between her stepfather and her suicidal urges, she was sure she would be dead by now.

“Yes, sir,” she said, as she ate her meal. It tasted better than anything she’d cooked back on Earth, although the ever-present scent of burning had worked its way into the food. “How long will it take us to get there?”

“About an hour,” the Grandmaster said. “Unless we run into trouble, that is.”

They finished their breakfast. Emily wiped the plates and cooking equipment while the Grandmaster answered a call of nature, and started to pack away the tent. He hadn’t wanted a tent for himself, something that made her feel vaguely guilty, but he’d dismissed the matter when she’d offered to sleep in the open too. She couldn’t help feeling relieved; quite apart from her concerns about sleeping near a man, she wouldn’t have cared to sleep in the open, not in the Blighted Lands. The raw magic seemed to grow stronger at night.

That must be why so few people risk entering the Blighted Lands, she thought, as she packed up the rucksack. You could go to sleep in the wrong place and wake up in a very different form.

She shuddered at the thought, then pulled the rucksack on and braced herself against the weight. The Grandmaster nodded to her, checked the campsite for anything they might have left behind, then led the way into the distance. Emily gritted her teeth and forced herself to follow him. The flickers of wild magic in the air were growing stronger the further they moved from the Craggy Mountains that blocked the way to Whitehall. If she’d been alone, she had a feeling she would have turned back a long time before reaching the Dark Fortress.

“There’s no need to push yourself too hard,” the Grandmaster said, slowing. “If worst comes to worst, we’ll set up our tents near the Dark Fortress and wait until sunrise.”

Emily glanced up. It was early morning, by her watch, but the sun was already high in the sky. And yet, the light seemed dim, the clouds growing darker as they walked deeper into the Blighted Lands. She’d thought it was night when Shadye had snatched her, but had his lands been buried in permanent darkness? Or was she merely imagining things?

“I thought you said it wasn’t safe to lurk too close to the fortress,” she said instead.

“It isn’t,” the Grandmaster confirmed. “But I would prefer not to have to enter the Dark Fortress in darkness.”

He said nothing else until they stumbled across the ruins of a village, so hidden within the haze that they practically walked into the ruins before realizing they were there. It was hard to imagine that it had once been a living village, with farmers tending their crops and raising their children; now, it was nothing more than grey stone, all life and light leeched away by the Blighted Lands. The eerie sameness sent chills down her spine.

“Be careful,” the Grandmaster warned as she peered into one of the buildings. “You never know what might be lurking here.”

Emily nodded, pausing as she caught sight of a child’s doll lying on the ground. It looked…normal, surprisingly intact despite the Blighted Lands. But when she reached for the doll and picked it up, it crumbled to dust in her hands. She swallowed hard, trying not to cry for the girl who’d owned the doll, untold centuries ago. Had she died quickly, at the hands of a necromancer, or fled with her family to the untouched lands to the north? There was no way Emily would ever know.

“There has to be something we can do for the Blighted Lands,” she said, as she wiped the dust off her fingers. “Can’t we…cleanse the lands, or something?”

“The necromancers unleashed wild magic,” the Grandmaster said. “Every year, some people try to set up settlements within the edge of the Blighted Lands, in hopes of reclaiming the territory for themselves. And they always come to grief. If the necromancers don’t get them, the wild magic does.”

He took a long look around the village – Emily was sure he had some way to see, despite having lost his eyes years ago – and then led the way out of it, back to the south. She followed him, feeling an odd urge to stay within the village even though she knew it was suicide. It worried her for a long moment – it could be a sign of subtle magic – and then she realized the village had felt safe, despite being within the Blighted Lands. The urge to turn back and flee grew stronger with every step they took.

“The White Council was quite impressed with you,” the Grandmaster said. He spoke in a conversational tone of voice, as if he were trying to keep her mind off the growing urge to just turn and run. “They were not too pleased with the management of the Cockatrice Faire, but…they were relieved at the outcome.”

Emily nodded. Everyone from Lady Barb to the Grandmaster himself had pointed out that she’d been careless, at the very least, and that her carelessness could easily have resulted in disaster. If the Ashworths and the Ashfalls had gone to war, it would not only have led to the deaths of the leaders of both families, but also to the slaughter of hundreds of other magicians and the devastation of her lands. She knew she’d been lucky, very lucky. If she hadn’t managed to get a battery to work…

She touched the ring, hidden within her pocket, and smiled. Lady Barb had urged her to create and charge a second battery while preparing for the trip to the Blighted Lands, and Emily had done as her mentor suggested. Now she had a battery she could use, although without a valve it was useless. And they had a tendency to work once and then burn out. Putting a spare valve together with the help of an enchanter in Dragon’s Den had been harder than charging up the battery.

“You showed a staggering amount of power,” the Grandmaster added. “They were very impressed.”

Thank you, Emily thought, sardonically. Is that actually a good thing?

She eyed the Grandmaster’s back, wondering if he knew just what she’d actually done. He hadn’t treated her any differently when Lady Barb had returned her to Whitehall after the Faire, but he wouldn’t have. Others…had stared at her in awe. In some ways, she was even dreading the day when the rest of the students returned to Whitehall. If they’d stared at her after beating Shadye – and they had – they would be paying far more attention to her now.

“Some of them even considered…insisting…that you take the oaths now,” the Grandmaster told her. “Others thought you should be apprenticed at once to someone who could control your power, if necessary.”

But I cheated, Emily thought.

It wasn’t a reassuring thought. If she’d tried to channel so much power through her mind, it would have killed her or driven her insane. It had been bad enough, years ago, to have people watching her, suspicious of necromancy. Now…they probably thought she was a staggeringly powerful magician instead, a young girl fully on the same level as Void or another Lone Power. The idea that she could match the Grandmaster for raw power was absurd…

…But, to anyone who didn’t know about the batteries, it might not seem absurd.

She swallowed. “What are they going to do?”

“Nothing,” the Grandmaster said, simply.

Emily blinked. “Nothing?”

“I am Grandmaster of Whitehall School,” the Grandmaster said. “I have never had a student forced to take the oaths ahead of time, and I’m not about to start now. If you want an apprenticeship with someone…well, that could be arranged, but you have no obligation to find a master. Or mistress. Still…”

He shrugged. “Have you thought about your career?”

“I don’t know,” Emily admitted. “I’d like to stay at Whitehall for the rest of my life.”

“You’d need much more experience before you could teach,” the Grandmaster said. “I like my tutors to have at least ten years of practical experience before they start touching young and impressionable minds. But you could get a slot as a teaching assistant, I suppose, or a research student. We do have a few of them at Whitehall.”

He paused, then turned to look at her. “You do need to decide on a major before you enter Fifth Year,” he added. “Going by your marks, I’d recommend majoring in charms and perhaps healing, but it depends on what you actually want to do with your life. If you want to be a healer, you’ll need alchemy; if you want to be a combat sorceress, you’ll need martial magic and history…”

Emily sighed, feeling a little overwhelmed. “Randor expects me to go back to Cockatrice and be the baroness,” she said. “I…”

King Randor,” the Grandmaster corrected, quietly.

“But I don’t know what I want to do,” Emily continued. “There are so many interesting subjects.”

“You could probably study them all, if you spread out your years,” the Grandmaster mused. “It isn’t unknown for students to repeat their last two years at Whitehall. However, most students tend to discover the subject they want to major in while they’re in their Fourth Year and stick with it. Your marks in Healing are not bad.”

Emily winced. Healing was an interesting class, but she didn’t want to spend the rest of her life working with ill people. She’d seen enough of that life during the walk through the Cairngorms to know she didn’t want to do it permanently. There had been too many horrors there, hidden in small shacks or behind high stone walls. She had no idea how Lady Barb did it without cursing everyone in sight.

“I think I just want to study,” she said. It was a shame there were no universities in the Nameless World. She could have stepped into one quite happily and never come out. “And go into magical research, perhaps.”

“That would suit you,” the Grandmaster agreed.

He shrugged, then turned back to resume walking. “You need to remember that you’re not just any magician,” he added, as he walked. “Too many people are already showing an interest in you, not least our friends to the south.”

The necromancers, Emily thought.

She’d killed Shadye – and the Allied Lands had declared her the Necromancer’s Bane. The other necromancers seemed to believe she could kill them at will, if only because none of them had tried to claim Shadye’s lands or attack Whitehall. But that wouldn’t last, she was sure. Sooner or later, the necromancers would resume their offensive against the Allied Lands. Their endless need for new victims to sacrifice would ensure it.

And what will happen, she asked herself, when they do?

She kept her thoughts to herself as she followed the Grandmaster, feeling the air grow steadily colder as they made their way to the south. Slowly, the twisted shape of the Dark Fortress – and, beside it, the Inverse Shadow – came into view. They didn’t look anything like the half-remembered shapes in her nightmares, but there hadn’t really been time to take much note of the scenery the last time she’d visited. She’d been half out of her mind with fear when Shadye’s animated skeletons had dragged her into the Inverse Shadow, preparing her for death. If Void hadn’t been there, she would have died that day.

The Grandmaster stopped, sharply. “Listen,” he said. “Can you hear that?”

Emily paused, listening hard. There was a faint sound in the distance, a howling that seemed to come from many throats. It was growing louder, although she didn’t think the source of the sound was actually coming closer. Whatever it was – and there was something about it that touched a memory – it chilled her to the bone.

“I think we’d better go see what that is,” the Grandmaster said, after a quick glance at his watch. “Follow me.”

Categories: Fantasy, Young Adult | Tags: | 1 Comment

“Without a Net: a True Tale of Prison, Penthouses, and Playmates,’ by Barry Hornig and Michael Claibourne

Without a Net Cover Small (2)Title: Without a Net: a True Tale of Prison, Penthouses, and Playmates

Author: Barry Hornig & Michael Claibourne

Publisher: Koehler Books

Genre: Memoir

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About the Book

Starving and certain that I would die in my dingy jail cell in Spain, I made a deal with God. I fell to my knees, promising to give up all drugs and criminal activities. I prayed out loud, witnessed only by the urine-soaked walls and huge rats that shared my cage. My desperation was raw and naked. I thought about the Countess. I thought about my parents at home on Long Island. But mostly I thought about myself. “Save me, God, and I will live virtuously and honor my family.” I was released early and found myself back home, penniless and living in my parents’ basement. God had kept his promise. I soon broke mine… Without a Net is an autobiographical road trip through a volatile period of American history. Barry Hornig was a seeker and an explorer. His adventures were splendid and sordid, and the sort of stuff that would teach anyone a lesson. This is the story of how he learned his lessons the hard way.

Prologue

I should have known what my life was going to be like from early on because I loved the Cyclone on Coney Island. Even as a kindergartener, I would drag my grandma and grandpa and anybody else I could hustle or trick into going with me (they wouldn’t let little kids on alone), and I would always put them in the rear car, the most dangerous one. My grandparents hated it. But I would make them go on every ride. They were Eastern European and very kind, so they put up with it.

This was advertised as the scariest ride in the world, but I was fearless. I loved it when it was completely dark, and you’d clatter up the track to the top of a hill, and on a clear night you could see the New York City skyline and the lights of the Rockaways. I couldn’t get enough of it, while I fortified myself with hot dogs, French fries, and Cokes from the original Nathan’s.

After the ride I wandered off to the carnie booths and watched all the bearded men, tattooed ladies, and double-headed people. I couldn’t know at the time what a foreshadowing that was of the freak show that would become my life.

I was banned from supermarkets at the age of four. I liked to pull everything down from the racks and scream. My family lived in my grandma’s house in Brooklyn. There was a wonderful girl who would walk me in my stroller up and down in front of the house. And the other day, when I saw on TV that she had died, I felt very sad. Her name was Suzanne Pleshette. She lived next door, and she was my baby sitter. We moved to Long Beach, on Long Island, in the path of huge storms. I remember my first hurricane and how the house shook. And riding my bike through the streets where the ocean met the bay. There were whitecaps in the streets. My dad, who I called Willy, would take me out on a rowboat in Reynolds Channel to fish for flounder and fluke. We ate delicious tuna-fish and salami sandwiches while we fished, but I didn’t know, until years later, that he couldn’t swim. How brave, and how reckless. A rickety little boat, a big guy with his son, one wrong move and over the boat goes. He was quite a guy, with his Errol Flynn moustache. I remember going down to the recreation center and watching him and my uncle hit a hard, black handball with gloves. I tried it, and I cried because it hurt my hand. Every Saturday and Sunday mornings we would go to the beach at eight and stay until dark. My father taught me how to surf-cast and dig for crabs, clams, and starfish. My mother and my aunt would show up by lunchtime with sandwiches and cold watermelon, and my friends and I would swim, fish, and make drippy sand castles. One afternoon, I went on a walkabout and got lost. In those days, the lifeguards would put a lost child up on a wooden platform and blow the whistle, so their parents would come and claim them. But I had wandered too far off, and they couldn’t hear the whistle. I spent an enjoyable afternoon with the lifeguards, but later in the day, my parents found me. They were very unhappy, and I got my first spanking. My grade school was right around the corner from our new house. The first afternoon I went, I got into a scuffle with somebody and wound up facing the blackboard on a stool with a pointed hat on my head. I remember my first fight clearly. One of the toughest kids in school was Johnny, who was a little bigger than everybody else, mean, and pushed everybody around. He grabbed me one day and told me he needed money to buy egg creams at the corner store and started to go through my pockets. I don’t think I was more than seven or eight, but I stepped back and hit him as hard as I could in the stomach. To my delight, he went down like a sack of rocks. Right to the ground, and he started crying. I found my new power, and a new way to negotiate.

I had trouble in my early schooling; I am dyslexic, and it was difficult for me to concentrate, so I was a C student. A coach helped me study phonetics because all the words looked backwards. I had still have a lot of trouble reading out loud, so, as a kid, I avoided it. I can comprehend language very well when reading to myself.

Although I’ve never been tested, I think I’m probably bipolar as well. My ups and downs have always been intense, and when I got manic, I was out on the street.

Since the bay and the ocean were only separated by six blocks, we spent most of our time on the water. There were fishing piers, and my friends had small boats, so we went boating up and down the channels after school. In the summer, we had the ocean and the Boardwalk. I kept out of trouble, even though I was in rumbles and gang fights as I got older, because I was a promising athlete in constant training. I lifted weights and didn’t smoke or drink. I had coaches to motivate me from elementary school on—and I was disciplined.

I had my heroes. I watched some of the star athletes in sporting events when I was younger, and it made a great impression on me. I wanted to be the Indian who became an Olympian in the Burt Lancaster movie, Jim Thorpe—All-American. I used that film as my blueprint and decided I would never get in trouble as I was determined to become a fearless athlete with lightning reflexes. I had no qualms about flying through the air or hurting someone in sports. In fact, I wanted to inflict pain; that was my job—to stop them.

I never realized just how fast I was until they timed me, and I noticed that nobody could beat me. Some of the other kids hated that I was as fast as they all were. I raced with Bobby Frankel on a bet, and won—and he was the fastest boy in Far Rockaway High School and also a Hall of Fame horse trainer. I shot baskets with my friend, Larry Brown. It got to where they wouldn’t let Larry shoot anymore at carnivals because he won all the teddy bears. Larry became a pro basketball star, and a Hall of Fame coach.

When I went into the city with my buddy, Steady Eddie, we saw street jesters, poets, drifters, and grifters on 42nd Street where we went to the movies—porn movies they didn’t show in Long Beach. By the time I was ready to go to college, I was street-smart. I was tall and athletic; people said I was good looking. I always worked so I could help my parents, and I knew everyone on the corner. I was able to inflict pain and run so fast that nobody could catch me. I thought I was special, and I knew I could take care of myself.

That didn’t prove to be enough for the depths of distress and heights of optimism which would test my ability to survive. Many of my adventures in Without a Net fill me with shame. My path is full of missteps, awful choices, uncanny luck, and wild expectations.

In my story, you might glimpse the surprising and strange choices you might have made, had you lived a life like mine.

Chapter 1: The Red-Eyed Rat 

We had really pulled a burglary, a jewel heist to fund a scheme to purchase drugs. Where did we get the guts to do it? And was it guts or bravado? And, did we really expect to get away with it?

So, here I was. Football star, athlete, Mr. Popular, and a jailbird. A disgrace, a drug dealer, a thief, a convicted felon in a foreign country. What would my family say? And my dear Grandma—how could I ever look her in the eyes again?

I was riding shotgun with Weenie, disembarking from the ferry in Algeciras, when the policeman went through the rental car and discovered the hundred kilos of hashish in our duffel bags. Everybody came around and congratulated him like he’d won the lottery, cheering him like a soccer hero.

They handcuffed me and my friend, Weenie, drove us to a prison that must have been hundreds of years old, and threw us roughly into a filthy cell. The windows were approximately ten feet up, and the light stayed on high up in the cell. It could have been there during the Inquisition. But now, Francisco Franco’s men were the inquisitors. “Remember the Phalange!”

They let us have our sunglasses, our jeans, our sandals. They took all identification, of course, but not our dinero, or our belts. They didn’t care if we hung ourselves. I sat with my back against the cell with my other cellmate; the shock made it impossible to speak.

Three days went by, with gruel, beans, and rice, wriggling with little living things: “Papillon sauce.” I wasn’t hungry enough, even on the third day, to try to eat it. They brought us a razor and told us to shave. I didn’t really know what was happening. But I thought of burning stakes, Joan of Arc, the Inquisition, or a firing squad. We shaved with cold water and no soap, and since the blades had probably been used thirty times, we just got a little of the stubble off. My hair was already full of lice.

They marched us out single-file, handcuffed from the rear, to an ornate courtroom, where three plump men in their fifties sat, wearing dirty black robes. They assigned a public defender to help us, who spoke broken English, making it difficult to follow the proceedings. They started reading a criminal charges document to us. It sounded like the Declaration of Death. This went on for an unbearably long time.

They asked Weenie and me to explain what had happened. Of course we had a pre-arranged story ready, just in case. But when it was my turn, the words came out of my mouth, but I’m not sure what I said. My voice cracked, and tears welled up in my eyes. I tried to regain my composure.

Would they believe us? They had to. We were Americans on a holiday in Spain. We wouldn’t rob each other. It had to be the gypsies. When they couldn’t solve a crime, it was always the gypsies.

The three judges talked back and forth. The police officer got up on the stand. He seemed to have a new uniform and a shiny new watch, and the spectators cheered him, of course. There seemed to be a few more witnesses, but I had no idea what was going on. They told us to stand, and the middle one banged the gavel. “Convicto!” There was a pause, and then the translator spoke. “You will serve six years and a day as a guest of General Franco in his hotel.” That was the dream from which I couldn’t awaken.

When you have a nightmare, you wake up, and everything is okay. But when you have that nightmare, and you try to wake up and you are awake, that’s the end.

It seemed delusional, and it came so fast that it was almost as if I had dreamt it. I felt that it wasn’t me there—it was somebody else, and I was looking down on the whole situation in disbelief. Like words in the pages of White-Jacket, about the voyages that transformed Melville from a boy into a man. But my own transformation would be a long time coming.

Weenie and I went back to our cells and started a hunger strike and an all-around commotion. It didn’t work. A guard in a green jumpsuit came with a billyclub, started banging the front of our cell, cursing at us, and decided that we needed to be separated.

Four or five days later, it was time for showers. I was getting ripe. I was lead into the shower room with other sordid prisoners—Arabs, Basques, Spaniards. I was the only American. The shower was ice-cold, the towel more like a handkerchief, and the soap stank.

One large Moroccan guy was watching me very carefully. I pretended I didn’t see him. He was obviously aroused, his member swollen. I was sitting on a stool drying myself when he made an aggressive move towards me. I don’t know what happened, but the stool hit the middle of his head, and it split open. There was screaming, there was blood, there were whistles, and we were brought back to solitary. I could tell by the looks of the other inmates that I’d made my point. I had established our alpha position, and I wasn’t about to be pursued or intimidated by the “pack.”

I was so angry at them and at myself, I felt like smashing him again. I looked around for the next customer. There’s always a next customer—when you’re looking.

I had a piece of wood with a smelly mattress on it—if you can call it that, a quarter-inch thick, half a pillow, a tin dish for food, and a hole for a toilet.

Unfortunately, I had roommates, the four-footed variety. Weenie and I had been separated. But Rudy, the red-eyed rat, and his friends found me. It was war. And I only had my thongs. At first, they were standoffish. Circling, making noises in the middle of the night, bothering my sleep. Then Rudy started making aggressive moves for my toes. He was good-sized—like a cat. Ugly yellow teeth, red eyes, mange. If I had had some bread or something else, any morsel I could spare, I would have fed him and tried to win him over, but I didn’t have that luxury. The other problem was the mosquitoes, the relentless mosquitoes biting me non-stop, as my blanket was too small to wrap myself in.

And if that weren’t enough, the food—I can’t even speak of the food—if you could call it that. And I knew it was only the beginning.

I sat there in the darkness, asking, “What did I do to deserve this?” I knew I couldn’t last six years. Impossible. I figured I’d go mad within a year.

With our money, which they hadn’t taken, much to our surprise, we were able to buy Carnation milk, cigarettes, delicious Hershey bars, and Valencia oranges.

Things got better, but I kept hearing fireworks, or shots in the street, and a lot of screaming and noise late at night from another part of the prison.

One day, after a couple of weeks, they brought in other inmates who looked like they’d been beaten and kicked. It appeared they needed solitary more than we did, so they put us back in our original cell.

We were able to get writing paper and envelopes and started our campaign to free ourselves. We wrote to everybody we could think of to spring us. We were charged an exorbitant fee for stamps, and, years later, I learned that the letters were never mailed because no one received them.

The only things we had to read were several pamphlets from Tim Leary’s lectures and a stained National Geographic that I was learning to read upside-down, so it seemed different.

Lighting a cigarette. Waiting for more rats, and the mosquitoes. I ended up soaking cigarettes in water, dipping rags in the liquefied tobacco and wiping it all over myself—my neck, my face, and all my other exposed parts—and the nicotine would stop the mosquitoes from biting. It gave me something to do, a little project every evening. I was looking at nothing, and nothing to do, for six years.

                              ****

As I lay in my cell, cold and hungry, I recalled a sunny afternoon in Long Beach in 1956, when I was working in a Safeway supermarket with my old friend, Mark Newman. We were fifteen, and we were putting food on the shelves to make “hot dog money” in the summer. I think we came up short. We ate more than we shelved. Another friend came into the Safeway market, and told me that somebody from a lower grade had called a girl I liked a “whore” and a “rag.” I sent word back that this was not acceptable, and I might have to crush his face if I saw him. The reply came: Meet on the beach at sunset at the end of the Boardwalk with my gang, and they would bring their gang. I talked this over with Newman and we decided to put small kitchen knives in our socks. I had read too many Harold Robbins books.

I was evaluating the situation. The kid I was supposed to meet was a grade under me, but he was six-four, two hundred pounds. . Elvis haircut, engineer boots, menacing arms from weightlifting. I myself was six feet, one hundred forty-five. We walked down to the beach, and before we were supposed to have the fight, we were surrounded by our gangs. Mike Kosella, one of the guys from the luncheonette at the Franklin Hotel, who later went over a cliff in a motorcycle and burned in the air at age twenty-two, was with me. They showed up with ten assorted hoods. I didn’t like my prospects. We decided to arm wrestle first, which was ridiculous, since his arm was twice the size of mine. But since I had been in football training that summer, he could not move my arm from its position. We pulled and tugged for fifteen minutes. Nothing happened. This was a sort of 1950’s warfare.

We backed off. He took his black jacket off, combed his hair like Elvis, smirked, and put a cigarette in his mouth. We all turned to go to the beach. Big mistake on his part. Don’t ever turn your back in combat. We walked onto the beach. I was wearing khakis, a T-shirt, and sneakers. We got about twenty feet into the beach when Mike Kosella handed me a “jaw teaser,” which is a piece of lead pipe wrapped with adhesive. It felt very comfortable in my hands. I knew if I hit him hard enough he would go down. The red mask came on me, my “ultimate rage”—the blood pulsed through my head, and I was on him, a panther on an ox. He gave up; I used a wrestling hold called the “Princeton,” where I was able to put both my hands behind his hands when he reached up to grab my head, and he couldn’t move. I don’t know if I hit him five or ten times, but the top of his head started to get mushy. He lay motionless for a time, and then he started to move again. We ran.

The next day the rumors were flying around town. Evidently he went to the emergency room and got quite a few stitches.

My mother was very good to me, very supportive, and played the he-can-do-no-wrong card with the police, keeping me out of trouble. “He’s just young and learning …” The cops didn’t really believe it, but, alright, so he busted the guy’s head open; they didn’t care. My brother was proud of me, even though the guy I smashed was the toughest guy in my brother’s class.

The most famous beach club was El Patio, which the movie The Flamingo Kid was based on. The movie was about us. The good-looking card-playing guy who beat the old man was Harvey Sheldon, a.k.a. Rodney Sheldon. The parking lot attendant in the movie was Jimmy Pullis, who later owned the club “Tracks” in New York City, the hangout for rock ‘n’ roll musicians. These beach clubs provided great jobs for young guys. I worked at El Patio for three summers during high school. We were cabana boys. “Cabana boy, get me ice water.” “Cabana boy, I need a club sandwich and a strudel.” “Hurry, cabana boy.” The tips were good, and their daughters were available.

The clubs brought in name entertainment on the weekends from Tito Puente to Bobby Darin. El Patio hosted the great garmentos. They lived in huge houses on the swamplands, had spoiled daughters with gold chains, huge bar mitzvahs, long cigars, and polished nails from 1407 Broadway. There were pick-up bars, like Lou’s, and Furies, near the railroad tracks in Cedarhurst. That’s where all the rich Jews were. I wished I was there again, right now.

                                 ****

The battle with the rats continued. Underneath my bed I found a few old logs and pieces of wood and waited for the right opportunity to kill Mr. Red-Eyes, pretending I was asleep. The first few times I missed—he was too fast. Finally, I was able to get a rebound shot and cracked him on the nose, and he disappeared, never to be seen again. And the friends he left behind were a piece of cake—they were easy to scare. So all I had to do was deal with the mosquitoes, and, since it was getting colder, they were disappearing. Perhaps, now, I could regain what little sanity I had left.

They started to let us go out into the exercise yard, and I met Felipe. He had been there for ten years. They’d caught him with explosives trying to blow up a police station. One of his hands was blown off, and he had a stump. His English was quite good, and he told me that his family had owned a restaurant in the North of Spain, the Basque area, and after the war they took his dad away, his mother, all his property, and all their animals. He would be getting out in a year.

The next day, after another evening with Mr. Red-Eyes, it rained terribly—and it rained and it rained and the water came into the cell. It was starting to get dark. I lit another lousy Spanish cigarette, closed my eyes, and thought of college. My memories were my only door to sanity.

                               ****

 I was a freshman at Boston University in 1958. My parents let me off at Miles Standish Hall, where my suite was up on the sixth floor. I had a horrible bed with hanging springs, a lumpy mattress, and I kept complaining to the dorm monitor, day after day, the first week, until I could take it no longer.

The red mask came down on me, my eyes pounding, and I don’t know what happened, but the entire box-spring, bed, and mattress went out the window into the courtyard, and I was immediately put on probation. I didn’t care; I snuck out the following night. I met a family friend who was at another college, and we drove down Commonwealth Avenue to a mixer at one of the women’s colleges. His convertible had New York plates. We were driving along, minding our own business, when we got cut off by two huge gorillas with a Boston College sticker on their car. They screamed curses, something like, “Jew pussy, go to the ovens!” or “Death to you all!” and I answered, “Come on back, and we’ll see who’s the pussies!”

They stopped their car, they got out, and they got out, and they got out. They were big—they must have been the two starting tackles on the B.C. football team. The red mask came on me again; I charged one of them, and my “new friend” ran off screaming, “Don’t hurt me! I just had new braces put in!” This happened right in front of the school mixer. Everyone came pouring down from the stairs. I just made it under the car to protect myself, hiding, because they were kicking me and trying to turn the car over. A guy I knew, who later became a good friend, a frat brother from Long Island, the size of one of the football players, took them on. Fortunately, for me, he had been a high school champion heavyweight wrestler. In later years, he leapt out of a thirty-five story office building in Manhattan and killed himself—he was bipolar. He threw one of the gorillas over one of the garbage cans. It appears he had a red mask, too, because he ripped off their antenna and proceeded to slash the guy who was left. Then he pulled me out from under the car and helped me to the school infirmary. I needed some iodine and bandages. I looked like I’d made and lost a bad decision. The word went around campus quickly, as these things do. The next day everyone wanted me to pledge their fraternity. I was the Jewish hero.

After the incident, one of the fraternity brothers named Sandy Gallen patted me on the back and said, “Way to go!” I remembered his name years later when I heard he’d become Dolly Parton’s partner and Michael Jackson’s rep.

After college, I lived at 1012 Lexington Avenue, between 72nd and 73rd on Lexington. I had a one-bedroom apartment for forty-nine dollars a month, a third floor walk-up with French windows. I had a mattress on the floor, some built-in shelves, a bathroom with a bamboo curtain door, a hot plate, and a refrigerator.

                              ****

I could tell through the windows in my prison cell that the sun was out. It must have been a beautiful day. And tt must have been Sunday, because I heard singing from the church across from the prison. I broke my last cigarette in half and searched for more memories to keep my spirits up.

I thought about another sunny afternoon, when I was in Long Beach on one of the canals. I was only fifteen. In front of my girlfriend’s house was a fifteen-foot boat with an outboard motor. I was with Mark Newman and Joey Burrel, a swimming champ from one of the tough high schools in New York whom I’d also had a fight with. It was warm, and we wanted to go fishing and swimming. We got into the boat, which was not ours. Joey, being a pro at stealing cars, got the engine started. We both jumped in and went down the canals out to Reynolds Channel. We were having a good old time, just going around. We knew where everybody would be later in the afternoon—the tennis courts. As the then-popular disc-jockey “Murray the Kay” would say on his “swinging soirée,” it was where we would go with our dates to watch the “submarine races.”

As I mentioned, Joey Burrel was a world-class swimmer, and I was pretty good, too. Newman, who came originally from the Bronx, told us he wasn’t much of a water man. We started to show off. Everybody was cheering from the shore; they knew who we were. We were doing figure eights, going backwards and forward in circles. We were having a terrific afternoon together, until … We noticed from going around in all these erratic directions that the back of the boat was filling, and filling quickly. What do you do? Man overboard! Joey went in like a fish, and I was next. It was approximately a half mile to shore, maybe less. No big deal, we were on our way to shore anyway. Newman went down with the ship. He had on big heavy dungarees. Joey was on shore first, already smoking a cigarette. I was coming up second. Of course the boat was sinking, and Newman was struggling out there. His head was underwater. Joey was taking bets, with cigarettes, as to whether Newman would make it.

He came up, he went down, he came up, he went down. Finally, he was able to get up out of the gunk and clumsily started for shore. We had to jump in and swim back out to help him. He was panting and flopping like a wet flounder.

Two days later, my parents woke me at three in the afternoon. There were two detectives who wanted to know what I knew about the boat. They took me down to the police station, put the hot light on, and started questioning me. I didn’t crack under the pressure. I never gave up Joey, who was on probation. Newman they already knew about.

So much for my summer of loafing. They told me that I had to pay the man back for his boat, so I got a job sanding cabinets for the entire summer. Everything I made had to be paid back to the boat’s owners. Newman had to do the same.

My reminiscing ended when a blood-curdling scream came out of one of the cells. I stuffed rags in my ears. It was a death cry—one of many.

                                  ****

Three months into my incarceration, my teeth were bleeding from the diet, and my clothes were all starting to fall apart. I sat down, and was very quiet.

I concentrated, and said very softly, “If I can get out of here, I will change.”

I was not religious. I’d been bar-mitzvahed, but after that, or even before, I hadn’t given much thought to any God or divine being helping me, but at this point I had nowhere else to go. I decided to try to make a deal. I gave God my word that I would change if I could get out of there, that I would help other people. That I would try to live a moral vision of some kind.

It was getting dark.

I said, “Please get me out of here. I can’t take it. Please!”

In the depths of my despair, a powerful fantasy took shape. I imagined a sort of prison Olympics, and I got the guards to go along. It was easy because they would give us extra time to do things if we’d stay out there and be productive—by cleaning up and working on the grounds. So by building the high jump and broad jump pads, I was also able to clean up the grounds. Then I got wood from the woodshop and we made hurdles. And I got them to provide lime so we could make lines on the track, and I set up coaching classes to teach them what I knew. The prison was divided into three parts, and word got out about what we were doing in our part. And others volunteered to do it as well. The guards got involved. Watching us all train made their jobs easier. Most of the inmates were uncoordinated, and many were inept. But they tried; they were good sports. I gave them encouragement and set up competitions—the fifty-yard dash, the high jump—everybody got involved.

One afternoon, there was a commotion, and we discovered that the supervisor of prisons for the southern district of Spain had come by and watched what we were doing. They called me in the office the next day and told me it would be okay to have the games in two weeks, on a Sunday, so the guards could bring their families and have wine and cheese. And then they asked if some of the guards could participate in some events. Why not? It was turning into a carnival, like a baby Olympics!

On the day of the jailhouse Olympics, the stands were packed and there were bands playing loud music, and people were taking pictures. I was planning to pole-vault my way to freedom, but I couldn’t isolate myself to take a run at the wall. It was impossible. Everybody was watching me. I got down on my knees, asking, “What am I going to do”?

The next morning, I had a very high fever and diarrhea. I suppose the dream was part of the delirium of being sick.

Suddenly, the main guard banged on my cell, shook the doors and screamed, “¡Andale!”

They chained me and handcuffed me, and put a manacle around my waist and legs, and marched me into the warden’s office. They had a conversation, but all I got out of it was, “…mucho urgente… no más… malo… americanos…” No good. I didn’t know what was going on.

I did not have control over my bowels, and they wouldn’t let me go to the baño. Instead, they took me to another room, where I saw my suitcase and Weenie’s. I had money stashed in my suitcase, and an extra set of keys for the Peugeot that was who knows where. I was sure I was hallucinating as they told me to strip, threw me a towel, and led me into the showers and told me to clean myself up.

I got into my old street clothes, which no longer fit, grabbed my suitcase and Weenie’s, and was escorted out through the giant gates. A beat-up bus pulled up with a group of shackled prisoners—men with head and leg wounds, battered and torn—some Basques who had blown up a bank. Perhaps they needed my hotel room. But what about Weenie?

Much to my surprise, the guards escorted me back to the Peugeot to get my personal things. It was still locked up in its own little custom’s prison with hundreds of other cars. I took out my extra suitcase, a canteen, my walking boots, and some pesetas. I also took the rest of the jewels, gold, and cash I had hidden in the air conditioning system.

Luckily, the guards weren’t watching me. Then I got a cab to take me to the Hotel Christina.

I was free. But not Weenie. By sheer luck they kicked me out to make space for the Basque bombers. But my friend, the guy who came to Europe to help me find the love of my life, sat rotting in this hell hole. I had to get him out—somehow. And then I had to find my girl.

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Turning To Stone, by Gabriel Valjan

TurningtoStone_FlatforeBooks (1)Title: Turning To Stone

Genre: Mystery, Suspense

Author: Gabriel Valjan

Website: http://wintergoosepublishing.com

Publisher: Winter Goose Publishing

Purchase link: http://amzn.to/1N73WGy

About the Book:

Bianca is in Naples for Turning To Stone, the fourth book in the Roma Series from author Gabriel Valjan. Loki, her mysterious contact, is now giving Bianca baffling anagrams. They seem to lead to a charismatic entrepreneur who has a plan to partner with organized crime to manipulate the euro and American dollar. Against a backdrop of gritty streets, financial speculation, and a group of female assassins on motorcycles, Bianca and her friends discover that Naples might just be the most dangerous city in Italy.

Excerpt from Turning To Stone by Gabriel Valjan1

He was back at work.

Farrugia and Noelle had had a beautiful meal together, an even more beautiful night in bed together. It almost made him cry that she was so forgiving after the fiasco at the airport. Not even two minutes into his excuse making, telling her about the bullshit with McGarrity’s arrest, she put her fingers to his lips and said, “Shut up and kiss me.” His heart skipped the proverbial beat when she insisted that she cook for him. She had said that she had been taking a class on southern cooking as a surprise.

He felt like a child again with the antipasto. A plate of fresh-fried anchovies—Alici fritte—was to him what French fries were to American children. He was like the swordfish she cooked for the main course in that he gave her no struggle. Pesce Spada alla Ghiotta. He had pulled a Sicilian white wine from out of the rack to accompany the swordfish done “glutton’s style,” with tomato, capers, and olives. She told him there would be something special for dessert.

There was—they made love on the kitchen table. Love had made Commissario Isidore Farrugia imbranato: a goofy mess.

And now, in Scampia on an overcast morning, he was back in reality.

He watched the car ease into the parking lot. This was it. He was happy he had seen Noelle one last time, happy he had been able to spend some precious time with her in his real apartment and not in the dummy one he kept during the week in Scampia.

The car had slowed down, parked, and the door opened.

This was supposed to be a meet; “Important,” he was told over the phone by some Totaro thug he knew by name but had never met. The voice sounded as if it belonged to a three hundred-pound brute in a stained wife-beater shirt, with a paunch, some gold chains around his neck that included a crucifix and a gold cornicello, the little horn used to ward off malocchio, the Evil Eye. The goon on the phone said that he was sending Stefano with the details.

Post-coital endorphins and paranoia did not mix well.

He had arrived earlier than the scheduled time for the appointment. He had developed enough of a rapport with Stefano that allowed Farrugia to call him “Ste,” a shortened form of his name that maintained the part that carried the stress in the full name and reminded Farrugia of the English “stay” as he had heard in commands, such as “Stay put!” and “Stay here.” That was the first sign that he was in, but the System, like most crime outfits, will send the friend to kill you. It was a courtesy not to have a stranger kill you, and a humble reminder that business is business and never personal.

Farrugia feigned fixing his belt. He had his gun near his tailbone. Would Stefano shoot him from a distance? Were there no chivalrous last words, no Judas kiss before Ste made his lethal move? Another mark of respect was to kill someone up close. The way the corpse was left behind explained why the person had been killed. There was enough sign and symbol in gangland killings to fuel several doctoral dissertations.

Stefano reached into his breast pocket. Farrugia’s hand tightened around the stock. Stefano’s hand was coming out.

Cigarette pack and lighter.

Asshole.

They exchanged pleasantries. This was looking as if it would be a genuine conversation, unless it was a prelude to an ambush. Farrugia kept surveying the area through his sunglasses. The Totaros could have set them both up, which is why Farrugia had cased the area earlier for all the possible entrances, exits, and blind spots.

Ste stopped, lit his cigarette, and took some small puffs. He was puffing like a slow locomotive as he approached. Ste was from Apulia, and his last name was predictable even for the dumbest genealogist: Pugliese. His record was what the police called “small-fry” because all of his infractions were from his teenage years. He would’ve made the upper rung of the Totaro clan had he not committed those youthful indiscretions.

No mistake about it: Stefano was a known man, not associated with System violence but with a record. He was smart, not flashy, and discreet as a small-town mayor having an affair. He got things done in a friendly manner. He was also an excellent PR man in the Totaro territories. He disliked violence unless it had a purpose. Stefano Pugliese was the perfect middle-management type, directing crews and reporting back to the capos who, in turn, reported to Amerigo Totaro.

“Good to see you,” said Ste.

“Likewise. Do you want to stay here or drive around and talk?”

“Here is fine, unless you want to sit in the car for the AC.”

“I’m good,” said Farrugia.

“I’ll try and make it quick. Something big is coming down.”

“I’m listening.” Let Ste spell it out since it could be anything, drugs from the Calabrians, guns from the Russians, fake fashion from a Chinese sweatshop.

“This is new, out of Foggia.”

Foggia? The city was known for being bombed to rubble during the Second World War, known for its wheat fields and delicious watermelons and tomatoes. But he had a feeling the Totaros weren’t interested in fruit.

“This could be more your moment, Pinuccio. This might make you.”

“Pinuccio” was a diminutive of Giuseppe, Farrugia’s undercover alias. A nickname was earned, and using the diminutive was a sign of respect, of affection. Ste was saying that this business might lead to Giuseppe’s acceptance as a man with rank within the System.

“This sounds serious, Ste,” Farrugia said. “Tell me more.”

“Fake currency.”

“Counterfeiting? Impressive and high-risk, although I know sentences are turned on appeal.”

“Look at you—a lawyer before you get near a courthouse. Don’t be superstitious.  There’s always a risk, but don’t worry too much,” Ste smiled. Farrugia tried to appear concerned.

“C’mon,” Ste said, “this is a one-time gig. There’s big money involved and plenty to go around. Besides, there’s a truce with the Marra clan.”

“You’re shitting me, right? A truce?” Farrugia wasn’t play-acting his shock. This was news. “When did that happen? No, never mind. You don’t have to explain. The color of money did it all.”

Ste fished out another cigarette and let it hang from his smiling lips. “The risk is low. I’ve been told that everything has been greased from high to low so a fish could pedal a bike across the Piazza del Plebiscito and nobody would say a word, including the priests.”

“Really?” Farrugia said, playing along. “If it’s that easy then go have a kid do it. You know how the courts treat kids.”

“Relax, will you? We have somebody on the inside with the Anti-counterfeiting Unit, and the Marra clan is showing good faith.”

“Good faith? What does that mean?”

“They handed over a sample from their presses in Giugliano, gratis. You’re to pick up the rest. Giugliano meets Foggia.”

“Is it any good?”

“Absolute artwork, my friend.” Ste took the cigarette out of his mouth to kiss the tips of his fingers. “Five hundred-euro notes of such beauty that any of the renaissance masters would have cried had they seen them. Perfection.”

“Five hundred-euro notes? Are you insane? That’s much too large.”

“In Italy, it’d get attention, but do you think the Bulgarians, the Colombians, and the Russians give a damn?”

He had a point. Farrugia also knew that the Africans and Middle Easterners were using fake euros to buy up real estate in their home countries. He remained quiet. He needed Ste to think that he was not convinced.

Giugliano was a hotbed for counterfeiting. Multigenerational counterfeiters there were masters, trained from childhood. These forgers picked every ingredient like a master chef. The chemicals, paper, the ink, dryers—the entire process had to be just right. Picking a bad tomato or a watermelon doesn’t get you five to ten years in prison. So what was the connection to Foggia?  What was coming out of Foggia?

Cigarette smoke lingered near his face.

“What do you say?” Ste asked.

“What do you want me to say? I know shit about fake euros. How will I know whether the goods are quality when I get there? You’re telling me that the Marra family is behind this and the Totaros aren’t sleeping with one eye open.”

More smoke.

“You worry too much, you know that? I’ll be there myself. Marra and Totaros meet, and you’re responsible for our friends from Calabria. It’s strictly an exchange and nothing more. The Marras have guaranteed it. Part of the new peace, don’t you see? The Totaro clan gets free money as a one-time gesture, and everyone moves forward. The Marra see a sample of Totaro work done in Foggia.”

Farrugia muttered, “A regular company meeting.” Something wasn’t adding up. He wanted to show some suspicion. “Tell me one good reason why I should do this and not be thinking chrysanthemums and a funeral hymn, huh? Tell me one.”

The man put out the cigarette, exhaled a cloud of smoke, and crushed the butt with his heel. It was a nice touch. “I’ll give you more than one reason if you like, Pinucc.” You’re the man between the Totaros and the Calabrians, and the Marras don’t have that kind of in with the ’Ndrangheta. The Marras want to enjoy the benefits of working with your compatriots that the Totaros are enjoying. The Totaros know that, so they put you up. You’re the Calabrian. You have any idea how huge that is? The Totaros will be very grateful to you, and since we’re friends they’ll be nice to me. Need I say more?”

“Yeah, I feel like Othello before the Venetian Senate.” They both laughed. “And the Totaros think they’ll get money for nothing? What happens afterwards?”

Ste shrugged his shoulders. “I’ll be honest, I don’t know. But I’ll say this: if the Marras screw the Totaros, then they’re screwing the Calabrians, and the Totaros can come back at the Marras with the ’Ndrangheta behind them. You tell me, why would the Marras do that to themselves?”

He said nothing.  It seemed plausible, but nothing was that easy.

“What is it? You don’t look convinced,” Ste said.

“Did you ever think that the Marras might have some other plan in place?”

“This is serious money. Enemies will sit around a table if there is money to be made. I can tell you one thing, though.” Farrugia waited for the next pitch. “They’ll have a chair at the table for you to make things go well with the Calabrians.”

“Ste? A few days ago I heard on the news that the euro bond had beaten expectations. Sounds like the Americans are at it again with their ‘quantitative easing.’”

“Quantitative what?” The man’s eyebrows lifted.

“The Fed floods the market with dollars. Then it buys back the bonds the government issues, which keeps the dollar artifically low against the euro and that makes the U.S. exports more competitive.”

Ste had his fingers searching the cigarette pack but stopped. “What the hell do you care? Watch the news for the weather like everyone else! Are you in on this or what?” Another unlit cigarette hung from the man’s lips.

“Yeah, I’m in. Call me later with the details.”

Ste lit his cigarette. “Now you’re talking. You won’t regret this. I was worried about you there for a second.”

“Why?” Farrugia asked.

“I don’t know. You sounded like a financial analyst or something.”

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

Turning To Stone

COPYRIGHT © 2015 by Gabriel Valjan

Excerpt appears courtesy of Winter Goose Publishing

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First chapter reveal: ‘The Charlemagne Connection’ by Richard Michael Cartmel

Title: THE CHARLEMAGNE CONNECTION

Genre: Mystery

Author: Richard Michael Cartmel

Publisher: Crime Scene Books

Purchase on Amazon.

The Charlemagne Connection, Cartmel’s latest mystery, is an exhilarating tale of villainy in the vineyards featuring the rumpled but shrewd Inspector Charlemagne Truchaud of the Paris police.

About The Charlemagne Connection:  Something sinister is afoot in the charming little Burgundy village of Nuits-Saint-Georges.  Inspector Truchaud will have an elaborate mystery to unravel when a young German tourist goes missing in Nuits-Saint-Georges.  What appears, at first, to be a straightforward case takes a dark turn when a decomposing body is found in the woods….

A captivating tale that transports readers to the vineyards of Burgundy, The Charlemagne Connection crackles with suspense. Smart, seamless, and sensational, The Charlemagne Connection blends a to-die for setting, a well-balanced, full-bodied plot, and irresistible characters.  Celebrated novelist R.M. Cartmel uncorks a wild, witty, and winning wine mystery in The Charlemagne Connection.

Prologue 

Nuits-Saint-Georges, sometime after last year’s harvest 

Captain Duquesne raised an eyebrow when the angular features of young Constable Lenoir appeared round the corner of the door without warning. He was usually expected to announce himself from his seat behind the counter in the outer office, with a quick call on the intercom. After all, you never knew quite what the Chef might be doing. ‘Can I help you, gendarme?’ he asked icily.

‘There’s a woman out here with a problem which I think you ought to be aware of,’ the Constable replied carefully.

Duquesne thought for a moment, and then replied, as Lenoir looked as if he required some sort of answer. ‘Well, are you going to bring her in then?’

Constable Lenoir’s head disappeared from round the door, but his shoulder remained in sight, as Duquesne heard him telling someone outside to ‘come on through’.

‘This is Madame Blanchard,’ Lenoir said, introducing the middle-aged woman. ‘She runs the campsite just south of town.’

Duquesne remembered his manners and invited the woman to sit down, before asking her what appeared to be the problem.

‘It’s one of our campers,’ she said. ‘I think he’s disappeared.’

‘How might you mean disappeared?’ he asked extremely politely, somewhat to Lenoir’s surprise.

‘Well, he always comes to the shop at the beginning of the day, to buy some fresh bread and milk for breakfast; sometimes croissants as well; sometimes not. But for the past three days, he hasn’t even been into the shop at all.’

‘Might he have found another shop to get his breakfast from?’ asked Duquesne, the polite tone persisting, but with a slight overtone of dryness creeping in over the top.

‘Oh, I agree,’ she replied. ‘We’re not a monopoly, and we don’t demand that our campers buy only from us. All we expect is that our campers pay up for the rentals of their pitches. And his pitch rental also became due yesterday.’

‘How do you mean?’

‘Well, we charge a daily fee for each day stayed. When he first arrived, he paid a week’s rental up front in cash. He also used to come to buy his breakfast from us each morning. He was quite chatty, and spoke good French for a German, and each time he’s stayed, his French has improved, so he really seems to quite enjoy testing out his latest French idioms, while collecting the bread and milk.’

‘You mean this isn’t the first time he’s stayed with you?’

‘Oh no. This must be the fourth time he’s stayed at the Camp Millésime.’

‘And he has always got his breakfast from you?’

‘Yes, without fail; every time he’s stayed.’

‘Go on.’

‘Well, yesterday, as part of my walk round the campsite, to make sure all is well, I looked round his area, and he wasn’t there, and nor was his bicycle.’

‘Bicycle?’

‘Yes, he has a bicycle to get about on.’

‘He didn’t come all this way from Germany on a bicycle, did he?’ asked Duquesne, sounding slightly surprised. ‘What is he: an athlete in training for the Tour de France?’

‘No, captain. He comes here in an old Volkswagen Kombi campervan, which he parks up and sleeps in while he stays. He then potters about on a bicycle which he brings with him. He does appear to be quite fit, I suppose, but the Tour de France? No, I don’t think so.’

‘How old is he?’

‘About twenty-five,’ she replied.

Duquesne grinned at Lenoir. ‘Do you think he has found himself a little friend to make his holiday more fun?’

‘I thought that too,’ said Mrs Blanchard without missing a beat. ‘But when I came back this morning the pan was in exactly the same place.’

‘The pan, madame?’ enquired the captain quizzically.

‘Yes,’ she replied, ‘the pan. You see, when I went by yesterday there was a saucepan, of the sort you might boil water in, or cook things in perhaps, that was lying just outside the door of the camper. It was still in exactly the same place this morning. So, it’s extremely unlikely that he came back last night, because if he had, he would have had to move it, even just slightly, to get into the camper without twisting like some sort of contortionist. And why would you do that when all you have to do is shift a little saucepan?’

‘And it was in exactly the same place?’

‘Yes.’

‘Wasn’t that rather unfair of you leaving the young man’s pan outside? Anyone could have stolen it,’ remarked Lenoir.

‘But no one did. That’s the point. Nobody moved it to get into the camper either. I did ask the young couple with the baby — who had a pitch and a tent just across from him — if they had seen him at all, and they said they haven’t; not for the past three days.’

‘And he owes you money?’ remarked the captain.

‘Well, yes, but only a couple of days’ worth.’

‘And if he had been fully paid-up, then you wouldn’t have come round here bothering the Gendarmerie with all this?’

‘Oh, captain, I don’t think that’s fair. I’m worried for him too. He seems a nice young man: always comes on his own; seems a solitary lad; but has always been polite and pleasant to us. He doesn’t flirt with the assistants or anything.’

Captain Duquesne shrugged. The realization was dawning on him that he wasn’t going to get rid of this woman without making some sort of effort to address her concerns, unless he just physically threw her out, and that simply wasn’t Duquesne’s way. ‘What time are you going to be back at the campsite, madame?’ he asked.

‘I should be back there in about half an hour,’ she replied.

‘I shall come and have a look at the scene when you get back, or perhaps young Lenoir here will,’ he added, tossing a glance at the gendarme still standing behind the woman. ‘Do you know how to get to the campsite, constable?’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘Then you can show Mrs Blanchard out. Once you have done so, will you come back in again?’

Lenoir returned almost immediately.

‘Sit down,’ his captain instructed him, and he did so where erstwhile Mrs Blanchard had been sitting. ‘Your concerns?’ he asked.

‘Well, sir, I was just thinking … suppose she’s right? I mean, people don’t just disappear, not here in Nuits-Saint-Georges.’

‘You’re telling me that you’d like to investigate this?’

‘Yes, sir, if I may. Just to see if there really is anything to her concerns.’

‘Go for it then. You’ll find it good training, if nothing else.’

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Chapter reveal: ‘Ashamet, Desert-Born’ by Terry Jackman

Ashamet-CoverTitleAshamet, Desert-Born

Genre: Fantasy/adventure/romance/paranormal

Author: Terry Jackman

Websitewww.terryjackman.co.uk

Publisherwww.dragonwellpublishing.com

Find out more on Amazon

A desert world. A warrior nation that worships its emperor as a god. But for Ashamet, its prince, a future filled with danger…

Ashamet is confident his swordsmanship, and his arranged marriage, will be enough to maintain the empire’s peace. But when a divine symbol magically appears on his arm, closely followed by an attempt on his life, he no longer knows who to trust. Worse, the strange attraction he feels toward a foreign slave could be another trap. As events unravel, too fast,Ashamet must find out if this innocent young male is a tool for his enemies–or the magic key to his survival.

“Ashamet, Desert-Born” is a debut adventure fantasy with an exotic Arabian-style setting and elements of same-sex romance.

Chapter One

The king my father named me Ashamet. It means a copper-coloured whirlwind off the desert (colour of our own Kadduchi flesh). It’s meant to be poetic. Huh. Apart from that a princely life was pretty good – until my taster went into convulsions. Happily, they pinned it on some merchant’s less-than-healthy crawlfish. Panic over then; I didn’t bother witnessing the execution. But I was that rarity, a single offspring, and I’d been a single step from danger, and I didn’t have an heir yet.

Quite enough to make my father’s mind up; I was sentenced to be married…

Now, a thread of moisture trickled down my backbone as I took my seat again for yet another day upon the royal dais, formally escorted by my Uncle Raggesh. I had picked a sleeveless tunic in my lightest silks, a minimum of jewels, my thick, black hair lay braided at one shoulder, but it didn’t help. The Gate Hall, grandest audience chamber in our empire, had descended to a rowdy, yellow marble sweat-box.

Rag sat too, his longer robes spread out to swamp his sandalled, copper-coloured toes. Today he’d left his close-trimmed claws their natural white as mine were. Bet he wished he’d dressed like me as well. The tiny windows in the blue-enamelled arch above our heads were meant to keep this stage-like alcove cooler. Meant to, but the Gate – the famous golden screen of star-shaped so-lar lamps, at present dropped between us royals and the outer chamber – turned it back into an oven. Gods, I could have been up on a horse. In the fresh air. With a few companions I could actually trust.

I should have been receiving end-of-year assessments from my generals about our southern army’s readiness for action, given that my father had been taking more than normal interest in our southern borders lately. I suspected that our empire was again expanding.

But instead I blanked my face and scanned the throng beyond the ornate, semi-private metal filigree that dangled inbetween us.

Out there, thin coils of vapour from the ordinary iron lamps obscured the vaulted, gold and turquoise ceilings. Below, my father’s hairless, ochre-hided Kemik guard, exotic giants of our kingdoms, lined the path toward us, fangs retracted peaceably. The flame-reflections dancing off their breast-plates were the only movement there but outside them… Alpha Lords of every size and shade and all their twittering attendants skittered back and forth like termites, and the piled-up offerings destroyed the last pretence of taste the place had ever managed. I jerked my beard-point at the nearest jumble. ‘Look at it, we’ve swapped the Gate Hall for the Grand Bazaar.’

My uncle didn’t blink. ‘Show some grace. They’re your wedding gifts.’

I might have growled. It didn’t help that he was right. With five days still to go my marriage had progressed from bore, to stinking torment. Every perfume in the world was up my nose today, but none of them could mask the ripened bodies. Worse, my sword arm itched like seven hells, and with so many watchful eyes I had to curb an uncouth urge to scratch it.

Muffled creaks, from chains and pulleys underneath our feet. The Gate began to shiver upward, to disclose… ‘Gods, forget bazaar. It’s a cattle market!’

A pair of pure-bred white camels were being tugged forward, their plate-like pads scraping over the marble. Their willowy necks hung with ropes of pearls? Was the sheer volume of these eccentricities meant to make up for their inanity? As if it heard, one of the brutes chose to relieve itself, while the lordly fool in front attempted to pretend he neither heard, nor smelled, the ‘splop’ of brittle yellow crap behind him. Rag’s long nose pinched shut as brown-robed clerks made clucking noises. Slaves were chivvied forward. I think I sighed. ‘At least the colour complements the marble.’

Raggesh choked behind his drooping moustache. ‘Keep it down, Ash.’

I’d have given him a sharp retort except a guard distracted me with, ‘Highness? There’s a message from the outer gates.’

I tossed the message tube back at him and unrolled the paper. ‘Oh joy, the bride’s finally turned up… horsemen, eight baggage carts and three horse-drawn litters? My fingers tightened, crumpling the flimsy paper. I relaxed with conscious effort. ‘How many crones have they sent with her? No wonder they’re so late, they couldn’t use a desert route with those things.’

‘Uh.’ My uncle watched the frantic sweeping, quite ignoring my reaction. I obliged him with a beaming smile instead. At least my mouth did. She was here then, the daughter of our newest vassal-king, Farad of Sidass.  The bigger picture: the last of our smaller, paler, snubber-nosed Chi cousins were finally merging into the empire; a fading dynasty was being swallowed by a newer, fiercer bloodline. From where I sat I was stuck with her, unless she proved infertile.

Small chance of that. Females were rare enough. There was nothing rarer than one barren. I resisted growling at the luckless messenger. ‘Have someone send a message to the Inner Palace, to the closter-eunuchs. Tell them to unbar their doors, their future mistress is arriving.’ Though they’d very likely known as soon as I had, maybe sooner. They’d been looking forward to it.

I read on, since cleaning up the hall had halted the proceedings. Heavens forfend a lord should step in something. ‘Looks like the rumours about King Farad’s health could be true; he’s not with them.’

‘Uh.’ Rag at his chatty best. ‘Prince Effad?’

‘Not him either. This says Prince Thersat leads her escort. That’s the lesser son, right? The one who wasn’t there for the surrender?’

‘Uh.’ Rag  (another lesser son, and cut accordingly, to centre our succession) raised a lordly finger. The next noble was ushered in. The Gate lowered.  More gems.  They moved him on.

‘So what do we know about this Thersat?’

The Gate lifted again. One out, one in. Another gift, then Rag could answer. ‘At the time we assumed he’d been wounded, but now we’re told he’s “prone to illness”.’ Rag maintained his bland expression.

I drew breath. ‘Farad can’t travel, Effad’s tied to his side, so we’re lumbered with a permanent invalid?’

‘Uh,’ denoted end of topic as the Gate reopened.

‘Great.’ The cursed itching made a fresh assault. It had to be insect bites. I looked about for some distraction and spied a short, bald figure, absent from the court since summer; yes, the tubby Sheshman, copper-skinned but built more Chi than Kadd, and strident in his household’s blue and orange. Ah, and something loomed behind him.

My spirits rose. If anyone would bring me something more amusing, surely it was Sheshman, of the rolling gait and wicked chuckle. There was more trader there than noble, so my father said. More pirate too, he’d added, laughing.

I must have grinned. I felt my uncle’s disapproval so I faced toward the lord approaching, nodding gravely, like a bigger, younger copy of my stately father. But I glanced aside again to guess what Sheshman might have brought me. Four slaves were moving up a heavy-looking, box-like… something… swathed in dull grey fabric. Hmm. A cage? An animal? The male knew better than to insult his prince – and thus his king – with something paltry.

Meanwhile, the slightly slimmer northern Chi in front of us, distinguished by his nose, his browner hair and pale red skin, had bent a creaky knee before us. I shouldn’t have frowned, but it was difficult to see how the Chi, so often weaker than the other races, had been dominant so long, for all their boasts of direct bloodlines from the Ancestors. As for this one, kneeling made him look like a slave. Our own Kadduchi lords would never kneel, except to Father. Though of course these gifts were really for my father; vying for the notice of our gods-protected Voice of Heaven.

Possibly my frown grew darker; certainly my thoughts did. If I was ever crowned – I tried not to plan that far ahead – I figured their loyalty to me would be less certain. The lord before us, backing off again, looked troubled; probably convinced his present hadn’t thrilled me. ‘What was it?’ I muttered.

Rag almost shook his head. ‘Deeds to an orchard,’ he gritted. ‘Listen, will you!’

‘What-’ Now I was offended.

‘Wine, nephew, and Sultaki brandy.’

‘Ah.’ A gift worth having.

Despite his flash of temper Rag gazed calmly outward. To those who watched, he was my father’s only sibling, and his twin and his most loyal kinsman. Or to put it bluntly he was here to keep his royal nephew out of trouble. Headstrong was the least I knew they said about me; unpredictable, both in or out of battle. Rash, impetuous, a wicked sense of humour? Gods, I hoped so. Almost thirty now, and still no wiser? I ignored the carping. Sober was for years yet to come. And there was only one more presentation left before I got to see that odd-shaped box of Sheshman’s.

I turned back to my duty long enough to marvel at the antique bowls a Kemik lord brought forward. They were delightful; translucent porcelain, hand-painted by a master. Not a gift one would expect from any of the rough-skinned Kemik either, who were prone to value battle gear or horses. In fact the only gift of real taste I’d seen all morning. ‘A rare possession. I am honoured, sir.’ They moved him off. I signalled to the clerk that he record my personal approval. Now for Sheshman.

‘My prince, I bring you every prayer for your approaching marriage.’ Old Sheshman bounced up, bowed outrageously, then watched me. Ah, the sight of simple, honest motives. Bribery. Ambition. Life-blood of the palace. Earlier I’d read his beaming smile with interest, now I noticed it had faded. Second thoughts? What had the scoundrel brought me?

Despite my sudden doubts I felt my back and shoulders loosen. Moments in the old rogue’s company and I was feeling more myself, I almost burst out laughing. Well, Sheshman was both small and round, a difficult shape to look dignified. It was amusing to see him try though. He squared his shoulders, sucked in his paunch beneath one of those bright sashes he loved, and waved a lordly hand. The slaves, their cropped heads lowered, brought their burden up the outer steps and forward to my feet, then grounded it on recessed legs and cowered.

It seemed to float above the floor. Silently I awarded him marks for detail, and waited for more. He actually lowered his voice. ‘My prince, I bring you a rarity I never thought existed.’ The old fool waved again. Two slaves pulled free the heavy draperies. I started frowning; couldn’t help it. First a puzzle, now a riddle? It was a cage right enough; rounded; big enough for a large hound. But this thing was a fantasy, its bars were curled and gilded. And there was silk now, white, stretched taut inside it. A silk-lined cage? I found I’d leaned toward it. Sheshman’s eyes had sharpened, and his face gone solemn.

‘Well?’ I challenged, but I smiled. I couldn’t help that either.

‘Well enough, I hope, my prince.’ He drew a breath. ‘Perhaps.’ He glanced around. ‘Would the prince deign to open it himself?’ The fellow offered a key, from around his own neck.

Rag had straightened, in surprise or in alarm, but Sheshman wouldn’t leave alive if there was anything in there to hurt me. Besides, the key was silver. I rather thought I’d guessed the secret. Not so tempting as it had been but a well-presented trifle, and the cage, and lowered Gate, would block the view of those outside it more or less politely. So I stepped down and took the key (and the unspoken challenge) and turned it in the lock.

Sheshman was murmuring in my ear by then, his voice gone knowing. ‘Your wedding duties draw close, my prince, and your subjects know you will perform with taste and honour. But afterwards…?’

I caught the bars and pulled. Hot air rushed past me as the twin doors of this almost-cage unfurled like curving wings about me, neatly blocking the interior from anyone not right before them. The light rushed in.

There was indeed a figure; half knelt, half seated on the silken cushions. Loose white trousers were the only clothing, as I’d guessed. And silver shackles, delicate as bracelets, etched with three-point royal stars. The chain that linked them had been pegged into the cage’s flooring. And the head was ritually gift-wrapped, mummy-like, in white silk wrappings.

‘Such as this would stir the blood of any male, much less my prince, whose appetite is fabled.’ The murmur made me turn my head. The beady eyes looked up at me, expectant, earlier nerves forgotten.

I drew a breath. ‘I may be about to marry, my lord, but I haven’t yet gone blind.’ I let my voice turn cold. ‘Nor stupid. This is no youth.’

“This” was too tall, even crouched as he was. The chest, the hands and arms stretched down toward the cage’s flooring all had shape, and muscle. Maybe twenty summers? Bodyslaves were usually at least a few years younger: newly-adult: left untouched, kept very private like a female. Hells, a bodyslave was often more exclusive. After all a contract with a female – where the cursed female wasn’t royal – could be drawn up for as little as a single year. Then her family would repossess her and consider bids from other males fit to breed with.

But this one… kept apart this long, till only ten years less than I was? Virgin white and silver, on a full-grown male? What did Sheshman take me for?

Behind me Rag had risen. Sheshman’s face, which should have been as yellow-eyed and copper-hued as mine was, turned a nasty shade of umber, likely both embarrassment and fear, but he stood his ground. ‘My prince, I swear to you, I swear he’s still a virgin: more than that, a holy male, taken as an infant, grown behind high walls. I would not cheat you, highness.’ Sheshman weighed my mood and laid a final hand down. ‘My prince, I trust you to decide my honesty.  I’ll wait upon your judgement. If you judge him less than I have said, I’ll… send my youngest son to grace your chambers, to expunge the insult.’

Had I blinked? I’d heard that Sheshman kept a real trader’s superfluity of children, but my eyes and ears said he favoured that one. Give him into bondage? He’d never offer – not unless… My eyes slid back toward the cage.

I’d thought him painted. Now I saw he wasn’t. Wherever Sheshman found him it wasn’t in any of our kingdoms, not with skin like creamy marble that looked unreal in the lamplight. I followed the line of his neck and shoulder, the swell of his chest. His skin looked… fragile, and there was no sweat, though when I’d opened it I’d felt the metal cage was hotter than this alcove; never good. Surely he barely breathed, there was so little movement. One leg was tucked beneath him, the other raised before. Unusual, but graceful. Then I saw the triple-knotted cord about his waist. My breathing deepened. Truth, or lies, a very fine body.

Trust my fond uncle to spoil the moment. ‘Keep your pants on, Ash. Believe this, you’ll fall for anything.’ Dry amusement on the surface. Mockery beneath?

I defended any outward sign of interest. ‘Might be fun finding out, though.’

‘Huh. You haven’t even seen the face yet.’ Ever the cynic.

My own thoughts shifted. ‘Curious, uncle? I’ll oblige you,’ I said outrageously. I stepped forward, right into the opening, and reached up to the wrapping. The knot, loose at the nape of the neck, slid free between my fingers. One gentle tug and the silk fell away in rippling folds.

The head revealed stayed lowered, the eyes hooded. The hair, far from cropped, was long enough it would have brushed his shoulders, lighter coloured even than the Chi; not braided of course but tied back loosely. I had disarranged it somewhat. Below that a high forehead and good cheekbones framed curious brows, more delicate arches than our upswept wings. No sign of any beard, nor hair upon the chest, the face as pale as the body.

Still no movement? Perhaps the slightest swaying. As if the chains helped keep him upright? I caught the jaw and jerked it upward, gasped to feel a child-like softness, but then the eyelids lifted too, a reflex surely for he didn’t seem to focus.

Wide grey eyes, like still winter pools. Rag stirred, but I’d forgotten he was there. The eyes blinked twice, all up and down – no inner storm-proof membrane? – then gazed back at me as if he was my equal. I should have felled him, or had him whipped. Instead I stared back. My mouth dried up. I felt light-headed. This creature was weak, and confused, and more? Yes, surely. How much more though?

Curse these bites, my grip had tightened in reaction so I let my fingers drop away. I didn’t want my tougher skin to mark that silk-thin whiteness.

The lips parted. A tiny frown formed between the arched brows. ‘Are you… a vision? Or a nightmare?’

Faint, and husky. I doubted anybody else had heard him. ‘Call me either one too loud, they’ll cut your tongue out,’ I said softly.

He just looked back at me with those eyes. ‘No,’ he whispered. ‘Real..?’ His gaze lowered to the shackles at his wrists. ‘I saw this. I saw…’ Again his voice tailed off to silence. Then the white chest heaved, one huge, shuddering gulp of air. The tethered arms began to shake.

‘Call my slave master,’ I ordered. Someone scurried.

The world returned around me. Despite being shorter Rag was practically breathing down my neck. Indecent. I was stung to comment. ‘Put your tongue away, eh, uncle? If you’ve seen enough, I’ll shut this up again.’

Rag recovered with a warrior’s speed of reflex. His mouth did close, but only to reopen. ‘Aye, best keep it hid. There’ll be enough laughter as it is.’

He didn’t believe Sheshman, then. Not unreasonable, I conceded. To myself, not out loud. How in all the world could any male stay innocent this long past adult? But that face, those eyes. I’d never seen such innocence, even in youths whose balls weren’t dropped yet. And his words… My thoughts rebounded. If it was an act, it was a damn good one. And if that was so, I’d see both Sheshman and his slave regretted their performance. I shut the cage and turned. ‘I’ll weigh your claims,’ I said curtly.

Sheshman backed away as Medishel bustled forward, my half-Chi slave master, a swollen, amber echo of my own appearance in a red and yellow outer robe and broad yellow sash.  When I jerked my head he pulled at one door of the cage, peered in cautiously, then backed his head out and latched the thing up again. His manners were as excellent as ever. Not a word, not a look, just a polite, ‘My prince?’

‘Take him away, Medi. See if he’s ill, or drugged. Best keep him separate, in case, until I give you other orders.’

Medishel bowed, caught the key and waved to Sheshman’s slaves. The cage was carted off, which caused a lot of heads to turn, and furtive whispers. I wondered sourly how long it would take for the rest of the tale to spread. Have you heard the latest? Sheshman actually claimed he’d found a twenty-year-old virgin. Gods, how many of these visiting lords would ask each other if they had a complete fool for a prince, if he was even tempted to believe such rubbish.

But in my heart I think I always believed, right from the start. Some things can’t be weighed, or measured, can they?

Categories: Paranormal Romance | Tags: , | Leave a comment

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