Chapter reveal: Butterfly Waltz, by Jane Tesh

Butterfly_C1_2Title:  BUTTERFLY WALTZ

Genre:  Fantasy

Author:  Jane Tesh


Publisher:  Silver Leaf Books

Purchase at Amazon

When he helps his friend Jake Brenner, a tabloid writer on the hunt for a big supernatural story, Des Fairweather is swept up in a world of mystery and intrigue.  Despite his skepticism of the validity of the stories Jake is seeking, Des reluctantly accompanies Jake on his latest adventure—all with the promise that Jake can help Des secure an audition with the city symphony, a break Des desperately needs.

When Jake’s search takes the two out to the country to investigate an unusual phenomenon at the Snowden estate, Des encounters a startlingly beautiful young woman who claims to be magical.  That young woman is Kalida, a mysterious creature who has escaped from the people of the Caverns and renounced their evil ways.  But when Kalida is discovered, her people will stop at no end to get her to return to their world. Will Des be able to cast aside his fears in order to save Kalida….before it’s too late?

A mesmerizing tale that blends music, mystery and magic, Butterfly Waltz charms with its enchanting storyline and compelling characters. Resplendent with adventure, intrigue, and the allure of the supernatural, Butterfly Waltz is delightful.


The music was clearer.  It had been the faintest whisper, the tune barely discernible.  The theme grew familiar, a soft, beckoning tune, a waltz of lilting melancholy.

Kalida woke, smiling.  Traces of the dream music hung about the dark room, brightly colored ribbons of sound.  For several moments, she savored the melody, but her smile faded with the music.  She would have to decide soon.

She folded back the rose-colored sheets, removed her bedclothes, and slipped into her gown.  Her long black hair glittered as she ran her comb down its length.  Faint sunlight picked its way delicately through the forest and bathed the small room in pearly light.  Another beautiful day waited outside.

Kalida took an apple from the blue glass bowl on her small table and sat down on the little bench outside the doorway of her home.  She gazed at the silent wood.  Small birds flickered from tree to tree.  A few butterflies danced above the wildflowers that grew in the grove.  Bright colors, sunshine, butterflies—these things were alien to her nature, but she had grown to love them.  Alone with time to think, she had decided her people, the people of the Caverns, had been wrong about so many things it was impossible to count them.

The Caverns.  To think of them was to be back within the dark hallways of cold stone, the only sound the rustling of her gown on the smooth floor, while all around, silver eyes and ruby eyes cast secretive glances full of malice as they studied the rules, the dark etiquette that bound all to the Legion.  Conquer and destroy.  That was the only way.  How many worlds had she seen blown to ashes, how many beings had she heard crying out in despair?

She had been part of the destruction.  She had flown with her people, but always reluctantly, as if there were something else just beyond her reach, something different.  She could trace her discontent to the Leader’s celebration, the night she first heard music.

As a small child, she had watched in awe as the veterans of the Legion received honors at victory celebrations.  The leader she first remembered was a dark-eyed man as rough and sharp as a stalactite, who called the young ones up for a better look.  With their transforming skill, members of the Legion re-enacted the battle.  Young Kalida, thrilled by the sights and sounds, longed to be a part of it all.  Everyone clapped until sparks flew from their hands.  But one celebration night had been different.

That night, a great whispering filled the tunnels.  Kalida heard a man say, “Some new entertainment.  The Lady has brought an Andrean man to the celebration.  We’ll have some fun.”

The Lady was the title of their Leader, a harsh, demanding woman who rarely held celebrations.  Kalida followed the others to the Hall.  The Andrean man stood in the center.  He didn’t seem worried or afraid.  He wore tattered clothes and boots.  An odd-looking instrument was slung over his back.

More whispers.

“They say his brother joined the Legion.”

“How would The Lady allow that?”

“What is that thing on his back?”

“Is he going to sing?”

“Sing?” Kalida said.  “What do you mean?”

Her companion grimaced.  “You’ll see.”

Kalida stared at the man.  “But isn’t The Lady mounting a massive campaign against the Three Worlds, Trieal, Andrea, and Fey East?  What’s this Andrean man doing here?”

“I told you.  You’ll see.”

At last, The Lady appeared, accompanied by her latest creation, a creature in the shape of an eerily beautiful child.  She sat down in her stone chair with the child beside her and introduced the man. “This is Raven.  Don’t stare, child.  He’s here to sing for you.  He is always welcome.”

“But isn’t he an enemy?” the child asked.

“Under usual conditions, yes, but his brother enjoyed a brilliant if rather brief career with us, and therefore we admit Raven to our social gathering out of pity, shall we say?”

The man looked at her without expression.  “My brother’s choice to join you shamed my family, but his music will live long after you are gone.”

The Lady gave a short laugh.  “Very good.  Sing now.  I want my people to hear what you call music.  It will give them another reason to eradicate your race.”

“Whatever you wish.”

Kalida listened, fascinated, as the melody pierced the darkness of the Hall.  The members of the Legion groaned and cursed at the sound.  Her companion gave her a curious glance, so she winced, as if the sound hurt her ears as well, but it didn’t.  It intrigued her.  It made pictures in her mind of things she had never imagined.

“Love will find me,” the man sang.  “Love green and golden.  I’ll not turn from you, nor change all the while.  Safe in the magic of your smile.”

She wanted to hear more.

But there was no more music from the Andrean man.  After the celebration, he was taken away.  She never saw him again, which made her moody, not an unusual emotion among the Cavern-born, so no one suspected she had changed.  Over the years, she saw Leaders come and go, but never wanted to be one.  Her acquaintances were puzzled by her lack of ambition, but Kalida hid her growing unease.  She could not forget the alien man or his song.  Quite unexpectedly, she found a way out.

In one wild moment of rebellion, she fled the Caverns to Andrea, hoping to find the man.  She flew to the woods near Traditional City, planning to take animal form to avoid detection.  In the woods, she fell through a blaze of light, fell to this world.


That first morning, when the golden sun touched the lush green grass, she couldn’t keep her eyes off the color.  What was it?  Light she knew, and shadow, but this deep rich hue that colored the grass and the moss and the leaves intrigued her.  She knew red and black and white, silver and gray, colors of the Caverns.  Yellow and gold were rare, but she had golden eyes, or so everyone said.  This alien shade, though, calm and deeply satisfying, she had seen only once, on the tattered clothing of the man who played music so many years before.


She could sit in the grass for hours, reveling in new colors, even the rich browns of the earth and trees.  Everything spoke of life and growth and energy.  Exploring beyond the new forest, she discovered a large white house and watched the people who lived there.  She learned the names of colors from Mister Snowden as he taught his children in the garden.  She learned that the world was called Earth, and there was no magic here.

For a while, she didn’t need magic, just sunlight and birdsong and new colors.  Then disturbing dreams began, dreams of night flying, her hair streaming behind in the cold wind as she swooped down on cities like a bird of prey, touching the tallest towers and watching them burst into flame.  She would wake, trembling with fear and desire.  She thought her people would be unable to track her to this world, yet she saw misshapen shadows in the trees and heard harsh sounds haunting the night.  Had her people found her?

She thought of the bottle in the back of her cabinet and a shiver went through her.  No, don’t back down now, she told herself.  But how much longer can you live like this, lonely,  friendless, purposeless?  She shivered again.  She knew exactly how much longer.

She couldn’t eat.  She spent the day sitting in the doorway.  Light shone through the little bottles of potions on the window ledge: pale lavender, rich violet, amber, blue, and red.  The day itself was green and gold, so unlike the days of her childhood, which had been filled with fierce red light and the cold dark silence of the Caverns.

I am not like that now, she thought, as the sunlight faded and the colors died.  Night was the time she liked best, but this night, the darkness closed in around her.

Do I really want to do this?  Why put it off?  Drink the potion and be done with it.  The music was a dream, nothing more.  Drink the potion.  Who knows what other worlds lie beyond death?


*                      *                      *

“Tomorrow?”  Desmond Fairweather stared at his friend Jake Banner in astonishment.  “I can’t go anywhere tomorrow.”

Jake beamed, undaunted, hands outspread as if he’d caught a record-sized fish.  “This is it, Des, the big story.  Actual reports of talking flowers.  You know you can’t pass this up.  I know you can’t, and I’m staying here till you agree.”

A grand piano dominated Des’s sparsely furnished apartment room.  Jake perched on the piano bench, slicked back his hair, and gave the impression of settling in for the day.  His neon green shirt and pink tie created a jarring combination that made Des’s eyes ache as he glared at his friend.  His last student, Melissa, a giggly seventeen-year-old, had just left, after a thorough and determined massacre of her Scarlatti lesson, and he was still waiting for his head to clear.  With an impatient gesture, he pushed his dark hair out of his eyes.

“Not another of your harebrained stories for the Galaxy.” He moved a stack of sheet music out of the way before Jake’s elbow toppled it over.  “It’ll be a fake like all the others.”

“A fake?” Jake’s blue eyes widened.  “None of the others were fake.”

“I’m not going to argue with you,” Des said, “and I’m certainly not going to go chase talking flowers.”

“Aw, come on.  It’ll be fun.”

“Fun for you, you mean.”

“The owner happens to be a beautiful young lady,” Jake said in his most wheedling tone.

Des motioned wildly to the crumpled balls of paper littering the floor around the piano.  “Do you see all this?  I’m trying to compose.  I’ve told you I don’t want to travel all over the country tracking down old magic.  I don’t believe in old magic.  I don’t believe in new magic.  I don’t believe in magic of any sort.”

Jake kept his grin.  He twiddled a few piano keys and fiddled with the metronome.

Des snatched it out of his hands.  “Will you go away?”

Jake leaned back against the piano as if he found it the most comfortable spot in town.  “How’s the cash flow at Chez Fairweather?  Paid this month’s rent yet?”

“What does that have to do with anything?”

“Talked to Sylvia yesterday.  She says she’ll recommend you for that symphony thing.”  He glanced up, eyes crinkling with amusement.

Des found it hard to speak.  “Are you talking about symphony auditions?”


“She can do that?”

“Just call her up.”

Des took a deep breath to steady himself.  Jake’s reliability was questionable, but his sister Sylvia had important connections with Parkland’s music community.  “Did she get on the Arts Council Board?”

Jake swung around on the bench.  “Get on?  Pal, she’s the new president.  She’ll be happy to set things up for you, chum.  That is, when we get back from our little day trip.”

“Day trip?”

“To the land of talking flowers.”

Des gave Jake a narrow-eyed glare.  “Damn it, Jake, that’s blackmail.”

Jake shrugged.  “Hey, you do me a favor, I do you a favor.”

“I won’t do it.”

“Okay.  I guess you like living in such splendor.”  He played a loud version of “Chopsticks.”  “This thing needs a tune-up.”

Des closed the piano, sorry he missed Jake’s fingers.  “I’ll just call Sylvia and ask for her help.”

“Uh-uh, doesn’t work that way.  This is a package deal.  You help me get a story, and Sylvia will smooth the way for you, get you a good time slot or whatever.  Sounds pretty reasonable to me.  You want as many things going in your favor as possible, right?”

Des sighed.  Dealing with Jake always gave him a headache. “If I go watch you make a fool of yourself, will you leave me alone?”

“Of course.  Won’t take a minute.  We ride out, hear the flowers, record them.  I get definite proof of magic, old Basil down at the Galaxy is happy, I’m happy, and you get your audition and leave this lovely roach condo you call home.”

Des slumped in his one chair and regarded his friend, wondering how Jake managed to be so damned cheerful all the time.  He was right, though.  The apartment was dismal: a tiny grubby kitchen, an even smaller bathroom, and this room, full of piano.  Giving piano lessons wasn’t the most lucrative of careers, but he had made the decision to move out, to try his luck.  A successful audition with the prestigious city symphony could be the break he was looking for.  What he wasn’t looking for was talking flowers.  “I still don’t see why I have to go.”

“Why, pal, you’re the best,” Jake said.  “Critters just flock to you.  Haven’t you noticed?  You have a definite affinity with the Other World.”

“I do not.”

“Must be those big soulful green eyes.”

Des heaved himself out of the chair and gathered the papers off the floor.  “Will you get out of here?  I have work to do.  Real work.”

Jake reached the door.  “I’ll pick you up tomorrow morning at six.”

“Six?  Why so early?”

“I wanna be there when the dew dries.”

Des made a lunge, but Jake eluded him, laughing, and was out the door and gone.  Muttering under his breath about unwanted guests, Des bent to pick up more papers and caught sight of his reflection in the one small window.  Soulful green eyes, indeed.  Did Jake think he’d fall for that line?  Yes, his eyes were green, his hair dark and unruly, and his expression serious, just like his father’s, in fact, so much like his father’s he was afraid he might meet the same tragic fate.  Now there was a story Jake could appreciate, a story full of magic.


What if—no, he dared not try.  He had made his decision.  He had given up the family home and the family fortune, so he had given up the family curse, as well.  He prayed he had.

Wouldn’t a little magic make things easier, though?  A better place to live, a better job, even that symphony position?

He shuddered and tried to suppress the memories.  Make things easier. Isn’t that what his father wanted?  Look what happened to him.

No, don’t look.

Categories: Fantasy, Mystery | Tags: , | Leave a comment

Hidden Shadows, by Linda Lucretia Shuler

HiddenShadows_medTitle: Hidden Shadows

Genre: Literary

Author: Linda Lucretia Shuler

Publisher: Twilight Times Books

Amazon OmniLit B&N / Twilight Times Books

Hidden Shadows is a story of connection: to the land, to our ancestors, to others, to ourselves – and to the redemptive power of love:

Cassie Brighton, devastated by the accidental death of her husband, flees to a remote homestead deep in the rugged Texas Hill Country. Alone in a ramshackle farmhouse steeped in family secrets, Cassie wages a battle of mind and heart as she struggles to overcome the sorrows of her past, begin anew, and confront the possibility of finding love again.

Mountain Waltz

Summer, 1996        

Death waited to dance for her through the eye of the camera. It would be a slow dance, graceful as a waltz against a slate blue sky.

She gazed at the view framed in the lens, unaware of danger: Colorado mountains rising all around, glowing pink and purple in the morning sun. Her husband Thomas grinning on the precipice of a sheer cliff, the canyon wide and deep behind him. A golden eagle hovering above, drifting silent in the winds, wings outspread like a dark angel descending.

All she had to do was press her finger, one small click, and the photo would be taken. Yet she hesitated, wanting this moment to last.

Thomas pulled a cap from his jeans pocket and rammed it on his head. “Going to take all day?” he teased. “C’mon, Cassie girl. Everybody’s waiting.”

The air smelled of fecund earth and crushed leaves and coffee warming over a campfire. Cassie glanced toward the scattered tents and the handful of friends who had traveled with them. No one seemed in a hurry. After a long week of roughing it, they likely welcomed the last few hours of leisure before heading separate ways, as did she.

There was something magical about this mountain, this breeze warm upon her skin, the shifting colors and glowing sky, the soaring eagle. And Thomas, standing like a young oak that had sprouted from the rock, a natural part of the elements with wildness in his blood.

The camera was an old Nikon with a bulky zoom, and hung from a strap around her neck. “On the count of three,” she warned Thomas. “One, two…”

She snapped the photo, the sound swallowed by the eagle’s cry. The bird dived into the canyon, the shadow of its great wings sweeping across the precipice. Cassie saw it through the camera’s eye, saw Thomas and his startled response, his head jerking upward, his foot stepping back, the rocks beneath crumbling away.

Time and motion slowed as if in a dream.

Thomas stretched out his arms as though he, too, were about to lift from the ground and fly. Then he seemed to float backward, softly slipping from the cliff edge. His cap lifted away, light as a fallen leaf carried by the wind. He looked directly at her, mouth agape as if wanting to speak, and dropped from sight.

Cassie ran toward the empty space where he once stood, the camera whacking her chest, seeing everything, seeing nothing, a scream ripping her throat. Her red hiking boots flashed forward and back as her feet propelled her on and on. Red boots, red as blood, red as the fear roaring in her heart.

She teetered on the precipice. There, far below, sprawled face upward on a jagged outcropping as if sleeping in the sun, was Thomas, still as the stone he lay upon. Wind touched his wheat-gold hair, lifted the hem of his shirt, tasted the blood spreading from the back of his head like the bloom of an exotic flower. Ruby tendrils reached for the edge and dripped into the canyon depths.

“Thomas!” Her cry echoed among the mountains, Thomas! Thomas! Thomas! “I’m coming down!”Coming down! Coming down! Coming down!

She stumbled along the rim in a frantic search for access. The mountains yawned as if cloven with a knife, the sides shimmering, the floor sinking into shadows. Afraid of tumbling into the vast emptiness, she dropped to her knees and crawled along the precipice, pebbles and debris raining down from her scrabbling hands.

God help me!

A root thrust a gnarled arm from the wall some ten feet below. If she could somehow manage to get to it, then to the narrow shelf below that, and then…

How far down had Thomas fallen? Her mind couldn’t calculate. He looked so small from where she knelt, so abandoned, like an unwanted doll.

Oh, God! Oh, God!

She lay flat, the rock-strewn earth digging into her stomach and legs, and stuck her feet over the lip. She could feel the tug of the wind as she inched downward, fingers grabbing at the dirt, her boots seeking a hold. Grit caked her teeth. She was sobbing, unaware of the sound, thinking somewhere in the deep recesses of her mind that she heard the anguished cries of a wounded animal.

Then she was airborne, lifted by a half-dozen hands and hauled onto level ground. She struggled against the arms that held her fast, the clamor of voices, the contorted faces. They dragged her to safety, the precipice receding through her tears.

She couldn’t breathe. Her body shook and turned cold. They laid her on a sleeping bag and wrapped her in blankets, constraining her like a mummy while the sun slid across the sky and the eagle returned to its flight, wings glittering.

Thomas. Her lips formed his name. She looked up and imagined it was he who soared across the blue, gliding in the winds as if his spirit had risen free and now gazed down upon her. The bird dropped closer and closer still, transforming into metal and roaring as it dipped into the canyon and disappeared. Dust whirled in torrents from the blast of its wings.

She tore the blankets aside and lurched upright, clinging to the hands she had once fought. She had no sense of minutes or hours, only of an icy numbness that settled into her bones.

Whap-whap-whap! Propellers rose from the abyss, lifting the helicopter, lifting the basket that swung from its belly and carried her love. Even from this distance she could see the gold of his hair, the silken texture. The helicopter hovered like a giant prehistoric bird, then began its journey. She stumbled after it, the shadow slithering along the rugged mountain, until it vanished into the horizon.

The Ghosts Are Singing

Summer, 1999

Three years had passed since death danced on the Colorado mountain – one thousand eighty-odd long days of grieving.

Cassie drove with the window down, squinting into the glare as miles slowly passed and the Texas sun blazed hot in the noon sky. Gnarled oak, honey mesquite and cedar crowded for room in the rocky Hill Country soil, crawled up outcroppings and plateaus,   and butted against prickly pear cactus, purple-stemmed grass, and the occasional cow or goat. Willow City Loop, the road was called. An odd name, since there was no city. Just a couple of buildings missed in the blink of an eye. And the loop straggled with dozens of turnoffs, gravel-tossed and rutted and often identical, rambling to pastures or buildings unseen from the road. Fortunately, the one she sought was marked by boulders tumbled in disarray like the ruins of an ancient castle, setting it apart from the rest.

She longed to be thirteen again, worry-free and anticipating the summer ahead in her grandmother’s home among the hills. But here she was, old enough to be mother to the girl she barely remembered, driving under that same sun toward the same home, now holding only echoes of long-ago days.

The renovated Thunderbird jounced across cattle guards, through gray-weathered wooden gates, and past split-rail cedar fences. Little had changed since she was a girl traveling this dusty road in her grandmother’s creaking Studebaker. She could almost smell the bitter scent of torn leather and hear the rattling complaints uttered by the car they had christened Methuselah since it seemed destined to live forever. Mimi would drive it like a madwoman, stomping on the gas and grinding the clutch as if in a battle of human against machine.

Oh, Mimi, how I miss you!

Thoughts of her beloved grandmother often came unbidden, and with them the memory of Mimi’s hands clutching hers for the last time.

“Promise me!” Mimi had sighed, pale and shrunken amid the rumpled bed sheets. “Promise!”

“I’d like to, but…”

“Live there one year, that’s all I ask. You’ll make the right decision after that.”

“But how?” Something clattered in the hall beyond the door, followed by a spurt of laughter. Cassie paused, startled. Gaiety seemed out of place in this dreary nursing home. She squeezed Mimi’s fingers, surprised at how spindly her bones had become. “Thomas and I just opened a boutique, remember? Spirit of the Southwest. I may be an old lady before I have time to spare.”

“Go when you can. The land will wait.”

Cassie nodded, “All right, I promise,” loving this worn-out old woman who bore little resemblance to the vibrant soul she remembered. When had her grandmother withered into a husk? She leaned in close, her breath stirring wisps of the silver-streaked hair. “Why me? Why not Mother?”

“She can’t… hear them.”

“Hear what?”

Mimi closed her eyes, her voice a mere shadow. “The ghosts are singing.”

“There are no ghosts here, Mimi. Just me.” Cassie laughed quietly.

“They sing for you,” she murmured, and said no more. She never opened her eyes again, nor spoke.

There, finally! The marker she was looking for: a jumble of boulders under an arching mesquite, a wooden plank nailed to the trunk. A sun-bleached arrow pointed toward the hill beyond with the words,Spring Creek. She turned and winced. Gravel pinged and splattered under her treasured Thunderbird and exploded from the wheels as she bounced along rutted dirt hard as concrete, winding upward until Willow City Loop became a ribbon curling far below.

There was something in the road, small, gray-brown, unmoving. An armadillo, she realized, her hands already tugging at the wheel to swerve away. Cassie yelped and swerved, bumped over jagged rocks, crashed through prickly pear, then nose-dived into a shallow ravine. The motor sputtered and died.

She sat with hands clenching the wheel and foot pressing the brake. After a moment, she opened the door, almost afraid to look. Briars scratched her bare ankles as she walked up the incline and down again, bracing her hand against the car, eyes sweeping every inch of metal and chrome. Other than tilting thirty degrees and settling on the rim of a flat rear tire, the Thunderbird seemed miraculously untouched, a fine layer of dust powdering the pastel yellow finish.

“Now what?” She groaned. No way could she change a tire at this crazy angle. There wasn’t a soul around to help, nor a house in view. Just the armadillo lumbering along unscathed and a couple of distant goats.

She pulled a scrap of paper from her pocket. On it she had written the name Justin Grumm, followed by his telephone number. Although Mr. Grumm was the caretaker of Mimi’s property and had exchanged letters with Cassie about the estate, she had yet to meet him in person. He and his wife lived about a half mile ahead in a white cottage on cinder blocks that had been there ever since Cassie could remember, the time-warped porch supported by pillars hacked from mesquite. Mr. Grumm had been delighted to hear from her several weeks ago. “Excellent!” he declared after Cassie explained that she was planning to move into Mimi’s home and would need a key. She had liked his voice, warmed by the trace of a German accent.

“Good lord, you’re going to live there a year before putting it up for sale? Why bother?” her mother asked from somewhere in Paris with husband number four or five, Pierre something. Tuff, or Taft. Maybe Tift. In the long-run it wouldn’t matter since Lillian seemed intent upon changing husbands along with the seasons. “Mama’s dead, God rest her soul, and won’t know one way or another. Just clean the place up, throw away all that junk, and put it on the market. You could be in and out of there in a couple of weeks.”

“I promised…”

“Promises don’t count when the ears that heard them are buried six feet under.”

“How can you say such an awful thing?”

“You’re throwing a year of your life away! Let the past stay in the past and get on with living. Why isolate yourself in the sticks? What are you running from?”

Cassie couldn’t answer, then or now. Maybe she was running. Maybe she just wanted some peace. Maybe she didn’t know where else to go.

Maybe she was hoping to pull the raveled threads of her life together.

She had tossed luggage in the trunk and back seat, topped helter-skelter with odd items. Her potted rosebush sat alone in the front, belted and secured, crimson blossoms glowing. Long buried amid its roots were two treasures, one already turned to ash and the other rendered so by time. The rose and its roots had traveled with her from one city apartment to another, and now would be experiencing a much different life in the country – as would she.

Telling herself to hurry and do something, she reached into the car for her cell phone, pausing with a start when she caught her reflection in the side-view mirror: raven hair windblown, cheeks flushed, eyes murky as coffee brewed too long in the pot. Tiny wrinkles creased the corners. “Crow’s feet tapping at my door,” she groused. She’d be forty-five soon. Forty-five! Where had the time gone?

She dialed the phone and was met with silence. Disgusted, she flung it onto the dashboard; it skittered off, bounced against the gear shift, and plopped to the floor. No cell, no call to Mr. Grumm, no rescue. She would have to walk.

The rosebush presented a problem; she couldn’t risk leaving it in the blistering heat of a locked car. She hoisted the heavy clay pot into her arms, struggled up the road toward a wild black cherry tree, and dragged it the last few yards into the shade. “Take care, my loves,” she said. “I’ll be back soon.”

One more trek to the car for her purse and keys, and she was on her way. The sky gleamed colorless, with a scattering of clouds to break the bleached monotony. Blackbirds spiraled overhead, satin feathers glinting. Cassie imagined what they saw from their avian drafts, looking down – a lone woman, soft summer skirt brushing her legs as she trudged uphill along a rock-strewn roadway. A bare wind breathed upon her face as the earth fell away behind her, and when she looked over her shoulder she could see an eruption of vegetation-furred plateaus on the horizon, their tops so flat and defined it looked as though God had skimmed them with a buzz saw, while up ahead the hills leaped from the earth rounded and full.

The dry air tasted like scorched weeds. Her feet moved on, their beaded sandals soon swallowed by dust. “Idiotic,” she grumbled. Why hadn’t she worn something more practical, such as… what? Her hiking boots came to mind, red with black laces wide as ribbons, boxed somewhere among her other belongings stored in Houston. Although she had worn the boots only briefly, she was loath to do so again and equally loath to throw them away. So she hid them from sight and from the memories they evoked.

Those memories tugged at her now, pulling her heart along with them.

She had met Thomas Brighton at an outdoor music festival in Colorado. Tall and blond and wide-shouldered, he sat on the sun-warmed Vail slope, eyes closed while the sound of fiddles shimmered among the aspen. As she approached, his eyes opened, vivid blue, and she felt as though she had come face to face with a Viking from ages past somehow hurled into the present. He smiled and motioned for her to join him, offering his hand. She settled next to him, trusting the inner voice that whispered, “Yes.”

Ten years later, while celebrating their wedding anniversary among those very same mountains, it all came to an abrupt, horrifying end.

She buried his ashes in the roots of the rosebush he had planted beneath the bedroom window. When she could stand to live there no longer, when phantoms prowled among the darkened corners and empty rooms, she dug up the bush, put it in a clay pot with as much of the dirt and ashes as it could contain, and left. The roses were the only constant in her life as the years passed, the one thing she treasured above all else, protecting the dust of her youth.

Stop thinking about it! she scolded herself. That was another time, another world, another self.“Don’t dwell on sadness,” Mimi had often told her. “Lift your eyes to the heavens and your spirit will follow.” As much as she loved her grandmother, Cassie knew from experience that the only thing you got from looking upward was a stiff neck.

I’m like a dog with a chewed-up bone, gnawing on old grief.

A train whistle shrieked faintly across the miles. She turned and looked back at the slope she had climbed, the massive stretch of sky. A splotch of yellow marked the presence of her car below, tipped and waiting on three solid wheels. The whistle echoed once again, as if lonely and weeping for something lost.

She shook the dust from her sandals and continued onward, one step following another, the air glistening with heat mirages. Her mind quieted and she fell into an easy rhythm, feet moving steadily, arms swinging. It was almost a surprise when she saw the caretaker’s cottage standing as she remembered – except for one thing.

Or many things. Perched on the fence and crowding the yard were multitudes of angels in all sizes and shapes, constructed out of metal scrap – wings of rusty tractor seats, halos of wagon wheels, billowing skirts of chicken wire, trumpets and harps from shovels or hoes, scissors or hedge clippers. Mobiles of angel forks and spoons dangled from the porch overhang, and several angelic giants with bodies made of barrel hoops appeared ready to launch themselves from the rooftop.

She walked up the steps onto the porch and peered through the screen door. The room beyond, bright with splatters of blues and yellows, resonated with the sound of clocks. “Hello?” she called over the barrage of tick-tocks. A fat white cat, face round as a stuffed pillow, appeared from inside and looked up at her with cobalt eyes. “Hi,” Cassie said. “Is your mommy or daddy home?” She knocked on the door, the frame rattling under her knuckles.

Ja, I’m coming!” A woman approached, almost a perfect match to the cat – small and plump and silver-haired, with lively hazel eyes magnified behind thick, gold-framed glasses. She smiled at Cassie through the screen.

“Mrs. Grumm? I’m Cassie Brighton, and I…”

“Mrs. Brighton, gut, gut! Justin has been expecting you.” She opened the door, its hinges protesting, and glanced at the road. “Where’s your car?”

“Somewhere at the bottom of the hill. I drove into a ditch and got a flat tire. So I walked.”

“In this heat? Oh, my dear girl, sit down this minute. Let me get you something to drink.” She led Cassie toward an overstuffed chair draped with a floral shawl and scurried away.

Before Cassie could protest, Mrs. Grumm had gone and the chair beckoned. She sank into it and rested her feet on a needlepoint stool, the shredded fabric testament to its daily use. A replica of the cat smiled at her through the worn threading along with the name, Strudel. “How did you rate your own portrait?” she asked as the cat brushed against her legs. Perhaps thinking this an invitation, Strudel leaped upon the arm of the chair and stretched its head toward her lips as if wanting a kiss. Cassie had never been fond of cats but didn’t protest when it curled into her lap and began to purr. “Like a miniature lawn mower,” she murmured, and closed her eyes.

Bong! Tweetle-too! Cuckoo-cuckoo!

Cassie jolted out of her chair, tumbling a disgruntled cat to the floor. From every room in the house clocks clanged, sang, or rang the hour. There must have been two dozen – no, surely more. Cassie spun around, delighted. A tall grandfather clock with a huge round head atop a narrow body chimed in a stately fashion, a minuscule sailing ship tick-tick-whistled, and an intricately carved village with costumed folk danced around a well and tinkled “Edelweiss,” each telling her it was four o’clock in the afternoon.

“Are you rested?” This spoken behind her, the voice deep and obviously amused.

Cassie turned to face an impossibly tall man, all bones and joints, with a toothy smile spread in a wrinkle-grooved face.

“Yes, thank you, but I… was I… Did I fall asleep?”

“Thoroughly. Snoring is healthy, by the way. Clears the lungs.”

“I’m so sorry, I…” Cassie stammered.

“Justin!” Mrs. Grumm scolded. “Enough teasing.” She smiled at Cassie. “Pay no mind to this old man. You napped very lady-like. Now come, I have something for you.”

Justin ran a hand through his fluff of sparse hair as Cassie, pulled along by Mrs. Grumm, entered the kitchen. It was a cheerful place, decorated with crisp white curtains and a blue tablecloth. A pottery jar filled with sunflowers graced the windowsill.

Cassie soon found herself sitting at the table, enjoying a glass of iced tea garnished with mint. “Delicious. It’s been years since I tasted fresh mint.”

“It came from my mother’s garden long ago, in Villach. Every spring it sprouts up more, like weeds.”

“Can’t kill the stuff.” Justin pulled out a chair and sat at an angle, long legs half under the table and half out.

Mrs. Grumm opened the refrigerator and reached for an ice tray. “You want to give her the key, or do you expect her to kick the door down?”

“Stop fussing, Schatzi. I didn’t forget.”

“You left it in the freezer, next to the ice cream.”

“Well, hand it over then.” Justin grinned at Cassie. “That house will be happy to see you. It’s been empty too long.”

“Cold as the devil.” Mrs. Grumm wiped the key with a dishtowel and laid it beside Cassie’s plate. “Sometimes this man of mine is so forgetful I wonder he can find his own head,”

Forged from iron and tipped by an ornate heart bound in vines, the key was longer than Cassie’s hand. “How beautiful!” she exclaimed. “I wonder how old it is.”

Justin shrugged. “As far as I can figure, the olden part of your house – the one in the back that the rest was added onto – was built sometime in the mid 1800’s. So close to a hundred sixty years, give or take a few.”

“I didn’t expect a key like this.”

“You’ve not seen it before?”

Cassie shook her head. “Mimi never locked her doors. She said the spirits in the woods would watch over things. I gave up trying to talk sense into her head.”

“Now don’t you worry about bad spooks. Only good ones fly around over there.”

“There you go again, giving the girl a hard time.” Mrs. Grumm patted Cassie’s shoulder. “We’re surely happy to meet you at last.”

Justin nodded. “What took you so long?”

“Well, I…” Cassie floundered. How could she tell them? What could she tell them? Her troubles were hers alone: the emptiness that faced her, the dreams that plagued her.

“Justin, enough for today. Let the girl tell us all about herself later, when she’s rested.”

“All right, all right. I know I’m a nosy buzzard.”

Relieved, Cassie nibbled on a ginger snap. “These are wonderful.”

“Berta isn’t too bad with the sweets. Except for her grebbel.”

“So you’re complaining about my doughnuts now?” Berta smacked him with the dishtowel. “You ate three this morning, silly old fool.”

“Had to force down each bite. Pure torture.”

Cassie watched the Grumms grinning at one another and something twisted inside – a longing, a regret. She drained her glass and set it aside. “Thanks for your hospitality, but I really must be going. Do you know who I could call to upright my car and fix the flat? Is there a gas station nearby?”

“I reckon so, if by ‘nearby’ you mean within twenty miles or thereabouts,” Justin said with a chuckle. “Guy’s Auto is closer in, but he doesn’t work on Thursdays. Today is Thursday, isn’t it?”

“Yesterday was Wednesday and tomorrow’s Friday,” Berta said, “so unless the world has turned upside down, yes.”

“That settles that, then.”

Cassie’s heart plummeted. “Surely there’s someone around who could help. I’d hate to leave my car and everything in it until tomorrow.”

“Guy may not work on Thursdays, but this man does.” Justin stood and adjusted the pants at his narrow waist. “Come on, then. Let’s get the job done.”

“Stay and have dinner with us afterward,” Berta said. “There’s not enough in your refrigerator for a good meal tonight – just eggs and such. We didn’t know what you might need.”

“How kind of you. I didn’t expect anything at all.”

“Drive straight here once the tire is fixed and I should have something nice and hot for you both.”

“Oh, but I couldn’t. I mean I shouldn’t. I have too much to do. You’ve both been so lovely to me, but I haven’t been to the house yet and…” Several clocks chimed the quarter hour. “And it’s already four-fifteen.”

“It doesn’t get dark until after eight. Please, we’d love to have you.” Berta nudged Justin. “Isn’t that right?”

“Right as blueberry pie – which we’ll have a good portion of tonight, fresh-made.”

Cassie was tempted, but she still had a long day ahead of her, a car to upright and a tire to change, luggage to unload, a house to inspect. “May I have a rain check?”

“Of course! How about tomorrow at lunch?”

“That sounds delightful.”

“Good! I’ll see you at noon. Fix that car good, Justin. And try not getting your shirt dirty. I just washed it.”

“Stop fussing, Schatzi. You’ve scrubbed this shirt so much there’s hardly a thread left.” He leaned to Cassie and muttered, “Berta goes into fits when she sees dirt anywhere except on the ground, and even then it better be clean dirt.”

The roses, secured once again in the passenger seat, filled the car with their heady scent as Cassie followed Justin’s blue pickup truck. A sign with red and white letters was painted neatly on its door:Grumm Clockworks and below, J. Grumm, Master Clocksmith. They parted at the cottage; Justin stuck his long-boned arm out the truck window and waved as Cassie passed by. She continued along the high-rising hill before turning into a rough weed-choked drive. Following its wanderings, she arrived at a wooden gate so old the earth had swallowed part of the supporting frame. Scattered posts leaned into each other, vague remnants of the proud fence that might have been built by her great-great grandfather.

She had always been curious as a child about her ancestors, but Lillian refused to speak about them, saying, “They’re all dead and gone. Let them stay there.” Mimi, who normally talked a blue streak, remained strangely mute – with a single exception. One evening, while the two of them were swapping tales on the porch swing, Mimi let slip that their ancestors had come from Germany long years ago, sailing over a troublesome sea then traveling in an ox cart along the Guadalupe River and upland until they arrived at this very place. “Someday I’ll tell more,” she had promised.

But the day never came.

Cassie got out of the car and pushed the gate. It opened easily enough, although the bottom edge dragged along the ground. The hinges made a low creaking sound, a three-syllable whine, as if saying,come on innnnnn. She gripped the dry wood, suddenly transported to the past, a girl in shorts with her hair in a ponytail opening the gate so Mimi could drive through. Turning, she half-expected to see a ghostly Studebaker swimming in the heat behind her.

She returned to the car and sat, looking through the windshield at the hills humped beyond the fence, the slope on her right shadowed by trees, the driveway snaking around the juniper on her left, and the great spread of land between them. The house, windmill, and barn waited for her around the bend and out of sight, their images hovering behind her eyes, dim and quiet as old photographs in a family album.

“Oh, Mimi,” she whispered, and drove through the gate.

Categories: literary fiction | Tags: | 1 Comment

Chapter Reveal: Under Strange Suns, by Ken Lizzi

UnderStrangeSuns_medTitle: Under Strange Suns

Genre: SF

Author: Ken Lizzi


Publisher: Twilight Times Books

Amazon / B&N / OmniLit / Twilight Times Books

About the Book:

In the tradition of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars,Under Strange Suns brings the sword-and-planet novel to the twenty-first century. War is a constant, and marooned on a distant world, former Special Forces soldier Aidan Carson learns there is nothing new Under Strange Suns.


            This was going to change the world.

The realization was stunning, almost blinding. Doctor Brennan Yuschenkov stared vacantly at his vanity wall. He did not register the BS from Stanford, or the Master’s and PhD from M.I.T. The award certificates and the grip-and-grin photographs of his smiling mug matching the formulaic toothy expression of whatever politician or astronaut or CEO he was posing with were so much static. He didn’t realize it, but the grin now stretching his leonine features out-classed every framed example he was failing to notice.

When he snapped out of his fugue he finger-stabbed a speed dial button on his desktop telephone. “Azziz, got a minute? If not, make one. Bring your notebook, this is big.”

Yuschenkov rose from his chair, surprised at how stiff his body was. He paced his office, waiting for his graduate assistant, Mehmet Azziz, to reach the faculty offices. Yuschenkov had to share this, and immediately. He could feel a creeping fear that he’d forget a piece of the puzzle. Or that he was wrong about some aspect. And who better to ask than Azziz, the man with the best grasp of particle physics on campus? Next to his own, of course. Yuschenkov muttered to himself, gesticulating, pausing on occasion to allow the Cheshire Cat grin to reoccupy his face as the beauty of the idea reasserted itself over the fear.

“Doctor Yuschenkov?” Azziz said, having stood unnoticed in Yuschenkov’s office for several seconds.

“Azziz, didn’t hear you there. Damn, you’re a sneaky one.” Yuschenkov wrapped his research assistant in a bear hug, his face pressed against the narrow chest of Azziz’s lanky frame, the young man’s beard bushing atop the physicist’s head. They broke apart, Azziz stepping back with evident discomfort. “Sit, sit.” He dropped back into his desk chair while Azziz took one of the guest chairs.

“I won’t say it turned out to be surprisingly simple, because it’s not,” Yuschenkov said. “It’s complex, very complex, as you’d expect. But I think it will be surprisingly inexpensive. And that…well, that is going to make a difference.”

“Yes, sir,” Azziz said. “If you don’t mind my asking, Doctor Yuschenkov, what is very complex, surprisingly inexpensive, and going to make a difference?”

“What? Oh, of course. FTL, Azziz. FTL. Faster. Than. Light. A propulsion system. A spaceship drive. FT-fucking-L.”

“Sir? Is this another prank? It took me a week to get my car disassembled and out of my apartment last time.”

“No joke, Azziz. I’ve cracked it. Now take down some notes. I don’t want to lose this. See, we weren’t considering quantum entanglement as it pertains to gravitons…”

Azziz wrote as Doctor Yuschenkov spilled out the pieces of his theory in a disjointed, haphazard fashion: the controlled entanglement of gravitons, the directed acceleration of one half of the pair, the attraction/feedback reaction shifting phase to the tachyonic at just faster than light, the pulsing incremental increases beyond. Theoretical upper limits. Imaginary mass. Relativistic effects. The impressive size of the quantum-field bubble the drive was likely to generate. Azziz took it all down, assembling the jumbled pieces into a coherent picture as he did so, his handwriting growing sketchier as increasing comprehension burgeoned into excitement.

Later, notebook pages scattered across Yuschenkov’s desk, the whiteboard opposite the vanity wall inked near black with scrawled calculations, the two men slumped again in their respective chairs.

“This will change everything,” Azziz said.

“Bet your ass it will. How things will change, that’s the question. I mean, this would be big even if building a drive was so monstrously expensive and difficult that it would require the combined gross national product of half the First World. But it’s going to be cheap. Relatively. Corporation level cheap, and not only multi-nationals. Think about that.”

“Yes, sir. The prospect raises any number of possibilities.”

Azziz’s words held a positive ring, but a frown briefly marred Azziz’s forehead. He considered Azziz, wondering if this was the man to assist in the birth of this brave new wonder. The man was acquiescent to a fault. Always “yes sir” and “glad to help sir.” He wasn’t precisely obsequious, not an ass-kisser, but nonetheless quick to comply. Very much the opposite of Yuschenkov’s demeanor back during his own sentence as a graduate assistant – “Hotheaded” he discarded as hyperbole, but “willful” perhaps captured it. Funny, so much of his work was solitary. Lonely contemplation. The “eureka” moment a completely individual achievement. Yet to proceed beyond that was going to require interaction with others, each step of development creating a widening circle of involvement. So if he wanted his work to expand beyond the confines of his own skull he’d have to start making allowances for individual differences.

The FTL was important, more so than he could comprehend at the moment. Shouldn’t he ensure a smooth working relationship with his assistant? Still, the nagging doubt lingered. Would he jeopardize the theoretical and developmental work by yoking himself to such a diametrically opposite personality? On the other hand, maybe that is precisely what he needed to do. Yin and yang and all that.

“What sort of possibilities hit you first, Azziz?” he asked, reclining his chair and interlocking his fingers behind his head.

“Well, broadly: mining, exploration. Colonization.”

“Colonization? That assumes exploration locates a habitable rock. Can you imagine that? ‘Homestead Planet X, new headquarters of the Nabisco Corporation.’”

“Yes, sir, though I presume state actors would be preeminent. Perhaps easing population pressure might ease geopolitical tensions?”

“What, convince North Korea to emigrate en masse, settle Planet North Korea? Or a moon. People always seem to ignore the habitable possibilities of satellites. The twin Marxist-Maoist Moons of Mu Cephei?”

“Planet Kim, Worker’s Paradise, Antares Local 501.”

Yuschenkov laughed. Azziz essaying a joke was so unexpected that the surprise elicited laughter even though the joke hardly deserved it. “Well, why not. I think the drive is going to be cheap enough for even a starving gangster regime to slap together a ship. And the Norks do have basic heavy lift capabilities. Even if they didn’t, the rest of the world would probably be happy to chip in, buy ‘em a one-way ticket. But I don’t know. Geopolitical tension, as you put it, is chronic. You can’t just alleviate a symptom. Reduce the population by half, the remainder are still going to be at each other’s throats.”

Azziz didn’t reply. Yuschenkov eyed him, momentarily considering letting the subject drop, but tact as a virtue adhered only lightly to him. “And what about your – what’s the polite way to phrase it now – co-religionists? The misconstruers of the Religion of Peace as the doctrine is properly understood by wiser heads such as yours. Will they be founding New Mecca, facing east five times a day – toward Betelgeuse?”

Azziz flushed, seeming to shrink within his buttoned-up Oxford shirt and ill-fitting blue blazer. “Did you miss the sensitivity seminar again this year, Doctor Yuschenkov?” He cleared his throat. “I cannot speak for every member of a vast, scattered, and divided community, sir. Still, I would hazard a guess that those more violently zealous in their beliefs would be unlikely to leave.”

“Sorry, Azziz. Wrong of me to put you on the spot like that. I don’t always weigh my words before I let them drop. Right. Shall we pick this up in the morning, or shall we start sketching in how to mount the drive to a spaceship?”

“I’ll order some pizza, sir. No pepperoni, sorry.”

* * *

“It’s astonishing. How can it be cheaper and easier to construct a revolutionary FTL drive from scratch than it is to build a spaceship using proven technology and existing components?” Yuschenkov didn’t bother hiding his disgust, even allowing a trace of bitterness to season his words.

His office looked largely the same, though the vanity wall had gathered a few more photographs during the year that had elapsed since his discovery. Azziz sat in the same chair, looking uncomfortable even though he was not the target of Yuschenkov’s ire. Next to Azziz, in the second guest chair, lounged a trim, middle-aged figure in a smart suit. Fredrick Lincoln, the Thomas Coutts University treasurer, was smooth, oozing competence, and always ready with an answer. A computer tablet on his lap held several open files which he viewed frequently during the conversation.

“I understand your frustration, Doctor Yuschenkov, and I and the Board of Regents share it. Constructing this test vessel and proving your theory will be the gaudiest, largest feather in Thomas Coutts’ cap. But reality is reality.” Lincoln consulted one of his files. “And the FTL is not, as you suggest, an insignificant expense. The amount of rare-earth minerals required alone is staggeringly expensive.”

“Why? Hardly that rare. I consulted with the geology department and they assured me the minerals are relatively plentiful.”

“Plentiful in the ground, maybe. But scarce in usable, for-sale, quantities. The Chinese imposed an embargo on export of rare-earth minerals to the U.S. two years ago. And domestic supplies are locked down. Do you have any idea how difficult it is to get twenty federal agencies and fifteen state and local agencies to sign off on any mining venture? And even when that miracle occurs there’s still five years of litigation with every environmental organization in the book. If you’d just agree to cut the Feds in…”

“No. True, we’re proceeding slowly now, but let the government take control – and make no mistake, you let that camel’s nose under the tent, that’s what’ll happen – and we’ll have a working ship about a day before they shovel dirt over my grave. You’re a miracle worker, Lincoln. I’ve got faith in you. There must be some stockpiles of the stuff already scooped out. I don’t need much of it. I’ll need a fair amount of scandium and at least a kilo of yttrium. I’m not trying to corner the market. While you’re at it, a bit more palladium would actually be welcome while we’re still in the testing phase.”


“Yes. It’s not critical, but on rare occasions – say once every twenty to one hundred test runs – there is a wave surge in the graviton splitter that renders the drive inoperable. Azziz discovered that a bath in a weak solution of palladium and acid resets the splitter. Just one of those anomalous lab results. Anyway, we require more than just the raw materials for fabricating our own FTL drive mount and linkage. What about the airframe – or spaceframe, I guess. What about existing components? Can we get that off the shelf? Russian hardware? Private industry?”

“We’re looking at acquiring obsolete equipment. If we want new, our supplier is going to want to be our ‘partner’ and demand we share the technology. I realize you aren’t quite ready to relinquish control yet. So far the university is backing you, but the pressure from Washington is increasing. Say the word and we can partner with NASA.”

“Not until we have enough momentum to steamroller a bureaucracy. Stick with the obsolete hardware. At least we know it works. Do we have any leads?”

Lincoln consulted his tablet. “We have a line on a mothballed Dragon capsule. Perhaps you would like to inspect it with me, help me with an idea of its condition and value.” When Yuschenkov nodded, Lincoln continued, “I’ve also put out a request for bids for launch vehicles. The Russians and three private, heavy-lift companies have indicated interest. So it’s not all bad news. But – and I hate to harp on this – I don’t know how long I’ll be able to stonewall the government. The rumors are growing that we’re sitting on something very big, hence the pressure. Our patent lawyers are filing applications as piecemeal as possible, but eventually someone is going to put this all together and then…”

“Look, I’m not trying to hide anything. This is very big, yes, and I want to share it. But, and I repeat, not until we’re past the point where a dozen agencies and meddling congressional subcommittees can strangle this baby in the cradle.”

“Be careful what you want to share, Professor. The University fully intends to capitalize on its half of the patent licensing.”

Yuschenkov laughed. “Of course. By the time the patents expire, Thomas Coutts will have an endowment to rival Harvard. But more immediately, nice work tracking down hardware, Lincoln. Keep me informed. And get an extra ticket for Azziz; he’s more current on aerospace than I am. Been brushing up during thesis writing breaks. Slacker.”

* * *

New Mexico’s Spaceport America hadn’t hosted such a crowd in years. Spaceport authorities had opened shuttered warehouses and hangers to accommodate the assembled journalists, politicians, celebrities, and the just plain curious.

A young girl holding her mother’s hand stood in an advantageous location with assorted VIPs. She had an unobstructed view to a gantry supporting a Falcon Heavy rocket, atop which perched a gumdrop-shaped capsule. It was quite some distance away but using her pink binoculars, adorned with her favorite cartoon space pony, she could just make out a bulky-suited figure crossing a catwalk from gantry to capsule.

“Is that Uncle Brennan?” she asked her mother.

“Yes, Brooklynn, that’s my impetuous brother. Can’t leave the test flight to a test pilot.” Brooklynn’s mother, Colleen Vance, emitted a resigned sigh.

“What is ‘impetuous?’” Brooklynn asked.

“It is another word for ‘impulsive.’ It means he sometimes acts before he considers all the consequences.”

“Oh. Hey, look, Mom. There is Azziz.” She pointed with her free hand toward the left end of the VIP gallery where Azziz stood in the company of several men who Brooklynn thought looked a lot like Azziz: bearded, skin a few shades darker than hers, which she knew would have started to redden by now if her mother hadn’t liberally slathered her with sunscreen. She waved, then nudged her mother until she started waving as well, the motion sufficient to draw Azziz’s attention. He waved back, but it seemed hesitant and it seemed to bring disapproval from his friends. She saw some of them gesturing and white teeth gleaming through their beards as they spoke. Azziz dropped his hand.

“Should we go say hello?”

“No, Brooklynn. I think Azziz has a lot on his mind today, and it doesn’t look as if his guests would approve of us visiting.”

A countdown broadcast from loudspeakers mounted throughout the spaceport terminated further conversation. Fire burst from beneath the rocket, curling and breaking like a heavy sea hitting a rocky shore. The rocket seemed to gather itself, then lifted sedately into the sky. Brooklynn felt her mother’s hand squeezing hers almost painfully.

The countdown voice broke out from the loudspeakers again. “And we have liftoff of theEureka for the first test of the Yuschenkov Graviton Faster-than-Light Drive.”

After the rocket disappeared from sight, Brooklynn followed her mother into a VIP lounge where television monitors displayed telemetry and a computer simulation of what was happening aboard the FTL test flight. Brooklynn sipped a cup of a mango and orange juice blend as the capsule separated from the last stage of the rocket. A quiet, uninflected voice provided one side of a conversation and occasional commentary, describing the checklist Uncle Brennan and his co-pilot, a Colonel Memphis Brown Jr., were running through prior to testing the drive. By this point, the calm voice was abbreviating the title of the Yuschenkov Graviton FTL drive as the “Y-Drive.”

Brooklynn was sucking on ice cubes and her mother was on a second glass of chardonnay when the capsule’s attitude adjusters fired, pointing the nose of the Eureka at a spot a couple hundred miles east of the moon.

“Roger, Eureka,” the quiet voice announced, “you are a go to engage the Y-Drive.” The voice added, “Good luck.”

The telemetry spasmed and the computer simulation froze. The voice said, “Y-Drive engaged, single pulse. Y-Drive bubble intact. Eureka beyond the light cone. Reacquiring.” There was a pause, then, as the numbers and charts on the telemetry screens resumed accustomed patterns, “Eurekareacquired, reverse thrusters engaged.” The computer simulation showed a curving edge of the moon, and beyond it a flaring, receding dot.

“Where are they going?” Brooklynn asked.

“Nowhere, sweetheart. They are trying to slow down. I don’t really understand it, but Uncle Brennan told me that once the – the Y-Drive was disengaged the Eureka would drop to below light speed. But it would have a lot of momentum, it would keep going in a straight line very fast, so they have to put on the brakes.”

“Can’t he just turn around and use the Y-Drive again?”

“I don’t know. Maybe he wouldn’t be able to stop before hitting the Earth. Or maybe it can be done, sort of canceling out the momentum. You’ll have to ask him. Besides, this is the test flight. He’s only supposed to turn on the Y-Drive once.”

Eureka, telemetry indicates an attitude shift. Please check angle of yaw,” the quiet voice spoke. Brooklynn looked at the screens again, noticing the numbers on one of the charts steadily increasing. She watched for several seconds before the voice spoke again. “Negative Eureka, you are not cleared to engage the Y-Drive. Ground control is aware that braking maneuvers and the return trip will consume some time, but ground control would like to emphasize that it does not care if you are bored.”

Brooklynn’s mother sighed. “Ground control is wasting his breath,” she said just before the telemetry spasmed again.

* * *

When Brooklynn saw Uncle Brennan trot down the ladder from the Eureka, she broke into a run. She heard her mother call her name and begin to sprint after her, but with her mother in high heels, Brooklynn felt comfortable outracing her.

People in uniform, firemen, people in white lab coats, people in business suits with cameras, all joined in the race. She couldn’t keep up and got caught up in the crowd. But then she heard her Uncle’s voice say, “One side, make a hole. Pioneer coming through.” And there he was, dropping to his knees in front of her, arms open to embrace her.

“You did it, Uncle Brennan,” she said into his chest.

“Damn right, I did, little Brooklyn.”

* * *

“Damn it, Azziz, I know Alpha Centauri is the closest. But it hardly makes a difference for the first interstellar test. If something goes wrong, it really doesn’t matter if we’re going five light-years away or fifty. We’re hosed either way. We can’t stop at the nearest service station for repairs. It’s either going to work, or it isn’t.”

Doctor Yuschenkov’s ebullient glow had ebbed over the year that had elapsed since his historic test flight. He wanted to push on, stretch the envelope, move from a walk to a run. But success, instead of opening the path, seemed to have erected barriers. More scientists, more engineers, more organizations accreted to the program and each successive test became less of a stride than a baby step of decreasing length. To Yuschenkov, every advance was frustratingly glacial. Even the impending – at long last – flight to Alpha Centauri, the first manned interstellar voyage, seemed paltry and unimaginative, not the bold leap it should have been.

“But there is a planet, sir. And it’s hardly larger than Earth.” Azziz said. He looked harried, as well he should, nearing the appointed time to submit his doctoral thesis and yet still spending the lion’s share of his working hours on the Y-Drive project.

“Not in the habitable zone, Azziz. It’s a rock. No, they’re all so goddamned cautious. No progress is unattended by risk. And I’m the one taking it. Well, I and the rest of the crew. Sure you don’t want to come along? I can swing it for you. I’ve still got a little pull on this project. We’re talking making history here. You can get another chance to argue your thesis. The first trip to another star, well that’s unique.”

“No, sir. I’ll keep my feet on this planet, thank you.” Azziz patted the grass next to the concrete bench where the two of them were sitting in the quad, eating sandwiches in the creeping afternoon shade cast by the towering brick edifice of the library.

“It is a nice planet, Azziz, I’ll give you that. I do intend on coming back, you know.” It was a nice planet, and Thomas Coutts a nice campus. Across from the two men the gables and chimneys rose and fell along the roofline of the administration building. Students crossed between the classical facade of the music hall to the left and the Victorian plinths fronting the natural history exhibition to the right, while others sat on the lawn in the center; eating, studying, chatting up, sleeping. “The thing is, I want to get off this rock immediately every time I hear ‘we still need to test the cosmic ray warning sensors’ or ‘we need to determine acceptable redundancy of shielding within the redoubt’ or ‘we haven’t determined optimal nutritional requirements to compensate for bone loss.’ Something out there might kill me, but if we wait until we’ve perfected every precaution, I’ll already be dead by the time we launch.”

* * *

Doctor Yuschenkov was, however, very much alive on the bright, clear desert morning in early March when he craned back, looking up the gantry at the capsule that was to deliver him to Eureka II, waiting in orbit for him and the rest of the crew.

Brooklynn Vance gazed up at him. Her uncle appeared heroic, framed against the rocket, staring up at the heavens. Her mother was there, as were Azziz and the Eureka II crew, but at that moment only Uncle Brennan existed.

He brought his regard earthward, down to her, and she thought she saw the entire universe shining for a moment in his eyes. He squatted to eye-level, which was only a couple of pencil marks on the kitchen wall taller than last time he had gone into space. “Big day, right Brooklynn? Wish I could bring back a present for you, but I don’t think I’m going to find a mall out there.”

“I can come help you look. I wouldn’t take up much room.” Her voice held the same teasing tone his did, but there was an earnest appeal in her widened eyes and lifted brow.

“You’ll be up there soon. We’re going to open the stars for business. You might open the first toy store on another planet. Or a moon; people always forget the satellites. Someday a traveler like memight buy a teddy bear from you for his niece in your shop on the moon of a gas giant 50 light-years from Earth.”

She giggled at his sing-song vision even while he hugged her. Then she watched him hug her mom, shake hands with Azziz, and walk away with the rest of the crew to a building at the base of the gantry.

She watched the launch again from the VIP section, though it wasn’t as full this time; the real action wouldn’t happen until after the capsule dropped off its passengers at the Eureka II. But it was still exciting to watch the rocket lift itself skyward on its tail of fire.

She watched television in the hotel the next day, lying on the bed next to her mother and eating pizza from the box. A camera mounted on the capsule that had delivered the Eureka II crew was beaming Earthward the image of the first starship as it squirted attitude jets, adjusting itself to point in the direction of Alpha Centauri. The starship looked like a flattened tube of girders with a blockish engine cluster at one end and a slowly spinning ring at the other. A voice was explaining the mission while scrolling text along the bottom of the screen provided essentially the same information.

“Doctor Yuschenkov and the other three crew members of the Eureka II – Colonel Brown, Doctor Abrams, and Doctor Chandra – have completed the final checks for initiating humanity’s historic first interstellar voyage. Ground Control reports that attitude corrections are complete and final countdown is underway for initiating the Y-Drive, as Doctor Yuschenkov’s Graviton Drive has come to be called. Plans call for a four-week outward trip to what some have begun calling Planet Best Bet, orbiting Alpha Centauri. The crew will remain in orbit for a month of study, then will return to Earth, arrival scheduled for approximately three months from today.”

Another voice replaced the first, sounding distant. It was counting down. When it reached zero Brooklynn saw the central portion of the engine cluster strobe red. The Eureka II disappeared and the blackness where it had been appeared to ripple momentarily, then subside.

* * *

Three months later Brooklynn was again eating pizza with her mother and watching television, this time at home. Reporters in various locations consumed airtime, repeating variations of the same basic message: “We expect them anytime.”

“Don’t get anxious, Brooklynn,” her mother said for the third, or maybe fourth, time. “They aren’t coming on a train. There is no timetable. Today is just the earliest they are expected. Remember, Uncle Brennan is in charge. He might have decided to stay a day or two longer to look around.”

Brooklynn spent the rest of the day flipping through the news channels, waiting. Her mother let her stay up an extra half-hour before putting her to bed.

It took Brooklynn a week before her excitement turned to worry. And it took three months for her mother to sit her down and say, “I’m sorry, baby. I don’t think he’s coming back.”

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Chapter Reveal: ‘Dolet,’ by Florence Byham Weinberg

Dolet_medTitle: Dolet

Genre: Nonfiction Novel; Historical Fiction

Author: Florence Byham Weinberg


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


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.



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.”

Categories: Christian Fiction, Women's Fiction | Tags: , | 1 Comment

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

flightTitle: Flight of the Blue Falcon

Genre: Fiction – Adult

Author: Jonathan Raab


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.


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.


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.


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.


“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.


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.



“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.


“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


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…



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.


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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