Monthly Archives: August 2015

Chapter Reveal: Under Strange Suns, by Ken Lizzi

UnderStrangeSuns_medTitle: Under Strange Suns

Genre: SF

Author: Ken Lizzi

Website: http://www.kenlizzi.net

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.

Prologue

            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.”

“Oh?”

“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

Website: www.florenceweinberg.com

Publisher: Twilight Times Books

Amazon / B&N  / OmniLit / Twilight Times Books 

About the Book:

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

Chapter One

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Cover - The SIlver LocketTitle:  THE SILVER LOCKET

Genre:  Women’s Fiction

Author:  Sophia Bar-Lev

Website:  www.sophiabarlev.com

Purchase on Amazon

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

THE SILVER LOCKET

By Sophia Bar-Lev

Chapter 1

 

July 1941

Boston, Massachusetts

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

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

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

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

She couldn’t.  Not yet.

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

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

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

 

She took a few steps.

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

He paused where he stood, uncertain, confused.

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

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

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

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

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

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

flightTitle: Flight of the Blue Falcon

Genre: Fiction – Adult

Author: Jonathan Raab

Website: http://www.warwriterscampaign.org

Publisher: War Writers’ Campaign, Inc.

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About the Book:

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

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

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

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

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

Once they reach Afghanistan, things really get weird.

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

This is a war story. This is their story.

Only the most unbelievable parts are true.

ONE: SAND HILL

Private Zachary Rench

Rench knew there was trouble coming.

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

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

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

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

No one moved.

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

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

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

The heat embraced them. They walked into hell.

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

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

Rench sighed and stood up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The other drill sergeants chuckled.

“Now.”

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

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

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

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

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

“This isn’t a trick, privates.”

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

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

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

“You have two minutes to finish these cookies.”

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

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

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

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

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

“One minute,” Bond said.

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

“Thirty seconds,” Bond said.

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

“Time!”

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

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

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

“Position of attention, move!” Bond barked.

All of the privates stood up, ramrod straight.

“Toe the line at the end of the CTA!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Drill Sergeant Bond stalked over to the shuddering private.

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

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

“You shit your pants, didn’t you?”

“Y-y-yes, Drill Sergeant.”

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

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

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

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

“Go! Go, motherfuckers! Run!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ten seconds.”

“We should go.”

“We’re not gonna make it.”

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

“We should go.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Gas, gas, gas!” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

Repeat.

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, Drill Sergeant!”

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

The privates groaned.

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

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

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

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

Rench suddenly realized that coming here had been a mistake.

Categories: Adventure | Leave a comment

Chapter reveal: Chickenhawk, by Arnaldo Lopez Jr.

arnaldo 2Title: Chickenhawk

Genre: Thriller

Author: Arnaldo Lopez Jr.

Publisher: Koehler Books/Café Con Leche books

Purchase on Amazon

About the Book:

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

CHAPTER 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No, don’t get up,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Abe didn’t like anyone calling him names.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m cumming.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

subway entrance at 53rd Street.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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