Monthly Archives: November 2015

‘Latina Authors and Their Muses,’ edited by Mayra Calvani

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Purchase the ebook NOW on Amazon or B&N

Pre-order the paperback NOW on Amazon or B&N

Official paperback release date: December 15, 2015

Editor’s Preface

“To be an artist includes much; one must possess many gifts-absolute gifts-which have not been acquired by one’s own effort. And, moreover, to succeed, the artist must possess the courageous soul.”

“What do you mean by the courageous soul?”

“Courageous, ma foi! The brave soul. The soul that dares and defies.”

from The Awakening, by Kate Chopin

In 2005 Carmen Dolores Hernández, book review editor at El Nuevo Día newspaper in San Juan, Puerto Rico, came to visit Brussels. She’d published some of my short stories and novel excerpts in Revista Domingo in the past, and I deeply admired her wisdom as a writer and woman of letters.

I invited her and her husband to my home for dinner, and over wine and various Turkish dishes (my husband is Turkish, and Carmen had expressed her love for this cuisine), we chatted late into the night about writing, books, and authors. She mentioned the anthology she had put together back in 1997, Puerto Rican Voices in English, a vibrant collection of interviews with fourteen of the most prominent Puerto Rican writers living in the United States-including, by the way, Esmeralda Santiago, who so graciously agreed to take part in this project.

Soon after Carmen returned to Puerto Rico, I ordered a copy of Puerto Rican Voices, and became absorbed by the candor and insight of the authors as they talked about their backgrounds, books, and writing. More than fascinated, I became fixated. I asked myself, wouldn’t it be cool to put together a similar anthology showcasing Latina authors writing in English in the United States? An inspirational, entertaining, and informative tome focusing on the craft of writing andthe practical business of publishing, one that would provide aspiring authors with the nuts and bolts of the business. A book that would not only showcase prominent figures but emerging voices as well, writers working on a wide range of genres from the literary to the commercial. After all, there’s valuable wisdom at every stage of a writer’s career, and the different genres would provide a wider spectrum to the reader.

By this time I had already started interviewing authors for a variety of online sites and publications. I enjoyed probing into the minds of these authors, and was always able to take away something from them.

But I wasn’t ready for Latina Authors and Their Muses yet. A couple of years passed. The idea simmered as I worked on other projects.

Then, in 2009, I started writing a column focused on Hispanic literature for Examiner.com: National Latino Books Examiner. Over the next few years I had the great fortune of becoming acquainted with a remarkable group of talented Latina authors from various backgrounds writing in different genres, ranging from sweet children’s picture books to darkly sensual vampire novels to fun, humorous chick lit. Talent and a high respect for the craft characterized these ladies, but also a strong connection to their roots and a desire to encourage and support other Latina writers.

In February 2011, I decided to take the plunge and write a proposal. But before I began, I realized I had to contact authors to see if they would be interested in participating. So I began researching and embarked on the painstaking process of emailing the authors individually, describing the project to them. I was thrilled with their initial response:

“Sounds like a wonderfully creative project!”

“I would love to participate in a book that would encourage aspiring Latina writers.”

“What a great idea!”

“I’d be honored!”

Did I mention how much Latina writers like to encourage and support other Latina writers?

Infused with their enthusiasm, I put together a proposal that I eventually sent to fifteen literary agents who had a history of working with Hispanic authors. Within a week I had multiple requests. Eventually, I signed with Leticia Gomez at Savvy Literary. She began the pitching process right away. Unfortunately, although many of the editors loved the concept and deemed it worthy, they were concerned about the marketing aspect of it. How would they market the book? The audience was too niche, too narrow. After a year of waiting and rejections, Leticia kindly let me know she had exhausted her efforts with the top editors.

I wasn’t ready to give up.

In February 2013, I submitted the proposal to my publisher, Lida Quillen of Twilight Times Books, a small traditional press in Kingsport, Tennessee. Soon after, I was offered a contract.

Of course, I was elated. But my work had just begun.

Until then, I had only written the proposal, which included two sample interviews. I still had research to do, and I needed to prepare questionnaires for each author. That was the fun part. The challenging part was keeping myself organized and keeping track of emails, interviews, contributor agreements, photos, etc. I set up a system, which included various lists and logs.

Latina Authors and Their Muses has been a labor of love in every aspect. It has also been a completely selfish project. I wanted to hear what these authors had to say, hoping I wasn’t alone. I wanted to relate to them and learn from them-and learn I have, so very much! In a way, they’ve all become my mentors. For readers, some of the questions may sound repetitive. However, this isn’t from lack of imagination as much as sheer selfishness: I wanted answers to questions that had obsessed me and that I felt inquisitive about (e.g. How does one define success? What does the term “professional author” mean?). I had many a-ha moments from their thoughtful, perceptive responses-exactly what I was after.

In spite of their different backgrounds, education levels, and jobs, two factors more than any others bind these writers together: their passion and commitment to their craft and to sharing their stories with the world in spite of the odds.

Latina Authors and Their Muses is a celebration of creativity, the writer’s life, the passionate quest for spiritual and artistic freedom. I invite you to peek into the courageous souls of these forty women. I hope you’ll enjoy the journey as much as I have.

Contents

Interviews with 40 multi-talented Latina Authors

Marta Acosta
Lisa Alvarado
Julia Amante
Margo Candela
Kathy Cano-Murillo
Mary Castillo
Jennifer Cervantes
Leila Cobo
Zoraida Córdova
Lucha Corpi
Sarah Cortez
Angie Cruz
Liz DeJesus
Anjanette Delgado
Carolina De Robertis
Lyn Di Iorio
Teresa Dovalpage
Carolina Garcia-Aguilera
Iris Gomez
Reyna Grande
Rose Guilbault
Graciela Limón
Dahlma Llanos-Figueroa
Diana López
Josefina López
Dora Machado
Maria Gabriela Madrid
Michele Martinez
Sandra Ramos O’Briant
Melinda Palacio
Caridad Piñeiro
Berta Platas
Toni Margarita Plummer
Thelma T. Reyna
Lupe Ruiz-Flores
Esmeralda Santiago
Eleanor Parker Sapia
Alisa Lynn Valdes
Diana Rodriguez Wallach
Gwendolyn Zepeda

ramses and I

About the Editor

Award-winning author Mayra Calvani has penned more than ten books for children and adults in genres ranging from picture books to nonfiction to paranormal fantasy novels. She’s had over 300 articles, short stories, interviews and reviews published in magazines such as The Writer, Writer’s Journal and Bloomsbury Review, among others. A native of San Juan, Puerto Rico, she now resides in Brussels, Belgium.

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Categories: Inspirational Nonfiction, Non-Fiction, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Chapter reveal: The Cavalier Spy, by S.W. O’Connelly

thecavalierspy_medTitle: The Cavalier Spy

Genre: Historical

Author: S. W. O’Connell

Website: www.yankeedoodlespies.com

Publisher: Twilight Times Books

Purchase link: http://www.twilighttimesbooks.com/TheCavalierSpy_ch1.html

Amazon / OmniLit 

About the Book:

1776: His army clinging to New York by a thread, a desperate General George Washington sends Lieutenant Jeremiah Creed behind British lines once more. But even the audacity of Creed and his band of spies cannot stop the British juggernaut from driving the Americans from New York, and chasing them across New Jersey in a blitzkrieg fashion. Realizing the imminent loss of one of the new nation’s most important states to the enemy, Washington sends Creed into the war-torn Hackensack Valley. His mission: recruit and train a gang of rogues to work behind British lines.

However, his mission takes a strange twist when the British high command plots to kidnap a senior American officer and a mysterious young woman comes between Creed and his plans. The British drive Washington’s army across the Delaware. The new nation faces its darkest moment. But Washington plans a surprise return led by young Creed, who must strike into hostile land so that Washington can rally his army for an audacious gamble that could win, or lose, the war.

“More than a great spy story… it is about leadership and courage in the face of adversity…The Cavalier Spy is the story of America’s first army and the few… those officers and soldiers who gave their all to a cause that was seemingly lost…”

~ Les Brownlee, former Acting Secretary of the Army and retired Army Colonel

“Secret meetings, skirmishes and scorching battles… The Cavalier Spy takes the reader through America’s darkest times and greatest triumphs thanks to its powerful array of fictional and historical characters… this book shows that courage, leadership and audacity are the key elements in war…”

~ F. William Smullen, Director of National Security Studies at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School and Author of Ways and Means for Managing UP

Prologue

Despite its narrow defeat at the battle of Harlem Heights on September 16th, 1776, Lord William Howe’s army of British and German professionals consolidated its stranglehold on General George Washington’s Continental Army, now firmly entrenched on the high ground at the northern extreme of the Island of New York (Manhattan). As soon as the wind and tide at the treacherous Hellegat (Hell Gate) channel provided an opportunity, Howe, the British general commanding in North America, launched a series of amphibious landings along the coast of the Bronx. His goal was to threaten the American line of supply from Westchester to New England. An initial thrust at The Frog’s (Throg’s) Neck on October 12th was stopped by a few regiments of expertly positioned American riflemen. This forced the British re-embark and land farther north, at a place called Pell’s Point.

Washington maneuvered his forces a few miles north to block Howe. However, Howe’s maneuver forced Washington to withdraw. He moved his army north along the Bronx River positioning it in the central Westchester hills to protect his line of supply to New England and New Jersey.

On the 28th of October, Howe launched a surprise attack on the Americans, whom he caught before they could properly position themselves near the village of White Plains. Despite the small tactical victory achieved against the Americans, Howe once again failed to exploit his success. Instead, he turned south and moved to invest Fort Washington, a powerful defensive position at the northern end of the Island of New York, otherwise known as Manhattan.

Washington realized that he would have to abandon the Island of New York before the British could trap the American defenders there. However, his most capable officer, Brigadier General Nathaniel Greene, convinced him that Fort Washington could still be defended with a few thousand men, allowing the rebels to maintain a foothold on the island. Although conflicted, Washington finally acceded to Greene’s suggestion. He left the small garrison to fend for itself and moved the remainder of the army across the North River to the highlands of New Jersey.

Howe now had the initiative and all the advantages of eighteenth century warfare: interior lines; control of the waters; and overwhelming force. Washington’s strategy now was to avoid defeat, keep his army intact, and continue to threaten the British while maintaining communications between New England and the Middle Atlantic states. The erstwhile “war of posts” had also become a war of waiting… but waiting for what?

Chapter 1 

Harlem Heights, New York, September 1776

Lieutenant Jeremiah Creed slept fitfully. It was that sleep which comes when one is far past being overtired, and one’s best efforts result in a certain numbness of both mind and body. The young officer’s bed was a makeshift pile of pine needles with a piece of canvas tenting spread across them. The canopy of orange and red leaves from a tall oak tree provided protection from the heat of the morning sun, this being a particularly warm Indian summer. Creed rested his head on his saddle, which, covered by a worn gray woolen blanket, formed his pillow. Not far away, his horse, a light brown gelding named Finn, nibbled at the sweet autumn grass on the gentle hillside. While Creed slept, Privates Jonathan Beall and Elias Parker, Creed’s companions and members of his very small command, had cooked a batch of dough balls in a small pan of used bacon grease. To them, the smell and crackle of the meager repast had the makings of a great feast. For the last three days, they had nothing to eat but hard tack biscuits and deer jerky purchased from one of the many suttlers that supplemented the Continental Army’s woeful commissariat. During that time, Creed and his men had been constantly on patrol or in combat. Their ordeal ended with the burial of Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Knowlton, leader of the elite ranger unit to which they had been attached during the battle for Harlem Heights.

After Knowlton’s simple burial, a saddened Creed had a confrontation with Colonel Robert Fitzgerald, the commander-in-chief’s intelligence advisor. Officially just another of Washington’s many staff officers, Fitzgerald assisted Washington in one of the most critical of matters facing the army: figuring out what the British would do while also cloaking American actions from the British. This was no easy feat, as there was no American intelligence service to speak of. Washington took a personal interest in such things, both for reasons of security and practicality. However, the commander-in-chief had many other issues facing him and relied on his advisor to attend to all but the most sensitive matters. Fitzgerald worked tirelessly to establish a system of intelligence and counterintelligence that was less dependent on leadership from the headquarters. But when young Lieutenant Jeremiah Creed asked to return to normal service with his regiment, the First Maryland Continental Line, the outcome was never in doubt. Fitzgerald, over a strange combination of whiskey and chess, convinced Creed to become the first official intelligence officer in the Continental Army.

“So, Elias, do we have any salt left? We should really try to add some flavor,” Jonathan Beall spoke sarcastically.

Meager and humble as the concoction was, the smell of the dough balls crackling in the bacon fat was driving him wild.

“I added the last crumbs of burnt bacon to the mix so there will be flavor enough for the likes of you, but I will gladly take your portion if it is too bland for your mountain boy’s taste!” Elias Parker laughingly replied.

After weeks of campaigning and more than a few life and death experiences, the two were closer than brothers. But like brothers, they chided each other mercilessly when not covering each other’s back. Both men were in their mid-twenties and sturdily built. Beall came from a small farm town in the Maryland piedmont, a place called Frederick, situated at the edge of the verdant Catoctin Mountains. Parker, partly of Indian extraction, was a waterman from fishing stock in Maryland’s tidewater region.

“Should we wake Lieutenant Creed yet?” Beall asked, although he already knew the answer.

“Seeing as every time we wake him it leads to a patrol or some other comfortless duty I would say no,” Parker retorted, only half joking.

Unlike Beall, Parker was not an original member of Creed’s former unit, the Light Company, First Maryland Continental Line. During the Battle for Long Island, First Maryland’s acting commander, Major Mordecai Gist, transferred Parker from a line unit along with several other stalwart Marylanders. Since that day in August 1776, his life became one of constant fatigue and danger. During the ensuing weeks of patrolling and skirmishing, most of the original command of more than thirty men had been killed or wounded. Parker and Beall were the only active members left and now they were permanently reassigned from the First Maryland to the commander-in-chief’s Escort, also called his Life Guard.

“Wonder when we’ll get a chance to escort His Excellency now that we are escorts,” Beall said.

Parker suspected their future would not involve much escort work. “I don’t care where we serve, or what we do, so long as it helps end the war. I want to get home to my family. I miss my wife Marie and our newborn, little Meg.” Parker held a small charcoal sketch his sister had drawn. “Have you seen anyone more beautiful?”

Marie, like Parker, was part Indian and little Meg showed it, as well.

“Must take after her mama,” Beall said.

Parker smiled. “Sure does. My Marie has the same copper skin. And just look at that head of shiny dark hair. Hoped to have a miniature of them made before I departed with the regiment, but there was no time. Thank God this charcoal sketch came with my last letter before the fight on Long Island.”

Despite the longing for home, Parker was proud to be working with Creed and to be on “the Escort,” as they sometimes referred to it. And he was proud to be serving His Excellency. This was heady stuff for a humble sailor and fisherman from the shores of the Chesapeake Bay.

When Creed had returned from his last meeting with Colonel Robert Fitzgerald, he seemed a changed man. There had been a new intensity added to his normal Irish good humor. And there was something odd in his comment to them before turning in to sleep.

“Well boys, Colonel Fitzgerald has convinced me that the only way to checkmate a king is to keep him in check until he has no options. And the best tool for that is the knight—in this case a ‘White Knight.’ Ah, but we shall talk of all that later.”

The bacon grease sizzled and a piece of burned bacon rind and dough splattered and seared Beall’s wrist in one of those intense but fleeting burns. “Damn! Damnation!”

Beall had taken to swearing since he joined the army back in the spring. His exposure to toughs from the backwoods, Chesapeake watermen, Baltimore laborers and Annapolis stevedores provided exposure to a wide assortment of expression and habits—some good, but most bad. He had promised himself he would break this one habit before he returned home.

The sounds of the sizzling fat and Beall’s loud expletive stirred Creed. He sat up and rubbed his eyes. The pain in his head and the rawness on his tongue were not strangers, but a just few cups of whisky never had this effect before. Creed reckoned he was getting old. He was barely twenty-two.

“Cannot let a man sleep in peace for long, can ye? Just as well, but you will now pay the price and share those victuals with your victim.”

Creed grinned despite the stiffness he felt in every joint and the dull pain in his head. He stood up, pulled on his boots, and excused himself to perform his morning ablutions. Creed’s routine, whenever possible, included a plunge into the closest body of water and a shave. In this case, he took advantage of a nearby well in the garden of the Morris Mansion, General Washington’s headquarters. The garden, once a picturesque combination of flowers and fruit trees, was now part of the commander-in-chief’s headquarters, replete with the tents and equipment of his personal Life Guard, aides de camp, couriers and an array of cooks, servants, and transient officers. He returned fifteen minutes later and dug into his share of the repast: a half dozen of the “belly sinkers,” a mug of black coffee, and a couple of large, freshly plucked pears.

“Quite good stuff, lads.”

“How is the coffee, sir?” Beall asked

Creed replied. “As you well know, I favor tea, but I have accustomed myself to the American and Dutch penchant for the Arabica bean. It often proves more bracing, if not more refreshing than tea.”

Parker snickered. “Even after a third time boiling! I swear we live lower than field hands.”

Creed smiled and nodded. “Too true, but often a necessity in this army of ever dwindling supplies.”

He finished eating and helped himself to a second tin full of the bitter black brew. “Now, in a bit, lads, I shall have to meet again with the good Colonel. Before I do, we must talk. When I am finished I will ask you to either join with me or return to the First Maryland and forget our discussion and everything we have done in the past several weeks. Fair enough?”

Beall and Parker both nodded, almost mindlessly. Neither could tell whether Creed’s comments were a form of trust, distrust, or humor, but since neither of them had any intention of leaving his command after all they had been through with him, they heard him out patiently.

Creed looked intently at them as he spoke, his eyes narrowed and his voice lowered both for security and for effect. He needed for them to understand the gravity of the situation.

“My discussions last evening with the good Colonel were sobering, although they took place with no insignificant amount of whisky.”

Beall thought he saw the mildest trace of the Creed smile form for a fleeting second, then disappear as his eyes narrowed again. “We played a game of chess. Somewhere in my kit I have a set. Does either of you lads play? Well, never mind that now. The point is this: both he and I are agreed that this war will be long and difficult. We face a brutal and stubborn monarch who commands the greatest forces in the world and commands its commerce through a powerful navy. This king can march or sail his army at will, at least wherever there is sufficient water.”

Beall thought he saw Creed’s eyes lighten for a fleeting moment.

“So, ye see, the initiative belongs to ‘His Majesty.’ General Washington cannot likely hope for a great victory to end this conflict quickly and to our advantage. So his strategy has got to be one of avoiding defeat. Nibble away at the British until they are worn down and are forced to concede our freedom and independence. However, to do this the Continental Army needs to survive and it must present a threat to the British until… well…”

“Until what, sir?” Beall interrupted like a school boy.

Creed glanced left and right. “Well, there is considerable speculation that Congress can perhaps gain us allies to force the British hand. This is as much a political fight as a military one. In that sense we have some advantages.”

“Now what might those be, Lieutenant?” Parker asked skeptically. Parker was a simple fisherman and seaman but a shrewd and practical man in his own right. He for one could find no advantages in the army’s, or the nation’s, situation.

“Well, the cause itself, of course. And the people as well. Certainly, there are many Americans who are loyal Tories, but most are not. Many are still undecided. However, so long as there remains a General Washington and a Continental Army there remains hope. Where the British Army does not occupy, the patriot cause, the American cause, lives. We are closer to our people and to their sentiments. And where we are not, strong measures need be taken. We know the land and can draw people and sustenance from it. Many in England, Scotland, and Ireland are favorably disposed to the colonies and their grievances, so perhaps we shall have a political solution over the objections of King George. But there is one ingredient essential to the successful outcome of this enterprise.”

“Good food and dry powder!” Parker said sarcastically.

“Yes, indeed!” Creed answered reflexively. “No, what I meant was information. That is, intelligence. This war will turn on that to a great deal. Colonel Fitzgerald has asked me to take part in that aspect of the enterprise. With no small amount of reluctance, I have agreed. I am not yet fully sure what that means, but gather he wants to form a unit to collect information on the British and Loyalists, to assist General Washington.”

“Are we to be spies?” Beall asked.

“In a manner of speaking, yes. And we must detect spies, too. The way the good Colonel and His Excellency see it, failure to collect intelligence could lose a battle, but failure to detect a spy could lose the war, and thus the nation. So, if you follow me, when, not if, we are caught it shall be a swift journey to the gallows… if we are lucky. Do ye lads understand what I am saying?”

Beall and Parker looked at each other. They did not fully grasp everything Creed had said.

“Not everything, sir. But it makes no matter to us. You are our leader and we trust your judgment.” As Parker spoke the words a sickening feeling told him he would not see his family again.

After a pause, Beall spoke. “Sir, I joined the regiment to support the cause and to be with Simon. If he were here, he would stand with you sir, so now I fight for two!”

Creed fought to hold back the tears welling in his eyes. “Good lads! You are most honorable. I am proud to be among you.”

* * *

Creed arrived at Fitzgerald’s office in the Morris Mansion. It was a clean, bright room, not large. But it contained a nice bed and had a large desk covered with Fitzgerald’s many papers and a map. In the corner there stood a small chest of drawers. On it sat a small wash basin of elegant but not elaborate white porcelain. For the first time, Creed noticed the room was decorated with fine wallpaper instead of paint. This must have been a lady’s room, he thought, perhaps a daughter.

Fitzgerald offered Creed a glass of port. Creed declined as he still felt some of the effects of the previous night. Fitzgerald pushed away stray strands of his hair, which he had tied back in a queue and strangely enough, powdered white.

“Well, Jeremiah, His Excellency has need of your services once more. Your task is both complex and dangerous.”

“Not unlike previous engagements, sir.” Creed smirked.

Fitzgerald ignored the witticism. “Worse, I am afraid. He would like you to find our lost spy.”

“Beg your pardon, sir?” Creed thought he had misunderstood him.

“Find our lost spy. As you know, we sent a young captain of the unfortunate Colonel Knowlton’s battalion to spy behind British lines on Long Island. But now he may well be in New York. His name, I can finally reveal, is Nathan Hale. From Connecticut. A place called Coventry, I believe. Seems so many of our bravest lads come from Connecticut.”

As a Marylander, Creed bristled at the remark but Fitzgerald went on. “Hale was to advance across Long Island and find the rear of the British Army. To obtain information on unit strength from patriots and unsuspecting Tories. Also to report on their morale, supply, and if possible, British plans.”

Creed winced. “Perhaps you should have asked him to capture Lord Howe to boot.”

Fitzgerald nodded. “I know. It seems foolish now and it was, urumph, is. Truth be told, I advised against it. Nor am I in favor of sending you after him. But His Excellency insists we try. However, I am adding to your woes with a secondary mission, although between us it is, in actuality, your primary mission.”

Creed cocked his head slightly and placed his index finger against his cheek. “My God, sir, just two missions behind British lines? Hardly worth the trip, should I say?

Creed’s feigned English accent had the desired effect of annoying Fitzgerald.

“Please refrain from sarcasm, my dear boy. These are desperate times. The curtain is closing on the city of New York, and perhaps the entire island. We may not have another opportunity to infiltrate someone there for many months. Once the British consolidate their gains and establish forces loyal to them, access to the city may well be hopeless, and it most certainly will be dangerous. What I want is for you to contact one of the men given up to our late departed British spy, Jan Braaf.”

Jan Braaf, a lawyer and active Whig politico in Brooklyn, had spied for the British and betrayed the American army, helping cause its defeat on Long Island. He died from a wound received while trying to get to New York under Creed’s protection. Dying, he had confessed his treason to Creed and Fitzgerald, who obtained the valise provided by his British spymaster, Major Sandy Drummond. The valise contained “spy paraphernalia” which included codes, special chemicals for secret writing, and the names of contacts, one of whom had access to a bank account for Braaf. Posing as the escaped murderer of British soldiers, Braaf was supposed to obtain a civilian post near or with the rebel army, and report on its activity.

“We were fortunate Braaf took a bullet on that boat ride with you, Jeremiah. And a British bullet at that.”

“I daresay, sir, we were more fortunate that he had some semblance of a conscience and confessed his sin before he died.”

“I believe it was more from good questioning and his eternal connivance. I believe he wanted to keep his family out of future trouble. Well, it worked to our advantage, but now we must follow up.”

Creed frowned. “What do you mean, sir?”

Fitzgerald swirled the remaining port in his glass. Its ruby color reflected the sunlight that radiated through the open window. They were on the second floor so nobody could eavesdrop, at least not very easily.

“I mean, the ‘spy Braaf’ must try to contact the British of course. Since you deftly hid his body there is no corpus delecti, so we can assume they do not suspect his demise. But they must surely expect contact from him.”

“So soon?”

“Of course, young man, we are at war. But the contact will be perfunctory. Just enough so they know he is active and has successfully placed himself near the American camp. By doing so I hope to buy us some time until I decide how best to pursue this case. And in any event, we may delay them sending another in his place.”

“And I suppose I should find this Captain Hale while I am at it?”

Fitzgerald grinned complacently. “That is correct. His Excellency would be most pleased with the return of his spy. Captain Hale by all accounts seemed a very decent and honorable officer, not really spy material at all.”

Creed once again ignored the barb. With a coy wink, Fitzgerald downed the last drop of port and smacked the glass on the desk. He then removed some papers from the “treasure trove” of codes and contacts taken from Braaf. It provided the name of two men established by the British as Braaf’s contacts in the city.

The older officer pulled another wisp of his white hair away from his pale Irish face and looked intently at Creed. “Now here is what I propose…”

* * *

When Creed returned from his meeting with Colonel Fitzgerald the concern on his face was obvious. He removed his tri-cornered hat and ran his fingers through his dark hair. He then took a deep breath and sat under one of the pines.

“Why so glum, sir?” Beall asked.

“Not glum, Jonathan, concerned. We have a hard task ahead… get through British lines, find a lost spy, and convince the British that our friend Braaf is alive and well. Oh yes, and return alive of course.”

Creed went over the plan in detail. When he finished, his men questioned him. “Do we rehearse this one, Lieutenant?” Parker asked.

Creed shook his head. “Not this time, much as it disturbs me to say. We have no time. We depart immediately.”

“Right now?” Beall asked.

Creed nodded. “We must gain entry to the city before the British restore order and tighten security.”

Parker looked incredulous. “You mean they haven’t, sir?”

Creed replied, “Not fully. I hope to exploit the chaos that always ensues when one army supplants another in an area of occupation. Many Whigs and Patriots have already fled the Island of New York.”

“So most of the Americans who stayed in New York will be hostile to the patriot cause,” Beall said.

Creed nodded. “Or neutral and indifferent. We shall have to rely on our guile and the occupation’s initial confusion to get through.”

Beall knew there was something else. “Sir, we have done more than this before. You seem disturbed by something. Something more than this.

Creed lowered his head. “Our orders, the part that disturbs me, are stark. Should one of Braaf’s contacts become suspicious, I am to kill him.”

Beall’s eyes widened. “Just like that?”

Creed nodded. “His Excellency was staking much on deceiving the British, and Fitzgerald wants nothing to frustrate the effort. We are also authorized to reveal the existence of the other spy, Hale, to help establish Braaf’s credibility, proof of his validity as an agent.”

Parker interjected, “Now let me get this straight, sir. We are to save this spy, Captain… Hale? While using knowledge of his existence to convince the British that Braaf operates in the American camp. Makes no sense at all, sir!”

“Precisely my initial thought.” Creed grinned and scratched himself on the lobe of his ear.

“However, after some reflection, I realized there is a devilish madness to this. General Washington wants his man back, but he also wants to use Braaf against the British. He sees this war now as an intelligence struggle as much as a military struggle. And he may well be correct. Our forces need time to bring themselves to where they can face the British on equal terms. That day will come, he is convinced, but until then he must preserve the army and keep the British off balance. Intelligence will be indispensable to the success of this strategy. We are merely pawns in all this.”

Beall corrected him. “You mean knights, sir, do you not? White Knights, to be exact.”

Creed laughed and grabbed Beall firmly by the shoulder. “Yes indeed, Private Beall. Thank-you so much for remembering that for me; tis the White Knights we are now.

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Chapter reveal: Adrenaline, by John Benedict

adrenalineTitle: ADRENALINE

Genre: THRILLER

Author: JOHN BENEDICT

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About the Book: A sensational, skillful and highly suspenseful tale, Adrenaline introduces anesthesiologist protagonist Doug Landry. About Adrenaline: When patients start dying unexpectedly in the O.R. at Mercy Hospital, Doug Landry finds himself the focus of the blame. Is he really incompetent or is there something more sinister going on? As Doug struggles to clear his name and untangle the secrets surrounding these mysterious deaths, it becomes exceedingly clear that someone is serious—dead serious—about keeping the devastating truth from ever seeing the light of day. As he launches a pulse-quickening race against time to prevent more deaths, Doug soon finds that the lives of his patients aren’t the only lives at stake.  Seems that someone will stop at nothing to keep Doug from revealing the truth. Could it be that murder is the ultimate rush?

CHAPTER ONE

“Shit!  Don’t give me any bullshit!” said Dr. Mike Carlucci under his breath, as his gaze locked on the unusual rhythm displayed on the EKG monitor.  His warning was meant mostly for his patient, Mr. Rakovic, who was scheduled to undergo an arthroscopy of his right knee.  Mike’s plea was also directed at God, just in case he was listening, and at the monitor itself to cover all bases.  Mike didn’t expect a reply from any of them.  Mr. Rakovic was deeply unconscious with an endotracheal tube sprouting from his mouth.  Mike had just induced general anesthesia and was preparing to fill out his chart when the trouble began.

Mike stared grimly at the potentially lethal dysrhythmia known as ventricular tachycardia, or V-tach, and felt the first raw edge of fear scrape lightly across his nerves.  It occurred to him that he had never actually seen V-tach during a routine induction in his six years at Mercy Hospital, or during any induction for that matter.  It was something that happened in the case reports, not in real life.  He wondered if Doug Landry, his best friend and colleague, had ever seen it.

His first instinct was to doubt the EKG.  Frequently movement of the patient or electrical interference caused the EKG to register falsely.  He rapidly scanned his array of other monitors.  Modern anesthetic workstations had upwards of ten sophisticated computer-driven monitors.  Substantial redundancy of these instruments allowed him to check one machine’s errors against another.  The pulse oximeter, a small finger-clip sensor, beeped at a heart rate exactly the same as the EKG.  This unfortunately ruled out the possibility of EKG artifact; there was no false reading this time.

Mike absently fingered the gold crucifix dangling from his neck.  Grandma Carlucci had brought it back from Lourdes, and had given it to him when he had graduated from med school.  The medallion always comforted him.  He punched his Dinamap, the automatic blood pressure machine, for a stat reading.  The mass spectrometer system, which continually monitored the gasses going in and out of Mr. Rakovic’s lungs via the endotracheal tube, registered normal carbon dioxide levels.  Mike breathed a sigh of relief; it meant the breathing tube was properly positioned in his patient’s trachea and not in the esophagus.  He quickly checked breath sounds with his stethoscope to ensure both lungs were being ventilated normally.  They were.  The pulse oximeter showed a ninety-eight percent oxygen saturation level, confirming beyond doubt that his patient was being adequately oxygenated.  Again good.  However, nothing to explain the sudden appearance of V-tach.

The blood pressure reading would be key for a number of reasons.  First and foremost, Mike knew he must treat the offending rhythm; its cause was of secondary importance at the moment.  A normal blood pressure reading would mean Mr. Rakovic would still have adequate blood flow to his vital organs—brain most importantly—in spite of the rhythm disturbance.  Mike knew that as V-tach accelerates, the heart can beat so fast it doesn’t have time to fill and fails as a reliable pump.  The blood pressure can fall drastically or disappear altogether.

“C’mon you piece of shit!  Read, damn it!”  Mike hissed under his breath to his Dinamap.  Fifteen seconds never seemed so long.  While waiting for the blood pressure, he opened the top drawer of his anesthesia cart and pulled out two boxes of premixed Lidocaine, a first-line emergency antidysrhythmic drug.  He ripped open the boxes and assembled the syringes.  He glanced up at Diane, the circulating nurse.  She was busily filling out her paperwork, oblivious to any problem.

“Diane,” Mike called out, “I got trouble here.  Get the crash cart!”

“Jesus, Mike!  Are you kidding?” asked Diane, eyes bugging wide, pen frozen in mid-task.

“Serious badness,” Mike said, trying to keep the dread he felt out of his voice.  “Looks like V-tach.”  His voice sounded a little higher than he had intended.

“Oh shit!” she said as she hurried out of the room, almost tripping over the trash bucket.  Mike was thankful that Dr. Sanders, the orthopedic surgeon, was still out of the room scrubbing his hands.  No time to tell him just yet; he wouldn’t take it well.  If the blood pressure were unacceptably low, Mike would need to shock the patient back into a normal rhythm.  He injected one of the syringes of Lidocaine into the intravenous line and simultaneously felt Mr. Rakovic’s carotid pulse.  It was bounding, arguing against a low blood pressure.

250/120!  “Holy shit!  Where’d that come from?”  Mike asked the leering LED face of the Dinamap.  Accusatory alarms screeched from the Dinamap in response.  Mike truly had not expected such a high blood pressure and was momentarily confused.  The temperature in the OR seemed to have jumped twenty degrees, and he felt rivulets of sweat coursing down his arms.  The fear was back and not so easily dismissed this time.  Think, damn it, think!  What would Doug do?

He quickly reviewed what he knew of Mr. Rakovic’s medical history and his own induction sequence.  Mr. Rakovic was a sixty-two-year-old hypertensive with a history of coronary disease and a prior heart attack.  But, his hypertension was well controlled on his current regimen of beta and calcium-channel blockers.  Mike knew his patient had a bad heart, and had taken care to do a smooth induction along with all the usual precautions to avoid stressing the heart.  A blood pressure of 250/120 and V-tach at 160 beats-per-minute were about the worst stresses any heart could undergo.  Mike knew this, but was still baffled.  Be cool, Mike.  Be cool.

He had been stumped before; medicine was by no means an exact science, and anesthesia was one of the frontiers.  Mike also knew better than to waste precious time pondering this.  As long as he had reviewed it sufficiently to make sure he hadn’t overlooked something, it was time to move on to the immediate treatment.  He could replay the case to search for subtle clues when Mr. Rakovic was safely tucked in the recovery room.

What lurked in the back of Mike’s mind during these first few minutes, prodding him along, was the specter of ventricular fibrillation or V-fib.  V-tach was reversible with rapid proper treatment.  V-fib, on the other hand, was often refractory to treatment, leading to death.   The problem was that V-tach had a nasty habit of degenerating into the dreaded V-fib without warning.  The longer V-tach hung around, the more likely V-fib would appear.  So Mike knew time was of the essence.

“Gotta bring that pressure down,” Mike mumbled to himself.  He reached back into his drawer for Esmolol, a rapidly acting, short duration beta-blocker designed to lower blood pressure.  He drew up 30 mg and pumped it into the IV port.  He also punched in the second syringe of Lidocaine.  Mike tried hard not to take his eyes off the EKG monitor for long as he drew up and administered the drugs.  He wanted to see if the V-tach broke into a normal rhythm or converted into V-fib.  Irrationally, he felt that if he continued to watch the rhythm it wouldn’t convert to V-fib; if he took his eyes off it for too long, the demon might appear.

His Dinamap on STAT mode continued to pour forth BP readings every 45 seconds.  290/140.

“What the hell!”  Mike said.  Alarms were now singing wildly in the background, adding to the confusion.

Just then, Dr. Sanders charged into the room demanding answers.  “What’s going on here, Carlucci?” roared Sanders.

Mike didn’t have time to deal with the irate surgeon.  A wave of nausea swept over him as he felt events slipping out of control.  Things were moving so goddamned fast.  Fear threatened to engulf him.  “Hypertensive crisis!” he managed to blurt out while he grabbed for some Nipride, his strongest antihypertensive.  Unfortunately, it had to be mixed and given as an intravenous infusion rather than straight from the ampule.  This would take a minute Mike and his patient could ill-afford.  Diane returned with the crash cart and several other nurses.  She looked at Mike and said, “Do you need help?”  It certainly sounded like she thought he did.

“Get Landry in here stat!” Mike yelled in response.  He took his eyes off the monitor as he worked on the Nipride drip.  Just as he got the Nipride plugged into the IV port, he heard an ominous silence.

The pulse oximeter had become quiet.  Usually the pulse ox signaled trouble, such as a falling oxygen saturation, by a gradual lowering of the pitch, not an abrupt silence.  Mike could think of only three possible causes, and two of them were disasters—V-fib or cardiac standstill.  The third reason could be as simple as the probe slipping off the finger.  Although this third possibility was enormously more likely, Mike doubted it.  As he turned his head toward the EKG monitor, he knew with eerie prescience what awaited him.

V-fib greeted him from the monitor.  He had failed to get the blood pressure down fast enough.  The V-tach had degenerated into V-fib as the strain on the heart had become too much.  His Nipride was now useless; in fact, it was harmful.  He immediately shut it off.  Mike knew that in V-fib, the heart muscle doesn’t contract at all; it just sits there and quivers like a bowl full of jello.  No blood was being pumped.  High blood pressure had ceased to become a problem; now there was no blood pressure.  Brain damage would ensue in two minutes, death in four to five minutes.

Doug Landry, the anesthesiologist on call that day, burst through the OR door.  “What d’ya got Mike?” he asked, slightly out of breath.  Doug glanced at the EKG monitor and said, “Oh shit!  Fib!”

“Paddles!” shouted Mike, comforted by Doug’s presence.  “He went into V-tach, then shortly into fib,” said Mike, nodding at the monitor.

“Yeah, I see,” Doug said.  His large sinewy frame looked like it was coiled for action.  Diane handed Mike the defibrillator paddles.

“400 joules, asynchronous!”  Mike barked.

Diane stabbed some buttons on the defib unit and it emitted some hi-pitched electronic whines.  “Set,” Diane said shrilly.

“Clear!”  Mike shouted.

Mike fired the paddles, and a burst of high-energy electricity pulsed through Mr. Rakovic’s heart and body.  The EKG monitor first showed electrical interference from the high dose of electricity, then quickly coalesced into more V-fib.

“Shit!”  Mike said.  “No good.”  He had never appreciated how ugly those little spiky waves of V-fib were.

“Hit em again, Mike,” Doug said.

“OK.  Recharge paddles.”  The paddles took several seconds for the high amperage capacitors to charge between countershocks.  “Better start CPR,” Mike said as he began pumping on Mr. Rakovic’s chest.  His hands soon became slimed from the electrolyte gel left by the paddles on Mr. Rakovic’s chest.  God, he hated chest compressions.

“Paddles are ready, Doctor!” said Diane.  Her eyes were wider than before, and her mask ballooned in and out, as she gulped air.

‘Boom’ went the paddles again, and Mr. Rakovic’s body convulsed a second time.  Mike stared at Mr. Rakovic’s face as it contorted, reminding him of a medieval exorcism.  Mike held his breath and waited for the monitor to clear, pleading with it to show him some good news.

“Still fib!”  Mike growled.  He resumed chest compressions as he nodded to the circulator to recharge the paddles yet again.

“Epinephrine?  Bicarb?” asked Doug.

“Doug, I don’t think he needs epi,” Mike replied quickly.  Mike wondered if Doug was also feeling the pressure.  His voice was too damn even, though.  “His pressure went through the roof on induction.  I don’t know why, but I just can’t believe he needs epi.”

“Okay,” Doug said.  “The paddles are ready.”  Doug’s forehead creased momentarily, then he added, “V-fib in an elective case.  Unusual.  Any history, Mike?”

Mike stopped compressions long enough to fire the paddles a third time.  He smelled the ozone coming off the arcing paddles.  The V-fib continued.  Gimme a break, Mr. Rakovic!

“Shit!  Charge the paddles again,” Mike said to Diane.  He turned to Doug.  “Yeah, prior MI, stable angina, hypertension.  Doug, I think we better try Breytillium.  I already gave him two doses of Lidocaine.”  Sweat was now soaking through his scrub top, pants and surgical cap, and running down his face.

“Yeah, sounds like a good idea,” said Doug.  “I’ll take care of it.”

Mike glanced over at Doug and cursed his calm efficiency.  He knew ‘the Iceman’ was a veteran of the OR wars.  Doug had worked at Mercy for twelve years.  He had been on the front lines before and had always performed well.  Doug reminded Mike of his mentor in residency days, Dr. Hawkins.  Mike thought he could hear Dr. Hawkins now: “Retaining control and being cool are critical in these situations.  Split second decisions need to be made.  Panic is a luxury you can’t afford.”  The advice sounded hollow.

“Any allergies, Mike?” Doug asked.  “Malignant hyperthermia?  Breytillium’s ready.”

“No allergies.”  Mike was breathing hard now and had to space his words with short gasps.  “Doesn’t look like MH—no temp.  Hurry Doug.  Run that shit.  He’s been in fib for a while.  We’re running out of time.  He may never come out.”

“I’m bolusing now,” Doug said as he injected a large quantity, “and here goes the drip.”

Mike clung to Doug’s steady voice like a lifeline.  Mike realized that he was in danger of losing control.  He could see it in the trembling of his own hands and hear it in the huskiness of his own voice.  He wondered if Doug noticed.  Deal with it, Mike.  Deal with it. 

Hawkin’s words floated back to him again.  “It’s just like being in combat.  Soldiers can train and drill all they want, but they never really knew how they’ll react until the bullets are real and start to shriek by their heads.  Will they turn tail and run, or fight back?”  Leave me alone, Hawkins!

Mike looked around the room.  He felt they were all staring at him; he could read the expressions in their eyes:  “It’s your fault!  You screwed up!”

“Try it now, Mike,” Doug said, jolting him back to reality.

Mike grasped the paddles tightly to prevent them from slipping from his slick hands and applied them to Mr. Rakovic’s hairy chest for the fourth time.  He pushed the red trigger buttons on each paddle simultaneously to release the pent-up electricity.  All 280 pounds of Mr. Rakovic’s body heaved off the OR table again and crashed down, sending ripples through the fat of his protuberant abdomen.  Mike now smelled an acrid, ammoniacal odor and realized it was coming from the singed hairs on Mr. Rakovic’s chest.  He frantically wiped the burning sweat out of his eyes so he could see the monitor.  The V-fib continued stubbornly and had begun to degrade into fine fibrillations.  “Damn you!”  Mike yelled at the monitor.

“I’ll give you some bicarb,” Doug said.  Out of the corner of his eye, Mike thought he could see Doug shaking his head slightly.

The next fifteen minutes were a blur to Mike.  More chest compressions, more emergency last line drugs, many more countershocks were tried.  Nothing worked.  Mr. Rakovic continued to deteriorate, his pupils widening until at last they became fixed and dilated.  His skin was a gruesome, dusky purple-gray.  He was dead.  Doug finally called the code after fifty-three minutes and gently persuaded Mike to stop chest compressions.  Dr. Sanders walked out of the room without saying a word.

Mike was numb as he stared at the corpse in front of him.  One portion of his brain, however, continued to function all too well.  It kept replaying his initial encounter with Mr. Rakovic in the holding area.  He could see Mr. Rakovic in vivid color and hear him plainly, as the rest of the OR faded to silent gray.  They had joked about the Phillies’ pitching staff.  They wondered whether Barry Bonds would break Big Mac’s homerun record.  God, he wanted this to stop, to get his laughing, living face out of his mind.  But he couldn’t.  His mind was a demonic film projector playing it over and over.  He felt very sick to his stomach and had an overwhelming need to get out of the room and get out of the hospital with all its stinking smells.  Just go, anywhere but here.

God, this was what he hated about anesthesia.  One minute you’re having a casual conversation with a living, breathing, laughing, for God’s sakes, human being and the next you’re pumping on his chest.  He becomes subhuman before your eyes as his face turns all purple and mottled.  He cursed his decision to ever become an anesthesiologist.  What in God’s name was I thinking?  Frail human beings were not meant to hold someone’s life in their hands.  The responsibility was just too awesome.

“Mike.  Hey, Mike.  You OK?”  Doug put his hand on Mike’s slumped shoulders.  Mike came out of his trance enough to nod his head.  Several tears rolled down his cheeks.  “Mike, there’s nothing else you could’ve done,” Doug continued.  “We were all here too.  He must’ve had a massive MI on induction.  Not your fault.  Some of those guys just don’t turn around no matter what you do.  Don’t blame yourself.  We tried everything.”

“Yeah, I know Doug.  But I just can’t get his face out of my mind.  We were talking, joking just an hour ago.  Now he’s dead.”

“C’mon, let’s get out of here.”  Doug led Mike out of OR#2.  “I know you might not be up to this, but Mike, you’ve got to talk to the family.  Did he have any relatives here with him?”

Mike didn’t answer immediately.  As the adrenaline haze faded, he struggled to regain control.  He felt completely drained with an enormous sense of loss, but coaxed sanity back into place.  “Yeah, he came in with his wife.  Nice lady.”  Mike paused, feeling his vision blur again, this time with tears.  “What do you say, Doug?”

“Listen, I’ll go with you.  Just tell her what happened.  Everything was going fine.  He went to sleep and then bam, out of the blue, he had a massive heart attack.  Nothing in the world was going to save him.  We worked on him for almost an hour and tried everything.  Tell her we’re really sorry.”

“OK.  Help me, Doug.”  He would’ve rather stuck nails in his eyes than face Mrs. Rakovic at that moment.

The two men walked through the electronic entrance doors toward the OR waiting room.  Mike swallowed hard and entered the small windowless room.  Doug was right beside him.  Mike searched the faces until he found Mrs. Rakovic.  It wasn’t hard.  As soon as she saw him, she immediately leapt out of the chair with a quickness that belied her bulk.  Her frantic gestures revealed the depth of her hysteria.  Mike walked over and she collapsed into his arms.  “Tell me is not so!” she wailed in her thick, Slavic accent.  “Tell me Doctor Sanders made mistake.  Not my Joey!”  She cried convulsively.

“I’m so sorry, Mrs. Rakovic,” Mike said, blinking fast.  “He had a massive heart attack.  We tried everything.”  He felt her tears burn into his shoulder and then felt his own tears stream down his face.  “I’m sorry.”  Her wracking sobs shook them both.

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Chapter reveal: The Last Wife of Attila the Hun, by Joan Schweighardt

JS_TLWATH_cover_thumb-1Title: The Last Wife of Attila the Hun

Genre: Literary/Historical Fiction with a Legendary Component

Author: Joan Schweighardt

Website: www.joanschwweighardt.com

Publisher: Booktrope Editions

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About the Book:

Two threads are woven together in The Last Wife of Attila the Hun. In one, Gudrun, a Burgundian noblewoman, dares to enter the City of Attila to give its ruler what she hopes is a cursed sword; the second reveals the unimaginable events that have driven her to this mission. Based in part on the true history of the times and in part on the same Nordic legends that inspired Wagner’s Ring Cycle and other great works of art, The Last Wife of Attila the Hun offers readers a thrilling story of love, betrayal, passion and revenge, all set against an ancient backdrop itself gushing with intrigue. Lovers of history and fantasy alike will find realism and legend at work in this tale.

THE LAST WIFE OF ATTILA THE HUN 

by Joan Schweighardt

Prologue

When I was a young girl living at Worms, there was nothing I delighted in more than song. And of all those who lifted their voices in our great hall, there was none who did so as beautifully as my brother Gunner. Were he beside me now, he would rebuke me for the method that I have chosen to relate my story to you. He would insist, instead, on fashioning a melody for my words and singing them to you from beginning to end. He would begin modestly, singing, as he always did, that he had no talent for melodies, but entreating you, nevertheless, to remember his words. And, friend, as there is no bird, no summer breeze, no sweet stream lapping or soft rain falling that could compete with Gunner for one’s attention, have no doubt that you would have remembered them. He would have looked into your eyes while he sang and touched you in a deeper place than he ever touched a man or a woman when he went without his harp.

Though I can never hope to emulate his elegance, let me begin likewise, telling you first that I have no talent either. This thing, this process of setting down one word after the next on parchment, is new to me, and, as a friend once stated, tedious. And in spite of all the pains that I have taken to learn it, I find that I am apprehensive now because I cannot look into your eyes as my brother would have, because I cannot hope to touch you in that holy place where the hearts of all folk are joined together. Still, I would have you remember my words. 

The City of Attila 

1

I fell to my knees at the stream, so eager to drink that I did not think to offer a prayer until afterward, when I was satisfied and my flask was full. I was exhausted. My skin was parched and I was filthy; but according to the map my brothers had given me, I was very near my destination. I continued on foot, pulling my tired horse behind me.

I had not had a full night’s rest since the terrain had changed. The land was flat here. There were no caves or rocky ledges where I could shelter myself. The forests, so sacred to my people, had long since been replaced by endless grasslands. As I trudged through them, I felt that I had left more than my loved ones behind.

When the sky darkened, I used the single live coal I carried from the previous night’s fire to light my torch. I was sure that the light could be seen from some distance. I expected at every moment to hear the thunder of hooves beating on the arid earth. But on and on I walked, seeing no sight other than my own shadow in the gleam of the torch light and hearing no sound but that of my horse plodding along beside me.

When the sun began to rise, I saw that there was a sandy hill ahead, and hoping to see the City of Attila from its summit, I dragged myself on. But the hill was much farther away than it had seemed, and it took most of the day to reach it. And then it was much higher too, the highest ground that I had seen in days. My horse, who was content to graze on grassy clumps and to watch the marmots who dared to peek out of their holes, made it clear that he had no desire to climb. I had to coax him along, and myself as well, for now I was afraid that I would reach the summit and see nothing but more grass stretching out to the far horizon. I imagined myself wandering endlessly, seeing no one, coughing and sneezing in response to the invisible blowing dust, until my food ran out and my horse gave way.

I crawled to the top of the hill and looked down in amazement at the camp of make-shift tents below. In front of one of them a fire burned, and the carcass of an antelope was roasting over it. There were many men about, perhaps two hundred, all on horseback except for the few tending the fire.

It was not until I heard the war cry that I knew for certain that the scene was real and not some trick of my mind. I had been sighted. The entire company was suddenly galloping in my direction, a cloud of dust rising up around them. I forced myself to my feet and spread my arms to show that I carried no weapon. When I saw that the men were making their bows ready, I dropped my head and lifted my arms higher yet, to the heavens, where, I hoped, the gods were watching carefully.

Part of the company surrounded me. The others rode past, over the summit. When they were satisfied that no one was riding behind me, they joined the first group. Upon the command of one of them, they all lowered their bows. I began to breathe again. A murmur went up, and while I waited for it to subside, I studied their horses. Of the two that I could see without moving my head, one looked like the ones the Romans rode—a fine, tall, light-colored steed. The other looked like no animal I had ever seen before. Its legs were short and its head was large and somehow misshapen. Its matted mane hung down over its stout body. Its nose was snubbed and its eyes bulged like a fish’s. Its back was curved, as if by the weight of its rider. Yet its thick neck and large chest suggested great strength.

The murmur abated, and the Hun on the horse I’d been scrutinizing cried out a command in his harsh, foreign tongue. I looked up and noted that he resembled his horse. He was short and stout, large-chested, his head overly large, his neck short and thick, his nose snubbed. The only difference was that while the horse had a long mane and a bushy tail, the Hun’s hair was thin, and his beard, if one could call it that, was thinner yet. He seemed to be waiting for me to speak. I stared at the identical scars that ran down the sides of his face, wide, deep mutations that began beneath his deeply set eyes and ended at his mouth. “I’ve come to seek Attila,” I said.

The Hun, who appeared slightly amused, looked to his companions. A murmur went up again. While they debated, I took the opportunity to scan the other Hun faces, all hideous replicas of the one who had spoken to me. Of course, I had known the Huns were strange to look upon. Although I’d been hidden away during the siege, I’d had a description from those who had seen the Huns and survived to tell about them. In fact, there were some among my people who mutilated their own faces after the siege, believing this would make them as fierce as their attackers. Still, none of this had prepared me sufficiently to look upon them with my own eyes. Some wore tunics and breeches, not unlike the ones my own people wore. Others wore garments made entirely of marmot skins. With some on Roman horses and others on Hunnish ones, some dressed like Thuets and others in skins, they looked like no army I had ever seen before. Their confusion over how to respond to me only heightened the impression of disorder.

“Attila!” I cried. My brothers were sure I was mad, and when I heard my shout I thought they must be right.

The startled Huns stared for a moment, then they took up their debate again, their voices louder and more urgent than before. Finally the leader nodded, and the man whose argument he had come to agree with rode to my side and took my horse’s reins from my hand. While he started down the hill with the horse, another Hun poked me from behind with his riding whip to indicate that I should follow. Half of the men began the descent with me. The other half stayed on the summit, looking off in the direction from which I had come.

I was brought to the fire, where I reiterated my desire to see Attila. One of the Huns pointed beyond the tents. I followed his finger. There were a few dark clouds converging on the eastern horizon. “Can we ride?” I asked, pointing to my horse. The Hun gestured for me to sit. The meat had been removed from the fire and torn into pieces. The horseless Huns were distributing it among the riders. One of them brought a piece to me, and another brought me a flask of what smelled like Roman wine. I ate the meat—which was tough and bland—and kept my eyes fastened on my horse and the sack that hung from his side. I tasted the wine and, to the amusement of the Huns who were watching, quickly spat it out—for this is what I imagined a woman who had grown up alone in the forest would do.

After the meal, I stood and pointed east. “Take me to the City of Attila,” I demanded. Again, my words caused a stir.

Then one of the Huns said something which quieted the others. He gave a series of commands, and one of the listeners slid off his horse and reluctantly offered me the reins.

I hesitated, unsure what to do about the sack. Gathering courage, I led the Hunnish horse past my guards and over to my own horse. I reached for the sack, but a stout Hunnish arm cut me off. “For Attila,” I said. The man who had stopped me looked to his fellows. Again there was discussion, and after a moment, a decision. The arm withdrew. I swallowed and removed the sack from one beast and secured it onto the other. Then I mounted the Hunnish horse and settled myself as best I could on its hard wooden saddle. The Hun who was to be my escort came forward. Someone furnished him with a torch, and, also, what sounded like a lecture.

Riding at his side, I considered how easily it had gone. The Huns might have insisted that I stay the night in their camp. Or, they might have made me leave the sack behind. And there was much worse that I could think of, too. If I had felt bold before, I felt even bolder now, and, indeed, quite mad. I was already imagining the expressions that would appear on my brothers’ faces when I was home again relating the story.

The comical-looking beast beneath me was as fast as he was strong. He galloped along as if riderless, keeping pace with the Hun’s horse and seemingly oblivious to my touch on his reins. I lowered my head onto his thick dirty mane, and keeping my arms tight around his neck, closed my burning eyes. After a while, the horse’s steps became shorter, choppier, so that I knew the terrain had changed. The grasses were higher now, like the ones I had ridden through some days earlier when the trees had first begun to thin. I relaxed and gave way to the muffled sound of the horses’ hooves. When I opened my eyes again, I thought to find myself riding beneath the stars with the moon on the rise to the south. To my astonishment, the sky was pink, and it was the sun that was rising. My arms, which were stiff and badly cramped, had kept their vigil all through the night.

My companion laughed heartily when I lifted my head. And thinking that my riding and sleeping on horseback would make a fine story for Attila’s ears, I laughed as well. I imagined myself explaining that valkyrias did this all the time. I had trained my mind on the powers I would feign to have for so long that my uncanny slumber made me feel I had actually come to possess them.

Soon enough, the City of Attila appeared on the horizon—a vast tract surrounded by a high wooden palisade. My escort stopped to point it out, and I checked myself for panic. When I was satisfied that I felt none, I nodded, and we began to ride again. Before long we reached the city gates and the men who guarded them. My escort stayed at my side only long enough to deliver his message to the guard who rode to meet us. Then he turned and rode off, taking with him the story which I had hoped to hear repeated to Attila. The gates were pulled open. My new escort led me in.

Activity was everywhere. Clusters of men on horseback were engaged in conversations. Women walked among them carrying baskets or vessels on their heads. They were trailed by small children while older children sat in circles on the ground laughing and teasing one another. Most were Huns, but there were others who were clearly Thuets. And there were some, especially among the children, who appeared to be half and half. The Hun women, like their men, were short and stout. Many were quite fat. Only their lack of facial scars distinguished them from their male counterparts.

Mud and straw huts dotted the landscape. Beyond them, in the distance, was a second wooden palisade, its circumference so great that it appeared to take up half the city. As we approached it, the gates opened. We entered a long tunnel from which I could hear the pounding of feet overhead. There were other smaller tunnels leading off to the left and right, but their doors concealed the chambers they led to.

When we came back out into the daylight, I saw yet another palisade—this one set back on a high grassy mound. Like the city walls and the first inner palisade, it was circular, with wooden towers protruding at intervals. From each tower, guards looked down. “Attila’s palace?” I asked my escort, though I knew the answer even before he nodded.

There was as much activity here as there had been within the first palisade, but my gaze fell on the group of men who tarried on their horses nearest Attila’s gate. This group was more richly dressed than others I had seen. Many wore arm rings and finger rings. Some even had precious stones sewn into their shoes. It was the most heavily jeweled among them that my escort seemed to be eyeing as we approached. Thinking this man must be Attila, I took a deep breath and prepared myself to speak the words I had so thoroughly rehearsed. But when he turned toward me, I saw immediately that he could not possibly be Attila. He was not even a Hun. Though his face was as deeply scarred as those of his companions, he was clearly a Thuet. I had felt no emotion seeing the other Thuets in the village, because I took them to be prisoners, men who had been forced into Attila’s service. But the jewels and dress on this one indicated that he was pleased to live among the Huns, that he had earned Attila’s favor. He glanced at me. If he saw the involuntary look of disdain that crossed my face, his expression did not reflect it. He listened to the words of my escort, then jerked his head to indicate that I should come with him.

To my disappointment, he led me away from Attila’s gates, off to the southwest of his palisade, past a good many more huts and through a large open field and very nearly to the far wall of the inner palisade. There were only a few huts ahead of us now, and unlike the others that I had seen, they were spread apart and faced west rather than east. The one the Thuet took me to was the most isolated of all. But it was built up on a small knoll, and I could see the vast stretches of grassland beyond the tops of the inner palisade and the city walls just behind it—a boon for a woman who had never before found herself enclosed within so many fortifications.

The Thuet motioned for me to dismount. My legs were weak, and I had to hold on to the Hunnish beast to get my balance. When I was able, I made a move toward the sheepskin curtain that covered the doorway of the hut, but I hesitated when I heard voices inside. The Thuet heard them, too, and in what seemed one motion, he jumped from his horse and threw back the curtain, exposing a young couple. In the Hunnish tongue, he admonished them harshly, his riding crop held threateningly over his head. Holding their garments in front of them, the couple backed out of the hut and bolted. The Thuet lowered his whip and laughed as he watched them flee bare-assed across the open field. Then he turned back to me, his expression fierce again. “Get yourself inside now,” he shouted.

I stepped into the hut, and holding the curtain open, watched anxiously as he cut down the sack from the side of my horse. I told myself that I should be pleased to be in the company of one who spoke my language, but my hatred persisted. He threw the sack in carelessly, so that it fell just short of my feet. Then he entered, drawing the sheepskin curtain behind him so that only a little daylight streamed in.

I looked around in the dim light. There was no window, no hearth. A pile of skins were thrown into one corner, and more skins lined the four walls. “I have come to seek an audience with Attila,” I said.

He laughed.

“I must see Attila,” I reiterated. “I’ve come a long way—”

His hand sliced through the air. “You are not to leave your hut,” he said in a voice that was unnecessarily loud in the tiny space. “A guard will be posted at your door day and night. You are not to attempt to speak to him. You are not to speak to anyone. If you try to escape, you will be killed. Do you understand?”

I did not. His declaration was a contradiction to the ease that had brought me this far. I took a step toward him. “What is your connection to Attila?”

He laughed, then sobered abruptly. “I am Edeco, second in command,” he boasted.

“Then let me speak to the man who is first in command,” I hissed.

Edeco drew his lips back, exposing his teeth. His hand came up from his side slowly, and I lifted my head, bracing for the impact. But his hand faltered and hung in the space between us, quivering for a moment. Then it dropped. He turned and went out.

I stood where I was, considering our exchange. At first it seemed to me that things had changed now, that my run of fortune had come to an end. But then I realized how tired I was; my slumber on the racing horse had done little to relieve my fatigue. Perhaps it was best that my audience with Attila be delayed.

I took the sack from the earthen floor and hid it beneath the pile of skins. Then I took a skin from the top and spread it out and lay down. I fell asleep almost immediately—and found myself in the forest behind my brothers’ hall, walking among the birches.

Someone called out my name, and when I turned, Sigurd was coming up behind me, leading his steed. I ran to him. When I was safe in his embrace, I cried, “Oh, Sigurd, I have been so afraid! I am so glad to have found you. Things will go well enough now. You will not let me face Attila alone, will you?”

He smiled. “I will not,” he said. “I’ll be at your side every moment, as I have been all along, whether you knew it or not.”

I clung to him, my heart almost breaking with emotion. “I have the war sword,” I whispered. “I plan to give it to Attila.”

“Let him have the cursed thing,” Sigurd answered. “For all that it shines like the sun, it brought me nothing but trouble.” There was a warm honey-like scent in the air; it seemed to emanate from Sigurd.

“But if the thing is truly cursed,” I asked, “how is it that it had no effect on me in all the days that I carried it at my side?”

Sigurd only smiled. “Have you thought by what name you will call yourself here?” he asked.

“Brunhild,” I answered.

“It will bring you bad luck to call yourself after someone who loved you so little,” Sigurd replied. “Why not call yourself Ildico?”

“Ildico,” I repeated, and I recalled that Ildico had been the name of the valkyria who had befriended my mother many years ago, the same woman who had brought my eldest brother into the world.

            “Ildico,” I said again, but this time I spoke aloud as well as in my dream, and the sound of my voice awakened me.

I remained motionless for a long time. I had dreamed of Sigurd many times since I had regained my health, but always he was at some distance, riding among other men. Or, if he was close, he was silent and oblivious to my presence.

I gave up the notion of falling asleep again and sat up. He was with me; he had said so. No matter what dangers lay ahead, I would be satisfied if sleep would sometimes bring me the sight of Sigurd’s face and the feel of his embrace, from which my skin was still tingling. But the dream puzzled me, too. Ildico: I had never thought to call myself that. And why had I told Sigurd that I was afraid when I felt no fear? When my madness lingered and made me bold?

The curtain was drawn aside. A Hun woman entered carrying a bowl of meats and breads, a cup, and a large wooden vessel of wine. She set everything down and left without once looking at me. I got up and rushed to the curtain, but she had already turned the corner of the hut. I saw only the guard who had been posted outside, and the sun, which was low in the western sky. I had slept for some time.

I ate with vigor, in a manner that I would have once scolded my brothers for. I was determined not to touch the wine, but as I had no water left in my flask, I took a sip. It did not taste nearly as bad as it had the last time I had tried it on Burgundian lands. I drank more.

When the curtain opened again not long afterward, it was the Thuet, Edeco. He left the curtain open behind him and sat down across from me. I studied his face and sipped at the wine, which made me feel light-headed and even more impudent. “Have you come to hear me speak?” I asked.

Edeco laughed. “I did not come to clear away your crumbs.”

I ignored his sarcasm. “Then I will tell you what I tried to tell you before. I have come a long way, riding for days, to see the face of Attila. I have eaten, I have drunk, I have rested. I would be pleased to be brought to him now.”

Edeco threw his head back and laughed so heartily that I was forced to think of Gunner, who also threw his head back when he laughed. Then Edeco’s face changed. “Why should he see you?”

“I carry a gift for Attila,” I said.

“Attila receives many gifts, most so large that they must be carried in carts pulled by oxen and guarded over by many men.”

“Mine is greater.”

“Show it to me.”

“I’ve told you about it. I will show it only to Attila.”

Edeco jumped to his feet, his blue eyes flashing. As there was only one place in the tiny hut where a person might hide a thing, he went directly to the skins and cast them aside one by one until he had uncovered the sack. Then he turned it upside down and shook it so that its contents—my cloak, the wooden bowl that Guthorm, my dead brother, had once played with, and the straw concealing the war sword—tumbled out. Edeco fell to his knees and tore at the straw until some part of the blade was revealed. Even in the dimming light it blazed, as if excited by his agitation. He swept the rest of the straw aside hastily. Then, with his eyes swimming in their sockets, he ran his fingers over the hilt, tracing its intricate engravings. He turned to me and saw, no doubt, my self-satisfied smile, and he immediately lifted his hand from the thing. He cocked his head as if considering something. Then he came back to sit in front of me, though his eyes continued to stray toward the sword.

I got up slowly and placed the war sword back in the sack. I gathered up the straw and shoved it in after it. Then I put the sack in the corner and covered it over with some of the skins. As I went to sit again, I found, to my disgust, that Edeco was just replacing my wine cup. His hand was quaking. “A thing of great beauty, is it not?” I asked.

He looked away. In profile, the deep scar across his cheek looked even more hideous. I seemed again to smell the warm honey scent that had come to me earlier in my dream. Sigurd had to be there, invisible but beside me, just as he had said. The notion made me giddy. Edeco turned back so sharply that I wondered if I had unwittingly laughed aloud. “Who are you?” he demanded.

“Ildico.” The power of transformation seemed to lie within the word itself. I was glad Sigurd had suggested it.

“Who are your people?”

I looked aside. “I have none.”

He took my chin and jerked my head toward him. I was pleased to see my composure reflected in his eyes. “I’m a Thuet!” I sneered.

“I can see that for myself.”

“I was separated from my people when I was a child,” I went on. “A band of Romans cut us down while we were traveling. They killed my parents and my brothers and would have killed me, too, had I been older. But I suppose they did not feel it necessary to redden their swords with a small child’s blood when she would likely starve or be killed by some beast anyway. But as you can see, no beast crossed my path. And I did not starve, either.”

Edeco laughed and let go of my chin roughly. “You look half-starved to me.”

“Aye, half. I ate roots and berries. I grew. I learned to steal from the Thuet tribes I came across in my travels. I learned to hunt. There was no excess, but there was enough. And so you see me as I am.”

Edeco searched my eyes. “If there were other Thuets about, why didn’t you show yourself and beg for mercy?”

“When I was younger, I did not because I was afraid. Having seen my people put to death before my eyes, I had no notion of mercy, and I would not have known how to ask for it anyway since I had no language skills then. As I grew older, I did show myself to other Thuets. I stayed with various tribes from time to time. I learned my language and more. But I longed for the way of life I had become accustomed to.”

“How did you come by the sword?”

I sighed and glanced at my wine cup, contaminated now by this Thuet who was a Hun. “It is no ordinary sword. You have seen that. It was fashioned by Wodan himself, back in the days when the gods roamed the Earth as freely as people do now.”

Edeco’s eyes widened. “How can you be certain?”

“The man it once belonged to told me so.”

“And what man is that?”

“He was called Sigurd, a Frankish noble. Perhaps you have heard of—”

“I have not. Tell me how you came by the thing.”

I stared at him. These matters I had planned to save for Attila’s ears. Now I feared that if I told too much to Edeco, Attila would be satisfied to have the story second-hand. But as it was clear that Edeco would not retreat until I answered him, I explained that long ago the gods had lost the sword to a family of dwarves, and that one of these dwarves, wanting the sword for himself, killed his father. To keep his brothers from confronting him, he changed himself into a dragon and took the sword off into the high mountains. Then, years later, one of the dwarf-dragon’s brothers, Regan, promised the sword to Sigurd if Sigurd would accompany him into the high mountains and help him to avenge his father’s death. I made no mention of the rest of the gold. Nor did I mention the curse.

Edeco heard my words with interest, taking his eyes from mine only long enough to raise the wine cup to his lips now and again. Once, when I hesitated in my discourse to catch my breath, he passed the cup to me. I put my hand up to renounce it but then thought better of it and drank, the shared cup being an emblem of camaraderie. Edeco smiled then, and I was satisfied to think that I might easily deceive him into believing that I had come to the City of Attila as a friend. “And how did you come to steal the sword from the Frank?” Edeco asked.

“I did not steal the sword from Sigurd,” I answered. “After he was dead, I stole it from the man who had gotten it from him. Sigurd loved me. He would have wanted me to have it.”

Edeco squinted. I sighed. “You see,” I explained, spurred by his disbelief to give more details than I might have otherwise, “Sigurd returned from the high mountains with only his horse, the sword, and the heart of the dragon. His companion, the dwarf, changed his mind about giving Sigurd the sword when he saw again what a glorious thing it was. And since the dwarf had bought Sigurd’s assistance with the promise of the sword, Sigurd had no choice but to slay Regan.

“I found Sigurd, forlorn because he’d had to kill an old friend, at the foot of the high mountains, not far from the cave where I lived at the time. He was tired, and confused about what he should say to the Franks concerning Regan’s death. Although Regan was not a Frank, he had lived among them for many years, and the Franks loved him. Sigurd was afraid that they would demand the war sword as his man-price when they learned that Regan was dead. Thus he was only too glad to return to my cave with me until he had settled his mind on the matter. He lingered, and I wrote a rune outside the cave to keep the Franks at bay in case they should be looking for him. This rune-wisdom was taught to me by a peasant woman with whom I stayed for a time and made potent by the gods themselves when they determined that I should become a valkyria.”

I hesitated, but Edeco made no comment on my avowed enlightenment. It occurred to me that perhaps being a Thuet who was not a Thuet, he knew nothing of such matters. “We were well matched,” I continued, “me a valkyria with the power to alter events and Sigurd the man who slayed the dragon. And thus it happened that our admiration for each other grew into something more. But before Sigurd and the dwarf set off on their quest, Sigurd had betrothed himself to a Burgundian woman for whom he no longer cared. Still, being a Thuet, he did not like to defile his betrothal vows. And so it was that our intimacy only served to confuse him further. Thus he stayed on with me, vacillating, making himself ill with worry.

“At length, he reached the decision which a man of his word must. He would return to the Burgundian woman, to let her know that he was safe, and then he would ride to the Franks and tell them the truth about the dwarf. But until he had the Franks’ reaction to this news, his desire was to keep the sword hidden. He decided to leave it with the Burgundians, for safe-keeping. Even then I felt that his decision was less than wise, but I was so in love with Sigurd that I mistook my premonition for envy and made no attempt to stop him from doing what he felt he must.

“He’d been safe enough with me, but my powers are mine, and once he was away from me, I had no means to lay them on him. He saw the Burgundian woman, left the sword with her brothers, and then he went home to inform the Franks of Regan’s death. Later he returned, as he felt he had to, to marry the Burgundian. But shortly after their wedding, her brothers began to behave toward him in a manner which was insulting. The elder of the two complained that Sigurd should have offered the war sword to him as part of his sister’s bride-price. Sigurd’s wife likewise became greedy. It was not enough for her to be married to so great a man, a dragon-slayer. She once heard him call out my name in his sleep. And when he reddened the next morning when she asked, ‘Who is Ildico?’ she became enraged. She conspired with her brothers against him. But he grew wise to their conspiracy, and one day he rode out to see me, to tell me all of this and to ask my advice. I looked into the fire that was burning at the mouth of my cave, and I saw that Sigurd’s wife and her brothers were set on killing him, that his life-blood would be spilt as soon as he returned to them. I told him he must never return. But Sigurd’s wife was already heavy with their child, and though he had every right now to break his vows to her, he had no mind to give up the child. He wanted to go back, to offer the sword to his wife’s brothers in return for his life, and then, once his wife had delivered the child, which he hoped would be a son, to steal the child and the sword and return to me. I begged him to see that it was more than the sword these folk wanted. They wanted the glory that Sigurd would have attained, had he lived, in retrieving it. They wanted Sigurd dead so that they could say that they were the ones who had gone off into the high mountains…

“When I told him this, he shook with rage. He could get used to the idea of giving up the war sword, but to know that the brothers would bask in the glory of his acquisition was too much for him. He was set on returning, now to kill the brothers who would do this to him. I begged him not to go. He went. He was killed.”

I hung my head and waited. At length, Edeco spoke, “How did you come to learn of his death?”

I lifted my face so that he could see the tears that had sprung to my eyes. “I knew because I knew. I had foreseen the event in the fire, and I saw it again later, on the walls of my cave as I lay thinking of Sigurd and wishing him back by my side. I knew, but I was numb with sorrow, and for a long time I did nothing. Then, more recently, I came across a tribe of Thuets, Alans, who were traveling to the Western Empire. They spent one night in my cave, and the one who had a harp sang the song of the war sword as he had learned it from the Burgundian brothers.

“I set them right of course, and they promised they would sing the true version thereafter. And when they were gone, I made my plan. I found my way to Burgundian lands, and, at night, when I felt certain that all within were sleeping, I entered the hall of the brothers and found the sword—no difficult task. You saw yourself how the thing catches light in a way which only an enchanted thing may do. The proud brothers had not even thought to hide it. It was there on the wall above the high seat. I took it down noiselessly, and as soon as it was in my hands, I felt how it was thirsty for blood, how it was made to be sated. You know this, too! I saw your face when you touched the thing! It was all I could do to hold myself back from taking it up against the brothers and the woman as well. But I understood also that this sword, Wodan’s war sword, was meant to cut down armies, not a few insignificant Thuets who would suffer a greater loss than life when they learned the thing was gone. I stole a horse. I rode feverishly. You know the rest.”

I sat back on my heels and drained the rest of the wine from my cup. I could feel Edeco’s eyes on me, burning with wonder. I was burning, too, with pride and something more. I had imparted my tale with vigor. It differed from the one that I had rehearsed with my brothers before my departure, yes, but it was no less a marvel. I had not meant to mention the Burgundians by name, and I could not think why I had done so, but I did not see how it would matter one way or another. And most of all, in spite of all my fabrications, I had managed to be true, or nearly so, to Sigurd. His name and his glory were secure, even here, in the City of Attila.

I set down the wine cup and glanced at the doorway, graced now by the lower edge of the descending sun. The light pouring in was golden.

“Why Attila?” Edeco asked softly.

I was prepared for the question. “Have you heard nothing?” I exclaimed, falling forward and planting my palm on Edeco’s knee. “I grew up in the forest alone, living on what I could steal! I stayed here and there, yes, but only for short periods of time, and not one of those I stayed with ever loved me or considered me one of his own. And, in truth, I preferred my aloneness, until I met Sigurd. Only then did I come to learn what it means to walk in the shadow of a great man, to be called friend by someone whose powers are equal to my own!

“Sigurd is dead, and I will never love a man that way again. But I have come here to seek the company of another great man, to lend my powers to a man who is, perhaps, in his own way, even greater than Sigurd. And I have brought with me the thing which only a great man may possess, the likes of which would cause chaos in the hands of a lesser man.”

I jumped to my feet and tossed aside the skins as carelessly as Edeco had earlier. I reached into the sack, and spilling straw everywhere, pulled forth the war sword and held it up by the hilt. When I turned with it, the hot red orb of the sun was lower yet, filling the space now between the top of the doorway and the high palisade beyond it. And thus the sword became a torch in my hand, a wild, flashing thing which put the sun’s light to shame. Edeco, who had bounded to his feet as well, abandoned his pretense of indifference now and let his mouth drop open. He drew back and shielded his eyes from the sword’s fierce glare. Was it an accident, I wondered in my boldness, that the sun had chosen this moment to set? I had seen that it was setting, but I had made nothing of it; I had not planned to retrieve the sword. Again the warm honey scent permeated the little hut, and I fancied that it was Sigurd who had compelled me to take up the sword at just that instant.

My triumph made me giddy. I heard myself laughing wickedly, as the valkyria Brunhild might have done. In response, Edeco’s expression became even more bewildered, his bright blue eyes darting feverishly from me to the sword to the sun and around again. I felt his fear, his awe. I watched, amused, as he struggled to strike an attitude. His eyes still dancing, he brought his hand up from his side and growled, “Give it to me.”

I drew back. “I will give it only to Attila.”

“I will give it to him for you. You have my word,” he said more gently. “Give it to me. I do not want to have to hurt you.”

I laughed in his face, for as I had the sword, the notion was absurd. But the guard, who had halted his horse to learn the cause of the commotion, had seen the thing now, too. I lowered the sword and handed it to Edeco. He took it up as if it were a fragile thing. The guard saw the exchange and began, reluctantly it seemed, to pace again.

“Attila returns tomorrow,” Edeco said, his gaze sweeping along the length of the sword. “I will keep the sword until then. I will tell him all that you have told me. I have no doubt that he will send for you.” He gestured for the sack.

As soon as he was gone, I spread out the skin I had slept on earlier. I was anxious to see Sigurd again, to discuss with him what I had said and done, if only in a dream. His scent was still heavy in the hut; I had no doubt that his phantom would still be available to me. I lay down and closed my eyes, but my mind was racing, and I could not fall asleep. In spite of my efforts to empty my mind, it bustled with my image, with the way I had spoken, the way I had planted my hand on the Thuet-Hun’s knee, the way I had pulled forth the sword and held it up, as if to silence the setting sun.

I saw myself over and over again as I imagined I had looked to Edeco, a small, thin woman laughing sardonically and holding light itself in her grasp. My only regret was that my audience had not been Attila. I marveled at how evil I had become, at how much I had enjoyed my wicked charade.

But the evening progressed, and, gradually, my conceit was shaded by another perspective. I had drunk from the same cup as my enemy. I had laid my hand on him as if he were a brother. I had despised the Huns all my life, and yet I had spent a time conversing with one—for he was a Hun in mind if not in blood—and it had never once entered my thoughts that this Hun, this Thuet who was a Hun, might well have been in Worms when the blood of my people flowed like a river. When I had held the sword up to the sun, I had felt an impulse to strike Edeco with it, but not because he was my enemy. The truth was more that in holding the thing, I had felt myself an extension of it—and thus had been overcome with an urge to experience its power.

The night was slipping by. I could sense the sun yearning to rise again, and still sleep evaded me. The honey scent was gone now, and I wondered whether I had only imagined it earlier. What force had caused me to mention the Burgundians like that? Would it really make no difference? I had taken some pleasure in marking my brothers as villains. How was that possible? I had even taken pleasure in tainting myself.

Perhaps it was not madness after all that had made me feel so emboldened, so oblivious, so giddy—all feelings that eluded me now as cunningly as sleep. Perhaps, I thought, the curse had found a way to reach me. Since the time I had first received the sword from Gunner’s hand, I had amused myself by thinking that I was too good, too much a true Burgundian, to be contaminated. Now I wondered. Now I was ashamed.

I crawled into the corner and trembled with humiliation. I felt alone, afraid, as if I were a marmot without a tunnel on hand, separated from its colony by time and space and allegiance. I was sick with longing for Sigurd, and I tried with all my being to conjure up his presence again, to detect once more his honey scent. But I smelled nothing but my own fear. And soon I came to suspect that the illusion of Sigurd’s presence, like the illusion of my valor, which had been building for days and days, had been yet another trick of the sword. I was sick with fear and self-loathing. I gagged but could not vomit. And when I had spent myself and finally fell asleep, I dreamed of nothing.

 

Categories: Historical Fiction, literary fiction | Tags: , | 1 Comment

Chapter reveal: ‘I Should Have Stayed in Morocco’ by Stephen Caputi

Morocco_medTitle: I Should Have Stayed in Morocco

Genre: Memoir

Author: Stephen Caputi

Website: http://www.stevecaputi.com

Publisher: Twilight Times Books

Read the First Chapter

Purchase from Amazon / OmniLit

About the Book: 

Stephen Caputi’s memoir, I Should Have Stayed in Morocco, is not just another forensic account of billionaire Ponzi-schemer Scott Rothstein’s life. Caputi opens his heart and soul as he takes the reader on a journey through two decades rife with personal experiences, misadventures and wild escapades with Rothstein, climaxing with their now-infamous ramble in Casablanca. It’s a frighteningly true story of how friendship and loyalty was dedicatedly served to a master-manipulator, just to be rewarded with deceitful betrayal and a prison sentence.

PROLOGUE 

Amtrak Station, Deerfield Beach, FL

February 5, 2012 – Super Bowl Sunday        

“You fucking idiot, you should have stayed in Morocco,” I muttered under my breath to nobody in particular as I collapsed my forehead onto the headrest of the empty seat in front of me. I’d boarded the train at 7:04 a.m. yet still had my foot wedged intentionally in front of the door-closing mechanism to prevent the door from shutting—a feeble attempt to prolong an already excruciating goodbye scene. It had turned into a real-life enactment of one of my all-time favorite movie scenes from Casablanca. Only it was playing in reverse.

It was me, the nightclub owner who was departing on a train, not Ingrid Bergman boarding a plane. It was my girl Elizabeth who was being left behind, not Humphrey Bogart’s character Rick. She was crumpled up on a wooden bench just outside the train door, shedding the tears that can only be caused by the separation or death of a loved one. A distinct, sickening anguish shared by both of us.

It was like being conscious during a nightmare, only in this case the nightmare was real. Watching it unfold as if it were on the big screen added a surreal element to what was already a disjointed, fragmented scene, like a living 3D Picasso. My actions felt animated and somehow rehearsed, but the pain was real. I withdrew my foot and watched her from the window. The reflection staring back at me in the dual-paned glass presented another distorted Picasso-like image. The final minutes on that platform dragged on in slow motion, yet my heart was racing. A lifelong movie aficionado, I could only hang my head in recognition of the ironic, film-noir quality that my departure—and my life—had taken.

The horn sounded and the train began its slow roll, creeping up the track. The last thing I recognized before my eyes glazed over completely was a blurry wave and a futile kiss goodbye blown in my direction. I was going directly to jail, without passing GO or collecting $200. As a matter of fact, my entire net worth couldn’t even equal that figure. The $173 in my wallet and the shirt on my back were the only things I had left.

To make matters worse, I had manifested a blinding headache from fighting back the tears, resisting the urge to break down. I’d promised myself beforehand that I would stay strong and not crack. I was en route to FSC (Federal Satellite Camp) in Jesup, Georgia, a federal prison camp where I would self-surrender. After not working for three years, courtesy of the U.S. Marshals, my resources had dwindled, forcing me to sell my beautiful home in Forest Lake Estates to pay my huge legal fees. It had been my dream to gift my daughter the house where she’d been happily raised during her childhood. I was crushed. My destruction was now complete.

“I… I should have stayed… should have stayed… in Morocco,” I whispered again in staccato, my voice fading as I began to choke on my own words. Not long ago I’d been lounging in a suite at the Golf Palace in Marrakesh, staring at $16 million in cash and over $4 million worth of designer watches sitting on the floor at my feet. When I left Morocco, my bank account at the Banco Popular held a cool one million U.S. dollars. But no… I had to do the right thing… my father’s mantra ringing in my ears… and at least try to help recover the money stolen by my crooked partner, Scott Rothstein. People had been hurt, and I had been used and manipulated like a puppet in one of his colossal schemes. I was disgusted with myself. How could I have let that happen?

At the beginning of the government’s inquisition, I was optimistic that they would uncover the truth; I had never stolen anything from anyone, EVER, and this incident was no exception. I planned and expected to be grilled by men of intelligence that cared about the truth, men who would understand that I’d been duped. I’d been tricked by a master manipulator, fooled into believing him the same way everyone else did — including high-ranking people in government: 2008 Republican Presidential nominee John McCain, Senator Arlen Specter, Governor Charlie Crist, Sheriff Nick Navarro, and even one of the most seasoned, intelligent and calculated businessmen on Earth: The Don.

They trusted him, as I had. Most of the “big shots” that Rothstein associated with took money from him in some way, shape or form… but I didn’t. Why was I held to a higher standard? I considered myself to be nothing more than an inadvertent participant. Little did I know that my lack of “knowledge and intent” to commit a crime was not a relevant defense. Only law enforcement was allowed the luxury of having the defense of non-intention when it came to committing a crime. The powerbrokers in their ivory towers protected their backsides when they changed the laws to facilitate more, quicker and easier convictions. In my case, the prosecutors’ hands were tied by laws that precluded them from applying more than a cursory dose of discretion, intelligence and common sense. I knew they were just doing their jobs within the framework they’d been given, feeding a steady stream of bodies into the insatiable Perpetual Prisoner Money Machine. They were blindly carrying out the orders of the taskmasters, the sociopathic Suits on Top (“SOTs”), regardless of the inhumanity of it. Wasn’t that what I did with Rothstein — follow his orders? The scary truth was that they had the power to punish me even more than they did. They could have destroyed me completely, but to their credit, they chose not to. Thank God! But in the moment, it provided no solace. The system was a beast.

This robotic process seemed to be no more than an unfortunate series of consequences resulting in the conscienceless destruction of people and families… by the millions. In practice, bona fide justice had been diminished, now relegated to being a random, inadvertent and often incidental byproduct of a perverse and calculated criminal justice system. Enforcement of written law had somehow become more important than the concept of law, and the concept of “equal application of justice” had been downgraded to a buzzword. I didn’t have $300 million dollars to stroke a check to the Feds to get them off my back like others did. In other words, I was totally fucked.

In retrospect, I was incredibly stupid for having given the remotest consideration to the possibility that the government would care even one iota about anything other than my conviction. That’s what I should have been convicted of, being naïve enough to think that doing the right thing would save me. Dumb-ass! I deserved a 60-month sentence just for that alone. By the end of eighteen-months of legal “processing,” my frustration level had crescendoed to an all-time high—with myself, the system, and of course my ex-partner Rothstein.

         Regardless, the unthinkable had just happened; my last day had finally arrived. Every day for the past two years I’d wake up thanking God for giving me one more day of freedom. Now it was over.

My nightmare had inauspiciously begun on Halloween night a little over two years ago in 2009, when Liz and I boarded the Air Marac flight to North Africa. I became numb just thinking about that day. My ears started ringing… tinnitus on steroids. My mind began to race, flitting from one thought to another every few seconds. My heart palpitating, I wondered if I was about to have a heart attack. The coffee had turned to acid in my empty stomach and I needed to throw up.

         I SHOULD HAVE STAYED IN MOROCCO.

* * *

Two hours down the tracks I began to calm down. The train was approaching Orlando, which conjured up images of countless road trips that flickered like a slideshow in my mind’s eye. Vivid recollections of dozens of softball tournaments, celebrations and award ceremonies, deep laughter that turned to tears, cheap motel rooms and lumpy beds. I envisioned a virtual collage of theme park adventures flashing before me. Sounds of children screaming on the thunderous rides, and the smell of cotton candy that had to be eaten quickly before it melted in the torrid, sopping central Florida heat. Every one of them a memorable clip in a long-running highlight film of experiences with the crown jewel of my life, my little girl Lucy.

For a few fleeting moments I was freed from my ragged emotional body, floating with her through Disney’s magical It’s a Small World Fantasyland boat ride. It was the ultimate kids’ dream to see in real life what had previously only been imagined; to see the animated munchkins, toy soldiers drumming, talking lollipops and flowers, singing puppets and other characters come to life. She looked up at me in what may have been the first wave of realization of her young life and blurted, “Daddy, it’s my birfday and we’re at Disney World! Thank you, thank you, Daddy!”

She’d gazed up at me with her big, brown, loving eyes, a look that could only come from a three-year-old who adored her father, hugging me tight before beaming herself back into that Small World. Life had awarded me with a perfect moment. For fifteen seconds, everything had synchronized into a pure consciousness of love, appreciation and contentment shared between two connected souls. It was as close to perfection in this world as I’d ever felt, before or after, and I lived it again as if it had happened just earlier that morning.

As my reverie melded itself into the background of ambient train noises, I was pulled back into the real world. My solar plexus reflexively tightened as I unwillingly began to re-live the gut-wrenching departure scene that I suffered just a few hours ago. Wasn’t once enough?

It was no wonder that countless men had been driven to madness over the ages. History taught us that every man, no matter how stalwart, had his own personal breaking point. I didn’t want to think about it but couldn’t stop replaying the morning’s episode. As my old buddy Murph used to say, it was all over me like an eighty-pound fire ant. A scant few minutes ago I had been relishing moments from the highlight reel of my life, but I had become queasy again. Was there some kind of cosmic law governing the balance of energy that required a corresponding moment of negativity to countersink every moment of elation?

The pendulum was swinging heavily in the wrong direction. I wasn’t cut out for this; this was not my life, it couldn’t be! I’d been so happy for so long. Happiness was my natural condition, the default. How could that all be over for me now? What a wretched state; how could anything get any worse?

Oddly enough, a little voice inside my head whispered right back. “That’s what you think!” What I’d said to myself was the cosmic equivalent of sticking one’s tongue out at Satan himself, hissing, “I dare you!” Although I had no idea what powers governed forces like this, I did know that they were for real. Words do have power when they’re linked to emotions, and I proved it the hard way. A lesson learned: never tempt fate.

* * *

Self-pity is an exasperating, exhausting activity. My mind was shot after a few hours of thrashing myself, second-guessing every choice I’d ever made—especially the ones that created the conditions that lead to my current predicament. The incalculable complexity of the intricacies and dynamics at play combined with my legal woes and huge personal issues, such as losing my home and going broke, were throwing me into another mind-spin; more self-recrimination, guilt, trauma and pain.

I hated being miserable—more than most people. I forced myself to draw the line right then and there, and to stop thinking, at least for the time being. I collected myself, giving myself assurance that I was indeed okay for that exact moment. I’d have to forget the past and the future and force myself to stay in the moment. I understood the concept, but convincing myself of it was another story.

Focus. I was taking a nice ride through rural Florida and everything was fine. I was safe, warm and comfortable. I forced myself to relax and appreciate my immediate conditions. Nothing else was relevant. Perhaps things would stabilize for me now that I’d already sunk to the bottom of life’s apple barrel. I was just convicted of a white-collar felony, not as scathing as a convicted drug dealer or child molester. But, yes they were felons, too! Once inside we were all the same.

Perhaps I could actually survive this experience and someday emerge to join the normal rank and file of the community. Reality clawed back; it was too soon to begin plotting my comeback. I hadn’t even arrived in prison yet. I silently mouthed my favorite all-time managerial quote: “One disaster at a time.”

The soothing smell of comfort food wafted down from the dining car, so I jumped out of my seat and headed for the bar. I figured I could use a couple of Grey Goose Bloody Mary’s right about then. Ordinarily, setting the Goose loose this early in the day would have been unthinkable. As a businessman I needed to be lucid during the day, but under the present circumstances, it would be forgivable… and just might help right the ship. At least for now.

One of my three lifelong college buddies from Cornell University would be picking me up at the train station in Jesup in seven hours. He insisted on treating me to one last supper before depositing me at Hell’s doorstep. Certainly he wouldn’t judge me for drinking all day, especially since he would have polished off at least a twelve-pack on his way from Atlanta. He was from an athletic fraternity whose primary focus was drinking and I belonged to a drinking fraternity whose primary focus was athletics. The perfect match both on the field and off.

I felt extremely fortunate to have a few real friends left in this world. I’d pretty much been abandoned by everyone I’d ever known as soon as I lost the ability to do something for them. I was suddenly persona non grata after I lost my business and my status as a nightclub owner. As soon as I was considered to be “in trouble with the law,” my phone went dark—right when I needed support the most. On the bright side, at least I could tell who my friends were. My mind went temporarily blank as I threw back the first vodka.

I wondered what Elizabeth was doing and allowed my thoughts to revisit our last moments together once again… in more detail and even more emotion than before. Then twin daggers seared through my temples as my thoughts turned to my Lucy. Goddamn it!

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