Here it is! The final installment of the Bellingham Mysteries: Pentimento Blues.
The Final Mystery
Now that small-town reporter Peter Fontaine has gotten hitched to the man of his dreams, he thinks his days of solving crimes are over. But after a decades-old secret is revealed, a dead body is found and Peter’s husband Nick is at the top of the suspect list. Peter must harness his power of ultimate nosiness to find one last killer.
Fans of Nick and Peter from "The Bellingham Mysteries," might want to check out the excerpt from the sixth and final novella, "Pentimento Blues," up at The Novel Approach today.
To help Lisa celebrate her 5 year blogiversary I'm also giving away a boxed set containing the first five Bellingham Mysteries as well as selections from the Blind Eye Books catalog. There are lots of prizes so come on over!
14 Books Ginn Hale Has Read So That You Don’t Have To
Over my long association with Ginn Hale I have seen her perusing many books. And I’ll be honest—hardly any of them looked very interesting. But a few stood out as being so dull-looking that I felt compelled to share it with the world. Ginn, being the darling that she is, swooped in immediately to explain why all these books are amazing.
So here they are (in no particular order.)
#1 Probablistic Robotics by Thrun, Burgard and Fox
NK: This is a heavy blue slab of a book filled with mysterious math symbols, diagrams, graphs and sentences like, “The kidnapped robot problem can be addressed by injecting additional hypotheses into the mixture.”
She claims to have read it all.
GH: I have read it all. The take away from this one is that while digital systems are great at parsing binary information—basically yes/no questions—they require vastly more complex means of problem solving to function in the sort of uncertainty that dominates the real world.
What’s particularly interesting about the book is comparing the exacting, but often ponderous systems of binary logic presented on the pages to the “fuzzy” fast coding that seems to underlie the biological organisms all around us.
NK: Of all the perfunctory titles on this list, Japanese Agent… has got to be my favorite.
GH: This one is the amazing story of a Japanese youth who during the Second World War escaped conscription by volunteering to travel as a spy through Mongolia, Northern China, Tibet and India. He quickly proved to be a worthless spy but a wonderful and highly empathetic traveler. His memoir is a harrowing, hilarious, bittersweet chronicle of the human stories that go on in the face of empires rising and falling.
NK: …honestly I’m not sure why even a writer would read a dictionary all the way through—except maybe as a kind of punishment.
GH: What? No! Reading a dictionary is like opening up a set of nesting dolls of near infinite qualities and varieties. The pages present words describing all manner of ideas, objects, geography, people, and historic incidences. More than that, the definitions and juxtapositions of words themselves can range from fascinating to funny.
Consider the vast change in technology evoked in the small distance between ‘carrier pigeon’ and the electromagnetic ‘carrier waves’ that now transmit sound and images. Does ‘Nunnery’ look down on ‘Nuptial’ from its higher position on the page? And who, after reading the third definition of a ‘Toe’ as, “Something resembling a toe…” can keep from laughing a little at the absurdity.
NK: This is one of two volumes on this list that I have also read. Probably my favorite poem in this collection is, “Only One Eye,” by Lillian E. Curtis, though some days I’m more partial to James MacIntyre’s “Ode on the Mammoth Cheese.”
GH:Very Bad Poetry is a gem. Even on the worst of days it doesn’t fail to bring a smile. The sample of agonized rhymes is one of my favorites.
Gooing babies, helpless pygmies,
Who shall solve your Fate’s enigmas?
NK: A book about ants…working. (There are graphs.)
GH: More books should have graphs. Imagine how quickly and simply a chart could sum up the progress of, say, the battle of Helmsdeep. This book certainly does not have too many graphs.
Ants at work deals with the ways that seemingly simple individuals can interact to produce vastly more complex systems, which no individual is required to understand or control. I can’t help but think that some of the problems tackled in Probablistic Robotics might eventually be solved by adopting the less exact but more resilient systems employed by social insects.
NK: This book has a beaver on the cover, but is not about beavers.
GH: This slim volume that takes Dawkins’ Selfish Gene argument even farther. It discusses how genotypes (which are all the sections of DNA that produce heritable traits aka genes) produce different phenotypes (the physical expression of those genes) that not only effect the organism they occur within, but can “extend” their reach to other organisms. Which is a fancy way of saying that our genes often make us appear attractive, fit, powerful or familiar, not because doing so ‘improves’ our species but because that leverages the genes into a better position for being passed on to the next generation.
There’s some fascinating stuff in here, particularly addressing the “power struggles” between the DNA of an organism and the RNA of the mitochondria that it carries within its cells. And pondering cases of gene swapping wherein it might better serve an organism’s genes to render it vulnerable to other organisms (think bacteria) capable of overwhelming it, snatching up those genes and reproducing them in an entirely different body.
#7 The Behavior Guide to African Mammals (Including Hoofed Mammals, Carnivores, and Primates) by Richard Despard Estes
NK: Contains line drawings, sillouettes, maps and tantalizing information such as the fact that Grevy’s Zebras, “maintain large dung middens on their territorial boundaries.”
GH: This is an old favorite and my first introduction to the now famous ratel aka honey badger. In one biologists description a ratel he was following, “rounded on the car and bit the tires”.
It’s packed with fascinating animal behavior as well as little insights into the lives of the biologists conducting their studies in the field. (Like how much time they have to spend looking at and drawing anal sacs.)
NK: Many full-color photos! (Not all of bees, but mostly.)
GH: Bees. Of. The. World!
What more does a person need inspire them to pick this up and start learning about this diverse family of insects? Drawings of anal sacs? Well, I’m sorry to disappoint but bees don’t have them.
They do however secrete wax and see ultraviolet light. Some are social, living in regimented colonies while others are solitary. Some make their homes in seashells, others dig deep into the ground or tunnel into wood. Not all of them sting or produce honey—some perfume themselves with the scents of orchids. Many have striped bodies, some have striped eyes. All of them are wonderful.
NK: If you, like Roy from Shanghai Noon have decided to “learn the names of these green trees,” this is the book for you. Plus it has a plastic cover and can be used as a very effective coaster.
GH: I don’t know this Roy, but I like the way he thinks. If you’re going to spend a lot of time in forests, it’s only polite to learn the names of the inhabitants.
Owning a field guide is like owning a copy of Burke’s Peerage, you to flip through the pages and from time to time realize that you’ve just chanced upon a rare specimen, be it of a maple or a marquis.
NK: Honestly, I am not making this up. This is a real book.
GH: This is a real AWESOME book. It’s got it all. Yes, it covers the ecology of those seductive swamps and beautiful bogs but also explores fabulous fens, marvelous marshes, and a wonderland of wetlands.
NK: This is actually a really interesting book. It contains recipes such as “Fish Drowned in Grape Juice,” which acts as both title and first cooking instruction. And ends with, “This fish, like all fish, is served with sibagh, because without sibagh no fish can be appreciated.”
GH: I don’t cook but I sometimes write about people who do and I have to agree this is a really interesting read that evokes a different time and place effortlessly.
NK: The footnotes section of this book is a whopping 200 pages long.
GH: There comes a time in every author’s life when she thinks, “How did they manage to police Shanghai in the late Twenties and early Thirties?” This book answers that question and brings the complexity of a collapsing empire, ascending gangster warlords, communist ideals, foreign invasion, and “The Rat” brand cigarettes to life.
#12 Renaissance Swordsmanship: The Illustrated Use of Rapiers and Cut-and-Thrust Swords by John Clements
NK: You might think that this book has photos of dudes fighting. It does not. It has line drawings of what look like artist dummies fighting.
GH: Artist dummies too have their passions and battles! The “how to” aspect of this book is fine but it’s not as fascinating as how the information reflects the idea and ideals of dueling.
NK: At last! A book with interesting drawings! Apparently the Washington State Pavilion featured a mammoth skeleton, a 20-foot wheat pyramid and many giant trees.
GH: The 1893 fair was amazing! This book alone cannot do it justice but it does help a great deal in visualizing the space and magnitude of the entire thing. The excerpts from visitors’ diaries, newspaper articles and memoirs impart a real sense of just how astounding it felt to attend this immense, electrically-lit exposition.
# 14 The Materials and Techniques of Medieval Painting by Daniel Thompson with a forward by Bernard Berenson
NK: Leafing through this book one can find out which pigments are made out of bugs. That’s my main takeaway.
GH: This is a book within a book. First there are the descriptions of Medieval art materials, often presented with excerpts from sources, (Cennino, in particular). All of which offers a feel of the age and its values. (Poisoning by lead, mercury or arsenic wasn’t merely a danger but almost an inevitability for many of the unknown and unnamed laborers and apprentices.)
The recipes themselves represent strange mixes of mythology and early chemistry. Dragonsblood (actually the sap of an east Indian shrub) was still thought to be the coagulated mixture of blood spilled in the titanic battles between dragons and elephants. There’s even an account of how the “everlasting fighting” between the two combatants plays out—with lots and lots of bleeding on both sides, obviously.
But at the same time, artists were beginning to notice that some pigments they produced had odd, unexpected reactions when mixed—brilliant gold orpiment (which is an arsenic sulfide) blackened cool green verdigris (a copper sulfate) as well as lead white. The artist studios were slowly and subtly becoming chemistry laboratories.
And then there’s the second, slightly subtler book, which arises form the voice of the Art Historian author and captures a 1950’s scholarly tone that is both pompous and charming.
After describing the colorful myths surrounding dragonsblood the author sniffs, “I am sometimes not at all sure that we do not pay too dear for our scientific knowledge.” At various times he becomes obviously pained by the way that the aging of oil and varnishes have made medieval paintings appear more brown and warm than the artist intended: “…blues, violets and cool greys are twisted out of character…” he protests. He also mentions his academic enemies and well as his friends at various points and even brings up Monet at one point.
A close reading of the book and the forward—“…the history of art should be the history of the humanization of the completely bipedized anthropoid.” (Sure it should, buddy.)—actually reveals almost as much about the aesthetics of the Fifties as it does about those of medieval era.
In Part One: I cover the first steps to creating an online presence by making your own website and setting up social media profiles.
Now you have your own website and have activated your Facebook and Twitter accounts.
What do you do next?
1. Friend all contributors to any magazine issue or anthology you have been published in.
2. Friend or follow everyone you’ve ever met at a writing conference no matter how super-important or inconsequential you think they might be.
3. Follow all authors whose books you enjoy on Twitter.
4. Ask writer friends to suggest friends on Facebook—not a million—like, five is a good starting number.
5. Follow all publications and publishers that you would like to work for to keep abreast of things like reading periods and other kinds of submissions announcements.
At the end of this you will (hopefully) have a few friends and followers.
In the beginning, posting once or twice a week will be adequate. The purpose of these posts is to assure any readers, reviewers or potential new publishers that you are still alive and active in the world. These posts needn’t be profound. They should be non-confrontational evidence of your existence.
What to Post
Apart from news about your upcoming releases and public appearances you will most likely just be liking and sharing other people’s material.
A good beginning social media regimen might look like this:
Monday & Thursday
Make 1 original post updating your current status
Share three posts
Like, retweet or comment on 5 of your friends or followers’ posts
Follow pages that interest you and post items are relevant to your preferred genre or themes that you explore or are important to your fan base. For example, I write genre fiction (fantasy, science-fiction, mystery and romance) so I follow and share art from fantastical art pages, factoids from science pages, and news of interesting or ingenious crimes. I also write humor so I share humor posts from sites like The Onion and The Hard Times because I know at least some of my readers will also enjoy them.
Because I also write a cooking column for Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, I often post interesting or unusual information about food as well.
Another strategy is to find a news story that resonates with themes or characters in your novel and share a link to that, excerpting a catchy phrase from the article (in quotation marks, of course) to grab the attention of your readers.
But the main question to ask before sharing anything is this: Is this related to my brand? For example, if your story is set in London and you come across a photo or news story that qualifies as #onlyinlondon, then by all means share it. And use that hashtag too. But don’t do the same thing for Budapest or Rio…unless you actually reside in one of those places then that, too, would qualify as your brand because it has to do with your own personal regionality.
Pay attention to your news feeds and see what kind of posts get the most likes and use that feedback. After a few months you will most likely begin to develop your social media voice and better understand who is noticing and responding when you speak.
Remember: Your mission is not to only talk about yourself. It is to boost your own signal by curating an entertaining news and trivia experience for your followers.
Keep in mind that people go to social media to Have Fun.
They want to continue the experience of being entertained by you, not interact with you on a deep and personal level. Avoid broadcasting your:
1. Private beefs with others in the industry (authors, reviewers, editors, fans, etc)
2. Private beefs with your friends and family (this is what the private message function is for!)
Responding to Reviewers
Nowadays it’s very common for reviewers to contact authors directly with links to their reviews, whether they be positive or negative. This is somewhat problematic for authors since very few authors can read their own reviews and still maintain a positive attitude toward their writing. So I suggest following a protocol of strict politeness.
For a positive review:
“I’m glad you enjoyed the book! Thank you so much for your time and hard work.” And repost the link to the reviewer’s site on your social media.
For a mixed review:
“Thank you so much for taking the time to read and review my book.” And repost the link if you feel the reviewer had a good point, and the review is overall positive.
For a negative review:
“Thank you so much for taking the time to read and review my book.” You are under no obligation to repost a negative review.
As you get better ts using social media you’re going to begin to naturally up your game. You will find a group of online friends who “get” you and learn who you come into conflict with.
Now you have created an online persona--the crucial evidence of your continuing existence so vital to today's world. Now go forth and sell some books.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
I decided to write this series because there has been a paradigm shift in the world of writing. Whereas before it was possible for a writer to remain outside the fracas of the online world and still have some sort of career (or even meaningful hobby) now having an active online presence is as much a requirement as wearing a business attire to your office job. In other words: for a writer to be taken seriously by readers as well as publishers they MUST participate in social media and in their own online marketing.
Right now I'm seeing a lot really good writers who should be in their prime whose voices are beginning to vanish due to a complete lack of understanding of how to promote themselves online. Hopefully these tips will help at least some drowned-out voices to resurface as well as for completely new authors to find and maintain connections to their ideal readers. This is not meant to be some kind of masterclass. In fact, it's a little more like summer school.
But by the end of it--with any luck--you too should be able to engage the new digital reality of life as an author.
How To Create An Online Presence
It’s finally happened: you’ve written a piece of fiction. You’ve either sold your masterpiece to a publisher or you’ve decided to go it alone on Smashwords. Either way the one thing you need to do now is create an online presence.
I do not care who you are, or what you write, or what problems you have—philosophical or existential—with social media. If you hope to have success you need an active online presence. Full stop.
Because this is the way readers will discover you and share their love of your work with each other and with you. And it’s also where you will reassure them that you are still alive and beavering away at your next project. It’s where you will build excitement for your creations and where your readers will share their excitement with others.
Your work will be competing with thousands of other titles. Your active social media presence is what keeps your work from being subsumed by the massive tidal (title?) wave of other works and promotional campaigns.
Social media also allows you to build relationships with other writers. It’s no exaggeration to say that your relationships with other writers will dictate the course of your career. They will inspire you, teach you, introduce you to important industry professionals and, most importantly, introduce you to new readers via cross-promotion.
In part one we will focus solely on the very first steps.
The First Decision
Before you build a website or attempt to take on Twitter—the autobahn of the social media world—you need to decide whether you will use your actual name or a pen name. I use my real name. Here’s why: my real name came with existing contacts in the form of my real-life friends. Even if they’ve never read a single word I’ve written my real-life friends have staunchly supported my career via likes, shares, retweets and general signal-boosting. Plus I am not the sort of person who is likely to maintain two separate social media presences (one private-one personal). I’m naturally extroverted and impulsive and having to pause to remember who I am supposed to be online vs. in real life would drain all pleasure from the experience of interacting with people.
If you are like me, using your real name—or some variation of your real name, like your initials or your first and middle names, is the way to go.
For example, if your name is Angelica June Hardesty and you decide to publish under A.J. Hardesty you just change your Facebook profile to “Public” and the name listed to A.J. Hardesty and you’re already in business.
But most authors use a pen name. There are many reasons this might be the choice for you. They range from as personal as hiding your hobby from your coworkers to as calculated as the deliberate creation of a auctorial brand identity. So long as you will legitimately post as your online persona, having a pen name is great. But it does burden you with starting from zero in terms of contacts, so you’re going to have to go deliberately court followers.
Whether you use a variation of your real name or a pen name it’s important to make sure the associated domain name is available for you to purchase: i.e. my name is Nicole Kimberling, so I own www.nicolekimberling.com. If your name is already taken you can either choose another name to write under or you can augment it with an applicable term like, “nicolekimberlingwriter” or “nicolekimberlingauthor.” You can check if your domain is taken by using the search function at sites like GoDaddy.
One note about our pen name: be aware that nowadays most assumed identities are eventually discovered, especially if you become popular. So understand starting off that your nom de plume is not an impenetrable shield of anonymity. It’s more like a business name. So remember to use business etiquette when posting.
Step Two: Build a Website
Take that domain you bought and just build one. There are plenty of platforms out there. Right now I recommend Squarespace, because it’s dead easy and has a great help section. But probably in a couple of years there will be an even easier platform to build on. If website-building is truly impossible for you to understand find a kid to help you. Like a relative. Or a neighbor. Alternately, most college students will be able to assist. Hire one to sit beside you for a day and help you figure out what you're supposed to be doing. Do not let them build your website for you. They're just there to help you learn because you're going to have to update this thing for yourself eventually, right?
To begin with, all you need are four pages:
1. A landing page with your author name on it plus a picture or logo.
2. A page that lists your publications. (With buy links.)
3. A biography with links to your social media and contact information
4. A blog, or news section where you can post announcements or free reads.
And viola! You have built your home base. You have created an exclusive venue to post your news, updates, free reads promotions, cat pictures…whatever. Now that you have a home it’s time to expand.
Finding Your Social Media Platform
At the time of writing this essay, the two major social media platforms of most use to writers are Facebook and Twitter. Here is an easy way to figure out which one to start using first:
1. If you like to write letters or to talk on the phone, start with Facebook.
2. If you prefer to send postcards join Twitter.
You can set up each of these social media platforms to post to the other automatically, but you need one primary mode of interaction that you can perform easily from your phone.
Why My Phone?
Because you must engage with social media every single day for the month before and one month after your release. It helps to be able to just use dead time—like when you’re in your dentist’s waiting room—to keep engagement up without cutting into your writing time. (Cause you’re already working on your next project right? Of course you are.)
One Last Thing
Set up a profile on Goodreads and link the blog on your website to it. (If you can't figure out how to do this, invite that kid back. Buy her a pizza or something for her trouble.)
So that’s how to create a very basic social media presence.
Tune in next week for “How to Make Friends and Find Your Social Media Voice.”
The Most Important Meal of the Day
By Nicole Kimberling
The morning of the apocalypse had started off so well.
Special Agent Keith Curry of NIAD had risen, showered, and gotten as far as peeling his standard-issue hard-boiled egg before the first tremors of the looming cataclysm rocked through the city.
Keith had not always been such an austere breakfaster. Before joining NIAD, he had worked as a chef. Back in those days he’d started every Sunday morning with Hangtown Fry and a Bloody Mary. Now he preferred the simplicity of the six-minute egg. For one thing, it fit easily into his pocket, which helped to facilitate caloric intake during frequent unexpected call outs.
Like many of the non-magical residents of Washington DC, he’d initially mistaken the shock waves that formed when one of the thin membranes between the human and extra-human plane of existence ruptured for some kind of earthquake or sonic boom. Maybe it had been a bomb or gas line explosion.
But unlike most of the other non-magical humans in DC, Keith worked for NIAD—Earth’s premier supernatural intelligence and security service. Because of this the tremor gave him pause. Certainly a sulfurous smell permeated in the air, which he’d initially attributed to the indeterminate age of the egg. But now, with the eye-watering potency of the stench, he began to wonder about its origin.
Keith’s ruminations were interrupted by the sight of his live-in lover, confidante and general companion, Gunther, rushing into the kitchen from his shower, soaking wet, naked and talking on his phone.
“Yes, sir. I’ve got it,” Gunther said. “I’ll be ready in five.”
Gunther cut a compelling figure—a fine specimen of humanity, tall, dark-haired and rippling with sinewy muscle. But that was only on the outside. Gunther’s parents had both been goblin refugees working in NIAD’s San Francisco office. And so that their child would fit in better among the humans, Gunther had been transmogrified in utero to outwardly resemble a human.
But the humanity only went skin deep. Gunther not only possessed the great strength of all his fey brethren, he retained certain other goblin tastes as well, such as a palate that included appreciation for the taste of naphtha.
Keith had met Guthner through NIAD when Gunther’s strike team had been called to assist on one of Keith’s cases. Doubtless, Gunther’s his team leader, Haakon, was the voice on other end of the phone giving Gunther the specifics on some supernatural situation that would naturally preclude a good breakfast for either of them.
Normally Keith would have made some pithy comment about the lost breakfast or at least teased Gunther about insisting on showering with a phone. But Gunther’s expression showed no softness or even awareness of Keith’s bathrobe-clad presence. He disconnected, went to the hall closet pulled a heavy duffel bag and plunked it down on the kitchen table.
“What’s going on?” Keith asked.
“I’ve been deployed.” Gunther unzipped the bag to reveal several hard cases that Keith knew from previous experience (and snooping) contained Gunther’s weapons. As Keith watched, Gunther uncased his automatic mage rifle, two conventional pistols and a goblin-forged short sword.
It was the sword that worried Keith most.
“Are you leaving the Earthly realm?”
“No, I’m going about five blocks away,” Gunther said. His blue eyes flashed up at Keith. “It’s bad.
Maybe the Endtimes.”
“And you’re still naked,” Keith said. “You realize that right?”
Gunther looked down at himself, said, “Darn it,” and headed for the bedroom.
Alarm zinged through Keith’s guts but he followed Gunther up the stairs at a leisurely pace, egg in one hand, coffee cup in the other. Gunther was already half-dressed by the time Keith entered their bedroom.
He downed the egg in two bites then went around to his side of the bed and found his NIAD-issue spectacles. These lenses had been designed for humans like him, who needed to be able to see extra-human creatures and events that were invisible to the human population. As soon as he did this, he noticed a strange red light filtering in through the sheer curtain that hung over the north-facing window.
Pulling this aside, he could not help but note that the clear blue sky had been rent down the center, leaving a gaping tear like a massive claw had ripped through a canvas. Beyond this he saw what appeared to be bloody flesh punctuated with dozens of blood red eyeballs the size of ocean-going freighters. These glared down at the city with the insane twitchiness of a schizophrenic on methamphetamine.
To say he wasn’t scared would be a lie. He was quite scared—so scared it took him a couple of seconds to be able to move. But Keith was not surprised. While he hadn’t expect to see the hideous, Lovecraftian assemblage of flesh and giant eyes, it didn’t fall outside the realm of possibility in his personal reality, which, in a way was more terrifiying—but not necessarily a shock.
When he could move again he took a drink of coffee and said, “Does your deployment have anything to do with the perforation of realities revealing a nightmarish hellscape hanging in the sky?”
“Haakon is sending me to get Jax.” Gunther started strapping on his body armor. “He only lives a few blocks from here.”
“Who in hell is Jax?”
“He’s the most powerful warlock on Earth.” Gunther cinched the buckle of his swordbelt. “Or that’s what Haakon says, anyway.”
“And Haakon is sending you alone?” Keith didn’t like Gunther’s commander. The dark-elf alpha-bro of the NIAD DC Strike Force rubbed him the wrong way—sometimes literally in the form of abrupt, unprovoked noogies.
“Like I said, I’m closest,” Gunther shouldered into his scabbard. Then he turned, kissed Keith hard and said, “You should stay inside. Some creatures have come through the rift.”
Keith drained the last of his coffee. “I’m coming with you. Don’t even fight me on it.”
Gunther seemed like he might do just that, then he broke into a smile. “You better get dressed then.”
Outside, the streets outside were full of screaming. First the terrified shrieks of DC residents being pursued by slavering, sharp-toothed hell-hounds, then the wailing of every conceivable siren and last the desolate howls of a thousand madmen that seemed to be emanating from the rift itself. A choking stink like foul breath poured out as well.
Viewed through the treated lenses of his NIAD issue spectacles, the DC street came alive with magic. From the tangles of leprechaun graffiti scrawled across the stoops of well-kempt row houses to the squadron of Air Force witches broomsticking toward the rift, the unseen was revealed to him. One in twenty citizens who rushed down the sidewalk sported a glamor that hid their true forms.
Keith even spotted a unicorn barreling down the center of the street, nostrils flared and eyes rolling in fear of the vile gaze hanging in the sky.
Glancing up Keith’s heart skipped a beat as he saw massive tendrils of red mist beginning to curl down from the rift like the tentacles of poison anemones. They seemed to be searching the buildings, pushing into the windows.
Further screaming seemed to be the result of this ceaseless probing.
“Do we even know what that thing is?” Keith shouted above the noise. To his left he saw a movement and trained his mage pistol on it but it turned out to be a regular dog cowering by a set of trashcans. A leash hung slack from the dog’s neck. It still had what looked like the owner’s hand attached to the guiding end, but Keith saw no trace of the rest of person in sight.
“Haakon said it was a vision made flesh,” Gunther shouted as he dodged a mutilated corpse on the sidewalk. Keith picked his way more gingerly through the blood, noting the guy had two hands, which meant he hadn’t been the owner of the dog.
Not that that mattered. Groceries lay strewn around the man’s body. A dozen eggs lay, crushed and oozing yellow yolk into the sanguine rivulets that followed the sidewalk cracks down the curb and into the gutter.
“Whose vision is this? Some crazy mage?”
“Nobody knows,” Gunther replied.
“And what’s this Jax supposed to do?”
“Fix it. That’s what NIAD pays him for.” Gunther came up short at the end of a block and motioned Keith to stillness. He gripped his sword in both hands as he carefully peered around the corner.
Instantly a snarling hell-hound leapt at him. Gunther kicked the beast in the chest and brought his sword down slicing the creature in two lengthwise. Blood sprayed up in a fine mist that coated them both in rank smelling gore. A second beast lunged for Gunthers leg, but Keith dropped it with his mage pistol. He and Gunther sidled past it as it writhed on the concrete, caged by tendrils of magic.
“Jax’s place is at the end of the block.” Gunther motioned Keith to follow.
The street was deserted but as they approached a row house Keith saw another body on the sidewalk. Oddly, this person—a middle-aged woman also seemed to have been carrying groceries when mauled. Her eggs had survived, though her head and one hand seemed to have been carried off.
Gunther took the stairs two at a time and, to Keith’s shock, rang the doorbell.
“It’s open,” a voice called from inside.
As Gunther opened the door the network of silvery spells laced across the open doorway practically blinded him, forcing him to push his NIAD issue spectacles up to be able to see anything at all.
Keith followed Guther into the darkened foyer. As he stepped across the threshold the sonic assault from the sky stopped as did the vile stench. The smell of stale sneakers replaced the odor of the rift. As his eyes adjusted, Keith could see why. The floor of the foyer was strewn with shoes, jackets and other miscellaneous clothing. Farther down the hall he could see a crumpled pile of what looked like sweat pants.
Again the voice sounded—a male voice. “The kitchen is at the end of that hall. I’ll be in the living room when it’s ready.”
Keith crept down the hallway and peered through the doorway into a darkened, disheveled room containing an armchair, a couch and a massive television set.
The room also contained a man. Handsome as a supermodel, and clad in green boxers and a single sock, Jax sprawled across the armchair as if he were an illustration for ennui. Keith had seen a lot of illusions and disguises of this sort—most magical creatures could make themselves look good. At the risk of blinding himself again, he lowered the specs and snuck a peek through. Jax’s form shimmered with magical writing, but Keith could see that Jax’s true form was merely average.
He appeared to be around twenty-five years old and fairly greasy. His expression was torpid as he watched the television, which was tuned to some cartoon Keith didn’t recognize.
“We’ve come from NIAD,” Keith flashed his ID, which Jax didn’t turn to look at. “We need your help. There’s a rupture between the planes—”
“I know, the council of mages already called me. It was right as I was trying to order my groceries,” Jax said. “Actually I called the store twice but they never arrived.”
“I think that might be because of the monsters and whatnot.” Keith tried to keep his voice calm.
“Whose fault is that? Not mine. Some undiscovered mage kid gets a Ouija board and opens up a realm of bloodletting and sorrow and suddenly I don’t get breakfast? They told me that not having blintzes is not the end of the world.” Jax gave a snort. “But I say, maybe it is.”
Keith stood, momentarily torn between horror and homicidal rage.
Gunther stepped forward. He’d sheathed his sword and actually bowed as he spoke, “Great Warlock Jax, the creatures coming through the rift are terrorizing the city we don’t have any time to waste. Lives are being lost every second.”
“Right, I get that.” Jax finally rolled his head around to look at them. “But it’s almost ten a.m. I don’t want to miss out on brunch because of this. I am really, really hungry.”
This time Keith was not torn.
“You fucking spoiled little asshole,” he bellowed, fully invoking the volume capacity he’d acquired during his previous career as a chef. “It’s an apocalypse.”
Jax rolled his eyes. “That’s what you people always say. Then I help you but after that I’m sitting here with an empty stomach while everybody else is drinking mimosas and having a great time.”
Keith strode to the window and pulled the drapes aside.
“Look out there.” As they watched a misty red tendril drooped down and slid in the one of the widows of the house opposite. For a moment the tendril oozed and undulated then an explosion of blood and body parts shot out, littering the streets with quivering chunks of flesh. “Do you see anybody drinking a mimosa?”
“I bet somebody is,” Jax replied, unperturbed. Then something caught his eye. He leaned forward and pointed to where the middle-aged woman’s body lay. “Hey, those are my groceries. Can you go grab them for me?”
Keith’s middle fingers stiffened, prepared to fully salute Jax but Gunther stepped in and said, “Of course.”
Before Keith could tell him no, Gunther had started for the door. Keith caught up with him in the hallway.
“Me being here is not a coincidence is it?” he asked.
Gunther managed a sheepish half-smile. “Haakon had orders for you to do the brunch, but I thought if I told you that you’d get mad and argue and we’d lose time we didn’t have to waste cause the sky was full of giant bleeding eyeballs. You’re the real agent they called for. I’m only your bodyguard.”
“You know me so well,” Keith remarked. He didn’t know whether to be annoyed or flattered that he’d been the real agent dispatched to this breakfast crisis.
“I know,” Gunther said, beaming. “Anyway, I’ve got to go get the groceries.”
“You can’t go out there,” Keith said, catching him by the arm. “The mist will kill you.”
“It’s our mission,” Gunther said. “I’ll get the stuff. You go find the kitchen. All we have to do is get this guy fed and everything will be alright again.” He pulled Keith to him and kissed him—this time softly, then said, “I’ll be careful.”
Then Gunther rushed out the door. He leapt down all eight stairs on the stoop and scooped up one bag.
The red mist seemed to notice Gunther then. It shivered, contracted and began to withdraw from the building to drift toward him. Gunther snatched up the second bag and stared up, but the egg carton still sat on the sidewalk.
Keith couldn’t make blintzes without them.
Heart in his throat, Keith pelted down the stairs past Gunther. The misty tendril undulated toward him and he slid beneath it like a baseball player stealing home plate. As it passed by distorted whispers filled his ears, striking cold terror down to his bones. He had to clench his teeth together to keep from screaming. He grabbed the egg carton and crawled beneath the deadly tendril then scrambled up the stairs into the safely of Jax’s foyer.
His hands shook as he stood, trying to gasp in a calming breath.
Gunther slammed the door, breathing hard, then started to pull Keith into an embrace.
Keith held up a warning hand. “Don’t crush the eggs. They’re all that stands between us and Armageddon.”
As he heard the sound of Jax laughing at whatever cartoon he was watching Keith’s resolve solidified. NIAD needed some blintzes made and Keith was the best man for it. He might not be great with a sword, but right now what the agency needed was a whisk and a guy with the expertise to make breakfast for the laziest motherfucker on Earth.
He pushed past Gunther and made it to the cramped, galley style kitchen. Though dark and poorly equipped, Keith found the items he needed—a bowl, a nonstick skillet and a fork that would have to do for a whisk. As Keith cracked the eggs and measured the milk, Guther stood in the doorway watching uneasily.
Through the small kitchen window, Keith watched a tendril of red mist waving back and forth like the tail of an angry cat. He wondered how long Jax’s magic could hold out before an entire—what had he called it—realm of bloodletting and sorrow—managed to break through the defensive barrier.
Keith set the batter aside, turned on the oven to preheat and went to make the cheese filling. The plastic container of ricotta cheese was smeared with blood and had two puncture marks on one side that looked like they’d been made by fangs.
Normally, Keith would have shied away from serving anything that had clearly been impaled on the canines of a ravening hell-hound but he decided that, on the whole, a little extra-planar dog spit could not possibly hurt the most powerful warlock on Earth.
With the slightly pinkish filling made Keith stood back, crossed his arms and waited.
“Is something wrong?” Gunther asked from the doorway.
“That’s a loaded question,” Keith replied.
“You stopped cooking.” Gunther’s face crumpled into a confused scowl.
“No I haven’t. The batter just needs to rest for thirty minutes,” Keith said. Through the tiny window outside, Keith watched the building behind them collapse. Though he heard no sound, he felt the ground rumble as the falling structure impacted the ground.
“Can’t you just hurry it up?” Gunther whispered—really more of a hiss.
“The crepes won’t set up if I don’t let the batter rest.”
“Are you kidding me?” Gunther cast a wild glance out the window.
“No joke.” Keith was about to explain about how resting the batter helped to develop the gluten in the flour, but Gunther’s phone rang. While Gunther whispered down the phone about mimosas and hell-hounds Keith turned his attention back to the window.
Now that the building behind them was gone he could see that most of the city was now engulfed in flames, which seemed odd, considering that he could still hear the sound of cartoons floating from the living room. Was Jax watching a recording? If so, why had he kept the commercials?
More than that the preheating light on the stove was on, which he felt it shouldn’t be, given their circumstances. As Gunther continued his intense conversation, Keith studied the edge of Jax’s property. It seemed he could see a distortion there like a ripple in an old glass window.
He walked back down the hall to the front door and found he could see the same distortion in the front of the building. He also noted that the asphalt outside had crumbled away to reveal a chasm that seemed to be bubbling a glowing, amoeba-like slime. The slime contained still more eyeballs.
He returned to the kitchen and said, “I think we’re in some kind of alternate reality bubble.”
Gunther shot him a look comprised equally of outrage and confusion. He placed his hand over the receiver and said, “What?”
“We’re in a different space or something. The lights still work.” Keith flipped them on and off. “I think that dickhole Jax has put us into some kind of protective bubble until he gets his breakfast made.”
“So I think we can wait the half an hour to get it done right.”
“I sincerely hope that you are right,” Gunther said. “Because I just heard Haakon die.” Gunther’s hand shook a little.
Keith reached out to squeeze Gunther’s fingers. “It’s okay baby. I’m going to make it right again. Or rather I’m going to make that big dumb asshole in the living room breakfast and then he’s going to make it right again.”
They stood in silence for the next, agonizing ten minutes watching as the world outside, the very sky was devoured. Keith fought to be calm. There were only nine minutes left to go, then he could make the food. All the while his thoughts raced and roiled with agitation against the magical beings of the world.
“How fucking unjust is it that the fate of everyone in the world should be decided this way? By one really short-sighted guy?” Keith whispered.
“Sometimes life’s just not fair like that,” Gunther responded. “Once this is all over we’ll file a complaint.”
“Against who? Life?” Keith demanded. “And what if it doesn’t work? How can this be made right?”
“Let’s just finish our mission here,” Guther said. “And then we’ll see what happens.”
Finally, the timer on Keith’s phone pinged and he made six crepes, assembled them into blintzes and baked them an additional ten minutes while the filling set. After this, he transferred them onto a warmed plate and went to deliver them to Jax, who had fallen into a light doze.
It took all Keith’s self control not to break the plate over the man’s head. He nudged the most powerful warlock in the world in the shoulder instead.
Jax’s eyes fluttered open. “Oh wow, that smells great. Thank you.” He took the plate and dug in.
With each bite Jax took, Keith could see the light from the window growing less red. He glanced back to Gunther who moved forward to the front window and pulled the curtain aside. Keith went to join him. As they watched, the eyeball-filled slime had begun to reverse—not withdraw, but actually reverse. The collapsed street sprang back up from the depths and reassembled itself. The neighbor who had been blown apart came back together.
The hounds that had attacked the grocery delivery woman at the door arrived, put her savaged body back together, and retreated down the street.
Jax was reversing time.
He showed no sign of strain or even interest in anything but his breakfast. Yet clearly he had the godlike ability to make the world’s clock run backward.
Keith’s mind boggled at this insane notion—but it could be nothing but true. As Jax finished the last bite the rupture in the sky healed itself and the morning stood as pure and blue and true as Keith remembered it being before hell descended upon him.
Jax held out his clean plate and Keith took it without a word. Then the most powerful warlock on Earth spoke.
“You’ll be wanting to find Emily Parker of Wilmington, Delaware,” Jax said, resettling himself in his chair. “She’s sixteen years old today and will surreptitiously open up one of her birthday presents in about half an hour. Somebody needs to take that Ouija board away from her and get her into mage training cause otherwise that girl is going to do some damage, am I right?”
Gunther was on his phone before Keith could even finish saying, “Thank you for your cooperation.”
“No problem,” Jax said. Then, more thoughtfully, “You know it’s always the ambitious ones who fuck everything up.”
“This Parker kid—she’s probably been listening to some extra-planar spirit whose been telling her about how she’s the Chosen One who can bring peace to the planet or claim rightful dominion over the Earth or some such shit. When you’ve got power like that they start on you young—trying to convince you to create a rift between the planes for them.” Jax paused to open a small wooden box in front of him. It became clear to Keith after a couple of seconds that this was where he kept his weed. As he packed the bowl of a small glass pipe, he continued his rumination, “I was really lucky to have my Grandma.”
“She started raising me after my Dad got himself and Mom turned inside out while trying to claim dominion over the Earth.”
“That’s terrible,” Keith said. “Your parent’s death, I mean.”
“Well, it was the Eighties so megalomania was really popular. Or at least that’s what Grandma said. She sat me down and told me about all the men in my line who had had these big ideas who just ended up getting themselves killed because they couldn’t be happy with a normal life.” Jax paused to take a long drag off his pipe. He then silently offered it to Keith, who demurred.
“I’m still technically on the clock right now,” Keith explained.
Jax nodded, shrugged then let out the smoke in a long plume and said, “What was I talking about?”
“Being happy with a normal life?” Keith supplied.
“Oh, right. Now if I want to try and become god-king of the planet I just go play a video game or something like a normal person,” Jax said. “Anyway, the time distortion is stable now so you and your partner should be able to re-enter your natural time-stream without too much of a problem.”
“But so how does that work? If the girl is stopped we never come here in the first place.” Keith said.
Jax chuckled, “It’ll be all right. There are all kinds of little cul-de-sacs in the time-stream when you leave my house you’ll just return to where you were half an hour before the shit started happening. If you remember coming here at all it will seem as if it were a dream.”
“More like a nightmare,” Keith muttered.
“Whichever,” Jax replied, with great equanimity.
From across the room Gunther said, “I’ve finished filing our verbal report. They’re given us permission to withdraw.”
Standing alone in the kitchen of his Georgetown townhouse, Special Agent Keith Curry pondered his breakfast. He held in his hand a carton of eggs, which he had been about to choose a victim to hard-boil as was his habit.
But suddenly—he didn’t know if it was gratitude toward the unexpected beauty of the morning or just a Sunday whim, but the perfunctory breakfast seem inadequate.
He walked into the bathroom, where Gunther, his live-in lover and all-around sweetheart, stood in the shower, humming some goblin song as he soaped.
“I’m going to run to the store and get stuff to make blintzes,” he said.
“That sounds great,” Gunther replied. “I was just thinking that with our schedules, we’d been missing out on brunch recently.”
Loose Id has just released the Bellingham Mysteries as a boxed set and it's now on sale for only 9.99! That's the first five stories featuring Nick and Peter--from meeting to marriage. And I think now would be a good time to post a little excerpt from the sixth and final installment, TBR later on this year.
Working title is The Secret of Success. Here it is!
Though it might seem paradoxical, for the normal inhabitant of the Pacific Northwest the only thing worse than months of gray cloud-cover and endless light drizzle is month after month of blue skies and relentless sunshine.
Peter Fontaine, small town reporter and big time busybody, was no exception to this rule.
A sunny day, he felt, should be a rare and beautiful event when one rushed, squinting, into the brightness to revel and luxuriate in warmth and vitamin D production. It should be, itself, cause for celebration.
But this year? This year the sun had shown up like an unwanted houseguest in mid-April and hung around for four months endlessly staring down on Bellingham as if to ask, “So, what are we up to today, bro?”
Because of the predisposition to act immediately on the first hint of sunlight the relentlessly pleasant weather had been exhausting for most of the population. Even die-hard outdoor enthusiasts found themselves praying for rain, if only to have a reason to stay in and watch TV all day without feeling guilty.
As Peter cycled the winding road to work that morning, he’d noticed there had been another brush fire on the verge—another side-effect of unending summer sun. The acrid tang of charred reedgrass still hung in the air. The record-breaking heat wave this summer had left his beloved Washington State tinder-dry, yellow and intermittently bursting into flames.
The haze of smoke from numerous forest fires now hung over Bellingham, the City of Subdued Excitement, coloring the sunsets electric tangerine and impairing the breathing of the town’s asthmatics.
The downtown alleys stank of stale piss and sweet garbage.
It had to rain soon.
It just had to.
Otherwise what would happen to the salmon and fictitious vampires? If it stopped raining, the lush rainforest might shrivel into mere forest. Then there would be nothing to distinguish them from California.
He wondered if the citizens to Bellingham would be interested in hearing him spout off about this in an opinion piece but decided that, on the whole they’d rather hear about Bellingham Brew Week, which was fortunate, since that’s what he’d agreed to write about.
Not that it had been hard to convince Peter to write an article that required visiting microbreweries during office hours. In fact the day was already so hot that the idea of drinking a cold one at lunchtime filled him with hedonistic delight.
He dismounted his bike in downtown Bellingham at the Hamster offices. He checked his phone and noticed that his editor, Doug has texted him during his ride, which was suspicious.
As an editor, Doug ranked among the most callous and insensitive, blithely killing his darlings, run-ons and clever asides without remorse. But as long as Peter met his deadlines, Doug didn’t sweat small stuff like tardiness or the occasional unexplained absence. He expected both from Peter.
So the text must be some sort of warning. Doug obviously wanted him to have some information before he entered the Hamster office. With great trepidation Peter tapped his phone screen and read the following:
Some guy named Samuel Powers is waiting for you. He dresses like a douche.
After removing his helmet and mounting the stairs to the second floor, Peter stepped through the door and caught sight of this mysterious fashion victim for himself.
To Peter, Samuel Powers was an excellent example of how weird New York style looks on people who are not actually in New York at the time. He wore a v-neck tee with a too-small blazer, cropped chinos and polished brown loafers with no socks. His bare, tanned ankles dared the world to question his well-examined casualness. This would have looked amazing if he’d been walking through Central Park, holding some kind of whey-enriched smoothie. But sitting in the main offices of The Hamster, surrounded by mismatched office furniture he just looked like he’d been the victim of a science-fiction transporter accident.
At the same time, he looked vaguely familiar. But that might have been because he looked like every other handsome stylish guy from New York.
“I’m sorry I kept you waiting.” Peter extended his hand and Sam shook it with exactly the right amount of manly pressure and eye contact familiar enough that Peter felt certain that this wasn’t their first meeting. He considered attempting to fake it—go in for a hug, or air kiss even, just to take it to the next level—but decided against it. It was far too hot to hug and he’d never been a kissy guy. “I’m sorry, but have we met before?”
Sam pulled a wide, perfectly-toothed smile and said, “I came to your wedding three years ago.”
Now it all fell into place. He’d been Nick’s agent’s date. The wedding itself had been such a blur—not just because he’d been excited and stressed by the first meeting of his and Nick’s respective families but because one of their guests had attempted to murder Nick. Lesser details of the occasion, like the names of their non-murdering guests, had largely slipped through the cracks of Peter’s memory.
“I’m so sorry.” Peter felt a line of red creeping up the back of his neck. “Please sit down.”
“It’s alright. I don’t think we spoke much beyond the congratulations.” Sam seated himself and then leaned in, elbows on Peter’s none-too-clean desk. “So the reason I’m here is that I’m working on a book and I was hoping I might convince you to help me. It’s about the Werk Collective.”
Peter ran down a list of every collective, commune and coop he could recall operating in greater Whatcom County, but nothing rang a bell and he said so.
“It’s the artist’s collective that Walter de Kamp was part if in New York.”
At the mention of the name Peter’s naturally ebullient heart cooled to a dull simmer.
Of course Sam wanted to talk about Walter de Kamp, Nick’s first husband—the ghost who just wouldn’t stay down. Every time Peter thought he and Nick had finally broken free of the specter, he rose up to complicate their lives bringing with him secrets and lies and old history.
“I’m afraid I can’t help you,” Peter said. “I never met the man. And before you even ask, Nick won’t be interviewed about him at all. Ever. Period.”
“Oh, I wasn’t hoping to interview Mr. Olson.” Sam held up his hands as if to show himself innocent of such notions. “I only hoped to have a closer look at a few of the paintings that you two have at your house. I’m specifically interested in the blue landscape in the atrium. It is such an amazing piece. Ever since I saw it three years ago it’s been on my mind.”
“Haunting you?” Peter asked. He couldn’t help it.
“In a way yes,” Sam said, apparently in complete seriousness. “I would be so grateful if you would just let me have another look at it.”
Peter weighed the request. Although it would annoy Nick to have someone in the house, maybe if Sam could publicize the painting there might be enough interest in it that Nick would finally auction the thing off.
After that Peter could hire an exorcist and at last the spirit of Walter could be laid to rest. He could just picture it: a tall, thin man in a priest’s collar standing before his house, The Castle at Wildcat Cove, eyes pressed closed, whispering in Latin…
For an instant, Peter nearly succumbed to his long-standing bad habit of writing the scene out in his head, but Sam had already gathered up his things and started for the door.
“Is it all right if we take my car?” he was saying.
That took a moment for Peter to process. Finally, feeling stupid, he said, “You want to go now?”
“If you’re free,” Sam returned. Peter glanced across the office at his editor, Doug who had been observing the entire exchange. Doug gave a silent shrug, which Peter interpreted as a go-ahead.
“Let me just take a leak before we head out,” Peter said. Sam magnanimously agreed to wait in the car while Peter took the opportunity of the single men’s room stall to fact-check Sam’s story.
Years ago, before he’d met Nick, and taken up amateur sleuthing he’d have just taken the man home on the strength of his handshake alone. But experience had made him wary of just getting into the car with random strangers, well-dressed or not.
Sam Power’s webpage was everything Peter would have wanted for his own. Clear, organized, full of stylish fonts and praise about his writing from the New York Times and the Guardian. It also contained a full bibliography of Sam’s titles, three of which involved crimes that were related to the art world.
That hurt most of all.
Though Peter had written thousands of articles and even won a national award for journalism, he didn’t have even a single book with his own name on the spine.
He’d started numerous times, attempting to cobble together a concept that would hold his interest long enough to pitch it to an editor, but after a couple of days research into this or that subject he’d loose interest, get depressed and eventually degenerate into writing fiction.
Peter’s narratives brimmed with of irrelevant commentary on modern life and lacked in any sort of dramatic tension. He’d even attempted to write pornography, then given up, realizing how hard it was to be shocking in a world where a book about the gay X-rated exploits of a were-dinosaurs who strove to control the Freemasons could actually get good reviews.
Now here comes Sam Powers, flaunting his ability to stave off boredom by writing incisive long-form prose. Peter had half a mind to crawl out the window, turning instead to Sam’s social media pages, where he found, to his delight, that Sam did have some detractors after all.
Some citizen reviewers called him pretentious and unprincipled. Others disliked his tendency toward wild speculation.
In fact, a brief perusal of Sam’s bio led Peter to believe that Sam was some kind of alternate version of himself—the self that made different choices. Sam’s natal city was the aptly named Boring, Oregon. Though they both originated in small towns in the Pacific Northwest, Sam had lit out for the Big Apple immediately, whereas Peter had attended the local state university. Where Peter had traveled on his own and taken a long time to settle into writing, Sam landed a magazine gig straight out of private college.
Last, Sam’s Facebook page showed him to be almost relentlessly single, opposite of serial monogamist, Peter. Yet the subjects that they wrote about and even their writing style seemed eerily similar, a literary doppelganger or…evil twin.
But beyond all that the upshot was that, Sam checked out as a legit writer, not a serial killer, hired assassin or art thief. And despite the mad jealousy he might feel at Sam’s various awesome book deals, the classy thing to do would be to help him out with his research.
So thinking Peter left the toilet, ready to face the better version of himself and to help that man become even more successful.
The Gift of the Stag King
A Sea of Stars Holiday Coda
By Nicole Kimberling
Ever since Lord Adam Wexley had become a married man, figuring out how to spend Solstice Night proved had to be a problem.
During the seven-year interval that he’d been single, before reuniting with his former lover, Grand Magician Zachary Drake, Adam had devoted himself to work at the Integrity Foundation during the lonely holiday season. The Foundation specialized in working for the rights of inhabited animals and the protection of the soulless. He and his counterparts worked to end the separation of bodies from souls for commercial gain and to outlaw appropriating animal bodies to house human souls.
As one of two litigators, Adam always had his schedule full at this time of year. Apart from his usual court appearances, Adam made the rounds of noble parties, lobbying relentlessly for charitable donations.
And of course, the Foundation hosted its own fundraising gala. But the biggest event for Adam was organizing a completely unique Solstice Night gathering called the Procession of the Stag King.
Originally a minor Solstice story, the Gift of the Stag King held special importance for the inhabited animal community. The story went like this: One cruel winter long ago snow fell for one hundred days. Stores of grain ran out and no game could be found in the terrible snow. The king looked out over the land and saw that his people were starving. So he wished upon the Sea of Stars that he could feed them. Unfortunately, a tricky spirit heard his wish first and changed him into a stag.
Unable to speak or explain who he was the hungry people set upon him immediately. At first the king ran into the woods and hid but as the days went by he realized that he could feed at least some people after all. So he walked bravely from the forest and lay down his life.
When the Spirits of Guardian Star saw this act of bravery they were so moved that they used their magic to make the king’s body last long enough to feed all of the people until the winter finally turned to spring.
While he’d been a troubadour-courtier, Adam had sung the mournful Ballad of the Stag King more times than he could count. He’d thought the song’s minor key made him seen deep. But until he’d come to work for Integrity, he’d never thought about how the lyrics might resonate with the inhabited animal community.
To them the Stag King represented the sacrifice that they’d all made—to sublet their human bodies and live as animals in the Courts of the Four Directions.
Integrity Foundation’s Procession of the Stag King Feast took place in the community center gymnasium where Adam had been since before dawn—the only free public space with doors big enough to accommodate the variety of animals who would be in attendance. Lions, tigers, bears—even one small elephant would be walking through the big entrance when they were released from their duties at sundown.
Already, family members gathered. One set of parents, whose daughter lived inside of a chair-friendly chimpanzee set up a small folding table. Another woman, whose husband inhabited a snow-leopard, laid a blanket out on the floor. She carried a picnic basket that contained alphabet blocks that her husband would paw at to spell out words. This would be their last year here, if Adam’s efforts to void the fellow’s exploitative contract proved victorious.
Across the room he caught sight of his friend, and former chauffeur, Karl. Karl was busy helping an elderly woman lay out dishes and cushions for her sons—three wolves—who would be joining her. The wolves would use a special matt printed with the alphabet to communicate with their mother, whereas the many simians would all be signing. Some inhabited birds, such as cockatoos would be squawking actual words.
Karl had, himself, spent seven years inside an orangutan so was especially sensitive to the needs of families trying to include differently-shaped relatives in their holiday meal.
For years, Adam had donned the Stag King costume and led the procession of waiters bearing foods of all description, including venison, both raw and cooked, to the buffet, where it would be ferried to the menagerie of assembled animals. But lately he’d been yearning to spend at least one Solstice Night alone with his husband, Grand Magician Zachary Drake.
The first year they’d been married, Adam had assumed that being a magician, Drake would have some sort of important star-gazing to do on Solstice Night so he’d kept to his usual plan of leading the procession, followed by a private party for major charitable donors at his own house. After the party, he’d noticed Drake looking down and had been shocked to discover that all his new husband had wanted was to sip champagne, eat star-shaped cookies and make fun of courtly fashion on the King’s Annual Solstice Night Pageant.
“I hear the new trend is transparent. It should be a fantastic disaster,” Drake had said. He’d smiled and run his fingers through his immaculately-tousled black hair. Drake had always been a keen observer of high fashion, preferring to wear only black, mostly custom-made garments. And as a former courtier, Adam maintained the frivolous delight of seeing his noble peers wearing ridiculous traditional garb.
Drake continued, “Last year the Under-Minister of the East Court stepped on the minister’s six foot train and ripped it right off. They cut to commercial, but not before we all got a glimpse of what shame lay beneath. I cannot wait to see who’s clumsy this year.”
So plans were made for Adam’s co-worker, Lord Hamilton, to assume the role of the Stag King so that Adam could leave early.
And Adam had promised to be home in time. All day he had dreaded the idea that something would happen to prevent him from keeping his word. Not that he feared Drake’s wrath—Drake had never responded to Adam’s frequent work-related delays with anything other than a calm, “Thank you for letting me know,” or “I’ll see you when you get here.”
And that was the problem. Drake so rarely asked for anything from him that this simple request to watch television together had become magnified in importance so that Adam broke out into a sweat each time an obstacle to punctuality occurred.
Up to this point the day tried hard to stop him from keeping this promise. The doors jammed, the heat wouldn’t come on, the purveyor providing the big cat meals got lost. Twice. But finally all the catering was in order, the guests were arriving and Adam prepared to make his exit.
He had just put on his camel-colored great coat when Karl jogged up to him. Karl stood about his same height but where Adam got his muscles toned by a systematic, symmetry-obsessed trainer at a gym, Karl worked as a professional sea serpent wrangler and thus possessed the body of a natural athlete.
Karl’s disposition was that of an athlete as well. He’d once seen Karl drink an entire quart of milk without seeming to need to breathe. Karl also saw nothing wrong with walking around with his hand in his boyfriend’s back pocket, which Adam found refreshing after having spent so much time minding the antiquated protocols of court life.
Drake, on the other hand, found Karl’s lack of decorum sleazy and had once threatened to put a curse on him if he couldn’t keep his hands in his own pockets. (Though Adam suspected that Karl’s boyfriend being Drake’s ward contributed to his annoyance in no small part.)
The expression on Karl’s face did not fill Adam with hope for a bright future. In fact he felt his brow prickle with sweat immediately.
“You’re not gonna like this, boss.” Karl still called him boss, even though he hadn’t worked for him for two years.
“Hamilton’s been delayed. He won’t be here for the procession. He says you’ll have to wear the costume.”
“There’s no way I can get in that thing now. We had it altered to fit him,” Adam said, exasperated. “He’s six inches shorter than me.”
Karl shrugged. “You can call him back if you want, but I don’t think he’s going to be able to come. Actually he said he might need you to go to him.”
“He’s been detained by the Royal Guard. He thinks it’s just his aunt’s way of harassing him into participating in the East Court Solstice Night Pageant. But it’s hard to be sure,” Karl said.
Adam squeezed his eyes shut to avoid giving Karl, and everyone in the surrounding vicinity a glare of scorching malevolence. It wasn’t their fault.
“All right, I can go to the palace and see if I can spring Hamilton. Do you think you can find someone to fit underneath the antlers?”
“Sure, boss. I’m on it.”
“And,” Adam hated to ask this, but he felt he must, “could you call Drake for me and tell him I’ll be late?”
Karl balked. “It’s like you want me to be cursed with limp dick or something.”
“Please? I just need to focus on getting Hamilton here.” Adam looked at his watch. “We still have an hour. It’s possible this thing can be solved.”
“Okay fine, but if he curses me you’ve got to talk him into reversing it.”
Exactly one hour and one minute later, Adam returned to the community center, an annoyed Hamilton in tow.
Adam felt low.
He should have just kicked Hamilton out at the curb and driven immediately to his home to catch the second half of the pageant with Drake, but his own conscientiousness forced him to walk inside to see if Karl had managed to find a replacement.
And he’d already wrecked Drake’s Solstice Night plans. He might as well take the extra five minutes to make sure he hadn’t ruined Stag King dinner as well.
As Hamilton edged the door to the gymnasium open, Adam saw the room had been plunged into hushed darkness. Guests waited in anticipation for the procession to begin. At the far side of the room, he could see a set of pure white antlers approaching through the gloom.
All faces were turned toward the approaching figure. Little children squirmed and craned their necks to see better while an elderly lion sitting a few feet from Adam pricked up its ears.
So Karl had found someone to wear the Stag King costume after all.
“That’s a relief,” Hamilton whispered, also watching the approaching figure—a graceful outline moving slowly through the still-dark room. A group of singers took up the Ballad of the Stag King. Some of the guests joined them. Others waited quietly watching.
Adam nodded. The replacement stag wore the costume well. The sparkling white robes of the king fell at just the right height and trailed majestically behind him. He had jet-black hair that was longish and tousled around the base of the crown-like antlers.
Hamilton nudged him and leaned closer, “Adam, isn’t that Drake?”
“It can’t be,” Adam whispered. “He’s wearing white.”
The Stag King lifted his arms and Adam saw a glint of red on one finger—blood red… much like the color of Drake’s blood diamond.
“I really think that’s Drake,” came Hamilton’s insistent whisper.
Then the one flash of red became a flash of white, then another and another. Each pinprick of light rose from the Stag King’s upturned palms toward the ceiling. Soon the entire darkened ceiling glittered as the sparks became the constellations of the Sea of Stars. Hundreds of them twinkled and shimmered then, at the song’s last verse, began to fall like snowflakes.
As they did, Adam saw that while everyone had been looking up the servers had come forward to fill the table with food.
The song ended in raucous applause with the room in total darkness again. Then as the sound of clapping died down, the lights came back on with a loud, industrial clunk.
The Stag King could be none other than Drake. He stood at the head of the table. He took a plate, plunked a canapé on it and started to make his way down the line. Others followed. Eventually he glanced up saw Adam and made his way over.
“I’m glad to see you made it out of the palace lock-up Hamilton,” he said, by way of greeting. “Would you like your costume back or can I just carry on being an entirely superior Stag King?”
“I wouldn’t dream of interrupting your glory,” Hamilton said with a tight smile. He then excused himself and left without a backward glance.
Being completely immune to Drake’s caustic sense of humor—and profound rudeness—Adam leaned forward and landed a kiss on his cheek.
“That was brilliant,” he said. “I had no idea you could do illusions like that.”
Drake finished chewing his canapé and said, “That? It’s just stage-magician stuff. I learned it in my first week of academy.”
“It looked amazing anyway.”
“I know, it did, didn’t it?” Drake pulled a smug smile, then, glancing down at Adam’s empty hands said, “Aren’t you going to get anything to eat?”
“I thought we could go. If we leave now we can watch the second half of the pageant.”
“There’s no need to rush,” Drake said. “I have used my other powers to record the pageant for later tonight.”
“How is that?”
“By pushing the television’s record button, of course,” Drake said, smiling. “I can’t believe you walked into that. You must be exhausted.”
Adam considered attempting a comeback, then decided it would be best to kiss the smile off Drake’s face.
As some of you already know, I've been writing a cooking column for my friend Gavin Grant's wonderful zine Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet for a few years. Today he's posted the first column, "Sending All Your Love in the Form of Brownies Through the Mail" as a free read on the Small Beer Press site.
So today begins October and that means it's now Officially Queer Romance Month! Dozens of authors (including myself) will be blogging on their site throughout the month so be sure to check in to see what's going on!
For the first anniversary of It's About the Book, I contributed an anniversary coda featuring Drake and Adam from my Sea of Stars series. I love these characters so I decided to repost it here.
Written in the Stars
A Sea of Stars Coda
Grand Magician Drake could not be called a superstitious man, but he did know when the Sea of Stars was trying to tell him something.
Every night this week his husband Adam had phoned to say that he’d be working late and each phone call seemed to precipitate a shower of meteors zinging across the sky.
“It’s an omen,” Drake muttered. It didn’t matter that the same meteor shower visited them every year at this time. Every magician understood the very presence of “falling stars” had no specific meaning since they were not stars. But the constellations they traveled across?
There! One spark sliced through the Scales—injustice would be done. And another dire spark came cutting through the Lovers. Drake bent further toward the eyepiece of his telescope. He trained the lenses on the Gallows, expecting to see the next brief light flick across the doomed and terrible constellation.
But no meteor crossed it. He abandoned the telescope and merely looked up into the night sky, The Gallows remained clear from mark—in fact the meteors actually seemed to be deliberately avoiding it.
What did that mean?
He supposed, grudgingly that he had to admit that this shower of falling stars did not indicate the incipient disintegration of his year-old marriage.
And that meant that he would have to think of something to do to celebrate it.
Drake slumped back into his patio chair and turned an unlit cigarette through his fingers. As he did so, moonlight glinted off his rings. The blood diamond he wore on his index finger far outshone his plain wedding band, but each remained equally magical. The former focused his personal power while the latter literally held a shred of his soul entwined with that of Lord Adam Wexley, lawyer and general do-gooder.
In the velvet darkness of the balmy summer night, Drake contemplated his options. He could take a stab at creating special dinner, but how successful would that be? He loathed all domestic labor—but was especially bad at cooking, preferring to leave that in the capable hands of their cook.
Recently he’d gone, in disguise, to a newsstand to leaf through relationship-based magazines in search of better ideas. After being briefly delayed by an article claiming to know Twenty Best-Kept Secrets of the World’s Best Blow Job (he’d already known twelve and the other eight were irrelevant, as he was not a woman) he’d hit upon another list of detailing gifts men might like to receive in general. The article had insinuated that impromptu dirty dancing would be not only appropriate, but a fully adequate expression of devotion. After this Drake had laughed so hard his wig had swung askew and temporarily blinded him.
He’d fled the newsstand and discarded the cheap, drugstore headgear and returned home, still empty of ideas.
The problem was, Drake thought, as he finally lit his cigarette, that he didn’t know if they were the sort of men who celebrated anniversaries at all. During their first stint of living together they’d vaguely celebrated the day Adam had moved into Drake’s penthouse. Then they’d separated, moldered in misery (or at least Drake had), then reunited and married in an unplanned rush. They’d never staged a ceremony or held a reception or even sent out announcements.
Upon learning of their union, one prominent gossip columnist had quipped, “While we wouldn’t call Lord Wexley’s rash decision social suicide, the necessity of including Grand Magician Drake’s name on formal invitations might leave Wexley with the societal mobility of a double amputee.”
So not much to celebrate there—at least not for Adam.
Yet, despite this Drake did know his husband—there! He said it, if only in his mind. He had a husband named Adam to whom he would be married to for one year as of tomorrow. A husband whom he wished so intensely to remain beside that it embarrassed him. He knew Adam to be a sentimentalist who would appreciate some perfect gesture of commemoration if only Drake could divine it.
Drake glanced at the patio table, which held his cigarette packet, an ashtray and a glass of whiskey. Should he choose, he could draw the edge of his blood diamond around the rim of the glass and command Adam’s image to appear in the liquid.
He knew what he’d see: Adam toiling away at his desk banging out impervious legal language for some good cause or other. He wondered if the man had paused to eat yet. He also wondered if that slinky paralegal Raymond was there at Adam’s office, hovering, poised to strike when Adam was at his weakest and most tired.
Often, when Adam wanted to concentrate, he’d remove his hearing aids in order to eliminate distraction. This, Drake reasoned, would the moment Raymond would try it on, creeping up behind Adam full of hot coffee and sympathetic solidarity.
Drake drew his blood diamond around the edge of the glass immediately and willed Adam’s image to appear. He didn’t seem to be at his office at all.
Rather, Adam stood in darkness, unshaven, collar open, blond hair spiky from being scratched and rubbed through long hours of writing. Drake squinted and leaned closer to his lowball glass. The conservative brickwork behind Adam seemed familiar to him, as did the ornamental exterior window sashes. With sudden chagrin, Drake realized that the widows belonged to their own house, which meant that Adam must be standing directly behind him on the patio.
A slight turn of his head confirmed this suspicion.
“Do you want me to turn the lights on?” Adam asked. Drake startled slightly as his voice penetrated the perfect quiet of the night.
“I’m still observing the stars,” Drake replied. “Would you like to sit with me?”
“Sure.” Adam strolled over and lowered himself into the patio chair opposite Drake.
“Would you like a drink?” Drake asked. “I can get another glass.”
“No need to get up,” Adam replied. He reached across to take Drake’s.
Drake watched with proprietary delight as Adam drained the alcohol left in the glass, then poured another two fingers. How like him to shed his veneer of perfectly mannered chivalry when they were alone in the dark.
“So,” Adam said, putting the glass down. “What do the stars say?”
“Their messages are uncertain tonight, I—” Drake’s words were cut short by a blaze of thirteen meteors that chose that moment to zigzag through the Lovers. The brightness of the streaks of light almost outshone the stars of the constellations themselves.
Drake turned to Adam, who regarded him with a wry smile.
“Would you describe that as an astrological money shot?” Adam asked.
“More like an astrological imperative,” Drake answered. “I suppose we need to celebrate our anniversary after all.”
“I’m glad it’s decided then.” Adam leaned back in the chair and stretched his legs out. “Because I’ve taken tomorrow off.”
“Oh?” Drake felt his nervousness rising. Now his gift-delinquency would come to light. “Any plans?”
“Only to use all my strength and vigor keep you separated from your clothes,” Adam replied.
Drake felt a rush of blood color his cheeks and felt partly sad that his reaction would be hidden by the night.
How wonderful he is, Drake thought, how miraculous that the stars should gift me with him.
Aloud he said, “I would be delighted to return the favor.”
Just a quick note to mention that my new story, "Magically Delicious," featuring the return of Special Agent Keith Curry from the Irregulars anthology is out today. It's being released as part of the Charmed & Dangerous anthology, available in print and digital from JCP Books.
Also, check out this super-cute image made for my by JCP herself!