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The Scorched Circle

A snippet, from a world where a young woman who thought she'd escaped from her past returns home only to discover her mother's secrets were much stranger than she ever dared to believe. Gingerly, I approached the flat expanse of lawn stretching on that side of the house. At one time, I seemed to remember a garden there. That was a long time ago, however, and now the smooth square patch was covered with over-long grass like everything else.

“Do you really want to do this?” I asked myself. But I kept walking, so obviously, some part of me did. That, or I was too exhausted to know any better.

The patterns I’d seen from mom’s studio weren’t as obvious up close. I had to bend and brush some of the grass aside to see any vestige of the strange markings. Once I did, however, I pulled my hand away in shock. The ground wasn’t just a little discolored. It was scorched. In a long, arcing line maybe an inch across, the grass was burned down to its roots.

None of the grass on either side of the line was even singed. That made no sense. I wasn’t even sure it was possible. I ran my finger along the dry, dark earth. My whole arm tingled like I was gripping a live wire. I jerked away, reflexively shaking my fingers. The sensation seemed to cling to them even after I withdrew.

Around me, a wind gusted up, whipping suddenly through the grass. The great bare branches of the oak creaked, and the heavy wind chimes on the porch clanged like alarm bells. I stood at once, my hair blowing wildly around me. The wind was coming from the northeast, the direction of the cemetery. Maybe that didn’t mean anything, but I hurried to the front porch anyway, feeling uneasy.

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A Dashing Devil

Here is another excerpt from the tale with Oscar Wilde. This takes place a few chapters after the last except. To adequately capture Wilde's patterns of speech in the dialogue, I studied his quotes and writing, collecting key concepts and turns of phrase. I interspersed a few lines of actual quotes into some of his dialogue here, tweaking them to better fit the story that was unfolding. “I have a certain play, originally written in French. Salomé.” The name rolled sinuously off his tongue. “The censors have refused to license it for performance in England, but a few of my friends have put a production together in my honor. It is completely unofficial, very possibly illegal, and something I think you would find very much to your tastes. Would you care to accompany me to the performance?”

“Tonight?” I asked, puzzled by this sudden turn.

“Oh no,” he responded. “Next Friday. There are a few people involved in the production that I think you should meet. They would find you and your notions of freedom very interesting.”

“Next Friday?” I asked.

“I shall pick you up here at the hotel,” he replied.

He held me for a few moments more, then levered himself up and started getting back into his clothes.

“For the moment, I should be getting home to my wife,” he said, leaning over to kiss me on the forehead. “As it is, the glare I shall earn from Constance for coming in at this hour is likely to turn me to stone.”

He started for the door, then stopped suddenly. He turned around, reaching into his pocket and withdrawing a card. He came up and placed the card on the night stand.

“That is the name of my tailor,” he said. “Stop in to see him before next week.”

With that, he swept out into the night.

*                    *                   *

“So what do you think of the suit?”

I held my arms out and did a half-turn, modeling it for him. Oscar sniffed, frowning ever so slightly.

“It’s not bad as far as alterations go,” he said, “but please tell me you have Edgar working on something new.”

I nodded, smoothing the front of my trousers.

“Absolutely,” I said, “but that won’t be ready for another week. In the mean time, I had my other things altered so I could at least be presentable.”

Oscar sighed, rolling his eyes.

“My dear boy,” he began dryly, “if you gain just one thing from our time together, please let it be my sense of fashion. While I still doubt the assertion that you are some wayward college professor, no one could deny that you dress like one.” He tapped his walking stick impatiently against the tiles of the lobby floor. “And the only thing worse than seeing an ugly man in and ugly suit, is seeing a lovely man in a dull suit. It is an offense to the imagination.”

He turned crisply on his heel and started out to the carriage. He held the door for me, then heaved himself in after. When we were settled, he rapped on the roof with the top of his cane. For a little while, the most prevalent sounds were the clopping of the horse’s hooves on the cobblestones and the constant creaking of the buggy’s springs.

After a while, I said, “I appreciate the recommendation of your tailor.”

The cab took a corner a little too sharply, and I grabbed for a hand-hold to brace myself. I definitely did not like this method of transportation, although I certainly preferred it to a crowded train. When we were moving along at an easier pace, I resumed.

“I was feeling very lost before I ran into you, and I’m not sure how I would have begun to navigate the city without that little push. I’m grateful, Oscar.”

Oscar beamed, patting my knee fondly.

“There is an age-old affection between a younger man and an elder,” he said, “Where the elder man has intellect and the younger has all the glory and glamour of life before him. It is only natural that I should share my greater wisdom,” he continued. He withdrew his cigarette case, offered me one, and when I declined, lit one for himself. Sighing contentedly, he loosed twin plumes of white smoke from his nostrils. His eyes sparkled when he spoke again. “In exchange for that wisdom, you dazzle and inspire me with all the fire of youth.”

“So you won’t mind if I ask you for another favor?” I inquired.

Oscar contemplated the passing scenery for a few moments, smoking all the while.

“That really depends on the nature of the favor,” he said at last.

“I’m looking for another recommendation,” I responded. “A jeweler this time. I have some gold, and I need it to be made into something.”

Oscar relaxed visibly.

“Ordinarily my boys are asking me for gold and jewels. Are you sure that’s not what you’re getting at?” he laughed, adding, “It’s a little soon for presents, my dear.”

“The jeweler would have to be discrete,” I said quietly.

He sat up straighter in his seat, taking on a stern expression.

“Have you stolen something?” he asked sharply. “I will not provide a fence for you. Morality’s like art. One has to draw a line somewhere.”

“Don’t be harsh with me,” I replied. “It’s nothing like that. These things were given to me, and believe me, I earned them. But I don’t want them, certainly not as they are.”

I felt myself flushing with heat just thinking about it, so I fell silent and forced myself to look out the window. As I watched the houses and people whizzing past me, I concentrated on calming down.

“There’s a large quantity of gold involved,” I said at last. “I simply want to turn it into something useful.”

Oscar studied me for a little while, tapping his cane lightly while he considered.

“How large a quantity?” he inquired.

“More than you’d probably believe,” I said. “That’s why I need someone discrete. I want to be able to forget about the original items. I need someone who will do the same.”

Oscar’s eyes narrowed, but eventually, his face softened. He took another drag on his cigarette and sighed through the smoke.

“There is something very mysterious about you, Matthew,” he said. “And I’m not certain how much I want to involve myself in it.” He gazed out the window, smoking. “I am someone who lives too much in the public eye. It is the blessing and curse of my genius. I cannot afford to embroil myself in skullduggery.”

“I’d rather you not be involved,” I admitted. “But if you know someone --”

Oscar cut me off with a wave of one hand.

“I shall introduce you to my friend Preston tonight. Given some of the company he keeps, I imagine he can help you. But after I introduce you to him, I want to hear nothing more of this.”

“I understand.”

“Very good,” he said. “Now, we are being too serious, and if there is one thing I cannot abide, it is taking life too seriously. We are here on this earth to enjoy ourselves, not brood about petty details. So,” he said, punctuating the word with a rap of his walking stick, “we shall go have our dinner, and then I shall introduce you to the glamorous world of Salomé.”

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The Wildes of London

Once upon a time, I wrote a story set in 1890s London. And I couldn't resist putting a few familiar faces in the tale. Perhaps the most challenging dialogue in the whole book was that involving Oscar Wilde. The man had a rapier wit and a very particular way with his words. They say he'd scribble clever aphorisms on scraps of paper and keep them stuffed in his pocket so he could roll them trippingly off his tongue at dinner parties and seem terribly adroit. I think I captured at least a little of the man's larger-than-life spirit in the following excerpt. The Wildes of London

“Aren’t you a dashing devil with that flaming red hair!”

My head snapped around in time to see a large man with heavy jowls sauntering casually toward me. He had full, pouting lips and a tousled mop of chestnut hair that curled down to his collar. He wore a fashionable checkered suit with a green carnation pinned to the lapel. I saw nothing in his expression to indicate that he actually thought I was a devil, so I allowed myself to relax, just a fraction.

“I beg your pardon?” I asked.

“You’ll forgive my sudden intrusion on your solitary reverie,” he began, leaning jauntily on his walking stick. “But the moment I saw you, I just had to come over and introduce myself. First of all, rarely, outside of my native Ireland, have I had the pleasure of looking upon hair so red and fine. Second of all, I am compelled to speak with any man who shares my admiration for good drapes. The curtains here at the Savoy have always been favorites of mine,” he said, smiling expansively. “Unlike the curtains at the Alhambra which, in my humble opinion, are excruciatingly plain.”

I dropped the tassel and just stared for several moments.

“I’m not quite sure I know what to say,” I responded carefully.

At this, his smile widened ever further.

“Then say nothing,” he advised with an elegant gesture of one hand, “And people will believe that you are thinking everything.”

I laughed despite myself and stood, extending my hand to him. His large-knuckled fingers nearly dwarfed my own.

“I’m professor Matthew Warren,” I said automatically. I wondered if that had been a good idea, but the words were already out.

“A professor?” he inquired archly, briefly squeezing my hand. “I’m a great fan of men of letters. They usually say terrible things about my plays, thus getting the common people to go see them.”

He chuckled at this, eyes sparkling.

“I’m afraid you have me at a disadvantage, sir,” I admitted. “I still haven’t caught your name.”

He settled his big-boned frame into the oxblood chair across from mine and motioned for me to be seated again.

“The world calls me Oscar, and you may do the same,” he said expansively.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Oscar,” I responded.

There was a buoyancy of mood to him that was contagious. I found myself feeling better for his company.

“I assure you, the pleasure is all mine,” Oscar replied. He daintily crossed his legs, folding his hands on the top of his cane. “I have a sincere admiration for men who define their own fashion, and I find your hair quite stunning. How long has it taken you to grow it to that length? I’ve only seen women with such a long braid, and I’ve never dared ask those sphinxes their secrets.”

“Well, I’ve never cut it, if that’s what you’re asking,” I replied, adding a smile to take the edge off this evasion.

Oscar nodded sagely.

“You say you’re a professor?” he pursued. “What’s your area of expertise?”

“Classics.”

“Really? I have a great love for the Greeks,” he said wistfully. “I often wish I’d been born in those antique days when you might pass a god walking along the street. That was an age big enough for a man like me. But instead, I’m confined to this small world of even smaller men.”

He glanced out the window and sniffed disdainfully.

“I’ve been doing that all day,” I said. “Looking out the window at them, wondering if their world has any room for me in it.”

“Of course it doesn’t,” he replied glibly. “That’s why we define our own space in spite of them, like modern Samsons, knocking the pillars of the temple down if that’s what it takes to be free.”

His eyes met mine, and there was a promise there that lifted the pall from an otherwise dreary afternoon.

“Thank you,” I told him. “I think I needed to have this conversation.”

“Then would you like to continue it?” he asked, eyes alight. “I was just seeing a friend off a moment ago and was on my way to dine when I caught sight of your beautiful hair. I’d love for you to join me at dinner. I have a private room at the Solferino already waiting.”

“I’m not sure I’m ready to go out just yet,” I demurred. “The city has been very distracting.”

“Well, Matthew, I would love to be distracted with you, if only you would allow me to show you around.” With an elegant wave of one hand he said, “Come. We will go and be Titans together. London will be the new Greece, and we will reinstate the worship of all beautiful things.”

“I can hardly say no to that,” I said, laughing.

“Of course you can’t,” he replied, and heaved himself to his feet. “Come along, the wine is waiting!”

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