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All the Pretty Vampires

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All the Pretty Vampires

Since the cover reveal for my upcoming book, Conspiracy of Angels, I've gotten a number of questions about the series -- what's it about? have you stopped writing non-fiction? who's that hot gal on the cover holding the big knife? -- but the most consistent question has been about vampires. Specifically, Will there be vampires in this series? The short answer, of course, is yes.

I mean, how could I not have vampires in my series? I've spent over two decades of my life hip-deep in the modern vampire community, appearing on everything from the History Channel to CNN to talk about it. I've lectured at universities around the country on vampires in fiction, folklore, and pop culture. And I've written foundational works on the phenomenon of psychic vampirism that have helped to shape an entire generation of practitioners. Vampires are, as they say, my thing.

On the other hand, expressly because I have done so much on vampires since the early 90s, I didn't want to make vampires the sole focus of the Shadowside world. So, while Zachary Westland's world definitely includes vampires, they are not the only things my main character encounters, nor does that main character sport fangs himself.

Fans of vampires in fiction will, I think, be delighted and intrigued with my take on this immortal archetype. I've held off talking about the vampires in the Shadowside series until now, however, because I'm not so certain what the vampire community itself is going to think. As a writer who addresses paranormal and supernatural topics in both my fiction and my non-fiction, I'm aware that, for some readers, the lines between real life and the story might seem blurry -- but those lines are not blurry for me.

Vampires

Certainly, in crafting the world of the Shadowside, I have drawn upon my extensive knowledge of psychic phenomenon, occult practices, and paranormal events. The verisimilitude that drives the Urban Fantasy genre is part of its allure to me as a writer -- the technique that weird fiction author H.P. Lovecraft called "supernatural realism." Simply put, with supernatural realism, a generous commingling of facts wedded to the fantastic helps to make the fiction that much more immersive and exciting.

That said, the vampires in Conspiracy of Angels and the later books of the Shadowside series are not based off of anyone in the modern vampire community. Satire -- even self-satire -- was not my goal with this series. The vampires of the Shadowside instead draw upon the vampire archetype as it has been expressed in the time-honored fiction that I love. They have fangs. They drink blood. They wear their sunglasses after dark.

They do not sparkle.

The vampires of the Shadowside are not the good guys. Most are right bastards. They weave skeins and skeins of intrigue, manipulation, and betrayal -- because any being that long-lived would have to -- both in order to survive as well as to alleviate the boredom of an endless march of nights.

There is a distinctly monstrous element to my vampires, and while they make an effort to pass as human, they absolutely do not function on human rules -- as main character Zachary Westland discovers swiftly and to his detriment.

Of course, Zack isn't exactly your garden variety mortal either. As he learns more about who he is and what this means for him, he discovers that, even against ageless, scheming vampires, he can hold his own.

--M

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Conspiracy of Angels

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Conspiracy of Angels

It's real. It is finally real -- this tale that has been roiling inside of me and struggling to get out. The official cover has gone live and Book One of the series, Conspiracy of Angels, can be pre-ordered in all the places where one may order books. It won't be out until October -- always a momentous month for me -- and that seems like such a very long time from now. But maybe it is just long enough -- long enough for me to get the word out. Long enough for me to explain why the story of Zachary Westland has been spilling forth like fire from my lips.

This journey started in 2008. I remember the night with that clarity that sometimes comes with those moments of time that you know, even in the midst of them, are significant. I was working a case with the PRS, and I was sitting outside this house in California with gorgeous acreage -- rocks and trees and wide, starlit skies.

I don't often like to sit idle. My brain is always rushing through words and images and song. All these things demand release from the whorls of my grey matter, so I rarely go anywhere without some means of writing them down.

I had pens and a notepad, and I sat on a crate, hunched over these in the lights for the cameras, scribbling things down. A name. Zack Westland. An image -- riding into a city. My city, Cleveland, Ohio. Although I've grown up in Hinckley and I live in Medina -- both greener, more rural suburbs of the original Metropolis (Superman was born here), Cleveland is the closest major city to where I live, and it's the urban center I claim as my own. There's a lot of history in that town -- known to far too many as the Mistake on the Lake, or the City of the Burning River. But it is also the city where Rockefeller built the bulk of his empire, where Edison worked tirelessly in Nela Park. There are many stories and secrets in Cleveland, not the least of which slumber in the depths of its neighboring lake, Erie.

Conspiracy_Cover_Official

As I sat beneath harsh lights and distant stars in a land far removed from my native Midwest, characters unwound and then dialogue, and then all the bones upon which I would build this story, this world. And a word: the Shadowside. That lay at the heart of it -- or, perhaps I should say, it was woven throughout it. Because, as with most fiction, that point of view character whose name (a short version of it, at least) was Zack, shared things in common with his creator as I wielded my pen. We were both psychic. We both perceived spirits. And from that common point, all the rest of his world -- which looked so much like my world, yet wasn't -- blossomed.

Zachary Westland, who sees through to the Shadowside. Zachary Westland, who feels a compelling need to battle the darker things that spill forth from that shadowy part of reality one step off from our familiar, flesh-and-blood world.

Most of you reading this know that, in 2008, I was writer already. Books on vampires and ghosts and psychic experiences had already spilled forth from my pen. Non-fiction (though I maintain no illusions that many out in the world are quite certain these topics might as well be fiction) was what I was known for, and what had landed me into the curious experience of being a person on TV. And I had a comfortable place as a writer on the weird world of the paranormal and the strange. I was (and still am) happy with the folks at Llewellyn, who published the majority of my work. But they couldn't publish this story -- fiction wasn't in their wheelhouse. So, if Zack was to live and to walk in the imaginations of others, I would have to embark on a journey I knew would take every bit of stubborn persistence that I had: I had to delve into the daunting and competitive world of traditional publishing.

Llewellyn, of course, is a publisher, and by that, a part of the publishing industry. And yet, the great and many-headed beast of publishing itself views a company like Llewellyn as something akin to a digit on a finger. It is not an arm. It is certainly not a head. Llewellyn, for all that it is one of the largest publishers of Pagan and magickal books, is nevertheless a niche market. The publishing behemoths like Penguin and Harper Collins themselves (as I would discover later in this challenging journey) hardly considered it a gnat. I never had to acquire the help of a literary agent simply to obtain the privilege to submit a manuscript to Llewellyn. The company takes unagented work, and they stand at a level within the publishing industry where this is feasible -- and neither party is much in danger of being terribly screwed without the benefit of such an intermediary.

Where I wanted to aim with the Shadowside Series took me into entirely different territory. It was territory I had explored twenty years previously -- often with mixed results. Traditional publishing requires a strong stomach and an even thicker skin. It's not uncommon for good books -- amazing books that later bear out to be best-sellers that change the face of the publishing world -- to meet with rejection not once, not twice, but over and over. I think of it as an endurance test for the ego. And when I was an aspiring novelist in college, I did not have what it took to keep at it. Because that's what you have to do -- find an agent (a process in and of itself that often comes with a great deal of waiting and rejection) and grind your face against what seems like an endless stream of rejection letters all the while maintaining belief in the book.

Maybe I'd never had a story that meant enough to me to keep me going even after some of the blistering or utterly apathetic replies (the critical ones aren't the worse -- the ones that have always killed me are the ones where the editor praises the work glowingly, and then ends with some terse phrase like, "we can't market it at this time," that makes all that praise turn to ash on the tongue). I'd always give up after two or three such rejections. I'd doubt my capabilities. I'd doubt the project. But, most of all, I'd doubt my ability to persevere for the amount of time that landing a publisher would so obviously take.

The Shadowside series was different. It came to me at a time in my life when I knew what it meant to be patient. I knew what it meant to see a book bear fruit. And I had the luxury of time. So, from that night in 2008 and thereafter, I set about crafting a story and a world that I could live in comfortably as a writer for the next ten or twenty years. Not a one-shot novel, but a series. A place that, creatively, I could call home.

And I learned more about Zack in subsequent revisions. And I met Lil, who I can best describe as Jessica Rabbit mixed with equal portions of Kali-Ma. Sal, who is Machiavelli in garters, and soft-spoken Remy who spent at least two days arguing with me in my head over the issue of a hat (he gets his damned fedora eventually, never fear).

Many revisions later, I sought out the Holy Grail of fiction publishing -- a literary agent. And I was lucky enough to have Lucienne Diver, who also represents (among many other noteworthy and recognizable writers) a childhood hero, P.N. Elrod, take an interest in Zack and his world. She agreed to take me on.

Twenty years before, when I'd first been trying to establish my name as a fiction writer, I had decried the necessity of a literary agent. I resented the notion that I had to rely on some other person to help sell my book -- that I needed an agent like Charlie needed that Golden Ticket just for the privilege of even entering the elusive realm of the slush pile.

Now I don't know what I'd do without an advocate as skilled and savvy as Lucienne.

Rejections came in, of course. Some -- well, that's material for another entry, should I feel that it's appropriate to make it. Suffice that, my work as a non-fiction writer, no matter how many books I'd gotten under my belt, didn't necessarily help me. Actually, it didn't really count for squat. And my identity as a television personality in most cases worked against me. TV people don't often write their own books. They are not seen as writers. That label must be earned.

And earn it I did - in the eyes of Steve Saffel at Titan Books -- a publishing company that still leaves me feeling a little breathless at the thought that they were willing to take Zack and his world on.

And now, seven years later, we are here. And there is a cover. Zack has a face, as does Lil. And I am almost able to share his world with all of you.

I have not, by any means, given up my non-fiction writing. I have (as recent appearances on Monsters and Mysteries in America will attest) continued to work in television. But fiction -- and the Shadowside, especially -- is what I want to do with the rest of my life. To live in this story and to shape it, and to share Zack's adventures with all of you.

October 27th, the first book comes out. I can't wait.

--M

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Staring into the Abyss

Providence. 1929. The Whately mansion -- once abandoned on the heels of a terrible string of murders, now refurbished and home to a mysterious cult, with the vampire Alexander pulling their strings.-----------------------------------------------------

Jeff York and an unfamiliar mortal woman stand in the front parlour of the Whately place – oblivious to the three members of family Giovanni observing them from down the hall. No words pass between Karl, Antonio, or Menecrites. No words are necessary. They have fought together often enough that a single look conveys everything. Meeting Karl’s eyes, Antonio gives a single, slow nod.

There is a taut and breathless moment where time feels suspended – and then a flurry of action unfolds. Karl reaches into the pocket of his overcoat and withdraws an enchanted ring. With a smooth series of motions, he pulls off one of his leather gloves and slips the ring onto the index finger of that hand. His lips move with a word of command – mouthed, not spoken. He barely imbues the syllables with breath. But his intent is enough. In the next instant, he vanishes, the cloak of shadows in the wraith-forged ring obscuring his presence.

At the door to the sewing room, Antonio touches a pendant at his throat. With a murmured word, he, too, disappears as he activates the obfuscation of the enchanted item. Although their presences are unseen, both Antonio and Karl still make audible sounds. They each move with slow and measured steps so their footfalls do not reveal their positions. They creep toward the lighted parlor.

Menecrites hangs back in the darkened sewing room, taking up Antonio’s previous position at the door so he can watch as things unfold and step in when he’s needed.

Jeff is still chatting with the girl. She’s pretty, in a classy kind of way. She looks nineteen or twenty. Although she wears the collar of her blue shirt buttoned up tight, bruising on her neck suggests that she has been bitten some time in the past few days. York seems interested in biting her again, and he pulls her close as he leans in to feed.

It’s the perfect distraction. They want to catch York unaware so they can restrain him and use him to learn where their true quarry is hiding -- Alexander.

Antonio and Karl move swiftly down the long hall, past the locked basement door. They step invisibly into the parlour at approximately the same time. Almost as if they had planned this part, Karl steps to the left, Antonio to the right. They circle around, closing in on Jeff. When they get within ten feet, however, Jeff suddenly looks up.

“Wraith!” Julie hisses, trying to direct Karl’s attention to something swooping down the hall.

“YOU HAVE NO BUSINESS IN MY HOME!!!” the spirit bellows in a hollow voice audible only to Karl and York’s flesh-and-blood ears.

The wraith – an old man with a shock of white hair and a long, grizzled beard – goes directly for Karl. He balls his hand into a fist and pops Karl squarely in the jaw. Karl staggers backward – more from shock than from pain. He’s seen this wraith before. It’s Old Man Whately. And the dead bastard still packs quite a wallop. Karl daubs the back of his hand against his split lip. It comes away smeared darkly with blood.

York looks up from his dinner and whirls around, trying to spot the source of the disturbances. He sees Old Man Whately as the wraith lashes out – although, for Jeff, the enchantment on Karl’s ring means he can’t quite see Karl himself. York focuses first on Julie, but it’s clear that she is not whatever Whately is striking. It’s obvious enough that someone is hidden. Jeff squints at the air in front of Whately, and his eyes shimmer with power as he struggles to see past the illusion.

Antonio prepares himself to take a flying tackle at York, not wanting to completely lose the element of surprise.

In the next moment, York starts off by moving obscenely fast. In the space of two eyeblinks, he reaches into an inner pocket of his jacket, grabs something the size and shape of a red rubber ball, and tosses this item hard onto the polished wooden floorboards. He aims for a spot about a foot in front of himself and roughly between Karl and Antonio’s cloaked forms.

The item hits the ground and shatters. Antonio and Karl both tense, expecting to be caught in a fiery explosion. There’s not enough time to get to cover.

Instead of flames, the thing erupts into boiling waves of darkness. A numbing concussion of frigid shadows ripples out from the point of impact, sucking the air from the room and temporarily blinding all present. The shockwave hits with a silence so intense, the air seems to shriek with absence. Bitter talons of ice lash against every scrap of exposed flesh, biting somehow deeper than flesh, bone-deep and soul-searing. All thought, all reason is driven before that numbing wave and it’s all anyone can do to keep their feet. Karl stumbles and Antonio is nearly driven to his knees.

Karl and Antonio each take one aggravated wound.

The wraiths shriek and the sound tears at the very air. They’re tossed like autumn leaves in the silent gale rushing from the epicenter, and the pulsing waves of dark shear gobbets from their forms. Old Man Whately howls as he lifts his hands to cover his face – and the memory of flesh is torn down to the bone. Julie pleas for help from Karl, clinging with bitter desperation as the darkness eats her before his eyes. She’s blown like rags along the air, a tattered, screaming form, and then – nothing.

Both Antonio and Karl’s enchantments are ripped away as well, and in the wake of the awful storm of darkness unleashed by York, the two vampires stand, shaken and staring. York looks as shocked as they do. Menecrites catches only the tail of it from his position down the hall. He pokes his head back out the door once the worst of the shockwaves has passed.

The mortal woman is screaming. The sound rises and falls, desolate and empty of all reason. She screams till she runs out of breath, then takes a hiccupping sob and screams some more.

She’s on the floor and she crab-walks back from the point of impact. Her back hits the wall and she doesn’t stop, just keeps trying to crawl backward into it. She claws at her eyes, fingers hooked and nails gouging.

York looks down in stupefaction at the item he dashed onto the floorboards. There are bits of broken glass and bands of some metal – probably copper – scattered in a two-foot radius. From this epicenter, that chilling darkness lingers, though the waves are nowhere near as powerful as the first concussion that caught everyone unaware.

“Shit,” York swears unhappily at the shattered remnants of the bomb.

Antonio doesn’t waste another moment. He tosses his swordcane to one side and levels the Toreador with a powerful flying tackle. He’d prefer to just kill the bastard, but he needs to question him. He catches York by surprise so the smaller man can’t engage his supernatural speed. The two of them tumble down in a heap.

Menecrites dashes into the room. Karl is still stunned by what he witnessed happening to both of the wraiths – Julie especially. The stoic necromancer isn’t one to brood on his feelings, but watching his companion torn apart before his eyes has nearly unmoored him. He stands frozen in place, staring at the air where she had been.

As Antonio wrestles with York, the mortal woman’s shrieks change in pitch and frequency. She slams her head backward into the wall, still digging at her eyes. Her hands are bloody. Her mouth moves in nonsense sounds and she’s still trying to push herself backwards with spastic kicks of her legs.

Before anyone can suggest otherwise, Menecrites pulls out his gun and shoots her once between the eyes. It’s a mercy killing, efficient and quick. She falls silent at last.

Antonio throttles York, landing punch after punch on his face.

“What the fuck was that, York? What the fuck was that?” Antonio bellows. "Menecrites! Hand me my swordcane. I'm gonna take this bastard's head."

Through the ruin of his mouth, York begs for his life, screaming, “I had no idea it would do that! Please! I’ll tell you everything! Just don’t kill me!”

Abyss To be continued …

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Into the House of Death

1929. Night has fallen on Providence, and in one ill-fated house near the town cemetery, darkness comes to call.-------------------------------------------

Wednesday night comes, and they all pile into Antonio’s Packard. He kills the headlamps a few blocks from the Whately place, then cuts the engine as he turns into Kirkwood Cemetery. He lets the car coast for as long as he can, maneuvering it along the narrow gravel path that twists amidst the stones.

Once the car stops, he engages the parking brake and they all get out, taking stock of their equipment. Antonio has his trusty sword cane, an item enchanted with the bound spirit of a vampire assassin once sent to kill him. Antonio killed the Assamite and claimed his soul instead. The Giovanni patriarch has his gun as well, and guns are good enough for mortals. But the cane – especially with the screaming spirit bound to its hidden blade – that has a real bite.

Menecrites opens the boot and pulls out two large glass bottles, trying not to clink them together. The bottles hold a murky brownish liquid that could pass for urine in the wrong light – bootleg mead. It’s not the best stuff. In fact, it’s barely drinkable. But it doesn’t have to be good to be incriminating. Menecrites tucks one bottle under each arm, nodding to Karl and Antonio that he’s ready.

Julie the wraith hovers near Karl’s shoulder, humming to herself. Her reedy voice intermittently crosses to the flesh-and-blood world with a sound like wind sighing through the naked branches of frozen trees. Nadia is nearby as well, but Antonio whispers to her, asking her to stay near the car and keep an eye on things from a distance. If things go south, he wants her to hustle back home and let cousin Luci know to hit the place with everything the family’s got.

On foot, the three Giovanni head toward the house, moving silently among the canting, weathered stones of Kirkwood Cemetery.

Lights are on in the parlor and some of the curtains are drawn. As they watch, the familiar figure of Jeffrey York passes in front of one of the windows. The glimpse is brief, but they all recognize Alexander’s cats’ paw.

The rest of the house is dark, except for what might be a reading light in one of the upstairs bedrooms. With a gesture from Antonio, Karl heads around back. Antonio and Menecrites crouch as they pass near the windows to the parlor, gliding soundlessly through the grass as they move toward the side of the house. Once they’re clear of the lighted windows, Menecrites stashes the mead in the bushes. Antonio studies the windows on this side of the house for a likely point of entry. The foundation of the house is fairly high, so all the windows are a little out of reach, but between himself and Menecrites, that shouldn’t be much trouble.

As Karl approaches the back door, he calls upon his particular path of necromancy, reaching out to the spectral echo of the physical world. Most of the Giovanni necromancers can summon and compel spirits, but Karl’s from a line that has a different sort of knack. It’s one reason the Italian family “adopted” their German cousin. Karl can peer directly into the realm of the dead. Better than that, with effort, he can reach across and even walk through it. It’s a tasking ability, and not without its risks, but it’s a talent Karl’s had since the days he became a vampire.

Stepping carefully onto a regrettably creaky back porch, Karl has a momentary flash of déjà vu. It was this door precisely where he had previously broken into the Old Whately Place with Jack all those years ago. This was the house where he’d first learned spirits could physically hurt people. This was where he’d seen undeniable evidence that attested to his own skills.

He pauses at the door, his gloved hand hovering over its knob. Closing his eyes, he reaches inward to what feels like a dark and fathomless well. Cold power rests in that space, and he dredges it up. Even his undead flesh feels the chill as it bursts forth, flooding him. When he opens his eyes again, the world has bled of all color. The house before him is decrepit again, and all its angles have gone wrong – he’s looking at it through the shadowlands.

Karl presses forward, starting to step across, but he quickly realizes that the house exists very solidly in both the skinlands and the shadowlands. If anything, the place has more substance in the shadowlands, probably because of all of the stories told about it. The fear and horror associated with the place have soaked into every board, making the place unassailable. No wonder the wraiths couldn’t get in. Alexander didn’t even need wards – all he had to do to block the spirits was close and lock the physical door.

Karl steps back across, never actually moving from his position directly in front of the back door. Then he takes a couple of lockpicks from of his coat pocket and jimmies the lock. Julie teases Karl gently over having to resort to this.

He shoots her a look and whispers, “I suppose you could do better?”

She sticks out her tongue playfully, but quiets back down.

Elsewhere, Antonio and Menecrites move quietly to a side window. No lights burn in the room beyond, and some empty wooden crates lie close at hand in the yard beside an wheelbarrow. Quickly and silently, Antonio and Menecrites stack the crates. Antonio hands his cane off to Menecrites, then steps up first. Drawing upon his skills of stealth and security, he lets himself in through the darkened window. Then he reaches down for his cane. Once it’s in hand, he helps Menecrites through the window behind him.

The half-Greek enforcer is not as silent as Antonio, and for a few breathless moments, the two of them stand, stock-still in what appears to be a sewing room. They listen to the rest of the house, but after a few moments, it seems obvious that no one heard them enter. The door leading out of the room is slightly ajar, letting in a sliver of light from the hallway. Motioning for Menecrites to stay put, Antonio creeps soundlessly forward to the door.

At the back door, Karl succeeds in picking the lock. Julie pats him on the back with a ghostly hand. Ordinarily, he would send her in first to scout the place out, but if the vampire Jeff York is in residence, there’s a chance that he’ll see her. The Giovanni vampires might have the market cornered on necromancy, but they can’t control who is and who isn’t a natural spirit medium. The in-born skill makes Jeff especially inconvenient to them.

Murmuring so low not even vampire ears could hear him, Karl instructs Julie to stick close, following a step or two behind him. Crouching low to the ground, he turns the knob and cautiously pushes the back door open. The hinges creak and the sound seems loud as a car wreck to Karl’s ears. He halts, then listens. Nothing. He resumes pushing the door open slowly, but the hinges groan again in protest and, preparing for the worst, Karl gives in and just shoves the door all the way open.

No one seems to hear – or, if they hear, they’re not making any noise of their own.

Karl decides that he’s in the clear for the moment. He edges through the doorway with Julie close behind. The necromancer finds himself in the kitchen. The only light is the ghostly blue flickering of the pilot light on the stove. It streams weakly through the latticed burners. The kitchen is large, with a sizable butcher’s block standing in the center of the room. A rack of pots and pans hangs above the butcher block. Karl makes note of the collection of knives sitting on the block, including a well-honed cleaver. Those might be useful later.

Moving as quietly as possible, although he’s not particularly skilled at stealth, Karl steps toward the door on the far side of the kitchen. He can see weak light coming in around the edges. That way lies the front of the house and Jeff York.

From the darkened sewing room, Antonio peers carefully through the crack in the door. Directly in front of him is the side of a staircase, a thick, highly polished banister leading upstairs. There is a door at the base of this staircase. It probably leads to the basement. The door is closed and has a sizable lock. The lock is clearly new – its brass fittings are shiny compared to the knob and hinges on the door. Faint, rust-colored symbols are visible along the very edge of the door, where it lies flush against the jamb. Wards of some sort.

Filing that piece of information away for later, Antonio glances down the hallway to the right. There’s a dining room, unlit. At the far end of the dining room is a door that probably leads to the kitchen. As Antonio watches, Karl steps carefully through that door and surveys the dining room. Antonio locks eyes with Karl and motions for the black-clad necromancer to stay put for a moment. Karl nods, taking a step back so he stands deeper in the shadows.

Looking to the left, Antonio sees that the hall continues toward the front of the house, leading toward the parlour. York is there, standing in about the middle of the room. The gaslights in that room burn away all the shadows. Their dancing, yellow light paints weird patterns across the flocked wallpaper in the hall.

Standing close to York is a young woman. She wears the powder-blue button-down shirt and the long, navy skirt that is to be the uniform of the female cult members. Her russet hair is twined in a French braid and knotted at the base of her neck. York appears to be hitting on her. He is wearing a powder-blue button-down shirt as well, but he has a navy suit jacket over it. He wears matching navy trousers. From the way the suit jacket hangs on one side, Antonio can tell that York is wearing a shoulder holster. So he has a gun, at the very least.

Karl stands rigidly in the shadows of the dining room. He doesn’t breathe. He doesn’t move a muscle. He watches in silence as Antonio cranes his head out of the door to a side room, peering down the one lighted hall. After a moment, Antonio turns back to face Karl. Gesturing silently, he holds up two fingers to indicate that there are two people in the lighted room. He mouths a name that Karl knows well: “York.” Then he raises a finger to indicate one other. Mouthing “York” again, Antonio gestures to indicate that Jeff has a gun.

Karl nods. Menecrites steps up behind Antonio. It’s time to put the next part of the plan into action.

Haunted

Take me to the next chapter.

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A Council of Shadows

We return once more to our shadowed version of Providence, a city of vampire gangsters and spectral femme fatales.--------------------------------------------------------------------

The Giovanni vampires tail the cultists for the better part of a week, Menecrites with the living, Antonio and Karl with the dead. Monday night, Antonio has them meet in his office to go over what they've learned. He knows time is pressing, but he's dealt with LeMourru often enough to be wary - - he won't rush in until he's certain he will win.

The patriarch of the family sits with his elbows on the big mahogany desk, hands laced under his chin. His eyes are distant as Nadia whispers to him. Karl arrives first, with his own wraith, Julie, trailing in his wake. He has a fist full of receipts and an expression that seesaws between bewilderment and irritation.

The eyes of the two wraiths dart fleetingly to one another – – a token acknowledgment. Simply because they're dead and working for the same people doesn't guarantee that the two ladies get along. Nadia presses herself a little closer to Antonio, clearly possessive. Julie makes a big show of yawning in a spectral pantomime of indifference. Karl shoots Julie a look, clearly not in the mood.

Menecrites bursts into the room, bringing a welcome distraction from the tension strung upon the air between the two wraiths. He's dressed smartly in a suit and tie, a matching handkerchief meticulously folded and tucked into the breast pocket of his vest. He carries a creased manila folder under one meaty arm.

"Sorry I'm late, boss. I had one last thing to check before I put everything together." He pats the document-stuffed folder with no small amount of pride.

Antonio gives Menecrites a perfunctory nod. He pushes back from the desk, stretching in his chair. "So what we got, boys?"

With a baffled air, Karl tosses his receipts onto the desk. He says, "Bees. These people are crazy about bees."

"Hunh?" Antonio responds. Abruptly, he settles forward on the chair, the rollers hitting the tile with an audible clack.

"I checked in at all the shops in town, trying to catch purchases that tied them to occult activity," Karl explains. He adjusts his hat on his brow -- Reynaldo hadn't caught him this time in order to tell him to take it off indoors. "What I found is these cultists have a thing for bee-keeping. They've cleaned the city out of related supplies."

Antonio pages through the bills of sale, squinting at the writing as if this could somehow help what he was seeing make more sense.

Menecrites shuffles a little self-consciously, muttering, "Well, you just blew anything weird I had right out of the water."

Karl shrugs helplessly. "What they're doing with the bees is anyone's guess. I don't know any occult practice I can connect with it.”

"Not just Alexander's Elder Cult and Bridge Club, then," Antonio murmurs.

"Say what now?" Menecrites sputters.

The family patriarch laughs a little at his cousin’s response. He tilts his head in Nadia's direction, forgetting that Menecrites has trouble seeing the dead. "That's what she called 'em. I guess when they're bored, they play a lot of cards. Bridge Club."

Karl makes a frustrated noise. "I have no idea what these people are up to."

With a flourish, Menecrites presents his manila folder. "Then allow me.”

Both Karl and Antonio focus curiously on him. Menecrites is fairly brimming with giddy pride. He says, “I don't got the benefit of spooky dead things for spying on people, but I do got a lot of eyes and ears on the ground.”

He opens the folder and spreads its papers in an arc in front of Antonio. The elder vampire’s brows tick up and he lifts one of the pages to read it more closely.

"This is a timeline," he murmurs with some measure of surprise.

"Yeah. It's like I'm organized or something," Menecrites says.

“Eight AM, breakfast. Nine to one, gardening. Group lunch. Indoctrination. Séance.” Antonio rattles off activities as he goes down the list. “You’ve got their whole day mapped out.”

“Their whole week,” Menecrites corrects.

“Nadia couldn’t get inside the place,” Antonio admits.

“Neither could Julie,” says Karl. “It’s warded or something.”

“Well, everybody gets a visit from the milkman and the ice man, and those guys report to me,” Menecrites explains. “I got my buddy Cicero over in the cemetery trimming the bushes, and he’s got a real nice view. Then there’s the gal at the grocer’s – those crazy blue shirts might make a lot of honey with all them bees, but they don’t grow all their food. They got people coming into town pretty much daily.”

Antonio continues reading over the papers, nodding vaguely at his cousin’s points. “This is good work, Menecrites,” he says.

“Wait,” the big half-Greek says. “It gets better. Look over on the next page, boss. Wednesdays are like cultists’ night out.” He leans over and taps a finger in the middle of the sheet. "The place is never empty, but that’s our best window. A whole bunch of ‘em go out and party at the dance houses and stuff. They don’t come back till at least midnight. Three or four stay behind, with Jeff York playing babysitter.”

“Seems like his regular job,” Karl agrees. “The only vampire Julia saw coming and going with any regularity was Jeff. No sign of LeMourru.”

“Nadia saw LeMourru once,” Antonio says darkly. “He didn’t arrive by any obvious means, just kind of showed up on the inside of the house. Surprised her.” He sets Menecrites’s meticulously lettered timetables down. Nadia lays a spectral hand on his shoulder and Antonio’s looks softens for a moment. The expression swiftly fades.

“You think he’s learned how to obfuscate?” Karl wonders.

“Nah,” Antonio counters. “That’s not his style. He loves that pretty face of his too much to hide it like that.” Pensive, he picks at a slight bend in one of the corners of the manila folder. “I bet he’s got a haven under the building or something.”

“Then we have to get in there,” Karl responds. “The wraiths can’t get past the perimeter, so we don’t have much choice in the matter.”

Menecrites noisily clears his throat, waving his hand between Karl and Antonio. “Hello,” he says. “Already thought of that. We should break in Wednesday.”

Karl’s eyes flick to Menecrites, his pale lips pressed into a disapproving line. “You said yourself the place is never empty. What do we do with the mortals? We can’t risk being exposed, and you can bet they won’t just sit around while we rifle the place.”

“Killing them is always an option,” Menecrites responds. In unison, Karl and Antonio shoot him dirty looks. “Hey,” he says, shrugging, “Don’t tell me you weren’t thinking it.”

Antonio takes a breath and sighs unhappily. “Oh, I was,” he acknowledges, “And a couple years ago, I’d have been all for it. But if I know Alexander, he’s just waiting for an excuse to expose us.” He tears off the ragged corner of the folder with his nail. Sharply, he flicks it away, tracking it as it flutters to the tiles. “Nah, we gotta find a way we can raid the place that will hold up in court. You can bet he’ll try to drag us into some shit otherwise. That’s why he’s practically drowning in mortal patsies in that house.”

“If they were doing something obviously occult, I might be able to spin public opinion,” Karl offers.

“You just said their only weird thing is bee-keeping,” Antonio responds.

Karl shrugs. “I checked in with Shipton to see what kind of books they’ve picked up.”

“And…?” Antonio asks.

“Nothing.

“The Tremere could be lying,” Menecrites offers. “I mean, being a Tremere and all.”

Karl snorts. “He was lying about something. Which is why I had Julie watch the place,” he replies. “And if he’s selling them occult books, he’s doing it where those transactions can’t be observed. So, again, a brick wall.”

Antonio’s eyes have grown distant. He taps one nail against the blotter on his desk. Almost to himself, he murmurs, “Honey.”

Menecrites piques a brow at the family patriarch. “Squeeze me?” he quips.

Karl scowls at the enforcer with a look that eloquently damns Menecrites’ inability to be totally serious even at the most vexing of times. Menecrites either misses the look or ignores it – it’s an even bet. Antonio’s too immersed in his thoughts to catch any of it.

“I got an idea,” he says at length. “All that honey. They could be using it to make mead.”

“Julie didn’t see anything like that,” Karl objects.

Antonio barks a laugh. “I didn’t say they were actually brewing stuff. It don't matter. This will be the very definition of railroading. All we gotta do is plant a few casks in that house. Anything gets ugly, my police contacts can take care of the rest. We’ll be bustin’ up a bootlegging operation, after all.”

Understanding dawns across Karl’s face as he follows Antonio’s train of thought. The Doge of Providence, suddenly animated, slams his hand down on the surface of his desk in his excitement. The sound is enormous in the windowless basement office. His eyes glimmering with purpose, he says, “Menecrites – how quick can you get your hands on some honeywine?”

“Shouldn’t take much, boss.” Menecrites grins. Antonio’s excitement is infectious. “Then we hit the place Wednesday night, right?”

“Like you said, cousin,” Antonio replies, “that is the best possible time.”

Bee-Keeping

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An Honest Night's Work

It's 1929 in a version of Providence that's home to vampires, cultists, and the restless dead. A family of Italian necromancers have a choke-hold on the city, and they're looking to take down their rivals, lead by Alexander LeMourru.-------------------------------------------------

Nightfall finds Menecrites on the docks. The big man leans against a stack of weathered crates that don’t look like they’re going anywhere any time soon. His dark eyes luminous beneath heavy brows, he watches the ceaseless activity of the dockworkers as they load and unload the ships. It’s late, but this is a thankless job, and many of the men work well into the night.

Menecrites can hear half a dozen tongues shouted back and forth between the vessels in the busy harbor. Italian he knows, and he recognizes Polish, though he doesn’t understand anything more than the tone. Irish, Russian, Czech – and some lilting, rhythmic thing that must hail from the Caribbean, given its speaker’s exotic appearance. The world has many names for this diverse collection of people, few of them kind.

Menecrites sees them for what they are, these stevedores and roustabouts. They’re hard-working men, all trying to put food on the table through an honest night's labor. Immigrants and half-breeds, most of them can’t call any one place their own. The city doesn’t welcome them, but without their raw muscle, it would wither and die.

These are Menecrites’ people – the ones no one else will claim. He understands their struggles because he, too, stands out as someone who doesn’t properly belong. It’s not about being a vampire – that identity is so thoroughly woven into the fabric of family Giovanni, he doesn’t think of it as strange. No, Menecrites is half-Greek in a family that treasures its pure Italian bloodline. When his mother named him, she might as well have pressed a brand to his head. She bequeathed to him her dark coloring – black eyes and hair, skin less olive than brown. Maybe Antonio doesn't think that's a big deal, but all the others – especially back home – they treat the half-Greek like something they scraped off their shoe.

All Menecrites really wants from the world is some respect, but even Antonio doesn’t always manage that. It’s in the little things, like how they often talk around him in the meetings. Half they time, they only remember he’s standing there at the very end. And no one ever asks his opinion on any of the tactical decisions. The occult stuff, he understands. That’s not his bag, and he’s ok with that. Leave the spookfest to Luci and Karl. But would it kill them to ask what he thinks about the family business once in a while? Maybe thank him for some of the work he’s done? All they ever do is bitch at him when things get broke, after they gave him clear orders to go out and break them.

“They mean well,” he sighs. Though good intentions don’t mean things are changing any time soon.

He tracks the activity of a knot of workers who seem to be knocking off for the night, idly tapping the baseball bat he’d brought along against the side of his shoe. Menecrites has potence – the vampire gift of supernatural strength – so he hardly needs a baseball bat to protect himself no matter what part of town he finds himself in. But he’s learned that the bat makes a statement, and that statement is, Menecrites doesn’t fuck around. He almost never has to throw a punch when he walks around with the Louisville slugger casually balanced on one shoulder. That’s pretty handy for keeping his supernatural levels of strength discrete.

And the bat is such a regular thing that it doesn’t even raise an eyebrow among the usual gang of dockworkers. They all know Menecrites. He gives them jobs for extra cash, sneaks them a little hooch, and pals around like they’re society guys.

He falls into step with the group of roughnecks as they head away from the harbor. They chatter among themselves in accented English, crude and boisterous and unabashed. None of them stares at Menecrites like he’s out of place, though with his neatly-pressed shirt and his smart pants, he’s too well-groomed for this lot.

A couple of them greet him – they’ve seen him before. He pulls a flask from his back pocket and starts passing it around. It’s Prohibition, and good liquor is hard to find. His family regulates most of it – the stuff in the flask isn’t the usual coffin varnish these guys are used to.

“Hey, fellas,” he says at length, after pretending to take a belt from the flask himself. “I maybe got some work for you.”

“For more of that giggle water, sure,” one of them says. He’s a big guy – bigger than Menecrites himself. His skin’s so tanned and weathered from his labor outdoors, it’s impossible to tell if he started life white or brown. His features could be anything. His accent’s local. Menecrites treats him as he sees him – a man unafraid of hard work.

“I’ll do you one better,” the vampire says. He fishes in his pocket for some money. He holds up a ten dollar bill. That gets attention. The whole group stops walking and clusters around him, eyes bright as they listen.

“We don’t do breaking law,” says a squint-eyed fella with an accent so thick, he might have gotten off the boat last week.

“No worries there, buddy,” Menecrites says. “This is honest work. All you gotta do is watch.” He points two fingers at his eyes for emphasis. “There’s these people in town. You probably seen them. They dress kinda funny. Blue shirts, blue pants --”

“My sister talks about them,” says a whip-skinny man with a porkpie hat. “She works over at the grocer’s. Says they’re real strange.”

“You ain’t just whistling Dixie,” Menecrites laughs. “They’re strange as they come, and they’re up to something. You guys, you don’t gotta do nothing but keep your eyes open. You see them in town, you watch where they go. They talk to people, you see who they are. Then you tell me.”

“We could bust ‘em up for ya, Mr. Giovanni.” That comes from one of the regular guys – Cicero. His skin’s so black, it makes lanterns out of the whites of his eyes.

“Nah, Cis, we don’t need nothing like that now,” Menecrites responds. “You know I don’t make you go bustin’ kneecaps.” He grins as he shifts the bat on his shoulder. “That’s my job.”

Most of the men chuckle. They know the score. The new guy looks dubious, but he falls in step, laughing awkwardly along with the rest.

“I got a sawbuck for every guy that brings me useful information. Emphasis on the useful part,” Menecrites adds. “Don’t try to fool me – I ain’t stupid and I ain’t a charity.” The dockworkers nod and Menecrites flashes a brilliant grin – so well practiced, he manages to hide the pointy ends of his canines with his lower lip. “Play right by me and I’ll take care of ya. You know I’m good for it.”

“There gonna be trouble?” Cicero asks.

“Only for these blue-shirts who’re making trouble for us first,” Menecrites replies. “They’re into some not-so-good stuff, so don’t let them catch you. I wouldn’t want any of my boys getting hurt.”

Cicero takes off his hat and thoughtfully rubs his bald pate. He's been in Providence long enough to be worried -- not about the Giovanni, but about what must be brewing on the horizon with the blue shirts.

Menecrites sees his look, then hands off the ten-spot to Cis. “You all heading to that juice bar down the street?” Only the new guy hesitates before he nods. Menecrites’ grin widens. “Buy a couple rounds on me.”

Longshore Workers

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Her Breathless Kiss

Providence. A city of secrets, each stranger than the last. The year is 1929 and the vampire family Giovanni seek to maintain their version of order in this darkened mirror of New England, where ghosts and vampires are not the worst one can encounter in the long hours of the night.--------------------------

At the Fratello Brothers Funeral Home, Antonio steps inside his office and moves aside a bookcase to access a hidden room. There’s no real mechanism involved. He’s got casters on the bottom and a rough little track, but most of the work is by main force alone. The puissant vampire physically lifts the solid mahogany bookcase out of his way, settling it back into place when he’s done. He’s glued down most of its books (who has time to read all that stuff, anyway?) and has hand-holds in the back so he can more easily shift the six-foot-tall piece of furniture from the other side.

It’s not the prettiest door to a secret passage, but it’s functional enough for Antonio. Sure, he could have had Menecrites get one of his contractors to fix a door up real nice – but then others in the family would know about the room, and the whole point’s about secret spaces.

The hidden room beyond the bookcase isn’t much – just an old broom closet. Reynaldo probably knows about it. The old ghoul originally belonged to Antonio’s sire, Scapelli, and he’s been around longer than most of the family’s full-blooded vampires – at least as far as the Providence branch is concerned. Reynaldo knows more than he lets on about pretty much everything, but over the centuries, he’s also learned to hold his tongue – a valuable quality in a family like the Giovanni.

Antonio knows he probably doesn’t have to keep this work-room a secret. It’s more for personal reasons that he does, and he’s all right with that. Antonio’s research into the family’s trade-mark skill of necromancy is something he likes being private about. Not too long ago, Antonio could barely whistle up a shade, let alone bind a ghost. A dirty little secret – and one engineered by his scheming sire, Scapelli.

Scapelli had manipulated Antonio’s heritage over generations of family Giovanni’s living relatives, forcing marriages and cross-pairings the way other men might breed prized hounds. Some he brought across as vampires, others he kept as breeding stock, using each and every one of them to forward his own inscrutable aims.

Scapelli felt he’d gotten a real prize with Antonio – the Giovanni was a remorseless killing machine, strategic, efficient, and brutally strong. But the old bastard hadn’t wanted brains in his lapdog, so he’d done his damnedest to keep his protégé stunted in all other arenas, the better to rule through Antonio as the power behind the throne.

Except Scapelli erred in cultivating Antonio’s hard-headed pride. No one makes a fool of Antonio Giovanni and lives to brag about it – not even the elder vampire who’d pruned their twisted branch of the family tree since the time of the Medicis. Antonio made sure that Scapelli was good and dead. He didn’t do the deed himself – blood-bound to Scapelli, he couldn’t have no matter how much he wanted to – but when an opportunity for freedom arose, Antonio did what Scapelli had groomed him always to do: he seized it, and he never looked back.

Now free of the old patriarch’s corrupt influence, Antonio does his damnedest to be the vampire the family needs to rule the city of Providence – not merely a cold-blooded killer (though there’s surely a place for that), but someone with skills on all fronts and a head for politics that would have put Machiavelli to shame.

Antonio strikes a match against the wall and lights one of the candles on a nearby shelf. He doesn’t need much light, and the room is small. One candle is more than enough.

There’s an old steamer trunk pushed up against one wall with a piece of silk cloth draped over its pitted surface – nothing so formal as an altar, simply a workspace, a little prettied up. There’s a ritual dagger and a chalice for offerings of blood. But the thing he’s interested in is a woman’s brooch. Silver, slightly tarnished, with one leaf bent, it’s a single, delicate rose. It serves as a fetter for Antonio’s favored wraith.

Nadia.

The spirit is as enamored with the taciturn Giovanni as he is with her. A woman who, in life, fell victim to her own father’s ceaseless rage, Nadia sees Antonio not as her oppressor, but as her savior. He'd freed her from the place where she’d known only suffering and grief, hunting down her father and making him pay.

The hard-headed Doge of Providence spent weeks secretly frequenting the site of Nadia’s murder, struggling to pierce the Veil so they could speak. He hadn’t planned on anything more than using her. That’s what the family did with most wraiths – summoned them, bound them, compelled them to serve. But once he got the hang of communicating, Antonio found himself growing fond of Nadia. Now a bond lingers between them, the unliving and the dead. The wraith is not a servitor, but a friend.

She is also the only woman Antonio feels that he can love without remorse. He’s a brutal man, and he knows it. With his volatile temper and his violent way of life, he’s left behind a bloody swath of people he’s tried to hold close. He has a marriage of convenience to a mortal woman arranged at childhood by Scapelli – and while the hardened former hit-man sometimes wishes he could love his wife, the best he can do most nights is keep her safe from harm.

But Nadia – Nadia is already dead. She’s lived through the worst life had to offer and come out the other side. More than that, she sees Antonio for exactly what he is – and it has never made her flinch.

Antonio takes up her rose, running his thick, blunt thumb along the delicate filigree of its stem. A thing of beauty, fragile and precious. A symbol of all the things which – beyond the walls of this secret room – Antonio is denied.

He’s too practical to brood on it for long. Every moment he delays, Alexander builds his power and the cultists do who-knows-what in the Old Whately place. There’s work to be done, and the dawn doesn’t wait.

“Nadia,” he calls to the air as he cradles the rose in his palm. “I got work for you, doll.”

Almost instantly, she fades into view. She wears the memory of a flattering knee-length dress, her shapely legs crossed primly as she sits upon the trunk. Death has leached most of the color from the fabric and from her skin, but hints of auburn cling to the carefully dressed waves of her hair.

“Whatcha want, tough guy?” Her voice is all syrup and honey upon the air.

Antonio wastes a moment just looking at her. Nadia’s a real swanky gal, built like a starlet. It's a shame her father robbed the world of her light.

“I got some trouble with that pinko Toreador, LeMourru,” Antonio says. “He’s holed up in the old Whately murder house, gathering power before he makes another move. I need eyes on his people so we know the score before we bust the place up.”

“You know I’m always up for a favor for you.” She drifts from the trunk, circling behind him in the small room. He feels her presence near his shoulder like the promise of a touch.

“He’s got a gang of cultists – mortals. Probably ghouled. I want to know what they eat, where they sleep, and when they take a dump. There’s a couple of vampires in there, too, more than just LeMourru. Jeff York, for one. I need descriptions. Names.”

Spectral fingers trail idly through his hair as she listens. Softly, she murmurs, “York. I remember that one. He can see me."

Antonio nods. He reaches a hand up to her hand. They can’t touch exactly, but her fingers press against his just this side of connecting. He says, “And LeMourru, you remember -- that guy’s dangerous. He’s got that oblivion power, nihilism. He can hurt you.”

“He’s hard to look at,” she admits, shifting to his other shoulder. Her voice is a breathless whisper against his ear. “Swirling darkness. Hungry void. I won’t forget what’s attached to him.”

Antonio closes his eyes. At the same time, he curls his fingers tightly around her tarnished silver rose. For a moment, he allows himself to dream of a different life. A life where he doesn’t have to wage campaigns of terror and bloodshed for the sake of the Family. A life where Nadia is still a breathing woman of flesh and blood. A life where his own existence isn’t one circumscribed by endless, violent nights.

Nadia clings to Antonio’s arm. He doesn’t realize how tightly his shoulders have tensed. But she notices. She knows his moods. He takes a breath – he doesn’t have to, except to speak – and exhales slowly. He lets the fantasy life that can never be drift from him like smoke.

“You spy on ‘em, Nadia, but the minute you see LeMourru, you beat feet, you hear me?” he says. “I couldn’t bear to lose you.”

With slow reverence, he places her fetter back in its position upon the trunk. The candle gutters and in its dancing shadows, Nadia leans close and presses spectral lips against his cheek. Her kiss is lighter than cobwebs, but it lingers like the burn of a brand. When she retreats, the stuffy little broom closet feels vast and empty as the yawning maw of hell.

Nadia

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Providence: Forbidden Books

The year is 1929 and the city is Providence -- but this is our world through a glass darkly, a place where magic and monsters hold sway in the night and the visions of Lovecraft are not portents of madness, but searing and horrible truths. ---------------------

Forbidden Books

The next night, Karl checks in at Shipton’s Books. A string of little brass bells hanging near the door tinklingly announces his arrival. Travis Shipton, the local purveyor of rare and magical tomes, fusses behind a long, wooden counter. When he sees the dour necromancer, the rail-thin thaumaturge grows as pale as the ruffled bit of lace at his throat.

“Ah, um, Karl. It is Karl, isn’t it?” Shipton asks, his words clipped with a dated British accent. The book vendor straightens his brocade waistcoat. Born some time in the middle seventeen hundreds, the city’s lone Tremere had never adapted to modern fashion.

“Cut the crap, Shipton. You know who I am,” Karl responds. His wraith, Julie, makes a face at him, but her antics serve only to annoy. Karl waves her off. The anachronistic Tremere is oblivious to her presence, and just as well.

Shipton purses his thin lips. “I haven’t done anything,” he says, with the air of someone fearful of being caught.

“Well, if you’ve got nothing to hide, then you won’t mind giving me a little information,” Karl prods.

Shipton maneuvers slightly so a large stack of books sits between them on the counter. He eyes the Giovanni necromancer warily, the briny blue of his irises glimmering with a faint sheen of power. Karl scowls when he sees it.

“You don’t need to use Auspex to see if I’m lying,” Karl barks. “Play nice and I’ll be out of here quickly.” He slams a list of names down onto the counter. Shipton jumps back as if expecting the list to explode like a pipe bomb. Karl says, “I want you to tell me what books any of these people bought in the past month. See? Simple.”

Shipton takes the list gingerly, pulling an old pair of pince-nez from his vest pocket and perching them on his nose. He squints at Karl’s handwriting, which wasn’t amazing on the best of days, and he’d written the list in a hurry.

“Ah, yes,” Shipton says, tapping a particular name. “I know this group. My ghoul Liza calls them the Blue Shirts. That’s all they wear, you see. Blue shirt, navy slacks for the gentlemen. Blue shirt, long navy skirt for the ladies. There’s been rather a lot of them of late.”

“I know,” Karl growls with more ferocity than is strictly necessary. Shipton nearly drops the list.

“You don’t have to be so cross with me. I’m not your enemy,” the Tremere objects.

“Yeah? You’re not my friend, either,” Karl retorts. “You’re selling books to these people, and they’re causing trouble for my family in this city.”

Shipton takes off his ridiculous antique spectacles, tapping them absently against the creased bit of paper. His eyes dart around the over-laden shelves that reach to the rafters, searching for something. He frowns, saying, “This book store existed before your family came to this town, and I have no intention of shutting my doors for the convenience of a few short-tempered Italians.”

Karl starts to hurl an excoriating response at the old Tremere, but Shipton stands his ground for once. No power is exchanged between them, but something in Travis’s eyes gives Karl pause.

Snippily, the Tremere says, “Before you threaten to tear off my head with your customary brutish zeal, let me remind you that I’ve been nothing but helpful to you and your people when events in this city have gotten … ” Shipton falters in his search for a fitting word, finally uttering, "Complicated." He tosses the list back onto the counter, making no effort to hide his irritation. “And none of these people have bought anything I would class as a dangerous book. I’d have mentioned something to Luciano at the Occult Council if they had.”

Karl glares at Shipton, balling his fists so tight the leather of his gloves creaks in protest. Shipton knows better than to stare back directly into Beck’s eyes, but he squares his shoulders and gives a haughty little lift to his cleft chin as he fixes his eyes unwavering at a point to the left of Karl's head. Beside her master, Julie the wraith whispers soothingly. She doesn’t see anything amiss in the store.

“If anything changes, you tell me,” Karl says at length.

“Not Luciano?” Shipton inquires.

“Cousin Luci is not to be bothered. You come to me,” Karl reiterates, drilling his meaning into each individual word. “We clear, Shipton?”

“As a gypsy’s glass,” Shipton says with a disdainful sniff. “Now buy something or get out. This is a place of business, after all.”

Karl leaves, slamming the door behind him so hard, the little string of brass bells crashes noisily to the floor.

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Antiquarian Books

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Providence: A Family Affair

We return to the world of In Providentia, set in a fictional version of Providence, Rhode Island that blends elements of Lovecraft's New England and Vampire: the Masquerade's World of Darkness. The year is 1929, and the Giovanni necromancer Karl Beck has been sent to investigate the history of an ill-fated house that is now headquarters to his family's rivals, Clan Toreador. ----------------------

Fratello Brothers Funeral Home Funeral Home

Karl slips from the city archives where he’s been doing research all night. It’s nearly four in the morning. He’s got a little dark left. He heads back to the Fratello Brothers Funeral Home, where he’s sure to find Antonio and the others at this time of night.

Sure enough, the head of the family is meeting with his right-hand man, Menecrites, while Grandpa Reynaldo tidies things up for the night. Karl nods to the old family ghoul as he enters, taking off his fedora and hanging it on a nearby coat-rack when Reynaldo frowns and reminds him of his manners. Karl waits on the bench outside Antonio's office as the Doge of Providence -- Antonio preferred that title to the Camarilla standard of "Prince" -- finishes up with his enforcer.

Once they're done, Karl steps in and plops the old newspaper clippings onto the broad cherrywood desk Antonio keeps in his windowless basement office. Menecrites leans against the doorjamb, his thick, muscled arms folded negligently across his chest. Antonio’s a big man himself, and while he sits in an expensive suit behind the desk, Karl knows the elder Giovanni’s veneer of humanity is a thin one. Karl’s never been one to be afraid – not even of the family’s powerful patriarch, but he’s wise enough to be cautious. Especially when bearing news that Antonio could construe as bad.

“I've been looking into the Whately Mansion,” Karl begins.

Antonio nods smartly, indicating that Karl take a seat in one of the leather chairs arranged in front of his desk. “Go on.”

“Well, I've found some things that are … interesting,” Karl hedges.

He could practically feel Menecrite’s eyebrow climb at this, even though his back was to the enforcer. Antonio says nothing, just sits still as a corpse, his dark eyes gleaming attentively in his sallow face.

Clearing his throat, Karl goes on. “Back before I met any of you I visited this place with my old occult group. The place was supposedly haunted but it was also supposed to contain some sort of lost treasure. All we ended up finding was a very angry wraith of Old Man Whately who scared off the person I was with by nearly breaking his jaw. Needless to say we didn't look around too much and we left.

I never thought about the place again until we found Le Mourru there, and since then I have done some digging. It turns out about 50 years ago Old Man Whately butchered several people in his home. He then performed taxidermy on them and arranged them throughout the house as if they were guests or residents. This guy even killed an eleven year old boy named Kevin Blackwell, and then proceeded to hang him from the rafters, complete with a set of angel wings he constructed from different things including human bones. Whately was never found but he was pronounced dead and since I saw his wraith, I would say that is correct.

Now I am telling you this for a few reasons. The first is that my old associate Jeff York has a wraith of a little boy and I am guessing that the boy is probably Kevin Blackwell. If York doesn't know what's going on, Kevin might. Secondly, Le Mourru picked this place for a reason, and when this is all said and done we need to find out why. It could be the wraiths, Whately was quite powerful, but I doubt that. There has to be something there, whether it was a treasure of gold or something mystical that attracted Le Mourru. My guess is the second one.”

Still, silence from Antonio. Menecrites shifts in his post at the door, the only thing giving him away the subtle whisper of the starched collar on his shirt.

“All I am asking here is that we don't blow up or bulldoze this place until we figure out what is so special about it,” Karl concludes, sparing a glance for the enforcer. Menecrites hadn't encountered a problem yet that he thought couldn't be solved with a wrecking ball.

Antonio tents his fingers, leaning back in his chair far enough that the springs creak.

“Very well,” the patriarch says. “We won't destroy this location until we know more. After all, it could be worth something. As for York's wraith; how is he controlling it? Has he picked up necromancy somehow? We can’t allow that.” Antonio’s scowl made his dark eyes glitter. “The guy’s a natural medium right? Maybe the wraith wants something, maybe we can give it to it. If it really is this murdered kid, that might be how we can learn what’s up with the location.”

Menecrites moves to stand behind Antonio and a little to his left. The big man looks down at the clipped articles, brow furrowing as he reads.

Pensive, Antonio taps the edge of one nail against the wooden surface of his desk. “We also need to know what influences control this site. I will use my contacts in local business to run a deed search, pull a few strings in bureaucracy to get my hands on the deed itself, then I’ll get my police contacts to dig up the file on the murders. Karl and Luci can use that to gain information on the wraiths, maybe figure out a few of their fetters. If we’re lucky, there’s some old evidence somewhere in the back of the courthouse that the police can pull. One or two things there might be useful.”

He turns to Menecrites and says, “You tap into your contacts, too, and see who controls this site.” Menecrites nods, making notes of some of the names. Antonio turns back to Karl. “You did good tonight, Karl. We’ll get these bastards and run Alexander out on a rail. Or maybe I’ll just run one through him.”

A chilling smile curls the elder Giovanni’s pale lips.

Take me to the next chapter

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The House of Death

The year is 1929. The city is Lovecraft's Providence, set in a fictional version of New England where magic is real and vampires roam the night. Some of those vampires belong to the family Giovanni, a clan of necromancers who have held control over the city of Providence for many years. The Giovanni's power in Providence was recently challenged by an elder Toreador, Alexander. Although Antonio and his boys got Clan Toreador to back down, shaming them publicly, Alexander and his minions have taken up residence in what was once an abandoned house, infamous for a string of grisly murders. With death such an integral part of the family business, the local Giovanni are investigating Alexander's involvement with this ill-favored residence because they know he is planning something -- the only question is what. The first member of the family sent to investigate is Karl Beck, a master necromancer related by blood, if not by birth. -----------

The Whately House

Something has been bugging you, Karl, about the old mansion the Toreador seem to be using as their home base. It nagged at you so bad, you decided to do a little research on the place. When you saw the old newspaper article in the archives of the Voice of Providence, it hit you why this place seemed so familiar. You had been there on a dare when you were just getting involved with your group of human occultists.

Jack was the one who told you about the place. He'd heard rumors that it was haunted and that the ghost of Old Man Whately was always searching for his lost treasure. Whately had been the eldest of the Whately siblings. He was a cantankerous sort, never married, and he had a reputation for dabbling in unwholesome activities. He lived and died in the house in the 1870s. Or, at least, everyone believed that he died there and, although his body was never found, the presence of his ghost seems to argue against any earthly survival.

At the time that Jack led you to sneak up on the house at night, you didn't know all the details of why the Whately place was reputed to be haunted. Jack's story about the haunting was garbled at best, and as far as you could tell, the self-appointed leader of your rag-tag group of black magicians was scoping the place out mostly to see whether or not there were any items in the house worth stealing. You half suspect that he dragged you along because he was actually afraid of the threat of the ghost.

Your little venture into breaking & entering (does it count, really? by then, the house had stood abandoned for nearly twenty years) didn't end in either of you getting rich by discovering Old Man Whately's hidden treasure. It did, however, prove to you that you had an innate ability to perceive spirits. Because you saw the angry old specter long before the wailing image of Whately hauled off and clocked Jack squarely in the jaw. It was a night of firsts for you: you had one of your first legitimate encounters with a spirit, witnessed by another person, and you encountered a spirit that could reach across the Veil and wallop a living being.

Jack was scared shitless. You were actually pretty excited. The specter took great offense to the fact that Jack had vandalized the back door in an attempt to gain entrance to the abandoned house. He didn't seem to care much about you -- but then, you hadn't busted his back door down. Jack was so freaked by the whole experience that he barely made it five feet into the old mansion before he ran like a scared little girl. You stayed behind, cautiously, and explored a little, but all you found was a dusty, run-down, abandoned house. There were signs that the place had looked impressive in its day, but by the time you & Jack got in there, there was really nothing to see. You do remember finding a door that probably went to the basement. This door was locked and, given the outburst the spirit had accomplished when Jack forced the backdoor, you didn't think it would be in your best interests to force this door either. It seemed thoroughly stuck from the other side anyway, so you called off your explorations and tried to find where Jack had run off to in his blind panic.

The newspaper article you found recently sheds a little more light on the mansion and its tale than you knew back then when you and your old gang dabbled in breaking and entering:

The Voice of Providence Saturday, April 15, 1900 Evening Edition

(continued from page 2)

Deputy Roderick Kemp made the grisly discovery on a sultry afternoon in the summer of 1875. The corpses included the body of Detective Solomon Godwin, 35, Arnold Powell, a drifter, and young Kevin Blackwell, an eleven-year-old-boy who had been missing since March of that year. The Whately mansion as it stands today.























Dr. Jacob Frost, the Providence coroner, worked hard to identify the remains of the other bodies, however, in most cases, decomposition was so advanced that identification was impossible. In all, the remains of at least fifteen individuals were discovered in the home, which, by all appearances, had been abandoned for at least two weeks. No sign of Whately himself was ever found, although it was the opinion of the Providence police that Whately was dead.

Since the house became the scene of one of the most dreadful murder cases Providence has ever seen, it has stood abandoned on its lot not far from the Kirkwood Cemetery. Many tales have grown up around the house, including a persistent rumor that Old Man Whately haunts the property, protecting his hidden gold. The rumor of hidden treasure associated with the house came about from the fact that Whately, the eldest of five siblings, was the sole inheritor of the Whately fortune. Despite this, Whately lived a relatively simple live, remaining in the seclusion of his home and coming into town only to buy supplies every two or three weeks. On these occasions, he was often observed wearing the same patched and soiled set of clothes, with wild, unkempt hair and beard. To all appearances, he lived in poverty, which of course begged the question of what happened to the family fortune.

In twenty-five years, the mystery has never been solved, but it has become a rite of passage for some of the daring young men of Providence to invade the abandoned home, particularly on nights of the full moon, to dare the specter of Wheatley to manifest and drive them from his house of horrors.

--------------------------------------------

Further research led you to a longer recounting of what was discovered in the house, from the memoirs of Deputy Kemp:

Guided by Providence: The Memoirs of Roderick Kemp

Chapter Five: The Whately Place

Now, this was an investigation that I was involved in back in 1875. It’s twenty-five years after the fact, and I will carry the details of this investigation to my grave. In all my days working in law enforcement, I never saw anything so awful, and I thank God every day that I never encountered anything like it since. Some nights, I still wake up seeing scenes from the inside of that house. I knew Thomas Whately. Not real good, but I had seen him now and again, growing up. I don’t know how a man can become such a monster, but Thomas Whately was a kind of evil that should never walk the earth.

Well, you’re not all reading this to listen to me proselytize about man’s inhumanity to man or to conjecture about the metaphysical nature of evil. No, you want the details. So here goes.

Everyone knew that Old Man Whately was up to no good. But since he kept to himself and rarely went out of his house, no one bothered to really call him on it. There were a couple of incidents involving missing persons that a detective Godwin tried to trace back to the Whately house, but his investigations went nowhere. And then Godwin himself went missing, and no one seemed brave enough to suggest that maybe this disappearance was also tied to Whately. Godwin was a good man, and a few of us on the Providence force, we kept niggling at the case, trying to get someone to do some honest-to-goodness investigation into the issue. But nothing ever went forward. Maybe he paid people off. I don’t know, and I don’t care to think about it now. Whatever it was, no one was ever brave enough to confront Whately directly.

In the end, Whately's true crimes were not revealed because the old man was caught. His crimes came to light because Whately himself mysteriously disappeared. And, eventually, the stench coming from his abandoned house became too much for the neighbors, even though there was a good amount of space between them & the Whately house.

A reluctant deputy was sent to check on Whately at his property. He found that the front door was sagging open and a terrible stench wafted out on the summer air. The buzzing of flies was audible through that open door, so loud that the deputy at first thought some kind of machine was on inside the house, running. There were no lights on in the old house, and most of the windows were covered over with heavy cloth. Most of this cloth was nailed directly into the walls around the windows. When the deputy yanked the first of these makeshift window covers off to let in some afternoon sunshine through the streaked and yellowed glass, he found himself staring at the most macabre scene he had ever witnessed. Shortly after that, he was just staring at the gravel on Whately's driveway, as the poor deputy knelt, hunched over, puking his guts out. Of course, by now, you all know that reluctant deputy was me, Roderick Kemp, though back then everyone called me Roddy. I thought the smell was the worst thing I’d ever been exposed to, but that was before I cleared off the windows and got a good look at what was causing that smell. Hell could never look so grim as that house on that June afternoon.

Inside the parlour, arranged in chairs as if they were just over for tea, were three corpses. They were well-preserved -- almost mummified. One of them was the missing detective. One of them was Arnold Powell, a drifter. One was a woman, never identified.

Five more corpses, similarly preserved and staged throughout the house were discovered. The most unsettling of these was the corpse of Kevin Blackwell, a young boy eleven years of age. He was in that attic. Whately (it could only have been Whately) had strung the boy from the rafters. He had also painstakingly fashioned wings for the child, cobbling them together with the bones and feathers of several birds, as well as a few bones from a human -- never identified -- who left no other remains in the house.

The stench of rot came from the basement. Whately's most recent victims were in a jumble down there. Dr. Jacob Frost, the Providence Coroner at the time, identified the parts of at least seven bodies in the festering abattoir that lay beneath the rickety wooden stairs. A bathtub with saws and other implements as well as a worktable with needle, thread, and some taxidermy equipment, suggested that Whately had been planning to put these corpses together in much the same fashion as the others -- only he seems to have been interrupted.

No sign of Whately himself was ever discovered. He must have been dead. I made a thorough search of the house – and I’m not too proud to admit that I had to make that search in pieces, as I had to vacate the premises on more than one occasion to vomit in the yard. After a while, I wasn’t even bringing anything up, but that didn’t stop the smell and the horror of it all from getting to me. Like I said at the outset, I never saw anything like it in all of my years, and I am happy to have never encountered anything so terrible ever again. We never did figure out who all of those body parts in the basement belonged to. Frost, the coroner at the time, he did his best, working late nights to piece the bodies together. But even he had to admit defeat, and Frost was a smart man. Scary smart, though some called him crazy. I think that was just because he preferred to always work at night and he spent so many long hours locked away with the corpses. But my insights on Dr. Jacob Frost – well, that’s all material for another chapter.

Take me to the next chapter

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Gamer Tales

As many of you know, I've been a gamer since about the time I could roll dice. I was in fourth grade when my remarkably progressive public school introduced us to Dungeons & Dragons, encouraging my gifted class to play the game as the perfect union of math and creativity (if you remember how to calculate old school ThAC0, then you definitely remember the math part!). D&D was set in worlds inspired by the fiction of Tolkien and other fantasy greats and while I enjoy high fantasy well enough, I didn't find a game world that really gripped me till Vampire: The Masquerade came along in 1991. They had me at vampires, but the World of Darkness against which White Wolf's storytelling system played out was what really seized my imagination. Set in a modern world a step off from our own where magic and monsters existed in the shadows, the V:tM world had all the grit of Film Noir wrapped up in the syrupy decadence of the fin de siecle art. It was Urban Fantasy before the genre existed. I loved it, especially because the White Wolf gaming system placed more emphasis on the story and the characters than it did on the stats and the dice. It provided a fertile platform with which to weave tales and watch characters come to life.

When the V:tM system took the leap from table-top gaming, where 3-6 players met up in someone's dining room or basement and whiled away the night engaging in a shared story, to LARP, or Live Action Role Playing I had found my niche. Live action was where role-playing games met improvisational theater and collided into something amazing. Costuming, make-up, physical props all could be brought to bear. A simple rule structure governed the magic and powers that were still an integral and interesting part of the game world, but the real strength of a character in a LARP came down to how well you could embody that character.

And for the role-playing naysayers, no, I don't mean that we ran around nightly believing we had turned into our characters. I mean we learned to act. LARPs got gamer geeks like me -- bookish, introverted, and often socially awkward -- out of the basement and into a social life. And I say without regret or apology that everything I learned about public speaking, I learned through playing Vampire: the Masquerade. Yes, it was make-believe, but it was great practice for interacting in groups, learning to spot social manipulations, and comprehending the real power of the spoken word.

And, for a writer, the LARP allowed for a very special experience: creating a story and characters that then came to life right before your eyes. I loved it -- and for many years, LARPs were my medium. I wrote massive multiplayer games for conventions like Origins and GenCon, weaving stories that could sustain nearly non-stop play over periods of three to four days. It wasn't uncommon to have 150+ players in those games, and every one of them had a pre-generated character with a backstory that was a short story all by itself, each of them interlocking so the whole thing was one gigantic, living web of plot.

If I have any regret at all from the years between 1995 and 2000 when my LARP writing peaked, it's that all those stories are nearly impossible to share outside of the medium of the LARP itself. The world I'd created for my chronicle -- the Vampire: the Masquerade term for an ongoing gaming story -- was a rich and unique creation were White Wolf's World of Darkness intersected with Lovecraft's Providence -- with a healthy dose of gangbusters for some wild fun. Set in the 1920s, my fictional version of Providence was a confluence of the weird, with each layer of the city's history peeling back to reveal increasingly bizarre twists. I've still got maps, volumes of the town newspaper I wrote up to pass out for each game, lists and descriptions of businesses, a Who's Who among the town, and meticulously outlined house rules -- reams of supplemental material that grew with each event, indelibly shaped by the choices and actions of the players once they had their characters in their hands.

I've dragged all of you on this rather long ramble about my gaming glory days because I have found on my hard drive something that I can share that captures some of the richness and intensity of this method of storytelling. Sure, I've got skads and skads of those character histories, never mind all the supplemental gaming material -- but those are merely pieces and, if taken in stasis, they do not reveal even an intimation of the whole. To appreciate why this method of storytelling so ignited my imagination, you'd have to see the story as it played out. And almost all of the stories from Providence were like one of those great Tibetan sand mandalas -- something seen while created, appreciated in its fullness for a moment, and then gone.

Except ... in 2009 I did a Providence reunion at an Oberlin college gaming event. And because many of my core characters were played by close friends with whom I have never lost contact, we needed -- for the sake of the story -- to tie up a few loose ends from the game in 2000 when I quit running the big games to focus on more traditional writing.

And because we were far-flung at the time, that particular installment of the Providence storyline did not take place in real-time out in the world. It took place through an exchange of emails, and once I had each player's action for a turn, I compiled everything and wrote the story.

It's still here on my hard drive, all 20k words of it or so. I'd given some thought to editing it into a stand-alone novella, removing the gamespeak, tweaking the tense (it's all in present tense, to capture the real-time feel of the action associated with LARPs). But that was harder than it sounded. And many elements of the Providence story make little sense when removed from the Vampire: the Masquerade setting -- especially my favorite clan of vampires from that game, the necromancer family Giovanni.

But I have a feeling at least some of you will appreciate getting a taste of this favored outlet for my creativity. So, at the risk of confusing a few readers with the gaming jargon that is a necessary part of the tale, I invite you all to come on a little ride with me and meet a few old friends -- Antonio, Menecrites, and Karl, Giovanni all, if not by birth, certainly by blood.

To be continued ...

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Diversity in Fiction: Changing the Narrative

I grew up in a tiny Midwestern town where the only people of color in my school were the Ahmeds. Everyone else was some flavor of European descent. The Ahmeds were Muslim, but I didn't learn this until some time late in high school. No one ever talked about the family's religion, just as no one ever asked why none of the Ahmeds were ever around for lunch (they very quietly went off to pray to Mecca at noon, as is the custom of that faith). Since nearly everyone in the school had been raised in some form of Christianity, it never occurred to us to consider that someone might not be. This is relevant to my work in fiction. I'm sure you've heard the catch phrase, "Write from life." Well, even if a writer isn't consciously drawing upon their own life experiences, that's how creativity works. The worlds and stories in our heads are cobbled together from what we are exposed to, day after day. When we people our inner worlds, the characters are drawn from what is most familiar to us -- at least, that's our default if we don't make an effort for it to be otherwise.

If, like me, you happened to have grown up in predominantly white, predominantly Christian Middle America, where a person could stand out simply because they dressed differently, that means your default inner world isn't a particularly diverse one.

That is not to say this diversity is lacking due to a conscious decision to exclude other races or religions or lifestyles. It's simply human nature. We default to what we have always known -- the people, roles, and situations we have consistently been exposed to.

TV reinforces most of the things I grew up with -- over and over again, the situations portrayed on television feature predominantly white, predominantly Christian, predominantly straight male protagonists. Are the writers of your favorite show being intentionally racist and sexist when they pen episodes where women and people of color are consistently cast in minor roles -- or where they only appear as victims or villains? Not necessarily. They're just parroting back the world they have been exposed to themselves, a world reinforced by other writers doing the exact same thing.

It's a vicious cycle, and it's one that needs to stop.

The world we live in today isn't the whitebread Middle America I grew up in. Especially because of the advances in media communications, we live in an increasingly global society. Straight, white, European men are only a small part of that. When I grew up, race was an issue of black people and white people -- we didn't even know what to do with the Ahmeds! They didn't fit the script, so we treated them as outliers. We really had no clue. And maybe at that time, we had some excuse. But these days, with the wealth of races and cultures people are exposed to? We have to think differently.

And some of that must start in the stories that we tell.

Again, I'm going to stress that this is not about conscious racism, sexism, and exclusion. It's about a quirk in how humans order our world in our heads, and how everything we subsequently imagine is then shaped by that order.

Humor me for a minute. Imagine a little scene -- let's make it a bustling cafe. Picture the tables, the chairs, the counter, the sign with all the prices and names of the drinks.

Now populate it with characters. People sitting at the tables. People standing in line. People behind the counter. Imagine the scene as clearly as you can.

Now ... take a look at the scene you have built in your mind. What color are the people? If they're all the same color as you (or nearly all of them), ask yourself why. And if your answer is something like, "There's always more white people in places like this," really give that answer some thought.

Is the person serving behind the counter a girl? Why? What narratives have you been consistently exposed to that make women your mental default for a service position? I'm sure you weren't thinking about it that way, but that's how these persistent narratives get insidious. We don't see them as necessarily sexist or stereotyping. We see them so often, we simply view them as normal.

Speaking of "normal" -- what's everyone wearing? What kind of diversity (or lack of diversity) do these outfits suggest? Dig deeper into why this would be your default choice. And then ask yourself -- is it a truly accurate portrayal of people these days, or is it merely the projection of the same old stereotypes we are all exposed to through mainstream media, day after day?

The only way to change that default so it more accurately reflects the diversity that truly exists in our world is to change the narratives. To be conscious of when we are defaulting to an assumed projection of how the world looks, as opposed to how the world -- right now as we are living in it -- actually is.

And you might ask -- if you're writing fiction, why is it important to accurately reflect this part of our world?

Maybe you can get away with not changing the narrative if you're writing high fantasy in a setting specifically built upon white European culture -- but I think, even in that circumstance, it is crucial to ask yourself why that white European basis is important to the story. If the only reason is familiarity, then maybe you should rethink that.

The genre I've chosen is called Urban Fantasy -- although there's magick, the stories don't take place in Middle Earth or Westeros. Urban Fantasy happens right here -- preferably in a big city that becomes something of a character itself. An important part of any city is its diversity. To make that setting genuine in fiction, you've got to capture that diversity.

That means white people and black people, brown people and yellow people -- straight people, gay people, Christian, Sikh, Jew, transpeople, differently-abled people -- all the exciting and varied flavors of humanity peopling our world.

If we are serious about telling stories in books, on TV, and in the movies, we have to stop recycling the same worn, paste-board cut-outs we've been fed over and over again. They no longer show things as they are -- assuming generously that they ever did. If all we ever do is repeat the same tired narratives, those stereotypical defaults living in so many of our heads will keep us blinkered to the world as it really is.

And the real world is pretty damned amazing.

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New Chapter, New World

Some of you know me from Paranormal State. Some of you know me from my many books. All of my major publications have been non-fiction. Until now. I am very pleased to announce the next chapter in my career as a writer. Conspiracy of Angels, the first book in the Shadowside Series, is slated for a 2015 release with Titan Publishing.

I can't thank my agent, Lucienne Diver, enough for being my savvy book advocate and navigating the very thorny wilds of the book publishing world as they stand today (talk about harrowing!). Yes, I have lots of books in print, so you'd think it would be easy to sell another one. But selling fiction is a totally different animal than selling non-fiction, and without Lucienne's support, I'm not certain I would have endured to conquer that rough beast.

Moving into fiction has been my gift to myself after twenty years of writing, publishing, and living the contents of my non-fiction books. I love teaching through the non-fiction, but my heart needs also to tell stories.

And this story is one that has burned in me, driven me -- and one I hope you will love.

The notes start in 2008. I know that much for certain -- I can still picture the client's house where I sat between takes, scribbling out the ideas. I burned with that fever of inception where the thoughts and images flew faster through my mind than my hand could possibly move across the page. I saw the character so clearly that a friend would later have dreams of him while I wrote the first draft of the novel.

I knew his name was Zack. It's short for something, but at first, even he doesn't realize that. And his world was my world, just a half a step off -- a world rife with spirits and other powers struggling for closure, for context, for control.

I didn't want a world of easy answers. I didn't want a world of black and white -- all my work with Paranormal State had taught me, when it comes to spirits, some things that appear evil are merely wounded and grasping for help. But monsters do exist.

Zack's world is a haunted world, and he can see the things that lurk in the dark. He doesn't always understand them -- and he doesn't always understand himself. Nevertheless, he feels compelled to make a difference. That's why you have talents like this, right? To do something with them. To make the world better for having you in it.

But it's not easy. Zack's allies are as deadly as his enemies, and he's never really certain who he can trust. He finds himself tangled in a web of betrayal, with people and powers seeking to become more powerful still.

Zackary Westland. The man who's lost his past.

You have to wait another year to meet him -- we both do -- but when the time comes, I want you all to lose yourselves in the wonders and dangers of his world.

Welcome to the Shadowside, my friends.

--M

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Never Piss Off a Storm Goddess

Never Piss Off a Storm Goddess The drive past the art museum seemed strangely familiar – or at least, the view out the window did. I couldn’t quite put my finger on the feelings bubbling up from the hindspaces of my Swiss-cheesed brain. Of course, Kessiel didn’t help matters any. He kept distracting me by thrashing against my seat, trying to yell from behind the gag. He made an impressive amount of sound, considering he was essentially limited to projecting through his nose.

At one point, he started kicking at the door behind Lil. She quickly put a stop to this. Fixing a chilly gaze on him in the rearview mirror, she spat, “Kessiel? I will cut off an inch of your manhood for every ding you put into this car.”

She meant it, too.

Kessiel made unhappy noises from behind the three layers of duct tape. They might have been expletives, curses, or nursery rhymes for all I knew. But he settled down.

Pretty soon we were at RockefellerPark, with its old, crumbling stone work and little cultural corners dedicated to the city’s various ethnic populations. Lil pulled into the park near the statue of Mahatma Gandhi, and I experienced another cloying sense of déjà vu. Maybe it was just a partial memory that survived the attack. Whatever it was, it was frustratingly elusive. Something kept drawing my eyes to the statue, but I couldn’t hold the thoughts long enough to understand their significance.

“Now what?” I asked as she cut the engine.

We were sitting in a pool of shadow, tucked back beneath the trees. In the rearview mirror, I could just make out the figure of Gandhi, caught in mid-stride with his walking stick.

“Now I get answers,” she said.

She reached over me and popped open the glove compartment. She was small enough that she had to practically lean across my lap to do so. I expected to get a noseful of the heady scent of spice and vanilla that always seemed to cling to her. Instead, I smelled ozone and fresh summer rain. At the same time, I felt a raw and primal terror crawling up the base of my spine. It curdled in my gut and made my heart leap to my throat. There was absolutely no reason for it. No reason at all.

And then Lil grabbed what she was seeking in the depths of the glove compartment. She sat up, moving off of me. The feeling faded almost immediately. Puzzled, I turned to study her face. Her gray eyes caught the light, only there wasn’t any light to really catch. Despite this, they flashed in threatening tones of gunmetal and silver. Her hair seemed wilder, her features fierce. She exuded death and danger as surely as she also exuded sex and perfume.

Almost as soon as I realized that, I felt a pressure shift in the car. My ears actually popped from it. There was a flash of metal that was not her eyes. She was holding a knife, her treasure from the glove compartment. She flipped the blade open with her thumb. It was elegantly curved and wickedly sharp, about four inches long. Long enough to kill.

Kessiel must have realized something was up, because he had fallen completely silent. I noticed then that Lil was holding the knife angled so that he could see it from where his head was pressed up against the door. She gazed down at the blade for a few moments and started chanting. She ran the ball of her thumb along the edge of the blade, leaving behind a thin trail of blood. The pressure in the car intensified, to the point where it started to feel electric. Then the wind gusted so hard, the trees around us groaned. Acorns rained down on the hood of the car along with some of the last dead leaves of autumn. And then it was just rain. With a blinding flash, the heavens opened up, and huge, fat drops hammered down upon the car. It had been close to freezing a few hours before, but now we were in the midst of a raging thunderstorm.

Lil looked up from her contemplation of the dagger, her eyes the color of lightning-torn clouds. With a grin that promised suffering and pain, she clambered into the backseat and straddled the prone form of Kessiel.

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Just a kiss

Another deleted scene from an ongoing work (don't ask how many works-in-progress I'm juggling right now. It probably isn't a healthy number). I don't even know if the romance blossoming in this scene will stay in the series in question. That's the great and terrible thing about writing book-length fiction. It's like a choose-your-own-adventure unfolding in your head, and at times, all the different paths and possibilities exist simultaneously. It's often hard to pick only one. Just a Kiss

“That location is important. I think there’s a chance he’ll try to use it again, and soon,” I continued. I went to my jacket to retrieve the print-out of the Street Witness map. I had just started smoothing it out on the coffee table when Lopez got abruptly to her feet.

“I’m sorry. I can’t do this,” she said.

“What?”

She started heading for the door. “I can’t do this,” she repeated. “I can’t live in your world. It’s too much.”

“Rita, wait." I scrambled to my feet and hurried after her. "I’m not asking you to believe it. Just accept that he believes it.”

She turned her back to me. I’d been so focused on my own anxieties about explaining things, I’d managed to tune out everything she was feeling. But now the connection surged open, and I belatedly felt the crushing weight of her fear.

“No. I can’t believe that things like this exist. Belief like that is what killed my mother." She nearly lost the iron in her voice to the quaver of unshed tears.

That sound wrenched at me. I reached out and seized her arm. I wasn’t sure if I’d meant to comfort her or keep her from leaving. It hardly mattered, because the minute I touched her, everything got tangled between us. I couldn’t tell where her fear ended or my urgent need to erase it began. We just clung to each other.

And then we were kissing.

*                      *                      *

I broke it off first. I wasn’t exactly sure how – I literally couldn’t remember the last time I’d been with someone and kissing felt really damned good. But underneath the urgent, breathless yearning to pull Rita as close as I possibly could was this subtle feeling of wrongness. I think she sensed it, too, but it didn’t telegraph to her body. Her hands were restless, tracing lines of sensation up and down my back through the thin fabric of my T-shirt. Whenever her fingertips brushed passed my wings, I caught my breath with the intensity of the sensation – she couldn’t feel them, but I sure as hell could. She dug in her nails when I finally managed to pull away.

Her mouth was still tilted up to me, lips plump and red from being crushed against mine. I gently gripped her shoulders, holding her at a distance while not quite able to bring myself to let go. Colors danced in the air between us, whirling like some fervid storm. My head resounded with an empathic feedback loop as everything we felt was shared and painfully amplified. She must have felt it, too, even if she didn’t understand what was happening. Her dark lashes fluttered as she slowly opened her eyes. She blinked like someone waking from a dream. Her pupils were huge, making her dark eyes appear jet-black as she gazed up at me.

“Why’d you stop?” she murmured. The words came out as a sultry purr.

“Why’d we start?” I responded carefully.

She sighed, moving to lay her head against my chest. My brain told me to keep holding her away from me. My arms pulled her in close. Her cheek made a nest of the slight depression at the base of my ribcage. “Long day. Felt good. Been wondering if you could kiss,” she responded. “You can.”

I swallowed hard. My heart knocked against my ribs like it was trying to reach her face. My pulse hammered lower, making my jeans feel too tight. Her face wasn’t the only thing pressed up against me. With suddenly dry lips, I managed to say, “I don’t know if now’s a good time.”

She shrugged against me, tracing the lines of my abdominal muscles through my shirt with the edges of her nails. She made an appreciative sound.  “I feel something every time you touch me,” she said.

“That’s what I’m afraid of.”

“We’re adults. There’s no need to make a big deal about it.” Her hands continued lower, plucking at the waistband of my jeans.

“I’m kind of a fan of doing things only when both parties are in full control of their faculties,” I objected. Hell was it tough to get those words out. I managed to peel her away. Holding her at a distance again, I said, “And you’re not. This is something special. Regretting it later would kill that.”

She huffed impatiently at me. “Jesus, Zack. It doesn’t have to be anything. You’re attractive. I’m attracted. End of story.”

She really wasn’t making it easy to take the high road.

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Playing by the Rules

Some day, I'll have to release a novel with a variation that's like a director's cut. In the process of completing a manuscript, there are so many scenes that get recast or wholly removed. This is one such scene -- another altercation, because I love writing fight scenes. At this point, the root work it's drawn from has changed so much, it's nearly impossible to tell where it came from.  I still like it, though.

Playing by the Rules

“Um, you can let go of me,” I said. I pulled away slightly.

He dropped his hands without comment.

Lucid hazel eyes bored into me. No eerie light was required to add to their intensity. In that quiet tone that nevertheless invested each individual syllable with tremendous weight, he asked, “What do you want from me?”

“Uh,” I faltered.

Suspecting that someone might actually be an inhuman monster was a whole lot different than actually confronting them about it. My mouth went dry, and all of my reasonable-sounding conclusions about what Khalid was and how he might have known my mother nearly eighty years ago suddenly seemed anything but reasonable.

He pressed his sculpted lips into a thin, unhappy line, saying, “Please, stop feigning ignorance. It’s insulting to the both of us, don’t you think?”

I fought to recover the confidence I’d had just moments before. Heart in my throat, I mumbled, “That depends on what I’m being ignorant about.”

Khalid rolled his eyes. “I know it was you the other night. I could feel your observation. For someone who can hide their nature so completely in person, at a distance you are regrettably clumsy.”

I blushed to my hairline. So I really saw him doing those things, and he caught me watching him. I ducked my head guiltily, letting my hair swing forward to hide how red I was. Nervous laughter escaped my throat. I tried to talk, to utter anything intelligent, but my mouth and my brain were at war – and they weren’t including me in the negotiations.

Khalid studied me with his piercing eyes, mistaking my flush of embarrassment for one of anger. “Thalia, I don’t have to be your enemy. Truly, I don’t want to be.”

Finally, in a rush, I managed, “Was that what you said to my mother?”

I expected to see some reaction of shock or incredulity. Raised eyebrows. Something. But he simply shook his head, his frown deepening. “I don’t know what Elondra told you before she passed, but I assure you, she misjudged me.”

“So you did know her,” I gasped. My legs went all watery. I started teetering, dimly aware that I was nearing shock.

Khalid reached out again to steady me. I jerked away, nearly tumbling backwards. I dug the heels of my boots into the damp grass of his front lawn just to stay standing. He kept his hands extended, still trying to catch me as I swayed drunkenly.

“Please don’t touch me!” I cried.

He took a step backward, nodding his head politely. “As you wish,” he murmured. He thrust his hands into the pockets of his trench. Casting a worried glance over my shoulder, he murmured, “But I’m not so certain we should have this discussion out here. Others are gathering.”

My eyes flew to the oak tree – or at least, to where I knew the oak tree should be. It was too dark to see anything save for a hint of the gnarled branches looming next to the massive old Victorian. A little late, I realized I hadn’t left any of the lights on in the house. Not so much as a porch lamp.

“You can see them?” I breathed. My heart’s frantic rhythm echoed in the tremor of my voice.

“The crows?” he asked. “Yes. And I can sense the others. Can’t you?”

“N-no,” I managed, shaking my head. “Er … I’m not sure.”

His finely arched brows drew together and he tilted his head slightly as he regarded me. “What kind of game are you playing?” he wondered.

I didn’t have an answer.

“Thalia, please,” he begged. “I’m only looking to take back what your mother stole from me. Is that really so unreasonable?”

“Do you mean the painting?” I asked. I forced myself to focus on the details. Details, not fear. I needed to let go of the fear.

Behind us, something raised a ululant cry. We both jumped. It was definitely not the crows.

Eyes fixed on something in the distance, Khalid asked, “Are you sure you will not reconsider taking this inside?”

“What, so you can attack me behind closed doors?” I demanded.

“You know I can’t hurt you,” he snapped. A little of that cold light leapt behind his eyes. “Your mother made certain of that. But even if the choice remained to me, I would prefer to resolve this without violence. Why can’t you people understand this?”

By the end of it, he was nearly shouting, so I shouted right back. Anger was always my best refuge from fear.

“What people? What choice? I don’t even know what you’re talking about!”

He regarded me narrowly. “Either you are even better than your mother at hiding the true nature of things or you are not lying,” he murmured. Then his head snapped up, his eyes widening as he stared at something behind me. “Thalia, look out!”

Before I had time to react, Khalid shoved me roughly to the ground. I dropped everything as I went down, car keys and cell phone flying in opposite directions. I started yelling about it, but I was interrupted by a familiar, bone-chilling hiss.

The creature was back.

I scrambled backwards in a panic. In front of me, Khalid shrugged out of his trench, tossing it aside. Under the coat, he wore slim black jeans and a long sleeved shirt of deep amethyst silk. For reasons I could not fathom, he began unbuttoning the shirt as he stepped to meet the creature lurching into his yard. The hideous thing was swift but ungainly, still clad in the torn and soiled clothes from the previous night. Nictating membranes flicking, the intruder narrowed its eyes at my neighbor.

“I have no quarrel with you, brother,” it slurred, ashen lips barely able to close around its mouthful of teeth.

“I am most certainly not your brother,” Khalid answered stiffly. “And you will have a quarrel with me if you don’t get off my property.”

The creature hissed and skittered suddenly on his wrongly-jointed legs, circling to the left in an attempt to dart around the other man. But as fast as the monster was, Khalid matched it speed for speed. The gray-faced creature loosed an irritated snarl.

“There is no need for me to fight you,” it complained. For a big, nasty monster, it sounded bizarrely petulant.

“You are giving me a reason,” Khalid replied. He finished unbuttoning his shirt and tossed it to the grass in the direction of the coat. Wiry muscles rippled beneath the brown skin of his slim and hairless chest.

The creature looked as puzzled about Khalid’s stripper act as I was. But I wasted no time trying to figure it out. As those two were posturing in the yard, I scrambled to my feet and headed for Khalid’s porch. I desperately hoped his front door was unlocked.

“What is she to you?” the creature demanded. It danced back and forth, testing Khalid’s reactions. “If you want her also, we want her for the same reason. She has something that belongs to my sister. Let us both take her then, and make her surrender what was stolen.”

“We may want the same thing,” Khalid acknowledged coolly. “But I somehow doubt that we share the same method.”

With an aggravated snarl, the creature leapt. It sailed through the air, heading straight for me. Khalid moved faster than my eyes could track. He placed himself squarely in the creature’s path. I thought he would attack, but he only blocked the impact, bringing up his arms and thrusting the aggressor back.

Looking slightly dazed, it angled its head querulously like a dog, studying Khalid. “If you want me gone, then attack,” it hissed.

“I would prefer you simply leave.”

Its second set of eyelids flickering, the monster lunged – but didn’t carry through. Instead, it watched as Khalid prepared to meet the blow, but lowered his hands as soon as his attacker drew up short. A strange, staccato hissing emanated from the creature. I realized it was laughing. It was a hideous, chilling sound.

“You are one of the bound ones!” it cackled, pointing with a bony finger. “How much did they take from you? Can you even hunt for yourself? My sister cannot.”

Through gritted teeth, Khalid replied, “I may not be whole, but I assure you, I am quite capable. Come at me,” he taunted. “You’ll find out soon enough.”

“Why not strike me now, leech?”

Khalid’s nostrils flared at the insult, but he simply stood his ground. I tried the door at my back. It was locked. Of course. I started looking around the porch for anything I might use as a weapon. Unless I wanted to assault Khalid’s attacker with one of the previous resident’s garden gnomes, I was out of luck.

Without warning, Khalid ran at the creature, his usually melodious voice raised in a primal yell. I only saw him from behind, but his expression must have been terrifying, because even the monster was taken aback. It lashed out as soon Khalid was within range, its long, ragged nails laying open the other man’s chest. Khalid had to see it coming, but he didn’t try to dodge or even defend against the blow. He just left himself open. With an ugly cackle, the creature pressed the advantage, grappling with Khalid and driving its claws into his bare stomach. The deep, bloody gouges looked almost black against Khalid’s dark, muscled flesh.

“You cannot fight back!” the monster cackled. “I will tear the flesh from your bones, and you cannot fight back.”

“I can now,” the wounded man responded. His voice was quiet, but carried deadly threat.

Eyes flaring gold, Khalid snarled fiercely. As his blood flowed, he stopped merely defending and instead matched the aggressor blow for blow, tearing gobbets from the creature’s cadaverous flesh. The pinkish goo that served the monster for blood flowed sluggishly, but soon it covered Khalid’s face and hands. The fight was vicious, but half the time they were both moving so quickly, I could barely keep track of who was doing what. I just saw flashes of Khalid’s dark limbs, gleaming like the polished wood of some living statue where they weren’t covered in blood.

Unlike the previous night, once the monster started losing, it didn’t simply dissipate into a skirl of shadow. Khalid drove it back to the edge of the yard, finally pinning it to the ground. Battered and bleeding, the creature thrashed weakly, trying to drag Khalid’s hand from its throat.

“Traitor!” the creature spat.

Through gritted teeth, Khalid responded, “If that’s the way you want to see it. Now go. Unless it’s your aim to kill me?”

Khalid sounded almost hopeful.

The creature loosed a vicious, gurgling hiss. “If you do not end me, I will end you.”

“Is that a promise?” Khalid asked, swiping a long strand of black hair back from his face. He was smiling.

“For this insult? Yes,” the monster spat. “I will come back night after night and face you until one of us falls.”

“Perfect,” Khalid answered, and his eyes were twin lanterns in the dark. “You have just threatened my life.”

With that, he snapped the creature’s neck.

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Enigmas

Another fragment cut from a work in progress. The protagonist discovers a strange symbol apparently scorched into the grass of her lawn. Given that this symbol appears in the location where her mother reportedly died, she finds the symbol - most clearly visibly from the third floor tower of her home - both ominous and intriguing. Enigmas

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 in the yard.

“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 marks. 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, an uneasy feeling roiling in my gut.

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Bar Fight (fragment)

This is a cut scene from a work in progress that's currently getting an overhaul. The event that leads to the fight in question doesn't happen in the new version, but this piece still gives a fun little window into two of the main characters. When in Doubt, Use a Louisville Slugger

“You ok?” Eddie managed.

I nodded mutely, staring at the twitching mess on the floor. “You?” I breathed. My voice sounded hollow in my ears.

He scowled at the cuts and gingerly touched a swelling bruise at his hairline. “Little sore, but I’ll live.”

“Broke your bat this time,” I pointed out, laughing nervously

“Hunh?” Eddie asked, then frowned at gore-streaked split in the wood. “Guess I did. Think I killed it?”

I didn’t want to get close enough to the fallen creature to poke it with my boot. I really didn’t have to. Its head was caved in on one side and that grayish-pink goo that passed for its blood was all over the tiles.

“Safe to say you did,” I responded. Triumph vied with nausea. Then I saw the corpse sink in on itself, and nausea won. “Uh, Eddie?” It came out as a squeak.

We both stared as the wrongly jointed thing fell apart before our eyes. It was like watching one of those time-lapse images of a corpse rotting, only without the maggots and flies. Snake Eyes just collapsed in on himself, puddling into a gray and pink smear.

“That ain’t right,” Eddie gasped, stumbling back to keep away from the spreading goo.

I backed up with him, taking rapid, shallow breaths in an effort not to hurl.

“What the hell is going on, Allison? What are these things?”

Glass tinkled then crunched at the front of the pub. Our heads jerked up in unison toward the sound. Something else was crawling in through the broken window. Ashen-faced, with blank, black eyes. It didn’t look anything like the first one, but I knew on some level they were the same.

“Oh, God. There's more," I breathed.

Eddie groaned. “Wish I’d listened to Dad and bought a gun.” The big man backed up a few steps, finding a clear space among the overturned tables and chairs to stand. He planted his feet, squaring his stance and raising the bat.

The thing at the front of the pub gestured at me with a taloned finger. In a hollow voice, it said, “Give her to us and we will leave you. We have no quarrel with you.”

“Fuck you,” Eddie spat.

“Very well,” the cadaverous monstrosity replied.

It drew a deep breath, and its all-black eyes gleamed wetly. Speckles of shadow seemed to dance on the air in front of it, and it continued breathing in, deeper and deeper. The other two behind it crept closer to the shattered window.

“I think we might want to run,” I said. I had a sudden image of it belching a cloud of something vile and putrid and extremely poisonous. I didn’t want to be around when it did.

“Shouldn’t be long now,” Eddie whispered. But he started backing up with me.

A ghastly wail rose in the distance. Sirens. Lights flashed against the night, brilliant white, then red and blue. The dead-faced creature caught itself mid-breath, whipping its head around to peer toward the town square. The two vaguely human-shaped things behind it were already reacting, ducking down, then bolting. Gray-Face swiftly followed.

I loosed the breath I’d been holding, feeling my heart stutter in my chest.

“I guess even monsters don’t like to go to jail,” Eddie murmured.

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Crime Scene

Psychic Madison Stone and her detective friend Joe Fazio are characters I've played around with for nearly a decade now. I've not quite settled them into a story that I'm entirely happy with. So they remain among the fragments and false-starts, waiting on just the right chemistry of plot and world-building.

            Madison’s phone went off right as the students started leaving her last class. She jumped at the unexpected sound, then furiously blushed, hoping no one noticed.  Normally she turned her phone off during lectures. She had a strict rule that her students do the same. She must have forgotten, but maybe it was for the best. It was hard to mistake detective Fazio’s ringtone. It wasn’t a call she should miss.

“I’ll be right with you,” she said to the small knot of students gathering to ask her questions. She still hadn’t gotten used to being center stage in an entire room full of young adults, and it was worse when half a dozen of them mobbed her at the end of a lecture. She tried not to look nervous, but still managed to fidget with her straight blonde hair, tucking a loose strand of it behind one ear. She smiled apologetically. “I have to take this call.”

She ducked quickly out of the classroom and tried to find some relative privacy a little ways down the hall. Snapping open her little phone, she said, “Hey, Joe. What’s up?”

“Maddy!” Fazio’s full-throated voice greeted her from the other end. “I got clearance to bring you in on a case. You got time for a trip to the Southside?”

Madison chewed her lip as she paced. “Well, I need to stop by my office and put a few things away,” she said. “But sure. I can make it. How soon do you need me?”

She heard Fazio cover the phone and say a few things to somebody else. The words were muffled, but the emotion still translated. Cases with Fazio were never good, but something about this one seemed to have ruffled him more than usual. After a moment, he took his hand away from the receiver and said, “How fast can you get here, kid?”

“It’s five-thirty on a Wednesday in Chicago, Joe,” Madison remarked. “What do you think? How far is it on the Southside?”

“A couple of streets over from the old Union Stockyards,” he replied. “Take the Pershing exit, then hang a right --”

“Hang on, Joe,” she said. “Let me grab a pen. Just give me the address and I’ll GPS it. I always get lost when you give me directions.”

“Now whose fault is that?” the detective teased. “No one else has trouble with my directions.”

“Well, no one else is me, Joe,” Madison replied. “Give me the address and I’ll get there faster than if you try to give me some kind of short cut.” She stepped back into the classroom as she spoke, going to the podium where she had left her notes. She rummaged through the papers there, trying to come up with a pen.

“Fine, fine,” Fazio grumbled. “Though I don’t know why you can’t pick it out of my head.”

Madison laughed. “You know it doesn’t work that way,” she said. “Not usually.” She made a frustrated sound as she gave up looking for a pen among the stack of papers. She bent down to her over-sized purse instead. Hair swinging forward, she pressed the phone to her ear with one hand and tried simultaneously to rummage for a writing utensil and keep the hair out of her eyes with the other. One of the students still waiting to talk with her figured out what she was looking for and helpfully offered his own pen. It took Madison a few heartbeats to realize that he was holding it out to her. She took it, smiled gratefully, and went back to the podium where she could jot down the address.

“You only got to deal with me and two uniforms once you get here,” Joe said. “Mike headed back to start the paperwork.”

“I don’t think your partner likes me very much,” Madison observed as she folded up the paper with the address and slipped it into the pocket of her slacks.

“Staunton?” Fazio laughed. “Don’t take it personal, kid. He doesn’t like anyone very much. Of course, another decade of doing this work, I don’t know how friendly I’ll be either.”

“I don’t want to think about it. You’re a barrel of sunshine already, and you’ve only been working homicide for three years,” Madison replied. “Look, I’ve got to finish up here before I hit the road. I’ll be there as fast as I can, Joe.”

She could almost hear his curt nod on the other end of the phone. “See you soon,” he said, then hung up.

She flipped shut the phone, then turned to the young man who had handed her the pen. Belatedly, she realized that all the other students had wandered off during her phone conversation. This guy was the only one left. He looked as nervous to want to talk to her as she often felt being the focus of so many questions.

“Brian Larson, right?” Madison asked.

He nodded, hugging a notebook to his chest. He had clear brown eyes and a complexion that suggested some sort of mixed ancestry, though she couldn’t guess what. Whatever it was, it didn’t help him with facial hair. He was trying, unsuccessfully, to grow a beard and goatee. Mostly, it looked like he had some dirt on his upper lip. She found the sheer awkwardness of it endearing.

“You wanted to know if I really meant for you to read all of The Power of Myth and the Huston Smith chapters between now and Friday,” she said. “And the answer is yes.” Anticipating his objection, Madison continued, “Moyer’s book is a really quick read. I promise you’ll enjoy it. There are even pictures.”

Brian Larson blinked. “But Miss Stone,” he responded. “How did you know what I was going to ask you?”

Madison smiled, her green-flecked eyes dancing merrily. “I’m psychic,” she teased. “And thanks for the pen.”

He took it as she held it out, then slipped it absently into a rear pocket of his jeans. He looked like he was going to ask something else, but she stopped him, tapping the faceplate of her phone.

“I’d love to chat some more,” she said, “But you’ll have to catch up with me during office hours tomorrow. Right now, I’ve got a date with a corpse.”

*                      *                      *

The corpse was long gone by the time Madison arrived at the crime scene. So were the guys from the coroner’s office, and so were all of the forensic techs. As Madison found parking and walked up to the run-down apartment building, the only official cars left were Fazio’s beat-up Ford Taurus and one lonely cop car, parked near a fire hydrant by the curb.

Madison was a little surprised to find an honest-to-goodness apartment building in this part of town. Most of the apartments in the area were converted houses, two or three stories at most with fenced-in entrances only a little ways from the street. The apartment building stood out from everything else, a dingy glass and concrete cube with stark lines that couldn’t be softened by any of the surrounding trees. A high metal fence with vertical bars surrounded the whole complex, making it seem more like a prison than a residence. Given the relative poverty of the area, Madison suspected that, for some people, it was.

Sheets of old newspapers and tattered plastic bags had fetched up against the fence, tangling in the lower branches of the trees. The aluminum casing of an empty whippet shone dully in the gutter and Madison stepped around what looked like the torn end of a used condom on a broken slab of sidewalk. She grimaced. Of course she had to wear her open-toed pumps today.

“Oh, Joe,” she muttered to herself, “the places you take a girl.”

She paused at the front entrance, trying to recall the apartment number so she could buzz to be let in. 531 was the number she’d scribbled down during her phone conversation nearly an hour before. Of course, most of the numbers on the wall were illegible. Belatedly, she realized that the security lock on the second set of doors had been busted out long ago. So she let herself in, striding past two residents who loitered in the downstairs hall. They eyed her suspiciously as she walked by, her crisp burgundy pantsuit in sharp contrast to their stained hoodies and sweatpants. She found the elevator and headed up to the fifth floor. Despite some colorful graffiti, on its ceiling and walls, the elevator seemed well-maintained. It was the first sign that anyone cared about things in this apartment building at all. As the elevator trundled up past the other floors, Madison dug in her purse for her ID card. She slipped the lanyard around her neck, fidgeting with it as she waited for the doors to open.

The moment Madison stepped out onto the fifth floor hallway, she was assaulted by the smell. It wasn’t the usual grease-and-garbage stench of poverty she might expect in a residence like this. This was the scent of death, pure and simple. A primal part of her brain reacted instantly, making her heart race and her stomach seize up in knots. She tried to breathe through her mouth to alleviate some of the stink, but that didn’t help very much. If anything, it made things worse, because now she could practically taste the sickly-sweet rot of the corpse.

Perhaps in response to the smell, the hallway was empty. Of course, given the neighborhood they were in, Madison suspected that the neighbors weren’t being curious more out of a desire to avoid any personal interactions with the police. She wondered how long it had taken them to report the murder. You didn’t get a stink like this from a body sitting over night.

A couple of uniformed officers stood at the far end of the hall, keeping watch over the only open door. Clutching the little ID badge she had for such occasions, Maddy cautiously approached the two uniforms. She didn’t recognize either of them. Before she could launch into any awkward introductions, Fazio stepped through the doorway and into the hall. He was chewing on a toothpick, a habit he’d picked up ever since he stopped smoking a few years back. He plucked the toothpick from his mouth and greeted her.

“Maddy! Glad you could make it on such short notice,” he said. “Sorry about the smell. Decomp like this, the stench pretty much soaks into the walls, not to mention to rugs and the floorboards,” he added cheerfully, fiddling with his toothpick. His manner seemed light-hearted, but his dark eyes looked shadowed and worn.

Madison tried to repress a shudder. “Thanks,” she told him. “I get the picture. So what’s special about this one?”

Detective Fazio’s face grew serious. He glanced furtively at the two uniforms and said, “Well, we probably should have called you in on one of the others first.”

“Others?” Maddy asked. “You mean this isn’t the first one?”

Again, Fazio’s eyes flicked over to the two silent men standing near his side. Madison knew that look, and Fazio was going to have some serious explaining to do once they were away from the crime scene and out of earshot of the other cops. She hated it when he kept things from her.

“We had these other two murders with ritualistic elements,” Fazio began. “The first victim was a gay stripper. The second one was a transsexual. We figured the ritual elements were just window dressing and the murders were really sexually motivated. Hate crimes, maybe.” He stopped, cleared his throat, and shrugged. “After this one, we’re going to have to rethink that theory. This victim was a woman. By all accounts, straight. And she was black. The other two were white. I don’t need to tell you how unusual it is for serial types to switch the race or gender of their victims.”

“Three murders and you already think it’s a serial case?” she wondered. “What the hell’s past that door, Fazio?”

“Well,” he said, rocking back on his heels, “I was hoping you’d be able to tell me, Ms. Professor.”

Fazio stepped aside and motioned her into through the door. She could feel the eyes of the other two cops boring holes in her back the minute she entered the crime scene. She had been called in on cases with the Chicago police before, mainly because they didn’t bother employing an occult specialist of their own. It’s not as if they got a huge number of occult-oriented crimes in the city. Most of the cases Fazio pulled her in on involved teenagers who were using occult images like upside-down pentagrams to make their otherwise ordinary crimes seem weird and scary. But every once in a while, Fazio made an excuse to call her in on crimes that didn’t have such an obvious occult twist. From the way those two stone-faced cops were glaring at her, Maddy wondered how much the other officers had guessed of her real purpose at those investigations. Despite the image portrayed by a few New Agey TV shows, most cops resented having a psychic called in on their cases.

She needn’t have worried about the presence of an occult element at this particular crime scene, however. The minute she got far enough into the room to see past the couch, the circle was unmistakable.

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In Dreams

Author's Note: Those of you who have read my short fiction collection, These Haunted Dreams will recognize the following tale. This is the story which opens that collection and, I feel, helps set the tone for the rest of the book. This particular tale was inspired by Blue Oyster Cult's classic Don't Fear the Reaper (if you've never heard the song, listen to it here). You can see distinct echoes from the song in some of the imagery at the end. For a live reading of this haunting tale, click here.

In Dreams

He came to her in dreams.  Not every night.  No, that would have been too kind.  Instead, he teased her with his presence, coming every once in a while, seducing her twice in one week, and then disappearing for almost a month at a time.

The dreams, when she had them, were wonderful.  In her waking hours, she would hear the velvet of his voice, the soft breath against her ear.  The memory of his words was so vivid that it drowned out every other sound on her morning ride to work.

And his touch.  Whenever he came to her at night, all the next day, she could feel him still, like soft electric fire burning in her skin.  Sometimes she would sit at her desk for hours, staring blankly at the computer screen, completely caught up in the memory of his hands all over her.

She did not know him, this strange dream lover.  His face was one she had never seen before – the high, sculpted cheekbones, the thin, perfect nose, the lips that seemed chiseled from living stone.  He was pale – pale as the moon in her dreams, and it seemed that his skin nearly glowed.  Jet-black hair, like a raven’s wing, spilled over his forehead and down the back of his neck.  His eyes, too, were black, or so it seemed.  In the dreams, these held a strange dark-light, and she could never gaze on them for very long.

He would just arrive in her twelfth floor apartment, moving from the balcony to the side of her bed.  She never asked how he got there.  It was, after all, a dream.  And yet how vivid, how sensuous these dream-visits were, until she felt that she truly had a lover, even though this lover had no name.

Months into this strange seduction, she began to go out looking for him.  Somehow, she knew to seek him only at night.  She went to the bars and the nightclubs, dressing in velvet and her slick vinyl boots. Over the weeks, she saw many strange, pale people.  Once or twice, she thought she spied him, but then the young man would turn and the cheek wasn’t right or the eyes were too dim.  It seemed like he was always one step ahead of her, and she could feel his presence lingering everywhere she went.

If a club wasn’t open, she would wander the Village, sitting and watching the people walk their dogs through WashingtonPark.  Sometimes she could feel his presence moving behind her, but then she would turn, and there was nothing but shadows and the sound of the wind.  She knew that he was teasing her, leading her along in some deft seduction. The harder she sought him in the waking world, the longer it would be before he returned to her dreams.

She had resigned herself to being patient, some time after the leaves began to fall.  It was getting too cold to sit all night in the park, although she would still sometimes go out to one of the clubs.

The chill of November was in the air the night she lost her wallet.  She had money in her pocket, but it wasn’t enough to pay for cab fare.  With a bitter wind coming off of the Atlantic, she didn’t relish the thought of walking ten blocks home.  So she found the F train and tried to look inconspicuous as she waited on the platform, shivering in her fishnets and her thin vinyl coat.

It was a Sunday night.  She expected the train to be empty, but instead it had a crowd.  It was nothing compared to the hoards on the morning commute, but she still had to work to find herself a seat.  Several people were standing, fingers twined in the loops overhead. Others were stretched out across three or four spaces, vagrants escaping the night’s chill by riding the train endlessly back and forth

As it was so often lately, her mind was on him.  She gazed out the window, not even seeing the shadowed, stained walls as they sped past her eyes.  She was focused so completely on her internal landscape that she almost didn’t see the pale face reflected beside her in the grime-smeared glass. But for some reason, her eye caught the image and stuck.  It took a moment for the face to sink in.

He was sitting on the other side of the train from her, his dark eyes focused on something far away.

She turned around, half expecting him to not be there when she looked.  Like some phantasm, she feared that he existed only in the glass.  But there he was.  The lights of the subway played upon his pallor, till it seemed he should glow with a light of his own.

The train plunged into a tunnel, rattling wildly along its tracks.  Yet he hadn’t disappeared.

“You!  I know you!”

She couldn’t help herself.  The words echoed through the train.

Slowly, he turned and regarded her.  Those strange, dark eyes seemed to sizzle on her skin.

“Hush,” he said, drawing his dark coat about him.  “Don’t make a scene.  I’ll come to you tomorrow.  Just before the morning.”

The train was jerking to a halt.  He stood, and it was as if the train was moving for everyone but him.  His hands were in his pockets, and he didn’t even seem to brace his legs.  And yet so effortlessly he rose and glided to a door.  She sat riveted to her seat, her eyes, unblinking, fixed on him.  She wanted to run after him, but he was out and the door was closed before she could get her legs to work.  Her heart fluttered against her ribs like a panicked bird in a cage.

It was only after he exited the train that she realized his lips had never moved.

*                      *                      *

Tonight, she thought, and stared through the letters on the screen. Tonight, just before morning.

In agony, she struggled to focus on her work.  His voice had been exactly like it was in her dreams.  But had she dreamed it?  His lips had never moved.  The other passengers, though they reacted to her outburst, seemed insensible to him.

And the way he glided, as if gravity held no power over him!  The train could have shaken itself off its tracks, and he would have been standing there, calm and poised, with everyone else thrown to the floor around him.

What was he?  All those weeks, all those months, that question had never come.  Had she never wondered?  Or had she been afraid to ask?  Was there any chance that he would have answered as he whispered to her at night?  No, he spoke to her in dreams, but it was the language of the bedroom.  In all the time he had been coming to her, she had not even learned his name.

The day dragged by.  And then it was evening, and she made a point of taking the train. She searched the faces, but of course, he wasn’t there.

Just before morning.

She stopped at the vegetarian diner a block from her building.  But she couldn’t eat.  Every time the door opened, she almost jumped up, looking for him.

The elevator ride up to her apartment was torture.  There were five other people, all standing too close.  And of course, the worst of it was, none of them were him.

She stripped out of her work clothes and took a hot bath.  But the steam and the scent of lavender did nothing at all to soothe her.

Those eyes, those high, pale cheekbones!

She turned on the computer and surfed the ‘net.  She found herself checking forums over and over again, desperately searching for some new topic, some line of conversation that could occupy her mind.  In the reflection of her face on the screen, she could almost see him.

At nine o’clock, she took off her bathrobe and slipped on her black lace gown.  She turned off all the lights but left one candle burning, a lone tea-light in a votive holder that glimmered on her nightstand.  She lay on her back among the pillows.  She stared at the ceiling, and the flickering flame of the tea light made the patterns in the plaster come alive.

What was she waiting for?  Should she sleep?  Or did he mean he’d really come, for the first time more flesh than dream?

Eleven o’clock found her tossing, her long red hair tangled on the pillowcase.  Midnight came and went.  She got up and put on music, hoping the quiet tones would ease the wait.  The clock seemed to draw her eyes to it every quarter hour.  She turned her face away, and then would look again: one-thirty, one-forty-five, two AM.

Sometime, she dozed.  She woke to a sound on the balcony.  Somehow she heard it over all the city noise.  A gust of chilly wind greeted her as she sat up, kissing her skin through the thin lace of her gown.

There was a light out there.  She could see it glowing faintly through the muslin of the curtains.  Twelve floors below, motors growled and horns blared.  Four-thirty in the morning.  New York was never asleep.

She pushed the covers back and placed bare feet upon the floorboards.  The chill brought her more awake.  She was awake.  She was sure of it.  This was no dream.

And then that figure moved behind the curtain.  The soft glow upon the balcony marked his stately silhouette.  He was thin, so thin and delicate, and yet she knew the strength that vibrated in those limbs.

He didn’t have to call to her.  She threw open the doors.  He was leaning against the balcony railing, arms crossed upon his chest.  The wind blew his hair about him and she thought of ravens taking flight.

She ran to him, her arms outstretched.  She had no words for the joy she felt, the profound sense of completion.  When he moved, the wind caught the edges of his long silk trench.  It made a sound like wings.

Then the wings were everywhere, and the wind, and the lights of the city as they streamed by like a river that had burst its banks.  And the stars that were streetlamps and the stars in the sky went all topsy-turvy until finally she felt herself in his arms.

They were standing on the pavement, twelve floors below the balcony’s edge.  She could still see the cars and streetlights, but strangely, the city seemed to hold its breath.  The sounds were distant and muffled.  Even the sirens were quiet as they came, heralded by flashing lights.

“I can be with you,” she murmured, breathless.

“You are with me,” he said.

She felt his hands squeezing her shoulders.  They were cold, but they were his.  She laid her head against his chest.  She heard only the wind.

“You have no heartbeat,” she whispered.

“No,” he said.  “I never have.”

Softly, he stroked her hair.  She gazed up at him, and found she could meet those dark and distant eyes.

“How did we get here?” she wondered.  “I mean down here, on the street?”

He pointed to the pavement behind her.  She almost didn’t look.

The flashing lights were a blur around her.  The cars and people screaming were hazy and indistinct.  It was like standing in an impressionist’s painting of the city, everything too blurry to be real.

“How did that happen?” she asked.  She cringed away from it, clinging to his chest.

“Isn’t that what you wanted?” he responded.  “You wanted to be with me.”

“To be with you…” she sighed.

His arms were cold around her, but still she found comfort in that embrace.

“Take me away from it,” she pleaded. “Take me away from it all.”

They turned away from the mess on the pavement. Her hand in his hand, they danced away on the wind.

--M. Belanger

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