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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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What Defines a Religion?

 In the wake of the Black Mass controversy that unfolded at Harvard over the weekend, it may be time to re-evaluate what we think the First Amendment means about religion in theory and in practice.

When issues of religious freedom are addressed in the news, we tend primarily to hear about majority religions: Christianity, Judaism, Islam. There is an undercurrent of popular opinion by which time and familiarity make these religions more acceptable than less familiar practices. Up until the past several years, I'm not even certain I would have included Islam in the list of what the US considers "accepted majority religions" - and an argument could be made that it is still treated (at least in my country) as if it were some spiritual whippersnapper trying to muscle in like an unruly child to sit at the table with the adults. Legitimacy in a religious practice is equated, in most peoples' minds, with tradition: the age and popular establishment of that faith.

Of course, this whole attitude breaks down when you realize that the majority of US citizens look upon Hinduism and Buddhism both as strange, fringe anomalies that are neither as valid nor as socially acceptable as monolithic Christianity. Never mind that both of these religious traditions are, in fact, older than Christianity.

How is this even possible? Ignorance of a faith seems to equate, at least in some peoples' minds, to that faith being new and, therefore, strange. That's hard even for me to wrap my brain around, and yet I've encountered the attitude again and again. Familiarity -- and along with that, popularity (within one's own cultural group) -- become the measurement for legitimacy.

When most Christians - who tend to view themselves as the prime religion of validity within the United States - are still struggling to wrap their heads around Buddhism, Hinduism (and, let's be honest - Islam) as valid religions, that leaves a huge number of other, equality valid traditions, out in the cold - from Sikhs to Pagans to our knee-jerk tradition of the week, Satanists.

And I can anticipate a response to that, because I've seen those responses written across my social media. Satanism isn't a religion. It can't be! It's all about being anti-religious, so surely that doesn't allow it to qualify under that hallowed First Amendment right -- does it?

On a theoretical or spiritual level, we could argue over what defines a religion for days. However, it's fairly simple to outline that definition in the grand US of A. So enamored of its forms and filing and making sure everyone is counted and in their place, the legal definition of a religion within the United States revolves around paperwork. You want a religion that allows you to worship the Disney Princesses as a modern pantheon of Goddesses? Get your hands on the appropriate paperwork and file it. If you submit the proper form, and it is accepted, your Disney Pantheon is a religious group, with all the rights and privileges there unto -- from tax exempt status to the protection of your right to practice your sincerely held beliefs mandated by the First Amendment.

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It sounds silly when I frame it around Disney Princesses, and yet, with the system we have in place, Disney-ism, if filed and recognized, would be just as legally valid a religion as Christianity, or Scientology, or LaVeyan Satanism, or The Universal Life Church. And in the end, whether we personally agree with the beliefs and practices of any of the religious groups listed above, if we are going to enact laws to protect the rights of one, those laws absolutely must protect the rights of all. If we truly want to support religious freedom in this country, we cannot allow the discourse to devolve to something from Orwell's Animal Farm, where, out of one side of our mouths, we proudly state, "All religions are created equal!" and then, out of the other side, we add, "But some are more equal than others!"

 

--M

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Sympathy for the Devil

I know that more than a few of you who know me exclusively from my work on Paranormal State are baffled about my stance on the Black Mass that they're planning to perform at Harvard this coming Monday. For some of you, it's probably sounding like Captain America defending the rights of the Agents of Hydra to hold evil master-mind meetings to plot the control of the world. I mean, I help fight the big bad things, right? So why would I speak up and tell you that this Black Mass isn't necessarily the worst thing ever. One person: Chris Robichaud.

Some of you know I went to a Jesuit Catholic university. I'm not Christian by any stretch, but the Jesuits are amazing educators. I didn't exactly fit in, but I do not regret the education I received. Intellectually, I flourished at that school.

Chris was a year behind me at the college. We both took the same course on demonology. We both adored the professor, Dr. Joseph Kelley, who taught it, and we took as many of the classes offered by the brilliant man as we could.

If you've read my book, Haunting Experiences, and you were chilled and thrilled by the antics of whatever walks the place called "Whitethorn Woods," you have met Chris under a pseudonym. He was there, raising hell in the woods of Geauga County with the rest of us. He was a whipsmart, intense, and fiery soul then, and it surprises me not one jot to see that he has gone on to become a brilliant, outspoken, and influential teacher in his own right these twenty years later.

A Harvard ethicist, Chris was asked to speak before the performance of the Black Mass -- to give the event a little context. He's had people attempt to dissuade him from doing so, offering dire warnings that the controversy surrounding this event will tarnish his career.

True to what I know of him, that controversy has not discouraged him. He has a powerful message -- and getting those words out to people is worth more than any of the censure he might possibly face for being associated with some devilish spectacle.

They are words that you absolutely should hear yourselves, even if you would never venture within 100 miles of a Black Mass -- regardless of whether or not it was merely an "historical reenactment" of such a rite. Chris's message revolves around the possible existence of the Devil and whether or not something like a Black Mass might pose a danger with regards to that scion of evil:

I tell you this much. If Satan does exist, you're not going to find him at historical reenactments of black masses, or in the ouija board, or at the D&D table. You're going to find him, primarily, in every moment of indifference we have toward those who are suffering, an indifference that is only facilitated by an obsession with preventing inconsequential nonsense from happening, rather than directing one's energies toward addressing very real moral atrocities.

-- Christopher Robichaud, Harvard Ethicist

And this -- this is why I've picked the issue up, written on it, and spammed the hell out of that writing on my social media over the past few days. I'd spill ink across the whole of the Internet in order to help get that message out. Because real evil is never where you expect to see it. A rich man who makes his profits knowingly upon the suffering of others has done more to invite the Devil into this world than a bunch of college students in spooky black robes will ever be able to -- no matter how good they are at speaking the Lord's Prayer backwards in Latin.

--M

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Raising Hell at Harvard

This blog is normally reserved for samples and snippets of my fiction, but today I have something else to share. My life is often stranger than any fiction I could possibly concoct, and that became abundantly clear the other day when I learned that a good friend I loaned several of my demonology books to back in college happens to be one of the people involved in a highly controversial rite being held by a student group at Harvard this coming Monday.

They're doing a Black Mass.

Here's the skinny:

A student group at Harvard will be performing a Black Mass on Monday. After the performance, there will be discussion about the spectacle and what it means in a country founded on -- among other liberties -- freedom of religion.

For those unaware of the ritual, a Black Mass is an intentional perversion of the traditional Catholic ritual of the Eucharist, taking the whole sacrament and turning it on its head. It is offensive to Christians and specifically to Catholics -- and to be frank, it was designed to be that way.

Although, during the European witch trials, there were plenty of allegations that the wild worshipers of Satan were engaged in Black Masses (along with other awful perfidies performed at secret orgies in the woods), the real performance of a ritual like a Black Mass often came down not to Devil worshipers but to Atheists and Rationalists who were seeking to mock the religious fervor of their Christian peers in a time when they felt the devout masses should know better.

Yes, I'm suggesting the Black Mass is an outgrowth of the Age of Reason -- a loud, flamboyant and somewhat mean-spirited reaction to religious fundamentalism. Given the atmosphere in the US today, it should not be surprising to see intellectuals going to such an extreme. In a country where we pride ourselves on our liberties -- freedom of religion being a major one -- we recently had a member of the Hindu clergy more or less shouted down by Christian extremists when he attempted to lead our Senate in prayer. Notably, he was invited to do this. That wasn't good enough for the folks whose notion of our country has skewed from the Land of the Free to One Nation Under God -- a God who, apparently, must always be theirs.

The Black Mass then -- and in a similar vein, the Satan statue that's going up in Oklahoma -- is an equal and opposite reaction to this frothing extremism. It is a conscious spectacle of satire in the spirit of mock religions like the Church of Bob or the Internet religion surrounding the Flying Spaghetti Monster. It is also -- though the utility of this remains to be seen -- an intellectual exercise intended to make people think about what it means to allow anyone to worship however they please.

Civil liberties are at the heart of many of our hot button issues right now -- with freedom of speech and freedom of religion in the thickest and nastiest parts of the arguments. The Black Mass at Harvard contains, by its radical satire of an accepted Christian rite, a powerful question in subtext: if freedom of religion means any religion (including no religion), where do we draw the line between one group's right to worship and the offended sensibilities of another, equally valid, group?

In a world that seems divided down the ranks of Christian, Muslim, and Jew -- while any people who fit into the "none of the above" category get caught in the crossfire, in a world where the science show Cosmos is threatened to be cut off the air in states that feel it should express, not science, but Creationist views, in a world where law-makers speak with horror about the possibility that Sharia law may creep into our legal system -- only to turn around and pass legislation blatantly based upon Biblical Christian values -- Harvard's Black Mass raises some damned good questions.

Where do we draw the line?

And perhaps it's an older question than we realize. It may surprise most of you, but Monday night's performance scheduled at Harvard hearkens back to the activities of at least one of our founding fathers. In his dealings with Dashwood's Hellfire Club, it is almost certain that Benjamin Franklin himself participated in mock masses inspired at least in part by that Age of Reason disdain for organized religion.

Something to think about -- and that's the whole point.

--M

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The Writing Process

Writing is a madman's art.

(or mad woman's, or mad gender-non-specific's -- the madness doesn't care).

I usually reserve this blog for the finished product of that process -- stories, snippets, little prose windows into larger narratives that may be finished in some later form. But I think there's some value in talking about how those words come to be.

And they ain't kidding when they call it a "process." It's not a particularly pretty one.

Sure, there are days where the story flows like water and the fingers race to keep up. But that's not every day. And if you want to be a writer and you only ever write on those days, you will probably be one of thousands of "aspiring writers" who never makes it all the way to the end of a book. Because books don't flow like water. Parts of them do, but rarely the whole thing. The parts that don't flow like water are born in blood -- you rip them piece by piece from your screaming brain and reconstruct them on the page.

That reconstruction takes a lot of work. Blood, sweat, and tears -- it's a cliche because it's true. 

There are "writing process" memes that circulate on the Internet. If you write or you know a writer, you've likely seen some variation. It's a list that describes the cycle of "I love this, I hate this, why do I do this to myself?!?" that every writer goes through. That meme is pretty spot-on. I don't want to say you're not a "real writer" if you never reach a point of utter loathing for a work - a work that excited you just the day before - but it might be fair to say that you've never been fully swept up in the process if that hasn't happened yet.

Stories, when they still live, unrealized in your head, are easy. They're beautiful and perfect because they are not yet real. Bringing them into reality takes us right back to the bloody work. Victor and his monster. You stitch the words to phrases, graft the phrases into chapters, and when you have something vaguely story-shaped, you cut and cut and cut, deft as surgeon so the scars are never where the reader can see.

And sometimes, you end up with a piece close the vision that once lived inside your head. Sometimes, you get Victor's raw-boned and misshapen Adam, a miserable creation that shrinks from the world.

And every once in a while -- when the qualities of persistence and skill and imagination achieve elusive balance -- something tremulous and breath-taking arises from that pile of blood-ink and verbal viscera. It stretches impossible wings -- and soars

 

--M

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The Scorched Circle

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

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

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

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

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

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With a Whimper

Warning: not filled with holiday cheer. With a Whimper

When it finally came, we were not prepared. All the philosophers and pundits had been predicting it for millennia. And amidst their dire proclamations of doom, we never really saw how it was happening all along.

Annihilation doesn't come in the form of a one-time event like an earthquake or a hurricane. Sure, these things are destructive. People die. Property is lost. Some places can be hit so hard they will never, ever recover.

But doom -- all out and inescapable -- that is another matter entirely.

The quiet desperation of the sick and the lowly. I think it started there. We didn't see it. We didn't want to. If we had food in our bellies and leisure to distract us, we just walked along.

And then there were more and more of them, until the world practically drowned under the sea of tattered people. They sat on stoops and along street corners, hands outstretched. Begging and begging.

We passed them by, until lay-off after lay-off, foreclosure after foreclosure, we became them. On the streets, in the flood, crouched in filth.

We burn books now, not because we object to their contents, but because there's nothing else to keep us warm. The words can't help us anyway. Almost no one can read. The schools were disbanded long ago. There was no money to support that luxury.

Another day with food in our bellies and a dry place to sleep. That is luxury now, here in this hole left by a civilization collapsed upon itself.

Once upon a time, we feared nuclear escalation. People had night terrors, fretting over what world despot might be crazed enough to push the button.

I'm sure there are bombs out there somewhere, but it's hard to blow up the world with all the infrastructure gone.

God -- it would be faster.

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A Dashing Devil

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

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

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

“Next Friday?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

With that, he swept out into the night.

*                    *                   *

“So what do you think of the suit?”

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

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

I nodded, smoothing the front of my trousers.

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

Oscar sighed, rolling his eyes.

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

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

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

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

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

Oscar beamed, patting my knee fondly.

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

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

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

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

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

Oscar relaxed visibly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How large a quantity?” he inquired.

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

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

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

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

Oscar cut me off with a wave of one hand.

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

“I understand.”

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

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The Wildes of London

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

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

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

“I beg your pardon?” I asked.

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

I dropped the tassel and just stared for several moments.

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

At this, his smile widened ever further.

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

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

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

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

He chuckled at this, eyes sparkling.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oscar nodded sagely.

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

“Classics.”

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

He glanced out the window and sniffed disdainfully.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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Resurrection

I ran a Vampire: the Masquerade LARP set in the Providence of H.P. Lovecraft for many years. Called In Providentia, the chronicle was the primary focus of my creative fiction from college right up until the first publication of the Psychic Vampire Codex. I still miss those days where I wrote for the sheer fun of the story, watching the characters come to life through the acting talents of my closest friends. In return, they would get full, personalized tales, like the one reprinted here. This scene takes place between the long-standing character of Luciano Giovanni and his sire. I think this piece dates to 1998 or so. Resurrection

Luci’s head began to clear as the soul-rending scream reverberating through the Skinlands and the Shadowlands subsided. In its place was a low mewling barely audible even to Luci’s keen vampire senses.

Shakily, the master necromancer rose to his feet, trying to focus his awareness upon the room around him. Before him on the floor lay Dominick, naked. The blood and bones of the circle were scattered and all the candles had been snuffed. Dominick curled in the midst of it, huddled a tight little ball, trembling like a newborn. The mewling sound was coming from him.

“Dominick?” Luci asked, his voice seeming harsh in the hushed aftermath of the ritual.

Dominick didn’t immediately respond. Luci wasn’t even certain that his sire could hear him.

Gingerly, Luci moved toward Dominick, reaching out to touch him. He must touch him. Three years have passed since he saw his sire destroyed. All those long years of struggle, searching for a way to bring him back. One touch to prove it was no illusion.

At the merest brush of Luci’s fingertips, Dominick convulsed. Startled, the master necromancer stumbled back, a cry nearly escaping his lips. If his heart had been beating, it surely would have stopped in that moment. Everything he’d seen, everything he’d done, and still Luci felt both amazed and terrified by what lay before him.

Dominick raised his head, his face a rictus of pain. He drew a huge, shaking breath – surely nothing more than an instinctive response, because even before his destruction, Dominick’s lungs had not demanded air in nearly two hundred years.

Luci hung hesitantly back, uncertain how or even if he could help his sire. As he watched, Dominick slowly tried to get to his knees. Every motion was agonized and ungainly, as if the elder vampire’s muscles no longer remembered how to move.

“Dominick?” Luci asked, finding his voice once more. “Are you ok?”

Forcing himself to his hands and knees, Dominick raised his head, opening his eyes for the first time since his resurrection. With a voice like the rattle of dry November leaves, he rasped, “Do I look ok?”

Luci couldn’t respond. He was lost in those eyes. They were every bit as unnerving as Dominick’s voice. Once a dark, rich brown indicative of his Italian heritage, it was as if death had washed their color away.

Dominick took another breath, shuddering. “Get me some clothes, Luci.”

The voice was not so dry this time, nor so strained. Still full of gravel and phlegm, it still held hints of the fluid, cultured tone from Luci’s memories.

“Clothes, right,” Luci managed. How had he overlooked such a simple necessity? But perhaps he had not believed that it would work, even after all the effort and research he had invested in the rite.

After a moment’s hesitation, Luci turned to search the store rooms not far from his lab. There had to be something appropriate. As he headed down the hall, he found himself haunted by those strange, pale eyes. Had he done the right thing? Dominick’s death had been unfair, a wrong to be righted. Finding a way to restore the elder vampire had consumed Luci for many years. But now … was it a triumph or an abomination that Luci had magicked up in the other room?

There were always several changes of clothes for everyone in storage down here. In the Giovanni line of business, there was no predicting when something would go wrong and someone would need a suit free of bullet holes and blood stains. Luci went automatically to the closet that used to hold Dominick’s effects. Most of the shirts and pants hanging up now were tailored for Antonio, who had replaced Dominick as the head of operations in the Providence branch of the family. After some digging, however, Luci managed to find a few items more suited to Dominick’s leaner frame. There was even a pair of old leather shoes. They were a bit scuffed, but they would do.

Feeling suddenly awkward, Luci knocked on the door to his own lab before walking back in. Dominick didn’t answer, so Luci just went in, then stopped in the doorway, the pile of clothes clutched to his broad chest as he looked around for his recently resurrected sire.

Dominick had dragged himself from the circle and now knelt in the shadow of Luci’s massive oak desk. He hugged himself, shivering as if in the grips of a terrible chill.

Wordlessly, Luci went to his sire’s side, holding out the neatly folded clothes. Dominick’s head whipped around and he locked eyes with Luci. Once again, the master necromancer found himself nearly drowning in those strangely pale orbs.

For years, he had prayed to have his sire returned to him. Dominick had been his friend, his mentor, his constant companion through the long nights of undeath. With unwavering courage, Luci had delved into the darkest corners of his art, tirelessly seeking a method to restore the other vampire to some semblance of life. Pouring through endless numbers of dusty scrolls and forbidden texts, Luci believed that he finally knew enough to accomplish the impossible. But now, staring into those colorless eyes, he realized he had known nothing at all.

“Let me help you, Dominick,” he said gently, then stooped and tried not to think too hard about dressing his naked sire.

Dominick twitched and gasped at each little touch, biting back a cry as the fabric of the shirt settled across his shoulders. It was as if he felt nothing but pain. A little guiltily, Luci wished that Reynaldo was there. The aged revenant had dressed each and every one of them at one time. It was hard to imagine Dominick, who had been a vampire longer than Luci had been alive, even Dominick a small, naked child in Reynaldo’s arms.

Some truths about the family were too strange to contemplate for very long.

Finally, dressed and a bit more coherent, Dominick stood with Luci’s aid. His legs were still trembling and uncertain and the ground beneath his feet felt ungodly strange.

“I should take you back to meet the others,” Luci managed to say, guiding his sire forward as the other man leaned heavily against him. It was strange to realize how small Dominick was. At this point, Luci was used to the burly bulk of Antonio and Menecrites. Even Karl, from such a distant Giovanni line, stood like a mountain. Yet Dominick had more of Reynaldo’s lean frame, almost effete.

They walked together unsteadily down the hall, the sire relying each step upon the childe. And then they were out in the night, the autumn leaves skirling about them. Dominick gritted his teeth against the feel of even the wind upon his risen flesh. Everything was pain – but at least he was alive again, after a fashion.

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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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When Millie Comes Back

Many of you know I recently had to euthanize Cornelius, my loyal feline companion of thirteen years. Unconnected with Cornelius, I had written this short piece for a Pagan friend whose daughter was having trouble coming to terms with their own cat's passing a little over a year ago. It's a little piece of narrative fiction designed with a younger reader in mind. I've found myself coming back to it as I mourn the loss of my own cat. When Millie Comes Back

Millie was the family cat since before I was born. Mother said Millie just walked into her life one day and decided she was going to stay.

Millie was a bright-eyed calico with a cap of orange and a spot on her chin. Mother said she was the best familiar a witch could have, because she was patient when she needed to be, and she had a nose for magick.

Millie was a curious cat and she got into a lot of things. She liked to hide in bags and investigate every corner of the house. She would sometimes hop up onto shelves and knock little things down if she wanted Mom's attention.

But because she was a magickal cat, Millie knew never to touch the things on Mother's altar. She was a mischief-maker, but she understood what was important.

Because of her early antics, Mom thought of lots of names for Millie: Boots, for the time she got stuck in one. Trixie for all the pranks she played. And Shadow, because she was always following Mother around, especially during rituals.

In the end, she was just Millie. It's short for Millions, because that's how many names Mom thought would fit a kitty with such a big personality.

Millie was Mom's true and loyal companion. She followed Mom through many changes in her life. Millie wasn't too sure about Dad at first, but she grew to love him. And then I came along, and Millie was like a proud momma herself, always watching over me. She especially knew when I was sad, and would wander over and tickle her tail under my nose until I giggled.

When my little brother Devin came along, Millie would sit watching over him in his crib. When he threw one of his toys out, Millie would jump down and pick it up, climbing along dressers and bookshelves till she could drop it back in with the baby.

By my seventh birthday, Millie was an old lady cat. She didn't chase her toys as much, and when winter came, she curled over the heater because the cold made her joints ache.

When spring came that year, Millie moved around slower and slower. She slept a lot, but when she was awake, she made sure we all knew she still loved us very much.

Then one morning, Millie wasn't moving at all. She lay in her favorite kitty bed with her tail curled around her nose like she was sleeping.

Mother checked on the kitty, and said Millie wasn't sleeping. Some time in the night, Millie had died. We all cried then, me and Mother and Father and even little Devin, who was only three.

Although it was hard for her, Mother picked up Millie and laid her on a piece of her favorite blanket in an old shoe box. She let me and Devin pet Millie one last time. Then we all went out back to Millie's favorite climbing tree. Father dug a hole among the roots, nice and deep. Mother laid Millie into the hole.

I put her favorite catnip mouse in with her. Devin tossed in her jingle ball toy. Then Mother put one of the stars from her altar in the box with Millie. Very sadly, she put the lid on the box. Together as a family, we took handfuls of soil and covered Millie.

I went to the back of the garden and couldn't stop crying. Mother came and sat down next to me. She had tears in her eyes too, but she was trying to smile. She said, "I know it's hard, Kaylee, but Millie was an old cat. She had a long and good life, but she needed a chance to rest."

"Why did she have to die?" I asked. Mother wiped at my tears.

"Everything dies," she said gently. "But Millie will come back to us. Everything dies, but everything also comes back."

I wasn’t sure I believed it at the time and it didn’t help the tears, not at first. But Mother just held me and kept talking.

"Some people think that the dead go to a place called the Summerlands where it is always warm and green. It's a place for resting and getting away from pain. But you don't have to stay there forever," Mother told me.

"Millie might come back as a spirit. So don't be afraid if you feel her curled up and purring on your bed in the night. She's just dropping by to check in on her favorite people."

"Millie might come back as another cat, with a fresh new life. She'll start over again as a kitten, and that kitten might find its way here, because our hearts are tied together."

"Millie might come back as a new puppy. Souls can take many forms, and maybe now that she's done being a cat for a while, Millie might want to try something different. There's no rules against it, you know."

"How will I know that it's Millie?" I wondered.

Mother shrugged, "Your heart will know. But you can't look for Millie in everything. She'll come back in her own time, and if she wants us to know that it's her, she'll find a way. For now, her soul is off having its own adventures, and the best parts of this life she shared with us are still alive in all of our memories."

In time, it got easier. The next summer, we got a puppy. He was a wriggling ball of energy who had to run around sniffing everything. We called him Flash. He was a good and loyal dog, but he wasn't Millie.

Another cat came around after a few years. He was a wild old alley cat with a torn ear and a cautious disposition. He warmed up to us and became part of the family, but he wasn't Millie either.

And then I was almost grown and getting ready to choose colleges. And coming home from work, I heard something mewling out behind the store. I found a tiny little calico kitten with a cap of orange and a dot on her chin. She came right up to me and jumped into my hands, purring.

When I took her home, she got into everything, jumping onto the highest shelves and knocking over little things when she thought I wasn't looking. But she never touched my altar even though there were plenty of things there to appeal to a playful little kitten.

And my heart knew. I had found my Millie.

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The Wine of Lethe

I have an alter-ego in an on-going RPG who - among other things - runs a tavern. A growing body of fiction has developed from this character's interactions in his fictional, shared world, and I've found it refreshing to write pieces that must answer to nothing but the character, nothing but the sheer joy of telling a tale. Here is one from a late-night tavern encounter. The Wine of Lethe

She comes in late each night, battle-scars standing stark against her dark skin. Her name is Selvia, and I've never asked what she does or what company she associates with - if any. I suspect that her calling is much like that of my own crew -- and thus I know it is best not to ask. Besides, when they come into the Badger, they don't always come to talk business. Most come to forget the murder and bloodshed that is rife in the world.

Last night, she came to forget.

Her face was uncommonly grim. She's a proud woman, this Selvia, and she rarely carries herself with any sign of defeat. But you could see the burden of some loss in every line of her form as she approached the bar and asked for the strongest drink I had.

I've seen her drink. I knew not to bother with a glass. I handed her a bottle and let her try to drown whatever sorrows held her heavy heart.

Another came in and approached her. They spoke of what had to have been a job. A necessary killing - or at least one that was ordered. And Selvia, though she spoke little of the actual circumstances and gave no details away, made it clear that when she is given orders, she follows them.

No matter who that means she is asked to kill.

She went through two bottles of hard drink, as did her friend. I tried not to listen as they discussed in a circumspect fashion the incident that had leveled Selvia's mood to such a desperate state. When they left -- with a paladin of questionable intent hot on their heels -- the two women could barely stand.

I wanted to ask. But I knew better. And I had other customers.

She came in later, when the only other person -- beyond myself -- was a quiet woman intent on a hot meal before she made the final few steps of her journey home to her own bed.

Selvia -- still wobbling from her indulgences earlier -- asked again for the strongest I had. A glass this time. Even she didn't trust herself with a whole bottle -- and she probably knew at this point it would do little to dull the pain.

So I offered her the Wine of Lethe. This is not on the menu. It is not casually left in the cabinets under the bar. I keep the few bottles I have under lock and key. They are rare and precious, and what I have to go through to retrieve them is better left unsaid. I don't brew the drink myself - I've seen it done, long ago, and in this suspicious age, I know better than to dirty my hands with such a process. Better to use my memories to guide me to where a bottle might be hidden away after all these years.

But I digress. The wine is a vintage of no ordinary fruit. It is a product of magic - dark and complex. The bottle itself requires a rite to construct and more shadestone than is healthy for normal people to be around. And the fluid inside - murky, thick and with an oily sheen - is not something you drink for the taste.

The bouquet is like an abandoned field after harvest, when the last ears of corn rot on the stalks. It is like a late autumn forest, denuded of leaves, with all the bare branches whispering together under the lightless eye of the new moon. It smells of death, decay and emptiness -- and that is what it is. Lethe. Forgetting.

I explain it to her before pouring. I would never just thrust this on someone unawares. There is a moment in death - just after you've finished the messy part of dying with all the pain and delirium. In that moment before your spirits stands over your corpse in the Grey, there is a sudden sense of peace. All the pain leeches away and the limbs grow heavy. The lungs no longer crave air. The mind no longer races. This is not a release precisely, but you no longer care about the pain. You are heavy and numb and still.

That is the Wine of Lethe. It captures a taste of that moment. Just a taste -- it does not last.

But in her state, Selvia needed it.

I uncorked the bottle with its runed silver stopper. I poured the potent fluid -- black as old blood. And she drank.

I don't think she had believed me. When I picked her up off the floor, a little chill of death still clinging to her lips where they had kissed the glass, she murmured and fretted and asked for more.

More would likely kill her. I offered to show her the threshold, not push her over the edge.

I carried her to an upstairs room -- I won't let any harm come to those inside the Badger when I'm on shift, not if I can prevent it. I let her sleep it off.

She was gone once I woke for the day and braved the crushing light of afternoon to get to the tavern. I can only hope that little taste of the absence of pain helped soothe her restless heart.

 

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Killing Our Love

Another fragment from an unfinished tale -- a nightmare-memory of trauma past for an older and wiser main character. The dream – much like the train wreck of a relationship that inspired it – started innocently enough. I was over at Jeremy’s place, sitting at the table in the little kitchenette. It was a cramped attic apartment in an old house on Summit not far from Ohio State’s campus. The rent was cheap and all the furniture was second-hand, with a kind of half-hearted yard-sale charm.

I remembered eating pancakes at that table one of the mornings we both skipped classes and slept in. We rarely spent most of that time sleeping. Jeremy was an artist – passionate and intense and focused on experiencing every moment to the fullness of his senses. He was an amazing kisser and a pretty good cook. The pancakes were perfect, and he stood at the stove behind me in nothing but his boxers, frying up bacon to go along with them. He never minded the spatters of grease as they hissed against his skin. Maybe that should have told me something. But I didn’t question it at the time.

Not that it really mattered. All of this was old history, and even caught up as I was in the sights and smells of the dream, I knew it was over. There was nothing to be done. The dream cared little for my awareness of how this was all past history, dragging me through each agonizing detail as if it were fresh and new.

I’d gotten an offer for grad school at UCLA. It was an amazing opportunity, and it came with an assistant teaching position and a stipend that meant I could support myself. I was so excited.

Then came the phone call. It was Jeremy. Those four dreaded words. “We need to talk.”

If only there had been more talking. But he was drunk or high already. Why had that never seemed like a problem before that night? I wanted to reach back in time and shake my naïve twenty-two-year-old self and tell her to get the hell out of there, to run before things went south of good.

The thin ginger-haired girl sitting at that table wouldn’t have listened anyway. That past self knew everything in the world there was to know about love, and she believed with a faith both blind and unshakable that if she just sat there and let him work through his anger, everything would turn out ok. It always had before.

But then he pulled the gun. It had been his grandfather’s. An old police-issue revolver. I wondered if his dad even knew it was gone from the case in the den at their house.

With the benefit of hindsight, I could see half a dozen opportunities for taking that gun away. There was a point where he still had the safety on, swinging it around almost carelessly while he ranted about how I was putting my career over our relationship, how I was selfish. A blind cow. He actually said that. All the hushed and lovely things he had whispered in that back bedroom were burned away with the acid of those words.

Blind cow.

            I should have used the anger from his insult to spur me into action. Should have kicked him. Fought. Fled. Half a dozen sensible, survivable things – and yet all my twenty-two-year-old self managed was to sit there, stunned and weeping. I wanted to grind my teeth and shake her – shake me – because I could feel all the old emotions in the dream, even the ones I knew to be patently stupid.

The worst was the fact that I felt like it was my fault. Like I needed to apologize to the maniac threatening me with a revolver.

The dream played on to its inevitable conclusion. Jeremy yelled about how he was nothing without me, swore I couldn’t abandon him, that I would be killing him. He went from waving the gun around to pointing it at me, demanding my apologies, making me swear over and over that I would never leave him.

The problem was, I was scared silly and couldn’t manage more than a hoarse whimper. I just sat there, feeling sick to my stomach and gawking at him, the words strangled in my throat.

Then he put the gun against my chest and I found my voice, at least enough to say “no” and “please stop” in between the hiccupping sobs. The dream, of course, was hyper-real in that way that some trauma dreams can be, so I could feel the cold, hard muzzle of the gun pressing against my sternum. Jeremy pressed it so hard against me, the tops of his knuckles grazed my left breast. He leaned over me, gun still shoved into me, and buried his face in my hair. I wore it long back then, and it was strange to feel the thick, heavy curls spilling down my shoulders and my neck. Jeremy was weeping now, too, and he murmured things into my hair, his breath hot against my ear. And even with the hard edges of the firearm digging into me, I still couldn’t bring myself to believe that he would actually shoot me. If I could master my fear enough just to talk to him, my twenty-two-year-old self truly believed that love conquered all – even this madness.

And then he was screaming again, pushing the gun hard against my sternum to punctuate each insult. I was paralyzed by all of it, my arms held loosely at my sides. I think that was the worst of it, at least from my current perspective. It’s not like I was ever tied down or restrained. I just sat there stupidly, enduring the whole thing. That part made me sick. That I could have been such an idiot about it -- ever.

I closed my eyes at some point, finally realizing that I was probably going to die in that kitchen, my blood spilling across the ugly yellow tile. In real life, my eyes had been closed for what came next, but that never stopped me from seeing it in every gory detail in the dream.

Very suddenly, Jeremy whipped the gun away from me. He had been shoving me so hard into the back of the chair, I fell forward a little bit in the absence of the pressure. Jeremy screamed the same refrain I’d heard on and off through the whole ordeal: “You’re killing our love!” Flecks of spittle flew from his lips – his terribly kissable lips – and his hazel eyes were wild.

Then he took the gun and he shot himself. He was smart enough to know not to put the gun against his temple and fire. That was never a guarantee. No. He put the barrel of the gun just behind his front teeth, I could hear them clicking on the metal. Then he angled it up and back, pulling the trigger.

My eyes flew wide at the sound of the bullet leaving the chamber. There was so much blood.

Jeremy crumpled to the floor at my feet and I still couldn’t move. I was literally paralyzed with fear. I sat there shaking and crying and staring at his corpse until sirens started up in the distance. And even when the cops arrived pounding on the door, I couldn’t bring myself to get up from that chair. They had to break down the door.

I could still hear the plaintive wail of the sirens –

And then I woke with a start, so drenched in sweat that the thin T-shirt I wore in lieu of pajamas was stuck to my breasts. My wild mess of curls clung damply to my forehead, tangling over my eyes.

The sirens were still blaring.

It took me the better part of a minute to realize that I was hearing my cell phone – which, for the record, didn’t sound siren-like at all. Squinting blearily at the clock on the nightstand, I cursed half a dozen obscure Celtic deities and fumbled for the phone. It was three in the morning. The only good thing about my phone ringing at three in the morning was that it woke me from that damned dream.

 

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The Rest is Silence

This little piece grew from a scene in a roleplaying game. I often escape to RPGs when writer's block rears its head. There is a certain immediate gratification in sharing stories and character development with other players. He swept her up, carrying her off to the little room deeper in the crypt. Then he laid her gently on satin sheets of the deepest red. He laid a chill finger lightly against her lips, whispering, "The rest is silence."

From there on, he spoke only the language of lip against lip, teasing her with the frisson of light nails dragged down bare skin.

He broke the edict once, after pulling away to slip off his shirt. Languorously she lay, studying the intricate pattern of the ritual scars curving across his torso. She was still clothed. She lifted her eyes to his, her question clear.

"For you? Nothing you do not wish. Nothing you do not invite," he murmured in response.

And then he bent over her, his white hair spilling forward to tickle her cheeks. He sought her mouth, his teeth sharp against her lip, nipping but not yet hard enough to draw blood.

He trailed kisses along her jaw, down to the little hollow where her pulse surged beneath soft skin. He laid his lips there, lightly, breathing the scent of her. He teased himself with the promise of her life and heat, eyes closed to hide the crimson fire that burned within their depths.

A kiss there, then the flick of his tongue. He held his lips upon her thudding pulse. His teeth grazed the sensitive skin, and for a moment, it seemed he teetered on the edge of seizing her -- ripping flesh to release the crimson heat within -- but he drew away, heaving a breath as he mastered himself. She watched him the whole while with half-lidded eyes.

When he bent to her again, he trailed kisses all down her neck as the nails of one hand traced lazy circles of sensation upon her other cheek, eventually twining lightly in her hair.

When he finally reached the base of her throat, he lay his body across her, wiry muscles shifting along his bare shoulders and arms. He leaned his face against hers, nuzzling, his breath soft upon her skin. And then in that place where shoulder meets neck, he took her, sealing his mouth around the flesh and teasing with his tongue before finally slashing with the two sharp teeth.

Stars stood out briefly upon her vision with the two brilliant points of pain. And then rolling, cresting pleasure followed the sweet flow of blood - not much, it seemed, just enough to taste, enough for his magic to connect. She felt his tongue dart along the edges of the little wounds, summoning a tangle of sensations. Pain and pleasure, sharp and soft all in a jumble.

As her blood flowed to him, the death-touched power flared upon his scars. He seemed lit from within by a glimmering dark-light, and all over his shoulders and torso, he gleamed with elegant runes. They pulsed in time with her speeding heart, and then the magic took her, too, gliding along her nerves like lightning, dancing on the inside of her skin.

They lay twined together, his mouth locked upon her flesh. But neither of them were close to their bodies. They were someplace else. Floating, immersed in sensations that had no adequate name.

When he finally drew away, she had no idea how long they had lain connected in that sweet and aching moment. He pressed lips still rouged with her blood against her mouth, questing with his tongue. She could taste herself upon him - copper and sweet.

She met his eyes again, silent in her question. His own eyes, crimson, spilled with stolen light.

"The rest we save till later. A promise, yes?"

She nodded.

He sealed it with a kiss.

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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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