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Welcome to the TaleSpeaker Blog

You have wandered here through the labyrinthine twists of the Internet. Some of you may know me already, either through my non-fiction or my work on TV. For others here, this may be your first introduction. Either way, this page is one of discovery. I am not as widely known for my fiction, and many of the fans who have discovered me through television are still learning that I began as — and will always be — a writer. Fiction and poetry, lyrics and songs, these things rest close to my heart, yet ironically, they have become not the focus of my career, but an addendum to it. In many ways, they are my refuge. But they remain a significant part of who I am.

As you will learn in reading this, many of my stories come from dreams. I have always been a vivid dreamer, immersed as I sleep in epic tales with intricate storylines and full casts of characters. Many of these dreams are reflections of bits and pieces of my waking life, but others seem spun from whole cloth, occupying vast worlds to which I happily return. Not all of these translate into full stories. Others consume me until I’ve written them out in some form. As the years have worn on and I have focused on my non-fiction writing, too many of these tales have languished on my hard drive or in notebooks — some as fragments, others as brief snapshots of scenes, complete unto themselves yet hinting at a larger work. So I’ve decided to make a place for my fiction here, to share.

Not everything you read here comes from dreams, of course. And not every dream is radiant or beautiful. There are dark twists and passages in the deep places of my mind, and I make no excuse for them. The eldritch children of those shadowed realms entertain me as much as a writer as the comely and elegant ones. I’ve been reading Edgar Allen Poe since 2nd grade, and Bradbury, Lovecraft, and Stephen King since shortly after that. October Country remains one of my favorite collections to return to again and again — I think it shows.

I share things here because the life of story is in its telling, and very few of these tales will ever find an outlet by any other means. And if these little tales manage to inspire your own stories and dreams, so much the better for all of us.

–M

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Staring into the Abyss

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Karl and Antonio each take one aggravated wound.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Abyss To be continued …

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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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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 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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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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Fragment: First Blood

I rarely play with high fantasy, but here is a fragment from a little tale set in a world where a vampire-like race had once ruled. Ousted by the mortal populace, they were driven into hiding, and now their younglings are sent out to live among mortals for a period of time to learn how to hide their nature so their bloodlines can survive without being hunted any further. I had been at Castle Basaril for barely a month, but I already knew it was a bad idea to get on Chancellor Veyan’s bad side.

The Chancellor was a thin-faced man with a nose sharp as a razor. His rheumy blue eyes were too close-set and they always seemed to turn slightly inward, as if peering at the high, pointed bridge just in case it disappeared. His lips were almost as thin, and they seemed frozen in a perpetual sneer.

In my duties at the castle, I tried to avoid him as best I could. Given the fact that my real reason for working at the castle had everything to do with learning how to blend in among the mortals, I did my best to remain invisible to the Chancellor and all his men. So when the Chancellor called on me to attend him in his private chamber, I knew it was bad news. What could he possibly want with a page of my lowly rank?

As I entered, he looked up at me with those bleary eyes, the blue more vivid because they were so bloodshot. He gestured for me to shut the door and take a seat. Wordlessly, I did. I sat awkwardly in front of him, staring at my shoes. Someone of my rank was not supposed to meet his eyes unless instructed.

“Shaelindor, isn’t it?” he asked in a high, reedy voice that grated on my sensitive ears.

“Yes, my lord.”

“We have some things to talk about, and I want you to look me in the eye as you answer.”

Frowning a little, I looked up. I tried not to stare. He had such wrinkles about his eyes and lips, and the skin hanging from his jowls reminded me of wax beginning to go soft and melt. I thanked the Silent Lady that I would never look like that. Quietly, I said, “Yes, my lord.”

“You come from Keselwyn, in the Eastern Provinces, do you not?” He spoke to me as he would a lad of seventeen. Of course, that’s what he believed me to be, and there was nothing in my official papers that would suggest otherwise. I gritted my teeth and endured it.

“Yes, my lord,” I said humbly for the third time. I dug the nail of one finger into the palm of my hand and hoped he didn’t notice.

He consulted some paper in front of him. “And by my count, you have been here almost three months.”

“It will be three months on the Hearth Festival, sir,” I responded, still fidgeting.

“Hmm…” he muttered, and as he said this, he pursed his lips so the wrinkles around them grew even more pronounced. I tried to look at the tapestry behind him while still appearing to meet his gaze.

“Well, Shaelindor of Keselwyn, I’m not sure how they do things out where you’re from. By my reckoning, Keselwyn is not what we here in Basaril consider rightly civilized,” he sniffed with obvious disdain, “But I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt this one time.”

I felt a cold lance of fear jolt down my spine, and I sat a little straighter, my heart racing. Could the servant-girl I visited in the night have been awake after all? I used my best calming spell to lull her into a deep sleep before I made the cut so I could feed. Discovery was a terrifying prospect, but I forced myself to remain calm. “About what, sir?” I wondered.

He sniffed again, shuffling the papers. “We hold our women very dear here in Basaril, young man. Their greatest asset is their virtue because this insures that they will bear their husbands strong – and legitimate – children. In Basaril, we take a very dim view of those who would lead our virtuous daughters astray.”

I continued to keep my silence, admitting to nothing. My heart pounded harder, fear now mixed with indignation at what he was implying. I would never think of a mortal woman in that way. Copulating with an animal seemed more appealing.

“I have word from a credible witness that you were seen leaving the Lady Vitessa’s quarter the other night. Now, the lady Vitessa is a young woman of irreproachable virtue, and this is one of the qualities that has made her a desirable match for her future husband, the Knight-Champion Ardenthal. Her father, Lord Solaris is exceptionally proud of the marriage he has recently arranged for his middle daughter, and he would be deeply aggrieved should anything arise that might threaten that happy union. There should not even be a whisper of doubt as to the lady’s virtue.”

Here he settled his watery gaze on me and let it sit for a few long moments. I tried not to squirm.

“Now,” he continued, “I am certain that even someone like you who hails from such a backward little province and holds his rather minor position at the sufferance of Lord Xarxes – even you are not so unwise as to engage in any act that might call into question the lady’s virtue. In fact, I am certain that you wandered by the lady’s quarters by accident while you were out after hours taking a stroll. And with that in mind, my advice to you Shaelindor of Keselwyn, is quite simple: in future, take your strolls elsewhere. That is all.”

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A Place for Fiction

So I've had some requests for my fiction. I indulge in fiction only rarely these days, as so much of my time and attention goes into non-fiction and related research. But I still write stories now and again. Perhaps my best fiction writing has gone into character histories for role-playing games. Most of these don't translate easily into a traditional short story format. They're often written in the second person, addressing the reader directly, and they are almost always in the present tense, to provide a sense of immediacy to the action so the reader better connects with the character in the tale. These are stories that will never make it to anthologies, not only for their formats, but also for the rights issues on the RPG worlds in which they are set. But I may share some of them here. Other bits and pieces will find their way here occasionally, stories old and new.

I rarely write anything PG-13. Gothic, horror, dark fantasy -- these are themes that have always appealed to me. There are some truly twisted recesses in my imagination. You have been warned...

--M

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