Nocturnal Lives

Musings from the mind of Amanda S. Green – Mother, writer, and possessed by cats

Tag: snippet (Page 2 of 4)

Blogging, Writing and Maybe a Snippet

Let’s get the housekeeping out of the way first. As I noted in yesterday’s post, real life always seems to laugh and throw obstacles in my path when I come up with a new blogging schedule. Usually, it isn’t anything major — thankfully — but just those normal real life matters that have to be taken care of. Fortunately, this past week or two has been filled with just the normal little things that can get a day off on not necessarily the wrong foot but the unplanned one. So, the plan for the blog went by the wayside because it is the easiest thing to let slip.

However, I know I have to buckle down. Not only because I have this blog to take care of but because I have my weekly (Tuesday) posts for Mad Genius Club as well as Wednesday posts for According to Hoyt. That means I have to be more disciplined about blogging. So here’s how it is going to happen. This blog will become more active, partially because I will be echoing my posts at the other locations here and partially because I am going to use this blog as my writing prompt of sorts. I’ll be doing snippets for upcoming work as well as blogging about current events and what is happening in the writing world. My goal is to have something up every day. That is workable if, as I am doing now, I do the blog as I have my morning coffee. By doing it that way, I don’t impact my writing schedule and that, as I’m sure you understand, has to take priority over blogging.

Now, on to writing. Right now there is a split in the writing community. Oh hell, who am I kidding? There is a chasm that is widening to epic proportions. Between calls to only buy books written by people of color for a year to the battle over whether message should take precedence over story to name the issue, the battle lines have been drawn. Now, science fiction has always been a fractious community but it is getting to the point where it is almost funny in a sad sort of way.

The latest bit that leaves me scratching my head involves a character’s sexuality in literature. According to some, a writer should pretty much always include in the story their characters’ sexual preferences because it will tell the reader that that particular type of story can be about that sort of character. It doesn’t matter that the sexuality of the character has nothing to do with the story. It is all about making sure a section of the reading public can “identify” with the character.

Now, I’m all for letting readers identify with your characters. But I like the subtle approach unless actually telling the reader a character is of such and such political background or sexual preference or religious ilk. Why? Because it allows more readers to see themselves in the character than just a section of readers. You see, I trust my readers to have imaginations. I hope they like my characters enough to see the similarities between the character and themselves without me having to throw extraneous information at them that doesn’t advance the plot.

That said, if it moves the plot forward to say this character is gay or another is bi or yet another is celibate, then the author should — in fact, must — put it in. But if all the author is doing is ticking off another entry in the current checklist of how to be politically correct then don’t. Trust your readers to recognize the signals you give in your writing without beating them over the head with it.

A perfect example of this, in my mind, is J. K. Rowling’s Albus Dumbledore from the Harry Potter books. I can’t think of a single time in the books where she mentioned the headmaster’s sexual identity. Why did she not do it? It wasn’t pertinent to the books. However, I wasn’t surprised one bit when she came out not so long ago and said that Dumbledore was gay. I had assumed it from the context of the scenes he was in. Nor did it matter one way or the other because, again, his sexuality did not move the story forward.

As an author, that is what I always look at. Does something move the plot forward? Does it help explain why a character acts the way he or she does? If not, then it doesn’t have to be there. If, as an author, you feel it is important to let your readers know more about that character, then write something where their sexuality or religion or political leanings or whatever is important to the plot.

I guess it all comes down to trusting your readers, something I fear too many authors don’t do. They don’t trust their readers to be able to see a message that is subtly worked into the plot. Instead, they opt for the “hit them over the head” approach. They don’t trust their readers to have enough imagination to see themselves in a character unless they, the author, tells the reader “this character is like you because. . . “. Then these same authors bitch and moan when their work doesn’t sell as well as Author-X who writes a rollicking fun book with lots of action, lots of characters from different backgrounds and who look at life differently from one another. Sure, Author-X might not use the checklist to make sure they have all the politically correct items checked off, but that same author has subtly woven the gay character and the various political beliefs with different religious beliefs in such a way their readers not only see themselves but they see others they know in the book.

All this is a long about way of say we need to trust our readers and put away the bat.

Finally, here is a short(ish) snippet from Skeletons in the Closet. You can find snippet one here and snippet two here.

This is a work in progress. Some of you may have read an earlier version. There may, and very probably will, be changes made before the final work is published. That includes the title. Skeletons in the Closet is a working title. Other than that, all the standard disclaimers apply. This work is © Amanda S. Green 2016.  All rights reserved.  Do not copy, distribute or otherwise disseminate without the author’s name, and a link to this page.  You do not have the right to alter it.  You do not have the right to claim it as yours. For permission to do anything other than quote it for review or recommendation purposes, leave a comment in the comments section with contact information. This is a work of fiction, all coincidence between it and real people place or events is assuredly imaginary.

The Wheels on the Bus Go Round and Round

Despite all the weirdness in Mossy Creek, and most especially in our house – or maybe because of it – the sun does still rise in the east and there are still bills to pay. That means, no matter how badly I might want to stay in bed, pillows over my head to block out the world, I can’t. So, I had to get out of bed and out of the house. Not that I really minded. The last few days had been stranger than usual, so weird that just the thought of going to class and yet another boring lecture was more appealing than the prospect of staying home.

I didn’t need the sounds of a skillet banging on the stove downstairs in the kitchen, echoed almost immediately by drawers slamming in Mama’s room, to know the battle still raged. Believe me, raged is much too mild a word for what has been going on. And, not being a fool – at least not too much of one – I knew the best thing for me to do was to get out of there as quickly as possible. Otherwise, I’d be caught in the middle again and, when my mama and my granny are going after one another, that is a dangerous place indeed.

Hell’s bells, I’d forgo my shower if it meant avoiding the next barrage between Granny and Mama. I could always grab one at the university after my morning run.

Ten minutes later, dressed in running shorts, sports bra and a tank top, my running shoes dangling from my right hand, I carefully crept down the hall, past my parents’ bedroom. So far, so food. All those years of sneaking in after curfew – more like trying to sneak in. Mama almost always managed to catch me – finally seemed to be paying off. I knew exactly where to step, and where not to, in order to avoid that one board near their room that always creaked like a door hinge badly in need of an oiling.

Just a little bit further and I’d be at the stairs and safe – almost.

It’s not that I really expected Mama to burst out of her room and catch me. After all, where’s the fun in that? I wasn’t exactly breaking curfew and, yes, even though I’m an adult now, Mama still acts like I’m not. Nor was I sneaking out to meet some boy she didn’t approve of. For one thing, I lost interest in boys a long time ago. Men are so much more fun. For another, if Mama thought I was even remotely interested in someone – man or Martian – she would probably lock me out of the house in an attempt to throw us together.

As I said, Mama’s not one to let reality interfere with her desires and, believe you me, there is nothing she desires more than to get away from this house once and for all. In her mind, there’s only one way that is going to happen and that’s for Patty or me to get married. It still surprises me she hadn’t tried to move in with Bubba. Of course, the fact he lived in the smallest, single room apartment in town might have something to do with it. Bubba might be a coward but he wasn’t dumb. He knew Mama would be there in the blink of an eye were there room for her.

Being the ungrateful daughter that I am, I was merely going out for a run and then to class. I wasn’t going to meet a man who would sweep me off my feet and finally get Mama out of her version of Hell on Earth. Far from it, in fact. I was simply once more escaping the strangeness that had been home for the last ten years.

Besides, after what happened last night, Mama would have other things on her mind besides why I might be leaving without saying goodbye. Truth be told, it wouldn’t surprise me one little bit if we didn’t see Mama anytime soon. The last time she and Granny went at it like they had yesterday, we didn’t see Mama for a week. While Granny ruled over the downstairs, Mama stayed locked in her room, making poor Papa sleep on the sofa. The only one she would let in was Perfect Patty. For that week, Mama sulked and whined and told Patty who she was the only one who understood what she had to put up with. Which, if I’m to be honest – and Mama always told me I should be, no matter how painful. “Lexie,” she’d said more times than I could count, “the truth hurts sometimes. But it’s better to tell the truth and hurt someone’s feeling than to burn in the hellfire of damnation.” – is true. None of the rest of us understood why mama didn’t just accept Granny and the others and try to make the best of a very strange situation.

Far as I’m concerned, Mama crossed the line last night and there would be no going back. For ten years, Mama’s done her best to ignore, insult, bully and force Granny and the others out of the house. She doesn’t care that this is their home just as much as it is hers. Okay, so it is a bit strange having family you have seen buried sitting across from you at the breakfast table. But they aren’t causing any trouble. In fact, I have a feeling they would leave if they could. Well, all of them except Granny. After last night, there is no way she’s going to leave of her own accord, at least not unless Mama leaves the house first.

It wouldn’t surprise me at all if Granny didn’t tell Old Serena what happened. If Mama thought last night was bad, just wait until Serena Duchamp learned what she had done. Damnation, you’d think Mama would have learned by now that she needs to think before doing something so exceedingly stupid. The last time she angered Old Serena, our dearly departed started taking up residence in the homestead. I really didn’t want to think about what might happen next.

With my luck, I’d start turning furry on nights of the full moon – just like Uncle Kenny – or something equally off-putting to any sane guy who might, at some point, become interested in me. It was going to be hard enough trying to explain away the dearly departed who continued to hang around. Telling him he would need to play fetch with me every few weeks might just kill any romantic feelings that survived meeting the family.

Maybe it was time to move out and move away – far, far away. Of course, I wouldn’t be able to tell anyone where I was going. Nor could I leave a forwarding address. Otherwise, no doubt about it, Mama would track me down and I would find her waiting on my doorstep, bags in hand, one day. And, the way my luck runs, Granny and the others would be close behind.

“Lexie Marie Smithson, just where do you think you’re sneaking off to so early this morning?”

I paused at the foot of the stairs and blew out a breath. I’d been so close. Less than a dozen feet stood between me and freedom. The front door was so near. But not near enough. Not with Granny standing in the doorway to the kitchen, hands on her hips, eyeing me suspiciously.

Why hadn’t I climbed out my window and shimmied down the tree like I used to when I was a kid? It would have saved me so much trouble.

“I’m waiting.” Her hands remained fisted at her waist and I swear she tapped one foot impatiently. At least I think she did. I didn’t dare look down to check.

“I’m not sneaking off anywhere, Granny.” Well, not really. “I’m just going to grab a run before class.”

“And I’m fresh as a daisy.”

I couldn’t help it. The laugh was out before I could stop it. One thing about my granny, dead or alive, she did have a sense of humor. When she wanted to at least.

“Course, if I was you, I’d be sneaking out rather than risk getting caught up between me and your mama.” The humor was gone just as quickly as it had come. “But you ought to know better. Your mama’s not likely to show her face today. So get yourself into the kitchen and eat some of the eggs and bacon I’ve made.”

Knowing better than to argue – besides, Granny made the best eggs around – I nodded and followed her into the kitchen. Besides, she was right about one thing – unless Mama had taken complete leave of her senses, she would lay low until Granny had time to cool down. The only problem with that was we didn’t have any idea how long that would be. Alive, Granny held onto her grudges, savoring them until they fossilized. What would she do dead?


For those of you who enjoy a little bit of romance with your suspense, or a little bit of suspense with your romance, check out Slay Bells Ring.

Fifteen years ago, Juliana Grissom left Mossy Creek in her rear view mirror. She swore then she would never return for more than a day or two at a time. But even the best laid plans can go awry, something she knew all too well, especially when her family was involved.

Now she’s back and her family expects her to find some way to clear her mother of murder charges. Complicating her life even further is Sam Caldwell, the man she never got over. Now it seems everyone in town is determined to find a way to keep her there, whether she wants to stay or not.

Bodies are dropping. Gossip is flying and Juliana knows time is running out. After all, holidays can be murder in Mossy Creek.


For those who have been waiting for the next installment in the Honor and Duty series, Honor from Ashes (Honor and Duty Book 3) is available for pre-order.

War isn’t civilized and never will be, not when there are those willing to do whatever is necessary to win. That is a lesson Col. Ashlyn Shaw learned the hard way. Now she and those under her command fight an enemy determined to destroy their home world. Worse, an enemy lurks in the shadows, manipulating friend and foe alike.

Can Ashlyn hold true to herself and the values of her beloved Corps in the face of betrayal and loss? Will honor rise from the ashes of false promises and broken faith? Ashlyn and the Devil Dogs are determined to see that it does, no matter what the cost.

 

 

Skeletons in the Closet – snippet 2

This is a work in progress. Some of you may have read an earlier version. There may, and very probably will, be changes made before the final work is published. That includes the title. Skeletons in the Closet is a working title. Other than that, all the standard disclaimers apply. This work is © Amanda S. Green 2016.  All rights reserved.  Do not copy, distribute or otherwise disseminate without the author’s name, and a link to this page.  You do not have the right to alter it.  You do not have the right to claim it as yours. For permission to do anything other than quote it for review or recommendation purposes, leave a comment in the comments section with contact information. This is a work of fiction, all coincidence between it and real people place or events is assuredly imaginary.

For those looking for snippets from Honor from Ashes (Honor and Duty Book 3) , those will begin in two weeks.

*   *   *

“Mama, I swear to you. I didn’t do anything,” Patty whined. Of course Patty always whined. Except when she tried to sound sultry for whoever was the boyfriend of the day. Then she kind of wheezed. “I was coming out of Paulson’s Drugstore and that old woman almost ran into me. All I said was ‘excuse me’ and she stared at me, Mama. I know she was putting a curse on me. You know how she is.”

That was all Mama needed to forget Patty was more than an hour late coming home from school. Nor did she notice the makeup Patty wore, makeup she had not been wearing when she left for school that morning. Makeup she wasn’t even supposed to own, let alone wear. I would have bet almost anything Patty was making it all up just so she wouldn’t get in trouble.

Without a word, Mama threw on her white sweater with its fake pearls running down the front, grabbed her handbag and marched out of the house, determined to find the town’s resident witch and have it out with her once and for all.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not completely sure Old Serena’s a real witch. At least not the sort you see on TV or in the movies. She doesn’t ride a broom, at least not that I know of, and she doesn’t have a big wart on the end of her nose. But that doesn’t mean she might not be a voodoo priestess or a well-disguised BEM (that’s a bug-eyed monster for those of you who didn’t grow up on the old sci-fi movies like I did). All I know for certain is that my mama made the mistake of getting in Serena Duchamp’s face that day and life hasn’t been the same since.

Of course, Mama hadn’t left Perfect Patty and me at home when she went on her quest to defend her eldest daughter. Oh no, she piled us in her old sedan and off we’d gone, driving the streets of Mossy Creek – not nearly as daunting as it sounds. It isn’t that big of a town – until we found Old Serena.

The moment Mama saw her coming out of the market, she’d slammed on the brakes and parked the car right there in the middle of the street. Before Patty or I knew what was happening, she had dragged us out after her, marching us down the street toward Old Serena as surely as she had marched us down the aisle at church at Easter in our Sunday finest.

“Serena Duchamp, I have a bone to pick with you!” Mama called. “What’s this I hear about you giving my Patty the evil eye? I’ll have the law on you if you don’t take it back.”

“Becca Smithson,” Old Serena began, her dark eyes narrowed to slits and a bony finger pointing at Mama’s nose. “You ought to know better than to go threatening Old Serena. Haven’t I been keeping your secrets safe all these many years?”

Mama sputtered and drew herself up to all of her five feet, two inches. Her thin body shook and her head stuck out forward on her neck and I suddenly realized just how much like a barnyard chicken she looked. Nervous, clucking and trying to bully everyone around her. . . .

Well, Old Serena was having none of it. Instead of cowering like most folks would, she turned to Patty, jabbing a finger in her direction. Patty might be many things, but brave she’s not. Her blue eyes went wide and she quickly hid behind our mother’s skirts, just like she was three years old, not fifteen.

“Mama, see! She’s trying to put the evil eye on me again!”

I’ll admit, the look in Old Serena’s eye was anything but kind. But I didn’t think she would try the evil eye here, in the middle of Main Street.

Or would she?

“Becca Smithson, you and that chit of a daughter of yours have done gone and insulted Old Serena. You’d best be apologizing before I decide to take offense.”

Most folks living in Mossy Creek know better than to upset Old Serena. Word around town was that she’d been there almost as long as the town itself. Now, even at eleven, I knew that probably wasn’t true. No one, no matter how mean they might be, lived to be nearly two hundred even if, like Serena, they looked that old to my young eyes. Still, it never hurt to be careful.

Unfortunately, my mama wasn’t “most folks”. No indeed. In fact, faced with Old Serena’s anger, Mama proceeded to act all high and mighty – which was more than a bit funny considering we most definitely did not life on the right side of the tracks. Never had and probably never would. Not that it had ever stopped Mama from putting on airs.

“Serena Duchamp, not only will my Patty Ann not apologize to you, but you will apologize to her or I swear I’ll talk to Sheriff Metzinger. You can’t be going around town, threatening our youngsters just because it suits you.”

I swear, in that moment, the world stood still. The birds stopped singing. Traffic, what little there was in Mossy Creek, came to a standstill. The few folks on the street seemed to magically disappear, only to reappear not only far down the street but on the opposite side as well. They knew, as my mama should have, that you just don’t threaten Old Serena. Not if you want to continue living a peaceful life.

Old Serena, her features granite hard, pointed the first two fingers of her right hand at my mama, almost as if each was aiming at one of Mama’s eyes. Her lips moved and soft words emerged. I couldn’t hear them, not really. But I swear I saw a black cloud settle over both Mama and Perfect Patty. Now, all these years later, I try to convince myself I imagined it. But then those skeletons in the closet started raising such a ruckus and I have to wonder.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Mama, pale as ice, her hands so cold you would have thought she must be suffering from frostbite, grabbed Patty and me by our arms and dragged us off. The moment we were in the car, the doors safely shut and locked behind us, she made the sign of the cross. This always struck me as strange since Mama is a dyed in the wool Southern Baptist. Just then, however, it seemed like a pretty good idea and both Patty and I did the same.

By the time we got home, Mama had gotten over her fear and was in a fine temper. She railed on at poor Papa, demanding he do something. After all, if he loved her and Patty, he would stand up for them and make that old witch pay. Nothing Papa said made any difference. The only way there would be peace in the house would be if he had it out with Old Serena and the sooner, the better.

So, promising Mama he would take care of it, Papa told me to get into the pickup. Why I had to go, I didn’t know. Frankly, I didn’t care. The last thing I wanted was to see Old Serena again so soon. But I could tell this wasn’t the time to say anything. Besides, with Mama in one of her moods, it was probably safer to face Old Serena than to stay home.

Papa surprised me that afternoon. Instead of going to confront Old Serena and demand not only an apology but a jar of her finest honey – she did have a way with the bees no one else in town could duplicate – he took me to the Custer farm. There he bought two of their finest hens. We made another stop at Crandall’s Smokehouse. Soon we were on our way to Old Serena’s, the hens and a large smoked ham in the bed of the pickup. We were, according to my papa, going to make amends.

Mind you, Old Serena never was and never will be that mad old woman you see in the movies. Unless you upset her, she looked like your favorite aunt or teacher – your very old favorite aunt or teacher. Nor did she live in some tumbled down shack at the back of a swamp. For one thing, there aren’t any swamps nears Mossy Creek. For another, Old Serena comes from even older money. Her house sat at the edge of town and consisted of several thousand acres of pasture land. As for those hens in the back of our truck, they weren’t going to be sacrificed in some black rite, at least not unless you call frying them up for dinner black magic.

Papa drove our battered truck down the tree-lined lane and parked. Before he switched off the engine, the double white doors of the plantation-style house opened and there stood Old Serena, a welcoming smile on her face.

“Welcome, Jacob, and you too, young Lexie.” She took Papa’s hands in hers and stood on her tiptoes to kiss his cheek.

“Thank you, ma’am.” My papa’s always been a man of few words. That’s especially true when dealing with trouble Mama’s caused. “Lexie and I brought you some nice hens and a real fine smoked ham, Miss Serena. We hope you’ll accept them and our apologies for the unpleasantness of this afternoon.”

“Why thank you, Jacob.” She peered into the bed of the truck and smiled even wider. “You and Lexie have always been so good to me, just like your dear mama. The two of you have nothing to apologize for.”

“My mama remembers all you and yours have done for us, ma’am, unlike some other members of my family. I truly am sorry for how they’ve behaved.”

“Your mama’s a good woman, Jacob, and she raised you right.” She looked at me, her head cocked to one side, her expression thoughtful. I fought the urge to fidget under that intense gaze. “And you, young miss, you remind me very much of your grandma.”

“Thank you, ma’am.” I beamed. As far as I was concerned, there was no higher praise than being like my granny, the woman whose name I bore.

“Lexie, you be sure to tell her not to worry. I know she’s been doing poorly. But she will be around for a long time, making sure certain members of your family don’t cause too much trouble.” Now Old Serena smiled and a cold shill ran through me. “In fact, I’d say certain members of your family will be hanging around much longer than expected just to be sure Becca and those two brats of hers –” Another smile and I knew she didn’t mean me – “don’t cause you and your papa here any trouble.”

Papa thanked Old Serena – what else could he do? – unloaded the chickens and ham and off we went. Mama’s anger was terrible that night as she called him all kinds of names for not being a man and doing as he was told. He’d simply sat there. I’d be tempted to say he ignored her except there had been a strange little smile on his lips. It was as if he knew something was going to happen and he couldn’t wait to see it.

Old Serena had been right about one thing. My granny was “doing poorly”. She had been for a long time and nothing the doctors did seemed to help. We all knew it was only a matter of time before Granny passed. I had hoped Old Serena was right when she said Granny would be around for a long time but I didn’t believe it. Young as I was, I knew Death would soon come for her.

Two weeks later, Granny passed. Mama didn’t even try to hide how glad she was that Granny was finally gone but I knew. She had never liked Granny. She was always saying how Granny never thought she was good enough for my papa and how Granny was always trying to run their lives. It wasn’t true, but it had been Mama’s mantra for so many years, she actually believed it.

My mama might not have liked my granny but the church ladies sure did and they came out in force to make sure everything was perfect for the funeral and the gathering afterwards. More food than I had ever seen filled the tables of the church’s meeting hall and practically the whole town turned out for the service. After we watched Granny’s coffin being lowered into the ground, Brother Billy invited everyone back to the church for lunch. For a few hours, at least, I was able to listen to those who had known my granny best talk about her and share their memories of their old friend.

That night, missing Granny more and more with each passing minute, I did my best to ignore Bubba’s teasing and Perfect Patty’s demands for more of the chocolate cake Mama had brought home from the church. My feet felt like they weighed a million pounds as I slowly climbed the narrow stairs to my bedroom. The house seemed so empty without Granny and I knew nothing would ever be the same. Gone was my protector and the one person besides Papa I knew I could always rely upon, no matter what.

With Barney Bear in my arms, I cried myself to sleep.

And woke early the next morning to the sounds of someone moving around in the kitchen below my bedroom. For a moment, it was as though the clock had been rolled back more than a year. Until Granny’s stroke, every morning started with her in the kitchen, busy cooking our breakfasts and getting bread ready to bake. Mama used to complain about it, saying how it was just another way Granny kept her from being the “woman of the house”. Of course, she really complained once Granny got sick and couldn’t do it any longer. Mama cooking breakfast lasted all of a week before she decided it was time of us kids to learn to feed ourselves.

A smile touched my lips as the good memories temporarily kept the sadness at bay. I lay there, listening to the clank of the iron skillet as it was placed on the stove. The sounds of a spoon striking the sides of a mixing bowl as eggs were beaten followed. Soon, the tantalizing smell of bacon frying made its way upstairs. A door opened. Impatient steps, the unmistakable clip-clop of my mother’s mules, on the staircase. A scream!

Mama’s scream!

The wooden floor was cold under my bare feet. Somehow, I’d gotten out of bed and stood in the hallway outside my room. Bubba and Patty stood in their doorways, looking like scared little mice. Papa raced downstairs, his old plaid robe flapping, his feet bare.

Mama screeched again and I rushed downstairs, just ahead of Bubba and Patty. Papa stood in the doorway, shaking his head, an expression on his face I couldn’t identify.

Mama stood a few feet away, hands over her face and shaking like a leaf. And there, at the stove just as she had been almost every day of my life, stood my granny. She wore her best dress, the one we’d buried her in. Her snow white hair was mussed a bit. For once, she was barefoot and I wondered if they’d buried her that way. That was just wrong. Why bury someone in their best Sunday-go-to-church outfit but not their shoes?

“Becca Smithson, you quit your caterwauling,” Granny scolded, waving her wooden spoon before her like a wand. “You’d think you’d never seen me in this kitchen before.”

Mama moved her fingers apart just a fraction. She opened her eyes an even smaller fraction. Then she let out another screech and hit the floor with a resounding thud.

Granny stood at the stove and shook her head. No doubt about it, she sure didn’t approve of Mama fainting. Dead or alive, Granny expected you to behave and dropping to the floor like a felled tree just wasn’t done in her books.

“Jacob, you’d best be picking her up,” Granny said as she turned back to the stove long enough to move the frying pan off the burner. “And you, Patty Ann.” A glance over her shoulder had Perfect Patty trying to hide behind Bubba, which was pretty funny considering how he was doing his best to disappear into the far wall. “You can quit that sniveling and set the table.”

“B-b-but you’re dead!” Patty stammered, ignoring Bubba as he tried to free himself from her death grip around his neck. I guess Patty figured if she couldn’t hide behind him, she would just try to be as close to a second skin on him as she could. Not a bad idea really, considering he would do just about anything to save his skin, especially from one of Granny’s thrashings.

“That doesn’t mean we can’t sit down to eat like civilized folk.” Granny flipped the crisp strips of bacon onto a paper towel on the countertop next to the stove. “And didn’t Miss Serena tell you all that I’d be around for a long time?” She pinned each of us with a look we knew meant we’d best be agreeing and nothing else.

That was just the beginning. No matter what Mama did, Granny was there. Now I’ll admit, we’ve used more than our fair share of candles and Granny didn’t quite keep her looks. Fortunately, Mr. Perez knew a few renewal tricks. Once a month or so he’d come out to the house to give Granny her treatments. After a while, we sort of got used to having her around. Although Mama never stayed for long in the same room with her, which meant Granny once more reigned supreme over the kitchen.

Now, don’t go thinking things got any easier for Mama. Since Granny’s return, four more family members have passed on – and come back home to stay. The first was Uncle Matt, my papa’s older brother. Uncle Matt had gone out hunting one day with his favorite hound and his favorite beer and, well, he’d enjoyed his beer a little too much. Mr. Perez did his best, but Uncle Matt will never look the same after taking that shotgun blast to his face. When he showed up in the kitchen the morning after his funeral, coffee sort of dribbling from what had been his lower lip, Mama had repeated her performance from the morning of Granny’s return and had hit the kitchen floor with a thud.

For a while, the town did look at us kind of strangely. After all, not everyone has their relatives rising from their graves and taking up residence back at the old homestead. Oh, there are the odd ghosts and other spirits here and there, not to mention a few other things you don’t discuss in polite society, but our family was different. However, no one had any cattle mutilated and no small children disappeared. There weren’t even any corpses found with their brains missing. So our friends and neighbors slowly started coming around again, especially once they realized Old Serena was a regular visitor.

This past year, Granny and Uncle Matt have been joined by Aunt Minnie, my second cousin Annabelle and my Great-Uncle Homer. When Annabelle, who before she died at the ripe old age of ninety two insisted on wearing pink dresses with lots of lace and bows and wearing enough lilac water you smelled her five minutes before she arrived, appeared at the breakfast table the morning after her funeral, Bubba simply walked out the door. He hasn’t been back home since. Not that it is any great loss, although Mama laments his going. She is convinced Patty will be next and that she will never see her babies again.

You notice she has no such concerns about me nor does she seem to remember when she starts crying about her sad lot in life that she sees Bubba almost daily in town and he still shows up at the edge of our property once a week where Mama meets him. He then hands over any laundry he has to be done. You see, I still take too much after Papa’s side of the family, all of whom seem to be taking up residence with us after they pass.

“You’re looking mighty thoughtful, Lexie,” Granny commented as she poured me a cup of coffee. “Is something eating at you?”

I smiled, doing my best to ignore the fact it was past time for Mr. Perez to come give her another treatment. Come to think of it, Uncle Matt’s nose was more crooked than usual and the lilac water wasn’t quite covering the aroma that was Cousin Annabelle. There were definite downsides to having walking corpses living – er, residing – with you. The smell is just one of them.

“Sorry, Granny, just thinking.”

And thinking hard. Old Serena was due in less than an hour for her weekly game of dominos with Granny. Great-Uncle Homer joined them sometimes, if they could convince Papa to sit and play. I think Papa did it just to get back at Mama. She’d never liked Homer and now that he lived in our front closet and refused Mr. Perez’s treatments unless Granny made him, Mama absolutely detested him. Of course, the fact his nose had fallen right off and into the gravy boat during Sunday dinner hadn’t helped. Now Mama mainly took her meals in her room, refusing to eat with the rest of the family except when absolutely necessary.

Not that Granny and the others really ate. Oh, they went through the motions, but it was more habit than anything else I think. They’re dead, after all, so they don’t need sustenance. Still, it is mighty disconcerting sitting at the kitchen table with folks who ought to be six feet under.

They had passed but not passed on.

Skeletons in the Closet — snippet 1

This is a work in progress. Some of you may have read an earlier version. There may, and very probably will, be changes made before the final work is published. That includes the title. Skeletons in the Closet is a working title. Other than that, all the standard disclaimers apply. This work is © Amanda S. Green 2016.  All rights reserved.  Do not copy, distribute or otherwise disseminate without the author’s name, and a link to this page.  You do not have the right to alter it.  You do not have the right to claim it as yours. For permission to do anything other than quote it for review or recommendation purposes, leave a comment in the comments section with contact information. This is a work of fiction, all coincidence between it and real people place or events is assuredly imaginary.

For those looking for snippets from Honor from Ashes (Honor and Duty Book 3) , those will begin in two weeks.

In the Beginning. . . .

 

All my life, my mama’s tried to raise me to be a proper lady. No, that’s not quite right. She has tried to raise me to be a proper Southern lady, full of refinement and grace, dressed in lace and delicate pastels. To hear her talk, it’s been a futile effort that has caused her more than her fair share of gray hair. Where the lace and pastels are concerned, she’s right. I’m more of a jeans and tee shirt sort of gal. I’ll choose a pair of running shoes or boots any day over heels designed solely as torture devices for the women who wear them. Even so, she has managed to get me to say “yes, ma’am” and “no, sir”. For the most part, I’m respectful of my elders, even when they don’t deserve it. I even wear clean underwear when I leave the house – usually without any extraneous holes in them – because Mama is convinced some rampaging bus will find me and strike me down, necessitating a trip to the emergency room.

I swear, I think it is her life’s dream that will actually happen. You see, in her world, a trip to the ER has only one possible ending. The handsome, rich and oh-so-conveniently single doctor who saves my life will fall madly in love with me and immediately propose marriage. What Mama seems to forget is that in a bus vs. me battle, the bus will always win. So, unless the doctor is also a re-animator, he would be falling for a corpse and, well, ewwww!

Besides, having somehow managed to survive a close encounter of the nearly fatal kind, the last thing I’d be interested in is finding a man to settle down and raise a passel of kids with. Not that it would deter Mama one little bit. Heck, she would probably arrive at the ER with her minister firmly in tow and a marriage license burning a hole in her hand bag, all ready to fill in the blanks to make me a married woman before I could back out – or run to the hills.

In case you haven’t figured it out yet, my mama rarely lets reality interfere with her plans.

Don’t get me wrong. I can usually deal with Mama’s plans and manipulations. I’ve spent a lifetime figuring out how. All I have to do is make sure I look both ways before crossing the street. Of course, the odds of a bus hitting me here in Mossy Creek are about as good as the odds of Hell freezing over. So I figure I’m safe – at least for the time being.

Knock on wood.

Because sure as my name’s Lexie Smithson, the minute I get married and move out, Mama will be packing her bags to join me. It won’t matter if I want her to or not. It wouldn’t even matter if I was moving across the country, or across the ocean. All she would care about is finally being able to get away from Papa, the rest of the family and, most of all, Mossy Creek. It wouldn’t even matter that I’m the least favorite of her kids.

Like I said, reality rarely interferes with my mama’s plans.

Of course, being the ungrateful and unobliging child that I am, I have no more found a bus to hit me than I’ve been able to keep the family skeletons in the closet. The former I have no control over. Well, I do but it’s not something I have any intention of trying. I’m not as optimistic as Mama about what the outcome of bus vs. me would be. As for the latter, I swear I don’t mean to let the family skeletons out. At least not usually. It’s just that they make so much noise, what with all their moaning and the rattling of their bones, that sometimes I just can’t help it.

Of course, it doesn’t help Mama’s disposition that it always seems to happen at the worst possible time. Like when her women’s group was meeting in our parlor last Sunday after church. Mama had just served the iced tea and lemon pound cake. She had even managed to make the house smell more like a garden than a funeral parlor. Everything had been as close to perfect as was ever possible at our place.

Then Aunt Minnie decided she just had to join in on the fun.

Now I ask you, was it my fault she wanted to be part of the meeting? She had been a member of that women’s group since the very first meeting more than twenty years ago. Everyone there knew her. Then there’s the fact Mama knew shew as there – how could she forget? Besides, all Aunt Minnie had wanted was to find out what the no-account scoundrel of an ex-husband of hers had been doing with the new church secretary. Really.

I swear, those women sure did overreact when Aunt Minnie rattled in and sat down on the settee t to Miss Pearl. You would have thought Miss Pearl had seen a ghost the way she shrieked and then fainted dead away Okay, maybe Aunt Minnie smelled a bit. But we had buried her in her best Sunday-go-to-meeting dress and it was just as pretty that afternoon as it had been at her funeral six months ago. Mr. Perez, the local undertaker, had been by just the day before to give Aunt Minnie one of her treatments. So she looked pretty much like she had before she passed. Sure, her skin sagged a bit more than it used to and she had a slightly yellow tinge to her, but that was all, really.

Besides, old Missus McIntyre was wearing enough lilac scent to cover the smell. Not to mention I know for a fact that Miss Pearl’s house is haunted and she often has afternoon tea with the ghost of her great-great granddaddy. So why she had to overreact so to Aunt Minnie, I’ll never know.

Those old biddies scattered like dandelion parachutes in a strong wind the moment Miss Pearl hit the floor. It took me more than an hour to calm poor Aunt Minnie and coax her back into her closet. I don’t know if she will ever come out again and that’s a darned shame. She was always the best at gossiping and, honestly, there’s not much else to do in this backwater town on a cold Sunday afternoon – or just about any other time, come to think of it.

Now Mama, well, she was beside herself with frustration, indignation and mortification. Even as she swept up the last of the lemon pound cake from the carpet where Mary Beth Tully dropped it on her mad dash for freedom, Mama blamed me. She swears I do things like this solely to embarrass her. I’m the ungrateful child, you see, not perfect like my sister Patty and certainly not important like my brother Brett, also known as Bubba – which he just happens to be.

No, I’m too much like my granny, the bane of Mama’s existence even now, ten years after Granny drew her last breath. Mind you, Granny might have passed, but like Aunt Minnie, she didn’t pass on.

Maybe I ought to explain. My family has never been what you might call “normal”. We have had more than our fair share of oddballs and loners and even crazy cat ladies. Most families in Mossy Creek do, especially when, like us, they live on the “wrong side of the tracks”. But things took a decidedly sharp turn to the left of weird the day Perfect Patty came home complaining about how Old Lady Serena had given her the evil eye.

Nothing, absolutely nothing, has been the same since.

Nocturnal Challenge – Snippet 2

Attraktives Prchen ber den Dchern von Tokyo(This snippet is from my upcoming novel, Nocturnal Challenge. This is the fourth book, and the fifth entry, in the Nocturnal Lives series. This snippet is not the final edited version of what will appear in the novel. that means there very well will be changes between now and final publication. This work is copyright 2015 by Amanda S. Green. All rights reserved. No part of this may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by an information storage and retrieval system without permission in writing.)

Click here for Snippet 1.

***

“Hello, Mackenzie. I think it’s time we talk.”

Time stopped and the world narrowed to the slim blonde with the icy blue eyes standing just a few feet away. After more than ten years on the job with the Dallas Police Department, most of them as a murder cop, Lt. Mackenzie Santos had seen just about everything. She knew the depravity man could do to his fellow man. She knew the lengths a mother would go to protect her child. After the last six months, she even knew monsters really did exist outside the bad B-movies from Hollywood. But this was her worst nightmare come to life.

Instinct kicked in. She shifted position slightly so her injured shoulder was away from the woman. The fingers of her left hand closed around the grip of the Sig Sauer nestled at the small of her back. If she could have easily freed her right arm from the immobilizer securing that arm against her side and across her abdomen, she would have. Instead, she cast a quick look right and then left. There were too many people around, civilian and cop alike. Too many people who could get hurt and too many who could overhear something that could turn the world on its ear and result in a panic that would make the Salem witch hunt look tame by comparison. But she wasn’t alone. She had to remember that. Standing on either side of her were two people who would willingly die to protect her and her secret, whether she wanted them to or not.

“Cassandra.” It wasn’t much but it was better than the string of curses she wanted to let loose.

This had to be a bad dream. There was no other explanation for why Cassandra Wilkinson would be standing just a few feet away. If the blonde had business in town, Mac would have known about it. Her position as the local pride leader’s enforcer insured that. So the fact the Speaker of the Council, and the woman Mac believed responsible for so much of the trouble her pride had suffered recently, now stood before her was most definitely not a good thing.

Worse, Mac had no doubt that when Cassandra said it was time for them to talk, she’d meant talk alone, far away from prying eyes and curious ears. More than that, it would be far from anyone who might be able to help should Cassandra decide she didn’t like what Mac had to say. So not only “no” but “hell no”, not that she could come right out and tell Cassandra that. Knowing what she did about the Speaker and suspecting even more, Mac wasn’t about to go anywhere with the woman and especially not while injured.

She had to be very careful about what she said and did. They stood on the sidewalk outside the Dallas Justice Center where, only a few minutes earlier, Mac had finished giving her report to the Chief of Detectives and the District Attorney about the kidnapping and assault on her partner as well as an assistant district attorney and several others. Needless to say, it had been a partial report. She could no more tell the Chief of Ds and the DA the entire truth about what had happened than she could fly. If she did, they might think she had finally cracked under the pressure of the job. Worse, they might believe her and lock her up as a danger to society before going on hunt down all those like her.

Not that she would blame them if they did. Six months ago, she would have done the same thing. But that was before she discovered she turned furry on nights of the full moon and pretty much any other time she wanted. Now she had to make sure that secret didn’t come out, not only for her sake but for the sake of all those like her, at least not until the time was right. She would not be responsible for a modern version of the Boston witch hunts.

Unfortunately, she no longer believed Cassandra shared that concern. Even though they had met only a few times, Mac had never completely trusted the woman who was charged with enforcing shapeshifter law and making sure their existence was not discovered by the normals. Now, after the events of the last several weeks, she wasn’t sure Cassandra had ever really cared if their secret came out. Because of that, she had to be cautious about what she said and did next.

Most of all, she prayed she and her companions made it away from there alive so they could warn the others.

“LT?” Detective Nate Norwood, her temporary partner and a coyote shifter, asked in concern.

Instead of answering, Mac lifted her head slightly. As she did, she eased her hold on her jaguar. The jungle cat, so much a part of her now, pushed against her control, fighting for release. A growl sounded deep in Mac’s throat as the jaguar let her displeasure be known. She did not like Cassandra intruding on their territory. More than that, she did not appreciate the woman trying to tell them—them! – what to do. Well, that made two of them but there was little Mac could do about it, at least for the moment.

Caution won out over pride, training over ego. Mac sniffed the air and then relaxed slightly. All the smells she had come to associate with downtown were there: the cars, the exhaust, so many people pressing against one another as they made their way to their destinations. Hot dogs and condiments from the vendor at the corner. Coffee, rich and enticing, as someone walked past with a tall to-go cup. Nothing out of the ordinary.

But beneath all that were the scents she sought, the scents of shapeshifters. One was Cassandra. There could be no mistaking the dry grass scent Mac had come to associate with the woman. It reminded her of how a hayfield smelled several days after it had been cut. The second scent was the deeper, musky scent of Norwood. So far, so good.

Another sniff and Mac allowed herself to relax a little as she scented no other shapeshifters in the area. Cassandra had either come on her own or whomever she had brought with her was far enough away that Mac’s heightened senses couldn’t pick them up. That was fine by her. That meant they were too far away to interfere if a hasty retreat was called for. Maybe this little encounter would end peacefully after all.

At least she hoped so.

But she still needed to figure out how to respond to the woman who had led the Council for the last decade, without giving enough offense that Cassandra could legitimately take action against her. Damn but dealing with the politics of her new people was even more complicated, and certainly more fatal if you made a misstep, than dealing with the politics of the police department and justice system.

“Come. Walk with me, Mackenzie,” Cassandra said firmly.

The power behind those simple words washed over Mac and, for one brief moment, she felt the urge to step away from Jael and Norwood. Intellectually, she knew what was happening. Cassandra was trying to force her to do as she said by sheer will. It was something Mac had seen – and felt – her grandmother, as well as her own pride leader, do. Alphas had the ability to roll those who were weaker, leaving them no choice but to do as they were bid. Those times, Mac had responded instantly, not only because they were alphas but because she respected them enough not to even consider disobeying. But this was different.

Very different.

Even as Sergeant Jael Lindsay, her mentor and former training officer, reached out to stop her, Mac gave a quick shake of her head. Her jaguar pushed once more against her control, furious that the Speaker had tried to intimidate them – THEM – into obeying. Her jaguar wasn’t just furious, she was contemptuous. The Speaker had not earned their obedience, much less their respect, and she certainly did not deserve it. This was their territory and Cassandra was there uninvited. More important than that, she was the enemy.

Drawing strength from her jaguar, Mac glanced at Norwood to see if he had reacted to Cassandra’s order. Relief washed over her to see him still standing at her side, his hand near the gun under his jacket. Then, seeing the concern reflected in the younger man’s eyes, she gave him a quick wink. She might be battered and bruised, but she was still in control. He didn’t have to worry.

Yet.

Hoping she wasn’t about to make a bad situation worse, Mac took a single step forward. As she did, she fixed a slight smile on her lips. If anyone should happen to look their way, she didn’t want them thinking there was a problem. The last thing she needed was some well-intentioned soul interfering. She had a feeling things would go south in a hurry if that were to happen.

“Cassandra.” She fought the urge to grin as the blonde’s blue eyes flashed. Maybe it had finally dawned on her that Mac wasn’t going to blindly obey her. “It is always a pleasure to see you.” A lie but hopefully Cassandra would think it one of those little social lies almost everyone tells at some point in their lives. “Are you here to see Michael?”

Of course she wasn’t. The answer was written on Cassandra’s face from the way she clenched her teeth to the angry flush that rose on her cheeks. Then the anger disappeared almost as quickly as it had come. Mac had to give it to her. The woman knew how to roll with the punches. Hopefully that meant she also realized how precarious their position happened to be. Cops and civilians alike moved past them as they came and went from the Justice Center. Surely the blonde wouldn’t risk doing or saying something that might reveal their secret.

“As I said, Mackenzie, it is time the two of us talked. Join me for a coffee.”

Once again her power rolled over Mac. Prepared for it this time, Mac didn’t falter. Nor did she miss the surprise and something else, uncertainty perhaps, that crossed Cassandra’s expression. Not that Mac had time to think about it or about what her failure to comply with the Speaker’s order might mean. Instead, she needed to find out why the blonde had shown up without warning. But she’d be damned if she went anywhere with the woman, much less alone.

“I’m sorry, Cassandra, but I am on my way to a crime scene.” A lie but what other choice did she have? All she could do was pray she played the next bit right. “I’m sure if you contact Michael, he’d be glad to arrange for a time and place where we can meet without fear of interruption.”

At least that latter was technically true. As Speaker, Cassandra had the right to talk to any member of a pack, pride or pard that had sworn allegiance to the Council. Tradition, however, held that the Council, or its representative, would first approach the local alpha and ask permission to meet with whomever they wished to speak with. Mac hoped Cassandra would assume she was falling back on tradition because she was so new to her shifter abilities and still learning the ins and outs of shifter society. If she didn’t, they were all in trouble.

God, don’t let her push this any further.

“Mackenzie.” There could be no mistaking the warning, or the anger, in the blonde’s voice. “We will speak now.”

“I mean no disrespect, Cassandra, and I will be glad to speak with you. All I ask is that you talk with Michael first. I’m sure he will approve of our meeting. Besides, as I told you, I am on my way to a crime scene.”

Mac waited, wondering how the Speaker would react. She sensed Cassandra’s cheetah pushing against the blonde’s control. At the same time, Mac’s jaguar coiled beneath the surface, ready to spring and force a shift should Cassandra attack. Pushing the jungle cat down, Mac once again reached to the small of her back and the Sig Sauer nestled there. As she did, she gave a slight nod. She trusted Norwood to look after himself. She would make sure nothing happened to Jael

“Very well, Mackenzie. But this isn’t over. We will speak and soon.” The blonde’s words were clipped, her tone leaving no doubt about how she felt. When her eyes locked with Mac’s, Mac refused to look away. She would not show fear or submission to this woman or to her cheetah. Even so, she prayed she was making the right decision.

“I look forward to it.”

Mac inclined her head. As she did, Cassandra turned and strode off, the high heels of her designer boots clicking loudly against the sidewalk. Anger radiated off of her as she pushed her way past several women coming down the street. A few moments later, a dark sedan’s security system disengaged with a beep. With Norwood and Jael flanking her, Mac watched as Cassandra climbed in behind the steering wheel. The engine roared to life and the sedan pulled into traffic with a screech of tires that could have earned her a traffic ticket.

Mac looked on as the sedan turned at the corner and disappear from sight. Only then did she release her grip on her gun. Her heart rate slowed and her breathing returned to normal. But her mind raced. One thing was certain. They couldn’t stand there, waiting to see what happened next. She needed to let King know Cassandra was in town and she needed to warn those at the safe house. Like it or not, the battle – maybe even the war – had just come to them.

“LT?” Jael spoke softly, her concern obvious.

“Get in the SUV, both of you.” Mac glanced up and then down the street to make sure Cassandra had not circled back. “Nate, I want you to drive around for a few minutes. Let’s make sure we haven’t picked up a tail. Once you’re confident we’re in the clear, I want you to drop Jael and me back at the office.”

“No way, LT,” he said firmly. “I’m taking you straight to the safe house.” He spoke softly enough that he wouldn’t be overheard but there could be no mistaking his conviction.

“Nate, think for a moment. The SUV was unattended while we were inside making our report. That means Cassandra, or one of her people, could have tagged it. There’s no way we’re going anywhere near the safe house until we know it’s clean. That’s your job. Come back with either this one after it’s been swept or with a new vehicle. Then I will gladly let you take me to the others. Until then, we’re going to play this smart and not run the risk of leading that bitch back to our people.”

For a moment it looked like he would argue. Then he nodded. “You don’t let her out of your sight, Sarge,” he told Jael.

“Don’t worry. I won’t leave her side.” With that, Mac’s former training officer motioned for them all to climb into the SUV. “I take it we’re going to see the captain.”

“If at all possible. He needs to know what happened.” Mac slid into the front passenger seat and leaned back, carefully shifting positions until she found one that didn’t hurt her injured shoulder.

“Are you sure that’s the best course of action?” Jael asked as she slid into the backseat.

Mac started to answer and then stopped. She recognized Jael’s tone of voice. It was the same tone the woman had used when they were partnered together a lifetime ago. Mac had quickly learned it meant she needed to think about what she had said or had done. In almost every situation, Jael had been right. Could she be so now?

“Drive. I need to think for a minute,” she said as Norwood started the engine.

Trusting her companions to make sure they weren’t being followed, Mac leaned her head against the back of the seat and closed her eyes. She had no doubt that she needed to let King know what had just happened. But was it wise to go back to the office to do so? There was always the chance they would be overheard there. Damn, life had been so much less complicated before she started turning furry.

Unfortunately, this was something she needed to tell him face-to-face. Jael was right, though. Doing it at the office would not work. There were too many distractions there and too great a risk they might be overheard. With a sigh, she reached for her cellphone.

“King,” her pride leader and commanding officer said a few moments later.

“It’s Santos, sir.” Might as well play it safe in case he was not alone. “Something’s come up on one of my current cases that I need to brief you on.” Hopefully, he would understand what she was not saying.

“Lieutenant, I assume you’ve finished briefing the Chief of Ds and are on your way home now. I’d hate to find out you are working when you are supposed to be on medical leave.”

It wasn’t quite a question and it was enough to let her know that he wasn’t alone. Thank goodness she hadn’t said what was on her mind.

“That’s correct, sir. You made it quite clear that I need to do as the doctors say or you won’t let me return to duty any time soon.” She did her best to put a hint of pained humor in her voice.

“Good.” No one overhearing King could doubt his satisfaction that she was following orders. “I assume you want to give your report in person, Lieutenant.”

“I think it would be best, sir. This is information that was passed on to me while I was at the Justice Center.”

“Very well, I have a few things to take care of here. I will swing by your place on my way home tonight. Until then, get some rest. I need you back at your desk and on the streets as soon as possible.”

“Understood, sir, and thank you.” She ended the call, knowing he would be at the safe house as soon as possible without raising suspicions.  “All right, Nate. Let’s go switch out vehicles. I want this one checked before it goes anywhere near our people.”

“Yes, ma’am.” He turned right and checked the rearview mirror. “So far, no sign of a tail.”

“Keep an eye out but go on and head to the garage.” Or wherever he needed to go in order to pick up another SUV.

Satisfied, Mac turned her thoughts back to the encounter with Cassandra. The encounter had been enlightening on several levels. First, the Speaker had been rattled, something Mac figured didn’t happen very often. If they were lucky, it would make the Speaker careless. Mac hoped so because they needed more than a little luck right now. Too much hung in the balance for them to make any mistakes.

Second, Cassandra had come alone. Mac had no doubt about it after seeing her drive off. She knew enough about the blonde to realize Cassandra would not be driving if she had brought another of their kind with her. Could it be that she did not have anyone she trusted enough to take Yazhari’s place? God, she hoped so. The longer Cassandra was deprived of someone to carry out her dirty work, the better it would be for their side.

Finally, it was obvious Cassandra had not told King of her arrival in town. Not that it surprised Mac. Still, it was a breach of protocol on the Speaker’s part and, as far as Mac was concerned, a sign of how worried Cassandra was about what the local pride might know.

“When did life get so complicated?” She hadn’t meant to say it aloud.

“About the time you followed your family’s tradition and started turning furry.”

Jael actually chuckled and Mac shook her head, a smile playing at her lips. Jael was right. Before then, the worst thing Mac had to deal with were drive-by shootings, drug deals gone bad and the occasional jealous husband or wife killing their partner or lover. Now she had to deal with all that and do everything she could to keep the world-at-large from discovering that shapeshifters really did exist and weren’t just something out of bad Hollywood movies.

Some days, it just didn’t pay to get out of bed.

An update, a thought or two and a snippet

I’m sitting at my desk, watching it rain. While I love the rain and would prefer to be outside walking in it, I have to work. Of course, rain also means it is dark outside so, as I try to focus on editing, I want to go back to bed and nap. The fact the idiot dog and demon cat decided it would be sooooo much fun to get me up at 0330 — the 0400 and 0430 and, well, you get the message — a nap sounds really good right now. But I will remain strong and keep drinking coffee and try to get back to editing.

So, here’s the update. The edits on Sword of Arelion, the first book in a planned three book fantasy arc, are progressing. Fingers crossed, they should be done some time over the weekend, if not sooner. Both Honor from Ashes, the third book in the Honor and Duty series, and Nocturnal Challenge, book four in the Nocturnal Lives series, are talking to me again. I have a feeling that I may wind up writing them pretty much simultaneously.

Once those two are done, I will finish up Skeletons in the Closet. Then it will be time to do the sequel to Sword. The good thing is, Skeletons is plotted and the voice in that one is strong, very strong. That’s why I can’t work on it when I’m working on anything else. There are other books in the pipeline and a couple of novellas. Let’s just say, I don’t see any real down time in the future.

Now for the Hugos. Sigh. I am going to try not to spend much more time discussing the contretemps but I make no promises. I can’t and won’t sit still when I see good men and women attacked without cause, often maliciously, simply because they don’t toe the party line. But the truth of the matter is, nothing I say, nothing any of us say, will change the minds of those so ingrained in the status quo that they are fighting tooth and nail to prevent the outsiders from coming in.

Frankly, I am more than disappointed with how a number of them have reacted to the current situation. Here are authors who ought to know better trying to get their peers and fans to vote No Award ahead of nominated works simply because they don’t like they think something made it onto the ballot. They don’t give a damn about the author or the work. They are making a “statement” — well, I hate to tell them this but it is a chickenshit statement and one that shows just how petty they are. I have looked at the ballot and there are works on it that I have a pretty good idea I won’t like — and yes, they come from one of the so-called slates. But I am not going to vote No Award because of the slate it was on. Nor am I going to vote No Award because I think I won’t like it. What I will do is read it, as well as the other entries. Then and only then will I cast my ballot. The only way I will vote No Award is if I think a work — after reading or watching it — is not worthy of being awarded the Hugo. Too bad others can’t do the same.

Now for the snippet.

Portrai of mystic  elf woman with sword, armor and tattoo on her hand.Sword of Arelion is a fantasy novel I originally wrote more than 10 years ago. I have now completely rewritten it to what is, at best, rough draft status. It’s been an interesting project because I haven’t written anything like this in quite awhile. Please keep in mind that this is a very rough draft. That means there will be spelling and grammar errors, and probably more as well. These will be corrected during edits. As with anything posted here, the copyright is mine so all the standard disclaimers apply. Now, here is the opening section from Sword of Arelion, a fantasy novel that may or may not see the full light of day.

The image I’ve attached to this post is a mock-up of what I think will be the cover. Yes, I know the typesetting sucks. I was more interested in finding an image that “fit” and then in getting something that would keep reminding me that I am serious about trying to complete this novel, even if only as an exercise in what can be done.

Click here for Snippet 1 and here for Snippet 2 and here for Snippet 3.

One last note, you will notice some of the names have been changed or altered since the earlier snippets. That happened during the first editing pass after talking with my Alpha Reader. I think, for the purposes of this snippet, we are only taking about the tavern-master, but there could be one or two other minor changes.

***

She swallowed hard. The last thing she wanted to think about were those first days after waking. To give herself time, she once again lifted the mug to her lips and sipped. As she did, she knew she should have no more. With no food in her stomach, it would not take much for the wine to affect her and one lesson she had learned early on was never to lose control. It was a hard-learned lesson and one she wasn’t about to forget just because it appeared her situation was changing.

“I was nothing to him, less than an animal,” she began only to be cut off by an angry denial from the tavern-master.

Instinctively, she hunched her shoulders and looked for someplace to hide. She knew that tone of voice, just as she knew what would happen should he get his hands on her any time soon. She would be lucky to survive the beating. He had been so angry before the knight had interfered. Now his rage was deadly and she would be the one to pay the price if he managed to get free.

“Quiet!” Commander Darrias ordered.

Cait flinched as the commander followed up his order with a savage blog to the tavern-master’s midsection. Even as Giaros gasped for breath, a sense of satisfaction filled Cait. Too many times had she been on the receiving end of such blows. Now, to see the man treated in much the same manner, she could feel that faint glimmer of hope in the pit of her stomach building. Maybe this was real and her nightmare was about to end.

Not that she would let her guard down. There were still too many unknowns and too much that could go wrong. So she focused on the commander, watching as Darrias extended his right hand. A moment later, one of his troopers handed him a leather thong. Without a word, the commander nodded and stepped forward. Cait swallowed hard as memories threatened to overwhelm her as Darrias quickly bound Giaros’ hands behind his back. Much as she had suffered at the tavern-master’s hands, this was too close to what he had done to her.

“My apologies, Cait. I promise he won’t interrupt again.” The soft statement drew her attention back to the duke.  “I only have a few more questions. Did you ever try to leave Giaros or tell someone what had happened? Also, did he force you to lie with him after that day in the camp?”

Cait once again looked down at her hands. They were wrapped around the mug where it rested on the table before her. She hated remembering. It brought back all the pain and fear and threatened to overwhelm her. Why couldn’t they just leave her alone? Then a gentle hand closed over her shoulder. Looking up, she found Fallon watching her, compassion and understanding reflected in his eyes. Seeing it, she smiled slightly. She could do this. She had to. Otherwise, they might make her return to the tavern-master and she would not survive that. If he didn’t kill her, she would kill herself. She would not give him power over her ever again.

“I did try to escape, milord, several times. The first was on the trail. The next was not long after our arrival.” She closed her eyes and the memories came flooding back. “Two days after we left the camp, I managed to slip my bonds before we broke camp. It was early, not quite dawn, and he didn’t seem to be paying that much attention.  I ran but I wasn’t fast enough. He caught me and then he beat me until I lost consciousness. When I woke, he gave me my first lesson about how the slave bands could be used.” She shivered violently at the memory. “He chained me like an animal so I could only move on hands and knees. For the rest of the day, I had to follow the mules like a stray dog. Then he beat and raped me again. From then until we arrived here, when we would make camp at night, he would chain me to a tree. He promised I would never get away from him again.”

She paused, her mouth working as she swallowed against the bile the rose in her throat. She could feel his hands on her, rough and painful. His breath was fetid. Madness – or something worse – filled his eyes and she knew he would take a great deal of pleasure in dealing out as much pain as he could before he finally killed her.

No! It was just a memory. That was all. He couldn’t hurt her any more. He was the one now tied and helpless. She could do this. She had to do this.

“The second time I tried to escape, he caught me before I could leave the tavern. It was late, after the last customer had left. I thought he would kill me, he was so angry. Instead, he dragged me down to the cellar where he beat me again. Then he chained me so I couldn’t move, much less leave. He kept me down there for two days without food or water. Except when he came to me at night, he kept me gagged. He promised he would kill me if I did anything to bring attention to myself. From that day on, he made sure the opportunity to escape never came.”

“Why didn’t you say something to me at least, child?” Longbow asked.

“He threatened to kill anyone I told, sir. He said if he even thought I’d said anything untoward to someone, he would kill them and make me watch. I couldn’t risk him hurting anyone else.” Tears burned her eyes and she angrily dashed them away.

“She lies!” Fear laced Giaros’ voice so heavily Cait prayed the others realized it meant she spoke true.

“I said to be quiet!” Darrias turned and backhanded the tavern-master, almost knocking him from his chair.

“What about my other question, Cait?” the duke asked.

“Milord, he did force himself on me. I know not how many times. I quit counting long ago.”

“When was the last time?” Fallon asked.

“A few months ago.” At least she thought it had been that long. She couldn’t be sure.

“Do you know why he stopped?”

“I asked what he would do if he got me with child.”

She could almost smile at the memory. She had known the moment Giaros dragged her upstairs to his rooms what he had in mind. Something inside of her seemed to snap. She no longer cared what happened. If he beat her into unconsciousness, at least she wouldn’t know if he raped her. Death would be a welcome release.

She had asked the question before she knew what she was doing. The response was something she had never thought to see. Giaros stopped, his breeches around his ankles, his shirt dangling from one hand. His expression looked like he had just been hit by a tree and then he paled. Without a word, he pulled up his breeches. Then he grabbed her by the arm and hauled her down to the cellar where he chained her and, just before locking the door behind him, he warned her to be quiet or face his wrath. Then the door closed and she listened as the bolt slid into place. That had been the last time he’d forced himself on her.

As she remembered that night, Cait sensed Fallon stiffening at her side. When she looked up at him, she was very glad not to be in Giaros’ shoes just then. The knight looked as if he would like nothing more than to pull his sword and use it to make short work of the tavern-master. That did more to reassure Cait than anything short of Giaros’ death and her departure from the duchy could have and she clung to that for all she was worth.

Despite what the duke said, there were more questions. How often had he hit her? Had he treated her injuries? Had she ever been seen by a healer? She answered as best she could, all the while wishing they would just stop. Hadn’t she said enough already to convince them she was telling the truth.

“Cait, we’re almost done,” Fallon said softly. She nodded, not quite believing him. “But now we need to see where you stayed. Can you show us?”

Swallowing hard, she nodded. Fear knotted her stomach at the thought of returning to the cellar. Could this be a ruse to get her down there so they could do with her as they wanted? No, she couldn’t – she wouldn’t – believe that. Not when Fallon looked at her, so worried and caring, and not when she could see the fury reflected in Commander Darrias’ eyes whenever he looked at Giaros. She needed to trust these men not to betray her. But it was so very hard . . . .

She slid her hand into Fallon’s and let him draw her to her feet. Without a word, she led them through the tavern to the cellar entrance at the back of the kitchen. The heavy wooden door was closed, the bolt slid into place. Darrias stepped around her and slid the bolt back and opened the door. At his signal, one of the troopers appeared with a lantern. He led the way down the steep, uneven steps, Darrias just behind him. With Fallon following closely, Cait descended into the setting of so many of her nightmares.

She said nothing as the men looked around. She didn’t have to, not when the cellar itself told the tale. Resting on the stone floor in the far corner of the dark, dank room were the thin mattress and threadbare blanket that had been her bedding. Cait shuddered at the sight of the heavy metal rings set into the stone floor along the sides of the mattress and the short chains attached to them. Most nights, those chains had been secured to her slave bands, leaving her a helpless victim to whatever depravity Giaros wanted to visit upon her.

Her other nights had been spent chained to the man’s bed. It might have been more comfortable but there had been no pleasure in it. Those nights she had been raped and abused, often by others besides Giaros. She had learned to fear those times even more than those lonely nights in the cellar. At least on those nights, unless Giaros came to her, no one hurt her and she could escape in her dreams for a little while at least.

“Cait, did you ever see any others like you?” Fallon asked as they once more made their way to the common room.

She shook her head and then smiled slightly as he once more seated her at the table and handed her the mug of mulled wine. Gods above and below, she wanted to trust him.

“You have my deepest apologies, Cait. Until now, I did not want to believe you. I did not want to think such evil could exist in my lands without me knowing about it. For that, I am truly sorry.” The duke inclined his head, his expression as serious as she had seen since his arrival. “There is little I can do to make up for what you have suffered, but I hope you will let me begin by accepting my offer for you and Sir Fallon to take up residence at the keep until the council has met and determined the appropriate punishment for the tavern-master.”

“It would be our honor, my lord,” Fallon answered for them both. Then he looked down at Cait and she realized he wanted to make sure she agreed. She nodded. Just then, she would agree to almost anything if it meant she could leave the tavern and never return. “With your permission, milord, I think it best we leave this place. It holds nothing but pain and fear for Cait. More importantly, her injuries need to be seen to. Then I want those cursed bands removed. She has been forced to endure them all too long already.”

“Of course, Sir Fallon.”

“Once that is done, milord, I think the two of us must discuss how such an abomination could exist in your duchy for so long without someone discovering it.” Fallon’s voice was so cold that Cait looked at him in surprise. “Steps must be taken to insure there are no others suffering as Cait has.”

“I assure you, Sir Knight, that I share you concern and want those same questions answered.” If possible, the duke’s voice was even colder than Fallon’s had been. “Come morning, the council shall convene to hear this matter. But for today, Commander Darrias and his people will question the tavern-master about Cait and what has happened.”

“Very well.” Fallon inclined his head and once again rested a reassuring hand on Cait’s shoulder. “I insist upon one other thing, milord. Giaros must be confined. He cannot be given the opportunity, no matter how small, to cause Cait more harm or to escape justice.”

“Agreed.” The duke quickly issued the necessary orders and Commander Darrias assured him he understood. “Shall we go?” he asked, pointedly turning his back on the tavern-master as Giaros once more began pleading his cause.

Fallon nodded and helped Cait to her feet.

“Sir Fallon,” she said softly as they followed Longbow and the duke into the golden warmth of the afternoon sun, the first she had felt in more than a year.

“Just Fallon, lass.”

She paused and glanced skyward, one hand lifting to shield her eyes. Everything seemed so bright, so clear and clean. Despite the pain from her injured ribs and back, she breathed deeply, filling her lungs with first fresh air for the first time in much too long. Then she smiled slightly, praying this wasn’t all a dream. Even if it was, it was worth it. She had forgotten how beautiful a day could be. Now if it would just last.

“There is no way to thank you for what you’ve done.” She fell silent, wondering what those looking through open doors and windows thought of the strange procession moving through the streets in the direction of the keep. How many of them had come to the tavern over the many months she had been there? How many had seen her, had seen the bands she wore and ignored them. Anger flared and she pushed it down. There would be time for that later. But now she had to focus on what was happening and do everything she could to make sure she was never returned to Giaros. She would rather die first. “What happens now?”

“After we’ve been shown to our rooms, your injuries will be treated and those accursed bands removed. Then you can bathe, eat and get some much deserved and needed rest.”

“And after the council meets?” Damn that note of fear in her voice. It was never good to show weakness. It would be used against her. That was another lesson she had learned at Giaros’ hands.

“I promise to see you settled and safe well away from here, Cait.”

She glanced up at him, surprised by the fierce determination that shone from his expression. As she did, she knew intuitively that she could trust him. Even so, until the bands were removed, she would not be able to accept it was all real. Maybe then she could finally begin to believe things were going to get better.

Another snippet because my brain hasn’t started working yet

It’s been almost a month since I last posted a snippet. Part of the reason is because I have really wanted to give Sword of Arelion time to sit before I start the editing process. Part is because, well, I knew that the moment I started regularly snippeting it, I would have focus on it once again until it was ready to go live. The problem with that is I have two other books — Honor from Ashes and Nocturnal Challenge — I need to be focusing on. As I’ve said in my posts last week, I’ve been doing some background work for Honor, mainly re-reading the previous books in the series and making notes about what needs to be covered and not left hanging in this book.

Fast forward to this morning and, well, the world of my writing flipped on me again. Oh, I’m not delaying Honor. However, there is no way I will start writing on it for at least another week. So . . . my muse hit me (with a little help from AJ Prince and her post over at Twisted Writers this morning) and Sword woke up again. So, you guys get a snippet and I will start editing that manuscript when I’m not re-reading and taking notes on Duty from Ashes (Honor and Duty Book 2) (since I finished doing just that with Vengeance from Ashes (Honor and Duty Book 1) day before yesterday).

Portrai of mystic  elf woman with sword, armor and tattoo on her hand.Sword of Arelion is a fantasy novel I originally wrote more than 10 years ago. I have now completely rewritten it to what is, at best, rough draft status. It’s been an interesting project because I haven’t written anything like this in quite awhile. Please keep in mind that this is a very rough draft. That means there will be spelling and grammar errors, and probably more as well. These will be corrected during edits. As with anything posted here, the copyright is mine so all the standard disclaimers apply. Now, here is the opening section from Sword of Arelion, a fantasy novel that may or may not see the full light of day.

The image I’ve attached to this post is a mock-up of what I think will be the cover. Yes, I know the typesetting sucks. I was more interested in finding an image that “fit” and then in getting something that would keep reminding me that I am serious about trying to complete this novel, even if only as an exercise in what can be done

Click here for Snippet 1 and here for Snippet 2.

***

She stared at her hands where they rested in her lap, fingers clasped so tightly together it hurt. But that was nothing compared to the pain lancing her ribs with every breath she took or that where the tavern-master’s belt had broken the skin of her back. Not that pain was anything new to her. It had been her almost constant companion for so long she now expected it.

What she wasn’t used to was being the center of attention. Her master had told her to never bring attention to herself. Having so many eyes watching her, so many people discussing her as if she wasn’t even there unsettled her. If she could, she would flee the room but something told her that would not be allowed.

So she sat as still as she could, praying they would soon leave her be. Her master would be so angry when they did. She hurt now but it would be nothing compared to what he would do to her once they were alone. Blessed Elanna, why hadn’t she tried to help Master Longbow sooner? If she had, her master would have been none the wiser.

“What is your name, child?”

She lifted her head slightly and studied the man kneeling in front of her. With his blond hair and blue eyes, he looked like so many who frequented the tavern. But he wasn’t one of those she had served. She would have remembered his fancy clothes. The others had called him duke. What did he want with her?

Unsure, afraid of what Garris might do should she answer, she glanced to her left. Longbow sat at her side, his expression concerned and yet oddly reassuring. He placed a gentle hand on her shoulder and nodded. He wanted her to answer the young man. The duke, she reminded herself. She had trusted Longbow before but could she now?

“H-he calls me Sparrow.” She spoke softly, so softly the words were barely audible. Still, they sounded almost like a shout in the silence of the tavern.

“And your age?”

“H-he told me eighteen winters.” Without taking her eyes from the duke’s face, she nodded to where the troopers held Garris in place.

“Child, don’t you know how old you are?”

She heard Longbow’s concern and tears pricked at her eyes as she shook her head. There was so much she didn’t know but how could she tell them that?

“No.” If possible, she spoke even softer than before. Why couldn’t they leave her alone?

“Child, look at me.”

Something about the voice made her comply. She looked up from her hands as someone knelt next to the duke. The stranger, the one who had tried to protect her from her master, knelt there, his expression troubled. Then he reached out and she started nervously. He paused and then gently brushed a lock of hair back, revealing more of her face than she had let anyone see in so very long.

“Child, my name is Fallon Mevarel. I am a knight of the Order of Arelion. I swear you have nothing more to fear. I will make sure nothing else happens to you.” He spoke softly, almost as softly as she had, yet there was such confidence in his words and the way he spoke them that she wanted to believe him. But how could she? She had learned the hard way how foolish it was to trust anyone but herself. “Will you answer a question for me?”

She nodded almost reluctantly.

“You said the tavern-master calls you Sparrow. Is that your name? Is it what you call yourself?”

She closed her eyes as a single tear tracked down her cheek. Why couldn’t he leave her alone? She didn’t want to think about what he asked and what she knew he would ask after that.

“N-no.” She licked her lips, struggling to find the courage to continue.

“What is it?” The knight’s hand cupped her cheek so lightly she could barely feel it. Never could she remember anyone treating with such care.

“I don’t know.” Once again, she ducked her head and stared at her hands.

“Child, are you telling us that you don’t know your name or how old you are?” the duke asked.

She nodded, too ashamed to look at him or at anyone else. She was a nobody, not worthy of having a name. That was what her master had told her. She was property to be used and discarded at his whim. Would these people feel the same?

“How did you come to be called Sparrow?” the knight wanted to know.

“My master named me. Said I was his caged bird with no more sense or beauty than a common sparrow.”

She glanced up and through the mask of her hair, saw Fallon’s expression harden as he glanced at Garris. A spark of hope, faint but real, seemed to come alive at the very core of her. Maybe she could trust him, this stranger who saw more in the span of a few hours than others had in so very long.

“What do you call yourself?”

Call herself?

A slight, bitter smile touched her lips. She could tell him, just as she could tell him how much she had hated being called Sparrow, hated all it had stood for. But that would reveal much, perhaps too much, about what she thought and felt. After so long of hiding that part of her from everyone, and most especially from her master, did she dare trust this stranger?

But what did she have to lose?

“Please, child. We need to know what to call you and it would be best if it was a name you prefer.” Longbow’s hand closed over hers and gave it a reassuring squeeze.

She drew a deep breath, wincing as her ribs screamed in pain. She could do this. She had to do this if she was to ever break away from her master.

“Call me Cait.”

crossedswords

Fallon thought his heart would break at that one soft word. Her voice – Cait’s voice – was so filled with despair it hurt. If he had had any doubts before then, he no longer did. Not when he looked at the way she stared at her hands, rough and reddened from hard work, not when he recognized the word and its slightly foreign sound. She had chosen a name for herself that was the opposite of what the tavern-master had chosen. He had wanted to cage the bird. She wanted to kill it, or at least to kill what it represented. Cait, which she pronounced as kawch, was how some of the northerners said cat. Had she heard someone say it that way or was it a clue about where she had come from?

He couldn’t worry about that – yet. He needed to do everything possible to make sure the duke understood the extent of the problem in his realm. That was first and foremost. But he also had to make sure Cait never had to spend another moment at the mercy of Garris. Once those two things were done, he could worry about how she had come to be there.

“Cait. I like it.” He smiled and once more reached out. This time he tilted her head up so she looked him in the eye. She needed to see that he spoke true. “I have a feeling it fits you much more than Sparrow ever did.”

She gave him a small, shaky smile but it was enough to let him hope she had not yet been broken by Garris.

“Will you answer a few more questions for us?”

She nodded once.

“How long have you been here?”

She closed her eyes as if trying to remember. “This will be my second winter here.”

Longbow nodded when Fallon looked to him for confirmation. As he did, anger flared. How could so many people have seen what was happening around them and yet not do anything? Fallon wanted to climb to his feet and pace – or mete out instant justice to Garris and all like him. Instead, he stayed where he was, focusing on Cait and making sure he did everything he could to reassure her so she felt safe enough to tell him what he needed to know.

“And before you came here?”

She shook her head, tears once more leaving tracks down her dirty cheeks. Fallon closed his eyes, putting a tight rein on his emotions. Thank the Lord and Lady he listened when instinct pulled him in the direction of New Grange. If he had ridden past, he had no doubt the girl would not have lasted much longer. From what he could tell, it was a miracle she had lasted this long.

“Cait, don’t you remember anything from before you came here?”

Another shake of her head.

“I know I am asking much and I am sorry but it is important that I know everything you can tell me.” He reached out and, using his fingertips, brushed away her tears. He waited, praying she understood. Then she nodded again. This time, however, she looked directly at him instead of at her hands. Good. He hoped that was good. “What is the first thing you remember?”

“Waking in a small tent. It was cold. I was cold, so cold. I tried to sit up but I hurt. Everything seemed to hurt. Then I realized I was bound, hands behind my back, ankles crossed. It was dark and I was along.” She paused and then softly thanked Fallon as he pressed a mug of mulled wine into her hands. He waited as she sipped, knowing better than to rush her. She needed to tell this in her way and in her time. Not that it made waiting any easier.

“I may have passed out. Maybe I slept. I don’t know. But suddenly he was there.” she nodded once again at the tavern-master. This time, anger lit her eyes and Fallon nodded in approval. “Another man came in after him and dragged me outside. Neither said anything as they put the bands on me. Once they had, the second man freed my ankles and said it was time to sample the merchandise. He—” Another nod at Garris—“raped me. When he finished, they told me I belonged to him. A chain was locked to my neck band and he led me out of the camp.” Tears rolled freely down her cheeks and she reached up with one grimy hand to wipe them away.

“What else did the tavern-master say about your relationship?” the duke wanted to know.

“That I was his property. If I did as I was told, I would be rewarded. If I failed to please him, I would be punished.”

This time she glared at Garris. Seeing it, Fallon smiled in approval. Her spirit might have been battered but it had not been broken. That would help her recover both mentally and physically – if he could get her away from there before anything else happened.

“Cait, you said there was pain when you woke. Can you describe it?” Fallon asked, hoping that might help determine why she could remember nothing before that terrible day.

“Aye, sir. I seemed to hurt all over. I later realized I had a number of injuries, some almost healed.”

“Your head? Did it hurt?”

She nodded. “It did. It was hard to focus and the light hurt my eyes. It hurt badly for several days after I woke.”

A head injury then as well as everything else. But how had she been injured and by whom?

“What about the other man? What can you tell us about him?” Fallon knew her answers could tell him a great deal, at least about who held her before Garris. That would at least give him a place to start.

“Big. Skin was wind burned but still pale. He spoke strangely, as if his native tongue was not this one.” She shivered as she recalled him and Fallon wished he didn’t have to ask her to relive that time. “His hair was dark, darker than mine, and there was a band on white in it.”

Wasteland raider then. But what was a nomad from that godless land doing this far north? More importantly, when and how had he gotten his hands on Cait and what in the name of all that was holy had he done to her before handing her over to Garris?

Fallon frowned thoughtfully. Learning that Garris had been doing business with the raider boded ill for not only the tavern-master but for Lineaus and the rest of the Imperium as well. For years, the raiders had believed it their right to enslave and kill anyone who was unfortunate enough to wander into their lands. For generations, they had pressed the borders, trying to gain inroads into the Imperium. If they were getting bold enough to look for, and find, those within the Imperium willing to do their bidding, then Lord and Lady help them all. Trouble was most definitely on the horizon.

“All right, Cait.” The duke held up a hand to forestall any other questions. “What about your life here? How did Garris treat you?”

Sword of Arelion – snippet 1

As I noted Friday, I’ve been having trouble recapturing the right “voice” in Nocturnal Challenge. So I am spending much of the weekend re-reading the first three novels and the novella in the series. Once I have, and once I’m confident I have Mac firmly planted back in my head, I will go back over what I’ve already written and should be able to pound the remainder of the book out in 10 days or so. In the meantime, I’m seeing if I can resurrect a fantasy novel I originally wrote more than 10 years ago. So far it has been interesting because I haven’t written anything like this in quite awhile. But it is a good exercise and it is keeping me writing without interfering with the process of finishing Challenge.

I think what I am going to do is treat this like a NaNoWriMo piece. To keep myself honest about it, for the next week or two, I will post my work. I will try to break it up when I can because I don’t want to post 5,000 word chunks. However, today’s snippet is almost that long. It is also a very rough draft. That means there will be spelling and grammar errors, and probably more as well. These will be corrected during edits.

As with anything posted here, the copyright is mine so all the standard disclaimers apply. Now, here is the opening section from Sword of Arelion, a fantasy novel that may or may not see the full light of day.

***

Chapter One

The old man sat before the fire, head bent, eyes closed. His chin rested on one upraised fist. The other hand, gnarled fingers loosely curled, rested on the table. Nearby, the fire crackled loudly, sparks flying as the logs collapsed onto the grate. He started nervously, his head jerking up. Rheumy blue eyes quickly scanned the room. Then, as if realizing he had nothing to worry about, he pushed a lock of long, gray hair from his weather-worn face. With a heavy sigh, he once more lowered his head onto his fist and closed his eyes.

Intrigued, Fallon closely watched the man from across the room. When Fallon first arrived at the tavern almost an hour earlier, the common room had been crowded with men in search of a mid-day meal or drink. They had gathered around the long, cluttered tables, voices loud and raucous, especially when they called for service. But not once had they complained about the old man sitting by himself at one of the few small tables near the fire. Instead, they greeted him respectfully, beaming proudly if he returned their greetings – which he almost always did.

Tipping back his chair, Fallon stretched his long legs before him with a weary sigh. He should get back on the trail. Kirris would be more than a little displeased if anything delayed his mission, not that Fallon could blame him. The information he carried could save the lives of so many in Cartesia by preventing civil war from breaking out. All he had to do was get it to his fellow members in the Order.

Yet there he sat, a mental battle waging between his sense of duty and the need to stay at least a little longer. He knew he was where he needed to be. He just didn’t know why he needed to be there. Gods above and below, he wished he had the answers.

Two hours earlier, he had been on the trail. He hadn’t planned on stopping, at least not for several more hours. He certainly hadn’t planned on coming into town. One of the first lessons he had learned after joining the Order was to never advertise his presence when riding courier missions. Too many eyes and ears took note of strangers and, all too often, they sold that information to those willing to pay the right price. And that, Fallon knew, could lead to death – or worse – of the courier or of those his information would protect.

Yet still he sat in the dark, smoky tavern, still unsure about what had brought him there. All he knew was that the closer to town he came, the stronger the call to leave the trail. Someone or something needed the kind of help only someone like him could offer. That feeling had brought him through town to the Black Duck Tavern.

So he sat and waited, the sense of urgency he’d felt on the trail just as strong now, more than an hour later.

Kirris would have his head, figuratively at least, when he found out he had left the trail. This wasn’t just any town Fallon had ridden into. Oh no, he had left the safe anonymity of the tail to ride into New Grange. Not only was it the largest town for miles around, sitting at the intersection of several major trade routes, but it was also the capital city of the duchy of Lineaus. That alone increased the chances someone would realize what, if not who, he was.

Frowning, Fallon tugged at the sleeves of his rough woolen coat. Because his mission required secrecy, he wore a homespun tunic and thick wool trousers under his coat. His sword hung in a well-worn leather scabbard from an equally well-worn leather belt. He had taken great care to make sure nothing about his outward appearance betrayed his association with the Order. He hoped that did not come back to haunt him.

Time was not on his side. If he didn’t soon learn why he had felt compelled to come here, he would have to leave. He didn’t like it but he had no other choice. His mission was too important to delay on the off-chance something might happen here. Not that he liked it, not when the feeling that this was where he was needed was so strong.

Movement to his left caught his eye and he turned his head toward it. The serving wench he had seen earlier shoved the kitchen door closed with one foot as soon as she entered the common room. One hand carefully balanced a small tray holding a plate of food and a battered tankard. She reached out with the other hand to snag a rag from the end of the bar. As before, she did not look up, did not appear to make eye contact with anyone.

Nothing about her looked out of the ordinary, at least not for a place like this. When she had served Fallon earlier, she had almost faded into the background. Now every fiber of his being seemed to focus on her. His mouth went dry and he swallowed hard. How had he managed to dismiss her so easily before? It didn’t make any sense. Not when she all but shimmered with a power so strong and untamed every instinct screamed for him to get her away before someone got hurt.

Forcing himself not to react, Fallon quickly reinforced his mental shields. Then he once again turned his attention to the source of such surprising power. Like so many serving wenches in all too many taverns, she looked unremarkable to the naked eye. She shuffled around the common room, head bent. Hair, dark as night either from natural color or filth, hung in oily hanks, obscuring her features. To the casual observer there was nothing, absolutely nothing remarkable to her.

But to the inner eye. . . .

He couldn’t call attention to himself, Fallon reminded himself. He didn’t know who the girl was or how she had come to possess such a strong yet untrained power in this of all places. So he rested his elbows on the table and schooled his features into what he hoped the others would see as nothing more than bored curiosity as he watched the scene unfold. He had a feeling if he failed in that simple task, the girl would be on her guard once again and that was the last thing he wanted.

In fact, it was the very last thing he wanted. Every fiber of him warned of trouble, a trouble that centered on the girl. Her aura screamed of fear and pain. But without attempting a reading – something he wouldn’t do unless he became convinced she was in immediate danger – he could not tell what the trouble was or how deeply it ran.

That left him only one choice. He had to remain in New Grange until he got to the bottom of whatever was going on. He hoped Kirris understood.

“Master Longbow.” The girl spoke softly and dropped to one knee at the old man’s side. “Sir.” This time she placed a light hand on his where it rested on the tabletop.

The old man started and then turned his rheumy blue eyes on her. “Eh, child? What is it?”

“I brought you something to eat and drink, Master Longbow.” She placed the plate and small tankard on the table before him.

“No, lass, though I thank you for your kindness. But I will not let you get into trouble because of me.” The old man tried to push plate and tankard back to her. “I know Garris has sworn to punish you should you try to help me again.” Longbow’s expression hardened, revealing a strength that surprised Fallon. “He might not be able to prevent me from coming here without bringing down the wrath of our liege lord but he can pushing you as I know he has in the past.”

Shamelessly listening in, Fallon wondered just how and what the girl was. Earlier, as she moved through the common room serving the patrons, there had been nothing particularly noteworthy about her. But now is was as though safe to drop her mental shields. Did she realize she had a talent that needed to be trained now, before it went rogue?

But there was more, much more. Before, she had said nothing more than necessary to do her duties. Not once had Fallon seen her make eye contact with anyone. Now, with Longbow, she suddenly, unexpectedly seemed ore sure of herself. There was no doubt that she was more determined. A steely glint in her hazel eyes as she tried to convince the old man to eat belied a strength of character that surprised Fallon.

By all we hold holy, who is this child and why hasn’t she had some Training?

Fallon shook his head. That was a question to be asked and answered later. Another question was much more important, at least to his way of thinking.

How had some come to be in Lineaus, a realm where those who possessed the special talents were sent away – or worse?

“Please, Master Longbow. There will be no trouble for me. My master is away from the tavern. Besides, there is naught he can complain of. This is mine by rights, given by Cook for my mid-day meal,” she assured the old man.

Even so, Fallon caught the way she glanced nervously over her shoulder, as if making sure the master she spoke of was nowhere to be seen.

Fallon watched the exchange in growing interest. While none of the few others still lounging over the remnants of their mid-day meal made any attempt to insert themselves into the conversation, he saw several nod, whether in agreement or approval, he didn’t know. That was another indication that they held this Longbow in high regard despite his well-worn clothing. Fallon assumed the old man had been a loyal member of either the royal household or the Duke’s Company in his younger days. As such, he could not be harmed or slighted without bringing the wrath of the duchy’s current ruler down on the head of the offender. That would explain Longbow’s comment at least.

But that didn’t explain the girl. Now that he had the chance to study her, Fallon realized she was younger than he first thought. Certainly, she had yet to see her eighteenth winter. Even so, she was taller and thinner than most from this realm. Her voice was light and held a musical lilt that also seemed to confirm that she was not originally from this part of the kingdom. There most definitely was more to the girl than met the eye and the fact Fallon felt a calling to help her only served to underscore that point.

“Child, please. This is your meal. Do not give it away,” Longbow continued.

“Master Longbow.” She pushed the plate back toward him. “I have heard the tales of how you saved the Royal Family when the Raiders of the Black Web invaded. That alone is enough to you the reverence the Duke has ordered. My master is wrong to treat you as he does. So please, take this. A few missed meals will harm me none and will do you a great deal of good.”

Before any more could be said, the front door to the tavern flew open with a resounding bang. Instantly, the girl spun in the direction of the sound. Fear instantly flickered across her expression before disappearing behind an impassive mask. Fallon turned and what he saw with his eyes did not trouble him nearly as much as what he saw with his inner sight.

A short, burly man with thinning blond hair and scraggly beard stalked across the room. His bare arms were heavily muscled. There was a cruel, angry glint in his light blue eyes as he moved toward the girl and Longbow. Watching him, all but tasting the bitter darkness of his aura, Fallon knew the man presented a grave danger to both the girl and the old man. But how could he respond without interfering in what, to this point, was simply a matter for the local authorities?

“I thought I told you not to serve this old fool unless you sat the glint of his coppers!” the man swept plate and tankard from the table with an angry snarl that had the girl stepping back in fear. “It is not my duty to feed useless old men who should long be dead. He eats only when he gives value for the meal.”

“Master.” The girl faced him steadily despite the fear reflected in her hazel eyes.

Fallon nodded slightly, thoughtfully. She might be scared, yet she still tried to do right by Longbow. Not only had she spoken but she had physically placed herself between the old man and the tavern-master. She swallowed once, almost audibly, and stood her ground. Instead of groveling before the man as many others in her position would, she held her ground. Whatever he had done to her, the tavern-master had yet to break her spirit. That meant she had not been under the man’s cruel hand for too very long.

At least Fallon hoped not.

But he still did not know enough to determine the best course of action.

He closed his eyes and concentrated on the girl. Emanating from her was an aura of fear and anger so strong it battered relentlessly against his mental shields. Instinctively, he reinforced his shielding before probing gently, carefully below the outer layer of her emotions. As he did, his own anger reared its head like an enraged bull and he fought it down, surprised by the depth of his reaction.

Suddenly and without warning, Fallon found himself linked with Miranda. Her emotions whirled dizzily, black and red, around him. Nausea churned dangerously in the pit of his stomach and he clamped down on it. For those few fleeting moments, he was part of the girl and experiencing all she did. Knowing the danger of remaining linked with her without having laid the proper foundation, he quickly ended the link.

Breathing deeply, more than a little shaken, Fallon leaned back. Never before had he been pulled so quickly and unexpectedly into a link. There was very definitely much about the girl that needed exploring. But that had to wait until he figured out what his first move should be. He knew one thing for certain. After sharing the link with her, it was clear the situation was far worse than he had feared. Now he had to act on her behalf. Failure to do so would be a violation of the sacred oaths he had sworn to the Lord and Lady.

“Master, I gave him only my own mid-day meal. He asked for nothing,” she said defiantly as Fallon’s awareness returned to the common room.

“Dante Garris, do not be so foolish as to punish the girl for being charitable to an old man.” Longbow climbed stiffly to his feet. As he did, there was a hard, lean look to him that did as much to convince Fallon he had been a dedicated soldier in his younger days as did the way Longbow unconsciously reached for the sword he no longer wore.

“Hold your tongue, old man,” Garris rasped. As he did, he reached out and grabbed the girl by her left arm. “She is mine and I will do with her as I please. There is nothing you or anyone else can do to stop me.”

As if to prove his point, the tavern-master’s hand caught the girl with a vicious backhand. Her head snapped back. Her lips disappeared in a smear of blood. Before she could fall, he grabbed the front of her tunic and shook her like a rag doll before tossing her negligently to one side. Off-balanced, she stumbled two steps and fell, striking her head against the fireplace hearth.

Moaning softly, she struggled to her knees. As she did, Garris pulled his wide leather belt from the loops of his dirty trousers. With a sadistic grin, he sent the belt, buckle first, flying in the girl’s direction. She cried out in pain as the heavy metal buckle connected with her ribs. Before the next blow could land, she curled in on herself, her arms covering her head. Not that it stopped the tavern-master from landing three more savage blows across her back and shoulders.

With surprising speed, Longbow closed the distance between himself and the tavern-master. As Garris prepared to strike the girl yet again, the old man grabbed his arm. Surprised, the burly younger man spun to face him. At the same time, the girl, whimpering in fear and pain, dragged herself a few feet away.

“Old man, never interfere with how I deal with my property,” Garris roared and threw Longbow off as if he weighed nothing more than a father, laughing as the old man fell to the floor. “The next time will mean your death.”

To emphasize his point, Garris pulled his booted foot back and then kicked Longbow in the ribs. When two of the nearby patrons moved to intercede, Garris turned to them, glaring. They raised their hands and quickly backed out of the tavern. The few other patrons present suddenly became very interested in the remnants of their meals.

For a moment, Fallon simply stared at the scene before him. Anger quickly his disbelief and he surged to his feet. In one fluid movement, he slid out of his coat. His right hand rested on the hilt of his sword. He might be required by his oaths to give the tavern-master the chance to step back but he dearly hoped Garris refused. Part of him wanted very much to treat the man to some of the cruelty he had rained down on the girl and Longbow.

Then a glint of metal near the girl’s right ankle caught his eye. Gorge rose in his throat as the implications of that simple band of metal hit him. No! It couldn’t be. Not even in this godsforsaken land. His fury turned cold and hard as the need for vengeance all but sang through him.

“Hold!” he ordered as he moved to stand between Garris and the man’s victims.

“Who do you think you are to interfere in the affairs of my household?” the tavern-master demanded.

It was a valid question, especially since Fallon was not wearing the armor and other accoutrements that marked him as a member of the Order of Arelion. Since it was, he reached under the collar of his tunic. His fingers closed over the heavy chain and a moment later he produced the intricate medallion marking him as a Knight of the Order. As he did, he heard several of those gather gasp softly. Then there was the scraping of chair legs against the floor followed almost instantly by the sounds of someone rushing outside.

“Someone who cannot and will not stand by and allow you to continue this travesty. I warn you not to try my patience any further,” Fallon said coldly.

Standing there, ready to pull his sword and skewer the tavern-master if he so much as moved wrong, Fallon heard the sounds of people beginning to gather in the doorway behind him. Angry murmurs, discussions about helping Garris against the armed stranger were shouted down by others saying Garris was only getting what he deserved. Hopefully, the standoff would continue outside. The last thing he needed just then was to have his attention divided. That would give the tavern-master the chance to escape, or worse.

Not that he didn’t expect Garris to try something foolish. Fallon recognized the look in the man’s eyes. Cornered animals had that same look just before charging their opponents. After all, if there was nothing to lose, why not try for the unexpected?

His fingers tightened around the hilt of his sword and Fallon rocked up onto his toes and then back. He would not be taken unawares.

Suddenly, the murmuring behind him silenced, replaced by the sounds of booted feet racing in the direction of the tavern. Shifting slightly, ready to react should Garris decide to try something, Fallon cut his eyes to his right. As he did, the crowd parted and half a dozen members of the local militia hurried inside.

“What seems to be the problem here?” the commander demanded as he stepped forward, motioning for several of his troopers to see to the injured.

Even as the troopers hurried to carry out their commander’s instructions, Fallon stepped to one side. Longbow lay almost motionless near the hearth while the girl, still curled in a tight ball, sobbed softly. Frowning, the commander stepped forward, a concerned look darkening his expression.

Without a word, Fallon waited, giving the commander time to take stock of the situation. As he did, he relaxed slightly. Almost ten years had passed since he last saw the commander. At that time, he had been impressed with the man’s sense of duty. He hoped that impression hadn’t been wrong. More importantly, he hoped the man had not changed in the intervening years.

“Commander, it’s Master Longbow!” one of the troopers said as he knelt at the old man’s side.

“Is he seriously injured?” Commander Darrias asked.

“He doesn’t appear to be, sir, but the physician should see to him.”

“And the girl?” Darrias nodded to where she lay.

“She has been brutalized by this man, Commander,” Fallon reported. “They both have.”

“Sir Fallon!” Darrias snapped to attention and crisply saluted. “You say the girl’s been brutalized?”

“Aye. This man—” He pointed to Garris with a look of distaste. “This man has broken the laws of this duchy and the laws of this kingdom. From what I gathered from what Master Longbow had to say, she has been beaten and brutalized by the tavern-master on more than one occasion. Garris himself called her his property.” He all but spat out the last word.

“He lies!” Garris lunged forward, hands outstretched as if to grab Fallon, only to be pulled back and held firm by one of the troopers.

“Quiet!” Darrias bellowed. “Sir Fallon?”

“He held her as his slave, Commander.”

Darrias paled and then straightened his shoulders as if bracing himself for what he had to do. “Did she tell you this?”

“She didn’t have to.” Fallon heard the bite in his voice and didn’t care. The time for tact had passed. “The truth is there for anyone who cares to look.”

There was no sense telling Darrias how he saw it. The commander would only fall back into fear and superstition like all who came from this godsforsaken realm did. That was the problem with this part of the kingdom. The inhabitants were suspicious of the gifts of the Lord and Lady. So he had to be careful about how he explained the situation to Darrias.

“Take a good look at her, Commander. My guess is that she is not of this realm. Besides, who treats a servant or member of their family as she has been treated? Look at her neck. Her wrists. Her ankles. If those aren’t Sarussian slave bands, I will lay down my sword for good.”

Without a word, the commander knelt at the girl’s side, his expression drawn. Gently, he eased her slightly forward so he could examine her back. The cloth of her tunic was torn and bloody where Garris’ belt had landed. Angry looking welts were visible when Darrias lifted her tunic for a closer examination. From where he stood, Fallon saw older injures as well and it was all he could do to keep from cursing long and hard. Bad as the injuries were, he knew they were far from the worst.

Darrias reached out with a hand that shook slightly to touch the thin metal band that had been hidden beneath the collar of the girl’s tunic. Softly, he assured her everything would be all right even as he checked her ankles and wrists. Then his voice turned hard and Fallon relaxed slightly. Darrias now knew he spoke true. Hopefully that meant the tavern-master would soon be dealt with.

“Sergeant, hold this scum in close custody. Then send word to the keep that the Duke’s presence is required at once. Sir Fallon’s accusations appear to be well-founded.”

Garris flinched under the cold anger reflected in the commander’s eyes.

“If the Duke questions why I’ve sent for him, explain that there has been an incident involving Master Longbow that requires his immediate attention.”

The sergeant nodded once before dispatching a trooper to the keep.

“Corporal Bemis, go to the clothier and secure something for the girl to wear besides these rags. Have him charge it to the Company,” Darrias continued.

“Aye, sir.” The young man saluted and then hurried off.

“Now, lass, everything is going to be all right,” Darrias said gently as he helped her sit up. “Can you stand?”

“I-I think so.”

Fallon watched as the commander helped her to her feet. He frowned as she hissed in pain, her right hand flashing to left side of her ribcage. Then, as the commander looked at her in concern, she shook her head, denying the pain Fallon assumed she had experienced too many times before. She seemed almost as unaware of the pain as she was of the blood streaking the left side of her face, that eye rapidly swelling shut.

Very gently, Commander Darrias led the girl to the table where Longbow had been sitting earlier. Fallon smiled in gentle reassurance as she slid onto one of the chairs. If she saw it, he didn’t know. Instead of responding to him, she looked around almost frantically until she saw the old man being helped to his feet. She drew a long, shuddering breath before visibly relaxing.

“Sir, are you all right?” she asked once Longbow sat next to her.

Very interesting. She no longer calls him Master Longbow. In fact, to hear her now, I’d guess she is from one of the northern or western realms.

So how had she managed to fall into Garris’ hands? That was a question Fallon knew he had to answer.

“Aye, lass,” the old man assured her with a weak smile. “It will take more than the likes of Dante Garris to kill this old warrior.”

Fallon saw the doubts that lingered in her eyes.

“Sir Knight, my appreciation for your help. I fear age and time have combined to slow me to near uselessness.” Despite the fact he was obviously in a great deal of pain, Longbow sat straight and proud before sketching a slight bow in Fallon’s direction.

“Never that, Master Longbow,” Fallon assured him. “You served this young lady well today, just as she tried to serve you. It is I who should apologize for not reacting sooner to what was clearly a dangerous situation.”

“Master Longbow, you and the girl should rink this.” Commander Darrias placed a pitcher of mulled wine on the table before them. One of the troopers followed with two tankards. “When the Duke arrives, he will need to hear what happened. Will you be up to it?” He looked at the girl, concern still reflected in his expression.

“I will, Commander,” she responded as Fallon poured out for her. “Sir, will I have to remain here?” Fear roughened her voice and Fallon cursed silently. The prospect of spending another night at the tavern had to terrorize her. Not that he blamed her.

“No, child,” he assured her before the commander could respond. “You now have my sworn protection. I promise you won’t be forced to spend one more night in this place unless you want to. Further, unless I’m convinced you wish to remain in this land and will be safe here, you will accompany me when I leave.”

“Is truth?” She looked to Longbow for confirmation.

“It is, lass. Sir Fallon is a knight for the Order of Arelion. He and all those like him will care for you now,” the old man replied with a reassuring smile.

Watching the girl out of the corner of his eye, Fallon saw first the relief and then the doubt that flashed across her expression. For a moment, her reaction puzzled him. Then understanding dawned. She had no guarantee any of them spoke true and she certainly had to wonder if she was, by trusting him, merely trading one form of slavery for another. He knew he would feel that way if their situations were reversed.

Somehow, he had to reassure her. But how? How to win her trust and how to find out just who and what she was? All he could do was trust in the gods. They had brought him here. They would give him the insight and the knowledge needed to deal with this very special and very frightened girl.

He hoped.

Sunday thoughts

Sunday mornings used to be when I’d sprawl on the floor and read the comics and watch cartoons. Things haven’t changed all that much. I still read the morning paper — usually in digital form now — and watch cartoons. Oops, that should have been the news. It is the one morning of the week when I take my time over the paper, drinking coffee and deciding if I want to cook breakfast or just make do. It is a time for relaxation and preparation for the week to come.

Part of the Sunday routine is looking at where I am with my writing and deciding what has to be done during the upcoming week. That has taken on a new importance this week because of the way Slay Bells Ring has come to a screeching halt. I think I know what the problem is, but I want to give myself some distance before making any major changes to the manuscript. So, I’ve been looking at other projects I can do rather quickly so it doesn’t impact bringing Nocturnal Challenge or Honor from Ashes out on time.

My first inclination was to bring out Russian Nights, a fantasy/alternate history, in serial format. This is one of those projects that stay with you but that, for various reasons, always seems very daunting. Much as I’d like to go ahead and start pushing this project out, it is going to take more work — read that as research — than I have time for right now, at least if I want to meet my other scheduled releases this year.

My next choice is to bring out another urban fantasy. Demonsbane is currently sitting at something like 25 – 30k words. It wouldn’t take much to finish it. A week to ten days of solid work is all I’d need. The problem with this is two-fold. First, there is a structural issue with what I’ve done so far. The first of the book is written in first person from the main character’s point of view. The next section is in third person POV from the view point of another main character. It is doable this way but I don’t like it. So I either have to get past my prejudice against this format or choose one point of view over the other. It wouldn’t be difficult to go to third person limited and that may be what I do if I choose to finish this piece.

Then there is Justice Denied, a mystery I wrote years ago that I could update and clean up. Part of me wants to do this because it is a finished work. However, the main character in Justice is very close in attitude and voice to Mackenzie Santos from the Nocturnal Lives books. So I’m hesitant to bring Justice out when Nocturnal Challenge will be the next full length novel I write. There’s another issue as well. I know Nocturnal Challenge is going to be the darkest in the series to date and doing a mystery that has a dark flavor to it might not be the best thing for my psyche right now.

Finally, I could finish Skeletons in the Closet. I don’t think that is the pat I’m going to take because I don’t want to rush this one. It is so different from anything I’ve written before that I worry about losing the voice and the flavor of the novel if I rush it. So, that one will be my ongoing project. It will be written but at its own pace, as it should be.

So here’s the quandary. Do I work on Russian Nights and try to write the subsequent “episodes” which will be novellas to short novels at the same time I write Nocturnal Challenge — and risk have Cossacks marching through Dallas? — or work on Demonsbane and release two Urban Fantasies back to back? You can find some very early examples of Russian Nights on the blog by doing a search. Just a reminder, the snippets are very early draft versions of the first few chapters and I’ve learned a lot since they were written.

Here’s the opening scene from Demonsbane:

“There she is.”

The voice, slick like oil on water, came from the deepest shadows.  A chill ran down her spine and her breath caught in a near-sob of frustration that she couldn’t quite hold back.  Every instinct screamed for her to get up and run.  But she didn’t.  She couldn’t move.  All she could do was silently curse her bad luck and offer up a prayer – for what?

For enough time to think.  That’s all she needed.  Just some time to think of a way to survive the next few minutes.

Maybe all was not yet lost.

Not that she believed it.  She knew that voice.  Gods, did she know that voice.  Her blood ran cold and her heart pounded heavily in her chest.  Every instinct screamed for her to flee.  She’d spent a lifetime praying she never heard that voice again because she knew when she did, death was near.

But it had been so long.  She’d actually convinced herself she’d finally managed to escape.

Now she knew just how foolish she’d been.  This encounter had been years in the making.  She could no more avoid it than she could deny who – or what – she was.

But that didn’t mean she would simply stand by, patiently waiting for him to strike.  She’d never do that.  Once before she’d fallen prey to him and it had almost cost her life.  Never again would she allow him to lay hands on her.  She’d take her own life first.

Still, fear raced through her, forcing her to remember that terrible time.  Panic quickened her pulse, clouded her mind.

No!  Don’t panic.  Not now.

Panic was what he wanted, what he expected.  After all, it would weaken her even as it fed him.  So she had to focus.  Her only hope was to stay calm and try to think.

But how?

Slow your breathing.  Settle your nerves.  Still your heart.  Feel the Earth and the Moon.  Draw from them.  You’re safe.  Remember that.  You’re safe for the moment.

“You’ve led me on a fine chase, so you have,” came that soft, menacing voice from somewhere behind and to her right.

Determination tinged with anger replaced the fear.  With it returned the ability to think.  She needed a plan before she moved from this spot.  The moment she did, her protections would be gone and she’d be at his mercy.

Unless she acted first and took him by surprise.  That was her only hope.  But she needed to know where he was first.

“Ah, Fiona, don’t tell me you’ve nothing to say.”

She resisted the urge to respond.  Let him think her too scared, or too foolish, to speak.  She needed time to determine where he was in the darkness beyond the small clearing where she’d cast her circle.  As long as she remained within its protections, he was helpless to attack.

She hoped.

So she remained where she was, kneeling in the center of the circle, her sword and ritual blade carefully placed on the grass before her.  The warmth of the earth beneath her knees was like a gentle embrace and she drew it close, savoring the energy she felt growing from ritual and need.

SNAP!

It wasn’t much but the sound seemed almost ear-shattering in the still night.  The muscles of her neck twitched as she fought the urge to turn in the direction of the sound.  Instead, she lifted her face skyward and spread her arms as if in anticipation of a lover’s embrace.

“I think little Fiona is afraid.” Menace dripped from his voice.  “Come, girl.  Don’t you want to play?”

Fool!  In all the years since they’d last met, he’d learned nothing.  His pride, always his greatest weakness, prevented him from even considering that she might have changed, might have grown in ways he hadn’t anticipated.  That was good, very good – for her.

And, she hoped, very bad for him.

Eyes closed, she drew a deep, bracing breath.  As she did, she felt him probing, pressing against her protections, trying to find a weakness.  Let him try.  Each moment he delayed in attacking was another moment she had to live and plan.

She lowered her arms and rested her hands on her thighs.  Through barely opened eyes, she saw sword and dagger just inches away.  Her focus split between her weapons and the enemy circling her.  All she had to do was wait for the right moment to act, to catch him off-balance.

Slow, even breaths.  Calm.  Don’t rush is.  You are the last of the line and can’t fail.

Slowly, so slowly it was barely discernable, she reached for her weapons.  They might not be much but they were all she had.

They have to be enough.  Otherwise, all is lost.

“Come now, girl.  Let’s put an end to this.”

The uncertainty and frustration tinging his voice were intoxicating.  For so long just the thought of him had been enough to plunge her back into the nightmarish memory of their last meeting.  She’d lost so much that day.  He’d killed her sister and left Fiona with the guilt of knowing Siobhan had sacrificed her life so her younger sister could live.

Maybe if she’d fought harder, if she hadn’t fled when Siobhan had told her to, Siobhan would still be alive.  There were still night when Fiona woke, Siobhan’s cry of pain followed by that terrible dull thud of her body falling resounding through her.

Now she was about to fail her sister again.  But at least they’d be rejoined in death and there’d be no more nightmares, no more fear.

No!  That was the fear talking.  Look at him.  He’s unsure and confused.  He didn’t expect you to deny him.  So act now, before you lose the advantage.

Fiona would never know if it was her own words or her sister’s, but her resolve firmed.  She wouldn’t give up.  She’d make him pay for what he’d done to Siobhan and to all the others.  Then she’d figure out how he’d found her.  Otherwise more of his kind would come.  She’d stop them.  She always stopped them.  And maybe, just maybe, she’d find a way to take the battle back where it began so long ago.  Only then would she be able to end it.

“Just admit it, Fiona.  You’re only postponing the inevitable.”

She ordered her body not to respond to his taunts.  Instead, she remained where she was, kneeling in the center of her circle, her senses reaching out, noting everything around her.  She was safe for the moment.  But she couldn’t remain there forever.  All she had to do was wait for the right moment to make her move.

Wait. . . wait.

The tips of the fingers of her right hand slowly inched toward the smooth hilt of her katana.  When they closed around the worn leather grip with the familiarity that belied all the hours she’d worked with the blade, the corners of her mouth turned ever so slightly upward.  He had no idea what she could do with the katana.  He’d never expect her to actually wield it against him.  After all, what sort of good Irish lass would use such a blade?

A smart one who knows her strengths and weaknesses.

It didn’t hurt either that she’d never really been a good Irish lass.  If she had, she certainly wouldn’t be kneeling in the middle of the woods in the dark of night.  Nor would she be carefully planning the best moment to banish her circle and confront the man – the monster – who had haunted her dreams for so long.  She most definitely wouldn’t be about to do battle, a battle that very likely would end in her death.

But she was damned if she’d die – AGAIN – without taking this beast from Hell with her.

Slowly, seemingly reluctantly, she climbed to her feet.  The katana trailed from her right hand as if it weighed too much to hold before her.  Somehow, her ritual blade had found its way into her left hand.  She didn’t remember reaching for it, but she welcomed the feel of the hilt, the heft of the blade.  Through her lashes she watched as he stepped closer, triumph lighting his expression.  He obviously believed the battle already won.  Hopefully, she’d be able to prove him wrong.

“Come play with me, Fiona.  I promise you’ll not forget it.”

His voice rippled over her, soft as a caress.  It would be so easy to give in.  she was tired of running and hiding.  She was tired of losing everyone close to her.  Most of all, she was tired of fighting battles for those not deserving mercy, much less life.

Stop it!  He’s putting those doubts in your head.  Don’t listen to him.

Ruthlessly, she clamped down on those fatalistic thoughts.  She knew better.  If she listened, it wouldn’t lead to release and peace.  It would only lead to torment and, if she was lucky, death.  But only long after she’d begged for it and then given up all hope.

Remember what he and his kind do to others, to those like you and to those who refuse your help.

Moving almost silently, he took another step forward, pressing against the edge of her circle.  The night air crackled with power as he tested first one section of the circle and then another.  She knew he was probing for a weak spot, something to exploit in his attempt to get to her.  All the while, he continued his soft, seductive promise to be merciful if only she would banish the circle.

So simple.

Se easy.

And so very stupid.

“Don’t be a fool, Fiona.  If you come out now, I’ll be merciful.”

“Merciful?”  She laughed bitterly, unable to help herself.  “You don’t know the meaning of the word, Conal.  You’re Morrigan’s wolf in more than just name.”

“Just as you once were,” he growled.

“I was never Morrigan’s.”

With that, she instantly banished her circle.  Before Conal could do more than start in surprise, she leapt.  The katana flashed against the night sky as it arced through the air.  It might not be as heavy as the blade she’d carried the last time they met, but it was every bit as deadly.  In fact, it was more so because she knew how to wield it, something she’d not known so long ago.

Conal stumbled backwards one step, two and fought to bring his blade up to deflect her blows.  The katana sang as it struck his broadsword.  Her wrist registered the impact even as she reacted on instinct.  Her right knee bent and, as she let her body bend and move forward, her right elbow leading, taking the katana into a defensive position over her shoulder, she stepped past him.  Off-balance, his broadsword sliding down the length of the katana toward the fresh earth, Conal cursed.  That curse turned vicious as she once more pivoted, dropping her left shoulder and pulling the katana lengthwise across his side, opening him as easily as a helpless doe.

Ignoring the spray of blood and the hot fury reflected in Conal’s blue eyes, Fiona pressed her advantage.  The moment she showed mercy would be the moment she died.  She had to keep him off-balance and on the defensive.  Otherwise, all was lost.

The silence of the night was shattered as blade met blade and the sounds of battle filled the air.  Fiona did her best to take advantage of her speed and agility.  Conal was bigger than her, slower and he was injured.  But she was tiring.  If she didn’t find an opening soon so she could deliver a debilitating strike, all would be lost.

Fear spiked as she danced away from his blade as it swept through the air where she’d been just a split-second before.  Her foot shifted to the left and then slipped.  Her guard dropped as she struggled to maintain her balance.  Everything was happening too quickly, too unexpectedly.  Worse, Conal knew it.  His heavy broadsword raced toward her.  She had to regain her balance…she couldn’t fall.

Damn it, not again!

Slay Bells Ring – snippet 2

(This is one of two NaNo projects and the one I need to concentrate on. You can find the first snippet here. The word count is now at 25,000 and change. That means I’m a little less than half way through this particular novel. Now, for the reminder. This snippet, as with everyone on the site, is mine and is copyright 2014.)

Slay Bells Ring

Chapter Two

 

I slid the transmission into gear and carefully pulled into traffic. Well, to be more accurate, I pulled onto a road free of all other cars but mine. I was back. For good or bad, I was back and there would be no escape until I got Mama straightened out.

Oh God, I might never get away. No one had ever been able to straighten my mama out, not my grandparents and not my daddy, God rest his soul. Now, for whatever reason, it was up to me to try.

And some folks say God doesn’t have a sense of humor. I’m testament to the fact He not only has one, but there are times when it’s pretty darned warped.

I hadn’t driven half a mile – Mossy Creek might be small population-wise, but it has plenty of land – when the flashing lights of a patrol car filled my rearview mirror. Damn, I didn’t think I had been speeding. Not that it mattered. Mossy Creek is like so many small towns. An unfamiliar car meant an income opportunity. Any cop worth his weight could find some sort of violation if he tried hard enough and most folks just passing through wouldn’t bother coming back to challenge the stop on a probable cause basis. They’d just pay the fine and pray their insurance didn’t go up too much as a result.

Still, it was possible I had been speeding. I hadn’t seen a speed limit sign. It could be strategically hidden behind a tree or bush. Hell, it could have been knocked down and be lying in the dirt alongside the road. It didn’t matter. Not when the local cops had turned speed traps into an art form. I swear, there were times when I was a teenager when the cops appeared out of thin air, stopping me the instant my speedometer drifted past the posted limit.

Not wanting to compound what I figured was already a much too expensive ticket, I flipped on my right turn indicator and carefully edged to the side of the road. As I parked, I watched in the rearview mirror as the cop car followed suit, stopping so close to my back bumper I was surprised the Mustang hadn’t rocked forward from an impact. Keeping my hands on the steering wheel and my gaze focused on the mirror, I watched as the driver’s door opened.

A smile touched my lips as the tall, muscular officer all but strutted toward my door. Well, if he thought I’d sit there and let him lecture me about driving safely, much less let him give me a ticket, he had another thing coming. No small town cop who had terrorized me as much as I had him – when we weren’t out terrorizing the rest of the town—was going to give me a ticket. But there was no sense in letting him know it – yet.

He strolled up to my open window and leaned down, a smirk on his lips. He wore mirrored sunglasses and his hat was tipped back, revealing short hair as red as my own. All that was missing was the toothpick dangling from one corner of his mouth. Not that I’d have been surprised if he’d been sporting one. My brother loved acting like the stereotypical country hick cop. I knew he was anything but that. Still, it might be fun to play the game. It would certainly keep my mind off our mother, at least for a few minutes.

“Well, well, well,” he drawled, his grin widening. “Looks like we got ourselves a big city attorney here.”

“And it looks like I’ve found myself a real live country bumpkin cop,” I countered, opening my car door and watching as he stepped back so I could climb out. A moment later, I was enveloped in what could generously be called a bear hug. Drew lifted me off my feet and spun around once before setting me back on the ground. “It’s about time you got yourself home, girl.”

Despite his smile and the fact the glasses hid his eyes, I knew he was worried. I could hear it in his voice and see it in the way he held himself. That wasn’t good. Worse, it meant my hope that things would have worked out before I got here were for naught.

Crap.

“What’s happened now?” And did I really want to know?

“God, Annie, what hasn’t happened?” He pulled off his glasses and rubbed his eyes.

“Just tell me.”

It didn’t take long to find out why he looked so worried. Just as I’d suspected, things hadn’t changed all that much in the years I’d been gone. Mama had been adamant, even as she cooled her heels in the county jail, that she didn’t need an attorney, that this had all been a big misunderstanding. It was bad enough she’d been telling everyone that she’d be more than glad to tell Drew what happened, that he’d understand and then everything could be cleared up. He’d tried telling her that he couldn’t be involved in the case. The only reason he’d been at the scene was because he’d caught the initial call and, not knowing she was there, had responded. But that hadn’t satisfied — or silenced — our mother. She had all but stomped her size seven foot — which she usually tries to squeeze into size five designer shoes — trying to get her way. Nothing Drew said had dissuaded her from trying to spell out the whole sordid tale to him.

“Annie, I don’t know what was worse: finding Mama standing over Spud’s body, knife in hand, or her wanting to tell me all about her relationship with him.”

He shuddered and I couldn’t blame him. The thought of anyone sleeping with Spud Buchanan was, well, icky. There’s no other way to say it. He had always reminded me of the shady and oh-so-slimy used car salesmen you used to see on the late night commercials when I was a kid. Bad suits, oil slick hair, phony smile and a hand on your wallet: that was Spud. It was hard to imagine anyone being interested in him. But to think about our mother, our socially conscious, social ladder climbing mother touching Spud, much less having sex with him, was too much.

If that wasn’t bad enough, Mama had been ready to waive not only her right to an attorney but also her right to a probable cause hearing. That’s when Gran finally put her foot down and threatened to have Mama declared incompetent.

“She did what?” I shook my head, amazed. Gran had never been one to put up with Mama’s foolishness but that took the cake. Damn, I’d have given just about anything to have been a fly on the wall so I could have seen the look on Mama’s face, especially once she realized Gran was serious.

“You heard me, Annie. Gran told Mama that she’d go straight to the courthouse and find herself an attorney who’d be willing to file a motion declaring Mama incompetent. Then she added that Mama ought to know there were more than a few in the profession who’d be glad to do just that, especially considering how many attorneys she’s dated and then tossed aside for someone with more money or better social connections.”

Oh. . .my. Gran really must have been mad. She usually didn’t talk about Mama’s habit of flitting from one man to another at the drop of a social hat. In fact, I’m pretty sure Gran did her best not to think about it. So, for her to have thrown that in Mama’s face meant she had been not only angry but scared. Not that I blamed her. Still, that was hitting below the belt. But, if it worked. . . .

“And?” I prompted.

Now Drew smiled and I shook my head again. There are times when my twin is a right bastard figuratively at least. There was no denying we shared the same father, Mama’s first husband, not with the red hair that had been the bane of our existence almost as much as our unfortunate first names — and this was one of them. He was enjoying drawing the story out. Worse, he’d been able to enjoy watching our grandmother take Mama in hand and wasn’t above letting me know just how much I had missed.

“Let’s just say Mama wasn’t very happy. But she did finally agree to keep her mouth shut.” Another grin and my frustration ratcheted up another notch.

“Drew.” If he couldn’t tell from the tone of my voice that it was time to quit playing games, he’d forgotten way too much about what happened when he used to tease me when we were kids.

“You’re no fun anymore, Annie.” He gave a fake pout, betrayed by the way his eyes sparkled. That, at least, reassured me some. “Gran pushed her on the fact she needed an attorney, that there was no way she could deal with this mess on her own. Mama’s response was simple. As Gran had so rightly pointed out, there weren’t all that many attorneys in town who she didn’t have a history with and she wouldn’t trust those she hadn’t any further than she could throw them.”

I don’t think I groaned but, from the way Drew chuckled, I have a feeling I did. Mama was right about that. Unless Gran brought in an attorney from Dallas County, there were none in Mossy Creek — or the rest of Harkin County — I’d trust to represent Mama. Too many did have a history with her that could color just how well they did their jobs.

That’s when Drew said the one thing that floored me. Mama had asked if I knew what had happened. When Gran said I did, Mama had simply leaned back and smiled. If I was coming home, I could represent her long enough to clear this mess up.

I shook my head. Mama hadn’t given a single thought to the fact that, as a prosecutor for Travis County, I wouldn’t be able to represent her in a criminal case. No, if I knew Mama, she saw it as a way to shut Gran up, at least for a few hours. What she didn’t know, what none of them knew, was I was no longer under that prohibition. I could represent Mama. The only question was did I dare? At least that was a question I didn’t have to answer right away.

“Don’t worry, sis. Mama may be headstrong and stubborn but she’s not foolish. Well, not too foolish. I’ll reserve final judgment on just how foolish she is until I find out exactly what’s been going on between her and Spud.” Now it was his turn to shake his head. At least he seemed as disconcerted by the idea of our mother being involved with Spud as I was. “But Mama knows she’s in trouble and she’s agreed to let you represent her.” He paused. “But can you?”

“Until we find her another attorney.”

“That’s not all, Annie,” Drew said and I did groan this time. I could tell from the tone of his voice that I wasn’t going to like what he said. Nope, I wasn’t going to like it one little bit.

“Tell me.”

“The ADA in charge of the case is a real hard ass. He’s already putting the nails in Mama’s coffin, figuratively if not literally.”

I closed my eyes and gritted my teeth. I might not live in Mossy Creek any longer, but that didn’t mean I didn’t know who was who there. Between Gran and Drew, I knew almost as much gossip as if I still lived here. My stomach rolled and I fought down the curse that formed automatically on my lips. There was only one member of the district attorney’s office who’d cause Drew to warn me of trouble ahead, especially if Drew didn’t think Mama was guilty.

“Who?” I asked even though I was pretty sure I knew the answer.

“Sawyer.”

John David Sawyer, also known as JD, an ass of the highest caliber and a thorn in my side going all the way back to grade school.

God, how much worse could things get? And I hadn’t even gotten to the jail to talk to Mama.

Well, at least I’d have fun destroying good ole JD, even if it meant having to make Mama behave as I did.

Now, I’m not saying good ole JD deserved to be demolished. Well, at least not completely demolished. But he’d been the bane of my existence for far too long not to take at least a little bit of satisfaction from tearing apart his case against Mama. The fact that we’d not only gone through public school together but had wound up at the same law school only helped solidify my desire to beat the man who had done his best to make me look bad most of my life.

But that desire to pound had to wait until I knew Mama was safely out from under the charges against her.

“Well, it had to happen.” I sighed and ran a hand over my face. “I’ll deal with him if necessary.”

“Annie, you’re not listening.” Drew’s frustration was clear.

“No, you aren’t telling me,” I corrected. As I did, I felt the renewed stirrings of alarm in the pit of my stomach. He wasn’t telling me something. But what, and why did I have a feeling it was something I really, really wasn’t going to like?

Maybe because good ole JD is involved, my subconscious provided.

“Why in hell do you think I was out here waiting for you?” Drew looked like he wanted to shake me.

Well, the feeling was mutual. When was he going to get to the point and tell me what was bothering him?

“I don’t know and won’t until you explain.”

He rolled his eyes and then shrugged, his expression suddenly apologetic. “Sorry, sis. It’s just been a hell of a day.”

And he didn’t know the half of it, but this was neither the time nor the place to tell him just how wonderful my day had not been.

“Drew, just tell me.” I didn’t even try to keep the exasperation from my voice.

“They’re moving Mama to the courthouse for her prelim hearing, Annie.”

“What!” I pushed off from the side of the Mustang, causing him to take a quick step backwards. Surely I hadn’t heard right. Not even Sawyer would be that foolish.

Or would he?

Of course he would, especially if he thought he could do it before I got to town and made sure Mama had an attorney.

Damn him.

If I’d known from the onset that I’d be dealing with good ole JD, I would have filed a motion of appearance in the case. At least that way the court would know I had to come in from Austin and would, hopefully, delay any hearing until I could get here.

But that didn’t help me now. Damn it, I needed to be at the courthouse and I needed to be there ten minutes ago.  There was just one problem. I wasn’t exactly dressed for court. Because I hadn’t anticipated having to act as Mama’s attorney, I’d made the drive in jeans and a tee shirt. Hell, I hadn’t even brought any of my court clothes with me.

Shit.

“Annie.” Drew looked at me in concern.

“Quiet, Andy. I’m trying to think,” I snapped.

Yes, Andy. That ought to give you a pretty good idea about our mama right there. Let me tell you, growing up being called Raggedy Anne and Andy had been no ride in the park for either my brother or me. That was yet another of thing our mother would one day have to pay for. Today wasn’t that day, however.

The fact that I’d called Drew by the hated name – hated by both of us since he’d long ago demanded that he be called Drew – was a sure indicator of just how worried I was.

“Who’s presiding over the hearing?”

“Uncle Bob.”

Thank God. At least something was going right today, or as all right as anything connected with a murder charge being leveled against your mother could go.

“All right. I need to get to court ASAP, twin.”

“Annie!” He looked in horror at my jeans and tee shirt.

“Damn it, Drew, I don’t have any choice.” I turned and looked inside the Mustang, praying I remembered correctly and the blazer I’d worn in court on Friday was still there. Good, it was. “Uncle Bob will just have to understand. If he doesn’t, well, I’ll deal with the fallout.”

Uncle Bob really wasn’t our uncle. He’d been our father’s friend and our grandfather’s law partner. Fortunately Robert Caldwell was as good a man as Spud Buchanan had been a cad. He’d done his best to look after Drew and me, and even our mother — bless his soul — after Daddy died. Because of that, I knew it would only be a matter of time before good ole JD tried to get the case moved to another court. He’d lose, but not without putting up a fight in the process. It really was foolish, not that JD would admit it. Uncle Bob was known to be even harder on those he knew than on those he’d never seen before. That frankly did not bode well for my mother.

“Annie, you can’t appear in court in jeans.” Drew’s frustration showed, not that it matched mine one bit. “Don’t you have something you can just slide on?”

Slide on? Had he lost his mind?

”No, Drew, I don’t. I didn’t expect I’d be acting as Mama’s attorney. I’ll either have someone send me some clothes from Austin or I’ll go to Dallas and do some shopping. Right now, however, I need to be in court to make sure Sawyer doesn’t railroad our mother straight to prison. So are you escorting me to the courthouse or not?”

He stared at me for a moment more before shaking his head. “Escorting. Try to keep up.”

I couldn’t help smiling. I had no doubts my Mustang could not only keep up with his department issued Chevrolet Impala but could outrun it any day of the week. But there was no reason to rub his nose in it. Still, it was satisfying to pull out with a squealing of tires and know the cops wouldn’t pull me over.

A few minutes later, I parked across the street from the courthouse. I paused long enough to shrug into the black blazer before grabbing my purse and briefcase. Then I was jogging across the street to where Drew waited for me at the courthouse entrance.

Drew badged us through security — that was something new. When I was growing up, anyone could wander in off the street and just stroll through the lobby to the elevators. But, after 9/11, that had all disappeared. Most courthouses, as well as most other government buildings, had installed metal detectors and the like. It seemed like Mossy Creek had finally caught up with the trend.

The elevator doors slid shut and I drew a deep breath. I had to make that mental adjustment from angry daughter to attorney. No, not just an attorney. I had to remember that I was now her defense attorney. I’d be sitting on the opposite side of the courtroom, fighting to keep her from being convicted instead of trying to send her to prison. I could think like a prosecutor because it would help me. But I also needed to think like a defense attorney, something I hadn’t done since mock trial competitions in law school.

No, that wasn’t right. What I had to do was remember just who and what I was whenever I stepped into a courtroom in Austin. I’d built a reputation for taking on the seemingly impossible cases and winning them without any legal hand-wavium. Now I had to keep that in mind as I fought the most important legal battle of my life so far.

I might not look the part just now, but JD Sawyer was about to learn that he’d made a very big mistake trying to pull a fast one me. Hell, any sane person would have learned long ago just how foolish such a thing was but then I’ve never really thought of JD as being sane. At least not in the usual sense of the word.

“Drew, you need to wait out here,” I said as we paused before the heavy wooden doors leading into the courtroom.

“Not a chance in hell, sis.”

I looked at him and, seeing the determination on his expression, knew better than to argue. Instead I simply reached out and pushed open the right side door. There was a soft creak, as if the hinges needed oiling. Then I stepped through, reminding myself once again that I was here in my professional persona, no matter what I looked like.

I walked down the aisle that bisected the public area of the courtroom with slow, measured steps. Hopefully I looked as confident as I usually felt. This was the first time in a very long time when I’d been truly nervous – no, worried – as I paused next to the defense table. Usually, there were nerves. If there weren’t, it would be time to take down my shingle and find another profession. The moment an attorney becomes complacent, she can no longer do her job, at least not in my opinion.

Even so, I couldn’t help looking to my left where my mother sat. My grandmother sat in the front row of the public area just behind her. There was no mistaking the relief on Gran’s face to see me. Nor was there any way to mistake my mother’s anger at her current situation nor her fear that she might be about to get a very hard lesson drilled into her. Usually, I’m all for my mother learning her lessons. For one, it happens so rarely. But this was a lesson I was pretty sure she didn’t need nor did she deserve.

But I couldn’t worry about that, at least not worry about it as her daughter. I had to remember my role as her attorney just now. And that meant making sure the judge understood exactly what my not-so-distinguished opponent had been trying to do.

“I beg the court’s indulgence, Your Honor, but I hadn’t anticipated having to make an appearance this afternoon,” I said as I paused next to counsel table. I carefully placed my briefcase on the table top and reached inside for my tablet PC. “For the record, Julianna Grissom for the defense.”

For a moment the judge studied me, his expression a mixture of disapproval and surprise. “Miss Grissom, I don’t know what the rules of court are in Travis County, but you are most definitely not dressed appropriately for court here.” The judge looked at me over the rims of his glasses. Reaction bred into me from childhood had me wanting to hunch my shoulders and look down at my feet. The judge was more than a surrogate uncle to Drew and me. He’d stood in as a father figure for us after our parents divorced and Daddy moved away. Because of that, neither Drew nor I had ever really wanted to upset him. There was too much unspoken fear — unreasonable though it was — that if we did, he’d go away just as our father had. Now, as an adult, I knew that was wrong but that didn’t mean I wanted to upset him, especially not when I knew he’d be a lot more upset shortly. At least I thought he would be. Hopefully, he wouldn’t kill the messenger – me.

“I understand, Your Honor, and I assure you I’d never appear in this court or any other dressed like this if it wasn’t absolutely necessary.” A quick glance over my shoulder and I looked at Drew in apology. Like it or not, I was going to have to bring his name into this. All I could hope was that I’d manage to insulate him enough that Sawyer didn’t try to take his frustration out on Drew – or the entire police department.

“Fortunately, Officer Grissom had been waiting for me to get into town. I’m sure you can imagine my surprise to learn that, despite Mrs. Grissom invoking her right to an attorney, the assistant district attorney has forced her to make an appearance this afternoon. That left me no choice. Dressed appropriately or not, I didn’t have time to change, not if I was to make sure my client’s rights were protected. The only way to do that was to come straight to the courthouse.”

“I see.” The judge glanced down and scribbled a note before once again looking at me. “Before I note your appearance for the defendant, Miss Grissom, I need to clarify your position. The last I heard, you were with the Travis County District Attorney’s Office.”

“I was until recently, Your Honor.” Very recently, but we didn’t need to go into that right now. “I am now in private practice. I assure the court that there is no conflict of interest in me representing the defendant.”

“Very well.” He scribbled another note. “Now, you say the defendant exercised her right to an attorney?”

“Yes, Your Honor. It is my understanding that she did so after she was transported from the purported scene.”

“Was this request made in response to her Miranda Warnings?” Now the judge looked at Sawyer who was suddenly very busy looking at his case file.

“Your Honor, I can answer that,” Drew said as he stepped forward. He ignored both my warning look as well as the way Sawyer’s head snapped up. “The defendant was Mirandized and, after speaking with her mother, did request an attorney. That request should be noted not only in the interview notes of the detective in charge of the case but also in the information sent to the DA’s Office.”

“Were you present at the time, Officer?” the judge asked.

“I was watching the interview from the next room, Your Honor, as were several other officers. I’d be glad to give you their names.”

“That won’t be necessary, Officer.”

The moment Drew mentioned not only hearing Mama invoke her right to counsel but that it had been witnessed and the DA’s Office had been notified, the courtroom fell silent. I could feel Gran staring holes into first the judge and then good ole JD. Well, at least she wasn’t staring them into me. I knew the power of her glance. You might not see actual holes in your body, but you knew she’d seen into your soul and knew all your deepest, darkest secrets. Since I’d not exactly been what she’d consider a good girl while living in Austin, relief filled me. Look, I’ll admit that my social life hadn’t been the most active, but I’m human. More than that, I’m still living and breathing and I do enjoy having fun. Okay, there’d been some hanky but not all that much panky, but still. . . . Gran’s idea of pre-marital fun isn’t the same as mine and I sure don’t want to have to have that conversation with her, especially not when Mama’s facing a murder charge. So she could glare at Uncle Bob and good ole JD all she wanted if it meant my keeping off of her radar.

I snuck a glance at Sawyer out of the corner of my eye and fought the urge to point my finger at him and denounce him to the court. The blush rising from his collar gave him away. He knew Mama had invoked and chose to ignore it. Worse, he’d let the court assume Mama had waived her right to an attorney. Fortunately, I’d gotten there before any real damage had been done — I hoped.

There was one good side to all this. The fact Sawyer knew meant I could cause him a great deal of trouble if I wanted and, in my current mood, I wanted to cause him all the trouble I could.

Bastard.

I slid onto my chair at the defense table. As I did, Mama reached out and grasped my left hand. Hers felt so small in mine and my anger cranked up yet another notch. Damn JD Sawyer and everyone else who had put my mama in this position.

“Annie,” she said softly, so softly I barely heard her.

“Shh, Mama. I’ll take care of this.”

At least I hoped I would, and God help anyone who stood in my way just now.

“I know you will.” For once, there was complete trust reflected in her eyes. Or maybe just relief that someone was there to look after her rights for a change. Either way, I’d take it. I needed her working with me, listening to me, at least until we got her home.

I gave her hand one last reassuring squeeze before turning my attention back to the judge. This time it was all I could do not to duck under the table and hide from the anger reflected on his expression. The cheerful face that always reminded me of the gnome one of the large travel companies uses as its mascot was now nothing but a mask of fury. Not that I could blame him. He prided himself on running a clean trials. His overturn rate was one of the lowest in the state. The fact that an attorney, much less a prosecutor, had tried to pull a fast one was an insult he wouldn’t put up with.

The tricky part would be getting him to put aside his anger long enough to make sure Sawyer didn’t have a chance to go after Mama.

Damn, why had I answered the phone this morning?

“Catherine Eugenia Metzger Grissom Anderson Carlisle, for the record, are you accepting Julianna Grissom as your attorney of record?” the judge asked.

I touched Mama’s elbow, signaling for her to stand. At the same time, I climbed to my feet, holding my breath. If she changed her mind and said “no”. . . .

“I am, Your Honor.” She spoke so softly I thought the judge would ask her to repeat her answer. Instead, he nodded and motioned for her to be seated.

“Very well. I note Julianna Grissom as attorney of record for the defense. I assume you’ll have the proper paperwork on file as soon as possible, Miss Grissom.”

“Of course, Your Honor.” I quickly scribbled a note to do just that.

“Very well. Let’s proceed then.”

I sat and waited, wondering just what Sawyer would try next.

The next few minutes held none of the fireworks I’d been expecting. I entered a plea of Not Guilty for Mama and refused to waive her probable cause hearing. When Sawyer announced he was ready to proceed with the hearing, I reminded the court — not that I needed to, but I wanted a clear record of the proceedings — that I had just arrived in town and had yet had a chance to speak with my client, much less to interview the arresting officers or to even review the charging documents. No, I would not waive her right to have a grand jury hear the evidence against her. Yes, I could be ready for the probable cause hearing in a week. Yes, it was fine with me to have the court clerk call later with a hearing date.

“Are there any other matters in this case?” the judge asked, looking pointedly at me.

It didn’t take a rocket scientist to know he was wondering if I was going to move to sanction Sawyer. It was tempting. But there wasn’t enough evidence to get the Bar Association involved just yet. However, if he tried to pull another fast one, I wouldn’t hesitate to file for sanctions.

“Yes, Your Honor.” I once more stood. “At this time, and with the court’s indulgence, I request my client be released on her own recognizance. As everyone present knows, she has deep ties to the community. She has lived here for more than thirty years. She owns various properties here as well. She has no previous criminal history. She doesn’t present a flight risk nor is she a threat to the community.”

“Your Honor!” Sawyer rocketed out of his chair. “The defendant was found standing over the deceased’s body, the murder weapon in hand. I’d say that constitutes good reason to flee the jurisdiction.”

“Alleged murder weapon,” I corrected.

“This is still a murder charge, Miss Grissom,” the judge reminded me.

“Your Honor, I’m well aware of that.” And how. “My client will surrender her passport and will agree to wear an ankle monitor. That should satisfy the prosecutor’s concerns that she might flee.”

“Mr. Sawyer?”

I waited, wondering how he’d react. I wished I’d been able to talk to Mama before having to appear in court. Unfortunately, I just had to wing it, much like anything else I’d ever had to do where Mama was concerned.

“Your Honor, the State can’t agree to such a demand. The defendant was literally caught red-handed. She might have ties to the community, but those ties also give her the means to flee not only the jurisdiction but also the country.”

“Miss Grissom, anything to add?”

“Only this, Your Honor. While we will, of course, abide by anything the court rules, I have to voice my concerns about the conduct of the DA’s Office so far. My client tried to exercise her constitutional right to an attorney and Mr. Sawyer here tried to circumvent it. I have concerns about leaving my client in custody any longer than she already has been because of that.”

“How dare you!” Sawyer exclaimed.

I ground my teeth and counted to ten before glancing back to the prosecution table. I very much wanted to tell him how I dared. But this was not the time. He really was a fool. He’d tried crossing me before — more than once, truth be told — and almost every time I’d handed him his head. I wouldn’t hesitate to do it again.

And, if I had my way, I’d hand him his balls as well.

No, I wouldn’t. I wanted his balls bronzed and hanging from my rearview mirror just like a pair of fuzzy dice. Maybe I’d even add a small neon sign explaining that they’d come from the biggest son of a bitch I’d ever had the misfortune to know and who had made the mistake of pissing me off one time too many. Of course, satisfying as that might be, it could put a permanent halt to my social life. Still, it might be worth it.

“Very well, Miss Grissom.” The judge leaned back and motioned to the bailiff. I couldn’t hear what he said but I assumed he was sending for a representative from the Probation Office. “Catherine Eugenia Metzger Grissom Anderson Carlisle, you are being released without bail pending the probable cause hearing. You are hereby instructed to hand over your passport before close of business today. You are also ordered to wear a monitoring device. A representative of the Probation Office will be here shortly to explain the device to it. Until the hearing next week, you are required to remain at the home of Mary Catherine Metzger. The monitoring device will alert the Probation Office if you go anywhere else and the Probation Office will immediately file a motion for your arrest.”

The look he gave Mama spoke volumes. He knew her well enough to realize that, while she might agree to the restrictions right now, she was just as likely to change her mind later. Hell, I knew she’d try to take the monitor off the moment she realized it clashed with whatever the outfit of the hour might happen to be. Lucky me, I had to be the one to try to make her understand that she couldn’t so much as look funny at the monitor. I’d do it. I might have to tie her to a chair to keep her put, but I wasn’t about to let her go to prison for a murder she didn’t commit.

“My client understands, Your Honor.”

I hope to God that Gran doesn’t mind having Mama and her “babies” — two of the most horrid poodles ever born — under her roof for the near future.

“Very well. This hearing is adjourned.”

He banged his gavel and stood. He disappeared through the door behind the bench a moment later.

One hurdle cleared. Now to get Mama to Gran’s before anything else happened.

Of course, that’s when the fun would start. That’s when Mama would have to tell me what she was doing at Spud’s, in her nightie, in the middle of the night. God, there are some things a daughter really doesn’t want to have to discuss with her mother. Her mother having sex with Spud Buchanan was definitely one of those subjects that ought to never be mentioned, much less discussed.

“Grissom.” JD’s voice was a low growl. Well, more like a mid-level squeak. He’d never have a low voice. Heck, he’d never have a manly man’s voice. At almost thirty, he still sounded like a teenager whose voice had yet to change.

“Don’t.” I waved Drew back before he could step between us. “Mr. Sawyer, I recommend you not finish what you were about to say.”

For a moment, he stood there, all five feet four inches of him, glaring down at me. Much as I wanted to stand and knock him on his ass — something I hadn’t done since junior high and that I remembered with relish just then — I didn’t. Instead, I turned my back to him, trusting that he wasn’t foolish enough to try anything with most of my family as well as a reporter from the local paper sitting there watching.

“You always were a bitch,” he muttered.

I turned back, smiling. “So you’ve said. Now please step back so I can consult with my client.”

Now Drew did step forward, motioning Sawyer away from the defense table. Fortunately for all involved, my brother has more self-control that I do. Or perhaps he was just a better actor. Instead of shoving good ole JD to the far end of the courtroom as I would have, Drew respectfully asked him to return to the prosecution table. Not that it meant our esteemed assistant district attorney was as polite, not when he promised to make Drew’s life a living hell if Drew didn’t remember whose side he was on.

Bastard. I’d make sure he paid for that as well.

“Annie,” Mama began, her voice rising indignantly on the second syllable as she glared across at Sawyer.

“Shh.” I shook my head, willing her to keep quiet.

Still, I had to admire the fact she’d managed to maintain her calm this long. Dressed in a bright orange jumpsuit with M.C. Jail emblazoned in big black letters across the back and plastic shower shoes that might once have been white but now looked grey, she was a far cry from the fashion maven we all knew. Now that I’d had a chance to catch my breath, so to speak, it dawned on me that her dress was something else I needed explained. Why was she in a jail issued jumpsuit instead of what she’d worn last night? There was only one logical explanation. The cops had confiscated her clothes in the hope of finding some forensic evidence on them. Had she agreed, and had she been read her rights first, or had they simply told her to hand them over and she had?

Of course, it could be the local jail had changed its regulations and now required all prisoners to wear the oh-so-unattractive jumpsuit. It was something I’d have to look into as soon as I was out of court.

“Don’t you shush me, Julianna,” Mama hissed.

Great, now she decides to be all righteous indignation.

“Mama, be quiet.” I jerked my head in the direction of the prosecution table and prayed she understood. If not, I’d have to spell it out for her and this really wasn’t the time nor the place to be telling her that she’d have to keep her gossip-loving mouth shut indefinitely. “We’ll discuss all this after you’re out of here. I promise.”

She stared at me for a long moment, her lips pursed, and then she nodded. Well, one thing had gone right so far. Hopefully, it was just the beginning.

“Am I really going to get to go home?” Her voice was soft, betraying her fear.

“You are, Mama. But you’re going to have to do everything the judge and the probation officer tells you.”

“But why can’t I go to my house?”

“Because the judge said you had to stay with Gran and you’ll do it, unless you want to end up back in jail.” Now I pointed at Sawyer. “Mama, he tried to railroad you today. You were lucky. Are you willing to risk it a second time?”

“How dare you!” Sawyer’s outrage caused his voice to climb even higher in timbre than usual. “You may think you’re some hot shot Austin lawyer, but you won’t get away with this.”

He stood next to my chair, trembling with anger. Drew started toward us and I waved him off. I might not be able to get the charges against Mama dismissed just yet but there was one thing I could do. I could deal with JD Sawyer. He was lucky we were still in the courthouse. Otherwise, I’d remind him just how foolish it was to try to ambush me. We might not be on the playground any longer, but I still knew how to deal with bullies — as he was about to find out.

I pushed back my chair and stood, my five feet nine inches towering over him. Looking down, my eyes locking with his, I took a step forward, forcing him to step back. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the bailiff stand, alert to the potential for trouble. Then, much to my surprise, he simply lifted a finger to his brow and gave a quick grin before leaving the courtroom. I had a hunch he hadn’t gone far, but he was smart enough to know he didn’t want to get caught in the middle of what was about to happen.

“Sawyer, you’re lucky I didn’t ask the court reporter to prepare a record of this hearing to be forwarded to the Bar Association. You knew my mother had invoked her right to counsel and you chose to ignore it. So don’t you dare try to threaten me for protecting her rights.”

If he was angry, I was furious. It would be so easy — and it was so very tempting — to pop him one. My family might not be the closest in the world but no one, absolutely no one, was allowed to hurt one of us without the others closing ranks and making sure he paid. That was a lesson Sawyer was about to learn the hard way.

“I assure you if you try to pull anything like this again, I will report you to the Bar. I don’t think they’ll take kindly to your actions.” I forced myself to remain calm. There was so much I wanted to say but couldn’t, not until the charges against Mama had been dismissed. “Now I’m going to make sure my client is processed and gets home without any further incident.”

I turned my back on him, doing my best to ignore the way he sputtered in indignation. He might think himself the best thing to ever grace the courts of Harkins County, but I knew better. I knew what sort of attorneys my grandfather and Uncle Bob had been. I also knew that I was more than a match for Sawyer, at least in the courtroom. But it wouldn’t do to give him any more of a reason to try to pull something else where Mama was concerned. Things were going to be difficult enough as it was.

“Mama, you’re going to have to return to the jail to be processed out,” I said as a probation officer entered the courtroom. She nodded first to Drew and then came to stand before the defense table. “Gran, you go with her. Once she’s released, take her to your place. I’ll be there just as soon as I can. I need to find a quiet corner to draft a couple of motions and then I want a look at the court file.” Now I turned to Mama, praying she continued to listen to me. “Mama, don’t say anything to anyone about the case or about Spud. Please.”

She nodded, her eyes flashing angrily as she looked at Sawyer packing up his briefcase. Well, I couldn’t blame her there. I just hoped she remembered her promise and kept her mouth shut until Gran got her safely home. After what had happened in court, I knew Sawyer would be gunning for her. He might be a fool, but he wasn’t stupid. He’d know how easy it would be to get to me by going after Mama. Somehow, I had to make sure that didn’t happen.

The sun, it burns

Vengeance from Ashes last coverIt’s been awhile since I’ve posted and many apologies. Let’s just say real life has not been fun and leave it at that. For those of you old enough to remember Stretch Armstrong, that’s what it’s been like. But it appears that things are finally starting to settle down and I can get back to what passes for my normal routine.

There are several posts I want to do, but they need a bit more research before they go live. In the meantime, I’m going to echo my post from Mad Genius Club this morning. It talks a little bit about my muse and then includes a snippet from my current work in progress.

I have a love/hate relationship with my muse. From what I can tell, I’m not unique in that. Most writers seem to feel the same way. In my case, it’s because I love to write but I hate when it comes time to writing sequels. That’s the situation I find myself in right now. I know the plot. I can see it in my head. I’ve been living with it for two months now. But getting it from my brain to the page has been next to impossible. That’s the really frustrating thing. As a result, I begged — well, browbeat might be more accurate — Sarah into reading the first scene of Duty from Ashes, the sequel to Vengeance from Ashes (Honor and Duty Book 1). She did and then she told me to quit dithering — yes, I cleaned it up some. She was a bit more, um, direct than that — and finish writing the book. Since I always do what my mentor tells me, I’m going to try to do just that. In the meantime, here’s the opening scene from Duty from Ashes, book two in theHonor and Duty Series.

 *     *     *

Smoke filled the air and the ground seemed to shake beneath her boots as another explosion sounded. It was close this time. Too close. Cursing, she ducked behind the makeshift barricade she and her team had erected outside the school and tried to catch her breath. As she did, the tell-tales from her battle armor warned that her heart was racing and her breathing was labored, not that she needed the onboard computer to confirm what she already knew. This was her worst nightmare come to life and, just like the last time, there had been no way to avoid it.

But she’d be damned if it ended the same way as before.

Not this time.

Carefully, she edged forward until she could see around the edge of the barricade. As she did, dirt and rock kicked up just inches from where she knelt as yet another round of enemy fire filled the air. Even as her team returned fire, she scanned the area, flipping through the various screens of her HUD. Then her lips pulled back into an almost feral smile.

There!

Finally, she’d located the last of the areas where the enemy had dug in. Now it was her turn to show them just how foolish they’d been to think they could get the drop on her and her team.

“Boomer, two o’clock. The culvert near the edge of the first building.” Once again, she cycled through the various filters on her HUD, taking careful note of what each told her. “Scans show six there. Looks like one SAM and three unknown heavy weapons. We’ll give you cover fire so your team and move into position. Hold your fire until I give the order. We need to take those guns out before they decide to turn their attention to the school.”

“Roger that, Angel.”

“Hound, second target’s yours. Same building. Four stories up. Third window from the corner. I spotted at least one sniper.” Once again, she cycled through her filters, scanning the building. As much as she’d like to just level the building and be done with it, she couldn’t. Not if there were civilians inside. “I’m not picking up any other life signs in that area, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have mechs of some sort up there. So don’t worry about being too gentle with your shot. Just remember your target zone.” She waited for his response, knowing he was calculating the best way to carry out her orders.

“Got it, Angel. I’ll be ready on your order.”

Her heart beat a little slower. So far, so good. Her team still had a chance to get out of this alive and, with a little luck, they’d manage to save those civilians sheltering in the school as well.

Knowing their next move could mean victory or defeat, she called up the last data they’d received on the enemy’s movements. As she studied it, her mind did the one thing she’d been fighting to avoid since the battle began. It went back to that terrible day more than two years ago. She’d been in this exact location, fighting this same battle. Only then she’d been given compromised intelligence. As a result, she and her squad, a different one from this time, had walked straight into a trap. So many had died. She and the six who had managed to make it back to the shuttle for extraction had been lucky to get out of there alive. At least that’s what she’d told herself. Of course, that had been before they were arrested, brought up on bogus charges, court martialed and sent to the Tarsus military prison.

Damn it! She couldn’t think about that. She couldn’t let the past distract her from what was happening right now. Not if she wanted her team to survive.

“We’re almost in position, Angel,” a voice reported over her comm a few moments later. Master Sergeant Kevin “Loco” Talbot. Another asset, an invaluable one, and one she hadn’t had on that previous mission.

“Roger that, Loco. Let me know when you are.”

She paused, waiting to hear from the final team she’d sent out. As the seconds drew out into minutes that seemed like hours, her concern grew. She’d been forced to split her forces before with disastrous results. Was history repeating itself?

She licked her lips and fought the urge to message the last team. It was difficult, but she didn’t. Instead, she reminded herself that they needed to move slowly and carefully to avoid detection. At least she hadn’t heard anything from the direction they’d taken that might indicate they’d been discovered. Surely that had to be a good sign.

Stop it!

She closed her eyes and breathed deeply. Her emotions and doubts were running too high. She had to get them under control. This was her command, her mission. If she couldn’t hold it together, they would fail. But she couldn’t think about that. She couldn’t let herself be distracted by the dead, hers and the civilian lives that had been lost in that previous battle. This wasn’t the time to let distractions in.

Finally, just as she was about to give up and demand an update, her comm came to life.

“We’re in position, Angel. We have four bogies ready and we’re ready to paint them,” Captain Lucinda Ortega reported.

“Hold position, Sorceress. I say again, hold position until we confirm air support.”

“Roger that, Angel.”

“Eagle, are you ready to paint your target?”

“Eagle is ready, Angel,” the squad’s sniper replied.

“Alpha Team, prepare to lay down cover fire. Boomer, the moment we do, you and your team haul ass and take out those heavy guns and that SAM.”

“Roger that, Angel. Beta Team is ready.”

She nodded, not that the demolitions expert could see her, and drew a deep, steadying breath. A quick check of her battle rifle and she was ready. It was now or never. With a glance at the four Marines crouching behind the barricade with her, she snugged the butt of the rifle against her shoulder.

“Now!”

She leaned around the corner of the barricade and opened fire. Instantly, the sounds of weapons – battle rifles, railguns and more – filled the air. Three of the four teams laid down heavy fire to cover the fourth team as it moved into position. On her HUD, three small green lights moved quickly toward the target zone. So far, so good.

“Almost there,” Boomer’s voice said in her ear.

“Keep it up, Devil Dogs. Don’t give those bastards time to breathe, much less regroup.”

“Fire in the hole!”

Boomer’s shout was the only warning they’d get. Instantly, she set her visor to block the flash from the explosion even as she kept firing. At least this time when the ground shook, it would be working for them instead of against them.

“Keep firing!” she ordered. “Eagle, Sorceress, stand ready. I repeat, stand ready. Paint the targets on my signal. Once the air strike begins, we move in.”

Without waiting for the teams to respond, she activated her ‘link once again. “Angel to Kali, we are a go for the airstrike. I repeat, we are a go for the airstrike.”

She waited, scanning the battlefield in front of her for any movement. Smoke and dust from the explosion filled the air. From the distance, she could hear the enemy. Some called for help. Some, those caught in the blast and not lucky enough to be granted a quick death, cried out for their mothers. A small part of her felt sorry for them. But another part, the soldier in her, knew it was either them or her and she much preferred living.

As she knelt there, ready to swing her rifle toward anyone who came her way, she imagined each member of her team wanting to look skyward, but keeping their eyes on the enemy locations, as they waited for the air support to come.

Air support that hadn’t come that first time. Would it now?

“Angel, this is Kali. We are on approach. Paint the target. I say again, paint the target.”

The voice coming over the battle-net was like an answer to her prayers. She relayed the message to the rest of her squad. As she did, she inched further around the edge of the barricade. Once in position, she raised one gloved fist, knowing the others were watching for her signal. Then she waited, knowing any number of things could still go horribly wrong and praying that they didn’t.

Moments later, the sounds of the fighter wing racing in their direction filled the air. The target, six heavy ground transports that had been moving closer and closer to the Devil Dogs exploded into a wall of flames as the fighters dropped their payloads. Instinct and training had the Marines diving for cover, any cover, as shrapnel from the transports flew through the air. Screams from the enemy soldiers unlucky enough to be caught in the open followed. Then, before the screams died out, she gave the order to move in.

“Take out those snipers!” she yelled as she sprinted across the clearing in the direction of the school.

Damn it, this time she would save those huddling inside.

Hound, moving at a speed no human could without the assistance of powered battle armor, leapt from where he’d been taking cover. The moment he landed, he turned and leveled the grenade launcher that was currently his armor’s primary weapon at the target. The building she’d identified for him a few minutes earlier was soon missing part of its far side. Smoke billowed from the area where the sniper had been holed up. Someone would need a new office or apartment when this was all over. But, hopefully, they’d survived the fight and would be able to return home soon. Even as the thought came, she knew the truth could be far different. War was never clean, no matter what the politicians wanted. There was always the possibility of collateral damage, especially when the enemy had no compunctions about hiding behind a shield of innocents.

Ahead and to her left, a head popped up from the culvert. A split second later, it exploded. She smiled slightly as Eagle gave a war cry that almost split her skull. She’d remind him later about how that sort of thing sounded through the battle-net. Not that she blamed him. They’d spent too much time hunkered down behind makeshift barricades and hiding in the shadows. It felt good to finally be on the move again. Now it was time to make the enemy pay for all they’d done.

“Angel, to your right!”

Loco’s warning came at almost the same moment that her armor’s sensors warned her of someone or something suddenly appearing and moving in her direction. She turned, bringing her combat rifle to bear. Her finger slipped behind the trigger guard and she felt her combat implants coming to life as she focused on the figure running hell bent for leather in her direction.

“Hold your fire!”

Without waiting for confirmation, she broke into a sprint, racing toward the small figure. The child couldn’t be more than five or six. Where he had been hiding during the fighting she didn’t know and, just then, she didn’t care. Not when her armor’s onboard computer was telling her that several of the enemy were bearing down on them.

She had to get to t child before he was hurt – or worse.

Without conscious thought, she switched out her battle rifle for her sidearm. Using the targeting system of her HUD, she laid down fire in the direction of the nearest enemy soldier. A scream of pain followed. Good. One down but who knew how many more to come.

Three more steps and she scooped the child up in her arms. He cried out as an enemy trooper appeared to the right and opened fire. Reacting on instinct, Angel shifted the child so he was shielded by her armor before returning fire. Then she pivoted, running in the direction of Loco and the rest of his team. They were laying down cover fire, forcing the enemy troopers to duck back down into the trench. At the same time, Sorceress was calling in air support. But that was all in the background. Angel was focused on the child in her arms and getting him to safety.

“Down!”

Loco’s tone of voice was all the warning she needed. She dropped, sliding feet first toward the barricade. At the same time, Loco stepped forward, Tank and Hound on either side of him, and all hell seemed to break loose. As they opened fire with everything they had, so did the rest of the squad. If that wasn’t enough, three Sabres, the newest and most deadly fighters the Fuerconese Navy had in operation, screamed overhead and opened fire on the culvert.

The ground shook again and another explosion – no, a series of explosions – deafened them. Then there was silence, the kind of silence that really wasn’t. Her pulse pounded and her breathing was ragged. The crackling of fire mixed with the heavy smoke that filled the air. She heard someone, one of her people, offering up a quick prayer of thanks. Someone else uttered a curse. For once, she agreed with both sentiments. Then she heard the boy whimper. Much as she wanted to reassure him, she couldn’t. Not yet. She had to make sure the area was secure first.

Still cradling the child in her arms, Angel twisted around so she could look in the direction of the culvert. Nothing moved except for the smoke rising from it. Without warning, the silence was broken by a single shot to her left. Instantly, half a dozen battle rifles responded. Then nothing.

Barely daring to hope that it was over, she went to active scans. For several long moments, she studied the readouts on her HUD. The locations they had tagged as being held by the enemy were either showing red, indicating they were too hot for anyone – even armored – to survive or there were the tell tales of the dead and dying. Could it finally be over?

“Sound off!” she ordered as she carefully climbed to her feet.

As she did, the medic assigned to her squad hurried forward to take the child from her. Except the child had other ideas. He wrapped his arms and legs more firmly around her and burrowed in. with a jerk of her head, she motioned the medic off. She could spare the child a moment as she caught her breath and her people reported in.

One by one, each member of her team sounded off. A few sounded the worse for wear but she’d lost no one that day. Thank God. The nightmare hadn’t replayed in all its horror. It had come close, though, and she wanted to know why.

Relieved, she looked down into the child’s face and the world came to a crashing halt. No! He couldn’t be there. Damn it, he couldn’t be there. As bad as that time had been, that would have made it worse, so much worse.

“End sim!” she ordered, ripping off her combat helmet. “I said to end the damned sim!”

*     *     *

Needless to say, this is a rough draft, so there may be changes between this and the final version. Now, to get back to work before Sarah puts on her pointy boots and comes after me for not minding her.

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