Flash Fiction Friday: The Needle and the Haystack

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“We’re looking for a white van,” the policeman said.

I. The Haystack

“We’re looking for a white van,” the policeman said, looming out of his patrol car in with a glare. His face was made for frowning and he had the weight and bulk of a boxer in his full and violent prime.

“Well,”  the attendant said nervously, “y-you’ve certainly come to the right place…”

“Excuse me?” The policeman hand not slept in over forty-eight hours. He was tired, bleary, and borderline homicidal.

“Collins,” his partner whispered. “Collins!”

“What?!”

“Look!”

Sergeant Collins blinked and followed his diminutive, equally exhausted partner’s finger. They were surrounded by a sea of white.

The police would later count precisely fifty-three white vans in the parking lot that day, glinting in the hazy, cloud choked sun. Some were new and gleaming, others splattered in mud.

“Oh,” Collins said, turning to his partner. “Shit.”

II. The Needle

It was unseasonably cool summer that year, but the lower temperatures did little to help the growing fever that had set into the town. Lake Wilbert and the surrounding area had a population of only 40,000 and there had not been a serious crime in four years, nine months, and thirteen days. For a given definition of serious, of course. There had been twenty automobile accidents and five incidents involving a bear.

But that summer there were five murders in as many days. Motiveless. Ruthless. And utterly senseless.

Chief Wogram was young for his position, barely forty, but he had an engaging smile and a calming temperament. Both were stretched to the limit as panic tore through Lake Wilbert like a plague. On the third day he was forced to reassure the mayor’s office, the local mason’s lodge, and a hastily arranged delegation from The Purple Hatted Ladies of the Lake, otherwise known as the local knitting circle.

When they were gone, Wogram admitted to his secretary, in confidence of course, that the knitting ladies were the scariest of them all, and that if he had his druthers, Wogram would simply unleash them on the suspect. They had been sharpening their knitting needles for just such an occasion.

Cooler heads ultimately prevailed and he assigned Deputy Rye Lindstrom case.

Three bodies. All stabbed with an ice pike. All left along the lake in various states of undress. None of them women.

Lindstrom and Wogram were stumped. And soon enough the fourth body was found and then the fifth.

It was on the sixth day, however, that they received their first and only break in the case. A white van had been seen driving away from the scene of the crime with blood on the back doors.

Immediately, the entire Lake Wilbert City Police Department had been mobilized to find the van.

Sergeant Collins and his partner had just been about to finish their shift when the orders came down over the radio, and with a sigh they began their day-long search for the van.

A search doomed to end in utter confusion and a sea of white.

Somewhere in that parking lot was their van and their killer. Finding her would take days.

A needle in a haystack.

 

 

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Flash Fiction Friday: The Pickpocket Queen of San Francisco

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San Francisco 1900. It had been five hours since Big Tilda had been arrested, and she was very upset. The police had locked her in an interrogation room without any respect for her status or so much as a by-your-leave and had promptly forgotten her. It was downright disrespectful. Insulting even. She was the Pickpocket Queen of San Francisco, not some common thief or crook, and she expected to be treated as such.

It had taken three strapping young men to subdue her on the trolley, and she was fairly certain that she had broken one of their noses and given another a black eye. Big Tilda was absurdly proud of that. Her daddy had been a boxer in his youth, and had taught her to throw a punch if nothing else.

She had been dragged to the station, fingerprinted and photographed, leaving her fingers splotched and her eyes blinking back tears. Newfangled inventions for a newfangled century. Big Tilda distrusted them both and remained stubbornly silent throughout. She only spoke once, when she first arrived. 

“Quirke and Wry,” she said. “I want to see Quirke and Wry.”

After much stern protesting, the docking officer had finally agreed with a disapproving frown, but Quirke and Wry hadn’t come yet.

No one had.

*

Big Tilda occupied herself by whispering a few of her favorite songs and belting the bawdier lyrics at the top of her lungs, but even that had not managed to attract anyone’s attention. Outside the interrogation room doors, the station was a hive of ceaseless, nervous activity. She could hear raised voices and pounding feet and taste the barely restrained panic in the air.

Finally, the door opened and Inspector Quirke entered, followed by his faithful shadow, Sergeant Wry. 

Quirke sat across from her and studied her face closely with Wry scowling behind him.He was a distinguished, particular man with a pointed mustache and dark woolen suit.

“I understand you wanted to see us,” Quirke said, somehow turning the innocuous statement into a borderline threat. “May I ask why? It’s rare that anyone, let alone someone with your record, asks for the pleasure of our company.”

Big Tilda snorted. “Can’t imagine why not.”

Wry glared. “If you’re just going to waste our time…”

“Yes,” she interrupted. “I can you’re busy today, running around like headless chickens.” Big Tilda leaned forward conspiratorially, her handcuffs clattering on the table. “Wouldn’t have anything to do with them Chinamen murders, would it?”

Quirke had an impressive poker face. The old inspector barely flinched, but she caught a glimpse of surprise in the corners of his mouth and in a slight tightness around the eyes.

“What do you know about that?” Quirke asked with studied indifference.

“I read.” She grinned. “Devoted follower of the San Francisco Oracle, me. They always have the best murders.”

“You mean the most gruesome,” Wry said with a scowl.

“Same difference.” She shrugged. “And I was told you fine gentlemen was always willing to make a deal.”

“Who told you that?”

“Teddy.”

Wry’ scowl deepened. “Atwood! That little…”

“Curious,” Quirke interrupted, holding out a calming hand without breaking eye contact. “I have always found Mr. Atwood to be remarkably tight lipped in these matters, especially for a newspaperman. Why would he give you our names?”

“He owed me a favor.”

“Ah.” Quirke nodded. “Of course. You understand that even with Atwood’s…sterling recommendation I can’t simply let you go.”

“’Course not. That’d be silly.” she waved that concern away easily. “But I can pay.”

“We don’t want your money!” Wry snapped, rising to his full insulted height.

“Not talking about money,” Big Tilda said, her expression clearly called him an idiot. “I’m talking about your little murderer.”

“The Rabbit-Mask Killer?”

“That’s the one.”

Quirke and Wry exchanged skeptical glances. “And how would you know…?”

“Easy. I have his watch and chain.” She was gloating now, savoring the looks on their faces. “And I have his wallet.”

“You picked the murderer’s pocket?” Wry demanded incredulously.

“Who do you think you’re talking to?” she asked. “I’m the Pickpocket Queen of San Francisco! I pick everyone’s pocket!”

 


Quirke, Wry, and, of course, the Pickpocket Queen of San Francisco herself all appear in The Alchemist in the Attic.

I love all three of them from the cheerfully nonchalant pickpocket to the sneeringly judgmental sergeant, and poor Quirke who only ever wants to get on with his job.

This was a bonus little character scene just for fun, and because I wanted to revisit them again like old friends.

Flash Fiction Friday: The Greatest Detective in the World

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In a long, narrow building at the end of a long, narrow street lived the Greatest Detective in the World. He had never solved a single crime, but in his long life he had read countless mysteries, and devoured every true crime novel and newspaper report he could get his hands on. And he had solved them all.

In truth, the Greatest Detective in the World had often found his literary counterparts unaccountably slow. Even Sherlock Holmes had his moments, and the less said about the little Belgian fellow the better. It was not their fault, of course. Mystery authors seldom played fair with their readers or their detectives, and newspaper reports were often devoid of helpful details. But more than once, he had heard about an arrest on the evening news and nodded smugly to himself. Knew it.

The neighbors were not fond of him, and his beady little eyes. From time to time they would catch him watching them, peeking through his rear window with a telescope or binoculars. Always eager to catch a glimpse of a crime. They had disappointed him for years, providing only a a litany of daily life, and the occasional watered down scandal, but no robberies or conveniently placed murders. He hated them for that nearly as much as they hated him.

“He’s just a harmless old man,” a new arrival would say and the old timers would shake their heads.

“You’ll see,” they said. “You’ll see.” And invariably they did. Invariably he learned all their little secrets and rejoiced in telling them their own life’s stories.

It was a quiet, brooding life on that long, narrow street as the Greatest Detective in the World wiled away the days and hours impatiently waiting for a mystery worthy of his talents. But as the years passed and his hair turned white, and his hands became brittle claws, he found that he had waited in vain. No one, it seemed, was willing to get themselves murdered on his behalf. It was very selfish of them. After all, they were going to die anyway. And he wasn’t getting any younger.

The Greatest Detective in the World was 83 when the coughing started. A slight tickle at first, but it lingered and deepened over the following months. And sometimes there was blood. Bedridden, he peered through the curtains desperately hoping against hope, that he would finally see a crime. But there was nothing. Only tedium and the long, slow slide into death.

A few of his neighbors did manage to pay him a visit from time to time—the retired actor downstairs, the young couple across the street, the nursing student three doors down. He wondered why they came. He had never been kind to any of them. They didn’t owe him a thing.

It was only later, as he lay in a hospital bed miles away half-listening as the doctors and nurses whispered among themselves about pesticides and rat poison, that he understood. He had always thought the Belgian had been an idiot for not seeing it sooner, but he had been just as slow. There had been a murder after all.

His own.

Flash Fiction Friday: In the Silence of the Muse

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Alice always wore a mask when she played. Pure white porcelain, unadorned, and perfectly sculpted to her face.  She loved that mask. The coolness against her skin. The way her fingers danced. She was not Alice in those moments. There was no Alice.

There was only the music.

The mask gave her that. It freed her from her tyranny of being and gave her a world of notes to hide behind. The technique she had learned herself–bleeding her fingers white eight hours a day, seven days a week, for years on end.

Her parents had worried in a distant, bemused sort of way. She was making something of herself, after all, and not descending into idleness like her brother. Her passion was, perhaps, over-zealous and almost violent in its execution, but her sister had once strangled a rabbit out of love, so violence in their family was all-together relative.

Besides, Alice’s mother had dreamed once of being a concert pianist and in her daughter she saw her hopes reborn and burning.

And so, Alice was left to her music and her mask.

No one could remember buying or receiving the mask, however. One day it had simply appeared in her chambers, as if it had always been there. It was her shield, her conduit, and her muse of porcelain, blood and music .

And there was never, ever, a moment of silence.

Flash Fiction Friday: The Great Fire

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The old man watched as the house burned.

The fire spread from room to room in a crackling orgy of smoke and flames. The smell. The noise. The heat. There was a strange beauty to it—a fatal, blackening dance that consumed everything in its path.

The old man was not sure how long he stood there alone with the fire and the flames. The house was on the end of a long winding road deep in the woods. The nearest town was at least 40 minutes away, and the closest fire department was even further. He made no move to call either, or to fetch help. There was no point.

Eventually a fire truck came, the siren blaring in the night. Someone must have seen the fire blazing like a lighthouse in a sea of trees. The firemen knew their jobs and they acted quickly, expertly. It was too late for the house, of course, as the old man knew it would be, but they strived mightily to keep the flames from spreading.

The trees and brush were unusually dry for the time of year, and a forest fire could have consumed a whole swath land. There had already been three in the past month. An epidemic or a plague.

One of the firemen asked a serious of questions in a low, calm voice, as if speaking to a child, and the old man responded slowly in a monotone voice.

“Where did the fire start?”

The attic.

“Was their anyone else in the house?”

Just me. I live alone.

“Are you hurt?”

No.

They left him alone after that, although he caught a few worried glances. They thought he was in shock, of course. Only natural. But he wasn’t. He was simply lost in the flames.

“Do you have anywhere to go?” the fire chief asked finally. He was big man with a greying mustache, caked in soot and ash.

“I have my hat,” the old man said. “And I have my coat. Don’t worry about me.”

The fire chief frowned. “Are you sure? One of my men could…”

But he was talking to the air. The old man was gone, as if he’d never been there. Leaving only footprints in the dirt.

“Where did he go?” the fire chief demanded. The others shrugged. They had been watching the fire. “Did you even catch his name?”

No.

There was a suitcase waiting in the bushes about half a mile down the road. The old man reached down into the bramble, ignoring the minor cuts and bruises, and retrieved the battered, leather  case. It was nearly as old as he was, and untouched by any flames.

He turned at the end of the lane for one final glimpse of the fire. A wisp of a smile crossed his face and then he was gone.

It was not his house. He just liked to watch the world burn.

Flash Fiction Friday: Along the Waterfront

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They waited on the waterfront for Mr. Birch to arrive. There were five of them—distinguished men in long coats and expensive shoes. Their cars were parked down the road, and their drivers were milling around out of sight. None of them wanted to be there.

Mr. Summerscale checked his watch for the third time and sighed. He was familiar with Birch’s peculiarities, and had brought a crossword to pass the time. Five across was proving exceptionally stubborn, but he had no intention of admitting as much. The others would have laughed.

Young Mr. Bennett, who must have been nearly fifty by now, would have sneered and made some spiteful comment about his age. Summerscale had never like the little upstart and the feeling was mutual. In fact, Summerscale was not particularly fond of any of his compatriots. Burton was an uncultured snob, who substituted volume for taste. Isenberg was always smiling as if he knew a secret no one else did, and he might. And as for Preston, Summerscale shuddered. No one liked Preston.

He was standing apart from the others feeding the birds. They flocked to him, pigeons and seagulls mostly, squawking and bitting and flapping. Preston preferred birds to people. He had an entire taxidermy collection that was infamous in certain circles. PETA was rumored to have an entire filing cabinet devoted solely to the east wing of Preston’s mansion and another for the west.

These were the people Summerscale was forced to consort with, the other members of their little cabal.

Birch had chosen them all years ago, perhaps on a whim, and bound them together with shared secrets and shared wonder.

Summerscale checked his watch again. 3:00 PM precisely.  It was time.

He folded his newspaper under his arm and removed his reading glasses. Around him the others stirred nervously. Isenberg’s smile became strained, as if his store of secrets had turned sour and even Preston shuddered briefly beneath his coat.

Finally there was a great flash of light that burned across Summerscale’s eyes, igniting his corneas in an explosion of stars.

When the lights faded, there was a man standing on the waterfront, brushing ash from his suit.

Mr. Birch had arrived.

Flash Fiction Friday: The Last Flamingo Trainer

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It was two o’clock on a Friday afternoon, when the flamingo trainer presented his card. He was a stout, little man with oil-slick hair and a dark woolen suit.

“You may inform your master that Mr. Frederico Ardovini is here,” he announced grandly. “The Greatest Flamingo Trainer in the world!”

The old man who opened the door regarded him skeptically for a long moment with sharp, milky eyes.

“I am the master of the house,” he said finally. “And I have no need of a flamingo trainer, the greatest or otherwise.”

You are the master of the house?” Ardovini asked incredulously and with not a little scorn. It was a very grand house, after all, with over a dozen bedrooms, four libraries, an orrery in the attic, and over five acres of grounds. The thought that such a man would answer his own door was unthinkable. Almost as unthinkable as a man in possession of a flamboyance of  flamingoes not requiring a flamingo trainer.

“I am,” the older gentleman said with all the wounded dignity of a man of sufficient wealth and station to answer his own door if he wished to, and to close said door in the face of any itinerant flamingo trainer.

“Forgive me,” Ardovini said with a bow and a tip of his hat. “I meant no offense, Mr….?”

“Albert Barnett Jennings, esq.” The old man smirked. “And no doubt you were simply expressing surprise at my…?”

“Humble demeanor,” Ardovini interjected without a moment’s hesitation.

“Ah.” Mr. Albert Barnett Jennings nodded with a mocking twinkle in his eye. “Of course. Well, Mr. Ardovini, regardless of my demeanor, I am still not in need of a flamingo trainer.”

“But you have some of the finest flamingoes in the country here,” Ardovini protested. “They are known far and wide for their plumage and their bright color.”

“Indeed,” Jennings agreed, whose flamingoes had, in fact, recently won best in show at the 87th Annual Flamingoes, Finches, and Duckbills Festival. “And while that explains why you might wish to work with me, it does not explain why I would need you.”

Ardovini ran a hand through his hair and smiled far too brightly. “I understand your reluctance, Mr. Jennings, esq, but give me five minutes with your flamingoes and I’ll show you what I can do. Please…”

Slowly and against his better judgement, Mr. Albert Barnett Jennings nodded. After all, what was the harm?

*

There were forty-three flamingoes in Mr. Jenning’s flamboyance or colony. They were all gorgeous, pink, long-necked creatures with a violent disposition that ranged from grumpy to down-right homicidal. They inhabited a medium-sized pond, which Jennings had commissioned especially for them and equipped with a constant supply of brine-shrimp and algae.

“If I might have a moment alone with these exquisite creatures?” Ardovini asked, his hat doffed in his hands.

Mr. Jennings raised a dubious eyebrow. The flamingoes were all perched on one leg, staring balefully at their would-be trainer.

“It’s your funeral,” Jennings said. “I’ll give you five minutes and then you’re gone.”

“We shall see.” Ardovini seemed supremely, even suspiciously confident.

“Keep an eye on him,” Jennings murmured to his gamekeeper. That worthy fellow nodded silently and put a finger to his nose. He had been Mr. Jenning’s batman in the war and could be relied upon for his discretion and his willingness to protect the flamingoes as if they were his own children.

*

When Mr. Jennings, esq. returned precisely five minutes later, he found a bewildered groundsman and a grinning flamingo trainer.

“Usually I have more time,” Ardovini said. “To become acquainted with the birds individually, but I’ve done the best I could in the time allotted. Every flamingo is secretly a drama queen, after all. Now, with your permission?”

Jennings glanced at his groundsman who merely shrugged helplessly.

“Very well, Mr. Ardovini. Impress me.”

“As you wish.” Ardovini tossed his hat into the air with a flourish, and cried in a loud, clear, unaccented voice. “Ah one, two, ah one, two, three, four!”

And then, before Mr. Jennings’ eyes, his award-winning flamboyance of flamingoes began to dance the polka in perfect, pink unison.

“So,” the flamingo trainer asked, “are you impressed yet?”

Flash Fiction Friday: The Girl Who Caught Lightning

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There was once a little girl who could ride the lightning as easily as you or I could ride a train or a bus. Her name was Eve and she was six years old.

She lived in a little house on the end of Menagerie Road with her mother, two sisters and a cat. Eve didn’t have a father. Her older sister, Meg, said he ran away with a mermaid from the wharfs and never bothered to say goodbye. Eve didn’t believe her. Even at four, she didn’t believe in mermaids.

Her other sister, Jessie, who was eighteen and married to a longshoreman, said that Papa had simply gone for the milk one night and never returned.

Then she bopped Eve on the nose and said: “Maybe he became a pirate.”

Eve believed in pirates more than she believed in mermaids, but Jessie had been grinning when she said it, and Eve never trusted her grin.

In the end, it did not matter where here father had gone, only that he was gone. It didn’t effect Eve much either way. She only remembered him vaguely as a man with a pipe and a large stamp collection, and her life was much the same as it would have been anyway.

Then came the lightning.

She was on her way home one rainy afternoon, jumping gleefully from puddle to puddle, when there was a sharp crack of thunder, louder than any you have ever heard, followed by a flash of lightning.

Later, when people asked, Eve could never explain why she did it. Instinct, perhaps, or a strange form of vertigo.

But in that moment. she reached out her hand and caught the lightning between her fingers. It was like liquid light and a thousand electric shocks all at once.

And then she vanished.

One minute she was on Menagerie Road, the next she was swimming in a sea of electricity and air, dancing gaily in the light. It was better than anything she had ever imagined. Better even than the ferris wheel she had snuck on one lazy Sunday afternoon.

After what felt like an eternity in the lightning but was only seconds, Eve emerged in a flash. But she wasn’t on Menagerie Road anymore.

She was somewhere else.

Eve blinked and wiped the rain from her eyes. Eve didn’t believe in mermaids and had her doubts about pirates, but she had never doubted her own senses.

The row of dirty rundown houses she called home was gone. So were the battered old cars and the stench of the sea, everything. She was lost. But she was not afraid.

All she needed was another lightning bolt.

Above the storm clouds gathered.

 

Flash Fiction Friday: The Bone Collector

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The girl wakes every morning long before the sun rises. She is eleven years old, or perhaps twelve. Birthdays are for other people. People with parents and sisters and brothers. She sees them sometimes on the edges, walking hand-in-hand, laughing or talking or crying.

The girl never laughs, and she never speaks unless to whisper absently to the rocks and bones. And tears like birthdays are for other people. She has no need of them. She lives alone in a crumbling shack just beyond the sea of bones and is content.

No one knows where the bone yard came from. Fifty square, barren miles of dirt and dust and bones. The teeth are the best. Still sharp and easily adaptable. The girl sells them when she can for food and blankets. Once, when she was young and foolish, she sold seventy-two well-polished teeth for a doll made of straw. She could have fed herself for a month for half the price, but the straw made good kindling in the end.

Occasionally, serious men and women in severe suits and dresses came with their clipboards and false smiles. And their questions. Always the same three questions.

“Where are your parents?”

Dead.

“How old are you?”

None of your business.

“Wouldn’t you like to come with us?”

No.

But they never believed her when she said no. The women would tut and the men would frown, and sometimes they would return with men in long coats and far too sweet voices.

“You need to come with us,” they would say. “It’s for your own good.”

Never.

And no matter how many there were or how fast they ran, she always lost them amidst the bones. Until one day they stopped coming.

Until one day there was only the girl and her garden of bones.

 

Indie Spotlight 2: SPFBO 2017

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Hello again. Another week, look at the competition. Er…I mean another batch of fantasy novels from the Self-Publishing Fantasy Blog-Off. A chance to take a peek at the wonderful, diverse world of Indie Publishing and Fantasy. This week: gods, thieves, superpowers, and haunted furniture…

Talent Storm Kindle Edition by Brian Terenna

 Hundreds of years after the Great World War, America is a distant memory. In the ashes, new civilizations have risen up from the Wilds. Locke’s Coalition and Liberty Kingdom, bitter enemies, have been at peace for seven years. War is never far from politicians’ minds, though, especially when one is the tyrant Archduke Goldwater. For all of human kinds’ positive traits, the character flaws of corruption, greed, anger, and revenge are etched into our DNA.
In the new world, little technology remains and advanced weapons are in short supply, but today’s soldiers fight with innate power. They fight with Talent… the psionic powers that develop in a random few.
A young Coalition citizen, Jaden Stone, dreams of graduating, having fun, and falling in love. As if his hard-nosed uncle, schoolyard bullies, and exams weren’t hard enough to handle, he discovers that he wields Talent. He’d now be forced to serve in the military, forced to train and fight, all for an organization that killed his parents.
Will Jaden work hard for his people or will his desire for leisure win over? He’s forced to decide when a tragedy shakes his core.

Joss the Seven (Guild of Sevens Book 1) J. Philip Horne

New powers. Big problems.

Joss Morgan loves joking around, but it’s no joke when he discovers he has superpowers. Those powers may get him killed. Heroes and villains want Joss to join them. Both will use him. Everyone has secrets. And his life isn’t the only one on the line. If Joss can’t figure out who to trust, his whole family could die.

Contemporary fantasy fans will love this action-packed adventure for all ages that get’s 4.8 stars on Amazon!

The Bed by Laura Perry

When she buys an antique bed, Liz gets more than she bargained for: not just the furniture but also the ghost of its former owner plus the nefarious beings who are out to get him, even in the afterlife. When those beings turn their gaze toward Liz, she has to rely on her own courage – plus the magical tools in an antique trunk – to dig her way out of trouble. Because she certainly can’t rely on her best friend, who thinks she’s going crazy, or her family, who all have problems of their own.

A God Among Thieves by Jackson Lear

For the first time in history, an empire of muskets and cannons is gaining ground in the war against living, breathing gods. Entire armies have been massacred in a conflict which, at times, seems to be absurdly worth it.

Thousands of miles away, the principality of Moqara lies on the verge of being crushed by every neighbor around them. At the center of the crisis are reports that the empire has set its sights on acquiring the oasis city at any cost, convinced that its trade lines may be the key to securing victory for the human race.

A former resident, Kes, stumbles through the Moqaran desert, barely alive, carrying a message no one wants to hear: one of the gods wants to defect to the human side. It is not known who the message is intended for, and the only person who can vouch for Kes, Lazden Dadario of the Prince’s Guard, doesn’t trust a word she says.

Red Season Rising by D.M. Murray

A feud between Gods.
A nation besieged by armies of man, and demon.
A man seeking redemption, and peace.

Kalfinar is a grieving addict. Once a decorated and respected soldier, he has been demoted and disgraced.
The relative peace of his half-life is shattered by the onset of chaos and war.
Tormented by visions, he is marked for possession, and hunted by demons.

Amidst the all-consuming ruin of a war between Gods, Kalfinar must lead the fight to defend a faith he has abandoned, and a nation that has disowned him.

Red Season Rising is the debut novel of D.M. Murray and marks the beginning of a new epic fantasy series.