Into the Heart of Talis (Chronicles of Talis Prequel) Available: Read Chapter 1 Here

Into Heart of Talis 2_edited-2

Into the Heart of Talis is out today! Sound the drums!  Witches and spies, magic and explosions!

It is now available on Amazon, iBooks, Kobo, and Barnes & Noble.

Two hundred years have passed since the Witches were driven from Talis. Two hundred years of bitterness and exile, but at last their time has come.

Leonora has been training for this moment all her life, desperate to prove herself worthy. Magic and vengeance flow through her veins, but when her cabin is ransacked and she finds signs of sorcery, Leonora quickly realizes that someone onboard is not what they seem.

There’s the old riverboat captain who watches her, full of unasked questions, the gnome whose bitterness matches her own, and the unrepentant conman who follows her everywhere with greed in his eyes.

One of them knows her secret. One of them is hunting her. But when you hunt a witch, it is far more likely that she is hunting you.

Into the Heart of Talis is a 20,000-word novella that takes place directly before Irons in the Fire.

 

If you haven’t checked out this series yet, the first book, Irons in the Fire, is currently available for free only $0.99 in most stores.

Happy reading!

 

 

From the Desktop-Prequel Announcement

It’s been awhile since my last blog post and I hope everyone’s doing well. I can’t believe it’s already July. Where has 2016 gone?

But now I have returned with an announcement!

First off, for those (handful) of you who are waiting for the sequel to Irons in the Fire, I’m afraid that Book 2 has proved more challenging than expected, but I’m hard at work and The Fall of the House of Talis promises to have all the political intrigue, magical creatures, and simmering tension of Irons in the Fire only even more so.

In the meantime, I’ll be releasing a prequel novella—Into the Heart of Talis—on Friday July 8th.

Into Heart of Talis 2_edited-2

Into the Heart of Talis leads directly into the events of Irons in the Fire, and follows the Countess as she makes her secret, perilous way into Talis, pursued by a relentless witch hunter. It fills in a few gaps and hints at some unseen motivations that will play into Book 2 and beyond.

Here is the Blurb and a Brief Excerpt:

Two hundred years have passed since the Witches were driven from Talis. Two hundred years of bitterness and exile, but at last their time has come.

Leonora has been training for this moment all her life, desperate to prove herself worthy. Magic and vengeance flow through her veins, but when her cabin is ransacked and she finds signs of sorcery, Leonora quickly realizes that someone onboard is not what they seem.

There’s the old riverboat captain who watches her, full of unasked questions, the gnome whose bitterness matches her own, and the unrepentant conman who follows her everywhere with greed in his eyes.

One of them knows her secret. One of them is hunting her.

But when you hunt a witch, it is far more likely that she is hunting you.

 Into the Heart of Talis is a 20,000-word novella that takes place directly before Irons in the Fire.

***

I. The Captain

Captain Devos found the Woman alone on the foredeck, bathed in twilight. He was struck, not for the first time, by her beauty, but it was an unpronounceable beauty, otherworldly, almost inhuman. She seemed to shine with an inward light all her own, though her features remained obscured by distance and shrouded in the oncoming night. Devos found that even his memory of her was curiously vague, like a mirage, but her loveliness was certain, beyond all doubt. Beneath her beauty, however, he thought he could sense a terrible yet muffled yearning, deep and unspoken. He could not say where that feeling came from, or what lay behind it, but it was as real as the wind on his face.

As he stood there watching her, it was her presence on deck that astounded him most of all. She had remained in her cabin for the most part throughout the journey, reclusive and silent. In her absence, she had become more a rumor than a person, haunting the minds of the other passengers and crew. Certainly she had been on Devos’s mind a great deal. She was a mystery, and he was not fond of mysteries, especially not these days. Mysteries were dangerous.

“Captain,” she greeted without turning, her voice soft but insistent. He could feel it tickling in the back of his mind, whispering unheard secrets and warnings. Devos cleared his throat. There was no turning back now.

“Miss,” he said.

Devos touched his cap and clambered up to join her on the foredeck. Closer, her features coalesced into something solid and unmistakably human, although he found traces of the wilds about her, overgrown and full of thorns.

There was a melancholy in the air that was not his own, carried on the cool breeze, vibrating through the deck beneath his feet. Devos could feel it pressing against him, invading his own thoughts, coloring his mood. Perhaps she had a touch of faërie in her blood, after all. Changelings and half-breeds were still common near the border.

They stood side by side in silence, watching the water ripple past. Neither of them felt compelled to speak. The captain kept his eyes ahead, trying not to stare at her or to pry. She would speak when she was ready. He doubted that she had emerged from her seclusion simply to sample the night air. She had a purpose. It was written all over her face, although he could not even begin to guess at its nature. That was frustrating. The other passengers were of a more familiar sort. Most of them were from the border or the wild Faërie Lands beyond. Devos understood them and their ilk, even the faëries, but the Woman refused to be understood.

A faint whistling intruded on the night air and he turned. Mr. Hamel was making his nightly promenade around the deck. Devos scowled behind his hand. Hamel was unmistakably human, which was more than could be said for many of the other passengers, but he was a trader of dubious morals and questionable character. He had brought several crates of cargo with him and had secreted them in the hold. They were likely stolen, and no doubt highly illegal, but Devos preferred not to speculate. He had been well compensated for his troubles, and kept his judgments to himself. It wouldn’t be the first time he had smuggled some mysterious cargo into Talis.

Devos was not the only one who turned at Hamel’s approach. The Woman had finally taken her eyes from the horizon, and she was watching Hamel with a curious expression. Devos could not say if it was attraction or suspicion, or both, but something passed between them in that moment. Hamel noticed her attention and gave her a roguish smile and a wave. She replied to neither but that didn’t seem to bother him.

“Some friendly advice,” Devos said. “But I wouldn’t trust that man if I were you.”

The Woman tilted her head and studied him for a moment. “Why not?”

Devos frowned, choosing his words with care. “His only loyalty is to his purse, and he has suspiciously close ties with both humans and faëries, and even the goblins.”

“I see,” the Woman said. “Interesting.” There was a wealth of thought behind her words, impenetrable and deep, but they said no more nothing more about him. As the sun sank behind them at last, she returned her gaze to the mountains and the river.

The Woman had come aboard at the foothills dressed in rags and tatters, but with an inborn grace that hinted at a coiled power within. She had paid for passage on The Wanderer in pure gold and he had found himself unable to refuse. Devos had regretted it then and he regretted it now. Money was money, but it was difficult to trust a woman with no name.

Such secrecy was not suspicious in and of itself. She was clearly from the borderlands where faërie enchantments were strong and wild, and names had jagged edges that could break or bind you. Keeping her name hidden was simple common sense, but there was more to her than mere caution. Devos was certain of it, just as he was certain that a great deal might depend on what lay behind her mask. He shivered. It was a sudden, chilling thought, but perhaps it had only been the wind.

*

There were a number of lights visible on either side of the river, like strings of diamonds, luminous and strange. They moved along the banks and in the woods, and a ghostly music followed after them.

“Faërie bands,” Devos told the Woman softly, hesitant to interrupt their songs. “Roaming the dukedom like our friends in the hold.” The Lints were a family of bird-like creatures who had booked their passage a few nights ago—refugees running from some terrible calamity that they could not, or would not, name.

The Woman nodded to show that she was listening, but kept her gaze firmly on the distant lights and one ear on the music. Her face was unreadable.

“There have been more and more of them recently,” Devos continued. “Wild faëries descending down from the mountains in waves. It’s making everyone nervous. The dukes are hard pressed and the Emperor is trying to keep his hands clean, but that can’t last for long.”

Devos glanced at the Woman. She was absorbing his words with a sudden, sharp attention, as if now, at last, he was saying something worth hearing. Her eyes, however, remained fixed on the lights and the shore.

“The trouble is that there’s no more room. The Protected Crescent is overflowing. We are the last bastion, a tiny sliver of humanity on the edge of the world. Beyond the Twelve Cities there is only the ocean.” He sighed, the words and worries coming from him suddenly. “The Crescent is caught in a vise. Behind us are oceans and islands filled with monsters and creatures and before us lies the vast uncharted wilderness filled with faërie lands beyond number and counting.”

She was watching him now, studying him intently, sifting through his words, as though searching for something. There was intent and purpose behind her eyes. Devos sensed that she had learned more from him than he knew himself. It was an uncomfortable feeling. He suddenly felt small beneath her gaze.

“What of Talis?” she asked, at last.

Devos chuckled sadly. “Have you ever been there?”

“No,” she said wistfully. “But I have dreamed of its spires and beauty all my life.”

Devos raised his eyebrows, but made no comment. She had revealed something of herself, at last, though he could only guess at its meaning.

“These days the spires are covered in grime and the city is on the brink of chaos,” he said gently. “But it still has a beauty to it, I suppose.”

“You suppose?” There was peculiar quality in her voice, a tremor between yearning and despair. After a moment, Devos realized what it was. In her own way, she was begging.

“I’m sorry,” he said, and he was, not only for her sake. “Talis is not what it was in my youth. It is strong but crumbling, and I fear its beauty is that of a storm about to crash.”

“I see,” the Woman said. “Well, thank you, Captain, for your honesty.”

Devos opened his mouth to ask a question, then thought better of it. Instead he merely nodded.

“G’night, miss,” he said and left her as he found her, alone on the foredeck.

Captain Devos did not consider himself a particularly clever man. He had never learned to read or write, but he knew how to trim a sail and rig a ship, and he knew people. The Woman was still a mystery to him, but he had his suspicions now, vague and half-formed, but growing clearer.

Devos had sailed up and down the river most of his life, had traded with goblin kingdoms and fairy brughs. He had even spent five years on the open seas hunting kraken for their ink and oil. Devos had seen magic, wonder, and terror in his life, and he saw the touch of all three within her, hidden, but unmistakably there, if you knew where to look.

There was purpose, as well, written beneath her skin in blood and hatred. It clearly had to do with Talis, and Talis meant Witches. The nameless woman with her air of grace and hidden power was dangerous in a way that Devos had never encountered before, and that was most disturbing of all. Not that it was any of his business. He was just an old riverboat captain, after all, but he couldn’t help but wonder. He couldn’t help but see.

Captain Devos lit his pipe and wandered back toward the bridge. He would keep his thoughts to himself for now, but perhaps it was time he retired to some distant isle, far away from Talis.

Far away from her.

***

 

“The Alchemist in the Attic” is Now Available

Alchemist 4E

The Alchemist in the Attic is a historical mystery with occult undertones—a tale of rival newspapermen, murder, and alchemy in turn-of-the-century San Francisco.

It is now available for a limited launch price of $0.99 on Amazon.

Here is the Blurb and a Brief Excerpt:

San Francisco 1899.

As the city prepares to welcome the new century, a twisted killer enacts his final, grisly legacy.

Theodore Atwood is a disgraced reporter desperate to find a story can save his career. No one knows San Francisco’s seedy underbelly better, but the deeper he digs the more grotesque and bizarre the case becomes.

Haunted by dreams and phantoms, Atwood follows the killer’s trail from the den of thieves and bodysnatchers to a secret society of spiritualists and occultists. Meanwhile, hidden in the shadows the alchemist readies for his enemies. Disgraced and dying, he will sacrifice countless lives to complete his terrible work.

As the city descends into a fevered nightmare around him, Atwood is caught in a deadly game of cat and mouse. He will have to fight to the brink of madness and beyond in order to survive. For he has entered a world of dark science and alchemy and there is no turning back.

***

Prologue

There were two of them in the mule cart, huddled against the cold and the night. Behind them, barely visible in the gloom, San Francisco slept fitfully beneath a shroud of thick, dense fog. It curdled over the docks and shipyards and swallowed the city whole, from the warehouses, mills, and iron works to the gaslit streets beyond, and beneath the fog came a sickening chill and freezing rain.

They had left the city behind hours ago, ridden past the forest of masts and sails until it had dwindled down to a handful of smaller ships tied to hastily constructed piers, and those too had faded into nothing. They were alone in the outskirts now, with only the road and the water, and the screeching of the wheels and the groaning of the cart.

The older man was bent over the reins, obscuring his features beneath his hat and cloak. He couldn’t afford to take any chances tonight, neither of them could. Their errand was too important, too dangerous. The dark would hide their sins for a time, and time was all he needed. His work was almost complete and then, at last, his dreams would be made flesh, and all those years of degradation and humiliation would be avenged. It was a terrible, glorious thought.

He chuckled darkly to himself, but the laughter quickly broke into a deep, hacking cough. He brought his handkerchief to his mouth. It came away bloody.

“Damn it!” he muttered to himself. The old man could feel a hollow, lingering sickness burrowing in his chest and he was acutely aware of every jostle, every bump in the road. It was a rickety old cart and the road was uneven, taking them up and around haphazardly steep hills. He coughed again and forced his hands to stop shaking. It was too soon, far too soon. His companion was counting on him to be strong.

The other man was peering out at him with sad, unblinking eyes. He was younger, but if anything he seemed to be suffering even more. Wrapped tightly in an overcoat and blanket, he looked more like a collection of padding than a person, yet still he was shivering. Rain dripped down his hat and beneath his blankets. The poor man was wilted, wet, and miserable, but he managed to hold up a lantern with a trembling arm.

“Remember,” the older man said gently. “Stay close to the light. We’re almost there.” He reached out and straightened the other man’s blanket. His companion nodded, but said nothing.

The road inclined sharply and suddenly they air was clear. Before them there was only ocean.

“This is the place,” the older man said, pulling on the reigns. The cart creaked to a halt and they sat there for a moment, gathering their strength.

“You’re sure?” the blanketed man asked, putting down the lantern.

“I’m sure,” he said.

They clambered down slowly into the mud. They had stopped at a precipice above the Bay.

It was only a short climb down the rock to the waterfront, but they were both thinking about the load they would have to carry. The older man sighed. There was nothing else for it.

“Come on then,” he said.

In the back of the cart, beneath a tarp, lay a single canvas bag. It was full to capacity and bulged in odd places. They both knew what, or rather who, was inside. The younger man shrugged off his blanket then climbed up to grab one end, and on the count of three they began the slow, difficult work of carrying it down. The slope was steep, and the rain made the rocks slippery. They stumbled and slid a few times under their heavy burden. There was much cursing and coughing, and dark muttering, but they finally made it to the shore. The waves lapped at their boots as they swung the sack back and forth—one, two, three—and flung it out into the Bay. It landed with a splash. A wave rippled out against their feet, then was still. It was done.

The younger man looked half dead after the exertion.

“Almost sunrise,” the other said, glancing at the sky.

“I know,” the younger man replied. “I can feel it.” His lips twitched, but it wasn’t much of a smile. They turned and climbed back up to the cart.

Behind them, the body sank beneath the surface, weighed down with stones, and was caught in a number of eddies and currents. The older man had made a careful study of the Bay and its ways. He had chosen this spot carefully. The body might be found eventually, with all the others, but not yet, not tonight. There was still time.

The cart creaked its way back toward the city and the fog. It had been a grim business, but it needed to be done. The old man’s enemies would be coming soon. He could feel them gathering, planning. The night’s work had only just begun.

1.

The Bathhouse

Theodore Atwood had never liked the Hammam Bath—the steam, the heat, the people. He was glistening with sweat, and his threadbare suit clung to him in uncomfortable places. It was hard to think here, hard to breathe, and today was worse than usual. He hadn’t been sleeping much recently and his had dreams left him unsettled, though he could never remember why. He had spent more than his fair share of time inside these tiled walls. The attendants all knew him by name, and he had made a point of returning the favor. In his experience, it always paid to have friends in low places—the lower the better.

The Bath was a favorite among certain circles, frequented by many of San Francisco’s richest and most powerful men, those lured in by its glittering oriental pantomime. They inevitably found that the atmosphere at the bathhouse encouraged them to commit any number of indiscretions, and Atwood had a vested interest in such lapses of judgement.

He made his living as a reporter at the San Francisco Oracle. Atwood was a shameless picker-up of the morbid and the bizarre with a sideline in the scandalous. He’d had his share of successes over the years, most recently uncovering Dr. Gentle’s Bodysnatching Ring, and he dreamed of running the paper one day. It was his birthright, after all. Recently, however, he had been reduced to working as the present editor’s blackmailer-in-chief. It was a degrading task, but well within his talents.

Atwood looked the part with sharp, darting eyes, and a seedy, ingratiating smile. He smelled of cigar smoke and ink, and stank of alcohol and worse. A few bad habits were to be expected in his position, even cultivated—and extravagant, easily identifiable vices could shield a multitude of deeper sins. His father had taught him that, and he had learned the lesson well. Although, like his old man before him, Atwood had found that certain bad habits could take on a life of their own.

”No.” The voice cut through his musings. Atwood pulled at his collar awkwardly and frowned at the balding, mutton-chopped man sitting across from him. In the past, George Gage had always been very accommodating; understandably so, given the nature of their first meeting.

“Excuse me?” Atwood asked. He felt constrained and sluggish and there was a crawling restlessness beneath his skin.

“You heard me, Atwood. I said no. I’m not paying.”

Atwood blinked and wiped the sweat out of his eyes. He glanced across at his partner, Walter, who peered back in solemn puzzlement and gave a barely perceptible shrug. He was just as surprised as Atwood.

Walter Harel was the junior court reporter at the Oracle. Only a few years younger than Atwood, Walter was the closest thing he had to a friend. He was a quiet man and a trifle peculiar, but he had a clever eye and a quick mind. They spent their days in the same cramped courtrooms and cheerless morgues bearing witness to the same daily parade of the baroque and the terrible, the tedious and the humdrum. It was a lonely, cutthroat existence, but in their line of work that counted as intimacy. Atwood had told him to keep silent and observe. He was grooming Walter to take his place one day, although that day seemed increasingly distant.

Atwood gathered his thoughts. “Need I remind you, George,” he asked, “of what I personally observed within these very walls?”

“I remember you breaking down the door,” Gage said. “And bursting in, after you’d tried drilling holes in the wall  first and peering in through the keyhole.” He smirked at Atwood with smug, beady eyes. “But my memory is a little vague after that. What is it exactly that you think you saw?”

“Is that really how you want to play this?” Atwood asked. “You know what happens if we print. Don’t test us. We’ve brought down bigger men than you.” Atwood paused, glancing at Gage’s girth. “In a manner of speaking.”

“I’m sorry.” Gage leaned forward. “I must have misheard. Did you just threaten the Deputy Chief of Police?”

“I’m simply reminding you of the facts. You wouldn’t be Deputy Chief for very long, not if people knew what I knew. Probably best not to risk it, don’t you think?”

“No, Atwood,” Gage said. “I don’t. These days the Oracle is nothing more than a two-bit rag. You and your boss are notorious liars and muckrakers and this city isn’t fond of muckrakers. No one would believe you.”

“Some would believe, especially since it’s the truth.”

“Not enough,” said Gage. “Not anymore. And if you try to smear me, Atwood, I will break you. Not everyone has forgotten what you did during the war.”

“You wouldn’t be the first person to try that.” Atwood’s smile was all teeth. “They’re gone now and I’m still here.”

“For now,” Gage said. “But Maguire can’t protect you forever. I think your grubby keyhole days are almost behind you, and your little paper will be dead soon.”

“Even if that were true,” Atwood said, “it wouldn’t save you. I may be a muckraker, but you’re the muck, George. You won’t come out the better, not without help.”

Gage said nothing. He had a reasonably blank poker face, but Atwood had seen through better. Walter sent him a silent, confirming nod. He had seen it too. Gage wasn’t acting alone.

“Ah,” Atwood said. “I see.” He stood and stared down at Gage. “So be it.”

Atwood stood and left without a backward glance, Walter trailing behind him.

*

Atwood burst from the Hammam Bath, muttering angrily to himself. He despised the bath’s patrons and their grubby secrets, and he despised the heat, but most of all, he despised being outmaneuvered. Gage was the third in as many weeks to refuse to pay. Someone was poaching and Atwood didn’t like it. Not one bit.

There was a thin, dapper man lurking on the street outside, waiting for them. With his slicked-back hair and well-tailored suit, he appeared as Atwood’s distorted, funhouse reflection, upscale but no less seedy. His eyes were on Atwood almost immediately, and his lips curled into a self-satisfied smirk.

Atwood halted at the sight of him, the wheels turning behind his eyes. “Selby,” he said, and then gave a wry, bitter smile. He understood perfectly now.

“Atwood,” the dapper man replied. Walter glanced between them worryingly, but held his tongue.

“I should have known it was you giving Gage his backbone,” Atwood said.

“Yes,” Selby agreed. “You should have. You’re slowing up, Teddy. Not surprising, I suppose, given your predilections…”

Atwood glared at him. “My predilections are no longer your concern,” he said. “Though I see you still have one for poaching.”

“My current employer prefers to call it expansion.”

“I’m sure he does!” Atwood snapped. “Well, you tell him from me that the Oracle won’t go down so easily. We’ll fight him.”

Selby tilted his head, studying Atwood curiously for a moment. “Such loyalty,” he said. “What could Maguire have done to earn that from you of all people?” He smirked. “Or maybe it isn’t loyalty at all. Maybe you just know that no one else will take you. Young and the Chronicle won’t touch you, not after what you wrote about his brother, and the Examiner certainly won’t, not if I have anything to say about it.” Selby smiled dangerously. “And unfortunately for you, Hearst listens to me on such matters.”

“Well,” Atwood said. “No one’s perfect.” He wanted nothing more than to wipe that smile off of Selby’s face, but something held him back. Selby was entirely too confident for his liking.

A number of hard, leathery men emerged suddenly out of the fog. One was tall and broad. Another had a crooked nose and quick fingers, but they all had a determined glint in their eye. Behind him, Walter took a few steps back, trying to make himself scarce. That sounded like a good idea to Atwood. He preferred fights that he thought he could win, and there were too many of them. Sometimes discretion was the better part of valor. That’s how Atwood had survived the Philippines.

“Gentlemen,” he said clearing his throat. “Nice evening for a stroll.” Then he turned and ran back toward the Bath, but two more men emerged out of a side alley, blocking his path. He made an abrupt turn but found that he was surrounded. There were six of them in all.

“Now let’s not be hasty,” he said. “You seem like reasonable men. I’m sure we could work something out.” They closed in on him with grim faces. “Or not.”

He moved quicker than they expected and struck the crooked nose man hard, sending him sprawling. He flicked out his knife and brandished it at the others. “I don’t want any trouble,” he said. “You can go your way and I’ll go mine.”

The tall man shook his head. “Nothing personal,” he said.

Atwood held them off for a while, but there were too many. He was scrappy in a fight, but they were professional brawlers the lot of them, specially chosen. The crooked-nosed man recovered quickly and knocked the knife from his hand and delivered an uppercut that forced Atwood to the ground. The others quickly pounced, kicking and punching him while he was down. Atwood struggled at first but was finally forced into a fetal position.

He was vaguely aware of Walter, gathering his courage and struggling to join him, but to no avail.

“That’s enough,” Selby called finally. He stared down at Atwood, wearing a self-satisfied grin.

Atwood glared up at him blearily. “Wouldn’t even fight me yourself.”

“Why should I, when I have these fine gentlemen to do it for me?” Selby asked. “That’s Rehms and Wright. They used to be strikebreakers. Clearly they haven’t lost their touch.”

He nodded to the others and they headed out, their work done. “Now.” He leaned down to whisper in Atwood’s ear. “I suggest you find a hole and crawl into it. You’re done here.”

Atwood spat blood in his face.

Selby stood with a dramatic sigh. “I tried,” he said, and wiped his cheek with a monographed handkerchief. “For old time’s sake.”

Atwood believed him. In his own way, Selby was trying to be nice. Atwood choked down a painful laugh. Selby was a sentimentalist, after all, a greedy, vindictive sentimentalist.

Something glinted in the lamplight. It was Atwood’s knife. Selby picked it up and slipped it into his pocket.

“Next time I won’t be so kind,” he said, and then without another word he was gone.

Atwood groaned and struggled to sit up. His ribs hurt. His coat was muddied and covered in blood. For a long moment he simply sat there, breathing heavily.

“I’m sorry,” Walter said, helping him to his feet. “I tried but…”

Atwood waved the apology away. “You’d have been hurt worse than me,” he said. “And for what?”

“You would have done it for me,” Walter said with the same solemn, doting expression as ever.. Atwood wasn’t so sure, but he left Walter to his illusions. He looked up to Atwood for some reason. It was baffling.

This wasn’t Atwood’s first beating, or even his third. He had a quick tongue, and some people were quick to take offense. But it felt different this time. He hadn’t expected it, not from Selby. Atwood had been dancing on the edge for years now and he knew it. He was bound to fall at some point. Still, at least he knew why so many people had stopped paying, but Maguire wasn’t going to like it. Hearst was increasing the pressure and Atwood wasn’t sure they could hold him back forever.

***

If you want to read more, you can pick it up here on Amazon.

Thanks and happy holidays!

Flash Fiction Friday: The Ghost Congregation

 

The ghosts gathered every seventh Sunday in an old abandoned church by the side of a long dusty road. They came in twos and threes and singly. They came from far and wide, some with rattling chains and others silent as the grave. They were the lost and forgotten, the left behind.

They had no names, the dead, for death is nameless. They had no speech, for death is speechless. But they had thoughts and hopes and dreams, and that is why they came. It was a place of forlorn hope and distant dreams. They believed with all the fervor of the dead. They believed that here in this place, once upon a time, a ghost had gone. Gone where none knew, but gone nonetheless to wherever the people went, the ones who were not ghosts.

And in that abandoned church, the ghosts sat in their silent pews and kept their hopeful vigil. Hoping beyond hope that they would be chosen. And every seventh Sunday, they hoped in vain.

And when the night turned into day, the assembled ghosts collected their chains, and their white sheets, and their ectoplasm and returned to the haunts from whence they came. But they always returned. Always.

 

Flash Fiction Friday: Concerning Gout of the Butterfly & Other Miscellaneous Maladies

II.

…Monarch butterflies can, actually, suffer from gout. This is a scientifically proven fact, attested to by numerous highly regarded if more than usually eccentric scientists[1]. The first to successfully confront the pressing question of gout in butterflies was a German medical student, Hieronymus Hegelbert, in 17th Century Hamburg. Young Mr. Hegelbert was a promising medical student and a keen lepidopterist. The precise origins of his peculiar interest are obscure at best. His diary[2] is oddly silent on the subject[3]. It is known, however, that he conducted his observations and experiments over a 15-year period between 1678 and 1693. Over the next few years he compiled his magnum opus, Die Gicht der Basisrecheneinheit: Anmerkungen und Beobachtungen, which has been translated into numerous languages and was passed among the various Aurelian Societies of Europe before fading into obscurity.

Hegelbert’s treatise was rediscovered in the 1840s by Adamari and Ricchetti, a pair of physicians in the court of Pope Gregory XVI. Butterfly gout struck these two learned and holy men as patently ridiculous[4], and they set out to disprove Hegelbert’s findings, which they did conclusively. This was and odd use of their time, which like Hegelbert, they could never entirely explain. Serious minded men, they seem to have been on a crusade against ridiculousness. Their study, nevertheless, had one fatal flaw. They had neglected the monarch butterfly.

This oversight was corrected by a certain Dr. Ambrose Vandeermeer in 1860. His interest was personal. An acute sufferer of gout, he conducted a study on all manner of animals including otters, piglets, raccoons, coconuts, and, of course, monarch butterflies. For his efforts he was laughed out of Harvard and died two years later[5]. His work is considered seminal and was taken up in the 1960s by a small think tank operating outside Cambridge. Their motives are murky at best and occasionally classified. About all that can be said for certain is that they demonstrated conclusively that monarch butterflies can, in fact, suffer from gout[6].

III.

It is a well-known fact that coconuts can occasionally contract laryngitis…

 


 

 

[1] Twenty-three to be precise.

[2] Which was found some centuries later in an attic in France next to a Van Gogh of uncertain provenance.

[3] Although it does contain an impressive, if disturbing, number of passages concerning the habits and attributes of a burgermeister’s wife.

[4] They were later found guilty of embezzling money from the Holy See and excommunicated, although their findings regarding butterfly gout were long treated as gospel.

[5] Killed by a cannon ball at Antietam

[6] How useful this information is, however, remains an open question. Although at least one Pentagon official circa 1963 certainly seems to have had an answer. Which is disturbing on many levels.

Flash Fiction Friday: The Fish Bowl

The old fish stared out at the sea from behind the glass. It was so vast and blue. As vast and blue as he remembered. It had been difficult to clutch on to those recollections. Memories were slippery and much of his life had been spent between four walls of curved glass.

It was a nice fish bowel, as far as such things went—polished and clear, well-stocked with gravel and rocks. There was an ornamental mermaid in one corner and a treasure chest in the other. The old fish found them insulting. In his youth, he had consorted with mermaids and swum among great wrecks. Seen treasure hoards held fast in watery vaults deep beneath the waves. These pale plastic shadows only reminded him of what he’d lost and what he was about to regain. If the girl kept her promise.

She was sixteen, maybe seventeen. Human ages were much the same to the fish. She had brought him to the seaside hours ago and placed the fish bowel down in the sand. They both knew why they had come, but she had simply sat there on the beach beside him. Silent. Lost in her own thoughts. The fish could guess at those thoughts, sense the shape of them, and let her be, for now. He had waited a lifetime. He could wait a little longer.

Still, it was a peculiar torture to be so close and yet so far. And as the shadows grew longer, the patient, old fish began to grow restless. He swam around and around, faster and faster, darting longing glances at the sea. He could feel it calling to him. Finally he could wait no longer.

“I know it’s difficult, child,” the old fish said. “But it’s time.”

Her shoulder’s slumped and she sighed. “I know,” she replied. Her eyes were full of terrible melancholy. “I just wish…”

“Don’t say that word!” the fish cried. The water bubbled around him.

“I’m sorry,” she said quickly. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean.”

“I know what you meant, child. You have always been very kind. More kind than this old fish deserves, but I’ve paid my dues. I made your father a mayor, and when that was not enough, a governor and senator too. I have fulfilled your mother’s every whim. Now you must set me free. That was the bargain. Those are the rules. I was promised.” The fish paused. “You pinkie sweared,” it said solemnly

“I know,” the girl replied. “But I’ll miss you. You’re my oldest friend.”

“And I shall miss you,” said the fish. “Deeply.”

The fish had watched her all her life, seen her grow, advised her, listened. He had been more of a parent to her than either her mother or father. And he loved her. She was a clumsy biped, but he loved her all the same. Growing up in that house had not been easy.

The girl sighed one last time and picked the fish bowel up slowly and headed out to the sea. The sand squelched between her toes and the waves lapped at her feet.

“I never got to make a wish,” she said.

“And you’ll be all the happier for it. Goodbye, child,” the fish said. “I wish you nothing but the best.”

“Goodbye,” she whispered then gently poured the fish out into the sea.

For a moment, he was falling, then he landed in the ocean with only a little splash. After years of confinement, of catering to human whims and desire, he was home.

The old fish was free.

Flash Fiction Friday: The Case of the People vs. Pandora

I.

Long, long ago in the first years of the Thirty-First Century, the great, the good, the wicked, and the terrible, all gathered from across the Seven Galaxies for the Trial. They came in their rockets and solar sails, their hyperdrives and trans-dimensional cannons, their teleporters and astral projectors. The Judicial Station show court could comfortably hold almost 2,000 assorted life forms, 2,500 if they squeezed. The tickets were exorbitantly expensive. One Baroness sold three moons and a minor comet to raise the necessary funds. For those without enough celestial bodies to sell, the trial was simulcast across the known universe. This was the trial of the century, perhaps even the millennium—the case of the People vs. Pandora.

Her guilt was undeniable, the evidence overwhelming, but her motives were vague at best, and there were questions whether all the evils in the universe could actually be contained in a small cube twelve centimeters high. Astrophysicists, philosophers, and theologians had all been consulted to no avail. A minor cult had even managed to form over-night preaching that releasing the evils of the universe was a divine act and claiming Pandora as their saint. They had already filed the appropriate paperwork requesting her bones as relics, in case of execution.

 

II.

The press swarmed the station like locusts. The great Media Conglomerates of Ursa Minor, the TransGalactic News Network, even the Daily Mail were all represented. They ambushed the three-headed judge in the restroom, planted listening devices in the jury room, and generally made a nuisance of themselves. Despite their best efforts, Pandora herself remained out of reach. Her lawyer, however, proved only too happy to give an interview.

Mr. Burr was the most famous defense lawyer in the galaxy and he liked it that way. He had worked his way up from the mean streets of Gamma Crucis representing the Gacrux Mob, before successfully defending the infamous Stellar Thief, who was found innocent on twenty-three counts of solar theft, despite being caught red-tentacled with a star in her pocket. Mr. Burr was loud, colorful, and used to winning. This would be his greatest success yet.

He had consulted the Oracle Mainframe and made the appropriate digital sacrifices, but it didn’t take calculative prognostication to realize that this case was important. No one would ever forget the Pandora Trial, not if she was found innocent, and no one would ever forget the man who made it happen.

“The question is not whether Ms. Pandora opened the box,” he told the assembled reporters. “That’s meaningless!” He slammed his hands on the desk. “I propose to make this about the real criminals. The ones who set up my client.” They were eating up his every word.

“I propose to put the so-called ‘gods’ on trial,” he said and grinned a shark-like grin. The reporters murmured approvingly amongst themselves. They could smell blood.

 

III.

The Box was forged from dwarf-star alloy in the fires of Hephaestus Prime by the finest craftsmen in the known universe, and commissioned by the Olympian Sect, a splinter group of transphasic multi-dimensional life forms, who sometimes referred to themselves as gods. Vain, squabbling creatures, they were quite capable of destroying entire planets with a thought. After the Great Dimensional War of ’67, they had more or less kept themselves to themselves. More or less. It, therefore, caused quite a stir when Mr. Burr called their leader, Zeus, to the stand.

Zeus appeared as an elderly, gray-bearded gentleman dressed in the latest galactic fashion, but there was nothing remotely human about him. His shadow twisted behind him in strange and terrible shapes. He entered the witness stand imperiously brushing the oath aside. He was a god, after all. Mr. Burr gathered his notes, nodded reassuringly at his client, and rose to begin his questioning.

Zeus was the first so-called god he had questioned, but Mr. Burr had dealt with more than his share of dangerous egomaniacs. He began slowly, with all due deference. He was flattering and circumspect until he reached the heart of the questioning.

“I understand the Box in question was constructed at your behest,” he said, “as a wedding gift.”

“It was.”

“Dwarf-star alloy is used primarily in intergalactic construction,” said Mr. Burr, “and you wanted it for a 12cm wedding gift?”

“It was the only thing strong enough to contain what was inside.”

” You are referring to the evils of the universe? You maintain that the box did, in fact, contain them?”

“I put them there myself.”

“Why?”

Zeus’ face was the picture of contrition. “To atone for the damage caused in the Wars.”

“A noble effort,” Mr. Burr said solemnly, “but I would remind the jury that none of the astrophysicists, philosophers, and theologians we consulted have been able to verify his claim.”

“The metaphysics is beyond mere mortals,” scoffed Zeus. The bulkheads creaked ominously under the weight of his voice.

“Perhaps,” Mr. Burr said, shifting gears, “but returning to the wedding, it was between the defendant and Epimetheus?”

“Correct.”

“And what is your relationship with Epimetheus?”

“A distant cousin,” Zeus sneered.

“Meaning he is also a multi-dimensional life form from an opposing sect?”

“Yes.”

“And, as I understand it, you personally punished his brother for providing us with the secret of stellar manipulation?”

“It was not his to give!” The whole station shuddered out of orbit. In the control room, alarms blared as the crew tried frantically to realign the station.

The courtroom erupted into worried whispers. Mr. Burr watched the jury.

“Were you aware,” he asked at length, “that Pandora was a clone?”

Zeus blinked. “No.”

“She was engineered for beauty and paid for by the Dyeus Foundation, a subsidiary of your sect. You didn’t hide your tracks very well there.”

“What are you insinuating?”

“Nothing, but it is suggestive that you apparently built both the bride and the box.”

“How dare you!” Zeus rose to his full height towering over the courtroom. This time the crew was ready. He was not the first multi-dimensional life form they had dealt with. Stabilizers were activated, stasis fields calibrated.

“There are no thunderbolts in space,” Mr. Burr said with his sharpest smile. The courtroom erupted.

“No further questions, your honor.”

 

IV.

Pandora was beautiful. It was an empirical fact. She had been designed that way, as a wife for a Titan, as bait. Her purpose had been etched into every cell; her actions wired into her brain chemistry. She had no choice, whether she knew it or not. Cloning was a delicate art and she had been sculpted by the best. But now the certainty was gone. She had lived her life with an infecting, all-consuming purpose but now it was fulfilled, leaving only emptiness. Despite the rumors, she was not stupid. Intelligence had not been a priority for her designers, but she was as smart as the average being. She knew what she’d done. She knew who was to blame. But more than anything, Pandora knew she wanted to live. That awareness kept her sane, made her human in the eyes of the law, but it couldn’t fill the emptiness, not entirely.

 

Mr. Burr had intended to use her testimony as the finishing touch. He had kept her away from prying eyes and ears, a waste of effort in the end. By the time Pandora had taken the witness stand, meek and irrefutably beautiful, the trial was over. Across the known universe, everyone had already decided. It wasn’t her fault. She was the victim. They were right, as far as that went.

 

V.

Pandora was found not guilty by a jury of her peers. She did not live happily ever after.

Flash Fiction Friday: Concerning the Proper Uses of Cyanide

Picnic with Ruins copy

I’m going on a picnic and I’m bringing apples, bananas, and cyanide. Cyanide is crucial to the success of any proper picnic, or so my mother used to say before the men in white coats took her away to Happy Town. A little pinch of cyanide can go a long way. I learned this for myself, when I was seven and my sister was three. Terrible little brat. Given to tantrums and chasing her big sister around the house with a cleaning implement. Half a drop of cyanide in her milk every other Monday for four months soon made her as docile as a lamb—a lamb with cyanide poisoning. She lived, of course. I was very careful, even as a child, that the doses be just so. I love my sister, truly. She just needed to learn her lesson, and she did, admirably. Even mother was proud. So very proud. I was her darling angel. Father, on the other hand, had his own ideas about poison.

My father was a doctor by trade, a forensic pathologist to be precise. As a practitioner of so-called ‘morbid anatomy,’ he was well versed in all manner of poisons, both exotic and mundane. His breadth of knowledge far exceeded dear mother, although his experience was of a more academic nature. He had examined countless cadavers in the morgue or on the operating table, but no matter how he dreamed, not a single one was because of him. He remained resolutely innocent until the end of his days, which did not come until he was well into his eighties.

For mother, I think he was an eternal disappointment. She thought she was marrying a forensic pathologist with homicidal tendencies. As it turned out, however, she had married a forensic pathologist with repressed homicidal tendencies, and he remained resolute in his repression. Even worse, from her albeit warped point of view, he was too intimate with poisons and their antidotes. During the course of their marriage, he survived, to my knowledge, nine separate poisoning attempts. I have no doubt there were others I was not privy to. Nevertheless, father visited her once a week in Happy Town for the duration of her stay, and after he passed away, she followed him only three months later.

Poison was suspected but never proved.

New Short Story “The Painletter” is Now Available

 

The Painletter

The Painletter is a short, psychological horror story about illness, pain, and Lovecraftian horrors. It is currently available for $0.99 at AmazoniBooks, Kobo, and Barnes & Noble.

Here is the Blurb and a Brief Excerpt:

Arthur Bettleheim is a man in pain. 

Every moment is spent in unending, inexplicable agony. Every limb aches. Every nerve is on fire. Through pain-filled eyes he glimpses a hidden world of secret knowledge and monstrous shapes. The monsters stalk his days and haunt his nights, bringing him to the brink of madness. There is no escape. No respite. 

Bettleheim consulted doctors and psychotherapists, witch doctors and quacks. He visited hospitals and sanatoriums. No one could help him. 

Then he hears rumors of a man who can take away the pain. 

For a price…

***

The painletter was a soft-spoken little man with grubby hands and the stench of whisky on his breath. He was not at all what I had been expecting. I had heard the rumors, of course, whispered softly in the sanatoriums and sickrooms of Europe, rumors of a man who could extract your pain like letting blood, and in my desperation I had even begun to believe, not entirely, but enough. It was not credulity that had brought me here, but need. I needed to believe. There were no other options left. I had tried them all. For years now, my life had been a litany of never-ending torments, of horrendous treatments and learned doctors, of monsters, and, I feared, of madness. It appeared now that in my desperation, at least, I was not alone.

The painletter ushered me into a small, cramped waiting room. I could find no trace of sympathy or concern about him. He seemed distracted, impatient, and almost eager. I appreciated that lack of sympathy. I had come to find pity abhorrent. It was nothing but a degradation, a humiliation born of self-congratulation. They were always so proud of their compassion, as if it alone could save me. I longed to spit in their smug faces, but I held my tongue. I always held my tongue. For his part, the painletter was practically rude in his brusqueness. I treasured that rudeness, basked in it. I hadn’t felt so human in an eternity.

The waiting room was windowless and narrow. There was a door on the other end, a handful of rickety chairs with faded upholstery, and an unexpectedly ornate wall clock. Everything else about this place was broken down and crumbling, from the wallpaper to the people, but the clock looked brand new. Perhaps it was a gift from a grateful patient.

There were four other patients already there, waiting their turn. I recognized most of them. There was Kindlmann, my former cubical neighbor from a shower bath in Dresden. Next to him sat a scrawny Spaniard I remembered from a sanatorium in the Alps, and hunched over across from him was an elderly Greek I had met at a mineral bath in Turkey. The only one I had never seen before was the woman, but she had the same haunted eyes and shrunken body as the rest of us.

“Bettleheim,” the Spaniard greeted. I mustered a wan smile in return and nodded to the others. I had forgotten his name.

These were my people, my fellow travelers, but as I peered into their feverish, haunted eyes, I felt no kinship. I had no room left in me for any suffering but my own. The journey from my hotel had been harrowing, a now familiar odyssey of torments, and my energy was all but spent.

I had walked from the hotel, several miles across the city through teeming thoroughfares and winding cobblestone streets. Flagging down a cab or boarding one of the newfangled trolley cars would have been faster, but being trapped in those enclosed spaces, subject to every jolt and jostle on the road, might have been the death of me.

Every stumbling step had sent burning, aching flames through my legs, but I could set my own pace. I could rest from time to time. Sometimes, though, a sudden pain would bring me up short, breathing heavily as the crowd was forced to part around me. Other times I was twisted around, my body tying itself into unnatural knots.

The daylight too was painfully bright. My eyes ached under the strain and my ears rang. Every voice, every creaking cart and trolley bell, vibrated inside my head, and struck me like a physical blow. I felt dizzy, adrift in a city that was not my own, and a world that was out of joint. I could feel people’s eyes on me, judging me. My shriveled humiliation on parade for all to see. I knew it was my imagination playing tricks, dredging up demons from my mind, but still I could not help my sense of persecution and shame.

My mind was proving as treacherous as my body. From the corner of my eye I saw shapes and monsters on the streets, leering at me, but when I turned to face them head on, I found they had vanished as if they had never been. I could never see them properly through a haze of light and agony, but they had become familiar companions, counterparts to my strange aches and sharp pains. I feared that I was going mad, driven to it at last in my final extremities. It would be natural for a man of my proclivities, a writer and dabbler in the occult, to hallucinate monsters and demons when faced with a mysterious pain.

More than that, my torments had begun with a dream, or perhaps in a dream—a dream of horror and agony. Afterwards, I felt as though all the suffering that followed had pursued me out into the waking world. It was an absurd notion and I am not an absurd man, but I could not shake the sense that the pain was not my own, that my limbs and nerves had been abducted and subverted by some outside ineffable force. I turned to absinthe for the sweet release of oblivion. When that failed I self-prescribed a number of opiates, but they only made the dreams worse, full of jagged edges. That was the start of my long and fruitless odyssey through the darker side of medicine.

***

If you want to read more, you can pick it up at AmazoniBooksKobo, and Barnes & Noble.

Flash Fiction Friday: The Brief Journey of the Malcontent, Doctor H. H. Foster

Dr. Foster went to Gloucester in the pouring rain. He had not intended, when he woke that morning, to go to Gloucester or, indeed, anywhere at all, but circumstances of a pressing nature had unexpectedly arisen, and thus he found himself donning his hat and his coat and venturing forth into the downpour. It was a cold and blistery September morning. The rain, which had started the previous evening with a relatively harmless drizzle and drazzle, had proceeded during the night through the varied stages of mizzling, tippling, luttering, and plothering and now resembled nothing so much as a deluge of biblical proportions[1]. Nonetheless, Dr. Foster, clutching an umbrella in one hand and a well-wrought traveling bag in the other, made his slow plodding way to the train station irritably jostling the other pedestrian’s umbrellas and becoming, ever more ill tempered and disgruntled.

It must be said, in all honesty, that Doctor H. H. Foster’s[2] irritable temperament was not an altogether uncommon occurrence. Indeed, even when he was not graced with such ideal circumstances for irritability, Dr. Foster could generally be relied upon to furnish his own rationale. No longer a young man, Dr. Foster had been raised under the auspices of his Great Aunt, an uncommonly stern and opinionated woman even among that set which is largely defined as stern and opinionated. She had been possessed of very definite ideas regarding education, behavior, and, curiously enough, headwear[3]. Dr. Foster had therefore, received an eccentric[4] upbringing. He was not particularly fond of his Aunt. She had, after all, been a firm believer in ‘spare the rod, spoil the child’ and had not been given to either sparing or spoiling. Dr. Foster was, however, enormously fond of the substantial fortune she had left him in her will. It had allowed him to retire from the terribly coarse business of dealing with other people’s medical problems and live a life of leisure and comfort. He went to an expensive tailor for his suits, to a shirt maker for his shirts, and a shoemaker for his shoes, an indulgence that would, no doubt, have annoyed his Aunt immensely. Dr. Foster was more irritable and wet than ever when, within sight of Cannon Street station he slipped on the street corner, where a thousand other pedestrians had slipped, into a rather large puddle. He sunk up to his waist, his expensive shoes undistinguishable in mire, his tailored suit ruined, even his well-wrought traveling bag splattered with mud. Grumbling to himself, Dr. Foster pulled himself out of the muck and decided then and there that he would never again go to Gloucester[5].


 

[1] Which was unfortunate, since no one had yet demonstrated the foresight or wherewithal to construct an ark, or ascertain how animals might be compelled to board said ark. A gentleman of the Royal Society was believed to be pondering just that question with an untimely lack of results.

[2] His given name was Humphrey Foster, the first H. being purely ornamental.

[3] She was heartily opposed on general principle, which made any excursion difficult given popular fashion. She once referred to London as “an excrement of confounded hats!”

[4] and hatless

[5] And he never did.