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!

 

 

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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: 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.

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.

First Novel: Irons in the Fire is Published!

Irons in the Fire Final Cover1

 

And so it begins. I’ve dipped my toes into the world of indie publishing, but now it’s time to take the plunge. Irons in the Fire is a steampunk fantasy filled with mystery, murder, magic, and revolution. It is the first novel in the Chronicles of Talis and now available for a limited launch price of $0.99 at Amazon, iBooks, Barnes & Noble and Kobo.

 

Here is the Blurb and a Brief Excerpt:

The City of Talis is a fragile beacon of civilization on the edge of the Faërie Lands. Beyond lies a wilder world of dark enchantments and terrible wonders, but behind the city walls humans and faëries live together in uneasy peace—until an explosion rocks the city and long-smoldering tensions threaten to ignite. 

As the Commandant of Police, Baron Hessing has maintained stability for decades. But with a murderer on the loose, an anarchist bombing the city, and rumors of a faërie uprising, he is starting to lose control. Hessing finds himself caught in a web of interlocking conspiracies and he may need to choose between saving his city and saving his family. 

Into this maelstrom appears the Countess. Trained from birth for a single purpose—vengeance—suddenly she appears everywhere from secret catacombs to the halls of power. Beset by enemies on all sides, it will take all her training to succeed in a city on the brink of revolution. Plans are in motion, centuries in the making, that will change the fate of Talis forever. 

 

***

Prologue

The boy had light fingers and quick hands. Sergeant Obry almost hadn’t noticed him. He watched the pickpocket as he weaved through the crowd and sidled up to an unsuspecting satyr. The boy lifted the faërie’s wallet and gold watch too, for good measure. Then he was gone. No one else had noticed. Not that anyone would have cared. Even the boy probably didn’t realize he had been seen. Sergeant Obry chuckled to himself at the thought.

The Rook Gate was crowded. Carriages and carts vied with omnibuses and trolleys, while pedestrians—human or otherwise—slipped in-between, heedless of the danger. It was easy for the boy to lose himself in the hustle and bustle.

Across the street, a cut-rate illusionist offered spells for a penny, but there was more trickery than magic in him. Probably a dropout from the local Wizarding College, Sergeant Obry thought, and he wondered how the illusionist had been permitted to ply his trade so close to the Gate. Someone had been paid under the table, no doubt, but it hadn’t been him. A block over to the right, a monkey and his organ grinder churned out the same few songs over and over again, adding to the cacophony of noise—the clattering hooves, the rattling carriages, and the rumbling of the overhead train.

Obry’s vision wasn’t what it used to be, but he had a well-trained eye and the benefit of long experience. He found the pickpocket again, almost too easily. He never would have admitted it, but he was a little disappointed. He had expected better. The boy had made his way across the street into the shadow of the great wall that encircled the Old Quarter, all that remained of the original City of Talis.

One of the oldest of the Twelve Great Cities, Talis was second only to the capital in wealth and prestige. It straddled both sides of the river and over the centuries had risen into a multi-tiered hodgepodge of crumbling rooftops and smoke-stained spires. There was a thriving population of nymphs, hobgoblins, fauns, pixies, and all manner of faërie creatures, largely segregated in their own Quarter. It was safer for all concerned.

Obry found it difficult, sometimes, to pin down what precisely constituted a faërie. It had become a catchall term for any creature or being that came from beyond the Twelve Cities, from the Lands of Faërie. There were few true fairies or fey among them, and in Obry’s experience most of them had been born in the Cities themselves, until recently at least.

Shaking himself from his thoughts, Obry turned his attention back to the boy. He had chosen a human this time, a dandy, all frills and powders. Obry sighed; as amusing as the pickpocket’s antics were, it was no longer any of his business.

He glanced down. The paperwork all seemed to be in order. He stamped the permits with the Official City Seal of Talis, and returned them.

“Have a nice day,” Obry said.

The family didn’t reply. The father took the papers without a word, while the mother and her children avoided his gaze. Strange bird-faced creatures, they kept their heads down as they passed beneath the armed guards and continued through the Gate.

Obry turned and craned his neck upward. A cyclops loomed above him in an ill-fitting coat and tails.

“Papers please,” Obry said, stifling another sigh. Sometimes it was hard to remember that he had requested this assignment, put in the transfer request himself. He had spent forty years on the streets, patrolling the Faërie Quarter, spying in bars, doing Commandant Hessing’s dirty work, but he was older now. He was tired. Hessing had understood. The Commandant was an old bastard himself, but he made a point of rewarding loyalty, and had personally arranged Obry’s new post.

He stamped the cyclops’ permit and waved him through. The cyclops gave him what could have been a polite nod. Obry returned it. The Rook Gate was the most secure checkpoint in the city. Armed guards lined the wall, and there were specially trained sniffer dogs, their three heads alert for the slightest whiff of magic. It was an easy assignment, free from excitement, a way station on the road to retirement and a chance to line his pockets. He and Johanna wouldn’t be able to live comfortably on a policeman’s pension alone.

Obry frowned. For a moment he thought he’d heard a faint whistling, but a quick glance at the crowd revealed no whistlers. He shook it off and nodded to the waiting faërie, a minotaur in a top hat. His papers were not in order, but the fifty-pound note concealed among them certainly was. Obry pocketed the money subtly and stamped the minotaur’s papers.

“Have a nice day,” he said again with a little more cheer in his voice. The minotaur gave him a secret smile.

Unlike many of his colleagues, Obry didn’t mind working with faëries and monsters. Some of them were almost human and he was even friendly with a few of them, or as friendly as their kind could be. There were more of them now than ever before. Refugees of every kind and shape were flooding into the city daily. None of those Obry had spoken to had been willing or able to explain what they were running from, but they were all filled with a nameless dread.

Talis was starting to creak under the strain, and while he wasn’t much given to politics, Obry was of the opinion that they could avoid a lot of unpleasantness if Parliament and the Duke just granted passed the Faërie Rights legislation. Not equal rights, of course. His Ma, Gods rest her soul, would have turned over in her grave, but a few gradually implemented rights to calm them down and help civilize them wouldn’t be amiss. They weren’t living in the Faërie Lands any longer, but there was no reason they couldn’t adapt.

Obry stamped an air sprite’s papers absently. The whistling was back again, closer now. He thought of asking one of the nearby guards, but they didn’t seem to have heard anything. Obry wasn’t fond of them anyway. The puffed-up bastards would only laugh and call him ‘Grandpa.’ Obry had confronted rampaging manticores and goblins, even faced down a witch one terrible night, armed only with a cudgel. Let the idiots laugh, with their rifles and shiny bayonets.

Obry barely even skimmed over the next permit. The whistling was getting louder now. It was distracting, and worse, it was making him nervous. Something was wrong. A train had just rumbled through the rooftops and screeched to a halt at the new platform high above the street. That could have been it, but Obry knew it wasn’t. It had been a whistle not a shriek. People and faëries were descending from the platform into the already crowded streets. Obry caught sight of the boy again as he headed down a side alley, almost dancing through the masses, picking pockets left and right, but that wasn’t what he was looking for. His eyes darted through the throng, desperately.

Obry finally spotted him—a little hobgoblin man in a shabby coat, with a whistle still on his lips. Their eyes met for a long moment, and then the figure smiled mischievously and nodded toward the Gate. Obry followed his gaze, but saw nothing. When he turned back, the hobgoblin was gone, vanished into the crowd. Obry was genuinely worried now. He studied the Gate more closely, wrought from iron and designed especially to keep the faëries at bay. Still nothing. Unless…

There. Nestled in a shady corner flush against the wall was a small brown paper package wrapped in string. In an instant Obry knew, without being told, what was inside. His instincts were screaming the answer, but he couldn’t understand how the hobgoblin could have gotten close enough to plant the package, right under the guards’ watching eyes. It shouldn’t have been possible. The guard dogs would have smelled the telltale scent of magic. But that didn’t matter now. Obry leapt to his feet, a warning on his lips. He was too late.

Sergeant Obry was killed instantly. There was a terrible flash, a blinding and burning. The whole world seemed to tremble with the force of the blast. Every window within a mile’s radius shook and shattered. There was nothing now but dust and death, and the screams, so many screams. A world of mangled corpses—humans and faëries were buried beneath masonry and shrapnel, their parts mixed together until you couldn’t tell human from griffin or minotaur.

There was a crater where the Rook Gate had once stood, a gaping, smoking gash in the ancient wall. The fire was everywhere. A plume of dense acrid smoke rose into the sky and coated the remains in ash. Worse were the survivors, some no less mangled than the dead. Their voices filled the air, their cries and pleas in a thousand tongues, some not even remotely human, all in pain.

The city responded slowly, as if in a stupor. Policemen poured in from all across town, to dig through the rubble. Ambulances and fire engines came wailing, as fast as their horses and unicorns could carry them. Others came too—onlookers, volunteers, and scavengers—to pick over the dead and dying.

Amidst the chaos, the little hobgoblin man in a shabby coat made his way untouched and unnoticed through the ruins of Worst Street, away from the fire and death, whistling an old Merman Ballad to himself, as he went.

Chapter One

Her name was Countess Antoinette Wyman-Straus, and she had the documents to prove it. Very good documents they were too, printed on official paper, with the proper seals and signatures, all in order, all correct. They were fake, of course, as fake as her smile, and Mr. Covét ought to know. He had forged them himself.

Covét was an elderly faun with a severe white beard dressed in an old-fashioned frockcoat, expensive and well cared for, but decades out of style. The Countess could feel his eyes on her as she finished perusing the documents. They were quite satisfactory; but then, Covét had come highly recommended, although she had been forced to endure his constant unfriendly glances when he thought she wasn’t looking.

“These are flawless,” she said.

Covét sneered at the compliment.”Did you have any doubts?”

“None at all.” She smiled apologetically, her proper little smile, but he wasn’t paying attention, pointedly staring over her shoulder. The awkwardness lingered, and Covét showed no sign of breaking it.

“You don’t like humans very much, do you, Mr. Covét?” she asked at length, reaching into her coat.

“No, I don’t,” he replied, but took her money nonetheless. He couldn’t afford to be too particular when it came to clients, especially those who could pay.

“£1500,” she said, “as agreed.”

He lived in a ramshackle apartment above a print shop in the Faërie Quarter writing invectives and editorials for an anti-human rag, and supplemented his income with forgeries for his mostly human clients. It was only a meager living and it showed. The furniture was tattered and dusty. The wallpaper was cracked and peeling and the books were faded and well worn. They were everywhere. Every available wall space was covered in shelves, and there was a whole shelf of ancient tales containing everything from The One-Eyed King of Huor to The God-Eater and The Tripartite King. More books were piled on the floor, in chairs, or propping up tables. Only his workspace was pristine. It needed to be.

“Appearances can be deceptive,” the Countess said. “Perhaps I’m not as human as you think. Perhaps I’m something a little more.”

Covét glanced up from counting the money and gave her a once-over. She was younger than he’d thought—mid-twenties, perhaps younger, perhaps older. Human ages could be tricky, and she was human. There was no doubt of that, with her long coat and big red hat. Disgustingly, fashionably human.

“Ah,” he said. “You’re one of those. You think we can’t do it alone; think that we need humans to help us, that we’ll latch ourselves gratefully onto the first friendly face.” He sneered. “You’re not the only one to make that mistake. These days every human with a guilty conscience claims a faërie relative. Ten or twelve times removed, of course.”

She blinked at the vitriol in his voice, and what it implied. Someone else was making unwanted overtures in the faërie community. That was useful information, and so too was his response, and the speed with which he had dismissed her claim. She said nothing.

“Well,” Covét continued, “aren’t you a woman of many facets—a criminal and a faërie sympathizer.”

“I am not a criminal,” she said, her voice level.

Covét snorted. For someone so cultured, it was a surprisingly animalistic sound. “In my experience, the only humans who come to old fauns like me for help are criminals.”

He moved to the window and peered down through the curtains, his hooves clomping softly on the rug.

“Take a look, Countess,” he said.

She collected her identity papers and joined him at the window. It took her a moment to see what he was pointing at, but only a moment. There were six of them, loitering across the street. One appeared to be in a drunken stupor outside a tavern. Another was panhandling in rags and tatters, and a third leaned against a telegraph pole assiduously reading the newspaper.

“Hessing’s jackboots,” said Covét. “Spying for the Duke.” They were all too casual, carefully not watching the third floor apartment, exactly as they had been trained to not watch. And they weren’t all human. There was a bull-faced man with sharp teeth, and hiding on the far corner, a fairy of the fey fluttered on its dragonfly wings and a sphinx curled up, seemingly asleep, but with one eye open.

“Traitors,” Covét spat, then stopped himself, remembering the Countess. “I wonder which one of us they’re watching for.” He glanced at the Countess slyly. “Shall we find out?”

*

They descended the narrow stairwell together. The air was close and stale, and there was barely space for two to walk abreast. The Countess went first, silently, keenly aware of Mr. Covét’s breathing on her neck and the stamping of his hooves. She forced herself to maintain an even pace; she would not rush, or, more importantly, let him see her rush.

They passed a hag on the stairs with a long, crooked nose and spindly fingers, struggling with a bushel of groceries under each arm. She narrowed her eyes at the Countess and muttered to herself disapprovingly in her own tongue. The Countess idly wondered if those had been groceries or ingredients for hexes and spells. Not that it mattered. Not to her. Finally, they emerged out onto the street.

After the claustrophobia of the stairs, the Countess stretched and took a deep breath. She immediately swallowed back a dry retch. The city stank of sweat and soot, of manure, and other things. The old stories spoke only of wonder; they never mentioned the stench. Faëries and other monstrous creatures were inhuman and they smelled like it. She had forgotten that in her need for open air. She would have to control herself better in the future.

The Countess turned back to Mr. Covét, who was watching her with a knowing, bitter smile. She had lost ground there, a childish mistake. Composing herself, she held out a hand to shake. “Pleasure doing business with you,” she said.

Mr. Covét studied her for a long moment, glanced subtly across the street at their secret observers. Her hand didn’t waver. He shrugged and then shook it. Covét’s grasp was firm and he stared into her eyes, more curious than before, but still bitter. They parted ways with exaggerated politeness and headed in opposite directions.

Most of the spies contrived to follow Covét—the ones they could see, anyway—but two trailed after her. It was almost absurdly obvious, if you knew to look, but she wasn’t laughing. While she had been shaking the faun’s hand, the Countess had caught sight of a hobgoblin in an overcoat from the corner of her eye, but when she turned, he was gone and she couldn’t find him again. She was sure there were other spies who had escaped her notice, and that was not a comforting thought.

Still, the Duke, or Hessing, or whoever had sent those spies, clearly considered Covét the greater threat, an understandable error. She allowed herself to relax, but only slightly. It had been a long, strenuous few days, spent hiding in carts and stowing away on riverboats, but she was here at last, in Talis. She had prepared so long for this moment, too long. There were dangers all around, but she welcomed them. It was better than the endless lifetime of waiting that had preceded it.

A primly dressed young woman emerged from the crowd and took her place half a step behind the Countess. It was delicately handled. She appeared from one moment to the next, as if she had always been there.

“How did it go, my lady?” she asked.

“Mr. Covét was exactly as you described, Elise,” the Countess said. “Sullen but competent.”

“I’m glad,” Elise said with a pleased smile. The Countess gave her a tight nod, but her eyes flickered to the panhandler and the drunk who were following them. Elise didn’t turn, but she knew immediately where the Countess was looking.

“I see them.” Her hand strayed to her waist, where she had a knife secreted in her bustle, sharp and deadly. “Shall I handle them, my lady?”

Although they had only met the night before, the Countess knew that beneath her dress, Elise had a thin, wiry strength, and the Countess had no doubt that her prim and proper companion could handle the spies easily.

“Best not to draw too much attention to ourselves,” said the Countess. “Not yet. Let them see what they will see.”

“Yes, my lady.”

As they continued down the street, the crowd seemed to part around them, almost unconsciously. Men, women, and faëries found themselves stepping out of the way as if by happenstance. Elise kept her head down, but she was not surprised. For her part, the Countess was too preoccupied to notice, but if she had, it would have worried her. She should have had more control than that. It had been beaten into her for years. Control was paramount, especially for someone like her. She had been ordered to abstain from magic as much as possible, but a day in the city and already she was slipping.

Covét had been more difficult than she had expected, even with Elise’s warning; and if he was indicative of the general sentiment in the Faërie Quarter, she might have to adjust her tactics. She could be flexible. She had to be. All in service to her glorious, all-consuming purpose. She could feel it always, burning inside her, influencing her thoughts, twisting her, nudging her down the right path for its fulfillment.

“Is everything prepared for the Ritual?” the Countess asked.

“Jules is gathering the last of the ingredients. It is a delicate matter,” said Elise.

“I want to perform the Ritual as soon as possible. There’s no time to waste.”

“My brother knows that.”

“Good.”

The Purpose had been passed to her by her mother, as a legacy and an infection. Three generations had toiled beneath its auspices, and had sacrificed everything. Elise and her brother had helped prepare the way and she was grateful, but the Countess knew with terrible, vivid certainty that her purpose was hers alone. The real work had only just begun.

 

***

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

Writing Updates: “Cinder and Smoke” Is Now Available in Occult Detective Monster Hunter: A Grimoire of Eldritch Inquests Vol. I

My story, Cinder and Smoke, has been published in A Grimoire of Eldritch Inquests: Occult Detective Monster Hunter.

I consider “Cinder and Smoke” to be the best short story I’ve written yet. It’s got mystery, vaguely Lovecraftian horror, a claustrophobic setting, Belle Epoque Paris, and, of course, an occult detective—M. de Ravenot, a gentleman from the Académie de la Metaphysique.

I’ve wanted to write an occult detective story for years. In between other projects, I’ve slowly been developing an occult adventuress series full of tongue-in-cheek adventures, ghosts, and pulp fiction/penny dreadful fun. This is not that story. Despite or perhaps because I’ve spent years working on it, the adventuress is nowhere near ready.

So I created something “Cinder and Smoke” instead. It exists in Ravenot’s darker, more moody world of astrological signs, hidden magic, family secrets and terrible experiments. I look forward to returning to Ravenot’s world in the future.

 


 

Occult Detective Monster Hunter: A Grimoire of Eldritch Inquests Vol. I is now available at Amazon in both digital and hard copies.

 

 

 

New Short Story “The Nightmare Man” Now Available

And so it begins. I have taken the plunge into the world of indie publishing, although this may count as less of a plunge and more of a cautious toe-dipping.

The Nightmare Man is a short, psychological ghost story with a sprinkling of Lovecraft. It is currently available for $0.99 at AmazonBarnes & Noble and Kobo.

 

Here is the Blurb and a Brief Excerpt:

Uncle Josiah collects dreams. That’s all Molly knows about him; all anyone seems to know. The family would rather forget he even existed. But when her mother dies and she and her brother are orphaned, Uncle Josiah is the only one who offers to take them in.

Molly finds living in her uncle’s house difficult at first. It is not a place for children—strangers come and go at odd hours and his amanuensis watches the children with secrets in his eyes. Uncle Josiah remains awkward and distant. Part Jungian, part mystic, he is determined to find the primordial nightmare at the root of the collective unconscious. His obsession has made him a laughingstock, but Molly is fascinated. In her uncle’s work she can escape her grief, if only for a little while.

Then the dreams begin, harmless at first, and Molly slowly realizes that she may be the only one who can save what’s left of her family.

***

 

I.

Uncle Josiah collected dreams. That was all Molly knew about him, all anyone seemed to know. She had heard the whispers, of course, even the ones she was not meant to, hushed and disapproving. Eccentricity was permitted in old distinguished families, sometimes even borne as a badge of honor, but only a certain respectable sort of eccentricity. Uncle Josiah’s peculiarities were another matter entirely and not to be tolerated, certainly not by that great assemblage of aunts, cousins, and various relations. For her part, Molly had always found him kind and considerate, affable even, if a little awkward, despite his reputation.

They had met twice before, if fleetingly. The first encounter had been at her father’s funeral, but she had been barely seven at the time, and the whole ordeal was something of a blur, best forgotten. Their second meeting had been at Grandmama’s ninety-fifth birthday, a milestone that even Uncle Josiah could not safely escape. He had spent the entire time hovering in corners or by the refreshments, scribbling in his notebook, hardly speaking to anyone. Molly had approached him with childish determination because there he was, the reclusive uncle, the Dream Collector in the flesh.

The thought filled her with a strange thrill. Dream collecting—it sounded so wonderfully romantic, like something from a fairytale. She had created her own mythology, her own secret fairytales of expeditions into strange and secret places where dreams were carried on the winds, fluttering like wisps of clouds. And at the heart there was always the Dream Collector, her uncle, net in hand trapping and bottling dreams like butterflies.

Those were her favorite stories, her stories, the ones she whispered to herself at night, the ones she desperately hoped were true, and perhaps, just perhaps, one day he would take her with him. But that was before. She was older now. She no longer believed in fairytales. Not anymore.

*

The past few weeks had passed in a haze of sad, solemn faces—policemen, concerned citizens, and relatives, all suitably, infuriatingly sympathetic. It was all a jumble of images and moments. The priest had droned on, his voice a distant murmur. A procession of strangers in black had wound its way through the graveyard, an odd boy trailing the casket, sobbing. His grief bought and paid for. Molly and her brother, Tom, bore it all with numb, faltering patience. It had been six days since their mother died.

They heard so many stories about her, some familiar, others unknown—happy stories, funny stories. Tom and Molly didn’t laugh, didn’t smile. They were stiff in their formal clothes, isolated in their grief. The others had stories of a friend to share, a sister, a niece. Only they had stories of a mother, but they kept them locked away. Those stories were theirs alone. Not for company.

Molly could feel the family watching them.

“What are we going to do about the children?” their eyes seemed to ask, but no one answered.

There were spaces too between the stories—awkward pauses and significant glances—filled with the weight of things unsaid. And there was something else, something Molly couldn’t quite put her finger on. Beneath the fond memories and somber chatter, she caught glimpses of darker undertones, frightening, and out of reach.

She reached for her brother’s hand, but he seemed to shrink from her touch.

*

At last all the arrangements were made, the paperwork signed. A severe young woman and a flustered man in a suit from the Royal Philanthropic Society arrived. Their names were Ms. Sneed and Mr. Blot and they had come to take the children to their new home. The assembled aunts, cousins, and uncles, even Grandmamma herself, gathered to see them off, sadly, but Molly was unmoved. Their sadness had teeth. For all their sympathy and piety, none of them had been willing to take her and her brother in afterwards, none of them had even offered.

Uncle Josiah lived in a thin, old house at the end of a long, narrow street. There was a light on inside, waiting. Molly and Tom stood staring, dripping in the rain. It was a brownstone, somewhat neglected, with vines creeping up the side, threatening to ensnare the windows. They shared a long look full of furtive sadness and determination.

“Stand up straight,” Ms. Sneed said, interrupting. “You’re a proper young lady, act like it. Your uncle is an important man, even if they say he’s…” Ms. Sneed paused and coughed slightly. On anyone else it would have seemed embarrassed, but Molly had the distinct impression that Ms. Sneed didn’t know the meaning of the word, certainly not as it pertained to herself.

“No dawdling,” she snapped. Mr. Blot gave Molly a slight smile. It was meant kindly but appeared more strained than encouraging. The children exchanged one final glance. No turning back now. They climbed up the stairs and knocked.

Uncle Josiah’s housekeeper, Mrs. Hagen, welcomed them with painful, draconian kindness, fussing over Molly dreadfully, while Ms. Sneed and Mr. Blot spoke with Uncle Josiah in hushed voices. Ms. Sneed, in truth, did most of the talking. Molly couldn’t make out the words, but she was certain they were talking about her, and whatever they were saying, it wasn’t pleasant.

The children were bustled to their room, given a hot bath and some cocoa. Mrs. Hagen brokered no arguments from either them or her ostensive employer. Molly caught glimpses of a third figure, tall and gaunt, lurking unobtrusively in the background, but when she turned to see him properly, he was gone.

Throughout her ministrations, Uncle Josiah remained welcomingly aloof and uttered not a single word of sympathy. Molly was grateful. Indeed, he spoke to them only once that first evening, to bid them good night.

II.

Molly dreamed.

She was sinking, or perhaps falling. Falling through a void. Empty. Lost. She smelt smoke, acrid, burning. It was everywhere. It was nowhere. She looked, wandering far and wide in a world of shadows and thorns, but the flames were always just out of sight. She wondered why she wanted to find them. It seemed important somehow. The fire was important, or maybe she was just cold, and it was warm.

She shivered, her breath frosting in the air. Shapes danced past her eyes, a woman and a man, strangely familiar, but disjointed and blurred. They frightened her. She tried to focus but the more she focused the hazier the shapes became.

“Hello,” she called into the darkness, and the answer came, whispering, babbling. So many voices, too many. They pressed against her, burrowing through the skin, infecting her. She screamed. She was silent. She fell.

She became aware, gradually, of her feet—bare, dirty, and scratched—and the ground rising up to meet them with a roar.

Suddenly she was on solid ground, running, searching for something, or perhaps something was searching for her with a thousand eyes, and ears, and roots.

The shapes were sharper now, more familiar. Bark, branch, leaf, and stem. Trees. That was the word and with it the trees sprouted into sudden reality all around her. She was surrounded, enveloped. Not just trees. A forest.

And she was alone.

 

***

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Writing Updates: “To Sing a Song of Distant Worlds” Published on Four Star Stories Today

My story, To Sing a Song of Distant Worlds, is now available at Four Star Stories and can be found here.

I have been interested in the idea of a ‘musical invasion’ story for a long time. I’m not sure where the concept first came from, perhaps my own short-lived efforts at composing, though I did manage to write and perform one piece many years ago.

To Sing a Song of Distant Worlds is my first variation on the theme: a dark fairytale set in the wild West, another old obsession of mine. I’ve had versions of this story, and especially its title, rattling around in my head for 5 or 6 years, so it’s nice to find it a home at last.