A (cautionary) Tale of Two (maybe more) Ice Creams

I like ice cream. I’m not sure I can say EVERYONE likes ice cream, but a vast majority of us do. And for those of us who do, we usually have a favorite. Mine is vanilla — I like it plain, but I also like that I can add other flavors to it.

Now, I have a particular style (natural creamy) that I like best, as well a a favorite brand (Tillamook — I like their cheese, too).

Now, I would not say that I am a brand freak, but there are some things that I am brand loyal to, and for different reasons (Tide laundry detergent is one, because it is the only only I KNOW I will not have a skin reaction to). Tillamook creamy vanilla ice cream is one of them.

The hubby has his own items he is brand loyal to, but ice cream is not one of them. And for some strange reason, during this time of self-isolation, he has been buying ice cream on his way home from running errands. I know he thinks he;s being kind, providing me a comfort food. I mean, he’s been buying creamy vanilla — because it’s what I like and I know his favorite is strawberry or black cherry if he can find it — but in every brand but Tillamook. (Hubby quote ~ Do you know how expensive that is?)

Yes, yes I do. And it is worth every penny.

If there anything you buy brand name that you think is worth the extra cost?

Maverick Heart – by Pamela K. Kinney

Yes, I read this novella – I had to since I edited and published it. But honestly, it was a struggle to edit as I wanted to just read. The image above is a bit misleading – it is a novella, so it’s thinner than that – but sometimes one is stuck with what one has to work with to make an image.

The author, Pamela K. Kinney, is obviously a Star Trek fan, and her love of the series (and horror!) is evident throughout. As a bit of a Trekkie myself, I thoroughly enjoyed that aspect of the story. The trend toward horror was good, too; there is nothing gory in here, just good old-fashioned scare tactics. It was enough to get my heart pumping.

And though the author didn’t write it with romance in mind, there is a possible romantic b-story arc for those inclined to shipping.

Interested? It’s available as a digital download from the publisher (um, yes, that would be me) for only $1.99. But at DreamPunk Press, most of that will go to Pam.

/**/

Just Another Thursday…and Cabin Fever has Hit

During this time of self-isolation and social-distancing here in Virginia (I’m finishing week 9), this household just hit 8 weeks of three adults teleworking together. And today, the day before the end of week 8, tempers burst.

The hubby is the most social of all three of us, and I’m not surprised that he cracked first. He got on everyone else’s case about a stack of items in the entry that had been designated for donation just before the self-isolation due to COVID-19 hit.

There was yelling.

And I screamed back (shrill, voice cracking, the whole bit) reminding him that there is nowhere to take them.

I was surprised by my outburst – but I also understand it. I work as an editor, and I work best in quiet. I had a priority job to do, and his yelling was not conducive to me working. I’ve been feeling a bit of stress, not just about the regular work, but a couple of freelance edit jobs that I’m juggling right now, too. Yes, everyone is in self-isolation and at home, but I still have 8 hours of work to do to get my paycheck. (I haven’t made home-made sourdough bread, yet, or started a new hobby; I’ve just been trying to keep up with the old ones.)

The good thing is that once I screamed, he (and the just-an-adult kid) stopped yelling at each other. I think they both realized that I was not in the mood to put up with their Virgo BS this morning.

Hubby is chomping at the bit to go back to work. While he’s been social-distancing, he hasn’t exactly been in full self-isolation. He’s been helping a friend do some work on their house, and while it’s just the two of them, and hubby wears a mask, etc., this friend thinks the whole COVID-19 pandemic is a hoax.

!?!?!?!?!?!?

Yeah. he’s one of those friends. And every evening, when my hubby gets back from helping, the kid and I get an earful of frustration of just how misled this friend is. In fact, some extra frustration from last evening might have contributed to the outburst this morning.

Anyway, its good to remember that the temper flares and sniping happening now, aren’t going to last forever. Eventually, it will pass, along with the self-isolation and extreme social-distancing. Take deep calming breaths (altho’, those two were laughing and giggling at stuff only 5 minutes after the outburst); I needed longer to calm down.

But I did. Eventually. Mainly when I finished the edit job and could take a break from paycheck work.

And also remember, that while this is a time to be productive if you can, productivity isn’t a requirement. Sometimes, it’s enough just to get the job done, and not worry about the extra stuff.

So–Happy Thursday everyone. Let’s hope that’s a light at the end of the tunnel and not a firefly headed our way looking for the other end.

The [Marketing] Struggle is Real

You write a book. You edit the book. You get someone else to edit the book. You get a cover for the book. You publish the book.

And a pandemic hits.

All your publishing plans for your [YA contemporary] book fade away. Your plans were in-person and for brick and mortar stores and libraries, since your last attempt at digital marketing for teens went bust.

But that’s really the only option you have left.

You’d read the articles. You’d researched what to do and how to reach your potential readers [and their wallets…um…parents]. You had a PLAN.

A plan that you can’t implement. Oh, you’re probably still good for libraries– if the librarians are able to do their jobs in a pandemic. But…

And now, you are scrambling. You publish the e-book version early, you make e-books [including a pdf in opendyslexic) to offer straight from your publisher’s web site [http://www.dreampunkpress.com, of course], you even make activity pages [you can check those out here, if you’re interested] to try to help parents having to home school their kids all of a sudden.

And then you stumble onto a marketing opportunity, one that is free. You’ve done one before, for a different book, and you think it kind of worked before. Why not try it again?

So you upload your information, and with each glitch you try to figure out what went wrong [there is little direction on the site – I won’t name it and you’ll see why later] and eventually get it right.

You move on to the next step, and the next, making your author page and book page and even loading up a couple more books under another pen name you already had in their system. And there are more glitches.

And when you get ready to upload your files, you get an error [a 500 error to be precise] but nothing on the site tells you what it means. And you go to Google and do a search and find out its a server error. Probably the reason behind several of the other unexplained glitches you’ve experienced.

So all that work–better than two hours of inputting author data and double-checking your Pinterest (taramoe) and Instagram (@tara_moeller_69) and Facebook (/dreampunkpress or /taramoellerauthor) and Twitter (@taramoeller69) handles, and deciding which web site to send folx to, and…it’s all for naught.

You realize that you stumbled onto this opportunity late in the game–you only had until midnight to take advantage–and you sigh and shut down your computer and forget to make your blog post (you’ll get that one next week, LOL) and figure you’ll try again, only earlier than last minute [though you know in all likelihood, you’ll forget until then and do it all over that same way.

The struggle is real, folx. The struggle is real.

Watching Promare with the Kid

[And yes, I know it’s Thursday morning. This post should explain why I didn’t get it out last night.]

So, last evening, I watched the full-length anime movie, Promare, with my adult kid (check out their artistic endeavors over at Portfoli.Mo). They like anime and love this movie. I was supposed to go watch it with them when it was in theaters last September, but that didn’t work out.

First–the art in it is stunning, the colors used are just beautiful. Full. Bright. Just…I don’t know what other words to use as I am not an artist. I want to say saturated, but I’m not sure that’s right.

Second–all the characters have different body types. The females aren’t all busty and showing lots of skin; the males aren’t all muscular and manly looking. I love this. It represents real life better than some live-action movies in this aspect.

Third–the characters are…all different, too. They are all well-thought out and act consistent through-out the movie, unless the change in their action is due to character growth. Which happens, a lot. Which is good.

Last–the story line. Well, it’s sci-f, and since it is a full two hours long, it gets a little over-the-top in the end. But it is satisfying. It follows through on the over-the-topness with an ending that works.

While kids can watch this movie, be aware that there is death in it, and not just accidental. Mankind is being “human” and trying to wipe out what they consider a threat that they don’t understand, and aren’t bothering to try to understand. There are good guys and bad guys and truly evil people. But even the most evil character has a bit of a redemption arc. Not bad.

Look, it’s an anime, with all the tropes that come with most anime. But it’s well done. Just…be prepared for the ultimate idiotness of the main character. He’s consistent with it though, and (IMO) it stems from his truly good heart and desire to help others.

Bonus: There isn’t a romantic B-plot! I mean, it could. And there is s couple of instances where I thought it was going there…but it doesn’t. Which, really, is rather like real life, right?

I’m impressed. Kinda wish I hadn’t missed it in theaters. If you’re looking for something fun to watch during this self-isolation period, check it out.

More links for info about this movie:

GKIDS Films

Wikipedia

Forbes

Oops I did it again…it’s Thursday

So, it’s Thursday, the day after Wednesday. I didn’t realize it was Wednesday yesterday until the kid mentioned that tomorrow will be Friday. Which means, today is Wednesday, and I am late posting again. This isolation business (which I whole-heartedly support to keep up all safe) is wreaking havoc with my sense of what day it is. I’m going to have to put an alarm on my phone.

Today (which should have been yesterday), I’m going to share a short story.

In a Witching Minute

(originally published in 2016 in the anthology Street Magick: Tales of Urban Fantasy from Elder Signs Press–find more about the anthology at http://www.eldersignspress.com )

The aroma of roasted garlic was strong; a remnant of dinner – she’d used too much garlic powder in her cheese sticks and had to throw them out when the little bits had charred black. She’d been trying to recreate the appetizer she’d gotten last week at her favorite Italian place. It would be so much cheaper if she could make them at home.

Across the table, her client wrinkled his nose and sniffed. “‘fraid of vampires or something?”

“No.” Shana wanted to snort but held it in. Vampires. Just because she was a witch, everyone wanted to make jokes about the paranormal. “I’m a witch. Why would I be afraid of vampires?”

The client looked up, eyes wide. He darted his eyes around the room and swallowed hard enough Shana could hear it.

She smirked. Serve him right if one found him in a dark alley. “This should only take a minute.”

“Just that quick?”

“Yes.”

He sniffed again. “Smells like an Italian restaurant in here.”

“Well, it is my kitchen. I do cook here, you know.” Cooked too much, sometimes. She still cooked like she was feeding her family, Michael and both kids, though they weren’t kids anymore. There was a bowl of pasta congealing in the fridge she’d prepared on the weekend, and warmed some up with a lumpy Alfredo sauce to go with the garlic sticks. She should be better at that by now; it had been five years since Michael had filed for divorce, four and a bit since the actual papers were signed, and an exact four since he’d married the mistress she’d known nothing about until she’d seen the wedding announcement in the paper. She’d been tempted to hex him, but she hadn’t used magic during their marriage, had kept it in until it wanted to explode out of her. The divorce had been a release of sorts; now, free of the shackles, she could be herself.

Sometimes, she just wished she wasn’t herself alone.

“Uh, yeah. The other guy had an office.”

Blinking, Shana refocused her eyes. She’d forgotten her client and his spell. Clearing her throat, she checked the potion – it was fine. “Some do that.”

“Are you sure this will work?”

“No. Nothing is ever certain.”

“Justin said you were good.”

Shana snorted. Justin, the arrogant bastard, did not think she was ‘good’. “More likely he told you I was cheap.” Or, he knew the risks in the spell and didn’t want to take them. Which was another likely scenario; why else would he send work her way?

“What if it doesn’t work?”

“You’ll be no worse off than you are now.” Shrugging, Shana jiggled the brass pot over the Bunsen burner set up on the center of her kitchen table, a frayed yellow and blue checked towel beneath it to catch any drips. She finished mixing the components of the spell with a stained chopstick and sat back, watching the thin tendrils of smoke waft to the dark ceiling. It should only take a minute to cure then she could pour it in a jar and get this guy out of her kitchen and on his way.

“Are you sure this will work?”

Damn, he was like a myna bird, always squawking the same thing. A bit like Michael and his constant nagging about dinner not being healthy enough, the house not being clean enough, the kids not being smart enough. She had to stop dwelling on the past; she’d mess up the potion. Shana stood and stretched her arms over her head, sighing and arching her back so that it cracked in relief. “You signed the waiver and understanding form.”

“Well, yeah, but-”

“There are no guarantees with this spell. Everything hinges on the person it’s meant for. Probably why Justin sent you to me. He only works a spell if it is guaranteed. That’s why he can charge such high prices.”

The man nodded and looked at his hands, clasped tight in his lap so that his knuckles glowed white in the moonlight.

The smoke stopped and Shana pulled a small canning jar from the top cupboard next to her sink and a glass funnel from a drawer beneath it. She drizzled the liquid spell into the jar, making sure it didn’t foam, and sealed the lid with soft green wax and a screw lid. “Here.”

Swallowing so that his Adam’s apple bobbed wildly in his throat, the man took the jar, holding it away to stare at the ever-changing green of the contents. “What do I do with it?”

Shana scrubbed her fingers into her eyes. “I gave you a copy of the instructions. With your copy of the waiver and understanding form you signed. Put it into something the guy’s gonna eat or drink – but it can’t be heated too much, so best make it something cold.”

“Right, right.” The man stood, shoving the jar into the pocket of his oversized raincoat. “Thanks.” He threw five twenties on the table, sneered at her and stomped out the door.

Goodbye Mr. Brian Kramer, used car salesman.

But the twenties were fresh, newly printed, sticking together. His prints were probably all over them, nice and distinct. Using a pair of tongs from the same drawer she’d taken the funnel, she picked them up and took them to the counter, using a spray bottle to shoot pink smoke over them. Various dark prints appeared on the bills, and she pressed a plain sheet of newsprint over them, the prints transferring to the paper.

Once she had the prints off each bill, making them clean and untraceable, she folded them into neat, even squares, and tucked them into her jeans pocket. Picking up the finger-printed news sheet, she stared at the fine dark lines and folded it, too, tucking it between the cover and first page of her small purple leather-bound spell book.

She didn’t worry about the waiver and form of understanding. She made the ink herself, and it would fade to nothing in 48 hours.

###

“Aw, shit.” Shana slapped the newspaper to the kitchen table, knocking over her glass of cranberry juice. The liquid ran red over the pages, blurring the already vague photo of the body of Donald Smythe, top-notch used car salesman for Runaround Motors, found by local police behind the car lot, an avocado-banana smoothie half drunk in his hand. Grabbing a handtowel, Shana dragged it over the mess. “Fuck, double-fuck.” She banged her forehead to the table, resting it there.” Hell, make that a triple-fuck.”

The pounding at her door meant she was too late to skip town. Someone had already attached her to the body. So much for her 48-hour disappearing ink. She never should have bought the rabbit’s liver from a discount shop.

She dumped the towel on the table and strode to the door, straightening her spine, pulling what little magic she left hanging out close around her – she might need it. Squinting through the peephole in her door, she examined the back of the head on the other side. It was a generic back of a head, probably male by the short-cropped brown hair.

It swung around and her eyes struggled for a second, focusing on the heavy-lidded brown eyes.

Damn. It was the guy who bought the spell. What was his name? Oh yeah: Brian Kramer.

“What do you want?” She yelled through the door.

“A refund.” He pounded on the door.

“No refunds. I told you that.”

“But he died!”

“You read and signed the waiver and understanding form. It listed the risks.”

“What? I didn’t read that part!” She heard in fumbling through the pockets of his gray trench followed by the faint uncrumpling of paper. “Show me where it says that!”

“You should have taken your time. You probably don’t read any agreement form you sign.” Shana stepped away from the door and picked up a kitchen chair, wedging its back under the knob at the next round of rapping.

“C’mon. I need your help. Can you at least bring him back?”

“Bring him back?” Was the man nuts? She never should have taken the commission for the spell. Should have sent him packing the moment she heard Justin‘s name. It was never a good thing when Justin referred you.

Damn the need to pay bills and eat.

“Can’t do that. That’s impossible.” Shana snatched her purse from the peg where it hung, checking that her keys and wallet -and spell book – were still inside. They were, so she slung it over her shoulder.

“But I need help.” The man’s voice lowered into a whine and something heavy slid down his side of the door.

“You needed help before. You think I failed you. Why would you come back to me?”

“Justin said if you messed it up, you would have to be the one to help me.”

Shana snorted. Fucking Justin. He should have just told the man the spell was too dangerous and left it at that. Why the hell had he sent him to her?

“Look, I can’t help you, either.”

“But-“

“I’m sorry.” Backing out of her kitchen, keeping her eyes trained on the door, Shana felt her way through the unlit apartment to the wide window in her living room that led to the fire escape.

She froze.

Something moved outside the window.

There was no other way out of her apartment. Besides the door, there was one window in the kitchen over the sink, too small to get through, and the big double hung in the living room. Her bedroom and bathroom were interior to the building – there was another apartment on the other side of the walls.

No way though there unless she wanted to make a hole herself, and that would be a sure sign to whatever was watching for her that she was trying to escape.

Hell and damnation. Who else had this man gone to? Had he spoken to anyone besides Justin? It wasn’t Justin’s style to set something on her like this. There were several warlocks who would be happy to see her put behind bars and her spell book confiscated by the Coven Master. Maybe it was one of them?

Still in the dark, Shana shifted down, keeping her body low. She listened but heard nothing outside the window, only watched the shadowy figure’s shadow shift across the panes.

The man banged the door again, but it was slower, weaker. “Please, I need your help.”

Shana glanced at the window. Whatever, whoever, was out there was waiting for her to try to leave through the window. At this point, it might be better to just let the salesman in.

Keeping her purse on her shoulder, she darted to the door, jerked the chair away from the knob, and pulled it open. The man slumped against the jamb, falling inward. She caught him, straightening him up, shoving him against the wall.

He looked awful. His face pale, his eyes red and dark-rimmed. He smelled of sweat and sour milk. Shit. Did the man have kids?

“Fine. I’ll try to help you, but not here. We have to leave.” Grabbing his arm, she hauled him down the hall, not bothering to close the door to her apartment behind her. She didn’t plan on coming back.

The man resisted her pulling, but an explosion reverberated through the walls of the complex, a gust of wind and debris puking through the just closed door of her apartment. The man jumped and looked around like he’d only just woken up.

“What?”

“Come on.” Shana thought maybe they’d both been duped, but she’d have to figure that out later, in a safe place. And right now, the hallway outside her apartment was anything but safe.

Smoke billowed from around the door, lopsided and hanging from a single hinge. It smelled of sulfur and pulverized wallboard.

She jerked on the man’s arm again and this time he followed without resistance, trotting after her like his life depended on it, which it probably did.

At street level, Shana chanced a glance up at the floor her apartment was on. She couldn’t see her apartment – it was on the back side and alley – but there was smoke seeping out the windows of her neighbors flat. That wasn’t a good sign.

Good thing the man that lived there worked early hours. He’d be returning to a mess, but he wouldn’t be hurt.

“Run.” Shana let go of the man and ran through the cars on the street, their blares and screeching tires blending with the other sounds of the city. The man stayed at her heels; sometimes she felt his hot breath on her cheek.

They ran through the business district and across the park, through a high-end residential enclave and a less ritzy housing project. She ran, gasping, muscles screaming in protest, the salesman keeping up, until they hit downtown and the river.

Shana slowed and had to grab the man’s sleeve to stop him from careening right into the brown stench of the Elizabeth. “Slow down. We have a minute. And I know someone here who might be able to help.”

“Help with what?”

“What to do about your dead friend.”

“Dead friend? Who died?” The man looked around, lost and scared. “Who are you? What was I doing in that apartment building? What was that explosion? How come I’m not at work?”

Damn. He’d been spelled to even come to her. Why hadn’t she sensed it? Or one of her alarms gone off? She and this salesman were in more trouble than she’d figured.

A shadow passed across the sun, its blur flitting across the dusty gravel beneath their feet.

“What was that?” The man looked ready to jump out of his clothes and dive naked into the river.

She couldn’t be positive, but it had the same general shape of that thing outside her window. “Nothing good.”

“So it’s bad?”

“That’s the opposite of good, right?” Man, how did this guy sell cars? She’d seen the lemons and limes on the lot; none were worth the money marked on the windshields.

The man nodded, his gaze squinting up at the sun.

Shana closed her eyes and chanted.

“What are you doing?” The man grabbed her arm and she stopped speaking.

“I’m calling for help. Don’t interrupt me again.” She closed her eyes and started over.

He shook her. “That thing passed over again.”

Sighing, Shana thought about smacking him. “Look, every time you stop me, I have to start over. Shut up and leave me alone or we’ll never get help.”

“Right, right.” The man stepped back and shoved his hands in his pockets.

“Just don’t move.”

The man froze, taking her a little too literal. At least he was obedient; and he’d finally shut up.

Taking a deep breath, Shana squinted her eyes shut and rushed through the chant. Her pronunciation was off, but she didn’t think Old Malik would much care. It was an old chant, old school through and through. Old school was something Old Malik appreciated. He’d listen.

They just needed to wait for his response. Might as well fill in the salesman. “You’re dead friend’s name was Donald Smythe.”

“Donald? Donald’s dead? What happened?”

“You asked me for a spell. It went wrong, I guess, and he died.” Shana looked around. Where was it? Ah. There. A small ball of blue light grew nearby.

“A spell?”

Shana sighed. “How about I finish after we’re inside, okay?”

“Inside where?”

The blue light turned into a ring, and a hole appeared in its center, revealing a solid wooden door with iron slats holding it together. The doorknob glittered gold in the sun. Shana reached out for the man’s hand – “hold on”- then grabbed the knob.

In less than a heartbeat, they materialized in a dim room, lit by large candles arranged along the rounded perimeter. The scent of hot wax and smoky lavender filled Shana’s nose and she breathed in deep.

“I didn’t think you’d ever come visit.” The voice came from a large wingback chair in what might be called a corner, if the room were square. An old man lounged in the chair, his long gray hair twisted into several messy braids hanging down his chest to his lap. He crossed his knees, the boney bits jutting against the light gray linen of his pants.

“I wasn’t planning on it.” Shana lessened her grip on her companion’s sleeve but didn’t let go. “There’s a situation I need some help with.”

“Situation?”

“Will you help?”

“Tell me the situation first. Then I will decide.”

Shana snorted. That was the problem with Old Malik. He wanted to know everything first. But she didn’t know everything. All she knew was her bit. And the man beside her was clueless now.

“I sold this man a spell that went wrong.”

“Wrong? It isn’t like your spells to go wrong.”

Huffing, Shana rolled her eyes. “The spell wasn’t supposed to kill him.”

“He died?” The man dropped his crossed knee and leaned forward, his too large smoking jacket falling around his shoulder’s like a child’s dress-up. “That really isn’t like you Shana.”

“I know. But now I think there was more to it.”

“How so?”

“This guy,” she jerked a thumb at her companion, “doesn’t remember that his friend died, after coming pounding on my door this morning to tell me. He doesn’t remember asking for the spell, either.”

Old Malik stood, the creak of his bones heard across the room. “You do need help then.”

“That’s what I thought.”

“Why did he come to you?”

“Day before yesterday, he told me Justin recommended me.”

“That isn’t like Justin.”

“I know.” Though Shana thought it was just like the bastard, she didn’t think Malik would appreciate her disagreeing with him. She didn’t need the old warlock any more pissed at her than he was already.

“And you still took the job?”

“I needed the money.”

Old Malik sighed and turned to a cabinet. “I’ll help you this time, Shana. But you will owe me.”

“You help me; it’ll be worth it. Someone else was at my apartment when he came by this morning. When we left, someone blew it out.”

Freezing in front of the cabinet, arm stretched out and resting on the bronze key set in the lock, Old Malik blinked at her. “You didn’t tell me that.”

“You didn’t wait for me to finish.” He wouldn’t back out now; Old Malik always kept his word. He could go back on it, of course. No one would question anything he did, and she’d have no recourse against him. As Coven Master, his word was magical law in the Tidewater coven’s area, but Old Malik was loyal and true to his word, no matter what. That’s one of the reason’s she’d moved to Portsmouth after the divorce. There was too much political pandering in New York.

“No, I guess I didn’t.” The old warlock opened the cabinet and took out a large, leather-bound book. “I still have issues with being impetuous.”

“And there are some of us forever grateful for that.” Shana let go of the man’s jacket and relaxed, though she didn’t completely drop her guard. Just because the Coven Master was helping didn’t mean they were out of danger. It all depended on who was responsible for the mess she was in.

“You say Justin suggested he come to you?”

“That is what he said when he first arrived at my apartment.”

“And you didn’t question it?”

“Of course I did.” Shana crossed her arms and cocked a hip. “I asked him several times. But the spell seemed simple enough. And I made him read the waiver – out loud – before signing it.”

“Did he hesitate before signing?”

“He asked more questions, then signed. Nothing suspicious. He asked questions after signing, too.” Shana let her gaze wander the room. It was much the same as the last time she’d visited. That had been a much more pleasant event; she’d been letting the Master Warlock know she was moving into his territory.

That was right after the divorce, when Michael had gotten custody of Trevor and Cecily – mainly because he got to keep the house – she’d hated it – and the judge decided the kids could finish high school in the same district. There was no way she could afford a house in that neighborhood. She wouldn’t have bought one even if she had been – except maybe if she’d thought she’d be able to keep the kids.

Malik dropped the heavy tome onto the table and flipped through the pages, running a finger over some before flipping again for several before stopping to read again.

“Anything?”

“Nothing that I can tell from the reports. It shows that he visited Justin’s office, but that is all. Then he visited you – and you set the spell.”

“No other activity?”

“No.”

“No magical explosions?”

“Explosions?”

Shana shrugged. “Someone blew up my apartment when we were leaving it. That’s what brought him out of whatever trance he was in.”

“Trance? Why would you help him if he was in a trance?” Old Malik’s voice rose to a girlish squeal.

“Well, trance may be the wrong word. But I couldn’t tell anything was wrong with him until after the explosion. Best way I can describe it is a trance, but he didn’t act like he was in one.”

Malik sighed and rubbed over his eyes. “You aren’t making this easy, Shana.”

“I’m not trying to be difficult.”

“I know. You just have a natural talent for it.” Malik closed the book and returned it to the cabinet. “Let’s sit and have tea. You can continue to tell me what happened – preferably in order but as you remember it will have to do, I suppose.”

The old warlock waved a hand and the fireplace flared, making an iron kettle that hung above the flames whistle. Heat from the flames spread out into the room, warming cheeks and fingers Shana hadn’t realized were cold.

“I’ll have our tea ready in a minute. Please sit – both of you.”

Shana bumped Brian-the-salesman with her elbow and stalked to the table. He followed, shuffling along the Oriental rug that covered the stone floor. The salesman looked around, his reddened eyes wide, his mouth gaping.

“Where are we?”

“In the river district.”

“This doesn’t look like something in the river district.” Brian looked around the room, one hand stretched out, as if to touch something, but he wasn’t sure his hand wouldn’t get slapped.

“It isn’t. And it isn’t a good idea to touch stuff. Malik doesn’t like folks touching his stuff.” Not to mention, his stuff might not like getting touched. Shana sat at the table, leaning back in the chair, arms still crossing her chest. She was angry at herself. How could she be so blind? She’d had no warning that anything wasn’t what it seemed.

“That’s why we have familiars.” Old Malik set a large rose-decorated tea pot in the center of the table and retreated.

Damn old magic. She couldn’t even tell when the man was in her head, listening. “I’m allergic to cats. And dogs.”

“Take an allergy medicine. And dogs do not make good familiars. You should know that.”

“Of course I know that. And allergy medicine makes me groggy.” Michael had been a cat person. He’d brought three of the clawed devils into their house, and no amount of allergy pills helped the sneezing, snotting, and sleepiness. She hadn’t been able to function as a regular human, let alone a witch in denial.

“A rat?” Malik raised a brow.

“Um, no.” Rats were dirty, and she didn’t like their eyes. Their gaze reminded her of how Michael used to look at her across the dinner table.

“Snakes can be familiars.”

“Not in my house. Scales are a no go.” Damn slimy things shouldn’t be allowed to live.

Malik sighed, the air gushing from his lungs long and loud. “Most casters would make a concession.”

“My concession was extra vigilance about people.”

“And that has failed you.”

“For the first time. I’ve never had a problem in the past.”

“Indeed.” Malik returned to the table with a tray containing three cups with saucers, a sugar pot and a pitcher with creamer. “Please, Shana, pour for us.”

Shana let her arms drop and picked up the pot, pouring tea into all three cups. “So, Justin is behind this, yes?”

“Perhaps.”

“He’s the one who sent Brian,” she nodded at her companion, even though she figured Malik could figure out who she was talking about, “to me.”

“True, but perhaps the trap was meant for Justin, and his familiar warned him.” Malik watched the steam rise from his cup, the tendrils miniature slow-motion tornadoes.

“So he sent Brian to me, instead? How is that better?”

“Better for Justin. And he may have expected the man to give up if he had to go elsewhere.”

Shana snorted and took a sip of tea. It was bitter, but she knew better than to add cream or sugar. Brian, however, did not, and added several teaspoons of sugar to his cup, followed by a large swig of cream.

Malik watched the man slurp his tea before taking a sip of his own undoctored concoction.

“Shana, the politics of magic-“

“I know, I know. It’s all politics and power struggle and patience and ploys.” She sighed and took another drag of the tea. It didn’t seem as bitter, this sip, so she took another. “I just want to do my thing and make enough money to get by.”

Across the table, Brian’s head lolled forward and he let out a long snore.

Malik sighed and leaned the man back in the chair, waving his hand so that the back adjusted to support his head and neck. “Not much of a tea man, eh?”

Shana shrugged. “He gave his friend a green smoothie to cover the spell, and the guy took it and drank it, so it probably wasn’t an out of the norm action. I never knew him until he showed up asking for a spell.”

“You did a background check?”

“I did a Facebook and Google search. Even checked his Twitter feed. Nothing much came up about him. Other than cars. Most posts were about cars for sale and cars he’d sold. He’s a used car salesman, works for at the big used car lot on the other end of town. Donald, the guy the spell was for, was another car shiller. Worked at the same place. Top salesman every month. All this guy said he wanted was a spell to make the guy sick for a week so he could outsell him this month.”

“And that is what you gave him?”

Shana blinked hard and shot Malik a stare. “What else would I give him?”

Malik nodded once, his nose dipping almost into his tea, but said nothing.

“I even did a search on the Donald guy, just to make sure that’s all there was. And he came up as bland as Brian. Just nicer cars on his Facebook page. And posts from old ladies who loved the cars he’d sold them with a senior’s discount.” Shana scrubbed her hands over her face.

“So how come he died?”

“I don’t know that yet. I was too busy avoiding whatever was on the fire escape to look it up.”

“Fire escape?” Malik’s tea cup rattled against the saucer when he set it down. “You mean, there’s even more?”

“At the apartment, while Brian here was banging on my door, I decided to run out the fire escape, only something was out there waiting. I already mentioned that.” No way was she letting Malik think there was something else she’d forgotten.

“Something?”

“Something. Someone. It was big.” Shana rolled her eyes.

Malik drummed his fingers on the table. “Did you get a look at it?”

“No. I was too busy trying to leave. I tried a peek, but Brian kept hammering the door.”

“And then?”

“I unlocked the door, grabbed Brian and started running. That’s when the apartment exploded.” Shana squinted at the wall for a moment, focusing on a stone just a little lighter than the others around it, putting herself back in that moment. Was there anything else about the explosion she could tell the Coven Master? A scent or color or sound?

Her memory came up blank.

“I see. Is there anything else?” Malik leaned forward, his hard glassy gaze piercing into Shana.

“It was here, too. Flying. I saw it. And Brian-the-salesman said he saw something cross the sun.”

“Here?” Malik stood up, weaving on his feet. “You led it here?”

“I’d already called when I saw it.” Maybe a little lie would be best.

“Really?”

Shana nodded, vehement enough it made her head hurt.

Malik fell back into his chair, taking a long drag from his cup, then waved it at her. “That all?”

“I think so. If I remember anything else, I’ll tell you.”

Sighing, Malik leaned back and nodded. “I’ll have to call some folks in. Including Justin.”

“You’re going to invite them here?”

“It is the only place I can invite them to.”

Shana shook her head. “I don’t want to see him.”

“You can take another room.”

“But I do want to see his reaction to your questions.”

“Then you’ll have to be in the same room.”

“I know.” Shana took another sip of the tea. It was sweet now, almost too sweet. And she hadn’t added sugar. Well, darn it. She set the cup in the saucer. She blinked and nodded. “I really need the recipe for your tea.”

“It’s a secret, family recipe.” Malik took his last sip, draining his cup. “Have a nap, Shana. You’ll need your strength when everyone gets here.

Shana set her arms on the table and rested her head on them, closing her eyes. She had known not to add sugar, but he’d still gotten the sweet in there. She slept.

###

When Shana awoke, she was lying on a blue velvet chaise in another room. Brian still slept, snoring, in an oversized recliner across the room, his feet propped up to show the worn soles of his shoes.

Yawning, she stretched and wondered how long she’d been asleep. If she was waking now, then whoever Malik had invited must be arriving. That is how it worked with the Coven Master. The one in New York operated in a similar manner, though he wasn’t as nice about it as Old Malik. In New York, she would have woken up on a concrete floor with a crick in every joint. And the room would have been freezing, not warm and cozy like this one.

Standing, she closed her eyes and stretched her magic, searching out other magic, to determine who was already there. She found Malik right away, his magical essence sure and strong; good, that meant he was still in charge.

She also found Moira, the old woman’s magic surprisingly steady. It was not strong though, not as it should be. That worried Shana. Moira was Shana’s hive leader, and she had no idea who might be taking the woman’s place when she was no longer able to maintain her position.

Justin’s magic was pushy, arrows of power shooting out in offense of anyone seeking him out. Shana retreated as soon as she touched a shard of it; it was almost painful to even brush against his power. No fear that he would be losing his position as the other hive leader.

She sensed other magic centers, but didn’t recognize any of them. She didn’t know if they were from the area, or from away, invited by Malik to observe and act as counsel. He’d need backup if it was Justin’s plot. Justin was powerful, and had challenged Malik for leadership of the Tidewater coven twice already.

Was this a third challenge?

Shana pulled her magic close and opened her eyes. No sense hiding. The closed door was in front of her, but it opened easily. Malik must be ready for her – or at least he didn’t feel she needed to stay away.

Magic hummed in the air, beckoning, and she followed it to the main meeting room. There, a long table, lined with high-backed chairs, stretched from one end of the room to the other. Large glittering chandeliers hung above, the light from their lit candles dancing over the dangling crystals, reflecting on every flat surface in the room.

Malik sat at the head of the table, a glass of what must be red wine in one hand. Justin and Moira sat to either side of him, similar glasses on the table in front of them. Down each side of the table, others sat, full glasses of wine in front of them. At Moira’s left, in the chair away from Malik, was a lone glass of wine before an empty chair.

Shana marched in, head up, and claimed that empty seat.

From her new angle, she could tell that most of the guests were transparent. Which meant they were there as witness only – using their magic to stretch their essence from their own far-flung coven to here.

Justin sneered at her and rolled his eyes. “Really, Malik, why the amateur?”

“She is not an amateur, Justin.” Malik sipped his wine. “Just inexperienced.”

No one else touched their glass.

Moira raised her chin. Her white hair coiled loosely around her head, long wisps trailing down in front of her ears. “You consider anyone besides yourself to be amateur, isn’t that so, Justin?”

The warlock tapped his fingers on the table, staring across it at the older witch. “Anyone who cannot perform the most basic of spells without skill is an amateur.”

“What kind of basic spell do you mean, Justin?” Malik swirled the wine in his glass, watching it spin in the goblet.

“The woman cannot even set a simple love potion.”

“Yes, I can.” Shana knew she shouldn’t speak out of turn, but that man roiled her temper like no other. “I simply refuse to.”

Moira nodded and took up her glass, sipping at the liquid within.

Justin sneered again. “Speaking out of turn?”

“She is allowed to defend herself, Justin.” Malik set his glass on the table. “Now, on to business. It has come to my attention that a man died from a spell cast two days ago.

Two days? She’d been asleep that long? Shana glanced around the group at the table. The holograms wavered, and one at the end looked over his shoulder, spoke to the nothingness behind him, stood up, and disappeared.

“Yes. I heard about that. The death, I mean.” A lone warlock, present in-the-flesh, sat next to Justin. The man shifted in his seat, nervous fingers playing with the stem of his wine glass. “Wasn’t he a car salesman, or some such thing?”

“Shana, this is Dorian, an assistant of Justin’s. And yes, I believe he sold used cars.” Malik stared at the speaker’s glass then picked up his own and took a sip. “The man who ordered the spell was a co-worker.”

“Used cars? Why would a used car salesman want to kill a co-worker?” Justin’s voice rose and his dark brows closed over the bridge of his long, sharp nose. “What was the benefit in that?”

Which meant, Justin probably had nothing to do with it. But-

“Justin, I understand you were first approached about the spell?”

Justin blinked, his brows parting. “Me? That is not the caliber of client I deal with.”

Shana picked up her glass and took a long swing of the wine. Like the tea, it was bitter. She had to restrain from wrinkling her nose. She wouldn’t give Justin the satisfaction of knowing she didn’t like the drink Malik offered.

“Of course not,” Dorian spoke again, “not your kind of thing at all, Justin.”

“The man said it was Justin who referred him to another caster.” Malik waved a hand and a wine carafe drifted over from a sideboard nearly hidden in the shadows. The carafe uncorked itself and smoothly refilled Malik’s glass, before sailing down the table, topping up Moira’s and then Shana’s.

Frowning, Justin took a drink. “I referred no one. I was not approached by anyone about such a spell.”

Malik observed Justin raise his glass from the table to his lips, nodding. “Why would the man say it was you who referred him?”

“I have no idea.”

“Who could have done such a thing? You have an office, yes?” Moira held her glass high, her elbow resting on the table.

“Of course I have an office. I do not conduct my business out of my kitchen.” Justin snuck a glance across the table to Shana.

Shana didn’t care what he thought of how she did business. She did not have the income to maintain an office just for that purpose.

“Who would have access to your office?” Moira raised a brow.

“No one.” Justin straightened in his chair. “What are you suggesting?”

“She is not suggesting anything.” Malik raised a hand, cutting off the conversation.

“Well,” Dorian’s white fingers gripped the stem of his wine glass, “the spell was done wrong, since a man died, and we should be focusing on the punishment of the witch that cast the spell.”

“Witch?” Malik leant his head to the right, his eyes sharp on the younger warlock.

“Witch. Warlock.” The man waved a hand and took a long gulp of wine. “You know what I mean.”

“No,” Justin shifted to stare down his assistant, “we do not know what you mean. Who cast the faulty spell?”

The warlock opened his mouth to speak, his eyes darting from face to face.

Shana kept her face slack. As far as she knew, her name had not yet been mentioned as the caster. No way would she give that way. She held her breath, her lungs burning.

The warlock swallowed and his lips pursed. He stared at his glass. “I guess we don’t know that, do we? You haven’t said.”

Taking in air, slow so as not to gasp, Shana stared at the warlock across from her. What the hell was going on? Was this man really that sexist that he just assumed it was a witch that cast the spell, or was there more to it?

“No, I haven’t.” Malik sipped his wine once more.

Justin turned back to Malik. “Who cast the spell?”

“I do not wish to say. I will tell you more of what I have learned in the past thirty-six hours. The man that died, Donald Smythe, had a heart condition. He was planning to retire next month, to spend time with his much-younger third wife, and was pushing hard to make a sales record. He told no one about his condition or his plans to retire.”

Damn. Shana took another mouthful of wine. It was still bitter. She wished it was cider, or even beer. She gulped down the liquid in her mouth and took a long breath through her nose. Wine really wasn’t her drink of choice.

She took another sip and the taste of fermented apple burst in her mouth. She glanced at Malik, who smirked from the head of the table, cocking one brow.

Shana took another swallow. It was good. Would be better from a bottle or a lager glass, but she’d put up with the goblet.

Moira smiled at her, tipping her glass in her direction.

Shana smiled and took another drink, setting the glass on the table after. What a shame. If Brian had only waited another month, he would have been the top salesman without having to resort to a cheating spell.

“Donald’s widow is planning his funeral for tomorrow. Christ Lutheran, I believe. One o’clock in the afternoon. Then a short service graveside.”

Moira nodded. “She’s inherited a substantial amount of money. He was a big saver, from what I read in the paper. He only had to pay alimony to his first two wives until they remarried. Then there’s the insurance on top of that. Nice policy, or so his lawyer says.”

“I’m sure she’s terribly upset.” The warlock across the table from Shana paled and took a long swig from his glass, grimacing when he swallowed.

“I’m certain she is.” Moira sipped from her glass before holding it out for a refill from the floating carafe.

“Dorian, what the hell is wrong with you?” Justin tapped the man’s glass.

“Nothing is wrong with me. I think we need to focus on the perpetrator of this crime. The witch that cast the bad spell.”

“I do not think it was a bad spell. I think it simply compounded his heart problem. Accident at best.” Malik waved a hand to refill his own glass and Justin held his out, as well.

“Still, the witch-“

“Why do you keep saying ‘witch’?” Moira stood to her full height; the woman was tall, at least six feet, though usually stooped with her age.

“Well, it’s just a term-“

“You have a problem with female casters?” Moira did not retake her seat and Malik did not ask her to sit.

Justin frowned at his assistant. “Are you certain you know nothing more about this?”

“Of course not.” The man took a drink from his glass and gagged. “How can you drink this stuff? It’s awful.” He spit into a napkin.

“I think it’s quite good.” Shana took a long sip of her cider.

“You! You-” The warlock shook in his chair.

“Did you meet with Justin last week?” Malik leaned back in his chair, clasping his hands in front of his chest.

Justin turned to Malik. “I meet with my staff every week. Dorian is my assistant, so yes, he met with me.”

Malik nodded. “At your office?”

“Of course.” Justin whipped his head back to Dorian, a frown growing on his face. “Wait. You were not at the meeting.”

“I was out of town.”

“Were you?” Malik stared at the warlock.

“Y-yes.”

“Do not lie to me, Dorian.” Justin turned in his seat, leaving his goblet on the table.

The warlock took another sip of his wine and his eyes teared and he spit the liquid back out, gasping and gagging.

“Were you out of town last week?”

The warlock looked like he didn’t want to answer the question. But finally, in a small voice: “No.”

“Were you skulking around Justin’s office?” Malik tapped his fingers on the table.

“Yes.”

“Did you meet with Brian Kramer. Tell him you were Justin?”

Dorian’s hands shook; red liquid spilled from his goblet. “Yes.”

“Did you refer him to another caster?”

“Yes.”

“Why?” Shana stood, her head only reaching Moira’s shoulder.

The man sneered. “Why not? I knew Donald had a heart condition. I knew what Brian was there for. I saw the opportunity to send him to you. I figured you’d mess it up anyway.”

“Is that the only reason? Why use Justin’s name?”

The man snorted, red wine seeping out his nose. He swiped at it with a napkin, staring at the spreading stain. “It was also a good opportunity to discredit Justin. I’m better than assistant material.”

“I see.” Malik closed his eyes and sighed. “Sit down, Moira. You make me feel short. You, too, Shana. Though you don’t make me feel short.”

Moira sat, and Shana followed suit. She shouldn’t have stood before, but she’d forgotten protocol. She was surprised Justin hadn’t called attention to her gaffe.

The red seep from Dorian’s nose increased to a drip, and the man pressed the napkin to stem the flow. It didn’t help, and the white napkin became a sodden red mess. He grabbed another napkin from the next setting, the silverware wrapped inside clattering across the table.

The liquid pooled on the table, a rivulet making its way across the surface toward Shana.

Shana leaned back and Moira pulled her from her seat, pulling her to stand behind the older woman’s chair.

“Malik?”

Malik opened his eyes and stared at the spreading stain. “Dorian, you feel malice toward Shana?”

“She refused my love spell.” The words spewed from the man’s lips, accompanied by a good amount of spittle. He glared at Shana.

“She doesn’t do love spells.” Justin glared at the warlock. “Who did you want the spell for?”

The man didn’t answer. Shana though maybe he couldn’t. The liquid from his nose ran in a steady stream.

“Jessica, Donald Smythe’s new wife is my guess.” Moira watched the table, her hand still gently pressing Shana to stay behind her.

The ghostly guests nodded to Moira, a couple standing to fade away. Only three remained. They stared at Dorian and the spreading red. One shook his head and disappeared in his chair.

“I would say that is a very good guess, Moira.” Malik stood, raising his glass high. His remaining pseudo-guests faded to nothing.

Moira stood, picking up her own glass and nodding for Shana to retrieve her own. Shana did, the cold cider sloshing in her haste, spilling over onto her fingers.

Justin did the same, though he did not spill his drink.

“Dorian, you are hereby relieved of your duties as a warlock in the Tidewater coven.” Malik drained the wine from his glass, followed Moira and Justin as one, then Moira nodded for Shana to do the same. She did, the cider sliding sweetly down her throat.

“Well then, this business is complete.”

The warlock fell forward to the table, his cheek pressing into the liquid, his eyes open but sightless.

“Justin, you may remove him from our presence.”

Justin proffered a short bow and nodded, setting his glass on the table. “As you will it, Malik.” And he placed a hand on Dorian’s slack shoulder, and disappeared, the dead warlock with him.

Malik waved a hand and the table reset, the glasses clear, the napkins refolded, the blood gone. “Shall we dine, now?”

“Indeed, please. I am starving.” Moira shook out her napkin and spread it across her lap, smiling at Shana. Shana took her own and did the same.

“You have a question, Shana?” Malik snapped his fingers and silver tureens and trays wound their way through the door, stopping, first at his plate, then Moira’s and Shana’s, ladling out portions of their contents.

Shana stared at the steaming food on her plate. There was roasted pork loin, tiny red potatoes and asparagus with slivered almonds. The aroma made her mouth water, but- “The thing on my fire escape? Was that Dorian?” She had trouble imagining the warlock brave enough to station himself outside her apartment like that.

Moira waved a hand and the carafe filled their glasses with an amber liquid. “No.”

“No?” Shana looked from Moira to Malik and back. “Then who, or what, was it?”

“It was a gargoyle, Shana. It was sent to observe how you do business.” Moira smiled at her over the top of her glass. “It never meant you harm.”

Malik took up his own glass. “Rest assured, Shana, I knew nothing of this gargoyle when you first came to me.”

“You sent it, Moira? Why?”

“Yes. The gargoyle was mine. Shame, about the explosion. It thought you were in danger and broke through your apartment wall. More of an implosion, I suppose, than an explosion.” Moira took up her utensils, glancing at Malik and waiting for his nod before cutting into the loin on her plate. “I wanted to know a little more about you Shana.”

“Why?” Shana was fast losing her appetite. She’d only lived within the Tidewater coven’s borders since Michael’s remarriage. Had she broken some law? Was she going to be expelled?

“I am getting ready to retire, Shana. Not immediately, but soon.” Moira put the bit of pork in her mouth and smiled, sighing. “I do love your cooking spells, Malik.”

“Like my tea, it is an old family spell.” Malik raised a glass to Shana and sipped.

Shana stared at Moira. Though it was known through the gossip mill that Moira was getting older – some thought the woman already too old to be a hive leader – and thinking of retiring, there was no whisper at all of who might replace her.

“Did you like your wine, Shana?” Moira nodded at Shana’s plate. “Eat up, child. You’re going to need your strength.”

“It was cider.” Shana took up her fork and speared one of the potatoes. Why would she need her strength?

“You are certain of your choice, Moira?” Justin strode through the door, a plate appearing at his place next to Malik, the tureens and trays drifting forward to serve him.

“Of course. If I was not certain, I would not make the decision.” Moira didn’t look up from her meal.

Justin sat at his place, frowning at Shana. “What did you drink earlier?”

Shana raised her brows, but before she could answer, Malik spoke. “She drank cider, Justin. Cider.” The old warlock chuckled.

“Cider?”

“Hard cider.” Shana felt the need to speak up. She didn’t want him thinking she couldn’t handle alcohol.

Justin stared, ignoring the cooling food on his plate.

“What do you think of my decision, now?” Moira took a sip from her glass, smiling and licking her lips. “I do love a good sherry.”

Shana examined the liquid in her glass. Sherry? She’d never drunk sherry in her life. She picked up her glass and took a sip. It was sweet – maybe too sweet – and it burned a little going down. She still preferred her cider. She took another sip, and this time it was the cider she loved.

She set the glass down, glancing at the pork on her plate. She didn’t eat meat. She frowned, thinking about the blackened salmon served at the one fine restaurant she could afford to eat at once a month, and the loin on her plate blurred, to be replaced by the very dish she’d been thinking of.

“Damn.” Justin glanced to his own plate, frowning down at the potatoes. “I can’t even get my potatoes to turn to rice.”

“It’s a good decision.” Moira grinned at Shana.

“We’ll see.” Justin started on his meal.

“What decision?” Shana leaned forward, trying to catch Malik’s gaze, but the Coven Master was busy digging into his dinner.

“Why,” Moira set a gentle hand on her arm, pulling Shana’s gaze to her own, “the decision to make you my successor.”

The End

Isolation

I’ve been self-isolating for a month now. My work started maximum telework for all employees back in early March when a COVID-19 case hit a little close to the office. It’s nice to work for someone who does that: takes proactive action when something is on the horizon, rather than waiting to react after the fact.

All this isolation means that some folx have a lot more time on their hands. I have a lot more time–no more commuting to the job, which is actually a big deal for me.

It also means that some folx are now out of work and need a break. About the only thing I can offer is some short stories for free. So check out my history; there are some short stories already posted here, and I will post a few more.

You can also head over the http://www.dreampunkpress.com and check out their digital downloads (we’re adding to the list as fast as we can). Any 99-cent download is free with the discount code ‘Isolation’, and you can use that as many times you want.

I have a couple of novellas already available for free with this discount,and I’m working on a few more, so check back often to see if there is something you like. Or sign up for DreamPunk Press’ monthly email newsletter, where they’ll be announcing new free novellas, and other discounts on digital merchandise. And follow them on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter–we;ll be sharing from there, too.

Oh! And hey! It’s Wednesday–and I’m actually posting!

Ruin – a Short Story

I wrote this a few years ago to submit to an anthology that never got published. So, I thought I would share it here, now. Enjoy!

And yes, I know it’s Monday.

Three weeks into the dig, Hayley sat up, staring down at the object half buried in the bottom of the hole, dirt matting the faded blond hair and clogging the indented plastic nostrils, one blue eye cracked, the eyelid stuck at half-mast.  A Chatty Cathy doll just didn’t belong in a layer of earth from the 1600s.  All that should be in the trench was Native American pottery. 

“Dr. Sutherland?”  Her voice shook when she called out for the dig leader.  Dr. Graham Sutherland was head of the anthropology department at the University of Virginia.  Had been for decades.  He was known as the best at identifying Native American pottery, and had already published three papers on this particular dig.

The older man’s light gaze wandered in Hayley’s direction.  He was tall, white haired and blue eyed, fit and trim, and looked younger than his 70 years.   

With her bitter chocolate skin and tight short curls, wide nostrils and curvy figure, Hayley was what many called the epitome of a black American female.  Though her mother always told her she should be proud of her heritage, proud of looking like her mother, every time Hayley looked at the face in the mirror, her self-disgust reflected back in her blue eyes.  Those blue eyes were what she hated the most.  Those blue eyes told the stark truth about her heritage.

“Yes, Hayley?”  Dr. Sutherland strutted from the main trench, a fisherman’s cap on his head, multi-pocketed shorts hitting mid knee on his wiry legs.  “Did you find something?”

“It’s Dr. Kent, and yes I found something.  But not what you would expect.”

The professor smiled and set a hand on her shoulder, his fingers massaging into the flesh and muscle.  He leaned down and spoke directly into her ear.  “Let’s have a look-see, shall we?”

She moved away from his hand and stepped aside, pointing to the bottom of the hole.  “There.”  She hated the shiver that rode down her spine, but she couldn’t help it.

Dr. Sutherland bent over the hole, setting his hands on his knees. “Is that a…?”

“Looks like it.”

“It can’t be.”

“What do you want me to do?  It’s there.”

“But it shouldn’t be.”  Dr. Sutherland scratched his head, doffing his hat to slap it against his thigh.

“It is.”

He straightened, his sun-pink skin looking green.  “Don’t tell anyone you found this.  Go work on trench 2.”

“Yes, sir.”  Hayley backed away from trench 4, picking up her tools, shoving them into her olive green canvas bag.

“Have you catalogued anything from this area?”

“Um.  Yeah.  Lots of shards.  Even a nearly complete pot.”  Hayley shifted her tools; she wanted to get away from the trench.

“You’ve turned them in?”

“Yes.  Your rule is to turn them in ASAP so there’s no mistakes.”

“Right.  Right.”  The older man rubbed dirty fingers over his face, dragging down the jowls, smearing his face.  “Go ahead.  Go.”  He waved a hand at her.

“Yes, sir.”  Hayley walked back to trench 2, looking over her shoulder once at the dig leader.  He stood, a little stooped, staring down into the trench.

She couldn’t help her smile.

*&*

“Dr. Sutherland wants me back here for today.”  Hayley settled on the ground next to Sacha, one of Dr. Sutherland’s current graduate student. 

Sacha Hernandez was 22, tall and lithe, and engrossed in the pot shard slowly revealing itself from the dirt.  “I thought he assigned you to trench 2?  Only his graduate students are in trench 4.”

She was correct, of course.  Trench 4 was reserved for Dr. Sutherland’s best students.  No one else was allowed – not even a colleague from another school.  Trench 4 had some of the best artifacts coming out of it; Dr. Sutherland wanted to keep them in the family, so to speak.

Of course, that was before Chatty Cathy.

Hayley shrugged.  “He just changed his mind.  Told me to come work over here.”

Sacha sat back and stared at Hayley through narrowed eyes.  “He never changes his mind.  This is my fifth year with him.  I know him.”

Hayley struggled to keep the smile from her face.  Sacha wasn’t just Dr. Sutherland’s student.  Never married, rumor was he always took a lover from one of his graduate students. 

“You’ll have to ask him, Sacha.  I just know he sent me over here to work.”

“Sacha!”  Dr. Sutherland’s voice cut through the conversation, high and shrill.

The girl jerked up, catching the edge of the shard with her trowel, breaking it.  “Damn it.”

“Sacha!” 

“Just a minute!”  She threw her trowel down and hoisted herself out of the four-foot deep trench.  “Selfish bastard.  What the hell does he want now?” 

“Want me to keep working on this shard?  I think I can get the rest out and salvage it.”

“Sure.  Whatever.”  Sacha flipped a soiled hand and stalked off toward trench 2.

Sacha wasn’t really interested in Native American pottery.  She wanted to work the middle Americas – where her “ancestors” came from, to rewrite their forgotten history. 

At forty-five, Hayley was old enough to understand history couldn’t be rewritten – it could only be avenged.

She worked on the shard, slowly uncovering the rest of the large piece of pottery.  She’d been a little surprised when she’d been accepted to work on the dig.  Her degree – taking a good long time to complete – was from a mid-West university, and she’d been working on digs in the Southwest – Navajo territory – and only teaching for ten years. 

“Dr. Sutherland!”  It was another student, in another trench.

Hayley stood, dusting damp soil from her khakis, and looked over to the other trench.  Three young men, all scratching their heads, were looking down into the hole.

White hair standing straight up, face flushed, Dr. Sutherland trotted to the students.  One pointed into the trench. 

“No.  No.”  Dr. Sutherland sank to his knees in the grass, fingers curling into the sod.  “Sacha!”

The Latina student’s head appeared over the rim of the edge of trench 2.  “What now?”

“There’s another one.  Over here.”  Dr. Sutherland had a hand over his heart, and his voice rasped between gasping breaths.

Sacha jumped out of trench 2, and Hayley pulled herself out of trench 4.

“Easy, Graham.  Easy.  Calm down.”  Sacha reached him first, kneeling next to him.

“Calm down?”  The man turned on her, grabbing the girl’s upper arms and shaking her so that her head snapped back and forth.  “I’m ruined.”

“Hey, easy old man.”  One of the young men pulled his hands away from Sacha, dragging him back and keeping him away.  “No reason for that, dude.”

“No reason?”  He jabbed a finger at the trench floor.  “That is wrong!”

Hayley looked down, following the pointing digit.  There, half covered in brown clay, was another toy, a bright and gold cymbal stuck to a fuzzy stuffed arm.

Sacha rubbed her arms.  Bruises, faint but getting darker, formed on her biceps. 

“I’ve submitted data on this site.  I’ve published on this site.  I’ll lose my tenure if this gets out.”

He’ll lose his tenure.  Hayley swallowed her snort, coughing to cover. 

“You attacked, Sacha.”  The young man that had pulled Dr. Sutherland off the girl towered over the old man.  “You’re tenure can go to hell.”

“Do you honestly think her degree will mean anything if I lose my tenure?  If this gets out, you’ll all lose credits and have to retake classes.”  Dr. Sutherland panted, sneering at each student in turn. 

“Re-retake classes?”  The other young man, blond and slight of build, gulped and began to pace.  “My parents will kill me.  They can’t afford more classes.”

“Get that thing out of there.”  The professor waved at the trench.  “Stick it somewhere no one will ever find it, and don’t tell anyone you found it.”

The blond looked around at each of them, then jumped into the trench and dug, flinging dirt helter-skelter, regardless of any authentic relics it might contain.  In only minutes, the object – a chubby wind-up monkey – landed on the grass at Dr. Sutherland’s knees.

The blond head popped up out of the trench.  “I think I busted a shard getting it out.”

“Doesn’t matter.”  Dr. Sutherland backed away from the object, still on his knees, looking like it was a wild animal ready to attack. “Get rid of it.”

Sacha stood and picked it up, examining it.  “It doesn’t even look new.  It looks old, like it’s been in there a while.”

“Get rid if it!”  Spittle – white and foamy – gathered at the corners of Dr. Sutherland’s mouth.

“Yes, sir.”  Sacha pivoted, holding the statue at a distance, and walked back to trench 2.

“Where are you going?”  The professor’s voice was high and cracked.

Sacha spun back.  “To get rid of the other one, too.  I thought that’s what you wanted?”

*&*

That evening, in her hotel room, the credits from an unwatched movie running up the TV screen, Hayley sat cross-legged on her bed.  The polyester comforter stuck to the back of her thighs; uneaten Chinese food, the sauce seeping through the little paper boxes, grew cold in her hand.

“Dr. Kent?”  Sacha knocked on the door.  “Are you in there?”

Hayley stood and stretched, setting the box on the table before opening the door.  “Yes, Sacha, I am.”

The young woman stood outside in a thin t-shirt and sleep shorts, lime green flip flops on her feet.  “Sorry to bother you, but I was hoping you’d let me bunk in here tonight.”

“Sure.”  Hayley opened the door wide, letting the girl walk through.  “There’s two full beds.  You can have the other one.”

“Thanks.”

“You okay?”

“What do you think those objects mean?”  Sacha sat on the edge of the second bed, hands gripping her thighs.

Hayley shrugged.  “My mother had a collection, but I don’t know much about old toys.  I specialize in Navajo artifacts.”  She picked up the Chinese and held it out to Sacha.

“No thanks.  I had pizza with Matt, Sam, and Kyle.”

Hayley frowned.

“The guys that found the monkey.”

Nodding, Hayley set the Chinese back on the table.  “Probably for the best.  The sauce is pretty salty.”

“Graham is…”  Sacha’s mouth opened and closed but nothing more came out.

“Upset?”  Hayley sat back on her bed, self-conscious that her body was twice as old as her guest’s.  Nothing on the younger girl sagged; nothing of Hayley’s would be described as pert.

“That’s an understatement.  He’s frantic, pacing around the suite, tearing at his hair.  I’ve never seen him like this.”

“Well, he is… older.”

Sacha nodded.  “He always had good stamina, though.  I never expected him to act, you know, old.”

“I wouldn’t know anything about that.”

Sighing, Sacha stood up and walked the room, looking at the identical pictures hanging over the beds, at the thermostat next to the door, at the “in case of a fire” directions posted on the door.  “We’ve been together for three years, you know.  Since before I got my undergraduate degree.  Longest anyone’s ever lasted.”

“Do you love him?”  Hayley had to ask.

Sacha looked at her, her brown eyes dilated to full black, shrugging.  ” His last girl got into Stanford for her PhD.  The one before that got into Penn State.”

“It wasn’t always a good thing.”

Frowning, Sacha turned from the door.  “I thought you didn’t know anything?”

“About his stamina?  No.  About other things?  I’ve heard stories.”  Hayley lay back on the bed, crossing her legs at the ankles.

Sacha wrapped her arms around her middle, rocking on her heels.  “I’m stuck.”

“No, you’re not.”  Hayley stood and walked to the younger girl.  Standing in front of her, she brushed stray strands of brown hair back from her damp face.  “It’s not like you’re married to him.”

“I suppose not.  But, everyone knows.”

“Do they?”

“Of course.  It’s common knowledge among his students.

“What does the dean say?”

“No one tells the dean.”

“Ah.”  Hayley nodded and walked back to the bed.  “There’s always a price to pay.  It may seem easy enough, no harm done.  But there is always a price.”

Sacha narrowed her gaze.  “Sounds like you paid a price.”

Hayley laughed.  “Yes.  In a way, I suppose I did.  I had to study hard and make sacrifices to pay for my education.  But yes, there was still a price.  Not for me as mcu as for my mother.”

“Your mother?”

“She made a mistake, took the easy way like you, and paid a high price.”

“How high?”

“She got pregnant.”

Sacha snorted.  “I’m on the pill.  And I doubt Graham is firing a full load.”

“Older men than him have fathered children.  And you can’t go on a dig with kids.”

Turning, Sacha paced away.  “Graham would do the right thing.”

“Would he?”

“Yes.”

“How do you know?”  Hayley crossed her arms.

“I just know.”  Sacha spun back.

Taking a breath, shaking her head, Hayley dropped her arms.  “Where did you put the stuff we found today?”

“In the trash.”

“What if there’s more tomorrow?”

“Why would there be more?”

Hayley shrugged.  “Why were there two today?”

*&*

Morning was bright and cool, but dark clouds gathered on the horizon. 

Dr. Sutherland paced the briefing tent, his movement jerky, his hair disheveled, his clothes rumpled, like he’d slept in them.

“If anyone – and I mean anyone – finds something off today, they are to tell me immediately.”  The old man spun, his fevered gaze ripping over students and professionals alike.  “Do you understand?”

Everyone nodded, murmurs spreading through the tent. 

“Get out there.  Hurry.  Before it starts raining.  The media will be here this afternoon.”

Hayley grabbed up her bag and sun hat, placing the latter on her head.  “Where am I working this morning?”

“What?  Huh?”  Dr. Sutherland looked confused.  “Who are you?”

“Dr. Kent.  Brigham Young University.  I worked trench 2 yesterday.  Until I found something… off.”  Hayley raised her brows.  Surely he hadn’t forgotten?

Sacha stood under the tent flap, Matt, Sam and Kyle behind her.  “We need instruction, too.  We were in trench 4.”

Panting, Dr. Sutherland rounded to the opening.  “You can’t work in trench 4.  I’m closing trench 4.”

“That’s why we need new instructions.”  Sacha shifted back.

Dr. Sutherland pulled at his face.  His blue eyes darted around, but they didn’t seem to focus on anything.  Swaying on his feet, the professor moaned.

“Graham?”  Sacha stayed outside the tent.

“Dr. Sutherland?”  Hayley stood her ground.  “Are you okay?”

Those blue eyes fixed on her and he raised one shaking hand, pointing a finger at her.  “I know you.  I know you.”

“Of course you do, Dr. Sutherland.  I’ve been working on this dig with you for three weeks.”

“No, no. no.  Before.  Younger.  I taught you.”

“No, sir.  I attended the University of Arizona, in Tempe.  I’ve never taken one of your classes.  I told you, I teach at Brigham Young.  It’s in Utah.  Have you ever been to Utah?”

The old man pulled at his hair and sat at one of the benches.  “No pottery in Utah.”

“Graham?”  Sacha stepped into the tent.  “Should I call a doctor?”

“If you don’t, I will.”  Matt ducked under the tent flap.  “A recommendation to Yale isn’t worth this mess.”

“Matt.  It’s more than a recommendation.  It’s a guarantee.”

“Not anymore.  Look at him.  He’s drooling.”  Matt stood over the professor, stopping to place his hands on his knees.  “A recommendation from him will be worthless.”

“Dr. Sutherland!”  The call came from outside.  The sound of pounding feet got louder, until a student ducked her head inside.  “I’ve found – something.”

Eyes wild, Dr. Sutherland staggered to his feet, pushing Matt aside and rushing out the door.  “Where?  What is it?”

“Well, I’m not sure, sir.”

They all followed the student back to trench 3.  A crowd milled around the top edge, pointing and whispering. 

“Out of the way, out of the way!”  Dr. Sutherland shoved students left and right; one landed on his bum in the dirt.  The whispering got louder, the pointing got harder, but no one looked in the trench anymore.  Instead, they stared at the professor.

“No!  No!”  The old man grabbed his hair again, spinning on the spot, stamping his feet into the grass.  “No!”

“Sir?”  A man approached, another man with a camera perched on his shoulder following.  “Are you Dr. Graham Sutherland?”

“Who are you?”  Dr. Sutherland’s sneer reached his ears.

“Tom Clark.  We had an appointment for a video interview.”  The reported jerked a thumb back at the cameraman.  “Someone called the station this morning and suggested we come by earlier than scheduled.  To avoid the rain.”

“You can’t be here, now.  You can’t be here.”  Dr. Sutherland stalked forward, advancing to within a foot of the reporter. “Get out of here!”

The cameraman circled, a light flashing red on his gear.  The reporter pulled out a tape recorder and microphone.  “Why?”  He held out the mic.

“Get out of here!”  Face purple, spit spewing from pale lips, Dr. Sutherland screamed at the reporter.

The cameraman hovered over the edge of the trench, ducking away from the camera’s sight to peer into the trench.  “Is that a Howdy Doody doll?”

“Looks like it.”  The female student that reported the discovery smiled into the camera and flipped her hair over one shoulder.

“What the hell are you doing?”  The professor grabbed the girl and flung her away from the trench.

“Hey!”  Matt grabbed the doctor, jerking his arms behind his back and holding him.  “That’s the second time you’ve done that.”

“The second time?”  The reported stepped forward, mic held out, eyes scanning the students.

“He grabbed me yesterday.  After another oddity was found in one of the other trenches.”  Sacha held up the sleeves on her shirt, showing the deep bruising on her arms.

The cameraman swung the lens from the trench and focused on Sacha.

“Oddity?  What kind of oddity?”  The reporter stepped forward, eyes trained on Sacha.

“Well, something that shouldn’t have been in the trench.  We found two yesterday.”

“Shut up!  Shut up!”  Dr. Sutherland struggled in Matt’s grip, and Sam and Kyle stepped forward to help restrain the professor.

“A Chatty Cathy doll and a stuffed monkey with castanets.”  Kyle spoke over his shoulder.

“Cymbals, Kyle.”  Matt smacked Kyle’s leg from where he knelt beside the professor.  “They were cymbals.”

“And your name is?”  The reporter pulled out a small notebook, looking at Kyle.

“Kyle Mitchell.  And that’s Sacha Hernandez.”  He pointed at Sacha, then Matt.  “And Matt Brendan.”

“I’ll fail you all.  I’ll make you pay.”  The professor was on the ground now, writhing to get free.

Matt used his body weight to hold him down.  “Professor.  Calm down.  You’re only making it worse.”

“Sir?”  A student from trench 1 ran over, slowing when he saw the crowd, the professor on the ground, the reporter and cameraman.  He held up an old Aunt Jemima bottle.  “We found this in layer 10 of trench 1.”

Dr. Sutherland twisted to stare at the bottle.  “What is that?”

“A syrup bottle.  Old, from the looks of it.  But not old enough.  I mean, they didn’t have Aunt Jemima back in Jamestown.”

“Let me see that.”  The cameraman stepped forward, lowering his camera and holding out a hand for the dark brown bottle.  The cap was rusted and dented, but the bottle was whole.  “They had these in the 60s.  This is an antique.”

“1960s, right?”  Sacha looked like she was going to vomit.  Sweat beaded on her top lip and temples, and her lips were pale and thin.  “This dig is from the 1600s.  Shit it’s an antique.”  She spit, like something foul had invaded her mouth.

“Can’t be, can it?  This dig is shit.”  The cameraman held up the bottle.  “Not with this in there.  Or Howdy Doody over there.  Probably a 50s toy.”  He jerked his head back at the trench.

“Get rid of it.  Get rid of it!”  Dr. Sutherland struggled again, throwing Matt off and standing, lunging for the bottle.

The cameraman jumped back, dropping the bottle, and took up his camera.

Dr. Sutherland picked up the bottle, fingers gripping it so that his knuckles turned white.  “It’s Aunt Jemima.  I’m ruined.  Ruined.”  He sank back to his knees, the bottle still in his clasp.

Students, reporter and cameraman backed away.  The reporter nodded to his partner and they trotted off, the reporter whooping about the scoop of the year:  the great Dr. Graham Sutherland’s breakdown over Aunt Jemima.

Students wandered off, talking and whispering, glancing over their shoulders at their professor.

Hayley stood over him, arms crossed over her chest, hands fisted.  She wanted to shout and jump, but she didn’t dare. 

Dr. Sutherland raised his head.  He looked lost.  At sea.  He turned his head and found her steady gaze.

Blue eyes met blue. 

“Jemima.”  He blinked, and frowned.  “But you’re not my Jemima.”

“You should have remembered sooner.  When I got here.  Before that even, before she died of cancer ten years ago.  Forty years ago, before we got kicked out of our apartment when she got laid off.”

Tears streaked his dirty face and snot ran from his nose.  He looked down at the bottle, shaking fingers stroking over the soiled glass.  “Jemima girl.”

“Is that what you called her?  Is that what you thought of her?”  Hayley walked forward, squatting next to the sobbing man, and patted his shoulder.  “Don’t worry, Daddy.  I’ll stay by you, just like you stayed by Mommy.”

END

Can a Font be Controversial?

[begin rant]

DreamPunk Press uses opendyslexic font for all publications, and has used it for the last couple of years. It is a font designed to be easier for those with Dyslexia to read. Even though I don’t have Dyslexia, I like using this font and find it easier to read on a computer. (You can download it from: http://www.opendyslexic.org.)

But in person, when explaining to folx that we use this font, and why–that we feel everyone should be able to enjoy reading–some people sneer and walk away.

“That’s too hard to read.”

Really? Have you ever had to squint at Times New Roman in 9 point? Now that’s hard to read.

I find it a little difficult that a font designed to be easy to read would be hard for someone to read (except those with sever Dyslexia, of course, or those with other reading or sight issues).

Maybe I’m being too hard on folx, but I wish they would read a page or two before sneering. I think they’d find it not that hard to read after all.

Do you have a favorite font? What are your thoughts on a publisher using a font like opendyslexic for all its publishing?

[end rant]

A Valentine’s Ficlet

The chili sloshed in the crock, and Janie stopped her slow, unsteady pace to the back door of the building she worked in. Whose bright idea was it have a chili cook-off the day before Valentines?

Oh, yeah. Her crush. Carson McMichaelson.

Which was why, even though she was a vegetarian, she’d spent fifty bucks on ingredients, borrowed her neighbors crock pot, and made chili last night. She’d left it on cooking all night on low; she;d had to, it hadn’t been put together until five minutes past her bedtime.

So the pot was hot, wrapped in a large bath towel, and set into her laundry basket for the ride into base and for the treacherous walk across the lot to the building.

It still might not make it all the way in.

Struggling–her purse wanted to slide down her shoulder and it took her three minutes to find her badge onthe end of the lanyard withonly one hand while resting her laden laundry basket against the wall–she made it into the building and to the conference room where everything had been set up the day before.

“Just put yourpot nextto a number, thenput your name by that number on this sheet of paper.” Karen, fromaccounting, waved the printed paper in her face.

Janie wasn’t overly fond of Karen; the young woman had a tendency to wave papers–and other items–in her face. She was also pretty and slim and talked with Carson a lot.

Doing as she was told, Janie left the room in a rush, basket and towel in hand, and marched to her desk. Being on the bottom of the ladder in Admin meant she needed to be at her desk, working, before the supervisor came in.

Mrs. Bradshaw was nice to work for, in all honesty. She didn’t expect Janie, only 3 months in to the job, to know everything she needed to know and was a very good teacher. There were instruction and policies to follow, and Janie appreciated that to no end.

The woman just had a few odd rules that Janie sometimes had trouble complying with. Like being at her desk, busy, when walked in the door.

Mrs. Bradshaw smiled at Janie then frowned at the empty desk on the other side of the room. “Millie not in yet?”

“I haven’t seen her, Ma’am.” Janie winced. Poor Millie was going to get an earful later. Even if she had a good reason.

“Did you bring a chili in?” Mrs. Bradshaw smoothed her dark grey curls away from her face and hung her grey greatcoat on the coat rack.

“Yes, I did. I took it in sgtraight away.”

Mrs. Bradshaw smiled, “Oh, good,” and went into her office, almost closing the door behind her.

It was a busy morning without Millie–who had indeed gotten an earful from Mrs. Bradshaw when she’d finally called in to let them know she was sick. there was a slight easing of the lecture when Millie explained she;d been at the hospital emergency room.

At lunch, everyone crowded into the conference room to hear the announcment of the winner and then to chow down on the offerings. It would cost money to get a bowl of the winning chili (as well and second and third)–that would go tto the winners as part of their prize. Everyone else was free.

Carson–who was a stand-in judge when the Deputy had a meeting–was pale and sweating. Janie wondered ifhe had the same bug as Millie.

Janie hadn’t won, of course. She hadn’t expected to, after all, her’s didn’t even have meat in it, but a soy and wheat substitute.And it was her first chili.No one won with their first chili.

Though getting her picture taken with the Colonel and Carson would have been nice.

A loud retching noise made everyone pause and look.

Poor Carson wasn’t pale anymore, but flushed, with vomit on the floor in front of him.

“Oh, God!” Karen gasped–she’d been standing closest to him–and waved her papers in front of this face, backing away. “Carson!”

The Colonel, who’d been standing next closest seemed unfazed–which was probably a good quality in a Colonel. “You okay, buddy?” He called everyone Major and below “buddy”, even his civilians.

Carson shook his head,doubling over. “Soy..wh..wheat. Allergy..allergies.”

Janie felt sick herself. She’d poisoned Carson with her chili.

[I hope you enjoyed this little fic–inspired by the chili cook-off at my work–dubbed “heart-burn day” that we hold the Thursday before Valentine’s.]