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KND Freebies: Sizzling hot THE PRISONER by bestselling author Rachael Wade is today’s Free Kindle Nation Shorts excerpt

The Prisoner (The Replacement)
4.4 stars – 27 Reviews
Text-to-Speech and Lending: Enabled
Here’s the set-up:

***THE PRISONER, a companion to THE REPLACEMENT, is a novella (approx. 25,000 words). Contains explicit material and language.***

My name is Christian Walker, and Elise Duchamp is my drug of choice.

No matter how hard I try to break the habit, it’s a lost cause. Okay, maybe I haven’t really tried to quit this particular habit. All I can think about is owning her. Making her mine. Can you really blame me? With that sinful body, luscious mouth, and wicked tongue, she’s every man’s dream, and she knows it.

No one is immune to her charm, not even me, a man who has everything—a beautiful wife, an office with a view, and more money than most people can spend in one lifetime. Only I know how to make her toes curl. Only I know her body better than the other men she screws in her free time. None of them can compare to me. But the joke is on me. I’m the prisoner.

The one who will never compare to him. The one man who makes me see red. His name is stored in her cell phone. It’s the first one she calls out to, the first one she cries for when all hell breaks loose. Ryder Jacobson. The name makes me cringe.

She loves him, and I love her. In my own way, I always will. But the bad guy doesn’t always belong with the bad girl. Sometimes the bad girl needs a good man to believe in her, to give her that final push toward ultimate transformation. I wish I was that good man. That I could be her happily ever after. I guess that’s the thing about prisoners, though. They’re left alone with their torment, and in the end, they have no one to blame but themselves.

5-star praise for The Prisoner:

“Fell In love…Christian is so…borderline obsessed with Elise, he would do anything to keep her happy…And Oh. My. It made ME happy!”

“Incredibly sexy and exciting…A great book with a twist!…At times scary and disturbing but overall incredibly addicting…”

an excerpt from

The Prisoner

by Rachael Wade

Copyright © 2014 by Rachael Wade and published here with her permission

Editor’s Note: If you’ve gotten this far, we’re sure you’re aware that The Prisoner is a very hot contemporary romance that is suitable for grown-ups only. That said, we’ve taken things one step further — or less far? — and toned this excerpt down with the use of “(…)”  in a few places, since it is going out via email. We hope you’ll enjoy the excerpt, and if so, we suspect you’ll enjoy the entire book even more. –S.W.)


Her uniform taunts me again. It’s the same torment every week, when I stop in Stella’s for a cup of coffee before work. This morning I decide on a full breakfast, since I have the extra time to spare. She seats me in the farthest booth, smack in the middle of the morning rush, but thankfully I’m in her section.


I always manage to be seated in her section. I’m not sure if that’s because I work so damn hard to make it happen, or because she’s onto me and simply wants to humor me—and drive me mad. Just like that cock-tease uniform does, over and over again. How do the men in this town stand it? They don’t, I guess. They go after it, tails wagging and tongues drooling, because it really is just that damn irresistible. I know this girl. Everyone does. Elise Duchamp, loner and sex kitten all rolled up into one delicious package. This girl makes men’s dreams come true.

Only you never hear the gossip from her.

No. You hear it from them. The lucky motherfuckers who get a taste. Hey, I can’t help it. I’m bitter. This girl gets around, no qualms about it, and yet here I sit, week after week, a caged animal. A prisoner, destined to stew in my own, masochistic hell. I can look, but I can’t touch. I can say hello, but I can’t give her my number. Everyone else gets a free ride. But me? No way, no how. She’s off limits. And I’m a bastard for even entertaining the idea.

I play with the gold band around my ring finger and keep my eyes trained on the greasy menu in front of me. Everything looks good. Fuck it, I’ll get the whole shebang. If I have the time, I might as well indulge. And I’m not talking eggs and pancakes. I want to feast my eyes on those silky, smooth legs. The way her skirt rides up the curve of her ass just barely, but enough to give my very vivid imagination a good idea of what lies beneath the pale pink material. I want to examine every inch of her, and if all I get is to worship her from afar while I sit and eat my eggs and bacon, then so be it.

Once my mind’s made up, I close the menu and wipe my hands on a napkin. I straighten up and lean back, tapping my fingers in a rhythmic dance on the table top. I watch her wait on a table near the entrance, entranced by the way she speaks to the customers. Her expression is sullen, but her voice is polite. Patient, for the sake of keeping her job. As if she isn’t bored out of her goddamn mind.

Something about the way she moves when they finish their order and hand her the menus keeps me transfixed. She thanks them and turns away without ever really making eye contact with them. She’s wholly in her own world, without the slightest concern for what they think as they stare up at her. Even as she returns a moment later to hand them their check early, she slides it onto the tabletop without so much as looking in their direction. Her gaze is over their shoulders, out the windows, in some foreign place.

Anywhere but here.

She makes her way down to my table and I sit up, curling my left hand, concealing my fingers. “Good morning,” I say, voice dry. Her gaze sweeps down and she clicks her pen, readying her pad of paper.

“Morning. What’ll it be? The usual?”

My jaw tightens and my words get lost somewhere in my throat. The shit this girl does to me. “The usual? You mean—”

“Coffee. Black. One cream. No sugar. That’s all you ever get.” Her eyes find mine, and for the first time this morning—maybe ever—she looks at me. Really fucking looks at me. Suddenly there’s a slight curve to her lips, a faint smirk creeping up from some heavenly place. My eyes drop to her lips. God, what I’d like to do to those lips.

The smirk widens.

“You think I don’t pay attention. But I do.” She leans in slightly, the movement almost imperceptible, resting her palm on the edge of the table. I bite down on my bottom lip and lift my chin, raising my gaze to hers to meet her challenge. She holds my stare and bends to snatch the empty salt and pepper shakers, her elbow brushing my hands, which are balled up tightly on the table top. “You’re hard to miss.”

“I could say the same about you.” The words are out. There you have it, the caged animal has just slipped its greedy hand through the steel bars. The gold band around my ring finger seems to burn as the retort rolls from my tongue, but oddly enough I just don’t give a damn. Not enough. Not anymore.

“Wow, with a line like that, it’s no wonder you have a pretty wife waiting for you at home.”

My eyes churn with something primal. Not only is this woman talking to me now—really looking at me—she also has the tongue of an angel. Razor sharp, increasing the raging hard-on I already have for her. “You don’t miss a thing, do you?”

“Sometimes.” She shrugs, and a lock of blonde hair falls over her shoulder. She’s the portrait of vintage sensuality. An Old Hollywood movie star, dropped right here, in modern day Gig Harbor, for men like me to leer at, wishing she’d drag us back to some nostalgic, forbidden place. “And sometimes I just like to pretend I do.” With a coy wink, she scribbles something on her notepad, rips at the paper, and places it next to my hand.

The left one.

“So, you want something different today, do you? What’ll it be?” She poises her hand at the paper pad again, and I glance down at the paper near my fist. It wills me to read it, right now, right this second, but I force myself to focus. I have to play this right, because the caged animal has just unlocked the steel door. The restraints are coming off, right fucking now. I have to have her, and I have to make my intention crystal clear, then wipe the floor with the faces of all the others who’ve touched her before me. Because the second my hands are on her, she’s mine.


A slow smile spreads. “Yes. I have a few things in mind.” Her, bent over the arm of my leather couch. Me, pounding into her in the shower while she screams my name. That uniform being ripped off, torn away inch by inch.

By my teeth.

“The morning scrambler with coffee, please,” I say, sterner this time. “And drinks. With you. Right after your shift.”

“Oh, look at you.” She smiles wide and bright, like the sun. It’s rich with sarcasm, but dripping with sincere flirtation. “Getting brave on me, now.” She sticks the salt and pepper shakers in her apron pocket, jots down my order, then sticks the pen behind her ear. “Your food’s coming right up. Maybe by then you’ll be brave enough to remove the ring.”

She peels her gaze away from mine and walks toward the kitchen, leaving me dumbstruck and high as a fucking kite. The beast has been released from its cage and is flying rampantly around the diner, spreading its wings for all to see. There’s no going back now. Not like I ever wanted to. But damn, this is easier than I thought. Too easy.

I mentally kick myself in the ass for waiting so long to make a move. To even think I had to wait. To believe she was off limits. Nothing is off limits, especially not for Christian Walker. I own one of the largest luxury hotel chains in the Northwest, and that’s only the beginning. My father’s company is expanding and soon we’ll be taking over the entire country, offering the finest service for the equally filthy rich and elite.

I don’t know what Elise’s story is or why she spreads her legs for everyone in Gig Harbor. I only know I want a taste, just like everyone else. But unlike everyone else, I can give her the world. Much more than any of the other assholes can. The fact that she’s feisty and smart-tongued only sparks the raging fire. She’s not just some hot piece of ass. She’s a force. A rare diamond. An entity.

I would know. I’ve been watching her for weeks.

Had I known such a tempting siren worked right here, under Stella’s roof, I would have started coming here much sooner. Truth is, I grew up in Gig Harbor and I always avoided Stella’s. Their French toast is awful, as is most of their food. But hey, I’m used to dining on gourmet. Can’t blame a man for high standards.

My fists uncurl and I stretch my fingers, quickly sweeping up the piece of paper she’s left me. My heart beats wildly against my ribcage when I see her phone number. Even her handwriting is eye catching. Messy and untamed. Just as I imagine her to be in bed.

I fold the piece of paper and stick it inside my suit jacket pocket.

She returns a few minutes later with my plate. I’m salivating at the sight, and it has nothing to do with the disgusting, sloppy pile of grease she’s serving me. “Careful. It’s hot.” She sets it down and pours my coffee. “You need anything else?”

“Not at the moment. What time does your shift end?”

“Four p.m. But I need to go home and change.”

“I can drive you. I’ll be here at four.”

“No,” she says quickly—too quickly. “I’ll come to you.”

“Where would you like to go?”

“Anywhere but here.”

“That can be arranged.”

“Good.” She nods and eyes my breakfast. “Call me around five.”

She turns to leave but I stand swiftly, rising to full height to give her a good look at what she’s getting. She needs to know. My shoulders stretch, filling out my suit so the definition I work hard for is visible. Two buttons of my white dress shirt are opened, showing off just a hint of naturally tanned skin. My black tie is as silky as her legs, and my height hovers over hers just enough to show her I’m in charge.

I extend a firm handshake and hold her gaze. “You didn’t get my name.”

“Christian Walker,” she says, unimpressed. Her chin nods to my wallet on the table. “You always pay with the same old shiny black card. It matches your shiny black Mercedes. Flashy, flashy.”

I take a marginal, yet very deliberate step forward and grasp her hand. She eyes the gesture but her gaze slowly rolls back up, landing on mine. “I like what I like. It might be flashy, but it’s what I want. Make no mistake,” I give her hand a firm but gentle squeeze, “same old can be a good thing. When it’s good, it never grows dull.”

“I stand corrected,” she drawls, narrowing her eyes. “I think I’m gonna like you.” She releases my hand and drifts away, and I keep watching. There’s no way I can take my eyes off her now. But I have to, because I have a breakfast to finish and work to do. Five o’clock will be here before I know it.


I’m pacing. I never pace. Men like me do not pace. We stride confidently, advancing in the exact direction we know we want to go. There is no hesitation; there are no second thoughts. We act. And we always, always walk away with what we want.

I’ve dialed the number. The phone rings. I finally hear her voice. My shoulders tighten and I hold my breath. “Elise?” I finally exhale.

“You sound winded,” she laughs knowingly, a low, throaty laugh that makes my skin burn. “You didn’t get started without me, did you?”

“God, no.” I freeze. She wants to fuck me. She’s going to fuck me. This is good. Very, very good.

I glance over at a picture of Kylie, kayaking in the San Juans.

This is bad. Very, very bad.


“Yeah. I’m here.”

“I’ll come to your place.”

“My place?”

“Is that a problem?”

“I thought I could buy you a drink.”

“Ah, of course. The wife.”

“No, it’s not—it’s not that,” I lie. My hand shoots out and slaps the photo frame face down on the fireplace mantel. “I want to talk.”

“We can talk at your place. Is she home? What’s your address?”

“No, she’s not, but—”

“Christian. Your address.”

“4570 Madrona Drive.”

“I’ll be there in fifteen minutes.” The line clicks. The quiet swallows me up, and everything in the house glares at me, every inanimate object searing me with guilt. I don’t stand there and let it turn me to ash. Instead, like the man I know I am, I move. I act.

My first stop is the bathroom for a shower and a shave. Next up is the bedroom, where I change the sheets. They smell like Kylie’s perfume, and I can’t have that. Not for Elise. Not for this girl, who will surely have a scent of her own. One I already know I want all over every inch of the bed.

She arrives fifteen minutes later, as promised, but it feels like it’s been an hour. Before Kylie, there were many women. None of them—not a single one—ever made me this high strung. I fight to conceal the nerves with every step I take toward the front door, mentally reminding myself over and over that I’m Christian fucking Walker.

The door slowly swings open and there she is, an angel of darkness, her flawless blonde hair falling in soft, sexy waves over her shoulders. Her eyes are dark, just like her intentions, and that devious smile plastering her stunning face knocks me on my ass.

“Well? Are you going to invite me in?”

“Of course.” I snap out of the haze and step back, gesturing inside. “Please, come in.”

She strolls inside, eyeing the place up and down. Her grin has disappeared, replaced with that numb, introspective expression I’ve seen her wear time and time again at the diner. I wonder what she’s thinking so deeply about. Her words and actions are so impulsive, so careless, contradicting the depth in her eyes. I can’t figure her out, but I’m not sure I want to. She’s so alluring just the way she is, I don’t want to disrupt the mysterious mirage that’s ensnared me.

“What can I get you to drink?” I ask, closing the door. My gaze darts to the fireplace. I’ve left all the pictures there, in full view. What other option do I have? Kylie will be home this evening. I can’t rid our home of every single remnant of our life together.


“Champagne?” A surprised smile teases my lips.

“I think this is cause for celebration, don’t you?” She pivots on her hip, glancing playfully over her shoulder. My fingers twitch. I need to touch her. I need to touch her soon.

I hesitate before answering. Is this cause for celebration? This could be the beginning of the end of my marriage. Not that it hasn’t been crumbling before Elise stepped through my door, but still. This is something, and I’m not sure it’s something to celebrate.

I decide to play along. “I like the way you think.”

“Where’s the bedroom?” She starts for the hallway, tilting her head to peer up the stairwell.

My fingers move swiftly over the champagne flutes. My free hand braces the edge of the bar, supporting my weight. If her words alone make me feel this weak, I’m definitely in trouble. “Up the stairs to the left,” I say, turning to take a quick swig. When I swing back around, she’s already on her way, slinking up the stairway, those long, golden locks cascading down her back. Fucking hell, she’s wearing stockings. And heels. Heels I’d give my first born to have wrapped around my neck.

A beat passes before I begin to follow her, carefully carrying the glasses as I’m pulled into her web. She lures me upstairs, and all I can do is stand there in the doorway and watch as she walks straight for the closet. She runs a slender arm over Kylie’s clothing, stopping when she reaches the wall of shoes perched neatly on the shelf. Kylie owns more shoes than any woman I’ve ever known. Her taste is fantastic. It’s one of the reasons I fell for her—the way she carries herself, with such pride, such confidence. Elise reaches out for a pair of silver stilettos, plucking them off the shelf with vigor. It becomes clear to me that I’m just as taken with Elise’s confidence. That along with her killer body, it’s what’s drawn me to her.

But it’s a different kind of confidence. Reckless. Nonchalant. It’s so natural, like breathing. Yet there’s this vacant space in her eyes, as if the confidence is a scapegoat. Not because it’s false, but because it’s all she knows.

“I love these.” She slips off her own shoes and slides into Kylie’s stilettos, smiling down at her feet. “Same size.”

“They look stunning on you.” I set our glasses down on the dresser but don’t move from the doorway, just remain there, entirely rapt by her bold observation. “Would you like to try something else on?”

“No,” she sighs, taking a leisurely stroll toward me. “I’m here to take things off.” Her eyes hold mine as she moves in, her hands landing lightly on my chest. “You’ve been watching me for a while, Christian.”

I swallow the lump in my throat. I don’t break the contact. I’m starved for it. The second her fingers brush over my chest, I swear it feels as if they’re skimming my bare skin. My shirt is nonexistent. There is no barrier. “I have.”

“Why has it taken you so long to get me here?”

“It’s complicated.”

“Is it?” Her hand drifts down and plays with my ring finger. She traces my wedding band, lifting it to study it, as if it’s the most drab thing in the world. What the fuck happened to this girl? Why is she so careless? How did she become so brazen? I want to know her secrets. I want to unravel them. Preferably with my tongue and teeth.

“It doesn’t bother you that I’m married?”

“Does it bother you?” She lifts her head and her eyes roll to the fireplace, where my life with Kylie is on full display.

“Yes. It does.”

“Yet here I am.”

“Here you are.”

“So what will you do with me, Christian Walker?”

I study her, the thin space between us crackling. Every inch of her is forbidden. Ripe and full, tainted and golden. There’s no way I’m turning back now. “I want to know why you do this. Why so many men? A girl like you could have any man she wants wrapped around her finger.”

“I could ask you the same thing.” She taps my wedding band. “Why do you do this? When a guy like you could be with a girl like me?”

“Fair enough.” I grin at her, lacing my fingers with hers. The action is so innocent, yet so intimate, we both glance down to watch our hands intertwine. “I’m trying to figure you out. There’s a lot of talk in this town.”

“Too much,” she whispers, lifting my knuckle to kiss it. She slides her tongue over my ring and bites it with her teeth, her lashes sweeping up to lock eyes with me. “Too much talking.”

It happens so fast, I don’t know the ceiling from the floor when her lips touch mine. The ground shakes. The earth stills. There’s an explosion, sending stars bursting all around us. In seconds, my tongue snakes out and delves into her mouth, and her hands clamp tightly around my neck. My hands fly to her hips, gripping and groping, and I’m immediately pushing her backward, toward the edge of the bed. I feel like a clumsy teenager and it pisses me off, so I latch on harder to her hips, bending to bite her neck. A sound escapes me. I don’t think I’ve ever heard it before. It’s broken and strained, as if it’s fighting to claw from my throat.

“No,” she breathes. The back of her knees hit the bed. “Not here.”

“Where do you want it, baby?”

Instead of speaking, she grabs my hand and drags me out of the bedroom, through the hall and down the stairway. I’m nearly tripping to keep up with her, but I manage. I can still taste her tongue. My lips are still on fire.

“Does she play?” she asks, when we reach the end of the stairwell. She points to the grand piano in the corner of the great room, positioned next to the large picture windows that frame the room.

“My wife? Yes. She loves to play. Why?”

Elise releases my hand and saunters over to the piano, skimming her fingers over the keys. Then she slowly turns to face me, hopping up to sit on them. The keys cry out as her weight touches down, filling the room with an eerie chorus. I step toward her, eyes blazing. Just when I think she can’t get any bolder, she leans back, resting on her elbows, and lets her legs fall open, revealing a sliver of red lace.

“Here,” she says, crooking a finger at me.


My gaze falls on the wall of photographs behind her, each one showcasing me and Kylie in various, loving positions. There’s one of us at last year’s Christmas ball, and one of us holding our ski gear, looking blissfully happy. My eyes don’t stray for long, though. There’s a tempting, wicked goddess sitting here, waiting for me to show her my skills, and I am one hundred percent up for that challenge.

I move like lightning, quick and sharp, but I don’t rush things when I align myself between her legs. I take my time, trailing my fingers along her knee, skating up along the inside of her thigh. Her skin is hot. So fucking hot I think it’s on fire, just like my lips. My hand travels down her calf, over her black stockings, which match her black, lacy dress. She watches me, shifting to remove Kylie’s heels.

“No.” My voice is gruff. Commanding. Now that she’s in my house, in my hands, and at my mercy, my nerve is returning. I’m getting my shit together. This is good, because I have things to show her. So, so many things. Things that will make her writhe as she comes. I don’t care what the others have done to her before me. It means shit compared to what I’m about to give her. My hand snatches hers, stopping her from removing the silver stilettos. “Leave them.”

A little flare brightens her irises. She looks at me with a doe-eyed stare, seeming to suddenly register that I’m a man who likes control. Her hand recoils and she sits back, waiting. That single response does something to me. An internal, carnal cord snaps, and my forearm is suddenly lunging forward to grasp the back of her neck. I tug at the roots of her smooth, silky hair and she whimpers, letting me tilt her head back. I take an easy, slow step forward, wedging myself tighter between her thighs.

“You,” I say, low and stern, “are mine now, Elise Duchamp.” I lean in and bring my mouth to her throat. “Claimed.” My teeth graze up the slope of her neck, carving a path to her ear. “Do you understand, baby?” She nods, and another whimper leaves her lips, breathy and hot, floating into the silence around us. I smile mischievously, pulling back to look at her dead on. “Good.”

As quickly as I gravitated to the inside of her thighs, I wrench at her hair and waist simultaneously, yanking her down from the piano and onto her feet, twisting her around so her back is flush with my chest. Her heels smack the wood floor; she scrambles to maintain balance.


I keep a tight grip on her throat and chin as I slide her dress up, exposing her red, lacy thong. The sight sends me soaring, so high I know I’ll never be able to come down. The bright red is as bold as she is. It’s my new favorite color. I never want to see her in anything else. This is Elise. My Elise. I told her she’s mine, but she doesn’t believe me.

Not yet.

“For starters, always wear red.” I reach down and rip her panties, tugging them to the side. The lace slides over her soft skin, tattered and torn. “With me, it’s always red.”

She’s breathing heavily, her throat muscles clenching against my palm. “What makes you so sure this is going to happen again?”

“I know it will.” I chuck the red lace to the floor and return my hand to her round, perfect ass, giving it a good squeeze. “When I’m done with you, you’ll know it, too.”

… Continued…

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The Prisoner
(The Replacement)
by Rachael Wade
4.4 stars – 27 reviews!
Special Kindle Price: $1.99!
(reduced from $2.99 for a
limited time only)

KND Freebies: Deeply compelling urban fantasy DARK PROPHECY is today’s Free Kindle Nation Shorts excerpt

Brand-new from the always surprising Ann Gimpel comes this smartly written, intriguing blend of sexy urban fantasy and psychological thriller that is captivating readers…

“Such a wonderful read! I totally fell in love with the characters and their story.”

Discover Book 1 of this gripping trilogy for only 99 cents!

Dark Prophecy (Soul Storm Book 1)

by Ann Gimpel

Dark Prophecy (Soul Storm Book 1)
4.4 stars – 7 Reviews
Text-to-Speech and Lending: Enabled
Here’s the set-up:

When the dream world spills its murky contents, everyone’s worst nightmares run free.

Dr. Lara McInnis reads auras and flirts with an elusive ability to foretell the future. Ambivalent about the magic within her, she’s done a fine job ignoring other aspects of her power—until now. After several patients—and a student or two—describe the same cataclysmic dream, she uncovers ancient evil intent on draining her power. Lara knows next to nothing about her psychic side, but it will destroy her if she can’t come to terms with it.

Trevor Denoble has secrets, but he shields them well with a stunning body and a boatload of British charm. The airline he works for folds because there’s no fuel for the planes, and Lara’s changing into someone he barely recognizes. Though he doesn’t know it yet, the rest of his carefully crafted life is about to come crashing down too.

Living in a world teetering on the edge of anarchy, Trevor and Lara are faced with a series of painful decisions. Is the love between them enough for Trevor to swallow his distrust of Lara’s burgeoning paranormal ability? Will their personal demons tear them apart in a world gone mad, as shortages of everything from electricity to food escalate?

5-star praise for Dark Prophecy:

“…eerily real. It has magic—and evil—but the kind you could find lurking next door…”

“…You are pulled into the vortex of the author’s imagination…Forget the other stuff you’re supposed to be doing…You have to know what’s going to happen next…”

an excerpt from

Dark Prophecy
(Soul Storm, Book 1)

by Ann Gimpel

Copyright © 2014 by Ann Gimpel and published here with her permission

Chapter One

Lara McInnis uncrossed her legs and sat straighter in the ginger-colored, overstuffed chair taking up most of one corner of her cozy psychotherapy office. Long years as a therapist made it easy to hold a neutral expression. Less easy was latching onto enough energy to support her quarreling clients. What she really wanted to do was tell Bethany Beauchamp to dump her bastard of a husband and get on with her life.

Lara nodded encouragingly at Bethany, but the woman ducked her head and lapsed into silence. Big surprise since her husband never shut up, cataloguing her faults as if they pleased him and clicking them off one by one on his fat fingers. Lara searched for an opportunity to intervene before things got any worse.

“Mr. Beauchamp,” she murmured, voice pitched purposefully low so he’d have to stop talking in order to hear her.

“What?” He sounded irritated, his tone scratchy from too many cigarettes and a sour disposition. “You interrupted me.”

“Sorry, but I was interested in what you were saying, and I didn’t quite catch that last part before I interrupted. Might you be so kind as to repeat it for me?”

Ken Beauchamp tossed his shoulders back and rearranged mouse-brown hairs that had fallen out of place in his too-careful comb over. He patted his short, chubby legs encased in expensive suiting, turned, and looked right at her with close-set blue eyes. Broken blood vessels along the sides of his nose suggested an intimate relationship with alcoholic beverages.

“We pay you quite well. The least you could do is be attentive,” he complained, an unpleasant whiny note in his voice.

She nodded, offering a silent invitation to speak to her rather than to his wife, who looked exhausted. Bethany’s eight-month pregnancy dragged at her tall, slender frame, and dark smudges under her hazel eyes detracted from her showgirl beauty. Light auburn hair fell in limp curls to her shoulders. Though only in her early thirties, today she looked ten years older.

After a short pause Ken took the bait. Rather than repeating his last statement as requested, he started in on Lara. “Well, Doctor, you’ve been late for our appointments twice out of the ten we’ve scheduled. None of the things you’ve suggested work, and our marriage isn’t any better than it was the day we walked in here.” He sat back in his chair, a smug smile on his florid face.

“Which things have you tried?” It became more and more difficult to keep her features pleasant. She detested Ken Beauchamp and suspected his wife felt much the same. Stealing a glance at her other patient, Lara noticed Bethany had begun to cry, her face contorted in silent grief. Lara handed her the box of tissues she always kept next to her chair. “Mr. Beauchamp?” she urged. “What things have you tried? I need to know so I can work with you to figure out what might be more effective.”

Or so I can find an excuse to refer you to another therapist.

Ken’s face reddened even more. “I’m sure we’ve tried some of them,” he said defensively. Shifting his bulky body around in his chair, he shot his wife an intimidating look. “Beth, the good doctor here is asking what we’ve tried.”

Bethany withered under her husband’s knife-like stare. Her crying escalated, and she choked on the word, “N-nothing,” as she buried her face in her hands. Outside of her strangled sobbing, the corner office, morning sun streaming through leaded-glass window panes, was absolutely silent.

Lara leaned forward, her gaze shifting from Ken to Bethany. “It’s like I told both of you when you first came here, I can’t fix your marriage. Only you can do that. For there to be any improvement, you have to be willing to listen to one another. We’re nearly at the end of today’s hour, but frankly there’s not much reason for you to spend your money coming week after week, just so I can listen to you argue and try to referee. Go home and have an honest discussion this morning while everything’s still fresh. Figure out if you really want to continue seeing me. If the answer is yes, call me and come on back next week. Otherwise…” She let her last words hang in the air, realizing she hoped she never had to lay eyes on Ken Beauchamp again.

“Uh, here.” Ken rustled around in an inner jacket pocket and came up with a well-creased piece of paper that he shoved her way. “Sign this.”

Lara flipped it open, scanning the few lines. Damn the man. He’d been court-ordered to attend marriage counseling and hadn’t told her. Neither of them had. Fuming, she hastily checked the box verifying attendance at ten sessions, signed the document, and handed it back.

“You should have told me, Mr. Beauchamp. We might have done things a bit differently.” We sure would have, since I never accept court-referred clients. He just looked at her as he snatched the paper, a feral smile adding a malevolent note to his already-unattractive face.

“Thank you, Dr. McInnis.” Bethany’s voice was still clotted with tears as she planted her feet beneath her ample belly and then struggled to her feet. Lara stood and held out her hand; Bethany latched onto it like a lifeline. The two women looked at Ken, who hadn’t made the slightest effort to leave his chair. He was chewing on his lower lip, his face the color of a boiled lobster.

Acting on impulse, Lara let go of Bethany’s hand and gestured to her. “I’ll just walk your wife to the ladies’ room, Mr. Beauchamp, so she can put some cold water on her face. She’ll meet you at the car.”

Pulling the office door open, she exchanged a meaningful glance with her receptionist. “Arabel, could you please see Mr. Beauchamp out?”

Without waiting for a reply, she took Bethany’s elbow and pushed her into the hallway. As soon as they were safely out of the office, Lara turned to her client and murmured, “He hurts you, doesn’t he?” Her voice was the barest of whispers as she remembered the little she’d been able to drag out of Ken about his obscenely violent childhood.

Another tear leaked from one of Bethany’s eyes as she mumbled, “I, uh, can’t, um, shouldn’t…”

They’d reached the bathroom and were both inside the tiny enclosure. Lara regarded her patient intently, with well-honed inner senses. Bethany maintained an edgy silence, the ragged, darkened edges of her aura radiating a gloomy melancholy. Probing with her psychic side, Lara suddenly knew much of what the woman was unwilling to divulge. And then—as was often the case when she used her gift—she wished she’d left well enough alone.

Reaching into a pocket of her plaid wool skirt, Lara pulled out a pen and one of her cards, scribbling a number on the back. “If things get bad, make an excuse, any excuse. Tell him you’re going for a walk. Bring your cell phone and call this number. They help women like you.”

Bethany’s hand snaked out and she took the card. A frantic look washed over her. “But what if he finds the number?” she whimpered and tried to stuff the card back into Lara’s hand.

“It doesn’t matter. They won’t talk to him.” Lara laid a hand on Bethany’s arm. “Keep the card. You need to get to your car, so he doesn’t react further. Maybe you could come in and talk to me by yourself.”

“He’d never let me.” Dull voice matching her dead eyes, Bethany let herself out into the corridor and walked toward the stairs with the awkward gait of the very-pregnant.

Back in her office, Lara stopped at Arabel’s desk. “Who else do I have today?”

Hooking her thumb out the door, Arabel asked, “What’s up with them? The mister, he seemed pretty put out. For a minute there I didn’t think I was gonna git him out of the office.”

“You know I can’t discuss patients with you, dear. At least we have to pretend we don’t talk about them.” Lara smiled fondly at the elderly African-American woman who’d been her sole office help for over twenty years. Arabel was dressed in her usual white blouse, navy gabardine skirt, and black flats. An ancient maroon sweater hung over the back of her secretarial chair. Hair in a modified mostly-gray afro, she had a piquant sense of humor. Quick temper sparked from her nearly black eyes.

“Humph…” Arabel bristled, her mouth twisted into a frown. “You know I got nobody I’d be tellin’ anything to. Never have.”

“Sorry, sorry. Didn’t mean to hurt your feelings.” Lara held out a conciliatory hand. “Truce?”

Arabel cocked her head to one side, and the corners of her mouth twitched as she clasped Lara’s hand. “Truce. Never could stay mad at you. Not for long, anyway.” Turning back to the computer, she brought up the day’s schedule on the monitor. “David Roth cancelled, so you’re free till one thirty. Then you got folk packed in here till close to eight.”

Lara walked around the desk so she could look at the screen. She loved what she did, but today’s schedule was too jam-packed even for her. She glanced at her watch. “I’m going to swing by the gym and then grab some lunch. Call me if anything comes up.”

“You got it.” Arabel’s voice followed Lara into her office where she grabbed her purse and her cell phone, locked her client file drawers, and let herself out the back door.

Her office was in an old, pale blue Victorian on Seattle’s Capitol Hill. She’d bought the building for a song ten years before because someone thought there were problems with the foundation. There’d been some structural deficiencies, but they’d proven relatively trivial to fix. Split into four offices, her building was home to an architect and a CPA on the first floor, and herself and a psychiatrist on the second. She walked through a carpet of leaves that had fallen off the Madrona trees lining East Avenue, heading for her nearby BMW.

As she drove, Lara thought about the Beauchamps. She’d spent an unusually long time—at least the first five sessions—gathering a history from them. One problem was Ken’s reticence to disclose much of anything. Persistence and caginess had paid off, though, and he’d told her far more than he meant to about the French-Irish gang-affiliated father who’d turned him out as a child prostitute at the age of eight. His mother had abandoned the family when he was so young he had no memories of her at all, just oodles of anger that Lara suspected he generalized to all women—including her. By contrast, Bethany’s meager life story tumbled out with very little prodding. Not that hers read much better than her husband’s.

Fears for Bethany nagged her. “What if they want to come back?” she asked herself softly. “Should I see them?” Pulling into the parking lot for her fitness center, Lara knew she’d turn that question over in her mind as she moved through her workout. Once she lost her objectivity—and any empathy she’d tried to develop for Ken had long since evaporated—it became progressively more difficult to work with clients. She’d learned some hard lessons over the years, including that it was usually better to cut the cord sooner rather than later.

“Hi, Tony!” Lara dropped her membership card onto the glass countertop, snagged both key and towel from the tall, well-sculpted front desk attendant, and headed down lushly carpeted stairs.

“Have a good workout, Doc! Power’s on today, so all the machines are available.” Tony’s throaty voice trailed after her.

Lara gathered her longish coppery hair into a snug ponytail. She was just pocketing her locker key when her phone trilled a Bach Etude. Wrinkling her forehead in irritation, she stuffed the key back into its hole, retrieved the phone, and barked, “Dr. McInnis,” without bothering to look at the screen.

“Hey there, Lara. It’s me.” Trevor’s clipped British accent was like a balm. Her long time, live-in lover rarely called during the day, and a prickle of concern moved down her spine.

“Sorry to bother you, love,” he went on, “but the power’s off again, at least on Queen Anne Hill.” He paused a beat. “Thought you’d want to know.”

She gripped her phone hard enough it cut into her hand. “Again? But that’s the third time since, let’s see, last Wednesday. How long did they say this time? Or did they? Or did you even call? What about the food in the freezer?” She stopped abruptly because her voice had become unnecessarily shrill. “Sorry,” she muttered. “I’m just worried, that’s all.”

“I know, I know. That’s why I called you.” Another hesitation. “Guess I’m worried too, and I just wanted someone to talk to.”

She closed her eyes, summoning an image of him with his Nordic features and summer-blue eyes. He was a flight attendant for KLM airlines, which meant he only worked about fifteen days each month. She’d met him ages ago on a return flight from Europe where she’d been completing the last leg of her analytic training at the Jung Institute in Zurich. Exhausted from a grueling six weeks of seeing patients, she’d been half-asleep in her narrow airline seat, and he’d brought her tea and cookies. Lara wasn’t quite sure how it happened, but he’d come home with her that night and they’d been together ever since. Those first few years were more than a bit rocky. She’d run screaming from their home a time or two, so she wouldn’t kill him on the spot. But something indefinable—she still didn’t truly understand what it was—always drew her back.

Lara sank into one of the wicker chairs in a corner of the locker room with apprehension tugging at her. “What do you think it means? Have you any idea?” There was a very long silence, so long she finally asked, “Trev, you still there?”

“Yeah, Lara, I am.” His accent was more pronounced, so she knew he was debating whether or not to give voice to his thoughts. Finally, he blurted, “I think we’re really running out of oil this time. Not like all those other times when the government stock-piled it and then released it after the price sky-rocketed. You wouldn’t know about this, since you’re such a news-phobe and I gas up the cars, but it was really hard to find petrol last month. Damned near impossible, actually.

“If what I suspect is true, everything that takes oil to run will eventually go tits-up.” He paused to draw a frazzled breath before adding, “We might have been all right here in the northwest with all our hydroelectric power, except the rest of the country’s been draining juice off our grid to compensate for their shortages. Our state lawmakers have been kicking up a fuss in D.C. Anyway,” his voice was brusque, “I’m cooking what I can from the freezer. We’ll talk more about this when you come home. If you get any breaks today, consider the pros and cons of moving away from the city. Whoops, my cell’s ringing, love. See you tonight.”

She slipped her phone back into her locker, walked toward the aerobics room, and jumped on one of the elliptical trainers. She wanted to come to some decision about Bethany and her husband, but the conversation with Trevor kept intruding.

Damn it. He hung up before I could react to that whole doomsday scenario he laid out. Humph! Probably didn’t want to give me a chance to talk him out of it. Meantime, I’m supposed to think about leaving the city? Where the hell would we go?

She used her towel to mop sweat trickling down her face and caught a glimpse of herself in the mirrors covering every wall. Staring back was a tall, too-thin redhead with freckles dotting every inch of exposed skin. Her angular face, with its prominent nose and chin, glistened in the reflected light, and her dark brown eyes were pinched with worry.

Moving to the treadmill, she set it for six-and-a-half miles an hour and ran hard for ten minutes. Gasping, she backed off the speed, while increasing the angle. Ten more minutes and she abandoned the machine in favor of water from the drinking fountain. Three sets at the squat rock and twenty pull-ups completed her workout, and she trotted toward the locker room and showers.

As she toweled off, she felt animated and dynamic, her problems with power outages and the Ken Beauchamps of the world temporarily pushed to a back burner. Nothing like a few endorphins, she told herself, inhaling deeply. As she made plans to get a smoothie-to-go with extra protein powder from the small on-site restaurant, she contemplated the afternoon’s lineup of patients.

Out of the six who were scheduled, there was one analytic client, two angry teenagers: a cutter and a bulimic, another couple, and two lonely, middle-aged women, one depressed, the other anxious.

Too bad it’s unethical to introduce patients to one another…outside of a therapy group that is. Lara chuckled softly. She loved doing analytic work, but there weren’t many who really wanted to delve that deeply into themselves. Not to mention the cost. She picked up her smoothie, a tofu bar, and some green tea before heading for her car. The sun, an elusive phenomenon in Seattle, was nowhere in sight, and it was raining lightly. While not cold, the day held some of the crispness typical of mid-October. Her phone chimed again but she ignored it, figuring she’d be back at her office in less than five minutes.

* * * *

“Tell me what goes on inside you before you start cutting?” Lara took in the overweight seventeen-year-old sitting catty-corner from her, arms and legs covered with a network of fine, white scars from years of self-mutilation. Caren would have been attractive, with her silky black hair and porcelain skin, were it not for the miasma of absolute misery emanating from her like a spider’s web set to trap the unwary. The girl had been coming to therapy for a month, but was steadfastly unwilling to divulge anything.

“I suppose I could tell you, but I don’t really want to,” the teenager grumbled. “You don’t care about me. You see me because my stepmother pays you. This is nothing but a fucking waste of time.” Folding her arms across her chest, she stared defiantly at Lara.

Lara watched Caren intently. She squirmed in her chair, before gluing her gaze to the floor.

“Caren, would you look at me, please?” Lara made her tone as non-confrontational as possible.

“Why?” The girl sounded sullen.

“Because I want you to see I’m telling you the truth when I say I do care about you. You’ve had a perfectly rotten life, and you have every right not to trust anybody.”

Caren risked a sidelong glance at her. “How do you know anything about my life? I haven’t told you very much.”

Lara was silent for several seconds. Even without her ability to read auras, she’d have been able to figure out a likely script for Caren’s early life: molested, physically abused, and emotionally neglected. “What we really need to talk about is a plan so you have something to do besides carving on yourself when you feel bad. Once we come up with that, we can talk about anything you’d like.”

“Can I take a bathroom break?”

Lara nodded. “Second door on the left outside of my office.” Watching the teenager leave, she wondered if she’d made a mistake. What if she has razors with her and cuts herself in my bathroom? How do I explain that to her parents? Lara made a conscientious effort to breathe. She glanced at her watch and decided to give Caren five minutes before going after her.

While Lara waited, she summoned her elusive ability to predict future events, but came up dry. Damn, but it would be convenient to find a shaman who could teach her about her psychic abilities. “Yes, but first I have to be willing to tell people I can do those things,” she muttered. “I’ve always been afraid they’d cart me off to the loony bin.”

With just ten seconds to spare, Caren sidled back through the door. She had a mulish look on her face, and Lara knew her young patient would bolt if given the slightest excuse.

“Thanks for coming back,” Lara offered, attempting to soothe the alienated girl.

“Thanks for trusting me to leave.” Caren resettled herself in one of the comfortable chairs across from Lara. The barest of smiles ghosted across her face and she took a deep breath. “This is really hard to talk about.”

“I know, but nothing you say leaves here.”

“That’s almost not the point,” the teenager mumbled, twisting in her chair. “Talking makes it hurt more.”

Lara nodded. As she looked at Caren, scenes flashed quickly, one after the other: a woman holding a small screaming girl and doing unspeakable things, brutal beatings, cigarettes pressed into tender flesh. Lara closed her eyes and sucked down a surreptitious, ragged breath.

“Yes, it does hurt to talk about it,” she agreed. “But that’s the only way out. If you keep everything bottled up inside, you’ll just keep cutting. The first part is always hardest. After that it won’t be quite so bad.”

“How can you know?” Caren risked a sidelong glance at her.

“Because I’ve done this for a long time.” Lara paused. “And I’ve got no reason to lie to you.”

Caren raised crystalline-blue eyes. Lara saw a scared little girl, living behind teenaged bravado, desperately wanting to trust someone, anyone, but frightened half out of her mind at taking that first, small step. After a very long time, Caren began hesitantly, in a voice so low Lara had to strain to hear. “It feels like I have to cut, or something terrible will happen. I fight it, but I always lose.”

“What do the voices that live in your head tell you?”

“How do you know about them?” Caren sounded rattled. Fear flitted across her face, and she folded her arms protectively across her chest. “I didn’t tell you.”

“Because everybody who cuts has voices that tell them things, before they tell them to cut. It’s okay to talk to me about them. The voices don’t mean you’re crazy.”

Caren closed her eyes and dropped her head back against the chair. One tear escaped, rolling down the girl’s pale face.

Time dripped past. It was impossible to force anyone to reveal their secrets. Clients had to come to an inner juncture where they believed the pain of disclosure would be worth the risk. Fleetingly, Lara thought about how lonely and isolated the teenager was. Just like me when I was her age.

“Dr. McInnis?” Caren’s voice was thready, almost not there at all.

“Yes, dear.”

“You said everybody who cuts has voices telling them things. Have you helped other people like me?”

Lara nodded, then realized Caren couldn’t see her because her eyes were still closed. “Yes,” she said simply. “I have.”

“Did they stop cutting?”

“Some of them did.”

The girl seemed to consider this. She opened her eyes, shiny with unshed tears, and looked pleadingly at Lara. “You must be telling me the truth,” she said in a choked voice.

“How can you tell?” Lara smiled gently and she hoped, encouragingly.

“Otherwise, you’d have told me all your other stupid, fucked-up cutter patients got well.”

“You’re not stupid or fucked-up.”

“Yes, I am. Fat and ugly too.” Caren was struggling not to cry.

“That’s what the voices tell you, isn’t it?”

Caren nodded miserably and gave in to a flood of emotion.

“It’s all right,” Lara murmured. “Cry. This is a good place for your tears. Here’re more tissues. I think you’re courageous. Maybe we can re-program those voices to say good things.”

Caren shook her head vehemently. “Nothing good. Never.” She choked out the words between sobs.

“Take a few deep breaths,” Lara urged and waited for the girl’s emotional storm to subside. “Now I want you to listen, just listen. None of what happened to you was your fault. And it doesn’t matter how I know.” Lara held up a hand to still Caren’s protests. “You were a child. None of those things happened because you were fat or ugly or stupid. They happened because your caregivers were sadly damaged…”

Chapter Two

Hours later, Lara let herself out of her office, reached back in to activate the alarm, and then locked the door behind her. Arabel had gone home at six. Normally her receptionist left a note if there was something she needed to communicate. Tonight there hadn’t been any notes because there weren’t any patients she needed to call. But there had been a few zucchinis from Arabel’s lovingly-tended garden. Lara was grateful, both for the organic produce and for the lack of patient-related affairs to attend to. She was tired and hoped nobody had a crisis that evening.

She double-checked the pager that lived clipped to her belt. As she moved away from the front door of her building, she stumbled. The outside light was out—when had that happened?—and it was very dark in the shadows of the cavernous front porch. She made a grab for the railing to steady herself and took a tentative step toward the street.

“Stop right there,” a familiar harsh voice boomed from behind her.

“Mr. Beauchamp. That is you, isn’t it?” Alarm ricocheted through her, but she knew intuitively it was important to hide her fear. “What do you want?” Though she aimed for nonchalance, her voice sounded thin and shaky. Is it Ken? Aw, Jesus, who else could it be? She closed her eyes, gathering data from an unseen realm she knew well. Once her energies were focused, she discerned his twisted energy field throbbing against the darkness. Better the devil you know flashed through her mind. Not necessarily came close on its heels, as she realized, with a sinking feeling, that Ken Beauchamp really was dangerous. She’d known it the first time he walked into her office, but drawn in by his wife’s soft helplessness, she’d ignored her concerns, compassion overriding common sense.

“I want to talk. No, don’t turn around.” The man’s voice held menace as it sliced into her tumbling thoughts.

“What do you want to talk about, Mr. Beauchamp?” With effort, she kept her voice steady. “Surely whatever it is can wait until tomorrow. You really do need to call my office and make an appointment.” There, that seems like about the right amount of bravado.

“What did you tell my wife today? When you were in the bathroom. You’d better tell me the truth.”

“Are you threatening me? Because if you are, I’ll call the cops and have you thrown off my property.” Anger was rapidly displacing her fear—or at least coexisting with it. She reached a hand into her bag in search of her phone.

“That wouldn’t be smart, Doc, not very smart at all. Take your hand out of that purse.”

Ken Beauchamp’s voice was mild, but an ominous undertone chilled her. Sweat gathered in her armpits and dripped down her sides. Think! she commanded herself. There’s got to be a way out of this.

“Well, Doctor?” Ken’s voice oozed sarcasm, with undercurrents of something darker and far more primal. “I asked you a simple question. Answer it and we can both go home.”

What was he doing? Lara dug deeper with her hyper-honed senses. His breathing seemed…uneven. Was he getting off by intimidating her?

Something clicked ominously. The snick of a gun’s safety mechanism? What else could that cold metallic snapping sound possibly be? Fighting fear that threatened to paralyze her, Lara asked, “How’s Bethany, Mr. Beauchamp? She’s all right isn’t she?” Despite her concerns for herself, Lara was suddenly frantic about Bethany.

“That’s none of your business anymore. We won’t be back. I just want to know what you told her today.”

“Why is that important to you?”

“I ask the questions around here.” Yes, Lara thought as she listened intently, he was practically panting. Oh shit, this guy’s a pervert on top of all his other less-than-stellar attributes. She flirted with flying down the porch steps and trying to outrun him, except she had dress shoes on and her heavy shoulder bag. What if he really did have a gun? She hadn’t heard the metal click again.

A car pulled to the curb in front of her building and she started, heart beating like a mad thing. Christ, is it one of his henchmen come to help out? Practically moaning aloud, she wondered what Ken Beauchamp had in mind for her.

Lara choreographed pulling her phone and wallet out of her bag and making a run for the small business district several blocks away, dress shoes and all. Then the car door opened and she saw Pete Schneider, the psychiatrist who shared the second floor of the building with her.

“Dr. Schneider,” she screamed. “Over here.”

“Lara, what is it?” Pete slammed his car door and rushed toward her, apprehension stamped on his familiar face.

Lara stumbled as Ken Beauchamp pushed past her, loped down the steps, and launched himself into the darkness between the street lamps. She caught the glint of something shiny clutched in one of his hands and heard a zipper close as he rushed away.

I was right. That bastard was actually working on himself while he interrogated me. And there had been a gun. What else could that sparkly thing have been? Nausea rushed through her, and she was afraid she might vomit.

“Who was he?” Pete held out his arms to steady her. “What was all that about? My god, Lara, you’re shaking. What happened?”

Her legs buckled under her, and she slumped to the painted porch floorboards, gasping for air, her stomach roiling. Pete sank down next to her, still offering the comfort of his arms.

“One of my patients.” She forced words out with a tongue that didn’t want to work anymore. “Threatening me. Getting off on it. Thank fucking God you showed up here, or I—I’m not sure what he might have done to me.” She had a hard time talking around the golf ball-sized lump blocking her throat. Pete sat with her, rubbing the back of her shoulders and making soft, soothing sounds.

“Can’t swallow,” she managed breathlessly.

“Relax, Lara. It’s just globus hystericus. It’ll get better once the adrenaline backs off. Here.” He pushed her away from him so he could look at her face. Securing her wrist, he took her pulse. “Do you want me to call Trevor? Would you like me to follow you home? Or do you want to go inside and call the cops? Not that those choices are mutually exclusive, mind you.”

“No cops. Client confidentiality.” Lara’s voice sounded garbled to her. “I always wondered what that man did for a living. He left that part blank on my patient registration form. Pah! He’s got to be involved in something illegal. It was just so…casual, the way he accosted and threatened me. Normal people can’t do that.” She shuddered. “I want to go home.”

“Do you think that’s a good idea? If he is some sort of criminal, aren’t you worried he’s lurking out there somewhere, and he’ll just follow us?”

She considered, and then discarded, the possibility. “I’m not sure why, but I don’t think he’d do that.” An uncontrollable laugh bubbled up, shrill with a crazed edge. “I feel really weird, Pete. Please, just help me get home to Trevor.”

Her phone jangled in her purse. Rooting through her bag, she drew it out, looked at the caller ID screen, and touched the answer key. “Hello, Trev. Yes, I know I’m late. Something unexpected happened. Tell you about it when I get there.” Because I can’t stand to talk about it now. “Don’t worry, I’m with Pete. He’s going to follow me home.” She listened for a few moments. “No, you don’t need to come. Be there in twenty minutes.”

“That might have been an over-ambitious time estimate.” Pete’s voice was subdued. “Let’s see if you can stand, first.” Grasping the porch railing, he hauled himself upright a bit awkwardly, and then extended a hand. Gripping it, she stumbled to her feet. They were close to the same height, but his body, thickened by chronic inactivity, had lost much of its once-youthful flexibility.

“I’m not feeling quite so shaky anymore,” she said, breathing in the damp night air as she met his worried gaze.

Pete nodded. “I need to run upstairs for a second. The reason I came back here is I’d forgotten a patient’s file. There’s a court hearing tomorrow, and I don’t feel very prepared. Will you be okay, or do you want to walk back upstairs with me?”

She scanned the night. Nope, nothing there. Why wasn’t I this vigilant before I walked outside my building in the first place? If I had been …

“Lara?” Pete was looking solicitously at her. Worry crinkled the corners of his green eyes, and his silver hair was mussed where he’d raked his fingers through it.

“I’ll be fine here,” she answered. “Just fine. He’s gone—at least for now.”

Pete eyed Lara, opened his mouth to ask how she could possibly know that, and then shut it again. Turning, he unlocked the ornate front door, killed the alarm, and flicked on a switch. The tiny lights of the entryway chandelier mimicked a medieval candelabrum as he trod heavily up the stairs.

“I still think we should put in an elevator,” floated down to her.

Lara took three more deep breaths. Yes, that really was better. Pete had been on the verge of asking her how she could possibly have known Beauchamp wasn’t still out there when she’d sent a mental obfuscation designed to silence him. She didn’t want to lie to her colleague about the psychic ability she’d been born with. The skill, or gift, or whatever it was, worked better when she was paying attention.

She’d been lost in thought while closing up her office for the night. In particular, she’d been thinking about an analytic client and a dream she’d shared with strong archetypal elements. Most disturbing was that the patient’s dream was very similar to one of her own.

“Ready?” Pete’s voice interrupted her reverie.

“Yes, maybe you could drive me to my car and then follow me?”

“Sure. Get in.” Pete loped ahead and pulled the passenger door of his car open. He drove a BMW that could have been a twin to hers, except it was a slightly darker silver.

Driving the familiar route from Capitol Hill to Queen Anne where she lived, Lara thought about the strange withdrawn aunt who’d raised her. Mary Tyler knew what people were thinking and was able to read both auras and the future, at least some of the time. About all Aunt Mary had told her—once she figured out Lara could do the same things—was to not tell people she had the sight. “They just might lock you up,” she’d cautioned, and Lara took her seriously.

She drove automatically, lost in thought. As she pulled up in front of the rustic, twisting, twenty-five steps leading to her home, she scanned the street for a parking spot and maneuvered the BMW into the closest one half a block away. Should have bought a house with a garage, she thought for the thousandth time.

Lara stepped out of the car, feeling bruised and vulnerable. Pete drove past her and pulled into a red zone half a block away. He strode back to where she stood, not wasting any time.

“You’ll get a ticket,” she protested. “They’re death on illegal parking around here.”

“I’ll chance it.” Pete smiled. “If I have to I can always tell them I had a patient near here with an emergency.”

She hit her clicker one more time, just to be sure her car was locked, then hoisted her bag over her shoulder and trudged up the street to her front steps.

“I really do love your house,” Pete stopped to catch his breath halfway up the stairs, “but I’ve often wondered why you picked one that’s so hard to get to. What happens after you’re old? You two won’t be able to live here anymore.”

Lara stopped climbing and inclined her head over one shoulder. “Talk to Trevor. He thinks we’re running out of oil, and we’re all done for anyway.” Three more risers and she stepped onto her front porch. The elaborate wrought-iron porch light blazed, so the power must have resurrected itself at some point. “Come on in for a few minutes, Pete. I’m sure Trev has something made for dinner.”

“Nah, I’ll just say hi, and then I’ve got to go. I still need to review that case before tomorrow.” The front door swung inward, framing Trevor in lamplight from the interior of the entry hall. Shadows played over his worn green woolen shirt, faded jeans, and sheepskin slippers. His perfect features were a study in concern as he pulled Lara into his arms.

“Are you sure you’re all right?” he demanded while motioning to Pete from behind Lara’s back. “Come on in, old man. Good to see you. Thanks, oh bloody hell, more than thanks for rescuing Lara from whatever happened. She didn’t tell me much, but I know something went on. Heard it in her voice. Wish I’d been there,” Trevor said wistfully, but with steel beneath his words.

“Miss your old street fighting days in Amsterdam, eh?” Pete laughed indulgently.

“It was actually Carlisle.” Trevor laughed too, but he didn’t seem amused. “I just work out of Amsterdam.”

“But you have a Dutch surname.” Pete sounded puzzled.

“That’s simple enough.” Trevor kissed the top of Lara’s head and let her go. “My family was Dutch. They migrated to farm country in northern England during the early eighteen hundreds. Enough of this. How about a bite of supper?”

Pete shook his head. “No. Like I told Lara, I have work to do yet tonight. Thanks for the invite, though. Assuming I don’t break my neck getting back down those stairs of yours, I’ll see you both another time.” With a smile and a wave, he disappeared into a night that had turned foggy and damp.

Pulling the door shut behind them, Trevor held Lara at arm’s length and examined her closely. “Are you sure you’re all right? Come on in here where I can get a good look at you. You have to tell me exactly what happened over supper.”

The last thing she wanted was to relieve the tense moments outside her office, but she didn’t see any way around it. Dropping her heavy bag in its customary spot next to an antique armoire, she followed Trevor into the interior of their Craftsman home, her low heels clicking on the hardwood floor.

* * * *

Much later that night, Lara lay in Trevor’s arms. Drowsiness pulled at her, and she thought she might actually find respite in sleep, something that often eluded her when she was upset.

“I really think you should tell the police.” Trevor’s voice jarred her.

“We’ve been through that,” she protested sleepily. “I won’t see the Beauchamps anymore, and that will be the end of it. I’ll send them a referral letter tomorrow.”

“You don’t know you won’t see them again. Or do you? Is that sixth sense thing of yours working here? If it is, why didn’t it tell you someone was lying in wait to ambush you?”

She rolled over to face him and propped her head a bit higher on the down pillows. “Don’t you think I’ve asked myself that over and over? What’s the point of having psychic ability—or whatever it is I’ve got—if it doesn’t even alert me to danger?”

“Good question.” He drew her close, his voice rumbling against her hair. “I’m sorry. You’re knackered, and I’m keeping you awake. Do you have patients tomorrow? I never can keep your bloody schedule straight.”

“No patients tomorrow. Wednesday’s my class at the University.”

“Sleep, love.” Trevor didn’t sound the least bit sleepy. “We can talk more in the morning. I’m going to get up and read for a bit.” He kissed her tenderly, stroking her back and neck affectionately. “See you in the morning.”

“Love you,” she whispered. Sleep claimed her before he even left their bedroom.

* * * *

“Lara, Lara.” Trevor shook her gently. “Your pager’s going off. You left it in the front hall with your bag. I wouldn’t have heard it, but I’d snuck down to the kitchen for a bit of a snack.”

“Mmph…” She had a hard time resurfacing from sleep. “What time is it, anyway?” She opened one eye the barest of slits.

“Around three.”

“And you’re still up?”

He shrugged helplessly. “I’ve buggered my sleep cycles permanently from all those trans-Atlantic jaunts. You know that. Anyway, here’s your pager. Wait just a minute and I’ll get your phone. Guess I wasn’t thinking or I’d have brought it along.” Rising from where he’d been seated on the edge of their king-sized bed, Trevor disappeared out the bedroom door. His slippers slapped against the risers as he descended two flights of stairs.

Their house was an architectural delight with five floors, each offset slightly from the one below. Their bedroom was in the middle, on the third floor. The fourth and fifth floors held their studies, her sewing room, and Trevor’s wood shop. The first and second floors were designed like a split-level, and contained the kitchen, living area, dining room, library, and a laundry. The majority of the walls, and some of the ceilings, were glass. Those that weren’t were either natural wood or stone. That was why they’d been willing to deal with the reality of the twenty-five stairs—and no garage.

Lara reached behind her and switched on a muted light in the headboard, pushing several books out of the way in the process. She peered at the small number flashing on the front of her pager. Recognition was instantaneous. Her eyes flew open, and the last vestiges of sleep departed about the same time Trevor reappeared holding her cell phone.

He looked closely at Lara and frowned. “What is it? Or who is it? Guess you know the number.”

“It’s the back line to the King County Sheriff’s office,” she said holding out her hand for her cell phone. “I hope to hell it’s not as bad as I figure it must be for them to call me at this hour. Jesus, maybe one of my patients committed suicide.” And left a note blaming me. She punched numbers into her phone as she spoke. After a momentary pause for someone to pick up at the other end, she announced herself. “This is Dr. McInnis. You paged me.”

“Sorry for the late call, Doctor. I’m Sergeant Nelson.” The hollowness in the phone line indicated the call was being recorded, just like all calls in and out of every law enforcement office in the country.

“Yes, Sergeant. What can I do for you?”

“Dr. McInnis, we got a call tonight from Lakeshore Terrace. A neighbor reported the couple next door was making a lot of noise—none of it good. We dispatched officers to the scene, and they interrupted quite the domestic violence squabble. Aw hell, it was more like a knock-down, drag-out fight.”

The sergeant sighed heavily, breath whistling through his teeth. “Bottom line, Doctor, the woman was very pregnant and pretty banged up. The officer who intervened called an ambulance to take her to University Hospital. When one of the nurses in the Emergency Room went through the woman’s clothes, your card was in her pocket. So I figured she was one of yours, and you ought to know.”

Lara took a deep breath. “Are you going to tell me her name, Sergeant Nelson? You know I can’t tell you anything about any of my patients. And I don’t understand why you woke me up just yet. Maybe you could clarify that part for me too.” Silence stretched between them. She envisioned the beleaguered law enforcement officer considering how to phrase his request to maximize the possibility of securing her cooperation.

“The woman is one Bethany Beauchamp. She says she wants to go home, and she’s refusing to press charges against her husband. We can’t do much if we don’t have a victim complaint. Worse, she claims she fell down their stairs, started screaming because she was worried about her baby, and her husband never laid a hand on her. Supposedly, he rescued her by breaking her fall.”

Lara understood exactly what he wanted. “You were hoping I’d get up, get dressed, jump in my car, and talk some sense into her,” she muttered dryly, with an incredulous snort. “Look, Sergeant, you understand domestic violence as well as I do. If she’s that frightened of him, she’s got good reason to be, and there won’t be much I can do to convince her to file a complaint. Not if she thinks she’ll end up dead next time.”

Another lengthy silence. “Dr. McInnis, you didn’t see her. I have. The woman has four broken ribs, a collapsed lung, and a broken nose. Both of her eyes are black and someone pulled out big hanks of her hair. No way in hell she did that falling down some stairs. The doctor who examined her says there’s evidence of other physical abuse, some of it years old.”

Lara felt ill. She debated whether to tell the officer about her earlier run-in with the likely attacker. In the meantime Trevor, who was once again perched on the edge of the bed, mouthed something at her.

Glancing his way, she recognized the words, “…tell him what that sodding bastard did to you.”

She pinched the bridge of her nose between thumb and index finger and squeezed her eyes shut. “Okay, Sergeant, I’ll consider going in to see her, but not until morning. With all those injuries, they’ll be keeping her for a while. Did you say University Hospital?”

“Yes, ma’am, I did. Sorry again for waking you.” The line went dead.

“You are not going, and that’s final.” Trevor took the phone out of her hand. “Look at me, Lara.”

Wearily, she opened her eyes and locked gazes with Trevor, fielding the heat in his burning blue eyes with irritation of her own. “But I can’t just ignore her,” she protested. “She’s my patient.”

“She didn’t call you,” he pointed out. “She’s not asking for help.”

“That’s a technicality.” The corners of her mouth twitched in spite of how ravaged she felt.

“Well, what about that Tarasoff thing?” Trevor looked determined, his jaw set in a hard line.

“That was a California law.”

“Yes, but isn’t there something like that here?”

“Sort of… But I’d need an actual threat to a reasonably identifiable victim so I could warn the victim and the police. I don’t have any of that.”

“Yes, you do. He threatened you. Bollocks, Lara, didn’t you tell me you thought he was wanking off whilst he was interrogating you? What kind of sick fuck does things like that?”

She nodded bleakly and drew her brows together into a frown. “Yes, I certainly agree he’s pretty disturbed. And I am sure that’s what he was doing, but I didn’t actually see anything. It was dark, so at least that part would never stand up in court. Besides, it would be my word against his. Pete didn’t actually see or hear anything. Ken split as soon as he pulled up. Look dear, let’s not do this. Why don’t you come to bed and we can try to sleep for what’s left of the night?”

Trevor walked to the bedroom door and doused the hall light. Discarding his robe and slippers, he pulled his nightshirt off its hook, slipped it over his head—tousling his blond hair in the process—and got into his side of their large bed. Meeting in the middle, they hugged each other. “I’m sorry, love,” he murmured. “There’re just so many things I’m worried about right now. The world seems all pear-shaped. I really do think this oil thing is going to bugger us, and now there’s a demented creep threatening you. I don’t like any of it. The worst part is there’s nothing I can do but stand by and watch, whilst everything goes tits-up.”

“Nobody likes feeling helpless,” she agreed a bit prosaically.

“Oh for chrissakes, Lara, stop being a therapist. I don’t need you to interpret my feelings.”

She winced. Of course he was right. “Sorry,” she mumbled, her face buried in his shoulder. “Sometimes it’s hard to turn it on and off. At least I didn’t ask if you’d had any dreams,” she added in a small attempt at humor.

Lara pushed back enough to look at him in the cloud-shrouded moonlight streaming through the windows. Without quite understanding why, she asked abruptly, “When do you leave for work again?”

He cocked his head to one side as he thought. “Not until Tuesday, next. And then I’ll be gone for about a week or ten days.”

“Maybe I’ll go with you. There are some of my old instructors at the Jung Institute I’d like to talk with. I haven’t been back there for close to five years. I could stay at the flat in Amsterdam for a couple days and then catch a train to Zurich.”

“That would be nice.” Trevor pulled her body back against his. His warmth relaxed her, and her eyes shut of their own accord.

“Yes, it would,” she murmured before sleep claimed her once again.

Chapter Three

“More coffee?” Trevor stood over her, pot in hand. Glancing up, she wondered if he took Peter Pan pills. At times, particularly in the morning, he still looked heartbreakingly young, hair slightly awry, dimples aglow and the lightest dusting of freckles on his fair skin. Perfect teeth nested between the strong line of his cheekbones and jaw. It took a far closer look to pick out the network of fine lines starting around his blue eyes and the strands of gray intermingled with his blond curls.

“Actually, what I’d like is more of you. Think we could manage that sometime later today?” She smiled in what she hoped was a come-hither way.

“Ah, my mum warned me about wenches like you!” Trevor’s broad smile got even wider, and he ran his tongue suggestively over his upper lip. “Wanton hussy!”

“All the better to rob you of what meager virtue you still have left.” She laughed. “I do love you, Trevor. Artemis—or maybe Aphrodite—truly was looking out for me when she put me on your plane twenty-two years ago. Pour me more coffee so you can sit back down.”

After Trevor settled into his chair at the glass-and-chrome table in their kitchen, he reached across it and lifted Lara’s chin, forcing her to look at him. “Are you going to visit Bethany?” he demanded.

“Haven’t decided yet. I’ve been waiting to see if anything comes to me when I try to look into the future, but the mirror’s a bit cloudy this morning. Maybe I pissed off some goddess.”

She grimaced ruefully. “Honestly, Trev, I don’t understand it. I’ve never had this much trouble using my gift. It’s fickle and stubborn, but it generally gives me what I need. Then there’s an odd dream of mine that’s almost the same as one a patient had.” Taking a couple measured breaths, she cleared her jumbled thoughts. “That’s why I want to go to Zurich.”

“Did you tell them about the sight?”

She nodded. “Sure, Jungians are nothing if not mystics at heart. They believe in astrology and precognitive dreams and all that mumbo-jumbo. It’s what attracted me to depth psychology in the first place.” She sipped her coffee, and scenes from her years at the Institute played through her mind.

“I think I will drop by the hospital. No, let me finish.” Lara held up her hand to still the protests rushing to his lips. “You’re welcome to drive with me if you’d like and wait in the visitors’ lounge. That way you’ll be close by. Afterward, you can drop me in front of Denny Hall and I’ll teach my class. Maybe after that, we can go out for a nice dinner.”

When he looked at her, relief was written all over his face. “Give me ten minutes, and I’ll be ready to go. After last night, I wonder if I’ll ever be comfortable again if you’re not where I can see you.”

While she waited for him, her thoughts turned to her class. She’d been quietly pleased when the Dean of Psychology—an old friend of hers from her own graduate school days—called a few years before asking if she could offer a graduate seminar in depth psychology. As he’d explained it, the University of Washington Psychology Department was heavily research oriented. He thought it would be a plus to offer at least a taste of analytic training to those graduate students planning degrees in clinical psychology. Over time, the seminar had morphed into six different classes spread over a two-year curriculum.

Better get my notes. Lara carried her dishes to the sink and flew up the stairs to her top floor study. Rummaging through a filing cabinet, she pulled out her material on dreams and archetypes and pawed through it, selecting the fifth lecture in the series.

Two floors down, she brushed her teeth and pulled a multi-colored sweater out of her closet. A quick glance out the window made her wrinkle her nose at the gray rainy day. In deference to the weather, she donned a pair of green-striped socks. Wriggling her toes into the soft wool, she luxuriated in the feel of the fuzzy fibers, before stepping into a pair of soft leather boots.

“Lara? I’m outside.” Trevor’s voice drifted up the circular staircase. “I’ll prune a few of the flowers whilst I’m waiting.”

“Be there in a second.” She stopped in the front hall long enough to stuff her lecture notes into her over-sized shoulder bag so they wouldn’t get wet. Halfway out the door, she stopped.

Damn it!

“Sorry, Trev. I forgot a couple things.”

She ran back to the bedroom to retrieve her phone and pager. The phone’s message light blinked reproachfully. “What’s wrong with me?” she sputtered. “I’m usually not this irresponsible.” She trotted back down the stairs, while she scrolled rapidly through her messages.

“Finally.” Trevor furled his brows and set a pair of garden shears on a low table.

‘No kidding, huh?” She waited on their front porch, crowded with potted herbs and buckets of pink and red rhododendrons, while Trevor locked the house and set the burglar alarm. “Let’s take my car,” she suggested and gave him a quick kiss before starting down the steps to the street.

“I’ll drive,” he offered.

Nodding, she hit the clicker twice, opened the passenger door and got in, handing the keys across to him once he was in the driver’s seat. It was a small luxury to have someone else deal with the Seattle traffic, which had been getting worse for years.

If gas is as hard to get as Trev says, why aren’t fewer cars out and about?

She leaned against the soft leather of her seat and let her eyes close. She hadn’t gotten nearly enough sleep last night, and it was bound to catch up to her sometime.

The edges of her vision grayed out. Recognizing the onset of a psychic event, she emptied her mind. A jarring scene pummeled her senses, and her hands balled themselves into tight fists with a will of their own. Her nails dug uncomfortably into her palms, but she couldn’t uncrook her fingers.

The scene grabbed her with such shocking immediacy, she forgot about the pain in her hands. Bethany lay before her in a narrow hospital bed, her face bruised almost beyond recognition. The lump of her stomach tented the bed covers, and the sheets fluttered when the infant kicked his comatose mother.

A shadow fell across Bethany’s form. Though Lara tried, she couldn’t identify its source. Bethany’s awkwardly-pregnant body began to buck, almost as if she were in the throes of an epileptic fit. A red stain spread through the sheet stretched across her swollen abdomen. Crimson liquid—blood?—dripped onto the floor, creating a rapidly growing rivulet. One of the bedside electronic instruments wailed like a stricken banshee, and a nurse rushed into the room, impeding Lara’s field of view.

Then, like it always was with her sendings, someone—or something—decided she’d seen enough, and her vision faded back to the interior of her car.

“What did you see?” Trevor asked tightly, his fingers clenched around the steering wheel as he drove. Her link to the unseen world unnerved him—badly.

Lara opened her eyes and shook her head to clear it. “I’m not sure,” she managed after a pause, while she sorted through her vision. “Bethany’s in serious trouble, though. She may be dead by the time we actually get there, or in such bad shape, they’ll never let me see her.”

Lara felt the hot prick of tears just behind her lids. Why hadn’t she realized what Ken Beauchamp was capable of? If she had, maybe his wife could have escaped his ire last night, and then… Stop it. This is not my fault. I offered appropriate support to a distraught client. Don’t make more of this than it is.

Yes but a different inner voice was implacable. I’m supposed to be able to spot the crazies. Why was I so blind to this one? Dragging Bethany into that bathroom was really stupid. All it did was drive Ken into a jealous rage. Her thoughts shifted focus. That poor baby if it even survives. What rotten luck to be born into that wretched home.

“We’re not far,” Trevor took Lara’s hand. “Look, dearie, I may not have the sight, but you’re beating yourself up over this thing, and I think you should stop.” She nodded wordlessly, still fighting for control.

“Here we are then,” he announced as he crimped the wheel and pulled smartly into a space labeled Physician Parking.

She was out of the car before he even had the key out of the ignition. Pulling her bag from the back seat, she stuffed her phone and pager into it and set off at a jog for the emergency entrance with Trevor close behind. Lara yanked the plasticized card that identified her as University teaching faculty with hospital privileges out of her pocketbook. She stopped at the admitting desk and flashed her ID badge at the ward clerk.

“I’m Dr. McInnis,” she said breathlessly. “A patient of mine, Bethany Beauchamp, was brought in here last night. I’d like to see her, please.”

“One moment, Doctor.” The haggard looking clerk manipulated the mouse and brought up something on her computer screen. With practiced eyes, she scanned the list of occupants in the ER. “We seem to have moved her to the ICU, Doctor. Do you know where that is?” Lara nodded and turned away, ready to head down the long passageway that would take her to intensive care, when the clerk added, “She’s critical, Doctor. They may not let you see her.”

Lara walked over to Trevor, who’d been hovering near the double glass doors that marked the entrance to the Emergency Department. “She’s in ICU,” Lara said softly. “Follow me. It’s quite a way from here down that corridor to our right.”

Trevor captured her hand, and the two of them moved rapidly in the direction she’d indicated. Rounding a corner, she tugged at his hand and said, “This way.”

She presented her identification at the nurses’ station for Intensive Care and repeated her request. A young blonde nurse glanced at her, empathy in her greenish eyes. “I don’t think Mrs. Beauchamp is up to any visitors just now.”

A harried looking house officer ran past and shoved his way into the open-architecture ICU behind the nurses’ station. “Which one?” He was breathing hard as he looked back over his shoulder.

“Bed E, Doctor.” The nurse turned back to Lara. “It was good of you to stop by to see your patient, but we’re fairly busy here this morning. If you want to wait, you’ll need to go to the visitors’ room just down that hallway.” She pointed with one well-manicured, pink-polished nail. Her voice held a note of finality. Arguing with her would be pointless.

“Can you at least save her baby?” Lara held the nurse’s eyes until the younger woman looked away, uncomfortable—and unwilling—to discuss patient issues.

“Um, I don’t know, Dr. McInnis. I still hope we can save them both. Now you really do need to leave. There’s just not room for you to stand right next to the nurses’ station.”

Lara had been trying to peer around the young woman to see into the ICU, but the way things were arranged, it wasn’t possible. Recognizing defeat, she turned and walked slowly back to Trevor.

* * * *

“Would you like another cup of coffee?” Trevor opened the car door for her. Lara h

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Here’s the set-up:

After struggling for more than two centuries to tame the inhospitable islands where they washed up, the descendants of the survivors of a lost passenger ship are now striving to tame a more substantial “Mainland” they have found. For as long as mankind has been stranded, dragons have been their sworn enemies. But no longer…

Sixteen year-old Jenka De Swasso wants nothing more than to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a King’s Ranger. But when he one day finds himself surrounded by vicious trolls, a young pure-blood dragon comes to his rescue and they become bond-mates.

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an excerpt from

The Royal Dragoneers
(The Dragoneers Saga, Book 1)

by M.R. Mathias

Copyright © 2014 by M.R. Mathias and published here with his permission

PART ONE: The Frontier
Chapter One

Jenka De Swasso peeked through the thick leathery undergrowth he was hiding in. The forested hills were lush and alive with late spring growth. The birds and other small creatures were busy making their symphony of life. It was a welcome cacophony, for Jenka was on the hunt, and it masked the noisy sound of his breathing.

Jenka was trying to see which way his prey was going to move. The ancient stag, once a beautiful and majestic creature, was now past its prime. One of its long, multi-forked antlers was broken into a sharp nub near the base. The other antler was heavy and looked to be weighing the weary creature’s head over to one side. All around its grayish-brown furred neck were scars from the numerous battles it had fought over the years defending its harem from the younger bucks. A fresh gash, a dark trail of blood-matted fur leaking away from it, decorated the stag’s shoulder area. Since there were no does moving about, Jenka figured this old king of the forest had lost his most recent battle, and his harem as well.

Jenka was sixteen years old, and he moved through the shadowy glades – between the towering pine trees and the ancient tangle limbed oaks – with the speed and dexterity of well-fit youth. He was dressed in rough spun and leather, brown and green, and when he stopped still he blended into the forest like a bark-skinned lizard on a tree trunk. His face was well-sooted and the shoulder-length mop of dirty-blond hair on his head looked more like a tumbleweed than anything else.

Like any good hunter who aspired to be a King’s Ranger, he was determined to get close to his prey, to get a good angle, and to make sure that his arrow went deep into the stag’s vitals. A creature as undoubtedly experienced in surviving as this one could probably travel for a day or more with any lesser wound. Jenka knew that if he didn’t make the right shot the creature would bolt away and not slow down. If that happened it would end up getting dragged down by trolls or wolves long before he could catch up to it.

Jenka shivered with a mixture of excitement and sadness. If he could kill the animal, then he and his mother could eat good meat for the rest of the spring. He could also get a handful of well-needed coins for a shoulder haunch from the cooks at Kingsmen’s Keep. It was a better death for the noble creature than to be stalked and shredded by hungry predators anyway, at least that was what Jenka told himself as he drew back on his bow to take aim.

The stag stopped in a small canopied glade carpeted in lush, green turf. The area was well illuminated; several slanting rays of dust-filled sunlight had managed to penetrate the leaves and branches overhead. The stag wearily bent its head down, pulled a mouthful of grass from the ground, and chewed. A pair of tiny, lemon-yellow butterflies fluttered away from the intrusion, their wings flashing like sparks as they flitted through one of the golden shafts of light.

Jenka had the stag perfectly sighted in. He was about to loose one of his hard-earned, steel-tipped arrows when the old animal looked up at him. Their eyes met, and for a fleeting moment Jenka could feel the raw indignity the creature felt over having lost its herd to a younger male. The stag beckoned him, as if it wanted to meet its end, right there, right then. Jenka took a deep breath, resolved himself, and obliged the animal.

The arrow flew swift and true and struck the stag right behind its foreleg. Jenka squinted as the animal went bounding away. He saw that only the arrow’s fletching was protruding from the stag’s hide. It was a kill shot, and he knew it. The arrow itself would grind and shift inside the stag’s guts as it fled through the forest, bringing death that much swifter.

The hunter’s rush came surging into Jenka’s blood then, and after marking the first crimson splashes of spilled life and the general direction that the stag had fled, he had to sit down and work to get his shaky breathing back under control.

Hopefully the animal would fall close; he would have to call for help as it was. It would take four grown men to haul the meat back to Crag after it had been quartered. Not for the first time today, Jenka wished his friend Grondy were there to help him. Normally Jenka and Grondy hunted as a team, but Grondy had recently been bitten by a rat while working in his Pap’s barn. His hand was swollen to the size of a gourd melon. Jenka would have to track this kill himself, then run back to Crag and round up some help before the sun set and the scavengers came out to feed.

The first step was finding where the stag went down. Jenka took a few deep breaths and tried to drown his excitement in the reality that there was still a lot of work left to do this day.

Groaning, he got back to his feet and set out to follow the blood trail. It wasn’t hard to see; the splashes were large and frothy. Even the tinier drops were a bright scarlet that stood out starkly against the forest’s myriad shades of brown and green. That the stag had been able to keep moving after losing so much blood amazed Jenka. It amazed him even more that the stag had fled upward into the deeper foothills instead of down towards the thicker growth around the valley stream. If the stag went too far into the hills, Jenka might have to give it up. Little gray goblins and bands of feral, rock-hurling trolls had been ranging down from the higher reaches of the Orich Mountains as of late, and Jenka wanted no part of that. An ogre had been seen just three days ago by a well-respected woodsman from Kingsmen’s Keep. There were also wolves and big tree-cats that hunted the area, but they were growing scarce as the troll sightings increased.

Jenka was an aspiring King’s Ranger and knew he was already far enough up into the hills to warrant paying a little more attention. Heaving from exertion, he was none too pleased when he finally found the stag’s broken body. It was lying at the bottom of a shallow, but steep, ravine; the creature had apparently staggered right over the edge and fallen into a heap at the bottom of the rain-washed gully.

Jenka had wasted far more precious daylight than he had wanted tracking the hearty animal. Now he had a choice: hurry back to Crag for help, or stand guard over his kill for the night. Jenka was torn.

Had he the energy left in him to run all the way back to the village he probably would have, but he was exhausted from the long, uphill trek. If he left immediately and had the luck of the Gods on his side, the help he gathered still wouldn’t make it back before full dark, not even if they returned by horseback. If he started looking now, however, Jenka was certain that he could round up enough deadfall to keep a fire blazing through the night. That would keep the chill of the higher elevation off of him, as well as keep the predators away. He wasn’t all that keen on spending the night way up here in the hills, but he wasn’t about to let the vermin have the meat of the once proud and mighty animal he had worked so hard to kill. Diligently, he went about rounding up sticks and branches and tossed them into a pile down by the stag’s carcass.

While he searched for firewood, he let his mind wander. After pondering the shape of Delia the baker’s daughter’s breasts, and weighing that curiosity against the size of her father’s well-muscled arms, he decided that he should worry about something else for the moment. That was when his mind wondered to the subject of ogres. More specifically, he thought about terrible old Crix Crux. Now he was glancing up every few heartbeats, scanning the area for the mythical, flesh-eating creature. Crix Crux was an ogre who was supposedly bold enough to venture down close to the villages built in the lower foothills around Kingsmen’s Keep. He was responsible for the disappearance of at least six people that Jenka knew of, and probably dozens more from the other towns built along the base of the mountains.

Master Kember, Jenka’s mentor, once told him that Crix Crux wasn’t real, that the fabled old ogre just got the blame when someone went missing. Most of the time, he said, being killed swiftly by a hungry ogre is a better death for the family to think about than the truth might be. Someone freezing to death because they fell asleep at their fire without building it up didn’t make for good gossip. That, and the ‘Crix Crux tale’ was good for keeping young boys from wandering too far away from the villages. Jenka laughed at himself. Crix Crux wasn’t lurking in the thicket.

At least he hoped not.

At the last bit of daylight, Jenka climbed down into the gulch. He gutted the stag, dragged the pile of innards a good way down the gully, then hurried back to the carcass and used his tinderbox to start his fire.

Darkness slid over him like a tavern-wench’s flattery while he struggled with his small, inadequate belt knife to cut himself a hunk of meat to roast. He tried not to think about all the wild and horrifying campfire tales he had heard over the years. It was no wives’ tale that many a man had met his end in the Orich Mountains. Jenka knew all too well how treacherous and inhospitable these hills could be; his father had died up here. But if he ever wanted to be a King’s Ranger he had to master his fear and learn to deal with the danger. Spending days at a time alone in the foothills was part of the Forester training he would someday have to take.

By the time he had his hunk of meat cooked, he was so scared that he had no appetite, and by the time he finished forcing the food down his throat, he was fighting to stay awake. Luckily, he remembered what Master Kember had said about Crix Crux, because it reminded him to throw some more wood on the fire before he fell asleep. The added illumination the new fuel lent the area allowed him to catch a brief glimpse of something gigantic moving about out in the shadows.

It might have been an overlarge tree-cat, because its movements were sinuous and silent, but Jenka couldn’t say for certain. A visceral knot of fear had clenched tight in his gut. He was far too terrified to think now, and he had to fight the base instinct he was feeling telling him, quite plainly, to flee. The slithery thing had amber eyes like windblown embers, and they danced with the fire’s reflection. They hovered at a height close to his own, yet the thing had been moving hunched over on all four limbs like a bear or a wolf. Whatever it was, it was huge, and uncannily quiet. Reaching for his bow, Jenka swore that if it came any closer he would try to shaft it. He just hoped a mere arrow would be enough to deter the thing.

Eventually, the beast slid back into the darkness, leaving Jenka to wonder if he had really seen anything at all. Needless to say, he wasn’t sleepy anymore. He built the fire up even higher, and once again wished that Grondy, or Solman, or any of the other young hunters from Crag were there with him.

Jenka’s mother was Crag’s village kettle-witch, and she would be worried to death about him by now. Amelia De Swasso didn’t have much coin, and a lot of people were a little afraid of her, but she had the respect of the other common folk. Nearly everyone in Crag had come to her over the years for a healing salve or a potion of one sort or another. Jenka knew that she would have Master Kember, Lemmy, and all the other hunters rousted out of bed before the sun was even in the sky. She might even send to Kingsmen’s Keep for help from the King’s Rangers. They wouldn’t dare refuse her. Jenka’s father had been a King’s Ranger, and when Jenka was very young, his father had died in these hills saving the Crown Prince. A painted portrait of him hung in the keep’s main hall alongside paintings of Captain Renny and Harold Waend. All three had died on that terrible Yule day hunt, saving Prince Richard from the band of ferocious trolls that had attacked the group. Because of his father’s sacrifice, everyone that knew Jenka went out of their way to look out for him. If it got out that he didn’t come in during the night, it wouldn’t surprise him if half of the village and a half dozen rangers came looking for him.

Jenka didn’t let his guard down. He knew in his heart that the creature was still out there in the dark somewhere, lurking, waiting for him to fall asleep. He divided most of his remaining wood up into three even piles, until he felt certain that he would have fire until well after the sun came up. He lit one end of a remaining branch and tossed it down to the other end of the gully. He then took the wood that he hadn’t put in his three piles and heaped it onto the flaming brand, so that he and the stag’s carcass had a fire burning on each side of them.

Being that he was in a somewhat narrow gully surrounded by earthy ravine and fire, Jenka felt reasonably sure that he would survive the night. He sat to rest from his exertion and his exhausted body come crashing down from the rush of adrenaline he had been riding. He was just starting to relax when a sleek, scaly beast came lurching down out of the darkened sky.

It was a dragon, Jenka realized, and he turned and bolted. He ran as fast as he could go down the gully into the darkness. He managed to grab up his bow as he went, but the primal urge to be away from the thing kept him from even considering using the weapon. He ran, and ran, and ran. Only after he stumbled over a tangle of exposed roots and went sprawling into some leafy undergrowth did his mad flight come to an end.

While he lay there heaving in breath, he considered what had just happened. He couldn’t believe he had just seen a dragon, but he had. It was a small dragon, maybe fifteen paces from nose to tail, but he was certain of what it was. Master Kember had taken him and a few of the other boys out with the King’s Rangers one afternoon to look at the carcass of a dragon that had crashed into a rocky prominence during a storm. It was considered an honor to be invited on such a trek, and Jenka had gone eagerly. The dark, reddish-gray scaled dragon had stretched forty paces from tail to nose, and had a horned head the size of a barrel keg. Its teeth were the size of dagger blades and twice as sharp, and its fist-sized nostril holes were charred at the edges from where it breathed its noxious fumes. Master Kember had guessed its age at about five years, which made Jenka think that the dragon he had just seen was probably little more than a yearling. He decided that if he could master his fear, he might be able to sneak back and kill it. If he did, he could claim the long-standing bounty that King Blanchard paid for dragon heads, as well as bring himself to notice so that he could begin his Forester apprenticeship sooner.

Jenka crawled to his feet and hesitantly looked around. It was dark, but the trees up here in the hills weren’t nearly as dense as they were in the lower forest. Enough starlight filtered through the open canopy for him to see. He started back the way he came, and when he neared the hungry young dragon, he dropped to his knees and crawled as quietly as he could manage, until he could plainly see the scaly thing feeding in the firelight.

It was amazing. Its scales glittered lime, emerald, and turquoise in the wavering light as it ripped huge chunks of bloody meat from Jenka’s kill. Its long, snaking tail whisked around like a cat’s as it raised its horned head high to chug down the morsel it had torn from the carcass.

Jenka decided that he couldn’t kill it with his bow and arrow. He probably couldn’t even wound the thing. Further consideration on the matter was rendered pointless when a heavy, head-sized chunk of stone suddenly crashed into the young dragon’s side. It screeched out horribly and flung its head and body around just in time to claw a gash across the chest of a filthy, green-skinned, pink-mouthed troll as leapt down from the gully’s edge into the firelight.

The troll fell into the smaller of Jenka’s fires, sending a cloud of sparks swirling up into the air. Another troll bellowed from the darkness, and from another direction a second rock came flying in.

The dragon leapt upward and brought its leathery wings thumping down hard. It surged a few feet up, and then pumped its wings again. It was trying to get clear of a troll that was leaping up to grab at its hind legs. The dragon wasn’t fast enough to get away.

Like a wriggling anchor weight, the troll began trying to pull the dragon out of the air. As hard as the young wyrm flapped its wings, it could do little more than lift the clinging troll a few feet from the ground.

Jenka wasn’t sure why he did what he did next, but it was done. He loosed the arrow he had intended for the dragon at the dangling troll. The shaft struck true, and when the troll clutched at its back, it let go of the dragon and fell into a writhing heap. The dragon flapped madly up into the night, leaving Jenka dumbfounded and looking frightfully at not two, but three big, angry trolls.

He turned to run, and actually made it about ten strides back down the gully before one of the eight-foot-tall trolls appeared from the darkness to block his way. It laid its doggish ears back and gave a feral snarl full of jagged, rotten teeth. Jenka whirled around to go back, but found another of the yellow-eyed trolls waiting for him. He started a mad, scrabbling climb up the side of the gulch, but found little purchase there in the rocky, rain-scoured earth. He clawed and pulled with such terror and urgency that the ends of his fingers tore open and some of his fingernails ripped loose, but he couldn’t get away. He was cornered.

More of the huge, well-muscled trolls were leaping down into the gully now. Their filthy, musky-scented bodies were silhouetted by the dancing flames of the fire and they threw long, menacing shadows before them as they came. Not knowing what else to do, and as scared as he had ever been in his life, Jenka put his back against the gully wall and turned to face the grizzly death that was closing in on him.

He saw that his bow was lying back where he had dropped it. His knife wasn’t at his hip either. Beyond the flames, he saw the shredded remains of the stag’s carcass. The dragon had torn half the meat away in only a few seconds. The trolls would have the rest of it, he figured. After they had him.

A fist-sized rock slammed into his chest, knocking all of the wind from his lungs. Other stones followed, and the primitive troll beasts soon went into a frenzied ritual of howling and savage fighting over feeding position. Luckily for Jenka, a well-thrown chunk of stone bashed into the side of his head and spared him from having to see himself being torn to pieces. All he could think of as he slipped into unconsciousness was that he would finally get to see his father, and he hoped his mother would never have to gaze upon what the trolls left of his body.

After that was nothing but blackness.

Chapter Two

In the swimming world of liquid darkness where Jenka found himself, he felt like a tiny fish caught up in a powerful current. He had no memory of how he had gotten to wherever he was, or how long he had been there. There was a fleeting terror still lingering in the back of his mind, but he had no inkling of what the source of his fear might be. All he knew was he was tumbling helplessly through a vast, serene emptiness.

After some time, he opened his eyes and was shocked back into reality by the blood-dripping, horn-headed visage looming down over him. Slick, iron-hard scales sparkled like emeralds as they reflected in the fire’s dancing light.

Like some curious, amber-eyed child, the young, green-scaled dragon leaned over Jenka’s prone body, locked gazes with him, and then spoke.

“Thank you,” it hissed in an unnaturally soft and slithery voice. “The trellkin almost had usss. They almost had usss, but we have besssted them.”

Jenka’s temples pounded and the world spun crazily with his effort to accept what was happening. His eyes closed for a moment, but he didn’t let the dark current pull him back under just yet. “How are you speaking to me?” He asked the dragon. He didn’t remember much of what happened, but here he was, somehow speaking to a wyrm that had ribbons of torn and bloody troll flesh dangling from its pink, finger-long teeth. It was incredible.

“I just am.” The dragon responded, more into Jenka’s mind than audibly. “I’m not supposssed to go near your sort. My mamra says that, though you are small and tasssty, you are a dangerous lot. She says that you like to kill our kind. But I wasss drawn to you. You saved me from the trellkin, ssso I saved you in turn. That makes us friendssss, doesss it not?”

“Friends then,” Jenka agreed, thinking with perfect clarity that such a friendship could never be. King Blanchard hated dragons. Everyone in the kingdom hated them. The wyrms had been completely eradicated from the islands. Now, out here in the mainland frontier, when a herd was pilfered or a lair was found, the King’s Rangers always went hunting and tried to find and destroy the creature responsible. Jenka figured that it would be that way until the entire frontier, the Orich Mountains, and even the Outlands were cleansed of the deadly creatures.

“My people are wary of your kind as well,” Jenka said matter-of-factly. His head and side hurt terribly and it was anguishing to speak. “Make your lair deep in the mountains where men cannot go, and don’t ever get caught by the King’s Rangers, because they will try their best to kill you.”

The dragon nodded his understanding with closely-knitted brow plates, and then snorted out two curling tendrils of acrid smoke from its nostrils. “Nor should you ever wander too far into the peaks. I have a feeling that we will sssee each other again. Thisss happening was no coincidence. I will be pleased when that time comes, but other dragons, the wild onesss, will feast on your flesh, ssso be wary.”

“Do you have a name?” Jenka asked with a shiver at the thought of being eaten. “Mine is Jenka De Swasso.”

“My name is impossible for you to sssay, but you can call me Jade. It isss the color the sunlight makesss when it reflectsss from my scal…”

A savage roar echoed through the night from a great distance away and caused the young green dragon to look up and give a call of its own.

“That isss my mamra calling,” Jade explained. “If I don’t go, ssshe will come looking. I must leave you, my friend, for both our sakesss.” The dragon stepped away from Jenka and poised to leap into the air. Before he went, Jade gave Jenka a curious look. Yellow, jaundiced eyes flashed first to amber, then into cherry-red embers. Jenka felt the dragon’s gaze tingling over his skin. Then he quickly sank back into the peaceful and painless current of liquid darkness from which he had just come.

*** * ***

“Jenka! Jenkaaaa! Where are you?” a familiar a voice called over the angry chirping and indignant cawing of several feasting crows.

Jenka’s face felt warm and slick. He tried to pull himself free of the clinging emptiness that still gripped his mind, but he couldn’t quite get loose of its grasp. He felt something small and hairy crawling across his chest and a pair of fat, black flies kept buzzing around his nose. The air smelled coppery and sweet.

“Jenka! Jen … ” The voice was closer now, and it suddenly stopped in a sharp, gasping intake of breath. “By the Gods, man! Look at this!” The man paused a moment, then started calling out with a more vigorous urgency. “Over here! He’s here, Lemmy, he’s alive! It looks like he’s killed a half a dozen trolls. Hurry man! Hurry it along!”

The excited voice belonged to Master Kember. He was a former King’s Ranger who had taken a crippling injury to his thigh in a fall several years ago. He was now the village Crag’s Head Huntsman, and the unofficial mentor and Lesson Master to Jenka and a few of Crag’s other miscreant boys.

Marwick Kember had known Jenka’s father well. He’d been there when the trolls had gotten hold of him. Jenka thought that maybe Master Kember had pledged an oath to his father to watch over Jenka, or to protect him, or something of the sort, because Master Kember did both efficiently.

Jenka was glad he could register who was yelling for Lemmy. It meant that his mind was starting to work again. He only wished he could find the strength to respond, or at least to brush the little crawly thing from his chest. He hoped it wasn’t a scorpion, or a blood ant.

He tried to open his eyes and was rewarded with a searing pain that flashed from his eyeballs deep into his brain. It was bright outside – mid-day he guessed. He squinted and saw Master Kember back-sliding himself gingerly down into the gully. A fit of coughing overtook Jenka then, reminding him of the heavy stones that had smashed into his head and ribs. He rolled to his side and vomited. All of the exertion caused his head to pound with powerful surges of more sickening pain.

“Don’t try to think, lad,” Master Kember said as he knelt next to Jenka and went about inspecting his wounds. “Lay it back. Your head’s been bashed in, and your arm bone looks bent.” The look on the old huntsman’s face graduated from attentive concern to pure pleasure after he saw that Jenka was in a survivable state. Looking around at the carnage the dragon had left behind, the old hunter shook his head in wonder. “How, by all the Gods of devils and men, did you survive what happened here?” Then he looked directly into Jenka’s bloodshot eyes. “What did happen here, Jenk?”

“It’s a long story, sir,” Jenka managed before another bout of heaving overtook him. When the debilitating fit subsided he said, “I think my cage is cracked.”

A heavy clod of dirt came thumping down near the two of them, causing Jenka to reflexively curl up into a fetal ball. It wasn’t another troll attack. It was only Lemmy trying to get Master Kember’s attention. Lemmy was nine or ten years older than Jenka, and he was a mute. All of the women in Crag seemed to marvel over his wheat-golden hair and his easy manner. Though he seemed like a dunce a lot of the time, Jenka knew that he was as smart and able as they come.

“Lem, go find Solman and Rikky, and point them our way,” Master Kember ordered. “I’ll throw some green on them coals over there and make a smoker to mark the way. Then you take a steed and you ride back to Crag and figure a way to explain to Lady De Swasso that her young dragon is alive and well enough for wear. Let her know that we’ll have him home by dark fall.”

Jenka heard the words “young dragon” and most of the previous night’s terror came flooding back into his brain; the stag he had killed, the trolls, and Jade. How he knew the dragon was called Jade he couldn’t quite work out, because the conversation they’d had seemed more like a wishful fever-dream than any sort of reality, but the memory of those magical, amber eyes was vivid enough.

After Lemmy grunted acknowledgment of his orders and loped off to carry them out, Master Kember stood and better took in the scene around him. Here was a troll torn completely in two, both halves ripped open where savage claws had gripped it. Down the gully was another troll that had no head, and only one arm. Lying half-scorched in an exhausted fire was a troll that had been ripped open from shoulder to groin, and right beside that one another with one of Jenka’s expertly fletched arrows buried deep in its back. Master Kember knew the Fletcher’s work because he purchased the steel-tipped arrows himself down in Three Forks every fall. He awarded them to his young hunters when they achieved the goals he set for them. Jenka had earned quite a few of the good shafts. The decimated remains of a sizable stag lay shredded and strewn amid all the gore, and upon closer examination, Master Kember found another of Jenka’s arrows. He walked around, shooing the noisy crows, and studied the scene a bit longer. Then he stopped altogether and cocked his head. He saw something glinting emerald in the sun. The retired ranger paced across the gulch, stooped and pulled the object from one of the troll’s clawed hands. Looking closely at what he had found, he let out a long, low whistle.

“You, my young pupil, might be the luckiest boy in the entire kingdom,” the old hunter started. “Killing that troll by yourself is certainly a feat of notability, but surviving the battle that took place after is simply amazing. Did you see it? Did you see the dragon that finished them?”

Jenka started to say yes, that he had even talked to the creature, but common sense bade him do otherwise. He didn’t want everyone to think he had lost his mind, and he certainly didn’t want a bunch of the King’s Rangers up here trying to hunt Jade down and kill him. “I’m not sure what happened after I was hit in the head,” he replied flatly. “I thought I was done for.”

“You should be troll scat right this very minute, boy,” Master Kember scolded. “What were you thinking, following that old stag all the way up into these hills? You should of ran back to Crag and found me or Lem.”

“It was too late in the day,” Jenka groaned as he slowly sat up and brushed the irritating bug out from under his shirt front. “I didn’t want the tree-cats to have it. It just … ” He leaned to the side and went into another bout of coughing. After he spit out a mouthful of mucus and blood, Master Kember grimaced.

“Lay it back down, Jenk. Be still.” The older man moved in to hover over Jenka and began feeling roughly along his sides. “Looks like you did crack your cage. Maybe a rib’s poked a hole in your gizzard. You’re gonna be a long while healing from this, but by the Gods, boy, after killing a troll single-handedly, and surviving a dragon attack, you’ll make Forester this year for certain. You’ll be a King’s Ranger before you know it!”

Before you could become a King’s Ranger you had to be a Forester for two full years. Outside of performing a “rare feat of notability,” — one that was worthy enough to find the king’s ear — the only way to make Forester was to place in the archery competition or to kill the stag in the hunt at the annual Solstice Day festival on King’s Island.

Jenka tried to smile. He had been training for both events most of his life, he had just never had the coin to get himself ship’s passage across to King’s Island. This year he had finally saved enough, but now he probably wouldn’t need it. This was definitely a “rare feat of notability” and since it involved a dragon, the king would most likely hear about it. Since Master Kember had helped save Prince Richard from the trolls the day Jenka’s father died, the king would listen to anything Master Kember had to say.

Jenka decided right then and there that if he was going to keep a good part of what really happened here to himself, then he might as well lightly embellish the rest of the story to protect Jade. “I think I got the dragon in the brow,” he wheezed. “The trolls tried to scavenge my kill. I tried to stop them, but the dragon came tearing through. It was as dark as the forest itself and fast as lightning, but I think I got lucky and got it in the eye. Tell the Rangers to look for a black-scaled wyrm with only one eye.”

“That’s my boy, Jenk.” Master Kember praised proudly as he used a kerchief and water from a canteen to wipe some of the gore from Jenka’s face. “I bet you did get it in the eye. I bet that’s why it fled, isn’t it?”

“I don’t know,” Jenka coughed some more. “My head hurts, and I can’t remember everything that happened. It’s all jumbled up in my mind.”

“Just rest, boy. Don’t try to talk, or even think right now,” Master Kember spoke soothingly. He saw that the wound on the side of Jenka’s face was already healing, but he paid the unnatural phenomenon no mind. “We’ll get some hands to haul you up out of this ditch, and a travois to drag you home so that your witchy mother can fill you full of her herbs and her horrible tasting potions and whatnot.”

While they waited for help, Master Kember went over the scene again. He saw that something heavy had stepped on and smashed Jenka’s long bow. He decided that maybe he would take the boy down to Three Forks and help him pick out a new bow. He figured Jenka was growing and needed a heavier draw now anyway. He then decided that as soon as Jenka healed a little bit he would take him all the way to King’s Island. There he would get an audience with King Blanchard and tell him firsthand of what happened here so that the gossipmongers didn’t get the tale stretched out too far. A knot began to form in his gut telling him it might not be the right thing to do, that he had some heavy decision making to do soon. Jenka’s father probably hadn’t wanted his son to be a mere King’s Ranger. It was a short-lived profession for most, but a well-paid one. Either way, it had always been Jenka’s dream, and Master Kember was sure that Jenka’s father would have wanted him to be happy. He would think on the matter, and he and Jenka could talk about it later.

“Master Kember!” a distant voice shouted. Jenka figured it was Solman and probably Rikky too. Grondy wouldn’t be with them because of his hand. Jenka knew Grondy would have tried to come look for him with the others, but his ma would have corralled him in the farm house, and then thumped him good for the effort. Jenka started to chuckle because he was certain that he was right. Grondy was probably locked in his room this very moment, rubbing the knots on his head and wondering if Jenka was all right.

Jenka was surprised that it didn’t hurt when he laughed. He poked at his scalp where he had felt hot blood pulsing out of him the night before and was further surprised to feel nearly healed scar tissue where a fresh raw scab should be. His fingertips were healing too. A vague memory of Jade’s eyes flashing crimson and the tingling of his skin under that intense gaze made him wonder. Had Jade magicked him? His mother might know.

Master Kember heaped an armful of green, leafy foliage onto the ashy remains of Jenka’s larger fire. Nothing happened at first, but slowly smoke started rising up and branches began to pop and crackle in the heat. Soon a billowing pillar of smoke was roiling up and out of the gulch, only to be sheared off by the wind when it rose above the treetops.

“Spotted!” Rikky’s distant voice called out proudly. Of the small group of hunters that Master Kember looked over, he was the youngest. At thirteen summers old Rikky was probably going to end up being the best of them all.

Jenka and Grondy were born the same year and were the next youngest. Solman was the oldest student, but Lemmy was the oldest of the group save for Master Kember himself. Lemmy was more of an assistant than a pupil, though. He earned a wage, and he tracked as well as anyone in the whole frontier. Every once in a while, the King’s Rangers would come over from the keep and ask Master Kember or Lemmy to help them with something or another. Unlike the village folk, the King’s Rangers favored Lemmy for some reason. They treated him with the utmost respect, which had always piqued Jenka’s curiosity. The King’s Rangers had more or less accepted Lemmy as one of their own, which, in the past, had sometimes made Jenka a little jealous. Even though his father’s picture hung in the keep’s main hall, the Rangers were never partial like that to Jenka. They made sure that he and his mother were well fed, but they treated Jenka like any other village boy. He would have asked Lemmy about it, but it embarrassed him watching Lemmy struggle to convey a message without being able to speak.

Things got bad for Jenka for a while. Solman and Rikky were anything but gentle when they half hauled, half dragged him up out of the gully. The long, bumpy ride on the travois was even worse. Though he shouldn’t have felt as confident about it as he did, he decided that he probably could have just ridden one of the horses, but the idea that his friends — and his mentor — might shun him for having been magicked by a dragon caused him to keep his returning strength and vigor to himself.

He felt his head wound again, and he was sure that he was feeling partially-healed scar tissue now. By the time they finally made it into Crag, Jenka was starting to think that the dragon really had done something to him. Jenka’s wild, gray-haired mother came hurrying out into the street to greet her son, but was waved off by one of the young rangers gathering around his travois. Without a thought, she shouldered the King’s Ranger who had waved her away to the side and, after kissing Jenka on the forehead, she poured a vial of foul-smelling liquid down his throat.

“You killed a half dozen trolls, then?” Captain Brody, the head of the King’s Rangers, asked over the worried mother’s shoulder.

Two of the other rangers were razzing the one she had just bullied aside, but stopped cold when they heard their captain’s words.

“Here,” Master Kember handed something that was green and shimmering to his former commander. “The boy said it was a black, but I found this. It was dark.”

“Dragon scale,” Captain Brody took it and gave Jenka a dubious look. He reached out and touched the pink scar under Jenka’s blood-matted hairline and, after glancing down at the discarded vial of kettle-witch potion, he gave a short snort of disbelief. To Master Kember he said: “I’ll send a message by swifter hawk to Commander Corda down in Three Forks. He’ll get a message to King Blanchard that will be on the next boat to King’s Island.” Then in a more commanding and enthusiastic tone he said: “Digger, you and Balkir go round up the Rangers. We’ve got us another dragon to hunt!”

Chapter Three

The King’s Rangers combed the area around the carnage, but they never found Jade. They did find another dead troll over the ridge. There was a pinky-sized piece of broken dragon claw stuck in its wound. The young Ranger who had tried to hush Jenka’s mother had it drilled and put on a leather thong for her as an apology. She scoffed at him, but didn’t hesitate to put it in her pocket. It would fetch a pretty penny down in Three Forks in one of the hawker’s lots.

Jenka played the wounded young boy as long as he could fake it, which was only about four days. He limped around and groaned a lot, but since the morning after they had dragged him home he had been feeling better than he ever had in his life. Because of his seemingly quick recovery, several of the rangers were buying potions from his mother now.

One day, Jenka came in from helping the baker chop down a bothersome tree and found the small table he and his mother shared laden with meat and savory smelling vegetables. He thought that she had just decided to splurge until she turned from her iron pot and started swatting at him and urging him out to the trough to get cleaned up for dinner. It turned out that they were going to have guests at their table this night.

It was only Master Kember and Lemmy who were going to dine with them, but they were as welcome in the modest, thatch-roofed hut as the king himself would have been. The old hunter had come to ask Amelia De Swasso’s permission to take Jenka to Three Forks and then on to King’s Island, where they would spend a few weeks in an inn and attend the Solstice Festival, and hopefully get an audience with King Blanchard. He explained that Lemmy would be staying behind and would come by and take care of the heavy chores so she wouldn’t be inconvenienced too much by Jenka’s absence. He told her that Solman and Rikky were going with the group to compete in the contests. “We will be travelling in a well-armed group. It will be a safe and informative journey for Jenka, I assure you,” Master Kember finally finished.

“I’ll let him go, Marwick Kember,” Jenka’s mother said harshly. “But don’t you tell me them roads is safe and all that. I know better. Don’t even try to pull the wool over my eyes or I’ll shrivel your stones with a hex. Them trolls are getting riled up ‘bout something, and there’ll be sneak-thieves and Outland bandits betwixt Three Forks and Outwal, and pirates once you’re out of the harbor at Port. I was born out on Freemans Reach and I spent my middling years on King’s Island brewin’ potions for a Witch of the Hazeltine. Any fool who thinks a journey across the frontier is going to be safe will pay their price. Now you tell that handy dimwit of yours to keep me stocked in cut wood, meat, and bear scat while Jenka’s away, or when you return I’ll … ”

And so it went until the table was cleared. Master Kember was happy to be on his way. He wasn’t used to being scolded and harped at, and it showed plainly that his patience was worn completely through.

During dinner, Lemmy seemed to fade into his own shadow and did a good job of staying unnoticed, but within minutes of the serving dishes being removed from the table, he had the horses ready to go.

To Jenka, the prospect of the journey was more exciting than anything he could have ever imagined. The group was to leave at the end of the week on horses the King’s Rangers would provide. An escort made up of two green Foresters and one seasoned old Ranger named Herald, who Master Kember always spoke highly of, would ride with them to Three Forks. That would take about four days. From there they would hire a wagon and travel for another day with an armed caravan until they were on the other side of the Great Wall that separated Port and Mainsted from the wild, mainland frontier. In Port, they would board a ship and sail to King’s Island. Then there was the audience with the king, and the Solstice Festival to look forward to. It was all Jenka could do to keep still. His only regret was that Grondy wouldn’t get to go with them.

The morning before the group was planning to leave, Jenka walked out to his best friend’s farm to tell him goodbye. Grondy’s hand was healing nicely, but his father needed him on the farm. They had gotten a contract to grow hay and corn for some ranchers down in Three Forks. Grondy’s destiny, it turned out, wasn’t with the King’s Rangers. It was behind an ox and a thresher in one of the foothill’s golden valleys. Jenka didn’t want to taunt his friend with what he would be missing, so he held back with his description of the coming journey. Even so, Grondy confessed that he wanted to go more than anything. It was a sad parting, and Jenka spent a few long moments after he got down the lane from the growing farm studying the trees and wiping the dust from his eyes.

Later that afternoon, a group of King’s Rangers came riding into Crag all bloody and raving about a kill. “We got that dragon!” they bragged. “Felled him way back in Calf Horn Valley.”

They had come to fetch Master Kember and Lemmy, but when they stopped by Jenka’s hut to purchase some healing potions from his mother, they drew Jenka into it too. He was lucky that Master Kember waved him over and handed him the reigns of the horse intended for Lemmy. Lemmy was nowhere to be seen, and Jenka was too worried that the rangers had just killed Jade to care about anything else. He mounted the offered animal and followed Master Kember and the rangers out of Crag and up into the hills. They rode until dark, then the rangers lit torches for them to see by, and they rode some more. Jenka figured that they were already deeper into the foothills than he had ever been before.

The group came out from under the sparse trees and topped a ridge overlooking an open, starlit valley. Off to one side of the open space, along what appeared to be a washed-out stream bed, there was a cluster of softly glowing yellow flowers. The petals were bigger than any Jenka had ever seen before, almost as big as bed sheets. It would have been quite beautiful had there not been the long, broken-winged body of a small dragon lying sprawled across the earth nearby.

Jenka’s heart was thudding in his chest and the lump in his throat was the size of a gourd melon. The dragon was the right size to be Jade, but Jenka wasn’t close enough yet to be able to tell for certain. As they drew nearer, the dragon’s scales began to shimmer a deep, greenish color. Jenka’s chest clenched with sadness, but then Captain Brody stepped up out of nowhere and quickly said, “Hurry! Close your eyes until after the flash.”

“Whimzatta,” a faint girlish voice spoke with a tongue-tangling inflection. Suddenly, a sphere of stark, white light the size of a man’s head was hovering in the air a dozen feet above the dragon’s twisted corpse. The air became full of humming, popping static and took on the clean smell of the sky right after a lightning storm. Several of the rangers shied away from the orb as if it were contagious. The dainty, hooded figure underneath the magical globe seemed to think that was funny.

This was the first time Jenka had ever seen anyone use High Magic, and it was a little bit disconcerting. He had never seen one of the secretive druids that the rangers sometimes spoke of either. The Order of Dou supposedly had a monastery or a temple somewhere deep in the mountains. Some folks said they were elvish, but Jenka wasn’t sure he believed that. Due to their common interest of the forest, the druids sometimes helped the rangers, but they had no sworn allegiance to King Blanchard or the kingdom.

Jenka cringed when he saw a pale, tattoo-lined feminine face peering out from under the hood directly at him. The druida’s gaze cut right through him, and he felt his scalp tingling as if his hair were standing on end.

“Is that the one?” Master Kember asked. He put his hand on Jenka’s shoulder, breaking the spell he had fallen under. “It’s still got both of its eyes.”

Under the bright magical light, Jenka saw that the dead dragon’s scales were the color of a deep, blackish-blue bruise, not green. He knew instantly that it wasn’t Jade. He was surprised at how relieved he felt. He hadn’t expected to be so worried about a creature that he had only spoken to once. Sure they had saved each other’s lives, but the truth of it was they were supposed to be natural enemies. Nevertheless, he was glad that it wasn’t his friend lying dead in the glade.

“Maybe I missed?” he shrugged. “It’s almost black.”

The druida’s magical light suddenly disappeared. In the momentary blindness everyone experienced while their eyes adjusted to the darkness, she moved impossibly fast and slid up close to Jenka’s side.

“Liar,” she almost purred the word into his ear, causing his blood to tingle with both fear and arousal at the same time. Her breath smelled of cinnamon and ginger, and she radiated a soft inviting heat like a woodstove.

“Master Kember, I would like a word with our young troll-slayer if you please.” She gave a respectful head bow to punctuate her request.

Master Kember’s expression showed the unease he felt at being this close to the eerie — yet exotically beautiful — tattooed girl. On the islands, and in Port and Mainsted, the practice of the arcane was more commonplace. There were witches and charm-makers on every corner, but out here in the frontier it was rare – and sometimes shunned. Jenka’s mother used magic of a sort, and he saw how people were afraid of her for it, but it was nothing like the High Magic that this druida had just been using. Master Kember gave Jenka’s shoulder a compassionate squeeze and hurried away, leaving Jenka and the druida alone.

“It’s all right, Jenka De Swasso,” her voice was sweet and liquid, and it dripped into Jenka’s ears and flowed into him like honey. She looked surprisingly young; barely a woman. She had four thin, blue-green lines running diagonally across the bridge of her nose. There was an intricately-decorated circle on her right cheek, a similar square on her left, and on her forehead was a silvery triangle that pointed down at the tip of her nose, giving her brow a permanently sinister look. A few tendrils of snow white hair trailed out of her hood. Her eyes, though. Her eyes were pools of sparkling lavender that were so deep a person could drown in them.

“My name is Zahrellion, but you can call me Zah,” she said. “Why did you lie about the dragon?”

Jenka was answering before he could stop himself. “Because Jade saved me from a certain death at the hands of the trolls. I can never forget that.”

“Jade? You know its name? You spoke with this wyrm?”

“Yes I did, and I don’t care if you believe me or not. Just don’t tell … ”

She cut him off. “Oh, I believe you, Jenka.” Her eyes grew wide with a girlish excitement that she deftly quelled the second the emotion showed. Looking around to make sure no one was listening in on their conversation, she hooked her arm in Jenka’s and led him away from the dragon carcass. “I’ve talked to a dragon too, way up in the icy peaks. They choose to aid people every now and then when things come to a head. A time like that is at hand. Crystal told me that something evil has awakened in the hills. Most likely, you and Jade will meet again.” Her brows narrowed as the direction of the conversation took a sour turn. “We have a common enemy, dragons and men. The trolls don’t like the humans, and we are spreading and populating the frontier like field mice. King Blanchard won’t make the move, but he has planned it all out for his son. When Prince Richard takes the throne, the kingdom seat will shift to Mainsted, here on the mainland, and once that happens, there will be no hope for the trollkin.”

The word trollkin was a slang term that included the little, gray-skinned goblins, the larger, black-skinned orc, and of course the trolls themselves. After hearing Jade call the trolls trellkin, he decided that maybe it wasn’t a slang term after all. Ogres, Jenka had deduced, were another sort of creature altogether.

“They are starting to figure this out,” Zahrellion continued. “Already they’ve been forced into the higher reaches where the ogres and dragons reign. Soon there will be nowhere left for them to go. The dragons, on the other hand, can always nest out of man’s reach. Only a very few of the most foolish wyrms get their selves killed, those are usually the mudged, like this one. There are hundreds of dragons in the deep of the mountains, Jenka. Some of the wyrm are older than you can imagine.”

Jenka stopped her and shook his head to clear it. He had lost her words in the feel of her dainty hand on his bicep, in the warmth of her smile, and in the conviction of her voice.

“I’m telling you that we have to find a way to make King Blanchard or Prince Richard understand.” Her voice showed that she was becoming agitated, if not a little angry.

“Understand what?” Jenka asked stupidly.

She jerked her hand away, let out an exasperated girlish huff, and clenched her fists at her sides. “That the dragons want to help us when the trolls start their war! They’re in the hills gathering and planning as we speak.”

“War?” Jenka didn’t understand. “Is it the Dragons or the Trolls who are in the hills planning right now?” Jenka had no idea what she was talking about. He was entranced by her very existence though, and couldn’t get his mind to focus on anything other than her beauty.

She stared at him for a few long moments. “You’re daft,” she finally said. Her eyes were brimming over with tears of disappointment as she turned and stalked away.

Jenka stood there, slack-jawed, staring at the darkness until Master Kember came over and started speaking to him. “Fargin women’ll twist your thinker till it pops.”

“What?” Jenka asked.

“Never mind, boy. What did she say to you?”

“That the trolls are gonna start a war with us. That the dragons want to help us prevail, and that King Blanchard has to know about it so that we don’t keep killing wyrms.” Jenka couldn’t believe he had retained all of that, but ever since the beautiful druida had stalked away, Jenka had been thinking more clearly.

“That’s nonsense,” Master Kember shook his head with disgust. “Fargin trolls can’t fight with any sort of form or muster. They end up fighting each other. By the hells, they’ll stop fighting to feed on the dead while you’re cutting them down. I’ve seen it. You didn’t tell her we were going to King’s Island, did you?”

“No, sir,” Jenka answered. “Is the kingdom seat really going to move to Mainsted when Prince Richard takes the throne? I mean, I sort of understand the expansion and all, but where did we come from before the Dogma wrecked on Gull’s Reach? No one ever talks about that much.”

“That’s a good question,” the old hunter nodded. “There’s an age-old saying about it. It goes like this: Don’t worry about how you got here. You are here, and if you want to survive you have to keep doing everything that needs getting done.”

“What does that mean?” Jenka shrugged.

“It means that only a few historians even care where we came from, boy. A few dozen people survived a shipwreck that washed up on Gull’s Reach. From that meager beginning, we populated all three islands and set up the strongholds on the mainland. Then we built that fargin wall to keep the wilderness out. Now we are trying to tame the land between the wall and the mountains so that we can grow more crops and build more cities and towns. We have achieved everything you know about. We’re not going back. We’ve been here two hundred twenty some-odd years. We are going to settle this frontier, and the trolls and dragons can be damned if they oppose it.” He let out a tired sigh and changed the subject. “We’ll have to postpone our journey for one more day. It’ll be dawn by the time we get back to Crag.”

Jenka was only mildly disappointed by the news of the delay. He was busy pondering Zah’s beauty and what she had told him. The ride home was wrought with anxiety and excitement. Several times he started to ask Master Kember a question but caught himself. The idea that Zah might be right, that the trolls would defend their homeland, couldn’t be purged from his mind.

He fell asleep back in his mother’s hut as the sun was just starting to paint the horizon, and he dreamed that he was flying high in the sky on the back of an emerald-scaled dragon. They flew across the oceans, over mountains, deserts and plains, until they found the mother land. It was crowded and noisy, and a haze of filthy air hung over the people like a cloud. There were no forests or fields, and the river that turned slowly through it all was clogged and thick with muck. Even the sea around the land was black and shimmering with an oily sheen. There were factories, and shops, and buildings, and so many people that Jenka couldn’t stand it.

Jenka wasn’t befuddled with Zah’s beauty when he woke up late the next day. He was contemplative and distant. He could imagine Crag a hundred years from now, all crowded and busy, and he wasn’t sure if he liked the idea of it. He finally forced all the negativity from his mind, like he sometimes did when he was hunting, and was decidedly the better for it.

Beyond being as tired as he could remember, he was also beside himself with a giddy, childish glee. He was about to go on a grand adventure, and after being invited with the King’s Rangers last night, he felt he would make Forester this year for sure. He had just decided that things couldn’t possibly get any better, when he learned that beautiful Zahrellion and another of the Druids of Dou were going to be traveling to King’s Island with their group. After hearing that news, Jenka spent the rest of the evening floating around as if he were on a cloud.

Master Kember was none too pleased about the unwanted additions to his group, but he kept his opinions mostly to himself. Captain Brody had asked him, and ordered the King’s Ranger named Herald, to escort the druids as a personal favor. He also asked that Master Kember help them gain King Blanchard’s ear. Master Kember didn’t like it. He didn’t like it at all, but he was willing to do it for the captain. Crippled or not, he was still a King’s Ranger at heart.

Jenka said goodbye to his mother early in the morning, and promised to deliver a written message to her former employer on King’s Island. Visiting a true Witch of Hazeltine wasn’t one of the things Jenka had planned to do, but he loved his mother and couldn’t possibly consider refusing her simple request. After those tears were dried, he went and found Solman and Rikky at the stables. They both had their long hair chopped at the shoulders like Jenka’s, and they were doing what they could to help the two Foresters get the horses ready.

As the sun was coming up and losing its battle to light the sky, the group of nine travelers gathered outside the stable in a light, dreary drizzle. They all had their hoods pulled up high on their heads and their cloaks fastened tightly. Not even the inclement weather could dampen their spirits though, especially Jenka’s. He had been assigned the pleasant duty of personal attendant to Zah and her older male companion for the journey.

“Starting a journey is always such a thrilling feeling,” Master Kember said optimistically to his three students and the two young, uniformed Foresters. Jenka, Solman, and Rikky all cringed, expecting one of Master Kember’s windy proclamations. They were saved from a lengthy discourse on the beginning of journeys by the grizzled old King’s Ranger, Herald. He harrumphed loudly over Master Kember’s voice, spat a wad of brown phlegm from a slit in his dark tangle-shrub of a beard and snorted, “It’s just the possibility that we might not ever make it back home that makes it thrilling, Marwick. Now let’s get this cavalcade moving before the buzzards fly down and eat us where we sit.”

With that, they started out of Crag moving south toward Three Forks.

Chapter Four

By midday, the late spring sun had burned the clouds away, and though the lightly rutted road was soft under the horses’ hooves, there hadn’t been enough precipitation to make it muddy. Birds fluttered about and called out merrily from the thinning copses of tangle oak and pine trees that dotted the roadway, and a light breeze kept the travelers from getting too warm. The chink and jingle of the tack and the oc

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The Sword and the Dragon (The Wardstone Trilogy Book 1)

by M. R. Mathias

The Sword and the Dragon (The Wardstone Trilogy Book 1)
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Here’s the set-up:

When the Royal Wizard of Westland poisons the king, so that his puppet prince can take the throne and start a continental war, a young squire is forced to run for his life carrying the powerful sword that his dying monarch burdened him with from the death bed.

Two brothers find a magic ring and start on paths to becoming the most powerful sort of enemies, while an evil young sorceress unwillingly falls in love with one of them when he agrees to help her steal a dragon’s egg for her father. Her father just happens to be the Royal Wizard, and despite his daughter’s feelings, he would love nothing more than to sacrifice the boy!

All of these characters, along with the Wolf King of Wildermont, the Lion Lord of Westland, and a magical hawk named Talon, are on a collision course toward Willa the Witch Queen’s palace in the distant kingdom of Highwander. There the very bedrock is formed of the powerful magical substance called Wardstone.

Who are the heroes? And will they get there before the Royal Wizard and his evil hordes do?

Whatever happens, the journey will be spectacular, and the confrontation will be cataclysmic.

Praise for The Sword & The Dragon:

“…so many vivid scenes….extremely deep and dimensional characters…”

“…action and mystery packed, with twists and turns in every chapter…”

an excerpt from

The Sword & The Dragon

by M.R. Mathias

Copyright © 2014  by M.R. Mathias and published here with his permission

Chapter 1

Gerard Skyler used his free arm to wipe the sweat from his brow before it had a chance to drip into his eyes. Scaling the towering, nesting cliff for the second time was far harder than he expected it to be. No one had attempted the climb two days in a row before. His body was still sore and raw from yesterday’s climb, but he could not afford to stop and rest. He was more than three hundred feet above a rocky canyon floor. A fall would undoubtedly be fatal. The last thing he needed at the moment was burning eyes and blurred vision.

A few dozen feet above him was the wide, flat shelf they called the “Lip.” Once he was there he could lie down, stretch out his aching body, and relax his muscles before continuing up into the nesting shelves to gather the precious hawkling eggs he sought.

Why the blasted birds nested so high on the cliff and so late in the spring, he could never determine. All of the other avian species he knew had hatched their young and headed north already. Why he was foolishly climbing the cliff a second time was another question he kept asking himself. He already knew the answer though: he was doing it for his older brother, Hyden.

Gerard’s free hand reached up and slid snugly into a small gap above him. As he pulled his weight up, the hold suddenly crumbled. Dust and scree rained down on his upturned face. Luckily, his mouth was closed and he hadn’t moved his feet from their points of purchase yet. He didn’t slip, but he had to contend with his racing heart and the sandy grit that was collecting on his face.

“Damn it all, Hyden! You owe me a dozen pairs of boots now,” he muttered.

He shook his head, trying to face downward so that some of the crud might fall away. Then he stuck out his bottom lip and blew up at his eyes, shaking his head awkwardly. The thought of how silly he looked at that moment almost made him laugh. He fought to contain it.

Having mixed with his sweat, most of the grainy dirt had turned to mud. He finally used the thumb and index finger of his free hand to rub his eyelids. Eventually, he cleared his vision and then reached up for a different handhold. This one held his weight.


Far below, Hyden Skyler paced the canyon floor, looking up nervously at his younger brother’s progress. He was supposed to be the one making this climb. Gerard had already made his own. Their father and uncles decided that Hyden should stay on the ground this year. He was the Skyler clan’s best hope to win the coveted Summer’s Day archery competition, their best hope to come along in a generation.

Hyden had argued vehemently against not being allowed to claim a rightful share of the hawkling eggs. His Uncle Condlin had to physically restrain him when they told him this year’s climb wasn’t going to happen. Hyden had called them all to the settling circle in his anger, even the Elders.

“Why can’t I do both?” he’d argued.

The Elders explained that it was because the archery competition and the egg harvest this year were too close together. Not even the most experienced climber could finish his grueling harvest without a tear or strain. The Elders, who consisted of Hyden’s grandfather, his father, and five of his uncles, wanted nothing to happen to him that might affect his ability to aim. Nothing.

Like most young men who feel like they’ve been wronged, Hyden had been caught up in the moment. The Elders’ arguments made sense to him now that the heat of his frustration had cooled, but it had taken a while. Only after long hours of soothing and explaining did he finally relent. The fact that the prize money from the archery competition was equal to the value of more than a dozen hawkling eggs helped him put things in perspective. The idea of having his name etched permanently into the Summer’s Day Spire had its own appeal. Eventually, he decided to comply with the Elders’ wishes and stay on the ground. If he managed to win the competition, the honor and respect he would gain, not only in his clan, but also among the men of the kingdoms, would far exceed the satisfaction of making his egg harvest.

At one hundred paces, Hyden could put three out of five arrows in the Wizard’s Eye. The other two arrows would be in the King’s Ring, only because the center of the target wasn’t big enough to hold them all. Only on rare occasions did an arrow from Hyden’s bow venture out into the Queen’s Circle, but it did so only because the wind was blowing, or for some other extreme reason. Even on the windiest of days, his arrows strayed no further away from the middle than that. He was as accurate as a target would allow a human to be. To put four arrows in the Wizard’s Eye was nearly impossible. The elven archers who had won the competition for the last four years running had done it, though. If Hyden wanted to win this year, he would have to do it too.

Hyden’s stubborn arguing over being kept on the ground had paid off in a sense. He contested that the financial loss of not being allowed to harvest his rightful share of hawkling eggs would be ruinous to his home and family. He pointed out that the Elders could give him no guarantee that he would win the archery competition. He was only eighteen winters old, with no family of his own yet, but he would have one soon enough, and it was the principle of the matter anyway. By clan law, a large portion of the money generated by the sale of the harvested hawkling eggs went to the individual who harvested them. None of the Elders could deny Hyden, but then Gerard suddenly volunteered to climb in his stead. The Elders reminded the younger of the two headstrong young men that a second climb would be very dangerous, not to mention that all the credit and the yield of the harvest itself, would be Hyden’s, not his. The Elders were pleased, though, that Hyden would still be receiving his due without having to climb.

Hyden had never felt a stronger bond with Gerard; nor had he ever felt more love for him. When he saw his little brother finally gain the edge of the Lip, he couldn’t help but breathe a sigh of relief. He had never felt this much worry, or concern, over Gerard’s safety in his life. Usually, he was trying to kill him for some reason or another.

Little Condlin, or maybe Ryal, helped Gerard up onto the ledge. Hyden couldn’t tell which of his many cousins was up there. They all looked the same from where he was standing, with their sun-darkened skin, their thin frames, and the thick mop of dark hair all of the clansmen shared.

Hyden had been out behind Uncle Condlin’s hut shooting arrows all week while the other members of the Skyler clan took their turns on the sacred nesting cliff. He wasn’t sure which of his cousins had made their climbs yet. All he knew was that Gerard came down yesterday from his harvest with eight unbroken eggs. From what Hyden heard, it was the best single take so far this year. Gerard strutted around with his chest puffed out the whole evening. Uncle Condlin brought down only seven eggs this year. Hyden and Gerard’s father, Harrap, would have had seven as well, but an angry hawkling caused Harrap to drop one in order to protect his eyes from its razor-sharp talons.

It was a shameful thing to waste an egg, even when protecting oneself. Their father hadn’t been seen since he’d packed his six remaining eggs in a small crate full of “keep moss” two days ago. He had gone off into the woods seeking absolution. The eggs would be safe until he eventually returned. The keep moss, as the name indicated, would keep the hawkling eggs from hatching for as long as they were packed in it.

Gerard and Hyden knew that their father was off in seclusion somewhere seeking forgiveness from the clan’s goddess. He hoped that the White Lady would give his father a sign soon. Hyden had done the same thing last year, after one of his eggs broke in his pack while he was climbing down.

The hawkling eggs were sacred to the clan, and very expensive to the kingdom folk who purchased them each year at the Summer’s Day Festival. The location of the nesting cliff was known only to the Skylers, and though they could have made a king’s fortune by harvesting all the eggs at once, they didn’t. Each clansman able to climb the cliff was allowed one opportunity each year to make his harvest, but only if he spent his share of the days in the off-season attending to the roosts and vacant nesting areas. Loose rock, old nests, and other harmful things such as scorpions and blood ravens, were removed or frightened away so the hawklings would have a safe place to breed and hatch their young each spring.

During the harvest, it was forbidden to leave fewer than two eggs in a nest, so much of the climbing a man did—sometimes his whole harvest—was fruitless. The hawklings were fierce hunters, and their wingspan from tip to tip could be as wide as a man is tall. Sometimes, an angry bird would attack and maim, or even dislodge, a climber. Many a member of the Skyler clan met their death on the rocky canyon floor.

Hyden didn’t expect much from Gerard. The lower nests would all be down to two eggs by now, and the climb took such a toll on a man’s body that Hyden didn’t think Gerard could push himself into the higher reaches today. Two or three eggs would suffice. He told Gerard as much this morning when they broke camp. Hyden would wait until all the other eggs sold, and then would drive up his price. The money from two eggs would sustain him through the winter. Three would provide him not only what he needed, but also what he wanted.

“I’ll get you half a dozen at least,” Gerard bragged. “You’ll win that competition, too. When you do, you owe me a new pair of Valleyan horsehide boots and a wizard’s hat.”

Hyden laughed, thinking about his brother’s simple desires. Gerard’s immaturity still showed itself often. He was just a year younger than Hyden. At least the new boots were a reasonable and responsible request. Gerard could buy himself a wagon full of wizard’s hats and a dozen pair of boots with what he would earn for his own eight eggs. After the Elders took out the clan’s share, Gerard would still have a small fortune.

Hyden found a rock, sat in the shadow thrown by the midmorning sun, and munched on a piece of dried venison. Gerard would rest awhile on the Lip before continuing up into the nesting shelves. The cliff face would be warming quickly now. It would grow as hot as a skillet in the morning sun, but only for a short while. The sun would swiftly put the cliff in its memory and for the better part of the day, its face would be cooling in its own shadow.

Movement from above caught Hyden’s eye. A long, green ribbon on a crooked stick poked up into the air from the edge of the Lip. There wasn’t enough wind to make it do more than flutter lazily. It disappeared as quickly as it had shown itself, and then one of his cousins began the long climb up to make his harvest. Hyden could tell by the bright green color of the climber’s headdress that it was one of Uncle Condlin’s sons. He knew that Gerard’s headdress was red with blue highlights. That was the only headdress he cared to see.

The bright, ornamental hats were worn more to deter the fierce birds than for any other reason, yet each branch of the clan had its own colors and designs. Hyden’s was made of light wire and shaped like an open-winged bird, with red and gold ribbons tied about the frame. Gerard’s was similar, but with red and blue ribbons fastened to it. The headdresses made it appear that a brightly colored bird was already on the climber’s head. They were a distraction at best, and they usually ended up on the canyon floor long before the climber came down. Hyden hated wearing one, especially when the wind was up. He usually threw his off after a while, but one time, an angry hawkling had torn it off his head for him, and nearly caused him to fall to his death.

It was rumored his Great Uncle Jachen’s fatal fall was caused solely by complications with his headdress, but it was still considered an ill omen to start up from the Lip without one. Two of Hyden’s cousins attempted to climb after the wind had blown theirs off the ledge a few years ago. Both boys perished that day, thus reinforcing the ancient superstition.

It wasn’t long before Hyden saw his own red and gold headdress starting up the cliff. It made him smile. Gerard must have taken it from his pack earlier at the camp. Hyden didn’t expect Gerard to wear his headdress. He was proud that his little brother was honoring him by wearing it for this climb. His heart swelled with emotion, and he decided on the spot that he would buy Gerard a wizard’s hat, a wizard’s robe, and a magic wand at the fair, even if he didn’t win the archery competition. It didn’t even bother him when Gerard later let the awkward headgear fall away and tumble down the canyon.

It became clear that the cousin making the climb ahead of Gerard was Little Condlin. Little Con was chubby; slow and deliberate in his moves. He climbed more sideways than upward, as if he was trying to cover the entire width of the cliff. He never extended his reach and he always used caution. Gerard, on the other hand, was quick like a lizard, and before long he was a few hundred feet above the Lip.

The cliff itself was well over a thousand feet high. It looked to Hyden like Gerard was trying to climb to the very top of it. As far as Hyden knew, that had never been done before. An area not too far above Gerard’s current location was so thick with the nesting birds that the gray and brown stone seemed to be striped black with them. It was obvious now Gerard had been completely serious when he’d bragged he would bring back half a dozen eggs. Hyden hoped his brother wouldn’t put himself in a bad spot up there while trying to show off for him. At the moment, Gerard was as high up into the nests as Hyden had ever been in his life.

Gerard could see something glinting and shining. It was a few dozen feet to his right, a little below him, and sitting in an old, broken nest on the other side of a wide, vertical fissure. He couldn’t tell what it was, but it was metallic and golden. For some reason, there were no hawklings screeching at him or making sweeps at his intrusion in this area. He wasn’t paying attention to the hawklings’ activities any more, though. Whatever that thing was in the nest, it was commanding his attention and causing him to lose concentration on his climb. He already had five eggs for Hyden nestled in his padded shoulder bag. He was determined to have the sixth he boasted of, but he knew five would please his brother immensely. He also knew he needed to start back down soon, so as not to be caught on the wall after sunset. Climbing down in the dark was impossible, but that blasted shiny thing was fiercely calling out to his curiosity.

His mind began filling with visions of jeweled riches and praise from his clansmen and Elders. He had to reach it. He wouldn’t be climbing here again until late summer, or just before winter set in. It might not be there then. If he didn’t get it now, he might not be able to find it again, even if it stayed exactly where it was.

He cleared his head by shaking it, then tried to spot a way to surpass the open gap between him and the prize. If he just climbed a few dozen feet higher, he could reach across a narrow place in the fissure, and then he could climb back down to the thing. It was risky, but he told himself he could do it.

As he started up toward the niche, the sun passed over the ridge and sent the whole of the cliff face into shadow. It took him longer than he thought it would, but he finally reached the place where he could stretch across the span of open space. He positioned himself on a tiny ledge, and when he leaned into the cliff, he could stand with all his weight on his feet, leaving both of his hands free.

His palms were wet and slimy from the numerous patches of excrement he’d encountered in this higher, more heavily nested area. He shook his arms at his sides, letting the blood flow back into them while waiting for the muck to dry. A warning began to sound in the back of his mind, telling him that he should already be headed back down, but he chose to ignore it. He gathered another egg on the way up to the niche, so he now had the full half-dozen he’d promised Hyden. All he needed to do now was reach the little treasure beckoning him. Once he had it, he could start down.

After a few moments, he rubbed his hands on his hips briskly. The crusting stuff on them powdered and fell away. He then took turns scuffing the toes of his old boots on the ledge until they gripped with ample traction. He found a good handhold with his left hand not too far above him, and stretched his body out to the right, reaching across the gap as far as he could. He was still at least two feet shy. He harrumphed in frustration and pulled his body weight back over the little ledge.

He repositioned himself so his handhold was lower. This would allow him to reach farther. He tried again but found his right foot was still some inches away from a safe purchase on the other side. As he started to retract himself this time, his left foothold slipped a fraction. His heart fluttered up through his chest like a startled bird. He almost fell, but instinct and common sense took control. After a few deep, calming breaths, he gingerly started easing his weight back over.

He would have to give up the prize and make his way down. It was the only sensible thing to do. If he started to hurry down now, he could still reach the canyon floor by nightfall. Hyden would be happy to take the six eggs and the Elders, along with the rest of the clan members, would praise his efforts and his skill as a climber.

A quick glance back over at the object caused him to change his mind. He was here, and he didn’t want to waste the chance the Goddess had granted him. He would retrieve it, whatever it was.

Gerard squinted. In the shaded light, the object finally revealed itself to him. It was a ring. Golden and shiny, it had a fat, yellow gem mounted on it, and it looked extremely valuable. He rolled his neck across his shoulders. It would be his, he decided. He could reach it and still get down before dark. If not, he could even sleep on the Lip if need be.

He looked at the other side of the fissure and studied it intently. He took in the subtleties, the nooks, the crannies, and the shape of the stone. Then, he sucked in a deep breath, resolved himself, and leapt for it.

Hyden was pacing nervously. His cousin was almost back down to the Lip, but Gerard was still way up in the heart of the nesting shelves. To Hyden, he seemed to be frozen in place next to a wide vertical split in the rock. As it was, Hyden figured Gerard would have to sleep on the Lip this night. Hyden wasn’t sure his brother could even climb that far back down by nightfall. He was about to pull his hair out with worry.

“It’s my fault,” he told himself aloud. He knew no one had ever made it down the cliff face in the dark, and it looked as if Gerard was running out of time. “I should’ve never let you climb for me. Damn the bravado, Gerard! Just get yourself down before it’s too late.”

Hyden stopped pacing and stared up anxiously as his brother stretched across the gap for the second time. He thought his heart stopped beating in his chest, until he saw his brother shudder and slip. Then, his heart exploded like a pounding skin drum.

“Oh Gerard, don’t fall,” Hyden pleaded to no one that could hear him. “Take a breath, and steady yourself. That’s it! Now quit fooling around and get down here before the darkness takes you!”

Hyden’s neck muscles were raw and sore from looking up all day, but he couldn’t look away. Gerard seemed to have regained his composure, and Hyden assumed he was about to start back down. A few seconds later, when Gerard leapt into the open air, across the fissure from one side of it to the other, Hyden was certain his heart really exploded. So violent was the thunderclap that went blasting through his chest, that even he felt the strange and horrifying sensation of falling.

Chapter 2

Of the two brothers, Gerard had the better landing. His lead foot stuck perfectly into the crevice he intended, and his fingers grabbed true in a little crack on the far side of the fissure. He paused only a moment to catch his breath, as if he hadn’t just jumped across a gap of empty space more than seven hundred feet off the ground. Almost casually, he looked down at the little gleaming prize and started after it. It was his.

Hyden didn’t fare as well. He had been looking up at Gerard while pacing. At the same moment his brother had leapt, Hyden’s feet had found a shin-high boulder and his momentum sent him sprawling. He was so transfixed by Gerard’s leap that he didn’t even look down as he fell. It was probably for the best, because he didn’t have to see the pile of jagged rocks into which his head slammed. When he next opened his eyes, it was almost completely dark outside. Blood leaked from the gash in the side of his head and formed a matted clot in his long, black hair. He wasn’t quite sure where he was or what was happening.

“Hyden?” a familiar voice asked sheepishly. “I thought you’d never come around.”

Through his pain, Hyden’s world began coming back to him. It was Little Condlin who spoke to him. His fingers found the split lump over his ear, and a sharp pain shot through him when he touched it. As he caught his breath, Gerard’s leap flashed through his mind.

“Gerard!” he croaked in a panic while trying to climb back to his feet. “Where is Ger—?”

“He’s nearly down from the Lip,” Little Condlin said, not understanding Hyden’s worry. He didn’t seen Gerard risk his life like a fool jumping from hold to hold. He took Hyden by the arm and helped him to his feet.

Hyden winced as the world swam back into focus. It took him a few minutes, but eventually he steadied himself. In the near darkness, he found the boulder he had eaten lunch on and sat down.

“Gerard’s really almost down?” he asked.

“Aye,” Little Condlin grinned. “He’s as good a climber as you are; maybe even better.” He tried to suppress his adolescent mirth, but it was impossible. “What befell you down here?” With that, he burst into laughter.

Hyden snarled menacingly at the fourteen-year-old boy’s wit. It was enough to make Little Condlin’s glee vanish instantly. The boy quickly averted his attention to a dark pile of rocks at his feet.

A few moments passed in silence, but Hyden finally spoke.

“How was your harvest?” he asked.

Little Condlin’s eyes lit up. He was bursting to tell someone of his good fortune this year. “Five eggs, Hyden!” he held an excited hand up, all his fingers extended and wiggling. “Five!”

“Great!” Hyden said, a little more flatly than he intended. He was glad for Condlin, but he was still a little bitter at being cheated out of his own climb. Last year, Little Con harvested one egg. This was his second year of harvest, and five eggs was an excellent yield for a more experienced climber, much less a novice.

“I did just as father told me to do,” Little Condlin rambled excitedly. “I didn’t try to go high like Gerard does. I went way out to the sides.”

“I saw you,” Hyden said, with a nod of respect.

Hyden only retrieved three eggs before nearly falling over the edge of the Lip during his second harvest. The memory made him think about Gerard again. It was almost full dark now. He stood up and started toward the base of the cliff to look for his brother.

“What happened to your face, Hyden?” Little Condlin asked. Even though he was at a safe distance, he made sure that his voice carried nothing less than concern in its inflection.

“I was attacked by big, hairy scufflers,” Hyden deadpanned. His expression didn’t hold though, and thinking about his earlier folly, he broke into a sarcastic grin, “What do you think happened?”

Little Condlin took on a frustrated expression and sighed heavily. He was the fourth of five brothers, so he knew where he stood in the pecking order with Hyden and his other cousins. He had hoped his successful harvest would have gained him a little more respect. Gauging the distance between him and his older, faster cousin, he gathered his courage and prepared to run away. “I think you fell down and busted your fat head.”

“Aye,” Hyden laughed at the boy’s well-placed caution. “I did. I was looking up, watching Gerard act like a fool, and I wasn’t watching where my feet were leading me.” He made a silly face, and his cousin relaxed a little bit.

“Well I have to say, you look quite a bit better than you did before. That bloody knot brings out your eyes.”

Hyden burst out laughing at the boy’s boldness. He started to say something about it, but was cut off by a welcome voice.

“What’s so blasted funny, Hyden?” Gerard said from the darkness, near where the cliff face met the canyon floor.

Hyden felt the wave of relief wash over him. It was followed immediately by a flood of anger. “What’s not funny is what you did up there today! You could’ve gotten yourse—”

His voice stopped cold and Little Condlin gasped loudly. Gerard thrust the ring out of the darkness at them. Even in the starlight, its amber gemstone captured enough illumination to sparkle brightly. It almost appeared as if it were glowing.

“Where did you find that?” Little Condlin asked with a voice full of awe.

“In your sister’s pantaloons,” Gerard replied sarcastically. He was sore, tired, raw in several places, and in no mood for silly questions. He looked at Hyden, judging his brother’s anger. “It was high up in an old broken nest by a fissure. The one I jumped across,” he said in a way to let Hyden know that he knew the risk he had taken, and didn’t want to hear anymore about it. After a moment, he reluctantly handed the ring to his older brother.

Hyden looked at him oddly. It took him a minute to grasp the meaning of the gesture. Gerard had been climbing for him, not for himself. He was offering him the ring. Hyden refused it with a nod.

“You wanted it bad enough to risk your life for it. It’s yours. You earned it.”

Gerard cocked his head and studied Hyden some more. To refuse such an offer could be considered an insult. If Hyden was refusing him out of anger for taking that jump, then he wouldn’t know what to do. Hyden had never insulted him before. He looked deeper and saw so much love, respect, and relief in his brother’s eyes that there was no room for doubt. Hyden truly did want him to have the ring. He took it back and a broad grin spread across his weary face.

“If you refuse these, I’m going to kick you where it counts.”

Gerard took off his pack and thrust it out to Hyden proudly. “Half a dozen, just like I promised.”

Hyden passed the pack to their cousin and grabbed up Gerard in a big bear hug. Gerard hugged him back. While his hands were close together behind Hyden’s back, Gerard slipped the ring onto his finger. After a moment, Hyden held him back by the shoulders and looked him dead in the eyes.

“Don’t scare me like that again.” He pointed to the gash on his knotted head. “You almost killed me.”

It was too dark even to think about starting back to the harvest lodges. They ended up building a fire where Hyden and Gerard camped the night before. The three of them exchanged stories, and had a great laugh at the fact that Hyden was the only one who hadn’t left the ground, but was the only one who fell.

While Little Con boiled some dried beef into a stew, Hyden inspected the eggs his brother brought him. He was pleased beyond words at what he saw. All six of them were safe, sound, and nestled in a bed of fresh keep moss. He made up his mind to buy Gerard a whole wizard’s costume—the robe, the hat, and even a staff, if that was what he wanted. He didn’t think it would be, though. Gerard seemed to have matured a great deal since just that morning. The sparkle of the ring in the firelight and the tired, serious look on his face made him look anything but youthful. Hyden saw a man where only this morning, he’d seen a boy. It was a strange sight to see, because most of the time he didn’t even consider himself an adult yet.

“Wendlin, Jeryn, and Tylen are the only ones left to harvest now,” Little Con informed them. “They’re camped at the other end of the canyon. They probably think I fell, since I didn’t come back to camp tonight.”

“If they thought you fell, they would be out looking for your carcass,” Hyden said matter-of-factly.

“Or dancing a jig,” Gerard added with a laugh.

“They probably saw you come down,” Hyden reasoned. “Same as I did.”

“How could you have seen him, knot-head?” Gerard smirked, “You were busy kissing rocks.”

They all laughed heartily at that. Little Condlin dished the stew into Hyden’s and Gerard’s bowls, then waited for one of them to finish. His bowl was back at his brothers’ camp. Hyden ate a healthy meal while Gerard and Little Condlin were busy climbing, so he slurped a few mouthfuls, then passed his bowl to his young cousin. Gerard, on the other hand, attacked his meal like a starving dog.

“Are you going back to the lodges with us in the morning or what?” Hyden asked.

“Back to Tylen’s camp,” Condlin answered. “Wendlin and Jeryn climb early in the morning. Tylen goes last, since he is the oldest in the clan who’s not on the council.” Little Condlin always spoke of his brothers proudly, but when he spoke of his oldest brother Tylen, his chest swelled bigger than usual. “Tylen’s gonna break my pap’s record this year.”

Hyden knew in his heart that Gerard could have brought back a dozen eggs today if he hadn’t been sidetracked at that fissure by the ring. A climb that high up into the thick of the nesting band was rare. Gerard went higher than anyone Hyden had ever seen. The weather had been exceptional and the hawklings themselves were far less aggressive than most years, but he still wasn’t sure if even he could have climbed as well as his brother today. He would have never risked that leap, that’s for sure. Another thing he knew for certain was Tylen could climb like a lizard, too. If tomorrow was as perfect a day as today had been, then Tylen really might have a chance to break Big Condlin’s record. Hyden kept his thoughts to himself though, because Little Condlin’s chest and head were already swollen enough.

As soon as he finished eating, Gerard lay back and went to sleep. Little Condlin wasn’t far behind him. Hyden took the time after he ate to clean the dried blood from his head. He covered Little Condlin with his blanket and lay down close to the fire. It had been a long and eventful day, and sleep found him quickly.

The next morning, Little Condlin was anything but quiet as he gathered up his things in the predawn light. He woke up Hyden and Gerard with eyes full of excitement and pride. With a mouth full of chatter he wasted no time leaving. He was off to his brothers’ camp in the hopes of catching them before they started their climbs. Gerard wanted to throw a rock at him for waking them for no real reason, but he couldn’t find one that wouldn’t crack his head in half if it hit him.

The day started with much moaning and groaning from both brothers. Hyden’s head hurt badly. It was not so much the actual wound that bothered him, but a deep, inner ache that felt like a hot rock was loose inside his skull. Every little move he made caused the rock to roll around and scald another part of his brain.

Gerard was no better off. Like burning wires cutting through his muscles, his pain spread throughout his shoulders, back and legs. His movements took great effort and came with audible strain, but he didn’t dare voice a complaint. He didn’t want to hear Hyden razz him for whining.

Hyden managed to boil some water over the fire. At least Little Condlin built the blaze up before he left. Hyden added chicory root and some gum leaf to the pot and the warm, thick smell of the brew brought Gerard to the fire with his cup in hand. The dark, flavorful liquid put a little energy into their bodies and helped leech out some of the aches and pains. After a few cups, they felt well enough to break camp and start back to the harvest lodges.

While Hyden doused the fire, Gerard was waiting to go. Hyden went to grab the shoulder pack that held the eggs his brother harvested for him, but stopped suddenly. He heard a sound coming from inside the bag.

“Oh no!” he said, thinking that one of the eggs had broken.

“Are they all right?” Gerard asked with concern. He watched Hyden’s face from where he stood, trying to gauge his brother’s reaction to what he saw as he peered into the bag. He expected to see either relief or anguish spread across Hyden’s face, but what he saw was a strange, somewhat confused look. The odd expression slowly morphed into a wide-eyed grin full of wonder and amazement. The curiosity to know what Hyden was looking at overwhelmed Gerard, and he hurried over to his brother’s side to see for himself.

Hyden reached into the bag carefully. His cupped hand came out with a squeaking little hawkling chick in it. As Gerard knelt down beside him, Hyden worked a piece of jerked venison from his pack with his free hand. He tore a piece off with his teeth and chewed it vigorously.

“Do you think it’s the prophesy bird?” Gerard asked, with a look from the bird to his brother and back. “Or was it just bad keep moss?”

“I—mmm—don’t—mmm—know?” Hyden answered as he chewed. Once the venison was softened, he spat a wad of the chewed-up meat into his hand. He dangled the meat over the little gray chick’s snapping beak and it gobbled the stuff up greedily. Immediately, it started squawking for more. Hyden bit off another piece of the meat, chewed it up, and fed it to the hungry bird. With Gerard’s help, he made a makeshift nest out of his rough-spun shirt. Once the little chick was nestled in, it immediately fell asleep.

By all rights, it was Hyden’s egg that hatched, but it was Gerard who harvested it. Hyden turned to his brother with a serious look on his face.

“You brought it down from the cliff, but it hatched after you gave it to me. I don’t know if it could be the legend or not, but if it is, who is the chosen one? Me or you?”

“The Elders will know,” Gerard said, trying to remember the exact words of the prophetic campfire story. He realized after a moment that it was no use. He had heard the story told a dozen different ways.

The most common version of the legend stated that one day a clansman’s harvest would be blessed by the Goddess in the form of a special egg. Even keep moss wouldn’t keep this supposedly blessed egg from hatching. The lucky clansman and his hawkling were supposed to bond and then go off into the world to do extraordinary things together. They would have adventures far beyond imagining. They would travel beyond the mountains and across the seas, and their lives would be exciting. They would serve the Goddess abroad and possibly earn a place in the heavens at her side.

After Hyden shouldered the pack with the five remaining eggs in it, he carefully picked up the shirt nest with both hands. Gerard led the way out of the canyon and as they skirted the forest, he took extra care to make sure no branches or footfalls hindered his brother’s way. The trail wasn’t long, but it was rocky in places and awkward. It was meant to remain hidden, so it took them a while to make the short journey to the harvest lodges.

They made it to the small group of crude huts by midmorning. They tried to make it to their grandfather’s hut with as little notice as possible, but it was impossible. Tales of Gerard’s leap from the day before had made it back to the lodges already, told by clansmen who watched the cliff face from afar. A handful of younger boys rushed forth to question Gerard about it. Because the clan women weren’t allowed at the harvest, the boys who weren’t yet old enough to climb were starved for attention and ran wild like a pack of scavengers. They wanted to know how well Gerard’s second harvest went, and if Gerard and Hyden knew how well Little Condlin had done. Gerard shooed them away as best he could, but a few of them spied the hawkling chick in Hyden’s hands and grew overly excited. It took only moments for the tale of the gift the Goddess had bestowed upon Gerard, or maybe Hyden, to reach every set of ears at the lodges.

Having just heard the news from a group of his grandnephews, Hyden and Gerard’s grandfather received them well. He quickly ushered them through the door to his shabby little hut. He gave an angry scowl to the line of boys that followed, which sent them scurrying every direction but forward. With that, he pulled the elk skin door closed and tied it fast.

“On the table, boy,” Grandfather said, with an excited grin on his wrinkled, old face.

Hyden set the bundle down gently on the table, while Gerard found their grandfather’s food box and pulled out some bread and cheese as if he owned the place. In council and in public, this man was the Eldest of the clan. All of the Skylers treated him with the utmost respect, but here inside his harvest hut, just like in his home, he was simply the grandfather of two excited boys.

He leaned over the table and studied the chick for a moment, then he brushed the long, silver-streaked hair out of his face and sat down. He motioned for the boys to do the same, indicating Gerard could bring the bread and cheese with him.

“This is a wondrous thing,” he said in his deep, scratchy voice. “Great things will come of this.” He looked to Gerard, then to Hyden, and the smile on his face slowly faded. “But there is the potential for terrible things as well.”

Gerard handed Hyden some bread and cut them both some of the cheese as he spoke.

“The story says a man will harvest an egg and it will hatch for him. Then, he and the hawkling will go off and do great things together.”

“Aye, Gerard,” their grandfather agreed. “That the story does say.”

He stood slowly, then walked to the other side of the little hut and began rummaging through a pile of old furs and leather satchels.

“The story though, is just that. It’s a story. The true legend is written in the old language—the language of dragons and wizards. It may or may not be a true prophesy. The Elders and I have often argued that.”

He stopped speaking suddenly as something came to him. He dug around some more, then pulled an object out of an old bag made from the skin of some shaggy mountain animal.

“Here it is!” he exclaimed. “My father’s translation.” He opened the tattered volume and looked at the pages for a while.

A few long moments passed, so long that it began to appear he forgot the two boys sitting at his table.

Hyden looked at his brother with a grin. He was about to clear his throat to politely remind the old man of their presence, but the hawkling chick did the job for him.

The little featherless bird wiggled his body and rose trembling to its tiny, clawed feet. It extended its neck up into the air, opened its beak, and began screeching for food. Gerard immediately pulled some jerky from his pack and gave it to his older brother. Hyden chewed it up just like before. Once the meat was soft, he gave it to the bird.

“Is this the first time you’ve fed it?” their grandfather asked with a look of childish excitement on his old face. He seemed to have forgotten his book entirely now, and he watched with rapt attention as Hyden took out another piece of chewed meat and fed it to the hungry bird.

“Mmm—no,” Hyden answered as he chewed. “I fed it—mmm—once this—mmm—morn.”

“Then it will be your familiar,” the old man said matter-of-factly. It was the voice of the clan Eldest speaking now, not their grandfather. “It will bond with you alone now, Hyden. You’re its mother.”

All eyes seemed to fall on Gerard at that moment, searching for some sign of disappointment or other ill reaction to the decision. Gerard wasn’t very upset. He had the ring, after all. Besides, he told himself, what respectable clansman wanted to be a mother?

“I and the Elders who are here at harvest will hold a council on this at moonrise,” their grandfather informed them as he opened up the old book again. “Stay near the lodges this night. We will want to speak to you about this… both of you,” he added before Gerard could ask the question that was already formed on the tip of his tongue.

Walking with his face in the old book, the Eldest gracefully shouldered his way through the elk skin door and was gone.

Chapter 3

“Where ye headed, Mik?” Ruddy, the nightshift stable master at Lakeside Castle’s Royal Stables, asked.

“Can’t say,” Mikahl replied. Mikahl was the King of Westland’s personal squire, and the king had told him with much distress in his voice to prepare for a long journey, and to do so quietly. Mikahl was almost certain that by “quietly“, the king meant undetected. Mikahl asked if he should prepare the king’s mount as well, and the answer was firm. “You’ll be going alone, Mik, and the journey will be a long one. No one can suspect you’re leaving.”

The conversation took place a short while ago when Mikahl and the king were alone, just after the feast for the Summer’s Day delegation. The oddness of it was just now starting to sink in. “Just be ready, Mik,” King Balton told him. “I’ll try to send for you and give you more instruction later this night.”

All of this was very cryptic to Mikahl. King Balton, the ruler of all of Westland, seemed afraid. The way he’d cleared the entire dining hall and whispered into Mikahl’s ear with wild, darting eyes, was unnerving. To top it off, the king sent Mikahl out through the back of the kitchens so the bulk of the nobility and the castle’s staff would not see him depart. King Balton had never acted like this before, at least not around Mikahl. It was all very strange and Mikahl was beginning to worry about the king’s health. The man was fairly old, no one could doubt, but he had never acted like this before. Maybe he’d reached the end of his rope?

“Bah!” Mikahl chided himself for thinking such thoughts. King Balton was a great man; fair and wise beyond measure. He had been terribly kind to Mikahl, and his mother, before she died. There had to be something wrong. The sudden journey must be extremely important for it to be so secret and cause the king such distress.

Mikahl looked at the nosy stable master, thought about it for a second, then pulled a small but fancy silver flask out of his saddlebag.

“They never tell me where I’m going or why,” Mikahl lied. “But it doesn’t matter at the moment because I’ve been itching to try this. I filled it from the royal cask at dinner.”

“King Balton’s own brandy?” Ruddy asked eagerly.

“The very same.” Mikahl took a sip and passed it to the man. “Missy, the servant girl, held the table’s attention by leaning over and wiggling her arse while I filled my tin.”

Mikahl pretended to sip and let the stable master slowly finish off the flask. His story worked like a charm. The size of Missy’s breasts was well known to every man on the castle staff. They were so large that even the priests couldn’t keep their eyes off them. In truth, Mikahl drank from the king’s cask often. Doing so was just one of the many benefits that came with his job as King’s Squire.

There wasn’t enough liquor in the flask to put Ruddy down, but it was enough to dull his wits. With thoughts of Missy’s giant breasts swirling around in his head, his mind wouldn’t dwell on Mikahl and his business. At least Mikahl hoped not.

Just as Mikahl finished loading his packhorse, a man peeked through the stable doors. After wrinkling his nose at the fresh, horsey smell, he told Mikahl that King Balton required his presence again – immediately.

As Mikahl followed the scurrying servant through the castle’s myriad of torch-lit hallways, it became clear they weren’t going to the council chamber, or the throne room, or even back to the dining hall. The ancient castle was a monstrosity of towers, hallways, apartments, and gardens, all added one on top of the other. Mikahl was born in the servants’ wing almost twenty years ago. He spent his entire youth running the castle’s halls and corridors, but he still hadn’t managed to see it all. The fourth flight of stairs they climbed told him exactly where they were going, though. They were going to the king’s personal bed chamber. Mikahl had visited the Royal Apartment only once since becoming the king’s squire.

As they topped the stairs and turned from the landing to face the Royal Apartment’s large oak double doors, Lord Alvin Gregory came out. He was extremely pale, and the look of sadness on his face sent a chill through Mikahl’s blood.

Lord Gregory was the king’s good friend and most trusted adviser. He was also the current Lord of Lake Bottom Stronghold and was known across the entire realm as the Lion Lord, or Lord Lion. This was because he fought with great courage, pride, and skill. He was the epitome of bravery and a famous Summer’s Day brawling champion, but he looked nothing like that fierce and brave champion at the moment. His normally bright green eyes were haunted, and his expression was dark and grave.

Mikahl was Lord Gregory’s squire for three years prior to becoming the king’s squire. Lord Gregory taught him the proper etiquette, customs, and everything else he needed to know to serve at King Balton’s side. The days Mikahl spent at Lake Bottom learning from the Lion Lord were days he cherished deeply. The man was his mentor and his friend, and he could plainly tell something horrible was afoot.

Lord Gregory walked up to Mikahl and touched him on the cheek. He looked at the young squire long and hard, then forced a smile. He gave Mikahl a nod that seemed to be full of equal parts respect and regret, then vanished down the stairwell without a word. Mikahl watched the empty air at the top of the landing long after Lord Lion disappeared. The next thing he knew, the servant was pulling him by the sleeve toward the king’s chambers.

The apartment was hot and silent. A dozen candles and a dim flickering lantern barely illuminated the beautifully furnished room. Mikahl expected to see the king sitting in one of his high-backed chairs or on one of the plush divans, but he was in his bed under piles of thick covers.

“Ah, Mikahl,” the king said weakly. A tired smile spread across his slick, gray face. Mikahl almost didn’t recognize this man as his king. Balton Collum looked so near to death that it made Mikahl’s head spin.

A sharp glance from the king sent the servants and the black-robed priest who was attending him quickly out the door. As soon as they were alone, King Balton motioned for Mikahl to come sit at the edge of the bed.

“We haven’t time to parley, Mik,” the old man rasped. “The poison has almost run its course.”

“Poison?” Mikahl was aghast. Who would do such a thing? The king was loved and respected by all. Mikahl was shocked speechless as he slid off the edge of the bed and knelt before the man who was the closest thing to a father he had ever known. He wondered how long the King knew he was poisoned? King Balton seemed a little too accepting of the situation. Was that what all the secrecy was about? Was he dying? The look in King Balton’s eyes said so, but to Mikahl it didn’t make any sense.

“Go to the temple by the north road gate,” King Balton whispered. “Father Petri has something for you to take with you on your journey. Take what he gives you deep into the Giant Mountains. A giant named Borg will find you and lead you to his King.”

As if saying all of that had leeched the life from the poisoned old man, his head lulled to the side. For a long while all that moved were his eyeballs and his heaving chest.

Mikahl wiped a stray tear from his cheek.

“Borg?” he asked. Who in all the hells is Borg?

“—esss. He is the Southern Guardian,” the dying king rasped almost inaudibly. “Go deep into the Giant Mountains, Mik. He will find you and lead you. Deliver Father Petri’s package to the King of the Giants.”

Unable to comprehend anything other than the fact his king was dying before his eyes, Mikahl ran to the door and ushered in the priest and the servants who were attending him before.

He stood there, watching in horror. One of the servants helped King Balton drink from a cup, while the priest started saying a prayer that Mikahl remembered all too well from his mother’s funeral a few years past.

Suddenly, the king’s arm shot up and he pointed directly at the door. Wide, white eyes full of authority and love locked onto Mikahl’s. The king was ordering him to go. After wiping the tears from his face, he went and did his best not to look back. It was the hardest thing he had ever done.

Ruddy, the Stable Master, mumbled something angrily at Mikahl as he reentered the stalls. The man was busy readying two other horses for departure. One was already saddled and the other was waiting patiently for the half-drunken stableman. It was far too late for a jaunt through the woods. Mikahl recognized one of the horses as belonging to Lord Brach and that made him worry.

Lord Brach, the lord of Westland’s northern territories, was Prince Glendar’s constant companion. Lord Brach and that creepy, bald-headed wizard, Pael, never seemed to leave the side of the heir to the Westland throne. Lord Boot-licker, King Balton had often called Brach in private, because the man agreed to everything that Prince Glendar or the wizard suggested. Mikahl was far from a nobleman and he didn’t meddle in the games they played, but he knew Prince Glendar was about to assume the throne now, and the rotten fool hadn’t been in his father’s favor for many years. Prince Glendar would gain the most from King Balton’s death. In Mikahl’s eyes, Prince Glendar or one of his men was most likely the murderer. Why else would they be preparing to ride at this time of the night?

Mikahl suddenly realized the very same thing would be said of his departure. As King Balton’s personal squire, he had enough access to have easily slipped him some poison. He would be a suspect, but Lord Gregory and his wife, Lady Trella, would vouch for his integrity. Everyone close to King Balton knew Mikahl loved and respected his king dearly. The problem was that soon-to-be King Glendar didn’t like Lord Gregory, nor did he know his own father’s heart very well. If Glendar had a part in his own father’s murder, then Mikahl could easily end up being the scapegoat. It didn’t matter at the moment though; his king had given him orders from the deathbed. He would find this giant named Borg and deliver Father Petri’s package to the King of the Giants, or he would die trying to do so.

Mikahl didn’t want Lord Brach or his men following him. He had to find a way to slow them down. He walked over to where Ruddy was working and tapped the unsuspecting man on the shoulder. As the Stable Master turned, Mikahl slugged him heavily across the jaw. Ruddy fell into a heap on the stable’s dirty floor. Mikahl then led the two other horses to the running pen behind the stable. He sent them galloping off into the darkness with a sharp slap on their rumps.

Wasting no time in preparing for his own departure, he mounted his horse, Windfoot, and led his packhorse out the unattended gate that opened onto the cobbled streets of the inner city. He did exactly as King Balton instructed him to do, and went straight to the chapel.

Father Petri was expecting him. The priest seemed both sad and nervous as he led Mikahl and both of his horses up the entry steps and into the chapel.

The chapel’s vaulted ceiling was high overhead and row after row of empty wooden pews spread out to each side. Sitting on a horse whose clomping hoof beats echoed loudly and deeply into the huge and otherwise empty chamber, Mikahl felt very out of place. As they made their way down the center aisle toward the altar, the gods and goddesses all seemed to be scowling down at him from their permanent places in the colored glass along the higher reaches of the walls. One of the horses whinnied nervously and the ghastly sound sent a chill snaking up Mikahl’s back.

“Come, Mikahl,” the priest said. He took the reins of the packhorse from Mikahl and led them out of the worship hall, down a long corridor, through several arched doorways, then into a large, nearly empty room at the back of the church. Mikahl had never seen this room before and it shocked him. It was not the sort of room he would have ever expected to find in a hall of worship. One entire wall was a huge, steel-banded door that resembled a gate. Two of the other three walls were covered with pegs. Hanging from the pegs were hundreds of weapons: swords, crossbows, long bows and pikes as well as shields, helmets, and miscellaneous pieces of chain and plate armor.

“It’s a secret way out of the castle for the king in the event of a siege.” Father Petri answered the question in Mikahl’s mind. “You follow the briar path to the right, along the wall, until you come to the discharge drains. Then follow the smelly stream away from the castle until you are well into the Northwood. Stay away from the city. People are about in Castleview even in the late hours. If you have to, stay in the woods until you reach Crossington. Once you are that far north, you should be safe to go wherever the king has told you to go.”

Mikahl hoped to gain some insight from Father Petri as to whom Borg was and where exactly he was supposed to go, but the priest’s last statement indicated he was unaware of Mikahl’s destination. Mikahl had at least a dozen questions he wanted to ask, but he held his tongue. He did ask the one question that couldn’t wait.

“King Balton said you had something for me. What?” This was all too much for Mikahl to understand, so he tried not to think about it. He knew what he had been told to do. It wasn’t his place to question it.

Father Petri gave a short nod, reached into his robes, and produced an ornate leather scroll case.

“This is the message for you to deliver.” He bent down, lifting something heavy from the floor, and offered it up to Mikahl. It was a long, black leather sleeve, such as might be used to protect a prized longbow or an expensive two-piece staff. Mikahl carefully secured the scroll case in his saddlebag and took the item.

He knew what it was the moment he felt the weight of it in his hands. The consequences of having it came flooding into his brain and he almost dropped it in fear. He had to search deeply in his heart for courage. It was Ironspike, King Balton’s notorious sword. He knew because he had polished it a thousand times as part of his duty as the king’s squire. He had seen firsthand the wealth of gold and jewels inlaid into the leather-wrapped hilt and cross guard. He had seen the covetous looks of those who longed to possess it, and he had seen the fear it could inspire. He had watched the magical blade glow red hot as it clipped Lord Clyle’s insolent head from his shoulders, and he remembered vividly seeing King Balton dispatch at least a dozen of the feral half-Breed giants with it during the Battle of Coldfrost. Its actual weight was slight compared to his old iron sword, but holding it now made Mikahl want to crumble.

“You are not to use it, unless it is to preserve your life, or to maintain possession of the blade.” The priest softened his serious look. “But always remember your life is more important than the sword.”

Mikahl looked at the priest with furrowed brows. This was the deadliest of burdens for him to carry and he knew it.

“To use it would attract men to me like carrion to a carcass,” he said. “How am I to—?”

“We!” Father Petri snapped, raising a hand to halt Mikahl’s protests. His voice was harsh and the man looked distressed to say the least.

“We do not have to understand the tasks we are given, Squire.”

The use of Mikahl’s meager title, and the reference it implied as to the origin of his orders, permeated the priest’s words.

“We have to do as we are told, Mikahl, and do it the best we can.”

Mikahl swallowed hard. He felt the need to be on his way. Prince Glendar, soon-to-be King Glendar, would most likely want Ironspike immediately. Once the sword was found to be missing, Glendar’s cronies and his wizard, Pael, would be after it. Mikahl could see it now: a dozen lords and all of their men would be hunting him, a huge price on his head; bounty men and trackers, coming from all reaches of the realm to try to claim the reward King Glendar would surely offer. Suddenly, the Giant Mountains seemed like the safest place for him to be, and with each passing moment, he found more and more reasons to reach them quickly.

After a brief goodbye, Father Petri cranked open the great door and Mikahl eased out into the night. A glance up at Lakeside Castle put a twist in Mikahl’s guts and a lump in his throat. He lived there most of his life. His mother had been a kitchen hand, and he himself had been in the service of the kingdom in one way or another since he could walk. At first, he had been a message runner and a candle-snuffer. Then, he was a stable hand, and even a scribe’s aide for a while. As he grew older, he began training with the soldiers, and had excelled with his skills on the weapons yard to the point of notice. Lord Gregory took him on as a squire, and he spent almost three years down at Lake Bottom Stronghold learning the proper ways to behave while in the service of royalty. Other than the not so distant traveling he’d done with the king as his squire, he had never been away from this place. Now, he was leaving his home, and he doubted he would ever be able to return.

Because his mother died, he didn’t have any real family here, but both King Balton and Lord Gregory had become father figures to him. He had never known who his real father was, but he had never really been without guidance until now. Now, he was alone.

Knowing his possession of Ironspike was a secret known only to a dying king and his loyal priest, Mikahl realized he would soon be branded a thief of the highest order, or worse, a murderer. Ruddy would tell everyone about Mikahl’s late night preparations. Being the king’s squire meant he would have had full access to the king’s private armory. Not only would he be blamed for poisoning the king, he would most likely be blamed for taking the sword as well. These things were forgotten, though, as he looked back at his home. He was on a journey to meet a giant he didn’t know, with an entire kingdom soon to be on his tail. He couldn’t imagine being any more alone than he felt at that moment. He took a deep breath and sighed at the sheer enormity of it all.

The castle no longer looked inviting or homey. Its looming, massive gray bulk, with the half-dozen squat towers and the few taller, narrower spires, suddenly seemed like a dark upthrust of teeth. Would he ever be able to come back? He took a few minutes to say goodbye silently to his mother and wiped the tears from his cheeks. King Balton’s voice came to him gently and reassuringly. “Think, then act,” it said in his mind. It was one of the king’s favorite sayings. When indecision halted the progress of a situation or things came to an impasse, he would say, “Think, then act.”

Think, then act. Mikahl repeated the mantra to himself.

Reluctantly, he spurred Windfoot away from the stinking discharge stream and went deeper into the Northwood. He rode like that for a while, until he was sure Castleview, the city that grew from the base of Lakeside Castle’s outer wall, was far behind him. It was dark and he was surrounded by the thick of the forest, but he thought he knew exactly where he was. Now all he had to do was figure out a way to reach his destination without being caught.

The distant sound of horses’ hooves pounding on a hard-packed road caused a nearby owl to burst into flight. Mikahl froze, trying to discern over the pounding of his heart, just how close to him those hoof beats were. He realized he was very close—far too close—to the Northroad. He was relieved to hear the rider was racing toward the castle, not away from it. It was probably just a messenger from Portsmouth or Crossington; nothing out of the ordinary.

Mikahl had a choice to make. He could chance the road, make time, and risk being seen, or he could continue through the Northwood, and arrive at the Midway Passage road somewhere beyond Crossington. One way he would be able to enter the Reyhall Forest without being seen, but the other way would take him there a full day sooner. He didn’t want to be seen in Crossington. It was a fairly large town, but the people were always alert to late night travelers. Many a bandit roamed those roads, searching for easy victims t

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an excerpt from

Copyright © 2014 by Cheryl Kaye Tardif and published here with her permission


by Cheryl Kaye Tardif

There is surely a piece of divinity in us,

something that was before the elements,

and owes no homage unto the sun.

~ Sir Thomas Browne

Intervention – to occur or lie between two things

~ Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary



It always began with the dead girl in her closet.

Every night when little Jasmine opened that closet door she expected to see lovely dresses and hangers―not a child her age strung up by a pink skipping rope, her body dangling above the floor…unmoving.

The dead girl had long blond hair. Her blue eyes stared blindly and were surrounded by large black circles. Her mouth hung open in a soundless scream. The pink rope was tied tightly around her neck, a thick pink necklace of death. A purplish-black bruise was visible and ugly.

The most unusual thing about the girl, other than the fact that she was swinging from a rope in Jasmine’s closet, was that her skin and clothing were scorched.

Gagging, little Jasmine stepped back in horror.

When the girl’s lifeless body swayed gently from a sudden breeze Jasmine let loose a cry of terror and raced down the stairs, searching anxiously for her parents.


Her throat was constricted and dry.


Then she screamed. “Mommy, I need you! Help me!”

In the lower hallway, the shadows quickly surrounded her.

Then she saw them.

Red eyes flashing angrily at the end of the hall.

Jasmine took a hesitant step backward. She tried to run but her feet would not cooperate. Her small body began to shake while the eyes followed her.

Glancing over her shoulder, she noticed a listless form moving toward her, arms outstretched―pleading.

The girl from the closet wasn’t dead anymore.

Blistered hands reached for Jasmine.

The girl’s mouth yawned and a horrendous shriek emerged.

Trapped and terrified, Jasmine began to scream…


Monday, June 18, 2012

~ Vancouver, BC

Agent Jasi McLellan awoke from her nightmare screaming and drenched in sweat. Irritated by a piercing sound, she turned her pounding head and glanced at the wall beside her.

A technologically advanced video-screened wall, or vid-wall, had recently been added to her daunting security system. The wall was divided into four monitors―each coded for different activities.

The message screen flashed brightly.

Someone was trying to contact her.

“Receive message,” she croaked.

She was rewarded with silence.

Jasi eyed the clock. 5:30 in the goddamn morning. Who the hell would be calling her this early on her day off?

Glaring words flashed across the monitor followed by a voice, deep and urgent. “Jasi, we need you! Ben.”

She was suddenly wide awake.

“Message for Ben.”

When the system connected with Ben’s data-communicator, she said, “Give me fifteen minutes. End message.”

She glanced at the words on the screen and realized her holiday was over. She wondered for a moment what was so important that Ben had to interrupt her downtime. With two days left, she had hoped to catch up on some much-needed rest.

Crawling from beneath the sweat-soaked sheets, she crouched on the edge of the bed and reached for her portable data-com.

She checked the calendar.

A black X was scribbled over the date.

“Oh God,” she moaned.

Today was her twenty-sixth birthday.

Jasi hated birthdays.

She pushed herself off her bed. In the dark, her toe connected sharply with the corner of the dresser and she let out a startled yelp.

“Ensuite lights on, low!”

Her Home Security & Environmental Control System immediately raised the lighting to a soft muted glow. Some days she was very thankful she had allowed Ben to install H-SECS in her new apartment. Of course, on the days when she couldn’t remember a command or the security code to her weapons safe, Ben would get an earful.

Limping to the bathroom, Jasi shook her head.

Could this day possibly get any worse? Maybe I should go back to bed…wake up tomorrow.

She hugged her arms close to her chest and stepped into the ensuite bathroom. Parking her butt on the toilet, she stared at her throbbing toe. Scowling, she stood up, leaned tiredly against the sink and examined her reflection.

That’s when she remembered her recurring nightmare.

“Why can’t you leave me alone?” she whispered to a dead girl who wasn’t there.

Frowning at her puffy, shadowed green eyes, Jasi splashed cool water on her face and rested her elbows on the edge of the sink. She traced a finger over the small scar that ran down the left side of her chin. It was barely noticeable, except to her.

Spurring herself into action, she cast a self-deprecating glance at her hazy image and then headed for the shower.

“Shower on, massage, 110 degrees,” she commanded as she removed her panties and nightshirt. “Radio on, volume 7.”

Music from her favorite rock station pounded in through the ceiling speakers as she stumbled into the large shower stall. Stretching hesitantly, she relaxed her tense muscles and breathed a sigh of relief when the steamy water sent thoughts of a dead girl swirling down the drain.

Jasi lathered her long auburn hair and stood under the spray, allowing the water to massage her scalp. Grimacing, she slid a wide-toothed comb through the tangled mess of wavy locks. Her hair had a mind of its own. More than once Jasi had threatened to chop it off but she was afraid she’d end up with a ‘fro.

Couldn’t have that. No one would take her seriously.

Her central data-com beeped suddenly.

Her fifteen minutes were up.

Cursing under her breath, she spit toothpaste into the sink, barely missing the soap dispenser.

“Data-com on!”

“Hey there, sunshine!” a male voice boomed. “You miss us?” Benjamin Roberts, her friend and partner, didn’t wait for a response. “Divine has issued a Command Meet. He says he’s sorry to cut your downtime short but we need you.”

His voice followed Jasi as she returned to her bedroom and ordered the lights on full.

She sighed loudly. “It’s not like I have anything better to do today. Like relax, go to a movie, or hook up with a handsome stranger for a night of passion.”

She eyed the closet nervously, then whipped the door open and stepped back, unsure of what or who might emerge.

No one was there.

“Hey, am I interrupting something?”

She grabbed some clothes, slamming the door quickly.

“I wish! What’s up, Ben?”

Stepping into a pair of casual slacks and a light blouse, she waited for her partner’s answer.

“You still in the shower, Jasi? Maybe you should put up the vid-wall.” She heard him snicker.

“Yeah right!”

“We caught a case near Kelowna―a fire.” Ben’s voice grew serious. “One victim, Dr. Norman Washburn, ER doc at Kelowna General.”

Jasi frowned, and strapped on a shoulder harness.


She hadn’t been there in years. Not since the disastrous Okanagan Mountain forest fires of 2003. Now, nine years later, she would be returning. She’d have to take some precautions, prepare herself.

“Why’d they call us?”

“Sorry, Jasi. I know you’re still officially on downtime, but this one is bad. They found a link to another fire. Two victims―a mother and child in Victoria. Unsolved.”

There was a long silence.


She heard a soft chuckle on the other end. “By the way, Jasi, Happy Birthday.”

“How’d they link that one to the doctor?” she asked, ignoring the reference to her birthday.

When he told her what the crime scene investigators had found at the scene, Jasi grabbed her 9-millimeter Beretta, checked the safety and jammed it into the holster. Then she dashed from the apartment―a shadow hot on her heels.

A cab dropped her off at an isolated address in the West End. On the roof of a seedy-looking warehouse, a helicopter waited, its engine camouflaged by the busy drone of the streets below. Vancouver was a city in perpetual motion. A city that never slept.

Hiking her handbag over one shoulder, Jasi keyed in her security access code and spoke her name into the VR box. The Voice Recognition program was the latest addition to security.

When the door opened, she stepped inside a small airlock. A man in army greens and a brush-cut greeted her. He was loosely carrying a rifle in one hand.

“Hey, Thomas,” she waved.

The weapons tech was tall and muscular, with a face like a pit-bull. Recognizing her, he cracked what was his idea of a smile. “Agent McLellan. Good to see you back.”

Jasi removed the Beretta from her pocket and laid it in a clear plastic tray. The tray was carried on a conveyor into a hole in the wall where the gun was scanned and the registration was recorded.

Thomas buzzed her through.

She followed a short hallway that opened to a large room filled with computers and electronic equipment. Another guard escorted her through a body scan, metal and powder detector and a fingerprint analyzer.

The last stage was the Retinal Scanner Device.

“I spy with my little eye,” the RSD tech, Vanda, greeted her cheerfully.

“Eyes that are puffy and bagged…and belong to a sixty-year-old,” Jasi muttered when the RSD clicked off and Vanda waved her on.

“For a sixty-year-old, you’re lookin’ pretty damned good, girl,” the woman teased.

“Yeah? Well, next time Divine calls me out on my downtime, I’ll roll over and play dead!”

Jasi neared the final scanning gate.

It examined the small tracking device that had been surgically implanted in her navel. The tracker was used when an agent went missing―and for identification purposes. Especially if an agent’s body was recovered in an unrecognizable state.

Benjamin Roberts greeted her from the other side of the gate. “Pass on through, oh Queen of Darkness.” He made a sweeping motion with his black-gloved hand.

Thomas slid the tray with her gun toward Ben.

Examining it, Ben said, “You know, Jasi, we do have better weapons than this old thing.”

She shrugged. “I know. But it has sentimental value.”

He handed her the gun.

“Happy Birthday, Agent McLellan,” Thomas called out.

Jasi glared at Ben, her eyes shooting daggers. “What’d you do? Take out an ad in the newspaper?”

“Naw, just a vid-wall ad on Hastings,” he said, laughing. “Ouch! Watch that elbow!”

Jasi examined her co-worker, taking in his broad shoulders and gray eyes. Benjamin Roberts was in his mid-thirties. He was a tall striking man who wore Armani suits like a second skin fitted to every contour of his muscular body.

“New ones?” she asked, indicating his gloved hands.

“I needed a better lining.”

She thought of how challenging it must be for him.

Ben was a Psychometric Empath.

If he touched someone, he often sensed flashes of thought or emotion. He wore specially designed gloves when he was out in public. Inside the black leather gloves, a protective coating blocked his empathic abilities. It was essential that he keep his mind fresh, so that he could focus on each case without unnecessary interruptions.

Ben was also an expert in various martial arts and the best profiler the CFBI had. He had been with the Canadian Federal Bureau of Investigators for over fifteen years, before it was ever known as the CFBI.

Back in the late 1990’s, the Canadian government requested a more ‘open-door’ policy with the United States―and the sharing of information. It started with computer programs designed to be accessed from either country so that information on every criminal perpetrator, rapist, pedophile, kidnapper, or serial killer was available at the touch of a keyboard. CSIS was still dedicated to protecting Canada’s national security and focused primarily on international terrorist activities.

Then in 2003, the CFBI was formally introduced as a Canadian counterpart to the previously established FBI organization in the US. Eventually the CFBI took over CSIS and integrated a variety of divisions. Agents were employed and deployed from either side of the border, anywhere they were needed.

Some agents were Psychic Skills Investigators―PSI’s.

Of course, the public was naively unaware that both governments were implementing the use of psychics. Even now, in 2012, it was a closely guarded secret.

“Hey, Jasi! Ben! Over here!” a woman called.

Jasi’s other partner, Natassia Prushenko, was tall and leggy―and had breasts Jasi would kill for. Her black hair was razor-cut in a short wispy style. Her sapphire eyes twinkled mysteriously. It had been almost two weeks since they had seen each other but Jasi immediately sensed that something was different about Natassia. Something other than the copper streaks in her jet-black hair.

Natassia passed her a sealed manila envelope.

Then she gave a similar envelope to Ben, saluting him cockily. “Agent Prushenko, reporting for duty, sir.”

“Aw, cut it out, Natassia,” Ben growled, rolling his gray eyes before pulling himself into the helicopter.

The woman smirked, then climbed in beside him. “Aye, aye, mon capitaine.”

Jasi curiously eyed Natassia.

Why, she wondered, was her friend grinning like a Cheshire cat?

When Ben leaned forward to talk to the pilot, Jasi nudged Natassia’s leg.

“You’d better tell me what’s going on.”


Jasi shrugged, then stared out the window. They were flying low under the canopy of clouds. As always, the beautiful British Columbia scenery with its lush forests and majestic snowcapped mountains entranced her.

When the flight ended, they landed safely on the heliport in the center of a gated complex. Perched high on the electric wall, numerous cameras zoomed in on their arrival. A sterile concrete field surrounded two large buildings in the center of the complex. Both held a reception area and countless offices.

Most were empty―a front.

To civilians, the complex was known as Enviro-Safe Research Facility. To Jasi and the rest of the CFBI, it was Divine Operations. Or Divine Ops, as most agents referred to it. But the real Divine Ops was not visible. It was actually a maze of underground tunnels and offices more than fifty feet below the surface.

“Well, now I know this is a big one,” Natassia mouthed, her eyes glittering darkly while she followed Jasi from the heliport.

On the tarmac ahead of them, a man paced restlessly.

“Yeah,” Jasi agreed. “A power-figure must be involved. I think this fire has someone hot under the collar.”

She nudged Natassia and they hurried toward the creator of Divine Ops.

Matthew Divine’s investigation of psychic phenomenon had initiated the construction of the first PSI training facility in Canada. The Federal government had listed the building as nothing more than a laboratory―one that researched the environment and its effect on people, animals, plant life and weather patterns.

The locals knew nothing of the CFBI’s presence. They were unaware that a web of offices existed underground, stocked with high tech computer equipment. They had no idea that the people they saw flying in and out of Enviro-Safe were highly trained government agents with specialized psychic skills.

They did know that Matthew Divine and Enviro-Safe had brought prosperity to the area. When Enviro-Safe was first built, there was one existing town nearby. Originally called Mont Blanc, the town’s name was changed in 2005.

Through a unanimous town council vote, it was renamed Divine.

Jasi straightened to her full five feet, eight inches as she reached Matthew Divine. He was a man of average height, average looks but above average intelligence. His long gray hair was tied back with a strip of leather. Intense brown eyes were framed with outdated tortoise-shell glasses. No one dared ask him why he hadn’t gone for the ever-popular SEE―sectional eye enhancement―to restore his vision.

Divine’s arms were crossed.

The grim expression on his clean-shaven face made Jasi gasp.

A serial killer was on the prowl.


Jasi followed Divine while he led the PSI team into the primary operations station―Ops One. An assortment of security scanners recorded each agent’s various stats before admitting them to a small corridor. The same programmers that designed H-SECS created the Divine Ops security system. Ever since the kidnapping and murder of the Prime Minister in 2008, security programmers had been rallying to design a system that was impenetrable and virtually flawless.

Jasi allowed a technician to scan her with the paranormal electroencephalograph unit, an apparatus that recorded brain waves and psychic residue. This security precaution safeguarded PSI agents against overuse of their skills.

Heaving a sigh of relief, she smiled when the PEU flashed green. She was clear.

“Welcome back, Agent McLellan,” Divine finally said with a curt nod. “I hope you enjoyed your well-deserved holiday. Sorry I had to cut it short. Have you been given details of the case?”

Jasi held up the envelope. “Ben told me that the killer left something behind…a lighter?”

Divine pulled her aside. “A Gemini lighter. Same as the one you received in the mail two months ago, Agent McLellan. The same brand found at a fire in Victoria last month.”

They waited for Ben and Natassia to clear security, and then the four of them crowded into an elevator. When the elevator doors opened, an electronic voice informed them that they had reached the PSI floor where an expansive maze of halls and pale mauve cubicles lay before them.

“Happy Birthday, Agent McLellan,” a co-worker greeted her.

Jasi whacked Ben in the arm, hard.

They wove through the maze of hallways, passing agents and technicians engrossed in their work. Artificial light hovered over occupied cubicles while the empty ones remained in darkness.

Abstract paintings lined the wall―someone’s attempt at personalizing the underground lair. One painting showed a window opening onto a garden. Beside it, a photograph of a wooden maze tempted two rats to find their way out.

We’re all just a bunch of lab rats, Jasi mused. We live underground, running through this insane maze every day.

Part of her wished that her downtime hadn’t ended. On the other hand, two weeks of pretending to be normal, living in her empty apartment in North Van, had been about as much as she could take of herself. Even her plants couldn’t live with her. The last ivy had died a slow, torturous death, its neglected soil shrinking from lack of water.

“Why didn’t we hear about the Victoria fire a month ago?” she asked Divine.

“Victoria PD thought they had an isolated case last month so it didn’t show up on our radar. Until this morning’s case, just outside of Kelowna. The current victim is Dr. Norman Washburn. He was the head of Surgery at Kelowna General Hospital. He’s also the father of Premier Allan Baker.”

There’s the higher influence.

Divine escorted them to the Command Office.

As they sat down around the conference table, Jasi opened the manila envelope and slid one picture from the stack of photographs.

A blond-haired man smiled confidently into the camera.

Premier Allan Baker.

Allan Baker was the youngest Premier ever voted in by any Province in Canada. Now, at thirty-two years old, he had set the precedent for bringing in young blood. Baker was now a front runner for Prime Minister of Canada.

She passed the photo to Ben, then carefully examined a surveillance photograph taken the year before, in which the Premier of British Columbia and Dr. Washburn were engaged in an intense argument.

Jasi recalled that the newspapers had created a frenzy when it was discovered that Baker’s mother had given birth to the son of a prominent, married doctor. The scandal had almost cost Baker the position. It had cost Washburn his marriage.

Divine flipped a switch on the box embedded into the table in front of him. Two oak panels in the wall parted slowly, revealing a large vid-wall. He pressed the remote and a photograph of a lake appeared.

“Dr. Washburn’s remains were found at Loon Lake early this morning. Loon Lake is less than an hour’s drive from Kelowna.”

The photo zoomed in to reveal a smoldering mass that was once someone’s holiday home.

“Who reported it?” Jasi asked.

Without missing a beat, Divine answered, “Shortly after four o’clock this morning an anonymous caller reported a cabin fire near the lake. Fire fighters were sent to the area, and ten minutes later, the Kelowna PD arrived and secured the scene.”

Jasi’s eyes locked on Divine’s. “How secure?”

Divine flipped to an aerial photo, revealing neon orange perimeter beacons that surrounded the crime scene.

“Kelowna PD has guaranteed that there has been no contamination of evidence―other than water, of course. The fire was almost out by the time the trucks got there.”

Ben cleared his throat loudly. “We’ve heard that before. How’d they know there was a body?”

“Kelowna PD used an X-Disc,” Divine explained. “As you are all aware, very few departments outside of Vancouver and the major cities have access to X-Discs. And our PSI division is the only unit to have the Pro version. Kelowna PD has one of the original prototypes.”

“What’s the estimated time of death?” Ben asked.

“TOD is between one and two this morning.”

The wall photo switched to a black and white of the esteemed Dr. Washburn. The man had posed for the hospital staff photo as if it were a painful experience, his brow pinched in a wrinkled scowl. His receding white hair looked wiry and stubborn.

Like the man himself, Jasi thought.

She had met Dr. Washburn a couple of years ago during a symposium on children’s health. The man had not impressed her. There was something about him she didn’t like, something she couldn’t quite put her finger on.

Divine turned to Natassia. “Forensics came back as a positive on Washburn. His dental scans matched. I’ll need you to dig deep on this one, Agent Prushenko.”

Jasi saw Natassia’s head dip in agreement.

“We need any information pertaining to the victim. His life, his career―everything,” Divine said.

Jasi rubbed her chin. “If this is his second fire, then what’s the connection between the victims? What can you tell us about the Victoria fire?”

Divine’s data-com beeped suddenly.

He examined it, then shook his head. “I’m sorry, Agent McLellan. I have a meeting with the Premier in half an hour. You’ll have to upload that info into your data-communicators.” He walked to the door, then paused. “The sooner you pick up your supplies, the sooner you can get your team moving. I need you at the Kelowna crime scene A-SAP. Allan Baker’s going to want some answers―fast.”

Divine held her gaze. “Get me some.”

Then he left.

Jasi plugged her data-com into the Ops mainframe and began reading aloud while the computer uploaded to her portable. “Case H081A. Two victims. Charlotte Foreman, sixty-three, and Samantha Davis…four years old.”

Poor baby.

Her voice faltered slightly. “TOD is 9:05 p.m. on Charlotte Foreman. She was pronounced in the hospital. The child died shortly before. Smoke inhalation.”

“Who called it in?” Ben asked.

“A neighbor. When the fire department got there the rain had already extinguished the fire. Victoria PD exhausted their leads. The case was cold. Until now.”

Her eyes gleamed with determination.

“So we have jurisdiction over both fires, now that it’s a serial arson case.”

For the next half-hour, Jasi examined the evidence, including the fire investigator’s statements and forensic reports on the two bodies found at the scene in Victoria. There wasn’t much to go on. A cable truck would warrant investigating but other than that, no one in the neighborhood remembered seeing anything remotely suspicious.

“Let’s start with Washburn and work backward,” Ben suggested. “I’ll call ahead, Jasi, and make sure that everything’s ready for you in Kelowna.”

He disappeared down the hall.

Meanwhile, Natassia continued flicking through the wall photos of the Washburn murder.

“See anything?” Jasi asked her, moving beside the dark-haired woman for a closer look.

Natassia pointed to the close-up of a strange melted mass of plastic. “There’s a few possibilities. The X-Disc found IV tubing. Washburn was secured to his recliner with it. Funny thing, though. The recliner was fully extended.”

Jasi chewed on her bottom lip, wondering why someone would bother to recline the chair…or use plastic IV tubing.

Wouldn’t a rope have been better? And how did the arsonist get possession of the tubing?

“Back in a sec, Natassia. I have to get my pack.”

She walked down a narrow corridor to a door marked PSI Prep Room. Swiping her ID card, she was buzzed inside. The room held a row of lockers lined against one wall.

She inserted her card into the slot on locker J12.

It beeped, then opened.

Removing a hefty black backpack, she silently cursed its necessary weight. She placed the bag on a metal table in the middle of the room and kicked the door to her locker shut. The zipper to the main compartment of the bag jammed. Frustrated, she tugged at it until it finally opened, revealing two thin flashlights, evidence markers, a piece of florescent chalk and other field supplies.

From a shelf above the lockers, she grabbed the last can of OxyBlast and shoved it inside the bag. Satisfied, she closed the backpack, heaving it over her shoulder.

Then she returned to Command.

“Okay, ladies, we better get moving,” Ben suggested, poking his head through the doorway.

“Ladies?” Natassia asked with a laugh. “Jasi, did Agent Roberts just call us ‘ladies’?”

“Well, one of you certainly doesn’t fit that description,” Ben grumbled under his breath.

“Come on, Natassia,” Jasi said with a snort. “Focus.”

“I am focusing.”

Watching her, Jasi chuckled. She couldn’t help but admire Natassia Prushenko. Not only was the woman gorgeous, she had self-confidence up the ying-yang.

Natassia was a Russian immigrant. In some ways, she was a trade from the Russian government in return for favors from the PSI division. She spoke five languages and was the best VE Jasi had ever worked with.

And Jasi had worked with a number of Victim Empaths over the years.

Natassia had joined her team just over two months ago, during the Parliament Murders. Jasi had seen firsthand what her partner’s skills could take out of her. A VE sometimes assimilated the emotions of the victim, to the point that it was almost impossible to separate―to come back to reality.

“Happy Birthday, Jasi. Great way to be spending it, huh?” Natassia’s grinning mouth snapped firmly shut when Jasi whipped her head around.

“Okay, the chopper is ready,” Ben announced.

Covering their ears, they dashed across the tarmac. The four-blade rotor of an Ops helicopter sliced through the air, droning and choppy. The sound was deafening until the pilot handed each of them a headset.

A few minutes later, they were onboard and gliding across the treetops.

“We’ll do the scene first,” Jasi said, plugging her data-com into the outlet in front of her.

Natassia nodded. “Okay. After that, I’ll see if I can get a read off Washburn’s remains. Maybe I’ll get a hit. There’s a good chance Washburn knew the perp.”

“I’ll get the reports for both fires and make some calls to set up interviews,” Ben said, removing his gloves. “Then I’ll start my profile. So far, what do we have?”

“A sick bastard who likes to set fires,” Jasi murmured.

“Yeah, we have that. Hey, are you going to be okay in Kelowna? Do you need anything special?”

She handed him a short list. “Just this. I have everything else.”

Ben read the list quickly, then keyed in the request on his data-com.

A few minutes later, his unit beeped a response.

“Everything will be waiting for you, Jasi. Just see the Chief of Arson Investigation on-scene.”

She knew that her day would be long and grueling. She recalled the disaster that occurred years ago. A raging forest fire had swept over Okanagan Mountain, burning almost three hundred homes to the ground and destroying over twenty-five thousand hectares of natural forest.

As the private helicopter soared closer to the dreary crime scene, Jasi settled into the seat, pulled her long auburn hair up into a quick ponytail and closed her eyes. She would need to be alert and rested.

Agent Jasi McLellan could already taste the bitter smoke in the air.

And something more―death.


~ Loon Lake near Kelowna, BC

The helicopter deployed Jasi and her PSI team one mile from the fire. A fog of gray smoke greeted them. It hung in the air over the crime scene like a smothering electric blanket set on high. The scorching sun smiled down upon them, adding to the heat.

Fire trucks were parked on the side of a grassy field surrounded by thick trees and weedy underbrush. An oversized khaki-colored army tent had been pitched in the center of the field while an exhausted group of firefighters slept nearby in the shade. A variety of police vehicles slanted across the gravel road, blocking off public access.

A tired, sooty police officer strolled toward them. “Hey, Ben.”

Ben grinned and introduced the man. “This is Sgt. Eric Jefferson, Kelowna PD.”

“How’s it hangin’, Ben?” Jefferson asked, after introductions were complete. “Are you supervising this case?”

“Actually, I am,” Jasi said, only slightly offended.

Ben grimaced apologetically. “Eric and I trained at the VPA range together.”

The Vancouver Police Academy was highly regarded worldwide for its superior training of police officers. The academy owned acres of land outside the city limits. The rough terrain had been converted to a firearm training facility used by CFBI agents and police officers.

There was also a separate area for the bomb squad.

“A van’s coming to get you,” Jefferson said. “And someone’ll be here any minute with the supplies you requested.”

“Where’s the Chief of AI?” Jasi asked him.

“Over by the tents, I think.”

Jefferson glanced over his shoulder at an approaching truck. “Your supplies are here.”

A police officer in his mid-forties, dressed in a fresh uniform, jumped from the truck. When he spotted them standing by the edge of the road his eyes narrowed. A firefighter wearing fire gear, minus the hat and mask, climbed from the passenger side carrying a bright red equipment bag. He had a stocky build and blond hair that was cut in a surfer style, long on the sides.

The man reminded Jasi of an advertisement for steroids.

She caught his eye and he aimed a withering look in her direction. Uh oh, she thought. Steroid-man wasn’t happy to see them.

“Detective Randall,” Jefferson murmured, indicating the officer. “He’s the lead on the Victoria case.”

“He was the lead,” Jasi corrected him.

She watched while Randall and the stocky firefighter lumbered closer. When the two men reached her, she held out a hand.

“Agent McLellan, CFBI.”

The detective winced at her words. Then his hand crushed her fingers, challenging her to back down.

Jasi squeezed harder until Randall let go.

After introducing her team, she caught Randall fighting with Ben for alpha male status. Detective Randall lost. Tension sliced through the air, thick with male testosterone. She saw Ben wave Eric Jefferson aside.

Jasi stole a glance at the firefighter.

The man’s head was turned slightly away. On the shoulder of his jacket, a blue firefighter’s patch flapped loosely in the breeze. R. J. Scott, KFD, the patch read.

“Have you got the supplies?” she asked him, feeling a shudder of pain behind her eyes.

Scott dropped the red bag on the ground, crouched down and jerked the zipper open. “Right here.”

Her head began to pound. The smoke was invading her pores. She reached into her black backpack and extracted the can of OxyBlast. For half a minute, she sucked on the mouthpiece, inhaling pure oxygen and clearing her lungs.

“The oxy-mask is in the bag,” Scott muttered in a voice that was hoarse from breathing in too much smoke.

When he brushed the hair from his eyes, she sucked in a puff of air. The left side of the man’s face was scarred―a motley web of spidery burns.

“Hazard of the job,” he shrugged when he noticed her shocked expression.

Detective Randall joined them. “You done here, Scott?”

“Yeah,” the firefighter grunted.

Randall stared at Jasi and laughed rudely. “I don’t know why she needs the mask.”

Scott scowled at her. “Yeah, it’s as useless as tits on a bull―unless she’s gonna go into a live fire.”

The men grinned at each other, then caught her eye.

“Detective Randall,” she said coldly. “There are many things that are useless on a bull.”

She allowed her eyes to slowly drift down past Randall’s waist, locking in on his groin area. The man’s face grew pinched, and then he muttered something indistinctly.

She turned her back and reached into the bag, removing the familiar navy-blue mask. It had a built-in filtration system that eliminated air contamination, giving the wearer a clean source of oxygenated air. Small and lightweight, the oxy-mask fit securely over the nose and mouth.

She drew it snugly over her head and adjusted her ponytail. Fighting back a feeling of claustrophobia, she took a deep breath.

“I’m fine,” she assured Natassia who was watching her intently. “The residue is bad out here.”

The oxy-mask muffled her voice.

“It wasn’t that big a fire,” Scott huffed.

“Not this fire. The Kelowna fire.”

The firefighter eyed her suspiciously.

“What? That fire was years ago.” The scarred side of his face stretched tautly and barely moved when he spoke.

“Agent McLellan?” Ben called out, hurrying to her side with Sgt. Jefferson in tow. “Everything all right here?”

“Everything’s fine,” she assured him.

Her head swiveled and her eyes latched onto Detective Randall’s. “Right?”

The man flashed her a dangerous smile. “We don’t need your help. Victoria PD is more than capable of handling

Jasi threw the man a frigid glare.

“This isn’t a pissing contest, detective. The CFBI was called in and it’s our case now. Both of them. And if you have a problem with that, then take it up with your supervisor.”

Outraged, Randall tipped his head toward Scott, then stomped back to the truck and sped away in an angry cloud of dust. Scott watched him go. A second later, he rasped a quick goodbye and headed for the field. Joining a small group of firefighters, he pointed in Jasi’s direction and circled one finger beside his head.


Cursing under her breath, she spun around and looked Eric Jefferson directly in the eye.

“What about you, Sgt. Jefferson? You have a problem with us being here?”

The police officer smiled. “Whatever gets the job done, Agent McLellan. That’s my motto. With a serial arsonist on the loose we can use all the help we can get.”

“Too bad those two don’t feel the same way,” Jasi growled, casting a shadowed look in Scott’s direction.

Jefferson glanced toward the field. “Scott’s just a rookie with a big mouth. Randall, on the other hand, he’s a hotshot. He needs the collar.” He nudged his head in Detective Randall’s direction. “It’s guys like him you need to worry about…and maybe Chief Walsh.”

“I’ll take care of the chief,” she muttered. “As soon as I find the man.”

Jefferson elbowed Ben. “If Scott or Randall get in your way, you let me know. I’m the CS Supervisor.”

Jasi caught a brief nod then the man headed for a patrol car.

“Good luck with the chief,” Jefferson called over his shoulder.

When the officer was gone, Ben removed two mini-cans of OxyBlast from the equipment bag and passed them to Natassia. Natassia tucked the cans into Jasi’s backpack and pulled out a small protective nosepiece. She handed it to Jasi who carefully tucked it away in the top pocket of her black PSI jacket.

“Thanks,” Jasi smiled beneath the oxy-mask.

She shoved her arms through the straps of her pack, shifting it slightly so the weight was balanced on her back.

Natassia nudged her. “Let’s find the AI Chief. He’s supposed to be here somewhere. Then we can get a ride to the scene. Man, I’m starved! I could go for lunch right about now―maybe a nice marinated steak.”

Jasi grinned. “Yeah, with sautéed mushrooms.”

“Excuse me for interrupting your culinary exchange,” Ben nudged dryly. “I’m going to talk to the police. You gonna move or stand there swapping recipes all day?”

Laughing, Jasi adjusted her backpack while Natassia picked up the red bag. Then they headed toward a group of firefighters.

Jasi noted their smoke-covered faces and sooty yellow fire jackets. The men were in the middle of a serious discussion and no one noticed their approach.

“Excuse me, gentlemen,” Natassia called out.

The men stopped talking.

Oh Jesus! They’re gonna start drooling any minute.

Jasi rolled her eyes when she saw the firefighters focus in on Natassia like a swarm of bees. One of the firefighters stepped forward, grinning unabashedly. The man’s eyes slowly perused Natassia’s body, then his ice blue eyes turned and rested on hers. One eyebrow lifted when he registered the mask she wore.

She stiffened slightly, registering his obvious contempt.

“Well, well. What have we here?” the man drawled sarcastically. “Uh, ma’am? The fire is out now. There’s no need for that mask.”

The firefighter was over six feet tall―a lumbering, magnificent personification of man. He had eyelashes that most women would die for, and eyes that were such an unusual pale shade of blue that she wondered if he had visited a SEE office. A jagged scar intercepted his right brow, narrowly missing his eye. A slight cleft in his chin gave him an air of stubbornness. Dark wavy hair clung to his head and she couldn’t help but wonder what it would feel like to run her fingers through those curls.

Jasi held his gaze while she examined him like a lab specimen in a jar. Built like a tank, she thought.

“I think maybe you’re a bit lost, ma’am,” he said, his lip curling disdainfully.

He turned toward the men, brushing her off like an annoying wasp at a barbecue.

She stared at the back of his head and then flipped her badge. “That’s Agent McLellan, not ma’am. Where’s the chief?” Her voice was cool, her eyes unwavering.

“Whoo-eee!” the man whistled when he caught sight of her ID. “An agent with an attitude. How rare!”

He shifted so that he was standing in front of her. Behind him, some of the men snickered loudly.

Jasi’s smile was deadly sweet. “Listen, you arrogant asshole. When I find the chief and report you I’ll have you on desk duty for a month. Now where is he?”

The man’s eyes snared hers, turning her knees to mush.

Suddenly he reached for her arm, gripped it firmly and led her away from the laughing eyes of the firefighters. She felt the heat of his fingers through her jacket, branding her as his possession.

Natassia nudged her sharply. “Jas

“Shh!” Jasi interrupted her, glaring up at the man whose tanned fingers still curled around her upper arm. “I could have you up on charg―”

“Check out his shoulder patch!” Natassia hissed.

Jasi glanced down. Then her eyes found the patch.

Walsh, Chief of Arson Investigations.

Her eyes traveled back to the man’s face. His expression was dark and smug. For a second her composure flickered. There was something annoyingly attractive about the man.

But damned if she would let that cloud her judgement.

“Brandon Walsh, at your service,” he said blandly, interrupting her thoughts. “AI Chief Walsh, that is.”

Jasi ignored his outstretched hand and felt her temper rising when his eyes scoped Natassia’s hip-hugging jeans and tight blouse. Men!

When he turned to issue a command to the firefighters, Jasi couldn’t restrain the snicker that erupted from her throat. The back of the man’s fire jacket was well worn. The lettering in some places was covered with black scorch marks.

Walsh, Chief of Ars   In  stig tions.

“Arse, all right,” she muttered under her breath.

Abruptly, Walsh turned, piercing her with a frigid stare. Then he frowned and jerked his head.

“This way, Agent McLellan.”

“Now isn’t he a fabulous piece of work?” Natassia mumbled in her ear. “Check out the size of those hands.”


Although Jasi had to admit, his hands were well shaped―like the rest of him.

Beside her, Natassia giggled beneath her breath. “You know what they say about large hands―”

“Shhh! Wouldn’t want him to hear you. It might go to his head.”

And that’s big enough already!

She followed Walsh to a table standing beneath the shade of a tent.

He pulled out a chair beside his, offering it to her.

“You gonna tell me why you’re wearing that mask?”

Jasi’s eyes fastened on his and she took the chair across from him instead. “Allergies.”

Walsh watched her for a long moment. “As the AI Chief, I’ve been informed of your…uh, special team. I wasn’t given much info though.”

“What have you got so far on the victim?”

“We’ve only received a few of the reports. Dr. Norman Washburn, age fifty-eight. He’s the only victim. The fire originated in his living room where Washburn was tied to his recliner with IV tubing.”

“Time of death?”

“Estimated TOD, one to two a.m.,” Walsh replied. “We believe he died from smoke inhalation. We’ll know for sure when the autopsy’s in.”

“What about neighbors? Anyone see anything?”

Walsh shook his head. “The cabins are separated by trees and bushes. He had no immediate neighbors.”

“Did you ask around?” she asked impatiently.

“Listen,” he said glibly. “I’m well aware that we’ve been ordered by the CFBI to cooperate with your team, but personally, I think AI is capable of handling this ourselves. And I don’t really buy into the whole psychic thing.”

She detected a trace of bitterness in his voice.

Jasi bit back her reply, frustrated.

She was sick and tired of having to defend herself―and her team. This wasn’t the first time that someone had questioned the PSI’s value.

“Chief Walsh, we’ve got two fires, three murder victims and few leads to go on. We’re here to aid this investigation, not hamper it. You’re not too macho to take help wherever you can get it, are you?”

Walsh laughed. “Macho? Now there’s an outdated term.”

Jasi refitted her oxy-mask.

She desperately wished she could tear it off her face and rip into the man before her. His attitude grated on her and left her feeling uneasy.

Walsh pointed to a Qwazi laptop and touched the screen with a stylus.

“Here’s the data from the X-Disc. Have a seat and read through it. And yes, we asked around. No one saw anything. I’ll go check on the other agent. Where’d he go, anyway?”

“Agent Roberts is busy drafting up a rough profile and arranging for transport to the scene,” Natassia spoke up for the first time.

“Upload the data, Natassia,” Jasi ordered. “I’ll go check on Ben.”

She cast a warning look in the AI Chief’s direction. “I’m counting on your support. Don’t get in my way, Walsh.”

The man raised a well-shaped eyebrow. “I have no intention of getting in your way. Just stay out of mine.”

She clenched her teeth. “Trust me, I’d be happy to stay away from you.”

“Jesus, thanks. I think. And here I thought I was irresistible.”

Jasi huffed in exasperation.

The man was insufferable. The sooner she finished her job here, the sooner she could put Brandon Walsh out of her mind.

Walsh accompanied her outside, and slipped on a pair of dark sunglasses.

“Need anything else?” she asked tightly.

“Yeah. What’s Agent Prushenko’s role?”

“She’s a Victim Empath.”

The man stared blankly, his lip curling in disbelief.

“She picks up vibrations―pictures from the victims,” she explained. “Usually she sees their final moments.”

“Yeah, right,” he scoffed.

Jasi gripped Walsh’s arm, her eyes flashing angrily.

“Agent Prushenko has empathic abilities, whether you believe in them or not. She’s been a PSI for eight years, traveled worldwide and is recognized as one of the best VE’s in the CFBI.”

She wanted to slug the man.

Walsh grinned. “What about you?”

“I’ve been with PSI for almost six years. That’s all you need to know.”

“What do you do?”

“She reads fires,” Natassia interjected, poking her head from the tent.

Wordlessly, Jasi glared at her partner.

“He needs to know, Jasi. Otherwise he’s useless.”

Brandon Walsh―useless?

Jasi hid a sly grin. “I can usually tell you where and how a fire started. Sometimes I pick up the perp’s last thoughts or the last thing he saw.”

“She’s a Pyro-Psychic,” Natassia bragged. “Jasi is the best there is.”

“Jasi?” Walsh smirked.

“That’s Agent McLellan to you!” Jasi snapped.

She’d make Natassia pay for that slip-up.

Oops, Natassia mouthed silently, raising her open hands in the air.

“Time for you to leave, Walsh,” Jasi said rudely. “I’m sure there’s something out there for the Chief of AI to do. Just remember we’re running the show here.”

Walsh’s breath blew warm against her ear. “We’ll see about that.”

Then he hurried from the tent. “See ya later…Jasi.”

With her eyes glued to his back, Jasi cursed aloud.

“Not if I can help it!”

Brandon Walsh walked away from the tent, unsure about the PSI’s role. He had heard of the Psychic Skills Investigators in his dealings with various police departments, but his cases rarely required CFBI intervention. Or interference, as he thought of it.

As the AI Chief, he was compelled to assist the CFBI in any investigation involving serial arsonists. And that didn’t sit too well with him―not one bit.

He’d show Agent Jasi McLellan who was boss.

After all, wasn’t he the one responsible for capturing the arsonist involved in the Okanagan Mountain forest fires of 2003? He had led the AI team that had tracked down the arsonist and the accelerant used to set the blaze.

The press had blamed an unattended campfire for the raging fires that consumed a massive portion of the BC forest. Then a week later, it was rumored that a single cigarette had ignited the blaze. That was before the public ban on smoking became official―before people were restricted to smoking in the privacy of their homes, in well-ventilated smoking rooms.

Brandon had never believed the fire had started from a cigarette. He personally sifted through acres of destroyed forest, searching for a clue. He had explored the land until he discovered an abandoned cabin deep in the mountains.

There, he found remnants of liquid methylyte and zymene, highly flammable chemicals used in the underground production of Z-Lyte. Z-Lyte, with its sweet musky scent, had become the hallucinogenic drug of the new generation.

Public homeowner records listed Edwin Bruchmann as the owner of the cabin. An hour later, Bruchmann was in custody. When the old man was escorted into an interview room by his caregiver, Brandon was disappointed to discover that Bruchmann suffered from Alzheimer’s.

Brandon’s leads were slowly disintegrating―until his suspicions turned to the caregiver. Gregory Lawrence, thirty-nine, had been employed by Bruchmann for the past two years and had access to all of the old man’s documents. But Lawrence denied knowing anything about a cabin.

“When was the last time Mr. Bruchmann visited his lakeside cabin?” Brandon had asked the caregiver.

Lawrence’s face had registered confusion.

Then, without thinking, he had blurted, “You idiots! Edwin Bruchmann’s cabin is not by any lake. See? I told you, you have the wrong person. Mr. Bruchmann’s cabin overlooks the valley.”

Brandon had smiled then. “I thought you knew nothing about the cabin?”

“I, uh…” the man stuttered. “Well, I m-might have heard about it once. But that doesn’t prove anything!”

A knock on the door halted the interrogation and a detective passed Brandon a toxicology report.

“Maybe not,” Brandon had agreed. “But this sure does.”

Earlier he had recognized the sweet-smelling body odor common with Z-Lyte users. Suspicious, he offered Lawrence a can of pop. When the man had finished it, Brandon dropped it into a plastic bag and handed it over to the lab for analysis.

It came back positive for Z-Lyte.

The case was immediately closed, Gregory Lawrence locked away, Bruchmann established in a care facility and Brandon promoted to AI Chief.

All accomplished without any outside help.

And Brandon certainly hadn’t needed a PSI!

This new case was no different, he reasoned. What could Agent Jasi McLellan possibly offer?

Psychic mumbo-jumbo?

He laughed suddenly, adjusting his shades.

How could the woman expect him to believe she had the power to see into a killer’s mind?

I’d have to see it to believe it.

… Continued…

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A story of love, betrayal and redemption…

In this exciting sequel to LOVE’S HIDDEN FACE, wrongly convicted Jack King continues his desperate search for his girlfriend’s real killer…

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Text-to-Speech and Lending: Enabled
Here’s the set-up:

Jack King is an ex-con unjustly convicted of killing his girlfriend, Kate, by a corrupt district attorney and a prejudiced jury. Now he is out of prison and looking for the real killer.

Kate’s sister, Georgia, is slowly beginning to believe that Jack is innocent, but she still has doubts. Jim Terrell is out to kill Jack because he believes Jack killed Kate. Nadine Sand is also attracted to Jack and is hiding from a terrible past. She hates Jack and all men, but Jack is stirring something new in her, something she hasn’t felt in a long time. Then there is Ann Banks, Jack’s old girlfriend who dumped him in high school for a better prospect, and now wants him back. If she can’t have him, no one will.

Looming over all of this is Kate’s killer. That killer has already tried to kill Jack once. Jack knows that killer will strike again, but he refuses to stop looking for Kate’s killer. Jack’s search for the real killer could be the death of him.
Praise for earlier books by John D. Garrison:

“…catches your attention from the first page to the last…suspenseful…”

“Keeps you interested and guessing…”

an excerpt from

Love’s Revenge

by John D. Garrison

Copyright © 2014 by John D. Garrison and published here with his permission

Chapter 1

Kate stood in the entrance to his cabin, all smiles and very happy. Jack King watched her with happiness in his heart. They were going to be married soon. After years of dating, they would finally be married.

For some reason, Kate didn’t speak, just stood there, looking intently at him. Then the cabin suddenly grew dark, and she was gone.

Jack rushed toward the door where she had stood only moments before, but was too late. She was nowhere to be found. Sudden sadness overwhelmed him. He knew that she was gone forever. That was when he woke up.

Jack rubbed the sleep from his eyes and stood up from the chair he had fallen asleep in. Kate still haunted his dreams on occasion and would continue to do so until he caught her killer. She would have no rest nor would he.

Jack walked to his cabin door and opened it, looking out over the woods as the evening sun set. It was a peaceful evening. He could hear the tree locusts singing their evening lullaby. So much was changing in his life as he hunted for Kate’s killer.

Of course people in Gulfview still thought he had killed Kate, his girlfriend, in a fit of rage. He had been sent to prison for three years on manslaughter charges for that, then released recently on a technicality, but only a few believed in his innocence. To everyone else, he was an ex-con that should still be in prison.

He uttered a deep sigh of frustration as he stood on the cabin porch. Would he always be an ex-con? Would everyone always consider him a murderer? He had to clear his name somehow.

Jack was a handsome man in his middle twenties with coal black hair and green eyes. His lean six foot, one inch, frame was all hard muscle. He had pumped iron while he was in prison, developing lean abs and hard muscles. You had to be strong to survive in prison.

Jack walked back inside the cabin. He reached for a lamp to turn on a light as the darkness gathered inside his cabin. Just as his hand touched the lamp, the lamp exploded and Jack hit the floor as a rifle shot echoed from the woods. Someone had just tried to kill him.

He crawled to the gun cabinet and retrieved his father’s shotgun, quickly loading the long barrel gun. Then he crawled over to a corner of his cabin and stood up. The corner angled away from the main room of the cabin and gave him some protection from the cabin front door. He could not be seen from that doorway, which still hung open.

He waited. His would-be assassin had two choices: leave and assume he was dead or come find out for sure. Jack was betting on the latter option. There was absolute silence in the woods, even the tree locust had stopped singing.

As Jack stood huddled in the corner of the cabin with his shotgun pointed toward the cabin entrance, he wondered who was trying to kill him. There had been one attempt already on his life, but that assassin had used a pistol. This one was using a rifle which tended to make Jack think this was a different person.

He wiped the sweat from his brow as he waited. His heart continued to beat rapidly. That bullet had narrowly missed him. The assassin must have lined his shot up with the open door to his cabin and fired just as he reached for the lamp. The gathering shadows of the cabin had probably saved his life, obscuring the assassin’s target.

Jack heard someone stepping up on the cabin porch. Jack pulled the hammers back on both barrels of his shotgun. He saw the barrel of the rifle first as it was pushed through the cabin doorway, then a man followed, clutching the rife tightly as he stepped into the cabin. He stopped for a moment as his eyes swept the room, searching for Jack’s body. Then he moved into the room further, swinging his rifle away from Jack’s position as he searched for the body he felt sure must be there somewhere.

Jack stepped out from his hidden position and pointed his shotgun at the man’s back. He took a small breathe and said, “Freeze, I have a shotgun pointed at your back, and at this range, I can’t miss. Drop the rifle.”

The man had frozen instantly at Jack’s voice, hesitated, then started to turn. Jack couldn’t allow that.

“Drop the rifle now or I shoot.”

The man stopped turning, but still clutched his rifle. They both stood there in the darkness debating their next move. Jack couldn’t understand why the man hadn’t dropped his rifle.

“What’s wrong with you? Do you want to die?” Jack asked.

“I’m dead already,” the voice said.

Jack knew that voice. Jim Terrell was standing in his cabin. It all made a crazy sort of sense. Terrell believed that Jack had killed Kate just like everyone else in Gulfview. He had come seeking revenge.

“Dying isn’t going to help Kate, now drop your rifle,” Jack snapped.

Reluctantly, Terrell dropped his rifle on the floor of the cabin. He stood there in the gathering darkness with shoulders slumped–defeated.

“Now turn around,” Jack said.

Terrell turned around and stared at Jack with hatred burning in his eyes. Terrell had been seeing Jack’s girlfriend, Kate, before she died. Terrell was the reason that Jack had broken up with Kate. He was the last straw in her long line of infidelities. With a great deal of pain and soul searching, Jack had told Kate that it was over between them. The next day Kate was found dead by Jack who became the number one suspect and was eventually convicted of her death.

His conviction had been engineered by a crooked district attorney and a jury all too willing to believe Jack had killed Kate in a fit of anger. He had been convicted by that jury before the trial had even began.

Terrell continued to stare at Jack, then finally asked, “Now what?”

Jack turned on another lamp, flooding the room with light. He studied Terrell for a moment. Terrell was tall and well-built with curly black hair and brown eyes. His voice had a deep bass quality to it. He was a handsome man in his late twenties. Jack could see why Kate had been attracted to him.

“Now you go home.”

“You aren’t going to call the police?”

“No, I understand your pain. No one knows better than I how painful Kate’s death was to the people that loved her. That’s why I intend to find Kate’s killer. You would like to find out who really killed Kate, wouldn’t you?”

“You’re lying. You killed Kate,” Terrell said, anger in his voice.

“You can believe what you want, but consider this. What if I am telling the truth? What does it cost you to wait a little while to find out?”

Terrell stood there a moment, his brows knit together in intense concentration. With a tight, intense frown, he said, “I guess I can wait, but not for long. What about my rifle?”

“I’ll return it to you later, after you have had a little time to cool down.”

Terrell nodded slowly, then started moving toward the door of the cabin. He didn’t look back as he exited the cabin. Jack stood in the doorway and watched Terrell disappear into the woods. His vehicle was probably parked on the other side of the woods where the dirt road curved back toward the highway.

Jack picked the rifle up from the floor and walked to the gun cabinet in the back of the cabin. He placed both the rifle and his shotgun inside the gun cabinet. He closed the cabinet door and let out a deep, long sigh. He had come close to meeting his maker tonight. God help me survive and find Kate’s killer.

Chapter 2

Matt King was a handsome man with coal black hair and brown eyes. He had an athletic build and resembled his younger brother Jack, who he had always been jealous of. He was nearing thirty and had just had a severe setback in his career.

Matt looked up as his father, Lee King, strolled into his small office. Lee was in his early sixties with graying hair that had once been black, the same as his sons. He was a tall, broad shouldered man and still in good shape for a man of his age. He had an easy going personality that put people at ease, which made him a good CEO of the Starlight Corporation.

Once Matt had been a vice president of Starlight, but his father fired him when Matt tried to take over the company and force his father out. Because Matt was his son, Lee King gave him another chance and hired him as a marketing manager at half of the pay of his former position. It was a bitter pill to swallow for Matt.

But Matt was determined to work himself back into the good graces of his father by working hard and showing that he could be trusted. It was a difficult road to travel, starting from a zero trust position. Matt knew that it would take a lot for his father to trust him again.

“What can I do for you, Dad,” Matt asked as he stood up, somewhat nervous at this unexpected visit.

“Just wanted to see how you were doing, son. Please sat down,” Lee said as he sat down in a chair across from his son’s desk.

“I’m doing okay. I have a lot to learn in this position, but my boss is showing me the ropes.” Matt paused for a moment, then said, “Let me apologize again for what I did. I don’t know what came over me.”

“Blind ambition can be a terrible master. If you aren’t careful, you can hurt a lot of people trying to achieve your ambition. A man has to have integrity and honor to guide him, else he can become a ruthless individual, not caring who he hurts as long as he gets what he wants.”

“Sort of like I was. Something inside of me drove me, Dad. I felt I had to be the best at any cost. I shut everything else out. My wife tried to warn me, but I wouldn’t listen.”

“I’ve always liked Lidia. If I had a wife like that, I wouldn’t have made such a mess of things with my family. That’s partly why I am here, Matt. I have let us drift apart. I should have been closer to you and been a better father. I let my business and my blindness in regards to your mother interfere with my relationship with you. So, you see, what you did was partly my fault.”

“You mean that?” Matt said, hope on his face.

“I do. Why don’t we wipe the slate clean and start over. I was thinking about inviting you and Lidia to supper tonight if you are available.”

“That would be great.”

“Good, I look forward to that. There’s another matter that I want to discuss with you. You already know I am divorcing your mother, and you know part of the reason why. I would like to explain the rest of my reason.”

“Sure, Dad,” Matt replied hesitantly. Matt loved his mother and they had always been close. It was difficult to hear that his dad was divorcing his mother.

“When I was young, like all young men, I thought I was invincible and knew everything. When I met your mother, I fell in love with her quickly and was desperate to marry her. My father tried to counsel me about Helen, but I wouldn’t listen. He knew that she wasn’t the wife for me. He even suggested that I attend a church counseling session for people planning to be married. In my arrogance, I turned him down. There was nothing anyone could say or do to prevent me from marrying your mother.

“I was a fool, and it has cost me. My children were the true victims of my folly. I was prepared to do anything to keep Helen happy, overlook anything. Between her and building my business, you and your siblings were neglected. I apologize for that.”

“Dad, you don’t need to apologize.”

“But I do. I see now more clearly than I ever have before. I was married to a vain, self-centered woman who cared only for herself. Between her neglect and mine, it is a small miracle that my children turned out as well as they did. I want to make amends for that, starting with you. I don’t think I have ever said this enough, but I love you, son.”

“Is there any way that you and mom can get back together?” Matt asked hopefully.

“No son, there isn’t. I know you are close to your mother, and I am sorry it had to end this way. I’m not saying everything is your mother’s fault. I played a part in this too, but it is time to go our separate ways.”

“Whatever you decide, I will do my best to help you both. But right now, I just want a fresh start with you. I want to get to know my dad again.”

Matt rose from his chair and walked around his desk. His father rose from his chair and they hugged. Tears gathered in the corners of Matt’s eyes. He had found his father at last.

Chapter 3

It was late Monday morning and Jack sat at the kitchen table in his cabin, staring at three folders laying on the table. He took another sip of coffee and glanced at Glenda Logan, the Gulfview News reporter that was helping him search for Kate’s killer, and shook his head.

Glenda was a tall, thin woman with long black hair and brown eyes. She was energetic and outgoing, in her early thirties. She was a career woman and proud of it. No husband or family for her. She didn’t keep a boyfriend long either, particularly when they discovered that the relationship would never be anything but temporary.

Jack frowned as he looked at the folders. These were the only suspects they had been able to come up with in connection with Kate’s death. They had found nothing to place any of these suspects at Kate’s home at the time of her death. They needed more information.

“As for as I am concerned, Robert Trace is still at the top of the list. The way he lost his temper when I questioned him about Kate indicates a very volatile nature. He could have easily lost his temper with Kate and killed her.”

“What do we know about his movements on the day that Kate died?” Jack asked.

“Nothing so far. I will need to do some more digging,” Glenda said with a frown.

“What about these other two: Ben Grass and Roger Toth?”

“Neither of them seems to have had a connection with Kate, but both of them have a white four door sedan. The same kind of white four door sedan seen at Kate’s home before she was murdered.”

Jack leaned back in his chair with a deep look of concentration. Then he picked up Ben Grass’s folder. “I know this guy. We were in high school together. He is Ann Bank’s brother.”

“How well do you know him?”

“Met him a few times in high school, but I haven’t seen him since. Seemed like a nice enough kid back then.”

“So we keep digging,” Glenda said with some frustration.

“Yes, we need more background. I have a feeling I am missing something here that is important, but I can’t put my finger on it.”

“You want to follow up with Ben Grass since you know him?”

“I doubt that he will even remember me, but I can follow up with him and Robert Trace.”

“Be careful with Trace. He could be trouble.”

“Don’t worry, I know about trouble.”

“We may have to face an unpleasant fact. None of these suspects could be our killer,” Glenda said with a frown.

“Maybe, but I am not ready to admit that yet.”

“Okay, I will take Toth then. Maybe meet back in a few days and see where we are at?”

“Sounds like a plan.”

Jack rose from the table and walked back into the living room, then out onto the porch and sat down in one of the wooden porch chairs. He sat there frowning as his glaze swept the surrounding woods. He wondered if they would ever find Kate’s killer or was he just on a wild goose chase?

“Penny for your thoughts,” Glenda said as she walked out onto the porch and stopped beside Jack. She flashed a pleasant smile, pushing back some of her long black hair that had fallen in her face. Her soft brown eyes studied the face of an unhappy man.

“You don’t won’t to know my thoughts. They are somewhat grim,” Jack said gloomily.

“Maybe it’s time to start thinking beyond this search for Kate’s killer. Whether you find the killer or not, you are going to have to go on with your life.”

“I’ve thought about that, but how I proceed with my life will depend on whether people still think I killed Kate. I don’t want to be known as the ex-con who got away with killing Kate, serving only a light sentence.”

“That’s a valid point. If you can’t find her killer, I would suggest you move to somewhere else where they don’t know you.”

Jack gave her a grim smile and picked up a newspaper off of the table by his chair. He handed it to her.

“I was reading that when you drove up. It’s one of the national papers. Seems like I have made the headlines. There isn’t anywhere I can go now that they won’t know who I am.”

Glenda read the article on Jack. A Bernard Jarman, running for the U.S. senate, had charged Mark King with corruption, using his influence to free a killer, Jack King. It was all there, a recap of the trial and the details about Kate’s death. She shook her head in disbelief. Jack was now national news.

“I’m sorry, Jack,” Glenda said.

“My uncle warned me that things might get ugly in his senate campaign. He was right. It’s more important than ever to find Kate’s killer. Not only my future, but my uncle’s future may be riding on the outcome of our search.”

Chapter 4

John Arrowsmith was six feet tall with light sandy hair and piercing blue eyes with a slight scar above his left eyebrow and dimples at the corners of his mouth when he smiled. His narrow face made him attractive, but not quite handsome. He had been a police detective once, but now was an associate pastor at Ocean Front Church, which was a rather dramatic change for him. He was still struggling with becoming a minister, but God had given him a special talent for healing and reaching troubled individuals.

Jack strolled into John Arrowsmith’s small church office with a smile. Arrowsmith walked out from behind his desk and shook hands with Jack. Then pointed to a nearby leather couch.

When Jack first met Arrowsmith, he was working at the church mission on Southside, serving food to the homeless and hungry. When Arrowsmith began preaching to those poor souls gathered there, Jack felt peace settle into his spirit for the first time in a long time. All the anger and rage he felt for the injustices he had suffered went away for awhile. He felt almost whole. He was anxious to pursue that peace, to be free of his anger and rage so he had sought Arrowsmith out again.

“Why don’t we sit over there?”


“I was surprised when you called for an appointment this afternoon. It’s been awhile since we last talked.”

“I had some thinking to do. You opened some doors into rooms I needed to explore.”

“Well put,” Arrowsmith laughed, “that often happens. We lock away many things that happen to us in life, some happy, some sad. They can be like rooms. Some of those rooms can have heavy locks on them.”

“I am finding that out. There are areas of my life that I don’t want to look at too closely. I spent three years in prison, and I did some terrible things while I was locked away. Sometimes I feel like I am unclean inside. Can God ever forgive me?”

“Of course He can. Nothing is too great for God to accomplish, but first you have to forgive yourself and put all those past acts behind you.”

“How do I do that?”

“Jack, as you draw closer to God, he will help you unlock the doors to those rooms and deal with what is behind those doors. That is his promise to all who follow Jesus. He will set you free, but to be set free, the truth must be embraced. We can’t lie to others, and most important of all, we can’t lie to ourselves.”

“How does one lie to himself?” Jack asked, puzzled by what Arrowsmith had said.

“Sometimes, people can build a world of illusions. This is a world they want, not necessarily that is real, but they lie to themselves every day that this imaginary world is the real world.”

“I think I understand. I thought Kate was someone she wasn’t. I refused to see what she really was. My illusion fell apart when I discovered the truth.”

“The truth often destroys illusions and pierces the lies that we tell ourselves. Unfortunately, sometimes, those lies can last a life time.”

“Which brings me to why I am here,” Jack said, frowning.

“I know the last time we talked, you were concerned about salvation. You didn’t think you could be saved.”

Jack nodded and said, “I have been studying the Bible lately and asking myself some soul searching questions. I want to be saved, but I don’t know how. I don’t want to just join a church. How do I receive salvation?”

“You’ve just taken the first step, Jack. You realize that there is something more that is needed in your life. Sometimes we don’t realize that God is even missing in our lives until we touch him, and we touch him through prayer. Have you been praying over what you have read in the Bible?”

“Yes, but I don’t know if God hears me.”

“He always hears you.”

“I have another question that troubles me. Do unsaved people really go to hell?”

“Yes,” Arrowsmith replied.

“That seems sort of harsh. There are a lot of good people in the world.”

“I think the Bible answered that question a long time ago. The Bible says there are none that are good, not one, except God. God has a different measuring tool for what is good. Man doesn’t measure up. That’s why we have to believe in Jesus. As Christians, God cleans us up, and we then belong to his kingdom.”

“You are talking about heaven,” Jack said.

“Yes, but more than that. His kingdom also exists here on earth wherever a Christian walks.”

“I had a lot of hate and anger when I got out of prison. I realize now that I have to get rid of that hate. I’m trying. I pray about the anger and bitterness. I pray for peace, but it is a slow going process.”

“God does everything in his own time. Continue to pray, attend church, and read the Bible. Then come as often as you like to talk to me. Believe me, you will find God and salvation. Don’t be discouraged if it doesn’t happen immediately. Now, let’s pray together for guidance.”

As Arrowsmith prayed with him, Jack felt peace slowly enfold him. All of the turbulent violent emotions he carried within him subsided, and he felt a gentle joy settle over him. Perhaps he could be saved.

Once he thought finding Kate’s killer would bring peace to him as well as justice. But he realized now that finding Kate’s killer was only part of the solution. He needed to dump all the anger and hate, to clean himself up so he would be fit company, and to do that, he needed to find God and salvation.

Chapter 5

Georgia Fairfax sat in her living room waiting for her date to pick her up. So far he was not making a good impression. He was late. His name was Tom Taylor, and she had seen him around church. They would often stop and chat before church. Finally, he had asked her out.

Georgia Fairfax was a beautiful young woman with blond hair and blue eyes. She was short and very pretty. She was Kate’s younger sister, just turned nineteen. She had been very attached to Kate. Kate’s death had been a severe blow to her.

Georgia’s thoughts turned back to Kate and Jack, the two people she loved best in the world. One was dead, and the other had been convicted of her sister’s murder. She had thought at first that Jack had killed Kate, and she had hated him for it. But now she wasn’t sure. She had begun to think that he was innocent, but she was virtually alone in that conviction. Her father thought he had killed Kate and so did all of her friends. She so much wanted to believe he was innocent. How could she love someone who had killed her sister?

She had always loved Jack even when he was dating Kate. Kate knew and had told her it was merely an infatuation, and she would grow out of it. Only, she hadn’t. She had never revealed her true feelings to anyone else except her best friend. She had tried to forget Jack, but somehow he was ever in her thoughts. If she could just find someone else to love, all of her problems would be solved. Hence the date tonight.

She had been a little surprised when Tom asked her out. Her first impulse was to refuse, but then she thought why not? Maybe it was time to think about someone else besides Jack. Her best friend had been encouraging her to see other guys. She needed to find someone that could offer her a future, someone else she could love besides Jack.

Her situation with Jack was impossible. How could she become involved with a man that was supposed to have killed her sister? Her father, her friends, no one would ever understand that.

She had a choice to make. She could either mope around the house feeling sorry for herself or pick herself up and get on with her life. Tonight was her first attempt at a new life without Jack.

Georgia glanced at her wrist watch again and shook her head. Had she been stood up? Tom had seemed such a nice man, caring and considerate. She stood up and walked to the mantel. She stared at the picture of her sister resting on the mantel.

She still had nightmares about her sister’s death. They had been close. Jack and Kate had included Georgia on many of their outings to her delight. She had been young, still in grammar school when Kate had first started dating Jack, following her sister and her boyfriend around. Kate had kidded her about having a crush on Jack, but it had all been in good fun.

As Georgia grew older and entered high school, she tried to downplay her feelings about Jack for the sake of her sister. She would never do anything to hurt her sister. Jack and Kate were made for each other.

Then, suddenly, Kate was gone and Jack was in prison. Her entire world had crumbled and sent her on an emotional roller coaster that she was only now recovering from. Her life had changed drastically the day her sister died.

There was a knock at the door. She crossed the living room and opened the door to find Tom standing there full of apologizes for being late. Perhaps this evening would end well after all.

Chapter 6

“It was nice of your dad to take us to supper tonight. He seemed to be genuinely trying to be nice to you.”

“I will say this for the old man. He doesn’t hold grudges.”

“Thank God for that. Not many men are that forgiving when someone tries to steal their company from them,” Lidia said, shaking her head. She still couldn’t believe her husband had tried to do that.

Matt winced at her words. He knew that he had done a terrible thing. He thought it would take years to get back into the good graces of his father after that fiasco, but then his father had showed up at work today and bent over backwards trying to mend fences between them. He had been stunned to say the least, and overjoyed that his father wanted him back in his life again.

He had felt something break inside of him when his father had hugged him and told him that he loved him. It was as if he was a kid again with his father’s loving arms around him. He felt all the bitterness and resentment in him towards his father melt away. He very much wanted his father back in his life again.

Matt had felt like a new man driving back home tonight. He told Lidia as much. She had been happy to hear it. She hated seeing Matt at odds with his family.

“I think that with time I may be able to climb back up the corporate ladder again. I’m going to work my butt off to prove to my dad that I deserve to be promoted.”

“I’m sure that in time he will promote you, dear,” Lidia said.

“I’ve always felt like it was my dad and Jack against me and my mother. Tonight for the first time, I think I have my dad back. You don’t know what that means to me.”

“Have you thought about mending fences with your brother?”

“That bastard? Never.”

“Why do you hate your brother so much? Surely, you can forgive him for whatever past transgressions he may have committed. If your father can forgive you, why can’t you forgive Jack?”

“I just can’t, that’s all. Sometimes I wish that I could, but there is just too much against it.”

“Perhaps you need to ask Pastor Arrowsmith about this unreasoning hatred you have of your brother. Maybe he can help.”

Matt looked at his wife in shock. “I’m not going to air the family laundry in public. No one needs to know my business but us.”

“You are supposed to be a Christian, Matt. Christians forgive.”

“Then I’m not a very good Christian.”

“Oh Matt, don’t say that. I think this animosity you have toward your brother is poisoning you. You need to get rid of it.”

“Leave me alone. I don’t want to talk about it.”

Lidia watched her husband walk off. He was in pain. She knew that, and she knew what to do about it. She would save her husband despite his objections. She would contact Pastor Arrowsmith and set up an appointment for her husband.

Chapter 7

John Arrowsmith kneeled at the prayer rail in front of the church sanctuary, both of his hands folded together in prayer and resting gently on the wooden rail. John was struggling with the new direction that his life had taken. Everything had happened so fast in his life.

He had come home to Gulfview, a disgraced cop of twenty years, fired for something that wasn’t his fault. He had been at the bottom of his life, wounded and no place to go. Pastor Michael Phillips of Ocean Front Church had taken him in and nurtured him, renewing his faith in God and giving him a new direction.

Then the most amazing thing happened to him. During a prayer session, he had fallen to the floor unconscious and was out for almost ten minutes. When he came to, he could swear that he heard angels singing, but, of course, no one else had heard anything. The deacons helped him to his feet, and he sat down in a nearby pew. Nothing like that had ever happened to him before. He felt different somehow.

Later, he had prayed for an elderly lady, and she was instantly healed. He didn’t make the connection until he prayed for another person who was also healed. He began to think that he was responsible for the healing, but then he prayed for others and no healing took place. His healing ability seemed to be sporadic. There was no consistency to it. He was both terrified and mystified. He tried to downplay his healing ability, but people kept coming to him.

Finally, he had turned everything over to God. After all, it was God who did the healing, not him. Then his second gift became manifest. When he prayed with people, healing of their spirit seemed to take place. This was not sporadic, but happened every time he prayed with someone. He reached deep down into people and opened their spirit to God’s divine love. He couldn’t explain that anymore than he could explain the physical healing.

John had spent long hours with his pastor, Michael Phillips, trying to make sense of it all. These gifts as Phillips liked to call them had all started when he had passed out at the prayer rail. Something had happened to him, changed him. He wasn’t sure he liked what had happened to him. For the most part, he felt confused and unsure.

But Phillips had encouraged him to turn everything over to God and let things happen as they would. It was not for John to figure out what God intended to do with him. He should just rely on his faith and go where that faith led him. That was easy for Phillips to say, John thought, but very hard to do.

So he came here to the Ocean Front Church sanctuary every evening and prayed for guidance. He needed direction in his life. Because of his gifts, Pastor Phillips had made him an associate pastor of the church, but he had no formal religious training to justify such an appointment. Somehow, the position he had been given didn’t feel right. He still thought of himself as a cop.

John finished his prayers and stood up, frowning slightly. That was when he heard the tapping sound. He turned and saw a woman coming slowly up the church aisle. She leaned heavily on a cane as she dragged her left foot behind her. A young woman accompanied her, daughter maybe. He shook his head. He knew what they wanted, what they all wanted, healing.

John couldn’t turn anyone away who sought prayer and healing, but it hurt when the healing did not come. He saw the disappointment and anguish in their faces when he failed them. It was hard to live with.

They stopped in front of him and the older woman asked, “Are you John Arrowsmith?”

“Yes, I am.”

“My daughter says you heal people.”

“God heals. I merely provide a channel for that healing.”

“As you can see, I need some healing. Can you do it?” the woman asked. There was doubt in her voice.

“Do you believe in God? Are you saved?”

“Yes, of course I am, or I wouldn’t be here,” she snapped.

“Healing relies heavily on faith,” John cautioned.

“I have faith enough to come here. Isn’t that enough?”

“I can’t guarantee anything. I can pray with you, but healing is up to God.”

“Never thought otherwise,” She snapped again.

John glanced at the daughter, then said, “Please help your mother up to the prayer rail. Can you kneel?”

“Kneeling isn’t a problem. It’s the getting up that’s hard,” the crippled woman said with a frown.

When the crippled woman reached the prayer rail, John and her daughter helped the woman to kneel. Then with his hand touching her forehead, he began to pray for the woman.

“Believe that God can heal you. Release any anger you may have. Forgive those who have wronged you. Let the divine power flow through you.”

At first nothing happened, then slowly a warmth began to spread over John, rising from within him. The warmth spread to his hand, to his fingertips that touched the woman’s forehead. Suddenly, she jerked.

“My left leg hurts,” she complained.

“Continue to pray and hold to your faith,” John urged.

The warmth increased and flowed out of John even stronger than before. He felt close to the Creator, as if he had a foot in heaven already. It was always this way when he healed someone. Some of that divine power washed over him bringing joy and peace.

Then, as suddenly as the power had come, it ended. John stood there a moment, enjoying the wonder of it all as that heavenly joy slowly faded away. Then with a sigh, he opened his eyes and looked at the crippled woman beside him.

“Why don’t you stand up?”

The woman nodded and began to stand, but it was still difficult for her. John and her daughter helped. Finally, the woman was on her feet. She shook their hands off of her.

“Let me stand on my own. Something has happened to me. I can feel it. I feel real joy.”

The woman threw her cane away and began to walk, unsteadily at first, but as she continued to walk down the church aisle toward the rear of the church, her left leg seemed to grow stronger. She had started out limping, then the limping vanished, and she was walking normally.

“Hallelujah, I can walk!” she shouted.

Her daughter turned to John with tears in her eyes and said, “You don’t know what this means to us. She has been crippled so long.”

The elderly woman returned smiling and hugged John. Then she turned away without saying anything and went to her daughter.

“God has healed me, child. Thank you for bringing me. We can go home now.”

John watched them leave. This time he had not failed.

Chapter 8

Blake Stone was a middle aged man with black hair and brown eyes. He was dressed in a blue pin-striped suit. He wondered how long this was going to take.

Currently, Stone sat handcuffed to a table in the police interrogation room waiting for someone to tell him if the current district attorney had accepted his deal. He didn’t know who had taken his place as district attorney. He had heard they had appointed someone outside of his department to clean up the district attorney’s office. He imagined a few people would be fired, particularly anyone that had close ties with him, the old district attorney.

There were a lot of charges piled up against him, including trial tampering in Jack King’s case. Jack had started all of this with his search for Kate Fairfax’s killer. All of his backdoor deals and maneuvering to get Jack King convicted had been exposed, which had led to other corruption charges.

Stone was trying to cut a deal with the cops and the district attorney. He had information on at least a dozen other crimes in Gulfview and the state. He could name names. If they would guarantee him no jail time, he would give them that information. It was a strong card to play.

He knew there was no chance of getting his job back as district attorney, and he would probably lose his license to practice law, but at least he would be free to start over someplace else. He was finished here, but first he had a debt to pay. Jack King must be dealt with; Blake promised himself that revenge. Jack King was responsible for all of his troubles.

Then there was Ann Banks. Even now, he could visualize her–tall, blond with those piercing blue eyes. How he loved that woman. There had to be a way to get her back. He knew that she didn’t care for him, but that didn’t matter. He had to have her. He would find a way.

Finally, the door to his interrogation room opened, and Detective Sergeant Bret Walker walked in with a grim frown. Walker was a veteran police officer. He was short with red hair and green eyes in his early forties. He possessed a strong sense of morality.

He stared down at Stone for a moment, then shook his head. The current district attorney and the state attorney general had accepted the deal that Blake Stone had offered. Walker didn’t like deals. He felt that all criminals should go to jail, regardless of what deals were offered.

“Looks like they are going to approve the deal, Stone. I don’t like it, but apparently my opinion doesn’t matter. The district attorney will send over the paperwork shortly. Once you accept the deal, I want full details about the crimes you have witnessed.”

“Of course,” Blake smugly smiled.

Once he was released, he would begin planning his revenge against Jack. Ann might like that. Maybe that would be a way to buy her affections.

Chapter 9

It was a little past nine o’clock on a Tuesday morning when Jack knocked on Robert Trace’s apartment door. He could hear sounds beyond the door of someone stirring around. He would have to be careful. According to Glenda, the man could be violent and had a hair trigger.

The door opened, revealing a man in shirt sleeves and pants with a tie hanging around his neck, yet to be tied. Apparently, Jack had caught Trace in the middle of dressing.

“Who are you? I don’t have time to talk to you. I am on my way to work.”

“This won’t take long,” Jack said as he pushed his way into Trace’s apartment, closing the door behind him.

“What the hell… You can’t just force your way into my apartment,” Trace snapped.

Trace was tall with dark hair and brown eyes that were rapidly filling with anger. People didn’t shove him around.

“I need to talk to you about Kate Fairfax,” Jack said sternly.

“And just who the hell are you?”

“I’m Jack King,” Jack said quietly.

“The man that killed Kate!” Trace yelled, then attacked Jack.

Jack blocked Trace’s first punch and sent one of his own, a strong right uppercut to Trace’s jaw that staggered him. Before Trace could recover from the blow, Jack sent a left punch into Trace’s stomach, doubling him over. Trace fell to his knees gasping for breath.

“Your temper will get you into trouble,” Jack said as he stood over Trace.

Trace slowly staggered to his feet, rubbing his jaw, trying to shake off the effects of Jack’s punches. There was still anger in Trace’s eyes, but now there was also fear. He realized this man could hurt him.

“What do you want?” he snapped.

“I want to know where you were the day Kate died?”

“Why would Kate’s killer want to know anything about me?”

“I didn’t kill Kate. I’m trying to find out who did,” Jack replied.

“You think I killed her?” Trace replied, puzzlement in his voice. “I would never harm Kate. I loved her.”

“Someone saw a bruise on her face after she met you,” Jack pushed.

Trace turned away from Jack and walked over to a small bar in the corner of his apartment and poured himself a Scotch and downed it in a single gulp. Then he poured himself another and turned to face Jack.

“I have a temper. Sometimes it gets out of control. I regret ever striking Kate. I tried to apologize to her, but she stormed out. That was the last time I saw her. I tried to call her, but she refused to answer my calls. I thought if I gave her a little time, maybe she would forgive me, but she died before that happened.”

“You didn’t go over to her house that afternoon, around five o’clock?”

“No, I had a late class that day. Ask anyone at the school. I was nowhere near Kate when she died, and that’s the truth. I thought you killed her.”

“Would I be here asking questions if I had killed Kate?”

Trace finished his drink, paused a moment, and then stared back at Jack. “I guess not. If you didn’t kill Kate, who did?”

“That’s what I am trying to find out,” Jack said as he turned toward the door.

“I hope you find the bastard, whoever he is,” Trace called after him.

Jack didn’t reply as he exited Trace’s apartment. He had found out what he wanted to know. If Trace’s story checked out, Jack could cross him off his list which only left two suspects, neither of which looked very strong for the murder of Kate.

Glenda might be right. What if he never found Kate’s killer?

Chapter 10

Pat Springfield was a short blond woman with deep blue eyes that were currently focused on Lee King. Lee sat in a chair across from her in her home, a deep frown on his face.

“Helen is talking about going to court over this divorce. She is making unreasonable demands.”

“What are you going to do?” Pat said.

“I don’t know,” Lee replied. “I don’t want to drag my family through a long court battle, but I will if I must.”

“Have you met with her yet?”

“The lawyers have set up a pre-trial meeting to see if we can work things out instead of going to court. I will be fair in my dealings with her, but I am not going to give away the store.”

Pat nodded as she walked over to stand beside Lee. She placed her hand on his shoulder. He covered her hand with his own.

“We will find a way to make things work out,” she said.

“If I didn’t have you, this would be almost more than I could bear,” Lee said. “When Helen and I split up, I never thought I would find anyone else that I could love. Then I suddenly realized you were more than a business partner. You were a caring and considerate person who comforted me when I was down. You were the kind of woman that I always wanted, that I thought Helen was, until I found out otherwise.”

“Sometimes we see only what we want to see,” Pat said softly.

“My father tried to warn me about her before our marriage. She was a selfish, self-serving woman with little consideration for anyone else. I didn’t see that. I was in love and wanted to spend my life with Helen. I wouldn’t listen to anyone, even my father. I have paid dearly for that stubborn pride of mine. I have a dysfunctional family that is at each other’s throats half the time.”

“You told me you had a nice chat with Matt. That seems like progress.”

“Yes, that went well. I’m trying to knit my family back together. Between my drive to build a company and a self-indulgent wife, my children were badly neglected in the early years of our marriage. It’s a wonder they turned out as well as they did. Well, I have had my eyes opened. I see my marriage for what it really was, not what I wanted it to be.”

“I know such revelations can be painful,” Pat said.

“You have no idea. To suddenly realize you are married to an uncaring, selfish woman that cares only about herself, that has little love for me, that was painful. Then to sell me out by trying to have me replaced as president of my company, all for the sake of gaining some money–well, that was too much. I suddenly realized what kind of woman I had been married to. The blinders came off, and I had to face facts. My marriage had failed, had been failing for a long time. I just refused to admit it.”

Pat leaned down and kissed Lee gently, then said, “We have each other now. We will put this behind us and build our own happiness.”

Lee smiled for the first time. “You have given me hope. I am going to do my best to mend my fences with my children and be the kind of father they deserve, particularly Matt and Mary. I’ll do what I must to put this divorce behind me and start to live life again with you by my side.”

“What about Jack? Is he still searching for Kate’s killer?”

Lee frowned and shook his head. “I’m worried about Jack; about what this searching for a killer will do to him. He seems sort of lost, not like his old self. There is no joy or peace in his eyes when he looks at me.”

“I imagine that prison was rough on Jack. It will probably take time to get over that experience.”

“A lifetime I expect. There is a hardness in Jack now, a ruthlessness, that scares me. I know he had to do some terrible things just to survive in prison. He has said as much.”

“Prison can be a brutal place.”

“I also worry about Jack finding this killer. What will he do when he does? If Jack kills Kate’s murderer, he could wind back up in prison. But then I worry about what happens if Jack doesn’t find Kate’s killer. What will happen to Jack? He will forever be branded as a killer. I don’t know if Jack can live with that. I fear what might happen.”

“Perhaps you worry too much. You’re his father. It is only right that you worry about your son, but maybe things aren’t as bad as you think.”

“I hope so, for Jack’s sake,” Lee said.

Lee didn’t speak for a few minutes, staring off into space, thinking. His son was lost in a sea of misery and trying to make it back to shore, to a world where the sun shone brightly and no one thought of him as an ex-con, a killer. Lee would do everything in his power to help him. He just didn’t know what to do.

Chapter 11

George Banks sat at his desk at the First National Bank of Gulfview and wondered how much longer he would be employed. He was a loan officer at one of the largest banks in town and that bank was failing. Rumors were rife throughout the bank about the coming collapse of the bank. A large number of people had already been laid off.

George was a short, heavy set man in his late thirties with thinning brown hair and deep brown eyes. He had always been an easygoing man who tried to do a good job. His career at the bank had been less than stellar. A fact that his wife constantly reminded him about.

If he lost his job, he could well lose his wife. Ann had made it abundantly clear what she thought of him and his failure to fulfill his promises to her. She was eighteen when he married her, and he was thirty. He had turned her head with promises of wealth and prestige. He had promised her that she would be somebody important with social status if she married him. None of those promises had come true. A fact that Ann reminded him of every single damn day.

She had been dating Jack King when he enticed her away from Jack. He thought with time and success that Ann would come to love him as much as she had loved Jack, but that had turned to dust. He was so much older than Ann and now pretty much a failure. Would she divorce him? He felt she was close to doing exactly that. What would he do if she left him? She was the love of his life.

“I just heard from a friend of mine in personnel. They are letting some more people go today. They are sending the e-mails out now,” Tim Hillyer said.

Tim was one of the loan officers that worked with George. He was a young man of only twenty-four, bright and energetic.

“Surely they wouldn’t let any more people go. They have fired so many already,” George complained.

“George, haven’t you been paying attention? I’ve told you this bank is going under. You had better start looking for a job somewhere else. I started looking days ago.”

“Have you found anything?”

“Not in banking, but there may be some opportunities in some of the smaller finance companies. Of course, they don’t pay much, nothing like this bank. But, hey, any port in a storm, right?”

“But I don’t know how to do anything else?” George said, worry plain on his face.

“Hey, look, I know it’s harder for you older guys to learn new jobs, but banks aren’t hiring. You are going to have to find a job doing something else.”

“What will I do?”

Tim shook his head. George wasn’t exactly the sharpest tack in the box, though he didn’t seem to realize that. He should have been further along in his career. My God, Tim thought, the man has worked at this bank for almost twenty years and was still only a loan officer. He should have at least been a loan manager.

“George,” Tim said as gently as he knew how, “you need to start looking for other employment. There is bound to be something out there for you.”

George slowly nodded as he checked his e-mail. There was a notice from the personnel department, setting up an appointment for him. The email didn’t mention anything about him being fired, but did indicate the meeting was urgent due to recent company developments.

Fear clinched his stomach. George thought he might throw up. What would happen to him? What would happen to his marriage?

Chapter 12

Ann Banks was a striking tall, blond woman with blue eyes in her middle twenties. When she entered a room, heads turned. Men found her very attractive. She knew that and counted on it to get her way.

She sat on her patio and stared at the red roses that were blooming beside her. She sat in a swing and gently pushed the swing. She enjoyed the swinging motion. The air was cool this morning, invigorating. She felt almost happy until she remembered her present circumstances.

Her beauty had failed her with George. She had attracted the wrong man, but didn’t realize it until much later. George had been handsome at thirty and had filled her young head with wonderful promises of wealth and happiness. She had been in high school and gullible. Although she loved Jack, she wanted more. She thought she could love George just as well Jack. She had been wrong on all counts.

George was considerate and kind; she should have been able to feel something for him, but she felt nothing. All through the early years of her marriage to George, she had waited for a spark, a feeling, something, anything, to bloom between them. She wanted desperately to love George. She was married to him after all, but it was as if her heart was made of stone, except when she thought of Jack.

As the years had passed in her loveless marriage, her thoughts had gradually turned back to the times she had been happy. When she thought of those past times, she thought of Jack and how she had felt about him. Then she felt those old powerful emotions of love and passion begin to churn within her. She had gradually come to realize there would never be anyone else for her but Jack. She grew increasingly desperate to change her circumstances.

Unfortunately, her need to feel love had driven her to frivolous and brief affairs with other men. The result was always the same, exciting at first with promise, only to end in disappointment.

She had talked to other women who had loved again. When other women talked about finding love again, they made it sound so easy. Some had been in love multiple times. What was it about her that she could only love once?

She shook her head sadly. She had made so many foolish mistakes. She thought about Jack often now, but every advance she had made toward him had been rebuffed. Jack wanted nothing to do with her, which only infuriated her.

Now she was straddled with a middle aged man with thinning hair who was going nowhere. And worst of all, she wasn’t in love with him, and never would be. She lived in a very modest home and wore cloth coats instead of the furs that George had promised her. She was a bitter woman wondering what her future held.

If George lost his job, they would have even less. It was time to abandon ship. She had stayed far too long as it was. But she hesitated. She had no job experience. She had been dependent on George to take care of her. She would need to find someone else to take care of her, but who? Until she had new prospects, she would have to stay with George. She hated that realization most of all. She felt trapped.

If only Jack would realize what they could have together. They had been good together once, and Ann felt they could recapture that magic if only Jack would try. Instead, he dated other women and ignored her, which infuriated her.

In recent years, Ann had begun to fantasize about Jack, about their past together, and about what their future could be like together. She dreamed of a home and children, of a new life, the life that should have been before she was sidetracked with George.

But now that life seemed even further away. Jack just didn’t seem to be interested, and she didn’t know how to change that. There had to be a way.

Somehow she had to make Jack love her again, but he kept seeing other woman which made Ann jealous. Couldn’t he see what was in front of him? Other men found her attractive and desirable. Why couldn’t Jack find her attractive? Once he did.

With renewed determination, she vowed to herself to find a way to make Jack love her again. She was clever. She would find a way.

Chapter 13

Bernice stood over Jim Terrell, her brother, and shook her head. The crazy fool had actually tried to kill Jack King. He was fortunate indeed that Jack King had decided not to press charges.

Bernice was in her mid-forties and plain faced with a husband and family of her own, but she loved her brother so took time away from that family to come here this afternoon and talk to her brother. She was surprised to find that he was not in jail today.

“So Jack King just turned you loose after you tried to kill him?” Bernice said, amazement still in her voice, even after hearing her brother’s account of what happened.

“Yes,” he replied.

“Why? He should have called the police and had you locked up for attempted murder.”

“He said that he knew how I felt, but that he didn’t kill Kate. He is looking for Kate’s killer. He asked me to withhold judgment for a while and let him find that killer. I…I think I believe him,” Jim Terrell said as he passed a hand through his curly black hair.

“What are you going to do?” Bernice asked.

“Wait and watch. Someone has got to pay for Kate’s death. I loved her, and I will not allow her killer to escape justice.”

“Look Jim, you’ve been given a second chance. Take it. Forget about Kate and this entire mess. Start fresh and put your life back together.”

“Don’t you think I want to do that? But I can’t. Kate haunts my life, my dreams. Kate’s death left a hole in my heart that I can’t seem to fill. I have tried dating other women, tried putting Kate behind me, but nothing works. I keep seeing Kate’s smiling face whenever I close my eyes, and I feel intense pain when I think that I will never see that beautiful face again. I have to do something. I will never have peace until Kate’s killer is brought to justice.”

Bernice shook her head. Her brother was seriously broken. She had tried everything she knew to make her brother see reason, but he was fixated on Kate and nothing she said would move him away from Kate.

She had thought about seeking medical help for Jim. She had even mentioned seeking professional help to Jim, but he refused to even consider any sort of medical help. She needed to do something. It was a miracle he wasn’t killed or sent to jail when he tried to murder Jack. Next time he might not be so lucky, and Bernice knew there would be a next time unless she found a way to prevent it.

Chapter 14

Jack stood in Glenda’s office at the newspaper. He had strolled in right after lunch, hoping to catch up with her and talk about their progress in the hunt for Kate’s killer. He found her typing on her personal computer and muttering to herself.

“You looked worried,” Jack said.

“I am. I have a deadline to reach, and I am behind. My editor gets sort of upset when I miss a deadline.”

“I thought we might discuss our case, but if you are too busy, I can come back later.”

“No, stick around. I can spare a few minutes. I need a break anyway.”

Jack sat down in a straight back, wooden chair and smiled at Glenda. She was still frowning as she stared at her computer screen. “This newspaper piece I am writing refuses to cooperate. Something is wrong with it, but I can’t put my finger on it.”

“As you said, maybe you need a break.”

She glanced at him then and smiled. She pushed away from her computer and folded her arms.

“You have my undivided attention.”

Jack shrugged and said, “Trace says that he was teaching a class at the time of Kate’s death. If that checks out, he has a solid alibi.”

”You think he is telling the truth?” Glenda Logan said, puzzlement evident on her face. She had felt sure that he was their number one suspect after meeting him at the college.

“Hard to tell.”

“I will check with the school and see if I can find anyone who attended his class on that day. If he told you the truth, that only leaves Toth and Grass,” Glenda said.

“Did you interview Toth?”

“Yeah, nothing there. He has no alibi, but I can find no connection between him and Kate. He didn’t know her, didn’t even travel in the same social circles. Seems to be a dead end.”

“Which leaves only Grass. Seems like we are striking out all the way around,” Jack said with a frown.

“We have talked about this before, Jack. There may be no good suspects.”

“I can’t accept that. There has to be someone, Glenda. We have missed something. Kate had to know her killer. There were no signs of forced entry, and whoever killed her, knew her well enough to get into an argument with her and kill her.”

“So who could that be?”

Jack stood up from his chair and started pacing. “I don’t know. I have looked at this case from every angle, and I am coming up blank. I’ve got nothing so far. I will talk to Grass. Maybe there is something there.”

“Grass is a long shot. I read his bio, and he doesn’t seem like a good suspect,” Glenda said.

“Yeah, I know, but right now, he’s all we got.”

“Maybe we should start over. Start interviewing everyone that knew her.”

“That sounds too much like a dead end, like we are giving up. I’m not ready to do that,” Jack said.

Jack knew that he was missing something. There had to be some piece of evidence they had overlooked, something that would give them a clue as to who killed Kate.

Chapter 15

Seth Fairfax sat in his black recliner and relaxed. He had just gotten in from work. He rubbed his gray streaked black hair and smiled at his youngest daughter, Georgia, sitting on the couch. He loved Georgia and her sweet, innocent personality. He tried not to think about Kate, his oldest daughter. She was dead, killed by Jack King, although Jack still claimed his innocence. Seth wasn’t ready to accept that yet, but he was beginning to doubt his once strong conviction that Jack had killed Kate, particularly after meeting with him.

Kate had always been wild, going her own way. He knew that she was cheating on Jack. He had even tried to talk to her about it, but she had just brushed him off with that small laugh of hers and told him not to worry. Seth thought Kate genuinely loved Jack, but couldn’t seem to leave other men alone. He shook his head slowly. Maybe if her mother had lived, she would have made a difference in Kate’s life.

“What’s wrong, Dad. You look sad,” Georgia asked, a look of concern on her face.

“Just thinking about the tragic events of the past.” Then he forced a smile and asked, “How did the date go last night?”

“Okay, I guess. He is nice enough.”

“No sparks yet?”

Georgia laughed and replied, “No sparks yet, but it’s early.”

“Well, it can take time. I’m glad you are dating again. You need to have a life. I was afraid for awhile that you were never going to start living again.”

“Kate’s death affected me deeply, Dad. I just needed time.”

“It affected us all, sweetheart, but we need to put that tragedy behind us and get on with our lives.”

“I agree.”

“What are we having for supper?” Seth asked.

“Your favorite–fried pork chops.”

“Sounds good. Well, let me wash up, and we’ll have supper,” Seth said as he rose to his feet.

Georgia watched her father leave

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an excerpt from

Boyfriend from Hell

by E. Van Lowe

Copyright © 2014 by E. Van Lowe and published here with his permission

Chapter One

She was laughing.

That’s what I remember most about that night. It was Saturday. The sun had recently gone down. It was still warm in our old house, but once the sun had finished setting, I knew we’d be slipping into our snuggies. That’s how Januaries are in the desert—hot in the day, freezing at night.

We were seated at the chipped oak dining room table with the mismatched chairs she was so embarrassed for company to see. We were polishing the silver, and my mother was laughing.

We love polishing the silver. It’s a mother-daughter bonding thing we’ve been doing as far back as I can remember. When I was younger we did it in the summer, but since I’d been in high school, we’d been doing it over winter break.

Ours is an antique set dating back to the early nineteen hundreds that my mother got for a steal at an estate sale when I was seven.  We go to lots of estate sales, and yard sales, and garage sales. Glendale calls itself the antique capital of Arizona. This distinction allows anyone with anything festering in their attic or garage to drag it out onto their lawn on Saturday mornings and try to palm it off as an antique.

Since my mother loves antiques, you can find us on any given Saturday inside some cowboy’s grungy garage, rummaging through his crap, looking for the real deal.  She has an eye for the real stuff, so no one can cheat her out of a bargain. She works for an art dealer. She is also one of my best friends. Well… she was before our lives went to hell in a hand basket. Guess I shouldn’t use that word too freely around here. Hell, I mean.

As we sat polishing away, she casually said, “What would you think of me going on a date?”

“Umm, you mean with a guy?”

“Of course with a guy. A man,” she said, the beginnings of a laugh bubbling out of her. “I don’t have any prospects yet, but I’ve been seeing all these dating sites on TV and thought, why not?” She looked at me trying to read my face.

 It was the first time she had mentioned another man since my father had left ten years ago.

“Yeah, why not?” I said through a thin smile, although what I was feeling was… why?

“Why not?” she repeated, soft laughter spilling out of her, like there was some new, long awaited happiness to be discovered, and she was brimming with the possibility of what that happiness might be.

Why not?


“I can’t believe your mother’s going on a date,” said Erin.

It was Sunday afternoon. The next day. We were seated at the food court in the Glendale mall, digesting my problem along with a double order of curly fries.

“She hasn’t found one yet,” I countered. “She’s just talking about it.”

I swirled a curly fry into the glob of ketchup on my Styrofoam plate. “Hasn’t she read any of those books or articles about single parent dating? Rule number one clearly states: sneak out behind your kid’s back. Keep us in the dark as long as possible. It’s a good rule.” I popped the curly fry into my mouth.

“In Suze’s defense, she’s just trying to keep the lines of communication open. If she meets someone, it’s going to affect your life, too.”

All my friends call my mom Suze, never Ms. Barnett. That’s how she likes it. I call her Suze, too, but not to her face, never to her face. I tried that once when I was ten, and if looks could kill, I’d currently be pushing daisies. I think it’s cool having a mom everyone can call by her first name—just not me.

“I know you’re only trying to cheer me up, Erin. But telling me my mother might meet somebody is not going to do it.” I swirled another curly fry.

“Hey, your mom’s kind of hot. I’m sure she’ll find lots of dudes who want to go out with her.” This revelation came from my other best friend, Matt. I’ve known Matt since kindergarten, four years longer than I’ve known Erin. He was tall and slender, with a ready smile and shock of fuzzy red hair. He was also an idiot.

“Matt,” Erin said patiently.  “Megan doesn’t want her mother going on a date. That’s why we’re having this little meeting. Duh?”

“Oh,” said Matt. He looked from Erin to me, letting her words wash over him.

Matt was not the kind of boy you’d normally expect us to be hanging out with. Aside from the fact that he was IQ-challenged, Matt was a card-carrying member of our school’s in-crowd, dubbed The Poplarati. He was on the varsity football team and the track team. Erin and I were on the debate team and the math team. We were card carrying members of our school’s leper colony. Yet ever since Suze and I arrived in Glendale and moved next door to the Dawsons, Matt has always been a part of my life. I can’t recall a memory that doesn’t have him in it.

“Why don’t you want Suze to go on a date?” he asked.

“Are you kidding? First off, if anyone in my family should be dating, it should be me. I’m fifteen, primo dating age. How’s it going to look if my mother has a boyfriend and I don’t?”

No one answered. The three of us sat in silence, considering my problem.

The mall had recently been remodeled. Several upscale restaurants had been added to the food court, which they now called the dining terrace, as if by changing the name people would forget they were at the Glendale mall.  But you could still get a good burger and curly fries, so the change was just fine with me.

“Then why not get your own boyfriend?” Matt said all of a sudden.

That was a no-brainer. “Gee, Matt, let me see. Maybe it’s because it’s social suicide for anyone at school to date a mathlete. And guess what? I’m a mathlete!”

“But you’re cute,” said Matt. Then realizing he’d committed the cardinal sin of complimenting a girl, he looked away awkwardly. “I mean you’ve got the blue eyes, and… the one dimple in your left check, and…” His awkward eyes found Erin. “And you’re cute, too. You’ve got… the thing with your hair.” His voice trailed off as he attempted to be the equal opportunity looks-evaluator.

“Yeah, well, at G.U., geek trumps looks,” I said, disgusted with my situation.

“And that thing with my hair is called bangs, thank you very much!” Erin was equally disgusted, but hers was aimed at Matt.

“Then maybe you should go out with someone on the math team.”

Erin and I stared at him. Matt knew good and well I wasn’t ever going out with anyone on the math team. And it’s not that I’m an elitist or anything like that. I’d just like to go out with a cool, popular guy for once. And if he happens to look like Taylor Lautner, so be it.

The Poplarati have no idea what the rest of us go through. I mean, just because we’re lepers doesn’t mean we’d ever date a leper. Those of us who occupy the lower links on the social food chain have standards too—even higher than The Poplarati—because our boyfriends not only have to be cute, but they also need to have an IQ higher than that of a titmouse. Unfortunately at Glendale Union, hitting the Dating Daily Double (looks and intelligence), is a near impossibility.

“I don’t see what’s the big deal about Suze dating.” Matt was now giving me the stink eye.

“Oh? Would you like to listen to your mother talking about French kissing?” He screwed up his face as the image invaded his thoughts.


His expression softened. “But you and Suze are so close. I don’t have that kind of relationship with my mom. I wish I did.”

“Me, too.” Erin was looking at me with the same expression I used on her when I was trying to make her feel guilty about something.

“Come on, guys, she’s my mother,” I said with an exasperated sigh. “Can I really tell her that while we’re snuggled up on the sofa watching Spider Man Three, I’m secretly undressing James Franco with my eyes? Of course not. These things I keep from her for her own good. And likewise, there are things she should keep from me. I don’t care if she wants to go on a date. I just don’t want to know about it.”

That wasn’t exactly true. I did care about her going on a date. But if I told them how I really felt, I’d appear selfish.

Erin reached for the ketchup. “It’s just that you’re lucky to have a mother who’s your friend. The only time my mother ever talks to me is when she’s telling me to clean my room, do my homework, or stay away from boys—not necessarily in that order.”  She squirted a big red blob onto her plate.

It was then the answer I was looking for came to me, triggered by something Erin had said. “Hey, remember when your mom didn’t want you riding in cars with boys? She told you horror stories about what could happen.”

“Yeah. That was so lame.”

“Why don’t I do the same thing?  I’ll tell her a graphic horror story about some parent at our school who went on a date and was never heard from again. That’ll scare her off dating forever.”

“I don’t like it,” said Erin.

“Me, either,” said Matt. “I think Suze getting a boyfriend is a good idea.”

I ignored both their responses. “Then it’s settled. I’m doing it.”

“Megan,” Erin’s tone turned serious. “If you’re uncomfortable with your mother dating, maybe you should just tell her?”

I shook my head. “You guys have a lot to learn about open relationships.”

Chapter Two

Pythagoras, the famous Greek philosopher, is known for being the first person to demonstrate the theorem that with any right triangle, the sum of the squares of both sides is equal to the square of the hypotenuse: A²+B²=C². What most people don’t know is Pythagoras also stated: “It is evil to eat beans.”

The sad fact that this useless bit of information resides in my brain is one of the many contributing factors as to why I do not have a boyfriend. I’m a trivia junkie. I can’t help myself. Put a useless piece of information in front of me and I will gobble it up like a double cheeseburger with a side of curly fries.

Cute boys like girls who are into fashion magazines and lip gloss, not mathematical equations and trivia. So imagine my surprise when our first day back at school after winter break, a really cute boy walked into the Math Lab.

Don’t get me wrong, cute boys walk into the Math Lab all the time. However, as soon as they discover they’re in a room crawling with geeks, they realize their mistake and make a hasty exit.

I was at the chalkboard with Erin, working through a problem using a logarithm [and trust me, I am well aware that my use of logarithms has solidified my place in the annals of geekdom forever, but humor me here].

“Hottie at three o’clock,” whispered Erin, digging her elbow into my side.

I turned, and there he was, a cute boy standing just inside the doorway. This cute boy was different from all the others who’d come before him. This cute boy was acting like he intended to stay.

“I’m looking for the Math Lab,” he said as he surveyed the room. There were seven of us in all, not including Mrs. Brewster in the back. Five boys who followed the geek dress code to the letter, all the way down to the black socks they wore with their uncool sneaks, Erin, and me.

“Who wants to know?” asked Erin. I swear that girl could go from zero to flirt in six-point-five seconds.

He smiled. It was a confident smile. He had a lot to be confident about.  He was basketball-player tall, with jet black hair, and the kind of dark, dreamy eyes you could look into forever. It was obvious from the way he carried himself that he’d been flirted with before. Erin’s question, “Who wants to know?”, would have sent most male mathletes scurrying for cover, but not this boy.

“The future captain of The Glendale Mathletes,” he said in response. His smile widened.

Geoffrey, Tran, and the other math geeks stared up at him from behind their glasses, their faces twisted into tight little knots. G.U’s male mathletes were very protective of Erin and me—not that they’d ever try flirting with us themselves. They had enough trouble just standing next to us without sweating out their undershirts.

“Tran is captain of the mathletes,” I said, adding my two cents, and then I smiled. It was supposed to be a mysterious, seductive smile, but my mouth froze into a toothy grin. I have practiced that seductive smile in the mirror like a zillion times to perfection, and the first time I try using it on a real boy, I wind up looking like the Joker.

The new boy looked at me. “Interesting smile.”

Is that laughter in his eyes? Is he laughing at me?

“You must be Guy,” Mrs. Brewster called from the back of the room. “Welcome to the Glendale Union Mathletes. Come on, I’ll introduce you around.”


At the time, I was happy that a cute boy was joining the mathletes, especially since I was in the market for a cool, cute boyfriend.  I didn’t find it strange that a boy so handsome and sure of himself would be hanging around geeks. My mistake.

Chapter Three

With my mother working every day, and me off with the mathletes and the debate team after school, weekday dinners at our house were usually catch-as-catch-can. Take out was the norm. Or sometimes I’d make burgers, or enchilada pie, which was my specialty. But on some evenings, Suze would bring in the fixings for something a bit more elaborate, a meal we could prepare together.

That’s what she did Monday evening. We converged on the kitchen around six-thirty to prepare chicken paprikash, which really isn’t that elaborate. It’s just sautéed chicken in a paprika sauce over noodles.

I knew the reason for this together time was so she could ease into the dating thing again. While I pretended to happily work away, all I could think is that mother-daughter activities like these would come to an end if she found a boyfriend.

“Are you sure you’re okay with me dating, hon?”  She said it casually as she sliced the chicken breasts. But there was nothing casual about it.

“Sure? Sure? Sure I’m sure. Why wouldn’t I be sure?” The only thing I was sure of was that I wanted to put an end to the dating conversation.

Our kitchen was small, cozy she called it. But it was bright, with a big bay window over the sink that looked out onto our eco-friendly backyard, and lots of counter space so we never got in each other’s way.

She started placing the chicken slices into the pan of sizzling canola oil on the stove. “Just checking. I have to tell you, I’m excited. It’s been so long, I don’t even know my type.” She stared off, a wistful look in her eyes. “I suppose tall, distinguished, and everyone likes a man with a nice butt.”

La, la, la, la, la, la, la, la. Mentally I hummed as loud as I could, trying to blot out the conversation. I was in the midst of chopping veggies for the sauce. When I looked down at the chopping board, I was surprised to discover that if I chopped them any finer I’d have a nice puree. Breathe, I told myself as I eased up on the blade.

While it was always fun when Erin and I talked about boys and their butts, butt talk was not something I wanted to hear from my mother.

Then she giggled.

She giggled like a little girl. Thirty-nine-year-old Suze Barnett, who had tiny wisps of gray she was always adding highlights to, was giggling over the prospect of dating a man with a nice butt.

I had to put an end to this—now!

I cleared my throat. “I just want you to be careful out there, Mom.”

“Thank you. I will,” she replied, as she happily turned the chicken slices to brown on the other side.

The kitchen was filling up with a yummy fragrance that reminded me of my childhood, when she cooked every night when she got home from work.

“I mean, I definitely don’t want what happened to Mrs. Tobolewski to happen to you.”

“Mrs. Tobo…”

“Tobolewski. One of the girls at school’s mom.” I pretended to concentrate on the chopped veggies, scooping them into a bowl to be sautéed once the chicken was done. Yet through the corner of my eye, I was watching, as like a hungry fish she slowly rose to the bait.

“So…” She sniffed at it: “What happened to Mrs. Tobolewski?” And then Bam! She swallowed it whole.

“Oh, didn’t I tell you about her? She went on a date.” I let the word date hang in the air between us, heavy with harmful meaning.


This was too easy. Should I reel her in now, or play her for a while? I should probably practice in case this dating thing gets serious. I’ll play her. “Huh?” I said, shooting her my best blank stare.

“Mrs. Tobolewski’s date. What happened?” The sautéing was forgotten for the moment, as she urged me on with her eyes.

“It’s not important. I don’t want to worry you.”

“Megan Barnett!” she implored.

“Oh, all right.” I made a big deal out of stopping my chopping. I sighed. “Well, let’s see, the girl’s mother was about your age, attractive like you, and from what I can remember, it was her first date since the divorce.”

“Ooh. Bad date, huh?”

“Well, not for the guy who lopped her head off. I’m sure he had loads of fun.”

“Oh, my!” She nearly dropped a chicken slice on the floor.

“And it was their first date,” I repeated.

I could tell from her sickly pallor she was totally rethinking the dating thing. A pang of remorse shot through me. I really did feel bad fooling her this way. We were friends.  But that’s exactly why I was doing it. She had convinced herself that dating was a good idea. It was up to me as a friend to point out the pitfalls.

“How did they meet?” She began placing the sautéed chicken slices on a paper towel to drain.

“Huh? Oh… they umm… met at church.” The answer was totally unplanned, and yet totally genius. I mean if you can’t trust a guy you meet in church…

“Where did they go?”

“Go?” What was with all of these questions? Was I not making myself clear? The woman was dead because she went on a date.

“On the date,” she repeated. “Where did they go?”

“Mom, does it really matter where they went? The man killed her!”

I was beginning to lose it. Not good. I needed to play it cool. I took a deep breath.

“Skiing,” I said. “They went skiing at a very posh ski resort. And did I mention it was their first date ever? The first date she’d been on since all those years ago when she went out with her husband.” Even an idiot could make the connection.

“Did they catch him?”

But not my mother. I lost it. “What difference does that make, Mom? She’s dead! Do I have to draw you a map? The woman is dead because she went on a date.”

“No. She’s dead because she didn’t screen properly.”


“Megan, this is sounding an awful lot like one of those urban myths. I mean, who goes on a ski trip on their first date? Really! First dates should be coffee in a public place.”

Okay, so she has read some of the literature on single-parent dating. Who knew?

I handed her the bowl of veggies and she began ladling them into the pan.

“You and I aren’t going to make that mistake, are we, hon?” She said this, and then she smiled at me. She smiled as if everything I’d said, rather than discouraging her, proved her point.

“Umm. No.” I was at a loss for words.

What just happened here? As I mentally retraced my footsteps trying to see where I zigged when I should have zagged, Suze wiped her hands on a towel and moved to the counter where she picked up a pamphlet.

“I appreciate your concern, Megan. But don’t worry. My first date will be an e-date,” she announced proudly. “Those bad guys can’t harm me in cyberspace, now can they?”

Should I tell her she could catch a deadly computer virus? Nah, she’d never go for that.

“This is the dating questionnaire they sent me. After dinner you can help me fill it out. No one knows me better than you.”

“That’s for sure.”

Suze moved to the cabinet where she kept the cooking sherry. “Don’t say it like that. It’ll be fun.”

Fun? That questionnaire was going to ask my mother questions about herself I did not want to know the answers to. What happened to the good old days when mothers wore knee length skirts and spent all their time in the kitchen baking bread? Those mothers didn’t care about dating, or questionnaires, or butts. All they cared about was how good their kitchens smelled. I suddenly had a taste for fresh baked bread.

She looked at me and smiled. She had the biggest, bluest eyes. A lot like mine. “What do you say?”

“Sure,” I replied weakly. “It’ll be… fun. But let’s order some cheesy bread.”

It was as close as I was going to get to the good old days.


Dinner was a disaster.

The meal was good, perfect, although I must admit cheesy bread is an odd complement to Chicken Paprikash.  The disaster was that my thoughts kept drifting to the result of us filling out that questionnaire—and what I saw was not pretty.

A short time after we had eaten, cleaned the kitchen, and put the leftovers away, we seated ourselves on the high wooden stools at the kitchen counter with the questionnaire lying between us. That’s exactly how I felt. That stupid questionnaire was coming between us.

Our special bond began way back when I was five years old. That’s when, after six years of marriage, my father decided to move to Australia to find himself. I guess he figured if he took us with him, he’d be harder to find—so he split, leaving us high and dry.  I haven’t seen or heard from him since. No biggy. Don’t get me wrong, I would love to meet him. I even tried looking him up on Friend Finder a couple of times.

The good news is, I was so young when he left I don’t remember him leaving. Since his departure, though, my mother and I have become, well… friends.

I mean for ten whole years it had been just the two of us, me and mom—the Two Musketeers. We had a great time doing everything together: movies, concerts, amusement parks, museums, and let’s not forget the tons and tons of garage and estate sales.  She took me to my dance recitals, and I accompanied her to art shows where she shared her love of sculpture. She sat up with me when I had the chicken pox, and after Erin’s eleventh birthday party where I ate two dozen chocolate chip cookies on a dare, and spent the entire night throwing my guts up into a bucket…  [By the way, if you’re an eleven-year-old, you need to know that a dozen chocolate chip cookies should probably be your limit.]

Anyway, after all the good times we shared, she suddenly wanted to change things.

She picked up her pen and began to write. “Let’s see,” she said, thinking out loud. “Attractive single parent…”

I made a face.


“It’s that word, attractive.”

“You think I’m ugly?”

“No, no, of course not. You’re beautiful, Mom. But if you lead with attractive you sound vain. Think about it. The first thing you mention is your looks. You sound like one of those botox bimbos. Ooh, look at me, I’m so cute.”

Suze stared at me a moment and then nodded. “Hadn’t thought of that. Good catch.” She started over: “Intelligent…”

I made a face.

“What now?”

“You sound like a snob.”

“Because I say I’m intelligent?”

“Mom, you know how boys are. They like to think they’re the smart ones. I’d hate for you to miss out on a good date because Mr. Perfect was feeling a little insecure the day he read your questionnaire.”

She started over again, and for the next hour and a half, I challenged every word she wrote: Sincere… means insincere; clever… gay; Sensitive… crazy; loves life… loves sex, industrious… means you have no time for him, caring… means you have too much time for him. After a while she became so frustrated, she threw up her hands and asked me to take over filling out the questionnaire.

Perfect, I thought. For the next ten minutes I carefully crafted a sentence that, while seemingly alluring, sent a subtle yet firm message to men to stay away from my mother. Finished, I handed over the questionnaire and smiled proudly.

She read aloud: “Unattractive mother of five seeks man with money.”

She stared silently down at the questionnaire. A slight crease appeared in her brow. After a while, she took a few deep breaths then looked up at me with a confused expression.

“You know, Mom, I’m getting a sense you’re not fully appreciating the important message that statement is making.”

“You’re right, hon. I’m not. Care to explain?”

“Certainly. By saying you’re unattractive, you’re not going to get any of those shallow types who are only interested in a woman for her looks.  And if five kids doesn’t scare him off, then you know he’s into children. What a pleasant surprise when he discovers it’s just me. And okay, maybe I went a bit too far with the money thing. I just don’t want a guy dating you for your money.”

“I don’t have any money.”

“Like I said, I probably went a bit far with that one.”

All of a sudden she began laugh. “Megan, Megan, Megan. For a minute there, you had me. But now I see. It’s a joke. I mean, if I wrote something like that, nobody would go out with me.”

“Really?” Okay, I guess I wasn’t subtle enough.

“Very funny, hon, but I think I’d better fill this out on my own. Are you sure this is all right with you?” she asked for like the thirteenth time.

I suppose that was the perfect opportunity to bring up how I was feeling about our open relationship being a bit too open for me, about how I didn’t want to hear that she admired men’s butts, or that she was going to go out on dates, and how if she ever went on a date, I did not want to hear the gory details. And then there were my darker thoughts, about how I liked that it was just the two of us and didn’t see why things needed to change.

Had I known what was coming, I would have told her my true feelings right then and there. But I didn’t know. So I said: “It was a joke, Mom. I’m cool.”

“Very funny,” she repeated, then she sat down and began filling out the questionnaire.

It was the beginning of the end.

… Continued…

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Boyfriend From Hell

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