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Algonkian Pre-event Narrative Enhancement Guide - Opening Hook

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Opening scene - introduces protagonist - establishes primary conflict - hints at secondary conflict - reveals major settings - leads with action and suspense

FRAUD JUNGLE: The Belize Case


The bullets whizzed past Ian MacCallister’s head as he sped down the zip line toward the wooden platform built around the trunk and into the canopy limbs of a huge Ceiba tree in the jungle of Belize.  He dangled 150 feet above the mountain stream running through the canyon below as he shot the length of the 2,300-foot span.  Because he locked the cable barrier into place at the treetop station behind him and then tossed the key, no one would be zipping after him any time soon, thus assuring his getaway.  The escape route seemed like a good idea to put some distance between himself and the three men who were out to kill him.  The spray of bullets, as he hung like a sitting duck, suggested it was not such a bright idea after all.

Leaning back as far as possible to increase his speed, Ian flew like the wind down the cable.  The horizontal position of his body also meant that the grip of his handgun in its side holster began pointing ever downward until the weapon finally loosened and fell.  MacCallister swore under his breath as he watched it plunge and disappear into the canyon below.

Fortunately, his pursuers were local types who were lousy shots, rather than skilled marksmen.  A hail of lead peppered the edges of the wooden platform as he took cover behind the massive tree trunk and climbed down the wooden steps to the forest floor below.  As a fraud investigator, MacCallister had been in plenty of dangerous situations before, but he had not anticipated that the government would put out a hit on him as he closed in on solving this case.

A run-down maintenance truck for the Bocawina National Park provided the needed transportation for MacCallister to make his escape from the trio of assailants.  A cloud of dust billowed up behind as he raced past the reddish-brown mahogany trees and clusters of bamboo.  Upon reaching the Southern Highway, he headed north and stopped the truck at the junction where the Hummingbird Highway would lead him west to Belmopan, the capital of the Central American country of Belize.  But first, an urgent phone call to the States.  And then get a gun.

The truck lurched and sputtered to a halt at the gas station near the highway junction.  Ian purchased a cheap international calling card and talked the clerk into letting him use his store phone.  The static-ridden telephone connection made it difficult for MacCallister to hear Tyrone Hillman on the other end of the line.

“Ian, are you all right?  Where are you?”

“I’m fine.  Making my way from a jungle hideout in the interior of Belize.  The fraudsters hired some local thugs who are hot on my trail.  Ty, I need you to check on Anni and make sure she is safe.  If these people connect the dots, she will be in serious danger.”

“Okay, but Anni doesn’t know who I am.”

“Yeah, well she doesn’t know me either and I’m her husband.  Get ahold of Greg and make sure he has his best security detail on constant watch over her.  I have this case pretty well sorted out, but it’s going to be messy bringing it to a head.  Nice of you to involve me in this financial circus.  I will call you again when I can.  Thanks Ty.”  Hillman heard an abrupt click as Ian hung up the phone.

MacCallister turned his attention to obtaining a handgun.  And he knew right where to get one.  He headed east to Dangriga to find the Turtle Man.



Tyrone Hillman was in Switzerland performing contract auditing on a US company with business dealings in the landlocked country of the Alps.  The company sought a commercial loan from a financial institution that required certain accounting assurances before handing over the proceeds.  The financial institution engaged the internal audit firm owned by Tyrone to provide part of the assurance.  Ian MacCallister, known by his close friends as Mac, was the perfect person to assist him.

“Mac, I need your help on something,” he said to his laptop screen showing Ian’s face coming from the other end of the digital conversation.

“Of course.  Name it.”

“My team is poring over this company’s financial records to make sure everything is legit.  But something doesn’t smell right.  Most of these people over here speak English, but you speak their native Swiss language and it would be helpful if you could join the team for the last segment of this review.”

“Sure, I’m in.  When do you want me there?”

“As soon as you can get here.  We may have a crime on our hands.”


The town of Kloten, located ten kilometers north of Zürich, is the home of Flughafen Zürich AG, the largest international airport in Switzerland.  The flight into Kloten arrived precisely on time, just like everything else in Switzerland.  Ian knew the letters AG next to a Swiss business name stand for Aktien Gesellschaft, which is roughly the equivalent of a corporation in America.  He would likely be dealing with several AGs based on Tyrone’s explanation.

While the Swiss are not impressed by much of anything Americans say or do, understanding and speaking their native language, especially with a decent accent, will garner their admiration.  Ian learned to speak both German and Swiss while residing in Switzerland as a university foreign exchange student.  He fell within the rare category of an American who could actually sound like a German.  For those who are good at it, the ability comes almost naturally.  For the rest, it takes a lot of practice and twisting one’s mouth in ways not ordinarily done.  Ian’s came naturally.

“What brings you to Switzerland?” asked the customs agent in a heavy Swiss accent as he perused Ian’s passport.

“Geschäftigkeit.”  (‘Business’ in German.)

“Ach, Sie können Deutsch.”  (So, you speak German.)

“Es bitsli.”  (‘A little bit’ in Swiss)

“Und Schwyzertüütsch.”  (And Swiss German.) The agent was mildly impressed.

Ian offered a congenial closed mouth smile.

“What kind of business?”

“Some bankers are wondering whether an American company is cheating.” Ian said matter-of-factly knowing the Swiss appreciate direct, honest answers.

“Then you will have plenty to look at.”  The answer conveyed how the Swiss population feels about Americans doing business in Switzerland.  “Auf wiedersehen.”


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Assignment Part III -- Opening Scene: Introduces a setting and the secondary characters, the protagonists' daughters, who have been shielded from the abuse their mother is suffering. 

Annie hurried down the steep, Saltillo-tiled steps across the yard and through the Iron Gate. Her pigtails flying, she was in a rush to begin her favorite activity. With her red sandals tightly fastened, she carefully negotiated each step as she began her descent down the steep, grassy embankment.

The island sun had not yet taken its place directly overhead, and with the morning dew still on the ground, one slip would send her six year old body tumbling down the well-worn path toward the pen where her grandmother kept her prized hogs and sows.

Today, Annie was hoping for more than a glance at the sow’s newborn piglets.  She eased herself down the embankment ever so slowly, arching her back so she could use her hands for support. When she reached the bottom of the little hill, she stood on her toes, but at 3 feet 4 inches tall, Annie could not see over the enclosure. So she climbed onto a cement block to get a better view. And there they were. The most adorable little things she had ever seen. Their mother was preoccupied, off to the side, eating some sort of mush the helpers brought, so all six piglets were in plain sight.

Annie swung one leg over, straddled the concrete wall and jumped down into the pen, all while keeping a watchful eye on the mother sow. She tiptoed toward the little pink piglets and when she finally got close, she leaned forward to touch them. “Wow!” she thought. Their skin was as soft and fuzzy as she had imagined. Just like the velvet dress she wore last Christmas.  

But Annie had no time to linger and enjoy her tactile moment. Sensing an intruder, the sow lifted her head and snorted twice when she saw Annie. The warning sent her scurrying toward the wall, which unfortunately, she was too short to scale. Glancing around, she zeroed in on a couple of makeshift steps the helper’s son made to get out of the pen after he fed the pigs. The sow was coming, so Annie made a beeline toward them. In a flash, she stepped up, hoisted herself over the wall and seconds later, she was up and out.   

She sat on a grassy area a few feet from the pigpen to catch her breath and relish her feat. Giggling with delight, all she could think about was that she had actually done what she had been dreaming about. She’d watched the piglets from a distance for several days, wondering how it would feel to touch them. And now here she was, taking it all in. It was exhilarating.

Annie could sit on the grass all day, lost in her thoughts and no one would miss her. At six years old, she was the youngest and smallest of the lot visiting their grandparents in the quiet, picturesque village of James Hill on the island of St. Michael. She often bore the brunt of the teasing, but Annie didn’t care. She had a round, button nose and they had taken to chanting “Annie button, good for nothin.”  Her sister, Marge, who was four years older, would often hang about with the older cousins. That was just fine with Annie. She loved exploring on her own, doing her own thing.   

Annie stood up, stretched her legs, and brushed the copper-colored dirt off her floral short pants. There were smudges on her t-shirt too, but she would worry about that later. Following a path through the banana trees, she set off toward the stream. As she moseyed along, a drumming noise drew her attention. There in the distance, a red headed bird was pecking away on the bark of a coconut tree.  She stopped to observe, then continued on until she heard the sound of trickling water from the stream nearby.

Annie sat on a large, smooth rock on the edge of the stream, leaned over and peered in. She could see tadpoles and crawfish, red things with hard shells and claws, swimming about.  When she gazed at her reflection, her brown eyes stared back, noticing a white barrette was missing from the end of one pigtail. Her grandmother, who was always busy, wouldn’t notice, but maybe one of her tattletale cousins would. In the reflection, she could see black and yellow butterflies dancing above her head, enjoying the morning sun. Annie dipped her hand in, and flicked the cool water on her face. The sun was getting hotter and the water felt good. A few minutes more, then she would head toward the house to see what the others were doing.   

On the trek back, Annie neared the pigpens and as she passed by, she decided to take one last look. But the piglets were nursing. There was no chance she could get as close as she had earlier so she climbed up the hill and through the gate toward the house. She paused for moment to catch her breath, sweat glistening on her caramel-colored skin. After a short respite, Annie trudged to the side of the house toward the chicken coop.    

When she was finally reached, she peered through the silver wire to see if she could spot the baby chicks that looked like fuzzy yellow balls. Grandma was in there collecting fresh eggs and her sister Marge was hanging at her frock as she often did. Annie pushed the door open and went in. The chicks weren’t as interesting as the piglets, but checking in on them was part of her daily routine.

Marge turned toward her as soon as Annie entered the coop.

“Annie, where have you been and how did your clothes get soiled?” she asked.

“I went to see the baby pigs, then I went down by the stream,” Annie said.

“You shouldn’t go down there by yourself,” Marge said.  “You’re too little and something might happen to you. Then what would we tell mum?”

“Well, nothing happened to me, so there,” Annie said.   

“This time,” Marge said. “It’s almost lunchtime so go in the house and get washed up.” 

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Part of the first chapter - introduction to the protagonist, some world building, and background to support the antagonist's motivation.

Acalia flashed her canines at the amber Etherwolf trying to push past her. Fueled by anger, her ethereal white fur bristling up to give her more height to intimidate with. “The nerve. Trying to muscle through. Not even from my clan.” She widened to a more aggressive stance on the hard, rocky ground. The harsh terrain only broken up by impact craters of various sizes as far as the eye could see. The minerals in the stagnant dirt glinted shocks of white among the gray boulders on her home in the Moon Goddess given dimension of Etherluna. Above flowed ribbons of colors ebbing in the celestial winds filling the area with a spectrum light show of blends of greens, reds and blues. The colorful prisms were powered by the Goddess’ energy surfing on waves of colliding gases creating wondrous belts of iridescent hues. An opalescent veil dividing them from the low hanging, starry heavens. The Moon Goddess had created a home for Her children across Her celestial body.

Acalia caught a fierce smile from her friend, Bethena, in acknowledgment that she showed that interloper who the more dominant one was. A flash of red cut to the side knocking Bethena out of the way. Acalia spun around and did a hard shoulder check into the trespasser and knocked her off all four of her paws. Acalia was very protective of her friends.

With her translucent, sandy brown fur raised up to full height in irritation, Bethena was still one of the smallest Etherwolves. Even some from their own clan tried to take advantage of her size and push her around. One of those incidents was when their friendship was cemented. Acalia came across two of the more dominant clan brothers demanding someone make way through a tight, constricted, cutout passageway. Their southern clan territory was carved out by deep, dry, lava sculpted, river beds and closed in craters with high, rippled ridges. The small, tawny Etherwolf had stood her ground. Her short, flaxen, wispy fur stood straight, barely giving an extra couple of inches of height. Acalia admired the small bundle of fierceness and joined her side of the blockade. After the two more dominant Etherwolves mopped the floor with them they had laid on the ground laughing and crying together over their shared pain and stubbornness. This feisty bundle of sandy fur and her have been close friends ever since.

The crimson form cowered on the ground with all her translucent fur flattened and ears pinned back. She raised her snout in one finale defiant attempt. Your lot always think your better than everyone else. Leaving scraps behind for us to fight over.”

Acalia pulled her lips back and gave a small growl showing some teeth at the pushy, whiny, insubordinate ball of fur.

She gave up her bluster and showed her throat as all thoughts of taking advantage of Acalia and her friend given up in the face of a more powerful Etherwolf.

Satisfied her friend was safe, Acalia made a point of dismissively turning her back on the downed would be gatecrasher. She returned her friend’s smile with a mischievous one knowing giving her backside gave insult to injury to the defeated intruder.I might not be the most dominant, but I’m not going to let anyone push my friends around.” She gave a quick look out of the corner of her eye just in case she was going to have to get more violent, then she wiped her back paws at the properly cowed Etherwolf.

The rest of the Etherwolves jockeyed for the best position to receive the full moon’s gift when Acalia’s clan’s shaman channeled the Goddesses’ blessing.Her clan created the inner circle around him. His own semitransparent, pale fur flowed in the cosmic currents as the magic began to build. It was their turn to lead the blessed ceremony that rejuvenated the Etherwolves on Etherluna and the others with their matches on Gaia. The ones on Gaia will raise their devoted snouts and bask in the mystical energy sent down the brimming beams of the full moon.

The shaman threw his nose to the bright stars and let loose a loud howl from deep in his throat. The chorus grew louder as each voice joined in. The encompassing melody reverberated through space pounding against her demanding she throw hers into the mix. Their cries older than time telling her she belonged and that they were one. This was what it meant to be clan. She felt her own howl build from deep within herself. A fleeting memory of other times she howled during the full moon surfaced long enough to make her pause. A flash of a time when she was corporal. Of another life before she was returned to Etherluna. It quickly faded as the clan pulled her back in. It was a full moon. A time when their spirits called down to their brothers and sisters that were fortunate enough to have claimed a joining. A time the Moon Goddess shared her full face with her children down on Gaia.

Acalia leaped and danced among the glowing moon beams. She felt the ardor of the light caress her airy wolf form. Her white, opaque fur waved in the empyreal breezes. She threw her head back and laughed while dodging between her brethren. Their joyous yips joining hers. She looked down the moon beams to Gaia’s surface, a window to those that had found their soul matches. Their souls glowed as they filled with the power of Etherluna, with the magic of the Goddess. The brightness blurred the flesh coating of their bonded ones. Their connection with the land beings older than time.

A soft blond figure brushed up against her. Acalia, watch out. You almost ran across dark space. It hides in the shadows of the crater ridges and mountain ranges.

“Thanks Bethena. Your turn to save me.”

“Us clan sisters have to watch out for each other.”

“Speaking of clan sisters, I was looking down for Charra. She’s been gone for so long.,” Acalia replied.

“Looks like she doesn’t wish to shorten her time with her soul match.,” answered Bethena.

“I don’t begrudge her the match. I just miss her. I also miss a connection to my own match. I have flashes of my life with my land being and feel the loss of it.,” Acalia said.

Bethena lowered her snout and rubbed against her cheek in sympathy, “They come so far and few for us. Is it no wonder we fight for one.”

The glow of the white beams intensified as the moon’s fullness reached its peak changing the usual gray surface of the moon into a giant, reflective, source of power. The clan paused and looked center. Acalia’s thoughts fill with pride as her chieftain stood at the axis of the clan. Etherluna’s chosen shaman as the full moon cast down on one of Sister Gaia’s northern continents, the one the landers call America. His fur more silver than white mirrored the moon’s intense glow. She watched as his now fluid essence swirled in and out gathering the celestial energies filling until he was a glowing orb. Just as he became too bright to bear witness he flung the bursting power out from him and through the waiting clan. The force of clan magic broke through the barrier to reach those on Gaia. Acalia swelled with the enhanced energies. The familiar metallic taste signaled the intense power passing through her to share with those waiting below. The land locked had changed into their Moon Mother honoring forms of wolves in preparation to receive the life giving force from Etherluna. The howls of enriched gratitude rose up from the blue world below and lasted for hours into the long night. Acalia watched as the soul matched went off into pack groups to sleep off their empowering night of re-energized libation from the Goddess’ blessing.

“Come Acalia. We only have a short time with Charra before her match has need of her.”

“Coming.”, Acalia replied. Swiftly falling in line with Bethena’s lead as they padded towards the Entra Soul Gate.

The gate is made of the same depthless dark matter that Acalia almost carelessly stepped in. Condensed arches of obsidian, negative space swirled in its own confounding energies. A dark force effecting universal changes with its own set of alien rules. Any accidental contact with the dark matter can easily vacuum slivers of life force into the oblivion. With one misstep parts of the ethereal form could be abruptly sliced away into the blackness severed forever. The Entra Soul Gate is one of two dark matter gates. Both the Entra Soul Gate and the Ounto Soul Gate out date any memory of their origins or any that anyone will admit to. It is taught “The only thing older than the gates is Mother Moon herself.” Acalia believes the gates were Mother Moon’s birth gifts to her Ethereal children. The gifted gates are the only known access to find their soul matches in the corporeal dimension. The second gate is used by Etherwolves bonding with their soul match. Entra Soul Gate is used by those who have already sealed their match. Though the bonded can use different celestial energy to return home most prefer to use the full moon.

Charra’s bonded one is susceptible to the energies of the full moon and would usually find a safe spot to sleep it off. They have been a werewolf for a very long time and are feeling the weight of their age and the changes in the centuries. Charra didn’t like to leave her match to her own waking thoughts for long.

The Entra Gate perch firmly on the edge of a large, flat bottom crater and with one side facing the larger Sister celestial being below. The center of the dark arches teased with a reflective shimmer of the moon’s glow. Acalia always felt a tingle run across her shoulders when she was near the magic that kept the gate in place and powered the door. Streams of pigmentation spilled above either side of the entrance to the welcoming crater bowl as if the darkness of the gate kept the Goddess’ ribbons of color at bay. Acalia walked through the entrance into the basin of the greeting crater.

They arrived at the gate just in time to see Charra sail through. Her crimson, areal form floated down to the smooth surface of the bowl. She threw Acalia a quick smile before running off to the Vortex Siphon. Charra’s red tail thread extended back down through the receiving gate linking her to her chosen one. You always knew where a bonded one was as they were given away by their tail thread weaving its way through Etherluna maintaining their mental bond to their match down on Sister Gaia.

Acalia knew it would be awhile before Charra was cleaned of Gaia’s clae. Bonded ones brought back the essence of Gaia as an offering to Mother Moon. The matched Etherwolves collect heavy essences from their bonded ones and their travels on Mother Moon’s larger sister Gaia. To the land walkers, Sister Gaia was called Mother Earth as they were made from her flesh. The sharing of the energies of the clae and moonbeams kept the Sisters connected. Charra leaped into the Vortex Siphon. The astral gusts whipped through her red, gossamer form. It gathered all of Gaia’s soils and offered it up to the Moon Goddess to feed the Sisters’ symbiotic relationship. Acalia sighed as she remember the sensation of release as the clae was blown through her floating fur. She glanced around. She noticed her fellow Etherwolves waiting for their loved ones to visit through the gate. A twinge of sympathy went through her as she noticed Arnou stood off to the side by himself. His light gray form hung low and lacked his normal luster. It has been over five full moons since Kiba had visited through the gate. Acalia went over to him.

“Don’t worry Arnou. I’m sure Kiba will visit soon. You know how easy it is to get caught up in your match’s life and lose track of time down there.”

“I know. I just didn’t expect her to forget her mate when she found a match.”

‘There are so many more of us than opportunities for a match. I’m sure she will come to her senses soon and visit.,” she said.

“At first, I was mad at her. Now, I just miss her.”

She rubbed her side against his for comfort allowing their aerial fur to mingle.“She’ll have to return with a clae offering soon. She can only hold so much before it gets painful. Then you can have a good long talk,” she replied.

She leaned harder against him. Her alabaster fur intermixing with his light smokey colored fur. Just as he was relaxing into her care she felt his energy tense up. She looked up to see a large, dark slate colored Etherwolf heading for them. His dappled fur a swirl of gray colors often reflecting his churlish mood. His mood when it came to them anyways.

She asked, “What does Diak want now?”

“The same thing he always wants, trouble.,” he replied.

Diak stopped a few inches from Arnou and looked down on him. Diak’s head was a good foot above his.

“Why do you wast your time Arnou? Kiba has probably found a land bound mate. Your acting like an Earth dog waiting moon after moon for someone who doesn’t care anymore. Your whining offends me. Go from here and wait out of my sight.”

Acalia heard a low growl start from Arnou. As much as she would like to see someone wipe the ground with Diak she knew Arnou was no match for him. At least undying obedience to a pack leader was only a land magic requirement. Etherwolves did have a hierarchy of dominance and Diak was pretty high. That made him dangerous, but not in charge.

She step between them and said, “I’m surprise to see you without your little lackeys. Did they get tired of you bossing them around?”

“I’m surprise to see you hanging around a loser. Did you want a lap dog?”

“You keep referring to dogs as if you’ve seen one. You haven’t though have you. You haven’t had a Soul Match yet. Your clan brothers, but not you.,” she replied.

Diak loomed even larger as he filled with anger. He stepped closer.

“Your lucky your chieftain was shaman tonight and your clan is moon honored or I would show you where your place is.”

She wasn’t sure her clans standing was going to be enough to dissuade Diak from beating Arnou down, but she was hoping as she stepped between them.

“Your place is in a dog house.,” Arnou snarled back at Diak.

She inwardly groaned as she had just defused the situation enough to send Diak on his way. He knocked her aside and leaped for Arnou.

“I’m going to beat you like a ..”

Before Diak could finish his threat a huge, dark form darted through the gate crashing directly into him, somersaulting him six feet past them.

“Hey clan brother. Where you waiting up to greet me?”

Durrak’s excited mass of shadow and fur easily pinned Diak’s. Every time he tried to respond Durrak would shake his fur hitting him in the mouth with a chunk of clae.

“What’s the matter little brother, got dirt in your mouth? Aren’t you going to great me?”

Durrak’s smoky tail thread waved with each shake of his fur.

“Get off me you big, smelly goof. Quit breathing on me. You have dog breath.”

“Is that anyway to great a clan brother?”

Durrak allowed him to push him off. He sat on his haunches with a big toothy grin. He forgot all about Arnou’s comment as he and his clan brother pushed and nipped at each other on their way to the Vortex Siphon.

“Good to remember there is always someone bigger than Diak.,” she said.

Arnou replied, “How can we get him to fly out of nowhere to tackle Diak whenever we need him to?”

They leaned into each other and began to laugh, more from relief than humor.

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Opening scene which introduces the main conflict, without providing too many details, as well as introduces the main character and provides some hints to her personality:


There’s a quote that’s been lingering in the back of my mind, after everything that’s happened. It’s cliche to start off a letter with a quote, I know, especially one that anyone whose been following my career has heard. But it’s worth repeating, given who I am and what I do. 

 “There are things known and there are things unknown, and in between are the doors of perception.” It’s from Aldous Huxley, he was a British writer back in the early 20th century. It’s echoed in everything I’ve done, since witnessing the dangers of an idea. How it can take the likeness of a drop, touch oceans of history and culture in a community, and spreads until it has become the tides themselves.

It’s the ten-year anniversary of when the world lost its gods. If you’re American, then you probably only saw how it impacted America. You saw the economy go down, the celebrities and politicians commenting either in support or opposition. As I watched the recent coverage of the damage done, during that time, it occurred to me just how much of the reporting illustrated the broader story of the TX12 and everything that resulted from it. The big stories and the big numbers, that scared or inspired readers, were told. But the smaller tales, the ones with elements that are too sharp to be crafted into entertainment and too dull to be cautionary tales, those weren’t. And they probably never will be.

That’s how news that needs to be sold works. That’s why I’m writing this, in the hope that someone who was impacted by what happened reads it and feels that however, it affected them mattered. I know that my story is one of the millions that only thousands may relate to but I’d rather reach someone while failing to reach everyone. This is how it happened and hopefully, someone will read this and sees enough of their story in my experience.

Behind a scattered collection of gray colds, sunlight bled through every part of the sky that they didn’t cover. Light rain dropped silently crashed into the neighborhood, without a sound and barely visible, the only proof that they landed in the puddles that they congregate into. 

Though mildly entertained, I looked at myself in my car, checking every detail on my newly braided hair,  makeup that complimented my dark skin, and my near-perfect lips except for the little bit of skin hanging off, an annoying reminder of the habit but a more annoying reminder that I’ll keep doing it.  

If I saw this face on another woman, I’d probably think she was pretty. 

I looked out my foggy window and see that gray clouds were gone along with the wind. The sun was now out, without any hindrance; its light reflected in the leftover rain, making the neighborhood a little too bright to look at.

I watched crowds of people, whose various black, brown, and amber shades were organized together into a moving color palette, strolling down the street. Black people, with streaks of white in their hair and pauses before their step, walked side by side as the red doors to the church opened. Some of them held the hands of black children, who moved uncomfortably in suits and dresses and yawned without covering their mouths. A blast of an organ erupted from the building, while the line moved steadily with people eagerly moving inside.

As I watched them enter, a few random thoughts, apathetic of my feelings, across my mind and found themselves at its forefront. This is going to go wrong, you don’t know how but it will. You’re already about to fired and soon and you’ll probably take Marc down with you. A few more, just as loud and honest, followed their trail. I wonder how you’ll pay your bill without a job. I closed my eyes.

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Start of Chapter One - Establishes Primary and tertiary protagonists, their relationship, and the nature of their lives before the plot comes along and throws it to chaos. Establishes setting and tone, introducing a world of low magic and grounded fantasy.

It was the height of summer and chill choked the wild grasses. Unnatural stillness gripped the wind, fouling it with the bitterness of death, and Vivica Harrow tracked a monster.

Farmers in these parts told tales of a beast as large as a house stalking their fields by night. The beast would appear by way of the ground and pull cattle to a clamorous fate with long, bony fingers before terrible howling of gluttonous delights lullabied crying babes back to sleep. Children claimed to have glimpsed a demon with yellow eyes and black fur sneaking outside their windows in the moonlight, and local skalds sang tales of the great monstrosity that rumbled the earth with its footsteps and sent men mad with its ethereal snarl. But for Vivica’s money, it was just a mujina.

“And what’s a mujina then?” Ari Traust, Vivica’s partner, had not mastered the art of silently stalking prey. On the contrary, he swung his axe through the untamed grass as though tempting something to leap out at him. No doubt he would have been happy to start the fight sooner, and quickly return to the comforts of an inn.

“It’s like a giant badger,” sighed Vivica.

“Since when do badgers make the ground turn to mush and snack on cows?”

Vivica rolled her eyes. “I said it’s like a badger, not actually a badger. Have you never read a book?”

“Why would I when I have you to read for me? Go on then, tell me about this mujina thing. I know how much you love to school me.”

“Do I? Here I was thinking how nice it would be to have a partner with even half a brain for once.”

Ari blushed sarcastically. “You flirt.”

“Fine,” she sighed, desperate to stop his teasing before it once again became relentless. “Mujinas, like badgers, are intelligent and surprisingly vicious beasts with an extremely keen sense of smell. They tend to live underground, but occasionally make their way to the surface in grasslands like these drawn by the smell of fresh meat. Some people have called them shapeshifters-”

“Wait!” yelled Ari, giving away the mischievous intent of his interruption with a profoundly stupid grin. “If it can change shape, then how do we know my axe hasn’t already felled it in the grass? I’m certain I’ve hit at least two rats so far this morning.”

“You’re an idiot.”

He smiled proudly. “I prefer charming dimwit.”

“Do you want to know what we’re up against or not?” Vivica managed to burn away Ari’s smile with narrowed eyes. “Mujinas don’t change their own form, they alter the area around where they nest.”

“You want me to ask you how, don’t you?”

“I never want you to ask me anything,” she countered.


Vivica tried not to smile as she continued her lecture. “Well, no one’s entirely sure. People have said they eat magic gems or magic worms beneath the earth that give them powers over the land. But my guess is that they’ve developed some sort of natural ability to cool their surroundings. Seeing as they’re typically subterranean, it makes sense that they would adapt to make their nests on the surface cooler. Probably achieved by some form of flatulence, which would explain why they prefer to eat animals with high fat content like cows and pigs.”

“So, your theory is they fart… so violently… the earth changes around their nests?”

“It makes just as much sense as eating magic worms,” she countered.

“And their nests.” Ari’s voice became serious. “How many would be inside?”

“It varies, why?”

“Because I think I just found it.”

Vivica investigated where Ari’s axe was pointed and found a large opening in the earth marked with deep claw marks and splatters of blood.

“You said it burrows?” asked Ari, “How do we know it’s down there?

“Mujinas are nocturnal,” she shrugged, “it has to sleep somewhere.”

Ari considered the hole for a moment, but only a moment. Vivica could see he was ready to jump into the lightless pit and start swinging blind. She grabbed him by the collar before he could be so stupid.

“You can’t see in the dark. It can.”

Ari nodded slowly. Clearly this thought had only occurred to him now. “Traps then?” he suggested.

“Indeed,” she confirmed. “I’ll set them.”

“You always set them.”

“Because you’re awful at anything that requires even the slightest amount of finesse.”

He frowned playfully, “I can be useful if you let me.”

“I know. I intend to let you be bait.”


Ari dangled his legs above the pit entrance as Vivica gave him the signal to begin. He checked the rope tied to his belt would hold as he whispered a prayer to his god. He kissed the holy sign carved into his axe’s hilt and jumped, cheering, into the darkness. Vivica waited. She nestled down flat in the tall grass, eye pressed against the scope of her custom-made Branca Crossbow and started to count backwards.

Fifteen. She heard shouting, or cheering, escaping the pit.

Ten. The earth reverberated in her bones.

Five. Ari scrambled from the pit, axe covered in blood and waving frantically for Vivica to be ready.

Three. Two. One.

The mujina shot out of the earth like a geyser of black fur, gnashing teeth, and claws. The ground cracked beneath its weight as it landed, and it lunged blindly for Ari while he egged it on. The beast was fast, but Ari stood firm, leaning on his axe with an exaggerated confidence that Vivica knew was just for her sake. Maw open, the mujina looked ready to swallow Ari whole, but its jaws were shut by the sprung traps. Pressurized steam burst beneath the beast, searing its belly while timed snares grabbed it and pulled it into the ground.

Ari called out something he no doubt thought was funny as he split the creature’s skull with his greataxe, but Vivica could neither discern his words, nor had time to revel in anything humorous. Another mujina clawed its way from the pit. It was larger and more feral than the first, and it did not appear so blinded by the morning sun. It ran for Ari, nimbly avoiding the traps below it with precise footing it’s size shouldn’t have allowed for. Ari panicked, retreating without retrieving his axe from the first mujina’s skull. Through the scope Vivica saw his lips moving, no doubt he was asking his god for intervention, but his constant movement made it difficult for Vivica to get a clean shot.

“Stop panicking,” she muttered, adjusting her position slightly while she loaded in a special, red-tipped bolt.

Ari’s god finally answered his call as the beast was about to make a meal of him. He clutched his holy symbol and golden light pierced the sky, parting the clouds and incinerating the beast’s back leg. But the mujina was not so easily smote. It screamed in pain, lashing out at Ari with a determined fury, pinning him to the ground beneath its claws and lowering gnarly teeth to his face.

“Vivica!” he screamed before the air could be pushed from his lungs, “Anytime you’re ready!”

“Bite me,” she said, squeezing the trigger. The Branca Bow hissed with steam as pistons rapidly fired, propelling her bolt across the field like a shooting star. The mujina was blown away from Ari, a gape in its hide, and set ablaze with white-hot flames.


“I think that went very well, all things considered,” said Ari as Vivica helped him back to his feet.

“Are we not considering the second one, that you missed, that nearly killed you then?” she countered.

“Two things,” he smiled, “first, I had faith that you’d get it off me, and secondly, it’s very dark down there.”

“Then I suggest you give your eyes time to adjust this time.”

“This time? I’m half dead.”

“You have a few scratches,” she shrugged.

“I’ll make you a counteroffer. I’ll go collect the cart and horses, and you go down there.”

“I would rather ride ahead and get the stench of burning badger off me.”

Ari laughed, “I distinctly remember telling you that I have to report for reassignment today. So, if anyone’s leaving early, it’s me.”

“Reassignment?” Vivica hid her displeasure poorly, “To where?”


Her displeasure deepened, mixing with envy. “You can’t help me take these things back to the village first?”  

“Afraid not,” he shrugged, “but I can help you get the cart and horses.”

Vivica huffed, “It’s been months since I went to Prim. All Newton’s got is sailors and farmers harassing everyone they can find until they knock each other unconscious.”

“Nonsense. Sometimes, the booze knocks them out first.” Ari laughed again. It was an infectious kind of laugh, and Vivica despised how well it worked on her. “Come on, Newton’s got character. And, later today, it will have your brother too.”

Vivica could have kicked herself. “Shit.”

“By the gods woman, other than what you read in your books, information goes in one ear and out the other.”

She scowled at him. “Fine. I’ll check the nest; you fetch the horses. Quickly.”

“I’m going to miss how bossy you are,” sighed Ari. “I wonder if I can even survive the next three months without you telling me how to wipe my arse.”

“Three months?” Vivica didn’t like how stroppy she was sounding.

“It’s okay to admit you’ll miss me, Viv.” Ari’s smugness was enough to snap Vivica back to her usual scathe.

“On the contrary, I was hoping you’d gone for much longer.” She pushed past him, making ready to enter the nest before he could inevitably win their game of taunts.

“What, no goodbye kiss?” he called after her.

 “Fuck off, Ari.”

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   Opening scene- Introduction of protagonist, secondary character and antagonist. Reveals major conflict and also depicts how the protagonist copes with the abuse of her sister by dissociating. 

     Amber covered her ears and hummed the tune to her favorite song, ‘Lean on me”, that she  had learned from the bus that took her to and from church on Wednesday nights. She could still hear her sister screaming. She hummed louder. Amber's chest tightened and she sat herself upright when she heard her father walking towards her bedroom. She could hear his belt sliding through the loops of his jeans as he opened the door.

   He seemed calm as he looked down on Amber, who was hiding in her closet, holding her knees close to her chest. Sweat beaded up on his forehead, his bare chest retracting as he paused to catch his breath. After a few seconds, he bent down on one knee, so to look Amber in the eye. His belt clenched in his hands as he did. “Amber, it’s very important that you tell daddy the truth, okay? I already know the truth, but I need to hear it from you. If you lie to me, I’m gonna whip you with this belt. You hear me?”  Amber nodded.

    “Look at me” Joe demanded. “Did your sister have a boy in this house?” Amber studied her dad’s face for a moment, trying to decide what the answer was that he wanted. She then shook her head “No” . The belt seemed to whistle through the air before it stung the skin on the tops of her thighs. The pain was instant and breathtaking. She tried to cry in pain but no sound would come out. 

 “I told you, I already know the truth. Now, I’m going to ask you one more time. Did Catherine have a boy in this house? Yes or no?” Amber was now sobbing, but managed to nod her head in the affirmative and mouth the word “Yes”. An evil grin crept across the face of her father as his eyes darkened. Joe switched the radio on and turned up the volume as loud as it would go, shutting the door behind him as he left the room. 

  Amber waited a moment to emerge from her hiding spot in the closet, then she pressed her ear against the door to make sure her father wasn't waiting for her on the other side. She could only hear the muffled cry of her sister Catherine. “No please Joe I swear I didn’t! NO PLEASE STOP!” Shaking and with tears blurring her vision, Amber Turned the knob on the door slowly, careful to not make too much noise. Crawling on her hands and knees, Amber peeked through the crack in the door to her fathers room. Catherine was naked and bent over the bed, her head was turned so that Amber couldn't see her face but she could hear her sobbing, no words now, just sobs. Behind Catherine was Joe, using his belt as a makeshift whip on her  bare, adolescent skin. 

   Amber wanted to scream at her father to leave her sister alone, but doing so would only make it worse for both of them. Instead, Amber crawled back to her hiding spot in the closet and stared at the wall as she created a setting in her mind to distract from the sounds coming from the next room. Amber fantasized that she was an elegant ice skater, delivering a stunning routine to Celine Dion. Her entire family is there, all of her friends, her teachers. They all cheer and throw roses at her skates as the judges give her a perfect score. Amber had many elaborate visions of different versions of her life, in some she’s singing on stage, in others she is in a casket being mourned over by everyone she knows. The only common theme in all these made up scenes is that she is loved. 


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OPENING SCENE - Introduces protagonist, setting, tone


            I've had a guardian angel save me twice. The first time happened when was I was four years old, and I survived a car wreck that nearly decapitated my mother. I was unbuckled in the backseat playing with a dog-chewed GI Joe, when a dual-axle dump truck crossed the center lane along Harriman’s Curve. The truck struck our station wagon head-on as we rounded the bend. The impact killed my mother but I came away from the accident unscathed––except for a four-inch banded bruise across my chest where my mother had extended her arm to prevent me from hurtling through the windshield. 

At my mother’s funeral, Sheriff John Godwin told my Aunt Molly there was no earthly way my mom could have the strength to block my launch from the backseat. Sheriff Godwin had seen many other car accidents during his years in law enforcement. He knew I should have splattered the dashboard or launched through the windshield and imbedded in the truck’s radiator grill. 

 “It defies physics,” the sheriff said. “Newton’s First Law and all that. A tiny thing like Amelia couldn’t block a football at that speed, let alone a toddler.”

“It is a miracle," Aunt Molly agreed. "Some powerful angels are watching over Renny.”

Growing up I had my doubts. The whole celestial system breaks down when you actually examine it. For example, if an angel really did help my mother, if it gave her the strength to disrupt my flight from the car’s rear seat, why didn’t the damn thing expend a little more effort and save my mother, too? The angel supposedly lent its strength to my mother’s frail arm, but it couldn’t wrap a heavenly wing around my mother and save her from the crushing embrace of the steering wheel? Or better yet, couldn’t the angel have whispered to my mother––before she put the car in gear––that it might be wise to buckle in a hyperactive boy while driving a rural highway frequented by heavy industrial trucks. The half a minute it would have taken to strap me down might have kept us from arriving at Harriman’s Curve at the precise moment the dump truck drifted left of center.

By the time I was fourteen, I started pushing back on my aunt when she mentioned how fortunate I was to still be on this earth. 

“Is there a one angel limit per car? Or was it offered as an optional feature on the Ford Country Squire?” 

“You’ll regret insulting her when she abandons you,” Aunt Molly said. 

I knew my aunt had merged my mother and the angel into one single protective being. “Which she are we talking about? My guardian angel or my mother? I wasn’t aware either one’s service was conditional.”  

I was being unfair, but my aunt always mentioned this supposed miracle whenever I disappointed her––which was often––with the implication I was wasting both the guardian angel’s efforts and my mother’s ultimate sacrifice.

Aunt Molly slapped me on the shoulder. “Angels don’t need faith in order for them to do good works. And God doesn’t either.”

“But it helps,” I said.

“Well, it certainly doesn’t hurt.”

The second time an angel saved my life, I was flying with my cousin Bird to basic training in Fort Benning, Georgia. It was the sixth of June in 1986. Our flight from Charlottesville, Virginia to Atlanta had been delayed seven hours due to mechanical issues. And our short flight from Atlanta to Columbus, Georgia was delayed four hours due to thunderstorms. The air traffic controller found a narrow window between storms and sent our plane into the dark black sky. Bird hunched in his seat two rows in front of me, his hands anchored to the armrests, while the plane bucked toward the fort. 

About twenty minutes into the flight the co-pilot tried to issue a warning. "We can see on the radar a patch of turbulence just ahead of our flight path," he explained. "Please buckle up. We anticipate––"

He never finished the sentence. A vein of lightning cut across the sky and struck the plane. The cabin went dark and the power seemed to drain away. The plane tipped forward and plummeted toward the ground. I felt my torso lift from the seat, the way a body does during a steep roller coaster fall. I heard wind buffet the plane hull. A woman near the front started praying the "Hail Mary." In my mind, I saw the pilot hammering the starter button, begging the engines to sputter to life. Time is weird in moments like that––it might have been only a few seconds, but it seemed a lifetime. Eventually the turbines roared to life, the wings leveled out, and we continued toward Columbus. 

Bird clawed at the seat pocket in front of him. He snatched the air sickness bag and barfed up the cheap dinner he'd scarfed in the airport food court. His paroxysm set off a chain reaction of retching that ensnared half the passengers. When Bird finally emptied his belly, he turned and looked back at me.

"That was insane," he said with a grin. "I hope like hell that wasn't an omen."

"We survived didn't we?" I said. "That's gotta be a good sign." 

My mind flashed to my Aunt Molly and her admonition about my guardian angel. Something extraordinary had just happened. We'd fallen from the sky like a leaden Icarus. The plane should have crashed but something had caught us and shocked the engine back to life. I can’t explain it but it felt like something powerful––something beyond chance––had saved us. I also couldn't shake the feeling that this time the rescue came with a warning.

"I saved you a second time," the angel seemed to whisper to me. "Don't waste the opportunity. Third times a charm."



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OPENING SCENE - Introduces protagonist and antagonist, tone, and foreshadows the primary conflict.


Evie was having nightmares. Nightmares so hellish her body sweat and toes curled. Nightmares so hellish she grew afraid of the dark. Muma took to turning off her light long after she'd fallen asleep, so Evie could slumber in ignorant bliss of the shadow standing in wait to overtake her. 

So why was the light on now? She was sure it was far past the hour when her grandmother usually retired for the night. 

And yet the shock of pearly luminescence gleamed behind her closed lids as she lay still under her blankets. 

Flickering. Pulsing. 

Damn it all to hell. 

The sandbox was set in an open field, and Evie knelt in it, busy building a castle with three little girls dressed far too fancily for such an endeavor. She had built sandcastles many times before, on weekend trips to the rocky shores of Cornwall. But at 16 she thought she left such juvenile activities behind her. Yet her she was, with bucket and shovel, having (she hated to admit) a fairly pleasant time. 

Bleeding monkeys!

With a painful gasp, Evie pulled back her hand as blood pebbled the tip of her finger. She'd spoken too soon. There was something sharp beneath the surface of the sand and it had punished her for her incessant immaturity. 

The three young girls sitting across from Evie were cruel little things. They didn't so much as look up when she gasped; showing no concern whatsoever at the damage done to her hand. In fact, they appeared most adamant about finishing the castle, their concentration unparalleled. And yet...could this sculpture be called a sandcastle? It looked like none that Evie had ever seen, but rather resembled a towering spike. Yes, it was a spike-- massive and endless, with a peak that pierced the ethos. 


Carefully, Evie rummaged through the sand, one-handed, until she found the foul object that had caused her harm. It was a broken piece of glass with a crackling fissure down its middle. She had only a moment to wonder why there'd be glass in her sandbox before she caught sight of her reflection in it. The rupture split her face into two perfect pieces. 

Very curious. The fractured reflection did not look altogether connected. Was it just her imagination, or did her left eye blink several seconds after her right? 

"What are you looking at?" 

They'd never spoken before, but that wasn't why Evie jumped at the sound of the young girl's voices. No, what frightened her was their timbre. Their intensity. Their union. Their voice -- for she knew now that they were one -- was rough, broad, and entirely unlike those of little girls. 

"Oh my God!" 

Their faces were not that of little girls either. Now looking up at Evie, she took in their wrinkled bulbous skin, their endless eyes. They were demons. Demons sats before her. And the demons began to chant...

But what they were saying she couldn't hear. Evie heard nothing over the sound of her own screams. Her legs, in their betrayal, ceased function almost instantly, and so Evie instead dragged herself from the sandbox, from the chanting demon girls, from the ever rising spike, and her inexplicable torn reflection. 

A piercing streak of radiance blazed through the heavens above them, blinding all in sight. 

It’s a dream. 

She woke with a start, and seconds later Evie's anxiety kicked in as it'd been wont to do for the last several weeks. With the mannerisms of a bear arising from hibernation, she stretched, recoiled, and let out a slew of groggy curses. The pile of books previously at the end of her bed were now scattered on the floor, disturbed by her movements. 

Naturally, Muma was already awake; undoubtedly popping garlic pills while screeching through her morning hymns. Evie paused to take it in-- the high pitched, off kilter shrill of praise and jubilee. 

My God. She hated early mornings more than almost anything else in the world. While Muma would insist that she was just being dramatic, Evie was fairly certain she was correct in her assessment that she suffered from hypersomnia. How else could she explain waking up dead tired after a near ten hour rest?

The floor was cool to the touch as Evie wobbled unsteadily from the bedroom to the bathroom, stopping just once to wince as her grandmother (Queen of the Morning People) attempted a most ambitious key. 

The sun embraced every corner of the bathroom, bouncing off the old white tiles that covered the flooring and walls. Pushing aside the Swedish ivy spilling out of the basket above her cabinet, Evie (as was her custom) scrutinized her reflection in the mirror. 

"Bleeding monkeys." She whispered, taking in her matted mane. The bulk of kinky curls that spilled over her shoulders were in daily combat amongst themselves. Today, no one had won. And there dozens of casualties that took the form of gnarled knots. 

The damage was beyond salvaging through the fine art of finger combing, so Evie instead jumped into the bath for a tepid shower. Ten minutes later, naked and unencumbered, she wiped down her mirror to take in her now fully saturated curls. Then she went to work for the second time at detangling them. 

However, in the midst of her arduous effort, Evie's bathroom door swung open, hitting against the wall, and Muma -- squat and squinty-eyed -- stood forbiddingly at the entrance. 

"Dear Lord in heaven!" Evie jumped back and crouched into herself in a failed attempt at maintaining propriety. "Muma, what are you doing?! I'm naked!" She grabbed at the nightgown she'd dropped on the floor, pulling it over her head as her grandmother tutted in annoyance. 

"Well I certainly didn't expect that." She said unapologetically, although she took care to avert her eyes. 

"You didn't expect me to be naked in my bathroom?"

Muma kissed her teeth. "Stop asking silly questions and put on some decent clothing. We have much to do today." 

Much to do-- of course. Muma always said they had much to do when what she really meant was that she'd pile Evie with busy work throughout the day to keep her occupied. And the chores, if anything, were becoming steeper which Evie was sure was punishment for being disagreeable. She and her grandmother often butted heads (they both had willful personalities) but their rows had recently heightened in their intensity. And when they'd argue over the things that they'd normally argue about -- namely Evie's lack of freedom -- Muma would plow her with chores, and in turn the girl would imagine that she was trapped in a fortress much like Rapunzel. Even more, in this fantasy her grandmother was not her grandmother but a wicked shapeshifting monster. And when they'd argue she'd take her true form of a spindly, albino, black eyed creature near 6ft long. 

This fantasy both frightened and amused her. 

Satisfied that she had adequately disrupted Evie's morning, Muma -- a short plump woman -- her black silk cap placed eschew on her head, left the bathroom as she came-- abruptly. 

Back in her bedroom, Evie absently rubbed her hand against her chest. She'd recently recovered from a massive case of heartburn, which, doubled with her anxiety, was a most unpleasant experience. She then paused to re-stack the books that she'd knocked over earlier that morning. Treasure Island, Frankenstein, The White Witch of Rosehall, her diary (which she never kept up with), and her all time favorite, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Finally, she plopped back down on her bed, her wet curls scattered about her. Why am I so tired all the time? She wondered. It must be the nightmares. 

Her eyes set on the one long crack in her ceiling. If Evie stared at it for too long it'd start to resemble a meteor, boundless and thin as it pierced through the heavens. Her mind drifted back to the demon girls in dresses. It was them that had told her that she was dreaming. 

Curious. Thinking back on their singular voice she found that it was indeed coarse, demonic, and endless. And yet still...most familiar

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The convoy enters the mountain road, slowing to negotiate the loose stones and uneven terrain. As the four trucks climb, lights flicker to the north, small fires in the villages that soon disappear. Lt. Alex Foster speaks into his radio. The sergeant in the truck just ahead answers. The conversation is curt. Foster turns his head past the driver, Corporal Sandstrom, to the rear seat. “How are you doing, Pashmina?” With only the dim illumination of the dash gauges, Foster can make out her general shape wrapped in a Kevlar vest.

Pashmina leans to the side, looking forward. She sees the side of Foster’s head fixed with night vision goggles. Through the windshield is darkness. “Fine,” she says, knowing the word does not convey what she feels. Their Humvee is rearmost in the convoy. 

Sandstrom steers the truck close to the rock wall as he enters the curves. The convoy climbs. His mind drifts to the vision of a pond and a turtle. He hangs from a rope looped high in a tree and falls to the green water where his friend waits, treading water. He feels his face grin, remembering his friend, losing the thought as the truck jumps and shimmies over a washboard of rock, forcing him to grip the wheel tighter. Through night vision glass he sees the road narrow ahead.

Pashmina sits with her hands tucked into her vest. The air from the turret above her feels cooler now. Out the side window she sees nothing, twisting around in the vest trying to get comfortable. The truck jumps and leans on the knotty road. She hears someone on the radio: “Mongoose tree six…” Lt Foster answers. It is gibberish to her. She closes her eyes, hears the noise, the rocking motion, the discomfort of the vest and helmet. Why would anyone put up with this kind of life? she wonders. Why would they choose it? But she’s thankful, the oldest daughter of the minister of transportation. He has requested the army move his wife, two daughters and son out of Kabul and into the mountains to his brother’s village. Pashmina closes her eyes, willing herself to sleep, hoping for sleep as the truck bounces over an ancient road designed for donkeys.

When she wakes, her neck is stiff, aching. She looks into the cockpit at Sandstrom, wrestling with the steering wheel, trying to guide the Humvee over the invisible road.

She leans forward. “Where are we?”

“Somewhere in the foothills of Afghanistan,” Sandstrom says.

“Thank you, Sandy,” with more than a hint of sarcasm, seeing the insect-like outline of his goggles move with the undulations of the road.

“We’re making good time, Pashmina,” Lt Foster says. “Hold tight for another forty minutes or so. Maybe less.”

A faint flash of light appears at the corner of her vision. A torch? She turns to the light. It’s gone, replaced by a far brighter flash. Foster reaches for the radio. Pashmina hears Sandstrom say, “Shit,” as Foster growls into the mic. Through the front windshield, the dark night turns to day as the lead vehicle explodes, jumping into the air, falling over in flames. Pashmina has her hand on the back of Foster’s seat, pulling herself forward, straining to see, straining to breathe. To know.

“Go, go, go,” Foster yells as Sandstrom coaxes the truck to move faster up the shale incline. Dim tracers arc across the small valley—tracers from the two Humvees just in front of her, the ones carrying her mother, sister, and brother.

The convoy is caught in a saddle. Foster is talking fast on the radio. The truck bounces, shimmies over the road. Pashmina stares through the side window at flames and twisted metal as Sandstrom maneuvers around the fallen vehicle, around the flames that light the sky, around the severed and bubbling limbs, out of the restricting saddle, away from the fire zone.

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This scene introduces the antagonist (JB Hoyt) and takes place just after the initial confrontation between the protagonist (Lucian Swailes) and an outsider.


A few miles out, a siren could be heard blaring, cherries on and spinning; a brown police cruiser raced along in the dark. Sheriff Boyd Gates sat behind the wheel, studying the road ahead. A heavy scar on his cheek gave him the look of a villain though Boyd Gates was friendly as can be to most. Sitting shotgun was JB Hoyt. JB was an older man with grey, Confederate-style mutton chops on his jowls. He was dressed in an outfit befitting the host of a Wild West show: flashy, colorful, and ironed to perfection. On his right hand he wore two large, mean-looking rings that he constantly turned and slid up and down his fingers. Boyd listened intently as JB scolded the hooligan in the backseat. “I put you in the position you’re in, boy, so as to prevent problems for me. Tonight’s events prove otherwise.” JB turned back to Boyd, “Where were you?”

            The sheriff was quick to respond. “How you expectin’ me to control him?” Boyd motioned to the back seat where Sketchy smiled through greasy lips. Boyd attempted to say more, but JB raised his hand and stopped him. That alone was enough to quiet the sheriff; JB was clearly in charge here.

“Shut up! You do realize that you’re the police? You supposed to stop this sort of noise from happening.” Boyd shook his head and drove on towards Swailes’ farm, glaring at Sketchy in the rearview. “Sketchy” Chris Rawley was a 25-year-old, gun-toting, ugly piece of white trash, constantly wiping tobacco from his mouth with his sleeve. He broke with his characteristic ominous snicker. Sketchy was the opposite of a Southern gentleman, and his sly grin never left his face. Sketchy thought that because JB was his great-uncle, he had the run of the whole mountain. He did the old man’s dirty work and was within calling distance whenever JB needed something done behind the scenes. JB saw Boyd’s disgust with his younger cousin. “He does what he’s told, Boyd. Like you used to.”

“What does that supposed to mean, Uncle JB? I’m no child. I’m the sheriff of this county,” Boyd told him with conviction.

JB smiled. “You the sheriff of my county.” Boyd did not respond. This statement could not be argued. JB Hoyt held all the cards in Truett County. JB turned slightly to eye Sketchy in the back seat. The old man’s fury grew. “If you two wasn't my kin...”

            Sketchy groaned, “C’mon, Uncle JB, ain’t nobody gonna miss ‘em. Besides, he was fixin’ to kill Trig Williams. I warned him to back the -- off.” Then he muttered under his breath, “Christ, just a drunk old farmer.”

            JB turned his head and delivered a vicious, back-handed slap to the kid’s jaw. “Don’t you blaspheme around me.” Boyd was stunned how Sketchy ran his mouth. The kid knew how his uncle felt about respect, and what he did when crossed. It was almost as if Sketchy liked the pain. “I told you about that mouth, boy.”

Sketchy ran his tongue along his lip and tasted the blood. “Dang, JB. I keep forgettin’ bout them rings, though.” He grinned and showed the blood in his teeth.

JB looked over at Boyd, straightening the brass rings. He chuckled at Sketchy. He couldn’t help it. The kid was just plain funny…rude and nasty…but funny. “That boy is as stupid as the day is long.” To Sketchy, “I ain't got a problem with killing when it comes to business, but drunken knife fights in the tavern?” He looked from Boyd to Sketchy. “Now, you muss up again, and we gonna find us a length of rope and a tall tree, and you’ll be the one nobody misses.”

Sketchy hung his head, was serious for once. “Yessir.”

Boyd pulled the cruiser just past Swailes farm. Lucian’s truck was a little way beyond the drive, slightly damaged in what appeared to the sheriff to be a two-vehicle collision. Boyd turned off the siren but left the flashers on and exited the car. Just up the dirt road a bit was a sedan down in the ditch. A large, dark-haired man was beginning to regain consciousness in the middle of the road. The wide-shouldered, bare-chested Lucian Swailes squatted nearby, helping the fallen man into an upright position. Lucian looked up as the three men walked from the cruiser. Lucian secured a knot in the makeshift tourniquet on the man’s head and stood, poised, like a hunter presenting his latest kill. Boyd adjusted his gun belt and approached Lucian with JB and Sketchy just behind. JB noticed the out-of-town plates of the Cadillac. “You had you a little ordeal here, huh son?” JB asked Lucian. Sketchy, half tucking in his shirt, spat his chaw on the dirt road. He enjoyed no longer being the focus of JB Hoyt’s animus.

Boyd said nothing, only examined the damage to the Cadillac with his flashlight. He squatted near the seated, groaning man. JB walked closer too, Sketchy on his heels like an old hound dog. Boyd looked up and nodded to Lucian, a concerned look on his face. Sketchy leaned down nearly face-to-face with the dazed man and lifted the bloody tourniquet to get a closer look at the injury. He whistled, looked up at Lucian’s face. JB pulled Sketchy back to standing and moved him aside. “How’d this happen?” JB asked Lucian. “I know you ain’t got no gun, Mr. Pacifist.”

“Mr. What?” Sketchy was lost.

“It was his own pistol, JB. He fired on me… more than once.” Lucian shrugged and shook his head. He reached for the pistol stuffed in his waistline. He handed it to Boyd. “I reckon I might've killed the man had my girls been hurt.”

Sketchy, in his deep mountain drawl, exclaimed, “Dang, Lucian. You messed him up.” Lucian gave the kid a hard look. “What? I’m just sayin’.” Sketchy knew Lucian was no slouch.

            With a quick glare, JB warned Sketchy to shut his mouth and know his place. “Check for a wallet,” JB ordered the sheriff. Boyd dropped to a knee to search the man. He found it and slipped out a license. He struggled to read the ID, the only light coming from the blue flashers from the cruiser. “It’s out of state. Ohio. Name… Dominic Longo from Youngstown,” Boyd stood.

            JB reached for Longo’s identification. He studied it, then shot a glance at Longo before shaking his head at some unknown irony. JB let out an amused chortle. “By God,” was all he said, though his mind was filled with the nuances of this new hand he’d been dealt. It was JB’s habit to hold all his cards close to the chest, though it was apparent to most who knew him that he knew more than he ever led on. JB placed a hand on Lucian’s shoulder and walked with him back to his driveway. “Go see to your girls, son. We’ll clean up your mess.” Lucian didn’t know exactly what the old man meant by ‘clean up your mess’. He was understandably uneasy about the whole thing, but grateful to be done with the night’s chaos. “We’ll talk tomorrow. Let you know where we stand,” JB said. Lucian nodded and climbed into his truck.

He started the dually and turned around and into his driveway as the sheriff neared the open window. “Lucian, you got nothing to worry about. It’s obvious you was defending yourself.” Boyd patted Lucian on the shoulder. “I’ll talk to you later tonight when I know something, my friend.” Lucian nodded and pulled down the drive towards his farm.

            While the others were focused on Swailes, Sketchy looked down and noticed something that struck his fancy on the fat man’s finger: a silver ring with a ruby inlaid on the face. He glanced back at JB and Boyd. They stood talking as Lucian’s taillights disappeared down the long driveway. Sketchy reached down and slipped the band off the Italian’s finger. The man, blinded by the pain from his injuries, was either unaware or unable to protest. Sketchy dropped the bauble into his shirt pocket and spit a wad of tobacco at the man’s feet.

“Sketchy.” JB startled the disgusting young man.

“Sir?” Sketchy, wide-eyed, clueless, turned to his Uncle JB.

            “Good night, son, focus on the job at hand. Get Jon Boy’s wrecker to move this hunk of garbage out to Dew Creek Bridge. Don’t touch anything in the car until you get the say so.” Sketchy nodded and reached for his phone. JB turned to Boyd again. “Sheriff, rouse this fat Italian and get him in the back of your vehicle.” Boyd’s eyes revealed his uneasiness as JB laid out his plan. They needed to get this man to a hospital, collect evidence, at least, Gates knew. JB reached out and grabbed the Italian’s pistol from Boyd with his kerchief and walked to the cruiser. “I ain’t got all night,” he told them both. JB’s mind was made up. Though Lucian deserved to have this thing handled by the book, Sheriff Gates didn’t have the nerve to question his Uncle JB Hoyt.



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Opening scene of Chapter 2.  Introduces the narrator (he told Ch 1 in third person), the setting, and the primary goal / plot.


The stench of 500 camels and their handlers’ breakfasts cooking over dung-fueled campfires slapped the adventurous spirit right out of me. I had suppressed my doubts, but the palpable reek forced me to acknowledge that I did not want to endure months of discomfort and danger to seek something that existed as little more than a spark of hope in the Mansa’s dreams.

Though I smelled it, I could not yet see the camp.  A pale arc of light had begun to spread across the horizon, silhouetting the far woods and a single stone menhir towering on the verge of the road.  I stopped walking, removed my pack, and placed it on the crown of the avenue. The lone Gold Company guard escorting me on the brief march from Tomboq to Kabara stopped and watched me.  Leaning on my staff, I turned and looked back toward the city.  I grimaced, my stomach cramping with anxiety.  Three years before, I’d traveled by camel from Tomboq to the libraries of Djenghet and back—a half-moon’s journey across the waste each way—and I’d sworn three oaths: never again to leave Tomboq, never again to cross the desert, and never again to travel with such foul creatures as camels.  

In the rising light of dawn, the browns and grays of the guard’s regalia unfolded into reds and golds. From under the golden, scarlet-plumed helmet came a baritone “Sir?” 

I sighed.  For a moment, I thought I could see the great spire of Sankoré University rising from Tomboq’s center, but I knew the distance exceeded my vision. Still, I gazed for a moment on the sweet illusion before I looked at the soldier. “I don’t want to go, Boto.”  I shook my head.

Boto frowned and tilted his head. “You... don’t _want_ to go?”  His quizzical tone conveyed both bewilderment and disapproval.  To consider that one might contravene a direct command from the Mansa himself was to become like the gnat who believed that he could steer the hippopotamus; it was a meaningless exercise in delusional self-importance.

I shrugged. “I know, I know.  It’s just... you know, I’m a man of letters, not action.  I _read_ things and _think_ about them.  I don’t... _do_ things.” I sighed. “I’m not my father, Boto.  I’m not made for grand quests or epic adventures.”  Boto squinted at me from under the helmet, as if taking my true measure for the first time.  

I ignored his gaze.  “I... shouldn’t have agreed to this.  Let’s go back.  I think I may be able to convince my father to—”

“SIR!” the Guard said firmly. “With all due respect.  You—as I—are a servant of the glorious Mansa Musa, sovereign of all the lands between the Gold Coast and the Southern Roman Empire, between Kanem-Sao and the Endless Sea. We are both duty-sworn to protect all the peoples of these lands, as the Mansa commands.  The Mansa has charged you with a unique and sacred task, to stop the Great Blight, to restore the desert to forest and savanna and farmland, and to ensure the prosperity of our people for generations.” 

My cheeks burned and my shoulders slumped.  Put so plainly, the task seemed both impossible to accomplish and impossible to refuse.  I still wanted to argue, though I knew that the Mansa had legitimate reasons to select me as the leader of the expedition. I was the one who had deciphered the ancient reference to a thing that had given humans the power to halt the expansion of the desert millennia ago. (Though the extant text fragment did not clearly state whether it was an object or an entity or a ritual, I referred to this thing as a “talisman” for convenience.)  I had devised the plan to find it—albeit a plan that was as likely to find its target as an archer on a windy, moonless night.  And my moderate skill at reading ancient text gave me a reasonable chance to decipher additional clues that, I hoped, might point toward the talisman’s location.  And yet, I still feared that the Mansa had mistaken my textual dexterity for genuine courage and physical prowess.  Perhaps the Mansa had misattributed these qualities to me because the young ruler assumed that, in spite of my bookish ways, I had inherited the spirit of my father, Saran Mandian—the great General of the Gold Company, hero of the Manden Federation, and trusted advisor to the Mansa.

Boto moved his long spear from his right hand to his left, moved closer to me, and placed his right hand gently on my shoulder.  He continued, his tone softer but still urgent: “Sir, this is not a burden for you to bear.  This is a _gift_.  Are you not a scholar of the Ways?  Have you not studied the Way of Submission?” He nodded toward the brightening eastern sky. “Look, had I been entrusted with this task, the dawn would hardly outshine the glow of my own heart.  I know of no other man who has been given such an august and precious gift as this—not even your father. Because it’s not just a gift for you to receive; it’s a gift for you to _bestow_ on all the good and striving peoples of these lands.  Sir....  You. _Must_. Go.”

I opened my mouth and closed it again.  I could produce no adequate response to Boto’s inspirational reprimand.  The soldier had just bested the scholar in a simple debate.  Doubts still lingered, but Boto’s speech reminded me of why I had accepted this mission.  As much as I loved my solitary work ensconced in the University, as much as I abhorred physical discomfort and doubted my own competence beyond the spheres of literature, history, and philosophy, this was an opportunity for me to do something that actually mattered.  This was a chance, however unlikely, to improve the lives of real people throughout the continent.  I nodded, hefted my pack, stood up straighter than before, and walked toward the noisome camp.

Boto exhaled and strode along next to me.  “Besides,” he said, “my comrades have a bet going about whether you’ll succeed... or die.”  He laughed heartily.  “Oh, don’t worry, sir.  I’ve bet on your success,” Boto said.  His smile revealed pink gums and shockingly white teeth.

I glanced at him with a rueful grin. “Thank you, Boto. I’m reassured that _one_ of us has a measure of confidence in this venture.”  Boto briefly bowed his head.

I could see the smoke rising from the campfires now, and tents and some camels on the outskirts.  I comforted myself with the thought that at least we would not _begin_ this journey by camel; we would pass through the camp and meet our traveling companions at an embarkation point on the river.  I dimly hoped that we could accomplish this mission traveling primarily by boat and by horseback.  Yet still I suspected that some ill-tempered dromedary awaited me in an uncomfortable and malodorous future.

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Opening scene to literary suspense novel "Between Two Deserts" -- introduces the protagonist, setting, tone, and primary conflict 

Chapter 1

     I was seventeen years old the second time I tried to die. But it wasn’t like I got out of bed that morning with the end in mind. To tell you the truth, I didn’t have much talent for predicting the future. Much as tarot cards intrigued me, the combination of pentacles, wands, and swords left me with more questions than answers. And no matter how many times I studied a cup of tea leaves, I couldn’t figure out how my life was going to turn out, let alone anyone else’s. This deficiency, if that’s the right word for it, closed off several career options including psychic friend, clairvoyant, and roadside prophet.

     But you know what really got to me? It was how the one afternoon that changed everything in my life started out totally normal – the Mojave sun spilled through the classroom window. The air conditioner spit a thin stream of cool air against my neck. And at two o’clock the school bell rang. Mr. Jackson stepped up to the podium and saluted the American flag.

     “Thank you to the brothers and sisters and sons and daughters and mothers and fathers who are serving our great country.”

     Mr. Jackson’s crewcut reminded me of my fiancé, Alejandro. Okay, not technically my fiancé because I didn’t have a ring yet but he promised to buy one when I turned eighteen. I ran my fingers over the frayed ribbing at the bottom of Alejandro’s letterman’s jacket. Tonight, he was calling from Kabul. The sound of his voice made me feel like a rabbit inside a magician’s hat, like this amazing show was about to begin. Sometimes, I listened to his messages so many times I dreamed of them all night long, his words twining through my sleep.

     Mr. Jackson’s voice rumbled. “How do we attain success?”

     By getting out of here and never looking back. But like we had been trained, all twenty-four seniors answered in unison. “We follow three principles.”

     I wanted to roll my eyes, but if he caught me giving attitude, I’d have to write a five-hundred-word essay about the importance of character.

     “What are the three D’s?” he asked.

     “Diligence. Dignity. Discipline.”

     All of us chanted the same three words except Alejandro’s younger sister, Leticia, who was busy applying a layer of red lipstick. She was over high school. Unlike the rest of us, she didn’t pretend to care.

     Mr. Jackson addressed her directly. “What does TEAM stand for?”

     She shoved the tube in her back pocket and flashed him a wry look. With her painted nails, she swatted the air. “Dude, when are you going to learn how to hit it and quit it?”

     The class laughed. The boy next to me stared at Leticia like she was the cherry on top of a Fosters Freeze banana split. When the boy moved his arm, his shirt slipped to the side, exposing raised pink roman numerals, XVIII, the symbol for the 18th Street gang. Why did he join up with only a few weeks left before graduation?

     A cheerleader bustled in from the hallway and handed Mr. Jackson a pink note. Where I had angles, she had curves, and lots of ’em. He paused to read the summons before passing it to Leticia. Pink meant it came from the vice-principal’s office.

     Leticia reached for her purse and sashayed in tight jeans toward the door. Her giant sparkly earrings twinkled under the fluorescent lights. A few seniors jeered, Someone’s gonna get it!

     She crinkled her face and mouthed Relax.

     Mr. Jackson continued his lecture, circling MOTIVATION like this was a new word we needed to learn before he went on for another twenty minutes about civic duty while nobody listened. My cell phone vibrated. I slipped the phone from my pocket and tapped the screen. A text from Leticia.


     I gasped. A couple students heard me and turned around. I couldn’t close my mouth. I kept staring at my phone, putting the two words together and not putting them together. It didn’t make sense. A decent person would tell you in person which made me wonder what Leticia was up to, if she was messing with me or speaking in riddles or if this could be...

     No. This wasn’t real. It was just another one of Leticia’s games. Ever the jealous sister, refusing to leave me and Alejandro alone. I shot back.

     Not funny. WTF?

     Mr. Jackson placed his large fingers on my desk. The peppermint on his breath was strong. “Hand me the phone, Chelsea.”

     “I can’t do that, sir.” I waited for another text with j/k or gotcha!

     “You know the rules. Give it here.”

     I didn't look up.

     “This isn’t like you,” Mr. Jackson said, “You and me. Coach and counsel after class. Lima Charlie?”

     Lima Charlie. Loud and clear. Are you serious already? You think any of us like being lectured to? I could hear him inside my head – he’d ask about my brother, Martin, who had enlisted two years before Alejandro. I begged him and Alejandro not to enlist, told them it was not the right way to escape. But they didn’t listen. They wanted out of here so bad they’d risk their lives for it.

     Mr. Jackson reached for my phone.

     “Don’t,” I said.

     He tried to snatch my cell while I held on. As if he was in charge of me, as if I had no rights. Fine. Take my flip phone. I let go of it and he stumbled back a few steps while I shoved my desk into the next row. I sprinted out of the class like it was the last curve of a 400-meter relay. My high tops squeaked as I made my way down the hallway, determined to track Leticia down. Years of track meets had taught me to run fast and hard. I raced past dozens of gray lockers while Coach Mayes at the other end of the hall waved for me to slow down.

     "Chelsea, are you OK?” he asked.

     Mr. Jackson shouted my name. With two teachers closing in, I careened towards the west exit and slammed the panic bar like I was trapped. By now, somebody must have alerted the school’s guards. They’d be yammering on their walkie-talkies about a 5’8” wiry female, long brown hair in an over-sized letterman’s jacket and jeans.

     My car was parked near the security booth. I cut left and brushed against the chain-link fence. I flew past the school’s motto painted in royal-blue letters:

Welcome to the Rock!

     It was a daily reminder that high school was a four-year prison sentence, a modern-day Alcatraz where adults held all the keys. I maintained a fast clip. A blob in a blue windbreaker jogged towards me. I cut a 90 around the blob and dashed across the brown grass towards my car while the flagpole clanked in the hot Antelope Valley wind. My hair flew in all directions, mostly in my face. Twenty feet ahead, my Kia was tucked between a red 4Runner and a lowrider. By the time I got in my front seat, no one was in the rearview mirror. I turned the engine over and twisted the wheel, clearing the parking lot the quickest way, right over the sidewalk lip.

     After skidding past the school’s grass, I roared down East Avenue R, a road with a letter instead of a name because Littlerock was too cheap to spring for the extra paint. I looked for Leticia’s car which she always parked on the same street two blocks from school. But in the spot where her Hyundai was normally parked, there was just an empty space. No matter. I’d track her down. If she was lying about Alejandro, I’d tear her apart. All the while, a question nagged at me – if she was making this up, why hadn’t she texted back? I tossed my doubts to the side, knowing Leticia and “Lies” both started with the same letter.

     I was sick of her. Sick of letting her get away with it. If she wasn’t home, I’d check the mall, the gas station, and the rough crowd she ran around with. I hooked a left and parked in front of Leticia’s house. Even with my engine running, I could hear her brother, Jose, shouting the lyrics to an Oside Blaze rap song on the stereo. He was the baby of the family but that didn’t make him innocent.

     He shuffled onto the front porch like an alley cat, skinny and smart, clutching a brown paper sack. Though I wasn’t surprised to see him cutting school, he wasn’t what I’d call a day drinker.

     Jose smirked. “You came back for me, Guera.”

     Alejandro’s family didn’t think much of the white girl from a broken family who believed in ghosts instead of God. After all, what kind of person didn’t care about the Pope? I walked up the porch steps, cautiously keeping my distance.

     “Give me a hug, girlfriend.” Jose’s eyes were bloodshot.

     “When did you become a King?” A fresh crown tattoo darkened his neck. I figured he was tipping his hat to the infamous Latin Kings.

     “I always been the king, Guera.”

     “I didn’t tag you for a gangster.”

     “That’s what you think when you see a crown? There are other kinds of crowns, little girl. How many times did I school you about the King of Israel who brought down Goliath with a single stone?”

      OK, maybe it wasn’t a Latin Kings tattoo. Maybe I misinterpreted it, but that didn’t mean I misunderstood Alejandro’s brother. He lived for Old Testament justice, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. His whole family blamed me for Alejandro going to war. They thought me and my family had pushed him into the Marines. Which was ridiculous. Mom was furious when Martin joined. And me? I hated what happened to my brother over there. What I wanted was for Alejandro and me to have a better life, and that didn’t include living on a Godforsaken base in a shitty little town.

     Before Alejandro enlisted, we’d dream up all kinds of escape plans. We considered moving to a small Midwestern town his family had never heard of or a tiny bungalow in San Diego where we’d keep the window open and listen to the ocean crash against the sand. With his people sprawled across Antelope Valley and the Inland Empire, the only option was a faraway place.

     The screen door busted open and Leticia joined us on the porch, her eyes puffy like she’d been crying. That didn’t mean much. She tried on emotions like tank tops, changing the color to suit her needs.

     She folded her arms. “I don’t remember inviting you over.”

     “You send a text like that then shine me on?”

     “That’s what you came to say?”

     “If I had a dollar for every time you tried to break me and Alejandro up, I’d be living in Beverly Hills. But that message you sent, that lie about Alejandro. That was a whole new low.”

     Leticia cackled like she was crazy and I started to think maybe she was. She turned to Jose whose eyes were glassy like the stars.

     “Alejandro and I are getting married. And I don’t give a goddamn if you people approve or not.”

     “¡Chale! Using the Lord’s name in vain. No respect.” Jose said. “You got no respect, Guerita.”

     Leticia put her arm around her brother. “We know about you. We see your nose pointed at the sky, looking down on us.”

     Jose took a swig from the bottle before tossing it hard against the pillar. The glass shattered inside the bag, a sound that set something off inside me. Like the earth underneath was shaking when it wasn’t.

     “These fucks in military gear come to our door and say Alejandro died for a purpose,” Jose said. “You believe that shit?”

     I grabbed hold of the pillar near the steps.

     Leticia’s dark eyes bore into me. “You forced my brother to make a choice. It was us or you. Every night, you wanted him to call. But you didn’t think it through. Soldiers gotta focus. In that split second when he worried about your bitch ass life, a jihadi shot him in the head.”

     Something blasted into my gut, something harder than a fist. But there was no bang. No gun. Jose and Leticia were huddled together on the stoop while I was separated from them, close to the edge.

     “Alejandro was my brother,” she said. “All of us. Everyone in our family loved him.”

     My ears rang like a bomb had exploded. “You’re wrong. He’s going to call tonight from Kabul.”

     Jose pulled papers out of his pocket, white papers, folded three times. “This is what that man in uniform read to my mama: The Commandant of the Marine Corps has entrusted me to express his deep regret that your son, Alejandro, was killed in action –”

     “Stop lying,” I said.

     Jose stared hard at me. “My brother deserved so much better.”

     Deserved? Past tense, not present tense. My breath caught in my throat and time twisted around a blind corner spinning on a patch of black ice I didn’t see. I needed them to stop talking but Jose kept running his mouth.

     “Stop lying.” I yelled.

     Leticia pointed her finger at me. “Get the fuck away from our family. And don’t you ever come back.”

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     When John came into the breakfast room, Kate buried her letter underneath the sprawled Walker’s Hibernian littering the table. He didn’t seem to notice.

     “My darling,” (The gentle up and down of John’s voice sounded like no one she knew.) “Sun’s out. We’d best leave now. The road won’t be passable for at least another week, maybe longer. The cliff path’s acceptable?”

     “Of course. I’ve told you. Is Mary joining us?”

     “I don’t think so. She may not want to venture too deep. Please be kind to her.”

     “Dear girl. Where’s she been all morning?”

     “In the garden. Perhaps waiting for us to leave.”

     “Will you come into the water?”

 John smiled. “If it’s not too cold.”

     Kate asked about clothes, about towels, even about clean stockings. John had arranged everything. Although she was perfectly capable, she took his arm. He would appreciate this. 

     Through the halls, on the terrace, then among waving, smiling squills, eyebrights and asters, Kate pretended not to notice the ever present scurry outlining their progress. Nodding, part of a game she had made for herself, at William and Mary’s oddly prim faces etched into the rim of the estate’s fountain spouting supreme over all the introductory statuary, she thought she saw their Mary’s pony cart round the corner and head toward the west gate. Ahead, Eamon directed a group of servants with picnic supplies. Kate looked the other way. 

     It had rained every day for a week so each tree, shrub, flower, blade of grass, now opened wide to the bright light. Today was sharp and perfect. Once again, talking through his upcoming travel, John gave her his lists. An indispensable visit with Mary to the Hawkes. Correspondence to share with Mary. Correspondence to forward. The expected flow of Lady Mim’s engagements. A dinner, if she were ready, to include a select company, the Hawkes, Lady Leigh, Reverend and Mrs. Brownlow, Lady Darlington, Colonel Andrews, perhaps the Bellinghams, Dr. Braxton and his wife.

     For the first time in months, John would be away from Kate. Kate clenched her lips together so that he would see how difficult this might be for her. He did love to rehearse. She searched for some other topic, not what she hoped to say; she would save that for later. Leaving the grounds, they came to the edge of the cliffs. The wind picked up just enough to cool her neck. He went before her and handed her down, one rough landing at a time. 

     “John, how will Lady Mim ever be able to do this? She’d so like to come.”

     “When the sea road dries out a little more, she can go the long way by carriage.” 

     “At dinner, the beach seemed her favorite place.”

     “I’m not sure you should pay her any mind. She says whatever comes into her head.”

     “And that is why I’m so fond of her.”

     “She’s very fond of you.”

      Congregated at the foot of the cliffs, Connor, Lila and Bette were opening baskets and passing plates between them. A table was laid at the point where the rocks gave way to sand. Pale blue muslin tenting washed into the sky. And then she saw the bathing machine. A little out of place because it was alone; at Weymouth, lines and lines of brightly painted boxes rolled in and out of the sea, some even with flounce curtains. Her machine had a gold brush drawing of dolphins jumping into the air. It was beautiful. She became impatient to be in the water.

     John asked her if she wanted tea. Because he sat as he spoke, Kate sat as well. He chatted more about Dublin Castle, assured her that he intended to return in less than a month. She knew this; during at least their last six meals, they had projected out, in fine detail, the next few weeks. Allowing crumbs of her biscuit to fall into her tea, Kate concentrated upon the delicious jumble in her mouth. Smiling as if he knew what her answer would be, John mentioned Jane. Kate joined in the joke; no, Miss Fairfax was not arriving any time soon. She seemed to be perpetually ill. But then Jane had so many worries. And he knew Jane’s troubles must be her own. At that moment, her question almost popped out, but the light on the water brought her to herself. She should wait. Kindly, John moved on to Eliza and Margaret. She would tell him later about the letter. No clouds overhead, it was past the time they should go in. Kate set down her cup.

     “As remote as we are, we might simply put a dressing tent somewhere in the rocks. Your machine’s wonderful, but perhaps too extravagant. Though I very much appreciate the gift.”

     “My darling, we do nothing, if we do not do it well.”

     “Are you ready to try it?” 

     They had not discussed exactly how he believed the bathing would happen. Kate wondered if he would come into the water. Calling to Connor for help, John held out his hand to her. She took it, hoping that everything she needed was in the machine. Bette and Lila quietly bustled about. Because a horse could not yet get down to the shore, John had landed the machine mostly in water and anchored its posts into the sand. No one spoke as Kate lifted her skirt. She decided to go ahead and take off her shoes so that she would not ruin them, but left her stockings on. Seeming not to care about the mud, John walked next to her, then jumped her onto the stair. She smiled. He made a slight bow. She quickly disappeared behind a whitewashed door.

     Light seeped in from carved holes between the roof slats. Kate sat on a bench and began to undress. The floor swayed back and forth underneath her. She pretended not to hear Connor and her husband’s grunts as they pushed her machine deeper into the water. Pulling her bathing gown over her head, she smiled at its pale rose softness. He had indeed thought of everything. Now her box gently rolled side to side. Listening to their plans to reconnect shafts to a line from the shore, Kate waited for John to invite her. 

     “Are you ready?” 

     At the very last, Kate decided to take off her wet stockings. She would move quickly into the water; surely, no one would notice. When she opened the shuttered door, Kate looked out into a whirl of seablue, gold and white. Sunlight bounced ahead of her from ripple to wave. She passed over a stair so her feet would be fast under the water. Cold and sticky salt ran up her legs. She was so happy. Waves and foam to his waist, John held her steady. Connor on the other side of the machine, it was somehow just the two of them. Her gown twisted around her legs, yet she managed to sink into the surf up to her neck. John was about to protest, but she let go of his hand and started to paddle with her arms. The current rocked her about. Reaching out to her, John slipped, but bobbling in the swells, he managed to right himself. The two of them splashed and floated together. She put her head underwater then came up. Kicking her feet to keep herself above water, she took in the sparkle of the horizon jutting out before her.  

    He wondered at her swimming.

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“Dr. Stuart, tell me what it was like making your discovery. “

“You read the paper?“

“I did. The counterfactual you employed of John Brown’s raid being a failure was so … whimsical. No one could honestly believe such a thing. Everyone knows its success was a foregone conclusion. I mean, if it had failed, the results would have been catastrophic, a civil war probably, totally unacceptable.“

He’s dressed really low-key expensive for my impression of a journalist. A bowler with a blue jay feather stuck in the band. Trying a bit hard to be mofty. Boro-boro blazer. Milan I think, for the slacks. I know the designer, I think, but I’d need to check the label at the seam to be sure if he’d let me. The shoes, though, look like something he picked up from Hefty. Don’t ask me why I keep up with men’s fashion. I’m in my usual black cargoes and v-neck. The bracelet from the commune adds my touch of color. It might show up if I put that hand to my chin when pondering an answer. 

“You agree. I see you agree,”

I fucking hate this smile and be nice shit. But that’s what Southern girls do. 

“but tell me what it was like when it dawned on you.”

The board fills with marks. Conversation with a great cloud of witnesses. Some older than the dirt – call it chalk – making the marks. This is new. Oh god seriously where would you start without signifiers. A game. How a child uses a twig for doll for being knight queen honey princess horse teacup. Foolish that the marks move the world when one swipe of palm can say no more not now start over. Elohim, in their clamor, want fresh making. And do. I don’t understand says a young soul in the back can you go over it again. Are you sure about the psi term. Let me look. I may have missed something. Start over. Fail again. No, it’s right and here’s why. 

He’s waiting for me to respond. People tell me it’s a problem when I don’t respond. When they’re expectant and I’m in my own world. We’ve been at this for two hours already and I’m tired. I’d walked him around the offices, him teaming with his crew on where pops most. Shooting some stock footage. After setting up lights. And sound checks. I’d never known how complicated the infrastructure is for a ten-minute segment. You watch it on TV and you think it’s all just there, made the same as saying yes at the coffee shop, I’ll have that cookie, no the other one, with sprinkles. Or a sunset. Served up by god’s hand. Ready for the taking. He’s thinking I pulled it out of the ether of god’s ass. Divine golden turd, exquisite in its completeness, in its epistemological solidity, rather than gas. 

“As you can imagine, I’ve hammered at this for years. Lots of coffee. You’ve heard the expression that math is an engine that runs on coffee. Preferably from the Fouta Djallon Highlands.”

“I’d heard you’d grown up there.”

“Yes briefly. Was little when I left. Keep in touch though. One toe dug into the African soil.”

He laughs. Not sure if it’s a joke. People laugh at the strangest things don’t they. The social conventions of primates in domination rituals just boggles. I don’t take the bait. I rattles him. My not taking the bait. I don’t mean to rattle. But I’d rather be alone in my office. Or at the pool to burn off some of this, what’s it called? Surely there’s a word for feral recoil.

“But obviously it’s also about collaboration. Obviously I’ve fielded the shards with peers. And they’ve poked at where the paint bubbled from the wall. Conferences. And beer. But writing the paper afterwards to see where it could’ve gone wrong. But didn’t. I was genuinely surprised it didn’t.”

I’m not sure how much of that I actually said. I’m looking away when I probably say it. I don’t see his probable response.

Don’t think all my tribe resembles me. Most function perfectly well as parents, in team sports, directing meetings, teaching Sunday school. I’m slower. It’s taken me time to know who I am. 

“I understand you were quite ill as a child. Yes. A quite severe form of cerebral malaria. You spoke in tongues as I understand, is that it, it sounds horrible and scary.”

“I was five. Don’t we all speak in tongues at that age?”

He laughs again. Shit, it really does seem he thinks that was a joke. I don’t belong in this world, but then, who does?

“Nonetheless, do you think maybe it’s that ability to pull something out of the ineffable, that both wasn’t there and has always been there, that drew you to maths in the first place?”

Fuck if I know.

No, don’t say that. Did I? No, I don’t believe I did because he’s still smiling a vacuous smile when I look. I don’t generally like people. I get that from my father. Fuck sakes.

“I enjoyed the challenge.”

He seems satisfied if I’m to understand his making a note in the notebook on his lap. High end. Heavy stock. I don’t recognize that brand of pen. You realize this is being filmed don’t you? Unlike my blackboard. You can go back to this later. 

“Your next challenge? You’ve formed your own company. Tell us about that.”

“Oh, it’s all very new, but my cofounder, an old acquaintance, and I want to turn the abstract, theoretical, concept into a real-world mechanism. He’s much more applied than me, way more patient with the code, you have to be. There may be application to logistics immuno-response fin-tech. Anything with a Hilbert space.” He makes another note. “Freely available and for social good. But I want to stay at the institute as much as possible. It’s quiet. Family. Friends being the family you choose. But yes, the company is part of my life now and we’ve been approached even at this nascent stage by VC.”

“Speaking of which. Family. Your father’s writing has come under lots of scrutiny. Once lauded as critic of the Crofter regime in that Africa you’ve a toe in, there’s been some real reappraisal. Maybe a closet apologist.”

Okay, there’s the barb. The reason for the setup.

“I haven’t spoken to my father in years.”


“I can’t say I’d have reason.”


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Candlewood Cray (First Draft)

OPENING SCENE: Introduces Protagonist, introduces secondary characters, hints at main antagonist, introduces setting, tone, hints at core wound, hints at primary goal, introduces protagonist conflict

It’s broad daylight. Two twenty-two Tuesday afternoon. They never come while the sun is up. This should not be happening. Silently, slowly, I twist the burner knob to ‘off’ and back barefoot across the galley kitchen until my shoulders press into the cool stainless steel of the refrigerator door.

The oatmeal in the pot bubbles sloppily, mocking me with two quick gasps of hot steam. Creamy blotches splatter the ceramic cook top; a mar of white on the otherwise gleaming, perfect black surface.

I ball my hands into fists, fighting the urge to wipe them away. If I’m not still, if I’m not silent, they will find me. Not daring to breathe, I inch a hand to my pocket and pull out my phone, always set to silent. My trembling fingers fumble to unlock it, to open the texting app, to tap my brother’s name right at the top.

“Ben,” I type, my gaze locked desperately on the screen. Three gray dots appear, then vanish, then appear again.

I wait, staring, refusing to look toward the window or the doorways. If I look, they’ll feel my fear. They’ll track me down.

The three dots blink away, and I wait for the incoming message that doesn’t come.

A clatter behind me makes me yelp and nearly drop my phone as I clap a hand over my mouth. The ice maker. I curse in my head. In the next room, something soggy skitters across the hardwood. It heard me. It’s closing in.

“Ben, please...” I type with icy, trembling thumbs as I slide silently from the fridge along the countertop toward the pocket door to my studio. I left it open just in case. I always do.


“Fee, are you painting? Send me a pic.” Ben’s reply floods me with relief.

“Just making breakfast,” I type with my back pressed against the door frame. “They’re here.”




“Breakfast at two in the afternoon?” he asks after several starts and stops.

I nod, breathing shallowly, and realize after a minute he can’t see me.

“Yes. They’re in the front room. Two of them, I think.”

“Go to the cupboard. Check your meds box. It’s Tues, Ophelia. Check to make sure Tues is empty.”

My mouth goes dry. My heart thumps with fury. My stomach flips angrily.

“I know it’s fucking Tuesday, Ben.” I type. “You don’t believe me? After everything? After last week?”



“Fee. Please. Just check.”

“Forget it. Sorry I bothered you.”

Hope I’m not ripped to shreds by the time you get home, I want to type, or dragged under the lake like they were. But I don’t. I just shove my phone back into my pocket angrily and draw a deep, silent breath. Beyond the kitchen in the front room, something squelches.

I back through the pocket door, sliding it shut without a sound.

They started up again a few months ago, when things finally seemed to be getting back to normal. Back when I felt like I maybe I wasn’t psycho after all, like maybe everything was going to be okay.

When they slipped past my bedroom window, blotting strange shadows across my blinds, Ben installed in a motion sensor floodlight and two new security cameras with night vision right outside.

Of course nothing showed up on the cameras.

When I was positive something was creaking around in the hallway outside my bedroom leaving puddles and murky streaks, Ben accused me of swimming without a towel, ruining the antique wood finish with water spots.

Like I would ever, ever swim in Candlewood lake again.

My own brother should know me better than that.

To protect myself, I took matters into my own hands and put an iron padlock on my bedroom door, and salted the sills and across all the thresholds.

My hand slips into the pocket of my paint-crusted cutoffs and finds the familiar old iron railway nail. I grip the round, rough length of it like my life depends on it. Because it does.



Bread and honey offerings


Red berries

I slip along the mental checklist deftly, my gaze flicking around my studio. Each item I see brings me comfort. The iron horseshoes hung sideways like crescent moons over both door frames. The bells dangling above my perfectly lined-up paint tubes. The vases filled with clusters of Rowan berries that line the huge, floor-to-ceiling windows. The bowl of bread steeped in amber honey on the stone outside the sliding glass door.

I avert my eyes from the windows. I know what’s beyond: the sprawling lawn, the dock where Dad’s surviving Chris-Craft is tucked in tight, the sparkling green lake probably dappled with fishing boats and streaked with water skiers. And her. I don’t need to look to know she’s there.

She’s always there.

I pad through the sunroom my parents converted into a painting studio for me when I was a bright-eyed child prodigy to the second closed door that leads into the den. The salt and iron filings poured along the threshold crunch beneath my toes as I press my ear to the smooth, painted wood.




My heart thunders, rushing blood to my ears. How can my stomach feel so empty and also filled with stone at the same time?

Go away, I want to scream, but I don’t dare. I don’t make a sound. I barely breathe. They’re moving away. Back toward the breezeway door. Leaving. They’re leaving.

Distantly, the keypad lock on the front door beeps.

I nearly jump out of my skin and yank my phone from my pocket as the doorbell notification simultaneously buzzes. More notifications scroll past: seventeen new text messages, four missed calls. Most are from Ben, but there are a couple from the gatehouse. Perfect. Ben called security, brushing me off as always. A token effort to avoid the two hour drive back from New York City. God forbid he comes home for once.

“Fee?” Cate, my favorite of our private security rotation, calls from the mud room.

I stare at the screen full of Ben’s texts. He’s not panicked about whether I’m safe. He’s worried about something else:

“The dinner party at the house is Friday, Fee. That’s three days from now. Are you going to have anything new done? Should I be concerned? I can postpone it, but you need to tell me now. Impressive guest list expecting to meet you. A few familiar faces, a couple A-list celebs, too. We can’t screw this up. Could be a serious game-changer.

“Should you be concerned? Really?” I type, but I shove my phone back into my pocket without sending it. Let him stare at ellipses for awhile. Jerk.

“What the hell? What are all these puddles? Ophelia?” Cate calls louder.

Reluctantly, I slide open the door a crack to peer into the entry, careful not to disturb the salt or iron.

“I’m here,” I answer, surprised by the grittiness of my voice. I try to remember the last time I used it. The last time I talked to anyone aloud and not on some screen. Yesterday morning, maybe, when the cleaners came through.

Cate takes the route all the way through the other side of the cottage to the kitchen, avoiding the studio altogether. Everyone around here treats it like some kind of hallowed ground, not even daring to glance in its direction without my invitation.

I remember why, and of course I’m ashamed of it.

Still shaken, I slink toward the kitchen and find Cate at the cupboard. When she turns to find me in the doorway, she drops her hand from the holster strapped over her jeans.

“Fee,” she ventures cautiously. “Are you all right? Ben called and said you heard something, but there was nothing on the feeds.”

“Sure,” I lie. Of course there was nothing on the feeds. Should I be surprised? Will any of them ever believe I’m not fucking crazy? My gaze trails to the labeled pill box she's holding, and shame makes something snap in me.

I snatch the box from her and she throws her hands up in surrender. Like I’m some wild animal who might lunge and rip her apart. I try to ignore her reaction as I flip the TUES cap open to reveal the four pills I should have taken hours ago. Cate shifts uncomfortably, dropping her hands.

“Son of a…” I curse under my breath.

Ben was right. He’s always fucking right.


EDIT: I hope this is okay.  After reading the development guide, I decided to rewrite this opening scene in 3POV and thought I'd share it here for review/comparison.

Chapter One - 3POV-FC Past tense


It was broad daylight. Two twenty-two Tuesday afternoon. They never came while the sun was up. This was impossible. Silently, slowly, Ophelia twisted the burner knob to ‘off’ and backed barefoot across the galley kitchen until her shoulders pressed into the cool stainless steel of the refrigerator door.

The oatmeal in the pot bubbled sloppily, mocking her with two quick gasps of hot steam. Creamy blotches splattered the ceramic cooktop, a mar of white across the otherwise gleaming black surface.

With her hands balled into fists, she fought the overwhelming urge to grab a towel and wipe the mess away. If she wasn’t still, if she wasn’t completely silent, the creatures would find her. Not daring to breathe, she inched a hand to her pocket and pulled out her phone, which was always set to silent. Her paint-stained fingers fumbled to unlock it, to open the texting app, to tap her brother’s name right at the top of the screen.

“Ben,” she typed, her gaze locked desperately on the screen. Three gray dots appeared, then vanished, then appeared again.

She waited, staring, refusing to look toward any windows or doorways of the quaint cabin’s kitchen. If she looked, she knew they’d feel her fear. They’d hunt her down. She was no stranger to these creatures or their workings.

The three dots blinked away, and the incoming message hung between her and her brother unsent.

A clatter behind her startled her, and she clapped a hand over her mouth to keep herself from yelping, nearly dropping her phone. Fuck. In the next room, something skittered across the hardwood. It heard her. It was closing in.

“Ben, please…” she typed with icy, trembling thumbs as she slid silently from the fridge toward the pocket door of her studio. She left it open just in case. She always did.

“Fee, are you painting? Send me a pic.” Ben’s reply flooded her with relief as the phone’s blue glow danced across her pale cheeks and flashed in her tired eyes.

“Just making breakfast,” she typed with her back pressed against the worn antique wood door frame. “They’re here.”



“Breakfast at two in the afternoon?” Ben asked after several starts and stops. Ophelia could feel the impatience emanating from his words, but her fear was too insistent. She nodded, breathing shallowly, and realized after a minute he couldn’t see her.

“Yes,” she typed, “they’re in the front room. Two of them, I think.”

“Go to the cupboard. Check  your meds box. It’s Tuesday, Ophelia. Check and make sure Tues is empty.”

Ophelia’s mouth went dry, her heart thumped with fury. Her stomach flipped angrily. It was just like Ben to do this.

“I know it’s fucking Tuesday, Ben,” she smashed each letter into the phone with urgent thumbs. “You don’t believe me? After everything? After last week?”



“Fee. Please. Just check.”

“Forget it. Sorry I bothered you.”

Hope I’m not ripped to shreds by the time you get home, she wanted to type, or dragged under the lake like they were. But she held back, like she almost always did.

Angrily, she shoved her phone back into her pocket and drew a deep, silent breath. Beyond the kitchen in the front room, something squelched.

They started up again a few months ago, when things finally seemed to be getting back to normal. Back when she felt like maybe she wasn’t psycho after all. Like maybe everything could actually, eventually be normal. Or as normal as possible for someone in her situation, anyway.

When they slipped past her bedroom window, blotting strange shadows across her blinds, Ben installed motion sensor floodlights and new security cameras all around the outside of the cabin.

Of course nothing showed up on the cameras.

When she was positive something was creaking around in the hallway outside her bedroom leaving murky streaks, Ben accused her of swimming with a towel, ruining the antique wood finish with water spots.

Like she would ever, ever be dumb enough to swim in Candlewood Lake again. Her own brother should know her better than that.

To protect herself, she took matters into her own hands and put an iron padlock on her bedroom door, and salted across all the window sills and thresholds.

Standing in her studio with her back to the kitchen, Ophelia slipped her hand into her paint-crusted cutoff overalls and found the familiar old railway nail. She gripped the round, rough length of it like her lift depended on it. Because it did.



Bread and honey offerings


Rowan berries

She ran through the mental checklist deftly, her nervous gaze flicking around her studio, confirming her protections were in place. The iron horseshoes hung sideways like crescent moons over both door frames. Bells dangled above paint tubes lined up like soldiers along her taboret. Sentinels of vases filled with clusters of rowan berries lined the huge, floor-to-ceiling windows. A bowl of bread steeped in amber honey on the stone outside the door made a masterful distraction for any errant mischief-maker.

With an instinctive sense of self-preservation, she averted her eyes from the windows. She already knew what was beyond: the sprawling lawn, the dock where her father’s only surviving Chris-Craft was tucked in tight, the sparkling green lake probably dappled with fishing boats and streaked with water skiers.

And her.

Ophelia didn’t need to look to know. She was always watching.

Fee padded through the sunroom her parents converted into a painting studio for her when she was a bright-eyed child prodigy to the second pocket door that led into the the den. Her toes crunched into a mound of salt and iron filings as she pressed her ear to the smooth, painted wood.




Her heart thundered, pumping her racing pulse into her ears. Her heavy, empty stomach growled and lurched like a rock tumbler.

Go away, she wanted to scream, but she’d never dare. She didn’t think she could make a sound even if she was able to muster the courage. She could barely breathe.

But wait. They were moving away. Back toward the breezeway door. Leaving. They were leaving.

She nearly jumped out of her skin and yanked her phone from her pocket as the doorbell notification for the cabin’s front door buzzed. Distantly, the keypad lock on the front door beeped at the same time.

“Fee?” Cate, her favorite of the private security team that monitored the property, called from the mudroom door.

Her phone buzzed again, and more notifications flooded through: seventeen new text messages, four missed calls. Most were from Ben, but there were a couple from the gatehouse. Perfect. Ben called security, brushing her off as always. A token effort to avoid the two-hour drive from New York. God forbid he came home for once.

Ophelia stared at the screen full of Ben’s texts, appalled. He wasn’t panicked about whether she was safe. He had no concern for what creatures might be invading. He was worried about something else entirely.

“The dinner party at the house is Friday, Fee. That’s three days from now. Are you going to have anything new done? Should I be concerned? I can postpone it, but you need to tell me now. Impressive guest list expecting to meet you. A few familiar faces, a couple of A-list celebs, too. This is your chance to prove you’ve got it together. Could be a serious game-changer.”

Prove I’ve got it together? Ophelia fumed in silence. Or what? An extension on the conservatorship? Off to rehab again? Or worse, the the ward?

“Fuck you and your threats, Ben. I’m over here getting attacked by who knows what and you’re worried I’m not going to behave at your pony party? Should you be concerned? Fucking really?” She typed, but shoved her phone into her pocket angrily without sending it. Let him stare at ellipses for a while. Jerk.

“What the hell? What are all these puddles? Ophelia?” Cate calls louder.

Reluctantly, Fee slid open the door a crack to peer out into the entry, careful not to disturb her salt lines. “I’m here.”

She was surprised by the grittiness of her voice, and tried hard to remember the last time she had spoken aloud to anyone. It was yesterday, she thought, when the cleaners came through.

Cate took the route all the way through the other side of the cabin to the kitchen, avoiding the studio altogether. It annoyed Ophelia how everyone treated it like some kind of hallowed ground, not even daring to glance in its direction without her permission.

She remembered why, and of course she was ashamed of it.

Still shaken, she slunk toward the kitchen and found Cate standing at the cupboard, a thin slice of sunshine dancing through the blinds into her white-blond pixie cut.

For a moment, Ophelia felt a rush of inspiration to paint the petite but powerful woman standing at the counter. Something about Cate’s dichotomy of soft and hard spoke to her: the tactical belt and gun strapped to the curve of her hip, the bold black lines of her tattoos across her strong, delicate wrist.

“Fee,” Cate ventured cautiously, “are you all right? Ben called and said you heard something, but there was nothing on the feeds.”

Sure,” Ophelia lied. Of course there was nothing caught on the cameras. There never was. Her gaze drifted from Cate’s wrist to her hand, and for the first time she realized what Cate was up to.

Her pill box. Ophelia lunged at the guard and snatched it away, and Cate threw her hands up in immediate surrender. Like Fee was some wild animal who might claw and rip her apart. She tried to ignore Cate’s reaction as she flipped open the TUES cap to reveal the four pills she should have taken hours ago.

A few paces away, Cate shifted uncomfortably, dropping her hands to her sides.

“Son of a bitch,” Fee cursed under her breath.

Ben was right. He was always fucking right.


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(here is opening in case previous efforts did not come through)

     Justin is an experienced cop, working narcotics, who is conflicted about his sexuality and has long desired to be a woman. Only his closest family members, including his cousin Samuel, who is also a narcotics detective, are aware that he is pursuing a gender change. Although Samuel acts supportive, he is concerned about the effect on their close relationship as well as Justin’s career as a police officer.

     As Justin starts the medical transition process, the number of transgender persons being murdered in the city happens to escalate. The deaths are going unsolved, and some police officers  privately express a dislike of trans people and suggest their murders should be ignored. Justin is aware of this situation, and despite Samuel requesting he not go through with the gender affirmation procedure, Justin forges ahead with hormone therapy and laser hair removal.

     A few weeks into that process, he participates in a raid on a major drug lab thought to be operated by Tommy Boy, a notorious kingpin the police have been seeking but whose actual identity and face remain unknown. Despite feeling some nausea and breast tenderness from the estrogen treatments, Justin volunteers to be the first one to enter the building. He is aware of the adage “The first one through the door takes all the bullets,” but he feels a strong urge to prove his courage before completing the gender change.

     When the police burst in, Justin leads the way. He is shot and returns fire, killing two suspects and wounding a third. Although he prevents his colleagues from being hurt, he is injured in the left shoulder and right thigh. The raid nets a large quantity of drugs and several weapons, but Tommy Boy is not present. None of the suspects arrested are willing to provide any information about Tommy Boy.

     Justin is hospitalized, and a few days later receives a commendation from the mayor for his bravery, along with local press coverage making him out to be a hero. While recovering from his wounds, he goes forward with the medical transition procedure. This involves a bilateral orchiectomy to remove both testicles, leaving the scrotum for use in a vaginoplasty to be scheduled later. He also meets with another surgeon about the possibility of a breast augmentation.

     To conceal the existence of the transition, Samuel agrees to lie to the police chief by stating that Justin is slow to heal from his wounds and that his discharge has been delayed. This dishonesty troubles Samuel even more because he still opposes the sex change while trying to be supportive.

     Once the orchiectomy is completed, and Justin can be released, the family comes to the hospital. He informs them that since “he” is now a woman, “she” wants to go by the name Justine and will file for a legal name change. This will allow her to begin her new identity while remaining connected to her past. She also announces that she will take on the appearance of a woman by her clothing and use of a wig.

     Justine then states her decision to continue her career as a police officer. This upsets Samuel. He warns her that she will face hostility and isolation since she will be the first transgender person on the force. He asks her to reconsider, mentioning that even cops who were born a woman are harassed and mistreated. Justine is not dissuaded, exclaiming that she will not give up her dream of being a police officer just because she has switched gender.

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OPENING SCENE: Introduces setting, tone, protagonist background, and our unidentified (to the reader) antagonist, and sets up the primary conflict.

First 4 pages of PRESS PLAY FOR MURDER:

Darcy Davidson’s killer calmly plucked the Airpods from each ear, trading the sound of Alice Parker’s podcast for the deafening thuds of their own erratic heartbeat.

I always knew this day might come, the killer reckoned, careful not to draw unwanted attention as pedestrians meandered innocuously along Main Street, content and chatty in their locked-arm, summer-evening bubbles. They had no clue the person parked at the wrought-iron table outside Flub’s ice-cream shop strangled a 16-year-old girl more than 20 years ago, and not a mile from where they stood gawking at vintage dresses through floor-to-ceiling windows as children whooped in and out of the arcade.

But if Alice Parker has her way, they’ll all know soon…

“Yoohoo! Ladies!” a stout, porky woman beckoned from a nearby table, waving a colorful handkerchief with one pale, flabby arm. 

The sunset sky resembled a watercolor painting of warm pinks and corals, twinges of shadowy purples dotting the underbellies of the clouds. The killer sipped a vanilla milkshake, plugging the Airpods back in while disconnecting the Bluetooth, covertly eavesdropping as a pair of shrill, middle-aged women joined their friend at the table. 

“Did y’all hear?” one woman asked excitedly, scraping a metal chair along the cement.

“Who hasn’t!” another retorted, plopping down with a sigh. “Alice Parker coming back to Lunken Falls. Can you believe it?”

Alice Parker, the Ohio village’s prodigal daughter, had parlayed a successful investigative-reporter stint at a Cincinnati newspaper into an even more lucrative career, creating, producing, and hosting the nation’s No. 1 true-crime podcast, Death & Axes. She was revered and respected across the country, twice-interviewed by Oprah, and worshipped in her hometown -- an artsy, liberal, three-square-mile enclave amid a sea of red-font billboards warning interstate heathens of their impending road-trip to HELL, lest they REPENT IMMEDIATELY at Exit 186, 0.2 miles past the Cracker Barrel.

No one in Lunken missed an episode of Death & Axes. Even the hairy-eared old-timers, long set in their AM/FM-radio ways from years of listening to Reds games on 700 WLW, had adopted new technology just to hear the town’s most famous native dissect grisly cases each season. 

One season of Death & Axes even prompted an eventual conviction reversal, much to the Innocence Project’s delight, and another had put pressure on local authorities in Atlanta to reopen an unsolved murder, with advancements in forensics leading to a genetic DNA match. The murderer in that case was just sentenced to life in prison, all thanks to Alice.

Alice Parker got shit done.

And now, the tenacious reporter had set her sights on solving her hometown’s most notorious cold case: the strangling of one of Alice’s best friends, 16-year-old Darcy Davidson.

The sleepy little village – Population: 3,479 – was electrified.

Well, most of the village, anyway.

“We should get the Junior League to make a ‘Welcome Home, Alice’ banner to drape over the bridge!” one of the ladies suggested to much fanfare.

“I’ll call my Julia RIGHT now,” another vowed, digging into her garbage-bag-sized purse. “You both know she’s a shoo-in for Treasurer this year.”

The rest of the table chirped their assents.

Despite a cool, twilight breeze blowing in off the riverbank, a bead of sweat rolled down Darcy’s killer’s forehead. 

One minute into tonight’s season premiere of Death & Axes, when Alice’s intentions became clear, the killer’s first instinct was to pack their shit and drive -- leave everything and everyone behind and start fresh in a rainy, seaside hamlet in Nova Scotia or somewhere no one bothers you.

But the murderer quickly thought better of it. Running away is just begging to be caught, they decided. I’ve gotta keep my cool and trust that all the precautions I took to cover my tracks back in 1999 will hold up… and that no one will ever find the trophy I snagged that night.

“Didn’t answer,” Julia’s relative announced sadly. The table mourned in awkward silence.

The friendly “beep-beep!” of a passing vehicle whooshing down Main Street made the killer’s heart skip a beat. Attempting to quell another jolt of adrenaline, they gazed into the distance at the snaking Shannon River that bisected the village, the last sparkles of sunlight dancing atop the ripples along the horizon.

“Do you think Darcy’s killer is still alive?” wondered Jiggly Arms. “What if he… still lives here?” she whispered. “In Lunken!”

The murderer at the nearby table couldn’t see the trio, but envisioned them clutching their pearls nonetheless.

“Who said it was a ‘he’?” countered another with an air of cockiness. “Poor girl was found in her bathing suit, but the LFPD never found evidence of sexual assault, remember.” 

Someone at the table audibly gasped. “Never thought of that,” they admitted. 

“My neighbor swears it was an inside job. Her own family,” she clarified in a whisper. “Those Davidsons always were trouble.”

“Frank and I always figured it was a hobo. Are you allowed to use that term these days? ‘Hobo?’ Or is that like saying ‘colored people’?”

A breathy debate ensued.

“Anyhoo, nothing like that ever happened here before ‘99 and hasn’t since. It was obviously some sicko serial killer passing through, or probably a briar-hopper from Kentucky.” 

The Ohio village of Lunken Falls sat a stone’s throw from both the Kentucky and West Virginia borders, while simultaneously serving as a bedroom community for a midsized university just fifteen miles away. Its geography and liberal politics created an eclectic cultural cocktail: equal parts Bleeding-Heart Academia and Blue-Collar Bluegrass, mixed with two cups Artsy Appalachia and a heaping tablespoon of Midwest Manners; shaken, not stirred.

“Prolly saw a pretty girl in the woods -- scantily dressed, I might add -- and… well,” she went on. “Wrong place, wrong time.”

“Hear about it in the news every other day.”

“What is this world coming to?”

“Where is Yolanda, anyway?”

“Well, Alice Parker won’t stop until she uncovers the truth, that’s for sure,” one of the ladies proclaimed.

“If anyone can solve it, she can.”

Oh, who am I kidding? They’re right, Darcy’s executioner conceded, the hopelessness bubbling up beneath their sternum. All the cops need these days is a single molecule of snot to toss into the genealogy database, and presto! ‘The feds have located your fourth-cousin twice removed and now you’ve got a date with Old Sparky.’ Just ask the Golden State Killer.

“I just hope Alice is careful. If the killer was a local, God forbid –”

“God forbid,” the other two echoed.

“Ain’t she bringing her family to town, too, since they gotta handle her poor mamaw’s estate?”

“Mmhmm. A husband and two daughters.”

“Wonder when they’ll have it ready to sell. My niece Julia is always going on about buying a home in The Trees, but you know those big, old houses hardly ever go on the market anymore. I wonder what it looks like in there.”

The killer’s wheels started to spin. The magnetized building blocks of an idea began to form in sparkly, chaotic bursts, on the brink of gelling into a plan of action. A dangerous plan of action, but one that just might work...

“Yolanda! Over here!” a lady screeched.

The killer instinctively winced, despite the guise of Airpods, and hoped no one noticed. They remained still – frozen, as if attempting to fake out a bumblebee sniffing for nectar – listening intently as a wheezing Yolanda hovered over the table.

“Sorry I’m late. George stopped for gas and you’ll never guess who we ran into,” Yolanda teased, plopping what sounded like a heavy, leather purse onto the table. 

“Who?” they demanded in unison.

“Bea Harrow,” she stated smugly. The table oohed and ahhed appropriately.

As the heiress and CEO of Harrow Mill, the village’s largest employer, Bea was the richest person in Lunken Falls, not to mention one of Alice Parker’s lifelong best friends. The two of them, along with local café owner and former star athlete Carmen King, had been extremely tight with Darcy in school. If anyone had scoop on Alice’s homecoming, it was those two.

“Well?!” Jiggly Arms implored impatiently.

“She’s driving in early tomorrow,” Yolanda finally confessed, savoring her star turn in the spotlight as the table squealed with delight.

Tomorrow, the killer noted, the escape-plan pinwheels beginning to solidify. That means tonight is my only window. I’ll have to work quickly…

“That won’t be nearly enough time to print a ‘Welcome Home’ banner,” bemoaned the relative that ol’ Junior League Julia left on ‘Read.’

“C’mon, girls. Let’s pop in the boutiques before the movie starts,” Yolanda ordered.

“And I know we're getting popcorn, but it wouldn’t kill us to swing into Carmen’s Café for a piece of cheesecake after, right?” added Jiggly Arms with a twinkle in her voice.

“I think she means a big slice of Alice Parker gossip,” another joked as Yolanda guffawed. “If Carmen’s not there to dish, her mom Nellie might be. We play BINGO together, you know,” she bragged, as the foursome waddled away.

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Lieutenant Boone always feels excited when he takes the burner phone from its hiding place but this time could be really big. Lots more cash than he earned advising the local drug ring before it got busted by the goddamned psychics. The phone rings and he answers with a cheery hello. A male voice snaps, “Facts only. Keep it brief.”

“Uh, Halloween, 5p.m. Rosalita’s restaurant with a date. It’ll be dark when he returns. Four police checkpoints around town.” He lists where his fellow officers will be posted.

Boone waits a moment before realizing the caller hung up.

*         *         *

Joe Spector always feels excited before first dates but this one could be really big. Aiden is the most beautiful woman he’s ever known in person much less talked to. And now they might be business partners. But his mind’s not on business now.

On the lumpy single-bed in Mike’s extra bedroom, he lays out his best clothes, which ain’t saying much, and tells himself, “It’s just a friend-date.” As Aiden reminded, she’s still married and isn’t sure she’ll divorce her husband. Still, she said she liked Joe. So there’s that.

Since it’s Halloween Aiden insisted on costumes. Begrudgingly, Joe takes from the closet his black cowboy hat which he hasn’t worn in years. Joe mutters, “Halloween? Shit.”

He flashes back to Cliff, his mother’s boyfriend who, just for laughs, crushed his five-year-old cowboy hat. He hid under the bed letting bites of tootsie rolls melt in his mouth as his mother’s latest drunken brawl raged. The next day, as she’d done before, Mama handed him a wrinkled paper sack holding his few clothes and said, “Don’t tell’m what happened. ‘kay?”

The boy glanced at his Mama’s battered face and nodded. “I’ll be back,” she promised. Walking the half-mile to his grandparents’ farm, he didn’t know it but he’d never see her again.

As he carefully shaves in the mottled bathroom mirror, Joe remembers Sara. His college girlfriend, the first woman he loved, preferred he grow a beard. She dumped him for a clean-shaven up-and-comer and he floundered through his last semester. Worst grades he ever got.

In the shower, Joe recalls the last time he got laid. Maria in the shower at his old duplex. She was as hot as the spicy Colombian aji she served that one time he went to her home.

Finally ready, he makes an appearance in the living room where Mike waits.

The big man crows, “Holy moly, aren’t you a sight for sore eyes.”

As the big man grunts getting up from his old recliner, Joe asks, “It’s not too much?”

Shootfire no! It’s Halloween and you know Aiden’ll be all dolled up.”

Though Joe could walk the short distance, Mike drives him to Thee Orb just down One Lane. The young man exits the big man’s truck wearing black jeans, a black sport coat, black boots, and his best mostly-white shirt. As he puts on his hat, Aiden swings opens the porch door. Joe’s surprised at the black wig and wowed when she strikes a pose in black slacks, white ruffled shirt, black jacket, black boots, and black gaucho hat. “Feliz Halloween!” she calls out.

After all the photos Beverly insists be taken, Aiden’s mom reminds, “Thomas Cleary is coming for a reading tomorrow morning. I hope you’ll join us.” Joe assures her that he will.

Surprisingly, Aiden hands Joe the keys to her white Mercedes convertible. He opens the door for her before happily climbing in behind the wheel. As he checks mirrors and controls, she connects her phone. Driving down One Lane the Beatles sing, Help, I need somebodyTrick-or-treaters traipsing along small-town sidewalks never saw such a sight.

Half hour later, all eyes are on the couple as they enter the restaurant tucked on the edge of a strip mall. Despite it’s faded south-of-the-border motif, Mike swears the tired old former family diner has the best food in town. The mariachi band members stop setting up to cheer and wolf-whistle.

Aiden pulls reluctant Joe by the hand, flashes her dazzling smile, and asks something in Spanish. The guitarist replies, “Sí, tocaremos Beatles si tú y el vaquero bailan.”

After they order drinks, Joe asks, “So, what’s up with you and the band?”

She says, “I asked if they play the Beatles. He said, yes, if the cowboy and I dance.”

He blinks a few times. “I have to dance?” She gives him that what-the-hell’s-wrong-with-you glare so Joe grins like he was just joking and accepts his fate.

With the band ready, the guitarist calls out, “Welcome to Rosalita on a Halloween. We are Mariachi Carolina an’ is our pleasure to play tonigh’.” They start with Guantanamera.

Joe suggests, “How about we dance after we order.” His sweet iced tea in a plastic glass, her green margarita in a vessel big enough to drown a toad, and excellent chips and salsa rapidly arrive. She orders carnitas. Joe gets Mike’s favorite, cabra birria tacos.

When the band finishes their first song, Aiden quickly tugs the embarrassed cowboy to the dance floor. She drops a twenty in the tip jar and makes a request.

The guitarist says, “Folk, we gotta repor’ a crime. Yeah, we been bribe an’, well, it work ever’time. We got a especial reques’ from a guapita vaquera and a gringo cowboy. Ella Te Ama.

The band plays a slow version of She Loves You. Holding Aiden in his arms, Joe recalls his prom date with Josie Stafford, the girl with the biggest boobs in senior class. This time, the head on his shoulders keeps telling Mr. Happy to keep his head south of the border. When the song ends and everyone in Rosalita’s cheers, Aiden bows as Joe shuffles to the booth where their food awaits.

Both agree their meals are excelente. Aiden says, “Joe, I’ve been wanting to ask something. How do you feel about all this psychic stuff you and Mama are into?”

With a mouthful of goat taco, he mumbles, “You first.”

Aiden explains how, in high school, she refused to read Grandmother Rosemary’s paranormal, post-apocalyptic novel, Thee Orb. And she never felt comfortable about her Mama’s psychic inclinations. “I know the book made them a lot of money and, yes, there are some locals who swear by Mama’s readings. But, uh…, it just doesn’t feel Christian to me.” Pause. “So what about you, Joe?”

“I can relate,” he starts. “I mean, I never bought into woo-woo voodoo doo-doo either because my mother used to pretend she was psychic. You know, palm reading, tarot cards. I saw her use coffee grounds once. Anything for a buck. She called it ‘easy money from dumbasses.’”

Aiden says, “I thought you were raised by your Grandpa Rich.”

“Yeah, I was. Mom left me with her parents when I was five. We never heard from her again. Then, a few months later, Grandma Ruth died. So… it was just me and him.”

“Damn,” Aiden starts. “Daddy died when I was twelve but I mean…, damn, Joe.” She squeezes his hand. “Five years old?”

“Ah. Stuff happens for a reason, right? I mean, I hadn’t even been to kindergarten because Mom kept us moving around so much. But, I tell ya, one thing. Grandpa Rich made damn sure I went to school. Even insisted on college.”

“Oh yeah? Where’d you go? And what did you study?”

He chuckles lightly. “Well, Lincoln State’s kinda different. Besides academics, it’s also an active farm. That I liked. My senior year Grandpa Rich could only afford one semester so I worked a semester to pay for the next. That’s how I learned to roast coffee. Anyhow, unlike you who got a degree you can use and a spouse, I doubled-majored in Philosophy and heartbreak.”

“Aw.” Aiden frowns. “Heartbreak?”

“Yep. Since I was on the five-year plan, my college girlfriend graduated a year before me, found herself another guy, and c'est la vie.”

After a moment, she suggests, “Surely you dated other women since then.”

“Oh, I had lots of one-date-wonders.” Joe smirks. “You know, go on a date and then wonder why the hell you wasted your time.”

She chuckles. “But come on.” Pause. “As cute as you are…, nothing serious?”

Feeling suddenly studly, he admits, “I had some, uh, short-term relationships but nothing that lasted. Including Maria who’s the reason I met your mom.” Joe sighs. “Anyhow, what your mom does, and now me? It does seem to help people. So I'm okay with that.”

After their meal, he requests two orders of conchas. “One now and an extra order for Mike,” he explains. Joe thankfully pays the bill. As they munch on vanilla and chocolate topped sweet breads, Aiden asks, “Has Mike said anything to you about Two Goats?”

“No.” Pause. “Is there something I should know?”

She coyly replies, “Nothing you won’t know soon enough.”

Joe pulls out a twenty and asks, “How about another dance before we go?” He puts the bill in the tip jar and speaks to the guitarist—English this time—who translates to his bandmates.

As they begin a mariachi version of Across the Universe, Joe takes Aiden in his arms again and relishes one last slow dance. This time, Mr. Happy behaves himself.

Outside Rosalita’s, he raises the top on her Mercedes as she selects another song. They leave listening to I’m Happy Just to Dance with You. Just down the road, a police checkpoint awaits. She lowers the music as Captain Tim Ashe greets them.

Joe says, “I cannot believe the chief has his captain out on a holiday.”

“All hands on deck,” Tim says. “The chief’s even out tonight since Lieutenant Boone is under the weather.”

Joe’s intuition tingles. “Oh? Um..., sorry to hear that.”

“And I’m sorry, I have to ask. Have you had any alcohol?”

Joe says, “Iced tea for me but she had a margarita so you might need to arrest her.”

She slaps his arm. “Stop it.” Then Aiden asks, “Does your wife like our coffee samples?”

Tim laughs and says, “She loves ‘em! Y’all drive carefully.”

“Hold on.” Joe opens the bag and asks, “Concha?”

With the police captain happily satisfied, he drives on. When his phone pings, Joe takes a quick look. It’s a message from Linda. New neighbor said two insurance guys stopped by asking about you last night. You okay?

He tells Aiden it’s his former neighbor and dictates a response. “I’m fine. Insurance guys might be about the fire to my business. Did they leave contact info?” As he turns onto the two lane, it pings again. Her message reads: Left cards, Fairfax Insurance, Ben Jones, Mitch Dover. Joe realizes those are the names of the fake reporters the police chief told him about.

Aiden asks, “Everything okay?”

“I hope so.” Soon they stop at another checkpoint. Joe lowers the window and says, “Sergeant Lucas, you want to know if I’ve been drinking alcohol, correct?”

Larry chuckles. “You’re the psychic. Looks like you folks’ve been out on the town.”

“Yes, sir. Just coming from Rosalita’s where I drank iced tea. This is Beverly Ford’s daughter, Aiden, but I’m not supposed to tell you she had a margarita.” She pops him again.

The sergeant says, “Her readings must have been a real blessing to you, Ms. Ford, like they were to me and my wife.”

She corrects, “It’s Mrs. Grogan now. Mr. Spector and I are working on a business deal.”

Joe offers him a concha and they drive away. Aiden asks, “Does everyone around here know about you psychics?”

He sighs. “Hopefully just the ones that matter.”

“Sometime I’d like you to tell me what it’s like. You know, when you do a reading.”

Joe grins. “I can tell you now. It’s like taking a nap. I have no idea what comes through unless someone tells me or I hear a recording.”

Aiden shrugs, touches her phone, and the Beatles sing If I Fell in Love with You. Light rain falls from the darkened sky.

After parking at Thee Orb, Joe holds his coat over their heads as they walk through the dark yard past the fallow garden beds and quiet chicken coop.

At the cabin door, she asks, “Trick? Or treat?”

Joe sighs. “Aiden, I’ve had way too many tricks lately. So how about a treat?”

She opens the door, enters, and pulls him inside. As she fiddles with her phone, Aiden says, “Random question. Do you close your eyes when you kiss?”

“Uh—” Joe’s eyes grow wide. “Well…, yeah. I think so.”

“Okay. Close your eyes.” Her phone plays All My Loving as she kisses him… much longer than she meant to. Finally, Aiden pulls away. “Oh. Gosh. Sorry, I shouldn’t—”

No! No,” he interrupts. “I work for the CIA now so I promise to keep it top secret. But I tell you, Aiden, that treat was some kind of trick.”

She chuckles. “You are a mess, Joe Spector. But a good one.” She takes a deep breath. “So, sunrise in the barn to milk goats?” Smiling, he nods. She says, “Thanks. I needed tonight.”

Still smiling, he admits, “Me too. This one date wonder was wonderful.”

He declines her offer of a pink umbrella but agrees to text her when he gets to Two Goats.

While humming the tune to All My Loving, Aiden takes off her outfit, washes makeup off her face, and slips into a sweatsuit. Checking her phone, she notes no text and thinks, “I bet he stopped at Mama’s to read Rich to sleep.” She decides to see him one last time tonight.

Under her pink umbrella, she trots through steady rain toward the warm light of Thee Orb. Aiden sees her Mama in the kitchen window. She enters and starts to slip off her wet shoes.

“Hey, sweetie,” Beverly starts. “Did you kids have fun?”

“Sure. Didn’t Joe tell you?” Aiden notes her Mama’s puzzled expression and freezes. “He's not here?”

“I saw you drive up but he didn’t—” Beverly gasps. “Oh. my God.”

*          *          *

Boone gets the hoped-for text. $ drop usual spot.

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Assignment Part III:


Aurora squinted into the darkness of the poorly lit trailer she called home.

The living room was a foreign blur, and while the ashtrays and open bottles of her mother’s party littered every surface around her, the only image she could pull into focus was the huddled mass on the stained and faded carpet.

Mama. Daddy.

Their heads so close and their limbs so intertwined that for a moment Aurora couldn’t tell where Mama ended and Daddy began. It was only by focusing on each limb, each feature that she was slowly able to make any sense of the jumble of bodies on the floor.

Daddy’s thick arm was under Mama’s back, pulling her up from the carpet and one of his knees was between her long thin bare ones. But her legs were splayed and somehow not right- like the hair on Aurora’s dolls, these Mama legs were limp and dangling. One of Mama’s snow-white arms was thrown over her head, and Rion was running his hand over her wrist- his fingers pushing and prodding there for some reason Aurora couldn’t understand. She didn’t watch and wonder at Rion for long, as Daddy’s other hand reached up and pushed back the pieces of Mama’s long blonde hair that had spilled over her face and neck.

She blinked again, confusion muddling her brain.

A black, sticky looking substance was oozing out from the seam where Mama’s white-blonde hair met her even whiter skin. Aurora watched a black line, slither down over Mama’s open eye and down onto her cheek like a worm. Mama didn’t even blink.

The glow of the orange light above flickered, and Aurora took a step back- bumping into Aly.

Aurora felt Aly’s hands come up and hold her by the shoulders, her older sister steadying the small girls frame as they both began to shake.

Daddy tried to wipe the black away, his thumb leaving a deep dark smear across Mama’s pale cheek as his voice boomed distantly in the background of Aurora’s awareness.

Aly’s hands squeezed gently, then pulled Aurora back against Aly’s legs. Aurora leaned back heavily and felt her swimming head begin to settle.
As more of the room came into focus, Aurora could see that there was a mess of the same black on the already-stained carpet.

The overhead light flickered again. The smell of chemicals burning flooded Aurora’s nostrils and she shook her head at the assault of the acrid poison. She could smell again.

The foul, thick odor sent Aurora’s stomach flipping and once more she tried to force her dizzying vision to settle. Daddy looked up at the exposed bulb above them, then looked to Aly. Aurora heard and felt Aly take a deep breath behind her- as if her older sister had just been shaken out of a nightmare, or had suddenly resurfaced after being underwater too long.

Aurora brought her eyes back to Mama.

What was the black stuff? And why was Mama just lying there? Why was she letting Daddy touch her and hold her when they’d been screaming and fighting just a second ago?

Had it been a second ago? Aurora touched the place on the back of her head where the pain was throbbing from, she felt a strange squish- than something like a stone sitting on the back of her skull. 

Was that what was making her head hurt?

Mama opened her mouth suddenly, then closed it again- and everyone's faces snapped to watch what she would do next.
Aurora swallowed hard and dropped her hand away from her head. She hated it when Mama and Daddy fought, when anyone fought really, but right now she wished with all her heart that Mama would stand up and get back to screaming at Daddy. Even hitting him would be better- anything would be better than this.

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