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Posts Tagged ‘snippet’

Sorry to be late this morning.  I’ve been taking care of some business for NRP before breaking long enough to blog. I know this is my writing blog, but I do want to give everyone a heads up that we’ll be  making some announcements soon and I’m really excited about it.

I also want to thank everyone who has purchased Nocturnal Origins and have been helping spread the word.  Please, keep it up.  You guys are my best form of PR and I do appreciate it.

Now, since it is Thursday, here’s another snippet from Russian Nights.

*     *     *     *

“Katya, please, go upstairs and make sure your brother is getting dressed for dinner.  You know your papa will be home soon.”

            Irena Baranova stood in the doorway to her husband’s study and shook her head.  She’d made this simple request once already.  Not that Katya had heard.  The girl – no, she had to quit thinking of Katerina as a girl.  She was a young woman now – had her nose in a book.  As was almost always the case when she read, Katya was oblivious to the world.

Not that Irena minded.  They had a few minutes before Feodor returned home.  Time enough for Katya to finish the page and then see to her brother.

            Eighteen year old Katerina Yelizaveta Baranova sat in a well-worn chair before the far window.  The heavy draperies were pulled tightly against the falling darkness outside.  The dark of the room was relieved only by the glow from the lamp next to Katya.  Not that Katya realized how late it had become.  Once lost in a book, nothing else existed for her.

            Aggravated as she should be, Irena couldn’t help smiling as she looked at her daughter, her eldest child.  Tall and willowy, it was hard to guess it from the way Katya sat curled in the chair, much like Kisa, the family cat.  Katya’s thick auburn hair fell in soft waves below her shoulders.  She might not be beautiful in the classic sense.  But Irena knew she’d grow more beautiful as she matured, something other women would resent with the passing years.  Until then, there was a strength to Katya’s features, softened by compassion, that couldn’t be ignored.

            “Katya,” she repeated, a hint of impatience creeping into her voice.

            “Mama.”  Katya looked up from her book, her expression a mix of affection and aggravation.  “Sasha’s probably got his nose pressed to his window, watching for Papa.  You know how he misses him.”

            “Which is why I need you to make sure he’s not so busy watching for your papa, he’s forgotten to get ready for supper.”

            “Mama, you worry too much.”  Katya carefully marked her place before closing the book and placing it on the table next to her chair.  Then, with a cat-like grace Irena envied, she uncurled her legs and climbed to her feet.  “But I will go hurry Sasha along.  I want to make sure he’s worked on his lessons for morning any way.”

            Katya lightly kissed her mother’s cheek before leaving the study.  Irena looked after her, no longer trying to hide her smile.  Katya was just one example of why no one would mistake them for a “typical” Russian family, noble or not.  In fact, being an atypical Russian family was something both she and Feodor, her husband these last twenty years, prided themselves on.  Just as they prided themselves on raising an intelligent, independent daughter.

Of course, there were times she might wish Katya was just a bit less independent. . . . But not often.

***

            “Papa’s home!”

            The door to her brother’s bedroom flew open and the boy hurtled into the hallway.  With the ease of much practice, Katya stepped to the side, all but hugging the wall.  Her right hand reached out and closed around Sasha’s arm as he rushed past, pulling him to a halt.  Twelve year old Aleksander glared up at her, outraged that she’d stopped him.  Then, as she reached out to ruffle his dark hair, smiling in affection, he ducked his head and grinned in response.

            “Papa may be home, but do you want to greet him by bouncing down the stairs on your head?” she teased.

            “But my head is hard, Katya.  You keep telling me that,” Sasha said with a cheeky grin.

            “So I do, Sashel.  But think how sad it would make Mama if you bled all over your new shirt.  And what of Anna who would have to clean the mess?”

            “Well –” He tilted his head to one side as he looked up at her, a slight smile tugging at the corners of his mouth even as he pretended to consider it all.  “I guess it would make for a homecoming Papa might not enjoy.”

            “Then, shall we go down now and give him one he will enjoy?”

            Together they made their way downstairs a bit more slowly – although, to be honest, not that much more – than Sasha wanted.  After all, he wasn’t the only one anxious to see their father after Feodor’s week long absence.  But there was one person in the household who had missed Papa more than either of them and that was their mother.  Knowing that, Katya hoped she’d managed to stall her brother long enough for their parents to have a short but private greeting because it would be their last time alone until Sasha went to bed and she retired to her room and her own studies.

            As they entered the salon, Katya smiled to see how her father still held Mama close, love clearly reflected on both their expressions “Papa!” Sasha rushed across the salon and flung himself into Feodor’s open arms.

            “Irena, I do believe our son is glad to see me,” he said, his brown eyes twinkling.  “But how about our daughter?  Have I been gone so long she’s forgotten me?”

            Katya grinned and hurried to join her brother in their father’s embrace.  “Never, Papa, but little Aleksander here didn’t look like he’d make room for me.”

            Feodor cupped her chin in his big hand and kissed her cheek.  “It is good to be home.  Now, I know your mother and Anna have supper almost ready.  Why don’t the two of you help set the table while I freshen up?”

            Katya hid her smile to see how badly her brother wanted to protest.  After all, Papa had just gotten home.  But neither of them had been raised to either backtalk their parents or take for granted anything they had.  That was one thing that made their family different from so many of those of Katya’s friends.  Despite the fact her parents came from old, aristocratic families, they had taken great pains to make sure both Katya and Sasha understood that did not entitle them to anything they did not earn for themselves. 

            Because of that, they did not have a houseful of servants.  Instead, they had Anna Petrovskaya, their live-in maid who helped Irena with the cleaning and cooking, and her husband, Viktor, who acted as butler and chauffeur.  Both had come with the family when it moved to St. Petersburg in 1906 when Feodor began working for Peter Stolypin, then Minister of the Interior.

If an occasion arose when they needed additional help, Irena hired it.  As a result, both Katya and Sasha had learned early on how to pick up after themselves and care for the home.  After all, if they were lucky enough to have a home and nice things, they should learn how to care for them themselves.

            “Come along, Sasha.”  Katya smiled once more at their father and winked at their mother.  “You can talk to Papa over supper.”

            Later, they retired to the sitting room, as they did most evenings when the entire family was home.  Unlike many of the other families of their acquaintance, they did not follow the trend of the children being sent to their rooms or the nursery while the adults went their separate ways.  No, Irena and Feodor believed in the importance of spending time with their children, sharing the events of the day with one another.

Katya smiled indulgently as she watched her brother all but run across the room to settle on the floor next to their father’s favorite chair.  How many nights had he spent sitting there, looking up at Feodor, raptly listening to their father talk about any variety of topics?  Not that she blamed him.  Katya had spent her fair share of nights sitting there as well, at least she had until her mother had taken her to one side and explained how important it was for Sasha to have some of their father’s attention now that he was growing up.

            “So,” Feodor began as he leaned back and reached for his snifter of brandy.  “How have things been while I was gone?”

            “You know how it is, dear,” Irena began, her blue eyes twinkling as she glanced first at Sasha and then at Katya where she curled on the far end of the sofa opposite her mother.  “The children miss you, but try to act as if they don’t.”

            “Mama!” Sasha protested, a blush creeping across his fair cheeks.

            “Don’t let your mama tease you, Sashel.  I know you do your best to be the man of the family, and I appreciate it.  I feel better when I have to leave, knowing you are here looking after your mother and sister.”

            But he didn’t, not really, and Katya knew it.  Just as she knew he wished she had been born a son.  Oh, he loved her.  There was no doubting that.  He made it clear every day.  Still, she knew he’d feel better if she had been a son, just as she knew some sort of trouble was coming and it worried her father.  But what could she do?  He wouldn’t talk to her about it.  Nor, she suspected, had he discussed it with her mother and, until he had, there was very little any of them could do to help.

            “Katya.” Concern touched Feodor’s voice and she shook herself.

            “I’m sorry, Papa.”

            “You were a world away, child.  Is everything all right?”

            “It is.”  She smiled to reassure him.  “I was just thinking about today’s classes.”

            “Are you sure you weren’t thinking about some boy?” he teased and it was her turn to blush.

            “I’m positive,” she answered firmly.

            “Feodor, quit teasing the girl,” Irena scolded, her eyes sparkling with good humor.  “Katya has been quite busy this week helping with Sasha’s studies as well as attending her classes at university.”

            “Good.” The smile he turned to his daughter had Katya all but preening in pride.  “And, Katya, I promise we will discuss sending you to either Uncle Stefan in New York or Aunt Katerina in London to attend university there very soon.”

            For a moment, Katya just sat there, looking from one of her parents to the other. Then, as the full import of what Feodor said sunk in, she all but flew from the sofa to throw her arms around her father’s neck.  She couldn’t believe it.  She’d hoped — no, she’d prayed — to be able to go to university in England or America, but she’d never thought she’d be allowed.  It cost so much money and her parents had said many times they did not want her so far away.  Now, all of a sudden, it looked like her dream might come true.

            What had happened to change Papa’s mind?

            “Thank you, Papa, Mama.” She returned to her seat, pausing long enough to give her mother a hug equally as enthusiastic as the one she’d given her father.

            “No promises, Katya.  We will have to see.  But I do promise your mother and I will discuss it with you soon.”

            She nodded, knowing she shouldn’t get her hopes up, but unable to help it.  Even discussing it was more than she’d ever expected.  Whenever she’d brought up the possibility before, one or the other of her parents had always changed the subject.  She didn’t care why they suddenly seemed to have changed their minds.  Not if it meant possibly being able to live out her dream.

            “I understand, Papa, and thank you.”

            “Tell us, dear, how bad was the trip home?” Irena asked.  Her fingers lightly traced the floral pattern of the teacup she held.  A hint of concern colored her voice.  Katya understood.  They’d both worried the weather would delay Feodor’s return.

            “Uneventful.  Of course, if I’d left Moscow any later, I might not have made it home today.  The closer to the capital we came, the worse the weather.  I admit, I worried about ice on the rails.”  He sipped his brandy and the reached down to ruffle Sasha’s hair.  “And how was your day today, Sasha?”

            For the next few minutes, the boy described in infinite detail everything that happened at school.  Both Feodor and Irena listened, occasionally asking a question.   Katya wasn’t surprised when her brother commented on the number of his classmates who had not been in school, taking advantage of the weather to stay home.  Nor was she surprised when he named several of them.  Too many of his classmates came from families who felt the rules did not apply to them unless the Tsar said they did.  That attitude would only lead to more trouble for Russia.

            “And your religion class?”

            For a moment Sasha didn’t respond and Katya frowned in concern.  He generally enjoyed his classes with Father Dmitri and couldn’t wait to tell them what he’d learned that day.  Worried, Katya leaned forward, waiting.

            “Sasha,” Irena prompted.  “Did something happen today?”

            “I don’t know, Mama.”  A frown creased his forehead.  “Father Dmitri taught us more about God’s covenant with man.  It was interesting.”

            “Sashel, what is it?  What troubles you?” Feodor asked.

            “We had a visitor today, Papa.”

            Katya glanced from her father to her mother and back again.  This was the first she’d heard of a visitor and, judging by her mother’s expression, the first Irena had heard of it as well.  Still, that didn’t explain Sasha’s reluctance to talk about the class.  Could something have happened, something Father Dmitri hadn’t spoken about with Irena when she collected Sasha from the cathedral?

            “Who, son?”

            “Father Grigori.”

            For a moment, no one said anything.  Then Feodor cleared his throat and spoke softly, gently.  “Grigori Rasputin, son?”

            “Yes, Papa.”

            “Did he say anything?”

            “He said he wanted to know how our studies were going and he listened to us recite scripture for a few minutes.  Then he left.”

            “Sasha, what else?” Irena asked.  When he didn’t reply, she moved to kneel before him, taking his hands in hers.  “Sashel, you know you can tell us anything, no?”

            He nodded once, almost reluctantly.

            “Then what troubles you?”

            “I know it’s wrong to fear him, Mama, but I do.  He scares me.”

            “Sasha.” Katya couldn’t help herself.  She moved quickly to kneel next to their mother, closing the protective circle around her brother.  No one, no matter who they were, was allowed to scare him.  “It’s all right.  There is nothing wrong with fearing him.  To be honest, he scares me too.”

            For a moment Sasha said nothing.  Then, when he looked up at her, his blue eyes that were so much like their mother’s filled with tears.  “Really?”

            “Really,” she confirmed.  “He is so different from Father Dmitri and the other priests.  Maybe because he’s so intense.  Maybe because of his role with the Royal Family.  But, yes, he scares me.”

            She did her best to let him see she spoke the truth.  Grigori Rasputin did frighten her.  She’d met him once, in Nevsky Prospect when she and their mother had been shopping.  That day, she’d realized Irena didn’t like the holy man despite the fact her mother had been nothing but respectful as she introduced him to her daughter.  That alone would have been enough to keep the memory sharp.  But it was her own reaction to him that surprised her, and that came rushing back. 

Never before had she reacted so strongly to anyone.  Nor had she ever wanted to avoid being near a person as she did the holy man from Siberia.  It had been all she could do not to turn and cross the street, leaving her mother to deal with Rasputin on her own.  There was something about him that was wrong.  She knew it, even if she didn’t understand it.

And now the man had been near her brother and had scared him.  Why?

            “Your sister is correct, Sasha.  It isn’t wrong to fear Rasputin.  But it also isn’t something to discuss outside of the family.  Not even to Father Dmitri,” Feodor said, his expression troubled as he looked over his son’s head to Irena.  Seeing it, Katya swallowed hard, a knot of fear growing deep inside her.  “Did he do or say anything else?”

            “No, Papa.  Only that we were credits to Father Dmitri’s fine teaching.  But it didn’t really sound like he meant it.”

            “Don’t worry about it anymore, Sasha.  You’ve done nothing wrong.”  Feodor pulled him to his feet and gave him a hug.  “Now, it is bedtime for you, my young man.  Go up with your sister.  She’ll help you get ready.  Your mother and I will be up shortly to kiss you good night.”

            “Papa’s right, Sasha,” Katya said, taking her cue from their father as she climbed to her feet.  “I will take a look at your lessons while you change.  Then you can read to me for a change.”

            He grinned, almost despite himself, and slipped his hand in hers.  With one last look over her shoulder at their parents, Katya knew she wasn’t the only one worried by Rasputin’s sudden appearance in Sasha’s class that afternoon.  Unfortunately, she had a feeling neither Feodor nor Irena would discuss their concerns with her, at least not yet.

            And that worried her more than the rest of it.

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Okay, last snippet tease from different projects.  Starting Wednesday, I’ll get serious about doing writing related posts.  There may be more snippets later, but they will be on my current WIP — when I decide what that might be ;-p

This is the opening chapter to Nocturnal Serenade, the sequel to Nocturnal Origins.  I hope you enjoy.

* * *

From the deepest shadows he watched, just as he had every night for the past week.  He didn’t know why he watched.  He didn’t need to.  Past experience had taught him the less he knew, the better.

His job was simple enough, at least at first glance.  All he had to do was let Novacek know if the target moved and where she went.  Simple enough, right?  No.  Nothing was ever that simple, especially when Novacek was involved.

Not that he’d ever tell Novacek.  Heavens, no!  Stanley Middleton might be many things, but he wasn’t a fool.  Aaron Novacek had the reputation of never leaving those who criticized him unscathed and Stanley had absolutely no desire to be the next to fall victim to the lycan’s anger.

Damn it!

Stanley shivered as another gust of wind cut through the trees.  If only he hadn’t been foolish enough to think he could play the two lycan camps against one another.  But it had seemed like such a good plan at the time.  For the last several months, the pack had been fracturing.  No one had yet challenged the pack leader, but it was only a matter of time.

Not that they’d succeed.  Stanley had watched from the outside for too many years as Ferguson fought his way to becoming pack leader.  That’s why, when Ferguson came to him and asked him to be his spy in the other camp, Stanley had agreed.  After all, no one expected a weasel like him to be brave enough to actually plot against Novacek.

Of course, like with so many other things in his life, Stanley had been wrong.  At least he’d been lucky enough that Novacek hadn’t killed him out of hand.

Lucky?  Bitter resentment filled Stanley as he once more looked toward the house.  Luck had nothing to do with it.  If it had, he wouldn’t literally be up a tree, doing his best not to fall and break his neck as he spent yet another night waiting for the target to do absolutely nothing.

Nor had luck had anything to do with it when he thought about where the target lived.  Her house was a relatively new “McMansion” in one of the thrice-damned gated communities that seemed to have sprung up virtually overnight across the country.  The guards at the neighborhood entrance wouldn’t let him pass without authorization – something he most certainly didn’t have and couldn’t get.  Even if he managed to bluff his way past the guardhouse, he wouldn’t be able to settle down in his car near the target’s home for the long hours of waiting and watching.  If the neighborhood rent-a-cops didn’t roust him, the real cops would.

Nor could Stanley simply scale the stone walls surrounding the neighborhood.  Security cameras mounted strategically along the perimeter would surely spot him.  If the guards didn’t immediately descend upon him, the way his luck usually ran, some law-abiding resident would shoot him as a prowler and then call the police.

He couldn’t even shift and sneak in.  His animal was a weasel.  Small and crafty.  Unfortunately, like so many shifters, once in his animal form, he didn’t retain enough of his human mind to do the job.  Nor could he sneak in as a weasel and then shift back.  The residents of this upscale neighborhood most definitely would shoot a naked man hiding in the shadows.  So that left him with just one option.

He’d parked his car on a side street several blocks away and trekked through the trees separating the houses from the neighboring golf course.  Now he perched in an oak tree just beyond the brick wall.  Ten feet above the ground, his legs wrapped tightly around a thick limb, his back firmly pressed against the tree trunk, Stanley did his best to become one with the oak tree.  The rough bark bit painfully into his legs and back, but he didn’t dare move.  Moving was bad, very bad.  Moving meant a change of balance, of possibly falling.  So he sat as still as possible, praying the wind didn’t suddenly decide to pluck him from the limb and toss him down to the ground.  And he watched and waited, fervently hoping tonight turned out to be just as uneventful as the previous six nights had been.

In an attempt to forget how precarious his perch happened to be, Stanley once more turned his attention to the house before him.  A single light shown from the second floor window he had quickly figured out was the target’s home office.  For the last two hours she’d sat at her desk, presumably working on something important.  Perhaps she was preparing a case for trial.  Novacek had said she was an attorney, so that would make sense.  Whatever it was, it must be important enough, or compelling enough, to alter the schedule she’d kept the past week.  Every other night, she had turned off the lights and gone to bed by midnight.

But not tonight.

What was so interesting it kept her up so much later than usual?

Not that he minded.  It was so much easier to stay alert when she was awake.  As long as she was, he had something to concentrate on.  More than that, it kept him from fixating on how cold his feet were and how badly he hated hiding in the trees.  Every noise startled him, leaving him convinced he was about to be discovered.

As afraid as he was of Novacek, Stanley was even more afraid of the police finding him.  He had no doubt what their response would be.  They would accuse him of being a stalker.  After all, he was hiding in a tree in the middle of the night, watching the home of a divorced woman without her knowledge.  The only reasonable explanation for his actions was that he was stalking her.  The only reasonable response would be to throw him in jail.

But even the threat of jail wasn’t the worst possibility he faced if discovered. This was Texas after all.  One of her neighbors might just decide to take matters into their own hands and shoot first, ask questions later – assuming he was able to answer any questions once the neighbor finished emptying his gun.  He might be a shape-shifter but any shifter could be killed if hit with enough bullets.  All it took was severing the head or destroying the heart so it couldn’t regenerate.

A shudder ran through him and his balance shifted.  As his stomach pitched, Stanley grabbed convulsively for the branch he sat upon.  He breath exploded as fear raced through him.  For one moment, he teetered on the brink of falling.  Then he slammed his chest forward against the branch and held on for dear life.  Nothing, absolutely nothing could pry him loose now.

God, he hated this assignment.  Too much could go wrong, too much he could and would be blamed for.  So here he sat, his feet cold, his heart pounding and his eyes glued to the house a hundred yards away.  He prayed the target didn’t suddenly decide to fly the coop.  If she did, he might as well start looking for a very deep, very dark hole to hide in, because he would never be able to keep up with her, not with his car parked so far away and not with his arms locked in a death-grip around the branch he lay upon.

And Novacek would never forgive him if the target got away.

##

Elizabeth Santos Wheeler dropped her head into her hands and closed her eyes, fighting back a sob as she did.  This was all just a bad dream and she would soon awaken.  It had to be.  No other explanation, reasonable or not, made sense.  But what if it wasn’t?  What if it was real?  Then what was she supposed to do?

Damn it, why was this happening?  It had nothing to do with her, not really.  So why was she the one forced to deal with it?

Because you’re the one with the most money as well as with the most to lose.  That’s why.

Resentment warred with fear, anger with the maternal instinct to protect.  For the first time in so very long, she didn’t know what to do.  It was as though her worst fears had suddenly sprung to life and she simply didn’t know how to react, didn’t know if there was anything she could do to protect herself and those she loved.

Damn it!

She shoved back from her desk and climbed to her feet.  As she did, she glanced outside.  Beyond the window, darkness swathed the yard.  Only the light cast from her window and the pale lights surrounding the swimming pool broke the darkness.  The leaves of the ornamental fruit trees on the opposite side of the pool rustled gently in the light breeze.  The oak trees shielding the yard from the golf course formed a dark curtain against the night sky.  In the distance, a neighbor’s dog barked one, twice, as if calling for someone or something to answer.  Everything looked so normal.  Yet it wasn’t and it might never be again.

Her lips pressed together in a thin, angry line.  She moved from behind her antique Georgian desk and began to pace.  Her steps were muffled, almost silenced, by the thick carpet.  She no longer heard the soft strains of the music she’d put on earlier in the evening when she’d come upstairs to work.  Instead, the sounds of her teeth grinding and her heart pounding filled her ears.  She didn’t have time for this.  She should be focusing on the Allingham case, not this – this stuff of nightmares.

As she turned back, her sea green eyes fell on the photos scattered across the top of her desk.  No one else looking at them would be this upset.  They would know with a certainty that the pictures had been faked.  After all, the images showed the unbelievable, the unreal.

But she knew better.  No matter how badly she wanted to dismiss the photos as a simple prank, she couldn’t.  She knew the images captured by some unknown photographer could be all too real, no matter how unbelievable they were.  After all, she’d lived with this particular nightmare all her life, waiting, fearing for the moment it would manifest itself in either her or one of her children.  Now it had and she didn’t know what to do.

Her fingers trembled as she reached for the nearest photo.  Her chest felt as though an iron band had tightened around it, making it almost impossible to breathe. Instantly she was transported back to that terrible moment she she’d first seen the picture.  Despite the fading light caught by the image, she’d immediately recognized the subject of the photo.  In that moment, she’d died just a little.  Even as her brain tried to close down, to deny what her eyes saw, she knew the truth and she damned herself for it.

Sharp pain and the bitter taste of blood brought her thoughts back to the present.  Absently, she dabbed at the lower lips she’d been gnawing without realizing it.  But her eyes remained glued to the photograph she held in her right hand and a soft moan escaped her lips.

Why?  Dear Lord, why?

A young woman knelt on the ground, her head thrown back, her expression filled with agony as her hands ripped at her tee shirt.  Her green eyes, just a shade darker than Elizabeth’s, reflected terror at what was happening to her.  Even then, the change was obvious, if you knew what to look for – and, much to her regret, Elizabeth did.

The young woman’s hands were altering, her fingernails lengthening even as the features of her face blurred.  Muscles rippled and bunched as her body was reshaped.  Hair seemed to sprout from every pore, short hair that was more fur than hair.  All of this was documented in the other photos strewn across the desktop.

A soft sob caught in Elizabeth’s throat as the photo fluttered down to the floor.  No, the image was all too real and her nightmare had finally come to life.  What was she going to do?

Not even the note included with the photos helped her decide what her next step should be.  A single sheet of ordinary white paper with just a few lines printed on it mocked her, revealing nothing about the unknown sender or what he wanted from her.

Mrs. Wheeler:

I thought you might want to see what your eldest daughter is up to these days.  Being a parent is such a trial at times, isn’t it?  I wonder if your other children will show the same bad habits as their sister.  But don’t worry.  I’ll be in touch soon to discuss what needs to be done.

That was all.

Mackenzie, what happened?

Unable to stand it any longer, Elizabeth abruptly turned on her heel and started out of the room.  Then reality once more intruded and she hurried back to her desk.  She couldn’t leave the photos where they might be found.

Without really thinking about what she was doing, she scooped up the photo she’d dropped and then those scattered across the desk top and shoved them back into the envelop they’d arrived in.  Once she had, she locked them in the top drawer of her desk and pocketed the key.  At least they were safely hidden from view, for a while at least.  But how long would it be before the photographer made them public?

And what would she do when that happened?

Her left hand slammed against the light switch on the wall by the door as she passed, throwing the room into darkness.  She had to do something, anything to find out who had sent the photos.  The envelope had been delivered to her office.  Hopefully, the receptionist had made an entry as to who brought in the innocent looking brown envelope.  She’d check the log and then decide what her next move should be.

##

The back door slammed, shattering the silence of the night.  Startled, Stanley’s head jerked up and his arms and legs once more tightened their death-grip around the limb before he could fall.  The relief of moments ago fled, replaced by a frustration so great he wanted to scream.  Damn it, why couldn’t she have stayed put like she had every other evening?

The tall, slender woman all but raced across the short expanse of the yard separating the house from the detached garage.  Her long legs covered the distance quickly, effortlessly.  Her purse, grasped firmly in her right hand, swung against that leg, accenting every step she took.  As she neared, the garage door groaned as it slid open, the inner light flooding the night beyond.

What had spooked her?  She couldn’t have seen him.  He hadn’t moved from his perch in the tree.  Not that it really mattered why she was leaving.  He had one job that night – to keep track of her.  If he didn’t move fast, he would lose her and he didn’t want to think about how Novacek would react to his failure.

Fear replaced frustration and he quickly dropped to the ground, wincing as pain shot up his legs from the impact.  Ignoring it, he turned in the direction of his car.  Even as he pelted through the trees, he knew it was an exercise in futility.  He would never cover the distance to his car and then manage to get to the front gate of the neighborhood before she was gone.  But he had to try.  He had no choice.

Maybe he’d get lucky and she wouldn’t be able to leave the neighborhood before he could get into place to follow.  If not that, maybe the earth would cease to exist.  At least that way he wouldn’t have to face Novacek and admit he’d failed.

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Jubliee Plot

Since Pam commented the other day that the snippet from Skeletons in the Closet gave her mental whiplash, I thought I’d try for a repeat performance.  (Just kidding, Pam.)  Yes, I know.  I’m an evil woman.  But that’s what happens when no one invents a machine to inject me with enough coffee to function BEFORE I get out of bed.  So, in order to try to get Pam’s brain to whip back into its original position, here’s the first scene from a steampunk novel I’ve been playing with, more as an exercise to see if I can do it than anything else.

Jubilee Plot

Slainte!”

He leaned back and nodded slightly, satisfaction filling him.  Who would have guessed he’d have found so many kindred souls in America.  Kindred souls with money and the patriotic fervor only those driven from their homelands seemed to possess.  Kindred souls who would do almost anything he asked, if for no other reason than to strike a blow against the English who continued to refuse to admit Ireland was for the Irish.

Perhaps Ireland would finally be freed from its English oppressors.

It was strange, and certainly not what he’d expected, but he felt at home here.  Chicago was alive with commerce and trade.  Everywhere he turned, someone had an opportunity to offer.  Sure and he knew some were merely opportunities to part him from his cash.  But now, after several days in the city, he was beginning to understand why so many called this the Land of Opportunity.  Where else could an Irish Catholic who’d fled his homeland with nothing but the clothes on his back be able to make his fortune?

But it was more than that.  Parts of Chicago were more Irish than Ireland.  Even here.  The poorly lit pub was filled with voices, many of which sounded as if they’d arrived from Ireland not long before he had.  Mixed in with the lyrical accents he knew so well were the broader, flatter accents of those who’d never stepped foot on Irish soil but who were just as Irish as was he, in heart and mind if not in location.  Irish Gaelic mixed with English lulled him into a sense of security.  Add to that the smells of too many people in too small of a space, stale ale, whiskey and smoke and, well, he could be sitting in his favorite pub in Dublin.

Familiar it might be, but it wouldn’t do to be careless.  Even here in Chicago, home of one of the largest Irish populations in America, the Brits had their spies, something his companions didn’t seem to understand.  Little did they know that the Home Office, as well as the Metropolitan Police, had agents everywhere, doing all they could to derail the movement for Irish independence.

The Brits might decry those patriots fighting for Irish independence as murderers and traitors, but they weren’t above murder or the use of double agents who thought nothing of leading brave Fenian men and women to their deaths.  Of course, he couldn’t explain how he knew this, not without risking his own life.  So he’d choose his words carefully and keep his eyes and ears open.  That tact had kept him alive all these years.  Hopefully, it would for many more years to come.

The fact his four companions seemed unconcerned about meeting in a crowded pub to discuss their “business” didn’t sit well.  The Shamrock and Shillelagh might be considered safe by those who frequented it, but its connections to Clan na Gael were well known, not only to those who believed in Irish independence but to those who opposed it as well.  A stranger might not be made to feel welcome unless vouched for by one of the regulars, but who was to say one of the regulars wasn’t a spy — or worse, a traitor.  Even if the stranger posed no threat, there were too many people around, too many ears to hear what he and his companions had to say.  All it took was a slip of the tongue, innocent or not, by someone who happened to overhear the wrong thing to foil their plans. No, he’d feel much better if they were meeting somewhere isolated and easily secured.  Unfortunately, he’d left the place of their meeting to his companions and it was too late to change it now.

“You’re not drinking, Francis.”

“Wasn’t I too busy thinking about the pretty lass back home?”  Let them think what they would.  They were amateurs at the conspiracy game.  If he told them how worried he was, it might queer the deal.  He couldn’t risk that.  So, he’d lie.  It was only a white lie after all, one designed to protect them all, whether they realized they needed protecting or not.  “Slainte!”  He tossed back his whiskey, savoring the smoky taste before signaling for another round.  “Now, Paddy, you said you had news –“

Francis Millen paused, shaking his head, as, with a puff of smoke and squeak of metal wheels against wooden floor, a small servercart rolled up to the table.  America truly was a strange land.  He’d seen some mechanicals in London and Dublin before, but not like here. It seemed as if the mechanicals were almost everywhere, in every shape and size.  Steam powered airships floated through the skies.  Mechanicals that looked like oddly built spiders scurried up the sides of buildings, sealing cracks in windows and conducting other minor repairs. In this country, technicians and engineers were encouraged, even respected, and they took advantage of it.  Even in the pubs their strange machines seemed almost commonplace.  A quick glance at the bar showed the pub owner, a large controller in his hands, guiding the servercart amongst the tables, stopping from time to time so the patrons could grab their drinks.  Each time the ‘cart started, it gave a puff of steam from its smokestack, much like a train engine’s, adding to the smoke already hanging in the air from cigarettes, cigars and the occasional pipe.

“Well, you’ll be home to her soon enough, Francis,” Patrick Murray assured him, snagging another whiskey from the ‘cart before it moved on.  “We think we’ve a solution to your problem.”

“Do you now?”  His heart beat a bit faster.  “What is it you have in mind?”

“Aye.  Tommy here has family in London.  His nephew is working with that Professor Ainsley.”

For a moment, Millen said nothing, his mind working furiously.  Ainsley.  He knew that name.  But how?

“Francis me boy, it’s really quite simple,” Tommy Gallagher said, a smile playing at his lips.  “Here’s me plan . . . .”

Millen leaned forward, anxious to hear what Gallagher had to say.  If everything went as planned, he’d soon be able to complete his mission, a mission that would not only guarantee Irish independence but would strike a death blow to the very heart of the British monarchy.

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First of all, I want to thank everyone who has ordered Nocturnal Origins.  I hope you’re enjoying it as much as I enjoyed writing it.  I won’t lie and say sales don’t matter.  They do, and for a number of reasons.  Not only do they help put money in my pocket — always nice.  After all, coffee — that elixir of life — does cost.  But sales will also determine if I get to write the sequel that has been demanding to be given life.

In the meantime, I’ve been going through my files to see if anything calls to me to be written and came across this.  Hope you like it.

Skeletons in the Closet

In the Beginning. . . .

All my life, my mama’s tried to raise me to be a proper lady.  No, that’s not quite right.  She’s tried to raise me to be a proper SOUTHERN lady, full of refinement and grace, dressed in lace and delicate pastels.  To hear her talk, it’s been a futile effort that’s caused her more than her fair share of gray hair.  And, where the lace and pastels are concerned, she’s right.  Still, she’s managed to get me to say, “yes, ma’am,” and “no, sir”.  For the most part, I’m respectful of my elders, even when they don’t deserve it.  I even wear clean underwear whenever I leave the house – usually without any extraneous holes in it – because Mama is convinced some rampaging bus will find me and strike me down, necessitating a trip to the emergency room.

I swear, I think it’s her life’s dream that it will actually happen.  You see, in her world, a trip to the ER has only one ending.  The handsome, rich and oh-so-conveniently single doctor who saves my life will fall madly in love with me.  What she seems to forget is that in a bus vs. me battle, the bus will always win.  So, unless the doctor is also a re-animator, he’d be falling for a corpse and, well, ewwwwww!

Besides, having somehow managed to survive a close encounter of the nearly fatal kind, the last thing I’d be interested in is finding a man to settle down and raise a passel of kids with.  Not that it would deter Mama one little bit.  Hell, she’d probably arrive at the ER with her minister firmly in tow, a marriage license burning a hole in her hand bag, all ready to fill in the blanks and make me a married woman.

In case you haven’t figured it out yet, my mama rarely lets reality interfere with her plans.

Don’t get me wrong.  I can usually deal with Mama’s plans and manipulations.  I’ve spent a lifetime figuring out how.  All I have to do is make sure I look both ways before crossing the street.  Of course, the odds of a bus hitting me here in Misty Creek are about as good as the odds of Hell freezing over.  So I figure I’m safe – at least for the time being.

Knock on wood.

Because sure as my name’s Lexie Smithson, the minute I get married and move out, Mama will be packing her bags to join me.  It won’t matter if I want her to or not.  All she’d care about is finally being able to get away from Papa and the rest of the family.  It wouldn’t even matter that I’m the least favorite of her kids.  Like I said, reality rarely interferes with my mama’s plans.

Of course, I am an ungrateful and unobliging child.  I’ve no more found a bus to hit me than I’ve been able to keep the family skeletons in the closet.  The former I have no control over and the latter, well, I swear I don’t mean to let them out.  At least not usually.  It’s just that they make so much noise, what with all their moaning and the rattling of their bones.  Sometimes I just can’t help it.

It doesn’t help that it always seems to happen at the worst possible time.  Like when Mama’s women’s group was meeting in our parlor last Sunday after church.  Mama had just served the iced tea and lemon pound cake.  She’d even managed to make the house smell more like a garden than a funeral parlor.  Everything had been as close to perfect as was ever possible in our place.

Then Aunt Minnie decided she just had to join in on the fun.

Now I ask you, was it my fault she wanted to be a part of the meeting?  She’d been a member of that women’s group since the very first meeting more than twenty years ago.  Everyone there knew her.  Just as Mama knew she was there – how could you forget?  Besides, all Aunt Minnie had wanted was to find out what the no-account scoundrel of an ex-husband of hers had been doing with the new church secretary.  Really.

I swear, those women sure did over-react when Aunt Minnie rattled in and sat on the settee next to Miss Pearl.  You’d have thought Miss Pearl had seen a ghost the way she shrieked and then fainted dead away.  Okay, maybe Aunt Minnie smelled a bit.  But we’d buried her in her best Sunday-go-to-meeting dress and it was just as pretty that afternoon as it had been at her funeral six months ago.  Mr. Perez, the local undertaker, had even been by just the day before to give Aunt Minnie one of her treatments.  So she looked pretty much like she had before she passed.  Sure, her skin sagged a bit more than it used to and she had a slightly yellow tinge, but that was all.  Really.

Besides, old Missus McIntyre was wearing enough lilac scent to cover the smell.

I’m here to tell you, those ladies scattered like dandelion parachutes in a strong wind.  It took me more than an hour to calm poor Aunt Minnie and coax her back into her closet.  I don’t know if she’ll ever come out again and that’s a darned shame.  She always was the best at gossiping and, honestly, there’s not much else to do in this backwater town on a cold Sunday afternoon – or just about any other time, come to think of it.

Now Mama, well, she was beside herself with frustration, indignation and mortification.  Even as she swept up the last of the lemon pound cake from the carpet where Mary Beth Tully dropped it on her mad dash for freedom, she blamed me.  Mama swears I do things like this solely to embarrass her.  I’m the ungrateful child, you see, not perfect like my sister Patty and certainly not important like my brother Brett, also known as Bubba – which he just happens to be.

No, I’m too much like my granny, the bane of my mama’s existence even now, ten years after she drew her last breath.  Mind you, Granny might have passed but, like Aunt Minnie, she didn’t pass on.

Maybe I ought to explain.  My family’s never been what you might call “normal”.  We’ve had more than our fair share of oddballs and loners and crazy cat ladies.  Most families in Misty Creek do.  But things took a decidedly sharp turn to the left of weird the day Perfect Patty came home complaining about how Old Lady Serena had given her the evil eye.

Nothing’s been the same since.

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Looking at the cover image of Nocturnal Origins, I still can’t believe it. Finally, after a very long time, it’s being published. Mixed with the excitement is more than a little bit of fear. What if no one likes it? What if no one, not even family and friends, buys it? That’s like everyone saying your baby is ugly. Why, oh why, did I agree when the bosses came to me and said they’d made the decision to publish it without discussing it with me because they knew I would say no?

Okay, hysterics aside, or at least pushed down a bit. These really are the questions I’ve been asking myself since Origins came out the other day. Part of the reason is this is my first novel to be published. But it’s more than that. Every author has that one novel or short story that is special. The one that just sings to them and never quite leaves the back of their mind. It’s the world that keeps on living and has more stories to tell than you will ever be able to write. Origins is that for me.

In a lot of ways, this book came about because of a challenge from Sarah. She’ll be the first to tell you that she had to drag it out of me, painfully and with much protestations and denials, that I was a writer. But she did it, at first by trickery and cajoling and then by downright demands and threats. Finally, worn down, I admitted that I did “write a little”. Well, that was it. The next thing I knew, she had somehow convinced me to send her something I’d written. From there it was exercises and plot discussions and, well, the next thing I knew, Origins was born.

I’ll admit here, this is a blatant post promoting the book. Why? Because that’s what authors do — or should do. Also because I’m really proud of the book and hope folks buy it and like it and tell their friends about it. So, along that same line, keep reading to find out how to win a free digital copy of the book.

So, what is Nocturnal Origins? It’s an urban fantasy mixed with mystery mixed with police procedural mixed with just a hint of romance. It is not, as a friend said, lady porn — not that there’s anything wrong with that. I’ve read more than my fair share of it 😉

I posted a snippet of Origins back in January. You can find it here.

Here’s a snippet from later in the book.

* * *
Deep shadows swathed the neighborhood as night slowly crept toward day. The pre-dawn silence was broken by the occasional passing car or the lonesome bark of a dog left outside by owners still safely tucked away in their beds. So normal and seemingly so safe.
And so prime for the taking.

The large cat moved silently as a wraith as it kept to the deepest shadows. It avoided the occasional splash of light thrown off by street lamps along the edge of the road. The jaguar prowled the well-manicured lawns, a cat on the hunt. This might not be the jungle it longed for, but this was the jaguar’s territory. Nothing else mattered.

A padding step behind her brought her to a stop. Her head swung in the direction of the sound, teeth bared even as she scented…him. A soft growl sounded in her throat. At the same time he stepped into the light cast by the nearest street lamp. For a moment, it was as if he called to her.

No! How dare he intrude on her territory?

He took a step forward and she bared her teeth, another growl cutting the silence of the night even as her ears folded back against her head. Undeterred, he moved even closer. How dare he! Her heavy paw darted out, barely missing his head as he pulled back, surprise reflected in his brown eyes.

To her surprise, he tried again to approach her. Maybe he was a bit more wary. Not that it mattered. Her guttural challenge came a mere split-second before her paw slashed forward, claws bared.

How dare he think he could intrude on her territory, hunt her prey! Such a foolish male. Just like all of them. Just because they are larger, they think they are the masters. Well, she’d shown him. She’d shown that she wouldn’t meekly let him usurp her rightful place. The fight might have been short but it had been brutal and he’d slunk off into the shadows to lick his wounds, leaving her to her hunt at her pleasure.

Foolish, pitiful male.

A porch light switched on down the street, and the cat froze, melting into the shadows. Its head lifted, and surprisingly deep green eyes, eyes that seemed more human than feline, scanned the area even as the jaguar stood poised for flight. Finally satisfied no danger awaited, it continued on the prowl.

A few moments later, the jaguar paused once more. Its large head swung from side to side, something nearly a smile parting its lips to show a set of very deadly teeth. What good hunting could be had here. So many unsuspecting humans with their pampered, overfed pets. Yet, while it might be enticing, it wasn’t sport. Not when the pets were penned like sheep awaiting the slaughter. Too bad, especially since the jaguar craved the joy of the hunt, a real hunt, that night. She hungered for the thrill of the kill, for the taste of fresh meat.

From somewhere down the street a dog, safe inside its fenced backyard, barked a challenge. As other dogs picked up the call, the jaguar once more bared its teeth in something that looked suspiciously like a grin. Such foolish creatures, these dogs. Brave as long as they were behind their fences with their humans close by. But so easy to silence.

A harsh growl sounded, low and rumbling. Almost instantly, the dogs quieted. The cat shook its head. They presented no challenge. It was time to move on and find more worthy prey.

Then, without warning, the silence of the night was shattered. A bolt of lightning streaked across the sky followed almost instantly by an ominous roll of thunder. Barking once more filled the air as dogs up and down the street clamored to get inside to safety.

A few moments later the first large raindrops slashed to the ground. Unlike most cats, the jaguar didn’t race for shelter. Instead, it waited, listening, watching. Then it crouched, muscles gathering before it leapt into deeper shadows at the edge of the trees. It was time to move on, to find a better hunting ground.
To find food.

* * *

The steady drip-drip-drip slowly penetrated the fog that held her. Consciousness returned and with it a paralyzing fear. Whatever had happened, she wasn’t lying on her bed, huddled under the blankets. Nor was she safe inside her house. Somehow she was outside, and that couldn’t be good.

Eyes tightly shut, she prayed it was all a dream. But it wasn’t. She knew it just as she knew the cold seeping into her bones was leaching the last of the warmth from her body. If she didn’t get up soon, she would be in real trouble.

Mac’s mind wailed in fear as reality sank in. She lay cold, wet, and completely nude in a puddle of water. Mud oozed between her fingers as she struggled to gather enough strength to climb to her knees. After twice trying to rise only to fall back to the ground like a helpless kitten, she knew she had to open her eyes, no matter what she might find. But she didn’t want to. Once she did, she’d be forced to face the truth. Something had happened, something she couldn’t remember, and she had a very sick feeling it was nothing good.

Why do these things keep happening to me?

Slowly, terrified of what she might find, Mac opened her eyes. Almost immediately, relief washed over her. She lay in her own backyard, safe – she hoped – from the prying eyes of her nearest neighbors.

That much, at least, reassured her. Nothing else did. Aches and pains too numerous to count spoke volumes about what she’d been though these last few hours – days? Worse, she had no idea, no memory of what had happened. How the hell had she wound up here? Had she been attacked again?

Or was it worse?

Could it be worse?

Swallowing hard against a sore, dry throat, she once more tried to push to her knees. A gasp of pain was torn from her, breaking the silence of the new dawn like a scream. Instinctively, she clamped her mouth shut and swallowed again, this time against the nausea that caused her stomach to pitch dangerously.

She most definitely was not in good shape.

Not daring to try to stand, Mac slowly crawled across the waterlogged grass toward the house. Never before had the yard seemed so large or taken so long to cross. Perspiration from the effort mixed with the rain, chilling her even more. Tears tracked down her cheeks as she forced herself to climb the three steps to the back porch on her hands and knees.

Sobbing in relief to have gotten that far, she paused. Part of her wanted to collapse where she was. She didn’t have the strength to go any further. She could just lie there and rest awhile. There was nothing wrong with that. Then she could go inside. That would be all right, wouldn’t it?

No! She couldn’t stay there. No matter how badly she wanted to, she couldn’t. Not when she was so cold and wet. Not when she had no idea how she had gotten out there in the first place. She had to find the strength to go inside. She had to. But how?

Placing one hand in front of the other, she dragged her now almost unresponsive body across the wooden porch to the door. Those few short feet seemed an almost insurmountable distance. Every movement hurt. Every breath felt as if it might be her last. Despair threatened to drown her as she collapsed and looked up at the doorknob. That shiny brass fixture seemed so far away. Could she reach it?

She had to reach it.

Please let it be open. Please.

Mac repeated it over and over like a mantra as her arm stretched upward towards the knob. Numb fingers touched and then slid off the cold metal. Biting her lower lip to keep from crying out, she once more reached up. Her eyes locked on her hand. Her focus narrowed to her fingers. Nothing else existed in the world in that moment except her fingers, the doorknob and her need to get inside.

Shaking from the effort, Mac willed her numb fingers to close around the smooth metal globe. Time slowed, seeming to almost stop. Then, miracle of miracles, the knob turned.

With the last of her strength, she pushed the door open and tumbled headfirst inside, landing in heap on the tile floor just inside. Slithering forward on her belly, she pulled her legs inside and kicked the door shut. She was safe. Finally. Her kitchen. Her house. Safe.

* * *

I hope you enjoyed the snippet. You can find Nocturnal Origins at Naked Reader Press or at Amazon or Barnes & Noble. And, as with all NRP books, Origins is DRM free.

If you’re interested in winning a free digital copy of the book — your choice of formats (epub, mobi, lit, lrf) — leave a comment. You can comment on this post or about the state of the publishing industry in general. Just remember the rules — no politics. I’ll pick a winner tomorrow morning and post the winner. So keep checking back.

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