Welcome to my blog!

I'm so excited that my lifelong dream of becoming a published author has come true. If you'd like to go straight to excerpts, descriptions, and buy links for my books, click on the covers below on the right.

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Saturday, December 4, 2010

Book Review: The First Excellence by Donna Carrick

It's hard to write, finish, and revise a book, and it takes courage and money to get it out there if the author wants to take the self-published route. Readers who are interested in self-published books but who don't want to waste their time on low-quality ones need a place to go for reviews. My new goal is to post a review of a self-published book the first weekend of every month so that authors and readers can connect with each other. I'm also going to try and get author interviews so that readers can meet the people behind the books. At first, reviews and interviews will be posted separately due to time constraints.

A disclaimer: I'm going to start with books by authors I know through real-life connections and through Twitter. If you're interested in getting your book reviewed and are willing to be interviewed by an otherworldly catfish, please email my assistant at bert{at}ceciliadominic.com or follow Bert on Twitter and message him there.

Title: The First Excellence – Fa-Ling's Map
Author: Donna Carrick
Genres: Coming-of-Age, Crime, Drama

I am ashamed to say that I've had The First Excellence – Fa-Ling's Map sitting in my to-read pile almost since I started this blog in the Spring. I enjoyed Carrick's serial thriller Two Good Hands (available to read on The Penny Dreadful web site) and knew that she is a master of intricate plotting and suspense, but I had a hard time getting excited about a Chinese girl's coming-of-age story since I'm not typically a coming-of-age genre fan. I brought it to my parents' cabin to read over my anniversary weekend, and once I started it, I devoured it in less than twenty-four hours.

Yes, devoured. This is not your typical "young adult finds herself" tale. The first two chapters contain a suicide, triple murder, hints at an anti-government plot, and introductions to characters who quickly find themselves in precarious positions. Set in China, the book focuses on Fa-Ling, an orphan who was adopted with her younger sister by a Canadian couple and who returns to her homeland to figure out who she is and what her "First Excellence," or career, should be. However, her cautious Canadian parents won't let her go alone, so she joins a supposedly "safe" group of five couples who are going to China to finalize the adoptions of baby girls. One couple is not what they seem, and one member of the group has her own very dirty little secret that results in two kidnappings. Fa-Ling meets a handsome Chinese detective who is investigating a supposed suicide that occurs in the room next to hers on her first night in China, and their feelings for each other grow as the investigation becomes more complicated.

One tough task for authors who write for a Western audience but who want to set their books in an unfamiliar land is how to highlight cultural differences without lecturing. Carrick, who has been through the Chinese adoption process, who is familiar with land's customs, and who has obviously done her homework, allows the reader into the Chinese mindset without information dumping or becoming preachy. Moments of humor are both at the expense of the sometimes clueless Westerners and annoyed Easterners, and they are always portrayed with sensitivity and understanding. At the end of the day, all the characters are human, and even the villains seem sympathetic.

With regard to manufacturing and appearance, the book is beautifully illustrated and put together by BookSurge. I did catch a few editing mistakes, but no more than I usually find in traditionally published works.

This is probably a matter of personal preference, but my only complaint is that Carrick writes in third-person omniscient point-of-view. Although she keeps the head-hopping to a minimum, I found that having more than one perspective per scene could sometimes be jarring. I – and, I suspect, many Western readers – have come to view third-person limited as the convention. Luckily, she doesn't do it too often.

Overall, I really enjoyed Carrick's First Excellence and hope she continues the story of Fa-Ling and handsome Detective Wang. This would make a fun series.

The First Excellence – Fa-Ling's Map is $17.99 at amazon.com and also available for $7.99 on Kindle.

Previous reviews: Kenn Allen's The Golden Cockerel

Coming up in January: Laura Eno's Don't Fall Asleep

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Serial Fiction: Monument Minders, Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Thirteen
A Different Set of Ears

Lightning flashed outside, and Gurney and Troxley appeared. Gurney raised his weapon to Thurston and Maximilian. "What's going on here?"

"He's interrogating me beyond my rights!" Maximilian gasped.

"Is that true?" asked Troxley.

"Time is of the essence, gentlemen." Thurston was back to his polite self, although still holding on to Maximilian. "The Splitter and Savedra are missing. I fear that this creature's release was merely the test case for whether it would work."

"However that is, Professor, you cannot go breaking protocol." Gurney took a small metal box out of his pocket. "Hand over Maximilian, and you can go back to your University. We'll take it from here."

Thurston held Max while Troxley opened the box. It emitted purple light that dissolved the black silhouette into smoke and pulled it into the device.

"I'm not going anywhere until we find Savedra!" Thurston gestured for Troxley and Gurney to move closer, and the three leaned in, heads bent. Debtra touched Thom on the wrist, bare skin to bare skin.

"This is what I got burned at the stake for," she whispered so closely to his ear that he could feel her breath.

Thom felt like his ears popped, but he could hear the Professor's conversation with the two trans-dimensional detectives.

"What is your deal with that woman, Homily?" asked Gurney. "She only seems to bring trouble! We did you a huge favor setting her up with her pub in this dimension."

The Professor shook his head. "It's too long a story to explain. Let me just say that her welfare is of utmost importance to me. Were you aware that Forsyth was attacked this morning, and whoever did so took the Splitter out of its supposedly fail-proof safe?"

"We'd gotten word of that, yes," said Troxley. "We're holding Forsyth for questioning now."


"I know he's a friend of yours, but he's also a suspect, the only soul who could open the safe."

"I'll deal with that later," Homily told them. "You two know that if there's any chance of finding Savedra, especially if she has the Splitter, I'm the one to do it."

"Because she's your…"

Thurston held up a hand to silence Gurney. "We have a special relationship, yes. However, there are some things that the others don't need to know. My student has special talents."

All three turned to look at Thom and Debtra, who broke contact with him and blushed.

"Fine, then," Gurney said out loud. "You have twenty-four hours to find the woman and the device, since you seem convinced they're together. We're going to lean on Max and Forsyth for information."

"Be gentle with Forsyth. He's had a rough day."

Debtra squirmed out of Thom's half-embrace. He'd forgotten he held her, he'd been so caught up in their eavesdropping and her touch on his wrist. He could still feel where she'd touched him, and his skin felt pulled toward her. He tried to accidentally brush against her while they walked outside.

"So, what now?" Debtra asked.

Thurston looked at her. "I chastise my student for her curiosity."

Debtra looked at the ground. "I'm here to learn, Professor."

"But not to drop in on private conversations. Your talents are useful, my dear, but don't forget that I know what they are. If you use them on me again, you will be sent back with no discussion. Understood?"

Debtra nodded and wiped her eyes, but Thom noticed her narrowed, angry gaze.

"Now… Let's go question Savedra's butler and see if we can see where she'd gone."

"Who is that?" asked Debtra.

Now the Professor blushed. "Someone very special to me. Come on, Thom, you can drive us to her place. She lives in a mansion in Mountain Brook."


Thurston spun on his heel and came face-to-face with Thom. "What?"

"No. You owe us more information before we go chasing after some other person or thing or being. We could've gotten killed in there!"

The Professor raised an eyebrow. "I had the situation under control, and you were in no danger. I had to be in physical contact with the creature to untangle it. Besides, you already stole enough information from me by listening in on a private telepathic conversation."

Thom decided to revisit the telepathy thing later. He stuck his hands in his pockets. "Hey, if I'm supposed to help you out, and if you're going to be putting us in danger, we need all the facts." Now he narrowed his eyes. "Situations can get out of control quickly, Professor."

Thurston coughed into his hand. "I see. Perhaps you should ask the questions, then, Detective."

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Serial Fiction: Monument Minders, Chapter Twelve

Chapter Twelve
Untangling a Soul

Thom could tell there was something wrong at Lancaster Jewels. Even though it looked fine from the outside, the telltale alarm light was off. There was also something off about the shadows inside.

"How are we going to get in?" asked Debtra. "Did Max/Lancaster just walk through the walls?"

"Souls can do that," Thurston reminded her. "You spent enough time as a ghost. Do you sense him?"

"Right, and yes, there's a creepy quality to the shadows in there."

"Look away, the two of you."

Thom obeyed, and he heard the click of the lock. "How'd you do that?"

"You can look again." Thurston walked through the open door, and Thom and Debtra followed him. Inside, the empty jewelry cases seemed to have been otherwise undisturbed. Thurston put a finger to his lips and motioned for Thom to lead them to the back.

"Safe," Thurston mouthed.

Thom nodded. He could feel the sweat gathering under his arms. It was one thing to dream about strange beings from unknown dimensions, but it was quite another to confront one. He had good night vision, but his hyper-alert mind tried to anticipate the attack. Had that shadow moved? Or was it too dark for the light that created it? Did merged souls act from one will, or two in conflict? Who was in more danger – him, Debtra, or the Professor? Or was it just whoever reached the criminal first? Would it try to merge another soul?

The office was empty, but the safe door was cracked open. Thurston motioned for Thom to get out of the way, and the older man stepped ahead, leaned over, and peered in.

"Is anyone --?" Thom started to ask, but Debtra's hand on his arm stopped him.

"Maximilian," Thurston murmured. "The game's up. You have the jewels. Why don't you let Mr. Lancaster get on to his final resting place?"

A black tentacle that glowed with a sickly greenish light wrapped around Thurston's neck and brought him to his knees. His eyes bulged, and his face turned red.

"Thurston!" Debtra screamed. Thom held her back and drew his gun.

"Whatever you are, let him go and come out! We're armed!"

"Police? Help!" That was a middle-aged man's voice in a whine. "I'm trapped in here with it."

Thurston flailed his left hand in a "stay away" motion. He clutched at the tentacle with his right one.

"Let him go, Maximilian!" The safe door flew open, and Thom pushed Debtra to the floor. He fired at the mass of darkness that poured out of it.

"Your weapons ain't gonna work on me, guv'nor," another voice said. "I've eaten the sapphires in here, like blueberries they are!"

"Help me!" The middle-aged man's voice sobbed again. "I've given you what you want, let me go!"

"Oh, no, you don't. There are more stores, more cities. We're going on a little tour, you and me."

The darkness resolved into a man's shape, fuzzy and glowing around the edges, its left hand still around Thurston's throat. It looked at the red-faced Professor, who had both hands on its wrist.

"This one's taking a while to die. Not that I've killed anyone before, but they didn't believe me. Put me in that statue. You know how hot it gets in there? It's like Hell. And the birds! I'm gonna kill every pigeon I find from now on."

Debtra stepped forward. "Maybe we can make a deal. You have the alarm codes from his memory. What if we let you go, and you leave Lancaster here?"

"And send the Minders after me to set a trap? No thanks, chickie. Me an Lancaster, here, we're going on a trip."

"Then let the Professor go! He hasn't done anything to you."

"I don't need witnesses." The merged soul turned its face to Thurston, who pulled at its arm. Thom heard a ripping sound, and he saw it split in two man-shapes, one round and golden and one still black and glowing.

The golden one whispered, "Thank you!" and disappeared.

Thurston held the other one, which asked, "What did you do?"

"Untangled you."

"How did you do that?" asked Debtra.

"Trade secret, my dear. I'll just tell you I had to be touching it to do that. Now, I have some questions for you, Maximilian."

"Well, let me take a seat over there, Perfessor, and we'll have a cozy little chat."

"I'm not going to release you that easily." Thurston pulled a phone-looking thing out of his pocket and tossed it to Thom. "Press the sequence 4284. That will summon Gurney and Troxley to take care of this creature."

Thom did so. The device beeped, and the screen went black.

"You ain't going to send me back to the statue, are you, Professor?"

Thurston raised his eyebrows.

"Oh, that's right, I know who you are. I studied before I got locked up. You're the one who objected to monumenting, and now that I been there, I see why. So tell me, Prof, do your young lady over there and that copper know who and what you are?"

"Silence!" The sound of Thurston's voice filled the room with an otherwordly echo, and he tightened his grip on the other soul's arm, twisting it. Thom fought the impulse to raise his weapon. Debtra wouldn't look kindly on his shooting her mentor in a moment of panic. She did, however, scoot closer to Thom, who put his arm around her. Just to reassure her. Yeah, that was his only motive. He still kept her out of the way between his hand and gun.

"You will answer my questions, you pathetic creature!" Thurston continued with that scary voice and then added in a softer tone, "You know what I can do to you."

Maximilian whined without saying anything intelligible.

"Now, first one, who framed you and got you locked up in that statue?"

"Now I ain't at liberty to share that, guv'nor."

"Answer me!"

Maximilian screamed. Thom cringed and pulled Debtra closer.

"Whatever you do to me, Perfessor, it's not going to be nearly as bad as what He would if I told you!"

Author's note:

It's been crazy busy at the office, so I'm glad I finished this one over the summer. I just wanted to say thanks to the five of you who are still reading. :)

Okay, enough mushiness, have some nachos:

Thursday, November 4, 2010

The Great Chocolate Conspiracy Part 10

Welcome to The Great Chocolate Conspiracy!

Chocolate Digestive biscuits have disappeared from the shelves right across the eastern seaboard of the USA, and now the shortage has spread to London. Detective Chief Inspector Sam Adamson and his international team of investigators from the Metropolitan Police's Confectionery Crimes Unit (CCU) have been tasked to solve the mystery.

This is the tenth installment of a multi-part flash fiction story that originated during a chat between the authors on Twitter. You can read how it all began here. (Links to all the installments will be added to the author list as they are posted)

The next installment will appear on Friday, November 12th at Angie Capozello (aka @techtigger)'s Techtigger's Soapbox, and you can keep up on developments in the meantime by following the #GtChocCo hashtag on Twitter.

"Sacramento?" The name of the city burst from Juniper's lips the moment she and Marier left the debriefing room. "Why are we going to California?"

Marier slowly unwrapped the chocolate bar. She seemed lost for a moment in the crinkle of the plastic wrapping, and she took a long whiff and a small bite before answering.

"Think, Juniper. Why would Adamson be splitting us up, especially now when we're so close?"

The Italian agent took a bite, and she raised her eyebrows. "He doesn't intend for us to go anywhere! But who's he trying to throw off? And why?"

Before Marier could answer, she felt a tap on her shoulder.

"Excuse me, agents?" Marier turned to see a tall woman in her thirties with chin-length curly hair the color of an old penny. She wore a lab coat and glasses.


"I'm Doctor Dominic, the liaison between the Intelligence Communication and Super Powers Departments..." She smiled and shook her head. "Sorry, I can't say that with a straight face. You know – mind control, subliminal messaging, telepathy, those sorts of things. Chief Henderson wanted me to talk with Agent Bronyaur about his dream, and he mentioned that you two were in close proximity when he'd had it. Would you mind coming with me?" She tilted her head to the side and raised an eyebrow. "That wasn't a question."

"I would rather not." Marier looked at the sealed door to the debriefing room.

"I'm afraid you don't have a choice."

The next thing Marier knew, she followed Doctor Dominic down the hall and into an elevator. "Wait a minute. Did you just subliminalize me?"

"Me?" The doctor's facial expression was the picture of innocence. "I'm afraid that's against my ethical code."

Marier and Juniper exchanged glances. However, when they reached the exam room on the minus twenty-fourth floor, they realized they weren't the ones who needed help.

"Is all this necessary?" Agent Bronyaur asked. He looked at the Velcro cuffs a large male nurse had just fastened around his wrists and ankles. He had electrodes fixed to his head and face. Agent La Paglia hovered, but each time she tried to reach him, the nurse blocked her way.

"Don't worry, Agent Bronyaur," the doctor said. "It's because you're the extra intuitive and sensitive one in the group who had the dream."

He leaned back with a grin. "Really?"

Doctor Dominic winked at Marier and Juniper before she measured a clear liquid into a syringe. "I'm going to have to put you under to achieve a steady alpha state so you can revisit your dream and communicate with us simultaneously. When you come out of it, you may become disoriented, and I can't risk you harming yourself or us. Ladies, if you will please stand back."

"You're not going to hurt him, are you?" asked Marier.

"Of course not! I'm just going to give him a little sodium thiopental, or truth serum, to make sure he doesn't hold back on us. Don't worry," she assured Bronyaur, "it won't hurt. In fact, people say it's quite pleasant. Now take a deep breath, and Nurse Brutus will start the i.v."

Marier watched the doctor and nurse, and although she couldn't verify the liquids, she could hear Bronyaur's breaths become deep and even.

"There, now," the doctor said. "Agent Bronyaur, can you hear me?"


"Say yes, please."

"Yes, please."

She smiled. "Okay, then. I want you to go back to this morning, when you got on the airplane, just before your dream. What were you thinking about?"

"Mmmmm, thong panties… Hot pink…"

Doctor Dominic raised her eyebrows. "Thong panties?"

Marier blushed and saw that Juniper had turned a similar shade of red. "He, ah, had to do some packing for us. We left in a hurry, you see."

"I'm sure. Now, Agent, I want you to go back to that dream state, the one you were in on the plane. What do you see?"

"SUV's. Big, black ones. And a short, fat Sheriff with a handlebar moustache."

Dominic scribbled the notes on a pad and watched the agent's brain waves on a computer screen. "What happens next?"

"There's an office, but it looks more like a basement. A lab. An explosion… Blood… Chocolate…"

"Okay, let's go back to the SUV's that picked you up. I want you to tell me the distances and turns."

"We go twenty feet, right out of the airport…"

Marier watched, open-mouth, as the doctor took Bronyaur back through the dream and extracted every last detail. By the end of it, they were all sweating.

Or maybe the air had cut off.

"Doctor, there's something wrong!" Marier stepped forward.

"No, he'll be fine. It looks like the villains have provided a map, whether intentionally or inadvertently." She rubbed her eyes. "I wish I could tell you more, but I didn't get coffee this morning, and I've got a splitting headache. I'll run the information through the analyzer, which will plug it into algorithms in the UK's and United States' databases."

"I meant with the climate control." Marier gestured to the vent, which was no longer blowing cold air.

"You're right – we should be getting more air." Dominic moved quickly, measuring out more clear liquid from a different vial. "I'm going to bring Agent Bronyaur out of his trance with a mild stimulant."

"Mmmm, thongs…"

She pushed the liquid into the i.v. Bronyaur gasped and struggled against the restraints.

"Wait, I see her! Motley was directing everyone in the dream! It wasn't a store – it was a lab!" He opened his eyes, and the nurse released the restraints.

"And she's up there with Adamson!" Marier, Juniper, and LaPaglia ran out of the room, followed by a rubber-legged Bronyaur.

Marier fidgeted in front of the elevator. Every time she closed her eyes to blink, she saw the crumpled body of DCI Adamson just after the explosion that injured his leg. I'm not failing you again!

The building shook, and everything went dark.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Metapost: Tuesday Serial...or not

Just a quick note that there will be no Tuesday Serial installation this week. It's my turn for the Great Chocolate Conspiracy blog tour, so I'm working on that. So, please tune in Friday and return next Tuesday for the next part of the Monument Minders!

Friday, October 29, 2010

Friday Flash Fiction: The Agency -- Bert's Bowl and Raven's Song

The Agency: Bert's Bowl and Raven's Song

Thomas glanced over his shoulder at the new bartender, who rearranged the glass liquor bottles.

"I'd put those in classic bartending order," Thomas said.

Bert didn't turn around. "Yeah, and I'm putting them in Royal Bar order."

Thomas shook his head, then jumped when he saw that the plastic takeout container that had formerly housed the catfish was whole again.

"What the…?" he said and leaned over it. It was filled with murky water, and Thomas couldn't see the bottom.

"Don't touch it." Bert still hadn't turned. "That's personal property."

"It's unsanitary to have on the bar, and I didn't think fish could have personal property."

"Yeah, well don't mess with it."

Thomas mopped up around it. "Fine! I don't care what you do with it, but it's got to move! What if the health inspector comes?"

With a sigh, the big fish-man grabbed it and placed it under the counter. Thomas would have commented further, but Mr. Raven appeared from his office. He'd obviously been thinking hard – his hair stood up in spikes where he'd run his hands through it.

"Are you okay, Boss?" asked Thomas.

"I've been trying to solve our dragon problem. They're not going to give up. Now that we've foiled the direct approach, we can count on harassment." He shook his head. "They'll have us closed in a week, I'm sure of it."

"Can't we approach the Organized Crime Division?" asked Thomas. "When I was at the staffing agency, I'd call when I thought something was fishy about a new client. No offense, Bert."

Bert rolled his large, black eyes.

"That's a great idea, Thomas, but that's what they'll expect us to do. I had something different in mind." Raven smiled, but it looked painful. "I'm going to visit Elmadora."

"Who?" asked Thomas.

"Former head of the OCD." Bert frowned. "She's her own law now. Are you sure that's wise?"

Raven spread his hands, and Thomas could see he'd been chewing on his black-painted fingernails. "What choice do I have? There hasn't been a crime yet, and harassment will be difficult to prove."

Lady Elmadora's landscape design and architecture best fit in the "Leave Me Alone" school. Her dark stone mansion could've been photographed and placed beside the word "ominous" in the Gothic dictionary Raven had at the Edgar Allen Poe Academy for Mopey Boys. The long gravel drive, the color of bleached bones and edged with stones that looked like they had come from a grab-bag of gravestones, said anything but, "Welcome." He encouraged his black stallion onward and handed him off to a black-liveried groom at the front door. Elmadora's butler answered his ring.

"Orenimous Raven here to see Madame Elmadora," he said.

"The Lady is asleep, sir, but she mentioned your visit. She said you may wake her with a song."

Raven sighed. "I thought having an appointment meant I wouldn't have to sing the song."

"The Lady was most insistent."

"Fine." He took a deep breath and sang in a rich baritone:

Elmadora, my innamorata,
My love for you is like mad for a hatter!
Like the color black for a case of gangrene,
The dark of the stones beneath a deadly rushing stream!
Elmadora, you make my heart swell
Like the stomach of a man who's not feeling so well

He saw a dark shadow appear at the top of the grand staircase and put his heart into the final line:

Elmadora, won't you hear my plea?
Give me your treats, and I'll have no trick for thee!

"Bravo, Orenimous!" Elbow-length satin gloves muffled her claps, but she applauded as she came down the stairs, her long, layered skirts trailing behind her.

Raven caught his breath and forgot resent at her use of his given, rather than preferred, name. Her face, magically frozen at twenty-five when she'd been at the height of her looks but only the beginning of her career, held little expression except her violet eyes. Her long ash blond hair had been piled on top of her head, and the corset beneath her black satin gown accentuated her tiny waist.

She held out her hand out, and he helped her down the last few stairs.

"You look gorgeous, as always, my dear." He crooked an elbow, and she took it.

She looked up and sideways at him from beneath her lashes. "You're a flatterer, Orenimous. But for a song, I am willing to listen."

Even her voice had been preserved, one of the benefits of retirement from the OCD. In truth, she was older than he, and he didn't mind her gentle pressure that brought them to the lounge and the large ruby-colored chaise in front of the fireplace.

"Put your arm around me, Orenimous," she said. "These preservation spells hinder circulation, and I find myself to be perpetually chilly."

"Yes, Milady." In truth, he was glad to comply, for she was shorter than he, and it gave him the perfect view of her breasts, which her corset plumped like two white doves snuggled in ebony satin.

"So tell me," she said, "what is it you need?"

The front of his trousers was telling him what he needed, and he hoped she didn’t notice. For a moment, he forgot what he had come for. He tore his gaze away from her and looked at the fire.

"I've opened a pub…"

"I've heard."

He filled her in on the lizard's visit.

"The dragons don't give up easily," she said. "I am willing to help you in exchange for one thing."

"What?" he asked.

"I want you to bring Bert the Catfish to me. I need to speak with him, but he has refused my invitation."

"Is that all?" he asked. "Bert and I are friends, so that should be easy."

"Well, maybe not all." She turned pulled his face to hers so only a breath separated their lips. "I would like for you to warm me up."

Onesimus Raven was most happy to comply.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Serial Fiction: Monument Minders, Chapter Eleven

Chapter Eleven
Search for a Soul

Thurston heard the bed springs squeak and footsteps before Debtra opened the door.

"What's going on in there?" Thurston looked past his student to see a red-faced and suspiciously rumpled Thom standing in the room.

"Absolutely nothing." With a cool glance behind her, Debtra stepped into the hall and crossed her arms. "What's going on with you?"

The question brought Thurston back from his shock at seeing his student in a potentially compromising situation. It could have been nothing, but the dried tears on her cheeks and the detective's abashed expression told him otherwise.

"I'll tell you as we walk," he said. "I went to see an old friend, and he had been attacked for the device I was afraid had been used this morning."

"When was he attacked?" asked Thom.

"Early this morning."

"Did he call the police?"

Thurston glanced sideways at the detective to watch his reaction to, "No, when I got to his office, he was in pieces. Literally."

Thom stumbled over his own feet. "What?"

"He's an Old Soul, and a manifestation like me and Debtra. Ordinary trauma won't kill him, but it's a testament to his age that he wasn't more badly hurt. He seemed to mend pretty quickly after I put him back together."

"So why are we going to the Lancaster house?" Thom asked.

"Because I went to the morgue after I left Forsyth." He told them how he had snuck in through a side door and had found the body on a slab. He didn't mention how he had managed to get the door unlocked using psychokinetic energy or had befuddled the night tech and guard into leaving the room to order a pizza. Those were things that Old Souls couldn't do.

"Did you figure out the cause of death?" Thom looked straight ahead, but Thurston could see the tension in his jaw.

"Soul merge."

Debtra gasped. "How?"

"Remember how I told you the statue-prisons were made? When Maximilian, the prisoner, was released from the statue, his spirit absorbed into the closest sentient thing he could find, which was Lancaster. He passed through the body and took Lancaster's soul with him because he was still in an unbalanced energy state, like oxygen picks up free hydrogen to become water, but on a much smaller, subatomic energy level."

"What's that going to do to Lancaster?" asked Thom. "Can you un-merge him?"

"I don't know," said Thurston, "but I'm going to try. The sooner we can find him, the easier it will be."

The lights in the house were off, and the full moon reflected like a blank stare in the windows. Thurston would have been able to tell that death had visited the house even if he hadn't already known. Grief had physical and metaphysical energy, and the darkness hung closer to the building, dampening the loving aura of the couple who had lived there and making it harder to detect the merged soul, should it be there.

Of course, the newly-born energy of unrequited lust that thrummed through the car also obscured Thurston's Otherworldly sight. Sure, he noted the whimper of hurt at the back of his mind – had it only been that morning that he'd been excited by Debtra's body pressed close to his? – but his logical self asserted it was for the best that she find someone else. No matter how old one was, or how respected, it just wasn't a good idea to mess around with one's students.

Thom shut off the engine and looked at the dark house. "I don't see anything out of the ordinary."

"It's Debtra's talents that I need right now," Thurston said more curtly than he'd intended.

"Yes, Professor?" The tone of her voice told him that she was upset. Time to distract her.

"Look for an extra element to the darkness. If the marriage was as loving as the widow claimed, the spirit will be drawn to its home. A confused soul will try to return to what it loves most when freed from its body, and I suspect Lancaster is stronger than Max at this point, although that may change."

Thom added, "But what then? I can't arrest a soul!"

Thurston smirked at the mental image. "I'll try to separate it. Hopefully the two essences aren't truly fused, but merely tangled, like two balls of yarn that have been shaken together in a bag, as the Splitter was set to release the spirit, but not to rejoin it to anything."

Thom opened the windows, and they watched. A warm breeze carried the sweet fragrance of honeysuckle from nearby. Debtra tilted her head, her eyes wide. Thurston caught himself looking at the pale curve of her throat framed by her dark, satiny hair, and he noted that if he'd been the blood-sucking type, she'd be in trouble. He pressed his lips together. She was his student, he reminded himself. An ethics student! And Savedra was missing. The pain that came with that thought chased his attention from Debtra's neck.

After an hour, Debtra whispered, "I can't sense anything beyond the grief that covers the house, Professor."

"Likewise," Thurston said. He ran his left thumbnail under his fingernails. "Perhaps we should check the place where he died in case Max prompted him to go back there, and the statue was of his great-uncle."

The park was likewise empty of loose souls. The trio's only company the wind and a stray dog who paid no attention to them once it figured out that they had no interest in the discarded bagel it gnawed on.

"What now?" Thom asked after twenty minutes.

Debtra looked at Thurston, who felt the need to come up with a brilliant idea. Damnit, he was oldest, he should be wisest as well!

"I'm at a loss," he admitted.

Thom kicked at a loose pebble. "What kind of criminal was in that monument, Professor?"

Thurston looked at the handheld device. "His name was Maximilian Sharp, a petty thief with one impulse murder during his last crime. The judge decided that his behavior had become unpredictable and dangerous enough for this kind of incarceration, particularly considering he had broken parole numerous times."

"What was the crime?" asked Thom. "Maybe he had unfinished business related to it and is driving the combo soul."

"He stole some jewels and killed a security guard. He claimed he was innocent of the murder, but the evidence was compelling."

Thom held up a finger. "Let's get back to the theft. What kind of jewels?"


Thom nodded. "I think I know where they are!"

Thurston followed Thom to the car, Debtra close behind. "What do you mean?"

"Lancaster's business was a huge jewelry store chain! He specialized in sapphires. He bragged on his commercials how he would go to Thailand to find the best ones."

Debtra clapped her hands. "Thom, that's brilliant! It's something that both souls would be drawn to."

Thurston cleared his throat. "Yes, good work. Take us to the first store, or the biggest, wherever you think Lancaster's spirit would go." He looked away from Debtra's proud smile. He really shouldn't care that he hadn't figured it out even though they had mentioned the sapphire detail that morning, but it stung that he'd been out-thought by a human, likely a new soul only a fraction of his age. He should've guessed that Gurney had assigned Thom to him for more than just chauffeuring.

"I think it'll be the flagship store downtown." Thom started the car. "It's only about a mile from here."

"While we drive, you can ponder the next question, assuming you're right about the first."

"Which is…?" asked Debtra. "We know how Maximilian was freed, and now where he's gone. Don't we just need to find and capture him?"

"Ah, but there's the question of motive, as the good Detective here could tell you if he'd thought of it."

"Right," said Thom. He scratched the back of his neck. "I hadn't really. I figured he'd gotten someone to let him out."

"With a very dangerous device that hadn't been used in over a hundred years and that was acquired at great risk to someone. Forsyth had that safe triple-spelled and seated in an orthogonal dimension. But why was a petty thief with only one serious crime the one to be released? That is the question, and I hope he has the answer."

Author's note: Hubby and I celebrated our sixth wedding anniversary last Saturday. On Sunday, we treated ourselves to an anniversary lunch at Le Vigne, the restaurant at Montaluce Vineyards. Dessert was chocolate cake with marshmallow creme and a glass of Dolce:

Monday, October 18, 2010

Serial Fiction: Monument Minders, Chapter Ten

Chapter Ten
A Breath Away

Thom looked at Debtra. "Really? A girl as beautiful as you never lost her virginity in five lifetimes?"

She shrugged. "It's hard to lose when you die young, I guess. A couple of times, I was just a kid."

"You have an incredible story." He still stroked her hair. It soothed her, and she closed her eyes and leaned back into his touch. He sat on the arm of her chair and put his arm across her chest, his hand on her shoulder, holding her close. She liked the feeling of resting against him, how she felt safe and loved.

She remembered that she'd had love, but they had died, too, or had become lost before they could consummate their relationship. She'd been engaged when her first life as a Celtic princess had ended at the tusk of a boar. She and her fiancé had been hunting it when it surprised her and gored her in the leg, hitting the femoral artery. She had bled out in her love Eric's arms before he could truly become her lover. Now, when she looked at Thom, she could see Eric's face. They had the same jaw structure and nose. Thom's brow was a little less strong, and his hair definitely shorter, but he held her just like Eric had.

Instead of leading to a romantic moment, the revelation made her cry harder.

"Maybe I should go?" Thom asked, but he rested his chin on the top of her head.

"No," she sniffled. "I was just remembering someone."

"Someone you loved?"

"Yes." She told him about Eric and the boar, and then about the rest of her lives. Number two had been short – she'd died of the plague in Medieval Europe, only a peasant girl. Number three, not much longer. She'd been burned as a witch in the Colonies after her empathic talents led her to know more than she should about some of the town elders. During her fourth life, she'd sacrificed personal happiness for the noble cause of rescuing people from the French Revolution, helping to smuggle them across the Channel to safety in England. Madame Guillotine had put an end to that. And then the fifth life as a suffragette.

"You're just trouble."

She and Thom had moved to the bed, and they lay there with their shoes off. He still held her, but she didn't mind.

"I hate to see injustice. That's why monumenting is so horrendous! It's a death penalty without having to step up and admit it's that. And those poor souls… Did you know that Thurston – Professor Homily – can hear them?"

She rolled over, and they lay with a mere inch between their bodies. She could feel his physical and emotional warmth, and it drew her in.

"But that's another subject for another time," she said. "You know all about me. Tell me about you."

"I definitely can't top your story," he said. "Not that I'd want to."

"And you believe it?" she asked, leaning in so that their noses almost touched.

"Every word. No one could make that sort of thing up!"

And that's when she kissed him. It was a simple thing, closing the space of a breath to touch her lips to his, and yet she was not prepared for how it would feel. Her body pressed against his almost of its own accord, and she wrapped her arms around him. Her tongue explored his mouth – he had all his teeth! – and his gentle teasing of hers made her dig her nails into his back to bring him closer even though he was as close as he'd get with clothes on.

"Debtra," he said after a few minutes of "making out," as the books called it. Or had it been "snogging?" She didn't care.

"Hmmm?" She didn't want to open her eyes, just to feel him there.

"Is this really what you want?"

"I can tell it's what you want." She pressed her pelvis into his.

He traced the line of her jaw with his thumb. "Of course it is. I'm a guy. You're a very attractive woman, and I've never met anyone like you. But this is your virginity! You've never lost it in five lifetimes. How can I possibly take that from you after knowing you for less than a day?"

He moved away from her, and she opened her eyes. He'd propped himself up on his elbow and watched her with a half-smile.

She stuck her lower lip out. "I'm not worried about going to hell, if that's what you mean."

He shook his head. "It's not. I just want to make sure that this is really what you want, that you weren't wanting this to be with anyone else."

Debtra took a deep breath and remembered the sparks that had flown between her and the Professor earlier that day. But he was so much older than she, both in manifested and real lifetime! Did she love him? No, she realized, she didn't. She just had a crush on him. As for Thom… Damnit, why did he have to be so honorable? He had potential, but she realized she was also expecting him to be Eric, whom she hadn't thought about in, well, she didn't want to think about how long it had been.

"I don't, but you're probably right. I barely know you." She scooted back and leaned against the pillows.

"I should go." He took her hand and kissed her palm.

"Bye, Thom. I guess I'll try to find some porn or something."

He raised his eyebrows. "What did they teach you in those classes?"

Before she could answer, someone pounded on her door.

"Debtra! It's Thurston. Come on, we have to call Thom – he needs to drive us to the widow's house now!"

Author's Note: The first week of seeing patients in my new office went well. I'm now interviewing adminions because I need all the help I can get. In case you hadn't realized by now, I'm not the most organized person in the world.

Thom and Debtra's encounter feels like it needs a sweet ending, so how about some banana pudding with coconut vanilla wafers?

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Serial Fiction: Monument Minders, Chapter Nine

Monument Minders
Chapter Nine
A girl is just a girl...five times over

Debtra looked out the window of her hotel room and watched the cars that crawled through Malfunction Junction. An accident further on, she guessed, because one side of the interstate moved smoothly, the other hardly at all. She wondered about the life or lives that had been changed, someone's day going from fine or bad to terrible in a moment of carelessness. She had never been killed in a car accident. Sure, her deaths hadn't been pleasant – boar attack, plague, beheading, choking during forced feeding as a suffragette – and she guessed that it would be closest to being burned as a witch, which she had been, but quicker. Hopefully.

She shook her head and wondered what Professor Homily was doing, where he was, why she couldn't go with him… But he had only told her to stay put. She could only answer the door for room service should she get hungry, and Thom. She smiled when she thought of the young detective. She had been able to see his dreams. When she had been a child, she had similar ones. And now, to know the truth… She wanted to share it all with him, but he was probably still reeling from the revelations of that afternoon.

A knock on the door startled her out of her reverie, and she glanced at the clock. She had ordered room service, but only a few minutes before. When she checked the peephole as Thurston had showed her, it wasn't food, but rather Thom.

"I'm sorry for bothering you," he said. He'd changed into casual attire, jeans and a cotton shirt, and with his wind-blown hair, looked young and vulnerable. Or maybe that's how she felt.

"You're not. I was just wondering how I should spend the rest of the evening."

"Where's the Professor?"

"Out." She closed the door. "He didn't tell me where he was going, only that he needed to go see an old friend."

Thom nodded. "Well, I just came by to see if you needed anything." He looked at his shoes. "And to see if you wanted to grab something to eat. I know you need to, uh, feed your manifestation every so often."

Debtra couldn't help but laugh, he sounded so awkward! "I've just ordered dinner, but you may join me. I think I may have gotten too much – it's hard to tell how much I need right now. Have a seat." She gestured to the desk chair and sat in the heavier chair with matching ottoman.

They both started a sentence simultaneously. Thom shook his head and motioned for her to speak first.

"I was just wondering if you had any questions. We hit you with a lot of new information today. It can be kind of overwhelming if you weren't expecting it. Even if you were."

"It wasn't that bad," Thom said, and she could sense his genuineness. "I had these dreams as a kid with spinning vortexes and layers of reality. When the Professor described the dimensions, it's like it all clicked into place, like I had known it all along."

She looked at him more closely – could he be an Old Soul like her and Thurston? Normally she could sense others like herself. In her lifetimes it had been an affinity toward kindred spirits. But Thom didn't have that kind of vibe, like someone ancient looked out from behind his eyes.

"What?" he asked.

She shook her head. "I'm trying to figure out who you are."

He laughed. "Good luck. I've been working at it for thirty-four years!"

A knock at the door heralded dinner. They split the pizza she had ordered, and she ate the salad.

"So do you know what everything in here is?" Thom asked.

Debtra nodded. "I had a class in Twentieth Century culture. I know about television, and I'm looking forward to a hot shower." She grinned. "That's something I never got in a previous life. It was only during the last one that I had indoor plumbing."

"Wow." Thom sat back and put his feet on the ottoman near hers. "What were your past lives?"

She blushed. "I've only had five. For a soul my age, that's not many, but I've been told that the way I've died might have had something to do with it."

"Like you were a ghost." It wasn't a question.

"Yeah, they called me the Gray Lady at the prison where they'd killed me."

"How?" He curled his left hand into a fist.

"I was a suffragette working for voting rights. They'd put us in prison, and we'd go on hunger strikes. They'd force feed us, and sometimes we died from choking." She sighed. "I haunted some of those guards into exhaustion. Then, after about fifty years, a Minder came." She could still picture him vividly. He'd looked like an angel from the Bible her last grandmother had made her read with white robes and long, flowing blond hair.

"That's one of those angel things."

She nodded. "He told me that I was too good at getting myself killed prematurely and violently, and that I needed a good education before I could come back. So that's when I started at the University of Inabsolute Truth in the Fourth."

"That would explain why you look like you're in your early twenties."

"It's about the life experience I've got. I never made it past twenty-three." She ticked off on her fingers what she hadn't done. "I've never had children, never got married, never grew old with anyone…" The lump in her throat surprised her, and she curled up, her head on her knees, and hoped he wouldn't see her cry. "Hell, those prison guards had more experience than I did. They'd go home to wives and kids and lives, and I was stuck there!"

She felt Thom's soft touch on her hair, stroking it, and it made her feel even more like crying. There must have been a boy who had done that at some point, but she couldn't remember. The details of each life blurred into the next in her memory.

"You know, what, Thom?" She looked up and found her face to be mere inches from hers. The cool, wet sensation on her cheeks must have been tears, but she didn't care anymore.


"I've never even lost my virginity!"

So that vacation-like week I had taken off to get my new office set up? Not a break at all. Hubby and I were there until 9:00 last Monday, and then I had evening obligations every night last week until Friday, when we were at the office until -- I kid you not -- midnight. The good news is that I now have a kickass place to write. I'll post pictures of the office soon. The next step? Minions...

Yeah, I did some stress eating last week. It culminated in sliders and this lovely Irish brownie sundae at The Marlay on Saturday:

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Serial Fiction: Monument Minders, Chapter Eight

Chapter 8
The Missing Half

"I don't know." Thurston patted his friend's hand. He dreaded what he had to say next, but it was unavoidable. "Forsyth, there's a problem. It's already been used."

Forsyth looked up, and ochre leaked from the corners of his eyes in golden tears that absorbed back into his skin. "How?"

"On a criminal this morning. His name was Maximilian, a thief and impulse murderer." Homily looked at the screened device that Gurney had given him. It was technically a few years ahead of its time, but carrying around paper files would have been too obvious, and Debtra and Thom would have wanted to see them. As they were addressed to someone who was not an Old Soul, it would have made Debtra suspicious. Bringing her along may have been a mistake. He wondered if, even at his age, he could blame hormones for clouding his judgment.

"Did he survive?"

"Don't know." Thurston looked at Forsyth. "But a witness didn't. The cause of death is still unknown," he added before Forsyth could ask another question.

Forsyth nodded. "I've guarded the device for a hundred and fifty years, and in that time, it has never been used. It would have stored a tremendous amount of energy." He sighed. "I think I do need some food. Are you tired of pancakes yet?"

Thurston shook his head. "Never."

Forsyth made a telephone call to the restaurant across the street, and in twenty minutes, their order arrived: two combos of blueberry pancakes, bacon, and coffee. Forsyth's phone rang, and he nodded even though the person on the other side couldn't see him.

"Who was that?" Thurston asked.

Forsyth took a deep breath and exhaled through rounded lips. "Things just got worse, much worse."

"How so?"

"The Splitter isn't the only thing that's missing, Thurston. Savedra has disappeared."

Thurston closed his eyes, the image of the dark-eyed, curly-redheaded beauty coming back to him. She had taken the best part of him, he thought, and even picturing her gave him sensations in his nether regions that not even Debtra had prompted. Yet.


"This afternoon. That was her assistant Henry. She didn't come home from a dinner she was supposed to have attended, and when he called the hosts, he found she hadn't been there."

"Damn, damn, damn!" Thurston swallowed around a particularly sharp bit of bacon that had been hiding in his teeth. He brought to mind all the details he could muster.

"I know you want to go after her, Thurston, but your current investigation is more important. You know she can handle herself."

Thurston took a deep breath. "I'll take Debtra and skip tomorrow, but you're right – I can't leave this investigation, not now!"

Forsyth handed him a business card. "This is Henry's. He'll know where to start. He doesn't know you're in the Third, but I'm sure he'll be happy to hear from you."

"Maybe. Depending on what kind of mood she was when she last talked about me."

"What are you going to do for the rest of the evening?" Forsyth ambled around the office and picked up papers. Thurston stood and stretched.

"I'm rid of the children for the evening, so I'm going to do what every chaperone dreams."

"What's that?"

"Go to the morgue to see what our witness has suffered. I'll probably be able to figure out the cause of death better than their corpse specialist."

"She's called a coroner, Thurston."


"Just don't do anything illegal."

"In what dimension?" Thurston winked, although he felt that his heart cried ochre tears for his Savedra.

"That's what I'm worried about."

Author's Note: Yep, it's a short section this week. Hubby and I got most of the office packed and moved on Sunday, but I'm exhausted, and I've been slammed at my current place. The week I'm taking off to get everything settled in is going to seem like a vacation! I'm also looking forward to catching up on some serial fiction I haven't been able to read yet. Thanks for your patience!

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Serial Fiction: Monument Minders, Chapter Seven

Chapter Seven:
A Friend in Need

The autopsy results weren't ready yet, so Thom took Thurston and Debtra to their hotel. Thurston made sure his student had been settled in, and then he caught a cab back to downtown. He didn't realize he'd fallen asleep until he started dreaming.

She traced her thumbnail under her fingernails to stop the itching impulse to grab it and run -- if she wanted it, she couldn't be obvious. The dark blue faceted crystal on a square silver base was so clear she could see the little gears clicking and working underneath to gather more power. So she wiped the table, careful to give it a big berth while the big guy reading the paper watched her with deep-set black eyes.

"You like sparkles, young lady?" He smiled, and she saw his stained, crooked, pointed teeth. That would be the game, then. He wanted to lure her to his lair with the thing and then eat her sexually and physically.

She grinned. "It's so pretty!" Two could play that game, and she could rid the world of one more stupid bad guy who would use such a powerful device as a trinket to lure female prey. He probably didn't even know that it was charging after a recent detonation and wouldn't be usable again for a while.

"We're here, man."

Thurston jolted awake. How had he fallen asleep in the back of a taxi, especially one as rough as this one? His lower back promised to replay every bump and rattle for him later. But that dream… He had been a woman. Or had been seeing things as one. He could guess which one, too. She invaded his dreams at the oddest moments, usually inopportune times when he needed to focus on something else.

Thurston paid the cabbie, made sure he had everything, and stepped on to the sidewalk. He climbed the narrow stairs to Forsyth's office, housed above a Chinese restaurant in the Five Points district. The building had a view of the storyteller fountain, but was shielded so that Thurston couldn't hear the wails of the soul trapped inside the Storyteller statue. That one had been convicted of serial murder of children and goats, so this fate would be particularly repugnant.

But he could hear them as well as all the noise of the street through the cracked door at the top of the staircase. The door swayed open, then almost shut, with the breeze, and he quickened his steps. He pushed the door open and saw that Forsyth's office looked like it had been blown apart by a whirlwind with papers everywhere.

His breath caught, and he raised a hand to his mouth to stifle the vomiting reflex when he saw that Forsyth had been, too.

As an Old Soul, Forsyth's manifestation had been complex, a somewhat overweight man with short salt-and-pepper hair, the beginnings of a double chin, and blue eyes that could be the color of ice chips or a warm ocean. His bottom half still sat in the chair, and his top half lay scattered about over and under the papers. The energy that held the manifestation together leaked and bubbled out from the various parts. Humans would perceive it as blood. Thurston saw it as golden liquid that reflected the light like viscous crystal.


He followed the whispered calls to Forsyth's head, which lay underneath the open diamond pane window. He picked it up, careful to keep his back to the street outside so no one would see him carry it across the room.

"Forsyth! What in the Name of the Fifth happened here!" He found Forsyth's torso, missing its arms, but mostly intact, and placed the head atop it. The two parts fused together, a neat trick, Thurston thought. It showed how long Forsyth had been around, even longer than Debtra, but with infinitely more lives. He'd died before but had "gotten out of the habit," as he liked to say.

Thurston found the limbs and reassembled his friend as quickly as he could. After a few deep breaths, Forsyth wiggled his fingers and kicked his feet.

"Much better, thank you," he said with a bow from the waist. "I apologize for not getting up to greet you, but…" He gestured to the mess.

"Do you think you could walk downstairs for a meal?" Thurston asked, mindful of Debtra's difficulty earlier that day. Hopefully she hadn't noticed that he was fine without eating. At least he liked pancakes enough to consume them without the necessity of hunger.

"Give me a moment, old friend." Forsyth looked around the office and raised his eyebrows. "This is a mess, then, eh? Beatrice is going to have my hide."

"What happened?" Thurston brushed a few pages off the torture instrument that Forsyth called a consultation chair.

"I had just come up the stairs this morning to…" Forsyth's jaw fell open, and he moved faster than Thurston thought would be possible considering he'd just been put back together. The large man moved to the wall by the door, murmured a verbal key, and a safe appeared. Continued whispering of code, and the door fell open to reveal… Nothing.

Thurston's heart sank as the denial he'd cherished all day shrank into oblivion. Sure, he knew that the only device that could theoretically vaporize a statue and release the soul trapped within was a Splitter and that Forsyth guarded the only one, Sorvan's invention, in his thrice-spelled safe.

Forsyth sank back into his chair and put his head in his hands. "They've blocked my memory, Thurston. I know there was more than one, and that He had sent them, but I cannot remember the exact sequence of events or even how they discovered and robbed my safe. It's not even in this dimension! How did they find it?"

I might have posted this one before, but it's appropriate considering it's called the Chocolate Volcano, and Forsyth seems to have been blown to bits. Luckily Thurston arrived just in time to put him back together.

Office Migration 2010 (yes, I decided it needed a spiffy name) is progressing nicely. My new lease starts October 1, so there are just a few more days to pack! Every time I start to feel comfortable, I realize there's another detail that needs attention. I'm looking forward to getting everything done and being settled in so I can give more attention to writing and catching up on some of my favorite serials. Just a couple more weeks... Oh, and did I mention I have jury duty on Thursday? I'm going to need a chocolate volcano and several glasses of wine after this process is over!

Monday, September 13, 2010

Serial Fiction: Monument Minders, Chapter Six

Chapter Six
Potato Pancake Universe

Thom brought them to the Fried Green Tomato, a Southern food café.

"Nice place," said Thurston. "Do they have potato pancakes?"

Thom waved to the heavyset guy behind the counter, who held up his fingers in a double "Peace" sign. "I don't know, but I can ask."

Instead of turning right into the main dining room, Thom took them through a door at the back of the cafeteria-style service and ordering room and into a small conference-style room. Pictures of celebrities who had eaten at the restaurant lined the walls. Thurston nodded to Debtra, who took a deep breath and closed her eyes. She spread her arms, palms facing outward, and turned in a slow circle.

"No energy signatures consistent with listening devices, aether or otherwise."

"Good." Thurston sat with a thud in one of the metal chairs. "Although I don't think you need to worry about the aether ones. They wouldn't work so well in the quantum stream. I think it's time to feed our Manifestations again." He raised his eyebrows at Thom. "About those potato pancakes?"

Before Thom could reply, a knock came at the door, and he opened it to see the guy from the front room.

"Heya, Hank, come on in."

Hank nodded to the three of them. "What can I get y'all?"

They gave their orders, and Thom was relieved when Hank didn't blink at Thurston's potato pancake request. He'd escorted specialists, whom he figured worked for the C.I.A., before, but there was something strange about these two. They made chit-chat until Hank returned with the food. Then the professor hit Thom with a very strange question.

"Tell me, young man, what kind of conceptualization do you have of the universe?"

Thom blinked, and he remembered the dreams that had come back to him when looking into Debtra's eyes. He shrugged.

"It's big?" he asked.

Debtra coughed, but Thom thought she may have laughed at him.

"Look, I got the same classes everyone else did. I painted balls and strung them up in a mock solar system in fourth grade. I know that it's bigger than any human mind can imagine."

"Even more so." Thurston grabbed a napkin and took a pen from his pocket. "Have you heard of the theory of hidden dimensions?"

Thom raised his eyebrows. That sounded a little like his dreams.

"You live, and we're visiting here in the Third, which has two main time-streams that reflect each other." Homily drew a curve with three stick figures standing on it. "Then there's the Fourth, which is beyond it, and where my University resides. Earthly theory holds that the Fourth is time, but really it is beyond time, but we can hold it and make it flow forwards at certain points." He drew a line above the curve. "That way my students can't manipulate it and make it go backwards at final exam time. But we also have a perspective over the linear flow of time in the Third, like looking down at a circular river. From the Fourth, we can plunge in at any point."

Thom felt like his head was going to start pounding with a migraine at any second. "Where are you from?" he whispered.

"We're from the Fourth," Debtra said. She laid a hand on his, and the tension in his neck subsided. "Professor Homily and I are old souls, meaning we've been here several times."

He looked at her smooth skin and noted that the skin around her eyes only had a few slight wrinkles. "But you look so young!"

"That's because we came here with our Manifestations from the Fourth," said Thurston. "They take energy to maintain, otherwise we'd blur and fade, so we have to feed them on a normal human eating schedule plus one midnight meal."

"Oh, I thought you just had a strange way of saying you're hungry." Thom looked at the diagram. "What's beyond the Fourth?"

Thurston smiled. "Infinitely more layers and dimensions. The Fifth is where the Minders live."

"You'd talked about them."

"They observe the course of time and development, not just here, but in every dimension." Thurston tapped the end of his pen on the table. "They're very hard to explain. Humans would think of them as angels, and your Bible speaks of their guidance – some would say interference –at key points in history."

"And you survived a confrontation with one!" Debtra looked at Thurston with wide-eyed admiration, and Thom felt an unfamiliar sensation in his stomach – the uncoiling of biting jealousy?

"Barely, my dear. I've not been the same man since, and I have no recollection of about fifty years after that time."

"So what is monumenting?" Thom asked.

"A cruel, cruel thing," Debtra murmured.

Thurston nodded. "I'll assume you've had basic physics and know that, even in the most dense substances, there are spaces between atoms and molecules. As beings are essentially pure energy, monumenting takes the spirit, stretches it until there are holes between that energy, and fits it into a metallic substance that then is made into a monument."

"That sounds painful."

"The worst part is that monuments take millennia to decompose, and the spirit decomposes with it," Debtra said.

"Right." Thurston looked at his student. "There's something about the process that joins spirit to substance so thoroughly that they become the same. And it's impossible to escape, so the criminal sits there in the inclement weather with birds pooping on him or her for literal ages."

"Until this morning," said Thom.
Right, until this morning." Thurston looked at him. "That's why they called us in. I was there for the talks that developed the practice, and I opposed it, but I also understood it better than all save one."

"Sorvan," said Debtra.

Thurston nodded. "And I suspect that his infernal device, the Splitter, has been turned to undoing its work."

"But that's good, right?"

"Not precisely," Thurston said. "Because whatever was released this morning is no longer what he or she was. It will be an entirely new creature, and utterly unpredictable." Thurston looked at his watch. "Do you think those autopsy results are ready yet?"

Author's Note: I promise that I haven't run out of chocolate pictures, but I couldn't resist this lovely picture of a breakfast for dinner course from a beer dinner since our heroes are in a diner setting, and Thurston is about to indulge -- again -- his love for pancakes.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Serial Fiction: Monument Minders, Chapter Five

Chapter Five:
A Strange Shadow

"Are you kidding? I couldn't sleep after a morning like that!" Bill Welby, the policeman who had been with the Lancasters that morning, told them after having answered the door of his much smaller house in the suburb of Irondale. He looked at his hands, which he'd clenched and stretched several times. Debtra could feel the distress emanating from him in waves.

"How well did you know the Lancasters?" asked Homily.

"Fairly well. They've been volunteering at the park for years. I've been on that beat for a decade." He shook his head. "I'm just afraid that something I did killed the guy. Like what if he had dust in his throat, and I forced it in and suffocated him? Or had a shard of metal in his chest, and I shoved it into his heart during chest compressions?"

"I doubt it," said the Professor.

"That's what I worry about, that I shoulda done something differently."

Debtra sat nearest to him on the other end of the microfiber couch. She touched his shoulder and projected soothing energy, but only at him, not Thom. It wouldn't do for the young detective to fall asleep in the middle of the interview. "You did the best you could. The widow thinks so."

"Really?" His shoulders slumped. "That's a relief. I was afraid she blamed me."

"So tell us what happened?" asked Homily.

"It was our usual routine," the cop said. "We walked into the park just after dawn. Mike went to the left toward the General's statue. It was his great-grandfather or something. Merrie and I went to the right, where the benches are. I go with her to make sure no vagrants bother her. She was in the grass picking up trash, and I felt the sidewalk shake under my feet. At first I thought it was an earthquake, y'know? But then it got real hot, then cold again, like I sweated ice, and for a second I felt like I was about to get the sinus. Then it was over, and she yelled for him, and he didn't answer."

"Did you see anyone else in the park?"

Bill narrowed his eyes. "Whaddaya mean?"

"Someone running away, maybe?"

Debtra and Thom looked at Homily. That was a new question.

"No." But he looked away.

"Did you see anything unusual at all?" the Professor persisted. "Any clouds or smoke?"

"No smoke, but, God, don't lock me up or anything."

"It's off the record," Thom said and put his notebook away.

"No smoke, but it seemed like the shadow moved funny. Mike's shadow. But Merrie knelt by him, covering it with hers."

"Ah." Thurston nodded. "You're not crazy. Whatever did that to the statue disturbed the fields nearby including the light fields. You're actually very perceptive to have noticed."

The big man smiled, and Debtra felt his need for approval, even after all these years. Not that he had a freaking clue what Homily had just said.

"Thanks, Professor."

"Energy field?" she asked when they got out to the car. Thom had been silent. He looked shell-shocked, and she wondered if maybe she should've directed a little psychic comfort his way. She could imagine why he felt so bewildered: the Professor had that effect on people, his mind moved so much faster than theirs.

Homily nodded, and for a moment, he actually looked gray and ancient. "I am starting to suspect what happened in the park this morning may have been the work of an old adversary. I am still not myself after our last encounter, and that was back in the nineteenth century."

Debtra imagined that her shocked expression mirrored Thom's. Had Homily actually admitted to weakness? That was totally unlike him, but then, this world with its gas-powered vehicles was completely foreign to her, although she enjoyed the cool air that came from the vents when Thom started the quiet motor. Strange settings made for strange revelations, she recalled from her previous lives.

"Who was he? Or is he?"

"I imagine he's still around," Homily said. "He's one of the Minders."

Debtra's dropped jaw joined her raised eyebrows. "A Minder?" she whispered. "You came away from a confrontation with one of them alive?"

"Half alive. It took me a long time to recover. But he's the one who came up with the barbaric punishment of monumenting." He smiled, but not with happiness. Debtra had never seen such a vindictive expression on her mentor's face.

"Monumenting." The reason for their visit – the real reason – hit her like a bucket of ice water. She'd shoved it to the back of her mind, the apparent murder being much less disturbing.

"And this has been the first time someone escaped. I imagine he must be a bit disturbed right now."

"Wait… What?" Thom turned to look at the two of them like he may have to drop them off at the sanatorium on his way home. "What's a Minder? And what the heck is monumenting? I thought you were here to solve a murder and a prison break."

Homily fiddled with a knob on his door handle, and the window lowered with a gentle whirr, then went back up. "Let's get to that safe place I asked you to find, and I'll explain."

Author's Note: I consider myself to be a connoisseur of irony, and the past week has been particularly delectable. I signed my lease for my new office on Monday, and then proceeded to have my busiest week ever, leaving me no time for the other nuts and bolts of my office move.

But, in more exciting news, I've been published in an anthology! More details to come.

No, the apple pie pictured below isn't chocolate, but since it's a national holiday, I thought it worked. Yes, that's a homemade crust. Have I mentioned that I bake when stressed? My husband is more than okay with it -- his favorite dessert is pie.

I hope everyone enjoyed their long weekend!

Monday, August 30, 2010

Serial Fiction: Monument Minders, Chapter Four

Thanks to those who are following along! I appreciate those who have the patience to stick with a serial.

If you're interested in the other part of my life that's requiring a lot of attention right now, I signed my lease for my new office space this morning. Now it's on to the details like phone and internet. Yeah, I already took care of the fun stuff like decorating.

On to the story...

Chapter Four:
The Widow

They wound through several lavishly decorated rooms until they reached the kitchen, large with marble countertops, a huge island under a pot rack, and stainless steel appliances. It was bigger than some restaurant kitchens Thom had seen. The widow sat at the table in front of a window that would have let the afternoon light in, but was shaded by plantation blinds. A wilted piece of mint garnished the melting ice cubes and amber-colored liquid in a highball glass in front of her.

"Well?" she asked. She squinted at them through puffy, red eyes. Her iron-colored curls would have likely been in perfect order from her weekly visit to the salon, but her hair stood in spikes, maybe from where she had run her hands through it.

"Mrs. Lancaster?" asked Thom. No matter how many times he'd done this, guilt overwhelmed him at disturbing the survivor's grief.

"Yep. Widow Lancaster. That's me."

"I'm so, so sorry for your loss!" Debtra stepped in front of Thom and took the woman's hand in hers, covering it with her other one. "Please forgive us for disturbing you."

"Now you're a right pretty young lady," Mrs. Lancaster said and squeezed Debtra's hand. Her eyes seemed to clear a little. "What're you doing here and not in school or some shop? Are you a cop? You don't look like one."

"No, ma'am," Thom said. "She and Professor Homily here are experts in the kind of events that happened this morning. If you could just answer a few of their questions, we can leave you alone."

She motioned for them to sit around the table but didn't let go of Debtra's hand, so the young woman sat beside her.

"We were married for twenty-three years," Mrs. Lancaster said. "Twenty-three! Do you know how many people don't even last twenty-three months?"

"That's quite a stretch," Thom agreed. "Can you tell us what happened this morning?"

"Hell if I know," the widow growled. "I was off with Bill the policeman picking up trash, and I heard this noise. But I don't know if it was a noise. I felt it more than I heard it, like my ears got stuffy and then went Pop!" She sniffled and took a sip of her drink.

"Did you notice anything in the air?" asked the Professor. "Did it feel like it changed temperature?"

The ice clinked in the glass when she put it down. "Now that you mention it, it got hotter. I thought I was having a flash, but Bill was wiping his face, too, and I know he's not going through menopause."

Homily nodded and looked at Debtra.

"What did you do then?" Debtra asked.

"I yelled out to Mike, asking if he was okay, and I didn't hear an answer, so I went back the way we came and saw that the general was gone. Just…gone." She wiped her eyes with her free hand and squeezed Debtra's with the other. "Like Mike, it was just gone. He was lying there with stuff all over him, black dust and blood. I tried to shake him, but he didn't respond. Bill did CPR on him, but it didn't work, and…" The woman broke down in tears, sobs that seemed to come from her stomach.

"Shhh, it's okay," Debtra stroked her hand, and the woman looked at her, calming. "Is there anything else?"

The latter question was addressed to Thom and the Professor.

"Just a couple more things," Homily said. "What did your husband do?"

The widow's eyes never left Debtra's, and she spoke as though in a trance. "He owns – owned – a chain of jewelry stores. Best sapphires in town!"

"Did he have any connection with the statue?"

Now Mrs. Lancaster frowned. "Yes, actually. That general had been in the Civil War, and he was Mike's great-great uncle or something."

Homily stood. "Thank you, and again, we're sorry for disturbing you."

"Quite all right. I'm going to take a nap now. My children will be here soon."

Debtra gave her hand one more squeeze and stood. The men did so as well, and Thom took a deep breath when he got outside. Something about the atmosphere in the house had gradually closed in on him, wrapped around him like a blanket, making him warm and soothed and comforted. He was glad the others had done more of the talking.

"Nicely done, Debtra," Homily said after they got in the car, Thom's dark blue Chevy Cavalier. "But next time, you might want to warn poor Thom here. He seems to be more sensitive than he claimed."

"I'm sorry," she said. "I'll focus better next time."

"What?" Thom started the car.

"Dreadfully sorry," said Homily, but he didn't sound it. "That's part of what I want to talk to you about. Now how about the policeman?"

Thom checked his watch: three in the afternoon. "He works nights, so he's probably sleeping, but we can stop by and see if he's up."

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Serial Fiction: Monument Minders, Chapter Three

Chapter Three: Thom's Dreams
Earth, Southeastern United States, 1999 C.E.

When Debtra opened her eyes and gazed into his own, Thom remembered the dreams he'd had since he was a young boy, of angels and gods, of worlds spinning off at the whim of the beings whose trivial decisions created whole realities. In each of those dreams, there had been bright figures watching and waiting for… He didn't know what. He would wake feeling like he had just witnessed an epic movie, but opening his eyes erased all but the vaguest impression.

Debtra's dark eyes brought the dreams back to him, and he almost dropped the soda he held to her full lips.

"What is it?" she asked and broke the spell. The vision faded again, but the emotional impression remained, like the lost comfort of visiting a favorite childhood candy store and finding it having been turned into a chiropractor or nail salon.

He used the walk to the diner to study the two consultants that Agents Gurney and Troxley had brought in. True, he'd known that there was something strange about the exploding, no, disintegrated statue, but these certainly didn't look like the "experts" he'd expected. The older guy, Professor Homily, wore a grey tweed jacket with patches on his elbows and spoke with a slight accent. He babbled on about feeding one's manifestation, which Thom guessed was academic-speak for needing to eat and keep your blood sugar up. Thom had initially dismissed the young woman dressed in heels, jeans, and tank top with a filmy overshirt – the student? intern? – but his internal sense told him that there was more to her than a killer curvy body, legs that wouldn't quit, and straight, dark hair to her waist. He could imagine her coyly hiding her breasts behind its damp curtain as she waited naked for him in the bath…

And that was as far as he'd let that thought go. This was a professional association, he reminded himself.

They found the diner and ordered. Thom got a burger, Debtra a chicken salad-apple croissant and green salad, and the Professor a huge plate of pancakes.

"So, Detective Thom," Homily asked after he'd finished half the pancakes and poured syrup on the rest, "do you know why you're shepherding us around?"

Thom shrugged. "The agents mentioned you were an expert at solving unusual crimes. They said you used to work for another agency and then went out on your own, and now you teach."

Debtra and Homily exchanged a look. "Something like that," agreed the professor. "Why don't you catch us up with the events of the day now that we've seen the scene and had something to eat?"

Thom dragged a fry through some ketchup. "There's not much to tell beyond what you saw. There were two volunteers in the park before it opened, cleaning and stuff, and a cop. They split up with one and the cop going in one direction and the other cleaning by the statue. The two heard a noise, then came back to find the mess you saw and the other guy, not breathing. They did CPR until the ambulance got there, but there was nothing they could do for him. Like I said, there will be a full autopsy."

"We're going to need to talk to the volunteer and the cop," Homily said. "I need to know their exact impressions, and the sooner the better."

"Both of them?" asked Thom.

"Yes, both of them. Where they disagree can be most informative."

Thom looked at the plate and wasn't hungry anymore. "There's a problem."


"I don't know that the volunteer will be up for talking – her husband was the one who was killed."

"Oh, how sad!" Debtra looked at Thom, and he saw in her eyes the same pain for the victim's widow that he'd felt. He sighed when she looked away.

"Even so, if she wants her husband's murder to be solved, we need to speak with her. It's imperative that we do so today."

"Why?" asked Thom. "Can't we give her a day?"

Homily shook his head. "I don't plan on being here that long."

Thom raised his eyebrows. "Investigating accidents, especially strange ones, take longer than that."

"If it's what I suspect to be true, we need to move quickly. I've only seen one device that can wreak that kind of destruction…" He frowned. "Is there somewhere private we can talk?"

"We can go back to my office."

"More private than that. Your office may have been bugged."

Thom searched his mind for the places where he met snitches and thugs, places where no one would hear them because no one dared to go there.

"Give me a few hours, and I'll see what I can do. In the meantime, let's get the visit to the widow over with."

Merrie Lancaster lived in a large house just south of the city on the bluffs overlooking Birmingham itself. Her maid answered the door.

"Mrs. Lancaster ain't accepting visitors," she said and tried to close the door.

Thom showed his badge. "I'm afraid we have to disturb her. I'm Detective Pickering, and this is Professor Homily and Miss Lacoeur. We're here to ask her some questions about what happened this morning."

"Give me a sec." She closed the door, and Thom heard her yell, "Mrs. Merrie! Visitors! It's the po-lice and a professor!"

After a few minutes, the door opened again. "This way."

Monday, August 16, 2010

Serial Fiction: Monument Minders, Chapter Two

Sorry for the miss last week. I had a space cadet moment with the #TuesdaySerial collector. Chapters will be posted weekly from now on.

Chapter 2
Third Dimension, Earth, Southeastern United States
1999 C.E.

Debtra had been born before, five times in fact. An old soul, she remembered each time – the mess, the cold, the slap in less enlightened times. Arriving as an adult and having to stand on her feet right away as the swirling colors resolved into familiar shapes, that was odd. She was grateful for a steadying hand under her elbow, attached to a blur that resolved into Professor Homily.

"The first time is the hardest," he said with a wink.

She blushed. Was he flirting with her? Had he noticed when she'd brushed against him in his office?

"It's certainly different." She took a deep breath and went through the mental checklist they'd all had to memorize on the first day of Soul School to make sure that her manifestation functioned properly. All systems – even reproductive – signaled "Go!"

The scene in front of them screamed, "Stop!" A marble pedestal stood empty atop a flight of granite stairs. Everything in a twenty foot radius sparkled with a film of bronze and black dust. Shards of the same material lay scattered around the base of the pedestal, some shining with a slimy red substance.

An ambulance with flashing red and white lights stood nearby, and Debtra could feel the hum of the motor through the soles of her athletic shoes. A still figure lay draped with a sheet on a stretcher beside it, and red droplets stained the white material. That grisly detail didn't catch Debtra's attention so much as the young man standing beside it. He wore a blue suit and white shirt, both already wrinkled in the humidity that caressed her own skin. He listened attentively to the uniformed woman who spoke with him, but his eyes darted to the still corpse. The set of his cheeks and mouth said, "professional," but his eyes said, "human" and possibly "new soul."

"What do you see?" asked Professor Homily.

Debtra reminded herself that she was here as a student in spite of the memories of her five previous lives pressing on the back of her mind. "A mess."

He chuckled. "It would seem so."

She looked at him more closely. He had been so tense in his office, especially after the mention of Forsyth – whoever that was – but now he appeared relaxed and happy, almost relieved. He appeared the same in his white shirt, grey suit, and black loafers, but now he wore glasses. Still handsome, she noted, with a rugged, ageless face. She wondered how her own manifestation appeared and fought the urge to find a mirror. Sometimes first Plunges could rearrange things or make clothing disappear, hence Old Souls' dreams of appearing naked in random places.

"It looks like it exploded," she ventured. "And someone was standing too close when it did." She nodded to the figure on the stretcher. She'd seen worse, but there was something about it that repelled her. That had not been a natural death or even a mundane murder.

"That was one of the volunteers who picks up trash in the park before it opens." Detectives Gurney and Troxley stood behind them, and Gurney frowned at them. "We came through the transfer point. Where the hell did you go?"

Was that another wink from Homily? "Guess we missed it."

"It's not protocol to appear out of nowhere in a public place," Troxley told them.

"Sorry," Homily said, but Debtra could tell he wasn't. "It was your transfer node, after all. Maybe it's the same problem that allowed you to barge into my office?"

"They said they'd fixed it." Troxley cursed under his breath as he texted another query to the tech department.

Gurney waved to the young man who stood by the stretcher, and after making one final note, he walked over with long, confident strides, although he stopped well short of the four of them.

"Professor Homily, Miss, ah?"

"Lacoeur," she said, picking the first last name she could think of. That one had been hers in eighteenth-century France.

"This is Thomas Pickering, our in-dimension detective who will assist you with the investigation."

"Oh, it's not you?" asked Debtra.

"No, we're the agency that handles things on the other side," Troxley said. "Kind of like an interdimensional F.B.I. or C.I.A."

"Professor, Miss Lacoeur." Gurney nodded to each of them and then to Troxley, who pushed a button on his telephone. The two of them disappeared.

"So much for protocol," said Homily.

Thom shrugged. "Guess they don't care if there's no one to be shocked by it. Nice to meet you both." He shook their hands and gestured to the grisly scene in front of them. "As bad as it looks, it shouldn't have been enough to kill the volunteer, at least not according to the coroner's initial assessment. They'll do a full autopsy to see how he died."

"How old was he?" asked Debtra.

"About sixty," Thom said.

She nodded, surprised at the pang of jealousy. She'd never made it that long.

Professor Homily's hand on her upper arm reminded her that she was still the student in spite of her own years in the Third having added up to over 100.

"Are you okay, my dear?" he asked.

"Fine, just a little disoriented. I can see why they don't let the undergrads Plunge."

He smiled and squeezed her arm. "Just let me know if it gets too much for you. You can always go back."

She smiled through the embarrassment at having been called out in front of Thom. "I can handle it, Professor."

"Good. Now, about the statue. What do you think happened to it, Thom?"
Well, that's why you're here, Professor. They said they thought it was impossible." He lowered his voice. "They said to tell you that the prisoner has escaped."

Professor Homily raised his eyebrows. "Tell me, Thom, are you a Sensitive?"

Thom shook his head. "That's why they let me handle things on this side – I'm not squeamish."

"I see." Homily walked to the edge of the dust circle, took some on his fingertip, and tasted it. "This was a standard bronze statue, yes?"

"That's right."

A wave of dizziness hit Debtra, and her knees buckled. Thom caught her before she hit the concrete sidewalk.

"Are you okay?" he asked.

"Just a little dizzy." She looked at Homily and tried to scramble to her feet, but she was helpless as Thom lowered her into a sitting position on the ground. She closed her eyes against the spinning.

"Of course!" Homily placed the flat of his palm to his forehead. "It's all my fault, Debtra. I forgot that you need to feed your manifestation regularly in this dimension. Thom, is there a place where we could get a bite? Quickly?"

"There's a diner just outside the park."

"Excellent. Can you get her a soda or something to prop her blood sugar up so she can walk there?"

"I'll be right back."

The next thing Debtra knew, someone held a can to her lips, and she took a sip of something simultaneously sweet, bitter, and bubbly, like sweet champagne but not as sophisticated. After another sip, she opened her eyes to see that the world had stopped spinning. Thom and the Professor helped her to her feet, and she took a few shaky steps.

"What is that?" she asked.

Thom grinned and held out the red and white can. "It's called a Coke, a type of soda."

Debtra nodded and took the can, turning it to see all sides. She had learned about sodas in her Twentieth Century Trends class.

"I remember an older version of this," she said.

"Shall we?" asked the Professor. "It won't hold you for long."

She nodded and closed her eyes against the dizziness that tried to overwhelm her again. This time, when the Professor cupped her elbow, she didn't mind.

"Lead the way, Thom?"

In the back of her mind, Debtra wondered why the Professor hadn't crashed as well.

In danger of a sugar crash? This fudgy French Silk Pie with Mint and Raspberry sauces should hold you over! It was part of a recent meal at Le Vigne Restaurant at Montaluce Vineyards. To read about the rest of the day and the 2009 vintage release gathering, click here.