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.

I love to hear from my readers! If you have a comment for me or if you'd like to submit a character for published character interview or unpublished character analysis, please use the form below or email me at cecilia (at) ceciliadominic (dot) com.

If you're not getting enough randomness from me here, please feel free to follow me on Twitter and/or like my Facebook page. I've also taken the Pinterest plunge. You can also sign up for my monthly newsletter for news on books, sleep tips, and wine notes.

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.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Friday Flash Fiction: Confession

I've gone back and forth about posting this one for
a couple of weeks. It falls squarely in the category of "things I wish I'd had the guts to do in high school." Feedback, as always, is welcome.


Victoria was in danger of turning into that most hideous of beasts: The Perfect Child. Her natural intelligence had predisposed her to PC standing, and here she was at fifteen, ostracized for being a "smart kid." The way she saw it, she had two main problems: her mother and her religion teacher, Mrs. Bead.

Oh, yes, Victoria counted down the days until she could get her driver's license because her mother refused to take her anywhere if it would conflict with a Bible study, lay missionary meeting, or any of the other myriad activities that the Catholic cult (Cc) her mother had joined demanded of her time. Any complaints were met by, "You don’t want to be the reason I'm going to confession!" Consequently, Victoria ended up with during-school only activities only unless her father, who traveled frequently (more so since Mom had joined the Cc), could pick her up.

Then there was her "Religion and Morality" teacher Mrs. Bead. The woman with the uncanny resemblance to the Wicked Witch of the West minus green skin had a penchant for telling the class they'd be damned, usually preceded by a "lookit!" Apparently Mrs. Bead felt herself to be exempt from such a fate, particularly since she delighted in sharing her and her husband's sexual exploits with the class as excuses for failing to grade their papers the night before. Not that sexual congress among married people was sinful, but rubbing it in the faces of your hormone-hyped sophomore Morality class? Cruel, especially because no boy would touch Victoria because "her mother was a nun, and she wouldn't do anything, anyway."

Victoria's opportunity to escape PC status occurred at the nexus of the clash between the two forces of Mrs. Bead and her mother. When she'd gotten out of the car that morning, her mother had told her, "I have a meeting at the Monastery at four today, so come straight out after school. No delaying, or I'll be so upset I'll have to go to Confession, and you'll be grounded for a month!"

The cute guy in the saxophone section in the band had actually approached Victoria at lunch the day before, so being grounded was out of the question. She needed that chance to fail her Morality homework and have to go to confession!

By the end of Morality class, Mrs. Bead had, miraculously, run out of things to taunt them about. She had resorted to the generally ineffective "Peer Pressure" method of discipline and control:

"You may work on your homework, but if anyone makes a sound, the whole class will have to stay after school for fifteen minutes!"

Victoria took out a book. The rest of the class started out quiet, but soon whispering emerged. It spawned giggling, which grew to laughing, taunting, and finally...

"That's it!" Bead shouted. "You're all staying after, and if anyone says anything, it's going to be another fifteen minutes!"

With her mother's threat echoing in her head, Victoria raised her hand.

Bead glared at her. "Not. A. Word."

Victoria's stomach tightened. Then her heart pounded between her tonsils, and she tasted something sour at the back of her mouth. This wasn't fair! She hadn't done anything, and now she'd be grounded for a month! She glared at Bead, who calmly surveyed the now silent classroom and ignored the dirty looks from all sides.

"That's it!" Victoria's voice sounded high pitched, and squeaky even to her, but she stood. No spotlight shown on her, but the surprised looks of everyone including Mrs. Bead warmed her neck and cheeks. "My mother told me not to be late, and whatever punishment you give out, it's not going to be worse than what she'll do to me."

Bead opened her mouth, but before she could say anything, Victoria continued.

"Oh, and in case you're wondering if I care about punishing the rest of the class, yeah, I do. More than they obviously cared about punishing me. What you have to realize is that they don't give a rat's ass about how their actions affect me. I'm a nobody, just one of the smart kids that no one sees beyond the GPA on the honor roll board. So, sorry y'all have to stay to 3:30, but my mother is waiting, and keeping us all here because of the actions of a few is patently ridiculous!"

She grabbed her book bag and walked out of the class with hasty but deliberate steps -- no point in tripping and ruining the moment. She heard a single clap, and then a few more, like fat raindrops on the edge of a thunderstorm. Then applause rained down, and a few cheers rolled through the noise. Everyone grabbed their bags and marched out after her. She smiled, but she was breathing too hard to respond to the murmured congratulations. Oh, there'd be hell to pay the next day, maybe that night after her parents got a call from the Principal, but for the moment, she relished being the Not Perfect Child. Maybe the cute band guy would hear about it and call her...

"How was your day?" her mother asked when Victoria got into the car, only a few minutes after three.

"It was good, but I think I may have to go to confession.

Oh, I almost forgot the dessert. Since I waffled on posting this, it's a Belgian waffle with Nutella sauce and whipped cream:

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Metapost: Where's Cecilia?

Update: I've found a space and hope to have a new business address by early next week. My best friend, who is also my decorator, and I went out looking for furniture yesterday. I'm still in a major time crunch -- and stressed out -- but at least things are moving forward.

Those of you who follow my blog(s) are probably wondering where the heck I've been. Or maybe not, but let's pretend, shall we? You see, I've been off learning some basic but important business lessons.

I try to keep my day job and writing lives separate, so this is a rare post when I talk about both. I'm in the mental health field and have my own practice, which I'm in the process of moving closer to home. If you're not familiar with Atlanta, going from 15 miles to 1.5 miles should reduce my commute from 35+ minutes each way (60+ at peak times) to 5-10 minutes. However, moving an office, and especially a practice, takes a lot of time and mental energy, especially while trying to work full-time until I physically make the move in September.

So, the business lessons, which could also translate to writing lessons:

Number One: Trust No One; Get Everything in Writing

Okay, maybe this sounds a little cynical, but bear with me. When I was planning this move, I entered into an informal agreement with a colleague that we would split a three-person office space with the idea of splitting costs and lowering them even further when we'd get a third person in there. If it wasn't going to work for either of us, the other would understand. My mistake: we didn't put a time limit on the agreement, so when we got to the point of choosing between two finalists last week, she bailed. It's not so much that she decided not to lease space with me, it's that she made that decision when I'm in a time crunch.

So here I am, seven weeks out from the end of my current lease, and no space because I can't afford what we were looking at on my own. Oh, and did I mention that my commercial real estate guy was out of town until Tuesday? Part of my brain has been in constant panic since she "dumped" me.

The writing correlates are obvious.

Number Two: Don't Get Too Comfortable

The untimely exit of my potential business partner was likely a blessing in disguise. I had gotten "comfortable" in my current situation to the point that I was happy with my client load and had essentially stopped marketing. I'd also put on hold the dream of opening and expanding a practice focused on my sub-specialty. If she hadn't bailed on me, I may have ended up in a similar stagnant situation.

The writing correlates are twofold. First, all those rejections I've gotten just mean that my stories and novels haven't ended up in the right hands yet. Second, I can't let myself get "comfortable" with just doing #fridayflash (on Twitter) or serial fiction*, or limit myself genre-wise. I need to remember to enjoy and experiment because that's what this writing stuff is all about. I should also get back to the risk-taking and submission process.

So, please forgive me if I haven't been posting a lot here or on the Random Oenophile blog. Life is a bit overwhelming at the moment, but should settle down soon -- my real estate guy sent me diagrams for a couple of promising spaces today. In the meantime, here's some chocolate mousse:

* Don't worry, I will post the second part of the Monument Minders next Tuesday. I somehow missed the #TuesdaySerial collector thing when I posted the first chapter, so P.J. suggested I re-post that one this week and mark it as a debut.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Serial Fiction: Monument Minders, Chapter One

Yes, it's time for me to jump into serial fiction again! I started this one in April, and since I wanted it to be a serious story, I waited until I had it almost all written and the ending pretty much figured out before I brought it to The Penny Dreadful. Research also delayed it a bit because, although I find the subject fascinating, quantum physics put me to sleep. The genre is overall science fiction with elements of fantasy and steampunk coming in as it goes. I hope you enjoy, and please comment even if you don't!

Chapter 1

Fourth Dimension, 21st Century Station
University of Inabsolutism

Professor Thurston Homily looked at the pile of papers his teaching assistant had just plopped on his desk and sighed.

"Authenticity can be wearing," he said to the TA Debtra, who stood on the other side of his desk.

"You're not kidding!" She flexed her fingers to restore circulation to the bits that had been strangled by the sharp edges of the stack. "Why not go to CD's or memory sticks? They'd be so much easier to carry!"

"Too easy to lose, and I prefer to write my comments instead of type them. Formatting is a bear."

She ran her thumb along the edge of the stack and created a small breeze. "There's got to be a hundred pages in here at least!" The breeze continued and grew into a mini-whirlwind, ruffling her hair and short skirt as well as the professor's thinning hair and tie. He dashed around the desk and grabbed the wide-eyed Debtra by the shoulders, gently guiding her backwards and out of the way of the Pathway that opened where she'd been standing. She'd worked hard on her Manifestation, and it would be a pity for her to have to spend the next week reconstructing it. Plus, he needed her help grading.

"Thanks, Prof," she said and turned to face him, still standing close. He shoved her aside just as two men materialized, one wearing a long trench coat, and the other a dark suit.

"You're welcome, my dear. Now let's try to keep my reputation clean, shall we?" He hoped the remark took the sting out of his action. He filed away the interesting physiological responses his manifestation had exhibited when her breasts brushed against his chest.

"Professor Thurston Homily?" asked the one in the coat. Wrinkles lined his face, like he'd gotten too much sun as a young man. Thurston liked that – manifesting with flawed physical characteristics showed that the man had character. Unlike the other one, who could have been trying to portray a politician somewhere between the ages of twenty-five and "old enough to know better, really."

"At your service, gentlemen. This is my graduate student Debtra."

"I'm Detective Ross Gurney," the man with the wrinkles said. "This is my partner, Detective Vann Troxley."

"And what brings you to our little corner of the Fourth? It was quite rude of you to enter without knocking."

Gurney looked around and blinked. "Oh, this isn't the Pathway Reception Point?"

"Not in my office, no. Perhaps you should speak with your tech staff."

Gurney nodded to Troxley, who took out an object that looked like a cell phone and punched in a complicated sequence, his perfect, not-too-thick eyebrows without any stray hairs drawing together. "Dammit, Ross, I canNOT get used to these three-letter per button things. Why do we have to be that authentic? It's a pain in the ass!"

Thurston and Debtra exchanged a little smile.

"Is this an official visit, Detectives?" Thurston thought back through any potential transgressions, but he couldn't come up with any recent ones, at least none important enough to bring him to the attention of the Minders.

"We're here to consult with you about a case." Gurney brought a sheaf of papers out of his pocket.

Thurston sighed -- more papers. "I'm no longer consulting with Absolute Truth Investigations, Co."

"We know. That's why we're coming to you. Absolute Truth and the government had a falling out a few years ago. They're no longer honoring the contract."

Thurston's eyebrows crawled toward his hair line. "I wasn't aware of that. I wonder if the University has also parted ways with them."

"We're not sure, Sir, but I've examined the contract and found a loophole that allows us to approach you for your help. We would only take you away for a few days." Gurney lowered his voice. "Forsyth recommended you very highly."

That got Thurston's attention. Forsyth knew his secret.

"We need your help," Gurney continued, "because someone has escaped from a Monument."

"Oh, really?" Thurston looked at the papers strewn about his office so he could hide his smile. "It's better than grading. Debtra, are you ready for The Plunge? This may be the project you need for your thesis."

Gurney cleared his throat. "This is of a rather delicate nature, Professor." He lowered his voice. "It's about the Minders."

The mention of the Universe's jailers made Thurston's nails itch, and he ran his thumbnail under the crescents of his fingernails to stop it. His antipathy toward what he considered a cruel method of imprisonment bordered on allergic. He'd been involved in protests back in the day, er, century, when they'd first started the method.

"Well," he said, "Debtra has a bachelor's degree in Humanity, and she's working on her doctorate in Twentieth-Century Ethics, so she should fit right in. What's going on?"

Thurston and Gurney exchanged a look, and Gurney shrugged.

"They said to bring him. They didn't say anything about bringing or leaving anyone," Gurney said, "so she can come."

"Where are we going?" asked Debtra. She scrambled about to find the student essays that had been scattered by the whirlwind. For a moment, the three males looked at her, admiring her rear end or cleavage depending on where they stood. Thurston cleared his throat.

"To the Third, I assume," he said. "That's where the Minders have their charges."

She looked up, her eyes wide, and stood, crumpled papers clutched to her chest.

Lucky papers, thought Thurston.

"You were serious when you asked about The Plunge?" She stood and dropped the papers in a sloppy pile on the desk. "Am I ready?"

"That's what I was asking you, my dear. What year, gentlemen?"

"It's turn of the millennium, 1999," Troxley said. "It's not too complicated down there yet."

"Right, then." Thurston looked at his student. "Remember the process?"

Debtra nodded, still wide-eyed. "Will I go as a baby?"

Thurston stifled his laugh. "No, my dear, as yourself. Investigations get their own Pathway, which does not require the usual rigmarole." He remembered his own duties. "Is there anyone you need to tell? The first time is always risky."

She shook her head with a sad smile. "No one, professor."

He shouldn't be happy to hear that, he thought, but he was. "We'll follow you, gentlemen."

Oh, I almost forgot the chocolate Hopefully this will make up for the delay in the Steampunk appearance: