A brief note…

July 31st, 2014

For those who may have been wondering, I just looked through my records. I have eleven more novels (I think; they might not all reach novel length, assuming they get written, and one might turn out to be a graphic novel) I could drag out to post openings of. And three stories I’m pretty sure would not reach novel length.

That’s only counting stuff I’ve worked on in the past eight years, and only counting stuff where I’ve actually written an opening scene (though one opening, Yard Sale Mystic, is in script form). One’s an Ethshar novel, two are Bound Lands novels, two are science fiction, four are contemporary fantasy, one’s traditional fantasy in a setting I never used anywhere else, and one’s a supernatural western.

There’s a twelfth novel I can’t post about because it’s work for hire and I signed a non-disclosure agreement.

There are also scads of older works, and shorter works I didn’t enter into my “works in progress” records, and stuff that only exists as outlines, with no opening scenes. (Lots of planned-but-not-written sequels are only outlines.) And I may have missed some.

This is why I have trouble deciding what to work on.

Earthright

July 30th, 2014

Okay, I’ve done lots of fantasy; how about some science fiction this time?

Amelia Hand stared at the screen of her phone, holding it in her right hand as she reached for the lock of her room with the other. “You can’t be serious,” she said, pressing her palm to the sensor.

“I’m afraid we are, Amy.”

The door swung open, but Amelia stood where she was as she shouted, “Mother, I have told you a hundred times, don’t call me Amy! Nobody calls me Amy any more! My name is Amelia. You gave it to me – why won’t you use it?”

“Maybe my tastes have changed since you were born, Amelia. One gets into habits, you know.”

“Oh, I know,” Amelia said. She looked up from the screen at her open door and stepped through, into the familiar clutter of her tiny room.

She knew very well that one gets into habits. Like the habit of not worrying about money. Like the habit of relying on her parents. Like the habit of taking her own sweet time about her education.

Except now it appeared all those habits were about to be broken.

“You’re really cutting me off?” she said, sitting down suddenly on her bed.

“We have to, honey. Your father needs every mu we can get our hands on. You know how expensive medical care is!”

“It’s not the medical care that’s so expensive, Mother, it’s the resource tax.”

“Well, in your father’s case it comes to the same thing, doesn’t it? Anyway, darling, the point is, we simply can’t pay your way any more. You’ve had six years of grad school at our expense, and I’m afraid that if you want to finish your degree you’ll just have to do it on your own.”

“But Mother, I have everything but my thesis done!”

“Amelia, you’ve been ‘All But Dissertation’ for two years now. Just when were you planning to actually do your dissertation?”

“I’ve been researching it,” Amelia said defensively. “I’ve got dozens of gigs of background information!”

“Then go ahead and do it, honey, before your money runs out.”

“I can’t,” Amelia wailed. “I’m not ready!”

“Then either get ready, Amy, or do without your doctorate.”

“Mom, I can’t do without a doctorate! I can’t get a license without a doctorate, you know that, and without an export license how am I supposed to make any money?”

“I see plenty of unlicensed journalists on the net, honey; they must be making a living somehow.”

“But Mother, I want to have kids someday! I want life extension! I can’t earn enough for that without an export license. I probably can’t even afford to get my nose fixed!”

“There’s nothing wrong with your nose.”

“It’s a blob, Mother. It’s a lump. It’s ugly.”

“It’s a nose. It’s your father’s nose.”

“It’s his genes, but it’s my nose, and I intend to get it fixed eventually. But that’s nothing compared to kids or life extension, and I can’t afford those without a license!”

“Your father wants an extension contract too, Amy, and he needs it a lot sooner than you will, and that’s why we need our money now. You’ll have plenty of time to earn yours, but if Julian doesn’t get that contract now, while he’s still young enough to get decent terms, he’s not going to be around in another forty years. I don’t think either of us wants that. Not to mention we want to start saving for my extension!”

“He couldn’t wait just a little longer?”

“Amy,” her mother said. “Amelia. Seriously, now – would just a little longer make any difference? Have you actually started your thesis?”

Amelia glanced unhappily at the big and distressingly blank screen standing open on her desk.

“Well, sort of,” she said.

“Then let me make you a deal – one last concession, since you are our only daughter, and I really would like to see grandchildren someday. I am not going to send you any more credit, but I will countersign one more loan, enough to get you through another month or two. That will give you time to find a place, get started – or if you really do think you can get your thesis done, then go ahead and do it quickly. It’s up to you. But I warn you, this is the last you get from us until we have both our extension contracts signed and paid for, resource tax and all.”

Amelia started to argue, then stopped in mid-breath and thought better of it.

“All right,” she said. “Thank you, Mother. I’ll check the aid sites this afternoon and see what’s available. And I will get that thesis down on disk, you just wait and see!”

“I hope you do, darling. I really do. And I’ll let you get right to it. Do let us know when you decide what you’re doing, won’t you?”
“Of course, Mother.”

“Then I’ll say goodbye. Take care.”

“Goodbye, Mother.” Amelia cut the connection, then flung the phone at the armchair against the opposite wall.

The Music Will Never Stop 70

July 29th, 2014

There was another pair of tapes. The first is labeled “Coffeehouse – Pork Pie Hat, Aug. 13, 1973″ and “#2.” It also lists the seven members of Pork Pie Hat on the back.

The second only has a very faint scribble, “P.P.H. 2.”

Haven’t taken the second one out of the box yet. I’m working on the first one.

I played it all the way through. It sounded like utter crap. When it was done, I cleaned black gunk off the heads, rollers, guideposts, etc. and started it over. I’m three songs into that second run-through, and it sounds pretty good — not studio quality, but I’ve heard worse on commercially-released live albums. Seems like I have a formula — run through it to get the gunk off, then record it.

Anyway. Pork Pie Hat was a local band in Bedford, MA back in ’73 — five regular members, and a couple of drop-ins, according to what I wrote on the box. No connection with any band by that name you’ll find on the web. I knew four of the five members from high school, and one of the drop-ins; the other was the older brother of one of my friends.

The drummer, Chip Edgar, I didn’t know at all. No idea where they found him.

I’m pretty sure the band broke up by ’75. They were an adequate bar band, not much more than that, though they sometimes got ambitious. That anonymous jam I recorded from the previous tape was better.

Right now, as I type this, I’m listening to the Hat’s version of “Maggie’s Farm,” and it’s a bit odd — the rhythm section sounds like they’re playing “All Is Loneliness,” rather than “Maggie’s Farm.”

The tape box included a song list — but it’s for four sides, so I’m assuming it includes the tape labeled “P.P.H. 2.” It also isn’t very complete. That would be five or six hours, and believe me, they didn’t play that long at the Coffeehouse on August 13th. So far, in this first set, I don’t hear any crowd noise; maybe it was a rehearsal?

I really wish I’d kept better records back then.

Oh, hey! I just took a closer look at the box, and in the very faded ink that we see on a couple of other boxes it has a second date written in below “Aug. 13, 1973″ — it says “Aug. 27, 1973.” So I guess I taped two different gigs.

And I was looking at the other tape boxes, and there’s a third one: #5, “Coffeehouse – Pork Pie Hat (Two), Aug. 27, 1973.”

This is confusing. There are play-lists for two tapes, not three. I checked all the boxes; no other lists.

So I recorded the first side of the first tape, edited, and converted it to MP3, and… it’s a mixed bag. The first couple of tracks sound good, but it gets muddier and muddier. I actually stopped the tape twice between songs to clean the heads; the first time the heads weren’t bad and it didn’t make much difference, but the second time, at the end of a thirteen-minute jam, I got a big wodge of gunk off and the difference was huge. So I’ll probably go back and re-record some of this stuff and see if I can get better versions. Some of the damage is clearly in the original tape and unfixable, but some probably isn’t.

The first two songs — an instrumental I haven’t identified and “Jive, Jive, Jive” — sound great. The third, “Parchman Farm,” is good. By the fourth, “Maggie’s Farm,” not so much…

Sigh.

Pork Pie Hat did not have a really extensive repertoire. On the first tape I heard “Jive, Jive, Jive” three times, “Parchman Farm” twice, “Maggie’s Farm” twice, “The Great Escape” twice, an instrumental I haven’t identified three times, “Badge” twice, and “Summertime” twice.

(Classically-trained first sopranos should not sing “Summertime” with blues-rock bands. Especially not an octave or so above the key the band is playing in. The word “screechy” is one of the politer terms to come to mind.)

And besides those favorites they played a few other songs, including “Soul Kitchen” and “Spoonful.” They didn’t do either of those as well as that anonymous band on the previous tape, but they weren’t bad.

They closed out the set with “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun.” That was interesting, and better than I might have expected.

I ran into trouble recording the second side. I tried to save the file to an invalid location and lost the whole thing. I was able to salvage it, but I spent two and a half hours recovering a recording that’s only an hour and forty minutes. Now I know how to do it, though; next time (I’ve made this mistake before and may well do it again) I’ll be able to do it much more quickly.

It was all still there when recovered, and I successfully translated it all to MP3.

It’s all squared away. I have thirty tracks off this tape, albeit with a lot of repeated songs. Quality is mostly good; the entire second side was clean enough that I didn’t need to filter or rebalance anything, though I did amplify a few numbers.

The first side, well, I plan to re-record that and maybe replace some of the iffy pieces, if I can get better versions.

I don’t actually know where this stuff was recorded. The song list doesn’t say. The box says it was recorded at the Coffeehouse, on two different dates in the summer of 1973, but I’m not sure I believe that. It’s probably accurate, but even if it is, I have no idea where the break between shows is. Since some songs are played three times, I can’t just go by the assumption that the second set begins when they start repeating.

Also, there is no crowd noise on the first few tracks, so that might have been a rehearsal, or maybe they just started playing when the place was still half-empty.

Whatever. It’s done, barring possible replacements. And most of it is decent music. The vocals on “Summertime” are pretty dreadful, both times — and I say this even though the singer was a good friend of mine — but the band could jam. I think their arrangement of “Maggie’s Farm” is bizarre, but they did fine with “Parchman Farm” and “Spoonful” (all thirteen minutes of it) and some of the others.

There are seven songs I haven’t identified. Some are instrumentals and I don’t recognize them; a couple have words, but I can’t make out enough of the lyrics to google them. Or at least, I haven’t yet — I’ll probably give them a more careful listen eventually.

So, on to the replay, and then the other Pork Pie Hat tapes.

Meant for Each Other

July 28th, 2014

Here’s another one. I’ve written at least one short story in this setting, the world of the Extermination — “Arms and the Woman,” which appeared in Sword & Sorceress XVIII. There may be more; I’m not sure. I certainly plotted more. Anyway, this is a bit of fluff, but I had fun with it. I really ought to finish it someday.

The midwife lifted the baby, cooing, and then stopped. Her smile turned to a puzzled frown.

“What?” the new mother asked, still panting from the delivery. “Is something wrong?”

“Not wrong, exactly,” the midwife said quickly. “He’s a fine healthy boy, by the look of him.” The child, silent until that moment, suddenly let out a wail, his face crumpled in displeasure at his new surroundings. “But he’s got a birthmark!” the midwife called over the baby’s crying, as she handed him to his mother.

The father had appeared in the bedroom door at the baby’s first yell, and now stared as the mother cradled her new son. “What kind of a birthmark?” he demanded. “Is he disfigured?”

“No, no,” the midwife said. “It’s quite small. It’s on his left shoulder.”

“I see it,” the mother said, as she held the infant to her breast. The crying came to a sudden end. “It’s shaped like a sword and crown.”

“Like what?” the father asked, startled.

“Like a sword and crown,” the midwife said. “Exactly like a sword and crown. Right down to the star on the pommel.”

The father hesitated. “That doesn’t sound natural,” he said.

“It’s not,” the midwife said. “You can see that at a glance. That’s a magical birthmark if I ever saw one.”

Magic? My son has some kind of magic?” the father demanded.

“I’m afraid so,” the midwife said. “It’s not one I know, though – you’ll need to talk to someone at the Department of Signs and Prophecies.”

“What, up at the Citadel? That’s a hundred miles!”

“No, no,” the midwife said. “They have a branch office in Deerford.”

“Oh,” he said, slightly mollified. “That’s still a long walk – fifteen miles, isn’t it?”

“About that.”

The father frowned. “Do I really need to go?”

The midwife shrugged. “I would, if I were you – what if it means he’s cursed? Destined to kill his father, maybe? I’d certainly want to know.”

“That’s a good point,” the father admitted. “All right, then, I’ll go. Eventually. No need to rush off.”

“None at all,” the midwife agreed.

“He’s beautiful,” the mother said, interrupting.

“He’s a pretty baby, all right,” the midwife agreed.

“Let’s have a look, then,” the father said, stepping to the bedside.

The midwife didn’t leave the room, but she moved aside and said no more; there would be time enough to collect her fee later.

#

The royal physician kept his expression carefully unreadable as he announced, “There is a birthmark.”

The queen looked up, puzzled.

“On her left shoulder,” the physician’s chief assistant confirmed. “It would appear to be magical.”

The physician threw his assistant a quick irritated glance. “Indeed,” he said, “but it is not one I recognize immediately.”

“What does it look like?” the queen asked.

“See for yourself, your Majesty,” the physician said, as he handed her the baby. She accepted the child hesitantly.

“A crown with a sword through it,” she said. She looked up at the physician. “What does it mean?”

“I’m afraid I don’t know, your Majesty,” the physician said. He turned to the royal magicologist. “I believe this would be your department, my lord Hopin?”

“I suppose it would,” Lord Hopin replied. “I am afraid I do not recognize the significance of the mark, your Majesty. I did, of course, research all signs, portents, and prophecies known to relate to your own bloodline, or the King’s, but this birthmark was not among them. It may well be described somewhere – no one could memorize all the known prophetic indicators – or it may be a previously unrecorded sign. If you will allow me, as there is no other manifestation of magic in evidence, I shall begin researching it at once.” He bowed.

“Go on, then,” the queen said, dismissing him with a wave, then turning her gaze back to the infant in her arms.

“Your Majesty, what shall we tell the king?” the physician asked.

She looked up. “Tell him he has a healthy daughter.”

“Shall we mention the birthmark?”

The queen looked back at her daughter. “Oh, I suppose you had better.”

“Perhaps we should wait until Lord Hopin…”

“And which would you rather do, physician,” the queen interrupted, “bring his Majesty bad news, or have it known that you concealed bad news from him?”

“I see your point,” the physician said, ignoring the sudden look of terror on his assistant’s face. “I will tell him, and pray that Lord Hopin discovers the mark’s nature quickly.” He turned to go, leaving the assistant to clean up the blood and sweat and other detritus that must attend even a royal birth.

Just three hours later Lord Hopin found the relevant prophecy, and reported that the princess Rhaminythaeria was destined to bear a child who would one day save the entire world from destruction.

“Well, that’s not bad,” King Korigildin said, a smile spreading across his face. “That’s not bad at all. My grandchild will save the world?”

“So it would seem, your Majesty,” Hopin said, with a bob of his head. “As so often with magic, however, there is one catch.”

The smile vanished. “What is it?” the king demanded.

“The child must be fathered by the one man in the world who bears the same birthmark on his left shoulder. Otherwise the prophecy shall be voided, the spell placed upon the girl broken, and there shall be nothing to halt the threatened catastrophe.”

The king stared at the magicologist for a moment. He stroked his beard thoughtfully, then said, “And where do we find this man?”

“I have no idea, your Majesty,” Hopin said. “The prophecy gives no indication at all. The records simply says that the wizard Gharoush of Shethor became aware through his arts that at some point in the distant future – this was recorded before the Extermination, of course, in fact some seven hundred years ago, so the present day is his ‘distant future’ – at any rate, at some point, possibly in our own time or possibly still far in the future, spells cast well before Gharoush’s own day would have repercussions that could destroy all the world. Gharoush’s response was to perform magic of his own, ensuring that two children would be born bearing the crown and sword, one male and one female, and that they would in turn produce a child whose actions would prevent the disaster. It appears that Gharoush himself did not know who the children would be, or exactly when or where they would be born.”

“So Rhaminythaeria’s destined husband may not even be born yet?”

“So it would appear. Or he may be a child, or a grown man.” Hopin was careful not to mention the possibility that the prophesied father of her child might not ever actually be her husband.

“This may significantly diminish her betrothal value,” Korigildin said thoughtfully, plucking at his lower lip. “If she must marry this person with the matching birthmark, I can’t pledge her to just any princeling who comes along offering an alliance.”

“Your Majesty is wise,” Hopin said. “On the other hand, the renown of being destined to bear the world’s savior must surely have some value.”

“True enough. And that other birthmark may well turn up on the Prince of Attesteyin or someone of the sort, and if it does, he can’t very well refuse an alliance, whether he wants one or not.”

Hopin nodded.

“Well, it’s a complication, but it’s not bad,” Korigildin said, slapping the arms of his throne. “And Ferinora will undoubtedly provide us, in due time, with other heirs not so magically hampered.”

“Undoubtedly.”

“When the Queen wakes, you may tell her everything you have told me. And you will observe our daughter, and make sure that any other signs and portents are noted.”

“Shall I send word to the various archives and recorders of signs and prophecies, your Majesty? Or perhaps begin discreet inquiries regarding the bearer of the matching birthmark?”

“I don’t think there’s any great hurry about notifying anyone. After all, we have several years before my daughter will be capable of bearing a child. Let us wait until we know a little more. Discreet inquiries would be appropriate, though – very discreet.”

“I understand.”

“Good. See to it.” With that the king rose, and the audience was over.

Graveyard Girl

July 27th, 2014

I thought I had finished this one, but then my agent looked at it and pointed out all the reasons it didn’t work, so it went back into the “Works in Progress” folder. I’ve worked out how to finish it, I just haven’t done it yet.

The two girls were sprawled on the floor in front of the TV with a bowl of popcorn between them, giggling madly, when the phone rang – not a cell phone, but the landline Madison’s parents still used. Neither of them paid much attention as Mrs. Fernwright answered it, but when Mrs. Fernwright said, “Yes, she’s here,” Emily realized it must be someone looking for her – probably her mother.

“Oops,” Emily said. “Sounds like I’d better turn my phone on.” She reached for the pocket of her jeans.

“But it’s just getting good!” Madison protested. Then she sighed and hit the pause button. “I suppose you better see what’s up.”

“Emily?” Mrs. Fernwright called from the family room door, and Emily stopped what she was doing, phone in her hand. Mrs. Fernwright’s voice was unsteady – really unsteady. Something was badly wrong, for an adult to sound like that.

“What is it?” Emily asked, sitting up and turning to face her friend’s mother.

“Emily, there’s been an accident.” Mrs. Fernwright’s face was white, and Emily began to be genuinely frightened.

“What kind of accident?” Emily asked.

“Your mother’s been hurt.”

Emily’s general unease suddenly solidified into a horrible fear that clamped around her belly. “What’s happened to my mother?” she asked.

“She was hit by a car,” Mrs. Fernwright said. “I’m… we’re going to the hospital to see her.”

Emily swallowed. “The hospital?”

“Yes. St. Luke’s.”

“That’s where she works,” Emily said, but after the words were out she wasn’t sure why she had said them.

“That’s not why she’s there,” Mrs. Fernwright replied. “She’s in the emergency room, as a patient.”

“Is… is it bad?”

Mrs. Fernwright looked miserable and trapped, not like herself at all. “Very bad,” she said.

“Oh, no,” Madison whispered.

Emily swallowed. “How bad?” she asked.

“We need to go now,” Mrs. Fernwright answered. “Did you have a jacket or coat?”

“No.”

“Then come on.” Mrs. Fernwright picked up her own purse from the table by the door and gestured for the girls to follow her. “Hurry! Both of you, move it!”

“Why is there such a rush?” Madison asked.

“I told you, it’s very bad,” Mrs. Fernwright answered. “Anne… Emily’s mother is seriously hurt.”

How bad?” Emily demanded, as Mrs. Fernwright opened the door to the garage.

“Why are we hurrying?” Madison asked.

Mrs. Fernwright sighed. “We are hurrying, Maddie, in hopes of getting there while Emily’s mother is still alive. Now, come on.”

Emily could not say anything in reply; her eyes grew wide and her throat seemed to close up. She climbed into the car without another word, and Madison got in beside her, eyes wide. Emily sat back, trying to press herself into the seat cushions as Mrs. Fernwright started the engine.

Mrs. Fernwright murmured, “It may not be…” She didn’t finish the sentence; she looked as miserable as Emily felt.

They had gone several blocks when Emily finally gathered enough of her wits to ask, “What happened? Who was that on the phone?”

Mrs. Fernwright didn’t answer immediately; she was focused on her driving. When they had cleared the next intersection, though, she said, “That was your father. He said your mother pushed someone out of the path of a car and was hit herself. The car went right over her.”

“Oh,” Emily said, feeling very small and frightened.

A few minutes later the car pulled into the parking lot of St. Luke’s Hospital, and Mrs. Fernwright cruised along three rows before finally finding a space not too far from the emergency room entrance. She pulled in and turned off the engine, then unbuckled her seat belt, opened her door, and got out.

Emily sat frozen in the back seat, vaguely aware that she should be moving, she should be doing something, but she didn’t want to go anywhere or do anything. If she stayed here in the car it wasn’t real yet. Beside her, Madison was also motionless, staring at Emily.

“Emily?” Mrs. Fernwright said, opening the door beside her. “We’re here.” She reached in and patted Emily’s shoulder.

Suddenly Emily saw something that had nothing to do with the inside of the car, nothing to do with the hospital, nothing to do with her mother. For an instant she was somewhere else entirely, looking down at an old woman lying face-down on the floor of a hallway, sprawled across a small Persian rug. The woman was wearing gray slacks and a loose top in a bright floral print; her snow-white hair was cut short in a style Emily had never seen before.

The woman wasn’t breathing.

Then Emily was back in the car, and everything was just as it had been. Mrs. Fernwright was holding the door, and Madison was looking at her with a worried expression.

“Are you all right, Emily?” Mrs. Fernwright asked.

“I don’t know,” Emily said, not looking at her friend’s mother.

Mrs. Fernwright’s hair was dark brown and shoulder-length, and she wasn’t really very old at all, but somehow Emily thought it had been Mrs. Fernwright she saw lying dead on the floor somewhere.

It had been her imagination playing tricks on her, she told herself, that made her see that dead woman. The stress of being rushed here without any chance to prepare herself, the news that something horrible had happened to her mother – that had made her hallucinate. That was the only rational explanation. Nothing like that had ever happened to her before, but it had to be her imagination.

Madison and Mrs. Fernwright were both staring at her, she realized. She swallowed, and spoke. “We left your TV on,” she said. “On ‘pause.’”

She had no idea why she said that. She had needed to say something that wasn’t about her mother or weird hallucinations, and that was what came out.

“It doesn’t matter,” Mrs. Fernwright said. “Come on.”

Emily forced herself to move, to get out of the car and stand on her own feet. Mrs. Fernwright reached out a steadying hand.

Again, there was a momentary flash of somewhere else, some other time and place, and a white-haired woman lying dead on the carpet, but it was briefer this time, less disorienting. Emily ignored it and started walking.

Fetch

July 26th, 2014

This one’s cheating a bit. I started it in 2006, because I had a central concept and some characters I liked, so I started writing. Then a couple of chapters in I realized the plot I had wouldn’t really work, so after meddling around trying to fix it I put it aside in 2008, leaving it until I could come up with a plot that worked better. I still don’t have one, but here’s the opening anyway.

The address on his uncle’s card was not what Donnie had expected. He had assumed that Uncle Jerry’s office was in some boring concrete-and-glass box, with white walls and earth-tone wall-to-wall carpet, but the number picked out in crumbling gold leaf on the fanlight over the door here was 618, and the number on the card was 618, so this must be the place, gargoyles and all.

He pushed open the big black door and stepped into a shadowy hallway where yellow glass bowls hanging from tarnished brass chains cast warm light across dark wood wainscoting, red-papered walls, and a black marble floor. A narrow stair of bare wood led up to the next floor.

“Suite 202,” the card said, so Donnie shrugged and headed up the well-worn steps.

The upstairs corridor looked very much like the downstairs one, save that the floor was polished hardwood instead of marble. Three doors of dark wood and frosted glass opened off it, two to the right and one to the left; the glass panels in the two on the right glowed warmly, while the one on the left was dark.

The one on the left had the number 200 on the glass in gold paint, and nothing else. The first door on the right bore the number 201, and below that the name “Emerson & Fay.” That left just one choice, and sure enough the last door, numbered 202, said “Orpheus Retrieval Co.” Donnie knocked lightly on the glass, then tried the knob.

It turned, and he opened the door as footsteps sounded somewhere within.

“Hello?” Donnie said, leaning around the door.

“Donnie boy, that you? Come in, come in!” His Uncle Jerry was marching across an anteroom toward him, hand outstretched. Before Donnie quite knew what was happening he had been hauled into the office, Uncle Jerry’s left arm around his shoulder while Uncle Jerry’s right hand gripped his own, pumping it energetically – the man was old, positively ancient, white-haired and leather-skinned, but still amazingly vigorous, and far stronger than he looked. “Let me show you around!”

“Thanks, Uncle Jerry,” Donnie managed.

“You’ve never been here before, have you?”

“No, sir.”

“Well, take a good look!”

Donnie took a good look, at the big antique wooden desk, the computer on the desk that looked as if it had been there since the twentieth century, the phone that looked older than that, the answering machine so ancient it used cassette tapes rather than digital memory, the glass-fronted shelves of badly-assorted books in mismatched bindings. Four sturdy metal-framed chairs stood in front of the desk, and a worn leather-upholstered swivel chair stood behind it. A once-lush but badly worn Persian carpet covered most of the floor. Two doors led to inner rooms, and two windows had a view of tall maples and a small parking lot.

There was nothing in sight that gave any hint of the present century.

“What do you think, eh?” Uncle Jerry asked.

Donnie swallowed. This was a crucial point, he knew – he could either tell the truth, or do his best to suck up.

He had never been a good liar. “It looks a bit old-fashioned,” he said.

“Old-fashioned? Old-fashioned?” Uncle Jerry clapped him on the back. “It’s fuckin’ ancient! Pretty much everything but the computer’s older than you are, Donnie, and if we didn’t need the computer – hell, sometimes I think we should have hidden it somewhere, but it’s so goddamn handy having it there for the appointments and billing.”

“Oh,” Donnie said. He looked around helplessly.

“Come on into my office,” Jerry said. “We’ll talk there. My partners are due in about twenty minutes, but I wanted to talk to you before they got here.”

Donnie nodded. “Okay.” He allowed himself to be led across the room and through one of the inner doors.

He had expected a small, cramped space in keeping with that front office, but instead he found a spacious, modern room – it was like stepping through a time warp, back into the twenty-first century. A flat-screen TV hung on the wall above shelving that had probably come from IKEA, the desk was broad and open, an elliptical trainer stood in one corner, and there wasn’t a trace of polished brass or oiled wood anywhere.

“Have a seat,” Jerry said, gesturing at a chair as he settled into his own desk chair. Donnie obeyed.

He perched warily on his seat while Jerry leaned back and laced his fingers across his belly, studying his nephew. For a moment neither spoke; then, just as the silence was growing uncomfortable, Jerry said, “So, do you have any idea what we actually do here?”

“Uh… well, the name says ‘retrievals,’ so I assume you get things back for people.”

“Got anything more specific?”

“Uh… no.”

Jerry snorted. “That’s too bad,” he said. “I’d hoped you were bright enough to make a guess, or that maybe your mother had let something slip.”

“Sorry,” Donnie said. “I never gave it much thought.”

“I suppose there’s no reason you should. Care to make a guess now, though? Maybe work out a little?”

“Well… you keep that front office looking like something out of a BBC period piece, and I assume you’re in this weird old building deliberately, so your customers must want something old-fashioned, not high-tech. And you call the company ‘Orpheus,’ so – something to do with music? Locating rare old instruments, maybe?”

Jerry laughed. “Good guess,” he said, “but wrong. About the music, I mean. What else did Orpheus do?”

“Got torn to pieces by maenads. That doesn’t help.”

“Besides that.”

“He went into the underworld to get his wife back.”

“Bingo!”

Donnie thought about that for a moment as Uncle Jerry looked at him expectantly, then said, “You track down lost wives? I don’t see why you’d want to look old-fashioned…”

“No, the other part.”

What other part?”

“Where he went to find Eurydice.”

Baffled, Donnie said, “The underworld?”

“Right!”

Donnie considered that carefully. Then, very slowly, he said, “You operate underground? In the sewers and subways?”

“No!” Jerry threw his head back and pulled at his white hair with both hands. “Jeez, kid! The underworld! The afterlife! The land of the dead! We bring things back from the land of the dead!”

Donnie licked his lips and watched Uncle Jerry warily, not saying anything until the old man had straightened up again.

Uncle Jerry stared at him expectantly.

“From the dead,” Donnie said at last.

“Yes! From the land of the dead, the realm beyond, the next world. We go there, we find things, and we bring them back.”

“What sort of things?”

“Two sorts, mostly – souls and answers. Every once in awhile it’ll be something else, something that shouldn’t be there, but mostly it’s dead souls and straight answers.”

Donnie stared at his uncle.

“Uncle Jerry,” he said, “are you trying to tell me you bring people back from the dead?”

Uncle Jerry smiled. “Now you’ve got it!” Then the smile vanished. “But it’s not what you think, not really. We mostly find answers, or bring back ghosts, rather than bringing people back to life. To resurrect someone you need an intact body, and usually whatever killed them the first time will kill them again – and that’s assuming we can find the right soul and fetch it back in time in the first place, which, frankly, we usually can’t. What we do isn’t easy, Donnie, it’s not easy at all.”

“I didn’t think it was possible.”

The Turners

July 25th, 2014

Another unfinished novel. This one was meant to be a Young Adult novel. While it might appear to be a contemporary setting, it is not our world. And you know, folks, I’d really like some feedback here — do any of these starts look promising? Would you keep reading?

Steve Everett sat quietly on the porch, his back against the wall below the living room window, listening to his mother’s conversation with Ms. Ramirez.

He knew he probably shouldn’t be there; the adults would consider it spying. It was spying, really. But they were talking about him, and he was curious, and wasn’t talking about him behind his back a little rude, too?

“You said he has his learner’s permit?” Ms. Ramirez said. Steve imagined her looking at her notes, the way she did every few seconds whenever she spoke with him. It was really annoying, the way she did that.

“Yes, of course,” Ms. Everett replied. “He’s been sixteen for months; all his friends have had permits for some time.”

“Are you sure that’s wise?” Ms. Ramirez asked.

“What? Why wouldn’t it be?”

“Well, with the way his parents died…”

Steve could almost hear the expression on his mother’s face as the social worker’s voice trailed off, leaving her sentence unfinished. He knew that look of disgusted anger well.

“Stephen does not even remember his biological parents,” Ms. Everett said coldly. “We are the only parents he has, and we have not been in any car crashes. I think if you’ll check with the Department of Motor Vehicles, or our insurance company, you’ll find that my husband and I are very safe drivers – no accidents since before Stephen was born, and the last ticket either of us got was ten years ago.”

“Oh, I know, but I know Stephen knows what happened to his parents…”

“His biological parents.” Steve thought his mother had gotten to the stage of speaking through clenched teeth, and he was impressed; it usually took him half an hour of arguing to get her that angry, and the social worker had done it in five minutes. He would have to remember that trick of talking about his biological parents as if they were his only parents; he had called them his “real parents” once or twice in some of the nastier family fights, but he had never thought of not using any adjective at all.

“Yes, his biological parents. I’m sorry. At any rate, he knows they died in an auto wreck, so I’m not sure pushing him to learn to drive…”

Pushing him? Ms. Ramirez, how long have you been out of high school? The hard part is restraining him! He’s a normal boy; he wants to learn to drive as soon as possible. He wants his own car as soon as possible.”

“I really don’t think that would be a good idea, Ms. Everett.”

“Well, we aren’t about to give him a car, Ms. Ramirez, but if he earns the money himself, we aren’t about to stop him from getting one. Learning to drive is pretty essential, don’t you think?”

“I’m sure millions of people manage without.”

“When did you get your license, Ms. Ramirez?”

“When I was sixteen,” the social worker admitted. “But Stephen’s situation is different!”

“Not in any way that matters, so far as I can see.”

For a moment neither woman spoke.

This was one of the things that puzzled Steve about the quarterly visits from the social workers. He’d first noticed it when he was ten, when old Mr. Albright was still handling his case, and at first he’d thought it was just some quirk of his, but then when Ms. Zelinski took over four years ago she did the same thing, and for the past year Ms. Ramirez had done it, as well. All of the social workers kept talking as if he was somehow special, as if there was something abnormal about him, but they would never say why. They would never come out and say that he was anything other than an ordinary kid, but they talked about his “unique circumstances,” or “different situation.” And if he or one of his parents got curious or annoyed enough to ask outright what was “unique” or “different,” the social worker would change the subject.

The only thing he could think of that might make him special was never mentioned; he didn’t see any sign anyone knew about it other than himself. The social workers certainly never asked him about it.

For that matter, Steve wasn’t entirely sure why the social workers were still coming around at all. On TV shows or movies about adopted kids, no one ever mentioned regular visits from social workers going on for year after year. Social workers were supposed to check on abused or neglected kids, kids who got in trouble with the law, or kids who used drugs, not on kids like him.

And social workers on TV checked for bruises or asked about perverts touching kids, they didn’t go on and on about whether he’d seen any strangers in the neighborhood.

Maybe the TV stories had it all wrong. Maybe the regular visits were just something nobody mentioned. But it seemed a little weird. His biological parents had died almost fifteen years ago, when he wasn’t even two yet; was it really worth the government’s trouble to keep sending people to check up on him?

“Well, thank you for your hospitality, Ms. Everett,” Ms. Ramirez said, breaking the silence. “Stephen seems to be in good hands, as always. I’ll be back in September to talk to him again.” Steve could hear papers shuffling and the thump of her briefcase closing.

“Of course,” his mother said, and her voice still had an icy edge.

“You will let us know immediately if you see anyone watching him, won’t you?” The briefcase latches snapped shut, one after the other.

“Of course.” Her tone was a little softer.

Steve knew that Ms. Ramirez would be coming out the door any second now; he turned – really turned – and hid.

Sure enough, the knob turned and the front door opened, and Ms. Ramirez stepped out onto the porch. She turned and shook his mother’s hand.

“See you in September,” she said.

“September,” Ms. Everett agreed.

Then Ms. Ramirez turned and hurried down the front steps, her high heels clicking. Steve watched her go.

So did his mother; she stood in the doorway as Ms. Ramirez bustled down the walk to her car, tossed the briefcase in the back, and climbed into the driver’s seat. She watched as the social worker took out her phone and punched a number.

With the phone to her ear, Ms. Ramirez looked back to see Steve’s mother in the door. She started the engine, and drove away as she began speaking to whoever she had called.

When the car had pulled away from the curb, Ms. Everett leaned out and looked around. “Steve? Are you out here?”

Steve hesitated, then decided not to answer. He wasn’t a little kid, after all, who had to come running the instant his mother called him.

She shrugged, stepped back inside, and closed the door, and Steve let himself show again. He sat on the edge of the porch, looking out across the lawn.

A car appeared, cruising slowly up the block, and he blinked. He hadn’t seen it come around the corner; it just seemed to be there. And why was it moving so slowly? It wasn’t anyone who lived in the neighborhood; he knew all their cars. And this certainly wasn’t anyone’s new car; it was a beater, at least ten years old. The dark blue paint was in terrible shape, the front bumper was cracked on one end, and there were visible dents here and there.

The blue car stopped at the curb in front of the house, in just the same spot the spiffy white sedan from the Department of Social Services had been in a moment before. The driver’s door opened, and a woman stepped out.

She was tall and blonde, and certainly looked as if she ought to be driving something nicer than that battered heap. She wore a fine gray suit, a yellow blouse, and low-heeled black pumps; her hair was cut to a little above her shoulders and looked as if she had just come from the beauty salon.

She waved to Steve, and started across the lawn toward him. He slid from the porch and stood up.

“Hello,” she called. “You must be Jason Turner.”

That explained a lot; she was clearly lost.

“No,” he said. “I’m not. Sorry.”

She frowned, but kept walking toward him until they stood just a few feet apart. “You aren’t?” she asked.

“Nope, I’m afraid not.”

She studied his face. “You look like a Turner,” she said.

“Sorry.”

“Who are you, then?”

“Steve Everett.” He held out a hand.

She took it, then released it again, still staring at him. “Were you born with that name?”

Startled, Steve hesitated, then admitted, “I’m not sure.” After a second’s thought he added, “Probably not.”

“You’re adopted?”

“Not that it’s any business of yours – ” Steve began.

She interrupted him. “Your parents died when you were not quite two, right?”

“Well, my biological parents, yeah.” Steve wondered how she knew that. Was it just a lucky guess?

“And… let’s see… when you were little, you had trouble learning the directions, didn’t you? Because there was one that no one ever talked about, that wasn’t up, or down, or left, or right, or east, west, north, or south, and when you tried to point to it no one knew what you were talking about.”

Steve’s jaw dropped. He threw a quick glance over his shoulder at the house, to see whether his mother might be watching out the window. He didn’t see her, so he leaned closer to the strange woman and asked, “Who told you that?”

“No one told me,” she said. “I can see it, too.” She pointed. “It’s that way.”

Steve stared at her finger, held at an angle he hadn’t known anyone could hold a finger at – well, anyone except himself. Then he looked back up at the woman’s face.

“Who are you?” he asked. “Are you another social worker?”

She grimaced. “Social worker? No, I’m not a social worker.” An expression of sudden understanding burst onto her face. “You mean like the government woman who was just here?”

“Yes, like her,” Steve said.

She’s not a social worker! Is that what they’ve been telling you?”

“Yes, of course. Her car says ‘Department of Social Services’ on the side; of course she’s a social worker!”

The stranger shook her head. “No, she really isn’t. That’s just her cover story. She’s a security agent. I followed her here from the security office downtown.”

This whole conversation had gotten so weird that Steve began to think he was dreaming. A strange woman drives up looking for someone else, but then seems to know things about him, including stuff he hadn’t mentioned to anyone since he was in preschool, and tells him that little Ms. Ramirez, with her clipboard and iPhone, is a government spy.

Things like that just didn’t happen in the real world!

Unless… was this woman crazy? Was she a madwoman?

But she had known how old he was when his biological parents died. She knew about the Other Direction…

But then, Steve had sometimes suspected that everyone knew about the Other Direction, and it was something you just didn’t talk about. Maybe she was willing to talk about it because she was nuts.

Or maybe the whole world wasn’t quite what he had thought it was.

“Who are you?” he asked.

She smiled. “You are Jason Turner, I’m sure of it. And if you are, I’ve been looking for you since you were a baby. I’m your Aunt Lucy.”

Untrue Names

July 23rd, 2014

Told you there were more than a dozen novels in progress. Here’s another, and I’m not done yet. Funny thing, though — I’d forgotten I’d actually started writing this one. I thought I just had an outline, but then I looked at the file and here we are. This is another from the Fall of the Sorcerers series.

The bell above the kitchen door jingled, and the butler looked up.

The only person in sight was Miura the cook, whose arms were white to the elbow with flour as she kneaded a mass of dough. She could not be interrupted, which meant there was no one else he could send to answer their master’s call.

Some of the other staff members would hear a few choice words about this later, he thought as he straightened his coat and trotted out the door and along the passage.

He emerged into the dining hall and found it empty; he hurried across to the great hall, but that, too, was uninhabited. He sighed, and almost ran to the curving stair that led to the master’s study.

The door was closed. The butler hesitated, then knocked.

“Come in,” came the master’s voice.

He took a deep breath, then lifted the latch and swung the door open.

“You called, my lord?” he said, before allowing himself to take in the interior of the room.

“Ah, there you are, Erevar,” the master said. “Good. Give me a hand with these two, would you?”

The butler stared, and swallowed.

His master, Lord Querien, was standing in the center of the room, between two chairs. In one chair was the slumped body of little Dara the kitchen maid – Erevar’s niece. In the other was the equally lifeless form of Lurrent, one of the footmen. Both were bare-headed; Lurrent’s tunic was open, revealing his bare chest, and Dara’s blouse had been partially unbuttoned and pulled down to the very limit of decency. The apron and cap she ordinarily wore were nowhere to be seen.

“My lord, are they…”

“Oh, they’ll be fine,” Querien said. “I performed a simple binding, nothing more. When they wake they’ll have nothing worse than a headache, I assure you.”

“Yes, my lord.”

“Now, help me carry this wench to her quarters, will you? I think she’d be happier waking up in her own bed, and I don’t know which one it is.”

“Of course, my lord.” Erevar hurried to Dara’s side, and began buttoning her blouse.

“Ever mindful of the proprieties, aren’t you?” Querien said. “Never mind that, just take her arms, and I’ll get her legs, and we’ll see her safely to sleep.”

“I can carry her, my lord,” Erevar said. He suited his actions to his words, slipping one arm behind Dara’s back and another under her thighs and lifting her from the chair.

He struggled to not let any trace of the fury he felt show. It wasn’t right that Lord Querien should carry out his magical experiments on innocent servants – but it was legal; in fact, as Landgrave of Mellinise, Lord Querien could legally do anything he wanted, so long as it did not violate an imperial edict.

The Emperor had not issued any edicts on the subject of how sorcerers treated their commoners.

“Good,” Lord Querien said. “Then get her into bed and come back here immediately.”

“Yes, my lord.” Erevar turned and carried the unconscious girl out of the study and down the stair to the great hall. Protocol said that from there he should take her up the narrow servants’ stair to reach her quarters in the attic, but Erevar ignored that and used the grand staircase; he did not want to risk bumping the child’s head or feet against the stone walls.

The Music Will Never Stop 69

July 20th, 2014

You may recall there were two tapes — “Coffeehouse Jam #1″ and “Jam” — that left gunk all over the heads and sounded like crap on the first play-through. I’d originally thought they were two copies of the same stuff, but they weren’t.

Well, today I tackled “Jam.” I wasn’t expecting much, given how very crappy the sound quality still was on “Coffeehouse Jam #1,” and how horrible this one sounded on first play-through.

I received a very pleasant surprise; the sound quality is mostly pretty good, much better than CJ #1. I didn’t need to filter anything. On the very last track I did run noise suppression and then amplify it, because it’s a very quiet little piece — the drummer and horn player had left, and the bassist and guitarist turned down their amps — but other than that, I didn’t need to mess with the sound at all.

I initially had an hour and seventeen minutes recorded; by the time I’d edited out dead air between numbers and other wasted space I had it down to an hour and thirteen minutes. Ten tracks — two actual songs (“Soul Kitchen” and “Spoonful”), a couple of minutes of the guitar player pretending he was Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock, and seven jams, one of which seemed several times as if it might turn into the Dead’s “St. Stephen” but never quite did.

Drums, bass, trumpet, and guitar — and I have no record of who they were. It’s possible that they were a local band called Pork Pie Hat, as I had scribbled “P.P.H.” at the top of the enclosed song list, then crossed it out.

That song list, by the way, is a mess; four of the seven jams are just listed as counter numbers with no titles, the Hendrix wannabe stuff is called “bits of guitar,” one jam is inaccurately described as “acoustic guitar, no drums,” when it’s actually electric guitar and bass (but I got the “no drums” right), etc. The two song titles are correct.

Whoever it is, they were pretty good — bluesy and jazzy. Jam #4 (I numbered the first five, gave the others names) is a twenty-minute tour-de-force, though there are a few awkward seconds in the last five minutes — I think they were looking for a way to end it neatly, and it took awhile to coordinate it.

For that matter, they gave “Soul Kitchen” seven minutes and “Spoonful” got ten — they didn’t rush through anything.

Anyway, it’s good music. It’s playing right now, and I’m typing in time with it. Nice.

That leaves eighteen tapes I haven’t played, and maybe half a dozen I may try again now that I’ve gotten better at keeping the heads clean and demagnetized.

Pentagram Squadron

July 19th, 2014

I had originally intended this story as a comic book series, but then decided I’m more comfortable — and more marketable — with novels. It involves time warps, dinosaurs, pirates, the Bermuda Triangle, lots of old airplanes…

As the Cessna banked for the turn that would take him back up the beach for a third pass a gust of wind caught the little plane unexpectedly, and Jason Carmody felt it start to slip sideways. He let up on the wheel and fed more gas, straightening the craft out – still turning, but much more gently than he had begun; he would be flying closer to the shore for the first part of this pass than he had intended.

“Hollywood Tower, this is Foxtrot Hotel, over,” he said.

“Foxtrot Hotel, this is Hollywood Tower,” came the reply over his headphones. “What’s up, Jason? Over.”

“It’s getting a bit brisk up here,” Jason answered. “Any word from the client? Over.” He glanced out at the spring break crowds covering the Fort Lauderdale beach from Ocean Boulevard to the surf; while it was hard to be sure from this far up, fewer seemed to be paying any attention to him than on the first two passes. He mostly saw the dark spots of hair, rather than the lighter spots of upturned faces.

The crowd looked a little thinner, too; perhaps some of them had noticed those threatening clouds in the west, clouds that were blowing in much faster than Jason – or the weather service – had expected.

“Not yet. Weather service is issuing an advisory, so we may not – hold on…”
Jason waited, keeping the plane cruising north up the beach, easing a little farther out to sea as he went. He wasn’t sure exactly where in the spring break throng his customer was, so he wanted the banner to be visible everywhere.

“Foxtrot Hotel, this is Hollywood Tower, Debbie says Fred called, and quote, she said yes. Congratulations to all concerned. Over.”

“Thanks, Dave. I’ll be bringing it home, then; tell Debbie and Ed to be ready to roll up the banner. Foxtrot Hotel out.”

Another gust of wind buffeted the Cessna, and Jason looked out to his left, to the west.

That line of dark clouds was moving in really fast now; he swung the wheel and gave the plane a little right rudder, veering out to sea to start the run back to the Hollywood airport.

The Atlantic was turning choppy below him; he could see whitecaps appearing well offshore. He leaned over to look back at the beach just in time to see one of the big striped umbrellas suddenly turn inside out in the wind. The crowds were vanishing back into the streets and hotels as that freakish west wind swept down across the sand.

And that wind was driving his plane forward, out over the ocean. Jason frowned; he hoped it wasn’t going to tear up the banner. It wasn’t going to make landing any easier, either; he would have to fight his way back.
Or maybe he should just wait until it blew itself out; it couldn’t last very long, could it? The weather service hadn’t been predicting any real storms, just a cold front – if you could even call it “cold,” here in southern Florida.

Maybe this one really was cold, though; those clouds back there looked serious. Jason did not intend to do anything stupid. “Hollywood Tower, this is Foxtrot Hotel,” he said into the mike. “Say again, re: weather advisory, over.”

“Foxtrot Hotel, this is Hollywood Tower. National Weather Service has issued a small craft advisory – strike that, they’ve just upgraded it to a high wind warning. Back to the barn ASAP, Jason. Over.”

“Crap. Roger that. Foxtrot Hotel out.”

A lot of college kids were about to have their spring break ruined, by the sound and look of it. Jason gave the plane a little rudder and banked right.
The wind caught him, and the plane flipped back up to the left. “Whoa!” he said, involuntarily. He had never felt a Cessna 170 do that before. Cessnas were ridiculously stable – that was why the company used them to tow banners. Flying a Cessna in a nice straight line so that the banner flew straight and was easy to read was simple – it was getting a Cessna to do something other than fly straight that could be a challenge.

The light suddenly dimmed; that line of clouds had gotten close and high enough to block out the sun. Jason glanced at the compass.

The compass was spinning wildly. “What the heck…?” He turned to the GPS.
“Recalculating position,” the display said.

Jason looked up from the instruments just in time to see the clouds sweep over him, surrounding the little plane in blank grayness. “Oh, crap,” he said.

He had had his license for three years, and had been flying banners for a year, and he had never yet seen any weather remotely like this. Clouds, yes, and storms blowing in from the east, definitely, though usually he was safely on the ground well before they arrived, but this wall of clouds charging in from the west so fast it overtook him as he flew southeast at sixty knots was just weird.

He also wasn’t very confident of his ability to fly in it, especially when the instruments appeared to be malfunctioning. Perhaps the clouds had enough of an electrical charge to interfere with the GPS and throw the compass off? He glanced down again.

The GPS display read 10°16’24” N., 8°44’09” E., which was obvious nonsense – that would put him somewhere in the Sahara Desert, he thought, not just off the coast of Florida. Then it blanked again, but instead of recalculating, it read, “No signal.”

“Crap,” he said again. He pushed the microphone switch. “Hollywood Tower, this is Foxtrot Hotel. I’m in the middle of a cloud and have lost my bearings; instruments appear to be malfunctioning. If you have me on radar, please give my position. If anyone there has any other useful suggestions, I’d love to hear them. Over.”

There was no reply. Jason frowned. “Hollywood Tower, this is Foxtrot Hotel – do you read? Over.”