Dark and violent, but a love story nonetheless. “What Love Is” appears in Volume 2 of the anthology What We Talk About When We Talk About It, published last October by Darkhouse Books.

The inspiration for my love story grew from my early childhood in Soldiers Summit, Utah. The town was mostly ruins, the wooden husks and concrete foundations of railroad housing and a few commercial buildings, decaying in the dust and sagebrush. My father, like Dee’s, worked as a dispatcher at the railroad depot there. My brother and I played with two brothers who lived next door. Mickey and his brother are based on them. Our mothers became friends and stayed in touch after they left Soldiers Summit. Both women ended up divorcing their husbands. Although I saw the boys every so often, there was no puppy love between me and either one of them. Their mother died of cancer when the younger boy was seventeen, and he shot himself soon afterward. I can only guess why. Grief for his mother, feelings of abandonment and despair.

Soldiers Summit has kept a lasting hold on my imagination. For years I dreamed of the place regularly—lonely, haunting dreams.

Another inspiration for the love story was my strong emotional response to smells. Even after decades, certain smells evoke the circumstances around them—the catsup and eggs my father was eating when he quarreled with my mother at breakfast, the diesel fumes in the bus station when my brother and I traveled between one parent and the other, the alcoholic breath of a boy whose kiss I did not welcome.

I wonder whether love begins—or dies—with a response to the way someone smells and to other cues that register unconsciously. I wonder whether Evening in Paris, or any other perfume, can disguise the truth for long.

For those who want a sample, here are the opening paragraphs:

What Love Is

“I’m gonna marry you when we grow up.”

Even then Dee felt unsettled by Mickey’s eyes. They were blue, smudged with an emotion she couldn’t name. They demanded yes from her.

“Okay,” she said.

Yes was easy at age four, when every day went on forever and growing up was unimaginable. Their fathers worked as dispatchers at the railroad station in Soldiers Summit, Utah. A few years later, the station would close and the town would dwindle to a café and gas station on a secondary highway. It was already in ruins. She and Mickey explored the cellars of houses long ago demolished, rows of square cement holes ranked along a hillside fuzzed with sagebrush. They found dangerous things: two-by-fours with rusty nails hammered through them, shards of blue and green glass, barbed wire. And mysteries: a silver box without a lid, a book with its pages rotted away.

Dee would never forget the smell of those abandoned cellars, the open graves of homes. Spring after spring they collected snowmelt that soaked the remains and slowly dried in the summer sun and wind, seasons of decay like growth rings in a tree trunk.

Just outside town was the ruin of a restaurant, a long single-story building caved in at one end. The walls at the other end stood precariously beneath the weight of the sagging roof. Sections of the floor had been pried up, and the moldering breath of the cellar enfolded Dee and Mickey as they wound between the damage to the restaurant’s counter. Drilled holes with blackened edges showed where stools had been bolted onto the floor. But behind the counter was solid floor and an interior wall with shelves. This would be their house, Mickey said. On the shelves they arranged the silver box, the rotted book, and the shards of colored glass. Under the counter was their bedroom. They snuggled there, his breath warm and damp against her neck.

They were forbidden to play in the ruins, but it was easy to sneak away. Dee’s mom was usually busy with housework or laundry and chasing after her two-year-old brother. Mickey’s mom stayed inside their house, especially after lunch. When Mom asked where they’d been, Dee said the viaduct or the slope by the train station.

“Don’t go near the edge,” Mom would say, frowning. “Keep off the tracks.”

Dee shook her head in a solemn promise.

One day she announced that Mickey wanted to get married when they were grownups.

“There’s no way on Earth,” Mom said.

She was shocked by her mother’s vehemence. “How come? You like Mickey, don’t you? You like his mom.”

“You’re too young to think about marriage, little girl.”

The two families lived next door in the one row of houses still standing. At night she heard Mickey’s parents bumping into walls and screaming, and the next morning his mother came over to drink coffee and show Mom her bruises. Mom wheedled Dad to talk to Mickey’s father.

“It’s none of our business,” Dad said. “Stay the hell out of it.”

Read the rest of  my love story “What Love Is”—along with a diverse selection of other stories and poems on the theme of love—in What We Talk About When We Talk About It.

fiction anthology, stories about love

 

 

Imagine being wrongly accused, arrested and jailed for a crime you didn’t commit. Everyone—your colleagues, your friends, maybe even your life partner—assumes you must be guilty. After all, the police wouldn’t arrest you without solid evidence. Recently I read two thrillers based on this nightmarish scenario. The protagonists of both Rachel Caine’s Stillhouse Lake and Candice Fox’s Crimson Lake find themselves wrongly accused of heinous crimes.

Readers identify with a wrongly accused protagonist because the injustice appalls them—usually. They may lose their sympathy for a stupid or morally compromised character. Most of us harbor a deep fear of finding ourselves in a similar situation. It only takes bad luck—being in the wrong place at the wrong time or being targeted by a vindictive enemy—to place us in the crosshairs of the justice system. But when a character acts foolishly or has an unsavory side, we’re liable to back away. Not me, we think. I’d never be like that or do such an idiotic thing.

A naive woman wrongly accused of her husband’s crimes

wrongly accusedIn Stillhouse Lake, Gina Royal begins as a “normal” if overly docile housewife married to a man who’s oddly territorial about the garage, which he has converted into his personal workshop and keeps locked at all times. The reason for his secretive behavior becomes obvious when a driver loses control of her car and plows into the garage. The accident uncovers the hanging corpse of a woman, naked and showing obvious signs of torture.

Poor Gina stayed married for years to a serial killer without suspecting the truth. The police don’t buy her protestations of innocence. Her husband tortured women in the garage next to her kitchen. How can she be innocent? Either she participated, or at least helped cover up the crimes, or she’s hopelessly stupid—all reasons for withholding sympathy. Yet the author persuades me that Gina is wrongly accused. She became her husband’s doormat because she wanted to believe she had a storybook marriage. Many of us practice this sort of denial to the keep unbearable truths about our lives at bay.

Although a jury finds Gina not guilty, the families of her husband’s victims gin up an online mob to hound her. They find and dox her no matter where she goes or how many times she changes her name. They seem unbothered that her two children also suffer from the harassment. By the time she moves into a comfortable old house near Stillhouse Lake, she has changed her name to Gwen Proctor and is nobody’s shrinking violet anymore. She can never prove her innocence or clear her name, but she fights to protect her children and reclaim her life. She goes on fighting in subsequent books of the Stillhouse Lake series. In the end her grit earns my sympathy and admiration.

A cop ensnared by circumstance and wrongly accused of rape

wrongly accusedIn Crimson Lake, Ted Conkaffey has a respectable life as a police officer in Sydney, Australia until he faces trial for raping a little girl. His colleagues and friends abandon him and his wife soon follows. His prosecution gets put on hold for lack of evidence, leaving the terrible accusation hanging over him. Thanks to publicity about the case, the entire nation despises Ted. He flees to the remote area of Crimson Lake, seeking anonymity, but the locals discover who he is and begin a campaign of harassment against him.

Ted tells his own story, but some first-person narrators are unreliable. Could Ted be lying? His alibi makes sense even though he can’t prove it, but one detail persuades me that he’s innocent. Near the beginning of the story he rescues a family of geese and pays a ridiculously high vet bill to save the wounded mother. Okay, I’m sentimental about animals, but it seems unlikely that a character who rescues and adopts a family of geese would rape a child. Or anyone for that matter.

To prove his innocence and regain his reputation, Ted must track down the man who raped the little girl. He’s still searching when Crimson Lake ends. His story continues in Redemption Point, the next book of the series.

A woman wrongly accused of provoking her boyfriend to murder

It intrigues me the way innocent people get blamed for things they never did. They make bad choices like Gina Royal or they’re in the wrong place at the wrong time like Ted Conkaffey.

Kelly Durrell, the protagonist of my novel Hometown Boys, takes the blame after her long-ago ex-boyfriend murders her aunt and uncle. She might not be a criminal, but she’s held morally responsible. Gossip against her spreads through her hometown, fueled by some townspeople’s dislike of her and the expedience of a few others. Like Gina, she made a mistake. She dated the killer in high school.  The gossipers don’t care that she’s changed in the two decade since then. Like Ted Conkaffey, she must find out the truth to clear her name—to the extent it can be cleared.

Someone wrongly accused of a crime or even a peccadillo can never be altogether innocent again.

Thriller fans will enjoy Crimson Lake and Stillhouse Lake. And since both are the first book of a series, readers can keep the thrill ride going.

I wrote this review of Karen Marie Moning’s Shadowfever a few years back and rediscovered it a couple of months ago when I downloaded material from an inactive blog of mine before it went offline. The Shadow series holds a special significance to me. While reading the books I fell in love with urban fantasy. And the series influenced me when I set out to write Daemon Seer.

I spent all day reading an urban fantasy called Shadowfever, the fifth in a series of novels by Karen Marie Moning. The book is over 600 pages long. I’m starting to think readers perceive length differently with an ebook. They don’t feel the volume weighting their hands or the thickness of the pages yet to be turned. They see a number giving the percentage of the book they’ve read so far, but it lacks physical reality. Easy to glide through a novel as though sailing over a vast lake, glimpsing land on the horizon without a sense of its distance. I read and read for hours and hours and awoke the next morning with a migraine. Now that I’ve finished the story and know the outcome, now that the headache is fading, I can’t help reflecting on why I subjected myself to such a grueling read-a-thon.

The Shadow series tells the story of MacKayla Lane, a girl from a small town in Georgia whose sister is brutally murdered while studying in Ireland. Mac spends her time painting her nails, hanging out by the pool, and listening to tunes on her iPod. Then the death of her sister spurs her to travel to Dublin and ensure the killer is caught and brought to justice. There she discovers she’s a sidhe-seer, one of an ancient order of women who can see the Fae. To ordinary people the Fae appear human, but Mac sees the monsters hidden beneath their glamour. She becomes involved with a sinister and sexually magnetic man who—it becomes increasingly clear—isn’t human either and is searching for a mystical book that will prevent the Fae from destroying the world.

Mac makes one unsettling discovery after another about her sister and herself. Illusion, misdirection, and deception pervade the five novels. Repeatedly, she believes she understands what’s going on, only to have her reality shattered by some new revelation. What begins as a search for her sister’s murderer grows into a struggle to save the world and a quest to discover the truth about her origins.

Moning is skilled at springing surprises and ratcheting up suspense. The first four novels end in cliffhangers that compel the reader to reach for the next in the series. Here I should mention that the first one was a free Kindle download. Publishers occasionally bait the hook with a freebie. It sure worked with me. Though Mac is occasionally annoying, her character grows more complex and interesting from one book to the next. The fantastic worlds she explores are richly imagined.

The books have some great sex scenes—passionate and occasionally funny, and on one occasion harrowing as Mac is gang raped by Fae princes and left in a state of mindless, constant, sexual hunger. And, of course, there’s plenty of violence.

These attractions are counter balanced by writing that occasionally makes me wince. Grating, clichéd phrases (“to die for,” “getting on my last nerve”). Commentary or exposition that repeats almost word-for-word passages from earlier in the story, as if the writer had copied and pasted material. Some of this fits the first-person narration; people do use clichés and repeat themselves. Still, I’ve seen more artful techniques for creating a convincing narrative voice. And there are the overused dialogue tags. Even the inhuman characters do a whole lot of sighing and shrugging.

I finished Shadowfever feeling sated, as though I’d snarfed a whole box of delicious chocolates. (Hey, chocolates are rich in antioxidants!) Instead of a bellyache I had a headache from those frozen hours staring at the Kindle screen. Yet I’m not sorry. I’ve been gorging on novels since childhood, and without that pleasure I would never have come to love reading fiction. No way am I going on a diet now.

I’m currently working on the first draft of Daemon Blood, the third volume of the Daemon World series. The first chapter, “Born Victim” appears below.

The first novel in the series, Talion, recounts how the serial killer Rad Sanders stalks and kidnaps fifteen-year-olds Lu Jakes and Lisa Duncan. Lu must turn to the daemon Talion for help. But he has a price. Ten years later, in Daemon Seer, he comes to collect payment. Lu must undergo a harrowing ceremony and bear a child who will eventually replace her as his servant. Helpless against the daemon’s power and determined to save Lisa from a new sadist’s grip, Lu surrenders to Talion. She submits to the ceremony and with his help rescues Lisa. Daemon Blood picks up their story five years later. 

Panic wells in Lisa as the drugstore’s automatic door slides opens and cold air balloons against her face. She’s afraid of stepping through doors. Post-traumatic stress, says her therapist, Sandi, as if naming a thing steals its power. Sandi could be right. Clutching her plastic bag full of antidepressants and tampons like a talisman and mouthing the phrase like a prayer, Lisa walks outside.

A semi rumbles past on the two-lane highway beyond the drugstore’s narrow parking lot. Its diesel fumes trigger the usual nausea. The clouds disgorge the sun. She imagines getting in her beat-up Honda Civic, driving until it runs out of gas, and then walking until her legs buckle. Wherever she ends up will be fine with her.

“Hey, Lisa!” A gaunt man pops out of his SUV and trots across the parking lot. He has on worn jeans and a glossy parka.

She watches him cover the stretch of asphalt—twenty-five yards, maybe—registering his grayish skin and fevered eyes. He’s no one she knows or wants to know. She dashes toward her Civic parked halfway between her and the man’s SUV, about fifteen yards away. She scoops the key pad from her bag and presses the button to unlock the car door. The Civic beeps. She reaches for the door handle.

Seizing her shoulder, he turns her around to face him. He presses her against the car, his groin against hers and pokes her in the ribs with something hard. She glances down. A pistol with a short barrel, almost toylike. Panic drowns everything but her thumping heart. “Sorry, Lisa.” His hoarse whisper pours into her like rancid oil. “I know what you’ve been through and I hate—really hate—doing this. But we need to talk.”

She wrenches her gaze from the gun to his face and opens her mouth to scream, but his eyes silence her. Colorless irises encircle the deep wells of the pupils, At their bottoms, twin red flames burn like distant candles. No, it’s only the sun. Yet those tiny fires burn away her scream.

“Willard Steeples.” He grins, displaying a mouthful of capped teeth edged with black along parts of the gum line. “Author of Professor of Death.”

Fucking parasite, feeding on people’s suffering. On her suffering. When she was fifteen a psychopath tortured her, disfigured her, and Willard Steeples made her part of a freak show.

“You’re angry,” he says. “I get that. But people want the truth. They cry out for it. I perform a vital service.  And at this point I’m desperate. My publisher’s gonna cut me loose if I don’t deliver the book by the end of the month. She said it’s my last chance. You know what I’m saying? My last. Chance.”

She finally manages to speak. “What do you want?”

“Your story. And Lu’s.”

Of course. She’ll never escape Lu.

Even years after the surgeries, her face aches in the cold wind. A frozen mask of pain, always worse when she’s afraid. He can have the story—some of it anyway—but the dread lurking in her gut senses that he wants more. A lot more. “Okay, I’ll talk to you. There’s a coffee house on the Square.”

“No. Not after—” He glances apologetically at the pistol. “I couldn’t take the chance of you saying no.”

Another semi crawls past, picking up speed after the stop light. If the driver looks their way, he won’t see any gun, only a man and woman standing beside a car, close enough to be lovers. Despair chokes her. “My mother—expects me home.”

“I’ll have you back in an hour.” He grabs Lisa by the elbow, jabs the gun in her back, and hustles her to his SUV, a gray Ford Edge. Scream, she thinks as he yanks open the passenger door. Last chance. But no one is close enough to hear or to stop him if he shoots her and drives away. He shoves her onto the seat. The label of a car rental company decorates the GPS unit on the dash. It reassures her a tiny bit. Someone at the rental office can identify him, assuming he gives a shit about getting caught after he rapes and kills her.

She takes note of her shaking hands. The previous times she was kidnapped, she fought hard. This time she wonders if her life is worth the trouble. Steeples hustles around to the driver’s side and slides behind the wheel.

As he peels out of the parking lot, Lisa glimpses a ponderous figure near the pharmacy entrance. Mrs. Arlow, overweight and asthmatic, squints at the departing Ford. She lives down the street from Lisa’s parents. Maybe she sees Lisa driving off with a strange man. Maybe she’ll call Lisa’s mom. She might remember the color of the SUV, but not the make or license number—not enough detail so the cops can find Steeples.

He drives west, steering with his left hand and holding the gun on Lisa with his right. They pass the Seville Veterinary Clinic, Charlie’s Soft Serve Ice Cream, Morris Chiropractic, the Chevy dealership with its lineup of gleaming pickups beneath colorful plastic pennants, the First Christian Church with its sign asking, Will your eternal home be smoking or not smoking? It’s late November and Christmas wreaths decorate the telephone poles along the highway. Cardboard signs nailed to the poles honor local the military service of local young people. Lisa recognizes a few names from junior high. She missed high school because of the surgeries. She earned her GED back in the days when she dreamed of studying at the Art Institute in Chicago.

“Where are we going?”

Steeples’ eyes flick toward her then back to the highway. “There’s a few cabins on the lake. Nobody uses them this time of year.”

“You’re from around here?”

“Nope. I just do my research.”

A mile or so after they leave Seville behind, Steeples turns onto a county road that cuts a straight line through fields stubbled with the remains of corn stalks. The tires bump over rough spots in the pavement, but the SUV’s suspension softens the ride. At least she’s riding to her death in relative comfort.

Whatever Steeples says about wanting her story, the darkness in his eyes scares her. Most journalists don’t arrange their interviews at gunpoint. The whole thing radiates the familiar weirdness that comes with Lu and the daemons that control her. Lisa is wired into that weirdness because the daemons saved her life, but she wants nothing more to do with it. For the last two years she has ignored Lu’s telepathic calls. They were faint anyway, with Lu a thousand miles away in Utah, and several months ago they stopped completely. Lu must have given up trying to reach her, which was how she wanted it. Until now.

Lu! I need help!

No answer from Lu. The connection between them has withered, thanks to Lisa.

Steeples turns onto a narrower road and the flat fields give way to rolling meadows and stands of leafless trees, their branches clawing at the iron-gray sky, bird nests bulging from them like tumors. The SUV rolls across a rusted bridge that looks a hundred years old.

Lu! I’m with Steeples, he kidnapped me.

“You do keep getting kidnapped. This is—what?—the third time.” Steeples flashes a wolfish grin, showing off those capped teeth. “Only this time Lu isn’t around to save you.”

She tells herself it’s coincidence, him tuning in on her thoughts that way. “What is it you really want?”

“I told you. Your story. Your whole story. And you’ll give it to me before we’re done.”

The road widens into a clearing and ends at a metal gate with a sign: CLOSED UNTIL SPRING. Steeples stops the SUV. “We walk from here.” He scrambles out, circles the hood, and opens the passenger door. He keeps the gun aimed at Lisa as she gets out. “Give me your phone.”

“I didn’t bring it.”

“Of course not.” He uses his left hand to pat down her pockets and then plucks the canvas purse from her shoulder. Tucking the strap under his chin, he unzips the purse and dumps the contents on the ground.

Lisa squats and picks up her wallet, a ballpoint pen, and the nylon bag where she keeps her medicine. She leaves an almost empty pack of Kleenex, a couple of sales receipts, a shopping list, and a cough drop covered with fuzz. Steeple returns the purse. She drops her stuff into it and stands. “Like I said, no phone. Now you can shoot me or whatever and nobody will find me.”

Willard Steeples giggles. “Leave your shit in the car. I’m not going to kill you, scout’s honor.”

She imagines him as a scrawny Boy Scout that the others picked on. She doubts he has any honor.

“Go around the gate post,” he says.

She squeezes between the post and the thorny branches of a bush. Steeples follows her. She wants the thorns to catch on his jacket, but he carefully avoids them. Then Lake Seville spreads in front of them, lapping the pebbly shoreline and reflecting the gloomy winter sky. The wind blows harder and colder over the open water. Already shivering, Lisa zips her jacket. She’s dressed for a quick run to the drugstore, not a trek along the lakeshore in December. Ahead of them a green prefab cabin sits on a slope overlooking a boat ramp.

“Is that where we’re going?”

He shoos her forward. “Stay in front of me.”

As they walk along the shoreline, she concentrates on reaching out, bridging the thousand miles between her and Lu with a strong and simple message. Help me help me help me. She half-heartedly considers running for the trees. Who can tell, he might be a crappy shot. But she keeps plodding toward the cabin.

Every nerve in her body screams for Vicodin. She stopped using almost three years ago, and with the exception of one slip, stayed clean. Most of the time she feels okay. But with the gun nudging her spine, time falls away and she’s raw again.

“I have codeine,” Steeples says. “You can have some when we get to the cabin.”

Again he’s tuned into her thoughts. From behind her, he can’t see whatever pain her face might be betraying, but he somehow knows. She reaches out to him with her thoughts. What’s the deal? Can you read my mind? Nothing comes back to her, but she senses the same empty tunnel where the connection between her and Lu happened.

Beyond the lake, the distant treeline clings like gray lint to the water’s edge. No sign of human life. “What are you on?” she says. “Not just codeine.”

“What do you think I’m on?”

“You’re too upscale to be a tweaker. You probably snort coke.”

“Would you like some?”

“No. And I don’t want your fucking pills either.”

He chuckles. “You may change your mind.”

Steeples intends to hurt her. She recognizes the screaming in her nerves as anticipation. Her body knows what’s coming.

They climb a dirt path to the cabin. The window next to the door is broken, the glass removed from its frame. Steeples has scouted the location and already broken in. He opens the unlocked door. “After you, Sugar Pie.”

She enters the dim and musty space. Freezing wind from the lake howls through the broken window. The cabin has an open floor plan except for a bathroom tucked in the rear corner next to a tiny kitchen. In front, a bed sags beneath a ratty quilt, and a sofa and two chairs huddle around a fireplace. Steeples prods her toward the sofa with the gun barrel.

“I’m cold,” she says. “Can I get that quilt?”

“Have a seat and I’ll bring it to you.” The odor of mold wafts from the sofa cushion when she sits. Steeples reaches behind him and wedges the gun into the waistband of his jeans. He fetches the quilt and covers her from the neck down, tucking the edges beneath her body, pinning her arms. “There. Nice and toasty.” The dampness of the quilt leaches warmth from her. She pulls it loose.

He plops into a wooden rocking chair and scoops a tiny recording device from his pocket. The chair creaks as he pitches forward and sets the recorder on a low table between them. “Okay, let’s start with Grifford Riley. Tell me about him.”

Lisa will never forget the psychopathic cop who raped and stalked and almost killed her, but she keeps her face blank.

“You know, I really wanted an ‘after’ picture of you for Professor of Death,” Steeples says. “Your bitch mother wouldn’t give me one. Maybe we can put one in my upcoming book. I’ll revisit your ordeal at the hands of Rad Sanders. People love that shit. But I’ll mainly focus on Riley. I mean the parallels are dramatic. Twice you’re kidnapped and horribly assaulted. Twice you’re rescued by Lu, this mousy little girl in glasses. We’re talking best-seller, guaranteed.”

After Rad finished with Lisa, her face resembled raw meat, and Steeples wanted to display her ugliness to the world. The piece of shit would do anything to make money. “What’s the title gonna be?”

“I was thinking Born Victim: The Unfortunate Life of Lisa Duncan. But my editor isn’t crazy about it.”

Lisa grimaces. “Me neither.”

“Back to Riley. He’s gonna be the focus of the book, and I need the whole truth, the untold story. He followed you to Park City and grabbed you, then drove to a motel outside Laramie. That’s where things get mysterious. Lu rescued you. How’d she manage that?”

“He went for cigarettes.”

“Bullshit. Only one place near the motel was open. A gas station. The clerk doesn’t remember Riley, but he remembers Lu buying snacks and bottled water.”

“That was later, after she got me out.”

“It doesn’t make sense, her stopping a couple miles from the motel when she knew Riley would be coming after you.”

“Ask her.”

“She won’t talk to me.” He shoots her a reproachful look, as if Lu’s silence is her fault.

She wonders how Steeples would react to the truth. Lu ambushed Riley while he was raping Lisa, shoved him into the narrow space between bed and wall, and stabbed him over and over and over with a sharp piece of metal. The hulking police detective broke Lu’s arm, but she blinded him and pulverized his testicles. Lisa’s breath snags as she remembers the viciousness of the attack. Lu said she’d been possessed by a daemon named Black Claw, but still.

“Let’s talk about the Ferrari. The two of you left it in the parking lot of the Blue Bell Hotel in Park City. Supposedly. So how come no one saw it there and the cops never found it? It’s not the kind of car you overlook.” The points of flame in Steeples’ eyes sharpen as if he hears her nerves shrieking. “Sure you don’t want a Vicodin?”

She has no name for the wrongness in him, a hunger that brushes past her on its hunt for the food it really wants. “I can’t tell you anything. Please. Take me back into town.”

All at once he leers. “What’s she up to?”

“Lu? I don’t know, we don’t talk.”

“You’re telling me they broke the connection?”

“What?” Her heartbeat speeds, pumping up her panic, and her head feel large and insubstantial, a membrane about to disintegrate.

No way can he know about the telepathic link between her and Lu, but he stares at Lisa as though deciphering her secrets. “The bitch let them cut you loose.” He breaks into a stuttering laugh—heh-heh-heh-heh-heh—a crowing voice that no longer belongs to him. Lu is the one who sees the daemons, not her, but she’s pretty sure a daemon has possessed Willard Steeples. “They’ve got the prick on the run.”

“What are you talking about?”

“You’re dead,” the daemon says in a weird singsong. It stands and reaches for the gun.

Her heart trips ahead of the frozen moment. She springs from the couch and darts sideways, holding up the moldy quilt like a shield. The gunshot blasts through the cloth and thunks somewhere behind her. The world goes silent. She drops the quilt and runs blindly. The second shot whizzes past her head and splinters a window frame. She lunges toward the door, expecting the next bullet to hit her in the back.

The door flies open. A middle-aged woman in maroon yoga pants and an orange hunting jacket lifts the barrel of a shotgun. Lisa’s momentum propels her through the door. She manages to duck between the woman’s wide body and the door frame and stumble a couple of steps before falling. Her right arm and shoulder hit the frozen dirt with a jolt that snaps her teeth together. Behind her the daemon occupying Steeples’ body pops off a shot before the shotgun fires. The blasts are muffled. They could be miles away. She tastes the blood of her bitten tongue as she crawls farther down the path from the cabin.

Heavy footsteps catch up to her. The woman stands over her, offering a gloved hand. Lisa pushes herself onto her knees, grasps the hand, and lets herself be pulled to her feet. The woman’s face, puffy and creased and reddened by the cold, is vaguely familiar. Lisa has seen her in the supermarket or the thrift store on the Square. Her eyes gleam like black ice, inhuman. Another daemon has taken her over. “Why did you go with the journalist? Even the Flame is not reckless enough to kill you in a public place.” Though half deaf from the gunshots, she hears the woman’s voice clearly. It comes from inside her head.

“Who’s the Flame?”

The second daemon heads toward the cabin, its stride too long for the woman’s stubby legs. It wears her body like ill-fitting clothes. Lisa hurries to catch up. “What’s happening? Is Lu in trouble?”

“The seer makes her own trouble.”

Lisa follows the daemon into the cabin. Steeples’ body sprawls behind the overturned rocking chair, his face and chest like raw chuck. The stink hits her and sourness floods her mouth.

“Do not vomit.” The daemon stoops and picks up the shotgun from the floor. “Tell me what you touched.”

“Just that quilt.”

“Bring it.”

Steeples’ recorder sits on the table, untouched by the shotgun blast, its green light blinking. Lisa grabs it and pushes the off button. “We better take this too. It’s still recording.”

The daemon gives her a razor-thin smile. “You are not altogether useless.”

“Thanks. I guess.” Lisa fumbles with the device until she finds the memory card, which she removes and slips into her pocket.

“What are you stealing.”

“I’m not stealing anything. I’m gonna send this to Lu so maybe she can figure out what’s happening.”

The daemon scowls. “Give it to me.”

“I don’t think so.” She lifts her chin and steels herself. This daemon won’t harm her after going to the trouble of rescuing her.

She hopes.

One second she’s standing, the next she’s sprawled on the floor with heavy thighs straddling her chest and the shotgun’s stick pressed hard against her throat. “Never defy me.” The daemon eases the pressure on the gun enough so she can breathe.

Lisa lets go and floats away from herself, a state of helplessness she knows well from being at the mercy of two sadists, Rad Sanders and Grifford Riley. Both men are dead, but the daemons never die and they’ll keep tormenting her as long as she’s connected to Lu. She slides the memory card from her pocket and hands it to the woman. “Why did you save me?”

“My master commanded it. I would have rather the Flame destroyed you.”

The daemon who owns Lu is called Talion. He must want something from Lisa. He wouldn’t send this servant to rescue her out of the goodness of his nonexistent heart. “What’s your name, anyway?”

“I have no name. Take the quilt and the machine. Throw them into the lake.”

 

Lisa climbs to her feet and picks up the things. Careful not to look at Steeples’ body, she trudges from the cabin and down the dirt path, dragging the shredded quilt. She goes partway down the boat ramp and halts. The lake is too shallow here, the muddy bottom visible under a few feet of water. The cops will spot the recorder and the quilt will probably wash ashore.

“It makes no difference.” The daemon stands on the path, hands on hips and elbows spread wide. “The water will destroy any trace of you.”

Lisa doubts it. The cops could find a hair or fingerprint in the cabin or the rental car. “Why don’t you just burn down the cabin?”

“No. A fire draws too much attention. Do as I say.”

Lisa tosses the evidence in the water and returns to the path. “Now what?”

“I will drive you to your car.”

They hike along the lake, backtracking to the road where Steeples left his rented SUV. Water laps at the shore and their shoes crunch against the pebbles. Icy wind whistles in Lisa’s ears and makes them ache. At least her hearing has come back. She wonders if Lu heard her telepathic call for help and asked Talion to send this daemon, or if he was watching from the start. The daemon knew where and how Steeples grabbed her. “Why is this happening?”

“The reasons do not concern you.” The daemon’s harsh speech is strange coming from the rural Midwestern woman cradling a shotgun, a nice lady who probably goes to church on Sunday and spoils her grandchildren with cookies.

“What’s gonna happen to the lady you’re possessing? Will she remember any of this?”

The daemon fixes its lifeless eyes on Lisa. “You are a parasite. Except for the seer’s pleas on your behalf, you would have been destroyed.”

She feels herself contract like a turtle withdrawing into its shell. Only she has no shell. She’s at the mercy of this monster. She wipes her nose with her sleeve and trembles in the icy wind and trudges along the lakeshore behind the possessed woman.

The daemon opens the door of a battered blue Toyota pickup parked beside the Ford Edge.

“My purse,” Lisa says. “It’s in Steeple’s car. The cops will find it.”

“Get in the truck.” The daemon batters the SUV’s window with the shotgun stock until it punches through the safety glass. It reaches through the hole to unlock the door, then retrieves the purse and hands it to Lisa.

According to the clock on the dash, Lisa has been gone four hours. Way too long for a run to the pharmacy. She needs an excuse—a flat tire, an old friend who asked her for coffee, a spur-of-the-moment drive along country roads. The drive, she decides. Mom will yell at her for making them worry, but the other bogus excuses could be easily checked.

As soon as they enter Seville, she crouches out of sight. The woman pulls into the pharmacy parking lot and stops. Lisa digs her keys from her purse and then runs from the pickup to her car. By the time she slides behind the wheel, the daemon is pulling onto the highway, headed back toward the lake. The possessed woman probably lives somewhere out that way. Lisa hopes she’ll be all right.

She clutches the wheel for several minutes, drawing slow, deliberate breaths the way the biofeedback guy in rehab taught her. The odor of mold clings to her like guilt.

Other books in the Daemon World series are Talion and Daemon Seer.

The image remains among the most vivid of my early childhood. My three-year-old brother Steve stood in front of our house in Soldiers Summit, wearing one of my dresses as punishment for—something. I don’t recall much about the dress, just a general impression of frills. I’m pretty sure the dress had a sash that tied in a bow in back.

But I recall my brother’s face vividly, wet with tears, screwed up in anger, bright red with humiliation.

I carried the memory for several years without knowing how Steve ended up in the dress. I couldn’t ask him about a punishment so humiliating. He’d probably been too young to remember it anyway.

When I was twelve or thirteen, I asked Nana, my paternal grandmother, about the dress. She’d been living with us at the time. She said my mother put him in the dress and sent him outside to punish him for wetting the bed. I didn’t challenge this story—Nana wasn’t someone easily challenged—but I harbored doubts. Although Mom could become emotionally abusive when angry, this sort of cruel punishment seemed unlike her.

Many years later, when Mom was in her 80s, I told her about my memory of Steve wearing my dress and crying. I didn’t mention that Nana had blamed her. Mom remembered the incident. She said Nana had punished Steve for wetting the bed. Nana put the dress on him and made him go outside until Dad came home.

“I never saw your dad so angry,” Mom said. “He told Mabel to get that damn dress off Steve. He said he’d throw her out of the house if she ever pulled something like that again.” Mom still blamed herself. “He was my child and I should’ve protected him. I was afraid to stand up to Mabel.”

I believed my mother. It seemed likely that Nana would impose that kind of punishment. She’d grown up poor in the South and never finished fourth grade. She probably hadn’t known any better. But later she knew, and felt ashamed enough to lie about it.

I wonder about the effect of the punishment on Steve. He grew up around people who despised feminine traits in men. He became a man who felt compelled to answer any challenge to his masculinity with violence.

Once, while I was walking on a Salt Lake street with Steve and his second wife, a guy we passed said something. I didn’t hear the remark, but it sparked instant rage in Steve. He wanted to fight. His wife and I managed to calm him down and keep him walking. “Why bother with assholes like that?” I asked.

“You’re a girl,” he said. “You don’t know what it’s like, having to prove yourself all the time.”

I did have to prove myself, only not in the same ways, but arguing with him would have made things worse.

In his late twenties Steve worked in oil exploration, an outdoors job that made him physically strong. In his thirties he lifted weights to maintain his fitness. He was big and formidable, the kind of man who could and did mete out punishment to anyone who messed with him. With me and others he loved, he could be kind, generous, and forgiving. But that softness had to be armored, always.

Steve died of a drug overdose when he was thirty-seven years old.

I’m excited to announce that the next Kelly Durrell crime thriller, Hometown Boys, will come out on January 21, 2019. The novel will be available in paperback and ebook editions. I’m also planning an audio book edition sometime in the future. In the meantime, you can preorder the ebook from Amazon and several other online retailers

What happens in Hometown Boys?

Kelly returns to her hometown of Morrison, Illinois for the funerals of her murdered aunt and uncle. Her ex-boyfriend from high school, Troy Ingram, has been arrested for the crime. Nobody doubts his guilt. The police arrested him driving the victim’s pickup truck, his clothing splattered with their blood. Town gossips whisper that Troy did the murders because of Kelly. She broke his heart and ruined his life when she dumped him twenty years ago.

Kelly tries to shrug off the gossip and stay detached, but she finds herself inexorably drawn into the case. Troy’s attorney makes a persuasive argument that he wasn’t acting on his own. Someone paid him—or coerced him—to commit this vicious crime. If the attorney is right, the person who masterminded the murders is walking around free.

As Kelly digs for the truth, she unearths some of the secrets hidden beneath the surface in her hometown. Dangerous secrets that could get her or her family killed.

Hometown Boys unfolds several months after the events recounted in Darkroom. Kelly still suffers from the trauma of those events. But at least one good thing has emerged from the wreckage of her life. She and Detective Cash Peterson of the Boulder police department have begun a tentative romance.  Now their relationship is strained by Kelly’s emotional turmoil when she return home

Check out the eye-catching cover for Hometown Boys.

Created by The Thatchery, the cover captures the sinister and mysterious atmosphere rooted in the novel’s rural Midwestern setting. The abandoned farmhouse rising from the corn plays a key role in Hometown Boys. The old house is a place where the darkness from Kelly’s past spills into her present and threatens to overwhelm her.

Are you intrigued?

If you liked Darkroom or you enjoy thrillers with complex characters and well-drawn settings, pick up a copy of Hometown Boys. Order now and the book will be waiting for you after the holidays. The perfect time to settle in with a smart, tension-filled thriller that will keep you riveted until the surprising, satisfying end.

Order from Amazon.

Order from other retailers, including Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and iBooks.

I was recently saddened to learn that author Brian Sfinas had died after a short illness. Although I never met Brian face to face, I considered him a friend. He helped me redesign my old blog, Ancient Children—in fact, he did the heavy lifting on that job—and we worked together during the time that he managed Awesome Indies, a website supporting self-published authors. A talented writer with an exuberant, original, and fearless imagination, Brian published two speculative novels before his death, The Sexual Adventures of Time and Space and The Darkest of Suns Will Rise. I read and reviewed both books with much admiration. In memory of Brian and a brilliant voice that fell silent much too soon, I’m republishing my review of The Sexual Adventures of Time and Space.

 

In The Sexual Adventures of Time and Space Brian Sfinas has written an ambitious and compelling piece of fiction. The story centers on Michael Thorn, a twenty-something drug user obsessed with lucid dreaming. He and his friends devise a sensory deprivation chamber where, under the influence of sodium thiopental, they sleep for days exploring their private dreamscapes.

The novel is a cautionary tale of the lure and danger of solipsism.

It consists of a series of excerpts from Michael’s journal. A brief note at the start informs readers that the excerpts are evidence in the trial of his friends and the drug dealer who had supplied the sodium thiopental, so we know from the beginning that something has happened to Michael. We can only guess the crime with which the others are charged. The novel’s suspense grows from these unanswered questions and from our growing immersion in Michael’s inner life.

The journal provides the ideal narrative vehicle for this story. Not only do we experience events from Michael’s perspective, but the world is one step removed from his account. We aren’t shown his experience, only what he chooses to says about it. And the journal itself is incomplete. We are given excerpts, passages taken from a larger whole that are relevant to the upcoming trial. The journal creates the sense of a far larger world that we can’t see because we’re trapped in Michael’s head.

Even before lucid dreaming takes over his life, Michael is disengaged from the external world. Obviously intelligent, he harbors vague dreams of accomplishing something and making a contribution to the world, but he has no concrete goals. His job means nothing to him. People in general seem to bore or anger him. He does have a childhood friend, Kyle, and he’s on decent terms with Kyle’s girlfriend, Kate. These two share his enthusiasm for dream “vacations.”

Michael also has a girlfriend whom he meets after beginning his experiments in lucid dreaming. He conceals her real name and calls her Dorothy—not, he explains at length, after the heroine of The Wizard of Oz. Yet the connection fits his image of her. She’s a creature of fantasy, a figure from a dream. They are sexually intimate, of course, but they spend too much time asleep to know each other well. But Sfinas reveals enough about Dorothy to hint at her complexity, intelligence, and deep sadness.

At the heart of The Sexual Adventures of Time and Space is a tragic love story. Michael and Dorothy are young and lost and could have given so much to each other. If they only stayed awake.

noir mystery

Vu Tran’s novel Dragonfish combines a noir mystery with a family saga and adds a dash of ambiguity of the kind usually associated with literary fiction. Written in elegant prose, it begins as a familiar kind of detective story, the search for a missing person, but Tran seems more concerned with the mystery than its solution, with what cannot be known rather than what can.

Two husbands—or rather, three

Robert, an Oakland cop, and his ex-wife Hong a.k.a. Suzy are the story’s two first-person narrators. Hong abandons Robert for a man she met during her journey to America. Sonny has become a gambler and smuggler in Las Vegas. He’s a brutal villain but also a victim of his past. When Hong runs away from him too, he blackmails Robert into looking for her. The search leads Robert into a violent world that he doesn’t understand. The more he learns about his ex-wife, the more he realizes how little he knows her.

Not that he tries hard to know her during their marriage. He accepts her strange behavior without much caring what causes it. He calls her Suzy rather than her true name, creating a superficial American identity for her.

Her real name was Hong, which meant “pink” or “rose” in Vietnamese. But it sounded a bit piggish the way Americans pronounced it, so I suggested the name of my first girlfriend in high school . . .

It seems that Robert prefers his wife without the baggage of her past. Now, searching for her, he is forced to confront it.

Bad mother?

Hong is as much a mystery to herself as to Robert. In flashbacks she recounts her immigration to America and her deep ambivalence about motherhood. She gives birth in Vietnam while her first husband is imprisoned at a re-education camp. Although she loves her daughter, she feels alone and unable to be a good mother.

There are things that people do poorly for lack of talent, and things they do poorly for lack of desire. Then there are those things that all the desire and talent in the world cannot make fit, no matter how often you pray and how hard you pretend.

After the government releases her dying husband, he urges Hong to leave the country. She’s cast adrift on a crowded, barely seaworthy boat carrying her and her young daughter away from Vietnam. Two things that happen on the journey dramatize Hong’s ambivalence about motherhood. A woman thinks her son has fallen overboard. In a paroxysm of despair, she jumps in the ocean to drown with him. The boy is found soon afterward sleeping below deck. The woman’s devotion to her child backfires. It is extreme—and inept.

If the other mother loves her son too much, Hong fears that she may love her daughter too little.

The second incident occurs on an island where the refugees await sponsorship in America. Hong watches her daughter going into deep water, where she would likely drown, and does nothing to stop her. Hong cannot understand her own failure to act. It troubles her. These two incidents do not explain her ambivalence, but they suggest a disquieting answer—that Hong is incapable of the steadfastness and self-sacrifice that motherhood requires. She loves her daughter, yet leaves her to be raised by a relative.

Mysteries with no solution

Robert’s search for Hong brings him into conflict with Sonny and his clan, a conflict that ends in a violent resolution. But Hong remains in the shadows. She asks an ancient question—Who am I?—and cannot find an answer. Nor can the reader who wants to know how her story ends.

While the mystery of Hong’s character serves the plot and theme, the blurred edges of Robert’s character detract from the story. He’s not altogether believable as an Oakland cop, appearing remarkably untouched by a career full of stress and danger. Almost nothing is shown of his life apart from his marriage to Hong. True, the story isn’t about him, but as a major point-of-view character, he should be more fully developed.

Dragonfish does not deserve its low ratings on Amazon. Its combination of genres and ambiguous ending may explain the mixed reviews. Some readers apparently expected a more pedestrian novel. They complain that the plot moves too slowly and seem to resent the lack of resolution to Hong’s story. In another post I write about some readers’ dislike of ambiguity, a preference to which they are entitled. But plenty of other readers love Dragonfish and you can count me among them. I will not soon forget Vu Tran’s powerful novel.

Ever since I discovered the pleasure of listening to audio books, I’ve thought about making audio versions of my novels. But the high cost of production and my unfamiliarity with the process kept me from moving ahead.

Then, in mid-May of 2017, my thriller Darkroom won First Prize for Fiction in the IndieReader Discovery Awards. This honor may seem unrelated to producing an audio book. It’s not. The award renewed my faith in Darkroom. Like most writers I believe in my work. Otherwise I would not be writing. But the validation boosted my confidence enough to justify the substantial investment in an audio book production.

IndieReader invited to me attend a BookCon event in New York City to receive the award in person. Unfortunately, medical problems kept me from making the trip. Of course, I was disappointed. It occurred to me that I could use the unspent travel money to produce an audio book of Darkroom.

Choosing a production method

I could have read Darkroom and managed the studio production work myself—the least expensive option—and probably ended up with a substandard audio book. I haven’t worked in theater since college and I know almost nothing about sound editing. Sure, I could have learned, but experience has shown me that it takes practice to become competent at new skills. I chafed at the idea of delay. Even more, I refused to make the Darkroom audio book a learning project.

Another avenue of audio book production is through exchanges like ACX and Findaway, which allow you to bid for readers and hold auditions. I felt too inexperienced to sort through a slew of auditions—some by readers who might or might not have access to adequate sound equipment—so I searched instead for an independent studio.

After casting about for a few weeks, I settled on Spoke Media, a production company with a good reputation and a contact person who returned my messages within a day or two (as opposed to a couple of weeks). After listening reader auditions, I chose Alison Pistorius, a theatrical actor whose voice evokes my main character, Kelly.

A new cover for the audio book

I needed an audio version of my cover. Unfortunately, I’d engaged the cover artist through an intermediary, and this company no longer worked with him. I asked the company for help anyway, but received no response. So, I dug up contact information for the cover artist and wrote to him directly. Again, no response. I won’t name the cover artist or the company. I will only say that my estimation of them has taken a nosedive.

Damonza designed a compelling new cover for both the ebook and the audio book of Darkroom. Some readers say they prefer it to the earlier cover.

A few problems

Spoke Media worked fast. Maybe too fast. In three weeks, the audio files were ready for review. By and large the audio book sounded terrific. But I’m glad I listened to every file. Sentences were repeated in a few places, and worse, an entire page of Chapter 28 had not been recorded at all. Maybe you’ve encountered audio books with annoying and confusing mistakes—repetitions, obviously missing words, inconsistent chapter titles—mistakes the producer failed to catch. (And it’s the job of the producer—in this case, me—to catch them.) I’m glad Darkroom didn’t end up being that kind of audio book.

After Spoke Media completed the revisions, I set about uploading the files to my distributors, ACX and Author’s Republic. The ACX reviewer informed me that the files needed a couple of minor edits. The opening credits must be in a separate file rather than part of the Prologue file. Same thing for the closing credits, which were part of  the final chapter file. Making the changes was no big deal, but I could have avoided the brief delay if I’d known the formatting rules.

Success!

The audio edition of Darkroom finally became available in September of 2017. The sound quality is superb and Allison Pistorius does a terrific job of reading the story. I’m pleased with the final product and hope that you will be, too. You can order the Darkroom audio book from Audible, iTunes, and several other outlets.

Like millions of other Americans, my husband and I made a pilgrimage into the path of totality on August 21, day of the Great American Eclipse. Or rather, I made a pilgrimage. Joe came along to keep me out of trouble.

We live in Charleston, Illinois, a town where the moon would obscure 95% of the sun. Joe couldn’t see the point of traveling a hundred miles for that last five percent. But I’d done my reading. Everyone who had witnessed a total eclipse attested that it was a unique experience and that last five percent makes a tremendous difference.

Our journey: viewing the eclipse in comfort

We stayed at the Marriott Courtyard in Chesterfield, Illinois. The place was packed with other pilgrims and the occasional business traveler. I chose Chesterfield figuring it would be less popular than the prime viewing spots in Southern Illinois, where hundreds of thousands gathered to observe the eclipse. Also, Chesterfield was next to a wildlife preserve, which seemed like an excellent place to watch the eclipse.

Unfortunately, Joe refused to drive to the wildlife preserve. He gave several reasons. The traffic would be terrible coming back, and he didn’t want an extra five miles of it. Hundreds of people would crowd the preserve, and we wouldn’t find a good spot to watch. Besides, the trees would block our view. But it came down to this: he’d traveled this far and he refused to travel any farther.

Eclipsus interruptus: light pollution

We watched the eclipse from the hotel. They call the place the Courtyard for a reason. A cozy courtyard in the back was furnished with several cushioned patio chairs, a couple of tables with umbrellas, and an outdoor fire pit. We waited there with several other people too unmotivated to venture into the wild.

Joe brought me coffee. He had fun watching and talking about the eclipse and sharing his eclipse glasses with an attractive woman who didn’t have any.

The location disappointed me a little. I hoped for crickets chirruping and birds flying to their roosts as the sky darkened. I spotted no birds. And although a few crickets chirruped, traffic from the nearby highway almost drowned them out.

Worst of all, the lamps around the building next door, equipped with light sensors, switched on and diluted the dark.

Total wonder: the last five percent

But none of it spoiled the wonder of the eclipse itself. The moon covers the sun and the midday sky darkens. You gaze at the corona with naked eyes and connect to a long-ago time when humans experienced the magic in the world. For the one minute and thirteen seconds of the total eclipse, the heavens reigned. Nothing could kill the magic—not the traffic or the lamps or the sterile comfort of the hotel courtyard.

It ended too soon.

Joe allowed that the last five percent made the trip worthwhile. And to his delight, traffic was light on the drive home.

Norse Mythology

As a child I loved myths. Magical stories that existed beyond my world and outside of time, they just were.  In my post Return to Tanglewood,, I wrote about my love for Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Tanglewood Tales, classical myths for children. My love for Norse mythology came a few years later and captured my imagination more profoundly.

While sunny Olympus endures forever, snowy Asgard lives in the shadow of Ragnorok, the death of the gods and the destruction of the world. Having lived through my parents’ violent divorce, I could imagine an inevitable and cataclysmic battle that destroys the world.

I don’t remember what books of Norse myths I read back then, but the stories riveted me. But the books I encountered as an adult seemed flat and academic. I figured the problem was me, that my adult self had outgrown the enchantment of Norse mythology. But when I reread the Tanglewood books, Hawthorne’s narrative rekindled my childhood delight.

A myth, like any other story, needs a skilled storyteller.

The Norse myths have found their storyteller in Neil Gaiman.

I rediscovered the magic of the Northern myths listening to the audio version of his Norse Mythology. Gaiman reads the book himself, with a wonderful understated expressiveness that never strains for effect. I listened every night in bed before off to sleep—like having my own personal reader of bedtime stories.

I remembered some of the myths from childhood—the fleet-footed peasant boy who can’t outrace Thought, the frost giant who tricks Thor into trying to drink the ocean, the time Loki vanishes Sif’s beautiful hair and leaves her bald.

Of all the characters in Norse mythology, my favorite was Loki, the trickster.

From my middle school perspective, Loki was like the class clown, always pranking the other gods. He can talk anyone into anything. He changes his shape at will. I failed to understand fully the darkness in Loki. His malice seemed containable because he fears the wrath of his fellow gods enough to undo the damage he causes—for a time, anyway.

Punishment of LokiI forgot the dark conclusion of Loki’s story, perhaps because I liked him so much. In the end, his envy and malice overwhelm fear of punishment. He contrives the death of the god Baldr. For that crime he’s doomed to suffer torment, bound in a cave while poisonous serpent’s venom drips on him, until the coming Ragnorok frees him to fight with the armies of darkness.

Norse Mythology captures all the grimness, heroism and humor of the Northern myths. Neil Gaiman has drunk deep of the Mead of Poetry.

 

The following is an excerpt from Hometown Boys, a work in progress featuring Kelly Durrell. Kelly returns to the Midwestern town where she grew up to attend the funeral of her aunt and uncle. They’ve been murdered by her ex-boyfriend from high school, Troy Ingram, a meth addict destroyed by chronic drug abuse. Kelly is unwillingly drawn into the case when Troy’s lawyer asks her for help. The lawyer has evidence that Troy was coerced into committing the murders, but Troy refuses to talk about it. The lawyer hopes Kelly can persuade him to open up and reveal who wanted her aunt and uncle deadand why.

In this flashback she remembers meeting Gene Countryman, one of Troy’s friends from their high school days. Now a successful businessman, Gene may not be as respectable as he appears.

In the dark he became a stranger

Certain moments stayed frozen in her memory. Like photographs, she thought with a pang. She warded off thoughts of Day Randall, her murdered friend and a talented photographer, whose body was still missing. Memories decayed faster than photographs. A lot faster. But the vital details, the ones whose emotional charge held the memory in place—those never changed.

It was her second date with Troy. Or maybe third. That unimportant detail had decayed. He picked her up down the block from Steph’s house, where she was supposed to be sleeping over. He pulled to the curb in a pumpkin colored Buick, a carriage waved into existence by a fairy godmother with a twisted sense of humor. The bucket seat sagged beneath her weight. Smells haunted the interior—marijuana and cigarette smoke and something like vomit. The engine made odd choking noises, and when they headed out of town, Kelly worried that the car might break down and leave them stranded in the country.

“What’s wrong?” he asked. “You look uptight.”

“No, I’m fine.” She peered beyond the reach of the headlights and ignored the uneasiness that hollowed her out. “Where are we going?”

“You’ll see.” In the dark he became a stranger. He could pull the car to the side of the road, strangle her, and roll her body into a cornfield. For a moment she wanted to go back to Steph’s house, pop some popcorn, and watch TV. Then she summoned the image of his lucid blue eyes and knowing smile, a smile that intimated life was a joke and nobody got it but the two if them. He was dangerous, but not to her.

Somewhere along the highway leading to Uncle George’s place, Troy turned onto a side road. Gravel crunched under the Buick’s tires, and the headlights played over milkweed and a drainage ditch. Treetops emerged from the darkness of the sky, then windows illuminated with bluish light winked into view. She couldn’t see much else of the house, only the silhouette of high eaves and a front porch, its roof slumped with age. The Buick jolted over a rutted driveway and arrived in a small clearing where several other vehicles were parked. Smothered music drifted from the house.

“What is this?” Kelly asked.

“What’s it look like?”

A party in the country. Obviously. Yet, for reasons she couldn’t pin down, the place seemed furtive and sinister.

Troy got out of the Buick, slammed the door, and strode toward the porch. Kelly scrambled to catch up, so young and smitten that she accepted his rudeness. And he set the pattern. The boyfriends who followed him differed only in degree—until she met Cash, whose old-fashioned father taught him to open doors for women, not because they were weak or helpless but out of respect. Kelly wondered now why she’d valued herself so little, why she’d taken so long to move beyond her teenage insecurity.

I am the passenger

Inside the house Iggy Pop crooned, “I am the passenger, I ride and I ride . . . ,” the song’s bass notes booming like distant thunder. The raw smell of mud drifted from a field. They stood for at least a couple of minutes. She was fretting that no one had heard Troy knock when the door swung wide. A skinny man stood in the threshold. His hair ebbed from his domed forehead and hung in greasy dishwater strands to his shoulders. Later she found out he was twenty-eight, but lines scored his face from his nostrils to the corners of his mouth. His irises, almost colorless, were ground zero in a bloodshot explosion so intense that he seemed about to weep blood.

Troy leaned forward and said something. The skinny man’s gaze jumped frenetically between her and Troy before he finally nodded.

Troy grabbed her upper arm and pulled her toward the door. “Say hi to Gene.”

She mumbled a hello.

Gene raked his fingers through the stringy hair. “Troy says you’re cool. Is that right? He’s not full of shit, is he?” He sounded like a clarinet with a bad cold.

“No. I mean, I am. Cool.”

“How old are you?”

“Eighteen.” She fudged her age by fifteen months. Lying made her nervous, but he wouldn’t ask unless he needed to hear the magic number.

Gene’s mouth twitched. “Yeah, right.” But he let them in.

As Troy shepherded her through the entryway, she noticed a mahogany hall tree, the varnish on the bench top cracked and bubbled where liquid—someone’s drink, maybe—had been spilled and left. To Kelly, who loved old furniture, it seemed like desecration.

They went into a front room where a dozen or so partiers lounged on a couch and chairs and huge pillows scattered over the floor. Everyone there was older than her. Some were way older—not quite her parents’ age, but almost. Troy dropped into a chair and patted on its wide upholstered arm, indicating that Kelly should sit there. Pretending not to notice, she sat cross-legged on a Persian rug. Several burns pocked its glossy pile. She stroked the rug with her fingertips as if to comfort it.

Most people don’t feel much of anything

A nearby table was also scarred with burns and littered with an overflowing ashtray, a couple of metal pipes, and the leftover butts of smoked joints. “Look at them fat roaches,” Troy said. “Can’t let ‘em go to waste.” He picked out the longest roach and held it to his lips. He removed a book of matches from his T-shirt pocket, opened it, and struck a match—all with one hand in a single fluid motion. The feat of dexterity had impressed her at sixteen. Remembering it at forty, she wondered how many hours he’d wasted perfecting the trick.

He sucked on the stub and blew out acrid smoke, then offered the smoldering butt to Kelly. She shook her head. He gave her the knowing smile. “Come on, don’t be a narc.”

She pinched the roach gingerly, its heat a millimeter from burning her fingertips, and brought it to her lips. Maybe if she pretended . . . She barely inhaled, but she sucked in the smoke anyway. Her throat closed like a fist, and pressure backed up in her chest. She hacked and coughed loud enough to be heard over the music. An overweight woman guffawed. A man with a wispy goatee snickered. Kelly felt trapped in a cartoon where it was her fate to do one stupid thing after another.

She  braced for anger or disgust from Troy, but he asked, “Are you okay? Want something to drink?” She might have started loving him at that moment. It was a slight kindness. Basic courtesy. Yet . . .

He left the room and quickly returned with a can of soda. It was already open and not cold enough to have come straight from the fridge. She guessed someone—Troy, she hoped—had already drunk from the can. She didn’t care. Its fizz soothed her parched mouth and throat.

When he passed her a lighted joint, she took a drag to make him happy and gave it back. A minute later, he offered the joint again. She shook her head. “I’m new at this. In case you haven’t guessed.”

Troy smiled and stroked her cheek. “You’ll be okay. Most people don’t feel much of anything their first time smoking.”

She took another drag. And a few more.

She leaned against the chair where he sat. She listened to Iggy Pop snarl the lyrics of “Lust for Life.” The music had a depth and shape she’d never experienced before. She pictured the drummer twirling his drumsticks like batons and pounding drums the size of trampolines. The silver pinwheels of the drumsticks spun before her eyes. She bounced on a giant trampoline, soaring high—higher with each bounce, more weightless. Time froze. She became the silvery sticks between the drummer’s fingers. Spinning and spinning. Her stomach pitched and her mind reeled. Vomit soured her throat. She needed a toilet before—

The darkness in their faces

Hand clamped to her mouth, she staggered down a dim hallway into the harsh fluorescence of the kitchen. Several men leaned against an old-fashioned oak dining table and a counter cluttered with beer cans and gallon jugs of wine. The men turned and stared at her. Something about their faces. A darkness.

Gene Countryman held a small metal pipe between his thumb and fingers. A pistol was jammed into the waistband of his jeans, snug against the small of his back. Had it been there when he let them in? Kelly struggled to think. Many of the grownup men she knew, her father included, owned guns and hunted deer and birds. None of them stuck pistols down their pants like a movie gangster. Show off, Kelly thought, but she couldn’t let go of the darkness in their faces.

Gene noticed her, and his mouth curled in a sarcastic hook. He nodded toward a door. “Over there. And try not to miss.” Scattered laughter chased her into the tiny windowless bathroom.

She raised the toilet seat and lowered her head over the bowl. Someone had peed and forgotten to flush, and shit smeared the porcelain just above the water line. Her stomach contracted. She’d thrown up her half-digested dinner, and the sour reek had triggered more vomiting.

All these years later, she carried an image of Gene Countryman’s gun in her memory—the black textured plastic of its handle and the way it wiggled when he straightened his back, as if trying to escape from his too-tight waistband.

Later, driving back into town, Troy had reassured her. Lots of people barfed the first time they smoked and—who knows?—the weed could have been cut with something.

“Like what?”

“Who knows? Meth or angel dust.”

Kelly never wanted to smoke weed again, and he would keep insisting. She hoped she could say no to his impish smile, his blue eyes shaded by dark lashes. It didn’t matter. After the way she acted, he wouldn’t ask her out again.

Only he did. And Kelly said yes for the stupidest of reasons. He was giving her another chance after she embarrassed him. How could she do any less for him?