A Hint of Success in the Whirlwind of Publishing

My first book, Fires of Hell, came out a couple months ago. I thought I was prepared. I was strong. I was smart. I had studied. I could do this.


I had no freakin’ clue. Promo is hard. Let’s just get that out there right off the bat. I’m a writer. I huddle on my bed in my pajamas and have conversations with my imaginary friends. If I don’t like what they say, I change it until I do. Or I kill them off.

Can’t do that in real life.

So here I am, trying to tell real people why the heck they should invest their time and money to meet some of my imaginary friends, even the ones I killed in various horrible ways. And, I’m thinking: what if they don’t like them? What if they buy my book, and they think I’ve wasted their time? At that point, my brain starts to shut down in panic.

BUT!!! I kept on going, and the reviews are pretty darn good, for the most part.indtale-magazine-review

And then I get a review from the Steampunk Journal. 9.3 out of 10. http://steampunkjournal.org/ Check it out!

And today I got another one from InD’Tale magazine: 4.5 out of 5, and a crowned heart (recommended read!) to boot. http://magazine.indtale.com/magazine/2016/november/#?page=124

Maybe I’m doing something right.

Now, if I can just figure out how to actually sell some books…

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Release Day!

cropped-FiresofHellbyMaureenLMills-Twitterbanner.jpgToday, my first book, FIRES OF HELL, was released into the wild. Hard to imagine the mixed emotions I’m experiencing, writing those words. On the one hand, this has been a goal since I was twelve and decided many of the books I was reading were doing it wrong! and determined I could write so much better. I believed that clear up to the point I actually tried to create a coherent story from scratch on my own. Yeah, it’s much harder than it looks, people.

So there’s that deep sense of satisfaction that, finally, after all these years, I’ve accomplished a life goal.

But I’m sitting here hitting the wrong keys every other word because my hands are shaking so badly. People are gonna see what I wrote! People are gonna know that I thought of all those things–good and bad–that makes the story what it is. The fighting, the anger, the blood, the disappointment, the betrayal, the petty jealousies, the naive heroism. That all came from inside me. And now it’s out there for everyone to see. This is who I am, folks. Surprise!

What if you all don’t like it?

What if you all don’t like me?

And how silly and self-centered am I to let those questions bother me?

So, here’s another question. How many of you have felt like this before? When? And what the heck did you do about it? Seriously, any commiseration or advice at all would be highly welcome!

Here’s another random quote from the book to whet your appetite:

Josiah, his trunk on one shoulder, his face pale and set, came toward me across the deck. I froze, drinking in the sight of him as if I had been lost in the desert for a week, and he was water.

“Sir.” I dropped my bag and came to attention.

He never even glanced my way. Brushing past me, he continued onto the gangway and down to the packed earth and scrub of the airfield. A carriage bearing the Winged Goods insignia waited below. He slung his box up to the driver, who settled it on the back, climbed inside, and shut the door.

Shut me out.

And drove away.


Buy it now before the price goes up on Monday!

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Fires of Hell and Hellfire Rocket Launch

Code name Dugway on the salt at the Bonneville Salt Flats at dawn

Code name Dugway on the salt at the Bonneville Salt Flats at dawn.


My first book, Fires of Hell, comes out on August 17th, 2016, only a week or two after this year’s Hellfire rocket launch on the Salt Flats. Hellfire is the first weekend in August, and brings together a bunch of people who love big, noisy, fantastic model rockets for three days of noisy, smoky, high-flying fun and sunburn. The ground is so reflective, you can get scorched in the strangest places–under your chin, behind your knees, and even your elbows, if you don’t slather on the sunscreen.

Dugway and I get the privilege of camping (carefully, and without disturbing the salt, in a camper) at the site to keep watch over the equipment. I love the other-worldly look of moonlight on the miles and miles of stark white emptiness. Sunsets glow pink and orange and gold overhead and underfoot, and sunrises are just as magical. There are good reasons so many commercials and movies are filmed out here. Looking forward to the silence–and the blood-pumping roar of K, L, and M motors kicking rockets into the sky.

And then my book releases into the wild, which is another sort of kick altogether.

Hope it doesn’t crash.


Posted in Book Release, Weekend Plans Tagged with: , ,

Midwife Crisis

Edit: This entry won an Honorable Mention in the Writer’s of the Future Contest for the fourth quarter of 2015. Now, to write one that wins it all…

The next installment, as promised. I think the writing is better, although the storyline may not be quite as strong. Or maybe the story is fine. What’s your opinion? Leave a comment and let me know what you think. And, if you like this story, feel free to share it.



Do I have to beg?


Midwife Crisis


I yanked the data chip from my slate and chucked it across the Cephus Colonial Corporation Greenhouse Pod #2, narrowly missing my Wise Husband’s gray-frosted head.

“Three more months!” I yelled.

He calmly continued clipping samples from the row of spinach seedlings waiting to be analyzed for nutritional content.

“Didn’t you hear me?” I hauled my heavily gravid bulk from the chair in the corner and waddled between planting benches toward Rus, one hand on my belly and one on my back to rub out the persistent ache in my lower lumbar region. “The stupid corporation is insisting we give them modified radishes. That’ll take three months, even with growth accelerators. For radishes!”

I spotted the data chip on the floor beside a bag of native Cephan soil and headed over to it. “Here. I’ll read it to you.” I began to bend over, discovered I couldn’t, and tried to squat in an awkward attempt to grab the tiny plastic disk.

Rus finally looked up from his work. “I’ll get that, honey. You sit down and stay calm.”

I straightened and watched with envious eyes as Rus nimbly scooped up the disk. “I can’t stay calm! The stupid corporation…”

“Sweetie pie, what’s wrong?” My Young Husband stuck his head in from the lab pod attached to the greenhouse. “You know you’re supposed to take it easy.”

“Allo, we have to stay here another three months!” I wailed, and collapsed into my chair again.

Rus fitted the disk into his slate and began to read. “’The Cephus Colonial Corporation appreciates the good work you’ve done to this point. The Corporation feels our contract cannot be considered fulfilled until we have been provided with a planiformed version of raphanus sativus. We estimate the time required to be three months from this date, and will compensate you accordingly…’”

Raphanus sativus?” Allo asked, stepping all the way into the pod.

“Radishes,” I said. “Who cares about radishes? I don’t want to have our baby here. I want to have him at home. I want my Wise Wife!” My howl brought Allo scurrying to my side, where he patted my back and handed me tissues to mop up the tears I couldn’t help letting loose.

Pregnancy played hell with my emotions.

“Honey, it’s only three months,” Rus soothed. He took my hand and gave it an encouraging squeeze. “They’re paying us a pretty big bonus for the extra time, and I’m sure there’s a perfectly good midwife here in the colony.”

I blew my nose and wiped away a few last tears. “I’m sure there is…if I were a cow, instead of just looking like one.”

The thing was, besides currently being the same approximate size and shape as a cow, I was as strong as an ox and healthy as a horse, to round out the barnyard references. I’d probably do perfectly fine with the midwife the colony had on staff, even if she delivered more animal babies than human ones.

But I had expected to be back home in New Devon and have our Wise Wife deliver our baby. Well, she was my and Rus’s Wise Wife; she was Allo’s Grandwife. She was also one of the leading obstetricians on New Devon. I trusted her, and that counts for a lot when you’re in labor.

“You don’t look like a cow,” Allo said. “I think you’re beautiful.”

Oh, he was so sweet! Had I been that sweet when I’d first become Rus’s Young Wife?

I gave both my husbands a rather watery smile.

Rus kissed my cheek and sighed. “I’m sorry I didn’t check the fine print on the contract more closely before I signed it. I should have insisted on a detailed list of the crops they wanted, and not settled for ‘a complete complement.’”

I shook my head. “Not your fault. You were still on pain meds for your Niven’s Syndrome, and I’m hopeless with all that legal jargon. Allo’s not much better at it than I am, and we’d certainly needed the money at the time. Buying passage on that refugee ship off Fomalhaut Prime cost a bundle.”

“It’s nobody’s fault but the CCC’s,” Allo said. His eyes narrowed. “They’ll never let us go with a full payment for a completed contract; you know that. When we give them radishes that’ll thrive here, they’ll want kohlrabi. Before you know it, we’ll be trying to adapt bananas to grow at the poles!”

He was right. The way the contract was worded, the corporation could request one more crop, then another, and another, and never have to pay the large premium they’d promised us when we came straight here after Rus’s treatment and started the job right away instead of stopping at our home planet first.

Well, I wasn’t going to stand for it. There must be a way to convince the stupid corporation they didn’t need us any longer…

“Uh oh,” Allo said. “I know that look. You’re planning again, aren’t you?”

Someone’s got to get us out of this mess.”

“Honey,” Rus warned. “Last time you made a plan, you brought down an entire planetary government.”

I hadn’t, really. I’d just sort of encouraged the rebellion.

I waved away his objection. “It was an evil government. And that was an accident, anyway.” I leaned forward and kissed him on the nose. “I’ll be careful, like always.”

Rus’s frown didn’t lighten one bit.


My back ached from the hours of hover travel and all the stooping while I dug up samples of the native vegetation. The dull pain echoed the sharp pinch of the oxygen tube fitted to my nostrils to compensate for the low levels of the precious gas present in the atmosphere of Cephus Three. Sweat dribbled down my temples and dried in an itchy crust around the base of my earphone, despite my light clothing. At least I didn’t have to worry too much about sunburn. Although the blue-tinged sun gave off more UV than the yellow sun of New Devon, the higher ozone levels effectively blocked most of the harmful rays. I didn’t even need to wear sunscreen.

I stopped the hover next to a struggling field of the colorful, waist-high plants common to most of the planet, basking in the heat given off by the red rock cliff rising above them. The droning of their bellows organs blended into a low background hum.

I clambered stiffly out. Placing both hands at the small of my back, I stretched forward, moaning in relief as the pain eased a bit.

Allo jumped out of the passenger side and scurried around to me. “We should probably head back pretty soon, sweetie pie. Are you doing all right?”

I nodded, weary and uncomfortable, but determined. “I’m fine,” I said, rubbing my distended belly with the tips of my fingers. “All I need is one interesting plant.”

“You keep saying that,” Allo grumped.

“What better way to get off this planet than to shut down the terraforming to save a possibly valuable indigenous species? The CCC will have to spend years in court to prove their colony won’t disturb the ecology, at least until the species is thoroughly studied. They won’t keep us hanging around while all that’s going on.”

Allo began massaging my back, and I couldn’t help but smile. “The CCC already did a thorough study of all the native life forms,” he said.

I snorted. “As if the CCC didn’t have a vested interest in not finding anything interesting.” I waddled to the back of the hover and unloaded my collection kit. “All it takes is one.”

Allo helped haul the kit to the dense mat of vegetation and retreated to the hover to fix us a snack. I squatted, dropping to my knees when I got as low as I could go. I bent and started digging up and labeling samples of the outer grass-like plants, working my way in towards the center, taller bushes. The ache in my back intensified. “All it takes is one,” I muttered. “All it takes is one.”

“Aaahll id dakess sizz wunn…” sighed a breeze that ruffled through the foliage.

I froze, trowel dangling in my suddenly nerveless hand. “Allo? Was that you?”

“Did you say something, sweetie?”

“Allo! Are you teasing me?” It was just like him to mimic my current mantra to try to get a rise out of me, if only to lighten my mood.

“Sweetie, you’re eight months pregnant and we’re two hours by hover from the closest medical help. I wouldn’t dare do anything to rile you.”

“Then who…?” I stopped and scanned the surrounding fat, fleshy, purple-splotched stalks.

“Hooo…” whispered a low voice next to my ear.

I had no idea I could still move that fast. I was halfway to the hover before my brain registered that no one was, in fact, chasing me.

I stumbled to a halt. “Allo? Did you hear that?”

Allo said “No” at the same time another breathy sigh came from the field.

“Aaallo-o-o,” it said.

“Okay,” Allo said, running to stand behind me. He studied the plants over my shoulder. “I heard it that time.” He slipped his hand into mine and hung on.

“Do you suppose the wind is making those noises?” I asked—a stupid question, because there wasn’t a breath of wind today.

“I’ll check our oxygen levels,” Allo said, and hurried back to the hover to get the med kit.

I eyed the field suspiciously. Beyond the fringe of low-growing plants, the ground was covered in the bulbous, lily-shaped flowers that grew everywhere, although they were beginning to die back due to the reduced temperatures and increased oxygen from the terraforming.

Silence fell, broken only by Allo rummaging in the back of the hover and the plants’ nasal drone. The bellows organ acted like a primitive lung, allowing the plant access to more oxygen, since the original atmosphere contained so little. All plants need oxygen in their atmosphere to survive overnight, but the flora of Cephus Three needed less than most, since they had absorbed a form of cyanobacteria sometime during their evolution as well as an organism that acted like mitochondria. But, while they could process some food anaerobically, they still needed oxygen in order to thrive. They made up the difference by pumping large amounts of air through hollow tubes in their thick stem.

Whatever the cause, the upshot was that standing next to a clump of these plants sounded like standing next to a bagpipe band as it warmed up.

I let Allo scan our blood oxygen levels, which were normal. Neither of us heard another sighing comment from anywhere.

“There must be something hiding in the plants,” I said. I edged forward, Allo right behind me. Nothing moved but an occasional bumbling proto-insect, busy about its own business, and the pumping of the plants’ bellows.

I reached the place where I’d first heard the strange sounds.

Still nothing moved.

So I knelt and parted the stems in front of me, looking for a clue; because seriously, I didn’t have one.

Purples and blues flashed across the fleshy, chartreuse lilies, and the droning shifted, becoming even more atonal and annoying.

I braced for the opening notes of “Scotland the Brave.”

“Hello?” I called. “Is anyone there?”

“Hhhelllo-o-o,” came the reply, not quite like a tune, but not that far off, either.

I could have sworn the voice came from the plant in my left hand.

Allo’s grip tightened on my shoulders, and I slowly, carefully withdrew my hands, folding them in what was left of my lap. “It talked,” I said.

“Yup,” said Allo.

“Do you think it knows what it’s saying?” I said.

I could feel Allo’s shrug from the way his hands moved. “How can it know anything? It’s a plant. Maybe it just repeats what it hears.”

“But it doesn’t have ears!” I leaned forward–oh, so carefully!–and studied the trumpet of the lily-like plant. The inner surface was covered in fine filaments, much like hair or fur. I felt the tickle of the plant’s “breath” against my face. “It’s got fur!”

I watched the hairs quiver as I spoke. “Izz gaw furrr,” the plant echoed.

“I think you found your one interesting plant, sweetie pie,” Allo said, leaning forward to see the hairs pulsate in time to his words.


“Aww, how cute. It knows you!” Allo moved to kneel beside me. “Say ‘Allo’ again.”


I shook my head. “It’s just echoing what it hears.” Holding up one finger, I said “One.”


I held up two fingers. “Two.”


Three fingers. “Three.”


Next I held up two fingers, but I didn’t say anything.


Yes, indeed. I had definitely found my interesting plant.


Allo and I dug up as many of the plants as we could fit in the back of the hover, filling the bed with mounds of the Cephan soil. It helped that the plants seemed mobile in a limited way, helpfully curling up their roots into compact balls as we grubbed around them. I wondered if they thought we were kidnapping them, but the droning settled into a nearly harmonious dirge, especially after we turned up the heat control in the rear compartment to pre-terraforming normal.

After a while, other plants besides our original friend began practicing speech. We drove home to a symphony of “Aaallo-o-o”s and “Ssweeedeee”s. I tried to teach them my real name, but it didn’t stick. To them, I was Sweetie, and Sweetie I’d stay.

Not a very dignified name for the leader of a band of aspiring freedom fighters.

Their names were combinations of color splotches and hummed tones. At least I think that was what they were trying to convey when we pointed at them.

Rus rolled his eyes and sighed when we reached our temporary home and explained what had happened, but he cleared a space for our guests in Greenhouse Pod #1, which was set up to study the indigenous Cephan flora.


In my defense, I tried to settle this through official channels, but the CCC official here on Cephus Three refused to acknowledge the existence of plant-based intelligence, and blocked my attempts to introduce the plants to the other colonists. Personally, I began to question the existence of corporate-based intelligence.

I contacted various off-planet sources, but was brushed off, laughed at, or ignored. After all, I was only an obscure exobiologist, not a noted xenographer. Who would trust my judgment enough to spend the hefty amount of money necessary to rush a crew out to this planet to investigate?

So I came up with a plan.

We had less than three weeks if we wanted to get back in time to have our baby at home. We worked around the clock, Rus and I utilizing the growth accelerators and all our skill at coaxing repressed DNA to suddenly express itself, and Allo teaching the plants–or sentiveggies, as we called them–our language and customs while learning theirs at the same time.

The day we’d chosen for the demonstration dawned bright and clear. I spent yet another frustrating afternoon on the phone, trying one last time to get someone–the Extraterrestrial Species Protection Agency, the Interplanetary Fish and Wildlife Service, or the United Planets–to listen to our plea for help. The closest I got was a recording telling me they would send out an agent in eight months, by which time a large chunk of the Cephan sentiveggies would be dead and my baby would already be crawling.

Having no alternative, Allo, Rus and I rounded up our little crop of freedom fighters and herded them out the door of Greenhouse Pod #1. The sentiveggies were now a foot taller and completely mobile, although slow and a little clumsy. They were also better adapted to the lower temperatures and higher oxygen levels.

During one human cultural lesson, Allo had shown them a vid of the ancient classic “Braveheart.” He’d thought it was appropriate. Consequently, all the Cephans had turned as much of their foliage blue as possible, and insisted that Allo teach them a battle song.

Just the colonists gathered for the communal nightly meal, I bid a tearful farewell to my fledgling army, each sentiveggie waving its blossom-laden fronds and swaying forward to the martial drone of their bellows. This time I really did hear the opening measures of “Scotland the Brave.”

As the tune filtered into the window of the cafeteria pod, the colonists poured outside to see what the heck was up. About the only thing that disturbed their daily routine was a horse with a tetchy stomach. The march of the sentiveggies was as much excitement as they’d seen in months.

Murmurs grew until a few voices rose above the general babble.

“They’re getting closer! Should we run?” This in a high, feminine tone.

“No; what are they going to do? Tickle us?” Also female, but sounding much more confident.

The sentiveggies marched toward the mass of colonists, who wavered back a foot or two.

“What if they’re poisonous?” said a man in the front ranks of the crowd.

“So don’t eat them,” said the confidant woman, and she stepped forward to meet the waving field of sentiveggies.

With the lavender rays of the setting sun frosting the luminous blue of their trumpets, the Cephans possessed a heart-stopping beauty that drew out many of the colonists’ slates to record the moment.

The lead sentiveggie, who was apparently named Hiss-Two Purple Spots-Moan, tottered to a stop in front of the confidant woman, its glowing cerulean foliage a stark contrast to the woman’s muddy complexion in the bluish light. It waved a branch, and the sentiveggies went as silent as they could get. In the low humming, the click of the cameras’ shutters sounded as loud as lasershots.

“Wwhelllcummm,” it said.

The colonists gasped. More slates came out.

Hiss-Two Purple Spots-Moan bent before the woman and dropped a single blossom from its outstretched branch. The woman stooped, picked up the delicate lily and smiled, her eyes twinkling with delight.

H-TPS-M retreated, and the rest of my freedom fighters advanced, dropping their flowers at the feet of other colonists. The smiles spread.

So did the holos.

The images hit the comm channels within minutes, drawing the eyes of the galaxy to the plight of the little Cephans and their struggle to retain ownership of their planet.

In less than an hour, my phone began to beep.


I was ensconced in my bunk on the Cephus Colonial Corporation ship “Ambition” on our way back home to New Devon, practicing relaxation breathing techniques with Rus and Allo. We were keeping a low profile because of all the media attention the Cephan sentiveggies had attracted.

While charming the colonists and the swarms of journalists with their language skills, the sentiveggies had let slip our names.

Fortunately, they only knew us as Allo, Rus, and Sweetie. But our faces had made it into a few photos, and the reporters were on the prowl.

It was all worth it, though. The CCC had paid up in full, and thrown in the ride home for free, just to get us off planet and out of the public eye as soon as possible. The Cephus colony was being shut down pending an investigation into the corporation’s planetary survey techniques, and the CCC officials didn’t want us answering too many of the reporters’ or investigators’ questions. Fancy that.

And we still had a week to get home so I could have our Wise Wife deliver our baby in a nice, clean, modern hospital.

I sighed in perfect contentment.

A warm, wet puddle grew beneath me. I stiffened and sat upright.

“Uh, Allo? Rus? I think my water just broke.”

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The Hungering

More free fiction, scifi this time. And since I skipped last month, I’ll post the sequel to this story next week.

The Hungering
by Maureen L. Mills

Three thousand habitable planets in the known universe, and I was stuck on the only one without a Kentaurus Fried Chicken franchise. Or any fried chicken joint. Or any fried chicken at all.
I rolled over in bed, careful not to disturb my Young Husband, Allo, snoring beside me, and laid a hand on my slightly rounded belly. “Go to sleep, little guy,” I whispered to the flutter I imagined I felt under my fingers. “You can’t have fried chicken, and that’s the end of it.”
Since the Great Burger Wars of 3308 and the resulting decimation of the teen populations on planets where the inter-franchise fighting had been the worst, most fast food establishments across the galaxy had been outlawed. Several planets still refused to allow their children to be taught how to draw the arched form of lower case m’s in reaction to the terrible crimes committed in the name of defending market share. Clowns, jagged arrows, and red pigtails are universally abhorred. I hadn’t seen or tasted a burger since I was ten.
Kentaurus Fried Chicken had stepped into the hamburger vacuum after the war and spread everywhere.
Except here, Fomalhaut Prime. The “Prime” was a misnomer, as this was the fourth planet in the star system, but the local religion was kind of nuts about firsts, so they changed the name.
Also, they worshipped chickens. Live ones, not the tasty fried kind.
My mouth watered as I imagined crunching into golden brown breading; the salty, savory taste of the eleven secret herbs and spices; the tender, white meat rolling over my tongue; the succulent juices running down my throat and dripping off my chin…
No, I wouldn’t die if I didn’t get any. But would life be worth living?
I rolled out of bed and padded to the tiny living room in the extended-stay suite I’d rented while Rus, my Wise Husband, underwent treatment in Our Lady of the Millet Planetary Hospital a few miles away. My home planet of New Devon is the go-to place if you need to develop a new space weevil-resistant strain of quinoa, but lacked advanced medical facilities for such unusual ailments as my husband’s Niven’s Syndrome.
The flight from New Devon to Gallus City had been long, with very little formal entertainment. Rus had been in cryo-sleep to arrest the progress of his disease, so Allo and I had nothing to do but treat the journey as an extended honeymoon. How was I to know zero-g and Alturian schnapps would affect my birth control implant like that?
Hence the bulge in my midsection, and the inescapable, driving need for fried chicken.
The stupid rooster outside the window crowed in confusion as I flipped the light on, and I ground my teeth. Stupid not-fried bird.
I wanted–I needed–the delicate taste of tender, white breast meat, infused with a hint of sage, a wisp of thyme. Or a more flavorful and juicy thigh piece, with its higher ratio of crackly skin and breading to meat…
I wiped the drool from my chin and plopped down on the sofa, snagged my e-slate and found a directory of all food purveyors on Fomalhout Prime. Someone on this stupid planet must be a dissenter from the stupid Church of the Prime Creation and its stupid sacred chickens.
It’s not like there was any shortage of the fowls. Feral chickens flocked in the streets. A cacophony of crowing woke me at daybreak every morning, negating any chance of sleeping in no matter how late I’d gone to bed the night before. Dead chickens rotted beside every road, flattened by passing steam sledges. No one dared move them until the state-run street cleaners swept up the carcasses along with the other trash once or twice a month.
And yes, the stench was unbelievable, especially to a pregnant woman.
But surely someone in this city was poor enough, hungry enough, to catch a few sacred chickens and eat them. No one would notice if a bird or twelve went missing. Maybe someone was desperate enough to sell me a luscious bucket o’ golden goodness or two. I only had to find the right shady connections.
I browsed to Gallus City tourist information, looking specifically for areas the literature said to avoid. One street was infamous as a red light district, which, although officially frowned upon, had quite a few pictures prominently included in the guide, beside detailed directions of how to get there, and to the clinics that existed to help clear up any unfortunate after-effects from your visit.
The next place was only mentioned as a side note at the bottom of the page. The Vitellus neighborhood is rustic and picturesque; however, it’s best to leave the area before nightfall.
Just the kind of place I needed. “Rustic and picturesque” translates to “poor and old.” A good place to find clandestine fried chicken products.

I went back to bed with a smug grin on my face, satisfying my stomach with the promise of chicken tomorrow.

Late the next day, after an unsuccessful attempt to allay my chicken craving with ham and cheese on rye, I left Allo with Rus at the hospital. I figured the husbands could look after each other for an hour or two.

Not that they needed much looking after, but with Rus confined to bed until his ears and backside healed, and Allo still young even though he was a legal adult in every galactic culture but one, I was reluctant to leave either on his own. (Allo was still a child according to the Undarans of Cephus Three, who aren’t considered adults until they have killed and eaten one of the extremely rare and even more extremely dangerous Fourhorned Sharktooth Squills, native to the swamps and jungles near the equator. Thus, not only was their star system under embargo by the Extraterrestrial Species Protection Agency, but their economy was collapsing from the lack of new housing starts, since most of the population lived in their parent’s basements playing video games and eating pizza, which is widely acknowledged as more tasty than Squill.)

As I left the hospital, I tripped over the raised edge of the oval embedded in the floor beneath nearly every door I’d come across on the planet, drawing the attention of several natives in the traditional bright shoes and hats. They looked me over and scowled.

I ducked into a passing hovercab to escape. For some reason, the Fomalhautians seemed to hate visitors to their planet. Or maybe it was just me.

The driver shot me a worried glance when I told him my destination, but I gave him a confident smile and he shrugged and pulled out.

The slanting rays of the setting sun gilded the old stucco buildings of the Vitellus market square. Hovercabs departed with the last straggling tourists, and the native merchants began hauling baskets of exotic goods into their stores from the streetside displays. Piles of lavender fruits that smelled of citrus and bacon, bushels of red grain outside a bakery with pink bread in the window, feather-patterned head scarves designed to match yellow leather slippers, and chickens everywhere. Wooden chickens, painted and left natural. Tiny, clear glass chickens. Across the square, orange gems cut into stylized chicken pendants sparkled in the setting sun.

And, of course, the live chickens. I had to shoo a speckled black hen out of the way before I could step out of the hovercab. Contented clucking and outraged squawks drowned out the merchants singing the last sale prices of the night just as the smell of chicken crap overwhelmed the aroma of the sausages grilling on the cart beside me.

I skirted a family of Rotanev Planet Reds who scratched for crumbs in front of the cart and approached the slight man unloading the last sausages from the grill into a basket with a tight cover to defeat the omnipresent poultry.
“Excuse me,” I said, trying to smile ingratiatingly. “Would you know where I could buy some…exotic cuisine?”

The man didn’t look up. “Beg pardon, ma’am. I don’t know what you mean.”

My stomach rumbled, adding its own two universal’s worth. “You know. Exotic meats? With herbs and spices? Eleven herbs and spices? I have money.” I flashed my wad of Fomalhautian clucks before stowing it safely back in my pickpocket-proof traveler’s bag.

The man’s dark eyes narrowed, and he studied me from the top of my green, DNA-modified hair to the tips of my soy-leather sandals, and apparently concluded I was a clueless tourist.

“Ma’am, perhaps you aren’t aware that, umm, ‘exotic meats’ of that sort are illegal on this planet.” He touched the brim of his crested red hat and turned back to his grill.

I snatched at his sleeve. “Sir! You don’t understand. I need some ‘exotic meat.’ I’m pregnant, you see, and I’m not from this planet, so it’s not illegal for me to eat chi…I mean, ‘exotic meat.’ You must know someone who can help me.” The words spilled out in a desperate attempt to plead my case before the man could take his basket and retreat into the storefront beyond.

He gave me a sympathetic look, which told me he’d known some pregnant women in his time, but he didn’t stop packing his sausages. “I’m sorry, but I can’t help you.”

“Why not?” I asked, my voice tight with desperation. I saw my chance of steaming hot, crispy fried chicken sliding from my grasp. “There are so many of them just running around everywhere! I’d do anything for just a taste…”

“Hush!” The man dropped his basket, scattering the chickens settling for the night under his cart, and slapped his hand over my mouth. “Do you want to get us both arrested for blasphemy?” He scanned the darkened street in both directions, then leaned in and spoke in a low voice. “Some in this market are spies.”

I pulled his hand off my mouth and whispered back. “Spies? Why would there be spies here?”

He slammed his hand back over my mouth. “Eggers live here,” he breathed into my ear.

I swatted his hand away. “Eggers? What, like bootleg egg sellers?”

“Sshh! Followers of the Ovate Way.”

Lights swung around the corner, piercing the darkness of the suddenly deserted street.

“It’s a patrol!” The man grabbed my arm and yanked me into his store, locked and bolted the door, and snapped down the window shades.

We stood motionless and silent as the black patrol hover glided slowly past and disappeared down the street.

“Why are we hiding?” I whispered.

“Eggers aren’t allowed out at night.”

I frowned. “I’m not an Egger. Whatever that is.”

The man took off his crested hat and chucked it into a corner. “But I am.” He tipped his head toward me, and I saw a large oval tattooed on his balding skull. No, not an oval. An egg shape.

“But why am I hiding?”

The Egger sighed. “Because you are from New Devon, right? Green hair, funny accent?”

My accent wasn’t funny! But I nodded anyway.

“The Fowlers are not fond of your type, and if you are seen in the company of an Egger, after curfew, no less, it will not go well for you. They’ll arrest you if they can.”

“Who are–”

The Egger cut me off. “I’ll answer your questions at the meeting place.” He bent down behind the long counter at the back of the room and disappeared.

Meeting place? Eggers? Hiding from patrols? Had I fallen in with some sort of resistance movement?

I leaned over the counter. A trapdoor gaped in the middle of the floor, leading into a pit lit by flickering torchlight.

Whatever the chances of finding a chicken dinner down there, they had to be better than zero, which was what I was facing up here.

My stomach rumbled.

I descended the ladder

The man was waiting at the bottom. “This way,” he said, closing the trapdoor. He led me through a maze of damp ferroconcrete tunnels. They smelled of mold and faintly of sewage, but at least there were no chicken droppings down here.

At last we came to a cavernous domed room, filled with hundreds of natives holding torches.

“George!” an elderly woman cried, hurrying over to us. “Why did you bring an outsider here?”

So my guide’s name was George. Man, how alien could you get?

“She’s New Devonian, Elda. They hate her, too. She wants to fight against the oppression of the Fowlers.” George stepped forward and he and Elda clasped forearms. They each wore wide bands on their forearms, with an egg pattern looping around it. When their hands clasped, the eggs on their wrists joined to form a sideways figure eight. An infinity symbol.
Hold on. What had George said about fighting oppression? “Hey, I don’t want to get into any trouble…”

Elda ignored me and turned to the assembled group. “See! Word of our plight has travelled across the galaxy, and help has come from a distant star system!”

A roar of approval rose.

“No, wait, I just want to buy some chicken!” No one heard me over the cheers.

George stepped onto a low platform and waved his hands for silence. “Friends! Followers of the Ovate Way! We have waited long for this day!”

I tried to edge away while everyone’s attention was focused on George, but Elda slung her arm around my shoulders and squeezed in an excess of good will, beaming at George’s speech.

“Why do the, umm, Fowlers–” which must be a slang name for the followers of the Church of the Primal Creation, the dominant religion of Fomalhaut Prime, “–hate New Devonians?” I whispered.

Elda’s eyebrows rose. “Well, it’s obvious isn’t it? You have your lovely chain marriages, with no absolute beginnings or endings, and that sort of thing is anathema to your average Fowler.”

“What, that we have lovely marriages?”

“No, dearie. The endless chain part.” She leaned closer so she wouldn’t interrupt George’s speech. “The Fowlers are fond of hard and fast beginnings and firsts. It comes from their belief that the Great Being made chickens as Its very first creation, while we Followers of the Ovate Way believe that It made the egg first, as a symbol of continuity and cyclic renewal.”

I blinked. “So, your religion split over the question of which came first, the chicken or the egg?”

But I’d lost her attention to George’s theatrics. “We will arise and throw off the chains the deluded Fowlers have put upon us, blocking our access to education, medical care and regional craft fairs by placing our sacred symbols where they are desecrated by the passage of unhallowed feet!” George was on a roll, whipping the crowd into a frenzy.

I remembered the raised ovals under every public doorway I’d encountered since arriving. You couldn’t avoid stepping on them. What a rotten thing to do to someone’s religious symbols.

“Let’s hear from our compatriot in this struggle for freedom!” George turned, and all eyes swung toward me.

I forced a weak smile and lifted a hand in a half-hearted wave. “Uh, hi. How’s it going?”

George waved me over to stand next to him. “You must have some ideas of what we can do to start this revolution. What would be best accepted by the galactic media?” he asked.

I was an exobiologist from idyllic, peaceful New Devon, not a revolutionary! What did I know about revolts?

Then my stomach growled, and the image of a steaming platter of golden brown fried chicken flashed across my brain. My knees went weak, and I had to wipe my mouth to keep from drooling down my front.

Maybe there was a way to turn this situation to my advantage.

I took a deep breath and projected my voice to the far corners of the chamber. “Have you ever considered a peaceful protest? Like, say, a public chicken fry?”

Three days later, I sat at the aft porthole of the last refugee ship off Fomalhaut Prime, idly tracking the progress of the fires that burned throughout the capitol. I’d settled my husbands in our cabin, and was, for the moment, alone.

Except for a large bucket filled to the brim with hot, crispy, subtly spiced chicken.

I hugged it to my breast, reveling in the aroma. I wanted to roll in it, like a dog who’d found a particularly wonderful stink in the grass.

Slowly, savoring the feel of the crispy skin under my fingers, I lifted a drumstick to my lips. My teeth sank into the tender flesh, and I groaned in pleasure as the taste exploded on my tongue.

I enjoyed my hard-won booty for ten minutes and two pieces of chicken.

My stomach twisted. I pushed the chicken away.

Man, I could sure go for a burger…

Posted in Free Fiction, Speculative Fiction Tagged with: , ,


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I’d stalked my quarry for two months. A long hunt, but I had him cornered, finally, in his stronghold.

Didn’t matter. Nowhere on Earth was safe from me. Today I’d finish the job of ruining the young preacher, with a couple of hours to spare on my contract’s deadline. One more nudge and the dominoes would begin to fall.

And he’d never know the entirely unearned scandal that ended his career had been engineered by the quiet “young” woman he’d welcomed into his flock mere weeks ago.

I leaned toward the woman on the pew beside me, her thin lips pressed together in a tight line. Her conservative skirt and blouse could have been bought from the same catalog I’d used to conjure mine. Self-righteous judgment radiated from her in an almost palpable aura.

“He’s very good,” I whispered.

The woman’s gaze fixed on the preacher. “He is, Sister. Much better than our last pastor.”

“Oh, I agree.” I hesitated a calculated three seconds. “Although…”

I could have—I had—predicted her avid stare.

“Although?” she asked.

I forced a blush. “It’s just…” I dropped my voice another notch. “I heard he wanted to let those people into the Seminary. Maybe even allow them to be ordained!” I wondered briefly which segment of humanity was being vilified this century. Jews? Moors? Women?

“You mean,” she said, and her voice fell as low as mine, “homosexuals?

Yeah, sure, whatever. As if Heaven cared about stuff like that as long as you lived a good life despite your personal circumstances.

I hadn’t. Lived a good life, I mean.

I nodded and kept my brow furrowed.

She sucked in a scandalized breath. “Oh, my! But you know, I heard another rumor about him last week. Something about missing funds.”

I already knew this particular bit of gossip because I’d been the one who’d started it. I’d also stolen the cash in question.

The woman clicked her tongue. “And he seemed like such a nice man. I’ll have to bring it up at the next board meeting.”

With that, my job was done. The preacher’s influence would be curtailed by vicious gossip instead of inspiring his community to become a little outpost of Heaven on earth.

Didn’t seem right, but far be it from me to question Heaven’s or Hell’s motives. My contract was signed by both Powers. I just did the job. And if destroying this man’s life stung something buried deep in my chest, well, I knew it wasn’t my heart. That had died before the rest of me had.

At least the preacher hadn’t been scheduled for an early dispatch and delivery. Assassinations really annoyed me.

The preacher’s words of love and forgiveness stung like bile in my throat, like acid on my skin.

I needed to get out of here.

I scooted to the far end of the pew and turned to leave. My gaze collided with that of a gloriously long-haired, dusky-skinned Adonis sitting at the back of the chapel.

His expression was odd, as if he realized what I had just done and didn’t condemn me for it. I saw compassion and understanding in his dark eyes, echoing the ideal of charity from the preacher’s sermon.

I had no need to force the flush that rose to my cheeks this time.

Stupid mortal. What right did he have to judge me, or offer me his forgiveness? His tiny handful of years gave him no foundation to understand the complex issues that made my actions necessary.

No matter that the complex issues were so convoluted I rarely understood them myself.

I averted my face and slipped from the chapel, jumping planes in the deserted foyer where no one could see me fade from view in a billow of gray aetherial fog.

I stripped off the nasty faded-blonde wig and scratched my sweaty scalp through the tight braids wound around my head. I wanted a long, hot bath, but I knew from experience I’d still feel vaguely grimy no matter how hard I scrubbed.

So I stopped at The Fulcrum’s Point instead.

The red and purple neon sign blinked against the smoke-gray roof and perpetually beige sky, the only color in the whole plane of Limbo, drawing the eye like gossip drew weak minds.

The Point resembled a neighborhood sports bar, the kind where nobody minded if you hung around all night as long as you ordered a drink once in a while. Except for the beige-on-gray color scheme and the fact that the only TV screen hung above the bar at the front. Most of us factotums—agents who were neither angels nor demons, but something in between—ended up spending large chunks of our downtime clustered around The Point’s laminate tables and weathered bar. I guess serving the only substance in the known planes that could get us drunk was a major draw.

The lighting was dim, the décor bland, and the service merely okay. Completely middle of the road. Just like me.

Sometimes I hated this place.

I took my drink to a table at the rear, away from the other factotums and the screen showing some loud sporting event that inspired a great deal of shouting. I sat with my back to the wall, a habit I hadn’t yet discarded from the time I’d spent in jail last year taking down a prostitution ring run by the county sheriff out of the women’s lock-up.

In the course of the operation—all right, while I was servicing the guy—I discovered the sheriff had a distinctive birthmark on his genitals, which strengthened our case enough the judge believed the ladies’ tales of the sheriff’s depravity.

Let’s see an angel take on that job.

I swallowed my metheglin gratefully, eager for the honeyed taste and the promise of forgetfulness.

Despite my command encore performance as a prostitute, saving those girls was a lot easier on my peace of mind than the time I’d been called in to heal a terminally ill mafia don who’d gone on to torture and kill fifteen people the month after his “miraculous” recovery.

That memory deserved a particularly large gulp of my chosen sedative.

I suppose the fornication had left a stain on my soul that healing the don had not. Frankly, I preferred the stain.

A movement at the door caught my eye, and I turned to see the Adonis from the church walk in.

I sucked in a startled breath, and most of the drink I’d just taken ended up in my lungs. I spewed the rest across the table as I choked and coughed.

What in the planes was he doing here?

How had I not recognized him as a fellow nonmortal? I knew both the angelic and demonic agents on the preacher’s case, and this kid wasn’t either of them. So who was he?

I mopped my streaming eyes as he threaded his way through the tables to the bar. Metheglin burns like a branding iron when it gets in your sinuses.

The kid’s mahogany hair swung in a braid past his broad shoulders, the rich brown vivid against his spotless white t-shirt, and faded jeans made his butt look spectacular. The colors weren’t all that bright, but here in Limbo–where all tints faded to shades of gray–he stood out like Christmas in the midst of a brutal winter.

In life, I would probably have described his face as angelic, with his perfect, clear-cut features. But now that I’ve met plenty of angels, I knew they look as ordinary as daisies unless they put extra effort into the whole glowing halo effect. This kid had them all beat.

He leaned on the bar to order a pint of acerglyn from Grace, the solid bear of a woman who ran the place. The kid’s voice was as dark and rich as his hair.

Was he a new factotum, fresh from training and looking for a little on-the-job mentoring? That would explain his presence in the church–but not the weird way he’d looked at me.

I wiped away the last of the choking-induced tears and tossed back a slug to cool a flare of irritation. I wasn’t in the mood for babysitting today.

I lowered my glass and saw Adonis had moved right in front of my table.

“This seat free?” he asked, a cheery smile crinkling his dark eyes.

I looked pointedly around at the surrounding tables and booths, empty because of the game on the screen at the other side of the room.

He laughed and sat across from me. “I feel like company.”

“The company is over there.” I nodded to the knot of people shouting insults at the ancestors of the onscreen referees. “I knew your grandfather!” a skinny red-headed kid yelled. “He was just as blind as you are!”

Adonis shook his head. “Too noisy. And you look interesting.”

I raised an eyebrow. My eyes were probably still red, my plain brown hair was wound tightly around my head to accommodate the tacky wig I’d ditched, and the calf-length, flowered polyester skirt and baggy white blouse made me look like a faded spinster—twenty seven going on sixty.

Too bad he liked this pathetic disguise. Easy on the eyes or not, I demand a certain level of taste in my associates.

Nursing my drink, I stared past him at Grace, wiping glasses behind the bar.

“You handled the church assignment well,” he said.

I let my eyes drift over him, giving him a cool stare. “Thanks.”

“Do you like doing that sort of thing?” He sounded genuinely curious, not at all like he was trying to insult me.

I’d hated it, but that was none of his business. I shrugged and glanced back at the crowd around the screen. Apparently, our team (whichever one that was) had just done something exciting. I had to raise my voice to be heard over the cheering. “It’s okay. Has to be done.”

“But why?” The dark liquid in his glass glinted as he sipped. “Why not help people be happy instead?”

Not a new factotum, then. I grimaced as it dawned on me. “You’re a recruiter.”

He tipped his head to the side like a cocker spaniel puppy waiting to see if his master was really angry that he’d piddled on the good rug. “Yes, I am.”

“Angel, right? Of course you are. When will you guys just quit? You know it’s just taunting at this point, don’t you?”

His forehead wrinkled. “No! I wouldn’t do that. Not to you. Not to anyone. But you’ve been a factotum for a long time now. What’s it been? Three centuries?”

Damn. Had it only been that long? “Give or take.”

“You might be the longest-serving factotum here. Don’t you think it’s time to move on?”

I used my napkin to blot up the splatters from where I’d spewed my drink across the fake weathered wood of the tabletop. “Move on to where, kid? Hell? Been there, done that, before I even died. Don’t care to go back.”

He gave me a rueful half-smile. “I was thinking more of Heaven.”

I lifted an eyebrow, studying his earnest face. “You saw what I just did to that poor bastard of a preacher. And that was sweetness and light compared to some of the stuff I’ve done. No. Heaven hasn’t been a possibility for… a long time.”

“But that was a contract! A job, a–”

“A mission from God?” I finished, my voice dry.

“Well…” He shrugged. “Yeah.”

“It was also a mission from the Devil. But whatever. I’m the one who lied and stole and gossiped. I’m the one who gets the blame.”

“Seriously? I was told you factotums were only here to work out a few issues; you just needed to decide where you wanted to end up.”

“That’s the impression I got, too. At first. Didn’t take me long to figure out I was wrong. Nope. All this sin is going straight on my soul.”

“Why don’t you just refuse the assignments that will damn you, then?

“And risk getting sent someplace worse than this? Limbo sucks, kid, but it beats the alternative. I’m sorry I have to hurt people sometimes, but better them than me.”

“You don’t really feel like that.”

I slammed my glass down on the table. “How do you know what I–”

“Everything okay here?” Grace appeared at my side, swapped my empty glass for a full one, gave the table a cursory swipe with a splotchy gray rag, and slanted me a questioning glance. She sure could move quickly for such a large woman.

“Somebody got out of the nursery without learning his manners, that’s all.” Damned naïve angel.

“Sorry,” Adonis said. “Please, don’t be angry. I didn’t mean to offend you. It’s just that… Well, it doesn’t seem fair. Not to you. Not to that poor pastor today.” The kid frowned into his acerglyn, doubt creeping into his expression.

Who had let this baby angel out on his own? Where was his keeper? Why had he been allowed to get anywhere near a dingy, half-damned soul like me? If I wasn’t careful, I’d drag him down to my own level.

“Fair?” I snapped. “How fair is it for someone to simply skip off to Heaven after leading a long and charmed life while others less lucky have to scrabble and fight to survive? Have to choose every day between stealing or starving? How fair is it for those people in the church today to live their whole lives with someone like that preacher watching out for them, while others are led astray by the very ones who should have guided and guarded them? How fair is it…” My voice tightened, and I realized with horror that tears clogged my throat. Black-tinged nightmare glimpses of my earthly life shuddered far too clearly through my head. How had I let this get so personal?

I began yanking hairpins from my hair, letting the strands fall as they would, to show how little I cared about his opinion. “Bet I know how you died. Bet you did something stupid to save someone, didn’t you?”

He was looking at me all soft and non-judgmental again, damn him.

No, not him. I was the one who was damned.

“Yeah. Got in the way of a bullet. Better me than the little girl.”

I forced a laugh, dropping the hairpins onto the laminate tabletop. “Figures. You died saving someone. I died killing someone.” I’d do it again, too. The guy had meant to rape my sister, my only surviving family. Using me hadn’t been enough for him. So I’d killed him. And I wasn’t sorry at all.

My soul was so black I wondered why Hell had allowed me to escape as far as it had.

“Listen, kid.” I made each word hard and precise, clear as diamonds. “Don’t waste your time trying to help me.” I shoved back from the table. “I’m a factotum because I died a prostitute, thief, and murderer. My alternative was Hell. I judged this the better choice.”

Skirting the angel’s chair, I headed for the door.

He caught my hand as I went past. “But does it make you happy?”

I jerked away. “Touch me again and I’ll rip your wings off, angel boy,” I snarled.

I stalked out, each step measured and deliberate so he knew I wasn’t running away. But I needed to escape before my very presence smeared that perfect, white shirt.

The constant twilight threw frozen shadows across the pebbled sidewalk, each gray or bone or tan lump limned in black. Pale aether marbled every dark nook, disappearing if I looked straight on. The unsettling sense of motion caused seasickness in some new agents. Didn’t bother me anymore.

Beige stone apartment blocks topped with gargoyles and spires like some gothic cathedral repurposed for housing rose on either side of the street. Too kitschy and new-fangled for my taste. I kept rooms in a wattle-and-daub cottage that had been the height of modernity at the time of my death.

A strange tingle on the back of my neck made me turn as I reached the front door. Angel boy stood on the deserted stretch of graytop outside of The Point, the light from the neon sign setting purple and red highlights in his hair.

I curled my lip at the thought of that goody-two-shoes shoveling his self-satisfied propaganda at an experienced factotum like me. What did he know about working in the trenches? He got the plum assignments, always riding to the rescue of adoring clients.

Let angel boy stalk me. I didn’t care. I’d keep on doing the dirty work, adding to the grime on my dingy soul while time and the world spun by without so much as a single word of thanks.

Without even knowing I existed.


A new assignment arrived in the morning post. I glared at the flat gray envelope while I mechanically shoveled down an egg and bagel. I didn’t have to eat, but “miracles”–both for good and ill–took energy, and that energy had to come from somewhere. Angels and demons got it from their bosses. Factotums had to fend for themselves.

I’d hoped for a break between contracts to rest and recover my equilibrium. The church job had upset me far more than it should have. I’d lied and stolen, but fornication and murder hadn’t been required. An easy contract.

Time was ticking away on the contract’s deadline. I couldn’t procrastinate much longer. As much as I hated my existence now, Hell was worse. I had to believe that.

Dumping my plate in the sink, I ripped open the sealed envelope and read the terse message.

Jairo Reyes, Villa Ipala, Guatamala. Dispatch and delivery. 5:00 A.M. local.

An assassination. I shivered. When had Limbo gotten so cold?

At least the job should be quick.

I wondered what the man had done–or what he would have done, had he been allowed to live. Perhaps he was a drug lord, corrupting all who came into contact with him and his nasty products. I wouldn’t feel too awful taking out someone like that.

I guess.

But I felt so tired today. Tired of Limbo. Tired of being the bad guy. Tired of–everything.

Couldn’t I pass on this contract, for once? Let someone else kill the guy? How bad could Hell be, really?

At least it would have more color, albeit mostly in flame tones.

Sighing in defeat, I checked the contract for the correct signatures. Heaven’s and Hell’s seals were each in order, as were my supervisor’s initials. If God had agreed to this, the job couldn’t be too evil. This death was part of The Plan.

Whatever kind of person he was, good or evil, Jairo Reyes had to go. And I’d been chosen to usher him out.


I geared up and jumped planes to the contract location, stopping well outside mortal detection, where agents tend to hang when not directly interacting with their clients.

“Hey there, sweet cheeks,” called a voice like a gravel road.

I turned to see Pete Francesco coming toward me through shifting ebony billows that faded to ash gray as he approached, his cheerful, round face split in a welcoming smile.

“Yeah, yeah,” I said. “You’re always glad to see me until I mess up your fun.”

He flung his beefy arms open and laughed. He reminded me of a plaid-shirted, Italian Santa Claus, if Santa Claus switched his “naughty” and “nice” lists and began giving out presents for stealing cars and learning new arson techniques. “Now, don’t be like that. You’re a sight for sore eyes no matter whose side you’re on.”

“Then why am I ‘sweet cheeks’ today, when the last time I saw you I was ‘queen bitch’?”

“Can’t blame a guy for blowing his stack after he loses a big commission like that, can ya?”

I submitted to his enveloping embrace, and even refrained from breaking his arm when he pinched one of the said “sweet cheeks”—and not the one on my face.

“Watch the hands, Pete.”

“I am,” he said, ogling my rear. “And I’m enjoyin’ it.” But he let me go and stuck his hands in his pockets, so my nether regions were safe for the moment. “You here to give me a hand with this one?”

“Maybe. Is Jairo Reyes your client?”

“Yep. No joy so far. The kid’s got looks, charm, smarts, so I tried to play on his pride. But he don’t got none, far as I can see. He won’t even badmouth a teacher.”

Kid? Teacher? Must be a college student, or maybe a new graduate in his first teaching job.

Crap. I hated taking out the young ones. He didn’t sound like a drug lord or anything else evil, either. My shoulders slumped.

I pasted on a half-smile to disguise my reaction. “Sounds like a tough case, but you won’t have to worry about him for much longer.”

Pete’s grizzled brows lowered, casting shadows over his black eyes. “You bumpin’ him off?” He swore and spat into the beige mist that served as ground. “Damn. I needed the commission on this one. You take him now, he goes straight to Heaven, and Angel Babyface over there gets the credit.” He waved a hand at an approaching figure.

A mahogany braid flipped out from behind the man’s back, caught in a sudden swirl of milk-pale aether, and my breath stuttered.

Angel boy. Here, on my job. Again.

Was he stalking me?

Pete sighed and ran a hand over his sparse hair. “Might as well end this now, I guess, if the kid wasn’t ever going to fall. Better luck with my next client, eh?”

“Yeah, sure, Pete,” I murmured. “See you around.”

Pete faded from view as he settled more solidly into reality. Off to savor his last hours away from Hell.

Leaving me alone with angel boy.

His face glowed with sheer good-natured enthusiasm. “We didn’t get a chance to introduce each other last night. My name’s Ezekiel.” He stuck out his hand.

“Of course it is,” I said. Figured he had the angelic name to go along with the rest of the package. Folding my arms, I studied him silently.

After a moment he let his hand drop and gave a nervous cough. “And your name is Constance, isn’t it?”

“Hmm,” I agreed. “What a coincidence that we’re assigned to the same case.”

He laughed. “Not really. I asked to replace the other angel on this job. I wanted to watch you work. You… You’re kind of a legend. My trainers talked about you.”

I turned away, wincing. He didn’t know what my assignment entailed, or he wouldn’t be so puppy-dog cheerful. “Yeah, your trainers used me as an example of who to stay away from. I’m no hero, boy.” I would have liked to call him “son” but I couldn’t bring myself to use that particular epithet for a man whose eyes made me feel anything but motherly.

My lip curled in disgust at my own foolishness. I had no right to think about him that way. He was an angel, and I was… me. “I’ve got work to do, so why don’t you fly on home,” I snapped.

He shook his head. “I’ve got a job to do here, too.”

I did not want this innocent to see me kill the man he was supposed to be protecting from evil. Sure, Jairo was slated for the fast track to Heaven and Ezekiel would get the commission, but…


This kind of assignment was brutal and bloody, and necessarily deceptive, since I had to manufacture evidence to provide a reasonable explanation for the death. When I couldn’t arrange for the death to look like an accident, some other mortal took the rap. I tried to frame only truly deserving people. Still, the person who’d take the rap for murdering Jairo Reyes wouldn’t be the one who actually killed him.

Because that was me.

I flinched, imagining the disgust in angel boy Zeke’s eyes when he saw Jairo’s blood on my hands. “You don’t have a job here anymore, understand? Not this time. Your boss turned the matter over to me. And you don’t want to stick around to see what comes next, I promise you.”

“I know you have to do unsavory things at times.”

I gave a bitter laugh and stepped back into a low bank of dim, gray mist. “You clueless cherub.” I spat into the fog beside me, unconsciously mimicking Pete. “You’re soft, with no hint of smut on your hands or your conscience. You don’t belong here. Go home.”

His face grew solemn, and the compassion in his eyes stabbed at my heart, a pain too real to ignore.

I sucked in a harsh breath and turned away. “Stay then, or go. I don’t care.” I strode off into the marbled haze of aether swirling around my thighs, making the effort of will to move in the peculiar direction that had no earthly equivalent that took me nearer to the mortal sphere. I thought of it as “down.” Although, considering who and what I was, “up” might be a better description.

I didn’t look back.

The fog cleared and warm afternoon sunlight flared across a dirt road and tangled jungle. I stayed a bare breath away from corporeality. A very few mortals might sense some part of me, if they were in the right frame of mind. That’s where ghost stories came from.

Taking a deep breath, I froze my emotions and forced my mind back to the job. I’d swoop in, do the hit, and get back to The Point in time to get plastered.

Across the road, lush ceiba and mango trees surrounded a stretch of worn grass where a battered swing set held court next to a long, low building roofed with red tiles. Through the windows, I saw rows of children jamming papers and books into wooden desks. School was nearly over.

I fingered the contract with its trio of signatures I’d shoved into the back pocket of my jeans. If this Jairo was as good a guy as Pete said, I could guess why Hell would want him eliminated. But what did Heaven get out of it? I didn’t understand.

But it wasn’t my place to understand. I just had to fulfil my contract.

I moved to another wing of the sprawling building and peeked in.

Ranks of bunk beds lined the pale blue walls, separated by cheap pine dressers dotted with well-used matchbox cars and bedraggled stuffed animals.

An orphanage. I was supposed to kill someone who worked in an orphanage.

A bell rang, doors swung open, and a tide of shouting children flowed onto the playground. They wore simple clothes, but well-mended and clean.

“Ya find him yet?” Pete’s voice from behind made me jump. He laughed.

So the demon had found me. At least angel boy hadn’t.

I didn’t bother to glare at Pete. He’d just laugh more. “No. Which class does he teach?”

“Teach? Sweet cheeks, didn’t anyone tell you?” If I didn’t know better, I could have sworn I heard sympathy in his voice. “He’s not a teacher, babe. He’s one of the rugrats. See? He’s over there, pushing that gimpy kid on the swings.” Pete’s hairy arm shot past my shoulder, pointing the way.

Numbly, I followed Pete’s finger. A sturdy, handsome boy of about nine or ten helped a tiny girl–little more than a baby–with a heavy cast on her diminutive leg sway back and forth on the flat seat of the swing.

Jairo was a kid?


The Powers would never send me to kill a child. Maybe the “angel of death” guy from the firstborn of Egypt affair could handle this sort of contract, but not me. I didn’t do kids. The Powers knew this. I died protecting one; I wouldn’t kill one now.

But what alternative did I have?

My vision darkened, and I wondered if a nonmortal could pass out.

A strong arm slid around my shoulders, steadying me. “Sit down,” Ezekiel’s voice said, close to my ear. “You’re wobbling.”

Crap. I could actually feel the grime crawling off me and onto him. With a violent shove, I thrust him away and staggered toward Pete, who watched with detached amusement.

He caught me, using the opportunity to feel me up. Whatever. His fast hands fit a prostitute and assassin better than Ezekiel’s chaste ministrations.

“You want I should do the job for you, sweet cheeks?” Pete said, almost able to hide the note of eagerness. In life, Pete had been fond of kidnapping little boys and killing them.


I shuddered, removed Pete’s hand from my boob, and backed away from both men.

If Pete killed Jairo, I knew well the boy’s end would be neither quick nor painless.

“No,” I said, fixing him with a hard stare. “I’ve got it.”

Ezekiel stepped toward me, hand outstretched. “Constance,” he began.

“Shut up,” I snapped. “Leave me alone.”

I made the final jump to the mortal plane, landing in the brush outside the orphanage gates. I fervently hoped that the pair would go away so I could finish the job in peace. The thought of Ezekiel seeing me smeared with the blood of a grown man caused my stomach to churn. How much worse would it be if he saw me kill a child?


I went to a seedy little bar on the outskirts of town to look for my fall guy. And if I indulged in a few too many tequilas, it was nobody’s business but my own. It’s not like I could get drunk on mortal alcohol, although I could pretend to be, which was almost as good.

Night came all too soon. I had until five in the morning, local time, to complete the job.

I scanned the sweltering room. The stench of stale beer, piss, and sweat writhed in an almost visible miasma through the dense tobacco smoke. Rough men, and a few equally rough women, huddled around mismatched tables.

I faded into the aether just far enough to see if anyone in this pit had a hovering angel or demon. I needed to cut a deal.

A fat weasel with graying hair and dirty fingernails propped his shiny blue Tony Lamas on the rough planks that passed as a bar. He had the shadowy outline of a pair of agents at his shoulders, both women I’d worked with before.

After a quick negotiation with the ladies, I had my fall guy. Blue boot man was a small-time drug transporter with big ambitions. He liked to beat up family members of people who got in his way. Women, kids. Didn’t matter to him.

No one would object when he was accused of Jairo’s murder.

He’d make new contacts in prison to expand his business, so the demon on his case was satisfied. And while he was off the streets, his younger brother would have an opportunity to break away and find a legal job in another city, allowing little brother to raise his family outside the influence of the drug cartels. So the angelic agent was on board, too.

The angel also hoped the prison time might reform the guy. Fat chance of that, but angels tended to be naively optimistic.

With the bargain struck and a packet of trace evidence collected, I slipped out into the night and headed for the orphanage.

The road stumbling past the orphanage’s cinderblock wall was deserted at this hour, somewhere in the black pit between midnight and dawn. I ducked into the undergrowth and circled to the back, where the wall bordered the edge of a deep gully. I scaled the block wall with the help of a few low-hanging branches, just to make sure I could.

Drawing enough aether around me to soften my outline, I moved to the silent dormitories. Jairo slept in a bunk close to the window, his dark hair curling damply against his smooth forehead.

“I’m so very sorry, kid,” I whispered as I leaned through the wall to stroke the hair off his face. My hand passed through the strands instead of moving them aside. He didn’t stir.

I moved inside and walked through the orphanage, running insubstantial fingers across each sleeping head, sending all but Jairo deeper into dreams.

Outside, I created a disguise for myself out of aether and faith, and became a sobbing, tattered girl of about Jairo’s age, huddled underneath his window.

All was still, except for the ragged intake of my breath and a few louder sobs I threw in to make sure my target would hear.

I heard the window creak open.

“Little girl.” The whispered words from above me were in Spanish, but the whole “gift of tongues” thing came with the job. “Little girl, are you all right?”

I shook my head and sniffled. “No. I’m lost, and my little brother fell in the gully over there and I can’t get him out. I think he’s hurt.”

“I’ll get Señora Alvera. She can help…”

“No!” I sprang up, as if ready to run. “They’ll take him away and send us to a place where they’ll starve us and beat us, and I won’t be able to protect him.” I kept my voice intense, but low. The others were only deeply asleep, not comatose.

“They won’t!” Jairo leaned out, stretching his hand toward me. “Come in and see.”

I shook my head and took another step back. “Mama told me how those places work. She said she’d send us there if we didn’t behave. But José is hurt, and I need help.” My story became more muddled by the minute. I had to get him out of the building before he noticed the inconsistencies. “Can you help me?”

“We’re not supposed to leave our rooms at night.” Jairo frowned doubtfully.

I burst into fresh tears and turned away.

“Wait! Don’t go. I’m coming.”

Yes, Jairo was a good soul.

He clambered out the window. “Where is he?”

“Here.” I led him to the back of the yard, where a vine-laden jacaranda leaned over the block wall. “I climbed over right here.”

Together we managed the scramble, dropping into the dense brush on the other side. “This way,” I said as I pushed deeper into the patch of jungle.

I heard his footsteps pattering after me, away from safety.

When I judged we were out of earshot of the orphanage, I turned and dropped the disguise.

I had not been tall in life, but that hardly mattered now. Being nonmortal had given me a stature, a presence, which far outpaced my actual height. My hair waved in a dusky halo around my head, framing a face that some had called lovely, if you weren’t looking for too much emotion. I didn’t glow, but aether billowed around my shoulders, giving the impression of gray wings spreading out on either side of me.

Jairo’s eyes widened.

“A-are you an angel?” he stammered.

I didn’t let the sting show on my face. “You’re a good boy, Jairo. I’m here to take you to Heaven.” Or send him there, anyway.

He drew in a long, slow breath, straightened his shoulders and moved steadily toward me. Bless him, he didn’t run.

“I’m ready,” he said. No arguing, no whining, no tears.

My throat squeezed shut so painfully I automatically started to raise a hand to rub the ache away. I cut off the movement, and forced a smile at the brave kid, opening my arms. “Then come,” I said, careful to keep the razor-edged blade in my right hand thoroughly wrapped in aether, invisible.

He stepped into my embrace, and I just held him a moment. He felt so good, nestled to my breast in perfect trust, as if I truly were an angel.

I’d have to kill him now. Slide the knife under his chin and slice. Hold the boy steady while his body thrashed in its death throes. Feel his hot blood bathe my arms, my belly, my legs as his heart pumped out the dregs of his life.

Here he was, vulnerable and willing.

Do it. Do it now.

Oh, please, God, let me not have to do this thing!

But God had never cared about what I wanted. Why should he start now?

I shuddered, and forced my hand to begin its long journey toward Jairo’s neck.


I jumped violently at the quiet voice, and the boy gasped.

Ezekiel stepped from the aether not two yards away. His aether-wings were blindingly white.

Ezekiel, angel boy, had found me.

“Go away,” I said. “Don’t frighten the boy.” It took all my strength to keep my words steady and low.

“I’ll do it,” Ezekiel said.

I blinked, sure I’d misheard him. My hand started moving again. I had to get this over with before poor Jairo got too scared. I didn’t want him to be scared.

“Constance. You don’t have to do it this time. I can see how it tears at you. I’ll take care of the boy.” He stepped nearer, out of the aether and into plain view. The pale billows fading at his back shone with a warm, clear light. His eyes locked on mine, and I saw the compassion–and maybe something more–in their depths.

Rookies. Always the same. “You can’t do it, you know. You can’t save everyone. You can’t save me.

“I can save you this pain. Give me the boy.” He reached out, laying a hand on Jairo’s shoulder. He was too close now for me to slit the boy’s throat and not get blood all over Ezekiel.

“It’s my job, Ezekiel, one only a factotum can do. Your job is to escort this boy’s soul straight to Heaven’s gate where you both belong. You can’t do this for me; not and remain an angel.”

“It doesn’t have to be your job, Constance. You don’t have to be a factotum. You’ve served long enough. Let the boy go, and you can come with me.”

Why was angel boy making this harder? Did he know how much his impossible offers hurt me? Let him pester some other factotum, one with a soul not quite as black as mine.

He reached for the knife I clutched, and his fingers brushed my hand–the hand that would kill Jairo, the most unclean part of my whole body.

I jerked away, and the boy’s arms tightened around my waist. He stifled a sob.

“I’m afraid,” he whispered.

I pressed a kiss to his curling hair, momentarily taking away his fear.

The respite wouldn’t last long.

“I can’t go to Heaven, Ezekiel,” I said. “Not after all I’ve done. I’m a factotum, and that’s all I’ll ever be until the end of time. I made my choice and I’ll abide by it. Besides, who would take my place? Pete?” I barked out a sharp laugh.

“You shouldn’t have to worry about that. You’d rather do good deeds. Why not just do them?”

“There’s a Plan, Ezekial. It created you. You exist as a strong arm for Good because of my efforts. I keep the playing field level until all the players have had a turn at bat. A lot of souls still wait on the bench, and until they get in the game, I’ll be here.”

“Killing children?”

His gentle tone robbed my grand speech of all its self-righteousness. I felt tawdry, ragged, and so very, very weary. I dropped my chin to look at the dark head resting against me. My arms tightened protectively around the boy.

“Yes,” I said in a voice so low it was almost inaudible. “If I have to.” But my hand, weighed down by the knife and Ezekiel’s touch, didn’t move.

Ezekiel was silent while I tried to gather my resolve.

“Do it fast, please.” Jairo’s voice was muffled in my shirt.

The knife shook a little as I moved it away from Ezekiel’s hand to a point beneath Jairo’s chin.

“I’ll do it.” Ezekiel’s statement was hard and determined as steel, sounding much different from the first time he’d said those words. He pulled the boy out of my arms. “Give me the knife.”

I needed to finish this job before my head exploded. Or my heart. “We’ve already done this dance, angel boy. My job, my kill.”

“I’ll do it,” Ezekiel repeated. “I’ll do this job, then I’ll take over for you as factotum. I’ll take the guilt that burdens your soul. You’ll be free to move on–in my place.” He reached for the knife.

My breath stopped. My head stopped. My heart stopped. The knife fell from my limp fingers, and I nearly followed it to the ground as my knees went limp, too.

This was an offer I’d never heard before. If Ezekiel took over for me as factotum, took the sins from my soul, I really would be free to move on, to rest, to…

Oh, God, please! To take over his job. To be an angel. I’d get the good jobs, all the good jobs, only the good jobs.

I’d never again have to prolong the life of a wicked man on the slim hope he’d repent, only to watch the anguish he caused when he continued on his old paths.

I’d never have to bring disease and pain to another good wife and mother in a test of faith I’m not sure even I, from my more-than-mortal perspective, could pass.

I’d never, ever have to cause the death of a child. This destroying angel could hang up her charcoal halo and retire.

I blinked up at Ezekiel’s beautiful, stern face and felt one touch of the utter joy–the complete delight–that my existence could be. For just a moment, I reveled in the possibilities.

Then I saw my blade, a harsh reality in Ezekiel’s hand, and the moonlight writhed as it shuddered off the bright edge.

My joy would come at the expense of Ezekiel’s. He was an angel, a real one, not just a wannabe like me. If I allowed him to take this step, allowed him to free me of the burden of responsibility for this and all the other evil acts he would be required to do as factotum in my place, he would suffer greatly, and forever.

He didn’t deserve that fate.

I slid my backup blade from its sheath under my sleeve and slashed it across Jairo’s neck, catching him as he crumpled, carrying him to the ground. I cradled him close as his body fought its fate. With a touch I sent him to sleep, making his passing as quick and painless as possible.

Ezekiel stood looking down on us, the nonmortal woman and the post-mortal boy, silent and grave.

“If you want to help, you can meet him on the other side and show him the way.” I wiped Jairo’s blood off my knife onto the weeds and put out my hand to take back the one Ezekiel still held.

“I’d have done it, you know,” Ezekiel said. “For you, I’d have gone through with it.”

“I know,” I said, sheathing my knives. I planted the skin scrapings, hair, and flecks of blue boot leather on Jairo’s body to frame a not-so-innocent man for the murder.

“Thank you.” His simple words held a world of emotion and meaning, but tonight wasn’t the time to examine it further.

I nodded, met his eyes. “Go on. Jairo’s waiting.” I wouldn’t get to see the boy. He was already beyond my reach, on Heaven’s doorstep. Ezekiel and his kind took over from there.

Ezekiel began to fade into the aether.

“Hey,” I called. “See you around.”

He smiled, and even nearly transparent, with swirls of aether obscuring his form, I felt that smile–gentle, grateful, and as full of tears as of joy–pour over me like a spring rain.

My hands were red with Jairo’s blood, but my heart…

Tonight, my heart felt clean.


Posted in Free Fiction, Speculative Fiction

The Old-Fashioned Way


Paul and Miriam Kaufman met the old-fashioned way.

The really old-fashioned way.

Miriam remembered it like this: Paul rode in on his white charger, brandishing his shining silver weapon, and saved her from a terrible villain who was after her jewels and possibly her virtue. After Paul defeated the scoundrel, he dried her tears and carried her off on his mighty steed to her daddy’s castle.

Of course, the terrible villain was in reality a rather incompetent young thug intent on stealing the sapphire and diamond necklace that Miriam’s daddy had given her for her eighteenth birthday a couple of years ago, the shining silver weapon was a cell phone, and Paul’s Charger was a Dodge.

At least it was white, and that was close enough for her.

Paul remembered the incident differently. He’d been on his way home after dropping off a buddy and passed the pretty young woman a block or two from a trendy club, screaming and struggling with a wiry punk who was trying to rip something from the woman’s neck. Paul rolled down his window, waved his cell phone, and yelled that he was going to call 911. When the girl’s attacker turned his head at the shout, she drove her spike heel into his shin. He shrieked in pain, shoved the girl to the ground and took off at a limping run.

Paul jumped out of his car and rushed to the girl’s side in time to help her to her feet and catch her as she threw herself into his arms, sobbing in reaction. He felt obligated to see she got home without further incident and, during the drive to Miriam’s stately family mansion, discovered she was an endearing, pretty little thing. Both Miriam and her daddy were lavishly grateful for the heroic rescue, which made Paul squirm a little because he hadn’t actually done much more than drive her home, and that had been more a pleasure than a duty. But he couldn’t help feeling flattered, as well.

Things progressed predictably from there.

The kid who’d tried to mug Miriam remembered the incident a little differently yet. He’d spotted the silly little rich girl with her my-daddy-spoils-me necklace around her pretty throat at the club. He’d followed her when she wandered off all by herself like she was asking him to rob her. Those jewels would pay a month’s rent and utilities; plus food, if he could find the right fence. And the girl was easy pickings. She never even looked around as she walked up the block.

But the girl surprised him by turning into a wildcat when he made a grab for the sparkly gems, shrieking and clawing and hanging onto her necklace like a leech. Then a passing car came screeching to a halt, and an arm thrust out the window, waving a small metal object at him. Like a gun.

When the girl speared his shin with her lethally sharp heel, he’d had enough. He deserted the field, leaving the spoils behind. As he limped away, he reflected that petty crime was getting too dangerous. He should have listened to his old man and gone to college, maybe studied accounting. He decided to sign up for community college classes the next day.

White collar crime paid better, anyway.
Paul and Miriam’s fairytale wedding came complete with gardens of pink roses, entire fabric stores of white tulle and a towering wedding cake, all paid for out of her daddy’s deep pockets.

Paul’s new father-in-law gave him a job at the prestigious advertising firm where he ruled as CEO, and Paul rose through the ranks with gratifying ease until finally, as heir apparent, he was put in charge of the main office downtown. He and Miriam had a beautiful little girl, followed a year or two later by a robust son. Miriam loved to tell friends, her tennis partners at the country club and complete strangers in elevators the story of how her gallant knight had ridden to her rescue and swept her off her feet.

They had the perfect fairytale life, it seemed.

But after a few years, Paul began to notice that Miriam had put on a few pounds, and her conversation seemed to center mainly on the children and country club gossip instead of philosophy, art and politics. Miriam began to notice that Paul was no longer so young and trim and, well, gallant.

Miriam compensated for this by redoubling her efforts to tell everyone around her the charming tale of how she and Paul had met. The story grew increasingly annoying to Paul, who had a nasty feeling that he wasn’t now, nor had he ever been, Prince Charming material.

The bright, shiny fairytale life began to tarnish.

When the gold-embossed, custom-engraved invitation to the annual company holiday party arrived, Miriam immediately hired a personal aesthetician, determined to look her very best in a bid to recapture Paul’s attention. Her skin glowed from the seaweed and cucumber wraps. Her hair, once again a rich honey blonde, tumbled in youthful curls around her precisely made-up face. Her dress was by an up-and-coming designer. She even pulled out her favorite jewelry, fastening around her not-quite-so-slender throat the sapphire and diamond necklace she’d worn on the night they’d met.

She drove her own car, because Paul had called to say he was busy at work and couldn’t get away to pick her up. Her brow crinkled in a slight frown at this unchivalrous act, but she swiftly schooled her face to a more pleasant expression. Frowns were unattractive, and caused wrinkles.

Paul was facing the doors as Miriam swept in. He didn’t notice the glowing skin, or the hair, or the dress or even the necklace; not in particular. He just saw…his wife. Same as always.
She came straight to his side, and he introduced her to a cluster of new employees he’d been chatting with.

“Have you heard how we met?” Miriam said.

Paul cringed. “Excuse me. I need to talk to the caterer for a minute.” He escaped to the other room, so he wouldn’t have to hear the god-awful story one more damn time.

The newest hire, a sharp young man who’d just transferred to the main office’s accounting department, smiled politely at the boss’s pretty wife. Company parties were so boring! Hell, his company job was boring. At least the view was good. The babe babbling about knights in shining Dodges and night clubs may not be the in the first blush of youth, but she was a looker, none the less. Man, his boss had it all.

His smile froze as the woman said, “And then this perfectly awful man–a complete criminal!—just grabbed me! He put his hand right over my mouth so I couldn’t even scream! Then he tried to rip my necklace off, this very necklace that I’m wearing tonight…”

Oh, man, it couldn’t be! What were the odds of running into that woman again? And having her be his boss’s wife? Astronomical. Fate was playing him for a sucker.

Would she recognize him? Nah. The streetlights had been busted out, and it had been years ago. He sure hadn’t recognized her, not at first. But even if he didn’t recognize the woman, he certainly remembered the necklace she was wearing.

The beautiful, sparkling thing still fired his blood in a way he hadn’t felt in years. The gemstones alone would make a nice down payment on the new BMW convertible he’d been lusting over. The piddling amounts brought in by the portfolio of leaky accounts he was siphoning didn’t come close to fulfilling his dreams of wealth and luxury.

His fingers twitched, impatient to touch the hard, warm dollar signs circling his boss’s wife’s neck. Maybe, if he could get her alone, he’d be able to slip the necklace off and she wouldn’t notice.

All night he watched her flitting around the room like the society princess she was, until, as the hour grew late, she showed signs of leaving. He expected his boss, Mr. Kaufman, to accompany his wife to her car, but the boss-man was deep in conversation with an attractive brunette in a business suit and ignored his wife’s pleading look, simply dropping an absentminded kiss on her glowing cheek and promising to see her at home in an hour or so.

He slipped outside to the parking lot while Mrs. Kaufman retired to the bathroom to freshen up. Taking off his suit coat, he replaced it with the navy blue hooded sweatshirt he kept in his car for cold nights, pulled up the hood to hide his expensive haircut, and slipped on his black leather driving gloves. In the dim glow of a single light post, he felt safely anonymous. He found an area of deep shadow near the door and waited.

Miriam stomped through the lobby on her spindly Louboutins and shoved open the heavy glass exit door, stifling a sniffle. Her plan hadn’t worked at all. Paul hadn’t paid her any more attention than he had any other night, lately. He’d had plenty of time for that showy brunette account executive, though. Well, two could play at that game. She knew lots of men who found her attractive. Let’s see how he liked…

A dark blur came at her from the side, snatching at the scarf she wore to combat the icy night air. Screaming, she swung her handbag, catching her attacker on the side of the head and slowing his groping hands. She turned to run back into the office building, but he grabbed the back of her coat and stuck his hand down her collar.

Her necklace! He must be after her diamonds!

This was one insult too many, tonight. “Let go, you awful man!” she yelled, holding on to her jewels with both hands, twisting and fighting to get away.

Her attacker struggled to wrest the necklace out of Miriam’s tenacious grasp while he kept a firm hold on her coat so she couldn’t run off. He had to get this done and escape before the fool woman’s yelling brought everyone out for blocks around.

Paul heard the shrieks coming from the parking lot and his heart stopped. He knew that sound.

Bolting from the room, he ran across the empty lobby to the exit and burst through the door, barreling—quite accidentally—straight into the man who was wrestling with his wife. His momentum knocked the man away and threw both Paul and his wife’s attacker off balance. As Paul realized they were going to end up on the ground, a single thought flashed through his mind. If he was going to once again rush to his wife’s rescue, he was going to rescue her on purpose.
Paul jammed his elbow into the thief’s chest as he landed with a thud on top of the guy. The thief’s breath whooshed out in a rush, and he rolled helplessly on the ground trying to suck in another.

Paul leaped to his feet and ushered his sobbing wife back inside, into the bright light and the people crowding the lobby to see what was happening. “Miriam,” he said, enfolding her in his arms. “Are you all right?”

She nodded, blotting away her tears and giving him a tremulous smile. “You rescued me again.”

He flushed, and rested his cheek against her golden hair, tumbled artlessly by the tussle. “I guess I did. You don’t mind, do you?”

She laughed and took his face in her hands. “You’ve always been my knight in shining armor, and I love you for it.” Her eyes glowed with adulation, rekindling in Paul’s heart the passion he’d felt in the beginning.

“And I will always love you, my princess,” he said. Their lips met in a pledge of ardent devotion, not noticing the dark figure watching them through the glass door, a pained expression of disgust on his face.

The would-be thief slipped away, rubbing his sore stomach and shaking his head at the folly of the couple making out behind the glass doors, in front of the whole company. Stupid woman. Any sensible person would have just given him the sparklies and that would have been the end of it.

He just wasn’t cut out for mugging. He’d found that out years ago, but the pretty gems were so fascinating! Much more intriguing than scrabbling for stray dollars like he’d been doing with his embezzling. Maybe he would become a jewel thief, creeping into windows at night, robbing beautiful, rich women of their pearls and emeralds, leaving a single rose in the place of the jewelry. Much more glamorous than what he was doing now…
He drove away, planning yet another new career as a second story man, forgetting that he had no head for heights.

Paul and Miriam drove home together and had a very satisfying interlude, resulting in another daughter nine months later. Miriam, secure and happy, ceased to broadcast their story to everyone she met, saving it instead for special occasions. Paul listened with a pleased little smile on those times Miriam did pull out the old yarn, even adding embellishments of his own here and there, with a twinkle in his eye and laughter in his voice, sending thrills of pleasure through Miriam’s heart.

Neither of them knew that the cause of their happiness, the punk who had started it all, had barely gotten started on his glamorous new life as a jewel thief when he’d been discovered in his nighttime activities by a lonely, rich widow, who convinced him to stay, as her “companion.” He was only too happy to oblige in spite of her age, as she was both exceedingly lonely and excessively rich.

And so, you see, the story ends as old-fashioned as it began, because all three of them lived happily ever after.

Posted in Free Fiction, Light-hearted and Romantic


Best thing about visiting the Grand Canyon? People watching.

Not that the view isn’t magnificent. It is. I mean, LOOK at it!

Lived in Utah most of my life. First time I've gotten around to visiting the Grand Canyon. Impressive, isn't it?

Lived in Utah most of my life. First time I’ve gotten around to visiting the Grand Canyon. Impressive, isn’t it?

The scale of the place is–hard to grasp. So huge, you think: gosh, that stream in the bottom is really small. And then you realize that’s the freaking Colorado River! I’ve been on the Colorado River. It’s not small.

And the colors! The reds and blues and purples and greens just glow, especially toward sunset. And the air smells… wow! This is what every pine-scented air freshener hopes to become if it’s been very, very good and goes to heaven after it dies.


I’ve hiked slot canyons. Explored distant arches. Traveled all over Utah. Climbed to Ancestral Puebloan ruins all over the Southwest. Boated the length of Lake Powell, and bushwhacked up Dark Canyon (that’s a special sort of heaven, for certain). I’ve seen pretty vistas.

So, yeah. Seeing the Grand Canyon is an awe-inspiring experience.

But this is what made me smile:


I love watching other people appreciating stuff that makes me happy; stuff that makes this world awesome!

Go forth and be awesome, everyone!

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