Category Archives: Snippet

We’re baaaaack!

I know it’s been a long time since I posted anything here and I apologize. It hasn’t been because there was nothing going on at NRP. Quite the contrary, in fact. There was a great deal going on behind the scenes, things we wanted to talk about but figured it best until everything was in place. Well, it is now and you’ll find that we will be blogging much more often — about what’s going on at NRP, in the publishing industry as a whole and on other topics of interest. So please check back often.

Now, to our news. The NRP family has expanded. We have a new acquisitions editor as well as new editors for our romance/suspense line and our new non-fiction line. So, without further ado, I’ll make the introductions.

First up is our acquisitions editor. Courtney Galloway has been assisting with our slush submissions since the beginning of NRP. She has a keen eye for new authors and for spotting stories that will do well. She will now be wrangling the slush for us and joining the editorial board.

T. M. Lunsford has stepped in as assistant editor for romance/suspense. Taylor is a talented author in her own right and has shown a flair for editing. We’re excited to welcome her to our editorial staff and she’s promised to hit the ground running. You’ll be hearing from her in tomorrow’s blog about her background and what she’s looking for in submissions.

Charles Martin is our new assistant editor for non-fiction.Many of you know Charlie from his work as a journalist and contributor over at PJ Media. We’re thrilled to have him onboard and he promises to have a blog post for you very soon describing what he’s looking for.

The last new member — although she really isn’t — to our family is Sarah A. Hoyt. Sarah was one of the first authors to be published by NRP and she has, for some months now, acted as our art director. She has now accepted the position and I’m thrilled. Her understanding of what it takes to have a successful e-book cover is invaluable.

Finally, for those of you who have been asking, Kate Paulk’s novel, ConSensual, will be released Wednesday of this week. Here is a short sample as well as a look at the cover. Enjoy!

1. ConSensual Encounters

Nothing says you’ve left normal reality like walking into a hotel lobby and seeing a Clone Trooper chatting with a Sith Lord. The sign on the back of the Clone Trooper’s armor, ‘Come to the Dark Side. We have cookies. Tonight. Room 1226’, was really just corroborating evidence.

The lure of Dark Side cookies notwithstanding, I took myself to the reception desk and got signed in. I’ll give them this: the staff didn’t seem at all upset by the strangeness manifesting in their hotel. Maybe it’s a southern USA thing, but none of the southern con hotels I’ve been in have ever been anything less than welcoming.

Well, unless the convention was sharing space with one of the more fundamentalist religious conventions. But that’s another story altogether.

ConSensual being one of the bigger southern conventions, I doubted that would be an issue. It was held in one of those sprawling southern cities that takes about five times the land area of a northern city to hold the same population, and usually has so many hotels it’s not hard for any one event to make an exclusive booking.

Whatever they do with them outside the convention season isn’t my business.

I can never keep the hotels straight. This one was one of those modernist faux-elegant jobs with lots of shiny metal and glass, a multi-level gallery area where all the ballrooms and convention areas were, the inevitable bar and house of bad coffee, and the tower containing the actual rooms off to one side.

Since it sat in the middle of one of the less salubrious parts of the city — or at least it looked that way coming in on the airport shuttle — I expected there would be some interesting late night encounters.

I dropped my backpack off in my room: as always, several levels away from the party floor. I’d been able to book the northern side of the hotel this time. After the last con, where a murderous lunatic had crushed garlic into the air vent and opened the curtains while I slept, I was a little paranoid about sunlight and other things.

Yeah, I’m a vampire. I drink blood. Most of the rest is myth, but I am violently allergic to garlic, and while I’m old enough to go walking in the sun that doesn’t mean I like it.

I’d also taken the precaution of registering and signing for my room with one of my alternate identities. I keep a few for backup, in case something happens. Last con, it had, with a vengeance. You don’t get more something than a nutcase performing ritual sacrifices so they can summon Himself Below.

Anyone looking for my hotel room using the name I was registered in with that con would find precisely nothing.

My room was decorated in modernist Hotel Awful, complete with the kind of paintings on the walls that made you wonder who was having who on. This set looked like someone had splattered paint around, ridden a bike through it, then cut up the canvas and sold the results. A similar pattern adorned the bedspread and the upholstery on the chairs. At least everything else was basic beige.

One thing I’d learned from years going to cons, it was always possible to get more mind-bogglingly tasteless.

Back in the lobby area, I braved the con registration queue to collect my badge and the little plastic bag with the program and half a dozen flyers, then scanned the area to see if any of the immortal regulars had arrived yet.

The usual mix of convention exotica mingled and chatted, some costumed, some not. The inevitable Klingons clustered with Clone Troops and Imperial Stormtroopers — possibly giving tips on how to hit the side of a barn at point blank range. A woman in what could only be described as Regency in Space chatted with a White Witch whose pointy hat was at least as tall as she was. The construction had to be reinforced with wire because there was no other way it could have stayed upright. The thing probably made a functional antenna, and with the way the wide brim drooped to cover her ears I gave it maybe half an hour before people were speculating it was an alien mind control device. I knew she was a white witch because her hat and dress were white. She even had a white wand, although thankfully it didn’t have a star on the end. That would have been too much.

This being the south, there were any number of corseted women, although all of them seemed to have forgotten that the usual location of a corset is under the clothing. The inevitable uplift certainly distracted the fanboys. Precisely why the corsets should be paired with tied on wings that could be either butterfly or fairy wings depending on your viewpoint wasn’t something I intended to investigate. Some things are best left to the imagination. Or preferably, forgotten altogether.

At least there were no chain mail bikinis yet. Hopefully with the hotel air conditioning set to the typically southern preference of ‘glacial’, there wouldn’t be any. Not that I was holding my breath or anything.

Well, not until I saw who was sitting out front, eying the con-goers with the kind of disapproval that should have had them dropping dead of sheer fright.

He wasn’t here for the con. I’d bet my life on that. I might never have met him, but everything I’d heard about him suggested that he’d find fen irritating at best, and most of the authors offensive. What he’d think about the publishers — particularly the demonic ones — didn’t bear scrutiny.

I hoped I was wrong, and he was just some random businessman who happened to have a rather strong resemblance to one Vlad Tepes, also known as Dracula. The closer I got to him, the less likely that seemed.

For starters, he was definitely a vampire. I can pick most immortals by scent: it takes a vampire older and stronger than me to mask the faint cold smell of my kind, and then… well, nothing smells of nothing at all. No scent meant old, powerful, and probably not with good intentions.

He was also the right age — five hundred years, give or take a few. Him being awake in the middle of the day meant only that he’d grown strong enough to tolerate daylight and lose the sense of time that protects younger, weaker vampires. For a vampire his age to tolerate daylight, he had to be stronger than most, which fitted with the bits and pieces known about the man. If this truly was Dracula, the likelihood of him limiting himself was somewhere close to the chances of the sun rising in the west.

I could reasonably assume that he had given up his favorite means of execution: this wasn’t an era when putting people on sticks and letting them die slowly was something that could be done discreetly. That didn’t mean he hadn’t found other ways of torturing people who got in his way.

All of which meant that since I was the only immortal regular around, I had to warn him off. Joyous.

At least this didn’t count as saving the world. Once was enough for that.

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ConVent – Snippet 3

A bit of a change from the plans announced last week.  I’m posting this week’s snippets in full here on the front page.  Next week, I’ll start linking them to the snippet page.  Also, apologies for not getting Kate’s snippet up yesterday, but life and work interfered.  So, to make it up to you, here is an extra long snippet. Now, without further delay, here’s the next snippet from ConVent.  As usual, the standard disclaimer applies:  this is not the final edited product.  This is similar to the ARC of a book.

2. My Editor is a Demon

2. My Editor is a Demon

 

When mingling got me no new information, I meandered over to where the convention management committee was setting up a new art room — they had evicted themselves from the rest of the ballroom, scrounged some extra display boards, and were trying to make up for lost time and space.

I’ve never figured out why human perversity wins out over intelligence every time. The display boards are supposed to be modular, meaning that you set up the frame and slot the boards into position. The frames are supposed to allow four ninety degree connections.

So far so good, except that the boards — some kind of particle board with holes to take hooks for hanging the art works — weighed so much it took three or four people to get them into position. While someone on each support frame piece held it steady. By the time the room was set up, I’d learned that the word ‘fuck’ can serve as a noun, adjective, adverb, and verb — sometimes all in the same sentence — and that no-one in the room could possibly have set up the ritual I’d interrupted.

All of them, from the balding, overweight fellow who wore what remained of his hair long as some kind of compensation, to the skinny neurotic redhead with the nasal whine… They weren’t merely tired, they were drunk on fatigue.

No-one in that state could manage a demonic ritual without doing something wrong. What little I knew of demonic rituals suggested pretty strongly that they went wrong in ways best not examined too closely.

It’s just as well I’m immune to all magic except necromantic spells. Being technically dead isn’t a picnic — I’ll take every advantage I can get.

Once the concom let the artists in, I faded and slipped away.

 

#

 

By the time the con officially started, I was really worried.  Not only had I completely failed to find any hint of the would-be demon worshiper, rumors were flying through the crowds and warping into unrecognizable shape. The concom seemed to have decided it was better to know and see nothing – to the disgust of the cops, who understandably wanted to check the attendance list against their records. They weren’t being obstructive, per se. They just weren’t anywhere to be found.

Raph caught up with me somewhere around ten. We met up in my room, Raph sitting on the bed with his legs crossed and his wings — yes, white with feathers — wrapped around him. I paced.

“It’s worse than we thought,” he said in a low voice. “Lil got a second look, a proper one, and figured out who the gateway is for.”

“Just tell me the worst Raph. Get it over with.” At this rate I’d wear a hole in the carpet before the con was done.

He swallowed. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an angel look that pale. “It’s Himself Below.”

What?”

“Yeah.” Raph’s wings rustled when he shivered. “It’s not like anyone except the Boss can control Him.” Raph shook his head. “You’d need to be crazy to try.”

I kept pacing. I know tradition has we made immortals firmly in Below’s camp, but it’s not true. Most of us stay more or less the same as we were before we got changed. There’s even a few churches in the bigger cities that hold special services for the immortals in their congregations. “I don’t suppose she managed to glean why anyone would do anything that stupid?”

Raph hunched his shoulders and wings. “Nothing. They cleaned their traces pretty well. The only reason she got as much as she did was the spell being broken before it could complete.”

Crap. “Have there been others that did complete?” Lil had said earlier that it took five of these things to open a dimensional gateway. That meant five spells, minimum, and at least five corpses as well.

“We don’t know. There’s nothing to indicate it, but there wouldn’t be until the opening spells were performed.”

I didn’t like Raph this subdued. It felt all wrong, like a frivolous Spock. Besides, anything that can scare an angel officially scares the crap out of me. I know when I’m outclassed. Not using everything in my repertoire of curse words — five languages, two of them extinct, and at least a dozen anatomically impossible phrases — took effort. “I’d suggest looking for a moron, but it takes at least some functioning brain cells to cast a ritual like that without screwing it up.”

“I know.” Raph looked miserable. “Lil went looking for minor demons sent to cause trouble.”

“At a con?” At least half the fen were sufficiently warped that they’d meet Below’s standard of ‘minor demon’. The percentage in official guests came closer to seventy. Something about science fiction, I guess. It seems to attract the perverse. Not the sick types, as a rule. Just the contrary idea-loving types who could live a personally moral life while writing about, reading about and publishing things that would turn stomachs Below. The current management didn’t like that sort of person terribly much, according to Raph. Apparently they disturbed the harmonious worshipers Above and started arguments over the validity of the whole business.

Since the previous incumbents mostly ran their paradises for warrior-types, that didn’t leave many afterlife addresses open. Personally, I planned to hang on to life as long as I could. I’d yet to find the faith that would let me near its paradise. Not that I have any complaints with the current management, mind you. I just prefer to leave them be and hope they offer me the same courtesy.

Raph shrugged. “I know. But Speculatorium’s purchasing editor is an actual minor demon, and he’s not the only one.”

I blinked. “You’re telling me Below is infiltrating the publishing industry?” How had I missed that?

“Has infiltrated.” Raph didn’t look happy. “Look, I’m not supposed to be telling anyone any of this but… This qualifies as an emergency.”

That didn’t sound good. Yeah, right. And the Pacific Ocean’s a little damp. “Stop dicking around and tell me what I need to know will you?”

He gave me a startled look and shook his wings out. With a sigh, he flopped back onto the bed and lay staring at the ceiling. I guess it was better than watching me wearing out the carpet. “Fine. Below’s mission is to spread despair and misery and all that, right?”

I nodded and didn’t stop pacing. Spreading misery and despair was definitely part of the tradition.

“Well, how better than by crushing the dreams of everyone who thinks they can write? And publishing grim, dreary, depressing literature?”

I stopped pacing and turned to stare at Raph. He lay without moving, staring at the ceiling. “This scene is hardly big enough for that.”

“I never said they confined themselves to science fiction.” Raph’s lips hardly moved. “They’re all through the entertainment industry. Oh, and Christian television.”

It made a horrible kind of sense. I’d given up on popular entertainment a long time ago, back when opera was political. The advent of late night shopping had lured me to bookstores, and the heady allure of a hopeful future brought me into the science fiction scene. It had been centuries since I needed to sleep through the day, but actually going out in daylight remained problematic so books were an excellent way to pass the time.

That was another enticement of the con scene – entertainment throughout the day, all in climate controlled and sunlight-free surroundings. It didn’t bother me that the con attendees often formed the entertainment. Taking pleasure from watching human absurdities kept me from becoming a bitter killer.

“Christian television. That would have to be the most lucrative avenue for them.”

Raph snorted. “Oh, quite. The Boss is kind of upset about that.”

Kind of upset. That had to be the understatement of the century. Possibly the millennium. “Kind of?”

I got a hint of a smile. “Well, yes.” Raph’s crooked grin could be charming when he wasn’t looking so miserable. Yeah, I kind of like the angel. “Kind of upset, and kind of ready to go Old Testament on the culprits.”

That sounded more like the deity I tried not to piss off. You don’t piss off something that can smite you with thunderbolts for thinking forbidden thoughts. It’s bad for the life expectancy. “So where does that leave us?”

He pushed himself off the bed and actually looked at me. “Screwed, Jim. If you want Vaseline you’d better supply it yourself.”

“Oh for fuck’s sake!” I folded my arms and glared at him. “You’re an angel not a frigging incubus.” Besides, last I’d heard Raph didn’t bend over for anyone. “I want tactical information. Patterns. Names.” I might not be keen to mess with high-powered demons, but I was a whole lot less keen to mess with the Prince of Hell. “I know screw-all about magic, so you’re going to have to tell me what to look for.”

Raph blinked and scooted back a few inches. “It’s not that simple.”

“So make it simple.” My lips pulled back from my teeth in a purely vampiric snarl, the kind that made my teeth ache to meet blood. Angel blood would do.

An angel scootching back on his butt isn’t dignified. That didn’t stop Raph pushing himself away from me until his wings hit the wall. He probably would have gone through the wall if someone hadn’t chosen that moment to knock on the door.

I yanked the door open and didn’t bother to be polite when I saw Sean and Lil on the other side of it. “Get in.”

Sean’s hair slicked down on his head and his wolf-shape hung in a hazy aura around him. If he didn’t change soon it would be a tribute to his willpower. Lil — to her credit — seemed to be trying to rein in the normal succubus lasciviousness. She kept her head down and didn’t smell too much of sex and perfume. Both of them scurried past me with the kind of nervous look that I usually only get when I’m projecting at humans.

I slammed the door and stomped back into the room. “What have you got?”

Lil winced. Her shape twitched and her tail wrapped around Raph’s waist. She wasn’t so much snuggled up to him as glued to him. “I can’t find anything.” Teardrops hung on her eyelashes. “Even the people I know are demons aren’t talking.”

Sean growled.

Lil cringed. Raph wrapped his wings around her in a protective gesture that should have been impossible.

“Leave her alone.” The tension in his voice got me wondering just how much I was projecting. Sure I was angry, but I don’t usually let the whole enchilada show. It scares the crap out of people. And angels and succubi, apparently. Weird. I’m not that powerful. “She’s only a very minor demon. If any of the stronger ones don’t want her to see something, she won’t.”

At least I knew better than to even consider succubus blood. Some things a man just doesn’t want to know. “Sean?”

He’d stripped off already. Fur covered his skin and his back arched, forcing his body into a quadruped pose.

“Get a grip, damn it!” I didn’t need the crack that punctuated my words, and I really didn’t need it to be the mirror on the wall opposite the bed. Damn. I needed to watch myself: if I’m not careful my voice gets extra harmonics that can do… interesting things. Like break mirrors.

I took a long, slow breath. My teeth ached. I’d be feeding tonight, and I’d better go hunting away from the con because it was going to take a kill to settle myself. Finding someone who could be safely removed from all the documentation and monitoring of the modern world was a stone bitch. Killing them and then disposing of the body in a way that didn’t attract headlines was worse. My personal requirement that anyone I killed be someone who’d fry if the authorities knew everything they’d done just added another layer of difficulty.

Not that people like that weren’t around, but there weren’t many who met all three standards. I hoped I could find one before the midnight Eye of Argon reading competition. That and the parties were my best hope of finding the summoner. People — and demons — with their minds relaxed by laughter or alcohol were easier to read. Usually I had to block out the stew of random thought and emotion, but this time I’d be trying to follow them and find the idiot who was trying to open a gateway to Hell.

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ConVent – Snippet Two

Good morning, everyone.  Before we get to the next snippet in Kate Paulk’s irreverent and hysterical take on sf/f cons, a quick word from the management.  If you look at the top of the page, you’ll see a new tab for snippets.  Starting next week, our regular snippets will be announced on the blog and the reader will then be redirected to the snippet page to finish reading.  The reason for this is so all our snippets are easier to find.  Also, we will start a regular snippet process.  Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, we’ll have snippets from upcoming novellas and novels.  And now, without further delay, here’s the next snippet from ConVent.  As usual, the standard disclaimer applies:  this is not the final edited product.  This is similar to the ARC of a book.

*     *     *

    By the time the cops and paramedics arrived, Sean and I were in the middle of a crowd of rubbernecking con-goers. The nurse — her name was Gina — and I kept guard over the girl, while Sean helped hotel security keep the door clear.

The presence of uniformed, armed cops did what nothing else could. The onlookers faded off to other things. I doubted any of them had anything to fear, but the whole science fiction scene is kind of weird that way. Paranoia is the norm, not the exception.

At least I could do the vampire mind thing and make sure the cops believed what I told them. Not that it was anything exotic — everything except the reason Sean and I went into the art room was bare truth. If they checked out my credentials, they’d find it all matched up, too. I’ve been careful with that. Always make sure the paper trail matches your cover. Getting locked up on suspicion because your credentials don’t check out can do really bad things to your quality of life. Ending up in a lab as someone’s experiment would be worse.

All told, it was a relief when the cops left. For maybe five seconds.

Raph’s voice behind me put an end to any happy thoughts I might have wanted to harbor. “Lil says you’ll need help with this one.”

I didn’t groan. Yet. Instead, I turned around to face him. He had a succubus with him — the scent of sex mingled with expensive perfume overlying a hint of brimstone is unmistakable — presumably ‘Lil’. She oozed seduction, of course. The Star Trek costume helped: it was from the original series with the tight-tight minidress that showed off her legs and other… assets. This was one Uhura who had probably done the entire crew several times over. Even Scotty would have inspected that engine.

Raph was done up as Spock, complete with pointy ears and strange eyebrows. It would be the only time in history that anything involving Leonard Nimoy actually looked sexy. And no, I don’t swing that way, but I know hot when I see it. Raph sizzled.

It wasn’t because he was an angel, either. Most angels I’ve met aren’t earthy enough to be sexy. They’re more ethereal. Raph… I guess he takes his undercover work seriously enough to project like an incubus, only he doesn’t quite manage it. Typically your incubi and succubi project a kind of illicit sexiness. Raph gets the sex part, but it’s kind of wholesome sexy, if that makes sense.

“Thanks.” I might as well be polite — I’d never figured out precisely where we made immortals fit in with the natural immortals, and it never hurt to be on good terms with representatives of the current management. Besides, Lil was right. I might hate to admit it, but I did need help. Demonic rituals aren’t my line.

I nodded to the succubus. “Pleased to meet you, Lil.”

She smiled, the kind of demure, almost shy smile that would have been ordinary from anyone else. From her, it was practically an invitation. “The pleasure is all mine.”

Yes, she purred. Succubi do. It’s part of what they are.

Raph slipped his right arm around her waist. “You promised you wouldn’t go after the regulars, remember?”

Fat chance. Succubi and incubi are sex on legs. One of them thinking with their brain counted as a miracle in my book. “I’m immune.” I shrugged. “You might want to tone it down around Sean, though. He goes wolf when he’s aroused, and I’m not going to tweak the entire con because he couldn’t control himself.” I had to do that last time, and it takes all the fun out of a convention.

Lil giggled. “I’ll be good.” She turned a sly look on Raph that got the expected reaction. “You’re going to make it up to me, Raphie darlin’, right?”

That tight costume didn’t leave any room for imagination. Raph was trying to make it up to her right then and there. I half expected the spandex to tear.

“Get a room.” Sean’s low growl crawled up my spine. There wasn’t a hint of civilized in it. I hoped he was holding onto his human shape, because I really wasn’t ready to deal with another convention fiasco.

Raph blinked, and his eagerness deflated. Some. “Um.” He actually looked embarrassed. “Sorry.”

Lil tried to simper in Sean’s direction, and froze when he snarled. I got a glimpse of her true shape before she controlled herself: take away the hair and add wings, scales and a tail, and you’ve more or less got it.

Raph ignored her slip. “As far as I know, we’re the only regulars here. I haven’t come across any newcomers, either.” He shrugged. “Nothing to suggest any of the mortals are dabbling with anything they shouldn’t. All the interesting items in the dealer’s room are well warded.”

Pretty thorough, but then, that kind of thing is part of Raph’s job. Neither side is all that keen on a war — not what you’ll hear from those who are supposed to know these things, but most of them are fooling themselves. The world’s been pretty much neutral ground for years. Occasionally Someone will nudge, but for the most part it’s just people doing what people do.

Depressing thought, really.

Something nudged at my memory. Bill… and the Heart’s Blade. “You checked on Bill?”

Raph had the Spock eyebrows down perfectly — they moved the right way when he frowned. “Who?”

“Minor demon lord. I know him from way back.” I wasn’t about to explain when and why. “I saw him wheeling stuff in. Mostly he had books, but there was a Heart’s Blade on the trolley.”

Lil’s sharp gasp hissed just as much as Raph’s.

The angel shook his head. “I didn’t see any demons in there, or… that.”

I couldn’t blame him for not wanting to name a Heart’s Blade. The cursed things are the closest to pure evil you’re ever likely to see. “Crap.” I’d have to check the dealers myself. Not that I don’t trust Raph’s judgment or anything, but… I don’t actually know where he stands in the angelic hierarchy. A demon lord might well be able to trick him. Me being effectively immune to magic — I can feel the discharge when I break a spell, but that’s about it — I can see straight through illusions. It’s got to be a full masking to make me see something that’s not actually there.

I sighed, and turned my attention back to the more pressing issue. “Did either of you pick up anything from the… site?” I really didn’t want to call that setup in the Art Room a sacrificial altar. Old superstition, I guess. If it can hurt you, you don’t name it in case you summon it.

Lil nibbled on her lower lip. “I think it was supposed to be a gateway anchor.” With her eyes downcast while she thought, she looked almost demure.

I’ve seen Raph’s skin in circumstances I don’t want to think about, and I’ve never seen him this pale. “You’re sure about that?”

She nodded. “You big boys don’t need them.”

A few minutes ago I would have sworn a succubus couldn’t say anything like that and not sound flirtatious. You learn something every day.

“Mortals use them, same as we lesser demons, if we want to bring in one of the big players.”

Lovely. Major demons. Just freaking wonderful.

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Quicksand by C. S. Laurel – Snippet 1

Today’s snippet is from Quicksand by C. S. Laurel.  This is the second book in the Quick mystery series.  The first, B. Quick, is currently available as a free download on Amazon or for sale at NRP’s webstore as well as Barnes & Noble.  As a reminder, these snippets are from the ARC versions of the books, so there may be a few errors that will not appear when the final version is published.  Look for Quicksand late next week.  Enjoy!

*     *     *

Bye Bye Baby

The doorbell rang at eight a.m..

I was already twenty minutes late for my first lecture of the day, stark naked and in the laundry room, rummaging through the hamper for a less than dirty pair of socks I might wear again.

I yelled “Brian,” as loudly as I could but without much hope.  “Brian, will you get the door?”

Our bedroom was right next to the laundry room, but I got no answer.  Then again, I didn’t expect one because the love of my life could easily have slept through a seven forty seven landing on the bed.

The doorbell rang and rang, as though the caller, tired of waiting, had decided to glue his finger to the button.

I tried to ignore it till I’d found socks, but the two pairs I unearthed — one liver-pill-yellow, one shrieking red — were obviously Brian’s, bought at bargain sales and unsuitable for a conservative lecturer in an old-fashioned college.  What the man did with my socks was beyond guessing.  Last time I’d asked him, he said he ground them and sold them to the health food store as gourmet cheese.  I hoped he was joking.

I yelled again over the ringing din, “Brian,” before giving up and walking down the hallway.  On the way I grabbed a robe and ran my fingers through my short dark hair in an attempt at looking knowledgeable and respectable, the type of scholar who would have spent the night poring over the most obscure Elizabethan Literature instead of blond ex-students.  You never know when the dean might decide to come calling.

Okay, yes.  It had never happened.  But that didn’t mean it couldn’t happen.

It didn’t help to look in the bedroom and see Brian, sprawled cater-corner on our king size waterbed, his expression one of absolute bliss.  Like a cat, he can take up all available space on any bed.  I pulled the door to — just in case our impromptu visitor got this far — and arrived at the front door ready to play decency incarnate.

I should have saved myself the trouble.  The man leaning against the doorbell didn’t even see me. The knife was stuck below his ribs, the blood pouring out to soak his striped blue and white flannel pajamas.

Murder, my mind said, helpfully.  Murder most foul.

While having Shakespeare quotes run through my mind might be a professional deformation as a professor of Shakespeare, that one was hard to argue with.  I looked at the blood pouring out onto the marble floor of the hallway.

Murder, definitely.  Unless this man had decided to perform surgery on himself on my doorstep, and that seemed too bizarre, even for a college town.

Police.  I should call the police.   The police would know what to do, right?  It was their job, wasn’t it?  But I couldn’t close the door and leave the man here, bleeding, could I?

Why not?   I hate it when my mind waxes sarcastic, but the whole point of the dead is that they are somewhat mobility challenged.  So it should be okay to leave him right here.  I started backing away and pushing the door closed.

My supposed dead man opened his pale blue eyes.

I must have jumped three feet back and the only reason I didn’t slam the door shut is that my hands were otherwise occupied, covering my mouth.

The dea– wounded man looked at me slowly, with a sort of wondering expression, then frowned, as if he were trying to recall something very difficult.  “Bill?” he rasped.  And then he fell sideways.

He’d called me by name.  I surged forward, broke his fall, pulled him into the house and banged the door behind me.  All too late, I realized I was trying to render assistance.  This, given my knowledge of first aid, was not unlike trying to grow a pair of wings.

I couldn’t find his heart beat.  As for his pulse, though I had a vague idea of how to feel for it, I could never locate a beat on anyone.  In health class, back in tenth grade, I’d gone from classmate to classmate, lying about counting their heart beats, all the while wondering by what luck I’d landed in the zombie class.

Assuming that the man might still be alive, I grabbed the handle of the knife — a smooth, wooden handle, much like our own kitchen knives — and pulled it once, hard.  I remember thinking I had to pull straight up, so as not to make the cut worse.

Listen, I’m not a medical doctor.  I’m a doctor of English and literature.  If a split infinitive ever comes to the house with a knife stuck in its middle, I’ll know exactly what to do.  With a wounded man, I acted on impulse.

The result was much the same as if the proverbial Dutch kid had taken his finger from the rhetorical dam.  Blood spurted everywhere, including my face, my white robe and my brand new white carpet.

“Brian!”

My voice must have crossed all boundaries of normal speech.

A miracle occurred.  Brian awoke.

I heard him turn in bed.  “In the third drawer,” he called out, sleepily.  “Your dresser.”  The waterbed sloshed with his settling down again.

“Brian. Get up.  Getup, getup, getup, getupnow!” This was murder.  I’d imprinted the murder weapon with my fingerprints.  I didn’t recognize the man’s features, but he had whispered my name.  I should save taxpayers a lot of money by sticking my finger in the nearest socket.

“I told you where your socks are,” Brian said, sounding befuddled.

“Get up NOW!  Call the police,” the shriek was at least two octaves higher than my normal voice.

The bed sproinged with the suddenness of Brian’s rising.  His feet hit the floor with a thump.  The door to the hallway opened.

Brian peered out, his hair rumpled by sleep, his green eyes only half-open.  “What?” he asked.  “The police because you can’t find your–” he stopped.  “What–” he started, but couldn’t finish.  “Oh, no, Bill… Who–?”  His Adam’s apple bobbed up and down as he swallowed.

I dropped the knife.  “Call the police,” I told him, in a belated attempt at calm rationality.  Surely Brian couldn’t think I was a murderer.  We’d lived together for almost three years now.  Surely, he knew I’d be more likely to pummel a man with words than to hack him with a kitchen knife.

Brian took one step back, then another.

“I didn’t do it!  This man rang our door bell,” I yelled, sounding to my own ears like a raving maniac.  “He had a knife sticking out of him.  I pulled it out.  I–.”

I don’t know if Brian heard or understood my explanation.  He continued stepping backwards, away from me, staring with wide-open green eyes, until he disappeared into our room.

I heard him lift the phone, then his voice, sounding hoarser than normal, said, “I want to report a homicide.  Three twenty five Lockmaster.  The high rise.  Just outside Bile campus.  I don’t know.  I don’t know, I don’t know.  No, I don’t know that either.  I’m Brian Quick.  No, Quick is my last name.  Q-u-i-c-k.  Quick, as in fast.  Yes, I’ll be here.”

This is another fine mess you’ve gotten us into, my mind said, having come a long way down in classical quotes.  I closed my eyes and tried to wake up.  This had to be a nightmare.  Brian could not be on the phone, spelling Quick for some idiot while I knelt in my entrance hallway with blood all over me and a dead man on the immaculate white carpet that Brian and I had chosen less than two years ago.

I heard the phone slammed down, then the door to the bathroom opened and closed.   I was fairly sure Brian was throwing up.  Well, either that or barricading himself in the bathroom till the police arrived to protect him from me in knife-wielding maniac mode.

Holding off to report the murder first was very much like Brian in either case.  Half-Norwegian, half-Italian, he had the instincts of a berserker and the mind of a Roman jurist.  I suspected the jurist had reported the crime, and now the Viking was holed up in the bathroom, probably holding my safety razor in one hand and a hairbrush in the other, just in case I came after him with the kitchen knives.

At length, I heard the toilet being flushed.  The door to the bathroom opened, closed again which might mean Brian had decided I wasn’t dangerous, or else he was coming out to kill me in preemptive self defense.

But he didn’t seem to be running or giving out with a war cry.  In fact, his steps were slow, almost hesitant.

I looked back over my shoulder.  Brian stood in the hallway, in his blue jockey shorts.  Unarmed.  He looked at least ten years younger than his twenty one, when one accounted for the fact that there were no six foot six inch tall twelve year olds.  His hair was rumpled, his eyes wide, his normally golden skin a bit pale, and his lower lip protruded just a little, as if it might at any moment start to tremble.

“Are you going to wash?” he asked me in a thread of voice, running his left hand through his short, unruly, blond curls.  “Or just stay there, covered in blood until the police arrive?”

“Won’t it look worse?  If I wash?  Won’t it look as if I’m trying to hide something?”

“What for instance?  Blood type?  Look, we’ll keep the robe for them to see.  Or do you think they need a picture?”

“Don’t be sarcastic, Bambi.  It doesn’t become you.”

“Don’t call me Bambi,” he growled, turning his jaw line to sharp corners, a trick that fascinated me because I’d never figured out how he did it.

The fact that he still reacted to his nickname as normal made me feel better.  I almost smiled at him.  He’d live.  He might be shocked, he might be green around the gills, but he’d live.  I wish I were so sure about myself.

I stood up finding my legs unaccountably rubbery.  Stepping over the body, I made the fatal mistake of looking down.  The full effect of the wide-open, glazed eyes, the blood-filled mouth, the waxy pallor, hit me square in the stomach.  I barely made it to the bathroom in time.

After further emptying my still empty stomach, I undressed and stepped into the shower.  The water had almost stopped running red, when Brian called in, “There’s your grey pants, green shirt and green pullover on the bed.  Socks and underwear too.”

The doorbell rang and Brian closed the bedroom door.  I hoped that he had had the good sense of slipping into something more decent than his jockey shorts.  After all, though the police chief was his high school friend and as straight as the man might be, I wasn’t all that anxious to test the principle.  In a competition between me and Tony I-am-a-Greek-god Marsano, I knew who’d lose.

I finished washing, drying, and dressing in record time.  I slipped my black wingtips on, looked at myself in the full-length mirror in the bedroom.  Thirty, looking forty-five, with my black hair fast turning grey at the temples, I flattered myself that I appeared dignified and staid.  Perhaps not quite like a good match for Brian’s youthful exuberance, but certainly not like a maniacal murderer.  I hoped.  I adjusted my green silk tie and, on impulse, grabbed my reading glasses.  Protective camouflage.

I stepped out of the bedroom and almost tripped over a thin man in Salvation-Army-mark-down clothes, who sagged tiredly over our hallway phone.  He didn’t even see me.  “About forty five, blue eyes, black hair, around 5’7″.  I’d guess on two hundred pounds.  Striped pajamas,” he said, confidentially, into the phone.  “No ID on him.  Dead as last week’s mackerel.”

Detective Ram.  One of Lythia Springs finest.  Which could be considered damning with faint praise.

Sidestepping him and deliberately not looking towards the corpse, I walked the other way towards the largest, innermost room of my condo.  It faced south, which meant we got plenty of light through the doors that led to the glassed-in balcony.  Other than a small kitchenette in a corner, this space lacked any definition.  It was one of those living room/dining room/rec room things.  Until Brian had convinced me to enclose the balcony five months ago, this room had been used for pretty much everything.

Now the balcony, outfitted with mini blinds and wicker furniture, functioned as de-facto dining room, overlooking the verdant treetops of Lythia Park.  All three of them.  The freed space had been taken over by a massive circular coffee table in carved walnut, a long sectional covered in canvas, a pine cabinet that harbored the stereo — in which I was occasionally allowed to play Billie Holiday.  The corner was taken up by an elaborate cabinet bar, hung with stem glasses we rarely used since I was on the wagon and Brian preferred his liquor from a bottle on the rare occasions he drank.  Also known as when one of his stories go rejected.

Bookcases stood against every inch of wall, because both Brian and I were compulsive bibliophiles and, if e-books didn’t save us from ourselves, we would eventually end up two old men living in an ever-narrowing labyrinth amid piles of books.

The smell of coffee overhung the room. I set my briefcase on the coffee table and looked towards the kitchenette, where Brian, dressed — as opposed to naked, all gods be praised — in faded jeans and T-shirt, banged dishes around with the look of intense concentration the rest of the world reserves for higher mathematics.

He set a tall cup of coffee, large glass of orange juice, and two vitamin pills on the counter that separated the kitchen from the living room.  I sat on one of the two white wicker barstools to sip my coffee.

“Strong,” I told him.

He nodded.  “Thought we’d need it.”  He sipped coffee from his cup, the one that he’d bought at B-con.  Its decoration, the face of a mustachioed Victorian gentleman that turned into a dead-head on contact with hot liquids, seemed all-too-appropriate today.

I wondered that Brian wasn’t running around excitedly, jumping for joy.  For a budding mystery writer, this should be a gift from heaven, a chance to watch police procedure first-hand.  Uhm… Would Brian have killed for research?

“Mister … Quick?” the policeman asked, behind me.

“Yes?” Brian answered, looking over my shoulder, from the vantage point of his 6’6″ height.

“Not you, sir,” the man said.  “This gentleman.  Your father?”

“His roommate,” I interposed hastily, turning to face the man, desperately attempting to distract him from Brian’s smirk.  Brian looked devilishly amused at the familiar mistake.  That I was only ten years older than him made the joke that much funnier.  For him, that is..  “Yates.  William Yates.  I’m a professor of Literature and Writing at Bile college down the road.”

The man nodded.  “Officer Teutonius Ram, Mr. Yates,” he said.  “Or should that be Doctor Yates?”

“Mister is fine.  We have met, remember?  About three years ago?”

Ram looked painstakingly blank.

“The murder case,” Brian put in.  “The ax murder.  My roommate–”

Ram stood straighter.  His gaze sharpened in recognition.  “Oh, yeah.”  He pointed the stub of a much-chewed pencil at Brian.  “You’re the smart alec mystery writer kid, aren’t you?”

Brian cleared his throat and looked noticeably cooler.  He opened his mouth, closed it.

“So, how goes the writing?”

“How may I help you, Officer?” I said, before Brian had time to explain he wasn’t published yet, or something of the sort, and then explain he wasn’t good enough which he enjoyed saying in the same way that monks in the middle ages enjoyed self-flagellation.

Ram’s attention shifted to me.  “I just wanted to let you know the meat wagon will be coming for that,” he made a head gesture towards our uninvited guest.  “And that the chief will come with them, to start the investigation.”

“Chief Marsano?” I said.  It wasn’t quite a question.  Tony Marsano had grown up with Brian in Cleveland.  Well, for a given value of growing up, since Tony was about my age.  He’d been Brian’s first crush.  Which had done neither of them any good.  He disapproved of our relationship, or at least seemed to think that but for my having “seduced” Brian, Brian would be growing out his chest hair, practicing his war cries and looking for a nice woman to marry.

Ram nodded. Brian seemed absorbed in thoughts of his own, frowning at his cup of coffee as if it had done him an injury.  I looked at my watch.  I’d already missed the eight o’clock lecture and hadn’t even called in to warn them.  Glad I had tenure.  “I have a lecture at ten thirty,” I said.  “Afterwards, I have office hours till one, then two other lectures till four thirty.  I should be home by five.”

Officer Ram scrutinized me, while lazily withdrawing a greasy notebook and a stubby pencil from his back pocket.  “You’re intending on going to work, sir?”  His eyes narrowed to slits.

I’d never even considered not going.  There was nothing I could do here.  Aloud, I said, “I must.  You see, my assistant hasn’t had time to prepare a lecture.”  It wouldn’t do to mention that my assistant — Daphne Mallard, who wanted to be called Daphy — didn’t have the mental capacity of dryer lint and couldn’t prepare a recitation of Mother Goose given all the time in the world.

“But you’re not supposed to leave the scene of the crime, sir,”  Ram protested, in the best style of the mysteries that Brian devoured.  He looked earnestly at me, an undercurrent of disappointment in his eyes censoring me for depriving his work of seriousness.  “I’m here to… uh…” he flipped frantically through his notebook.  “To secure the scene,” he finally said, in the satisfied tone of an elementary school student given the leading role in the class play.

The words made me think of theater.  I had a quick mental picture of Ram drawing velvet curtains across our living room while stage-whispering The scene is mine, yes, all mine.  “Secure the–”

“The scene, sir,” he said, patiently, as though I suffered from a mental handicap that he was trying hard to ignore.  “Of the crime, sir.”

“He means to make sure we don’t play fast and loose with the evidence,” Brian put in, over his coffee cup.  “Abscond with the corpse, that sort of thing.”

“Why would we do that?” I asked.  Was there a trading market for corpses?  Did the police think we’d sell them to science?  Or just that we collected them in a storage room to show our friends on Halloween?  “We don’t even know who this is, much less–”

“They’re the rules,” Ram said.  He sighed heavily.  “Chief Marsano, he has gone to all these fancy schools and he is a devil for rules and he told me to come secure the scene and make sure the corpse isn’t moved.”

“Why would we move it?” I asked, turning to Brian this time, because I wasn’t interested in a recital of the police manual.  Brian knew — or at least should have an inkling — that I was not a necrophiliac.  He should be able to give me a more rational answer than this idea that corpses were irresistible and everyone would want to at least move one, preferably steal one for his very own.

Brian rolled his eyes fourth-floor-ward, where he’s convinced God resides.  “He means that, if this case should come to court, they need to be able to prove that the evidence hasn’t been tampered with, intentionally or not, and that no possible suspect was allowed to leave the scene of the crime.”

“I’m not a suspect,” I protested.

“Until they find the perp, everyone is a suspect,” Brian answered sounding somewhere between aggravated and amused.

“Perp?”

“He means the one who did it,” Ram put in, helpfully.  He looked enviously at Brian.  “Our chief talks like that, too.”

I felt like I’d been caught between two stand-up comedians doing a routine in newspeak.

Ram licked the tip of his pencil, opened his notebook.  “I understand you found the corpse?”

“If you could call it finding him.  He wasn’t exactly hidden.  Just leaning against our doorbell,” I said.  “With a knife sticking out of him.  I pulled him inside and removed the knife.  Of course, that might have killed him.”

Officer Ram looked up at me, scratched his chin with the eraser top of his pencil.  “Of course, it might,” he said.  “Only the autopsy will tell us for sure, but he bled halfway across the park.  Chances are he was a goner anyway.”

“Halfway across the park?”

“Yeah.  I walked here that way, parked on the other side, since there were no spaces in front of the building, and I noticed these blood stains.  So I kept an eye on them, just out of curiosity, you see.  Darned if they didn’t end right at your door.”

Darned indeed.  I’d add knit, embroidered, crocheted, and tatted, just for good measure.  “Well, he still seemed to have a lot of blood left,” I said, looking at my splattered walls.  Brian had painted them just last spring.   Ragged in pale greyish-blue.  I remembered how long it had taken him and wondered if the mess could be washed off.

Ram nodded. “Yeah.  When you pulled the knife out his lungs still flapped, his heart still beat a while.  It would go everywhere.”

Brian gulped and almost dropped his coffee cup.

“Anything else?”  I asked Ram.

“Yes, sir.  Where were you when this happened?”

“The stabbing, you mean?”

“Yes, sir.”

“When did it happen?”

“Don’t know.  Anywhere from ten minutes to an hour, I’d say.  Maybe more.  Some last longer than others.  There once was a guy who got shot in the–”

Brian turned greenish.

“I was asleep until seven forty five,” I said hastily.

“Any proof of that?”  Ram asked, his gaze resentful, probably at not getting to give us more gory details.

I almost said, actually yes, because Brian is always able to tell when I get up from bed or lay down on it.  It’s the only thing guaranteed to wake him for a few seconds.  Making sure I’m not leaving and slipping my evil twin on him, I suppose.  I should never have encouraged him to read Roald Dahl’s Switch Bitch.

But discretion dictated not mentioning that I lay down in bed with Brian, so I shook my head and said, “Unfortunately no.”  I added sheepishly, “I sleep alone.”

“Mr. Quick?”  Ram asked.

“No,” Brian replied, I wasn’t sure to what.  He rubbed his hand against the blond stubble on his chin with a grating sound.  His beard is almost invisible, but grows faster than kudzu and has the feel of rough sandpaper.  “I was also asleep in my room.  It’s one door down from Bill’s.  I am a deep sleeper.  I didn’t hear anything until the doorbell rang.”

“You heard the doorbell ring?” Ram asked, perking up.  If he’d been a dog, his ears would have stood upright.

“Oh, yeah,” Brian lied with an ease that made me wonder about what lies he might have been telling me.  “And I heard Bill trudging down the hallway saying something or other about being late.”

“You heard Mr. Yates walk down the hallway?”

“Yes,” Brian answered with that round-eyed, innocent-angel look that, combined with his excessively long legs, had made me nickname him after the animated character.

He should have taken drama.

The policeman shrugged, closed his notebook.  “I guess that lets you off,” he told me.  He shook his head regretfully.  “Couldn’t very well have been out there ringing the bell or dragging the guy and walking down the hallway at the same time, could you?”

I hate faulty reasoning.  “I could have stabbed him beforehand.  He might have followed me home.  Alternately, I could have propped him against the doorbell, sneaked in then made a big show of walking down the hallway.”

Brian’s eyes widened impossibly with an I give up on you look.  He covered them with his right hand while shaking his head.

Ram took it for a joke.  He chuckled.  “Well, our chief will take care of all that, later.  Once the guy is identified we’ll have a better idea, too.  This is just a–”  His note book reappeared.  “Preliminary inquiry.”

Having said this, he plainly considered the better part of his duty done.  He put his hands behind his back and stood, looking around with the satisfied expression of a man watching a parade.

Brian and I exchanged glances.

Brian’s gaze returned to Ram, with the fascinated look of a ninth-grader dissecting an earthworm.  Somehow, I knew Ram would eventually make a not-entirely-disguised appearance in one of Brian’s books.

Suddenly Ram perked up.  His metaphoric ears stood straight in the air.  For a moment I thought he was about to pull a Holmes, and reveal how I’d committed the crime then forgotten all about it.

Instead, he smiled and said brightly, “Well, there he is.”

He was Mr. Tony I-am-filling-in-for-Apollo-on-his-day-off Marsano who stalked through our door with the élan of a victor liberating a city.

He had curly dark-hair, olive skin, features that looked as though he’d just stepped out of the most upscale fashion magazines.  His wool trousers had a precise crease down each leg, several sheep had stood in line for hours for the privilege of donating wool to the red sweater he wore, and his silk tie shamed mine into looking like nylon.  He walked in burdened with cameras and a huge black bag of the type country doctors used to carry.

Setting the black bag down at the entrance, nodded to Ram.  He gave Brian and I a cursory glance and a tight-lipped nod.  “Brian,” he said, as if he’d forgotten Brian’s name and needed to reassure himself of it.

“Tony,” Brian said and tightened his lips in turn and somehow drew himself up, so that if this were a Victorian melodrama, he’d have said “Ah, the villain who despoiled me.”  Only, to my knowledge, not only had Tony not despoiled Brian – much to Brian’s chagrin – but his greatest crime was that he’d made no effort to stay in contact with Brian since Brian had moved in with me.  The thing was, I suspected that Brian hadn’t been in contact with him, either.

If necks were any stiffer than Brian’s, people would drown when it rained.

I took a sip of my coffee and felt a desire for popcorn.

Tony advanced on Brian, “How come you… Another murder?”  He looked at the corpse.  His gaze came back to us.  “Anyone you know?” he asked Brian.

Brian shook his head.

“And you,” Tony said, turning towards me.  For a moment I thought he was going to resort to a notebook, like his subaltern, but he didn’t.  “Doctor William Shakespeare Yates.  Brian’s…  roommate.”  He frowned, as though my name were a joke.  It was, of course, just not my joke.  “Do you know the deceased, Doctor Yates?” he asked, undaunted by my scholarly status.

I shrugged.  “No,” I said.  I cleared my throat again because my voice had got unaccountably tiny.  “No, I don’t believe I do.”

The policeman nodded.  “Any idea why he would want to come die on your doorstep?”  he asked.

I shook my head.  I felt like saying that this happened all the time, that our doorstep was the fatal doorstep of choice for multitudes, the secret cemetery of urban America, and that we had considered going into the funeral business.  But I knew this policeman could be startlingly humorless.

Tony started something like the dance of the seven veils with camera cases and small shoulder bags instead of clothes.  I watched fascinated, as he pulled the strap of one camera over his head, pulled the other down from one shoulder, then the other one from the other shoulder.  Some clubs would pay a lot for such an act.  If he were wearing nothing but cameras and shoulder bags, that is.  An interesting idea in itself.

“Did he say anything before he died?”  Tony asked, as he divested himself of equipment.

I shook my head.  It didn’t seem like a smart thing to tell him he’d whispered “Bill.”  Bill was not exactly a rare name.  It was about as good as if he’d whispered John Smith.  For all I knew, Bill was his name.

Tony loaded a camera, went back to the hallway and started shooting pictures of the corpse from every possible angle.

I resisted a madcap impulse to yell, “Say cheese.”  A malignant humor always followed shock, in me.  You should have seen me at my father’s funeral.  Or maybe not, considering some of my relatives had decided never to see me again.

“So, Brian,” he asked, while clicking pictures.  “How is life after college?”

“Fine.”

Tony looked up for a moment and smiled.  “Well… good.  So what are you doing these days?”

“Writing,” Brian said.

“Oh, and for a day job?” Tony asked.

I clenched my teeth because it had taken me forever to convince Brian he should devote himself to writing full time and never mind making money.  I hoped the policeman wouldn’t undo it all.

“I’m just trying to write,” Brian said, blushing.

This was better than the movies.  Brian doesn’t get discomfited that easily.  But Tony seemed to be completely oblivious to what would push Brian’s buttons.  How long before Brian decked Tony?  I’m the sort of person who, faced with a bad situation, can’t help but find a way to make it worse.  “What about you?”  I said.  “How are you getting on in Lythia Springs?”

Tony glanced at me over his shoulder.  “Oh, pretty well.  I’m married now and… Hey, Brian, Gina says you should come over to dinner one of these days.”

“And when,” Brian asked, crossing his arms on his chest.  “Did Gina tell you this?”

“Oh, I was at home when the call came, and I recognized the address.  She said she hoped you weren’t mad at me – well…”  He looked at Brian and flashed a disarming smile.  “She said she hoped I hadn’t been stupid enough to make you mad at me, actually.  And said you should come to dinner one of these days.”

“You often ask murder suspects for dinner?” Brian asked.

“What?  No!”

“Someone just got killed at my house.  Do you mean to tell me you don’t suspect me?”

“What?” Tony said again.  Then mumbled.  “It’s not really your house…  I mean, it’s more likely…”  He petered out.

Brian didn’t say anything.  He glared at Tony in a way that made my heart warm. After all, Brian didn’t suspect me of being a murderer.  And he wouldn’t tolerate aspersions on my character.  Not even from back-in-the-old-neighborhood, first-crush Tony Marsano.

If looks could kill Tony would have dropped dead next to the corpse.  Tony, himself, stared at Brian with a puzzled look, as though not sure what he had said wrong.   Brian arumphed.

For reasons best known to him and his psychiatrist, Tony started the handvac and cleaned the carpet around the corpse, as though a little dust might make a big difference when the place was plastered with blood.

Ram withdrew into a corner, where he started reading his notes.  His lips moved slowly, forming words that I suspected only Brian and Tony would understand.

I edged sideways to the liquor cabinet to pour myself a glass of liquid corn.  I thought with people in the house there wasn’t much Brian could say.  And I needed that drink.  Had needed it since I’d first seen the corpse.

I was wrong.  About Brian, I mean.  Like the saints of old, he’d not let himself be distracted from the correct path.  Neither police in the house, nor dead men in the hallway, nor my possibly having killed someone, would keep Brian from holding me fast onto the temperance wagon.

“Bill,” he said, warningly.

“What?” I asked.

He looked pained.  “Do you really need that?”

I frowned.  “Oh, stow it, Bambi.  If ever a man needed a drink–”  I realized what I had said and stopped, but it was too late.

Tony looked up, with a startled expression.  I noted with some relief that Ram still stared down at his notes and moved his lips laboriously, oblivious to us.  Tony, on the other hand looked puzzled, then embarrassed.  He stared at Brian, looked at me, mouthed, silently, “Bambi?”  He gave Brian a sharp, sidewise glance.  “Bambi?” he echoed, in a whisper.

Brian had turned the color of his friend’s sweater.  “He calls me that.”

I’ll never know what Tony-the-wonder-policeman would have said to this, because at that moment a beeping sound cut the conversation.

Tony pulled up his sweater, allowing me a brief glimpse of a washboard stomach.  He got a cellphone from his belt, stared at it for a second, then turned it on and took it to his ear.

Tony’s end of the conversation was about as informative as a blank wall.  “Yes?” he asked.  “Oh.  Is that it?  All right.  Uhm.  Uhm.  Uhm.  Fine.”  He put the phone down, whirled around.  “We still need to do some more checking, but we’ve had a missing-persons report that matches this guy.  Does the name Joseph Lupus ring any bells?”

I choked on a mouthful of whiskey, and started coughing and sputtering uncontrollably.  The glass slipped from my fingers to the floor.  Not Lupi.  Not Lupi, middle aged, seedy, and fat.  Dead.  In my front hall.

I closed my eyes.  If they found out what tied me to Lupi, those bells would ring, all right.  My funeral dirge.

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Cat’s Paw by Robert A. Hoyt — snippet 1

Robert Anson Hoyt is one of those writers other writers could easily hate.  He’s young and talented and, well, more than a little warped.  How else can you describe a writer who can think up such things as vampiric shopping carts (Bite One, Get One Free) or sentient dinosaurs who build spaceships or champion ecological causes (The Last Voice)?  Cat’s Paw, which NRP will be bringing out later this month, is Robert’s first novel.  It’s all about a drunken cat, a totally p-o’d bird with the unfortunate name of Happy and the end of the world.  And, no, this is not your child’s bedtime story.  This is a twisted and entertaining and, imo, wonderful piece of satire.  It also proves that cats really do rule over humans, we just haven’t figured it out yet!

Edited to add: As with all snippets, this is not the final edited form.  The final edited book is with the editor it is assigned to and with layout designer.

Extended Eternity

Many humans know there is a mountain at the end of the universe to which a bird flies every thousand years to sharpen its beak, until the end of the mountain comes, and thus the end of eternity.

What few know, however, is that a rather unimaginative power-that-once-was had, in a fit of originality, named the bird Happy.

Thusly, the bird also had the sort of monumental chip on its shoulder which could only come from spending several billion years with the name Happy. To add insult to injury, it was also the dullest grey bird in existence, which seemed to it a disgraceful state for a creature of its stature.

And, more the worse for humanity, is the entire fate of the universe was in its wings.

***

It was about half past noon at the end of the universe, and a sort of pale light which had no discernible source poured in, flowing into the air like warm butter in spongecake.

Happy was within sight of the mountain, which was not a very great distance, because, at this point, the mountain was little more than a pebble rooted in semi-existent turf. The Bird landed and, with great ceremony, bent over, scraping its beak until it sent up brilliant white sparks which died with little pops.

Somewhere behind Happy’s mad little red eyes, his brain could process the idea of the universe ending. That was fine by him. Overall, he hadn’t been too impressed with the universe to begin with, and several millennia had not improved his opinion.

Casually, the way one might realize they had forgotten to buy cabbage on their last trip to the market, he remembered his most recent master would be dead by now. It would be time to find another one.

Fortunately there were always creatures ready to provide shelter for an innocent-looking, harmless grey bird.

Not that this made him feel any better.

After five minutes, he was contented with his beak’s edge, and took a quick look at remainder of the mountain.

Only one more trip there. Just as well, my wings are getting tired, he thought. A malevolent little smile decorated his drab features. Serve them right to find themselves nonexistent. Humph…Happy.

At the end of the universe, something was listening — in an equal state of discontent. Anyone present would have been certain the wind was swearing.

The trip back would prove to be filled with extensive grudge-keeping on Happy’s part. And after so much time, The Bird was very good at keeping a grudge.

***

One thousand years later, Mr. Beaconcaw stepped out into the dawn rising over the city. Or at least what passed for dawn in his much befuddled mind. From a technical point of view, there were no stars; but then again, there was also no sun. However, the faint red traces at the horizon signaled the possibility of it rising, and a dyed-in-the-wool pigeon hobbyist is up before the chickens.

His penthouse apartment had a lovely rooftop loft. Mr. Beaconcaw was in possession of a fortune of the sort of undefined size which suggested he could buy a small city, so the landlords just sent him regular bills, thoughtfully adding their tip to it so he wouldn’t have to bother himself about it.

Fortunately, he never noticed, since he was also in possession of the sort of mind that would buy a small city, and then shortly thereafter misplace it somewhere among candy wrappers and stale bread.

He only really cared for his pigeons. Or anything vaguely pigeon-shaped.

His newest acquisition was an extremely boring bird in a cage which appeared to have been pieced together by a master rust craftsman. It seemed as old as time itself, and was his latest and most single-minded interest.

He walked slowly to each pigeon cage, sloshing coffee about as he attended to the various birds. Thanks to the caffeine-soaked food he owned some of the most alert pigeons in the country.

But he attended to the grey bird with extra care. As far as his failing eyesight could determine, he was looking at a solid grey pigeon, a valuable and beautiful bird.

As far as the bird was concerned, he was looking at a large absentminded lump of food.

Mr. Beaconcaw was now to the point where the bird took enough regular chunks out of him that it really had no need for other means of feed. But today he got a bitten finger for a different reason.

There was a clink of an opening cage, a piercing scream which woke up a city block, and a solid thud as a coffee cup hit the ground, falling down so straight not a drop was spilt.

A very disappointed pigeon hobbyist watched as far as his failing eyesight would allow as his new bird flew out of sight. For a second he nursed his bleeding finger. Then, bending, he picked up the coffee mug, took a sip of stone cold. pigeon feed infused coffee and then turned around and very quietly walked down the stairs, having forgotten why he was looking at the sky.

It was a lovely day for the universe to end.

***

Tom was spending what he considered to be a very productive morning in the dumpster behind Penne Pizza. Penne Pizza was not your classy eatery — cockroaches often turned it down over hygiene issues — but Tom was not a classy cat. It was a dumpy building which gave the impression of having been drawn in pencil and much smudged, with a cracked cement facade and a clientele list that was very similar to the college frat house assignments. Saturday night encased the building in a visible cloud of alcohol fumes.

It was this smell that attracted Tom, a disreputable-looking cat with a white mark on his chest that could have been a cravat. Granted, it would involve wishing very hard, and squinting harder.

Tom also liked beer. He didn’t think about why. He just told girl cats that he drank to forget.

But then, being as he had started drinking beer four weeks after birth in the dumpster his mother had birthed him in, he had forgotten just shy of everything.

Sometimes, when he finally passed out from a pleasant stream of alcohol, he was thankful for that much. The nightmares he had while inebriated were enough to make a fellow take to the bottle.

Carefully he worked through the beer bottles, his black and white fur acquiring a fine layer of dust, while Tom gained the interesting world view held by a cat who had long since departed sobriety.

It was eight ‘o’ clock, and the beginning commuters for Broxton, Colorado, were flooding the sidewalks.

It was Tom’s favorite time of day, since the rest of the feral cats around the city were hiding in dark corners catching oversized city rats — unless the rats happened to catch them first. This meant that Tom was free to enjoy the beer leftover from those in the city who had no reservations about drinking liquor in vast quantities.

Halfway through managing to stick his tongue completely into a lovely bottle of Guinness, Tom suddenly sensed a newcomer in his alley. He also caught on the newcomer was female.

Pulling his tongue out of the bottle, Tom looked her up and down. She was a beautiful white Persian, who looked like someone who had gotten lost in her mind and couldn’t find anyone to ask for directions.

She had a faux diamond collar, which as a cat either meant you were an indoor cat or you were a hard case; in the former, because your owner didn’t want you lost, and in the latter, so you would never run out of people who you could beat up over eyeballing you.

Tom immediately decided on indoor, if only because trying to imagine her in a fight was like imagining a small, dense rock as an Olympic sprinter, and then only if everyone else got a head start.

She was, however, definitely Tom’s type. Not that this was hard, since his type ranged between animate and inanimate objects, and — on one memorable occasion – both. But she was a cute, uncorrupted bit of fluff, a state which he hoped to change.

Tom abandoned the beer bottle. Sitting up, he made a half-hearted attempt to groom himself, up until the point as realized this was impossible.

Dizzily, he sidled up beside the girl cat.

In as sultry a manner as an extremely drunk cat could, he spoke.

“Hello kitten. Need some help?” His tone implied the word help had several contexts.

For a moment, she continued to look intensely at nothing, and then turned to acknowledge the extremely tipsy apparition standing in front of her train of thought.

“Do you know where the mountains are? I don’t see any out here.” Her question took Tom by surprise. He wasn’t used to geography anywhere near foreplay. The gears in his head ground to a nerve-racking full stop, as lust met trivia head on.

In the middle of the collision, another fact cut in. He was beginning to become aware of an unpleasant smell about her which he recognized all too well. It had a disappointing tone to it, best defined as a bucket of cold water in the face.

Edgily, he answered the question. “You would be referring to those big blue lumps in the distance, right?”

She looked in the direction of his outstretched paw, and brightened up.

“Oh, those aren’t very big; I’ll be there by the end of the day. I would have thought this business would be harder. Thank you.”

Something about the words “this business” had caused the bits of Tom’s brain which managed his love interests to tell him to cut his losses. His alcohol impaired nose almost had a fix on the smell he recognized. Against his better judgment, he forged on.

“You don’t get out much, do you? Mountains aren’t known for being small. They are, however, several miles away. Exactly why do you want to go there, anyway?” Suddenly, the smell clicked into place. His amorous ideas shattered painfully.

After a second he added, “And more importantly, are you pregnant?”

***

Eye sat on the carved throne at the head of the cave. Around it, ten foot thick columns supported a cavernous ceiling like giants holding up the sky. Carefully hewn statues of creatures not seen since the dawn of time ringed the cave, staring at the mass of followers.

Eye was ancient. The scars about his body bulged on layers of muscle unnatural for a cat of his age. His blood-ringed sightless eyes shone an unnerving red in the darkness. But then, vision would have been an unnecessary distraction to Eye, considering his impossibly accurate hearing.

He listened studiously to the chanting of his followers, bouncing off the walls of the cave, and forever telling him what the room looked like.

Indeed, it was better than sight — he could feel the room around him. He waited patiently for the hymn to end, and then rose to his feet in the silence.

It was a massive motion, like ten thousand mountain ranges rising in chorus.

He towered above his audience; easily four or five times the size of anyone present. When he spoke, his voice battered the walls like a cannon, hard and metallic; No trace of compassion tainted his speech.

He did not speak above a low growling whisper, but everyone heard him.

“Brethren. You all now know I destroyed the royal family, their proud King and their arrogant Queen, and put to death four of the royal princes with my army so they might no longer hinder us,” The crowd nodded, and a general sound of agreement, in a low, deep, growl echoed.

“One of my loyal followers has brought news of the fifth. Talon, step forward,” A beautiful Cornish Rex materialized out of the shadows behind him. Eye could sense the minute light reflecting off of the brown and black tortoiseshell fur that made her glinting golden eyes startling in the blackness.

He felt the air shift as she bowed deeply “You summoned me, lord?”

“What of the prince? Have you dealt with him as bidden?”

“Yes, my lord. With him, we have disposed of the last of the princes.”

“Well done, Talon. I shall see to a reward for you.” He turned his head to face his audience, and with a new passion began “And yet I see in your hearts that still are unsatisfied. Some among you even dare to doubt I deserve to rule above the royals…” He smiled.

It was an incredibly unpleasant smile, which chilled your heart and made you wish you had lived a much better life.

“…And say I should have dealt with them myself, to prove that I was worthy. To which, I reply that you needn’t wait any longer – the last of the royal line will come here, and I will eradicate them myself. When I am done, I will crush all those who dared to oppose me as well.”

He noted those who shuffled, weighed every echo of those who coughed, before finishing his speech. They would find guards waiting at their doors, and be taken publicly as an example.

“Rest assured, the noble lineage of the brothers will live, and with the end of the Royals, the bird which shall destroy the universe will fly unopposed. Our long awaited rise will come, and we shall recreate all things again as it pleases us,” He paused for a second. Time stood still, and the air itself seemed to be anticipating the next thing he would do. Finally, his voice came, more quietly than before.

“I dismiss you, Brothers — I shall summon you again, when the Royals arrive.” And he turned his back to the assembled congregation.

In a voice like the crack of doom, the cats replied “Hail Eye, Seventh Lord of the Bird.” It was an ancient tradition, and the age made itself felt as it was spoken. The sound echoed off the walls and returned joined with the harmonics of more ancient voices. As the last trace of resonance died the acolytes filed out swiftly and silently.

When the throne room was empty, Eye called out to his adviser.

“Beak, come to me.” From the shadow beside him stepped an incredibly old Manx cat, its flesh withered by the ravages of age and disease, its voice cracked and dusty.

“Lord?”

“I have listened carefully of the prince’s last hour. Keep an eye on the female whom the prince impregnated. Never let her out of your magic’s sight. I must know everything she does now. The prince has told her to return to the mountain — he didn’t know we had destroyed the palace. He’ll have sent her there for safekeeping, among the servants whom we killed. Tell me all that occurs.” He turned away as Beak departed.
“Talon, come.”

“My lord?”

“Despite what I said there is no use my fighting a pregnant female; at best it takes my time, and I doubt it will calm those in the order who are insufficiently loyal — I’m depending on you to arrange an accident for her. It must, however, look as though you were not involved, to avoid unnecessary upheaval. Beak will be most obliging in keeping you abreast of her movements. I can gloss it over in my court, and then I will put you to the task of destroying those disloyal elements. When we rebuild the world, you shall see your just reward.” Talon bowed deeply, touching the floor, and then disappeared into the inky blackness without a sound.

Eye sat alone, listening blindly in the darkness.

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ConVent – snippet 1

ConVent is proof that Kate Paulk’s brain works in wonderfully mysterious ways.  If there is a plot further from her novel Impaler, I can’t think of it.  When I asked Kate last night to give me a quick synopsis of ConVent to post here, she emailed this:  A sarcastic vampire, his werewolf best buddy, an undercover angel and his succubus squeeze. The “Save the world” department really messed it up this time.  Just so you know, that pretty much sums up the book which is one of the most fun reads I’ve had in a very long time.  Oh, I guess you guys might be wondering when it comes out.  It will be available for purchase the weekend  of October 21st.

Disclaimer here:  the snippet is from the unedited version, so there may be a few spelling/punctuation/grammar errors.  This is because the final version is with the editor and layout artist and it’s too early for me to bother them.

Enjoy!

*   *   *

 

1. Undercover Angel

Another convention, another con hotel. After a while, they blur together into an indistinguishable mass of faux-elegance and bizarrely costumed fans. I usually go in what you could call Olde Worlde Vampire – three piece suit, John Lennon glasses, cane with a pewter wolf-head topper. Take Gary Oldman in that appalling Dracula movie, and you have the basic idea, except I wear black and my hair is darker. And short.

No-one’s ever given me a second look. It suits me that way: I don’t need people trying to find out more about me.

Even the smell’s the same as usual, the flat, rolled out smell of years of smoke, disinfectant and inadequate hygiene recycled endlessly through the hotel air conditioning. No, this one wasn’t quite the same.

I frowned, tasting the air. The back of my neck prickled, hair rising as age-old instinct whispered to me of something wrong.
Blood.

Not the warm, fresh-meat smell of everyone around me: I’d grown used to that in the last few years. I’d even learned to live with the sour reek of what the SCA folk called ‘period hygiene’.

This was the metallic tang of shed blood, old enough to have lost its warmth, but not so old that decay had begun. For me to notice it amidst the mingling faux-Klingons, other costumed exotica, and the unwashed tee-shirted crowds, someone somewhere nearby had lost a lot of blood. A fatal amount of blood.

I wondered about it, hoping it wouldn’t be something that could draw attention to me. Selfish, maybe, but being a vampire isn’t easy in a world that monitors everything you do. Sure, accidents happened even in hotels. People fall and crack their head open on tiled floors, or stranger mishaps that have the same basic effect. Suicides happen in hotels too, probably a whole lot more than your average hotel would ever admit to. The thought didn’t help.

I couldn’t hear any kind of commotion, which ruled out an accident anywhere halfway public — and with the convention taking over the public areas of the hotel, that didn’t leave many options. That meant I was going to have to investigate
Wonderful. I’m not the only non-human who’s fallen in with the convention scene, and I’m a long way from being the worst. Most of us regulars have a kind of truce where we don’t do anything that gets us noticed, but that doesn’t stop a newcomer from doing something then pinning it on the nearest convenient target. This, well… excuse the bad pun, but it sucked.

I sidled around a tall woman whose corset took what had undoubtedly been an impressive bosom and elevated it to a weapon of mass distraction. Her height put the weapon in question about level with my nose: it was a good thing my sunglasses made it impossible for her to guess whether I was trying to peer into the jiggling depths or not.

Actually, I was trying to look elsewhere. The effect all that warm, moving flesh had on me wasn’t the one she wanted, and this wasn’t the time to take a nibble. I’d do that later, privately, with someone I could entice into inviting me to her room. Or his room. Nourishment was nourishment.

Once I’d successfully circumnavigated the corseted one, I had to ease my way past a man whose geisha costume and makeup was so perfect it was unnerving. If he had been short enough to pass for a real geisha, I might have wondered if he was actually female, although the lines of his face were definitely male. So was his voice — a resonant bass that sounded quite odd from the rosebud lips.

The reedy baritone voice of the equally well-costumed Sailor Moon was just another layer of strangeness. There were times when I wondered if the devil himself would get anything more than a cursory glance, should he decide to visit one of these events.

I slipped between two clusters of fen, male and female overweight and pasty-faced, tacky tee shirts worn loose over faded jeans. According to my nose, perhaps half of them were familiar with the esoteric custom of regular bathing. For the oversized fen that was a low ranking: it was the skinny ones that were more likely to be hygiene-optional. The skinny ones also had the highest chance of smelling of illegal substances.

The sharper senses of a vampire were not always to my advantage.

Another scent caught my attention once I was free of the crowd. Here, the air had the empty taste of hotel air, without the overwhelming eau de SF con. It also had, in addition to the tang of spilled blood, the distinctive musky overtones of a mature werewolf.

I looked around. Werekind usually loathed vampires, and with reason. We could create weres by some weird magical commingling of animal and human DNA, and we could command them. Of course they hated us.

“Hey, Hickey!”

With one exception. But then, I’m not your typical vampire, either. I turned to the shout, and waved to the speaker, a young-looking fellow with untidy blond hair. Naturally Sean was in human form, but he still carried enough of his true nature to affect the humans around him. I could see the hackles raised as he passed.

Sean and I get along just fine. He’s not a typical werewolf, having chosen to run solo rather than join a pack. I don’t do the vampire mind-games except what I need to keep myself fed and healthy. We often meet up at conventions and just have fun being in each other’s company.

Oh, and my name isn’t ‘Hickey’. The silly wolf calls me that because he thinks I leave love-bites on my meals. The name he knows me by is Jim. It’s not my real name — I outgrew that years ago.

Sean’s getting old enough that he’s going to have to change his name soon. When you’re going to look nineteen for eternity, it’s an occupational hazard.

He ambled over to me, big grin plastered across his face. As usual, he wore jeans and a black tee shirt, both clean enough I could smell the soap. I could see the tension in his face despite the grin: like me, he would have smelled the blood.

“Do you know what caused it?” Typical Sean — cut straight to the point without a hint of messing around with the usual niceties.
I shook my head. “Not a clue.” Which neatly summed up the fen gathering in the hotel lobby, of course. I’d wondered sometimes at the irony of their choice of descriptive: a word that had once described cheap prostitutes was now the collective for probably the world’s highest concentration of adult virgins. “Have you seen any of the others around?” We immortals who did the circuit generally knew each other well enough. Even if we’d normally be deadly enemies anywhere else, here we avoided trouble and kept clear of each others hunting grounds. I knew at least two demons who regularly frequented conventions, although I had yet to work out why they bothered when all the mortal souls here were mortgaged to caffeine and alcohol.

“Raph’s around somewhere.” Sean shrugged. “None of the other regulars that I know of.”

Wonderful. Raph, the world’s most debauched angel. And yes, he is still an angel. Don’t ask me how he gets away with it. I don’t want to know. I will say he takes his official status as an undercover agent entirely too literally when it comes to covers, and being under them.

At least I could be certain he wasn’t involved in the attempted killing. Murder wasn’t Raph’s style. “Do you know when it happened?”
Sean shook his head. “It’s weird. There wasn’t anything sudden. It just sort of drifted in. I don’t even know when I realized it was there.” He scratched his chest, not quite distracted enough to let claws extend – which was just as well. When he was in human form, Sean went though tee shirts like he had an infinite supply.

I kept my face under careful control. I’d made science fiction cons my hunting ground because no matter how weird I was I could strip naked and dance on tables and not get more than a few invitations. That didn’t mean I wanted to draw attention to myself. I worked by not being observed unless I chose. Usually I only let my prey notice me, and then only long enough to take my little nibbles and leave them with the memory of some horizontal gymnastics with a good looking fellow whose face they could not quite remember.

So long as I didn’t take the same person more than once or twice in a month, it worked.

Well, mostly. Whenever another immortal discovered that the con scene could meet their needs without drawing unwanted attention, we regulars had to do some interesting negotiations to make sure no-one overstepped the boundaries.

I let my senses drift, seeking the source of the blood. “Stay close,” I murmured. “I’m going to fade.”

Sean moved closer to me, and I began to project the sense of ‘nothing here’. It isn’t exactly invisibility, more like everyone ignores me when I fade. Anyone or anything close enough fades right along with me.

Once I had the projection down, I nodded to Sean. He tilted his head back, sniffing as he turned a slow circle. His nose was sharper than mine, though with different priorities. He was more tuned to humans as prey, alive, dead or dying. I focused on blood, particularly when it was still inside its owner.

After a while, he nodded decisively. “Near the dealer rooms.”

“On my way.” I ambled in the direction of the dealer rooms with Sean on my heels. If I could rule out a rogue immortal before anything was found, so much the better. Fortunately there weren’t too many mingling yet — people were still arriving, so most of the activity clustered around the registration tables. There’d be crowds later.

The dealer rooms were in a ballroom split up by the partition walls the hotel used to get more bookings. If I remembered the maps right, the ballroom had a half-size section set off for the merchandisers and a quarter for the art show. The rest was reserved for the organizers to do whatever convention organizers did. The blood couldn’t be an accident, not in that part of the hotel. With the amount of activity from dealers bringing in their gear and artists setting up shows — not to mention the convention committee scrambling to deal with everything they hadn’t sorted out yet — there’d have been a fuss by now if there had been any kind of mishap.

I didn’t need Sean’s nose once we got close enough. The doors to the merchandise area stood wide open while people wheeled trolleys filled with… well, stuff. In the time it took me to get from the edge of the atrium to the wall, I saw books, comics, magazines, costumes, jewelry of the faux-occult persuasion, and even a few pieces that were actual occult, not wannabe. I hoped the sellers knew what they were doing with those.

I blinked when I saw a familiar shape pushing a heavy trolley loaded mostly with books. The books weren’t a problem: the small knife with a dark gem set into the heart-shaped pommel was. Bill was a minor demon lord who normally played for much higher stakes than science fiction conventions. Seeing him here as a bookseller, and carrying a Heart’s Blade, did bad things for my hopes of getting this situation cleaned up without fuss.

I’d have to visit later and quietly disable the damned knife. The thought of being at a convention with one of those things around made my skin crawl. It was a shame that right now I had more important concerns.

The door to the art section was closed and ignored. I can’t feel magic, but the way no-one noticed the art show door was so much like the way my fading worked it had to be magical. That’s one in favor of my immunity to magic. It didn’t balance the mess with the succubus at the last con I’d been to.

I eased over to the plain door — only the sign saying ‘Art Show’ distinguished it from any other door in this or any other hotel — and leaned against it. People’s eyes slid over me like I wasn’t there. Beside me, Sean growled, low in his throat. He had the prickly, glazed look he got when he was close to a shift.

“Easy there, Wolfie.” I’ve seen Sean in his wolf form, and there’s no way anyone would think he was in costume. He’s downright primeval, actually. People get nervous several rooms away. And if there’s an attractive woman around, well… He could sit down with his tongue hanging out the way dogs do, and still commit sexual harassment on women three rooms away. I really hoped there weren’t any succubi here — last time had been bad enough.

“‘s’magic,” he growled. This close to a shift, his speech slurred as his muscles and bones strained to break free from their human shapes. “Bad.”

Just wonderful. I tried not to wonder what else could go wrong, in case I ended up finding out. Fact was, right now there wasn’t a single way this could work out well for me or Sean. Even the weirdest fen had limits, and the likes of me and Sean were well beyond them.

The door wasn’t physically locked: it opened as soon as I turned the handle. I slipped inside with Sean close behind me. The click it made when it swung closed sounded horribly loud in the hushed room.

Free-standing display boards made a kind of bizarre maze, cramping the room and making it seem much smaller than it actually was. It would be even worse when the art was up and fen crammed every inch of floor space. The smell of blood made my face ache.

The earthier tone of Sean’s growl told me he’d changed. I glanced his way, and sagged a little with relief to see his shirt and jeans in a crumpled pile on the floor. Better that than shredded by the very different shape of his body. I’m not sure what would be harder, smuggling a naked man or a wolf. The more likely something was to attract gawkers, the harder it was to fade.

I trod delicately on plush carpet worn to a shapeless mat by untold thousands of feet. At the back of the room, hidden by the display board maze, I found the source of the blood smell.

She was female, young, and would probably have been pretty if her skin hadn’t taken on the gray-blue of exsanguination. She lay on one of the tables reserved for sculptures and the like, sprawled out as though she slept. Her left arm hung down from the table, blood seeping from a cut that should not have drained her like that. There weren’t any more injuries – her nakedness made that quite clear.

A black bowl on the carpet caught the drops, shimmering with unclean light. If that were not sign enough that someone was up to no good, the wall above where she lay had been daubed with a symbol even clueless humans could recognize as demonic in origin – a horned beast rising from flames. I didn’t need vampire senses to know what had been used instead of ink.

A tiny shudder ran through the woman’s body, startling me. I hadn’t expected her to be still alive. Not that she’d stay that way if I didn’t do something immediately. Damn.

Something half-familiar jolted through me when I touched her, magic discharging around and through me. It didn’t damage me, but the protection circle cast around the woman left a ring of scorched carpet.

Sean whined.

“Get your ass back into human shape,” I told him. “She’s alive.”

I lifted the woman carefully, draping her left arm over her chest. I made sure I didn’t disturb anything else, although I doubted the inevitable police swarm would find anything identifiable.

By the time I turned around, Sean was back in human form and dressed. I could see the after-echo of his wolf shape: evidence the shift wasn’t entirely complete.

He opened the door for me, and bellowed out “Someone call 911!”

The spell fading the art room cracked open with a sizzling sound and the smell of scorched meat. It must have been a misdirection rather than an illusion — misdirection spells couldn’t stand too much scrutiny. Everyone in the lobby area turning to Sean’s voice was quite enough to break it.

They stared at Sean. They gaped at me – or rather, at the naked girl in my arms.

One of the tee-shirted fen darted forward and offered a heavy cloak that really didn’t work with the cutesy fairy on her shirt or her faded jeans. “I’m a registered nurse. Lay her down, and cover her with this. We need to warm her up.”

I knelt, pretending I needed Sean’s help to perform what would have been an awkward maneuver for a mortal. Once I could reach the floor, I laid the girl on the cloak, then helped the nurse-fen wrap her in it. “Thanks. All I know is I found her in there.” I jerked my head in the direction of the art room. “Someone sliced her arm open.”

Sean’s bellow roared out again. “No-one goes in there until the cops get here!” I could feel the teeth in it. Just by sheer personality he pushed the gawpers back a few steps.

The nurse frowned. “And no way to guess what blood type she is. Damn.”

I know about blood type, of course, but I could hardly tell the nurse that it was an academic question for me. Besides, whoever tried to kill the girl had done a pretty thorough job of it, and I didn’t want to attract the attention of either the would-be killer or whatever nefarious forces the ritual had been intended to summon.

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The Great Flying Saucer Conspiracy

is now available.

Now, to tease you so you will have to check it out, here’s a quick snippet from somewhere in the book. . . Yes, I’m evil.  I know.  Even more, I enjoy it 😉

*   *   *

Monday afternoon Gabe had had the anthro hall in the other wing of the building.  Two hundred padded seats, burgundy plush and polished plywood, rising like a wave before him.  Perhaps a fifth of them were occupied, though not always by attentive students.  There were three couples that seemed to have their minds on something else entirely, and several bent heads, closed eyes.

Well, as long as they didn’t snore.

He was talking to the others, anyway, clicking through slides and bulleted lists, using his mouse-wand to point and highlight.  “There’s never been much doubt that humans were special.  We’re a conceited gang, but it’s clear that there are significant differences between us and the rest of the animal world.

“What are those differences?  Language?  But many animals communicate with sound.  Vervet monkeys even have different alarm calls for different threats–eagle, snake, leopard.  Sound and meaning, definite communication.”  Click-click-click, vervets watching ground and sky, fleeing high or low.  They’d read about this in their text.  If they’d done their assignment.  “Apes use varied calls and gestures, and chimps and gorillas can learn Ameslan, American Sign Language.”  Click-click, Washoe asking for a drink, Koko trying to teach her kitten Sign.

“Tool use?  Again, chimps make and use simple tools.”  Click, a chimp with the famous termite-fishing twig.  Click, another bashing nuts with a stone.

“Laughter?  Many animals play, and some look for all the world as if they’re laughing.”  Click, click.  Baboons doing cartwheels down a desert slope, a baby chimp being tickled.  “Chimps even play practical jokes.”

“Intelligence?”  Click, a porpoise.  Despite concern, despite a worldwide ban on whaling, the big whales were no more and the small ones survived only in Marinelands.  People had left too few fish and plankton in the seas to support them in the wild.  “Some think we may be outclassed on that.”  A few quiet laughs rippled through the hall.

“All of these have been suggested, but at best our uniqueness in these respects is much more a matter of degree than one of kind.  We’re not alone, and that has long rankled some of us.  Just what is it that makes us unique?”

A hand went up, a smile, almost a smirk.  He could guess why.

“Yes, Mr. Clancy?”  A serious-looking fellow.  Short hair, no beard or mustache, not wearing a suit but easy to imagine in one.  Give him a few more years.  Maybe a Saucerite mask, too.  Would he be one of the few who believed his abductors had planted a mental eavesdropping device in his brain?

“A soul?”

“Is there even such a thing?  I know many people believe there is, but I suspect the concept was invented to provide an answer to my question.  If there is such a thing…  Well, consider this, when did we acquire it?  The very idea of evolution requires continuity, change by modification.  We don’t gain features all at once, presto-shazam!”  A scatter of laughs.  These were upper-level undergrads.  They’d had that course.  “So, did our ancestors have them?  How far back?  Homo erectusAustralopithecus?  The pre-hominid apes?  Early primates?  Snakes and fish and worms?  How do you know your dog or cat does not have one?  Certainly some religions hold that they do–and other animals, and even plants, as well.”  Click-click-click–he was ready with a Buddha, a mandala, a wheel of reincarnation.  “Either we don’t have them, or everything does.”

He shook his head.  Souls were not an answer.  “What is it, then, that makes us special?  Or is it all just a matter of degree?”  Click, back to the chimp licking termites off its twig.  “Look at that.  As far as we can tell, chimps have been picking twigs, stripping off the leaves, and poking them into termite hills just like that for thousands of years.  Some chimp genius had to think it up in the first place, but it hasn’t changed since then.  It works, and to a chimp that’s enough.”

A skinny brunette, glasses, braces, not much makeup, cute, raised her hand.  “Yes, Ms. Worth?”

“And humans would have changed it?”  The slightly nasal voice actually sounded excited.  He grinned at her encouragingly as she added:  “Improved it?  Decorated it, maybe.  Or given it a handle.  A fringe so more termites could bite it and you could catch more.”

He turned his grin on the rest of the class and noticed for the first time the bulky figure in the shadows of the back row.  A Placoderm, humanoid like most of the aliens but so massive and solid that it looked like it belonged on the wrestling circuit.  Its blocky head jutted from a colorful, tent-like dashiki.  It hadn’t been there the class before; indeed, even though the aliens were famous for auditing a wide variety of courses, he had never had one sit in on one of his.  The students were ignoring it, just as they would have on the street, where the sheer quantity of imitation aliens, the Saucerites, diluted the impact of the few genuine aliens.

“You see?” he said.  “We can’t help ourselves, can we?  Show us something, and we have to improve on it.  At least change it.  Make it more complicated, even quite rococo.  A tool like this, a story, a religion, a language.  We never stop, and that’s something new.

“And we don’t really seem to be driven by necessity.  Sure, there are plenty of times when the changes we make seem to have a purpose.  To solve problems.  But there are plenty when they don’t, when we seem to be pursuing change for change’s sake.”  Click–a classic car meet, rows of antique cars with elaborate grills and fins.  “And the result is human culture, civilization, technology.”

Gabe hesitated before musing aloud, “Human only?”  He eyed the Placoderm in the back row thoughtfully.  Would it take offense at being brought into the discussion?  For all the peaceful intentions the alien species had loudly declared when they had appeared a few years before, they were surely quite capable of showing their displeasure.  Their embassies could not be broken into by stealth or force.  Why would the aliens be so good at defense if they had never had anyone to defend against?  And these would be the winners, the ones who had prevailed against the defenses of others.  Or their descendants.  Evolution in action for societies and technologies.

The next step was in the syllabus.  So don’t worry about it, he told himself.  “There are profound differences between humans and our alien visitors.”  Several heads twitched to peek at the back of the hall.  Click-click, click-click, click-click, a Placoderm, an Ent, a Spider, a Burd, a Furry, a Helf.

“Major differences,” Gabe repeated.  Similarities too, of course.  It had actually shocked some biologists to see them eat our food.  Earthly proteins have a left-hand twist, sugars and starches a right-hand twist, all due to a flip of the coin at the dawn of life, and lefties cannot digest righties, and vice versa.  Surely the coins must flip the other way on other worlds, and we should–sometimes, anyway–be toxic to each other, or at least non-nutritious.  Other biologists, who had insisted that biochemistry was just the way the parts went together, were delighted.  So were chefs, who very quickly noticed that some of the aliens tended to think of human dishes–even those heavy on chili peppers and wasabi–as rather bland.  Unfortunately, the aliens would not provide samples of their own herbs and spices.

Anatomy had raised similarly mixed feelings.  The aliens were all roughly humanoid, with heads and arms and legs and hands, and their voices worked in the human range.  Some had wished for slugs and insects, telepaths and color flashers.  Others had said, hey, it works, and besides the really weird aliens probably didn’t want to look at us anyway.

“They evolved from different stock,” he went on.  “They had to suit different environments.  For instance, we think the Helfs come from a high-gravity world.  Their broad base offers exceptional stability, which must be to protect the more fragile upper portion.

“The Furries–the chitinous caps may reflect a shelled ancestor, something like a crab, just as the pen of a cuttlefish is the vestigial remnant of a mollusk’s shell.  The fur does not suggest an aquatic ancestry, but there are Earthly crabs that live on land.

“These differences, these adaptations, these very different backgrounds or contexts in which the patterns of their thoughts were formed, must be reflected in their cultures.  Do Burds lay eggs?  Then perhaps, where we associate the opening up of potentials with emergence, as of a baby emerging from the womb, they associate it with breakage, with shattering.”

He noticed a few skeptical looks, but he went on anyway.  “Do Helfs think of intelligence–that delicate upper body, head and brain–as in some sense a passenger on the solid, animal base?  That might affect attitudes toward the natural world, and such a species might never face the sort of environmental crises we have had to deal with.

“I’m guessing, of course.  They haven’t shared that much about themselves.  But of some things we can be sure: They’re all intelligent, they plan, they speak, perhaps they laugh.  And of course they are just as much technological beings as humans are.  Just as much the creators of advanced civilizations.  They couldn’t be on Earth otherwise.”

A hand: “Mr. Gortley?”  A chubby fellow, hairline already receding.

“How can you say such things?”  He seemed genuinely puzzled.  “Aren’t they far too superior to us to be compared that way?”

Gabe hoped his smile did not seem condescending.  “You feel I’m guilty of lesé majesté.”  Gortley nodded tentatively, not sure of the phrase.  “But we compare ourselves to apes and monkeys and dogs and cats.”

A girl to the side of the room spoke up: “That’s okay.  It wouldn’t be if the cat was doing the comparing.”

“A matter of direction?”

Several nods, yes, only the high can have the privilege of comparing themselves to the low.  Then Gortley was leaning forward. “It’s more fundamental than that.  Your whole thrust is that humans thought up their own advancements, but it’s obvious that we had help.”

“Ancient astronauts?  The Shining Ones who taught primitive humanity how to weave and farm and build?”

More nods, yes, this was what they had heard all their lives from Sunday supplements and tabloid feeds, TV and film, even in novels.  Not, he hoped, in school.  And the flourishing of Saucerites that had followed the aliens’ arrival had only strengthened the tide of rumor.

“The pyramids?”

“Of course!”  Gortley obligingly took the bait.  “How could mere humans build such mighty things so long ago?”

Cynthia Worth flipped the pages of her textbook and called out, “Page 217.”

Someone laughed.  Several more joined in as they got the joke.  Gortley flushed.

Gabe grinned at the class, and especially at Ms. Worth.  Yes, the reproduction of the tomb paintings showing how the pyramids were assembled.  Time was what it had taken, time and the effort of ten thousand strong backs and pairs of hands, not the machines of alien construction crews who could erect an impregnable Embassy almost overnight.  Not to mention all the trial and error, visible in the oldest pyramids of all, half-finished and collapsed, that it had taken the Pharaohs’ architects to get it right.

“A great many other ancient construction projects have also baffled modern understanding,” he said.  “Temporarily, anyway.  For instance, the statues of Easter Island, and they make a nice assignment for Friday.  A bit of research and a small report on how they were quarried, moved, and erected.  Please notice that our forebears right here on Earth were not dummies.”

He glanced at the back row, but the Plac was no longer there.  He wished he had noticed when it rose and sidled between the seats toward the door.  Perhaps it had just been beating the rush, the mob of students gathering their books and bags.  Those with another class or a work assignment next period moved faster, even sprinting toward the exit.  The rest seemed quite content to clot the aisles, drift toward the door, pausing, moving, always chattering.  As far as Gabe could tell, not a word of the chatter dealt with his lecture.

He had no idea why the Plac had shown up for this class and none of those before, or what it had hoped to learn, although his syllabus was posted on the Net.  It could have seen what he planned to talk about today, could have thought it might be interesting.  Or amusing, more likely, a provincial ape pretending that it shared its essential apeness with the gods themselves.  Was it lesé majesté to do so?  Perhaps, but he could hardly refrain, ape that he was. . . .

*   *   *

The Great Flying Saucer Conspiracy by Thomas A. Easton is now available at the NRP website.  Look for it in coming days at Amazon.com and B&N.com and other e-book retailers.

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