Tag Archives: snippet

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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The Great Flying Saucer Conspiracy — Preview

Later this week, NRP will be releasing the Thomas Easton’s novel, The Great Flying Saucer Conspiracy.  This is the first time it will be available in digital format.  Below is a snippet from the novel.  For more information about Tom and the novel, be sure to check out Tom’s guest post here.

*     *     *

The sky was not full of alien spaceships.

There were only six of them.

But they were huge, and their psychological impact was colossal.  All the works of humanity shrank in significance.  The thousands of satellites human beings had over more than half a century put into orbit to pass on gossip and keep an eye on worrisome neighbors suddenly seemed as toys upon a playroom floor, while the public consciousness quite forgot the two space stations, the small Moon-base, and even the tiny ship, with its crew of eight intrepid explorers, whose voyage to Mars had preoccupied the media for almost a year.

That preoccupation ended the day the Spacewatch radars picked up half a dozen fast-moving objects headed straight for Earth.  Cometary fragments, the experts said.  An asteroid swarm.  And yes, of course, they’ll punch holes in the crust, raise tidal waves a thousand feet high, and fill the air with exactly the sort of dust that froze out the dinosaurs sixty-five million years ago.

Deep Impact and Armageddon were immediately re-released.

“DOOMSDAY!” cried even the soberest headlines and news anchors, while the tabloid newsfeeds were left to speculate that the six strange objects were not pieces of comet or asteroid at all.  They were spaceships, and at any moment they would begin to decelerate.  The most extreme tabloids blared that the captain of the alien fleet was Jesus Christ Himself, come to gather up the Faithful, schlep them to Heaven, and leave Earth and the vast majority of humanity to the Seven Vials and Satan’s wiles, but no one who counted paid much attention.  Most seemed to think the ships were quite secular, and as soon as they had achieved Earth orbit, the Wise Ones from Galactic Central would tell poor benighted humanity how to solve all its problems, from global warming and AIDS to infidelity, impotence (Viagra couldn’t fix everything), obesity, and hair loss.

Which was exactly what happened.  Sort of.  Once their ships–each one a cylinder a thousand feet long and five hundred in diameter–were in orbit, dominating the night sky wherever one lived, the Wise Ones didn’t seem to have much to say about human problems large or small. They were much more interested in seeing the sights.

That helped restore humanity’s pride in its accomplishments.  It didn’t hurt a bit that the aliens were sights themselves.  They were at least roughly humanoid, but strange enough–carny freak-show strange–to let people feel superior.  It was easy to call them “it,” especially once it became clear that their behavior did not map onto any human gender norm.

Since none of them seemed to care what humans called them, people named them according to what they saw or were reminded of when they met: The Placoderms, built like professional wrestler Jacko “The Bull” Magruder, had skins studded with bony plaques that suggested they had evolved from something like an armadillo.  The Placs’ garments resembled dashikis with side-pockets.

The Helfs were pale green cones about three feet tall, resting on four thickly built legs with broad feet encircled by stubby toes.  The upper body was slender, almost delicate, the arms as scrawny as a human child’s, the hands surprisingly large, and the narrow, almost human head rested on an extensible neck that could add at least another foot of height.  The pointed ears and slicked-back dark hair were why someone had dubbed them “heavy elves,” which was promptly abbreviated.  Their only clothing was a belt with pouches.

The narrow-headed Ents had slender, dark-skinned limbs that ended in clusters of twiggy tendrils instead of fingers; humans called them Ents because to some they resembled walking trees.  They smelled of resin, and they wore strips of a white material that looked like plastic wrapped in spirals around their torsos and the upper portions of their arms and legs.  At intervals, these strips were marked by very recognizable zippers.

While decency, decoration, and protection from the elements are all important, the most important function of clothing may be that universal requirement of intelligent species–pockets.  Or something like pockets.  The Burds made do with small, purse-like satchels.  Otherwise, they went naked, ignoring decency–unlike birds, the males were well and obviously hung–and painting their scaly hides in perfumed, pastel swirls.  Each one had a feathered crest extending from its head most of the way down its back.  Their projecting jaws did the most to give them a birdlike look but their facial skin was so thin and mobile that–unlike birds–they seemed to have a thousand expressions.  Humans had no idea what most of them meant.

The Furries were just that, round balls covered with thick fur in several colors.  Their heads were squashed caps of something like chitin, under which gleaming eyes twitched back and forth on stalks.  The arms were long and six-fingered.  The legs were stubby but long enough to wear pants–with pockets, of course.

The Spiders might actually have descended from Earth-primate stock, for they resembled nothing more than large-headed, black-lipped spider monkeys, with long arms and legs and creamy fur with just a bit more nap than velvet.  They stood a little shorter than adult humans.  They wore briefs like swimming trunks and open-weave, fish-net shirts that seemed little more than support for several baggy pouches.  Unlike spider monkeys, they did not have tails.

Everywhere they went–Fifth Avenue, the Met, the Grand Canyon, the Louvre, the Hermitage, the Vatican, Jerusalem, Wal-Mart, Tiananmen Square, the Great Wall–they drew vast crowds of gawkers, hawkers, and eager journalists.  They waved to the gawkers while the hawkers peddled fast foods and souvenirs, they sampled the fast foods, they bought some of the knick-knacks in quantity and ignored the rest, and they said very little to the journalists.  They also spent a little time with the United Nations, sampling the canapés and arranging to convert some of their technology–such as the high-capacity batteries that were showing up in electric cars within a year–into cash.

Then they went shopping.

The Furries began with denim jeans.  The Burds flocked to Avon ladies for new shades and fragrances of hide paint.  Then both joined the rest in buying real estate.  Each alien species acquired land near every major university on the planet; within a month, they had installed attractive buildings built of a creamy stone, with lots of glass and columns.  They hired local landscapers to do the grounds.

Not knowing what else to call these bases, the media dubbed them “Embassies.”

The FBI, CIA, and other national security agencies promptly tried to burgle them and discovered that the glass wasn’t breakable and the stone wasn’t even chippable.  When Texas tried the National Guard’s tanks and mortars, they learned that the aliens didn’t mind.  They didn’t have to take offense–the buildings were impregnable to human weaponry.

The Texas governor insisted that nukes would do the job, but since the local embassies were surrounded by Houston, no one took her seriously.

Then the aliens bought computers and Net access and began to download the contents of every electronic library and database they could find and/or buy access to.  They discovered Amazon.com, barnesandnoble.com, and powells.com and ordered vast piles of books.  They visited university libraries and signed up to audit the more advanced courses.  And their tastes were catholic; they showed no preference whatsoever for science, technology, math, literature, music, history, film, philosophy, art, or Jungian basket-weaving.  They set out to swallow it all and admitted quite cheerfully that there were enough books and courses to keep them there for years.

But they never said why.

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Nocturnal Origins — Snippet

I’ll admit I feel a little weird posting this snippet.  When I’ve posted snippets before, it’s been someone else’s work.  But this time, it’s my own.  As I commented on Mad Genius Club a couple of weeks ago, the decision to publish it was made by my bosses, without me even knowing they were considering the novel.  You see, one of them — as well as another of our editors — had been beta readers for me back when I was first writing Origins.  So, when we started putting together this year’s schedule, the decision was made to simply inform me that, unless I’d found another home for the book, NRP would be more than pleased to publish it.  Needless to say, I was thrilled.  I believe in NRP and am very proud that the powers-that-be feel my novel is one they want to publish.  So, here we go and I hope you like it — Amanda Green

###

Some things can never be forgotten, no matter how hard you try. The memory remains, forever imprinted on your soul. It colors your perceptions and expectations. It affects everything you say and do. It doesn’t matter if the memory is good or bad, full of life and love or pain and death. That memory remains until the day you die – if you’re lucky.

If not, the memory haunts you for all eternity.

Detective Sergeant Mackenzie Santos knew that bitter lesson all too well. The day she died had changed her life and her perception of the world forever.

It didn’t matter that everyone, even her doctors, believed a miracle occurred when she awoke in the hospital morgue. She knew better. She knew she had died.

It hadn’t been a miracle. At least not a holy one. Ask the poor attendant who’d run screaming from that cold, desolate room in the hospital basement, when Mac had suddenly sat up, gasping for breath and still covered with too much blood. He’d been convinced a demon from Hell had risen to come for him.

Mac couldn’t blame him. As far as she was concerned, that was the day the dogs of Hell had come for her.

Now, standing in the alley behind Gunn’s, one of the most fashionable restaurants in Dallas, Mac closed her eyes and prayed . She suspected what lay ahead. She could almost smell it – not quite, but enough to know what was there. Sweat trickled down her spine and plastered her thin cotton shirt to her back. Her stomach lurched rebelliously and she swallowed hard against the rising gorge. She had to keep control. At least for the next few hours.

Easy, Mackenzie. Just take it slow and easy.

She opened her eyes and drew a deep breath. She knew it was bad. Two uniformed officers, hands on knees, vomited into the gutter. There were no black humor jokes, no conversation, nothing. In fact, other than the sounds of retching, the scene was eerily quiet, so it felt almost like a dream. A nightmare.

She took a few more steps. The harsh, unmistakable stench assailed her nose, warning her what she’d find.

Unless the restaurant had dumped several hundred pounds of raw hamburger out to spoil in the summer heat, a dead body lay at the far end of the alley. That was bad enough. Then she felt as though she were enveloped in blood and her stomach rolled over once again.

Oh, God.

Jaw clenched, she stepped forward. Never before had it been so hard to approach a crime scene. Not even when she’d responded to her first dead body call a lifetime ago. She hadn’t hesitated then, not like this.

But she was different now. She knew what sort of horror awaited her. She’d seen it before and it haunted her. Haunted her because it touched something in her very few suspected even existed, something she tried so desperately to hide. The beast within fought for dominance, called by the smell of blood, the sight of raw flesh.

She mustn’t lose control. Not here and certainly not now. She blew out a long breath and slammed her mind shut to the horribly enticing sights and smells. Even as she did, the nightmare that had become the core of her existence clawed against her all too fragile self-control as it fought for release.

Focus on the job, Mac. Just focus on the job.

Finally, satisfied she wouldn’t lose control – yet – she nodded once. It was time to get to work.

###

Hidden deep in the shadows across the street, he watched and waited. Anger and frustration seethed just below the surface, held at bay only by sheer will power. He still couldn’t believe it. All his careful plans ruined. Now he was forced to lurk in the dark as he watched events unfold across the street.

Damn them!

When he’d first scented the men approaching, he had cursed his foul luck. He wasn’t finished. His prey still lived. There had been so much fight in her, so much fear. How that thrilled him. Too much time had passed since he’d been able to play with his quarry as he had with this one. She’d fought desperately. Then she’d done everything she could to escape. Finally, she’d huddled in fear and begged for her life even as he continued to play with her much like a cat plays with a mouse just before making that last pounce followed by the kill.

But it wasn’t to be. He had scented the men long before they reached the alley entrance. Their conversation warned him they were police. For one brief moment he’d actually toyed with the idea of killing them. Then memory of his last encounter with one of their kind intruded and forced him to admit the folly of the thought.

Damn them all to Hell!

He’d been forced to kill his prey before he finished with her. Worse, he hadn’t been able to feed off her. Instead, he’d slunk away like a carrion eater in the face of a stronger, meaner predator. How he hated that. He was no coward, no bottom feeder. He was the predator and yet here he stood, hiding in the shadows as they swarmed over his kill. That flew in the face of the natural order. He was stronger, more cunning. They should tremble in fear before him. Instead, he played the coward, unwilling to face their greater numbers or their guns.

But they would pay. Sooner or later they would pay for being foolish enough, unfortunate enough to interrupt him. They’d pay the ultimate price and forfeit their lives. However, that had to wait, at least for a little while.

Still, the night might not be a total loss. The circus across the street offered a potential show he’d not hoped to see. At least not yet. An almost feral smile touched his lips and he chuckled softly. He might get lucky after all.

And all because of one woman, one tall, beautiful woman with a shock of dark hair and penetrating green eyes.

His smile widened to a grin and his right hand fisted at his side as his heart gave an excited leap. That one woman had brought him such anticipation and then so much frustration. He could hardly wait until they met once more. It would be a meeting he planned to make their last.

Two months had passed since he first laid eyes on her. Something about her had called to him, demanding he master her. So he’d set out to stalk her, confident in his ability not only to find her but also to make her his for as long as he wanted. What a wonderful plan it had been.

Unfortunately, it hadn’t worked out quite the way he’d expected. She wasn’t like the others – men and women both – who’d fallen to him in the past. She’d proven to be as tough and determined as she was beautiful. When he thought he had her cornered and ready for the taking, she’d done the unexpected, the unforgivable. She’d fought back, leaving him wounded and forced to flee before she could summon help.

She drew his attention once more. He could hardly wait to see how she reacted to his handiwork. Maybe, just maybe, the evening wouldn’t be a complete loss after all.

###

Nocturnal Origins will be on sale next month.

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Death of a Musketeer by Sarah D’Almeida

Here is an excerpt from Death of a Musketeer, coming out later this month from NRP.  This will be the first time the novel has been available in digital format.  Enjoy!

***

Prologue

Or

How I came by the other Diaries Of Monsieur D’Artagnan

My first encounter with the gentlemen known to all the world as Athos, Porthos, Aramis–and, of course, D’Artagnan–came at a young age when, searching through the shelves of my grandfather’s library, I was called by several leather-bound volumes bearing the name Dumas on the spine.

I hardly need tell anyone who had the good fortune of reading Monsieur Dumas’s works at an early age with what rapt attention I followed the actions of the brash young man from Gascony and his three daring companions.

Over the years, I’ve returned to the same book — and its companions Twenty Years After, and Viscount de Bragelone — every winter, when the snow first fell.  I re-read the adventures of the four charming rogues, again and again, by my cozy fireside.  But I knew I’d never encounter them in any other writing.

I was wrong.  This winter, when snowflakes first danced on the thin mountain air of Colorado and while my slippers and my hot chocolate waited with a leather-bound book by my comfortable chair, a delivery service dropped an unpromising battered cardboard box on my front porch.

Inside it was a brief note from my father-in-law, some of whose ancestors immigrated to the New World at the end of the seventeenth century.

Not a French speaker, he said he thought it best if I were given these papers, found in the estate of an elderly relation.

I confess I perused them, at first, with some distaste.  The pages had mildewed to an unappetizing shade of greyish yellow and I had to turn them with the greatest care to prevent their falling apart.  I picked a word here and a word there, amid decay and mildew.  The spelling was quite the oddest I’d ever encountered.

However, on page two I encountered the name D’Artagnan, on page five the name Athos and on page ten the names Porthos and Aramis together.  By page fifteen I realized these diaries referred to murders investigated, solved and often avenged by the three musketeers plus one.  I was hooked.

After that, I devoured the twenty mildewed diaries with the eagerness of one too long separated from a childhood friend.  Woven around the events that Dumas told the world of in his books, the diaries started with the fateful duel at the Barefoot Carmelites.  However, they very quickly turned into a series of murder mysteries often involving the highest nobility of France.

The bulk of it was written in ink that had faded to brown, and in an angular handwriting that marched across the pages with the certainty of a military officer on campaign.

However, over it all, there were notes in other hands, squeezed in the margins and scribbled between the lines.  I soon learned to identify the small, sharp, inclined hand with Athos, the round, well formed ecclesiastical one — still with a hint of violet to its tints — with Aramis and the laborious printing with Porthos.  The notes gave details that the writer of the main diaries — certainly D’Artagnan — couldn’t have known at the time he wrote them.

I do not know how his friends came to editorialize D’Artagnan’s diaries.  And I have no idea how or by what crooked lines of descent and inheritance or happenstance and luck those diaries passed into the hands of my family.

The only thing certain is that those diaries, which I edited for coherence and adapted to our modern storytelling mode, reveal murders as intricate and fiendish as any writer could dream, and that these crimes could only be solved by Athos, Porthos, Aramis and D’Artagnan.

To whose spirit, nobility and courage I hope my retelling will do justice.

Sarah D’Almeida
January 2004
Colorado Springs

The Duel that Wasn’t;
Where the Cardinal’s Guards are Taught a Lesson;

A Handy Guide to the Taverns of Paris

D’Artagnan knew he was going to die.

It was April 1625 and the spring sun, fierce and blazing, shone like an unblinking eye over the bustling city of Paris.  Henri D’Artagnan, aged seventeen, a slim, muscular young man with olive skin, dark hair and piercing black eyes, had arrived in town just the day before.

Now, under the noon sun, he stood outside the convent of the Barefoot Carmelites, a religious house situated in a conveniently deserted spot on the outskirts of town.

Around him spread fields of green wheat.  The wind being still and no breeze stirring the sheaves, the only sound was the drowsy droning of insects, drunk with midday languor and heat.

And D’Artagnan thought this was the last day of his life.

If he weren’t himself, if he were not the only son of nobleman Francois D’Artagnan, a hardened veteran soldier, D’Artagnan could have turned and taken off running through those fields, relying on his young, agile legs to get him away from death.

His mind cringed at such an unworthy thought.

His opponent, with whom his sword was crossed, scraped the sword lightly along the length of D’Artagnan’s.  Just enough to gain the young man’s attention.

And D’Artagnan turned towards him, at the same time that his opponent’s second, who served as their judge in this case, dropped the white handkerchief signaling the beginning of combat.

His opponent came at D’Artagnan like a tiger, his sword pressing D’Artagnan close and demanding all of the young man’s concentration.

The man was called Athos, and he fought like a veteran duelist.  Which he was, being one of the older and more experienced and — as far as D’Artagnan could determine — one of the most feared members of his majesty Louis XIII’s corps of musketeers.  Other things D’Artagnan had heard, once he’d given himself the trouble of checking: That the man had the personal friendship of Monsieur de Treville.  That he was of noble birth.  That Athos was a nom-de-guerre, picked up to hide disgrace or guilt.

Athos attacked, driving the young man back and back and back, till D’Artagnan’s shoulders were solidly against the white-washed wall of the convent and only his quick wit and quicker reflexes permitted him to step sideways and avoid being skewered.

D’Artagnan flitted and skipped, danced away from trouble and contorted away from tight spots, but his mind became oddly detached.

His body moved and seemed to think with a reasoning of its own, while it parried and thrust, and made Athos back away.  Meanwhile D’Artagnan’s mind — what his mother used to call his quick and lively mind — had gone away, to some place at the back of himself.  Some place away from the battlefield, where it could do its thinking.

When Henri D’Artagnan had left the paternal abode, his father had given him only one substantive piece of advice.  And that was that he fight often, that he fight well and that he never tolerate any insult from anyone but the king or the Cardinal who was, truth be told, as powerful as any king.

Henri had tried to follow his father’s advice and, on the road to Paris, in the small town of Meung, had challenged a nobleman who laughed at his attire and horse.  This had cost him dearly, as his opponent had his servants hit Henri from behind.  While Henri was unconscious, the stranger had stolen Henri’s letter of recommendation to Monsieur de Treville.  The letter that would have got him into the musketeers this very day.

But I don’t learn, do I? D’Artagnan thought to himself, as he pushed hard with his sword arm, forcing Athos’s sword away, shoving the musketeer back at the same time.

Athos fell away and tripped and bent down upon his knee.

I had to challenge three musketeers for a duel today.  Three.  Musketeers.  Today, D’Artagnan thought, as he jumped nimbly back, ready to parry Athos’s next thrust.

No, he didn’t learn.  He’d continued following his father’s advice, until he’d managed to challenge the three men that the rest of the corps called the three inseparables:  Athos, Porthos and Aramis.  One of whom would kill him today.

D’Artagnan’s mind was so preoccupied with its gloomy thoughts that he didn’t at first realize that Athos hadn’t got up from his position, half-bent over his knee.

“Monsieur,” he said, when he did notice it.  “Monsieur, if it would suit you to adjourn our appointment to another time….”

He noticed Athos’s hand pressed hard at his right side, and he remembered the scene, that very morning, in Monsieur de Treville’s office, where an obviously wounded and ill Athos had come in to present himself to his captain and to deflect Monsieur de Treville’s anger at all of the three musketeers who’d been bested in a skirmish with the Cardinal’s guards.

“Monsieur, if you are in too great a pain…,” D’Artagnan said.  He’d got in this duel with Athos by careening against the musketeer and making him bleed.  And failing to apologize sufficiently for the injury he’d caused.

But Athos only shook his head.  He took a deep breath, audible in the midday stillness, and he rose slowly from his knee.  “It’s nothing,” he said, his face ashen.  “It is nothing.  I didn’t want to distress you with the sight of blood you haven’t drawn.”  A red stain showed on the side of his doublet.  He changed his sword to his left hand.  “If you don’t mind, I will fight with my left hand, though.  It will not put me at a disadvantage, as I can use either hand to equal effect.  But it might be harder for you to defend yourself.”

D’Artagnan nodded.  He knew he would die anyway.  And if he was going to die, perhaps it would be best if it was at Athos’s hands.  Of his three potential opponents, he liked and admired Athos more than the other two.  It was no dishonor to be killed by such a man.

Athos straightened and pulled back a stray lock of pitch black hair, which contrasted glaringly with his alabaster-pale complexion.

D’Artagnan had heard that Athos was considered handsome by many men and even more women in Paris.  This opinion baffled D’Artagnan.

Athos’s face was spare, with high cheekbones and intense, eyes burning with zeal.  The rest of his features, precisely drawn and finely sculpted, made the man look less like a living being and more like those caryatides of Greece and Rome — columns given human form and forever holding aloft the white marble roof of a temple or palace.

Athos’s character, like his appearance, seemed as spare, as certain, as controlled as those columns.  Rightly or not, he gave the impression of a man who served a cause greater than his own whims, purer than his own advancement.

And this, D’Artagnan thought as Athos raised his sword, was what D’Artagnan would have liked to be — if he ever got to live beyond his present seventeen years.

Aramis, Athos’s second and D’Artagnan’s next arranged opponent, stepped up.  He was a blonde man, so dainty-looking that one might fail to notice he was almost as tall as Athos and as muscular.  Accounted a gallant by all who knew him, he was said to be popular with the ladies and rumored to be entertaining duchesses and princesses by the score.

D’Artagnan, who had challenged him to a duel over an argument started on a point of honor, had at first thought him just a dandy and nothing more.  But Aramis’s bright green eyes showed such a keen appreciation for the irony of D’Artagnan’s situation, that perhaps there was more to him.

As he stepped up, picking up his white handkerchief from the ground where it had lain, he said, “You must restart the duel.”

D’Artagnan noticed that Athos was very pale still, his skin tinged with the grey of a man fighting extreme pain, and realized that Athos’s old fashioned Spanish-style doublet was laced tightly over his musketeer’s tunic.  “I would not object if you undo the ties on your doublet, since the sun is so devilishly hot.”

But Athos shook his head.  “I thank you for your courtesy,” he said, “but really, I’m afraid if I do it will restart the bleeding.  The wound is bothering me.”

“Do not misunderstand me; I am eager to cross swords with you,” D’Artagnan said.  “But if you wish to wait and perhaps drink something for your present comfort…”

Athos smiled, a flash of genuine amusement.  “Your sentiment does you credit, but I believe in collecting my debts promptly and drinking afterwards.  And then, it is not the first time I’ve fought while wounded.”  He shifted his feet and tilted the upper half of his body forward, baring his teeth slightly, as if allowing the animal to peer out of his noble features.

“Come, come,” Porthos spoke, from where he stood by the white wall of the convent, hands the size of hams folded over the guard of a very substantial sword.   A redheaded giant, he dwarfed other men with the size of his lean, muscular body.  Each of his arms looked to be the size of D’Artagnan’s thigh, each of his legs like an oak tree trunk.  And yet he gave the impression of suppleness, of not a wasted ounce on his huge frame.  “You are all talk.  Less talk and more fighting.  Remember, Athos, he owes me satisfaction after you and Aramis have your turns.  He offended me most horribly on a matter of fashion.”

Did D’Artagnan fancy that a smile crossed Aramis’s and Athos’s lips, when Porthos spoke?

Aramis raised his eyebrows and, still holding his handkerchief aloft, turned towards Porthos.  “When you wish to be so rude, you should speak for yourself only, Porthos.  I have no objection to the noble and proper sentiments these gentlemen express.  Indeed, I will gladly listen to them for as long as necessary, before they feel it fit to cross swords.”

And now another flinch of remorse came to join D’Artagnan’s regret that he would die so early, leaving so much untasted of life’s joys: that he would never get to know these men better.  There was such an easy camaraderie between the three of them, so devoid of the formality of most friendships, that he imagined they could have been his friends.

“Only,” Porthos said, pulling a large red handkerchief from his sleeve and mopping at his forehead with it,  “it’s too blazing hot.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Athos said, and leaned forward, displaying his teeth, again, in that expression that was more animal threat than human smile,  “for we are ready.”  He pushed his sword against D’Artagnan’s and said, “En garde,” between clenched teeth.

Aramis dropped the scarf.

A throat was cleared, nearby, neither by Aramis nor by Porthos.

Their swords still crossed, D’Artagnan and Athos turned to look.  Five men stood near them — so near that they could only have approached unnoticed while the musketeers and D’Artagnan were distracted with talk and worry for Athos’s wound.  All of them wore uniforms similar to those of the musketeers, but where the musketeers wore blue, their knee breeches, tunics and plumed hats were bright red, like freshly spilled blood.

They were guards of the Cardinal, sworn rivals of the Musketeers, their enemies in a thousand brawls, a million street skirmishes.

“Well, well,” said the leading guard, who had a suntanned face and a Roman nose.  “What have we here?  Dueling Musketeers?  What?  In open and defiant contravention of all the edicts against dueling?”  He smiled unpleasantly, revealing a wealth of very large, yellowed teeth.  “I’m afraid we’ll have to arrest the lot of you.”

“Leave us alone, Jussac,” Athos said, without turning to look, his sword still crossed with D’Artagnan’s.  “I promise you if we found you in the like amusement we’d sit back and let you proceed.  Enjoy and amuse yourselves, have the profit of our injuries with none of the pain.”

Jussac smiled wider.  “That’s as it may be, Monsieur Athos.  But the thing is there is an edict against dueling and our master, the Cardinal, wants laws obeyed.”

Athos lowered his sword.  He turned to Jussac and, with an air of strained patience, said, “Nothing would please me more than to oblige you.  But, you see, our captain, Monsieur de Treville, has forbidden us from being arrested.”

Jussac sighed, in turn.  He lifted his hat and scratched under it at his sweat-soaked hair.  “Think about it,” he said.  “There are only three of you, one of you wounded.  Three of you and a child who was dueling you.  If you force us to fight you, they will say it’s murder.”

The three musketeers formed a circle, from within which their worried voices reached D’Artagnan’s ears.

“I’m afraid he’s right, you know,” Aramis said.  “There are only three of us, one of us wounded.  And there are five of them: Jussac, Brisac and Cahusac, the three fiercest fighters in the Guards, and two of their companions.  They will slaughter us.”

Athos paled yet further and glared, his zealous blue eyes seeming to flame.  His features hardened into a harsher pose of dignity.  “I would rather die than appear before Monsieur de Treville defeated again.”

“Me too,” Porthos said.

D’Artagnan remembered the scorching reproach that Monsieur de Treville had inflicted on the three musketeers that morning.  Everyone waiting in the captain’s antechamber had heard it.  He didn’t blame the three for not wishing to face such humiliation again.

“Very well, then,” Aramis said.  He straightened a little and squared his shoulders.  “We’ll die here.”

“You, the child,” Jussac said, pointing at D’Artagnan.  “Save yourself.  We’ll allow you to go.”

D’Artagnan looked at the three musketeers who were so calm, so resigned,  gallantly preparing themselves for death rather than facing dishonor.  He looked over at Jussac, who smiled benevolently at him, showing long yellow teeth.

He pushed himself into the musketeers’ circle, shoving his sweaty face between Aramis’s and Porthos’s shoulders.  “You are wrong,” he said.  “When you say there are only three of you.  I count four of us.”

They looked back at him, and for a moment it looked as though Porthos were on the verge of asking who the fourth one might be.  But, before he could, Athos smiled.  “You’re a child,” he said.  “And someday you’ll be a man I’d be proud to call a friend.  But right now you’re a boy.  And this is suicide.  Our chosen death.  Save yourself.”

“No,” D’Artagnan said, his certainty growing with the rebuff.  “No.  I’ll stay and fight by your side.”

“But, you’re not a musketeer,” Aramis said.  “Why would you want to die with us?”

“Though I don’t wear a musketeer uniform,” D’Artagnan said.  “In my heart I am a musketeer.  And though I might only be able to give you very little help, if I leave and save my life, I’ll never be able to live with myself.”

For a moment Aramis stared at him, Porthos frowned at him, and Athos furrowed his brow as if in deep thought.

And then Athos smiled.  “You’re right,” he said.  “There are indeed four of us.  Athos, Porthos, Aramis and–your name, my friend?”

“D’Artagnan,” D’Artagnan answered, as his heart hammered faster and faster in his chest, and once more he was sure he was going to die.

This time he knew he was going to die at the end of the guards’ swords.  But he would die next to musketeers.  He would die almost a musketeer.  His father would be proud.

“Well, then, Athos, Porthos, Aramis and D’Artagnan.  One for all and all for one.  If death is to come for us, let us not keep her waiting.  Let us go out and meet her halfway, like gallants, and receive her kiss proudly.”

“We grow impatient,” Jussac thundered, outside their circle.  “Will you save yourself or not, boy?  Because if not, we’re coming to get you.”

The circle broke apart as though they had rehearsed, and the four of them faced the five guards.

“We’ve made a decision,” Athos said, his voice steady and calm.

“Oh,” Jussac said.  “I hope it’s a sensible decision.”

“Very,” Athos said, and removed his hat, and bowed with a deep flourish.  “We’re going to have the pleasure of charging you.”

Before the guard could snap shut the mouth that he’d let drop open in his astonishment, Athos’s hat was back on his head, and Porthos and Aramis had unsheathed their swords.

“One for all and all for one,” they shouted, as they fell on the guards.

By the rational odds of combat and war, they should have lost.  There were but four of them, one of whom was severely wounded, and the other little more than a child.

D’Artagnan’s only experience of dueling had been his mock duels with his father, in the field behind their house, in the calm Gascon countryside.

If that duel had been decided on body count, or on experience, or even on the relative size of the opponents, surely the guards of the Cardinal would have won.

But wars and duels are fought with the mind, the heart, and that other thing – that thing that is neither loyalty nor camaraderie, but which has hints of both.

That thing allowed D’Artagnan to know and come to the rescue when Athos’s breathing grew too labored.  That thing allowed him to go away when Athos had recovered enough to resume his own battle.

And duels are also fought with pride and fear.  The three musketeers were too proud to surrender, too fearful of Monsieur de Treville’s wrath to allow themselves to be arrested.  They fought like fury unleashed.

Porthos fought and defeated two enemies at once.

And so, fifteen minutes later, the only one left standing of the small army of Cardinal Guards was de Brissac – like D’Artagnan, a Gascon, and like D’Artagnan, ill-suited to surrender.  Surrounded by all the musketeers, he broke his own sword upon his knee to avoid losing it.

But then he gave up.  He helped the musketeers and D’Artagnan take the wounded and dead to the convent’s door.  And stayed behind with them, while the musketeers and D’Artagnan rang the bell and walked away.

Years later, D’Artagnan would try to recall the rest of the afternoon.  All he would remember was Athos’s promising that he would show D’Artagnan the best taverns in Paris.

And then they’d gone to the Louis, where there were ten musketeers and where, when Porthos had told their story, people had rushed to buy them strong, sweet, fiery liquor.  From there, they’d walked a block to The Maiden’s Head, where the seven musketeers present had listened to their story with awe.  And then to The Head and Bucket, where, at the telling of their tale, musketeers and sympathizers had bought them a sparkling white wine.

D’Artagnan remembered there had been a pause between The Grinning Corpse and The Coup de Grace, while he leaned against a wall in an alley and lost most of the wine he’d drunk in the preceding hours.

But then they’d taken him to the Drinking Fish for a few mugs of house special, and from there to The Drunken Lord for something that tasted like liquid fire.

Night had fallen when D’Artagnan found himself stumbling along the back alleys and narrow staircases of the working-class neighborhoods of Paris, one arm thrown over Aramis’s shoulder, Porthos’s huge hand on his other shoulder, singing softly a song about the queen, the king and the musketeers that would surely be treason if they weren’t all drunk and all so loyal that they’d just risked their lives to ensure the king’s own musketeers suffered no defeat.

“We should take the boy home first,” Athos said.  He had to be drunk.  He’d drunk more of all the various liquors than all of them combined.  He had to be dead drunk.  But he walked steadily and his voice sounded, if anything, a little slower and calmer and more controlled.

Porthos giggled.  “‘s right,” he said.  “It is past the time schoolboys should be asleep.”

“Where do you live, D’Artagnan?” Aramis asked.

“Rue des Fossoyers,” D’Artagnan said, glad he’d rented lodgings before going in search of his fate outside the Barefoot Carmelites.  Looking back it had been presumptuous to think he’d survive three duels.  But, at least, he’d have a place to sleep tonight.

“Good,” Athos said.  “That’s just around–”

He turned, as if to get his bearings, and as he turned, and they with him, they all saw a figure in the uniform of a musketeer cross the alley right in front of them.

“Oh, I say, wait,” Athos said.  “Wait, friend.  King’s Musketeer, hold.  Have you heard that we defeated Jussac outside the Barefoot–”

The musketeer jumped, as if touched with hot iron, and took off running, the sound of his steps echoing and reverberating through the maze of narrow streets.

The musketeers stopped and frowned at the space where the unknown musketeer had been.

“That’s abominably rude,” Aramis said.

“Musketeer or no, someone should teach him some manners,” Porthos said.

“He should buy us a drink to make up for it,” Athos said.  “After all, there must be a place still open.”

As one man, they ran, pursuing the fugitive.  D’Artagnan followed the sound of their steps.

They ran down so many blind alleys, careened precipitously down so many worn staircases, that D’Artagnan was sure they’d never find the runaway musketeer.  He’d be lucky if he didn’t get separated from his friends.

But at last, they all surged into an alley.  And there, on the ground, the musketeer lay.

The three musketeers had been calling and jeering and laughing, but now all their noises stopped.

It was suddenly very quiet, in that alley.  Far away, an owl hooted, chasing prey in some attic.   D’Artagnan drew a deep breath that sounded too loud in the silence.

“It can’t be,” Aramis said, under his breath.

But though D’Artagnan had never seen a dead body, he knew the musketeer lying on the muddy, smelly ground of the alley was dead.

If asked, he could have given no more justification than a certain angle of the arm protruding from under the body and the stillness, the eerie stillness of whole body.

“He’s dead,” he said.

Aramis crossed himself and Athos stepped forward, towards the corpse.

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Knights in Tarnished Armor – snippet three

This will be the last snippet of KITA before it is published Sunday.  However, to tease, er entice, you a bit more, I’m including two letters instead of the usual one.  Enjoy!

3.   Letter from Sir Jeremy Truhart to Sir Roland Faythful

Roly,

Have you heard the news? That old stick Amesbury wants us to reform. I heard him telling the old man he thinks we younger knights are so busy poking the maidens our lances are wilting. As if!

We have to stop this, Roly. Just imagine being forced into chastity! A fellow needs to know what to do with his lance before he rescues the princess, if you ask me. I hear they much prefer a little experience, know what I mean?

Can you and the other fellows meet me at the usual tomorrow night, immediately after curfew? We simply must stop the olds from forcing us into celibacy. Every ex-maiden in the city would thank us, know what I mean?

Jimmy.

***

4.  Letter from Lady Alicia Whenchforth to Lady Margaret Basoomy.

Maggy!!!

Have you heard??? They want to stop our fun!!!

Dear Roly just told me Jimmy said old Sir Richard thinks we are too immoral and we should stay chaste until our Daddies find us a good husband!!! I’ve been chaste enough, if you ask me! Chaste five times, and caught three! (Roly is the best, though, don’t you think? But don’t tell Jimmy I said that).

It’s all some rot about the hero business dying. I mean, really! Who cares about some moldy old too-good-to-be-true hero? I want a real man, someone who can do more with his lance than just poke it at me!

Anyway, we have to stop it. Daddy would send me to a convent if he knew I was using Madame’s Babynot. I’d die!!!! As if it matters, whether we do “it” or not. We are still maidens anyway, right Maggy?

Lissie

Maidens After Besmirching

***

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Knights in Tarnished Armor – Snippet 2

2.   Letter to Sir Anthony Grimston, from Sir Richard Amesbury

Dear Anthony,

It grieves me to say this, but things are no better on this side of the heroic fence. I have twenty strapping young Knights in Slightly Less Than Shining Armor, and every last one seems to be so busy despoiling the kingdom’s maidens he has a hard time keeping his lance straight, if you take my meaning.

I would offer to send you one for your dragon, but I fear none of them are virgin either. I fear a Fate Worse Than Death is entirely too pleasurable for our kingdom’s former maidens.

With regret,

Richard.

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