Friday, May 18, 2018

Chapter 2 of the new Thea & Max adventure!


Chapter 2: Potential Supervillain Plot
“Ah, the glorious life of a spy.” D’s voice, this time on the other end of a phone rather than an earbud, was as dryly amused as always.  Sometimes, Max wondered if she’d picked up the British accent at some point just to add to the effect. “Lurking outside the Columbus airport, defending your territory from the real shuttle service drivers.”
“You’re just jealous because you’ve had to spend the last three days in a luxury Saudi Arabian hotel doing nothing but relaxing and listening to audio recordings,” Max said lightly, holding up a sign with Thea’s cover I.D. written on it. “You know where I am, there’s at least a 15 percent chance I’ll get to punch somebody before this is all over.”
Maybe more, if the feeling in his gut was to be believed. When he first got Dave’s call, he assumed he’d be taking a few days to soothe an eccentric old man’s paranoia. With every minute he was actually out here, though, his sense that there was something seriously wrong kept climbing.
“You know I can be out there the second you need me.” The sudden seriousness in D’s voice made it clear she read his silence as well as she ever did. “Any idiot could handle my current assignment. All it will do is take one phone call to Rhys.”
Max smiled a little, genuinely touched by the offer. “Thank you, seriously. But like I said, I’ll be fine. This is probably nothing.”
“So ‘nothing’ that you flew out to Chicago simply to go ask your programmer for help?” D asked, using the tone that pointed out how full of shit he was without actually saying the words. “When we both know you wanted to wait until you found something exciting for her first spy mission?”
“I still am,” he countered, carefully sidestepping the real question. “This isn’t her first spy mission. This is just a favor for whatever it is she sees me as.”
A part of him, even now, kept expecting her to call and say she wasn’t coming. It would be wildly out of character for Thea not to hold up her end of an agreement, but asking someone to drop everything and fly out to Ohio on a hunch definitely counted as extraordinary circumstances. It was entirely reasonable that common sense would suddenly hit her and make her realize she never should have said yes in the first place.
“A favor, hmmm?” D’s tone was gentler now. “What did you do to get her to say yes to that?”
“I’ll have to get her to Rome at some point,” Max said lightly, even though he knew Thea had thrown that in as an afterthought. Hopefully, she actually wanted to go to Rome, because he was absolutely planning to follow through.
“That will be such a hardship for you, I’m sure.” The tone was teasing, but when she sighed it sounded completely serious again. “Keep me updated, would you? If you’re foolish enough to get yourself seriously injured because you didn’t have the good sense to call me, I’m going to be extremely annoyed with you.”
Max smiled again as he hung up the phone, sliding it back into his pocket as he scanned the crowds coming through the doors. The uniform hat was pulled low enough to keep his face off of any cameras, but he’d arrived early enough that a few of the other drivers were giving him pointed glares for his prime real estate. It was too late to go back in time and make himself wait, but in a few minutes he’d have to circle the block just to—
The thought cut off when he saw Thea hurrying through the doors, wearing a professional-looking pantsuit and dark curls pulled back in a sensible ponytail. She was carrying her small suitcase rather than wheeling it behind her, and had the faintly harried look everyone got after having to deal with an airport.
Right then, she was the best thing he’d ever seen.
He stepped forward, lifting a hand, and he could tell when she caught sight of him by the relief on her face. His own chest felt suspiciously tight, full of things he knew it was best not to look at too closely, but he kept the conversation to the usual shuttle service spiel while he loaded her luggage in the back and opened her door for her.
When he got inside, safely shutting the door, he gave her a real grin. “Your Taser’s in the glove compartment, if you’re curious. Fully charged.”
She got it out as he pulled back into traffic, giving it an approving once-over before slipping it into her purse. “I assume this professor of yours knows I’m coming?”
Max nodded, sobering at the reminder. “I told Dave I was bringing in a computer expert from the security firm I work for, and he spent 20 minutes apologizing for the fuss he'd been making and explaining that there was really no need to go to all the trouble.” He knew this was more information than she’d technically asked for, but it was a relief to finally be able to put some of his worry into words. “Which would be fine, except he spent an hour this morning explaining how I needed to be careful, because the 'Agro mafia ' had probably already infiltrated town so they can steal his breakthrough.”
Thea winced. “Okay, that does sound suspicious.”
“Tell me about it.” He let out a breath, navigating his way through airport roads and out onto the main highway. “I'm really afraid he's gotten himself in trouble, somehow, but I can't figure out how a professor in the middle of Nowhere, Ohio who's obsessed with grain crops would manage to do that.”
“I hate to say it, but it usually has something to do with money.” She hesitated. “I can... poke around a little. If you'd like.”
He’d hoped she would be willing to take a look at Dave’s files, but the way she phrased that sparked his interest. “Are we talking Nancy Drew here, or Miss ‘How dare you accuse me of being a hacker?’”
Thea narrowed her eyes at him. "First, you thought I'd hacked my own code to work with terrorists, which isn't the same thing at all. Second, it’s…” She let her voice trail off, suddenly looking more hesitant than he’d ever seen her be. “Just because I don't do something doesn't mean I can’t.”
There was a story here, but one he had to be careful in getting. “There’s not even a hint of that in your files,” he said lightly. “And I have some pretty extensive files.”
He glanced over to see a flicker of pride cross her face. It was a much better look for her than the hesitation had been. “It only ends up in your files if you get caught.” She even smiled a little. “I know this is a strange and foreign territory to you, but when you’re not prone to showboating it’s much easier not to get noticed.”
He grinned. “What is this strange and foreign thing of which you speak?”
Her smile widened briefly before she sobered again. “I would prefer no one else know, if that’s at all possible. I know Rhys should probably know, in case he needs me to do something specific, but….”
As the words trailed off, Max shook his head. “He won’t hear about it from me. Though honestly, you should feel free to tell him yourself – scuttlebutt says that his best friend was a hacker, back in the day.”
“I don’t know,” she said finally, in the tone of voice that actually meant “no.” “It’s just… I think you might be the first person I’ve ever told.”
The words humbled him. “Whatever you’re comfortable with.”
“Thank you.” She relaxed, settling back against the seat. “Still, the offer’s open if you need it.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.” His fingers tightened on the steering wheel. “Dave calls me Rick, by the way.” He kept his eyes on the road for this part. “Rick Martinez. I completely made up the first part, but the last part is my mother’s maiden name.” He let out a breath. “My real first name is Joshua.”
He could feel how carefully she was watching him, which meant she had to have noticed how tense he’d suddenly gotten. “You didn’t have to tell me that,” she said quietly.
“Seemed like we were having a moment.” His voice wasn’t nearly as light as he’d meant it to be, trying not to think about whether a hacker as good as he was sure she was could use what he’d given her to find out about his past. “Didn’t want to miss out on my turn.”
She didn’t respond to that, and Max braced himself for questions. When she finally did speak, however, her voice was light. “If you don’t mind, I think I’ll keep calling you Max when we’re not on assignment.” When he glanced over at her, she smiled at him. “I like it better than Joshua.”
He grinned back at her, trying to ignore the lump in his throat. “So do I.”
#
The campus of Lochland Agricultural University was quieter than most of the colleges Max had visited, which meant they weren’t bothered as they wove their way to Dave’s building. Max had made himself a parking pass along with all the necessary I.D.s, so he pulled into one of the faculty and staff spaces. “So, ready to meet Professor David Hoskins, a man who may or may not have gotten funding from some sort of shady organization to make his super-bacteria?”
She gave him a wry look. “I feel like I’m going to need more than that, if I’m expected to have a conversation with the man. I brushed up on some of the basic scientific principles last night, but I couldn’t find any information on Professor Hoskins.”
“Yeah, Dave gets fired a little too often to make much of an impression online.” At Thea’s sudden worried look, he held up a hand. “Not because he does anything bad. He’s just… not great with people, which means that he constantly trips over departmental politics and has no idea how to suck up to either his supervisors or potential donors.”
Thea’s look had softened to curiosity by this point. “But you two are still close?”
Max rocked his hand back and forth. “Sort of. He needed help interacting with humans, and I was the only TA he had to didn’t snap and try to kill him after a few weeks.”
Her curious look sharpened, like she was about to ask something about whether he had any actual friends in college, and before she could he got out of the car and opened her door. “Don’t worry – if he tries to interrogate you too much, I’ll deflect.”
Thea gave him an amused look. “That should be interesting to watch.”
He watched Thea study everything as they made their way inside, more pleased than he probably should have been to see her eyes linger on several different weak spots in the building’s security. She didn’t catch all of them – the lab of a small university, it turned out, was basically a defensive nightmare – but she had a fantastic eye for a civilian.
When they got to the lab, however, there were other things that demanded Max’s attention. What appeared to be some sort of roofless tent made of autoclave bags had been constructed over one side of the lab bench, sheltering it entirely from view. Some of the DNA equipment had been moved over to the opposite side of the bench, where the grad students were valiantly trying to construct a new decontamination shield.
Already feeling the headache coming on, he looked over at the PhD student at one of the computers. Grace didn’t seem to get ruffled by anything, which generally made her the most reliable source of information. “That wasn’t here this morning.”
“He built it while you were gone.” She kept her eyes focused on the screen, rapidly inputting numbers. “Which means we’re at least a day behind on our Wheat Rust research, and even though Dr. Hoskins doesn’t give a damn about it there are some of us who still do.”
If even Grace was about ready to kill him, then things were really bad. “I’ll get him,” he sighed, shooting Thea an apologetic look. “Sorry. I may have undersold his inability to handle other humans.”
She held up a hand. “No need to apologize. I have an aunt like this.”
Ducking his head under the tent flap – where had Dave found these metal poles so quickly – he poked a finger in the middle of the lab-coated back bent over a microscope. “Dave, time to come out and play with the other members of society. Your students are prepared to overthrow you if you don’t.”
“What are they complaining about? I gave them the equipment they needed.” Still, Dave lifted his head to look back over his shoulder at Max. His face was narrow in a way that meant he rarely remembered to eat, his beard in desperate need of a trim. He’d looked that way when Max was in college, too. “Tell them I’m busy.”
“Not a chance.” Max slipped all the way inside, letting the flap close behind him. “I need you out here to explain your magic bacteria to that computer security specialist I was telling you about.”
Dave made a dismissive noise, bending back down to the microscope. “You explain it. This Ms. Thurgood needs to know whether someone is hacking the lab’s computers, not the inner workings of my bacteria or the retrovirus it carries.”
Technically, that was true. But he needed Thea to hear the scientific version of it, so he could see if it made perfect sense to her or if she caught the whiff of “potential supervillain plot” like he did. “You know me and science, Dave. I’ll get three lines in and completely bungle the whole thing.”
That got him to turn around again, if only to shoot Max a disgruntled look. “We both know that you understand science perfectly well. You simply don’t like it.”  His eyes narrowed. “It doesn’t like you, either, I’m sure. You certainly broke the hearts of enough promising young scientists who came sniffing after you while you were in undergrad.”
Taking advantage of the sudden resurgence of the old argument, he gently nudged Dave away from the microscope. “I keep telling you, it’s not my fault Paul became a priest.”
Dave hrumphed, too focused on proving Max wrong to protest being moved. “He could have been a brilliant researcher. There was no reason for him to give that up.”
“He said he felt a calling.” Max lifted up the flap with his free hand, nudging him through. “Just like you did with science.”
“That’s ridiculous. He was perfectly happy—“ Dave stopped, narrowing his eyes as he finally processed that he was now on the opposite side of the tent. He turned to glare at Max. “I forget how tricky you are.”
“Many people do.”  He gestured to Thea, who was busy helping the student scientists try to re-assemble their work space. “Dave, this is Elise Thurgood, Sterling Enterprise’s resident computer genius. Elise, this is Professor David Hoskins, one of the most annoying geniuses I’ve ever met.”
Thea stopped what she was doing, holding out a hand. “Pleased to meet you, professor. Rick has been telling me a great deal about your work.”
Dave shot Max a disgruntled look “I’ll bet he has.” He gestured toward a door on the opposite side of the lab. “Come on, then.”
As he disappeared through the door, Thea shot him a questioning look. Max gestured her onward, turning back to the students. “You have this dismantled by the time we get back,” he told them, voice low. “I’ll buy you all pizza.”
Grace considered this a moment, then nodded. “Done.”
They started swarming Dave’s stolen workspace as Max followed Thea out the door. He already knew the pathway to the lab’s greenhouse, having been led there the first day, and slipped into position next to Thea just as Dave stopped in front of the right environmental chamber. “My greatest work,” the older man said proudly, gesturing to the wheat plants visible through the sides of the chamber. “All five of them started out as different variants of wheat, but now all five are genetically identical – the perfect, healthy, ideal plant.”
Thea’s eyebrows flickered upward briefly. “Rick mentioned that you’d developed a bacteria?”
Dave’s eyes lit. “A retrovirus inside a bacteria.” He laid a hand against the side of the environmental chamber, looking at the plants the same way other people looked at puppies or kittens. “I refined the virus so that, rather than inserting its own reverse-transcribed RNA, it inserts the RNA I choose to have the virus carry. The retrovirus sees the insertion as programming, and will place itself in the correct location to disrupt any conflicting genes. The bacteria is infinitely more controllable as a biological gene vector than the pure virus, which means we should be able to contain the changes to a specific field.” He turned back to Thea, practically glowing. “Think of what could be accomplished.”
Thea’s eyebrows took considerably longer to come down this time. “You could destroy a farmer’s entire crop, along with any future seeds.”
Dave scoffed. “That’s easy – there are so many crop diseases we can do that now. Sabotage is easy.” He turned back to his plants. “No, my virus will save crops all over the world. When the blight comes, no matter what form it takes, all scientists will have to do is prime the virus with the healthy version of the DNA and set it loose in the infected plants. Within days, their entire crop is healthy and whole again.”
Thea’s eyes flicked over to Max. “And you tested this? You have the data all ready to present for peer review?”
Dave immediately bristled, turning back to glare at her. “This research is being privately funded,” he snapped, and Max mentally circled the comment in bright red marker. “I’ve got a meeting scheduled for next week, but I’ve kept him up to date on my progress. He’ll see all the documentation I have then.”
“Will I get to meet this mysterious benefactor?” Max asked lightly. “Guys rich enough to privately fund research are generally good for a freelance bodyguarding gig or two.”
“He has his own people,” Dave said shortly, once again calling attention to himself by avoiding the person’s name. He turned away from them. “Besides, I think he’s out of town at the moment.”
As excuses went, it was only a step or two up from “He just stepped into the shower. Can he call you back?” If he pushed any more, though, Dave would only get more stubborn and secretive.
Thea, kindly, stepped in to fill the gap. “That sounds fascinating, Professor. I assume all your data is on the lab computers?”
“Yes, yes.” Dave nodded distractedly, staring at the wheat through the wall of the environmental chamber. “I don’t expect you to understand it, but all the information is there.”
“If I did have a question about some of your research, could I ask you?” she asked, faking just the right touch of diffidence. “I wouldn’t interrupt your work, but this seems like a fascinating area of study.”
Dave hesitated, then turned to give her a far more penetrating look than the question warranted. Then, finally, he turned back to the chamber. “Maybe.” He gave the wall a gentle pat. His expression already seemed far away again. “Depends on how busy I am.” 
Now that he wasn’t looking at her, Thea’s own expression turned far more analytical. “If you’re busy, I can ask one of your students.”
Dave made a dismissive noise. “They’re busy with their own project. Curing all three types of wheat rust.” He looked solemn again. “This one is mine. Only mine.”
Then he turned, heading back towards the exit. “You know the way out.”
When he was gone, Thea let out a breath. “Well, that was weirdly uncomfortable,” she said after a moment, voice pitched low enough that the one or two other people in the greenhouse couldn’t hear them. “Do you want me to take a look at who’s—”
“Yes, please.” He gestured toward the exit, careful to pace himself so they were walking exactly together. “I’ll go clone his phone and walk my way through his contacts the last few months, see if there’s anyone who sets off alarms.” There were a lot of databases full of people who had connections to various shady enterprises, and Max had access to all of them. Dave probably wasn’t working with a drug runner or anything, but there were plenty of ways you could dip a toe into the criminal pool.
Whatever Dave had done, Max was going to get him out of it.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Sneak peek at the new Thea & Max adventure!

I actually started this last August, but then I fell down an editing/rewriting black hole on a couple of different manuscripts and have only just now emerged. Below is the first chapter of my upcoming Thea & Max e-book, which is now tentatively titled "Dirty Deeds Done for Reasonable Prices." When it's finished (it's shaping up to be longer than "How to Win Over Your Arch Nemesis," but I'm not sure by how much yet), it'll also be available as a 99 cent e-book on all the same platforms.


Chapter 1: Never Give Them Ammunition

There was a bullet hole in the breakroom.

Technically, there were two bullet holes – the one traveling upward through the top part of the thin wall that divided the breakroom from the rest of the office, and another in the ceiling tile above it. Thea knew she could get maintenance to patch them up, since they’d already done the same thing to most of the bullet holes scattered around the office. But no one else seemed to mind its existence, and she liked looking at it while she drank her coffee.

Some people had photos on their phones. She had a bullet hole in the breakroom.

Well, not only a bullet hole. Thea lightly touched the phone tucked into her left pocket, reminding herself it was perfectly normal that Max hadn’t called her in a few days. He was a spy, for pity’s sake, and was probably too busy chasing down some international arms dealer to remember to let her know he was safe. If fiction was to be believed, spies didn’t get a lot of practice at having non-spy people in their lives. There was—

“Is your boyfriend okay?”

Thea jerked her head up at the quiet question. Seeing the surprised look on her boss’s face, Sara Chou stopped pouring her own cup of coffee and lightly touched her own left pocket. “That’s his phone, right? From your conversations, he sounds like he travels a lot for work. It makes sense that you got a separate carrier with a better international plan.” She stopped, wincing. “Or she travels. We shouldn’t assume.”

Thea was still frozen, appalled at herself for being that obvious. Sara smiled a little. “Your face always goes so soft when you talk to whoever it is,” she said gently. “And your work phone is always in your right pocket, but we decided you keep the phone you two use on the other side so you can get to it a second faster.”

Thea was briefly, fiercely tempted to throw professionalism out the window and actually flee the room. “He’s not—” She stopped, forcing her voice to sound completely casual and normal. Thankfully, her dark brown skin made it so she didn’t have to worry about her cheeks betraying her. “He’s not my boyfriend. We’re just…” She tripped briefly over what to call someone you’d initially antagonized, helped take down a small part of a terrorist organization, and now had an extremely odd phone relationship with that you were maybe a little too invested in continuing. “…friends.”

“Oh.” Sara went wide-eyed with surprise. “But… we all thought….”

Thea tightened her hands around her coffee cup, trying not to think about just how many of her employees were included in that ‘we.’ “We worked together on a project, once,” she explained more calmly, hoping Sara wouldn’t connect ‘project’ back to ‘that time armed gunmen shot up the office last year.’ She’d been careful never to use Max’s name during the calls, even though that wasn’t his real one, on the off chance someone could connect them. Besides, everyone knew that spies didn’t keep in contact with people afterwards.  “His job means he travels a lot, but we try to keep in touch. That’s all it is.”

Alarmingly, Sara’s expression softened again. “But that means you still could—”

Before she could finish the sentence, Thea heard someone call out from the elevators in the thickest Great Lakes accent she’d ever heard. “Delivery for a Ms. Spencer!”

Sara, thankfully distracted, lowered her brow. “Aren’t deliveries supposed to be left downstairs with Pete?”

Yes, they were. Setting down her coffee cup, Thea carefully moved to the edge of the breakroom entrance and peered around the wall. A big, heavyset man with a beard in what looked like a florist’s delivery outfit was carrying a vase filled with two-dozen red roses. He wasn’t wearing a jacket, which made it less likely he was carrying a gun or bomb of some kind, but as there were exactly zero people in her life who would send her—

Thea stopped, closing her eyes with a sigh. Correction – there was one person.

Next to her, Sara peered around the corner as well. “I don’t think he’s going to shoot anybody,” she said finally, patting Thea on the shoulder. “Your not-boyfriend probably just wanted to surprise you.”
Or send some kind of covert message in the most dramatic way possible. Still wishing she had her Taser on her, just in case, Thea squared her shoulders and headed over to the delivery person. “I’m Ms. Spencer,” she said, trying her best to ignore the eyes of all her employees following her across the shared office space. The gossip about her wasn’t going to quiet down any time soon. “I’ll take that.”

The delivery guy handed her the vase, then pulled out a clipboard he was holding and flipped through it. “You have to sign for it,” he said, his accent stretching the words in a familiar way. “Make sure the client knows it went to the right person.”

Thea nodded, searching through the roses. There wasn’t any card, surprisingly, or a flash drive or anything else Max might use to communicate with her. Maybe it was on the order form she had to sign….

Handing the flowers to Sara, who’d followed her over, Thea took the clipboard and scanned what looked like a perfectly normal order form. “Are you sure there was no card?” she asked, signing the form on the marked line.

“Yeah,” the delivery person said. “Guy said he wanted it to be a surprise.”

Something about the sentence, delivered just as casually as everything else he’d said so far, made Thea look up at him. His eyes were blue, rather than brown like Max’s, and his hair was dark brown rather than black. It had been a ridiculous thought to begin with – even if Max did need to contact her by something other than the special phone he’d set up, there were a dozen different, easier ways he could—

Then she realized that the delivery person had gone still, like he was letting her examine him, and Thea was suddenly certain she was right.

Trying to pretend the emotion swelling in her chest was frustration instead of relief, she handed him back the clipboard. “Let me follow you out,” she said, looking him in the eye. “Maybe have a talk with Pete about letting delivery guys upstairs without at least calling upstairs and giving me a heads up.”

The man grinned, suddenly looking so familiar despite the fake beard and facial prosthetics that a part of her was amazed no one else recognized him. They’d all met Max, the same way she had. “Might be a good idea,” he said, the accent thick as ever. “Easy to get lost in big, tall buildings like this.”

She scowled at his retreating back she followed him into the elevator, watching him push the button for the main floor as if he really was just a delivery man. Then, almost immediately, he pulled a lock pick out of his pocket and stuck it in the keyhole the fire department was supposed to use. A few quick flicks, and the elevator stopped neatly halfway between two floors.

“We won’t have to worry about the fire department, since we didn’t bother with the button, but I’d say we have about 15 minutes before someone gets annoyed enough to call maintenance,” Max said in his regular voice. “Of course, we’ll have at least 10 more minutes after that before they figure out what I did.”

“I’m more interested in what you did before you got here,” she said exasperatedly. “Tell me you didn’t hijack someone else’s flower delivery. And roses? Really? They already think I have a secret boyfriend I’m hiding from them.”

“Seriously?” Max said delightedly. When she scowled at him, he held his hands up in a ‘don’t shoot’ gesture. “I swear that wasn’t my intention, though. There’s just only so many bouquets you can justify taking all the way up to a person’s floor. And I’m offended you thought I’d steal some poor person’s flowers, no matter how unimaginative they are. These were the only thing the shop had in stock that I could reasonably pass off as coming from a secret admirer.”

“Oh, because that causes so much less gossip than a secret boyfriend.” Still, she couldn’t stop her voice from softening, unfortunate proof that she must sound as embarrassing on the phone with him as Sara claimed. Clearly, she’d have to figure out a way to stop that or start taking his calls privately. “Why go to all the trouble? There’s a reason your boss gave me a phone you can safely call me on.”

 “Oh, it was no trouble,” he said easily, patting the padding he was wearing to give him the false stomach. “Besides, this way I made sure I got to see you even if you say no.”

“You need help with a case?” she asked, ignoring the way her chest warmed at the thought of him wanting to see her. “Because Rhys said I might get called in, but since you guys have your own tech department I assumed that was out of politeness more than anything.”

And if she’d maybe had a fantasy or two about going on an adventure with him someplace, she was smart enough to know that’s all it was. Besides, adventures with spies meant you got shot at, and her one previous experience with real-life bullets made it clear she didn’t possess the adrenaline addiction required to enjoy a life in espionage.

He hesitated. “It’s… not exactly a case,” he admitted, perking up as he immediately rolled into the sales pitch. “Technically, I’m on vacation right now, but I already talked to Rhys and he said he would absolutely pay you for your time. And it’s more like a favor than a case, which means I’ll owe you one and you can get as creative as you want with the payback.”

Thea went still, listening to his voice since she couldn’t see the subtle shifts in his face. “You really do need help,” she said quietly, chest tightening at the thought that he’d come to her with this. “Can you not ask anyone at the Company because it’s not an approved assignment?”

That was the name of the independent spy agency Max worked for, the sort of thing Thea had assumed was entirely fictional before meeting him. As it turned out, though, spies also watched television shows about spies. Occasionally, they got ideas.

Max sighed. “I can’t… I don’t want to bring in any of the Company techs. It might turn out to be nothing, and then how ridiculous would I feel?” His voice brightened suspiciously, dangerously close to his fake bravado. “You’ve already seen me at my most ridiculous. There’s no mystery left.”

As far as explanations went, it brought up more questions than it did answers. You only had to know Max a few minutes to know that he didn’t care about looking ridiculous, and he never hesitated when it came to trusting his hunches.

And, truthfully, it was a terrible time for her to leave the office. The deadline on the apps all three of her teams were working on had been moved up, and one of the clients had suddenly had a “vision” halfway through the process and wanted an almost total re-design. The sensible decision would be to tell him she was sorry, but unless it was something she could do from here she wouldn’t be able to help.

Instead, she moved a little closer. “Tell me some more about this ‘not exactly a case.’”

It might have been just her imagination, but it looked like he relaxed a little. “An old professor of mine now works at this little agricultural university in Lochland, Ohio, and he just developed some strain of bacteria he swears will ‘revolutionize’ farming.” He actually made the air quotes as he said the word. “He called me a few days ago panicked that some big agro company would try to steal it, so I sweet-talked Rhys into letting me go out for a little while and see if he’s really at risk. I talked to him, got the lay of the land, and…” He hesitated. “Maybe it’s nothing.”

Which meant there was something making him uneasy about the whole thing, but he couldn’t quite put his finger on it. A part of her was flattered that he seemed to think she might have better luck with that, but most of her was focused on a much more significant thought. This was personal for Max, a man so protective of his past that he wouldn’t even tell anyone his real name.

And he’d come to her for help.

Before she could say anything, though, Max abruptly pulled the lockpick back out of his pocket. “You know what? It probably is nothing.” The fake bravado was back, even stronger than before, as he moved toward the fire department key. “So we’ll just say I came by to bring you wildly uninteresting flowers and add to the myth of your secret boyfriend, which for the record is definitely something I’m not going to be able to just ignore. I’ll keep looking for a real spy assignment I can get you involved in, someplace in a city actually worth visiting, and we’ll just—”

“Max.” Thea finally cut him off, an edge of exasperation to her voice that was already becoming dangerously fond. “I may not know much about spycraft, but I’m certain it’s a bad idea to sabotage your sales pitch as thoroughly as you’re trying to do right now.”

Slowly, Max stopped looking like he was trying to flee the elevator. “I try not to do spycraft with you,” he admitted, then stopped and gestured to the disguise he was wearing. “Well, I do things like this, of course.” His voice was easier now, though she wasn’t sure if it was because he was sure she would say yes or because he was simply relieved to talk about literally anything else. “I have to keep you on your toes.”

He was an absurd human being. “What were you going to do if I didn’t realize it was you?” she said, not bothering to hide the amusement in her voice. “Did you have a series of clues planned, more and more obvious as I kept missing them?”

“If it took you too long, I was fully prepared to suddenly announce a singing telegram and start in on ‘Secret Agent Man,’” he said with a grin. “But you barely needed any clue at all. Most people wouldn’t even have noticed that I emphasized one word a little bit more than the others.”

So that was what she’d noticed. “And you put all of that on yourself?”

“You like it?” He gave her the full 360 spin. “We’ve got people back at HQ who can help newer agents or the really high-stakes cases, but I like doing my own. I have a bunch of makeup and prosthetics tucked away in various hidey-holes.”

“You’re not planning on dressing me up like that, are you?” she asked lightly. “Because I can handle a wig if I absolutely have to, but colored contacts aren’t going to work out well with the real ones I’m wearing.”

He went utterly still. “You’ll come with me?”

The hope in his voice made her chest tighten. “As soon as I figure out an excuse I can give my bosses.”

“Oh, I’ve already taken care of that.” Unbuttoning the delivery shirt, he reached underneath the stomach padding to pull out a file and hand it to her. “Once I press a button, your immediate supervisor will discover a backdated e-mail from a wealthy philanthropist they’ve vaguely heard of in his inbox begging for your help, as well as a thank you for him agreeing to lend your services. All you have to do is send him an e-mail as if you and he had discussed the matter last week, and that should take care of the problem.”

Thea opened the folder, finding a brief dossier about the wealthy philanthropist along with a first class plane ticket from Chicago to Columbus under her own name. In addition, there was identification for a woman named Elise Thurgood, a computer security expert at Sterling Enterprises. Since it was her picture on the I.D., Thea assumed this was the woman she’d become once they were on the ground at Lochland.

She raised an eyebrow at him. “You had all this ready,” she asked, holding up the folder, “and you were still going to walk away without giving me the chance to say yes?”

“Like I said, you’ve already seen me at my most ridiculous.” He leaned down, pressing a quick kiss against her cheek. “I wish I could stay long enough to take the flight with you, but it’s best for your long-term health if you’re not seen on too many airport security cameras with me. Feel bad for me – I’m going to be stuck with an overpriced airport dinner instead of letting you teach me the wonders of Chicago deep dish.”

Despite the scratch of the fake beard, the place where his lips had pressed still tingled. Thea flatly refused to give into cliché enough to reach up and touch the affected skin. “I’m sure they have good food in Lochland. It’s a college town.”

“That’s true.” He brightened. “I’ll make you help me try some of them out, in between worrying about possibly fictional agro company thugs.” He jiggled the fire department key again, re-starting the elevator and sending it downward rapidly. Given the annoyed bang she could hear on one floor, she guessed he’d activated some sort of re-set function. “Don’t worry about a taxi or anything like that. I’ll pick you up just outside the airport.” He paused. “I assume you’ll just be bringing a carryon?”

She shook her head. “You have to check Tasers.”

He grinned. “Valid point. But if you want, I can have one waiting for you so you don’t have to worry about bringing yours.”

She felt her lips curve upward again. There was no reason whatsoever that she should be looking forward to this. “I would appreciate it.”

“Anything I can do to save you from the tortures of baggage carousels.” Then his voice sobered. “Seriously, though, thank you.”

She waved off the comment before she could risk getting emotional about it. “Figure out how to get me to Rome, and we’ll call it even.”

He grinned again. “Oh, that’s easy.” Then the door opened on the first floor, revealing a crowd of people looking incredulously at them both. “You might want to get that elevator looked at,” he told them all, Great Lakes accent firmly back in place. Then he turned back to Thea with a grin and a wave. “Hope you enjoy the roses from your secret boyfriend!”

As he walked away whistling, Thea sighed and fought the urge to smile.

Read more

Thursday, March 15, 2018

"Fighting Sleep" ebook now available for $1.99!!

"Fighting Sleep" is now available for purchase! I'm really, really proud of the revisions and the new feel of the book (which was once known as "Dreamless"), and I'm super excited for everyone to get a chance to read it.

Synopsis: 
It'll take more than true love's kiss to break this curse.

After years of trying to find a cure, Princess Elena feels like she's made her peace with the century-long nap in her future. But when the curse threatens to come early and a rogue prince wants to hurry it along even faster, circumstances force her to reunite with a frustrating figure from her childhood who has some secrets of his own. Can the two overcome their differences and work together to defeat the curse, stop the prince, and find their own happily-ever-after?

(This is a new, heavily revised edition of the now no longer in print "Dreamless." If you enjoy the book, please leave a review at the listing of your choice.)

Links:

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Read the first chapter of "Fighting Sleep"! (the rewritten edition of "Dreamless")

So I've been kind of M.I.A for awhile because I've been deep in the "Dreamless" rewrite (which will be called "Fighting Sleep" now), but I'm only a few chapters away from the end. I'm really, really excited by this new version (I think I'm writing it so fast because it's the only way I'll actually get to read the thing), so even though I'm not done yet here's the new first chapter: 

Chapter 1: Avoiding the Problem
Experimentation always had its risks. Sometimes, that meant impressive-looking explosions. Other times, that meant tripping and falling because a spell refused to behave properly.
Elena hit the ground with a distinctly undignified thunk, praying that the Healer's Academy muffled sound even half as well as the castle did. Then she pushed herself up into a sitting position, ignoring the new round of bruises as she pulled the misbehaving leather cuff of her ankle. Banishing the shimmer of magic around it, she scowled at the sigils carefully stitched onto the surface.  “You’re not supposed to be flying right now,” she muttered, mentally calculating how much smaller the sigils would have to be in order to make sure the cuff would have some lift but not enough to actually go anywhere. She wanted it to take the weight of Alan’s broken leg, not try to take to the sky every time he—
She jerked her head up at hurried footsteps in the hallway, and she quickly shoved the cuff into her pocket as the door swung open to reveal a round-faced woman in healer’s scrubs clearly ready to shout at someone. “What’s going on in—“ The woman stopped abruptly as she focused on Elena, her long blond hair half-fallen out of the knot at her back and her eminently practical skirt sprawled out around her. A beat later, her eyes widened. “Your Highness?”
Great. There was no truly dignified way to scramble upright, so Elena simply tried to get to her feet as fast as she could. “Forgive me, matron.” She gave the woman her most polite smile, hoping that would be enough to keep the woman from asking any questions. People tended to accept a polite expression and pleasant tone at face value, ignoring inconvenient complications like why a nearly 18-year-old princess had been sprawled out on their floor. “I’m afraid I was testing something for my bodyguard, Alan Merrick. Do you know if he’s finished his appointment, yet?”
“I... well....” The woman stepped back, clearly flustered. “Let me check.” Bobbing a quick curtsy, she quickly backed out of the room and shut the door behind her.
Elena sighed, undoing the knot at the back of her neck and re-doing it properly. Best guess, the woman would run to her nearest supervisor and inform them that the poor tragic princess was officially in the building. At that point, she’d be lucky if she made it out of the building without a collection of hand pats, sympathetic looks, and people saying how sorry they were and complimenting her for “how strong” she was. If she had to run that particular gauntlet, she’d be lucky if she made it out of the building without not-so-accidentally turning someone into a frog.
As her mother had expressly forbidden her from doing that, Elena was certain it wouldn’t go over well.
The only option, then, was to make her escape early and find Alan herself. Invisibility spells were impractical in a building this crowded – people tended to notice bumping into an empty space more than they would a person – but that didn't mean magic was completely useless. A smaller spell, designed to make people simply not notice her, would let her slip through the hallways like she belonged here.
She drew the correct sigil in the air, the shape so familiar she no longer had to think about it, and murmured the corresponding trigger phrase under her breath. As she finished, she felt the magical energy flow out of her body and through the channel of her hand, settling back against her skin with a faint tingling sensation. She couldn't see the energy without an imaging spell, but most of the time you don't need to.
Once she was sure the spell was complete, Elena slipped out into the hallway and headed toward the examination room where she knew Alan's appointment had been. Healers passed by her without a second glance, hurrying back and forth between rooms filled with patients. Healing wasn't as easy as the stories made it sound, even something as simple as a gash requiring a delicate stitching of muscle and skin. Even that took time, and something as complicated as a lingering illness could stretch into an ongoing battle.
One that, sometimes, even the best healers lost.
Shaking off the memory – there had been more than one reason why she hadn't followed Alan into his appointment – Elena stopped just outside the correct examination room. Then, carefully, she silently pushed the door open a crack.
"...fused some of the finer fragments of bone back together, Mr. Merrick, but I'm afraid that's the extent of what we'll be able to do for you here." The healer's tone was matter-of-fact. "Your natural resistance to magic makes it difficult to do any healing on you at all, and I'm afraid if we try anything larger than that we'll misjudge our force and make things worse in there. If we start reattaching a chunk of bone to its neighbor when it's in the wrong place, it could permanently damage your ability to walk."
Elena's fingers curled into a fist, raining silent curses down on Nigel's head. The fact that he was sitting in prison at the moment didn't feel like nearly enough punishment for dropping an entire wall on her guard. The fact that it had happened because Alan was protecting her from being crushed only made her angrier at the little weasel.
Inside the examination room, Alan sighed. "I was afraid of that." She heard him shift his leg, the huge cast around it making a heavy sound she didn't like. "If we leave it alone, though, I'll heal, right? I'll be back to full mobility?"
The healer hesitated long enough that Elena held her breath. When she did finally speak, there was a warning in her voice. "I'll say probably, but only if you have the good sense to keep off it while it heels. Nothing more strenuous than walking, preferably with a cane we'll give you. Which means, let me state officially, means you can no longer chase around after that princess of yours."
Elena winced at that. If Alan was going to be off his feet for awhile, there was no chance of her mother letting her out of the castle without an entire retinue of guards. She might as well carry a sign above her head at that point, or maybe carry around a horn and formally announce her name to the crowd every 20 or 30 feet.
Elena wondered how many times you could hear “I’m sorry” before your head actually exploded.
Suddenly wanting to be anywhere else, she pushed open the door. The healer didn’t turn her head, still under the effects of the spell, but Alan immediately turned toward the doorway. The “don’t notice me” spell didn’t work on him, both because of his resistance to magic and his general fondness for her, and the moment his eyes focused on her she could feel the spell pop like a soap bubble. Once it did, the healer turned as well. “Your Highness,” she said, eyes widening for only a moment before she recovered her matter-of-fact tone. “Would you like me to—”
“She’s heard it,” Alan interrupted mildly, lips flickering upward. “If you’d be willing to go get that cane for me, we’ll be on our way.”
The healer nodded. “Of course.” Elena stepped further into the room to get out of her way, but as the woman walked past her she hesitated. “Your Highness, let me say once again that we in the Healer’s Academy are so sorry that we couldn’t do more for you after your aunt—”
Mercy, this sounded like the beginning of a speech. “Thank you,” Elena cut her off, hand tightening in her skirt briefly before she forced herself to let go. She could already feel the headache starting to form, but healing was unfortunately the one area of sorcery where she had no talent whatsoever. “We would appreciate it greatly if you could bring that cane you mentioned.”   
The healer blinked, briefly flustered, then nodded. “Yes, yes, of course.”
When she left, Elena shut the door behind her and turned back to Alan. “I’m killing Nigel,” she announced, letting herself picture it for a second. She was pretty sure she wouldn’t actually do it – murder was illegal, even for royalty – but it was so incredibly soothing to think about. “I’ll make it look like self-defense if I have to. But next time I see him, he’s dead.”
Alan’s lips curved upward again. “You’ll have to tell Dr. Flyte you’re setting goals again.”
Elena sighed, imagining the reaction the magic mirror-turned-therapist would have to that particular announcement. “Somehow, I don’t think that was what he meant.”
#
Once they’d finally escaped the Healer’s Academy, Elena argued for getting a carriage back to the castle. Alan, however, stubbornly insisted on walking. “The healer said it was okay,” he argued, suddenly remembering to put actual weight on the cane instead of just carrying it. “I need to know if I can handle the distance.”
She narrowed her eyes at him, hurrying to catch up. “I knew you gave in too easily to taking the carriage here.”
He tilted his head in acknowledgement. “I knew the way back would be when I needed the thinking time.” Then he sighed, his entire tone suddenly turning serious. “We need to talk about what we’re going to do until my leg heals.”
Elena’s stomach twisted at the reminder. “Any chance you could convince my mother that there’s another guard in the castle somewhere who’s good enough to be trusted on his own?”
Alan scowled, just like she’d known he would. “You know how I feel about lying.”
Elena sighed. “You know, I’m sure they’ve hired several new people since that incident with the cake. There’s got to be someone there who can meet your exacting standards.”
Alan raised an eyebrow at her, letting himself slow down a fraction so she could get the full effect. “Who, conveniently, wouldn’t be immune to your ‘don’t notice me spell’ the same way I am, right?”
Elena blinked, appalled that she hadn’t had the good sense to come up with that idea before he’d shot it down. “I would never,” she said with mock outrage, cheered by the thought that she would probably be able to use it on whatever guards her mother stuck her with. She didn’t spend enough time with most of them to develop the sort of affection that would invalidate the spell.
Besides, it had given her another idea as well. “It’s not as if whoever it was would have to do much, anyway.” She made sure to keep pace with Alan, careful to keep her voice as even a possible. If she played too innocent, he’d know she was faking it. “I’ll probably spend most of the time you’re recuperating just hiding out in the castle.” At his skeptical look, she shrugged. “What? I’d rather hide out in my room a couple of months than drag half the palace guards around the city. Someone can bring Dr. Flyte’s mirror in for my appointments, and if I need something for one of my spells I can ask the kitchen staff to add it to their weekly order.”
“And that means no one will be keeping an eye on you when you’re sneaking out at—” He stopped, eyes going distant for a moment, then blinked and refocused on her. “We’re being followed.”
Elena stopped as well, scanning the immediate area out of the corner of her eye. There were too many people around for a life-scanning spell to be of any use, and tracking spells only worked if you knew who you were tracking. “Wouldn’t an assassin wait for more privacy?” she said quietly.
He caught her gaze when it moved past his, and the seriousness in his eyes made her go still with wariness. “Maybe.” He adjusted his grip on the cane so that he held it more like a sword. “But I’m not about to trust either of our lives on it.”
With the smallest tilt of his head, he gestured back to the alley they had just passed. They moved toward it with a deliberate casualness that only the person following them would even notice, then ducked inside. Alan went first, making sure whoever was following them hadn’t chosen it as their own hideout, and at his nod Elena slipped in behind him. Behind her back, she sketched a sigil for a paralysis spell in the air. It wasn’t quite strong enough for combat, but if she could catch their pursuer by surprise it should keep Alan from having to do much fighting. She just needed to know who she was aiming at….
A moment later, Alan answered that question for her. With no signal she could see or hear, he suddenly pivoted around on his good leg and slammed what seemed to be absolutely nothing against the wall. His arm stopped about six inches away from the bricks, clearly resting on something solid despite the distance, and Elena shifted tactics and sketched the correct sigil to counter an invisibility spell. One quick yanking motion later, an embarrassed-looking young man wearing far too much silk was standing in front of them. “Well.” He cleared his throat, then tried an overly bright smile. “How … how lovely to see you both. Have you been having a pleasant afternoon?”
It took an amazing amount of self-control not to strangle Nigel where he stood. “How in the world are you not in prison?”
Nigel perked up at that. “It turns out one of the guards was quite admiring of one of my rings, and when I explained the misunderstanding to—”
Alan cursed. “Now that I have some free time,” he muttered, “clearly I need to make sure some prison guards get fired.”
“Or prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law,” Elena snapped, fingers clenching. “You tried to kill me, Nigel, and succeeded in seriously injuring my guard. That is a crime.”
Nigel’s cheeks reddened. “I told you, that was just a terribly unfortunate accident!”
Alan’s only response to that bit of idiocy was a rude noise. He kept Nigel pinned against the wall with the cane, using his free hand to check for any weapons. When he did find something, his brow lowered in clear puzzlement as he felt around it. When he pulled out an old spindle, he held it up. “Has this been enchanted?”
She sketched a sigil in the air, then waved her hand over the spindle. When therewas no corresponding glow, she felt just as confused as Alan looked. “No, which makes no sense. What use would—” Then memory hit, and she whipped her hand around to glare at Nigel. “You know that was a rumor, right? Started hundreds of years ago by a sorcerer whose ex-wife specialized in making spinning wheels.”
Nigel’s eyes went ride. “A rumor?”
Furious, she grabbed the spindle out of Alan’s hand and held it close to Nigel’s face.  “They’re far more capable of damaging, say, someone’s eye than setting off a sorceress’s curse.”
 “I just … it seemed so much more civilized.” Nigel swallowed, his cheeks starting to get red. “The man at the junk shop was more than happy to sell me a spindle, and I thought—”
 “No. You didn’t think.” Alan’s voice was hard as he yanked Nigel away from the wall, giving the prince his best “Commander” glare before gesturing to two of the city guards who’d just come around the corner. “And now you’re going back to prison until we can figure out something worse to do with you.”
Now Nigel looked horrified and embarrassed. “I didn’t … I never meant to harm Princess Elena! I just … I wanted ….”
“To start my curse early, so you could be the one to break it,” Elena finished for him, the words flat to hide the bitterness behind them. “Kiss the poor cursed princess and everyone will be thrilled enough to forget what made her lose consciousness in the first place.” She paused as his face turned an even brighter shade. “Of course, it never occurred to you what would happen if your kiss didn’t work, did it? You wouldn’t be the hero. You’d be nothing more than the villain who trapped the princess in a century of sleep months before she had to be, just because you’d decided to be clever.” A quick spell was enough to make the spindle transport away as he watched. “Unless, of course, I decided to take care of you first.” 
Nigel couldn’t say a word, just staring at her like his voice had been stolen. Looking disgusted now, Alan shoved the prince into the arms of the city guards. Once they was safely gone, Elena pressed the heels of her hands against her eyes and reminded herself to breathe. “I should have killed him,” she said quietly. “Or maybe I can have Braeth do it. We could say it was an early death-day present for him.”
“He’s not worth it,” Alan smoothed a gentle hand against her hair, then sighed. “Besides, I need to get you home. We need to make sure Nigel doesn’t wander off again.”
“I almost wonder if we should tell mother about it.” Elena was surprised to find herself smiling a little. “She hasn’t really let herself get angry at someone in a long time. It might be almost relaxing for her to just let all of her frustration out on the people in charge of the prison.”
“Of course, if she kills anyone, that would sort of put a damper on the whole sense of catharsis.” Alan, who had stood just outside the door for all her sessions, knew almost as many therapy words as she did by this point. “You forget, she’s an even more powerful sorceress than you are.”
“We’ve never actually tested that,” she said absently, feeling the tension from earlier tightening her shoulders again. “And if she has something to do, it might relax her enough that she doesn’t actually lock me in my room herself after this.”
“Hopefully, no one else will get the idea,” Alan said quietly. “But if they do, we’re going to need to look at more serious options to protect you. This isn’t just about keeping an eye on you anymore.” 
Elena made herself take a deep breath as she felt her options slip away from her. “I know, but—”
The world shut off.
When she opened her eyes again she was on the ground, staring up into Alan’s terrified face. He was cradling her in his arms, checking for a pulse, and for one disoriented second she wondered how he’d managed to catch her with that broken leg of his. She hadn’t fainted – you swooned first, when that happened. You weren’t just snuffed out like a candle that someone else was done with.
Elena felt herself go ice cold. “How long was I …” Her throat closed up, unable to finish the word. The curse wasn’t supposed to work like this – according to everyone who had been there, her aunt had given the very clear deadline of her 18th birthday – but it had felt exactly like every nightmare she’d ever had about her non-existent future.
She forced the thought from her mind as Merrick helped her sit up. “Twenty seconds. Maybe thirty.” His voice hadn’t quite steadied all the way yet. “You stopped speaking, and your eyes rolled up in the back of your head. Then you dropped straight to the ground.”
She shook her head, more to deny the moment than anything he’d said, then made herself stand so she could help him up. He didn’t accept the offer, watching her face the entire time as he got to his feet on his own. “We need to tell your mother.”
“No.” Elena focused on her breathing, forcing it into a slow, steady rhythm. “We can’t even be sure that was the curse.” Alan’s eyes narrowed, and she held up her hands in supplication. “Not yet, then. Let me … let me at least find out more about what’s happening.”
He put his hand back on her shoulder. “It’s not supposed to work like that, is it?”
“No.” She covered his hand with her own, giving it a squeeze as a silent thank you. “Another special surprise from my aunt, I would guess.”
Alan swore softly. “I wish Nigel had been the worst thing to happen this afternoon.”
Elena sighed. “Me, too.”

Monday, February 12, 2018

On writing: You don't have to be crazy to work here

I’ve described my relationship with writing as something to close to those “Wuthering Heights”-style romances, where you can’t imagine living without each other but there’s also a 50 percent chance that one of you will be arrested for the other’s murder. I’d never put up with this level of obsessiveness and frustration in any sort of relationship with an actual human, but when it comes to writing I can’t seem to stop myself. The question of whether I actually enjoy writing is as irrelevant as whether I actually enjoy breathing. 

What I didn’t realize until recently, however, was the effect that watching my relationship with writing had on my sister. She’s a scientist at heart, but she’s got a wonderful science fiction universe set up where she gets to play with different alien races and the interaction between them. She’s mostly at the planning stages right now, but she’s sent me some snippets and they’re wonderfully entertaining. 

For years, however, she was too frozen by anxiety to really explore any of it. She’d seen me write for years, and had come to the conclusion that the only proper way to be a “writer” was to basically throw yourself in it and drown the same way I had. Since she wasn’t willing to devote an immense chunk of her brain to the idea, she decided that she couldn’t write any of it. 
When she finally told me all of this, I disabused her of the notion as thoroughly as possible. And if any of you out there feel the same way about some spark of a story kicking around your head, please let me disabuse you of it as well. 

Literally the only thing you need to be a writer is an idea and the vague thought that maybe you should write it down. You don’t have to be one of those intense “writer” types that often appear in popular media in order to qualify for the term. It can be a fun thing you do in your spare time, the same way another person might take up knitting (and believe me, there are some intense knitters out there, so pretty much every craft or talent has a sliding scale of obsession). 

And yes, there are a lot of “rules” out there for writing, but the truth is that those are mostly important when you’re thinking about having a wide range of people reading your work (or are hoping to get the attention of an editor or publisher). If you’re just writing for yourself, or for your family and friends, you don’t even have to stress about the “rules” all that much. (And even then, a lot of the “rules” end up not being all that true anyway.) 

So, if you’ve got a story idea you’d kind of like to write down somewhere, go and do it with my blessing. You don’t have to be crazy to be a writer. 

Some of us just do it anyway. 

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Update on the future of "Dreamless"

"Dreamless" never got a fair shake from the beginning. Released just as Jolly Fish was in its death throes, my poor book was supposed to be released in spring 2016 but didn't actually come out until the fall. There was hardly any publicity for the first release, and the delay (which Jolly Fish's original leadership never told anyone about) killed what little momentum was generated. Discouraged, I stopped my own attempts to generate some publicity for the book. On top of that, the cover was nothing like my other books and didn't actually represent the story inside.

Admittedly, my first chapter also needed some work, and looking back I should have given the whole thing at least one more good hard edit. Still, the book did manage to win an award despite its failings, though that wasn't enough to get its name out there.

Still, both "Dreamless" and I are getting a second chance. Northstar reverted both the print and ebook rights back to me, which means that it's going to not be for sale for a little while I find an awesome new cover and give it the magnificent spit-and-polish the story deserves. Then, with a final tweak to the name - it'll be "Sleepless" now, instead of "Dreamless" - I'll re-release the title as a $5 ebook and make plans for a physical printing depending on demand.

"Dreamless" is dead, but rest assured that "Sleepless" will live on. 

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Exclusive: Chapter 1 of my new novel, "Piper's Song"

I feel like I owe you guys something for the massive radio silence, which is the result of a months-long rewriting/editing session more massive than any I've experienced in my life. Seriously, I went a little bit crazy - it's probably best you didn't have to deal with me. Still, as an apology, here's a teaser for the brand-new version of "Piper's Song" I've been slaving away over:

Chapter 1: A Little Night Music

Having a song in your heart was considerably less cheerful-sounding when rats and fire were involved.

Jess smiled a little to herself at the thought, making a mental note to try and use it in conversation later. She couldn’t say anything at the moment, her breath occupied by the music controlling the rats, but it was good to make note of these things. Especially when it was a decent distraction from her hundredth time through the current song she was playing, a children’s song so simple she could probably play it in her sleep.

To the small, furry listeners behind her, it didn’t matter what song she played. The sound of them was quieter out here, the dirt doing more to muffle their tiny claws than the brick-paved streets back in town, but she had no doubt they were all still following her. The magic inside her surged up through the song, reaching for the rats as sharply and clearly as if she had her own hands stretched out. Her power couldn’t call anything bigger than a small cat – most pipers couldn’t even call something that big – but rats and anything smaller were powerless against it.

(While that sounded great as part of the sales pitch, the swarms of bugs who came along with the rats her first few times on the job had been less than thrilling. She’d eventually learned to concentrate and call only what she wanted, but it had taken some practice.)

To most people, what she could do was a mystery. Pipers never talked about what using their power felt like, because whenever they did someone inevitably pointed out how much piper magic sounded like siren magic. Sirens, who even witches and sorcerers had been so scared of that they’d been hunted to extinction. There were rumors that some had silenced their songs, marrying humans instead of draining their energy, but those weren’t the kind of connections pipers wanted anyone to make.

There’s nothing to be afraid of, little nightingale. It’s a gift, the same way your music is.

An old familiar grief clenched her chest at the memory of her foster mother’s voice. Marie had believed that with her whole heart, but now that she was gone there were very few people Jess could trust to feel the same way. Silence was easier all around.

When she finally arrived at the fire-filled trench on the opposite side of the field, Jess shook herself out of her thoughts and got back to work. She took her first step onto the wooden bridge stretched across it, looking for the small, embedded charm that meant it had been enchanted against fire. The rats pushed against her legs, trying to get closer, while a few got excited enough to stumble into the fire on their own.

“Lady?” The man at the end of the trench asked, coming closer. “Is something wrong? Why aren’t you moving?”

Because the last time I didn’t check for the charm, the bridge collapsed under me and I nearly died. But she couldn’t actually say that, with the pipe in her mouth and the rats ready to escape the second she stopped playing. So she simply kept looking until she found the charm, glinting in the firelight, and she stepped fully onto the bridge and kept walking. She turned around while she was halfway across, sweeping the rats that had made it onto the bridge off the sides and into the fire. They died silently, thankfully, but sometimes she closed her eyes so she wouldn’t have to look at what was happening. It had taken her months to master the rhythm, picking up the basics through careful questions to the older pipers on the circuit, but now that she’d been doing it for a few years she didn’t have to think about it.

When the last rat had finally tumbled over the edge of the bridge, Jess stopped playing. “That should do it,” she told the man, stepping off the bridge completely and flashing her best salesman’s smile. “I’ll stay long enough to make sure the fire goes out completely, so as soon as I get the rest of my payment you can go home and get to bed.”

He hesitated, looking back out into the darkness. He was pale enough to have a desk job someplace, hair thinning and coat far too heavy for the relatively mild weather. “You sure that’s all of them?”

Temper rose up, prompted by pride, but she throttled it back. Keeping her salesman’s smile fixed firmly in place, she held out her hand. “If there’s a rat left in the entire town, I can promise you they’re completely deaf.” Then he shot her a skeptical look, and temper slipped past good sense to get a jab in. “Though if we don’t get this settled soon, I’m sure I can find more somewhere and bring them in.”

He narrowed his eyes at her briefly, and she braced herself for things to blow up into an actual fight. Her golden brown skin was usually close enough to a farmer’s tan for people not to question it, but her black hair was just a little too dark and too straight to completely pass as a local in the more rural parts of the kingdom. Unfortunately, that was also where work was best for people who killed rats for a living, so she’d learned to adapt. She kept her hair short, told people she was a solid three or four years older than her actual 18 summers of living, and knew how to use the knife she kept in her boot.

She’d also learned never to show either hesitation or weakness, so she held the man’s gaze while he came to a decision. Then, after a few beats, he reached into his pocket and handed her an envelope full of money. “I’ll let the mayor know we got everything wrapped up,” he said, turning to leave.

Jess counted the money by the light of the fire, pleased to see it was all there just as promised. “Pleasure doing business with you!” she called out, looking up in time to see him wave a hand vaguely behind him in acknowledgment.

As he walked off into the distance she put her pipe back in its case, tucking the money safely away underneath. “You’ve got to remind me to be less snippy with the clients, T,” she told the empty air around her.

A young man appeared suddenly out of that empty space, his dark hair close-cropped and warm brown skin burnished by the firelight.  The mere sight of him was enough to unknot something inside her chest, a fact that she would absolutely have to worry about the moment she let herself start thinking about it.

“Be less snippy with clients,” he said dutifully, lips quirking slightly at the familiar, shared joke. Then his expression turned serious, eyes intense even from behind his wire-rimmed glasses. “But you know you don’t always have to check for the fireproofing charm, right? I always look for it before you get here, and if it was missing I promise you there’s no way I’d let you cross that bridge.”

Jess didn’t know what left her feeling suddenly unsteady – the earnestness in his voice, or the fact that she believed him completely. Deciding that neither was a safe topic of conversation, she flashed him a grin to make sure none of it showed up on her face. “Don’t want to put your job at risk by saving my life again?”

It was how they’d met, actually. Sometimes, Jess pictured telling the story to the members of her foster mother’s performing troupe, dramatically acting it out while Thomas rolled his eyes, but then she thought about her foster mother not being there and it hurt too much.

She’d never been good at dealing with pain.

Thomas, thankfully not able to hear her thoughts, widened his smile. “I don’t know. It worked out pretty well for me last time.” He pulled out his pocket-sized magic mirror, handing it to her. “I should probably get to work, but you got a mirror message while you were on your walk. I didn’t read it, but it sounds like someone wants to hire you for a job.”

Jess winced at the reminder, taking the mirror from him as she straightened. “I swear I keep meaning to get a new mirror,” she apologized. “It’s not fair for me to keep using your work mirror for my work messages.”

Thomas shook his head. “Don’t worry about it. I like being able to help you when you need it.” The words called up another rush of warmth in Jess’s chest as he reached for the I.D. hanging around his neck, then hesitated. “You want to skip following me around tonight, so you can focus on the message?”

He always asked her that, in one form or another, even though she’d never once taken him up on the offer. “What, and miss your rundown on whatever town it’s from?” Opening the message with one hand, she laid the other hand on his shoulder. If she let go of him, she’d immediately get dumped back into the regular world and Thomas would end up invisible again. “Seriously, if you ever want to quit being a Reaper I’m sure someone would hire you as a tour guide.”

Thomas made a rueful noise. “Only someone who was really interested in hearing an itemized history of the local plant life.” Then he slapped the flat of his hand against the I.D. hanging against his chest, and both the darkness and the fire disappeared in a rush of gray. The only spots of color left in the world were her, Thomas, and the cool blue light of the rats' discarded life energy floating in small clouds within the now-gray flames. Everyone's life energy stuck around like that after they died, according to Thomas, and if everyone left it alone the energy usually disappeared after about a week. Since life energy was an easy power boost for magic users with a more flexible view of ethics, however, hardly anyone left it alone.

Which was where Reapers came in.

Thomas's hand curled like he was holding a staff, murmuring a word that Jess could never quite catch. An instant later, a glowing, translucent scythe made of energy appeared in his hand.
Jess watched him adjust his grip, remembering the explanation he'd given her once as to how the scythe had probably been made. She asked him questions about it sometimes, just to get him talking. "Didn’t you say they were considering skull masks at one point? Why didn’t they ever go through with that?”

Thomas stopped, brow furrowing as he thought. “I think there were copyright issues,” he said finally. “A scythe is a tool that anyone can use, but the lawyers decided that the skull face under the hood was pretty specific to the company’s founder.”

Jess watched him start his work, considering whether or not to prompt him for a longer explanation, carefully swinging the tip of his scythe through each one of those small clouds of blue light. They disappeared in a flash, the energy’s tie to this plane of existence sliced through – yes, Thomas had explained all of this to her, too – leaving it free to move somewhere beyond the reach of evil sorcerers. Technically, Thomas could use it to clean up any kind of energy, but his official assignment was to focus on mice and rats.

Which worked out extremely well for Jess, though she wasn’t about to tell his bosses that.

Still, she should probably focus on her job rather than his. Tearing her attention away from the reaping, she activated the mirror message from the potential client. When the smoke cleared on the pre-recorded message, the sender turned out to be an exhausted middle-aged man with the lingering trace of a farmer’s tan and an expression that suggested he worked out a lot of stress by hitting people in his imagination. “Miss Tremeau, my name is Arthur Perkins. I’m the mayor of Kensford, a bustling, prosperous town that boasts—” He stopped, closing his eyes a moment with a long-suffering look. “But you don’t care about that.”

This wasn’t the “inconvenience” face, the one that said “We tried to take care of this ourselves and are deeply resentful of the fact that it didn’t quite work.” No, Mayor Perkins’ expression shot straight to “please help,” which usually meant a ton of rats had started making a serious dent in the food stores. It meant they wouldn’t haggle much, when it came to her fee, and she could probably squeeze out a bonus or two depending on how quickly she could get the mice and rats taken care of.

“If it’s the Kensford I’m thinking of,” Thomas said absently, his attention still focused on his work. “It’s only about a day’s ride from Hammelin.”

Knowing he wouldn’t have said anything if it wasn’t important, Jess briefly stilled the mirror message and wracked her brain trying to remember why Hammelin was relevant. “Wait, is that the city you said the witches were talking about? The one where no one’s heard from any of the residents for the last few days?”

Thomas nodded. “None of the witches in the mirror chat group live near Hammelin or have family there, so no one knows exactly what’s going on. But it might be something to keep in mind.”

Jess nodded. From how Thomas always described them, the witches in the group all treated gossip like it was a professional sport. Still, gossip was usually at least 50 percent true, and any piper with a brain in their head stayed away from areas where people were messing around with more serious magic. A day’s ride might be enough breathing room from whatever was (or wasn’t) going on in Hammelin, but there was no way to be sure. “Are they still trying to get you named an honorary witch with that society they all go to?”

Thomas’s sigh was both affectionate and long-suffering as he pushed his glasses back up his nose. “Yes, and I don’t know why. I mean, I understand they’re probably trying to be nice, but literally the only magic spells I have any control over are the ones management put into my I.D. For that matter, I haven’t even figured out yet how they code the I.D.s to each individual Reaper, and I’ve been poking at it long enough that I definitely should have figured it out by now.”

Jess squeezed his shoulder. “The rest of us don’t care so much about accuracy, T. They probably just want to say thank you for having to listen to all their stories 500 times.”

Thomas shook his head, turning his attention back to the rats’ energy. “If they want to say thank you,” he muttered, “they should send me some of their reference books.”

Jess activated the mirror message again, the frozen image of Mayor Perkins springing back to life. He cleared his throat. “We’ve talked to the leaders of some of the other cities and towns who you’ve done jobs for, and they all say you’re the most thorough piper they’ve ever worked with.” She had just long enough to feel a warm glow of pride before he ruined it by continuing. “We had to research a little more thoroughly than we usually do pipers, since we heard your name in an unusual way. We put up our usual posting for a piper, and a man named Crispin St. Clair responded. His—”

She jammed a finger down to still the mirror message again, alarm shooting through her, as Thomas suddenly stopped and looked back over his shoulder. “Did he just say—”

Jess’s jaw tightened, her self-preservation instincts activating. “Unfortunately, he did.” She hesitated, thumb hovering over the trigger that would delete the message completely. If Crispin had given these people her name, it was absolutely a trap.

This was enough to make Thomas turn around completely, though he moved carefully enough not to dislodge Jess’s hand on his shoulder. “Maybe they decided not to hire him and he was complaining about you. Even if he’s not actively trying to get you fired from jobs anymore, he still thinks it’s your fault that everyone knows what a terrible piper he is.”

 “You clean up after a man one time, and he decides you’ve organized a conspiracy against him.” She felt herself leaping at the idea, and she forced herself to stop and actually weigh the possibility. “If that’s the explanation, then I have to do it. It’s rare enough for anyone in government to make the intelligent choice first that I need to encourage them.”

Thomas watched her face for a moment, then his lips quirked. “And next time you run into Crispin, you can rub it in his face?”

Jess’s couldn’t stop the smile that slipped out, even as she gave him her best innocent look. He knew her so well. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.” Then her expression sobered. “Hammelin’s a day’s ride away, which mean that if there is trouble we’ll at least get some warning. But it probably isn’t anything – witches and sorcerers are showy enough that there’d be reports of explosions or enormous trees, not a communication blackout.”

“And there hasn’t been reports of anything rampaging around the countryside.” Thomas looked down at the mirror. “So if Crispin didn’t mean to give them your name, we’re going to Kensford?”

Jess nodded, then restarted the message. “—reputation is such that nearby towns had already warned us against him, so we rejected his offer even though we were desperate. When we did, he began ranting about how you had somehow arranged the situation by spreading lies about him. Since putting up a general posting had proven so unsuccessful, we decided to research your name in the hopes that it would speed things.”

She stopped the message completely, valiantly resisting the urge to do an impromptu victory dance. “Just think about it this way, T,” she told Thomas. “It sounds like there’s enough rats in Kensford to make your quota for the month.”

“I always make my quota now that I follow you around.” Still, he seemed amused as he returned to the reaping. “Let me finish up here, then we can get a few hours of sleep and set out for Kensford in the morning.”

Jess grinned. “I’m sure the rats will be excited to see us.” Then, slipping the magic mirror into her pocket, she went back to watching Thomas work.

#

One mirror message taking the job and two days hitching rides on various wagons and carts later, they arrived in Kensford. Their first stop was a quiet stable near the edge of town where they could stash their things, and after a quick change – only an idiot traveled in their presentation outfit – they arrived at the Mayor’s Office.

Before they went inside, Thomas lightly touched her arm. “Want me to go invisible?” he asked quietly. “I know they already gave you the job, but that doesn’t mean you want me in the way when you’re dealing with clients.”

The hesitancy in his voice made her turn enough to look at him. His shoulders were hunched slightly, just like they always did whenever he apologized for explaining something too thoroughly or talking too much in general. Every time she saw it, Jess gave serious thought to tracking down the people who ran the Abernathy Home for Orphans and punching them in the face.

Instead, she grinned at him, patting his cheek. “Not a chance, my friend. Today, I’m going to show you how to make an entrance.”

She could see a flicker of surprise chase its way across his face, making her annoyed at his former guardians all over again. Then, slowly, his lips curved upward a little. “How about I just watch you make the entrance and take notes for later?”

Jess sighed dramatically, the same way she always did at this point in whatever variation of the familiar, shared joke came up. “One day I’ll teach you the joy of the spotlight, T.”

His smile widened as he came back with the same response he always did. “But that day is not today.”

They announced themselves to the woman behind the front desk, who ushered them with gratifying speed back to Mayor Perkins’ office. He wasn’t alone, as it turned out, a sour-faced man with a beautifully tailored suit and a face like a lump of wheat bread dough glowering in the corner. He started speaking the moment they were announced, cutting the woman off before she’d even reached the end of her sentence. “Not so fast, Miss Tremeau. The rest of the council chose to hire you while I was out of town on business, and though they’re all clearly prone to panic I’m not about to let myself get conned the same way they have.”

Jess bristled at the word “conned” while Mayor Perkins sighed, looking like a man in urgent need of a nap. “Edward, the people are desper—”

“The people need to learn some self-sufficiency,” the man – Edward, apparently – snapped. “Now, Miss Tremeau. I know the previous cities you’ve worked with have spoken well of you, but I’m sure there are other, more experienced pipers out there who have reputations that are just as good or better. I’m sure the council will agree that we can just send you on your way while we—”

“Edward, we had more than enough votes for the decision to be—”

Clearly, Jess needed to take control of the situation, and if she could make Eddie over there regret his whole life that would be a delightful bonus. She glanced over at Thomas, wondering if he was going to try and be the voice of reason. Instead, he was busy glaring daggers at Eddie, intense enough in his dislike that he didn’t even notice Jess looking.

Well, that was a go-ahead if she’d ever seen one.

Pulling out her pipe while the mayor and Eddie were busy arguing, she hefted her power up into her throat and started into a simple children’s song. By the time she’d gotten three notes in she could hear the click of rat claws in the corridor outside, and she smirked to herself as she walked over to stand at Eddie’s side.

“I don’t know what you think you’re doing, girl, but—”

Before he could finish the thought, four rats surged into the office. Jess stepped slightly behind the council member, and though he stepped away quickly he was still between her and the rats. They went straight up his legs, prepared to go over whatever or whoever they had to in order to get to the music.

The esteemed council member’s shriek was louder than the music.

That was Jess’s cue to stop playing, which caused the now-released rats to scatter. Eddie straightened his suit, shaking with offended dignity, and Jess shot him her best salesman’s smile. “It seems like you have a rat problem, Eddie. Are you sure you really want to wait?”

He lifted his chin, turning to the mayor. “Fine. I won’t argue anymore,” he snapped, then turned and stalked out of the room as if it had offended him personally. As he left, Thomas grinned and mouthed “nice job” at her.

Jess grinned back, a warm glow in her chest as she turned to the mayor. “So, shall we?”

Things wrapped fairly quickly after that, with Mayor Perkins agreeing to a healthy fee that wasn’t quite large enough to make her conscience start providing annoying commentary. He insisted she do the walk that evening in exchange, and Jess sighed like she was making a serious concession instead of getting exactly what she wanted.

By the time the walk actually started, Jess was still riding high on that wave of confidence. A nice crowd had gathered, watching her with an eagerness that meant no one bothered giving her funny looks or questioning her credentials. She even got a round of applause as the music started, which was always good for the ego.

Her pleasure at the attention lasted about half a block, when she realized that only one or two rats had started to follow her. She’d always called more rats by this point, especially in cities with as many as Kensford seemed to have, and it wouldn’t be long before the people lining the streets starting figuring that out. She could feel the power in her throat, pushing upward through the song, but she dug deep inside her chest for more. The notes thinned out a little as she concentrated on the power, pushing it upward and out into the music with an effort that left her fumbling to get her breath back while never letting the song falter.

Only a few steps later, though, the rats started coming. A lot of rats, from the sound of it, pushing at her ankles with far more eagerness than she usually got out of the rodents she called. It made sense, really – she’d called up too much power, and the poor things had overdosed on the magic that pulled them along. She shook them off as she walked, concentrating on getting to the end.

More rats came. They were loud enough now to be heard over the music, but all that meant was that she was doing her job properly. All she had to do was hold them long enough to get to the field, then make sure they ended up in the trench. A simple job, one she’d done a thousand times before.

She kept repeating the thought as the audience thinned, eventually disappearing completely and leaving her alone with the rats along the empty streets. No witches or sorceresses jumped out at her from the shadows, and none of the rats started growling or transforming into some kind of monster. She could see the glow from the trench fire in the distance, and the rats were still moving along behind her like an obedient little army. She was fine.

Jess shook her head again, not sure why she was even thinking like this. There was clearly nothing to worry—

The thought cut off as Thomas suddenly appeared in the middle of the empty field, hurrying toward her at a dead run.