Friday, December 7, 2018

New Thea and Max Novel now available!!!!

It's out! It's finally out! "Dirty Deeds Done for Reasonable Prices" is finally up on all the usual formats (my site has Kindle, iBooks, and Smashwords, a DRM-free site that has a bunch of formats, but it should also be up on Kobo, etc.). I'm sorry it took SO long for me to finish this one, but I'm so glad it finally all came together. I hope you all like it! (Click on the "Books" link and scroll down to the "Novellas" heading, or just scroll down until you hit the novellas.)

https://jennifferwardell.wixsite.com/mybooks

Monday, November 26, 2018

Cover reveal for the newest Thea and Max novel!

After far, far too long, the newest Thea and Max novel is finally in the home stretch. While I finish up the final edits on the book and get it formatted to go live, here's a look at the cover and a few more details.

Dirty Deeds Done for Reasonable Prices

Getting too attached to a real-life secret agent has its consequences. When Max asks for some help on an assignment that's gotten a little too personal, Thea can't help but say yes. Soon, however, the chance to see her favorite spy again turns into a tangle of secrets and sabotage that could blossom into a full-fledged supervillain plot. As our daring duo struggle to save the day, Thea finally realizes just how high the stakes can get.

Chapter 1: Never Give Them Ammunition

Chapter 2: Potential Supervillain Plot

Friday, October 19, 2018

Teaser for possible new novel

When wizards fought, it was as if the gods themselves walked the earth. They poured their power into towering projections, huge clawed beasts made of light that could tear through the landscape as easily as if they were made of flesh. Their roars were louder than any thunder, enough that mere mortals quaked at the sound of it.

But at the heart of all this terror-inducing magnificence was a fragile human made of nothing more than blood and bone. They could break so easily, these humans, especially when they poured so much of themselves into their creatures they forgot to keep any for themselves. They gave their own hearts in the service of a power far greater than they could ever realize.

And when they fell, crumpling like a broken toy, all that power disappeared as if it had never been.

The girl collapsed to the ground, the sudden absence of her dragon's golden glow leaving the world so much darker than it had been. She tried desperately to draw a full breath, to get anything past the blood in her mouth, but the knives of pain in her chest made it impossible. She ordered herself to get up, to do something, matter how fiercely she tried her body refused to do anything more than leave her fingers scrabbling uselessly in the dirt.

And the magic.... Tears leaked uselessly out of her eyes, mingling with the blood trickling its way down into the soil. They'd drilled the magic into her for months, told her to cling to it in the midst of even the greatest pain and suffering. She'd done just as they told her to, held onto the warm glow until it started to seem like it was almost alive. That glow had kept her going through the worst of her training, and the fact that she couldn't even feel a flicker of it now was almost worse than the knowledge that she was dying.

The sky somehow became even darker, the blackness her gran had always told her would come at the end of things. But then she heard the sound of footsteps, someone running, and she realized that the Dread Sorceress's creature had vanished as well. She was coming closer, wanting to be up close and personal to see her enemy's death.

But when the swirl of dark robes stopped in front of her, there was no mocking comment. The Dread Sorceress instead dropped to her knees, and the girl felt a hand smooth back her matted, bloody hair. "A child," the Sorceress whispered, her voice full of a trembling rage that would have made her afraid if there'd been anything left in her. "They sent a child to battle me?"

She tried lifting her hand again, tried to reach for even the smallest flicker of light inside her, but there was nothing. The Dread Sorceress made a noise that sounded like the girl felt, her hand still stroking the girl's hair. "Shhhh," the Sorceress whispered, softer even than her gran's had ever been. "You fought hard and well against an opponent you never could have hoped to beat. There are wizards twice your age who could not have done what you did, but the battle is done. It's time for you to rest now."

Even if the words were a lie, there was nothing else to cling to. Carried along by their softness, the girl finally let the dark embrace of death take her.

000

Her next memory was of silk against her cheek. Her first thought was surprise -- the village priest had never mentioned fine fabrics in the afterlife -- but then the smell of dust filled her nose as she realized this couldn't be the afterlife at all. Then the fine spider's web of ache all over her body demanded her attention, and a far more startling realization slowly settled in. She wasn't dead.

It took more effort than it should have to open her eyes. She was in a richly appointed bedroom, dusty enough that it clearly hadn't been used in some time. Sunlight filtered in through the closed curtains, not nearly enough to give her a clue as to where she might be.

She tried lifting her head, wanting to get a better look, but managed only a scant inch of space between herself and the pillow before her body informed her firmly that it was working with limited resources at the moment and crazy things like lifting her head was not on the approved activities list. She rolled instead, finding only more of the dimly lit bedroom.

The impossibility of it all did not lessen in the slightest. The closest castles to the Dread Sorceress's territory had all been abandoned, all carefully locked so the villagers couldn't make use of the resources inside. Even if someone had broken in, how could they have healed her? She was weaker than a baby, yes, but out on the battlefield she'd been a breath away from death. No herbs in the world could provide that kind of cure.

The memory of the Dread Sorceress's soft voice came back to her, but she dismissed it as a hallucination. People imagined all kinds of strange things when they were dying. There was no--

The thought cut off when a twisted, misshapen creature appeared in the doorway, one of the Dread Sorceress's army of monsters. The girl screamed, or at least meant to -- all she had the energy for was a pitiful-sounding meep -- but the creature jumped back as if she'd been much louder. It inched back inside after a moment, shaking, and the girl realized that the creature was just as frightened of her as she was of it.

She stayed silent this time, waiting, as the creature wrung its hands. "Does the girl need anything?" it asked, voice like a hand moving through gravel. When she nodded, mute, the creature nodded with what looked like relief. "I will tell the Mistress you are awake."

Then it fled, leaving the girl staring after him in shock.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

New short story: Redeemed Items

Sometimes, trouble was so obvious you could practically hear the dramatic music.

Mavis kept one eye on the teen who had just stepped into the shop, their hunched posture and dingy red hoodie making further identification impossible. Anyone who tried that hard to make sure no one could see their face was automatically up to no good, and the way they were moving along the displays didn’t help matters. This person’s attention wasn’t on the shelves, stuffed with a range of items that fell somewhere between antiques and junk. No, their attention was on Mavis herself, waiting for the moment when her attention slipped.

Mavis pretended to oblige, letting both her eyes rest on her account book. She barely had to wait ten seconds before she heard the sound she was looking for, not quite covered by a fake cough. The cough actually drew more attention to what they were doing, though the more inexperienced ones never seemed to realize that.

Of course, none of them had quite as much experience as Mavis did. “You’re not as good at sneaking as you think.”

She looked up as the teen froze, face still carefully turned away from Mavis’s view. “I didn’t steal anything.” The voice was high enough that Mavis was willing to guess girl, though there was a rough edge to it that usually only came with throat injuries. “I wouldn’t.”

“I’dve preferred you try to steal something.” Mavis could hear the sympathy slipping into her own voice, completely against her will. The injured ones always got to her, whether she wanted them to or not. “Whatever you just added to that shelf, child, take it back. I’m not running a collection agency here.”

“I didn’t put anything on the shelf.” The girl tried to sound casual, but Mavis could hear the waver fear put into the words. “I was just looking.”

Mavis sighed as she pressed the button that locked the door. “I know every single thing on those shelves. If I have to come over there, you’ll walk out of here with both your unwanted prize and an amulet that compels you to shake the hand of every single person in the world with brown eyes.”
The girl made a distressed noise, then covered her mouth with her hand. She had to breathe carefully for a few seconds before she spoke again. “Amulets can’t really do that,” she said finally, voice far too even to be anything but fake. “Magic isn’t real.”

The amulet wasn’t real, in fact, but there was no need to tell the girl that. “Then there’s nothing stopping you from picking up whatever you just tried to slip me. If you have it in your hand, I’ll let you walk out the door right now.”

There was a long moment of silence, then the girl surprised her by walking up to the counter. She stood there a moment, eyes resting on the edge of the account book, then lowered her hood and looked up to meet Mavis's gaze.

Mavis thought she'd prepared herself for anything, but the electric blue lightning that filled her eyes was enough to make her blink. There were no whites, no pupils, but somehow the anguish in them was still clear as day. "I don't know how to make it stop," she whispered. "I tried to give the ring back after the battle was over, but no one would take it. They said the magic would fade once I crossed back over into this world, but it's been months and it's as strong as ever. I can't even use a phone anymore without shorting it out, and the last person who saw my eyes screamed." Her voice cracked on the last word, and Mavis couldn't help but hurt for the girl. "I thought, maybe if I got rid of the ring, it would fade."

Aching at the all-too-familiar pain in the girl's voice, Mavis carefully closed her account book. "Can you hear the ring whispering to you?" she asked quietly. "Or any other kind of compulsion, for that matter. Sometimes it's a pressure in your head, other times it's a buzzing."

The girl looked briefly startled, then shook her head. "No."

Mavis studied the girl's eyes, which hadn't cleared at all in the few moments she'd been away from the ring. "But you can still feel the magic inside you, can't you?"

The slowly dawning horror on her face was answer enough. Mavis's voice gentled. "If it was the ring causing your powers, you'd still feel a connection with it," she explained. "It might have sparked something in you, but its job is done. Getting rid of the ring won't get rid of the magic."

"Maybe if I get further away," the girl pleaded, as if getting Mavis to agree would force the universe to do the same. "Or maybe it just takes more time for it to fade."

Mavis shook her head. "You'd feel the separation already, no matter how short the distance. I'll let you leave the ring, if you'd like, but it won't solve your problem."

Now the girl looked stubborn. "You can't know that." She leaned forward, still focused on trying to convince Mavis. "You might know about magic, but that doesn't"

The rest of the girl's argument choked into silence as Mavis pushed up the sleeve of her sweater. The tattoo covered the inside of her right arm from wrist to elbow, thick, swirling green lines that shimmered like sunlight on water.

"This curl appeared the day I found a necklace in a shop just like this one." She pointed to a small section of the tattoo, almost indistinguishable from the others around it. “It let me open doorways I shouldn’t have, but every time it did a new curl appeared.  A week later, I threw that necklace into the bottom of the reservoir and haven't seen it since." She let the sleeve of the sweater fall. “When it disappeared, the tattoo was less than half the size it is now.”

The girl pressed her lips together. “The magic didn’t leave with the necklace?”

“No.” Mavis’s hand tightened on the page of the account book, letting herself give into regret for a few seconds. “For awhile, I got reckless. Opened a lot of doors I shouldn’t have, told myself it didn’t matter if the tattoo ended up covering my whole body.” She looked down, then met the girl’s lightning eyes again. “Don’t do that. Magic’s like any creature – more you give it, the more it wants. You have to be the one holding the reins.”

The girl swallowed, looking upward like she was sending up a prayer to whatever god or goddess was listening. Then, taking a deep breath, she looked back at Mavis. “Do you need some help in the shop?”

Mavis stared at her, more surprised than she’d been by the sight of the eyes. “I can’t cure you, girl,” she warned her, remembering her own years of hoping. “As far as I can tell, there isn’t one.”

“I guessed that.” She pulled her hands out of the pockets of the hoodie, laying her fingertips lightly along the edge of the counter. “But you seem like you’ve had a lot of practice at surviving.”

Mavis watched the girl’s face, wondering what would have happened if she herself had stepped into the right shop all those years ago. Then she nodded. “I think I can find a place for you.”  

Friday, July 27, 2018

How to let Tom Cruise and Meryl Streep teach you about writing

Photo courtesy of Paramount
So I don't think I've mentioned this here before, but I also write movie reviews on a professional basis. Currently, my reviews are running with the Vail Daily, a newspaper in Colorado, and I'm a member of the Denver Film Critics Society (I was a member of the Utah Film Critics Association, but which group you join depends more on your outlet than where you live).

It's an amazingly good gig for a storyteller to have, because it becomes your literal job to sit there and dissect stories all day. Yes, the language is different for movies than it is for novels, and there are more people to blame when things go wrong -- in a movie, sometimes it's the director or the actors who are at fault rather than the writer. Movies will also try to distract you with explosions and CGI, which is generally much harder to do in text form. (Why yes, I did just recently review "Mission: Impossible - Fallout" for Vail. However did you guess?)

But stories, are at their heart, very much the same. And when you watch enough movies, studying them the same way a biologist studies their animal of choice, you learn all about the ways a story can move. You get a sense of the story's rhythms, the rise and fall of drama, joy and heartbreak. You learn to anticipate plot twists by recognizing the groundwork the writer lays into the script. You learn what it takes to make dialogue flow naturally on the human ear, and hear firsthand how jarring it can be when it doesn't.

Sometimes, that makes it harder for me to just watch movies. It's like someone who studies magic for a living watching a magician onstage. No matter how good they are at the trick, you can't help but know exactly how they did it.

(And when they can surprise you anyway, it's hard not to fall in love a little bit.)

More importantly, though, it makes me a better writer. Doctors study anatomy to know how things should work, and what should be done to fix them when they don't. Criticism requires an intense study in narrative anatomy, walking through the story firsthand to know what works and what doesn't.

It's a knowledge I carry over to every piece of fiction that I write.

For those who are interested, here are some of my recent reviews:

https://www.vaildaily.com/entertainment/the-movie-guru-tom-cruise-surprisingly-funny-in-new-mission-impossible-fallout/

https://www.vaildaily.com/news/the-movie-gurue-eighth-grade-beautifully-painfully-real/

https://www.vaildaily.com/entertainment/the-movie-guru-even-without-meryl-streep-mama-mia-here-we-go-again-is-fizzy-fun/

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 this is the first time in my life I've ever heard Dave apologize. About anything.”
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. “But where's the fun in that?”
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, wanting to give her something in return. The problem was, most of the secrets in his past weren’t nearly so charming or pleasant. “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, trying hard not to think about how much his mother would have liked Thea. “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, and it took far more effort than it should have to keep his voice from cracking. “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 gentle. “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 is fantastically bad at interacting with humans and may or may not have gotten funding from the agro-mafia to help create a super-bacteria?”
“First, I’m almost positive the agro-mafia isn’t an actual thing.” She gave him a wry look. “Second, I’m very familiar with male nerds. I think I can handle your professor.”
Max winced. “Dave may actually be slightly worse than the standard model.” At Thea's surprised look, he shrugged. “It's like the science is really the only thing that exists for him. The rest of the world mostly gets shuffled into a box labeled 'things that distract him from science.’”
Thea’s look had softened to curiosity by this point. “But you two are still close?”
"I don't know if I'd call it 'close.' It's more like he tolerates me, but actively dislikes pretty much everyone else." Back in college, during those first few years after escaping his old life, it had felt like the most honest relationship he had. “He needed someone to run interference for him, 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, clearly catching his evasion. “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 the realm of the simpleton.” 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. “I bet the grant committee was excited to hear how far your research had progressed.”
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. “The drones who hand out the grant money wouldn’t understand the value of what I’m doing if I wrote out a detailed chart for them. For the sake of true scientific achievement, I had to go elsewhere.”   
“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?” But Dave had already left the conversation, staring at his wheat through the wall of the environmental chamber like Max imagined a man would stare at his child through a nursery window. Pride, love, and possessiveness were the most obvious emotions, with the faintest undercurrent of pure terror running just beneath the surface.
Thea cleared her throat to get his attention. “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 to remember the people they cared about. 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 gestured to Thea's 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 voice always goes so soft when you talk to whoever it is,” she explained gently. “And your work phone is always in your right pocket, but since you’re left-handed you can get to that pocket a second faster.” Her smile widened. “We know how much you care about work, so we decided anyone you care about more than that must be a pretty big deal to you.”  

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.

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