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.  

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Missing scene from "How to Win Over Your Arch-Nemesis (In Three Easy Steps)"

***Spoilers for "How to Win Over Your Arch-Nemesis," naturally.***

So, I'm in the process of writing Thea and Max's next e-book adventure, and this little missing scene from "How to Win Over Your Arch-Nemesis" suddenly hits me. It fits in after the case gets solved and before the very last scene.

A part of me wants to edit the book to include it - a lovely thing about self-publishing e-titles is that I can do that without too much trouble - but a part of me thinks it would ruin the flow of the story as it stands. Let me know what you think in the comments, and either way you can consider this officially canon. (Though the rating is ever so slightly higher than my fairytale stuff, just FYI.)

***

Clubs in Monte Carlo were the same as clubs anywhere else, just more expensive. Max stayed by the bar, cola in a glass normally meant for rum and cola, and his eyes were only for a leggy blonde who was making come-hither eyes at him.

To be fair, he was making those exact same eyes at her. Marissa St. Claire was the reason he was in the club in the first place, a high society girl currently in possession of three vials of a brand-new designer drug that had the unfortunate habit of killing more than half the people who tried it. Really, she should be grateful he was taking them off her hands.

He couldn't exactly ask for them, however, so he was here promising things with his eyes. It wasn't long before she cocked a finger at him, and he abandoned his drink instantly and moved through the crowd to her side.

The song changed to something slower, with a beat designed for sex, and it would have seemed like fate if he hadn't slipped the DJ a bribe the moment he'd gotten here. Max took full advantage of it, moving his and Marissa's bodies together in just the right rhythm to make her think of being tangled together naked in the sheets. Normally, that would be where this was leading, and he'd make off with the vials and slip away after he'd worn her out.

Out there on the dance floor, he considered letting it end up there again. It wouldn't take much - they were practically having sex right here on the dance floor, and if anything the challenge would be making sure she kept her clothes on long enough to get to the room. Though there was always round two....

Then he blinked, surprised for a split second to see sun-bleached waves in front of his eyes instead of the sensible ponytail he'd been... expecting? Imagining?

Either way, it was like a bucket of cold water. His hand skimmed over the curve of her breast only long enough to slip her hotel room key out from where it was tucked into her bra. Then he kissed her neck and shouted that he was getting another drink, slipping away while she pouted in disappointment.

000

"You didn't sleep with her." D's voice in his ear was flat with disbelief. "She was attracted to you enough that you got her room key, and you didn't seal the deal?"

"I don't sleep with everyone," he muttered under his breath, regretting putting the earbud back in his ear. He shut the hotel suite door behind him, dropping the key in just the right place to look like it had fallen out when Marissa originally left the room. "You make me sound like Bond."

"If anything, you sleep with more people than he does," D shot back. "Not that there's anything wrong with that - seduction is a well-established tool of espionage."

"But there are other tools." He started for the safe, then stopped and went for her suitcase instead. "A good spy should use all of them."

There was a moment of blissful silence from D's end, which she promptly went and ruined. "It's that programmer from Chicago, isn't it?"

Max's chest constricted suddenly, making him hesitate. "Thea has nothing to do with this."

D made an exasperated noise. "You changed your codename for her. I told myself that was just because you hated the letter you were assigned, but you haven't seriously looked at another potential bedpartner in weeks."

Spies weren't supposed to miss people, especially women you'd known less than 24 hours. It was practically written into the job requirements, right next to the ability to lie.

But more than once, he'd caught himself wanting to tell her something and wondering what she'd say. Worse, even the smallest reminder of her was enough to chase any other woman right out of his head.

"Did you take your earbud out again?" D snapped suddenly. "Oh, I loathe it when he does that."

"It's still in," Max said quickly, hoping to forestall the rant. He found the vials, wrapped in lingerie, and he took them out and slipped them inside the jacket pocket of the hotel staff uniform he'd "borrowed." "I'm just having a hell of a time denying it."

There was a moment of silence from D's end, then a long sigh. "I've known you for years," she said finally, voice oddly gentle. "And I had no idea you were a romantic."

"How could you?" He slipped out of the suite, shutting the door behind him. "I didn't know."

"Well." She cleared her throat, some of its usual briskness returning. "What are you going to do about it?"

"Practice pick-pocketing," he said under his breath, grabbing an empty food cart from in front of another suite and wheeling it in front of him as he headed for the elevator. "Try to get you to never bring this up again."

D made a dismissive noise. "That's not the spy I know. If you want to see this Thea of yours again, you're going to have to figure out how to make it happen."

Max's fingers tightened on the handles of the cart, chest constricting again. "I didn't know that was an option."

"Darling." D's tone was affectionately chiding. "Since when have you listened to anyone who said you couldn't do something?"

Max stepped into the elevator, doors closing in front of him. Slowly, he started to smile.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

The real heart of “Beauty and the Beast”

©Disney
I’ve always loved “Beauty and the Beast.”

It was an obvious choice for my favorite Disney movie growing up, since I had brown hair and a serious reading habit. I, too, was the girl with the “dreamy far off look” and “my nose stuck in a book,” and if I ever starred in a musical there would absolutely have to be a song where everyone talked about how weird they thought I was. I was also insanely curious, and just like Belle would have immediately investigated the creepy, shut-up part of the house I had been forbidden from going anywhere near.

I identified with the Beast just a much. No, I wasn’t extremely tall and furry, but I was angry and brooding and almost completely lacking in social skills. It was hard to see him as a monster when I could sympathize so completely with him, and it wasn’t like Belle needed the defense – when he roared at her, she yelled right back at him. And he was so eager to learn how to be a nicer person, even though he stumbled sometimes.

The only part of the movie that really tripped me up was the end. As much as I loved the Beast, I had zero interested in the human he turned into at the very end. I didn’t see anything that connected him with the guy I loved – he had a pretty face, and a soft voice, and he was never onscreen long enough for us to see any sign of the anger and awkwardness that had been so much a part of the Beast. Even though he’d been working hard to become a better person, things like that don’t just disappear the moment you get a makeover.

A lot of people see the transformation as the entire point of “Beauty and the Beast.” For them, the moral of the story is that love “fixed” the Beast, making him the metaphorical handsome prince instead of the supposedly scary monster. In its more dangerous aspect, it’s the idea that a good woman is enough to “save” a man (“Fifty Shades of Grey” is really just “Beauty and the Beast” in its most annoying form).

For me, however, I wish the transformation never happened. Or if it did, that the movie made it clear we were getting the same angry, awkward man in a slightly different body. The change that mattered had already happened, the slow transformation of an isolated man into someone who cares enough about others to put their needs before his own. That was the man Belle had already fallen in love with, the man that the weird, awkward dreamer inside her had recognized and responded to. She had been just as alone as he was, surrounded by people who couldn’t see past how different she was.

They were both beasts, in their own way, just like they were both beautiful where it mattered. What they looked like didn’t matter – the fact that they had found each other at all was the real happy ending.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Return to the "How To Win Over Your Arch-Nemesis" universe

I was at the International Spy Museum in Washington D.C. this past weekend and this just sort of happened. I don't now if this counts as a story, but I consider it canon. Spoilers for "How To Win Over Your Arch-Nemesis (In Three Easy Steps)" and warnings for fluff.

Interlude: It Happened One Thursday Afternoon (Allegedly)

This was ridiculous.

Thea stood inside the first gallery of the International Spy Museum, staring at the information boards inviting visitors to test their spy skills and regretting every single life choice she'd made to get to this point. She'd come to Washington D.C. for a cyber security conference, sent by the company owners to make themselves feel better after the hacking scare earlier in the year. Yes, all of the information at the conference was so blazingly obvious she was sure her 13-year-old niece could have taught half the sessions, but it was technically what she was being paid to do at the moment. If she refused to do that, she should at least be doing something she'd be willing to admit to her co-workers.

But... well, there were several things she couldn't exactly admit to her co-workers, weren't there?

Like the way she had, possibly, been recruited into an independent spy agency she still wasn't entirely sure even existed. There was still a small chance she had hallucinated the entire thing, particularly the meeting almost a month ago with the supposed head of the agency (and the call from Max, who she refused to think about), since she hadn't heard from any of them since.

She could technically call them, since she'd been given a special phone designed to do just that, but she didn't really care about proving whether or not they were real. The only person she really cared about hearing from was Max, and with him there was too much of a risk of calling him at the wrong time. She could give away a hiding place, interrupt a deal he was trying to make, anything.

So she was here, trying to... what? Understand? Research? Embarrass herself?

Deciding it was definitely the latter, Thea turned around so she could fight her way back to the museum's entrance. If they wouldn't let her out there, she'd have them direct her to the nearest emergency exit. It wouldn't get her ticket money back, but that was a small price to pay for

"So soon? You haven't even gotten to the fun parts yet."

Thea froze at the familiar voice. Taking a deep breath, she turned around to see Max grinning at her. He was wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with the logo of a sports team she'd never heard of, cargo shorts, sneakers, and one of the baseball caps she'd seen in souvenir stalls around town. He looked indistinguishable from the throngs of tourists surrounding them, completely different from the arrogant attorney she'd assumed him to be when they first met.

Her first thought was how much she'd missed him. Her second thought, thankfully, was considerably more practical. "Have" Realizing what she was about to say, she stopped and leaned in close enough that she could lower her voice. "Have you been tracking me?"

"No more than Homeland Security does," he said under his breath. "We just... borrow their system sometimes to keep an eye on assets, enemies and people we want to make sure stay protected."

She narrowed her eyes at him. "Which category am I in?"

His grin returned, milder but no less genuine-looking than the last one had been. If she never saw his fake smile again, it would be too soon. "I would never make the mistake of calling you an asset."

She could feel her own expression ease. "It's good to know you're smarter than I initially gave you credit for." When he made an amused sound, her lips curved upward. "So, any chance you're going to try and convince me you're in the middle of a mission?"

"I don't know if you noticed, seeing as how it was the entire room was devoted to it, but the museum assigns everyone missions and cover identities when they get here." He offered her a hand to shake. "Hello, my name is Greta."

An actual chuckle slipped out at that. "You make a very convincing Greta."

He beamed at her like she'd just given him a Christmas present, his body relaxing so subtly she hadn't known he was tense until he wasn't. "I had a really boring visit to the FBI Building this morning, and in a couple of hours I've got to jump on a plane to Istanbul. But until then, I'm all yours."

The visit to the FBI Building was no doubt some kind of meeting or debrief, and she knew she didn't want to imagine the kinds of dangerous things he would be doing in Istanbul. But he'd stolen a few hours, just for her, and it felt like she'd been given a gift.

Something inside her softened dangerously. "I won't call you Greta, even while we're here, but you can pick whatever other name you want." He refused to tell her his real name, or even his handle, and so she'd started calling him Max because she'd refused to use his alias in private conversation. He seemed to like it, but she could admit now that it hadn't exactly been fair of her.

There was something very close to fondness in his eyes as they started walking to the next exhibit. "To you, I'm always Max."

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Unsurprisingly, he talked the entire time. His knowledge of spy-related movies and TV shows was almost encyclopedic, and his knowledge of famous real-life spy stories was almost as extensive. He gave her more detailed backstories than they could ever hope to fit on the museum's little signs, coming across far more like a spy nerd than he did a spy. They also had several fascinating discussions about various pieces of old-school spy technology, all couched in discussions Max swore were completely theoretical. She didn't know if she entirely believed him, but as lies went it was both minor and necessary.

His obvious love for the entire profession, however, wasn't a lie at all. It lit his voice every time he talked about some spy's moment of heroism or ingenuity, or oohed and aahed over a particularly cool spy toy. He looked like a little kid talking about what he dreamed of being when he grew up.

The more nuanced insights came far more rarely, particularly because he tended to skim over anything that put a serious look on his face. The CIA made him prone to a bitter-edged sarcasm, at least when it was talked about as an entity and not individual agents, and the FBI left him shaking his head. What either meant, she didn't know - sales people left her prone to sarcasm, but her only connection to them was that they annoyed her.

There was one surprising moment, however. Near the beginning of the exhibits about the history of spying, there was a quote from Sun Tzu's "The History of War": "A military operation involves deception. Even though you are competent, appear to be incompetent. Though effective, appear to be ineffective."

The idea threw her. She thought about the empty-headed charm Max had used when they'd first met, the same that had left her questioning his intelligence, and imagined him putting it on the same way he did his suits. It must work, more often than it didn't, or he wouldn't have defaulted to it so easily.
What did it do to you, to have to hide your intelligence all the time? She'd had to fight tooth and nail to see hers acknowledged, and she couldn't imagine being forced to deny she even had it.

She turned to Max, who shot her a wry look. "Don't tell me you hadn't figured it out by now."

"Oh, I had." She watched his face. "I just hadn't thought about how hard it must be."

Max blinked, startled, and there was a moment when he looked almost flustered. "That's... I..." He floundered a bit, then gave up and cleared his throat. "Thank you."

Touched, she squeezed his shoulder before moving on to the next exhibit. "Come on. You can tell me all about Revolutionary War spying."

They hadn't quite made it through WWII, however, when he leaned close. "Sorry," he whispered. "I wish I could stay longer."

She waved the apology aside, ignoring the weight of disappointment in her own chest. At least he hadn't just slipped away again. "All I ask is that you be better at using your phone."

He looked appropriately regretful. "I haven't snagged a case I'd need your help with, yet."

"Then don't call me for work reasons." She gave him a pointed look. " It's considerably safer for you to interrupt me than it is for me to interrupt you. I'm sure even you can find a few safe moments to tell someone hi."

He hesitated, then a small, soft smile crossed his face. "Yes, ma'am."

She didn't watch him slip away, eyes fixed on an exhibit she didn't have the slightest interest in. A few more rooms made it clear that the rest of the museum had lost its appeal as well, and before too long she started weaving through all the exhibits to the exit.

When she made it to the gift shop, however, one of the women behind the counter waved her hand. "Ma'am? Your friend left something for you."

Thea stopped, coming closer. "A note?"

"No." The woman held up a souvenir bag with a smile. "He said you wouldn't buy yourself anything, so he needed to."

Thea opened the bag, finding a t-shirt that said "Top 10 reasons I didn't make it in the CIA." On the other side of the receipt, he'd scrawled a note. "Don't tell the CIA I gave you this. They wouldn't find it as funny as I do."

Feeling a smile sneak across her face, Thea stopped by the bathroom and changed into the t-shirt before she left. It looked ridiculous with her work slacks, she was sure, but she didn't care.

Being ridiculous wasn't such a bad thing, after all.

A Bonus Scene (from before any of the above happened)

At least it's not the CIA.

Max repeated the familiar mantra to himself as he finally escaped the FBI Building, his dark suit making him indistinguishable from the other people flowing in and out of the building. The debrief they'd insisted on had been both endless and repetitive, and he'd seriously considered escaping out the window a few times. But he hadn't even been tempted to punch anyone, so there was that.

Still, all he had planned for the afternoon was an obscenely long plane ride, so it didn't look like his day was going to improve any. The only thing to do was console himself with a late lunch, preferably one that somehow involved cheese fries, and remind himself that things would finally get interesting again once he actually got to Istanbul.

He was a few blocks away, still mulling over his food choices, when he got a call from what appeared to be the hotel his current alias was staying at. Since that hotel didn't actually have this number, however, there was no hesitation in his voice when he answered. "Let me guess - you've somehow managed to reroute me through Des Moines."

"No, but that's a lovely thought for next time I find you suitably vexing." D's voice was warmly amused. "Now, though, you should be thanking me. I got you a present."

He smiled a little. "Does it explode?"

"If you annoy her sufficiently. It's one of her best qualities."

Max went utterly still. There was only one woman, anywhere, who D could possibility be talking about. "Where? How?"

"She's in town for a cybersecurity conference, but it seems she's decided to play hooky for the day. I'll text you the coordinates, but she appears to be sticking to the tourist areas. You may want to change your clothes."

He was already moving again, hurrying to the nearest Metro station. "How long has she been here?" He'd lost consciousness pretty much the moment his head had hit the pillow last night, barely an hour after he'd landed, but he'd been at that meeting with the FBI for hours. He'd wasted so much time. "Why didn't you tell me?"

"I could say that you had a job to do, and I knew if I told you this you wouldn't do it," D said archly. "Luckily for you, though, the truth is that I found out 10 minutes ago."

There was a strange sort of relief in that. "I never should have doubted you."

"No, you shouldn't have." She sounded mollified. "You owe me."

"I absolutely do." He hung up the phone with a grin, shoving it in his pocket before breaking into a full-out run. It made him more obvious than he liked to be, but right now that didn't matter.

He had someone he needed to meet.

Friday, May 19, 2017

"Piper's Song" excerpt

I'd like to introduce you all to the latest obsession/torment of my life - my current novel, "Piper's Song." I've posted an excerpt here before, but that was like four versions ago. This is from the current one, the one that will mostly stick (barring the inevitable new round of edits, of course):

Chapter 3: The Key to a Drama-Free Life

A year later

Either the Kensford City planners had no imagination, or their residents didn’t. This street market was just the same as all the others Jess had ever passed through, with vendors crowding into the square trying to outshout whoever owned the cart or stall next to them. The people had clearly heard it all before, which meant they were more focused on the gossip their neighbors were sharing than they were hearing about a ridiculously overpriced scarf that was “handmade by the elves, as I live and breathe.”

Jess skimmed her fingers along the mound of apples piled high at the produce stall, ear cocked to take in every mutter of the crowd behind her. She’d been sent an official request for her services, this time, brief and polite and nearly vibrating with an urgency that was never actually stated, but there was no way she was going to speak to the mayor armed with so little.

If the rumor mill was any indication, there was a lot the mayor hadn’t said.

“I’ve had to buy bread three times this week! The rats keep eating it!”

“I swear there was no sign of the little beasts even a week ago, but now they’re everywhere. It’s like an invasion.”

“They’ve practically moved into my daughter’s bedroom! We’ve tried putting poison out, but the nasty things won’t go anywhere near it.”

“I’m telling you, there’s nothing natural about this. Nothing at all.”

Next to her, Thomas made an interested sound that Jess was sure had nothing at all to do with the conversations going on around them. He was intent on his mirror, skimming through various news streams like he was hunting something down, and when he got like this not even an explosion was enough to distract him.

 Jess smiled a little at the memory. Only Thomas would list the likely ingredients of a bomb as they were running away from it.

On her other side, the owner of the stall was winding down his debate with a customer over the price of plums – when the other woman left, Jess knew she would be the next target for the sales pitch. Pocketing the apple closest to her fingers, she reached behind her and hooked her fingers on the hem of Thomas’s shirt. Tugging him over to the next stall – cheese, and the fancy kind by the smell of it – she deposited him safely out of the path of foot traffic and continued to feign an interest in shopping while she listened.

By the time three more people had commented on how “sudden” the infestation was, Jess wondered if there really was magic involved. It didn’t sound like something a sorcerer or sorceress would try – it wasn’t flashy enough, and they likely would have delivered a threat of some kind by now – but it could be just the right sort of revenge for a witch. Particularly one who was mad at the city council for some reason, and might be perfectly happy to pass that grudge onto the piper who just happened to wander into town. Even if she and Thomas didn’t end up a target, the witch could just send a new batch of rats right back into town after they’d left. And Jess, more than likely, would be blamed for it.

Jess sighed. She hated it when things got complicated.

Feeling the stall owner’s attention shift their way, she snagged Thomas’s shirt again and led them both over to a quiet corner. He let himself be guided, waiting until they were out of the way of any other potentially open ears before looking up from his mirror. “Ask for double your fee,” he said quietly, reporting on the research he’d just been doing. He pushed his glasses back up his nose. “Elections are coming up, and if the current mayor doesn’t take care of the rat problem there’s no chance of him getting to stay in office.”

She leaned against the alley wall next to him, watching the crowd move past the entry into the small alleyway. The rhythm of this was already a familiar thing between them, as easy as she remembered it being between the performers in her foster mother’s theater troupe. Only they’d all worked together for years, the history between them all older than Jess herself, and she and Thomas had barely been doing this for a year. It was worrying, when she let herself think about it.

Mostly, she didn’t let herself.

“So that’s a point on the plus side,” she said instead, letting herself get lost in the rhythm. “On the minus side, there’s a chance someone ticked off a witch or a sorceress. We don’t want to get in the middle of that.”

Thomas’s brow furrowed, and he immediately bent back down to his mirror. His fingers flew over the mirror’s surface, various lists and maps flashing by in the smooth glass, and after a moment he shook his head. “There’s been no sign of any kind of trouble like that, and you know how the magic community likes to keep tabs on each other. Besides, the nearest sorcerer or sorceress is 200 miles away, and the nearest witch....” He let the words trail off as he double-checked something. “...left a year ago to take care of her sister after a house fell on her. She’s changed her address on the mailing list and everything.”

“Did you finally let them sign you up?” He’d let himself slip the week before and not-quite-complained about the pressure he was getting from some of the witches on the message boards he posted on regularly. He’d protested, saying he wasn’t even a witch, but apparently the actual witches hadn’t been bothered by that little detail.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

NO MORE E-book problem on Amazon

Update: The problem has been resolved, and the titles should be popping back up throughout the day. Yay!

It seems as though the Amazon Kindle versions of my three full-length novels have currently vanished into thin air, but worry not - it's an issue between the publisher and the site that's caused the problem, and therefore most definitely not a permanent state of affairs. If you can't wait to buy the books, they're still available as print copies on all sites and as e-books on both the iBooks store and Kobo, which has an Android app.

My iBooks links

My Kobo links

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Guest Post: Why zombies are the perfect modern monster

I featured F.J.R. Titchenell on the post when her "Confessions of the Very First Zombie Slayer (That I Know Of)" came out, and since it's being re-released on April 4 with a new publisher and a snazzy new cover I thought I'd have her drop by again to share her thoughts on why zombies are still so gosh darn popular.

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Why Zombies Are the Perfect Modern Monster
by F.J.R. Titchenell

I’m a huge fan of zombie fiction – as you can probably tell by the fact that I wrote a book called Confessions of the Very First Zombie Slayer (That I Know of) – but when asked questions like this one, about why exactly zombies are so popular, I find that my answers tend to get a bit misanthropic.

Why are we so enthralled by the concept of an apocalyptic plague of hungry, infectious walking corpses?

Since the idea has passed through the hands of so many different writers, it’s been spun a million different ways and used to express lots of different things, from anti-materialism to self-exploration to downright futility. In general though, zombie stories that come anywhere close to the standard format of brainless, unsaveable zombies, plucky survivors, and nonexistent infrastructure, all speak to one particular human fear.

The fear of being lost in the crowd.

I don’t just mean literally being lost in a packed space full of hostile strangers, but the fear of our own insignificance on a planet full of people crying out to be acknowledged.

Imagining ourselves against the backdrop of the zombie apocalypse allows us to feel instantly special and separate from an endless crowd of extras by virtue of simply being alive. We and our tiny cast of fellow survivor characters are thinking, feeling, real people who matter; the bodies packing the streets outside aren’t.

Pretty sick, right?

But we all do it. We all fantasize about not having to share, not having to wait our turn, about taking whatever strikes our fancy because there’s no one to tell us it’s not ours, about carving our way through the people in line ahead of us with a chainsaw, because they weren’t real anyway, not the way we are.

Is this a specifically modern desire? I’m sure it’s always existed, but it also makes sense that it could have been intensified by a rising world population, and by improved communication technology making it more obvious to each of us how far from alone we are – and by the same token, how dubious our sense of uniqueness. And while we’re still a very long way off from achieving true universal equality, it is thankfully far less socially acceptable to elevate oneself by openly dehumanizing a particular group of fellow humans than it was, say, a hundred years ago. Maybe fictional zombies have risen as a convenient psychological surrogate for that particular destructive human habit.

I don’t know if all this would make me call zombies the perfect modern monster, but it certainly makes them a great modern guilty pleasure.

So is that all typical zombies fiction is? A safe, controlled outlet for the worst of our remaining lizard-brain instincts?

That’s certainly a large part of it, but I like to think not.

Zombies can also set the stage to explore the best parts of how people respond to a crisis. A lot of zombie fiction tends to focus disproportionately on humanity at its worst, assuming that the majority of people who survive the apocalypse would immediately take the excuse to unveil themselves as the biggest psychos they could possibly be, but my favorite moments are when we get to see how desperate and exceptional circumstances can instead bring out people’s compassion, initiative, and ingenuity.

I like to believe that where there are still humans, there’s still humanity. There’s still love and laughter, even when it has to come in the form of a morbid crutch, and that’s what you’ll find in Confessions of the Very First Zombie Slayer (That I Know of). There might be a psycho or two for flavor, but mostly it’s about a group of teens who could have gone their separate ways in the everyday world, finding time to riff on each other and keep being teens as that world ends around them, even while they adapt to protect and support each other through it.

Oh, and also plenty of looting, skull smashing, traffic law breaking, and fireworks, because you can’t release the zombies and not feed the lizard brain a little.

Come on, now.

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More about Confessions of the Very First Zombie Slayer (That I Know of)

The world is Cassie Fremont’s playground. Her face is on the cover of every newspaper. She has no homework, no curfew, and no credit limit, and she spends her days traveling the country with her friends, including a boy who would do the chicken dance with death to make her smile. Life is just about perfect—except that those newspaper headlines are about her bludgeoning her crush to death with a paintball gun, she has to fight ravenous walking corpses every time she steps outside, and one of her friends is still missing, trapped somewhere in the distant, practically impassable wreckage of Manhattan.


Still, Cassie’s an optimist, more prone to hysterical laughter than hysterical tears, and she’d rather fight a corpse than be one. She’ll never leave a friend stranded when she can simply take her road trip to impossible new places, even if getting there means admitting to that boy that she might love him as more than her personal jester. Skillfully blending effective horror with unexpected humor, this diary-style novel is a fast-paced and heartwarming read.

Pre-order it here:

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More about F.J.R. Titchenell

F.J.R. Titchenell is an author of young adult, sci-fi, and horror fiction. She graduated with a B.A in English from California State University, Los Angeles, in 2009 at the age of twenty, is represented by Fran Black of Literary Counsel, and currently lives in San Gabriel, California with her husband and fellow author, Matt Carter, and their pet king snake, Mica.

The "F" is for Fiona, and on the rare occasions when she can be pried away from her keyboard, her kindle, and the pages of her latest favorite book, Fi can usually be found over-analyzing the inner workings of various TV Sci-Fi universes or testing out some intriguing new recipe, usually chocolate-related. You can find more about her at her official homepage, fjrtitchenell.weebly.com.