Thursday, January 15, 2015

Sneak Peek at new novel

This is the first chapter of a potential new novel I've gotten a bit stalled on. What do you guys think - is it worth continuing? 


Chapter 1: Inauspicious Stars
            The one problem with being the mysterious answer to everyone’s prayers is that you had to dress the part.
            Jess nodded at the assembled townspeople, annoyed at every chilled breeze that snuck in and around the weak protection of her cloak. A coat would have been far more effective, but those were much harder to sweep aside dramatically at key moments.
            Like right now.
            Flinging the fabric back in a bold, theatrical gesture she’d spent a week practicing, she opened the instrument case strapped to her chest and pulled out a slender, wooden pipe polished to a high, attention-grabbing sheen. Then she straightened her spine, lifted her chin, and swept her gaze over the small group of civic leaders who had been kept from their beds to make sure she did the job properly. “Ready?”
            Her audience sized her up, much as they had done in the council meeting earlier where she'd made her initial offer. She was undoubtedly younger than they'd like – though she was certain they were estimating at least a few years older than her real age of 17 – but her cap of dark hair was well-ordered and her features just exotic enough to give her an air of mystery.
            To top it off, she was wearing a purple velvet top and leggings edged in silver piping. It was a ridiculous outfit – she kept it solely for jobs like this – but it looked far more expensive than anything they were wearing.
            People paid far more attention to that than they did her face. 
            One of the council members, a portly woman with her collar buttoned all the way to her chin, raised a hand. “We’ll be able to see if this is actually working, right?”
            Jess resisted the urge to sigh. This was why she did it this way in the first place, rather than the much more sensible route of simply standing on the opposite side of the trench currently waiting on the other end of town. The people needed the show. “Oh, you’ll definitely be able to see it.” She began walking, hoping to forestall any more stupid questions. “Follow me, ladies and gentlemen. Remember, I will not be able to stop or speak until all the rats are dead.”
            Then she put the pipe to her lips and blew the first clean, clear note.
            Despite the impression she liked to give people, this wasn’t the moment when the magic started to happen. She still played pubs and street corners during the lean months and calling rats in the middle of every song would put a damper on tips.
            Jess transitioned the note into a simple pub tune that she could play in her sleep by this point, then let her gaze go glassy as she shifted her focus to deep inside herself. She’d gotten good at pretending this was easy, but it took far more concentration than even the most complicated, demanding song she’d ever played.
            Almost … almost….
            She could practically feel the click as her power kicked in, felt the notes spilling out of her little pipe vibrate with a frequency that refused to sit still so it could be properly heard. As far as she could tell, no one without this particular talent could tell there’d been any change at all, though she’d had a musician or two give her narrow-eyed looks as if they knew something was escaping them.
            Behind her, a few of the less patient souls were getting restless. “What if this is all just a trick?” one man muttered, apparently assuming that she’d gone deaf the moment she’d put the pipe to her lips. "She told us we could see it work, but so far the only thing that's happened...."
            The man's voice trailed off as he finally noticed the faint scrabbling sound behind them.
            Then came the gasps, the sound blending in with the notes she was playing. She'd segued into a more complicated song by this point, the grand entrance music used by a theater troupe she'd worked with as a child, and she turned around and risked walking backwards for a few steps so she could properly appreciate the effect.
            Rats. Only 20 or so at this point – the night was young – with more hurrying to join the parade with every step they took. They'd climbed out of kitchens and larders and holes in the wall, lips silent and eyes glassy with the need to follow Jess wherever she went. By the time they'd made it through the city, there might be a hundred or more.
            "Magic," the mayor breathed, awe and just a little bit of fear in his voice. For the rest of the walk, there wasn't another peep from the town leaders.
            It didn't feel like a very long walk before they'd made it to the other end of town, an empty field with a trench on the other side. As soon as they got into view, a farmer ignited the trench and set the dry brush inside it ablaze.
            Here, the mayor and his council were no longer so interested in following her, hanging back while she and her rats headed for the trench. There was a thin bridge across it, always made of something suitably non-flammable, and after she crossed it she'd kick it into the trench and keep playing. The rats always followed.
            Jess was halfway across when she heard the crack, somehow a thousand times louder than the notes she was playing. Her stomach dropped as she felt the bridge give way, the fire blazing under her feet, but all she had to do was take a few more steps and she'd be—
            A huge, shadowy figure loomed in front of her, cutting off her exit. The music faltered for the first time as she stared at it, a patch of darkness with a few faint hints that might have been a bony face. She took a step away from it without realizing she'd done it, back toward the fire and the crumbling bridge some idiot had made out of wood, she hadn't checked because she'd just assumed no one was that stupid, and her last thought was horror that her subconscious had picked such a clich├ęd image to come to terms with the fact that she was about to d—
            Someone grabbed her, and she fell forward onto the dirt on the opposite side of the trench.
            But no, it wasn't dirt, because as they hit the empty space she'd been about to land on transformed into a teenage boy, the thick glasses he was wearing making his eyes look huge. They stared at each other for a few breathless seconds, both of them clearly clueless about what to do next, then there was the sound of running feet in the distance and what definitely sounded like a curse word coming from the empty space above her head.
            There was a swishing sound, then they were gone.
            They reappeared in a grove of trees, and Jess and the boy immediately scrambled away from each other. A third person appeared a moment later, a middle-aged man with a nametag pinned to his shirt and the pained expression of someone who can’t understand the incompetence going on around him. He turned a fierce glare on the teenager. “What did you think you were doing?”
            The boy hurriedly got to his feet, pushing his sandy-colored hair out of his eyes as he shoved his glasses back up his nose. Jess noticed that he, too, was wearing a nametag, though she couldn't quite make out the words on it from here. “She was right there." Frustration flashed in his eyes. “She probably would have just walked off the bridge if you hadn’t been standing where you were.”
Jess winced internally as she saw the older man’s face go red. Even though the kid had been absolutely right, no one in charge liked to be told something was their fault. Unless you were offering a way to make the problem go away, it was always best to lay the blame on a third party somewhere conveniently far away.          "If she hadn't been about to die, she wouldn't have shown up on my monitor!" the older man snapped. "Your only duty, Mr.—" a quick glance at the younger man's nametag "—Abernathy, is to focus on your job. You are there for one reason and one reason only, to reap the souls of the dead so they can properly move onto the afterlife."
            Jess listened, hand still tight on her pipe as she filed the information away for future reference. Apparently, her foster mother had been right – there really were employment opportunities everywhere you looked. Though she wasn't really thrilled with the fact that these guys were apparently sneaking around invisible unless you were about to die....
            "But she didn't have to—"
            "That doesn't matter. Besides, I'm quite certain you weren't there for the girl at all. There is no way the main office would authorize someone as young as you to be a human reaper."
            For the first time, something that might have been guilt flashed across young Mr. Abernathy's face. "The rats."
            "The rats! Who, as you well know, are now scuttling around that field as tiny, confused rodent ghosts because someone didn't...."
            The man kept talking, but Jess was no longer paying attention. She had disappeared in the middle of a job – one she was definitely going to make sure she got paid extra for, given the bit where they'd nearly killed her – and she needed to get back there before they decided she was pulling a con. She'd already have to sweet-talk them into not caring that she'd have to go through a second round to re-gather the rest of the rats, and the longer she took to come back the more work it was going to be. People panicked more easily than the rats did, sometimes.
            Jess hurriedly scrambled to her own feet, breathing a sigh of relief when she caught sight of flames through the trees. That was probably the trench, which meant the older man had simply transported them to the patch of forest near the field so he could have privacy to chew out his subordinate. It would be easy to slip away before the other two even noticed....
            She'd slipped into the nearest patch of shadow when her traitorous ears chose to tune back into the older man's litany of complaints. " assured, Mr. Abernathy, I'll have to file a report with your supervisor. It won't be pretty..."
            Jess stopped moving. He saved your life, you know, her mind whispered.
            She tried to force her feet to move forward, cursing the strange tugging sensation inside her chest that kept trying to make her turn around. I seriously don't have time for this.
            You'd have even less time for it if you were dead. Which you're not, thanks to the poor kid who's about to get in trouble for making sure you're still breathing.
            "...I know you think you were a hero, but behavior like that undermines the sacred responsibility of every reaper..."
            Reluctantly, Jess turned around. The teen's shoulders were still square, clearly not caved by anything the older man said, but there was a resigned look in his eyes that meant he'd given up fighting. Like he wasn't surprised that this was his only reward for being a hero.
            If you were over there, you could sweet talk his way out of this in five minutes or less. You wouldn't even break a sweat.
            He might not even want me to. Before she'd even finished the thought, Jess knew it wasn't true. Jess knew the look of someone who was completely alone in the world all too well.
            "...You'll be lucky if you keep your job, which you won’t if I have any say in the matter...."
            Both the older man and the young Mr. Abernathy whipped around at the sudden sound of Jess's voice. Before either of them had the chance to speak, she strode back into the clearing as if given a mission vital to the security of a kingdom. "This young man is being a gentleman, but I'm afraid I can't let this misunderstanding continue on any longer." She used the same tone she did for her sales pitches, the one that rang with certainty no matter what nonsense was coming out of her mouth. "He's not the one at fault here."
            Their brows furrowed at the same moment, the usual first reaction of the average mind when told something that so obviously contradicted established reality. The key was to keep talking.
            Jess put on her best "I'm so sorry for the trouble, officer" expression. "A person's instinct for self-preservation is remarkable when they're near death, as I'm sure you both know better than anyone." She nodded as she spoke, a gesture the older man couldn't help but echo. An agreement, even if he didn't consciously realize it. "I don't know where I found the energy, but in that desperate moment as the bridge was collapsing under me I found myself leaping towards the sure safety of the other side. This young man here just happened to be in the way of that leap, which is why I fell on him. I saved my own life, using him as an accidental assistant. He certainly didn't intend to betray the sacred duty of the reapers, sir."
            There was a moment of perfect silence as she let that particular string of nonsense sink in for a few seconds. The teen looked stunned, staring at Jess as if he couldn't quite believe what she was doing. Either he was appalled at the ridiculousness of the lie, or he was completely unprepared to have someone step in and help him for once.
            Either way, she knew exactly how he felt.
            The older man was having more trouble processing. "But I saw—"
            Interrupting him was a calculated risk. "It was a confusing moment, sir. Everything was a blur, fire and limbs everywhere.” She slid into the calm, sure tone of a teacher explaining something to a student who didn’t yet understand. “But when you're the one near death, your mind is clear as a bell."
            He narrowed his eyes at her, a hint of doubt flickering in his eyes. "Do you know Mr. Abernathy, by any chance?"
            "No, sir," she said immediately, completely honest for the first time since she'd opened her mouth. "I've never seen him before in my life."
            The older man swung his gaze to the teenager, wearing the furrowed brow of a man whose certainties were slipping away from him. "If that's what really happened, why didn't you say something?"
            The teen blinked, clearly not having expected to be included in the conversation, but rallied better than Jess expected. "I was confused," he said quickly. "Like she said, everything was a blur."
            The older man sighed, then scrubbed a hand across his face. "Fine. But I'd better never hear your name connected to anything like this again, you understand me?"
            The teen nodded. "Understood."
            The older man gestured back toward the trench. "And I'd better see every single one of those rats properly reaped, you understand me?"
            Telling herself that he could take it from here, Jess hurried through the trees toward the trench and the waiting civic leaders. "I'm back!" she called out as soon as she cleared the tree line, not waiting until they could see her before grabbing their attention. "I've re-channeled my energies after that unfortunate little brush with death, and I'm ready to wrap things up for a very reasonable additional fee of thirty credit slips to compensate me for the fact that you accidentally tried to kill me."
            The assembled group, who had been busy whispering loudly at one another, immediately snapped to attention at the sound of her voice. “We didn’t try to kill you!” one of them called out, sounding genuinely offended by the thought.
            “You put a wood bridge up over a trench full of fire, when I specifically said something non-flammable.” She flashed a bright, humorless smile when she got close enough that they could see her expression. Every one of them winced or looked away. “Though remember, I did say accident. Mistakes happen to the best of us.”
            The buttoned-up woman took a step forward. “How did you survive it?” she asked, notes of something that might have been fear dancing under the surface of her voice.
            Now, this was the tricky bit. The mostly independent villages and towns that were a piper’s bread and butter tended to spook easily. When they were truly afraid of you, being run out of town with pitchforks and torches was the best-case scenario. At the same time, it didn’t do to let the serious, responsible citizenry think they could push you around or deny you your hard-earned payment for services rendered. 
            Jess waved a hand, as if discussing something of no consequence. “Magic.”
            They all stared at her for a few beats of silence as both the word and the gesture soaked in, their minds undoubtedly already spinning details to fill in the gaps. Rumors were wonderfully useful in her line of work.
            Finally, the mayor sighed. “Fine. I’ll pay your ‘accident’ fee out of pocket as soon as you finish dealing with the rest of the rats.”
            Jess relaxed the small muscles in her face that let the smile seem much more warm and natural. “Excellent. Let’s get started.”
            She stayed on the other side of the trench this time, pouring a little more effort into the playing and letting the rats come to her. When no more appeared Jess played a few more minutes, just to be sure, then followed the mayor to his house and collected her additional fee. When he grumbled, she smiled at him again.
            Once that was done, the next step was to find a stable to bunk down in for the rest of the night. She’d already picked one out on her way into town, small but clean and occupied by a couple of older horses that looked too tired to get uppity about a human sharing their space. She should be there right now, in fact.
            Instead, she was back in the empty field, standing close to the still-smoldering trench and looking for a shadowy figure she already knew she wouldn’t see. She'd already guessed that she'd only seen the teenage boy and his supervisor like that at first because she'd been about to die, exactly the kind of neat little trick that would keep the majority of people from figuring out that the Grim Reaper was probably a guy just trying to make his child support payments.
            For that matter, the younger reaper might not even be here. Jess had no idea how long reaping took, which meant he could have very well finished the job before she'd even left the mayor's house. He was probably home in bed right now, hoping that his next assignment kept him far away from troublemaking pipers.
            I don't have time for this, either, she told herself. He's not even here.
            Hey, I'm not the one who dragged you back out into this field. This was all your idea.
            Jess sighed, remembering the surprise on the teen's face when she'd stepped in to help him. "Thank you for saving my life," she called out to what was undoubtedly empty air. "I'm not used to having someone looking out for me like that."
            The only response was silence. Embarrassed, Jess shrugged her pack higher onto her shoulder and began walking back to the stable. She had to have burned through her allotment of guilt for the year, and if she didn't sleep like a baby she was going to have stern words with—
            "Me, either."
            Jess whirled around at the sound of the younger reaper's voice. He was standing only a few feet away from where she'd been, caution in his eyes and hands half lifted as if he didn't know what to do with them.
            When she didn't say anything, he cleared his throat and clarified. "I mean the way you talked Mr. Garrett around. I'm not that good at lying – there's no way I could have sold a story like that."
            For a second, all she could do was stare at him, caught off guard nearly as badly as she'd been with the bridge.
             Seeing her expression, he looked embarrassed. "Listen, I didn't mean ... It was a good lie, really."
            That surprised a laugh out of Jess. "It was a ludicrous lie. The only reason it worked at all is because I'm an excellent liar."
            His expression relaxed, a smile slowly easing its way into existence. "I noticed."
            Shaking herself back into her usual composure, she held out a hand. "I'm Jess. Please tell me there's something I can call you other than Mr. Abernathy."
            His smile widened. "Thomas." He shook her hand. "Thank you for saving my job."
            "Least I could do." She shifted, not sure what was going to happen next. It was an unusual feeling for her. "I'm glad you were still here. Most people would be home in bed by now."
            "I don't really have a bed." He shrugged. "I usually just find a stable somewhere when I'm on shift."

            Jess smiled back at him without even entirely realizing she was doing it. "I know the perfect place."

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