#Excerpt “Like No Other Boy” by Larry Center

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Commercial Fiction, Adult

Date Published: June 20th, 2020

Publisher: Splitrail Publishing

 

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Tommy Crutcher is 8 years old and has autism. Although he can’t speak to humans, he appears to have an uncanny ability to communicate with chimpanzees. How Tommy, his father, and a biomedically abused chimp named Albert come together in life-altering ways is the story of LIKE NO OTHER BOY.

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EXCERPT

Chapter One

“The Voice in my silence.” –Helen Keller

It was a Saturday afternoon at the San Diego Zoo, a beautiful day with a pale blue sky. Tommy and I were standing in front of the zebra exhibit. The zebras were running around and nipping at each other, kicking up dust, tails swishing. But instead of watching the zebras, Tommy stepped away from the enclosure and looked down at the ground. He made his usual droning noise that sounded like a motorboat engine, then put a hand to his mouth and gnawed on his knuckles. They were already reddened to the point of almost bleeding. He was eight-years-old and still biting himself. I watched him and winced. As his father, Chris Crutcher is the name—nice alliteration, I think—no matter how much I’d seen him do this, it still hurt to see my little boy harm himself.

In the distance, a lion roared as if he were trying to remind himself of his own kingliness.

“Wow! Look at those zebras, Tom-Tom,” I said, hoping to squeeze at least a drop of interest out of him. I was always trying to make Tommy pay attention to something in the real world, anything, desperate to get him to look and respond. “See their stripes? Aren’t they cool?” I gently pulled his reddened hands away from his mouth. “Zebras like stripes. Strange, huh? If they see stripes painted on a wall, they’ll stand next to the wall. Is that crazy or what?” I’d just read that on a sign nearby. It was an abstract idea to present to him, I knew, but I did it anyway.

Smells of espresso, popcorn, and grilled hot dogs filled the air while crowds of people swarmed around us. Tommy chewed on his hands again, the backs turning wet with saliva that glistened in the bright afternoon sun. He’d been biting himself, self-abusing like that for nearly three years and nothing we’d tried, none of the therapies, seemed to be able to make him stop. Frustrating wasn’t the word.

“Wouldn’t it be cool to ride a zebra? I sure think so,” I said, still trying to draw Tommy out of himself.

I stepped closer to him and knelt down to his level, bringing my face close to his, but Tommy’s foggy stare continued to wander off into the distance. He shrugged and said nothing. This was no-speak, his own secret code. He turned completely away from me and hummed louder. “Ouuuu . . . drrrrrr . . .” Sweat stains dampened the back of his blue shirt. He was being his typical disinterested self. Just another day with my son. I rose back to my full height.

Though his mind was an odd black box, Tommy’s face was close to angelic: symmetrically aligned features on porcelain skin, curly, honey-wheat hair, and long lashes that shadowed eyes so big and blue there was little room for the whites. A gorgeous kid, for sure, a potential child model, tall and gangly for his age. He walked on his tiptoes with a kind of pelican strut, head before body, neck outstretched, legs following.

As I watched four young boys gawk and giggle at the zebras, Tommy spun around, arms extended like a propeller, eyes closed. He looked like he was trying to make himself dizzy. The whirring sound he made turned into “beeeeep, beeeeep.” Then he stopped spinning and slapped himself on the forehead. Just like that. Thwack. I felt a resonant pain in the deepest regions of my gut that seemed to spread through my entire body; empathy pain. I felt it all the time.

“Please don’t slap yourself,” I said. “You know that’s not right. Come on now, let’s have fun here. Zoos are fun.”

But Tommy just looked away, still staring into space. He kept to his own planet, my far-away little boy. I felt like his distant moon.

This was our first trip to the zoo and I was on tentative ground. I’d been looking forward to our time together all week, since seeing the ad on TV that had grabbed me: lions, tigers, polar bears, plus some dandy pandas as well—oh, my! Tommy was mine on weekends, thanks to the shared custody agreement after my divorce. Usually, on Saturday afternoons, we went to the park near my house or worked on puzzles indoors, or just kicked back and watched TV. For us, this was quite the unusual outing.

We left the zebras and their antics and shuffled along the winding sidewalk that flowed around the exhibits. I showed Tommy the giraffes, a nosy lamb at the petting zoo, and two enormous elephants that flapped their ears and lumbered lazily around. He hardly seemed to notice them.

Even a unicycling juggler throwing yellow balls into the air didn’t stop Tommy from going after his hands again, chomping away at his nails and skin. Wearing a polka-dotted shirt and a great big smile, the juggler stopped in front of us. He tossed balls up and down in revolving circular patterns, catching a ball or two behind his back. It was a show, a real eye-catcher.

“Wow! Look at that juggler, Tom-Tom,” I said, pointing. “Isn’t he good?”

But Tommy was more interested in a nearby pile of dirt. Moving away from me and withdrawing even deeper into himself, he picked up clods of it, squeezed, and then let them fall. Now his hands, already wet, were a mess. Great.

As I reached for a wipe from my backpack—wherever Tommy and I went, Mister Backpack went, too—I noticed a father and son sitting on a bench not far from us. The boy, dark-haired and pudgy, appeared to be around Tommy’s age.

“Daddy, a juggler!” the boy said, excited. “Look!”

“He’s good, isn’t he?” The father fiddled with his phone as he spoke.

“Maybe I could learn to juggle like that. He’s so cool! Hey, Dad, can we go see the reptiles next? Please? We learned about them in Miss Wexler’s class.”

“Sure, son.”

Jealousy stabbed me, although I knew I shouldn’t feel it. While that kid was having a normal talk with his dad, Tommy was picking up a rock and putting it down, picking it up and putting it down, then crumbling a leaf in his hands. He said not a word. This was his way, hyper-focusing on a particular object and blocking out everything else around him.

The juggler moved on. I swallowed hard. “Okay, Tom-Tom, let’s go check out some more animals,” I said, trying to maintain my encouraging tone.

“Daddy.” Tommy shook his head, looking past me. It had been his first word in a half-hour. “Go. We go.” He spoke in what I called brick-words, words that all sounded the same, as if they dropped heavily from his mouth pre-formed, one on top of the other in monotonic units.

“Really? But we haven’t even seen the reptiles.” I faced him. “Don’t you want to see the reptiles? The snakes and stuff?”

“Go. Go. Pleeeeease. Go.” Tommy hung his head and fidgeted. He put his right thumb into his mouth, then whirled around. I always saw his persistent hand biting, his spinning, and his motorboat buzzing as sounds that reflected the storms deep within his mind.

“Sure. Of course, we can go.” I gave him a smile. I wasn’t about to push him past his limit.

Tommy seemed unfazed by the big things in life, like being shared between his parents, living in two houses, and getting emotionally tugged this way and that ever since Cheryl and I had divorced two years ago—my uncivil war as I called it. Yes, he had his fixed routines, but he’d seemed to take the change in his parents’ relationship in stride. It was the impact of unexpected sensory experiences—crunchy peanut butter, the label on the back of his shirt, even the sight of the Sunday newspaper in disarray on the floor—that made him whine and pitch fits. These roadblocks could bring the neuron highway of his mysterious mind to a painful standstill.

When Tommy found a cigarette on the ground and reached for it, about to pick it up, I pulled his hand away just in time.

“Don’t, Tommy. No! You know better than that.” He would have put it in his mouth if I hadn’t stopped him. I took a long breath and released it slowly, my eyes landing on a red-haired child eating pink cotton candy, swirls of it like edible clouds. “Okay. Let’s go, then. I guess we’ve seen enough.”

“Go . . . Go,” he said. His words seemed so disconnected, as if they arose not from his wants and needs and emotions, but from some kind of word-producing system inside his body that mechanically emitted vowels and consonants.

But on the way to the exit, we wound up near an African bird exhibit in a less populated area of the zoo. With Tommy still humming and murmuring by my side, oblivious to the world around him, I followed a long and winding trail. Instead of taking us to the exit, the shade-covered path ended in Primate World, which was set back on its own. Sounds of chimpanzees shrieking in the distance made Tommy stop dead in his tracks. He blinked, then moved forward with caution. He stood higher on his tiptoes and made a soft, inquisitive sound. “Oooouuuuwoooo.”

“What’s wrong, Tom-Tom?” I asked, narrowing my eyes. I knelt down to his level. “Are you all right?”

Tommy just sucked in a big breath as if he were about to blow out a birthday candle, then shuffled on as I followed behind. Instead of complaining, he headed straight for the exhibit and entered. He seemed suddenly curious. Interested. And I was intrigued.

From a distance of about fifty feet, we could see a single large and hairy chimp, chomping on leaves in the sunlight, separated from us by a thick glass panel. Tommy’s face flushed.

“Hairy so much,” he said, pointing at the chimp. “Wow.”

“Yes. They’re cool, for sure. They’re chimpanzees. You like them?” I rubbed my chin as I studied him, then glanced at the chimps.

“Wooooow.” Tommy clapped his hands. “Woooweeeee. Go. Here.”

“Sure.” His newborn enthusiasm made me smile broadly. It was just so completely unexpected.

As we made our way down a narrow path shaded by large overhanging trees, we found a group of chimps set behind glass walls, nestled in a jungle-like atmosphere. Large climbing rocks and verdant trees abounded in a field of grass and bushes. It looked homey, like an outdoor chimp hotel. Some of the chimps were playing or cuddling, some lumbered around, and others simply sat by themselves and stared vacuously into space. Tommy pointed at one of the chimps shuffling around near the glass.

“Woweee.” He stood unusually motionless and just took it all in. “Wowweee. Cooool.”

This sudden curiosity made my mouth drop open. I’d never seen him so engaged and he wasn’t biting his hands or anything. A slow-moving chimp shook his head, scratched an ear, and shambled past us, lazily heading for a rope swing. Another chimp stuck out his tongue and then flicked his hands in the air. Tommy watched them all with such focus, his eyes fixated on the animals.

He turned to me and pointed at one of the larger chimps sitting by the window. “She baby in tummy, Daddy.” He cocked his head. “She chimpie baby in chimpie mommy tummy!”

“Really? You think so?” I raised an eyebrow and folded my arms across my chest.

“Yep. She baby.” He spoke so matter-of-factly as glimmerings of excitement shone in his eyes. “She chimpie baby. Chimpie in there and happy!”

“That’s using your words. I really like that.” I laughed and stepped closer to him. “But how do you know she has a baby?” The chimp didn’t have a protruding belly as far as I could tell, though I was far from an expert.

“Baby! Daddy! Chimpie!” He actually hugged himself and giggled.

I couldn’t believe it, this new eagerness of his. My breath caught in my throat as I stepped back, accidentally bumping into another onlooker, a short man with a full beard. Stroking his beard and scratching his head, the man shot me a nasty look.

“Sorry,” I mumbled.

The man replied with a grunt as he moved past us. The adult chimp that Tommy had pointed at stood up, screeched, then raised a smaller chimp on to its shoulders with the ease of an acrobat.

“Can you tell Daddy how you know?” I pushed back my Padres baseball cap as I gazed down at him.

But once again, Tommy said nothing. He brought his hands back up to his mouth and nipped the backs of them.

“Tommy, can we please not do that?” I shook my head, hoping he would listen.

It was as if Tommy’s brain had gone into loop mode, playing a certain behavior over and over again like a song. In desperation, I turned to Plan B—speaking cartoon-ese. As a professional voice-over actor in the San Diego area—Loco Bob’s out of his mind with price cuts! Discounts galoooore!—I could produce a number of cartoon voices—“That’s-that’s all, f-f-folks!” This skill had made me a hit at kids’ birthday parties and, to be honest, some late-night adult parties as well.

“Hey, Tom-Tom.” I channeled my inner SpongeBob SquarePants and spoke in his goofy, clunky, cartoon voice. “Let’s put our hands in our pockets, okay? No biting, okay? You know that would make me sooooo, soooo happy. Pockets please, my little starfish.”

“Okay, SpongeBob.” The words plopped out of his mouth and I was gratified. Tommy looked down shyly and stuffed his hands into the pockets of his khakis. As he rocked on the balls of his feet, he looked past me and stuck out his tongue, making a long circle with it around his lips, sides, top to bottom. “’Kay.”

“Thank you. And,” I winked, switching to a deeper tone, “oh yeah, Larry the Lobster thanks you too.”

But then Tommy threw me another curveball: he pulled his hands from his pockets and pressed his index fingers against his roughened thumbs, a motion similar to snapping his fingers. He moved them against each other, producing what seemed like a soft, scratchy flick, rub, flick, rub, rub . . . flick-flick, rub. I’d never seen him do anything like that before. He knew some sign language—about fifty signs. He’d learned them at school as a way to improve his communication abilities and relieve his frustrations. Of course, Cheryl and I had taught ourselves some signs, as well. But these motions were nothing I could recognize.

“Are you okay, Tommy?” I bent down to his level once again and frowned, worried the new hand gestures could be the prelude to another tantrum. In fact, he’d already thrown a fit this morning over a spilled-milk issue and had nearly split his lip on the kitchen counter. My muscles stiffened. Tommy’s tantrums were living nightmares. They haunted my dreams.

Tommy stopped flicking his fingers, cocked his head as if listening to an inner voice. “She baby in tummy. Baby mommy, see?” he said again, pointing at the same chimp.

When he was seven, Tommy had tested at the four-year-old level in terms of expressive language, and typically his days and nights were filled with bouts of prolonged and remote silence, followed by short, sporadic glimmerings of monotonic speech. There were times when he seemed to be improving, then other periods when he regressed, his disordered mind fighting the very basic nature of communication. It was heartbreaking. There was no other word to describe it. But on that afternoon at the zoo, I felt a glimmer of hope. For him, “She baby in tummy,” was practically a speech.

He made the sign for chimp—I had no idea he even knew that sign, though I remembered it—putting your hands at your sides and scratching upwards, as if you were an ape.

“How do you know about the baby, Tommy?” I asked.

He tugged at his juice-stained, olive-green T-shirt, folded his arms across his chest, and offered something I was always yearning for—direct eye contact. Though he didn’t speak, direct eye contact was gold to me. His blue eyes, which usually skittered and darted around like butterflies, landed on my face and stayed there, holding my stare for several long, spectacular moments.

“Daddy belly,” Tommy insisted in his staccato-like talk. “She . . . baby . . . baby belly in tummy.” He spoke as if he were lecturing me. I grinned. The mild breeze wafting in from the coast seemed to reflect my elevated mood.

I pointed to a larger window exhibit of chimps down the path. “Let’s go over there. I think we can get a better look.”

“Okay, Daddy.” He scrunched up his face and clapped his hands, then surprisingly doled out a burst of enthusiasm. “Yeah!”

“Wow, Tom-Tom. You really do like these chimps, don’t you?”

Again, Tommy nodded vigorously, a serious expression on his face.

Although a crowd had gathered at the glass, I stayed close to Tommy and eased us both to a spot where he could watch the primates without obstruction. I had no idea what to make of his uncanny interest in these creatures, though, I, too, was mesmerized by the chimps and their almost human mannerisms as they lolled around, picked at each other, or wandered in search of a new leaf to mash on their teeth and tongues. Some looked sleepy, some content. Regardless of their actions, they paid no attention to the Homo sapiens on our side of the glass.

But when Tommy started flicking his fingers again, a big chimp with a wrinkled face and dark, watery eyes took notice. He shook his head, then waddled over to where Tommy stood. Again, Tommy made the sign for chimp, curling his hands at his sides. Big Guy’s eyes remained glued on Tommy, who placed his hand against the glass, and then . . . damned if the chimp didn’t do the same. Hand against hand, boy and chimp. Big Guy bellowed.

The two locked eyes and stood stock-still, focused so intensely it seemed like each was channeling the other’s thoughts.

Tommy beamed at the chimp while I watched, stunned, my lips parted. Tommy bobbed his head and, in imitation, the chimp bobbed too, sticking his tongue out. Then the two started swaying together like synced metronomes. When Tommy made another odd, flicking gesture, the chimp rubbed his thick fingers together as well. I laughed out loud. Truly, this was the craziest thing I’d ever seen. Tommy just stood there, an intent look on his face. He seemed so absorbed, so focused, like I’d never seen him before.

Three other chimps shuffled over, using their own hand movements and facial expressions, gawking, stretching their mouths wide. They gestured to each other with large movements of their arms. They eyeballed Tommy and Tommy alone, intent expressions fixed on their friendly faces. One chimp with gray, wispy hair under his chin screeched, flailed his arms, and jumped up and down as if trying to get Tommy’s attention. But Big Guy and Tommy ignored him, mesmerized with each other. When Tommy touched the top of his head, Big Guy did the same. Then when Tommy rubbed both of his ears, Big Guy rubbed his ears as well. The bearded man I’d bumped into earlier stood next to me, his arms folded across his chest.

“Now ain’t that somethin’,” he intoned. I turned away from Tommy and realized we were surrounded by a growing group of onlookers.

“Hey, Brandy,” I heard a voice say. I spied a tall woman in a white dress standing next to her black-haired female friend. Smiles had blossomed on their faces. “Look at that kid. The chimps can’t take their eyes off that little boy. It’s so cute!”

On the other side of us was a lanky teenager with pimples on his chin. He’d whipped out his phone and was recording Tommy’s interactions, the way the chimp was imitating Tommy. “This is so rad,” he mumbled.

Oh, God. A YouTube moment. I thought about tapping the kid on the shoulder and making him stop. But why cause a scene? Besides, when you were out in public, wasn’t privacy a thing of the past? Maybe I should record this, too. But my cell phone was just about out of battery power.

“Whose kid is that?” asked a man behind me as I swung around.

“There’s the dad,” a woman said in a New York accent. She was short, with black hair and black glasses. She pointed at me. “The tall guy with the Padres cap.”

“That’s me, all right.” I raised my hand slightly and everyone laughed. I felt my face flame up as fatherly pride melted like warm butter in my chest. I stood a little taller, straightening my shoulders.

Tommy flicked his fingers even more vigorously. Then he made the sign for play: hands turned sideways, shaped like the sign for Texas Longhorns, wiggling up and down. Then back to the flicking, which looked as if he were somehow tapping out the primate version of Morse Code.

Big Guy opened his mouth wide and let out a jungle-shriek. He returned the finger flicking, and then wiggled his hands and held them in a way that looked awfully similar to Tommy’s “play” sign. Wispy Hair tried to shove Big Guy out of the way, but the big chimp refused to budge.

“Play . . . make . . . chimps.” Tommy gazed up at me. He made the play sign, then the chimp sign.

“I see that,” I said. “I had no idea you liked chimps so much!”

“Do, Daddy. Doooo.”

I reveled in another delightful moment of Tommy’s lingering eye contact and in the brightness on his face. He seemed unlocked by the experience, transformed.

Before we left the exhibit, I turned around and gazed once more at the chimps, who were still scampering around. They were so human-like, with their contemplative gazes, their self-conscious movements, their gestures. Surely, there was more than a bit of Homo sapiens running in their blood. And were we humans more chimp-like than we realized?

Maybe some of us more than others. I smiled to myself, thinking of the bearded man I’d bumped into, then edged closer to Tommy, who now fidgeted and hung his head, silent as ever. What was Tommy contemplating? His shoes? The shadows that dangled around him?

“Those chimpies really like you, Tommy.” I crouched down to his level. A bead of sweat dotted his upper lip.

He didn’t say anything, but he gave me another wondrous moment of direct eye contact and I drank it in. Then snot bubbled from his nostrils. I produced a tissue from Mister Backpack, which was stocked with a change of clothes, tissues, band aids, the works, and tried to wipe Tommy’s face clean. He grimaced and jerked and twisted away from me, but I persisted.

“Nooo!” He folded his lower lip in defiance.

“Come on, son. Let me just wipe your  . . . there,” I said when I was done. “Thank you.”

“Daddeeee.” Tommy rubbed his nose with the palm of his hand, reddening his nostrils. His stubborn refusal to allow me to touch him had always hollowed me out. He pointed back at the chimps. “Like.” He spoke loudly, then expanded his arms like wings and made the “like play” sign. “Like chimpies, Daddy. Big lots!”

“Well, that’s great, Tom-Tom.” I beamed, grinning.

“Chimpies,” Tommy said. “Chimpies.” He clapped his hands and jumped up and down, excitement flashing on his face.

Did you know chimpanzees only have babies every four to five years? We are very proud to announce that here at the San Diego Zoo, Wanda G, our newest chimp, is expecting a baby in approximately eight months!

I read the sign twice, blinking rapidly. Damned if there wasn’t a picture of Wanda G herself on the sign—the chimp who looked awfully like the one Tommy had said was pregnant.

I stood still, hairs on the back of my neck tingling. How in the world had he known?

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 About the Author

Larry Center has a degree in philosophy and has written four novels. He is especially interested in the relationship between animals and humans in terms of communication overlaps. He lives in Nashville, TN and writes constantly.

 

 

Contact Link

Website

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Purchase Link

Kindle Unlimited

Amazon

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#BookBlitz “The Orchid Farmer’s Sacrifice” by Fred Yu

TheOrchid copy

I would buy this book based on the cover alone! Check out The Orchid Farmer’s Sacrifice, coming this Fall!

The Orchid Farmer's Sacrifice - eBook (2)The Orchid Farmer’s Sacrifice (The Red Crest Series #1)

Expected Publication Date: October 5th, 2021

Genre: Asian Fantasy/ Epic Fantasy

He was born of prophecy. If he can’t embrace his destiny in time, his country is doomed.

Ancient China. Spoiled and overconfident, eighteen-year-old Mu Feng relishes life as the son of an honored general. But when his sister is abducted and his friends slaughtered, he flees home. He soon discovers the mystical birthmark on his body has attracted an enormous price on his head.

Pursued across the Middle Kingdom, Feng finds allies in two fierce warriors and a beautiful assassin. When he learns his ultimate enemy plans an incursion with advanced weaponry, he must call on his friends and his own budding military genius to defend his country. His plan is desperate, and the enemy outnumbers him twenty-five to one…

Can Feng fulfill a duty he didn’t know he had and unite the empire against a terrifying force?

Coming Soon!

Chapter One

Mu Feng woke to the call of a rooster, unsure where he was. He was staring into an empty flask flipped over and wedged against a stack of plates.

He pulled his silk robes tighter around his body. This was not his bed. His body lay bent and twisted against the hard edge of a wooden table, and his face was soaked from sleeping in a puddle of spilled liquor all night. He supported himself on one elbow to stretch his sore hip.

His three friends were still asleep, two of them snoring on the floor and another sprawled on a narrow bench, his arms and legs dangling.

Vague memories of the night before brought a smile to Feng’s lips—drinking, eating, and playing dice deep into the night. Empty flasks were scattered everywhere. Two large buckets of water remained half full.

Feng flinched against the dull pain at the base of his skull. He rubbed his oversized forehead and reached for a bowl. He hadn’t drunk enough water, and now the headache would nag him all day.

He sat back and gulped down the water, one bowl after another, and then paused to take a deep breath. He remembered coming to the Rider’s Inn with three of his best friends last night. The first floor of the little inn was packed. There were no rooms left upstairs, and the innkeeper was going to ask one of his customers to find somewhere else to stay because the general’s son, Mu Feng, needed a place to sleep.

Feng assured the innkeeper he would be drinking all night and didn’t need a room.

He remembered the innkeeper bringing him the very best drink they had to offer, a liquor made from sorghum buried in the ground for thirty years. It was something so exquisite only a Tiger General’s son could afford it. Feng remembered sipping the liquor and commenting that the taste resembled an onrush of invading cavalry, the sound of a thousand war drums approaching until it became thunder, then breezed by to leave an exhaustive state of calm. One of his friends laughed and told him to get drunk.

Feng needed to hurry home. The ride back would not be long—only a trip through a small forest. But he was to train his father’s pike unit that morning, and it wouldn’t look good for the instructor to arrive late.

The front door had been left open, and a little boy, his face filthy and his clothes in tatters, stood outside.

The boy’s a beggar and wants something to eat, Feng thought. He took a piece of copper from his pocket and stumbled to the door. The boy inched back, leaning away as if preparing himself to run.

Feng placed the coin on the table closest to the entrance. “Here, kid. Get yourself some food.”

Ding, facedown on a bench only a moment ago, was already on his feet.

“We need to go,” Feng said. “I can send a servant later to pay the innkeeper.”

“You must have paid him four times already,” Ding said. He planted a sharp kick into one of his friends on the floor and squatted down to scream in his ear. “Get up, Wen!”

He proceeded to the next drunk, curled under a table and still snoring, and kicked him in the ribs. “Get up, Little Chu. Feng needs to go home.”

Little Chu groaned. He lifted his head, his eyes still closed. “I don’t want any breakfast.”

“You’re not getting any,” Feng said with a laugh. “But there’s plenty of water in that bucket.”

Ding headed for the door, his long sword dangling by his side. “I’ll get the horses ready.” He stopped by the table near the entrance. “Who left the coin here?”

“It’s for the kid,” Feng said, turning and pointing outside. The boy was no longer there. Feng walked to the door and pulled it wide open for another look. “He was just here.”

Wen lumbered to his feet, towering over the others. “What boy?” he asked, his voice booming across the room. He hoisted a heavy bucket to his lips for a gulp or two, then poured the rest of the water over his head.

“A young beggar,” Feng said. “So many of those little things around here.”

Wen’s laughter thundered across the room. “See? Even a beggar knows he can’t take money from a dead man. You drank so much last night the boy thought you were a hungry ghost.”

“Shut your mouth,” Chu shouted, clapping Wen’s back with the hilt of his sword. Wen laughed even harder.

Ding returned, pulling the horses with one hand and carrying all four saddles with the other.

Feng stepped into the morning sun and took a deep breath. He reached for the harness of a gigantic warhorse, a gift from Uncle Shu this year for his eighteenth birthday. He stroked the nose of the charger, then the mane, and took the saddle. The horse reminded him every day that he was an adult, despite his boyish features and lanky arms, and he was commander of the best pike men in the world.

Little Chu turned back to the mess they were leaving behind—the empty bowls, the plates, and the overturned liquor flasks. “Too bad Du didn’t want to come last night. Since when did we ever go drinking without him?”

“He wanted to,” Ding said, “but he was vomiting and couldn’t get up. Must have been something he ate at the whorehouse.”

“He ate at a brothel?” Wen asked. “What kind of meat do they serve there?”

Ding turned to his friend with a smirk. “Why don’t you ever go to the whorehouse, Feng?”

Feng finished saddling his horse and leaped onto his charger. “Let’s go.”

“Feng’s father is a Tiger General,” Little Chu said. “He can get any girl he wants.” He guided his horse toward the road and squeezed its belly with his stirrups. The horse lurched forward.

“But then he’ll have to marry her!” Wen shouted from behind, hurrying after his friends. “I’d rather pay some money to amuse myself than be stuck with a wretch in my house.”

In a moment they were on the main road, riding at a comfortable pace. After a while the path bent into a forest and narrowed. The four friends merged behind one another, proceeding in single file. The dirt trail was an easy ride, well maintained and free of overhanging branches and intruding vegetation.

It was still early in the morning, and the ride home would be short. Feng relaxed a little, but not entirely. His father would be furious if he found out his son was too drunk to come home last night and couldn’t return in time to train his pike unit. He might even forbid Feng from leading his men again, a position Feng had to beg for over the years.

General Mu, Feng’s father and one of four Tiger Generals in the empire, was known as the General of the Uighur Border. He guarded the westernmost fortress in the empire. The portion of the Great Wall that he protected and the North Gate, which opened into the City of Stones, faced the land of the Uighur. It was the final stop on the Silk Road before entering the Middle Kingdom.

General Mu’s city was one of few fortresses built in a valley along the northern mountain chains. It was low enough to lose the advantage of elevation, which so much of the Great Wall depended on, but flat enough for travelers and barbarian traders to meet in this border city. Over the years General Mu had imposed heavy punishments on anyone harassing or discriminating against the foreigners, and despite countless skirmishes at the Great Wall, the City of Stones was never attacked in earnest. Commerce thrived at a time of heightened tensions between the Middle Kingdom and the barbarian nations. Chinese and Uighur, Khitans and Mongols assembled in the same bustling marketplace in the center of town and bartered. The city seemed oblivious to the politics of the Asian kingdoms.

The general placed his only son, Mu Feng, in command of the pike unit, but he was never permitted to confront the barbarians. The archers, the cavalry, and the anti-siege personnel were all deployed during border skirmishes with the Uighur.

Feng’s pike units were never battle-tested, and he never understood why. In military matters his father always sought his advice and often adopted his strategies. For years he studied The Art of War and every other military classic his father could access. In simulated battle, Feng had proven again and again he was capable. Yet, his father never trusted him in a real war.

Feng and his friends breezed along the narrow forest trail with Ding in front, Feng following from a short distance, and the other two in the rear.

Moments later, Feng noticed two rows of armed men standing in a line, motionless, blocking the road.

“Slow,” Feng said, loud enough only for his friends to hear. “Bandits.”

The foliage around them was dense with thick trees and low branches reaching into every empty space. It would be impossible to penetrate the forest and ride around the blockade.

Ding reined in his horse and slowed to a walk. “Small-time bandits trying to rob the general’s son. Wait till they find out who you are.”

Wen sent his horse lurching forward and stopped in front of the outlaws, so close he could have easily barreled into them. “Why are you blocking the road?”

None of them answered. They simply stared.

“If you don’t step aside, we’re going to run you over!” Wen said, his booming voice echoing through the forest.

The armed thugs remained silent, motionless. Wen reached for his sword. Feng held out his hand, fingers outstretched, and motioned for him to stop.

“There’s only ten of them,” Little Chu said in a low voice. “And they’re on foot.”

“Get out of my way,” Feng said to the bandits, his voice loud and firm. “We’re military officials. We have important business in the City of Stones.”

A short bandit with a gray topknot broke into a smile. “Military officials,” he said, speaking slowly as if to pronounce every syllable. “Exactly what we’re waiting for.”

Feng stiffened. Soldiers earned modest salaries. They were well trained and armed, and very few of them traveled this road. For a small team of robbers to block the road, waiting for soldiers to rob, didn’t make any sense.

“One of our women was raped last night,” the short one continued.

Ding moved forward to Feng, his hand on his weapon, and whispered, “There’s more of them in the forest on both sides. Maybe a hundred.”

Feng nodded and turned back to the short bandit. “You’re not listening. Civilian crimes should be reported to the magistrate, not the army.”

“The criminal was a military official!” the thug shouted over Feng’s voice.

“I see,” Feng replied, fighting to remain calm. His heart was pounding.

His hand crept into his pocket to touch a bronze plate half the size of his palm, a token he always carried with himself. He still remembered the day so many years ago when he was afraid to climb onto a horse for the first time. He went to bed that night feeling disgraced and useless. His father came to his bedside and gave him this little bronze plate embossed with an image of a fierce tiger. His father told him if he carried it in his pocket, he would be able to do anything he set his mind to because the tiger held the powers of the Tiger General, powers meant for the strong and courageous. Much later he realized it was a standard pass the Tiger Generals’ messengers used.

He kept this one particular plate on himself every day.

The situation in front of him required much more than strength and courage. A hundred bandits had gathered to surround a few soldiers when very little money could be made.

Something was very wrong.

“Bring your evidence to the magistrate, and he’ll assign officers to investigate,” Feng said. “But blocking the road and randomly harassing any soldier is plain stupid. Harm the wrong soldier, and you’re all going to be killed.”

Chu pulled up behind Feng. “They’re behind us as well. We’re surrounded.”

“The criminal may be you!” the bandit continued, pointing the butt of his saber at Feng. “Why don’t you come with us to the magistrate, and we’ll talk about it in front of him?”

So, they didn’t intend to rob. They were looking to abduct, and they were waiting for the right moment to strike. The group of friends was in grave danger. Feng drew his horse back, opening up the space in front so he could see everything around him. How could this be happening?

Feng’s heart raced faster than he could withstand. They were on horses, and the bandits were not. That extra speed was their only advantage. He didn’t notice anyone on the road earlier, so they couldn’t have installed too many traps or ambushes behind them. Turning around, charging through the bandits in the rear, and riding the main road back toward the Rider’s Inn seemed like the sole course of action.

“After all, you look like a sleazy rapist to me!” the bandit shouted for all to hear. There was a roar of laughter.

“How dare you!” Wen shouted, drawing his sword. “Do you know who he is?”

Feng reached out in alarm, trying to grab Wen’s attention. He was too far away. Wen’s loud voice pierced through the thundering laughter.

“He’s General Mu’s son! Do you all want to die?”

The bandits fell silent, but only for a second. With a roar the men from both sides of the forest charged. Feng drew his sword, spun his horse around, and shouted, “Retreat! Back to the Rider’s Inn!”

His friends reacted, turned, and broke into a hard gallop. The bandits swarmed in like floodwater. Feng had never encountered a real battle before, but if they were out to kidnap for ransom, then he—not his friends—would be the prized possession. He needed to lead the bandits away from his friends if they were to have any chance of escaping.

Feng turned around and attacked the short bandit with the topknot, flying past him and slashing him across the face, almost cutting his skull open. The thug died instantly. Feng stabbed left and right, kicking his horse’s belly to urge it forward, struggling to break through the ring of hostiles.

Then he heard Wen shouting from behind. “Feng’s stuck back there! Feng’s stuck back there!”

“No!” Feng screamed as loud as he could. “Back to the inn!”

He knew they heard him, but in the distance he saw them approaching as fast as they could.

“No!” he shouted again. A spear flew across the air and struck Wen in the belly. He bowled over and fell from his horse. The bandits surrounded him and stabbed him over and over again.

Feng stared in disbelief. “Wen!” he shouted. They weren’t out to kidnap. They intended to murder. He kicked his warhorse and pummeled into the dense rows of bandits, slashing and stabbing as hard as he could, hoping to get to his other two friends before it was too late.

Chu’s horse screamed, lurching back and dismounting its rider.

They were attacking the horses. Without horses there would be no hope of getting out alive. Feng leaped off his mount and sent his horse away, wielding his sword with both hands like a battle ax and carving a path to Little Chu.

It was already too late. Chu was surrounded and stabbed from all directions at once, multiple spears and swords buried in his body. Dark blood poured from his mouth, and with his last breath, he screamed, “Run, Feng!”

Feng stabbed a bandit in the rib cage, pushed his sword all the way in until the hilt slammed against his chest. With a roar he shoved the writhing body into a crowd of enemies. He grabbed someone’s saber and swung and thrashed behind himself, fighting off those attacking his back while shielding his front with the dying bandit. He planted his feet on the hard ground, sensed Ding’s location, and pushed his way through.

Ding had already fallen off his horse, but he was hiding behind two trees standing very close together in front of a narrow gap only one person could penetrate at once, allowing him to hold back his attackers.

Feng forced his way to the two trees and dumped the dead bandit from his own sword and into the gap to seal it. He then circled around the smaller tree. “My horse is still alive,” he said. “Let’s go!”

He whistled for his horse and grabbed another saber from a dead bandit, and with a weapon in each hand, he leaped out from behind the trees and slashed at his nearest enemy.

The bandits were hardly skilled swordsmen. They were poorly coordinated and clearly had never trained to fight together.

But there were so many of them.

Feng created an opening when his warhorse broke through from behind. The massive charger was kicking and stomping the enemy, pressing them back, throwing them into disarray.

Ding stood right beside him, covered in blood—perhaps some of his own blood. “Go!” Feng shouted. He slashed another bandit in the neck, lodging his blade in the man’s collarbone.

“Careful!” Ding shouted from behind. Out of the corner of his eye, Feng noticed a spear flying toward him. Ding leaped in, crossing in front of Feng and blocking the spear with his body. He collapsed, the warhead plunged in his abdomen.

“No!” Feng wrenched his weapon free, hacked down another enemy, and leaped onto his horse. He grabbed Ding and dragged him onto the saddle, smacking the horse with the side of his saber. The charger surged forward. They were on a warhorse, one of the best in the army, and the bandits originally sealing off the road were out of position. Many were killed. Others couldn’t climb over the dead bodies littered across the narrow path. Feng’s warhorse met little resistance.

Ding yanked the spear out of his belly, and with a shout he threw it into the closest bandit. A stream of dark blood flew from Ding’s mouth.

Slowly he leaned his full weight against Feng’s back, fading out of consciousness. Feng threw away his saber and reached back with one hand to clutch his friend’s belt, preventing him from falling over. He urged the horse on, and the powerful stallion responded, charging forward at breakneck speed. The shouts and insults from behind were fading. In a moment, Feng found himself riding in silence.

His back was soaked with Ding’s blood. Ding’s breathing was becoming shorter and quicker.

“Ding! Wake up, Ding!”

How could this be happening? To think a few hundred untrained ruffians would dare confront a Tiger General’s army for mere ransom was hard to believe. Besides, they could have captured Wen and Little Chu when they fell off their horses. But they rushed in to kill without hesitating a step, as if taking them alive was never considered.

Feng felt a squeezing pain in his chest at the thought of Wen and Chu. They were gone. They were drinking and laughing and bickering only last night, and now they were gone.

A little side path branched off from the main road, and a small house hid behind a row of trees. He pulled his horse’s reins toward the house. It looked like the home of a local peasant, with coarse mud walls and an old wooden door once painted red. Feng had never spoken to a peasant before, much less asked one for help. He was the son of a Tiger General, high above the rest. Normally the peasants would be kneeling in front of his father’s mansion.

With Ding dying behind him, it didn’t matter if he had to bow to a beggar.

Feng reached the front door of the hut, dismounted, and dragged his friend’s unconscious body with him.

He took a deep breath and pounded the door with his fist.

An old woman with a wide gap between her oversized front teeth opened the door. She looked at Feng from head to toe, then at Ding. “Come on in,” she said. “I was afraid you wouldn’t knock. He’s bleeding to death, you know.”

Feng was more thankful than surprised. He lifted his friend as gently as he could and dragged him into the little hut. There was nothing inside except for a small bed, a table, and a brick cooking stove in the corner.

“We were attacked by bandits. There were four of us, and—”

The old woman sneered. “Stop barking like a neutered dog. You lost a fight, and you want to hide here. Put him in the bed. I’ll boil some towels to clean his wounds.”

Feng ignored her insolence, dragged his friend to the bed, placed him on his back, and tucked a coarse pillow under his head. Blood dripped everywhere. He yanked open Ding’s shirt and sucked in his breath. “No,” he whispered. “No.”

Ding looked up with a blank, lifeless stare.

The old woman brought a bucket of water and with one glance turned around to leave. “You should’ve told me earlier. I wouldn’t have brought the towels if I knew he was almost dead.”

Feng climbed onto the bed with trembling hands, lifted his friend’s head, and wrapped his body in his arms. “How do you feel, Ding?”

“I’m cold.”

“I-I’ll find you a blanket. I’ll—”

“No. Don’t leave.”

Feng held his friend tighter. “I’m here. I’m here.”

“What happened, Feng?”

Feng’s entire torso shook. His quivering lips were barely able to speak. “I don’t know.”

“Wen and Chu. They’re gone?”

Feng nodded.

A sob escaped Ding’s lips, and a trickle of tears rolled down his face. “I’ll . . . I’ll see them soon.”

“No!” Feng said. “Stay with me, Ding. Stay with me.”

“I’m sorry, Feng. You and Du are left behind. It’s still better than drinking alone. Tell him to stop eating at the whorehouse.” Ding tried to laugh at his own joke but only managed a choked sob. “How could there be so many bandits here?”

Feng shook his head, unable to respond.

“I’ve never heard of . . . of so many bandits . . .” Ding’s voice trailed off, and then the room was silent. Even his light gasps for air faded.

“How did we fail the people?” Feng whispered, struggling to speak so Ding could hear him. “Why did so many turn to crime?”

Ding took his last breath, his cold, limp body sinking into Feng’s arms. For a moment, the tears wouldn’t flow.

“Why are the people discontent?” Feng’s broken voice managed to say. He held his friend’s body closer. He felt ill and dizzy, as if he might vomit and faint all at once. He squeezed his eyes so tightly together that his tears couldn’t flow.

He threw his head back to scream.

“He had a gaping hole in his chest,” the old woman shouted from across the room. “Did you expect him to live?”

Feng collapsed on his friend’s body and wept. He shook with every sob, his clenched fists pounding the bed with every convulsion.

The door flew open so hard the old iron hinges rattled. A group of peasants carrying thick bamboo poles charged in, all of them young and strong. They moved in lock step with perfect discipline. They formed an arc around the door, each facing a different direction with their bodies poised to react. Feng recognized them.

“How dare you break my door!” the old woman shouted. “Get out of my house! I’ll report you to the magistrate!”

One peasant drew a sword halfway out of his bamboo pole, and the old woman fell silent.

A tall man with thick eyebrows and a short beard stepped in. He acknowledged the old woman once, then turned to Ding’s body.

“I’m sorry.”

“Uncle Shu,” Feng said, his voice trembling. His father’s brother was here, a powerful man of great skill and military prowess. At least he was safe now. “Wen, Chu, and now Ding. They’re all gone.”

Uncle Shu came to the side of the bed.

“How did you find me?” Feng asked. “How did you know?”

His uncle pulled a ragged sheet over Ding’s face so the horrid look of death would not stare back at them. The little hut was silent while he took Feng’s hand and led him to the table on the other side of the room. “Sit. I need you to calm down and tell me what happened.”

“I . . . we . . .” Feng couldn’t find words. He was so relieved to see his uncle and even more relieved to see the army’s elite, personally trained by his uncle, gathered around him. Strange, they were dressed in the coarse gray fabric of peasants, and their weapons were concealed in bamboo poles. Why would his uncle need to travel under disguise?

“You’re safe now, Feng,” Uncle Shu said. “Tell me what happened.”

Feng’s hands were still shaking.

Uncle Shu motioned for one of his men. “Bring the young master some liquor.”

Just the night before, they were drinking the finest liquor the little inn had to offer, laughing and playing dice late into the night. Feng remembered debating Mongol military tactics. Little Chu’s words echoed in his head. The Mongols may have the strongest cavalry in the world, but horses can’t climb walls. I can drink a bucket of liquor and still defend the country.

One of the soldiers placed a flask of liquor in front of Feng.

“I let my friends die,” Feng whispered. He didn’t wait for his uncle to respond. He grabbed the flask and emptied it in his mouth, guzzling the hard alcohol without taking a breath. He planted the flask on the table and tried to shake his head clear as his vision already began to blur.

“You shouldn’t be drinking like that, young man,” he heard the old woman say behind him. “Here, drink some water before you vomit all over my table. Not that I don’t have to spend all day cleaning up your friend’s blood.”

Feng grabbed the bowl of water placed before him and drank everything in one gulp.

“Take her outside,” Uncle Shu said to one of his men. “Give her some money for her troubles and ask her to leave us alone.”

Feng felt dizzy, incredibly drunk for a single flask of liquor. Maybe that was what his uncle wanted for him, something to numb his senses and help him forget. “Where is my father?” he asked.

He lowered his head onto his arms, leaned against the table, and closed his eyes. He had slept in the same position on a similar table the night before. His friends were alive then.

Nothing made sense anyway. His uncle was here, and very soon he would be taken home. His father would summon the army, they would round up all the bandits, and soon after he would find out why his friends were slaughtered in broad daylight, why even a Tiger General’s son could be attacked on his own land.

But in that moment he was dizzy and intoxicated, and he wanted to let everything go.

Very quickly the effects of the alcohol disappeared. He didn’t want it to leave his head, didn’t want his escape to be over so soon. He remained still, head in his arms, resting on the table with his eyes squeezed shut. Maybe if he tried not to move, he would eventually fall asleep and have sweet dreams.

“Sir, the young master is unconscious,” one of the soldiers said.

“Bring him to the carriage,” Uncle Shu replied.

“Do we need to secure him? In case he wakes up before we get there?”

“No need. He won’t wake up for another day.”

Feng’s heart beat so hard he thought his ribs would crack. He waited. Two men lifted him off his seat, wrapped his arms around their shoulders, and dragged him outside. Feng was determined to find out where they were taking him and whatever Uncle Shu wanted to do to him. He kept his eyes closed, his arms limp, his head hanging.

They lifted him into an enclosed carriage, settled him on his back, and walked away. Outside, at least a hundred men and numerous horses and carriages shuffled around. Feng heard his uncle giving orders to depart.

“You stay with the young master,” Uncle Shu said.

The operation was well planned and rehearsed. No one asked a single question after that.

Someone climbed into the carriage with Feng. The soldier placed his sword on the floor and shouted, “Go!”

The driver cracked his whip. They eased forward, then pulled into a steady speed. Feng waited. The road became smoother, and the horses picked up the pace. The heavy pounding of warhorses shifted to the front of the carriage, leaving only a few soldiers to protect the rear. The attack units had moved, and it was time.

Feng grabbed the sword lying on the floor of the carriage, drew the weapon, and pinned the blade against the soldier’s throat before he had time to react.

“Where are you taking me?” Feng asked in a quiet voice.

The soldier shook his head. “You—you were supposed to be unconscious . . .”

Feng pressed the tip of the sword harder into the base of his throat, piercing the skin. Blood trickled at the tip. The soldier froze.

“Answer me!”

“We’re going to the City of Eternal Peace.”

Feng’s eyebrows knit together. “General Wu’s fortress?”

The soldier nodded. “Young master, we didn’t mean to—”

“Why is my uncle doing this?”

“I don’t know.”

“Why am I being escorted to another Tiger General’s city? Where’s my father?”

“I’m just a soldier, young master. You know we only receive our orders.”

Feng took a deep breath. “I’m going to kill you if you don’t tell me.”

The soldier’s face was blank, his lips pressed together.

“I’m the general’s son. I can kill you for entertainment, and no one would do a thing.”

“We’re the general’s soldiers, young master. But we’re also your soldiers.”

Feng paused, lowering his sword. “You’re the people’s soldiers. You fight to defend the people, not my father or me. Don’t ever forget.”

“I won’t, young master.”

Feng spun his sword around and hammered the soldier’s head with the handle. The soldier collapsed.

Feng reached for his peasant clothing, about to strip him, and hesitated. He had never worn the coarse fabric of a common man, much less the filthy rags of a peasant. He could almost smell the soil stains on the straw sandals.

His own clothing reeked of dried blood, so changing into dirty canvas would not be so bad.

Feng cursed himself for worrying about the quality of his clothes at a time like this. He stripped the soldier and dressed him in his own bloody robes, then lifted the unconscious body with one hand and the sword with his other and kicked the carriage door open. He threw the soldier halfway out, facedown, and released a long, tortured cry.

“Young master!” one of the riders in the rear called. The soldier hurried forward, closing the distance between himself and Feng’s carriage. Feng threw his sword out the partially opened door. The soldier outside evaded the flying sword and was barely recovering when Feng leaped out, slammed into him, and sent him toppling off his horse. Feng recovered his own position on the speeding mount, grabbed the reins, planted his feet in the stirrups, and squeezed the horse’s belly. The other guards were charging up behind him. A side road appeared ahead. Feng saw his opportunity and brought his horse thundering down the little path.

The guards followed. Feng reached for the sword hanging from the saddle, spun around, and charged into his pursuers.

“Young master!” one guard shouted. They recognized him and pulled back. No one wanted to fight the general’s son.

He tried not to think of how his friends had died that morning, how hundreds of bandits waited for him in ambush, how Ding died in his arms. The little beggar at the inn that morning, who watched them from outside and didn’t bother to collect the coins Feng left for him, must have been there to report when they began their ride home. The ambush was prepared for them and only them.

His uncle could have encountered the slaughter in the forest and traced his tracks and Ding’s blood to the peasant woman’s house. There was no way to understand why his uncle was out there looking for him, his elite unit dressed as peasants, or why he drugged his own nephew.

Feng kicked his horse and rode as hard as he could, heading south for Major Pass toward the City of Stones. Major Pass, the main artery running across the north of the empire and parallel to the Great Wall, connected the city fortresses of all four Tiger Generals. It used to be named something else, but the people called it Major Pass because it was the widest, most well paved road north of the capital. Armies and their supply wagons could efficiently move on this road.

As far back as Feng could remember, the empire was at peace within its borders. Aside from skirmishes with the barbarians in the north and short wars with the island nations in the south, people lived well in China.

He remembered the quick briefing he received from two officers right before he left for the Rider’s Inn. They had told him the Venom Sect was recently active in this area, but no one knew why. Feng recalled asking the local government to involve themselves, saying that the military shouldn’t interfere with civilian criminals.

The Venom Sect was a powerful group of poison users rumored to be four hundred members strong and headed by a ruthless leader named Red Cobra. The officers told him yesterday that Red Cobra was also spotted in the area. Feng laughed and asked how much snake venom it would take to poison an army.

Then they informed him that the Silencer had killed Tiger General Lo. They had expected this news ever since he was ordered to invade Mongolia and capture the undefeated barbarian king known as the Silencer. General Lo walked into Mongolia with only two hundred men in an apparent act of suicide. As of yesterday they still hadn’t found his body. All his men were dead, and the Silencer took no prisoners. Some even said the Silencer was spotted killing off the Chinese soldiers by himself. General Lo guarded the easternmost fortress in the empire facing the Khitans. For the emperor to order him to march away from the barbarian nation he was guarding against to attack an undefeated Mongol king made no sense at all.

None of these events should have had anything to do with what happened that morning. The bandits were clearly not members of the Venom Sect. They were thugs carrying steel weapons they didn’t know how to use, fighting in plain view instead of killing from the shadows.

It was almost noon by now, and Feng was rapidly approaching the City of Stones.

Available October 5th!

About the Author

author+pic

As a lifelong student of martial arts, and growing up watching martial arts flicks in the 80s and 90s, Yu decided early on that he would write in this genre. Inspired by George RR Martin’s work, he decided he would write a series in English in this centuries-old Asian genre. Yu has written three previous novels, The Legend of Snow Wolf, Haute Tea Cuisine and Yin Yang Blades. Yu has a BFA Film and Television from NYU Tisch School of Arts. He was born in Guangzhou, China, but presently lives in New York City.

Fred Yu

 

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#BookTour “Ceremony (Murders for Substance, Book 1)” by Paul Austin Ardoin

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 Murders for Substance, Book 1

Mystery

 

Date Published: 08-17-2021

Publisher: Pax Ardsen

Dr. Kep Woodhead is a brilliant, irascible forensic toxicologist with a dark past. Bernadette Becker is a disgraced federal investigator with one last chance. They’re both assigned to a strange poisoning case: a graduate student has been found dead in a 15th-century chapel, a needle filled with a controversial hallucinogen sticking out of his arm. The priest, the professor, the piscary president, the protestor, the protégé—they all emerge as suspects to stop the victim’s research project, and soon Becker’s life is in danger. Do Becker and Woodhead have a prayer of discovering the truth before more people are killed?

~~~

 

EXCERPT

He ducked through the doorway, pushed his glasses up, then raised his nose and sniffed.

“Dr. Woodhead, it’s a pleasure to meet you.” Bernadette stuck out her hand in greeting.

He closed his eyes and held up an index finger. Bernadette lowered her hand. Detective Dunn looked over her shoulder at Bernadette, who gave a slight shrug.

Bernadette could almost hear the seconds tick by in her head.

Finally, Dr. Woodhead opened his eyes and pointed to the table on the altar holding a brass censer, a sphere resting on a stand with notches in the top half and an ornate cross on the lid. “Did the CSI team say how long ago that incense was burned?”

The detective followed his gaze. “No. Not since the body was found, anyway. I don’t think.” She hesitated, then spoke quickly. “And I’m Detective Kerrigan Dunn, Milwaukee Police.” She didn’t offer her hand.

“Most of the incense had already been burned, judging from the smell. Benzoin was used.” Woodhead sniffed again, ignoring Dunn. “I’m getting other styrax scents as well; perhaps a touch of frankincense. Is incense used in the services? Are there even services held here?”

Kerrigan Dunn nodded. “The Anglicans have their service Sunday morning, of course.” Detective Dunn took out her notebook and consulted it. “We’ve got a group of Seventh-Day Adventists Saturday, a small Presbyterian group Sunday evening. Tuesday, of course, it’s the Agios Delphi people.”

“I didn’t have time to research them much,” Bernadette said. “It’s an odd name for a church. Delphi was the name of the oracle from Oedipus Rex. Is it Greek Orthodox?”

The detective scoffed. “It’s no kind of orthodox. More like a pyramid scheme dressed in religious clothing.”

“It’s not a mainstream denomination,” Bernadette said.

“If I recall correctly, our victim was a member.” Dr. Woodhead opened his folder. “Yes, here it is: ‘Mr. Thompson was a member of a local church called Agios Delphi.’” He turned a page. “Agios Delphi of Greater Milwaukee. Kymer Thompson was an elder.” Woodhead glanced up at the detective. “Twenty-five and an elder. That’s humorous.” He did not smile.

Bernadette chewed her bottom lip. Woodhead had a point: he was young to have such an elevated position in the church. “Detective, the Agios Delphi group meets here on Tuesday, correct? But last night was Monday.”

“Right,” Dunn affirmed.

“So why was Mr. Thompson inside the chapel yesterday?”

“Perhaps he was trying to, I don’t know, cleanse the bad juju from the chapel for tonight’s service. Maybe that’s one of the things the elders have to do for the, uh, church.” Dunn landed on the last word harder than necessary.

“Detective Dunn,” Dr. Woodhead said absently, reading the report from the folder, “are you able to maintain impartiality, or will your opinion of the victim’s religion color your investigation?”

Dunn formed her hands into a steeple. “I haven’t said anything that isn’t relevant to the investigation, Dr. Woodhead. This organization is known to use methods to separate their congregation from their money. I have a thick folder back at the District 5 station full of fraud allegations. Widens the net we need to cast for suspects.”

Woodhead raised his head, a smile touching the corners of his mouth—the smile looked friendly, but his eyes flashed behind his glasses. “You haven’t answered my question. Will your dislike of Agios Delphi affect your ability to investigate this crime?”

“I believe I’m more familiar with Agios Delphi than you are.” Dunn crossed her arms. “And like I said, I haven’t said anything irrelevant.”

“CSAB was called,” Bernadette broke in, “because your M.E. strongly suspects that ibogaine caused Mr. Thompson’s death. That requires investigation—ibogaine is a class 1 controlled substance. We need to work together.” But she couldn’t catch Woodhead’s eye when she said it.

Dunn pressed her lips together and was silent.

Woodhead looked up at the vaulted ceiling. “So Agios Delphi uses this space for their services on Tuesday nights?”

“Yes.”

“How did Mr. Thompson get in here?”

“According to the docent, he was one of the two people from the Delphi group who had a key. He was an elder in the organization, and he lived in university-owned housing, so he was close.”

“Who’s the other member with a key?” Woodhead asked.

“Vivian Roundhouse.”

Bernadette remembered the name from her file. “Ms. Roundhouse is the Agios Delphi priest.”

Woodhead flipped back a page. “Ah. Yes.” He turned to face the back wall, stepping closer until his nose was only an inch or two from the stones. Pushing his glasses up again, he took a long whiff and kept sniffing.

After the third sniff, the muscles around Woodhead’s eyes tightened.

Uh oh. That wasn’t a good sign.

He opened his eyes and looked at Detective Dunn.

“Is something wrong?” the detective said.

And then Bernadette caught the faintest whiff of it—perfume. And not the same scent the docent wore.

“You—” Woodhead began.

Then Bernadette caught his eye. She set her mouth in a line. He had already upset Detective Dunn by questioning her ability to stay neutral. They needed Dunn on their side—and if he insulted her again, she might not be cooperative. “I tried to reach you several times, Dr. Woodhead.”

“Yes, I know.”

That wasn’t a response she’d expected. “I’d hoped you would give me some direction on clearing the crime scene for you so this kind of thing wouldn’t happen.”

Woodhead looked at Bernadette impassively. “It wouldn’t have helped. You wouldn’t have been able to prepare it to my satisfaction.”

Oof. Martin’s letter was prescient.

“Does someone want to tell me what’s going on?” Dunn asked.

Woodhead turned to face her. “You’re contaminating the crime scene.”

Dunn narrowed her eyes. “Excuse me? I haven’t touched anything.”

“It’s not—”

Bernadette steeled herself and interrupted. “Dr. Woodhead, as I’m sure you saw on TV, has a gift for identifying subtle scents. It’s what makes his expertise in poisoning cases such as this so invaluable. But”—she gave Woodhead a questioning look, then spoke haltingly—“perfumes, strong deodorant soaps—those can mask the scents he’s trying to find at the crime scenes.”

“Oh,” Detective Dunn said.

Theme Music.” Woodhead muttered. “Obviously.”

“What?” Bernadette said. “Did you say Theme Music?”

Dunn glanced at Bernadette. “He’s right. The name of my perfume—Theme Music.”

“That’s correct,” Woodhead said tersely. “Would you step outside?”

“Outside the crime scene?”

“Yes.” Woodhead lifted a hand, palm in, fingers down, and made a shooing motion.

Bernadette winced.

Dunn scoffed. “Sure. Wouldn’t want to disturb the famous TV star with my overpowering stench.” She walked out, not quite stomping, into the snowy day, but left the front door open.

“We haven’t been properly introduced, Dr. Woodhead,” Bernadette said, keeping her hands down. “I’m your new case analyst. Bernadette Becker.”

“Salmon will mask scents too,” Woodhead said.

Bernadette cocked her head.

“What?”

“Salmon. You must have had some earlier.”

“Not since last night, and I showered and brushed my teeth twice since then. Surely I don’t—”

“You smell like urine.”

Bernadette took a step back.

“The trimethylamine oxide in the salmon breaks down into ammonia. Very similar scent profile to urea. It’s extremely distracting.”

Bernadette shook her head and followed the detective out the front door.

“He’s a real charmer,” Dunn said under her breath.

Bernadette grunted. “Yeah. We’re getting along like a house on fire.”

~~~

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About The Author

Paul Austin Ardoin is the Amazon bestselling author of The Fenway Stevenson Mysteries. Book 1, THE RELUCTANT CORONER, is his debut novel. He has published short fiction and humorous essays in the anthologies Bottomfish and Sweet Fancy Moses, and non-fiction works about computer security in California Computer News and European Communications.

Paul is a California native who put his creative writing degree to use by authoring marketing materials for computer security companies for the better part of two decades. When he’s not writing novels or trying to save the world through better computer security, Paul plays keyboards in a dance rock band. He lives in the Sacramento area with his wife, two teenagers, and a menagerie of animals.

Join Paul’s mailing list at paulaustinardoin.com for news about new books.

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#BookTour “Third Time’s the Harm (Deco Desk Mystery, Book 1)” by Loran Holt

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Deco Desk Mystery, Book 1

Paranormal Mystery

 

Date Published: August 24, 2021

Publisher: Acorn Publishing

Jamie Whitehall Olivian has received a mysterious letter from her Uncle James. She is named after him, but she has never seen, met, or heard him mentioned in any way. Until now. And he has died and left her his entire estate. But it seems Uncle James wants her to investigate a murder. His, that is. It also seems the estate is contingent upon her acceptance of this commission. Jamie wants no part of the investigation or of the estate. She gets along perfectly well, thank you very much, a fact she emphasizes to his lawyer, who just happens to be gorgeous, making it a little harder to say no. Things take a strange turn when the victim himself asks her to reconsider. For reasons unknown, Uncle James has been unable to depart for the afterlife and is stuck in his Art Deco desk. Jamie decides to take on the job of niece and sleuth, with no experience at either, and she and Uncle James set out to find the killer. They are aided by the lawyer and a not-as-gorgeous and slightly rumpled homicide detective whose interest seems to be more than just finding a murderer.

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EXCERPT

“Who’s up for dessert?” Rising, I changed the subject.

Dennis followed me, “I’ll help you bring it out.”

Not wanting to make a scene, I gave in and let him accompany me to the kitchen. I expected the third degree. What I didn’t expect was what I got.

With a smothered exclamation I couldn’t translate, Dennis wrapped both arms around me like an anaconda, and, pressing me to the back of the kitchen door, proceeded to kiss me like a man drowning. After a few seconds, I was the one drowning. I had somehow forgotten how to use my lungs, and very quickly my knees followed suit. If he hadn’t been leaning into me with the full Monty, I would have slithered to the floor like that same anaconda.

Finally regaining some sanity, and in desperate need of air, I pushed him slightly away. Only slightly, I’m not crazy – and did a little gasping.

He must have noticed what I had noticed; because his face pinked, and he moved in the dessert direction, clearing his throat. “I guess the plates should go in now.” Giving me a hint of dimple, he added, “Well, you did ask who was up for dessert.”

~~~

About The Author

If you live in Southern California, you’re either a writer or an actor, right? As Professor Emerita from California State University, Long Beach, Loran Holt chose the writing path. Third Times the Harm is one of the results of her efforts, the first book of a series featuring reluctant sleuth, Jamie Whitehall Olivian. Holt is also the author of Nightmasters: Doubles Talk, a sword-and-sorcery epic, published by Acorn, as well. You will find her non-fiction, film-and- fashion books under the name Lora Ann Sigler.

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#Excerpt “The Purple Bird” by Dylan Roche

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Young Adult 

 

Date Published: March 1, 2019

Publisher: Jan-Carol Publishing, Inc.

No matter how long he has yearned to escape his boring life as an ordinary teenager, nothing can prepare James Shannassy for the afternoon when he meets a figment bird called Archit and the two of them set off for the world of Nalgordia to break a centuries-old curse. Being the hero of his own fantasy adventure isn’t exactly what James expected it to be, but when he finds himself caught up in an epic fight against a force of evil, he knows he might be the only one able to stop it. Archit’s fate now rests entirely in his hands…and there’s no turning back now!

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EXCERPT

Chapter 1
What Happened in the Greenhouse

This couldn’t have been happening. But it definitely was.

Still trembling from the shock of the past half-hour, James sighed and leaned up against the glass door of the abandoned greenhouse. It was the only place he could think of to hide. He wiped his sweat-drenched palms on his jeans and looked around. Maybe it was just the fear still coursing through his body, but something about the abandoned greenhouse reminded him of a haunted forest, something out of Grimm’s fairy tales. Tangles of overgrown plants spilled out of moldy garden boxes and twisted upward around moldy trellises. Late afternoon sunlight poured in through the cracks in the grimy glass walls, catching the dust that floated in the air and gleaming against the heavy spiderwebs that hung over everything. It was a place long forgotten, a place that might have once been beautiful and full of life but was now a place of decay and death.

Stop it! This wasn’t the time to let his overactive imagination get the best of him.

There wasn’t anything about the greenhouse that could actually hurt him, was there? Mr. Birken, on the other hand…

“All right, James,” he whispered to himself. “You’re safe now.”

He sighed.

“Yeah, right,” he huffed. “As if you actually believe that.”

He shook his head. And how in the hell are you going to get home now? You’re so stupid, James—God, you’re so freaking dumb!

If he were smarter, or more adept at escaping danger—whichever skill might have benefitted him more—he wouldn’t need to be hiding in an abandoned and possibly haunted greenhouse at all. No, if he were smarter and more adept at escaping danger, he would have run away from the school and straight in the direction of his house.

But he hadn’t done that. He had been so panicked that his only thought had been to get away from the school as fast as his unathletic body could go. It wasn’t until he was on the other side of town that his wits came back to him, and there was no way at that point that he was going back past the school. No way.

But Mr. Birken? Of all people, Mr. Birken?

His chemistry teacher, the kinda-sorta intimidating but otherwise friendly Mr. Birken, with his oversized glasses and his beer belly. Mr. Birken, who, before that afternoon, James thought was only as bad as threatening to fail him for the semester. If only James could have guessed!

His mind flashed back to those awful minutes in the storage room. Mr. Birken’s bellowing voice. That crazed expression on his face.

James shook his head as if that might dislodge the memory from his brain. “Gaaah!”

He surged forward, pacing up and down the rows between the garden boxes. If he didn’t keep moving, his nervous energy was going to make him explode. He swiped a large cobweb out of his way as he went, kicked at a pile of dead leaves, then fell to his knees, gasping for breath. Think, James. Use your head.

A rustling erupted in the overgrowth a few feet away, and James leaped, his heart suddenly hammering in his chest even faster than before.

“Hello?” he called.

Nothing. No sign of anything. Maybe it had just been a rat or a squirrel.

Maybe it’s Mr. Birken.

No, for real though, it was stupid to think that Mr. Birken was in the greenhouse. There was no way he could have gotten so far ahead of James so quickly, no way he could be lurking in there and waiting for him. It wasn’t logical—but then again, so little of what had happened that afternoon had been logical, and there was no telling what to believe or expect anymore.

The rustling came again, this time a few feet from where it had been the first time. The leaves on one of the nearby plants shook violently. Whatever was making that movement in the overgrowth was too big to be any kind of rodent.

“Who’s there?!” he called.

But he wasn’t sticking around to find out. Panic overtaking him, he bolted toward the door.

As he passed a mass of browning flora, something appeared in his periphery. He turned just as a purple something emerged from the leaves.

A pitiful cry escaped him as he tumbled backward into one of the flowerbeds. His shoulders hit the ground hard as he landed, knocking the wind out of him and sending up a cloud of dust and dirt.

Wasting not a second, he hoisted himself back up, just in time to come face to face with the strangest creature he had ever seen in his entire life.

Covered in purple feathers and fur, about three feet tall and stoutly built, it was too outlandish to be considered an animal but too innocent and adorable to be called a monster. The creature stood before him, blinking with pearly eyes over a large golden beak. It excitedly gave a flap of its purple wings as if waving at James to calm himself.

“Please, please,” the thing said. “I won’t hurt you.”

“You can talk!” James pushed himself back a little bit, still startled, still a little breathless.

The creature shook its head, tossing aside the shaggy hairs of its mane that hung in its face. “Yes, yes, I can,” it said. “I can talk.”

James, his fear now replaced by curiosity, climbed to his feet and circled the birdlike creature, looking it up and down. The bird reached up with his wings and straightened the lapels of the shabby blue vest he wore, almost haughty in his demeanor, as if he did not like being made a spectacle. The act was almost comical—the vest, as well as a crudely knotted yellow necktie, hung on the bird like adult dress-ups worn by a toddler, and the vest was patched with fabric of so many colors and patterns that very little of its original blue silk was still visible, the overall effect being that of a miniature homeless person. A hobbit hobo, James might have said at any other time when he wasn’t so overwhelmed.

“I—I know you’re probably amazed right now,” the bird stammered. “But you can’t tell anyone that I’m here.”

“Sorry,” James said. “I just…” He was at a loss for words. “Man, this has been one weird afternoon.”

“Well, that’s the thing,” the bird said. “If you were to tell anyone that you’ve seen me, then it will likely get even more weird. Weird and terrible.”

James paused. Such an ominous warning from such a funny-looking creature. It was like watching one of the Muppets recite Stephen King. But this creature itself didn’t strike him as malevolent. No, in fact, he seemed just as scared as James.

“Are you in some sort of trouble?” James ventured.

The bird became silent, shuffling his talons—which were clad in miniature leather loafers—and avoiding James’s eyes.

James stepped forward and extended his hand. “My name is James.”

“Archit,” the bird replied, putting out his wing. “That’s my name. Archit Birken.”

James’s stomach turned. “Birken?”

The air in the greenhouse suddenly became thick with tension. The two of them stared at each other, neither exactly sure of what to say.

The bird hesitated. “You know my uncle, don’t you?”

“Yeah,” James said. “You could say that. I know a little more about him than I care to, I guess.” He had been so surprised to meet Archit that he had almost started to forget about what had happened in the storage room back at the school. Almost, but not totally.

Archit took a deep breath. “Then you know how dangerous he is—and you know why it’s so important you tell nobody you saw me.”

James wasn’t even sure at this point whether it surprised him that this bizarre animal called Mr. Birken his uncle. “Wait,” James said, the connection now dawning on him. “Uncle? So you’re his nephew?”

Archit nodded.

James’s stomach twisted as he remembered everything Mr. Birken had said. My nephew has eluded me for far too long! “He’s coming after you,” James said. “You know that, right?”

“Yes,” Archit said. “And I’ve had a few close calls these last couple of months, and I can’t have him find me.”

“At least not until your sixteenth birthday, right?”

Archit stopped. He stared at James with uncomfortable intensity. “What?” he said.

James got the impression he had said something wrong. “Well, that’s why he’s hunting you, isn’t it? Something about your sixteenth birthday?”

Before James could say another word, Archit took him by the arm with his wing and led him over to the nearest flowerbed. “James, what do you know?” Archit sat down beside him on the edge of the garden box. “I need you to tell me everything, James.”

“I—”

“Everything.”

James sighed. He looked at Archit, who was staring up at him with pleading eyes. Only one or two minutes of knowing this creature, and already James couldn’t resist sympathy. He hated himself for being such a softie sometimes. Still, it sounded as if Archit had some context to everything that had happened. Maybe Archit could explain it all.

“All right,” James said, taking a deep breath.

“And don’t leave anything out,” Archit said. “I need to know what happened to you. Everything.”

“All right,” James said. “Well, I guess it started with the fact that this had already been a really awful day…”

And that was the truth—it had been a really awful day up until four o’clock, at least. After that point, the day had started to get weird and frightening.

At four o’clock, James had been in the courtyard, moping and avoiding going home. Dejected didn’t even begin to describe it, though that was the closest word he could think of.

There had been the decision of some friends to make an impromptu after-school trip to downtown Annapolis without him (“Sorry, we totally would have invited you, but we’ve got a full car already!”).

Then there’d been the rebuff he got from the girl for whom he had actually managed to grow enough of a spine to ask to the homecoming dance (“You’re a great guy, but c’mon, don’t you want to go with a girl who’s, y’know, into books and smart stuff like that?”).

And then there had been missing out on a role in the school’s fall play (“Freshmen rarely make the cut, so don’t take it personally”).

After all that, he dreaded the thought of going home and being around the house all afternoon. His mom would be stressing out over the fancy schmancy cocktail party she was throwing that evening, some stupid thing she did every fall to have all her neighbors and extended family over so that she could play Susie Homemaker. If he went straight home, he would just have to deal with her berating him. “I need to you stay out of the way while I’m cleaning, sweet pea,” she would condescend to say. “I’m gonna need you to go upstairs and get cleaned up so you’re ready when everyone gets here. Don’t dawdle, all right? No, you can’t eat anything; I’ve already tidied the kitchen.”

And all night long, there’d be nothing to do except sit around with his sister, Margot, and their cousin Liz—the only other person at the party who would be their age—and be bored, at least when they weren’t being forced to socialize with adults they barely knew.

So no way was he going straight home. Instead, he’d killed time by bumming around the school library, brushing through a few books and surfing the internet on one of the computers before migrating to the school courtyard to sit quietly and stew in his own bad mood.

Yeah, so his time might totally have been better spent going to a remedial study session for chemistry. Just earlier that day, in third period, Mr. Birken had told him he was in danger of failing—just one more reason the day had completely sucked.

“We have a midterm coming up on Monday,” Mr. Birken had said, giving James an intense look over the rims of his glasses. “Maybe a little bit of after-school help today would do you some good.”

Screw that, James had thought. The last thing he wanted to do after the day he’d had was to deal with Mr. Birken. Little could he have known just how much he would be dealing with Mr. Birken, whether he liked it or not.

What James would have given to get away from it all! To escape the mundane world of chemistry midterms and fair-weather friends, to get away from the quiet suburb that worshipped high school lacrosse and music videos. It didn’t help that Margot, who was a senior, was Miss Life of the Party of her class, and his parents couldn’t understand why James, their younger child, spent so much time reading Shakespeare instead of magazines and going to coffeehouses on Friday nights instead of football games. Why couldn’t life be more like the way things were in fantasy novels or games of Dungeons & Dragons, where the opportunity for adventure always waited just around the corner, and even an inconsequential little nobody could still aspire to be a hero?

He hadn’t realized, however, that he had moped the entire afternoon away. Four o’clock. That meant he had only an hour until his mom would start to freak out. Not that she would actually be worried about his well-being. No, she would just be upset that he wasn’t going to be ready for the party by the time guests showed up.

“I guess you better get going, huh?” he said aloud to himself in a sullen tone, flicking his eyes between his watch and the glass doors to the courtyard. From what he could tell, the school was empty—no movement inside, not even a janitor. He looked down at his watch again, eyeing the minute hand as it moved slowly toward the twelve. The frame of the watch was busted. He had dropped it as he was taking it off for gym class. He rubbed his finger along the jagged piece of metal where the frame had split, wondering whether it were salvageable.

Pulling himself to his feet, James shouldered his backpack, resolved that it did him no good to stick around here any longer. At this point, he would be lucky if he weren’t locked up in the school.

He headed inside and turned to make his way toward the lobby.

Then he remembered.

My chemistry textbook! He had left it in his locker.

“Shoot,” he huffed. I’m not gonna give Mr. Birken the satisfaction of failing me, that pompous piece of garbage. Chemistry sucked, but the idea of losing to Mr. Birken sucked even more.

He headed back down the hall the other way. His locker was in a far back corridor, and there was a chance that if the custodians were already locking up certain wings, then he wouldn’t be able to get to it.

As he made his way through the labyrinth of cold concrete walls and linoleum floors, he became aware of how eerily still the whole place was. He had never been in the school this late before. The overhead lights were off, silhouetting the shape of the lockers along the walls, and the squeak of his sneakers on the linoleum floor echoed all around him.

“Hello?” he called out, half-hoping that somebody might respond, that a friendly custodian might peek out from one of the classrooms and say, “Hey-o, I was closing up this place for the weekend, but if you’re still here, I’ll turn on the lights,” or that an administrator might appear and say, “Oh, James, you’re not supposed to be here this late, but if you have to go get your textbook, I suppose I can stand here and make sure nothing bad happens to you.”

But none of that happened, and James’s unease grew a little bit more the farther he went down the hall.

Then he smelled it. He paused, sniffing again. The smell of smoke. Something was burning.

He peeked into one of the nearby classrooms. Nobody in there, he observed, but the smell was stronger. He stepped inside, looking around for an electric socket that might have exploded or a candle that had been left unextinguished.

Nothing. He turned to go, but before he had taken more than two or three steps, there came muffled voices from what sounded like the back of the room—or else the next room over. He stopped, listening to the muted, monotonic intonation.

James sidled back out to the hallway to check what was happening in the next classroom over—but the classroom he had just come from was the last one at the end of the hall. The voices must have been coming from a crawlspace or something behind the wall. Or else he had imagined them.

He returned to the classroom, edging through the shadows toward the back corner. As he neared the corner, the muffled voices grew more distinct. He hadn’t imagined them. They were coming from behind the wall.

Pressing his ear up against the plaster, he listened for a moment. He could hear distinct voices, but what they were saying, he couldn’t make out. There was a man bellowing, and some harsh, rasping voices that he couldn’t determine to be male or female, adult or child, whatever they were.

James stepped back, taking in a long look at the wall from end to end. No door that might lead to another room or a closet. Only a bulletin board, a desk, and a tall nine-shelf bookcase.

It was with apprehension that James approached the bookcase, looking it up and down as if he were trying to gauge its weight in his head. He gripped the side of it and braced his feet against the floor, giving the shelf a tug.

Just as he thought: The bookcase pulled away to reveal what might have once been a closet. The mold-streaked door looked as if it had been forgotten by any staff member for a long time.

James gave the door handle a little wiggle and could tell it was unlocked. His stomach fluttering with nerves, he eased the door open and peered inside. It was one of the storage crawlspaces. He had helped a teacher move some books into a similar one in the English department the week prior.

But this one here in the science wing looked as if it had been forgotten. Or deliberately hidden.

Light came from around a bend in the corridor up ahead, and as did the voices, though still muffled. If this one is like the English storage space, there will be a little room down at the end. There was definitely somebody in there, but James wasn’t sure that he was going to like what he found.

Holding his breath, he crept along the hall, taking soft steps to be sure he didn’t make any noise. As he came to the end of the corridor, he pressed himself up against the wall and peered around the corner.

Whatever he had expected, it definitely wasn’t the scene before him. Never in his wildest dreams could he have expected this.

Mr. Birken stood over a roaring fire built atop a concrete slab, his arms spread wide. He no longer wore his school clothes—the gray trousers, the finely pressed white shirt, the Windsor-knotted tie—and was instead dressed in long black robes and a blood-red cape. He stood tall over the flickering flames, his broad belly thrust forward and his face tilted upward, whispering something in a language James couldn’t recognize.

“Oh,” James heard himself gasp.

But if the gasp were audible, Mr. Birken didn’t hear it. He was too busy conjuring something—probably a malevolent something, judging from the shapes that were forming in the black smoke above the fire. Red sparks flashed here and there, and a trio of serpentine figures took form. Three snakelike creatures with leathery wings began to circle the fire.

They hissed together in a chorus. “Why have you sssssummoned ussss here, Abaddon?”

James’s heart hammered. He swallowed hard, listening intently to how Mr. Birken might respond.

“Welcome, my creatures of darkness.”

“What do you want from usssss? Why do you conjure?”

The creatures swooped high and low, circling the fire, hissing, flipping their tails.

“To boast, of course,” Mr. Birken said. “Why else? Tell me—am I not the most wicked and evil of all the creatures of darkness.”

The creatures hissed wildly and their eyes lit up with red sparks again. “You’re not one of ussss,” they cried. “You are not one of ussss!”

“You lie!” Mr. Birken shouted.

“We do not. Your power issss weak. Your cursssse issss breaking.” At this, the demons began to cackle maniacally. The sound of it sent a chill down James’s spine. Should he make a break for it, get out of there before he was caught? Terror and morbid curiosity had him paralyzed.

Mr. Birken sneered. “What do you mean by this, to say that my curse is breaking?”

“It has already begun,” the demons hissed. “On his next birthday, your nephew shall turn sixteen.”

“No!” Mr. Birken shouted. “It cannot be!”

“You cannot sssstop it. You cannot sssstop it.” The demons hissed and cackled as they swept through the air, circling Mr. Birken tauntingly.

“You have a vissssitor, Abaddon,” they hissed.

A visitor? James realized they meant him, but it was too late. Mr. Birken glanced in his direction, and their eyes made contact for a brief instant. Moved by sheer terror, James turned and ran, bolting toward the outside world as quickly as he could.

Mr. Birken roared angrily. Intense heat erupted on James’s back, and he was thrown forward against the wall, taking a face full of decaying plaster as he toppled to the ground. He felt claws grasping at his arms, the ground scraping across his face—he was being dragged back into the storage room.

Mr. Birken loomed over him, looking down with a strange expression of mixed fury and sick delight. James pushed himself up and scooted backward. Shadows moved in the darkness behind his teacher—two feral teenagers crawling around on the floor like animals. They must have been what had dragged him back into the storage space.

“Well, well, well,” Mr. Birken said. “A surprise guest. James Shannassy.”

James’s heart hammered in his chest so hard he thought he was going to puke. He held his breath, trying to keep down the bile burning at his throat.

Mr. Birken bellowed a deep laugh, tossing his head back with a sick, wide smile on his face. “I think we can find a use for you, Master Shannassy.”

He swiped his arm through the air, summoning two thick black cords that curled around James, digging into his skin and tying him tightly. James gave a wretched little choking sound as the ropes caught tight around his diaphragm.

“That’s better,” Mr. Birken said. “We don’t want you leaving too soon, now, do we?”

James stared around the room, taking in the candles, skulls, and other artifacts and ornaments of sorcery, all of them menacing in the low light of the little room. In the murky shadows behind Mr. Birken, the two feral children had slunk back to crates where they crouched like wolves, chewing on bones and glaring at James with flashes of red fire in their eyes. They looked familiar, as if he might have seen them around school before, but their ragged appearance and animal-like demeanor had rendered them unrecognizable.

Mr. Birken stepped toward James, crouching down. “What brings you in here, Master Shannassy?”

James choked back some of the vomit in his mouth. His whole body was shaking so badly he thought he might pass out. “I…I…”

Mr. Birken sneered, standing again. “Afraid, are you? You needn’t be.”

James trembled, wrenching at the ropes that bound his hands. He looked up into Mr. Birken’s dark eyes. The only way he was going to get out of this was by keeping a clear head and acting fast. For now, he had to keep Mr. Birken talking, to distract him if he could.

“S-so…what are you, some kind of evil wizard or something?” It wasn’t brilliant, and James sure as hell wished he had sounded braver when he said it, but he had read enough fantasy and sci-fi to know that the best way to outsmart a merciless villain was to get him on a bragging rant. If nothing else, it might buy him some time.

Mr. Birken let out another deep laugh. He turned and circled the fire.

James kept his eyes on Mr. Birken, fiddling with the ropes as best he could behind his back. If he were subtle enough, he might be able to use the jagged edge of his broken watch to saw through the binds without Mr. Birken’s realizing what he was doing.

After a few tense seconds, Mr. Birken spoke. “I think I’ll be needing your assistance, Master Shannassy.” He drew out each word in a cold, sinister tone.

James noticed movement along the floor, and his blood ran cold. It was a long, hideous python weaving its way toward Mr. Birken. The large man stooped down to greet the serpent as if it were a puppy, cooing softly, “Yes, we will, precious, won’t we? We’ll be needing Master James’s help.”

James had to keep talking. “What’s this all about? What were those monsters you were talking to?”

Mr. Birken stood, provoked by the question, his eyes flashing with fire. “My nephew has eluded me for far too long!” he shouted. “My curse will be broken, and my eminence among the creatures of darkness will be lost forever!” He raised his arms and shook his fists wildly, making the fire rage up in a sudden burst of green light and black smoke. The feral children behind him whined, frightened.

Mr. Birken approached James and crouched down near his face again. “And you are going to help me hunt him down.” Mr. Birken’s breath was hot and stinking against James’s face, and a sheen of oily sweat gleamed on the big man’s puffy cheeks.

James whimpered, closed his eyes, and tried to find words. Mr. Birken so close to him, the crackle of the fire, the growling of the ferals, the malevolent presence of the evil artifacts around them—it was all too much. “What if I don’t want to?” he protested.

Mr. Birken stood, stepping back to the fire. “Oh, I don’t think that will be a problem.” He waved one of his hands over the flames and whispered again in the foreign language James again didn’t recognize.

It was obvious what was coming next. Mr. Birken had prepared some spell to manipulate him, to force James to do his bidding.

“That’s why you’re a teacher, isn’t it?!” James looked at the two pathetic kids crouched in the shadows. “And they’re…they’re…”

“They’re just here for a little after-school study session, just like the one I encouraged you to come to, Master Shannassy.” Mr. Birken gave James a sick little grin, a thin-lipped slice of malevolence that spread across his face, and he gazed greedily at him with black, soulless eyes. “I told you that you were failing, but I never expected you to drop by in quite this fashion.”

Dizziness set in on James again, stronger this time. If only the cord behind his back would part a little more easily, or if only the jagged metal would have been a bit more efficient! He couldn’t delay Mr. Birken much longer, he could tell.

Mr. Birken continued. “These two behind you, they’re not the academic type, of course. Slackers, you might say. But they know they can come to me as a source of something they might need.”

“Drugs?”

“Ha! You think a great wizard controls his minions by use of opioids and narcotics? No, my potions are a bit stronger, though every bit as addictive. When it wears off, they’ll remember nothing—except to keep coming to me for it.”

Mr. Birken crossed to a table in the corner where Bunsen burners bubbled and smoked mysterious substances in beakers. “And a chemistry teacher at a public school in an affluent area always has easy access to the best equipment,” he said as he lifted one of the bottles and held it to the firelight. “Combined with teenagers with a bit too much spare time and too little supervision after school—why, it’s every evil overlord’s dream, isn’t it?” He laughed.

This is it, James thought. Mr. Birken was going to possess him, or maybe worse—after all, James knew too much now. What was to stop Mr. Birken from doing away with him entirely?

Mr. Birken lumbered around the fire, his red cape dragging behind him across the filthy floor. “Well, now, Master Shannassy,” he said, holding out the frothing potion. “Open up your mouth.”

James sawed furiously at the rope behind his back. It was slackening. Almost there.

Mr. Birken stooped down in front of him, reaching forward to grab James’s face and force his mouth open. James jerked his head away, resisting, giving the rope two or three more tugs. By some good grace, the ropes gave way at that very momen. James twisted his hands free, lifted his leg, and delivered a swift kick to Mr. Birken’s large belly.

With a deep bellow of surprise, Mr. Birken stumbled backward, his feet twisted in the length of his cape. For a moment, he teetered back and forth, trying to recapture his balance. Then he went down hard, falling backward into the roaring fire.

James sprang to his feet and took off down the passageway. Behind him, Mr. Birken screamed in pain and fury, but James wasn’t stopping to look back. Trembling with terror, he bounded back to the empty classroom, then raced back through the school and out the doors into the open afternoon air. He fled the property, not stopping to catch his breath or his bearings until he found refuge in the abandoned greenhouse.

By the time he’d finished recounting it all to Archit, the bird was restless with excitement. “This can mean only one thing,” Archit said, getting to his feet.

“What can mean only one thing?” James asked.

Archit hesitated for a second. “Look, James,” he said, “I need you to remember carefully. ‘On his next birthday, he’ll turn sixteen.’ You’re sure that’s what his oracle said?”

“Absolutely.”

“You might have been confused. You were in a lot of danger, and you were really scared.”

“I know what I heard,” James insisted. “Trust me, every second of my time in that storage closet is branded on my brain. I’m scarred for life.”

Archit pressed his wings against his head, trying to think. “Oh, what does this mean?”

“What does what mean?” James asked.

“Look, it’s complicated,” Archit said. “And truthfully, the less you know, the better.”

James scoffed. “Well, I’m involved now. Don’t I deserve an explanation?”

“Yes, of course you do. But I need to get you home safely first.”

“Get me home?” It wasn’t exactly the priority that James was expecting. Five minutes ago, he had wanted nothing more than to be home, safe, and out of danger, but since talking to Archit…

“Yes, get you home,” Archit said. “Do you think you can stay out of trouble there?”

“And what? Just hope all this goes back to normal? Do you really expect your uncle to forget that I know all of this?”

Archit shook his head as he moved toward the door to the greenhouse. “No, but you’d be in a lot more danger with me.” He turned back, gesturing with his wing for James to follow. “Come on, there’s no use talking about this in here. We need to act quickly.” He made for the door. “Who knows what my uncle might be up to while we’re sitting here shooting the breeze…”

“Oh, that’s comforting,” James said.

Archit swung the door open and scurried across the lawn to hide behind one of the bushes. James paused for a moment in the doorway and then, still somewhat unsure, followed the bird. It was cool outside the greenhouse, and the shadows of the trees were getting longer. It would be only another hour or so until it was dark.

“So, what exactly is your plan?” James asked as he knelt next to Archit.

Archit peered out between the leaves of the bushes, looking up and down the street. James couldn’t deny that the bird’s lack of explanation was beginning to irritate him a little.

“Hold on,” Archit said, reaching into the pocket of his vest. “I have just what we need in here.”

“What do we need?”

Archit drew out a small pouch. “Here ‘tis.”

James stared. Something inside the bag was glowing. The silk exterior shifted from pink to blue and back again.

“Whoa,” James said. “What is that?”

“Fairy dust, of course.”

James rolled his eyes. “Oh, of course. Why didn’t I think of that?”

“Don’t get sarcastic,” Archit said. “I thought you were getting used to weird things happening.”

James couldn’t argue with that. He looked down at the bag again. “Where’d you get it?” he ventured.

“I stumbled upon a fairy council years ago,” Archit said. “It was a reward for a good deed I did them.”

James couldn’t tell whether that was true or not—but if not, then Archit must have had some good reason for not making full disclosure.

“Now,” Archit continued, “there’s not much left. Just enough for maybe two more spells, as long as they don’t need to last long. And I’m going to need some to open up the doorway between the worlds.”

“Huh?” James said. “The doorway between the worlds?” This afternoon had gone from horror story to fairytale to ancient myth pretty quickly.

“I can’t open it up until tomorrow morning,” Archit said. “It’s a spell that needs to be performed at dawn. But we’ll be able to use a bit of it for getting you home.”

“You mean, like, teleportation?”

“Nothing so elaborate,” Archit said. “But I think the fairies have established a precedent for this one at least. You’re familiar with the story of the little cinder maid?”

“You mean Cinderella?” James said.

“Exactly,” Archit said. “And look! There are a few pumpkins on the front stoop of that house over there.” He turned and pointed at one of the houses across the street.

“How lucky we are that it’s October and I need a coach to get home,” James said, unable to resist sarcasm again.

“We’re not doing a coach,” Archit said. “That’d be too conspicuous.”

“Oh, and you think stealing pumpkins in the middle of the afternoon isn’t going to draw attention?” But James had to admit there wasn’t a car in the driveway of the house Archit had indicated, and all the blinds in the windows were drawn.

“Stop hesitating,” Archit said. “Just go.”

James wasn’t necessarily sure why he was doing as he was told, but he figured he had to trust Archit. He stood and eased his way out from behind the bush, looking all around for witnesses. Considering he was on the run from an evil wizard, he thought that getting caught stealing a pumpkin should have been the least of his concerns. Even so, an extraordinary adventure was one thing, and petty theft was another. He didn’t want to be busted for something so commonplace with everything else going on.

He tried to look as casual as possible as he walked up the driveway to the house across the street, but he was pretty sure anyone who might have been watching would have instantly assumed him guilty of something, just based on how nervous and jittery he was.

As he paused at the bottom step leading up to the front stoop, he looked up at the house just to be sure nobody was watching him through the windows. No sign of anyone.

“What are you waiting for?” Archit hissed from the bushes across the street. “The apocalypse?”

James turned but didn’t shout back. It would draw too much attention. Still, it was easy for Archit to be confident when Archit was hiding in a bush and James was the one who was about to steal something.

“What the worst that can happen?” he said to himself as he reached forward, grabbed the pumpkin, and spun back around toward Archit. Clutching the gourd to his chest as if someone might try to tackle him and take it back, James sprinted back across the street and ducked behind the bush with Archit. “Got it.”

“Good,” Archit said. “Glad to see it wasn’t too great a challenge.” His beak cracked into a smile, and he gave a little laugh. For the first time that afternoon, James wasn’t stressed out or scared.

“All right,” James said. “Let’s see this magic in action.”

“Stand back,” Archit said, crouching over the pumpkin and pouring some of the dust onto the end of his wing. “Here goes nothing.”

He shook his wing and James watched the glittering powder fall over the orange skin of the gourd.

Nothing happened. James blinked. Maybe the dust wasn’t really magic, or maybe Archit had done something wrong. After all, it wasn’t as if there were any reason to believe Archit even knew how to—

But before James could let his doubts get the better of him, the pumpkin began to glow and its skin began to pulse a little bit. James gasped, watching it grow before his very eyes, its shape changing slightly as it did, a glass windshield forming across its front and tires popping out from its bottom. A bright orange car took shape, and the last few flashes of fairy dust fell away to the ground as the transformation completed itself.

“Whoa!” James said.

“Not bad,” Archit said. “But it’s not going to last long. We probably have fifteen minutes at most.”

James chuckled. “What, not until midnight?”

“I’m not that strong a magician,” Archit said, as if he had missed the joke completely.

The two of them hesitated for a moment, neither making a move for the driver’s side.

“Can’t you drive?” James asked, but he already knew the answer.

“Nah, I’m not tall enough to reach the pedal,” Archit said. “I thought you could.”

“No, I don’t have my license yet.”

Archit grumbled and looked around at the yard. “What we need is a squirrel.”

Before James could question how they would even get close enough to a squirrel to enchant it, Archit had started back toward one of the trees beside the greenhouse. “There’s one!”

James followed, but Archit turned and held his wing up, signaling him to stay back. “Not too much movement,” Archit said.

Archit dipped his wingtip into the pouch again and flung a puff of glitter into the air. The effect again came quickly. The squirrel, which had turned and begun to flee upon Archit’s approach, shifted and morphed into the form of a stocky middle-aged man dressed in a gray suit.

“Well, not bad,” Archit said.

The man, who seconds before had been a squirrel, looked around. His mannerisms were still rodent-like. “What’s happened?”

“You’re a chauffeur now,” Archit said, as if this should have been easy to understand. “We need you to drive. Come on, and hurry. We have only fifteen minutes or so before you change back.”

“Change back?” the chauffeur squeaked.

“That’s right, you’ll be a squirrel again soon,” Archit said. “No need to worry.”

James smiled awkwardly at the chauffeur, trying to be friendly. “Hi.”

Archit pointed to the pumpkin car. “Come on, everyone,” he said. “No dawdling. Let’s get in.”

James didn’t have to be told twice. The last thing he wanted after the horror of the afternoon was to be stranded in the middle of town with a pumpkin, a squirrel, and a talking purple bird. There was no way he could explain that to anyone, let alone what he knew about Mr. Birken’s being an evil wizard on top of all of it.

He opened the back passenger-side door and climbed inside. The yellow-orange pleather upholstery was cool and clammy, maybe because it had all been pumpkin guts only moments before. Archit went around to the other side and climbed in next to him.

“Do you know how to get to Fairview?” James asked the chauffeur. “The neighborhood?”

“Fairview?” the chauffeur repeated.

“Yeah,” James said, wondering whether the squirrel knew the area well enough to identify different neighborhoods. James didn’t know what to believe or expect any more. “Across town,” he described. “Waterfront community. Lots of Cape Cod cottages.”

“Ah, yes,” the chauffeur said. “Right. So, then, here we go.”

And they were off. James looked at his watch. It was quarter to five. If Archit’s prediction about their fifteen-minute time constraint were correct, they had until five, at best. In any case, that was far too late for James to be getting home. He doubted his mother would notice he was missing. She would be too busy getting ready for the party—but Margot would be aware. She was probably already wondering where he was, because he didn’t meet her at her car after school. She would have assumed he went downtown with some friends to get pizza or something earlier. By now, she would be irritated that he wasn’t home and that she might be stuck covering for him.

James looked over at Archit, who was staring out the window in pensive silence.

“So…uh…” James hesitated. “Look, I know this is a touchy subject, and I’m sure you’re tired of my asking about it…”

“No, that’s all right,” Archit said, still looking out the window. “You deserve to know.” He turned back to James. “I have to go see somebody. Somebody wise and powerful, who I hope might be able to explain all of this.”

“But I don’t understand. What could be so significant about a sixteenth birthday?”

“Because by all possibility, I shouldn’t have a sixteenth birthday.”

James didn’t even know how to respond to that. “What? How?”

“I’m a figment creature,” Archit said. “Do you know what that means?”

“Like, a figment of the imagination?” James said.

“Exactly. Never born, never aging, never dying. You see, I don’t even think I’m part of this world of reality.”

James wondered whether that were supposed to make sense to him, because it definitely didn’t. Even as an avid mythology buff—or so he liked to consider himself—he was having a little trouble wrapping his mind around this. “Oh.”

Archit struggled to find the next words. “I say ‘I think’ because…well, I remember aging when I was younger. But that was a different time, a happier time, and when my uncle cursed me…” He sighed. “Look, I could explain all this, but it would take a while.”

“Maybe I should come with you,” James suggested.

“What?”

“I mean, I can’t really just stick around here, can I?” It was only a matter of time before Mr. Birken came for James. He was better off going with Archit and seeing this through to the end. Besides, James thought, we’re in this together now.

“I see what you’re saying,” Archit replied. “But it’ll be dangerous.”

“It can’t be any more dangerous than what I encountered this afternoon,” James said. Talking bravely made him a little less nervous. “And we’re stronger sticking with each other, right?”

“Yes, I suppose we are,” Archit said. “But you don’t have to go for my sake. I’ve been dealing with this for hundreds of years now, so I’m not afraid to go on alone.”

“No, I want to go,” James said. What was he saying? What exactly was he agreeing to? It gave him a rush of excitement to think this was actually happening. “But we have to wait until late tonight,” he added quickly. “If I don’t put in an appearance at this party tonight, my parents will wonder where I am, and they’ll come looking for me before we have a chance to get away.”

“That’s all right. We can’t cross the border between worlds until dawn anyway.”

There was that phrase again—the border between worlds. “Oh, man,” James said. “Is this really happening?”

Archit laughed. “Yeah. But I hope you’re this enthusiastic when the going gets tough.”

“I’ll try to be.”

The car began to slow. James looked out the window, realizing that they had already reached his street. “This is my house coming up at the end of the block.”

“Will you pull over at this last house up ahead?” Archit asked the chauffeur.

The car slowed as it approached the cedar-shingled house at the top of the hill. The place was so familiar and comforting, yet so detached from James all at the same time. It was a funny feeling that he couldn’t quite understand—this might be last time he was going to be home for a long while, but he didn’t mind at all. No, in a way, he was almost excited to be leaving it behind.

When the car stopped, the two of them climbed out of the backseat and stood momentarily on the street, looking up at the house before they headed up the hill.

This was it. James had been waiting his entire life for something like this. Fifteen years of being a pathetic little nobody in a small town where nothing ever happened, and now he was setting off on the adventure of a lifetime!

Am I ready for this?

If he weren’t ready for it, did he really care? He was with Archit, and Archit knew what he was doing.

Sure, he had known the purple bird for all of a half-hour max, but he could already tell that Archit was brave, tough, street-smart, and headstrong. Archit was an adventurer. And maybe James would prove himself to be one too.

Maybe Archit felt the same sense of relief and gratitude that James did. Maybe, just maybe, the bird was happy to have a companion who would help him brave whatever lay ahead.

~~~

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About the Author


Dylan Roche is a journalist, editor, actor, director, playwright, teacher, and marathon runner based in Annapolis, Maryland. The Purple Bird is his first novel.

 

 

 

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#BlogTour “Maggie Dove” by Susan Breen

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Check out this new cozy mystery called Maggie Dove by Susan Breen! Read on for details and a chance to win a $25 Amazon e-gift card!

58474646._SY475_Maggie Dove

Genre: Cozy Mystery

Publication Date: July 27th, 2021

Susan Breen introduces a charming series heroine in this poignant and absorbing cozy mystery with a bite. Maggie Dove thinks everyone in her small Westchester County community knows everyone else’s secrets. Then murder comes to town…

When Sunday School teacher Maggie Dove finds her hateful next-door neighbor Marcus Bender lying dead under her beloved oak tree—the one he demanded she cut down—she figures the man dropped dead of a mean heart. But Marcus was murdered, and the prime suspect is a young man Maggie loves like a son. Peter Nelson was the worst of Maggie’s Sunday School students; he was also her late daughter’s fiancé, and he’s been a devoted friend to Maggie in the years since her daughter’s death.

Maggie can’t lose Peter, too. So she sets out to find the real murderer. To do that, she must move past the grief that has immobilized her all these years. She must probe the hidden corners of her little village on the Hudson River. And, when another death strikes even closer to home, Maggie must find the courage to defend the people and the town she loves—even if it kills her.

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Excerpt

Maggie Dove wanted to be a beacon of light. She dreamed of being the sort of person who made others laugh, calmed crying babies, soothed wild dogs, inspired hopefulness. She wanted her life to be about something grand, yet every blessed thing that happened seemed designed to bring out all that was petty, cranky and small in her middle-aged self.

Take her neighbor, Marcus Bender. Maggie knew, intellectually, that he wasn’t an incarnation of Satan. He was just an annoying man. He was the sort of man who blew all his leaves onto her lawn each fall. He drove too fast down her quiet street, and once, when she had to jump out of the way of his car, she saw him laugh. He put a soccer net right up against her property so that every time his kids missed a goal, the ball went flying into her rose bushes. All of this, Maggie recognized, was insignificant. Petty. She tried to ignore it. She wanted to ignore it, and she might have succeeded had Bender not gone after her oak tree.

Maggie loved that oak tree. Her father planted it when she was a girl. She’d climbed on it. Her daughter had swung on its branches. She put ghosts on it for Halloween and lights on it for Christmas. Maggie loved the graceful shrug of its branches; she loved watching its little flowers unfold into leaves. She loved the little pods that floated over her lawn in the fall. Mostly she loved the way the tree linked her to her past and future. She would come and go, her daughter had come and gone, but the tree was as close to eternal as she was likely to see anytime soon.

Bender wanted her to move the tree. That was the sort of man he was. He thought you should move trees. It blocked his view of the Hudson River. He’d gone to considerable expense to remodel his house, which was the old Bell house, home of Maggie’s best friend growing up. He’d transformed the quiet little colonial into a Spanish style atrocity that looked like it had a dungeon in the basement. He had an art studio on the top floor, though he wasn’t an artist. He was a lawyer, but he had an artistic bent and wanted to paint studies of the Hudson River, and he didn’t want those studies blighted, as he said, by her oak tree. Blighted!

Maggie said no.

He offered her money. He had a lot of money and was willing to pay to get what he wanted. He seemed genuinely surprised to find there was a person in the world who didn’t care about what Bender wanted.

“We’ll work this out, Maggie,” he said, grinning at her in that wolfish way he had. He was a very good-looking man, athletic, muscular, tanned. He wore suits to work and his broad chest bulged against the constrictions of his shirt. Winifred Bell, who had once been Maggie’s neighbor, but was now confined to a nursing home because of Parkinson’s, was convinced that the source of Maggie’s anger was sexual desire, a conclusion Maggie thought so far off the mark, she didn’t even argue about it.

She didn’t like men like steam rollers. She liked gentle men, and gentle people. She loved her small town on the Hudson River and the people she’d grown up with and she loved that tree. There was no amount of money he could pay her to make it worthwhile to cut it down. She didn’t want to fight about it; didn’t want to talk about it. She just wanted to live her life and enjoy her tree.

Then, one April morning, Maggie went outside to see if any new leaves were starting to form. She loved those wispy little clusters that blossomed for a short time each spring, but as she neared the tree she was struck by a sharp odor. She saw a strange dark puddle at the base of the tree; bent down to sniff it and her nostrils burned. Poison. Bender was poisoning her tree.

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About the Author

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Susan Breen best-selling Maggie Dove mystery series was first published by a digital imprint of Penguin Random House and in the process of being reissued in paperback by Under the Oak Press. She’s proud to have had two of her Maggie Dove stories in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. A new story will be in Malice Domestic’s upcoming anthology: Murder Most Diabolical (introduced by Walter Mosley.) She was also longlisted for the 2021 Margery Allingham Short Story competition. Susan’s first novel, The Fiction Class, won a Washington Irving Award from the Westchester Library Association.

Susan teaches novel-writing at Gotham Writers and she’s also on the faculty of the New York Pitch Conference. She lives in a very pretty little village on the Hudson River with her husband, two sweet cockapoo dogs and two rather aggressive cats. Her three grown children are flourishing elsewhere.

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August 30th

Reads & Reels (Spotlight) http://readsandreels.com

Books, Rambling and Tea (Spotlight) https://booksramblingsandtea.com/

A Very Original User Name (Review) https://averyoriginalusername.wordpress.com/

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#ReleaseWeekBlitz “Leave a Widow Wanting More” by Charlie Lane

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  Books 1, Cavendish Family Chronicles

Historical Romance (steamy)

 

Date Published: August 26, 2021

A penniless widow. A baron running from love. Will a marriage of convenience save them or tear them apart?

Widow Sarah Pennington has no time for love. Sending a son to Harrow is not cheap, and her husband’s lies left them in poverty. When she loses her position at the bookshop, she knows marriage isn’t the answer. Only her own hard work will save the day.

It seems Baron Eaden can’t love a woman without her dying. To keep his daughters, and his heart, safe, he roams the world, keeping his distance. But when his hunt for a rare book brings him back to London, he knows he must do the one thing he’s avoided for years—find them a mother. He needs a woman who’s up to the challenge, not one to fall in love with. Because he’s vowed never to make that mistake again.

The determined, lovely-eyed widow in the bookshop challenges Henry in every way. She’s exactly who his daughters need. But she’d rather have the book he’s after than his hand in marriage.

A marriage of convenience could save Sarah and her son, but when she finds passion in the baron’s arms, she realizes security isn’t enough. She wants Henry’s heart. If he can find the courage to trust her with it.

~~~

Excerpt

Sarah stopped their progress and pulled away from him. Twisting her hands in front of her, she watched her son walk farther ahead then drew in a breath, and seemed to conquer whatever ailed her. Henry enjoyed watching the process of her gathering fortitude for whatever it was she was about to say.

Did you truly come back to issue a third proposal of marriage?”

You know I have.”

She smirked. “Third time’s the charm?”

No. That suggests luck. Luck doesn’t obtain much of anything important. I’ve come prepared this time.” He resisted looking toward James. He kept his eyes pinned on hers. “The first time I proposed I did so on a moment’s whim. The second time, I’d determined that my whim was logical and correct, but I was not in the best of states to make a persuasive argument.”

She eyed him from boots to hat. “And you are in a better state now?” she asked.

While James had been fitted for new clothes, Henry had returned to Steven’s for a bath and a shave. He knew he didn’t make a shabby picture.

I believe I am prepared.” Henry stepped closer and untwisted Mrs. Pennington’s hands. Folding them in his own, he said, “Mrs. Pennington, we just met yesterday, but I believe we have much to offer one another. I’ll not repeat those arguments I made yesterday. You know them as well as I. Instead, I’ll say what I did not and should have.”

He’d not said words like he was about to say to any woman in over five years, and he’d never said them to anyone on so short an acquaintance. But they must be said. They were true, he found, despite it all. He reached a hand to her temple where a curl had escaped her simple chignon.

I think you’re exquisite,” he said. “I think you’re smart. I think you’re brave. I think there’s no woman in England I’d rather marry half as much as you.”

She blinked several times. Her mouth parted slightly. Her chest rose and fell faster than it had moments before.

I have one more argument, and it may be my most persuasive yet.”

Oh?”

He snaked his arm around her waist and pulled her against his chest. He dipped his head until their noses touched. “Always put your best argument last.” His lips brushed hers before sinking in to drink long and full. The kiss was to him like water to the desert-lost soul. Her soft curves pushed against his chest, her long, strong back beneath his fingertips, all overwhelmed his senses.

When her hands flattened against his chest, flexed, then roamed upward to wind around his neck, he moaned, then parted her lips with his tongue to drink of her more deeply.

She let him make a spectacle of them both in the street until he was convinced, completely and utterly, of her answer. He grinned in their kiss, pulling away to view her flushed face.

Well?” he asked. “Are you persuaded?” He needed to hear her say it. Yes.

Her hands still curled around his neck, and she stood on tiptoe, leaning against him. Her body resting against his for balance, for stability, felt like perfection. Better than the hot Egyptian sun. Better than a soft bed or warm bath. Better than being back at Cavendish Manor.

She smiled, bit her lip. He knew what her smile meant. It meant victory.

~~~

About The Author

Charlie Lane traded in academic databases and scholarly journals for writing steamy Regency romcoms like the ones she’s always loved to read. Her favorite authors are Jane Austen (who else?), Toni Morrison, William Blake, Julia Quinn, Tessa Dare, and Amanda Quick, and when she’s not writing humorous conversations, dramatic confrontations, or sexy times, she’s flying high in the air as a circus-obsessed acrobat.

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#Excerpt “Seventeen Butterflies” by Anna Katmore

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About the Book

Title: Seventeen Butterflies

Author: Anna Katmore

Genre: Contemporary Teen Romance

The embarrassment of being the only unkissed girl in high school is something Sandy Cardington refuses to accept. The first kiss project is her foolproof plan to finally get rid of the status at her 17th birthday party, while her parents are out of town.

With several kissable boys on her guest list, this should be a walk in the park. But she didn’t count on her older brother returning from college and throwing a wrench into her plans. To make matters even more complicated, he has a friend in tow, and the cute hockey player stirs unexpected butterflies in her stomach every time their paths cross.

While Sandy moves heaven and earth to make her party and project come true, it looks as if Thane Griffyn has his own plans to teach her the real meaning of a first kiss…

Buy on Amazon and Kindle Unlimited

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EXCERPT

I’ve never really been the one who stood out in any crowd, but this afternoon I feel like Megan Fox, ready to take on the world.

“Honey, if that doesn’t pocket you a kiss tonight,” Gina coos as she blows a peck on my cheek at the front door, “I don’t know what will.”

“Thanks!” I tell her, grinning big time, waving goodbye. “See you later at the party!”

As I head home on foot this time, because it’s only a couple of streets anyway, I wonder what kind of impression I’ll make on my guests tonight. Pretty enough for anyone to dare kiss me? Judging from the glances and smirks coming my way from a group of young men while I head home, it’s certainly in the cards.

I can’t wait to hear what Adrian thinks about Gina’s makeover skills. Since I left the keys with him earlier, he should be in my house by now, setting up his sound system for the party. It’s a lot better than what we have and can easily be controlled with his laptop.

Following the laughing voices drifting from the kitchen, I try hard to keep my expectant grin in check. However, the moment I enter, the gazes of all three boys fly to me, and the conversation stops abruptly as if a bomb exploded. Thane spits out the sip of water he just drank in a spray across the kitchen counter. My brother’s chin hits his chest, giving me an ugly view of some munched snacks. And Adrian’s eyes grow as wide as his round lips forming an inaudible, “Whoa.”

Stopped midway by the force of their shocked expressions, I’m not exactly sure if this is the reaction I wanted. While Thane rushes to clean up the mess he made, my brother gathers himself and states around the food in his mouth, “You’re not going to wear this tonight.”

What the hell? He can’t be serious!

“Since when are you in charge of dressing rules in this house?” I fling back, planting my fists on my hips.

“Since Mom asked me to come home and keep an eye on you.” His voice takes on a much sharper edge. “Now change the fuck into one of your decent dresses, or the party’s off.”

My frustrated gaze moves to Adrian, but none of the others seem to want to contradict Cameron right now. What’s wrong with all of them?

My eyes find Thane’s, and I know I’ve lost this battle, because his stunned glare on me borders on cold rage. “Sorry, Sandra,” he growls as he screws the cap back on the water bottle, “but this time your brother’s right.” Totally startling me, he skirts the counter, grabs my hand—none too gently this time—and drags me out of the room.

“Where are you taking me?” I protest when there’s no chance to withstand his pull.

“Upstairs to find you more suitable clothes for tonight. You want to get kissed, not laid.”

Why the hell is he so angry? He’s the last one to get a say in my life. And still, here I am, being hauled into my room by him and wincing as he slams my door shut, cutting us off from the rest of the house. I spin around in front of my bed and cross my arms rebelliously over my chest.

“And now what?” I spit out.

“Now you take those boots off.”

A cynical laugh escapes me. “My boots are none of your business.”

Scowling, Thane takes one stride closer. Two feet away, he folds his arms, mirroring my stance, and arches one eyebrow. “Either you take them off, or I will. You have one second.”

Jesus Christ!

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Author Bio

The nitty-gritty:

I’ve been a storyteller all my life, building bridges into different worlds. Already in kindergarten, I’ve seen the most fantastical things and wanted to share them with everyone. My teacher called me a liar back then. Today, I call it the first real flash of my spiritual gift and the cornerstone of my writing career.

When I got older, I’ve had many visions of a perfect career, while writing has always been more of a hobby and kind of a therapy for me when the longing for more magic in this world once again caught up with me in a crushing way. When my first book was finished, I couldn’t even imagine sharing one of my stories with others, ever. In fact, I only got used to the idea while I wrote my second book and learned in a very miraculous way where the many stories in this world really come from.

It’s funny how, at that point, everyone told me I can’t possibly make a living with writing. They even warned me not to quit my job. But after my debut novella PLAY WITH ME came out and sales skyrocketed within the first week, I knew I could do anything I wanted if only I never stopped dreaming.

That’s also part of what I teach my students in writing and spiritual workshops today. Always dream big! If your dreams don’t scare you, they aren’t big enough.

Some personal stuff:

“I’m writing stories because I can’t breathe without.”

Disney is my attitude to life, and if I could I’d save the world from itself. My Patronus is a wolf, my wand the broken twig of an apple tree, 13 ¾ inches with a unicorn hair core. I can’t deny that on some days, I prefer my book characters over real people, but there’s not a single day going by where I wouldn’t try to find magic in reality. And when I’m alone, I love to listen to the many stories of the wind in a mystic mid-summer night.

So you see, I’m lucky enough to live in an enchanting world of my own. It’s peaceful there and full of magical things, fairies and wonders. You’re welcome to follow me there – if you’re ready to open up your mind and leave everything you learned about reality behind. But beware, if you dare to step through this door, you may never want to leave again…

Author Links

Website:

www.annakatmore.com

Facebook:

German: www.facebook.com/annakatmore

English (brand new) www.facebook.com/annakatmorebooks

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#BookBlitz “Leisha’s Song” by Lynn Slaughter

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Contemporary Coming-of-Age Romantic Mystery, Young Adult

Published: June 2021

Publisher: ‎Fire and Ice Young Adult Books

Leisha knows something’s wrong. Her beloved vocal coach at boarding school would never have resigned and disappeared like this in the midst of preparing her prize students for a major vocal competition. Leisha’s determined to find her, make sure she’s okay.

Cody, a sensitive cellist, insists on helping her. Sparks fly, clues multiply, and romance blossoms, despite the disapproval of their families.

Leisha’s desire to be with Cody and pursue music rather than medicine puts her on a direct collision course with her African-American grandfather, the only parent she’s ever had. But an even more immediate threat looms– because, as Leisha draws closer to the truth about her teacher’s disappearance, she puts her own life in grave danger.

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Praise for Leisha’s Song

“Suspense, tender romance, and a thoughtful exploration of racism make this page-turning coming-of-age novel a winner.” – Lee Tobin McClain, USA Today Best selling Author of Home to the Harbor

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Excerpt

Rosita, I need to borrow your friend. Okay with you?”

Si,” she said, and a shy smile crept on to her face. “You want me to save your food, Leisha?”

I shook my head and picked up my tray to dump it. My stomach felt like a bunch of heavy stones were clanking around in there.

Meet you out by the stairs,” Cody said.

What’s this about?” I eyed him warily, not at all sure I was up to talking with Cody when I felt this vulnerable, and… and well, when it was getting harder and harder to keep my distance.

You,” he said in a low voice.

I should have flat refused to follow him up the stairs to the second floor. No one else would be hanging up there on a Saturday, and it definitely wasn’t a good idea to let myself be alone with Cody. But my willpower had mysteriously disappeared. Up the stairs and down the hall I went.

Cody lounged on a window seat and pulled me down to sit next to him. Outside, the sky was smudged with gray, and the tree branches drooped under the weight of the snow. I sighed. I was drooping too.

Cody’s hand was warm, strong, callused. No! Not going there. I pulled my hand away from his and carefully inched away. “You’ve got five minutes,” I said, determined not to let him see that his touch made every hair on the back of my neck prickle. Better to make him believe I was the original ice queen.

Okay, tough girl, I know you were crying in there. Let me in. I care about you, damn-it!”

He leaned toward me and touched my cheek, and I closed my eyes for a moment. Then I grabbed his hand in my own, and I couldn’t help it. I held on tight. “It’s… it’s Ms. Wells.” I spilled out everything I knew, which was not much. “I need to find her. This is going to sound crazy, but I think she’s in trouble.” I shivered and made myself let go of his hand.

He gazed at me somberly. “She never would have left without talking to you. I used to like watching her watch you. It was almost like you were the daughter she never had.”

Tears burned behind my eyelids. That’s how I’d felt about her—like she was filling up a pocket in my heart that had only held longing for the mama I’d never known.

Cody pulled me in close.

My whole body tensed. I could not let this happen.

It’s okay,” he said. “This is strictly a brotherly hug.”

Yeah, right. But being in his arms felt too good to pull away. He smelled like fresh laundry mixed in with the woodsy scent of the rosin he used on his cello strings.

We’re going to figure out what happened,” he murmured in my ear.

I snapped my head back to stare at him. “What do you mean ‘we’?”

He grinned. “Every great detective needs a sidekick. I’ve just appointed myself yours.”

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About the Author

Lynn Slaughter is addicted to chocolate, the arts, and her husband’s cooking. She also admits she’s always loved to learn. A graduate of Smith College, she earned master’s degrees in sociology and dance. Following a long career as a professional dancer and educator, she returned to school for her MFA in Writing Popular Fiction from Seton Hill University. She’s the author of three other young adult novels: IT SHOULD HAVE BEEN YOU, WHILE I DANCED, and DEADLY SETUP (forthcoming, Fire and Ice, 2022). She lives in Louisville, Kentucky where she’s at work on her next novel and serves as President of Derby Rotten Scoundrels, her local chapter of Sisters in Crime.

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BookBuzz

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#BookTour “A Light Through the Pouring Rain” by James Ruvalcaba

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Memoir, Grief

Published: December 2020

 

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A true story about a young couple’s battle with cancer.

 The Light Through the Pouring Rain is a remarkable love story that will pull on your heartstrings and leave you inspired. 

An emotional page turner that gives a first hand look into the lives of a
young couple madly in love and eager to start their lives together, only to
have it all halted by a cancer diagnosis. With no clear road map on how to
navigate their new normal, James and Anabel proceed into uncharted
territory, hand-in-hand, with the love of their families and their faith in
God to guide them.

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EXCERPT

Preface

Unfortunately, millions worldwide have experienced the pain of losing somebody. Every loss is not the same; every person that has left our planet has left behind families and friends. Each loss is an apples-to-oranges comparison. What I mean by that is that being offered someone’s condolences is nice, but don’t let them compare their “friend of a friend” to your pain. Accept their comfort, but realize nobody knows how to speak to someone who has just gone through something traumatic, as you’ve gone through. I realize that only people that have experienced pain in its worst form can identify others that have pain behind their eyes and have been traumatized like yourself. Everybody goes through their pain differently, and there isn’t a textbook to help you get over the pain of loss.

There is a cycle of grief that is the closest I’ve seen to understanding the stages that you will be going through.

  • Denial stage: Trying to avoid the inevitable.
  • Anger stage: Frustrated outpouring of bottled-up emotion.
  • Bargaining stage: Seeking in vain for a way out.
  • Depression stage: Final realization of the inevitable.
  • Testing stage: Seeking realistic solutions.
  • Acceptance stage: Finally finding the way forward.

Losing a loved one is a shocking and traumatic experience. Sometimes it can hit your right away; sometimes it can hit you months later, like it did to myself. My best piece of advice is to take your time with each stage and realize that just because the list is in that order, that doesn’t mean that’s the order you will experience it. It goes out of order sometimes and rearranges itself enough to make your head spin. Everybody is different, and please, do yourself a favor and take as much time as you need. Don’t rush the process and use the process to heal. It may be one year later and I’m writing this book about my fiancée, but that doesn’t mean that I’ve healed. I’m far from it, to be honest, and I’m not exactly sure I will ever heal or be able to be in a relationship again. It is hard to come to grips with the fact that I found my soulmate, my best friend, my lover, and to have it all in one person, and I planned my life around this person and my happy ending will never come to fruition. It haunts me every day as I replay my life decisions over and over again endlessly. I don’t have any regrets about any decision I made during this process, because it was toward my goal of what I thought the perfect relationship should be. Now that has been taken away from me. I could never be resentful of anyone or ask, “Why did it have to be her? Why did this have to happen to me?” Because of my faith in God, I know this was a part of the plan. I knew Anabel would spark my brain and give me the baton to keep the marathon going and be able to help out so many around the world with our story. I know what I just said sounds crazy and may upset some, but I have a certain foundation of faith in God, and I trust his plan and refuse to let the pain I suffer on a daily basis—and the pain of her family and mine—to happen for no reason. I refuse to walk around with the weight of the world on my shoulders, with sadness, with depression and pain, when all Anabel ever did was bring happiness to anybody she ever encountered, although I have every right in the world to. I want everybody reading this to know that life and anything you experience is about perspective. This loss I will speak of could keep me in a dark place for the rest of my life, and I could stay there and it would be justified. Not a single soul on this planet could tell me otherwise. The world understands the aftermath of the loss of a loved one, and it comes with certain expectations. The world and the people who live on it understand that the one in pain will be a full bottle of emotions: full of anger, sadness, depressed, pissed off. That’s just a few of the emotions, and it’s not just limited to those. You can experience so many, and it’s okay. What I want to do with this story of Anabel and me is give you a different perspective on the life that we shared together, a glimpse of the real horrors and terrors that come along with the process of battling cancer. I think everybody understands the realities that come with battling cancer, such as weight loss, baldness, chemotherapy, and tiredness, but so many, including myself, don’t understand the true terror that comes along with it. I’ve lost so many family members to different kinds of cancer, but adults had shielded me from the horrors of it, and to be in the trenches with my partner was truly horrifying. I want to open the world’s eyes to the territory that comes with cancer, to make you think, Oh yeah, I didn’t even think of that. I want your brain to be there constantly running as you read this story and think even when life was stormy, they somehow were able to find the light through the pouring rain.

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About the Author

Hello, I’m James Ruvalcaba. I began writing because I wanted to honor my fiancee Anabel’s legacy and to be a testimony of God’s goodness. On a personal level , I am a family man and hold them near and dear to me. I am a down to earth person that loves interactions and conversations.I believe the more we communicate the more we see the beauty of God’s previous workings.

Prior to being a writer , I worked with the special needs population for 10 years. I wanted to give back to the community and assist in achieving a higher quality of life as a tribute to my Sister who suffered from disabilities herself.

 

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