Saturday, November 07, 2015

Chapter One: Temporary God

Dear Gang: Here's the first chapter of my December book, the first in a new paranormal series called Paladin and Summer: Temporary God. I'd love to know what you think of it. Please let me know by commenting on My Facebook Page. You may have to like the page to comment. 

This series isn't part of the Mageverse or Time Hunters: it's completely new and will be self-published with e-book versions available at Amazon, B&N, Apple, ARe, Kobo, etc. A paperback is not currently planned, because of the expense.

Anyway, thanks! Do let me know what you think.

Paladin kissed me. Deep and starving and desperate, as he sometimes did when he returned to me. It poisoned him, the job he’d taken on because somebody must. Because some subconscious need of humanity cried out in the darkness for justice. For balance against the vicious and the murderous and the uncaring.

For light.

The voices called him, sobbing demands he serve. So he answered, and did.

Then he came home to me and woke me with a mouth that burned and seduced, demanding and male on mine, drawing me out of velvet sleep to the hot, desperate taste of him.

His lips teased me open, his tongue slipping over my lower lip until I moaned, waking, drinking him. Tasting blood and magic, currents of sparks rushing from his lips into mine, lighting up the darkness of my room. Light flowing into me on the thrust of his tongue.

His kiss tasted of ozone, an electric glitter that lit the darkness behind my closed lids as he spilled power into me. Power and the copper penny tang of blood.

They’ve bled him, I thought, with a stab of pain and panic. They’ve hurt him. And if they hurt him, he could have died. The thought of Paladin dead stabbed me to the heart. I’d rather die myself.

“Shhhh.” He soothed me, fingers seeking nipples drawn tight by his kiss. Light spilled from his hands, pouring from his skin into mine, turning my fear into need. Building need into excitement, into wild desire. Pleasure rushed in with the magic, flowing along my nerves, liquid and warm, flushing out the fear with the warm tidal rise of delight.

My pussy grew slick as I arched into Paladin’s hard strength. He rolled my nipples, squeezing harder, making me feel the sharp edge of want. Hands playing over my skin, trailed by sweet neural sparks.

“Did he hurt you?” I managed, fighting to focus on what really mattered. “I can taste the blood.”

“Hardly.” Paladin snorted. “The blood is his. It would take more than Gerald Moss to lay so much as a spark on me.”

“What happened?”

“The usual. Valak has been sending out the dregs of his priesthood to kill for him. Moss wasn’t particularly challenging to either track down or eliminate once I found him. Frankly, I don’t want to talk about it. You’ll remember it later anyway, whether I want you to or not.” His voice dropped to the soft growl that made my pussy even wetter. “We have more interesting things to do now.”

I groaned as his hand slipped between my legs, finding slick flesh, danced around the erect nub of my clit. Pleasure floated up in a long spiral like sparks from a candle flame, swirling with the smoky delight from my nipple as strong fingers tugged with delicate care.

A river of dancing sparks…


Light woke me, color shimmering beyond my closed eyelids.

I opened my eyes to find sparks dancing in the dark. Flashes of cobalt blue, cyan and turquoise orbited my fingertips as my hand curled, palm up on the quilt. I smiled in muzzy wonder at the floating fireworks, as I lay on my side, sleep drunk. Dreaming. Gotta be dreaming.

Kisses. I’d been dreaming about kisses. Paladin’s kisses.

It was a hell of an improvement over the clawed, furry hand I’d once seen grope its way over the edge of the mattress. I’d woken from that particular nightmare standing all the way out in the hall, heart thundering so hard my ears pulsed with sheer animal terror.

My dreams could be fanged, nasty bitches. Even Paladin couldn’t keep them away.

But this time the sparks didn’t vanish when the fog of sleep lifted. I raised my hand, watching dancing light trailing my fingers. What the hell is that, I thought, charmed and bewildered. Static electricity?

No, you might get a lone snapping spark from scuffing your feet across the carpet, not this coruscating comet tail in the dark.

I rolled out of bed, watching my hand trail glitter. As I straightened beside the bed, a roil of energy poured from the base of my brain, making gooseflesh rise on the back of my neck, then spread rapidly across my shoulders and down my arms. I spread my fizzing fingers, and the sparks spun out of my hand into a ball that floated weightlessly above my palm. It felt warm, like sunlight on skin. The blue tattoo on my palm glowed, sparks floating lazily upward toward the ball of light.

Weirdest dream ever.

Because that's what it had to be. There’s no such thing as magic. Yeah, all the armchair physics I’d read insisted that when you got to the quantum level—even deeper than neutrons, electrons and protons, down among the quarks and elemental forces—weird shit happened. But out here where us humans live, magic was impossible.

Yet that globe of sparks still orbited over my palm, stubbornly existing.

I glanced around. Nope, no Tinkerbell. No Paladin either, more’s the pity.

And yet…and yet as I gazed at the globe in hypnotized wonder, something happened. My consciousness seemed to expand beyond the limits of my body, until I could feel the big Victorian house around me—the creaking floorboards covered by worn Persian carpets, the circling sweep of stairs, the elderly kitchen, dining room, the parlor and the bedrooms with all their antiques, the long, high-ceilinged dojo that made up the third floor.

And a warm, familiar presence. My mother’s ghost, I thought with helpless yearning. Of all my lost childhood, the memory of my mother was the part I’d give anything to recover.

I blinked dry, open eyes. I felt awake, not that that meant a damned thing, not with my dreams. So why were sparks fizzing around my hand like carbonation floating over champagne?

Summer, watch it! Valak senses you. You’re in danger! A female voice, ringing my mind with sweet, high notes, not Paladin’s deep whiskey rasp. My mother’s ghost?

Whoever she was, she was right.

Hair rose on the back of my neck as an icy exhalation of terror blew away the wonder. My hands started to shake, my mouth flooding with adrenaline-flavored brass. My head jerked as I instinctively scanned for the source of the fear.

Evil. I could feel it out there in the city somewhere. Far too intelligent, impossibly old, swollen like a tick with stolen magic and other people’s blood. It knew I was there, and it wanted to kill me. Rip my soul apart like cotton candy, and gobble me down in great bloody bites.

The way it had killed my mother.

I blinked, and it wasn’t sparks floating over my hand, but a blazing blue fireball. My palm felt singed as if I held my fingers over a sizzling griddle. My left hand burned too, violet and hot.

Something ran up the stairs in thumping bounds. I whirled toward the sound, instinctively backing away.

The bedroom door slammed open so hard it bounced against the wall. I screamed as blue glowing eyes shot across the floor toward me. I tried to dodge, but the thing slammed into my shins. I staggered and almost fell on my ass. Pain slashed my ankles. The fireball winked out.

The room flooded with illumination as both bedside lamps and the ceiling light flashed on, though I hadn’t touched the switches. The ink-black shape yowled, sounding panicked, and pain raked my skin.

My cat.

She had both forepaws wrapped around my ankle, needle claws dug deep as she howled a cycling wail of terror.

"Calliope! Get off!" I hopped, glad I hadn’t obeyed my first impulse and kicked her across the room. The furry little psycho refused to let go. She lifted her head, staring off into the distance as her clutch became almost protective. Her wail dropped into a deep basso growl that sounded like something a hell of a lot bigger than a house cat.

“Dammit, beast!” I reached down and peeled her off my ankle as she spat kitty curses. Writhing in my grip, she hissed at me, her blue eyes crazed. Every long black hair on her body bushed, making her look twice her normal size. "Calliope, dammit, calm down!”

She quit yowling to hook her claws in my sleep shirt. Clinging, she began to shake in racking quivers, a pitiful ball of fuzzy cat panic. I forgot about my own scare and hugged her, stroking her silky ears and murmuring the sort of nonsense people say to terrified cats. My ankle stung like a bitch; she’d probably clawed me bloody. I’d tend it later. The important thing was to convince Calliope she was safe from cat-eating monsters.

Thoroughly awake now, I turned off the lamps and the overhead light and got back into bed, cuddling the cat in the crook of my arm. Her agitated tail lashed back and forth, beating softly against my ribs. "I guess I'm not the only one who had a nightmare, huh, baby?”

With me curled protectively around her, Calliope finally calmed down. Running a hand down her ebony back, so did I.

I must have dreamed those sparks the same way I’d dreamed Paladin’s kiss.

I’d grown up sleepwalking. Every couple of weeks I'd wake shaking, convinced I'd almost died. My dreams were intense: the smell of burning skin, flashes of agony and desperate effort against tattooed men in robes and armor.

I’d use the dreams as inspiration for scenes in my books: Richard Paladin battling demons, his big body launching punches and spinning kicks, his sword an arc of light as magic flashed in his pale eyes. Night after night I dreamed, until repetition rendered the horrific almost routine.

But that thing just now had been another order of magnitude worse than the worst of those. Distilled evil, looking at me. And hungering.

More terrifying than any dream I’d ever had.

Summer, go to sleep. You're having a nightmare, Paladin murmured, his deep voice soothing, hypnotic.

I obeyed him, letting my head drop back on the pillow. He might be nothing more than the voice of my writer’s subconscious, but he seemed so much more.

The room filled with the thrum of Calliope’s purr. She’d quit shaking at last, though her blue eyes glowed in the dark, worried and watchful.

Sleep reached up and gulped me down.


When I woke the next morning Calliope was gone. There wasn't so much as a black cat hair on the embroidered white wedding ring quilt I’d inherited from…someone. Mother, grandmother, great-grand, I didn’t know which. Not my aunt; Mary didn’t sew. I wondered if the cat had really been there last night. Remembering the scratches stinging my ankles, I knew how to find out.

Rolling out of bed, I examined my body. If it had been real, there should be a set of claw marks, maybe a puncture or two from Calliope’s efficient teeth. But my skin was unbroken. Guess I had dreamed the whole thing after all.

Too bad, I thought, remembering the dancing sparks that had looked like one of Paladin’s spells. It would be cool to be able to work magic, to summon energies science had never discovered.

But as for that other thing—the Lovecraftian horror that had contemplated me in the dark—I was relieved that sucker wasn’t real.

I’ve had people gush about how lucky I am to be creative. Yeah, right. Let’s swap nightmares. See what you say the morning after.


The next morning I dressed for the day in my usual blend of styles—hipster with a dash of neo-Goth, covered in nutty Cosplay goodness. Today I wore black jeans, a pair of Wonder Woman Converse All Stars, and one of my favorite snarky T-shirts — Darth Vader on a star field background intoning, “The NERD is strong in this one!”

Next came the makeup; smoky blue, blending into green toward the center, then a sweep of black liquid eyeliner and over a thick coat of mascara. The dramatic color made the most of my blue eyes, particularly given the way my black hair shaded into blue and violet at the tips. That matched the swirling tattoos on my forearms, curls of blue and violet. My palms were marked with sigils, one blue, the other violet. They were pretty cool, which is why I’d given them to Paladin, my fictional hero.

I didn’t actually remember getting those tatts. I just woke up with them one day eight years ago, when I was seventeen. Judging from the psychic fog that surrounded the event, I blame beer. Shit like that is the reason I don’t drink anymore.

My foster mom, Mary—actually my aunt—had given the ink a long, worried look, but to my surprise, she didn’t jump me about it. I’d figured she’d ground me until the next ice age.

So between one thing and another, I looked like a character from an urban fantasy novel, which is the whole idea. Science fiction writers and bookstore owners are expected to be a little weird.

After breakfast—Captain Crunch for me, Tender Vittles for Calliope—I scooped up cat and purse for the trip to the shop. Leaving the beast at home wasn’t an option; she’d avenge her loneliness on every stick of furniture I owned. A pissed-off cat can do a surprising amount of damage to hapless antiques. I liked the house too much to leave it at Calliope’s dubious feline mercy.

Besides, bookstores and cats go together; my customers loved the fluffy little terror as much as I did. They adored sitting in the cluster of shabby armchairs that occupied the middle of my shop, cat purring in somebody’s lap, drinking coffee and reading used paperbacks. These days, a bookstore needs all the customer-bait it can get.

I looked up at the house silhouetted against the bright blue October morning. It had that charmingly creepy quality some Victorians have, with its mansard roof of fish scale slate, cream siding, and white porch. Geometric details were picked out around the windows in slate gray trim, while the window frames themselves were painted a deep burgundy.

My eyes strayed to the top floor, then slid quickly away. Some things you just don’t want to think about first thing in the morning.

New day, I reminded myself. Lots of shit to get done.

Purse slung over my shoulder and Calliope in my arms, I headed for the bright blue Kia Soul parked at the curb. The Kia had been a gift from my aunt when I got my library science degree four years before. A particularly nice gesture, since I had come into my inheritance by then and could’ve bought the car myself.

My aunt always did stuff like that — give me more than I had any right to to expect. I suspect she was trying to make up for my mother’s loss. Personally, I thought she’d already gone above and beyond, considering she’d taken me in, which was more than some women would have done. Especially given that her husband hadn’t appreciated acquiring an amnesiac tween dependent.

I’d always suspected I was one of the reasons the couple broke up, though Mary had insisted that was a more a result of her ex’s general asshattery. 

It had been three years since she died, but I still missed her.

I put Calliope into the cat carrier seat belted into the passenger seat, and she huddled behind the wire door looking grim. She’d never liked my driving.

We roared out of the driveway a bit faster than we probably should have. I was supposed to open the shop at ten o'clock, and I was running late. Last night's…dream, sleepwalking episode, whatever you wanted to call it, had resulted in my hitting the snooze button a few too many times. My eyes felt gritty, and my muscles ached.

With the cat rumbling complaints from her carrier, I drove past my neighbors’ Victorians, Craftsmans, and Colonials in their manicured postage-stamp lawns. In Graven’s Morgan Heights neighborhood, people treated their yards like children, nurturing the azaleas that grew in the shadow of elms, magnolias and pines with the fanatical attention of helicopter parents. Elaborate gardens, like elaborate old houses, were the rule rather than the exception in Morgan Heights. Most of the homes dated back at least a century, and some went all the way back to the founding of the city two hundred years ago.

I had no business living in a neighborhood that nice. By all rights I should live in some skanky apartment complex, while working my ass off at a couple of minimum wage jobs in order to afford rent.

Instead, my mother had left me the house, the strip mall our bookstore occupied, and several other properties, including an empty big-box store my real estate company was still trying to rent out. There’d also been half a million in cash and investments. Apparently it was old family money, though exactly what my ancestors had done to make it was anybody’s guess.

God knew it hadn’t come from running the bookstore. The only one who’s ever gotten rich selling books is Jeff Bezos.

I wasn't exactly Richard Paladin when it came to solving my life’s assorted mysteries. Either the clues weren’t there, or I was too dumb to recognize them.

Flights of Fancy occupied one end of the strip mall a couple of miles from the house. My tenants included a Chinese restaurant with decent buffet, a tattoo parlor that was not responsible for the art on my arms—I’d asked—and a consignment shop whose owner seemed to find me somehow menacing.

Today it just so happened that Jennifer Stone got out of her car at the same time I emerged from mine. She was a pretty forty-year old, with red hair, blue eyes and a fifteen-year-old son who liked to come into my shop. Dave Stone was a great kid, a carrot-top like his mother, tall, blue-eyed and surprisingly athletic for such a devoted nerd. A participant in the weekly Magic the Gathering tournaments, Dave adored Calliope, which got him automatic cat-lover points with me.

I had no idea why his mother seemed to find me so intimidating.

"Hello, Jennifer,” I said over Calliope’s sharp black ears as she rode regally in my arms. “Pretty day.” It was the kind of cool, piercingly clear morning that made October in South Carolina a luminous delight.

Waving vaguely without looking at me, the woman speed-walked to her shop. The door opened and closed with a jangle of agitated bells before I even made it across the parking lot.

“What the hell is her problem?” I muttered to Calliope.

I unlocked Flights of Fancy, pushed the door open, and released Calliope. The cat thumped to the floor and ghosted off ahead of me, soundless as a puff of smoke. The string of bells attached to the door jingled.

Turning on the lights, I surveyed the room with satisfaction, breathing deep, enjoying the dry, dusty smell of ink, books and old paper.

I loved that smell. It always reminded me of summer mornings at Mary’s shop in Charlotte, sprawled on my stomach reading while my aunt worked. Or sharing a giggle with her about the handsome hunk on the cover of some romance.

In Mary’s bookstore, I was no longer the target of mean girl witticisms. I was Harry Potter, or Bilbo Baggins, or Jason Bourne. And I always won in the end. I definitely preferred being the hero. Being the victim sucked.

In the three years since I’d returned to Graven, I’d turned Flights of Fancy into a haven for my fellow nerds. There were posters celebrating anime and superhero movies, models of the Enterprise and the Millennium Falcon hung from the ceiling, and a cardboard Harry Potter rode his broom over the children’s section.

I also held Magic the Gathering card game tournaments every Saturday afternoon, and elaborate costume contests for Halloween. Then there were the demos I gave showing people how to make cosplay armor out of foam, or the science fiction novelists I booked to do signings.

As a result, kids like Dave Stone who didn’t necessarily have a hell of a lot to do on Saturday night now hung out at my shop. And bought SF novels, comic books, Magic the Gathering card decks, and Dungeons and Dragons manuals.

But really, I was motivated less by profit than the need for friendship. I’d spent too many lonely years as a kid when my only friends were Calliope and Mary.

And Paladin, once the imaginary companion of my lonely childhood, now swashbuckling magical hero.

Going to the antique china hutch against one wall, I reached into the cabinet and pulled out a coffee filter and the bag of expensive coffee I kept there. The customers loved the brew as much as I did, which was how I justified buying it.

Still, I had to be careful. I might have money now, but running a business is expensive. If I didn’t watch it, I’d burn through my cash and end up flat broke.

Luckily my most profitable customers never set foot in the store. I loves me some Internet. Fulfilling the needs of my online clientele kept me prowling flea markets, yard sales, weekend comic book conventions, and estate sales.

It's amazing what people will spend money on, especially when it comes to collectable comics, rare Magic cards, and first editions hardbacks.

Though it would help if Paladin's books took off; at the moment my royalties were just barely paying the shop’s electric bill.

And yes, I was aware of the irony of a bookseller writing e-books. More than one brick-and-mortar shopkeeper has lectured me about being a e-traitor on my Facebook page.

But I was a writer first, and I wanted to be published. The big New York publishers didn't bite, which left self-publishing as my only option. Sue me.

And why didn't New York bite? Was I that bad?

My answers to that question usually ranged from I'm awesome to I suck, depending on whether I’d gotten any one-star reviews on Amazon that particular day. Being neurotic is as much a hazard of the writer’s life as carpal tunnel.

While the coffee pot hissed and burbled, I opened a package of cookies and arranged them on a delicate china plate painted in peacock feathers. Not that I’d see anybody until school let out that afternoon. But I was an optimist—and I liked cookies. Luckily, I had a fast metabolism, or Google Earth would carry pictures of my ass.

Munching happily—Mmm, Oreos—I sat down at my desk and pulled out my phone and its small bluetooth keyboard. I hated typing on the screen. I like using all ten fingers when I write, not just my thumbs.

Opening the Paladin's Quest document I’d stowed in Dropbox, I sipped my coffee and let my eyes slide out of focus.

Some writers know exactly where their books are going. They write plot outlines and diagram the conflicts and fill out character sheets listing everything from their hero’s eye color to his favorite ice cream flavor.

I envy people like that. Which is to say, I hate their well-organized guts.

I never have any frickin’ idea what I was going to write until I sat down at the computer and wrote it. Don't get me wrong, I’d tried plotting my books. Unfortunately, the results ended up sucking worse than that Star Wars movie with Jar Jar Binks. I finally gave up on it and went back to writing my old disorganized way.

Now I sat in my bookstore inhaling the scent of other people’s words and staring at the screen. Until I could see him.

“Hello, Paladin,” I murmured.

“Hi, baby,” he replied, in that deep, low croon he seemed to reserve for me. He sat with his feet up on his desk, his chair balanced on two legs, his hands laced over his flat stomach. Watching me watch him.

I loved watching him.

Paladin was not a very big guy — about a foot shorter than Jim Butcher's Harry Dresden or Lee Child's Jack Reacher, maybe 5’10” or so. He was also built like a mixed martial arts ass kicker—all powerful shoulders, brawny tattooed arms, and big callused hands with scarred knuckles, each with a magical sigil tattooed on the palm.

His face went with the bruiser looks: broad and harshly handsome, with a crooked nose and the pale, icy gaze of an arctic wolf. His dark hair hung to his superhero shoulders, thick and unfashionably long.

In between investigating insurance scams and trailing cheating husbands, he also worked pro-bono for every crime victim with a sob story. The man was a sucker for a crying woman or a pitiful kid.

Paladin’s Quest was an illustration of the kind of trouble his soft heart could get him into. He’d been suckered into going to work for a twelve-year old girl named Chantel Brown who’d hired him to find out who’d really killed her mother. The cops, being the cops, thought it was her father. Chantel was just as convinced Daddy had nothing to do with it. She’d hired Paladin with one hundred bucks in wrinkled bills: the sum total of all the Christmas, birthday and good-grade money she’d accumulated in her decade and change on the planet.

And yeah, the storyline probably was wish fulfillment on my part. I’d have hired Paladin when I was a kid, but since he’d been busy being my imaginary friend at the time, that wasn’t an option.

So I rested my hands on the keyboard, closed my eyes…

And began to type. 
Thanks for reading! More to come. Look for the book in December, probably around Christmas.