Creature Comforts is Coming Back

Well, you hadn’t thought we’d gone forever?

My beautifully truculent co-inhabitants of this wondrous planet. Full stop. Take it in and just be that… as individuals… as the collective consciousness… as organisms co-existing on a rock… just be that. Perhaps a dash less truculent but that is, after all, our nature. But come. Come. Take it in. If you’re confused, you’ve obviously not had enough of the spice. Pumpkin. Spice.

Gross. I grow weary of this. Daaaviiiiiiiiiiiiiiiid!

There we are! The beginnings of a new episode! Sorry, pumpkins, I’ve been battling new beginnings and navigating non-existent challenges, but! Soon to be back.

Creature Comforts 1

Creature Comforts 2

Creature Comforts 3

Creature Comforts 4

California Lunch Room

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Guest Author: Donna Campbell

Donna Campbell is a Northern spirit in a Southern zone, capturing short story fiction. Nicknamed “raptor” by her best friend many years ago, she’s better known in her role of tracking life from every angle. You can follow her on Instagram @imraptorbhm.

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The old, green Pontiac bounced down the two-lane highway off the main road near the outskirts of North Fork, California. A tear rolled down Mabel’s cheek as she drove up the gravel road to the empty, crumbling building that once brought her abundant happiness. As she parked near the front door, the weathered building seemed smaller than in earlier days. Taking a deep breath and opening the car door, Mabel stepped out and stared at the chipping white paint and old signs. A faint smell of cat urine made her wrinkle her nose.

The morning’s events were still fresh in Mabel’s mind. The somber funeral home, the whimpers of hushed tears, the soft organ music…he was really gone.

Mabel had met Jack, her husband of 52 years, at this very place. He was a dusty stranger in need of a cold drink. As he stumbled through the screen door and took an open spot at the tiny counter, Mabel brought him the tallest glass of ice water. Jack smiled. That’s all it took—a smile and a glass of water had brought two people together. Mabel kept his glass full of water that day, and every day thereafter, until Jack’s illness took him home.

With the key in her hand, Mabel opened the screen door and unlocked the wooden door. Looking around, she remembered the store front sold the basics, such as tobacco, candy, soda, and a small assortment of gloves and caps. A small hallway led to the back of the store to the dining area and kitchen. The humble surroundings came to life when dinner and supper were served. The locals and the occasional passerby were treated to the best home-cooked meals and the latest news. The walls buzzed with laughter and the aroma of pot roast drifted through the open window screens.

Jack and Mabel made North Fork their home, and with the purchase of the California Lunch Room, they started a life together. Thirteen years separated them in age, but they were a matched pair in spirit. The day the diagnosis of cancer came for Jack, the California Lunch Room closed its doors. Jack needed daily support.

No one saw Mabel slip out the back of the funeral home. She needed some space away from the grieving. The store seemed the perfect place to reflect on her past, present, and future. Sitting at the counter, Mabel heard a soft meow. Turning to the screen door, she saw a gray kitten saunter in and sit at the sunlight’s edge on the worn floor.

In that moment, Mabel bowed her head and placed her hand on the weathered railing.

“I hear you, Lord.”

Mabel opened her eyes as the kitten brushed against her leg.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do to reopen, Jack.”

The kitten purred in agreement.

Commonality Sanctum: An Inside Look

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Hallo, you beauties!

As you can guess from the title, I’m giving you a sneak peek into my newest endeavor: Commonality Sanctum. In this post you’ll get to see the tail end of chapter five and all of chapter six. Keep in mind, this is a draft version, so some things might change down the road. I wanted to share this section, specifically, because it’s very character-driven instead of plot-driven. In other words, you shouldn’t be lost having not seen previous chapters.

So, here we go. I hope you enjoy entering the mind of an ex-cult-member!

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Chapter 5 (Claudia Dayo) (Partial)

Friday, July 11, 2025—Present Day 

I shot upright, whipping my head around to try to find the source of the mechanical grinding sound. It was coming from the alcove with the books. Michael cut his eyes to me but didn’t bother moving his head.

“It’s the printer,” he explained calmly. I let myself relax a little bit at a time.

“I fell asleep,” I said. The words came out slow. In the compound we were only allowed to sleep at night, and even then we usually didn’t get to sleep the night through. Every few hours we’d be plucked from bed to clean or pray or reflect.

I fell asleep during the day. My skin felt cold.

“I’m sorry,” I said. Fear rose from the pit of my stomach in waves. “I didn’t mean to fall asleep. It won’t happen again.” I could feel myself shrinking back into the cushions of the couch, and I couldn’t stop it. It was such an ingrained response. If you sleep when you’re not supposed to, you get beaten. If you eat when you’re not supposed to, you get beaten. If you speak when you’re not supposed to …

“Claudia,” Michael said. He half stood, turned towards me, his arms out, hands getting close. I would’ve screamed. I almost did. He was so quick, though. One minute he was hovering over me and the next he had my face pressed against his shoulder with one hand, the other holding my legs as he cradled me in his lap.

He was so gentle. I cried. I think from relief.

I cried, and he held me and whispered against my hair, his deep voice rumbling through me.

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Chapter 6 (Michael Alvis)

Friday, July 11, 2025—Present Day 

The response had been automatic. I regretted it the moment she was in my arms. Catharine had been nightmare prone. I’d held her like this so many times before, when she’d wake up crying or scared. The thought made me want to push Claudia away. Holding her felt wrong. She wasn’t Catharine.

Claudia must have felt me tense. She looked up at me with watery eyes and chocked out an apology in a voice thick with tears. I tried to relax. I pushed her head back to my chest. I didn’t want to look at her. I didn’t want to upset her further either, so I held her until she stopped shaking, until her breathing evened out. I gave it another minute, then placed her back on the couch and retreated to my bedroom. I closed the door and leaned against it.

What are you doing, Michael? The question rattled around in my head, unanswered. I needed help with Claudia. The only person I knew who could help her was Nate. An ex-member of Commonality Sanctum, he’d left the cult three years before I’d met him. He still had friends on the inside, which was how he’d found out about the kidnapping scheme. Apparently he’d not had all the details, or he’d have known the cult wasn’t going to stop at kidnapping.

I grabbed my phone from the nightstand where it was charging. I scrolled through my contacts list until I found Nate’s name and hit call. He picked up on the fourth ring.

“I saw it on the news this morning. I had no idea,” he said, skipping right over the pleasantries.

“I didn’t think you did,” I said.

“This is fucked up, man. Tell me you weren’t there.” I didn’t say anything.
“Michael …”

“I need your help, Nate.”

“What a surprise,” he said dryly.

“It’s serious.”

“When isn’t it?”

“Can you come over here? There’s a girl … She’s an ex-member. Sort of.”

“Jesus, Michael, what are you doing?”

“I keep asking myself that. I haven’t found an answer yet. Look, she’s freaking out. I don’t know what to do.”

“Being an ex-member doesn’t make me an expert. She probably needs a psychiatrist.”

“Maybe. But you know what it’s like, right? You can relate to her on a level I can’t. Can you just try? Please?”

He was silent for a while, but I could here scuffling in the background. “Yeah. I’ll be there in about fifteen minutes.”

“Thanks, Nate.”

“Don’t thank me yet,” he said, then hung up. I pocketed my phone and took a deep breath before opening the bedroom door.

Claudia hadn’t moved. She was curled up on the couch, the blanket forgotten, half spilling onto the floor. The TV was white noise. I turned it off and sat on the couch beside her. Her face was dry now, her eyes puffy and red. I leaned in a little to get into her line of sight. When she focused on my face, I straightened.

“I’ve asked a friend to come over,” I said slowly. “I think he can help you.”

“Help me?”

“Yeah. Help you adjust. He’s an ex-member, like you.” She was starting to get that nervous look that came right before she freaked out. “I trust him, Claudia. I really think he can help. He’s been out of the cult for a while now.”

She nodded but looked more resigned than agreeable. She wrapped her arms around herself and pulled her knees up to her chest until she was a small ball of tightly wound nerves. I got up and headed for the kitchen. I put on enough coffee for Nate and me, then filled a glass with milk and took it to Claudia. I set the glass on the coffee table in front of her and sat on the chair. She picked up the glass and took a tentative sip. Then another. And another. When the glass was empty she set it back on the table and stared at it.

“Would you like more?” I asked.

“May I?”

“Of course,” I said. I grabbed the glass and headed to the kitchen to refill it. That was the last of the carton. I tossed the empty carton in the trash, then took the glass back to Claudia and handed it to her. I was about to sit down when there was a knock at the door.

I looked through the peep hole, opening the door when I saw Nate.

“Thanks for coming,” I said as he walked passed. He scowled at me. I shut the door, locked it, and followed Nate into the living room. Claudia was pulled back into herself again, the glass of milk empty on the table in front of her. I moved around Nate to sit on the couch beside her.

“Claudia, this is Nathan Peters,” I said. Nate waved and took a seat in the chair.

“Hi, Claudia,” Nate said. His voice was pitched low and there was a melodic quality to it. “Michael tells me you were a member of Commonality Sanctum.”

She nodded. Her expression was even.

“I was a member too, although I haven’t been for some time now. I remember the adjustment period well enough. It’s been hard, right?”

She nodded again. She adjusted her position, opening up until she was sitting cross legged with her hands in her lap, facing Nate a little more. Nate responded by inching closer to the edge of the chair, his forearms resting on his thighs as he leaned forward.

“How long were you a member?”

She looked at me, then back to Nate. “Twenty-three years,” she said.

Nate looked at me. He kept his face expressionless. Or tried to. The skin around his eyes tightened and his lips thinned slightly. He ran a hand over his face. “Shit,” he said, breathing the word. “So you were raised in it.”

Claudia nodded. She seemed to sense Nate’s distressed. She pulled her right leg to her chest, wrapping her arms around it.

“Nate …” I said.

“Yeah, man. Sorry. I mean you could have warned me though.” He rubbed the sides of his face in three quick successions and then dropped his hands to his knees. “Okay. Well that’s something.” He leaned back. “I was thirteen when I joined. My parents’ bright idea. I stayed in for about ten years, but once I realized …”

“It’s a lie,” Claudia said.

“Yeah. Once I realized that Commonality Sanctum was a cult, I ran. My parents left a few years after I did. It takes some people longer to figure it out. Some people never do.”

“It took me too long.”

Nate leaned forward again. “You can’t dwell on that, Claudia. It’s not about how long it took you to figure it out, it’s that you did figure it out. That’s the victory.”

She opened her mouth but didn’t speak. Could Nate really call this a victory? She was one day removed from mutilating a corpse for the cult. Nate didn’t know that part. Yet. Claudia took a deep breath and looked Nate in the eye. “What I’ve done in the name of Com … of the cult … It can’t be undone.”

Nate looked at me. I looked at Claudia. “You could have done worse,” I said. She hadn’t killed the boy, after all. Nate kept staring at me.

“Is this about the Thorne kid?” he asked. I grimaced at the question but nodded. Claudia leaned her forehead against her knee. “Jesus Christ, man. She didn’t kill him, did she?”

“No,” Claudia said. Her head snapped up fast enough that it had to have hurt. “I didn’t kill him.”

“Then what?”

“This might be one of those things where the less you know, the better off you are,” I said.

“Fuck, Michael, how bad is this?”

“Well … It’s not good,” I said. Nate rubbed his face again, breathing a little heavy, a little too quickly. “I understand if you need to bail. I’m not trying to get you into any trouble or anything. I just needed some help with …” I nodded to Claudia.

“It’s starting to seem like you need help with more than just that,” Nate said. I held my hands out. What could I say to that? Nate shook his head, then refocused on Claudia. “Tell me what’s going through your head.”

She looked at him, her expression almost vacant. “Nothing,” she said. “Everything. What am I supposed to do when everything—everyone—I know is wrong. How do you live like that?”

Nate gave a bitter laugh. “I’ve been there, believe me. How are you supposed to have faith or belief in anything else when you’ve been raised on lies? Trust seems impossible—”

Life seems impossible. What purpose do I have now? What’s the point?”

“Survival. Happiness. Living. Hell, Claudia, there’s so much to experience. You just have to take it day by day. Survive today. Survive tomorrow. Survive the next day and the next. One day you’ll wake up and realize that everything is okay.”

“Is it like that for all ex-members?”

Nate and I looked at each other. No, it wasn’t like that for all ex-members. Not everyone could live with the lies they’d spent so much time and effort believing. The loss of all those years wasted. The loss of the one thing they’d dedicated their lives to. Many ex-members that had been in since childhood opted for the suicide route. Nate and I had talked about that a lot when we’d first met.

“You’ve been lied to all your life, so I’m not going to start off here by doing the same,” Nate said. A lie probably would have been better in this case. It would have been easier on her. “For a lot of ex-members …” His voice faded away. He cleared his throat and tried again. “When I first got out, I was so lost. I didn’t know anybody outside the cult. I didn’t know how the real world worked. Things, no matter how scarce, had always been provided for me. I never needed to worry about shelter, because we lived at the commune.”

Claudia repositioned herself back into a cross-legged pose, opening up as Nate spoke, and occasionally nodding.

“I was one of the lucky ones. The compound I lived in was in a city full of ex-members. I snuck away one night. I walked the streets for … I don’t even remember. Four or five days, I think. I scavenged food from dumpsters, slept in doorways. I found my way to a shelter, a homeless shelter. They had these meetings where you could talk with other people staying in the shelter. You sat in a little circle and told your story. One night after the meeting, an ex-member approached me. We talked for hours. She said that there were other ex-members living together in an apartment not far from the shelter and, when I was ready, I could meet them.

“About a month later I got up the courage to leave the shelter and move into the apartment. A month after that, I had a job. Another month and I had a driver’s license, a bank account. After about a year, I moved out on my own.”

Nate pulled his hands up to his chest, the fingers of one circled the wrist of the other. Then he began rubbing his left palm with his right thumb. It reminded me of the way Claudia picked at her fingers when she was nervous or scared.

“I got a call one day,” Nate finally continued. “One of my former roommates had committed suicide. Not even half a year later, I got another call. Another of my roommates …”

He trailed off. Claudia reached out and briefly touched his knee. Tears gathered in her eyes, trailing down her cheeks whenever she blinked.

“Not all of us make it,” Nate mumbled.

Rise and Run Giveaway

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Hello, sweetpeas!

Starting tomorrow (2/23/2018) you can enter for a chance to win a free, signed copy of Rise and Run. The giveaway will run through March 2, so there’s a limited amount of time—and a limited amount of product.

Just click this here link to head over to Goodreads to enter the Giveaway. While you’re there, go ahead and give me a follow!

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Cover Reveal: The Finale

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Good day! Hallo! Welcome! You’ve put up with all my nonsense and now you’re ready for the big reveal, right? Well, have I got a surprise for you! No, wait, it’s not a surprise if you know what it is. Well, then, have I got a cover reveal for you! First, of course, I have to include the obligatory links where you can buy and/or or review the book. I know, I know. It’s nothing personal. Just business. So here goes:

Paperback

eBook

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I hope you’ve enjoyed my teasing you for a few days. And I hope you enjoy the book even more so.

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Cover Reveal: Part III

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For whatever reason, I keep wanting to start this post with, “What up, bitches?” But I will not.

So, you’re here! And I’m here! And Dave is … Well, I don’t know where Dave is, but since you made it here today for the extras, I won’t let you down! Today I have for you a chapter that, although I thoroughly enjoy, was omitted from Rise and Run for pacing reasons. It was originally the second chapter in the book, so you might have questions to which I’ll simply say, “Hey, just go buy the book tomorrow, and all your questions will be answered.”

Oh, and, this wouldn’t be a proper part III to the cover reveal without the whole … missing piece of the cover. So, you’ll find that below. For now, read and enjoy!


Chapter 2

November 4, 2012, Bar Harbor, Maine

Rian Connell had called in every favor owed to him to get Effie released after she was apprehended on the suspicion of murdering a government agent. And when Mýrún couldn’t be found, Anthony Kenna’s murder was pinned on Effie as well. Not a stretch, considering that both men had died the same way.

The DoD’s reluctance to admit that the stolen boy existed—not even a word was breathed as to his purpose—worked in Rian’s favor. Effie’s case never went to trial, so thoroughly did all parties work to bury the classified project. The only reason Effie wasn’t buried herself was Rian’s high profile and the extensive media coverage it entailed him. Effie was released after three months with full-throated apologies, and no small amount of whispered threats.

But no one went against Rian. No one dared. If there was a problem that his imports and exports business couldn’t pay for, it was dealt with by the less legal aspects of his empire—and the extent of classified information he shouldn’t have was extra leverage.

Rian stood outside the Women’s Center of the Maine Correctional Center, his sandy hair slicked back. His gray and white pinstripe suit jacket was open to show off a matching waistcoat and a deep red tie. He held his arms open just in time to catch Effie as she sailed into him, knocking his glasses askew as she settled into as fierce a hug as she could manage with her pregnant belly between them.

“We have to find him,” Effie said. She looked up at him, searching his eyes for a sign of acquiescence.

Rian’s eyes went heavenward as he searched for the proper response. “I’ve looked for him, Effie. The boy is nowhere to be found,” Rian said, his Irish accent softened by his years in the States. “And Mýrún … she’s vanished just as soundly.”

“She couldn’t stay,” Effie said for what must have been the hundredth time over the past three months.

Rian waved off the chauffeur and opened the limo door for Effie himself. She scooted across the bench seat and Rian took his place beside her before instructing the driver to take them home. He closed the partition.

“I’ve widened the surveillance range. My sources have all confirmed that the DoD hasn’t located the boy yet. At least that’s something.”

“You don’t think …” she whispered, unable to finish the thought.

“No,” he lied. “I don’t think he’s dead.”

“Take me there,” Effie said. “Take me to the pickup location. I need to see.”

“And I need you to be home,” he said “Besides, taking the limo would draw unwanted attention.”

“Then why’d you take it?” she asked. Rian kissed her forehead in answer, then pulled her into him.

“If your mind is set on this we’ll go, but not now.”

She nodded. He was right, of course. He generally was. But knowing that didn’t stop the impatient tapping of her foot or the way she nervously picked at her fingernails. She had to find the boy; she had to.

*****

December 11, 2012, Lewiston, Maine

It was nearing midnight when Rian arrived at the project building where James Moran’s witness reported seeing the boy. Moran, Bar Harbor’s police chief and Rian’s closest friend, drove up with a few of his men following behind. Unofficially. As Moran got out of his car and Rian walked over to meet him, three undercover Chargers pulled up around them.

Moran handed Rian an earpiece and neck loop mic. “Just in case you want to turn me off,” he said as he handed Rian a wireless remote control. The earpiece was small and comfortable, a nanotech prototype that Rian had paid a fortune to get into Moran’s possession. He pulled the mic over his head, then tucked it under his shirt before attaching the remote to his belt.

Rian looked around at the growing unofficial police presence that had spilled from the Chargers. They looked ready.

“Two on you, two on me,” Moran said. “One at the front entrance and one at the back.”

Rian nodded and returned his attention to the building. Its windows were boarded up and the front door hung loosely from its broken hinges. This was Russian territory. Encroaching on it could cause Rian problems down the road, but he’d promised Effie that he’d get the boy.

Rian always kept his promises.

“I’ll take the ground floor,” Moran said. Rian nodded, freeing his pistol from its holster, and followed Moran to the building’s entrance, all but two officers in tow.

Rian and Moran stopped, one on either side of the listing front door. The smell of urine escaped through the opening. Rian peered down the empty hallway, a cancerous throat with torn and molding carpet and wounded walls. He nodded to the two men lined up behind him, trusting them to cover him as he made his way to the stairwell.

He stayed low against the wall, palms cupping his pistol grip, the barrel facing the floor for now. His right index finger rested against the trigger guard. He took shallow breaths through his nose, not particularly wanting to smell the building, but wanting to taste it even less. One foot crossed over in front of the other and his back lightly scraped the wall. The stairwell was just around the corner to the right. Behind him, Moran shifted, ready to go in. Rian turned the corner, pistol up.

Emptiness.

Rian took the stairs slowly, half out of choice and half necessity. The wooden stairs were in disrepair, not creaking as much as weeping when Rian or one of the officers put weight on certain slats. As he reached the landing, he took a moment to adjust his eyesight. It was darker up here, the smell louder.

“Move,” Rian whispered.

“Moving,” Moran answered, his voice coming crisply through the earpiece.

All the doors on either side of the hall had been removed, showing only dark sores along the blue-gray stretch of hallway. Rian and his party cleared the rooms one at a time. Inside the apartments, Rian saw signs of abandoned lives. Barbies and Hot Wheels, Legos, Play-Doh, gaming systems with game cases sprawling like an overturned Jenga tower. Mold spreading from desiccated food on dirty dishes in one kitchen. Overturned chairs, broken tables, empty spaces where television sets might have been, shattered lamps.

The whole second floor had been turned over.

The last apartment was fairly intact. Rian swept through, room to room. He swept his gun through the doorway to a bedroom. Lined up against the far wall were three bare mattresses with barely enough space to walk in between. Chains hung on the wall, about halfway between floor and ceiling, over all three mattresses. The next bedroom had the same setup.

“Ground floor is clear. Going to three,” Moran said.

Rian and his two officers reconvened in the hallway.

“All clear, sir,” the taller one said. The other shook his head. He’d found nothing.

“Two is clear,” Rian said into his mic as he walked back to the stairwell. “Going to four.”

The carpet on the fourth floor had been peeled back. Long, wide strips had been cut out in places. There were holes in the walls where the sheetrock had been broken, exposing the framework. It looked like someone had been pilfering copper wire.

The three men entered the first apartment, sweeping the rooms. “Sir,” the taller officer’s voice came simultaneously over the earpiece and through the wall. Rian walked over to the officer, now standing in a doorway. He stepped aside to let Rian look in.

Chains on the wall, naked mattresses, and five bodies.

“Human trafficking,” Rian muttered. “Looks like the Russians are tying up loose ends.”

The bodies were starting to turn, the smell sticking to the back of Rian’s throat. He patted the officer on the shoulder and turned to leave. As he stepped through the apartment’s front door, he picked up movement coming from the opposite end of the building and ducked back inside.

“Third floor is clear,” Moran said over the comm.

“We’ve got movement on four,” Rian said.

He chanced a peek from around the frame. He watched as three men and four women—some crying, their distress barely audible—were herded into the hallway. A fourth man followed behind them with a gun in hand.

The man looked out of place, plucked from a department store catalog in his cheap suit. The group was about twenty feet away, heading toward the opposite stairwell, when Rian heard a cry from the apartment they had vacated. It was a small sound. A loud thump followed on the heels of the cry.

Then silence.

Rian waited until the hall was deserted.

“Eight coming your way. One armed, the rest …” Rian searched for the right word. He hated using the word victim. He settled for, “Captives.”

Over the comm, Rian heard Moran directing his men to new locations.

“Keep clearing the floor,” Rian said over his shoulder. He crept down the hallway to the last apartment on the left, from where the cry had come.

A quick look inside revealed a man in dark clothes standing over a boy who couldn’t have been more than four or five. Rian couldn’t tell if this was the right boy; the age seemed off. He took a breath, then moved to fill the apartment’s doorframe.

He didn’t say anything, simply lined up his target and fired.

The bullet hit near the man’s kidney, the lack of spray out suggesting there would be no exit wound. The boy made no sound as the body fell forward, collapsing on top of him. Rian hurried into the room to pull the man aside. Unconscious, but not dead yet. He squatted down in front of the boy, who there was no mistaking now.

The boy’s left arm was set at an odd angle and his face and neck were bruised. A bleeding cut trailed from the corner of a bloodshot eye. Rian turned at the sound of the officers clearing the rooms next door. When he looked back to the boy, the cut was nearly closed.

Rian blinked a few times, then shook his head.

“It’s all right now, boyo,” he finally said, trying to sound neutral.

Rian heard a shout, gunshots, and more shouting, this time with additional voices thrown into the mix. A woman wailed.

“Building is secure,” Moran said.

“Perimeter is secure,” a second voice responded.

“The boy is secure,” Rian announced. To the boy, he said, “Just sit tight, huh? You’re safe now.”

Rian stood up as he heard the first set of boots on the stairs. He checked the man he’d shot. Still not quite dead. He met Moran at the door, still keeping an eye on the kid and the soon-to-be corpse.

“We caught ourselves a bad guy,” Moran said.

“One of Kuznetsov’s men,” Rian said.

Moran whistled. “Shit. Well, I’m sure he’ll have an accident in prison.”

“A better alternative would be for him to have an accident before he leaves this building. I’d prefer that Kuznetsov doesn’t find out about this. Or at least not anytime soon.”

Moran nodded. “And the boy?”

“A bit beat up, but alive. His arm looks broken.”

“Who’s that with him?” Moran asked, eying the man on the floor.

“Another of Kuznetsov’s men. Post-accident. Give it a few minutes and all you’ll have to do is hide the body.”

Moran shook his head. “Funny. I’ve got EMTs on the way for the civilians. I’ll send a team up to check out the boy.”

Moran headed back down to his men. Rian returned to the boy, who hadn’t moved. He hugged his knees with his right arm. Rian sat beside him, leaning against the wall.

“Let me see,” Rian said, indicating the boy’s left arm. The boy held out his arm, made no noise as Rian inspected it. Bright bruising mottled the skin. Not broken after all. Fractured, maybe.

“Can you tell me your name, boyo?” Rian asked.

For a long while, the boy didn’t answer. Finally, he whispered, “LS061514.”

“And how old are you?”

“Three, soon.”

“I’m Effie’s husband. Do you remember Effie?”

The boy nodded.

Rian couldn’t think of anything else to say. Kids weren’t his area of expertise—just one of the reasons why Effie’s pregnancy terrified him.

“How’d you manage to get all the way over here?” Rian finally asked.

The boy squirmed a bit. “I got hungry,” he said as though that explained everything.

Rian gazed ahead at nothing. He’d ask again, when the boy was out of this squalor. A week from now, a month from now, he’d ask again.

The paramedics arrived about ten minutes later. Rian moved aside to let them work. When the lead EMT asked which hospital to take the boy to, Rian slipped her a roll of bills and gave the address of a private clinic that one of his shell companies owned.

“We need to evacuate so the cleanup crew can get to work. You almost ready?” Moran asked as he walked back into the apartment.

“Just about. I need to arrange to have papers worked up for the boy,” Rian said.

“Why don’t I start on that while you get him settled? I know a guy who knows a guy.”

Rian smiled a little at that. “Conor Quinn seems like a good name, don’t you think?”

“Sure,” Moran said. “Listen, Rian, the ambulances are going to draw attention to this place. Not to mention our cars and the cleaners. Kuznetsov will know something happened.”

“I’ve got a guy at the Sun Journal. He’ll make sure the right story gets out,”

“Better work fast,” Moran said. “I’ll catch up with you tomorrow.”

Rian followed the paramedics out of the building and climbed into the ambulance. “No lights, no sirens,” he said to the driver as the rear doors shut.

*****

March 13, 2012, Kennebunk, Maine

The doctor and a flock of nurses bustled about while machines beeped anxiously. The screaming alarms were endless. Rian heard it all at a distance, his ears as resistant to decode the sound as his eyes were to the sight.

Conor gripped two of Rian’s fingers. The hands of both the man and the boy were clammy. A nurse cleared his throat, but when he saw Rian’s face, he thought better of speaking to him at all, much less trying to persuade him to leave.

She looks so small, Rian thought as he looked at Effie. So small. Somehow everything had gone wrong. The baby was stillborn and complications during the labor led to the subsequent surgical removal of the thing. The thing that would have been Michael.

His son.

Rian looked down at the boy holding his fingers in a painfully tight grip, but the boy only had eyes for Effie. One of the machines sang out a long flat line, kicking the noise and rushed movement into a higher gear.

Then everything stilled.

The doctor covered Effie with a sheet as the rest of the team shuffled out in varying states of emotion.

“I’m sorry,” was all the doctor said before leaving Rian and Conor alone with the body.

Conor let go of Rian’s fingers and walked over to the side of the bed where Effie’s arm hung out from under the sheet. He placed her hand on top of his head, like she might wake up and ruffle his hair. He held her wrist in both of his small hands and closed his eyes.

Rian looked around the room, trying to find something that wasn’t there. As he turned toward one of the observation windows, he caught sight of an older woman. Her thin white hair hung in a plait over one shoulder. She was handsome, even in old age, and her bright blue eyes shined with unshed tears.

Mýrún Ylva.

Rian looked back, saw Conor staring at Mýrún, still holding Effie’s hand on his head. Rian turned and ran out of the room, but she was already gone.

He walked back in and rested his hand on Conor’s shoulder. The boy laid his head on the hospital bed, oblivious to the bloodstain creeping outward. Rian squatted and gently took Conor by both shoulders, turning the boy to face him.

He wanted to say something, but had no words. Instead he hugged Conor fiercely, then picked the boy up and carried him out.


Well, that was fucking depressing! But I hope you enjoyed it all the same. As promised, here’s the final piece of the puzzle! Keep and eye out tomorrow for the Cover Reveal finale (that’s when you get to see the whole damn thing in order). Also keep and eye on this here page for the Amazon purchase links!

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Cover Reveal: Part II

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I promised you extras, and now I’m delivering!

First up, the the original short story that brought to life some of the characters you’ll find in Rise and Run. This is the very first imagining of Felix Quinn and his alter ego, Jack. Jack would later become Conor, and the story would take a sci-fi bent. This short story? It’s purely thriller.

Of course, it wouldn’t be Part II of the cover reveal if I didn’t, I dunno, give you a peek. At the bottom of the post you’ll find another snippet of the cover for Rise and Run. So, without further ado, I present …


Pressure: A Short Story

Amber street lights, pale in the pre-dawn cold, marked our progression, never a straight stretch of road in sight. Shaina saw it first, the mattress stretched across the center of the two lanes. She braked, steered around it. A box-spring had landed about fifteen feet from the mattress, clothes scattered alongside the road, boxes. I told Shaina to pull over. Only after did she protest.

“This isn’t your concern, Jack.” She grabbed my elbow as I opened the car door. The name sounded wrong, emphasized. I looked at her. “Just hurry up.” She released my elbow, almost with a push, attention going to the dirty windshield.

I followed the trail of debris. Glass from a picture frame crunched under foot. I didn’t look at the picture. I pulled the collar of my coat up. Five steps, a slash of fluid. Four steps, another wet spot pooling. Smelled like transmission fluid. The road made a sharp turn. I kept going straight, to the nest of trees that cradled the broken truck. Not a bad wreck, not by a long shot. There were no cords, tie downs, no straps of any kind in or around the long bed of the truck. Explained the mess for such a delicate landing.

The first two digits on the license plate suggested the truck’s driver came from Marionette. Or the owner did. I’d like to say that I walked to the passenger’s side door cautiously, but I’d be lying. The driver had long since gone, window down. The cab reeked of tobacco. I could go for a Winston about now, myself. A wallet lay deserted in the passenger seat. I grabbed it, flipped it open, looked at the name. Fantastic. I stuck the wallet in my coat pocket and headed back to Shaina and the warm car.

“We’re going to have to call Rian,” I said. Rian Connell ran Five Points. The man behind the politicians, behind the law. He’d raised me from age three, finding in me something adequate enough to be his enforcer. He made the rules, I made sure the rules were followed. The downfall to being raised for a job like that? Gave me a tendency to go overboard. The first time I went too far Rian decided it necessary to induce a solution. The result created a kind of second personality. He even gave us separate names.

“You mean, you’re going to have to call Rian.”

True. After all, Rian hadn’t cut Shaina off from the family. He’d cut me off. So why the elaborate theatrics? Not for his own benefit, surely. Rian must have heard rumors about my recreational activities outside of the Five Points district. Not that I’d done anything wrong, yet. Just been getting harder to play by the rules lately.

Shaina glanced at me, looked back at the windshield, dropped her voice. “You don’t owe him anything. You’re out, remember?” Her voice hitched.

“Yeah, well, he owes me an explanation.” I took the wallet from my coat pocket and handed it to her. “Besides, I didn’t choose to leave.”

She opened the wallet, let out a low whistle.

“Felix.” Hearing her say that name felt like a blow. More comfortable, familiar, the name rang truer than Jack ever had. Reminded me of what I’d lost when Rian had told me to take some time off. She tossed the wallet back to me, turned over the engine. As she shifted into first gear I watched her denim-clad legs, the twitch of thigh muscle as she lifted her left foot, easing off the clutch, right pressing the gas. Smooth transition.

“What do you think, kid?”

“I think it’s a joke,” I said.

“You haven’t been Felix for two years.”

“I’m aware of that.” Sounded bitter, even to my own ears. I hadn’t volunteered to leave the family, hadn’t volunteered to live as Jack.

“Think he wants you to come back in?”

“I don‘t know.”

“Could you even pick up where you left off?”

“I’m not sure.”

“Well, what are you going to do?”

“Go to Marionette. I’m going to see Rian. Figure out what this is about. What else can I do?” Slight pressure built between my eyes. Shaina pushed me for answers I didn‘t have. Trying to get me to think on broader terms, maybe. Why? Because she worked for Rian. Making me answer for my own sake, not hers.

“What else can you do?” She pitched her voice, mimicking Rian’s lilt. A son of Ireland, he ran the Five Points district like a piece of the homeland.

********

Sitting in a leather chair in the office Rian Connell owned in Marionette—the city that made up the western border of the Five Points district—I tried to figure out what to say, the right questions to ask to get the answers I needed. Not something I considered a good time. Open blinds covering the wall of windows from floor to ceiling showed the sun falling behind towering buildings. Made for a pretty picture. Still … My palms were a little damp, stomach didn’t sit right.

Rian, always the professional in a three piece suit, sat behind his desk, jacket draped over his chair, hands placed in front of him. His sandy hair never seemed to gray, green eyes never dimmed. The pressure of the job never seemed to bothered him, though the fine lines spreading from his eyes spoke of tension.

For all intents and purposes Rian ran a chain of pubs throughout the Five Points district. Best way to keep up with what went on in his cities. A jack-of-all-trades, Rian dabbled in everything from racketeering and gambling to illegal dock trades that allowed distribution of hard to come by medications for the less fortunate. A crook and a saint. More than anything else, Rian and the family kept the cities safe. He ran the district efficiently and came across, for the most part, as a decent guy. Didn’t make me want to strangle him any less.

I took out the wallet weighing my coat down and threw it on Rian’s desk, took another wallet from the back pocket of my jeans and it landed with a thud next to the first. I leaned back in my chair and watched as Rian pulled the wallets to him, opened each, looked at me. I spread my hands, palms out and facing him.

“You can’t push me around, expect me to play along. Not without telling me what’s going on. Pick an identity. Who am I?” I had to hear him say it.

The clock mounted on the wall above a poster that read LOYALTY counted out the seconds, oozing lazily along. Tick. Tick. Tick. I wanted to slam closed fists on the desk, demand answers. When it came to Rian, forceful persuasion wouldn’t get me anywhere. Not my style, anyway. Most of the time.

“Rian,” I said. I wanted a name. He‘d given me two. He had to choose one. “What are you doing?”

“It won’t work, boyo.” He always knew.

“Why am I here, then, huh? What is it you’re wanting me to do? He’s dead.” I poked the smaller wallet harder than I meant to. “No more.” My hand was still close enough to the wallet that picking it up and chucking it against the wall behind Rian took no thought, no time, no effort. “Bye-bye, see ya, no more Felix. You made sure of that after the last assignment. And him?” I grabbed the thicker wallet between two fingers, waved it around, dropped it back onto the desk. I sat back in the chair and tapped a finger against my chin. Decided to start again. Start over. Small questions Rian would answer.

“Do you have a new assignment for me?”

“Yes”

“Permanent?” No answer. “You said I was done.” I resisted telling him that he’d alienated me from the family. Resisted showing any type of abandonment.

“I did.”

“Which makes this a choice.”

Another smile. I hadn’t noticed leaning forward.

“You need Felix again.” His pleasant smile continued. I didn’t need to ask whether he’d made the necessary arrangements. “Just … give me the assignment.”

Rian handed me a folder about two inches thick. At the door, I had my hand on the knob, when he spoke. “It was never my choice.”

My fingers seized around the handle. I left.

*******

I spread the contents of the file before me on the coffee table in my apartment. I expected an assignment. Instead, a detailed file on Felix is what spread across the table. I didn’t need the background information. I’d lived it. Felix isn’t some cover to adopt and throw away. Neither is Jack. So why give me the file?

Because details of Roy Henderson’s murder headlined Felix’s file, and Roy’s death had caused Rian to create Jack. Because I’d killed Roy. An accident. I’d gotten caught up. Couldn’t remember the details, yet here they lay spread in front of me. I’d almost forgotten, almost blocked it from my mind.

Rian’s way of reminding me. Reminding me what could happen without Jack’s presence to stay my hand. Jack, calm, ordinary. Don’t get me wrong, Jack’s a cool guy, the person I’ve been for the past two years and the closest I’ve come to an actual, single identity in the past twenty. It’s just … Rian saddled me with an ordinary life when he took Felix from me.

Felix got things done when people couldn’t. While Jack may have been the one who lived in society—had the job, the car, the home, the capability of having the family, the career—Felix had the contacts, the information, the developed skill set, the ability to persuade and enforce. Felix who had ability to take care of the problems that arose in the Five Points district, Felix who Rian would call when an issue needed handling. Felix who had all the fun.

At first the two identities were gloves to be slipped on and off, something I controlled, had awareness of. Eventually they became something more. Any given situation brought forward the necessary persona with no conscious effort. Always a flow of changes that had me never really knowing who’d surface until someone would say a name. Always me, never me.

Two years ago, when Rian freed me to leave his employ and said I, in fact, should really “take an extended vacation,” he’d said a name. Jack. So that’s who I’ve been. Jack, the law abiding citizen who drank Starbucks coffee and always paid his parking tickets. Now he throws Felix in my face. I can’t look to Rian for answers, he’s already shown me that. There were only two other people I could turn to, one being Shaina. And since she played a hand in the setup of re-enrolling me in family affairs, maybe she could be useful and spare a few answers.

********

I pulled up the collar on my coat, walked to the door, tapped once. She’d hear the soft thud. The door opened and Shaina leaned against it giving me a once over. She looked different at home than in the car. She fit here. Tall and lean, her skin the color of heavily creamed coffee. She moved back to let me inside. I followed her to the kitchen. Her hair seemed longer now that it fell loose, the track lighting emphasizing the red tint peeking through the dominant near-black shade. I sat at the island and she handed me a glass of water, looked at me. Her blue eyes gave her face an exotic look. Eyes that could always unnerve me, though today they seemed less searching, less demanding.

“Wondered when you’d make your way here,” she said.

“You’re getting lenient with your entrance fee.”

“You’re right. You didn’t bring me food or anything.” She smiled. “Of course, I can always lead you out and we can try this again. Only this time, if you don’t have a bag full of Chinese take-out I’ll happily deny you entrance.”

“Where’s the wolf?” The first time I had met Seth—who I’d been calling the wolf for the duration of the seven years I’d known him—he’d made a peculiar monosyllabic noise that sounded like a distorted growl. I’d realized it was his laugh. The kind of sound that had startled me at first, but grew to be something expected and almost comforting. Seth and Shaina were the closest thing I’d come to having a family, like a brother and a sister. Seth, the person I’d turn to if Shaina had no information for me, also worked for Rian.

“Grocery shopping.”

I nodded. Best not to ask about the details. She leaned over the counter to stick her face in mine, elbows propped on the counter, chin resting on long-fingered hands. She sniffed.

“Spit it out, kid. You saw Rian and …”

“Nothing.” I spun the glass of water round and round. “Just gave me this.” I handed her the file.

“An assignment?” She looked at it, looked at me. She pursed her lips. “So you’re no longer on hiatus.” Not a statement, not a question. The words came out like molasses. She set teeth against her bottom lip, opened the file, shook her head. “There’s no assignment.” She didn’t sound surprised.

“No.”

“Who are you then?”

“Why do you think I’m here?”

She set the file down in front of me, folded her arms across her chest.

“He’s playing with me.” I said.

A slight lift and drop of her shoulder. “He has a motive—”

“Doesn’t he always?”

“Whether it’s clear or not. Have you talked to him since you got this?” She tapped a fingernail against the file. I shook my head. “I haven’t heard anything.”

My stomach dropped. Time to find the wolf. I thanked Shaina, asked if Seth would be working later. She confirmed.

“Let me know what you find?” she said. I nodded.

*******

            I walked the streets of downtown Marionette, an ensemble of towering modern structures and decades old houses-turned-businesses. The wind had kicked up and the temperature fell with the sun. The shop windows were plastered with Halloween decorations. A green witch in black robes with a purple stripe adorning her pointed hat rode a broom across the front of Finnegan’s Apothecary. Orange pumpkins with yellow eyes and mouths and a scarecrow in a flannel shirt kept guard over a vintage clothing store.

I neared Faolan’s Pub and a man in a latex mask caught somewhere between human and monster jogged past, howling something unintelligible. I slowed my pace, letting a particularly strong gust of wind pass. Stopped. Turned. The man in the mask stood facing me in front of the pub door. Faolan’s Pub means … Wolf’s Pub.

I called out to the man. He turned and ran. The slam of my feet against the sidewalk informed me of my pursuit before my mind had time to register a conscious decision. He turned right. I followed. He headed for the docks of the little river the populace of Marionette seemed so fond of. My pulse quickened, stomach tickled. The man started to slow. He looked over his shoulder at me, let out a growl. A laugh. Confirmation that my masked man and Seth were the same. I pumped my legs harder to pick up speed. Called out to him again using his name. Docks were getting close. Could see the water, feel the weight of downtown falling behind. Realized just how cold this October had gotten.

The cadence of Seth’s steps changed when he hit one of the piers, a hollow thunk with every footfall. He stopped at the end of the pier. I still ran, closing in. He knew something, didn’t he? Had to.

The pier was icy, slush crunching under foot. Seth, still in the mask, held his hand out. To slow me? By his stance, I doubted it. I tried to slow. Couldn’t. I got too close. He grabbed my coat, using my own momentum to throw me into the water. I landed hard, breath knocked away on the impact before I sank.

I had two choices, sink or swim. Seems obvious. I thought about the way Jack would react. He’d waste needed time wondering what happened, why Seth threw him in a freezing river. After all, the wolf’s a friend. Isn’t he? Jack would be angry and confused. Yet even as the thoughts surfaced I treaded water to get to air.

I knew if I opened my mouth the freezing water slamming against my lips as I swam would rush into lungs already burning for air. I could feel the water seeping past my lips, through the spaces between clenched teeth, freezing in my throat and threatening to choke me. Needles poked my legs, my sides. A few more feet, the surface couldn’t have been beyond a few more feet.

The too-cold water prevented me from opening my eyes. It didn’t matter. My body instinctively knew when I broke the surface. The dropping temperature of the air had my eyelashes freezing together. I knew not to take a deep breath even though my lungs were crying for it. Took ten shallow breaths. My pulse started to slow to a reasonable rate. Now I could worry about opening my eyes.

The trick to opening your eyes when your lids and lashes are a mess of ice is simple. Don’t care about the pain. Don’t care about aesthetics. The sloppy wet gurgle? That might have been a slew of unsavory words. I waited for my sight to return, the dark turning into a mass and blur of watercolor images trying to take form. Blinked. Twice more.

Rian stood silhouetted against downtown, Seth behind him, mask in hand. Had a feeling Rian would be around when I surfaced. I swam to the pier, arms shaking as I pulled myself up and landed face down to catch my breath. Rian crouched in front of me. Feeling half frozen, spitting ice, lungs still on fire, I spoke to his knees.

“A little dramatic, even for you.” Numb lips tried to eat the words as I spoke them. Rian shifted his feet to better balance his weight. He snorted. A hand appeared in front of my face, work worn, well manicured, strong. I raised my face enough to look at Rian.

“Felix …” The name took root in the silence. “This was never a choice that could be made for you. I chose Jack thinking he was a person that could contain you, make your life simple. I was wrong. You’re not that simple, boyo, you never have been. Sometimes you never truly know who you are—”

“Until the pressure is on?” I grabbed his hand. He helped me up, smiled, nodded.

“Something like that.”

Seth joined us. Hugged me. Good to have you back, he’d said.

“It’s good to finally be someone,” I said.

Without Jack, controlling myself would be harder. And yet, in his absence, I felt there would be one less hand holding me back.


Welcome back! I hope you enjoyed the short story that would eventually spawn Rise and Run. If you cheated and just skipped to the end of the post for another piece of the cover, shame on you. But also, I understand. Well, here it is. Another snippet of the cover. Tune in tomorrow for the final piece.

And, of course, you can see the full cover on Wednesday, the 14th.

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Cover Reveal

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Hallo, dears!

I’ve got some exciting news. Leading up to the release of Rise and Run on Feb 14, I’ll be putting out blogs with extras and/or little tidbits of information about the book. Each of these posts will have a piece of the cover. The final post will reveal the cover in full.

Are you excited? I know I am!


Cover Reveal: Part II

Cover Reveal: Part III

Cover Reveal: The Finale

Villain Series: Part IV

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Forward: Welcome welcome welcome! This is the final part in the villain series. I really hope everyone has enjoyed it so far. Now, part four is a little different from the rest. It’s written in 1st person POV instead of 3rd to allow a better in-depth look at Chernobog. It’s also shorter than the others, because this section has only one purpose: to define Chernabog as a villain, whereas up until this point he toed the line of anti-hero. Well, I’m ready, so if you’re ready too, then let’s get to our villainous conclusion! Muah-ha. Muah-haha! MUAHAHAHAHAHA!


I have wondered at times why some men choose to pick off their prey from a distance. But here Beatrice is, lined up slightly low and right of the center crosshairs, and I now know one reason why long-range killing appeals to some.

I don’t want her to know.

It’s never been a problem before. Killing, I mean, never a problem, but this isn’t the same and there is this … sick twisting in the pit of my stomach. This isn’t something I want to do—it just needs doing.

I slide the bolt back to chamber a round. As the wind picks up, I adjust my aim to compensate—a half centimeter to the left should put the bullet right between brainstem and spinal cord. Quick and painless.

“What are you doing, brother?” Belobog. His light is muted, dim. I look over my shoulder and see him standing there like some goddamn lost puppy. He doesn’t look at me. I don’t blame him.

“I asked her to marry me earlier tonight,” I tell him, turning back to look through the scope. “She said yes. Practically spilled over with delight.”

“Then why…”

“Why blow her brains out?” The words come out low, grunted speech. “You made a mistake, brother. You made a mistake, bringing her to me, and now I’m correcting it.”

And this woman is a mistake. She is affecting some kind of change in me and that can’t happen. That I want her to die happy is unnatural. That I don’t want her to see it coming or know by whose hand she dies is pathetic. That I want her to love me in death is weak. And I know even this favor to her is selfish and self serving, but it matters. That’s more than I can say about much of anything these days. Beatrice matters, her happiness matters.

That’s not who I am.

I won’t let her change me, but neither can she continue. And while I might be pulling the trigger, it is Belobog that put her in my crosshairs.

“You say you want to set me free, brother, but I know better. You want to change me.” I look over my shoulder at him again, and this time he meets my eyes. “I will not change. I will not lose myself to you or her or anyone. What you did, brother, was give me another reason to be angry, another reason to hate this goddamn ball of dirt and everyone on it.”

Even as I tell him these things, I’m experiencing what must be regret. I have been in this borrowed body too long. The skin I’m in itches and burns and I can hear it tearing even though I can’t feel it like I can my own.

Through the scope I see Beatrice shift in her chair, showing her ring off to her friends as they sit in front of the café. She leans back again, torso toward the road. Only 200 yards. It’ll be a clean shot. I make one more wind-based adjustment and slow my breathing. My heart rate slows.

Pump, exhale, pump, exhale.

One more heartbeat and on the tail end of my exhalation I pull easily on the trigger. I immediately pull the bolt back, discarding the shell and pulling another into the chamber. Just in case. But I hear the screams, so I know it’s a hit. Looking through the scope, I can see the impact wound.

A clean shot.

I stand and turn to face Belobog. My back and face are sweating. Regret and anger fester as my borrowed human form melts away. My brother watches the scene below play out in silence.

The mistake having been taken care of, I leave.

Villain Series: Part III

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Chernabog looks in the mirror he’s been standing in front of for the past quarter hour. He looks human, but beyond that he has difficulty differentiating this body from that of every other human on the planet. He doesn’t poke or prod at the human jumpsuit. There is just too much of him in it. Chernabog feels the whole of him might burst from the fleshy restraints. Gods and demons weren’t meant for such insignificant casings.

“Well?” Belobog asks.

Chernabog busies himself tightening his tie and straightening his suit jacket. He focuses on as much nothing as he can. “This body is…” he indicates himself with a sweep of his hand, finally settling on, “weak.”

“How so?”

“Small, overfull, boiling. It’s too limited.”

Belobog nods. He grabs Chernabog’s face between his hands and pushes some of his light into the body. Chernabog grunts and pushes Belobog away with a muttered, “Better.” Chernabog isn’t sure what his brother has done, but the body now seems more able and less suffocating.

Belobog slaps a hand on Chernabog’s back. “Try to be… Or, try not to be… Well, try to have fun in any case,” he says. Chernabog shutters, settling in his skin, and heads for the door.

*****

Chernabog taps his fingers on the table as he watches Beatrice walk through the restaurant door. She appears absolutely delightful. Chernabog actually notices her hair—long, dark waves. As she walks toward him she smiles, her unpainted lips only a shade or two darker than her pale skin. She leans slightly to the right and waves uncertainly. He beckons her over and she comes, weaving through the tables.

Chernabog pulls Beatrice’s seat out for her, then takes his seat across from her and bares his teeth in an approximation of a smile.

“This place is wonderful,” Beatrice says, taking in their surroundings as she settles in her chair. “I wonder if there’s anything on the menu I can eat.”

“If you try hard enough, you’ll find there’s almost nothing you can’t eat,” Chernabog says. To his surprise, Beatrice chuckles.

“A sense of humor. I like that,” she says. “I’m vegan.”

“Never heard of it.”

Beatrice waits to see if he’s joking. “No meat,” she says finally. “No dairy… No anything that comes from animals.”

“I think the word you mean is ‘masochist’,” Chernabog says. Why else would someone do that? He doesn’t ask the question aloud, afraid she might go on a tirade about the reason behind it all. She shrugs one shoulder, tilting her head to meet it, the smile still on her face.

“It’s just a choice. That’s one of the things we can rely on in this world, after all. Not saying that’s entirely good,” she says. “Hell, I chose to huff gasoline when I was younger and that wasn’t my best decision.”

Chernabog raises his eyebrows, wanting to hear more about her poor choices.

“Well,” Beatrice says, “I chose to marry a CEO. That turned right around to bite me in the ass. So now I choose to sing karaoke to offset the boredom of being an accountant. One of my better ideas, I think.”

Chernabog laughs, startling himself with the sound.

“And cartography. Can’t forget that,” Beatrice adds.

“I’m starting to be very glad you were able to get a babysitter tonight,” Chernabog says, surprised that he is, in fact, in a positive state of feeling.

“I’m sorry?” Beatrice says, confusion blossoming over her features.

“Your profile said you had a son. He must be very young since you can’t possibly be older than twenty-something. I only assumed…” he says, letting the statement hang in the air. For the briefest moment, he is concerned that he’s done something wrong. A moment is all it takes for Chernabog’s anger to find kindling in his fear.

Beatrice’s eyes lose focus. She looks down, then back at Chernabog. “I’m thirty-seven, actually,” she says and smiles, but it’s missing the previous joviality. She looks a little dizzy, makes a grab for the edges of the table. “He would have been eight this year.”

Chernabog hesitantly places his hand on Beatrice’s wrist. Through the touch, he can feel her pain. It’s so big, he wonders how she can hold it. His anger settles back down, dormant for now. He pulls his hand back and shifts uncomfortably. “I’m sorry,” he says, the words sounding to his own ears more cautious than sincere. “I shouldn’t have said… But why not take it out of your profile?”

“Because I do still have a son. That he isn’t here any longer doesn’t mean he never was.”