Author Archives: Elizabeth K. Burton

About Elizabeth K. Burton

I spent my first half-century in various parts of Pennsylvania, and plan to spend the second one here in Austin. The third one is up for grabs—feel free to offer suggestions. I've been a welfare mom, a journalist, a newspaper editor, and an information and referral agent. I finally got to do what I'd dreamed of doing most of my life—write fiction—and have since had four novels (Dreams of Darkness, Shadow of the Scorpion, The Everdark Gate, and The Ugly Princess) and three novellas published.

STRANGE MAGIC by Linda Andrews

The final chapter in the saga of the Dugan Brothers

Chapter 1

Dazzler Spitfire’s elven senses tingled, and her pointed ears twitched. Had her magic performed as asked? Standing on shaky legs, she slitted her eyes to peer at her surroundings. For a moment, sunlight sparked off the glitter in her lashes, blinding her, and then she saw it.

Across the two-lane road, boughs of holly climbed the sign welcoming visitors to town. Waxy green leaves and white berries complemented the cranberry script flowing across the walnut marquee: Welcome to Holly, the Most Enchanted Town in the West.

Yes. She’d accomplished the first step in her mission. She fist-pumped. A soft autumn breeze brushed her cheeks.

Gold, tangerine, and scarlet leaves swirled into a gourd-shape before lengthening into a mass resembling an eggplant on the ground in front of her. Two legs and two arms emerged from the torso. Moss knitted together, making a green uniform, and wild mushrooms added buttons and fleecy trim. Leaves wrapped an oval head before the newly formed scarecrow rolled onto his belly.

“Where are we this time?”

“Holly.” The name sweetened Dazzler’s tongue. Candy-cane lines of magic formed a ragged net around the village and blanketed the white church steeple rising above the pines. All this, and it wasn’t even the official holiday season for three more days. How strong would the magic grow after Thanksgiving?

She inhaled the scent, reveled in the cinnamon-and-vanilla aroma of human magic. So imperfect, yet she was so thankful humans took the time to create it.

This place felt like home. Why had she never visited before? Why had Todd always insisted they meet in Flagstaff?

“Holly?” Stick fingers dug into the ground as Cheddar levered up. His acorn eyes blinked twice before he raked red leaves into a pile and shaped them into a Santa Claus hat. “Why did you bring us to a magical town?” Screwing the cap down on his head, he adjusted his pinecone ears to hold it up. “I thought we’re supposed to be investigating why your magic always goes wrong.”

Skipping to his side, Dazzler offered her friend a hand. “We are. Santa recommended I start where my magic works best.”

Which was around Todd Dugan, a resident of Holly—a hub of human Christmas magic. Like elven magic, only different.

More forgiving.

And meant to be shared by all.

Cheddar’s three fingers closed around her wrist. The digits were soft despite being made from twigs. Leaves rustled as he rose to his feet.

“The North Pole is full of Christmas magic. Human and elf. Your magic doesn’t work very well there. Why would it work here?”

“That’s what we’re going to find out.”

And Dazzler hoped Todd would help her. Surely, as her friend, he wouldn’t refuse otherwise she could be stripped of her magic.

She chewed on her bottom lip. Hopefully, Todd didn’t hate magic so much he’d allow the North Pole Review Board to take away her powers.

Releasing Cheddar’s hand, Dazzler traipsed through the dappled sunlight beneath the cottonwoods and pines lining the road. Between the evergreen boughs, she spied the snowy trunks of sycamores, aspen, and poplars. Red flashed as cardinals darted in the forest. The jingle of the bells at the tips of her pointed shoes echoed through the silent woods.

“It smells funny.” Straightening, the scarecrow plucked stray leaves off his velvet vest then tucked them inside.

“It smells wonderful.” Opening her arms, she spun in a circle. “The peppermint scent of elven magic is too…” She mentally fumbled for the right words. “Too harsh. This is warm. Welcoming.”

Antlers gleamed in the dim forest. An ear twitched, and innocent brown eyes scanned the woods. Figgy pudding! She’d forgotten the reindeer.

Dazzler leapt behind a thick pine trunk and held her breath. Her senses strained. Had they seen her? The whole herd were notorious gossips. Tarnished tinsel! The daily reindeer report accounted for more than half the names switching from the Nice list to the Naughty one.

Cheddar’s acorn eyes narrowed. “Why are you hiding?”

She flattened her hands on the trunk. Bark crackled and broke under her touch. She peered around the pine. No red glow of reindeer noses illuminated the shadowy forest. She was safe. For now. But she had to be careful. Sighing, she dusted her hands on her velvet pants.


“Hmm?” She glared at the bells on her shoes. If she wanted to avoid the gossipy reindeer, she’d better ditch the shoes. She closed her eyes and summoned her magic. Her soles tingled, then her toes. Her heart quickened. Please, work. Please…

“Dazzler.” Cheddar grumbled in a voice sounding like two stones rubbing together.

She lost focus. Magic drained down her legs and filtered out of her toes. She shivered at the loss.

Planting his hands on his hips, Cheddar stared up at her. “Did your magic cause letters to disappear again?”

“No.” She clucked her tongue. Just because one sack of mail went astray, everyone blamed her.

She bent over and plucked the bells off her shoes. The breeze caught the green thread and whisked it away.

“Good, because there aren’t any departments left for you to join if you knot ribbons in the mailroom.”

Dragging her heel across the dark loam, she dropped the bells inside the furrow and buried them. Rich soil sucked at her fingers as she changed the bells into truffles. The peppermint scent stung her nose, and she waved it away. The reindeer couldn’t know her location.

Straightening, she smoothed her red vest. “I didn’t screw up sorting letters in the mailroom.”

The job was practically Dazzler-proof. Everyone said so. It wasn’t her fault that not all the letters were sealed. Or that some wish lists fell out of their envelopes.

The scarecrow pursed his lips. “But your magic did mess something up, didn’t it?”

Tucking her fingers inside her vest pockets, she crossed them. A little white lie shouldn’t land her on the Naughty List.

“Not technically.”

Except this time the Review Board planned an in-depth investigation into her off-Pole activities. She boxed up the thoughts, added gift wrap and a ribbon for good measure. It was almost the Christmas season. No time for negativity.

Cheddar grimaced. Sometimes the scarecrow took his role as her conscience a little too seriously. He opened and closed his mouth then huffed a breath. Two leaves flaked off his cheek and drifted to the ground.

“Are we really on a mission for Santa?”

Santa? Well, technically… Dazzler shrugged.

His eyes widened. “Does he even know we’re here?”

She tweaked the pom-pom on his hat. “Not here, precisely. I mean, he ordered me to pull myself together, or I’ll lose my magic once the Board’s inquiry is complete.”

Using both hands to count the days, Cheddar shuffled forward.

“So, we have three days to fix a problem you’ve had for nearly twenty years?”

More than half her thirty-six. She nodded. “We could have longer than three days.”

They could have the whole season, if the reindeer spies didn’t tell the Board where to find her. She was certain Todd Dugan would help. They weren’t just ex-family but friends. She’d been told friends helped friends in times of trouble. And she was in trouble. By Kringle, he had to help.

Leaves swept toward Cheddar, stuffing and lengthening his limbs until he brushed shoulders with her.

“Why do you think Todd will help? The man hates magic. Doesn’t want anything to do with it.”

“I helped him with his daughter.” Candance was half-elf. Dazzler frowned. Of course, her help with the teenager had been more about normal-girl-growing-up stuff than her burgeoning powers. Dazzler shrugged and gift-wrapped the doubts to hide them from herself.

“I don’t know.” Cheddar chewed on the end of a twig. “You do remember he’s in charge of Holly’s Christmas display this year, right?”

“All the more reason for me to be here.” She flapped a hand, dismissing his concerns. “I can help him with the lights, make this the best year yet, and free him up to tend the reindeer.”

Since the town of Holly was one of the way stations for Santa’s midnight ride, its herd needed to be in tiptop shape. She could stop Todd from splitting his focus. The town might depend on the lights, but the world depended on Santa.

Skipping ahead, Cheddar pivoted. He walked backward, facing her.

“If you’re here in hiding, the reindeer can’t be allowed to see you. Just one report, and news of your location will spread among the elves before first cocoa is finished.”

She opened her mouth then shut it. She knew firsthand how much elves loved gossip.

“Don’t worry, I won’t let the reindeer see me.”

A white tail flashed in the woods. So, how was she to prevent it?

“Good.” Cheddar nodded then turned his body but not his head. “I was afraid you’d want to help him. The last thing we need is a repeat of last Christmas Eve.”

Heat flamed in Dazzler’s cheeks. “I didn’t know the magic corn had turned bad.”

“Santa nearly passed out from the fumes.” Cheddar faced front. “As it was, he had to backtrack to Boise because his eyes teared up, putting him behind schedule.”

And elves loved their schedules.

And order.

And discipline.

And rules.

“That wasn’t my fault.” Despite the cool breeze, sweat beaded Dazzler’s forehead. Would she ever escape her reputation? Glancing down, she glared at the cranberry tunic and tights. Not in this uniform.

She zigged to the side of the road and pushed aside the drooping branches of a willow. Brown grass crunched underfoot as she leapt a drainage ditch. Planting her feet on a carpet of leaves, pine needles, and bark, she closed her eyes and inhaled.

A dollop of magic would fix her clothes.

She tapped into the leylines running underfoot. Leaves rustled. Grass whispered. Peppermint scented the air. A soft breeze picked up the forest offerings and swirled them around her. Her soles tingled; then the sensation climbed her legs, hit her torso, and radiated out her arms and head. The debris knit together, flattened, then stretched. Bark-brown pants wrapped her legs. Sleigh-red and pumpkin-orange colored her new sweater. The lemon-yellow collar of her undershirt hugged her neck.

Cheddar’s nose crinkled. “No jacket?”

Dazzler shrugged. Northern Arizona was warm compared to Santa’s place. “You know elves are quite at home in subzero temperatures. Why do you think Santa picked the North Pole?”

Cheddar scratched his chin. “You do seem to be able to control your magic here. Perhaps, we can solve the mystery after all.”

“I dress myself every day.” Dazzler tapped her toes as her shoes changed into sturdy boots. Changing clothes required minimal energy. Her unique magic traces were practically invisible in Holly’s fabric. She tilted Cheddar’s hat rakishly over his acorn eye. “Come on. Let’s go to town.”

Grumbling, he pushed back the hat.

She reached the side of the road and stomped her boots. Spare leaves and twigs dropped to the asphalt. The church spire rose above the pines.

“The town is this way.”

“I can’t believe Santa would approve of you coming into the human realm to solve your magic problem.” Cheddar’s attention snapped to her so fast two leaves fluttered off his neck. “Your ex-cousin-in-law has a daughter who is the same age as you were when your magic started acting up.”

She nodded. “Except she’s just now coming into her magic. And I’ve had mine since birth.”

Dazzler had been a master weaver at five. At seventeen, her spells had started to go awry. Hope fluttered inside her. Santa’s insights wouldn’t fail her.

Cheddar pushed the pompom on his hat to the back of his head. “You know Todd may not want to see you. He split with his wife at this time of year sixteen years ago. Despite your holidays together, he always makes sure to spend this time alone with his daughter and his family.”

She rubbed the heart birthmark on her wrist. Time didn’t matter when someone lost the love of their life.

“All the more reason for him to be supported by his friends and family.”

Cheddar glanced up at her. His uniform quickly morphed into a flannel shirt and black jeans.

“Have you ever been in love?”

“No.” But she knew what it was like to feel as if something was missing inside, of being incomplete.

She shook off the thought. There was nothing wrong with her.


Tilting his head, the scarecrow pursed his lips. “And if he asks us to leave?”

Todd wouldn’t. He couldn’t. She needed help.

“Then I’ll take my investigation elsewhere.” Stuffing her hands in her pockets, she hid her crossed fingers again. In Todd and Candance, Dazzler was certain she’d find the key to her malfunctioning magic.

They rounded the bend. On the right, a white farmhouse roosted in a meadow. Horses lipped at the yellowing grass. Pine boughs and red ribbons festooned the line of carriages parked along the driveway. On the left, pumpkins huddled in a patch where wooden cutouts of the Kringles, Santa’s sleigh, and his flying reindeer encroached on the symbols of fall.

A reindeer leapt over a hedge trimmed in twinkle lights.

“Ready or not, here I come.”

Antlers twinkled under the forest canopy. The reindeer loved their games.

Dazzler increased her pace. The forest gave way to bungalow suburbs. Wicker snowmen congregated on the right, taking shelter under two leafless apple trees. Lights outlined sloping eaves and spiraled down porch pillars. Oversized candy canes and ribbon candies lined walkways. The road forked near a butter-yellow Victorian offering homemade ornaments. Arrows pointed to the left, directing traffic.

“You lost?”

Standing near a compost box, an old man leaned on the rake in his hands. Leaves formed a pile by his scuffed boots. The rolled-up sleeves of his faded blue thermal shirt revealed a faded anchor tattoo on his forearm. Age pleated ruddy features trimmed by the white hair sticking out from his moth-eaten cap.

“No. Not at all.” Her stomach cramped. She would be welcomed here. She would.

He squinted at her for a moment; then his attention shifted to Cheddar. Leaves from his pile formed orderly lines and slipped under the scarecrow’s pants, fattening him.

“The both of you are more suited to Pumpkin and their celebration of all things Halloween than Christmas.” The old man stabbed his rake tines into the leaves, stopping their exodus.

Gasping, Cheddar shifted behind her and set his hand against her back. His shudder of fear transmitted through his twig fingers to her.

Dazzler straightened. No one would harm her friend. “I’m Dazzler Spitfire, and this is Cheddar.”

“Ole Henderson.” The old man rubbed his cold-kissed nose and cheeks. “I knew you was magic, but you’re an elf.”

“Of course.” She tucked a black curl behind her pointed ear. Not many magical creatures had ears like hers, even in Halloween towns.

“If you’re one of Santa’s helpers, how come you have a scarecrow with you?”

“Cheddar is my friend.” She raised her chin.

The old man grunted. “You ain’t got a real friend, so you had to make one? I thought everyone was friendly at the North Pole. What kind of elf doesn’t have friends at the North Pole?”

Black trimmed her vision as his words hit too close. She forced herself to breathe.

“Cheddar was a gift. We don’t return gifts at the North Pole.”

Especially after the great cookie fire a decade ago. Not that she’d tell the old man that. Humans needed to believe Santa’s place was perfect and magical.

Ole gathered the remaining leaves before resting the rake against the compost bin. “Thought you elves were supposed to be all white and silvery, like winter? You’re more like bark and leaves. You’d kinda stand out and all, up in the frozen north.”

Dazzler stumbled back a step. Her vision shimmered. “I’m a perfectly good elf.”

Most of the time.

Ole rubbed his chin. “I ain’t saying you’re not, just saying it would be easy for folks to see you from up high. Thought you’d be silver and white to blend in with the snow.”

Cheddar set his chin on her shoulder, stopping her retreat.

“Santa only works with Sylvan elves. Sylvan means woods.” He pointed a knobby twig finger toward the bare trees overhead. “Do you expect that tree to be like all the others? No. You want some trees for shade, others for fruit, and the evergreens for Christmas.”

Ole Henderson’s snowy hair twitched under his knit cap, and he raised his hands in surrender. “Just so long as you can do magic, you’re welcome.”

“Magic?” She blinked. “Holly has the strongest kind of magic outside of Santa’s realm.”

“You obviously have to be filled in about the town.” He removed his fleece-lined jacket from a bent nail on the compost bin and shrugged into it.

“I know all about Holly. The town was founded during the Gold Rush but didn’t really begin to attract a lot of settlers until after the wars that followed.” Dazzler smiled. She was good at research and remembered every bit of the history she’d looked into eighteen years ago. “After the First World War, Santa’s reindeer were exhausted by the time they hit the western US. He feared he wouldn’t keep Christmas for those in the newer states, but thankfully the settlers had a magical background and helped him corral enough elk to fill the team. The way station was created, and the townsfolk started raising reindeer.”

Ole shook his head. “I’m not talking about the town’s history. I’m talking about the man in charge.”

“Todd Dugan?” He was about as perfect as a human could be. Dazzler raised her chin. No one would besmirch her friend.

Ole set his hand on the small of her back and guided her down the lane.

“Guess I should have trusted the mayor to have a backup plan.”

Backup plan? Why would they need one? Dazzler blocked the old man’s view as Cheddar dove into the compost bin. The scarecrow muttered and hummed to the rotting vegetation, offering comfort.

“I know Todd Dugan.”

“Of course you do. He married one of your kind.”

The houses lining the lane grew closer together, then morphed into portly Victorians with white picket fences holding up garland bunting.

Dazzler mentally recited her favorite types of cookies in alphabetical order to cool her temper. At sugar cookies, she found her tongue.

“Todd has been nothing but kind. Why would the mayor need a backup plan?”

“Because of the curse.”

“What curse?”

“Todd is the only Dugan to divorce his mate. Ever.” Ole nodded slowly as if weighed down by the importance of the revelation.

She shrugged. “I have met many humans. Divorce is common in families.” And a little magic went a long way to healing their broken hearts.

Ole tugged his hat off his head and wrung the knit material between his arthritic hands.

“Do you know why we teach science in high school and not magic?”

Dazzler squirmed. This had to be some kind of test. “Magic can’t be taught. It’s felt—in here.” She tapped her chest.

“Exactly.” Ole beamed as if she were a slow student who’d finally understood the lesson.

Except she didn’t understand. Not even a little. Still, she nodded as they turned down Main Street.

Garland arched overhead. Ribbons perched atop globe streetlamps. A man in a white apron scratched an advertisement for pumpkin pies and muffins off the bakery windows. A sandwich board in front of a red-brick diner counted the days remaining of pumpkin spice until the arrival of everything peppermint. A woman fiddled with a display of Santas at the souvenir shop but stopped to stare at them.

Dazzler waved at her, then at the man hanging wreaths on the signposts.

Carolers in street clothes paused at their marks on the corners and went over their playlist. On the marquee above the Art Deco theater, black letters listed the times classic holiday movies would play and boasted free popcorn.

Ole huffed. “You don’t see the problem at all. When a Dugan meets his match, the lights go out in Holly. Once a Dugan wins the love of his mate, his heart overflows, causing every light in town to blaze. What if Todd can’t hold enough magic in his broken heart, and the town stays dark? A lot of folks’s holiday will be ruined. Heavens to Betsy, some might stop believing and dim the fat man’s power. We don’t even know if evicting Todd from town would fix the problem.”

Dazzler caught her breath. Evict Todd, tear him away from his family and friends at the holidays? Surely, no one would be so cruel. She glanced at her human companion. From the set of his jaw, that’s exactly what Ole would do.

Well, not on her watch.

She cracked her knuckles. She’d protect Todd. “Everything will go off without a hitch. You’ll see.”

Ole pursed then flattened his lips. “But…”

“Todd’s heart is here in Holly. His family lives here. His daughter lives here. Everything he loves is here.”

Ole harrumphed.

Voices swelled from the town’s center. Men, women, and children poured out of the businesses lining the square. Ribbons of lights wrapped the lampposts. Clusters of red and green bulbs streamed from the pines lining the walk to the Greek revival courthouse in the center. A marching band practiced Christmas carols in the snow-white gazebo on the right. Around it, wrought iron cafe tables and chairs waited to be filled.

Dazzler floated on a cloud of vanilla and cinnamon. Inhaling deeply, she filled her lungs. Warmth radiated from her center and infused her fingers and toes. Such strong magic. It was wonderful. Amazing. She spun in a circle taking it all in.

“Not bad, eh?” Ole rubbed his hands together. “For those that don’t believe, there’s a logical reason for everything. But for those who do, it’s pure magic.”

A lump formed in her throat. Her feet left the ground, and sugar plums circled her, tickling as they twirled.

“I love it.”

A crowd gathered in the square. Steam danced above mugs of coffee, hot cocoa, and tea. A few reindeer gathered near a grass patch behind the gazebo. Returning to earth, Dazzler shifted into the center of the crowd, glad she was short enough to hide from the four-legged snitches.

The mayor bounded into the gazebo. The crowd quieted. He straightened his suit jacket, pushed up his wire-rim glasses, grinned, and then addressed the crowd.

“I’ll save my speech for Thanksgiving and the few polite citizens who’ll pretend it’s not the same one I give every year.”

Dazzler chuckled along with everyone else. This camaraderie was nice.

“And now for the man to help us usher in the season for ourselves and so many of our town’s visitors.” Mayor Browning pointed to a dark-haired man at the front of the crowd. “Please welcome Todd Dugan.”

The crowd clapped. A few cheered.

Todd climbed the steps two at a time. Cold brushed color on his high cheekbones and crooked nose. His cobalt eyes crackled with energy and enthusiasm. Rolling his broad shoulders, he tugged a tablet from his fawn-colored jacket.

“As we all know, the spirit of Christmas is strongest in the heart of a child.”

He beamed. She smiled back. Joy was so infectious.

Shifting to the edge of the gazebo, he turned the tablet toward a little girl drowsing in her mother’s arms.

“Can you tap that button here?” He pointed to a green box on the screen.

The girl nodded and sucked her thumb. The crowd twittered in sympathy.

But Dazzler sniffed acrid notes of unease. Everyone knew the importance of the Christmas spirit in Santa’s magic. She muttered a little calming spell—everything would be perfect.

The mother removed her daughter’s thumb from her mouth with a pop and pressed it against the box. Magic filled the nooks and crannies of the square. Lights twinkled in trees and on eaves. Pixie-dust trails wrote welcoming messages above the courthouse. An animated Santa and workshop elves danced and hummed as they worked on toys for good boys and girls.

Wonderful. Amazing. Dazzler clapped until her palms hurt. Why had everyone been worried? Todd Dugan could do anything.

Todd straightened. His gaze fell on her, and his eyes wid-ened with shock.

Then he smiled.

Her joy increased. Everything was always better when it was shared.

His lips parted as if he were about to speak.

A voice rang across the square. “It certainly says Christmas.”

Dazzler froze. No. No, this couldn’t be happening. Her cousin Willa couldn’t be here. Then she spied it. The sparkle of glitter on snow-white hair. Elven hair.

Todd tore his attention from Dazzler and pinned his ex-wife with a stare.


And the lights went dark.

STRANGE MAGIC (The Dugan Brothers Book 5), by Linda Andrews, from Zumaya Embraces; Trade paperback, $18.99, ISBN 978-1-61271-374-8, 278 pp.; Ebook, $5.00, ISBN 978-1-61271-375-5 (Kindle), 978-1-61271-376-2 (epub)

Coming soon to wherever fine books and ebooks are sold and at

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Posted by on December 10, 2022 in Coming Soon, Zumaya Embraces


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Talking to Trees by Kathryn Sullivan



She looked over the devastated land, at the groves of trees buried by landslide, and leaned again into the embrace of her grandmother.

“They can’t all be gone!” she sobbed.

“We are the only two remaining. The next strike will be soon.”

There came the rattle of small stones down the side of the hill, almost unnoticed in the pouring rain. Thunder growled like an angry voice.

Her grandmother lightly touched her hair.

“You must go.”

Tears mixed with the raindrops streaming down her face.

“I can’t leave you!”

“You cannot stay. You must find help for us.”

Twylgalit stepped back, looking wildly across the wasteland outside their sanctuary.

“How? Where?”

“Only a human can help us. I have spoken to the Watcher of Gates. He knows of our plight. He will ensure you will be sent to one who can help. Now, come, give me a hug, dear twiglet, and I will send you on your way.”

Twylgalit fiercely hugged her grandmother. She felt the rough bark against her face for a moment, and then, suddenly, she was elsewhere.

Chapter 1


Jody Burns saw the green-haired girl step out of midair.

At first, she didn’t realize she’d seen anything unusual—this was the mall on a Saturday, after all—but then it struck her that this couldn’t possibly be some advertising trick. The girl hadn’t been there a second ago. The air had suddenly rippled, and she had stumbled through.

She was dripping wet, her hair and clothing clinging to her. She looked as if she had been crying, and Jody could hear a half-sniff/half-sob as she glanced around at the crowded mall.

The girl shook her head, and Jody expected to see droplets of water fly everywhere. Instead, she only heard a faint rustle, and the short hair suddenly looked dry, lightening to a sea-green color. The water beading the girl’s light-brown skin and soaking her shirt vanished as if absorbed.

The girl hugged her bare arms below the short sleeves and looked around as if she was searching for someone.

Jody quickly looked back at the window display before her. Summer pastels were such a relief after the gray winter drabs. She said as much to Amy Evans, but Amy was looking elsewhere.

“Well, check out the new style.”

“Eww, seaweed,” Brittany commented.

Jody turned with the rest of the group. The green-haired girl was heading directly for them. She wore a loose, almost knee-length, brownish smock and dark-brown leggings. The smock had a pattern that reminded Jody of the paneling in the family room—light and dark woodgrain swirls, and the neck and sleeve trim even resembled bark. Close up, her brown skin seemed to have greenish undertones.

Wonder if she’s ill… A small thought began before Jody crushed it.

The girl stopped before them. Small beaded cords that held short tufts of hair at each temple clattered softly as she bobbed her head.

“Excuse, please. Do you know where dwells a hero?”

“Hero?” Amy echoed.

“Or a wizard. A demon slayer would be best.”

Jody wondered why the girl was looking at her. Maybe it was because she was the tallest of the group of twelve- and thirteen-year-olds. She knew she was dressed more in fashion than the others, but then, the city stores she used to shop at were much better than those in smalltown malls.

She seems about our age. Too old to be playing little-kid games.

“You mean…The Slayer?” Brittany asked, emphasizing the name. “Someone obviously watches too much television,” she added to the group.

“Weird,” Sadie commented. She made a circling gesture by her temple, and the others giggled.

The girl looked from one to the other and finally returned her attention to Jody.

“Please. I need help.”

“Definitely,” Amy agreed. “For one, that hair color is so out.”

“Out where?” She seemed puzzled when several of the girls laughed.

Jody actually thought the girl’s hair color was interesting—sea-foam, she thought the shade might have been called. She tried to remember if she had seen any outfits in that color; it would definitely suit her blond looks.

Unnervingly, the girl focused on her again.

“Please. We’ve held back the evil as long as we can. We need help.”

Why was she asking her?

“Uh…” Jody looked around. Weren’t there any security guards in this mall? She’d settle for an older teen or an adult, if she could get anyone’s attention. But everyone seemed to be in a hurry, walking past or around the group of girls.

“And that outfit.” Amy tsked. “Long baggy T-shirts are so yesterday.”

The girl tilted her head as she looked at them.

“I don’t understand your words. The Watcher of Gates said the first person who saw me would be the one to help.” She looked again at Jody, who tried not to squirm. “Will you help?”

“Yes, Jody,” Amy said with an unfriendly smile and a glance aside at the other girls. “Will you help?”

Jody could feel the others watching her as they waited. Somehow, it felt as if everyone in the mall was watching her. This girl might be serious about asking for help, but what could she do? Better to make a big joke of it, as the rest were, and go back to window-shopping.

Jody opened her mouth to speak—and suddenly felt overwhelmingly bored. So bored. I want to walk away.

“I’m bored,” said Amy. She turned and walked away. The rest of the girls followed. Jody started to turn as well, but a brown hand closed about her wrist.

The green-haired girl looked closely at her. “Will you help?” she repeated.

Jody looked down at the hand around her wrist just above the silver bracelet. She was so bored. She should leave now…and yet, there was something odd about that grip around her wrist. She felt as if there were two voices in her head, one demanding go, and the other stay.

“Hey, Jody.”

Jody looked up to see Jeanne Tucker, her brother’s friend, coming toward them. She really should leave; Amy and the other girls were already several stores away. Jeanne Tucker was not one of the popular crowd and never followed the trends. For example, as usual, the dark-haired girl was wearing jeans and a plain sweatshirt more suited to a barn than the mall. Fashion disaster.

Amy always said Jeanne Tucker was odd, that she had powers. Jody vaguely remembered something strange about Jeanne last October, something about her spotted horse and a tree…

But there was someone holding her wrist.

Jeanne Tucker looked at Jody, at her wrist being held by the green-haired girl, then finally at the green-haired girl.

“Yes,” she said softly, “I thought I sensed…” She looked closer at the green-haired girl and smiled. The strange girl smiled hesitantly in return. “But you’re not a dryad, are you?” Jeanne continued.

“No,” the girl said slowly. “My ancestor was human.”

Jody’s boredom vanished as if it had been switched off. What had she said?

“That explains it,” Jeanne said, although Jody didn’t think it did. “I’m Jeanne, that’s Jody, and you are…?”


“Twyl-gaa-lit,” Jeanne repeated slowly. “Is that right?” The girl nodded, and Jeanne smiled again. “Twylgalit, why don’t you let Jody go, and you and I can talk.”

The green-haired girl shook her head, the cords in her hair clacking. “No, the Watcher of Gates said that the first to see me would be the one to help us.”

“I…see,” Jeanne said slowly. Then she nodded. “Sorry, Jody, looks like you stay here for the moment.”

“What?” Jody’s temper flared. Don’t I have a say? And why am I still standing here? This girl is smaller than me; I could shake off her grip and go join…

But before she could complete the thought, it was gone.

Jeanne acted as if Jody had not spoken.

“How did you get here?” she asked the strange girl. Jody tried to remember her name. Twillow—something.

“Grandmother sent me to where I could find help.”

Jeanne tilted her head. “Grandmother?”

“I call her Grandmother. She’s actually…” The girl spread the fingers of her free hand. “…great-great-great—”

“We get the idea,” Jody muttered. Jeanne glanced at her, and Jody had the urge to stay quiet.

“She’s very ill. I think…I think she’s dying.” Twillow-something wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. “Being closer to the magic, she has the power. She ‘spoke’ to the Watcher of Gates and sent me through”– the girl waved her free hand–“to this place. To where the person who could help us would be. I found her.”

Her grip tightened around Jody’s wrist.

“She does have the choice, though,” Jeanne said thoughtfully. “You can’t force her to help against her will.”

Jody wanted to say something, to tell them to stop talking about her as if she wasn’t there, but Jeanne eyed her and she couldn’t. The dark-haired girl glanced again at Jody’s wrist.

“And, actually, you might have the wrong one. Jody, is Peter here?”

Suddenly, she could talk again. “How should I know? We don’t actually hang out with the same crowd.” Jody tossed her hair back, remembering the last time her twin had commented about her friends.

“Yeah, I know. He needs to hear this, though.” Jeanne closed her eyes and took a deep breath. “So much fear,” she said softly. “And something follows. I can feel it. It’s…” Her eyes snapped open. “No wonder you’re scared.”

Jody took one step back from Jeanne even as her captor moved closer. “Yes! You understand! It hates life. It will destroy all the lands if it gets free—”

“Hey, Jody!” a familiar call came. Jody relaxed for a second—Peter would know what to do—and then immediately scowled. Know-it-all Peter.

“Jody, Mom’s waiting by—Get away from my sister!”

Jody turned to see Peter suddenly break into a run toward them. He was staring at the green-haired girl with a furious expression. Just as he reached them, though, Jeanne stepped in front of him.

“She needs our help, Peter. Her grandmother is very ill, and there’s something after her. Twylgalit, this is Peter, Jody’s brother. Peter, Twyl-galit.”

Twylgalit had released Jody’s wrist at Peter’s shout. She rubbed her hand and bowed slightly.

“What’s a dryad doing here?” Peter growled, still glaring fixedly at Twylgalit.

“Not dryad,” Jeanne corrected. “Human.”

“That hair isn’t—Jeanne, I see a tree.”

“You see a human,” Jeanne said firmly.

Peter attempted to pass Jeanne, but the dark-haired girl blocked him again. He frowned at her and gestured at Twylgalit.

“But it—” Jeanne shook her head, and he corrected himself. “She…Human? How?”

Jody looked from one to the other. Why was Peter talking about a tree? He was glaring at Twylgally-something again. She looked at the green-haired girl as well, and saw nothing strange about the girl other than her hair color. The greenish undertone to her skin was more pronounced than before. Maybe Peter’s comments were making her sicker. Hope she doesn’t throw up on me. She backed a step away from her.

Twylgally-something glanced at Jody, then back at Peter. “My ancestor had magic.”

“Obviously.” Peter crossed his arms. “So, what’s the story? Why are you here?”

Jody looked from one to the other. Jeanne and Peter acted as if the strange girl was making sense.

She suddenly realized that Amy and her friends were no longer in sight. Maybe she could find them.

“I’ll just go—”

“No, you won’t,” Peter disagreed. “Mom’s waiting for us outside. I want to hear this first.” He nodded at Twylgally. “Go ahead.”

“My ancestor’s ancestor imprisoned a powerful being.” Twylgally glanced at Jody again, faltered, then continued. “His magic was not enough to defeat the evil, but he had knowledge enough to know how to keep it confined until it could be defeated. He created us for that.” She looked pleadingly at them. “We have waited so long for help to come. And now we can no longer wait. There is only my grandmother and myself. And I don’t have the wisdom. Once Grandmother is…gone, it will be free to turn all of the Lands into a wasteland like the one it now rules.”

Peter raised his hands. “And you come to us? What’s wrong with the wizards?”

Jody stared in amazement. Peter was not only buying the weird story, but he was adding to it! Wizards? But Peter didn’t believe in magic—or at least the Peter she used to know hadn’t.

“We had no way to reach them.” Twylgally frowned. “They aren’t…nearby.”

“And we are?”

“Peter,” Jeanne said softly, glancing aside at the crowded mall, “she’s telling the truth. Her grandmother sent her here for help. She found Jody.”

Peter lowered his voice. “Jody? Why Jody? No offense, twin, but you aren’t someone I’d ask for help.”

“What?” Jody scowled at him.

“Um, you might be the one they were looking for.” Jeanne, Jody was irritated to see, seemed amused. “Take a look at what’s on her wrist.”

Peter took one look and exploded. “My wristguard! What were you doing in my room? How dare you take my stuff!”

Jody shrugged. He didn’t frighten her; she was still taller than he was. And it wasn’t like him to make a fuss over jewelry.

“You weren’t wearing it. Besides, it looks good with my outfits.” She’d had the argument about his fancy bracelet ready for months, and it still sounded strong. He hadn’t missed it in all that time. Mom would see her side.

Peter didn’t. “Hand it over. You don’t know what you’re messing with.”

Jody shrugged again and obeyed. She’d wait for him to forget it again and get it back.

Twylgally looked from Jody to Peter as the bracelet was passed. Peter flushed and ran a hand through his sandy hair.

“Sorry I was angry,” he said to the floor. He looked up at the green-haired girl. “Your grandmother sent you to the wrong twin. Not her fault. Jody was wearing something that belongs to me. This…” He held up the silvery wristband. “…came from—” He said something in a language Jody didn’t understand. Twylgally looked impressed.

Jody wasn’t. “Oh, yeah, like it’s my fault you leave it lying around.”

Peter scowled at her and put the silvery band around his right wrist.

“Where’s Amy and the rest of her shadows?”

“Oh, they had a sudden attack of boredom,” Jeanne said. Peter eyed her, and Jody recognized the you’re-not-telling-me-everything look even when it wasn’t directed at her. Jeanne grinned and shrugged with open hands. “They were hassling Twylgalit.”

“Good thing for Twyl you were nearby, then.” Peter glanced at his watch. “Mom’s waiting for us. Jody and I have to go.”

“Meet later by the Watcher?” Jeanne suggested.

Peter nodded. “We’ll need to get some supplies. Where is your grandmother?” he asked Twylgalit.

“In the wasteland.”

“Where’s that in location to? Wait, my map’s at home. Right, we have to go home, get the map, get supplies…” He shook his head. “Why didn’t the wizards spot this thing sooner?”

“The Flood may have awakened it,” Twylgalit said helpfully. “There was the Great Forgetting, and it seemed to sleep—at least, we have not been troubled by it for some time.”

“And it woke up when the curse was broken?” Peter asked.

“If that stopped the Forgetting, then, yes.”

Peter glanced at Jeanne. “You’re right; it’s our responsibility, then.”

“I do not understand,” Twylgalit said. Jody mentally agreed.

“We broke the curse that caused the Forgetting,” Jeanne said softly.

“Oh.” Twylgalit looked from Jeanne to Peter, and Jody felt very jealous at the awe in the girl’s eyes. “You must be most powerful, then.”

“Lucky is more like it,” Peter disagreed. “You mentioned a flood. Did this thing cause it?”

“No. It is trapped on the wasteland. But from the top of Grandmother I can see water where a desert used to be during the Great Forgetting. Before that, she told me, it was a wondrous grassland.”

Jeanne nodded. “Near Windgard, then. The wizards were going to cause a flood to restore the plains.”

“That’s a long way from the Watcher. It’ll be a walk then.”

Jody couldn’t believe this conversation. What Peter was so casually talking about sounded as if it would take days. What about school? How was he going to convince their parents? And he was bossing everyone around, as usual. At least she wasn’t going to have to worry because she wasn’t going along.

As if he caught the thought, Peter turned to her. “Coming, Jody?”

Jody opened her mouth to reply, but he wasn’t looking at her. He had turned back to Jeanne and said something in that weird language. Then he looked at Twylgalit.

“Twyl, you coming with us, or going with Jeanne? We’ll all be meeting later to get back to your world.”

Twylgalit edged closer to Jody. “Please, let me go with Jody.”

Jody sighed and hoped no one she knew would see her with the green-haired girl.

To be continued…

1 Comment

Posted by on May 12, 2022 in Round Robin


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Coming in July: A Nick of Time, Book 4 of the Adventures of Rupert Starbright!

It’s New Year’s Eve in Graysland, but when the final second fails to come Rupert Starbright finds his entire town frozen in time. Rupert and his school crush Rainn Evertree must travel to the Land of Annum to retrieve the stolen second from the nasty and evil Epoch. They will travel a wild, imaginative, and musical world where all the characters of the Zodiac join Rainn in helping Rupert in his most colorful and challenging adventure yet! 

Chapter 1

A Split Second


Old Year Square shivered along with the folks of Graysland as they counted down the final seconds of the fading year. Frigid winds swirled and swished around the heads and legs of the dozens and dozens who had arrived in the square to greet the newest year. On that wind raced herds of dead leaves that crunched and scraped along the stones. It was Graysland, after all, and here the leaves fell across all the months.

Rupert Dullz stood, his gaze fixed on the giant metal bellberry leaf that sat atop the tall silver Yearling pole, waiting for the countdown to finish. Around him stood his parents, Polgus and Olga, and his grandma Folka, who was bundled up in a brown coat and hat so thick she looked like a bear.


The numbers shouted by the crowd sent clouds of steam into the chill night air. Folka leaned close to Rupert and whispered, “Did you make a wish for the New Year, sweetie?”

Rupert nodded and felt his face grow warm with a blush. A very specific wish had been floating around his head for the last few months. Ever since school began in September, he had noticed a new girl in his sixth-grade class. He wondered if she had noticed him.

It felt like an eternity since he had shared a first kiss with Mynerla in the wondrous land of Far-Myst. He remembered her often, and had wished he could meet another girl who made him feel as special as she had.

This new girl in his class had a very unboring name—Rainn, with two Ns and not just one old boring one. Rainn Evertree. Rupert found it hard to put two words together when she was close by. Even saying hello was harder than reading an entire page from The History of Leaf Cutters. Backwards!

If only she liked him as well. That was his wish.

He kept this wish tightly wrapped in his thoughts. He gazed at the sky, patched with clouds and dabs of glistening stars.


Rupert had experienced great adventure in the wondrous lands of Far-Myst and My-Myst. He had even had the chance to see what his boring town of Graysland had been like in the old days when it was not so boring. That was six months ago, when he’d stepped through Pie O’Sky’s door from old Grayslandville then returned home and celebrated the Winter Joy holiday with his family for the first time.

“The Big Leaf Countdown”, as it was called, was one of the few unboring things that happened in Graysland. He didn’t think his best friend Squeem was boring, either, and sent a friendly wave to him across the square, where he stood with his mom and dad.


Rupert’s heart raced as pulleys creaked on thick ropes and the leaf, cut from a large sheet of green metal, began to lower. The squeaky wheels sent a flock of pigeons into the air, their fluttering wings making fwap! fwap! sounds.

Across the square, Rupert spotted Rainn, in a black capelike coat, a gray woolen hat pulled down low to cover half of her eyes, and a black scarf wrapped tightly around her mouth. Strands of her hair, which shimmered with streaks of brilliant electric blue, hung from beneath her cap.

Rupert thought her hair was so unboring. He had never seen anyone in Graysland with hair of such color. Everyone else’s was the usual, boring old hair colors. He repeated his wish to himself. Then, he noticed she was looking at the sky, and glanced up.

A pitch-black shadow, like that of a giant bird, pushed the clouds aside like a rude man through a crowd. Oddly, stars were not revealed. Instead, strange swirling colors, like motor oil on the surface of a puddle, shimmered.

What the heck is that? Rupert wondered. He turned to ask his father, who was cuddling close to Olga to keep warm.

“Two….O—!” cried the excited crowd.

Something very unexpected happened.

Everything stopped. The metal leaf froze in place less than a foot from the ground. The clouds of visible breath from the gathered residents no longer floated and vanished like ghostly vapor. Instead, it became like a solid mass of thin milk. The pigeons hung in the air like ornaments strung across a line.

All sounds froze, a silence so deep it hurt Rupert’s ears like an explosion of quiet. Only one thing moved—the colors in the sky began swirling like living rainbows all over the square. In that tornado of color, there was a rush of brilliant light and sound.

Then, with a swoosh that vibrated his body, the multicolored winds vanished back into the sky. Silence returned.

Rupert tried to look up to see if it was truly all over but discovered he couldn’t. He could not move his head, or his arms and legs. He could not even shift his eyes about the square. The dozens and dozens of townsfolk were like frozen mannequins. As were the pigeons.

The only thing that was moving and spinning freely were his thoughts. His mind still worked.

This was good.

Rupert tried to think what could have possibly caused this situation. Did a really super-duper cold wind blow through and freeze everyone?


Or maybe his thoughts had been so focused on Rainn that it affected how he was seeing the real world. Maybe it was like time was standing still.

No. That didn’t seem like the answer, either.

What is going on?

In his field of vision, the sight of the pigeons floating in the air, wings spread, filled him with wonder.

I can’t imagine how birds could just hang in the air without flapping their wings.

Imagine! That was the answer.

Rupert’s mind sizzled with sudden excitement. If I can’t imagine why this happened maybe I can Imagine a way to stop it.

It had been some time since he used his Imagining abilities, but he knew the first step was to make his mind as quiet as a library. He needed to shush out all the negative and scary thoughts. He thought about how peaceful the Garden of Dreams was during his journey to the wondrous land of Far-Myst. He recalled the feeling of the warm campfire, and the still night air, and the comforting songs of night birds, and funny, glowing insects.

He felt a smile form. Maybe not on his lips, but in his brain.

Then, Rupert had the image of a clock in his head, like the one over Mrs. Stonelaughter’s desk at school. The clock that seemed to take forever and a day to reach 2:57—the greatest time, when school was over. Sometimes he thought the clock was broken, stuck, its gear gunked up by dust and grease.

Maybe that was what had happened in Graysland. Perhaps there’s some giant, unseen clock that makes days become nights and nights turn into mornings. Maybe, just maybe, that clock was gunked up.

How could it be ungunked?

Anyway, Rupert thought. Where was it? How can I clean the gears of a clock I can’t see?

He would need a special viewing glass to see it.

He figured if he could Imagine that special clock then why not Imagine a way to see it? The glass must be able to move on its own, since his arms were frozen at his sides. It would have little wings, and fly across the square, and settle on the bridge of his nose like his dad’s reading glasses. It would have feathers. Purple feathers on a golden frame.

Yes! Rupert could see such a pair of eyeglasses.

A sound whispered in the solid silence. Tiny pops of cracking air. And there, across the cobblestone road, was an object hovering in the air like a purple bird. Flecks of light struck off gold and glass.

It worked!

The object of his Imagining was approaching, and as it grew closer and clearer, Rupert felt hope in his heart. The flying glasses settled on his nose, and as he peered through the two crystal-clear lenses, he was able to see the ghostly shapes of gears, a multitude of toothy wheels, hanging in the air before him. One of the gears had a gap, just as Rupert had when he’d lost his first baby tooth.

A missing tooth! I just need to imagine a new one.

He brought into his Imagining a seed. A gear-tooth seed. He Imagined planting the seed in the empty slot. With a little splash of Imaginary water it would grow a new tooth, and the gears would move again.

A little sprout of silver popped up; and in seconds, the missing tooth was back, and the gear wheels began to turn, and…

Everything went dark. The gears, the glass lenses, the golden frame, and the purple wings all vanished. The entire town square was nothing but black.

Then, Rupert realized his eyelids were closed, and he gave them the command to open. And they did. And the town was back.

But everyone was still stuck in place like statues. Even the flock of pigeons.

Rupert turned his head and saw his grandma, her smiling face, with its busy roadmap of wrinkles, fixed and frozen.

Wait! He had moved his head! He tried his hands, and soon had his fingers flexing before his face. He took a step. Then another. He had freed himself!

His stomach sank as he looked at his parents, Squeem, and the gathered crowd. The town square was still as motionless as a frozen river. He stepped up to the New Year’s Leaf and brushed its cold, smooth surface with his fingers. It was a mere foot off the ground. A single second from bringing in a new year.

“Weird,” Rupert whispered.

Really weird,” someone said.

A NICK OF TIME (The Adventures of Rupert Starbright Book 4), by Mike DiCerto, from Zumaya Thresholds; Trade paperback, $18.99, ISBN 978-1-61271-099-0, 326 pp.; Ebook, $5.00, ISBN 978-1-61271-100-3 (Kindle), 978-1-61271-101-0 (epub)

Coming in July wherever fine books and ebooks are sold. If you haven’t already met Rupert, start your adventures with Book 1: The Door to Far-Myst


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VAGABOND by Rhonda Eudaly

For the up-and-coming rock band Vagabond, buying a house together turned out to be a real trip.


“That’s it?” Tommy Doyle asked as Steve pulled the moving van into a sprawling, two-story house’s wide circular driveway. “I thought a house with a reputation like this one would be…I don’t know…creepier or something.”

“What were you expecting?” Steve threw the van into park and looked over at his friend and bandmate. “The Psycho mansion or something out of a Halloween movie?”

“Well, it sure doesn’t look haunted.” Tommy not only sounded disappointed, he actually pouted.

Steve shook his head. Tommy was overly dramatic, but a killer guitar player, and he did have a point. Steve wasn’t sure what he’d expected, either. In all honesty, he hadn’t believed the online photos to be accurate. So far, he was pleasantly surprised.

Tommy bounded out of the van like a kid visiting an amusement park. What he lacked in height—he was only about five feet seven inches—he made up for in energy like it was concentrated in his slight frame. Steve chose to approach more cautiously, but that was sort of his role as the lead singer and front man for Vagabond. He was the “responsible“ one.

As he closed the driver’s-side door, the other two band members pulled in behind them in their old tour van and trailer. In moments, all four stood in a clump staring at the huge house with columns.

White stone gleamed in the twilight. The Los Angeles skyline glittered behind and below the house as darkness fell in a blue-violet drape. Solar-powered security lights winked on within the unruly landscaping. Not a lot of gardening had been done while the house stood vacant—just enough to pass ordinance regulations and to keep the ground neat while it was on sale.

“Sure doesn’t look haunted,” Tommy said again.

Michael Fowler elbowed Tommy in the bicep—aiming for his ribs; but at just over six feet, he overshot. “And you would know…how? Come on, Tommy, how many real haunted houses have you seen? Has anyone really seen?”

Michael’s sarcastic tone echoed Steve’s sentiments. Bret Harris sniggered behind Tommy. Still he brought it on himself, acting like he was twelve.

“Well…” Tommy didn’t have an answer.

“Maybe the stories are true,” Michael said. “Don’t judge. Something had the guy back at the store spooked. Maybe he knows something you don’t.”

“You really believe that, Michael?” Bret asked, incredulous. “Dude, you’re as bad as Tommy. He’s supposed to be the gullible one, not you.”

“Hey!” Tommy turned on Bret and jabbed at his chest with an index finger, pushing Bret back a bit despite the other man’s being a few inches taller and more sturdily built. “Cheap shot.”

Steve sighed. Yeah, buying a house together had been a great idea. This was going to be fun.

He steeled himself to step into the fight about to erupt. Sometimes being the “Designated Adult“ wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. He wasn’t ever sure how that had happened, but it made sense to have one contact person to run band business. Steve not only was the “front man“, he’d earned a law degree before chucking it all to be a musician. So, the role had fallen to him.

Michael bristled first, but Steve could almost see his hackles lower as he shrugged and said, “Well, maybe not the actual ghost part. But the dude who lived here before us did disappear without a trace. There’ve been strange occurrences since. Those are documented facts.”

Steve smacked the back of Michael’s head, easy enough since they were about the same height. “Are you trying to scare us?”

Michael shrugged. “Just saying maybe we should be careful. This place may not be haunted, but something weird happened here.”

“Can we move on, please?” Bret said. “It’s not like we’re all a hundred-percent sure of this move as it is without having to deal with bickering over whether or not the place is haunted. Let’s all grow up and go inside.”

Steve sighed as he saw Tommy and Michael about to turn on Bret. It was time to step in. “Everyone just take a breath. We all need to knock it off. We don’t need to be going at it before we even get in the door.”

Tommy, who never stayed angry long, grinned. “So, what are we still hanging around out here for? It’s getting dark.”

“Steve, you have the keys, right?” Bret asked.

“Yeah, I’ve got ’em.”

Steve searched the pockets of his brown leather bomber jacket while he fought to control his face. He didn’t want the others to see a troubled expression when his questing fingers failed to come up with the keys right away. He also hid his sigh of relief when he found the ring in his pants pocket.

He held them up. “Who wants to do the honors?”

Tommy threw Michael a dirty look. “If no one believes in ghost stories, there’s nothing to worry about, right?”

“The warehouse looked okay, too,” Bret finally weighed in. “From the outside.”

The warehouse. Steve wasn’t the only one to shudder at that vivid shared memory. The warehouse was their common nightmare.

In the beginning, they’d taken over the rundown industrial building as a rehearsal space. When early gigs dried up and times were tough, they’d ended up crashing there as well. They’d fled at the first opportunity—along with the cockroaches.

Bret butted Steve in the back with an elbow. “You have the keys, just open the door. We can’t stand out here forever.”

Steve shot the drummer a venomous look but took the first step on their new adventure. He approached the door cautiously with the rest of the band clustered around him. He didn’t know if it was for moral support or to keep him from retreating. Not that it mattered—he was thankful not to be facing the unknown alone.

He fumbled the keys once more getting the right one into the lock. Fortunately, the tumblers turned easily. He pushed the heavy wooden door. It swung open easily on well-oiled hinges.

No one made the move to step across the threshold.

“Now we’re just being silly.” Bret pushed past Steve. “Let’s go.”

With Bret taking the first step, the others seemed to move in a single mass; Steve felt himself caught up along with the others. They all but tumbled into the entry in a physical-comedy parody.

Steve’s mind raced. He couldn’t have made a coherent thought if someone put a gun to his head. He didn’t know what he was expecting, but what greeted him wasn’t it. If his bandmates’ expressions were any indication, they felt the same way.

The main room was huge. The floor was tiled in three gigantic intricate mosaics in hues of blue, pink, and purple inlaid with gold and Cambrian Black granite. Each mosaic marked a period of time—Past, Present, and Future. The Past end of the room boasted a floor-to-ceiling picture window overlooking the countryside around the property. The Future end contained nothing but a small, round window facing the driveway. Present lay squarely in the center of the room.

There were two exits and a staircase. The doors included the one the band had just come in and another presumably—according to photos—leading to the kitchen, utility room, and garage. He turned to see a magnificent curving stairway leading up to the second floor. He wasn’t the only one craning his neck to look up.

“This is wild!” Tommy’s excited voice bounced and echoed off bare walls. “Let’s see what else it’s got!”

His comment broke the spell rooting the band to the foyer floor. Like shot, they scattered—Bret heading straight for the kitchen door, Tommy and Michael bolting up the stairs. Steve gave the great room one more look before hustling upstairs himself.

“How many bedrooms does this place have again?” Tommy asked as they hit the landing.

Steve did a quick count in his head from memory. “Six.”

“Cool. Rooms to spare. Who’d’ve thought.” Tommy sounded positively giddy.

“But more importantly,” Michael said, “how many bathrooms does it have?”

Steve fought hard not to roll his eyes. “Didn’t any of you read the specs?”

Neither answered him. Michael, though, had the grace to look guilty. He broke eye contact with Steve. Tommy came off as simply oblivious.

The lead singer sighed. “Each bedroom has its own full bathroom. There are half-baths downstairs under the stairs and off the utility room.”

Steve could all but feel the joy radiating off his friends. Having a bathroom all his own hadn’t been a reality for any of them since they’d formed the band, and for some probably longer than that. Bathroom time and space was a big deal, considering none of them could be considered low-maintenance when it came to grooming.

“Who decided who gets which room?” Tommy asked as they stood in the hallway, nearly dumbfounded by the possibilities.

“Does it matter?” Steve asked.

A piercing screech from the kitchen downstairs interrupted further discussion. The guys all exchanged wide-eyed looks then broke and ran back down the stairs. Steve had the horrible feeling they were going to find a broken body and/or a blood pool. As one they barreled toward the kitchen door, only to be met by Bret coming back through, grinning wickedly.

“Ha! I gotcha!” Bret pointed and laughed. “You should see your faces! That’s the best!”

“I’m going to kill him!” Michael lunged toward Bret, only to be held back by Tommy. Steve stepped between them.

“Michael! No! Stop.” Steve put his hand on Michael’s chest. “We don’t need a fight on our first night here.”

“Oh, it won’t be a fight,” Michael said through gritted teeth.

Bret rolled his eyes. “Oh, come on. It was a joke. What’s the big deal? Where’s your sense of humor?”

“It wasn’t funny, Bret.” Steve jabbed at him with a finger. “This is all new and weird. We’re all on edge.”

“We wouldn’t be having this conversation if you’d just let me kill him,” Michael said.

Steve put a hand on his shoulder. “I can’t let you do it.”

“Why not?” Michael’s voice rose to a whine.

“We don’t have time to replace him before the tour.”

“Aw, man.”

Steve laughed. “Maybe next time, okay? When we’re not in a time crunch.”

The tension broke with laughter. Steve caught sight of Tommy drifting toward the picture window as the other two wandered off in other directions. He didn’t want that to happen. They had work to do.

“Come on, guys, let’s get the important stuff unloaded. A lot of it can wait until tomorrow, but we should get the equipment and our personal stuff inside.”

As the other three trooped for the front door, Tommy stood transfixed by the window. Beyond the treeline, the lights of Los Angeles twinkled in the darkness.

“Take a look at this view.”

“Yeah, yeah, Tommy, it’s great. The best.” Bret crossed the room in long strides to pull the small blond man away from the window. “Let’s go. Didn’t you hear Steve? We’ve got work to do. We’ll appreciate the view later. It’s not like it’s going anywhere.”

They joined the others, who stood outside staring at the vans.

“Where do we start?” Tommy asked.

Steve shrugged. “With the equipment. Definitely don’t want to leave that outside. Then let’s concentrate on our van. The truck doesn’t have to be back until tomorrow, and we all have important stuff in the van. We can leave most of the truck stuff until morning.”

“Where do we put everything?” Michael asked. “After all we’ve been through, please don’t say the garage.”

“Why would we use the garage?” Tommy asked with a dismissive note in his voice. “We have that huge room on the first floor.”

“Okay.” Steve rattled the keys. “Let’s do this thing.”

They moved forward as a group., then hauled out anvil cases, instrument cases, suitcases and duffle bags until it seemed like an impossibly large amount of stuff had come out of the small space.

“Man, I miss the crew,” Tommy said, stretching a kink out of his back. “We haven’t done this on our own for a long time.”

“It’s good for us,” Michael said. “Let’s get this stuff inside, it’s getting late.”

They shouldered the first load and headed inside.

“Which end do we want to set up in?” Tommy asked, stopping just inside the door, causing a bottleneck.

Bret craned to see over the load. “This end. It’s closer.”

Tommy followed Bret’s head tilt. “Future. That’s appropriate, don’t you think?”

“I think I’m going to dump this thing on your head if you don’t get out of the way.” Michael bumped a hip into Tommy. “This is heavy!”

Tommy jumped out of Bret’s and Michael’s way to land squarely in Steve’s path as he guided a rolling platform in with monitors stacked on it.

“Out of the way, Tommy!”

“I guess I’m not wanted.”

“Oh, we want you,” Steve said. “We want you out of the way. Then we want you out at the van to hand stuff out. You’re the one who fits.”

Tommy made a face but jumped out of the way. Steve dumped his load and hooked an arm around Tommy’s neck.

“Come on, bro. The sooner we get the van unloaded, the sooner we can call it a night.”

Tommy blew a raspberry as he stormed out of the house and stomped toward the van. Steve tried not to laugh as he followed, but Tommy was a small guy and actually fit inside the van. He was also a master packer, even though he’d never admit it. Every band had a “van guy“, and Tommy was theirs.

The bandmates took several trips back and forth from van to house. All four were hot, tired, and ready to be done. Bret shoved sweaty, sticky bangs off his forehead as he leaned against the bumper.

“How much is left?”

Tommy threw a duffel bag to him. Considering he was a drummer, Bret barely got his hands up in time to catch the bag before it smacked him in the face.

“How much more is there?” he asked again.

Tommy ducked back inside. “Only a couple of things, and I think they’re mine. You guys can go in. I got this.”

A ragged cheer went up from the others as they hurried back inside. Steve held back as Tommy grabbed a guitar case and a suitcase; then he slammed the back doors closed and checked the locks to make sure everything was secure. He waved Tommy ahead of him.

“You didn’t have to wait,” Tommy said.

Steve threw his free arm around the guitar player’s shoulders in a mock headlock.

“Come on, let’s go start our new adventure.”

After a brief debate of who got which room, they called it a night. Darkness and quiet descended over the house.

Steve was the last one to retire. As he started to close his door, he thought he saw a pulse of light downstairs. He went to the railing overlooking the main floor. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary. Whatever he thought he’d seen was gone. He chalked it up to exhaustion as he went back to his room and closed the door behind him.


Michael was the first one awake the next morning. He showered quickly, threw on sweats and a t-shirt, and headed for the kitchen. His fuzzy bear-claw house slippers made quiet shuffling sounds as he padded down the stairs in the almost unnatural quiet.

He stumbled into the kitchen and rummaged around in the bags on the counter. took out a vacuum-sealed bag of ground coffee, measured out grounds, and was filling the carafe with water when he frowned.

“Did we bring in the coffeemaker last night?”

It didn’t matter to him whether or not the coffeemaker had magically appeared or not as he hit the button to brew. A magical one was just as good as an unpacked one if coffee actually appeared. He wasn’t going to look gift coffee in the mouth.

He stretched, listening to his muscles and joints creak and pop. His stomach rumbled in counterpoint. He contracted in on himself and blinked away the hypnotic effects of the brewing coffee.

“Doughnuts. I bought doughnuts. They have to be around here somewhere.”

He rifled plastic grocery sacks with commando intensity, so focused on his goal he didn’t notice Steve come into the kitchen.

“Mornin’,” the singer mumbled as he grabbed a mug next to the coffeemaker and rinsed it out. He gestured toward the machine with the mug. “Is that safe to drink?”

Michael hid his surprise by fumbling with the donut box. “Better than anything you’ve ever made.”

“That so?” Steve’s voice hid a note of friendly sarcasm.

Michael plucked the mug out of Steve’s hand and grabbed the pot before Steve could. “I made it. I get the first cup.”

“You have a point.” Steve backed up a step and grabbed another mug. He looked at it and the pot. “Where did these come from?”

Michael shrugged. “I figured one of us brought them.”

Steve frowned. “I don’t recognize them.”

“Come on. Coffee. Morning. Does it really matter?” Mich-ael asked. “Maybe the Realtor left it.”

“Good point.” Steve poured coffee and sipped. “Hey, not bad.”

“Told you so.”

“What’s not bad? Oh, dude! Coffee!” Bret came into the kitchen, hair still damp from his shower. He grabbed a mug then froze. “Wait, which one of you made this?”

“Michael,” Steve said with a grunt.

Michael nodded around a mouthful of chocolate cake doughnut.

“There are miracles.” Bret poured a cup of coffee.

Steve open and closed his mouth. “Come on! My coffee is not that bad.” He seemed to be taking the ribbing pretty hard.

“What are you talking about, Steve? You don’t even drink your coffee. We used the last pot you made as a wood stripper for that bookcase.” Bret studied the bags. “What’s there to eat?”

Michael gestured to the doughnut box with his mug. “It’s not much…”

“Gimme.” The red-headed drummer pounced on the box.

“Wow. Good thing you weren’t holding that, Michael. You’d have to count your fingers.”

“Let’s take this out to the steps,” Bret said, picking up the box. “I heard the shower going. Tommy should be down soon.”

“Tommy’s right here.” The guitar player poured his coffee. “What’s this about the stairs?”

“It’s the only place to sit down for now,” Michael said.

“Good point.” Tommy looked at the near-empty pot. “I’ll be out in a minute. We’re probably going to need more coffee.”

The other three trouped out to the stairs and settled down. Bret squirmed and grunted as he settled on a step.

“You okay, Bret?” Steve asked.

“I think I’m getting too old for sleeping on the floor.”

Tommy joined them a moment later. “Coffee’s brewing. Anyone else feeling…crunchy…this morning?”

The three tried not to laugh as they all denied being stiff or sore.

“That’s bull, and you know it.” Tommy snatched a doughnut out of the box.

Before anyone could respond, the doorbell rang. The whole band froze, staring at the door. Everyone who knew where they were or about the house was in the room. To make matters even more odd, the door seemed to open on its own.

“Anyone expecting someone and forget to tell the group?” Steve asked.

“Good. You’re here. And you’re all awake.” Marian Blackwell blew in wearing a conservative suit and high heels, carrying a briefcase as if she owned the place. It was almost true.

“Ever heard of knocking, Marian?” Tommy asked, bringing his mug up.

Marian plucked the cup away from him, took a deep drink, and handed it back. She wasn’t a large woman, but she defined the “power” part of her power suit. They’d all seen her cow security guys twice her size without blinking.

“Hey, Steve didn’t make the coffee this time. You boys are learning. And why should I knock when I have a key?”

Tommy stared down into his nearly empty mug. “This is so not starting out to be my day.”

“Yeah, and about that key, Marian…” Steve said.

Marian waved him off and looked around. “It’s just good sense for someone else to have one. For security. Didn’t I tell you this place was something?”

“Why are you here, Marian?” Michael asked, shorttempered.

“I’m…Where’s the furniture?”

“Still in the truck,” Steve said. “But you didn’t answer the question. And who do you think you are? Our mother?”

“No, I’m your manager. That’s a whole different level of worse.” Marian set her briefcase on one of the steps and opened it. She pulled out a thick leatherbound Post-It flagged planner and opened it. “Okay, now, pay attention. This is important. You have studio time booked all next week starting first thing Monday morning. You have the weekend to get settled and rehearse.”

“Wait, why studio time?” Tommy asked. “The new pro-ject’s already in the can.”

“And now we’re doing some stockpiling.” Marian said. “Consider it bonus material. We’ll talk about bonus tracks on the CD or maybe download material. But that’s not all.”

“Not all?” Michael looked at their empty cups. “Let me put on another pot. I think we’re going to need it.”

He realized how true his words were when he came back a few minutes later with a mug-heavy tray.

Marian flipped through her book.

“Okay, we’re going to hit this cycle hard. Interviews. Promotion. Social media. All of it. We had a huge start with the first release. Pacific needs to know you can do it again. We can’t afford to blow it now.”

Tommy gave her his best boyish grin. “Have we ever let you down, Marian?”

She shot him a withering look. “Do you really want me to answer that?”

“That’s harsh.” Steve seemed to actually take offense. “Good to know how little faith you have in us.”

“It’s for your own good. Keeps you grounded.” Marian sounded sincere.

Michael almost believed it. “Good grief, she has become our mother.”

Marian snorted. “Fine. Have it your own way. But when you’re doing dinner shows in Indian casinos or appearing on celebrity reality TV shows, don’t come whining to me. I love saying I told you so.”

“Okay. Okay.” Steve held up his hands in surrender. “What do you want us to do?”

“Prove to everyone—and I mean everyone—that you’re going to be around in twenty years. That you’re not just some pretty boys who happen to play a little music. Right? Let’s make ’em stand up and take notice.”

“We’re up for whatever we have to do,” Steve said. “What’s first?”

Marian flipped through her calendar. “Rock Beat is sending a reporter and photographer over the day after tomorrow at ten a.m. The reporter wants to do a story on all of you. Probably for the cover. It’s a ‘behind the scenes’ kind of thing. I want you to get this place in shape and look nice, okay? This is just the first of the lot.”

“We’ll do our best, Marian. Really. We promise,” Tommy said. “Cross our hearts.”

“Good. Reporter day after tomorrow. Studio time on Monday. Use your time well.” Marian packed up her planner. “I’ll be checking on you, so don’t even think of ditching on anything. I’ll text you all the times and the reporter’s details. Put them in your reminders. Whatever you have to do.” She started toward the door and paused. “Oh, Steve? Melinda said to tell you she’ll be out a little later this afternoon. She has some things to take care of in town.”

Michael saw Steve smile as he said, in what Michael could only describe as a love-besotted voice, “Thanks, Marian.” He caught Tommy and Bret rolling their eyes behind Steve’s back.

“Hey, Marian?” Bret asked, looking innocent. “When Steve marries Melinda, will we get to call you ‘Mom’?”

“Only if you want to buy your dentist a new house.” Marian took one last gulp of coffee and handed the mug back to Michael. She swept out of the house with a casual wave. “Ta-ta. Be in touch later.”

The band sat silently in the aftermath of Marian’s unexpected visit. Steve was the first to lever himself up off the stairs.

“The sooner we get started, the sooner we’ll be done.”

Michael stretched. “I’ll go get my shoes.”

As Michael shuffled up the stairs, he hoped he could waste enough time he wouldn’t have to do much more of the heavy lifting. He tied his Chuck Taylors slowly, but still found plenty to do when he went out to the driveway.

“Did we grow more stuff overnight?” Tommy asked on one pass to the truck. “There didn’t seem to be this much stuff when we loaded it.”

“I don’t know about that,” Michael said. “But I definitely remember the truck being a whole lot smaller last night.”

“We’re going to be lucky to be done by lunch.”

Michael laughed. “Wishful thinking.”

The ground floor of the house resembled a box city when Michael set his load down. He paused a moment beneath the A/C vent and let the cool air dry his sweat-beaded brow. At least once everything was inside, they could sort boxes and belongings slowly, and in air-conditioning.

“I’m going to double-check the van,” Steve said. “Make sure we have everything.”

Before he got to the door, it opened on its own once more. Michael looked at Tommy.

“We might as well just convert that to a revolving door. It’s not lookin’ like we need a regular one.”

“Stick a sock in it, Mike,” Steve said as Melinda came in. “Hi, honey.”

“Mom said this place was great, but I had no idea.” Melinda turned in a slow circle to take in the house. “It’ll be even better when you’re unpacked.”

“Yeah, I know—it’s a mess.”

“It’s not so bad.” Melinda leaned in to kiss him. Steve backed away. “What?”

“I’m all sweaty and dirty, and the guys are watching.” He seemed genuinely embarrassed.

She waved off his objection. “Oh, come on, Steve. We’ve kissed in front of the guys before. And if I always wait until you weren’t sweaty and nasty, we’ll be married for years before you ever kiss me.”

“This is different, Mel.”

“Sure it is.” She patted his cheek as she grinned. Sometimes, she came off as a younger version of her mother—same height, build, and attitude.”Can I see the rest of the house? After that, I’ll pitch in and help you unpack.”

Tommy elbowed Michael. “Why can’t we find girls like her?”

“Because girls like her come with mothers like Marian a good percentage of the time.” Michael hefted a box. “Come on, let’s keep moving. We have to tame this zoo. We still have a lot of work ahead of us.”

They all dove in and worked like dogs through the afternoon, until boxes and furniture were shuttled to the appropriate places, if not in their final resting states.

“I need a break.” Michael fell on the couch and checked his watch. “Wow! It’s almost five. No wonder I’m beat. We’ve been at this for hours. Anybody know what’s for dinner? I’m starving.”

“You’re always starving,” Bret said, collapsing on the other end of the sofa. “I don’t suppose we have anything here? I’m too tired to go out. It has been a long day.”

“I think we ate what we had for lunch?” Michael didn’t feel sure of his own statement. “I know we didn’t bring a whole lot with us.”

Tommy popped up from behind the entertainment center he was wiring. “I’ll go for takeout. I’m done here, and I have some energy left. What do we want?”

Steve tossed the van keys to him with one hand. His other remained around Melinda’s shoulders. “Surprise us. I don’t think any of us care.”

Tommy felt his pockets. “Anyone got cash? I only got a couple of bucks.”

Steve rolled his eyes. “You’ve got to start carrying a card or something.”

“You really want to get into that now?” Tommy sounded defensive.

Steve held up a hand in surrender. “I’ve got some money upstairs. I’ll go get it. Come on, Mel, I don’t think you’ve seen the upstairs yet.”

“If they’re going upstairs, you may never see that money, Tommy,” Bret said.

“You guys are pathetic. Pathetic.” But Steve was already halfway up the stairs.

“Anyone else got any cash?” Michael asked.

Before anyone could answer, a wad of flying leather smacked Tommy in the head. They all followed the projectile’s path back to the mezzanine. Steve leaned on the railing. “I want that back, intact, with change and a receipt.”

Tommy saluted with the wallet. “You got it, Steve, I’ll be right back.”

As he left, Michael grabbed the remote. “Let’s see if Tommy set this up right.”

“Are you kidding? He’s probably got the satellite going through the refrigerator.”

“Yeah.” Michael studied the remote warily. “Tommy’s always been the one yammering about smart systems. Maybe he did wire the TV to the fridge. Some of the stuff he talks about sounds pretty cool, in a Terminator kind of way. You know, when I actually listen to him, which isn’t often…”

“Yeah, but what’s that old Star Trek movie line? The more they overthink the plumbing, the easier it is to clog up the drain?” Bret grabbed the remote from Michael. “We don’t need the lights to come on when we pull into the driveway. We just need the television to turn off and on like this…” He pushed the button, and the sixty-inch LCD television glowed and sprang to life.

“Hey! That’s that special on guitars I wanted to catch! Can we just watch it? I don’t know if the DVR kept the recording settings,” Michael said.

“Sure. I’m game. What else do we have going on until Tommy gets back?” Bret settled back on the couch.

They were drawn into the special and didn’t realize how much time had passed until the storm warning interrupted programming.

“The National Weather Service has issued a Severe Thunderstorm Warning and a Flash Flood Warning for Los Angeles County, Orange County, and the surrounding areas until ten-thirty p.m. This warning covers all cities in the viewing area. The storm cells are showing winds in excess of sixty miles per hour, and golfball-sized hail has been reported in some locations.

“Travelers are advised to avoid streets where water is covering the roadway. Stay tuned to this station for further updates as they become available. We return you to our scheduled programming.”

Bret headed straight for the window. “It’s really starting to come down out there.”

“Hey, has Tommy come back yet?” Steve asked from the landing. “We heard the weather alert.”

“Not yet,” Michael said. “We hadn’t been paying attention.”

Melinda pulled Steve aside. “Maybe I should go. Before the weather gets worse.”

“That’s not a good idea, Mel. It’ll be safer if you stay here. There’s no telling how long the storm’s going to last.”

“Then maybe I should try to beat it home,” Melinda said.

“And get caught in a flash flood going through the valley?” Steve hugged her. “Mel, I love you, and I’m not facing your mother if something happens to you.”

Melinda hesitated. “I don’t know…”

“You can’t see for crap out there, Mel—these roads don’t have a whole lot of lights. It’s dangerous. And I’m serious about your mom. She scares me.”

Melinda laughed. “Make you a deal. I’ll hang out here for a while. The warning’s only for a couple more hours. If the warnings expire and things blow over, I’ll go home then. I need to be in town tomorrow morning. Let me call Mom and tell her the plan so she doesn’t worry.”

“One of us should try Tommy’s cell, too.” Steve said. “See what’s going on with him.”

“Hitting send now,” Michael said. Almost immediately a blast of music rang out somewhere among the remaining boxes. “Great. He forgot his phone.”

“I know. I realized that about halfway down the hill,” Tommy said, kicking the door closed behind him. He juggled bags that were starting to show grease spots. “I could use some help here.”

Michael jumped to grab a couple of the bags. “Where have you been?”

“Where’s Mel? She didn’t leave, did she? It’s really nasty out there.” Tommy asked, ignoring Michael. “I brought enough back for her, too.”

“I’m right here,” Melinda said, coming down the stairs, clicking off her phone. “Apparently, the storm’s worse downhill.”

Steve followed her. “See? I told you it was too bad to go out. But that doesn’t explain why it took Tommy so long to bring back dinner.”

“Well, it’s not like we’re in the middle of restaurant heaven.” Tommy gestured toward the door. “And in case you haven’t noticed, there’s a monsoon out there.”

“But…” Bret said, prompting Tommy.

“Well, there was this girl…”

“Of course there was,” Bret said.

“And she wanted an autograph…”

Steve put up a hand. “Save it. We don’t need to hear any more.”

“Did you know they play our stuff out here?” Tommy went on blithely.

“That’s fantastic,” Steve said. “Can we eat now?”

“One of our songs came on when I was there, and of course we had to listen…”

A jagged bolt of lightning and loud clap of thunder interrupted the conversation for a split second. A solid sheet of rain pounded the picture window, obliterating the view. The band and Melinda stared at Tommy for a moment to see if he’d been struck for lying.

“That was a coincidence,” Tommy said. “I’m telling the truth. No one’s being smited here. Smited? Smote? Smitten?”

Steve turned Melinda toward the kitchen. “Come on, let’s eat.”

Tommy followed everyone into the kitchen. “Really.”

They ate quietly, watching the storm. The most severe part seemed to pass quickly enough, but the downpour remained steady. Lightning created a sporadic light show as it sailed eastward. The weather advisories stayed in effect until the next morning.

“Wow. I guess we have a good excuse to stay put,” Bret said. “If the rain’s sticking around for the next couple of days.”

“Leaving us nothing to do but unpack.” Michael wasn’t thrilled with the idea, and it reflected in his voice.

“We could always practice,” Steve said.

“Unless the power goes out,” Tommy said, looking at the ceiling.

“Then we practice acoustic.”


Tommy paced the length of his bedroom for the sixteenth time. He knew because he was counting. His clock’s bright-green digital 2:30 display burned into his retinas. He rubbed knuckles into the corners of his baby blues. Nothing helped.

“Why am I awake? Why can’t I sleep?”

Nothing answered him but the sound of steadily pouring rain.

Finally, he couldn’t stand it any longer. He fled downstairs with his worn acoustic guitar. It was his first, and had been with him since he was a kid. It was a no-brand, bought with summer-chore and birthday money, but he’d learned to play on it, and it held the tuning. He was sentimental about it. It helped him think.

He pulled the big comfortable leather chair close to the window and flopped down in it to watch the rain. The wind had changed, so now the rain fell more like a curtain instead of pounding the window. He could see some of the landscaping and the view. Raw nature whipping through the trees on the mountainside was breathtaking.

He let his thoughts go as he stared out the window, curled up in the chair. His fingers wandered up and down the fretboard, letting the weather guide his playing. Minor chord progressions left a haunting turn behind. He lost himself in the melody until a flicker of light behind him, reflected in the window, stopped him. He looked up to see a girl outside the large plate window not fifteen feet away.

She seemed as surprised and confused as he was. He stumbled to his feet as lightning flashed, close and blinding, with a corresponding boom of thunder. When he could see again, the girl had vanished. He rubbed his eyes, but she didn’t reappear.

“Must’ve been my imagination,” he said to himself as he pressed close to the window to scan the lawn outside. He didn’t even find a footprint. There was no evidence for what he’d seen, but he knew in his gut the girl had been real.

* * *

She thrashed in her sleep, clutched in an active dream haunted by melody. In the dream, she stood in the midst of a violent storm without being affected by the elements. Neither rain nor wind touched her as she stared through a window into a room that was both strange and familiar. She wasn’t sure what she saw.

On the other side of the glass was a man curled up in a chair, playing an instrument she didn’t recognize. She paused a moment to wonder why she could hear what he played but nothing else, then gave up quickly to not lose the dream.

She couldn’t make out much about the man—he kept his head down while he worked the instrument. When he did glance up, details were obscured by the rain on the glass.

In that instant, he stopped and looked right at her. She tried to memorize his features, taking an unconscious step forward. He’d seen her, too, because he started to get up…

A brilliant flash of lightning and boom of thunder jerked her bolt upright in her bed, clutching the covers to her chest. She sucked in huge gulping breaths to slow her pounding heart.


She tried to calm her shaky voice as the light automatically illuminated her room. She sought comfort in the familiar surroundings. As she felt her breathing and heartbeat return to normal, she thought of the man in her dream. Unlike with other, easily forgotten dreams, she clearly remembered him, and his lonely melody.

* * *

Tommy wasn’t sure how long it had been since the storm passed when he heard the shuffling of someone coming down the stairs, trying to be quiet. He chose to ignore the intrusion on his solitude as long as possible.

“What are you doing up at this hour?” Michael asked, standing over the chair.

Even though he knew someone was there, the quiet voice seemed to boom in the late-night stillness. Tommy jumped.

“Geez, Michael! Don’t do that! You trying to give me a heart attack? Why’re you down here in the middle of the night?”

Michael crossed his arms over a rumpled Mickey Mouse t-shirt, which seemed at odds with plaid lounge pants and Bullwinkle-head slippers. Michael’s crazy slipper collection was notorious. Fans and family tried to outdo each other providing him with new ones at every opportunity.

“I asked first.”

Tommy sighed. “Couldn’t sleep.”

“So you came down here?”

Tommy shrugged. “Yeah, so? I didn’t want to risk waking anyone up. Gotta problem with that?”

“It was just a comment, man.”

“Okay, Mr. Nosy, your turn. What are you doing up?”

It was Michael’s turn to shrug. “Storm woke me, and I was hungry. I came down to get a snack. You want anything?”

“No, thanks. I’m about to head back upstairs.”

“Suit yourself.” Michael headed off to the kitchen.

Tommy sat staring into the storm for a moment before pushing out of the chair. He gathered up his guitar and started for the stairs. The room lit up once more, pulsed, and faded. Tommy froze, waiting for the corresponding boom of thunder, since it seemed the flash was right on top of the house. None came. Only silence.

He paused, realizing the light hadn’t come from outside. If he were to believe his eyes, the light pulse had been inside the house—from the floor. But that was impossible.

He squared his shoulders and took a firmer grip on his guitar. “This is all a crazy dream. I didn’t see anything. There was no girl. The floor didn’t just light up. I’m exhausted, not crazy. Everything will be fine in the morning.”

He turned off the lights as he headed toward the stairs. As he was halfway up the steps, he heard a thump of Micheal bumping into one of the piles in the living room along with a mumbled curse.

“Sorry, Michael.”

* * *

When Tommy crawled out of bed the next morning, the rain was back but not the storm. By the time he made it downstairs, he was one of the last ones up.

“Morning, Tommy,” Melinda said, grabbing a piece of toast as it popped up. “Thanks for breakfast. I really need to head out.” She kissed Steve and swept through the door.

Tommy snagged a coffee mug and poured. “How’d she make toast?”

“We found a loaf of bread in a bag we missed yesterday,” Michael said. “Or maybe you brought it back last night.”

“I guess we should finish getting the house in order,” Steve said. “If there’s a reporter coming, we really should ditch the boxes.”

No one was surprised—much—when Marian appeared unannounced once more.

“You never did say where you got the key, did you, Marian?” Bret asked.

Tommy tried not to laugh. Bret sounded huffy. The one thing all the guys in Vagabond learned early on was not to barge in on Bret. He liked the concept of privacy.

Marian pinched Bret’s cheek. “I had one made, you silly boy. I helped set up the deal. I get a key. Now, come on. Enough Happy Homemakers. I want to see a couple of numbers before my meeting with Pacific this afternoon. Let’s go. Time’s money.”

“Okay, okay.” Steve didn’t hide his sigh. He looked around at the others and shrugged. “Why don’t we do ‘Time Warp’? That’s one of the newer ones we’ve got down cold. It’ll make her happy, then maybe she’ll leave us alone.”

“I love the enthusiasm.” Marian didn’t hide her dripping sarcasm as they all trooped out to the equipment. The band grumbled the whole way.

“Take what you can get,” Steve said.

When everybody was in place, he nodded to Bret behind the drums. The drummer gave them a four-count, and they were off and running.

Sometimes I don’t know if I’m

Coming or going.

I’ve been looking behind to see

What’s ahead.

You’ve got me watching the past

To see the future.

It’s been a loony, crazy world

That we’ve lived in,

And it’s happening again.

It’s almost like being in a Time Warp.

Time Warp.

Tommy noticed Marian was barely paying attention while they played. She sat back on the sofa, her foot seeming to keep time, but that was all the interest she showed. She made notes in her planner while they worked through the song.

Tommy had known it would be a single. He’d told her that when they’d written it. As usual, no one had listened to him until after they’d recorded it. Now, Marian was talking in terms of sales numbers and video concepts. Tommy just knew it was a fun song to play.

Suddenly, the room seemed brighter, as if the whole house agreed with him. He glanced over at Marian. She was sitting up straighter. He had no idea why she looked suddenly so concerned. Her head whipped around as if she was looking for something.

Then he had a hard time seeing her through the bright light. Where was that coming from? They didn’t have any stage lighting at the house. Not yet, anyway.

The light flared so brightly Tommy threw a hand over his eyes. Then everything went black.

VAGABOND, by Rhonda Eudaly, from Zumaya Otherworlds; Trade paperback, $15.99, ISBN 978-1-61271-419-6, 226 pp.; Ebook, $5.00, ISBN 978-1-61271-420-2 (Kindle), 978-1-61271-421-9 (epub)

Available wherever fine books and ebooks are sold.

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Posted by on December 21, 2020 in Round Robin


Adversaries: The Color of Fear 3


August 10

Cincinnati, OH, outside the former home of Tzu Shin

Late afternoon

Valery Paz’s lips twisted into a mocking pout. “Now what are we going to eat?”

Tzu Lin Kwan sat hunched in the passenger seat of Valery’s big red truck, belated guilt making her blush. Being here on the Cincinnati street where her father had lived, learning he was alive but had been transferred to a lab in St. Louis, had caught her off-guard. When the neighbor woman asked for the bag of groceries she’d bought to share a meal with Tzu Shin, Kwan had blindly given it to her.

That left Kwan and Valery with nothing.

“I’m so sorry. I didn’t think.”

Valery laughed and punched her lightly on the arm.

“I’m totally kidding you. We have to stop for gas anyway, so we’ll pick up something. Come on, let’s go.” She started the truck, then drove toward downtown once again. “Since your dad’s already in St. Louis, we’ll just head on back. We can be in New St. Lou by noon tomorrow, if everything’s clear.”

St. Louis. The thought made Kwan smile. About her father. And San.

Her emotions welled up and bubbled over. So much she’d hoped for was so close now. The mission her father had given her, to bring the zi su ye herbs to America, would be completed soon. He would save the people, and make the world whole again.

She’d followed her defector father to San Francisco, then to Cincinnati, only to find him gone. But now, at least, she had a positive site where he could be found.

Her pride in the promise of completing this mission brought the memory of her now-dead mentor, Li Zhong. He had given up his quiet life in Hong Kong to chaperone her voyage. She, too, had put aside her own desires and wishes, perhaps the largest her own sacrifice in denying herself the right to love Xi San, when everything in her heart told her they belonged together.

Could she really have her father and San, along with a real life?

“Oh, no way. No way. Look!”

Valery slammed on the brakes, pulling over to the curb. Kwan clutched the dashboard, her breath half stolen by the sudden screech.

“What? What?” she gasped, heart pounding. She peered desperately around for a child in the road or some justification.

Mira! It’s a taco truck!”

Her face split by a huge smile, Valery bailed out. She ran to the open window of the large white panel truck, spewing a string of Spanish. Nodding and waving her hands, she exchanged words with someone inside, then called to Kwan.

“Come on, chica. I’m about to change your life.”

Still rattled by the sharp halt, and unsure if she could handle any more life changes at the moment, Kwan slid out of the cab. Keeping a watch around them, she walked slowly to the food truck. Inside, she discovered a young couple who spoke excitedly to Valery, hardly taking a breath as they laughed and conversed. Kwan hung back, feeling excluded.

“Oh, my God,” Valery said to Kwan. “These two are from back in King City! Their parents ran La Potranca, a place I used to practically live at, pozole to die for. I swear.”

Kwan glanced at the grinning couple, who piled food into some folded flatbread, and then into a white bag.

“They left town when the virus first hit, and brought all their mama’s recipes along. This is just a temp deal until there’s enough local resources and money to open a restaurant.” She accepted the bag from the young woman, reached inside and handed Kwan a greasy, paper-wrapped bundle. “Eat.”

It was Valery; no point in arguing.

Kwan peeled the paper back from the closest end of the handful, and was greeted by a wave of pungent scent. A bite brought her creamy cheese, spicy meat, a crunch of greens and smoky sauce. It was one of the best things she’d ever tasted.

“Mmm,” she sighed.

“Told ya.” Delighted, Valery devoured one, her eyes closed in overwhelming satisfaction. “Que bueno!

She asked the couple a question, and they quickly prepared another bag of treats for her. She paid them from the coins and bills Eddie had given them for the trip, still chattering, and then reluctantly dragged herself back to the truck.

“So unreal. I can’t believe I could find someone from home all the way out here. It made me feel…” She clutched the paper bags, her face working. Suddenly, she was in tears.

“Val?” Kwan reached out to smooth back her companion’s auburn locks, stunned at the strong woman’s disintegration. “What is wrong?”

“La Potranca was one of my mom’s favorite places, too,” she said between sobs. “We ate there just before…just before…” She couldn’t go on.

The walls that contained strong feelings only held so long. Kwan slid closer to Valery and slipped an arm around her shoulders. So often during their journey from San Francisco, Valery had been the pillar of strength that held up both of them. She’d come along on this jaunt to Cincinnati to find Kwan’s father only to support Kwan. The least Kwan could do was repay the debt.

When Val had cried herself out, with a few empathetic tears from Kwan, both sniffed and scrubbed their faces with brown napkins, then dug into the bags, toasting each other with tacos before starting the engine and heading down the road again.

Kwan checked the notes Eddie had prepared. “Route Fifty is only a few miles from here. We can get gas just before that.”

“Eddie typed his fingers off getting us ready to go.” Valery’s smile was wistful. Her eyes teared up again.

“You’ll see him soon,” Kwan reminded her. And I’ll see the men I love.

They filled up with gas at the station Eddie had told them was safe, and then Valery turned toward the interstate. Kwan caught the sign for the highway out of the corner of her eye.

“But we took US-Fifty out here. That road was approved by the team.”

Valery rolled her eyes. “Look, chica, it’s almost dark. It’ll take six hours or more to get back to New St. Lou. We’ll get there a lot faster on the interstate. Don’t you want to get there fast?”

So much waited for her there…

“Of course.”

Kwan looked away, startled to find San’s image in her mind instead of her father’s. No. Not yet. You’re still on your mission. You can’t indulge yourself until you’ve delivered the herbs.

“Well, then.” Valery floored the gas pedal, and they zoomed up the ramp onto I-71, headed south.

Unlike the highways of the West, this interstate was less cluttered with abandoned vehicles, and those were mostly pulled off to the right side of the road.

“We’re going to make great time,” Valery commented, fitting their truck into the sparse line of vehicles taking the middle route down the dividing line of the two lanes.

Kwan studied the bicycles, motorcycles, and to a lesser extent, other cars that shared the road. People here had committed to making a life for themselves again, using as many of the tools as they could keep working. Several drivers eyed the shiny red truck with hungry avarice as it passed them. Valery had proudly cared for and polished the vehicle every day since they’d liberated it from a garage outside Lake Tahoe on their journey east.

Surely, the theft can be forgiven if the family it belonged to wasn’t around to use it.

As many times as Kwan repeated Val’s justification for keeping the truck, the concept did not sit comfortably in her heart. Taking what wasn’t yours was stealing. This lesson had been drilled into her, black and white, since she could remember. Her aunt Ehuang, even in their hardest times, had insisted that they not fall to the common level of street thieves.

But there was no question that having a vehicle made life much easier. Without it, would they have encountered Xi San and his traveling group? Could they have come to St. Louis? Or ever made it to Cincinnati? Now the trip to find her father would take only hours instead of days or weeks walking. Perhaps it was possible that fate had brought their path together with that of the red truck, a gift from the gods to help them on their mission.

It still felt wrong.

Kwan shook the gnawing guilt from her mind. It served no purpose. She turned her attention instead to the impending sunset. A cornflower-blue sky spawned streaks of lavender-and-violet clouds. Vehicles on the road around them turned off, headlights shining, to the side roads. Once it was fully dark, it was miles between sightings of another car. The countryside was dotted with the occasional glow of generator-driven lights from homes in the distance, their randomness making them quite noticeable against the otherwise black landscape.

The monotony lulled Kwan into a state of drowsiness. She laid her head on the back of the seat and closed her eyes, letting her mind sink into memory.

Valery hummed one of her musical tunes. Kwan recognized it as a refrain Valery and Arik Logsdon had sung together in the community apartment building Eddie Garrick had established. Shortly after they’d arrived in St. Louis, the neighborhood had hosted a block party to meet the newcomers. Singing something about “Sisters,” Arik and Val had waylaid Kwan in the hallway and steered her into the room she shared with Val…


“Wait till you see what we’ve got for you, querida!” Valery giggled as she pulled her into their room. Arik closed the door behind them, beaming.

Her traveling companion had a certain look in her eyes, and Kwan recognized it as the one that always led to mischief. But unlike some of the other times, this one didn’t seem geared toward trouble.

“What are you up to?” she asked.

Her friends dug into the closet.

“Look at this!”

Valery whipped out a red silk jacket trimmed in black, with a mandarin collar. The short-sleeved jacket was delicately embroidered in gold. Kwan thought she’d never seen anything so beautiful.

Arik mock-swooned. “Oh, honey, it’s to die for. And size two. I’m jealous.”

After she slipped on the jacket and a pair of dress black slacks, Arik encouraged them both to sit at a table covered with makeup and hair doodads, and he dolled them both up. Valery enjoyed the attention, but Kwan had never experienced such fuss over how she looked. Certainly, she’d never worn such makeup and even false eyelashes. They pulled at her skin and tickled. But Arik waved away her protests.

“It’s about time someone looked glam around here!”

“You have enough to do,” Kwan interjected feebly.

“This isn’t stressful at all, love. Believe me, this is something that relaxes me. You’re the one doing me a favor.”

He finished and admired his work, then he clicked his tongue. “Oh lawd, lawd. I know two young ladies who are gonna get their bones jumped tonight. I’ll bet my sweet ass on it.”

Valery snorted. “Tease.”

“Shut up, sister woman. Artiste at work.” Arik chuckled. “Perfect. Go get your duds, Val.”

Kwan studied the unfamiliar face in the mirror, realizing she might well be a movie star with all this added to her skin. She’d never looked like this, ever. It was uncomfortable, but she had to admit she liked it.

Valery slipped into a black-beaded jacket Kwan knew she hadn’t brought with her.

“Isn’t this fabulous? I found it stuffed in a box in the attic. A huge pile of vintage clothing up there. I think we’re going to recycle it for the new community theatre.”

Valery finished dressing, topping off the outfit with a pair of black platform shoes that she wobbled on the first couple of times across the room. Arik offered Kwan a pair of high heels, but she shook her head. She knew her limits. She wore her usual black flats, the ones that looked like dancers’ shoes.

“Mmm-mmm,” Arik said. He pulled them both over to look in the recently acquired full-length mirror. Kwan saw not two girls who’d traveled through some of the roughest country in America, who’d survived a shootout in Kansas, but two grown-up women who’d found their place in life.

Arik and his partner Mark escorted them to the event, making sure no one saw them until their grand entrance, which caused even the garrulous Eddie Garrick to stop mid-punchline. He stumbled through the rest of his conversation, eyes on Valery.

San’s face when he saw Kwan walk into the banquet room reflected everything Arik and Val had promised. They’d sat together at dinner, and he kept reaching out to touch her, as if she were a dream. She’d felt part of that dream, too…


Now she could live it. She was on her way back to St. Louis and San.

A warm feeling of satisfaction coming over her, she sat up and opened her eyes.

“Should we try to contact them? Ask them to be waiting?”

Valery grinned in the way Kwan recognized as the expression that meant Val was throwing caution to the winds.

“Let’s hope they’re having a great time and letting go for a change. They’ve been so uptight about getting us where we needed to be. Nice that they can just be boys for once.” She smiled wider. “You know…that means we could be wild women on the way home. We could stop at a strip club or something—”

“Val!” Now that her path was clear, the last thing Kwan wanted to do was stop anywhere at all. “Can we please just drive?”

Valery laughed. “I’m just teasing you, querida. I wouldn’t keep you away from either of your men for a second longer.”

Distracting herself, Kwan concentrated on her father’s memory instead. The adrenaline of discovering his whereabouts had begun to wear off, and she rolled her shoulders to dispel the tension.

“I still can’t believe my father is so close.”

Her face ghostly pale in the reflection of the dashboard lights, Valery stared out the front windshield and chewed her lip.

“I’m praying he is,” she said, her tone fading to a serious one. “I don’t want you to get too crazy excited about this, sister mine. Remember, we had good word he was in Cincinnati.”

Kwan refused to allow doubt to cloud her hope. “He was in Cincinnati. That woman actually knew my father. She knew who I was. Somewhat.”

So she called me Kay Lynn. It was close enough.

“She’d seen him before he left here.” She nodded, more to reassure herself than Valery. “Once we get back, we just have to find him in St. Louis.”

“That might not be such a big issue. I know someone who’s a pretty big radio star in the city, you know. If he puts the word out, you’ll hear from your dad in no time.”

Those words were like a warm blanket for Kwan, who took them and held them close. They’d be back in St. Louis before the night was over; and first thing in the morning, she and Val could talk to Eddie about making an announcement over KMOX.

How much easier could it be?

“Do you think we could listen to KMOX now?” she asked.


Valery poked at the dash, and the radio came to life.

“—children of the night,” came the sultry alto voice of Isis, as it had every night during their travels. “We have a whole pile of messages going out to those wandering our highways and byways this fine evening. I’ll get to those in a minute, but I wanted to let everyone know that, here in New St. Lou, we’re expecting a visit from representatives from Washington DC. Rumor has it they will bring presumptive President Eartha Osman. Perhaps then we will be able to help the city acquire some funding to help get things up and running again.”

Valery snorted. “Maybe.”

Kwan frowned at the cynicism in Val’s tone. “Is Washington not your former capital? Surely, they will be able to help.”

“Uncle Dave used to have a cartoon posted on the refrigerator saying ‘We’re your government, we’re here to help.’ Everyone was standing there holding a rifle on some poor little immigrant kid. It was scary as hell. He never trusted the government to do anything.”

Kwan thought back to some of the corrupt politicians she’d heard about in Hong Kong after the Second Holocaust, people who took bribes, people cowed by the military into cracking down hard on some of the poorest people in the city.

Zhong, too, had been with the government at one time, and he had often worried they’d come after him. The government couldn’t be trusted, he’d always said.

“My father thought that America was a better place, though. That the government was free and—”

A figure dressed in white waving its arms suddenly appeared in front of the car, standing in the middle of the road, captured in the headlights.

“Hold on!” Valery yelled. Brakes squealing, she swerved the truck toward the far side of the road. The wheels ground to a stop.

Kwan’s head hit the side window at the angle of the swerve, but she was otherwise unharmed. She unlatched her seatbelt, her gaze swiveling back to the dark in the center of the road, searching out the “ghost” they’d nearly run over.

“You okay?” Valery asked, leaning down to pull her gun out from under the seat.

“Yes.” Kwan checked to see that her long knife was in her boot, then slowly opened the door, trying not to make any noise. She caught a brief look at Valery’s face before the overhead light went out. Val’s jaw was set tight. Not the time to remind her this was not the chosen route home.

Valery scooted out her door, her movements large and friendly-appearing. “Hello? Can I help you?”

No one answered, but Kwan caught a hint of movement in the dark on the far side of the shadowed median. She kept to her place, hidden by the bulk of the truck’s bed. Valery’s advantage was the gun; Kwan’s would be surprise.

A querulous female voice came from the median.

“How far to Cincinnati?”

Kwan saw Valery’s outline in a pale sliver of moonlight that came through the clouds. She moved around the cab of the truck, keeping it between her and the voice.

“About twenty miles.”

“They’ve hospitals running, right?”

“As far as I know. What’s your situation?”

Kwan inched closer to the back of the truck, wishing the moonlight were bright enough to verify how many people waited for them in the night. This wasn’t what she had expected, certainly. Usually, there were a lot more threats, followed by even more shooting.

But that didn’t mean they weren’t in lethal danger.

“My granddaughter’s having a baby. She’s been in labor for two days. It’s breech.” The tears in the old woman’s voice sounded real. “She’s bleeding now. We come from Frankfurt, and we run out of gas. We just gotta get her there.”

Val didn’t answer right away. Kwan guessed she was weighing the odds it was a trap. Only one way to find out.

Kwan dashed to the left, taking cover behind another stalled car, then made her way silently across the two lanes of the highway. She hunkered down, making herself small. A faint light came from a parked car on the other side of the highway. A woman appeared to be lying down in the back seat and another leaning over from the front. From this vantage point, Kwan could dimly see the woman who’d been speaking. She wore a long dress or robe, no hat on her head. Her hands were empty.


“I think she’s all right.” Kwan stood up, placing the woman between herself and Valery. “She’s unarmed.”

The woman took several steps back, visibly alarmed at Kwan appearing so suddenly.

“Please, don’t hurt us! We’re just three women trying to save this little one comin’.”

Valery came out from behind the truck then, and dug in the cab for a flashlight. She shined it on the woman, who covered her eyes from the sudden brightness.

“You need a ride into town?”

“Oh, yes, miss, thank Jesus for you. Thank Jesus.”

The woman in the worn housedress beckoned for them to follow her. Kwan jogged across to meet Valery, still not totally reassured.

“They could have men…”

Valery nodded. “ I don’t think so. Let’s check it out.”

They crossed to the parked car, Valery keeping the light moving, showing them the ground as well as checking out the area around the car. Nothing untoward appeared.

In the car, they found a very young woman, her face white and drawn, abdomen distended with child, barely conscious. Kwan didn’t know much about the birth process, but she had seen people die. This woman was about to leave the earth.

Valery ran back for the truck. She pumped it into gear and drove it over the lumpy median grass. Kwan helped the older women load the younger into the truck bed, the three of them holding her to try to cushion her from too many bumps and bruises on the ride. For a brief moment, Kwan was reminded of the day they’d found the Enforcer, after his encounter with the snake, and the ride that had allowed them to really speak to one another for the first time. Val’s driving, too fast and too furious, wasn’t too different, either.

The women spoke softly to the girl between swerves and bumps, half-shaken to bits themselves by the transit. If the breech baby didn’t kill this girl, Valery’s driving might.

Kwan didn’t know how Valery managed, but she found a hospital with a half-lit emergency room sign out back. She bailed out of the truck and ran inside, returning with several white-clad orderlies with a gurney. They made a quick business of transferring the girl and her womenfolk back inside, and suddenly, it was just the two of them again.

Chale!” Valery yelled. “Our good deed for the day. We should be, like, Boy Scouts. Out rescuing the injured of America…” She trailed off. “Like your man San.”

Kwan nodded. “I was reminded as well.” She couldn’t help but smile at the thought of San’s face. “So, we should get back on the road home, then?”

“The road. Yes.” Walking with a spring in her step, Valery went to jump back in the cab. “And I know what you’re going to say.”

Kwan, following her, sat demurely and fastened her seatbelt. “What am I going to say?”

Valery snorted. “You’re going to tell me that I should have taken the other road. And you’re right. That could have been a very different situation.” She sighed, then smiled. “But maybe we saved a life. Two lives.”

Kwan agreed. “Perhaps fate led us down that road on purpose. But all the same, couldn’t we take the interstate now?”

“Your wish, dear sister, is my command.”

Valery hit the CD player, and the rugged voice of Willie Nelson rolled out as they left the driveway and headed back toward St. Louis, on the road once again.

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Posted by on October 9, 2020 in Round Robin


What is The Color of Fear?

Adversaries, by Lyndi Alexander, the exciting climax to her YA series, coming soon from Zumaya Thresholds

Life after the devastating biological terrorist attack that decimated the White population in the US is beginning to recover as Tzu Lin Kwan is finally able to deliver her precious cargo of herbs to her scientist father. Or is it?

The virus may be mutating, spreading to infect those previously immune. Tzu Shin and his fellow scientists—and now Kwan—are literal prisoners of the US military. The White supremacist army of the demagogue Gabriel has invaded St. Louis. And the Chinese assassin Piao knows where to find his targets.

Kwan and her friends Valery, Eddie, and San are ready to fight to the death to defend their recovering world. The question is: Are courage and determination enough?


August 10
The family house in Cherokee, St. Louis

Jin Piao stretched lazily in the twin-sized bed, savoring the few minutes of quiet. Pale gray light came through the window, announcing the arrival of dawn. Weeks now since the arrival of his caravan, which had started as travelers from disparate areas of San Francisco before gradually uniting as they came cross-country, he’d begun to feel a part of this motley family. Certainly, they welcomed him, sharing meals, playing games in the evenings. He even enjoyed their late-night exchange of conversation in the family room.

No one knew the real reason he was here.

The Ministry of State Security had sent him after Lin Kwan with her packets of Chinese herbs. He’d left Hong Kong, traversed the Pacific Ocean, and come across the United States—what was left of it, anyway.

Kwan had traveled here to find her scientist father. Once they reunited, Piao would be in a position to complete his mission and end the hope of America recovering its former status as a world leader.

So his Chinese masters thought, but there was much they did not know about this land. They’d assumed that during the Second Holocaust, after Cambodian terrorists released the virus that killed White people—first in California, then across the States, then around the world—that the U.S. population would be decimated and therefore easy to conquer. While they hadn’t started the fight, they were certainly happy to finish it.

Piao, however, had discovered that not only had many Whites survived, thanks to mixed racial lines, but that the country had a solid base of citizens of Hispanic and African-American heritage, especially here in St. Louis. This new capital of the States served as a magnet, drawing more survivors every day, the vast majority being people of color. The America his masters had known might no longer exist, but the country was by no means a dead enemy—with or without the herbs.

Lin Kwan had been cagy of late, but he had seen her packing her meager belongings. He gathered she intended to leave for the East, to Ohio, wherever that was. He knew because her traveling companion Valery Paz had none of the privacy reservations of her friend. She told everyone everything. The departure was planned for this week. Once they left, Piao would follow and complete his mission.

He smiled at the thought of being able to return to his wife in China, and his newborn son Hu. They awaited him at the assignment’s end.

Lifting his head from the firm pillow, he listened for foot traffic outside his door. It was quiet. Quieter than it should be. A thrill of alarm zigzagging through his stomach, he twisted out of bed, then opened the door to get a better idea of what was happening.

A dozen people shared this house owned by Eddie Garrick, the radio personality and friend of Xi San. It should be noisier. Several voices came up the polished stairway from the kitchen, one floor below, none of them belonging to the two women.

He hurriedly pulled on the clothing he’d tossed on the floor the previous night, then slipped out into the hall. Kwan and Valery’s room was to the left of his, the door standing open. He peeked inside, finding their bags gone and beds made.

Damn. I’ve missed them. How had that happened?

Barefoot, he padded downstairs to the kitchen, arriving as Xi San and Eddie Garrick came in the back door. Marie Westbrook, their unofficial housemother, set out a fresh tray of biscuits. Her red hair was well-coiffed, and her face perfectly made up, as always, even at the crack of dawn.

“Did the girls get off all right?” she asked, eyes bright.

San nodded, his jaw tight.

Piao studied the former Enforcer, a man who’d lost everything but his life before he’d decided to become a vigilante crime fighter on the streets of San Francisco. San was hard in every way possible—muscle, attitude, and heart. Or he had been, before he met Kwan.

“They’re gone?” Piao said, trying not to sound too alarmed. His mission could be totally lost.

Eddie studied him. “Didn’t know you were so interested in them, buddy.”

Piao realized he needed some excuse for his sudden concern.

“Kwan said Valery was staying here. I was to go with her.”

“Really?” Eddie grabbed a biscuit and took a bite, continuing with his mouth full. “Never said that to me.”

San’s dark eyes pierced the lie. “Or me.”

Marie looked from one to the other of them, eyes narrowed as she tried to suss out the cause of the tension.

“I’m sure we’ll hear from them soon. Kwan, at least, will follow up with news. She’s such a good girl. I just hope she finds her father.”

“We all do,” Piao said. He felt like he was still under scrutiny from San and Eddie, who’d gone to the beverage area of the kitchen, so he moved close to admire Marie’s baking. “Are these for anyone?” he asked.

“Absolutely. Help yourself. Water’s hot for tea.” She went to the doorway and called upstairs for her roommate. “Jack. Breakfast!”

Piao made a show of setting a plate with two biscuits on the nook table, piling them with sweet berry preserves. The other two men began talking about San’s job search and lack of success, and eventually, they wandered out to chat elsewhere. Piao hardly noticed, his mind already making plans.

If the girls had left just within the hour, he could likely catch up with them. The interstate highways were clear to the east; he’d heard people talking about it. A man alone could make good time.

He listened for the footsteps of the others, but no one came. The smell of the biscuits he hadn’t even wanted called to him, and he held one up to his nose, taking a long sniff. After that one moment of sheer enjoyment, he ate them down to the last crumb. The warm bread was flaky and delicious, a novelty to him. They didn’t have such things in China. The closest thing he could compare it to was a biscuit roll, a thin rolled pastry much more like a cookie than this bread.

The jam, too, was full-flavored and delectable.

Even though he’d tried to keep active, teaching martial arts to children at the neighborhood center, he’d gained more than eighteen jin, or twenty pounds, since he’d crossed the ocean on the huge tank ship. Fortunately, his activities had allowed some of it to remain strong muscle.

Marie returned with pudgy old man Jack on her heels. Jack poured them both coffee as she prepared a plate of biscuits; then they headed for the table where Piao sat. It was a perfect chance to escape without drawing attention.

“Please,” he said, giving up his seat, holding the chair for Marie as he’d seen Jack do.

“Oh, you don’t have to go, honey,” she said. “We’d be happy to join you.”

“Yes, Piao,” Jack chimed in. “We haven’t seen you nearly enough since you’ve been teaching.”

Piao bent in a slight bow. “So kind of you, but again I have an early class. Thank you for the breakfast, mou chan.” He turned and left the kitchen.

“Have a good class!” she called after him.

Piao slowed as soon as he was out of sight, wanting to see if anything more was said about the departure of Kwan and her friend, but all he heard was an affectionate, “He’s so sweet” from Marie before Jack launched into a discussion of the medicinal herbs they’d have to harvest that morning.

He bolted up the stairs, closing his door after he entered the room. He pulled on heavy black boots. His brown leather jacket would protect him from the wind while riding his motorcycle, even if it would be too warm by the late August afternoon. Sorting through his remaining belongings, he decided to abandon them. He’d learned to travel light.

Ha! On this trip you came with only the shirt on your back!

His ego still burned at the way Kwan’s sensei Li Zhong had bested him on the docks in Hong Kong. Piao could have killed him, and the girl, and disposed of the damned herbs over the side of the boat, and no one would have been the wiser. Who’d have guessed the old warrior still had a few tricks left in him?

The last thing he packed was a shiny silver-barreled gun he tucked into the side pocket of the pack for easy access. He’d scrounged it in one of the small towns the group had passed through on its way from California. He preferred hand-to-hand combat, but he had to assure the success of his mission.

Once he found Kwan, her traitor father, and the herbs all in the same place, he could destroy them all. He’d end this threat to his country at last, and go home to hold his son.

He grabbed his backpack, then closed the door as he went out, hoping to delay discovery of his departure as long as he could. His bike was parked in the rear of the house. He hopped on, started it with a single kick, and headed off to find the highway.

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Posted by on September 25, 2020 in Coming Soon, Zumaya Thresholds


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A Comedy Career Cut Short?

RUTHERFORD will be on sale this Friday, 11 September. Preorder now from Kindle and Barnes & Noble

Chapter 2

Down and Out

I was rudely awakened from a sound sleep by the shrieks of my little sister Daphne. She was standing in the open doorway of the barn.

“Rutherford,” she said, “wake up. There’s something going on.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Look out there. See that car with the red light on top of it? What is that?”

I got up, walked over, and took a look. “That’s an ambulance,” I said.

“What’s that?” she said.

I remembered the only other time I could recall seeing an ambulance. It was when old Mr. Davis had suffered a heart attack. We were all really worried about him, but he managed to pull through, and was back on his feet in no time. That was about a year ago.

“An ambulance is a car that takes sick people to the hospital,” I said.

“What’s a hospital?” Daphne asked.

Here we go again. These puppies don’t know anything.

The ambulance had pulled right up to the front door of the house. The light on its roof was spinning, but the siren was off. Nothing else was going on.

“A hospital is a place where they take care of sick people,” I said.

“Who do you suppose is sick?” she asked.

“It’s gotta be Mr. Davis.”

Who else could it be? His wife had passed away before I was born. My mother used to talk about her sometimes. She really missed her. After that happened, everyone thought Mr. Davis might sell his breeding business, but in time, he decided to keep it running. I was sure glad about that.

“I’ll be right back,” I told Daphne. I looked around for my mother. I found her in a corner of the barn nursing some of the other puppies.

“Good morning, Rutherford,” she said. “Why the long face?”

“What’s happening out there?” I asked. “Is it Mr. Davis?”

My mom nodded. “It’s his heart again. I’ve been worried about him lately. For the past couple of weeks, he’s been moving around more slowly. And he looked pale to me the other day.”

“You never said anything.”

“I didn’t want to worry you,” she said. “None of us wants to think about what this place would be like without him.”

She was right. I didn’t want to think about it. I decided to check things out for myself.

I left the barn and walked up to where the ambulance was parked. Just as I got there, the front door of the house swung open. Paramedics wheeled a cart out onto the porch. Mr. Davis was lying on the cart. His eyes were closed. There was a long skinny tube attached to his arm, and one of the people was holding a plastic mask over his nose and mouth.

Horace Davis followed them to the ambulance. He watched as they slid the cart into the back.

“I’ll follow you over there,” he said.

I stared at Horace. I couldn’t bear the thought of him taking over this place.

“What are you lookin’ at, freak?” he said to me. He sneered and walked to the garage.

I watched the ambulance race down the dirt driveway. It was the last time I ever saw Mr. Davis.


The funeral was held a few days later. The procession drove by the farm that morning. My mother insisted we all stand on the side of the road and bark as the cars drove by. It was our own personal tribute to the man who had raised us and cared for us.

That day was a long one. Horace hadn’t fed us. The puppies were fine. They still had mother’s milk. We wondered if there would be more days like this one.

But to our surprise, in the days that followed, Horace never forgot to feed us once. I hoped it meant he had turned over a new leaf, but my mother set me straight.

“He hasn’t changed a bit,” she said. “He knows you can’t sell a dog with its ribs sticking out.”

She was right. We were fed each day, but we didn’t get the attention dogs crave. He couldn’t have cared less about us. All we were to him were dollar signs.

The place was filthy most of the time. Horace would only clean it up when he knew a buyer was coming through. Spirits were getting low. It had become more important than ever for me to concentrate on producing some sensational new material—great jokes that would take our minds off of our new living conditions.

On a Saturday night about two weeks following the funeral, my mom, my brothers and sisters, and some of the other basset hound families gathered in a corner of the barn for my performance.

“Hey, did you hear the one about the dog who went to the flea circus? Wouldn’t you know it—he stole the show.”

It was followed by a timely rim shot. I had taught Daphne how to make that sound. She held a stick in her mouth and banged it on the bottom of a coffee can for the intended effect. It wasn’t perfect, but it did the trick.

Sometimes you have to remind your audience that you just delivered the punch line. That’s where Daphne came in. The older dogs always knew when to laugh. It was those darn puppies who were clueless. Every so often I thought it might be a good idea to install an applause sign just for them. They were that dense.

I ended the show with one of my favorites.

“Hey, here’s one for all you wranglers out there. Did you hear about the dog who limped into town one day? His foot was all bandaged up. The sheriff walked up to him and said, ‘Howdy, stranger, what brings you to Dodge?’ The dog held up his injured foot and said, ‘I’m looking for the man who shot my pa.’”

Rim shot. Thanks, Daphne.

Roars of laughter were followed by applause. It had been a good night.

Barney, one of the grown-up male dogs, slapped me on the back. “I gotta tell you, Rutherford, you never disappoint.” It was high praise coming from one of the veterans.

“Thanks, sir, I appreciate it,” I said.

“So, when’s your next performance?” he asked.

“I’m not really certain. I’ll have to get to work on some new material.”

“Well, you be sure to let me know, you hear?” he said.

“I will. I promise.”

Barney turned to rejoin the others, but then he stopped abruptly. He leaned in, as if he only wanted me to hear what he was about to say.

“Kid, let me give you a little advice.” He looked around to make sure we were still alone. “Things are different around here now. You gotta look over your shoulder at all times. Do you know what I’m trying to say?”

“I’m not sure,” I said. But I knew exactly what he was talking about.

Barney lowered his voice even more. “I don’t trust Horace. Nobody around here does. He could start cleaning house any time now. No one is safe. Heck, I’m getting up in years. He may have no use for me soon.” He had a serious look on his face. “Just be careful out there, okay?”

I nodded.

“Good boy,” Barney said. He winked and joined the other members of his family.

Daphne ran up smiling. “You were great tonight, Rutherford. The crowd loved you.”

“Thanks,” I said with a forced smile.

“What’s wrong?” she said. “You don’t look very happy. Did I make a mistake with the drum or something?”

“No, you did just great. And let me tell you—you have a real musical flair.”

She grinned.

“Listen,” I said, “I have to be somewhere. You better go back with Mom and the others. I’ll see you later.”

She scampered off.

I really had no place to be. I just wanted to be alone. I decided to walk around in the barnyard for a while to think things through.

I guess I wasn’t completely surprised to hear what Barney had said. I had known that if Horace was ever in charge my days around here would be numbered. To him, I was just another mouth to feed. And since no families seemed interested in taking me home with them anytime soon, he was getting nothing in return.

I wandered into the garage, pushed a stepstool up to the back of a pickup truck, and hopped up onto the bed. Horace had returned from town a few minutes earlier, so the back of the truck was still warm. It was time for bed, my favorite time of the day. There was nothing like settling down for the night and a few Zs. If you never noticed, we dogs do love our sleep.

I rolled over onto my side—my favorite position—stretched out my legs, and was soon in dreamland.

To Be Continued…

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Posted by on September 8, 2020 in Round Robin


The decision is made!

Basset pup with shades
Pre-order RUTHERFORD, CANINE COMIC at the Kindle and Barnes & Noble ebook stores

I went off by myself and tried to think of funny situations a dog might find himself in. Then, I worked them into a joke. I recalled when a family with a bunch of kids came by one time. The kids were chasing some of the dogs and teasing them. I thought of a good one.

Hey, what’s got four legs and an arm? Give up? A Rottweiler in a crowd.

I’m not sure whether or not humans would appreciate it, but since they couldn’t understand me, I’ve never worried much about it. If I can get a fellow canine to laugh, I was in my glory. I’d forget about whatever was bothering me.
After that, when I wasn’t thinking up new jokes or telling them, I would play with my brothers and sisters. There weren’t any of them my age. When I was born, there were seven of us, but they’re all long gone now. We only had three or four months together before they went off to new homes. As hard as it was to see them go, I was happy for them. It was their destiny to become part of a loving family, and to compete proudly at dog shows. I tried not to think about it too much. It always made me kind of sad—not the dog show part, but the new-family part.

I was okay, though. New pups are fun to be around—most of the time. Humans think puppies are so darn cute, and I wouldn’t necessarily disagree with that. But there’s one thing about puppies that isn’t particularly attractive. Have you ever noticed that it’s all about them?

I’m not saying they’re selfish. It’s just that their basic instincts early on are to be individuals, not team players. I don’t blame them. They can’t help themselves. They want everyone to do things for them. “Rutherford, get me this. Rutherford, I’m hungry. Rutherford, can you scratch my ear?” They haven’t figured out yet that their mission in life is to serve.

What really bugs me, though, sometimes, is that most of them are just too immature to appreciate my humor. I remember one time when I asked them, “Hey, how does your owner know if you’ve been drinking from the toilet?”

They just scratched their heads.

“’Cause your breath smells…better.”

A lot of the older dogs roar at that one, but not the puppies. I guess they haven’t had enough life experience.

But someday, they’ll think back to that joke, and out of nowhere, they’ll just start laughing. I probably won’t be there to see it, but that’s okay. I take comfort in the fact that, whenever or wherever it happens, they might think fondly of their big brother.

I still believed my dream of becoming a watchdog would come true someday, but in the meantime, I guess stand-up comic would have to do. And I was pretty certain I could make it work.

So, if I couldn’t offer protection, then I would become the best stand-up comedian I could be. Entertaining your fellow man—er, dog—might not seem like a noble effort. But, you know, you just can’t put a price on what a smile or a chuckle or a good belly laugh can do for a fellow canine. It can help them forget their troubles. I was happy to accept this new challenge.
From that point on, I held my head high, sat up on my hind legs, and was proud to call myself Rutherford—Canine Comic.

Rutherford, Canine Comic will be released in ebook on 11 September at Kindle, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and Google Play, and in trade paperback wherever good books are sold.


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Rutherford Discovers A Career

Mr. Davis is one of the best-known and most respected breeders in the state. He’s in his eighties, I think; all I know is that he’s been around for decades. At least, that’s what I hear folks say. Mr. Davis prides himself on top quality basset hounds. He tells anyone who will listen that he raises the best show dogs in the country. Lately, I’ve started to worry how long he’ll keep me here. If no one seems interested, will he eventually get tired of taking care of me?

What I needed was a skill—a real skill—some sort of talent to make me impossible to replace. I needed to prove to him and all the others I’m really good at something—and not just good, but the best. Then he’ll have to keep me. Right?

Well, it made perfect sense to me.

So, I asked my mom one day if she could name one thing I did better than any of the other dogs. It took her a minute to think of something. That made me a little nervous.

“Let me see, now,” she said. “It’s really hard to come up with just one thing. You’re so good at everything.” Spoken like a true mother.

“Mom, I’m not talking about being good at something. Is there anything I do better than anyone else?”

She turned her head and smiled. Then, as it sometimes does, her back leg started thumping, and it slowly began moving in the direction of her head. I knew exactly what she needed.

“Let me take care of that for you,” I said. “That’s what I’m here for.” I reached up with my front paw and began scratching her ear.

“Mmmmm.” She put her head back and closed her eyes. “Now, there’s something you’re really good at.”

“Anybody can scratch an itch,” I said. “There’s gotta be something better.”

My mother was now in deep thought. “Give me another minute.”

This wasn’t going well. If your own mother couldn’t think of something—anything—that set you apart from the pack, then you were in big trouble.

She looked at me with a nervous smile. I could tell she was struggling to come up with something. It was starting to get embarrassing—for both of us. It was time to change the subject.

“Hey, Mom, did you hear about the dog who got too close to an electric fan and lost his nose?”

“Oh, dear,” she said. “Without a nose, how does he smell?”

I grinned. “He smells like all dogs—awful!”

She shook her head and started laughing. “Oh, Rutherford, where do you come up with this stuff? You never seem to run out of…” She paused. “Wait a minute. That’s it.”

“What?” I said.

“You’re the best joke-teller on the farm—hands down.”

I smiled. You know, she was right. As much as I’ve always wanted to be someone’s watchdog, I kind of knew it might take time to get discovered. And so, just to keep my spirits up, and to make the others think I was okay with being passed over, I went out of my way to learn new jokes to tell everyone.

It always made me feel good to see the others laugh. It took some of the sting out of rejection. And when I stopped to think about it, no one knew more jokes than I did—and if I have to say so myself—no one could deliver a punchline any better than I can. It’s an art, I’ll have you know. And it all has to do with timing.

“I do like telling a good joke,” I said. “And all the others do seem to enjoy them.”

“They love your jokes,” my mother said. “You have a real talent, son.”

It was nice to hear her say that. So, I could do something better than the rest. That was great.

But the more I thought about this talent of mine, the more I wondered how it would help me in the long run. I was flattered that other dogs enjoyed my humor, but was it enough to convince Mr. Davis I was a valuable asset here on the farm?

“I like entertaining everyone,” I told my mother, “but what good is it, really?”

“What good is it?” she said. “Rutherford, you single-handedly keep the morale sky-high around here. Everyone is always so happy to see you. You’re never without a smile and a funny story. That’s priceless.”

“But Mr. Davis is a human. He can’t understand my jokes. He doesn’t know I have this talent. Someday, he’s going to get tired of taking care of me, and he’s just going to dump me somewhere.”

My mother shook her head. “What are you talking about? Mr. Davis loves you. He knows that you’re…” She glanced at my short leg, “…special. He would never get rid of you. You’re one of his favorites.” She smiled weakly. “Of course, I wish I could say the same thing about his son.”

His son—now, that was another subject. Horace Davis was nothing like his father. He always seemed to be in a foul mood. He never played with any of us. I don’t think he even liked us. He treated us like—well, dogs. And he never smiled.

Wait a minute—I take that back. Whenever someone pulled out his wallet to pay for one of us—then, and only then, would he smile.

I, for one, didn’t trust him. And I’m sure my mother felt the same way. More than once she warned us about staying away from him. I wasn’t sure why, but I didn’t want to find out.

He always made me feel uncomfortable. Whenever he saw me, he would shake his head and make this grunting sound. For the longest time, I’ve had a feeling that if Horace is ever running this place, there’ll be no room around here for me.

I decided that if I concentrated on my joke-telling and helped keep spirits high around the place, I could survive anything.

To be continued…

(Enjoying Rutherford’s story? The ebook is now available for pre-order both in the Kindle Store and at Barnes & Noble.)


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What’s more fun than a basset hound?

Cute sitting tricolor basset hound puppy wearing yellow and orange sunglasses on a white background
A basset hound who’s a stand-up comic. Meet Rutherford, coming soon from Zumaya Thresholds, NOW AVAILABLE WHEREVER GOOD BOOKS ARE SOLD

Chapter 1

Canine Comic

For as long as I can remember, there was only one thing I ever wanted in life. One thing that would have made me happy and content.

All I’ve ever wanted was a chance to be a watchdog. A real watchdog. One who would stand guard and protect his owners from harm. One who would alert them in the event of danger. One who would save his family from a raging fire, from unwanted intruders, or from pesky squirrels and raccoons.

That’s been my dream for the longest time. And someday I’ll realize that goal. I just know it. You wait and see.

As each day passes, I wait for the call. Will it be today, I wonder? Or maybe tomorrow? There’s nothing holding me back. I have all of the necessary qualifications—I’m fearless, hard-working, and loyal. I even meet the age requirement. In a few months, I’ll be celebrating my second birthday—in people years, that is. I haven’t quite figured out exactly how old that is in dog years, but as far as I’m concerned, it’s nearly grown up. I like to think I’m mature enough to handle the job.

But sometimes I think I’m the only one who seems to think so. If people would just give me a chance, I could be a great watchdog.

I was telling my mother the other day about my ultimate goal in life. I can tell her anything. My mother Iris, a proud basset hound, was busy cleaning up after the puppies when I found her.

“Mom, you know what I want to be when I grow up?”

“What’s that?”

“A watchdog,” I said proudly.

I’ll never forget her reaction. She chuckled. She actually chuckled.

“Oh, Rutherford, be serious,” she said. “What do you really want to be?”

“I am serious. I want to be a watchdog.”

She pulled me closer and licked my face. I love it when she does that. It’s always so warm and cozy to lie next to her.

“Sweetheart, you’re a basset hound. You’re not a Doberman or a German shepherd. People don’t get basset hounds for protection.”

“Why not?”

She smiled weakly. “Well, we’re just not built that way. Look at us—we have long bodies and short legs. We’re not very strong, and we can’t run fast. We just wouldn’t be effective as watchdogs.”

I sighed. I was hoping for a different answer.

“Rutherford, you have to accept the fact that we’re here for a different reason. Mr. Davis breeds us to become the best show dogs in the state. People don’t come here looking for watchdogs. They come here looking for dogs they can enter in competitions who’ll someday become Best in Show.”

“I know all that,” I said. “But it’s not good enough. I want more out of life than beauty pageants. I want to make a difference. And I just figured that becoming a watchdog would do that.”

My mother nuzzled my cheek. “Son, if that’s what you truly want, I’m not going to stand in your way. But it’s going to be difficult to convince others that you’re watchdog material.”

I appreciated her support. She was trying to let me down easy—just like a mother. But I’m determined, and nothing will stop me from reaching my ultimate goal. I’m well aware it will be an uphill battle. For nearly two years, I’ve been passed over by people looking for a show winner, and I knew exactly why. My mother would never say it to my face, but both she and I know I’ll never be Best in Show.

Not that I even wanted to.

See, I was born with a little handicap that seems to scare people away. I’m not as fast as some of the others. Big deal. How important is speed, anyway? When you’re a watchdog, you don’t run away. You hold your ground—and I can do that just fine. So, the fact I have one hind leg an inch shorter than the other three shouldn’t mean a thing. I’ve learned to live with it. Why couldn’t they?

Heck, I’ve met plenty of three-legged dogs in my time, and they do just fine. I have all four of mine. That should count for something.

But whenever families show up here and see me limp around the yard, I know what they’re thinking. I can see it on their faces. They know a defect like mine would never win them a dog show. So, they want nothing to do with me.

And that’s fine. I’ve learned to handle rejection. The ones that really bug me are the folks who feel sorry for me.

“Aw, see that poor dog over there?” they say. “He’s cute, but let’s keep looking.”

I hate that. I don’t need their pity. I need a chance to show them what I can do. I’m not dog show material, but I can do other stuff—like being a watchdog—if they’d just give me the chance.

So, at the end of each day, I’m still here, and that worries me a little.

(To be continued…)

RUTHERFORD, CANINE COMIC, by John Madormo, illus. by Brad Foster, coming September 2020 from Zumaya Thresholds; Trade paperback, ISBN  978-1-61271-353-3, Ebook, ISBN 978-1-61271-354-0 (Kindle), 978-1-61271-355-7 (epub)

Available from the Zumaya eBookstore,, Kindle, Barnes & Noble, B&N Press, Kobo, and Google Play Books, and via special order at your favorite independent bookseller. Have a library card? Ask your library to get the ebook from Overstock.


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